Love Me Not

In Sakura's mind, Naruto wasn't the honored and influential seventh Hokage of Konohagakure. Much less had he and his advisors brought the village into its most prosperous state for nearly a decade. Instead, he was the kid who drooled on her homework, put gum in her hair and followed her around with a dopey expression on his face. It didn't matter how much he bulked up, how he learned to exploit his boyish charm or how he gradually got better at interacting with the female gender. She couldn't think of him as an adult, and especially not a male one. He was an asexual blurb floating at the edges of her vision like a dirty spot on her retina. She had never idolized him. Mainly because she actually knew him, unlike the rest of the nation. He had earned it, Sakura supposed. The senseless idolization of his person and the general unconditional adoration that came with being a high profile person. Sakura had always been jealous of Naruto's easygoing nature. He made friends with the most unfriendly persons you could ever imagine. Sakura was lucky enough to make friends with her neighbors. His people skills were enviable and not even she was immune to them. Especially not when they were constantly rubbed in her face; had been so since childhood. Sakura knew that Naruto only truly trusted very few people and that she was amongst that handful of people. But it still irked her to know that he could make friends with a cursory look and a polite handshake. People gravitated towards him. At least after he had publicly proven his control of the Nine-Tails during the Madara debacle and had saved the village time and time again. Mostly, Sakura envied Naruto's ability to never let relationships dissolve. It was a neat trick to have.

"So," Naruto said from behind his desk that was filled with paperwork. Some of the piles had dust on them. He adjusted his robes and wiped off specks of dirt from the silky sleeves. "Kakashi returned from his mission one month ago."

"Yes," Sakura said. "I know."

"I need you to go talk to him."

"What for?" Sakura asked and folded her hands behind her back.

"… to talk to him?"

"You're abusing your authority, Hokage-sama."

"Can you honestly say that you don't want to go see him? I'm giving you the perfect excuse."

"That's fine," Sakura began, "but he'll see right through it."

"And he'll know that I'm the one to blame," Naruto said enthusiastically and pushed forward in his chair until he almost had one knee up on the table. It looked as though he was ready to crawl across the table and grab her. "That's the whole point! Don't you see, Sakura-chan? If I gave the order, you had no choice but to go to him. He'll know that."

"He'll also know that I wouldn't blindly follow irrational orders like that," Sakura said and let her spine drop a couple of inches when the conversation took a turn towards the more informal. "Not unless I truly wanted to follow them. And that ruins your argument that he'll blame you for it. He'll blame me even if you gave the order. Besides, there's no need for you to do this. In fact, why are you doing this? Also, there is no blame to go around in the first place. Everything is settled. What exactly are you doing here?"

Naruto opened his mouth to answer. After a second or two, he closed it again.

"Well?" Sakura insisted. "I think I'm entitled to an answer."

Naruto studied her for a couple of seconds more.

"Alright," he said loudly and she got the feeling that he wasn't speaking to her. Seconds later, that feeling was confirmed. When Kakashi dropped in through the open window with his hitai-ate sitting stupidly skewed on top of his head and his shoulders lowered in a perpetual slouch, Sakura didn't bat an eyelash. A naked pink gnome could have sauntered through the room with a flying banner trailing behind it, and Sakura wouldn't have moved a muscle. He looked the same, she thought distantly. Kakashi looked like she remembered him. He was wearing his jonin uniform and held the same unhealthy posture. He still had the same unconventional hairstyle that made her want to run her hands through the silvery grey strands and feel her fingers snag on the tangles. He also still had the eye crinkle that signaled he was smiling beneath his mask. Sakura could hear the knuckles of her left hand crack. She looked down and forced her hand to unclench. Kakashi hadn't said anything. Neither of the men had said anything. The air in the room was oddly timeless. Perhaps that was why nobody had spoken. They were afraid to break time. Sakura took a deep breath and looked at Naruto behind his sturdy desk. He didn't flinch when their eyes met, but she knew that her anger came clear through to him. A wall of stone and titanium could be erected between the two of them and her anger would still come clear through to the other side. One corner of her mouth tugged upwards in a decrepit smile. He would make it up to her somehow. She knew that. Naruto always made it up to her. But right now he was an asshole for putting her in this situation.

"How long has he been here?" she asked Naruto and tipped her head in Kakashi's direction. She didn't directly address him.

"From the moment you entered the room," Naruto told her straightforwardly. He had never looked more grownup than what he did in that moment; sitting behind his desk in his finely tailored Hokage robes and with his face set in tight lines. Sakura hated him.

"I'm leaving," she said out loud to the room. She waited a couple of seconds for the ball to drop. Miraculously, Naruto didn't jump up from his seat to stop her. That alone showed that he understood the severity of the situation. She got the feeling that Kakashi was looking at her, but she wasn't looking at him, so she couldn't be sure. She got out of the building without accidentally maiming any high profile persons on her way through the corridors, but she bumped into a fruit cart a couple of steps outside the exit. It tipped over and fruit spilled out everywhere. She apologized to the vendor and walked on. At some point she began running. That was how she ended up in the forest, practically hurtling herself through the brushwood as angry red welts swelled up where branches hit her face and shins. She pushed the forest aside with wide lunges and swift kicks. It wasn't a breakdown. She didn't cry and she didn't throw up. She was more of a man than that. She had killed better men than that. And if she nearly ran all the way to the end of the border and almost blacked out before she stopped, it wasn't because she was running away from him. She was running away from herself.

She didn't talk to Naruto for an entire week after the incident in his office. It was difficult, but she managed. He knew that she was pissed at him, so he stayed out of her hair. That was easily one of his wiser decisions of the year. He was insightful when it mattered.

"I heard that Kakashi cornered you with a little help from the Hokage himself," Ino said one morning when they were on their way to the jonin headquarters. Sakura looked away from the sun to look at her blonde friend. Ino was chewing on a piece of gum, and Sakura remembered that she had a dentist appointment soon.

"Where do you pick up on this stuff?" Sakura asked and stretched her arms above her head to alleviate the tension in her shoulders. "No. Never mind. We're not talking about this. I'm pulling the card on this one."

"You've already pulled the card once this week," Ino said promptly. "And besides we're not talking. You're listening. I can't believe I'm the romantically enlightened one out of the two of us. Whatever. We don't even have to mention his name if that makes you feel better, but we both know you were a right mess after he had left. It doesn't take a tactician to figure out why. Did you know it then? Before he left for the mission?"

"When I poured our dinner into his lap? No. I didn't," Sakura answered. She figured that she had already lost the argument, so she could just as well answer Ino's questions truthfully. They had skirted around the subject before, but she had never fully admitted to anything. She still wouldn't, but she could speak in metaphors and Ino would still understand her. It was every bit as vexing as it was comforting. Sakura couldn't remember when they had reached one such point of familiarity. They had been through some rough patches during their younger years, but somehow they had now worked themselves past that. They had become adults. Sakura could see an all too clear parallel to that and the other issue currently at hand.

"And that's why you're afraid to talk to him now," Ino said and Sakura could sense the big finish approaching. "Not because you're ashamed, but because you've realized that you love him in the time that he's been gone."

Did she love him?

"Who loves who now?" Kiba's distinct voice trailed across the open space of the mostly deserted street. Milliseconds later, Kiba and Shikamaru entered Sakura's field of vision. They appeared to also be headed for the headquarters. Shikamaru was lazily juggling a mission report in one hand and Kiba boasted a nasty bruise across the bridge of his nose.

"No one," Sakura answered breezily. "You guys joining in on the get-together next week?"

She didn't miss Ino's look her way. She hadn't expected the blonde to let go of the topic, but now she had gained extra time to think of an appropriately false answer. Did she love him?

"It should be nice to talk to our co-workers outside of blood splatter and disembowelments," Kiba said and scratched the side of his nose thoughtfully.

"You're in it for the free bar," Shikamaru said and bumped shoulders with Ino.

"Hell yeah," Kiba answered with a wide smirk. Sakura raised her head and looked up at the towering building of the jonin main office and administration. The noon sun was high on the sky and momentarily blinded her vision. She welcomed the burning sensation and blinked thickly to adjust to it. Next to her, Kiba launched off into some joke that Shikamaru apparently had heard one time too many. When the four of them reached the entrance to the headquarters, Kiba and Shikamaru wandered off to one of the smaller offices on floor seven, while Sakura and Ino went up to floor thirteen to answer their summons. Officially, Sakura was a field medic and Ino had worked as her backup assistant several times in the past. Times were peaceful. Even though it was early summer time, the highpoint of all illegal misdoings, there honestly wasn't much crime to fight or political issues to solve. Most high class missions went to ANBU operating units. Konoha had reached a point where only the educated assassins were actually assigned assassination missions. Sakura dedicated her time to honing her abilities as a medic. Recently, she had started doing research at the hospital on retina reconstruction specifically related to two cases that were very dear to the Hokage: the Hyuuga clan and Kakashi. It had been a personal request from the Hokage. Initially, she hadn't wanted to engage in such time-consuming work. She preferred to work in the field. But she wasn't the type to stay idle either. And there wasn't a lot of field work available. Also, Naruto had tempted her with a personal office and above standard pay grade for her services. He could be disgustingly persuasive if he wanted to. And she really needed to get the roof of her house fixed. It kept leaking in random places during the spring months and extensive water damage could literally make the roof fall down on top of her head. If she was asleep when it happened, she would most likely choke to death on soggy wood. Sakura wasn't cheap, but she had bought the house for the location and not the quality. She had liked the solitude of living inside the forest and away from the city. When she had signed the papers one year ago, she hadn't thought too much of the repairs that were required. She sort of regretted that now.

Logically, she knew that she couldn't avoid it forever. She was proven correct exactly one week after the incident in Naruto's office, although she truly hadn't expected Kakashi to be the one to take the first step. Again. She was perfectly willing to leave the situation be, including meddling friends and employers. She had thought that they would have been of the same opinion, but clearly that had been a miscalculation on her part.

"Do you see it?" she asked Sai where he sat on the floor in front of her kitchen sink. His face was blank despite the stench of rotten food that wafted upwards from the clogged pipes.

"I don't know what I am supposed to see," he said and looked up at her. She pointed to pipes for the tenth time in five minutes.

"The big glob of yucky goo that's leaking from the side of the pipe," she said and stretched her finger harder as if that would make her point any clearer.

"You mean the slime?"

"Yes! The slime. That can't be normal?"

"I think it's a lubricant of some sort," Sai said with a slow pronunciation to his words that told her he wasn't any surer than she was. "It looks like it is supposed to be there. I think it is just clogged. Nothing more."

"But I didn't lubricate the pipes?"

Sai was silent for a couple of seconds.

"Was that a sexual reference?" he asked. Sakura straightened up and cast a look outside the window.

"This is a very odd conversation," she said shortly and began to walk towards the open front door. It was early summer, so she kept it open to get a draft inside. "Let's go outside on the porch. There are some broken panels you need to help me fix."

"I thought I was supposed to help with the pipes," Sai said, but followed her outside nonetheless. Sometimes, she was sure that he exaggerated his ignorance just because he got a personal kick out of it.

"Forget about the pipes," she said. After Naruto had risen to Hokage rank, Sakura had begun to spend surprisingly many hours in the company of Sai. He was a good conversationalist. Once you learned to decipher his mannerism correctly and stopped taking his random insensitive comments to heart. He was a naturally born listener, but he also had a great deal of insightful observations that he was fond of sharing if he felt comfortable in the company of whoever he was with. He provided a good laugh. He was, for all intents and purposes, the comic relief in Sakura's life ever since Naruto had had to vacate that spot and put in more hours at the office. His village needed him. Sakura needed him less. Sai seemed to appreciate their newly developed friendship. If only he was more of a handyman, Sakura thought sullenly. Then she wouldn't need to call a plumber to fix her smelly kitchen sink.

Kakashi was standing outside on her porch. He was bathed in sunlight and the sweet smell of pinewood from the forest he had trekked through in order to get there. Sakura realized this when she stepped outside on the porch herself. Sai was directly behind her. She could feel her shoulder bump into his chest when she came to a halt just outside the open door.

"Kakashi-san," Sai greeted the other man with a faint smile of recognition. Kakashi raised a hand in greeting. He motioned towards the house.

"This is where I find you kids loitering about these days?" he asked pleasantly.

"It's my house," Sakura answered. She looked him in the eye when she spoke.

"We're discussing the lubrication of her pipes," Sai said from behind her.

"We're doing repair work," Sakura said before Kakashi could answer Sai's comment. This was one such moment where she was certain that Sai played the ignorant fool on purpose. He shared a lot of inside jokes with himself, she was sure.

"What do you want?" she asked Kakashi. She felt strongly compelled to cross her arms in front of her chest, but she managed to convince herself not to do it. She tried to look laid-back, but Kakashi gave her a run for her money.

"I want to talk to you," Kakashi said with a fixed look at her face. "In private."

Sakura flailed for a moment. She debated her options. Sai was still there. She could use him as her lifeline. In the end, Sai made the choice for her when he retracted himself from the situation.

"I have to pick up an assignment," he said and moved up beside Sakura.

"You have a mission lined up?" she asked suspiciously.

"Since this morning," he answered and descended the porch. He nodded his farewells to Kakashi as he passed him on his way down. He took off with the promise to stop by another time and help with the panels. Sakura was holding him to his word. If anything, just because saying so kept him present for a little longer before he eventually took off into the gently swaying treetops and left her alone with the man of both her nightmares and her dreams.

"Alright," Sakura said uncomfortably. "I guess you can come inside. Thirsty? Hungry?"

Kakashi followed her inside. She led him into the kitchen where she pulled out a pitcher of cold water from the fridge. It was slippery and she had to use both hands to hold it. She could feel the loose material of her blouse slide off one of her shoulders, and she readjusted it after putting down the pitcher. She had put her hair up into a ponytail early that morning, but now it felt deflated from the sluggish spring humidity. She was wearing civilian clothes. It was her day off. Kakashi was in his uniform. Her kitchen wasn't all too big despite the size of the house, so Kakashi ended up standing partially next to her rather than a good three feet away as she would have preferred.

"Naruto is worried about you," Kakashi said as he watched her open one of the lower cupboards and pull out two expensive drinking glasses that Hinata had bought as a housewarming gift one year ago. Kakashi hadn't taken a seat, and Sakura didn't know why she was using her finest glassware.

"Ah," she said with a faint smile and closed the cupboard. "Naruto set you up to this. That explains a lot. He worries too much, really. I don't stop by his office for a week and he thinks I'm dead."

"Did I break your heart when I left?"

One of the glasses dropped from Sakura's hand. She hadn't expected that question. Kakashi caught the glass before it hit the ground and splintered. He put it down on the cupboard with a soft thud.

"I guess that is my answer," he said softly. They both looked at the piece of glassware as though it contained the answer to all big questions in life. Or perhaps, more particularly, the question of love and how it festered deep within your heart and refused to let go. Sakura didn't want to pretend. She wasn't very good at it. She would face this head-on. She pulled her mental barriers back up and took a hold of the glass a second time. The sound of the water sloshing against the sides of the glass was absurdly loud. The ball was in her court. She was deciding on what to do with it and Kakashi was giving her the time to decide.

"You trust Naruto to be the judge of my heart?" she asked eventually. She pushed one of the glasses his way. She didn't hand it to him. That could have turned awkward. And she needed the space.

"That was my own question," he said. "Naruto confirmed my suspicion when I asked him why I hadn't seen you around after my return. Also, I originally wanted to ask you if you loved me, but he said that I should be less straightforward."

After all these years, it was still odd to think of Kakashi speaking with Naruto separately. Without her. Of course, he also spoke separately with her. Like he was doing right now. But it was just difficult not to think of them all as a team; of knowing everything there is to know about everyone. Did Kakashi generally talk about this stuff with Naruto? Or was it just because it was her?

"You two seem to be conspiring against me," she said and ignored the last part of his sentence.

"I didn't know," Kakashi said. Sakura was facing the sink, taking in the smell of sewer for every breath that she took. Right now, she was glad for the clogged pipes. The stench kept her grounded to reality. Kakashi, on the other hand, was facing her. Or technically he was facing her side, leaving open the opportunity for her to turn around so they could both face each other. She didn't. She wanted him at her side, not at her front. Not now.

"It wouldn't have made a lot of difference if you did," Sakura said quietly.

"I'm not heartless," he said and sounded as though the thought genuinely bothered him. "I thought I had finished all business before I left. If I had known about this, I would have finished it, too."

"I don't care," Sakura said. "I'm working on it. Working my way around it."

"Like you've been doing for the past two years?" he asked. Now, she could definitely hear the vexation behind his words. He wasn't interested in her. He was interested in her feelings for him. They intrigued him. She felt sick and not just because of the smell of rotting food.

"I think you should go," she said, speaking mostly to the foul-smelling sink.

"I was your friend, Sakura. I am your friend."

She didn't watch him go, but she heard the door close after his departure. He was stripping her off her skin, leaving her bloodied and bare for someone else to find and wrap up in new clothing. This was why she had avoiding him after his return.

At some point around her eighteenth birthday, they had had a fall out. Or, to be more precise, Sakura had had a fall out and Kakashi had observed from the sidelines, distinctly unimpressed with her juvenile behavior.

"I don't put up with kids, Sakura."

"I'm not being unreasonable."

"You're picking a fight over a burnt casserole. How is that not unreasonable?"

She had grabbed the chicken casserole and had poured it out over his head.

She had been all too aware of her childishness at the time, but she hadn't mastered emotional control at that point in her life and she felt that he should have understood. Nevertheless, their friendship had come to a halt shortly after that episode. Kakashi was sent on a yearlong mission across the borders. During that time span, as he completed the mission that he had been assigned, Sakura understood that their friendship had been an illusion. With Naruto occupied as Hokage trainee and Sai temporarily dispatched to an ANBU unit overseas, Kakashi had allowed her to build that illusion because there had been no other person for her to build it with. Truthfully, Hatake Kakashi was as much as stranger to her as the person who regularly spray-painted the pavement outside the Hokage Tower with obscene pictures and references. It had been out of necessity that she had ever thought otherwise, and it had been out of empathy that he had let her think otherwise.

Now, two years later, he had returned. And Sakura had been in love with him the entire time.

She couldn't stay mad at Naruto for long. He was her best friend. If she stayed mad, she had no one to talk to about the things that truly mattered. Much less did she have anyone to thank for hosting a belated surprise birthday party at her house. The belatedness was part of the surprise, he had told her.

"I can't believe you did this," Sakura told Naruto when he handed her his poorly wrapped gift.

"It was this or paying someone to fix your pipes, but since you had already paid someone yourself, we decided on this," Naruto said and waited excitedly for her to unwrap his gift. Sai was standing next to him, looking perfectly indifferent to the commotion around him. As with every party that Naruto planned, alcohol and a surplus of people were involved. He had been ecstatic when Sakura had bought a house. More room for more people, he had said. She had told him to buy his own place, since he was basically a squatter in his own office. She wasn't even sure if he truly had any address other than his office. At the moment, they were one hour into the party. People were suitably tipsy, but not overly drunk. Sakura had spent the first half hour greeting people. Then Naruto had pulled her aside. He had purposely saved his gift, he had said.

"Are you guys stopping with the pipe jokes anytime soon?" Sakura asked absently. She was focused on the gift and the crazy amount of tape that Naruto had used to secure the wrapping.

"Not a chance."

"No."

"Figured," Sakura said and managed to tear a hole in the side that she could use to rip open the rest.

"You can cry," Naruto said while she was still battling with the paper.

"I'm not gonna cry," she said and finally batted the paper fully aside. It fell to the floor and she stared at the framed piece of paper in her hand.

"What's this?" she asked perplexed.

"A copy of my will. Advisors said I needed to have one. My assistant framed this page for you. Look at your name. Down there."

Sakura read the document in detail, but stopped when she reached her own name. Somewhere in the room, a loud burst of laughter erupted in one of the crowds, but Sakura only vaguely listened in on it. She reread the paragraph that pertained to her. Her chest constricted dangerously with emotion. She looked up from the paper in her hand. Naruto was smiling widely. Sakura didn't do public displays of affection, not even strictly friendly displays, but Naruto was the exception to every rule. She stood up on her toes and kissed his cheek. When she fell back onto the soles of her feet, Naruto looked partially embarrassed and partially dumbfounded.

"This is a moment, isn't it?" Sai asked curiously, watching back and forth between Naruto and Sakura.

"Yes," Sakura said with an amused shake of her head. "It's a moment."

Two hours later, Sakura was drunk. It hadn't been of her own volition. She would prefer to actually remember her own special surprise party, but every single member of the party wanted to share a personal drink with the birthday girl, and she couldn't really tell them no. Technically, Naruto was hosting the party, but it took place in Sakura's house. And she was the guest of honor. The guest of honor had to be sociable. That was the very point of being the guest of honor. It wasn't a description that fit Sakura well, but the alcohol made it easier to engage in unnecessary small talk and gossip. Alcohol was a double-edged sword. At the moment, it was doing her good, but she knew that it could just as easily turn in the other direction and do her bad. Case in point: she had just caught sight of Kakashi together with a three-man group of people. Without thinking twice, her feet automatically carried her in that direction. She recognized the other two men from work, but she couldn't put a name on the woman in the group. Which was rather ironic, since there were fewer jonin women than there were men. Sakura wasn't sexist. Those were just the statistics. Kakashi was sitting on the armrest of her couch, balancing a drink expertly on one of his knees. It felt like an outer body experience when Sakura walked up behind him and promptly threw her arms around his shoulders and hugged him. The impact caused the glass to tip off his knee and fall onto the carpet beneath the couch. The conversation in the group stilled.

"Friends hug," she said. Her voice was slurry, but also incredibly clear. Kakashi turned his head, so he could look at her face from the corner of his eye.

"Are you enjoying your party?" he asked with a bit of tension to his voice. It wasn't an angry tension. It wasn't a tension that told her to back off. Kakashi didn't like big crowds. That could explain his unease. Sakura was surprised that she could still pick up on these little clues after two years apart. She unwrapped her arms from around his shoulders and plopped herself directly down onto his lap. He didn't wince at the added weight, but he kept both of them balanced on top of the armrest.

"You didn't give me a gift," Sakura said and traced the visible curve of Kakashi's brow with her eyes.

"Naruto saved his," Kakashi said and tipped her to the side. She slid off his lap and down onto the couch cushion next to the woman whose name she still couldn't remember. Kakashi reached down to retrieve his fallen drink. Sakura idly wondered if there would now be a stain on her carpet or if the glass had been empty.

"Are you saving yours?" she asked him and tilted her head back against the couch to look up at his face. His eye crinkled at the corner when he smiled down at her.

"Something like that," he answered and was distracted when one of Sakura's friends from the hospital walked up next to him and offered to fetch him a new beverage. Sakura caught sight of Naruto talking to Ino and Hinata over by the door to the kitchen. For a moment, the world zoomed out of focus and it was just the two of them. She shook her head at him, a miniscule movement that held all the silent communication they needed, and the world zoomed back into focus.

"Aimi," Sakura said suddenly and turned around to face the woman next to her. "That's your name!"

She smiled prettily and for the next ten minutes, Sakura managed to hold a mostly sober conversation with Aimi that didn't consist of anything embarrassing or too personal. Then Sakura's friend from the hospital left and Sakura could feel Kakashi's attention slowly drift back onto her. For lack of anything better to focus on, she assumed. The other two men in the group weren't very talkative. She let the conversation with Aimi die out and turned around to look up at Kakashi. He was already looking at her.

"What?" she asked, smiling faintly.

"You've grown," he said.

"It was two special years," Sakura tried to joke, but it came out sounding wrong.

"I see that," Kakashi said while he surveyed the room in a cursory manner.

"I can never imagine you doing infiltration missions," Sakura said, referring to the two year mission he had only just returned from. "You're a very characteristic person. Memorable. I can't imagine you being anyone else but you. You have to suck at acting. Don't you?"

"No," he said and she got the feeling that he was answering a different question.

"Right," she said and closed her eyes sleepily. "Acting classes back at the Academy. Gotta learn how to impersonate and fake a trustworthy identity. Important for your survival in the field and all that. I can see you acing that class."

"I wasn't a star student like you," Kakashi said wistfully.

"I'm not a star student," Sakura said. "I used to mess up our missions like hell."

"Your strategic sense is lacking, I'll give you that. But you make up for it in guts."

"Right now my guts are sloshy," Sakura said and closed her eyes thoughtfully.

Two hours later, Naruto had passed out on her couch. Sakura decided that it was too much of a bother to wake him. He could stay the night. He had done so many times in the past. She fetched a blanket from her bedroom and wiped off a patch of drool that had gathered on his cheek with a handkerchief that she found on the nearby coffee table. He mumbled something in his drunken stupor and buried himself in the blanket when she splayed it out on top of his sleeping form. With a smile playing on her lips, Sakura stretched her tired body and covered her yawn with a sluggish hand. Kakashi and Sai were the only two remaining guests. They were sitting on two foldout chairs in another corner of the room, talking in muted voices. Sakura's own inebriation was starting to wear off slightly, but there was still a pleasant buzz left. The two men looked serious. Sakura didn't want to intrude on their discussion. And she also didn't feel like talking seriously at the moment. Looking down at Naruto, she grabbed his legs and lifted them off the couch. She slid down underneath them and joined him on the cushions. After she had sat down, she dropped his legs back onto her lap and closed her eyes comfortably. The hushed voices of Sai and Kakashi demanded her attention again. She cracked her eyes open. From across the room, she studied the rise and fall of Kakashi's chest where he was leaning back against the backrest of his chair. She let her eyes roam the rest of his body, taking in the set of strong shoulders and the contours of his arms and how they stretched against the fabric of his uniform. Objectively, Sakura knew that Kakashi had a body that would make most women drop their skirts without second thought. But Naruto had that, too. And she had never been attracted to his body in the same way that Kakashi's stirred up the hotter part of her blood. This was the part that she was still struggling with. The fact that she was attracted to Hatake Kakashi, her mentor and childhood teacher. Granted, he had never been that great of a teacher and he had never been very present in her life. But it was still an official title that associated her directly with him. Kakashi wasn't good with children. That was why he had connected better with Naruto and Sasuke back when Team 7 had been founded. Sasuke in particular. Because Naruto and Sasuke hadn't been children. They had been something more. Something that Sakura had never been. And that was why Kakashi had never bothered too much with her as a student. At least until she was put under Tsunade's tutelage and he suddenly started taking an interest in her professionally. She had felt both flattered and insulted.

"If he sees that face, he'll definitely know," Naruto's voice reached her ears. She didn't take her eyes off Kakashi's form, but she could feel her face settle into a thoughtful frown.

"He already does," she said. "You know that. You confirmed it to him."

Naruto shifted so he could look at her better. "So he already confronted you?"

"Already?" Sakura asked. "He confronted me weeks ago."

"Can you say it?"

"That I love him? Obviously, yes."

"That's an improvement," Naruto said with a sleepy stretch of his legs that dug into Sakura's thighs. "Can you say it to his face?"

"Probably not," she answered just when Kakashi and Sai appeared to break up their conversation. They both stood up from the foldout chairs, but only Sai made his way over towards the couch. Kakashi started to trek the room instead, taking in details that had been impossible to study amidst the cluster of people that had been present at the party.

"I'm leaving," Sai said.

"Naruto's staying," Sakura said and patted the legs in her lap. "I'll show you out."

Outside, the night air was fresh and cool against her skin. The heat of the day had faded and left behind a comfortable lukewarm breeze that blew across her neck and face like phantom touches. Kakashi followed them out, but he stood back silently with Sakura and watched Sai take off into the night alone. It was a parallel to their reunion weeks ago.

"What was on your mind that day?" he asked after a couple of seconds. Sakura couldn't see his face clearly. The light on the porch wasn't very good. It cast shadows instead of light.

"When I doused you with chicken casserole? I don't honestly remember. I was angry at you. I remember that," she said and closed her eyes to take in the quiet sounds of the night. She could hear him breathe next to her. Calm and in control. It helped her remain focused.

"I won't dictate your life or what you do with it," Kakashi said breezily.

"Naruto and I have always been devoted to you. This is just another type of devotion," Sakura said and squinted into the darkness. They were standing side by side on the porch, both of them looking out into the dark forest. She wasn't really afraid of his answer. However, she knew that she was practically about to sign her own gravestone with the words that came next.

"I'm trying to stop loving you," she spoke into the quiet air of the night. "That takes minimal one-on-one interaction. If any interaction at all. In fact, you should probably leave. Now."

For a long moment, she wasn't sure if he would leave. She wasn't sure if she wanted him to, and she didn't understand the turn that the conversation had taken. Then, with almost imperceptible motions, she heard Kakashi descend the porch. He didn't hurry off like Sai. He took his time. She could hear every step he took until the forest swallowed him whole and she was left alone on the porch.

Shortly after, Naruto stepped outside.

"What do you think?" she asked him.

"I don't know," he answered in a voice that clearly said he did know. She punched him. For good measure. He took her hand and brought her inside. She let him crash with her in her bed and she woke up smooching on his hair. Needless to say, she kicked him off the bed before he woke up to catch her in the embarrassing act. When she was little, her hair had been long. In her sleep, she had often chewed on it. Much like sucking on your thumb. It was a habit that her parents had never fully succeeded in killing off, and sometimes she still reverted to those old patterns. Nowadays, she had grown her hair out again, but it was nowhere near as long as it had been in the past. She wasn't surprised that the old habit had kicked in at a time like this, but she was surprised that someone else had been victim to it. Better Naruto than anyone else, she told herself. He already knew plenty of her dirty laundry.

Amazingly, they slowly fell into their old pattern of camaraderie. As the months passed, Sakura could pretend that they were friends like in the old days. Before the incident with the casserole and Kakashi's yearlong overseas infiltration mission. Before she had realized that she was in love with him. It was only when she would stare at him a little too long and Sai would say a very unsubtle comment that she was reminded of the fact Kakashi knew she loved him and he had neither said that he returned her sentiment, nor that he didn't. When a heat wave hit the village during the hottest month of the summer, Sakura had only expected the heat to get to her body. Not also to her head.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but you might be right," she told Ino one morning when they were sunbathing outside on the lawn in front of her house. It wasn't so much a lawn as it was just part of the surrounding forest, but legally she owned it. People tended to stop by unannounced these days. Ino and Naruto in particular. Sakura was sure it had something to do with the solitude and peace that surrounded her house. Especially for Naruto. The hectic life in the Hokage Tower was a great contrast to the tranquility of the forest landscape that surrounded Sakura's home. She usually had to invite Sai over. He was one of her more polite friends. He didn't simply stop by.

"I'm right about a lot of things," Ino said and stretched out on the chair. "Which thing are you talking about in particular?"

"He's never told me that he doesn't love me back."

"You realize that now?" Ino asked.

"There's less drama now. I have more perspective. So yes. I realize it now."

"You're burying your shit under more shit," the blonde woman said in correction. "That's not less drama. That's adding fuel to the fire. Constructing a volcano. A glacier. A-"

"Did Gorou forgive you for sleeping with the blacksmith's son yet?"

Ino clamped her mouth shut and stared hard at her friend. Sakura smiled.

Any hope she had that Kakashi might love her back was killed a week later. She had been working independently at the hospital for ten hours in a row, coming up with absolutely no results whatsoever. It was those days, those days of wasted productivity, that made her feel completely worthless. She preferred to work in the field, because every bit of productivity led to results. In the field, cause and effect had a timespan of approximately five minutes. She wanted results. In the field, she got those. She didn't get them as an independent researcher at the hospital, though unfortunately she hadn't been granted any new missions for almost two weeks now. She didn't know if Naruto was purposely giving her more time in the village because Kakashi was on downtime for the rest of the month. She had just locked the door to her office when Kakashi came walking down the hallway.

"Hey," she said when he stopped in front of her. "Injury? You're off duty."

"I'm meeting someone," he said, sliding his hands into his pockets. He was getting comfortable. He was expecting a conversation.

"Who?" she asked and slid her key into the front pocket of her lab coat. Kakashi stared at the pocket for a curiously long amount of time. Sakura actually looked down to see if it was torn or stained.

"That nurse friend of yours," he answered and she looked back up. "Hanako."

"Since when did you get on first name basis with her?" Sakura asked with a playful smile.

"Been for two years now," Kakashi answered. Sakura couldn't read in between the lines of what he was saying. That was a normal problem for her. Kakashi only let you know what he wanted you to know. And he didn't want Sakura to know anything in detail about his acquaintanceship with Ueno. Hanako, Sakura's mind generously supplied.

"You knew each other before my birthday party?" she asked pleasantly.

"Was your birthday more than two years ago?"

"Fair point," Sakura answered. "I think that's her. Over there."

Ueno Hanako was walking down the hallway in her civilian clothes with her purse slung over one arm. She wasn't spectacularly beautiful, but she was pretty both in her natural look and in her dressed up look. Currently, she was in her natural look. Sakura liked to dress up, but it mostly always got messed up because Naruto wanted to go practice in the lake or Sai wanted to go trekking for settings he could sketch. Most of her closest friends were boys. Men. They didn't understand the precautions that followed wearing make-up. They liked how it could make women look pretty, but they didn't understand the guidelines that followed it. Sakura supposed that they fit nicely together. Kakashi wasn't spectacularly beautiful either, but he painted a nice enough picture with the mask both on and off. All shinobi were physically fit. Ueno, too. Her abs could kill. Sakura had always had trouble with her abdominal area. For her, it was easier to work on her thighs. In Ino's case, she favored her breasts, even though they couldn't technically be trained. Hinata was an abdomen type. Tenten was into her arms. All shinobi had one body part that they preferred to train, but perhaps the women were more aware of that tendency than the men.

"Sakura-san, Kakashi-san," Ueno greeted the two of them. She stopped next to Kakashi.

"You off for the day?" Sakura asked the other woman.

"Yes," Ueno smiled.

"Same goes for me," Sakura said before the situation could turn awkward. "Maybe I'll see you here tomorrow?"

"It's my day off," Ueno said with a blush creeping onto her face. Sakura kept her eyes off Kakashi when she gave her final goodbyes and continued down the hallway on her own. If Kakashi knew that she loved him and he still went on public dates with other women, he clearly wasn't interested. She needed time to adjust to that.

Two weeks later, she went on a date with a guy called Daichi. He was a jonin that she knew from different missions in the past. Ino and Hinata had both recommended him. During dinner, Daichi laughed at all the right moments and offered intellectual insights whenever it was needed. Sakura had dressed up for the occasion. She felt good that night. But then, outside the restaurant, Daichi pushed her up against the wall and promptly slid his hand down the front of her dress in full view of the blackened nighttime street. Sakura didn't understand how it had happened. The dinner had been pleasant. She would have agreed to a second one in a heartbeat. Daichi also knew that she was perfectly capable of defending herself. He had seen her crush a man's skull with the heel of her bare foot. Perhaps he had thought that she had wanted him to grope her. She hadn't wanted it. She hit him with an elbow to his nose. The bone cracked and she left the scene feeling extremely accomplished. She could understand it if Ino had misjudged Daichi's character, but it seemed very unlikely that Hinata would have done it too. Unlike Ino, Hinata was good at judging people. Perhaps the two of them had spoken past each other. Spoken of two different people, maybe. Or maybe Sakura's potential love interests just lost all brain cells around her and spoiled any relationship from taking root and growing stronger. At any rate, Sakura ended up walking home alone from her botched up date. Halfway through the city, she took off her heels and let her hair fall free from the clips that Ino had put in earlier that afternoon. She carried the heels in her right hand, the sleek pair of black shoes dangling in their straps from one of Sakura's fingers. She probably looked stupid in her bare feet with a mop of tangled hair while wearing a jade gown that was meant for a much classier setting than the dusty Konoha outer city roads. Of course, that was also when she bumped directly into Kakashi and his posse. They were having a couple of beers at a local pub and Sakura recognized the group of men too late. She couldn't back up. Backing up would attract their attention more than simply walking past them. She clutched the heels tighter in her hand, the straps digging into her palm, and she kept the speed of her steps unchanged. Her best shot was to simply walk by as casually as possible. Kakashi had his back to her. Considering the circumstances, her odds were relatively good. Until she locked gazes with Genma and he immediately punched Kakashi in the shoulder and pointed in her direction. Kakashi turned around in his seat. Sakura didn't even try to cover up her sour mood, and Kakashi waved her over as if she still regularly dropped in on his private life.

"Pretty princess tonight," Genma said when she reached the group.

"Are you headed home?" Kakashi asked and overrode whatever answer she could have prepared for Genma's insensitive comment. Though, to be fair, Genma couldn't read the situation as easily as Kakashi could. He didn't have that much insight into her personality. He couldn't see that right now wasn't a good time to tease her. Either because she would hit him or because she would burst out crying. The former was the most probable. She liked the guy. He made her laugh. But they were only acquaintances at best.

"Yes," Sakura said simply.

"Don't go home. Sit down!" Genma said. "We have an empty chair!"

"I don't want to impose-"

"Sit," Kakashi said and pushed the lone empty chair out from underneath the table. It was right across from him, so the task was relatively easy. Sakura looked at the chair.

"Alright," she said with an indecisive shrug. She didn't really care one way or another. She hiked up her dress to mid-thigh and stepped over the small fence that was supposed to function as the outside enclosure of the pub. One of the men whistled and Sakura could feel her face shut down. She had just grabbed the back of the empty chair when Kakashi spoke up.

"I'll take you home," he said and stood up from his seat. Genma shot him a curious look. Probably because of his sudden change of heart. The rest of the men groaned in disapproval. Kakashi stepped over the small fence that Sakura herself had just stepped across. He had moved before she could have said no. But perhaps that was a good thing. They had taken approximately ten steps away from the pub when Sakura handed Kakashi her shoes. He took them without complaint. They took another ten steps before Sakura had figured out what to say.

"He tried to cop a feel," she said. "I broke his nose. It was nice before that. Really nice."

"Naruto asked me not to take the mission," Kakashi said after a short pause. "He never specified why I shouldn't take the mission. And now you're here. In a beautiful dress. And you punched a grown man in the face."

"Is this an episode recap?" Sakura asked. She had gone for sarcasm, but her voice hadn't been strong enough to carry it.

"It is what you make of it," Kakashi answered cryptically and sidestepped a broken twig on the road. Her shoes dangled into view from where they hung limply from his hand.

"Carry my shoes," she said, taking a leaf out of Kakashi's own book.

Sakura went overseas for a mission. Missions outside of Konoha territory were a rarity these days, so she took it without any hesitation. She was assigned as the field medic to a team that she hadn't worked with before. The mission took approximately two weeks. It was successful, if not a bit clumsy. But that was due to bad leadership and nothing that was related to Sakura's task as the appointed medic. Sakura had grown up under great leadership. Be it Kakashi, Tsunade or Naruto; the leadership had always been superb. Nowadays, she was lucky if she got assigned to a group with mediocre leadership. She supposed it had something to do with the peaceful times that they lived in. There was room for mistakes. You could easily correct them. That wasn't really a need for a multitude of strong leaders that never made wrong decisions. The Hokage himself was enough. Everybody else could step down. Slack off. And apparently they did. When Sakura came back from the overseas mission, Naruto and Sai took her out for a drink. Naruto had a special place that he liked to go to whenever he wanted privacy. Mostly because it was relatively deserted and the owners always kept silent about his presence. Sakura suspected that they owed Naruto a favor somehow and this was him repeatedly cashing in on it. It had to be a big favor. Privacy in public was hard for Naruto to come by these days. They often met Tsunade at the same bar. She was retired. Perhaps the bar was renowned for hosting high profile persons secretly. They had invited Kakashi, but he had been busy. He would perhaps show up later, he had said.

"Any groundbreaking news?" Sakura asked the two men after they had all sat down at a table with their individual beverages in hand.

"Not particularly," Sai said around the same time that Naruto said: "Negotiations are starting soon."

"You convinced the council to consider the amendment?" Sakura asked Naruto in surprise.

"Negotiations start this Monday," he said with a look around the bar. Sakura had never fully understood if he was allowed to talk about these things or not. She also had no idea where Naruto's sense of politics had suddenly erupted from, but nowadays he spoke as if he had been born as the son of a politician. Or perhaps just as the son of the fourth Hokage. Yes, now she could see where he had gotten his political insight from. To be fair, he had probably always had a great deal of it. It had just come off as amicability and friendliness. Two hours later, the three of them decided to break up and go home. Naruto and Sai went in one direction and Sakura in another. She had walked for five minutes when a strong sense of determination hit her and she stopped dead in her tracks. It was the same determination that she got while on missions. Like the taste of blood on the battlefield; one sip made you want more. Perhaps she got the feeling now because she had just finished a mission. At any rate, that determined itch beneath her bones had her change her course from east to west. From her house to Kakashi's apartment. Yes. She was going there. Now. If she just straight out asked him, his answer would be final. Maybe then it would be easier to erase him from her thoughts, because so far she had had little luck on that front. Also, she just really wanted to see him. She was sick of the pretenses and the evasions. She wanted out or she wanted in. And only he could decide which one it would be.

She arrived at Kakashi's building five minutes later. After entering the apartment complex and taking the stairs two at a time, she finally knocked on his door. When it opened after a good three minute wait, Sakura lurched into speech before her mind had even properly processed the sight of the man in front of her. Then again, it was a fairly regular sight. He was wearing his uniform, gloves and hitai-ate included. There was very little to process save for what she already knew and expected to see.

"We need to talk," she said. Kakashi studied her for a moment. Then he moved aside for her to enter the apartment. She walked inside with a strange form of reverence reverberating inside of her. She recognized most of the interior. It was unlikely that he would have acquired new furniture or possessions after having been back only for a couple of months. It was unlikely that he would need new furniture or possessions after two years of not using them. Maybe some appliances had to be replaced because the lack of use had worn them down, but that would be the extent of changes that had happened to Kakashi's apartment after two years of stagnation. In a weird sort of way, it was rather symbolic. It was like stepping back in time; back to before she had realized the extent of her feelings and how it would affect her future. Here, they could pretend that Kakashi had never left. That the two year gap was non-existent. And she was delusional if she thought that was even a possibility.

"I thought you were out. You said you had business to do," Sakura said and made a beeline for the couch. The floor felt oddly slippery. Like it had just been waxed, though she knew Kakashi didn't bother with that.

"If you thought I was out, then why did you come here?" Kakashi asked and sat down in the armchair opposite of the couch.

"Take off your mask," Sakura said. He didn't question her. He did as she asked; fulfilling her request as if it was an everyday occurrence. She wanted to look him directly in the face when she asked her next question. More importantly, she needed to look him directly in the face when she heard his answer.

"Do you love me, too?" she asked, the words tumbling out with an embarrassing lack of finesse. For a moment, the air inside the room vaporized and left behind an empty feeling of vertigo. Sakura's stomach turned inside out and her lungs collapsed against her chest. Then Kakashi leaned forward in the armchair and rested his elbows on his knees. Sakura's lungs popped back open and air swept through the room. She could feel her body thrumming with suppressed energy.

"I picked up on the hints that you sent my way," Kakashi said contemplatively.

"You knew before you left that I loved you?" Sakura asked aghast. "And you still left?"

Never mind the fact that he had directly told her that he hadn't known.

"Not exactly in those terms," he corrected her quickly. "I had it pinpointed as a romantic fascination at the time. If I had known it was more, I wouldn't have ignored it and left it unsettled. Like I've told you before, I'm not heartless. I left because I thought it was a simple crush."

"It might have been just that," she said. "A fascination. At the time. I don't know. "

She shifted on the couch, peeling the back of her legs off the hot leather that she was sitting on. She was sweating and her clammy skin stuck to the couch. The motion drew Kakashi's attention to her legs. It was even more apparent when his mask was off, the loose material bulging oddly beneath his chin. Sakura suddenly recalled that time at the hospital where he had fixed his gaze on the breast pocket of her lab coat. She had never even considered that he hadn't stared at the pocket itself. Maybe he had stared at what was underneath the pocket. A warm surge fluctuated through her body from head to toe. Kakashi's eye floated back up to her face. There was a silent question in it that she didn't dare address.

"You've put the idea into my head," Kakashi said and leaned back in the armchair, spreading his legs comfortably. Sakura watched him, thoughts churning behind her blank expression. Her body was vibrating. She wanted to move. She stood up from the couch with her jaw clenched and her heart beating loud in her chest. Kakashi's lax eye followed her movement upwards. His expression was aloof, but the solid strength behind his gaze betrayed that apathy. She could read the tension in his body just as clearly as she could read the interest behind his heavy-lidded gaze. She tried to go for casual when she reached out to remove his hitai-ate, but her nerves got the better of and her hand froze a couple of inches away from his face. He didn't move. He sat still and watched her. Sakura's breath rattled loud inside her head, but her hand was steady where it was stretched out midair. Smiling crookedly at her own indecision, Sakura told herself that this time she was perfectly sure of what she was doing. And Kakashi was perfectly aware of what he was offering. She couldn't quite believe this, but she wasn't about to shoot herself in her foot either. She was still mighty pissed that he had left Konoha knowing that she had had a thing for him at the time, but that was an issue to be solved later.

"Do you like it?" she asked with an unintended purr. "The idea?"

Kakashi responded almost immediately to the change in mood. He sat up straighter in the chair and lowered his voice to a very specific point where it rubbed against her skin like finely tailored silk.

"It's certainly within reach," he answered smoothly.

"That's not an answer," she said. This time, she didn't wait for him to come up with a witty reply. She sat down on his lap, insecurities be damned. Her heart jolted together with her body when Kakashi adjusted to her weight and let her slide down until the sides of her thighs met with his waist. They were literally crotch to crotch, and there was no mistaking Kakashi's interest. She could feel it press against her in a not so subtle invitation. She bit the inside of her cheek and swayed closer until her nose grazed Kakashi's cheekbone. She felt wobbly and put out a hand to steady herself. She had aimed for the backrest of the chair, but somehow she ended up grasping Kakashi's shoulder instead. And that was one finely sculpted shoulder. She clutched it harder. Their eyes met in steady communication despite the short distance between their bodies.

"Hello," Sakura said slightly out of breath. "So, do you do this with all of your star students?"

"You're not my student. Haven't been for ages. I have absolutely no qualms about this."

"I don't think I ever was," Sakura said. "You showed more interest in Naruto and Sasuke."

"I'm rectifying that now, aren't I?"

"Possibly," Sakura said and felt her lips stretch into a smile. The smile was wiped clean off her face when Kakashi jostled her closer and drew her in for a meticulous kiss that sucked all blood from her brain and made her feel as lightheaded as if she had just run a daylong marathon. When their lips disconnected, Sakura made a sound of protest and pressed forward again, overjoyed by the way that her lips throbbed from the contact and the slow headiness that entered her body with every sleek stroke of Kakashi's tongue against the roof of her mouth. She wasn't prepared for the moment when Kakashi pushed his hips up and the hardness of his erection slid across the hottest part of her groin. It tore a raw sound from her mouth that Kakashi seemed to like, because he immediately repeated the movement. It felt slippery. Sakura briefly wondered if she had soaked through her shorts and panties, or if Kakashi was to blame as well. She had barely processed the thought before Kakashi happily repeated the movement again; this time with an incentive so precise that it forced her breath from her body. She flailed and let out a low curse.

"Language," Kakashi reminded her gruffly.

"Take me to bed."

"Chair is not good enough for you?"

She resisted the urge to punch the man.

"Take me there," she demanded. "Now."

"Bossy," he said and tilted her head backwards, so he could kiss her throat and the underside of her jaw.

"Kakashi," she said and matched the rhythmic rolls of his hips. She might have been whining. She wasn't sure.

"Wait a minute," he told her before he swiftly grabbed the zipper of her vest and pulled it all the way down to her navel. Slightly befuddled, she looked down her chin to see her breasts encased in black snug satin. Suddenly, she was happy that she had decided to wear her good underwear that day. She looked up and rolled her eyes at the bemused smile on Kakashi's face. Clearly, he was happy with his deed. Deciding to roll with the situation, Sakura reached behind her back and deftly unclasped her bra. It was her turn to smile when Kakashi's expression went from amused to enthralled.

"Bed now?" she asked beguilingly.

"Bed now," Kakashi answered and stood up, hoisting her upwards with him. She locked her ankles behind his back and off they were. In every sense of the word, Sakura thought and leaned down to kiss the lips that were suddenly within her reach. Kakashi had been right about that.

Two weeks later, Sakura decided to test the waters. She invited Kakashi over for dinner. It wasn't a date. They didn't do those. In fact, it was an unspoken agreement between the two of them that they didn't address their relationship or try to put a name on it. If it felt right, you didn't probe at it. Sakura had also invited Naruto and Sai, but Kakashi surprised her by showing up first. She was unpacking her groceries when he strolled into the kitchen, humming a low tune that made her smile.

"What are we having?" he asked and came up behind her so he could look down at the groceries spread out on the countertop. She suspected that he also picked that position so he could look down her shirt. She turned her head and shot him a perfectly innocent look.

"Chicken casserole," she said. "I thought I'd try my luck at it again."

"I don't know if I find that incredibly sexy or incredibly foolhardy," Kakashi answered and broke eye contact when he lowered his head to her shoulder and pulled her closer.

"Go with sexy," Sakura smiled and let him manhandle her. "I'll put on an apron."

She felt his quiet snort against her skin. "Sorry, that's not a fetish of mine."

"I'll put on only an apron."

Sakura waited for Kakashi's reply like a cat would wait for a mouse to leave shelter. When he did reply, he grabbed her hips and turned her around to face him. He had taken off his mask and was watching her with eyes so dark that she could see her own reflection in them.

"Make it spicy," he said. She leaned in and kissed him.

"You know me so well."