Summary: Peeling back a layer and finding the courage to look at what's underneath.

*Set during the months after the Fourth War ended (Prequel to Chapter's 4 & 5, Sequel to 6)

The autumn wind blew through the large maple tree, carrying with it a few leaves barely hanging from its already bare branches. The dried bits flew skyward and eventually back down to join the other red and brown patches of foliage that had covered the streets of Konoha, mostly untouched by the small populace that was left waiting.

When the troops finally returned, it was a joyous parade, albeit a weary one. The soldiers dragged their feet along the road, pushing the dead leaves off its path as they celebrated their homecoming.

Sakura sat on a rooftop overlooking the sight of an overjoyed Naruto; his arm swung around Sasuke as he dragged the young man around in some frenzied effort to reintroduce everything that remained familiar. The old tower.. the training ground.. the monument…

For the most part, the village had been completely rebuilt from the ground up, and along with it were new structures and reinforcements. Even Ichiraku didn't look exactly the same since Sasuke left.

Not many things did.

"Shouldn't you be down there?" her companion asked, turning his book facedown to mark the page with his lap. "You're his friend too, you know."

Sakura sighed, fighting the frustration already starting to well up inside her.

"I just…I'm not sure what to do." At least, not anymore. She had no trouble finding the words, had always known what had to be done when she sought (along with Naruto) to bring him back to a brighter path. But unlike Naruto, who easily fell back into old banter with him, Sakura struggled to find the ease of friendship to continue on with.

Despite her best efforts, her actions, and for the mere fact that it was hers, felt laden with an unspoken meaning— a covert intent that wanted to seek much more. It was all the village could talk about in fact; she could hear their whispers every time she was seen alone with Sasuke. Some of their words sounded wistful, some sounded annoyingly like pity.

Regardless, Sakura knew that whatever pulsed inside her was secondary to a more important matter of his reintegration; it would have been plain selfish of her to indulge in the what-if's right now. Had Sasuke felt her discomfort too?

"You're probably overthinking it," Kakashi shrugged, finally returning to his book. Sakura glared silently, guilty to have been blindly called out on her internal monologue.

"Can't I just be up here helping you read? It must be weird staring at those small letters with your new depth perception, ne, Sensei?"

"You're a kind girl, Sakura…" His eyes creased. "But not that kind, " came his deadpan as he lightly hit her on the head with his book.

"Fine," she sighed begrudgingly. She genuinely enjoyed his company on the rooftop — a familiarity that had lingered on from their time in the trenches. Sakura gave him a smile nonetheless, before scaling down the building to catch up with her two teammates.

It started with a coupon.

Sakura had found the small paper lying on the street that day with the words "Two Ramen Bowls for Free!" printed in bright red. She had picked it up quickly, tucking it in inside her front pocket as she skipped along her way to the one person she was sure would never refuse such a deal.

When Naruto declined, the disbelieving shriek that left her, was so loud, it sent a few startled birds fluttering away from a tree branch.

She had to blink a few times, thinking to herself, a little humorlessly, that she was probably in some kind of genjutsu. Surely.

"I'm just not hungry ok?" he mumbled. Sakura knew those very words would only ever come out of his mouth, realistically, as a lie, but she let him; she found no real point in arguing with someone who was apparently determined enough—as Naruto always was, to sulk on a tree stump all day like an oversized toad.

She tilted her head up at the enormous tree above them, exasperated for thinking she could rouse him with a small piece of paper, and wishful that some magic solution would just descend upon her from those dangling branches.

Perhaps he needed more time, she told herself.

Determined not to let a good coupon go to waste, she found herself an hour later, sharing elbow space at Ichiraku with a more willing companion— albeit only by a hair.

Kakashi wasn't the unlikeliest of people to have lunch with, but not likely enough to say that she hadn't tried looking for Sai or Ino first. He had declined her invitation too, preparing to walk away, hand already waving in the air about some report he needed to finish. It was only when Sakura had let the word free slip, that the jounin halted in his footsteps and turned around with eyes already crinkling.

She devoured her ramen in seconds; it could have been Ayame's new recipe or the fact that she was hungrier than she expected that, but Naruto would have been proud. Her companion made quite a feat too, judging from the loud sounds his stomach had been making and the speed in which he stuffed his face underneath his mask. They both ate in relative silence, content to let the footsteps and chatter outside the small shack fill in for conversation. That was, until she giggled.

"Mm? What's so funny?"

Sakura made pointing gestures at him with her chopsticks. "I just realized how different you look now, from your left side."

"I hope it's an improvement," Kakashi said, a little sheepishly.

"It is," she assured him.

It wasn't. At least, as far as comedic novelty. Sakura thought it a tragedy in fact, to have lost such a ridiculous looking side that had been a constant source of entertainment in their team. Being on Kakashi's left, had usually meant looking at the completely obscured part of his features. It had been a sight to behold; wild spikes of hair sticking out of what was basically a swath of cloth braced with a head protector. It was the closest thing to him looking like an actual scarecrow, which had been ten times more hilarious during mission briefings.

Nothing was out of place anymore, the now uncovered scar on his eye even gave him a sort of dangerous edge. It was almost predictable of her to find that kind of attractive.

"So…" she stirred herself quickly, setting her chopsticks down to prop her chin up with one hand.

"So?" he echoed back.

"Do you think Naruto's gonna be ok?" Her posture now slouched on the bar stool.

It had been a nagging question in her, as much as she already knew the answer.

It had affected all of them, not just Naruto; Sasuke's departure, as inevitable as it was, had hit the team hard. A small voice inside her had warned to prepare for this since day one. Perhaps it had been the ever-optimist in Naruto—the same awe-inspiring ability to only see the best of outcomes that might have blindsided him from realizing that Sasuke had been weathered by his time apart, into a much different shape than they knew him as, and could simply not fit the old mold they had for him.

And yet despite that, despite everything, Sasuke had done his best to do so. Sakura would fight anyone who would dare say otherwise.

"Naruto will find his own way out of it, don't worry," Kakashi replied, tilting his head to her. "How about you, are you okay?"

"Of course!" Sakura bit her inner cheek, immediately regretting her reflexive reply—a disposition she had adapted from having to contend with people constantly speculating about her romantic history with the Uchiha. Clearly, doing your duties as a devoted friend hadn't been juicy enough for town gossip.

"I'll be fine…" she amended softly this time. After all, it wasn't fair to lump her former-sensei with that lot. Kakashi always had a keen eye, albeit irritatingly so, for how deep her feelings did run for Sasuke. Maybe even more than anyone..but Kakashi had never trivialized her sacrifices as just plainly romantic.

"Mah'…just checking on you. He was the love of your life after all.." He twinkled his eyes mockingly, with two hands dramatically clasped together.

Forget attractive. Sakura thought he was twice more cheeky with his other eye restored, and was close to clocking him on the shoulder when Ayame started clearing up the space around them, signaling that she was about to close shop for the afternoon.

Kakashi and Sakura politely stacked their finished bowls for her, before stepping outside the ramen stand.

"Thanks for joining me, sensei," she said as they stood on the street. "I don't remember the last time we grabbed lunch, just us two."

"Does sharing soldier pills on a battered medic bed count?" he mused.

"Nani? Has it been that long?" Her eyebrows creased in bewilderment. A few old images of the fourth war flooded back in her head; small pleasant ones they've shared together as comrades that had fallen through the cracks and had been obscured mostly by more vivid recollections of violence and horror—memories she had no trouble remembering, unfortunately.

He had been her division commander and her, his medic. It felt so long ago.

"Well, let's not wait long till the next one, eh?" She smiled at him.

"Agreed." Kakashi tipped his hand with a small salute as he turned to walk away.

Sasuke had left at the break of dawn. It had fit him somehow, to leave right when the sun was barely peeking through the horizon—not quite like night time when it would have felt like he was sneaking away like he used to, and yet dim enough to give him the obscurity he needed to avoid the big fanfare that came with such a departure—something Kakashi had completely empathized with.

He had worn his standard issue Konohan sweater—ar bittersweet choice of article, and a small backpack. It was all he needed, he kept saying, even as Sakura and Naruto constantly doted on his lack of proper travel gear. Sasuke had to shrug them off rather irritatedly (though visibly endeared), as he reminded them that he was a very capable ninja who can survive all the elements, and that no; he didn't need to bring any more toilet paper. He hadn't given them much detail where he was going, only that there was to be a destination; he wasn't planning to become the next wondering ero-sennin, as Naruto had prophesied.

It had been a proper send-off, a heartbreaking one but still a far cry from when he had fled as a cold-hearted avenger. He had left the gates of Konoha that morning, as a friend—a fact that might have made this departure ten folds more painful, but not without a comforting sense of closure.

It was what Kakashi had felt at least, for himself; peace could always be found in something final, a chapter closed.

He had looked to his side to see Naruto with warm tears already streaming down his face, and Sakura biting her lip hard as she fought the swelling moisture in her own eyes.

Team 7 had looked on, standing still for god knows how long, to the sight of his form get smaller and smaller.

"Sasuke!" Naruto had shouted one last time, but the sun was already shining golden rays in the horizon, he had already been too far.

The dense canopy of trees shielded most of the blazing sunlight and Kakashi pulled his mask down to get a pure, unobstructed inhale. It was like the forest breathed in tandem with his own, inhaling and exhaling as he would, to cycle a cool breeze that made the foliages sway and leaves ruffle. The air was refreshing, much cleaner than the village's balmy mixture of exhaust and humidity. On most summer days, he would find himself here, up on a tree branch, killing more time away from, than at the cenotaph.

As much as he had relished speaking to his old team-mates at the stone, these days, solitude had been much more easier to find in the deep forest, away from the wailing widows and families that had been a weight on his already guilt-burdened heart.

Out here, at least for now, Kakashi was able to talk to them just the same, while also free to just think; his thoughts not funneled into anything specific, not dictated by occasion or surroundings.

The tranquil sound of nature just about lulled him to a small nap when a splintering sound of blade piercing through wood roused his senses. The dull thud came in successions followed by the whiz of a tight string. He could only decipher it as a set of kunais tied at the ends, yanked back and thrown repeatedly. An elementary attempt at target practice, barely above the difficulty of a drunken game of darts. Whoever had been doing this a few feet from him, wasn't trying to improve any kind of weapon skill, but was just mindlessly treating the poor tree as a punching bag. That rather vicious bit piqued his interest and Kakashi put his mask back on and leaped from his resting spot to find the source of the noise.

Kakashi snorted in amusement the moment he spotted her pink hair tied in a ponytail, which had always signaled that she meant business. Knowing the extent of her brute power, it was a miracle that she hadn't resorted to toppling over trees and creating large fissures in the earth.

"Sensei," Sakura said, already aware of his presence a feet away, yet not turning around.

"What are you up to?" he asked, even if the answer lay in plain sight; the tree she had been practicing on was practically in ribbons, slices and holes all over its battered trunk.

"I'm practicing." She yanked back her last kunai before turning to face him.

"On a non-moving target? How impressi-" His voice hitched at the sight of her heaving chest framed tightly by her unzipped flak vest. The view was only made worse by their unfortunate height difference.

Sakura rolled her eyes at him. "I just had a really bad day."

"There are better ways to blow off steam, you know." He was surprised to find his voice back.

"Like what?" came her challenge.

Reading was the first thing that came to his mind, not quite blowing off his team but rather a good distraction that defused the need to. It wouldn't work for everyone, he supposed. Sex and/or fighting was the more common route for adrenaline-seeking ninjas. But he wasn't about to suggest that either.

"Alcohol?" He shrugged half-heartedly.

"Thanks but I don't want to be a functioning drunk, like shishou."

"She clearly drinks excessively," he cautioned, not knowing what his point was to begin with. "But drinking in moderation isn't so bad."

Was he really facilitating the consumption of alcohol to a young person? He was, and quite effective at that, if her quick agreement and the inquiry that followed after, regarding as to where they should go, was any measure of it.

"That wasn't really an invitation," he amended. "I have important stuff to do."

"Like what? Observing bird droppings?" She grinned at him teasingly, and Kakashi didn't really mind at that point, only relieved that she was finally zipping up her flak jacket.

"Come on sensei, it might be fun. I'll even treat you again if you like."

"Again? Excuse you—it was a coupon. You didn't have to pay for anything."

She shook her head amusingly. "A prideful cheapskate? You're something else."

It was a Saturday, a real one in so long since she had asked for a day off that actually fell on a weekend. Sakura had taken the longest shower and then stared at her reflection in her mirror while drying herself; her damp hair was bundled together with a small towel, while her two hands clung to a larger one wrapped around her body.

She was distracted by an old recollection— a silly fact Ino had told her when they were younger; "A crush is not a crush until you say it out loud." Never mind that Ino had postulated it with a saucy wink or that it had sounded like one of her devious ways to single out which girls pined for Sasuke-kun. Young Sakura had believed her words without question, as with a lot of Ino's quips back in the day.

For the sake of nostalgia, and because she felt… curious, she decided to test the old ludicrous theory.

"I have a crush on Kakashi-sensei," she declared, and then shrugging nonchalantly, as if to convince her own reflection that it wasn't a big deal.

She squirmed. And then quickly reached a hand over her face in shame, letting the weight of her palm drag her cheek down as she tried to rub the disgust off her skin.

The word crush just sounded silly off the get go, and even more so next to his name. Obviously, she didn't expect Ino's logic to work like magic. She was too old for that.

But it did make her feel something… something like that wash of relief you get after puking, yet not without the lingering offensive taste you had to deal with after.

It was a far cry from the budding sentiments she had nursed in her youth. Those had always flooded her heart and mind with hopeful what if's.

There were no what if's here. This wasn't an innoncent pre-teen thing she could simply laugh off with her friends either, she wasn't a kid anymore.

Still, the truth of the matter was now out in the open—-Sakura was infatuated with her former sensei. And there was simply no denying it.