..Chapter Twenty-Four..




"Excuse me," his dark voice reverberated as he accidentally brushed shoulders with someone. He'd done so already several times, muttering the very same thing when he bumped someone a bit more than most. It couldn't be helped; the main road to the Hokage Tower was clogged with traffic that afternoon. Vendors on the large strip were selling their wares, and their crops and meat to wives looking for a good deal on the evening meal they were sure to prepare for their waiting families.

He didn't pay it too much mind as the distance between himself and the twin, red painted doors became that much less. It wasn't as though this didn't happen around the same time every afternoon. People just seemed to come out of the woodwork around four when the work was done and what time they had left was their own. Some traversed home, some went to bars for the early drink discounts and others tended to their shopping.

Around this time he would be heading home himself, or to do something with Naruto; he might even find himself sharing a meal with Sai if that blonde idiot drug him along.

He pushed the door open, holding it for another shinobi who was leaving. A thank you was spoken and he nodded as he released it to shut on its own. It clicked behind him by the time he was halfway up the stairs leading to the Hokage office.

A secretary looked up from her desk as he entered down the short hall. She smiled.

"Hello, Uchiha-san. Can I help you?"

He nodded, hand resting naturally on the hilt of his sword. "I need to speak with the Hokage if she's available."

"I believe she is…" the woman trailed off as she skimmed her datebook. "Let me just make sure she's ready for a visitor." She smiled again. "I'm sure it won't be a problem though… well, unless she's…" she allowed her sentence to trail off, hinting at what most people knew the answer to.

"Ah…" he nodded, knowing immediately. He couldn't help but roll his eyes which caused the secretary to chuckle slightly as she went into the office.

He waited only a moment before she came back out and indicated he could enter. She shut the door behind him softly and Sasuke stepped forward.

The room was half illuminated from the sun still clawing its way towards the horizon; it hadn't made it quite so far that its light was directly booming through the large windows. He was silent as he waited for her to address him first. She was pouring over a stack of papers amidst papers on her desk and actually looked busy; he might even say on task and… sober.

He couldn't help buy raise a brow at this, even if only slightly.

"Yeah, brat?" she asked, still working, her voice indicating irritation. "Speak up; it's been a long day, Shizune's been hiding my sake stash and I'm almost done. So unless you plan on buying the first shot, be quick."

No surprise there, he mused.

He nodded nevertheless. "Kakashi-sensei and Sakura have been gone for a long time on this last mission, Tsunade-sama. Naturally, this wouldn't bother me under the most normal of situations; however, recently I've felt ill at ease… for some reason." His mind vaguely recalled the cracking glass and how his mind immediately went to his team mate. "As I understand it, this last one was very confidential."

"Most ANBU missions are, boy," she replied nonchalantly.

He nodded. "And you know very well that, unlike others, I understand the full scope of this mission." He paused and waited to see if she would respond. When she didn't he continued. "If you would allow me, Hokage-sama, I would like to request that you send me to confirm their progress. I realize it's only been a few days since I last saw Sakura…"

She sighed as she dropped her pen and slowly pulled herself up to lean her elbows on the desk and address Sasuke. As she opened her mouth he jumped to speak again.

"Please, Hokage-sama," he asked, his voice as close to pleading as a man of his pride would allow, fearing her refusal. He spoke quickly, placing his hand on his chest and his other spread wide. "I wouldn't normally ask this, but, my intuition has never led me astray. I'm not asking for anything more than a scout mission. This would not compromise either of them in the least. You know how cautious—."

"Sasuke," she began, frown evident.

He strained to stop himself from jumping to argue with her. He could feel the negative response brewing from her already. Sasuke was not someone who liked to be told he couldn't do something when he damn well knew what he needed to do. It was an age-old habit he'd never really grown out of and still barely managed to control in situations such as the present one.

She opened her mouth to continue, but stopped at the sudden muffled ringing coming from her desk. She frowned as it sounded again, promptly shutting her mouth. Pale pink lips turned into a frustrated grimace and vein in her temple threatened to burst. She began to dig through the stacks of papers. Some fluttered to the floor as Sasuke watched on, now perplexed as to the interruption.

A phone materialized from under all the paper carnage and she picked up the handset, placing it to her ear. "Yeah?" she asked, grouch evident in her tone. There was a long pause as Tsunade listened to the caller on the other line. The entire time her eyes were set on Sasuke, as if not really looking at him, but beyond him. It was unsettling to say the least, to have a woman of Tsunade's anger-level and strength do that to you; for many people it would have been enough to have one looking for an exit; however, Sasuke wasn't prone as easily to such actions and he knew well her well enough by now to know she wasn't even paying him any mind. No, she was engrossed in the call.

"Alright, thanks," she replied before hanging up the phone with a click.

He waited a moment, politely, before prompting her. "Tsunade-sama…?"

She blinked and looked up as if she'd completely forgotten about him, amber-brown hues lazy and tired. "Hm… Oh, yes," she replied, straightening. She sighed and picked up a stack of papers; she tapped them on the desk and placed them back neatly. "You won't need to worry about seeing Sakura or Kakashi, Sasuke."

He frowned and again felt moved to argue. "Tsunade—."

"Forget it, brat," she interrupted, crease her brow. "Now, get out of my office and tell the other blonde brat, as well as, the socially inept dolt that the rest of your team has returned." She stopped long enough for that to sink in. At his stupefied look she smiled and idly tapped a single digit on the stack of papers. "They've requested that they be left alone until this evening. That's the message I just got from Izumo, anyway…" she shrugged. "Now, begone," she snapped with less force, like an old mother bear. Her chair turned sideways and she all but moved to ignore his presence.

A smiled crooked the corner of his lips. "Yes, Tsunade-sama…" He bowed once and only slightly before exiting the room, obviously in a much better mood; well… as obviously in a good mood as someone such as Sasuke could manage anyway…

They were safe; that was all that mattered to him at the end of the day.


The sharp cut of steel sliding against dirt was sudden and quieted. She watched on as Kakashi released the hilt of the elaborate katana slowly. His digits drifted over the ridges and dips of the handle. His fingertips caressed as he pulled his hand away with an elaborate slowness. While his actions were lazy they also memorized each place his skin touched the tight, decorative wrapping worn from age and use. He was reluctant; everything about him at that moment was drawn out, prolonged and ignorant of everything around him. Even after his hand left the hilt his eyes remained fixed on it.

A chilled breeze idly swept by, suddenly upsetting her loosely bound strands; she wasn't fazed much by it, and noticed it very little if at all.

The sun was nearing descent in the distance, but, it wasn't dark yet. Trees rustled in response to Mother Nature's call, upsetting leaves. They danced along the air currents and grass bowed in response. She turned, eyes softening to glance out at Konoha. The stone faces she knew to be beneath her feet, built into the rocky face not far off, comforted her. She wondered, briefly, how well this place comforted Kakashi, if at all.

She closed her eyes and turned her head back; as she did so, she reached up and idly pulled a curl of pink behind her ear. Her eyes once again settled on Kakashi's back, ever soft and patient. Despite the fact that she felt slick with dirt and sweat from the trip back she had no real desire to hurry. Being even the slightest bit uncomfortable from the ick of traveling almost nonstop over many miles seemed so trivial. She noticed it, naturally; however, she just didn't seem to care as much as she might have once before. It's was funny how experiences, ones you just didn't expect to obtain, take you to a place where it's laughable your biggest worry once might have been how oily your hair felt.

They'd been there a while, she knew. Minutes, hours, edged on from when they'd passed through the gates, notified the Hokage of their return and came here.

She flickered her gaze down to the fresh mound before Kakashi, where the dirt and grass was overturned.

It was surreal, that mound and what it represented to him. She couldn't begin to comprehend what he was thinking, the silver-haired man before her. The silence, while comforting, was ravaging as well; she wanted to know what was going on in his head. When he was quiet like this… it was so hard to read him.

She had to keep stopping herself from calling his name.

He stood there, just staring, much like Sakura was staring at him. Though, if he noted her eyes on his back, concerned and worried, he didn't react to it. His eyes remained fixed on the hilt of the katana in front of him, tip stuck sturdily into the ground.

He dug his hands into his pockets.

The breeze on his face was cool, a contrast to the heat of the sun crawling into the horizon as it beat onto his back.

His thoughts were a mess, a tumble of mixed emotions and memories. Yet, despite all of this he knew he could continue. That same part of him that always kept going solidly reminded him that he could go on, bearing it, living with it and overcoming it as he always did. This time though…. His thoughts suddenly stilled as one in particular came to him, his eye still ever focused on the katana; even if he wasn't really seeing it, he couldn't seem to take his good eye off of it.

Forcibly, he closed it.

He turned around then and faced Sakura. When he opened it again he found himself swept into her gaze. A year ago she would have jumped under his penetrating look; now she just stared, calm and collected on the exterior. Her expression held no real indication of her inner feelings; he could see more in her eyes, those endless green pools that gave so much and asked for so little.

…She'd grown up, much more than he'd realized until that moment.

He walked the distance between the two of them very suddenly. Calculated thoughts were left behind.

He heard her sharp intake of breath just before he took her in his arms. When his mouth slanted across her own it wasn't quick or hard. Her lips were soft, incredibly so. They always were. The feel of her relaxing into his arms eased something he didn't even know needed to be. He soaked her in, drawing from her a force he didn't know he required or really understood why he wanted so much.

He took in a breath through his nose, inhaling and overwhelming his senses with that scent that could only be described as Sakura. Her warmth fanned over him, spreading from his core; it seeped into every crevice and relaxed him in ways he couldn't really put into words. She made him forget…

Eventually, he pulled away, loath as he was to do so. His hands slowly withdrew from her hair, thumbs caressing down her cheeks as her eyes slowly opened to greet his mismatched pools of ebony and red. He wanted to see her, all of her.

She stared but said nothing, her eyes transfixed on his. They flickered left and right, as if reading some hidden message in his depths.

There was so much he wanted to say to her, and yet he couldn't seem to find the right way to start; he didn't know the words or where to even begin. Nothing felt right. Even speaking at all, in his mind, just seemed to mess the moment up.

And yet, he needed to. She wasn't someone he could keep in the dark like everyone else. She wasn't his student any more. He'd faced things with her that no one else had; she'd seen a part of him that he had never wanted to share with anyone. He hadn't wanted anyone, even Rin, to know about it.

It was even possible to say she knew more about him than anyone else ever had at that moment.

"I'm not sure if I can give you what you want," he began, his voice strong and even. She—almost instantly—looked perplexed and ready to say something, so, he continued. "There was once a time in my life when everything in the world made sense. Things were simple and uncomplicated. My father's death changed that drastically. My rose-colored ideals were shattered, Sakura.

"The many obstacles I dealt with along my life made me who I am now." He paused a moment, pleased to see she would wait for him to finish and considered his next words. "Kaoru…" he stopped again, thinking, all while holding her gaze. He swallowed and slid his grip to her shoulders; there he squeezed; whether this was done out of his own need or a need to convey something to her without words he wasn't sure, but, he drew strength from it in some small way.

"I loved him very much," he whispered. "I'd never been intimate with anyone before him. Prior to ANBU I'd been too young and even after I just didn't have the time… or so I convinced myself.

"When I fell for him I didn't even have a word for it, neither of us did. We didn't talk about it and we didn't deal with it. The other times we were together were sporadic and unspoken. I'm not even sure you could call it a real relationship…" He watched her eyes and, while—for the first time—he wasn't sure what she was thinking, he could tell she was listening.

"We both had such a hard time coming to terms with what we felt for each other that when we finally admitted what we actually felt… it was too late to do anything about it. In the end we were both torn, emotionally and physically because of our own fears. There was no one to blame but ourselves…" he went on, trying to keep his voice from cracking. Those wounds, even now, were still too fresh… especially now. "Maybe if we'd talked about it instead of trying to hide form it…" he whispered, trailing off.

Sakura wanted to say something, even if only to reassure him; still, she knew what this moment was for him. He had to get through it without her saying anything. It wasn't just for her; it wasn't just about her; he was talking and coming to terms with things he needed to and never really had.

"I don't ever want to experience that again," he explained, reigning in his emotions as best he could. He forced his voice to be steady as he came down from all those feelings he just let out. "I don't ever want to find myself telling someone how I feel about them too late… especially not someone I love."

The sentence hung between them and he stopped again, boring his eyes into hers, Sharingan tombs twisting slowly.

His heart hammered in his chest, daring to burst and break out as he held her shoulders; he tried hard not to grip them so hard she winced. Though, if he was hurting her she wasn't reacting.

"But… I…" he trailed on, his resolve cracking. His throat caught, tripping him up. His chest constricted, reminding him of a pain he wanted washed away. He just stood there, staring into her eyes. He simply couldn't stop the silence that pervaded. His eyes began to close in defeat and his jaw started to clench in frustration as he dropped his hands.

"Kakashi," he heard her soft voice as he felt her hands on his face.

Slowly, both depths opened to stare at her, narrowed and curious.

She smiled. "I love you too."

He swallowed, his eyes still narrowed and searching hers. He didn't know what he was looking for, but, all he could see was her earnestness.

She sighed; it was the kind of sigh one gave when they were frustrated with a child who just didn't get it. He could help but feel confused and just a bit chastised; all considered, it was a bit off-putting.

"When it comes to Hatake Kakashi actions have always said far more to me than words, sempai. I don't need or want anything from you beyond what you've already given me," she said with a smile. "Although," she added, grin starting, "I do expect fidelity."

She released his face. "Tell me when you're ready. I don't plan on dying anytime soon. Do you?" When he said nothing she prompted him, "Well?"

"No," he muttered mutely.

It was then she grinned as she replaced his mask. "Good." She took his hand. "Come on, let's go. I need a shower and so do you."

Numbly, he allowed her to lead him down the long way back into the main part of Konoha. Not once did her hand leave his grip. He stared at her as she was a just a step ahead of him. He looked quite the picture, being drug that way; at the moment, though, he just couldn't seem to find the will to care. No, his mind was somewhere else. Still.

"My place or yours?" she asked.

Images of that night, the way Kaoru had looked… defeated and broken on his doorstep flashed in his mind.

"Kakashi?" she asked, still walking.

He stopped suddenly, jerking her back and almost completely loose of their mutual grip. His was tighter then. And when she turned around to question him further she stopped, her voice lost in her throat. He could see that. He wasn't sure what sort of expression was on his face, but, he was grateful for the stunned silence all the same.

"I love you."

There had been no hesitation this time. With that admission he was surprised he felt the final hold Kaoru had on his heart, the ache and the pain that came with it… finally gone. Nothing remained but the good he had always known.

He smiled, slowly, genuinely. "And I expect fidelity as well."

Shock left her features, slowly as well. The smile returned and this time lit up her whole face. He could see she was holding in a laugh.

"And your place, definitely," he replied as he started to walk off, his fingers firmly interlaced in her own.

She seemed content with that response, but, it wasn't long before she was asking, "So… when do we tell the guys…?"



"So, you're both quitting on me, eh?"

Sakura smiled from where sat on the other side of the large office desk, opposite of Rin; who, was at that very moment, marking down notes on two resignation scrolls: her and Kakashi's.

"I wouldn't call it quitting," she replied. "More a permanent leave of absence unless our services as a team are imminently required."

Rin returned the smile as she rolled the scrolls up, sealed them and set them in the pile for the Hokage to review. "No need to worry about that. We always have plenty of good agents to work with; although, I will keep your offer in mind." She sighed. "Still, it's always a shame to lose two good people, well trained in the field and able to execute orders so precisely…" She shrugged. "But, I can't entirely blame either of you…" She frowned. "The nature of the last mission—."

"There was no way for anyone to know, Rin-sama," Sakura assured her, frowning as well. "And in the end… Kakashi needed to do it."

She nodded, understanding. There was sense of knowing in her eyes, the same one that Sakura had about the man in question. "He seems better because of it."

Sakura couldn't express how much. The closure Kakashi had needed at Kaoru's death was immeasurable. He would always be Kakashi, especially to everyone else… but, to people like Rin and herself? Those changes, minute as they were, were blaringly obvious.

"Your team must be happy for your return, though," she added, changing the subject.

Sakura welcomed it. She'd had enough serious talks, filled with tension and depression to last her a lifetime. Seeing the man she loved as he was now, happy and carefree, was refreshing. She was happy for them both. "They are," she replied.

"Though, I heard the reaction to the nature of your relationship with Kakashi didn't go over well."

Sakura laughed, almost embarrassed Rin had heard anything about it. Then again, Kakashi could have told her himself. Since coming home he'd made it a point to stop by her office and see her; it was a far cry from avoiding her existence altogether.

"Well, Naruto flipped out, naturally. Sai just smiled like an idiot, as if he'd known the whole time. Sasuke… well…" she frowned. "I don't really think he reacted at all. I'm not really sure if he knew or if he was just too shocked to say anything at all. It was hard to notice between Naruto trying to challenge Kakashi to some pissing contest." She shrugged. "And Yamato pretended he didn't hear anything; there was something about his sensitive perspective of his sempai." She rolled her eyes.

Rin laughed softly. "Yeah, that doesn't sound too far off from the story I got from Kakashi yesterday."

Sakura grinned. "Ah well, they'll just have to get over it."

"I suppose so," she agreed. "Well, as long as you're happy it doesn't matter, right?"

"Exactly," Sakura replied as she stood. "Anyway, I hate to keep you. I'm scheduled to meet the very man in question five minutes from now… so…"

Rin waved her hand idly. "Please, don't let me hold you up. Have fun."

With a small wave and another grin Sakura was excusing herself from the office. With that done she was free to enjoy the day with Kakashi, as well as, her team. Well… if Naruto could behave himself for five minutes, she mused, grinning all over again.


Sasuke yawned long and loud, not entirely sure what had brought on the action. He thought he'd gotten enough sleep last night. He had hadn't he?

"When are they supposed to meet us?" he asked the blonde next to him on the bench. They were waiting for the rest of their team in front of an outdoor restaurant that did not serve ramen.

Naruto shrugged as he slurped water through a straw.

Useless, he thought to himself, gaze narrowed on his team mate's attempt as sucking every last drop from his glass. He wondered, briefly, how long it would take before he—.

"Aw… man, you have got to be kidding me..!" the blonde suddenly shouted, jolting him out of his focus.

"What?" he inquired, grimacing at the pitch of his voice.

"Well, like I wanna see that!" he half shouted, pointing across the street. "I mean, if I have to stare at that all day…well… we can go train right? Please, Sasuke?" he seemed to suddenly beg. Anything but whatever he was speaking about 'staring at all day' seemed much more preferred.

Sasuke sighed, redirected his gaze and then quirked a smirk.


There, intertwined in each other's arms, kissing for the entire world to see and not seeming to give a damn about who saw them, was Kakashi-sensei and Sakura. They were happy. Anyone who had half a lick of sense could see that. Sasuke? Well, his feelings on the matter were irrelevant, but, he didn't have any pity for his team mate.

"Get use to it," he replied before waving for a server. It was going to be a while after all; and he was hungry.

Intelligently, he ignored Naruto's protests.

They were happy and that was all that really mattered.

AN: And that's it, folks! It's been a nice run and I hope you enjoyed the final chapter. I wasn't entirely sure about the part with Rin, but, I kinda wanted it made clear that they were returning to team seven. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I have. ^,^ Look forward to next month for the next installment of Mona Lisa. I'm catching up!