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. this is an alternate ending to the other, where…well just read it. I hope you enjoy.

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 He's withdrawn completely, avoiding her eyes when they pass in the street, keeping to one-word answers when she tries to talk to him and just generally ignoring her presence.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.

When she reappears in her office at the hospital, she looks at the picture on her desk, runs her fingers over the frame and says good-bye.

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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. Her friendship with Ino is stronger than ever, and when she starts dating Shikamaru, she has Ino to thank for it.

She's busy, always having something to do whenever her boys want to talk, be it the hospital, helping Tsunade or out and about with Shikamaru or his team. They try 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 and six months after she starts dating Shikamaru 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 freezes and gently removes Naruto's arms. He looks wounded and hurt, but she locks away her feelings and faces him like a kunoichi. She may have forgiven them in her heart, but seeing them in person brings back old wounds she'd rather not face again.

"Hi, Naruto," she says quietly. "How are you?"

Naruto licks his lips and wipes his hands on his pants. "I'm…I'm good, Sakura-chan. How are you?"

She shrugs. "Busy."

He frowns. "Too busy to see your team?"

Sakura sighs and combs through er hair with her fingers. "We aren't a team anymore, Naruto. We disbanded years ago, you know that. And anyways, I'm Tsunade's apprentice – well, more like secretary – now."

Sasuke's been silent till now; Sakura finds his voice is very different from what she remembers. "If you had a choice, would you come back to Team Seven?"

She turns bright viridian eyes on to the last Uchiha heir, and sighs, reaching in her purse and dumping some coins on the counter. She avoids answering the question, but she knows they'll never let her leave if she doesn't. Shikamaru's arrival is a blessing.

"Sakura?" he asks, glancing from her to the boys of Team Seven and back to her. "Is everything okay?"

The pinkette gives her boyfriend a relieved smile and walks over, kissing him hello and linking her hand through his. "Yea, everything's fine. You off work?"

"Yea, they went home an hour ago," he says lazily. "I swear, they're getting more and more troublesome everyday. Suki wants you to visit."

"I'll drop by later this week," she replies. "C'mon, I promised you cloud-watching."

They go to leave when Kakashi speaks. "Sakura. Would you?"

She pauses and Shikamaru rests a hand on the small of her back. She doesn't look at them when she gives them her answer, and tugs Shikamaru out of Ichiraku's Ramen as quickly as she can.

All Naruto can do is stare after her, her answer ringing in his ears.

"No."

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It is the fifteenth of April, and Sakura is getting married.

She's twenty-one, in love and the happiest she's ever been. Ino is her maid of honour and her cousin is her bridesmaid. Shikamaru has Chouji and Asuma as his best men. The ceremony takes place in the field Sakura and Shikamaru first cloud-watched in together. There is a light breeze and blue sky as far as the eye can see.

They only invite colleagues, close friends and family, but somehow half the village shows up to see the marriage of Tsunade's apprentice and Konoha's own medical prodigy to the heir to the Nara Clan and the head of the Strategy and Intelligence department.

The guests file in and Sakura waits around the bend, fingering her dress nervously. It's sleeveless, satin and pure white. There is intricate beading on the bodice and her veil flows down her back like water. Her hair's curled in an up-do, she has her mother's tiara and she's freaking.

Her father isn't here to walk her down the aisle; he passed away four years ago.

Sakura twists her bouquet in her hands and hears the guests settling down. She's close to tears because this is her day and her father isn't here to share it for her. Before she can dissolve into hysterics, a familiar figure comes around the bend.

Dressed in a clean tux and without his usual hitai-ate, Sakura thinks Kakashi cleans up good. But she's wary. They haven't spoken much beyond pleasantries since she was 18. Sure, she invites him to her wedding because, after all, he is her old sensei, but he's supposed to be in his seat.

Kakashi gives her an eye smile. "You look beautiful, Sakura."

She smiles slightly. "Thanks Kakashi. Um...not to be rude but why are you back here? With me?"

He shrugs. "I heard about you're father, and I was wondering if I could walk you down the aisle and give you away."

The sincerity in his voice brings Sakura to tears and she wipes them away before she smears her make-up. "Why?" she asks, her voice trembling. "I mean…you abandoned me. You forgot about me and…and…why would you want to walk me down the aisle?"

He sighs. "I'm sorry, Sakura." He says bluntly. "I was a horrible sensei and I don't blame you for ignoring me all these years. But I still consider you part of my team, and my team is my family. It would be my honour."

Sakura looks at him and smiles as the wedding march starts up, because maybe she's ready and mature enough to forgive him. And it starts with this.

She links her arm with his, drops her veil over her face, and begins to forgive.

When she steps out from behind the trees and walks up the isle, Sakura feels like she's glowing and floating on air. Shikamaru's standing at the end of the aisle, and when he looks at her, he's blown away.

Sakura looks to where her guests are sitting and sees, standing in the front row with her mother, grandmother and grandfather are Naruto and Sasuke. She smiles wider as Kakashi hands her off to Shikamaru and feels like she's on top of the world.

As she kisses Shikamaru and officially becomes Mrs. Shikamaru Nara, Sakura looks back at her friends and family and twines her fingers with Shikamaru's. Her relationship with her old team is fragmented and disjointed, but as she watches them walk after her and Shikamaru, and as she joins up with Ino and Chouji and Asuma, she likes to think that maybe, one day, Kakashi and Naruto and Sasuke will be family again.

But right now, she's fine with Shikamaru and Ino and Asuma and Chouji and her mother and grandmother. They're her family now.

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

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notes: uh, weird. I dunno, just felt like an alternative if Sakura hadn't forgiven them so fast. if it sucks, I'm sorry. it's one in the morning and I'm tired.

-NatrissaBelladonis