Second Time Around
Neji was getting married and Sakura was invited for reasons beyond her understanding. Granted, nearly every jonin within the village was invited since Hyuuga marriage protocol apparently wanted it to be as such. Surely though, she could not be so important to the renowned Hyuuga clan that they would find it insulting if she declined the invitation. Neji might, but it was probably her consciousness talking rather than reality. There would be hundreds of guests. Most likely, she wouldn't even get within breathing distance of the guy, much less get to personally congratulate him. And they weren't that good friends. She had patched him up a good deal of times, and those times were always extremely pleasant since he proved an intelligent conversationalist, but that was all. A couple of conversation on a hospital bed didn't equal best buddies. If so, Sakura would have had an entire generation of best friends.
"You have to go," Ino insisted. It was one of those rare mornings where both of them had a free schedule and Ino had stopped by so they could enjoy a lengthy and nutritious breakfast together.
"I fail to see why that is so," Sakura said and buttered her slice of bread with measured swipes of her knife. They were still in their nightwear. Ino in some fancy silk and lace combo, and Sakura in one of Naruto's or Sasuke's old shirts with her hair bunched up on top of her head. Sakura didn't look pretty when she slept, and she didn't wake up pretty. Ino did. Somehow. Sakura hated it.
"People expect the head of the hospital to be present at large social gatherings like these."
"I'm not head of the hospital. Especially not now since my transfer."
"You might as well be."
They had had this discussion before. Ino kept telling Sakura that she had to aim higher. Sakura kept insisting that she didn't want all the paperwork.
"Okay, fine. You want the real reason? Because Kakashi will be there and you can quit this self-appointed cold turkey of yours."
"It's not a cold turkey."
"It's been one month," Ino tried to reason. "Obviously, he wants you to make the move."
He did. Sakura had just been too much of a chicken to take that last step.
"It would seem so," Sakura answered.
"So why haven't you?"
"I don't know."
And it was the truth. Sakura didn't know what it was that had scared her off for nearly one month now. She was digging herself deeper into a hole for each day that passed. She knew that. But what if she was already too far down that hole to have any chances of digging herself back out? She was stalling.
She knew what she needed to do, but she wasn't doing it.
Attachment didn't come easy to her. Sasuke was the first guy to be the main respondent of her unhealthy attachment issues. Kakashi wasn't exactly offering her attachment in the way that she was truly seeking it, but in a world where you could very well die from turning a corner on the street, you took the closest you could get to what you really wanted. She didn't expect the man to grow a new persona. They weren't compatible on any other level than intelligence and sexual drive. Then again, that wasn't wholly true either. Sakura was nearly celibate, while Kakashi could very well be picking up new women at the end of every week for all she knew.
In the past years, Sakura had praised herself for how she had dismissed the idea of romantic love. That misguiding and infantile love which had been the reason to her obsessive pursuit of Sasuke for years on end until she had finally understood why he kept rejecting her. On that account, Sasuke had been years ahead of his age, whether he had been aware of it or not. These days, however, Sakura had begun doubting if she truly had shed herself of that adolescent idea of the perfect romance. Why else would she have spent the past month wishing for Hatake Kakashi to crawl through her window at night and take up the spot next to her in her bed? When she knew all too well that he never would? When she knew that he was waiting for her? When they had agreed that she would call the shots?
"I don't know, Ino," she repeated. "And I would prefer it if we drop the subject now."
"It's not a subject, Sakura, it's your life."
"The reception is this evening. I can't possibly find a proper cocktail dress fit for such an occasion on such short notice," Sakura said and took a bite of her bread, clearly signaling that this was the end of the topic.
"Well, not if you keep up this attitude."
"What do you want me to do, Ino?" Sakura exclaimed, her voice escalating in volume as her patience started to fail her.
"Hey, don't take it out on me because your man is being a jackass."
"He's not being an ass."
"He's not—then what the hell do you call his sorry excuse of-"
"Cut it out, Ino. It's mychoice to make. Not his."
Sakura realized her error around the time that Ino's face went from pissed off to confused.
"What? Your choice- what are you talking about? What choice, Sakura?"
Sakura cleared her throat and pushed the chair back from the table as she rose from her seat.
"We're not the same size, but do you perhaps have a dress I can borrow?" she asked, grabbing her plate and moving across the kitchen towards the sink. Dumping the dirty plate and knife into the sink, she turned on the hot water and set out to clean the dishes left over from dinner the previous day. For almost a full minute, the air in the kitchen was loaded with something indefinable but frosty. Sakura had to struggle not to openly retreat from the situation. Her skin was itching to crawl off her bones and this had all the potential to turn disastrous.
"The jade one is at the cleaner," Ino eventually broke the standstill. Her voice was uncharacteristically toneless. "But I have a red one that might fit you if you don't mind it being a big baggy in the bust area."
"It should be fine. I'll wear a bra beneath to fill it out."
"It's backless," Ino added.
"I'll work my way around it. So, if we're going there together, when should we leave?"
The actual ceremony of clan marriages was a highly private matter, and so the guests had been invited to the reception only. Upon arriving, Sakura immediately abandoned Ino and steered for the food. Not because she was particularly hungry, but because she knew that most of her friends would be found nearby. She found Naruto standing together with Kiba, and for a moment she felt guilty that she was relieved it wasn't Sasuke. He had apologized to her for his impromptu kiss within a week after the transgression, but it was still awkward between the two of them. Naturally, Naruto had forgiven his friend the minute that he had cast eyes on him, but Sakura hadn't expected anything else and she hadn't particularly cared either. Besides, Naruto should have quit his protection of her virtue a long time ago. The minute that she lost it, to be more precise.
"Looking good, Sakura," Kiba greeted her with a playful leer when she came within speaking distance of the two men. Naruto had been oblivious to her approach until then, and in his excitement he had pulled her into one of his spontaneous hugs before he had had time to study the cut of the dress she was wearing. When he did notice, however, he immediately retreated to his own space with a scandalized expression of his face.
"It's a backless dress, Naruto. Not lingerie. Don't make a scene."
"Indeed, Uzumaki. Don't be a sore loser because the lady will attract actual people and not the flies that gather around you," Kiba assisted not so very helpfully.
"I don't trust your judgment, Dogbreath," Naruto replied. The danger had passed.
"So, did you two get a chance to congratulate Neji or the bride?"
"Haven't even seen the guy," Kiba said. "Not sure I would like to either. Poor bastard."
Sakura didn't even know who the bride was. She should perhaps have thought of that earlier.
"Sasuke got lucky and caught both of them by accident," Naruto said. "He would probably say the opposite, though."
The reception was held outside the Hyuuga compound. Tables and benches had been set up for the occasion, though the food was stationed inside the main house. The smell of the many dishes had people flocking to the building, and it was quickly getting crowded. So far, Sakura had seen six people that she could name, not including the persons that she regularly associated with. Shikamaru had been easy to spot with his gravity defying hair, and the same went for Chouji with his sheer size. Shino had been harder, since he had donned a suit for the occasion. She would have to reprimand Naruto for not doing that. Tenten and Lee had been the hardest to locate, but she had placed them somewhere near the majority of the Hyuuga clan. Near Neji, probably. The rest of the faces that she had recognized had been people she had seen around the hospital.
"I'm gonna head outside before I suffocate in here," Sakura told Naruto. With her heels on she was approximately the same height as him, so she didn't have to stand on her toes and speak into his ear for him to hear her above the chatter in the room. She did put a hand on his shoulder to get his attention, though.
"You want me to come with you?"
She frowned. "Why would I want that?"
Naruto had never been a good liar. It wasn't that he couldn't tell a lie, because he could. All shinobi had to master that skill. It was more so the fact that he couldn't hide his distaste for lying and it therefore showed plainly on his face whenever he was being dishonest. Strangers wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Sakura could.
"What is it?" she insisted when he failed to respond. "Naruto?"
"Kakashi just walked past the entrance," Kiba spoke up.
Sakura's face blanched as all blood headed south of her neck. What was Kiba implying?
"Kiba knows," Naruto added rather unnecessarily.
"Okay," she began. She would not make a scene when she had just told Naruto not to. "Why is it that Kiba knows?"
"I didn't tell," Naruto assured her.
"I don't have heightened senses for nothing, you know," Kiba said from the sideline, obviously offended by her insinuation that he couldn't have figured it out by himself. She had dated the guy. She didn't have very high expectations and sadly there was a reason for that.
"Fine, fine," she said and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I'm going outside. Don't follow."
Naruto looked like he might protest. Kiba knew this side of her better than Naruto, so he simply backed down and turned his attention back onto the food on his plate.
"Don't follow, Naruto," she repeated and departed into the crowd.
She bumped into him the second that she stepped a foot outside the building.
"Sasuke," she greeted, forcing herself to keep her smile warm and genuine, while her mind was way off into different territory. Territory that involved masked faces and ambiguous gestures.
"Hello Sakura," the other man greeted her in what could be considered a pleasant fashion for him. She didn't miss how he hesitated, neither how his eyes wandered too far south than what was respectable even for childhood friends. She wasn't offended, but she wasn't flattered either. This was a fact which had kept her rightfully worried for the past months since their return to Konoha. She was indifferent to the Uchiha. She was indifferent to him as anything other than a male friend. And it was alarming, because she knew for a fact that while she had known nothing would come from it, she had always been flattered by the Uchiha's attention whenever he by accident had fixated it upon her. Until this thing with Kakashi, that is. And this was what worried her.
"That's a beautiful dress."
For a long moment, Sakura stared at Sasuke with her mouth slightly agape. It wasn't the compliment, but rather the fact that she had never heard any such word leave Sasuke's mouth.
"Are you here with…," she trailed off when she couldn't remember his girlfriend's name.
"Megumi. No. She was unavailable. That dress really suits you."
Sakura nearly breathed a hallelujah at Naruto's interruption. It didn't even matter that she had told him not to follow her. She was glad for his appearance.
"What is it, goofball?" Sasuke greeted his friend, punching him in the arm when Naruto reached up to ruffle his neatly styled hair. You would think they hadn't seen each other for days, but in reality it had probably just been a matter of minutes. The sight of them brawling was so familiar, so reassuringly old and normal, that Sakura suddenly felt at home again for the first time in a long while. Lately, the three of them hadn't been slacking off together like they used to whenever they all had a free spot in their schedule. And Sakura had admitted to herself that she missed it. She missed the two boys from her childhood who had become adults with their own lives separate from hers. She missed the days where Kiba didn't know about her infatuation with a man fourteen years her senior. She missed the old Haruno Sakura who readily took on the responsibilities handed to her, and didn't try to find ways in which she could avoid those responsibilities. Such as working late at night at the hospital and doing paperwork which wasn't truly hers to do, so that she had a reason not to stop by her mother's. Or Kakashi's place, for that matter. Her work was her refuge. It was where she didn't have to think in order to succeed. She just had to do and it was instant success.
It really was her own fault. She had grown apart from Naruto and Sasuke, but Naruto and Sasuke hadn't grown apart from each other. They were no longer a trio. They were all about duos. Naruto and Sakura. Naruto and Sasuke. Naruto was the only name mentioned twice.
Quite a few appalled faces had turned in their direction by now. Sasuke had put Naruto in a headlock and perhaps it wasn't really the right scene to be acting like this. While Sakura had no problem with the less than positive attention, she still found herself debating whether or not she should interfere. At least until another voice beat her to it and sent her heart into immediate cardiac arrest.
"If this isn't a pretty picture of the past," Kakashi said jovially, and Sakura was absolutely mortified that she hadn't felt him approach until he was standing directly beside her, radiating with warmth that never failed to pull her in like a magnet. And indeed she did find herself swaying towards the welcoming heat of his body. Then she remembered that this was not good. She was most decidedly not welcome to do any swaying of any sort. In fact, this was quite possibly the apocalypse physically manifested and she was the primary target. Back up.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto immediately perked up. "When did you get here?"
"He's not your teacher," Sasuke said with a look in Sakura's direction. Sakura cringed inwardly.
"I arrived some time ago."
Sakura dared her first look at him, and she realized with a start that he was out of his uniform. Hell, she hadn't even known that Kakashi owned civilian clothes outside of missions, much less something as casual as plain dark grey slacks and a simple black shirt thrown over the thin polyester that was his mask and undershirt. She did his physicals at the hospital, so she had seen him stripped down to his underwear and at one time even less. But not even that had affected her as much as this laid-backprivate look he was currently showcasing in all its glory. She realized that she was angry. She felt betrayed by a man who wasn't hers to claim in the first place, and the thought made her sick to her stomach. She had kept her distance to him for this past month. He had done the same. That was a pretty clear sign that they weren't exactly the best of friends at the moment.
"Sakura," Naruto's voice travelled past the blood rushing in her ears.
"What?" she snapped, not caring that her voice sounded exactly as pissed off as she felt.
"You're kinda trying to kill Kakashi-sensei with your eyes, there. It's a bit freaky."
She tore her eyes off Kakashi's figure before the man would look at her and catch her in the act. Of course, he already knew that she had been staring. As long he didn't call her out on it, however, she could delude herself into thinking that that wasn't the case.
"Did you two have a fight?" Sasuke offered his input. Sasuke's sarcasm was just evil. Vile and evil.
"Why ever would we?" she asked with a laugh that came out all wrong.
Neither Naruto, nor Sasuke looked convinced.
"Could you boys excuse us?" Kakashi asked. "I need to speak to Sakura in private."
Sasuke looked like he had been force-fed a sour grape by a bearded man in a pink dress. Naruto simply blinked.
"Very well," Kakashi replied regardless of the fact that nobody had answered. Sakura had no choice but to follow him as he took off towards the more secluded corner of the party farthest away from the main house. She didn't have to look back over her shoulder to know that she would have some explaining to do later.
"You haveno right to do that, Kakashi," she said the second that they were mostly obscured from public sight. Kakashi had placed them behind a couple of thick bushes and a tall water fountain with some sort of beautified frog that kept spraying water onto Sakura's neck and shoulders. She kept wiping it off. The Hyuuga gardens were beautiful, and it would have been a rather romantic setting if the situation hadn't been so screwed up. And she was not disappointed by this fact, she told herself.
"You have no right to embarrass me and corner me like this," she said and miraculously resisted from jabbing her finger at his chest. "This is—now they will want to know if-"
"If we're screwing around?" Kakashi suggested. "Because I would very much like to know that as well."
Months ago Sakura would have blushed at the man's crudeness. Now she sent him an unamused look.
"I swear that even Naruto is more of a gentleman than you are."
"You wouldn't have come to me if you wanted a gentleman, Sakura," Kakashi pointed out smartly.
"And you wouldn't-"
"Why did you show up in that dress?"
Her tongue curled in on itself. "I didn't even want to show-"
She didn't get to finish as Kakashi grabbed her by her shoulder and spun her around, nearly shoving her face into the bushes. A twig scratched past her collarbone and crept inside the shoulder strap of her dress, threatening to tear the fabric apart if she moved too rashly. With her trained reflexes, it took her little time to adjust to the change in position, and she immediately set out to test the strength of Kakashi's hold. She couldn't budge an inch, but she also knew that she had allowed Kakashi to manhandle her into the position in the first place. With her tight and controlled schedule at the hospital, it should come as no surprise that she was subservient in other aspects of her life. And this really was one of those aspects where it was relatively easy for a woman to be subservient, jonin or not. That ill-timed realization sent a lick of anticipation down Sakura's spine. That was just sick. She was sick. Why was she allowing this?
"What's this? An assault behind the bushes? That's a little too cliché for an intelligent man like you," she said with false confidence. She wasn't afraid. She was fighting not to fight him back. Her bones were shaking with suppressed adrenaline, and she suspected that Kakashi was well aware.
"Pleased to know you find me intelligent," Kakashi replied absently. He didn't move to close the space between them, but literally kept her fixed at an arm's length.
"Yes," Kakashi said. "I'm angry."
"I've been avoiding you," Sakura admitted. She figured that since she wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, she could just as well face her fears and possibly reap some sort of benefit from that courageous act.
"I don't know what I see in you. I don't know what I want. Jesus, Kakashi, I don't demand that you give me a list of every little thing you find appealing about me," she stopped when her chest felt too constricted to continue. Dimly, she realized that she was entering a state of panic, and she ought to stop herself before her mouth ran off without her brain, but she just couldn't make any sense of her thoughts unless she voiced them out loud. "Whatever it is that I see, I know that it's strong enough for me to pursue you regardless of our past official relations. And social norms in general, I think. Right? The age difference is… I think these facts speak for themselves. I don't know. That's my answer. I don't know what I see, but I know that I do see something, something large and good, and that's why I haven't come to you with an answer. I'm sorry. It's unfair to you."
She fell silent and awaited what she was sure would be the most painful rejection in her life. Perhaps even worse than failing her first medic exam. She had been forced to take it while she had been drugged up on pain meds. Needless to say, the result hadn't been good.
"I want you to come over to my place tonight."
Wait. That was not a rejection. That was an invitation.
"I got it right? I passed?" she dared breathe and was rewarded with a quiet laugh.
"It's not an exam, Sakura."
Her entire body seemed to slump back against the man's chest as he finally closed the distance between them and stepped up behind her. He let his hands trail from her bare shoulders down to her lower arms. It hit her then that he had done it purposely. He had turned her away from him so she hadn't had to look him in the face as she answered. He had manipulated her as he usually did, but for once he had done it in her favor. It didn't matter that they shared a mutual goal. He had still done it in her favor and not his own.
"I can't tonight. I have extra hours this week."
"Tomorrow then," Kakashi concluded and stepped back. They were still in public, Sakura scolded herself when she realized why he had cut the spontaneous embrace short.
"What are we planning right now?" she asked, trying to clarify Kakashi's extremely ambiguous invitation. She felt awkward. She didn't understand the game or field that they were playing. She understood the landmines on that field and she had stepped on quite a few at this point. But she didn't understand the actual playing field. Hopefully, she would now be provided a map so she could draw a safe route.
"I know you find security in labels, Sakura, but try not to label this. You'll most likely be disappointed."
"That's a positive attitude. So, what do I tell the boys when I return? How do I explain that you dragged me off as though hell was on your heels?"
"Yes. Naruto is perceptive when it concerns people he cares about."
"When it concerns you," Kakashi corrected her mildly.
"I suppose. Ino knows, too. But she won't tell. Not with this. I know it's hard to believe, but she's really maternal and all that."
She had a mother in Ino and a father in Naruto. That sounded just a bit unhealthy.
Kakashi nodded. "Tell them it's official business. They won't press the matter then."
This was going to be a dirty secret in every sense of the word. She had never been good with secret relationships. Or rather, she had never approved of secret relationships. How could she now potentially enter one, despite the fact that she thought it dishonest? That was the million dollar question and she had no answer to it.