disclaimer: not mine
dedication: mmm…to sakura and sasuke and what could have been, before kishimoto decided to fuck sasuke up
notes: experimental, possible character study. maybe not. definitely AU, so don't bitch if it isn't cannon or whatever. I can do whatever I want with it, hence the term AU.

title: imperfect
summary: they're strange and disjointed and imperfect, but that's okay, because perfect is over-rated.

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The day Sasuke-kun leaves, Sakura feels like her whole world is falling apart. She can't stop crying, and her thoughts are constantly plagued by images of him and Naruto and Kakashi, back when things were good and light and happy, when she believed in true love and happy endings.

Her team isn't a team anymore: Kakashi's reclusive again. He's withdrawn completely, avoiding her eyes when they pass in the street, keeping to one-word answers when she tries to talk to him and just generally ignoring her presence.

It hurts at first. Naruto's gone off on a long training trip and left her behind (again, but at this point, Sakura can't bring her mind to keep up its endless mantra of 'it's okay, he'll bring Sasuke-kun home and then Kakashi-sensei will smile again and everything will be alright and he doesn't mean to leave you') so he isn't there to sooth her wounds with bright smiles and an endless round of chatter about anything and everything.

So, Sakura asks Tsunade-sama to take her on as an apprentice, and feels absolutely nothing when she agrees, because for once she isn't doing this for herself, she's doing it for her team because when Naruto comes back and snaps Kakashi out of his funk they'll go off together and bring Sasuke-kun back.

She trains and trains and soaks up everything like a sponge, memorizing the vast medical texts Tsunade gives her and training late into the night until her muscles scream and her knuckles bleed.

A few months after, she shows Kakashi the fruits of her labour, having never stopped trying to communicate with him, the last member of her old team in Konoha. Tsunade looks on with an approving eye, but when Sakura, breathing hard and sweating and grinning in her triumph, turns to Kakashi expectantly, he merely looks up from his book, tells her good job and walks away.

Sakura's smile slips and falls, shattering on the ground like glass as her most revered figure turns his back on her and their team. She wants to scream at him, to rage and break his bones, then heal them and then break them all over again. She wants to cry and bleed and get him to finally look at her and not Naruto and Sasuke. Instead, she stands numb and empty until Tsunade rests a hand on her shoulder and steers her away.

The next time Sakura sees Kakashi, she smiles falsely and gives a chirpy "Good morning, Kakashi-sensei, how are you?"

He walks by without even acknowledging her existence.

After that, Sakura stops trying.

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Sakura is fourteen when she kills her first man.

She had always imagined she'd be far away, in the midst of a fight and too busy to really acknowledge that she had just took a life. She always imagined heroically saving a civilian, justifying her actions when, as a medic-nin, she was supposed to save lives.

It isn't like that at all.

She's a newly minted chuunin on her first B-rank mission without team seven. It goes smoothly – they infiltrate, retrieve the scroll and slip out easily – until they're on their way back and ambushed by guards from the palace they just infiltrated.

Sakura is backed against a corner, fighting a large man with a big sword. He swings it at her, aiming for cutting off her head. She reacts on pure adrenaline: pivoting on her heel, she ducks under his arm and shoves upwards, snapping his arm cleanly in two. He howls and drops the sword. Still in motion from her turn, she sinks low to the ground, grabs the sword and shoves the blade up and into his rib-cage.

It takes surprisingly little effort to kill him. She watches with fascinated horror as his eyes bulge in their sockets and warm blood runs down the sword, staining her pale hands redredred with blood. He topples backwards and she lets the sword go, staring down at her hands in an almost detached, clinical way. The battle is over, and her more-seasoned team is approaching her, wounded but alive. She pushes aside her feelings and draws upon that calm, doctor-persona she's crafted for herself and heals them expertly, one by one.

Only when she is home and alone does she rush to her bathroom and pay homage to the porcelain gods, heaving until there is nothing left to come up. Flushing the toilet, she scrubs at her hands until they are raw and red and finally understands that haunted look in older ninja's eyes, finally understands everything the Academy was trying to preach to her, finally understands why shinobi go straight to the bars after high-ranked missions.

She understands. She understands.

Oh god, she understands.

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Kakashi finds her at the bar three hours later, well into her second bottle of sake and unfortunately, only slightly buzzed. The downfall of having an alcoholic mentor is that after a year of being challenged to drinking games, your tolerance builds to sickening levels. It makes it very hard to get drunk.

He slides into a seat beside her and they sit in silence that is only broken by the soft clink of glass against glass and Sakura pours more sake into her cup and throws it back like a professional. She observes him out of the corner of one eye, taking in the tiredness and the dark air about him. Kakashi is a broken man, she decides. Broken beyond repair, probably. Join the club she thinks bitterly.

Finally, he speaks. "You shouldn't be drinking." She snorts into her cup.

"You're not my mother."

"You're underage."

"Old enough to kill, old enough to drink." She sings, knocking back more sake. "Besides, it's not like you actually care. For all I know this is some drunken fantasy, because the Kakashi I've gotten used to seeing doesn't give a shit about me."

He sighs, sounding far older than he is. "Sakura, you have to understand why I withdrew from you."

She is silent, staring down at her cup with cold eyes and clenched fingers, letting him finish. "I'm not good at getting attached to people. Everyone I loved has left me, one way or another. It would be better if you weren't around me. I'm dangerous. Everything I touch, everyone I care for… they all end up dead or worse. I can't let that happen to you."

"Newsflash, Kakashi," she spits, "We're shinobi. It's in our job description. And you didn't lose everyone. I'm still here aren't I?"

He shakes his head and ignores the last part of her sentence, spikey hair swaying and Sakura blearily wonders how the hell it can possibly oppose gravity like that. "You know that's not what I meant."

She snorts. "I know perfectly well what you mean, Kakashi. Sugar-coating it isn't going to help. So go on, tell me what you really think. I'm a big girl, I can take it." Sakura spins in her seat to look at him and smiles a razor smile. He gives her a look.

"You don't have masks. Don't turn into another Sasuke, Sakura."

He knows instantly he's made a mistake when her face tightens and her lips thin. Her eyes turn to chips of stone as she slams money down on the bar and stands up. "I am nothing like him," she hisses, eyes narrowed in rage. He regards her coolly.

"Yes, you are. You're hiding behind a mask that isn't you. You're not jaded, Sakura. You've never been through what Naruto and Sasuke and I have; you have a home and parents who love you. You've lived a sheltered life, and just because your team left doesn't mean you can wallow in your self-pity and hide yourself behind a mask of suffering, because let me tell you Sakura, you know nothing of suffering. So you killed a man? Big deal. It's your job."

She stares at him, eyes blazing and entirely righteous in her fury. Kakashi realizes he's gone to far, and opens his mouth to apologize when Sakura beats him to it. Her tone is full of acid and hatred and he reels back because the sweet, gentle albeit passionate and fiery-tempered Sakura he knew would never have been able to muster up that kind of hatred.

"You talk about me having a pity-party, Kakashi? Why don't you look in a fucking mirror?"

As she storms out of the bar, Kakashi realizes she stopped calling him sensei. For some reason, that leaves an aching hole in his heart beside all the others, that he was sure wasn't there before.

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Sakura grows after her talk – lecture – with Kakashi. She destroys a training field or two, cries a lot, gorges on ice-cream for a few days and realizes he's right. There are hundreds, thousands of men and women who have gone through far worse than she and Sakura blushes when she realizes she's been childish about all this. Yes, she's hurting, more than she's ever had. Yes, Naruto and Sasuke are gone and Kakashi's turned into a class-A asshole, and yes, she is pissed beyond belief, but she realizes, with sudden clarity, that it wasn't their faults.

That night, she sits on her floor and lays bare all of her secrets and good attributes and bad flaws and mistakes that she's ever made. She looks at her fractured friendship with Ino and the pain it caused her. She looks at it, accepts it and takes it into her heart, whispering love to the memory. She acutely feels the pain of the separation as if it happened yesterday, but when the memory ends, Sakura feels more at peace with herself than she has in a long time.

She goes through every emotion, every bad memory, every good memory this way, until all she is left with are her three most treasured memories: Sasuke, Naruto, and Kakashi. First, she takes Naruto towards her and experiences every emotion she's every felt for him: annoyance, fondness, fear for him, fear of him, kindness, apathy, anger, love, compassion, sadness, and finally, she takes her hatred for Naruto abandoning her and leaving her behind, she takes her frustration at their situation and she welcomes him into her heart, forgiving him with her entire soul. She does the same for Kakashi.

When she takes Sasuke to her heart, she is lost in the whirlwind of emotions she feels. Anger, worry, friendship, fear, fondness, confusion, sadness, bone-numbing grief, frustration, hatred, she accepts them all with open arms, whispers that she loves them, and takes them into her heart with Sasuke's growing memory. When she confronts the love she feels for him, she is hesitant and wary. Fourteen-year olds aren't supposed to love that deeply, she's heard, but then she thinks of Sasuke and his broken eyes and his cold exterior and she accepts the love without a second thought.

It is pure and warm and true and wholly Sakura, and as the rosette slumps against her wall, she feels the cracks she made in her personality seal up and for the first time in a long time, feels like herself again. The world seems a little brighter, and slowly, surely, Sakura starts believing in happily ever afters again.

With that knowledge comes acceptance that Sasuke and Naruto will always come first, because they are special and share a bond with Kakashi she cannot hope to ever replicate. She accepts that, and the next morning, when she passes her Team Seven picture on her nightstand, she pauses and picks it up, running her thumbs over the familiar faces before tucking it away in the back of her drawer and leaving for duty and training with Tsunade-sama at the hospital.

She's forgiving, but she's not forgetting. Team Seven is a part of her past she loves and holds dear to her heart.

No, she is not forgetting.

She's simply growing up.

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Sakura is fifteen and working at the Hokage's office whenever she's not in the hospital. It's mid-morning, and she's walking back from Tsunade's office with a coffee in her hand and files under her arm when she bumps into a broad chest. She reels back, nearly spilling her coffee all over herself and the files, but rights herself before the precious papers are damaged.

She looks up and smiles apologetically, green eyes flashing with embarrassment. "Sorry about that, I should have been watching where I was going."

"It's okay," Kakashi says, and watches her walk past him, sipping her coffee and smiling brightly at everyone she passes, chatting briefly with the secretary before disappearing into the storage room to put away the files.

He pretends it doesn't hurt when she walks by him again and doesn't give him a second glance, delicately sipping her coffee and looking more and more like a woman and less and less like the Sakura he remembers.

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Naruto returns with a refined, boyish air and slightly more serious blue eyes. He looks more and more like a man every day, Sakura muses, standing at the back of the crowd and watching placidly, with her hands clasped behind her back and eyes sparkling. Her friends congregate around him along with the civilians, because Naruto is their hero now. He saved them from Pein a year ago, stopping on his hectic search for Sasuke to protect his home from danger. The civilians don't see him as a monster now. Quite the opposite: they adore him to an almost ridiculous degree.

Sakura can't think of anyone who deserves it more.

Her eyes slide to Sasuke, stoic and silent beside Naruto, and she feels her heartbeat quicken at the sight of him. He is achingly beautiful, with pale skin, dark hair and high cheekbones on an aristocratic face. They are only sixteen, but Sakura can already see the men they are becoming. She scrutinizes her boys, and comes to the conclusion Naruto had found Sasuke a while ago, and can't bring herself to be angry about that. Sasuke seems more relaxed and calm, less wild anger and hot hatred. It's only a slight difference, because Sakura knows her boys well, and she sees Naruto's eyes are bright not because of the sun, but because he is finally recognized, and she sees Sasuke stands a little bit taller, as if the weight of the world is no longer upon his shoulders. She speculates that Itachi is probably dead too.

Kakashi stands next to them, older but looking younger than he has in the three-and-a-half years his boys have been gone. Their eyes sweep the crowd, looking for someone, and Sakura makes no move to hide when their eyes – blue, black and grey – land on her solitary figure.

She knows she's changed: she's taller, older and she's lost her baby-fat. Her hair's grown down to just below her shoulders, pastel pink as always. Her face has thinned out, her anger and fear is gone, and the shy-yet-temperamental, twelve year old Sakura they knew is gone, and in her place is a sixteen year old woman who's seen as much horror as they had and come out better for it. They see a woman who's killed men and saved them, a woman who's looked into the eyes of death – her mind flashes to Sasori and she remembers blood and pain and a tired sort of triumph – and come out on top. They see a woman who's had her hands shoved in the chest cavity of another man, working to save him. They see someone who's been broken and healed.

They see Sakura. For once, they see Sakura.

She smiles at Naruto and Sasuke's wide eyes – Sasuke less noticeably, because even after everything, he is still Sasuke and has the emotional capacity of a rock – and vanishes in a swirl of cherry blossoms before they can push through the crowd towards her.

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Sakura is eighteen and more of a woman than ever. She's grown in the two years her boys have been back: she's stronger and tougher and has surpassed Tsunade in her medical prowess and chakra control.

She's busy, always having something to do whenever her boys want to talk. They've tried to talk to her for two years, between making chuunin and then jounin and almost at ANBU level. Naruto is being groomed for the next Hokage and Sasuke seems to have become his second shadow. Kakashi observes over all with a benevolent smile, but you can tell there's something missing.

It isn't until she's eighteen-and-a-half and it has been two-and-a-half years since her team mostly rejoined together that they manage to talk to her. She's sitting at Ichiraku's Ramen, tucking into a bowl of miso and absently reading a medical text she brought from her office. There is a slight breath, like a rapid inhalation, and then Sakura finds herself spun around and enveloped in the warm arms of Uzumaki Naruto.

She smiles and returns the hug, breathing in the scent of grass and sun and musky, warm cologne before pulling back and offering a smile to the more stoic boys of her team. "Hi to you too, Naruto," she laughs.

He laughs with her, but sobers up quickly. "Why have you been avoiding us, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura blinks in honest surprise and looks past Naruto to the guarded but agreeing faces of her former team-mates. "I'm not avoiding you," she answers honestly. "I'm just really busy." She sees his crestfallen look and can't help but smile softly. "However, I'm free tonight and the weekend. If you want, we can have a movie night?"

Naruto likes up like the Fourth of July and grins like a lunatic, bouncing up and down and acting like an eight year old instead of the eighteen years he is. Sakura smiles in fond annoyance and finishes her miso with flourish, Naruto chattering in her ear the whole time. "See you at eight," she says, dropping some coins on the table and breezing past them.

As she walks by Sasuke, their eyes meet and she smiles at the startled look on his face.

Who says love at first - second~third~fourth~fifth~hundredth - sight isn't real?

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The doorbell rings at precisely eight, and Sakura opens it to the welcome sight of three very familiar faces. She steps aside and lets them in, directing them to her guest room, and the bathroom to change. She is already in pajamas: a pair of plaid red pants and a black tank-top. Her coffee-table has been moved aside and blankets stacked on her loveseat. She gets the popcorn and sits it on a side table, drinks already ready and waiting.

When the boys come back, they all sit on the sofa and Sakura pops the movie in. She plunks herself down on Sasuke's lap, her back resting against the arm-rest and her legs sprawled over Naruto and Kakashi's laps. Sasuke shifts awkwardly and the boys all look in different directions, but Sakura merely shakes her head in amusement and watches the opening credits roll by.

Eventually they all find themselves tangled up together on the ground in a nest of pillows and blankets. Sakura wakes first to the clear grey dawn light and the soft snores of Naruto. She's cocooned between Naruto and Sasuke's bodies: half on top of Sasuke, who's sleeping flat on his back with an arm wrapped loosely around her waist and backed by Naruto, who has the entire length of his body pressed against her and one arm flung hap-hazardously over her and Sasuke. Kakashi's slumped on the couch, one hand just barely touching Naruto's spikes and a book sprawled over his face.

It's kind of awkward and new, but it's Team Seven and Sakura thinks that they're just them. They're confusing and weird like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit how you want them to. But she smiles and rests her head on Sasuke's warm shoulder and feels Naruto's heartbeat against her back and thinks that weird is fine, because they just work, and all they need is each other.

They're strange and disjointed and imperfect, but that's okay, because perfect is over-rated.

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notes: bah, mushy and weird, but whatever. hope you enjoyed. also, looking for a beta. anyone interested?

-NatrissaBelladonis