Tsunade had started training Sakura because the girl had had the guts to ask and even though she had thought the girl would quit before the end of the first week, Sakura had come back time after time. Jaded though she was, even she had found herself admiring her new charge's determination because that was what it took to be a kunoichi. The harder she pushed, the harder Sakura pushed back.
She didn't like to think of Sakura as a daughter, though. It brought up too many painful what-ifs and should-haves and she found herself reflexively reaching for a bottle. But she was as proud as any mother. Haruno Sakura was her work of art; her opus. It would not be much longer before she knew that when death came for her she could go peacefully with the knowledge that Konoha would be safe in the hands of her apprentice and those of her generation.
So, all of this considered, she disliked seeing the girl out of sorts. It was clear in her demeanor, in the way she would begin to speak only to silence herself and make a lame excuse that something was troubling her and it put Tsunade on edge. The woman's formative years had been spent watching over two reckless boys, her training had made her a caretaker, and years as the Hokage had seen to only strengthen her inherent need to see problems resolved. She had become infamous among the other Kages for the possessiveness she showed her people. They were not just soldiers—pawns on a board to be sacrificed. They were people with families and children and futures and they were hers.
And Sakura was one of the dearest to her heart.
"For the love of the gods, girl! Just tell me what's wrong!"
For the fourth time that day, Sakura had fumbled a pile of folders that were now strewn across the floor. However, the girl's wide eyes were focused on the Hokage, hesitation and confusion mixing in the dark, jade green. "Excuse me, Shishou?" she asked, her voice very small.
Tsunade had both of her elbows propped on her desk as she rubbed at her temples with her eyes squeezed shut and her mouth pressed into a tight line. Taking a breath, she sat back in her seat. "How many days now have you dropped things and tripped over yourself and started sentences only to never finish?" the woman asked. She sighed and leveled her apprentice with a look. "This isn't like you, Haruno. What's wrong?"
For a minute, Sakura looked like a frightened doe. Then the fear receded and she looked like a guilty genin caught fibbing to the instructor. "I'm sorry, Shishou," she said softly. "I… I've had a lot on my mind lately."
"You're not fretting about performing Hatake's surgery, are you?" the woman asked with a frown.
Her student shook her head. "No… well, yes. A little, maybe, but that isn't the problem right now." She sighed and looked to the Hokage with an expression that made her look painfully young and aged beyond her years all at once. "I've wanted to tell you so badly, Shishou. I really have. I've just… I haven't been able to find the words to explain myself and I'm so afraid…"
Tsuande's frown deepened. "Afraid? Of what?" she asked. She rose from her seat and rounded her desk to lean against its front, ignoring the files at her back. Paperwork could wait. She had something far more urgent to attend to. "Sakura. Tell me what's bothering you. It isn't those fools you call your team, is it?"
The girl actually laughed at this and her teacher was relieved to see the smile on her face, however temporary it was. "I love those fools," she replied and with that the smile fell.
"Sakura," Tsunade prompted again, patiently despite everything she felt to the contrary.
For a moment, she lost the girl to something else far off in her own head, but just as swiftly Sakura returned and with her came a new sort of resolve that straightened her shoulders and hardened her eyes. The Sannin inhaled through her nose and barely suppressed her smile. It was a swift, sudden change that overtook the girl in an instant and she was glad for it; glad to see the girl that had been absent from the office for some time now.
Tsunade raised an expectant eyebrow. "Yes?"
The pinkette drew in a deep breath and then let it out slowly. "Tsunade-sama, Kakashi and I are seeing each other. Romantically. I love him."
Try as she might to forget it, Tsunade was fast approaching seventy—a landmark for someone whose career boasted an average life expectancy of twenty-seven years, give or take. In that time, she had seen many strange things, had watched many miracles be performed, had performed a few of her own, and knew intimately both the wonder of love and the terrible pain of loss. She was a veteran, not just of the ninja world, but of life as well. Few things existed in the world that could surprise her anymore.
And it would have shocked a great many people to realize that Sakura was a rich source of those surprises. Even after all of their years together as student and teacher, she still was.
Like everyone, she knew very well the tragic story of Sakura's first love, but she also understood better than anyone else how terrible it was to love someone and then realize that you had loved a shadow all along. And like everyone else, she had feared that Sakura would never recover from that. She had watched, up close, as the girl's profession and experience broke her down. The flighty romantic and whatever had remained of her innocence had gone forever from the girl, peeling away and fading into nothing, leaving behind a battle-tested veteran, as hard as tempered steel. The rumors whispered that she would end a spinster like her master, lonely with just paperwork and a bottle to keep her company.
As for Hatake, he had been considered beyond help for so long that his family line was already thought of as deceased. He lived now as the ultimate cautionary tale superiors whispered to their subordinates when warning them about the unseen consequences of their career; how more than their bodies would end up broken; how many deaths a man really could die before he was dead in the ground. That, they said, was what was what a living casualty looked like.
Now, apparently that had changed.
At first, Tsunade thought that she should feel angry. It seemed only right. Hatake was fourteen years the girl's senior, had once upon a time been her teacher, and was even now her commanding officer. Even though Sakura was not her daughter it seemed only right to immediately seek out the man to castrate him.
And yet Hatake was a good man. A flawed man, yes, a lazy bum and an eccentric (to put it politely), but good and there were few men in their world of bloody battlefields and shattered innocence for which that could be said with utter honesty. Hatake Kakashi had earned and refused more commendations than any other ninja of Konoha in all of its years of standing. He was quick to protect the innocent, willing to ignore orders if he thought them wrong no matter the possible consequences, and had never earned a citation for anything other than tardiness—citations that were mere footnotes when compared to the reams of paper dedicated to listing his successes and honors. He fought for the good in the world, even if he had long ago been given every reason needed to give up.
On reflection, there were few others who came as close as he did to what Tsunade wanted for her not-daughter.
"I know that others might not approve, but I don't care, Shishou. Please, understand," Sakura was saying when Tsunade finally came back to herself. "I know how strange it probably seems, but I've never felt this way about anyone." A laugh bubbled up out of her, sounding part joyful and part incredulous. "I never thought I'd feel this way about anyone."
"You'll get hurt, Sakura."
It was the coldest truth in their lives. In the end, it'd hurt. Nothing could be done to deny it or blunt its cutting edge. Tsunade didn't even have to say it. Sakura had been a medic long enough to know it for herself, to witness it as the only promise their lives held was granted.
To her surprise, the girl just shook her head and another little laugh came from her lips as her eyes became glassy with tears. "I don't care," she said. "Shishou… you and Dan…"
Dan. His name alone brought a hundred thousand memories and sensations to the forefront of her mind and even without an explanation she knew exactly what Sakura was trying to tell her.
Tsunade wasn't a romantic at heart, like Sakura had been once or like Jiraiya had been and probably was even still wherever he was. As a girl she hadn't dreamed of true love and marriage, but of kunai and hand seals. So it was not out of some romantic notion that she had never loved again after Dan's death. It just that she knew it would never be as it had been with him and whoever she might take as a lover after him would have to live in that shadow, which wasn't fair. Even so, she had not ever—would never—regret having loved that man.
(When he had found her grieving for Dan years after his death, Jiraiya had tried to comfort her. Even though she had dismissed him then for being a silly idealist, she clung to his words even still. "Some people," he had said with a big smile as he laid a massive, warm hand on her shoulder, "Will never have what you two did. That is a tragedy far greater than any other I can imagine. I envy you both terribly, Hime. I truly do.")
"I'm not afraid, Shishou."
Tsunade surfaced again from her recollections and saw how the girl's shoulders were still squared and her jaw still set. Yes, this was her masterwork, she thought fondly as something inside of her swelled to bursting with pride.
"I love him," Sakura said again, with more resolve. "I want to be with him and nothing is going to tell me I can't or shouldn't."
What could possibly be said to that? Any argument would be like throwing a pebble at a mountain and expecting it to yield. Tsunade would know. She had groomed this girl to withstand it all. "He makes you happy then?" she asked.
Tsunade knew that Sakura's concerns were more practical; that some people might talk, that their team might be separated given the circumstances, but that all of that would be silenced in an instant by the Hokage's approval. Her concerns, however, were only for the girl that she had molded from a lump of clay into this kunoichi standing in front of her.
"Yes," the girl replied. "And… I think I make him happy too."
It was a simple statement which spoke volumes, but as Tsunade thought of it, yes… yes, she had noticed that. Looking back upon it, Hatake had been different for some time now; a new man, it seemed. Usually it looked as though he walked beneath the weight of his grief, slumped and palpably unhappy. As of late, however, something had changed. There was easiness to his manners that seemed to come from real contentment instead of mere complacency. In their meetings together—usually with regards to Naruto—he was quicker to joke, to laugh, and to smile in a way that Tsunade knew was more genuine than the showy squeeze of his eyes.
This thought made her smile. Of all her men, she felt closest to Kakashi for a reason that she could never accurately put into words. Maybe it was simply that, of all her men, she trusted him the most implicitly. It was not a conscious thing. She simply found herself saying things to him that she would not ever confide in her actual counselors and a part of her hoped he would be something similar for Naruto when that day came.
She looked to her apprentice then and could almost see it. Despite initial appearances, the two were very similar in temperament and had known one another as friends and comrades longer than some married couples had before their nuptials. Yes, maybe the age gap was a little strange—he had watched her grow up, after all. But in so many ways, Sakura had watched him grow up too. There was even some part of the Hokage that was certain that Sakura had helped him do so.
She thought of the two of them speaking quietly to one another in meetings and exchanging secretive grins and Sakura trying hard to hide her laughter, even though she was terrible at it. She had seen them walking together too, usually with the girl's hand tucked into his elbow or at a distance permitted only by the closest of companions. Not to mention that he had been so patient with her research and the gods knew that Kakashi was never patient when it came to being poked and prodded by anyone of the medical persuasion.
"I've seen his face."
It might have seemed like a radical non-sequitur in any other conversation, but Tsunade understood it too and could not help but laugh aloud. She could count on a single hand the people who had seen Hatake's face and it had never been voluntary on his part. "He's a pretty thing, isn't he?" she asked with genuine mirth.
Sakura laughed and smiled in a way that Tsunade hadn't seen her smile in a very long time and that settled it for her.
"I'm happy for you two," Tsunade said finally and she smiled at the way her apprentice's eyes went wide. "And given your history I don't think it'll be a problem for you to continue working together, but the first time you two get caught fooling around on a mission, so help me I'll skin you both. You're only getting this chance because I trust you. Don't make me regret it."
The girl laughed. "I promise, you won't have to worry about it," she replied, taking on that bright, eager look that she approached all of her training with.
The Hokage nodded and then stifled a smirk as she settled back against her desk. She just couldn't miss this chance. "Speaking of which," she began with a heavy drawl. "You are using protection, right?"
Sakura blushed to the roots of her hair and the older woman laughed heartily, because there were few things more fun than taunting her subordinates. "You're a dirty old woman," the girl muttered, hiding her face behind one hand.
"Old?" Tsunade cocked an eyebrow. "Seems that we need to take a break and go to the training fields. I'll show you old."
The girl actually laughed at this and although she was still blushing she gave her mentor a wry look. "Just as long as you think your bones can take it."
The only thing that Naruto remembered wanting as a child (besides the whole Hokage thing and ramen, because he always wanted ramen) was to have someone—anyone—that loved him. And perhaps, as a twenty-year-old man looking back, he had wanted, even more than the first thing, someone to love in turn.
Iruka had filled a tiny portion of that hole in his heart, but it was like kicking a bit of dirt into a grave. Still, it had been something.
Maybe, on reflection, Sakura hadn't been the best choice to continue filling that hole. She had been, by her own admission, awful to him (she had soaked the front of his coat with tears one night while apologizing for everything after a mission had left him badly wounded). But she was the prettiest girl he had ever known and she wasn't mean to him because of the Kyuubi but because he was annoying. To a young boy starved for even the tiniest scrap of human affection and recognition, it was all he had needed.
On more reflection, he would have never traded those first years of bruises and goose-eggs for anything, because they had eventually become a team and that had all just seemed to be a part of the process (and he could admit that he had deserved a great lot of them). She knew that she could rely on him and in time she had become someone he could count on too (even though he always had). They had fought together and lost their innocence together to the grief that had nearly eaten them both alive. Then they rose from those ashes together.
To think that Sakura could eventually be more to him was—he realized some time ago—insane. They had a bond that was deeper and thicker than blood, one that had been forged in the fires of war and combat, and even though he had once dreamed of being the one to hold her hand and kiss her lips he found that he didn't long for it anymore. What they had was enough—was everything. Trust and real friendship were such rare things in their world and he knew with the same certainty that he knew he'd die for her that she would do the same for him. So, the idea of some other man taking her hands and kissing her lips just didn't bother him like it might have once. Not as long as they were worthy of her, at least. Not as long as they made her happy, like she ought to be.
"Naruto," Kakashi prompted from his right, his voice low and gentle.
They were standing together on the little red bridge that he had crossed countless times since childhood to reach the training fields. His elbows were propped on the railing while Kakashi stood with his back to it, hands in his pockets, and his chin tucked to his chest.
Naruto shifted a little. It wasn't just Sakura he had to think about, he knew. Kakashi was just as much his friend, his mentor, his teacher, and his first pick for a counselor whenever Baa-chan decided it was time to give him that damn hat. He was the closest link Naruto had to his own parents and another member of the ramshackle little family he had put together over the years. He wouldn't have survived his genin years without the man.
Sakura and Kakashi. It wasn't all that crazy, really. Sure, the news was bit shocking, but the idea of them being together wasn't all that hard to imagine. In fact, he saw it nearly every day and now he realized how easy it fit. Maybe Sakura was younger than both him and Sai, but she had always seemed so much older than every one of the Konoha Eleven and she and Kakashi seemed to understand each other.
"Are you guys happy?"
Kakashi glanced over at him and then nodded. "Yes."
The man let out a startled laugh at that and Naruto realized that it had never seemed to come that easily to him in the past. Kakashi had been laughing a lot more lately, now that he thought about it. "Even me," Kakashi confirmed and then added after a moment's thought, "Especially me."
Naruto straightened a little when he saw something unfamiliarly warm and soft in his old teacher's one eye. "You love her?" he asked, even though the answer was apparent.
Kakashi simply nodded.
The blond nodded too and looked down at the water running under the bridge moment before glancing at the man next to him and then looking away again. "I wish I'd noticed something," he began. "You'd think I would… or maybe you wouldn't." He laughed. "Maybe it's all this running around Baa-chan's got me doing."
"We were being discreet. If you had noticed, we'd need to go to Tsunade and turn in our headbands."
"Nah, I'm not talking about that," Naruto replied, but he was grinning all the same. "You two have been a lot happier lately and, let's face it, neither of you are usually the life of the party." He chuckled a little and turned completely to face his friend and teacher. "I hope you didn't think I'd be mad."
"Not mad necessarily," Kakashi answered, his tone as even as always. "I know how you felt about Sakura when you were young and she was worried… well, Sakura always worries for you and Sai, warranted or not. She always will."
"That's our Sakura," the blond boy agreed with a nod. "And I did love her. I do love her. It's just not nothin' like it was." Nothing was as it had been. He had said that aloud once to Tsunade, who had then clapped him on the back and congratulated him on finally growing up. "I thought I knew what I wanted back then, but I have everything I've ever wanted. I guess that's what time does—makes you smarter. Even me." He shook his head as if to dismiss that. "You guys are the family I never had, you know. All I want is to see you happy—both of you. If you are, then that's all I need to hear. I'll knock out the teeth of anyone who says anything bad about it."
Kakashi's stare was somber even when he offered a hand out to Naruto to shake, which the blond eagerly accepted. It surprised him when the man's other hand came to rest on his shoulder. "Thank you, Naruto."
Even Naruto, in his great and vast denseness, understood that the Copy-nin was saying so much more than just what the words meant at face-value. And the last part of him that was grudging in his acceptance, that thought that no one would ever be good enough for Sakura-chan and that clung to those childish feelings he had once held for her, yielded and he smiled despite himself.
Then the moment was broken and they both turned when they heard a pair of familiar voices approaching, carried on the suddenly brisk, evening wind. They spotted Tsunade and Sakura coming from the way of the training grounds, both of them covered in bits of dust and gravel and chatting quietly.
Naruto grinned to himself at the way Kakashi's eye zeroed in on Sakura and he wondered to himself if he had ever looked that lovesick.
Clapping the Copy-nin on the back, he started across the bridge to meet the women, who had only just noticed them in turn. Sakura looked worried and opened her mouth to say something, but Naruto stopped her and swept her up into his arms before she could utter a word. She returned the embrace with no hesitation and equal fierceness, squeezing with all of her strength until he thought his ribs might break. After a moment longer, he set her down but did not let her loose as she babbled quietly next to his ear that she really did love Kakashi. "Please understand, Naruto."
The last dregs of regret dissolved. "I do," he said.
She smiled at him then in a way that he hadn't seen her smile since they were kids.
Naruto beamed back at her and then turned away to fall in beside Tsunade and follow her the long way back to the Hokage Tower. Sakura went to Kakashi, who was waiting for her still on the bridge and when the blond did chance a look back over his shoulder he had to smile at the look on Sakura's face when Kakashi took her hand. Then Tsunade slapped him on the shoulder and he turned away to give them their privacy.
"That's going to take some getting used to," Sakura admitted finally during their walk back to her house. She was just holding Kakashi's arm, her hand tucked into the crook of his elbow, but even so they were earning some of the strangest looks. Ah, the Konoha grapevine. It was a study of human nature unto itself. Although, it was hard to say what they had heard and what they hadn't. "Does it bother you?"
Kakashi looked up from his book and then over at her. "What?"
She rolled her eyes. "Never mind."
The truth was that she didn't even particularly care. In time, everyone would just get used to it—she'd make them if it was necessary.
Speaking of which, Sakura paused when she saw that they just across the street from the Yamanaka flower shop. She could see Ino inside behind the counter, chatting avidly with a customer. It was hard to say what she knew and what she didn't, but it only felt right to confirm it personally, Ino being her best friend and all.
"Kakashi, could you wait out here a second?" she asked.
He glanced up at the shop sign overhead and then looked down at her and creased his eye in an understanding smile. "Going to brave the lion's den?"
"If I need back-up, I know the signal."
Kakashi nodded and moved to lean back against a nearby streetlamp as she went for the door. She paused briefly outside to hold the door open for the elderly customer Ino had been talking to and then stepped inside. She was hit in the face with the heavy smell of greenery and flowers and smiled at the familiarity of it and the tinkling bell overhead.
"Welcome to the Yamanaka Flower—oh! Hey, Forehead!"
Sakura smiled. The shop was blissfully empty save for the two of them and she approached the counter to lean on it as Ino put aside an arrangement she had begun fiddling with to join her. "Hey, Pig. I don't plan on staying. I just wanted a chat."
"I'm always good for a chat," Ino replied. "Gods, you wouldn't believe what the grapevine's yelping about today. I mean, I hope we're better at info gathering on missions than we are when it comes to this townie stuff because sometimes I swear they just reuse past things. I mean, there were rumors about you and Kakashi going around months ago, but they're acting today like that's new or something."
Reflexively, the medic cringed. "Um, rumors?"
Ino flapped a dismissive hand. "About you guys being together because you always spend so much time with each other, but you're a team! I mean, duh. Talk about reading into things. I'm just disappointed that that's all they can buzz about. I was hoping for something juicy to liven up shop work today, but it's all just recycled material. So, what's new with you?"
Sakura barely suppressed the urge to laugh and instead settled for a weary kind of grin that her friend raised a skeptical eyebrow at. "Ha, well, I suppose it's your lucky day because… it's true. I mean, Kakashi and I are together. Dating. Whatever. I just told Tsunade this morning, so they must have heard it then or something."
For a minute, both girls simply stared at one another. Then a second later, Ino came flying across the countertop and flung her arms around her friend as she howled loudly enough that Kakashi and every other passerby heard it from the street: "I KNEW IT!"
With Ino in the know, the whole village would be privy to their personal life before morning, but Kakashi didn't much care for anything but the way Sakura was smiling when she rejoined him on the street.
They walked around the village together until the street lamps were lit before finding themselves on his street. Without a word, Kakashi took Sakura's hand and led her up the stairs to his apartment. The dogs were gone—they usually were at this time of night—so they had his apartment to themselves and he didn't hesitate to kiss her once the door was shut and sealed behind them.
It hadn't been his plan to drag her immediately back to bed, but that was the direction they found themselves moving in, in tandem, her movements just as eager as his own.
This was bliss, he thought as her right hand tangled in his hair and the other began to pull at his shirt while he fumbled with the clasps of her jacket. He had expected to die alone in some cold, foreign land forgotten and unloved and once upon a time he would have been content with that. But this? He would fight to come back to this; to Sakura and the warm circle of her arms, her smell, her smile, her voice, and that way that she looked at him that made him feel whole and alive.
They left a trail of clothes behind them on their way to the bedroom and they hadn't even reached the door before she braced her forearms against his shoulders levered her weight up. He lifted her easily and brought her firmly against him. Her ankles hooked together behind his back, her hips pressed into his, and the mesh of her undershirt rubbing against his bare chest and causing a delicious kind of friction as his fingers dug into the flesh of her backside.
It would destroy him to lose this, but he'd risk it. It was worth it; the feelings that overwhelmed his heart that he had previously thought dead, the way her hair spilled across his pillows when he laid her back in his bed, the sight of her smooth, ivory skin and the way her lean, pliable muscles rippled and flex as he peeled away the last of her clothes and cast them off into some cold, forsaken corner of the room. He pressed an almost reverent kiss into the hollow of her hip and Sakura gasped his name in a way that made his whole body burst with heat. He had lived for so long in isolation and starving for something he had never thought he needed that giving it up now would be tantamount to cutting off his own hand.
She pulled on him and as he fell into her kiss he took another greedy breath of her. His thoughts fled and she filled his lungs and mind.
They made love and then afterward, in the brief spells of wakefulness that came between bouts of rest, he worshipped her again with his hands and mouth, willing his actions to show her again what this meant to him. After all, he couldn't say it with words just yet, but he wanted her to know he felt it all the same. But if the way she said his name and clung to him, the way she woke him from the haze of sleep with her own wandering hands and soft, pliant lips was any indication then he had nothing to fear.
That thought coupled with the warm contentment that had settled deep in his bones and her mere presence—the scent of her and the way her skin stuck to his as she curled up on his chest in her slumber—were enough to eventually lull him to sleep.
There were a lot of things said over the next several months and while there were those who did whisper behind the pair's back for the most part there was no great fuss made over the recent upgrade their relationship had taken. No one thought anything of inter-team romances as they were quite common and the age gap was ignored because they were both consenting adults—backed by the Hokage no less. Whatever objections there might have been concerning them still taking missions together were eventually quashed as well as their record remained spotless throughout repeated trials. They were consummate professionals, after all.
For the most part, people were just interested in the juiciest parts. Kakashi was a mystery to the greater portion of the village and that generated much speculation about how exactly Sakura had roped him in. Others, mostly other men, wondered the opposite: how had Hatake gotten himself such a pretty, young thing? The lucky bastard.
And yes, yes he was, but Sakura would have to object to the idea that he was the only one who had lucked out.
Then again, maybe she was biased. She considered this as she stood in the doorway of her bathroom, towel-drying her hair and wearing a loose tee-shirt and panties as she watched Kakashi sleep. He was lying on his stomach, the sheets barely still covering him as they were almost no match for the lazy way he was sprawled out. It was mid-morning and the slivers of sun that crept in from between the blinds fell as stripes across his bared back, illuminating planes of hard muscle and ridges of bone. He had been away for almost a month on a two-man mission with Naruto and had climbed into her bed some time the night before with the excuse that his apartment was too far away. She was pretty sure he just wanted her to make him breakfast the next morning.
Not that she minded. The sight of him hogging her bed, content and happy and at peace, was enough to convince her to do that much for him.
Sakura smiled to herself and took a moment more to admire the very pretty picture he made before tossing her towel to the floor and crossing the room to climb up onto the bed and crawl over to him until she could plant a hand on either side of his waist. "Ka-ka-shi," she sing-songed to him before leaning down and kissing the skin just behind his right ear. "It's almost ten."
He muttered something unintelligible into the pillow and attempted to bury his head even farther into it.
She laughed as she let her weight come to rest on the bed and then leaned over him, lowering herself from her hands to her elbows so her chest pressed into him. Then she laid a kiss against the back of his head, in his hair, and then another to his neck where she nuzzled the shorter hairs there at his nape. He shifted a little at this and she smiled at the way the muscles of his shoulders flexed with the movement as his skin broke out into a rash of goose bumps and turned just the faintest shade of red.
"I'm glad you're back," she said.
He mumbled something that was muffled by the pillow but rumbled in chest and she felt it as a pleasant hum against her sternum. She smiled at this and gently began to trace the scars that criss-crossed over his skin. Many of them were old and had faded with time, but the tissue was ever-so-slightly raised in some spots and the skin was paler than normal, drained of color because of the damaged vessels. One across his lower back was peculiar in its depth, like a piece had been carved out of him and the back of one shoulder was rough and its color was patchy from a long-healed friction burn.
As a medic she understood the physical consequences, as a ninja she saw them as the literal pound of flesh every one of them gave for their village, and as a woman she knew that he bore many more just like them on his heart. She ran a hand up his side from his hip and over his ribs, counting each one to herself and traced a long scar that ran vertically over his side. He'd never accept it, but he was a beautiful man and she, she thought with a private smile, was a lucky, lucky girl
"You said you were going to see your mother," Kakashi spoke suddenly, his head turned just a little so that his words were audible and clear. "How did that work out?"
Sakura hummed to herself. "It was fine. My grandparents were there too. They wanted to talk about you."
He shifted onto his side so that he faced her and Sakura smiled at the stubble that peppered his jaw and cheeks. "How did that go?" he asked as he draped an arm over her lower back, his hand impossibly warm against her skin.
"They weren't exactly thrilled," she said, her torso still propped on her elbows as she rested her chin on one, upturned hand. "I think they've been holding out hope that I'd end up with a civilian and that he'd somehow convert me. That was just Grandma, though. Mostly."
"What about your mother?"
Sakura smiled. "She was actually fine with it and told Grandma to butt-out. It was kind of awesome." She lifted her hair to comb her fingers through his hair and smiled at the way his eyelids happily flagged when she dragged her fingernails gently over his scalp. The smile turned into outright laughter when he dragged her across the tiny gap between them and buried his face against her chest and folded his long arms around her. She slipped one arm under his neck to cradle his head against her as she let the other smooth down his neck and over his shoulder. "I take it you're not going to get up any time soon."
"Mmm, nope. Glad the parent thing went well, by the way."
The medic hummed in agreement and settled into her pillows, content with the warmth of his arms wrapped around her. "It wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't," she said with a shrug.
He looked up at her and she felt his fingertips skim over the dimples at the base of her spine, where they lingered, dipping in and out of those valleys. What was it with him and those things? She'd have to ask someday. "No?"
"No," she replied and she leaned down to kiss his top lip. "Objections?"
Kakashi made an impossibly masculine, shiver-inducing sound low in the back of his throat and Sakura soaked it up. "None at all," he said and his voice had dropped huskily. His fingertips dragged over the same place on her back and Sakura arched into him. "Mm, do you have a shift today?"
"No, but I promised Naruto we'd all go to lunch together when you guys got back and then I have to meet Tsunade this afternoon," she replied. "So, we have a little time."
He hummed at this and settled against her a little more heavily. "Good, wake me up then."
Sakura laughed aloud at this, but knowing that it would be pointless to try to pry him off and that she didn't really want to anyway, she made herself comfortable and settled in to doze with him for a little while. "I'm really happy you're home," she said again, simply because she knew he couldn't hear it enough.
Kakashi let out a long, contented sigh and squeezed her gently. "It's good to be home."
One day's gossip was the next day's old news and it wasn't very long before it was simply a fact that Hatake Kakashi and Haruno Sakura were an item. There was just nothing more to say about it. There were honestly other, juicier things to discuss than the most boring and least gossip-worthy "forbidden" romance to ever plague one of the Five Villages.
However, seasons passed and in time people did eventually begin to wonder about the inevitable. Would they marry? It had long been assumed that the Hatake line would die with Sakumo's sole heir and while the clan had never been large by any means it was a name long associated with Konoha and for it to come to an end would have been a loss for the village. But, no one brought this up to the happy couple in question. Their friends knew better than to speculate too much about the future—their lives being what they were—and any temptation the Elders might have felt to meddle was immediately quashed by the stink eye Tsunade had given them upon broaching the topic.
"I don't know why we bother. This always happens."
Kakashi smiled across the table at Sakura. They had been arm-wrestling and were currently tied, possibly because they were both too stubborn to give in and probably because they wanted to put off doing the dishes a little longer. Sai and Naruto had left together after breakfast, the two of them off to meet some of the other Rookies for a training session.
"We end up deadlocked like this and then it comes down to trying to throw the other one off guard," she said. "I think this is where I usually win."
"Yes, you do," he replied. "Although, I wouldn't exactly consider playing footsie with my lap an honorable method of winning."
"Ninja," Sakura answered with what could only be described as an extremely self-satisfied smile.
Kakashi chuckled back and held her stare as they each took turns testing the other's arm-strength only to be met with an equal amount of resistance. She was beautiful like this, her eyes bright with challenge and her skin and hair positively glowing in the golden light of the morning that poured into her little kitchen. It was kind of breathtaking.
They had been more or less living together for a few months. In as much as it was possible to do so while still having separate places. Their clothes were pretty equally divided between the two residences and rare was the night that they didn't share a bed together. It was a strange arrangement, but it worked just fine for them and neither had any particular desire to change it.
At least, they hadn't.
Maybe it was his age, but Kakashi was more acutely aware of time than Sakura seemed to be. She cared very little for big anniversary celebrations, but he knew, to the day, how long they had been together and he kept count of the days when they were separated by missions. It weighed on him sometimes to think that what time they had together might someday be cut short and he wasn't willing to let any of it pass him by.
She smiled at him in a way that made him want to kiss her. "Hm?"
Her eyes widened and her grip faltered so he reflexively slammed her arm back into the table.
Immediately, Sakura started to laugh; loud, incredulous laughter as she stared at him with a mix of shock and outrage. "You dirty cheater! That was a low trick!"
He smiled back at her. "Ninja," he replied before adding, a little quieter: "And I was serious."
The medic inhaled sharply at this and her eyes widened again. "Serious?" she repeated
Kakashi nodded. "Marry me," he said again, just as evenly as before.
It wasn't a question, but it wasn't a demand either. It was an offer she was free to accept or reject at her leisure, because he understood that this wasn't the same for her as it was for him. She was young and she didn't feel the weight of time quite like he did. Maybe she didn't need the same sense of permanency that he wanted.
Sakura was still staring at him, clearly still thrown.
He shrugged uncomfortably and then plunged forward, not sure why he couldn't stop himself. "We don't have to make a run for the altar. I just… I never thought I'd ever want any of it—a wife, a house, a family. If I have to tell you the truth, the idea's always scared me, but with you… it doesn't. Not so much, anyway." He rubbed at the back of his neck a bit sheepishly as he stared at their hands, which were still clasped at the center of the table. Her grip tightened when he tried to pull away and immediately he looked up at her.
She was utterly silent for a few seconds more and then she smiled. At first it was just the bare, tentative lift of her lips, but then she laughed and it became the wide, dazzling smile he had come to know even as her eyes grew teary. She covered face with one hand out of embarrassment even as she nodded vigorously to convey her answer.
Kakashi slid out of his seat and moved smoothly over to her, turning her chair gently to face him as he knelt in front of her. He was no sooner on the ground, though, than she slid out of her chair and wrapped herself around him. He chuckled into her hair and sat back on his heels to just hold her. "Is that a yes?" he wondered, teasing.
Sakura started to shake all over again, but this time it was with laughter, which she muffled against his shoulder before she pulled away to wipe at her damp and reddened eyes and cheeks. "Yes," she said emphatically, her voice husky with emotion. She laid the fingertips of one hand against his cheek and gave another mirthful little laugh as she nodded again. "Always yes."
There wasn't a ceremony. There wasn't anything more than a silent conversation that had begun one morning with Kakashi slipping a plain, rose gold band onto Sakura's left hand.
Neither of them wanted a fuss made. They wanted to get on with their life as a married couple with the least amount of fanfare possible. So instead of weeks of preparation that would have inevitably drawn far more attention than either of them had any desire to countenance, they accepted a mission together to Tea Country and were married by the first priest they happened upon on their way.
The certificate reached Tsunade by way of messenger hawk and the Godaime could only shake her head and knock back a dish of sake in a toast to the happy couple while Shizune, who was reading over her shoulder, dabbed at her teary eyes and gave a watery smile.
"So, this is kinda a dump!"
Naruto sounded positively cheerful as he, Sai, and Sakura stood together at the front gate of an old house several weeks later. The time-worn building stood by itself on a chunk of land the Nara clan had offered to her and Kakashi for a price that was more than generous. It was an old house that had fallen into disrepair over the years, but it was comfortably situated away from the hustle and bustle of Konoha's main streets and the property itself was beautiful even in its untamed, natural state. According to Shikamaru they'd have to deal with a few of the nosy, younger members of the herd, since the deer had considered it theirs for too long to abandon it, but that seemed like a small price to pay.
"It's not so bad," she replied thoughtfully. "I mean, we'll kind of need the room. Eventually."
"Why?" both boys asked in unison.
Sakura raised an eyebrow at them. "Kids," she said pointedly.
"Oh." Naruto looked thoughtful at this. "Does Kakashi want kids?"
She laughed and pulled at the front of her sundress to adjust the skirt. "Hope so," she muttered before pushing aside the gate. "C'mon, let's take a look around."
"Would we be uncles, then?" Sai wondered aloud as they approached the house's heavy, Fire Country Oak doors that hung on rusted hinges. The grass of the yard was almost knee-high and there were weeds growing up between the ancient, half-grown-over flagstones of the walkway, but there were also wildflowers here and there and two nearby plum trees were bursting with blossoms.
"Hell yeah," Naruto replied. "I like the sound of that. Hey, Sakura, if you have a boy will you name him after me?"
Sakura ignored his whining as she unlocked the doors with a key given to her by Shikamaru and pushed them open. The combined scents of stale air and dust hit her immediately upon stepping inside, but she no sooner laid her eyes on the place that she fell in love. The floorboards wobbled a little under her feet and there was the sound of fluttering wings and chirping that told her they'd have a very disappointed family of sparrows they'd need to evict, but she was swallowed up by a sense of belonging as she stepped further into the opened space and looked around.
Sakura smiled when a pair of arms wrapped around her from behind and she let her weight fall back onto her heels and come to rest against Kakashi's chest. He had come from one of the other rooms, moving silently even on the bowing and bouncing floorboards.
Naruto thrust a finger accusingly at the man. "How the hell did you beat us here?" he demanded, half-amused and half-incredulous.
"I told him we would be here three hours ago," Sakura answered breezily.
"I still beat you here. That's something."
"Only barely, I'm sure," she scoffed back.
Kakashi smiled at her from under his mask and then cast a look around the house again. "The other rooms are nice," he said as one hand came to rest on his hip and the other remained draped around his wife as she leant into him.
"There's a family of sparrows we'll need to throw out."
"I heard them."
"It's not as close to the gates as your place."
"Which I'm not crazy about."
"The privacy will be nice, though."
"Privacy? I'm sorry, I have a hundred ninja a day trampling through my house. You'll have to remind me what that is."
He chuckled and looked down at her again. "It'll need a lot of work."
Sakura nodded and took a deep breath. When she closed her eyes she could almost smell the fresh varnish and the cut grass. "Do you like it?"
Kakashi shrugged. "It's definitely not my apartment," he said. "But that's the point." He paused a moment and then began to nod. "I do—like it, I mean. It'll be nice to have a yard. The dogs will definitely appreciate it."
"You two are the weirdest married couple ever," Naruto noted with a scoff. "Two months in and you still have your own places."
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Where are we supposed to store our things? Neither of our places is big enough for everything we both own. Besides, it's kind of hard to house hunt with as many missions as we've been catching lately," she said. She folded her arms then and gave the boys an appraising look. "So, what do you think?"
"Will we still get to come over?" Naruto asked.
She snorted. "Like I'd be able to stop you?"
He grinned broadly at that. "True," he chirped back. "I like it. I mean, it's gonna need a shit-ton of work done, but I'll help with repairs. Hell, I'll do anything to shake Baa-chan for a few hours a day. What about you Sai?"
"I would not trust you anywhere near carpentry tools," the artist answered blandly, earning a carefully chosen hand gesture in reply. "As for the house itself, I approve. I would also be happy to assist with the needed repairs."
Sakura smiled happily at them. "We appreciate that."
They both waved this off and eventually they wandered outside to investigate the wilderness of the backyard, their voices carrying into the house as they bickered along the way.
Sakura, who had stepped away from her husband to inspect an intricately carved support beam at the center of the main room, turned at length to look at him. "Can we really afford this place?" she asked. "I know that Shikaku-senpai isn't asking us for nearly as much as he should, but it's still so much and it's right in the village. I paid through the nose for my place and it's barely on a whole acre of land. This plot is how big? Almost fifteen acres? And this is house is easily twice the size."
Kakashi shrugged. "We're fine," he said dismissively. "I've been over our finances and we can actually buy it outright."
She blinked at him. "Where did we get that kind of money?"
"From me, mostly," he replied. He smiled at her incredulously raised eyebrows. "I have worked for nearly thirty years and I live in a one bedroom apartment with furniture older than you are. What exactly do you think I spend my money on?"
"Well, you've certainly saved a lot by skipping out on the bill at dinner over the years."
He snorted at this and reached out to take her hand and pull her up against him. His hands settled comfortably on either side of her thin waist and he took a moment to relish the feeling of the soft cotton of her dress against his palms. "I suppose it's some kind of consolation to know you love me and not my money," he said wryly.
Sakura grinned up at him. "Your money doesn't have anything to do with anything. We both know that I love you for your body. Your voice is nice too."
Kakashi pinched her backside in reprimand and she responded with a gentle slap to the back of his shoulder, but neither of them tried to pull away from the other. Instead, they were now neatly pressed together, her arms draped around his waist. He looked up at the ceiling and then his eyes moved down the walls and the doors before they finally landed on the floors, taking in the scratched and faded oak. He bounced lightly on the balls of his feet and the floorboards squawked in protest under him. "Yeah, this is going to be a lot of work," he said again.
She smiled and found herself—not for the first time—overwhelmed by a heady mixture of giddy happiness and tender affection. That had been happening with a troubling frequency as of late, but while Ino told her that she was still under the spell of being a newlywed, Sakura suspected that it would always be the case when Kakashi was so near. She reflexively tightened her grip on his waist, which drew his attention down to her. "So were you," she told him.
"Was I now?" Kakashi feigned hurt for a moment, but the façade fell in an instant. Instead, he lifted a hand to tuck some loose strands of her hair behind one of her ears and tipped his head to one side. "And what's the verdict?" he wondered. "Was it worth it?"
Sakura smiled even wider and curled her fingers into the fabric of his shirt so she could hold him that much closer to her. "I have nothing to regret."
He chuckled and the sound reverberated through his chest and into hers and to the very tips of her toes. She closed her eyes and tried to just soak him in as one of his hands threaded through her hair to hold the back of her head. Then the bow of his mouth, covered by the scratch of his mask, pressed to her forehead.
Sakura pressed her face into the fabric of his shirt and let out a long breath when Kakashi folded his long arms around her. She could hear Naruto and Sai still bickering somewhere of and away from the house and she couldn't help but smile to herself. Change had never much agreed with her in the past, but after changing her mind, a change of heart, and finally changing her name she didn't think she minded it so much. She had someone to lay roots down with and hang onto through the worst of anything.
Worth it, she thought to herself. Nothing had ever been so worth it.
Here it is. After the long, long wait the final chapter. As most of you know I've been under a lot of stress lately, but I apologize anyway for making you all wait so long. Honestly, I've been sitting on this for a few days and fussing over it like a mother hen. However, I did eventually come to the conclusion that no version would ever feel good enough, this being the final chapter of what has been a labor of love.
I could complain about how unhappy I am with how this chapter turned out, as per tradition, but I'm not going to bog you down with that. Instead, I find myself just reflecting on this story and the response to it-yours and mine. Romance-looking at how two people fall in love-is a genre that gets a copious amount of shit because it gets mistaken for simply being about sex and this story did start as me wanting to post something that showed it didn't HAVE to be that way. Rather, it really shouldn't.
In literature, the sex is the least interesting part of any romance-for the most part it's as sexy as reading an IKEA instruction manual. Romance as a genre gives you an opportunity to really explore the characters as people and lets you dive into their minds. I hope this story helps me make that argument a little by showing it in practice, because writing is art and art should make you FEEL something and I don't consider porn art. Watching porn might arouse you, which is indeed a feeling, but it isn't an emotion. After all, watching someone vomit might make you want to vomit, but that isn't what I'd call art. Of ALL genres, romance should be held to this standard. That's why, despite the fact that I think Twilight is a massive pile of shit that fell out of a sewage truck driving away from an asylum for the mentally ill, I try not to rag on the fans too much because it made them FEEL something and I can't dictate what should or shouldn't make someone feel something. Persuasion made the withered, prune-like remains of my heart weep rivers, but some people consider it Jane Austen's worst book. To each their own.
I'm babbling now, so let's get to the REAL point of this note: thank you. To everyone who had read this, to everyone who has followed it and put it in their favorites, to every one who took the time to leave a review: thank you a thousand times. I've met awesome people and made many friends because of this story. It's been an incredible experience and one hell of a ride that I'm glad you took with me. If I made you feel something for even a moment along the way then I consider it a success. I can't ask for more than that as a writer.