Title: We Do the Dance Electric

Summary: (AU Post-War) They don't immediately revert to their old ways because the old ways didn't work anyway. And learning and re-learning and un-learning things have always been the hardest part of the challenge.

Characters: Sasuke/Sakura, Team Seven.

Rating: M (because I never manage anything less despite my good intentions).

Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters do not belong to me.

Author's Note: I simply thought it'd be nice to take a break from making lemons to write this one-shot. Please excuse any grammatical or spelling errors. I will go through it with a fine toothcomb soon. And do let me know what you think, thanks.

It's awkward and complex and embarrassing and all the others words used to describe uncomfortable during the first year After.

That's the term Naruto chooses: After with a capital a. After too much chakra have been exhausted and they're all just staring at two mangled, charred corpses that used to be Uchihas (and Naruto has to look away when Kakashi drops to his knees to mourn his best friend for a second time). After the dark smoke clears and the war is supposedly won. After Naruto's beloved father and the other past Hokages disappear with proud smiles and reminders to never underestimate the Will of Fire. After copious amounts of blood have spilled and the rubbles are cleared and the death toll is tallied—one too many, as far as they're all concerned.

After the heavy shackles are clasped around the wrists of a surprisingly complacent Sasuke and he's led away despite Naruto's loud protests and Sakura's hushed ones. There's a long trial, during which Sasuke is kept under maximum guard and round-the-clock surveillance with the Hokage's strict orders to immediately incapacitate him in any every way possible should he attempt escape.

(Thankfully, he doesn't).

After a lot of back and forth between the other hidden villages' Hokages—since Sasuke is, technically, an international criminal—and a drawn-out discussion with Tsunade and her newly-formed Council (whose impartiality is questioned by some ass-face due to Kakashi's presence on it). After the verdict is declared and Naruto lets out a whoop of relief and Sakura's hand tightens almost painfully around his and the tension in Sasuke's shoulders eases just a tad.

"Probation isn't so bad, Sasuke. It sucks that it'll be another two years before you can re-list, but we'll just, I dunno, fuck around until then, right? Not literally—that came out differently than it was in my head, bastard! And stop looking at me like that, Sakura-chan!"

Yeah . . . . After all of this.

It's just weird, you know? Naruto's overjoyed to have both of his best friends, but he doesn't feel complete—not yet. The dynamics are weird between them, what with the tension and the unspoken words and the stilted conversations (and no; "What did you do last summer?" is not an appropriate opening). The three of them dance around each other with wary gazes and hesitant smiles and lame jokes. Then there are days when Sasuke nearly gives into the Curse of Hatred and Naruto seriously considers summoning Kurama to hold him down.

But as bad as it can be for Naruto, he thinks Sakura has it worse. At this point, Naruto's pretty used to Sasuke's attempts to kill him, which is not as awful as it sounds because Sasuke is, well . . . fucking messed up in the head, in Naruto's opinion. It's understandable, especially after the truth comes out and Uchiha Itachi is given a place of honor among the memorial stones. Naruto's forgiven his friend and Sasuke's done the same—though Naruto doesn't know why he needs to be forgiven, but whatever—and although it can be strained between them, they willingly acknowledge the unbroken bond between them.

(No homo, you silly fan girls. Just two guys—cue burly, grunting noises—who happen to be tied together in an epic friendship).

It's different for Sakura and Sasuke. They weren't really friends before and they're painfully trying to be friends now. Sakura claims she gets why Sasuke did what he nearly did but she doesn't say outright that she forgives him. She smiles at him—gentle smiles, supportive smiles, wobbly smiles—and treats him with the same friendly warmth she has for the closest men in her life. Yet, there are moments when she can't meet his eyes or flinches when he moves, like she's afraid of him.

it doesn't go unnoticed; Naruto sees the guilt on Sasuke's face, even though the rest don't. It's hilariously stupid when Sasuke opens his mouth and no words come out so he quickly shuts it before anyone aside from Naruto can catch it. Sasuke doesn't say it (Naruto always knows), but he wants to apologize; he wants to strike a bond with Sakura because not only is she a wonderful person, she's one of the best people to have your corner and quite frankly, Sasuke needs all the help he can get.

Naruto would like his best friend to grow a fucking pair and "just, like, fucking say sorry already, bastard, so we can be whole again or something like that". Hell, with the way things are, Naruto wishes Sakura would stop being so kind and stick her fist through the asshole's skull so they can finally move.

He didn't think he'd ever say it, but thank Kami and the gods of ramen for Sai. Sai, who hesitatingly stood on the fringes of the former Team Seven until Sakura drags him to forefront only to punch him away for a horrible choice of word. Sai's tactless comments and genuine social ignorance are the best ice-breakers, bar none. Without even trying, he has the three of them talking—or in this case, shouting. He gets on Sasuke's nerves like nobody's business, which makes Naruto and Sakura laugh until they're the ones who have to deal with the potshots and there's a distinct smirk on the Uchiha's face. Then Sasuke retorts and Sakura thinks he's mean and she's not afraid to defend "poor Sai" by screaming in her former crush's face.

If she screams things that have nothing to do with Sasuke's snide remarks to Sai, no one says anything. She needs to vent and Naruto has a healthy dose of respect for those fists of hers.

It gets worse before it gets better. Isn't that the vague, non-helpful quote? Well, he's going to go with it. They've been through their worst and now they're simply testing the waters for a second time and hoping there are no more sharks. Naruto is certain they're going to be better and it's all a matter of time and patience. They're still raw and they have to duke it out but that's okay. He's not going anywhere and neither is anyone else (anymore) and until they're all fully healed, he'll hold onto their cracked foundation with his fingertips if he has to.

He has to.

Kakashi slides the official letter of recommendation across the Hokage's scarred desk and has to force himself not to smile underneath his mask.

Tsunade's brown eyes briefly glance at the document before they spark up with irritation. "You . . . you . . ." she sputters angrily. "Now you're actually early? I was planning on doing it first!"

He gives an indolent shrug. Internally, he feels a spurt of triumph for managing to one-up his leader. Tsunade might have worked wonders on Sakura while he (admittedly) wasn't always the best teacher to her, but he thinks he can at least do something right by her with this recommendation.

"Are you going to deny it?" he asks in his customary drawl.

She shoots him her customary are-you-an-idiot glare. "Of course not. She's more than earned this. As my disciple," she says smugly, "it is only fitting that she becomes the first kunoichi from her class to be promoted to jounin. I recognize her potential—even when others don't."

Kakashi refuses to be baited, but he makes a mental note to mess up his paperwork later. "So we'll let her know soon?"

Tsunade smiles. "Yes, tomorrow morning." With an evil cackle, she adds, "Make sure your other former students are present, as well. I can't wait to see the looks on those punks' faces!"

It's not very nice, but Kakashi has to agree with the Hokage. There is something oddly satisfying about the expressions on Naruto's and Sasuke's faces when Tsunade makes the announcement the next day. Powerful ninjas that they are, they can't hide their reactions and Kakashi wants to laugh.

He doesn't and instead turns a genuine, proud smile onto Sakura. Sakura, whom as a girl he hadn't thought much about beyond her remarkable ability to control and manipulate chakra. She has come extremely far, shattering grounds and deflecting poison-tipped barbs along the way to be one of the most valued shinobi in the village. Regret mingles with pride; still, Kakashi would like to believe he did something right. She became faster from all those times of chasing bells and trying to snatch his beloved books from his grasp. She has an extensive array of genjutsus, most of which she practiced on him and he has to commend her for being so creative.

More importantly, she's always spouting words of wisdom that he knows he's said before (even though she can be a brat by stubbornly refusing to admit to this).

Kakashi affectionately pats her on the head and is pleased when he notes that, despite their dismay and envy, the boys are awfully proud of her, too. Naruto gives her a huge hug, Sai an awkward embrace (he earns a series of punches when he innocently moves his hands a tad too low) and Sasuke quietly and sincerely congratulates her.

Kakashi rolls his eyes while everyone's too busy focusing on a beaming Sakura. Those two are hopeless—just hopeless! The late and great Jiraiya is probably rolling in his grave right now for such a pathetic display of . . . of . . . whatever it is that Sasuke and Sakura are doing. There's not even a proper name for it, it's that tragic. It's a damn irritant, is what it is, Kakashi thinks. He's been (secretly) cheering for those two (sorry, Naruto) for years because a dark past and beautiful strength are established ingredients for a good erotic literature.

Plus, he's always been a shipper for the brooding anti-hero and the lovely maiden with the bright smiles and a loving heart.

Giddy with excitement in her battered flak jacket—a present from the Hokage—Sakura takes a picture with her parents, who are dazed by their only daughter's achievements considering their lack of shinobi bloodline. Then with her parents and Tsunade. Then with Tsunade only. Then with Tsunade and Shizune.

She's obviously saving the best for last, Kakashi muses.

Finally, it's time to pose with the males of her former genin team and she calls out to the photographer to hold on.

"Sai! You can sketch from the photo later—come here. Yes, yes, he's just going to snap your picture. No, it won't capture your soul—where on earth did you hear that? Really, Naruto, we're supposed to ease him into normal society, not scare him away! Sasuke . . . will you try to smile instead of smirk? Yes, there's a difference and it saddens me you don't know that."

There's a scuffle because Sakura pulled Sai to her side and Naruto doesn't like that ("Sasuke refuses to move, Sakura-chan!") and they have do re-take another picture because the first one has Sakura twisting Naruto's ear and Sasuke with red eyes ("It's the camera.").

The second comes out perfectly, with their shoulders touching and Sakura in front of the men because her growth spurt was not as rapid as theirs. Sakura's and Naruto's grins are brighter than his orange jumpsuit and Sai's eyes squint and his smile is the most honest to date. Sasuke gains a small amount of success in doing what Sakura asked and the corners of his lips curl slightly upwards.

Kakashi has a brief pang. He's no longer the tallest one in the group and he can't put his hands on either of Naruto's or Sasuke's heads.

He settles with placing them on each shoulder.

Later, he asks the photographer to send him the first picture—the one that didn't pan out so well—and he hangs it on his wall among his other cherished photos.

Sakura's promotion to jounin-rank—only three so far from the Rookie Nine—brings out a major, rather overlooked issue: it has been two years and it's time for Sasuke to return to active duty, but officially, he and Naruto are still genins.

Tsunade clutches her stomach and Kakashi tries to not look at her shaking bosom as she guffaws until tears fill her eyes.

"They need a third member," he says when the laughter dies down.

"Throw in Sai."


"Yes, I'm aware that he was in Root and they operated under a different ranking system. But Root no longer exists, does it? Kid's lucky I don't throw him into the Academy and make him go through the paces."

"I'll make sure he sends a thank-you note." When Tsunade scowls, Kakashi hastens to ask, "What about their instructor? I am, of course, willing to—"

"You're not getting out of Council business that easily, Kakashi." She gives him a knowing smile. "You have a ton of paperwork and you're still required to aid Yamato in reforming the rest of Root. And when you're not busy doing all of that, you have to trail me around—I'm teaching you the ropes, remember?"

He bites back a tired sigh. "Yes, Hokage-sama. Still—I don't know any other instructor who's willing to take those three on . . ."

Tsunade's smile is positively wicked. "I recall you telling me once, that of all your students, there's one who'd make the best teacher."

It takes him a second and this time, he doesn't hold back his laugh.

Sakura doesn't know who's more shocked. She—or the three idiots, albeit incredibly talented, who have just become her students.

This is revenge for an atrocity she must have committed in a previous life. Maybe she was the one responsible for high heels and women wearing bras or a similar heinous act. Whatever it was, it was something huge—and this is the universe's way of saying, "Ha-ha, fuck you."

The room is dead silent and no one moves a muscle. Then Iruka coughs behind his fist, Kakashi's exposed eye crinkles and Tsunade smiles like she's won the lottery.

Naruto flails and his shouts contradict one another; he's appalled by this decision but believes Sakura will be an amazing instructor. He's too strong to be a genin, but he does acknowledge that it's important to go through the ranks.

He's so confused that Sakura feels sorry for him, even when he swings a finger at her direction and declare, "I'm not having a female instructor! How the hell do you expect me to concentrate with all that bouncing around?"

She stomps him to the ground and presses her boot on his head while simultaneously feeling bad for him.

She tells Naruto to be quiet and when that didn't work, she pinches him into submission. She has to pinch Sasuke, as well, because he has activated the Sharingan.

Seriously—they're her students now and they have to act with decorum.

Kakashi doesn't hide his chuckle as Sakura's glowing hands yank on the back of her former teammates heads. She hisses at Sai to follow suit and they all bow down while the boys mumble their thanks and promises to do their best.

"Off to a good start already," Tsunade states approvingly after Sakura physically drag them out.

Kakashi is wise enough to keep his opinions to himself.

Sakura's not exactly sure how to handle this. She still has her obligations as medical-nin at the hospital and those are hectic enough. But these three . . .

She's calling them the Teachers' Vengeance in her head.

To their credit, they don't demean her skills as a shinobi—they just can't accept the fact she's their jounin instructor. Aside from the fact there are only a few months separating them in age, they're not really genin material. Among them is a (former) international criminal, a (former) Root member who served under a known traitor and a Kyuubi-bearing, son of a legendary Hokage.

Also, they had been deeply involved in a war they helped win.

"I know it's not the most ideal situation," Sakura says, which she thinks is the understatement of the century. When she considered becoming an instructor, she'd pictured the cute little children she, Naruto and Sasuke had been—only with less brooding and more listening.

"But let's make the best of this situation, okay?" she continues. She forces a cheerful smile. "And hey, at least we retained Team Seven."

It is then that, within the space of five minutes, she grasps what teaching them will be like.

"But Sakura-chan! It's not that I don't think you're awesome; I really do. You're wonderful and like, the coolest fucking chick I know and you have superhuman strength and—"

"How did we retain Team Seven?" Sai asks above Naruto's narration of Sakura's "awesomeness".

"Nobody wanted it. They think it's cursed—like an urban legend. Now I think we should—

"What's an urban legend?" Sai interjects.

Sasuke sucks in a sharp breath. "You really have no clue or are you playing dumb for adorability?" he demands cynically.

". . . . Did you just call me adorable?"


"Stop, bastard, you know how much that still traumatizes Sakura-chan! Not that I'm saying you're a coward, Sakura-chan. You're the strongest, bravest girl I know! I just can't be trained by you!"

Sakura sighs and slaps her face. One part of her head is throbbing and she feels a migraine coming on. Was this what Kakashi went through on a daily basis with them? No wonder he never wanted to hang out during off-hours!

Well, there's no way out of it now. She's their instructor and she'll be damned if she fails and it goes on her permanent record.

I'll make them listen.

With that thought in mind, she widens her stance and in a deceptively casual movement, touches the ground with one finger.

The earth ruptures and the guys have to quickly jump away or risk falling into the wide gap. They turn to her, quiet—at least for now—with stunned looks on their faces.

She smiles perkily. "Alright, you stupid turds," she growls, ignoring the way Naruto gasps her name and reaching into the pocket of her jacket. She lifts the three, small items and dangles them in the air. "Bell test?"

They don't react well and it's at least another twenty-five minutes without any action and a lot of bickering. Naruto doesn't care to go through the bell for the third freaking time, Sasuke points out that this is a waste of their superior abilities and he doesn't understand why they can't just take the chuunin exams next year without going through this ridiculous, sub-par phase. Sai, on the other hand . . . Sai has a question for every statement and Sakura wishes she'd never told him that he can her ask anything he wants.

Basically, they refuse to take the bell test and she's so angry she wonders if stabbing her thigh with a kunai will dispel this genjutsu she's sure some repulsive enemy has cast upon her.

She pleads for their cooperation. They shake their heads. She threatens, makes promises and bribes—to no avail. I didn't get children, she thought with disgust. I got fucking babies.

"Because it builds unity—unity! It doesn't matter how powerful you if you can't function as singular strong team," she roars. "And no, we're not a fucking team, Naruto. We can't be a team if you think you can ignore orders whenever you want and recklessly jump into the fray with absolutely no regard for your squad members. We can't be a team if Sai's never done this test and you think that's fine because he doesn't have feelings or whatever. We can't be a team if I'm constantly afraid for Sasuke to go berserk and kill me from behind. We can't be a team—we're not a team because I . . . I can't fully trust any of you!"

Heavy tension fills the air and Sakura feels awful when she sees the hurt on Naruto's face. Okay, maybe she had poured it a little too thick, but she meant most of it (she thinks).

She feels a sudden rush of wind next to her face and whirls away in time to avoid Sasuke and the bells—all three of them—chime loudly in her grasp. He lets out a "che", smirks and lunges at her again.

All right, she thinks, soaring into the sky as the three of them start to chase her. Emotional manipulation works, apparently. Kakashi might have been strong and skilled but he never wielded the deadly weapon Sakura's just discovered: tears.

She allows herself a smile as she disappears into the ground, the body being kicked in mid-air now a tree branch. Sometimes it pays to be a girl who used to be a crybaby.

"How did it go?" Kakashi asks in a vastly amused tone.

Sakura grunts as she passes the clipboard to Tsunade. "It went," she grumbles. She's bruised and achy and filled with guilt because she might have removed Naruto's possibility of fathering children. Their training field is in shambles and she's going to suggest having Sasuke cover the damage cost (since he's, you know, loaded).

"Was it something I did?" she demands to no one in particular.

Tsunade chuckles. "No, Sakura. Chalk it up to your skills and the fact that you're the only jounin available who can handle them."

"Besides," Kakashi interjects, "think of it this way: how awful was it for you to rake leaves under the sweltering sun while I sat back and drank iced tea? Well, now you get to drink tea and those idiots will still have to suffer."

Sakura considers this. "Huh. My very own form of vengeance."

Kakashi nods. "Exactly."

"Ah, Sakura." Tsunade draws her disciple's attention. "Should I be worried about . . . that?" she asks, waving at Sakura's chest area.

Sakura glances down. However, she's too tired to blush so she simply zips up her flak jacket to hide the torn half of her blouse. It's probably her fault, anyway. In a moment of insanity—and pure bitchiness—she slipped the bells in her cleavage. The looks on those morons' faces . . . priceless. There had been a long pause, then someone mentioned something about mutually assured destruction and they actually tried to make a grab for those bells.

"It's nothing, Hokage-sama," she assures with a weary smile. "Boys are stupid."

"How very eloquent of you," Kakashi says wryly, and then makes a surprised sound when his former darling of a student shoots him a rude hand gesture. "So." He clears his throat. "Did they pass or not?"

Sakura's mind flashes back to past horrific eight or so hours. To the blood and screams and utter devastation. She sees dozens of Naruto's pinning her down as they tell her they're sorry while they attempt to pull down her shirt. She sees Sasuke's impressed smile and Sai's stupid drawings trying to eat her. She sees herself, cackling in a similar fashion to her mentor, as she ties all three to a post and drenches them with a bucket of cold ramen.

The others didn't enjoy that part as much as Naruto—and thank Kami that she had to excel in escape and evade during her medical-ninja training.

She smiles and this time it reaches her eyes. "Yes," she tells both of her former teachers proudly. "Stupidity aside, they passed with flying colors. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm heading to the bar. I need a drink—or four."

"Wait, Sakura!" the Hokage protests, jumping to her feet with a screech of her chair. "I'll come up with you. As your leader, I want to have a more detailed report . . ."

Their voices fade as they leave the room and Kakashi scowls at the mountain of paperwork he and his esteemed leader were supposed to do together. Along with Sakura's report that looked to be only half-finished.


Sakura develops a merit system. The person who has the best performance during a mission will receive a reward at the end of the week. It should have been at the end of genin training for good, but these boys aren't known for their patience and she doesn't need further pestering.

"What kind of reward?" Sai asks suspiciously.

"Something special." She shrugs. In truth, she hasn't come up with anything—yet. She just knows it will work. They have a competitive streak that is beyond insane, capable of turning a simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors into a full-on battle.

"Maybe you'll get to sit out in the next chore or maybe I'll give you the chance to boss around anyone you choose during a mission." Naruto's eyes spark and Sakura pauses before going in for the kill. "Maybe you can sit and do nothing while I take your place."

She knows this last bit is a huge incentive because judging by their furtive glares, they aren't really happy with her.

It is both amusing and annoying that they're only given lower-ranked missions and none of them in countries that still have a ban on Sasuke's presence. On the hottest day of summer, Sakura sits under a tree and munches on sweet watermelon slices while the boys run around on a farm.

The first star goes to Sai because he legitimately earns it and Naruto looks to be seconds' away from attacking her.

She doesn't spare Sasuke a glance—the fear is still there and she's afraid it won't go away any time soon.

They travel to Tea Country and Sakura orders them to catch the biggest fish they can find.

"I don't care how you get it, as long as it's really fresh—so no going to the store, Sasuke—and you don't blow up the dock, Naruto. And if any of you smart-asses bring me a shark, you'll be stuck on night-watch for the entire week."

They rush to do her bidding, eager to best the other. They don't question her, because they've learned that protesting would earn a world of pain (Sakura has mastered Kakashi's One Thousand Years of Pain and Sasuke has made sure to never let her walk behind him).

It turns out that Sakura needs the fish for a medical lecture she'd been invited to give to some of Tea Country's best and brightest medical ninjas.

She revives the fish during the first round and expounds on poison extraction using chakra in the second. During the hour-and-a-half of the lecture, a cadaver is wheeled out and despite themselves, Naruto and Sasuke turn a little green as she deftly removes one organ after another, using their state to explain the medical condition of the corpse.

When she's done, everyone gets up to their feet and applauds her. Watching this, Sai wishes he had been around during Team Seven earlier years, because he can't picture Sakura being the weakest link in the group. Not for the first time, he wants to chide Naruto and Sasuke for the treatment of her.

"She's correct when she calls you two idiots," he declares in his glib manner. "What is the saying about eating crow? I hope you are aware of this."

Naruto sputters and Sasuke casts his eyes to the ground. It had been an accident on Naruto's part, Sai knows, but from all accounts, Sasuke had out-right treated his female counterpart like the dirt beneath his noble boot.

"You should stop telling Sakura to forgive him," Sai tells Naruto, pointing at the last Uchiha. "If I were her, I wouldn't talk to him at all."

Her willingness to be around the former missing-nin speaks of her incredible character, Sai opines and he's simultaneously envious and angry at the same time. A big part of him despises Sasuke for being the recipient of such devotion.

"You don't deserve her friendship but you have it anyway. Don't ruin it again—bastard," he adds before walking away to join their jounin instructor.

Surprisingly, both men don't say a word.

Sai doesn't speak to Sasuke for the rest of the day and when they sat down for dinner, everything Naruto says prompts a snide response from Sai.

Sakura notices the tension, of course, and while transferring the tomatoes from her plate to Sasuke's, sees the narrowing of Sai's eyes.

"All right," she sighs. "What's the argument about now?"

"Nothing, Sakura-chan!" Naruto rushes to assure her.

Sai doesn't want to lie to her. He thinks she's gotten enough of that from her teammates—including the absent Kakashi.

"I merely pointed out of their unfairness towards you in the past," he tells her frankly. "Particularly Sasuke's. He has been what they call 'scum of the earth' to you, yes?"

Sakura's green eyes are very wide. "Oh" is the only thing she is capable of muttering. She grabs her chopsticks and shovels food into her mouth as fast possible, glad when the rest—save Sai—do the same.

Later, when Naruto and Sasuke go somewhere to brood together, Sakura pulls Sai aside and gives his hand a gentle squeeze.

"I appreciate you defending me, I really do," she says softly. "But you shouldn't be too hard on them."

"Why aren't you?" he shoots back, honestly curious for the answer.

She smiles faintly. "I don't deny their transgressions, but I wasn't the person you see today. I was always more interested with how I look instead of how I acted. I was a child and I behaved like one. I didn't understand their lives and didn't take the time to do so. If they treated me as if I were weak, it was because I let them. I was as much to blame as they were."

"And now?"

"Now . . ." She shrugs. "Now there's no other choice but to move forward, is there?"

"Can you do that? After all the things Sasuke has done to you? I see the way you look at him sometimes, as if you think he's going to assault you."

She peers at his face; out of all of them, he is probably the most observant simply because of he hadn't been around when Team Seven was born.

"If you were him, would you want my forgiveness?" she asks.

He ponders on the question for a long time before giving a heavy nod. "Yes. I think I'd want that more than anything."

"There you go. I'll be honest with you; I'm not where Naruto or even Kakashi is right now. I can't just blink my eye and blind myself to his mistakes. But I'll get there—one day at a time."

He thinks she has the biggest heart he knows—maybe even more so than Naruto. "Naruto calls the two of you his best friends. I like to think of you as mine, as well—if that is okay."

"I don't see you as my best friend, Sai," she says gently and he deflates a bit. "I see you as my family."

He grins at her. "That's even better."

They help build a community hall in a small postal village near the western borders of Fire Country. It's a time-consuming mission that requires minimal skills and even Sakura is tired of it. She knows that the reason they keep getting these sorts of assignments—aside from Tsunade's sadism—is largely due to Sasuke. He's been cleared for field missions, but he has a long way to go before Konoha fully trusts him. Forcing an arguably S-rank shinobi to perform menial tasks such as chasing wayward cats is a strong indication of where his standing is on the totem pole.

Once the last nail is hammered, there is still a bit of daylight left and they aren't scheduled to leave until tomorrow. Sakura gives Naruto a star and succinctly tells them to leave her alone.

Naruto stops gloating to pucker his brow at her. "Eh? You're not coming with us, Sakura-chan?"

She shakes her head. She genuinely cares for them, but there are times when a girl just wants to be away from the arguments and debates and inappropriate jokes.

"But where are you going?"

"Never you mind." She smiles smugly, feeling a spurt of sadism of her own. "Little genins shouldn't cling to their jounin instructor all the time. Shoo."

"We're not kids!" Naruto protests.

"Could have fooled me," she mutters under her breath. "I mean it, you guys. Go occupy yourselves with . . . whatever it is you do when I'm not around. Don't wait up—and do not follow me."

The way she speaks sounds ominous and the suspicion doesn't fade from Naruto's face even when she rounds the corner. He makes a move towards her direction, but is stopped when Sasuke lays a firm hand on his arm.

"Leave her alone, Naruto. She deserves her privacy."


"While normally I tend to disagree with Sasuke," Sai interrupts, "he's right in this one. Let Sakura be. You guys are already abnormally attached to the hip as it is. I read that it isn't healthy for people to be so dependent on each other."

Sasuke raises a brow. "Oh? And which book is that? Socializing for Dummies?"

"Would you like to borrow it?"

Naruto's mouth draws into a thin line, but after one last glance at where Sakura had disappeared, he turns to follow his two friends, only half-listening to their bickering. Sai is wrong, he thinks. And so is Sakura. Naruto isn't clingy or unhealthily attached—he just worries about her. He's well aware of her exceptional talents as a kunoichi, but some habits are difficult to quit. Sakura's a good-looking woman, and she can be so oblivious sometimes. How many times has he glared at men who stared at her too intently? He doesn't like the idea of her walking alone in a strange country without him watching her back.

He lasts through dinner because a guy has to eat. When he slams his empty bowl on the table, both Sasuke and Sai sigh. They have to give it to him; neither expected him to hold his cool this long. It's a huge improvement from when he was younger and a sign of how far he'd come.

"Let's split up," Sasuke suggests with a resigned expression. "There's a better chance of finding her quickly that way. We'll reconvene at the inn's lounge room in an hour."

"Hear, hear," Naruto cries, his cheerfulness restored. "That's why they call you a genius!"

Sasuke rolls his eyes and Sai says, "Gold star for the first person to find her?"

Coins clatter on the table and within a blink, the table is left empty of their former occupants. The restaurant staff stares, bewildered.

It doesn't surprise Sakura that her precious students have chosen to disobey her. She does, however, nearly fall off her chair when she sees Sasuke walking into the local watering hole and casually makes his way through the small crowd towards her.

It's something she picked up from Tsunade, the drinking. Because it was rather easy for her to control her chakra, she's able to digest alcohol faster than the average person. The first time she drank sake, she almost pulled a Rock Lee, but she quite enjoys the flavor now.

Sasuke slides on the stool next to her. After a second in which she stiffens, she gestures to the bartender to bring a second cup.

"Naruto and Sai?" she asks as she pours him a drink from the ceramic flask.

"Onsen and massage parlor respectively. Thanks," he murmurs as he picks up the cup.

Sakura snorts. How like the two to think she'd go to either of those places. Sai likes to comment on how tense she usually is, and Naruto still sees her as a child at times. He'd be scandalized to find her nursing her fourth cup of sake in a bar surrounded by mostly men.

She glances at Sasuke from the corner of her eye. She doesn't ask, but she knows the bar is his first stop in their predictable quest. When did he become so perceptive of her habits? They've never gone drinking together because she doesn't make it a regular thing back home. People gossiped and she never wanted to give off the image that she was drinking her sorrows away.

He grimaces when he takes a sip and she tries not to smile. "Strong?"

"A bit, yeah." He lifts the rim to his mouth again. "Naruto's just worried, you know?"

"I can take care of myself." Even to her ears, she sounds defensive.

"There's that," he admits, "but he also feels you pulling away. We all can. It's not like you to prefer being alone."

"I was left alone for a few years," she reminds him tartly, then winces. She doesn't like bringing up the past if she can avoid it.

He's silent as he swirls his cup in small circles. He's normally the first one to reach for a weapon, but verbal confrontations aren't his forte. He's not quiet by nature, that much she knows (not like his deceased older brother who's tragic life brings tears to her eyes whenever she thinks about it). He was much more talkative during their genin days and there are moments when it seems as if the words are clawing beneath the surface. It was the unhappy environment of his life that molded him to be the almost introverted man sitting next to her.

She ponders on what his life would have been had it not been for the Massacre, then recalls the horrible period when she and Naruto had been trapped under Madara's genjutsu. How different that Sasuke had been; smiling, laughing, flirting—he'd been so beautiful.

Sakura's heart clenches, her throat tightens and she blames the alcohol for making her emotional.

"Do you still hate me?" he asks softly after a long while and she's startled by the question—not to mention the vulnerability she sensed in his tone.

She sighs, loudly and extensively. "I never hated you to begin with—it's true," she insists at Sasuke's skeptical look. "What I felt for you as a child, then later . . . all of it was too strong to give in to hate, even when you tried . . . when you . . ."

"I'm sorry," he says tautly and her lungs expand. "It's an insipid word, but I can't think of any more appropriate ones."

She smiles at the scarred bar top. "Sometimes it's enough." It's what she needs, she thinks. She knows he's sorry—she thinks she's known it for a few years. It just never occurred to her how much she needed to hear it, as well.

"It's not easy," she tells him candidly. "I have moments when it's as if I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wasn't blameless either; I shouldn't have tried to trick you, shouldn't have been so arrogant. With the way you were, I was beyond reckless and I endangered a lot of people. I have to apologize for that. Still . . ."

"It's not easy," he finishes for her.

" . . . Yes."

He sets down his cup, his dark head bent. "For what it's worth—" he clears his throat "—I don't harbor those thoughts anymore. At all. I know there are times when I . . . when it's difficult to believe that I'm different than before, but not even during the darkest moments do I consider doing what I almost did three years ago. When I let myself think about it, I'm grateful that Kakashi and Naruto were there to stop me. The way I am now—it's unlikely I would have recovered if I had been successful in killing you."

Her eyes become large circles and her breath hitches. He's never been this blunt before and it's the first time he's actually used the word 'kill' in referring to that horrendous split-second when the sounds of shrieking birds had frozen her to the ground. She sees his Adam's apple bobbing up and down and the way his fingers clench on the bar—it's hard on him, too.

It's confusing and she's worried about saying the wrong thing, so she resorts to change the topic into one that she feels safest with: medical. "How are you doing—with the cursed seal, I mean?" There's also the Curse of Hatred, which adds a greater burden on him, emotionally, physically and mentally. As usual, Naruto's taken the responsibility of taking care of Sasuke during those black periods. To her shame, Sakura washes her hands of that part; she's simply not ready for it.

He shrugs. "I have it fully under control—most of the time. The Hokage believes that with meditation and training, I'll soon stop having these . . . sporadic attacks."

"When we're on missions, do you . . .?"

Sasuke gives her a rueful smile. "I've made more progress than that. And genin missions no longer trigger the seal the way they used to."

She echoes his smile. "No, I don't suppose they do." She's rather relieved; as team leader, it will be her duty to aid Naruto and her knowledge when it comes to Sasuke's "episodes" are severely lacking. "What about your eyes? You don't use the Mangekyou on a regular basis and your circumstances are unique, but the debilitating effects are there, nonetheless. I've done a lot of research on it. To tell you the truth, I've been sort of waiting for you to approach me on this. Kakashi comes to the lab twice a month for therapy and there's a lot of improvement."

"I know—he told me. It's just, well . . ."

"I understand." She tucks an errand strand of hair behind her ear. They haven't reached the point where they're comfortable in spending hours together alone in what can only be called an intimate procedure. "Regardless, we can't afford to not have you at your best. When we get home, come to my office so we can work out a schedule, okay?"

"Home." His eyes are a bit distant and she wonders if he's seeing the ghosts of the past. He slanted his gaze to her. "Like you said—it's not easy. But it will get better, right?"

Sakura pauses and reflects on all the bad stuff they've been through. They've chosen to be shinobi and their life was never really their own, but surely it can't always be tragic and heart-breaking?

She offers him a genuine smile. "I hope so, Sasuke, I really do. I want to know what it's like when you're happy."

He doesn't speak, but his lips curl upwards and she swears the tips of his ears were slightly red.

"Do you think this was what Kakashi did all the time he left us alone?" Sasuke asks after another long pause. "Go to a random bar and have profound conversations?"

The image is a funny and she finds herself giggling. Soon enough, he joins her, his chuckle deep and rumbling.

And that's how Naruto and Sai find them, laughing and rather inebriated as they shared their second flask of sake. The blond slides in between his two best friends, chastising Sasuke for letting Sakura drink too much and not keeping up with their rendezvous. Sai tries sake for the first time and they all laugh when his face turns bright red, his head drops onto the table and he begins to snore. When he regains consciousness—all within the space of five minutes—he complains about a headache and Sakura tells him to drink some more.

Sakura catches Sasuke and Naruto enjoying a guys' night out in one of the most famous shinobi bars in Konoha.

Naruto is on his feet, a bottle of beer in his hand, and he's regaling his enraptured audience with an embellished version of a past mission. There's a lot of blood and gore and too-good-to-be-true fight scenes and in the end he ends up with a "smokin' hot chick" in an onsen.

Naruto talks a lot and fortunately, he has the reputation to back up his boasts, so everyone laughs and cheers at the appropriate moment. Seeing him basks under the limelight, Sakura can only shake her head and her attention focuses on the black-haired Uchiha.

Sasuke's sitting at the edge of the crowd and he's only half-listening to Naruto's story. He's surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women and it's not a shocker by any means. He's almost nineteen now and he's hands-down one of the most sought-after bachelors in the village. Extremely good looks combined with a dark past and a dangerous reputation are a total babe magnet.

Sakura watches him as he flashes his trademark smirk to one of the women's comments and she feels a slight pang in her heart. Years ago, he wouldn't have given anyone—male or female—the time of the day. But now that those tragic days are behind and he is, as Lee would put it, in the bloom of his youth. There's a bit of the Sasuke from Madara's genjutsu coming out and he's finally allowing himself to acknowledge his masculine instincts.

She'd be lying if she said this didn't bother her on some level. She honestly doesn't entertain those childish fantasies anymore and she's certainly not hiding in a hole somewhere, pining for him. She likes the fact that he's in a good place in his life to be . . . normal, for lack of a better word.

But in a tiny corner of her soul, she considers him as hers and she's somewhat sad to let go of those emotions. They're like old friends—the emotions, that is—and saying good-bye is always bittersweet.

She spares Sasuke and Naruto one last glance and quietly leaves the bar.

They're twenty when they travel to Suna to attend the chuunin exams.

Standing on the podium with Gaara and the other officials—Sakura is acting as both jounin instructor and Konoha representative for the opening ceremony—she spots her team at the end of the line. They're a bit difficult to miss, seeing as they are one of the tallest (not to mention most experienced) participants this year. There's a rather threatening aura about and the other genin teams give them a wide berth. Sakura smiles proudly.

Her students were a bunch of badasses.

Next to her, Gaara also smiles faintly and say softly, "It hardly seems fair."

Sakura bites back her laugh and agrees with him.

They pass the first test and retire for the next day's challenge. As Suna's closest alliance and the Kazekage's personal friends, the whole of Team Seven is invited to a private supper with Gaara and his siblings. Naruto sits on his right and Sakura is requested to sit on his left. She blushes as she accepts the high honor and ignore the sly smirks on Kankurou's and Temari's faces.

She's not that intimidated of the youngest Kazekage anymore, and there's absolutely zero fear. Now that Shukaku is gone, Gaara is more relaxed, especially among those he considers friends. While he smiles at Naruto's silly jokes, his attention is more on Sakura during the meal. Intellectually, they have a lot in common and there's something about him that's charming, in her opinion. They exchange views on other countries and Gaara prompts her to share her vast medical knowledge.

"Will you consider spending some time here in the near future?" he asks super politely. "It will be akin to a diplomatic assignment. Our medics can always benefit from someone of your remarkable standing."

"They're not the only ones," Kankurou mumbles to his food and grimaces in pain when his sister's elbow connects with his side.

Sakura's cheeks become redder, but she smiles and nods. "It will be an honor, Kazekage-sama. Thank you."

"Gaara, please," he corrects gently and she feels a bit of fluttering in her belly.

They have to call it an early night and Team Seven waves off Gaara's offer to have them escorted back to their temporary sleeping quarters. It's not far and no one can be that stupid to attempt a surprise attack.

Sakura is responding to Naruto's comment when behind them, Sasuke abruptly declares, "It's unseemly."

They all stop walking and turn to look at him. For some reason, he's been brooding and they've basically left him alone, thinking he was tense for tomorrow's test.

Sai smiles knowingly and simply waits for the show.

"What is?" Naruto asks.

But Sasuke's not looking at him. Instead, he's scowling at Sakura. "Your . . . familiarity with Gaara. You shouldn't be flirting with him. The others will take it the wrong way and think you're garnering his favor as our host."

"O-oi!" Naruto exclaims.

Sakura is stunned and it's a second before she can muster a reaction. "Unbelievable," she breathes, putting her hands on her hips. "Do you know that you've just insulted me and the team's abilities? In what way was I flirting with him? We were friends having a nice conversation. Honestly, Sasuke, what is wrong with you?"

His brows drew heavily over his gaze and his jaw clenches. After a moment, he grunts and pushes past them. "Forget it," he mutters as he stalks ahead of them.

Sakura cast a questioning look at Naruto, who shakes his head and shrugs. "Beats me. With Sasuke, the stick is never fully out of his ass."

Of course, Team Seven passes the exams with flying colors. Everyone breathes sighs of relief when they manage to not kill anyone or cause an international incident.

Sakura is beyond pleased, though there's a part of her that regrets not being named chuunin with them.

"So I guess you're no longer my cute little students, huh?" she teases them on the return trip to Konoha. "Now I have to deal with actual, age-appropriate brats."

"You're planning on remaining as an instructor?" Sai asks.

"Why not? I think I did a bang-up job with you lot."

"True, true," Naruto chimes in. He grins. "You deserve a fucking medal for putting up with us."

"You're a very capable instructor," Sasuke adds and he's clearly sincere. "Teaching suits you."

She smiles at him. "Thanks, Sasuke." She shrugs. "It may be a while before I get new students, though. Tsunade-sama wants me to assist a few ANBU squads first now that you guys are officially chuunins."

"ANBU? That's great, Sakura-chan," Naruto cheers. Then his mood drops and he frowns. "But ANBU missions are highly dangerous. I don't like the idea of you working with strangers."

Typical Naruto, she thinks fondly. "Then you're just going to have to be promoted quickly, right?"

"Right, right! Give it a few months, Sakura-chan, and you'll have the future Hokage requesting you for missions!"

True to his word, it's less than a year before Naruto, Sasuke and Sai reach jounin rank. Unlike his former teammates, Sai opts not to try out for an actual ANBU squad. Instead, he decides to aid Yamato in the continuous effort to rehabilitate ex-Root members and no one is more suited for the job.

When they pass the grueling ANBU test, Naruto and Sasuke are placed in different squads. They're not happy with it, but they understand. Their expertise should be fully utilized and it would be difficult for either of them to advance to captainship if they were in the same team.

As a special ANBU, Sakura is stretched quite thin. She's the lead medic-nin in field missions and is highly demanded among the elite squads. Naruto and Sasuke often fight over writing down her name on their request forms, not only because of her medical talents but also because they trust her the most. By the time they become commander of their respective teams, it's become rather clear in the locker room that Sakura's off-limits to anyone save the two of them. Not even Hyuuga Neji wants to deal with the headache. This exasperates the Hokage to her wit's ends, but given the success rate of Naruto's and Sasuke's squads, she tells Ibiki to leave the issue alone.

Exactly six years after the Fourth Shinobi World War, Tsunade steps down as Hokage. She names Hatake Kakashi, whom she has personally groomed since the end of the War, as her successor.

Naruto doesn't argue against the decision; it's simply not his time and there's no doubt in anyone's mind that he'll be the Shichidaime.

(Shimura Danzou's brief reign will never be acknowledged in the Hokage Mountain).

Despite his reluctance, Kakashi is perfect for the task. He's a battle-scarred warrior with a legendary status of his own. He's intelligent and disciplined, while making it clear to his followers that teamwork and the value of your friend's life can be more important than even the missions themselves. The Konoha shinobi are proud to serve him and they don't hesitate to swear in their loyalty.

If his tardiness and affinity for pornographic books are noted, they're chalked up to the usual quirks of a Hokage.

On the night of the inaugural ceremony, the original members of Team Seven gather for a private celebration in the dining room of Kakashi's new official residence. The alcohol pours freely and toast after toast is cheerfully—and later, drunkenly—given.

As a thank-you for their strong support, Kakashi lowers his mask to reveal his face. Sasuke and Naruto stare at him for long moments, their expressions intense after all these years of avid curiosity.

"You look disappointed, Naruto," Kakashi says, amused.

"I am," he admits. "I've been picturing gruesome scars and big lips and, I don't know, pimples and pusses, I guess."

"Gross," Sakura interjects.

"You're not surprised," Sasuke observes.

She casually shrugs a shoulder. "I'm his personal medic. I've seen his penis, too."

Both Sasuke and Naruto blanch at her nonchalant use of the word 'penis'. Kakashi coughs to cover his laugh and returns the impish wink Sakura shoots him.

Naruto can't flail and accuse Kakashi of being a pervert because he, too, has had to strip down for professional reasons in front of Sakura.

Feeling lightheaded from all the alcohol, Sakura leans forward and in a movement that is almost disturbingly sensual—for Sasuke and Naruto, that is—she traces Kakashi's features with her fingernails.

"Very handsome," she murmurs. "And sexy to boot."

"Thank you," her former sensei replies seriously, unperturbed. It's not the first time they've flirted with each other. Sakura has grown to become a beautiful woman and he thinks that in another time—in a world where Sasuke doesn't exist—he wouldn't have minded starting something up with her. He's not in love with her, but the attraction is there nonetheless.

As if on cue, the last of the Uchiha snaps, "Put the mask back on, Kakashi. Sakura, move away—you're practically sitting on his fucking lap."

Sakura's lips form a pout, yet she dutifully returns to her seat. His dog-in-the-manger attitude was showing more and more these days and she thinks it's as confusing for him as it for her. She admits that it's rather flattering and she's simply waiting for the moment when he decides what to do about it.

Only then will she decide what to do about it. For now, though—it's fun to mess with his head.

"Yare, yare, you're so rude, Sasuke," Kakashi drawls in a perfect imitation of a Naruto-esque whine. "I'm your Hokage now—don't you think it's time to show me a little respect?"

Sasuke's scowl blackens and he jumps to his feet. "I'm going to take a piss."

"How crude," Kakashi calls after him and Sakura doesn't even try to stifle her giggles.

Naruto shakes his head, exasperated. When did he become the mature one in this group? "You should stop teasing him," he says to both Kakashi and Sakura. "It's not nice."

Much, much later, when the sun is peeking over the Hokage Mountain, Naruto and Sakura are holding each other up as they stumble out of Kakashi's house, singing—of all things—the theme song to Icha Icha Paradise the Movie at the tops of their lungs. The newly-appointed village leader languidly waves his hand and then prevents Sasuke from joining them.

"You better get a move on, Sasuke," he advises sagely, utterly serious despite the large amount of alcohol in his system.

"That's what I'm trying to do," he replies, stopping short of adding, "stupid old man".

"That's not what I mean, kid," Kakashi says and smiles underneath his mask when the younger shinobi narrows his dark eyes. He thinks that being blunt will be the best method because it seems as if everyone as has been beating around the bush and Sasuke is pathetically obtuse in this matter. "If you aspire for a relationship with Sakura then this will be the right time. You two have danced around it long enough. Gaara-kun will be here in winter for a diplomatic trip and he's now mature enough, not to mention serious, to pursue Sakura—even if you aren't."

Sasuke frowns and Kakashi can see that he's struggling between outright denial and telling him to mind his own business. Finally, the Uchiha spats, "Stop fucking flirting with her. I won't have it."

There may be hope for him after all. "My, my, how beautiful young love is."

"Fuck off, Kakashi."

"That's 'Fuck off, sir' to you now—kid."

Contrary to popular belief, Sasuke isn't torn about his feelings for Sakura—at least not anymore. He came to terms with them right around when he realized he couldn't control his spontaneous outbursts when he sees her interact with other men. He knows, without a shadow of a doubt, what she is to him.

Sakura is his endgame.

It's an inevitable cliché and a lot of people will say they called it, but he doesn't give two fucks. He hadn't thought it was possible—not after everything—and he thinks Sakura feels the same way. They've been through too much and he's fucked up way too many times, yet they've come out of the shit storm smelling (relatively) like fucking roses. Kakashi was right—the time has some and Sasuke better get a move on.

In truth, he hadn't needed the old man to tell him that. He hasn't been waiting per se, but he's been biding his time for almost a year now, ever since her presence on his ANBU squad became more regular. She's his top request and he and Naruto had quietly come to an understanding—the blond gets her every third mission, but Sasuke has primary dibs.

(Neither of them shares this with Sakura and they never will because she has a mean right hook and she refuses to heal the wounds she inflicts).

He ignores the unwelcome advices he receives from Naruto and Kakashi. They think they're so experienced to the "ways of love" (as Kakashi deems it) but they're both fucking morons. No, he won't sing to her, Naruto and no, Kakashi, he's not going to throw her over his shoulders and drag her to a lair where he'll proceed to ravish her (though the idea has its merits and he'll probably use it in the near future).

"I don't have a lair," Sasuke declares.

"Eh, really?" Kakashi asks, surprised. "Where do you sex up your women and plot your evil plans, then?"

Face. Palm.

Sasuke is at his best when he's frank. Sure, he's been known to verbally hurt a person right before he activates his Sharingan, but at least he's honest and no one will question his intentions. And ever since he stopped hiding his possessiveness ("Jealousy, asshole, they're called jealousy!") when it comes to Sakura, he surmises ("Big word for you, kid.") she won't be, like, shocked to death when he approaches her.

"Bad idea."

"Not a romantic bone in your body, huh, asshole?"

"Now, now, Naruto, we know what bone he wants to put in her body."

Snicker. Snicker. Snicker.

Seriously—he sometimes wish they're still afraid of him just so he'll have an excuse to plant his katana through their hollowed heads. How the tides have changed, he laments angrily.

Still, his heart beats a little faster and his palms are slightly more sweaty as he and Sakura leaves Kakashi's office after a mission report. He knows what fear is like and he wonders if all men went through this with the women they want (hope) to call their own.

"What's with Kakashi and all the winking?" Sakura asks curiously when they're outside the building. "Do you think his normal eye is being affected?"

"I think he's a fucking idiot," he mutters.

"He's our boss now."

"Don't remind me."

A small groove forms between her perfectly-shaped eyebrows and fuck it all, she looks so damned . . . cute. "Are you okay? You're a bit jumpy. Are your eyes giving you problems? I noticed the muscle twitching near your left one when we were in Kakashi's office. Here, let me see."

His fingers wrap around her slim wrist—fuck, she's tiny despite her inhuman strength—before she can perform a quick check-up. Her green eyes widen and he holds her for a few more seconds before gently releasing her.

"Do you want to have dinner?" he asks and his tone is rougher than he intended.

"Sure," she answers slowly, but surely.

He clenches his jaw. "I mean like dinner—just the two of us."

She blinks. "Like a date?"

God and they say he's thickheaded. "Sure, if you want to put that label on it."

"What label are you putting on it?" she shoots back

He refrains from growling. "I'd like us to have an exclusive dinner with the goal of having more exclusive dinners in the foreseeable future."

"Jeez, not a romantic bone in your body, huh, Sasuke?"

"Have you been talking to Naruto?"


Sasuke actually feels like screaming. "Is that a yes or no?" he barks.

"You want to go out on a date—no, you want to have an 'exclusive dinner'," she corrects quickly with a twinkle in her eye and his shoulders stiffen. She's developed this new habit of laughing at his predicament and she's lucky he's so fucking stupid for her, "right after we've just returned from a three-day mission? Without letting me go home and change first?"

He exhales through his nostrils; she's dawdling, for sure, taking time to overthink his invitation in that big, beautiful brain of hers. He's seen her covered in blood, gore and guts and they've even gone a week without a proper bath. And she's seen him at his worst at well. Worrying about their appearances is just a stalling tactic, especially since they've managed to shower at the inn before heading back and their current clothes are only a bit dusty.

"You're . . ." Sasuke stops. A lot of adjectives come to mind—beautiful, pretty, clean, presentable, goddamn perfect—but none that he can say without sounding like a pussy. Or Lee. Or Naruto. Take a pick.

Her expression turns perceptive, yet just because she understands what he's trying to imply doesn't mean she's about to answer him. It's the bitchy part of her that he simultaneously hates and likes.

Sakura knows her lack of response is troubling him. He hides it well but the minute shifting of his eyes indicate his nervousness. She's not mature enough to admit that this doesn't give her a sense of glee; after all the crap he put her through when they were kids, his discomfort is wonderful. She debates on telling him no just on principle because she can be vindictive when she wants to.

However, they're past such childish antics and in her heart of hearts, she's aware that if she refuses him now, it will be awhile before he musters up the pride—and the courage—to ask her again.

We've wasted enough time.

Still, she needs to confirm his seriousness. "This will change things between us, Sasuke," she declares softly.

"I know."

"I'm not just anyone—the friendship we have now is very precious to me."

"To me, as well. But I want more."

Her heart legitimately sighs. "We can't go back from this," she insists. Some may think she's blowing it out of proportions, but it's not a simple exclusive dinner or whatever. She can't predict how it's going to end—neither can he—but the beginning is most crucial. They're risking everything they've built thus far.

Is it worth it?

She stares at his handsome face and his clenched fists and the subtle transferring of his weight from one foot to another. This is probably killing him but he's plunging head-first and shouldn't she have the courage to do the same?

She takes a deep breath and slowly releases it. "All right, then."

It's three weeks before they have their first kiss and another two before she lets him hold her hand when they're in private. Sakura is akin to a skittish colt and while he would have liked to press their relationship faster, Sasuke is aware that he has to pace himself.

Naruto says something in the lines of "It's about that time" and he doesn't back off from teasing his two friends. He's genuinely happy for them, but he's going to give them as much shit as possible.

That's what best friends are for, right?

As comrades, Sasuke and Sakura know each other well, but they have to work in learning each other as part of a couple. Due to their history, there's no shyness between them, yet sometimes, they were like two opponents sizing up one another. It doesn't help that they're both busy with their respective careers and their time is often limited.

Nevertheless, they manage to pick up the other's nuances pretty quickly and again, this is aided by their previous relationship. He doesn't need to learn that she prefers her coffee black or that she dedicates her Sundays to household chores. She's not surprised that he likes to eat healthy food and on returning to Konoha after a short solo mission, promptly hands him a basket of organically-grown vegetables she purchased at a farmer's market.

He's still not that easy to talk to and she tends to retreat behind a calm façade when she's wary of being rejected. He tries and she tries and together, they have quiet conversations over dinner and she thinks she may honestly fall truly, madly in love with him because he can be so thoughtful and his brain is perhaps even sexier than his body.

Three and half months into their relationship, they share a bed for the first time. It doesn't occur after a heated fight or one too many drinks or anything like that. They're kissing—making out, really—on her couch and one thing leads to another and she shows him that she's ready by whipping her bra at his face.

When they finish and Sasuke believes his brain has exploded via his dick and he's lying on his back attempting to catch his breath, she rolls onto hers and starts to giggle like her former fan-girl self.

He scowls. This laughing at him thing? He tolerates it most of the time but they just had sex and that shit's not going to cut.

"Sorry, sorry," she gasps when he tells her that he doesn't know what's so fucking funny. She bites her bottom lip to stifle her laughter because she know his feelings are hurt. She quickly attempts to mollify him. "It's just that . . . holy shit, Sasuke, is there anything you can't do?"

He's instantly appeased and he doesn't bother to hide his smugness. She giggles again before gracefully clambering on top of his naked, rock-hard body and proceeds to apologize by starting a second round.

Much to her pleasure, he's more than able to keep up with her stamina and they don't leave her apartment or answer the doorbell for an entire day.

"Come on, Sasuke," Naruto wheedles. "The curiosity's been killing me? Please, just this once, old buddy old pal?"

Sasuke clenches his teeth. He can't believe they're having this conversation and he thinks it's kind of messed up because he's not the type to kiss and tell and Sakura will actually kill both of them if she finds out about it.

But he's a guy and guys talk and he's not going to lie—there's a big part of him that wants to show. So maybe just this once.

"We'll never speak of it again," he says threateningly. "And it's only between us."

Naruto nods eagerly. "Fine. Fine. I don't need the details—fucking gross—but seriously, dude. It's, like, good and shit, right?"

Sasuke sighs. "You know that feeling after you mastered your Rasengan or when we won the War or when Tsunade declared you're next-in-line after Kakashi?"


"It's better than that."

Naruto's blue eyes glaze over. "Well, fuck. Should have never fought so hard to bring you back," he mutters.

Sasuke smirks. Who would have thought the two of them would ever be sitting in a ramen stall, gossiping like a couple of girls about how great sex can be with Sakura?

Under Ino's gleeful gaze, Sakura brings her hands up and places them several inches away from each other. When blue eyes widen, Sakura parts her palms even farther.

"No!" Ino exclaims.

Sakura nods triumphantly. "Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes!" she says wickedly.

Their chortles fill the flower shop and can be heard from outside.

Sasuke and Sakura have their first major blow-out two months later. There have been petty squabbles here and there, but this one is a doozy.

He's on bed rest due to a major he sustained while on an ANBU mission. She's tired from her hospital shifts and she's overcompensating for not being able to be on his squad during said mission. Perhaps if she'd been there, he wouldn't have been this hurt. Perhaps she could have protected him. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

His ego is as bruised as his body and he snaps at her when he deems her coddling too much to bear. "I'm not fucking weak," he growls and it's the worst word to use around her.

Their argument becomes too big to control and there are a lot of harsh snarls and angry shouts. Even with his back hurting like a son-of-a-bitch, he's agile enough to avoid the series of kunai she throws his way. She doesn't really mean and she's upset at her temper but he's an asshole and he can't resist from mocking her aim.

She leaves the apartment—her apartment because Sasuke wanted to recuperate there—before they say things they can't take back. She slams the door behind her and he curses loudly and repetitively because he's too injured to chase after her.

He seriously considers it, though, then opted to stay put. Surprisingly, he's the more confrontational one in their relationship. He'd pester her until she screams and screams and they get to the bottom of whatever issue they're having, while she would rather sleep on it. He fights dirty, he knows, but he hates her silent treatments and he thinks she sometimes does it on purpose.

They're a work-in-progress, that's for damn sure.

It's past two o'clock in the morning when he hears the front door being unlocked and during the time he's gone back and forth between being worried and being pissed and dozing off because of the pain killers.

She's not alone and the pressure in his chest eases a bit when Naruto half-carries her into the bedroom. Her face is flushed and once again, she's humming the tune of their former instructor's favorite movie of all time.

"She's drunk," Sasuke declares flatly, moving a bit to make room for her.

"Yup," Naruto says glibly, gently setting her down onto the bed. "Got into a drinking competition with Genma and the bartender had to throw them both out before he lost all of his liquor."

The moment she's tucked under the covers, Sakura instinctively reaches for Sasuke. She turns her back to him, but grabs his arm to place it around her waist. And because Naruto is the only one there, Sasuke doesn't hesitate to pull her to his chest and bury his nose in her smoke-scented tresses.

Seeing them, Naruto smiles, his blue eyes abnormally bright despite the dimness of the room. He sits down in the space created by his friends' cuddling and lets out a tired sigh as he pulls his knees up. "She's fucking angry with you, but she stills want you to hold her."


"Couples fight, Sasuke," Naruto continues wisely, "it's nothing new. Still, this is Sakura. Try to remember that the next time you decide to be a fucking asshole, yeah?"

I never forget, Sasuke thinks in his mind. His arm tightens around her. She's the most important person in his life, even bigger than the bond he has with Naruto—or his deceased older brother.

Sasuke and Naruto talk quietly while Sakura gently snores between them. The sun is setting when Naruto climbs to his feet and stretches until his bones pop. "I have a lunch date," he announces, mindful of the volume of his voice. "Just so you know—you're my family but as much as possible, I'm always on her side."

Sasuke doesn't get offended. He's hurt them so much and he's grateful that they were there for each other when he couldn't be. "Thanks, Naruto."

"Mmm-hmm." Naruto bends and presses a soft kiss to the back of Sakura's head and then leaves to get some shut-eye at his own apartment.

"You should appreciate me more, " Sakura says suddenly in a groggy rasp. He's not startled—he felt her waking up when Naruto shifted off the bed.

"I do."

"Sometimes . . . sometimes you act as if your words don't hurt me and it's my partly my fault because I act as if they don't. But they do."

His chest tightens so much it's even more painful than his back. "I'm sorry." There's nothing else he can say.

She's not done. "At the bar . . . I didn't even to take out of my wallet. Men kept buying me drinks after drinks."

His grits his teeth hard enough to break a couple of back teeth. He wants to admonish for trying to make him jealous, but he thinks—at least at this moment—he deserves to be kicked in the nuts for being such a douche.

"I'm a catch—a huge one," she goes on and it's highly likely that she's still tipsy. "I know my worth now and what's more, everyone else does. I'm only going to say this once, Sasuke—you're lucky to have me, not the other way around. A lot of men—and even a few women—want me. Even Na—"

"Stop," he growls. He can guess where she almost headed and he doesn't want to hear it. "Stop right there. I know, okay? You think I'm blind to the way people look at you—at us? I'll probably never be good enough for you but don't . . . don't fucking say shit like that again. Ever."

She's breathing loudly and she's trying to hold back her tears. It must be the alcohol, she decides, because she nearly touched on a taboo topic for them.

"Sorry," she whimpers.

"No. I'm sorry. Sorry for hurting you to that point." He holds her closer. "I'm trying my best here, Sakura. I really am."

"I know," she echoes him. "I appreciate it—and I'm sorry for being an awful bitch sometimes."

"Let's just stop apologizing, okay?"


Months turn to years and the village goes through more ups than downs. It's not all sunshine and rainbows, but they're all enduring and at the end of the day, that's better than any other outcome.

Kakashi announces that he's going to step down next summer and predictably picks Naruto as his successor. He—Kakashi—wants to settle down with Kurenai and the baby she's carrying, along with Asuma's son. No one judges Kakashi for that relationship and in some ways, it's the most natural progression for the famous Copy Nin.

The villagers are used to seeing Sasuke and Sakura walking closely together, surrounded by a thick air of intimacy. Sasuke's proven his loyalty and Sakura's a beloved kunoichi—it's the perfect match in the eyes of even the most cynical of ninjas.

Team Seven/Team Kakashi go on last mission together. It's not a big one, despite their status. Rather, it's a back-to-basic assignment where they help rebuild a broken-down mill. Naruto gets upset when Sakura and Kakashi simply sit under a tree and enjoy a cool drink of lemonade and they point out as former instructors to all of them, such a thing is within their right.

They ignore the bevy of ANBU operators surrounding the mill area. Kakashi is still the Hokage, after all.

"I'll be sure to check her thoroughly during our next appointment," Sakura promises after Kakashi expresses his concern on his and Kurenai's baby. It's a late-age pregnancy so the possibility of complications is there.

"Thanks, Sakura. I don't trust anyone else to take care of them like I trust you."

She blushes and then snorts. "Considering that it's your baby, it's probably going to arrive late just to piss me off, huh?"

"Traditions should be continued," he intones somberly and they both laugh, earning dark glares from their sweaty former students.

That night, ensconced the privacy of their inn bedroom, Sasuke lays a hand on her still-flat stomach. "No more field missions soon," he says.

She doesn't take umbrage at his commanding tone. Not even her hard-fought independence will drive her to take chances. "Yes."

"It's a boy."

She repeats, "Yes." She doesn't know how, but she's convinced of it herself. Maybe it's because Uchihas are historically more prone to produce male children. She thinks it will be a while before they get a girl. "Would you like to name him Itachi?"

He stiffens and his voice is very gruff when he answers, "Not yet. Not this one."



She smiles. How like him to propose in this manner. "Why not? You're not hard on the eye," she teases. "Plus, there's the money. I may retire and be a lady of leisure."

He smiles and doesn't get offended. She places her hand over his and presses a kiss to his bare chest. "Are you . . . happy?" she asks tentatively.

"I . . ." He clears his throat. "I've reached happy a long time ago. Now I'm . . . there's a peace inside of me that I never imagined possible." He tugs her into his arms and plants his face in the crook of her neck. "Thank you."

She blinks back her tears. The term doesn't wrench her heart anymore because she doesn't doubt when he says it, it's accompanied by a deep, deep love that can withstand wars, betrayals and his inability to pick up his dirty clothes off the floor.

"Anytime, Sasuke. Anytime."

End. For now.