Some of you thought the last chapter was the end. You think I'd leave it there without loads of KakaSaku goodness? XD

This story was published two years ago today! Thank you everyone for sticking with me. This is my personal favorite of all my fics, and I'm really grateful for all the support and encouragement. Enjoy the conclusion!

Will of Fire

Chapter Twenty-six: And So We Begin Anew


The night was balmy and clear. Music drifted through the air from somewhere not too distant, a lively drum-heavy tempo meant for dancing and losing yourself. Beginning tomorrow, and for several days afterward, the Konoha memorial grounds would be active and crowded as public and private services were held to honor those who had been lost.

But tonight, the cemetery was dark and peaceful as Sakura and Shizune knelt before the grave of their beloved mentor.

The Hokage of Konoha had their own monument within the memorial grounds: a monolithic curling flame carved from a single block of red granite: a symbol of their office, and a representation of the Will of Fire. Five headstones were evenly spaced before the towering statue. The two apprentices sat quietly together in front of the newest. Danzou had been responsible for Tsunade's death, but even he wasn't foolish enough to refuse her rightful place among the honored past leaders of Hidden Leaf. A place he himself would be denied.

They hadn't talked much since meeting here, for they already knew what the other was feeling and thinking. I wish she was here. I miss her. She would be proud of us. Those things didn't need to be said. They lit incense and each laid a handful of Tsunade's favorite flowers at her headstone, and pulled out a bottle of the finest sake on the market, which they had personally taken from Danzou's private reserve. They poured each other a drink, and then poured one for the woman who had taught them so much about life – including how to handle their liquor.

They sat quietly for a while, cried a little, remembered a lot, and shared a few more drinks before Shizune left to find her husband. There was a time to honor death, but also a time to celebrate life.

Sakura wandered to the other side of the grounds, heading toward the memorial stone for no specific reason other than it felt right to dwell here in the serene shadows a little while longer. The Konoha burial ground was unlike other cemeteries in other places. Instead of a wide stretch of open grass, it was abundant with trees that shaded the grave markers and cradled the remains of the departed between their roots. Foreigners might think it odd, but the people who lived here understood. They were the village hidden in the leaves, and it was among the forest that they were most at home.

In time she would visit Ino as well, but tonight she had no more capacity for sorrow. Being home again filled everyone with joy, but for many, it also brought back a lot of painful memories.

In no hurry, she strayed off the path and took her time padding silently beneath the softly sighing boughs of oaks and elms. She thought about the memorial stone itself and what it meant to the shinobi of the Leaf. Many new names would be carved there, and for the first time some of them would be her friends. But not the last.

Sakura was a shinobi; she wasn't naïve enough to think she would never see war again. Maybe Naruto and the Alliance would truly make a difference, but while things could change for the better and measures of peace could be achieved, some truths were inescapable. No matter how revolutionary they were, the very nature of their existence – the necessity for shinobi in the world – meant there would never truly be an end to conflict.

But even if war did come again, as long as Sakura had the people she loved beside her she could face anything.

They would all need to rely on each other for strength in the weeks and months ahead. The first steps were already being taken to restore order to Konoha. There would be trials, and justice would be administered. Old teams had to be reunited and reassigned. Hundreds of jobs had to be reinstated. Draconian laws established by Danzou had to be overturned, and old laws had to be put back into place. New laws would be written as well, for they now had a perfect opportunity to overhaul the old archaic system, to do away with the loopholes and corruptions that led to shameful secrets like Jinchuuriki and clan massacres and the existence of Root.

Sakura came within sight of the memorial stone, and once again spotted a familiar blot of white hair against the pale darkness. A smile curled her lips. She should have known he would be here. They were more alike in some ways than she had ever realized.

Vivid memories rushed back to her of another time she came upon him here, not on a still autumn night with the crickets chirruping around them, but in the freezing winter rain. That was the night he had let her into his apartment, and into his heart. That was the night she started to fall in love with him.

This time he knew she was there, and as she came up beside him he reached for her hand and laced their fingers together. Such a small gesture, yet it held a world of meaning. Sakura gently squeezed his hand. He appeared to have been here a while, but he didn't have that hollow melancholy look she'd seen before. He seemed pensive. They stood without speaking for several moments.

"I was just having a talk with some old friends," he said finally, glancing down at her.

She gazed up at him. "And what are they saying?"

He looked at the stone again, sighing softly. It was a sound of coming to terms with something, and of letting go. "They would have liked you. And they would definitely say it's time to move on."

Sakura smiled and leaned her head against his arm, curled her free hand around his elbow. They stayed like that for a while, no need to speak, content to just be.

Eventually Kakashi turned to her. "What are you doing now?"

She shrugged indecisively. "I was thinking of finding a place to crash for the night. I went by my house earlier, but it's not exactly habitable at the moment. The inns are already full. People have been opening their homes to anyone who needs a place to stay, but I just don't feel very social." She shook her head, unable to fully identify what she was feeling. "I'm so happy, but at the same time…you know?"

Kakashi nodded. "I do."

Of course he did. "Anyway, I don't feel right about squatting in an empty house either, so I'm still trying to figure it out."

Kakashi didn't know whether to take it as a sign that she didn't ask about his apartment. Not that it was even possible. Though she hadn't asked, he offered the information anyway. "I went by my place earlier too, and saw a light on. I think someone else is living there."

Sakura looked chagrined, but not surprised. "Did you talk to your landlord?"

"It's too late tonight."

She nodded resignedly. It had happened to a lot of people. "Apparently my parents were paying the property taxes in my absence, so it couldn't be sold out from under them," she explained. "I guess I'm lucky I still have a place to go home to."

"What about the Hokage Tower for the night?" he suggested.

She dismissed it immediately. "It's crawling with the VIPs and everyone else, and even if I was left alone – which I wouldn't be – I doubt I'd get much rest. I'm kind of trying to find somewhere to…"


She looked sheepish. "Yeah. Just for a few hours. Is that bad?"

"Not at all. I do it all the time." He smiled beatifically.

She gave him a playful swat. "No kidding."

He thought for a moment. "The auxiliary building, then?"

Sakura knew which one he meant: the small administrative adjunct next to the Hokage Tower where part of the archive was stored. The building was also used as a sort of boardinghouse for foreign visitors of lesser importance – messengers, trade merchants, minor officials. Not many people would think of it as they searched for a resting place tonight, and even fewer would think to look for her there. "That's a good idea."

When she turned to go Kakashi went with her. She expected him to, but even if she hadn't he would have followed. He didn't want to be away from her. "I should tell you," he said as they walked, "that Shiko is being pampered to a ridiculous degree by the entire pack."

Sakura laughed softly. "Is that so?" She'd sent Shiko home several hours ago to rest and recuperate. "I know it's her first war wound and all, but she's not even injured anymore. Just sore."

"Apparently it doesn't matter," he said wryly. "Any excuse to dote on her."

"She's opening up, learning to trust. It's a good thing."

"I never said it wasn't. But if my ninken turn into a bunch of sentimental pushovers I'm holding you responsible."

Sakura just smiled and bumped her shoulder against his. She wanted to keep holding his hand, but she knew gratuitous PDAs were never going to be a thing with them. She was discovering that in a way, it was almost better; they could store up all their affection to unleash when they were in private.

The streets were nearly as quiet as the memorial grounds, until they came near the Hokage Tower. As Sakura predicted, hundreds of people were swarming around and inside it, celebrating. For a moment she felt sorry for Naruto; the new Hokage wouldn't get a moment's rest tonight. Or tomorrow.

They put their stealth skills to good use getting around the reveling crowds unnoticed, and slipped into the auxiliary building. Neither of them had ever had reason to come in here before, but they made a guess and headed upstairs, and eventually found the boarding rooms. The doors were locked, but that was easily remedied. The quarters were tiny and spare, with only a single bed, nightstand, and writing desk for furnishing. Too tired to be picky, Sakura settled for the first one she found.

She took a couple steps inside, then paused and turned to Kakashi. "Do you want to stay with me?"

It might have seemed like an obvious question, but they both understood that despite the whirlwind of events and emotions that had carried them through the past twenty-four hours to this moment, things between them were not perfect. They stood on a threshold in more ways than one. For a moment he had hesitated, unsure of his place. Now she was offering that reassurance.

Kakashi smiled. "Can't think of anything I want more." He followed her inside, closed and locked the door. Then he gathered her into his arms.

She eased his mask down and they shared a slow, lingering kiss. For the first time in a while, they weren't reacting to a traumatic event or impending danger. It was a kiss of feeling, pure and simple, and it conveyed several things all at once. I missed you. I'm glad you're here, glad we're together. I love you. I'm sorry.

Unfortunately they were both too exhausted to be stirred much by passion. Kakashi released her and stepped away to remove his gear. Sakura simply unzipped her outer shirt, spun and flopped on the bed in a single motion. She kicked her boots off while she watched him strip down to his pants and undershirt. They'd both had a chance to clean up after the battle, but she hadn't bothered to put back on all the extra tactical gear. She wondered why he had. Old habits, maybe?

She grew impatient, and playfully said, "Get over here."

He gave her an uneven smile that sent little flutters through her. Would he always be able to do that? She hoped so. He did as commanded and sank down onto the bed with her, climbing over her to take the space next to the wall because he knew she didn't like being boxed in. It was a tiny bed, only meant for one adult, and it was a tight fit for the both of them. It didn't matter though; they would have cuddled up the same way on a king-sized. Sakura lay against him, nestled comfortably in the curve of his arm, angled slightly so she could look at him if she wanted. His hand rested lightly against her hair, the other hand over hers on his chest. She felt the faint pulse of his heartbeat under her fingertips.

Finally relaxing after such a tumultuous day brought an almost physical sense of release. It seemed they might just fall asleep, but after several minutes Sakura broke the silence. "This feels almost surreal," she mused. "We're actually in Konoha right now. We're home." She sighed. "I'm so glad it's over."

"Mm," he agreed. "But the hard part's just beginning."

She glanced at him. "You think reconstruction will be harder than the war?"

"Not in the blood-and-pain sense, but it will. I've lived through it before."

She thought about everything they had been through, and everything still to come. Then she said, "That's another thing; we're so lucky, the five of us. So lucky we all made it through this together. The only one of us who didn't nearly die at least once in the past three years is Naruto."

"Hm," he murmured, considering. "Maybe curses can be broken."

"I told you, you're not cursed." She inched her way up to kiss his jaw. If there was ever a curse upon him it was of his own making. And for the first time since they'd acknowledged their feelings for each other, he seemed like he might finally be ready to break it.

"Why did we keep it a secret?" she asked after a moment.

Kakashi knew what she meant. "We didn't," he said frankly. "Everyone knew."

"Yes…but not through any admission of ours."

"You tell me," he said mildly. "You're the one who wouldn't even do your own sneaking at night."

That gave her pause. She'd never thought about it that way, but it was true. He had always come to her. "Well…" she said slowly, searching for a reason. "I was just being discreet. People like to gossip, especially in small communities."

"It's the same for me," he said simply. "I've never been inclined to advertise my personal life, and I don't intend to start, even now. But I wasn't trying to hide us." He looked down at her, and laced his fingers with hers on his chest. "I was afraid of hurting you. Certain of hurting you. And I did… So I felt guilt, and regret, and a good deal of self-loathing…but never shame."

She was glad they were talking about this, but she didn't want to get too heavy. She couldn't handle any more heavy tonight. So she kept her tone playful as she said, "Even though us being together is potentially quite…scandalous?"

Three years ago they could never have happened. It was only their specific circumstances that allowed for it. He wasn't really her superior now, and for all the five of them talked about and considered themselves teammates, they hadn't truly worked as a single team in years. No one had a problem with Kakashi and Sakura together because they were at war, and in war solace is often found in unexpected places. Their peers in the rebel camp had gotten used to it, and most were quite supportive. But now that they were home, it would be brow-raising news to many.

He gave her a funny look. "Sakura. I read porn in public. Do you really think I care about the rumor mill?"

"I hope not, because I've heard all sorts of things over the years," she teased. "I've heard you've banged almost every woman in the village, and that you're gay. I've heard you wear a mask because you're the hottest guy in Konoha, and because you're the ugliest. I've also heard—"

He lightly pushed her head down to stop her. "I get it," he said dryly. Her giggle was muffled against his shoulder, and he glanced down at the top of her head with a raised eyebrow. "Banged?"

Sakura nodded. "Banged."

Kakashi had to laugh. They fell quiet again, and he stared up at the ceiling, slowly twirled a strand of pink hair around his finger. The major conflict in their relationship had always been his fear and reluctance to let her get close, but he knew he wasn't the only one who'd had doubts. Sakura had her own issues with intimacy that they'd never talked about. He had theories, but he didn't like to ask about personal things – an effect of not liking to be questioned himself. They implicitly trusted each other with their lives, yet neither had been able to let their deeper vulnerabilities show. "What about you?" he asked quietly, hesitantly. "You had reservations too…"

"I did," she admitted. "I was afraid my attraction to you was based on something other than real feelings, something…misplaced." She smiled ruefully. "Because I've done that before. And because the last time I…well, do I really need to say anything other than 'Sasuke'?" He made a sound of less-than-amused understanding. She was surprised he would want to talk about this. She'd never seen him more open than he was tonight. He deserved her openness too. "Most of the time I was blissfully happy, happier than I should have been, given what was going on around us…and the rest I felt like a fool for wanting more than I thought you could give." She reached up and gently touched his face. "You said you felt guilt and regret…did you ever feel good about us?"

His face was full of contrition; regret that he had ever made her doubt that. "Of course I did. I do." He kissed her forehead, and remained with his cheek against her hair as he said, "You make me happy, Sakura. I know that sounds trite…but I don't think I've been truly happy since before my father died."

Her eyes widened, surprised and sad. "You were just a child…" How truly awful his childhood had been. Moral issues regarding child soldiers aside, before he was even ten years old he'd endured his mother's illness and prolonged death, his family's disgrace, the scorn of the village, his father's suicide. She wondered if he started wearing the mask just so the world couldn't see his pain. She nuzzled against him reflexively.

"I was," he acknowledged quietly. "And in order to cope I grew up too fast and became the youngest workaholic ever. I detached myself so completely that I didn't even realize how much was missing, until you made me want it."

Sakura didn't respond for several moments. When she finally looked up at him her eyes were glistening. "You're going to make me cry."

He smiled tentatively, twined his fingers in her hair. "Happy tears, I hope?"

Sakura nodded, "Yes," and gave him a beaming smile to prove it.

"Good," he said, and leaned in to kiss her.


They were both too important to hide for long, and were woken far too early in the morning by a strange repetitive thumping against the door, half knock and half scratch. They had a pretty good idea what it was, and Sakura grumpily jerked the door open ready to step on the bothersome toad. Keeping in mind the thing about not killing the messenger, she told it they would be there shortly and shut the door before it could speak.

To say they had a busy day ahead would be a gross understatement. So much had happened already it seemed impossible that it had only been twenty-four hours since they'd retaken Konoha.

First was a long, multi-issued meeting with the Hokage, during which Naruto named Kakashi and Sakura both to be part of his new council, along with Shikamaru and his father. As members of ANBU, Sai and Tenzou were assigned as the Rokudaime's personal bodyguards. No one seemed to mind the strategic placement of his teammates and closest friends around himself. They had all proven they were more than capable in their new roles.

Team Kakashi was officially no more, but it didn't matter. The bonds the five of them had formed went beyond all titles and assignments. They would always have each other's backs, no matter what. They would always be a team.

When the meeting was over, their game plan for recovery fully fleshed out, Sakura headed to the hospital where several dozen patients still needed care. For Kakashi it was the trials at the Jounin HQ. With a discreet kiss and a promise to meet up when they had a chance, they left for their separate duties.

Naruto called a two-hour recess from the trials in order to attend to other equally important – but hopefully not equally head-straining – official Hokage business.

First he met with Nara Shikaku and the leadership of the insurgency. The members of the Konoha resistance were all to be given public commendation, once the trials were over. That one was easy.

The next, he expected wouldn't be quite so pleasant. When the selected representatives of the Hyuuga clan entered his office, he was a little surprised to see Hinata among them, but knew he shouldn't be. She was a Hyuuga too, and a very high-ranking one. The highest ranking, if one considered noble status as well as blood – and the Hyuuga did. Neji and Hanabi were beside her. They were all technically disinherited, but with Hiashi and the old power structure gone, the leadership of the clan was uncertain. There were three branch house elders as well, standing in a neat and deferential row behind them.

As soon as the ANBU guards closed the doors, before Naruto could even speak or stand from his desk or do anything, all six of them sank to their knees and touched their foreheads to the floor in supplication. The ceremonial, highly formal act stunned him. He understood it was a symbolic display of contrition and fealty, but seeing people he considered friends – and more, in Hinata's case – prostrate themselves before him like servants made him uncomfortably aware of his new power. He would never get used to this bowing thing, but it would never fully stop no matter how informal a leader he tried to be. He realized then that while his closest friends would always be close, his more casual relationships were altered forever.

He came around the desk, awkward in the official robes they'd made him wear for the trials, and just stood there looking at them, uncertain what to do next.

"Hokage-sama," Neji said. "On behalf of all the Hyuuga, we humbly beg forgiveness for the collective actions and inactions of our clan, and for supporting, through collaboration and later through silence, the reign of the usurper, Danzou. We acknowledge our treason with great shame, and submit ourselves to your judgment. We gladly offer penance in whatever manner you deem fit, up to and including our deaths."

"Uh…" What he really wanted to say was 'whoa,' or 'holy crap,' but he knew that would be completely inappropriate. No one had explained to him how to do all this archaic formal stuff, especially about matters so serious. Deaths? The idea was so crazy he almost laughed. Penance? What was he supposed to make them do? Disband? Pay fines? Offer up their firstborn? The whole thing felt so weird and unnatural to him that he decided to do what he always did – go with what felt right.

He shook his head. "I'm not going to punish a hundred people who were put in a terrible position – torn between loyalty to your clan and loyalty to your village. A choice between obedience and death is no choice at all, especially when families and loved ones are at stake. That doesn't mean what the Hyuuga clan did is okay," he said sternly. "But the ones in charge at the time are being dealt with, and I'm sure I'll figure out some kind of 'penance' or whatever for the rest of you later. Right now I just want you to get off the floor. C'mon, get up."

They did, and Hinata met his eyes with a loving smile. "Thank you, Hokage-sama. We are truly grateful." It seemed they weren't finished with the formal stuff. "We would also like to take this opportunity to make an official announcement."

The Hyuuga were full of surprises today.

"Oh?" He looked between Hinata and Neji with genuine curiosity. "What?"

The cousins smiled at each other, and Hinata said, "Neji and I have decided to share leadership of the clan."

Naruto's eyes widened. Once or twice before when they were alone, Hinata had talked about her status as renounced heiress, about her ambivalence toward her birthright. She was torn between being relieved to lose the responsibility, and a sense of concern for the future of her family. "I thought you didn't want to, uh…" He trailed off, feeling guilty for calling her out in front of her clan, though they probably already knew.

Hinata just smiled. "Three years ago I was glad when the inheritance passed to Neji," she admitted. "I was relieved, because my whole life I feared I was too weak, in every way, to ever lead anyone. But now I understand that power isn't the only necessary quality in a leader—we all learned that lesson under Danzou. I know who I am now, and what I'm capable of. I'm not afraid anymore. Most of all I want the Hyuuga clan to thrive. I want to be a part of that."

Naruto looked at her and smiled. So confident, and radiant, and beautiful…he didn't think he'd ever loved her more than in this moment. He saw the strong, amazing woman she would be—was already becoming. The woman he wanted to spend forever with.

He almost forgot the others were there. And they knew it. Hanabi cleared her throat softly, snapping him back into the moment.

"That's awesome," he said almost sheepishly. "Does that mean you're going to lead the main house, and Neji the branch house, or whatever?"

"No," Neji answered, smiling proudly. "Hinata and I have a different vision for the future of the Hyuuga clan. We're going to unify the houses. The curse on the branch house will be undone, and no child will ever be marked with it again. From now on there will be one Hyuuga clan. One family, all equal in status and dignity."

Naruto grinned broadly, and nodded his approval. "That's the best thing I've heard all day."

Kakashi and Sakura saw each other a couple times that day, but never had more than a few moments to talk, and mostly about business. That night, Sakura worked so late that she ended up sleeping at the hospital, on the couch in the Director's office; once Tsunade's, now shared between her and Shizune. They'd decided a long time ago that when it came to the medical management of the Konoha military, they worked better – and had less stress – as partners. This way they could go on missions if they wanted, have days off, even take vacations. Shizune was already planning a proper honeymoon.

The trials continued all the next day, and so did the rest of the 'clean up' work. Sakura was finishing her share of the medical and administrative work at the hospital around midday, when Sai knocked on the partly open door.

"Sakura?" He pushed it open and came in.

"Hey," she greeted cheerfully, glad to see him, and glad to have a distraction.

"Do you have some time?"

"Sure." He took a seat on the same couch she'd slept on, and she got up from her desk to join him. "Everything alright?"

He smiled. "Everything's great."

Sakura knew that smile, and slyly asked, "How's Hanabi?"

"I haven't seen her today; she's still dealing with clan business. But…" The look on his face was worth a hundred adjectives in describing what he thought about the girl he'd unexpectedly fallen for. "We had sex."

Sakura should have been taken aback by the blunt announcement. But this was Sai. She just laughed.

"It was the night before the battle," he explained unprompted. "She said she didn't want to die a virgin. That's a thing with people, isn't it? I didn't really know what the big deal was…" He smiled in a very telling way. "But now I get it."

Undoubtedly, just about everyone who could find a warm body had had sex the night before the battle. With a swell of feeling in her chest she recalled her own frantic grasp at life and love with Kakashi in those final hours. But just because Sai's story wasn't unique didn't mean it wasn't exceptional. The first time with someone you love is always special – the first time ever, even more so.

She gave him a heartfelt smile. "That's great. I'm really happy for you."

"You seem really happy, in general," Sai observed, studying her face. He drew what he hoped was the obvious conclusion. "Are you and Kakashi back together?"

Her smile softened, and she nodded. "Yeah, I think so."

"Good. You were making us crazy."

She frowned indignantly. "It's our love life, not yours."

He shrugged. "Yes, but we have to live with both of you. Try not to break up again."

Sakura had to laugh. "I'll do my best."

"I didn't actually come here to talk about relationships," he said after a moment.

"I didn't figure you had," she said evenly. "That would be odd, even for you. What's up?"

"I have an idea, and I want your help." He paused, considering how to say what he was thinking. "Would you say I'm a…success story? In the way I recovered from being Root?"

She started in surprise. "Of course! From how you were when you first joined us, to now…it's amazing. I don't think any of us have ever said it, but we're really proud of you."

Sai gave a small, grateful smile. "Thanks. I've tried really hard."

She nodded. "We know."

"I made all that progress because I really wanted to," he explained. "Because I experienced how it could be different. Becoming part of Team Kakashi, I gained a frame of reference I would never have had otherwise. I wasn't able to talk about it before, but the seal…it blocked more than my mouth."

With Danzou's death, the seal on Sai's tongue had vanished. Of course with Danzou and Root gone, all the information he had was more or less useless in retrospect. The seal had worked exactly as it was intended to.

"How do you mean?" she asked, wildly curious. After five years of being teammates and growing close to him, there were still things about Sai they didn't know, still parts of him that were a mystery due to his inability to talk about his past. Now that things had changed, she was eager to learn whatever he was willing to share.

He angled himself to face her, his brow furrowed in thought. "This is hard to explain…" A long moment passed before he finally began. "My loyalty to Root was strong, I would even say intrinsic. In fact that's exactly what it was. But the connection with you guys must have been stronger. I must have wanted those bonds more, once I realized what they were. I turned against Root, and I fought against Danzou these past three years because of what I built with you guys, and because of what he was doing to people I care about. But the truth is, all this time, I haven't been able to completely…detach from the ideals I know were programmed into me. Not until he was dead."

He breathed in and let it out slowly. Sakura could see he was worried his confession would offend or distance her. She laid her hand on his knee and smiled reassuringly. "It wasn't something you could control." She couldn't imagine how hard this whole ordeal had been for him psychologically.

Sai still frowned as he continued, as if it was a struggle to connect the pieces of his thinking together, or maybe just to express it out loud. "The hatred I developed for Danzou, finally realizing everything he did to me…that came later. Once I was far away from his influence. And now that the seal is broken, all these emotions are surfacing and I don't just feel angry…I feel sad. I feel like something was stolen from me. I feel…violated. And that's what got me thinking; I can't be the only one."

Sakura looked at him thoughtfully. "You think the same thing could be happening with the others."

The subdivision of ANBU known as Root no longer existed, but a dozen or so agents still lived and were being held in prison cells until Naruto could figure out what to do with them. They were the ones who didn't throw themselves on the figurative fire and fight for the dead tyrant who brainwashed them until they, too, were killed.

"There's something about those guys," he said, "something inside them that broke through their conditioning, some part of them that was strong enough to question. Maybe there's hope for them, like there was for me."

The ardent note in his voice and the look in his eyes told her he had made this his personal cause. Sakura supported him wholeheartedly. She believed he was likely right about those unfortunate men who, when all the fighting was done, were really no different than Sai had once been. Sai was a good person, a brave and loyal friend, and she loved him. He was human, and so were they. He couldn't be the only one worth saving.

"I'll do whatever I can to help you," she promised. "And I know Naruto will be on board too. How do you want to do this?"

He smiled happily. "Well, I'd like to meet with them first. I think the right place to start is just getting them to talk."

Sakura nodded eagerly. No one could explain the possibilities of rehabilitation better. No one understood exactly what they were going through like he did. Over the next half hour they laid plans for an initiative to stabilize, heal, and reintegrate those Root agents who wanted a chance at a normal life.

Afterward they went out and had lunch together, though not at Ichiraku; Naruto would be crushed if they went without him. That would be a team date once they all had a chance to get together.


After she and Sai parted ways, Sakura had an unexpected reunion when she ran into Touga and his long-lost uncle Jinbei. She was even more surprised to see Mochi and the wispy old cook from the Hub, and outright shocked to see the two little kids she and Shizune had helped out in Busan.

Apparently the kids, whose names were Jin and Mika, had followed Sakura and Shizune back to the Hub and lurked around the area, but the medics had left with Kakashi before they worked up the courage to come inside. They asked for jobs, and quickly received them. Children often make the best information gatherers, because they're considered harmless and largely ignored. Shortly after that the Hub was raided by Root and burned down. Mochi and the old cook had looked after the kids while Touga went to do what he could to get Jinbei back. They had been living in a small farming town a few miles outside Konoha, posing as an older couple and their orphaned grandkids. Touga contacted them when he and Sentoki came to warn the insurgents.

Sakura sat and talked to them for a while. Her reunion with Jinbei was warm and jovial. With Touga…they managed to just skirt around the edge of awkward. She no longer distrusted him, as he had proved himself in the end, but their history made things complicated.

It was a little bizarre having all the people from the Hub here in Konoha, but not unwelcome. In fact she felt an odd sense of fond nostalgia for her time in Busan. For half a year she and Shizune had almost been like part of a quirky little family. Watching them all interact, she realized they were a family; and odd mashup of people from mysterious backgrounds who had forged something meaningful together. Little Jin and Mika would grow up happy, even loved.

They told her they were leaving first thing in the morning, heading back to Busan to rebuild the Hub. She probably wouldn't see them before then. If she ever needed anything, they said, she had only to ask. The Hub made a business of being neutral…but no one could blame them for leaning a little in Konoha's direction from now on.

Jinbei crushed her in a burly hug, and the kids teamed up in an effort to do the same. Touga shook her hand, then decided that wasn't good enough and kissed her on the cheek. She accepted it with a smile, and they parted as friends.

That afternoon, everyone gathered at the gates to say goodbye to their foreign allies and the monks of the Fire Temple as they prepared to return home.

Naruto profusely thanked Sentoki and the other monks for everything they had done to help the rebels, and asked them to convey his and Konoha's gratitude to the Abbot, Hozo Inei. He promised if there was ever anything they needed from the Leaf, anything at all, they had it.

Then he went to talk to the foreign emissaries. The two Kages stood together with the proxies from Mist and Cloud, and another obligatory round of thanks and congratulations was exchanged, followed by promises of continued friendship and alliance. They made plans to officially arrange another Kage Summit, during which the treaty between the five nations would be strengthened and re-signed in recognition of the new Hokage.

Killerbee and Naruto once again executed the elaborate handshake they'd come up with years ago during their bijuu training together, and finished off with a brotherly hug. Naruto was a little disappointed to see him go so soon, but knew they would meet again.

It was much more difficult to say goodbye to the first jinchuuriki he'd befriended, what seemed like a lifetime ago. It was really, for both of them. When the others had gone Naruto turned to Gaara, and they shared a look of mutual understanding. They didn't see each other often enough, and because of their responsibilities they never would.

"I wish you could stay longer," Naruto said wistfully.

Gaara nodded. "So do I. But I have a feeling we will see lot more of each other from now on, for multiple reasons." Sand and Leaf had a rock-solid partnership, and would be doing a lot of trade and exchanges, both militarily and economically, in the near future. A hundred Sand nin would stay on for another month, to help bolster their defenses. They weren't expecting trouble, but the civil war that ended in a significant loss of Konoha's fighting strength with the annihilation of Root had left them temporarily weak and unstable. It didn't hurt to take extra precautions.

There was also the little matter of their star-crossed lovers. They both looked over at them now. Temari was staying for a while, under the official pretense of overseeing the remaining Sand contingent. Naruto didn't know if Gaara had given permission, or simply resigned himself to his sister's insistence.

"Yeah…" Naruto said, acknowledging their mutual dilemma. "What are we gonna do about that?"

"I wonder," Gaara answered. "Aside from being my sister, Temari is one of my main advisors. She is indispensable."

"So is Shikamaru to me."

"They want to get married."

Naruto nodded. "I know. But I'm not going to make it a problem for them just because it's inconvenient."

"Nor I," Gaara agreed. "As I said, she's my sister. I want her to be happy."

They stood there for a minute, silently trying to come up with a solution that worked for everyone.

Finally, Naruto said, "We could share them."

Gaara looked at him. "Like half the year in each place?"

"Maybe. Why not?" He grinned, liking his idea more every second.

The Kazekage nodded thoughtfully. "With constant communication between our villages, it could work. However, it is a very long way to travel. It would be a risk to their lives. And if they ever have children…"

"Crap, that's true," Naruto sighed. "I wish there was a way to make it less of a hassle."

Gaara went quiet, his brow dipped in thought. Naruto could tell he'd been struck by an idea, and waited impatiently.

"What if there was," Gaara said slowly, still thinking. "What if it were possible to establish a permanent long-distance jump gate between Suna and Konoha?"

Naruto beamed at him. "That would be badass! Do you think it can be done?"

Gaara smiled a little. Naruto's enthusiasm was infectious, even to a perpetually stoic person like the Kazekage. "I'll talk to my experts, and you talk to yours. We'll see what we can figure out."

To have a backdoor entrance into each other's villages was a sign of ultimate trust. A sign that Sand and Leaf hoped to be friends for a very long time, long after Naruto and Gaara were gone.

They said goodbye with a firm clasping of arms. Then Gaara went over to his siblings, and to Shikamaru, Sakura and Kakashi, who stood with them. Sakura and Kakashi said friendly goodbyes to the Kazekage and Kankurou, and then came over to join Naruto.

They exchanged glances that were full of meaning; a show of solidarity, a silent recognition of their history and the significance of what they were about to do. Naruto took a deep breath and let it out heavily. Then the original members of Team Seven went to face the parting that would be harder than all the others.


Sasuke was standing almost outside the gates, off by himself, as always. However, this time it was not so much antisocial, but that he was waiting for them. They needed to do this in private.

For a minute the four of them just stood there, not knowing how to begin. How did they do this? How did they condense nearly a decade of camaraderie, friendship, love, anger, resentment, betrayal, pain, and ultimately acceptance, into a few paltry sentences? How did they say goodbye to such a fundamental part of their lives?

Naruto spoke first, his voice low and strained. "Are you sure this is what you want?" When Sasuke came to him yesterday and told him of his decision, he didn't want to believe it. Part of him even seriously considered not allowing it. It seemed stupid, anticlimactic after these past several months and the breakthroughs they had finally made. But after a lifetime of chasing, Naruto had finally come to understand that Sasuke needed to figure things out in his own way.

Sasuke nodded, resolute. "I'm sure." This was the result of several weeks of consideration about his future, about the path he wanted to take and the person he wanted to try to be. "When I came to the Fire Temple, I had nothing left. Not even hatred," he explained carefully. "I needed forgiveness…and atonement. I found it from the people I needed it from most," his dark eyes moved to each of them in turn, "and I'm grateful.

"But recently I realized that I can't keep living moment to moment. What comes after the goal is reached…that's what I've always struggled with. I attach myself to another goal right away, so I never have to just sit and live with myself for a while." He paused, and an expression that was almost happy crossed his face. "It was at the Fire Temple that I finally found peace, and…I don't think I'm ready to move away from that yet. With the monks I have no past, only what I choose to be today. They've accepted me, and the Abbot has offered me a place in their order."

And that was what had Naruto so upset. Sasuke had decided this even before leaving the temple. He had known all along that he wouldn't stay.

There was nothing left to say, really. Nothing that could be said in such a short time. Nothing that would change things. Again they fell back to just standing there, at a loss. They might have stood there moping all day, if Kakashi hadn't come forward.

"Sasuke," he said. "I think you're doing the right thing." Sasuke looked his way and smiled faintly. So many years ago, he'd warned a messed up kid that hate leads down a dark road and running from problems only makes them worse. He was glad that kid was finally listening. They never got to have that talk, but in the end they didn't really need to. Their actions had said enough, few as they were. Kakashi hadn't been lying when he said they were alike in ways, and deep down they both knew that about the other. They would never be close, but there was no longer any reason for anger between them. They had begun to respect each other again.

All of this was conveyed, to each other and to everyone else, when they shook hands in friendship.

Sakura came forward then, reached for Sasuke's hands, took several breaths to control the tide of emotion swelling inside her. A year ago she wouldn't have believed she could still feel anything good about him, but they had finally said what they needed the other to know, and they had found closure. She wished him well. "Take care of yourself," she said softly. "Please be happy."

His smile grew for her, and he squeezed her hands gently. "And you."

And then it was Naruto's turn. It was taking a lot to remain stoic, and his voice was ragged with emotion. "Sasuke…" That single utterance held a lifetime of history and complexity.

Sasuke nodded, understanding, and feeling, every last nuance. "Maybe someday I'll come back," he said quietly. "But for now… it's too difficult."

"I know," Naruto said, and he truly did. He gave a smile that was only partly forced. "Well, if you do decide to come back, send word first. Don't just wander blindly through the wilderness."

Sasuke huffed softly, an unwilling laugh. "Shut up," he grumbled. He shook his head, and might have even rolled his eyes a little. "Jackass."

Naruto laughed outright. Maybe a lot had changed, but some things would always be the same.

They clasped hands. But Naruto didn't let go, and after a moment he jerked Sasuke forward into a hug. The Uchiha's face shifted from surprised, to reluctant, to accepting. What they both expected to be a quick pat on the back evolved into a tight embrace. In that moment they couldn't pretend. When all the cards were on the table this is what they really were. What they had always been. Best friends. Brothers. And they were saying goodbye.

Sakura watched them with a watery smile, and then she couldn't take it anymore and rushed forward to join them. She threw an arm around each of their shoulders and lowered her head to theirs, and they each moved an arm to let her in.

They stayed like that for a good while, and if any or all of them were crying messes by the time they parted…they would never admit to knowing it.

When the fanfare of the departing VIPs was over, most people decided to make their way home. There was still a lot of work to be done, but they couldn't do it all in one or two days, or even a week. People needed to spend time with their families.

Thinking of families reminded Sakura that she needed to contact her parents, let them know she was okay. Not being able to have contact with them for three years been really hard, and she couldn't imagine what they must have gone through, not knowing if she was alive or dead, if she even survived Danzou's coup. Maybe she would take a trip to the coast to visit them soon. Maybe she would take Kakashi with her.

Even those without families needed to unwind in a familiar place, and she went with Kakashi when he finally decided to return to his apartment. Unfortunately it wasn't good news.

"I re-let the place," the landlady told him apologetically, "about six months after the whole nasty business with that Danzou and his takeover."

"I figured as much," Kakashi said dryly, "when my key didn't work."

The landlady shrugged helplessly. "What could I do? I was used to you going away for months at a time, but you always paid your rent in advance those times. After so much time passed I'd given you up for dead. You weren't my only tenant who disappeared these past couple years." She shook her head sadly.

She was thoroughly civilian and hadn't heard much about Naruto's rebellion, didn't know the man who'd rented apartment 408 for the past twenty years was Konoha's most elite shinobi, famous across the five nations. To this woman he was just a slightly eccentric loner who was frequently absent but (ironically) never late on the rent.

Kakashi sighed. There was no use arguing about something that was long done. "Can you at least tell me what happened to my stuff?"

The older woman brightened. "Oh! I put it in storage. Normally I throw out whatever junk people leave behind, but I kept yours because of the special circumstances. I know you ninja can have very…unconventional lives."

Relieved that at least something remained of his former abode, they followed her to the rear of the building and down into the basement where the laundry room was located. There were a few small storage spaces in the back, and she opened one for them. "It's been so long now, to be honest I kind of forgot about it. There you go." She smiled up at him. "I have to say, I'm glad you're alive after all. You always kept to yourself and didn't make a lot of noise. You know, I might be able to move you into a different unit."

Kakashi gave her a polite but unenthusiastic smile. "I'll think about it. Thank you." She left them. He pulled the chain hanging from the lightbulb above, and the tiny space was illuminated in a weak yellowish light.

Sakura blinked in surprise. There were only a few midsized boxes stacked against the back wall. She looked up at Kakashi. "Are these really all your worldly possessions?"

It seemed to be a revelation for him too. "I guess so."

"What about your furniture?"

"Came with the apartment."

Again Sakura stared at the meager collection, and felt suddenly sad. For most of his life it seemed he'd existed without really living. Like a ghost.

The first thing Kakashi did was hunt for his Icha Icha collection. Sakura rolled her eyes a little at his audible sigh of relief upon finding them all present and undamaged. She'd never understood why they were so important to him, as they weren't that good, and would certainly never be worth much money. But when she thought about it she realized it must partly be sentimental. Jiraiya had been his sensei's sensei and Kakashi must have grown up around him, must have secretly idolized him in his younger years.

He rummaged through the other boxes, pulled a few things out, laid them in the Icha Icha box. They were mostly weapons; a ninjato, a brace of three-pronged kunai with white handles, a longknife that looked like it was made to conduct chakra. He added a couple more books, several scrolls, some dog toys, and a shoebox containing letters and a very small photo album (which Sakura vowed to peek at the second she got a chance). When he found the photo of Team Seven he carefully wiped the dust off the glass cover, and smiled. Sakura smiled to see him do it. Finally he reached toward the top box in the corner and retrieved Mr. Ukki, now pitifully brown and shriveled.

He set the plant and the photo on top of all the other stuff and then stood with the box in his arms. "Okay."

She looked at the box dubiously. "That's it?"

He looked down at the box's contents, and shrugged. "For now. I'll get the rest some other time."

Sakura smiled and nodded, hoping he couldn't see what she was thinking at that moment. He had almost nothing in the way of possessions, and even then, the only things that really mattered to him fit in a single box. Well, that was going to change if she had anything to say about it. They were going to create new memories together – ones worth keeping.

She reached out and gently caught a desiccated leaf of the dead plant between her fingers. "Poor Mr Ukki. We should take him to my place for a funeral."

It was Kakashi's turn to raise a brow. "A funeral…for a plant?"

"If he's not buried he can't be reincarnated," she explained.

He stared at her. "You're making this up."

She smiled slyly. "Maybe."

Kakashi just shook his head and went with it. "Ok then…"

Sakura didn't live too far from his apartment-no-more, and they had a pleasant walk. This time of year the sun wouldn't set for another couple hours, but unlike the past two nights, the streets were fairly quiet this evening. The celebrating wasn't exactly over, but the tone of it had changed. People wanted to bask in the little things like eating at one's own table, sleeping in one's own bed—the simple reality of being home.

Though for some, home was more comfortable than for others. It had been an understatement when Sakura said her house 'wasn't exactly habitable.' The gate was broken, and they had to break it further to get into the small front yard which had become an obstacle course of debris from the battle. It was on a fairly well-trafficked street, two doors down from the Yamanaka flower shop. A couple buildings further down the way had been badly damaged, and Sakura's own house had suffered a broken upstairs window and a demolished chimney. Bricks and broken glass were scattered everywhere. The fuselage littering her property would be a pain to clean up, but she was grateful the place was still standing.

Her mailbox was blocking her front door, wedged at an angle inside the frame. Something had hit it with enough force to uproot it and send it crashing into her house. She wondered if it had been a someone. On a silly impulse, Sakura checked her mail. Nothing—not that she'd expected three years' worth of mail to be waiting for her. Obviously it had all been confiscated and read through.

Kakashi shook his head, amused by her. She grinned at him and pried the mailbox free, chucked it aside. The door had been fixed from when Root broke it open (by the Yamanakas, maybe) but the lock was still the same. She used her key to open the door.

She'd half expected a horrendous smell and massive cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. It did smell pretty stale, and a thick layer of dust coated everything, but other than that the layout of her living room and kitchen looked exactly as she'd left it.

So much the same that it upset her. A few medical texts and notebooks were still open on the coffee table. Her green winter scarf still hung over the back of a kitchen chair. There were dishes from dinner in the sink. There was probably a towel still hanging over the curtain bar in the upstairs bathroom. Her bed would still be unmade.

An ordinary night at home, and she'd gone to bed expecting an ordinary day to follow. And then her world turned upside down when Ino rapped on her bedroom window.

Since coming back to Konoha, a lot of difficult memories had surfaced. But nothing so far had hit her quite this hard, standing here looking around the abandoned ghost town of her house.

Kakashi set his box down and gently held her shoulders from behind. He seemed to understand what she was dealing with. "You okay?"

Sakura took a deep breath, nodded. "Yeah." She shrugged away the memories. "This is going to be fun," she said flatly, thinking about the amount cleaning that needed to be done. "First things first, though. Bring Mr. Ukki."

He picked up the plant and followed her down the hall to the back door, out into the garden. Sakura set her hands on her hips and looked around, her lips pursed wryly. Everything was dead; her mother's roses, the tomato and strawberry plants. Even the grass, which should have mostly taken care of itself, was patched with brown. "It's like the plant afterlife back here."

Kakashi made a little sound of amusement. "At least Mr. Ukki won't be lonely."

They dug a little hole and buried the withered plant in a shady corner near the fence. "Do you want to say a few words?" she asked him.

He just stared at her. "Uh…"

"Fine, I will." She took a moment to think of a proper eulogy for a houseplant. "Goodbye, Mr. Ukki," she began. "You started as a cheap birthday present to our sensei who we barely knew and who scared the hell out of us. But the fact that this lazy old man made the effort to keep you alive all those years served as proof that he cared about us. I hope you're reborn as some beautiful wildflowers."

Kakashi blinked, looked down at the little fresh grave mound, and then back to Sakura. He'd never made the connection before, but she had a point. "That was…strangely touching."

Sakura sidled up and slipped her arms around him. "That's because deep down you're just a big sap."

He smiled down at her. "Don't tell anyone."

"Your secret is safe with me." She stepped away after a moment and knelt to summon Shiko. "How are you feeling?" she asked the pup, rubbing her head and shoulders.

"Good," she answered cheerfully. The corners of her lips curved up in a doggy-smile. "The boys want to teach me ninken fighting techniques. We start tomorrow."

'The boys' meant Kakashi's ninken. Sakura smiled at her, then at him. "That's really great." She checked over her hindquarter, and was quickly satisfied. There would only be a minor scar. "I have a job for you, if you're up for it."

Shiko nodded. "What is it?"

"Hunting mice."

The ninken gave a quick bark of excitement, and ran off with her tail wagging to seek and destroy.

They went back inside, leaving the door open to let in the fresh air. Sakura started to clean, and Kakashi helped her. They opened all the windows, took out the trash, wiped down the surfaces and took the rug outside to be beaten later. She wouldn't be able to get the electricity turned back on until tomorrow, but there were emergency candles in the hall closet that would last through the night. Fortunately there was still running water.

The absence of electricity had created one problem she was not looking forward to dealing with. She put it off as long as she could, but eventually they found themselves standing warily in front of the refrigerator.

She clung to him lightly. "I'm scared."

He nodded, laid a hand on her shoulder. "I'm right here. Whatever horrors come out of that thing, we'll smite them together."

It wasn't as bad as she'd feared, mostly due to the sad reality that there hadn't been much in there besides condiments, which were in sealed containers. Holding her breath, she shoveled the blackened, furry, bloated, and otherwise unidentifiable objects into a trash bag, and Kakashi took it outside.

After that they stopped for a few minutes to have a snack, which ended up being a can of peaches found in the cupboard. They ate out of the can with a shared fork.

Sakura gazed up at Kakashi, admiring. The newness of his face hadn't worn off; even after months she still found herself staring. Though it was less about novelty, really, and more that he was just plain gorgeous. She reached up to lightly run a finger over the scar on his chin. "How did you get this?" She'd wanted to know since the moment his face was first revealed to her. He licked peach juice from his lips before answering, and she barely restrained herself from kissing him senseless.

"My second ever ANBU mission, and first real swordfight," he explained. "I'd only had the Sharingan a few months. I saw it coming, but my reflexes didn't quite match the speed of my eyes yet. My ANBU mask was what saved me. I just barely managed to avoid having my face carved like a pumpkin."

She moved in closer. "I like it. It's sexy."

He smirked, a little lopsided half-smile, which made it about a hundred times sexier. He slipped an arm around her waist, his palm low against the small of her back. "I have lots of other scars too."

She gave him a sultry smile, rose on her toes and held his face in her hands, smoothed her thumb over the thin white line. "I know. But I like this one best."

Kakashi liked where this was going. "Why?"

"Hm, I wonder," she murmured as she kissed the scar where it began at the base of his chin, then higher just below his bottom lip, and then finally his mouth. His other arm came around her, and they might have forgotten about everything else in favor of this if not for their audience.

Shiko was wandering around, sniffing here and there, and circled them a few times while they were pressed together. When they parted and Sakura went to throw the empty can in the trash, the ninken remained at Kakashi's side, looking up at him. He looked down at her, curious. She was shifting her weight back and forth, practically twitching with expectation. "What?" he asked her.

She hesitated a moment, wriggled a little more, and then matter-of-factly said, "There's an itch behind my ear."

Kakashi smiled, understanding, and reached down to scratch it for her, then ran his hand over her soft head. All must be forgiven if she wanted him to pet her. She wagged her tail once for him and then took off.

They returned to cleaning up, and Shiko continued to run around hunting for unwanted inhabitants. And then something happened; something random and not special at all. Sakura said something playfully witty, Kakashi laughed, and she continued doing what she was doing. Casual banter, same as they'd done a hundred times. But Kakashi stopped and went still, just stood in the kitchen and watched her move around the room.

It was like something just clicked into place. It was suddenly so easy.

How could it have gotten so difficult? Had he really thought he couldn't do this? This was how he wanted it to be. Even though they would fight and clash wills and she would push and he would resist, it would be worth it because this was what it was all about in the end. These completely ordinary moments where you're just happy.

He could spend the rest of his days in moments like this with her.

When she went to pass by him, he intercepted her with his hands on her waist. Sakura looked up at him, and what she saw in his face made her stop and give him her full attention. He steered her gently toward the nearby kitchen counter, steadied his hold on her waist and lifted her up easily, set her on the countertop. He moved to stand between her legs. Sakura rested her hands on his shoulders and waited, knowing he had something important to say.

"I love you," he told her quietly. His eyes searched hers, and the slightest hint of a question crept into his voice. "You know that."

Sakura smiled happily. "Yes, but it's nice to finally hear you say it."

Kakashi started. "I said it before…"

"Those were extenuating circumstances," she returned smoothly. "You thought we were going to die."

"I would call it a moment of clarity. I didn't want to die without telling you what you mean to me." He rested his forehead against hers, closed his eyes. "I should have told you months ago. If I had…" He gave a faint sigh. "If I could change the way I handled things, I would."

She twined her fingers into his messy hair, held him close as he nuzzled her. "I was just as stupid as you were." He wrapped his arms around her, and she around him. For a long time they just stayed like that, holding each other in silent communion.

Then Kakashi pressed his lips to her temple and murmured, "It would be nice to hear you say it too…"

Sakura decided to play with him a little. "What makes you think I love you?"

She felt him smile against her skin. "I can't imagine any other reason you would have put up with me this past year?"

"I adore your dogs."

Kakashi chuckled. "It's easy to say that when you've never had to live with them. They tend to take up a lot of room around the house."

"I imagine they do, since you live in a shoebox."

"Lived," he corrected. "I'm homeless now, remember."

Sakura finally drew back and looked into his eyes. The playful, trusting, adoring way he was looking at her brought on a swell of love so powerful she felt she might burst."This place has plenty of room for your dogs," she said. "I even have a backyard. I think…I could probably squeeze you in as well."

Kakashi stared at her, surprised and wondering. "Is that really what you want?"

"Well I'm not going to let you be homeless," she answered lightly. But then she grew serious, affected by the gravity of what she was really offering. What she wanted more than anything.

"I love you." Her voice broke on the words, and as they passed her lips something unlocked deep within her, erasing the last shred of fear. "I love you," she repeated softly, "and I don't want to spend one more day apart." She waited for his reaction, and suddenly wondered if she'd gone too far. "Is that what you want? I mean…is it too much too soon? I don't want to rush—"

He silenced her with a quick kiss, and said, "I already figured out that distance doesn't change anything." He looked around the house, imagined the life they would have here. "I want this, with you, every day. I want breakfast at that table—which will be interesting because we're both terrible cooks," he smiled as she shrugged in agreement, "and I want to fight over the covers with you every night."

Her eyes widened indignantly. "It wouldn't happen if you weren't such a blanket hog!"

He scoffed. "Me? You're the one who tries to roll yourself in a cocoon."

She had no defense for that, so she redirected. "Well you have icy cold feet!"

"Maybe because you won't share the blanket…"

Sakura laughed and shook her head. "I can already see this will be a great domestic partnership."

Kakashi just grinned, and leaned in to kiss her. A minute later he said, looking around, "You know, this is the first time I've been in your house."

She frowned skeptically. "No way."

He nodded. "Way."

"You've been here before…"

"Not inside. Your parents still lived here."

She thought about it a moment, recalling the handful of times he'd come by over the years to collect her for training or missions, and realized he was right. "Yeah, that would have been weird. Imagine how weird it will be next time you see them." He suddenly looked a little anxious; any parents would raise an eyebrow at their daughter shacking up with her much older former teacher and longtime boss. She smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry; my parents are pretty cool for civilians. If anything they'll be happy I chose someone so accomplished and respected." She poked a teasing finger into his chest. "After the Hokage you're like the number two catch around here."

He gave her a flat look. "Is that what this is all about, then."

Sakura shrugged. "You caught me."

He sighed in an 'oh well' sort of way. "I suppose I don't mind," he declared. "You're not such a bad catch either."

At that, she laughed. "I have a bad temper, I can't cook, and I steal the blanket at night. What's not to love?"

He drew her in closer, bent his head and pressed a kiss just below her ear. "I love it all. Keeps things interesting."

She breathed a soft laugh and wound her arms around his shoulders. She tilted her head for him, closed her eyes. "So, would you like a tour?"

"Definitely," he murmured against the curve of her neck. "Let's start with your bedroom." His hands were already under her shirt, a rough palm sliding up the curves of her waist to cup her breast.

She turned her head, pressed her lips to his ear to whisper, "Our bedroom."

"Mm. I like the sound of that."

"You would." Her fingers wound into his hair and tugged, brought him up for a heated kiss. He gripped her hips and slid her forward a little, settled his hips more firmly between her thighs. The counter was the perfect height for this, she noted hazily.

And that was when Shiko came trotting back in. The ninken stopped and stared at them with wide, dismayed eyes. Kakashi and Sakura stared back, guiltily amused. The pup shook her head roughly, "Icky," and disappeared on the spot.

Kakashi and Sakura laughed. He said, "I think she's starting to like me."

"Good," she said, "I plan to keep you around a while." He kissed her again, and very soon their passion became a consuming fire. She locked her legs around his hips and pressed herself to him. He unzipped her shirt and kissed a heated trail down her neck and chest. They weren't going to make it to the bedroom. "What happened to the tour?" she practically panted.

"Thought we were on it," he grunted distractedly.

"We're still in the kitchen."

Kakashi lifted his head and glanced around vaguely. "Yes, well. I want to explore each room thoroughly." He went right back to what he was doing.

He really was a dyed-in-the-wool pervert. But in the best way possible. "That could take a while…"

He looked at up at her with a wicked grin that absolutely melted her. "Count on it."

Sakura drew him into another kiss and lost herself in the moment, blissful in the knowledge that they would have all the time in the world.

The End