Shikamaru's mouth was bone-dry. It felt the way it always did when he fell asleep with his mouth wide open, usually in a field somewhere, letting all the bugs and dust in. Nothing like waking up from a pleasant dream spitting flies. He could smell the breeze, smelt sharp sand and felt the heat on his cheeks. He was in a patch of sunlight. He stretched, basking in the warmth. He could normally smell nothing but grass and flowers when he woke up from a nap like this. Ino was probably identifying all of the flowers in that smug, knowing way of hers. Weeds were weeds, in Shikamaru's opinion. Chouji was snacking away, no doubt. Asuma couldn't be anywhere near though, he couldn't smell any smoke.
He couldn't feel any grass beneath his fingers either.
He tried to focus his thoughts.
Ino wasn't here, he remembered. He wasn't with her or Chouji and Asuma –
Shikamaru's eyes flew open.
He was in a hospital room in Suna, and Asuma had been dead for years.
He clutched his head, his aching muscles pulling taught as he sat up in the bed, the thin gown slipping down his shoulder.
The door opened hesitantly. Temari walked into the room, her pace slow and pained. She looked at Shikamaru, her eyes becoming round circles in her pale, thin face. Her hand slipped from the doorframe and tears glittered in her eyes.
She didn't look like his wife. His wife was strong and confident, with a thick layer of muscle and a spring in her step. But she was Temari and his heart was leaping at the sight of her nevertheless, and just like that he knew he'd love her no matter what.
He leapt out of bed just as she sprang at him, and they met in the middle, Temari raining furious, relieved kisses all over his face, him clinging to her like a drowning man in the sea reaching for the shore.
Cicadas sang triumphantly outside the open window, heat pulsing through the air as Temari gently rested her forehead to his, their skin clammy and cold, warming up together.
"You took your time waking up, you lazy bastard." Temari murmured, grinning through her tears.
Shikamaru pressed a gentle kiss to her temple, "You didn't marry me for my timekeeping skills."
"Times like this I forget why I married you at all, making me worry so much."
"You worried about me, huh?"
"Just a little! Child-rearing's expensive when you're on your own."
His arms curled around her waist. Her chin touched his shoulder, their bodies a perfect fit for each other.
"How are the kids?" He asked, still a little groggy from his long sleep. He wondered how much time had passed. Enough for the hole in his stomach to have disappeared – Sakura's work, no doubt – and for Temari's face to grow so worn and tired.
"Akira's been worried about you too. Shika, the little traitor, is in love with the babysitter."
"Oh, Kanae," Shikamaru remembered, "I see. I'm glad we hired her now, considering."
They fell silent after that, still embracing, content and whole after what felt like lifetimes of aching for each other.
Sakura couldn't wake.
She knew she was asleep.
She was in a fog, tendrils of mist curling through her fingers, moisture dampening her skin. She cried wretchedly over Sasuke's corpse, cold to the touch and real, not an illusion.
Pink strands of hair floated gently, the edge of her knife sharp and biting. She held onto Sasuke until the tattoos of Orochimaru's chakra bled away from his skin, leaving it clean and healthy once more.
She was fighting Ino – something was wrong with Sasuke, his neck, his neck – she woke to taste bitter disappointment at her draw and tried her best to fulfil her duties as the cheerleader of the group as Naruto fought.
Sasuke wasn't there, he was late and Naruto was hurt, the fingertips of Hyuuga Neji seemed deadly and quick. And Gaara flew towards Sasuke and she wanted to be brave, be like Naruto and save the day, and she jumped and was swatted away like an irritant, not a threat, not a threat.
Sakura moaned in her sleep, why couldn't she wake?
She watched a chuunin fall on his knees, holding his throat as blood sluggishly pumped out. She woke up in a cell, the scent of urine on the air, screams breaking the silence.
She remembered every scratch, every cut, every bruise, every break of her torture in intimate detail, the faceless man no longer faceless, but a ruddy-faced man with hollow cheeks and hooded eyes. She curled up on the floor as explosions rocked the building.
She cut open her hand with fine precision, applying sutures to every nerve and wiping away the excess blood. She flexed her healed hand and crowed in triumph.
She watched Hiroshi bleed out, saw Kaede's eyes dull in death and felt a sword rip through her stomach for the second time in her life. She looked up and saw Gaara crowned by sunlight, hundreds of shinobi behind him.
She saw a makeshift bandage placed over Sasuke's missing eye, blood staining the white cotton. She healed his hurts and left him behind.
She returned to her new desert home and broke the heart of the Kazekage with her indecisiveness. She stood before a mirror and left her scars to serve as a reminder that she would no longer be weak.
Something broke the surface of the water in her mind, a voice growing less and less muffled until finally it emerged clear and jarring –
"Sakura! Wake up, Sakura!"
Tsunade's beautiful face was hovering over her own, her brow pinched with worry. When Sakura blinked, clearing her vision of the film that sleep had given her, the worry faded away and she heaved a sigh of relief.
"You had me so worried! You just wouldn't wake up, no matter what we did! I thought you were comatose."
Shikamaru and Temari stood at the foot of her bed, arms wrapped around each other. Shikamaru nodded at her in greeting, a lazy smile playing about his lips. "Hey. Been a while."
"Shikamaru? You're awake, you're OK?" Sakura sat up abruptly, a sharp pain stabbing through her stomach. She remembered the ghosts of Kaede and Sasori's swords piercing through her and shivered.
He shrugged in answer, kissing his wife's hair absently. Temari gave a little smile.
"Kurosawa Kazuki, the councilwoman behind all this mess, is being held, awaiting her trial. She won't say a word to anyone at the moment, apparently, she's keeping quiet. It's been a week. Your students saved your life, one of them kept you alive even with poison still in your system – what's his name again?" She fired over her shoulder, directing her question at Temari.
"Kisho," Temari replied, "The little brat's been hanging out with Kankuro lately."
"Kisho, then. He's a damn good healer for his age. You taught him well. Do you remember how you got here?"
"Gaara was going to kill Kurosawa," Sakura blurted out, her forehead creasing at the memory of Gaara's wild eyes, "I stopped him and –" She blushed, remembering what happened next, "Well, he was happy I was alive. And then Kisho said something and… I woke up just now. I think that's everything, my head hurts."
"They took you here and I healed you, and your students – they weren't badly injured, just a little shaken – we've had a pretty tough week, trying to round up everyone involved in this mess and frankly the Kazekage didn't help, pacing everywhere and snapping at everyone who looked his way. Now you're awake he'll be a little friendlier, I'm sure."
Sakura imagined Gaara pacing, his face drawn tight with worry, and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
"Where is he?" She asked, her voice coming out rock-steady despite the multitude of emotions swarming her.
Tsunade's perfectly manicured nails tapped on the metal bedframe. Her expression was inscrutable.
"His office, or so I'd assume." She replied. She was staring at Sakura in a discomfiting, shrewd kind of way, as though she was reading every tell and every tic in her expression and not liking what she saw.
Temari on the other hand, looked downright smug. She offered Sakura and wink and a thumbs up, murmuring, "Go get 'im, tiger," as she passed on shaky legs.
Sakura paused in the doorway, looking back in at the room's occupants. Shikamaru quirked an eyebrow and Tsunade tilted her head in question, but it was Temari Sakura was looking at.
"Temari," She began, her voice resolute, "You once asked me if I knew what being in love felt like. The answer is yes."
Temari beamed delightedly as Sakura turned back around, determined to find Gaara and finally settle the issue that had been floating around for years.
Pakkun accepted a drink from Kakashi's water flask, trying to control his panting. This damn village was scorching hot, there wasn't a lick of wind for miles and all of the sand made his fur crawl. He'd be thrilled to leave.
Gaara stared at them from behind his desk, his gaze steady and enigmatic. "Is there a reason for your resignations?" He asked, an undercurrent of triumph coating his tone. Sasuke heard it and shifted, scowling.
"I have always had a bad habit of being stuck in the past," Kakashi stood up, putting the flask back into his belt. Pakkun sat at his feet, his spine straight as a soldier's in the presence of the intimidatingly powerful Kazekage, "I mistakenly believed that Sakura's feelings regarding Sasuke had not changed, despite the length of time they have been separated," Sasuke's scowl darkened, a flush of humiliation on his cheeks, "Sasuke had no desire to pursue Sakura, nor as I believed, the talent to do so! So, I made it my personal mission to assist their romance in any way I could. However, I did not anticipate that during her routine mission in Suna she would make the Kazekage fall in love with her. I am in no way confident enough in my (or Sasuke's) skills to risk going up against a Kage in matters of love, so we have decided to forfeit."
For a long moment Gaara merely continued to stare at the two of them.
"Excellent," He said crisply, "I did not doubt you would eventually give in."
Sasuke looked as though he would very much like to rip Gaara's throat out with his teeth.
"As Sakura's former sensei, I would like to give the two of you my blessing," Kakashi said, his eye curved up in a smile, "I wish you every bit of happiness the world has to offer, and would also like to add that if you hurt her, the collective weight of Konohagakure will rain down upon your head."
Sasuke punctuated Kakashi's amicable threat with a very fervent nod.
"I never like to get into fights I can lose," Sasuke said, "So I never had an interest in Kakashi's stupid machinations anyway. But I do know that if something happens, I won't be in the fight alone, so make sure you make her very, very happy."
Gaara shrugged one shoulder blithely, looking undaunted by their threats, "I intend to dedicate the rest of my life ensuring Sakura is completely happy, so that will not be an issue."
Someone knocked on the door.
"One minute." Gaara called, his uninterested gaze flicking from Kakashi to Sasuke, "I accept your resignations and give you permission to leave as soon as you wish. Please do not feel obligated to linger."
Kakashi bowed, tugging Sasuke down with a hand to the back of his neck.
"And please allow me to echo your earlier sentiments, Hatake," Gaara said, a ghost of smile about his lips, "I hope the two of you will be very happy together."
Sasuke growled at him. Kakashi took a hold of his collar and opened the door, the little pug trotting after them obediently.
Sakura appeared in the doorway, looking breathless and hastily-dressed.
"Sasuke! Kakashi-sensei!" She gasped out, "Good to see you, got to chat with Gaara!"
She slipped in and shut the door behind her, not noticing Kakashi's amusement or Sasuke's eye-roll.
Gaara stood up, looking majestic and untouchable in his Kage robes, his expression carefully controlled.
Sakura leant against the door, trying to catch her breath, "Gaara. I don't care what happens, if Tsunade doesn't like it or The Council stages a rebellion or something, I want to be with you. I want to live here and be a permanent sensei to my kids and I want to continue teaching the other nurses and I want to spend my nights helping you go through paperwork and making sure you get enough sleep. I want to marry you and spend the rest of my life by your side."
Gaara closed his eyes, the jade irises melting into black lids, lifting his heavy sleeves to touch either sides of his temple. He smiled to himself, an exhilarated, genuine smile, and opened his eyes.
"Then, Haruno Sakura," He said formally, his eyes warm and tender, "would you do me the great honour of becoming my wife?"
Sakura laughed, overjoyed, "How could I say no?"
The cell wasn't the best Suna had to offer, but it wasn't a bare room with a straw bed either, so Kurosawa ought to consider herself lucky. Especially considering how numerous and severe her crimes were.
"I heard you were not talking." Gaara said, his voice crisp and precise. Dust stirred in the air as he moved towards the bed Kurosawa was sitting on.
She gave him a defeated, weary look, "Just finish it," She said, "I won't be amusing to you if you decide you want to play cat and mouse."
"Finish it?" Gaara repeated, a crease between his brows.
"Kill me," Kurosawa said, a cross between an explanation and a plea, "I know that's why you've come. I nearly killed your favourite Konoha nin."
"Don't be ridiculous," Gaara replied brusquely, "If I was going to kill you I would have ignored Sakura and done it anyway back then. I'm here because Sakura told me some things about you."
Kurosawa's jaw clenched.
"There is nothing," Gaara said softly, crouching down to catch her eye, "that I can say that will bring your loved ones back. Nothing that will heal your pain. I cannot express how deeply sorry I am for what I have done to you, because I know my apology is not enough. I killed your daughter, your husband and your sister. There is no excuse for what I did to you. I only have explanations, and I imagine you wish to hear them, especially after so long."
Kurosawa's eyes filled with tears.
"When I was a boy, I had no friends. Children screamed if I came near them. My father was distant and my mother was dead. The only person who spoke to me was my uncle. I wanted to have friends, so I reached out to other children. They slammed doors on me and ran away. Others spat at me or threw punches that could not connect. Sometimes I tried to stop them running, just wanting the chance to explain that I was not evil, that they need not be afraid, but the sand frightened them even more. Finally I had enough of wanting to have friends. I lashed out when taunted, I chased when others ran from me. My uncle tried to stop me but I was wild. One night, an assassin tried to kill me. I stopped him, severely injuring him in the process. I realised it was my own uncle. He admitted that my father had sent him. I asked if he had been forced to do it, hoping he didn't want to kill me at all. My uncle revealed how he'd despised me since my birth had killed his sister. He then tried to kill me once more with a suicide attack. I did not die, but I had lost the one person who I believed cared about me. I became a monster."
"Someone brought me back to life when I was twelve. They taught me about bonds, friendship, family. Things to live for other than killing. It changed my life. I realised what I had become and I resolved to change. I grew to care for this village and its people. I tried to become a better man. Through the endless support of others, I believe I have succeeded," He drew closer to Kurosawa's tearstained face, noting the lack of fear in her eyes, "Your family did not get the burial they deserved. I am going to have a monument built to honour every innocent life lost in this village, and your family's names will be the first to be carved, I swear to you. They will not be forgotten. I will never forgive myself for my past and I do not ask forgiveness from you. But I hope in some small way, I can ease your pain for the future."
Kurosawa broke down, one hand covering her mouth to try to smother the sounds of her sobs, her brow creased in anguish.
Gaara stayed with her until she calmed down, then excused himself, feeling glad that he had helped her achieve some kind of release and closure.
Despite claiming she disliked the weather, Tsunade had agreed to stay in a Suna for a few more days with no complaints. She and Gaara and the remains of The Council needed time to muddle through the crisis Kurosawa had unleashed, to round up all of her informants, workers and all those loyal to her cause.
Tsunade brushed an elegant, white hand across her damp forehead, breath hissing through her teeth angrily, "This place is vile," She said emphatically to Sakura, "how can you stand this heat?"
Sakura gave an easy shrug, very much aware of her lightly tanned skin and noticeable lack of perspiration. She enjoyed the harsh sunlight now, celebrated it even. "You don't feel it after a while." She admitted cheerfully.
Her former master's eyes narrowed, lips pursing, "Hmm… You really like it here, don't you?"
Sakura felt her eyes crinkle upwards, her mouth stretching into an unrestrained smile, "Yes, Tsunade-sama. I really do."
Tsunade stared at her for a while longer, tapping her foot impatiently. She turned back to the papers on the desk, scribbling her signature where required.
"Well?" She asked finally, still not looking at her.
"What?" Sakura blinked, confused.
"Go ahead and ask," Tsunade said patiently, frowning as ink splattered over a page, "I know you too well, Sakura."
"Oh!" She straightened up, suddenly nervous, "Tsunade-sama… I… I, um… Gaara. Gaara proposed to me."
"I know," Tsunade said magnanimously, "continue."
"How do you – well, um. I said yes. And, if I was going to marry him. I would have to live here. Permanently. And I need to be a resident of Suna first. And to do that, I need, um, your –"
"My permission," Tsunade said, turning a page, "You know, Sakura. As much as I've missed you over the past few years, I've seen how good this whole mission has been for you. You've grown from a girl into a woman, and though I missed that transition as it happened, I will still honour your wishes and rights as that of an adult. An adult who has the right to make her own decisions, without myself, or Kakashi, or Naruto or Sasuke chasing after her and trying to change her mind. So although legally, I now declare you discharged from my service and free to join any other Hidden Village you see fit, personally, I hereby give you my blessing, as a friend who cares deeply for you. I hope the two of you will be very happy together."
She finished signing her papers and handed them over.
Slightly confused and with rapidly dampening eyes, Sakura took the papers and read them quickly, feeling touched by Tsunade's words.
It was a document permitting Sakura's discharge from her inactive chuunin status in Konoha, allowing her to leave the village and live elsewhere.
"You knew before I even asked?" Sakura said disbelievingly.
Tsunade looked haughty, "Like I said, I know you too well."
Kanae and Kankuro stood side by side, their shoulders touching as they peered down at Shika in her cot. Kanae made a comforting noise in the back of her throat and Shika gurgled in reply.
"Kanae?" Sakura called softly, one hand on the doorway. Her voice was a little hesitant, uncertain that this was a scene she wanted to interrupt.
The two of them turned in unison, Kankuro giving Sakura a wry smile, his face bare of paint, his hair uncovered. He looked young and boyish.
"Yo, imouto-chan." He grinned playfully, "Need something?"
"You need to stop calling me that," Sakura said flatly, her lips twitching in amusement, "I'm not even your sister-in-law yet. I just wondered if I could have a quick word with Kanae?"
Kankuro gave Kanae a quick, searching glance. She smiled reassuringly back at him, giving him a nod.
"That's fine." Kanae said.
"I'll go be somewhere else." Kankuro said good-naturedly, leaving the room with what looked suspiciously like a spring in his step.
Kanae stays standing by the cot, her smile a nervous quiver of the lips, her hands playing with Shika's blanket.
"Are you alright?" Sakura asked, "I mean, after everything that happened?"
Kanae's smile trembled. "I won't lie, Sakura, I had a few nightmares and I've been a little jumpy lately, but… Kankuro has helped a lot."
"I… I'd like to be honest with you, Sakura, because you are one of my only friends here. I was working in Konoha before I came here, but when Shikamaru-san asked me to look after his children, I only accepted because of my father. I come from a village that looks up to Suna and the Kazekage, you understand. My father wanted me to come here so I could try to become close to the Kazekage, perhaps even one day become his wife. He was just hoping there would be some slim chance I could marry a rich man. I didn't want to… I'm not good at lying, or deception in general. The most effort I ever put in was to make the Kazekage some tonics, and even that made me feel ashamed of myself. I don't have feelings for him. I never have, even though at the beginning I hoped… Well, I know you are getting married. I'm really happy for you, I truly am! And now that my father will have to see there is no chance of me marrying the Kazekage, I can stop worrying about it." Kanae's face broke out into a big smile.
"Honestly?" Sakura said, incredulous, "That was the big conspiracy? Do you know how many times I thought you were an assassin or something? I just – oh, come here you big idiot," She tugged the other girl into a tight hug, "Your father cannot rule your life. Marry whoever the hell you want and don't worry about what he thinks. Are you still going to live in Suna?"
Kanae smiled against Sakura's shoulder, "Even when Shika and Akira are all grown up, I plan on staying."
Sakura drew back, clasping the older woman's forearms, "Would a certain puppeteer have anything to do with that choice?" She asked slyly.
Kanae blushed so hard her face was tinted purple for one brief, worrying moment.
Team Sakura stood under a desert willow, the tree's branches dripping with orchid-like flowers. Masa stood at the head of the group, straightening his new glasses. Kisho sat sprawled on the ground. Akako was perched gingerly on one of the stone benches.
They all straightened up as Sakura approached, wearing a beaming smile. She was wearing an unfamiliar form of robe, made from an expensive material. Masa gave her a wary look.
"Hi, all of you," Sakura greeted them, hands on her hips, "It's great to see you all in one piece. I'm so proud of you all for saving me; I can't even put it into words!" The three of them pleased with themselves, "But… I asked you to come here because I have some important news. I'm getting married."
Akako squealed. Masa smirked knowingly. Kisho had the nerve to wink at her.
"To the Kazekage, right?" Kisho said, favouring her with a grin.
"Obvious." Masa agreed.
"That's fantastic news!" Akako said brightly.
"Yes, to the Kazekage," Sakura laughed, pouting slightly at not being able to spring it on them as a surprise, "but I also have a proposition for you all," She took a deep breath, looking somewhat flustered, "I know that both of you live alone, and that your home life, Kisho, is not perfect. Gaara is the one that suggested this, since he wants a big family and all, um, I mean, you wouldn't have to think of us as your parents or anything, I-I'd still be your sensei, but I was wondering if you would like to live with us?"
Akako's eyes were round with astonishment.
Kisho winced, looking away, but Masa gave Sakura an intent look, his eyes searching, "Don't say that," He replied, "unless you really mean it."
Akako's mouth opened and closed a few times. "Permanently?" She asked finally, her voice slightly faint.
Sakura nodded firmly, "Permanently. And I really mean it."
"I have to take care of my mother." Kisho said gently, "But the offer means a lot to me."
"I thought as much," Sakura said, smiling at him, "But Gaara's already knee-deep in plans to help carers like you with ex-shinobi relatives, so hopefully you won't have to worry so much about your finances. You're going to be a fine medic one day, Kisho."
Kisho rubbed the back of his head self-consciously.
Masa's smile was much brighter than his usual sardonic smirk. Something warm flooded Sakura's stomach at the sight of it, and she gave him a fond look.
"I want to," He said awkwardly, covering his smile with his hand, "I'll come."
Akako flung herself at Sakura, her thin arms hugging her waist, whispering something. Sakura strained to hear it – thank you thank you thank you.
The man handed her a scrap of cloth, a metal plate attached to the middle. Suna's symbol was etched upon it.
"Sakura-no-Chiyu," The man said brightly, "Welcome to Suna!"
THERE'S AN EPILOGUE, THIS ISN'T THE END
This was a super fun chapter to write :)
Hope you guys liked it!
I know I've been repeating this everywhere, but just in case someone missed the message, if you want to write me letters, please PM me so I can send you the address :)
Masa and Akako get to be brother and sister! Gaara gets unruly children! Oh the general hilarity... Don't worry, Gaara and Sakura will have children of their own as well as their adopted kids.
I'm so looking forward to writing the epilogue!
Quick poll for fun: Which is your favourite episode of Naruto? (you don't have to know the name, you can just say the one with the _)