A/N: No, you're not hallucinating - I updated! Hurrah! *flees from hurling rocks* I'm sorry!
The ease with which she stepped back into routine was unexpected, though she didn't know what else she should have expected after returning to the village. She slotted back into her place at the hospital, back among the other displaced kunoichi who talked wearily about broken bones and chakra fusion during their working hours, but on coffee breaks discussed methods of mutiny with alarming frequency. Sakura had used to lead the charge on such discussions, but these days she stood back and listened to her friends and acquaintances talk, interjecting her opinion only if prompted for it.
The monotonous days began to merge again, and she appreciated the peace. She could almost imagine things were back to their relative state of normality, if not for the irritating little reminders that things would soon change. Reminders like Kakashi directing her to Root's private physician, who prodded and probed more invasively than even the checkpoint guards. Or reminders like bouts of queasiness when she was standing in line for food. Other than that, she was doing an excellent job ignoring her own condition.
Yes, Ino might have called her a sulky bitch at one point, and her mother was still troubled over what her daughter had described as nothing more than a 'bad day', but Sakura thought she was coping well.
It had to be said she was trying to keep out of Kakashi's way. She had glimpsed him around the village, sometimes waiting in line at a food stall, sometimes talking with colleagues... very occasionally sitting with the blonde kunoichi and looking like any number of other couples getting together for an afternoon drink. When Kakashi's notes arrived informing her of a new appointment with Root's physician, they were only ever delivered through her letterbox and never by hand, leading her to think she wasn't the only one engaged in avoidance tactics.
Not that it bothered her; she was quite glad to be away from Kakashi. He had witnessed her degradation and humiliation, and seeing him only reminded her, but she still couldn't deny that when she did see him her gaze lingered, especially when he was within Kimiko. Maybe it was envy. His life and routine hadn't been disturbed and with his lover he looked about as happy as the notoriously taciturn man ever got. Seeing him like that threw stark relief on what Sakura felt she had lost by comparison, and that was reason enough to steer clear of him. That she also had roped him into her problems against his will made her feel quite strongly she had a duty to leave his life alone. This child only had to mess up one life, not two.
And while Kakashi was relatively easy to avoid, her pregnancy was not. She could avoid thinking about her pregnancy entirely if she bogged herself down with work and overtime, but the simple fact of the matter that as the first months trickled by and the worst of her already mild symptoms faded, another symptom was beginning to present itself that was rather more difficult to hide.
When she first switched from her usual medic tunic to favour a white coat over a black sweater, no one noticed. Fall was turning into winter and the colder weather provided a nice cover for choosing thicker, more encompassing clothes. A modest bump was normal for a woman, especially kunoichi no longer active in the field, and if it got bigger she entertained giving lofty excuses if anyone grew suspicious – claiming to have a parasite or a tumour might suffice. If things got really desperate she could start wearing a plastic blood-splatter smock at all times, notorious around the hospital for how unflattering they were, but that in itself might just raise more questions.
Her mother was more attentive to these things. Sakura had never been able to keep secrets from her for long, whether it was sneaking a snack right before dinner or just how dangerous some of her missions got. Her mother had always been supportive of her dream to be a kunoichi, even if she was the first in their family to cross into the world of the combat, but still Sakura tried to keep the ugliest side of her job from her mother. The woman always seemed to figure it out anyway. Sakura was sure her mother knew something dire had taken place on her last mission, but as long as Sakura refused to discuss it she kept her distance from that topic, for which Sakura was glad. She didn't want to have to start distancing her own mother too. Instead she found herself spending more time with her mother than ever.
"Your hair is getting long again," she said to Sakura one evening, as they shared dinner. There were only enough portions for one since Sakura had turned up unexpectedly, so now they were liberally supplementing the food with a large tub of ice-cream.
"It does that," Sakura said, running a hand through it and wrinkling her nose. "I need to cut it."
"I can do that if you like," her mother offered, and was up on her feet before Sakura could protest and point out that her mother's handling of a pair of scissors was unmatched except for that of a drunken squid. Even so, it was rather a lot of effort and money to go to a professional stylist, and at least her mother was free.
"Now how long would you like it?" asked her mother, returning with a comb and pair of scissors that could easily have passed for sheep shears. Positioning herself behind her daughter, she began measuring out a few inches from the bottom.
"I was thinking a bit shorter actually," Sakura said, licking copious amounts of melting ice cream off the back of her spoon.
"Like it was when you were young?"
"I'm still young, Mama."
"Of course you are, kitten. About here?" She ran her finger along Sakura's neck to show her the length, and Sakura tried to suppress the prickle of unease that ran down her spine. She didn't like people putting their hands near her throat, not even her own mother. "A bit shorter," she said.
"Here?" Her mother raised her finger another half inch.
"I was thinking more around here," Sakura said, pushing her mother's hand up to where her ear met her jaw.
"That short?" Her mother asked uncertainly. "You've never worn it that short, are you sure it would suit you?"
"Tell you what," her mother began. "Why don't we cut it the normal length and see if you like that-"
"What's the problem? I want it short."
"I'm not sure you really want it that short," said her mother.
"Yes, I do." I can't even make decisions about my own hair now?
"Look, all I'm saying is that we can take it up gradually and stop when you're happy." Her mother was combing her fingers through Sakura's hair absently, reminding her uncomfortably of the last person who had done that and how she had wanted to shave it all off afterwards. "Do you remember when Ino wanted short hair?" her mother carried on obliviously. "Then she went and freaked because she said it made her face look even longer-"
Sakura set down her spoon with a bang, snatched the scissors from her mother's hand, grabbed a hank of her own hair, and dashed the blades across it. She dropped the severed locks onto the table and there was rather more than she had meant to cut. Even so, she grabbed up her spoon and resumed eating. "See?" she said. "I don't care. Just cut it."
But her mother had been rendered silent in shock. She pocked listlessly at the violently short mess Sakura had made, before slowly putting down the comb, as if she didn't trust herself with it. "What," she began in a low, deliberate tone, "is wrong with you?"
Sakura went cold. "There's nothing wrong with me."
"I don't know what to make of you anymore, Sakura, you behave so oddly these days!" This sounded like something her mother had been trying to get off her chest for a while.
"It's just hair, it grows back," Sakura argued emphatically.
"This is not about the hair and you know it!" her mother said angrily. "You never smile – you never hang out with your friends – you don't care about your appearance anymore – and all that weight you've put on-"
"Mama!" Sakura rose to her feet angrily, wiping ice cream from her chin. "Leave off! I'm not a child you can boss around anymore!"
"You're still my daughter, and you think I don't know when something's wrong? You think I can't see that something's hurt you even though you won't tell me!" Tears were standing out in her mother's eyes, threatening to slide down her cheeks. "What happened to you, Sakura? Why are you so angry?"
"I am not angry!" She would have shouted, but the lump in her throat made it impossible. She could handle her mother's ire and her criticism, but not her tears.
"Yes, you are, you're angry all the time. Like you're angry with yourself. I'm not blind." Her mother took a breath to compose herself. "And I know when it started as well."
"Don't... Mama," Sakura ground out.
Don't stick your nose into this one. "I have to go," she said suddenly, avoiding her mother's eye. "I forgot I have a date with Ino."
Her mother didn't buy it for one second and followed her down the hall. "What am I supposed to do if you won't let me help you?" she demanded. "Your own mother!"
"I don't need help, mother!" She slammed the door behind her and strode off with single-minded purpose between the dark rows of houses.
Well, there it was. She knew it was likely to happen eventually.
She'd pushed away the last person in the world who loved her.
Coffee just didn't taste like it used to, and there was a reason for it beyond Kakashi's naturally finicky nature. Coffee beans came from the continent, and the country with which Konoha normally traded was complaining about low yields, unpaid credit, and hostile trading tactics. The result? Now coffee was imported from somewhere else, somewhere where the climate wasn't quite as perfect for coffee plants as the other place, and now for twice the price, Kakashi's morning coffee had half the taste.
Danzou's regime pinched in the most unexpected of places.
"I'm sure societies have had revolutions over less," he said to Kimiko, though it seemed unbecoming to complain about coffee when she was suffering her own economic setbacks.
"I can't afford my own birth control anymore," she had told him last week, literally throwing up her hands in dismay after receiving the new bill. Previously, any pills and injections had been free, but Danzou's latest piece of wisdom was to start charging for contraception, at a price marked up roughly five hundred percent of its true price – for the sake of Konoha's economy, and its morals of course.
Kakashi had naturally offered to chip in and between them they could cover the costs, but then he was a senior jonin with a matching paycheque and if Kimiko, a senior within the W.D., could not afford her own birth control, then certainly the same was true for a large majority of women in Konoha.
"It's nothing to do with morals," Kurenai had told him and the other jonin in a matter-of-fact way, during one of their bi-weekly get-togethers in a secluded corner of the public house. "Danzou's playing it for the long-term. Him and his barons have been trying to figure out ways to increase the size of the military, and they need more people. They don't give a damn about women's virtue, they just want to see everyone breeding like rabbits. There's already the Family Incentive. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if they decide to ban birth control all together soon."
As he was pouring the rest of his coffee down the sink, Kakashi heard a noise behind him. Kimiko was easing into a chair at the breakfast bar, hair lying on one side of her head. Her eyes hadn't fully opened yet.
"Good morning," he said.
She blinked puffily at him. "I don't understand how you do it," she croaked, referring of course to his apparently supernatural ability to be clean, dressed, and bright eyed before eight.
"Toast?" he offered.
"Why not?" She pushed her hair to the other side of her head and slowly drew the mound of letters on the bar towards her. There was a nosy streak in Kimiko, he had discovered, as she leafed through his correspondence, although she was more interested in looking at the junkmail as if they were important pieces of communiqué.
Suddenly she read something else. "Did you know you can get five hundred ryo a month just having a baby these days?"
"So? It's just the Family Incentive. Danzou wants an army of toddlers, that's all." His thoughts immediately turned to Sakura. She would be getting four times what was suggested in the flywer, but then she was a rather special case.
"I make barely over five-twenty a month." She made a sound of exasperation. "I should just quit and get a baby."
This was not line of conversation he had ever hoped to have this early on in their relationship. "Someone might object to you just taking one."
"I'm sure there are other ways of getting one," she said, not looking at him.
"Trading in being a kunoichi for harder work and less pay? I don't think that's how it works." And to change the subject entirely, before another woman tried to suggest he repeat the worst mistake of his life. "What are your plans for today?"
"Oh, just meeting up with my sister for lunch... no big missions coming my way these days." She was undoubtedly about to complain about that point, as she had many times before, when there came a knock on the apartment door.
They both glanced at each other.
"It's ok, you can answer it" said Kimiko, desperately trying to flatten her hair into something with symmetry.
Kakashi crossed to the door and peered through the peephole. Uh oh, he thought, recognising the mop of pink hair filling the lens. This can't be good.
"Haruno-san," he greeted as he pulled open the door. "What a pleasant surprise."
He had only met Sakura's mother on a handful of occasions; examinations, graduations, and the very occasional chance encounter in the supermarket queue. He had always figured that she was what Sakura might be like in thirty years' time, having mellowed and softened a little with age. Although whether that could be true anymore...?
"I don't mean to disturb you, Kakashi-sensei," she said, peering past him to where Kimiko sat at the table, peering politely back. "But I really need to speak to you."
He cleared his throat, "Well, now is not exactly a good time-"
"Please," she said quietly, reminding him far too strongly of Sakura when she had something very serious to say. "It's about my daughter."
And that was precisely why he should just turn her away right now. Unfortunately, Kimiko decided this was precisely the time for an act of grace and selflessness that Kakashi could have done without. "I was on my way out anyway," she said, sailing past them with a polite nod towards Sakura's mother. To Kakashi she winked. "I'll catch you later."
After that, he really had no choice but to invite the older woman in. "Would you like something to drink?"
"No, thank you," she demurred, "but could we sit?"
With an inward sigh, Kakashi gestured towards the small sitting area. He took the armchair while she huddled to the edge of the sofa, fingers clasping and unclasping in her lap; the origin of one of Sakura's more noticeable mannerisms. She smiled at him politely, but it was a weak, distracted thing that quickly disappeared. Whatever she wanted to say, it was weighing almost visibly upon her. The building dread Kakashi could feel in the pit of his stomach was making him glad of his mask.
"I really am sorry about this," she began, lowering her eyes to her lap. "But I really don't know who else to talk to... I certainly can't talk to my own daughter. She won't let me."
"Is... everything ok with Sakura?" he hedged uncertainly. "I'll admit I've been busy. I've not been keeping up with her recently."
He hoped she might take the hint he was not the person she needed, but clearly her mind had already been made up. "It doesn't surprise me," she said, with a faintly helpless shrug. "She's been pushing people away."
Kakashi remained silent.
"I want to know if there is something I should know...?" Mrs Haruno said.
His throat had gone dry. "Such as?"
"Such as what happened to my daughter," she said, fixing him with such a stare that let him know she was aware of his evasiveness.
"Have you discussed this with Sakura?"
"I told you, she won't let me. I tried to bring these things up but she just walked away. If I try to push it, she'll only end up further away than ever, and you're the only one I know of who might be able to explain."
"Because it began after Sakura's last mission," said her mother, "with you."
"Well," he began slowly, "I know Sakura's expressed discontent over her work at the hospital. I suspect that might have more to do-"
"She used to complain endlessly about that, but she hasn't said a word against the hospital since her last mission with you. I know something happened then. I thought she would have been pleased to be given field work again, but she's said nothing about what happened during that mission-"
"Missions are always classified," Kakashi reminded her. "It's standard procedure."
Mrs Haruno scowled at him. "I know that, Kakashi-sensei," she said in clipped tones. "But it's not classified to simply express to your mother whether it went well or not. The fact that she didn't stop crying for two days gave me an idea as to which. You may call it mother's intuition, if you like."
"And from what Sakura has told me about you over the years, you are not a man to adhere religiously to protocol when it goes against the wellbeing of someone in your care. In fact she seems to believe you are not one to follow protocol at all. So please... tell me what happened to my daughter. If you were on that mission with her, you must know."
He sighed, unable to look her in the eyes anymore. "Haruno-san, things aren't the way they used to be. One does not simply go against protocol these days."
Nostrils flaring in silent anger, Mrs Haruno stared him down. "You care more about rules than my daughter's life and happiness?"
"That's not what I'm saying. The Hokage has taken to using very thorough measures to ensure secrets are kept secret." He shrugged helplessly. "If I told you what happened on that mission, I would die."
Mrs Haruno opened her mouth to argue.
"It is simply a fact," he interrupted, "not an exaggeration. I would keel over where I sit now and you would still be none the wiser, so believe me when I say that I cannot help you, even though I want to."
Mrs Haruno was not a ninja. She wouldn't understand the technicalities of the binding jutsu he was under, and most civilians were simply not aware of how extreme and militaristic Konoha's shinobi had become under Danzou, but she was a smart woman. She believed him. She didn't question how or why Danzou could control people to such a degree, she simply accepted. Now she could only scrutinise her knees, as she tried to puzzle what or who to question next.
"I'm sorry you came all this way for so little," Kakashi apologised, starting to rise.
But Mrs Haruno refused to move. "Were you aware my daughter is pregnant?"
Kakashi froze. "Sakura's told you?"
"No," she said, head falling into her hands. "I've noticed... I've suspected... she looks like I did back when I was... but I wasn't certain until now. Don't ever play poker, Kakashi-sensei, you are far too easy to bluff."
He eased back into the armchair, resting his jaw against his knuckles. "You have quite the mother's instinct," he said, wishing this woman wasn't as damned clever as her daughter. "If you suspected Sakura's condition, then the only reason you came to me-"
"Was to try and reassure myself that my worst fears aren't true." She looked up at him, eyes shining brightly. "Was my daughter raped?"
The wise thing to do would be to reassure her as she wished to be. Of course not, he could say soothingly. He would never let anything like that happen to one of his subordinates while she was under his protection. He could spin a beautiful lie about a short-lived romance, and that Sakura was merely suffering from heartache because the love of her life and the father of this child had died while bravely battling to save her life from enemy nin.
But the words choked him. He couldn't cover up the brutal truth with a quaint little fairytale – and his hesitancy had already cost him. The longer he remained silent, the more Sakura's mother knew that whatever he was about to say was going to be a calculated manipulation. The distrust was already building in her face.
"Don't lie to me," she whispered. "Please don't."
Mrs Haruno was too clever for her own good. Even if she would never – could never be told the details, she already knew what had happened to her daughter. She had only come to Kakashi for confirmation, and there was nothing he could say now that would convince her of a lie.
"Who did this?" she demanded.
Kakashi shook his head. "I can't tell you his name."
Her eyes searched his. "Then it was someone involved in your mission, otherwise you could." She had gone white now. "How is that possible?"
There was nothing Kakashi could trust himself to say.
"At least tell me justice was done?" she pleaded.
"I can't... because it wasn't." And the guilt gnawed at him every day. "And there's more than one man to blame."
"How can this be permitted?" she asked him, rising slowly to her feet. "How can this happen to my daughter and nothing be done about it – how can it be that no one can even talk about it?"
"We all had our orders, even Sakura."
"What the hell kind of orders are those?" she seethed. "What kind of missions are they sending you people on?"
"Sakura's being taken care of," he said, trying to placate her. It was difficult when the anger and bewilderment he could hear in her voice were already so familiar to him.
"Is that what you call this?" Mrs Haruno shook her head, hair breaking loose from its careful bun. "I don't accept it!"
"It would be in Sakura's best interests if you did."
"You were supposed to protect my daughter. That's what teammates are for, isn't it? That's what you taught her? And yet you stood by and let this happen to her?"
"I did what I could," he said weakly.
"And where have you been for the last three months? Sakura needs her friends."
To that he truly had no response. Yes, he'd let Sakura down badly, but what was his alternative? Forcing himself into her life was just as bad, if not worse. He had no answers to give her mother, only excuses and apologies.
But the older Haruno would not wait for them. She had come in search of answers and help, and now she saw that Kakashi could provide neither. She wouldn't waste any more time on him. She looked away, as if she could no longer stand the sight of him, and strode off.
"Haruno-san," he called, standing sharply. "I know you're angry, but you mustn't talk about this with anyone."
"What?" She spun to narrow her eyes on him.
"If you're thinking of going over my head to get help from the administration, you'll only putting your life in danger. You'll put Sakura in danger. You have to keep this to yourself."
Shaking her head, she backed away from him. There was no way to tell what she was thinking – whether she believed him or she was too angry to trust him. She swept out the door in a heartbeat and slammed it in her wake, sending a judder through the small apartment.
Kakashi sank back into his armchair and pressed fingertips to a growing ache behind his temple.
"I would murder my own grandmother for a decent cup of coffee," grimaced Shikamaru, as he tried to suck the gritty aftertaste from his teeth. Coffee breaks had become something of an exercise in masochism these days, but where and how else was he supposed to get his caffeine fix? Long shifts guarding the Hokage tower needed some kind of fuel, after all, and there was very little about this job that he would consider stimulating. A waste of his considerable talents, some might say (Shikamaru primary among them) but that was what one got for being too close to the former regime.
"I doubt your grandmother's life would be worth much," said Sai, inspecting his sleeve for lint.
Unfortunately, Shikamaru's ANBU mask did not permit the other man to see the withering glare. "You're right," he said dryly. "Your life would be worth much more."
"Empty, veiled threats," observed Sai impassively. "I have noticed such banter between males within close friendships. Are you wishing to become close to me?"
"Sai, the only reason I would get close to you is to stab you in the back more easily," Shikamaru deadpanned.
Sai looked at him. "I'll take that as a yes."
Shikamaru refrained from sighing – it would only invite further psycho-analysis. Instead he turned his attention back to the long hallway before them, two antechambers away from the Hokage's personal residence. They saw very little in this place. The Hokage rarely received visitors in his private rooms. The occasional 'Baron' sometimes passed through, and the same handful of retainers, but few else. There were no women, he noticed. Whatever else Danzou was, he was not interested in the fairer sex, and Shikamaru suspected that had more do with plain disinterest in anything but the machinations of power and leadership.
"If it's good coffee you want, there are still ways to get it," said Sai suddenly.
"I think I know someone who might have some old stock lying around."
Folding his arms, Shikamaru lifted an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"I might be able to obtain some for a little compensation."
Shikamaru snorted. "When did you get into the blackmarket, Sai?"
"I do not understand. Danzou-sama has tasked me personally with investigating and prosecuting illegal trade, and I take my duties very seriously. I am only offering some personal stock as a favour to a close male friend," said Sai with what appeared to be a great deal of noble integrity.
"And how much would that be?"
"For a small bag? Five ryo."
Another scoff broke from Shikamaru. "Right. Tell you what – if you get me some, I'll give you six. Three for you and three for your supplier."
"I accept, although I have no supplier, just a friend with some old stock," Sai said. "And if you happen to require any other supplies or products that can no longer be legally obtained, please feel free to ask me. Discreetly, of course."
"I'm sure. You have a very well stocked friend, I imagine."
"He is... very fortunate."
A door opened at the end of the hall. Both Sai and Shikamaru shifted casually into a more alert stance, moving to flank the door to Danzou's antechambers. The man approaching was a masked Root ANBU, but not one of particularly high status, although the way he sauntered along gave the impression that he believed he owned the place.
"State your business," Shikamaru called, suspecting a time-waster.
"It's certainly none of yours," rebuked the Root agent, hands wedged deep in his pockets. "I'm here to see the Hokage."
"Make an appointment," Shikamaru told him.
"I have information for the Hokage, and Danzou-sama personally asked me to alert him as soon possible," said the man. "Go on. Hop along and tell our great leader that Jin has some information regarding Hatake Kakashi, and that a little bird is pecking at the seed."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sai glance at him, but Shikamaru did not return it. He kept his reaction tightly under control, betraying no unease. He simply nodded stiffly and stepped through the door to the next antechamber, leaving Sai and the man named Jin behind him.
Another pair of guards waited in the next room. Shikamaru relayed the message to them and waited as one of the men took the message through to the next pair of guards in the antechamber beyond. Shikamaru waited, hoping that this silly dasisy chain of messengers meant that by the time the message reached Danzou it would be some garbled nonsense about Kakashi saying they needed more seed in the bird feeders. Undoubtedly what Jin had said was some sort of code... but Shikamaru no longer had his finger in the pie that was the intelligence division, and without a point of reference he had no idea of knowing what it referred to.
Eventually the guard returned. "Danzou will see him. Tell him to come through."
Shikamaru returned reluctantly to Sai and Jin, and fought the urge to tell the latter that it was Danzou's wish that he piss off. Instead, like a good loyal subordinate he gestured with his hand. "You may go in."
With a smugness that no ANBU mask could disguise, Jin strolled through, and Shikamaru and Sai were left in silence, out of the loop as ever.
"What do you suppose that was about?" Shikamaru muttered nervously.
"It sounded like code," said Said, unnecessarily.
"I know that. What does it mean?"
"It sounds like Kakashi-sensei has been under observation," Sai went on. "And I doubt someone would be making reports to the Hokage for positive behaviour. He is only interested in treason."
"Should we warn him?"
Sai shifted his stance. "If that is the case, it's already too late. Kakashi is being watched and we would only implicate ourselves."
Shikamaru clicked his tongue in annoyance. Inaction wasn't his style, but he knew better than to charge around like a headless chicken based on some unsubstantiated suspicions. "Who was that guy?"
"You know him? He's Root, like you."
"Everyone is Root these days," retorted Sai, "even you."
"Yeah, but I like to know the difference between who was press-ganged and who joined because they're just a fan of fascism in general," Shikamaru said.
Sai smiled in that terribly insincere way of his. "Fascism is not inherently bad, and it does have its positive qualities. It is extremely efficient and-"
"And is Jin one of Danzou's lot or not?" Shikamaru interrupted.
Sai thought for a moment. "He is not one of the original Root. He's too undisciplined. But he is certainly loyal to Danzou."
Before Shikamaru could suggest once again that they go warn Kakashi, the door behind them swung open. Out swept Danzou, following by his usual parade of cronies and bodyguards, including Jin.
The Hokage fixed his singular bleak eye on Sai. "Summon Hatake Kakashi at once. I will see him in the office."
And he sounded downright cheerful.
This time Sai and Shikamaru really did exchange a look. If Danzou was happy, Kakashi had gotten himself into some serious trouble.
Kakashi couldn't say he was surprised, but he could only wonder exactly how it had gotten back to the Hokage. His apartment was probably bugged – he had long suspected as much. But then he also couldn't rule out that he was being followed closely, and Danzou was certainly paranoid to actually pay his Rootlings to hiding in his bushes beneath his windows. His gaze slid over Jin, who was half hidden in the shadows, leaning against a wall. Kakashi really hoped he was the one who had been set the task of stalking him, since he knew for a fact that neighbour's cat liked to use the bush beneath his window as his personal litter box.
"Do you know why you are here, Hatake Kakashi?" asked Danzou, lifting a gouty foot up onto the stool provided for him. The barons were out in force. Every single chair in the little throne room was occupied, although there was no need for them all to be present. Kakashi imagined they hadn't been able to pass up this opportunity. They had all been waiting for this for a long time.
"I have some inklings," drawled Kakashi, keeping his hooded gaze levelled on Danzou. I could blow him into another dimension in less than a heartbeat, he thought. I'd be killed a second later, but it might be worth it. And he might have tried it too, if he wasn't so sure that every man in this room was at least twice as depraved and cruel as Danzou, with half the restraint to match, and might only be too glad to see Danzou assassinated.
"A little bird tells me someone has been asking questions," intoned Danzou, meeting Kakashi's stare unblinkingly, "about Project Seed."
"The little bird doesn't know what he's talking about," Kakashi said, shooting a blatant look at Jin. "Someone has asked me questions, but not about any secret projects. And I gave them no answers."
Danzou sneered. "Indeed, or you would not be alive to defend yourself."
"So this reprimand is pointless," Kakashi said bluntly. "May I leave now?"
"No," Danzou grunted. "That you performed your duty to the bare minimum and remained silent – that is not the issue. What matters is that someone is asking questions... and someone is attempting to pry into matters that do not concern them."
Jaw clenched and fists curled behind his back, Kakashi begged to disagree. "It is a mother's concern when her daughter has been raped."
"That was not Haruno Sakura's cover story. Her mother should not have been told this-"
"Her mother isn't a blind fool," Kakashi retorted. "She didn't need to be told."
Danzou tented his fingers before his mouth, in a sham display of considered deliberation. "Regardless. The project is compromised. Haruno Michiko is a threat. All that remains is to decide what should be done about it."
"She is no threat! She is a civilian who is merely concerned for her daughter – she knows nothing-"
"Exactly why she is so dangerous. There's nothing quite like an angry mother trying to protect her child from phantoms of her own imagination. Such things have built and ruined nations before – don't make the mistake of assuming this little busy-body does not have it in her power to bring the whole project crashing down upon our ears. That is not a risk we can take. If other villages catch wind of our program, it'll mean war, and we are not yet ready for such an eventuality."
An eventuality. Danzou didn't hide his ambitions well. He would slither away from a fight until the day he knew he held the upperhand – then all his noble talk about maintaining peace would be thrown to the ground and Danzou would not be satisfied till he either controlled all of the villages, or he had destroyed Konoha in the process.
"Haruno Michiko is not the one you need to worry about," Kakashi said quietly. There were a hundred other people Kakashi could name on the spot who posed a more direct and conscious threat to the Hokage, himself included.
Danzou was unmoved. "Better to be safe than sorry," he said, waving a hand loftily. "No loose ends. She must be terminated."
In this room there was no angry outcry. No splutters of protest at the suggestion that the Hokage order the assassination of a Konoha citizen whose only crime was to be a concerned mother. Kakashi looked around, astonished at the lack of reaction, and all he saw was a circle of faces, watching him closely, more interested in his reaction than questioning the morality of the order.
He could blow up. He could scream at the Hokage and all his useless, greedy barons, get himself sent to prison where he might eventually be executed but be secure in the knowledge that he had stood up for what was right. But then the execution order would be handed to someone else; Jin most likely.
And so there was no other course of action. Blankly, Kakashi shrugged. "If you insist."
"You will have to discreet," the Hokage said, smiling at the discomfort he knew Kakashi was feeling and trying hard to hide. "It would do no good for Haruno Sakura to know of her mother's demise. Such stress is never good for pregnant women, and we need a strong, healthy child."
Blinking slowly, his gut crawling with contempt, Kakashi said, "It can be arranged."
"Then what are you waiting for?" asked Danzou.
"I will need assistance. Disposing of bodies is not my speciality."
The Hokage sniffed dismissively. "Jin will assist you."
"I thought you wanted discretion. Jin has all the subtlety of a rutting elephant."
The Hokage may have wanted to argue, but even he could not make such a bald-faced assertion that Jin was appropriate for such a task. "And who do you have in mind?" he asked.
"There's a man named Tenzou, he works in the original ANBU division. He's discreet and he'd save me half a night of digging a grave."
Danzou rubbed his mouth speculatively. "The one who was spliced with the DNA of the first Hokage? A friend of yours no doubt."
"I will do your dirty work, but I will use the people I trust, no one else."
After a moment of consideration, Danzou gave a one-shouldered shrug. "I see no reason why not. If you both perform your duty admirably, I may even offer your friend a promotion into Root."
Wouldn't Tenzou just be delirious with joy to hear of it? "I'll be sure to let him know," he said evenly, knowing full well the Hokage thought the best way to keep an eye on unknowns was to keep them close.
"Then you may go. Do this one task and we'll say no more about this."
Kakashi gave a short, jerky bow, and stalked out. He didn't waste any time dithering or debating. He set a course for ANBU headquarters with grim, single-minded purpose. Most people who saw him coming were wise enough to scuttle out of his way. Hatake Kakshi rarely moved with purpose. People knew something had to be up when the jonin came striding past without a book or a slouch to be seen.
He found Tenzou in the cafeteria, smiling porcelain mask resting on the table next to his plate. There were few joys in the life of ANBU. Vegetarian burgers were evidently one of Tenzou's judging by the expression on his face as he lifted one to his lips.
Kakashi slapped it out of his hands.
"Oh, not you," Tenzou sighed, upon recognising him after the initial shock had worn off. "I thought I was free of you."
"I have a job for you, and you're not going to like it."
Tenzou looked down at his spoilt meal. "I never do."
Sakura forced herself to put the scissors down. It was better to stop now before she clipped herself bald. Her hair was more or less even now, but far shorter than she'd ever had it before. It curled around the tops of her ears and left the back of her neck exposed to the air. It felt strange, but she supposed she would have to get used to it – it was her own fault for being so hasty with the scissors. She might be able to carry it off thanks to her long neck, but whatever people thought of her, it felt better. I'm not the same person. It was better that she no longer looked like she was.
Checking her watch, Sakura brushed off the last of the pink strands covering her lap and rose. She had to visit her mother and apologise for last night. She had a few stock excuses – stress at work, or depression, neither of which were total lies. And if that didn't work, Sakura could always finally break the news that she was pregnant. That would definitely distract her mother for a while.
Pulling on her coat (a flared one that was ideal for masking pregnancy bumps and shoplifting) Sakura stepped outside and began to make her way to her mother's house. It was getting on towards evening, and with winter setting in it was already dark. There was enough of a chill in the air to make Sakura pull the ends of her sleeves over her hands to keep her fingers warm, and she picked up her pace.
But she slowed as her mother's house came into sight. Most of the houses on the street had some lights on, but her mother's house was totally dark. Was she in? Sometime she spent the evenings with friends but wouldn't she have mentioned plans yesterday?
The house was silent too, she realised, when she climbed up the stairs to the porch. She rang the doorbell a few times but it echoed emptily.
"Great," she muttered quietly to herself, and poked the nearest flowerpot with her foot. The key her mother hid under there for emergencies was missing. It was just Sakura's luck that her mother had finally taken her advice that leaving keys in such obvious places wasn't a good idea. There was at least a stray flyer caught in between the twigs of her ornamental cherry bush (her mother had always had a thing for Sakura blossoms), and Sakura plucked it free and began to hunt through her pockets for a pen to leave a message on the back. It was succinct and to the point, letting her mother know that she'd been by and that she wanted to talk. It was slightly annoying to have to write it on the back of a propaganda flyer about how one might profit from having a baby. And I suppose if the flyer doesn't sway anyone, they'll just send them a scarlet scroll.
After slipping the flyer through the letterbox, she paused, feeling something tickle the periphery of her senses. Turning, she scanned the street. It was empty, but after just a few moments she caught movement. A man was standing in the shadows shy of the street light opposite, and a sliver of white revealed a mask where his face should be.
Sakura recognised him at once. She'd never seen his face but she'd had months to learn the signature of his posture and gait, and the way he had been able to make her skin crawl just by walking into the room.
She had hoped she would never have to see him again.
"Fancy seeing you here," said Jin, as if he hadn't been trying to mask his presence from her. "Almost didn't recognise you. You look like a boy now."
Sakura could no longer be provoked by such obvious goading, not when she was more concerned that she'd have to walk past him to leave. "What are you skulking around here for?" she asked, voice hard and unwelcoming.
"It's a free village," he said.
"Is it?" she sneered, descending the steps. "And it's just a coincidence that you're following me?"
"Who said I was following you?" Jin spread his hands, a mockery of affronted innocence.
Sakura liked the idea that he was staking out her mother's house even less. "What are you doing here?" she demanded again.
"Now, now. Ladies in your condition should not get so excited. It's bad for the baby."
Sakura's fists clenched within the hidden folds of her sleeves. "I had to tolerate you in Otafuku Gai, but that mission is over. But don't push me. Not here. I have no reason not to hold back and spare your life anymore, and I don't think many people would be too moved if you were found floating face down in the river tomorrow. A guy like you can't have too many friends."
Jin laughed. It was a normal enough laugh, but to Sakura's ears it was like scraping nails down a blackboard. "You're adorable. Really. Maybe it's the new hair, but I almost believe you. Aren't you going to ask me where your mother is?"
Sakura's world went very still. Her mother was just out with friends, wasn't she? Why had Jin made it sound like something had happened... "You stay away from my mother," Sakura said in a low voice.
"No problem there, sweetheart. Although I do hope you didn't have a falling out with her... that would be such a shame."
Sakura's glared ferociously. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I've really said too much," Jin chuckled and began to slouch away, blowing her an imaginary kiss from his unmoving porcelain smile.
Sakura didn't take her eyes off him until she truly believed he was leaving. She shot one last leery look at her mother's quiet house before slowly making her way home. She stuck close to the phone for the rest of the evening, calling her mother's number at intervals while knowing full well that it was perfectly reasonable not to expect an answer. If her mother had gone out with friends she wouldn't be back till late, and she would probably be tipsy and tired and likely to ignore the phone.
At half-ten, she put the receiver back in its cradle, wondering at how easily Jin had put fear back into her life. He was a true bully and a certified sociopath. She could see how he might have gotten bored and turned to playing mind games with her to amuse himself. He was probably looking to get promoted by Danzou for going above and beyond the call of duty, since his job seemed to involve making her life miserable.
Sakura decided it wasn't worth flying into a full-on panic until tomorrow. In the mean time she would have a shower and go to bed, and maybe eat the rest of that box of pastries that was supposed to be shared between at least three people.
Grabbing a fresh set of towels and her favourite nightgown from her bedroom, she shuffled through to the bathroom. The heater awoke with a snap at her coaxing, and soon the room was filled with scented steam. Short hair was much easier to wash, she decided, rubbing her soap through it. Occasionally her hand passed over her belly, but only to spread the soapy suds over her skin in a perfunctory way. It was getting harder to ignore her own body, but she would damn well try, right up until the day the contractions started most likely.
Satisfied that all kinds of dirt and stress had been washed down the plughole, Sakura turned the water off and groped for a towel. When she snapped it open to drape it around herself, something fluttered to the ground. A receipt? She picked it up listlessly, intending to screw it up and toss it in the trash can. Then she read it.
You're out of milk. You should get some more, asap.
Sakura stared at it for a good long time. She may have even voiced an audible "What?"
Towel secured around her body, Sakura stomped through her apartment to find the fridge, wrenching it open with undue animosity. She had bought a fresh pint of milk only yesterday, but now there was a rather obnoxious gap between her yoghurt cartons where it had once been. Sakura slammed the door shut again and scowled at the fridge magnets that pinned several years worth of outdated reminders and contact numbers.
Someone had been in her apartment.
Someone was also trying to tell her something.
Sakura returned to her bedroom to finish drying her hair, but instead of pulling on her nightie, she collected her clothes from the floor and began to dress herself once more.
There was only one twenty-four hour supermarket in Konoha, and it was surprisingly small, catering only to those odd emergencies when you needed a new can opener at midnight. Sakura thought grocery shopping during the day was a pretty unpleasant experience, but after hours it was worse, like she was wandering into the opening scene of a horror film or a zombie apocalypse. The supermarket was deserted. Only one very tired and very bored looking attendant was sitting at the tills, spinning in slow, dreary circles upon his chair.
Sakura would be very annoyed if she discovered she was wasting her time. With a basket hooked over her arm and set off down the aisles, heading straight for the dairy section. Each row she passed was empty, because only mad people and Sakura did their shopping at this hour. Maybe she had misunderstood the note. But then why would someone steal her milk and leave a note such as to inform her of the evil deed, and leave it in such a place that she was bound to find it at a particular time?
There was the sign for 'milk'. Sakura steeled herself and rounded the corner.
And finally she found the only other customer in the shop, standing by a row of cheeses and reading the labels very carefully. It was quite likely that he had been there for some time.
An unexpectedly fierce rush of feelings crashed through Sakura's stomach. She had mostly been avoiding this man for the last few months. She was most likely carrying his child. And he'd also probably stolen her milk. 'Fiend' was not a strong enough word to describe him.
Sakura drew up beside Kakashi, facing a line of milk bottles as if she was trying to decide which to get. "I assume there's a good reason why you're burglarising my home instead of calling me on the phone like a normal person?"
"Your house is probably bugged," said Kakashi, replacing a wheel of goat's cheese. He glance over at her, and she noticed he did a double-take at the sight of her hair.
"I wouldn't respect Danzou's intelligence if it wasn't."
"Were you followed here?" Kakashi evidently decided not to comment on her new do.
She shook her head. "I've seen Jin around, but I think I would have noticed if he had followed me here. What's this about?"
"Your mother confronted me this morning. She was asking questions about your last mission..."
Sakura looked at him sharply. "What did you tell her?"
"I couldn't tell her anything. But she'd already figured out enough on her own..." Kakashi leant his arm against a shelf of halloumi. "She knows you're pregnant. She believes you were raped, Sakura."
"But I wasn't," she blurted.
Kakashi was staring at her uncomfortably. He wasn't going to contradict her out loud, but she knew he disagreed. Maybe he was right, but she couldn't label her experiences yet, not in such strong terms. It was still too difficult to sort through. Rape was something that happened to innocent, blameless people, and Sakura wasn't sure she counted as one of them. Blameless people weren't supposed to feel so much guilt, right?
"Danzou found out," Kakashi told her. "He thought she was getting too close to the truth."
She swallowed hard. "Where is my mother, Kakashi?"
"He ordered me to kill her and hide it from you."
Her stomach dropped. "You didn't," she whispered.
Kakashi frowned and reached out to flick her forehead. "What do you take me for?" he sighed. "You're mother's going into hiding. I called you out here because I thought you'd like to say goodbye."
It was like being punched in the gut, except she might have been able to defend against a punch. "But I only spoke to her yesterday..."
"Danzou likes his leaks plugged fast."
She swallowed. "It's my fault," she whispered, biting her lip. "If I hadn't made her so angry, she wouldn't have-"
"You're not to blame yourself," Kakashi interrupted sharply. "We don't really have time for that, for a start... she's waiting for you."
"In the evacuation tunnels. The sooner she's out of here, the better."
Still reeling and blinking rapidly, Sakura nodded. "Take me to her."
The evacuation tunnels ran straight into the mountainside that encircled Konoha. Back when Pain had attacked the village, it was where the majority of the village's civilians had taken shelter. Even when the explosion hit that levelled three quarters of the village in less than a minute, the tunnels had remained intact. Thousands of lives had been saved.
Since then they'd been boarded up and sealed. With the village's growing homelessness problem, the tunnels had become an attractive shelter for squatters with no where else to go. Danzou had found that quite distasteful and quickly put a stop to it. But there were hundreds of tunnels, and the administration couldn't maintain the seals on all of them.
Kakashi led her through the backstreets, keeping to the narrowest alleys behind that houses that were lined with ancient wooden gates and filled with old bikes, weeds and territorial cats. The rocky faces of the Hokage were soon above them, looming down with intense disapproval. Plans were being made to put Danzou's face up there so he could scowl oppressively down on Konoha for the rest of creation, but it seemed a little unnecessary to Sakura. She was of the opinion that Danzou's face already looked so much like a solid slab of craggy rock , it would be difficult to distinguish it from the original mountainside.
"This way." Kakashi guided her towards the buildings that crowded the base of the rockface. Most of them were old, having barely survived the Great Invasion – barely liveable but intact enough to have been left out of the restoration. What had once been people's homes, shops, and tourist information points were now little more than dilapidated shacks slumped against the mountain like tired old men. The trees and bushes were savagely overgrown. They at least provided excellent cover to work their way between the buildings.
The tunnel entrance lay underneath one of the buildings. Before the invasion it had probably been the home of a wealthy official who liked having his own personal escape route. Now Kakashi shoved open the broken wooden shutters to beckon Sakura down into a sunken basement where no light penetrated.
"I can't see," she complained.
Wordlessly, Kakashi's hand grabbed hers in the dark and pulled her carefully across the crunchy, earthen floor till they came to a cold, clammy wall of rock.
"The entrance is here," he said, and then added dountfully, "It's pretty narrow though."
She caught the insinuation. "I'm still skinnier than you," she muttered, groping to gauge the width of the crack in the rock wall, before carefully sliding inside. Kakashi refused to release her hand, as if he was worried she would fall. Fortunately after the initial squeeze she found the tunnel had been widened and was clearly manmade. She could move freely, if at a bit of a crouch. "My mother's really through here?"
"A little ways in," he said. "Just keep following the tunnel and you'll find her."
Sakura hesitated. "You're not coming?"
"I'll guard the entrance and make sure no one followed us." Maybe he just couldn't fit through the gap. "Go to your mother."
"Ok. Thank you."
She felt his hand squeeze hers and then was released. Sakura touched a hand to a slimy wall on either side of her and began to make her way slowly, carefully, into the mountain. She moved with a detached feeling, like she still wasn't sure she believed this was all happening. I really did only speak to her last night, she thought, still half convinced that her mother was with her friend, probably sitting round someone's kitchen table with a glass of wine in one hand and a morsel of cheese in the other while she barked in laughter over someone's embarrassing anecdote. Her mother had never been part of this world of the shinobi. It wasn't possible to occupy two worlds at once, was it?
Gradually she became aware that the sounds she was hearing weren't just the faint whistle of wind through the tunnels. She could hear voices too, steadily growing louder as she neared them, and a warm light now glimmered ahead of her.
"... I just don't think the mask helps."
"Why not? Girls like mysterious men in masks."
"Sometimes. Mostly they just assume you're ugly."
"What about when you're off duty? Where do you normally meet girls?"
"At work mostly."
"Hmm. I met Sakura's father at a dance. Do you dance?"
"I've been advised against it."
"Girls like a good dancer. If you know how to move your feet, it makes them think you're good at other things too, even if you're not."
"Was Sakura's father a good dancer?"
"Oh. The best."
"Mama?" Sakura called out. Ahead of her, the light flicked and two figures stood.
"Sakura!" Warm arms and familial smell enveloped Sakura. Her mother was crying, and she was as well it seemed, and they hung tightly to one another for a long time until they finally sank to the ground, fruitlessly trying to brush away each other's tears.
"I'm so sorry," Sakura said. "I'm sorry."
"This is all my fault. If I'd just kept my mouth shut!" Her mother shook her head angrily. "You were trying to protect me but I had to go and put my foot in it!"
"No, I should have tried to talk you before... you weren't to know." Sakura looked to the blurry figure behind her mother, the one holding the lantern aloft. He wore an ANBU mask, but wasn't from the Root division. "Captain Yamato?"
"He's been so kind and patient, trying to explain things to me," said her mother. "I'm afraid I don't think I'll ever understand entirely, but I appreciate the risk he's taking."
"It's no problem, ma'am," he said, somewhat bashfully. "You two will want to say your goodbyes... I'm going to scout the tunnels ahead. I'll be back when I'm sure the path is clear."
"Thank you," Sakura called to him softly as he departed, leaving the lantern behind.
Her mother sat back with a tremulous sigh. "Oh, Sakura..." she said, clutching her daughter's hands tightly in her own. There was too much to say and ask, and not enough answers or time. How did they even start this conversation?
"I really stepped in it this time, didn't I?" her mother joked weakly. "Remember when I said the neighbour's new baby looked like a frog and he overheard? I thought that was bad. At least now I don't have to see him again. And I guess I don't have to pay off the mortgage anymore."
"...bright side to everything," Sakura whispered, trying to smile too but her mortification was still too fresh. "Mama, I'm so sorry."
"I knew Danzou was a sorry replacement for Tsunade-sama, but I never thought such men could exist in this day and age..." Her mother lifted her hands to cradle her daughter's cheeks. "What are you wrapped up in, Sakura? What did he make you do?"
Sakura couldn't answer.
"It's ok, I know you can't tell me much." The older Haruno rubbed her thumbs across Sakura's wet cheeks "A mother should be able to protect her child and I've failed you so badly. I shouldn't be leaving you like this..."
She knew what her mother was referring to. "I wanted to tell you. But I was such a coward, I didn't know how or when, and I waited too long," she whispered, her voice breaking as she dashed her sleeve against her runny nose. "What I am supposed to do without you, Mama? I can't deal with this on my own."
Her mother hugged her fiercely. "You won't be alone as long as you don't want to be alone. You have friends who care for you, you just have to let them. You have to put the bad things behind you," she said, placing a warm hand against the gentle curve of Sakura's stomach. "You can't let them rule your life from the past, and whatever this vile man did to you... you are the parent of this child, not him. That's all that matters."
"No, Mama," Sakura said heavily, drawing back. "There was a man, but he's not the father."
Her mother's eyes searched her face.
Sakura's mouth worked, but the words wouldn't come, as if a snake was coiled around her throat and tongue, constricting her voice. All she could say safely was, "He's a good man."
She saw her mother's eyes tighten ever so fractionally and dart past Sakura briefly as she calculating exactly how many 'good men' she knew had been on that mission with Sakura.
She was a smart woman.
"You'll be ok," she said softly. "I know you will, because you're my daughter, and Haruno women are all as stubborn as each other."
"Where are you going to go?" Sakura asked her.
"Dear Tenzou says he's going to build me a house somewhere nice and far away and out of mind, probably near some other town. I don't want him to go to too much trouble, but he says it's no problem. He's a very agreeable young man, though rather unlucky in love it sounds."
"I wish I could go with you," Sakura said faintly.
"Why don't you?"
"Danzou wants you to disappear, and that's why you'll be able to... but he has plans for me. He wouldn't let me go so easily."
Her mother nodded sadly. "Don't lose hope, Sakura. Things will change... Naruto will come back, you'll see, and he'll bring an army with him."
"He'll need to."
Footsteps along the tunnel alerted them to Tenzou's return. Sakura's heart squeezed in her chest. It was too soon. She hadn't had enough time.
"The way's clear," he said, picking up the lantern. "We should go now while we have the chance."
Sakura fretfully hugged her mother for the final time.
"We'll see each other again soon, Sakura. I fully intend to see my first grandchild. Not even Danzou can deprive me of that right."
"Of course," Sakura sniffed. "I'll miss you."
"I'll think of you every day." Her mother was trying to smile but failing badly. "I love you."
Sakura nodded, unable to trust that she could open her mouth without sobbing. Tenzou touched a hand to her mother's shoulder, gently urging her to follow him. Her mother turned back to look at her many times, but soon the curves and dips of the tunnel took her from sight, and the light faded soon after.
Sakura took several minutes to compose herself before heading slowly back up the tunnel to where Kakashi was waiting. He needlessly helped her through the entrance once more and led her out of the basement. Out in the open air again, Sakura took a deep breath, inhaling the cold, crisp smell of the night. She looked up and saw the stars peaking through the gaps in the clouds and suddenly she was too tired to move. In the nest of ivy at the base of the mountain, she sat down.
"It's done then?" Kakashi asked.
"It's done," she agreed quietly, watching the heavens shift overhead. "How did you do it?"
"It's not hard to fake a death," he said. "I made sure Jin was following me. I visited your mother, put sedative in her tea, took her 'body' to the graveyard with Tenzou and had him bury her. He's good at shifting earth... good at making impromptu underground bunkers and tunnels. I think your mother was a bit shocked at waking up underground, but I had a clone down there with her to explain things. It can't be easy for her, especially without knowing half of what's going on, but she was very cooperative. She's in good hands with Tenzou."
Sakura turned her gaze to his. "Fooling Jin is easy enough, but I don't think Danzou will be fooled for a second. He'll know you didn't do it."
He nodded grimly. "Probably."
"If he wants to, he'll find her and he'll kill her. She's not safe, Kakashi, but I couldn't tell her that..."
Kakashi moved to sit down in the ivy beside her. He found her hand and covered it lightly with his larger, warmer one. "It's not about her Sakura, you know that. Danzou's only interested in punishing you and me, but he won't push too hard. He doesn't gain much by turning your mother into a martyr. This is probably his idea of a warning."
"You seem sure," she observed.
"Danzou's ruthless and his methods have always been questionably extreme, but he's not one to throw away his advantages out of vindictive spite. From his point of view, your mother is more valuable alive. Now he can hold her life over your head to ensure your cooperation, because now you know what's at stake." Kakashi craned his head to look up at the stars as well. "It's what I would do... if I was tyrannical despot."
"You say that, but I remember when you used to push twelve year olds into freezing rivers to teach them how to swim," she pointed out.
He shrugged. "You learned how to swim, didn't you?"
She snorted and fell silent, feeling some of the tension ease from her stiff shoulders. "I hope Danzou's as clever as you think he is."
Kakashi gave a bemused sort of laugh. "Strange thing to hope for, but yeah..." He gave her hand one last squeeze and climbed to his feet. "Come on. It's cold and you need to get home, and I'm sixty percent sure we're sitting in poison ivy."
Sakura rolled to her knees and rose, patting down her coat.
"Do you want me to walk you back?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes. "I think I can be trusted to remember where I live," she reminded him.
"Ok," he said backing off. "Don't worry about your mother. Tenzou will take care of her, and once things settle down we'll figure out ways you can visit her."
"Sure," she said quietly.
"And I like your hair."
It took Sakura a moment to register what he'd said. For the first time she felt self-conscious, and lifted a hand to touch her shorn locks. "Thank you," she said, even quieter than before.
He couldn't possibly have seen her blush in this darkness, but he seemed to sense her embarrassment nevertheless and quickly backed off. "I'll see you around, Sakura."
Maybe in another three months, she thought, if their current level of contact was anything to go by.
An awkward moment followed, as if neither were sure quite how to say goodbye. A handshake was too formal for two people having a child together but a hug was far too intimate for a pair who had barely spoken for so long. No one had thought to invent social rules for people like them, which was rather inconsiderate.
"Good bye, Kakashi." They settled on a awkward wave and went their separate ways. He would return to Kimiko, no doubt, who would remain ignorant that her lover was an expecting father, and Sakura would return to her empty apartment and figure out how she was supposed to cope with this new mother-shaped hole in her life.