The Circle

Chapter 1: A Gift Through Time

Author's Note: First chapter of my first fic! Huzzah!

"Okay, are you ready?"

Sakura sighed.

"Oh, get that scowl off your face, Forehead. You haven't even seen it yet," Ino said, flicking her long bangs out of her eyes with a whip of her head. Sakura just continued to frown up at her friend, refusing to turn around to face the mirror. Thankfully someone knocked at the door then, and based on the timid sound of it, it was their third team member.

"Just look already!" Ino said over her shoulder as she went to answer the door.

This was worse than the kimonos, having to sip her tea like a geisha, and the kneeling to open doors act all combined. Sakura had always been proud of her pink hair, and now her mission required her to dye it. Why exactly, Tsunade had refused to say yet, but anyone attached to their body parts knew better than to question her.

Sakura sighed again. She better just get it over with.

Turning around, she clenched her jaw at the girl she did not recognize in the mirror. Sure, the hair was the same length, and there was the same pair of green eyes looking back at her… but it was so wrong. Sakura looked normal. Her hair was brown. Brown like mud. Ino and Hinata came into the bathroom as Sakura tried to keep herself from grinding her own teeth to dust, looking in the mirror over her shoulder. Seeing their own flashy blond and black-blue hair didn't help.

"Ah, your hair looks nice, Sakura," Hinata said politely, though she didn't meet her eyes in the mirror. She must have seen the murderous look on Sakura's face, as she quickly amended, "It still has a pink-ish tint, I suppose…" Hinata trailed off into silence.

"This was the best color you could pick, Ino-pig?" Sakura ground out.

"Well, yeah," Ino went on unfazed, "anything lighter would have been too close, and anything darker would have made you look paler than Orochimaru. Hinata's right, too. It's not just brown… it's almost burgundy."

"Almost," Sakura chortled angrily. Hinata must have seen the aneurysm pop in her head, because she was looking away now as if Sakura would claw her eyes out any moment.

Sakura sighed again, reaching up to touch it hesitantly. "Well, at least it's still soft. I have to give you that," she said to Ino. The stupid blond practically glowed at that.

"Alright then, we're ready! Let's gooooo!" Ino trumpeted, marching out of the bathroom and appearing to grab a number of random items and cram them into her already-full backpack. Sakura watched herself in the mirror for a moment longer as Hinata trailed out as well. Ever since she'd known the word pink, she'd considered herself special for her hair. Don't be so superficial, Sakura, she told to herself. You don't need pink hair to be a stand-out kunoichi.

Sakura gave herself a grim smile and tried to swallow her disdain for the muddy-haired girl in the mirror. Since the day she'd cut her hair to save her life, her interests had certainly changed. It was safe to say she no longer desired to swim in the shallow end of the pool very often these days with hobbies like fashion and make-up, unlike many kunoichi she knew. However, her hair had always been a part of her identity. Now who was she? Sakura looked herself up and down. She'd always been a thin, lean girl without half the curves of most of her friends. Even when her metabolism slowed somewhat as she entered her second decade of life, her femininity remained subtle. Only when one looked past the flat planes of her stomach and the strength in her legs and arms could one see the way her narrow waist sloped into a gentle hourglass shape, though there was certainly a little more sand in the bottom half than the top. She had always considered her face to be somewhat unremarkable, and now framed in brown hair, Sakura wondered if her ability to put someone to sleep might rival that of a Sharingan eye. Except from her, people would fall asleep out of boredom.

The young jounin sighed, tugging at the hem of her red vest self-consciously and turning around to view her backside in the mirror. Yes, it sucks, but with this mission you'll have enough money to dye everything you own pink, and then some, Sakura tried to convince herself.

Besides, their mission was important… probably. It would have helped her deal with this whole plain hair process if she had any idea what exactly they were supposed to be doing. Tsunade had simply told them to pack light and show up in her office around midnight tonight. Naturally, Ino had found it appropriate to party until they were dragged to work by the skin on their necks, and since she was going to be on their team, Sakura and Hinata had to come too. The latter didn't seem too excited, and as Sakura walked out of the bathroom Ino was cajoling her left and right.

"Um, I'm sorry, I told Naruto I would stop by and say goodbye before we left tonight, so-" Hinata spoke quietly, though she never stuttered anymore. Ever since she and Naruto had really hit it off, Hinata had gained a quiet confidence to her.

"Don't be ridiculous, Hinata! We can't go on this team as strangers," Ino said cheerily, throwing an arm around the dark-haired kunoichi. Hinata looked exasperated and tossed a desperate look to Sakura. She sighed.

"Hinata, just come out for a little while," Sakura said calmly, giving a sweet smile. "Ino won't let you live it down if you don't anyways. I'm sure it won't take long for Naruto to find us." Sakura's smile turned more amused. She was sure that the fellow jounin would turn the town upside-down searching for Hinata if she didn't show up when she said she would. Hinata nodded absently, chewing her bottom lip as if she were thinking the same thing.

"Glorious!" Ino sang, leading them out of the apartment and down the stairs to the streets below. The summer air was thick with humidity and the hum of voices from the bustling shops nearby could be heard.

There was a small pub down the street that they agreed on, mostly because Hinata kept insisting how delicious the garlic fries. Sakura and Ino were surprised by this strange moment of passion from her, and so they let themselves be convinced. Once they got there, Ino steered them directly to the bar bought them the most alcoholic drinks available. Sakura cringed and pushed it away. Hinata took a hesitant sip of hers and only coughed once, to her credit.

"We do have a mission tonight, you know that, right Ino-pig?" Sakura said.

"Have you ever even met our Hokage? She keeps a bottle of liquor in her desk drawer," Ino chortled before she took Sakura's drink and poured it into her own surprisingly empty glass.

"You would know," Sakura said dryly.

"Yes. Bottom left," Ino chirped innocently. Sakura watched her friend's face for a beat, and then burst out laughing. Hinata even joined in with a quiet giggle. Ino patted the quiet girl roughly on the shoulder, making her spill most of her drink.

"Another round over here!" Ino said, and that was far from the last time those words would leave her lips. She met Hinata's eyes for a moment and smiled widely, adding, "Plus some of those garlic fries!"

It only took two more drinks before Ino forgot that Sakura hadn't had anything to drink and stopped insisting, and one drink after that, the dam broke. In Hinata, that is. Sakura watched with a stunned smile as the normally quiet girl blossomed into someone else before her eyes.

Hinata had taken her jacket off, and her deep-blue tank top brought out the blue shine to her black hair. Said tank top was having a little trouble holding on to her greatest assets, and the mesh shirt underneath it didn't hide much. As Hinata shimmied in her seat and the three girls jostled playfully over the last garlic fry, Sakura didn't bother to hold back her laughter, despite how completely they had the attention of every lone man in the room. Even some that weren't alone threw glances their way.

Naruto did find them eventually. At first he insisted Hinata take his coat, but after pressing up against him drunkly and giving him a kiss that even made Ino turn away with a blush, Naruto stopped insisting. He joined them on the bar, and soon enough he was red-cheeked as everyone else.

"-and then, Kiba said, 'No, I don't need your number. I know your scent now.' She - the girl couldn't even look at him - she just ran away - and - and - Kiba just said, 'What?'" Hinata rushed between everyone's laughter. Naruto had spit most of his drink in the bartender's face, and Ino was laying on the bar and banging it with one hand. She looked more like a dying fish in that moment than a kunoichi with a license to kill, and so it became apparent they'd had enough. Sakura stepped over to the bartender discreetly, who was wiping his face clean with a cloth.

She had his attention as she walked up, and it was hard to miss the way his eyes swept down her body and back up, taking his time. Sakura wanted to slap him for being so rude to a paying customer, but she doubted he would help her if she did that.

"My friends over there have had enough," she said, giving what she hoped was her kindest smile. "Could I ask you to avoid all of their further requests for alcohol? The blond ones might be persistent, but at this blood alcohol percentage it's unlikely they'll remember what they're persisting on after a couple of seconds."

The bartender smirked and wiped a clean glass with the same dirty cloth towel, and Sakura could already tell he wasn't taking her seriously. She wanted to smack that stupid cliché out of his hand. The glass was clean already!

"I'm not going to refuse a paying customer, lady," he said in a cocky tone. Sakura's expression hardened some.

"I'm asking you nicely," she insisted, a little more strongly.

"What're you trying to spoil all the fun for? I'll throw in some drinks for free if that's your problem. You girls look like you're having fun over there," he said, but his tone was all wrong. Like having fun was suddenly a very dirty thing to be doing in public, but he didn't mind it.

Sakura felt her eyebrow twitch and her chakra jump to a strong, easily accessed flow. All she had to do was flick a finger at that container of toothpicks, and he would never feel the desire to make another sexual innuendo ever again.

"See this?" Sakura said quietly, still holding her kind smile in place, if not a bit stiffly. She reached up a hand to point to the forehead protector she wore as a hair band. "I'm not just some girl having fun here tonight. I'm looking out for my friends, and if I so much as see your damn face on our end of the bar…"

Kakashi heard them when they came in, but the book in his hands held nearly all of his casual attention, so he didn't look up as Sakura, Ino, and Hinata made a noisy claim at the long corner of the bar. It wasn't unusual for them to do so, after all, and they were hardly the only young people falling all over each other. As the night dawdled on and the bartender continued to refill his drink, he found the letters on the page growing harder and harder to focus on. When the dots above the 'i's started to disappear, Kakashi knew he was suitably intoxicated and he pocketed his book with some coordination difficulties.

An unfamiliar high-pitched laugh caught his attention, and he looked over to see it coming from Hinata. Strange. This was probably her first time drinking so much. Ino, on the other hand, looked red-cheeked and clumsy as usual. She was good at this, much like himself. After a moment he realized Sakura wasn't with them. He must have had more to drink than he'd realized if he'd missed that movement.

The sound of low, angry voices alerted him. She was speaking with the bartender, wearing that sweet smile that held back the bitter undertones of rage she was considering expressing quite soon.

The bartender seemed to be playing with her, and he clearly thought he was being cunning and witty. Sakura's grip on the edge of the bar was vice-like, and he could see the wood straining under the pressure there. With her other hand she was jabbing him in the chest with a finger, and Kakashi could not imagine threats colorful enough to match the ones he was sure she was giving now. He had been under the wrong end of her reckoning enough times to know that expression by heart.

Not interested in seeing the man who had so kindly filled his glass all night strung up by the wrong body parts outside his own establishment, Kakashi pushed himself up slowly and sauntered over, hands in his pockets.

"I think my friend has made her point," Kakashi said as he came up beside Sakura and rested a heavy hand on her shoulder.

"Oh, I don't think -" the bartender started suggestively.

"Sakura, I can't remember… what was the name of that last boyfriend of yours?" Kakashi said, interrupting the bartender, though not looking away from him. His old student picked up his tone immediately.

"Hm… Do you mean Satoshi, or Jin? Satoshi and I were most recent, I suppose, but after our last fight he hasn't been dismissed from the hospital," Sakura said casually.

"Oh, Satoshi? I only met Jin. What ever happened to him?"

"I'm not sure," Sakura sighed, looking at her unpolished fingernails as if she were bored, "but I asked around and no one's seen him. I think he's left town after I pushed him out that window back in the winter when he forgot to save me a snowball from the last snow. Remember that? Bastard…"

Kakashi had to hold back the chuckle then, as that had actually been something he'd done… or forgotten to do… for her when she had spent most of the winter on a scouting mission down South. He had hoped she'd forgotten about that by now.

By now the bartender had wiped the same spot on his glass about thirty times. His expression finally had some ill-hidden fear in it. Sakura turned her smile on him again. "Anyways, you'll remember what I asked, right?"

"Y-yes, of course, ma'am… Sir…" He nodded at each of them before hurrying off somewhere else, despite the moans and cries of Ino and Naruto from down the bar.

Kakashi clicked his tongue off the roof of his mouth and let out a false little sigh. "I don't think he likes you very much. I thought I taught you how to be cuter than that."

Sakura turned to face him then, tapping her chin with a finger theatrically. "Hm, don't recall that at all." She gave a cheeky grin, and Kakashi looked down at her, his hooded eye crinkling. It was only then, looking at her so close and in better lighting, did he realize her hair. It was brown. With a twinge of pink hidden beneath it. Next to her smiling green eyes, it was a sight that threw him into so strong of nostalgia he had to sit down.

Sakura's smile faded a little, and her brows quirked together in an expression between confusion and amusement. She pretended to ignore that he'd still left his hand on her shoulder as he stared at her dumbly. Sakura could feel the heat of it, and the heavy weight of his gaze made her slightly uncomfortable. Kakashi was seriously drunk tonight. She could tell by the slack in his face and posture - even more than usual - and the way his foot was on top of hers and he didn't even realize it.

"Uh, Kakashi? My foot?" Sakura said with a strain in her voice. She didn't want to punch her old sensei now that they had finally gained some common ground since she'd become a jounin and moved into her own apartment, but she wasn't entirely against that option if he didn't let some blood circulate to her right foot soon.

"Huh? Oh, sorry," Kakashi said slowly, moving his foot but still staring at her strangely. Sakura pursed her lips. Then his hand moved from her shoulder and reached out to brush her hair. First his fingers touched the ends of it just lightly, then his palm pressed against the side of her head, cupping her cheek. She felt her cheeks heat up and hoped it wasn't too atrociously obvious in the dim lighting. Sakura's mouth went slack in an almost dumbfound expression.

What was this? Sakura felt her heart begin to race. For all the fake seriously-wounded boyfriends she'd just invented, she really hadn't had much experience in the arena of love… but this touch seemed more than platonic. His gaze grew more heated, and she saw his eyes move to her lips right as she licked them. Sakura was slightly horrified by the fascination she found in that. Kakashi leaned forward just the slightest, and Sakura worried why she had yet felt the temptation to knock his lights out like the pervert he was. Shouldn't she be feeling that? He was leaning closer, the heat and smell from him wrapping around her. Beneath the alcohol and the reek of the bar, there was his own scent. Subtle, but masculine. Sakura waited. Shouldn't that feeling come up right about now?

Kakashi paused then, and his gaze moved to her hair again. In a more platonic matter, he leaned in and sniffed it.

"Did you just dye this today?" Kakashi asked too casually for their proximity. Sakura pressed her hands against his chest and pushed him back so she could look up at his expression, and she quirked an eyebrow as he seemed to lean into her hands on his chest. It wasn't like Sakura hadn't noticed how attractive he was, or hadn't seen the looks on the faces of those who saw him pull his mask down. She knew he was good-looking, strong of body, strong of mind, and a likeable guy, yet she had never once thought he had an interest in anything other than the women in books. For all he'd spoken of his love life, the man was celibate and asexual as could be in her mind.

"Unfortunately, yes," Sakura said cautiously after a pause. "It's for a mission I'm leaving for tonight."

"Oh," Kakashi said lowly. There was a long pause as he looked at her with the eyes of a desert traveler who has reached an oasis. Then he seemed to remember her hands pushing him back, and he took them with his own and held them out in front of him, leaning back to a completely safe distance as he did so. "Oh… Hm." Kakashi seemed reluctant for a moment, and then he set her hands down with a sigh. He blinked. After that, all weirdness was gone from his face and replaced with that timeless, bored look of his.

"Uh, I can't tell if you just winked at me or blinked," Sakura said with a forced teasing tone, as she worked hard to hide the anxious edge to her voice. Her heart was still hammering from those bedroom eyes he had given her, but she refused to think about what all that really meant.

"It's clear you have seen through my masculine wiles," Kakashi said in a deadpan voice that Sakura knew to be sarcasm.

"Sorry, Casanova, do some more research first," Sakura taunted with a grin, patting the pocket that Icha Icha was sticking out of. A pang of realization struck across Kakashi's face that was surprisingly realistic for one of their usual witty spats, and he pulled the book out of his pocket.

Then he held it out to her.

"Here," he insisted when Sakura stood there with a dumb look on her face, having expected another retort from him. "It's for your mission." Sakura snorted and opened her mouth to retort, but something about the intensity that had returned to his gaze made her stop and take the book gently. She held it in front of her like it was something mysterious, then she tucked it in the hem of her shorts. Kakashi's eyes seemed to follow the movement too closely, lingering on where the book was pressed against her hip.

"Well, I ought to be going," Kakashi said, standing up suddenly with a wobble that made Sakura unsure whether she should reach out and help or yell 'Timber!' and dive for cover. He paused on the spot to regain his sense of balance and direction. Then his expression changed, as if he'd just remembered he'd left the oven on at home. Which was entirely possible, and likely.

"Oh, and I'm ticklish only exactly right here, beneath my 10th rib on the right side. Don't tell anyone that." Kakashi pointed to the exact spot, which Sakura knew she could locate easily due to her medical training, but was unsure what in the world this man was talking about. Her flabbergasted look didn't stop him. "Also," he said, raising an accusing finger at her, "you need to trust me more often. I'm right about the blue one. When it comes to it, you can always use my one weakness."

Sakura blinked and watched him for a long moment, waiting for the next weird thing to pop out of his mouth. He simply stared at her, as if this was some normal conversation they were having.

"You mean Icha Icha? I've always known that!" Sakura teased, though her face was still unsure. Kakashi blinked at her blankly, and then gave a slightly lopsided smile.

With that, he turned and gave his characteristic hand-flick wave. "See you around, Sakura." Kakashi walked very straight for a man as drunk as he talked, aside from the occasional overstep or understep every now and then.

Sakura slumped onto a bar stool in defeat. Well, that was weird. What was he on about anyways? Sakura had never been normal, but that had been abnormal even for him. That was saying a lot.

When his frame disappeared out the swinging front door into the dark night, she remember herself and glanced at the time.