I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once

He wakes up at 5 am on the dot. He stares at the ceiling, unseeing. Just another day.

He rises out of bed, adjusting his mask up as he goes. Another sleepless night, another night plagued with bad dreams and bad memories. Outside, most of Konoha sleeps still, but its shinobi wake to ensure that they keep dreaming their pleasant dreams.

He makes himself breakfast, nothing much in his mind, his routine on autopilot. He tries hard not to remember his nightmares, so he focuses on what he has to do for the day. A visit to the cenotaph, a jounin meeting with the Hokage, writing up reports for the rest of the day. Peacetime had brought a pall of silence over what had been an uncertain life, and while he is grateful for it, it brought along an uneasiness, a restless wanting of what had been.

Then again, he is a man who lives in the past.

At half past six, he begins his walk to the cenotaph. For a man once known for being perpetually late, he keeps a rather strict schedule nowadays. Naruto and the others had already outgrown and outpaced him, and there is no one to scold him over his tardiness anymore.

The cobbled pathway leading up to the cenotaph is strangely comforting, untouched by the devastation of war. The sight of Obito's name still on it is another thing altogether. Above all else, Kakashi craved constants—an impossibility in his profession, but he wants it anyway. Obito's death and constant friendship was one such constant Kakashi had clung to, but that's all gone now, and he feels empty and alone, the cenotaph an even colder comfort than what it had been.

The world moves on, but Kakashi Hatake remains the same.

He arrives a bit late at the jounin meeting, and he's surprised by how many people he doesn't know. Or he probably knows, but he only knows them as children, or blurred faces of soldiers in combat. A few look up to him and acknowledge him with a nod or a smile, and he acknowledges them in turn as he passes by.

"Kakashi-sensei!" a happy whispered call catches his attention, as does the caller's soft pink hair. She waves at him, unmindful of the others around them, unmindful of the fact that they're shortly to be in the presence of the Hokage but then again, it's Sakura and the Hokage has long ceased to intimidate her.

"Here, I saved a seat for you!" she pats the space next to her, a co-conspirator.

He shrugs and makes his way next to her. She smiles warmly at him, and he notices that her lap is full of books and notebooks and tethering precariously on top, a chewed-out pencil. Ever the studious student, he reflects. But Sakura looks nothing like how he remembers her. She's all strong lines and a defiant smile, but there's still something of the old Sakura with the shy way she looks at him.

"It's my first day," she confesses to him without any prompting at all when she sees him glance down at her mountain of books. "I just want to be prepared."

"Aaaa…First day of what?" Kakashi asks.

She rolls her eyes, and that is Sakura, past and present, he thinks, secretly amused. "Today we get assigned our genin team!"

Kakashi merely leans back against his chair, stares at the ceiling again, the perfect picture of nonchalance. "Aaaa. That thing," he says tonelessly. "It's been a while," he hopes she appreciates how much of an understatement that is.

Before she could even respond, he adds, "I'm surprised they even invited me back in here, to be perfectly honest."

That catches her by surprise. "Why do you say that, Sensei?"

He breaks his gaze from the ceiling and fixes her with an honest look. "Because I've never been a good teacher, and you know that, Sakura."

Sakura looks concerned and he hates it. It's a look she has when she senses something is wrong and she just can't help but stick her nose in it to make everything better. But it's not something she can fix if it's the plain truth, right? He knows it, and she knows it, but he knows she's going to try and say something to make it all better anyway. That's who Sakura is: Fixer, healer, mender.

Mercifully, Tsunade-sama arrives before Sakura could even force an attempt.

Kakashi is a man who craves constants, but finds that constants come in strange packages.

He's assigned three snotty-nosed brats, all puffed up with their own sense of self-importance and an unexplainable need to surpass the older generation. Quite like the first set he's been assigned to, many years ago.

There's Rui and Yui Hyuga, twins from a lower branch of the Hyuga family, mercifully spared from the worst of the clan politics, especially now that Hinata is clan leader. They smile and shout and are inseparable, and unsurprisingly, are not very impressed with Kakashi when he shows up late for their first class together. The third one, Ryoga, is a boy orphaned from the war, immensely talented but quiet and reserved. Still, they are all round faces, pink cheeks and enthusiasm when he asks them to talk about themselves.

"My name is Hyuga Yui from the Hyuga clan! I like the Gentle Fist technique! I don't like being beaten in battle! I like red bean mochi and—" the girl stops abruptly when Kakashi feels a soft landing next to him. It's Sakura, and with her, her own genin pack.

"Huh, already occupied?" Sakura teases, flicking her hair. Kakashi notes that she is assigned an older set of genin, already slightly grim-faced and guarded. "I was hoping you'd forgotten about this place, Kakashi-sensei."

"Sakura-sensei," he counters. "I'm tardy, not forgetful." She walks towards his students, the little traitors already forgetting about him as they stare at her in awe. The Sakura Haruno, in person! He imagines that for them, knowing about him and actually meeting him had been a very disappointing experience. He likes it that way.

Sakura is different. She knows her reputation, owns it and flaunts it like a well-earned badge of honor. As she should.

She sits right next to his gaping students, and her team follows suit. "Everyone," she calls out, her eyes twinkling. "Please listen closely to Kakashi-sensei! You have a lot of things to learn from him." The effect is instantaneous, and all his carefully-cultivated air of not being a big deal disappears like a trail of smoke.

And just like that, she undoes all his good work.

"I'm too old for this," Kakashi says mournfully as Sakura patiently tweezes out another thorn from his back—an unfortunate consequence of a D-rank mission that involved harvesting key limes from an uncooperative and thorny tree. She cradles his hand gently as she plucks the thorns out one by one, he watches his skin punctuated by tiny drops of blood.

"You're not too old," Sakura chides gently as she plucks another sliver from his skin, drops it into a tiny container on a table nearby. She blots the blood away with a piece of sterilized cloth and she doesn't take her eyes away from her work. Her hands are graceful, slender, nails neatly tapering into the edges. Kakashi doesn't know why he is so riveted at the sight of her fingers. What a strange thing to notice.

"You're not too old," Sakura repeats, as if noticing his distraction. "Kakashi-sensei."

"Why do you keep on calling me that when you're a sensei yourself? Sakura-sensei."

"Sensei, sensei, sensei," Sakura sing-songs right back at him, but still never quite looking at him. "When you keep repeating a word, it seems like it's not a real word anymore, right? Like it's just a bunch of letters that go together but doesn't really mean anything."

He thinks she might be trying to tell him something, and for a second he does try to determine if there's anything in her words that might have a double meaning. But Sakura has always been Sakura—straightforward and to the point, so he merely shrugs it off as she gets rid of the last of thorns embedded in his skin.

His life is a series of constants.

He wakes up on the dot at 5am, and makes himself some breakfast, get dressed, get ready for the day. Sometimes it's punctuated by slight changes in the routine—his ninken need looking after, some odd repairs around the house, having to venture out to buy groceries, everyday minutiae of daily living.

He also varies how late he shows up to trainings. Rui, Yui, and the other one are used to it by now, and they've surprisingly adapted to it very well. Unlike his first genin team, the kids actually seem to like each other, taking to catching dragonflies and playing checkers while they waited for him. They also scold him a lot less when he finally shows up, lost on the path of life.

One day Rui comments, "We sometimes worry about you, sensei," the Hyuga boy's voice is mischievous, pale eyes twinkling. "That one day you won't show up because you keeled over and died from old age."

"Old age?" Kakashi blinks down at him. He's heard insult and then some, mostly from Naruto at a younger age, but he's never been implied to be so old as to simply…keel over.

"Yeah, we're saving up our money to buy you a cane, old man!" Yui chirps in, already in on the joke Rui started.

It may or may not have come as a surprise that Kakashi made them do chakra control exercises that day. He is gratified to see them try and fall from increasing heights while attempting to climb up trees with chakra alone.

Later that day, Kakashi comes home, pulls down his mask, and stares at his reflection for a long, long time.

She always seems to be…there.

From all reports, Sakura should be everywhere but here. In the hospital, at the field, teaching genin, teaching chunin, reporting to the Hokage, hanging out with Team 7, but he always seems to find her here. In the teacher's lounge where, once upon a time, he used to bitterly complain about how hard-headed and obstinate his students were. Now she's there and she's doing the same thing, in front of the same people and he has every right, every right to feel a bit disturbed by it.

"My kids are impatient jerks," she sighs as she uncaps some kind of fruit soda she favors these days. His eyes are fixed on her fingers again as she daintily tosses the cap into the trash bin. "Just because they think they're older, that they're better or something! Tch! My generation…" she trails off, already sensing the bemused grin under his mask. "Shut up, Kakashi-sensei," she says, already annoyed.

"Shut up? I didn't say anything!" There is laughter in his voice, and really, it's amusing how she thinks she can start sentences with, my generation, like it means something.

She rolls her eyes at him. "Shut up," she repeats emphatically and she is just there, at the place that used to be his hideaway from her and her fellow twerps. She's there making coffee, rearranging things, unfolding herself on the sofa, piling her books willy-nilly on every available surface, her perfume in the air. She's invades what used to be personal sacred space and he's strangely annoyed but not really.

"Stop that," he says as he watches her hook her knees over the far end of the sofa, pen in her mouth, books in her hands.

She looks at him guilelessly. "Stop what?"

He shrugs and looks away, not really knowing what to answer.

He forgets how good she is at genjutsu.

They're co-teachers for the day—particularly because he's lazy that way and because, why not? He wants to see her as a jounin-sensei as well. That day's lesson is dispelling genjutsus and although she doesn't do anything particularly complicated, it impresses him how much detail she puts into them.

"It's all in the detail," she says, echoing his thoughts, although she knows perfectly well that he doesn't need to be told. He agrees with a small nod, admiring how she recreates the woods outside Konoha, the smells, the feel of the grass underneath their feet. He wonders where the children are, and what she has in store for them.

She's beautiful in her element, he thinks as they walk together admiring her handiwork. Her hair's a little longer now, green eyes fierce with untapped power. He never honestly thought she'd reach this far, just another of his many failings as her teacher.

She feels her eyes on him (again) and she turns to look at him. "Isn't it strange how I'm basically manipulating the chakra flow in your brain right now?" she asks, always the cerebral one. "I'm in your head, quite literally, Kakashi-sensei."

He laughs at that. "Only because I'm letting you right now," he responds. Truthfully, he hates being in the thrall of a genjutsu, but somehow with Sakura being its caster, he finds that he doesn't mind at all.

It's also quite amazing how complete and all-encompassing her illusion is, Kakashi thinks, but doesn't say. Maybe she's using it right now, making him heady, making her look just….but maybe it's the restricted chakra flow in his brain making him think crazy things. He hopes she wouldn't notice it.

His life is a series of constants.

It's strange how he has to remind that these days.

He wakes up at 5 am on the dot. He stares at the ceiling, unseeing. Just another day.

He rises out of bed, adjusting his mask up as he goes. He's had a decent night's sleep, and he might have had a dream, but he doesn't stay long enough in bed to find out.

He goes over his tasks for the day: A visit at the cenotaph, training with the twerps, another meeting with the Hokage. He gingerly steps over his sleeping ninken, all randomly lying down on their preferred spots on his apartment floor. They're starting to stay over longer and longer and instead of poofing somewhere else, and Kakashi finds that he doesn't mind.

Pakkun wakes up just as he walks past him. The little pug, in a rare show of affection, pads up to him and nuzzles his ankles as he pauses in front of his refrigerator. "Morning, boss," Pakkun says, still slightly groggy from sleep before prompting going back and resuming his dozing.

Kakashi goes over to Pakkun and strokes the dog's head fondly. "Morning, Pakkun," he murmurs.

He makes quick work of his morning routine: Breakfast, dishes, changing into his uniform. She's bound to be here anytime soon. Just as he's thinking it, there's a knock on his door.

"Kakashi-sensei?" she calls out tentatively.

He opens his door and she's there, like she always is. He doesn't really know where this started, how she becomes part of his routine, but now she wants to go to the cenotaph too. She's lost people too, she said, and really, he didn't have a smart nor cutting remark against that. He just let her, and that's the really strange thing.

"Shall we go?" she asks as she takes his hand.

He lets her.

That's the other really strange thing.

Naruto returns from a mission from Sand and Konoha feels renewed again.

He bursts into the scene without preamble, all wide grins and sunshine hair. He's tall now, and tan from his time at Sand. It's a diplomatic mission officially, but really, the Kazekage just wanted Naruto around. For some reason. Naruto does wonders for Konoha's diplomatic relations despite his decidedly tactless demeanor.

"Sakura-chaaaan!" Naruto holds her close and plants a big sloppy kiss that only Naruto can do with Sakura. She beams at him even though he's just finished eating his ramen and it's slightly gross, but again, Naruto can do any number of crimes and Sakura wouldn't really mind.

They've gathered at Ichiraku: Sai, Yamato and himself, to welcome back the prodigal son, but Naruto's attention revolves around Sakura. She is his constant, after all.

Has been her constant first. The thought irritates him, but he swats it away like a troublesome fly.

"Naruto," Sakura chides, only half-meant as she brushes the back of her hand against where the boy kissed her. "We know all about your bromance with Gaara, no need to pretend you missed me so much!"

"Sakura-chan, you're terrible," Naruto complains, his attention already turning to his second bowl of steaming ramen.

"You know what's really terrible?" Yamato says slyly, popping a dumpling in his mouth. "Naruto is above all, really glad to be reunited with Ichiraku and its ramen!"

"Taichou!" Naruto's ears are red now. When Team 7 work together, Kakashi muses, they work together. "That's not true!"

"You know it haunted his dreams," Sai butts in. "I still remember that last mission we had together and you had that nightmare that Teuchi-san forgot how to make ramen? You woke up crying…." the deadpan way Sai says it adds to the hilarity somehow, and Kakashi finds himself doubling over in laughter along with the others. Naruto's ears are pretty maroon now, and he's actually set down his chopsticks to cross his arms, looking put out while the rest of them giggle away.

It's Sakura who breaks rank first, unable to resist Naruto's red ears and embarrassed face anymore. She hugs the boy tightly. "We're just kidding, Naruto-kun," she says, sticking her tongue out at the rest of them—it's pink and retreats all too quickly. "We really missed you."

Her gentle tone only succeeds in making Naruto grow even redder, if that is even possible. A feeling strange and foreign stirs in Kakashi's chest when he catches Naruto's expression when Sakura finally looks away. He dismisses it, refuses to name it, as he turns to talk to Yamato about a different thing altogether.

"I'm glad he's here," Sakura says, and for a moment Kakashi thinks she's referring to Naruto.

But she's crouching in front of the cenotaph, caressing her fingers over a newly-etched name:Uchiha Sasuke.

"You lobbied hard for it," Kakashi observes, recalling Sakura's impassioned pleas to the Hokage and later on, to the Village elders. Despite Sasuke's past wrongs, he had a change of heart at the very end, just enough to help turn the tide of the war and bring about victory.

For Sakura though, Sasuke's death only brought about more questions that could never be answered. The whys and whats and hows is Sasuke's last cruelty against the woman whose greatest fault was to love blindly.

But then again, what other sort of love is there?

He tries not to see the empty space where Obito's name used to be, the blankness of it that seems to echo his own unanswered questions, his own unresolved past.

Wiped clean.

"Do you miss him…Obito, I mean?" It's inevitable that she asks.

It only takes him seconds to answer. "I do. What he used to be." Spring is ending and he feels the heat of the summer creeping in, even in the cool of the early evening. I clung on to that longer than I should've, he thinks. He remembers the pervasive darkness that assaulted him when Tobi revealed himself to be his friend, raised from the dead as a vengeful angel.

Of course Sakura understands. She doesn't deserve pity, has no use for it, but in that moment, he does. She will never know the Sasuke she loved, the Sasuke she loves still. The two people in her head would never match up. Had it all been just a memory she clings to? Obito had been a cruel transformation. Sasuke's monster had resided in the boy since he was small. It wasn't the same 'll never know the boy she loves.

It's a torment that he is grateful never to have known.

"When you're shinobi, keeping your head afloat just won't cut it anymore," he tells Yui Hyuga, who's bobbing up and down in the water after her fifth failed attempt at walking across it. She frowns like he just told her to eat her vegetables. She sticks her tongue out in response and swims towards the shore.

He's really bad at this, he thinks as he watches her paddle away. It's been more than a decade with Naruto and the others, and he wasn't even good back then. He's even worse now.

And honestly, he doesn't like this, the long days of self-doubt and questioning his every decision and that a 12-year-old girl can even make him feel bad about himself these days. But he knows it's not Yui, not really, it's just that when she looks disappointed in him he sees Obito and Rin and Sasuke and all those people he can't save all melding into one melded ball of frustration and blame and he used to be good at this, keeping that at bay, but the passing years are making it harder and harder.

And he feels ridiculous about it now, standing in the middle of the water the way he does as Yui finally makes it to shore.

"Ummm…sensei?" Rui and Ryoga call out to him. He's completely forgotten about them, still sitting in a boat nearby. He mentally kicks himself. Dolt.

Instead, he nods and gestures with a tilt of his head. "Alright, Ryoga. You're next," he calls out gruffly. He provides no further instruction as he watches the boy tentatively stand up and put a foot into the water…

…and promptly falling into it with a splash.

"Ryoga can't swim," Rui says flatly and Kakashi is on the boy in a flash, drawing him up in a scared sputtering bundle.

"Alright, I guess you need to learn how to swim first." Kakashi says, sighing.

This is going to be a long day.

He doesn't know when he's become so dependent on Sakura for doing the most ordinary thing a sensei should be doing, but she doesn't complain and he's relieved and grateful for that.

Scratch that. She DID complain.

"Why should I be doing this?"

"Oh, I don't know…maybe because I told you more about how menstruation works more than your mother ever did…" her ears turned red at the memory, and she held her peace since then.

"Alright, Ryoga…" she's coaxing the quiet boy gently now, holding him by his arms as the boy clings to her. "You don't need to literally kick the water, okay? Just regular paddling, like what Yui is doing."

Unfortunately, Yui's already given up being Ryoga's guide and is instead happily playing with Pakkun and the others. "Rui, look!" she calls out, holding up a disgruntled-looking Pakkun. "Wet dog water no jutsu!"

"Boss," Pakkun deadpans. "Help me."

Kakashi merely shrugs and gets into the water. In a way, he's glad Ryoga doesn't know how to swim. Summer is coming and he feels the heat drawing in, the days growing longer. Swimming is a welcome respite, and it almost feels like a vacation. It almost feels like the good days before Sasuke defected. He can admit that now, can't he?

He heads towards Sakura and she's wearing a rather modest navy-blue swimsuit. Her genin, all boys, all have crushes on her and she doesn't want to encourage any weirdness. He's glad for that, too. He wades around the waist-deep water and grabs Ryoga's ankles and raises them one and then the other, alternating them.

"Do it like this, Ryoga," he instructs. "There's no need to panic…your body's natural inclination in the water is to float."

"Yeah, both for dead and live bodies!" Ryoga grouses, his nervousness making him talkative. Sakura catches Kakashi's eye and she rolls her own at Ryoga's stubbornness. This feels like old times too: Sakura as his co-conspirator, keeping the boys in line. He tries to ignore how pretty she looks right then, her hair a darker shade of magenta due to the water, the way her swimsuit highlights her form.

No. Stop it.

He forces himself to focus at the task at hand, feeling like a pervert for even looking at her that way.


He walks her home and she says, "Kakashi…"

"Yes, Sakura-sensei?"

"You shouldn't be afraid, you know?"

"Afraid of what?"

She takes a deep breath, as if resolving something in her mind. "Don't be afraid to love them. Rui and Yui and Ryoga…they're not us. They shouldn't be suffering for the mistakes other people did."

How can he explain to her that sometimes he doesn't know where he is when he wakes up? That he's almost always disoriented when he calls out to someone? Rui, he means to call. Yui or Ryoga, listen to me. But he almost always slips and almost calls out, Sasuke, Obito, Rin, stop there. Come here. Don't do that.

They reach her apartment complex and they are both steeped in a searching silence. He wishes he can reassure her, wishes he can tell her, right then and there, Thank you for being one of the things I did right. But he never says it, simply waves goodbye and disappears from her sight.

He catches them in a freak rainstorm.

Tangled together, damp and wet, Naruto's one hand snaking up the back of her shirt, his two former students hold each other close as they immerse themselves deeply into a kiss.

He doesn't want to be there. He doesn't want to watch them like some sad old pervert.

But he can't help but stare at them, stare at her. Those perfect long fingers lost in the beaten gold of Naruto's hair, her white skin gleaming with raindrops. They don't even notice he's there, and he fights a childish urge to clear his throat, make some noise, Oh I'm sorry I didn't notice that you were there.

He doesn't have to. Sakura's eyes snap open, and for a second he's trapped in her green gaze. She doesn't push away Naruto guiltily (why does he expect that?) nor does she seem embarrassed (why should she be?). She simply detaches herself from Naruto, steps away. She does this without taking her eyes off of him, and Naruto quickly catches on.

"Oi, sensei, how long have you been standing there, 'ttebayo!" Naruto is red and grinning, but he's not exactly displeased.

Kakashi thinks he should have some ready quip, some easy, lazy remark to throw them off the scent. Sakura is watching him now, her eyes glittering in the dimness of the rain. She's never looked more dangerous. His heart is beating so fast that he hopes they don't hear it.

He settles on tearing his eyes away. He observes the storm clouds, a hard, flat gray as his one eye. "Just now," he says with a soft shrug of his shoulders. "Just waiting out the rain."

She wants something from him but Kakashi resolutely ignores it.

When she shows up the next day, her face is serene. She tries to take his hand but he draws it away.

"The weather is too hot for that," he says by way of explanation. There's a split-second look of hurt on her face and he feels a fierce sort of satisfaction. Now you know how it feels.

But this is Sakura and the split-second look of hurt is all it takes for him to take it all back.

Summer comes and the heat is killing him

He draws her in memory, the way Sai might have with his inks, but the picture is a strange one. First, he thinks of Sakura the first time he knew her: Long pink hair and green eyes and an annoying laugh. Next is the Sakura of her teenage years, and it's a picture blurred by her tears. She always cried back then. Then there's the Sakura of the harder years, and he draws her with her stubborn jaw, the proud lines of her neck and shoulders, the smudges of dirt and blood on her cheeks.

And there's the Sakura of the peacetime, and she's harder to envision. In his mind's eye he sees her shrugging off her flak jacket, maddening how in one movement she reveals her collarbones, the roundedness of her shoulders, her profile. It's the small things that draw him in now, but then again, isn't it part of being shinobi, noticing the small details?

It's the heat, he reasons to himself, this damnable heat that makes him unreasonable and obsessive. The timing is all wrong, he thinks to himself. She came along at the wrong time and he's disoriented with this new world that resembles the old, Obito and Sasuke and dead friends and dead loves, all mingling together in one confused entanglement in his head. He clings to her image because she is old and new and familiar and unknown and it's this heat, this heat, and he can't think straight anymore.

He kisses Kurenai almost as an act of revenge.

It's a late night in the teacher's lounge and only the two of them are left, completing reports. They fall into talking—how she's coping as a mother without Asuma, her new genin team, how she's so glad to survive the war and—oh.

It's over before they know it and it's one of the bitterest kisses he's ever tasted.

He expects her to get angry, to slap him so hard that he flies across the room.

He doesn't expect her to be sad, and to recognize the look in his eyes.

After all, her love for Asuma, dead and gone, is unrequited, too.

"I'm sorry," he says before he leaves, hating himself just a little more as he does.

He thinks back on the day when she told him that he shouldn't be afraid to love.

Love is easy, he thinks. It's when the people you love leave you that messes everything up.

He comes home and Pakkun jumps up on his bed, curls around his chest. The pug senses something is wrong, but he knows he can't talk to anyone about this.

He thinks about Sakura then, all the possibilities of a life shared, a happy little dream he dared not even speak out loud, even to himself. She would make a great mother, he thinks, rather irrelevantly. A partner, a lover, a wife—she'd fill out all those things to a tee, and he wants her, and he allows himself to really want her in that one moment, but all it takes is for him to open his eyes once again to face the unforgiving reality, the white blank canvas of his ceiling, unchanging and unending.

He's never felt so far away from home before, and it's an ocean he cannot hope to cross.

He's never felt more remote.

It should come as no surprise that Gai intercepts him one day.

Judging by his friend's serious expression and that the fact that he doesn't open with a challenge is enough to inform Kakashi what Gai is here for. They wordlessly nod at each other and find a place to talk.

"So." Gai leans back against the railing on the highest rooftop of Konoha, dark eyes on the copy nin. He hands Kakashi a cold unopened can of of soda. It's still afternoon, after all, and this is the closest Gai will have to drinking before 6pm. Gai doesn't even drink soda on a normal basis. "Kurenai told me everything."

"Did she now?" Kakashi asks, unperturbed. He cracks his soda open, slightly pulls his mask down for a drink.

"This is highly unusual behavior, even for you, Kakashi. Is anything bothering you?"

It's not fair that most people only know Gai as the loud-mouthed taijutsu master who only lived to annoy Kakashi, the copy nin thinks, hiding a small smile as he takes a sip of soda. No one except Gai would've dared to confront him bluntly like this, just another testament of their longstanding friendship.

"What makes you say that?" Kakashi finally says, stalling for time. There's nothing unusual about his behavior, falling in love with a former student, sulking about it, and then kissing an old friend because of it, is there?

But that doesn't fool Gai. "Does this have anything to do with a certain pink-haired former student of yours that you tend to be sighted with as of late?"

"Gai, being a gossipy old lady is the very opposite of the definition of youth," Kakashi counters, leaning against the railings on his elbows, looking out at Konoha. It's quite comforting to know that the old rumor mill is alive and well, in a strange way. Some things never change.

"Stop changing the subject," Gai scolds, seeing right through him. "You and me…" and here Gai actually barks in laughter. "I was about to say, You and me, we're too old to be deluding ourselves. Now that's not very youthful, isn't it?"

Kakashi's lone eye crinkles into a smile. Gai admitting to being anything but youthful is a little bit akin to the Uchihas admitting that they aren't always the best at everything. "You always had a way with words, Gai."

Gai is grinning widely now. "That's a first. You must really be in trouble, Kakashi."

They catch each other's eye and they begin laughing. It starts quietly at first, small chuckles and snorts, and then it gains volume until they are both laughing belly-deep, laughing until they can't speak, laughing until it hurts. Gai doubles over, guffawing and Kakashi does as well. They have no idea what's so funny, really, other than the fact that they are two of Konoha's finest ninjas and they're standing on a rooftop gingerly talking about love and their feelings like a goddamn scene out of a melodramatic movie.

Kakashi is still giggling (giggling!), wiping a tear out of his normal eye, when he finally manages to talk. "It's our own fault, isn't it, Gai? We were too busy saving the world that we didn't have time for this kind of thing."

"Perhaps," Gai agrees after his own laughter subsides. "To say that we are, er, ill-equipped is an understatement."

Kakashi thinks about Obito then, how he'd always scoffed at his former friend's deep-seated crush on Rin. He never fully appreciated the breadth of Obito's feelings, the enormity of his heart, until he died. And Rin…the memory depresses him, so he puts a stop to it.

"So what are you going to do about it?" Gai gently prods.

The rules of engagement are always clear on the battlefield: Kill or be killed. One must survey the hostile party, find out their motives as much as you can, determine their strengths and weaknesses, how fast they move, how much their chakra reserves are. But the desired end result is always for self-preservation. It's all they've ever known, all they've ever been taught and Kakashi feels a surge of self-pity at the thought of how lacking his education really is.

"I don't know. Survive past it." Kakashi finally says. Survive it. Like holding onto something safe and secure until the storm passes, until the tide recedes, until the sun comes out again, until life returns to normal.

Maybe that's all there is to it.

Kakashi hardly ever sees her now. The chuunin exams are coming up, and all the jounin-sensei focus on ensuring that their teams are well-equipped for it, and that includes Sakura. He supposes that he doesn't mind, especially since he's taken it upon himself to follow Gai's advice and try to avoid her altogether. Avoidance is easy. He is still a ninja, after all.

He knows things, though. The old rumor mill is alive and well and he hears the stories of Naruto and Sakura spending more and more time together, growing closer. Wouldn't it be wonderful if these two finally, finallygot together after everything they've been through together?

Yes, he agrees to inwardly, to no one in particular. Yes, it would be quite wonderful for Sakura to finally come home to Naruto. Naruto is his miracle boy, his arrival heralds summer and renewal. Naruto emerges from the worst shocks of life unbroken, astonishingly whole, his sum so much more than what had been his faulty parts. And he'd given his life and his word to Sakura, surely that means something? More than one lonely old former teacher can ever give her?

Kakashi surveys his own life with a cold and calculating eye. What can he offer a woman, any woman who comes into his life? His life is a one-bedroom apartment, an excellent insurance policy, a bank account with a considerable amount of money. There's his own wonderful taciturn personality, his unwillingness to talk about himself and his past, his own shortcomings and failures. He's maimed and scarred, blasted and damned. Sakura is already a medic in her everyday life, he thinks. She doesn't deserve to have to play medic to him too.

Naruto has dreams of being Hokage, of being more. Kakashi doesn't want anything more than to go home and read his book. Ambitions are for the young, and he's happy to give way to them.

Ultimately, Kakashi doesn't know how to keep people. He's tried before and he's failed, and these days he doesn't really even feel like trying anymore.

"Why are you avoiding me?"

It's more of a demand than a question. Kakashi looks up at her coolly while sipping his tea over breakfast, idly flipping over pages of his Icha Icha. He doesn't question why she's in his apartment, one hand on her jutting hip, radiating impatience.

"Good morning to you too, Sakura-sensei."

"Don't 'Sakura-sensei' me," she mutters as she pulls a chair across him. She folds her arms on the table, leans across. "We," she points a finger at him, and then to herself. "We have an agreement to visit the cenotaph together every morning. But I've been coming over here for two months now and I haven't seen hair nor hide of you. Where were you?"

"Neither hair nor hide? Surely I have a few hairs lying around…"

"Don't be cute," she grouses. "This is your fault. You were practically asking me to break in your apartment for answers."

"Yes. Because committing crimes always worked out well for everyone." He picks up a plate and offers it to her. "Toast? There's some near the toaster over there."

There's a split-second look of pure anger on her face that he's almost sure she'd take the plate and throw it at his head. She calms down immediately though, takes the proffered plate and sets it down in front of her. She suddenly turns glum. "Did I do something to make you angry? Did I…"

She's going to blame herself again, and he's not going to let her. "It's not that," he's quick to reassure her, closing his book and sitting up straight. "I've been busy. You know that. There's the chuunin exams coming up, and that's no walk in the park."

"Ha!" Sakura leans back and crosses her arms. "I'd actually believe that, if you didn't spend a half of your time during my training for that lost on the path of life that's somehow always littered with black cats you have to get around on."

Kakashi exaggerates a sigh. "Are you never going to get over that?"

There's a hint of a smile in her voice now. "Never." She pauses and pursues the matter again, "So why are you avoiding me?"

"I'm not avoiding you," he lies. Well, it's either that or Gai will insist on doing dumb challenges as a form of distraction from my nonexistent love life. "I'm not angry at you, I'm not doing anything. I'm just busy."

Sakura looks at him straight in the eye. "Kakashi. If you're feeling annoyed at me tagging along to these daily visits of yours, you can just say so. I know what I can be like."

"What brought this up?" He is genuinely surprised at her statement.

She brushes a lock of pink hair out of the way and sighs. "I don't know. Lately I feel like you've been…annoyed at me lately. Whenever I walk in a room, you walk out, like someone set a fire jutsu on your ass." He can't help but laugh at the mental image."You never train our teams together anymore, which is shockingly industrious of you. You meet up with Team 7 only when I'm not around." She ticks off fingers as she lists down his latest offenses against her.

"That's not true," he is quick to deny. "Those are just coincidences."

She chances a glance at him and exhales a humorless laugh. "You know,it's funny. I always wanted to get your attention, ever since I was a genin," she says. "I always knew that you were chosen to watch over Sasuke and Naruto, and I was the odd one out." Her words spill out, fast and unchecked, and he feels like she is pushing a knife in his gut. "You never paid much attention to me, and for a while it hurt, you know?"

"Sakura…" her name comes out as a warning.

But she does not heed him. "It's alright. I understand now. Sometimes you can't help but have favorites. God knows I've never been the most interesting nor the most talented…"

"Sakura…stop it," he says.

"All the time, when I'm around you I always feel like I'm a nuisance to you…and I know what I'm like sometimes, you know? And I'm sorry that I've been forcing my presence on you and…"

"Stop it." His voice is low now.

But she just soldiers on and ignores him. "I know you're just being polite most of the time, because maybe I've earned that much from you, but if you hate having me around you can just say so, you know? Because…"

"I said STOP IT!" He slams a fist on the table, making the plates on top of it clatter. She startles at the sound, is shocked into silence. He immediately regrets his outburst. It's not like him to be like this, but he just wants her to stop stop hurting. To just…stop.

Her surprise quickly dissolves into chagrin, into fury, as she shoves her seat away from the table."Fine," she mutters. "Just fine."

A myriad of things he wants to say flits in his mind.

I'm sorry.

Please stay.

I didn't mean it like that.

He leaves them unsaid, makes no effort to stop her from leaving. The door slams, and she's gone.

This is what he wants, isn't it?

Isn't it?

Kakashi's team passes the chuunin exam, and only one of Sakura's boys get through. He feels like she hates him for that, too. He revels in her disdain, enjoys it, basks in the warm glow in the closest thing he'd get for affection from her these days.

Shortly after though, he requests to be relieved of his duty as jounin-sensei and hands over his team to Tenzou. Tenzou, bless his soul, takes the twerps unquestioningly, like he did all those years ago.

Kakashi requests for all the most dangerous missions, the most covert, the most secretive. The Hokage is dubious but relents, trusting in his judgment and skill.

Kakashi works solo and it's almost like being in ANBU again. He takes down syndicates, enemies of the state, criminals. He neutralizes missing-nin, even a group that wants to take up the Akatsuki's cause again. This is what he's good at, slicing flesh clean through the bone, sending lightning through veins, arteries, nerves until they're burnt to a crisp. He kills with a viciousness he hasn't known since he was in ANBU, digging blades deep into brain matter, crushing skulls, the occasional delicate kill of a well-placed senbon. He takes pleasure again in the fear in his target's eyes as they recognize him, the copy ninja of the thousand jutsus.

It's a sick kind of comfort to know that out here, he's still needed. The smell of blood clings to him and word gets around that the copy ninja is actively working for Konoha again.

(He tries not to visit the pathetic hope of possibly dying out here, to be mourned by Sakura.)

He does this for the better part of a year, until Sai shows up one day and summons him back to Konoha.

(There's an unwritten rule that you can only steadily kill so many people in the course of months before you go insane. That's why ROOT was even created. It's a strange irony that the Hokage should send Sai.)

Sai, for all his mastery over his emotions, can't help but wince at seeing Kakashi for the first time in nearly over a year. Kakashi has a pretty good idea what he looks like—his uniform is dirty, torn and patched up in several places, and the same goes for his flak jacket. His hair has grown out, nearly reaching his shoulders. His left eye is crusted over with blood from using the Sharingan. His sandals are paper-thin now, and he doesn't even bother wearing a mask, now that he has a beard that's nearly covered half of his face.

"Sempai?" Sai calls out tentatively, and that's unusual too.

"Ah, Sai." Kakashi stands up and brushes the seat of his pants. "Time to call back the hunting dog, then?" He tries to sound cheerful, like he just ran into Sai from a stroll in the park. "Good timing too, my kunai need sharpening."

"Sempai…" Sai repeats, dark eyes boring holes into him. "You look like shit," the younger man says bluntly.

"It's the beard, isn't it?" Kakashi deadpans as he adjusts his hitai-ate to cover his left eye. "Don't worry about it…it was getting unhygienic to keep the mask on when you're in the middle of the woods with no access to decent laundry detergent."

"Everything about you looks unhygienic."

"Hasn't killed me yet."

"Not that you haven't tried." This time, Sai's bluntness stops Kakashi in his tracks, makes him turn and give a questioning look at the ex-ROOT member. Sai shrugs, unapologetic. "Isn't that why you're out here? To get yourself killed?"

"And why would I want to do that?" Kakashi hears the defensiveness in his own voice, hates himself for it. "I'm still here, aren't I?"

"That's not saying much," Sai retorts. "Survival is what we're always trying to do, anyway. Your survival is just muscle memory, nothing more, nothing less. If you had any control over wanting to live more than anything else, you'd be dead by now."

Kakashi hasn't had human interaction that didn't involve him killing the other party for months, so he's having a hard time catching up the fact that he's actually having this conversation with Sai. He shakes his head. "I haven't unlearned it since my father died, Sai."

"And there lies your problem." Sai looks like he knows more than he is letting on, but Kakashi doesn't particularly care. "There's no point being out here anymore for that, sempai. You're running away from something, but you're too good and no one can kill you and now you have to head back."

Kakashi presses the heel of his palm against his exposed eye, fighting back a headache. He doesn't know whether to get mad at Sai for this psychological debriefing—which is par for the course for shinobi who's been out on the field as long as he has been. But he doesn't appreciating having it right here, right now.

He stands back as Sai crouches down to spread out his art tools. He watches the younger man quickly draw out an eagle, admiring the brushstrokes, the stark black of the ink against the pure white of the paper. Kakashi wishes that his thoughts could be like that, Point A to Point B that will make sense and create a clear picture in the end. But life could never be that straightforward and clean.

The eagle flies out and lands in front of them, black-and-white wings folding and unfolding as it patiently waits for its passengers. Sai stands up and looks back at him.

"Shall we?" Sai asks.

Kakashi clambers after him and takes a deep breath.

"Kakashi-sensei!" It's heartwarming how his students are the first to greet him on his return to Konoha. Yui and Rui are holding picnic baskets filled with food and Ryoga is holding up a sign that says WELCOME BACK KAKASHI-SENSEI. It's a strange juxtaposition to see their innocent faces, considering where he'd just been, what he'd seen.

Standing not too far from them are Tenzou and Naruto, already approaching and saying their hellos. Kakashi is not too happy they're all here, because he can already see their startled looks at his gaunt face, his ragged clothes, his scraggly beard. That's pushed aside when he looks around for a certain pink-haired kunoichi who is nowhere in sight.

"Ah…" Naruto is the first one to notice Kakashi's searching eye. "Sakura-chan isn't coming, sensei."

"Why is that?" Kakashi blurts out, sounding angrier than he means to. Oh god, she's dead, he thinks, the possibility hitting him squarely in the chest, and for a moment, he can't breathe.

But Naruto is calm all throughout. The boy simply shrugs and looks away. "She just packed her bags and left. She didn't tell anyone of us where she was going, although the old woman seems to know."

Kakashi glances at Sai. The dark-haired boy simply shrugs as if to say, Well I couldn't tell you en route here, could I?

Tenzou seems to read Kakashi's mood and cheerfully herds the children away. "Well, come along you three. Looks like Kakashi-sensei's a little tired from his trip." Kakashi nods at Tenzou gratefully. The three go away looking disappointed, but he's not really in the mood to accommodate them right now.

Kakashi walks away from Naruto's questioning look and Sai's stoic glare. He walks home, unlocks his apartment, collapses in his bed, and sleeps for two straight days.

"Where is she?"

"Hello to you too, Kakashi," the Hokage says without looking up from her paperwork. Shizune looks nervous and practically runs out of the room, already sensing Kakashi's animosity against the Godaime who calmly keeps on signing off papers.

Tsunade finally looks up and does a tch of disapproval. "You look like death warmed over, Kakashi," she comments as she shifts a pile of papers to her right. "I told you to come back three months in."

"Didn't feel like it."

"And who am I to order you around? I am just the Hokage, after all."

"Hokage-sama…" he's getting impatient now. When he speaks again, he's more pleading. "Where is she?"

Amber eyes lock on him as she finally fixes her full attention on him. "She was feeling…a little hemmed in, so to speak."

"Hemmed in?" Kakashi echoes dumbly.

Tsunade rolls her eyes at him, a gesture she does when someone is trying her with their stupidity. "She didn't feel like staying around being subject to expectations other than her own."

Ah. It all makes sense now. The rumor mill. Her and Naruto. Expectations.

"She's fine, in case you were wondering," Tsunade continues. There must be something in his expression that softens her own. "She gave me an express request not to tell anyone where she is, especially not you, Kakashi. Something about you hunting her down or something. Not that you would, would you." It's not a question.

"When did she leave?"

Tsunade sighs. She knows, and it's damning; that someone had guessed at his secret, but said nothing.

"She left when she heard you were coming back." Tsunade looks deeply sorry for him.

There's really nothing else to do but to move on.

So Kakashi does exactly that. He teaches Yui, Rui, and Ryoga. Eventually, they move on from genin, to jounin, from him. Then another genin team comes, and then another. After his third round of chunin exams, Kakashi is asked to become the Rokudaime, and thus ends his teaching career.

It couldn't be better timing. He doesn't know who looks older, him or Tsunade, who wears her wrinkles proudly now as she hands him the official robes of the Hokage. He spends his days signing papers and reading reports. Although the Hokage is supposed to be the most powerful ninja in Konoha, peacetime affords them a more lax standard. Naruto shadows him, learning the basics of diplomacy, bureaucracy, and politics. Sakura's disappearance lends the younger man much-needed sobriety, but Naruto learns to find happiness again, as he always does.

He feels old now, and everyday he sees more of his father in the mirror. People treat him more gingerly, like an invisible barrier separates him from people who used to be his peers. He feels an old creaking wooden thing whenever he stands up from sitting too long, or whenever he has to attend several meetings during the day, or whenever he has to do some ceremonial thing.

Kakashi is dozing by the window of his office when a small knock at his door rouses him awake. For one confused second he thinks it's Minato-sensei who lets himself in the door, but this man is far too old for Minato.

"Rokudaime," Naruto says formally. He breaks out into a huge grin, and the twelve-year-old Naruto peeks out with it. "Sakura's back."

"Is she now?" His heart jumps at the news despite himself.

"Yeah, she just walked back in like nothing happened. She's at Ichiraku now, with the others." Whatever heartbreak Sakura has caused Naruto is long-forgotten now. Time heals all wounds, after all. "We should go meet her."

"Aaa." Kakashi lifts himself up with a slight difficulty. His exertion in his younger days aged his body faster, and he feels every ache in his bones, in his joints. It's really only a matter of months before he proposes Naruto to take his place. He stands for a long while in quiet thought, until Naruto says,


Kakashi waves him off dismissively. "You go on ahead. I'll join you shortly."

His former student looks doubtful, but he's been trained too well to be disobedient now. Naruto leaves without another word.

After several moments, Kakashi walks over and unlocks his desk. His hand shuffles around among important documents and pictures until he finds what he's looking for.

It's Sakura's old hitai-ate, which she left behind all those years ago when they were teaching Ryoga how to swim. Its red is largely faded now, receding into a sort of dull pink with yellowing patches. He runs his fingers over the metal plate, and finally pockets the scrap of cloth into his pocket.

He makes his way down the Hokage building, into the streets of Konoha. He wonders what she must be thinking now. Has the place changed? Improved? Deteriorated? He imagines how she might be seeing her old village with fresh eyes.

Where had she been? Even as Hokage, Kakashi honors her wishes and never sends out anyone to find her. He only requires to know whether she is alive, and he holds his peace. He hears her exploits throughout the countries, and he can't help but feel pride, and yes, love, to hear how she had done so well. Sakura. One of the things he did right.

His footsteps finally find their way down familiar paths. He can almost see the ghosts of his former teammates and his much-younger self flit around at the corner of his eye. He is half-blind now, his Sharingan finally deteriorating beyond repair, but he finds some relief in it.

Finally, he reaches the little old restaurant. The sun is setting now, and they have lit the lamps inside. He can just make out the silhouette of his friends sitting around that familiar bar. And among them, her. It's been so long. He's almost forgotten her face.

He pauses, doubts. He almost laughs. He feels like a ridiculous old man. He takes a step back and is about to turn away when…


A white hand draws away the curtains. A familiar smile. He smiles back. There's something like forgiveness and finality in her eyes, and he is glad. There is no need to revisit the past, after all. They are here, now, and he is glad. Things could be left unsaid, and they are none the worse for it.

"Welcome home, Sakura," he says. Her hitai-ate lies heavy and hidden in him, but he ignores it.

She steps out to meet him halfway. She smiles again, and it is bittersweet.

"I'm home."