To Refuse My Sugar
"Who are you to refuse my sugar? Who are you to refuse me anything?"
- Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger)
Winter winds blew harshly against the walls of the cabin, rattling the windows. Sakura pulled the covers closer, shivering underneath the layers of blankets. Over the years she had spent in this cabin, she had accumulated quite the blanket collection, but it still wasn't enough to weather these winters.
She curled into as tight a ball as she could, shuddering. There were no snoozing cabinmates tonight to keep her company with their snores; all of her assistants had gone to Konoha to escape the winter.
As tempting as balmy Fire Country was, Sakura couldn't bring herself to go there even if it meant avoiding this bitter cold. Anything was better than Konoha— and if she were to cave and return there, she had a feeling she would not come back.
There weren't any other people here, period. The war had moved farther west across the Earth Country border; the soldiers had migrated, but Sakura's medical team had been left here with all of their equipment. Any cabins left behind were used solely for medical purposes, but at this time of year the war was slow and the most Sakura saw were flu patients.
It was terribly lonely.
A loud rap on the door speared through the blizzard and the emptiness of the cabin. Sakura yelped, twisting in the sheets to look over her shoulder at the door. It trembled with the force of the continued pounding.
Alert, she sent out tendrils of her chakra to investigate the newcomer. She could visualize her chakra creeping towards the door, snaking past the cracks of wood to evaluate her visitor's status. The signal was… weak. Very weak. It ebbed feebly towards her, falling short of her by yards. Whoever her visitor was, the person was in terrible shape, even…
The unexpected arrival clicked into place— Blizzard or not, she was a medic. Without further hesitation Sakura leapt out of bed and sped across the cabin, stopping nimbly in front of the door and lifting the deadbolt. She stepped out of the way to let the heavy door swing open.
An icy gust thundered past her, chilling her to the marrow, but that was not what caused her to freeze. Shock held her to the spot as she gaped at the visitor.
He was wrapped in a traveling cloak lacquered with ice and snow. Hunched in the doorway, he strongly favored one side and was clutching his stomach. The tips of his hair were frozen, and little icicles even clung to a few drooping, silver spikes.
"Kakashi!" Her exclamation was whipped away by the howling gale, but she nevertheless saw recognition flicker in his dull gray eye as his name left her lips. He made as if to move forward but stumbled; Sakura caught him before he could hit the wooden floor.
She ushered him inside, slamming her body against the door to shut it while still supporting him. He was so cold he could have been frozen solid. Sending chakra surging to her limbs she lifted him, carrying him bridal-style to her own bed. She left him there for only as long as it took to drag one of the unoccupied mattresses from an assistant's bunk in front of the fireplace. Lighting the hearth with a fire jutsu, she quickly transported Kakashi in front of it, laying him carefully down on the mattress.
His body was in a terrible state. She peeled away layers of frosted clothing, revealing frostbite and other, more disturbing injuries. His leg was broken, but that was not the least of it. With growing horror she unearthed more of them hiding beneath sticky cloth. Puncture wounds, crudely stitched gashes, and bruises…
She gulped. There was no question: He had been tortured.
"Oh, Kakashi…" His eyes were closed. He had no head wound, so it was safe to hope that the warmth from the fire had lulled him into unconsciousness, because this was going to hurt.
Her mind reeled as she set it to the task of healing him. As she tended to his wounds, she had to work to keep her mind focused and her hands steady. Glowing green palms verified the existence of a person she otherwise could not believe she was seeing.
It had been almost two years, and it wasn't every day she met a dead man.
Unfortunately, Kakashi had not been unconscious but sleeping. He awoke with a hiss as she healed him, focusing first on salvaging his frostbitten exterior. She tried to soothe him with coos and shushes, but when she moved onto his broken leg he let out a sharp shout of pain.
His anguish needled against her ear and drilled into her heart, causing her hands to shake. As hard at it was to accept that he was here in front of her, alive and breathing, his screams made his presence viscerally real and impossible to deny. Her heart trembled. Unable to bear his groans of pain, she brought a hand up to his forehead. Finding pain receptors was tricky business, but only his frostbite had been of pressing concern so she could spare some concentration and chakra to ease his agony.
Closing her eyes, she sent her healing energy into his head with utmost care and caution. His pain receptors were not difficult to locate, bursting as they were with activity; she found them shrieking in his brain, raw and abused.
A lesser medic could have caused him permanent brain damage, but Sakura successfully dulled his pain. Sweat coated his skin in a fine sheen as she pulled away, moving her hands to scan other parts of his body.
She'd have to bandage up his leg, but none of his other wounds seemed very recent. Later she would patch them up and take a closer look, but for now she needed to keep her resources directed at maintaining a healthy body temperature for him.
Sakura sighed. Her eyebrows turning up on the insides, she smoothed back the damp flop of hair that shielded Kakashi's eyes. They were opened in feverish slits as he panted; Sakura had removed his sticky mask, leaving him free to breathe.
"What's happened to you, Kakashi?" she wondered softly.
He said nothing, but his hand twitched. Sakura grabbed it at once and held it in her own, stroking his trembling fingers.
For a few days, Kakashi knew only pain and nightmares.
A warm hand guided him slowly into awareness. His eyelids felt lighter than they had, so he slowly cracked open his right eye.
He was in a small room lined with wooden walls. A… cabin. A log cabin. Probably built by Tenzou himself, the only person he knew who built cabins. He could just picture Tenzou as a lumberjack, hacking at a tree trunk with an axe and stopping to sip some tea…
A dry laugh crackled out of his throat. Left of him, someone gasped. He turned to see a pink-haired young woman reaching for a pitcher of water.
"That's a nice change," he heard her mutter. "Mostly you've just been screaming."
She wedged the tip of the pitcher between his parted lips, tilting it to let water flow into his mouth. He drank weakly.
The warm hand returned to grip his limp fingers. He smiled up at the familiar face looming above his.
"Sakura…" His voice was no longer dry but still barely above a whisper. At the sound of her name, her face broke into a wide grin and she squeezed his hand.
"I have to admit I wasn't expecting you," she confided.
His smile only widened. "Sakura…" he repeated fondly, his eyelashes fluttering with the temptation to close.
One of her pink eyebrows quirked up. "Maybe you're not as lucid as I thought," she said shrewdly. "I could put you to sleep again…?"
"No, no…" He had only just woken up, and she looked pretty. Much nicer than the dream he'd been having.
She laughed. "All right, if you can stay awake."
Silence fell, draping across their shoulders and weighing them down. Kakashi disapproved; he wanted her to keep talking, to keep him from falling asleep again. He moved his thumb encouragingly against her palm. "How have you been…?"
Her eyebrows came together in disbelief. "How have I been?" she sputtered; "Kakashi— you're the one who came knocking on my door like a ghost!"
"Oh… I just wanted to be polite."
Sakura shook her head. "Well, I've been fine. I mean… fine." It was the type of "fine" that got the question out of the way. "But you… Kakashi, what happened?"
That was not a question he was keen on answering. However, he was the one who had disappeared, never be heard from again: He owed her an explanation.
"Well…" He sighed, shifting a little on the bed. Might as well get comfortable. "Are we alone…?"
Sakura nodded ruefully. "Very."
Kakashi took a few minutes to gather his thoughts. Sakura waited, still holding his hand.
"I was kidnapped on my way back to Konoha," he began slowly. His gaze was fixed on a point in the vicinity of Sakura's shoulder; he couldn't bring himself to look at her, not when "going back to Konoha" meant "leaving you for my pregnant wife".
If she caught that, it didn't show in her voice. The concern was too thick. "By whom?"
He weighed the question. "What have you been told?"
Even though strictly speaking, he wasn't looking at her, he could see out of the corner of his eye the way she teased her lip with her teeth. "That you were killed," she answered quietly. "Captured by the enemy. And… that when they were interrogating you, you… spilled Konoha secrets."
Oh, that was rich.
"Bastards," he murmured.
"I didn't believe them," Sakura said, interlocking two of their fingers. "I figured that last part was just propaganda, but that you really had been killed… Is it true, at least, that it was Iwa who got you?"
He rolled his foggy stare over to her. "No."
"No? Then who?"
Sakura gasped indignantly. "What the hell!" Her unoccupied hand had flown to cover her mouth in horror. "They— they— those bastards!"
Kakashi smiled grimly. "I'm glad you agree," he said vaguely. He was so terribly exhausted, but it would be pretty unfair to go to sleep and leave her with that sort of cliffhanger.
Sakura's face was still stricken with consternation. "So… they did this to you?"
"Yes." His own voice was starting to shake. He had spent so long hating the twisted injustice of it all that by now he was almost jaded, but seeing Sakura quiver with fury brought his own feelings into sharp relief. "They wanted to know about… Naruto."
"Apparently, they thought that Naruto was forming a rebellion…" He paused to compose himself. "They held me in one of Orochimaru's old outposts in Oto. They tried to get information out of me, but I didn't know anything about it. Finally I managed to escape…" He wasn't up to giving her the details.
"Oh, Kakashi!" Her chair scraped across the wooden floor as she moved closer to him, gripping his hand more tightly. "Oh my God, this is so awful…"
She stroked his face soothingly, yet her face was anything but calm. "How could they do this," she muttered, her voice low and thick with hurt. "I knew they were awful, but this is…"
Despicable. Inexcusable. Appalling. Shameful. Wicked. Kakashi had finished that sentence a thousand different ways, strapped to a table in the depths of a torture chamber. It was too painful to think about— he cast around in his mind for something else, anything to distract them from this.
"How have you been?" he asked again, his voice quiet. "The war, Konoha…" Anything.
Sakura did not answer right away; he could see in her face that she was trying to reign in her anger. It was never something she had been good at, but she managed to swallow it enough to answer, "Not good."
His eyebrows twitched in worry. Distractedly she amended, "Well, I mean, no— that is, uh, Konoha hasn't been good. Not good at all."
She shook her head. "Danzou has gotten worse," she said bitterly. "He's throwing people in jail left and right. Plus he's sapping more and more funds for the war— they're really strapped back home. The war is doing well but it's terrible in Konoha. So I've heard," she finished. "I've never actually been back there."
Kakashi's heart crawled down into the pit of his stomach, settling there with an unpleasant lurch. He had hoped against hope that maybe, even though he was going through hell, Konoha was getting better. He realized now that had been foolish.
"You still haven't told me how you've been…" Technically she'd said she was "fine", but they both knew that didn't count.
Sakura didn't answer, though. Instead he watched her face fall a little, and her eyes flickered to the side in a way that could only mean one thing: She was hiding something.
"… What," he said flatly.
"Just a minute," she mumbled. There was a soft rustling sound as her fingers swept away from his, taking the warmth with them. Sakura left his view; he could hear her pulling open a wooden drawer and shuffling around for something. After a minute she returned and sat down beside him again.
She was holding a letter.
"This is for you," she said unsteadily. Kakashi raised a hand feebly to accept the unrolled scroll, bringing it to his face. His hand shook and his vision was blurry; the calligraphy was no more than an inky mess to his tired eye.
"I can't read it…"
He heard Sakura swallow hard, and he realized belatedly who must have written the letter. It was too late to protest, though, as Sakura had already lifted the letter from his hand. She held it up so that Kakashi could not see her face, the long parchment pooling into her lap.
" 'Dear Kakashi,' " she began.
I tried to wait for you, but I have heard nothing of you for months. I can only assume you were unable to leave the front.
The birth went successfully. Takehiko was overjoyed to welcome his new baby sister into the family. Her name is Kaede, after your mother.
Unfortunately, that is the only good news I can bring you. Things grow only worse in Konoha. I fear for our family. Takehiko has been developing at an alarming rate, but I still think him too young for the Academy. They've been trying to coerce me into sending him, claiming that it's only natural considering what a young age his father attended, but I don't want him to go. I've heard what the children are being taught there and I don't want that for our son.
I am making preparations to leave Konoha. I've decided to take the children back to Rain Country. Since my father is still allied with Konoha, hopefully the transition will go smoothly. So far I have not encountered any obstacles, but I have been keeping my head down just as you always advised.
I feel that this will be best for the children. I am sorry to take them away from Konoha, but they will be safe with my father and me. Hopefully I will be able to contact you there, and maybe you will be able to get in touch with us as well.
The house is being abandoned, and there's not much room for personal belongings. The children will have plenty at my father's house, though, so I'm not worried about taking any of their toys, except for the stuffed dog you bought Take. However, I know that your father's tantou was very important to you, so I have sent it with this letter. I'm not sure both pieces have made it to you intact, but I did try my best.
I hope you are safe.
Sakura's voice hitched around the last words. Kakashi listened numbly to the shuffling of parchment as she rolled the papers back into their tight coil. She dragged it out for as long as possible, being very particular about tucking the paper back into the scroll, but eventually she could find no excuse to distract them with noise and set the scroll on the nightstand. Her hand did not return to his but instead met its partner in her lap, twisting anxiously.
"Kaede…" Kakashi whispered. All of the time he had spent in captivity, he had wondered about this child. Was it a boy or a girl? Whom did it take after? The most elusive question of all, What is its name, had now been answered for him. It helped a little, but there were still so many questions.
And they would probably never get answered. His jaw was tight as he dared to look at Sakura again; she was staring down at her hands as they fumbled at nothing.
"How long ago…?"
He didn't need to finish. "A year," she answered. "And the… the sword did get here. Both pieces. I have it in the drawer…"
Frowning, he summoned the words to ask, "And Ame, is it… are they doing well? Are they okay?"
"They…" Sakura shrugged, still avoiding his gaze. "Communications in and out of Ame are mostly blocked. They've jumped back onto the paranoia bandwagon. We're not at war with them, so hopefully they are… okay." Tension ruptured the voice she was working to keep smooth.
Kakashi groaned. He was so very, very tired.
The bed creaked as he changed position again, moving slightly to the left. Jiggling his outstretched hand, he watched her carefully. Words were coming to him slowly, but he wanted her to understand the things he couldn't say.
She took his hand gently in her own, perhaps a little cautiously. "Kakashi…" she said again, worrying her bottom lip. "I was…"
Scared? Upset? Bitter? Lonely? She didn't say. Her eyes seemed to suggest all four. Hoping to ease her distress, he intertwined her fingers with his own, smiling vaguely up at her.
"You." he murmured. Guarded, her eyes nevertheless betrayed a shimmer of hope. "I love you…"
Sakura choked back a sob. It wasn't exactly what he had expected, but it wasn't the worst, either— she could have slapped him. Then again, an angry Sakura was easier to deal with than a sad one…
"Stupid," she said with a tremor. Her free hand moved up to his face. Knuckle trailing his cheekbone, she wiped away something wet. "You are so stupid."
Just as he sleepily decided that a slap would have been better, his view darkened as her head came down and blocked the light. His closing eye saw her silhouette move in, and tenderly, oh so tenderly, she kissed the wet trail where his tear had been.
Sakura bent her head bitterly against the cold winds, muttering a whole host of mutinous curses directed at the abysmal weather. Trudging around the bend of a snowbank, however, her face lightened; through the heavy snow she could just make out her cabin, steadfast in the blizzard.
With renewed enthusiasm she picked up speed, running through the accumulated feet of snow. She tripped a few times but was not deterred— smoke rose from the chimney, promising warmth within.
As she neared the house she spotted something through the frosted window. Squinting, she tried to make sense of the rectangular white mass. It was only when she got closer that she realized it was a newspaper; someone was reading it at the window.
There was only one person that could be. Sakura grinned in spite of the cold, hurrying across the short distance to the cabin.
It took great effort to heave open the door; she heard the wind howl with triumph as it fought its way into the cabin, but she moved through the gap quickly and slammed her body against the door to shut it again. The storm was abruptly muted, and Sakura sagged down the wood with relief. She hated snow.
Shaking her fist at the door, she unwrapped her scarf and walked over to the window she had viewed from outside.
Kakashi was sitting there, crisply turning a page in the newspaper. He did not look over at Sakura but dragged his finger down the paper and flipped briefly back to the page before.
She stopped behind him, peering over his shoulder. "What are you doing?" she asked, still smiling at the sight of him.
He took a moment to answer, clearly quite involved in his activity. "Looking for the continuation of an article…" he muttered finally. "Not sure we have that page…"
Sakura frowned sympathetically. "I'm sure it was just garbage anyway," she offered in consolation. The Konoha Leaf was no more than a propaganda rag. It was only Kakashi's insistence that they subscribe that pushed Sakura to get it in the first place.
"Hm." He closed the newspaper neatly along the folds as he always did, creasing each once before setting the paper down on his lap. "Maybe. It was about me."
"What?" Sakura cried, her face suddenly ashen. She snatched the newspaper from his lap, tearing it open and scanning frantically through the middle.
"Front page," Kakashi helped.
She flipped back to the front and saw ugly black letters staring at her: FUGITIVE HATAKE KAKASHI ALIVE AND AT LARGE.
A deep frown turned Sakura's face. " 'Presumed dead Konoha jounin Hatake Kakashi, age 38, has been discovered to be alive,' " she read aloud. " 'Previously believed to have spilled state secrets before being killed by Iwa nin, recent intelligence has discovered that Hatake was not killed by the Iwa nin but agreed to work with them and only just now turned traitor to them too?' "
Fury rippled through her in an uncontainable wave. She rounded on her lover sitting in his chair. "Kakashi, this is terrible! How can they say this about you? Those— those— They are such PIGS!" She threw the paper to the ground in disgust.
" 'The fugitive traitor is now on the run,' " Kakashi recited. " 'Having escaped from Iwa, he is thought to be headed east, possibly to seek refuge with distant relatives in Kumogakure, or south to his wife and children in Amegakure. Although it is preferable to bring him in alive for questioning, this despicable traitor is officially a Konoha missing nin and can be killed on sight.' "
A ringing silence filled the thin air. Sakura was so overpowered by the vile nature of Danzou's treachery that she could only gape out the window unseeingly.
This was too much. After all that Kakashi had done, all that he had sacrificed for the village, he was being treated with the indignity of a selfish traitor?
"Kakashi, I…" She was lost for words but wanted to somehow comfort him. He too was staring through the snow-speckled windowpane, watching the shrieking blizzard outside from the safety of their small cabin.
He did not say anything for a long while. Only the blustering gusts made any noise. Eventually, he spoke up in a wistful voice. "I wonder what she looks like… my daughter."
Sakura bit her lip. He wondered about that a lot these days— he was always rhetorically asking himself what she might look like, what she might sound like, whether or not she would be afraid of him as Takehiko had been. Sakura had no answers for him, but he liked to torture himself with the questions anyway.
Since he returned, Kakashi was quieter than ever. He mostly kept to the cabin out of necessity; it wouldn't do to have him out in the open, as the Konoha Leaf's headline reinforced. Occasionally he took walks through the snowy woods, but always disguised with a henge. She thought he might train there, too, to build his strength up during his recovery. The forest spilled across the border, and at the camp on the other side were stationed many of his friends. He had to be careful to avoid them.
She sighed, rubbing her temple with sudden exhaustion. Sometimes, he really seemed like the ghost she had thought him to be when he came knocking on her door. He was so full of yearning, and she so desperate to make him forget about it, it was no wonder they sought reassurance in the other's flesh.
Two pale hands rose to massage his shoulders. Kakashi hummed, and Sakura placed a soft kiss on the back of his head.
"Things will work out," she promised.
Kakashi said nothing.
By coincidence, Kakashi and Sakura had met on the way back to the cabin. Sakura was returning from a meeting at the base about the progress of the war, while Kakashi had been training in the woods. They had emerged from the trees at approximately the same time; Kakashi had spotted and hailed her, and now they were walking together down the path.
The road was pockmarked with puddles and lined with melting heaps of snow. Spring was coming to Waterfall in a slow thaw.
"I saw a bird," Kakashi said, skirting around a puddle.
"Ooh!" Sakura smiled. "What kind?"
"Hmm… not sure," Kakashi admitted. "I saw it from a distance. It was brown, pretty generic."
"Nothing generic about a bird," countered Sakura. Without prompt she linked her arm through his, resting her head against his bicep. "God, do I miss birds."
Kakashi brushed his lips across the top of her head. "Don't worry. The snow will all be melted soon."
Sakura wrinkled her nose. "Good," she said emphatically. "I hate snow."
Chuckling, Kakashi tucked an errant lock of bubblegum pink hair behind her ear and pulled up her hood. "Still cold, though. Don't get too liberal just because the snow is melting."
She let out a humph of discontent but did not protest when he tugged the strings at her chin to tighten the hood snugly around her face.
They arrived at the cabin without difficulty; the winds were very mild today. Kakashi sent a small stream of his chakra through the lock to open the door but found that the bolt was already undone.
"Huh," he muttered to himself. "Must've forgotten to lock it…" It wouldn't have been the first time. These days, things often slipped his mind.
He swung it open and Sakura hurried gratefully inside. She pushed her hood down and began to pull off her mittens, throwing the damp woolen hands to the ground as she turned to smile at Kakashi.
He smiled faintly back, but his gaze floated past her, meandering towards the kitchen. Nothing unusual on the walls— no traps or tags that Kakashi could see. His precautionary sweep dropped to the floor.
His heart nearly stopped.
Trailing along the dark wooden slats was a set of large, wet footprints.
Oblivious at first, Sakura quickly noticed the tension in his body. She looked quizzically at him and opened her mouth to speak, but Kakashi raised a finger to his own, appealing to her for silence. Something slid into place in her eyes, and she was instantly on guard.
Stealth silencing his step, Kakashi moved slowly towards the kitchen. His fingertips had sought assurance in the curved end of a kunai knife. Sakura stayed behind him; it probably would have made more sense to have her go in front, as he was the wanted criminal, but there was something so curiously familiar about the sense of danger in the cabin that Kakashi could not help himself.
His slow steps brought him into view of the kitchen as he began to pass the corner obscuring it.
Propped up on the table was a pair of black boots.
Kakashi threw his kunai at once but it was instantly deflected; ducking around the table he threw another at the intruder. He could hear Sakura joining in as well with an almighty punch that split the table into splinters.
The intruder missed both attacks. He jumped out of the way and held up an arm cloaked in black to stop the broken pieces of wood from hitting him in the face.
Kakashi pulled a row of shuriken out of his pouch and held them ready in his fingers, but something made him pause. Sakura too froze into place as the intruder lowered his arm, for while the arm still blocked his face, they could clearly make out the man's unmistakable spikes of black hair.
Said man brought his arm to his side to look at Sakura. "Yes," he said. A wry smirk twisted his lip. "You two have great hospitality."
Kakashi scowled, not letting his guard drop an inch. "What do you want?" he spat.
Sasuke turned slowly to face Kakashi, cool smirk still in place. There was no lost love between these men. "It's satisfying to see that you got out of Oto all right, Kakashi," he said.
In his periphery vision Kakashi could see Sakura cock her head to the side, but Kakashi only narrowed his eyes. "I don't have time for your games, Sasuke," he growled. "If you're going to try to turn me in, just get on with it so I can kill you."
"This is the gratitude I get?" Sasuke crossed his arms. He was wearing a nondescript black cloak, the hood pooling around his shoulders. "After all I did for you…"
"Did for him?" Sakura snarled. "All you've done for anyone recently is lick Danzou's boots like a dog!"
"Careful, Sakura," Sasuke warned.
Kakashi bristled with anger. "Don't talk to her that way," he snapped. "You have no damn right to talk to her that way."
Sasuke's smile had vanished. He faced Kakashi with a cold frown. "It would be just as easy— no, easier to put you back in Oto than it was to break you out."
Kakashi's brow furrowed and Sakura gave a sharp demand of "What?" Sasuke nodded, never breaking his gaze from Kakashi's. "I worked behind the scenes to make sure conditions would be… ideal for your escape."
"Why should we believe you?" Sakura yelled. Both men looked away from each to instead focus on the angry young woman spitting fire Sasuke's way. "You're just a dirty turncoat, Sasuke! After all that we did for you, you just gave us the cold fucking shoulder, and for what— to become Danzou's bitch?" She spat on the ground in front of him.
Sasuke flinched but did not retaliate. He looked coldly from Sakura to Kakashi, leveling the latter with a restrained glare.
"We don't like each other," he said plainly. "And it's true; I am allied with Danzou now. Because unlike you two, I know how to play with power and keep things in my favor."
"Become a traitor, you mean," Sakura said casually.
Sasuke gave a very put-upon sigh. "If Danzou gets too troublesome, I'll just kill him," he said, "but right now it's nice to be so close to power without the blood of a mutiny on my hands."
Kakashi raised his chin appraisingly at Sasuke. He had always been a cold boy, but this man was so hardened and frigid that he was barely recognizable. Gone was the irrational youth bent on revenge no matter the idiocy or the cost. In his place stood this jaded politique, the epitome of pragmatism.
A man so guarded was nearly impossible to read, but Kakashi had wondered why fate had favored him the day he managed to break out. Everything had gone according to plan and better.
Every part of Kakashi rejected the idea that Sasuke had helped him. No matter how hard Sasuke tried to defend himself with the excuse of expediency, there was no getting around the fact that Sasuke had spurned them at every possible turn. Whenever they tried to "rescue him", as they had so naively put it, he had let them know that he considered them no better than the dirt on the soles of his sandals. And yet… and yet…
Kakashi swallowed. "Why are you here?" he asked. The question was not accusatory but it was not inviting, either. "Surely not just to brag."
Sasuke uncrossed his arms to flick a splinter of wood from his robe. "Sakura."
Kakashi snarled and Sakura pulled back her face in disgust. "Pig!"
"Not that," Sasuke said irritably. "I helped Kakashi, but now it's time to help you."
His eye a calculating slit, Kakashi frowned at Sasuke. "Why does Sakura need helping?"
"And why is it your help that I need?" Sakura added scathingly.
With a short sigh, Sasuke leaned back against the counter leisurely. His fingers were white against the dark wood.
"Danzou is insane," he started. "I'm sure you've suspected that for a long time now. Everyone is an enemy to him, but you" — he inclined his head at Sakura, who watched with wide, wary eyes — "are now featured prominently in his skewed focus. He wants—"
"To kill me," Sakura finished, but Sasuke shook his head.
"Not kill you," he said quietly. "Your talents are far too useful for that. Your thoughts, on the other hand, are volatile, colored by Tsunade and Naruto, out of his control…"
"He wants to brainwash her." The words left Kakashi's mouth with a choke in the back of his throat.
Sakura's jaw dropped and she turned to Sasuke, her eyes pleading for a denial, but he only nodded grimly.
"No!" Sakura stood up straighter, looking around as if scouting for Danzou. "He can't do that— that's worse than killing me!"
"I agree," Sasuke said. His voice was calm, in contrast to Sakura's obvious terror and Kakashi's own racing heart. "That's why I'm here to help you."
"How can you help me?" Sakura retorted, bitterness souring her tone, but Kakashi was already beginning to understand. Sasuke hated Danzou more than anyone for the role he had played in Itachi's disgrace and the death of his clan. He had been courting Danzou's favor for a reason. Kakashi had always just assumed that it was something Sasuke saw as a necessary step to power, but perhaps he had hoped to have a little leeway when dealing with the fates of people who were important to him.
Kakashi studied Sasuke with care and measured his words as he spoke. "You can offer her protection?" he asked shrewdly.
Sasuke nodded at him. "I can," he promised, and he was at least putting on sincerity because it was there, glowing dully in his eyes like embers from a dying flame. "If Sakura is under my protection, Danzou won't forcibly indoctrinate her; he'll be able to keep an eye on her in Konoha. There's no way she can be taking part in his imagined rebellion if she's right there under his nose, and under my nose to boot."
"You think your influence will be sufficient?" Kakashi pressed. He wouldn't admit it, but part of him was desperately prodding for a loophole.
"I don't ask many favors," Sasuke gave as answer. Having made his case, he recrossed his arms and watched them expectantly.
Sakura turned reluctantly towards Kakashi. Indecision made her eyes dart across his figure, landing anywhere but his face. "I don't…"
He walked over to her, touching her on the elbow. "I know," he said. His voice was soft with helpless understanding. "I don't want you to go either, but… I don't think we have a choice."
He meant it, too. This was the absolute last thing he wanted. As much as he loathed admitting it, though, Sasuke was much better equipped to protect Sakura than he was. If she stayed with Kakashi, they would be together for a little while before Danzou came to collect their heads. If she went with Sasuke, they would never see each other again, but she would be safe.
"I want you to have something," he said. Wide green eyes followed him as he went over to the nightstand beside her bed, pulling open the drawer. Carefully, he retrieved a wrapped parcel, holding it with both hands. He nudged the drawer shut with his hip and walked back over to the kitchen.
"It's my father's tantou," he explained needlessly, handing it to Sakura. "It's broken, though, so you'll have to be careful…"
She accepted it. Fat tears squeezed out of her shining aquamarine eyes. "Thank you," she gulped, setting it down on a chair beside her. "I'll keep it safe…"
Lovingly, he took her hands in his and interlocked their fingers. "It'll be okay," he said. "Things will work out."
Her lip trembled at his echoed promise. Hating the tremble, he slid his mask down to his neck and angled his lips at hers. A delicate kiss and intertwined hands held them together for a few agonizingly short moments, and then he pulled away.
Sakura's hands fidgeted in her lap. "Are you sure we have to take a cart?" Anxiety laced her complaint. "Going by foot would be so much easier…"
Sasuke frowned blankly at her from the opposite bench. The cart jostled them both as the horse took them over a particularly large bump, but he remained impassive.
"Yes," he said simply. "I had to get official permission to collect you, you know."
She turned her nose up at him in revulsion. "Don't talk about me like an object," she sniffed.
He merely shrugged and looked away, more interested in the muddy landscape than her livid expression.
Her nails picked at each other in agitation, running unevenly through the dirt caked beneath them.
Vague annoyance crossed Sasuke's haughty features. "Why aren't you wearing mittens?" he asked, a hint of disapproval in his tone.
Sakura looked him in the eye.
"I'm pregnant," she announced.
Sasuke blinked. For the longest time he could only stare, nonplussed. The cart rocked as their horse pulled them down the path. Finally, he said, "That doesn't explain why you're not wearing mittens."
"… I forgot them."
"Oh. We'll buy you some, then." He settled into a more comfortable position on the hard wooden seat.
Sakura could only look away and try not to cry.
Sai watched Yousei with bated breath, eye sharp to calculate her reaction. She was staring numbly at the table as she had for most of his story, listening for the next part with pursed lips and wide, gray eyes.
"Would you like me to continue?" he asked. He had been expecting her to gasp or cry out, but perhaps he had misjudged how teenage girls were wont to act. Making a mental revision to his never-ending notes on humanity, Sai waited patiently for Yousei's answer.
She didn't give one. She only continued to bore her eyes into the metal table.
"Okay," Sai said. "I'll keep going, then. Sakura moved back to Konoha with Sasuke, and Danzou accepted his compromise. I remember he was wary of it at the time, but he was satisfied enough with the arrangement not to press it. Sasuke even managed to shield her from interrogation about Kakashi's whereabouts.
"They married and raised the daughter together, giving her Sasuke's family name. Uchiha," he clarified, eyeing Yousei for a flinch of recognition, but she remained mute. It unnerved him. Was it just that she had already guessed the end of the story? Surely she could see where it was going. Maybe she was rejecting the implication, or maybe this was just how people came to terms with these things: quietly. Sai wouldn't know.
"Kakashi remained at large," he continued. "They never managed to track him down. Danzou attempted to spy on his family in Ame, but they never caught him there. Knowing Kakashi, he probably didn't want to endanger them with his association anymore than he already did.
"Sasuke's political influence saved Sakura and her daughter from many of the hardships that befell other citizens. This did not sit well with Sakura, who saw it not only as unfair to other people of Konoha but also as an unreliable safety net; however, Sasuke convinced her it was the only way to keep her daughter safe, so she acquiesced.
"But then Root started taking children into their program. Officially, only orphans were taken, but when it came to the children of political enemies, they could become orphans very quickly. Children were used as weapons against their parents; holding the threat of child abduction over the heads of contrary thinkers could cow even the most revolutionary rebel. Despite Sasuke's insistence that his influence would be enough to protect 'their daughter', Sakura worried for her."
At this point, Sai had to pause. This was the most painful part of the story for him. It was the part where he failed his friend, complicit in the organization that took everything from her.
He swallowed hard. His anxiety was coming back in full force. Still, Sai was master of his emotions even when he couldn't name them, so he kept his composure steadfast.
"She was right to worry. Danzou, in his ever-growing paranoia, feared that Sasuke and Sakura were indoctrinating the child to grow up and defeat him— keep in mind that she was a very gifted child. He considered her a legitimate threat. One day, Sakura's nightmare came alive… Root came knocking on her door, demanding her child to serve for the sake of the village."
Yousei bit her lip, and Sai saw that her eyes had grown wet. A small part of him identified with her pain at hearing this part of the story, but it was a distant part of him, an echo. He was so far removed from his own abduction that he could not remember anything about or before it.
He didn't even know what his name had been.
But she did. Uchiha Yousei had remembered her name, and Sai drew a sudden sense of hope from this fact. It was far too late for Sai himself — he had accepted this decades ago — but it was not too late for her.
Saying sorry would not be enough, he realized now, but he was doing more than apologizing. He was giving this girl her life back.
Emboldened, he resumed the story. "Sakura was working at the hospital when it happened. Sasuke had just come home from a mission; Danzou struck when he knew he was weakest, just as Kakashi had predicted. The girl was only four or five. Danzou himself was not present, but he sent so many Root operatives that the fatigued Sasuke was ultimately overwhelmed. That isn't to say that it was an easy fight; many members of Root died that day, and the struggle drew the whole village's attention. As you can imagine, this was not something that pleased Root— they liked to sweep things under the curtain.
"Sasuke wasn't done causing a scene, though. He had come to love the girl as a father would, and what Danzou had done finally crossed the line. Sasuke rushed to the hospital to tell Sakura what had happened, and she poured her chakra into healing him so that he could fight Danzou. She had enough energy left after that to help him get through Hokage Tower and clear the path to the upper offices, but it was Sasuke who came face to face with Danzou at last."
"They killed each other." Yousei had finally spoken. Her throat was tight and her voice was thick.
"Yes," Sai said with a nod. "They did." He waited to go on, wondering if she would say more, but she went right back to looking at the table as if it had shocked her.
He sighed and proceeded. "Konoha was in turmoil. Sakura tried to take advantage of the chaos, skipping past levels of bureaucracy in an attempt to rescue her child from Root. She was relentless; she banged on doors, shrieked down hallways— even destroyed a few hallways with her chakra-powered fists. She also…" His voice trailed off, threatening to be swallowed by shame, but he clung to his epiphany from earlier: He was helping Yousei. No matter his guilt, he was doing the right thing now, and that was what mattered. That was important.
Despite this conviction, he still had to suppress a shudder as he revealed the part of the story that damned him most. "She appealed to me, personally. That's how I know her story. We had been teammates once, many years ago. She hoped that our connection could help get her child out, but I… I couldn't manage to help her. Things were so chaotic, with Root locked in a bloody internal power struggle over who would succeed Danzou, not to mention stemming the disquiet in the village caused by Sasuke's public outrage— by the time I could devote enough time to her plea, the new Root leader had taken charge and a warrant was put out for Sakura's arrest as an enemy to the state."
He wanted to shut his eyes to protect him from the accusations she would surely hit him with, but— nothing. Not one damn word. She didn't even glare.
This didn't really help anything. The anticlimax left Sai with an uncomfortable sense of vertigo, heady and nauseating.
"I… regret that I couldn't help her when she needed it," he said, his voice faltering. "… I'm sorry."
Yousei did not respond.
He had done it. He had apologized. He hoped desperately that this would goad a reaction from her, but she did nothing!
Sai was seized by an irrational anger. What on earth was wrong with her? He had just admitted that it was his fault that she had been left to Root's devices for the last twelve years of her life, and she had no reaction?
But then Sai remembered, and his question answered itself. She had been left to Root's devices for the last twelve years of her life.
Trembling, he forced his guilt down like a large pill and kept talking around the lump in his throat. "Sakura had no choice but to flee Konoha. Thankfully, things were still turbulent enough that a well-organized hunter-nin squad was never sent out in time to track her. She managed to slip through their fingers.
"You might know the rest of the story. Root was never the same after Danzou, and the people weren't either. Child abductions stopped and the rebellion gained ground. The rebellion that Kakashi had been accused of participating in had existed; Naruto may or may not have been involved, but Kakashi and Sakura had been specifically excluded because they were too high-profile. Sakura's old classmates — the Naras, Akimichis, Yamanakas, and Inuzukas, to name a few — were behind the underground movement, and they gained strength until, a month ago, they overthrew Root."
He stopped to sigh before going into the final stretch. "For my association with Team Kakashi and my avoidance of nastier Root activities, I was spared by the revolutionaries. Now it is my job to help people like you find their families… Although I must confess that I have a special interest in you."
There it was. All of his cards were laid out on the table now. All that was left was for Yousei to react, to accept.
She took a deep, shuddering breath. "It's not me," she said finally, her voice small. "I'm not their… Those aren't my parents."
Sai looked curiously at her, with her pink hair and gray eyes. "I think they are."
Slowly, she shook her head, still staring at the table. He doubted she was seeing it. "Uchiha Yousei probably isn't even my real name," she babbled, and she sounded strikingly similar to Sakura as she did. "I mean I could have made it up when I heard kids talking about the Uchihas, people like to think of what their name might have been… The officer always told me my imagination was too wild and that I had to tame it—"
She did, and the room fell quiet. Only the buzz of the fluorescent light above them and the incessant ticking of the clock interrupted the silence. Yousei's wide gray orbs finally rose from the table and locked with Sai's plain black ones.
He inclined his head in her direction. "What's that sword, on your back?"
The question startled her.
"My sword…" Caution curbed her obvious answer.
"Could you show it to me?" Sai requested politely.
A crease of dissent folded in her forehead, but then her eyes flickered up and down his black trenchcoat and she seemed to rethink it. Obediently but warily, she stood and drew the sword from its sheath on her back.
It looked very delicate. "Very nice," Sai admired. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like you demonstrate it for me."
She looked as if she minded very much, but she wasn't about to disobey a Root officer, no matter that the group was technically defunct. She held the sword surely in her hands, letting her eyes fall softly shut. Sai waited, the ticking clock punctuating the silence.
The sword began to glow.
White light swelled around the blade, crackling here and there with a spark of electricity. The growing glow cast strong shadows on Yousei's face and threw her smooth features into sharp relief. A low hum of energy filled the small room.
Yousei opened her eyes, and the calm strength in the dark gray was so familiar. She commanded the energy in the room, serenely in control of this ethereal light.
Sai watched with rapt attention, forgetting to breathe.
The light began to ebb away, retreating into the aged blade. Eventually it faded into nothing. The room was left looking just as it had before, but something had changed. Where before Sai had seen fear and denial in Yousei's eyes, now he thought he could detect the first fearful steps towards something greater.
"Where did you get that sword?" Sai's question seemed unnatural in the silence that the sword's display had left behind.
"My father came home with it one day," she recounted. "It had always been on the shelf, but it was broken, and one day he had it fixed. My mother said…" She swallowed. "My mother said it was a memento of my father. I was confused…"
Nodding, Sai explained, "It belonged to his father, too. Hatake Sakumo… Your grandfather."
Two tears rolled out of her eyes. She looked ashamed of them, turning her head away. Sai understood. In Root, they had been taught, there was no place for tears.
He mustered the gentlest smile he could. "I can help you find them, if you like," he offered. "Your mother and father."
Her lips parted, but not in answer— it was in a silent sob. Her face was screwed up in a wretched sadness complicated by confusion at the sensation of crying.
Unsure if what he was doing was following proper etiquette but suddenly not caring, he stepped towards her and put his arms around her in a hug. Both of them were stiff in the embrace, but he felt it was more out of inexperience than anything. Sai had memorized the diagrams in his books, but he had never actually hugged anyone before.
"There's someone I want you to meet first," he whispered, his pale chin resting on top of her pink head. "Someone who can help you."
Over her head, he nodded at the silhouette of someone who had been standing outside the door for some time now. The knob turned and with a creak the door opened.
Sai pulled away from Yousei and allowed her to turn towards the entrance, wiping her face hastily with an arm.
A young man stepped inside, tall and muscular. His outfit was an assortment of dull colors; on top of his netted undershirt he wore a torn blue vest, and his pants were simple and gray. The sandals on his feet were those of a shinobi, and a headband bearing the symbol of Amegakure was tied across his forehead, staving off his thick mane of silver spikes.
His guarded black eyes landed on Yousei, staring at her stoically. After taking in her appearance for a long, hard moment, he held out his hand to her. It was scarred and thick with calluses.
"Hatake Takehiko," he introduced himself.
Sai waited for a few excruciating seconds before Yousei extended her own slender hand, shaking Takehiko's warily. "Uchiha Yousei…"
The name made his eyes flicker, but he did not otherwise respond to it. As the handshake ended, he let his arm fall to his side, where his hand sought refuge in his pocket.
Even after having spoken with Takehiko before, Sai was still struck nearly speechless by his uncanny resemblance to his father. Stumbling slightly in his thoughts to fill in the silence, Sai said, "Now, ah, Yousei, Takehiko has come to Konoha in search of his father— he was hoping that Kakashi would have returned here when Root fell. However, it's possible that he's far away and has yet to hear the news."
"You think he's alive, then?" Yousei questioned, talking directly to Takehiko.
Her brother nodded. "I've been trying to track him down for a few years now," he said, his deep voice rumbling in his chest. For a young man he already seemed so old, but that was how it often happened with ninja. "I'm fairly confident he's alive, but until now I've not been able to search in the open."
Yousei's dark eyes flashed back to Sai. "What about my… mother?" Her demand softened as she realized that without thinking she was already starting to accept the idea. All of the pieces fit together and the evidence was so obvious; it was impossible to deny her parentage at this point, but that didn't make it an easy thing to accept.
"They'll be together," Sai assured her. It was unlike him to express unconditional confidence like that, but even though it wasn't a logical fact, somehow Sai knew it to be true. "Find Kakashi and you will find Sakura."
Yousei nodded, and for the first time that evening, she gave Sai a small, hesitant smile.