It was hard to tell whether the lightheadedness was from nerves or the sight of him. In the full light of day, the physical changes in him were much more apparent. There was a gauntness to his frame where before had been sleek muscle. His skin had taken on a pallor that made every scar stand out more clearly: the long slash mark across his chest, the thin slices of numerous kunai that just barely missed striking a fatal blow, the line that bisected his eye.
So many injuries he'd suffered over the years. So many, many scars. Yet none of them could compare to the wounded look in his eye. It was fresh and bleeding with an agony that ripped at the very core of him.
And she was the one who'd dealt that blow.
For a long time, neither of them did anything. They simply stared at each other across the lawn with nothing but the waterfall and the wind to break the stillness. Those few feet of grass might as well have been an ocean; there was much more than physical distance between them.
He took the first step, as always. She stood up as he approached, her stomach knotting nervously and her heart racing. Sakura's fingers twisted together anxiously as he approached, his gaze hardening the closer he got. He was angry still and she couldn't say she blamed him. But it went much farther than that. She could see the fear that lingered in his gaze, and the fact that it was so clearly visible told her how deeply it ran. Even under the absolute worst situations, his poker face was usually unrivaled.
Kakashi stopped at the bottom step and looked up at her. Waiting.
She took a deep breath, smoothed her shaking hands down her thighs, and swallowed hard. "I don't know what to do," she admitted in a thin, broken voice.
His features soften marginally and his fisted hands relaxed by his side. "Talk to me," he replied with an edge of coolness. "That's all I've ever asked of you."
"I… I don't know how. I don't even know where to begin." A tear caught briefly on her lashes before spilling over. It was different this time, born more out of weakness and desperation than grief.
He moved up onto the first step, putting their eyes on the same level. "This here," he said, indicating the reduced space between them with one hand. "This is a good start."
Sakura nodded, her eyes closing as another tear escape. She felt his hand cup her cheek, his thumb catching the drop and brushing it away. Slowly, her fingers trembling, she covered his hand with her own. She sank back down onto the steps and he joined her, sitting close enough that she could feel the warmth of his body along her side. She didn't shy away from it like she would have before, nor did she simply allow it. She embraced the warmth, the life that rolled off of him.
He kept hold of her hand in both of his and remained patiently quiet while she tried to organize her thoughts into words. Her mouth opened, closed, and finally, without looking at him, she whispered, "I never meant to hurt you. I just… It's so difficult."
"I get that," he said, rubbing her hand gently between his, spreading heat slowly back into her skin. "It's hard for me, too. But it wouldn't beas hard if we helped each other."
She didn't know what to say to that, didn't know how to properly explain that he couldn't understand what she was going through. She couldn't let him know that she'd….
He sighed and twisted around on the step so that he was facing her. "I'm here for you, Sakura. No matter what."
A sob caught in her throat. It felt like someone had reached inside her chest and was wringing her heart. There was no numbness to take her, not while he was nearby. The lack of it allowed emotions to ebb through her, some familiar and some so foreign they felt new again.
She nodded and used the back of her free hand to wipe her eyes. "I know."
"Really? Because sometimes I don't think you do. I've tried over and over again to show you that you're not alone, that you can trust me. It always ends with you pushing me further away."
Sakura turned toward him, her eyes darting over his features searchingly. "What do you want from me?" she asked.
Kakashi shook his head. "Nothing. Just talk to me, that's all."
Talk to him. It sounded so easy when he said it, but the reality was much different. She didn't know what to say, where to start, how to put into words everything going on inside her. She wasn't even sure it was possible to quantify it all verbally. None of the words that came to mind were even remotely close to describing what she was feeling or thinking. Even if she was able to relay it all in words, she didn't know if he would want to know the truth.
She heard him inhale deeply and then he was standing up. Her heart lurched, panic shooting through her like poison as one thought screamed through her mind: he was leaving again. Because she couldn't say something. He was leaving her, probably for good, and there was nothing….
A hand was extended toward her, palm side up. A hand with strong, tapered fingers sporting calluses and tiny nicks. She recognized the more prominent scar cutting across the length of it very well.
"Come on," he said, speaking gently but with an edge of authority that even now, after everything they'd been through, was impossible to deny. "I have an idea … but you have to agree to try. Can you do that?"
Sakura continued to stare at his offered hand, hesitant even in light of possibly losing him forever. Her gaze began to shift away … but then she caught sight of the fresh marks on his stomach. The scratches and cuts left from the kunai they'd fought over.
Slowly, she placed her hand in his, lifted her eyes up from his marred stomach to meet his evenly. "Yes," she said, and she was surprised by the amount of conviction that came through in that single syllable.
Relief softened his features, relaxed the tension in his body. His fingers were warm and firm as they close over hers. He helped her to her feet and, still holding her hand, led her back inside.
He took her back to the room, to the rumpled bed and the drape-shrouded windows … and the kunai. It was still on the floor where she'd dropped it, cold and stained with flecks of blood. His blood. She could still feel its weight in her hand, feel the slight resistance his flesh had given as that sharpened edge cut into him.
She turned away, unable to look at it anymore. She didn't want to relive what had happened – what could have happened if her hand had slipped or if he'd pulled harder. It's been a risky, brash, reckless thing to do … but it'd opened her eyes. It'd made her realize that there was still something for her to lose, something she was closer to losing than she'd realized. She wasn't saying that everything was okay now. But she was going to try for him.
The bedroom wasn't their final destination, however. Kakashi guided her by the hand into the bathroom. There was evidence of his interrupted toiletries from that morning: his shaving kit was left open on the countertop with half its contents spilled around it, a wet towel was draped over a bar to dry, and his shirt was on the floor where he'd dropped it. Condensation still beaded across the frosted window pane, catching in the sunlight like fresh ice droplets.
He let go of her hand to lean over the wide bathtub and turn the spigot. Water flooded from the faucet, falling into the oblong tub. He closed the drain, placed a couple towels within reach on the closed toilet seat, and added a little bath oil to the water. Soft floral scents permeated the rising steam: chamomile, lavender, a touch of sandalwood. All herbs meant to calm and sooth.
And then he reached for the waistband of his pants.
Her eyes widened slightly when the fabric fell around his ankles. He kicked the pants over to join his discarded shirt.
He was standing naked in front of her. Heat rose up her neck to her cheeks as she stared at his bare body, feeling awkward and unsure which was strange considering she'd seen and tasted and explored every inch of his skin. She knew the line of his hip bones very well, recognized the small birthmark on his right thigh. Her hands were familiar with the feel of his arms, the firmness of his rear … his penis, both aroused and at rest. But for some reason, and maybe it was because it'd been such a very long time since she'd seen him so intimately, it felt like the first time all over again.
Her thoughts were disrupted when he turned from her and stepped into the tub. He shut the water off and leaned back on the far side of the tub. Facing her. Waiting for her to make a move.
Taking a shivering breath, Sakura reached down and slowly pulled the lower hem of her camisole up and over her head. She didn't know what he was doing or what the point was … but she'd promised she would try. The pale pink fabric hit the tiled floor, and the cross current of warm and cold air made her suddenly exposed nipples tighten. She was very aware of him watching her as she shimmied out of her bottoms, adding them to the small pile of clothing to one side of the door. Trying to ignore his gaze and the blush that was now burning full force across her face, she gingerly stepped into the tub and joined him, sitting with her back to the opposite end so their feet and calves were brushing in the scented water.
He was staring at her across the short distance with a small, satisfied smile on his lips. Even if this plan of his failed – whatever that plan was exactly – she knew he was at least happy to see her keeping her promise. Sakura shifted her knees a little higher to shield her chest and waited for him to explain what they were doing.
"Look at me," he instructed.
It took a little effort, but she managed to peel her gaze from the shower surround to look at him, naked and wet and endlessly patient.
"This is it," Kakashi said, indicating his bare torso with one hand. "No barriers, no mask, nothing to hide behind. Just you and me. So… let's talk."
Talk? Like this? She pushed her hair back behind her ear and tried to find a neutral place to avert her eyes. She understood now what he was getting at, but … well….
Kakashi shifted across from her, slouching lower in the water, and her eyes darted back to him. "Do you remember how we began?" he questioned, bringing his hands together to form a cup. He lifted them out of the water and studied the small pool he now held.
Her brow furrowed slightly. "You mean at the Academy?"
"No, I mean how we began. Us. Do you remember that day?"
A memory surfaced, hazy and indistinct like it belonged to someone else. And maybe it did and maybe she was just rearranging the details to fit the situation: changing the woman's hair to pink, the man's to white. The woman in her head was smiling and the man was glancing at her from the corner of his eye, his gaze a mix of amusement, mischievousness, and a little heat. She recalled the way his eye had lowered to her mouth, the feel of his fingers brushing her cheek as he pushed a stray lock of hair back behind her ear. The more she replayed the memory, the more set the details became. The more realistic. The more hers.
"The sakura festival," she murmured out loud, the words falling automatically from her tongue.
She wasn't looking at him, but she knew he was smiling. "You were supposed to meet Ino—"
"—But she'd ditched me last minute because Chouji had asked her to go with him."
Kakashi nodded encouragingly. "You were standing under the red maple in the middle of the park."
"It was hot outside."
"And you were wearing a pale green yukata."
"Sage," she corrected.
His head tilted questioningly. "Pardon?"
"The color. It was sage, not pale green."
"Ah, my mistake. It still drew attention to your pretty eyes."
Sakura felt the corners of her lips twitch at the compliment. She studied her knees poking through the surface of the water, let her arms relax marginally across her chest. "You bought me dango."
"And it was embarrassing as hell … but worth it. It kept you with me the rest of the day."
Sakura didn't say anything to that. Not because she couldn't or wouldn't, but because she sensed he wasn't done, that there was something more.
After a pause, he took a breath, released it slowly. His breath stirred across the surface of the water, sending gentle ripples out to break against her raised knees. "I still think about you like that, you know," he continued, his voice dropping to just above a whisper. "I still think about the way you used to smile, how it lit up your entire face. I think about how strong your heart is, how much you're capable of feeling toward others." He paused and parted his hands, letting the contained water cascade back into the tub. "I miss that. I miss you."
She swallowed heavily, rubbed her hands up her arms despite the fact that the water was plenty warm enough. "I don't know if I can be that person again," she whispered hoarsely.
"I think you're right," Kakashi agreed, much to her surprise. She glanced up at him, saw that there was an edge of sadness creeping into his eye. "For the last two months, I've struggled and fought to try and turn back time. But today, I realized that can never happen. You can't be who you were before … and I can't make you. All I can do is be there for you as you figure out who you are now."
Her features scrunched briefly in confusion. She shifted uneasily, causing the water to move in response. This wasn't at all what she'd been ready for. She'd expected him to vent his frustrations, to tell her he was through, that he couldn't stay with her anymore. She'd expected that he would pack his bag and leave her there to find her own way back. But this… she didn't know what to do with it.
Kakashi sat up straighter, leaned forward so that his elbows rested on his raised knees. "I'm not going to lie to you, Sakura. These last couple months have been beyond frustrating and painful. You have no idea how many times I've come close to just walking out, to saying to hell with this. It's been tough trying to keep it together while you fall further and further apart."
"Then why didn't you leave?" she asked, unable to keep the bitter bite from her words. "Why did you keep coming back?"
"Why do you think?"
Sakura closed her eyes, bit her lower lip to try and keep the tears in check. She was so tired of crying. Shaking her head, she whispered, "I don't know."
That one word made her eyes open, made her look across at him. A faint smile was curving his lips, one that was equal parts sad as it was happy. Even if she didn't say it, he knew she really did know the reason why. She just didn't want to believe he still loved her, couldn't believe it. It wasn't real, a voice in her head insisted. If he knew what had happened….
He broke eye contact, his smile fading slowly from his lips. He sighed and leaned back again, letting his head tilt back against the surround. "Why can't you believe that?" he asked, and there was a sharper undercurrent that was impossible to miss.
She shook her head again, wrapped her arms more tightly across her torso. "I'm sorry. I wish I could."
Kakashi closed his eye and the muscles in his jaw tightened out of frustration. 'I wish you could, too."
"But I'll try to," she added quickly, peering at him nervously from beneath her lashes.
He lifted his head, both eyes opening to study her closely. A thread of disbelief crept across his features.
Sakura met his doubt head on. "I'll try," she said again, this time with more certainty.
Kakashi was silent for a moment and then his features softened into a grateful smile. But it was only there for a few precious seconds before slipping back into a frown. "I'm sorry."
Brow furrowing in confusion, Sakura asked, "For what?"
He made a vague gesture toward the other room and clarified, "For what happened in there. I shouldn't have done that. It's just … when I saw you sitting there with the kunai in your hand, I…."
"You panicked," she supplied when he didn't finish.
Kakashi's eye closed as he gave the barest of nods. "That's the first time in my life I've ever been so terrified I couldn't think." He paused, swallowed hard, and added, "I don't ever want to feel that way again."
Sakura sucked her lower lip between her teeth and stared down at her bare knees, lost as to what she could possibly say to that. She didn't want to make any promises to him; even now, she still wasn't certain about anything. But she needed to do something to at least show she was making an effort. She wrapped her arms more snugly across herself, her feature flinching a little at the soreness left behind in her muscles from the earlier outburst of chakra. An idea came to her, one that carried the sharp edge of fear with it.
Slowly, she shifted onto her knees in the water, immediately drawing his attention to her. Without looking him in the face, Sakura positioned herself between his legs. Her hand was trembling as she placed it on his stomach, right over the shallow cuts left behind by the kunai. She took a deep breath, released it, and held the next inhalation in her lungs as she tentatively sought out the chakra inside of her.
It came quickly, almost joyfully, to her summoning, as if it was ecstatic to be put to use again. Her insides churned sickeningly at the familiar green glow being reflected up from just under the water's surface, glimmering along the swirls of bath oil like tiny strands of jewels. In her mind, the skin she touched wasn't so firm and warm. It was grey-tinged, mottled with deeper purple-black splotches hardly visible beneath all the gauze and tubes connected to machines.
The bathroom shifted, darkened. Instead of pleasantly aromatic scents, the pervasive burn of medical grade antiseptic invaded her senses. In the background of her mind, she could hear the machines: the hushed sound of the ventilator, the underlying growl of the temperature regulator. The uneven ping of the heart monitor. And with each ping came an accompanying throb from beneath her hand, moving into her through the chakra connection, driving up her arm until it became her own. That was her heart struggling to pump blood through damaged tissue. Her heart fighting for each pulse and the one after. Her heart that—
A large, warm hand covered hers. Sakura gasped as she was ripped away from the darkened room and thrown back into the slowly brightening bathroom. She blinked rapidly, trying to dispel the lingering images and sensations from her eyes. A violent shudder ran down her spine as she quickly yanked her hand away and back-peddled to her side of the tub again, the remnants of that secondary heartbeat still pulsing through her veins.
Kakashi was watching her, his features carefully neutral. But there was an intensity in his open eye that said he had noticed, and noted, her response and was even now processing what could have caused it.
Still shaking, Sakura pushed her hair back over her shoulder and tried to regain control of her breathing. "The water's getting cold," she commented, hoping he would take the hint.
Several seconds passed where he continued to study her before he nodded and murmured, "Yeah. I think we're done for now."
She nearly let out a sigh of relief as he got to his knees and flicked the drain open. The tub let out a low, growling gurgle as it sucked the water down, slowly exposing her skin to the cool air. Her flesh broke out in protesting bumps and she gratefully accepted the towel he handed over to her. He stepped out of the tub, wrapped the towel around his waist, and scooped his pajamas off the floor.
"I'll go down and get us some breakfast while you finish up in here," he offered, pausing in the doorway to the bedroom. "Anything in particular you'd like?"
Sakura almost shook her head, but stopped and said, "Tea? And maybe some fruit?"
Kakashi's lips lifted briefly. "Sure thing."
She remained seated in the tub, the lower edges of the towel dragging in the remaining bath water, while he got himself around. It wasn't until the door to their room latched behind him that she got up, finished drying off, and wandered into the other room with her pajamas balled to her chest.
He hadn't just been getting himself dressed, she realized as she looked around the space. The bed was made, the curtains that had been obscuring the view of the private hot spring were drawn back to let in the natural light, the clothing he'd picked out for her was folded neatly on the dresser.
And the kunai was gone, as was his hip pouch. The only thing that he'd left behind was the worn copy of Icha Icha sitting next to her clothes. He wasn't taking any chances that there would be a repeat of that morning.
Sakura approached the dresser slowly, her stomach fluttering with uncertain fear at the glint of sunlight reflecting back from the mirror. The last time she'd looked at it, she saw a woman on the other side. A woman she'd wanted to make go away. She hesitated just outside of the frame to collect herself and, with a deep breath in, took the final step.
The woman staring back at her was very much the same, but not quite. She was still too thin, still had a sickly coloration to her skin. Her hair was still too long and lanky, her green eyes were wide and haunted … but just beneath the surface was something that hadn't been there mere hours before. She didn't know what to call it, only that it was new and broke through the sadness like a ray of light in the dark.
Her gaze fell to the clothing Kakashi had left out for her: tight navy pants she worked out in and a bright green t-shirt that she only wore when she was cleaning. There was an enormous bleach stain on the back from when she'd accidentally fallen backward onto the floor she'd been scrubbing.
Sakura looked again at the woman in the mirror, saw that her lips were twisted ruefully, and murmured, "Well, what do you expect from a man who doesn't know the difference between sage and pale green?"
She opened the dresser drawer, shoved the clothing he'd picked out back inside, and chose something else from the very limited selection instead.