Disclaimer: Naruto and all of its characters are not mine.

Author's Note:

This is a story of tuathafaerie, sister to Nenagh24 and being posted to that account because her own was hacked and the stories therein deleted. This is being reposted because it is one of the few stories that was fortunately saved to a hard drive and because the indirect sequel, The Bell Tolls, has finally been finished. It is not necessary to read that story as it focuses on another Konoha couple, but you might just like them both. :)

Note that the original summary wasn't part of that miraculously saved data. Hopefully my memory is good.

Summary: [This would have almost been hilarious, the renowned copy ANBU almost petrified of a small unarmed girl, had it not been happening to him. The price of this tiny bride was going to break him. Hello, fiery flames of eternal doom. Kakashi/Sakura]

The Price

Hold... down...

Pass me... that isn't...

...the blood... stopping...

Where is...


One casual dark eye watched the sky, tracing the path of a barely visible missile as it shot almost straight up, arching in what barely six years ago would have been a deadly assault. Instead, it halted mid trajectory, the small set of fuses inside reaching the first gunpowder compartment, and exploded into a halo of red. Seconds later a green hailstorm expanded from within, followed by a grenade shower of silver. People cheered from below.

"Some festival, huh?"

The single eye turned to fix on Asuma standing and watching the fireworks show beside him, and Kakashi nodded mutely in agreement. The summer festival the Hidden Leaf Village celebrated was always the best time for the locals to show off, and so the entertainment had a habit of trying to be bigger and better than everything else around. His attention was drawn by the next bang, but after a moment the ANBU genius commented idly, "Aren't you supposed to be sharing this view with someone besides me?"

Asuma chuckled. "Afraid your reputation will suffer?"

"The intrigue will just add to the attraction," Kakashi shrugged back nonchalantly. "You, on the other hand, might have more difficulty explaining this to your girlfriend."

Another crack split the air as the people cheered again. The two men watched placidly as a hush filled the sky, the fireworks maker waiting until the smoke cleared before setting off his finale. "Nah, we had an argument yesterday. Something about me not paying enough attention to her, I think. I said stupidly that we didn't share the same interests, so it was no wonder, and that was that. She'd kicked me out before I had time to blink twice."

"Ah." That would explain it. "Tough luck," Kakashi offered in commiseration.

"It's not too bad, at least she tossed my spare lighter after me. Now I get the pleasure of pulling you away from those books for an evening as I force you to console me." Asuma laughed again at the long suffering sigh he received. "Oh come on, it's only one night a year, I'm sure you can make the sacrifice. And if you work me up to it, I'm sure we can go find you a real substitute for your reading choices anyway."

"Once you find perfection it's hard to go back," was the last of the banter heard before the air above them went wild with color, as if the earth had swallowed too much of the day and had to spit it all back at once. Five minutes of solid regurgitation before the smoke dampened the last fizzle and the crowd broke into raucous congratulations. This show had been better than that of the year previous, particularly that explosion in the shape of a flower. The inventor was certainly making up for lost time from the war.

Walking companionably, Kakashi moved with Asuma from their perch on a rooftop to the stall lined streets. They were both in more casual clothes, clearly ninja from the holsters strapped unobtrusively and the leaf hiatae across their foreheads, but not in the dark and deadly ANBU uniforms that they typically wore during the week. The lilting melody of a traditional flute threaded its way from the performers at the center of town towards them.

"Want to try your hand at goldfish catching?" Asuma asked, glancing over at the group of children gathered near the small pool. Giggling encouragements of "a little to the left!" and "you can't eat those fish if you catch them, Chouji" could be heard.

The taller man perfunctorily followed his gaze but looked away after a second. "They'd likely die within a week."

"Then how about guessing my weight? Apple bobbing? Kunai throwing?"

An incredulous eyebrow met Asuma's last suggestion. "Are you looking for an easy ego boost?"

"Well," Asuma replied, grinning, as he pulled out a cigarette and clicked his lighter up, "you're not really keeping up your end of our bargain, so I guess I've got to find it somewhere." A hand cupped the flame before a few puffs ensured his addiction would remain lit.

"I think it's time you found another girl." Kakashi's opinion was slightly rueful. "I thought I was company, not a fawning lady."

"Heh. How about there, then?" A thumb came up to direct attention to an elaborate sign standing outside a dark draped stall. Kakashi squinted slightly to make out the handwriting declaring that Madame Yuko was ready to greet her destiny struck customers. It was a fortune telling booth.

Besides the fact that he thought it was slightly ridiculous that the older woman who ran the coin laundry on the weekends could actually see into the future one night a year, Kakashi had no problem with visiting. "Sure. Maybe it'll even be the lady herself and that way you won't have to make an extra trip."

"And while I'm busy figuring out the best way to woo her, you can find out if Icha Icha is going to be the only thing to warm your bed for the next year," Asuma agreed.

"Ha, ha, ha." The entry curtain was pulled aside as the two men ducked inside, both automatically tensing until their eyes adjusted to the dim light. Kakashi immediately oriented on the small candle flickering on a table. Even though he knew it was probably just the wobbly one from the laundry that was left near the door, it was decked carefully with a midnight blue silk and draped with a golden hued handkerchief. Strange incense was burning in bobbles around their heads and the woman herself, garbed in a mismatch of clothes that seemed to have been purposefully abandoned by her customers, was seated behind a large glass sphere that could have been a rip off of the Hokage's infamous looking glass. She glanced up at them with smokey eyes. "Welcome."

Asuma nodded his head politely and moved forward while Kakashi merely scratched his nose and checked idly for a chair to slump into while he waited.

The proprietress held up a hand as Asuma slid into the seat before her. "Oh spirits of heaven and earth," she intoned to her crystal, twisting it slightly on its stand to more fully reflect the small spirals of smoke leaving the burning incense around it, "we call upon you to answer the respectful inquires of a new applicant." Her art supposedly now invoked, she turned kindly back to the shinobi in front of her. "Now dear, you've come to ask about your future? Love life, perhaps?"

Amused, Asuma threw a wink back at Kakashi before nodding. "Spot on, if the spirits are inclined to look into it."

"I think they've done it often enough to know how it works, dear," she replied, laughing lightly as she twisted the globe twice to the right before closing her eyes and speaking distantly again. "Oh spirits, this young warrior has served bravely and honorably to protect this country of our ancestors. Please tell us now, where is the woman he will wish to protect above all?" She paused, as if receiving some divine inspiration, then leaned forward conspiratorially. "It is a woman, correct?"

"Most definitely," the man opposite her whispered back.

"Oh, good." Her eyes crinkled a bit as she looked into her not so mystic seeing glass, then smiled up at Asuma. "Check the restaurant two blocks down and on the left, dear. I think there's someone there that you'll definitely be interested in."

"Dark hair, nice figure?"

"The whole package," Madame Yuko assured. Her brown eyes flickered back to the figure lazily blocking the door, recognizing from the white shock of hair above his forehead protector the young man who would occasionally leave his blood stained and terribly ripped outfits in the washing machine or under his head as a pillow as he fell asleep on the table and waited for the cycle to finish. "Do we have another customer?"

Asuma followed her gaze to his inattentive friend before smirking slightly and vacating his place. "Just a moment and I'm positive you will." He moved forward to take Kakashi by the shoulder.

A dark eye shot from contemplating the drifting incense patterns to Asuma's face. "Finished already? Spirits must have known you were coming."

"Probably," he agreed smoothly, "but now it's time they took a look at you." His hand pulled the other man up by his shoulder and steered him towards the waiting seer.

Kakashi frowned. "You weren't comedy enough?" But nevertheless he sank into the chair before the candle and crystal, sighing softly.

The older woman smiled kindly back. "Another shinobi looking for love?" She took the positive clue from Asuma's joking dig and Kakashi's indifferent shrug. The crystal ball once more turned twice to the right. "Alright then. Oh spirits of heaven and earth, another warrior comes seeking your guidance in matters of the heart. Though he is diligent and true to his calling, he yet seeks that completion of spirit that comes from a loving companion. Tell us, what lies in store on his yet lonesome path? When will he meet the girl who will make his heart leap for the rest of his days?"

Before her, Kakashi let his seen expression drop into one of incredulity as Asuma snickered quietly behind him. Somehow this seemed much more binding than the last inquiry was. Had she conspired with Asuma beforehand to make fun of him while he wasn't paying attention? He wouldn't put it past his sometimes capricious friend.

But the woman remained as serious as ever, staring into the swirling reflection. She opened her mouth, paused and stared closer than ever, before pulling back again with faint surprise. "Well!"

"That scary, eh?" the young man in front of her deadpaned.

"Not at all!" she replied heartily, beginning to smile. "Rather, I think congratulations are in order!" Her exuberant face meant nothing to the two ninja before her. After a moment, it occurred to her that she needed to explain. "Dear, you're due to be married!"

"What?" Asuma glanced down at his friend in surprise. "That's something! You've been hiding a girlfriend from us! No wonder you were upset to come out with me this evening!"

Beside his hearty backslap, Kakashi's face was a priceless mixture of flabbergasted shock and confusion. Married? He hadn't even gone home with a girl in months, let alone romanced one over any amount of time in the last year or so! What did this woman do when she supervised the laundry? Watch soaps?

Madame Yuko's face dropped into a more thoughtful expression again. "Oh, no, you haven't met her yet. It'll happen soon enough, but it's not someone you know." She focused in seriously on the one dark eye before her as Asuma quieted. "But dear, I think there is something you ought to know, the spirits seemed to be in a twitter about it. It'll be a love match, but her bride price will be very expensive. It's something you will think you don't possess."

"Money?" Kakashi asked automatically, remembering how his last paycheck had gone to new uniforms since he had a habit of bleeding over and or ripping all of his whenever he had the chance. Plus the rent for a place he barely lived in was ridiculous.

"Humility?" Asuma added, being slightly more inventive as he gave his opinion.

The woman looked slightly amused as she shook her head. The reflection of the candle through the crystal gave her face a momentary ethereal glow. "Innocence."

Opposite her, Kakashi let a small frown drift about his face, but Asuma only chuckled lightly as he laid the fee for both of them on the table and thanked the fortune teller. Satisfied, he turned and left, his friend trailing silently behind after an acknowledging nod.

Glancing up into the dark sky, Asuma flipped up his cigarette and lit it again. "I can't believe it," he said, puffing where he had left off, "Konoha's number one bachelor is getting married."

There was a gasp somewhere to their left, and Asuma glanced over as Kakashi rolled his eye. "No! Kakashi is getting married?" Maito Gai stood staring at them barely two meters away. "He has already moved through springtime's passionate youth and is progressing to summer's most romantic blossom?"

There was a long suffering sigh and a slightly threatening "Asuma" from behind him as Gai quickly sprinted over to begin pumping Kakashi's hand wildly up and down in congratulations.

"Though this means that you, my rival, are once again ahead in our never ending battle, I am overjoyed that you have finally embraced the wonders of youth and are running towards the felicity of marriage!" Gai was rambling. "Now I am struck by the inspiration of finding a lucky girl of my own!"

Asuma quickly laid a firm hand on the man's shoulder, if only to calm the unnerved and perhaps greatly concerned expression that flickered through Kakashi's eye. "No, no. We've just be inside to see the fortune teller. Kakashi's, ah, impending romance seems to be written in fate."

"Eh?" Gai's thick eyebrows rose for a second before he seemed impressed in spite of himself. "Ah, you are pulling even further ahead! A destined marriage is twice as cool! I must discover what the future holds for me!" A last thumbs up was given to his rival with an enthusiastic "May we meet at the altar!" before Gai rushed inside the draped stall.

The white haired man looked briefly at the swishing curtain before turning away and moving down the street with Asuma. "If marriage becomes the next competition, I might just fear losing."

His companion chuckled slightly. "You never know, he might find out there's some wonderful girl who's been waiting for him all her life."

"More's the pity." The eye slid to the right. "You didn't actually believe the fortunes, did you?"

Asuma only shrugged. "Who knows. Depends on what I find at the restaurant tonight, hey?"

They reached the end of the block before Kakashi turned, his hands firmly in his pockets as he stared at Konoha's roofline. "Ah, I think it's about time that I headed back."

"What, not going to come with me?"

The reply was bland. "You don't need me to help you find another girl. And after that, your requirement of company and a fawning lady will have been met."

"I suppose. But that doesn't mean you don't need my help to find your girl. If it was up to you, you'd likely walk by any contenders with your nose in those books." He smiled when Kakashi merely turned away, one hand lifted in farewell as the other was already rummaging through his side pocket. "See you later."

A leggy but relaxed stride had the lone shinobi cutting through the festival crowds and back towards his apartment. He thought about it for a while, dodging the passerby without removing his line of vision from the print before him, thought about taking up Asuma's underlying offer of going out and finding a girl to spend an interesting night with, before the words seemed to jump out of the page he was looking at and capture his attention once more. Sure it had been a while and there had been a few lonely nights recently, though mostly on missions when it was inappropriate, where he wouldn't have minded the distraction and company, but it would take a certain amount of congenial effort and if there was one thing he was consistently good at was putting out just the right amount of work to get a girl interested and then laze off and leave them hanging. This still attracted plenty of women and added immensely to this mysterious aura he seemed to be accumulating, but the women were usually those who wanted more commitment than one night and he honestly rarely had the heart to sort through them. The memory of Rin still haunted him on occasion, and he hated giving girls hope before snatching it away again. Because he was a shinobi, an ANBU operative, and tomorrow never lasted as long as today anyway.

The smell of frying octopus eased away the last of his fading regret and he flipped the page with a happy expression and continued reading. He'd go home and sit on the roof for a while, listening to the sounds of the village wide party going on around him. Maybe light a few sparklers if anyone offered them to him. It was a nice night, nice to be at peace instead of war, nice to know that the children running around him would not be at the school grounds tomorrow learning how to kill instead of play. Subconsciously, he relaxed, slowly flipping another page.

It was only three blocks from his home, passing through a quieter street lined with trees, that he tensed up again. His feet paused even if his eyes did not leave his book. Still, it took him a few moments to realize that the cause was not some source of danger, but the sound of muffled crying. He thought for a long while before he turned and moved quietly into the park, mostly because the timbre of it sounded too young to be someone crying from heartbreak. The orange book was tucked safely away as he peered into was appeared to be a small park.

Nothing was visible, even if the noise was louder. Cautiously, Kakashi moved closer to where it seemed to be echoing from, noting the small hiccups that interjected themselves every few sobs. If this was some scorned lover, he was hightailing it right back out of here.

But, as he rounded the bench and glanced over the short bush behind it, he saw that it was not.

There, clutching a tiny purse to her eyes and crying as if it were the end of the world, was a small girl, her short pink hair done up at the back of her head. The yukata that she wore was sporting some fresh leaves and twigs.

"Ah..." was as far as he got before the bench creaked under his hand and the girl's head shot up, eyes wide and face glistening as she stared at him. They watched each other for several moments before her hands grasped the purse tighter and she shuffled her legs inward.

"Wh-who are you?"

"Me?" The finger that he pointed to himself was almost comical. Kakashi realized ironically that he had not been prepared for this at all. Slowly he bent down, resting his arms near his knees as he tilted her head at the girl. "Well, probably someone you shouldn't talk to as I'm a stranger, but I think I'm a bit safer than others and I'd probably have an advantage at tracking your parents down unless I was up against someone you really knew." A smile raised his mask and eye cheerfully. "But other than that, no one important at all."

A frown wrinkled her forehead as she seemed to think about this carefully. Finally, her legs stretched back out and she looked at him carefully. "I'm Haruno Sakura. Nice to meet you."

"Is it?" He watched as she began wiping up at the tears at her face, smearing dirt under her eyes. "Well, under the circumstances, I suppose it is." He let her settle down again before speaking to her. "So, why are you hiding back there?"

She seemed slightly nervous but gave her answer anyway. "Because I don't want people calling me a crybaby."

"Hmm." Another pause stretched where she seemed to relax again as he didn't start making fun of her immediately. "You're not crying now, though. Do you think you can come sit on the bench?"

Slowly, she nodded then stood up, moving around him to perch on the front of the park bench and begin plucking the leaves determinedly from her outfit. She stopped for a moment while he moved to sit beside her, then began again, this time going for the sticks as well. After a few peaceful minutes of silent grooming, she turned to him, her eyes glinting emerald as she evaluated her new companion. "You're a shinobi, aren't you?"

Kakashi glanced down at himself, as if to just make sure, then turned back to her. "Guess I am. Did you need me for a mission? I could probably find anything for you. As long as it's not a unicorn. Those are kind of hard."

Again he was fixed with an intense stare, as if she was assessing how valuable he could be to her. "I suppose," she said after a while, letting her small hands tangle in her lap.

"Then what do you need me to find, Sakura?" He expected something like her parents or her friends.

"A ribbon," she replied, looking straight up at him again, her lower lip trembling. "Ino-chan gave me a ribbon and we became best friends and now I've lost it!"

"A ribbon," he repeated, eyebrow jumping slightly, but when one solitary tear sneaked out and trailed haltingly down her check, a gloved hand reached out and wiped it gently away before going to rest on the crown of her head. "Sure. I suppose it's no problem." Kakashi stood up, then offered the girl a hand. "Give me a smile and we'll call it a deal."

There was an uncertain break, a shaky smile, and then the six foot some odd ninja was leading a girl nearly half his height towards the center of the park.

"Remember where you dropped it?"

A shake in the negative brushed strawberry hair against his arm.

"Well, where have you gone since the last time you had it?"

She listed a few places slowly, as if retracing her steps. Good naturedly, he listened to them all, then made a quick search of the surrounding park. When the pink length of fabric remained nowhere in sight, they moved on, down the street to a trinket shop, off to the restaurant she had visited with her parents, talked to the man running the ball game in a stall two blocks away. Finally she ducked into an alley and led him up the winding path to the top of the hill she must have viewed the fireworks from. Burnt ends of sparklers and the odd dropped fan or decoration was the only sign of spectators long drifted. A soft exclamation had his line of sight shooting towards a flapping thin, pink pennant snagged on one of the far trees.

"Wait here." The palm of his hand patted her head briefly again before he moved off, climbing the tree quickly and plucking the ribbon out of its grasp.

His feet firm upon the ground, Kakashi turned back, only to have all motion still as he caught sight of the girl waiting for him.

The moon had cleared the lingering smoke clouds and for the first time that evening she was fully illuminated, her yukata a perfect imitation of those the older girls liked to wear, its red fabric dusted with white butterflies and tiny representations of her name. Her hair was done up in an elegant twist and her profile, showing just the faintest signs of the mature beauty she would earn after she lost the last of the baby curves, was outlined in a soft glow as her eyes followed the path of an errant firefly that had come out. She appeared to him to be a perfect miniature model, almost a doll of what he knew she would become, and somewhere inside his chest a muscle tightened at this rare glimpse of the future.

When the firefly winged haphazardly into her nose and she laughed, features lighting up in childish joy, his heart skipped a beat and he knew he was in trouble. Three quick strides later he was lifting her hand and coiling the errant ribbon safely back where it belonged, wondering if it was his beloved Icha Icha series or fickle desperation that had warped his mind so much and at the same time trying to forget every image his eye had just recorded. "There you go. Time to be getting home, ne?"

The effortlessly cute and grateful smile that she gave him back did nothing to ease his mental agony. This would have almost been hilarious, the renown copy ANBU almost petrified of a small unarmed girl, had it not been happening to him. As it was, he was only obscenely grateful that this little anecdote would not be spread around. His reputation would experience new lows.

"Now, if I was your parent, where would I be?" he asked idly to her head as she ignored him in favor of carefully tying the ribbon around her hair, loosening a few pins in the process. His expression turned ironic as she met him with a curious green gaze. "Obviously everywhere we've just been." Her hand slid automatically into his and he began leading the way back down the hill. "Oh well. You said your name was Haruno, right?"

It took fifteen minutes more before they stumbled on to her parents outside of the restaurant. A dark haired woman, giving a cry not unlike Sakura's own startled exclamation at the top of the hill, swooped down and clutched the girl quickly forward, reprimanding and praising at the same time. A man rushed up shortly afterwards, an arm moving to wrap around his wife's shoulders as his glance took in Kakashi scratching his check absently.

"Ah, thank you," the man said as his wife straightened, Sakura perched securely on her hip. "How did you find her?"

"Just good luck, I guess," he replied shrugging, letting a smile lift his face as he reached out and ruffled the girl's hair lightly. "She's a little hard to miss."

"Say thank you, Sakura," her mother instructed quietly, bumping the girl a little higher.

Almost respectfully, the tired head dropped when it swivelled to face him, the eyes drooping now that she was back where she belonged. "Thank you, shinobi-san."

"No problem," he replied waving it off and turning to go. "Have a good night." Mission accomplished. Though it certainly wasn't how he had intended to spend his evening, he supposed the good deed was not without merit of itself, though he could have done without the unsettling revelation near the end.

The "I want to be like that when I grow up" was barely caught in the passing breeze as the family turned for home. Kakashi, already diverted from his original purpose, did not do likewise until much later, and did not make the journey alone, even if he would face Asuma's laughing jokes about finding girlfriends and marriage the next morning.

Because some sins were lighter than others.

Well... finished

...for now...

Keep him out of trouble...

Imposs... Tsunade-sama...

It took nearly fifteen minutes of watching a fly preen itself on the ceiling before a pair of mismatched eyes finally told the brain that they were open. Foggily, Kakashi took note of the crisp bed sheets and permeating antiseptic smell as he added two and two together to come up with hospital. Judging by the small crack that blemished the plaster of the far right corner of the wall, it was the same room he'd been in last time. This was starting to become an unfortunate habit.

Of course, he supposed he should be grateful to be on the road of recovery instead of the grave. When Asuma had been the first to appear in his drug induced dream, he was almost positive his departed friend had come to lead him away. Though from the chilling aura he felt emanating beside the mattress, it may not have been too late for the trip to the great beyond. His eyes slid shut in an attempt to fake a resumed coma.

"Sensei." It was ground out as if she barely wanted to acknowledge the respectful term. "You do realize this is the fourth time you've been in here in as many months." As if summoned from his dream, the girl beside him was glaring at him as if it were her favorite pastime - which given his previous experience, it could very well be - one and a half times taller, three times more beautiful, and probably ten times more dangerous.

His jaw suddenly felt wired shut. He was not tripping this obvious trap. He'd have to be some kind of masochist. Which, reconsidering why he ended up here so often, he might just have been. "Are you going to start charging rent?"

The air around him dropped an instant ten degrees and he could almost hear muscles contracting in a way that barely restrained bodily harm. Ah well, he supposed he had lived a rather full life. A little on the short side, but not bad for a ninja.

"If you don't stop landing yourself here at every opportunity, we're going to start strapping you to this bed to save ourselves the trouble of putting you back together again," was the threat that emerged instead.


He could almost feel the icy glare hitting the side of his head, which he wisely refused to turn, before it subsided with almost exasperated futility. One eye opened to peek surreptitiously to his right where Sakura sat, rubbing at her eyes and suppressing a yawn.

"You should take a nap."

Blearily green eyes turned with renewed suspicion at the man who was pushing himself upright against his pillow. "And let you skip out on recovery again?" It was slightly scathing and one hundred percent remonstrating. "No thank you, sensei. The relief guard should be here shortly. And don't think you'll convince Naruto to let you go easily either."

"Who said anything about skipping out?" Obviously his past escapes were catching up with him. A hand came up in a half hearted airy wave. "It's just a change of location."

"If you want a different view I'm sure we can find a television somewhere, but you are not leaving this room," she shot back, sliding purposefully between him and the door, not that that would really stop him if he were determined to leave, but her strength was not a thing to take lightly. "Tsunade-sama's orders."

Brief lines of consternation flowed across his forehead but this was not an unexpected turn of events. Sakura was much more difficult to sweet talk than other women he met, whether because of overexposure or that thick stubborn streak. He wouldn't get anywhere unless he actually put some effort into it. It was far easier just to wait for another nurse to slip past. A dark eye caught another suppressed yawn and he issued his casual proposition. "Well, I suppose we could make a deal."

Her gaze slid sidelong as she measured him. "And that would be?"

"I'm bored and you're tired." The blanket shifted above his shrug. "If you retrieve my confiscated book, I won't leave until after you've had a rest."

Kakashi could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she considered, weighing the options. Her eyes flicked between his face, the window, and the clock. "You'd be willing to sign this to your next paycheck?" And he knew he had her.

"Sure." The smile was lazy. After all, the agreement was to stay only until she woke up. Beyond that and there was no promise.

Those green eyes sized him up once more before she gave a quick nod, hands flying up in a quick gesture to form the shadow clone that appeared beside her. "Fine, but you'd better not leave me here to face the punishment alone." The clone skipped off and returned moments later with a familiar orange book.

"Thank you," he offered politely as he ignored the raised eyebrow in front of him. "I'd almost forgotten where I was."

The humored snort fully expressed her belief in this statement even as the pages flipped to a well dog eared flap immediately. She resumed her seat and slid the chair close to the bed before setting her elbows against the mattress and cautiously glancing towards her absorbed former teacher. "A deal is a deal, Kakashi-sensei."

"Go to sleep, Sakura," came the gentle command as his thumb smoothed over the next page. Her unwilling smile bordered the top of his paragraph as her head settled onto the crossed arms she had laid as a pillow. The green enforcing eyes finally slid shut.

Half an hour later Kakashi lowered the novel in front of him to investigate why his leg was currently numb. Near his feet, a slender arm was hugging his calves to a delicate face as she snoozed quietly. Like an angel she was not, what with the small glistening trail of wetness seeping from his rosette haired student's mouth and the inelegant sprawl she had assumed. But cute was not beyond her and Kakashi leaned back to thread his fingers behind his head to reign his impulse to glide them behind hers.

Haruno Sakura had not lost her edge. She had grown, now less than half his age where before she had been only a quarter, had matured, learned, and progressed into an almost adult of seventeen, but she still appeared like spun sugar: beautiful, sweet, and fragile. Untouchable unless he wished to forever change what she was. Temptation plagued him as if he were a boy in a candy shop with a cavity, but he was quite certain - at least he told himself so - that her destruction was not worth the temporary pleasure.

It had been like this for several years now, a sore tooth that he resolutely ignored, but it had gotten worse as each month passed.

When he had seen the list of his new students five years ago, he had known he was in trouble. Uchiha Sasuke was a psychiatrist's dream with his brooding personality and unhealthy fascination with revenge. Uzumaki Naruto was a wild card with unknown potential, but a known and exasperating habit of practical jokes, and a legacy that would shake even the most confident of instructors. And Haruno Sakura was the lovely blossom that had first prompted his heart to inform his brain that it was not as in control as it liked to think. They were a deadly trio aimed at destroying his mind, body, and soul. Let it never be said that he was lacking an iron constitution - if not an iron head - for taking them on.

But he had gotten a strange bucket of surprise the day he met them. Sasuke, while dark, was not quite as disturbed as he had feared - this would later change, he knew now, but he had seen a spark of Obito when he was quite positive there would be none - Naruto had the determination of a boar even if he had the mentality of one too, but Sakura, of whom he had expected the most, had let him down. Where was that girl who had whispered that killing line at the end of their last (and only) encounter? She had made him feel ten times her age instead of roughly three as she voiced her goal of being like him. And here her simulacrum stood before him, even further away from that goal than before, boy crazy and with not even a hint of shinobi pride.

He'd been a little vindictive then. He'd admit it years after it occurred. And yes, he'd even add a spiteful jealous in after a few drinks, because it just honestly wasn't fair. This girl, who had nearly driven him to the hokage to request a cell in jail until he could get rid of these perverted thoughts that walked the line of even his dirty mind, acting as if she didn't even know he suffered.

The remorse had come after her scream, its timbre reminding him of that lost waif he had found so long ago even if it was over the horror of seeing the boy she admired badly beaten, but it was not enough to stop his ultimatum. Shape up, learn to work together, or get out. It was better learned now than on the battlefield and he'd rather fail all of them than reap the fearful consequences later. There were some things he wouldn't risk twice. If he was acting protective he did not acknowledge it.

They'd figured it out, though. He'd kind of known they would, even her, when she remembered the small light of determination her green eyes had shown him once. There were a few more bumps along the way but by the time they hit the chunin exams, he thought they were working more like a well oiled machine and less like a bunch of untrusting brats. By then he had realized he had made two errors of judgment. The first was with Naruto, though it probably shouldn't have been, for being more bull headed than even he had thought possible and for actually possessing a cunning streak every now and again. There was more of the fox in him than probably even he realized and with enough training he'd start to rival Kakashi's own skills, there was that much raw power under his skin.

The second error of judgment had been with Sakura. He'd dismissed her with a kind of heartbreaking finality after her introduction, but she seemed to take it to heart to start proving just how wrong he'd been. She hadn't lost her self-conscious worries from her younger years, but at least she was applying them more tactfully. Sakura had rather swiftly proved her intelligence and chakra control, what he had noted to be some of her strengths from the information the Hokage had given him, but he was most impressed with her ability to assess the situation around her and pinpoint the important goals. She was quick witted and had the sense of mind to carry it off; she was the only one of his three students who didn't seem to think showing off was more important than completing the mission, something that had taken him too long to figure out, and for that alone he would have granted a favoritism that he would never have spoken about.

For a while it worried him, what this strange interest in her was becoming with her protracted presence. He'd started to cross that line, he could never claim her as a momentary acquaintance again. When he saw her name on the list of chunnin applicants, though, he thought he had finally found their nitch. It had never entered the realms of passion - attraction, yes, but passion, hard and fast, never quite - he would have seriously committed himself to that mental place if that had happened, but it had never been the concern of just a parent or brother. A teacher, a special one, not normal because Kakashi never did normal. He worried about her future, about her safety, tried to make sure that she would end up happy with what she did, wanted to be the one she could depend on, to give advice, to be more of a friend than a lecturer. He thought that maybe this could explain away that faint quickening of his pulse when she smiled just the right way or his irrational need to protect her when he knew she was more than capable of handling most of the missions that came their way.

More than capable, that was part of what she had started going out of her way to prove to him.

He was proud in a quiet way, proud of all three of them but especially proud of her, that Haruno Sakura was his student, a girl who could stand shoulder to shoulder with Uchiha Sasuke of the Sharigan bloodline and Uzumaki Naruto of the Nine Tails Fox and not shrink, a girl who had been timid enough to recoil from imagined taunts when he first met her.

Then the chunnin exams had come, and everything had changed.

Sasuke was highly vulnerable and growing steadily more unstable every day. It was gradual and small, and it took a while for him to notice and become worried, but it was there. Naruto was also gaining power and ingenuity and he could not train both of them at once. So, because Sakura had not passed, though she made it farther than many expected, and because he was amazingly short on time - and somewhat out of shape, if he really wanted to be honest - he split them up. Naruto, who must have slept through the academy if he had gone at all, he sent off to relearn the basics and Sasuke he took with himself. It was the beginning of the end, and if he had known it, he might not have taught the Chidori to Sasuke at all.

He missed the signs, however, because when he had come back she had fixed him with a worried gaze and he, to ease her mind, had easily smiled and said everything was fine. It was the price he paid for her grateful and relieved expression. Then fate decided to mock his reason for being out of shape.

Hokage's changed, his students progressed by themselves without him, and Sakura, though she tried, was steadily being left behind. The final blow to what they were, what he had convinced themselves they could be, was that afternoon above the hospital, where she had rushed between her two teammates without the means nor power to stop them, and the small part of him that believed he could be satisfied with being her teacher put up barely a whimper at all before dying.

There was never a question of what he would do, never a hesitation at all. It had taken him a while to find, to identify, and to accept, much to Gai's emotional distress, but this was his most important person. To protect her was worth more than he was, and so two boys went flying to opposite ends of the building while he summoned his most reassuring smile for the girl he wished to be happy above all else. Favoritism was a terrible thing but she was more than his student and he was not just a teacher.

Contrary to his words, things were not going to be the same again. She left, the last of the three to go, and apprenticed herself to Tsunade with a kind of determination he was forced to admire, and that was that. Kakashi found the first team that had decided to fail him instead of the other way around. It was almost laughable, in that not-so-funny-and-terribly-ironic way.

A dark eye focused back on the girl sprawled over his legs. Sakura had used her time, had made perhaps the most mentally challenging progress of all of them, and had grown into something he could never dismiss or ignore, no matter how much he occasionally wished to. His eye skimmed across the curve of her back and down her legs, which were tucked around the supports of the chair. She had most definitely grown.


A guilty gaze snapped up immediately to catch the sleepy green one staring up at him before Kakashi lifted his book with the most casual grace he could manage. "Hmm?"

Still half asleep, Sakura brushed it off as her arms tucked themselves back sedately under her chin as she wiped her face reflexively and looked out the window to gauge the time. After a moment, an impatient sigh broke the silence. "Stupid Naruto." He had either signed up for a super difficult mission or forgotten to come.

"Does this mean you're awake now?" the copy ninja almost drawled, looking quite cheerful behind his novel. "You can always leave me to another nurse if you want to go lie down."

"Not on your life," the girl growled out sleepily, fixing him with a measuring stare, "which by now probably belongs to me, considering how many times I've had to drag you back from death."

The book was set lazily against his chest as Kakashi stretched his arms and tucked them behind his head. "I guess its finally happened, hmm?" He ignored Sakura's raised eyebrow as he turned to the window with a sigh. The sunset was lighting his room in decorative streaks of golds and reds, and the sky was alight with a pink flare that reminded him of his favorite former student. It was quite lovely even if the hue put farmers into a frenzy. Or was that when it was with sunrise?

Sakura, who was slightly miffed at the comment left without explanation, brought her brow down, creasing her large forehead with a frown. "What's finally happened?"

"Gai always said it would. I seem to recall him making a bet once on the subject," Kakashi continued, his musings unfazed by her question. "Though I doubt it was under these circumstances. I wonder if that makes it invalid?"


Cheerfully, the white haired man turned his gaze back to his irritated student. She should really make a sport of getting angry, whenever he was around she wore that expression more than half of the time, that one or exasperation. Then again, he wasn't sure he wanted her to change at all, considering that moue of frustration looked so cute on her scowling lips. He was extremely tempted to find out if it felt as nice as it looked under his own. "Yes?"

"What has finally happened?" she was forced to ask again or suffer in curiosity.

He merely shrugged, bringing one hand out from behind his head to scratch at his cloth covered nose. "A girl has finally managed to catch me," he answered, slightly amused at her surprised expression. "Gai always assumed it would be by pregnancy, but life debt is another avenue, I guess." He flicked her forehead gently above her now affronted eyes before returning his hand behind his head. "Don't worry, Sakura, I always use protection. There won't be anyone challenging your claim."

The chuckle almost escaped him as her face drained all color and then went beet red. Sakura shot up, her fists clenched tightly in his bed sheets and her mouth sputtering for a few moments, before she leaned forward viciously. "You're just saying that to make me too embarrassed to be in the room with you!"

Honestly, it hadn't even crossed his mind to use that method, as he rather intended to bribe Naruto with five bowls of ramen that he would probably never pay for to escape, but it was something of an option. He doubted he'd even gotten close to her limit of modesty - after all, she had spent extended periods with both him and Naruto, and if she wasn't even a bit of a closet pervert by now, then she was far more resilient than most - but Sakura had turned out to be incredibly naive about some things. He supposed that even if he didn't manage to chase her away, it would at least be entertaining.

"Though I suppose there is a chance you might have some trouble down the lane. You never know, I might meet someone who seduces me into letting down my guard while we're..." Kakashi trailed off, watching Sakura's face go through an absolute whirlwind of expressions. If she could learn how to control them, she'd be an excellent actress. That one of mingled disgust and yet desperate anticipation was very impressive. "...dating," he finished, watching both relief and muted disappointment flash through her features. Obviously, she'd been expecting much worse.

Leaning back on the bed as tension rolled out of her shoulder's, Sakura let her eyes roll. "Jeez, you're so immature." She turned her gaze to the wall clock, trying to pretend that she hadn't been hanging off every word he had said.

Immature? She had no idea. He hadn't spent the greater part of his life reading written pornography for nothing. "I'd wonder how she'd do it, though," he mused, and he could feel Sakura's attention snapping immediately back. It was too easy to hook her. She was so innocent sometimes. "The woman would have to be some kind of master in... dating," he said vaguely, spotting Sakura's wary eyes making their way back to him. "Because I've never been distracted into forgetting before. Maybe she'd put her mouth there." He watched the girl at his legs freeze with horrified fascination. "The ear is such a sensitive place, after all."

The huffed snort made his lips curve up behind his mask. His former student was too much fun to tease sometimes. He watched as she drew her frazzled composure back together again. "Forget it, Kakashi-sensei. No matter what you babble on about, I'm not leaving you alone." She was covertly trying to shut him up.

And he'd just gotten started, too. "Really?"

"Really! This is one girl you're not going to get away from."

Kakashi couldn't help himself. He laughed softly at her petulant expression. "I think the girl who manages to catch me at last will have to be very beautiful."

Too late he realized his misplaced wording. Sakura's back snapped firmly straight. "So you think I'm a bad catch in the looks department?" was the arch question. He had forgotten how personally she took insults against her appearance. Her former timid self-consciousness had changed into a violent one. His mild teasing had gone just a step too far. With her recently developed strength, he was going to be paying for his mistake if she felt offended enough, invalid or no.

"Sakura," he chided gently, resuming his role as the elder. He had half a mind to ruffle her head and tell her to calm down, another half to tell her to learn how to brush off a joke, even if it did emerge meaner than he had intended. And the last, more than three fourths crazy part of him wanted to assure her that she was the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on and would she please convince him that perhaps being trapped by one woman was the most wonderful captivity in the world? He decided that the last one would have Sakura carting him off to the mental ward, so he kept his hands firmly tucked behind his head and away from temptation. "You should stop getting upset with everything I say."

Which was probably why he was not quick enough to stop her as she moved to straddle his legs and prevent him from ignoring her as she gave him an annoyed and instructive stare. "Sensei, you may not have realized it, since by what you've been telling me you've never managed to keep a steady girlfriend, but I am a woman, and women do not appreciate being told we're ugly and second rate." She continued, oblivious to his now tense form beneath her legs. "If I had been Tsunade-sama, you'd probably be in pieces by now."

The voice that replied was strangled. She was far too close to his lap, and considering what he had recently been talking about, or at least alluding to, and her surprising motion, it was best if she removed herself immediately. "Ah, Sakura-"

"I'm not going to beat you up, stop worrying," the pink haired young woman cut off, rolling her eyes once again. "I've had enough boyfriends to know I'm not that bad looking."

There was a moment of silence between them, as Kakashi's hands gradually unfolded themselves from behind his head. "Enough boyfriends?" he inquired eventually, tone mild.

Had he really been so avoidant of her lately that he hadn't noticed them?

But the vague memory of Naruto and Sai gossiping about an absent Sakura at the Ramen restaurant and Ino's sudden certainty that his favorite former student was over the still rouge Sasuke filtered into clarity with Sakura's naive blink. "Yes, I've had a few people ask me out," she said, blushing lightly at the admission.

Her green eyes widened and he suddenly realized that his fingers were tracing the red highlight of one cheek. Kakashi managed to still the motion but could not remove the offending appendage. She was too close to him and he lacked the control.

Ten years of restraint and he was cracking under the pressure.


He tried a smile, forcing himself to push it off as platonic affection. "So the cherry blossom is all grown up?" He'd spent ages trying to convince himself that she was not. If he changed opinions now, what would become of him? "It's nice to know that you've matured well." It was killing him, breaking him. He would burn in hell for his lies. "Who were they?"

"A-ano, just people Ino in-introduced me to," she stuttered. There must have been something in his tone giving him away. Perhaps it was the intense look in his eyes. "Not really anyone important..." Sakura finished quietly, her green eyes growing larger. It could have been the hand that had drifted to the back of her nape.

"Did they treat you well?" he continued, completely calm.

It was the voice he used before unleashing a devastating attack, and she knew it. "Fine," was her tremulous reply. Her weight fell forward onto her hands as the distance between them decreased to barely centimeters.

"That's good," was the last thing he managed, with that deceptively light smile that crinkled his eyes, before his masked mouth was fastened firmly to hers.

He had lost the battle. If he was destined for hell for loving a girl fourteen years his junior, he'd damn himself thoroughly before he fell. Her mouth was gloriously hot against his mask, even if it was shocked into unresponsiveness, and he tugged her closer still against him as he plundered it without thought. Tomorrow he could regret, but today he would play pirate and ravage what he could. Jealousy had obscured his better intentions. His heart had claimed her as his own long before these other boys had even heard of her.

She caved and moaned as his fingers found the juncture of her neck and shoulder, sliding down it to her back smoothly, and her shiver of delight shook his concentration and common sense. His other hand slid to her hip and pulled her firmly into his lap, and her sudden gasp forced him back for air.

"Sen..." Sakura breathed, and Kakashi froze.

He'd crossed the line, and she was forcefully reminding him of this fact. Unacceptable, his mind was screaming at him. She was spun sugar and he was ruining her and what the bloody hell was wrong with him? But she was nestled quite firmly in his lap and her body was like heaven and he could almost taste the redemption in her kiss. She was his student, doctor, and the only girl he'd ever looked twice at and he was her teacher, patient, and the man who had just rashly forced himself upon her, and if she put that barrier back between them, no matter how shaky it was, he would shore it up for the rest of his days.

Call it the worst joke ever, take the beating of his life, avoid hospitals like the plague, let her go gracefully like the good teacher he had never been, and - heaven help him - he was hanging on every sound that came out of her mouth hoping that they would not form into the one word that would end his deluded fantasies for good.

"Sen..." she tried again, panting in part disbelief and in part thoroughly good kissing. He barely breathed at all. "...pai..."

Close enough. Sakura promptly found herself pushed back against the headboard of the bed as Kakashi swiftly reversed their positions, leaning over her as he tipped her chin up to his and covered her lips once more. The creak of the bed and her squeak of alarm were melded into his uncontrollable groan as his knee slid quite firmly between her legs and her hands grasped tightly to the front of his shirt.

He'd never be forgiven.

He didn't care. Sakura was kissing him back.

Hello, fiery flames of eternal doom.

They gained ten prospective degrees as he let one hand trail from the outside of her thighs, up her torso, and to that magical strap and latch that Icha Icha taught all readers was the secret to stealing second base. Sakura's bra clasp was almost open between his fingers.


The two figures that had almost blurred into one on the bed jerked apart as if on fire. Literally. Kakashi took one look at Sakura's red face, plump lips, and disheveled clothes and pushed himself out of bed to briskly go lean against the door frame. He knew he looked no better, but at least he had a good excuse - being recently close to death, and not just the little one that had nearly tempted him into destruction not moments ago. The sound of Sakura hurriedly jumping off the mattress to go stand at the window and put herself together came from behind the copy ninja as he raised a hand and sent his greeting down the hall. "Yo."

Head spinning towards the sound, the blond visitor stopped poking his head into random rooms and grinned at his old teacher. "Kakashi-sensei! What are you doing out of bed?" His eyebrows suddenly came down in confusion as he neared the sickroom. "Wait, are you trying to run away again?" The expression changed into one of trepidation. "Is Sakura still there? I was kind of supposed to be here watching you two hours ago..."

"Sakura's been most attentive," Kakashi assured the boy evenly, ignoring the sudden choking fit his words inspired from behind him.

"Really?" asked the blond as he leaned his face cautiously around the lanky shinobi in front of him.

A quick hand quickly pushed the head backwards gently - Icha Icha was unavailable for vision obstruction, lost somewhere to either the tangle of sheets or the floor - cutting off the view of Sakura still leaning heavily against the window. "I don't think you should make yourself a target," the older man said cheerfully. "She's a little wound up."

As if on cue, the roar came from behind him. "NARUTO!" Obligingly, Kakashi stepped aside, not one to get between an enraged Sakura and her unfortunate victim, ignoring Naruto's sudden expression of betrayal. The pink haired girl stomped up to the door, her face still a light rosette, but with her outfit at least in order. "Where were you? I told you to be here at four thirty! You were goofing off with Kiba again, weren't you!"

"No!" the boy quickly denied, which mollified Sakura slightly until he continued, "Shikamaru invited me to diner with him and Temari and Chouji."

"YOU!" She exclaimed angrily, rapping him rapidly over the back of the head. His shout of protest was ignored. "If you had been here on time, then nothing would have happened between Senpa - Sensei and..." Sakura stumbled over the honorific and trailed off into silence, flushing as she glanced over at Kakashi, who was watching from the nearby wall with a muted intensity.


The hesitant question from Naruto snapped her back to her senses, and her chin lifted as her eyes went wild. "You - you - argh!" She leaned into the recoiling boy before pushing roughly past him, never once looking in the direction of the man who had pinned her to the bed not minutes before. "You owe me, Naruto!" she yelled, stomping roughly down the hallway and out of the hospital.

Naruto watched her exit with bordering relief. He'd managed to keep all of his appendages intact throughout that conversation and he knew that his lateness had just been inviting physical punishment. Sakura-chan was vengeful like that sometimes.

With a sigh, he turned back to the room, stepping inside. "I wonder what she's so upset about, ne, Kakashi-sensei?"

The empty room gave him no answer. Grimacing, Naruto squinted around, hoping against hope that maybe his former teacher was just hiding somewhere. "Ah, he's gone. Sakura-chan is going to kill me."

A crumpled orange cover stuffed between the rumpled bed sheets attracted his confused attention. "..huh? He left his book."

If you...run


...try me...

Well, I'm terrified...

He was surprised to see her perched on his front stoop nearly a week later. So surprised, in fact, that he stared down at her upturned face for a whole minute before stepping back and opening up the passageway, totally forgetting that he needed to go to the grocery store because he was out of milk. "Come in," Kakashi said, keeping his tone carefully even.

If Sakura was here to demand repentance for his transgressions, he'd placidly assuage her request.

The girl turned her regard to her feet before she pushed herself up and entered his apartment. The set of her shoulders, firm, and the stance of her legs, steady, told him that Sakura was once again on the war path. For a moment, Kakashi regretted that he hadn't yet changed his underwear. They were going to find his dead body with the embarrassing curse of day old boxers. Shame.

"So..." he started, figuring she might as well not delay the murder. After all, the tile in his entranceway was readily cleanable.

Green eyes met his briefly before she kicked off her sandals and strode calmly past him. "Hello, Kakashi-sempai."

Chilling. He had no idea how to react to that address. Kissing her senseless did not seem appropriate this time. Warily, he followed her into the main part of his apartment, noting that she picked his favorite old comfy chair to perch on. Perhaps he could convince her to change seats? He had been intending to will that to Genma, it would be a shame to get blood stains on it.

As she drew up her legs beneath her, exposing a small river of flesh underneath her skirt that swam all the way up her outer thigh to her panty line, a delicate coral, Kakashi abruptly changed his mind. Screw Genma, he could humor the girl. After all, at least he would die happy. The question of where Sakura's customary black shorts had disappeared to did not really require asking.

Giving the pink haired girl a curious glance, he snagged a chair from his small kitchen table and sat backwards upon it, his forearms resting loosely against the back. "Is there a reason you came to see me, Sakura, or do you just like my decor?"

The girl's gaze, which had been browsing the titles on his bookcase - most of them derivatives of the Icha Icha series, though a few were actually legitimate literature - moseyed slowly back in his direction. "I'm here to settle an old bet," she said vaguely, as if its actual contents didn't much interest her. "Well, maybe two," she amended.

"Oh?" he asked, trying not to look puzzled. Two bets? He'd heard the one about the mask several years ago, but his students, or former students really, were still arguing amongst themselves about him? And that was the reason she had visited today? Where had her almost constant need for revenge gone? He was startled to find himself almost needing it. Somehow, it felt as if she was playing with his sanity.

"Yes," she replied, and left it at that. Her eyes returned to roving his living quarters. They appraised his tiny kitchen, small television, and worn couch before turning idly towards the screen door at the back. "Is your bed back there?"

He had to consciously force himself not to sputter. "Sakura, if you're trying to make me uncomfortable, you're doing a wonderful job. I'm sorry for my frayed nerves getting the better of me last week and for taking advantage of you in the hospital." There, he'd capitulated and apologized. Couldn't use the excuse of mind altering medication, unfortunately, she probably knew his body better than he did - fingers gripped the back of the chair tightly at this thought - but perhaps she'd buy the old battle stress excuse. It had done wonders for him before, though he'd never dreamed that he would be giving it to the one girl he actually wanted to stick around.

Sakura's only reaction to this admission was to blink once. Then it was if the words had never emerged at all. "Were you honestly joking when you implied I wasn't attractive?"

Ah, it had finally decided to reveal itself, Sakura's petty monster. She was going to make him pay, all right. Somehow, the world seemed a little bit more normal. "Do you really want an honest answer to that?" he asked back, pained.

"Yes." The answer was concise, leaving him no room to maneuver.

He'd still wiggle as much as he could, though. "Well, you were always the prettiest of my students." Though Sasuke had given her a run for her money. If he was into that kind of stuff. Which he most certainly wasn't. Though sometimes he wondered about Naruto...

"Compared to women in general," Sakura clarified easily, pinning him with her direct green eyes.

"Hmm," Kakashi replied, raising a hand to his chin as he carefully looked his former student up and down, positive that the devil had visited Sakura in the night and told her exactly how to inflict his punishment, "I suppose I would have to say that you make the cut of being attractive."

"I'll take that as a yes." Across from the copy ninja, the girl's head tilted. "And when you kissed me, was that serious or just a joke as well?"

This time he could not stop the incredulous raise of his one visible eyebrow in response. Was this some kind of trick question? Was there an actual correct answer to this? If he told her it was just for kicks, she would probably steam roll him into the pavement immediately, but if he told her that yes, of course he was serious, he'd only been pining after her for what, eleven years, and the sexual tension had just become so great that he'd attempted to take her upon his own recovery bed, well, that just seemed like a recipe for disaster. He'd be irredeemably twisted then. Where were Miranda rights when you needed them? Some countries needed to think about the guilty party as well. "Do you think I could summon Pakkun? I think I should let the Hokage know you were over here today just so she knows why I'm dead tomorrow."

"Just answer the question, senpai."

Again, the different form of addressing him. Kakashi turned his face firmly away so that she wouldn't be able to catch the expression in his eye. Did she understand what that did to him? That she saw their relationship as no longer one of teacher and student and therefore absolutely inviolate? Of course, his averted gaze just had to hit his bedroom. With a sigh, he glanced up, as if begging the gods to save him from destruction, before finally acquiescing. "Yes, I was completely serious, and that is why I apologized immediately. Don't worry, Sakura, we can pretend this never happened. I was very tired."

Whatever the outcome, at least he could say that he was honest. Maybe they'd chop ten years off eternity for being truthful down in the fiery pits. Send him to purgatory to recover a bit before all existence imploded. Or started over, or did whatever it did outside of time and space.

"I was tired," she said, "I don't recall you being as sleepy."

Heaven help him, she was whipping out the knives. That had sounded hadn't sounded too sharp, but she was probably just building up to her full blown rage. "Well, you know, looking back..." It was the most pitiful excuse he had ever heard, but it was all he had readily available.

"You know, Kakashi-sempai," Sakura said after a moment, leaning back into her chair as if getting comfortable, "I think I said I was over here to settle a couple of bets."

"I seem to recall that."

Her arm came up to sit on the armrest and her chin plopped down into her palm. "Did you want to know what they're about?"

He gazed at her skeptically for a moment before shrugging almost carelessly. "Go ahead."

"Well, first of all, I want you to show me what's under that mask of yours."

Kakashi sighed and shook his head. "I thought we settled this years ago, Sakura."

"No, we didn't," she denied easily.

The dark eye scrutinized her critically. "Surely your bet with Naruto can't be that important." He brought his hand up to prop his face, mirroring her position. "Why? What's this about?"

Her green gaze never wavered. "My second bet with Ino."

"And that would be?"

"Who would actually have an affair with their teacher."

This time he couldn't help himself. He sputtered, and sputtered hard. Sakura continued as if he hadn't given any reaction at all. "We'd made it back in the academy, when we were told that we'd be getting jounin instructors after we graduated. I think we were fighting about Sasuke - well, we were always fighting about Sasuke - but she said she'd go one better and have an affair with the hottest teacher she could find. It was a big scandal among the girls but I replied that I'd have an affair first." She frowned, pausing at this point in her narrative. "Of course, a week later we'd forgotten about it. I think I taunted her about Asuma-sensei once or twice later on, but we both knew he was together with Kurenai-sensei and Ino had kind of given up on Sasuke by then as well."

"Sakura," and the voice that managed to get out was rough and slightly strangled, "shut up. Please. You're making it difficult to think."

Obligingly, and thank goodness, she closed her mouth. Because his brain was having paroxysms. She'd been making bets about affairs when she was eleven? And just how many boyfriends had she actually had? Where was his vision of Sakura, the innocent maiden who was too naive to even understand what the eventual culmination of their actions last week would have been if Naruto hadn't interrupted?

The sudden haze of red in front of him drew his gaze into instant focus as Sakura bent down to eye level and reached out a hand. "In case you don't understand, this is me taking you up on your offer," she said, fingers already tugging at the mask.

"What offer is that?" Kakashi asked back, feigning oblivion desperately as he smiled to keep the piece of fabric firmly on his face.

She just pulled harder, inching it down his nose. "The one you said you were serious about, where you threatened all the men I had ever dated and then decided to make me forget they existed. So good job, I accept."

It slipped past his nose, and he had to fight the impulse to bite it to keep it in place. "If you don't stop right now, Sakura, I'm afraid you're going to end up on the floor." He didn't exactly explain how she would end up there, which would involve her missing more than just her shorts, but thankfully it was enough of an intimidation to make her pause, and he snatched her wrist firmly to prevent its resumption downwards. After a moment, spent telling himself that yes, he needed to stop this, and no, his libido was not that urgent, Kakashi sighed. "You need to rethink this."


He almost groaned. "Because you can do better than me."

Yes, he thought as she stopped fidgeting in his grasp, she was finally coming to her senses. But she contradicted him again, using the strength in her other hand to begin prying off his fingers. "Better than you?" It almost sounded like a hypothetical question. "Former ANBU, genius shinobi, the copy ninja, and master of the Mangekyo Sharingan?" He had only his forefinger and thumb still fastened as she finished her statement. "Are you telling me to go after the entire Akatsuki or whoever manages to finally kill you?"

"You're being facetious," he said, switching hands.

"So are you."

At his limit, he snatched her second wrist firmly away and closed his eyes with a sigh. She was going to kill him, but not in the way he had expected when she entered his apartment earlier. He was refusing her, with every ounce of nobility he had in him - which wasn't really all that much, but he'd managed to scrape it into a healthy rebuttal - and she still was determined to dangle herself. Did she not understand? This cavity forming addiction was going hurt them both, he was so much older, this was so wrong.

She had no idea what she was getting into.

"Sakura, do you trust me?" But he was far past the point of salvation.

The girl in front of him didn't hesitate. "Yes." After all, they'd been part of the same team for years. If they didn't trust each other by now, then they never would.

He gave one more half hearted attempt as dissuasion. "I'm telling you it would be better if you left. You should go home, Sakura, and forget about this."

"I've made up my mind."

That was it, the final straw. She'd drawn the cards and there was nothing left he could do. Refusing her now would take a stronger man than what he was. Slowly, he let his eye open, knowing the heat was in his gaze as it trailed up to her face. It almost shut again as he felt the tug on his hands as she recoiled.

"Come on, I'll take you out to eat," he offered, near to sighing. Sure, dangle the one thing he wanted in front of him for all of two seconds, then snatch it away. Real funny, fate, what a riot. Still holding her wrists, but gently now, he unfolded himself from the chair.

"I want to stay in tonight," she refuted immediately, spreading her feet unconsciously as she rooted herself to the ground. Green eyes took on that dangerous stubborn tint that he knew so well. Such a pity he was even fonder of her petulant looks sometimes than her serious ones.

So she wasn't going to let him let her slither out of this mistake. Emotions burned their way all the way down to his stomach, where they promptly began killing the butterflies that had decided now was the time to frolic. He was grateful that she hadn't managed to get the mask off; he wasn't sure he could control his expressions. His conscience gave one last effort. "I'm out of milk," he added, looking for any change in her face.

Sakura's mouth formed an obstinate line. "I'm not that hungry anyway."

The murder of his self control was complete. It last dying gasp was his slightly raspy command. "Go sit on the couch."

Her heels sunk into the ground automatically as she looked at him, suspicious. After all, he had just been attempting to get her to leave. "Why?"

"Because if you don't, I'm probably going to end up dragging you somewhere you're not ready to be."

He watched her take that in, watched her eyes widen slightly and her shoulders relax, before she lightly pulled herself out of his hold and went to perch primly on the edge of his old sofa. "Are we going to watch television?"

"Not tonight," he replied almost grimly, unable to halt the steady paces to her position. He knelt down in front of her, making her eye level once again, and an unsteady hand lifted to brush the cotton candy hair out of her face. It was just on the sweet side of red. She was so fragile, his spun sugar beauty with the iron fists. What was he going to do?

Already, she was leaning into his hand.

Running his thumb up softly, he stopped just below her brow. "Close your eyes." Her gaze met and held his. "Do you trust me?" He was so far down in this handbasket, he would've sworn his feet were on fire, but he would doom himself twice over before he broke her trust. The smallest hint of a smile flitted across her face as her eyes slid shut.

And Kakashi finally let his impatience loose. The mask that remained just hovering over his mouth was ripped down as if he loathed the feel of it, Sakura's chin was lifted two centimeters as his other arm snaked around her waist, and his lips landed on hers as if there were super magnets inside propelling them together.

She was prepared this time, however, and there was no initial freeze and instead immediate fire. The kiss was heady and desperate and - he barely restrained the shudder that ripped through him down the back of his spine and into his toes - she opened to him with hardly any promptings at all. He slid onto the couch and pulled her astride him in unwilling submission to her moan, tilting her body and pushing their skirmish into a new form.

His lips trailed down to the base of her neck as her chest heaved unevenly against him. Inquisitive fingers traced the unfamiliar contours of his lower face.

"You won your bet," he got out, moving up to nuzzle at the bottom of her ear.

She mewled and leant into it as her fingernails moved to sink into his shoulders. "I won both of them," she replied, in barely more than a breathy whisper.

He paused, all he was able to manage, and let his forehead fall against her shoulder blade, his arms pulling her waist close against him. He was in so far over his head, had been from the very first minute he had laid his eyes on her, because she was Trouble with a capital T and she had done what absolutely no other woman had managed, and that was steal his heart away. A child had played thief in the night and he had never even suspected she would be the one until it was too late.

It was like standing at the brink of a bottomless ravine: if he didn't ruin her crystalline radiance she would smash his heart to bits, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop himself from teetering. She'd enthralled him mind, body, and soul.

"I'm going to break you," he said wearily, pressing into her warmth.

Unaware of his mental agony, Sakura rested her chin gently against the top of his head, pressing down against that shock of unruly white hair. "I'm a big girl, Kakashi-sempai," she said simply, "I can take it. After all, I learned how to be a shinobi from the best."

The rumble of the almost feral growl that sounded in response started in his chest and vibrated into the hollow of her throat. "Sakura, drop the senpai." Already, her dress was beginning to ride up the back of her thighs and he brought her firmly down to once more fuse her mouth to his.

Obligingly, the name she called out that night had no honorifics.

Do you think...?


Everyone knows.

...screaming...last night.

Let it be said that he had attempted to court her properly. He tried to visit her at the hospital without bearing a mortal injury, he occasionally managed to scrape up the money to pay for dinner when they went out, he stoically ignored Naruto's flabbergasted stare and fishmouthing after she leaned over one afternoon and pecked him firmly on the cheek - though of course he'd had to convince her later that she should probably include the rest of their teammates the next time she wanted to display outward affection like that if she didn't want the rumor mill starting up, because if there was a bigger gossip than Naruto, it was Sai when he was feeling a bit vindictive. Sakura had hurriedly repaired that mistake, and now her teammates only wondered why she was feeling so free with her affection lately.

The afternoon they had taken lunch outside, next to the memorial, he would remember forever, with him sitting calmly and alternating reading his book with cloud gazing, and her propped snoozing against his back.

In fact, it was more often than not his tenuous control that kept their relationship from going past the just barely third base that it had run to on that first night together. Not that she didn't push the limits, but he still cherished the thought of her innocence in the depth of his heart. He knew what it was like to lose it, and he didn't want her regretting anything later on. After all, the fortune he had received years ago the night he met her had warned him that her price was high, and if it included her happiness, he was afraid to take it from her.

She had learned, however, that the tantalizing prize of his name in a thready moan and her body quivering against his was enough to bring him to his knees, if not break him entirely, and there was more than one evening in which he left her wrapped in a blanket curled up on his couch and walked unsteadily to the nearest bar, wondering if it was her pleasure or just his own that he was denying so vehemently. He wasn't sure how much more of this he could take, his entire mouth was surely rotting by now, and still Sakura had not withdrawn.

It was beginning to become questionable if she ever would.

He was petrified at the possibility. If he gave himself over to the hope, that this precious girl actually loved him best in the world, he would never recover when she left.

Nearly a month and a half after the formation of their doublet, the question became purely theoretical. She had tamed him so easily, this son of the White Fang, that she never realized it was not a faithful puppy but a wolf she dealt with, a wolf with dwindling self restraint. When his fingers carelessly brushed her body, and she vibrated like a taut piano spring in violent response, there was nothing he could do. It was the entirely wrong move to make while pressed against his form, and he helplessly watched the last strap of reason snap like a rubber band drawn too tight.

With a gasp and a groan, Sakura found herself bouncing her naive little way back onto a mattress. Gone were the flashing stop signs of caution, the yield notices of better intention. His vision was entirely red, no, pink, in a rosette haze, as he knelt over her, hands grasping at the hem lying somewhere on her stomach and pulling up.

Sakura shivered with the ensuing chill, but did not cry out, and a vague part of him thought that was even worse, because she was giving him absolutely no reason to end this. His mismatched eyes pleaded desperately with her oblivious features as his uncontrollable fingers found Icha Icha's second most favorite item and tossed her bra to the side.

Was it really going to happen like this? Agile hands slipped to her waist and then under the elastic band of her shorts. To this girl he tried so hard to protect, was he going to be the one to finally violate that purity? The elastic band rolled downwards, collecting fabric. Did he actually have it in him to defile the girl he loved most?

With a strangled cry, he let his head fall somewhere in the crook of her shoulder. He didn't. A thin line of moisture seeped into her skin near to where his eyes were clenched in frustration and defeat. He loved her, had close to worshiped her sometimes, and he could not bring this goddess off her pedestal to languish in his bad reputation. What an idiot he had been.

Beneath him, barely clothed, Sakura's impatience got the better of her, and she wiggled slightly against his stilled form. Firm hands wrapped immediately around her arms and fingers sunk into her biceps, and Sakura gave a small cry of surprise and alarm.

The voice that came from somewhere below her ear was flat and endlessly tired. "Don't." He waited until her body was quiescent once more before he pulled back, trying not to look at her inquisitive expression. "We can't, Sakura," Kakashi said softly, but with finality as he levered off the bed and withdrew. He loved her too much to take her carelessly, but she didn't have to know. The break would be clean.

Instead, he let his palm caress her cheek for the final time, then he was pulling a random jacket out of his closet and slipping it on, ignoring her dumbfounded face.

"Too much of a child," was the only bitter remark that reached her ears as he stepped out of the bedroom, barely managed to slide on his sandals, and slammed out of the apartment.

Stunned and distraught, Sakura was left to pick up the pieces of a wounded heart alone.





The next week was probably the worst he had ever lived through, and Kakashi had had some harrowing sets of seven days. This, however, was worse, because he knew that it was entirely his own fault that he suffered. Sakura had been in his bed, as ripe as a strawberry and practically begging for him, and he had been unable to pluck her. His manhood was feeling mortally wounded and not even extended sessions with Icha Icha Paradise could salve the gash.

The one thing that might have consoled him was now so far out of reach that she could have been living on the moon and been closer. And by his own intentions! Should he start banging his head into the wall now or just take a short walk off a steep cliff and save everyone the trouble later?

Of course, Sakura was doing her darndest to make sure that he'd have every opportunity to notice her absence. Her spiteful streak had returned with a vengeance that assured him that the rest of the world had not sunk into madness, even if he was nearing the end of that treacherous road himself. She skipped training, separated with Sai whenever possible on missions, and took off immediately when they arrived at Konoha to make sure her report to the Hokage was finished by the time the rest of them got there. She made sure to never step into the restaurants they had frequented - he had been a bit desperate one day to know about her well being and had asked the proprietors with uncharacteristic directness - and if he caught a glimpse of pink on the street it was gone before he had the chance to do a double take.

Sai and Naruto had conjectured to themselves about her suddenly estranged mood - the artist had thought that maybe she was pregnant and thankfully Naruto's swift yell of protest and insistence that it was just that time of the month was enough to cover the immediate choking noises that emerged from the tree above them. Not that Kakashi had sunk to eavesdropping. No, he was just curious as to what Sakura had told them, and if it was absolutely nothing, as it was looking to be, then he was not going to enlighten his other teammates.

He had thought, at the beginning of this whole affair, that if he pulled back his affections, Sakura would quickly realize her mistake and everything would go back to normal, but it seemed as if that was not going to be the case. Bleakly, Kakashi wondered if anything was ever going to be the same again.

Exhausted from his search for her this morning, the white haired jounin pulled out a chair at a local café and fell into the seat next to Kurenai.

The dark haired woman sent him an amused glance. "Feeling a bit tired, are we?"

His return look was sharp, but it relaxed in surrender to a forlorn sigh after only seconds. "You could say that."

"I guess that's the punishment you get," she mused quietly, absently stirring the cup of milky coffee in front of her.

Kakashi only grunted in reply, slumping in the chair.

"Shame on you, making a girl half your age cry."

"She's two thirds," he shot back automatically, scowling at the table, before his one visible eye turned quickly to spear his companion. "Cry?"

Kurenai paid the urgency in his voice no heed as she lifted the drink to her lips and took a sip. It was set back in the saucer with barely a rattle. "Sure she did. That's what girls do when they're rejected."

Beside her, her long time friend tensed and stared her down for several moments, before pushing abruptly back in his chair. Kurenai, who had been expecting this, rapidly snagged his arm and kept him pinned to his seat.

"Kakashi, you shouldn't."

"She thinks I rejected her!" he spat back, unwilling to forcefully yank her hand off of him but also not wanting to stay any longer. "She needs to know that I didn't!"

"And what did you do?" the curvy woman asked. "You dated her for nearly two months, put enough moves on her to make a dead woman feel desirable, and then rushed out as if she'd caught your pants on fire and you were irrevocably scarred!" She noticed the incredulous eyebrow that met her accusation. "She ran crying to Ino," Kurenai explained. "Shikamaru happened to over hear them and related the story to me. I think he was nervous about handling it, since they were wailing and threatening all men in his house."

That would be why both the blond and the pineapple head had been glaring at him all week as if he were the devil's best friend. At least they had managed to keep their mouths mostly buttoned, likely on immediate threat of injury from Sakura. The whole village glaring daggers at his back was not a comfortable experience.

"I didn't reject her," he repeated, calmer now.

Kurenai just shrugged in reply. "Maybe not, but you didn't accept her either."

They sat in silence for several moments, the noise from the passing traffic slowly filtering in, as Kakashi digested this and his best friend's widowed girlfriend munched on the flaky cookie that came with the coffee. She paused, smiled, and waved as she spotted someone down the street.

Kakashi followed her gaze and found her young son to be the recipient. Asuma's only child. He was situated between two older shinobi, the Kazekage's sister and the Nara heir, as he clung to their hands and swung back and forth, his childish laughter echoing down the corridor.

"To the playground?" Kurenai asked quietly, even though he knew her voice was not able to reach the group of three. One of the two ninja could surely read lips. She nodded with a smile as she watched her son point excitedly to the swing set still distant. "Be safe!"

Temari scooped the young boy up, doubling their speed to their target and Shikamaru turned to stroll carefully behind. His eyes met Kakashi's briefly, and they shared one long, measuring look before the young man finally removed his gaze. A faint shiver ran up the copy ninja's neck as he was reminded forcefully of Asuma once more.

"Their hairstyles are eerily similar," he said instead, watching the two ponytailed heads, one with a single tuft of black and the other with four sprouts of blond, retreat towards the playground.

"Ironic, isn't it?" Kurenai said laughing. "Shikamaru's planning on marrying her if he ever gets the guts to ask. I imagine they'll always have a stocked supply of hair ties."


"And what are you planning to do?" she asked mildly. When there was no answer to her indirect inquiry, the kunoichi only sighed. "Kakashi, you know Asuma never married me." She stared down at the cup in her hands with a strange twist of her lips. "Always meant to, never got around to it. He would have dragged us to the Hokage immediately if he had known about our son, but he never got the chance. But I suppose it doesn't really matter. I knew he loved me, and we were happy together as we were."

"He loved your son as well, even if he didn't know it."

Softly, the woman smiled, lifting her gaze up to the sky. "I know it." She closed her eyes and let a stray breeze almost tuck a wispy strand of hair behind her ear, then turned to the man beside her. "Did you know that he always said out meeting was fateful?" Quietly, she waited until Kakashi's attention was fully on her. "He told me the story several times, that the night we met he had visited a fortune teller and she had said that the woman he would find would be the most wonderful girl in the world. That always made me very happy."

There was just the spark of growing wariness in the eye across from her. He seemed to recall a moment of weakness before Asuma several years back...

"But you know," she mused on, playing oblivious, "occasionally he'd mention that you had gone with him. You managed to foretell your impending engagement."

"I'm sure he found that hilarious," was the deadpanned answer.

"Yes," Kurenai admitted. "But not nearly so amusing as your other story." Kakashi cringed, knowing what was next, remembering an extremely drunken night as they tried to outdo each other with painful stories and he had won by everyone laughing themselves silly into the ground, but the woman retelling this horror didn't even flinch. "He said that you'd gone and fallen at first sight for a girl who was only a fourth your age."


Asuma had never put two and two together, but his girlfriend, who was more astute and believed firmly that fate had brought her former lover and herself together, made the connection with ease. "It was Sakura, wasn't it?"

He gave no answer to that, looking away from her intuitive gaze to stare at the playground where her son was currently winding his way through a jungle gym. By his happy expression, the boy was laughing up a storm.

"It was a red yukata," Kakashi said at last, his voice emerging sandpaper coarse and quiet. "A red yukata with white butterflies and sakura on it. It suited her. She looked like a doll." A yukata was his weakness, his downfall, as long as there was a pink petite girl inside. Just wait until they added that one to the bingo books.

"And so you fell in love with her."

A clenched fist settled on the table. "You don't understand, she was just a child."

"I understand."

Kakashi jerked his eye to her, scrutinizing.

His longtime friend just smiled softly, almost sadly. "I understand, if only a little bit. Love is love, no matter who it's between." She looked off to the playground he had been recently staring at. "I love Asuma, and I love my son, and I understand why our child was born out of wedlock, there was nothing I could do to change that. I will love our son regardless. But," she added seriously, "there are times I wonder what I should do. He was born in love, but not in marriage, and society does not look kindly on this reality. Because I love him, I want to protect him, because there will be times when he will be ashamed of his beginning. But I know leaving the only place he knows as home to escape the rumors and gossips will make him unhappier than staying."

"You could still leave. Kids are stronger than we think, they adjust," he said at last, but the argument was weak.

Kurenai shook her head. "I'd sacrifice a lot more than my reputation for his happiness."

Confused and tired, Kakashi gave up, slumping forward with his head in his hands. "I don't know what will make her happy."

"You should ask her."

He let his fingers push upwards into his hair. "She's so innocent."

"Is she?" was the speculative answer. "Kakashi, is it a crime for an of age girl to love an older man?"

A snort of incredulity was his reply, but she pressed on undaunted.

"I know what happened before I met Asuma. You were told that innocence would be her bride price." A pair of dark eyes watched as the man hunched over the table grew very still, his shoulders tense and unforgiving. "Maybe that's what her happiness will cost her. A lot of other women have paid the same price. But, Kakashi, I think you're misunderstanding one thing."

One eye traced the fleur-de-lis on the metal table before he leaned back and looked at the woman watching him so seriously. "And what would that be?"

A tilt of the head accompanied Kurenai's answer. "A bride price is not like a dowry. It's usually paid by the man. So tell me, is it her innocence that will be lost, or your own?"

...pay up...

There was no reason he should have taken that walk that night. He had no errands to run, it wasn't really that hot, and his Icha Icha book would have been far easier to read with some light. But the apartment was stuffy, and every where he looked he could have imagined pink, and so he left with his hands in his pockets and no particular direction in mind.

He honestly could have ended up anywhere, so he was stunned when his eyes landed on the small bridge at the outskirts of town.

Were the things that came out of his mouth destined to be village gossip?

Because there she was, her neck arched wonderfully beneath her pinned cotton candy hair, her arm gracefully holding a lantern above the water, and her body sheathed in the delicate red of a yukata dusted with white. They were birds this time instead of butterflies and flowers, but it was close enough. Kurenai had given him away and he wondered vaguely where they had managed to find such a good match in material. His heart was thumping a faster beat that it had been when he had faced Itachi. He watched as her other hand lifted from her side to drop a small handful of sticks in the water then yanked her yukata up to her knees as she sprinted for the other side of the bridge. So childish...

But her porcelain beauty could not be denied.

The beam of the lantern caught and reflected off his pale hair, and she paused, spotting him from the shadows. Her movements became jerky as she sent him a short bow. "Sensei."

Kakashi's wince was automatic. "Sakura," he replied, gathering the remnants of courage he possessed and striding forward. He came to a stop beside her stiff form, taking one good look at her face before he leaned against the railing. "It's a nice night, hmm?" Ah, the weather. The one reliable thing to talk about when everything else would probably end with a hole the side of a fist through his stomach.

"I suppose," she gave back grudgingly, shrugging. Sakura fidgeted with the lantern for a few seconds before she made a sound of impatience and moved to withdraw.

His hand caught her elbow and propelled her to the spot beside him before she could manage it. "Have something important tonight?" he asked as casually as he could.

Sakura's reply was caustic. "I should!" she snorted, before clicking her tongue with irritation, "but Ino said I'd feel better if I dressed up."

Still clutching her arm, his hand tightened briefly before it dropped. "I'm sorry, Sakura," he said wearily.

"You should be!" she shot in return. The arm was yanked roughly back to her side and she took a tighter grip of her lantern.

"I'm sorry I made you think I didn't want you," he continued before she could storm away, glancing over with one eye at her surprised expression. It darkened almost immediately, but at least she remained intrigued. It meant that he wouldn't be forced to tie her to this stupid bridge to make her hear him out. "I'm sorry that I didn't pay more attention to your feelings."

Sakura glared at him, not yet ready to accept his apology. "Well then, what were you paying attention to? Most men would find it pretty hard not to pay attention in a situation like that!" After all, she had only been wearing her shorts and Icha Icha's favorite clothing item. If a man could be distracted under those circumstances, you had to wonder about their orientation.

"Sakura," he started.

"Sensei!" she interrupted, spine snapping straight and heels edging distinctly apart.

His forthcoming pain sensors were screaming that now was definitely not the time to do anything stupid. An impatient hand yanked her body against his anyway, and he ignored her surprised yelp of indignation. He brought her chin up sharply, leaving barely breathing room between their faces as he stared into her wide eyes. "Sakura, what kind of girl goes around reminding men - and men who are quite firmly attracted to her, might I add - that she had been upset that they hadn't taken advantage of her?" His dark eye watched as her face fought the warring expressions of outrage and anticipation. Unsteadily, he drew back as her tongue peeked out briefly to wet her lips. "You're so naive."

"Well, excuse me!" she burst out, lips trembling from frustration and anger. Sakura yanked her hands out of his grasp and pushed hard against his chest. She didn't stop as he stumbled back a few steps. "Sure, I don't have a lifetime of experience like you, Mister I think my mask is so hot! But I've been with enough people to know the basics!"

Her words sapped his temper like nothing else. "W-what?" he asked weakly, falling back to the railing.

"I'll give you the names if you'd like," she taunted. "Then you can go interview them yourself!"

"I'll wring their necks!" he snapped back, pushing open his sharingan in outright anger. How dare they? And to this girl!

Sakura took a faltering step back, blinking at his sudden change of attitude. "Sensei?"

The wild eyes bored into her face. "Make up your mind! If you want me, it'd better be my name that you call me by." That title was driving him insane! He thought he'd finally gotten rid of it!

"Ka-kakashi," she stuttered, clutching her lantern.

He stared at her, stared at her lips for several moments, before he let his legs slide out in front of him and his back rest against the side of the bridge. A slightly shaking hand covered his eyes as unmirthful chuckles rolled from the back of his throat. "What is wrong with us, Sakura?"

"You mean you or just the world in general?" she managed to quip frailly back.

But it was enough. When he dropped his hand, the edges of his eyes showed just the faintest crinkles, the start of a smile. "Obviously me. Sit down, Sakura," he said, patting the ground beside him. He waited until she had hesitantly settled on the wooden slats, then rested his arms on his knees as he looked up at the sky. "So I never had to worry all along. You've grown up by yourself, Sakura."

She watched his self-mocking expression before she nodded slowly. "I suppose."

A hand came to rest on her shoulder, but he never looked in her direction. "Sakura, if you stay with me, I am going to be stealing what's left of your innocence. I'm not like those other men you've dated before. I'm going to take everything." Even if he didn't mean to, the gossip mill would ensure that he did.

In response, she only shrugged. "I suppose that's okay," Sakura said after a while.

It didn't seem alright to him. Somehow, it was not even, and so he scraped together his pathetic offer. "You can have what's left of mine."

"You still have some?" she asked incredulously.

The laugh came pouring out of him, just as pleasantly amazed as she was. Over thirty years old, an elite ninja and experienced lover, he had absolutely no excuse. But Sakura had made him act like a certified fool. His love for her had been outrageously pure, and she had been the only one for over a decade. With her former love for Sasuke, Sakura even had an edge over him in that respect. "Seems like I do."

Kurenai had been right, fate had been right. He was paying for her after all with what he'd never thought he had.

They sat for a while in silence, watching the fireflies come out and readjusting to one another's presence, before Kakashi turned to Sakura with a smile pushing up the corners of his eyes. "So you think my mask is hot?"

"Shut up!"

"Hold this bow down, Hinata!"

Ino was going crazy. Why had she agreed to do this? "Pass me those shears, Chouji!" she barked at her idle boyfriend. He munched on another handful of chips as he handed over the tool. Narrowing her eyes, she stared at the vase of flowers before her. "That isn't right. Something's just wrong."

"A-ano, Ino-san," a timid Hinata said to her right. "The blood from Tenten's finger isn't stopping."

"Apply pressure, jeez! I told her to be careful with those roses!" Irritated, she tugged at her own hair before glancing at the clock. "Where is Sakura? How long does it take to hop into a wedding dress?"

"Well, we're finished for now."

Shizune stood back, inspecting her work. In front of her, three men looked immaculate.

"Che, not bad," Genma said, glancing down at his more formal uniform. "You'll make a great wife, Shizune."

The girl blushed, but her boss quickly stepped in between her assistant and the three men.

"You know what you're supposed to do. Keep him out of trouble before the wedding starts."

Gai laughed heartily as he slapped a pained looking Kakashi on the back. "Impossible, Tsunade-sama! I've challenged Kakashi-sensei to a drinking match!"

"Joy," the white haired groom muttered back.

"If you try to run out of this, I'm going to beat you senseless!"

Sakura was glaring at her soon to be husband inside the dim closet where she had dragged him. Her chest was heaving in a way that told him she'd probably be more comfortable out of the dress. Idly, he wondered if he could manage to convince her of this before she prematurely widowed herself.

"Afraid?" he asked mildly.

Crossing her arms across her bodice, the bride merely raised an eyebrow. "Please, try me. I'm dying to get some frustration out, and if you're offering yourself as a sacrifice, I accept."

That was the girl he loved and adored. Kakashi leaned down and pecked her fondly on the lips. "Well, I'm terrified. Why don't we elope?"

"Do you think we'll see another marriage before the year is out?"

Hinata asked the group beside her. They had finished arranging Ino's flowers around the small reception hall and were now waiting for the main event to proceed, sitting in a row of chairs. Most of the other guests had already arrived, and only Kurenai was back with the bride, putting on the finishing touches.

"Oh, please, Sakura's the only one crazy enough to get married before she's twenty. It's bad enough Lee seems to have been inspired by the event and keeps asking me every other day," Tenten replied, shaking her head. "The rest of us want to live a little."

"Don't know about that," Ino said smugly. "I think our favorite pineapple head is going to be married a lot sooner than you think. To Temari."

The bunned girl turned to her right, looking surprised. "How do you know that?"

"Everyone knows," Hinata said calmly from her left.

"Yeah," Ino added, smirking outright, "she was screaming his name all last night."

A row in front of them, Shikamaru had his hands carefully covering Asuma's son's ears, cheeks burning with embarrassment, while the sand kunoichi seated beside him had the guts to look proud of herself.

"It's about time."

Kakashi could hear the grumbled complaint coming from behind him. Genma was obviously relieved that the long speech before the actual ceremony was winding up. A raised eyebrow from the girl across from him caught his attention.

"Having regrets?" she mouthed silently, glancing up at him from the top of her green eyes.

Kakashi's eyes only crinkled above his mask - the traditions had been reversed somewhat for the wedding - as he whispered his answer. "Maybe."

A sigh left the pretty bride's lungs, that cute petulant scowl crossing her lips. "Really, sensei..."

"I'm talking about eloping," he replied, stifling a laugh.

"I believe I won, so pay up, Naruto."

The blond stood with a pout on his face, glaring at the current envy of all the women in the room. Sai.

The artist stood with the bouquet clutched firmly in his hands. "And changing the payment into left over bowls of ramen does not count."

"Fine, jeez," the fox shinobi whined, digging into his pocket for his wallet and removing roughly half of its plump weight.

Putting the prize money carefully away, Sai threw the gathered flowers over his shoulder and ignored the ensuing frenzy of kunoichi. He strolled instead to the punch table with his blond friend. "You know," he remarked idly, "I always though Sakura-chan would have ended up with you."

"Huh, really?" Naruto asked, scratching his chin. "Why's that?"

"Well, you were always hanging out with her, and Sakura's got a thing for her teammates."

The blond nodded. "No kidding, hmm?" He picked up a cup of punch, then jumped excitedly. "Oh, wait! Does that mean that when Kakashi-sensei is dead, Sakura-chan will finally want to date me?"

The sound of a snapping temper could be heard inches away from his side. "Not on your life!" an irate bride growled, smacking Naruto on the head and storming off, completely forgetting the drinks she had agreed to pick up for her table.

Sai watched her exit, then leaned down to his stunned teammate. "I think it will be me," he said sagely.

"...do you love me?"

"No, Sakura, I married you for kicks. Of course I do, so get your nose back in joint."

"Good. Because I love you."