Actions

Work Header

Getting Lost on the Roads of Life

Chapter Text

“Kakashi?”

He was trapped. Trapped in a vortex of quicksand, his limbs impossibly heavy and useless, his broken fingers frantically but pointlessly trying to find something to hold on to. He was sinking rapidly, the pressure around him mounting, crushing his bones, the sound of their breaking momentarily drowning out the grating song of the incessantly slithering sand particles. There was no more air. There was sand, only sand, it was entering his mouth, it was finding its way into his lungs. As he suffocated, he had one last thought: He had not ...  

“Hatake Kakashi! Breathe!”

Somebody was shaking him. Shaking him very roughly.

If somebody was shaking him, he was probably not really trapped in a vortex of quicksand. He dared to gasp for air.

Air. There was air. No sand. Air. Precious air, lots of it. His eyes sprang open.

He lay there drawing it into his lung in large gulps until he was convinced he was not dying. But when he tried to move, he couldn’t. He was flat on his back on a soft surface, with something holding him down with considerable force. There was pain. A lot of it, but he had learned to push that away until it no longer bothered him.

“Kakashi? Can you hear me?”

A female head appeared in his field of vision. A fair-skinned person with brown eyes and straight blonde hair that parted above the diamond-shaped mark on her forehead. Kakashi blinked in confusion. It was a very beautiful face that he should recognize. They eyes narrowed as they came closer. Without a warning, a light was shone into both his eyes, instantly making a massive headache flare up.

“Dammit,” the woman growled, “I feel like beating you to a pulp! I need you out there, not in here!”

Tsunade. That was her name. Hokage. That’s what she was.

“Godaime Hokage,” Kakashi said or rather, wanted to say, but all he managed was a raspy whisper and a cough that didn’t want to end.

His Hokage briefly disappeared, then came back with a large glass of water. Sliding her hand underneath his head, she lifted it up enough for him to drink. Not water, medicine. Kakashi pulled a disgusted face as the bitter substance assaulted his taste buds, but refrained from spitting it out, thinking that his Hokage already looked enraged enough, he better not provoke her any further unless she would make good on her threat to beat him to a pulp.

“Why… why am I chained?” Kakashi managed to say after the cold liquid had soothed his vocal cords somewhat.

“Ha!” Tsunade exclaimed, “you were in their hands for three days. Three days! Of course we have to make sure you were not compromised.”

Kakashi blinked again. What was this woman talking about?

“What did you find out?” Tsunade asked him next, bending forward in visible excitement. The movement almost made her large bust spill out and Kakashi wavered between staring in fascination at the round, jiggly globes or closing his eyes again because he felt very confused. What was going on? He had no recollection, no recollection at all how he had gotten here.

“I…,” Kakashi realized that the ceiling above him looked vaguely familiar, but not in a good way.

“Yes?” Tsunade asked, “do you know how we can beat them?”

Beat whom? Carefully, Kakashi pulled against the strong sealing chains wrapped around his limbs, but it was useless. He could not even move a finger. His chakra was depleted, only the faintest of force stirred within him.

“I… do not seem to recall,” he confessed. Was that bad? It had to be. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head in small, rapid movements, trying to jolt his memory into action, but it only served to worsen his headache. There was nothing. Just a vague feeling of… danger. Of frustration. Of… things he should be glad not to remember.

“Dammit,” Tsunade said and followed up by a string of swear words that made Kakashi’s ears burn.

“You idiot,” she spat out at the end, “I told you not to overdo it.”

She had?

“Well, I meant to tell you,” she said, but more to herself, “why are men always so irresponsible .”

She emphasized the last word, making it sound like an insult.

“Lady Tsunade,” Kakashi began, “what…”

“You stay here until we know exactly what’s wrong with you!” she told him, jabbing her index finger against his aching chest, making him wince. “I can give you three days max , then I need you in the field again.”

Kakashi nodded. “Yes,” he said with some feeling of relief.

In the field… that’s where he belonged.

A series of jabs and prods from Lady Tsunade followed, probably meant to tell her what was wrong with him. Some of what she did helped against the pain, some of it made it worse.

“Whose idea was it anyway to send an old man on this kind of mission,” she murmured angrily. “Oh… it was mine! Based on a certain man boasting he had 197 D-rank, 190 C-rank, 414 B-rank, 298 A-rank, 75 S-rank missions under his belt. Why did everybody else have to get married or injured or die… dammit.”

More swearing followed. Old? Kakashi pressed his lips together. His lips that were not covered by his mask . This was worse than finding himself in front of her naked.

“Could you please pull up my mask,” he addressed the Lady Tsunade as politely as he could, considering the pain in his head and in his body and the considerable annoyance that was beginning to rise in him.

She stopped her muttering and stared at him. “Huh? Why deprive Konoha of a face as handsome as yours?”

He glared at her. He would most certainly not explain himself.

“Alright,” she sighed, bent forward a little and pulled up his mask that had rested beneath his chin. “There.” And with a sigh. “As soon as you’re able to stand, I will call for Yamato to start the interrogation.”

Of… whom?

Half an hour later, his confusion only got several degrees bigger when he realized it was his .

When he saw the bars outside his room, when he walked down the narrow, twisting passageway, designed to confuse those without a map, full of boobytraps to stop those foolish enough to try and escape, he knew. He was in the high-security facilities of Konoha’s hospital. Deeply underground. It was where Anbu brought injured elite prisoners that had failed to kill themselves before being captured - for torture and interrogation.

None of them had ever seen the light of day again.

***

The voices were annoying even though the two people in the room were speaking in hushed tones. What they were saying was even more annoying and that they thought he could not hear them when they whispered loudly like this topped it all.

“It is protocol,” Tsunade said, “we cannot make an exception.”

“I refuse to torture him,” Yamato said with emphasis, “they already did plenty of that. Find somebody else.”

“There is nobody else I can let near him!” Tsunade hissed, “you know exactly how very few battle skilled ninjas we have left after this war, it’s the worst it has ever been…people need to make more children!” she huffed angrily.

“Yes, Lady Hokage,” Yamato said apologetically, clearly trying to soothe her legendary temper. “I am sorry. But I will not torture him, with all due respect. I cannot do it. It will not bring back the memories you want anyway, so what’s the point?”

The shuffling of feet. Then it sounded like somebody had kicked a chair. Kakashi thought he would really like to sleep some more, he felt incredibly tired. The sealing chains were getting heavier by the minute and he simply wanted to forget… everything.

“I want to sleep,” he said loudly. He also wanted to be alone.

“Kakashi, sorry,” Yamato hurried to his bedside. “You really need your rest.”

“Who’s the doctor here?” Tsunade scoffed but came to his side too. There was a softness in her eyes when she looked at him that almost scared him. Was he in that bad a shape? Or had she decided to eliminate him and was sentimental about it.

“I don’t mind being tortured,” Kakashi murmured as his eyes fell shut. “Just do it.”

Had he not received ample training how to resist under torture? Nobody would ever break him. Not even someone as good as Yamato.

“I have an idea,” Tsunade said slowly after they chose to ignore him completely and so quietly Kakashi almost didn’t register it, “so we do not have to break protocol.”

“Oh?” Yamato said, sounding intrigued.

“Yes,” Tsunade replied, “and I think we can fix two things at once. Make sure he has not gone rogue and has not been in any way tampered with and make sure he remembers what he needs to remember without remembering too much.”

The voices grew quiet after this, maybe they had left, but despite his bone-crushing tiredness and his explicit wish to blank out, Kakashi did not seem able to fall asleep. Something in his mind was running around like a caged rat, throwing words and images at him, too fast for him to understand or recognize anything.

Chained to the chair in front of his comrade Yamato in the interrogation room not too long ago, Kakashi had feared for a brief moment that he might have snapped and lost his mind, like he had it seen happening with some of their team members. Tsunade had assured him that was not the case, he had just been injured very badly while on duty, but Kakashi had not been convinced. He still wasn’t.

“Why… do I remember some things very clearly and other things not at all?” he had asked them in that other room. Which had started a long series of questions about what he did remember.

Hatake Kakashi. Jōnin of the Hidden Leaf Village. Anbu Squad Leader. Mastered all three main ninja skills, knew how to use all five basic nature transformations, as well as the Yin Release and Yang Release. Probably knew more ninjutsu than anybody else due to… due to…

The feeling that had come over Kakashi at that point had been a mixture of shock and disbelief. He had lost his mind. Or was he dreaming?

“Where is…” he had not been able to say it. Both his eyes were open. Both saw… normally. There was no red tinge, there were no colorful chakra flows, there was no rapid signal input.

It was gone.

He had lost his Sharingan. It had been taken from him, that’s what Yamato had told him, patiently and sounding like someone telling a family member a loved one had died. He was not sure he could deal with this information right now. Maybe never. But what disturbed him almost more was that it had been years, apparently, since Naruto Uzumaki had restored his old eye using Yin-Yang Release. Years!

The rat was running around in his head, running, running, running, What was happening to him? Fearing insanity, groping for indications he was indeed just injured, Hatake Kakashi found himself in an unpleasant state of half-sleep for what seemed an eternity, too tired to stay awake, too agitated to sleep, until somebody stepped into his room and sat down in the chair near the door.

The small sounds the person made upon entry woke him up instantly, like his body had just waited for a chance to escape the restless slumber. Kakashi tried to lift his head, but even that was denied to him thanks to Tsunade’s sealing bonds.

“Who has come?” he asked instead, only his knowledge of how secure these facilities were keeping him from feeling threatened in his completely powerless state.

“Kakashi Sensei?” a female voice said, sounding a bit timid, but, while coming closer “Kakashi Sensei!” she repeated and the second time, the voice sparkled with joy.

A head appeared above him. Pink hair. Green eyes. A diamond-shaped mark on her forehead. A smile that rivalled the sun and made him warm all over.

“Sakura?” Kakashi stared at her, feeling this very unpleasant feeling of shock and disbelief again. Why did she look so… he blinked. Sakura was no girl anymore, she was clearly a woman , a very attractive woman. When… had that happened?

The woman that she had become had grabbed his hand and pressed it, still smiling broadly, but the longer he just stared at her the more the smile disappeared, until it was replaced by a frown. He felt sorry to have wiped away the smile, but what could he ever do to bring it back?

“You look…,” he murmured, already beginning to stumble over the next part of this sentence and thinking it may be better to say nothing.

“Kakashi Sensei, I am so very glad to see you,” Sakura said, “where have you been? I was trying to find you a few times after the war, but you were never home.”

She bit her lips when he continued to stare at her in silence.

“Right, Hokage Tsunade said I should not pester you with questions.”

“Why are you…” he made a gesture at the room, at everything.

“I am here to make sure you get well in no time!” Sakura said proudly, pointing at a symbol on the red dress she wore. Doctor , it read. The Konoha medical-nin team symbol. Of course. A healer. It suited her very well.

But… he had known that, had he not.

Kakashi briefly closed his eyes against the sudden dizziness that washed over him. It had been years, they said, but after just waking up and finding out he had two functioning eyes again, he needed time to get used to it.

“Do you want to sit up, Sensei?” Sakura asked.

He nodded. He wanted to sit up and walk out of here and be done with things.

After he remembered the things.

Sakura’s hand left his, there was a burst of chakra hitting him very gently and then her arm was being wedged underneath his shoulder to help him up. Feeling ashamed at appearing so invalid, Kakashi hoisted himself up with as much vigor as he could muster. Sakura had grabbed some large pillows from somewhere, was fluffing them up and placing them behind his back

“Here we go!” she beamed at him.

So she had lessened Tsunade’s bonds somewhat, he realized, flexing his fingers and rolling his shoulders. Being able to move at his own volition made his situation so much better.

“Is Lady Tsunade still training you?” he asked, once again looking at the grown woman in front of him with a sense of wonderment.

“Not really,” Sakura said with a shy smile. “She says she cannot teach me anything more.”

“You did well, Sakura,” Kakashi said and smiled proudly. He was happy she had found her place. And proud. Though he wasn’t sure any of this was his doing. She had always hated the things he had taught her. She did not want to kill things.

“Oh Sensei, where were you,” she said again after turning a little red to hear his praise. “I was very worried. And I… I really wanted you to come to my wedding!”

Say what now? Kakashi’s eyebrows shot up. “You are m….”

But of course she would be. Everybody in their right minds got married and had families. Konoha needed children, as many as possible. 

Sakura nodded and looked at him expectantly. “Congratulations?” Kakashi offered because that was what one said.

“It’s Sasuke, Sensei,” Sakura said, obviously expecting more of a reaction from him.

Kakashi nodded, feeling… inexplicably annoyed that a woman as bright and talented as her had never gotten over her childhood crush, would tie herself to this one man over and over, even after everything he had done… he forced himself to smile. What business of his was this? Sasuke Uchiha was one of the most powerful ninjas alive, last descendant of a clan who had brought Konoha much glory - and much suffering.

“How is he?” Kakashi asked, not wanting to give himself the chance to say anything else.  

“Oh, fine!” Sakura beamed, but Kakashi caught the slight strain in her voice anyway. Being conscious of how important privacy was, he let it slide.

“I am sorry I missed your wedding,” he added. Which was a lie, but one he was expected to make. He hated social functions like this.

Sakura kind of shrugged, then nodded and took a step back to look at him.

“You look the same,” she declared. “Well, almost.” She pointed to his left eye, causing him to bring his own hand up to cover it with his fingers instinctively. She laughed. “I still need to get used to you having two eyes all the time.”

So do I , he thought with a pang of sadness, letting his hand sink again. The world looked different without a sharingan. But then, it had never been his to keep anyway.

Sakura was still studying him in a way that was beginning to make him a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t exactly wearing a lot, he realized, just the sleeveless black Anbu shirt and some sort of long pants, but at least his mask was in place.

“Sensei…” she said haltingly and he lifted his eyebrows questioningly. “Your… tattoo....?”

Kakashi turned his head to the left. There it was, on his upper arm, the small red flame, the color renewed with special ink so that it seemed to glow eerily. A tell-tale mark for anyone who knew what it meant and a warning to everyone who did not. But how much of a secret could his affiliation be if she was here, seeing him in an Anbu high-security facility? 

Kakashi said nothing, just waited for her to reveal why she would react like this. What had Tsunade told her? Sakura seemed to wait too - for an explanation? If she had an inkling of what it signified, she would also know he could not tell her anything without breaking rules he lived and died by.

“The body has limits,” she finally said, sounding a bit angry.

Kakashi nodded. That was true. He knew his body and its limits very well. But he also knew that these limits could be pushed. And he knew that young bodies may have more strength and flexibility, but they would never have his endurance or his experience.

“I was right to worry about you,” Sakura added, frowning at him. “You should have settled down too. Sensei, you’re no use to anyone dead.”

“I’m not dead, Sakura,” he said and smiled. Truthfully, now that he was sitting up, he felt better by the minute. He was hungry.

“But you could have been,” she retorted angrily, “I read the file.”

Then she knew more than him.

Sakura offered no more information, so he shrugged. He was used to these kind of lectures. There had always been people around him unhappy with his choices, but he had no regrets. His village needed him and he would give his everything to help, doing what he knew to do best.

Which was… killing people. Killing people so his people could be happy, have families and children.

His stomach growled audibly, somewhat lessening the tension.

“You are hungry, Sensei!” Sakura exclaimed, “I am so sorry.”

“That’s none of your fault,” he murmured, briefly wondering why such a highly skilled doctor had been sent here instead of a mere nurse. But maybe they did not trust a mere nurse to be alone with him, despite his lack of chakra. Sakura had rushed over to the door where she had deposited two bags and a larger backpack. As if she was going camping. There was some rummaging and then she reemerged with two boxes in her hand.

“I didn’t think you’d like hospital food much,” she said, “so I brought you something else.”

In one of the containers, there was miso soup that she heated up using her chakra, with white boiled rice in a compartment underneath it. In the other box, there were many vegetables, raw and cooked. It all smelled delicious and looked wonderful.

“Did you make this?” he asked, feeling a bit overwhelmed by such a gesture.

“Yes,” she said simply and arranged the things in front of him on a tray, putting a spoon and chopsticks near his right hand. “I didn’t have saury and had not time to b…”

“It’s more than enough,” he cut her short. “Thank you.”

She looked away, knowing about his sensitivities and he began to eat after pulling down his mask, slowly at first, as he knew he should, then faster and faster as his hunger got the better of him. It was incredibly delicious, but gone much too quickly. With a sigh, he sank back into the cushions after adjusting the mask.

“You shouldn’t eat so fast!” Sakura exclaimed after turning her face back to him.

“Sorry,” Kakashi said, suppressing a little burp. “I couldn’t help it.”

“I should have brought more,” she lamented, looking at the empty containers in front of him with a sad expression.

Kakashi chuckled. “I am pretty sure it doesn’t say ‘feed your former Sensei’ in any of your job-descriptions. Don’t worry about it.”

“I did bring you something else,” she remembered after a small smirk at his comment, “there is a new coffee shop in town, the line tends to be frightening, but I was lucky to get two cups before coming here.”

Coffee? That sounded exactly like what he wanted. More rummaging in the bags, then she came back to the bed with two thermos cups. How very thoughtful.

“I am very glad to see you, Sensei,” she said shyly and put the cup in front of him. 

“Me too,” he replied on impulse.

It was what one said. But it was also true, he realized. He was glad. Sakura’s presence brightened up this gloomy hospital cell in so many ways. He turned his face away to sip the delicious brew, ever so often throwing a glance at her from the side.

Years.

It had been years.

Years during which this annoying girl had become a capable woman, during which he had lost his most prized asset, the Sharingan. During which... there had to be other things.

Why did he not remember? Or rather… what was it that his mind was denying him access to?

"Thank you," he said quietly and watched Sakura's pretty face light up in the most wonderful fashion. It somehow did not discomfort him as much now that she was here. Tsunade did seem to know him very well.

Chapter Text

“Sakura-san,” Tsunade smiled sweetly behind her large desk. Too sweetly. She wanted something from her and was anticipating she would say no.

“Yes, Hokage-sama?” Sakura smiled just as sweetly.

“Are you very busy at the hospital?”

Well, that was obvious, wasn’t it, they were always busy because there was not enough staff. Besides, Lady Tsunade was the one overseeing the rosters, so she most certainly knew Sakura was working much more than she had to. For not enough pay. But now was not the time to complain.

“Yes, very busy, Hokage-sama,” Sakura replied politely.

“How is your… family life?”

Seriously? Sakura scowled. Tsunade had to know Sasuke was still not back from wherever he went to for months and months.

“Any plans for… children?”

Was the Hokage drunk again? Sakura sniffed the air inconspicuously. No, not more than usual.

“I am thinking to pass a law that every able bodied couple has to have at least three children,” Tsunade mused.

“Excuse me?” Sakura exclaimed in disbelief.

Tsunade sighed. “Not enough? Should I make it four?”

“Hokage-sama!” Sakura scolder her, “you cannot force Konoha’s citizens to have children if they don’t want to!”

“Says who!” the Sannin said angrily. “I’m the Hokage! And I am thinking to put an aphrodisiac into the water supply for a start. It’s spring. Nobody will notice.”

Sakura gasped for air. She was not seriously having such a conversation, was she? She had better things to do.

“If you do that, with all due respect, Tsunade-sama, I will make sure the council stops you.”

Tsunade scowled at her angrily. “Haruno, you are just too… rule-abiding.”

Since when was that a bad thing?

“Hokage-sama,” Sakura said, “I do understand your worries. The death toll during the war was horrific. Our numbers took a severe hit and the population is continuing to drop instead of going up. And yet…,” Sakura took a deep breath. Who would want to bring children into a world as insecure as theirs? She knew from Naruto how many holes there were in their defences. The outside world seemed quiet enough at the moment, but it was a very uneasy peace. “...people will become more hopeful again with time,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt.

“How much more time?” Tsunade sighed. “It’s been almost a decade.”

“Another… decade?” Sakura ventured to guess.

“I am worried, Sakura,” Tsunade admitted and for a moment, she sounded as old as she was. “I need more Shinobi.”

“Is there something I can do to alleviate your worries, Hokage-sama?” Sakura asked. Except conjure up well trained Shinobi from thin air.

“Yes,” the Hokage nodded and her hand snuck over to the bottle on her desk, only to hesitate in the air. The hand sunk down and Tsunade sighed again, more heavily.

“I have a problem,” she said, her face darkening, “but I trust you are discreet enough to handle it well.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama,” Sakura replied, standing straight, “you can trust me.”

“What is your relationship with Hatake Kakashi?”

What?

“My Sensei?” Sakura asked dumbfounded, though she had never heard of anyone else with that name.

Tsunade nodded.

“He is my Sensei,” Sakura said, feeling rather confused. What other relationship should she have? He was her Teacher.

That she thought about often.

That she had wanted to see for a long time, because she felt he would be able to help her understand… the Uchihas.

That she had worried about a lot because it could only mean one thing if a Jonin was never home.

“Has something happened to him?” she suddenly exclaimed, feeling cold dread flood her senses.

“Well…,” Tsunade squirmed. “Yes. No, he’s fine, he’s fine, don’t freak out. It’s only…,” she sighed again. “You can see for yourself!”

Sakura held out her hand towards the file that Tsunade had picked up from her desk. A patient? Kakashi Sensei was a patient at the hospital? Why did she not know about it. Feeling an awful lot of trepidation, Sakura opened the file and began to read.

“How many missions have you sent him on since the end of the war?” she asked quietly when she was halfway through.

“That information is classified,” Tsunade replied curtly. “And I do not have to send him. He volunteers.”

Classified. Half of the information in this file was blacked out. Of course, Sakura knew about some of Kakashi Sensei’s past, well or at least guessed, and she knew about Konoha’s secret military branch. A Jonin as capable as him would most naturally be used for the most difficult and sensitive missions there were. Undercover missions. Assassination. Infiltration.

Classified. She did not like the sound of it.

“Partial amnesia?” she asked and pressed her lips together. “Why?”

“That we are not sure about,” Tsunade said, but it seemed to Sakura like she was lying.

“And you want me to…?”

“Look at him. Have him look at you.”

“Why me?”

“He needs to see a familiar face.”

“Are there no other familiar faces?”

“No,” Tsunade said resolutely. “At least not familiar faces he will like to see and who are skilled in medical jutsu.”

Sakura nodded slowly. “You want me to find out what’s wrong with him?”

Tsunade nodded.

“And you want him restored as quickly as possible?”

“I need him,” Tsunade said. “Desperately. And I need you to ascertain that he… he is no threat.”

Sakura could not believe her ears. “You know as well as me that he would rather kill himself than bring harm to Konoha!”

Tsunade nodded, her lips a tight line. “Yes, normally, he would. But…”

But?

Tsunade sighed. “Just do what I told you. I understand you have worked on your Genjutsu skills in the last few years?”

“I am not going to use Genj…”

“Yes, you are, Sakura,” Tsunade snapped. “It’s an order. You use anything you have on this man. He is my most important asset and I want him out in the field at the end of this week at the latest. Do you understand?”

Well, she did. And she did not. And she did not like this one bit. But the prospect of finally seeing Kakashi Sensei again and maybe, just maybe, be able to help him… she would do it.

***

He looked… just as she remembered him, and then again, not at all. Was it because he had changed or was it because she no longer saw things with the eyes of a clueless Genin? Apart from him looking at her with two dark eyes instead of just one, everything was there. The unruly silver hair, the crinkly smile that lit up his eyes, the mask that hid the rest… but also a very muscular, lean body, only barely hidden by a sleeveless shirt, his long fingers not half-concealed by gloves. And… a red tattoo, shimmering in the artificial light like it was alive.

Sakura racked her brain, trying to remember whether she had ever seen him sleeveless before, wouldn’t she have had to, in so many years and on so many missions? It looked new though. She was old enough to know what these kind of marks meant on a Shinobi’s body. And this one, it looked like a seal, not just a tattoo.

She was also old enough to know he would not answer a single question about it. And she was certain Tsunade was deliberately rubbing this in her face. Her most important asset. Special operations. S-ranked missions or who knew, something even more demanding. No wonder she had not been able to find him. Was he even still living in his small apartment in the West of Konoha? Or in some military facility she knew for a fact existed, in the underground.

Seeing him was… exhilarating. To see his smile made her heart jump in joy. In her imagination, she had seen him crippled or dead, or, when she had forced herself to think happy thoughts, so in love with a woman he had forgotten his previous life and everybody in it. But here he was, a most capable Jonin, doing what too few were still capable of doing. Defending Konoha so that she, that all of them and their families could feel safe.

Sakura, who would have described herself as confident woman, felt awkward around him because of it. Would he not begrudge them this? People wanting comfortable lives while he put his life on the line every day?

It did not seem the case. Kakashi Sensei praised her, making her blush like a girl. He smiled at her, congratulated her on her horrible marriage. There was a certain sadness in him, hidden right behind his smiles, but that was it. All else was… normal. They even talked like normal people. Had they ever done that before?

At one stage she was tempted to try and catch a glimpse of his face underneath the mask like during their Team 7 days, but she knew how much it meant to him to hide it for whatever strange reasons, so she turned her head away to let him eat in private. It pleased her immensely that he liked her food. She hadn’t cooked for anyone in very long and she had felt self-conscious about the meagerness of it, but he seemed content, looking at her from the bed with a languid expression that was so him.

“Would you like to sleep?” she asked him, like she would ask any patient.

He shook his head, still looking.

“Tsunade sent you?” he asked.

Sakura nodded.

“She is a very smart woman,” Kakashi murmured, looking at his hands, flexing his fingers again.

Do not in any case let him perform any jutsu, Tsunade had repeated more than once. The Hokage had tied Kakashi Sensei with strong chakra suppressing chains just to make extra sure he could not unleash his powers. Sakura suddenly felt very nervous, watching him move his fingers like this. He was incredibly fast, she remembered very well. She moved closer to the bed, as if that would help at all to prevent him.

Kakashi looked up. “I understand,” he said, “you have nothing to fear from me, I assure you.”

Sakura nodded. There was not another person in the world she felt safer with.

“You want to examine me?” Kakashi asked.

Sakura nodded again.

Kakashi sighed a little. “What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing,” she replied quickly. “But I will have to… touch you.”

A look of amusement came into his eyes. “If it’s only that…”

It won’t be only that, Sakura thought, but she was sure he knew this. She had lessened the force of Tsunade’s chains for Kakashi to be able to move, at least if he did it slowly. He was currently peeling himself out of his blanket, swinging his long legs over the side of the bed in order to sit there.

“Will this do?”

Sakura swallowed. He was tall. Logically, he had always been, but she had never quite realized how much taller and stronger he was than her. Even with chakra suppressing chains around his limbs, he exuded an awe inspiring presence.

And he was damn handsome, mask or not.

Blame spring or her extended husband-less stage for noticing it, but whatever the reason, it would not do. He was a patient and as a doctor, she knew better than to be distracted by the bodies of her patients. She put her mind in the right mood easily and stepped closer. His eyes were of a very dark grey, so dark they almost appeared black. Dealing with only one of his eyes had been easier, she thought, but that thought was snuffed out deliberately when she lifted her hands to place them on his temples.

His skin was very warm, maybe a bit too warm. Was he running a fever? She made a mental note to check later.

“Will you trust me?” she asked a bit breathless.

He nodded.

“I will have to use Genjutsu,” she explained though she was certain he already knew that.

“I trust you, Sakura,” he said and for inexplicable reasons, the way he said it made her heart contract painfully for a moment.

“Look at me,” she demanded. He complied, though she saw the minuscule tightening of his mouth the small twitch of his eyelids. Had he ever before let anyone do Genjutsu on him willingly like this? His dark eyes settled on hers. She recognized the fear in them, though he was trying to hide it skillfully.

Eyes were the door into the mind. Someone who had wielded a Sharingan for so long would know even better than her what it meant to use it to suggest thoughts and actions to a target, forcing them to divulge information or act in a particular way.

“The less you resist, the quicker it is over,” she whispered. She really did not want to force herself into his mind.

A small nod. He probably did not know what a Jonin at his level could do to a doctor like her if he chose to resist. Or maybe he did.

“I want to get out of here,” he whispered, “I hate hospitals.”

Yes, indeed. There was several nicknames for this man. Copy Ninja. Hero of the Sharingan. Cold-blooded Kakashi. Even more ugly ones. But also: Konoha’s most difficult patient. For someone who hated them so much, he sure spent a lot of time in hospitals.

***

“Seals?”

Now Sakura could smell it. The Hokage had indulged with little restraint. It was not even 4 o’clock yet, but her speech was slurred and her skin flushed and the entire office reeked of her favorite sake.

“Did he resist?”

“Only a little,” Sakura replied, suppressing a shudder. She would refuse to do it again. It was horrifying to use these kind of techniques on a friend and what she had seen.... She had been veritably happy to be stopped by sealed walls almost as soon as she had entered her Sensei’s mind.

“Then you need to break the seals next.”

“What?”

Tsunade nodded. “It’s not good,” she added gravely.

It wasn’t, Sakura had to admit it too. Either Kakashi Sensei had sealed his own mind and had forgotten about it or somebody else had, which could mean all kinds of sinister things. For example, enemy Shinobis had hidden special commands in his mind to unleash him on Konoha when the time came.

“I cannot do that.”

“Cannot? Or do not want to,” Tsunade observed with slitted eyes.

It was a bit of both. “He is very strong,” Sakura began to explain. “I’m afraid that when I prod him too much, he might… lash out.”

“I bound him.”

“You cannot keep him this way for long,” Sakura said, “and you know it. You could damage his chakra permanently.”

“Dammit,” Tsunade swore and shook one of the bottles on her desk.

“You need to free him. You cannot keep him down there either, it’s very unhealthy to live underground like this.”

“Free him!” Tsunade shouted, making Sakura jump. “Are you out of your mind! He could be a frigging time bomb ready to destroy us all!”

“I promise to watch him closely,” Sakura said, feeling a bit desperate.

“How is that going to help us,” Tsunade growled, “he will just kill you first.”

“No,” Sakura said, shaking her head slowly, “I know he would never do that.”

“You have a lot of faith in that man,” Tsunade scoffed, though Sakura saw that she was thinking about her proposal.

“How are you going to watch him?” she then asked. “And what are we going to do about the seals?”

“He can stay with me for a few days. While I work on a solution. Together with him.”

Tsunade began to protest, but Sakura cut her off. “Hokage-sama, listen to me. He is one of our best. Of course he would know a solution. We would be stupid not to ask him. He will be very cooperative.”

Tsunade snorted. “Certainly. He’d do anything to be out of the hospital.”

Sakura nodded excitedly. “Exactly! And he certainly does not want to return. How many days will you give me? It will work, I am certain!”

Tsunade bit her lip. “You would take a strange man home with you?”

“He isn’t a stranger to me at all!” Sakura protested. “He is my Sensei!”

Tsunade looked at her askance. “I can’t argue with that. But Hatake Kakashi is also…”

What? Sakura waited for the Hokage to finish her sentence, but the busty woman did not. Instead, she said: “I need both of you in your positions again as soon as possible. Three days? No, that is probably too little. Five. Five days.”

“Thank you Hokage-sama!” Sakura shouted. How unexpectedly easy!

“Hey! You will check in regularly with me, do you…”

“Yes, Hokage-sama!”

And thus, Sakura ended up walking through the streets of Konoha with Kakashi Sensei in tow the next day. She was so excited, so nervous she thought she’d explode, but nobody seemed to notice anything strange, people hardly even looked their way and when they did, they just greeted them with reverence.

Kakashi had his hands buried in the pockets of his blue trousers and sauntered along leisurely, like they were not on a very tight clock to set that head of his straight. He had insisted on wearing an old Konoha flak jacket, not the “useless new design with no pockets” and Sakura had had to sit on her hands not to start chewing her nails, it would take ages to find one! But no, quite miraculously, Yamato had conjured up such a model within minutes and it even fit her Sensei perfectly. Luckily, Kakashi Sensei had not considered the new boots useless, those he put on without batting an eye. Gloves, headband, he had soon looked just like he always had. A backpack with a change of clothes and other utilities, that, too, Yamato had ready in an almost suspiciously short time.

It did cross Sakura’s mind that it went all a bit too smoothly, but maybe Tsunade was just too eager to get rid of him, before he could destroy his hospital room again.

But the closer they got to her and Sasuke’s apartment, the more nervous Sakura felt. Taking home a possibly lethal ninja suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea anymore, now that her brain was thinking about the details of this arrangement. What had Tsunade wanted to say? But Hatake Kakashi is also…

“Sensei?” she asked, her voice much higher than normal from nervousness, which greatly annoyed her, “we need to go grocery shopping before going up. There is no food.”

“Oh?” he said and lifted his eyebrows a little, like he could not imagine a more boring piece of information.

His complete disinterest vexed her, but she better get used to his ways again. She had forgotten that he could be very infuriating and she was pretty certain she recalled correctly that he had always become much more infuriating as soon as anyone in Team 7 had shown they were affected by his ways. Five days suddenly didn’t seem short but very long.

Once inside the grocery store however, Kakashi carried the basket for her and even looked at the fruits on display with something that could pass as mildly interested. Sakura bought rice, some fresh udon noodles, vegetables, some apples and a bit of pork belly. Then she went back for milk and yogurt.

“Anything else you want, Sensei?” she asked her ninja shadow, whose drooping eyes made her tired by just looking at them.

“Tabacco,” he said.

“Sensei, you don’t smoke!” she exclaimed in shock.

“I don’t?” he mused, scratching his head. “I think I do. At least occasionally.”

“It’s not good for you,” she scolded him, but bought what he pointed at anyway.

“And would you like some alcohol too while we’re at it?” she scoffed.

“Yes,” he said with a deadpan face, taking her by surprise.

“You can’t drink in your current condition,” she said, “there are quite a few tablets Hokage Tsunade has told me you need to take.”

“Pah,” he scoffed and she was quite sure there was a pout under that mask of his.

“I pay,” he told her at the check-out, which she considered a pleasant surprise, until she realized he did not have to pay anything at all. The woman simply bowed to him and packed the things up much more neatly than she had ever done for Sakura.

“What was that?” Sakura whispered when they were outside.

“Shinobi ways,” Kakashi said mysteriously and smiled.

Maybe the woman owed him something, Sakura thought, watching his smug expression from the side. But how was that possible? She narrowed her eyes. What was he up to?

“Want me to carry it?” he asked.

Sakura glanced down, realizing she had grabbed all the groceries, leaving him with nothing to carry.

“N… no,” she stammered, not even sure why she felt embarrassed, “we’re already here. It’s on the top floor. A little hot in the summer, but it’s not summer yet and the light is really beautiful especially in the evenings and if you put your head out of the window…” she was babbling. “Sasuke is currently not here,” she blurted out, “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Yes, I know what kind of mission he’s on,” Kakashi replied curtly and put his head back to look up at the roof.

He did?

“Oh,” she said, but did not know what else to say. She did not. She had no clue where her husband was or for how long he would stay away this time and this Jonin who was never in Konoha when she went to look for him knew? Briefly she wondered whether… but Sasuke definitely had no tattoo. She would know that, wouldn’t she?

“The keys are in my bag,” she snapped.

Kakashi turned to look at her but didn’t move.

“Take them out?” she suggested.

“You want me to…” he eyed the bag dangling from her shoulder with apprehension.

“I don’t believe this,” Sakura muttered. “Here!” she said and pressed the two bags into his arms to get the keys out.

“I know better than to venture into unknown territory without proper preparation,” she heard him murmur behind her on the stairs and despite the irritation that she still felt, she had to laugh.

“Do you think my bag is boobytrapped?” she joked.

“It’s possible,” he replied drily.

She was out of breath at the top, he not at all. Was that the Shinobi way too? Be heavily injured and in hospital one day and still race up stairs the next without breaking a sweat?

“You’re out of form,” he observed in that matter-of-fact way of his, briefly sweeping his dark eyes over her body as if to check for excess weight.

“Try working sixteen hour shifts at the hospital and stay in shape,” she muttered, wishing he’d trip and fall, and turned the key in the lock.

“This is it,” she said stepping forward, “it’s not much. But it will do.”

“It’s fine,” he said and, maybe realizing he had pissed her off, he added a polite enough “thank you.”

She put the groceries on the kitchen counter after grabbing them from his arms and stowed away what needed to go in the fridge. Checking the clock - almost 2 pm - she filled two glasses of water and stepped out into the living room.

Kakashi was bent over the “Sakura-hime” cushion Sasuke had given her for their third anniversary, studying it closely. Slamming the water on the table, she rushed over to grab it off the sofa in mortification and hide it against her chest.

“Interesting choice of picture,” Kakashi commented with a snicker and turned around to have a look at the view.

One of the reasons she had insisted they take this apartment despite its relative smallness was the view of the Hokage mountain. On nice afternoons like this one, their faces were very clear and it seemed like they were looking straight at them. Sasuke had indulged her, though he had said he hated their stupid faces. To this day, she was often not sure he meant what he said.

“Impressive,” Kakashi said.

They stood there for a while in silence and looked at their previous village leaders, and when Sakura snuck a glimpse at her Sensei’s face, it was entirely still and tranquil. She looked at it a bit longer than was polite, but it fascinated her how despite the mask that covered so much, it revealed a lot about his state of mind.

“It is a nice apartment,” Kakashi Sensei finally said and turned to her with a crinkly smile.

“We do not have a guest room,” Sakura confessed, “I was thinking you could…” she was about to offer him her bedroom, not that she had thought about it long enough.

“Here will do,” Kakashi said and flopped down on the sofa.

“It’s too small,” Sakura feared.

“Hard grounds, small sofas, large soft beds… it’s all the same to me,” he said, yawned, put his hands underneath his head and closed his eyes. “Do not worry,” he murmured sleepily, “I will be out of your hair in no time.”

“Sensei,” she said, “if you run away before we have fixed what is wrong with your memories, Tsunade will punish me most horribly.”

“Why would I run away,” he said languidly, “it’s not often that I’m invited to sleepovers with old friends.”

Why was her heart starting to beat faster?

“Sensei, please, don’t get the wrong idea, I…”

He opened his eyes to look at her. “No, I’m not getting the wrong idea. But maybe you are, so let me be clear: I am truly very grateful you got me out of there. And I will do anything it takes to not go back.”

She nodded anxiously, but he had already closed his eyes again. Sakura looked at her guest for a while, unsure what to do next. He did not move again. Only his chest rose and fell regularly.

He had fallen asleep. Just like that, like he did not have a care in the world.

But she saw it, the telltale sign of worry between his brows. After the little she had seen inside his mind, she was surprised he was able to sleep at all.

 

Chapter Text

The blackness was absolute. The only things able to emerge from it were nameless shadows with no substance, soundless and deadly.

The liquid dripping from the ceiling caressed his skin like the fingers of ghosts.

He turned his face upwards, opening his mouth.

When was the last time he had had sustenance? These deaths could give him life.

The blood of the innocent and the blood of the guilty tasted exactly the same. But it did not weigh the same. Whereas the blood of the guilty was light and could be washed off with time, the blood of the innocent was heavy and lingered forever. It clung to the soul and dragged it down until it was crushed by it.

Only those with no souls were the ones who could be victorious.

Not long and his would stop clinging onto him so stubbornly as well.

The darkness came at him with no warning, when he lost his grip on wakefulness.

A thousand needles, piercing deep, where it hurt the most.

A thousand knives, each cutting to the bone.

A thousand shadow clones ripping out pieces of his flesh.

To die would have been a blessing.

Why could he not forget his name and be forever done with it?

“Kakashi Sensei?”

He attacked instantly.

Moving this fast turned his surroundings into a dizzying blur of color and light. Without the Sharingan, the tunnel vision was terrible - and yet, he recognized pink hair and a flash of green eyes right before his kunai reached her throat. Shock lacing through him, he dropped his weapon while pivoting his body to the side in midair, leaving himself wide open for a counterattack.

She defended herself. Lightning quick, Sakura struck three, four, five pressure points on his chest with her extended index fingers. Numbing pain blossomed outwards from where her chakra ripped into his vital organs as he was thrown backwards onto the sofa.

“Sensei!” Sakura cried, “oh no, oh no! What have I done!”

Remarkable, Kakashi thought as his heart stopped and his vision began to darken, just how good she had become. His match even? She had potential for the next Hokage.

Just as quickly as she had wielded deadly force, her hands transformed themselves into healing tools, sending strong bursts of chakra into his body. Mere moments after, the blood began pounding through his restored veins, air returned to his lungs. Death still did not want him.

“I just reacted, I did not… Sensei, I...”

He grabbed her hand and pressed it briefly.

“Drop the Sensei,” he whispered. Clearly, he had outlived that role. The honorifics had never sat well with him anyway.

“Sens… how… I am so, so…”

“It’s fine, Sakura,” he urged her, his voice gaining strength, “I almost killed you. I am sorry.”

“You were having a very bad dream,” she said and now he saw the tears glistening in her eyes with an upsurge of guilt, “I wanted to wake you up. And then… it happened too fast.”

Her lower lips was quivering as she bravely held back her tears. She must be so shocked. Now that he realized fully what had almost happened, his breath wanted to stop again.

There could be no doubt, he had to leave. This very moment.

It had never been remotely proper that he had come here, but his justified curiosity to see what game Tsunade was playing easily outweighed the meager sense of propriety he possessed. Now that he knew he was a threat to her like this, he had to make sure to remove himself from her vicinity.

Only, he did not want to leave. Her hands were still sending chakra into his body, even when it had to be clear to her that she had reversed all the damage and he was completely fine. It was so warm, so comforting, like soaking in a hot bath after a difficult mission, like being tucked in bed while it stormed outside, like… the embrace of a loved person after a very bad day.

“I made some coffee,” Sakura said in a small voice. She stopped applying chakra, regrettably, but this whole disaster must have cost her so much energy already, how could he be selfish and wish for more? He sat up quickly, noticing she threw him worried glances from the side as if she could not shake feeling guilty.

“Exactly what I need,” he said evenly and smiled at her, making sure his voice did not betray how much he himself was shaken.

Turning his face away, he took very small sips of the scaldingly hot coffee she served him in a large, blue mug and tried to focus his mind. It was around 5 pm, he guessed after checking the light outside, so he had slept for almost three hours, effectively wasting a lot of her precious time.

“I am ready,” he said after three more sips, putting down the mug and facing her. She must have realized how hard it was for him to let her perform Genjutsu, but his sensitivities were inconsequential in this situation.

“Sensei, I…,” she still looked much too spooked.

“Drop the Sensei,” he repeated, “and if I say I am ready, I am. Let’s get this done. I cannot stay here for much longer.”

She frowned, then nodded reluctantly. “No Genjutsu this time, I am not skilled enough. I will just ask you a few questions to find out what you remember and what you don’t remember to find a pattern.”

Not skilled enough? That was a lie. He had hardly felt anything when she had entered his mind the day before, which was scary enough. Sparing him the sensation a second time was done for his sake only and this realization just made it much clearer to him that he had no business here.

“What is the last thing you remember, Sensei?” she asked with her gentle voice, though obviously finding it difficult to look him into the eyes.

“Having a nightmare and almost cutting your throat after waking up,” he began, thinking she might never feel comfortable enough around him to address him more casually than as her teacher. “Oh, and suffering for it rightfully, though I’d have deserved much more. Before, I looked at Hokage Mountain with you. Before we went grocery shopping, before, I put on my clothes in that hospital. Before, you came to get me out. Before, I was… I was interrogated by Yamato. Before, I woke up in chains with Lady Tsunade in the room. Before…”

Blank. A mission? It would have had to be. He frowned, racking his brain for anything that made sense, coming up with absolutely nothing. It was like staring at a wall of very thick fog hiding what was behind it completely.

“Take your time,” Sakura said.

He remembered dying. But that had to be a dream? He looked at his hands, flexing his fingers. Did he remember all the jutsu he had previously known? He ran through them in his mind, it was a very long list.

“I do not remember losing my Sharingan,” he told her, though saying it out loud was strangely embarrassing.

“Do you remember the 4th Shinobi World War? You commanded the Third Division.”

Glimpses. Maybe. But his dreams were always so violent, how could he be sure these were real memories? He thought it more honest to shake his head.

“Be glad,” Sakura said quietly and sounded so sad, Kakashi instinctively took her hand to give some comfort. She tensed immediately at the contact of their skin so he dropped it, scolding himself for such pointless gestures that did not respect the necessary boundaries.

“Let’s try and find out the last thing you remember?” she suggested, forcing her mouth into a tight-lipped smile.

Was he making her this uncomfortable? She was probably afraid of him after he had attacked her, Kakashi thought with some trepidation, which made his resolve to leave grow once more.

“You don’t need to do this, Sakura,” he told her firmly, “I can go back. I know that you…”

“No,” she cut him off. “No, I trust you. I should know better than to touch a sleeping Jonin, especially one who...”

One who... what? He sighed. One who was so bad he let people come close enough to touch him in his sleep?

“How often do you have bad dreams?” she asked carefully. “It’s okay if you do not want to answer,” she quickly added.

“Then I won’t answer,” he said lightly and smiled again.

The hell he would tell her that he had never had any good dreams in his entire life, as far as he remembered. It would not help recover his memories and he knew she would react shocked and with sympathy - and she was already much too kind and nice to him as it were.

She frowned at him, but was looking at him more directly. He knew she was feisty by nature and not timid, so this was progress.

“Who is watching your dogs while you're gone?”

Dogs? Oh yes, his Ninken. “My… girlfriend?” That didn’t sound right, he thought as his lips formed the words. His dogs didn’t even need to be watched, all he ever did was summon them, they were fully self-sufficient.

“You have a girlfriend?” she sounded truly astonished.

“Wouldn't I have?” he asked back.

“Is it... Anko?”

Anko Mitarashi! He smiled fondly at the memories. Girlfriend was probably the wrong word, but they had had a very good time together. Ages ago.

“It is?” Sakura sounded incredulous and Kakashi lifted his eyebrows in amusement.

“Sakura,” he said, “I do not think that doctors usually take an interest in their patient’s private lives.”

She blushed crimson red and he instantly regretted embarrassing her. As if he was behaving like a normal patient. Sitting in a married woman’s living room when her husband wasn’t around.

“We saw you two together before the Chunin exams,” Sakura explained hastily, “I thought it would be good to see whether you remember.”

“Yes, I do remember. You were tiny, awkward squirts back then”, he laughed, “I am still surprised all of you passed!”

Thinking about Anko distracted him. How was she doing, he wondered? Another world war could only mean one thing... too many dead bodies. But from Sakura’s reaction, he could guess Anko was still alive, which was a relief.

“So you remember all that,” Sasuke said, sounding thoughtful. “Do you remember Sasuke joining Orochimaru?”

Of course he did.

“And you know where he is. So it’s not like you do not remember anything after the war. It’s just like… some things have been erased.”

“What did you see when you used Genjutsu?” Kakashi asked Sakura, thinking that dancing around the truth did nobody a favor, least himself.

“Seals,” she admitted.

Seals.

Seals?!

Kakashi began ripping his clothes off as fast as he could.

“What are you doing?” Sakura squealed, but he could not pay attention to her sensitivities now. How stupid he was. Of course there would be seals, it was the first thing they used to check for after retrieving prisoners from their enemies. Juinjutsu was the go-to technique of whom they were up against, why had nobody thought of this before?

“You have to help me check for curse seals,” he urged her. “Use your chakra.”

“Curse…,” she gasped, “but Sensei, who would...?”

“Look for a strange mark,” he said, frantically starting to look himself, “anything that looks off.”

“But couldn’t they also be…”

“Just look!” he bellowed. Of course they could be hidden, only activating when the one applying the seal wanted it activated, but he did not want to think of that possibility right now.

Her shaking hands danced over his skin. Not fast enough. Not fast enough! He would have to do it himself.

Gritting his teeth, feeling such a repulsion he thought he might have to throw up, he stormed into the direction of where he guessed the bathroom was.

***

Her heart pounding very fast, her hands knotted in her lap, Sakura stared at the door he had slammed shut behind himself with such force, it might as well have shattered all the glass in her apartment.

Obviously, taking home a lethal ninja had been the mistake she had briefly thought it was. He was… very unstable. Tsunade must have known this. So why had she let her do it with hardly any resistance?

Slowly, Sakura pushed herself up and went to the kitchen on shaking legs. Feeling bitter at not counting much in the greater scheme of things wouldn’t help at all, she knew that. She took out her favorite glass with the silly smiling cats from the cabinet, opened the fridge and looked for the lemonade she had made a few days ago.

It was much too sour and she scrunched her face up as a reaction.

There were no marks on Kakashi Sensei’s body, at least not on the part she had gotten to see and… she briefly shuddered at the thought, but that was probably just the lemonade… touch. And indeed, no marks, not even on his upper arm. Just warm, slightly tanned, impeccable skin.

So that red tattoo she had noticed in the hospital, it was a seal like she had suspected. One that only activated under special circumstances. But it was not Juinjutsu, which was done against the will of the wearer most of the time. It was Fūinjutsu, she was quite certain. But what was it sealing in? And why was it disguised as a black ops mark? Kakashi had not seen surprised to see that tattoo in the hospital, so he knew he had it. Maybe he had just forgotten what it was for. Or he knew it and could not speak about it?

Sakura stiffened when she heard him open the bathroom door. His soft footsteps crossed the living room. Then, a window was opened swiftly and… silence.

Oh no.

Jumping into action, she raced into the living room herself - which was empty. A gentle wind was blowing through the open window, bringing with it the faint scent of cherry blossoms.

Tsunade would rip her head off. Or much worse.

Hastily, Sakura climbed out on the ledge, very briefly feeling dizziness wash over her before she sternly reminded herself she was a trained ninja who most certainly felt no vertigo. Gingerly, she climbed upwards to see whether she could at least guess where he had gone… and found Kakashi sitting at the top, smoking a cigarette he must have had among his belongings, one leg dangling, the other tucked up for him to rest his chin on, looking in her direction with an unreadable expression behind his mask.

“Oh,” she said, feeling very glad he had not left. He had put his sleeveless shirt back on was wearing his trousers all properly.

“I have… never been up here,” she said, awkwardly pulling herself up next to him.

Kakashi said nothing, just moved over a little and turned his head away to look towards Hokage Mountain. He was tense, she could see it, tense and unhappy. In the light of the slowly setting sun, he looked very young, barely older than her and for a very brief moment, she found herself transported back to those days, the days before the Chunin exams. It had been so… carefree, at least for her, before they had met Orochimaru in the forest for the first time, before the mess with Sasuke and Orochimaru’s Cursed Seal of Heaven. But she realized it had never been carefree for this man.

At almost forty years of age, and after serving in two Shinobi world wars, a Jonin should no longer have to go on so many active missions. They should be able to proctor exams, occasionally teach chunins and otherwise enjoy life with their families. What sad fate that circumstances did not allow such well-deserved leisure.

Sakura did remember being curious about Kakashi’s life when they had been under his tutelage. But he was a very private man, not sharing even the tiniest bit of information. For a while, Naruto had put a lot of energy into uncovering his face, but to no avail. It had been in the course of this that they had seen him going into an ice cream place with Anko. She remembered how much that had excited her. She wanted her Sensei to be happy!

Ah… Sakura understood why Kakashi Sensei’s mind had suddenly veered off in such a strange direction. Anko! As one of Orochimaru’s students, she also wore the Cursed Seal of Heaven.

“Do you want to go see Anko-san?” she asked him, thinking she had to encourage this. If his missions were anything like Sasuke’s, he stayed away for months.

He said nothing, not giving any indication he had even heard her.

“Would she not be waiting?” she added. Too nosy, dammit! she scolded herself, he had already made it clear he did not want to talk about his relationships, what was she thinking?

“Most definitely not,” he replied curtly.

Oh? What did that mean? She looked at him to see whether he looked regretful, but he did not. They had broken up? It had never been anything… more than a fling? Why was she so… curious?

“You do not have to make me feel better,” he told her with a sigh. “You have already done much more than you should.”

“But Sensei, there is no curse seal, am I right?”

He sighed again. “You are right, I could not find anything either. But the mere thought triggered a very deep seated fear in me. Don’t you think it’s something to explore further?”

A fear? He had never had a curse seal though, or did he? Should she ask him about the tattoo?

“The only seal I am sure you have is…” she pointed at his arm.

He glanced at the spot where it had been visible and nodded in agreement. There it was again, she was certain: He knew exactly what that mark meant and how he had gotten it.

“Besides, Orochimaru is dead,” Sakura ventured on.

“He is not,” Kakashi Sensei said with such authority she stared at him in surprise.

“Just forget all this,” he added with a small smile, “we will do our best to keep danger away from the village so that everybody here can live the lives they deserve.”

“What danger, Sensei?” she blurted out. It had not escaped her notice how worried Tsunade looked lately. So it was something concrete! But of course… it would be classified.

“I told you to forget it,” Kakashi said. “Can you break the seals?”

“Sensei…”

“I know you can,” he said and looked straight at her, the intensity of his eyes giving her a little start. “You tend to understate your talents, but you have grown very powerful over the years. Your defense before…”

His eyes dropped to her hands and for a brief moment, she felt like pulling them away, thinking he might grab them otherwise, but he just looked, making her blush all over.

“... I wish I still had my Sharingan,” he sighed.

“You keep saying that,” Sakura said with a frown, “but Sensei, you are by no means the worse Shinobi without it.”

Kakashi laughed. “It gives me relief to see that goodness remains in this world and I may tell myself that I had a little part in it.”

“A large part!” she retorted, blushing even more deeply when he looked up, seemingly surprised.

“It is true, Sensei,” she stammered, “I always wanted to become as strong and righteous as you.”

“As me?” he snorted. “I remember you being focused on one person, which in the end turned out to be exactly what you needed to become strong.”

“Oh, you mean Sasuke?”

It was true, Sakura mused, she had been extremely obsessed with Sasuke for many, many years, but that did not mean her Sensei had not left an equally important impression.

“Whom else could I mean,” he chuckled. “Though I remember telling you many times that being predictable is not a good trait for a Shinobi.”

Was he talking about her getting married to her childhood crush? Kakashi stubbed out the cigarette and flicked it off the roof. She frowned.

“Sorry,” he said, noticing it. “I’ll go get it.”

“N… no,” Sakura hurried to say, still feeling a bit precarious this high up and rather glad he was next to her, certainly capable of catching her should she fall. “It’s alright.”

“Will you remove the seals?” he asked again, sounding more urgent.

There were so many things that could go wrong, she didn’t even know where to begin thinking about the risks.

“Yes,” she said before she could start thinking about them.

Her answer seemed to be exactly what he had needed to hear. Now truly smiling for the first time after being shocked awake by her touch, he sprang up. His hair looked aflame for a short moment as the last ray of sunshine sneaking in from behind the mountain lit it up in its red-golden light.

“S… sit down,” she squeaked in horror, imagining all kinds of horrible scenarios of him falling down and dying, but that was just silly. He was capable of walking across roofs on his little fingers with no danger to himself.

“You are so out of shape,” he said viciously and pulled her up by the hands before she could prevent it. Vertigo overcame her and in panic, she grabbed onto what was near - him, throwing her hands around his midriff, instantly feeling… safe.

“Come on,” he said into her ear, his arms tightening around her in turn for a brief moment, “Haruno, I taught you better, didn’t I?”

And he pushed her away from himself with force, making her fall backwards, her heart in her throat for a short, heartstopping moment… grabbing her hand and pulling her along as he began running, her feet slipping, then finding traction, racing across the rooftops, faster and faster, making her feel… so alive.

She laughed breathlessly as her body remembered everything and her chakra focused more and more effortlessly on the soles of her feet.

He was testing her limits, gradually upping his speed. She did not think she could ever be as fast as him, but she would push herself to go faster, just to make him smile at her all pleased.

He jumped, she followed his lead. Another jump, further, more forceful, and she tried to land as featherlight and soundless as him, not like a ton of bricks, which would only scare the inhabitants of Konoha who were probably cooking dinner below them.

Sakura threw him a look from the side. No, he was mistaken if he thought she had only ever noticed Sasuke. There was no other Shinobi that compared to Hatake Kakashi. It wasn’t only his immense skills and fabled talent. It was the whole package. The mystery. The devotion. The fierce loyalty.

But she had been a girl back then, not capable of anything but shallow crushes. Now she was that no longer. And as they slowed down, returned to the rooftop of her apartment, her cheeks red from the wind and the exhilaration she felt, she wondered.

How different would her life be, had she met Hatake Kakashi for the first time as an adult?

 

Chapter Text

It was one of the most basic human needs to be loved. A gentle touch, an encouraging smile, a few friendly words... it did not take much to make you feel like you belonged and only a little more to become thoroughly addicted to touches, smiles, and words.

But with being loved came the wish to love back, to value somebody else more than yourself. It was one of the greatest weaknesses an elite shinobi had to overcome in order to be a blade that could be wielded with the necessary precision and mercilessness.

And yet, the most meaningful deaths Kakashi had ever witnessed had all been the sacrifices of people who loved someone more than themselves. Those memories lingered and a foolish part of him yearned to be like them. A lifetime of solitude in the service of Konoha, was it enough?

Yes. It had to be enough. The foolish part could be kept at bay fairly easily. He knew too well how devastating it was to lose those you had grown attached to, those who gave you the warm feelings of belonging. Repeated grief... it shattered the world and you never fully recovered from it.

But even during his darkest hours, he had retained some of his humanity, despite those who had tried to take it from him. He was glad about it on this day, on Konoha's rooftops - because how else could he have felt happy to have returned confidence and joy to someone who deserved it? And yet, his foolish side knew that forming attachments was not something he could afford. Even if Tsunade, with her keen eye for lonely hearts, was thinking him fool enough to forget this most basic rule. It should have vexed him greatly to be considered so predictable, but the situation he found himself in intrigued him enough to wait quietly and see what she would try to do next.

Until then: Just feel warm a little longer. A gentle smile, take it and remember it in that place of darkness you must return to again.

***

Here they were, standing on the rooftop in the fading light of this strange day, smiling at each other. It felt ... it felt so right even if Sakura knew very well that thinking she would love to run over rooftops with him more often was probably not so right.

"Let me cook something," she said, still happily bathing in her adrenaline and endorphin high, just as he said "Can I buy you something for dinner?" at the very same time.

There was a small pause, during which she waited for him to say something more. Only, he didn't, he just continued that signature smile of his that was incredibly disarming, even if you weren't armed at all.

"Those udon noodles we bought don't keep long, they're fresh," she said, regretting that she was so frugal. She would have liked to take him up on his offer, but letting food go bad? She could not do that.

"If you let me help?" he shrugged and lithely slid down the side of the roof that led to her apartment, disappearing from view with an elegant jump dive.

Show off.

She grinned and followed after him a bit more slowly, no need to overdo it after already using so much chakra today.

Kakashi waited at the open window, extending his hand to help her in. The gesture was probably nothing special, but it did seem very gallant to Sakura. No wonder, at the hospital, there was nobody who had time to spare for something like it, always rushing from this room to the next to prevent death. As she gripped his fingers tightly to climb in, Sakura noticed he had put on his blue Shinobi shirt over the one with no sleeves and it was already buttoned up. Remarkably fast.

Fifteen minutes later, she felt like screaming in annoyance because he was so very slow. Very carefully, he cut each piece of vegetable into perfect tiny squares and arranged them prettily on a series of plates. Snow peas, shimeji mushrooms, corn kernels, fresh bean sprouts - yes, those too! - spinach, tomatoes.

"Why don't you gi..." she attempted to take the cutting board and knife from him to speed things up, but "I'm almost done," he assured her, half-turning to block off her hand and continuing his very slow progress with a look of concentration on his half-hidden face.

Could it be due to her mounting impatience that she grabbed that very expensive sake from the cupboard next? It had been given to her by the grateful family of a patient a few years ago, when a treatment she had suggested worked a miracle. Ever since, it had wasted away behind the surplus rice and other stored goods, only occasionally making an appearance in her mind as sad, abandoned bottle she had no use for, giving her a mild pang of misplaced guilt.

After dusting the large bottle off and studying the label though she knew nothing about alcohol, Sakura decided to open it.

"That one should be chilled," Kakashi said from where he sat, without even looking up. "Bring it here."

And before she could tell him that Tsunade had made it clearer than clear that she should not allow him to use any Jutsu as long as it wasn't known what afflicted him, he had performed the necessary hand signs to send a burst of ice into the bottle, briefly cooling the entire room.

How irritating. Could he not jutsu-cut the vegetables too!?

She went to the cupboard to get out the two brown sake cups with the pretty cherry blossom design she knew she owned, thinking it would be extremely rude not to offer him any. But that just reminded her... taking only one out and putting it down next to the bottle, she went to the entrance to get the pill dispensers from her bag. And because that brought her near the bathroom, she decided to use this opportunity to relieve herself, it was high time.

As soon as she had closed the door, she wanted to die from embarrassment. All her intimate belongings were on full display! Birth control pills. Sanitary pads. Make up. And worst of all, her underwear that she had hung up to dry the day before, some of it rather revealing - because she had decided that those needed washing too, even though she never got to wear it.

Silently screeching, she quickly took it all down and stowed away her personal belongings where he could no longer see them. She also took out two towels and a washcloth for her guest and put it on the sofa for him to use later.

Back in the kitchen, she noticed he was done with his tiny vegetable cubes. Finally! Putting down the pills in front of him, she said: "You need to take those."

He frowned deeply.

"Tsunade said so," Sakura added, using a stern doctor's voice.

Kakashi lifted up the transparent pill dispenser and looked at them, probably counting them like her. Eight pieces. A day. That was a lot, Sakura thought. What were they for? He seemed healthy enough, she had checked his body after she had almost killed him, there was nothing amiss and though he had depleted his chakra during his previous mission, he was certainly gaining it back quickly too.

"No," he said with emphasis and put the pills down on the table.

Oh, great. Konoha's most difficult patient was sitting in her kitchen and refused to take his medication. What now?

"But you have to!" she tried her luck.

"What are you going to do about it?" Kakashi murmured and gave the container a hard push with his fingers.

She could have said send you back to the hospital, but that seemed like a mean and pointless threat to make because she did not plan to do that. Or she could have said I will let you starve, but that seemed very cruel too.

So she said: "I will drink this whole bottle of sake myself if you do not take them."

Which was... just stupid. She had told him he couldn't drink because of the medication. And now she was saying he could drink if he took his medication?

"Oh, you will?" he said slowly, a mischievous gleam coming into his eyes. "It will be my pleasure to watch you do it."

"Why won't you just do what you're told!" she exclaimed, feeling stupid, grabbing the plates in front of him and walking over to the stove, where the stock for the soup was boiling. She started to throw his tiny cubes in with a deliberate lack of gratefulness for his meticulous handiwork.

Realizing the next moment he was standing right behind her looking over her shoulder, she suppressed a scream.

"Don't... sneak up on me like this!" she exclaimed, her heart beating very fast.

"Sorry," he said evenly and not sounding sorry at all, "it's hard to change one's habits at my age. But the soup is boiling too hard, this will spoil the vegetables."

Now he was a cooking expert? If he took that long to cut things, he would never get a single dish done! Pressing her lips together angrily, she turned down the heat.

"Why did you not cook the noodles first?" he asked, picking up the udon package from the counter and looking at its white, fat contents. "And did you not buy pork belly too?"

Was he criticising her?!

"Yes, I bought pork belly, but you might remember, we were running around outside until recently, so I haven't had time to..."

"Alright, alright," he said smoothly and grinned down at her, "I was just asking. Let me take care of the pork belly while you... sit over there and drink a whole bottle of sake."

Ah, he was obviously enjoying himself. And she had lost so thoroughly, with not even a chance to get him to take these pills. Sitting down with an angry huff, she decided to let him struggle with the soup alone, what did she care.

After filling her cup, she began sipping steadily just to prove to him she had no issue drinking a whole bottle by herself. Though frankly, she hadn't had anything to drink in months and just the one little cup was going to her head pretty fast. How strong was sake anyway? She tried to see whether it was indicated on the label but she couldn't make it out.

"Do you have eggs?" he asked.

"In the fridge," she replied curtly, watching him rummage through its contents, taking out two eggs and white miso paste. Had he cut the vegetables so slowly to vex her? Watching him move around quite swiftly, checking her cupboards and drawers for things he needed, she came to the conclusion that it was possible. It started to smell very good. So he did know what he was doing, huh.

"Mirin?" he asked, throwing her a glance over his shoulder.

"Don't have it," she murmured. She never used enough of it and it went bad.

"There's a lot of sake to go," he commented, pointing at the bottle, "you should speed up a little."

Definitely enjoying himself. She filled her cup again and drank it down, immediately filling it a third time and a fourth time.

"You should take your medication," she told him, "there must be a good reason why Tsunade gave me those pills for you."

"Probably," he agreed, but continued doing this and that without seeming inclined to humor her.

"We could share this sake," she said, "and you take the pills afterwards."

"Hm, I suppose I could," he said, briefly slowing down his movements. So he was listening? Hopeful, she got up to get the second cup out of the cupboard, shoving him aside with her hip.

Had she just done that?!

She went on her tiptoes and reached up but he was faster, closing his finger around the cup just as she closed her fingers... around his fingers.

She froze.

"Is this a very valuable cup?" he asked with a smirk, "so that we need to take it down together?"

She blushed crimson red, letting go like she had touched the hot stove and for a brief moment, she considered running out of the kitchen to hide her burning face. But she was no little girl anymore, why was she so timid around him?

Murmuring encouragements to herself under her breath, she returned to the table and poured herself another cup.

"We share and then I take the pills," he said, "deal?"

The doctor in her screamed a big fat "no" at her, but the doctor in her was also already quite tipsy and didn't seem to care as much as she should. It had been a farce from the beginning anyway, how could anyone take a real patient home?

"Deal," she said and filled his cup to the rim.

"Kanpai!" he cheered and clinked his cup to hers, turning back to the stove happily, booty in hand.

I need to think, Sakura thought, because there was something bugging her, but this was easier thought than done. How many cups had she had?

"Kakashi Sen..."

"Drop the Sensei," he said.

The mere thought of calling him anything else gave her palpitations. And that... that was what bugged her... she acted strangely around him, like... like a schoolgirl with a crush.

Dammit.

It's because I'm attracted to him, she realized with an extensive flutter in her stomach. Well done, Haruno. You meet him again after this long and now you're crushing on him? You're a married woman!

This wasn't good. Watching this tall, handsome man move around in her tiny kitchen like he owned it did not help one bit. She noticed the fluidity of his movements, the energy of his presence and... she blushed again. Those trousers were very well cut.

A sneaking suspicion came over her.

Tsunade. What if she had already put substances into the water? It would most certainly explain her state of confusion! Kakashi didn't seem affected at all though, paying her no undue attention whatsoever. Was it because only she had drunk unboiled tap water? Or.. why should he be, she thought with a rueful shake of her head, he probably had no lack of women throwing themselves at him.

"You're doing well," he said at her ear, scaring her into another tiny squeal. "But you're skittish," he observed and took the bottle to fill his cup again.

And then, he sat down, stretching his long legs to the side and resting his chin on his interlocked hands to watch the pots. She was getting hungrier by the second. Not much longer and she would be salivating.

The table in the kitchen was very small, but it fit nicely against the wall, leaving enough room to move about and she often had her breakfast here, the light was lovely in the mornings. There were two proper chairs to each side and one stool at the slightly longer edge for the unlikely case that three people would want to sit in this cramped space. Since everything was so small, he was sitting very close to her and all she could do was stare helplessly from the side at his masked face, thinking that his nose looked like a fine nose and that she could see the contours of his lips this way.

"So," he said, "what do you think it is?"

"What... is?" she gulped, blinking rapidly.

"Tsunade's plan," he said grimly, turning his dark eyes on her.

Babies, Sakura thought with another flutter in her stomach, she wants babies, many Hatake babies, little Jonin as good as you...

"Sakura?" Kakashi asked with a slight frown.

"Y...yes?"

"Share your suspicions with me. I have a few myself, but I am unsure."

"Ba...," she blurted out before she could stop herself, but her mouth did not get to finish forming the words because he sprang up at a hissing sound from the stove. Liquid from one of the pots had boiled over and he quickly put it to rights before turning his attention back to her.

"You were saying? Bait? Who is bait?" he sat back down and she continued her staring, thinking he really had not aged at all. What kind of diet was he normally on? Her eyes fell on the pills in front of them.

"Those," she said to distract herself, but also because she suddenly had an inkling why there were so many. She knew of the existence of soldier enhancement pills, though the details of those were classified. An elite ninja nearing forty years of age with no retirement in sight...

"The pills?" he asked surprised, shifting his eyes to the pill dispensers too.

"She knows I will be able to make you take them," she lied, "and that is of the utmost importance."

"You think so?" he wondered, looking rather puzzled. And so very cute with that tousled silver hair of his that she felt like ruffling. Sakura hit her forehead with her hand to jolt that brain of hers out of its current mode.

"Do you have another idea?" he said and bent forward, eager to hear about it.

"Those are soldier enhancement pills," she said, "am I right?" Not that she knew much about these kind of drugs, apart from the fact that they existed.

He looked down at them again. "Hm," he mused, "maybe... Yes, they could be."

"You know that it's dangerous to take them for too long?" she snapped, tapping into the anger that stirred in her all of a sudden, thinking anger would save her mind from going to places it should not go. "These pills leave you utterly exhausted and if you're unlucky, dying."

"Then I must be lucky because I'm not dead yet," he said and smiled. "But you are right. I should take them."

No, don't! she wanted to tell him, but that would not do. He probably needed them.

He got up to take a glass out of the cupboard, filling it with water to the rim. Why the trepidation? She looked on helplessly, feeling trapped and manipulated. And then she closed her eyes for a bit because she was feeling extremely dizzy.

"Here," he said and when she opened her eyes, he had put a bowl of steaming and deliciously smelling soup in front of her, "eat. And stop drinking sake or you'll feel sick tomorrow."

Chopsticks and a spoon he put on the table too and a paper napkin, all things he must have found going through her kitchen cupboards while she had sat here useless and increasingly drunk.

"Are you not eating?" she pressed out.

"Afterwards," he said, making a small gesture with his chin towards the pills, "maybe."

The tone of his voice was neutral, but she still saw it very clearly - her Sensei wanted to step back into his shell. It had always been there, hiding who he really was very efficiently. There had been a time she had thought it would be nice to be able to break that shell and see what it was hiding. But she had come to the conclusion that people had a right to their shells and it was no business of hers to meddle with their need for reclusiveness.

Was it something to be proud of, that he had briefly come out of his to take her out of hers? Or should she be afraid... afraid that the lonely comfort her shell had afforded her all these years could become useless going forward because she now knew just how lonely it had been - and that there was a happiness outside that was not hers to crave.

A single moment of happiness could change it all, even if it was already gone, maybe never to return.

***

Eight pills. They were all small and of an overall brownish color, but with some variation in their hue, two of them glittering metallic in the warm artificial light of Sakura's living room. Kakashi had no recollection at all what they were for and he couldn't even be sure he had ever known, but as a shinobi of Konoha, he could not refuse his Hokage's order to take them.

He should not even question his superior's motives, shouldn't he.

And yet, here he sat and looked at the pills for the longest time as if that could help him decide what to do next. Maybe Sakura was right. Maybe there was no grand plan. Maybe Tsunade had really asked Sakura to help because she believed his former student could persuade him to do what he would naturally be reluctant to do.

Eight pills.

Just like 361, the overall number of pressure points on a human's body, eight was a meaningful number to him. A jonin's overall ability was proportional to his ability to control, conserve and focus his chakra, nothing more and nothing less. Some had more, some had less, some were more talented, some less so, some worked harder, some not so hard.

But there was a limit to the amount of chakra any individual could release. The number of special tenketsu on a person's Chakra Pathway System to make a body weaker than it could be, the protection mechanism to make sure it would not expire too soon was eight.

Opening the Eight Gates was a feat only very few Shinobi had ever mastered. If it worked, they briefly became the most powerful beings in the universe. Usually, it resulted in their death.

Kakashi opened the pill dispenser. The only way to find out what these pills were for was to swallow them.

With a sigh, he closed it again. If his suspicion was correct and these pills would affect his Gates, he would not want to sit around in Sakura's living room after taking them. So he better made sure she was alright first.

He got up quietly and went back into the kitchen.

Sakura's head was on the table, her arms hanging down by her sides. The smell of sake mixed with the scent of cold udon soup made him feel a little guilty. He should have stopped her from drinking so much alcohol. But then again, she was a grown woman now, fully capable of her own decisions.

She had cleaned out her bowl, he saw, and that made him smile quite unexpectedly. He had not cooked for many people in his life. That she had liked the soup pleased him a lot.

"Sakura," he said softly, careful not to startle her.

There was no sign of waking.

"Sakura," he said a little louder.

Had she passed out? His eyes checked the level of alcohol in the bottle and that made it clear that indeed, she must have: It was empty. What time was it? Around eleven? He had sat in that living room for a long time staring at those pills and she had not budged from the kitchen, maybe out of consideration for him. Drinking the entire bottle. What a silly woman.

"I told you you'd get a headache," he said, but wasn't she a very skilled medical professional? She could probably heal a headache without even thinking about it.

Kakashi looked at her still form, unsure whether to shake her awake or leave her be. The position she was in looked uncomfortable, not least because one of her cheeks was resting on top of her spoon. Her pink hair was covering most of her face. When he had first become her teacher, she had worn it very long - too long for a shinobi, but he had not considered it his duty to tell her that, she had to realize herself. And indeed, she had cut her own hair during the Chunin exams, leaving her timid self behind her, never growing it back. Now, it was still a very practical ear-length befitting someone in her line of work, a red hairband where she had once worn her forehead protector.

She was not having a peaceful sleep. Maybe he should move her.

But first, he took the bowl from the table and cleaned up the kitchen, storing the leftover soup in the fridge. He was hungry, but now was not the time to eat. He did not try to be particularly quiet, hoping she would wake up and walk to her bed - but she did not.

And so he found himself looking at her again not much later. Her breath had moved some of the hair aside, making visible the diamond shaped Strength of a Hundred Seal on her forehead. Her chakra control had always been extremely good, but she had surpassed all his expectations. He only knew two people who had mastered this technique: Tsunade and Sakura. How long had it taken her to form the seal? It was formed by storing vast amounts of chakra over an extended period of time into a specific point on the body, allowing the user to perform complicated techniques without any wasted energy.

"I am going to lift you up," he told her, hoping that would be sufficient to prevent any defensive reactions from her.

Carefully, he took her by the shoulders and righted her, only to have her head fall backwards, having him scramble to catch it with his right arm. She mumbled something, but she was still out. Lowering himself, he slid his left arm underneath her knees.

Kakashi lifted her up effortlessly, adjusting his arms so that she would be comfortable as he straightened himself. She mumbled something again and turned her face against his chest, probably to protect her eyes from the light. Stepping out of the kitchen and switching off the lights with his elbow in passing, he carried her towards what had to be the bedroom.

It was almost entirely dark inside, the blinds were lowered, but thanks to his keen senses he did not need any light to orient himself. Apart from a very large wardrobe and a mirror, there only was a large bed - and her scent. The room smelled of Sakura so much he was briefly taken aback - but why should it not. It was where she lived and where she spent her nights, so of course it would smell of her.

There was only one side of the bed that looked used, so that was where he put her down, making sure her head came to rest on the pillow. It was not yet hot in Konoha, which had him feel around for a blanket to put over her so she would not wake from being too cold later, taking off her pink rabbit slippers in the process.

Not that he could see them now, but he had noticed when they had come in, making him smile in secret. They were cute, like her.

She seemed comfortable enough, he assured himself and then tiptoed out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Back on the sofa, he opened the pill dispenser and put the first into his mouth without any further ado.

Disgusting.

Quickly, he washed it down with a large quantity of water.

 

Chapter Text

Sakura was having a very pleasant dream.

In a garden full of newly budded trees and bright pink flowers, she was standing in someone's safe embrace, her face deeply buried in his shirt, her arms tight around his body. There was sunlight and warmth but it wasn't too hot yet, a light breeze was rustling the leaves around them, gently wafting over the top of her head, almost like a hand leisurely ruffling her hair. He said something to her and chuckled, his voice rumbling in his chest like distant thunder, making her think of a cat’s purring, of scratching it behind the ears to make it shut its eyes in lazy pleasure.

It was enough to just stand here and be held like this. She never wanted it to stop, this feeling of bliss and happiness.

But how silly she was. For who in Konoha was able to have dreams this pleasant without eventually being reminded of the horrors of war?

The sound of the siren burst her dream bubble like a deadly kunai. Jerking awake, she was briefly disoriented, feeling lost in time, not remembering where she was in the darkness that surrounded her. But that moment only lasted for a few seconds. The 6-second high-tone, 6-second low tone raid warning sent a bolt of adrenaline through her, followed by a wave of dread.

A barrier breach? Who could…

It took her only two more seconds to realize that she was not alone in her room. She wanted to scream, but a large hand was clasped over her mouth and nose with such force she was thrown backwards, a large weight pressing down on her.

“Where is he?” a hoarse voice rasped at her ear.

Dread was beginning to invade her entire being. She wanted to hit the intruder with all she had, but she could not gather her chakra. He had somehow managed to immobilize her hands and parts of her body. She could not see a thing either, as if she had been blindfolded. Outside, the sirens kept on blaring, danger! danger! Perimeter breach!

A nightmare, it had to be a nightmare.

Kuchi no In no Jutsu”, the intruder whispered, a jutsu that hit her tongue and rendered her mute. Let me go! She screamed in her head, hoping that focusing on anger would keep her sane. It was a nightmare, but she wasn’t asleep.

“So he’s not here,” the intruder continued speaking, now with his hand removed from her mouth, “we were misled!”

Despite her distress, Sakura felt relief. Kakashi Sensei must be safe. Feeling a sudden burst of hope, she tried once more to fight whatever was keeping her down. The result was disheartening.

“Quite the body you’ve got”, the stranger snarled, “wiggle, wiggle, I like it when you squirm.”

He was moving closer, from his mouth came a disgusting smell, like rotten fish, but his Jutsu made it even impossible to gag properly. He touched her face with rough fingertips, beginning to hum under his breath.

“Ripe and juicy,” he chuckled.

And then, his hands began touching her where no uninvited hands should ever go. Kneading her breasts through the fabric of her dress, groping between her legs, his humming intensifying as her nausea surged.

No, no, no, the words formed in her head, please, no. No.

He pulled apart the fabric of her dress, his large hands hot and sticky on her exposed skin, impatiently pushing her bra out of the way. She wished she would black out so that she did not have to witness this invasion of her body, but no such reprieve was given her. If anything, her head cleared by the second.

“You Uchiha whore”, he said, pinching her nipples hard and painfully, “do you like this? Hmmmmmm.”

His one hand travelled down her body, sneaking underneath the elastic band of her trousers, pulling them down roughly, fumbling to remove the underwear too.

“Will you get wet for me?” he panted, moving his fingers down her slit, painfully ramming a finger into her. At least, it would probably be over quite soon, Sakura thought, judging from his rapid breathing, her assailant would not be able to hold back for long.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

The door had been opened, somebody shone a flashlight in and Sakura was finally able to see something, though it did her no good. There was a frightening Demon mask covering a tightly bandaged face in her field of vision. It belonged to a massive man hovering above her, wearing some kind of fur coat.

“Having myself a bit of fun,” her assailant chuckled. “Just look at her. Should the Uchiha be the only one to taste this fine piece of meat?”

The second man stepped closer. He was slimmer but wore a fanged Oni mask and fur clothes too, and she could see the large sword at his back. The design of the grip seemed vaguely familiar, but as much as she tried to remain as calm and rational as possible and force her mind to focus on such details to remember later, she could not fool herself. She was hanging on by a thread. An abyss of panic was one rough touch away.

“We don’t have the time, we must retreat,” but despite his words, his eyes fixated on her body, took in her bare breasts, moved down to stare at her exposed womanhood.

“You can have a go too,” the first man smirked, “but I go first.”

“Alright,” the second man grunted, letting one hand disappear into his trousers to stroke himself while watching.

The first laughed and stood up to take off his trousers, exposing himself and his gigantic arousal to her. She should have closed her eyes, but not even that seemed possible anymore. She could deal with the aftermath, she told herself to keep the panic at bay a little longer. She was strong. It was just flesh, a body, a vessel - they could not really hurt her.

The man grabbed her knees and pushed her legs apart. “Hmmmmmm,” he salivated, climbing onto the bed, positioning himself to penetrate her.

It was the last sound he ever uttered.

“Shiden,” Kakashi yelled and a purple light so bright it temporarily blinded her flared up, accompanied by the crackling and chirping sound of concentrated lightning. Her almost rapist’s head flew off at the swipe of Kakashi’s hand, a gush of blood hitting her when his body was thrown against the wall so violently a crack formed from floor to ceiling. Even before it could hit to floor, Kakashi had already ripped the second man’s heart out and threw his twitching, dying body on top of the other. Spitting in their direction with an expression of utter disdain, he extinguished the sizzling lightning in his hand and turned to her.

“Sakura,” he said, his voice hoarse, “Sakura, I am sorry I'm late.”

He sat down on the edge of the bed, his blood stained hands righting her clothes, pulling up her pants, wrapping her in a blanket, gathering her close.

“I will bring you to the hospital,” he said, the suppressed anger in his voice chilling to behold.

“No,” she managed to say, “nothing happened. Nothing happened. There is no need.”

Too much had happened, but she would be fine, had to be fine, even if she could still feel those rough hands on her, inside of her, disgust beginning to shake her.

“Shhh,” he said, holding her a little tighter, stroking her hair, “I am here. I’ve got you.”

Her doctor’s brain realized she was going into shock. Her breath came in fast, rapid bursts and she was beginning to shake. A wave of dizziness washed over her and she retched helplessly. Kakashi’s fingers grasped her arm under the blanket, finding her wrist, pressing down on a pressure point, then another, almost painfully hard, but very effective.

“Are you… a medical-nin now,” she gasped, already feeling a little better. Oxygen was returning to her lungs and to her brain. She would be alright. Nothing had happened. She was only badly shaken. They were dead. They could no longer hurt her.

“I only know how to ensure soldiers can fight until the very end,” he said grimly and hugged her close again.

Silly her, she did not want to appear weak in front of him, like she had too many times as a teenager. But when he said “cry if you need to cry”, she could no longer hold it in. The sobs that started to shake her body came from a place deep within her, a vulnerable, frightened place, and they did not want to stop for a long time because crying did bring relief sometimes, but never lessened the fears that resided in there.

“The… sirens… have stopped,” she finally managed to say after no more water was willing to flow out of her eyes, snuggling a little closer to him because that was the only way she could feel safe.

He nodded. “I need to go and repo…”

“No!” she gasped in panic, grabbing his body with both arms, “please don’t go.”

He winced at the contact, though it sounded muffled, like he tried to hide it from her.

“Oh no,” Sakura whispered, “Kakashi Sensei, are you hurt?”

It was so dark in here, she still could not see a thing, but her fumbling hands did not need light to realize from the warmth and the stickiness he was bleeding profoundly from a wound on his arm.

“Oh no, oh no,” she said, starting to sob again.

“I’ll be fine,” he pressed out, trying to dislodge her hands, “don’t spend any of your chakra on me.”

Now that she was focused on it, Sakura became aware of the stench of blood in her bedroom. It was so thick, it made her gag, but the doctor in her scoffed at her weakness. She, too, was covered in her assailant’s drying blood and the bed… she shuddered.

Out. She had to get out of here.

“Come,” she told Kakashi, knowing that leaving his embrace would be hard, but trying to let her voice be firm and steady, “let’s go into the living room, I cannot stay here.”

He let go of her and stood up, complying with her wish immediately. Deeply embarrassed about the state of undress he had found her in, she hugged the blanket closer. She almost fell when she tried to stand up, her legs were shaking too much, but he caught her by the arm.

“I will bring you to a hospital,” he said alarmed.

“No. Your wound needs treatment now,” she informed him and gently removed his hand from her arm, “how long have you been bleeding like this? It’s very deep. I will have to check your arteries for damage and I hope… I hope you haven’t lost too much blood yet.”

“Fine,” he murmured and walked behind her into the living room.

Sakura hesitated ever so briefly before switching on the lights. She felt an irrational fear that being able to see things would make everything worse, but the living room looked like it always had. There was a breeze from the open window, not unpleasant, bringing with it the faint smell of blossoms.

Him though…

“Sensei!” she exclaimed, rushing to his side to pull him into a sitting position, “you are not fine!”

He looked like death warmed over, pale like a ghost, his eyes almost falling shut, likely from depletion of chakra. He was drenched in blood, even his hair was red. And his eyes… she bent over him to have a better look. They were strangely red too, almost as if… he closed them in exhaustion before she could confirm what she had foolishly thought.

“I am very, very sorry,” he murmured.

“Sorry?” she scoffed, trying to open his shirt, but her hands were shaking too much, the buttons kept slipping from her fingers, “what would you be sorry for still?”

“For leaving you alone,” he said, opening his heavy-lidded eyes.

They were dark grey as always... of course. But she was so surprised by this sweet, earnest, yet completely silly statement, she blurted out laughing. Sorry for leaving her alone! Her! Like he had nothing better to do when the village was attacked!

His words resonating in her head, she couldn’t stop laughing like a madwoman. And then she cried. And then she realized she had dropped the blanket earlier and blushed the deepest red, feeling exposed again even though her clothes were covering all her body parts. She would apologize to him later. What a silly cow she was. She should have been able to fend these men off herself. She should have fought back harder, screamed earlier, be more on her guard.

During her various outbursts, Kakashi just sat there, looking so tired and worn out she could barely stand to look at him.

“Take off your shirt,” she ordered him to feel in control of the situation again.

He did, though his movements were sluggish and his eyes were constantly trying to fall shut. Once the wound was exposed, she recognized it was a sword cut and he was lucky he still had an arm. She put her hands on top of it and began to apply healing chakra, looking for damage in his bones, arteries, muscle tissue, fixing it all. His arm would be as good as new once she was done, maybe better.

Doing the work she did well calmed her down considerably and returned a fraction of her confidence to her. With relief she saw that Kakashi was gaining back some color in his face. At least one crisis was averted.

“Rin,” he whispered.

“What?” Sakura asked, leaning closer.

“No… I'm sorry,” he said, his eyes opening just a fraction, “but you're so much like her. I’m worried.”

Was he delirious? She lifted her hand to take his temperature. Burning hot. Dammit. She tired to locate the source of the fever, but couldn’t determine what was causing it. Suddenly remembering she had wanted to check for a fever after touching his skin at the hospital, she worried even more. This man needed rest. Weeks of it. Which probably meant locking him up somewhere he could not run away. Exactly what Lady Tsunade has wanted to do. Looking at the bright red tattoo with an angry frown, she stood up. Why was that thing visible again?

Kakashi’s eyes were shut for good, his head resting on the back of the sofa, his breathing regular and deep. There was blood on her sofa too now and blood on the towels she had put there for him. Should she wake him so that he could wash? He needed to put on new clothes too.

Sakura looked for his backpack, which stood in the corner. He wouldn’t mind her going through the contents, would he? She found underwear, black trousers and a shirt in there, they looked comfy and… she drew out a well-thumbed Icha Icha book with a red cover.

Seeing this remnant of the past instantly brought tears to her eyes again. After Master Jiraiya’s death, no more Icha Icha books would be written... how sad was it that Kakashi Sensei still read the old ones? Quickly putting the book back, Sakura fled into the bathroom. The face looking back at her from the mirror was hers, even though her eyes were red from crying and the corners of her mouth looked like little weights were trying to pull them down.

Forcing herself to smile at her reflection, she peeled herself out of her clothes, throwing them into the wash basket, trying not to think, not to feel. She stepped into the shower and turned the heat up as much as she knew she could stand. With the water drumming down, she forced herself to look at her body, to touch her breasts, rub her nipples, her belly, and move her finger between her legs. But it was like she had gone entirely numb. She felt nothing, only disgust at herself.

Sakura furiously scrubbed her skin with a sponge until it was almost as red as the blood that had been spilled tonight.

***

When finally returned to the living room dressed in a bathrobe with her favorite pajamas underneath, Kakashi had not budged. His face looked surprisingly peaceful, given how much blood was on it. The tattoo, she immediately noticed, had almost disappeared again, only a faint afterglow remained visible. She had promised to break the seals in his head and she would - but first, she had to ask him about this tattoo-seal. If it was anything like the seal on Naruto’s body, it was keeping something in and whatever it was, she needed to know about it before she tried to let things out.

Before she could get closer to have another look at it, a soft plop-plop-plop-plop on the roof made her go on high alert. Kakashi jerked awake, but relaxed again in an instant.

“Ours,” he said and pushed himself up to go to the window.

Sakura’s heart was beating much too fast and for a short moment, the masked faces that appeared in the darkness of the night scared her beyond reason. But there were no Oni masks, only white porcelain animal masks and the swords on these people’s backs were far shorter than the ones her assailants had carried.

“Can I invite them in?” Kakashi asked her. “I need a word.”

“Y… yes,” she stammered. It was four of them, Anbu black ops, members of Konoha’s special operations branch, hand picked by the village leader, their identities a secret to anybody else. At Kakashi’s hand sign, three of the four climbed in, with one staying outside on the ledge as a guard.

“At ease,” Kakashi told them when they stood at attention.

“Sensei,” the foremost who was wearing a frog mask said, “we are at fault. Without you…nobody saw them coming. Are you…,” falling silent, he took in Kakashi’s bloodied state. He was of medium height, with brownish, short-cut hair. Maybe she knew him. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t want to know.

“I am fine,” Kakashi brushed away that man’s concern. Yeah, right, Sakura snorted silently. If I had not forced you to take care of your own wound, you wouldn’t be standing right now.

The conversation between the men had already moved on and she stepped a little closer to hear better.

“There has to be an insider,” Kakashi was just saying. “The sensing barrier cannot be breached this effortlessly. We must investigate the Barrier Team.”

“I fear so too, and I think...” the frog-masked man fell quiet abruptly, becoming aware of Sakura standing there staring at them. She shuddered at how menacing his eyes behind that mask were. Elite assassins, known to be cruel and heartless.

“I vouch for her,” Kakashi said, realizing why the Anbu operative had stopped talking after a side-glance. “She is under my protection.”

Frog-mask seemed unconvinced. Sakura shrugged and walked away, pulling a face when she was sure the Anbu man could not see it. Her hearing was good, she would be able to understand them from further away too.

“She is the Uchiha’s wife,” the frog-mask said and whatever he associated with it, it clearly was nothing good. Even after so many years, Sasuke was not particularly loved in the village. Traitor was about the most friendly word that had been used behind their backs when they walked in the streets.

“Report to Lady Tsunade that I am needed here for a little longer,” Kakashi said, obviously considering it unnecessary to comment on frog-mask’s statement. “I’ll be coming in to report in the morning.”

“Yes, sir, understood,” the frosh-masked Anbu said, looking in Sakura’s direction again.

“Ah. I killed two of them in the bedroom,” Kakashi said grimly, which had one of the silent ones bolt towards the bedroom to check. Sakura closed her eyes as the door was opened. She could not stomach to see even a glimpse of the ruins of her once favorite room.

“Remarkable. We weren’t able to apprehend a single one of them for questioning,” frosh-mask lamented, “most fled, some self-destructed, a special jutsu.”

“Collect the bodies immediately and keep them in a secret spot,” Kakashi ordered, “there might be clues and we do not want a potential clean-up team to find and eliminate them.”

The Anbu nodded, then dropped his voice, but Sakura could still hear him clearly. “Why did they come here, Sensei?”

What had they said? We were misled.

“Sasuke,” she said.

The men all turned their head in her direction.

“They were looking for Sasuke.”

Not Kakashi. Sasuke. Her husband who was always on secret missions. How had she not realized earlier?

“That’s unlikely,” the frosh-mask Anbu sneered. “Nobody would be stupid enough to think he’s here.”

He had a point there, Sakura thought grimly. Ever since his crimes against the village, Sasuke stayed as far away as he could. “To atone for his sins,” Naruto had once told her. “You can thank Kakashi Sensei he’s not been declared a missing-nin and banished forever.”

The frosh-mask made a step towards her. “Are you perchance pregnant?” he asked rudely.

W…. what? “No!” she exclaimed, feeling too flabbergasted to react more appropriately, which would be to hit him in the face and kick him out the window.

“Are you sure?” he dared ask.

“Of course I’m sure!” she yelled, stepping forward, hands balled into tight fists, “you incredibly rude…”

“Hey! Cut it out and mind your manners,” Kakashi said sharply to him, lifting his hand as a barrier between her and the Anbu operative, who had also made a step in her direction.

“Why else would they come?” the frosh-mask said sullenly under his breath.

“Who is they?” Sakura demanded to know. “And what do they want with Sasuke?”

“Take the bodies and leave,” Kakashi told the Anbu detail, sounding rather angry, which did not escape the man’s notice. He cowered and began giving hasty instructions to his men, who began carrying out the bodies rather efficiently. Sakura stepped behind Kakashi’s back and closed her eyes, until she was sure they were gone. It became very quiet.

Kakashi sighed.

“I better take a shower,” he murmured and walked to the window to close it, quietly looking into the night for a moment.

“You… you don’t need to stay for my sake,” she said, because demanding this from him was pure selfishness. He had fought to protect Konoha and he had places to be, which did not include her wrecked apartment at three o’clock in the morning. Why had he even come back here?

“But I want to,” he replied simply and walked towards the bathroom. “May I?”

She scrambled to get him another towel and handed him his change of clothes in the process.

“I will wash your clothes for you,” she said timidly, “but I don’t sew well. Your jonin shirt… I think it’s ruined.”

He snorted and when she looked up, his eyes dance with quiet laughter.

“You do not need to wash and sew for me,” he said, “you are made for much better things.”

“Oh Sensei,” she said, feeling how tears rushed into her eyes again, “I am so sorry for what happened.”

“Hey,” he said and stepped closer. “Hey.”

He lifted his hand and placed it on top of her head, bending forward a little to look into her eyes.

“You have nothing, absolutely nothing to be sorry about,” he told her. “You did nothing wrong and could not have prevented any of this. And you do not need to feel embarrassed about it either. Do you hear me?”

She felt compelled to nod. How did he know what she was thinking? Was she being predictable again?

“And you do not need to be ashamed of your tears, Sakura,” he added, lifting his other hand to brush them away gently as they were sliding down her cheeks. “You are one of the bravest, most capable women I know. Do not doubt yourself. Be proud of who you are, always. Okay?”

And then he ruffled her hair, just like he had once done when she had been a stupid girl whose biggest goal in life had been to get Sasuke to notice her.

She was too stunned to reply and stood in front of the closed bathroom door for the longest time, listening to the sounds of the shower running, then stopping, the sound of his naked feet on the tiles, of him brushing his teeth. She was still standing there when he came out wearing the black clothes she had taken from his backpack, his hair damp and much flatter than usual, but returned to its silver state, his eyes crinkling when he beheld her.

“You have to get some sleep,” he told her. “But not standing up.”

“You too,” she hurriedly said, because she knew what he would say next. “You can keep lying about being fine, but I know better.”

“Ah, well,” he smiled and scratched the back of his head, “you did patch me up very expertly. And not for the first time.”

“And you saved my life again. Not for the first time.”

“It’s what we do,” he smiled and walked over to the sofa. “So…”

“You are going to offer me the sofa, but I will refuse,” she said, switching off the main light, only leaving the one in the corridor on, “and I will not change my mind. You will also not take it, which would just result in both you and me not being on the sofa, which is… stupid. So… we’re both going to use the sofa.”

He lifted his eyebrows at her. “I don’t think that’s…”

“It’s an excellent idea,” she said, “sit down.”

Before she could lose her sudden courage, she went over and pulled at his hand to seat him in the corner, quickly putting a pillow behind his head. Grabbing the discarded blanket from earlier and wrapping herself in it, she stretched herself out and put her head on his lap before he could protest.

He didn’t. He just stiffened a little, then let out a long deep breath.

“I can live with this arrangement,” he said quietly and she felt him relax into the comfort of the sofa.

And because his hand was just lying there next to her face, she grabbed it into both of hers and pulled it close, very close, to rest her cheek against.

Selfish. But he was here, warm and comforting, a little longer, until the morning. Why not hold him as long as she could?

“You know what,” he murmured almost inaudibly when she was already half asleep and unsure whether she was in fact dreaming, “I think I remember something. It was me who told them Sasuke is here.”

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi was having a very pleasant dream.

And because this was entirely new to him, he kept wondering what was going on, expecting either a surprise attack from behind the bushes or suspecting that he must have fallen prey to a very clever genjutsu. This managed to almost spoil the pleasantness, but while a part of him stayed alert and distrustful, the much bigger part gave in completely.

He was human after all, wasn’t he? And from time to time, humans needed to indulge.

His back was resting against a tree and he was stroking Sakura’s pink hair, but only very lightly so as to not wake her. She was cuddled up against his chest and when she exhaled, the burst of air coming from her mouth moved her fringe up a little, affording him glimpses of her beautiful face. Pakkun, an askance crown of flowers on his pudgy head, was slumbering happily in her arms, snoring like only dogs could snore, his front paws twitching erratically from time to time.

How Kakashi longed to kiss her as he watched the fringe move and observed the slight movements of her lips every time she drew a new breath.

It was quite the dilemma, because as much as he wanted to press his lips against hers, he also did not want to wake her. She had worked very hard with hardly any rest in the last few days, she deserved to sleep for many more hours.

The longing grew stronger though. He was normally relaxed and balanced, seldomly roused to extreme actions. But that also meant that once his emotions were stirred, he did not know how to temper himself.

He knew her lips were soft but demanding, capable of lighting a fire in him that took awhile to extinguish. She was always shy when they met again after some time but only until he managed to enrage her. He was glad that was easy, because he liked her feisty, slightly violent side by far the most. But even more than to touch his lips against hers, he liked to touch them against the velvet skin of her glorious body, liked to inhale that special scent of hers that made him think of a forest of pine trees after a sudden downpour in the midst of summer as he let his lips and tongue travel. If he had to choose, his favorite part was probably that cute little belly button where he…

“Are we having a pleasant dream?” a deep voice asked.

What the… “Pakkun?” Kakashi groaned, opening his eyes wide and lifting his head.

It was only just getting light outside, a gloomy sort of grayness indicating the day was not quite ready to start yet. He realized he was in Sakura’s apartment, on Sakura’s sofa, with Sakura’s head on his thigh. Well, Sakura and Sasuke’s apartment and Sakura and Sasuke’s sofa to be precise - and he had just had the kind of dream no man should have about a wife not his own.

Pakkun sat on the fauteuil near the bookshelf and yawned extensively, showing his formidable teeth.

“Pakkun,” Kakashi whispered, “what are you doing here?”

“Trying to find out why you are holding that woman like she’s a treasure,” the dog answered and looked at Sakura’s head with suspicion.

“I am not…,” Kakashi pulled away his hand that was resting on Sakura’s hair. After a brief moment of reflection, he put it back. He was talking to a dog. There was absolutely no need to justify any of his actions to a dog.

“He he,” Pakkun chuckled, “you are easier to handle early in the morning, I am making a mental note.”

“State your business,” Kakashi said sharply, thinking that he knew how to summon his ninken, but had no clue how to make them disappear again.

“Huh,” Pakkun remarked loudly, peering at his face, “do you need coffee?”

“Shhh,” Kakashi hissed. “Quiet.”

“You could really be a little nicer to me,” Pakkun began to complain, “you know how hard I had to work to find you? I was running all over Konoha, so exhausting! At first, I went to the Hokage Tower, thinking I would see you there, but only Lady Tsunade was in and she was in a foul mood! She even shouted at me even though I only asked where you where. And she forbid me to see Tonton!”

“Alright, alright,” Kakashi moaned, “Just be quiet!”

Thinking about what had almost happened the night before made his blood boil instantly. Luckily, this apartment had become unlivable for a while thanks to him using Chidori in a closed room. He would have to organize the cleaning crew today. And then find another place for Sakura to stay. A safer place near him so that he could make sure to protect her.

Chidori… Kakashi looked at his hand with a frown. No. He had developed a different technique and it was called Shiden. He had developed it because Chidori was almost unusable without a Sharingan and…

“Damn,” he said under his breath.

“And now you’re even swearing at me, oh woe, oh woe,” Pakkun lamented.

“Pakkun,” Kakashi said, “did I send you on an errand?”

“Yes of course you did!” Pakkun replied wide-eyed. “Why else would I be here, do you think I work for fun?”

Kakashi looked at Sakura’s head on his leg. Obviously, she was completely exhausted or else, she would already have woken up with all the ruckus the dog was causing. Very gently, he lifted her head and moved away to the side to stand up, slipping a pillow underneath her head in the process.

“Come to the kitchen with me,” he told Pakkun.

“I would prefer to leave soon, do you know how thick the blood smell is in here? It’s making me rather… edgy.”

“A dog with your intelligence should be able to control his baser instincts, shouldn't he?” Kakashi said and walked to the kitchen. He felt surprisingly good, considering what had happened the night before and there was no pain in his body, not something he could often boast.

For all his complaining, Pakkun followed him very obediently and climbed on the chair as soon as Kakashi had closed the door behind them. It still smelled of sake and udon soup in here and with a pang of regret after checking the softly ticking clock, Kakashi realized that only very few hours had passed since he had set foot in this apartment for the first time.

His regret came from the fact that it was unlikely he would be able to stay for many more. Great, he scolded himself as he tried to decide whether to go through the trouble of making coffee or not, did you think you could move in with her for good?

Pakkun was looking in his direction expectantly with his tongue hanging out.

“Do you want some pork belly?” Kakashi asked to buy himself some more time. It was damn early in the morning, his head wasn’t functioning properly. He never got up before 9am if he didn’t have to and it was only just passed 7am at the moment. If Tsunade was already at the Hokage Tower, this could only mean she had stayed up the whole night dealing with this mess they were in.

He would definitely delay going to see her for a few more hours. Because he suspected that a very large part of this mess had to do with him.

Kakashi opened the fridge and took out the pan with the rest of the udon soup, fishing out the pieces of pork belly left in it with a fork.

“Here,” he said, holding it in front of Pakkun’s snout, “for your troubles.”

Pakkun devoured everything within seconds, but a look of suspicion came over his pug face as he was swallowing down the last piece.

“Why are you so nice to me?”

“Pakkun,” Kakashi sighed and leaned back on the stove, “I have a problem.”

“The woman who uses my shampoo?” Pakkun asked eagerly.

Kakashi snorted. Yeah, right. It was exactly what he needed, a judgmental dog this early in the morning.

“I don’t remember.”

“Huh?” Pakkun asked, “what did you do to her?”

“Will you shut up!” Kakashi exclaimed. “It has nothing to do with her,” well… that was only partially true, but it was not what his biggest worry was right now. “I do not remember. I don’t remember anything I did after… Not sure when, but I don’t remember losing my sharingan.”

Pakkun made a worried face.

“Which is not entirely true, I do remember things,” Kakashi looked at his hand again, “and my body remembers things. I developed a new technique, didn’t I? It’s very effective and powerful.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Pakkun said, “several techniques. You were completely obsessed with it after losing the sharingan. You were unbearable for a long time but luckily, stayed on the training grounds for most of the time. You’re much nicer today so I am thinking...”

“What errand did I send you on?” Kakashi interrupted the dog’s musing.

“To find Sasuke, of course,” the pug replied immediately.

Kakashi stiffened. “Shit,” he said.

“Yes, it was a very hard task,” Pakkun nodded gravely.

So he had not dreamt it, Kakashi realized. He had remembered something while falling asleep and that was being held prisoner by people wearing Oni masks, just like the long extinct Prajñā Group from the Land of Woods had used to wear. But why had he told them that Sasuke had returned to Konoha when that was clearly a lie?

Well, maybe it was the whole point that he had lied, wasn’t it.

Kakashi sighed. He had to go see Tsunade. She should be able to fill in some of the blanks. At least he now had an inkling of what they were.

“... but now that I found him, I can go on holidays for a while, right?” Pakkun said.

“What?” Kakashi asked sharply.

“I found him. Obviously. That’s why I was looking for you. That’s why I’m here,” Pakkun said, sounding offended.

“Where?”

“He’s headed to Konoha as we speak.”

“Did I tell you why you had to find him?” Kakashi asked.

“No!” Pakkun exclaimed, “of course not! You never do. You just bark commands at me in a very unfriendly manner.”

Oh well. Kakashi put his hands into his pockets and looked up at the ceiling. He would have preferred to be better prepared for this, but it wasn’t like he had never had to deal with uncertainty in his life.

“Do you drink coffee?” he asked the dog and began rummaging through the cupboards for the necessary utensils.

“I prefer tea,” Pakkun said, “but since I am sure this is the first and last time you’re this nice to me, I’ll take a cup of the other stuff.”

“How are the others?” Kakashi thought it polite to ask. “How’s Bull doing?”

The largest of his ninken had always been his problem child. Never able to develop the ability to speak like the others, he was by far the most clingy of the pack and he had always looked at him with his large, sad eyes in the most heart wrenching way when he had to leave him.

“Frankly,” Pakkun replied, “he’s been eating too much. He’s very unfit. You should summon him more often. Or just take him on a walk with you, I think he’d like that - he’s so much like a normal dog. Maybe next time you go on a walk with that woman who uses my shampoo.”

Which would be never, Kakashi thought sullenly. Enough was enough. He could deal with untoward dreams, but it should be a warning.

“It’s that other woman,” Pakkung continued speaking, “Anko Mitarashi who has been feeding him too much.”

Huh.

“Is she… is she watching the pack when I’m not around?” Kakashi asked rather surprised and reminded of his earlier conversation with Sakura.

“No!” Pakkun exclaimed, “just how muddle-headed are you? But Bull took a liking to her many years ago and likes to hang out at her place because there is so much food!”

Kakashi sighed again. It really looked like he had some catching up to do. But first, he needed coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

***

Sakura expected to open her eyes and find Kakashi gone, that’s why she did not open her eyes for a very long time even though it seemed she heard somebody else in the room. When she could no longer pretend that this behavior would change anything about the situation, she opened her eyes after all.

There he sat. In an armchair to the left, one leg up, his chin resting on his knee, reading.

Not an Icha Icha book. But one she had written two years ago about the mental health needs of traumatized children.

She wanted to squeal from excitement and mortification at the same time, spring up and rip the book out of his hands and hide it in a secret drawer, but she lay very still instead and watched him through slitted eyes.

He wasn’t gone. He was very much here, in his black outfit that was something between a track suit and a pijama, hair restored to its normal messy state. He was here - when she knew for certain he should go and report to Lady Tsunade about what had happened the night before.

What had happened the night before? Foreign ninja had invaded Konoha even though that should not be possible. Two had died in her bedroom. They had been looking for Sasuke. Why? And was that their sole purpose?

But, if Kakashi was still here, the immediate crisis was over, she concluded, though she was quite certain this only applied to the short-term.

He seemed thoroughly engrossed in what he was reading, his eyes glued to the pages with utmost concentration - but he had always had the ability to read in all kinds of situations. Like when he was fighting off stupid little genin squirts who were thinking they stood a chance against a jonin like him.

Did he think what she had written was good? Sakura had always been unsure about that book or rather, knew a thousand things that she could have done better. It had been Ino who had forced her to finally publish it. To ensure she would be promoted and as a preparation for their grand idea… to open a mental health clinic just for children. Ah… the idea was so good, but somehow, they had gotten stuck, Sakura thought ruefully. She blamed the amount of work that had flooded her life like a tsunami. And Ino… Ino was blissfully happy in love with Sai, oblivious to the rest of the world. Sometimes, Sakura selfishly hoped that phase would end soon, but she felt guilty about it when she did. Wasn’t it ironic? She had married Sasuke, everybody’s crush back at the academy, the guy who had almost been able to end her and Ino’s friendship. But she wasn’t happy at all - whereas Ino was the happiest anybody could be.

“How are you feeling?” Kakashi asked and she almost squealed from surprise. His dark eyes were resting on her, not the book anymore, his gaze making her blush. Could that stop already? He closed to book and bent forward.

“I made coffee, do you want some?”

“Y… yes,” she stammered, scrambling into a sitting position. Could that stop too?

Kakashi got up smoothly and went to the kitchen, returning with a mug full of steaming coffee quickly.

“Thank you,” she said when he presented it to her.

“It’s your coffee I used,” he smiled, “no need to thank me for it.”

She stared at his face over the rim of the cup, feeling… like she had to address why she was blushing and stuttering in his presence because it was only getting worse. Soon, she would be entirely tongue-tied and red like a tomato.

“Sakura,” he sighed.

“Yes!” she exclaimed, “I fully understand that you need to leave now, you stayed as long as you possibly could. Tsunade is certainly most anxious to see you and…”

“Undoubtedly,” he interrupted her with a small frown. “She can wait a little longer.”

Sakura gasped, but of course. Kakashi made people wait, even the Hokage. Because he could. Because he was so important, people had no other choice but wait for him.

“Sakura,” he began again, “we have to talk.”

She nodded, feeling how her heart picked up speed. She would be entirely truthful, she told herself, there was no use in lying to someone as perceptive as him. She was a pragmatic person, most of the time, not prone to silly illusions… most of the time. Hm. Was that true? She had held out for Sasuke for so many years, even after he had tried to kill her. Maybe she was the queen of silly illusions, she thought with a sinking feeling. What good would it do to tell her former Sensei she was developing a massive crush on him?

Kakashi. She tried it out in her head. Kakashi. It should be okay if she just swallowed the Sensei before it came over her lips.

“Last night,” he began, but somehow, he seemed to lose track of what he had wanted to say, his frown deepening.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said quickly, thinking he must be embarrassed for her about what had almost happened.

“But I have to worry,” he said and sat down on the floor in front of her, “it is my job.”

She nodded again, not sure what else to do. Looking down on his upturned face was not something she was used to do and it managed to confuse her even more.

“Okay,” he began again, “let me be frank.”

Good. Frank was good, she thought.

“You are in danger,” he said. Then he took a deep breath. “Because of me. Apologizing to you will not change anything about this, so let’s just fix it. First, you will have to move after S…”

“What?” she burst out.

“We will make sure you’re in a safe location where we can guard you well.”

“But…”

“You will not be given a choice,” Kakashi said, “this is a matter that concerns the security of Konoha.”

Okay, now she was getting angry.

“Not given a choice? Who the heck do you think you are?” she yelled at him. “You cannot just come sweeping in and uproot my entire…”

“Sakura,” he interrupted, lifting his hand, “I am not done speaking yet.”

“I don’t care!” she shouted. “You know what I hate the most? Guys who do not talk and just assume they can do whatever they want and get away with it every-single-time! You at least owe me an…”

“Explanation? Yes, I was going to give it to you. At least as far as I can.”

Sakura wasn’t sure what was more irritating, his signature calmness or the fact that her outburst was completely irrational and stupid on top.

“I’m listening,” she said gruffly.

“Good,” he said and… smiled. Why the heck did he have to smile at her like this, as if he thought her emotional imbalance was cute?

“We have been trying to locate this particular cell of enemies for more than three years,” he began without further ado, “after Sasuke told us about them.”

She was certainly listening now.

“He could not tell you anything about his missions, because they are top secret S-rank,” Kakashi explained, maybe interpreting her expression as quiet hurt about her husband’s absence and secrecy. Yes, she was hurt, but that was of no consequence right now.

“And you can?” she snapped.

“I am breaking protocol,” Kakashi replied smoothly.

“What are they going to…”

“Don’t worry,” he smiled, “I will be able to deal with the consequences. My position comes with certain benefits.”

What position is that? She wanted to ask, but bit her tongue. If he was revealing classified information to her, he could be severely punished, that much she knew.

“What do they want?” she asked instead, though she already suspected what the answer would be.

“The Uchiha’s kekkei genkai, as you must have guessed,” the answer came.

Indeed, it was no surprise. In the history of their lands, there had been so many atrocities committed because of these bloodline traits. People with special genetic abilities had always been used and abused in times of war and suppressed and feared when there was no need to have fighting machines anymore. To her, the bloodline limits were a curse. Some clans went to extreme length to preserve the secrets of their special abilities, some others…

It suddenly dawned on her why the Anbu man had asked why she was pregnant.

“What would they have done to me if they had found me with child?” she asked bluntly.

Kakashi pressed his lips together.

“Tell me, I can take it.”

“They would have ripped the child out of you,” he said and to his credit, it seemed to pain him to say these words, “and would have taken the embryo to their own labs. Any Uchiha blood they can get is of immense value.”

Nausea swept over her and she had to take a couple of deep breath to calm herself down. Sasuke... he was still out there, alone, with these kind of people after him?

“It was them who took me prisoner,” Kakashi continued softly, “I remember that much.”

“What did they do to you?” she exclaimed though she already kinda knew. She had read his file, hadn’t she.

“Ah. Well,” he said and smiled again, though it did not manage to fool her in the least, “what you usually do when you get your hands on an elite enemy shinobi, I assume.”

“I wish you would all stop with this,” Sakura murmured disgusted, “can’t we just live in peace?”

He shrugged. Of course he would think this a matter of shrugging, the idiot. How many people she knew would willingly let themselves be captured and tortured just to manipulate a situation for a potential benefit?

“And what have we gained from this stunt of yours?” she challenged him. “You lied to them, didn’t you, to draw them out? Did they put the seals in your mind?”

Kakashi shrugged again, though now she clearly saw the discomfort. “I am not sure. It’s not unlikely.”

Great!

“I won’t touch them!” she hissed, “do you think I’m insane? Who knows what will happen once they’re removed!”

“I understand,” Kakashi nodded, “I’m going to see Tsunade about it. There has to be another way.”

“What about the pills?” Sakura demanded to know before her mind could ponder what those ‘other ways’ might be, “don’t tell me Kohona is doing drug experiments on people. Correction: on you, because most other people would not be stupid enough to agree to something like this.”

“Aren’t you the doctor here?” he asked back.

Was he suggesting she would know about such an unethical thing!? The likes of Orochimaru and Kabuto were the ones doing human experiments, she was certain Tsunade would never agree to something like it!

“Are you not telling me or do you not remember?” she asked sharply.

She looked into his eyes to see the truth, but there was nothing there to read. What did she expect? Kakashi knew how to keep secrets, most expertly his own. Maybe she was being unfair, but only a very naive kind of person would believe he did not know about those pills and everything else, including that seal-tattoo.

“What happened last night?” she asked when he kept silent. “You took those pills and then you went out and slaughtered an entire army of enemy shinobis by yourself with no regard for your own life? Are you suicidal?”

She might have spoken too bluntly, because what she had said did not please him. His eyes narrowed and his body stiffened.

“Careful,” he said and though it was spoken quietly, there was an implied threat that made her gut contract for a second.

And then he got up.

“This conversation is over,” he said, now looking down on her with a hardened expression she hated to see. “You know what you need to know.”

She sprang to her feet too.

“No!” she said forcefully and grabbed the sleeve of his shirt. “And you do not get to decide such things for me, Kakashi. There are many things I need to know that you have no intention of sharing, but I am no pushover. Tell me, will they attack again? Will they seek me out again? Did you tell them that I was pregnant?”

His whole demeanor changed. Guilty. He looked guilty and confused, much more like a child scolded by his mother for stealing cookies than an elite shinobi.

“It’s okay,” she whispered, her heart suddenly contracting in sympathy, “it’s okay if you did.”

“I… I don’t remember,” he replied, looking rather anguished, “I might have. I do not think I would ever wantonly jeopardize your life but…”

She stepped up to him and put her hands around his waist, before she could even realize what she was doing.

“Stop worrying about it,” she said, burying her head against his chest, “it’s okay. I trust you.”

His heartbeat was at her ear and she realized it picked up speed just as she asked herself with a feeling of sudden panic what the heck am I doing, have I gone insane?

“Sakura,” he said hoarsely, “this is not a good idea.”

But instead of pushing her away, he put his own arms around her and pressed her to his chest. She sighed contently and snuggled even closer. What magic was there in his embrace to make her feel so welcome, so safe? No, this was a very good idea.

Kakashi pressed her to his chest for about seven more seconds. Then, he pushed her back with gentle force so that she hit the sofa with the back of her knees and sat down involuntarily, just as a key was turned in the lock of the apartment door.

“I am sorry, Sakura,” Kakashi said softly and turned around to face her husband who was walking in with a deep frown on his dark, handsome face.

Chapter Text

“Kakashi,” Sasuke said slowly, his eyes narrowed to slits. “What are you doing here?”

“I gather you haven’t been to see the Hokage yet, Sasuke,” Kakashi replied smoothly. “That’s fine. Wait here until someone comes to fetch you. Don’t bother with unpacking.”

It was lightly spoken, in that usual laid-back tone of his, but to Sakura, it seemed like the temperature had suddenly dropped below zero. Two tigers circling each other with bared fangs would have made her less nervous.

Sasuke scowl deepened as he looked in her direction.

Of course, she blushed. They hadn’t even done anything, just hugged like friends, but it was clear to Sakura that Sasuke knew instinctively that silly women like her were unable to keep their hands off Konoha’s famous copy-ninja if they were given the chance. Sakura furtively glanced at Kakashi’s black-clad back and the spiky silver hair and felt like finding a deep hole to hide. I’m sorry, Sakura, Kakashi had said. Sorry about what? About having to reject her? About having to push her away? About how all his good teaching had gone to waste?

Yes, she was sorry too. About being stupid, about not hearing, not wanting to hear the footsteps on the stairs like he had, about thinking even for a moment that hugging Hatake Kakashi was something she was entitled to do.

“Hi, Sakura,” Sasuke said and briefly shook the hair away from the left side of his face to look at her with both eyes. “I’m back.”

He was, wasn’t he. Just like that, out of the blue, after nine months and some weeks and some days, she had stopped counting. She had imagined their reunion for so long. And now that it was here… everything was different.

“Hi, Sasuke,” she replied, her mouth suddenly dry. He was wearing a black travel cloak with purple lining, and a grey, long-sleeved, collared shirt. With a pang, she noticed the Konoha forehead protector that hung from his left hip. When had he gotten that back? It was good that he felt it was okay to show his affiliation again like this. Very good. Maybe he would stay this time.

Sasuke looked paler than she remembered, thinner and… older, somehow. Well, she hadn’t seen him in over nine months, so he was older - but he looked at least four years beyond his age. Still scowling, he removed the dark grey fingerless glove on his remaining right hand with his teeth and shrugged out of the cloak.

“What happened here?“ Sasuke asked Kakashi, turning his eyes towards the bedroom. Trust his keen Uchiha senses to pick up the blood that had been spilled.

“Konoha was attacked last night,” Kakashi said, “two enemies came here looking for you.”

What?”

Sasuke walked to the bedroom swiftly and opened the door. Sakura braced herself, but she did not panic or anything like it. She even managed to walk up behind him and look in. The first thing she noticed was her once pink slippers on the floor, now rusty red. Maybe she wasn’t quite ready yet after all, she thought as she closed her eyes quickly.

“You used Shiden inside my apartment?” Sasuke exclaimed, taking everything in, including the broken wall. “Are you crazy?”

Sasuke had never had any respect to spare for anyone, Sakura knew this. She also knew that Kakashi had never cared about it, even when he still was their teacher. And yet, Sasuke’s rudeness stirred anger in her.

“It wasn’t like there was a lot of time for more subtle methods,” she said sharply.

Shiden. That was the purple techniques name. It was something new, she had not seen it before. Another lightning technique, just like Chidori, but even more deadly and precise. He is Konoha’s most proficient killer, she remembered Sasuke telling her once, which had resulted in a heated argument between them. She had protested the use of the word killer for somebody as righteous as Kakashi, whereas Sasuke had called her a stupid cow and had insisted that people who killed other people in cold blood, however just the cause, where killers, nothing better, nothing worse.

Kakashi, who had sauntered over to stand behind her, cleared his throat.

“Hmmm, well, yes. Sakura will explain the details to you. But my knee-jerk reaction had an auspicious outcome: We were able to retrieve their bodies intact, they were taken back to…”

Plop-plop-plopplop-plop-plop on the roof and the yet darkest look on Sasuke’s face as he lifted his head.

“Let me speak to them,” Kakashi said with a small sigh, turning to the window.

It was another Anbu detail, Sakura counted ten individuals, one of them seemed to be a woman. Ten black ops members gathering in front of their window, their sinister masked faces turned towards them. She felt extremely tired all of a sudden.

“Can I…” Kakashi started.

“Just get it over with,” she snapped at him, feeling sorry for her testy tone right away, but even if it wasn't his fault, this was so tedious. She really wanted to get on with her life already. She’d even go back to the hospital for a twenty hour shift right now, if it meant returning to the normalcy of her overworked, but unworried state.

Kakashi opened the window and frog-mask jumped in. Of course, it had to be him again. She scowled at the man and he let his eyes sweep over her with what seemed like much disdain, then turning his attention to Sasuke with even bigger displeasure.

“The Uchiha is to be taken in for questioning immediately. He has been judged a very high flight risk and…”

“Really?” Kakashi smiled. “He just came back from a long mission and hasn’t seen his wife in forever. I’d consider that a low flight risk.”

Frog-mask wanted to say something, but Kakashi lifted his hand authoritatively. “Give him some time. He will come in on his own volition once he’s ready, won’t you, Sasuke?”

“Yes,” Sasuke ground out between clenched teeth.

“Sensei,” the Anbu operative said, “with all due respect, my orders…”

“I take full responsibility,” Kakashi said sharply. “Besides, have you not come to fetch me too? Let me tell you a secret. Of the two of us, I’m the much higher flight risk.”

“Y... Yes, sir,” frog mask stammered, “Lady Tsunade said, allow me to quote: Get his ass here IMMEDIATELY or I’ll rip him to pieces - and I will rip you to pieces too if you fail.”

Kakashi nodded. “See? So, here’s what we are going to do. I will not put up a fight and follow you without any further delay if you let Sasuke breathe for a bit. Deal?”

Frog-mask seemed to ponder the various risks he was facing, then nodded. “I will leave four people here to…”

“Give them some privacy,” Kakashi said in a conspiratorial whisper, bending forward a little. “Or I might consider taking a detour to get some food at the other end of town. The type that is slow cooked. I know just the place...”

That convinced frog-mask to agree to this “deal” - which was rather proficient arm-twisting, Sakura thought with an inward smile - and before she could decide what to say to Kakashi - thanks for everything? Sorry that I hugged you? See you? - he had collected his boots, his backpack, his flak jacket and had disappeared in a cloud of smoke, closely followed by the Anbu operatives.

“Hatake Kakashi,” Sasuke mused, staring at the spot the jonin had last been seen. “How long ago have you two reconnected?”

“Two days ago,” Sakura replied, sounding more snippy than planned. “At the Hokage’s order.”

Two days ago. That was amazingly short. Would she have to go back to the hospital today now that her special “patient” had been called away? She was sure they needed her there desperately.

“Really?” Sasuke asked, frowning at her. “I wonder what that is about. But now I’m back.”

Seriously? No: How are you? Have you missed me? No: Wow, you look pretty? But why was she even expecting it.

The Uchihas. Greatly devoted to love and friendship when they weren’t on one of their hate-crusades, yet unable to show affection. Knowing this didn’t change the fact that she had never stopped craving for it. Once, when she had been very drunk and crying her eyes out in lonely misery, she had suggested to Ino that the only reason she was sticking with Sasuke was her undying hope that if she just waited long enough, he would turn into a loving person eventually. Ino had consoled her, saying that not everybody was the same and every marriage had its benefits and downsides. The benefit: Sasuke. The downside: only the occasional forehead poke to express a human connection.

“How are you?” she tried to make conversation. He looked very tired, she noticed. Would he ever choose to tell her where he had been and what had happened to him?

Sasuke shrugged. “I’m alright.”

Was he really not going to ask what had happened? No, he just looked more closely at the traces of Kakashi’s jutsu. He was probably comparing Kakashi’s technique to his own. It had always been like this, he was competitive to the extreme, even if there was no point in it at all. He would never stop striving to be better than everybody.

“He said they’ll put us somewhere else,” Sakura said. “Maybe we should start packing.”

“What?” Sasuke said and turned to her, looking displeased. “Are you serious? But did he say they would send the cleaners?”

“Yes,” Sakura said. “He did.”

“They could fix this within a day,” Sasuke said moodily. “But I guess it’s more convenient to put us somewhere they can watch me better. So what happened?”

“A perimeter breach.”

Why did he think Konoha wanted to watch him? She had believed that ten years after the war and so many secret missions, his name would finally be cleared.

“Why are these people after you?” she asked, “the Mangekyō Sharingan? The Rinnegan? Will this never stop?”

Sasuke stopped dead in his tracks. “Did Hatake tell you something?”

“What if he did?” she asked back. Kakashi had… and then again had not said anything she could not have guessed herself.

“He wouldn’t be that stupid,” Sasuke said more to himself, but she saw that the thought troubled him. As much as anything ever troubled an Uchiha. Oh great, her husband and her former Sensei had some kind of secret going on.

“Is there something the matter with his Sharingan?” Sakura asked, thinking about that trick of the eye last night, eyes that were red when they should not be. It was a crazy thought, but things were kinda were crazy right now.

Sasuke snorted. “You bet. He has lost it, as you are well aware. I guess he’s proven his worth without it, but he’s really only half the shi…”

“How dare you,” she said sharply.

Sasuke shut his mouth and pressed his lips together.

“If not for him, I would have been…,” her time to press her lips together. Her voice shook and she wanted to cry. She sounded whiny and immature, not like a woman who could take care of herself. Not like someone who deserved the words of praise Kakashi had given her. But what could she do? She was so vulnerable in front of Sasuke. Always wanting something he wasn’t ready to give. Always wanting more when he did give her something.

It seemed to dawn on him at least that maybe, his little jealousy tantrum was rather misplaced. Sasuke looked down at his feet.

“He… did this to protect you?” he asked with effort.

“Yes, Sasuke,” Sakura said, “I was about to be raped by two masked men, who had come to check whether I was pregnant so that they could their hands on Uchiha blood. They would likely have killed me afterwards.”

Sasuke’s handsome face took on an expression of dismay upon being presented with the truth in such a blunt manner.

“Are you…,” he made a helpless gesture in her direction.

“I’m perfectly fine,” she said with a short, bitter sounding laugh. “Don’t worry, they did not get what they wanted.”

“I…,” Sasuke made a step in her direction.

“It’s fine, Sasuke,” Sakura sighed, suddenly too tired to be angry or hurt. “I am glad you are back. It’s been… very lonely without you.”

“I am sorry,” he said, “I am very sorry.”

He closed the gap between them in several short steps and put his remaining arm around her tightly.

It was what it was, this marriage. She had come to live with it, even if she still had issues accepting it. In moments like these, when Sasuke was with her, hugging her stiffly and clumsily, like it was the one thing, the only thing he was bad at and just did not take the time to practice more, she wanted to cry.

“It’s alright,” she sighed again, swallowing down her tears and hugged him in turn, rubbing her hands down his stiff back, “really, don’t worry about it. You’re here now, everything will be fine.”

He didn’t respond to that but buried his face in her hair and sighed deeply. Whatever that meant. Stupid men with their stupid secrets, one worse than the other.

“I don’t like it,” Sasuke murmured.

“What?” she asked against his chest.

“Hatake Kakashi near you.”

“Sasuke,” she said and lifted her head, “you really do not need to…”

“Stay away from him,” he said with vehemence and pressed her head back against his chest with his hand.

“Okay,” she said, feeling confused, “yes... if I can.”

She was lying, without even a sliver of remorse. No, she would not stay away from Kakashi. He had given her word to help him and she would, even if it meant putting herself in danger. Had he not done the same for her, again and again?

“Sakura…,” Sasuke said.

“Yes, Sasuke?”

“Let’s make a baby.”

What?! She pushed against him to free herself and looked up at his earnest face with major confusion.

“No!” she exclaimed, “Sasuke, I don’t want a baby yet. I am much too busy at the hospital and me and Ino…”

“Forget about those stupid plans,” he said, sounding angry. “A child will make you very happy. We’ve been married for four years already, don’t you think people are wondering?”

“You’re not serious!” Sakura replied, “everybody knows you’re never around, no, they’re not wondering.”

“I plan to be around more often,” he said stubbornly.

A child? Sakura tried to imagine herself as a mother, but that just did not add up in her head. One day, maybe. But in the current situation… She looked at him and swallowed. Even when his Sharingan was not activated, there was something in Sasuke’s eyes that was so hypnotizing she could not look away. And now, she saw something in them that frightened her as much as it made her heart race: lust.

Her body reacted instantly. She became wet and her breathing picked up pace. After all, she was defenseless when it came to this Uchiha’s looks and what she longed for the most: his affection. To be touched by him… she had yearned for it for so long and when they had finally slept together… well, it was like first times were according to the books, short and painful. But he seemed pleased afterwards and that was all that mattered to her.

“Can we…,” he asked in a low voice.

“In… here?” she asked back, her voice betraying her nervousness. Maybe if she shut her eyes very, very tightly and imagined she was… somewhere else? But the smell… no… she suddenly felt nauseous again.

“Sofa,” he said.

“But the Anbu…”

“There are blinds,” he said, sounding more urgent. “And Kakashi told them to leave us be. Believe me, they obey his orders very well.”

“O… okay,” she said and walked into the living room on shaking legs, turning to the window to lower the roller blinds. They hadn’t used them in forever and the screeching sound they omitted made her shudder. Sasuke stood behind her and as soon as she was done, he grabbed her hand and pulled her to the sofa.

“Help me,” he said, clumsily pulling at her clothes. Maybe he regretted the refusal to get a prosthetic arm like Naruto in moments such as these? He took a step back to watch her take her clothes off. She was only wearing a bathrobe and her pajamas, but she had also put on underwear, for whatever strange reason, she usually never wore underwear at night. She shed everything fairly quickly and then stood in front of him naked. Sakura suppressed a shiver, even though it wasn’t cold at all, wondering whether she was ready for this after what had happened the night before, but… she had to be, no? Her husband was back.

His look turned very dark as he fixated at a spot on her belly. She looked down and saw a bruise.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she quickly assured him, though that wasn’t entirely true. Her body felt sore this morning, she realized it now, likely from the effects of that jutsu that had been used to immobilize her.

Sasuke began to fumble around with the waistband of his trousers and she quickly stepped up to him to help untie them. Should she… touch him? She remembered he had liked that before, at least that’s what she had thought. Sakura shut her eyes and bravely closed her hand around what was causing a rapidly growing bulge in there.

He stiffened at the touch and she almost let go, but she felt how his thing twitched in her hand and became even harder. Slowly, she moved her fist up and down. She had always wondered whether he would like her to take it in her mouth and suck it, but she had not dared to ask. She had certainly read about it a lot and had learnt that men like that kind of thing in general, but she wasn’t sure how much Sasuke was like other men.

“Hmmhmhm,” Sasuke pressed out, “don’t do that or it will be over in no time.”

“S… sorry,” she said and let go, taking a step back.

“Turn around,” he said. “Kneel on the sofa.”

She complied, glad he seemed to know what he wanted, she guessed it had to be about the bruise and him not wanting to hurt her, or not wanting to see it. Sasuke stepped behind her and she braced herself, but tried not to tense up too much because it would only hurt more. She felt his hand between her legs, checking her wetness, withdrawing quickly.

I hope he enjoys it, Sakura thought, just as she felt the hot tip of his erection at her entrance.

“Ungh!” he groaned as he pushed forward.

As mentally ready as she thought she was, the sudden invasion pained her and she tensed up, which only increased the pain. His hand fondled her right breast as he pressed into her more deeply. His rhythmic grunting should have spurred her on, but it did not. It hurt and with every thrust of his, the pain increased, until she forced herself to think of something else entirely.

Of all possible things, it was him she thought of. Was Tsunade shouting at him right now? He would look bored, his hands in his pockets, waiting for the storm to be over. Would he spare a thought for her? It was almost as if he heard him say: You are one of the bravest, most capable women I know. Do not doubt yourself. Be proud of who you are, always. Okay? Kakashi had always made her feel… special. He had always given her courage when she had despaired.

To her relief, it did not take long before her husband came with a suppressed moan, she felt him twitch inside of her and soon after, warm liquid trickled down her leg.

“S… sorry, I couldn’t hold back any longer,” he rasped, pulling out and collapsing on the sofa next to her. “Give me a few minutes, we can have another go and I can make sure you also finish.”

“It’s alright, Sasuke,” she lied, hoping no other go would happen for a while, “you know you have to see Tsunade now, don’t you.”

“Yes,” he agreed sullenly, “but Tsunade will be busy yelling at Kakashi for a while. She won’t miss me just yet.”

Sakura hoped Kakashi did not have a hard time with Tsunade. She could be so vicious, their Hokage and really, Kakashi staying with her tonight instead of rushing to report was nothing that deserved being yelled at. Should she go to the Hokage Tower to explain what had happened? She probably should.

“I’ll come with you,” Sakura said, “let me go take a shower.”

It was only when she felt the warm water had relaxed her enough that a strange question came into her head. Kakashi’s heartbeat. Why had it increased when she had hugged him? It was almost as if... but no. What kind of a silly cow was she?

***

“How dare you be angry! I am angry! I’m ballistic! WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED LAST NIGHT??!”

Tsunade’s anger was almost worse than a physical assault, it took a lot of willpower to stand your ground in the face of it. But it wasn’t the first time Kakashi had to experience her in this state and like any case-hardened general, he knew when to look a storm in the eye and calmly wait it out - always at the ready to dodge objects suddenly hurled in his direction.

Only… he wasn’t as calm as he usually was. He was indeed rather angry and he wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it. Shout back at her? She could throw him in prison or worse if she wanted to. And maybe, if he was honest, he wasn’t only angry at her, but even more angry at himself.

“It’s you who owe me some answers,” Kakashi said coolly, “I am insulted by how easily you think you can manipulate me.”

“You don’t speak to me like that!” she raged, her face a reddish hue. “I am your Hokage! Become Hokage yourself if you think you can do better!”

“No, thank you,” Kakashi shuddered, “you can keep that job, but I won’t back down today, Tsunade. Why did you call Sakura to ‘care’ for me? Why let her take me to her place?”

There was a word stuck in his head. Bait. Him being with her at that particular point in time… him racing back to the apartment at a hunch… it felt too much like somebody had used him as bait. But… what kind of bait? For what kind of fish? The pieces of the puzzle did not fit, however long he looked at them.

“Why?” Tsunade breathed heavily, helping herself to some sake and downing a cup without missing a beat, “because that woman is the only person I know that can keep you in check.”

“What?” Kakashi asked, sure he had not heard right. Keep him in check?

“She is the only person I have ever heard you speak of with a load of respect,” Tsunade continued. “Or call it admiration, I don’t care. You’re out of control and she is my last trump, that’s what it is.”

Huh? This made no sense. Tsunade was not answering his question, was she.

“Don’t look at me all innocent and naive like that,” Tsunade said grimly, “somebody tipped those people off and I bet it was you, successfully drawing them out, am I right? There is no insider. Or rather - you are the insider. Ha, I changed the access codes and you won't be told!”

Kakashi thought it wise to remain silent. And indeed, she just continued on, not even wanting to hear him defend himself. “You are so damn reckless and arrogant, you think you can battle an army by yourself and come away unscathed?”

“Well, I did battle them all by myself and came away almost unscathed,” Kakashi shrugged. “It’s not arrogant if it’s true. Only about ten were able to flee. The rest is dead. I’d call that a success.”

“You went behind my back!” Tsunade shouted. “You never consulted with me, you just went ahead and let yourself be captured by these people! What if we had not found you in time? What if… what if you had not been successful last night? What would have happened to Konoha then?”

Kakashi pulled a face. “No need to talk about ‘what ifs’”, he said.

Though he had to agree, it was goddamn risky. And what had almost happened to Sakura… if he was in any way to blame for it, he would never be able to forgive himself.

“Then let’s talk about coincidences instead! Isn’t it a little strange the Uchiha comes back today of all days?”

Very strange, yes. But damn, he wouldn’t admit to that even under torture. He had sent Pakkun to find him five days ago, but had no clue why. But the worst was… why had he done all that and not consulted with her? The Hokage was the Supreme Commander, in charge of everything going on in the different military branches. It wasn’t good if he had gone behind her back. It was damn suspicious. It reminded him of… he suppressed a shudder. That organization he’d rather not think of. But Danzō Shimura was dead and with him ‘the roots that grow in the dark’.

“He’s been due to return for a while,” Kakashi shrugged, pushing away the unpleasant thoughts of things that had almost gone horribly wrong in his youth.

“I know for a fact you had no clue where the Uchiha was,” Tsunade shot back, “and you were worried about it. You can’t fool me with your kind Sensei-act, Kakashi. You of all people know that kid is trouble. I do not understand why you keep vouching for him, risking your good name - and where that belief comes from that he can… or wants to become a normal citizen of Konoha again.”

“Because I know him. And after all he did for the village after his bad deeds…”

“I thought you don’t remember?” Tsunade’s hand with the sake cup stopped in mid air.

“I remember almost everything,” Kakashi lied.

“You have to try much harder if you want to fool me,” Tsunade grumbled. “You’re an awful liar.”

“Fine, I still don’t remember a lot of things,” Kakashi sighed, “but I have come to think it has something to do with me losing the Sharingan. It all gets particularly muddled before... or after that.”

“Aha,” Tsunade sneered, “you think? Of course it has something to do with that blasted Sharingan, everything about you is always about that thing.”

Kakashi stared at her.

“You look surprised,” Tsunade observed, “you don’t remember? Okay, let me tell you. You lost that special eye of yours and your entire personality changed. First, you mourned that loss for at least a year, then you began training like a madman, basically living on the training ground. Once you had developed new techniques you don’t need the Sharingan for, you started volunteering for the most dangerous S-Rank missions, likely to prove to yourself you still had it in you. By that time, you by far outclassed all other active shinobi already, but you kept going and training and being… obsessed. Useful for me, but rather crazy.”

Pakkun had said the same, had he not. It didn’t sound like him at all though. Training like a madman? He had never needed to train much for anything. Well... he heaved a sigh. He had had the Sharingan before, maybe that was why.

“So… the pills?” Kakashi asked, deciding to skip this part of his forgotten past for the time being. “Did you make them? They affect my eight gates, don’t they? That was quite the effect last night.”

Tsunade stared at him in turn. “Don’t tell me you swallowed them without remembering what they do? Don’t you know how dangerous that is?! Shit, Kakashi. Get a grip!”

She helped herself to more sake. Should he tell her that drinking in the morning was a sure sign of alcoholism and that it wasn’t good that Konoha’s Hokage was an alcoholic? She may think he was a risk to Konoha, but she was the much bigger risk, all things considered. An alcoholic with horrible mood swings and a temper that resembled an armed bomb.

“Kabuto makes them,” she informed him. “He no longer works at the orphanage. He joined the medical-team and is in charge of soldier health. These pills are part of our soldier enhancement program. But you won't get them anymore for the time being, you are far too unstable.”

“Excuse me? Did you just say Kabuto?” Okay, maybe he was in worse shape than he had thought. His ears were not working properly.

“Kakashi,” the Hokage sighed, “I am thoroughly fed up with you. Yes, Kabuto. What’s the big deal? You are ready to trust Sasuke, despite all he has done - so why are you surprised Kabuto is getting a second chance too?”

Because… at the mention of Kabuto’s name, he had felt an instant and massive dislike in his gut, and Kakashi knew from experience that his gut had to be trusted.

“He has been instrumental in helping us get the most out of the small shinobi force I still have at my disposal,” Tsunade explained, frowning at him, “you worked quite closely with him for a while.”

“Are you sure?” Kakashi asked flabbergasted. “Don’t tell me you let out Orochimaru too?”

“Dammit!” Tsunade shouted, and Kakashi felt shock to realize that indeed, Orochimaru was no longer in a high-security prison either, “I am grounding you completely, do you understand! You are removed from active duty until further notice. You will not put a foot outside of Konoha before we have fixed what is wrong with you. Did you come up with a good plan at least, you and Sakura?”

Kakashi pondered that question. Removing the seals had seemed like a good plan to him, but was it really? The more information he received, the less sure he was he even wanted to remember. Besides, Tsunade’s “last trump” was probably ineffective now that Sasuke was back. Kakashi was certain Sasuke was the jealous type, all the Uchihas he had known were. To the point of being obsessed with the object of their admiration, which led to all kinds of erratic behavior.

Speaking of which… what had he been thinking hugging her back?! Would he have kissed her next if Sasuke had not returned? It disturbed him a great deal that he could not answer this question with a definite no.

“Are you falling asleep?” Tsunade asked sharply. “Why the dreamy look on your face?”

“I haven’t slept much,” Kakashi explained. But enough to have silly dreams that resonated long after waking. Get a grip, Kakashi, he told himself.

“Who tells me you’re not in cahoots with the Uchiha kid?”

“To do what?” Kakashi frowned.

“Take over Konoha! What do I know!”

“If I wanted to take over Konoha,” Kakashi snapped, “I would have accepted your repeated offer to become Hokage a while ago, don’t you think? What bullshit are you sprouting!”

“Don’t talk to me like that!” Tsunade yelled. “Have a little respect, you insufferable man!”

And crash, a sake cup shattered behind him on the wall. Her aim was horrible this morning. Granted, she had had to get up in the middle of the night to avert a crisis he was responsible for and he knew how much she valued her beauty sleep. Kakashi sighed. This was going nowhere.

“Lady Tsunade,” he said more calmly, “we need to get Sasuke and Sakura a place to live until we can be sure there’s no more threat. I was thinking…”

“They can live here, I want eyes on the Uchiha kid every second of the day,” she ordered still fuming, “tell Yamato to work out the details. On the third floor, I don’t care.”

“Yes,” he nodded. One of the guest apartments at the Hokage tower was a good solution.

“I want you in the Anbu quarters. Closely watched by Yamato.”

“Okay,” Kakashi agreed, somewhat relieved. That was better than a holding cell, Yamato was a reasonable guy. And the Anbu quarters were close enough so that he could also have an eye on Sasuke… and Sakura. Though given what thoughts kept creeping into his head, he should probably just stay away. Far away.

“Lady Tsunade, please convince Sakura to go for a medical check-up,” he added because even if he stayed away, he wanted her safe and sound.

“You think that is necessary?” Tsunade frowned.

“Yes,” Kakashi said, “she was very badly shaken, but I don’t think she wants to admit it to herself.”

“I’ll do it,” Tsunade said, sounding a little gentler than before. “Thank you. Thank you, Kakashi, for being there when it mattered. Even though… I still think you’re an idiot!”

As he dodged a stapler, Kakashi noticed movement from the corner of his eye and turned his head, but it was only Shizune, looking rather timid. She must have gathered her courage to enter for a while already, not daring to intervene in their heated discussion until it had seemingly calmed down.

“Ah, Shizune,” the Hokage said, “what is it?”

“Sasuke Uchiha and Sakura are here to see you, Lady Tsunade,” Shizune said and waved at Kakashi with a shy smile.

“Already?” Tsunade murmured. “What are young kids doing these days? No wonder our population is dwindling. Fine, lead them in!”

“And the Anbu ask whether to proceed with dissecting the bodies? No secrets could be discovered from just examining the outer shell.”

“Get Kabuto!” Tsunade ordered. “Tell him to use all his tricks. There has to be something!”

“Can I go see?” Kakashi asked eagerly.

“No, you can’t!” Tsunade snapped. “You are going back to the Anbu headquarters and sit still until I have different orders for you.”

“I can’t sit still!” Kakashi exclaimed in shock.

“Then learn how to do it, dammit.”

“Can I… can I at least visit somebody?”

“Whom?” Tsunade demanded to know, narrowing her eyes.

“Anko. Anko Mitarashi. She is a Chūnin exams proctor and teacher at the academy. We’re… old friends.”

“Ohhhhhhhh,” Tsunade said and Kakashi saw with a sinking feeling how a broad grin spread on her previously angry face. “By all means, by all means! Make yourself at home here, Kakashi. Find your roots in Konoha. It’ll only do you good.”

“I thought you needed me out in the field again in no time?” he murmured. Had he just walked into a trap without noticing? Seriously, sometimes… he just did not understand women.

“Well,” Tsunade chirped, “that was before you eradicated the prime threat we have been facing for the last few years. Now, you can take a holiday. Do something different for Konoha!”

“Okay,” Kakashi said, thinking their Hokage was just… too weird. “Can I go?”

“By all means, by all means!”

All things considered, Kakashi thought as he left, this had gone fairly well. He’d find things to do while being removed from active duty, it couldn’t be that hard. To start, he wanted to put flowers on Rin’s and Obito’s graves, he hadn’t been to see them in much too long. And then, he’d go see Anko and Bull and go for a walk around town.  Later, he’d visit Might Guy. And maybe drop by the Academy to see the little genins? Was Iruka still there? Him he had always liked.

Yes, there was plenty to do here in Konoha.

And eventually, he mused, he’d have to talk to Sasuke. Kakashi suspected the Uchiha might be able to help him with the puzzle now that Tsunade had failed to enlighten him much. After all, Pakkun had only found him when he had been quasi at the gates. So why had he come back at this particular point in time if not because he knew exactly what was going on?

 

Chapter Text

“What is taking so long? We’re only meeting Naruto,” Sasuke grumbled, his voice muffled by the bathroom door.

Only Naruto? Sakura rolled her eyes. Hinata was also going to be there and Ino with Sai, of course she wanted to look her best! If not, her childhood friend would tease her brutally about not taking good care of herself. So it was cameo pink lipstick, mascara, eyeliner, and a bit of blush... nothing too fancy or that would get her teased too.

She batted her eyelids at herself in the large mirror. Not bad! She had put on a purple dress for the occasion, it was new and even though cut just a tiny bit too short for her full comfort, she thought it brought out the color of her eyes really well. After checking her image one last time - she had bought a purple headband to go with the dress and had washed and carefully blow dried her hair - she stepped outside.

Sasuke was... nowhere to be seen.

But since the front door stood slightly ajar, she gathered he must have gone ahead. Sakura hastily grabbed a purse, the little brown one with the tassels she had bought on a whim not long ago, slipped into her sneakers… but no, they wouldn’t do. She hadn’t packed that many shoes, but she had had foresight enough to realize the need for dressing up might arise, so she had brought one pair of black pumps. They were slightly uncomfortable if she wore them for too long, but they would mainly be sitting down anyway.

Their temporary apartment was far more spacious than their real one and stylish in an understated, traditional kind of way, befitting important guests from other villages. Right after moving in, she had returned to work at the hospital. Their current abode was at least thirty minutes further away from her workplace than their other apartment, but she actually enjoyed the longish walks through town twice a day. The bustling streets and busy shops made her feel proud of Konoha and its inhabitants.

But where was Kakashi? It was like he had disappeared from the face of the earth again.

Tsunade had assured her he’d be in touch but had also made it clear that making him remember wasn’t a top priority anymore. That seemed very strange to her, but apparently, the situation was defused with the killing of such a high number of enemies.

To Sakura, it was unreal to hear stories told of that night everywhere she went. She wasn’t ready to believe half of it, but even then, it seemed Kakashi had single-handedly killed several dozen enemy soldiers! To honor him and his bravery, the people of Konoha had even given him a new nickname: Purple Fang of Konoha, in honor of his father’s nickname: Konoha’s White Fang.

It was well intended, but Sakura feared that Kakashi might not like to be reminded of his father. She had remembered how in one of her more desperate moments after the war, when she could not find Kakashi however much she looked for him, she had done a little research in the library and found out that Hatake Sakumo, a very capable Shinobi and sole parent, had committed suicide when Kakashi was only five years of age. The information was overall sketchy, but it seemed Sakumo had abandoned a mission in order to save his team-mates. The failure of that mission had come with highly unpleasant consequences for the Land of Fire and Sakumo had been brutally shunned by everyone afterwards because of it, eventually leading to a severe depression and his untimely death.

Imagining child Kakashi all alone and heartbroken made Sakura burst into tears every time she thought of it. But even so, she almost preferred it to thinking of him on those rooftops slaughtering enemies with his bare hands. “A most proficient killer” indeed, so proficient it was frightening. But she did not want him to be known as a killer, even with people dropping their voices in awe when they talked about him these days. He deserved better. Something different. True happiness… whatever that was.

Sakura rushed down the stairs, thinking she would have to ask Naruto whether he had heard from Kakashi, nodding to the Anbu guards at the door before she exited the building. Sasuke was waiting for her leaning against the red wall of the Hokage Tower, staring up into the darkening sky.

He looked… so cool. All the time, women turned their heads to look at him…. until they recognized who he was and quickly scurried away.

Oh well.

Sakura sighed and waited a short distance away for him to notice her.

She was still hopeful he would start feeling at home again in Konoha. She did everything in her power to make him feel welcome. She had already made onigiri for him twice, his favorite kind with okaka and tomatoes, even though she had hardly any time between shifts. Making a baby came up at least once a day and however many times she assured him she didn’t want one yet, he brushed it aside. Because of that, Sakura had decided she would not tell him about the birth control pills she was taking, even though she felt bad about keeping such a secret from him. Still, her job and especially her idea to open up a special mental health clinic for children was important to her - more important than having babies for the time being. Besides, the whole topic made her uncomfortable when it should have made her very happy that he found so much pleasure in her body. Sadly, she was just tired and listless these days and she was even beginning to think something was wrong with her, she really could not find any fulfillment even if she touched herself.

But what could it be? Tsunade had given her a very thorough check-up a few days ago, but had found nothing wrong with her. Nothing physically wrong. She might have to consult with a specialist.

“Hello! Sasuke! I’m ready!” Sakura declared and waved her arms through the air to catch his attention. What was Sasuke daydreaming about?

“Ah, you’re here,” he said and pushed himself away from the wall. After only a few steps, he took her hand into his, which made her grin like a fool. She was right to be hopeful! He only needed some more time… they needed some more time. They had spent so much more time apart than together, it was only natural they were somehow… estranged.

They were meeting Naruto and the others at a kakigori shave ice parlor. It had not changed in over twenty years, meaning it still had one of the best flavor selections in town and was much cheaper than all the new places, a true gem and quite the secret.

“Sakuraaaaa! Sasuke, Sasuke, Saaaasukeeeee!” Naruto’s enthusiastic voice boomed through the parlor as soon as they entered. He came running in their direction, toppling over his chair. Even as an adult, he was just so much like the boy who had constantly annoyed her, but tonight, he made her smile.

“Hi, Naruto!” Sakura said, “it took much too long to meet again!”

“Much too long,” he agreed grinning, “look at you, Sasuke! So grim and old!” he laughed and went in for a bear hug.

Sasuke stiffened at the show of affection, but only for a moment. A tiny but unmistakable smile pulled up the corners of his mouth right before he pushed Naruto away with force.

“You’re still lame,” he murmured and sat down at one of the tables in the middle of the room with his back to them.

He pretended to be unmoved by the reunion, but Sakura could see it in one of the mirrors to the side, the tiny smile stayed. It made her very happy to see it, so much so she just stood there like a dummy with a smile plastered on her face, watching how Naruto sat down opposite of Sasuke and started showering him with questions about where he had been, even though he should know Sasuke couldn’t say much.

Realizing this “conversation” would take a while because Naruto was tenacious and did not know when to stop and Sasuke would just call him an idiot from time to time, which only seemed to spurn Naruto on, Sakura went over to the figure seated upright at a smaller table by the wall.

“Hello Hinata”, Sakura smiled and put Naruto’s chair back upright, “wow, you look lovely tonight.”

Hinata’s long dark hair was flowing down her back freely and her cheeks were of a lovely, rosy color that reminded Sakura of her favorite type of roses. During their active shinobi days, none of them had worn clothes very advantageous to their figures, but today, Hinata wore a dark grey, tight dress with buttons all the way up, which made her look elegant and mysterious - like the heiress to an important clan that she was.

“Hi Sakura!” Hinata said with a faint blush, her hand touching her hair as if to check it was all in order. “Thanks a lot. You too.”

“How are things w…,” Sakura began when another loud voice from the entrance interrupted her.

“Sakuraaaaa!”

It was Ino, radiant and happy, pulling Sai in behind her. Here was a guy who had learned how to smile against all odds, Sakura thought a bit bitterly, even though he had been the most emotionally stunted person she had ever met in her life. After she had forcefully seated the slightly overwhelmed Sai down next to Naruto, Ino came flying towards Sakura and hugged her tightly, immediately drowning her with chatter and gossip about this and that.

“How long has Sasuke been back for?” she asked eventually, grabbing a menu since the owner was coming over to take their orders.

“Five days,” Sakura said after a quick calculation.

“Wow, you must be delirious,” Ino smiled and winked at her. “Are you still working much too much?”

“No, it’s okay at the moment,” Sakura said, asking herself whether she should tell Ino about their move to the Hokage Tower, but then, she would have to explain a lot more and… somehow… she didn’t think it wise to even mention Kakashi, it would raise suspicions she did not want to be confronted with. Before Ino had hooked up with Sai, they had met about once a week for drinks and dinner, often talking through half the night. Now that she saw Ino again, Sakura realized how much she missed those evenings. She really had nobody to confide in, hadn’t she?

“If only I could do something as useful as you, Sakura,” Hinata sighed.

“Shikamaru told me you volunteer at the orphanage?” Ino asked, “that’s really awesome, Hinata. Not everyone must slave away as an underpaid doctor.”

“Yes, I do,” Hinata nodded and smiled a little, “the children are so grateful for so little.”

Had Kakashi grown up at the orphanage after the death of his father? Sakura asked herself. She knew nothing about him, even though he had been such an important person in their lives. In her youth, she had been thoroughly selfish. Maybe she still was.

“When have you last been to a hairdresser? You look like a broom. And your eyebrows!” Ino suddenly exclaimed, shocking Sakura out of her thoughts. What? But before she could go ballistic, she realized Ino was laughing.

“Got your attention, didn’t I? What are you daydreaming about?”

As always, Ino looked as elegant and perfect as a rare orchid. Sometimes, it was hard for Sakura not to fall back into the old patterns of insecurity when Ino was around. No matter how old she got and what goals she reached, a part of her was still like the vulnerable little girl who had cried over her large forehead. Maybe that’s why she was overly needy for affection, she thought as she began eating her lime flavored ice. Because she was insecure.

“Sakura looks absolutely lovely tonight,” Hinata came to her defense.

“She should be glad she secured a catch early in life because she works so much she’d never meet another man. Oh wait, unless you consider some of the other doctors, but… no thank you, there’s not one among them that’s a… I’ll be damned,” her voice went up a pitch. “Look who just walked in.”

Sakura turned her head to see who deserved such a reaction… and froze.

Konoha’s most famous silver-haired shinobi, his giant, slobbering ninken Bull on a leash and next to him… Anko. A very… corpulent version of Anko.

Well. That certainly explained things. How stupid of her to worry about him even for a second.

“Wow, she put on weight,” Ino exclaimed. “She is at least twice the size she once was!”

“Shhhhh, she will hear you!” Sakura hissed.

“She is an instructor at the Academy,” Hinata added, as if that explained such a weight gain. “Besides, many men like their women a little round.”

“She has always liked dango,” Sakura mused, wondering if Hinata was right about that last part. Another thing to be insecure about: cup size. As for the rest… an active Shinobi could easily burn thousands upon thousands of calories a day, but an inactive one who kept up the same calorie intake? Of course you’d put on weight.

“Sensei! Sensei! SEEEEENSEI!” trust Naruto to shout the house down and give everybody a proper scare.

“Oh,” Kakashi said, looking in their direction with a smile, “hi.”

Had he cut his hair? Sakura thought it definitely looked a little shorter and slightly less messy. It looked… good. Like he looked … good in the casual, all black civilian clothing he was wearing. Of course he would look good and of course he would not show even the slightest bit of awareness that she might have been worried sick about his whereabouts. In fact, he had not acknowledged her more than the others. Maybe even less: He had not even looked at her.

“Look, it’s Team 7!” Anko laughed, “almost like a reunion!”

“Come! Sensei, come and join us! We only just got our ice!” Naruto waved in excitement.

They wouldn’t sit with them, Sakura was certain, they’d want their privacy. Good. She already felt extremely awkward, which was strange, because really, what did she care that Kakashi had suddenly appeared here of all places with Anko?

Kakashi looked at Anko with a raise of his eyebrows and she immediately nodded with enthusiasm. “They’re now at the age we were back when they had the Chunin exam. Imagine! I’m feeling nostalgic.”

He ordered something for her, taking nothing himself - of course, he didn’t like sweets - then they came over, Kakashi naturally gravitating towards the boys table, Anko joining the girls at theirs.

“Senpai,” Sai murmured politely, offering Kakashi his comfortable chair with a bow - earning him a crinkly smile and a pat on the shoulder.

“Bull, sit,” Kakashi ordered his dog after seating himself on a stool, but the dog paid him no heed, he put his huge paws on Naruto’s knees to slobber all over his face.

“Sorry,” Kakashi sighed, after pulling at the leash with no result, “I really don’t know why I never noticed before, but these ninken have no manners whatsoever.”

“How’s Pakkun, Sensei?” Naruto laughed, pushing the dog away and drying his face with his sleeve, “still letting people touch his paws for a reward?”

“He’s the worst,” Kakashi murmured, “no respect at all. The other day when he came to see me, he didn’t even say goodbye.”

“You’re just too softhearted,” Naruto offered his advice, “you have to show a strong hand with the animals you summon!”

“Sure,” Sakura murmured, “he’d know, wouldn’t he.”

“Anko Sensei, how have you been?” Ino asked sweetly, watching with unhidden fascination how Anko shoveled in her gigantic, sauce and toppings covered ice in record time.

“Not bad, not bad,” Anko replied with a grin, “especially in the last few days. It’s not everyday a man from your past returns and… ouf. Some people stay in shape.”

Ino giggled and threw Sakura one of her looks, which Sakura chose to ignore. If she hated one thing, it was people who bragged about their happy sex life. As she had just now discovered.

Anko had already finished her dessert and frowned at the empty cup. “Want another one?” Kakashi asked, turning up behind her so suddenly, Ino jumped and Sakura’s heart wanted to stop.

“Do you think I should?” Anko grinned up at him.

“No,” Kakashi laughed, “but I’ll buy you one anyway.”

“Let me come choose,” Anko beamed, happily following him to the counter, where she started to point at various flavors.

“Since when is your Sensei buying people things?” Ino mused, “didn’t you always say he’s cheap?”

“He is very well mannered,” Hinata said, “Father always says that there are only a few old-style Shinobi left in the village and the best of them is Hatake Kakashi.”

“He’s not that old,” Ino grinned. “Not father old, anyway. More like an older brother type old. Oh!”

Sakura swallowed, feeling her eyes grow as round as saucers. Had Anko just put her hand on … Kakashi Sensei’s ass? She couldn't believe this! How shameless could you get? Quickly, she turned her head away. She really did not want to be caught staring.

“Can’t keep her hands off him. She’s on an oxytocin high,” Ino whispered to her and giggled again. “I know the feeling. And if you train them well, they get so proficient, don’t they?”

Sakura’s mood, already tottering on the brink of foulness since the moment a certain somebody had walked in, took a definite nosedive.

“He was always by far the most good-looking among the jonin’s that taught us.” Ino observed. “I’d say he’s in the top three of good-looking men in this town to this day.”

“Huh?” Sakura pressed out.

“Not that I realized such things when I was twelve,” Ino laughed, “but during the time you trained with Tsunade, I developed a massive crush on him.”

“What?” Hinata and Sakura said at the same time.

“Are you two blind? Oh sorry, Hinata. You only ever had eyes for one guy. Oh, I forgot… you too, Sakura. Ohhhhhh, do you think she’s seen him without mask?! You ask her, Sakura!”

“What? No! What do I care whether she’s seen his face.”

“Don’t tell me you’re no longer curious. I bet you he is extremely handsome. He just has to be, with a body like his!”

What did Ino know of Kakashi’s body? Sakura thought angrily. But true, the black turtleneck he was wearing was tight enough to reveal the contours of that body in question, one had to be really blind not to see it. The rock-hard abs. The well sculpted back. The muscular arms. The neck. She was starting to feel a little warm.

“Are you drooling?” Ino asked suspiciously, “Sasuke will take your eyes out if he catches you!”

Drooling? Yes, maybe she was. She had touched all this, that was why. Should she tell Ino about it just to shut her up? A vicious part of her was dying to see her friend's mouth hang open. The less vicious part knew it was not a good idea.

“Are you two together, Anko?” Ino asked bluntly after Anko had returned with her second serving.

“Ack, you know,” Anko replied with an impish smile, “you can’t tie down the wind. Hatake Kakashi is not one to keep still, never was. I take what I can get, it has always been my philosophy. At the moment… he is a little bored,” Anko giggled, “but I won’t complain if you know what I mean.”

No, I don’t know what you mean, Sakura thought angrily. Bored? Why is he bored? And why has he not come to see me if he’s bored?

“So… have you seen him without mask?”

“Haha,” Anko laughed, “I won’t tell you that.”

“Oh, come on!” Ino pouted.

“I know you kids always plotted to unmask him. Even if I knew what he looks like I would never spoil the mystery.”

“So you don’t?”

“I didn’t say that!” Anko winked.

“I guess he has to take off his mask for some activities,” Ino smirked.

“Haha, you little smartypants,” Anko grinned. “I have no idea what you are referring to.”

And on they went with this lame joke and the insinuation, on and on! Sakura pulled a disgusted face. When she felt Hinata’s disturbed gaze on her, Sakura realized Naruto’s girlfriend had seen her facial expression.

“You don’t like it that they talk about him like this, don’t you?” Hinata said gently. “I understand. Our teachers are like parents to us.”

A parent? The thought actually sobered her a little, but upon a short reflection, Sakura could be certain that she wasn’t angry because she thought of Kakashi as a father. No, she was put off because she had expected… more dignity from him. Yes, that had to be it. Or maybe others to respect the dignity? Hmmm… maybe she wasn’t sure what ticked her off.

“Girls!” Naruto screamed, “we’re going somewhere else!”

“A bar,” Sai smiled, stepping behind Ino and putting his hands on her shoulders, “there’s a new one, Naruto says, they have a glass roof through which you can see the stars! Tonight is almost a full moon, it should be very pretty.”

“Oh really?” Ino clapped her hands, “that’s great! Are the Senseis coming too?”

“Of course they are,” Naruto cried, “are you not Kakashi Sensei?”

“I guess you’re all at drinking age by now,” Kakashi mused, “you don’t need a chaperone.”

“Very funny,” Naruto grinned.

“I don’t think I can take Bull to a bar. So... no. It was nice seeing you all again but...”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take big doggie home,” Anko said and took the leash from Kakashi's hand, “I am terribly tired from this week. There’s always so much to do before the Chunin exams! I’d prefer an early night.”

“I bet you he is going to offer to go with her now,” Ino whispered to Sakura.

“I’ll walk you home,” Kakashi said.

“Told you so,” Ino smirked, “he has good manners.”

“Feeling too old to go with the kids?” Anko laughed. “I have your dog with me, believe me, I will be safe. Go with your Team 7, Kakashi!”

Kakashi looked undecided and Sakura thought it opportune to stomp out since she really did not want to hear any more innuendo from Ino. But it didn’t take long for everybody to come out too, their cheerful voices echoing from the walls of the houses as they began following Naruto who took the lead. Sasuke took her hand again and even pressed it briefly, making some of her good mood come back.

The bar wasn’t far and because it was relatively early, there was sufficient space for them in a nice little booth at the back with several small, round tables. The entire interior was very dark like the night sky, with sprinkles of tiny lights like stars. Soon, Sakura was sipping a sweet drink that had appeared in front of her without her having to do anything, surrounded by her friends and their lively conversation like a comfortable cocoon.

Kakashi hadn’t come after all. Part of her was relieved, she had had the opportunity to see with her own eyes that he was well… really well even and that he seemed happy. The other part of her would have liked to talk to him, at least briefly, just to… to… what? Maybe to tell him how worried she had been and that she would hope that in the future… but no. Silly and selfish again, he was under no obligation whatsoever to report to her.

There was another drink from Naruto and then another from someone else and then, a silver-haired shinobi walked into the bar with his usual, leisurely gait, stopping conversations all around as people recognized him. In the short silence that descended, he looked around unfazed, saw them and came in their direction, excited conversations starting up behind him as he made his way towards them.

“It’s nice here,” he commented and sat down next to Sai.

“Sensei!” Naruto asked, “we were just wondering, will you be at the Chunin exams?”

“Hmmm,” Kakashi said, “if I’m invited?”

“Of course you are, Senpai!” Sai cried, “we would be honored to have you!”

“I do not like this Senpai business one bit,” Ino told Sakura in a low voice, a deep frown showing on her lovely forehead, “you know how long it took me to turn Sai into a normal human being? I really don’t want a run-away husband like yours.”

Sakura pressed her lips together. “Sasuke is staying this time,” she lied, even though she couldn’t be sure, they hadn’t talked about it.

“Good for you,” Ino pouted. “But it must be true what they say: Kakashi is back in Anbu! In all honesty, I know they’re doing a lot for the village but I’ve never liked them one bit. Especially not for how they turned Sai into an emotional cripple.”

“Sai is doing great,” Sakura tried to reassure her friend, “he’s got you now,” but Ino seemed to grow increasingly unhappy as she watched Sai’s enraptured face.

“You can’t make them stop thinking they need to be heroes. All of them, only waiting for the opportunity to sacrifice themselves for the village. I must intervene,” Ino said and got up.

“Sai,” she smiled sweetly, “care to dance?”

There was a space in the middle of the room where three closely embracing couples were dancing to a slow and mournful song.

“Oh,” Sai said, interrupting his conversation with Kakashi, “Ino, I don’t know how.”

“Nonsense!” Into laughed, “I know you’ll be very good at it. I’ll show you!”

And off they went.

“Hinata, do you want to dance too?” Naruto asked with a grin. “I have no clue how to do it, but I’m sure I can figure it out!”

“I’d love to!” Hinata said happily.

Fine, Sakura thought looking at Sasuke, I am glad he does not ask me to dance, I know I’m really bad at it. Besides, I’d rather talk with h…

“Excuse me,” Sasuke said and got up rather abruptly. He looked pale, Sakura realized, but before she could ask what ailed him, he had already hurried away. To the bathroom? Should she follow? He wouldn’t appreciate it, probably.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine,” Kakashi said and when she turned her head, he was looking straight at her for the first time this evening. His dark eyes were like pools of liquid darkness, sparkling mysteriously in the low light of this room and his silver hair shimmered with the light of the rising moon that was just now becoming visible in the sky above them.

All Sakura felt was a wave of anger at his words. The breath-stopping good looks he was flaunting in her face did not help one bit.

“Not worry?” she pressed out, “you don’t tell me whether to worry or not.”

“You’re angry?” Kakashi asked cautiously, “because of something I did?”

Well, perceptive.

“You look very pretty tonight,” he added with a small smile, “the color of your dress brings out your eyes in the most remarkable way.”

And bam, he had disarmed her completely, just like that. How dare he use such underhanded tricks! How dare he be this nice after ignoring her for hours, days, how dare he…

“Where have you been?” she exclaimed, “I was worried!”

“Oh?” he shrugged. “Here and there, nothing special.”

“Why did you not come see me!”

“It’s… no longer urgent,” Kakashi said lightly, but she saw something flicker across his face that belied his easy tone. “The problem with the enemy seems solved for the moment.”

“I promised I’d remove the seals, I will do it!”

“Don’t worry about me,” he said, “you have better and more important things to do.”

“That is for me to decide,” she said angrily, “you are no longer my teacher, you have no say in my life.”

“That is true,” Kakashi said, “and I thank you for the reminder, Sakura.”

It was said in a neutral tone, but Sakura could still hear a hint of displeasure.

“I didn’t mean to…,” she began haltingly, realizing she would hate him to get the impression she wasn’t extremely grateful for what he had done for her or for this conversation to end with a disagreement between them.

“I understand,” he said and smiled a little. “You are absolutely right to put me in my place. I have a tendency to meddle and it doesn’t often turn out well.”

What was he saying? Sakura squinted at his face. The conversation was not at all going where she had thought it would go.

“You are using clever word tricks on me,” she murmured, “I’m at a disadvantage. I’ve had quite a few drinks and you? None. I notice these things. Who even goes to a bar and drinks nothing?”

“I’m not in the mood,” he answered lightly.

“Then why did you come?” she asked.

“For the company, of course,” he said.

He was a very smooth talker, had he always been?

“Maybe it's silly, but I am angry because you should have realized I would be worried and could at least have sent me a note saying that you’re fine. Instead, you disappeared again without a trace. I don’t want to worry, I hate worrying.”

“I am sorry,” he said, even managing to sound it, “I really did not think you would find time to worry about me.”

Why did he stress the me? Whom else should she worry about? Did he mean Sasuke? Well, she would have liked to worry about Sasuke, but Mr. Uchiha was even better at keeping everything to himself than Kakashi.

“Why do I get the feeling that you are avoiding me?” she continued bravely, “Why did you not speak to me in front of the others? Is it because I…,” well, out with it, “because I hugged you? I am sorry about it, okay, very sorry. Let’s pretend it never happened.”

His eyes softened. “Ah. That… I know I’m a bad liar, so I won’t even try. Yes, it’s because you hugged me. Or rather, because I hugged you back even though I know you are married to Sasuke. There are hugs and there are hugs, Sakura, and this hug… was not the kind of hug I am allowed to give you.”

Sakura squinted and frowned, trying to stop a shiver that wanted to crawl up her spine, trying to decide whether what he had just said meant what she thought it meant.

“What kind of a hug are you allowed to give me?”

“Sakura…” he sighed. “What is it you want to hear from me? I should have known better and I am sorry.”

“No hugs then?”

“No hugs,” he said grimly. “It’s best if you forget that night entirely, there is no good in asking questions.”

“I’m thinking about it a lot though,” she stubbornly said, “all aspects of it.”

“That is understandable. Hey!” he lifted his hand and moved closer to put it on her head, “do not worry. It will be…”

Before he could put it down and student-zone her again, she had already grabbed it tightly between her own and pulled it into her lap.

He stared at her. “What is it you want?” he asked quietly.

“To make sure you’re alright. Come to the hospital, I have consultation hours. My schedule is full, but I will make time for you, every day at six o'clock in the evening if I can.”

“I don’t think I should, Sakura,” Kakashi said slowly.

“Why?”

“Because…,” he looked at her face, suddenly looking a little lost. “Dammit, Sakura. You know why.”

Maybe she did. But maybe she wanted him to say it.

“I don’t know why,” she lied.

“Where there’s a spark, there will be a fire,” he said, starting a massive fluttering in her stomach, “and I know this one would be devastating.”

“Do you think me so weak?” she protested, sounding much more confident than she felt. “Do you think I cannot control a mere spark? I am not suggesting we start an affair. I want to see you purely professionally. Because I care about Konoha. And Konoha needs you, Kakashi.”

So there. She could say his name without adding the Sensei and neither did her tongue fall off nor the sky collapse.

He exhaled slowly. Then, he lifted his free hand and gently moved a strand of her hair behind her ear.

“I do not think you weak, Sakura. You are very strong.” He pulled his other hand from hers and stood up. “It is myself I don’t trust to control this spark. Not because I think I am weak myself, but because...” his voice trailed off but his eyes rested on hers.

She stood up as well, finding it hard to breathe.

“...it's because I do not really want to,” he said very quietly.

"I'll just bring lots and lots of water," she heard herself say, "we should be able to make sure the fire does not get out of control."

"Oh?" he chuckled. "Well then we won't have an issue, won't we."

"Will you come?" Sakura begged. "Please, Kakashi. Six o'clock on Monday. I think I know just the Genjutsu that will help. I did a little research."

Sakura saw that Sasuke was coming back from wherever he had gone off to. His hair looked wet as if he had doused it in water to cool himself down. Kakashi noticed him too.

"Okay, I will think about it," he said a little surprisingly. "But for now I need a word with your husband. Will you excuse me?"

What else could she do but nod? Kakashi went to meet Sasuke half-way, took his arm and together, the two men exited the bar, leaving her alone with her confusing thoughts, wondering what the heck was going on.

Chapter Text

“Will you STOP THIS ALREADY!”

Surprised to be yelled at by somebody normally so stoic, Kakashi stared at Yamato’s deeply red face and heaving chest.

“Sorry,” he said and folded his hands.

“Senpai,” Yamato sighed, “with all due respect, you are driving me insane.”

Huh? All Kakashi had done was throw purple chakra balls at the wall but only so that they did not leave any traces, which Kakashi thought was extra crafty. He had to imagine the wall a few inches thicker than it was and pull back the force right when it hit the imaginary wall and not the real wall. In addition, he had to control the power so that it did not leak any unwanted chakra forward. It was quite hard, but he was improving fast. Sure, there was a sound, very similar to the Chidori sound, but it was rather soft and as Kakashi thought, pleasant. Why was Yamato so touchy today?

Kakashi looked a little closer at his junior behind his desk in the Anbu administrative office. Lots and lots of paperwork even though it was only the beginning of the week. Yamato’s hands were trembling ever so faintly. There were dark shadows under his eyes. He probably hadn’t slept much.

“Are you overworked again, Tenzō?” Kakashi asked with a frown. “You should learn to say ‘no’.”

“That is not my name, Senpai, and you know it,” Yamato replied sullenly.

“To me, it is,” Kakashi said and stretched, trying to release some of the tension in his back. “There is no honor in dying from too much paperwork, you know.”

“Ha!” Yamata scoffed, “somebody’s got to do it.”

He had a point, Kakashi thought. It had always baffled him just how much administrative work the running of a village, its missions, and its personnel required. Well, as long as it wasn’t him who had to do it...

“Continue the good work,” Kakashi murmured and flopped back into the comfortable chair in front of Yamato’s desk. Why not run through some of the most complicated jutsu, trying to further improve his hand sign speed?

“Senpai…”, Yamato began patiently.

“Yes, Tenzō?”

“Can you find something else to do, please?”

Kakashi lifted his eyebrows. Was he being kicked out?

“I need to finish writing three lengthy reports until tomorrow,” Yamato said patiently. “Since you do not seem inclined to help me, please remove yourself from my office.”

My office, was it? Apparently, dear Yamato had taken root in here. Which was a hilarious thought considering Yamato’s Wood Release abilities. Should he check for actual roots underneath the desk?

Yamato sighed. “Why are you extra restless today, Senpai? Anything important coming up?”

“Oh, you know…”

“Or are you deliberately getting on my nerves so that I will go beg Tsunade to give you something to do? The strategy isn’t bad, but Lady Tsunade is far more intimidating than you, Senpai. You won’t be successful in the end. Spare me, please.”

Tsunade wasn’t only intimidating. She was also ruthless. Of all punishments, being forced to be idle like this was by far the worst for somebody like Kakashi. There was nothing to read in the Anbu HQ apart from literature about tactical, operational and strategic aspects of missions and warfare that he knew by heart, you could only throw shuriken at targets for so many hours per day, push-ups and the likes got very boring quickly, and the younger Anbu members were so timid, they hardly dared talk to him. Kakashi hated to be worshipped, always had. He didn’t even want people to pay particular attention to him, that only increased the likelihood of getting unwanted tasks. To make things worse, Anko was working at the academy until very late every day, his ninken refused to be summoned if there was no task, Might Guy was on a hot-spring holiday, and… Kakashi sighed deeply. Everybody was busy except him. And yes… today, it was particularly torturous to sit still.

“Out with it, Senpai,” Yamato smiled. “There is something on your mind.”

“I have an appointment,” Kakashi admitted, “but I’m not sure whether I should go or not.”

“Aha,” Yamato nodded. “A date?”

“No!” His denial sounded much too defensive.

Yamato looked at him with mild amusement. “Okay, not a date,” he smiled. “But I bet you it’s with a woman.”

Kakashi pressed his lips together. Was he that obvious? That was bad. He didn’t even understand why he was so nervous. He could simply not go and that would be it, end of story. But the problem was he wanted to go and see Sakura, purely professionally, of course.

Thinking back to what he had so bluntly told her two days ago made him feel utterly embarrassed now. A spark developing into a devastating fire? What had he been thinking? Obviously nothing. He should have sat on his mouth and simply stayed away. Why had he even talked to her.

“So what if it’s a woman,” Kakashi murmured.

She had looked so… so absolutely stunning that night he had had to work hard not to stare at her. The dress she had put on had highlighted all the right things, her hair, her eyes… her body, her legs, her waist, her shapely bosom. He had managed to look away, but he had still been very aware of her presence, as if all his nerves were attuned to her, as if her chakra signature was sending out a signal he could not help but hone in on.

Like a silly moth that was drawn to a flame. Water? It would come too late, one misstep and he would burn to a crisp within seconds.

“You are seeing Anko, are you not, Senpai,” Yamato observed.

Kakashi had told him he needed his privacy and to let him walk around the village on his own, without Anbu guards breathing down his neck. It was ridiculous that Tsunade thought he would try and flee anyway, where please should he go? He had lived in Konoha all his life and he was planning to die here too.

Anko was warm and funny, she made him feel welcome and content. She had not believed her eyes when he had knocked at her door, but it had been a very natural reconnection. Not that he had planned to start sleeping with her again, but there had been enough lingering attraction on both sides for it to happen that very evening. But Kakashi knew Anko well enough. She was an impulsive person and at the same time very attuned to her own desires. Anko knew what she wanted and always went for it, which included diversity in her bed. She had called him boring before, but his appetites just did not extend to most of hers. So yes, he was “seeing her”, but it was going to be a temporary thing.

“What if I am,” Kakashi said.

“It does you good, Senpai,” Yamato informed him, “you are much more relaxed than before.”

Oh really? Like he wasn’t always relaxed. Relaxed was his second name. He did not like it one bit that Yamato was observing him this closely and was gathering such insights… that he was most likely sharing with the Lady Hokage!

“Maybe you should try being with somebody too,” Kakashi snapped at Yamato, “relaxed is not something I would associate with you of late.”

“Ah, no,” Yamato said sadly, “I don’t have the time for relationships.”

“That’s just sad,” Kakashi said and shook his head, “married to the job, are we?”

“Maybe I have not found the right person yet,” Yamato said stubbornly, “but this isn’t about me. It’s about you…you and your not-date. I have had the ‘pleasure’ to observe you all day, Senpai and I happen to know you from the past. Something about your upcoming not-date is bugging you big time. I bet you it’s because you’re attracted to that woman and it scares you.”

What the… gone too far was gone too far.

“This is absolutely none of your business,” Kakashi said angrily. “This conversation is over.”

“So I’m right,” Yamato sighed. “Please keep your wits about you, Senpai, there are things afoot I have a very bad feeling about.”

“Do you mean Kabuto?” Kakashi tried his luck, but like in all the instances he had brought up the Medical-Nin before, Yamato didn't answer. He was stubbornly loyal, had always been, which was one of his good qualities… or bad if one was the target he was sent to eliminate. It was clear to Kakashi that Yamato knew things he wasn’t allowed to share, like what the results of the enemy autopsy had been, and it bugged him a lot to be kept out of the loop, as if he were a liability or even a danger.

So yes, he was going to see Sakura later, he thought. Maybe Tsunade didn’t think making him remember was still a priority, but Kakashi himself was feeling increasingly worried.

When asked about the timing of his return, Sasuke had told him he had gotten a message from him, Kakashi, calling him back to Konoha. But if he had sent Pakkun to find Sasuke, he had not known where he was. It made no sense, unless somebody posing as Kakashi who knew where Sasuke was had sent the message. Sasuke claimed he had been surprised by it, since his return had only been scheduled for about 6 months in the future, but he had immediately complied, seeing how the message conveyed urgency. It had also used all the correct code words in the right sequence, code words only Kakashi and Sasuke knew.

Call it gut-feeling or call it cowardice, but Kakashi had not told the Uchiha about his amnesia. His relationship with Sasuke was a strained one, partially because of Kakashi’s history with other people from the Uchiha Clan, partially from their interactions over Sasuke’s defection from Konoha. Kakashi knew that Sasuke had always seen him as a rival - much like he saw every strong shinobi as one. But to Kakashi, Sasuke was for and foremost Itachi Uchiha’s little brother who had seen so much trauma he deserved special leniency, a kid Kakashi had failed to keep on the right path despite being his teacher. To this day, he considered Sasuke Uchiha his responsibility, even if Sasuke himself would never agree to be treated as someone who needed help.

So it was mainly caution which kept him from telling Sasuke about his own troubles, mixed with embarrassment about his failings. Appearing weak in front of Sasuke was simply not an option. Anyway, before they could start speaking in earnest, Sakura had burst out of the bar behind them, demanding to know what was going on.

She had quickly spotted that Sasuke had developed a fever, though not a particularly high one and she had forced him to go home immediately after.

If there was one person who could ensure the darkness in Sasuke’s heart was kept at bay, it was Sakura. It was minuscule reactions, but Kakashi had a keen eye for microexpressions. When Sakura was near, Sasuke felt more at ease with life.

Which made what he had confessed to her in that bar so much more despicable.

Even if a keen eye for microexpressions could easily see how strained their relationship currently was, Sakura had spent more than half her life working to make this relationship a relationship, whereas Sasuke, if he admitted it to himself or not, was kept sane and human by this woman.

And he was not the only one.

“If Sai asks to rejoin Anbu, deny it,” Kakashi told Yamato before getting up. “I suspect he might come to see you soon.”

“Why deny it?” Yamato exclaimed, “he’s an excellent soldier. We could use him!”

“Because he deserves to be happy, that is why,” Kakashi said. “He has learned to smile and love, let him be.”

“Okay,” Yamato nodded, “I see what you mean. But you know, Anbu these days isn’t like R…,” he shut his mouth forcefully, looking spooked.

To this day, ex-members of Root had difficulties saying the name of the organization. That was how deep the mental conditioning went, even years after the organization was disbanded. There were no Cursed Tongue Eradication Seals anymore, ‘given to the Unseen ones who supported the great tree of Konoha from the depths of the earth’. But that seal had worked even without being activated and it still lingered as a threat in the back of their minds.

“Even so. I do not want to rip families apart,” Kakashi said, quickly suppressing his own memories of his darkest hours, “doesn’t matter if they volunteer. Make it a rule. People in working relationships are not allowed into Anbu.”

It came as a slight surprise to Kakashi that Yamato nodded in agreement without even questioning his words. Married to the job, indeed. But who was he to judge, he was the same. He grinned. Growing old together with Yamato? There were worse fates.

“What’s the time?” he asked his junior, feeling the briefly forgotten nervousness in his throat again.

“Just get a watch,” Yamato sighed, “it’s… five twenty three. So you are going to your not-date?”

Was he?

“I’ll think about it,” Kakashi said.

He would decide once he was at the hospital. The one thing he needed to be sure of was that he could muster the necessary will to draw very firm lines. It wasn’t that hard. It couldn’t be. Or could it?

***

When the large clock hand finally reached the top, Sakura felt a strange sensation, a half pleasant, half unpleasant mix between excitement and annoyance. Excitement because it was possible Kakashi would show up, annoyance because she was certain that if he did, he would be late.

Which meant she was stuck here getting more and more nervous, wondering whether he would appear at all.

Earlier today, she had decided she would give him fifteen minutes, no more. Now she was thinking that maybe, fifteen was too little and that she would be angry with herself if she went home and later found out that he had come to see her.

Sakura pulled a face. Things were already much too complicated! Even if she had come to the conclusion that she must have misunderstood Kakashi somewhere along the way. She had been fairly drunk at the time of their chat and the whole evening, including those strange feelings of anger directed towards him, felt like a dream to her now. Besides, she had got to worry about Sasuke right after, taking her mind off their interaction for a while.

Sasuke was sick.

He had caught a virus, nothing bad, but still sufficient to force him into bed. He had no appetite but she made a light healthy broth for him, used a wet cloth to wipe his forehead occasionally and was content to sit next to him, hold his hand and watch him sleep restlessly all Sunday long.

This morning, she had assured herself he wasn’t worse - he still had a mild fever but was otherwise on the mend - and had gone to work after leaving him with everything he needed to get through the day without discomfort. There was an important management meeting to attend to and two surgeries to perform. The afternoon had been filled with patient consultations and now, it was 6 o’clock.

It would be a lie to say she had not awaited this particular time with great impatience.

There was a book in the hospital library that she had taken to her office last week. It was about the use of Genjutsu for healing. The author was not considered a serious scholar, he had been an eccentric loner living in some forest, but a few years ago, she had pulled it out of the shelf quite by coincidence - wondering about the symbol of a snail on its spine - and had started to read in it.

It was badly written and the structure was confusing, but something about it had left an impression on her, so that she had remembered it the other day and had gone looking for it.

There was a key to every lock and seals were not much different from locks. Breaking a seal required finding the key. Of course, no Fūinjutsu wielder would let a key lie around, but just like with real locks, it was possible to guess and make a key from a thorough study of the lock.

If she was to thoroughly study the locks in Kakashi's head, she needed time. Most Genjutsu were short-lived, used in battle to gain an advantage of surprise or shock over the opponent. Keeping the illusions up for more than fifteen minutes was a feat not many Shinobis were capable of.

Some Genjutsu meddled with the experience of time, however. The worst of them was Tsukuyomi, and luckily, one needed a Mangekyō Sharingan to inflict that upon a victim, which meant there was exactly one person in the world who could use this particular torture jutsu. But in that book she had read about a much friendlier use of time-warping Genjutsu.

The unnamed technique that was described was used to prolong the limited time one had to do something pleasant and it needed to agreement of two people present to work properly. The one wielding this jutsu could use a series of hand signs with which to end the illusion and, according to the author, kept the awareness of being the controller of this Genjutsu at all times. It was also impossible to get lost in the dream world because of the body’s natural limits. Once the body in the real world grew tired or hungry, the Genjutsu would naturally fall apart, propelling both people out of it.

Sakura had been a kunoichi long enough to know and understand that every jutsu came with risks. The bigger the effect on and thus the resistance from the opponent, the higher the cost of wielding a jutsu. But since this one was a joint effort, it seemed very low-risk to her.

The clock showed 6.05 pm by now and Sakura sighed. Why was she fooling herself? Kakashi wouldn’t come. He had made it fairly clear there was no urgency anymore and he seemed to function well despite his amnesia. Maybe it was silly of her to worry about him anyway.

There was a knock.

Confused, she stood up. That couldn’t be him, it was much too early.

Another knock. Not from the direction of the door. She swiveled around and... there he was. Outside the window, waving to her. For a moment, she just stared at him. Maybe she had really not believed he would come. And since when was he basically on time?! A few deep breath and she had caught herself sufficiently to open the window, trying to get her quickly mounting nervousness under control.

“Don’t you people use doors?” she asked stepping aside so he could jump in.

“I sat on the roof making up my mind,” he said a bit breathless, “and then the entrance seemed too far down.”

“How did you even find my window?”

“Shinobi ways,” he grinned.

“Please have a seat,” she said, pointing to the black leather chair in front of her desk. She would treat him like any other patient, she had decided, that would be the best strategy.

He sat down, looking at her expectantly. He was wearing civilian clothing again, only this time, it was dark grey and not black. It was interesting, Sakura thought, that his eyes looked dark grey with this outfit and not their usual black. She seated herself behind her desk and moved some paper around from the left to the right and back to buy herself some time. Should she say something about his spark and fire comment? She would hate for him to get the wrong impression. But she also feared to embarrass herself. The hugging, that could be excused, giving the circumstances last week. But to indicate she could not stop thinking about him, his kindness, his heartbeat… his words… she didn’t understand what it all meant, but could she expect him to help her?

“I have about twenty minutes left,” she said instead, “but for the first session, this should suffice.”

At the mention of ‘first session’, he lifted his eyebrows. Had he thought this was going to be a one-off thing? No, this was going to be a lot of work.

“So here’s the thing,” Sakura said, “there is a special Genjutsu that I would like to try with you.”

And she explained to him what she had read and that she believed that if she was able to stay in his mind long enough to study the seals, she would be able to find the keys.

“I thought about it for quite some time and I don’t think there’s any particular risk,” Sakura ended her explanation.

“But you don’t know what you will find,” Kakashi said, sounding doubtful.

“I’ve seen the sealed doors in your head already, there won’t be any surprises. Besides, I’ll be careful with the unlocking,” she hurried to say. “I will consult with you before.”

He moved his head from side to side, looking worried.

“As soon as something unexpected happens, I’ll break the illusion,” she added. “I will be aware of being inside your mind and I can get out anytime I wish.”

“You’ve always been good at Genjutsu,” he observed, maybe to convince himself what she had suggested was no idiocy.

“Yes!” she nodded. “And I’ve gotten much better over the years. I’m confident this will work. At least, let me try.”

“Okay,” he agreed, even though he still looked mildly unhappy. “How does it work?”

“Stay there,” she said, feeling a rush of excitement sweep through her. New Genjutsu. That alone was worth it. She moved her chair next to his so that they could face each other. His legs were so long she had to put hers in between his so that they could sit close enough to hold hands comfortably.

She had not brought any water, she laughed inwardly, was that going to be a problem? The inside of his solid thighs was warm against her legs. He was very tense.

“Wait,” Kakashi breathed, briefly pressing her hands.

“Yes?” she swallowed.

“Will I… what will it be like for me?”

Like the first time she had used Genjutsu on him, he was visibly nervous. She could not blame him, a Genjutsu trap was the worst kind of experience for a shinobi and she knew he had lived through Itachi’s torturous Tsukuyomi, only emerging unscathed thanks to his own Sharingan and Tsunade’s healing power.

“More or less pleasant,” she smiled at him, “this is a shared illusion. Even if you will not be able to recognize it as such, I will be able to talk to you and explain everything.”

At least that’s what she thought.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay, if it’s that way… I’m ready.”

He took another deep breath and then looked into her eyes unflinching.

“It’s Ushi, Tora, Mi, Tatsu, Mi, Tatsu, Inu, Saru, Ee, Uma, Tora, Mee, Ee, Tori, Ushi, Uma, Tori, Mee, Nae, Sara, Oo, Sara, Jin, Sara, Tori, Tatsu, Tori,” she told him. “We need to do them together.”

He repeated the sequence of hand signs to her twice without a mistake and she nodded.

“That’s it. Three, two, one…”

They signalled in perfect unison and a mere heartbeat after forming the last hand sign, Sakura found herself in a different place than she had just been, no longer looking deeply into Kakashi’s eyes.

Only… this was not at all like the first time she had entered his mind. Maybe because this was a joint Genjutsu, maybe because something inside his mind had fundamentally changed, maybe because she was the biggest fool alive… she did not find herself in a dark hall with many doors full of discomforting sounds, she found herself in a very dense, very dark, extremely menacing forest.

“Oh shit,” she breathed. And for emphasis, “Oh SHIT, Kakashi, where are you?”

He was so fast she only saw a silver flash. A kunai was pressed against her throat painfully the next moment, her hands immobilized in his tight grip, making it impossible to perform ninjutsu.

“Who are you,” he rasped, “and who sent you?”

Low risk? Sakura didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The scent of blood around him was so thick she almost gagged. The black eye that looked at her through the slits of a kitsune mask with red and black markings around the eyes, sides, and mouth was as cold as ice.

The other eye was red. The black markings in it formed a pinwheel. An activated Mangekyō Sharingan.

 

Chapter Text

"Ouch, you're hurting me!" Sakura complained. She was very fond of her fingers and did not want them broken, not even in an illusion. Besides, she was getting very annoyed with the situation. This was not at all what had been described in the book!

"You're a medical-nin from Konoha?" Kakashi asked, letting his mismatched eyes glide over her headband, her forehead with the chakra seal and somewhat rudely down her body.

"Yes, obviously, Kakashi," Sakura said, trying to wiggle free, but he did not remove the knife on her throat nor did he slacken his painful grip, quite the opposite.

"How do you know my name," he rasped, pressing down on the blade. A sharp pain and faint trickle down her throat told her he had cut her skin.

"Ouch!" she cried. "Are you crazy? Because we know each other! I'm Sakura!"

"That's a lie," he said coldly, "I have never seen you before and I don't like it one bit that you pretend otherwise."

Oh great, Sakura thought, again feeling like laughing and crying at the same time, this Kakashi doesn't know me. What have I gotten myself into... WHO is controlling this illusion?

She shifted her eyes to get a better look at him in the gloomy green darkness that surrounded them. A grey flak jacket with no collar, naked shoulders revealing a muscular biceps, arm guards that went up to his elbows. Spiky silver hair, as unruly as ever above the kitsune mask that hid his entire face. Clearly an Anbu uniform. There was a lot of blood all over him too and if she wasn't mistaken...

"You're hurt," she said. Badly so, she realized with a sinking feeling. Wasn't this shared illusion supposed to be pleasant?

Now that she was paying attention, she felt the faint trembling of his arms. He was weakened, probably from blood loss. Should she try to break his hold? She was sure that dying in the illusion would have no real effect on her since she was fully aware this was only an illusion. If he cut her throat, it might hurt and be unpleasant, but she assumed she would just wake up back in her office.

"I can still effortlessly kill you," he informed her coldly, "don't even think about it."

"Let me help you," she suggested instead, a doctor's instinct and a good way to buy herself some time to find out what was going on.

"How did you find me?" Kakashi asked, still not letting go.

"I was sent to help you," Sakura lied, immediately chastising herself for not thinking this through. He could so easily check whether she knew the necessary code words Shinobi exchanged as a safety measure for these kind of meetings.

"Oh really?" he snarled, not even bothering with that, "you are a bad liar. Nobody knows I'm here and nobody cares. I live in the darkness."

The trembling in his arms got stronger. He seemed to be at his limit. Surely, having his Mangekyō Sharingan activated didn't help. This Kakashi, what was he? A guardian of the seals? Would the illusion collapse when he 'died'?

Before she could make up her mind what to do, there was a rustling sound near them and he went entirely rigid. The next moment, Sakura was catapulted upwards, then sideways, just in time to dodge a shower of shuriken. A dizzying series of jumps later, Kakashi stopped on the thick branch of a massive tree.

"Dammit," he coughed, still holding on to her tightly. "I knew you were a trap."

"That's bullshit!" she protested, "it's your thick blood scent that is like a beacon. Just let me heal you."

He just glared at her through the slits of his mask. Illusion or not, she knew how stubborn he was when it came to accepting help.

"Create shadow clones," she told him with authority, "the enemy will be confused. I'm fast, I won't need a lot of time."

He had obviously realized that he should better do what the medical-nin was telling him. He let go of her and created about thirty shadow clones, having them disappear noisily in different directions.

"Lie down," she ordered him sharply.

Controlling shadow clones like this when already running low on chakra was difficult and another glimpse at his masked face told her he was sweating profoundly. He did lie down next without any further resistance too - it seemed he had no energy left to fight her.

Quickly, she cut open his clothing with chakra. A ghastly wound on his abdomen was revealed, long and very deep. The edges were clean-cut, telling her it had been a really sharp sword. Again? Almost like the other week... she pushed the unpleasant memory aside.

"Shit," Sakura said, "how are you still walking with such a wound?"

No answer. Had he passed out? Yes, his eyes were closed, his breathing was shallow.

Sakura gathered power into her hands, glad to find herself with all her skills in this illusionary world. She mended his organs - luckily, his heart was intact - restored his muscles, his chakra network, his nerves, his skin, careful not to leave a scar. There was a lot of damage and she had to go down to cell level to make sure he was fine. It took much longer than she had expected, making her nervous some enemy could find them while she was preoccupied, but there was no unusual sound nor movement near them.

Once she was done, she had to rest a little, her hands on his stomach, her head bowed. She felt quite exhausted.

"It fucking hurts," Kakashi moaned. "Do you even know what you're doing?"

"Shut up!" she hissed. "I saved your life, you could at least say thank you."

"Isn't it your job to do this kind of thing?" He was looking at her with his normal eye only, keeping the Sharingan closed.

Sakura glared at illusionary Kakashi, considering reversing her healing jutsu just to let him experience dying. But now that the immediate crisis was averted, she should probably focus on finding out where she was and how she could find the seals if she didn't want all her efforts go to waste. Why not straight-out ask him.

"Are there any seals around here?"

"Huh?" he asked, sounding hugely annoyed.

"Sealed-off areas or something," she demanded to know, "huge doors with seals on them. Have you seen any?"

"What are you talking about, are you crazy?" he shot back.

So this Kakashi not only did not know her, he was also very unpleasant, she thought, staring at his mask.

"You can take your stupid mask off," she said, "I know who you are, no need to hide your face like this."

"I have no idea who you are, I will leave my mask on as long as it pleases me!" he barked back and tried to sit up.

"Don't move, you idiot," she yelled, "I should bring you to a hospital to heal properly, but at the very least, lie still for a while!"

"Can't," he groaned. "They're coming."

Of course, the movement opened up his wound again.

"I don't believe this," Sakura sighed. It would be best to just end the illusion and be done with this experiment.

She heard the enemies before she saw them, they were approaching as fast as the wind, leaving a ominous rustling in their wake - but when she set eyes on them, she froze in horror.

Oni-masks.

Kakashi threw himself forward and between herself and the attackers, hurling a barrage shuriken at them with such proficiency and speed, they died in almost complete silence.

Afterwards, he slowly toppled over.

Sakura caught his body in her arms before it could hit the ground, cradling him to her chest, thinking that maybe, she was the controller of this illusion after all... because saving him, getting to care for him, ensuring that he wouldn't die... it made her feel very good.

***

When an exhausted and dripping wet Sakura got back to the well-hidden and carefully booby-trapped cave she had deposited Kakashi in, she threw herself down on the cold stone floor to catch her breath before doing anything else.

She had found extraordinary things.

"I think I'm beginning to understand," she told his still form, too tired to do more than move her head to look at him from the side.

As soon as she had been certain no enemies had followed them to this place, Sakura decided to have a look around, knowing Kakashi was going to be unconscious for a while. The extended use of his Sharingan had always exhausted him so much, he had to sleep for days to replenish his chakra reserves.

Climbing a tall tree to the top had revealed a thick forest as far as the eye could see, with some haze in the distance. She had decided to go North a bit to see whether she would encounter anything interesting in that direction – hoping it wouldn't be oni-mask wearing assassins.

Sakura had travelled through the forest as fast as caution allowed, but there was nothing extraordinary... just more forest and more forest in endless gloomy darkness. Soon, the rain had started. Afterwards, everything was gloomy, dark, wet, and very slippery.

After an hour or more she had turned back.

She had a good sense of direction, which was lucky, because getting lost in this thicket was a real threat. People who were good at directions naturally noticed and remembered landmarks so they could orient themselves. Because of it, she had spotted a tree that was split in the middle, with an empty bird's nest inside the trunk. When Sakura encountered something that looked like that tree twice on her way back, she got suspicious. Luckily, she carried shuriken in her back pouch that she could hang from one of the branches just to make sure. And indeed ... whichever direction she travelled, sooner rather than later, she was back at that tree.

There could be no doubt: there was another illusion at work in this illusion!

When she had trained for genjutsu release, she had learned that some of the illusions could only be exposed by cutting off visual input because most genjutsu worked through the eyes. Walking around a thick, scary forest with her eyes closed wasn't what she would define as a favorite past-time, but she had little choice if she wanted to get to the bottom of this strange place. Establishing an invisible, stiff chakra thread to guide her, she closed her eyes and started walking with her arms outstretched, walking around trees when necessary but otherwise keeping a straight line from her point of departure.

And indeed. About half an hour in one direction and her fingers hit something that felt like a wall – opening her eyes only revealed more forest all around her, but her haptic senses could not be duped.

The same was true for all other directions. There were impenetrable, invisible barriers around them. She had her suspicions of what it could mean. All she had to do now was wait for the Kakashi simulacrum to wake up so she could confirm.

Sakura dozed off while waiting, little wonder after running around so much, having a weird dream in which she chased cats, dogs and frogs through the streets of Konoha, knowing she needed to catch them to avert a catastrophe. She woke again what seemed hours later with a stiff neck and shivering from the cold, noticing it had gotten much darker outside. Was it evening?

Kakashi stirred too.

She sat up and he turned his head in alarm... and then looked away.

"Hello to you too," Sakura said.

"Why are you still here," he said. "And... where have you brought me?"

He shot up, looking down at his cut open clothes and the flawless skin of his torso.

"Yeah," Sakura said, "thank you great Doctor Sakura from Konoha for saving me."

"I didn't ask for it," he murmured, looking around the small cave.

"Next time, I'll let you die," she snapped.

"Fine," he snapped back.

"We need a fire," Sakura said, swallowing down her anger. "I brought wood, luckily before the rain started."

He just stared at the wall.

"How old are you?" she asked him bluntly. It was hard to know because of the kitsune mask, but his stature was the same as always, so she was assuming illusionary Kakashi was his current age and not the age he had been when he had worn this uniform in the past.

"Old enough to know you have no business here," he answered gruffly. "Go away."

"How long have you been out here?"

"Not long enough," he answered.

"What if Konoha forgave you, would you come back?" she asked, fishing for the information she was hoping to get out of him, trying to confirm her hunch.

No answer. But his one open eye turned in her direction and wouldn't leave for a while. Her shivers were getting more violent, as much as she tried to hide them. It was damn cold here and she was still drenched through and through. To her surprise, he suddenly moved - but not to harm her as she briefly feared, but to build and light the fire. Swiftly done with it, he indicated to her with his chin to move closer. She did, grateful for some warmth, smiling and about to thank him, but Kakashi rudely turned his back on her and stared outside into the gathering darkness, clearly wanting nothing to do with her.

Extending her hands towards the flames, Sakura waited for her body to get warm and thought about what to do next. She had ample experience with men who didn't want to pay her any attention. With Sasuke, she had just tenaciously come back, every single time he had rejected her. With this one, she didn't have as much time. So, she would charge ahead and attempt to break that shell of his without mercy.

She could be sorry later.

It helped that Sakura suspected she knew why he was so gloomy and 'living in darkness'. She had encountered something else in what seemed to be the middle of this walled-in space: Two makeshift graves. There were two headbands lying on top of two mounds of stone, with limp flowers and leaves woven into bouquets next to them.

"Whose graves are they?" she asked him.

"My two only friends," Kakashi said emotionless, knowing straight away what she was referring to. "I killed them."

Ouf.

"Sometimes, we have no choice but to do horrible things," she said softly.

"We always have a choice," his answer came harshly. "Don't even try."

Oh Kakashi, Sakura thought, her heart reaching out to him. What guilt are you carrying around with you? Obito has gone to a better place, have you forgotten?

Yes, that had to be it. Kakashi had no recollection of losing his Sharingan so he had no recollection of what had happened afterwards either. A part of her understood this all too well: The most horrible nightmares were nothing compared to fighting the likes of Madara Uchiha in several dimensions, forgetting was a blessing.

"I see," she said instead, making her voice sound cold. "You are here to wallow in self-pity. Fine."

His surging anger was like a slap to the face and for a short moment, it looked like he would indeed hit her. But she held her ground unflinching, glaring back into his one eye with all the defiance she could muster.

"I happen to know that your friends died not because you wanted to kill them but because they chose to die. So yes, we always have a choice. But sometimes, people make choices for themselves that impact ours. Blaming yourself for the choices of your friends serves no purpose. Get over it. Move on."

Briefly, she saw herself talking like this to a patient and cringed in mortification. But this was no patient. It was a simulacra inside somebody's mind - somebody she considered a friend. And everybody needed honest friends.

"Who are you?" he asked again, seemingly unfazed by her harshness. "One of those pursuing me, thinking they can weasel themselves into my life now that Rin is gone?"

Rin.

He had called her that in his half-delirious state. She must be one of the friends he claimed to have killed. Had he loved her?

"What if I am?" she asked back. "What if I saw you in Konoha and developed a crush on you? What if I have come, knowing you would never return my feelings, but am just content to be able to help you like this?"

"If you are, get lost. You are not my type at all," he said but there was the slightest pause before his words, as if her confession surprised him. He had said she was 'so much like her', had he not?

"Do I remind you of her?" she asked to confirm.

She saw from his minuscule reaction that indeed, she did remind him of that woman. Being this swift in creating a crack in his shell, she should have felt satisfaction and pressed on forcefully. Instead, she hesitated. Illusion or not, she had no desire to hurt him and he was becoming much too vulnerable too quickly.

"I know how to get to the graves from here," she said, "I can show you tomorrow."

"They know too," he replied, "I don't want you to go there, it's too dangerous."

Of course, only somebody as stubborn as him would continue to pay his respects, potentially daily, even if an enemy force was basically waiting for him to show up there.

"Who are these people?" she asked him.

"Hannya Black Ops," he replied.

"Whom do they serve?"

"The Land of Woods, of course," he said, looking at her suspiciously.

"Is this... are we in the Land of Woods?" she asked.

"I was just considering believing you," Kakashi said dangerously, "but now I am back to thinking you're a very clumsy spy."

"I'm just a bit scatterbrained," she quickly lied, fluttering her eyelids at him. Where the heck was the Land of Woods? Far from the Land of Fire? Must be a tiny country not normally showing on the maps.

"I knew no woman would be stupid enough to follow me here just because she has a crush," he scoffed, but it sounded like he was actually quite glad she wasn't one of those women after all.

"You can go to sleep," he told her shortly after, "I will take watch."

How gallant. Now that he had assured himself she was no deranged fangirl, he became more courteous. Or...

"If you mean to leave in secret," she remarked lightly, "you might want to consider that I have set a lot of booby traps against your enemies. I'm guessing you're a very proficient shinobi, but still, finding and defusing all of them at night... it'll take you a lot of time. It'd be much smarter to set out together tomorrow."

"Now I see it," he said, with an snort.

"See what?"

"The similarity," he said, lying down next to the fire without any further ado. Soon, his regular breathing told Sakura that he was asleep. Fine, she thought with a small smile. She did not mind keeping watch at all.

***

Sakura didn't forget that this was an illusion she had voluntarily stepped into even for a second. Yet, it was quite strange how accustomed she got to it over the following days, almost as if she didn't want to realize she would not stay here for much longer. Humans had this remarkable gift to adapt, she had seen it at work many times before, and even without putting in an effort, it was what happened. It was a bit like a strange holiday. Very conveniently, she never got hungry in this world. She didn't have to go to the toilet either and could be sure not to suddenly get her period or experience any other inconveniences. Besides, this forest wasn't the worst of places.

Especially after it stopped raining. The sunlight that managed to get past the majestic crowns of the trees was golden all throughout the day and in its gentle warmth, the forest exploded in a cloud of the most fragrant wood-pine scent.

The changes in his behavior were far more subtle than the changes in the weather, but it almost seemed like they were connected. She could have sworn that the rain stopped instantly the first time she saw his eye crinkle.

She accompanied him to the graves every day. It was where he took off his Anbu mask and stood for hours with his head bowed and his hands folded. She accepted his need to grieve and pray, keeping an eye out for enemies, ready to defend his back.

But they seemed to have vanished completely.

They talked.

He seemed stuck in the time after the Fourth Hokage's death, thinking the Third had just taken over again. She talked about the war with him - the Third Shinobi World War she only knew from the history books but he had lived through. They talked about losing comrades. About feeling powerless in the face of danger, about fighting until all powers were depleted, knowing it wasn't enough, couldn't be enough, but somehow hoping it would be alright. They talked about killing, about feeling guilty. About how grief would swallow up the world and bury hope completely. But she also talked to him about finding new connections. About those who pulled your from the darkness. About those who believed, unwavering, that there was salvation.

"You are not alone," she told him again and again, until he nodded in acceptance, even if ever so slightly.

Some of the things he told her were surprising. Sakura had not realized how well Kakashi had known Itachi before the great Uchiha tragedy and neither had she realized how much he had cared for him. But she knew from experience how hard it was not to admire or even love the Uchihas for their fierce righteousness - and fear for them because of their extreme emotions that could so easily turn utterly dark.

It was during Kakashi's sad utterance that "sometimes those who want nothing but peace have to become the most proficient killers" that she took his hand to press it - and he did not pull it anyway. They sat in silence for quite a long time afterwards holding hands.

It was sometime later that she tripped over a root when they walked in the forest together and he caught her in his arms to prevent a nasty fall. The closeness made her heart race and for the first time since getting here she thought that maybe, she wasn't as much in control as she thought. She didn't really want him to let go, but he did, gently putting her on her feet and patting her head. It seemed it didn't matter what version of Kakashi she encountered, he liked doing that to reestablish lines.

But Sakura caught him looking at her in the days that followed. She liked it.

He didn't put his kitsune mask on any longer and even though his face mask hid more than it revealed, she saw that the darkness in him was beginning to give way to the light. And even though she knew this man wasn't the real Kakashi, it made her happy.

No alarms went off in her head, not even when he said "I lied. You are very much my type" nor when her legs turned to jelly and she had trouble breathing.

"Is there someone...," he asked cautiously, looking at her face with a quiet longing that made her heart contract.

"There... is...," she managed to say, but it made her feel awful afterwards even though she knew she would never be able to forgive herself had she lied.

"Then I'm sorry," he said and managed a rueful smile that almost brought tears to her eyes.

Goddammit, Sakura, she scolded herself, what are you doing?

He kept his distance as much as keeping your distance was possible when you lived together in a small cave, but at that point, resisting the strong physical pull was becoming a huge effort. Their lives had become intricately intertwined. Sakura could not get enough of him needing her, needing her to talk about the horrors of his past, needing her to tell him that things would be alright, that he had friends, that a lot of people cared for him.

That he also wanted her... that his eyes could not help but follow her when she walked around, that he did every little thing to make her days pleasant, that he looked shy sometimes when she returned his attention... she could not get enough of it either.

Had she accomplished what she had come here to do? Should she have broken the illusion a while ago, fully knowing that what she was doing was... not okay?

No.

She had come to study locks, but she had found a Kakashi who needed her to pull him out of the darkness. Could she be blamed for doing the pulling, and then sticking around to ensure he would not slip back? She thought not.

Who was controlling this illusion? She had no clue. Maybe, just maybe, it was both of them. And it seemed they both wanted the same thing.

It was inevitable.

It was a balmy night, one of those summer nights full of insect sounds, when falling asleep seemed a waste of opportunity and not smiling was impossible. Was it her that moved close to him or was it both of them moving at the same time? Was it her that turned her head to look at him or was it both of them at the same time? Was it her that leaned in? Was it her that grabbed his mask and pulled it down?

Did it matter?

When her lips met his, something like an electric current went through her, jolting all her nerves awake almost painfully. Blood began pounding in her ears like the beating of an ancient battle drum. His lips were soft and gentle, but his kiss was hesitant - of course, he had was probably confused. It wasn't really like her, but she was very impatient, eager to taste more, maybe because she knew, deep down, that this had to end and would end... soon. Her lips opened up, inviting in his tongue, and because the invitation was not immediately followed, she began nibbling on his lower lip, grazing the skin with her teeth, teasing it with her tongue. When he drew in a sharp breath and opened up his mouth in reaction, she pressed forward, darting her tongue into his mouth to explore. She found his tongue waiting but ready to respond to hers, soon leading to a teasing dance, back and forth.

A moan escaped her throat, long and guttural. Why did it seem to her that she had waited for this kiss for an eternity?

I want to sleep with him, she realized, I need to stop. This cannot happen.

But she couldn't stop. Kakashi had never mended his shirt after she had cut it open. Her hands did not even have to expend any effort to find his skin, feeling his muscular strength, his sculpted perfection. Sakura wanted him naked underneath her, inside of her, all of him at her service and she wanted it so much, she could not help but growl like a wildcat.

Ah, but too much was too much. The illusion around her began to waver, then crumbled. The first thing to disappear was him, leaving her with a hollow feeling of regret. Then, she stood in that place with the many doors and the discomforting sounds. She wanted to cry. Instead, she formed the necessary hand signs to get her out of there.

It worked instantly. Sakura opened her eyes with a shuddering breath.

The clock in her office showed 6.25 pm.

"What happened?" a dazed Kakashi in front her asked. "Did it work?"

Sometimes, making mistakes was a good thing. Sometimes, admitting mistakes was bad. Sometimes, good and bad was mixed up so much, those categories made no sense anymore.

"Well," Sakura said, trying to sound in control, "I think I made progress. There's many things I do not understand yet, but I think..."

What the fuck am I doing?

"Do you want me to come back tomorrow?"

Kakashi remembered nothing it seemed. It was like the book had described it: it was her who had been in control, her who had guided him. Of course she had to say no. She was in over her head so deep she did not know which way the surface was.

"Yes," she said, "if you can. 6pm."

It looked like he wanted to say something more. Did she look as shaken as she felt? They were sitting so very close.

Just go, go! she wished because she wanted him to stay so very badly.

He did leave, properly through the door, looking a bit at a loss. She just kept sitting where she was, trying to wrap her head around things.

Locks and seals?

There had been no lock, she had walked right in. And in the end, looking behind her in that room with the many doors, she had found one gate wide open. It led into a thick forest full of sunshine.

One thing seemed clear to her. The one who had put up the seals in the first place? It had to have been Kakashi himself. Who else but him could invite her right into those sealed off portions inside his mind?

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi felt… off. Something was bugging him but he could not quite put his finger on it. Like an itch that was only just developing and therefore could not yet be scratched. He was so deeply in thought trying to figure out what it was, he only noticed the strange looks he got by the time he was almost at the hospital’s front door. Oh, great. There were many gossipers in Konoha who were probably already trying to figure out what he was doing here. Tsunade would hear about it. Questions would be asked that he would not want to answer.

Nodding to a flock of nervous nurses looking in his direction, he stepped outside into the slightly chilly spring evening, his hands buried in the pockets of his pants. He felt like he needed some time to himself before returning to the cramped Anbu quarters. But where to?

After turning his head from side to side a few times he decided to walk to the right. Soon sauntering through the emptying streets of Konoha at a leisurely pace, Kakashi's nose picked up the smell of dinners being prepared in the apartments around him. Settling down had never been an option for him but in certain moments, there was a pang of regret that nobody waited for him at home with steaming dishes he could praise for their deliciousness.

Not true. Yamato must be waiting anxiously for him at the headquarters, with some ultra healthy food and supplements in pill form. So there, no need for regrets.

Kakashi walked further, noticing the special fragrance of the air. The days were getting longer, the temperatures were picking up, everything was exploding in bloom. And tonight, with a gentle wind from the East, there was the soothing and familiar scent of pine trees in the air. He had spent many hours of his life racing through vast forests with death on his heels, Kakashi mused, not least because several of Konoha’s more dangerous training areas were dense forests. Did he even like forests? It seemed he did, the pine tree scent seemed pleasant. He had always thought he preferred the ocean.

That thought brought him back to Sakura. No, there was no connection between trees, oceans and Sakura at all, but his mind obviously wanted to think of her. Which wasn’t a problem, he had mastered the spark very well, he thought with no little pride, or rather she had, with the necessary professional attitude. Maybe it was old age catching up with him, but he had worried a great deal about going to see her earlier, mulling over so many things that could go wrong. Because there were too many, he had actually decided to leave after sitting on the roof of the hospital for a bit. But then he had wanted to catch a glimpse of her through the window at least and that had done it. His hands had taken over command at this point and had knocked before his brain could intervene.

Trusting someone with his mind the way he had trusted her did not come easy to him. Among his most unpleasant memories were instances of being trapped in deadly Genjutsu like Tsukuyomi that crushed your very soul. The worst thing about it was knowing that moment your mind could no longer distinguish between illusion and reality was fast approaching, with nothing you could do to stop it. Once that threshold was reached, it was over. He understood that the Genjutsu Sakura had explained worked differently but knowing something was different from not resisting anyway and different from working up the necessary trust that she would build a world that was pleasant for both of them.

A world he would not remember.

So it was probably this, Kakashi thought, that made him feel so… off. There was another gap in his memory now, added to the gaps that were already there, gaps that made him extremely uneasy. One minute, he had looked deeply into her green eyes, marvelling at just how much their color reminded him of the sun shining on newly grown leaves, the next, he had felt like he was floating in the sky like a cloud, gently carried away by the wind, with no substance, no body… only to wake up twenty minutes later with no recollection of anything.

In addition, Sakura had looked at him rather spooked, which… well, he had decided not to prod her for more information if she was not ready to offer it, but now that he thought about it… things must be worse than she dared tell him.

Sighing deeply, Kakashi looked up and found himself very close to a building labeled 図書館 in bold letters above the door. Konoha’s public library! It looked bigger than he remembered but also considerably more run-down. No wonder, war torn societies had little funds to spare for leisure and pleasure. Seeing light inside, Kakashi went in through the glass doors on a whim.

“Kakashi-san,” the young woman behind her desk stammered when she turned her head and sprang up so hastily, she almost toppled over her chair.

“Am I disturbing you?” he asked, catching a glimpse of her name plate. Akane Okami - should he know her? No, she was too young. There were towers of books before her on the table and from the utensils also there - stickers, some sort of plastic, scissors, a ruler, paper - he guessed she must be in the process of cataloguing and labeling them.

“N...no, please come in,” she said, “we are open.”

Thinking her behavior a little strange, Kakashi strolled in. The main room of the library was very high and spacious and when its slightly musty smell hit Kakashi’s nose, he remembered coming here during his years in the academy when he had gotten bored with school and needed a diversion. Only three other people were currently also at the library: A pair of very young lovers who seemed to think libraries were good places to hide in for undisturbed kissing-practice and an elderly lady who seemed half blind and had to press her nose against the books to read the titles.

Kakashi went to where his teenage self had always walked, finding all the Icha Icha books lined up with not one volume missing. Pulling his favorite one out - Icha Icha Innocence - he flicked to page 127 to read one of the most memorable passages. Ah, nostalgia... He had tried many other romance series but none had ever quite clicked with him like Master Jiraya’s masterpiece.

Remembering another book he had recently started to read, he went looking further down the aisle, then changed to the next row. Ha… Ha… Haru… or was it Uchiha? No, here it was!

He pulled out Sakura's “The Special Mental Health Needs of Children: An Essay” and quickly found the page he had gotten to the last time. Sakura’s writing style was very straightforward, bordering on blunt. He kinda liked it even though he was certain other people would take offense with it. She talked about how many adults were able to rationalize the violence experienced during the 4th Shinobi World War and that it was mainly the children who struggled to recover from the stress of War and the deaths of those they knew. It was a passionate plea that stirred a feeling of guilt in him, he wasn’t even sure why.

“If you want to sit, Kakashi-san,” the young librarian said timidly, “we have comfortable seats over there.”

He looked up. She stood a bit to the side, pointing to a corner, hardly daring to look at him. Many years ago, he had gotten into the habit of reading in every possible situation and position and hence had not even noticed he was leaning against the shelves standing up.

How attentive of the young woman to think about his comfort. Kakashi flashed her a smile and watched in surprise how her head turned the color of a ripe tomato. Had he done something wrong? Gingerly walking over to the lounge in the corner, he flopped down.

Sakura's book wasn't long and being a fast reader, he was soon done. He put it down and looked up at the ceiling. This idea… it was brilliant and if he could at all, he wanted to help her turn it into reality. Why did Konoha not already have a special facility for children? It was many years after the war already and those children were about to become adults. No wonder nobody wanted to become a shinobi anymore - if this generation was so deeply scarred from what they had witnessed, why should they ever wish to become active soldiers? How far had she gotten with planning, he wondered? If they had time, he wanted to ask her about it. There were quite a few things that needed to be considered if this should become something more concrete, maybe he should…

“Kakashi-san, do you need a pen and paper?” the librarian asked, the items in her outstretched hands.

“Do I know you?” he asked, taking them with a nod.

“N… no,” the young woman stammered, “but… you saved my brother and father’s lives during the war.”

Oh.

“I see,” he murmured, unsure whether to ask more information or to pretend he remembered saving anybody’s life.

“Once you are Hokage,” she said timidly, “we will come offer our services to you.”

“Who says I will be Hokage?!”

He was so surprised, his tone was very gruff. Her face turned so white she looked like a ghost and she fled so fast Kakashi was hit by a gust of air. He felt instantly bad about making her feel like she had offended him. He wasn’t offended, of course. But sometimes, he could not wrap his head around the fact that he was somebody people in the village talked about like this, forming expectations about his future, when he himself lived from day to day, never knowing whether he would survive the week.

But now that he was grounded, the likelihood of dying was very low. And spending his time trying to figure out what was needed for a Mental Health Clinic for children seemed like time very well spent. Kakashi began to write down a few ideas and things to check. The most difficult thing would be to get enough money - the village was in a very tight financial spot with dwindling numbers of shinobi that could be sent on missions. He would have to inquire about the financial prowess of the Fire Daimyō and his family with Lady Tsunade and whether there was a way to talk to him about this need of theirs. Finding a good spot for such a facility… that, too, would be tricky. He imagined it would have to be near the academy so that the children would be able to live as normal a life as possible.

Kakashi spent some time making notes. When he was done, the young woman was nowhere to be seen. He dawdled around a little before putting Sakura’s book back into the shelf, hoping she would come back so that he could apologize to her for his brusqueness, but she was possibly hiding and waiting that he would leave. Oh well. Maybe he would just need to come back another time to apologize.

Besides, he was hungry. Ravenous, in fact. It suddenly felt like he hadn’t eaten for several days. Yamato and his food pills were not what he needed right now. His feet took him straight to Ramen Ichiraku next. No surprise there, he was already feeling nostalgic.

“Kakashi Sensei! I haven’t seen you in ages! Are you here alone?” Teuchi asked, his face lit up by a broad smile. Ayame waved at him from the stove.

“Yes,” Kakashi said, “it’s that kind of day.”

Teuchi served him his favorite ramen without asking what he wanted. It looked to Kakashi as if there was extra meat in it - or had the old man changed his recipes?

“Would you like more?” Ayame asked once Kakashi had cleared his bowl.

“No, thank you,” he said after adjusting his mask. “If I don't watch my weight someone will put me on a brutal diet.”

He nestled for his wallet, beginning to count out the necessary coins.

“It's on the house,” Teuchi said, putting his hand on Kakashi’s to stall him.

That seemed to be happening an awful lot to him lately.

His face must have shown his confusion because Teuchi explained: “You're doing so much for the village, it's our way to say thank you.”

“It’s my job,” Kakashi murmured, feeling how his face turned a little hot. Doing a lot? He was just sitting around being bored out of his wits! He did not deserve the praise and the generosity of these people. He was completely useless right now and without his Sharingan… he’d probably never be really useful again.

“Once you are Hokage,” Teuchi said, “we will deliver to your office anytime you feel like eating Ramen!”

“Tell me,” Kakashi said quietly, “why do people suddenly think I will be Hokage?”

Teuchi frowned as if that question was striking him as strange. “Now that you’re back at the village, isn’t that what will happen? Lady Tsunade always says you’ll be. Soon.”

Did she now. She had some nerve.

“Did she tell people to give me things for free?” he asked following a hunch. It made sense. Ground him. Send Sakura his way to ‘keep him in check’. Old ties, new roots. His amnesia seemed far more convenient to her than she would admit.

“She did suggest it,” the owner of Ramen Ichiraku nodded.

“Dammit,” Kakashi cursed and got up. “Sorry, Teuchi, Ayame,” he quickly added, “and thank you for the meal. I wish you a very pleasant evening.”

Walking away, he felt anger, but it had no real edge to it. He couldn’t blame Tsunade for his own actions, could he. That she would quickly take advantage of his current weakness was only to be expected. And yes, she had asked him to take over from her many times. Maybe he should go see her at the Hokage Tower right away to clear the air. He had no desire to be Hokage once and for all and she needed to understand that. Maybe she would let him go on missions again afterwards?

He had perhaps walked for 5 minutes when the presence of someone’s aura hit him like a fist to the stomach.

“What do you want?” he asked into the shadows, instantly on high alert. He wasn’t carrying any weapons, he realized when his hand wanted to sneak to his absent pouch.

A man stepped forward, the light from one of the street lamps reflecting off his glasses.

“Kakashi Sensei,” he said in that taunting tone of his, “Preoccupied, are we? You noticed me very late. I’ve been shadowing you for a while.”

Kakashi shifted his legs apart instantly, falling into a defensive stance without even thinking. Was that why he had felt so strange? A well-hidden presence following him and he too careless to realize?

“Now, now,” Kabuto said, “I think we left all that behind us, did we not?”

“We did?” Kakashi asked, not letting down his guard for a second. He knew Kabuto as one of the sliest, most dangerous and cruelest Shinobi, playing skillfully with his opponents emotions and weaknesses.

Kabuto sighed dramatically. “I know you never liked me, but why? Sure, I tread on a wrong path for a bit. But you and I, we have so much in common!”

“I don’t think so,” Kakashi ground out.

“But we do,” Kabuto shrugged. “Growing up in the orphanage for parts of our lives. Being handpicked by Danzo for special training in Root. Killing people very close to us and our hearts. But I’m not here to argue with you, Kakashi Sensei.”

It wasn’t good how much the mere presence of this man could upset him, Kakashi thought as he gritted his teeth. Had he not always preached that a Shinobi could not let his feelings get the better of him?

Kabuto sighed. “Dim your killing intent, Kakashi Sensei, or you will spook the honorable citizens of Konoha in their comfortable homes.”

“What is it that you want?” Kakashi asked, indeed trying to calm himself. Anger only made you commit mistakes.

“I’m here to help you,” Kabuto said, back to a sarcastic tone that grated on Kakashi’s nerves.

“That’s interesting,” Kakashi retorted, “I don’t remember needing your help.”

“Ah, but you do. Doesn't your arm hurt?”

What now?!

“I see from your face it doesn’t yet,” Kabuto smiled, “good, I’m relieved. But let me warn you. It soon will. And once it does, things will quickly go downhill for you.”

“You know what?” Kakashi snarled. “I’ll take a chance with that.”

Kabuto sighed again. “I guess you’ve always been a stubborn one? Fine. Please go and make Tsunade give you those pills again at the very least. If she doesn’t, make sure to come to me before you’re dead.”

Kakashi felt so much like sinking his fist into that smug face before him his hands twitched by his side. His arm? The pills? Pain? Dying? Of course, Kabuto was gaining great pleasure from his cluelessness. What else.

“Ah,” Kabuto said, turning around to leave. “One other thing. Consider it a tipp between friends: stop fooling around with Sasuke’s wife. This really isn’t a good time to anger the last remaining Uchiha.”

And with a last condescending smile, Kabuto vanished in a puff of smoke.

****

I kissed him. I kissed him. I kissed him!

Sakura couldn’t stop the chanting in her head. She couldn’t stop feeling equally mortified and giddy either. All she could do was groan and let her head fall on the open book before her with a thud. It wasn’t even real! It had been an illusion! But that made everything worse! She should have said something to Kakashi after the Genjutsu Release at the very least!

Like… hey, so we kissed in that illusion I plunged you in, no big deal. You said I’m ‘very much’ your type, how could I not go for it?

If he ever remembered this… Sakura groaned again. Would it not look like she had taken advantage of him in his state of not even recognizing her? She was in so much trouble! She should have broken the illusion the very first time she had realized he started to look at her with interest. But… he was mistaken, she wasn’t strong at all. She was a weakling with no self control.

Her being his type. Was that true? Were things people said in illusions to be taken as expressions of their real selves? And what about the things they did?! He had kissed her back after all - even if somehow reluctantly at first. Man, he was a goddamn good kisser - or was it just how she imagined him to be?

Sakura lifted her head and forced herself to continue reading in the Fūinjutsu book she had gotten from the hospital library. This one was way more scientific than the Genjutsu book but also written much too dryly. No wonder she couldn’t concentrate! She still felt his lips on hers and worse, the memory made her body hum in anticipation for something that wouldn’t come, couldn’t ever.

“Dammit,” Sakura said, thinking she would love to use far more colorful swear words. It was after 8pm and sitting around here trying to read was absolutely pointless. But the thought of returning home to her husband with all this unspent lust for another man still in her system was...condemnable. Sasuke probably wouldn't mind if she jumped him but…it was wrong. Wrong. All of this was wrong. Including her realization that a part of her had lingered here in the hope that Kakashi would come back. That he would remember what had happened and would initiate the next phase.

Sakura closed the book, took off her medical-nin gown, shook her hair and grimaced at her distorted reflection in the office window. What a stupid cow she was.

She walked out of the hospital unsure what to do next. Go for a walk through town? It was dark, but the air was pleasant. Eat something? Ramen Ichiraku came to mind, comfort food that had never failed to make her feel better… if eaten in the right company. But maybe it would help her find her footing even if she went alone.

Halfway there, she ran into someone.

“Akane!” Sakura greeted her pleasantly surprised, “I haven’t seen you in too long!”

“Oh! Hello, Sakura,” the young librarian smiled, “I missed you at the library all these months!”

“Ah,” Sakura said with a sigh, “life has caught up with me. I wish I could do another research project and spend my evenings with you.”

“I wish for that too,” the young woman said.

“Are you headed home only now?” Sakura asked. “Did you work late tonight?”

“Hm,” Akane said, “I did, but… well… your Sensei came by and...”

“What?!”

“Yes,” Akane nodded, seeming strangely embarrassed, “I think I offended him. I hid in the backroom until he left, way after closing time.”

“Akane…,” Sakura couldn’t help but laugh, “I doubt that you managed to offend Kakashi. He isn’t the type of person to take offence easily and you are the type of person who is much too kind to offend anyone.”

“Thanks for saying this, Sakura,” Akane said, hanging her head. “But…,” she sighed.

“Would you… would you care to have some ramen with me at Ramen Ichiraku?” Sakura tried her luck. Why had Kakashi gone to the library? She was dying to find out more.

“Oh!” Akane said, lifting her head. “Yes! That would be great!”

It wasn’t far and since they had a lot to chat about, they reached the street where the ramen place was in what felt like no time. But before they actually got there, someone rushed out of a side street and almost collided with them.

Ino.

“Sakura!” the blonde smiled, “what a pleasant surprise, you are actually out and about and not working!”

“Ino!” Sakura exclaimed, “What are you doing here?”

“I delivered some flowers,” Ino shrugged, “the customer wanted them tonight, he has a big marriage proposal coming up. And you? Out partying?”

“Well, we’re headed to Ramen Ichiraku,” Sakura explained, pointing her finger at the small restaurant down the street, “do you want to join us? This is Akane, she works late shifts at the library.”

“Hi Akane, I think we’ve met. That ramen place… isn’t that where you guys always went… Naruto’s favorite?”

“Yeah,” Sakura nodded, “it’s his favorite.”

“Sure, I’ll come!” Ino said, “I’m on a diet, but I’m sure they have salads too, no?”

Sakura wasn’t so sure whether the owner of Ramen Ichiraku had anything on the menu for women on diets but she was too happy to have met people to hang out with so she didn’t say anything.

“Sakura!” Teuchi greeted her when they stepped in, “now that is a surprise.”

“Hello Teuchi,” Sakura said, “I might not come by often but I always miss you!”

“What is it with tonight! Your Sensei was here! He left about half an hour ago,” Teuchi informed her.

“Oh,” Sakura gulped.

“I’m so glad we missed him!” Akane exclaimed.

Sakura had to explain to the others, who made very surprised faces, that Akane was under the impression to have insulted Kakashi and was therefore not at all inclined to see him. That brought the conversation to Kakashi’s visit at the library.

“He came to read your book, Sakura,” Akane informed them, making Sakura almost faint on the spot.

“I’ll be damned,” Ino said, “somebody other than myself read your book? It’s a bestseller!”

“He made notes too,” Akane said.

“I remember you talking about it,” Teuchi said impressed, putting three steaming bowls of deliciously smelling ramen in front of them, completely ignoring Ino’s request for a ‘small salad’.

“It’s nothing much…,” Sakura blushed.

“That might be true,” Ino agreed, the first to grab chopsticks and rub her hands in glee, “but it’s still a very good idea. Remember? We wanted to go talk to the council about it.”

“Kakashi-san will take care of it, I’m sure,” Akane said. “And once he is Hokage…”

“He didn’t like to hear me suggesting that,” Teuchi mused.

“I know!” Akane agreed eagerly. “He got so angry!”

Hokage? Sakura fished a piece of meat out of her soup, of course Kakashi would hate to be pestered about something like that, he was far too humble.

“Did you just call him Kakashi?” Ino asked and Sakura almost swallowed the meat whole. Had she said that out loud? Uh-oh...

“Do tell,” Ino said, her eyes narrowed to slits, “when did your relationship status change?”

Sakura busied herself with slurping her noodles extra loud, pretending to be deaf on both ears. Ino had a sixth sense as if her nose was outfitted with special sniffing organs for intimate secrets and if she was onto her… When Teuchi asked whether she wanted more, she agreed overly eagerly, just to be able to continue slurping loudly. Of course, it was naive to think Ino would leave her alone. Ino’s eyes did not shift from her face even for a second and in her desperation, Sakura went for a third bowl. With the result that she felt so bloated and full she wanted to puke afterwards.

Ino took care of the bill and before Sakura could come up with an escape plan, the three of them had entered a small sake place across the street.

“I should go home,” Sakura said. Had Kakashi been here too? She almost expected it to be the case, on this evening of near-misses.

“Nonsense,” Ino retorted, “you missed my birthday and now we’ll make up for it.”

“That’s not true, I didn’t miss your…”

“Akane, do you drink?” Ino inquired, not paying Sakura any heed.

“Not really,” the young woman admitted, “but a little bit doesn’t hurt, right?”

Sakura meant to warn her, but it was too late. It was never ‘a little bit’ with Ino. They started with a selection of six sakes for each to find one they liked and it went downhill fast because they could not make up their minds.

“So, my dear friend,” Ino asked sweetly some time late when Akane had put her head on the table and it looked like the young woman had fallen asleep, “when did you start to drop the Sensei?”

Traps, traps, traps all around, Sakura squinted at Ino and considered lying, but that was no use, she knew it.

“L… last week?” she said, unsure herself for a moment, but that was it. At that bar.

“Have you two been meeting each other more often?”

“N… not yet,” Sakura heard herself say.

“Oh dear,” Ino said, shaking her head, “this isn’t good.”

“I know,” Sakura said tearfully, “I know.”

“So you plan to meet him more often? I can’t blame you,” Ino sighed, “a woman gets lonely.”

“It has nothing to do with being lonely! He… he was there for me when something really awful happened, he stayed with me… no, not what you’re thinking, he was just there, holding me, comforting me… he is… he needs…,” but his secrets were not hers to share.

“It has everything to do with it,” Ino said, “what does Sasuke expect? You’re such a beautiful woman in your prime, does he think you’ll keep on waiting for him until you’re old and grey?”

“Sasuke wants a child,” Sakura said, looking at Ino for a reaction.

Her friend shook her head. “And you?”

“I… not yet. It’s too early.”

“He probably feels the burden of being the last of his clan,” Ino suggested, “if he dies…”

“Don’t say that!” Sakura said horrified.

“Sorry,” Ino apologized, “but that’s definitely an issue. For the whole of Konoha, actually. No more Sharingan in all its variants? Wow, that would be another heavy blow for us…”

“He can breed Sharingan carriers with somebody else,” Sakura said viciously, “I’m not an Uchiha incubator.”

“Hm, Sakura,” Ino said, “I don’t think he sees you as an incubator. I think Sasuke is very much in love with you.”

Did Ino just want to make her feel better? Sakura looked at her, at a loss what to say.

“And how do you know this?” she pressed out.

“Well, for one, he has just come in here, looking for you.”

Sakura swiveled around and indeed... There he was, Sasuke Uchiha, his black hair covering half of his face, his cloak covering his missing limb so that it would not be quite as obvious that he was impaired. His dark eyes found hers and he scowled, looking even more displeased than usual.

“Oh. I guess it’s late,” Sakura said.

“I’ve got this,” Ino told her, indicating the table and Akane. “You go home. Girlfriend, I’m here if you need to talk.”

“Thanks, Ino,” Sakura said and hugged her friend tightly.

“Pffft,” Ino said, “just don’t do anything you’ll regret, you hear me?”

Sasuke and Sakura walked home in silence. She didn’t care, in fact, she was glad she didn’t have to make conversation. The scent of pine trees in the air was a timely reminder that in an illusion of her own making, she had kissed another man.

But once he had closed the door of their current apartment behind them, Sasuke grabbed her arm.

“Please do not do this again,” he said. “Do you know how worried I was?”

Sakura looked at him and his ever scowling countenance. “No, Sasuke. I don’t know such things. You never tell me anything. I’ll admit, I forget about you tonight. I’m sorry, I’m not used to this… this thing called marriage. Happens when you’re always alone.”

“Sakura…”

“I know, I know. Not your fault, but maybe that's just an excuse. You know what? I’m tired and I’ve got work tomorrow. Goodnight.”

And she stomped off towards the bathroom to brush her teeth and take a shower. Maybe it was better if she slept in the guestroom tonight.

 

Chapter Text

6.53 pm.

Sakura was so exhausted she could barely walk back to her office. It was one of those days you wanted to erase from your life completely, hoping not a sliver of a memory would remain - yet you knew there would be no such mercy, your soul was forever tarnished by the horrors you had experienced.

She had been roused way before sunrise by two Anbu members who had knocked persistently and with mounting impatience until Sasuke had opened the apartment door. They had informed Sakura with brusque words she was needed immediately at the hospital, the Lady Hokage was already waiting.

Curing her own hangovers was easy for Sakura, it was just like removing any other poison. But there was nothing that she could do to properly prepare herself for the kind of carnage that awaited her in the ICUs. Two Anbu squads had been ambushed outside and whatever monster it was that had done this kind of damage to their bodies, it shook awake the terror and blackest of despairs in her she sadly knew all too well from the past war. If this was how humanity treated life, what hope was there for humanity?

The first thing she noticed when she opened her office door was Kakashi sitting outside her window, reading a book with a dull looking cover.

She hadn't forgotten about their appointment, in fact, she had thought about it several times during the day, but with a mounting feeling of regret that had only fed her despair. She had become convinced she would not be able to see him. Sakura had even doubted she would be able to go home before the next morning, if at all.

But there he was, looking at her through the window like it was the most normal thing that a Shinobi of his class would sit on such a small ledge on the third floor and wait for her even though she was almost a full hour late.

Her legs shook violently from exhaustion and where her feet touched the ground there was a sea of searing pain, but she managed to walk to the window and open it without falling over and making a fool of herself.

"You shouldn't have waited for me," she said instead of a greeting after he had climbed in, immediately hating herself for making it sound like a reproach when in truth, she could not imagine anything more welcome than seeing him.

"I don't have a watch," he replied smoothly, "I completely forgot time."

It was clearly an excuse, he really was bad at lying. He had waited because however disinterested he seemed in general, he cared about a lot of things. And apparently, he cared about seeing her. What was keeping her from burying her face into his chest and crying her eyes out?

Nothing.

Sakura stumbled forward and threw her hands around his middle, pressing her face against his shirt. Grief balled itself together into a red-hot orb that was rising up in her throat, choking her.

Kakashi said nothing when she started sobbing uncontrollably, her whole body shaking so much it seemed like she couldn't stand up any longer. He just held her, tightening his arms around her shoulders, later using one hand to stroke her hair, simply letting her cry. He smelled of mandarin oranges with a hint of freshly mown grass, she would simply not let go, never again.

"Better?" He asked when the tears ceased and very gently began to disengage her arms from around himself.

No! She hung on, desperately but ultimately in vain. He brought a proper distance between them by keeping her at arm's length and peered into her eyes with concern.

"I shouldn't have come at all," he said, "it was selfish. You look completely exhausted. Should I accompany you home?"

"No!" Sakura exclaimed.

"Have you eaten anything?" he continued his questioning. Sakura nodded though with little vigor. Special food pills for medical-nin, she wouldn't have been able to keep anything else down.

He looked skeptical. He also looked worried in a familiar kind of way, exactly like those people waiting outside the operating rooms for news about how the operation had gone. Right. How could she have forgotten, these people she had treated today were his comrades, some of them might even be his friends.

But why come to her for this? He could as well have asked Tsunade. Or Yamato. Unless...

"Has anybody talked to you about what happened last night?" Sakura asked.

Kakashi shook his head, his face betraying even more of his turmoil now.

Ah. That's why he was here. Tsunade was still punishing him for reasons Sakura couldn't quite understand. They had left him in the dark as if he were a security threat.

"Sit down," Sakura said and pointed to the patient chair, "I'll tell you everything I know."

She herself fell into her own chair with a suppressed groan. Getting up again would be difficult. She really had no energy left.

"You do not need to do this," Kakashi said after sitting down, a sentence Sakura found too familiar and frankly annoying.

"I don't, but I want to," she retorted curtly.

And she told him in few words about ripped off limbs and bodies that had been slashed open, about the screams of the wounded, her, Shizune and Tsunade's teamwork, the exhaustion after hours and hours of focusing chakra on ripped arteries and failing hearts so that three Anbu members would maybe survive while seventeen others died gruesome, painful deaths.

Funny how recounting these horrors felt like purging herself off the worst of the shame she felt from not being able to save more of them, how her blunt emotionless words took with them some of the grief as they left her mouth, maybe to blossom anew inside of him. It would have helped had he wailed and sobbed because she always managed to become the calmest when people around her lost it. But Kakashi had seen his own share of horrors, this was nothing to a battle hardened soldier like him.

Yet, when she had finished, he briefly closed his eyes. She couldn't bear to see the look of defeat and despair crossing his face.

"I really tried everything," she mumbled, feeling an urge to explain herself, "but so many of them died."

"It's not your fault," Kakashi said bitterly, "I know you did your best, you always do."

If it wasn't her fault, whose fault was it then? So many lives lost. So many futures destroyed. What was the point of getting up in the morning if in the end, there was only death?

"I hope Tsunade lets me go out and catch those bastards," Kakashi ground out. "I'm going crazy not being able to do anything!"

For a moment, I feared you were among the wounded, Sakura remembered the numbing shock this morning she had felt before realizing she had mistaken another silver haired man for Kakashi, may you stay grounded forever, I don't want you in the field.

"What is out there?" Sakura asked him, because she had not have time to talk to Tsunade at all even though they had been in the room together all day and because she was pretty certain the Hokage was not inclined to tell her.

The thing had claws, long and sharp ones and it had teeth to rip arms out of sockets and heads off shoulders. But if such a monster was loose, shouldn't they have heard of it before from other villages?

Kakashi's blank stare brought her back to reality fast. Right. He didn't remember. Why? He had sealed off parts of his mind himself. Why? She had no clue.

"Should we try the Genjutsu again?" she asked him, trying to muster the necessary strength to get out of her chair and walk around the table to sit opposite of him.

"You must have almost depleted your chakra," Kakashi said. "Let's forget about it today."

Whom was he trying to fool? He would probably give his right arm to be able to get over his amnesia, it was written all over his face.

"Let me do this, please," she said, adding that last word quite strategically, "I will feel better afterwards."

Maybe I will meet your alter ego in the forest again? she hoped. Would he remember her? It wasn't too bad if he didn't, all that mattered was that he opened up to her again, like last time. Yes, of course she had mainly been thinking about the kiss, but in addition, having been the one to make a grim, grieving person smile made her very happy.

Sakura knew about herself that helping people was what she wanted the most. The harder it was to help, the bigger her satisfaction when she succeeded. More, she wanted people to need her, people like Sasuke, whose hearts were beating out of sync with the rest of humanity. There could be no doubt about it, she wanted Kakashi to need her too. A man never moved to strong emotions unless he was defending the lives of people he cared for. A man who was always friendly but never let anyone get close to him. A man who had experienced things in his past that should have left him warped and broken yet lived with little apparent scars or regrets. What was his secret?

"Alright," Kakashi said and moved his chair so that she could take a seat opposite him like the night before.

Of course he remembered the sequence of hand signs without having to ask for it again. He may have lost his Sharingan, but it made little difference: he remained one of Konoha's finest Shinobi and in her current state of misguided infatuation, it made her feel stupidly proud.

Upon the last "Tori" they spoke together Sakura found herself engulfed in utter blackness as if a thick sack had been pulled over her head.

Surprised, she drew a shaking breath, but before she could begin to orient herself, she was back in the office, sitting on the chair with her legs pressed against Kakashi's. Mere seconds had passed.

Shit.

"What happened?" Kakashi asked with a frown.

Sakura shook her head, frowning too. Was her chakra too low? She had been kicked out of the illusion.

"Let's try again."

They did. Upon the last hand sign, utter blackness engulfed her, like all light had been snuffed out at the snap of a finger.

"Kakashi"? she asked into the dark, hearing how her voice lost itself in what seemed to be a very large, empty room made from stone. And in it... a lurking presence... - she blinked. Dammit! Back where there was light, back in the office!

"Curse this, I cannot seem to build a world," she admitted, "everything is slipping right past me."

"I knew you were too tired," Kakashi said sternly. "It's dangerous to do any jutsu with low chakra reserves, I told you that many times."

She glared at him. Was he pulling one of his "I'm your Sensei"-moves? One of these days she would challenge him to a friendly genjutsu battle! She was pretty sure she had the greater skills than him in this department. But men were very sensitive to being upstaged by women, she'd have to wait for the right moment to suggest this.

"Who says it's me? I could be you who is resisting!"

"Me?" he asked astonished.

"Yes, this is a joint Genjutsu, remember? If your head is not in it, it won't work."

"Okay," he nodded. "I see what you mean. I will try harder. It's just... it is weird not to know what is going on in my mind when you're there."

"If we do this right, you'll remember everything else, should it not make it worth it? One more time," she said with authority, though something like guilt stirred inside of her. She knew she should have told him everything yesterday, but it was fast becoming too late.

Another running through the jutsu together and she found herself in the same blackness. Sakura concentrated extra hard on getting a feeling for the world around her and it didn't slip away this time, so maybe it was Kakashi who made the difference. There was a slightly musty, metallic smell. The temperature was best described as not too cold and not too warm, so it seemed plausible that this room was somewhere underground.

"Kakashi?" she asked.

She had felt somebody's presence the second time, but now, the room around her seemed empty. Should she walk forward? Sakura felt fairly confident she would not suddenly fall into a hole, her battle skills may be rusty but her kunoishi senses would never fail her.

After Sakura had taken five steps, the dripping started. A warm, sticky liquid trickling down from above. She recognized it almost instantly by its scent: blood.

"Gross," she gagged, "Kakashi, where are you?"

"Who are you?" somebody asked right next to her, making her jump and squeal. Kunoishi senses? She had not felt him approach at all. He knew how to hide his aura masterfully even though his voice... it was a boy's voice.

"I am Sakura," she said, trying to ignore the blood that was still dripping down. "Are you Kakashi?"

"Are you part of my training?" he asked flatly, "do I need to kill you?"

"No!" Sakura exclaimed horrified, "I came here to find... you?"

She wasn't sure it was him, but the quality of his voice and the lazy cadence of his speech... it was familiar. From the absolute darkness, a faint red glow emerged. Sharingan.

"Can you see me with this?" she asked.

"Your chakra flow," he answered, "I had to check what you are. What do you want?"

Good question. She hesitated ever so briefly before giving him an answer and in that moment, she suddenly felt an increase of highly alert chakra from him.

"Get down," he hissed and pushed her so hard, she fell backwards on her bum gracelessly.

It was like the darkness gave itself substance. One moment, it was the two of them, the next, it was hundreds of assailants whose movements filled their surroundings with an eerie rustling sound, insect-like and menacing.

The boy drew a sword that emitted a white, blinding light and began slashing left and right so fast Sakura was reminded of lightning splitting up the sky. Light... it meant she saw what he was up against. A chill gripped her, freezing her body.

Oni masks.

Always oni masks.

There were so many, the light from the sword was soon reflected by a fast approaching wall of white faces. She saw it was Kakashi fighting them, a young version, but his skill was already extraordinary. For a moment, it looked like he might be able to do the impossible and vanquish the silent enemies coming at him - but the sheer mass made it impossible, he went down with a groan when dozens of them jumped him simultaneously.

He wasn't going to die in front of her, was he?!

Sakura tried to move, but it was like time slowed down completely. Stretching out an arm took five times longer than usual and by the time she had gotten herself to her knees, it was over.

The attackers vanished in puffs of smokes and utter darkness descended again.

"Kakashi?" she asked nervously, "Kakashi?"

"I am here," the boy said. She heard from his voice that he was in a lot of pain, but for the moment, she was just relieved he was still speaking. "What do you want?" he asked her again.

"Take you out of here," Sakura said on impulse because what was it if not that? Gates, seals, Kakashi in mental and physical pain... there had to be a gate again, a way to help him escape this.

"It's forbidden," kid-Kakashi informed her, sounding annoyed. "My training isn't done yet."

"What kind of a training is this supposed to be?" Sakura asked appalled, moving closer to his voice in order to check for wounds. He was just a kid!

"Are you really from the Leaf?" he asked.

"Of course I am!" Sakura bristled.

"Let me feel your headband as proof," he demanded.

She took it off and moved even closer to him, "here," she said, "I'm holding it out."

His fingers came searching for it, briefly touching her hand. They were ice cold. She grasped them, resisting his attempt to pull them away and sent a short burst of chakra into his body to search for damage. Nothing. That could only mean one thing.

"Was it Genjutsu earlier?" she asked him. She moved her hand over her body. There were no traces of blood at all. That must have been part of the Genjutsu too! Genjutsu within Genjutsu? It was the first time she heard of that.

"Yes, of course," the boy said, "else I would be dead. Now could I get my hand back? I don't like to be touched."

"So you are sitting here in the dark for training reasons?" she asked, letting go of his hand and putting her headband back on.

"Is your hearing bad?" he scoffed, "it's what I said."

"What for?!" she exclaimed.

"How did you even get in here?" kid-Kakashi asked suspiciously, "I don't trust you. You're acting strange."

"Is there a door?" she asked him, thinking she needed some light, it was weird to talk to him in the utter darkness. Sakura created a small but bright chakra flame on top of her index finger, looking at the face in front of her. Large eyes, one black, one red. Black face mask covering mouth and nose. Unruly silver hair.

What a cute little boy he was, she thought and smiled at him, resisting an impulse to ruffle his hair and pinch his cheek.

"Snuff out the light, I am supposed to train in absolute darkness," he said gruffly, though eying her with interest. "You have pink hair? That's so weird, I've never seen that before. Is it dyed?"

"No, it's not," she said offended, glaring at him. "Do you have no manners? I'm probably twice as old as you, show a little respect!"

"Oh... do you want me to call you Nee-chan?" he nodded. "I seem to remember older women like that?"

Sakura decided to ignore him. "I asked you whether there is a door," she repeated a bit snippy.

"Sure," he replied, "how else could I have gotten in here."

"Can you show me where it is? Are there seals there?"

"Of course," he replied, "how else would they make sure I can't get out?"

Excitement gripped her. Seals! There were seals! Finally the thing she had come for in the first place. She had to study them!

"Lead me there!" she demanded.

"Why?" he frowned, "it's disadvantageous. If they attack again..."

"I don't care!" she shouted.

Kid-Kakashi shook his head at her, but complied by sheathing his sword - he carried it on his back - and by starting to walk. Somewhat amused to see he put his hands in his pockets just like his older self, she measured his height with her eyes, finding it shorter than hers.

"How old are you?" she asked him. Ten? Or more? She never quite knew with kids.

"Old enough to know that this will have uncomfortable consequences," kid-Kakashi grumbled without looking at her. "I hate it when they change the rules like this."

They had not walked more than fifty steps when there was another attack, just as fast and gruesome as the first - but this time, she was prepared - "Genjutsu Release!" she said and got to watch young Kakashi whirl and slash into empty air.

"Have you not learned how to counter Genjutsu?" she asked him after he had caught his breath, obviously under the impression that he had vanquished the assailants. "Why are you fighting them?"

"Because I'm supposed to," he answered. "Snuff out the light already, I told you I have to train in darkness! Besides, it blinded me earlier, making me lose points."

She shook her head. "But I don't have to do idiotic training and I don't like to walk around without any light."

He pulled a face at her before turning around and sauntering forward.

"I never knew, but you are so much like a certain Uchiha!" she said.

"I'm not at all like any Uchiha!" he bristled angrily.

"Yes, you are, brat," she retorted. The pout. The attitude. The arrogance. And most likely... the loneliness. His father had killed himself, leaving him alone in the world. The hurt of being abandoned. Children who had experienced the worst and were trying to cope by putting their everything into training and becoming stronger. They were very much alike.

"So how do I counter Genjutsu?" kid-Kakashi asked after a bit of silent treatment, walking slower so he could fall in beside her.

"Aha, now you want to know?" she couldn't help but tease him. "Fine. It's easy. Genjutsu is control of someone's chakra. So you must disrupt the chakra flow in your body for a long enough moment. That's it."

He scowled at her and she had to laugh. How could he know that he would once become a teacher who'd spout off Shinobi wisdom like this at little ninjas who had no clue about anything but the very basics.

"That, or you overload your senses to the point where your body snaps itself out of the genjutsu. Pain usually helps," she explained.

"Hurting myself?" he asked, sounding way too intrigued.

"Yes, but the first works much better and against more powerful genjutsu. Oh, and there is another way, probably the most effective. You have to get some foreign chakra source to disrupt yours so that your inner chakra balance is disrupted."

"Foreign chakra source?"

"A team member," she said. "One not caught in the Genjutsu."

"Ah," kid-Kakashi said coldly, "well, I have no team members anymore."

"You will have them again," she said. "That and more. You are capable of much love, Kakashi."

He stopped dead in his tracks, glaring at her like she had just insulted him. "Love? That's bullshit. I want no such thing in my life."

Sakura had to laugh at his angry scowl. "Silly boy. Do you think you can help it?"

"I will not allow it," he said with much conviction. "It's the most dangerous weakness of a Shinobi."

"We are not human without love," Sakura said softly. "The greatest Shinobi are the ones who love the most. One day... one day you will know I was right even though you won't even remember talking to me."

"Ah, now I understand," he said, his expression turning cold. "You are from that cult that has been coming to the orphanage."

"Uhm... what?" Sakura said.

"Preaching love and all that. And then taking children away that never return. I'm not stupid, I know you use them to do those experiments."

"Excuse me?!"

"You're all the same, you old people," he muttered. "You pretend to care but you all you care about is yourselves."

"What cult are you talking about? We have no cults in Konoha."

"The blind will never see," he said sullenly and stopped.

"What? Why are you stopping?" he was irritating, this little one. Kind of how she had always imagined a little brother to be.

"We are here."

She looked up and realized they had reached a wall indeed - with a very large brick gate that was plastered full of seal tags.

"What kind of writing is this?" Sakura exclaimed after failing to decipher the meaning of the symbols.

Kid-Kakashi shrugged.

Sakura stepped even closer to study the tags. There were at least five different symbols and the tags had two colors: blue and red. She counted. Seven red, eight blue. Luckily, she had read a Fuinjutsu book just recently. An imbalance? Was it possible two different people had put them on?

"Can you use your Sharingan to see how the chakra flows on this wall?" she asked Kakashi.

He shrugged again but stepped next to her, concentrating.

"Two patterns," he informed her matter-of-factly, "a red and a blue one. The red flows from left to right and circles down in a spiral. The blue is more like... a snake? Or like smoke. It rises from the bottom to the top and falls down again."

Hm. Sakura bit her lower lip. She was very good at Genjutsu Release, but Fuinjutsu Release? She had only just started to think about it recently and had not gotten very far in her research.

"Just leave it be, Sis," kid-Kakashi said and for the very first time since she had come to this place, he sounded capable of fear. "It is forbidden."

"Can you trust me? I can protect you," she said.

Though as she said it, she vaguely remembered a conversation she had had not too long ago. Hadn't she told Kakashi she would consult with him before opening any seals in his head? She had, but how should she go about that in this situation? She was tired, there was no guarantee she would even find this place again if she went back to the office before taking action. Besides, when she had thought about the seals in his head, she had always assumed she would open doors from the outside not the inside, which was entirely different from freeing Kakashi from his mind prisons.

No... rather than jeopardize today's success she would try to disrupt the chakra network of the seals by sending her own concentrated chakra against its flow. Her skill with micromovements was very good, she was capable of cutting minuscule substances from human bodies.

"Tell me exactly how the chakra flows on the wall. How thick are the threads? Where do they connect to?"

"You do not listen, do you," kid-Kakashi said, "I hate women who are like that."

"Oh just shut up," she barked at him, "you tiny squirt, you know nothing about women. Just do as you're told."

That rendered him quiet. When she wanted to, she could be scary she thought with satisfaction.

It took many tries for her to get even close to hitting one of the chakra flows in the correct way. If she had ever doubted that she could get tired in a Genjutsu of her own making, now she knew: she certainly could. Her fingers began to throb painfully after the thirtieth try and by the time she almost got it, they had gone entirely numb.

It had to be hours later, it was hard to track time in this place, but due to a mixture of luck and sheer tenacity, Sakura managed to simultaneously disrupt the blue and the red seals' flow. With a hiss, the tags dissolved and the door disappeared. A dull light came streaming in. There was a whiff of forest scent.

I did it! I did it! she jubilated, feeling super accomplished. It looked like that other place out there, the "mind entry hall" where all the doors and seals were.

"Come!" she told kid-Kakashi and held out her hand to him.

He looked very spooked.

"Come," she repeated, "there's nothing to be afraid of!"

Well, not that she knew where those mind-Kakashis went after she opened the doors. Did they stop to exist? Merge with Kakashi's subconsciousness completely? But it had to be good to get them out of their scary prisons, no?

"This doesn't look like anything I've ever seen," kid-Kakashi said and stepped forward cautiously to catch a glimpse of what was beyond the wall of his prison. "Oh wait. Is this Genjutsu? Let me..."

A look of deep concentration came over his face as he folded his hands and before she could intervene, a strong burst of chakra almost ripped her off her feet and slapped her so hard, she cried out. An instant later, she was back in the office.

It was 7.07 pm.

She felt a hundred years older. She needed to sleep. Sleep for weeks. What a day.

The adult Kakashi in front of her took a deep breath as awareness returned to his eyes.

"Ouch," he said, "that was rough."

"Oh," Sakura said, feeling a pinch of worry, "what happened?"

"I... well, yesterday, it was like floating on clouds. Just now... it was like... falling from a cliff and dying."

"It's okay," she said and pressed his hands that rested in hers, "I opened some seals."

"You did?" he said and his tone should have been a warning, but she was still bathing in the afterglow of her great success.

"I met a kid-version of you," she told him with a fond smile, "man, you had an attitude."

"Where?" he asked, his frown deepening.

"In an underground training facility?" she mused. "It was entirely dark and you were constantly attacked. Yesterday, I met you in a huge forest. An Anbu-version of yourself."

"Those are... memories, I think," he said. "I don't understand."

"I thought they could be versions of memories, I don't understand either," she admitted, "I am not even sure what my part is in the Genjutsu, I get the feeling it is you who controls them. Some things are strange. For example, in both worlds, people with oni-masks were after you. What does it mean? And you said something about a cult who took away children? And do you have any idea why you would seal these memories off?"

"Me?" he asked astonished.

"Yes! I have reason to believe that you are the one who put seals into your own mind, do you not recall."

"Sakura..."

Something in his face changed.

"What is it?" she asked alarmed.

"We might have made a massive mistake," he ground out.

"Why?" she asked, feeling heat rise to her face, "did I do something wrong?"

"My arm hurts," he pressed out. "A lot."

Kakashi pulled his hands from hers and gripped his left arm with such force, his knuckles stood out ghostly white.

"He warned me," Kakashi murmured.

"Whom are you talking about?" Sakura asked alarmed, watching in frozen horror how his face turned an ashen color. Alarms went off in her medical-nin head.

"Kabuto."

"Kabuto?! Kakashi, what is going on?"

"He said... to take the pills..."

"Take off your shirt," Sakura urged him, trying to process what she was hearing, "let me look."

She gasped when he had bared his torso and she saw what had happened to the tattoo on his left arm.

"Shit," she murmured. "Shit."

Once a small red flame, it now was the size of half his arm. And it continued growing as she stared at it, sending red, hungry tendrils towards his heart.

When she touched it, the first thing she realized was how hot Kakashi's skin was. Quickly moving a hand to his forehead, she confirmed that he was running a very high fever. Kakashi had his eyes closed, swaying ever so lightly. It looked like he was about to pass out.

"Dammit," Sakura cursed. "Kakashi, can you stand? You must lie down. Come, over there!"

She dragged his heavy body over to the treatment couch where he collapsed and lay utterly still, breathing shallowly. This wasn't happening, was it, she thought as she was taking his pulse. His body was beginning to fail. She felt like she had no grasp of what reality was anymore, as if her exhausted mind was mixing dream elements into her waking hours or was it the other way round.

"What is this thing," she yelled, "Kakashi, can you talk?"

"I... am.... sorry," was all he said.

"I will remove whatever substance it is," she informed him, "I don't care how valuable it is or who put it there, alright?"

No answer. His breathing became more irregular. Not good.

"Kakashi!" she yelled at him, "hang on!"

She readied her chakra in her fingers, finding her reserves low, so very low. What if... but no, she could not think of failure or about whether this was her fault, all her fault. She couldn't let herself be distracted, not now. She needed to concentrate. Hard. Find the substance in his bloodstream. Find the source of his quickly worsening state. The tattoo, a seal... a broken seal, leaking poison into his body. No, not poison... or was it? It was a substance... it was... blood! Blood, but not his blood, thus acting just like a poison.

Feeling disgust, she began to draw it out, tendril after tendril, but her fingers weren't fast enough so she began using her mouth too to suck it out of him, spitting it on the floor, so dangerous because if it were poison, she would die right with him, which... she deserved.

This was her fault.

"You shouldn't have trusted me," she sobbed, completely exhausted after the crisis was averted and his breathing had stabilized. "I am useless. No, worse! I kill people. Today, I killed seventeen of your comrades and now I almost killed you. I give up. I don't want to live in a world where there's only pain."

No clue. She had no clue what she was doing, worse, she had jeopardized his life by meddling with Genjutsu she did not understand. Fat tears fell down on the chiseled muscles of his upper body, leaving glistening trails in the artificial light. Things became very blurry all of a sudden.

I've completely exhausted myself, Sakura realized, this is not good. I might pass out. If I have not managed to stop it, he will die.

"Sakura," he whispered, his eyes fluttering open. "Sakura, how will I ever repay you for saving my life again and again?"

"Stay as far away from me as possible," she pressed out, her eyes filling with tears again.

"Is... is this truly what you wish for?" he whispered, obviously finding it hard to keep his eyes open. "If so, I will... I will comply even though..."

He gripped her hand with surprising force, interlacing his fingers with hers.

"Just now, I believed I was going to die. There was one thing I kept thinking, one thing..." he faltered.

"Maybe you shouldn't speak just now," she said, but she bent forward, she inhaled deeply, his scent, feeling so incredibly dizzy, stabilized only by his warm hand.

"You are right, I should not say it," he said even more quietly, "I have no right."

For balance she put her free hand next to his head. His hair was there at her fingertips and she touched it compulsively, finding it much softer than she had imagined it. Running her fingers through it was very pleasant, like touching that silk coat her mother had worn when she had been a child.

"Stop. Unless you have lots and lots of water at hand," he whispered.

"Not a single drop," Sakura replied, clumsily climbing onto the treatment couch, "just... hold me. Please."

Kakashi turned to his side wordlessly, offering his right arm as a pillow. She snuggled up against him, so warm and comforting, feeling more tears pressing against her eyes but much too tired to care. He put his other arm around her and cradled her against his chest.

"Thank you," she said, "I just need to... rest...," she was already falling asleep or unconscious but for a passing moment, she worried about the unlocked door and the people that might find them here, the lights that were still on, falling off the small couch, the shower she hadn't taken, fresh underwear she didn't have, the time, the place, everything...

"I'm here," he said by her ear, "I've got you."

With a sigh, she let go and like a candle being snuffed out, her senses left her completely.

 

Chapter Text

Sakura's temperature was dropping. Shudders shook her body in shorter and shorter intervals and the bare skin of her lower arms was ice cold to the touch. Kakashi knew the signs: severe chakra depletion.

He tried to wrap himself around her more thoroughly, willing his body heat to flow into her since there was no blanket in reach. But whom was he trying to fool... When he had still had the Sharingan, he had been able to copy every jutsu used in his line of sight, which included medical ninjutsu - but even though he could mimic the hand signs perfectly, the effects it had were laughable. The copy ninja had many talents but healing was decidedly not one of them.

Kakashi was precariously close to falling off the narrow treatment couch, but he wanted Sakura to be as comfortable as possible as he did what she had asked him to do: Hold her. That she had jeopardized her safety for him once more... it touched him. No... actually, it made him feel damn guilty. She had lived a safe life as long as he had not been in it. As soon as he had made an appearance, she had been almost raped and killed and had to worry about things not her responsibility daily. For someone as big-hearted and selfless as her to think she was useless because of him, to say she would give up and didn't want to live anymore...

Feeling despair, Kakashi buried his face in her hair. Stay as far away from me as possible, she had said. Yes, it was the only right thing to do. But the mere thought... it hurt in ways it shouldn't. He had been careful for most of his adult life not to forge emotional bonds that would jeopardize his performance as a Shinobi. Sure, he had greatly cared for his Team 7 kids as their Sensei. He would have given his life for them without a second thought if necessary. It was an honor code he lived by, it was part of his duty. But this? This was different.

A discomforting certainty was growing in him that given the wrong circumstances, he would choose to do things for Sakura that had nothing to do with duty, things that might well jeopardize the village. How had he gotten himself in such a situation? Had he ignored the warning signs?

He tightened his arms around her, hoping her shivers would stop soon. It always got worse before it got better, he was no stranger to chakra depletion himself. Using the Sharingan had thrown him into bed regularly, often for long periods of time. Nothing a bit of rest wouldn't fix, but it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

And then he needed to focus on something else to distract himself from thinking about the shuddering body that was pressed against his. He had tried to tell himself holding her like this was entirely innocent, like a father holding a child, but her body was no child's. It was soft and fragrant like only women's bodies were and he could try to father or Sensei-zone himself all he wanted, it did not have the desired effect.

Another trick that had backfired miserably earlier was Kakashi trying to pretend this was just a scene from one of the Icha Icha books, where the young woman was traumatized by the advances of an older man whom she considered a gross old fart. But that didn't add up either. This type of skinship would never happen to anyone but the destined couple in any Icha Icha book.

Now, he was forcing his mind to recall what she had told him about her experience in the Genjutsu. Solving riddles was an excellent way to distract yourself and this riddle was a tough one. Just like before, he felt like he was looking at the pieces of a puzzle without knowing how large the jigsaw was going to be, hence with not even a clue about how many pieces were missing.

Sakura had suggested he might have been the one to put seals in his own mind.

He indeed knew of a Fuinjutsu method that would do that: the Mind-Sealing Technique. It was used in order to suppress memories that could get in the way of difficult missions, like for example a Shinobi sent to kill somebody very close to him. It was a Forbidden Jutsu because the risks associated with it for the wielder were very high, ranging from temporary confusion to raging insanity with frequent use. That he would resort to such a technique was not impossible, but in which scenario would he seal off his own memories and then forgot about it?

Unfortunately - no, fortunately, he corrected himself - the one who had taught him the technique was dead. Kakashi doubted anybody else but Danzo Shimura knew enough about the jutsu to be able to shed light on the workings of it, but maybe it was worth tracking down others who had been in the Foundation aka Root? It probably was no coincidence Sakura had met his younger self during the training designed to break you over and over, to kill all that was human inside of you...

Carefully, Kakashi fished for the memories of that time. Had he not been able to access them before? He remembered now, though only through a haze. His younger self had lacked the words to call the physical and emotional abuse by a name, which made the memories strangely insubstantial. He had been numb back then, a child who wanted to plunge himself into a black hole and take the whole world with him. Root was entirely devoid of warmth, but for the emotionally broken, its attempts to erase your very existence to turn you into a tool for destruction was meaningful in a warped kind of way. He thought it might be the reason he had survived despite his wish to be done with living.

The next clue were the oni-masks Sakura had claimed were in both the memories she had accessed. Was it a coincidence the attackers from the other week had also worn oni-masks? Probably not. A cult that took away children though? He knew of no cult. But shouldn't he, now that she had unlocked those memories if those really were memories? He had left the orphanage the very day Danzo had approached him at the cemetery without a word of thanks or goodbye. It wasn't like they had ever maltreated him there. Had there not been a woman...

Hm. The haze in his brain increased to a white wall.

"Maybe this will be the next memory for you to unlock," he whispered into Sakura's ear. "I think she was kind. I would like to remember her. Is she still alive?"

Kakashi sighed deeply. What was keeping him from going to the orphanage to see for himself? The knowledge that Kabuto had been running the institution for a while? Maybe he should give the guy a chance, since everybody else seemed to be able to.

"I should ask you to accompany me," Kakashi whispered into Sakura's ear again, "I'd like that. You have a way with people. Unless your temper explodes... but even then..."

His heart suddenly missed a beat. It took him a moment to realize why: She was too still. No more shivers for quite some time. But ice, ice cold.

"Sakura," he said and shook her. "Sakura?"

There was a pulse, his fumbling fingers found, but it was very weak. He was so clueless, he hadn't even realized how bad she was! Luckily, they were already at a hospital, should he rush outside and yell for someone to help? But would there be any capable doctors around at this time? Somebody else who was very capable would still be working for sure, it came with the job. Making a quick decision, Kakashi rushed over to the window, opened it, then grabbed Sakura and jumped.

***

It took him only about ten minutes to reach the Hokage Tower over the rooftops even though he found himself unusually short of breath tonight, with a left arm that hurt with a dull, blunt pain. Conveniently, the Anbu guards on the roof recognized him immediately and let him fly by without an attempt to stop him.

"Who dares to...!" Tsunade shouted as he burst into her office without knocking, but she sprang up looking concerned when she saw whom he was carrying in his arms.

"It's chakra depletion," Kakashi informed the Hokage and put Sakura down on the desk as carefully as he could. "I think it's critical."

"I'm on it," Tsunade said and pushed him aside roughly.

Feeling thoroughly chakra-depleted himself, Kakashi sat down on the floor and put his hurting head against the wall. Worry gripped him, but Lady Tsunade clearly knew what she was doing, sending her green healing chakra into Sakura's belly region with a look of concentration on her face.

"She'll be alright," she sighed after a while and Kakashi sprang up. There was color in Sakura's face again, he noticed with relief and he barely resisted the impulse to step over and cradle her to his chest.

"Where is your shirt?" Tsunade frowned, looking him up and down.

"I... took it off," he said, blushing. "I was too hot."

"Oh, don't even bother with your horrible excuses," she snapped, "put something on, this much masculinity threatens me."

The shirt was at the hospital. Like his book. And his sanity.

"Could you help me out?" he asked his Hokage with a sheepish grin. Wordlessly, Tsunade stepped over to the large cupboard along the wall and began rummaging around inside.

"Here," she said a few moments later, holding out a black shirt.

"This is a woman's top," Kakashi observed.

"Yes, maybe you haven't noticed, but I am a woman."

Kakashi sighed. Fine, now was not the time to make a fuss. He shrugged into the sleeveless garment. It was tight in all the wrong places and had room for breasts as large as Tsunade's, so he probably looked like his namesake in it.

"Care to explain why Sakura depleted almost all her chakra with you around?" Tsunade asked, narrowing her eyes at him.

"I think she already depleted it with you treating patients, she didn't need me for it," he replied grumpily, trying to find out which string had to go with which other string to tie the damn thing together.

"Ah," Tsunade let her head hang. "Today was no good day. I thought we had gotten rid of those fuckers when you pulled your stunt the other night. Now it seems it only spurred them on."

"Can I go see the survivors and ask them about what happened?"

"No, you can't. You are not on active duty, Hatake Kakashi!"

"You are a fool if you keep me grounded, Lady Tsunade."

"Am I?" she shot back and her tone made him look up. There was a vulnerability in her eyes he had never seen there before and it made him wonder about when and how he had hurt her. But maybe...

"What is it I did that made you lose trust in me?" he asked cautiously.

Tsunade sighed. "You going behind my back. I cannot help but think it wasn't the first time. You went on so many missions over the years, you were often unaccounted for for days. I know all about Danzo's plans and I know you were once part of his organization."

"What?" Kakashi exclaimed in disbelief. "Do you not also know he tried to have me killed for leaving it? And do you not know this organization was disbanded years ago?"

Tsunade pointed at his naked arm and asked: "Has it really?"

"Good that you mention it," Kakashi said with a glance at his left upper arm, which only showed the plain, thin Anbu flame tattoo, "I seemed to recollect that other thing was also an Anbu tattoo, but now I'm not so sure anymore. You know it almost killed me tonight? It grew this big!" he indicated the size with his other hand dramatically. "And it continued to grow!"

"What? Show me," Tsunade said, waving him closer to the desk.

Her fingers were deft but not half as gentle as Sakura's. It was also possible Tsunade took pleasure in hurting him a little.

"Ouch," Kakashi complained when a chakra infused prod hurt his very bone.

"Stop whining," Tsunade grumbled. "Did Sakura make these incisions? They look far more clumsy than her usual work, but I guess she was already running very low on chakra..."

"She saved my life," Kakashi said, feeling another wave of gratefulness for the pink-haired woman lying on the desk behind him.

Tsunade sighed again. "Did you use to be this much trouble before or is it getting worse as you age? This used to be a blood seal. And you claim you know nothing about it?"

He knew nothing about it. A blood seal? He wasn't even sure what that was.

Tsunade pointed at the seal on her forehead. "Like this but it contains concentrated blood."

"What kind of blood?" Kakashi pressed out. Blood was worrying. It was a powerful substance if used the right - or the wrong - way.

"I don't know, it's all gone. Maybe Sakura knows? Why don't you ask her after she wakes up. What is clear is that If it was hurting you, it's not your blood but somebody else's. But you know what? I can't believe my top Shinobi is standing in my office with this look on his face. Did you not notice that this tattoo was a little different than the tattoos of the others?"

"Of course I did!" Kakashi bristled. "But I distinctly remember..."

What exactly did he remember about it? Frowning, he looked at his arm again. Actually...

"Shit," he said. "Lady Tsunade, is it possible somebody messed with my memories because of this?"

"And you expect me to trust you!" she exclaimed and shot him an evil look as she walked around the desk to her chair. "Yes, it's possible. I don't look at you sleeveless all that often, but maybe I should have? I don't remember when you first got it. Anyway, now it's gone. Since you are still breathing and walking around, I'm thinking it wasn't life-critical or anything."

"Is Konoha doing experiments on human subjects?" Kakashi asked, suppressing a shudder.

"Only on volunteers like you. We are running a soldier enhancement program, didn't I tell you? Those pills you took? With them, you need to sleep less, are overall stronger and more enduring, heal faster, etc. etc."

"And Kabuto is in charge of it."

"Exactly."

"Do you know anything about a cult that took children away? From the orphanage I believe? Maybe thirty years ago."

"You are asking the strangest questions, Kakashi," Tsunade said and fell back into her chair. "A cult? Cult of what? I have never heard of such a thing. When Minato was Hokage? Or after he died?"

"I don't know," Kakashi admitted. He looked at Sakura again, feeling his heart swell. She definitely looked much better. Lovely in fact.

"Okay," Tsunade said slowly, "You haven't answered me yet. Why were you with Sakura? You keep looking at her a lot."

"She has offered to help me with my problem." Kakashi tore his eyes away from Sakura with an effort.

"Which one?"

Very funny. "The not remembering."

"And how is she doing that?"

"She found a time lapse Genjutsu in some book, a joint Genjutsu she called it, where two people agree to enter the illusion together. She wanted to study the seals in my head with enough leisure."

Tsunade let our some air through her teeth. "You obviously trust her a lot to give her control over your mind like that."

"Of course I trust her. We were comrades for many years."

"Ha," Tsunade said and then looked at him strangely.

"Are you insinuating something?" Kakashi asked, not sure whether he should feel outraged or quietly shrink away.

"Maybe I am," Tsunade said, still looking at him quite intensively. "But let me tell you something you might not know. There are quite a lot of people pressuring me about the Uchiha bloodline, including the council and the Fire Daimyō."

He did not want to hear such things. It wasn't like he was unaware of having entered forbidden territory, nobody needed to rub his nose in it.

"Glare all you want, you idiot," Tsunade snapped. "Sasuke is the last of the Uchihas. We need their kekkei genkai to endure the generations! You also know that there are several shady organizations after it and while we cannot allow anybody else to get their hands on it, we also have to make sure we keep it! Sasuke has been donating a lot of his blood and cells, but we have not managed to make any headway in how to unlock that bloodline secret."

"Are you saying..."

"Yes, it's what I'm saying. I will not tie her down and force her to have a child, she is like a daughter to me. But I will also let her know that if she isn't willing, we will have to find another way soon. Don't look at me like that. I'm not thinking of growing babies in glasses, but I will try and find willing mothers to carry the children if I have to."

"You can't do that to Sakura. She is so young! She has so much of her life still to live!"

Tsunade was getting angry, Kakashi knew the signs, the arteries on her neck standing out, the reddish hue intensifying on her face, but he didn't care much at the moment. He was equally outraged and horrified. Wasn't it like putting a kunai knife at Sakura's throat? Having children should be a free decision, not one forced upon you by the duty to a blood line!

But he knew such sentiments to be sentimental. Fighting for a prosperous, happy Konoha so that such a dream could become reality - was it not the sole purpose of his own life? Was he not still putting it on the line so that they could finally leave all the destruction and sadness behind? That he had to continue doing it meant one thing: the illusion still was only that, an illusion. As long as it did not become a reality, bloodlines mattered, power mattered, the number of Shinobis a village had mattered...

"You are a fool," Tsunade said, but not with the anger he would expect from her. "You know the degree of her obsession with this Uchiha, don't you?"

"Of course I do," he said truthfully. "Don't think me stupid, Godaime Hokage. It's just... I want her to be happy."

"Pffffft," Tsunade snorted. "I did not know you were a romantic. I thought you are happy with your porn books and..."

"Porn books?! They are not porn! If you had ever read one..."

"Pah!" she interrupted him, "never would I read the perverted fantasies of someone who was trying to get into my trousers all his life! You know how disturbing it is to me that he thought of me while writing this smut! And you reading them with such ardor...," she shuddered.

"The Icha Icha books are not perverted," Kakashi said with vehemence, "in fact, if you had ever read one you'd know that Master Jiraiya seriously loved you."

"Oh please," Tsunade pulled a disgusted face, "he loved everyone he wanted to put his... his thing into, for as long as he did not score. As soon as he did, the love moved on to the next target."

Now she had managed to make him angry and that wasn't easy. Insulting the Icha Icha books and Master Jiraiya was an underhanded, backstabbing move not worthy of a Hokage.

"A Hokage should not condemn people or things wantonly," Kakashi lectured her, remembering his own Sensei's voice as he said it.

"Oh get lost," Tsunade snapped at him, "why do you always irritate me so much! Don't you dare judge me before you haven't sat on this very seat yourself."

Tsunade patted the armrests of the Hokage chair.

"I have told you before, I am not interested and I wish you'd finally accept it."

"You know what, Hatake Kakashi?" Tsunade said and folded her hands in a deliberate, menacing fashion. "I am going to bet on you sitting in this chair before the next cherry blossom festival. The wager will be...," she seemed to be thinking hard, "a favor."

"Deal," Kakashi said because Tsunade never won her bets. He was entirely safe.

"Deal," Tsunade echoed, "and now get out of here. Take Sakura down to Sasuke. Tell him to tie her to the bed if she thinks she has to get up tomorrow for work - she needs to rest, you know the drill."

The conversation was apparently over, Tsunade began busying herself with paperwork and pointedly ignored him. And she thought he was irritating? She was ten times more irritating. Gently, Kakashi picked Sakura up from the desk, making sure her head rested comfortable on his arm. Once outside, he slammed the door to Tsunade's office shut with his foot as hard as possible, gaining satisfaction from the small yelp she made.

***

The guest apartment was one floor down, easily reachable by a set of stairs. The light was dimmed in the corridors this late at night and given there was no immediate threat to the village, there were no guards inside the building.

Since knocking with your hands was difficult while carrying somebody, Kakashi used his boot to tap against the door. That did not yield an answer, but the door to the apartment was unlocked when he checked, so he entered. It was dark inside but Kakashi located a light switch and hit it with his elbow.

"Sasuke?" he asked. No answer. Where would he be this late at night? It all looked deserted and super tidy.

Taking off his shoes with Sakura in his arms was impossible so he walked right in, carrying her to where he knew the bedroom was. With a small shudder, he remembered what had happened after the last time he had done the same thing. But this place was the safest in Konoha, it was almost impossible to slip past the Anbu outside.

Which side of the bed would be hers? He saw no trace of a pijama anywhere. Since his favorite was always the left side, he decided to put her there as well. Very carefully, he set her down, arranging her head on the pillow. Next, Kakashi sat down on the foot of the bed and took off her shoes, arranging them neatly next to the bed. No rabbit slippers around. Well, those had been thoroughly ruined so what did he expect? At second thought, he took his boots off as well. Then he just sat there and looked at her in the dim light.

Her face looked peaceful. Some hair had gotten loose though and might be tickling her. Carefully, he moved it out of her face and behind her ear. And then, because he had no self-control whatsoever, he touched her cheek with his fingertips, finding her skin as smooth as silk.

This... wasn't okay, however pleasant the feel of it was, it was what a creepy old man would do to sleeping beauties. But just when Kakashi wanted to pull back his hand, Sakura grabbed it and snuggled against it.

"Hmmmmhmhmhmh," she said contently.

His heart beating faster, Kakashi pulled against her hold a little stronger, but she held on to it firmly, even halfway turning her body to use it as a pillow. Her cheek was warm and her soft breath hit the sensitive skin on his wrist like a gentle caress. Alright... what now? He didn't mind lending her parts of his body as a pillow.

"Glkdjoooogps," she murmured and "Orpollllopok" followed by a string of other utterances.

Kakashi bent a little closer to understand what she was saying. Was it gibberish? He smiled fondly at her sleepy silliness... and then yelped as her hands suddenly shot up and grabbed the front of his strange top with much force, pulling him forward and down.

"Sakura...," he stammered, finding his face mere inches from hers, "are you dreaming?"

"You think this is easy?" she muttered dangerously, "you are an idiot. I tell you how it's done properly and you obey!"

"W... wake up," he said, feeling horribly flustered, using his hands to push against the force of her grip, which only made her redouble her efforts. Chakra-depletion or not, she was incredibly strong. "Sakura?"

She puckered her lips.

"No," he said firmly, "no kissing. No kissing, Sakura, it's... not... I'm... not..."

But she was oblivious. He should have used a blast of chakra to push against the bed and propel himself backwards of course, but for a variety of reasons, he hesitated. Using his confusion skillfully, she grabbed both his ears and pulled even stronger, taking him so much by surprise he slackened his arms and fell forward.

Their lips connected rather painfully and he pulled back horrified at what had just happened, staring down at her close-eyed face, yet telling himself that it was not kissing if it wasn't intentional and in addition, the fabric of his face mask was in between and... but she did not afford him time to finish finding excuses. With another swift movement, almost as if she had practiced this move for a long time, she pulled down his mask, interlinked her hands behind his neck and pulled his mouth down to hers.

Soft, wet, enrapturing... her lips tasted of sweet cherries, making him dissolve into a puddle of goo so instantaneously, he couldn't have resisted her even if he had wanted to. She nibbled at his lower lip like a hungry little bird and made a soft sound in her throat that hit him right in the chest. Her hands dug into his hair, pulling him even closer just as her small tongue began slipping in and out of her mouth to tease his lips apart and find its counterpart.

He was no stranger to kissing, but it had never quite got him in the same way as this.

This was utterly wrong and incredibly thrilling. Had Kakashi been capable of forming a sufficiently coherent thought, he would have realized that because he knew it to be so wrong, because he knew they could be discovered any minute, he found it the most exciting thing he had ever experienced. Stop! Don't stop! jumbled thoughts flitted across his mind, what the heck am I doing? Don't ask, just continue, continue, I want more.

Tremors began snaking along his sensitive nerves when their tongues touched, gentle at first before urgency took over. Chakra was balling itself together in the pit of his stomach as he grabbed her head for some control, finding it impossible to establish any. His breathing quickened, his heartbeat increased, soon drumming a maddening rhythm in his ears. The wave of lust that swept over him hit him so forcefully he growled. And Sakura answered him with a guttural moan that spoke of a need mirroring his own.

It was then he pulled back and looked at her face, mainly because he wanted to see the expression of desire on it, and had to realized with a feeling like a gauntlet fist to the stomach that her eyes were still closed.

She wasn't conscious. She did not know what she was doing.

The realization that he was taking advantage of an unconscious woman sobered him quickly - but it took such an effort to control the raging fire that had started to burn inside of him, such an effort to sit up, to bring the proper distance between their bodies, to suppress the yearning, to stop paying attention to her body and its chakra, to the scent she omitted, the scent of female arousal teasing his sensitive nose, calling to him louder than any words ever could.

Groaning, he put his mask back where it belonged, buried his head in his hands and began tearing at his own hair in frustration. He felt a strong urge to run away but that had never solved any problems.

"Kakashi?" Sakura asked, "what are you doing there?"

He whipped around and found her with her eyes open, scrambling to sit up, then looking around herself in confusion.

"Where are we? Do we live here?"

"Yes," he answered gruffly, slowly edging further away from her. He wasn't quite sure he could trust himself.

"Then why are you not lying down with me?"

"W... what do you...," all the blood left his head in a rush and the room began to spin.

She cocked her head at him teasingly and smiled.

"Have I ever told you how much I like your hair and how it sticks up even more wildly when you're flustered? It's very cute."

For a brief moment, Kakashi felt certain he had been plunged into a crazy Genjutsu as punishment for allowing himself to touch her. Of all things, he was most afraid of Genjutsu traps because however strong a Shinobi, the sneakier ones got you so thoroughly you were doomed before you even knew it. When Genjutsu release did not change even the slightest thing about the situation, it dawned on him that he was mistaken. Where are we? she had asked. Do we live here?

We. Him and her.

"Sakura," he told her, finding his voice shaky and hoarse, "Sakura, this is not a Genjutsu. This is reality. This is your and Sasuke's apartment in the Hokage tower. You passed out because of chakra depletion a few hours ago. Tsunade saved you and I brought you here. You need lots of rest. I know how it feels... and it's common to be very confused after waking up."

"Oh," she said. And then, remembering what she had just said to him, she blushed violently and put her hands over her mouth.

"Don't worry," he said, trying to sound unaffected. "This stays between us."

She seemed to want to die from embarrassment. Kakashi stared at her red, horrified face with the huge, shocked eyes, thinking she was the cutest thing he had ever seen.

"Seriously, don't worry," he said again.

"We...," she whispered with a shaking voice. "We...," she licked her lips, which plunged him into the next phase of this crisis, "did we... we...."

Dammit, he could not keep quiet about this or lie to her. If you did something wrong, you better owned up to it.

"Yes, we kissed," he said lightly. "Forget about that too, you were out of it and I should never have allowed it to happen."

"Oh god, I initiated it again, didn't I.... I am... I am so sorry!"

I'm not, he thought, trying to find the strength to smile at her reassuringly. Had she said 'again'?

"Was it... pleasant at least?" she blurted out and then hid her face behind her hands, obviously horrified about her own forthrightness.

"I don't really want to talk about it," Kakashi said, which was the truth, because thinking about it did make him want to do more of it.

"How will I ever be able to look at you again," he heard her whisper. But this was going in the wrong direction. As so many times before, she was too ready to blame herself one sidedly.

"Hey... if it eases your embarrassment... yes. It was pleasant. It was ... very pleasant in fact."

Oh great, now was not the time for speaking such truths, but he had never quite learned how to lie. Her wide-eyed, astonished stare made him blush in turn. Fervently, he wished he could just leave already and take an ice cold shower. Or two. Or jump into an ice lake.

Her scent hit his nose again, the scent of a female body alert and ready to be pleasured. His own body reacted eagerly. No shower and no ice lake was going to fix this.

"I must leave," he said. It sounded as desperate as he felt.

"Must you?" she asked.

"Sakura..."

"This is not my apartment. You brought me to the wrong one."

Taken aback, Kakashi turned his head around. Idiot! He had thought it strangely empty!

"Ours is one floor down," Sakura added slowly.

There was a calculating look in her eyes he half wished he had not seen because it made him edge closer instead of walking out, made it very hard to convince himself that there could be no next step, not now, not ever.

Had he not warned her? He had known that he had neither the ability nor the will to control the spark between them. But now the fire had started and it was already burning as high as the Hokage Tower. Between them, it was going to be big enough to burn Konoha to the ground.

 

Chapter Text

“Do you want this?”

Kakashi’s breathless whisper went straight to Sakura’s belly, fluttering around in it like an army of butterflies.

Did she?

The answer was yes, yes, yes, her body was ready, there was so much want! But could she pretend she wasn’t afraid giving in to that would change everything about her life in ways she did not want? She knew herself well, too well maybe. Despite her massive temper that flared up with no warning and managed to even scare herself sometimes, she was a most level headed person, one who thought about all aspects of an issue for hours and planned every step meticulously before she acted. She had no experience with risky, impulsive actions because she had never taken any.

“I do,” she said, her voice shaking, “but…”

It was pretty dark in the bedroom, but a light had to be on outside somewhere, sending a faint glimmer their way. And yet, it was like she could see his face and the silver of his hair better than she should, almost as if her eyes had developed a sudden ability to augment what they wanted to see even in the dark. The troubled expression in Kakashi’s eyes did not help with her own confusion, but it made her heart swell in a rush of tenderness, having her reach out her hand to cup his cheek.

“Do you want this?” she echoed him, following the arc of his brow with her thumb. He put his own hand over hers and briefly closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.

“Yes,” he exhaled, “yes, I want it a lot - but what I really want is for you to be happy and I fear…”

“...it could make me happy now, but very unhappy tomorrow,” she knew how to finish his sentence, her heart in her throat.

A lot. He wanted it a lot, he had said.

“...that applies to the both of us,” he added.

This was it then, wasn’t it? They both could not and did not want to forget who they were, they both could not simply act on their needs as if nobody else was going to be affected by it. But Sakura felt a tingling sensation where Kakashi’s hand rested on top of hers, it was clearly chakra, and by the rippling and twitching feel of it, it was his lightning chakra nature, a telltale sign of how affected he was - she knew him to be a master of hiding his chakra signature in the field.

That she would have such an effect on him

They were sitting fairly close already, but she could go even closer and that’s what she did, putting her arms around his neck and pressing her cheek against his.

“Thank you,” she whispered into his ear, “thank you.”

He smells so, so good, she thought, pressing her nose against his ear, good and strangely familiar, as if she had noticed his scent longer ago than she had consciously realized. It did suddenly make her curious to what he tasted like. She had woken up to a body humming and the aftertaste of somebody’s lips on her own, but she had no recollection of kissing other than kissing in an illusion and that seemed… a waste.

Let me at least kiss him goodbye, she thought. And then we’ll part ways and… we will be responsible adults, later feeling a little sorry that we are, but overall feeling we made the right choice.

She moved her lips to his cheek, to where his mask divided his face into a visible and an invisible part, gripping it with her teeth and at the same time hooking her fingers into the fabric on the other side. It was far more daring than anything she had ever done to a man and she actually expected him to get angry and to stop her, but no such thing happened. Instead, Kakashi moved his hands to her hair and gripped it, briefly rubbing his nose against her cheek.

Sakura pulled the mask down.

Suddenly feeling strangely shy, she pressed her eyes shut, moving her lips over the newly exposed parts, down to his lips. He parted them a little, letting her explore them with her own. She listened to his quickened breathing, marvelling at how she did seem to remember the same taste of him from the Genjutsu, remembering that just like now, he had let her do whatever she had wanted to do, exhibiting an expectant passivity.

She took it as a clear signal that Kakashi would not take this any further without her explicit permission. She was in charge. He would do whatever she wanted him to do.

That realization was extremely empowering and excited her a great deal more than she would have thought possible. Sakura put her tongue into his mouth, licking across his teeth, finding it extremely hard not to moan. Her hands were moving over his shoulder down his naked arms, kneading their shapely form, feeling the hard muscles, his lean strength. Kakashi was wearing the strangest, ill-fitting of garments, crossed over the chest like a woman’s top, but it afforded her hands easy access to the skin underneath it once they sought it.

Their tongues were caressing each other sensually, a leisurely teasing that was awakening every part of her body. Her core was on fire, tingling with the frustration of weeks, no months of too little attention. Moving her hands to his back to feel more of his battle-honed body, then forward to his chest, she wished to be touched the same way by him so very much. But this was only a farewell kiss, she could not ask for it. Or could she? Maybe there were no rules. It came down to do you want this? It was all her choice.

Reluctantly, she broke the kiss.

“Do you want to touch me?” she asked timidly, still keeping her eyes firmly closed, as if she was afraid that seeing his face would mean passing a mysterious point of no return.

“What do you think,” he said with a breathless chuckle, moving his lips to her neck and his hands to her tummy. As he kissed and nibbled the skin underneath her ear, he flexed his long fingers to grip her waist and then moved them up over her ribs slowly. He always took his time, she knew that, but she was ready to speed things up, ready to grip his hands and move them where she truly wanted them: her breasts.

But before she could take enough heart, they got there, sending a fiery sensation through her body as they cupped her orbs through the fabric of her clothes, rubbing and gently twisting her nipples. That did it. Sakura could no longer hold back her moan, it spilled out of her like a tidal wave. Impatiently, her hands pushed his aside to fumble for the buttons of her clothes, but his fingers were defter, finding their way onto her skin with ease.

The tingling from his lightning chakra made all her nerves hum where he touched her. Her belly, her back. Her shoulders, her arms, at which point he helped her shed her top completely. She soon realized he was doing it again, deliberately not touching her breasts but everywhere else, as if he took pleasure torturing her with his slowness.

“I want to see you,” he breathed, “all of you. I want to switch on the lights.”

“No,” she squealed, her old self-consciousness flaring up. There were so many parts of her that were ugly, she did not want him to see them and lose his positive opinion of her.

“Are you saying ‘no’ because you feel you’re ugly?” he guessed correctly, “Sakura, don’t you know you’re the most beautiful woman in Konoha? I can see that even when you’re fully dressed.”

The most beautiful… flabbergasted, she opened her eyes wide, seeing only silver hair in her field of vision because his face was against her neck, his mouth moving to her collarbone.

“It’s… because… I… I haven’t showered for so long,” she pressed out, a half-baked excuse, though true in essence.

“Mhmmm,” Kakashi purred, “let’s take a shower together, I could use one myself.”

She wanted to squeal again, mostly from excitement, but he had already grabbed her around the waist with both his hands and stood up swiftly, lifting her up like she weighed nothing. She put her legs around his middle and her arms around his neck, pressing her heated core against his abdomen. There was a small bathroom with a shower accessible from the bedroom, which Kakashi seemed to know, since he headed towards it with determined strides.

The light from outside the bedroom did not extend into the far corners and they were soon engulfed by unpierceable, welcome darkness that helped Sakura push aside her insecurities. As soon as Kakashi had opened the door with an elbow and they were inside, she grabbed his ears with both her hands and tilted his head back to once again have access to his mouth. He kissed her back with mounting fervor, robbing her of breath and reason. Eventually, Sakura slackened her legs to slide down his body, realizing too late this changed the angle of the kiss and put her at a disadvantage, because now he was towering above her with all the leverage. Was he really this much taller than her or was it that her legs were so jelly she could not stand up straighter?

She opened the button of her trousers and wiggled her body so that they fell to the floor, stepping out of them and kicking them somewhere to the side. His hands started playing with the elastic band of her underpants, teasing the skin under the rim of the fabric. It almost-but-not-quite tickled, but mainly managed to make her even wetter than she already was. Gaaaah! It was crystal clear to the naturally competitive Sakura that she was far too artless, impatient and frankly bad at this kind of thing. She had a lot of learning to do.

She fumbled for his top, her fingers at loss at how to take it off.

“This thing defies logic,” Kakashi said, moving his hands away from her to take charge. The ugly sound of ripping fabric made her yelp, but his method sure was efficient. Her hands found his torso naked, his skin smooth and pleasant to the touch - so quite naturally, though not quite knowing what came over her, she bent forward to lick it. He shuddered and made a sound in his throat that she found extremely sexy. On a mission to hear him make it again, she moved her tongue upwards to his nipples. She licked the hard little buttons, savoring the slightly salty taste of his skin, first the one, then the other. When she used her teeth to nibble a little, she was rewarded. He growled again, this time more deeply.

She was rewarded even more when his hands shot forward and grabbed her breasts, finally, closing his thumb and index finger around her erect nipples to roll them between his fingers. It was a little painful at first but soon gave way to waves of electrifying pleasure, rolling down her body and breaking between her legs. She started moaning again, this time rather out of control.

“Shower,” he said, sounding urgent himself, “now.”

Sakura slipped out of her underwear quickly, throwing it after her trousers, hearing from the soft rustling of fabric that Kakashi had shed his clothes as well. For a brief moment, she regretted she had insisted on using no light, but she had to concentrate on finding the shower booth, bumping her hip on one of the sliding doors while walking backwards. His solid presence was close to her, radiating a comforting warmth as he followed. His hands found the shower handle before her, sending a gush of ice cold water onto both of them. She screamed and he laughed, both of them trying to adjust the temperature, resulting in them almost getting burned next before they managed to get it right.

With the water drumming down, he fumbled around for something and she realized it had to be soap, there was a dispenser for body wash and soap fixed to the wall of the shower in her apartment and indeed, it was what he found here too. He began to lather her with fragrant soap, meticulously and slowly, starting with her hair, moving down her body. Heavenly.

Just when Sakura thought she might dissolve into a puddle on the shower floor and be washed away down the drain, he grabbed her buttocks, pulling her towards him for more needy kissing. It was then her stomach came to rest against the strutting length of his manhood. And it was at the contact with its firm readiness that it hit Sakura for the first time what she was doing.

It could have been a sobering realization, or a shocking one. But for reasons she did not want to think about, it was the opposite. She was stark naked with a man who wasn’t her husband, more turned on than she had ever been her entire life. In fact, she was about to explode from the need for a release, ready to beg to be taken right here and now. For a well-behaved, sheltered girl like her, this was so out of character, she felt she had nothing further to lose. Before her fears could stop her, she grabbed his shaft with both hands and began to squeeze and rub it with the soap from her own body.

From the way Kakashi deepend his kiss and made throaty sounds, she was guessing he liked it, like she had read men liked it. Encouraged to be more daring, she used her fingers to explore more of it, the tip, the bottom, the dangly bits, listening to the sounds he made, soon happily considering he would not stop her like her own husband always did. In fact, Sakura was quite convinced she was dominating this game now - but that was before he moved his fingers to her slit and she lost her grip on him.

Her legs almost buckled when he touched her bud with his thumb, circling it around it, flicking it and sliding his index finger down her wetness. Every inch of her felt swollen and ready to burst down there and it only needed a bit of pressure and the slight quickening of his thumb’s rhythm for her first orgasm to shake her. She clamped her mouth shut because she felt embarrassed at just how loudly she wanted to shout after so little effort on his part, but it was impossible to stop all the sound. So it was a whimper that escaped her as her body shook and her hands hit the shower wall with a loud thump for balance, a deplorable, drawn out sound that made her face heat up in embarrassment.

He chose to ignore it completely. She staggered, but his hand held her up, not stopping its movement for a second. With him firmly teasing just her nether lips and the opening to her hole for a bit, she came a second time, and this time, she moaned like her life depended on it.

Kakashi chuckled contently. “You know how to make a men feel good about himself,” he said. It was so far from what she thought the truth that she had to laugh, but since he chose to move his finger inside of her that very moment, the laughter changed to more moaning. That feeling…

“You’re so damn hot,” he panted, kissing down her neck and taking a nipple into his mouth, touching a spot within her that made her come a third time quickly, clenching around his finger for what seemed forever.

“Stop, stop, I need a break,” she begged out of breath and weak-legged, but he wouldn’t listen. Instead, he added a second finger to move in and out of her, used his thumb on her clit, his other hand on her nipples and kissed her more deeply than ever.

He truly did know how to make her happy. It was … intoxicating.

Just after her fourth orgasm overpowered her, one starting much deeper than the ones before it, leaving her so wobbly she needed to hang on to him for support, the sirens started.

Both of them froze, but only for a second. Kakashi hit the shower handle to stop the water and they stood there dripping, clinging onto each other like that could change anything about the brutal reality of the world they lived in, listening to the rise and fall of the raid warning.

Perimeter breach.

“I’ve got to go,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, tightening her grip on his arm for a moment as cold dread flooded her being. Not again. Not again.

“Sakura, you have to promise me not to budge,” Kakashi urged her, “your chakra depletion was severe, you are in no way fit to fight yet!”

She didn’t answer and he gripped her shoulders, hard. “I will not go until you promise me!”

“Alright,” she said reluctantly, because she would not be responsible for keeping him away from the battle, “I will stay here at the Hokage Tower.”

“It is the safest place in Konoha,” he said, sounding a bit like he wanted to convince himself just as much as her, “but if we need to evacuate, you go with the women and children, do you hear me?”

“Yes,” she heard herself say. Like she ever would. She’d be at the hospital waiting for the wounded, praying she wouldn’t see anyone she knew among the dead or dying.

He opened the shower door and stumbled out. A blinding light flared up overhead when he hit the light switch, forcing her to shield her eyes for a moment. When they were properly adjusted and she could see without squinting, he had already collected his clothes from the floor and was getting dressed at lightning speed. He looked at the ripped top he had worn with an expression of disdain, chucking it into the washbasin.

Sakura did not even dare to breathe. She was seeing glimpses of his face as he busied himself in front of her and he was either unaware of it or did not care. He did put on his mask at the end after bringing his hair into some kind of shape and turned to her. His eyes looked full of anguish. It also looked like he wanted to say something, but didn’t know what or how.

Nothing needed to be said but one thing. “Don’t die,” Sakura whispered and smiled at him bravely.

Kakashi lifted his hand in a farewell gesture and rushed out. She heard him stop in the bedroom to put on his boots, then run across the living room and out the door.

Danger, danger, danger, the sirens blared.

Right, no time to mope. On shaking legs, Sakura stepped out of the shower to collect her clothes and get ready for duty.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Senpai!” Yamato said, letting his round eyes glide over Kakashi’s body with great puzzlement, “where is your uniform?”

“A good junior would have known to bring me one,” Kakashi shot back, squinting at the strange blue lights visible along the city wall in the distance. Fires with a strange color? With no smoke? While the sirens continued to blare their warning, more and more Anbu Black Ops members appeared on the torch-lit roof of the Hokage Tower all around them.

“Hatake!” the Hokage bellowed somewhere behind him, “what kind of role model are you? PUT ON A SHIRT!”

“Give me yours, Tenzo,” Kakashi said to Yamato and pointed at his junior’s flak jacket demandingly.

“B… but Senpai!” Yamato stuttered, protectively putting his arms around his uniform, “this is mine!”

Kakashi sighed, watching Yamato scurry away from him. “Aren't I supposed to be some kind of commander around here? Don’t tell me nobody has an extra shirt and jacket for me! Hey! You!” Kakashi signalled a young Anbu operative that happened to look in his direction. “Get me a uniform. And weapons. Quickly!”

“Yes, sir!” the man saluted and almost tripped over his legs in his haste to obey.

“There is no report from the wall guards and none from the sector patrol units either,” Tsunade informed him grimly as she appeared at his elbow, her blonde tails whipping in the wind, “I sent a reconnaissance unit to check out the situation, they should get back to me shortly. I want you to stand by and await my orders, I will send you in next. I am expecting the worst if it's the same thing that attacked the Anbu last night…”

“So you’re changing my status to active?” Kakashi asked amicably.

“Hell yes, Hatake,” Tsunade snapped, “and don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’. Yamato is on your team, freely pick to others.”

“Whom else have we got? Naruto?”

“No,” Tsunade nervously bit her lip, “he left for an escorting mission only yesterday. With Shikamaru. Damn, I had a bad feeling about it all along!”

“Sasuke?”

Her face darkened. “I don’t think that's a good idea.”

“Dammit, Tsunade. I promise to keep an eye on him. He’s one of our best. And if the situation is as serious as you say....”

“You know they were after him, right?”

“What do you prefer, him a sitting duck in the middle of Konoha or him an active soldier fighting back? Come on, Tsunade!”

“Okay, fine,” the Hokage said, “but he is your responsibility.” Rather unexpectedly, Tsunade sniffed the wind next, narrowing her eyes. “Did you take a shower in Sasuke’s apartment?”

Well damn for good noses that recognized the soap from the Tower apartments. But this did not change anything. Kakashi was of the opinion that in a village the size of Konoha, keeping secrets for extended periods of time was an impossibility anyway. Sakura had clearly been very happy to take a shower with him and that was all that mattered. Her decision, none of the Hokage’s business. He wasn’t stupid enough to build any expectations on it, but he would also not deny that he would do it again immediately given the chance. Sakura was…

…stepping out on the roof behind Tsunade at this very moment in her medical-nin uniform, busy with tying back her hair. The Hokage whipped around, following Kakashi’s stare.

“Sakura!” Tsunade said in surprise. “Should you not be resting in bed?”

“I told her so too,” Kakashi frowned, but he was too distracted by the determination and fierceness on Sakura’s face to be angry, the expression he had always liked the best, feeling a fluttering in his stomach and an impulse to step over to shield her from the wind that was picking up force.

“While you were in bed with her?” Tsunade hissed at him. Kakashi blinked. That was surprisingly close to the truth - but well, Sakura carried a whole telltale cloud of soap scent before her. No wonder, he had used a lot of it on that exquisite body of hers.

“Hokage-sama,” Sakura said. Her eyes flitted to him. “K…Kakashi S… sensei,” she stammered and blushed deeply. His eyebrows shot up in amusement, ignoring the Hokage’s death stare. He hadn’t realized the honorific would take on an entirely different meaning after being naked together. He liked it a lot.

“I cannot sit still when my services are needed,” Sakura said, deciding it was safer to look just at the Hokage.

Tsunade narrowed her eyes at her. “Okay, fine. Go to the hospital and ready the intensive care units in case we need them. I will send for Ino to help you get organized. Shizune is already there. But take it easy!”

“Hokage-sama! Over here!” somebody called urgently. Was the reconnaissance unit back? Tsunade hurried away.

“Do you often make promises you never mean to keep?” Kakashi asked Sakura before she could flee his presence. It sounded more reproachful than he felt, but he did prefer honest conversations.

“No,” she said defiantly, her mouth moving into an offended pout, “but you would not have left otherwise.”

“And you know that how?”

“Because I know you very well,” she simply said, frowning at him unhappily.

Of course. She was right, he wouldn’t have left. He was just about to admit it to her when the young Anbu member with the bird mask came back with a uniform.

“Thank you,” Kakashi said, racking his brain for a name but coming up empty. He took the bundle from the man’s outstretched hands with a dip of his head.

“I’ll help him get ready,” Sakura told the Anbu, who was lingering shily and seemed glad to be dismissed.

“I can dress myself,” Kakashi smiled at her, but she had already grabbed everything from his hands, checking the equipment quite thoroughly, he wasn’t quite sure for what.

“I am your doctor,” Sakura said, pointedly not looking at him as she assisted him into the black, sleeveless shirt, “and I am here to tell you to go easy on your body. You almost died only a few hours ago. I do not know why that tattoo was in place, but I removed it. So please be extra careful.”

“I’m not your doctor,” Kakashi said quietly, “but now you’re here I want to tell you to take good care of your body. I wasn’t quite done yet.”

She blushed crimson red again and he instantly regretted the innuendo, all the more so because he had managed to convince himself on the way up to the roof that he would be content with what he had gotten and wouldn’t regret it if there was nothing else of the sort in the future. Had he not lived his life with little aspiration or dreams and had always been happy enough that way?

“I am sorry,” he added quickly, “I didn’t want to make you feel bad.”

“That’s quite the opposite of what you made me feel,” she whispered and turned her face away even further, the redness spreading to her neck and beyond.

He couldn’t help but grin like a fool at that confession. “Then I can go defend the village as a happy man and die in peace,” he said.

“Don’t say that!” she whipped around, green eyes flashing.

“Sorry,” he pressed out. “It’s just something you say, I don’t m….”

“It’s bad luck!” she yelled. “You idiot!”

“O... okay,” he said, taking a step forward to put his hand on her shoulder, “sorry. Don’t worry.”

I am lying to myself, he thought as he stared at the tears that were gathering in her expressive eyes, his heart clenching painfully, I don’t want this to be all. Dammit, I’m in trouble.

“I’ll be fine, I promise,” he said lightly, gripping her shoulder for emphasis, though he felt a type of uncertainty he was unfamiliar with, a tightness of his throat that wouldn’t go away however much he swallowed. He wanted to kiss her again, just in case...

“Sensei,” a cold, sharp voice said to his right. It was Kaeru, radiating even more displeasure than usually. “I brought your mask and your sword.”

Kakashi took his hand away from Sakura’s shoulder reluctantly and looked at his junior in the frog-mask who held out the Anbu utensils. “Very thoughtful,” he told him. “I need you to get Sasuke Uchiha up here, he resides in the guest apartment on the… first floor. I want you and him on my team. We’re moving out shortly.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Kakashi had always valued Kaeru for his brutal honesty and his considerable skills with the sword, but not for his massive, obstinate dislike of the Uchihas. As far as Kakashi knew, Kaeru’s family had not suffered any injustice at the hands of the Uchihas and had not been affected by Itachi’s actions in the least.

“Less resistance when I tell you to do something would be better,” he told him sharply. Never happy to displease him, Kaeru bowed low and hurried away, but not without a pronounced side glance at Sakura.

Wordlessly, and apparently choosing to ignore Kaeru’s antics, Sakura handed Kakashi his Anbu flak jacket, his gloves and arm guards. While he shrugged into the jacket and readied the rest of the uniform, she pulled out white bandages from one of her pockets, and bent down to tie it around his right leg, to secure the kunai pouch. Then, she put the belt with the back pouches around his hip.

“Done,” she said, straightening, her hands lingering on his belt buckle a moment longer than necessary.

On impulse, Kakashi bent forward and pressed his lips against her forehead. “Take care,” he whispered, inhaling deeply one last time before turning around and walking away.

“Please come back,” she whispered.

It took an effort not to look back at her. It was the first time he went into battle feeling regret and he suddenly felt he could relate to those of his generation that no longer wanted to fight.

Fool, he chided himself. Just do your job. Concentrate.

Throwing his sheathed sword from hand to hand to get a feel for its weight and balance, Kakashi walked forward to where the Hokage stood with a small group of Anbu, his mask up on his head, ready to be pulled down at any moment.

“What’s the situation,” he asked, acknowledging the salutes of the others with nods in all directions.

“The wall is breached,” one operative reported, “but nobody came through as far as we can tell. We saw no wall guards, they’re either dead or... we don’t know, they might have gone after the thing that attacked.”

“What about the sector patrol?”

The Anbu operative shook his head. “Missing too, the town is deserted.”

Strange. Kakashi secured his sword at his back and looked at Tsunade. “Awaiting your orders, Godaime Hokage.”

“Find out what it is and eliminate the threat. If you have to go outside the walls, I want you to take a medic with you,” she told him. “But not her.”

Kakashi nodded grimly. Of course not.

“I’ll send someone your way,” Tsunade said, “but hey! Be careful. The survivors at the hospital have not yet regained consciousness, so we do not know what we’re up against.”

“Understood,” Kakashi answered.

Tsunade twisted her head a little to look at something behind him. Kakashi turned as well and saw Kaeru and Sasuke approaching. Given the speed at which Sasuke had gotten up here, he had probably been hoping for a summons, dressed and ready. He was the only one not wearing an Anbu uniform, since he was not officially part of their ranks, but Sasuke had never worn any of the official Konoha uniforms anyway. Tonight, he had put on black trousers and a black shirt with the Uchiha crest at the back. But he also wore Konoha’s headband, challenging all the doubters to call him a traitor to his face.

Sasuke didn’t stop to talk to Sakura, but he slowed down and threw her a questioning look, vulnerable enough to make Kakashi’s gut contract with guilt. She said something before she waved and walked away. The boy had never been able to express his feelings and that had obviously not changed one bit. Now was not the right time, but Kakashi knew he had some thinking to do about what to say to Sasuke about Sakura.

“Sasuke,” he greeted him for now, “good to have you on my team.”

Sasuke nodded and scowled, not looking at anybody. Yamato came running across the roof at high speed.

“Senpai, at your order!” he panted, nodding to the other two.

“Alright,” Kakashi nodded, “this will be our formation…”

He did not need many words to brief his team, all had sufficient battle experience and understood their roles quickly. At Tsunade’s nod, Kakashi pulled down his kitsune mask and gave the signal for departure.

The four of them rushed forward, approaching the wall breach at top speed by using the shadows as cover. About halfway to their destination, Kakashi noticed that his body was far more sluggish than usual, that he needed an extra effort to keep up with the speed of the others, but he decided not to pay it too much attention, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The town below them was quiet. At the first sound of the sirens, people living close to the wall would seek shelter in designated underground facilities where they stayed put unless given different orders. What was strange though was the huge, gaping hole in the wall: It looked like something very large had ripped out a part of the stone structure, but then had lost interest in what it was doing. The lights that Kakashi had seen earlier were gone, only the almost full moon shone down on the destruction with its cold, white light.

Kakashi signalled to the others to progress with caution as they set down on the intact part of the wall. Listening into the night for enemy movements, they sat still for a while. Kakashi concentrated on getting a read on the wall, for a moment forgetting he had no Sharingan anymore to see more than the normal eye could.

“Sasuke,” Kakashi addressed the Uchiha, “are there any traces of chakra you can see?”

Sasuke focused his two Sharingans on the wall, then shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.

“Would the wall guards have left without orders?” Kaeru asked, “that’s highly unlikely.”

“No dead bodies around,” Yamato shrugged. “So they must have left.”

“Unless they were… eaten?” Kaeru shuddered involuntarily.

Kakashi frowned. Whatever had come here must have appeared so quickly the wall guards had not been able to send a report to the Hokage. There was some damage to the trees near the destroyed part of the wall, but apart from that, there were no other trails visible to the eyes. This was a clear case for his ninken.

Ee, Inu, Tori, Saru, Hitsuji, bam! he slammed his hand to the ground and … winced in pain because it felt like his arm was about to be ripped out of its socket. Luckily, nobody noticed - except for Pakkun, who looked at him with narrowed eyes after making his appearance.

“Kakashi, what’s up? Are you ill?”

“Pakkun,” Kakashi ground out between clenched teeth, “no time for a chit chat. I need you to track the unknown entity who damaged our wall and report back to me as fast as you can.”

“Okay,” Pakkun said, “you’ll hear from me.”

The small dog began running around, sniffed the wall, jumped down the cleft using protruding stones as a foothold and then disappeared from view. The pain in Kakashi’s arm faded quickly, but he prodded it with the fingers of his left hand to see whether he could locate the source of the pain. He couldn’t.

“Hey,” a familiar voice said behind him, “I’m the medical-nin assigned to you.”

Kakashi turned his head, glad his face was covered by more than just his face mask or else it would have betrayed his stunned disbelief. Of all people!

“Am I supposed to pretend I don't know it's you, Kakashi?” Kabuto asked in a conspiratorial voice. “I never quite understood the Anbu secrecy rules. One look at your hair and the whole world knows it's you. Why even bother with a mask?”

“Kabuto,” Kakashi sighed.

“Yup, it’s me,” the medical-nin grinned peskily. “I’m pretty sure I know who red-green mask over there is. Froggie on the other hand… not sure…,” he titled his head to study the young Anbu operative.

“Just be quiet,” Sasuke told him gruffly, “you talk too much.”

“Ah, I forget Uchihas are in an eternally bad mood,” Kabuto sighed, “are we heading out?”

“Sensei, are we going as a five-member team?” Kaeru complained. “That’s awkward.”

Kakashi quickly went over everybody’s profile in his head. He certainly wouldn’t part with wood release or the Eternal Mangekyo Sharingan and a medical-nin on the team was a life-or-death asset. Since he was to be the leader, that left…

“No, I won’t stay behind!” Kaeru exclaimed appalled, apparently coming to the same conclusion about who was the most expendable.

“Then we’re going in a five-member team,” Kakashi said. “Star formation, the medic in the middle.”

“How nice of you to guard me well,” Kabuto smiled, “you know how to make people feel special!”

“Just keep quiet, okay? I’ll take the lead, Sasuke is at the back, at least until we need the Sharingan. Yamato right, Kaeru left. Stand ready!”

Almost on cue, Pakkun’s deep bark could be heard echoing through the woods. Kakashi signalled for departure, heading straight for his dog’s signal.

But dammit, there was something wrong with him. It was like his lungs were clogged and it was difficult to breathe, as if weights had been added to his arms and legs, trying to drag him down. Good thing he had trained with weights before, Maito Guy’s foolproof method to become stronger, it meant he knew almost instinctively how to push himself harder in order to keep up his usual speed.

They reached Pakkun’s location relatively quickly, a small clearing that would soon be overgrown by the thicket that was pressing in from all sides. “There’s a scent here,” Pakkun reported, “it smells like molten metal, but it’s only here.”

Strange. “Should I summon the others?” Kakashi mused, secretly glad to be able to catch his breath.

“I already did that,” Pakkun said. “They’re on it.”

“Good doggy,” Kakashi said and scratched Pakkun behind the ears. The dog claimed he hated to be treated like an animal, but Kakashi knew this to be a lie. Indeed, the little pug leaned into his hand, turning his head this and that way for better access.

“That’s enough now,” Pakkun grumbled after a bit. “The others are back.”

Kakashi’s dogs materialized around them, excitedly running forward to greet him and report. Bull even jumped him, almost toppling him over, using his tongue to lick his mask up and down.

“Okay,” Kakashi groaned, trying to push the huge dog away and at the same time pat him, “thank you. I’m happy to see you too!”

“Must be nice to be loved this much, even if it’s only by a dog,” Kabuto remarked, a comment Kakashi decided to ignore.

“Nothing unusual in my direction,” Urushi said, with all the others except for Guroko agreeing.

“Picked up a weird smell to the north-north-east,” the dog with the pronounced whiskers reported proudly, “same stench as here.”

“Okay, let’s move,” Kakashi ordered the team.

Another rush through the forest, this time with his dogs flocking around him, occasionally rubbing against him, as if they knew he was struggling a little and wanted to give him support. The second place where the enemy entity had left a scent mark, again a small clearing, formed a straight line with the first place to the wall.

“It is possible the thing has wings? Or jumped?” Kakashi mused, looking at Yamato for additional ideas, but his junior just looked spooked and shook his head.

“Have you considered it could be a trap?” Kabuto asked, but Kakashi chose to ignore this comment too. Of course he had considered that option. What he didn’t like about this idea was how obvious a trap it was. Obvious traps indicated an arrogant enemy who considered himself so superior, they did not need surprise on their side.

There was a third place along the straight line that the dogs confirmed had the scent mark. When they all got there, a very strange feeling came over Kakashi. It was the stinking air that was brimming with sinister energy that triggered something like a memory in him, a kind of déja-vue that froze his body in fear for a few seconds and made his gut contract painfully.

“Watch out!” was all he was able to press out before the air parted and three towering, shimmering figures appeared out of nowhere, their large hands making a grab for them. Kakashi saw with relief how his dogs disappeared in clouds of smoke - at least they were going to be safe.

“Did they just walk through portals?” Yamato yelled as he shot thick, pointy wood stakes at the orange figure closest to him.

“Take care of Kabuto and Kaeru!” Kakashi ordered him and started running towards Sasuke. Portals? It had looked like a Kamui portal to him. But that was impossible!

“Hey, are those Susanoos?” Sasuke shouted, dodging the hand of the thing going after him.

It couldn’t be, could it.

Kakashi pulled his sword and poured chakra into it until it shone brightly, hacking at the dark blue hand that was trying to grab Sasuke. Three fully developed Susanoos? There were no three people with Mangekyō Sharingan in both eyes alive, were there? And yet, these attackers had a shimmering chakra armor in different colors just like Susanoos, only that they were smaller.

He raced up the thing’s arm, feeling how the chakra armor heated up the sole of his boots painfully. He got to the shoulder before the tall humanoid attempted to flick him off with the other hand. Who was steering the avatars? Not seeing evidence of a human pilot between the eyebrows, Kakashi tried to get even closer to the top by climbing up where the ear was, but the giant shook his head so violently, Kakashi was halfway thrown off. Somersaulting through the air, he pushed off a tree and managed to land next to Sasuke.

“They seem to be remotely controlled,” he informed him, shifting his weight away from the blisters on his feet. His entire body hurt like hell.

“That one looks very much like yours,” Sasuke remarked gruffly, pointing at the light blue one just now launching in their direction. “What the heck happened to Obito’s Sharingan after he died?”

Obito’s Sharingan… the memory hit Kakashi like a ton of bricks. He had possessed two Mangekyō Sharingan, though only briefly and he had unlocked a Susanoo with it. It was Obito’s parting gift. “You be the Sixth Hokage, Kakashi, okay?” his friend had said, managing to laugh despite everything. The Sharingan had faded when Obito’s spirit left for the other world, to be with his beloved Rin. Silly, clumsy Obito… who had sacrificed his life for him twice.

How… how could he have forgotten this? Kakashi stared up at the light blue monster with the long nose. A Mangekyō Sharingan monstrocity come to haunt him? How fitting. Maybe it was finally time to pay for his mistakes and empty promises.

“Move, idiot!” Sasuke shouted and pushed him aside by ramming his full body weight into Kakashi. Stumbling backwards, Kakashi had to watch helplessly how the Susanoo managed to grab the Uchiha in his stead.

“Activate your Susanoo!” he yelled at Sasuke, pushing against the ground, shooting upwards at high speed.

He reached the top of the Susanoo’s head, using the vantage point to check how the others were doing: fine, all things considering. Yamato was building palisades for their protection and the orange and the dark blue Susanoo were tearing them apart, while Kaeru and Kabuto attacked the monstrosities when there was an opening. Kakashi expected Sasuke to transform any moment, but when he looked down towards where he was, it seemed he was struggling profoundly.

Not losing a moment, Kakashi let himself fall, using the Susanoo’s arm like a slide. Swinging his sword, Kakashi hit the blue fingers using the force from the impact. Chakra exploded outward, almost throwing him off. Gritting his teeth, he poured chakra into his feet for balance and swung again.

“I… I can’t move!” Sasuke shouted meekly, “it is… sucking away… my chakra, dammit!”

Kakashi hacked again and again, but he could not get through the chakra armor like this. Throwing away the sword, he gathered chakra into his hand. The Susanoo’s defense reacted immediately, shooting its own electricity through his body. It hurt so much Kakashi almost blacked out. Spots dancing before his eyes, he concentrated even harder. There was a pressure point on the biceps of the human body that would immobilize an arm completely if hit the right way. Here was to hope that Susanoos were built like humans.

“Raiton: Shiden!” he yelled, shooting forward, purple lightning crackling around him.

His jutsu was capable of cutting through almost everything, but apparently not a Susanoo’s armor. But Kakashi was not one to give up easily, besides, he was getting angry. Pressing forward with all he had, he was finally rewarded by the monster slackening its fingers briefly, emitting an eardrum shattering roar. Sasuke was still mobile enough to grasp the opportunity and slip out of the avatar’s hand, but not strong enough to build up chakra, falling down like a sack of stones. Shooting after him, Kakashi managed to throw himself underneath him to break his fall at the last minute, a very rough landing that drove all the wind out of him.

But there was no time for nurturing hurt ribs. Grabbing Sasuke’s body, Kakashi jumped into the forest to hide behind a large tree. Here, he had to drop the Uchiha unceremoniously because he had reached his own limit. Collapsing to his knees, he coughed extensively. When he wiped his mouth, his hand came away sticky and red.

“Sensei,” Sasuke groaned, struggling to sit up, “get out of here. It’s after me, no need to put your life on the line.”

Sensei? This had to be the first time Sasuke had ever called him that. But rather than giving him warm and fuzzy feelings, Kakashi felt anger lace through him. Straightening, he glared down at the pale Uchiha.

“You brat!” he coughed angrily, “do you think I have protected you all this time to just run away at the first difficulty?”

“I wish people would stop trying to save me,” Sasuke growled.

Kakashi had never given a shit about the boy’s contempt towards him for using a Sharingan without being an Uchiha. But he seriously hated Sasuke’s silent disdain for life of any kind, his toxic attitude towards anything good in the world. It was a relief he was never around, Kakashi thought viciously, or he might have managed to dampen Sakura’s bright spirit.

“And I wish you’d finally drop the attitude,” Kakashi shot back, “you’re an adult now, stop acting like a teenager.”

“Only if Konoha stops treating me like a child!”

Kakashi rolled his eyes in frustration. But no time for a conversation that had to happen, the Susanoo was approaching with heavy steps. Good for them they were so slow and clumsy. Kakashi had to lead it away from Sasuke so that the latter had time to gather his chakra.

“You don’t move!” he told the Uchiha and raced up the tree in front of them until he was at the height of the Susanoo’s eyes.

“Here! Hello!” he yelled at it and made sure to jump through the air in the most visible way. The thing turned its head indeed and briefly hesitated before stumbling after him. Kakashi doubled his speed - so much effort! - and managed to jump next to Yamato without getting himself impaled by one of his wooden stakes.

“Sensei!” Kaeru exclaimed, “you’re bleeding!”

“Never mind,” Kakashi coughed, “Yamato, how long can you keep this up?”

“Until I drop,” Yamato pressed out, “but that might be soon.”

“They can suck up chakra,” Kakashi informed him, watching Yamato’s shaking arms with a sinking feeling, the poor guy was pretty much done, “they probably touch the wood connected to your body to do so. Kaeru? We need to destroy them.”

“Y… yes,” the young Anbu said, gripping his sword a little more firmly.

“I can help,” Kabuto said, seeming serious for once, his hands brimming with chakra. “You know I can do more than heal.”

Kakashi looked him over, suddenly finding his mask constricting. He ripped it off his head and threw it to the side.

“Alright,” he said slowly. “I have no clue how to defeat a Susanoo, but these three are smaller than the real deal and have no wings, so I’m guessing there is a way.”

“You’re guessing? That’s nice,” Kabuto sneered. But then, his eyes fell on Kakashi’s left arm and his face darkened.

“What are these things?” Kaeru asked. The orange one had grabbed Yamato’s latest palisade and was ripping it apart.

“Something they cannot be,” Kakashi answered, his head reeling. One orange like Itachi’s. One dark blue like Madara’s. One light blue like his own. Another cough began building up in his lungs and he turned to the side to spit out more blood.

“Oi,” Kabuto yelled, “are you crazy? Damn idiot with a savior complex. Let me heal you before you do anything else.”

Kaeru grabbed him by the arm to steady him. It wasn’t the time, but another wave of distrust made Kakashi struggle against Kaeru’s grip, just as the medic’s left hand touched his chest, freezing him on the spot.

“I know of a little secret that will make you feel better,” Kabuto hissed. “Hold still.”

There was something shiny in his right hand coming at him with speed, delivering a sharp pain to his shoulder. Kakashi flinched. A syringe! Kabuto had injected him with something! Whatever it was, within seconds, strength returned to his limbs and his head cleared. Kabuto kept applying chakra to his chest, but it was probably only for show. Convinced Kakashi was alright now, Kaeru jumped forward to hack at one of the Susanoos when Yamato took a few wheezing breaths to gather strength for more wood release.

“Better,” the medic smiled, “am I right?”

“We’ll talk when this is over,” Kakashi said menacingly, feeling an urge to grab the guy’s pony tail and shake him until he lost his attitude.

“Oh, with pleasure,” Kabuto retorted. “I have been waiting for you to come see me for days. That tattoo? Pretty life critical for you. Using two Mangekyō Sharingans changes the cell structure of the body, have you forgotten?”

Kakashi didn’t get any of this. Kabuto was probably just playing a practical joke on him for his own amusement.

“So it’s true,” Kabuto laughed at his dumbfounded reaction, “you have amnesia? I heard the rumors. Must be pretty scary. Can’t say I feel sorry for you, you’re giving me such a hard time.”

So slowly he first thought it was a trick of the eyes, Kakashi’s vision turned redder and redder. “What…” he gasped. This used to happen with the Sharingan.

“The tattoo seals blood,” Kabuto said, now seeming to get angry, “Uchiha blood. Did that meddlesome pink head remove it during one of your rendez-vous? You’re both such idiots! I told you to come get the pills, they regulate it.”

A blood seal with Uchiha blood that got out of control if he did not take some pills Kabuto made? It was like a bad dream. But the strength that flooded him, that was no dream and definitely no bad one.

“Yes, Kakashi. Konoha… no, let’s not be too modest here… it was me, me alone,” Kabuto continued.” I have managed to find a way to trigger the Sharingan in a non-Uchiha: you. Isn’t that great? And to believe you were so eager for this before forgetting. Jeez, what an idiot.”

The why, the how, it did not matter right now. It did not matter that he realized Tsunade had been right not to trust him. Never would she agree to something like this. All that mattered was what blossomed in front of his changing eyes. The power… it was intoxicating. To be once again what had made him one of the most feared Shinobi alive… He saw the flow of chakra in all living things and he saw the flow of chakra in the machines.

“Kaeru!” he shouted, rushing forward.

Soulless avatars fuelled by round chakra cells embedded in their bodies. Remote controlled by someone whose presence he now felt. Someone nearby. Someone… familiar.

Gaining more and more speed, Kakashi destroyed the chakra centers one by one. The first of the avatars to fall apart and disintegrate was the light blue one. The second was the orange one. The dark blue one was the toughest of the three, giving them a very hard time, effectively keeping him from getting near the person behind all this.

Kakashi was burning so much chakra he felt his body heat rise to dangerous heights. He didn’t care. They were almost victorious. Just a little more.

“Let me do it!” Sasuke shouted next to him, apparently recovered enough to join the fight.

Kakashi nodded and somersaulted to the side. Behind the trees? But there was nobody there when he touched down.

Wrong.

“Hi sweetie,” a female voice said by his ear, “This time, I will make sure you cannot run away before I’m done with you.”

Strong shimmering hands from out of nowhere made a grab for him and started sucking his chakra away. A fourth one? Kakashi managed to think. It does use portals.

But this was it, wasn’t it. He had fought these things before. It was what he had halfway remembered when they had reached the clearing.

“Who… are you?” he asked into the darkness of the forest.

There was no answer, only a gentle laughter.

“You won’t get him, witch!” Pakkun yelled.

His ninken materialized all around him, sinking their teeth into what they could reach of him. Pointless. The Susanoo was much stronger. Ah, but he had regrets. If only… if only he could have kissed Sakura one more time. If only he could have told her… that… he wanted to spend time with her, a lot of time. Every free minute he got. That he… liked her. A lot.

Chapter Text

...they are back, they are back, they are back...

Sakura ran to the hospital as fast as she could, her sandals drumming a frantic rhythm on the pavement. She was chanting under her breath, feeling she might explode from anxiety and the need to see them with her own eyes.

“Sakura,” a grave looking Shizune greeted her at the entrance, “glad you’re here.”

It was Sasuke who lay on the operating table, so pale he looked almost translucent, his hair wet from sweat, his breathing shallow and labored. Sakura’s heart contracted painfully at the sight. She had always felt compassion for him, compassion and what she thought was love, an overflowing emotion that almost choked her as it strove to be recognized by the object of her adoration.

“Kakashi carried him back,” Shizune whispered, “he got him here not a minute too late.”

“What can I do?” Sakura asked, pulling back her hair into a tight knot. Other questions had to wait for later, though they blossomed in her head in rapid succession. What did it mean he ‘had carried him back’... right up to the village gates!? Had they not sent out several platoons to look for them? What the heck had happened?

“Both of Sasuke’s legs are broken,” Shizune informed her, “can you start mending them? Tsunade has gone to get blood reserves after sealing the worst of his wounds.”

A glance at his patient file assured Sakura that Sasuke was stable for the moment though he had lost a lot of blood through several wounds on his abdomen. Sakura extended her hands, carefully checking the damage in Sasuke’s limbs. Multiple, complicated fractures, as if something heavy had fallen on them. This would take a long time to mend and he would have to spend weeks in a wheelchair. She would not think of the possibility of him not walking again... she was a good doctor. One of the best even. She got this.

Pulling a large quantity of chakra into her hands, Sakura began mending the bone structure, being extra careful to detect and remove splinters. There had been a case at the hospital not too long ago with a fracture not properly taken care of by another doctor, resulting in the patient almost going insane from pain in the aftermath. Operating the miniscule splinters out had been such a difficult task and the patient was still in intensive care now.

“Are you coping alright?” Shizune asked her quietly when Sakura took a small breather a few hours later.

Of course she was. They were back. Nothing else mattered for the moment. They were back.

***

*Four days ago*

“Sasuke and Kakashi are missing,” Tsunade informed Sakura at the end of that long, long night, looking old and tired and like she wanted burst into tears any minute, “we have reason to believe the enemy took them away.”

Feeling like an automaton, Sakura went back to the apartment and slept a day and a night. Nobody disturbed her, but someone put food in the fridge - Tsunade was sometimes more considerate than people gave her credit for.

After waking up, Sakura refused to grieve. Going through her daily routines she was still feeling numb, but she clung on to the sentence ‘the enemy took them away’. That could mean many things, but what it did not mean was ‘we have retrieved their dead bodies’ and so she waited, daring to hope that Konoha’s best Shinobi would find a way to return.

Hope was such a strange thing. Where did it even come from? The memories of the war were still much too fresh, trying to scare her with the knowledge that lives were lost very easily and that death took even the strongest among them with ease. Yes, there was a lot of fear waiting just behind the hope… fear of being wrong, fear of hoping in vain, fear of hearing the words “I am so sorry for your loss, Sakura.” But she managed to look at the poppy flowers growing in front of the window and at the clouds drifting by up in the sky and hang on to hope for another hour, another day, another night.

Sakura had not been to see her parents in more than three months - too busy, her excuse had been. But on the second day of waiting, she paid her parents a visit - a surprise to them as much as to herself, but apparently she needed someone to pat her back the way only parents could, someone to tell her she was doing the right thing by hanging on to hope so foolishly.

“My girl,” her father said and hugged her extra close. Of course they had heard… losing the likes of Hatake Kakashi and Uchiha Sasuke to an enemy they didn't even have a name for was such a big calamity for Konoha, even the doves on the rooftops must be talking about it. People were feeling extra vulnerable, looking to the breach in their wall with apprehension, fearing an armed attack any minute, yet trying to continue their lives in the most normal ways possible. For what else could they do?

Her mother cooked her favorite dish, busily rushing back and forth between fridge and stove. Over dinner, in the familiar coziness of their dining room, her parents told her how proud they were of her success as a doctor. How proud they were she had become such a strong woman. These words almost made her cry because in her own perception, she was not nearly strong enough. She had immediately married Sasuke after leaving her parents at the age of twenty, almost as if she was afraid of having to stand on her own two feet.

“I met Ino’s mum the other week,” her mother said when they had gotten to desert, “she is a bit worried Ino may not consider getting married properly. Do you know anything about their plans?”

Sakura had forgotten that Ino and Sai had not official tied the knot yet. The village had come such a long way for it to be no big deal… well, not for most people, anyway.

“They’re very happy together,” Sakura told her mother, feeling the small pang of jealousy she was accustomed to when thinking about Ino’s happiness, “people don’t think of marriage immediately in my generation, you know?”

Well, that was true for all her friends but herself. In the more trying moments of her loneliness, she had been very bitter about being the only one stupid enough to believe she could tie a guy like Sasuke to herself by getting married.

She knew for a fact her parents were not happy with her choice of husband, but they had never said anything. She was thankful for it, but she also felt subtly guilty. The one time Sasuke had come for dinner had been such an ordeal for everybody. She had cried in the bathroom afterwards, thinking he would never learn not to scowl and would always look at the world and everybody in it as his enemy, however hard she tried to change that.

But despite of everything, the thought of suddenly losing Sasuke forever… it was a terrifying thought. A world without Sasuke in it… it was inconceivable.

“Ino’s mother also told me your whole team went out for drinks with Kakashi Sensei?” her mother said in passing.

“Y...yes,” Sakura said and quickly bent low as if she had dropped something under the table to hide her reddening face. If her parents found out what else she had done with Kakashi… they would probably go ballistic. Like most people of their generation, they were quite conservative when it came to things like marriage and family. Though she had to give them credit for never pressuring her about children.

“What would we have done without Hatake Kakashi all these years,” her mother lamented.

“Don’t worry,” her father said, “he’ll be back. Won’t he, Sakura?”

Sakura straightened and stared at them. Of course he would be back. Everybody was counting on it. Kakashi could not and would not just disappear and leave the village to fend for itself!

“Yes, of course,” she said in a firm voice, touched by how her parents’ worried faces relaxed at her confirmation as if she were an authority in such matters.

“He’ll be the next Hokage,” she added.

“That’s great,” her mother smiled, “he really deserves to be.”

I will see him every day, Sakura thought. From now on, I will see him every day and will talk to him every day, because… the thought of not being able to, the thought of not having him as a part of her future…

The tears came very suddenly without warning but all the more intensely.

“We must be brave,” her father said as he stroked her back clumsily, “Sakura, we can never give up hope until the worst has come to happen.”

How to hang on for another hour, another day, another night... Come back, Sakura prayed. Please, come back.

Nothing else mattered. For now.

***

*Present day*

Sakura was resting on the floor with her head against the wall, waiting for Sasuke’s bones to settle so she could add the last layer of reinforcement. She thought the treatment had gone well so far. But one could never be quite sure before seeing the bones in use again and that would take a while.

Kabuto came in, his hands full of blood bags. Sakura caught sight of the label ‘Uchiha’ on them, which struck her as a little strange, Sasuke was a simple type AB, but she was not familiar with how the blood bank was run, that was Kabuto’s turf. And hadn’t Sasuke received enough blood by now anyway?

“Where is Tsunade?” she asked the medic who busied himself with exchanging an empty blood bag for a full one. She realized she hadn’t seen the Hokage in hours after Tsunade had come to help her with the procedure for a bit. Now that she had time to breathe and think, Sakura felt she needed to discuss the postoperative phase with Tsunade. Like for example how they could get Sasuke from the Hokage Tower apartment down to street level in a wheelchair and up again. Would they have to move again?

“She’s treating Kakashi.”

Sakura shot up, her heart suddenly beating much too fast.

“Why, isn’t he well?”

She had somehow convinced herself he was fine - if not, why had Tsunade not told her and gotten her to help?!

Kabuto shrugged. “Not particularly. Besides, he’s in a lot of trouble.”

What the… Sakura sprang up, ready to run out.

“Don’t bother looking for him, you won’t find him,” Kabuto told her smuggly, wrinkling his nose at her. She chose to ignore that, like she had started to ignore a lot of more or less subtle hints of displeasure from people. Like that frog-mask Anbu who seemed to hate her without even knowing her.

“Kabuto, you were there with them, were you not? What happened? Why is Kakashi in trouble? Didn’t he bring back Sasuke?”

“That’s classified information.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Not in the least. It was an Anbu operation, I’m not at liberty to discuss it with you.”

It wasn’t like Sakura had developed friendly feelings for Kabuto over the years, but they had had a fairly fine working relationship. Now, she felt like planting her fist into his face though. He was clearly enjoying her agitation, watching her with a smug expression that turned into a pronounced sneer.

“I was always told women are the most heartless, but I never saw it’s true until now,” he said, looking at her like she was an interesting test subject.

“I have no idea what you are referring to,” Sakura said coldly, “but since it’s judgment coming from the guy who was ready to betray the place that took him in just like a son repeatedly, I’m quite sure I don’t need to listen.”

“You believe Kakashi is the righteous shining figure you make him out to be? Think again. He built his fame on the death of his team mates. He is ruthless and cold, he would step on anyone and do anything for power.”

Now it was just getting absurd. Sakura had not realized Kabuto harbored such negative feelings towards Kakashi!

“Wow. You’re this butthurt why?”

“Call it deeper insights,” Kabuto hissed at her. “You wouldn’t be able to realize, seeing how hormonal you get at the mere mention of him.”

Making a mental note to think about Kabuto’s strange behavior later, Sakura decided to laugh at him. That enraged him even more.

“You should thank me, Pinkie, not mock me. You could have killed him with your meddling.”

Did he mean…

“The blood seal, you stupid woman. You leave that be in the future, understand?”

“What do you know about it?” Sakura felt like her stomach suddenly dropped a few floors down.

“More than you,” he retorted viciously.

Kabuto was involved in this? She didn’t like that at all. For a variety of reasons, but not least because she had never felt at ease with the ‘soldier enhancement program’ as Tsunade called it. That was just another word for human experiments and she was one of the medics radically opposed to those, even going as far as demanding a complete ban for it in the Land of Fire. It would never find a majority, sadly, as long as other villages and countries did not ban it too.

“Then you also know it almost killed him when it started to flood his body?”

“Because he thinks he knows better, the arrogant bastard, and doesn’t do as told. Besides, he knew all the risks! Emphasis on knew…” Kabuto chuckled. “I am sure he knows nothing anymore since he got himself some amnesia, didn’t he. Oh, you do not need to deny it, I have eyes and it does explain his extremely odd behavior of late.”

Kakashi knew of the blood seal and had forgotten? That was indeed bad news. It suddenly dawned on Sakura why Kakashi might be in trouble. If the slightly paranoid Tsunade reacted very viciously to one thing, it was betrayal. If she believed Kakashi was lying to her…

Maybe I have focused on the wrong things so far, Sakura thought. Maybe the seals in his head are not the problem...

“I’ll be watching you,” she told Kabuto, suddenly feeling very apprehensive about leaving Sasuke alone with this guy around. She would make sure Shizune was in the room before she left. “And I will talk to Tsunade about your odd behavior.”

Kabuto only laughed as he left the operating room, smirking at her in ways that turned her stomach into knots and raised every hair on her body. He had always been a very dangerous opponent. With the positions he held now, he was even more dangerous.

***

“Goddamn, Ibiki,” Kakashi ground out, wishing for the severe pounding in his head to stop, “why won’t you believe me and stop this waste of everybody’s time?”

“You’re saying my Genjutsu won’t work on you?”

“I’m saying that I have learned techniques to withstand extreme torture. You can do whatever you want to me, you won’t get what you’re after.”

“You seal away important information with that technique?”

“Yes,” Kakashi sighed. Sakura be thanked for making him remember he knew such a thing.

“And you are saying you self-destruct those seals under torture so the information becomes temporarily inaccessible?”

“Yes,” Kakashi said though that was not more than a guess on his part.

“Your amnesia is a result of you having been tortured by the enemy?”

“It’s what I assume.”

“If I continue torturing you, you will only get more amnesia?”

“Yes.”

“And you claim you don't know what happened to you in your four days of absence?”

“Yes.”

Even if the truth was more complicated, it would do for now.

Kakashi felt battered, inside and out, thanks to Ibiki’s torture skills and a very unpleasant journey back to the village. Carrying someone his own weight on extremely low chakra as fast as he could because he feared he might die on him was not something he wanted to experience ever again. Like he did not want to experience some kind of Susanoo sucking up his chakra ever again. Neither did he want to be treated like an enemy by his own people. He was thoroughly fed up and very, very tired.

“How is Sasuke?” he asked the commanding officer of the Konoha Torture and Interrogation Force. He knew Yamato, Kaeru and Kabuto were safe, returned to the village by themselves after not finding a trace of his and Sasuke’s whereabouts because Yamato had had the decency to tell him earlier, even though it was against the regulations to talk to him before he wasn’t cleared.

“That is not information I have access to,” Ibiki grumbled, pulling up a chair to sit down in front of him.

The questioning wasn’t done? Kakashi groaned inwardly. He wanted to lie down, he didn’t care where, here on the floor would do. The interrogation chambers were desolate, empty rooms deeply hidden in the underground facilities, designed for only one purpose: breaking a prisoner’s spirit. The light was too bright and hurt your eyes, the air pressure was too high and hurt your head, the chains were too tight and hurt your body.

“Kabuto told us you have some kind of problem related to Mangekyō Sharingan overuse that you kept from everyone. He found a way to treat you at basically the last minute?”

“You believe that guy?” Kakashi was starting to feel bitter. Again and again, Ibiki returned to incriminating information they had received from Kabuto. Granted, it was very strange he had temporarily gotten something like a Mangekyō Sharingan back after getting injected with what Kabuto claimed was Uchiha blood, but Kakashi refused to believe he would do anything to jeopardize the village. That included going against the Hokage.

“You can tell Tsunade…”

“You can tell me yourself,” the Hokage said, stepping into the room with a very grim expression on her face, slamming the door extra hard. Even Ibiki flinched, his eyes growing very large for a moment in his startlement.

Kakashi took a deep breath, looking at Tsunade’s reddened features. He had been debriefed very thoroughly after getting back to the Anbu quarters, information he was sure Tsunade had read. It was relatively simple in its basics though not so much in its details. He had destroyed the Susanoos, but an additional one had appeared to snatch him. It had stepped into something - he called a Kamui portal in his head, though he wasn’t sure that’s what it was. The rest was… blank, until Sasuke had appeared to wake him up and free him from some underground compound. They had found the Kamui portal, but Sasuke had been gravely hurt in the process of stepping through it. How exactly and by what… Kakashi wasn’t sure.

“I’m not the enemy,” he said to Tsunade. “You have to trust me. I would never betray you. I promise I will find out what’s going on!”

Tsunade looked at him with her head tilted slightly to the side and her hands on her hips. “Mangekyō Sharingan, huh?” she pressed out. “Now that is a piece of information I would expect a trustworthy subordinate to share with me.”

“But it’s impossible,” Kakashi said angrily, “you know it as well as I do. The power of the Sharingan is in the Uchiha eyes. The ones I have are not Uchiha eyes. How can I have a Sharingan?”

“Yamato saw it. Kaeru saw it. Kabuto saw it. And I’m sure Sasuke will confirm the same once he wakes up.”

“How is he?”

Tsunade shrugged like it meant nothing to her, but her features mellowed. She cared. Kakashi knew she cared a lot and that made her more vulnerable than she liked being. How could he prove his loyalty to her?

“He lives and he’ll walk again,” Tsunade said.

What a relief. Kakashi briefly shut his eyes as he took another deep breath. The stupid boy had come after him, to save him. Why he would do something like this… Kakashi wasn’t going to believe Sasuke actually cared for someone apart from himself, arrogance had always been the Uchiha Clan’s most glaring fault, but it didn’t change the fact that Sasuke had come after him and he was here because of that and probably only because of that.

“That enemy…,” he said, “was after me, Tsunade, and not Sasuke.”

The Hokage snorted. “Surprisingly, I am ready to believe that outrageous claim. I bet they wanted to find out how a non-Uchiha got a Mangekyō Sharingan. I’d be interested too.”

“I told you Kabuto knows! He said things about cells and blood and…,” Kakashi faltered. He understood nothing about that stuff. He wanted to talk to Sakura about it.

“He denies it,” Tsunade interrupted him sharply. “The others didn’t hear him say anything either.”

“Yes, they were kind of busy not dying,” Kakashi said bitterly. “Can you tell me why I would lie to you about this? You must realize that makes no sense!”

“Care to tell me how you got that back?” Tsunade pointed at his left arm, her lips a thin line.

The blood seal. It was back in its full glory, glittering menacingly in the artificial light.

“I would if I remembered,” Kakashi said, eyeing it apprehensively.

“That excuse is getting so old,” Tsunade yelled, “dammit! You were missing for four days! Four whole days this time and you claim you remember nothing?!”

Not exactly nothing. “There was a woman,” Kakashi said. “It’s in my debrief files, you must have read it. She clearly knew me.”

“... whereas you claim you do not know who she is, like any typical male. Have you considered all women you pissed off in your life that might be out to kill you?”

“I don’t piss off women,” Kakashi defended himself, “I make a point to treat them very well.”

“That’s clearly false because you massively piss me off,” Tsunade growled.

“Hokage-sama,” Ibiki interrupted them politely but firmly, “do you still need me here?”

Tsunade swiveled around to look at the grim torturer who made a face like he wanted to be elsewhere. “No. You’re obviously useless,” she scoffed, “you were in here for hours and got absolutely nothing out of him.”

“That’s because he’s telling the truth,” Ibiki said with dignity. “He doesn’t remember and all my prodding is only making it worse. Reporting, Hokage-sama! Prisoner retrieval protocol followed. I suggest Anbu commander Hatake Kakashi is cleared of the suspicion of conspiring with the enemy.”

Kakashi allowed himself to heave an audible sigh of relief when Tsunade nodded. He felt horrible. He wanted to sleep. Sleep for days. And then, he wanted to go see Sakura. And then… it was clear what he had to do. Even if he did not like it one bit.

***

Tsunade wasn’t in her office. No big surprise there, but Sakura was ready to punch holes into the wall anyway. She slammed the door extra hard, gaining some grim pleasure from scaring the Anbu on duty. Storming out of the Hokage Tower, she went straight to Anko’s apartment to ring the bell with much impatience.

“Sakura?” Anko said after opening the door, her lips forming a surprised O. “What are you doing here?”

Anko wasn’t exactly wearing much and what she was wearing was very transparent… under normal circumstances, Sakura would have blushed upon being confronted with such a revealing getup, but these were not normal circumstances.

“Is Bull with you?” she said.

“Yes,” Anko frowned, “he’s in the kitchen. Why?”

The big dog was already appearing behind her, wagging its short tail at Sakura.

“Can I borrow him for a bit? I need to find Kakashi.”

“Kakashi?” Anko’s frown deepened. “Why? If he doesn’t want to be found, you won’t find him. It’s always been like this.”

“I need to talk to him, it’s urgent.”

“Okay?” Anko shrugged. “Well, you can always try. Let me get you Bull’s leash. Keep him as long as you need, but make sure to feed him enough. He gets cranky if he gets hungry.”

“How do you communicate with Bull?”

“I talk to him just like to the others, I think he understands? Don’t you? Don’t you my big boy?” she bent down to scratch Bull behind the ears. The dog closed his eyes and drooled blissfully.

“Are you coming back to bed or what!” an impatient male voice shouted from somewhere behind Anko.

“Oh,” Sakura said, trying hard not to guess whether she knew the voice or not, “sorry.” Wasn’t it in the middle of the day?

Anko laughed. “No need to be sorry. Hey, if you find Kakashi, tell him I miss him!”

Sakura scowled. She would most certainly not tell him that! Putting the leash on Bull’s massive collar after thanking Anko, she led the dog down to the street and then went to a quiet park near the wall where people often walked their dogs in the morning.

“Bull,” she said after seating herself on a bench, looking into the dog’s eager eyes, “do you know a way how to call Pakkun?”

Eagerly, Bull barked. And poof, Pakkun appeared. Sakura was very surprised it had gone so smoothly, she just stared at him.

“Sakura!” Pakkun greeted her, “I have never before been called by anybody else but Kakashi. What’s up?”

“I need to locate him, Pakkun. I think he’s in danger.”

“Hm, I see,” the dog said. “Locating him should be easy.”

It was?! Why had she never thought of using his dogs before? Sakura wondered. In all those years during which she had wondered and worried about where Kakashi might be.

“... but they might not let you in,” Pakkun added. “Even I found it difficult before.”

“Anbu facilities?” Sakura guessed.

“Yup,” Pakkun agreed, “there is that one guy there who constantly thinks of new security features, he is very annoying. The entrances change and there are countless boobytraps, I think it’s his hobby to blow up people and animals.”

“I need to try, Pakkun,” she said with as much resolve as she could muster.

“You are that concerned?” Pakkun asked. “Yes, that other woman is quite scary.”

“W… what other woman?!”

Pakkun made a thoughtful face, at least that’s what Sakura thought it was. “I’m not quite sure,” he admitted. “We all agree her scent is somehow familiar, but we cannot quite place her.”

Woof, woof! Bull barked in agreement.

“I do not know anything,” Sakura admitted, “what happened?”

Pakkun told her about machines and endless fights and their physical attempt to keep the enemy from snatching away Kakashi, all in vain.

“We weren’t strong enough,” Pakkun said gravely, “we were thrown off him much too easily even though we used our teeth.”

“Let’s not lose any more time,” Sakura said, trying not to start worrying anew about things she did not understand, “I’m sure you ninken did what you could.”

“We worry about him too,” Pakkun admitted. “You do get quite attached to the one who summons you.”

Woof, woof! Bull barked.

Quite swiftly, Pakkun led her to the center of the city after their conversation, where he and Bull ran around a bit, sniffing the ground while Sakura checked the rooftops for guards. Indeed, she was able to locate five individuals that were not moving up there. If she wanted to walk into the high security facilities, she would have to find a way to hide from them. But she had just the idea...

***

Sakura closed the door behind her with a barely audible click. Yet, it was enough to rouse him from his sleep, his unruly hair appearing from the depth of the pillows in the lower bunk bed, his eyes clouded with fatigue.

“Sakura?” Kakashi blinked, then blinked again as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. He looked so battered and lost, Sakura wanted to cry.

“How did you… has Tsunade sent you?” he asked, struggling to sit up.

She was by his side in a blink of an eye, grabbing his upper body and hugging him very tightly to her chest.

“I am so sorry,” she said, feeling how a lump grew in her throat, yet determined not to cry, “I wasn’t told you were unwell, Tsunade hasn't told me a thing! If I had known, I would have insisted…”

“Don’t worry,” he interrupted her, feebly hugging her back. “I am fine.”

He was not fine. It was like he had no strength left inside of him, not even for tightening his arms around her.

“Did they…,” Sakura couldn’t believe her eyes. The skin on her arms was full of red spots, where the most painful pressure points were. “They tortured you?”

“Ah, that is protocol,” he said softly, snuggling his face against her neck. “No need to worry.”

Worry? She did not worry. She only wanted to beat each and every one who had hurt him to a pulp. Protocol? She would start with Tsunade, who must have gone insane. She would continue with Ibiki, who might just be following orders but had to know better. She would go and beat Captain Yamato too, for not sticking up for him. And she would finally destroy the Anbu headquarters and with it the organisation’s secretive bullshit, protocols and and misguided heroism.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” Kakashi said and laughed softly, his body leaning against hers. “If they find you… it will create quite an incident.”

“Oh, I hope it will create an incident very much,” she pressed out, stroking his hair. Her anger was so great, her whole body shook.

“I feared I’d never see you again,” he said so softly she could barely hear it.

“But you promised to come back,” she said defiantly, pulling back to look at him. He was very pale. He needed rest.

“I did, didn’t I. I guess I’m better at keeping my promises than I tend to think,” he whispered.

She lowered his body back down, propping his head on the pillow. His eyes didn’t leave her face, as if he still could not quite believe she was here.

“Pakkun led me here,” she informed him, “with Bull. I told them to wait outside for me, out of sight.”

“Ah,” he sighed. “Are my dogs okay? You smell of vegetables. Did you get in on a food cart?”

“Yes,” she said, “and everybody is fine.”

“Sasuke?”

“Yes,” Sakura nodded. “I healed him. He’ll be fine.”

“You should be there with him,” Kakashi said. “Not here with me.”

That statement hung in the air between them like a dark rain cloud. Sakura looked at his half-hidden face, at the vulnerability mixed with determination visible in his eyes and wondered whether he was telling her to leave.  She understood his dilemma well. He and Sasuke, they had saved each others lives, deepening the reciprocal debt that existed between them. She knew such a debt created very strong bonds between people, because she had them with Kakashi too. It wasn’t like she hadn't known that developing feelings for her former Sensei created all sorts of problems for the three of them. But... she had not wanted to think about those problems just yet. And frankly, she still did not want to, even if the situation might have changed fundamentally.

“Yes, I should,” she said. “But…”

She bent forward to kiss him. His mask was rough against her lips, but she felt the softness of his lips underneath it, responding to her caress almost instinctively, pressing against hers with a desperation that shook her heart.

“This is an Anbu high security facility,” Kakashi whispered. "There is no privacy. People might walk in any time." 

“Mhm,” Sakura answered. “It was damn tough getting in, I don’t think I want to leave just now.”

“I can barely move,” Kakashi admitted, sounding sorry.

“That’s fine,” Sakura assured him. “Just sleep. I will stay with you for a while.”

She got up to switch off the lights and take off her shoes. Then she lifted the coarse military blanket and snuggled in next to him. Kakashi turned to put an arm around her middle as he buried his face in her hair and she lifted her head to put it on his other arm.

No, she wouldn’t think of the problems just yet. She wanted to be selfish for once.

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi was having a very pleasant dream.

They lived in a large, sun filled house together, undisturbed and far away from everything. There were plants forming a deep green tapestry of living things that made the air fragrant and fresh. There were small colorful birds that flew in through the open windows chirping happily, to drink from the little creeks that ran through the rooms. His ninken lived on the third floor with their families, a never ending stream of yapping puppies tumbling down the stairs like little balls of wool to visit them and beg for treats.

Sakura’s main project was the little boy who lived in the forest. He was very shy, but they had managed to draw him close to the house with food offerings and had even once caught a glimpse of his silver hair in the underwoods. He seemed to favor salty snacks but Sakura was still trying out different things since she wanted him to be able to taste as many flavors as she knew herself.

Kakashi had no project. He liked to spend most of his time with Sakura in their large bed, talking, reading and making love. He had all the time in the world to look at every inch of her and to decide which part he wanted to worship next. He wanted to do nothing but look at her, hold her, smell her, tease her, please her...

He was so in love. How was it possible he had not known this feeling before?

“Should we wake him?” a muffled voice said. Were his ninken trying to play a friendly prank on him again? Kakashi smiled. He usually played along.

“No,” another voice answered, “let him rest, we will try and deal with the situation ourselves.”

Even better. Kakashi sighed contently and snuggled closer to the warm body in his arms. She smelled so good, like a freshly plucked flower with petals moist from morning dew. He reached out to touch her soft, peachy skin, slowly tracing the curve of her hip and waist. He leaned forward to put his lips on hers and… annoyed, he pulled down his mask for better access ... her lips were wet and yielding, and he realized kissing her was something he wanted to do more often, so he could taste her sweetness for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“Mhhhhhhh,” she sighed, opening her mouth to let his tongue in.

Her breasts fit his hands perfectly, her small nipples hardening as he rubbed them. But when he tried to move his mouth there, he hit his head rather painfully - and realized that this wasn’t a dream at all.

Kakashi found himself in his narrow, hard bunk bed in the semi-dark, not in a sunlit room with a huge comfortable bed full of puppies. He also realized that even just moving his head took an effort, telling him his chakra depletion was severe and thorough, like he knew it from the aftermath of using the Sharingan in a serious fight.

But the probably biggest surprise was that just like in his dream, he was making out with Sakura, resulting in an urgently pulsating hard-on, chakra depletion or not.

“Don’t stop,” Sakura panted when he froze, confused about what was going on. Then he remembered how she had come to him. Into the Anbu headquarters. So very daring.

But he had to stop.

“Sakura,” he said, finding his voice hoarse and strained and his hands shaking when he retrieved them from her body, “I don’t think…”

“Good,” she interrupted him by putting a finger to his lips, “don’t think. Just don’t think. I won’t think either.”

She pressed into him, grabbing his head with both hands to continue kissing. That was dangerous. Kissing her was very arousing to begin with, but when she took the initiative like this, he wanted to submit entirely to that awesome strength of hers and cease thinking indeed.

But he could not.

“You are thinking,” she remarked out of breath after detaching from him. “Okay... Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Thinking? He was resisting, not thinking. He wanted her very much, so much he thought he would explode. She was the only thing he cared for in this village at the moment and yet… and yet...

“Is it because of Sasuke,” she asked.

It wasn’t really a question, but a statement. Of course if was because of Sasuke, and then again not at all. He cupped her face in both hands, squinting at her lovely features. The light coming in from the corridor through the glass above the dorm door was very faint. Ah, how he wished to be back in the dreamworld, where the sunlight had left no room for darkness and secrets.

“Partially,” he answered her, wishing that not-thinking were a real option.

Kakashi had slept with a married woman before - with zero remorse. In his opinion, a woman had a right to do what she wanted. If she wanted to cheat, who was he to stop her? Besides, the husband had been a wife-beating asshole with a drinking problem and she had deserved a bit of fun.

But of course, this was different. The Uchiha tragedy still weighed heavy on Kakashi’s soul, even though he had not had an active part in it. Sasuke was… infuriating, rude, had never shown even a sliver of gratitude - but he was still someone Kakashi needed to protect for Itachi’s sake, he had no choice. So the question was: how much more important was Sakura’s happiness to him than Sasuke’s?

But far more confusing were his own feelings.

“My marriage isn’t exactly functional,” Sakura said timidly into the silence between them. “God knows what goes on in Sasuke’s head, he never talks and he doesn’t make me… he’s not… with him, I don’t...,” she sounded endearingly shy, like the well-raised girl from a good family that she was.

Kakashi could have insisted she finish her sentence - and maybe he should have - but the message seemed clear enough to him. Sakura was trying to say she wanted sex because Sasuke failed to please her that way.

“I… want to… with you,” Sakura added even more shily.

There was a very brief moment during which Kakashi felt something like bitterness, but he pushed that silly feeling away. He was a fool to think his own happiness mattered even in the least in this constellation. Just sex? This was exactly what he needed to hear, wasn't it? He could do just sex without thinking about it twice, he tried to convince himself. He could consider it a one off service for someone who deserved every ounce of happiness she could get. No feelings, no guilt.

“I understand,” Kakashi said, making sure he sounded as carefree as he possibly could, “but first, I have a favor to ask.”

“A… favor?” Sakura sounded unsure and a little scared. Silly girl. She was probably thinking about the wrong kind of thing. As if he’d ever do anything to her she didn’t want him to do.

“Nothing to worry about,” he said and put a stray lock of pink hair behind her ear, “I just need your help with another genjutsu.”

“Oh,” she said, sounding relieved, “of course!”

“But this time, it’s going to be me wielding it,” he continued.

“Oh,” Sakura said again. “Okay?”

“It will help me regain my memories,” he assured her. Well, that’s what he hoped would happen. He needed to convince his own mind that the enemy was gone so it would let go of the defenses that were keeping him from accessing certain memories and he was certain that having Sakura there would help.

“Of course,” she said, “I am more than happy to help you. Do you want to do it now?”

“No,” he smiled expectantly, “now we do something else.”

“Oh,” she said a third time, sounding shy again. “Only if your chakra depletion isn't too severe...”

“Are you still on birth control?” Kakashi asked. He had seen the pills in her bathroom, but he had to be sure.

“Y...yes”, Sakura stammered. “Please don't tell anybody.”

“Not a single person comes to mind that I would want to tell,” Kakashi laughed.

“I don’t want a baby yet,” she dropped her voice very low at that confession, as if it were an indecent statement.

Yet. But soon?

Again, Kakashi felt a moment of bitterness at only being that man, the one you turned to for fun before the “yet” became “now”, but he should know better than to be the fool who hoped for the impossible.

“You have a right to decide such things on your own,” he said, setting his mind firmly on his want for her, the excitement that was building up at the prospect of having her. While ‘dreaming’, he had started to undress her and now was the time to continue. Slowly, he opened her sleeveless qipao dress further, button after button, watching how her breathing quickened, her chest rising and falling rapidly. She had not been wearing a bra the last time they had been intimate, but now she was, a functional, plain type befitting her no-nonsense character. He pushed it up and away. The small breasts that he freed looked juicy like apples and he bent down to do what he had wanted to do before hitting his head.

He had inwardly scoffed at her previous comment about his chakra depletion, but the arm that he had used to push himself up to look down at her suddenly started to shake so violently, he had to quickly lower himself so she wouldn’t notice. Luckily, his mouth was not affected by his weakness. Using his tongue, he caressed her erect nipples for a bit, then used his lips to suck them, first carefully, then a little harder, taking his cues from the cute little sounds that she made. He took his time with the breasts, exploring their dimensions and texture thoroughly. He found the left one was just a tiny little bit smaller than the right, which made it his instant favorite. Realizing there were other parts of her he had not gotten to know yet he moved his lips down to her belly button. It was shaped like a little seashell and he licked it with the devotion it deserved.

“Mhhhmhmhm,” Sakura moaned.

The scent of her arousal hit his nostrils and his mouth longed to taste it. There was no particular haste though, so he explored her hips, then the soft skin of her loins first and finally pulled down her panties with his teeth. Noticing a cute little swirly lock in her pubic hair, he moved his mouth over to her mound to nibble at the flesh, a place only amateurs neglected.

“Mmmmhmhmhmmh,” she moaned even louder.

Kakashi briefly wondered how much noise the door was able to cancel out - probably not a lot - and what they would do it somebody nosy like Yamato walked in on them, but he was too distracted by the glistening wetness of her womanhood to really care. Extending his tongue, he began to lap at the thick sweet juices, rewarded by even more moaning from her. A woman’s folds were such a wondrous thing, all of them different in shape, but all of them like flowers that opened up to the sun when treated the right way.

Kakashi began alternating between sucking her nub, licking down the length of her slit and circling his tongue around her entrance and before long, Sakura grabbed his hair with both hands and exclaimed: “Oh my goooooood.”

She clamped her legs around his ears forcefully when her orgasm shook her, holding him in place with her strength. He was right where he wanted to be, lapping up the extra juices that flowed from her with a growing hunger. Besides, he knew how easy it was to make a woman come again once she was as stimulated as this. As soon as her legs relaxed around him a little, he took up the sucking and licking again.

It took a bit longer the second time, but thanks to a bit of extra attention on specific parts, her body jerked again soon and he smiled at how unsuccessfully she tried to stifle her ecstatic sounds with her fist. He looked up at her enraptured face with the tightly shut eyes while the waves of pleasure washed over her, feeling quite satisfied with himself. Why was it that she was so ready to be pleased, so quick to reach the peak with hardly any effort from him?

As he was looking at her, she opened her eyes to look down unexpectedly, his heart shuddering for a moment because of the expression in them, but then she pulled at his hair demandingly, forcing him to move up - so that she could give him their hottest kiss yet, licking her own juices off his lips and chin in the process.

“Thank you,” she whispered, tracing his jaw with the tip of her fingers.

Kakashi had not even consciously realized he wasn’t wearing his mask anymore, which was in itself a shock to him. For a short moment, he felt extremely exposed, but this was Sakura, whom he had known for so long, whom he trusted. It was okay.

“You are so handsome,” Sakura breathed, drinking in his features, hitting him right in the stomach with that statement.

He had already realized he was in trouble on that rooftop a few days ago, but the extent of it was only becoming clear to him now. Why lie to himself? It was useless. He had developed feelings for her that he had not even known existed. He craved for her attention and her affection like one thirsted for water after a journey through the desert. He had needed a dream to realize - a dream full of sunshine and reciprocal love - a dream painful in its contrast to reality.

“Hey,” she said with concern, “are you okay?”

Not okay. Not at all okay. He put his head down on the pillow. She was someone he could never have the way he wanted her.

“Is it because you are still exhausted?” she asked, gently stroking his hair, “of course you are. What kind of doctor am I not to give you enough time to rest… But you know, the thought of losing you… it was too painful.”

Her hand had travelled down his body, timidly touching his strutting readiness, rubbing her hand up and down the length of it, almost a question. Granted, using chakra during sex came with a lot of benefits, but he was definitely ready for more even without any left. It was like his body wanted to claim her at least once, even if it was the last thing he did.

“Ride me,” he said hoarsely.

Sakura drew in a sharp breath, but her hand did not cease to touch him. Now, she shifted her attention to his trousers, easily removed since there was only an elastic band holding them up. He was not wearing any underpants. Sakura studied his nakedness for a moment, quiet as if she needed a minute to collect her courage.

“Yes, I want to. Very much,” she whispered and moved to straddle him.

There was little space for her head because of the bed above his, she had to bend forward, bringing their bodies into very close proximity. There was only her in his world now and he wished it would stay this way forever. After pulling up his shirt over his head, she grabbed his ears again to look deeply into his eyes. Her hot core rested against the full length of him, warm and alluring. Shifting her hips, she began to slide forward and backward, watching his face very closely.

“Do you like this?” she asked.

“Yes,” he groaned, “of course I do.”

“Don’t judge me,” she said, “I think I’m very bad at this kind of thing. I know nothing about men.”

He managed to lift his own hands to grab her head and pull her down into a passionate kiss. What silly notion was this again? Why was she always so insecure about herself? Her wetness already coated his entire shaft, the gliding becoming quicker, the pressure mounting.

“I want to be inside of you,” he whispered into her ear, his voice thick with desire, “if you allow me.”

“Sorry,” she gulped and with one shaking hand, she grasped his length to guide his tip to the right place.

Kakashi wanted to bury himself to the hilt inside of her with one firm stroke, but when he found her entrance surprisingly tight, he pushed very slowly, leaving her time to adjust and relax. She began to moan again after he had halfway entered her and it became instantly more challenging not to let go of all restraint. She was the sexiest, most desirable woman he had ever been with and the feeling of her tight, hot walls around him was maddening.

But he knew this might well be the one and only time he got to have her and therefore, he had to make it last.

Slowly, very slowly he sank into her, eventually filling her up completely. He wanted to shout in ecstasy at the feeling of jointness. He would have wanted to stay like this the whole night, moving as little as possible, but Sakura began to rock her hips in small circles, her whole body beginning to tremble above him.

“So… deep,” she gasped.

The feeling was intoxicating. Very soon, he felt her orgasm build with small tremors deep within her, fast becoming stronger and more pronounced. She bit into his shoulders to muffle her cries, her walls beginning to clench around him forcefully, almost driving him over the edge. Not losing a beat, she began moving again as soon as it subsided with a look of rapt concentration on her face.

“Slow down,” he groaned, but she didn’t seem to listen. She moved faster and faster, letting him slip out almost completely before taking him in again all the way. It was a frantic rhythm of lust, her eyes glazing over as she sought her fulfilment. The second time she came, he couldn't hold back any longer either. He exploded within her with a shout, feeling like his very soul was milked out of him gush after gush. A feeling of ecstasy mixed with a keen regret that it was already over flooded him.

“I told you I'm not good at this,” she sighed, collapsing against his chest, “I'm sorry for not slowing down. I couldn’t.”

“Why…,” he sighed, “why do you always find fault with yourself?”

“M.. maybe you had different expectations,” she suggested, moving a hand to his chest to trace an imaginary line on his skin.

Expectations? Yes. He had a whole set of expectations, especially concerning the future, expectations to keep practicing with her every day so that he learned about everything she liked and to teach her about everything he liked. At this moment, he feared he did not know how to stop wanting her. Being able to have her once only meant he wanted her more.

But this was going to be his secret, his secret alone. And maybe it didn’t matter because he wouldn't be around to see her anyway.

“I liked it a lot,” she blurted out. “Is it okay to say this?”

“Of course,” he said in response, having to smile a little at how she was becoming ever more daring in what she expressed, then realizing that she seemed to be expecting a confirmation from him too.

Ah, but what to say? I am deeply in love with you. I want you to be mine. Leave him.

“Talk to Sasuke”, was what he said instead, “you need to sort this out with him.”

And then, because he realized this could be misunderstood and he didn't want that: “I mean... it's really not very hard to please you. Just tell him what you like.”

Great - and now he blushed? It was her cute and a little naughty smile that did this to him.

“I don’t know what I like,” she admitted. “Or didn’t know until you taught me.”

Kakashi closed his eyes, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Who would have thought he’d ever become a teacher for this kind of thing too? Sakura shifted away to the side, their bodies no longer intimately connected.

“Transform into an Anbu if you want to walk out of here undiscovered, wearing a bird mask is best, there are a few of those and they’re sometimes hard to distinguish,” he managed to say before his weariness overtook him completely.

“I’m not leaving yet,” she said, almost sounding offended.

That struck him as strange, but he needed to sleep very urgently now, the kind of sleep that could take him out for days. The last thing he felt before his awareness left him was Sakura’s warm hand grasping for his to interlink their fingers.

***

Unable to turn her eyes away from Kakashi’s unmasked face after he had fallen asleep, Sakura felt a pang of guilt. But it was hard for guilt to find a hold in a body humming with passion. Amazing that she had needed to turn twenty-four to experience such lust. Shocking that she could be this selfish when it came to seeking her own pleasure. Even more shocking that she felt accomplished... but he had liked it too, she was certain, even if he had not said so directly.

Tenderly, she traced Kakashi’s brow with her knuckles. He had always made her feel good, more than anybody else and she felt very grateful for it. She thought she would like to be someone he cherished in similar ways. Ergo, she had to stop staring at his features like a creepy person and consider his sensitivities. Kakashi must be hiding his face for a reason - and it certainly wasn’t because he was ugly or had buckteeth, as Naruto had once suggested. Should she pull up his mask to afford him some privacy? After staring for a good time more, she did - gently pulling the elastic fabric up and over his nose.

He did not budge an inch. His exhaustion must be so much greater than he had wanted to admit. Sakura had used her healing powers to cure the effects of torture while he had slept before and now, she called chakra into her hands once again to send into his body. His very delicious body. It was more like an energy boost than healing… there were no injuries like in Sasuke’s case, not a single one.

After a while, it was enough. Sakura yawned extensively and stretched, her joints popping. It was difficult to know what the time was, she wasn’t wearing a watch and there was no natural light this deep underground, but from the way her stomach was rumbling, it was at least dinner time or beyond. But how to get something into her stomach? Waking Kakashi up was out of the question. She didn’t want to leave yet. That left her with one other option…

Using her hands, she washed between her legs at the washbasin and then began to practice transformation jutsu, checking her altered appearance in the mirror. The most important aspect of change was her telltale hair - she finally settled on an unruly mop of brown curls that wasn’t too difficult to do. Far more tricky was the Anbu mask - for whatever strange reason, her attempts kept looking like Kakashi’s kitsune mask and not like a bird, as if her imagination could not conjure up anything different than what she saw dangling from a hook on the wall.

Eventually, she managed a mask with a resemblance of a beak in the middle - good enough - and walked to the door to step outside. The corridor was just as empty and dimly lit as it had been when she had first arrived. However, she had come down here through hidden back tunnels, led by Pakkun. Without her canine guide, she had to be careful not to get lost - and decided to use a felt pen she had in her pocket to draw little marks on the walls so she would find back to Kakashi’s room.

Maybe it was later then she had thought - everywhere she went, it was empty and she heard no sounds apart from the humming of the ventilation system. Luckily, it didn’t take Sakura too long to locate the kitchen. But what kind of kitchen was this? There was no proper food in the fridge, only water in bottles and ampullae with liquid in different colors. At least there was some fruit, though the selection was poor. Grabbing a bruised looking tangerine, Sakura peeled it at lightning speed and then devoured it, the juice running down her chin. Only more hungry, she grabbed a second one, but before she could even peel it, a faint noise outside set her heart racing.

Quickly, Sakura pulled down the mask - not a second too late. A young man entered, seeming strangely familiar. He was handsome enough, medium height, with brownish, short-cut hair, a straight, somewhat long nose and pronounced cheekbones, but his expression was thoroughly unpleasant, almost as if he had bitten into a lemon. When her eyes caught sight of the mask dangling from his belt, she snorted incredulously. Frog mask! Of all people!

“Do I know you?” he asked suspiciously, looking her up and down. She was suddenly unsure whether the Anbu wore their masks inside the headquarters like people said or whether she was already much too suspicious.

“No,” she answered nonchalantly. “I’m new.”

“Didn’t hear about a new recruit,” frog mask said and shrugged. “Where is your room?”

“It’s room 42,” she said. It seemed to be the safest possible answer, besides, it was the truth.

“That’s Kakashi Sensei’s room,” Kaeru exclaimed.

“Oh, I must have gotten it wrong then!” she grinned. Not. Frog mask's scowl deepened.

“What’s your speciality?” he challenged her.

“Genjutsu,” she replied. And because she had learned a lot from Tsunade about men and how annoying most of them were, she got ready for his challenge that would most certainly come. Indeed, she felt his clumsy Genjutsu like a slap to the face mere seconds later, giving her ample warning to defend herself with a release while slipping in her counterarrack. A brightening of the light, he looked up to the ceiling and bam, she had him.

“Why don’t you climb on the table, stand on one leg and crow like a rooster?” she said sweetly.

Frog mask blinked and obeyed.

“It’s not even fun when it’s this easy,” Sakura sighed and released him from the Genjutsu.

“You’re good,” he acknowledged with an impressed nod after he had jumped down from the table, his face and ears red from embarrassment. “I see why they recruited you into Anbu.”

… only her character was completely unsuitable for someone in the black ops division. Kakashi had told her, many years ago when she had still been a Genin and had been curious who was eligible and who was not. The Anbu favored the ones with little to no emotions, those easily turned into precise killing machines.

Partially why she really didn’t like the organisation and wished Kakashi had nothing to do with them.

“Are you hungry?” Frog mask grinned with a side-glance at the tangerine peel on the counter and the smile made his face transform in such an unexpected way, Sakura simply stared at him for a few seconds.

He pulled out a paper wrapped bundle from underneath his uniform, looking at it almost tenderly. “My sister sent me a few snacks from her village. You’re in for a treat!”

“She’s not in Konoha?” Sakura asked.

Frog mask shook his head. “She got married to a fisherman from the Land of Water. First chance she got to escape, she did.”

Sakura frowned. Who would want to escape Konoha? It was perfect here, she didn’t know a single person who didn’t like the village.

“We grew up in the orphanage,” frog mask explained, probably guessing she must be confused about his sister’s tastes. “My talent for becoming a shinobi was evident from early on, but she really wasn’t suited for fighting… she had a hard time there.”

“I’m sorry,” Sakura said, “you must miss her.”

Frog mask cocked his head to think for a moment. “Yeah, I do,” he then agreed and put the bundle on the table, where he started to carefully unwrap it. It contained a series of other wrapped packages with neat writing on them.

“These are my favorite,” he exclaimed and opened one reading Shiroebi Yuzu Kosho Senbei.

“You do not need to sh…”

“Nonsense,” frog mask said, “we Anbu look out for each other.”

Sakura took one of the thin and crisp crackers and took a bite underneath the mask. Delicious!

“You can come ask me for help anytime,” he offered generously, “I know it can be pretty tough at the beginning. Especially knowing which of the rules to follow by the letter! I got into trouble quite a few time. Kakashi Sensei seems like such a laid back person, but don’t let yourself be deceived!”

He offered her more rice crackers and opened another package with dried fish in it. Who would have thought she might one day come to like this frog mask?

“He’s extremely fair though,” he continued, and then, another scowl crossed his features. “And righteous. Don’t believe anything else you hear.”

“What do you mean?” Sakura asked, suddenly very alert.

“Ah, you know… it’s classified information. But I was there and saw what happened when he had to fight those… machines…”

Oh come on, tell me more! Sakura screamed inwardly.

“Kabuto was there too, wasn’t he,” she said, trying to make her voice sound neutral.

“Oh, you know him?” frog mask frowned. “Very capable ninja, super lousy character.”

“Tell me about it,” Sakura sighed, feeling how the anger from earlier today boiled up again. “Watch him carefully, I think he has some sinister plan that involves Kakashi. Sensei,” she quickly added the last bit when frog mask looked at her askance.

“I can’t tell you more, it’s classified,” she said apologetically. That’s what one said to appear important around here.

“I understand,” frog mask nodded, looking thoughtful. “I will protect Kakashi Sensei even better from now on. And I will make sure nobody speaks ill of him ever again! As if he’d go get his Sharingan back to use it for evil deeds!”

“Excuse me?” Sakura’s mouth hung open.

“Yeah, so that’s what happened,” frog mask shrugged. “He used a Mangekyō Sharingan in both eyes during the fight.”

I’ll be damned, Sakura thought, feeling hot and cold at the same time. That’s impossible. But no wonder Kabuto had said Kakashi was in trouble. The blood seal… it was one thing and she would want to examine it more carefully the next time Kakashi came to see her at the hospital, but a Sharingan?

She had to go see Tsunade. Tonight.

“I need to go,” Sakura said and jumped down from the counter.

“Yeah, it’s late,” frog mask nodded. “It was nice meeting you! I’d like to be on a team with you.”

“O… okay,” Sakura stammered, not quite sure how to deal with his friendliness that was so unexpected and different from how she had gotten to know him.

“I’m glad I came here instead of waking up Kakashi,” frog mask mused. “Or I might not have gotten to speak to you.”

“Oh, you should let him rest, he was pretty exhausted,” Sakura blurted out, dammit, “... is what Captain Yamato told me.”

“Yeah, I know, Captain Yamato told me the same. But I wanted to surprise him.”

With what! Sakura screamed inwardly, why are these conversations so exhausting!

“With what?” she snapped, suddenly tired of dancing around important information like moths around an open flame.

“Ah, didn’t Captain Yamato tell you about the visitor? That’s strange.”

What visitor!!

“She claimed she knows the Uchiha and when she was told he's inconvenienced, she demanded to speak to Kakashi Sensei, saying he would be even more delighted to see her.”

“Someone from outside the village?” Sakura was getting very curious now. “Do you know what she looks like?”

“Yes, I was there,” frog mask nodded. “Crimson eyes, ugly red hair, short and spiky on one side. Ah... and glasses.”

Karin?!!!

“We cannot let her in without someone vouching for her, that’s why I thought we should wake up Kakashi Sensei, even though he’s recuperating. The weather is turning and we really shouldn’t let a mother with a small child wait outside the village doors in the wet and cold.”

A child?!!!!

“I think I know her too. Let me go and see Lady Tsunade,” Sakura said, suddenly feeling an inexplicable chill. “I agree with you, a mother with a small child should not have to wait outside the village doors in bad weather.”

A braver person than her would have asked what the child looked like, but she would find out soon enough, wouldn’t she.

She was quite certain she didn't want to know.

 

Chapter Text

Sakura was gone.

Kakashi felt the sad emptiness of his room even before he was fully awake. He knew instinctively he should remember something about the dream he was surfacing from... but he could not hold onto it, however important it seemed. The images burst one after the other like soap bubbles, leaving him with a discomforting feeling of deja-vu but nothing else.

Everything smelled of Sakura.

He wanted this scent to never fade and at the same time wished it gone already. There was an ache inside of him that he had no experience with, but ironically, thanks to reading Icha Icha, he was well-equipped with the vocabulary to call it by its proper name.

Yearning.

How stupid of him to fall into such a trap. Had he not sworn himself never to end up like the sad characters in Master Jiraiya's books? Lying around in the semi-darkness, miserable and alone with a growing lump in their throats, yearning endlessly for a woman they could never have?

"Sensei?"

The familiar voice at the door was welcome because it promised to shake him out of his self-pity.

"Kaeru?" Kakashi said and sat up. "What is it?"

"Oh, good, you're awake," the young Anbu said and cautiously opened the door. It had to be late at night, the lights in the corridor were at their lowest. They were never fully switched off since nobody wanted elite troops to fall over each other in the dark when they had to leave at very short notice, always bathing the Anbu headquarters in a strange semi-light. It was befitting for elite assassins who got a lot of their fame from their secrecy.

"How are you feeling, Sensei?" Kaeru asked.

"I'm okay," Kakashi replied and it wasn't even a lie. Though his chakra was still very low, his reserves were replenished enough to allow him to move without toppling over. A parting gift from Sakura? He usually did not get back to his feet that fast.

"So...," Kaeru had something to say it seemed, but was not quite sure how to breach the subject.

"I need to take a shower," Kakashi murmured. He had to wash the scent off or he would not be able to function normally, that's how bad it was. But just when he wanted to swing his legs out of bed he realized he wasn't wearing any trousers and stopped himself. He fished for the bottle of water that he always kept between the wall and the bedframe instead and drank deeply. That always happened after chakra depletion: he got awfully dehydrated and was soon going to be thoroughly famished. There was never any food at the Anbu headquarters so he better got moving.

"I think you should go to see the Hokage," Kaeru said, though sounding doubtful.

"Did something happen?" Kakashi perked up.

He would rather not see the Hokage for a while if there was a choice. Yes, he was angry. And hurt. He had put his life on the line for the village so many times and she still did not trust him? It would take an apology to forgive her.

"Not... directly," Kaeru evaded his question.

"Out with it," Kakashi sighed.

"I spoke to the new Anbu recruit just now," Kaeru said.

"New Anbu recruit? I don't think we have...," oh. Of course. "Ah. Bird mask?"

"Yes! Her!" Kaeru confirmed eagerly, "She is great at Genjutsu. Have you tested her, Sensei? I wouldn't mind going on missions together."

Kakashi snorted. Marvelous.

"Sorry," Kaeru smiled shyly, "I guess I got carried away a little. But that's not the point. I... I so there is a visitor at the Gate who said she wanted to see you. She's still waiting."

"What?" Distracted, Kakashi was trying to remember whether he had put a wrist watch somewhere near, but it seemed he hadn't. "What's the time?" he asked the young Anbu.

"Almost midnight. So I was telling the new Anbu recruit about that woman and what she looked like and then the new recruit suddenly got very excited, but not in a good way, and said she was going to see the Hokage and now I'm thinking..."

"Nobody goes to see the Hokage at almost midnight," Kakashi said resolutely, "unless it's a life and death situation."

Tsunade would be sleeping. Waking a sleeping Tsunade was very unwise. Sakura knew that too, she was her pupil.

"I know!" Kaeru continued exasperated. "That's what I mean! If this woman from Kusagakure who wants to see you is a life and death situation, you should definitely go to see the Hokage too! I don't want you to get into even more trouble."

Kakashi rubbed his forehead in confusion. What woman from Kusagakure? He didn't know anybody from there.

Time to rummage for his underpants. "I'll go to the Gate directly," Kakashi said. "It's very late for a woman to stand out there waiting."

Why had they not let her in? Well, that he knew, actually. With the recent attack they were on high alert. No strangers were let in and only specially authorized personnel was let out on missions.

"I am sorry for causing you trouble," Kaeru said remorsefully. "With all the strange things going on recently..."

"Don't worry," Kakashi told him, "the only one responsible for my troubles is me."

Should he dress properly or go out in his trainers? Maybe dress properly. Anbu flak jacket? Yup, he did not have a jonin outfit handy. Stepping up to the washbasin, he tried to comb his hair into some kind of acceptable form, but as usual, it did not comply.

"It's raining," Kaeru mentioned, observing his struggles with interest. "Sensei, should I accompany you?"

"Not necessary," Kakashi replied, frowning at himself in the mirror. He looked like a hurricane had swept him up and spewed him out again ten miles further down.

Boots? Over there. No weapons necessary, but it never hurt to have kunai and shuriken with you anyway, so he grabbed the two pouches to put around his middle and his leg.

"I'll get an umbrella," Kaeru said and disappeared quickly.

Kakashi grabbed his rain cloak from the hook. A woman from Kusagakure wanted to see him? He felt a strange sense of foreboding in his gut. Not remembering things was not getting any easier with time. In fact, he was beginning to think his troubles were only beginning.

***

Konoha was asleep, as it should be at this time of the night, with no lights on in the houses and only a few lanterns shining down on the main road leading to the Gate. A typical early summer rain was pelting down. Kakashi had always found the sound of water hitting the tin rooftops soothing, but he walked much faster than he normally would. This was no weather to be standing outside their Gate.

"Kakashi!" the Gate guards called out from their wooden shelter when they recognized him. "What are you doing here this late?"

"I was told someone is here to see me?" he said.

"Oh. Yes!" Izumo remembered, springing to his feet. "I almost forgot."

"She's been very quiet recently," Kotetsu mused. "Maybe she has left."

"Let me out to see," Kakashi asked of them with a sigh.

There was a small door to the side for cases such as these, so seldomly used that it took the guards a while to find the key and then another while to get the key to move in the lock.

Kakashi stepped outside into the dark - no lights out here and no moonlight. His eyes adjusted enough to see two figures huddled up in raincoats against the wall. Quickly, Kakashi opened the umbrella Kaeru had given him and held it above them. Were they sleeping?

The larger of the two lifted her head. It was too dark for him to see her features clearly, but he thought she was wearing glasses.

"Kakashi?" she exclaimed and sprang to her feet, her boots making a miserable, wet sound, "Oh thank god, it's you!"

While he was still mulling over where he knew this voice from, she had already jumped into his arms, sobbing pitifully against his shoulder.

"I didn't know where else to go," the woman sobbed, "I was so afraid. I'd prefer a Konoha prison cell to anything else right now! Please take us in."

"Mama?" the smaller figure lifted her head too. "Mama, are you crying?"

The woman let go of him and bent over her child. "Don't worry, Sweetie," she sniffled, "I was just very relieved to see this man. He will help us. He promised your mommy."

Kakashi lifted the umbrella again to shield both of them from the rain. Why did everything feel like a strange dream or an evil prank lately? Should he not at least remember a promise made to a mother?

"Please come in," he said because whoever they were, he could not let a woman and her small child wait out her in the rain.

"Thank you," the woman said and took a shaking breath, "thank you, I knew you would be true to your word."

He recognized her only once she glared at the Gate guards as if she wanted to rip their heads off and eat them for dinner and because they shone a torch at her.

Karin.

Kakashi closed his mouth before anyone could see him stare with it open. Karin with a small child, its face hidden by a huge hood. All he could do was lift his umbrella again to shield them from the rain, his brain going into overdrive in an attempt to remember. Anything. Anything beyond bringing her to Konoha and her being thrown in prison.

Hasty footsteps made him turn towards the village. Pink hair told him right away who it was and his stomach did a flip and then another. Sakura slowed down when she saw him, her face showing puzzlement, then something that could be concern.

"Kakashi?" she asked, her eyes staying on his face as if it was able to give her answers.

"Sakura!" Karin sobbed. "Oh, Sakura, I am so happy to see you!"

Sakura pulled her eyes from his and he was taken aback to see the fear in them. They flitted to Karin, then to the child and lingered. Kakashi turned his head too, but there was now way to tell how old the child was nor what its sex was.

"Karin," Sakura said with a voice that was very cold, "I am surprised to see you."

"Where is Sasuke," Karin said, "please, Sakura, they said he isn't well? Can I help?"

Sakura's eyes flitted to Kakashi's again, but he was just feeling like the biggest fool ever. Was she hoping he would be able to make a decision?

"If he's allowed visitors...," he cautiously began.

"He's in a coma," Sakura said with the same cold voice as before, "sure, I can take you there. But then, we need to find you a place to stay..."

Again, she looked at Kakashi.

A place to stay? His old apartment was empty, he thought. Should he offer it?

"My apartment is empty," he blurted out before he was able to consider whether that was a good idea. That's how stressed out he was by this whole thing.

The look that Sakura shot him was murderous. So not a good idea? But it stood empty all the time, why not have someone who needed it use it? He lifted his eyebrows in her direction, wanting to ask her what he had done wrong.

"Thank you," Karin said, her eyes filling with tears again, "thank you so much, it means a lot to me."

"We will put down your entry into our records," Izumo said. "What is your name?"

"Karin," the kunoichi said with a firm voice. "No clan affiliation known."

"And your child?" the guard asked, busily noting down her name in the book before him.

"This is Sarada," Karin said, her voice suddenly sounding very gentle and loving. "No clan affiliation either. Just... Sarada."

Chapter Text

“Did you tell her Sasuke is in the hospital?” Kakashi chided the Gate guards in a low voice, at the same time watching from the corner of his eyes how a grim-faced Sakura was trying to force her own umbrella into Karin’s hand.

“Of course not,” Izumo bristled, “we just said he’s unavailable.”

Mulling over how Karin could have known about Sasuke, Kakashi remembered she was a skilled sensory-type kunoichi and an expert manipulator too. She read the chakras of people like books and had even managed to fool Ibiki and his people back then. They had to be extra careful around her. The timing of this visit… it alone was suspicious.

On the way to the hospital, Sarada walked with her hands slung tightly around her mother’s arm and her face pressed against her hip. Whatever they had fled from, the girl was clearly traumatized. Since Karin had refused to take the umbrella, Sakura was now holding it over her head. Kakashi moved behind Sakura to hold his over hers. She didn’t seem to notice until they were almost at the hospital entrance, but then she threw him a dark look.

“Shouldn’t you be resting?” she said.

“I guess?” he answered with a half-smile, “but my subordinate Kaeru, whom you properly bewitched, was worried and came to wake me.”

“Stupid frog,” Sakura murmured. “He seemed more reasonable than that.”

“You saying you would go to see Tsunade in the middle of the night alarmed him and rightfully so!”

“I didn’t know what time it was,” Sakura admitted, “I only realized when I was standing in front of Tsunade’s apartment. I didn’t disturb her of course but came straight to the gate!”

Kakashi felt like ruffling her hair in a rush of affection. “Thank you for coming. You always care so much about everyone, even if they are not your responsibility.”

“Oh, and how is she yours?” her eyes were flashing angrily again.

Kakashi did not understand why she was angry at him particularly - but then again, he also did not understand why Karin had asked for him as if they shared an important secret. Was it possible she knew about his amnesia and was skillfully manipulating the situation? he mused.

Sakura led them straight to one of the intensive-care units and opened the security protected door. “Keep your voice down,” she told Karin gloomily.

Sasuke was lying on a treatment couch in the middle of an activated seal, engulfed in pulsing green light. Tsunade and Sakura had developed new techniques for such healing domes together, making Konoha hospital the number one for severe injuries in the Shinobi lands. Sadly, they had to turn down many requests from other villages to treat allied Shinobis, simply because their facilities were too small.

While Sakura was checking on the seal, Karin moved back the hood of her raincoat, doing the same for the child, revealing black hair and a tired little face with determined black eyes behind glasses. The child refused to look at anyone though and kept very close to her mother, often hiding her face away in the folds of her coat.

“Oh no, Sasuke!” Karin sobbed and made several swaying steps towards his body as if she wanted to throw herself on top of him.

“Don’t go any closer,” Sakura warned her, holding up her hand in a gesture of authority.

Kakashi suddenly remembered overhearing a conversation once about how Sakura’s biggest rival wasn’t Ino, but one of Orochimaru’s subordinates. He also remembered that Karin had been able to flee Konoha’s high security prison by hiding tools in a picture of Sasuke. Considering how tense Sakura was at the moment, he concluded that she was this way because jealousy was very hard to control - and Karin’s arrival had likely plunged her into an emotional crisis echoing her past uncertainties about her place at Sasuke’s side.

It just made Sakura’s presence here an even bigger gesture.

Selfless, self-sacrificing people like her needed somebody near them who made sure they were not taken advantage of, Kakashi thought, watching Sakura’s determined face that only barely managed to hide her vulnerability. Somebody who made sure they didn’t forget their own feelings and needs from time to time. Of someone like Sasuke, who was nurturing his own shattered soul, it was a lot to ask - too much, actually.

Maybe Kakashi could offer to be a friend who took that part? For both of them. If he had ever been serious about helping Sasuke… this was the moment he had to decide what that promise was worth.

Karin sank to her knees, crying quietly, hugging her daughter. Assured that the redhead would not disturb the seal, Sakura turned to Kakashi, a towel in her hand.

“Here,” she said. “You’re dripping.”

Kakashi looked down and realized a sizeable puddle had been forming where he stood.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, he knew how annoying people were who interfered with one’s professional duties, grabbed the towel and threw it on the floor, moving it around with his foot to soak up the water.

“Idiot!” Sakura chided him angrily.

What now? She had already turned around to grab another towel and was stomping in his direction with determination. Before he could understand what this was about, she had started to vigorously rub his body with it, eventually moving it up to his head to dry his dripping hair.

“My hood must have slipped,” he murmured an excuse for the wet mess, finding the rough attention she gave his head pleasant and the sudden closeness to her distracting to the extreme. He breathed in deeply.

“Sakura, be careful,” he whispered, keeping his hands firmly by his side, “she reads people like a book. Nobody told her Sasuke was in the hospital, she must have guessed it from the guards’ reactions.”

Sakura briefly stopped her toweling and nodded. “Gotcha”, she breathed and leaned in a little as she continued to dry his hair more gently. He was tempted to touch his forehead to hers. Hmmm, he wanted her again. A lot.

Karin had stopped crying and was looking in their direction with round, questioning eyes.

“Are you and Kakashi…” she asked, her eyes flitting to the minimal space between them like that gave it all away. And maybe it did. He most certainly could not hide his feelings in front of a sensory-type kunoichi of her caliber, his hormones were going haywire.

“No!” Sakura bristled and stepped away hastily, wet towel in hand, “I’m married to Sasuke.”

“Oh,” Karin blipped, her eyes growing even rounder, “I didn’t know that. He never told me.”

For a moment, it looked like Sakura was going to explode. Kakashi watched in fascination how blood shot into her face and her eyes turned a vicious triangular shape. He almost expected steam to come out of her ears next.

“Has he not,” Sakura ground out between her teeth, “maybe Mister conveniently forgot?”

“No,” Karin said solemnly, “he would never.”

Kakashi’s eyes moved over to the child. Ah. Now he understood what was going on. Another situation right out of an Icha Icha novel. If he had to guess, he would say Sarada was about four or five years old, but then again, he was lousy at guessing that kind of thing. It sounded like Sasuke had seen Karin more or less regularly since her escape. It was not entirely unreasonable to think that before the marriage…

But no. Sasuke would indeed never. The Uchihas had great difficulties expressing emotions, but he knew them to be as obsessive in love as they were in hate. Once they formed attachments, they did not let go.

Did the girl even look anything like an Uchiha?

Kakashi studied the timid creature with new eyes. But he could not tell. Black hair alone was no clear indicator and even though the eyes were not entirely unfamiliar... it was no proof either.

It would explain things though, wouldn’t it. Why Karin was in danger . Why she had come running here for protection. What if… Kakashi drew in a sharp breath. Sharingans awakened when a trauma was experienced.

“When will Sasuke wake up?” Karin asked Sakura. “I need to talk to him.”

“When Lady Tsunade and I think he has sufficiently healed,” Sakura replied in an aloof way.

If his hunch was correct, they had an extremely explosive situation at hand. A target of great value for whoever was out there wearing oni masks, making his life difficult. A small child with a Sharingan, in dire need of a teacher to make sure the effects did not get out of hand. An exhausted woman and a traumatized child in need of a warm bed and proper rest..

“He certainly won’t wake up before tomorrow. Karin“, he said more calmly than he felt, “Let’s go. I will show you a place to stay.”

“Thank you,” she murmured after a brief pause during which she looked at Sakura.

“I’m coming too,” Sakura said stubbornly.

“Okay,” Kakashi said though he would have preferred Sakura to go home and rest.

Kakashi’s old apartment was about twenty minutes away from the hospital. He hadn’t been there in years and suddenly worried about the dust and the general state of it, but he got distracted from these thoughts when Sarada started crying because her feet hurt. Karin looked absolutely exhausted and ready to start crying herself, so he offered to carry the child. Karin was able to convince her daughter that riding piggyback on a shinobi’s back was fun - her cheerful “he carried me too, it was great!” did the trick - and so he found himself with a tiny, warm bundle on his back whose arms went slack not five minutes later when she fell asleep.

The two women did not speak and he did not see a need for it either, stepping very carefully so that the little one would not be shaken too much. The rain was stopping - a small blessing, but one to be thankful for.

“Top floor,” he said when they arrived in front of the building he used to live in. Funny how familiar the smell of the staircase still was, he thought as he walked up to be the first to press down the door handle. As expected, the door was unlocked as it had always been.

Instinctively, he hit the light switch with his elbow. Warm light illuminated a spotless and very tidy apartment. Kakashi blinked in surprise. It looked like somebody came here to clean regularly. In fact, now he seemed to recall he had been told about this when he had been transferred to the Anbu headquarters. There were certain benefits to being an active shinobi like never having to care about a bank balance. Or having people clean for you.

“Come on in,” he said to the two women who came wheezing up the stairs. Karin reached the door first and took off her shoes and her raincoat, hanging it on an empty hook.

“Let me take her,” Karin said and plucked the child off his back. She sat Sarada down in a chair and looked at him with with those strange red eyes. “Would you happen to have a shirt… something I could put her in for sleeping?”

Did he? Kakashi took off his boots and coat and then went over to his cupboard. To his surprise, there were clothes in there - smelling clean - and though every single shirt was much too big for a child of Sarada’s size, he thought that one of the tighter turtlenecks might not fall off her. He also chose a shirt for Karin that she could wear like a nightgown.

“The bathroom is over there,” he said when handing it all to her and pointed to the door in question. “I keep spare toothbrushes in the cabinet, just make yourself at home. There should be towels if you want to take a shower.”

Karin nodded thankfully and disappeared with the sleeping child in her arms.

As soon as she had closed the door behind herself, Kakashi turned to Sakura who was still standing at the entrance like she was unsure what to do next.

“Don't you want to come in?”

“If I can?” she asked back. He had difficulties reading her expression, maybe because she was busy hiding what she was thinking, but her discomfort was palpable. Did she think she was intruding?

“Of course,” he smiled, “it’s small, but it was always sufficient. I don’t recall whether you were ever...”

“No,” she said resolutely. “I’ve never been to your apartment before.”

She took off her boots and jacket and stepped in gingerly, turning her head shily in all directions, as if the act of entering his apartment was something special. Well, maybe it was. He had not had many visitors here. Some of the other jonins occasionally, but usually only when he had been bedridden. He had a memory of Naruto coming here, but he did not remember clearly.

“Can I…?” Sakura gestured towards the picture frames on the nightstand.

“Of course,” he said again.

There were three pictures there. One of Team 7 in their early days. There were two version of it, the one he had put up was the one he preferred: him, smiling, with his hands on grumpy Sasuke’s and blustering Naruto’s heads with Sakura in the middle, looking like she was about to burst from happiness. The second was his own team photo from back in the day: Minato towering above Obito and him and a happy looking Rin in the middle. It had always struck him as interesting how similar the two pictures were and he had often thought that Minato would be amused that his most arrogant student had become his son’s teacher. The third picture was a very old one of his mother and his father that he had found at their house shortly after his father’s suicide.

“That’s you, isn’t it,” Sakura said, pointing at his sullen self in the Team Minato picture.

“Yes,” Kakashi chuckled, “what gave it away?” Mask, hair… all there already.

“I met this version of you in there, remember?” she said and pointed at his head.

Yes, she had told him that. Had she also said what impression she had gotten of him? Kakashi did not feel proud when he thought of his younger self.

“Man, you were cute,” she said, “despite the massive attitude. If I had been your teammate back then...”

She blinked and turned red, leaving the sentence unfinished. Kakashi smiled, but actually, that unfinished part made him feel vexed. It was easy to say things like ‘if I had met you then and then’, but it meant nothing. Worse, it only highlighted what was wrong about their present situation. They had not met back then, not least because he was fourteen years older than her. She had not looked into his direction even once before their recent reencounter and thankfully so. The same went for him. Though able to impress him with her mental and physical growth back then, she had been a child. Their recent attraction came at the tail end of so much baggage, it simply could not go anywhere.

“Your Sensei was the Fourth Hokage, wasn’t he,” she continued.

“Yes,” Kakashi nodded, “he was an amazing teacher and Shinobi. Did you know Jiraiya was his teacher? I only realized much later how much that shaped him and how fortunate we were that Jiraiya agreed to become Naruto’s Sensei.”

“What were the other two called again?” Sakura continued cautiously as if she feared to spook him with her questions. He shouldn’t be surprised about that. He had always been extra secretive when it came to his past.

“Obito. You’ve met him, remember?” Kakashi laughed bitterly. Of course she remembered. She was just trying to see how far she would get with her questions.

Her face turned very serious. “Kakashi,” she said, “is it true… is it true you’ve got the Mangekyo Sharingan back like people say? How?!”

It was a conversation that needed to be had, only that he did not feel like having it right now. If the answer to the question she had just posed could be easily given, wouldn’t he have given it to everyone already?

“You don’t need to answer,” she said after a brief look at his face and turned away. “Who was the girl? She’s pretty.”

“Rin,” Kakashi said. “Rin Nohara.”

He saw in Sakura’s face that she remembered hearing about Rin before.

“I killed her,” he added.

Maybe he meant to shock her. Maybe he wanted her to stop asking questions that made him feel uncomfortable. Maybe it was because he hoped that saying it aloud would make it lose its impact. It didn’t though. He would never be able to forget the feeling of piercing Rin’s soft body with his hand, the absolute horror of coming to realize that a heart shattered by his Chidori was inevitably the end and that there was nothing, absolutely nothing he could do to save her.

“It’s why they call my Friend-Killer Kakashi,” he added, since it seemed the right time to tell Sakura this too.

“Did you have a choice?” Sakura asked quietly, her eyes firmly on the picture.

“I made a promise that I wasn’t able to keep,” Kakashi answered. “I made many, many wrong decisions before that. Are you asking whether her death my fault? Yes. It is. To 100%.”

Sakura turned her green eyes in his direction then. There was compassion in them and a readiness to listen - it was like she offered a remedy he had always craved, someone who understood his guilt and did not try to talk it away, someone who would make the pain bearable because she made the future look like a brighter place. But before she could say anything else, before he could express to her what he felt, Karin came out of the bathroom, the sleeping child in her arms.

“I put the wet clothes in the sink,” she said.

“Please, use the bed,” Kakashi quickly said, hurrying over to remove the cover. Why did he feel relieved about the interruption? Well… he wasn’t used to let people near him like this. It obviously took practice.

“But isn’t this the only…”

“I don’t live here anymore,” Kakashi said. “You can stay here as long as you need.”

“Thank you so much,” Karin said and put her child on the bed, righting a pillow for her and covering her with the blanket. “Thank you,” she repeated and reached out a hand to press his. “You were always so kind.”

Kakashi expected Sakura to react with anger again, but she didn’t. “I will prepare a hot sleeping potion for you,” she said to Karin instead, “nothing strong, but to ensure you get a good rest. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” Karin said without hesitation, letting go of his hand, “that sounds like what I need.”

“The kitchen is that way,” Kakashi said to Sakura.

“You have amnesia, don’t you,” Karin said as soon as Sakura had stepped out of the room, seating herself on the edge of the bed. “You have absolutely no clue what you promised me.”

Should he deny it? But what was the point.

“Yes,” he nodded. “I can’t say I find it particularly trustworthy that you know that.”

“I can see it in your chakra flow,” Karin shrugged, “I see that parts of your memories are blocked. But I don’t care whether you trust me or not right now. You’re a kind person, you took us in anyway, it’s all that matters. I want Sarada to be safe. Here, she is.”

“Can we talk tomorrow?” Kakashi suggested.

“Yes,” Karin agreed, “we need to talk.”

But then, Karin’s gaze shifted to the pictures on his nightstand and her whole body tensed.

“Who… who is this?” she whispered.

“Which one do you mean?” Kakashi asked, surprised.

She pointed a shaking finger at the Team Minato image.

“Me. With my Sensei and my two teammates. Rin and Obito.”

“R... Rin?” Karin gulped.

“Yes, her name was Rin,” Kakashi said. Sweet, innocent Rin. Not made for a world as tough as theirs, with a heart too kind and a fate too cruel.

“I’ve met her,” Karin said. “She’s the one leading that program.”

“What?” Kakashi frowned. “No, you’re mistaken. She’s been dead many years.”

Karin shook her head vehemently. “She looks exactly the same! So you know her? Tell me more about her, please.”

Kakashi’s frown deepened. Obviously, Karin was mistaken. But if there was someone out there looking like Rin, he needed to hear about it.

“Can you…,” he began, but Sakura stepped out of the kitchen at that moment, a steaming cup in her hand.

“Ready,” she smiled sourly, “you need to drink it quickly while it’s hot.”

“Tomorrow,” Karin said, her eyes revealing nothing to him. She blew on the hot liquid a bit and then gulped down everything in one go as ordered by Sakura. With a nod in their direction, she put her head down on the pillow. Mere seconds later, she was asleep.

“That was… not a light dose,” Kakashi observed.

Sakura shrugged. “I’ve prepared stronger ones before,” she said, sounding a little smug, “and believe me, she needs to sleep and nothing else.”

Kakashi looked at her, raising his eyebrows, half amused, half questioning. Sakura was making an innocent face back at him.

“Sakura,” Kakashi said, “I don’t remember a thing about what she claims I promised her. She’s either a super-skilled liar or I’m in bigger trouble than I ever thought possible. Don’t believe anything before we have no proof.”

“Sure,” Sakura said. “I did wonder for a bit whether the child could be yours, but that was before I saw her face. She looks exactly like Sasuke,” she pressed out, her eyes flitting over to the sleeping child. “You do not need to lie to me, I value your blunt honesty. Sarada is Sasuke’s child, I’m sure of it. I’m far less sure what it means though.”

She looked at him as if she expected him to know.

“I think you should not jump to any conclusions,” Kakashi said.

“Why are you always so keen to protect Sasuke? After all he has done?” Sakura said bitterly.

“Because…,” Kakashi swallowed hard. “Because he deserves it. The Uchihas deserve it. Konoha has done them much wrong.”

“And you are the one who has to set it right? You were not the one who made those decisions back then.”

“No,” Kakashi answered. “But the Uchihas… Obito, Itachi… I owe both of them so much. I need to… I need to pay back my debts to them.”

Sakura snorted. “Debts? I doubt either of them would think you have any. Or would care for that matter.”

“That doesn’t matter to me,” Kakashi answered. “I’m doing this for my own peace of mind.”

Sakura studied him with her large green eyes for quite a while without saying anything.

“It’s quite remarkable,” she then observed. “I never saw it before. The similarities. You’re just as obsessed with doing what you think is the right thing as Sasuke is. Just like him, you’d go to extreme ends to see it through. I guess that’s why I…”

“No,” Kakashi interrupted her. “No. Don’t say it.”

“But Kakashi…”

“You value my blunt honesty? Good. Then here is a piece of it: I cannot deal with you comparing me to Sasuke who is in a coma because of me. I do not want to hear ‘if I had met you earlier’ ever again. I honor your choices and you should know how much I admire your strength and determination. You’re a remarkable woman, but that’s how far this will ever go. I think we both know it.”

“Is that what you…,” she looked so taken aback he felt a need to hug and comfort her which… no.

“It is what I want,” Kakashi said and realized at the same time it was the biggest lie he had ever spoken.

“O… okay,” she said in a small voice.

“But I need you for what we talked about a few hours ago.”

“Genjutsu?” she asked.

Kakashi nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Now? It’s very late. You’re still low on chakra.”

“Now,” Kakashi said resolutely. “I’m sick and tired of not remembering. It has to end.”

“Okay,” Sakura said, taking a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s go back to the Hokage Tower? We should be undisturbed there.”

Kakashi nodded. Undisturbed. And he would make sure he would not be distracted either. Remembering what he had forgotten was his only goal now. Depending on how this went, he would be able to decide whether to go through with the next part of his plan.

 

 

Chapter Text

The rain had stopped. Sakura was holding her umbrella under her arm, throwing furtive glances at Kakashi who sauntered next to her, his heavy rain cloak over his arm. She would have liked to take his hand or at least touch it, but he was looking straight ahead, making it quite clear that he wanted no such thing. He looked slightly different to her tonight, maybe because of the grey Anbu flak jacket he was wearing? Because his hair was still wet and flattened? Because he wasn’t wearing a headband? Or because she had seen the face underneath the mask?

Or because… because they had slept together.

The recent memory made her squeal inside. It was mortifying and exciting at the same time. She wanted to go hide in a hole and yet shout it from the rooftops. She knew she had done very badly and yet felt like she'd never done anything better.

Maybe it was just the silly, inexperienced her who thought the intimacy they had shared changed everything between them. It probably meant far less to someone like him. Someone… so popular with women. Someone with so much confidence. Not once in all the time she had known him had he hesitated. In every situation, however difficult, he had known exactly what had to be done and had followed through.

And now he had told her no more - and clearly meant it. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the difficult spot her advances put him in. But that didn’t change the fact that all she was thinking was when can we do it again?, because it was so clear to her that they were not in the least done. His mere presence next to her made her chakra churn faster and her nerves tingle. But what was it she wanted from him?

Comfort, was the first answer popping into her head.

Like nobody else, he made her feel good. About herself, about the world. He made her forget her fears, her woes. And maybe most importantly, he could make her forget Sasuke and the mess she was in with him. A child with that woman? Goddammit, it was like the worst kind of nightmare. Would she be able to stay calm when the village started to buzz with the news? Everybody knew how stubbornly she had pursued the Uchiha without giving a second thought to her dignity. Having this happen now… it was so, so embarrassing!

But taking such comfort was also the most selfish thing she had ever done to anybody, when Kakashi wasn’t and couldn’t be feeling the same. When his situation was ten thousand times more difficult than hers right now, with everybody breathing down his neck and him finding himself under suspicion for something someone like him would never do.

Helping him get his memory back was what she could do for him. She wasn’t going to allow herself to expect something in return.

“Come on in,” she said at the door to her apartment and smiled bravely.

He nodded though without really looking at her and put his coat on a hook. After a brief moment of hesitation, he shrugged out of the flack jacket too and took off his boots.

She would not let herself be distracted by the sleeveless shirt or those shapely, muscular arms. But she did turn her head to check for the blood seal, finding it hidden once more. He followed her eyes to his own arm.

“Kakashi,” she ventured to address the topic, “Kabuto said a few things to me about the seal that…”

His eyebrows contracted angrily.

“I don’t believe a single word he says,” she assured him quickly. “But… should I maybe take a closer look at your arm? I mean… not now! Tomorrow at the hospital for example. I also… I still have those pills Tsunade gave me for you in my purse and I thought… those, too, I should maybe analyze them?”

Kakashi nodded. “Yes. Why not.”

“I hope there is no danger anymore? With that seal… the last time…” the mere memory made her shudder.

Kakashi looked at his arm again. “You removed it, didn’t you?”

“He said it’s back,” Sakura said softly. “He also said… that you willingly participated in…”

“I thought you don’t believe him?” Kakashi said sharply, lifting his head. His eyes were guarded, but she still saw the sea of hurt behind them. She thought that it had to be because of Tsunade. She had had him tortured after all, when Kakashi had done so much for all of them.

“I don’t,” she said, “but I have to take what he said seriously because it concerns your life.”

“He told me the tattoo seals blood. Uchiha blood to be precise. And that I need it to survive because the use of the Mangekyo Sharingan… two Mangekyō Sharingans changes the cell structure of the body.”

“What?” Sakura said dumbfounded. “Why haven’t you told me that before?”

Kakashi laughed, short and bitter. “When exactly should I have told you? When you sneaked into my room? When we made love? When you disappeared while I was sleeping because your love rival turned up with a child in tow?”

Ouch. He frowned at the wall above her head.

“Sorry,” he added more softly a few minutes later, shifting his eyes to hers reluctantly. “I didn’t… I didn’t want to be this vicious. I… I find it hard...”

“It’s okay,” she said though she felt awful. “Do you know what it means?”

“No, I don’t,” Kakashi said, “I have no clue and it’s driving me crazy. Kabuto says I knew about it? Yes, I probably knew about it. But to think I participated in some experiment to get a Sharingan back… telling nobody about it… it… it scares me.”

He looked lost and hurt and vulnerable as he stood there in the entrance to her borrowed apartment, like the little boy she had saved from the underground training facility.

I’m going to hug him, Sakura thought, I don’t care what he said. He can push me away if he doesn’t appreciate it.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered and stepped forward to sling her arms firmly around him.

His reaction was not what she had expected. Instead of stiffening up or pushing her away, his body sagged against hers like he had suddenly lost all strength, as if her offer for support was exactly what he needed. Kakashi buried his face against the side of her neck, his own arms tightening around her like he was drowning and hanging on for life.

Maybe she could give a bit of comfort too after all. Maybe it was okay if they just gave comfort to each other. Good friends could hug, right? It was just about managing expectations.

“Hey, don’t worry,” she whispered, “we will figure this out, okay?”

“I… I am sorry,” he breathed and let go of her so suddenly, she almost fell back against the wall.

What was he even apologizing for? Slightly shaking her head in confusion, Sakura looked at him with her head cocked to the side. What she saw in his eyes was not rejection. It was… remorse.

Hm. Maybe he did know how to lie after all?

But before she could decide what to say, his stomach growled loudly. His hands came up to his middle as if that could hide the tell-tale sign of hunger. He had probably not eaten at all since his return to Konoha, Sakura suspected. Those damn Anbu were not doing a good job looking after him at all!

“To the kitchen!” she ordered him sternly, before he could even pretend he wasn’t hungry.

“I really do not want to be a bur....”

“You are no burden,” Sakura said, glancing back to make sure he was following her. “Luckily, I went to visit my parents a few days ago and my fridge is full of dishes my mother cooked for me.”

“I cannot eat your mo…”

“Yes, you can eat it and you will,” Sakura interrupted him, glaring authoritatively. “Sit down.”

She indicated one of the chairs at the kitchen table. The Hokage Tower apartments were an aesthetic mixture of traditional and modern interior design, apart from the kitchen which was fully modern. Just like in her old kitchen, there was a table there for quick, informal meals. Kakashi sat down obediently and looked at her, as if waiting for further instructions.

Him and her in a kitchen like this… It was altogether different now but it still reminded her of that first night. The horrors of it… but also the rooftop.

It had happened on that rooftop, hadn’t it.

“I’m so glad you have come back into my life,” she blurted out and didn’t even blush since it was a truth she felt comfortable with.

He looked discomforted though, but she didn’t think it was because he was put off by her words. He looked shy, as if he didn’t quite know how to deal with it. And that was actually it, she realized with sudden certainty. He had said I cannot deal with you comparing me to Sasuke before he had said that’s how far this will ever go.

Sakura had learned to listen to people in her profession because very often, people’s choice of words revealed something about their state of mind unconsciously.

She had been wrong to assume Kakashi was telling her her advances were a nuisance. He was flustered. And unsure.

He was also very, very tired, and that explained part of his confusion, she decided as she watched him from the corner of her eye as she pulled several dishes from the fridge. There was no way she would let him perform any jutsu on her tonight. This man had to sleep. For many hours.

“Here we go,” she said, spreading all the food out in front of him and putting chopsticks into his hand. “No rice though unless you want to wait until it’s cooked.”

“This is plenty, thank you so much,” Kakashi answered.

It was nice to see he had given up resistance already, his hunger was obviously getting the better of him. Knowing she could always get more from her mother if she asked, Sakura took pleasure in seeing him eat with an appetite worthy of a wolf. And all of this happened without his mask - he had removed it without a moment of hesitation. It made her very happy.

“Are they starving you in that horrid Anbu?” she asked.

“I get very hungry after chakra depletion,” he answered, chewing.

“There was nothing in the fridge and only a bit of fruit in that kitchen,” she complained.

“We eat food pills,” Kakashi shrugged, “and supplements.”

“What does it take to make you leave the Anbu?” Sakura didn’t care about his sensitivities regarding his private life right now. She felt her anger grow at the sight of him eating like he had never eaten before in his life.

“Why should I leave the Anbu?” Kakashi murmured.

“Because they’re not treating you right?” she shot back. “And because it’s dangerous?”

“I’m needed there,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Why do you not want to be Hokage? I know you’ve been offered the position several times!”

Kakashi didn’t answer straight away. Chewing slowly on a pickled cucumber, he seemed to think. “I’m not Hokage material,” he then said.

“That is utter bullshit and you know it.”

His eyebrows moved up.

“Blunt honesty, remember?” Sakura smiled at him overly sweet. “You’re probably thinking you’re not worthy of it because of your past. You’re probably thinking that taking care of an entire village is too much of a responsibility. But that’s just an excuse.”

“Hey, that’s enough,” Kakashi said and frowned.

“You don’t like other people to come too close to you,” Sakura observed, not done by far with speaking some truth, “because you’re afraid of losing them, like you lost your friends. If you were to become Hokage, you’d have to let everybody close. A Hokage is there for each and every human being in his village. Loved by everyone and loving everyone equally.”

“Maybe I’m just not that loving,” Kakashi murmured.

“I got a distinctly different impression of you,” Sakura said.

Their eyes locked. It felt like time stood still. A frozen moment during which both held their breaths and exhaled at the exact same time, after which her heart began hammering in her chest and her stomach did somersaults. A moment that brought confirmation and yet solved nothing. It wasn’t true he wasn’t affected! It wasn’t true he didn’t think things had changed between them. But… he had still drawn a line that she had to accept - even if she didn’t want to.

“You must be thirsty,” Sakura said with a shaking voice because now it was her who couldn’t quite deal with what his eyes told her.

She was going to do something he would probably not easily forgive. But he was too tired, so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. Slipping the sleeping powder into the glass of water unseen was easy. Getting him to the bedroom afterwards less so because he kept falling asleep standing up.

She tucked him in carefully after pulling his maks up and bent down to put a light kiss on his forehead.

“Sleep tight,” she said. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

She switched off the lights and went outside to spend the night on the sofa.

***

“Don’t move so much,” Rin said and pressed her hands against his shoulder to stop the bleeding.

“Ungh,” Kakashi groaned. Did wounds always hurt the same or would there come a time when he’d get used to the pain?

“Stop being so reckless,” Rin chided him, starting to mend the wound with chakra. “What if I’m not around to patch you up?”

“Why wouldn’t you be?” he asked, stealing a look at her scrunched up face. She was by far the cutest when she concentrated on healing like this. There was a fine line forming between her brows, almost like an exclamation mark, it was fascinating.

Kakashi quickly looked away before he could get caught staring.

“I’m beginning to think you get injured just for the attention,” Obito scoffed somewhere to the side and threw a log into the fire so that sparks erupted into the air. “Maybe I should try it too?”

“Don’t you dare!” Rin snapped at him. “One of you guys putting his life on the line is more than enough.”

“I cut my finger when collecting firewood,” Obito mused, “can you have a look at it later?”

“You can’t be serious!” Rin sighed. “Kakashi almost had his arm slashed off!”

Maybe I should trip him tomorrow, Kakashi thought, watching his friend’s moody face, so that he hurts his wrist. Not too badly, but so that Rin needs to look at it. His pining is ridiculous, maybe it'll make him stop for a while.

“Done,” Rin said and smiled at him sweetly, sending an extra gentle wave of healing chakra into him at the end. It made him feel like he was floating on clouds for a moment.

“Thank you,” he murmured gruffly, suppressing his urge to extend his hand and interlink fingers with her.

“I’d rather not see you hurt,” she replied softly. “Be gentle to your body. You’ve only got the one, right?”

“Pah!” Obito said angrily, “in a few years, they can make as many bodies of any sort as they want. He won’t even need your healing powers anymore then.”

“No, they can’t do that!” Rin answered fervidly, “don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”

“I do know about it! They take children from the orphanage for experiments. There was one who lost a leg and he came back with two working ones!”

“My mother works at the orphanage,” Rin said angrily, “she would never condone such an evil thing.”

“There are ways to do things behind people’s back,” Obito murmured, but he clearly didn’t want an argument.

The thing with Obito was that despite the rivalry that the Uchiha insisted on having with him, Kakashi genuinely liked the guy. He was like his alter ego. On the lazy side, carefree, always emotional, righteous, loving. But also extremely loyal. Despite the harsh words often spoken between them, Kakashi would not hesitate to put his life on the line for him and was certain Obito would do the same for him.

But there was the thing with Rin now.

Obito liked her. And he was pretty serious about it. He made no secret out of it, he always wore his heart on his sleeve. Unfortunately, Rin didn’t seem to have any mutual feelings. She often got annoyed with Obito and the more annoyed she got, the more he tried to get her attention, which made her more annoyed etc. etc.

The situation made Kakashi uncomfortable, especially the fact that Rin was giving him the attention Obito wanted so desperately. He had even considered speaking to Minato Sensei about it but he just couldn’t bring himself to - how did one even talk about such things? It wasn’t like he didn’t like her attention. Only a fool wouldn’t feel flattered by the attention of such a kind, smart, and talented girl.

This distraction. It was a dangerous thing for a shinobi. Keeping her away from him as far possible was the best way forward. Which probably meant not getting injured anymore. Because at the moment, she was near… she was very near. Distraction. So much distraction.

“Maybe I have a grudge,” she whispered into his ear. “Maybe I just cannot stay away. Because it gives me the biggest satisfaction to see someone normally so powerful so helpless.”

Kakashi tried to turn his head, but his body was heavy and immobile, held down by chakra suppressing chains of the strongest kind. He was lying on some hard surface in what seemed to be a large room. Or a cave? It seemed familiar in the way places sometimes are before you realize you’ve dreamt about them.

“Rin?” Kakashi said, feeling mounting confusion. “Where is this? What are you… aren’t you...”

“Don’t call me by that name,” Rin-not-Rin said angrily.

A bright light was shone into his eyes, hurting him. Kakashi closed them, seeing a curtain of red.

“You know my Mangekyō Sharingan awakened after… after…” he could not say it.

“This time, I will make sure you cannot run away before I’m done with you,” Rin chuckled. “And I won’t be done for a while.”

Medical nins were skilled with scalpels. So was she.

No, one never got used to pain. In fact, it only got worse each time. The body had a special memory when it came to pain and triggering that… only professionals knew how to do it. The best torturers were indeed medical nin, if they could be convinced to use their skills not to save lives but to take them.

“There is one thing I do not understand about you,” Rin said some time later, sharpening her knives on some grindstone she had pulled from her sleeve. She paused to wait for suggestions from him what that “one thing” could be, but he was too exhausted to think straight.

“How did you manage to live on?” she finally asked, sounding impatient. “How did you manage to fall in love again? Don’t you know? Don’t you know that everybody you care for ends up dead? It’s inevitable.”

Sakura, Kakashi thought with a twinge of panic, but this was not a place she had access to. Thank god she is safe.

“You’re not Rin,” he pressed out.

“I am and I am not,” the woman said. “Sweetie, don’t even try. You won’t remember. I made sure of it.”

Remember, I must remember, Kakashi thought, I need to… the images began to burst one after the other like soap bubbles, this one! This one! He caught one in his hand and put it into his kunai pouch.

“Sakura…,” he murmured, “I think…”

The sound of his own voice woke him up. What the...

Kakashi shot up. Sunlight came flooding in through the window. What time was it? And… what day? Why was he… in… Hokage Tower?

“Sakura?” he asked into the quiet room. No answer. His senses told him he was alone, but for some Anbu guards somewhere outside.

“Goddammit,” he cursed.

Getting up was hard. His legs felt like rubber sticks and his head was heavy like a slab of stone.

“Goddammit,” he said again, this time with more emphasis.

Sakura had left a note for him on the kitchen table. “Kakashi,” it said. “I am very sorry for giving you a sleeping potion, but you needed sleep more than anything. I am at the hospital. Sasuke has woken up. There’s more food in the fridge, please eat as much as you want.”

He grabbed his flack jacket and his boots and left as fast as he possibly could.

It took him much too long to get to his apartment but at least he eventually made it.

“Karin?” he asked at the door. But he knew already, didn’t he. Karin was gone. Only two frightened Uchiha eyes looked at him from underneath the blankets.

“You can come out, Sarada,” Kakashi said, trying to make his voice gentle, “I will protect you until we can find your mother again.”

Protect her? Kakashi wanted to laugh at himself. Had he not learned never to make that promise again? Dream-Rin had spoken the truth. However hard he tried, he couldn’t protect people he cared for. Death and destruction. This world held only this for people like him.

 

Chapter Text

“Sasuke? Sasuke! Can you hear me? Please say something!”

It was strange and a bit frightening, his eyes were open and glittering in the artificial light, but he didn’t give any indication that he recognized her nor had he moved a finger. But the eyes were tracking her across the room as Sakura busied herself with taking down the healing dome and checking the status of his fractures. She went over both legs twice, to make sure she had not made a mistake the first time. She also checked his spine again thoroughly, but there was no damage. Maybe he was just too tired to move? At least she could be certain it was not because he was paralyzed.

Sasuke had woken up much earlier than she would have thought possible. His bones were mending well though, there was no need to worry. So why did she? He would be fine, she and Tsunade had done their best - which was a lot. If she weren’t so insecure all the time, Sakura would perhaps be able to admit to herself more often that she was a very good doctor. People even came from far away places to get treatment from her occasionally. But Sakura had enough self-awareness to know about her severe, almost crippling insecurities... that would flare up the strongest around Sasuke.

Strange that she would realize this now, when he was lying before her immobile and weak, still paler than normal and certainly not looking in the least handsome in his hospital gown.

Sakura had always known that ultimately, nobody was good enough for him. The Uchihas were not like other Shinobi. Their abilities were god-like and they had chosen to keep to themselves because of it. Sakura had read that they had strictly forbidden inter-marriage in the early clan history and had later adhered to that rule voluntarily. She guessed it had been part arrogance, part caution: Their special bloodline was coveted and at the same time greatly feared. Fear made humans do horrible things, just like hatred did. To this day, the barred entrance to the increasingly run-down Uchiha compound was a sad reminder of what had happened to Konoha’s mightiest clan.

It was a strange thing that despite of knowing all this, she who was from a nobody-clan had had the determination to pursue Sasuke over so many years until he had finally looked at her. Had looked at her and had seen her. Which was what she had always wanted, but now it dawned on her that a considerable part of her had enjoyed the hunt more than the result.

She would probably feel guilty later for thinking this, but she could not stop herself: Ever since she had gotten what she had always thought was her ultimate goal, she had grown more unsure about what it was that she really wanted. Was she ready to keep giving him her everything even though he was unable to give her back even a fraction of the same? It seemed that was no longer the case.

“Oh, Sasuke,” she sighed. It hurt.

The yearning for something she couldn’t have had stopped when she had gotten it. All she felt now was resentment, shame and anger. She wanted to shout at him and shake him and beat him up until he was begging her to stop. When… when had he gone out and fathered a child with another woman? It could have been right before they had gotten married, it could have been after… she couldn’t know for sure how deep the humiliation went. She would have to ask him, but she did not want to ever talk about such a betrayal.

She felt like the child again the other children had ridiculed for having a large forehead. It hurt in a special place reserved for the sneaking poison that eroded her self-esteem to zero.

Not good enough.

She was not good enough for him, had never been and would never be. He had gone and slept with another woman because of that. Was she really surprised? No. It must have been much more enjoyable than with her. How close had he and Karin been back when they had been Akatsuki teammates? Had they slept together regularly? It was likely. Sasuke had never talked to her about those times he had spent away from Konoha, and she had never felt comfortable to ask. Dark times. Dark times that were best forgotten, she had always thought. But maybe they could not be forgotten.

Battling bitter tears, Sakura hurried over to the medicine cabinet to keep herself occupied. Sasuke had to be in pain, so she was going to choose one of the more potent pain killers. But before putting a pill into his mouth, she hesitated. This medication was likely to knock him out again. Tsunade was sure to have questions. Sasuke would be able to tell them what had happened after that machine had snatched Kakashi away! Sakura hoped it would finally put an end to Tsunade’s suspicion that kept flaring up these days and made Kakashi’s life so hard.

Thinking of Kakashi calmed her down a little. Kakashi would know what to do. He would help her. And he would say nice things to her that gave her emotional boosts. Maybe he had already woken up and was on his way here? She would like that.

Almost as if on cue, quick steps outside the intensive care unit made Sakura perk up in excitement, but it was just Tsunade and Shizune barging in with expectant faces.

“Sakura!” The Hokage said. “I got word. How is he?”

“He’s doing well, Shishou!” Sakura answered, swallowing down her disappointment. “But he hasn’t said anything since waking up.”

“Oh?” Tsunade said and bent down to examine Sasuke herself. “Mending well indeed,” she confirmed after a bit. “Sasuke? We have questions for you.”

At least she was considerate enough not to bring Ibiki straight away, Sakura thought.

“Is this a Genjutsu?” Sasuke said coldly.

Sakura stared at him, feeling a sinking feeling of despair. Fully capable of speech. So he had just chosen not to answer her before?

“Why would it be?” Tsunade frowned at him.

But Sasuke didn’t trust them, apparently. He activated his Sharingan, most likely to check whether what Tsunade had told him was true. When the Uchiha eyes swept over Sakura, she shuddered.

“Satisfied?” Tsunade asked after his eyes had returned back to their normal black state.

“No,” Sasuke replied. “What am I doing here?”

“You’re at the hospital,” Tsunade explained patiently enough, but Sakura saw how her eyebrows moved together a fraction in irritation. “You went on a mission with Kakashi, Kabuto and others and you were ambushed. Apparently, you followed Kakashi when he was snatched away by the enemy and in the process…”

“Kakashi?” Sasuke asked. Sakura did not like the tone of his voice at all. “Why would I follow Kakashi? You are lying.”

“Dammit,” Tsunade cursed, “you better stop this charade, Sasuke, or I will have to go get the pros.”

“Do what you must,” he replied with dignity. “Who removed my arm? Did you want to prevent me from doing jutsu?”

What? Sakura gasped for air.

“What is the last thing you remember?” she heard herself say in the tone of a professional, but her head was reeling.

“Get Kakashi here immediately,” Tsunade hissed at Shizune next to her. “We have a problem. He was last seen entering the Hokage Tower.”

“Sakura,” Sasuke said to her, his eyes angry slits. “I’ve always hated it when you pretended to be capable when all you really want is hang around me and be annoying. Get lost.”

Once, her ears had been so accustomed to his insults, they had simply filtered out all the unpleasant stuff he said to her. She had believed that it was just a shell for her to crack, that beneath it must be a heart of gold.

Now, his words hit her worse than a deadly jutsu.

The hate was back. Progress had been slow, but Sakura had really started to believe Sasuke Uchiha could leave the darkness behind. So many people had believed in him. So many were still trying to help him to this day.

What if there really was no hope at all?

***

“Do your feet still hurt?” Kakashi asked the child next to him. Her hair was a mess, but he did not think the girl would appreciate him trying to get some order into it with no comb at hand.

Sarada shook her head. She was clearly lying though, limping pitifully. Kakashi slowed down to a snail’s pace to accommodate her, thinking it would take them all day to get to the Hokage Tower like this, but so be it! The girl’s shoes looked worn and her clothes were rumpled and dirty. They would have to organize clothes for her, shoes, and other things girls her age needed. Toys maybe?

“This village is called Konoha,” he told her. “I grew up here. What is your village called?”

But Sanada just looked down at the street with haunted eyes, her shoulders hunched together as if she feared an attack out of the blue. Nice try, creepy uncle! Maybe it wasn’t quite the time yet to pry information out of her.

There weren’t many people on the streets, but the ones who were looked at the pair of them like their heads were about to explode from the side. Kakashi grinned. Him walking around in Konoha with an unknown child in tow… the town would be abuzz with gossip soon. Whom would they assume the mother was? He had to think of a good story to spread. Something tragic!

Sarada’s slow, labored steps killed the smile quickly though. The child must be hungry, Kakashi thought. But she would probably deny it or not answer at all if asked.

“I am starving,” he exclaimed. “Maybe I want to eat ramen?”

No visible reaction. Hmm… what might she like? The only child he had ever come in close contact with was Asuma’s child Mirai, but that had been ages ago. What had Kurenai served them back then when they had visited? Some bread thing… Ah.

“No, I think I want to eat… milk buns?” he tried his luck again. Sarada shifted her eyes to look at him, though dropped them again immediately.

“You can come too, there’s a shop right there,” he pointed at it with his finger. Actually, he didn’t like milk buns, they were way too sweet for his taste. But the most important thing was to get this poor child to eat something and if milk buns did the trick, he would not hesitate to eat them too.

Kakashi pushed open the door and greeted the gawking owner like it was the most normal thing in the world that he would walk around with a small child that nobody knew and ordered three buns with sugar coating. Nudging them in the child’s direction discreetly, he looked away to give her some privacy and… gone were the buns in a blink.

“Good?” he grinned at her. “You want more?”

Sarada nodded shyly. Kakashi quickly ordered two more, before she could change her mind. Did children drink tea? He ordered the chilled green tea that he liked the best, hers with a bit of sugar. Yes… that, too, was gone within seconds.

Maybe it wasn’t that hard to take care of a little girl after all? Kakashi felt quite accomplished. But the next moment, her face became distinctly unhappy again.

“More?” he asked with a frown.

Sarada shook her head. Was he supposed to guess what the problem was? Wasn’t the added benefit of bigger children their ability to form words? Hmmm… Oh. If it wasn’t hunger or thirst, was it…

“Toilet?” he asked.

Sarada nodded, looking ready to burst into tears.

“That’s no problem,” Kakashi assured her. “Shop owner! Can I trouble you for a moment?” he asked. “The girl needs to use a toilet.”

“Of course, of course!” the owner said. “You can come with me young lady, it’s at the back. I will show you.”

A few minutes later, when the shop owner reappeared without the child, Kakashi jumped up feeling like the biggest fool. What if it had just been a diversion and the girl had made a run for it?!

“She’s still in there,” the owner smiled at him. “Seems to be bigger business.”

Ah, no wonder the girl had been discomforted. Kakashi relaxed. “What do I owe you?” he asked, searching his pockets for coins.

“Nothing,” the shop owner replied. “It’s on the house.”

Kakashi sighed. That again. He was beginning to feel guilty about mooching off the entire village. Which was probably the whole point of Tsunade’s scheme. Did she think he would cave under sustained pressure? She underestimated his stubbornness. The more she pressured him, the more he would resist.

“The girl’s mother is…?”

“So very tragic,” Kakashi sighed. “Such a beautiful woman! I met her in the Land of Waves. But she was born with a rare disease and doomed to die early. I couldn’t save her.”

“Oh!” the shop owner sighed, throwing him a pitiful look, “how tragic.”

Kakashi nodded, just about to add some more details when someone shouted “Kakashi-san! Finally!” like seeing him was the most wonderful thing in the world.

“Shizune!” he greeted her after turning around.

“I searched for you all over town,” Lady Tsunade’s aide panted, “the Hokage wants to see you immediately.”

“Is there a problem?” Kakashi asked, though he knew of at least five problems off the top of his head, all of them involving him.

Shizune nodded gloomily. “You must come to the hospital quickly.”

“Sasuke?” now he felt worried. Was Sakura alright?

Shizune nodded again, throwing a quick glance towards the shop owner whose ears had almost grown visibly larger.

“Just a moment,” Kakashi told Shizune, “I’m waiting for someone.”

“Who?” Shizune looked around impatiently.

The sound of small feet from the back of the shop made Kakashi smile. “Her. Shizune, meet Sarada! Sarada, this lady takes care of a pet piglet named Tonton. When we get to the hospital, she will let you play with her!”

Sarada’s frightened eyes grew curious. Then, she looked at him questioningly.

“We need to go to the hospital to see the Lady Hokage,” Kakashi explained to her, lowering himself down so their eyes were level. “She is a very beautiful lady, very powerful. You have nothing to fear from her, I promise. Do you want to ride on my back again? I fear she will get angry at me if we do not hurry.”

Sarada nodded.

“Good,” he said. “On you go!” and he turned around for her to climb on his back. The small, warm arms came around his neck and held on tightly. It moved him, the trust this child had in him, when nothing in the world could assure her that he would not betray her the next moment.

***

Waiting for Kakashi was nothing out of the ordinary. But today, it was way more agonizing than ever before.

Sakura wanted to be elsewhere. Preferably with him. Far away from everybody else. Every second she had to spend in the same room with Sasuke made her more nauseous. How could he be this mean to her after everything?

Tsunade had quizzed him about his memories, but it seemed Sasuke had recovered most of them by now. Or was he lying? His answers were vague, it seemed to Sakura he was just telling them what he guessed they wanted to know. He completely ignored her as if she were thin air to him. And there was something about him again that reminded her of that time… that time he had been about to kill her. His eyes… haunted and devoid of anything that could be called human.

But when Kakashi finally arrived, things got even worse.

“What have you cooked up now?” Tsunade sighed at the sight of Kakashi entering the room with Sarada on his back. They had forgotten to inform the Hokage about the nightly visitor, Sakura realized. But why had Kakashi thought it necessary to bring the child here?

“It’s an Uchiha,” Sakura said sourly, throwing Sasuke a dark look. If he had heard her, he didn’t react.

“Excuse me?” Tsunade asked, turning her head to stare at her like she had just said something completely ridiculous.

Kakashi put the child down carefully and the girl quickly hid behind him as soon as Tsunade turned to them.

“Well,” Kakashi said slowly, “Hokage-sama, we cannot know with certainty yet. We shouldn’t jump to…”

“We have to test her right now,” Sakura interrupted him.

“You shouldn’t spook her any further,” Kakashi frowned at her, “she’s extremely frightened.”

“Where’s Karin?” Sakura demanded to know. It irked her that Kakashi was protecting this offspring as if it had anything to do with him.

“Gone,” he snapped. “Thanks to somebody giving somebody else a sleeping potion.”

What? Shit. Sakura felt how her head suddenly got much too light. She had to sit down.

“Hokage-sama,” Kakashi said formally, “reporting. Last night, the woman we know as Karin appeared at our gates, demanding to see Sasuke Uchiha and upon learning he was inconvenienced, me. It was past midnight so I brought them to my apartment. This morning when I went to check, Karin was gone. She left her daughter Sarada behind, for us to take care of her and protect her from the enemy.”

“You make no sense at all,” Tsunade frowned. “Karin? That red-head that gave Ibiki trouble many years ago? What does she… ohhhhhhhh.”

Sakura was glad she was sitting down because the look that Tsunade threw her upon putting the pieces together was exactly what she had been expecting to get from the villagers soon. It was too humiliating. She wanted to die.

“An Uchiha?” Tsunade murmured. “That makes her an extremely valuable person. What are her abilities?”

“I do not know,” Kakashi said, “please do not talk about her like she doesn’t understand you. There will be ample time to see what her abilities are.”

“We will test her,” Tsunade said and signalled to Shizune to prep the utensils.

“No!” Kakashi protested but Tsunade gave him one of her worst death stares until he looked down.

“And you know that Karin woman how?” she barked, making the child flinch and cover her ears in fright.

“Well…,” Kakashi sighed dramatically.

“Oh, get lost!” Tsunade snapped. “You still haven’t gotten your memories back? Sasuke here recovered his pretty quickly. At least most of them. He said he found you in some underground compound and when he dragged you out, he stepped into a trap.”

“He did?” Kakashi said and craned his neck to look at Sasuke. “Despite the Sharingan?”

“Overuse,” Tsunade explained. “He said his eyes hurt.”

“But he has the eternal Mangekyo Sharingan,” Kakashi said. “There are no side-effects.”

Tsunade shrugged. “He also backed your story, saying it’s impossible you got a Mangekyo Sharingan back, since it’s… well, impossible without being an Uchiha.”

“I hope that’ll put an end to this ‘let’s all trust Kabuto’-phase?” Kakashi snorted. But Sakura saw it clearly, he himself was unsure what to make of Sasuke’s statements.

“He will be interrogated again,” Tsunade nodded. “And now, step aside!”

Not waiting for Kakashi to comply, she simply shouldered the shinobi aside.

“Child,” she addressed a pale Sarada, “I will need to prick your finger to take some blood out. It will hurt a bit, but we will put a band-aid on and you will forget in no time!”

“Afterwards, you can play with Tonton, the pig,” Kakashi smiled at Sarada and ruffled the girl’s hair. “Would you like that?”

The girl looked up at him and nodded.

Sakura felt a pang of jealousy so strong, she almost had to laugh at herself. Ridiculous! This was a child, one clearly in need of much attention and even more affection. But Kakashi had not looked in her direction even once after their short, unpleasant exchange.

Murmuring some excuse under her breath, she quickly left the room and ran to the restroom to lock herself in. She didn’t want anybody to see her tears.

***

Kakashi felt himself nod off again, his eyes inevitably closing, his head falling forward. He was still feeling much drowsiness from the sleeping potion Sakura had given him and was considering stretching out on the floor and going to sleep for a while.

But he felt Sakura’s presence somewhere near, lingering and hesitant. She probably thought he was angry with her, the way he had talked to her. But how could he be when she was going through such a difficult time? Seeing Sarada in the same room with Sasuke was sufficient proof even without a genetic test… They were spitting images of each other.

“Sakura?” he yawned, opening his eyes. “Is that you?”

Her pink hair appeared from around a corner. She had been crying but was trying to hide it, her nose was red and so were her ears, telltale signs he knew surprisingly well.

“Come here,” he said and patted the seat next to his. “Are the test results out?”

“Not yet,” she said in a small voice. “It takes a few hours. Are you angry with me? I know I shouldn’t have given you a sleeping potion without your consent...”

“No,” Kakashi shook his head, “I’m not angry much. I have to congratulate you on drugging me so successfully. I should normally be able to detect substances in my food… or was it the water?”

She nodded and sat down, turning her miserable face in his direction. Water started pooling in her large, beautiful eyes again.

“Hey,” he said, his heart contracting, “it’s going to be okay.”

“No,” she said, suppressing a sob, “it’s not going to be okay. Nothing is okay.”

Before he could stop himself, he had bent over and planted a kiss on her quivering lips. And because he had no self-control at all, he followed it up by a second, longer one when she didn’t pull back. No self-control and no principles either, breaking his own rules the first moment a chance presented itself, but… heck, stupid rules could be broken, especially if they were one’s own. How could he not kiss her when she looked like that?

After a few moments of surprise, Sakura began kissing him back with a desperation that took his breath away. Okay, he hadn’t thought this through. Making out in a hospital corridor? With the husband behind the door to the left, a little lost girl playing with a piglet somewhere straight ahead and their Boss behind the door to the right? It was extremely naughty and he liked it a lot, but…

“Sakura…,” he began when coming up for air, “I think we shouldn’t…”

“I need you to come to my office,” she said. “Right now.”

She took his hand and dragged him along with her, Shinobi speed. Up the stairs, down another corridor, into a room he was familiar with. Bang went the door behind them.

“You said you wanted to look at me,” Sakura said, battling tears again. “Please have a look at me.”

“I’m looking,” Kakashi replied. “I’m always looking at you when you’re near.”

“Like this. I want you to look when I’m like this,” Sakura said, taking off her doctor’s gown, pulling her shirt over her head, taking off her bra, her shoes, her socks, her pants, her underpants.

And Kakashi looked. At her strutting breast with the pinkish small nipples, her waist, her belly button. At the tiny patch of hair between her legs. At the shape of her thighs, her knees, her shins, her cute feet. At her reddening, determined face, her tongue that darted out to lick her lips nervously. At her arms that were twitching as if they wanted to cover her nakedness. At her flawless skin.

“Heavens, woman,” he exhaled. “Is looking all I’m allowed to do?”

“What… what do you see?” she squeaked.

“Perfection,” he breathed and had to wet his lips as well, “flawless perfection. You are… gorgeous.”

“How… how gorgeous in comparison…?”

“The most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” Kakashi said without a moment of hesitation. “The bravest, most capable, most desirable woman in all the Shinobi lands.”

Sasuke, you goddamn fool, Kakashi thought. You’ve got all this and still you can’t be happy?

“You… you want to touch me?” Sakura said hoarsely.

“What do you think,” Kakashi pressed out.

“Please,” she said, “please touch me.”

It was all the invitation he needed. He had her on her desk in a whirlwind of passion, scattering documents and books everywhere. It was very urgent business, slow could come another time. They reached their peak together in no time, her ecstatic moans doubling his pleasure.

“I’m leaving him,” Sakura gasped into his ear, “I’m leaving him, Kakashi.”

It made him insanely happy to hear this. Even if he knew... it was much easier said than done.

 

Chapter Text

“I am sorry I couldn’t help you with the Genjutsu yet,” Sakura said while trying to match the length of her strides to his - just as he was shortening his to match hers.

“Hm, not to worry,” Kakashi smiled at her. His lost-memory-issue was not exactly a smiling matter and the longer it lasted, the more worrying it was, but he couldn’t help it. Had he ever been this happy?

“I also want to examine your arm,” she added, making a serious face. So, so cute. He wanted to pinch her cheeks and ruffle her hair, but that’s what you did to a child, not to a woman like her.

“Anytime, really,” he grinned. “Arm and anything else you want to examine.”

“Oh,” she blushed a little. “I meant… professionally. And the pills. I haven’t forgotten about the pills I promised to analyze either.”

“Mhm,” he nodded and grinned even more broadly.

She threw him a slightly irritated look. Okay, he was super distracted but he did hear what she was saying. Arm, pills, genjutsu. And hadn’t he dreamt something important? Something he had meant to tell her… never mind.

“Why… why are you smiling like this?” she asked, sounding insecure.

“Because we made love in your office,” he answered promptly. “And I liked it a lot.”

“Psssst,” she hissed, frantically turning her head to check whether anybody was near. But there wasn’t. He needn’t be a sensory type ninja to know that the corridor was deserted and...

“Stop,” he said and grabbed her shoulder.

She turned towards him with a questioning look.

“Sorry, I really need to kiss you again,” he murmured and bent down to press his lips against hers. Ah, the softness and warmth of her. He pulled her into him, wanting to feel that gorgeous body against his. The damn clothes were in the way though. It was what happened when you did things hasty: It left you craving for more.

“We have to go down. Tsunade might be looking for us,” Sakura said after he let go. He put his mask back up. Not that he was done kissing her, but if she was busy… was she?

“Didn’t you say it would take a few hours to do the genetic sequencing?”

“I did…”

“We could go back to your office,” Kakashi suggested. “You could examine… my arm?”

“Stop it,” Sakura giggled.

“You can’t see it through the mask, but I’m pouting,” he informed her.

“O… okay,” she agreed breathlessly, “okay.”

They hadn’t gotten far in their progress down the corridor so they were back in the office within seconds. Bang went the door behind them.

“If you want to undress in front of me again, I wouldn’t mind,” Kakashi said and sat down on a chair expectantly. “Maybe do it a bit more slowly?”

She murmured something under her breath that sounded a lot like ‘shameless’, and yet, she complied, taking her dear time with the buttons of her doctor’s coat until he felt ready to shout at her to hurry up. That she knew how to tease him like this came as a pleasant surprise, but it also came with an unfamiliar type of impatience he hadn’t even realized he had.

“I’m going to rip that off you if you continue like this,” he murmured fidgeting when she got to her bra and just slid her fingers underneath the elastic, with no apparent will to take it off. And then he froze completely when she moved her fingers to her nipples to twirl them. Looking at him intensely, taking in this hopelessly gaping and drooling version of him with a glint in her eye he hadn't seen before, Sakura moved one hand down into her panties next.

He was going to explode soon. Slow would have to come yet another time, he needed to have her right now and fast.

“Come here,” he said.

“Do you like…,” she began, but he grabbed both her arms as soon as she was standing near enough and pulled her onto his lap, slipping his tongue into her mouth and frantically trying to pull down his pants. That didn’t work so well. He sprang up, slinging her legs around his middle just as her hands came around his neck, finally able to get rid of the annoying fabric on his body. Now to the one on hers. Rip, there went her panties and rip, goodbye bra. Those things were not needed anyway, he threw them across the room.

Kakashi grabbed her buttocks and pulled the cheeks apart, feeling her wetness against his lower belly, urgently pressing her body down unceremoniously so he could slide in. There was no tightness now, only accommodating readiness as he buried himself all the way, making her moan in that stimulating way of hers. He used his hands on her rear to move her lower body back and forth in the rhythm he preferred, only that she wanted to go faster, which was going to ondo him in no time.

He was pretty certain he’d lose a match of strength against her, but he had surprise on his side and knew how to cheat.

Pressing her against him forcefully so that she couldn’t move, he carried her over to the desk and sat her down on his hands. Sneaking a thumb near her rear hole and gathering some chakra into its tip as he moved it forward, he used it to expertly stimulate the pleasure spot inside of her.

“Ohhhhh,” she gasped and jerked long and hard in his arms, after which he briefly regained the advantage to move at the pace he wanted to set. Sex was by far the most satisfactory when he was able to reach that stage before release that was like standing on a steep ledge on your tiptoes, leaning forward to look down but not quite falling off yet. It seemed that was quite the challenge with Sakura though because with her, he was way more impatient than he had known he could be - equivalent to not even trying to climb up to get to the ledge. But despite his trademark tardiness Kakashi loved things that truly challenged him.

A humming chakra finger held to her pleasure point at the front bought him some more time next, but whom was he trying to fool, this wasn’t going to last long even with these little tricks. It was like his body wanted to be joint with hers as many times as possible in a short amount of time just in case this was the only chance they’d get to be together. It was a desperation he only knew from war, when tomorrow was not a concept with meaning, where death and separation were the only realities that mattered. Before long, his seed gushed out of him just as forcefully as the first time and with it another part of his soul.

Right after catching his breath, he lifted her up again and went back to collapse into the chair, holding her to himself very tightly all the while. Snuggling in a sitting position with her pressed against him was better than not snuggling at all, but he wished there was a proper bed. A large one. In a sunlit house in the forest, where the air was fragrant and fresh. He wouldn’t leave that bed ever again as long as she was in it, not even to feed the puppies. They were smart enough to get their own food. He would make love to her for hours and…

“Are you exceptionally good at this?” she murmured against his neck, bringing him back from that place where reality began to intermingle with the beginning of dreams.

“Just average, I’m afraid,” he chuckled.

“You’ve always been much too modest,” she said, “I know that for a fact.”

“I won’t ever leave you unsatisfied, I promise,” he said, “and I can always learn more.”

Which in itself was a promise. A promise that it would go further, that he was ready to sleep with her as many times as she agreed to it. What she had said before was good enough to cancel out what he had said in his miserable attempt to keep a semblance of dignity. Now he could temporarily fool himself into believing that she was really going to leave Sasuke. Down the road, when reality would make lying to himself harder, he would collect the pieces of his broken heart and glue it back together. He had lived without Sakura for many years of his life, it wouldn’t likely kill him not to continue living with her for many more, would it? The thought might hurt now - but like with everything in his life, he would be able to move on. Eventually.

For now, he just held her, breathed in her scent, played with a lock of her hair. Her skin, it was so soft and precious, he was almost afraid of touching it with fingers tarnished from handling weapons and killing people.

Should he tell her what he felt? It was a sudden thought that brought considerable anxiety. He tested the words in his head. Sakura, I love you.

There were additional words in his head. I love you so much it hurts.

And... I think I want babies with you.

Oh god, no, Kakashi cringed. He didn’t want to burden her with his emotions and silly thoughts. Babies? He could even begin to imagine the responsibilities that came with that. What are you going to do next? He laughed at himself. Cry? You are going to be that guy? Stop being so goddamn emotional. Remember the Shinobi Code of Conduct?

He buried his face into her hair, willing himself to forget everything else and relish what he had in his arms right now. He even fell halfway asleep again, thinking of their house in the forest.

“The sequencing is done!” she gasped some time later, jerking him awake.

“Can you sense that?” He was impressed.

“No, my buzzer is buzzing,” she sighed. On the floor at their feet. Inside her pocket. Now he felt it too.

“Shame,” he yawned. “I guess that means we have to get dressed.”

“I guess,” she sighed, peeling herself away from him.

A short while later, she examined the damage done to her clothes. “Hey, you ripped my underwear apart!” she sounded appalled.

“Just walk around without underwear,” he shrugged.

“But that’s uncomfortable!” she complained, “I have another shift after this!”

“Then I’ll sew it together for you,” he said. “If you get me needle and thread.”

“You don’t mean that,” she frowned.

“Oh, but I do,” he smiled.

Still frowning, she went over to her desk and took out a sewing kit from one of the drawers.

“You mean it?” she asked again.

“Try me,” he said, holding out his hand.

***

“Come on in,” Tsunade frowned at them from behind her large desk. “Kakashi, you too. Since you seem to have some knowledge of this matter.”

Kakashi looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. Understandably so… it was going to get uncomfortable. Kakashi who knew how to sew underwear like an expert. Kakashi whose hair was even messier than usual. No wonder - Sakura liked gripping that hair a lot. And his ears. She really liked his ears.

Tsunade had put Sasuke in a wheelchair. Her husband was trying hard not to make his haughtiest, most disdainful face, but he was trying too hard and after successfully forgetting about him for a short time, Sakura felt her earlier discomfort surge again. She was certain something was off with him. He was hiding something and that scared her.

I should have warned Kakashi. I should have talked to him instead of just… just… Sakura felt her mouth water at the memory of his powerful body thrusting into her. It was hard to concentrate with him in the room.

“The test results are here,” Tsunade said grimly, looking at the sheet of paper in her hand like she wished herself elsewhere too. “We tested Sarada’s blood and have concluded with 99.9% certainty that Uchiha Sasuke is Sarada’s father.”

There was a spot on the floor Sakura focused on very hard, so that she did not have to see anybody’s pitying expressions. She had thought that proof wouldn’t really change anything, but it did. It made it official in the most horrible way.

“As for the mother… there is no match in our databases,” Tsunade continued. “But from the genetic material we have, it seems that Sarada’s mother is an Uzumaki. We’re about 86% sure.”

An Uzumaki? Like… Naruto?

“The red hair,” Kakashi said quietly. “It’s like Kushina’s.”

“Who is Kushina?” Shizune asked what Sakura wanted to ask too.

“Naruto’s mother. She was a redhead and an Uzumaki,” Tsunade explained. “Kakashi, Karin has the same hair, you say?”

Kakashi nodded. “I remember it struck me as interesting the first time I saw her. That said, we know nothing about Karin’s heritage. Do you, Sasuke?”

“No,” Sasuke answered curtly. “I don’t know anything about her, only that she helped Orochimaru with his experiments and was the warden of his Southern Hideout.”

Sakura tried to keep a straight face, but she wanted to spit at him. Having a kid with another woman was bad enough but not even knowing anything about that woman? Sasuke at his worst.

And then she remembered when she had first met Karin. Half-dead. Because of Sasuke. Maybe he liked to kill women he wanted babies with? She thought bitterly.

“Considering her age, she would have been born after Uzushiogakure was destroyed - or shortly before,” Kakashi mused. “I will inquire whether any of the village’s records still exist, with your permission, Hokage. Though that’s unlikely.”

Tsunade nodded.

“An Uzumaki and an Uchiha? The powers this child might unleash…,” the Hokage murmured.

“I will test her,” Kakashi offered. “As soon as she feels more comfortable here.”

“Does she have the Sharingan yet?” the Hokage asked him.

“It is possible,” Kakashi sighed. “The child shows signs of trauma. We will have to teach her how to use it safely.”

Tsunade nodded again. “This is urgent. Go and talk to Iruka. He has more experience with small children. You two can teach her together in the beginning.”

“Okay,” Kakashi agreed, throwing a look at Sasuke, who pretended not to be in the least affected by the conversation.

Tsunade threw a challenging look at him too. “You wanted to keep the existence of this child from us, Sasuke? You know how hard Konoha is trying to preserve the Uchiha bloodline.”

“I didn’t know of her existence,” Sasuke said coldly. “Karin is a madwoman. I have absolutely no idea how she got pregnant with my child.”

“You don’t remember fathering it?” Tsunade asked sharply.

“I never touched her.” He sounded disgusted.

Liar, Sakura thought viciously. Maybe you forgot or simply don’t care.

Tsunade sighed. “What are we going to do with her? Should we send her to the orphanage?”

“No,” Kakashi said almost too fast.

That earned him some raised eyebrows from Tsunade. “What objections do you have?”

“Sarada needs a stable home right now,” he said haltingly. “With someone who knows how to deal with traumatized children, a professional, someone who…” Kakashi faltered as his eyes grew a fraction larger and sought Sakura’s. “I’m sorry,” he said chagrined. “I didn’t mean to suggest…”

“Not your fault,” she answered though she wanted to scream.

“Sakura?” Tsunade frowned. “Hm. That is an excellent idea. You want to specialize in childrens’ mental health. It’s asking a lot of you though…”

“I am healthy enough to go home,” Sasuke said. “If she is my child, it is only fitting she lives with me.”

“You will be in a wheelchair for several weeks,” Tsunade informed him sharply. “You cannot take care of a small child.”

“Then I need someone to help me take care…”

“Sakura?” Tsunade interrupted him. “Do you think you can shoulder this? I would send a nurse to help Sasuke when you have your shifts at the hospital, I need you here. Sarada can spend the days with Iruka and Kakashi. In the evenings and during the nights, she’d be with you.”

“Of course,” Sakura heard herself say. But all she saw was Sasuke’s flabbergasted face. “Of course I will take care of my husband’s traumatized child,” she added. “It will let me gain more experience for when I open my own hospital.”

Sasuke had gotten several shades paler. Without a doubt, Sakura had been right. He had amnesia too but didn’t want to admit it. He had no longer remembered that they were married.

Good. May he never remember, Sakura wished with all her heart. I don’t want him anymore.

But his face was no longer haughty. He looked truly shocked. As if… as if he cared.

Oh Sasuke, Sakura thought, looking into those dark, mesmerizing eyes. Let me go. Please. Let me go.

 

Chapter Text

After Kakashi returned to the Anbu Headquarters, he collapsed on the bed and slept for the rest of the day and through the night, dreamless like a log. A Shinobi had to get as much sleep as he could when he could, an unwritten Shinobi rule, even when his heart was troubled.

In the morning, Kaeru ambushed him in the corridor and asked where the bird-mask girl was.

“She’s been sent on a very special secret mission,” Kakashi said gravely, though he couldn’t help but crack a smile looking at the young man’s eager expression, “it will take her a long time to return.”

“Oh no, really?” Kaeru asked, sounding very disappointed. Maybe bird-mask girl would die on her mission, Kakashi thought. Kaeru’s awkward crush couldn't be allowed to continue for much longer. A distracted Anbu was a liability and it was his responsibility as captain to ensure nobody got too distracted.

After tea, fruit and liquid food supplements, Kakashi went to see Iruka at the Academy. All the teachers and jonin leaders, many of which had been Team 7’s peers, were excited to see him and begged him to give a small lecture to the youngest class of children. He agreed, talking about the importance of teamwork, what else. The kids were big-eyed and snot-nosed, easily impressed by the stories of a weathered jonin like him. They were about Sarada’s age, Kakashi guessed, and if all went well, she would soon be able to attend the Academy with them.

The Chunin exams were brought up and Kakashi reluctantly agreed to proctor in the second part.

“Please don’t fail everybody, Kakashi Sensei,” Shikamaru teased him, which was exactly why Kakashi had been reluctant to get involved in the first place. The village desperately needed more shinobis but he was not ready to lower his standards. Anko smiled and winked at him from across the room, making a sign to call her. He would - she had experience at proctoring and he needed her advice.

The real reason for Kakashi’s visit was very timid when Kakashi approached him, but soon beamed from ear to ear when Kakashi made it clear to him that he needed guidance on how to teach a five year old. They agreed to pick Sarada up together at eleven - Iruka had a class he could not delegate before that.

Finding himself with some free time after the visit to the Academy, Kakashi decided to go to the hospital to see Sakura. He wanted to apologize to her again for so foolishly suggesting what Sarada needed without realizing he was positioning Sakura as the perfect candidate, when the mere existence of the child must be like a thorn in her side.

To his rather pronounced disappointment, Sakura wasn’t available. She was doing a complicated operation, a flustered nurse told him, it would take several more hours. How was she doing? Kakashi wondered when he walked out again. Had she slept well? He should have brought her something from the bakery. He was worried she wouldn’t eat properly after the operation and just take food pills, which wasn’t good for a young woman like her.

At second thought, he did go to the bakery but once inside, he realized he didn’t know what she liked. After studying the various items on display, Kakashi decided to buy three Melonpan and had them wrapped in pink paper by the young shopkeeper. He also bought milk buns for later, thinking about that time they had visited Kurenai. Her small child had gotten hungry seemingly out of the blue and had cried the house down until Kurenai had warmed a bottle of milk for it to fill its stomach.

Kakashi positioned the Melonpan in Sakura’s office, on her desk, choosing access over the roof rather than the front door. He did not mind gossip about himself in the least, but Sakura might not like to be in it, seeing how she would already have to deal with the fallout of Sasuke’s strange decisions. Should he leave a note or was that too corny? Thinking about what to write for some time, Kakashi finally decided to put “In case you are hungry, greetings from Kakashi” on her notepad.

He was halfway out the window when he returned to add “I miss you”. He was on the rooftop when he felt acutely embarrassed about it and went back to rip the entire message into tiny shreds.

Looking at the sad snippets in the paper bin Kakashi sighed. Distracted Anbu were a liability? He should first make sure he wasn’t one of those before picking on Kaeru. He could count himself lucky there were no missions for him or it could turn out to be a real problem.

Speaking of missions… there was something he had to do. And he better got it done before finding an excuse not to.

The orphanage was located on the outskirts of Konohagakure, where houses were sparse and trees were many. There were several more buildings on the compound than there used to be, Kakashi noticed. The orphanage’s growth was positive of course, but not only: It was good that the facility had enough money nowadays and could make the childrens’ lives more comfortable, but it was very sad that there were so many children who had no parents. A decade after the last war, the wounds were still too fresh.

Kakashi was welcomed at the door by an stern looking elderly woman in dark clothing and glasses who seemed vaguely familiar to him. He hadn’t lived here for long, a few months? A year before he had gotten an apartment in the village after joining the Anbu? The memories were fuzzy… almost as if hidden behind a wall of white fog. Remembering what Sakura had told him, he suspected he might have sealed away memories from the orphanage. But why? Staring at the sign above the front door, Kakashi tried to force his brain to give him some hint, but he drew a blank.

“I’m the warden here,” the woman said after observing him in silence, “how can I help you?”

“I am looking for Kabuto?” Kakashi said politely.

“Oh,” the woman said, turning a fraction paler, “is he in trouble?”

“No,” Kakashi said, slightly taken aback about her protective reaction. It had never occurred to him that anybody in this village could care for Kabuto.

“I’m glad,” the woman said with a small smile. “He lives in the house underneath the giant tree at the back. Just go around the main building and you’re sure to see it, Kakashi.”

Kakashi nodded his head to her in thanks, wondering as he walked away whether she knew him by name like many people in the village knew him and had just dropped all honorifics or truly knew him.

The small house she had indicated looked like it was leaning against the gigantic tree towering above it. There were wild fire lilies growing around it, vivid blotches of color against the green grass. Most of the sliding doors were open, letting in the sunlight and the gentle wind and Kakashi stepped up on the porch thinking that this was not at all the house he would expect somebody like Kabuto to inhabit - when he almost walked into the man in question after rounding a corner. Kabuto was sitting outside drinking tea, studying some papers.

He was so startled by Kakashi’s sudden appearance, he dropped the cup he was drinking from - but caught it before it could shatter. A man not to underestimate, but Kakashi would never make that mistake again.

“Normal people make their presence known when they come for a visit,” Kabuto snarled, his face distorting in anger.

“Not my problem if you are deaf,” Kakashi shrugged, glaring down at the scientist. It was true though that he didn’t make many sounds when he walked, assassin training from a young age had made it a habit.

“What do you want?” Kabuto asked unfriendly and got up, dusting off his trousers with deliberate nonchalance.

“Answers,” Kakashi shot back.

“And you think you will get them because…” Kabuto lifted his eyebrows in mock curiosity.

“Someone who volunteers to take care of children who have lost their parents cannot be all bad.”

“Get lost, I don’t need your sympathy.”

“I wasn’t offering any. Whatever hardship you had in the past is in the past. From where I’m standing, your life in Konoha looks pretty good,” Kakashi gestured at the house and the surroundings. “Have you accepted it as your home?”

“I find it extraordinary that you come here to lecture me,” Kabuto snarled. “You! Of all people. Do you really think you have the right?”

Here it was again. An attitude that spoke of a personal grudge. Kakashi sighed. He had neither the time nor the energy to find out where that came from, if such animosity needed a reason at all.

“Listen, Kabuto. I won’t play games with you. Do you know Sasuke has fathered a girl? An innocent child is involved in this mess. She’s five.”

No, Kabuto had not known from the shocked face he made.

“Her mother brought her to Konoha so that we… I… we… can protect her. But I need to know what she’s running from to be able to do that. I… I ask you very politely to please enlighten me about what you told me before. That I… that I participated willingly in… experiments? Related to the Sharingan.”

“Did you say please?” Kabuto’s eyes turned to slits. “I didn’t quite hear you.”

“Please,” Kakashi said again, swallowing down his massive dislike and his pride, though with considerable difficulty. “Please.”

Kabuto looked at him strangely for a moment before he sighed too. “Very well. Yes, you participated willingly in the Sharingan experiments. The only ones that know about it are you, me and Sasuke.”

“Keep going,” Kakashi urged him after Kabuto fell silent.

“It was you who came to me, asking for it.”

“Why… why would I do that?” Kakashi felt his head beginning to spin. So he had really gone behind Tsunade’s back? It was unfathomable that he would do that! Showing allegiance to one’s Kage… it was the rule number one from the Shinobi Code of Conduct. Without such loyalty, what purpose did the life of a Shinobi have?

“For the Uchiha, of course, what else. You always feel you need to protect him, don’t you? Him - or rather his obliterated clan. This massive survivor’s guilt you still carry around with you… it explains pretty much everything you do.”

“How do these experiments help…,” what did the two things have to do with each other? Why would he… wait.

Oh no.

“Is something wrong with Sasuke?”

“You’re smart,” Kabuto said, for once not sounding insincere, “I’ve heard many people laud your deduction skills. Hey, and you don’t even need a Sharingan for that!”

Oh shit. He had sensed something wasn’t right that day at the bar. Only a fever, Sakura had said, but Kakashi had seen something else in Sasuke’s eyes, he realized that now - the Uchiha knew what ailed him and he was damned scared of it.

“What is it? Do you know?” Kakashi asked with a sinking feeling.

Kabuto shrugged. “Not fully. Sasuke thinks it could be the same illness Itachi had.”

Oh shit.

Sasuke must have confided in him. That was the pretty much the only reason he could think of for him to have volunteered for human experiments that Tsunade would never sanction. If Sasuke was terminally ill, if he died before the bloodline was secured…

“You seem to get it now,” Kabuto said. “I’ve been doing experiments with Uchiha blood for many years and I’ve recently managed to give you the ability to activate the Sharingan instead of carrying around that huge chakra suck activated behind your forehead protector all the time.”

“That’s impossible,” Kakashi said fiercely.

“Thank you for sharing your expert knowledge,” Kabuto said coldly. “Didn’t think you were the type to deny obvious things.”

“But… does it not require Uchiha eyes?”

“Indeed an expert,” Kabuto sneered. “Yes, it requires Uchiha eyes and Uchiha blood for the bloodline trait, that’s exactly what I was saying before. That’s why you have that blood seal.”

“But I…”

“There are two Uchiha eyes in your head, you dolt. You didn’t notice looking in the mirror? Well, those eyes are a mystery, who knows, they might be able to cast a genjutsu at their wearer to make him forget everything.”

Kakashi felt a great urge to sit down, but there only was the porch and he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to appear weak in front of this man. But then again… Kakashi sat down rather abruptly and covered his face with his hands.

“Whose eyes…,” he asked, feeling sick to the stomach.

“Fugaku Uchiha’s. Sasuke’s father.”

But how? How?! Where had these eyes even come from?!

“I injected you with the blood serum the other day and you’ve got a new seal thanks to it. Just know that your body continues to reject the Uchiha blood rather violently. Take your pills, okay? I don’t like you, but I invested a lot of time into my research and I don’t want my number one test subject to die.”

“Take them out,” Kakashi said, lifting his head, feeling so repulsed he was ready to claw the eyes out himself. “Now.”

Now?” Kabuto laughed. “That is not going to happen. I told you already, using two Mangekyo Sharingans changed your cell structure. I don’t know how to reverse those effects... yet. You might already be dead without me.”

“I will have to tell Tsunade about all this,” Kakashi said. He was ready to bear the consequences of her wrath.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Kabuto retorted sharply. “She would shut us down immediately. We have come so far! You yourself said she would get over her anger quickly once we would be able to present her with the technology to turn all her Shinobis into Sharingan-wielders. Imagine what this means for Konoha!”

“Sasuke has a child,” Kakashi said quietly. “The bloodline is secure now. We have to stop. We cannot do this behind Tsunade’s back! It’s wrong.”

“You know exactly that one defenseless child is not enough. She will be the target of everyone coveting the Sharingan - if she isn’t already. You want to protect her? Good luck. One of you is nowhere near enough.”

If she isn’t already. Karin had come running to him. Somebody must have found out.

“Only you, me and Sasuke know about the experiments?” Kakashi mused. “I don’t think that’s true. Somebody else knows too. Somebody who has access to a Mangekyo Sharingan and can produce Susanoo clones. Somebody I let capture me deliberately to spring a trap on them with false information. Somebody who…” knows how to erase memories? I must have gotten too close.

“You were trained by Danzo too, were you not?” Kakashi asked Kabuto. There was something… something he could not quite put his finger on. Something that was bugging him. That wasn’t right. Something hidden behind white fog.

“What if?” Kabuto asked back defensively.

“Has he taught you how to forget too?”

Kakashi saw in Kabuto’s face that the bespectacled man understood very well what he meant. A top class spy. A man who had had no real identity. A man who would seal away anything that could compromise him when in the enemy’s hands. Or anytime he wanted to.

Erase your personality. Erase your past. Erase your future. You are nothing. The mission is everything.

What if that jutsu could be wielded against a person to make them forget? What if…

Kakashi got up abruptly. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” he said coldly. “I’m warning you. If you are in any way working against Konoha’s interests...”

“Good,” Kabuto sneered, “I’m glad we’re back to hating each other, I feel far more comfortable this way.”

The medic was hiding something, Kakashi’s gut told him loud and clear. Kabuto knew more than he admitted and that meant… he was either being the same traitor he had always been… Or he was protecting something. Or someone.

“What is the warden’s name?” Kakashi asked.

Kabuto’s lips turned into a sneer. “You didn’t recognize her? The name is Nohara. I think you killed her daughter? Something like… thirty years ago? But don’t worry. She has long since forgiven you, Hero of the Sharingan. The mistakes we made in the past… they are all forgiven and forgotten. Are they not?”

Rin.

The pain was as sharp as ever. Forgiven and forgotten? Never. Simply because Kakashi would never let himself.

***

Only her immense exhaustion kept Sakura from running all the way home. Clutching the Melonpan in the pink paper to her chest, she hoped she would be able to see the one who had so thoughtfully put it into her office earlier when he brought Sarada back to the Hokage Tower for the night. If only briefly. If only to say hi and to assure herself that he was well, and sufficiently rested after everything he had gone through in the last couple of days.

It was Sasuke who met her at the door though, fixating her with his dark eyes from his wheelchair.

“Hi, Sasuke,” she said, taking off her shoes and jacket. She was too tired for anything more, even forming words was an effort. He still looked pale and there was an trace of pain visible on his face. The nurse seemed to have left, but she had put a blanket over Sasuke’s legs, like instructed. The warmth would help stabilize the bones.

“Hello Sakura,” he said, “how has your day been?”

Obviously, he was still shocked about not remembering they were married and from his tone, she guessed he might even feel bad about it. He had probably hit his head really hard. It was almost eerie, this forced civility.

“Sarada is not back yet?” she voiced her hope. It was very quiet in the apartment.

“She is,” Sasuke replied, “they brought her back over an hour ago.”

Sakura felt how her lip began to quiver and quickly bit down on it. She had wanted to feel Kakashi’s warm embrace so much. It was the only thing that could unburden her heavy heart today. He was the only one she wanted to talk to about the situation she was in. She had missed him all day to the point where she had wanted to leave the hospital under some pretext to find him.

“Did she say anything?” Sakura asked, walking in the direction of the kitchen, followed closely by Sasuke who seemed to have relatively little trouble operating the wheelchair despite having just one arm. The door to the guest room that was Sarada’s for now was firmly shut. Cautiously, Sakura probed the space behind it with her senses, finding a small, tired chakra presence there.

“She hasn’t spoken to me,” Sasuke said. “Not a single word.”

After putting the bread on the counter, Sakura went to the fridge and took out what was left from her mother’s food gift. It would have to suffice, even though Sasuke had not thought about making rice, she noticed with a pang of annoyance. But she was beyond hunger, a side effect of food pills. Maybe she would just eat the Melonpan.

“What did the Senseis say?” she asked, walking to the sink to get water.

“They had an argument.”

“Why?” Sakura frowned.

“Kakashi wanted to test Sarada’s nature transformation affinity tomorrow and Iruka opposed him rather vehemently, saying it’s much too early, she’s too young and it could be dangerous.”

“And?” Sakura said with a sinking feeling.

“When he raised his voice against Kakashi, Sarada pushed Iruka hard, ran to her room, locked herself in and hasn’t come out since.”

Sakura sighed. An argument? That was neither like Iruka Sensei nor like Kakashi. Obviously, the training had not gone well or they would not have lost their cool like this.

“It would take a lot of time to train her, Iruka said. She has no previous knowledge. Never saw a shuriken or a kunai before and cried when Iruka wanted her to attack him so he could show her basic Taijutsu moves.”

The poor child.

“What did Kakashi say?” Sakura asked. “Kakashi Sensei,” she added, but why did she even bother?

“Why did Kakashi have a raincoat here?” Sasuke asked abruptly.

“Excuse me?” But it clicked while she asked. The raincoat! Kakashi had most likely forgotten it yesterday when he had rushed out of this apartment in the morning. And she had been too preoccupied with dark thoughts to notice it when they had returned home.

“His raincoat. He took it with him to wherever he disappears to at night when he left earlier.”

“The Anbu,” Sakura said. “He’s back in the Anbu.”

“It’s where he belongs. He shouldn’t try to teach,” Sasuke said viciously. “He’s too bad at it. He was over an hour late coming here this morning. Iruka was livid.”

“It’s Tsunade’s order,” Sakura said, feeling cold anger starting to boil inside of her. “Besides, Kakashi is the only one the child seems to accept for now.”

But she is yours. Yours! she wanted to shout at the Uchiha. You have a child with another woman and I am just to be okay with it?!

“He slept here the night before, that’s why his raincoat was here,” she added with deliberate meanness.

“He… what?” Sasuke’s eyes grew large, then narrowed to angry slits.

“You heard me. He slept here. If you think you have any right to be territorial right now you are mistaken. I have good reason to believe you do not remember what happened between us. But let me tell you… I am over you. It took me about 10 years too long, but finally. Finally I have woken up!”

Sakura felt like throwing the contents of her kitchen cupboard at the man in front of her. His damn, breathtaking handsomeness. His damn hypnotic eyes that looked pained.

“I… I am sorry, Sakura,” Sasuke said with obvious difficulty. “I must have really hurt you. I know you’ve always been… on my side. I swear, I will do my best to…”

“Don’t even bother!” she pressed out. “Just leave me alone. Why did you come back to Konoha in the first place? It worked so well with you gone!”

“I…,” he bit his lips, “I…”

There was a sudden sound from the guest room and the floor shook very briefly, as if something heavy had fallen on the floor. Sakura’s heart wanted to stop.

“Sarada?” Sakura rushed over, but the door was locked from the inside. “Sarada?” she asked again and knocked. “Can you open the door?”

There was no answer.

“Sarada?”

The girl’s chakra presence was gone.

“Dammit,” Sakura cursed and hit her chakra infused fist against the door so that it sprang open, the lock ripped from the door frame.

The room was empty.

Feeling her heart beat frantically in her throat, Sakura turned on her heels in a circle, hoping to find a clue, any clue how a five year old could have disappeared from a locked room. Could somebody have kidnapped her? But the window was closed and there were Anbu guards all around the tower. Surely they would have noticed an intruder?

They couldn’t lose Sarada. And if they did… would she be alright with Sasuke fathering more children with other women? If she were, why did this child bother her so much?

Then she saw the sheet of paper on the floor. She rushed over and picked it up. There was a fain paw print on it. Like a signature. She had seen this paw print before.

“Did Kakashi introduce Sarada to his ninken?” Sakura asked breathlessly, hearing Sasuke appear behind her. Yes, Kakashi would do something like this. Not only would the dogs give joy to a child, they could also help with protecting her.

“Yes, Iruka mentioned something like that,” Sasuke said.

“Can she do a summoning jutsu?” Sakura asked astonished.

“No,” Sasuke said. “But Kakashi gave her a dog whistle?”

Sarada had managed to call Pakkun. And Pakkun had taken her away. Where would a lost and sad girl like Sarada want to go at this time of night? It wasn’t hard for Sakura to imagine. It was where she wanted to be too.

“I’m going to get her back,” Sakura said breathlessly. “I know where she is.”

“Sakura, let me help,” Sasuke said. “I know I have messed up. I want…”

But Sakura did not want to hear what he wanted. She was already out the door and running down the stairs. She would be able to see Kakashi after all. She needed to see him. With him by her side, everything would be alright.

Or at least, she could believe it would be. It was better than most other options.

 

Chapter Text

“You cannot just run away, Sarada,” Kakashi said, not quite managing to keep a frown off his face but not wanting to admonish the child too much either. “Imagine how Sakura felt after finding you gone.”

“I left her a message, she’ll understand,” Pakkun grumbled.

You should know better than to kidnap a child and bring her to the Anbu headquarters,” Kakashi snapped at the dog. “What were you thinking!”

Sarada, who was walking beside him, tensed and stood still at his angry words and for a moment, Kakashi dreaded she would start crying again. It was the most pitiful thing he had ever seen and he couldn’t deal with it at all. Without Iruka, the training session this afternoon would have turned out even worse than it already had because he simply could not get himself to be strict with this child.

“I’m not really angry with the dog,” he explained to her quickly. “Nothing happened after all. But still…”

Kakashi sighed and turned his eyes up to the slowly darkening sky. Dozens of trained assassins with their weapons ready at the alarms the child had triggered by just walking in - it could have gone horribly wrong. Luckily, his Anbu comrades had stood down quickly at his hasty command, realizing the tiny intruder with the huge, frightened eyes was no threat.

“The dog only did what he thought was best,” Pakkun huffed. “The girl made it very clear to me that she needed to see the silver-haired uncle immediately. And the silver-haired uncle had told me earlier that I had to help the child whenever she was in need.”

“Fine,” Kakashi said, thinking that she was at least talking to a dog if not to anyone else, “forget about it. But this won’t happen anymore, alright? You live with Sakura and Sasuke, Sarada!”

Sarada didn’t answer but her pout deepened. Did she not understand that Sasuke was her biological father? Kakashi wasn’t sure anybody had told her. Yesterday, he had made sure to say a proper goodbye to her at the hospital, but Tsunade had sent him on an important errand - to get clothes and other things for Sarada from Kurenai - so he had left before everybody else and wasn't privy to what information had been exchanged.

“Are you perhaps hungry?” he asked the girl. It seemed cruel to him to rush her back like an unwanted burden when she had gone through the trouble of finding him at the Anbu Headquarters. He would send Pakkun to Sakura to tell her all was well.

Sarada nodded timidly.

“Okay,” Kakashi said, “I will buy you some food and then we head back to the Hokage Tower for the night.”

Remembering Iruka’s clever reward system for Naruto and lacking a better idea of where else to go, he pointed towards the direction of Rāmen Ichiraku. He was hungry too. An extra large bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen, that’s what he felt like eating. It had not exactly been a good day for him and he needed something to make it temporarily better - all the more so because he knew there couldn’t be many good days to follow.

The truth was, he was a traitor, unfit to be trusted by his Hokage.

The longer he remained quiet about the experiments, the bigger his wrongdoing. But if he went ahead and told Tsunade about what he knew, he might cause a considerable problem for Sasuke, which he was not ready to do either. But most importantly, they were facing a skilled enemy operating from the shadows, one he had reason to believe was connected to him.

In the hours since coming back from the orphanage he had concluded that taking out that enemy as soon as possible was a priority. It wouldn’t solve all his problems, but at least, it would ensure the safety of Konoha, whatever happened to him afterwards. For a while, he had had this plan, hoping he could first remember and then go clean up his mess, but now… he wasn’t sure remembering was going to happen anytime soon.

Kakashi suppressed a heavy sigh as he looked around himself. Konoha was always in his heart, it was what he would protect with his life, no questions asked. Leaving this place in secret… even risking being pronounced a missing-nin... it would be very hard. Not least because there was now a person he...

“Here she comes already, the woman who uses my shampoo,” Pakkun murmured. “Told you not to worry, Kakashi.”

Kakashi stopped dead in his tracks. Sarada slipped her hand into his and held on tightly, almost as if she was afraid he would leave her alone. But even if he had wanted to move, Kakashi remained strangely frozen, his eyes glued to the figure with the pink hair as she approached at high speed, forcing other pedestrians to jump to the left and right to avoid collision.

“Kakashi!” Sakura yelled when she saw them standing there, “Kakashi!”

Before he could unfreeze, she had reached them, thrown her arms around his neck and pulled his face down to hers for a passionate kiss.

“That escalated quickly,” Kakashi heard Pakkun snicker, just as he felt his face grow burning hot underneath his mask.

“Sakura,” he whispered when she released him, “we’re in the middle of the street…”

“You dummy,” Sakura scolded him half laughing, “why did you rip the message apart? Did you think I wouldn’t look in the bin?”

“Oh,” he stammered, “well…”

Kakashi felt like he needed a hole to crawl into. It was a balmy evening and quite a few people were underway, those headed home from work and those coming out in pairs in search of some entertainment. Every single one of them was staring at them. But Sakura held on to him tightly, completely oblivious of the spectacle they were making, not giving a damn about it in ways he found extremely brave.

“We were just headed to Ichiraku’s,” he continued stammering, “are you hungry too?”

“Oh,” Sakura said, glancing down, only now seeming to realize there was a tiny human attached to him, “I’m starving, actually. Are you paying? That must be a first.”

And like there was nothing to it, she grabbed his other hand, smiling and winking at Sarada that was still clinging onto the other.

Maybe he was just old. But walking around hand in hand in public was something nobody in his generation would easily do. Back when he had been a teenager, dating had been done in secret if at all, hidden from the eyes of the elders and the rest of the village. Besides, this woman was married, which most people would know about. But why did her hand in his feel so right when his head was trying to convince him this was wrong?

What am I afraid of? he asked himself, gazing at her face that he had wished to see all day. The scorn of other people? When have I ever cared? Every minute I get to spend with her is worth a hundred years of damnation.

“Have you grown roots?” Pakkun taunted him. “It’s getting dark soon.”

“Won’t Sasuke be worried if you don’t get back soon?” Kakashi said, immediately wanting to bite his own tongue off when he saw Sakura’s face fall.

“I will deliver a message to him,” Pakkun said, earning himself a juicy bone, “I will say the girl has been found and will soon return, no need to worry.”

“Scratch the soon,” Sakura said darkly and held Kakashi’s hand a little more firmly. “Just tell him not to worry.”

“Thanks, Pakkun,” Kakashi said, still not entirely sure how to deal with this situation. But Sarada was pulling on one of his hands and Sakura on the other so that not walking forward together with them would have required planting his heels into the ground and resisting them, which… only a much bigger fool than him would consider a valid option.

***

Sakura couldn’t help but smile every time she caught a glimpse of Kakashi’s reddened ears. Why was he so shy tonight? They had eaten well at Ichiraku’s, with Sarada pointing to Shoyu Ramen on the menu and eating two kid sized portions one after the other with considerable appetite, which had pleased Teuchi a great deal. Now the three of them were strolling along the street again at a leisurely pace. In fact, Sakura was more than ready to adjust her speed to the short legs of a child to drag out the time as much as possible.

“I told Sasuke about us,” Sakura told Kakashi so he could stop worrying, but that didn’t fix the problem.

“You… what?” he stammered and looked so distressed for a moment, she wanted to hug and kiss him again. Actually, she wanted to hug and kiss him all the time, but the child had attached herself to him in ways that made that pretty much impossible. Sarada was quietly observing her with a tiny frown on her face, clinging to Kakashi with both hands as if to tell her that he was hers and not to share.

“Oh, did you manage to get the clothes for Sarada?” Sakura suddenly remembered. “She needs to put on something less tattered tomorrow.”

“I did,” Kakashi said. “I will go fetch them and bring them to…”

“Let’s go together,” Sakura interrupted him.

“Hm,” he replied, his eyes crinkling a tiny bit, “okay. When do five year olds normally go to bed?”

“I… I have no idea,” Sakura had to admit. “At 9pm?”

“It’s not 9pm yet,” Kakashi said, sounding hopeful. “I put them in my apartment.”

Great. That was quite a distance away, Sakura thought and then had to laugh.

“I don’t mind walking through Konoha with you at all,” she said at his questioning look. “I really wanted to see you today.”

“Me too,” Kakashi said and his ears turned bright red again.

After five more steps, Sarada suddenly wedged herself between them as if she belonged there and not by his side. A little surprised, Sakura let go of Kakashi’s hand just to have both of their hands grabbed by the girl. The little hand was warm, a tiny bit sticky and holding on rather tightly.

“So there’s no Sharingan?” Sakura asked Kakashi after they had walked in silence for a bit.

“I am not sure,” Kakashi answered. “I saw nothing today that would signify she has awakened it. Which is a great relief.”

Sakura wasn’t quite sure why he said that, but his tone made her reluctant to ask. A relief for all of them, for Sarada or for him? For somebody married to an Uchiha, she understood very little about those eyes of theirs and the various issues that came with it. Was it physically painful perhaps? As a doctor for Shinobis, she knew that all of the powerful jutsu came with a high price, to either the body or the mind.

“I hope she can attend the Academy with the other kids soon,” Kakashi continued. “At the very least, we need to make sure she knows how to defend herself. Iruka is very good at teaching those basic skills.”

“She has no previous shinobi training, I heard?”

“She doesn’t,” Kakashi said, glancing down at Sarada, “neither does she know how to read or write. Iruka will propose a whole series of private lessons to you tomorrow.”

“To me?” Sakura asked surprised.

“To… you and Sasuke,” Kakashi answered quietly.

It gave Sakura pause. To her and Sasuke? As if… as if she were the mother of this child? She looked down at the jagged black hair and the little feet that stomped between them with such determination. She wasn’t. And more, she didn’t want to be.

“I’m very sorry, Sakura,” Kakashi said, as if he were able to read her thoughts.

Sorry about what though? She looked up and met Kakashi’s eyes. There was a lot of unspoken words there and a turmoil of emotions she could not read. Something was different about Kakashi tonight, even though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It scared her all of a sudden. Was he perhaps having second thoughts? She needed just five minutes alone with him. Or ten. Okay, fifteen. Fifteen would be enough to tell him… show him how much she needed him. She knew she was clumsy as hell when it came to physical intimacy, but surely she would be able to improve with time? If only he gave her time…

What if we lock the child in some room so we can be alone? She mused and then laughed at her own silliness.

“Nothing,” she told him when he looked at her strangely, “I was just imagining something.”

Which would be him and her naked together. Sakura knew very well how fleeting the effects of hormones were and that it would eventually stop being like this, but it had only been a very short time since they had first slept together - not even two days ago! - so it was no surprise that she couldn’t think of anything else but the next time.

They walked up to his apartment in silence. Sarada was suppressing yawns and blinked frequently, her body seemingly getting even smaller as her shoulder sagged and she had to be halfway carried up the stairs.

“Here are the clothes,” Kakashi said, disengaging his hand from Sarada’s and stepping over to the bed to show her what was on offer. Sakura thought it was all very cute, the kind of fashion she would have loved to have as a kid, with lots of plush, animal prints and glittery tidbits.

“Do you like them?” Kakashi smiled as Sarada stepped forward to touch a sweatshirt with bunny ears.

Sarada nodded and grabbed all the clothes she could reach, hugging them close.

“I got you something else,” Kakashi said. “Wait…”

Rummaging inside a paper bag that was also on the bed, he pulled out a fluffy rabbit doll with huge ears and a smiley face.

“Everyone needs something … or someone to cuddle at night,” he said and held the stuffed toy towards her.

For a moment, Sakura felt a pang of unwarranted jealousy. But then she saw the girl’s eyes widen in wonderment and awe, wiping all silly thoughts out of her mind. A tiny squeal escaped Sarada’s mouth as she dropped the clothes and gingerly took the doll from Kakashi’s hand as if it were an invaluable object.

“Thank you. Thank you very much,” the girl said in a high, shaking voice.

Just as Kakashi and Sakura’s eyes met in a surprised but somewhat proud acknowledgement of her first words to them, Sarada climbed into bed without further ado and snuggled herself into the pillow with the rabbit tightly pressed against her body.

“Er, Sarada?” Kakashi said. “This is not… ”

But Sarada just snuggled in deeper with her eyes closed, pulling the covers up to her nose. Almost instantly, her breathing became slow and deep.

“Has she fallen asleep?” Kakashi asked after a moment of stunned silence.

“Maybe they go to bed earlier than 9pm?” Sakura mused. There was no doubt about it. Sarada had fallen asleep as soon as her head had touched the pillow.

“She had a hard training session today,” Kakashi nodded. “Should I carry her back?”

“Let her sleep here,” Sakura said. “For once.”

“Okay. I will stay here for the night,” Kakashi said, “there’s some additional bedding in the cupboard.”

“I want to stay too.”

Kakashi sucked in air and for once tonight, he seemed to turn pale, not red. “You… I think you can’t.”

Sakura raised her eyebrows. Did he really think she would go home alone without… anything else? Maybe she should have made it much clearer just how much she had wanted to see him!

“Don’t you have a shift tomorrow?” he asked cautiously.

“I just need to get up early. There’s nothing at the Tower I really need.”

He looked at her as if he were unsure about how to take her words. She halfway expected him to mention Sasuke again but even if he did, it would make no difference. She would not leave this place out of consideration for someone who had only made her miserable for years.

“I managed to keep my jealousy in check until now,” Sakura frowned at him, half-serious though it was kinda ridiculous, “but I’ve kind of reached my limit. You let this girl sleep in your bed but are trying to kick me out?”

There was a somewhat breathless laugh from Kakashi.

“You think I can sleep next to you without touching you? You should know, I have very little self-control.”

“There are two additional rooms with doors in this apartment...”

To be fair, there was a part of her that was shocked at her own straightforwardness. She had been such a good girl for over twenty years of her life. But apparently, one night had sufficed to turn her into a nymphomaniac that was ready to jump a man’s bones even when he expressed reluctance.

I am just too desperate to feel wanted and loved, she thought ruefully. Pathetic.

Her mother would faint on the spot if she were to find out. Silently disapproving of her Sasuke obsession, her parents had tried to tell her on several occasions a woman should not throw herself at a man but wait for him to make his advances. A woman had a dignity, her mother had once said, and that dignity could not be easily restored once it was destroyed.

But Sakura had never cared about her dignity. And the longer she looked at Kakashi standing there being appealing like the best kind of desert she could imagine, the less she cared.

“I’d prefer the shower over the kitchen,” Kakashi said, his voice dropping to a whisper that made goosebumps spring up all over her body. “But we have to be quiet so as not to wake or scare her.”

“Are you saying I’m loud?” Sakura couldn’t help but smile broadly in anticipation of what was to follow.

“Well…,” Kakashi smirked, “loud enough to tell me I’m doing something right.”

Sakura was amazed at how fast they managed to shed their clothes once inside the bathroom, it was almost as if someone had magically snapped their fingers to undress them. Torn between the urgent need to feel him inside of her and the realization that he had told her that going slow was his preferred mode, Sakura tried to do what he did to her and explore his body with the attention it deserved.

But it only made her more impatient.

And then it became hard to think.

She was aware enough to realize that there was something desperate about his love making, him kissing her harder, holding her tighter, entering her sooner - right before she forgot such silly notions completely as waves of pleasure began to wash over her. At one stage, she bit him hard in the shoulder - she felt sorry about it immediately, but trying not to be loud took too much of an effort. She applied chakra to heal him, but she could not concentrate enough to ensure it wouldn't scar. She was focused on his breathing at her ear, noticing the quickening pace, waiting for the exhale that signified the peak of his own pleasure. Feeling... a lot of things.

To be pleased and please in turn… give and take when she had always been the one to give one-sidedly - it was a sensation she knew she would grow addicted to if she wasn’t already. And as she was held in his arms after it was over, with the warm water flowing down on them with soothing softness, Sakura played with the spiky stubbornness of Kakashi’s hair, traced the contours of his jaw with her fingers, and thought that she had never before felt this way about anybody.

The feeling surprised her in its newness when she had always thought she knew the depth of it. It also rendered her speechless because she suddenly doubted she knew enough words to adequately express herself to him.

He didn’t seem to notice her strange silence when he rubbed her dry with a bath towel, planted a kiss on the top of her head, and handed her a toothbrush from his cupboard. A new, pink one, absolutely one she would have picked for herself.

Brushing her teeth next to him, looking at their pink and silver reflections in the fogged up mirror, only plunged her even deeper into her crisis. He was the romance novel expert, but she had read enough of them as well to know that it was turning points like these protagonists usually regretted not having recognized in time. By not telling him what she felt, was she perhaps missing an important opportunity that would never return?

“Kakashi…,” she began after the teeth were clean, but it was as far as she got and she closed her mouth again.

“I’ll check on Sarada,” Kakashi said with a smile, “I’m sure you could use some privacy. I’ll find pyjamas for you.”

When she stepped out of the bathroom a while later, he had switched off all lights but one and sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at the girl with an expression that touched Sakura’s heart. An unknown child had reached out its hand to him and he had taken it, no questions asked.

It’s what he did. Go all in. With a selflessness that astonished her even though she had known him for so long.

It is why Kakashi has to become Hokage, Sakura suddenly thought. He’s that kind of person.

Almost compulsively, she went over to hug him from behind.

“Her sleep is really deep,” he whispered. “She hasn’t budged at all.”

“Should I talk to Tsunade?” Sakura whispered back. “She quite obviously doesn’t want to stay with me and Sasuke.”

He hesitated. Naturally. How silly of her to assume an Anbu captain which happened to be the right hand of the Hokage could provide a home for an abandoned child.

“Sorry,” she added quickly, “of course not. She will just have to adjust.”

“Sakura,” Kakashi said and turned around to face her. “It is probably not the time for this discussion right now, but you cannot continue to pretend Sasuke is not involved in this. He is her father. I have no right to take this away from him.”

This? Fatherhood? A child Sasuke had not even known he had? Or this… a family? A family in which she was going to be trapped? She felt her temper rise, but managed to clamp down on it before it could erupt.

“I am not ready to be a mother,” she pressed out, “especially not for a child that is not my own! You can judge me if you want, but I have a hard time not resenting this child for all it represents. I cannot even look at Sasuke without wanting to kill him at the moment. I… I hate him!”

Kakashi pressed his lips together and looked down.

“I fear you will regret saying this later,” he said quietly. “I’m the intruder here. I know I should not have let this go any further, it only makes your life harder. If only I were less selfish…”

“Are you kidding me?” Sakura exclaimed.

“Sakura…”

“Selfish? You? You are the opposite of selfish. If you’re anything, you are too selfless. Kakashi is needed in the Anbu? Kakashi goes back to the Anbu even though he’s much too kind hearted a person for their line of work. A shinobi is needed for the most dangerous S-rank mission? Kakashi volunteers so nobody else has to put themselves in danger. Konoha is threatened? Kakashi throws himself…”

“Shhh,” Kakashi said sharply when Sarada whimpered in her sleep.

Sakura shut up and glared at him.

“I don’t want to fight with you,” he said very quietly again. “Please.”

He held up a wide T-shirt to her.

“Your pyjamas. I’ll get the futon.”

She felt disarmed despite her residual anger. Intruder? Was that really what he saw himself as? Ridiculous!

“You mean a lot to me,” she blurted out.

When he didn’t respond but continued to lay out the futon and the blanket and two pillows as if he hadn’t heard her, she felt her entire ego deflate. Oh god. He didn’t feel the same. He had doubts after all. Stupid her. Stupid to bring feelings into this. Now she was this clingy person again she didn’t even like, one who threw dignity out of the window at the first chance she got.

I think I’m going to cry, Sakura thought. Oh god, I should just leave.

“Sakura?” Kakashi said. “If you look this miserable because you’re embarrassed about what you just said and you think I didn’t respond immediately because I don’t share the sentiment… you’re wrong. Put the pyjamas on. Come here.”

He indicated the narrow futon.

“Lie down. You’re probably exhausted.”

She did as told, still feeling timid. Kakashi settled down next to her, reaching up to switch the bedside light off, then offering her his arm to put her head on, then turning so he could use the other to cuddle her closer.

“It means a lot to me to hear you say that,” he whispered into her ear. “Thank you.”

“I mean it,” she said vehemently, “I really mean it. You mean more to me than…”

“Sakura,” Kakashi interrupted her gently. “I understand that the situation you are in is very difficult. I will be here for you as much as I can, when I can. But when I’m not here…”

What?

“Are you going on a mission?” she interrupted him in turn, her voice squeaky and panicked. Please no. No dangerous missions.

“Soon,” he replied.

“No, please don’t go!” she blurted out.

Kakashi kissed her on the cheek.

“I… have to,” he said firmly. “I’m sorry.”

Why did he sound so dejected?

“Will you come to the hospital tomorrow? I make time for you at 6pm,” she said. “I will look at your arm. And you can do all the Genjutsu you like and I will...”

“I will try and make time for that, yes,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”

And with that, he buried his face against her neck and pulled her even closer. Two seconds later, he had fallen asleep.

“You really do mean a lot to me,” she whispered into the darkness, “but that’s not even half of what I meant to say. You swept me off my feet. How did this even happen? I’ve fallen hard. I…,” she took a deep breath. “I thought I knew what that meant. I thought that painful feeling I had for Sasuke for so long was it. I didn’t know how it would feel to fall in love with someone like you who gives me so much comfort by just being there. Oh god, I’m cheesy and emotional. Luckily you’re asleep and didn’t hear any of this.”

Her heart beating almost painfully hard, Sakura turned her face a little. Was he really asleep?

He was.

Maybe she would have to courage to tell him all this in better words tomorrow. Maybe.

 

Chapter Text

“Sasuke filed an official complaint against you early this morning, Kakashi,” Tsunade said with a massive sigh. “He wants the forbid you any contact with his child. He says you kidnapped her. I am trying to keep this low profile, but I might have to get the council involved if he insists on pressing charges.”

There were primarily three things going through Kakashi’s head as he stood in the Hokage’s office receiving this information, squinting a little against the bright light of the morning sun. One, he had to suppress frequent yawns because he was very tired, which was becoming an unfortunate habit. Two, the Hokage didn’t look well. Her bloated, reddened face and the drooping, teary eyes worried Kakashi to the extent that he decided to take Shizune aside right after this to quiz her about the village leader’s health. Three, even though his move complicated everything, Kakashi understood Sasuke. He would probably have done the same… or much worse in the same situation.

“I wanted to go talk to Sasuke right after reporting to you anyway,” Kakashi said. “I do not mean to take anything away from him. Maybe we can work this out civilly?”

Tsunade pressed her lips together. “Is it true that Sakura stayed with you and Sarada tonight?”

Kakashi nodded after the briefest moment of hesitation. Denying this was no use. It wasn’t a surprise that Tsunade knew about the stayover, it was expected of the village leader to be informed. Besides, Sakura’s public show of affection from the day before needed no secret police to become news in this gossip-loving place.

Being able to hold Sakura in his arms all night was already his favorite thing in the whole wide world. Too bad she had had to leave so hastily this morning, even without breakfast, but she had slept way too long - or rather, Kakashi hadn’t woken her up in time because he had lost himself looking at her sleeping face in the faint morning light.

“It doesn’t seem like the best of times for Sakura and you to hook up,” Tsunade said grimly. “But of course, such things cannot be helped. If it affects your performance, however…”

“That will depend on the mission,” Kakashi replied truthfully. “But I know I can separate my personal and my professional life well.”

To think he even had an opportunity to use the term personal life these days… for as long as he remembered, such a thing had been frowned upon for soldiers on active duty. Any ties to other people bore weaknesses that skilled enemies knew how to exploit. The Anbu had had to retire many operatives after they fell in love, especially since it tended to happen most among teammates. Kakashi remembered the heated discussions in the top echelons about banning women from the secret branches of the military entirely - to prevent feelings from clouding operatives’ judgements. Which was laughable, since men could fall in love with each other too and frequently did. It was simply human to form attachments and no laws could prevent that from happening.

“Can Iruka handle Sarada alone if worst comes to worst?”

Kakashi took a minute to ponder this. Then, he nodded.

“Yes. He is a very good teacher. I am not a hundred percent sure, but for now there are no indications that Sarada has awakened the Sharingan. And even if she has or will in the near future… Sasuke is in the much better position than me to teach her how to use it. I am not an Uchiha and know very little about it after all.”

Tsunade looked at him thoughtfully, her chin resting on her hands.

“That isn’t true, and I think you know it. You are extremely well positioned to teach her a responsible use exactly because you are not an Uchiha. Besides, I am to understand the child is very attached to you?”

Yes, that seemed to be the case, though he wasn’t entirely sure of the reason. Sarada was in the same room with them, playing with Tonton in the corner behind them under Shizune’s supervision. Despite the sensitivity of the topic they were discussing simply because the child had refused to part with him in the morning when they had gotten here by clinging onto his shirt with both hands. For such a small human, she was surprisingly strong.

“I know you did not kidnap Sarada. How she found you is another question though. I assume it was Pakkun? Sasuke mentioned the ‘arrogant use of a dog’ to deliver messages in his complaint.”

Kakashi nodded again. It had been a mistake to introduce Sarada to the pack and to tell her they would help her if she was in need. He should have known a child was unable to differentiate between a whim and an emergency. At second thought though… No. It was not a mistake. She would need the extra protection when he wasn’t around and he could fully trust his ninken to do what was necessary.

“I am reluctant to punish the child for a marriage crisis that has nothing to do with her,” Tsunade murmured. “I should probably have seen this coming when I sent Sakura to the hospital to help you.”

“You should have,” Kakashi agreed though that was probably unfair. He himself would have laughed at the thought of falling for Sakura not too long ago. “I thought it was your plan all along.”

“I never considered myself an expert in matchmaking. I just thought she would keep you in check,” Tsunade sighed. “Whenever you mentioned her in the past, you spoke of her with more respect than for most other people.”

Yes, it was true. Kakashi had become thoroughly impressed with Sakura years ago and had never been shy to talk about it. He remembered the moment it had happened quite clearly: That day after Naruto’s return to the village when Tsunade had ordered him to test his and Sakura’s new skills. In the light of Sasuke and Naruto’s intense, almost deadly rivalry, he had never taken enough notice of Sakura. But on that day, when he had seen that insane strength of hers for the first time, Kakashi had realized something important that had changed his appreciation for who she was. It was the seed from which respect had blossomed and had never ceased to grow since.

All Sakura had become in such a short time, and all she would go on to become as she mastered the Strength of a Hundred Seal, she had become not because of being born with more skills than others, not because she was from a special family or because she was incarnated into the century old rivalry between the will of fire and the curse of hatred. No, all of what she gained in skills, strength and power, she accomplished because she worked for it diligently and purposefully - in order to be able to help people.

Sakura had called him selfless last night, which made him feel even more ashamed when he thought about it now. When she was the selfless one. She was so selfless, she would even marry Sasuke in her dedication to help him, despite everything he had done to her.

“I mean…,” Tsunade added, jolting him out of his thoughts that were just about to turn bitter, “you’re almost double her age and were her and Sasuke’s teacher. Of course she’s an adult now, but it’s quite scandalous if you ask me.”

“I’m not double her age!” Kakashi bristled defensively.

“Whatever,” Tsunade waved aside the issue tiredly. “It’s not an opportune time for you to be involved in a scandal.”

Scandal? This was a scandal now? Was this again about him becoming Hokage or what? She never grew tired of suggesting it, however much she might mistrust him at times. Kakashi foresaw a point in the future where he would simply cave because he would grow too tired of resisting her. Attrition was what it was called in warfare and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to him that she was an expert at using it for internal affairs too.

“How’s that situation with your head?” Tsunade asked.

“Unchanged,” Kakashi admitted, “but I’m fully functional.”

“You know your physical is coming up.”

It was? He had forgotten.

“I’ll be fine.”

He usually did a few extra laps, push ups and the likes a day before just to make sure he was up to speed, but apart from routinely reminding him that he hadn’t climbed up rocks with one hand for a while, physicals were nothing special for him.

“They want me to add additional checks on there. There’s quite a bit of pressure… The Land of Water is already doing it and the Land of Lightning as well. Voluntarily, but still…”

Kakashi lifted his eyebrows questioningly. Additional checks? Like… more diverse ninjutsu? He had always thought the tests were far too easy.

“Psychological checks,” Tsunade said gravely, as if it were his death sentence.

“So?” he said, slightly taken aback. “Hokage-sama, do you think I cannot pass psychological checks?”

“You tell me,” Tsunade murmured. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t pass them.”

Kakashi frowned. What was she even alluding to? He had not failed a single test in his entire life.

“I think it’s just another measure to keep us down,” she said even more gravely, her hand sneaking towards a bottle that stood to her right. “Other nations invested quite heavily into psychological care after the War whereas we put everything into developing our core medical skills further. And who keeps coming here for treatment now? Yes, the other nations! And now they want to take the last Shinobis I have away by checking for psychological issues? I will not tolerate this!”

It all seemed a bit too dramatic to Kakashi, but today was clearly not the day to contradict the Godaime Hokage. He looked over his shoulder towards Shizune and found her listening to their conversation quite intently, as expected. She blushed to be discovered, but he winked at her to put her at ease. She probably knew more about these psychological checks, he would ask her.

If he would still be here for the physical examination.

He had lain awake at night thinking. Quite clearly, the longer he stayed in Konoha, the more difficult it became to leave. Chunin exams. Sarada’s training. The physical. Sakura… There were many things, too many things he could use as an excuse to prolong his stay. Heck, he could even pretend it was all fine. Memory loss, so what? His life was pretty good as it was. He didn’t remember most parts of the War? Probably a blessing. He didn’t remember losing his Sharingan? No matter, he had it back now in a different form. Many shinobi were still missing after the attack with those Susanoos that shouldn’t exist? Capable comrades of his were on the problem, he could just sit back and wait. Karin had dumped a child on them and had disappeared? Great, finally the Uchiha bloodline was secure.

Kakashi sighed, earning him a frown from Tsunade. He saw she had resisted the urge to drink - that was progress - and seemed to wait for him to say something.

“I… agree?” he said because he had forgotten what she had said last, but knew that agreeing was seldom wrong. Indeed, it seemed to be a sufficient answer, because Tsunade took up her grave nodding again.

Maybe he should take advantage of their current harmony and tell her whose eyes were in his head?

That thought instantly brought nausea again. Fugaku Uchiha. Of all people! As a boy, Kakashi had met him once: The displeasure of the Uchihas about him having a Sharingan had never been more visible than on that man’s sour face that day.

Apparently, I don’t trust her as much as I should, Kakashi thought, finding himself quite unable to open his mouth about this matter.

Was it fear? A self-protecting impulse? Or was it… Sasuke he was worried about? His gut telling him the boy was in much deeper trouble than he currently knew and telling the Hokage about the secret experiments would explode the situation in their faces?

Or is it that I don't trust myself?

“I will go talk to Sasuke now with your permission, Hokage,” Kakashi said with some resolve.

“He’s not here. He’s at the hospital, in physical therapy,” Tsunade informed him.

“Then I’ll go to the Academy first to show Sarada around and come back later,” Kakashi said, quickly dismissing the thought that he had the excuse he had been waiting for to go to the hospital now. The conversation he needed to have with Sasuke had to happen between them alone, not with Sakura near.

***

Sakura had done well in this morning’s operation, she was pleased with herself, the patient would be back to good health in no time. And even though it had been hours, and despite of the hasty farewell this morning that had involved only one fleeting kiss, she still felt lingering happiness from waking up in Kakashi’s embrace, his eyes on her face with an expression she craved to see again very soon.

I have to tell him as soon as I can how much I care, she thought shyly and squeed a little inside. Or is that… too forward?

“Women should never be the ones to make the first step”, she heard some woman’s voice in her head. Sounded like her grandmother. Yeah, that was about right: her grandmother’s generation had thought like that. Surely, Kakashi was modern enough not to care about such conventions?

Or not. Thinking about his flabbergasted face last night made her laugh. Did he really think a kiss - and one on top of his mask at that - was such a great deal? How could a grown man and extremely skilled shinobi like him who was respected by everybody be this flustered about it?

She let herself fall into her bouncy office chair and looked at the paperwork on her desk. Hmmmm, that reminded her… her stomach did a somersault and her nether region pulsed happily at the memory what had happened on this desk not long ago. Twice.

I hope Kakashi isn’t similarly distracted, she thought, it’s too dangerous in his line of work.

That said… it was dangerous in her line of work too - but not for herself but her patients. Pulling a face at her own silliness, she started going through the first pile of documents. Reports, reports, reports… and... an invitation to a medical congress? In... the Land of Wind!

Excited and very curious, Sakura read through the letter that was addressed to her personally. They wanted her to speak on one of the panels! Completely mortified and super excited, Sakura put the letter next to Kakashi’s ripped up message from the day before. She had pieced it back together after salvaging the bits from the bin and had carefully used sticky tape to mend it.

There was a knock at her door. Quickly, Sakura hid Kakashi's message underneath the letter and checked the clock - no, there was at least an hour until her next patient.

“Yes?” she said, “come in.”

The door was pushed open resolutely. It was Sasuke. In his wheelchair, pushed by the nurse assigned to take care of him.

“Sakura,” he said gravely, “I was at the hospital and wanted to see you.”

Right, his physical therapy, she was informed. And she had completely forgotten.

“You can leave us,” he told the nurse in an authoritative voice.

“Sakura, I understand that you are angry with me,” he addressed her impatiently after the door had been closed. “I promise I will make it up to you.”

Sakura realized that she was staring at him like he was some apparition. She couldn’t be that surprised he had come here? But she was. It was like a part of her was hellbent to forget he even existed in her life. Angry, he had said? But she wasn’t angry. She was way beyond that.

She pushed the chair back and got up.

“I’m not angry, Sasuke,” she said coldly. “Anger would mean I care about you and me. I don’t. Not anymore.”

She had never realized before that whatever ate away at him was beginning to leave lines in Sasuke’s face, furrows that spoke of his state of mind more than his mouth ever could.

“You can admit that you don’t remember we got married, I know you well enough to realize such a thing straight away. Hey, I don’t care. Actually, it’s good. Just don’t remember.”

As a doctor, she should check that head of his thoroughly again, but she could not get herself to go near him at the moment. She had refused to talk to him more than absolutely necessary the day before after their return from the hospital, locking herself in the bedroom as soon as Sarada had gone to bed and everyone who had helped getting him up here had left. He could sleep on the couch or in the wheelchair, she didn't care how comfortable he was.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s true. I don't understand how… why…,” Sasuke gestured towards his missing arm and his broken legs.

“What is it you remember?” she asked. “Something about the War maybe? No? What about… wanting to kill me? Or what about almost killing Naruto? Oh, what about wanting to destroy Konoha?”

His countenance turned even darker.

“I know I’ve done wrong.”

“Oh, you do? For example?”

“I never acknowledged you, even though… I… I remember how kind you've always been. I appreciate it a lot, I have for a long time.”

Sakura only knew how to laugh in disbelief.

“Do you really think this conversation is about my hurt pride? True, I used to be that girl. I did everything to please you. I wanted nothing else but your attention. I hoped it would turn into admiration, maybe even love someday. If I could only show you who I really was and how much you need me, you would understand!”

“I know,” Sasuke said. “There were many girls like that. But you… you are the only one who is still here. You’re the only one who...”

Now there was anger. Big anger.

“Just shut up!” she yelled and barely stopped herself from slamming her fist on the desk. “I’m a stupid cow, no need to remind me, but this is not about my disappointment nor is it about proving to me just how crazy I was. No… it's about finally realizing what a fool I've been to believe you would be capable of change at all!”

“Change… how do you want me to change?” He asked, still scowling heavily.

“I don't want it anymore,” Sakura, forcing herself to speak more quietly. “It's useless. You are still so wrapped up in your… your hatred, it's never going to change. I give up!”

Sasuke stared at her silently, his teeth clenched.

“So… you want to punish me with… Kakashi?” he pressed out.

“What?” Sakura couldn’t believe her ears. Punish him?!

“It’s working. You can stop. I understand.”

“I doubt that,” she said as calmly as she could, “I think you understand nothing. It’s like talking to someone from a different planet. I also understand now why we never really talked before. We don’t speak the same language.”

“You know it’s him of all people I hate the most,” Sasuke growled.

A chill raced down Sakura’s spine. He said it like he meant it.

“I don’t want to know why and when you convinced yourself that’s the case,” she said as calmly as possible though she felt like she was about to explode, “but Kakashi is the one person in Konoha who has always stood up for you, even when nobody else was on your side. You’d not even be allowed to set foot in this village without him.”

“I deserve another chance, Sakura,” Sasuke said sullenly.

“Another chance at… what exactly?”

“Let me show you… let me prove to you that I love you. The thought of you with him…”

Love her? How much she would have given to hear this from him for years. Now, it did nothing for her. It only made her angrier.

“You don’t love me, Sasuke. Don’t try to convince yourself just because the thought that he might be someone I’d choose over you bugs you. I’m not your possession.”

“But we are married. I’m ready to honor the promise I made. This child, it’s our chance. We can be a family, Sakura! I can finally restore the Uchiha name, the clan - our honor...”

There was another knock. Sasuke swallowed the rest of his words. He looked at her through his shaggy black hair with an expression that made Sakura's heart clench painfully.

“We are married,” he repeated. “You must have meant the world to me.”

When people looked at Uchiha Sasuke, they usually saw this: the last of his once powerful clan, extremely talented, arrogant, obsessed with revenge. Feared because of the power in his eyes. Shunned because his path was shrouded in darkness.

But there was another version of Uchiha Sasuke. Not many knew of it. This version was lost. It was lonely. It craved to receive love, a mother’s embrace, a father’s praise, a brother’s attention. Sasuke had banned that version of himself a long time ago, because the despair was so deep, he feared to get lost in it forever.

“Uchihas never cry,” Sasuke had sobbed against her shoulder once, “then why can’t I stop?”

“Please don't do this to me,” Sasuke said with a voice that shook. “Help me. Please help me.”

 

Chapter Text

“Sooooo,” Anko said once they had stepped onto the Academy balcony and she had offered Kakashi a cigarette, “is it true that you’re seeing the Haruno girl?”

So the news had spread this far already.

“Kind of, yeah,” Kakashi murmured. He passed back the lighter, inhaled deeply and watched the smoke weave a complex pattern into the air as it left his mouth.

“No wonder you’ve lost interest in me,” Anko sighed dramatically. “She’s drop dead gorgeous.”

“Mhm,” Kakashi agreed, feeling acutely uncomfortable. He would never learn to like discussing his private affairs.

“But that child isn’t yours,” Anko said and pointed her chin at Sarada below in the courtyard. The girl was peeking out from behind Iruka to observe the Shuriken practice of those who had recently entered the Academy.

That false rumor had spread too? Now that he liked. Kakashi grinned at Anko who grinned back. What had he said about the fictional mother? A beautiful woman whom he had met in the Land of Waves, born with a rare disease and doomed to die early. Ah, so tragic.

“She’s clearly an Uchiha,” Anko continued. “You’d have to be blind not to see it - hair, eyes, body shape. She’s about what… five? Six maybe? When did Sasuke do that?”

The when was less interesting to Kakashi than the why... though maybe the when and the why were connected? Had Sasuke already known he was ill back then? Had it been desperation? Or had he slept with Karin right around the time of his wedding to Sakura because he had gotten cold feet?

Kakashi took another drag off the cigarette, looking up at the light blue sky with its puffy white clouds. He was familiar with men who panicked before marriage, fearing they’d be trapped afterwards and therefore felt a need to sleep with as many women as they could get their hands on - from Master Jiraiya’s book series. He had always wondered what it would feel like… knowing you were about to vow to spend the rest of your life with one person? In his imagination, it had to feel amazing - but what did he know.

“Yours or not, Hatake Kakashi walking around with a cute kid in tow is a security risk,” Anko teased him, “thousands of ovaries have exploded all over town, I will have to file a complaint with the Hokage.”

“Not a good time for that,” Kakashi murmured.

Shizune had told him what was wrong with Tsunade. It was Dan Kaito’s death day today. Apparently, that plunged the Hokage into a very deep depression for several days before and after. She had gotten so drunk and medicated the night before Shizune had needed to use advanced medical jutsu to revive her. Here was another extreme, Kakashi mused. A person still so caught up in the grief of losing a loved person after decades, she could not move on.

It also explained her comment about the psychological checks that she thought she wouldn’t pass.

“Anko, did you hear about the new checks they want to add to the physicals?” Kakashi asked the woman looking at him with her eyebrows raised.

“You didn’t listen to a single word I said, right?” she laughed. “Get a grip. It’s dangerous to be distracted in your line of work.”

“Sorry,” Kakashi said. “What were you saying?”

“Not much. Just that I’m sad you won’t come see me anymore. You don’t know how delighted I was when you rang my doorbell.”

“I’m not dead, I can still visit you,” Kakashi said, “like now. I’ll just keep my clothes on.”

Anko laughed. “That’s fine. And you can come cry at my shoulder anytime if you need to.”

Why would he…?

“Sorry,” she said when she caught the look on his face, “I didn’t mean to imply anything.”

But she just had.

“Well…,” she said with an expert mien, “everybody knows how obsessed the Haruno girl is with that Uchiha. Or maybe the word I am looking for is devoted? Self-sacrificing? I mean… she even married him. Cold, arrogant bastard that he is. Scary dude.”

“He’s not that bad,” Kakashi defended him by reflex.

“Oh boy, you gonna need that shoulder,” Anko sighed. “I don’t even understand how you manage to be cold and efficient when it comes to your missions and so extremely nice and considerate when it comes to everything else.”

“I’m not that nice,” Kakashi murmured, feeling his ears grow hot.

“The nicest,” Anko beamed at him, “You just have a way to make people feel good. Ah, I’m getting very sentimental right now. Take care of yourself, Kakashi. Life hasn’t exactly been kind to you. All I want for you is to be happy.”

Was today the day people made cryptic remarks about his life and his state of mind? Apparently.

“Goddamn,” Anko continued, furtively brushing at her eyes, “sometimes I think about all the people who died and cry for hours. Please don’t die on me, Hatake.”

“Why should I die, I’m not even going on missions at the moment,” Kakashi replied sourly.

“Tsunade put you in charge of the Uchiha offspring? Hmmmmm, is that going to go down well with everybody?”

“Sasuke’s legs will have to mend and then I’m no longer needed,” Kakashi said, sounding much more nonchalant than he felt.

That talk with Sasuke? He had to have it soon but he wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. What should he say? Sorry I slept with your wife? Well, he wasn’t sorry. And even though Kakashi knew he should say something like I will stop now, Sasuke. You’re back. I am glad you are, he didn’t want to stop. In fact, he wanted to rush to the hospital and make love to Sakura right this very moment. He hadn't seen her for a few hours and that was several hours too much.

“That girl couldn’t have the Sharingan yet,” Anko mused, “she’s much too young.”

“Hm,” Kakashi said, “I don’t have a good feeling about it. Her mother dropped her in our laps like her heels were on fire. I haven’t been able to find out what happened where she came from, but the child has certainly seen horrible things.”

“Itachi was eight when he got his and I remember that was considered pretty early? But then… who knows with that clan. I always thought we had seen the worst of it and then Madara reappeared.”

“Maybe I’m wrong,” Kakashi said, “I really hope for Sarada’s sake she didn’t yet have to go through a trauma that awakened the Uchiha’s bloodline trait.”

“I get you,” Anko said and stubbed out her cigarette. “Nothing good ever came from those eyes.”

Unless you considered the exhilarating power they gave you as good. The speed. The ability to read your enemy’s movement almost before he knew what he was going to do. And the genjutsu abilities… Kakashi had always liked those the most.

“So, you said you’re here about the Chunin exams. Are you nervous about proctoring?” Anko giggled. “It’s enough if you just stand around and look intimidating. You’re a living legend, those kids will shit their pants when they even catch a glimpse of you.”

“That’s horrible!” Kakashi frowned. “You want me to be a scarecrow?”

“Horrible? Why?” Anko laughed. “We were thinking about bringing some wild animals from the other nations into the forest this year … but the logistics! Such a nightmare.”

“So you thought to put a wild Kakashi and some of his shadow clones there instead,” Kakashi snickered.

“Don’t say such things or you’ll make me sad again,” Anko sighed. “I want my access to wild Kakashi restored soon! In the meantime… do you want another cigarette?”

Kakashi shook his head. “I shouldn’t smoke. My physical is coming up soon.”

“So?” Anko shrugged. “I know how fit you are. Didn’t you even get extremely drunk the night before once? Oh, I remember! It was Might Guy’s birthday. My god, that was an escapade! And you still got all the points, haha. We were even there to cheer you on.”

Kakashi scratched his head. Ah, well… Might Guy and his challenges. He had never been able to turn a single one down. “Those days are over, Anko. Anbu rules are extremely strict. You should experience Yamato when he suspects I’m in danger of putting on weight. Geez.”

“He seems to have found the perfect place to do all the nagging he wants!” Anko laughed. “He’s such a pain at times, really!”

“Anko, about those changes Tsunade mentioned? Are you not certified to be an examiner? You should know the details.”

Anko nodded. “Yeah, I’m certified, not for the Anbu though, you guys never let any outsiders near any of your operatives. I did hear about the extra tests. The other nations are pushing for it and there are many in favor of a standardized procedure and the testing being done by some random examiner from another village. I think it’s a great idea, to be honest. That should take care of the crazies that you don’t want to have running around.”

“Tsunade suggested… I could have an issue because of it,” Kakashi admitted.

“You?” Anko looked him over. “Pfffft, what are you not telling me? Your nightmares seem to have gotten better? You don’t run around volunteering to kill people in masses anymore, right? Hey, I remember that dark Kakashi well. We used to watch you walk around the village like an evil twin version of yourself. You’re no longer that guy, thankfully.”

“Thanks,” Kakashi said.

That guy… that guy eaten up by guilt and a desire for self-destruction, she meant. The guy who had welcomed the brutality of Anbu and had killed more people than anybody else in the hope he could wash off Rin’s blood with the blood of others. The guy who had joined Danzo’s Root without a moment of hesitation because the less feelings, the better. He even remembered thinking that he wanted more of the organization’s brainwashing because he wanted to forget who he was more quickly.

But was it possible to leave all this behind for good?

Kakashi put his arms on the balcony railing and looked down at the chattering children below. If he had one wish for Konoha, than it was that this generation could grow up untouched by the horrors of war. And for Sarada, he wished that she was young enough to forget.

“Why, do you feel you might have an issue?”

…like putting seals in his own head? That sounded like quite a lot of issues to him.

Anko put her hand on his shoulder and pressed it.

“Hey, you know you’ve got friends, right? I hope that’s the one thing you’ve learned since that time. No need to shut down and walk around like an undead person again, do you hear me?”

“I hear you,” Kakashi murmured and briefly pressed her hand in turn. “Let’s all go for a drink once Might Guy is back, okay?”

If he gets back,” Anko laughed. “I heard he met somebody on his hot spring trip!”

“Extraordinary!” Kakashi exclaimed. “A real person?”

With every hour that he stayed, it became harder to leave. Konoha was a warm and comforting place. It had become a substitute for what had been taken from him. A mother, a father, a friend.

But his gut told him something he didn’t like to acknowledge. A traitor to the Hokage was a traitor to his village. A traitor to his village did not deserve to bath in its warmth. The things that lay hidden behind the white walls of mist in his head… did he really want to know what it was?

***

“Should I tell the patient you are unwell?” the nurse asked with a shy glance at Sakura’s reddened eyes when she returned from the toilet. “She wasn’t scheduled but said you know her well and would take her even at short notice.”

Sakura shook her head. “No, it’s alright. Thanks.”

She was going to hug and kiss Ino for making a nurse come and interrupt Sasuke - and then she would cry her eyes out on her shoulder. Couldn’t Sasuke just have stayed cold and arrogant? His sad eyes, his plea… it was already haunting her.

I am not wavering, Sakura asked herself in panic, am I? I can’t… I can’t deal with him any longer, it’s killing me.

But when she saw Ino’s pale, sweaty face, Sakura swallowed down her own tears that needed spilling so badly. They could wait.

“Ino! What is wrong?”

Sakura rushed to her friend’s side, grabbed her arm and led her to one of the comfortable chairs. That chair. Kakashi had held her in it. At the memory, she felt a yearning so strong she almost whimpered. I want to run away from here, she thought, I want to run to him and forget everything while he holds me.

“I… I need your help, Sakura,” Ino said.

“Of course. What can I do?” Sakura asked, her hand moving to Ino’s wrist to take her pulse. Much too fast.

“I… I think I’m pregnant,” Ino sobbed.

Oh! Sakura felt huge relief. She had feared it was something bad.

“Let me check,” Sakura said. “Come, lie down. Did you take a test?”

Ino nodded and climbed onto the treatment couch. That treatment couch. Kakashi had held her there too.

“But I know they’re not reliable,” Ino said with a quivering voice.

“Did it say you’re not pregnant?” Sakura asked.

“Yes,” Ino nodded again. “But I don’t know… it’s strange. It’s like I’m no longer alone in my body, you know? I got so scared!”

Sakura went to the corner to get the ultrasound equipment. It was too early to see anything, but Ino was a sensory type kunoichi. Together with the ultrasound, it was possible she would feel new life within her better - or could convince herself there was nothing.

“Are you still on birth control?” Sakura asked. She had last given Ino pills a while ago. It was possible her friend had run out.

“Yes,” Ino said. “I might have forgotten to take it once or twice, but… yes.”

“And you missed your period how long ago?”

“Two days.”

“Hm,” Sakura said. “It could just be late?”

“I’m never late,” Ino said, “my period is so regular you could make it the basis for a calendar.”

“Ino,” Sakura even found the strength to smile a little, “are you perhaps more stressed than usual? That often explains irregularities in the monthly cycle. It can happen quite suddenly.”

“Yes, I’m very stressed,” Ino exclaimed. “My god, I can’t be pregnant…”

“It’s not that bad if you are,” Sakura said. “It’s not an illness or anything. And aren’t you and Sai...”

“He started training when he thinks I don’t see it!” Ino shouted. “The idiot is still thinking about re-joining the Anbu. It’s all Kakashi Sensei’s fault. Why did he have to look so cool and mysterious that night?”

“It’s hardly a decision you take at a whim,” Sakura cautioned. “Sai might be… bored?”

“Oh no,” Ino began crying in earnest. “I bore him. I bore him already! And now I’m pregnant, what am I going to do, what am I going to do…”

“Shhh,” Sakura said and began massaging some pressure points on Ino’s wrist and arm to calm her down. “Of course he’s not bored with you. He is very, very smitten. He looks at you all the time like he has never seen anything more beautiful in his life.”

Just like Kakashi had looked at her this morning, in his apartment. She was already addicted to it.

“I don’t want to be a widow like Kurenai,” Ino continued sobbing.

“Ino, dear,” Sakura said, “that’s getting ahead of things a bit, don’t you think? Let’s first do a thorough check and then see what it means. Sai is very much here and not dead. He is also not going on missions. You won’t be a widow.”

“Garbage birth control,” Ino slammed both her hands onto the couch. “Be careful, Sakura. I know you don’t want any babies either!”

For a short moment, Sakura’s breath wanted to stop and her hand flitted to her belly. Had she taken her pills in the last few days? She wasn’t sure! Certainly not last night.

“Tsunade will love you if you are pregnant,” she said with a forced smile, trying to push panicky thoughts out of her head. “She’s very much trying to get people to make more babies. I once had a huge fight with her. She really wanted to forbid the selling of birth control pills!”

“That woman is wacko,” Ino sighed, “sorry, no offense to the Hokage, may she live extra long and prosperous.”

“Let me do a blood test,” Sakura said, preparing a syringe. “It’ll take a few hours for the results to be ready.”

“Sakura, is it true what I heard? Are you and Kakashi Sensei really kissing on the streets, you impressive floozie?”

“Where did you hear that?” Sakura asked surprised at the unexpected change of topics and felt her face grow hot.

“I run a flower shop, remember?” Ino answered. “It’s spring, people buy a lot of flowers. It was the the topic number one this morning.”

“Oh,” Sakura said and swallowed. Well, let them talk. She would kiss whomever wherever she felt like it. “Yes, I kissed him. But hey, it was only a peck. On top of his mask. People should get a life.”

“Oh my,” Ino smirked. “You move fast, dearie. So tell me!”

“Tell you… tell you what?” Sakura gulped, looking for a good vein, which was easy with Ino’s alabaster skin.

“I want to know eeeeeeverything,” Ino said. “Have you slept with him? How was it? Did you feel guilty? Will you do it again? Oh, and! Have you seen his face?! Ouch!”

Sakura collected the blood she needed, extracted the needle and rang the bell on her desk for the nurse.

“I have seen his face,” she admitted.

“And?!” Ino sat up.

Sakura pressed her lips together and made a sign to show that they were sealed.

“Come ooooon,” Ino groaned. “I’ve never been this close to finding out. Can you at least tell me whether I was right to crush on him? He’s extremely handsome, yes?”

“Yes,” Sakura admitted, feeling like squealing as she said it, “extremely handsome.”

“Oh my god,” Ino said, temporarily forgetting her own crisis, “no doubt about it, you have slept with him. That’s why you look so radiant. How many times?”

“Ino…,” Sakura laughed. “We’re not at some bar for chitchat. Didn’t you come here to see your doctor? Lie down.”

“Sorry,” Ino said and complied. “I’m excited for you. Oh, shouldn’t I be? But don’t worry, people were only mildly scandalized. Everybody hates Sasuke.”

Everybody hates Sasuke. That statement sobered Sakura immediately.

“He doesn’t deserve that,” she said quietly.

“Oh bb,” Ino sighed, “maybe he does.”

The nurse came in and Sakura handed her the vial for the test. Yes. Maybe he did.

“He has a child, Ino,” Sakura blurted out as soon as the nurse had left again, “did you hear about that too?”

“What?!” apparently her friend hadn’t heard.

“It’s a girl. She’s around five. The mother is…,” Sakura had to swallow before she could say the name. “Karin. That red-haired crazy person who ran around with Sasuke when he defected?”

“Oh shit,” Ino said with empathy.

“The little girl is living with us,” Sakura added, feeling anger rise inside of her again, “as if… as if I’m responsible for her!”

“Just leave his sorry ass,” Ino said coldly. “He can make children with other women? Then let him take care of these children with these other women.”

“She ran away,” Sakura said bitterly.

“Then he can be a single father,” Ino shrugged. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you, girlfriend. Well, at least you have a certain silver haired shinobi to enjoy! Do so as long as you have the chance. I’m sure he is treating you like a queen. I always imagined he’s that kind of man.”

“He’s very kind,” Sakura agreed quietly. “I just wish I had realized how important that is much earlier.”

“Wow, my appreciation for you would have skyrocketed if you had seduced your teacher all those years ago.”

“What? No!” Sakura said truly shocked. “I never thought about it once back then! He was my Sensei!”

“Pah,” Ino laughed, “all the more interesting if it’s taboo. Hm, but you can’t fall in love with him,” she added sternly. “That would get much too messy.”

“Yes,” Sakura agreed, though she didn’t quite understand what Ino was referring to. She put some gel on Ino’s stomach. “We’ll use the ultrasound now,” she told her. “Let me know if you see anything you think could be a baby?”

“Dammit,” Ino said soberly and moved a little so that she could see the screen better. “I’m scared, Sakura. I’m not ready to be a mother!”

Was anybody?

“Children don’t usually ask for permission to come into our lives,” Sakura sighed.

And when they did, it wasn’t their fault. I’m sorry, Sarada, Sakura thought. It’s not your fault. I will really try to like you in the future. Give me a bit of time, okay?

***

“You did well today, Sarada,” Iruka smiled, “you’re getting the hang of it.”

Kakashi thought it better not to comment. If Iruka considered the change from immediately dropping to not dropping the shuriken before refusing to throw it as “getting the hang of it”, she had indeed gotten the hang of it. In his opinion, they should just leave the poor kid alone and accept that Uchiha or not, Sarada had not inclination whatsoever to be a shinobi.

They were escorting the girl back to the Hokage Tower after a few hours at the Academy, where she had spent half the time crying and the other half hiding behind either Kakashi or Iruka.

“Kakashi-san,” Iruka said, “I hear you will proctor the Chunin exams?”

“Yes,” Kakashi sighed.

“Excuse me for asking,” Iruka continued, “are you going to be very harsh on the kids?”

Kakashi raised his eyebrows at his junior, feeling a twinge of irritation. Iruka would express the same qualms again?

“Iruka,” he said trying to be patient. “Did I not tell you many years ago that you need to be able to let go once they advance to the Chunin exams? I will do what I will do however I want to do it.”

“Yes, of course,” Iruka said stubbornly. “But… there are a few who are perhaps a bit more delicate than in previous years. Times have changed, Kakashi-san. We’re now…”

“More delicate?” Kakashi echoed. “Iruka. Someone who is ‘delicate’ should not be a shinobi. I wish I could change the world, but even though many have tried to do exactly that, we are still not living in perpetual peace.”

“Even so,” Iruka insisted. “The old ways have served us well, but have times not changed?”

Had they?

“From where I’m standing,” Kakashi said firmly, “things are still the same. Delicate people die. Fearful people die. Nice people die. Every vulnerability is punished and if you’re unlucky, it’s not you who loses your life because of a mistake you made, but your comrades. I will not let anyone who cannot live with this pressure pass, Iruka. I consider that my duty.”

Iruka took a deep breath. He seemed to want to say something more, but didn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Kakashi added a bit more mildly. “I know how much you care for the children. But because you do, you should trust people like me to make the right call. Consider each failure a blessing.”

“How can you live like this?” Iruka blurted out.

Like this? Knowing that each mission could be the last? Knowing that death was far more powerful than life? That even when you gave your very best, it was often not enough? Yeah… how?

“Day by day, you try to notice the good things,” Kakashi answered. “A special flower that blooms. The wind that brings the scent of pine trees to your nose. An interesting formation of clouds. Friends that tell you they’re there for you. A warm…” embrace. A woman you want to give the world to. Looking at her beauty when she sleeps peacefully. Love. Do it for love.

“I admire you,” Iruka breathed.

“Please don’t,” Kakashi said drily. “I am bound to disappoint you. Iruka, you are Konoha’s best teacher. I envy every child who is taught by you. You do not need to admire someone who walks the path of death.”

Again, it seemed to Kakashi that Iruka wanted to say something more but couldn’t get himself to. They had a lot in common, Kakashi mused as he studied the earnest, slightly troubled face. Iruka was an orphan like him. Had he lived at the orphanage too? He should ask him about Mrs. Nohara. Did he know her?

“Iruka, do you…,” he began, but he got interrupted by a noise further down the street that drew quickly closer.

“Senseis! Seeeenseis!”

There was only one shinobi in this village who shouted like this.

“Naruto,” Kakashi smiled at the yellow haired enthusiast who ran up to them like an overeager puppy, “are you back from your mission?”

It was always a joy to see the number one hyperactive, knucklehead ninja.

“Kakashi Sensei, are you alright?” Naruto asked all agitated. “I just heard what happened. What is this talk about Susanoos attacking Konoha? That’s impossible! Didn't we conclude that the only Uchiha who still has two Mangekyo Sharingans is Sasuke?”

Not quite, apparently.

“Hi, Naruto!” Iruka said, sounding a bit miffed to be excluded from his favorite pupil’s greetings, “nice to see you.”

“I’m fine,” Kakashi said, “nothing but a bruised ego. Yamato and some others are working on finding out more about it.”

“Sasuke got hurt?” Naruto wanted to know.

“Yes,” Kakashi nodded. “But he’s much better already.”

“But Susanoos? Something’s not right,” Naruto murmured, furrowing his brow as he forced his brain to think hard.

Kakashi sighed. Still not quite Hokage material.

“Oh,” Naruto suddenly said, “who is that?”

Sarada was cautiously peeking out her head from behind Iruka to watch him.

“Hi!” Naruto smiled and went down into a squat to bring his face to her level, “I haven’t seen you around, even though you look oddly familiar. I’m Naruto!”

“She’s my new private pupil,” Iruka boasted. “Hokage’s orders!”

“Then you’re lucky,” Naruto smiled at Sarada, “Iruka Sensei is the best teacher in Konoha… No offense, Kakashi Sensei,” he quickly added, with a side-glance at Kakashi. “You’re the … second best. And the scariest.”

“What an honor,” Kakashi scoffed.

“Oh, Kakashi Sensei!” Naruto remembered, straightening himself. “Why I’m here. Granny Hokage said I should talk to you about something reaaaally strange I saw on my mission?”

“Yes?” Kakashi said.

“Do you remember that red-headed weirdo who was so into Sasuke she wanted to lick him and stuff? I saw her!”

“Karin,” Kakashi said. “She visited here. Where was she headed?”

“Going the opposite direction than me. I had just escorted the Fi… oups, secret information… I think? What kind of security clearance do you have, Sensei?”

“One that’s ten times higher than yours but nevermind,” Kakashi sighed. “Where was she headed to?”

“The Land of Water, I’d say?”

“The Land of Water… hm. Was she alone?”

“No, two guys were with her, they looked like shinobi, but I’m not sure. What would she be doing there?”

“I have no idea,” Kakashi mused with a glance towards Sarada who was still staring at Naruto with big eyes and seemed not to have made the link between ‘red-headed weirdo who was so into Sasuke’ and her mother. “But thanks. Very useful.”

“Always glad to be of assistance!” Naruto beamed. Then, his attention shifted to Iruka and his face took on a mischievous air. “Have you been to see Ayame lately, Sensei?”

Iruka turned as red as an overripe tomato. “W… why… why would you say that?”

“Iruka likes ramen but he likes the one who serves him the ramen even more,” Naruto remarked in Kakashi’s direction with a giant grin. “Going right for the source! My sensei is an expert!”

“B...b...be quiet, Naruto,” Iruka stammered, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here.

Teuchi’s daughter was a sweet, steady girl, and seemed like an excellent match for Iruka. Marvelling at how nature managed to bring couples together, Kakashi smiled at his extremely flustered junior.

“Sounds like a very auspicious pairing,” he said encouragingly, holding up his thumb.

“Th… thanks,” Iruka stammered, “but I don’t think she is interested in me.”

“Nonsense! Who else should she be into? You’re the best!” Naruto boomed. “Where are you headed, my two Senseis? Care for some ramen? The little Miss looks hungry too.”

“No, she needs to be brought back,” Kakashi mumbled quickly. What time was it anyway? “But you go, Iruka.”

“Y… you think so?” Iruka said, hope blossoming in his eyes. Ah, spring, Kakashi thought somewhat amused.

“Oh, sure,” Kakashi said. “Go eat ramen with Naruto! See you tomorrow.”

This was actually perfect. Now he would have time to talk to Sasuke alone and solve their issues. Or not.

***

“Almost there, Sarada,” Kakashi said with a smile at the draggy feet and the snail pace of the little one. “You can soon rest at home.”

“But I want to stay with you,” Sarada piped as softly as a baby mouse.

Ha, words had come out of her mouth! An entire sentence even. That was great, only what she had said wasn’t so much.

“Listen, Sarada,” Kakashi said and bent down to look her in the eyes. “It’s important that you understand something. You live here with Sasuke, who is your biological father.”

“I don’t understand that word.”

Kakashi frowned. “It means he’s your real father.”

“He’s not,” Sarada pouted, her eyes filling up with tears quickly. “I want to stay with you and my momma.”

“Ah,” Kakashi sighed, “your mother is currently away and I can’t take care of a child, I have to protect the village. I’m sorry.”

“When is she coming back?” Sarada sobbed.

Kakashi’s heart wanted to crumble, she looked so miserable and frightened.

“Soon, I hope,” he said and put his hand on her head briefly to comfort her.

“Will you go get her? Like that other time?”

“What other time?”

“When you came and visited us.”

“I’m afraid I don’t remember that, Sarada,” Kakashi said cautiously, “can you tell me more? When… how long ago was that?”

“I don’t know,” she continued sobbing.

Damn this, Kakashi thought, angry at himself. No wonder the child was attached to him if she knew him from before.

“I will go get her,” he promised. “But Sasuke is still your father, Sarada.”

“My father is dead,” the girl shouted and ran away, her hands balled into angry fists.

Kakashi sighed heavily and walked after her. At least she was talking… or shouting, but this wasn’t getting any easier.

The girl had run in the direction of the Tower, either by accident or deliberately, but soon, she stumbled and slowed down, looking lost and miserable standing in the middle of the street, staring up at the stone faces of the Hokages above them.

“Come,” Kakashi said and took her hand. She didn’t resist, but let her head hang in such a dejected manner, Kakashi almost turned around. But no, it was his duty to bring this child back to her father. Nodding to the Anbu guards, they went up to the apartment on the third floor.

“Here we go, Sarada. Let’s knock.”

There was no answer. Sasuke had to be back from physical therapy by now, Kakashi thought. Unless he had stayed at the hospital with Sakura? A thought he… didn’t like. Not at all. Fool, he chided himself. Sasuke needs expert care right now and Sakura is not only his wife, she is also a doctor. It’s only natural she would take good care of him.

“Hello?” Kakashi said and pressed down the door handle.

The door was unlocked and Kakashi cautiously poked his head in.

“Sasuke?” he asked, “are you in?”

There was a very small sound from the direction of the living room and Kakashi pushed open the door, signalling to Sarada to wait outside and be quiet.

“Sasuke?”

The Uchiha was sitting hunched over in his wheelchair, with his back to him. There was no sign of the nurse assigned to take care of him during the day. Maybe Sakura was here too? No, he would have felt her chakra signature. Sasuke was alone. And behaving strangely.

“Sasuke, I brought Sarada back from training,” Kakashi said, stopping in the doorframe. Unease began to gather in the pit of his stomach. “Sasuke, we have to talk.”

The Uchiha made a sound, something between a groan and a chuckle, a miserable, lost sound that went straight to Kakashi’s heart.

“I…,” he said, clearing his throat. “I… I hope we can work this out.”

“Work this out,” Sasuke whispered. “What is there to work out? You’re a thief. You take what you want. Lives, Sharingans. Daughters. Wives. What do we do with thieves in Konoha? I should know, I’m the son of a policeman.”

The energy in the room was wrong and it got wronger by the second. Sasuke was amassing chakra, no doubt about it. He might currently be in a wheelchair, but Kakashi hadn’t lived to his age by misjudging his opponents. If Sasuke attacked him, he had to make sure Sarada was not in immediate danger.

Kakashi began to move towards the right as silently as possible. Which was pretty pointless considering he was up against an Eternal Mangekyo Sharingan with his bare fists. The best he could hope to do was talk his way out of this situation somehow… any fight would end very quickly. Not in his favor.

“I didn't take anything that wasn't offered,” Kakashi said once he had moved far enough to be sure Sarada wouldn't be caught up in an attack by accident.

Again, the chuckle that sounded both insane and incredibly sad exploded from Sasuke’s chest.

“When was it that you managed to fool yourself into believing you're a good guy?”

“I never said I'm a good guy,” Kakashi answered quietly, “but I try to be. That is the difference right now. But you are better than this, Sasuke. Why do you not fight it? The darkness.”

“I cannot stand your boring, repetitive lectures. The only difference between you and me is that you are lying to yourself and I am not. Though I was never quite sure you believe your own lies.”

“I am sorry every day that you have to go through this, Sasuke. I am sorry the Uchihas still cannot be happy.”

“You have no right! No right to what is rightfully mine as an Uchiha!”

“Correct, Sasuke. But you have no right to what you do not deserve.”

Sasuke screamed like a wounded animal, turned his head - and Kakashi looked straight into his activated Mangekyo Sharingan.

Oh shit, was all Kakashi was able to think before he was plunged into the red hell of Tsukuyomi, the time-warp genjutsu that was worse than death…

… and came out a fraction of a second yet hours later, his body a pillar of pain, his head full of unbearable noise, his voice raw from screaming though he hadn’t even used it. There were three things he noticed before sinking to his knees with a grunt. One, he had been able to escape the Tsukuyomi hell on his own, before the worst damage. Two, Sasuke’s extremely surprised and shocked face. Three, Sarada standing between them, her eyes blazing red like the haze that was filling his own field of vision, her hands raised up, screaming “Stop! Stop! Stop! Don’t hurt him!” from the top of her lungs.

 

Chapter Text

Shinobi Code of Conduct, Rule #3 - Hone your reflexes, they often react without you realising it.

It took Kakashi only a fraction of a second to grab Sarada’s hand and pull her towards him, using his body as a living shield from what else he knew these eyes could do.

A gesture as desperate as it was pointless.

Shinobi Code of Conduct, unwritten Rule for idiots turning their backs against one of the Three Great Dōjutsu - your reflexes are worth shit, you’re already dead.

Pressing the thin body of the girl against his chest, Kakashi braced himself for the end. The black flames of the Amaterasu. A refined Chidori straight to his heart. Was he afraid? No. But he was sorry. It seemed like a stupid way to die.

Several seconds passed…

...the end didn't come.

Kakashi slowly let out the breath he had been holding and then took a new, deep one trying to calm his racing heart.

Sarada was clinging to him with both hands, looking into his face with huge, questioning eyes that turned back to black, then filled with tears and spilled over. She buried her face into his flak jacket, her body racked by sobs.

“Shhhhhh,” Kakashi murmured, “it’s okay, it’s okay,” and rubbed the girls back with the hand he didn’t need for balance on the floor.

It wasn’t okay though. Blood was pounding in his ears like a battle drum, making it hard to hear anything but his own heart. He felt like he was going to faint any minute, but that was not an option.

I broke the Tsukuyomi, Kakashi wondered, how? It could have been Sarada, but had she actually touched him? He wasn’t sure how long he had until the aftereffects of what he had experienced inside that red hell would overwhelm and immobilize him. A felt 72 hours vs. a felt 12 hours… It was still going to be very bad. He knew he was proficient at pushing away unpleasant experiences - well, knew quite literally how to lock them away - but he needed time and privacy for that.

Better start moving as long as he was still able to.

With red hot anger surging in his body he turned around and yelled “Are you out of your fucking mind?” at Sasuke. That was only expressing a fraction of what Kakashi felt, but it had to suffice for now.

The Uchiha was staring at him with the Rinnegan hidden behind his jagged fringe and the Sharingan fading from his right eye. He was very, very pale as if the shock of what had just happened had drained all the color from his face. His gaze dropped to Sarada’s figure who was pressed up again Kakashi almost as if she was trying to disappear inside of him.

The poor girl. How Kakashi hated to be right about her and the Sharingan. From the one tomoe he had seen, he guessed it had happened very recently. Whatever had spooked Karin to run to Konoha had done this to her.

“Don’t be frightened,” he said to the child, “nothing happened. You are safe here.”

But was she? All these promises to protect the people of Konoha - yet so many dead. Ah, but toward that thought lay utter despair… better not allow it to linger.

“I didn’t want… is she…,” Sasuke lifted his intact hand as if he wanted to reach for the sobbing girl, but he was too far away and he let it fall again weakly. “I didn’t know she has awakened the Sharingan already. When?”

The agony on his face made some of Kakashi’s anger dissipate. He knew it took an Uchiha to understand what the awakening of the Clan’s eyes truly meant and it was clear from Sasuke’s shaking voice that he was capable of compassion for his daughter, whatever else was wrong with him right now.

“I guess we can both agree it’s too soon,” Kakashi said gravely. “Do you understand now why this child needs a father who can help her with what she’s going through? Grow up already, Sasuke. Do you really think I want to be that to her?”

As he watched Sasuke’s face darken - he had never learned how to accept criticism - his ears picked up steps on the stairs. Of course, this place was full of Anbu and they weren’t deaf. What was he going to tell them? If Sasuke was ready to use his visual powers against people from Konoha, Sasuke could not be allowed to move freely in Konoha. After so many years and so many setbacks, Kakashi felt suddenly very tired of defending him any longer. Maybe it really was pointless like so many insisted... The Uchihas were cursed, they would never be able to escape their wretched fate.

“Why do you have a Mangekyo Sharingan in both eyes?” Sasuke asked, sounding incredulous. “Is this a genjutsu?!”

It seemed that ability had switched itself on without Kakashi having to consciously do anything. While this had probably prevented worse damage, the chakra drain was so intense, Kakashi had pressed his eyes shut as soon as the acute danger from Sasuke seemed over. Now that he had opened them again, the world was still blood red and wavering in front of him.

“That’s a long story, but how do I switch this damn thing off?” Kakashi murmured. Was a jutsu needed? Had he forgotten it? How would he explain his eyes to the Anbu? Sasuke was already in prison with one foot, but was it any better for him? Now that the adrenaline subsided somewhat, he became aware of the pain lacing through his body, almost as if he had been plunged into fire and his skin was being seared off. He realized that the amount of chakra his body was producing was far higher than what he was used to and that seemed to be part of the problem. Like…

My Gates? Are they partially open?

He had briefly suspected before that those pills he was regularly taking had an effect on the chakra gates, hadn't he, but that was madness. Or very impressive, depending on the vantage point.

“Are these Obito’s eyes?” Sasuke continued, his voice turning cold. “Did you salvage them? How? He disintegrated to ash, I saw it!”

“So you do remember that?” Kakashi asked with a frown.

Gritting his teeth against the mounting pain, Kakashi looked directly at Sasuke. He would not be caught by a genjutsu a second time. Even though he had no clue what his new set of eyes could do, he was certain a Mangekyo could dispel any Genju… Ah. He had likely gotten himself out of the Tsukuyomi when the eyes had activated.

“Not Obito’s eyes,” Sasuke said. “I’ve never seen this pattern before.” His own right eye was back to normal, but was now showing an almost desperate confusion.

“You have some sort of amnesia, Sasuke,” Kakashi said, remembering what Tsunade had told him. “You and me both. We’re running out of time but you need to tell me what you remember.”

“I wanted to kill you,” Sasuke said, “I would have if Sarada hadn’t appeared. I know you would never truly hurt me, it’s a glaring weakness.”

“Yes, well, you didn’t kill me,” Kakashi said sourly. “But guess what, I’m not going to thank you. Hate me all you want, but try and use that head of yours now. What is the likelihood of you and me both developing amnesia so shortly after each other naturally?”

Sasuke looked at him sullenly. “Why would I want to kill you this much? Like there is nothing else I need to do in the world… it feels like… like when I wanted to kill Itachi. I think… something is wrong with me.”

“That’s what I have been trying to t…”

“Everything alright here?” a voice asked from the door.

Kakashi turned his head slightly to the side to hide his eyes, groaning inwardly. Kaeru. Of all possible Anbu! Though not exactly sensory type, the boy was extremely perceptive.

“It’s all fine,” he lied, with as firm a voice as possible, “the girl just got a fright.”

I don’t even know what these eyes can do, Kakashi thought, willing them back into a dormant state in vain, dammit. I’m also a danger. Stay away, Kaeru. Stay away.

But Kaeru was not the type to turn back when he was suspicious.

“You don’t look fine at all,” he observed after a few more steps that brought them into the living room, “Sensei, why are you in such pain? Did that bastard attack you?”

Kaeru’s sword was out and pointed straight at Sasuke’s throat before he had finished the sentence.

“I did,” Sasuke said haughtily, “please seal my eyes and put me in prison. I might be influenced by some unknown enemy force. I’m dangerous.”

Dammit! Kakashi let his head fall into his hands. He had hoped for more time to figure this out. Had their enemies meddled with their heads? Did they have an ability to delete memories? It wouldn’t be easy to talk to Sasuke in prison alone.

Kaeru whistled once and seconds later, the room was full of Anbu, ready to vanquish any foe.

“I’m not going to put up any resistance,” Sasuke informed them, still in that infuriating tone of his.

Sarada had stopped sobbing and was staring at the commotion around her. At least she didn’t seem scared out of her wits anymore, though she was still hanging on to Kakashi with both hands.

“Should we have Ibiki check for seals in his head, Sensei?” Kaeru asked.

“I guess,” Kakashi murmured, feeling so drained he wanted to lie down and go to sleep this very instance. Why had nobody done this before? The Anbu were carrying out Sasuke, who didn’t look back even once. Stupid, prideful boy. And who would care for Sarada now?

“Kakashi Sensei,” Kaeru said, bending down to him, “here. You must take this.”

He put something between Kakashi’s teeth, a pill, and Kakashi swallowed obediently. The pressure in his body and behind his forehead lessened somewhat and the world took on a normal color again. The blasted eyes were deactivating.

“How…”

“I know about the experiments,” Kaeru whispered. “I went and got Kabuto to talk. He gave me this, saying it might be useful.”

Kakashi felt something like relief, but then wasn’t sure he understood the consequences of Kaeru’s knowledge.

“That pill regulates the blood release from the seal,” Kaeru explained. “No Uchiha blood in your system, no Uchiha eyes.”

“You’d think that’s something I should know too,” Kakashi scoffed.

“You might have forgotten,” Kaeru said, looking worried. “Sensei, how bad is it? What did he do to you?”

His eyes moved over Kakashi’s body, checking for wounds or any other damage.

“It’s nothing,” Kakashi lied, knowing this kind of damage wasn’t visible, hoping he could hide it from his junior. “I think he was as surprised as I was by how he attacked.”

“I hate the Uchihas,” Kaeru pressed out, “each and every one of them is useless trash. Was it a genjutsu? I will bring you to the hospital immediately.”

“I’m okay,” Kakashi wanted to say but now it was here and he couldn’t utter another word. Like a tsunami, the memory crashed down on him and he pressed his lips to prevent himself from screaming his voice raw.

Tsukuyomi. The red hell.

The most damaging and most brutal of all genjutsu because it felt... it was real when you were in it. Going into it happened so fast you had no chance to realize it was only an illusion. It was a living nightmare of the grandest proportion, in which you relived your deepest horrors over and over and could not fathom there was anything else outside of it. Because even if it was finished, it wasn't. It ate away at you. For a long time. Sometimes forever.

Rin.

His hand, a deadly weapon ripping a hole into her body, shattering her heart, her ribs, her spine. Pulling it back is difficult, as if the last of her life force is holding on to it. He feels it drain out of her in one, big gush when he finally manages to dislodge it. The ugly, sucking sound echoes in his head with sickening persistence.

Her eyes widen, a little surprised, a little pained.

Her last words…. “Kakashi.”

She says it gently, almost lovingly.

Oh Rin.

The most gentle, the most loving being he has ever known. Killing her is a sin so big he can never atone for it.

Why?” she adds. “I thought you loved me.”

Does she not know that everything he cares for has to die? It is his curse.

And then he kills her again. Over and over and over and over.

The red hell of Tsukuyomi turns redder. There is so much blood... he is drowning in it.

***

“Stop,” the young Anbu with the frog mask said and slammed his sheathed sword against her chest. “You can’t go through here.”

“Oh, you wanna try and stop me?” Sakura retorted, slapping his hand aside with enough force to make him stagger.

“No visitors allowed,” the frog mask bellowed, “Hokage’s orders.”

“I’m the attending doctor, you idiot!” Sakura snapped at him. “Move aside!”

“Oh, I know you. You’re foremost an Uchiha,” he hissed, “and by choice at that. That’s probably the worst kind.”

That was it. Sakura’s patience had already run out at first sight of him and his belligerent attitude. She really had no time for these kind of people today.

“I’m going to use my genjutsu on you again, but this time, I will not only have you stand on one leg and crow like a rooster!” she warned him.

His face was hidden behind his mask, but from how his body stiffened, Sakura could guess that little froggie had put one and one together. At least he wasn’t of the slow sort.

“Y… you are…. that girl?” he stammered. “B...bird mask?”

“Absolutely,” she said viciously. “And guess what, I care for Kakashi just as much as you do, so move aside before I need to get violent.”

“He said… is this your secret mission?” Frog mask wondered. “Oh, you have a double identity?! Incredible! I always hated you for siding with the Uchiha! You played your part really, really well.”

Oh for goodness’ sake!

“I have no time for you,” she snapped, “this patient needs me.”

“Where is Lady Tsunade?” the boy had the gall to ask though his voice quivered a little.

“She isn’t well today,” Sakura replied, “She’s resting. I’m her second in command but known to be much more violent. She’s mellowed with age, whereas I....”

“Oh,” Kaeru said. “Oh. Ha. Okay. Okay, but I’m coming in with you.”

“Suit yourself,” she said and shouldered past him into the room.

She had never liked to see Kakashi incapacitated in a hospital bed. She remembered well that as a Genin, she had even cried on the toilet after one of the visits because she had been afraid their Sensei would not wake from his coma. But now, the sight of him with his eyes closed, his face much too pale and covered with a sheen of sweat made her angry more than anything. Though that might just be a self-defense mechanism. If she weren’t angry, wouldn’t she have to cry?

“Can’t leave him alone for even half a day,” she muttered, grabbing the medical chart from the end of the bed. Speed-reading through the meager information, she frowned.

“So you were there, Frog?”

“My name is Kaeru,” the young Anbu bristled.

“No difference,” Sakura sighed. “Were you? I see you brought him here.”

“I didn’t see what happened. I came too late,” Kaeru said. “But I have reason to believe it’s the effect of a genjutsu. Likely that very bad one… Tsukuyomi? That bastard of an Uchiha… sorry. But he is a bastard. How dare he attack his teacher?”

Having her guess confirmed only made her angrier. Stupid men. Could they not just talk?

“He’s in prison, your husband,” Kaeru added sullenly, yet sounding very pleased about that fact.

Sakura nodded. She had gotten word. That part of the problem could wait. Had to wait. And if Sasuke had really attacked Kakashi with the Sharingan, he deserved to be in prison.

Bending over Kakashi, she checked his body for damage. Nothing. Bones, flesh, organs, all intact. Then she checked his chakra flow. Finding a very high activity, she frowned. Why would he be moulding chakra in this state? When she saw his lips move, she bent down even more closely.

Had he just whispered… Saru? Was he murmuring the hand signs to a jutsu?!

“Is he in a coma?” Kaeru asked concerned, hovering close.

“Not in the least,” Sakura frowned, sending a bit of chakra into Kakashi’s body. So much for being worried sick about him. “He put himself into some kind of trance?”

“Oh,” Kaeru said. “Ohhhhhh.”

“Any idea why?” she asked him, slightly worried about the excessive amount of chakra Kakashi was currently handling.

“No,” Kaeru sighed.

“Do you also take those pills?”

“W… what pills?” Kaeru asked, trying to sound innocent, but obviously, the young Anbu was not a good liar.

“Performance enhancement pills.”

“Sure,” Kaeru said guardedly, “we all do.”

“I had a closer look at them this morning,” Sakura said, more to herself than the Anbu operative, “I’m not even a third into dissecting everything, but I must say I’m appalled.”

Kaeru dropped his voice. “I don’t think any of this is public information!” he whispered agitated.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass!” Sakura yelled. “If I were Hokage, I’d shut the Anbu down the very second I got the power!”

“You can’t say that!” Kaeru gasped. “The Anbu is the most important pillar in Konoha’s defense!”

“Watch me,” Sakura snarled.

As soon as Tsunade was no longer under the weather, Sakura would be in her mentor’s office making a massive scene. She did not understand in all details what those pills did but if she wasn’t mistaken, they meddled with the bodies normal chakra capacity by temporarily enhancing it. The risk of that! How could the Hokage allow such a thing!

But first, there was something else she had to check. Bending over Kakashi again, she had a look at his arm. The blood seal was very red and very visible.

“Do you know what that is?” she asked the Frog Anbu sharply, “and don’t even try to lie to me.”

“Y… yes,” Kaeru admitted. “I recently found out. But I don’t think Kakashi Sensei would like to…”

“To hell with his privacy needs! I don’t think Kakashi Sensei would like to die,” Sakura said, “and that thing almost killed him not too long ago. It’s Kabuto, isn’t it, the person who knows everything.”

“I think so,” Kaeru nodded. “He was reluctant to talk but I made him.”

“It contains Uchiha blood, doesn’t it. And it’s there to give Kakashi his Sharingan back, am I right?”

Kaeru nodded again.

“Mangekyo Sharingan.”

Kaeru nodded more vigorously.

“Do you know when he got that blood seal?”

Kaeru shook his head. “I never talked to him about it. I joined the Anbu three years ago. I’m sure he already had it, I would have noticed a new tattoo on him, especially one of this size.”

Sakura sighed. Why was she thinking she needed to understand the timing of this? Three years ago. One year after she had married Sasuke. One year after she had looked everywhere for Kakashi, not leaving a single stone unturned, but not finding him. What had happened before that that he had forgotten? And why?

“Where’s Sarada?” she suddenly exclaimed.

“Is that the little girl?” Kaeru asked, wrinkling his nose. “I already tried to make her speak, but she went and hid in a cupboard in the storage room.”

“What!? And you just left her there?”

“My job description never said ‘babysitting’,” Kaeru grumbled, “there's only a broom in there, looks cozy enough. Is she that girl Kakashi Sensei is training? She doesn’t look like much and kept crying all the time.”

“Shut up,” Sakura groaned and ran out of the room and towards the cupboard as fast as she could.

“Sarada?” Sakura said and very carefully opened the cupboard a crack, “are you in here? You can come out.”

“Is the silver-haired uncle dead?” Sarada sobbed. She was sitting with her knees up, her knuckles pronounced on her skinny hands as she hugged them to herself.

The silver… “No,” Sakura soothed her, “not at all, he’s just sleeping. He’ll be fine, I assure you. Were you there when it happened?”

Sarada nodded.

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

Sarada shook her head.

“It would help me a great deal though,” Sakura said a little more firmly, “then I’d know what’s wrong with the ojisan.”

And with time, tell us what happened in your village and where your mother went.

“He attacked him,” the girl said with a small voice. “Not with his fists.”

“With… with his eyes?” Sakura asked carefully and sat down on the floor. Sarada was a witness to many things. If she got her to talk, Sakura felt that it would help shed light on a few things they had no knowledge about.

Sarada nodded again.

“The red eyes.”

“Yes,” Sarada said. “They’re scary. I don’t want them anymore.”

“Oh,” Sakura said, her heart suddenly beating much faster, “they’re not only bad. You know, my village - Konoha - is so strong and famous because the people with these eyes founded it.”

Was she lying to a five-year old? Strong and famous… feared and notorious. Well, she couldn’t quite tell the little girl about the bloody and ultra tragic story of the Uchiha Clan. She herself had no love for Sharingans, Byakugans, Rinnegans and the like. But now that it seemed Sarada might have awakened her own Sharingan, the last thing Sakura wanted was to spook the girl further.

“Kakashi… the silver-haired uncle, he knows really well how to use those eyes,” she told Sarada. “He will teach you.”

“Is the bad man gone?”

Did she mean… Sasuke? Her own father. Sakura’s heart grew very heavy.

“He’s not bad, Sarada,” she said quietly. “Sasuke is… he’s not bad. He’s just… lost. You know, when you don’t find your way home in the dark? That’s what happened to him. We keep lighting up the village so he can see it, but he still gets lost.”

She sighed.

“And the frog man?” Sarada asked pouting.

“Pffft,” Sakura snickered. “I threatened to beat him up, he’s afraid of me. He’s not bad either, just… he is stubborn and very loyal, but I’m sure he’s a good person. Wanna go and scold him together?”

Sarada hesitated, then nodded.

“Good,” Sakura said, presenting Sarada her hand to help her out of her hiding place. “We’ll make it an extra heavy scolding. And then, we’ll make him apologize, alright?”

The girl took her hand and crawled out of the cupboard.

“Hey,” Sakura said and put Sarada’s hair in order. “Sarada, never keep your head down. Don’t be afraid. Whenever someone bullies you, you can come to me, alright? I’ll teach you how to become really, really strong.”

Sarada nodded again, her lips pressed together. She blinked a few times and then, she smiled. Only a tiny little bit. But Sakura saw it.

Baby steps.

But it seemed to her that Sarada had a chance to come out of all this alright.

***

He was trapped. Trapped in a vortex of quicksand, his limbs impossibly heavy and useless, his broken fingers frantically trying to find something to hold on to. He was sinking rapidly, the pressure around him mounting, crushing his bones, the sound of their breaking momentarily drowning out the grating song of the incessantly slithering sand particles. There was no more air. There was sand, only sand, it was entering his mouth, it was finding its way into his lungs. As he suffocated, he had one last thought: He had not ... protected … her ...

“Sarada!” he gasped, opening his eyes.

No sand. Air. A room. He lay there, drawing air into his lung in large gulps to convince himself he was not dying.

“Shhhh,” somebody whispered, “you’ll wake her.”

For a brief, very disorienting moment, Kakashi had no idea who he was, where he was, what year it was. But then, a face appeared above him in the dim light. Pink hair. Green eyes. A diamond-shaped mark on the forehead.

“Sakura?” Kakashi couldn’t help but stare at her, feeling the very unpleasant disorientation again as he marveled at her beauty. He blinked, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. Had he not experienced this very same thing before?

Her hand went to his pulse to check it, then went here and there on his body, prodding more or less gently. A doctor. She was a doctor and this was the hospital. It was night, everything was quiet and dark.

How had he gotten here?

She moved gracefully and with determination, getting this and that from various corners of the room. His heart hurt with a sweet yet painful intensity.

I’m in love, he thought. I yearn for her.

“Am I dreaming?” he murmured.

She frowned at his words. He remembered he liked it when she got angry, maybe because that was when she was the most capable. There was something about her eyes and how they sparkled when her temper rose that he found fascinating.

“How many fingers do you see?” she asked gruffly.

“Four?” he responded.

“Do you feel this?”

“Ouch!” he exclaimed. She had shot some chakra at a sensitive pressure point.

“See? Not dreaming,” she said, “but are you quite done with your jutsu-mumbling?”

Kakashi had not the slightest idea what she was referring to. Was it not possible it was a dream after all? It would explain why everything felt so… off. Like his body had just recovered from an incredibly painful ordeal. Like his mind was hanging on a thread over a precarious abyss.

“You’re disoriented,” Sakura observed, now sounding worried.

“You can say that,” he whispered, watching her lips as they moved.

More importantly though, could he kiss her, dream or not? It’s what he wanted to do. He didn’t care for anything else.

He hooked his fingers around her neck and pulled her mouth down to his. Away with the mask! He had kissed her before, he immediately knew when their lips met and their tongues intertwined. But not nearly enough.

“The proof that Heaven exists hides behind a woman’s kiss”, someone once had said.

Kissing her made him remember much more. The softness of her body, the texture of her skin. They had made love before and the memory of that awakened another type of yearning. His hands moved from her neck down her back to her hips. She was wearing a doctor’s gown, which was effectively blocking his access to her skin. He began to pull at it angrily.

“Stop this,” she said and pushed herself away from him. “I’m on duty, I can’t sleep with a patient. Besides, we’ll wake Sarada.”

Sarada.

There was a small presence in the room with them, a child, huddled up in a blanket on a chair, her regular breathing indicating she was sleeping deeply.

Sarada.

Sasuke’s child. Sakura. Sasuke’s wife. A sudden stabbing headache made Kakashi press his eyes shut.

“Shit,” he groaned.

“What’s wrong?” Sakura asked and put her hand on his forehead.

“I remembered,” he said, opening his eyes to look at her.

“Oh,” she said, sounding excited, “everything?”

Again, Kakashi wasn’t sure what she was referring to.

“I guess not,” she sighed with a glance at his nonplussed face. “But now I’m guessing something else. That jutsu you performed after Sasuke attacked you. It was Fuinjutsu, correct? Did you perchance lock away the memory of what he made you go through during his genjutsu?”

For a moment, the world in front of his eyes turned the deepest red. There was so much blood. He was drowning in it. How could he forget the most gentle, the most loving being he had ever known? How could he even try?

“I tried,” he breathed almost inaudibly. “But I failed.”

“I’m very sorry,” Sakura said. “I’m so very sorry, Kakashi.”

Like a tsunami, the memories crashed down on him again.

“Help me,” he wanted to say, but he couldn’t, he had to press his lips together to prevent himself from screaming his voice raw.

Rin.

His hand, a deadly weapon ripping a hole into her body, shattering her heart, her ribs, her spine. Pulling it back is difficult, as if the last of her life force is holding on to it. He feels it drain out of her in one, big gush when he finally manages to dislodge it. The ugly, sucking sound echoes in his head with sickening persistence.

Her eyes widen, a little surprised, a little pained… angry.

Her last words…. “Kakashi. Why are you not coming to get me? I’m here, I’m waiting for you, why do you hate me so much?”

“Where? Where are you?” he yells, but the world is red and turns redder. There is so much blood... he is drowning in it. Over and over and ove…

A hand, warm and firm, grasping his arm, holding him, pulling him upwards towards the light. He grabbed it like a drowning man. Had he ever cried in front of other people before? The tears that marked his cheeks were so shameful, he turned his face to the side to hide it - but Sakura simply stroked his hair, his temple, brushing the tears away with her thumb.

She was crying too, he realized. Again, it was happening. All he ever gave to people was pain.

“I love you,” Kakashi said, “I love you so much. Please. Please, Sakura. You must get away from me, do you hear me? Everyone I have ever cared for had to die. I am… I can’t… the mere thought of you being hurt…”

“Shhh,” Sakura said soothingly and ruffled his hair, “what nonsense is that? You’re badly shaken. It’s 2am right now and you should sleep, okay? I gave you a sleeping potion. Tomorrow, Tsunade will tell me how to treat the aftereffects of Tsukuyomi. You’ll be fine. It’s not real, Kakashi. It’s only an illusion.”

But it wasn’t.

With the memory of her kiss on his lips, sitting on a reservoir full of tears he had never gotten to shed, Kakashi made a silent vow.

Love was often selfish. To love a person was to need that person. But if to need a person meant to doom a person? Then love had to change.

 

Chapter Text

There were only a few hours in the night during which the darkness truly enveloped Konoha. It happened some time past midnight when the colorful lanterns in front of the restaurants and bars were stowed away until the next nightfall and the street lamps were switched off a short while after when even the latest party gowers had found their way home. It also became quiet then. Voices died away, laughter moved behind walls to become whispers and giggles. Even the cicadas decided they needed a bit of rest before the birds would awaken a few hours later.

In the military, these few hours were called ‘the Darkening’. The Darkening was the most opportune time for an attack on an enemy town. But every secret branch operative knew - the Darkening was also the most opportune time to leave on secret missions.

Leaving Konoha unseen was not quite as difficult as entering the village without being caught by one of the gate guards. And yet, Kakashi took extra care to scale the wall as soundlessly as possible and where the shadows were the thickest. Leaving Konoha without permission from the Hokage was a grave crime for a shinobi on active duty since it was considered desertion - so better make damn sure you got to actually go through with what you were planning before your village’s special forces hunted you down.

The rusty red civilian backpack he was carrying didn’t weigh too much, but it was far more ungainly than his military one with a tendency of the straps to cut into his shoulders. Also, the long green trench coat he wore made moving in silence difficult and the large shawl he had bound around his nose was hot and suffocating. But the worst… was the wig. It just did not want to stay put, as if his hair was trying to battle for supremacy just because it felt offended that he wanted to cover it up.

After descending on the other side of the wall just as silently as going up, he sat still for a while and listened into the night. The thick forest encircled the village from all sides and so it was night animal sounds his ears were picking up. Foxes. Owls. A badger mother calling to its young. It was sounds he was very familiar with. They were also making him acutely homesick, before he had even left.

Kakashi had done the best he could to put his affairs in order before leaving. But then again, he had seen through his own excuses a while ago. Either he would leave now, even when there were so many things demanding his attention - or he would simply never go through with it.

He had played along with Sakura’s earnest attempts to help him with the aftereffects of the Tsukuyomi. The treatment was called “hypnotherapy”, she had explained, she had acquired the basic knowledge for how to do it from Tsunade and would try out a few things she thought were useful in addition. To him, it sounded just like genjutsu, but she had said it wasn’t. No illusion or manipulation from the outside, no use of chakra. It was his own mind who would do the healing, with no shortcuts. It was meant to last. It was much more difficult than cheating with jutsu. Her words.

“Tomorrow,” she had said, seeming a bit nervous but also excited. He would have liked to kiss her very much, but wanted to respect her wishes. She was the doctor, he was the patient. Doctors did not kiss patients, she had said. So be it.

“Tomorrow,” he had echoed and smiled.

Tomorrow, she would find the hospital bed empty. She would be angry and disappointed. Likely that she’d be concerned too - he was the most sorry about that. He should have told her he was coping alright, he thought. He had used the Mind-Sealing jutsu once more and had been able to push the devastating memories away far enough so that they could not incapacitate him again.

Maybe he would have a chance to apologize to her one day. Leaving her with Sarada by herself… it would be so hard for her. But he was confident that there were many people in Konoha who would help her. Iruka. Anko. Tsunade, Shizune. Her friends… Ino. Naruto. And eventually… Sasuke.

It was what Kakashi regretted the most, not being able to go see and talk to Sasuke in prison. “No seals,” a messenger had informed him coming from Ibiki directly. “His mind has not been influenced by an enemy.” That was good, of course. But Sasuke had also seemed much too surprised about his emotions and actions. As if… as if they were not his own.

And there was something else Kakashi was puzzled by. That illness Sasuke thought ailed him - why would he only ask Kabuto to help him with blood experiments, eventually getting Kakashi involved, but not seek medical treatment? It seemed too much like self-sabotage, but had Sasuke not refused to get a prosthetic arm like Naruto too? Pride, mixed with a deep-seated but unacknowledged conviction that he deserved to suffer... that’s what Kakashi thought it could be.

He would never be able to look at Sasuke and not see the hurt, lost and lonely boy he knew he still was. Of all his failings as a teacher, that he had not been able to help the Uchiha escape his clan’s curse was by far the worst. What else could he do than extend his hand again and again, against all odds, hoping he could somehow, someday make it alright?

*Earlier*

Naruto was slouched on a chair next to the bed, his brow furrowed, his fingers busy peeling nuts that he picked from a paper bag in his lap, carelessly scattering the empty nutshells on the little table that stood to the right of him.

“You must be the one shinobi in this village I have seen in the hospital the most, Sensei,” he said in a slightly rebuking tone. “Is it possible you should work on your stamina?”

Kakashi suppressed a sigh and made a note into his mental file that was called ‘help Naruto become Hokage’. If Naruto was to become Hokage soon, he had to truly understand that no stamina training in the world could get normal people anywhere near him and his immense chakra reserves. As it were, he seemed to keep forgetting. He needed another lecture.

“Or… do you like it here?” Naruto wondered. “It can’t be the food. Oh. Sensei, is it… a nurse?!”

Kakashi blinked.

“The one with the reddish hair?” Naruto grinned eagerly. “Yes? I saw how she looked at you when she came to check earlier! Is she your type?”

“I’m sure she is just doing her job,” Kakashi said evasively. So it seemed Naruto was the one person in this village who had not yet heard about Sakura’s public display of affection on the street? Kakashi found himself oddly relieved. Not that he had thought about it before, but Naruto would certainly not take an affair between him and Sakura lightly. He had always been on Sasuke’s side, through everything.

“Hehehehe… her joooooob,” Naruto grinned. “Is that what it’s called these days? It is well known that you break hearts wherever you go, Sensei! Oh… but how do you even pass the time in here without Pervy Sage’s books? You must be bored.”

“No, I’m not…”

“Sensei,” Naruto said bending forward as he was shoving some more nuts into his mouth, “when I was on my last mission, I passed through a town with a bookstore. They had large signs outside, advertising for… for… I don’t remember what it was called exactly, but I remember thinking ‘Kakashi Sensei might like this’!”

Oh? Kakashi lifted his eyebrows. He was always on the lookout for a book series that could fill the horrible void Jiraiya’s passing had left. So far, it had all been in vain. Nothing was able to capture his attention.

“Something like… ‘Erotica for the deprived’. No... that wasn’t the title. It wasn’t quite as explicit, I mean there were children in that town as well.”

Kakashi glared at the blond young man, thinking he was damn irritating at times.

“Are those for me, Naruto?” he asked a little miffed, pointing at the nuts. Naruto had brought them as a present, a neat bow on top. Now they were diminished to almost nothing within less than ten minutes.

Naruto looked down at his lap and frowned confused.

“Oh, sorry Sensei,” he said and took his fingers out of the bag. “Hinata bought them for you, yes.”

“Is she doing well?” Kakashi asked, accepting a nut from Naruto.

“Yes,” Naruto smiled happily, “even though her father is giving her so many more important tasks these days! I don’t know how she copes with it all! She’s amazing.”

“Women are far more capable than we men,” Kakashi nodded. “Take Sakura for example. Of all three of you, she was always the most…”

“Ah,” Naruto interrupted him, his brows drawing together again. “You know what I heard?! Something really disturbing.”

Uh-oh. So he had heard after all?

“Ramen Ichiraku is closing! For 2 weeks! They want to do renovations. And then, they want to go on a holiday, they say! What am I going to eat!?”

“A problem indeed,” Kakashi murmured.

Ah. Saved.

“I heard something else,” Naruto continued, “but I told those people to shut up and stop gossiping.”

Not saved?

“Sakura would never do something like that. She would never hurt Sasuke,” Naruto said resolutely.

“Naruto…,” Kakashi started cautiously.

“Do you know where Sasuke is?” Naruto asked him. “I was trying to find him yesterday to go for a drink. Has he been sent on a mission again?”

“No,” Kakashi said. “Listen, Naruto. Sasuke is in prison. Something happened yesterday. And that’s why I really need you to do something for me.”

*Present*

Kakashi hoped very much that Naruto would be able to talk to Sasuke and help him get well in his absence. He on the other hand… he was obviously stalling again, thinking about this and that when all he needed to be doing was leaving. It was almost as if he was hoping to be caught! But why should any gate guards walk along the wall outside…

The darkness was already beginning to yield to the faintest of lights towards the East. He would head towards the Land of Water, travel by night and sleep during the day. He would find Karin, as he had promised Sarada. From there… maybe he had lost his memories along the way and would find some clues?

Or… maybe trouble would find him. It often did. He would be ready for it.

Kakashi got up and stepped out of the shadow of the wall, heading into the trees without looking back. Once he was far enough from the village, he would be able to use the side roads, but at the beginning of his journey, he better moved forward in the underwood so as to remain hidden.

The goddamn coat was not well suited for that, he had to admit after about fifteen minutes of it getting caught on basically every thorn on the way. He was debating whether to take it off since nobody would see him, which made a disguise kind of moot, when a voice made him freeze in mid-movement.

“Where do you think you’re going at this time of the night alone, Sensei?”

Kaeru let himself drop from a tree lithely, somersaulting in the air and landing on his feet in front of him with nary a sound.

Kakashi felt massive annoyance, tinged with… pride. He had not sensed Kearu lurking in the trees until the very last moment. That was very well done, even though he was unusually preoccupied with thinking dark thoughts at the moment. Then he saw that the young Anbu was carrying a backpack.

“No,” Kakashi said.

“But Sensei…”

“No,” Kakashi said again, this time with more emphasis, glaring at Kaeru’s silhouette in the dark. “What do you think you’re doing here?”

“Well,” Kaeru said, “that’s obvious, isn’t it. I’m coming with you.”

That would not happen. Kakashi attacked as quick as a flash, but the goddamn coat cost him the one fraction of a second that would have made the difference. Kaeru managed to dodge and run, Kakashi following closely behind. Kaeru ran up a tree, jumped onto another, jumped again. Daring and powerful. He was really good, Kakashi thought with another surge of pride for making the right choice and recruiting this one into the Anbu.

“Sensei,” Kaeru desperately called out in midair, “I will not let you do this alone, whatever it is you’re doing. Let me come with you!”

“You do what I tell you,” Kakashi growled, “I hate brats who think they know better than their teacher.”

“But it was you who taught us not to rush into danger alone! Teamwork, remember?”

“I also hate brats who are smartypants,” Kakashi murmured, redoubling his efforts until he finally managed to grab Kaeru’s backpack, ripping the young operative’s body backwards. It was done a little clumsily though and they tumbled down from the air in a heap of limbs, both fighting for balance and a chance to land on their feet, Kaeru trying to free himself from Kakashi’s grip, Kakashi conjuring a strong thread to wrap around Kaeru tightly.

“Gotcha,” Kakashi said upon landing a little more pleased than he should be, looking at the struggling shadow in front of him.

“Sensei!” Kaeru complained, “you can’t do this!”

“Watch me,” Kakashi murmured, pulling on the string with force. Kaeru’s body was snapped backwards until his back hit a tree with a thud.

“Sensei, please,” Kaeru begged, still struggling. “I want to help you.”

“You do?” Kakashi snarled. “Then you stay here all quiet so that I have the advance I need.”

“Sensei, you do not have permission to leave the village.”

“And you do? Did Tsunade send you?”

Kaeru shook his head reluctantly.

“Thought so. I will write them a letter in a day or two telling them where you are. And that I was the one who forced you outside.”

“No!” Kaeru complained, “no, Sensei. Please, if you do this, I will tell them exactly what you’re wearing. They will catch you quicker this way! Which is good, you’ll be able to argue your way out of it!”

“Silly boy,” Kakashi sighed. “I do not want to argue my way out of it. I need to do this and nobody will stop me.”

“But why, Sensei?” Kaeru said. “Explain to me what is happening?”

“No,” Kakashi said stubbornly. “You already know way too much. I don’t want you to be implicated.”

“I know you would never do anything to endanger the village,” Kaeru said hastily, “who has done this to you? Who is behind it all? Is it the Uchiha? What is he plotting?”

“I want you to be quiet,” Kakashi barked at Kaeru. Too much of a ruckus! Nosy little pain in the ass.

“Then gag me!” Kaeru challenged him.

“Dammit,” Kakashi cursed as he lifted his hands to perform a binding jutsu on Kaeru’s tongue. Not only was that a forbidden jutsu, he also liked the boy and he really didn’t want to hurt or in discomfort him too much. They were far enough from the village not to be heard by the gate guards, but the road wasn’t too far away and if someone happened to walk by…

“I am very sorry, Kakashi,” a deep voice said from the shadows, “I couldn’t resist a tearful request. Well, didn’t really want to, to be honest.”

Pakkun?!

“Sensei,” a triumphant female voice said, “are you mistreating one of your poor students? That is shocking!”

Sakura?!

Worse. There were two chakra sources coming out of the bushes. Sakura. And Sarada. That lousy dog!

“I don’t believe this,” Kakashi said. “What is this? A village gathering?”

“Are you going to tie us up too, Sensei?” Sakura asked sweetly. So it was going to be Sensei, huh? He would show her who the Sensei was indeed.

“Yes,” Kakashi replied. “You leave me no choice.”

“Come and try,” Sakura challenged him. Green chakra flared up around her balled fist, throwing its glow onto her determined face.

“Step aside, Sarada,” she told the girl without taking her eyes off Kakashi.

“Don’t fight, please!” the girl wailed, stepping in front of Sakura with a few quick steps. She was wearing a travel cloak and a little backpack on her back.

“How dare you bring her here!” Kakashi yelled at Sakura, feeling completely disarmed.

“I couldn’t leave her alone in the apartment, could I?” Sakura snapped back.

“You could have not followed me,” Kakashi said angrily. How had Kaeru and Sakura even found out when he hadn’t even been sure himself until a few hours ago?

“Oh, I knew you were planning to do something stupid, Sensei,” Sakura said, sounding pleased with herself. “I never noticed when I was a teenager, but now I do. You are overly dramatic.”

Dram…. Kakashi took in a sharp breath. He wasn’t dramatic!

“Or maybe I should say obvious? You were behaving so strangely when I last saw you at the hospital! All those lectures about hiding your intentions and do the unexpected, pah!”

She was still pooling chakra into her fist as if he were ever going to attack her with Sarada standing between them looking at him all displeased and judgemental.

“You need to go back,” Kakashi said tiredly, his voice muffled behind his scarf.

“Oh yeah?” Sakura said. “I’ve got permission to leave. What about you?”

He stared at her sullenly. Was that true?

“I went to Tsunade and told her I will need to go on a research trip in order to present at a prestigious conference in the Land of Winds next month. I also told her I want one particular shinobi with me as my escort. For me and Sarada, whom I’d obviously have to take along.”

Kakashi frowned. This was crazy. Sarada was a target of… someone. She was the safest in Konoha. Unless...

Damn Tsunade!” Kakashi ground out, “is she really doing this? This woman is ruthless!”

“You are here,” Sakura smiled sweetly. “You’re Konoha’s best, so what’s to fear? This is an official mission, Kakashi Sensei. Oh, you can thank me later. You know how high the prison sentence for desertion is?”

Like master, like student. Sakura obviously hadn’t only learned medical jutsu from Tsunade but also the art of arm twisting.

“I guess we can take the Frog with us too?” Sakura mused, looking over at the struggling Kaeru. “I have an idea, Sensei. Since you’re dressed so thoughtfully as a civilian. Why don’t we pose as a family? Daddy, mommy and their kid. Kaeru can be our official bodyguard.”

With a huge sigh, Kakashi released Kaeru from the tongue-binding jutsu and his bonds.

“I have never been more happy to see you!” Kaeru exclaimed, rushing towards Sakura. “And he listens to you!”

“That’s probably an overstatement,” Sakura said sourly, still looking at him intently. “He’s more or less reasonable though.”

“What about my permission?” Kaeru dropped his voice a little.

“Hmmm,” Sakura said, “I didn’t know there would be someone foolhardy enough to rush out of the village to seek and protect this one from doing something idiotic without one.”

Kaeru gasped at the blatant lack of respect and shot Kakashi a look to check for his reaction. Well, the boy had no idea about Team 7 and how they had always treated their Sensei. Luckily for him.

“You, Haruno,” Kakashi snapped, “follow me. I need a word alone.”

Uchiha. She’s an Uchiha since she got married, a nasty voice piped up in Kakashi’s head, but he ignored it.

“Sarada, stay with the Frogman,” Sakura said, “I’ll be back in a sec.”

Not once did Sakura let her fist sink. That much for trusting him, Kakashi thought bitterly as he stomped behind the trees and waited for her to follow. But it was only prudent. He was far from agreeing to this craziness.

“Daddy, mommy and their kid, hm?” he challenged her as soon as they were beyond earshot. “You think you’re mighty clever, am I right? I’d bet quite some money you also knew that Kaeru would come after me and got permission for him too. Are you leading the poor boy on?”

But Sakura just stared at him big eyed.

“Sukea? I’ll be damned!” she pressed out after a few seconds of stunned silence.

The shawl had slipped, revealing his face. The glow from the chakra around her fist illuminated his features, wig, and coat. Ah, it gave him some much needed satisfaction to see the smug expression wiped from her face, even if it was only for a short time.

“Fooled you, didn’t I,” he smiled grimly.

As his alter ego, he wore a wig of shaggy grayish-brown hair, gray-colored contact lenses, along with purple makeup over his eyes and purple patches under them to conceal his scar. As Sukea the photographer, he had played one of his best pranks ever on a Team 7 eager to unmask Kakashi.

“How… how do you…?” she stammered.

“Oh, the voice?” Kakashi smiled. “That easy. I just modulate it. Like this.”

“Wow! We had no idea,” Sakura pressed out, looking mighty impressed now. That he liked much better than her smirking from earlier. “But we saw Sukea with Kaka…. oh. Shadow clones?”

“Yes,” he said with satisfaction. “I did go to great lengths to fool you.”

“Yeah, but today, you didn’t fool me,” she turned around the conversation quickly.

“I didn’t do anything that obvious,” Kakashi sought it necessary to defend himself.

“Oh yeah?” she said. “You looked at me exactly like a guy who is saying goodbye without saying goodbye. You know… I do have a bit of experience with that.”

“And what am I to do now?” Kakashi asked. “Take you along like this doesn’t put all of you in goddamn danger?”

“Yes,” Sakura said sweetly. “Exactly. It’s a mission, Kakashi Sensei. And I know you’re taking them seriously.”

“You are… you are…” he was at loss for words.

“Minx? Vixen? Very clever?” Sakura giggled. “Are you flustered? I know, men hate it when a woman forces them to change their foolproof plans. Where are we going?”

Daddy, mommy and their kid. No need to hide. A much easier journey. Kaeru to protect them with him. It… it could work.

“Land of Water,” he said.

“Ohhhhh,” Sakura clapped her hands. “I love the Land of Water. Makes me so nostalgic. And the food! Delicious.”

“It’s not a holiday,” Kakashi frowned.

“Oh, I know,” Sakura said. “It’s a mission. But allow me to get a little bit excited about… about…,” she stepped closer.

“Are you going to hit me?” Kakashi asked apprehensively, looking at the dangerously humming fist in front of him.

“Should I? You probably deserve it,” Sakura said. “You shouldn’t be walking around at all but lie in a hospital bed.”

“You know I hate it there,” Kakashi chuckled.

“You’re an idiot,” Sakura said tenderly and dropped her fist. The sudden darkness was almost as blinding as a sudden light.

“About this,” Sakura said breathlessly and pressed her lips against his with a passion that almost made him stagger before he caught his breath enough to return the favor.

 

Chapter Text

“Hi,” Sakura smiled at Kakashi.

“Hi,” he murmured in response, gracing her with the briefest of cursory glances as he continued to walk just a little bit too fast for her to walk comfortably beside him.

So he was still angry with her.

That was only going to be a temporary thing, she told herself, the Kakashi she knew wasn’t vindictive. And besides… she was almost dizzy with happiness about how things had turned out. Not only was she here with him, away from all her worries, Sakura also felt mighty proud of herself - one could even say smug - for thwarting his attempt to do something monumentally stupid. Tsunade was already on edge about everything these days, and that included his behavior - and he was going to leave the village without permission? The Hokage would certainly have crucified him alive!

Men and their tendencies to bottle up their worries… and then do silent, heroic acts… Sakura shook her head at them all, earning herself another cursory glance.

“Hi,” she smiled at Kakashi again as a reaction.

He was the one to shake his head at her this time, looking halfway amused.

The weather was nice, not too hot, not too cold, actually just right, and they were walking along the main street leading from Konoha to the border like civil civilians. That alone would have made her happy. She was still young, of course, but in the seven years since the war, she had become used to the comforts of a normal adult life. Rushing through trees with death close behind was a memory she was little fond of.

Kakashi was hiding his unmasked face behind the purple scarf he was wearing, surely out of habit, but it didn’t change the fact that for the first time since meeting him more than a decade ago, Sakura was able to catch glimpses of his entire face and its expressions all the time. And what a face it was! If she didn’t believe he’d be quite sensitive about it, she would have openly studied it for her pleasure.

“You look good with brown hair,” she said on a whim.

He frowned.

“You’d look good with any hair,” she added, her voice suddenly a little squeaky. Making him compliments in broad daylight felt… daring.

“Sakura,” Kakashi said gravely. “I’ll be honest. I am not happy you’re here with Sarada.”

“W… why?” she asked, feeling like somebody had dumped a bucket of cold water on her. He… he didn’t want her around?

“Because it’s dangerous,” he said, looking at the girl who was walking in front of them next to the lanky Kaeru. “Especially for her.”

“Nobody will know who she is!” Sakura said defensively. She had given this some thought. Sarada was wearing a hat that hid her hair and a boy’s pants and tunic underneath the travel cloak. “Well, she’s our kid, that’s who she is,” she added.

Kakashi looked unconvinced.

“Nobody will know who you are either,” she added, her eyes shifting to him again, “your disguise is very good.”

“And you? It’s not that you’re a completely unknown person.”

“Me?” Sakura’s hand went up to her own hat. “I don’t think I’m…”

“We should do something about your signature hair,” Kakashi said. “We’ll find some dye in the next bigger town.”

“O… kay?” Sakura said. “Do you want to tell me what you think might endanger her?”

“The people who are after the Sharingan?”

He really was angry, she heard the edge in his voice clearly. Maybe it was not going to be only temporary. Sakura suddenly felt far less sure about her great plan.

“I thought you killed most of them that night?”

“Do you really think there won’t be more?” Kakashi said quietly but she noticed he was still measuring his steps to hers.

“I… I didn’t consider that,” she admitted. “I just thought…”

She had just known she had to make sure Kakashi didn’t become a Missing-Nin. And the prospect of staying locked up in Konoha with a child who needed guidance from someone who understood what it meant to have the Sharingan… with Sasuke in prison for hurting Kakashi in ways she could only begin to imagine...

Sakura grabbed Kakashi’s hand and pressed it.

“I think we should hold hands,” she said before he could even think about pulling it away. “We’re mommy and daddy after all!”

“Married couples don't hold hands,” he said grumpily.

“What?! My parents do all the time!”

He threw her a strange look after that that she couldn’t quite read. She only pressed his hand harder, to tell him… I’m here. And you won’t get rid of me so fast.

Saving him from doing stupid heroics was the one thing, but helping him in ways she had promised him was the other. She wanted to help him so very much. He had always been there for the village, from such a young age. But by doing that, he had never taken good enough care of himself. Worse: She knew what trauma looked like and however hard he might try to push it away and however clever he was with jutsu to force himself to forget… it was still there.

“It’ll be alright,” she said to him.

Sakura was sure he understood what she meant, there was a brief tightening of his lips, but he didn’t pull his hand away.

“We’re going to find Karin,” he told her. “I have reason to believe she’s in the Land of Water.”

Sakura quickly turned away her head from him to look at Sarada’s thin figure before them. Good. A child her age needed her mother, not some strangers. But…

“I don’t think Karin is stable enough to care for a child,” she quietly said.

“Probably not,” Kakashi agreed. “But I still need to talk to her. Sarada confirmed that she knows me from earlier. I need to find out where, when… and what the circumstances were of that meeting. I need to…”

“...remember,” Sakura finished Kakashi’s unfinished sentence. “I promised I will help. I still mean it. But Kakashi...”

Was he aware of the fact that remembering what seemed important to understand what was going on probably meant remembering things he quite actively didn’t want to remember? And that remembering those things might very well make things a lot worse for him? Healing from the kind of psychological wounds he had… it would take a very long time.

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

***

“Time for the goodnight story?” Kakashi asked and smiled at Sarada who was all wrapped up in her sleeping bag with only her face sticking out.

“Yes please, uncle,” Sarada said, fidgeting briefly, her voice betraying how excited she was.

It had been a long, tiring day. For someone with legs as short as Sarada’s, it had been torture. She had been very brave until sometime in the afternoon when her misery could no longer be contained and she had burst into frustrated tears. Kakashi had taken her on his back after that, but the damage had already been done… bloody blisters all over her feet.

Sakura had healed the worst, but Sarada’s spirit was low and didn’t recover afterwards. To give her something to look forward to, Kakashi had promised he would tell her a long goodnight story. And thus, after eating grilled fish from sticks and some berries for dessert, after washing themselves perfunctory in a shallow creek, and putting out their sleeping bags under a large tree, everybody was gathered around the fire to listen to Kakashi.

Kaeru was going to take first watch afterwards, Kakashi second. He had refused vehemently to let Sakura do her share, saying she was a civilian now and had no business guarding military personnel on active duty. Sakura thought that having guards at night was overdoing it, they were still in the Land of Fire and anyway, the War was only a distant memory - but apparently, it was normal for Anbu operatives. That said, she didn’t like how Kakashi and Kaeru would use hand signals that were unknown to her all through the day.

“Is something the matter?” she had asked Kakashi at one stage, but he had only shaken his head. Which could mean: no, but it could also mean: none of your business.

“So,” Kakashi said and cleared her voice. “Here is a story my father used to tell me, Sarada, when I was about your age. It’s a ghost story. Do you like ghost stories?”

“Yes,” Sarada piped up, but Sakura frowned. Who would think telling a kid a ghost story when they were sleeping in a dark forest full of creepy sounds was a good idea?

“I don’t like ghost stories,” Kaeru said with a shudder. “They scare me.”

“That's kinda the point,” Kakashi murmured. “Ready, Sarada? The story is called Chikaramochi Yurei: Long ago an unusual farmer’s wife lived in a small village, which was nestled in a remote mountain valley in the Land of Fire’s Southern province. She was unusual for several reasons. For one, she had bright pink hair.”

“Hey,” Sakura said. “Is that in the story?”

“Shhh,” Kakashi frowned at her, “quiet. One, she had pink hair. Second, fish scales were growing under her armpits where she should have had skin. Three, her nipples were so long that she could throw them over her shoulder and feed her baby while it was still nestled on her back.”

“Hahaha,” Kaeru laughed and threw Sakura a smirk, “I like this story after all.”

“Onii-san, you cannot interrupt uncle Kakashi,” Sarada said sternly.

Huh. Here were two people who had apparently grown closer in just one day, Sakura thought.

“Thank you, Sarada,” Kakashi said darkly, “if they keep doing this, we won’t be finished before the sun rises. So this woman, she had all these characteristics. On top of it all, she had a fourth: she was incredibly strong—it was said this farmer’s wife could do the work of 4-5 grown men, all by herself.”

“Oh,” Sarada said, sounding impressed. Her eyes sought and found Sakura’s.

“That woman is nothing like me,” Sakura said quickly, least the girl thought she had fishscale on her body somewhere, “but as I told you already, Sarada, it’s good to be stronger than most men. From time to time, they need to be put in their place.”

“Huh,” Kaeru snorted.

Sakura chose to ignore him magnanimously.

“However, sadly, even the strongest person is not invulnerable,” Kakashi continued. “One winter the farmer’s wife got sick with a cold and died. But the 17th day after her death, she came back as a yurei and haunted her husband until he died too. No one really knew what he did to deserve her curse, but there it was.”

“Drove her nuts with his stupidity, of course,” Sakura murmured, “like most men drive women nuts.”

“Not everybody has extremely bad taste in men,” Kaeru remarked.

“Hey!” Kakashi rebuked him sharply.

“Sorry, sorry,” Kaeru said and poked a stick into the fire.

What was wrong with the frog? She had thought they had gotten along fairly well today? Sakura glared at him and got pointedly ignored.

“Please continue the story, uncle,” Sarada yawned.

“For reasons nobody understood, it appeared that the woman wasn’t satisfied with the death of her husband,” Kakashi continued. “From time to time the woman’s yurei would appear in the village and frighten people. She also caused massive mischief because as a ghost, she still had her incredible strength. Everybody was suffering. To their luck, a monk named Sakuzo stopped by the village some time later. After hearing the villagers’ stories, he wondered if there might not be a hole in her grave? This, he knew, would account for her restless spirit still haunting the village even after she had killed her husband. He was not only a monk but also a shaman, you know. The villagers went to check, and sure enough... there was a deep hole burrowed into her grave! Working together, the filled the hole and covered it with a large stone.”

Here Kakashi made a little pause and checked whether Sarada’s eyes were still open. They were… though barely.

“This wasn’t the solution they were hoping for though, although it did have a strange effect. The woman’s grudge transferred to Sakuzo and almost immediately she began to torment him as much as she had her husband. Suffering immensely, Sakuzo made a pilgrimage to a nearby shrine that he knew, and borrowed a famous sword kept there. The sword was known to be a talisman against yurei with ghost-quelling powers. Sakuzo kept the sword by his side constantly for an entire year, and indeed, was no longer troubled by the woman’s vengeful spirit. Satisfied that he had broken the curse, he returned the sword to the shrine.”

“Oh no,” Sarada murmured sleepily.

“Exactly!” Kakashi nodded. “Ghosts are not that easy to get rid of! He should have known better! Anyway. Thinking this ghost business finished, Sakuzo began his journey home along a steep mountain pass. He had not walked long when he felt some strange presence coming up behind him. He did not even have time to react before he was lifted bodily off the ground, and thrown 10 meters over the edge of the road and into the mountain valley below. The impact rendered him unconscious, and Sakuzo lay bleeding, looking as though he was dead. The farmer’s wife was apparently satisfied thinking she had killed Sakuzo, and with that her yurei vanished, never to be seen again. That’s it.”

“What?” Sakura frowned. “That’s a stupid story. So why did she do it? First the husband, then the village, then the monk?”

“I don’t know,” Kakashi shrugged, “the story doesn’t tell us. Besides, do women need reasons? She was simply… vengeful.”

“That makes no sense. That husband of hers,” Sakura complained, “what did he do to her? Cheat? Maybe all the villagers knew and didn’t help her? And the monk… the monk...”

“I think she was just very sad,” Sarada said, still with her eyes closed. “Because she died before she could have a baby.”

“Why kill him over that though,” Kaeru mused. “Wasn’t exactly his fault she died.”

“Maybe she had to because somebody forced her,” Sarada said with a little whimper.

And then, while all three grown ups mulled over the depth of her words and the ocean of emotions behind them, she pressed her eyes shut really tightly and fell asleep within seconds as if she willed herself to.

“That girl has seen horrible things to think like that,” Kaeru sighed and got up. “Kakashi Sensei, I will take first watch now. I will wake you past midnight.”

“Thank you,” Kakashi nodded. “Don’t hesitate to wake me anytime you think it’s necessary. Good night,” he said with another nod towards Sakura and walked over to his sleeping bag.

“Good night, Kakashi,” she said, swallowing down her disappointment. She had hoped for something else. Something more. But of course… there was no privacy at all here. And he had other worries, like getting enough sleep.

When she turned around, she caught Kaeru watching her with huge displeasure plastered all over his features before he turned around and stomped away with an angry huff.

She wouldn’t have it.

“What’s your problem?” Sakura ran after Kaeru and challenged him in a low voice. They were now standing in the forest, where he would scale a tree to have a good view of the surroundings. The light of the fire didn’t reach much further than this. It was sufficient to show her how the young man’s sullen expression turned outright sour.

“Leave him alone.”

“Huh?”

“Kakashi Sensei. Leave him alone.”

What the…

“What do you even mean?” she hissed at him, pulling him further into the trees. No need to have Kakashi worried.

“I swear, if you hurt him, I will not let it pass.”

Sakura was so surprised, she could only stare at him wordlessly for a few moments.

“Did you just threaten me?” she asked when she found her voice again.

“No,” Kaeru shook his head. “But I will protect him whatever it takes. I owe him more than my life and I will not let anybody harm him.”

“Harming him is far from my mind,” Sakura frowned, “I don’t know what’s wrong with your head to think I might.”

“Oh yeah? Well, here is what I reckon,” the young Anbu said, his face showing pure anger. “You married the Uchiha, as far as I know against all good counsel from every single person in the village. You meet Kakashi Sensei again after many years and he tickles your fancy because he’s so kind and attentive, quasi the opposite of that other man. In the Uchiha’s absence, you selfishly let yourself become someone he wants to care for and protect, without even once thinking about what he wants or needs. Then the Uchiha gets back and with him the whole goddamn mess of his cursed Clan and what happens? Kakashi Sensei is the selfless one that cleans up that mess, at a very high cost for himself. And you?”

Sakura felt anger, nay fury rise inside of her, but she fought hard to contain it.

“You keep on blaming me for things related to the Uchihas, why? It’s my problem that I married someone from that clan, not yours. But their history… is as much yours as it is mine. It’s Konoha’s business. We all have to live with the guilt… and the sad legacy of their kekkei genkai.”

“If you had borne your husband children like it’s considered a wife’s duty, Kakashi Sensei would not have had to get involved with experiments that jeopardize his life.”

Sakura slapped the young man, extra hard. With a grunt of pain, he went down on one knee, but quickly straightened himself.

“This is the only time I will let you hit me,” Kaeru pressed out, holding his cheek. “This, all of this is about the bloodline of the Uchihas that needs to be preserved, you know it even if you don’t admit it. Too many people have been hurt, it has to stop. And there’s that little girl now, so it can stop.”

So he knows she’s an Uchiha! Sakura thought with a shudder. It is that obvious?

“You leave Sarada out of this,” she said with emphasis. “She has no fault at all.”

“I would never hurt a little girl,” Kaeru laughed bitterly, “I will protect her with my life if necessary. But you… you are making me very angry. I didn’t quite understand what was going on with Kakashi Sensei lately before seeing you make eyes at him today. But now I do know and I do not approve. Leave him alone! He doesn’t need someone who just uses him temporarily to forget a bad marriage.”

Using him?!

“I am not…” she bristled.

“I guess it’s your choice whether you want children with that man or not,” Kaeru interrupted her curtly. “But I will not allow your selfishness to make my Sensei’s life even harder than it is. You know why? Because Kakashi Sensei deserves better. He deserves someone who only loves him. Someone who devotes himself to him fully. Someone who makes him happy.”

And with that Kaeru stomped away and soon wasn’t to be seen in the darkness of the forest.

No, I will not cry, Sakura told herself, dammit.

Staring into the darkness with eyes that stung, Sakura had to realize that part of what Kaeru had confronted her with made her feel so awful because it was true. A young, silly woman struggling in a failing marriage wasn’t what Kakashi needed in his life. But the part of her that was angry and was still getting angrier refused to accept that this was the only thing she could be for him.

She wanted to be the one to make him feel better. She wanted to chase away the shadows darkening his life. She wanted to be the one to make him happy.

Kakashi’s words... He had not quite been himself when they had spilled out of him, but she had been thinking about them incessantly nonetheless. I love you, I love you so much. Please. Please, Sakura. You must get away from me, do you hear me? Everyone I have ever cared for had to die.

She had begun to doubt that he had really said her name. And even if he had said her name, had he really meant to address her? She knew that there was another woman he carried in his heart. She knew her name: Rin.

I love you, I love you so much.

Love… whom?

And then, Ino’s words came to her: But you can’t fall in love with him. That would get much too messy. Standing here in the dark forest, she finally understood their meaning. Falling in love, yearning for love in turn, creating ties... it was like a promise for the future. Only, she had already promised somebody else to be there for him for the rest of their lives. Foolishly, maybe. But did such a promise not create ties that could not easily be cut?

Selfishness was to not make a choice. But making a choice was hard... too hard. Because whatever choice she made, it was going to hurt someone she cared for.

***

“Kakashi. Kakashi, I need to ask you something. Kakashi we need to talk!” Sakura knelt down next to his still and bundled up form in the sleeping bag short of shaking him awake.

“Talk?” he opened his eyes. He had removed the contacts he wore as Sukea and the purple patches from around his eyes and she also saw the brown wig on the ground with his clothes. “Why are you not sleeping,” he added and yawned extensively.

“It’s important.”

“It’s cold, put some more clothes on or you won’t be able to fall asleep later with a low body temperature,” he lectured her.

It was true, the temperature had dropped by quite a few degrees since dinner and the fire was burning very low. She felt a shiver start to build somewhere on her body.

“Okay, I’m awake,” he said quietly, “what is it. Please don’t wake Sarada, she needs a lot of rest.”

“I want to know whether you meant it,” Sakura said before she could lose the courage to ask him.

“Meant what?” Kakashi frowned. He was looking particularly cute with the sleeping bag forming a cocoon around him and Sakura moved a little closer to put a hand on his cheek on impulse. The way he snuggled into that made her inside turn to goo.

“The… the thing you said, the night before at the hospital.”

He looked a bit confused, then shook his head. “No idea what I said. Sorry, I wasn’t in good shape. It won’t happen anymore, I have it under control.”

What? No!

“That’s not… that’s not what is important! You said… you said…” but for whatever reason, she couldn’t repeat his words back to him. Chicken!

“Sorry, I need to sleep,” Kakashi yawned, “or tomorrow will be a difficult day. You want to lie next to me? Or…” she heard the sound of the zipper being opened, “you want to warm up in here?”

“Are you…,” her eyes grew round at the sight of skin, “sleeping naked?!”

“Yes,” Kakashi sighed, “I forgot to bring pijamas. I’m cold.”

So it wasn’t selfish if she took him up on his offer, wasn’t it. They would both be warm. It was maybe a little selfish that she felt great pleasure imagining Kaeru’s outrage when he found them in the same sleeping bag.

“Is there even enough space?” she murmured as she slid herself in next to him.

“Yes,” Kakashi yawned, “somebody designed these sleeping bags exactly for this kind of skinship.”

“What?” she giggled.

“It gets lonely on long missions,” he whispered.

“You…!” she was trying to turn in outrage at such a frivolity, but that wasn’t possible since he had already closed the sleeping bag again, blocking out the cold air and making sudden movements difficult. His body was warm, solid and… naked.

“Good night,” she said, turned on her side and closed her eyes, determined to think only of what he needed, which was, most certainly... sleep?

Her body had a mind of its own though. It reacted to the closeness and the warmth with growing anticipation. Her heart rate increased, his regular breath near her ear made goosebumps spring up all over her body. And she grew wet. Very wet.

“Is there something you want, Haruno?” he whispered.

“N… no,” she lied with her mouth watering at the mere thought of those lips that did the whispering, “you said you needed to sleep.”

“Yes,” he whispered. “I really do.”

He licked the rim of her ear very slowly, his tongue tickling and teasing its way down to her neck. Sakura shuddered violently. And then, his fingers brushed against her nipples ever so lightly through her top, sending electric shock waves through her body and straight between her legs.

“Hhhhhhmmmng,” she moaned, muffling the sound against the fabric of the sleeping bag.

His fingers slipped into her pants and reached the throbbing place between her legs. She pushed eagerly against them, rocking her hips back and forth for friction, feeling him grow hard behind her. Was this selfish? She would not lie, she enjoyed sleeping with him, a lot. But didn’t he too? She had also brought birth control pills on this trip. Selfish? Certainly not.

“Lift your leg a little,” he whispered. So he was an expert at this?

Sakura briefly wondered whether she wanted to know about who had kept him company on long lonely missions, but he had pulled down her pants and was pushing into her slowly from behind, in an angle that stimulated all the right places. She bit down on her fist, but when he flicked her knob with his index finger she moaned loudly before adding a tortured “dammit, noisy”.

He stopped, laughing silently at her shoulder and then resumed his work. Very slow, shallow strokes. So good.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she said very soon, trying to keep her voice down, beginning to clench around him, “don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t…”

“Hmmmm,” he growled as he continued, “you’re such a turn on.”

“You can finish if you want,” Sakura whispered, “you know, if you need to sleep…”

“Don’t want,” he answered curtly, keeping up his slow, steady rhythm that soon brought her to the brink again. After her second orgasm, he changed the angle and pushed in deeper and a little faster. It felt incredibly good. Maybe he was using chakra. Everything hummed in her nether regions, with waves of pleasure washing over her in ever shorter intervals.

He clamped his hand over her mouth at one point to muffle her cries, but she couldn’t help it. Selfish? Yes. She couldn’t stop herself from feeling this pleasure, wanting more of this pleasure and shouting out this pleasure.

“Okay, now I’m warm,” he said quite a while later after finally allowing himself to finish too, redoubling her pleasure with the satisfied sound he made when he reached his peak, hugging her to his chest afterwards.

“Did you like it?” Sakura wanted to know.

“Can’t you tell?” he asked back.

But maybe she couldn’t quite with him. Maybe she assumed things about him, because of who he was that were not even true. He had depths that she had not known about in her youth, was it not likely he had depths she didn’t know about now? Depths and secrets.

“I want to be sure,” she said. Selfish? Yes.

“I liked it.”

That was… it?

“Am I…”

“I am not going to compare you to other women, you insecure ninny,” Kakashi said, guessing exactly what she had wanted to ask. “You are gorgeous to look at, wonderful to touch and great in bed. And great in the shower, on the desk and in the sleeping bag, everywhere.”

“I’m… great?” she giggled, feeling herself turn red from a mixture of sudden shyness and giddy joy.

“If I didn’t have to take over from Kaeru in… about 3 hours, I would make love to you again right now,” he said.

“O...kay,” Sakura said, grinning even more broadly. “Me too. Me too, I can’t get enough of you and you are… stunningly skilled at… making me feel… so good. Oh god,” she sighed, mortified, “I’m sounding so corny.”

“A little,” he chuckled. “You’re cute.”

But do I make you happy? Maybe even that thought was selfish. There was a lot going on in his life, how could she even think she had a connection to his happiness? Yesterday, he had been ready to leave the village for an indefinite time. Without her.

“I’m sorry it’s so late now,” Sakura sighed. “Maybe we can rest a little longer over lunchtime and you can catch some more sleep?”

“Maybe,” Kakashi said. “But I’d prefer to press on, I’ll carry Sarada. I can function for a long time without any sleep.”

“Stop it,” she said, “you’re a human, not a machine.”

“Sadly, yes,” he sighed. “Humans need to eat. And they need new shoes for the kid, they’re too small for her. Did you bring money?”

“Yes,” Sakura said. But not a lot.

“We’ll tackle that issue tomorrow,” he said and yawned again. “Maybe Kaeru has some too, though I doubt it.”

“I’ll go get my own sleeping bag,” she informed him.

“Shame,” he pouted.

“Kaeru doesn’t approve of you and me,” she informed Kakashi, “I don’t want to make him even angrier just now.”

“Was he impolite again?”

“No… Well, yes. But don’t say anything, please. I’ll sort it out myself.”

“Alright,” Kakashi sighed. “Kaeru has a temper and can get a little intense. But he’s someone I’d trust with my life anytime.”

“Yeah… and he’s obviously ready to give his for yours anytime,” Sakura murmured, “what’s his story?”

“Hm,” Kakashi said evasively, “maybe I will tell you some other time.”

Depths and secrets.

Sakura settled down next to Kakashi, snuggling up to him in her own cocoon.

“Don’t feel pressured,” he whispered, almost like an afterthought, “I don’t expect anything of you. Just stay well, Sakura. My biggest fear…”

...is to have those you care for die.

“Don’t you know how strong I am?” Sakura chuckled. “But if I die, I promise I will make sure to come back and haunt you as a vengeful ghost.”

“What consolation,” he sighed and moved his body a little closer.

“Kakashi,” Sakura said. “Kakashi, I want you to know… I’m not just using you to forget my failing marriage.”

“What consolation,” he said again and chuckled softly until his breath became deep and regular and he had fallen asleep.

 

Chapter Text

“Why don’t you listen?” Sasuke says gruffly. “I told you so many times to leave me alone.”

“I’m tenacious, that’s why,” Sakura answers lightly. It sounds a bit like she’s joking but she’s not. Her heart beats fast because he keeps looking at her, almost as if he cannot help it.

“You will regret it.” He doesn’t sound like he’s joking, more like he’s annoyed. He often sounds like this. But she has begun to hear nuances.

“I will never regret it!” She can’t even begin to imagine a life without vying for Sasuke’s attention.

They sit on a bench near the Academy, their knees are almost touching. It’s getting quite dark, and the street lights are not yet on. It was right here she tried to stop him from leaving Konoha in search of power. That time, she failed. All the other times that followed, she failed as well.

He doesn't visit often, but it has become a habit of his to seek her out when he does, turning up on her doorstep in his dark travel cloak with no advance warning. He also leaves with no warning, usually after much too short a time. Sakura knows, Sasuke does not feel comfortable in Konoha - well, what an understatement. He hates it here. She thinks it’s because it reminds him so painfully of everything he lost but she can’t be sure, it's too sensitive an issue to talk about.

Talking to him is difficult anyway. They often sit in silence, like now. It’s gradually become comfortable silences when it used to be agonizing.

“How long are you staying?” she blurts out. She hopes she can organize dinner with Naruto before he has to leave again. Naruto makes Sasuke smile and to see that… it gives her hope.

“A few days,” Sasuke says evasively. “I will need to meet Kakashi and then…”

“Kakashi Sensei?” Sakura almost jumps to her feet at the mention of that name, “where is he?! I’ve been trying to find him for ages, but he’s never around!”

“Then he probably doesn’t want you to find him,” Sasuke says.

Sakura understands then that it has something to do with secret missions and the security of the village. She has chosen to work at the hospital as a regular doctor after the War - has turned her back on that world of shadows shinobis live in, a luxury of peace she is afforded - but whenever Sasuke leaves she regrets that she cannot accompany him and doesn’t even know where he’s going in the service of Konoha.

He kisses her for the first time, right before the streetlights flare up.

Even though she has been thinking about nothing else since sitting down, she is very surprised about the sudden movement of his head towards hers and almost pulls back by reflex. To prepare optimally for this moment, she has read everything she could about kissing techniques and what intimacies might follow, but now that it happens… it’s different from what she expected. She scolds herself for getting carried away by make-out scenes in Icha Icha books and the like when Sasuke’s tongue in her mouth feels a little awkward and that’s probably the reality of such things… or maybe they just lack practice.

“Do you want to come to my place?” he asks after breaking the kiss. She notices that he sounds a little breathless and that makes her heart race even more.

Sakura suppresses a squeal. So that would happen tonight too! Finally. Finally, finally, finally!

“I’d love to,” Sakura responds, managing to make it sound like it’s no big deal to her, like she has plenty of experience and it’s not what she has thought about day after day after day…

She wants to make him smile. She wants him to come back for good. Doesn’t him accepting her signify a step in the right direction? She’d do everything to make him feel at home. She’ll turn her body into an anchor. If he wants her and she is here - will he not have to return more often?

"Really? Your body? What a fool you are, girl. There are thousands of bodies out there. He can have them all."

Sakura opened her eyes abruptly. The high-pitched voice that had spoken to her had jolted her out of her dream, leaving her with the dull ache of misery and failure in her heart. Dream? It was more like a memory than a dream... Why had it overcome her like this?

Quite unable to shake the emotions she had just felt, she lay on the ground looking up at the gently swaying leaves of the giant tree under which they had pitched camp, trying to reconnect with the person she had been back then. She had been so hopeful. Happy, actually. Happy to be wanted by the object of her admiration. Making excuses for him every single time it hadn’t felt… right. Hadn’t felt like there was a connection.

Oh Sasuke. When did my hope turn into bitterness? When did those endless years of love for you become nothing but a disappointment?

Sakura’s vision became blurry as tears sprang into her eyes. She had known Sasuke for so long but despite all her attempts to get close to him, he had ultimately remained a stranger. He was unable to form attachments. She knew he had tried, she liked to believe for her sake. He had even asked her to marry him - for her sake.

Crying as silently as possible for a while made her feel even more miserable. It was all so heartbreaking… Sasuke was living in a hell of his own making but one he could not get out of. And one she could obviously not get him out of either. Maybe Naruto could. Or…

After swallowing down her tears with some effort, Sakura lifted her head. The faint grayish light told her it was very early morning. Kaeru’s brown hair was sticking out of his sleeping bag in the vicinity of Sarada. Kakashi’s sleeping bag next to her was empty. Of course. He was keeping watch over them somewhere.

After peeling herself out of her own sleeping bag, putting on a jumper against the unusual cold at this time of the year and combing her hair with her fingers, she went to look for Kakashi. She needed to talk to somebody… and that somebody had to be him because of all people she knew, he had always known how to talk to Sasuke when nobody else had been able to.

She found him in his Sukea disguise not much later, his back against a tree. Sleeping.

Sleeping!? What kind of guard was he? But then she realized why he must be so tired and her ears started burning at the memory of their nightly romp. Still… what a great opportunity to play a prank on her former Sensei!

Edging closer stealthily, she couldn’t help but smile… he would be proud of her, she thought, temporarily forgetting why she was looking for him in the first place as she imagined his surprised face with pleasure. But just as she bent down in triumph to tickle him, she felt the sharp, cold tip of a kunai at her jugular. “Are you still falling for my old tricks?” Kakashi asked right at her ear.

She froze. Oh shit.

“A… clone?” Sakura moaned. How could she be this stupid? But sleeping Sukea looked exactly like the one eying her with a smirk as he smoothly slid his kunai into a back pocket like a well-oiled machine. She was so out of practice. Of course she should be able to distinguish clones from real people!

“What were you going to do to him?” Kakashi asked warily.

“Oh, tickle him,” she said. “And…” she stepped closer and grabbed his coat. “This.”

She went up on her tiptoes to kiss him. He didn’t respond enthusiastically like she was used to and she pulled away a little bewildered, studying his face for signs of displeasure.

“Is something the matter?”

“I’m on duty,” he answered, sounding a tiny little bit flustered. “I can’t kiss people while on duty.”

Fair enough. Even though she was certain there was nothing dangerous for miles around, only birds that started to sing their jubilant songs to greet the day.

“Come,” he said and took her by the hand.

“Where t…”

“Just follow me.”

He was dragging her into the forest for a bit, then stopped before a huge tree. “Up there.”

“Wh… why?” Sakura asked, finding his behavior a little strange, but he had already pulled her along further, walking up the tree like it was a street.

She could still do this, of course. Chakra control had always been her forte and if she set her mind to believing there was no way she would fall and break all her bones, she might even enjoy this like she used to.

Much further up, where the tree was getting thinner, she became aware of another Sukea-Kakashi watching them approach through the leaves, his hands behind his head, one leg hanging down leisurely.

“Can't believe you kissed one of my clones!” he smirked at her.

Sakura turned to the version of him next to her, her mouth agape. “You…!”

When the clone dared to grin at her naughtily she hit him with so much force, he got blasted into oblivion right away.

“Hey!” the Kakashi above her complained. “It hurts when someone kills your clones.”

“That's not true,” she said sourly.

“Ha, of course it is,” Kakashi said. “You know that all clone experiences are the originator’s too. A clone’s pleasure is my pleasure. And a clone’s pain is my pain!”

“Shouldn’t have led me on then,” Sakura murmured, climbing up the last few meters to gingerly sit down next to him. Oh dear, it was so high up.

“You're right on time though,” Kakashi said, smiling.

“What for?” she frowned.

“To watch the sunrise with me.”

He grabbed her arm and pulled her a little closer and right then, a bright light was switched on to the East and Sakura saw how the disc of the sun began to rise up from below the horizon, accompanied by a most astonishing glittering and sparkling.

“Is that the sea I can see?” she breathed. Kakashi had chosen to sit on the tallest tree in this forest and the view was absolutely breathtaking. Vertigo was not an option.

“It is,” Kakashi nodded. “The Land of Water.”

“We’re that close!”

“Still more than two days away,” Kakashi shrugged. “Probably longer considering we will have to stop in a town today.”

“Because of my hair?” she asked.

“Shoes for Sarada,” he answered. “Provisions. Intel. Towns are dangerous places if you’re a fugitive, but thanks to you, I’m not. Might as well recharge, get a good meal and a good night’s sleep.”

She nodded, eyes glued to nature’s spectacle enfolding before her. Tears sprang into her eyes again unbidden. This breathtaking beauty, it got her right in the heart. Or maybe it was just a day for being tearful?

“Why the clones?” she asked, trying to keep a steady voice.

Kakashi shrugged. “It’s a habit of mine.”

“You can tell me if something is the matter,” Sakura told him. “I may no longer be a shinobi, but you trained me, you know I can help with defense if needed.”

“Nothing is the matter,” he said. “It’s just a precaution. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent.”

There was a pause during which he studied her face and then lifted his hand to gently brush a thumb across her cheeks underneath the eyes, first left, then right.

“I… I dreamt about Sasuke,” she admitted.

“I see,” Kakashi said calmly. “Is that why you cried?”

Sakura nodded.

“Yeah, I thought about him too,” Kakashi said with a small sigh, his face turning sad.

“What… what did you think about?” Sakura asked timidly.

“Amnesia,” Kakashi said slowly. “We both have it. There are no seals in his head, Ibiki and his men checked. And in contrast to me, his is worse, I think he remembers less. I also think it affects his personality.”

“What?” Sakura frowned. She hadn’t expected this topic. She realized she had secretly hoped Kakashi had come up with a solution to her own problem, that he would tell her how she could disentangle herself from a husband who wasn’t what she had hoped and quite clearly would never be. Silly her.

“Then I thought about when it started for him and that it might not have been after the Susanoo attack but before. He was getting much more difficult to talk to every time he got back. It’s been a few years, I’d say.”

Sakura almost snorted. Yeah, you could say that. Difficult to talk to. To the point where they hadn’t talked at all.

“And then I thought about when it might have started for me and…,” here, Kakashi made a pause during which he pressed his lips together and furrowed his brows like he was thinking hard about something and then, quite resolutely, he said: “To hell with this. Sakura. I need to tell you something. Maybe I shouldn’t, it’s not really my secret to tell, but I can’t keep quiet about it anymore.”

“What is it, Kakashi?” she said, her heart beginning to pick up its pace. What secret? She didn’t like the way he sounded.

“Sasuke is sick. At least he thinks he is and… if it’s true... You will have to do a thorough check-up as soon as we’re back and start looking for a cure. I’m hoping he’ll be out of prison then with Naruto’s help.”

“Sick… what do you mean, sick?”

“I mean…,” Kakashi took a deep breath. “Has he ever told you his brother Itachi had a respiratory disease? It weakened him considerably. But it wasn’t only that. I don’t know how much Sasuke knows about it… I’m not even sure he remembers about himself right now. But I as Itachi’s Team Leader in the Anbu got to experience what it did to Itachi.”

Sakura did not understand a word Kakashi was telling her. It was like somebody had hit her over the head and now she had trouble hearing properly. Or was it that she did not want to understand? This had to be how her patients felt when she told them they had something life threatening.

“I know this is a bit sudden,” Kakashi said, watching her face with sympathy. “But you’re a doctor. I think you might be able to tell me whether what I’m saying makes sense or not and you will certainly know what to do.”

“You are telling me Sasuke has the same illness his brother had?” Sakura realized she was shouting.

Kakashi pressed his lips together again. If she weren’t this worked up, she’d marvel about how many emotions she saw on his face in the morning sun now that he had no mask to hide behind.

“I don’t know for sure,” Kakashi admitted a bit meekly, “it was Kabuto who told me that Sasuke’s illness is the reason I got involved with these experiments to preserve the kekkei genkai - though I do not remember making that decision.”

Kakashi’s eyes flitted to his tattooed arm that was hidden underneath several layers of clothes and back to her face.

“I don’t believe this,” Sakura murmured, feeling quite decidedly sick to the stomach. Sasuke was afraid he was going to die too soon to pass on the Uchiha bloodline and had not told her? And Kakashi had agreed to experiments for Sasuke’s sake and had not told her either? How was she supposed to understand these men?!

“Don’t be angry,” Kakashi said, “I am sorry for telling you something this shocking out of the blue. It’s just that… tonight I remembered something Itachi once said about his father who apparently had some strange spells of what Itachi called “Uchiha madness”. And Sasuke’s hatred towards me, his attack… he himself felt that it was unnatural… I think that all three men had that illness, Sakura.”

“You mean to say the sickness is hereditary?” Sakura asked. The Uchiha madness. The curse. Was it not a madness but a genetic abnormality?

“Yes,” Kakashi nodded, “exactly. And I think… I have reason to believe that Sasuke's sudden amnesia and his change of personality are symptoms of that illness.”

Sakura took a couple of deep breaths to calm herself. It made a frightening amount of sense. So much, she wondered why she had never thought of this possibility herself. She was a doctor, she was much more ready to believe in genetics than in curses.

“I understand if you want to head back immediately and be with Sas…”

“Yes,” Sakura interrupted Kakashi, “we will have to go back to check this theory of yours as soon as we can, but first we must find Karin and take her back with us.”

If Kakashi was right, she would need to spend time away. The labs in Konoha were good, but not good enough for this kind of analysis. Besides, doing an analysis was one thing, but finding a cure… it was possible it was going to take months.

“Okay,” Kakashi nodded, getting what she was hinting at. “Yes, she has to come back with us to take care of Sarada.”

“But your amnesia, how is that...?” she began before it clicked. Not because of something that had happened to him at the hand of an enemy. Not because he was locking away memories to function properly instead of breaking down from repeated trauma. “The blood? You think it’s because of the blood!” she whispered, her eyes now flittling to his tattooed arm too. The Uchiha blood in his system?

Kakashi nodded grimly. “It’s the conclusion I came to this morning. I cannot be sure when exactly it started, since what I have is a milder form. I have far smaller quantities of that blood in my body.”

“Oh no,” Sakura said and grabbed his hand, “oh no.”

“Well,” Kakashi said lightly, “now that we know where it comes from… I’m kind of relieved. I do no longer need to find out why I lost my memory, right? And maybe I don’t even need to try and remember.”

“Can’t you get rid of this thing?” she asked Kakashi, pointing at the place she knew his tattoo to be.

Kakashi shook his head. “I don’t think so. At least if Kabuto wasn’t lying. Using two Mangekyō Sharingans changes the cell structure of the body, he said, and he said I need this blood seal if I don’t want to die.”

“Did Sasuke’s father have the Mangekyō Sharingan?” Sakura asked.

“Hm, yes,” Kakashi replied, sounding a bit strange.

“Could it be getting the Mangekyō Sharingan then that triggers it?” she mused. “I’ll have to talk to Kabuto. Do you think he knows more?”

Kakashi sighed. “I don’t know. But I do think he’s been doing experiments with Uchiha blood for a long time.”

“And he worked for Madara,” Sakura said grimly. “Who probably had the illness too. At least latent.”

“So all of this… it makes sense?” Kakashi asked her and lifted his hand to put a lock of her hair behind her ear.

It did. It almost made too much sense.

“I will find a cure,” Sakura promised and lifted her hand to cup his cheek.

“I knew would say that,” Kakashi smiled, “and I know you will find one. Imagine! We will finally be rid of that horrible fate the Uchihas are doomed to inherit. Sasuke will no longer be plagued by the darkness. Imagine! You will be able to be so happy.”

He hugged her very close from behind and buried his face into her hair.

And you will just move over and let him take back his spot by my side? Sakura thought with a pang of sadness. Kakashi had said it with such honest delight, there didn’t seem to be a question for him. Why did that make her sadder than anything else she had heard this day?

***

Going into a foreign town was stressful for a Shinobi whatever mission he was on. The noise, the smells, the crowds, all of these things set his nerves humming and made his head swim. Kakashi hadn’t been in such a buzzing place for years, so maybe he just wasn’t used to it anymore, but he also couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that he had started to have right after Sakura had joined him and Kaeru with Sarada. He had made sure again and again that nobody was following them by dispatching clones to all sides in the forest. He was certain that nobody could have escaped their notice this way. Then why did he still feel like someone was watching them? Perhaps paranoia was another side effect of the Uchiha affliction.

Their little party was walking on the main street, which was so busy Kaeru needed to shield Sarada from passersby’ elbows and knapsacks that came precariously close to her face several times. Kakashi had spent half his money on new shoes for her earlier: the child was walking a little gingerly in them, they were heavier than the old ones and she had first to get used to them, but they would make the journey far more enjoyable for her.

Since their conversation this morning, Sakura had been very quiet. It must be hard for her, Kakashi thought as he watched her solemn face from the side, she must be torn between running back straight away and continuing on this sham “mission” for his sake. Frankly, he didn’t even know why he was not heading back himself. If he was right, if this affliction of his was related to the Uchiha blood in his system, then he was chasing after shadows that, even if caught, would not help him in the least. For a short time he had fooled himself into believing that there was someone out there interested in him - which was a ridiculous thought. Of course this was about the Uchiha’s kekkei genkai. Of course he was paranoid to think that whoever had sent the Susanoos to attack Konoha knew exactly where he was and who he was with.

Earlier, he had overheard Kaeru asking for Sakura’s forgiveness. Kakashi had decided it was best not to get involved in this quarrel, not least because Sakura had asked him not to. But Sakura had not even listened to Kearu and had just walked away, leaving the young Anbu visibly miserable. For this, Kakashi felt responsible. It was no surprise to him at all that Kaeru would oppose a dalliance between him and someone who was married. Married to an Uchiha at that. He was thinking he needed to talk to Kaeru about Sakura but hadn’t found the right opportunity.

“Sensei,” Kaeru suddenly addressed him in a low voice, “should we leave and pitch camp in the forest again? I see you are anxious about this place and so am I.”

Kakashi would eagerly have agreed to that if not for Sakura and Sarada. Both of them looked exhausted and even if he could easily live of foodpills and the occasional fish for weeks, he didn’t want them to be equally uncomfortable. Thus, against his better judgment, he shook his head.

“Let’s look for a hostel,” he told Kaeru. “Can’t be too expensive, I have relatively little money left.”

“I am sorry, Sensei,” Kaeru said chagrined.

Kaeru, used to one thing only, which was Anbu missions, had not thought of bringing money on this outing. Sakura had brought some, but Kakashi refused to touch it.

“We will manage,” he assured Kearu, “don’t worry about it.”

After looking for lodgings in the side-streets, they managed to find a small, slightly rundown hostel that had an empty room because of a last-minute cancellation. They were lucky, the innkeeper told them, space was very tight at the moment because of the fair that was going to start tomorrow, a grand event, drawing many people from near and far.

The room was spacious enough for them to sleep in comfortably, with a small window facing the courtyard and a shared toilet and bath space at the end of the corridor. Sarada starting playing in a corner with stones she had collected on the road today and Kakashi watched her as he unpacked his backpack.

“She’s doing surprisingly fine,” he observed.

Sakura, whom he had addressed, nodded. “Some children are incredibly resilient,” she said quietly. “And yet, they are very fragile even then. Have you noticed how much certain topics freak her out?”

Kakashi nodded. Topics and actions. Like the threat of violence.

“I think she will be fine though,” Sakura said. “Thanks to you.”

“To me?” Kakashi frowned. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Don’t belittle yourself all the time,” she said. “She looks up to you the most. She even copies the way you walk, with your hands in your pockets. By being this unrattled, unwavering, strong person, you’re making her feel safe and that’s exactly what she needs.”

Kakashi chose not to answer. Unrattled wasn’t an adjective he’d put with his person right now.

“Listen, it is likely I will have to leave Konoha to find a cure to this… to this illness,” Sakura said, her voice quivering. “It would ease my heart if you would… stay. And make sure Sarada is okay. I know that Karin trusts you and... likes you and…”

“I will watch out for them,” Kakashi said. “Don’t worry. For them and Sasuke.”

“Thank you,” Sakura said and moved a little closer, promptly earning herself a furtive, yet scathing look from Kaeru.

“Listen up,” Kakashi said and waved the Anbu closer, foregoing the chance to hold Sakura's hand. “There are two things we need to do before getting a good night’s sleep. First, I will find dye for Sakura’s hair. It might seem moot at this point but it would still ease my mind if those tell-tale pink looks were temporarily hidden. Second, we need to find a nice restaurant to eat a healthy meal. Can I put you in charge of that, Kaeru? Check the prices please. You know I don’t have…”

“You can take mine” - “I will get us some more money”, Kearu and Sakura said at the exact same time.

Kakashi shook his head as they exchanged frowns and glances. “No. This is my responsibility and I will take care of it. Let’s meet again in front of the town hall in two hours. Sarada,” he addressed the girl. “Do you want to come with me and Sakura or do you want to go with Kaeru?”

“Kaeru Onii-chan,” Sarada said without even a moment of reflection and scrambled up to sit next to him.

“You chose wisely, Sarada,” Kaeru smiled, “I am known to be the best elder brother in the whole Land of Fire! Maybe you can meet my own sister one day? She will be able to corroborate this.”

Kakashi didn’t think it was necessary to drive it home to Kaeru again how important it was to watch Sarada closely and they soon went their separate ways. Sakura took his hand into hers as they went in search of a hairdresser that wouldn’t bust their limited budget and despite the overall tenseness he felt, this made him happy. If only they had more time!

“Look!” Sakura smiled at him and pulled him towards a bookstore that had colorful balloons outside and large signs advertising what they called ‘new smashit romance series’.

“Would those interest you?” Sakura asked, leafing through one of the books prominently on display.

“Weeeeell,” Kakashi replied, looking over her shoulder. Sadly, he was extremely picky. He had tried so many other books after the Icha-Icha series but none had satisfied him in a similar way. But he missed reading!

“I’ll buy you one,” Sakura said and before he could politely decline, she had already rushed inside to pay.

“Thank you,” he smiled at her after she had pressed the volume into his hand, “you put an old-fashioned guy like me to shame! Shouldn’t the man give presents to the woman?”

“Oh, nonsense,” Sakura laughed, sounding pleased.

They found a hairdresser but he was way too busy so that Kakashi decided to take the dye and do it himself back at the hotel. They had agreed a darkish brown would do the trick, a color not too far from Sarada’s. After applying the paste, Kakashi enjoyed running his hands through Sakura’s hair to ensure all the pink was thoroughly covered and he continued doing it for considerably longer than necessary. He wrapped a towel around her head afterwards and pulled her towards his chest, content to just sit and hold her for a while. It was warm and comfortable in this room and if not for that nagging feeling at the edge of his consciousness he would have nodded off for sure.

“Ino is pregnant,” Sakura said sleepily.

Huh? Kakashi lifted his eyebrows in surprise.

“Sorry,” Sakura murmured, “strange change of topic. I was falling asleep and I suddenly remembered I didn’t get to tell anyone.”

“Sai will be the happiest of men,” Kakashi smiled, “congratulations to them.”

“She’s afraid. A lot,” she confided in him. “She’s afraid Sai might join the Anbu.”

“I won’t let him join,” Kakashi said, “Yamato and I already agreed on that. He’s happy in a relationship. The Anbu will only bring misery, he’s disqualified.”

“That’s… thank you,” Sakura said and shifted a little in his arms. “Why are you so much kinder towards others than towards yourself?”

He didn’t answer.

“Did you… never want children?” Sakura asked, still sounding very sleepy.

Normally, Kakashi wouldn’t even consider answering such a personal question. But today was a little different. He had never felt quite as close and comfortable with anyone before.

“I never thought I’d be in a position to have any,” he said truthfully. “I never thought I’d live long enough.”

“You’d be the perfect dad,” she murmured, making him blush deeply. She seemed to nod off against his chest afterwards, leaving him alone with his forbidden thoughts about baby girls that had pink hair, cried very little and loved their papa very much.

After the necessary time, he shook her awake and Sakura got up to wash out the dye in the bathroom.

She returned a different woman. Thunderstruck he stared at her.

“You don’t like it?” she asked when she saw his face, pulling at her damp hair nervously.

“For a moment, you reminded me of someone else,” Kakashi said, finding his voice slightly brittle.

Rin.

She had looked so much like Rin for a moment that it had thoroughly spooked him. A strange trick of the eye because now that the light from the window reached her face, Sakura looked nothing like Rin. Of course she didn’t.

“Should we go?” she asked him.

Kakashi nodded. As they were putting on their shoes, Sakura suddenly giggled.

“Something the matter?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s Kearu,” she said, “he’s such a strange guy. He took me aside when you went to the toilet before we left and asked to borrow some money from me.”

“What?”

“He said he wanted to surprise you. Is he perhaps in love with you? I’m seriously beginning to suspect that.”

“Shit,” Kakashi groaned, “Sakura, we need to hurry.”

“W...why?” she retorted, but he had already taken her hand and was racing down the stairs with her in tow.

“Sir,” he addressed the innkeeper at the front desk, “which way would I go if I wanted to do some high-stakes gambling?”

“Oh, it is bad for you!” the innkeeper lamented, “don’t do it, young man, don’t do it!”

“I know that,” Kakashi said with urgency, “but my friend doesn’t.”

“Are you saying he went gambling with Sarada?” Sakura gasped as they rushed through the still very crowded streets a short while after.

“It’s likely,” Kakashi nodded, “he used to do it with his little sister. They were quite the expert pair!”

“Sarada will be fine though,” Sakura tried to assure him, “we’ll just need to explain to her that gambling is bad and…”

“Oh, they will be very fine,” Kakashi interrupted her. “He wins big.”

“But..”

“Wins big because he expertly cheats using his special abilities,” Kakashi added, “which means he tends to draw a lot of attention sooner or later and that is the last thing we should be...”

He halted abruptly.

“Dammit,” he cursed.

There was a huge commotion further down the street, drawing more and more people towards it. A fight. And over the noise and the shouting, he could hear the high-pitched, panicked voice of a child.

“Don’t fight, don’t fight, don’t fight!” Sarada screamed.

But when Kakashi wanted to rush forward to defuse the situation, someone stepped into his path resolutely.

“Stop,” the woman said with authority.

Kakashi froze on the spot. A stern looking elderly woman in dark clothing and glasses. He had not recognized her once, but that would never happen to him again.

“M… Misses Nohara?” he stammered. “What are you doing here?”

 

Chapter Text

“Dammit,” Kakashi cursed.

Sakura, who had to gasp for air from trying to keep up with him, felt hugely relieved that they were stopping. She focused on taking deep breaths to calm her racing heart and to get rid of the painful stitch she had developed, before realizing with a sinking feeling why Kakashi had cursed: there was a huge commotion further down the street and that couldn't mean anything good.

“Don’t fight, don’t fight, don’t fight!” Sarada screamed in a high-pitched, panicked voice as if to prove just how bad it actually was.

Feeling dread shoot through her, Sakura craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the little girl, but there were too many arms, fists, heads, backs and other body parts in the way.

Kakashi’s body tensed visibly and she got ready to spring forward with him - but just as she did, he stopped so abruptly in mid-movement that Sakura hit her nose against his back painfully.

“Stop,” a woman said sharply.

“M… Misses Nohara?” Kakashi stammered, sounding more stunned than Sakura had ever heard him. She went on her tiptoes to see whom he was addressing, furiously rubbing her nose and blinking away the tears that had shot into her eyes. Nohara…? That name was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

A woman of about sixty years in dark, loose fitting clothes and glasses blocked their way. She had grey, slightly wavy hair covered by a white coif. Sakura immediately associated that with those religious traveling nurses she had seen in the black and white photo books at the hospital, they had been active before Tsunade had further professionalized the medical corps. Despite her unimpressive height, there was such an unmistakable aura of stern authority coming from her that Sakura instinctively pulled back her head a little, short of hiding behind Kakashi’s back.

“Not a step further,” the woman said sharply, “I want to see both your hands, Kakashi, keep them wide apart. And I’m sure you’ll understand that I’d hate to see harm come to a good medic. It’s just a precaution, but only fools underestimate you.”

At those words, the sharp point of a kunai was pressed against Sakura’s back.

“I’m… sorry,” Sakura groaned. What stupid, inattentive cow was she to not realize somebody had snuck up on her?

“Don’t worry, Sakura,” Kakashi said grimly, throwing a brief look over his shoulder as he lifted his hands up. “And please don't move.”

“You are the daughter of Haruno Kizashi?” the elderly woman addressed her directly now in a neutral tone, her eyes focusing briefly on the seal on her forehead. “The Uchiha’s wife.”

“Are we acquainted?” Sakura asked boldly, elder or not, rude was still rude, trying to ignore the knife at her back but that proved to be difficult because the wielder pressed down a little as soon as she wanted to step forward. The woman was from Konoha? Slightly older than her own parents. Nohara… N…. oh.

“Don't move!” Kakashi repeated with emphasis. Did he think her that rash and hotheaded? Well, she did feel an upsurge of anger - how dare this woman ambush them like this, whomever’s mother she was? - but she also knew better than to explode in a situation this ripe with escalatory potential.

Sakura realized they were surrounded. One, two… five, seven… at least ten scowling men were forming a ring around them. They wore no headbands but they were shinobis without a doubt, with clothes that looked like a discrete uniform of sorts. She was sure they would be no match for Kakashi, but it didn’t look like he was planning to attack. Because he feared to endanger her, most likely.

“This is my private guard,” Mrs. Nohara explained. “You have nothing to fear from them. Please follow me, I only wish to talk. Do not worry about Hiroto and the girl, we’ll get them away unscathed. You’ll be able to see them shortly.”

Hiroto? Was that Kaeru’s real name? Sakura trotted behind Kakashi, trying to read his mood and guess his intentions. How she wished she’d know those secret Anbu hand signs! But his Sukea face was impassive and she detected no tension in his body. She’d play along then - even if just to find out why a woman, who dressed like a travelling nurse, would keep a private guard.

They were led back down the street, then through a door of a dark wooden building and up some stairs. It was a traditional tea house, Sakura soon realized, with an elegant, minimalist interior, lovely flower arrangements and little pagoda shaped lanterns on the tables for light.

“Please,” Mrs. Nohara said after they had taken off their shoes and pointed to a low table with thin cushions on the tatami mats.

Kakashi lowered himself on his knees, his hands still up in the air. The kunai was pulled back as soon as Sakura had sat down next to him, but the guards did not leave the room, just shrunk into the background. The woman took a seat opposite of them, studying their faces attentively. Or mainly Kakashi’s, Sakura realized. This woman seemed to know him, but probably not without his mask. Hopefully, Kakashi wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable.

“You are the spitting image of your father,” Mrs. Nohara soon observed, confirming Sakura’s hunch where her attention had been, “may his soul rest in peace. But you’ve got your mother’s hands.”

There was a minuscule emotion flitting across Kakashi’s features before he had himself under full control again.

“Mrs. Nohara, I am very surprised to see you here,” he addressed the woman. “So it was you who followed us?”

The elderly woman nodded. Sakura frowned. So he did know how to lie? Had he not assured her in the forest nothing was the matter? She'd have to give him an earful about this.

“Why?” Kakashi added bluntly, but the sliding door was opened that very moment and a waitress bowed, asking what she could serve them.

“Gyokuro tea, please,” Mrs. Nohara ordered with a small smile, “and a light meal. For five.”

Mrs. Nohara folded her hands in her lap. “You can put your hands on the table, Kakashi. I assume you are curious enough now not to bolt and run.”

He placed them there carefully and slowly, palms down, probably not wanting to appear threatening. Then, he just sat and waited. Just as Mrs. Nohara did.

“Are you from Konoha?” Sakura blurted out, not ready to do the same nor did she want to watch this not-quite staring contest for even a second longer.

Mrs. Nohara turned her brown eyes to hers.

“Has Tsunade forgotten to teach you manners, girl?” she asked disapprovingly. “Ah, but she never had any either.”

“Oh, because it’s great manners to force people to drink tea with them?” Sakura snapped back.

“She is the head of Konoha’s orphanage, Sakura,” Kakashi explained quietly. Like that made any more sense! The head of Konoha’s orphanage followed them out of the village with a private army and ambushed them in this border town? Why?

“Is it about Sarada?” Sakura demanded to know.

“Is that the little girls name?” Mrs. Nohara asked back.

“What do you want with her?” Sakura asked aggressively.

Mrs. Nohara didn’t answer, she just glared at her. So what Kakashi had feared had indeed happened! Moving Sarada out of town had set things - and people! - in motion. And… oh. Now she understood something Kakashi had said when they had met up with him! Damn Tsunade! Is she really doing this? This woman is ruthless! Had Tsunade guessed what would happen? Had she… conveniently used her and Sarada to flush out their enemies? Knowing they would be as safe as they could be in such a situation with Kakashi to help them?

“Your guards,” Kakashi said, “did you train them yourself?”

“No, of course not,” Mrs. Nohara smiled, “Danzo used to do that for me. You could have been one of them, but you ran away.”

There was a commotion on the stairs before Kakashi could reply, Sakura recognized Kaeru’s voice shouting insults at whoever was dragging him up here. She had to smile despite the seriousness of the situation. The insults were very creative.

“Language, young man!” Mrs. Nohara snapped as he was pushed inside and forced to kneel by two large men holding his shoulders and arms.

“W… W…. warden? What are you doing here?” Kaeru stammered, all the color leaving his face as he stared up at the woman looking down on him.

Sarada was ushered in after him, her eyes huge and frightened, her feet running straight to Kakashi so she could bury her face against his chest. Sakura understood her well. Kakashi’s chest was a place where one found solace and protection.

“I’ll deal with you later, just kneel for now,” Mrs. Nohara snapped at Kaeru and turned to Sarada who was peeking out from the safety of Kakashi’s arms, her curiosity getting the better of her. Kakashi scowled at Kaeru like he was thinking he deserved to kneel for endangering Sarada like he had.

“I was very curious to meet you, young lady,” the Warden said, her voice shaking a little, Sakura wasn’t sure why - excitement?, “you’ve got a natural Sharingan? Can I see it?”

“She has awakened it only recently,” Kakashi said in her stead and wrapped his arms around Sarada’s body a bit more tightly, “she does not yet know how to master it.”

“A raw diamond,” Mrs. Nohara whispered and Sakura felt a shudder sneak down her spine.

“What business of yours is it whether she has a Sharingan or not?” Sakura challenged the woman, finding her insufferably rude and condescending and scary on top.

“Not my business,” Mrs. Nohara said coldly, “but Konoha’s. It changes everything.”

The waitress with the opposite of impeccable timing came back, balancing cups, plates, tea and snacks and arranged everything neatly on the table for them, interrupting the conversation once more.

“Please,” Mrs. Nohara said with an inviting gesture after sipping some of her tea, “help yourselves. You too, Hiroto, you look like a starved rat.”

Why was Kaeru afraid of her? Sakura watched him move forward on his knees gingerly, with his head lowered. Then she recalled that conversation they had had in the Anbu HQ’s kitchen. He had told her he had grown up in the orphanage, apparently Mrs. Nohara had been the warden back then. She moved to the side a little for him to join her at the table, but he seemed to prefer to stay back.

“His name is Kaeru,” Sakura said sullenly, suddenly feeling moved to take his side and if necessary protect him.

“Is it now?” Mrs. Nohara said. “But names mean nothing. This one has a flawed character, which certainly didn’t get any better when he lived on the streets among thieves and beggars by choice - and it won’t go away, whatever name he uses.”

“If you don’t stop to insult my subordinates, I will no longer cooperate,” Kakashi said coldly - holding at least fourteen shuriken between his fingers at the blink of an eye. Sarada squealed and ducked underneath the table.

“Stand down!” Mrs. Nohara sighed, signalling to her men to put away their weapons.

“I hate runaways,” she added, more to herself. “Ungrateful brats.”

“And we runaways hated your institution and Danzo’s insane ideas,” Kakashi stated matter-of-factly, the shuriken disappearing from view almost like magic. Like a well-behaved boy, Kakashi put his hands back on the table. Sarada reappeared but decided to sidle up to Sakura this time, a warm presence at her arm.

“Oh, but this one loved it,” Mrs. Nohara smirked, “Seldom have I met anyone more eager to please. We had great plans for him but sadly, his mind is too weak. His sister’s hysterical tears were enough to make him quit.”

“My sister is not hysterical,” Kaeru pressed out, lifting his head defiantly, eyes flashing. “she was suffering. And she’s much better off where she is now!”

“Ah yes?” Mrs. Nohara smiled. “Are you sure that fisherman your sister threw herself at is treating her well enough?”

“Wh… what…” Kaeru went very pale again.

“You should pay her a visit one of these days,” Mrs. Nohara said much too amiably. “You’ll be surprised.”

“Sensei…,” Kaeru pleaded, moving forward on his knees a little.

“On our way back,” Kakashi said quietly, “we will go and visit her.”

“This is the problem with you, Kakashi,” Mrs. Nohara said coldly. “Instead of just doing your duty like an obedient soldier, you get sidetracked by sentimentalities.”

Gnnnnnnnnnnnuuuuuuuargh! How dare this woman!

“Don’t you ever insult Kakashi with your foul....!” Kakashi’s hand gripped Sakura’s knee almost painfully at the first word she shouted and that made her clamp her mouth shut halfway through her sentence. She saw Kaeru had lifted his head too, his own anger clearly visible on his face, but Kakashi signalled something to him, even if his hands barely moved, stopping Kaeru too.

“You are right,” Kakashi said softly and even managed to sound proud. “I realized not too long ago how lucky I am to have a heart left and that is why I let it dictate my actions whenever I can.”

“It’s unconventional, but it seems to foster strong loyalties,” Mrs. Nohara observed with a side glance at Sakura and Kaeru. “So why do you keep resisting the office of Hokage?”

Kakashi raised his eyebrows. He seemed surprised, but Mrs. Nohara obviously enjoyed changing the topic. Was she testing him?

“Danzo tried and failed miserably to remove Tsunade,” Kakashi said, “I will most certainly not help to carry out the wishes of someone who was a traitor to Konoha.”

Mrs. Nohara chuckled. “That’s harsh. Despite his sometimes extreme methods, he only wanted the best for Konoha. Do you? Naruto won’t be ready for another decade, we would never get the Uchiha approved in the council - and all the while Tsunade is coming apart faster and faster. She cannot live with this stress any longer. It’s time - and there is nobody else.”

“Is this why you followed me?” Kakashi asked. “To convince me I should become Hokage? I doubt that.”

“I do not speak for myself in this matter,” Mrs. Nohara answered and took up some chopsticks. Sarada who had been watching her did the same. “I'm personally not convinced a sentimental person who cannot let go of the past is suited for the position. But in contrast to you, I never mended the pieces of my broken heart. I just got entirely rid of it.”

The pain that became visible on Kakashi’s unhidden face was like a fist to the gut. Sakura’s hand shot out to press his knee for comfort, but he didn’t even seem to notice. He bowed forward low.

“What happened to your daughter… what I did to her… I am… I never apologized to you. If I could turn back time, I would do everything differently, I would…”

“Oh, shush,” Mrs. Nohara said and hit the table with her hand for emphasis. “Did you even listen to a single word I said? Without Rin forcing your hand, Konoha would have suffered a great loss… worse, it could have ended us. I raised my child to understand that a single person’s life is worth nothing. A Shinobi’s life only has value if it is spent entirely for the good of the nation. If only you would live by the Shinobi Code of Conduct more rigorously, Kakashi, you would never have taken the incident to heart like you did. You were and you are only one thing: A weapon. Weapon’s have no hearts. You killed what had to be killed. Get over it.”

Resolutely and like she considered the conversation to be over, Mrs. Nohara began to eat. Kakashi, who had lifted his head, just stared at her.

“How can you say that,” Sakura blurted out. “Were you not her mother?”

“I still am,” Mrs. Nohara said. “And I never said it was easy. But you’d do well to work on your temper, young lady. Your Sensei’s crippling guilt serves no other purpose than to give him an excuse to stall. Konoha needs you, Kakashi. Now more than ever. Get a grip. And now, eat. There will be plenty more.”

Sakura wished once again that Kakashi had his mask to hide behind because she could not stomach seeing the raw emotions on his face. Don’t push him, it’s hurting him, she wanted to shout, but this woman knew exactly what she was doing. Pushing him was quite obviously part of the plan. This woman had worked closely with Danzō Shimura, one of the most ruthless men Konoha had ever known. Sakura knew quite a bit about those dark times, but not nearly enough. Root… Sai and Captain Yamato had been part of that secret branch that had tried to raise super soldiers with no emotions. Kakashi too? And it seemed Kaeru?

But Danzo was dead. Where did Mrs. Nohara stand now? She talked like she had connections. And the way she carried herself, held her chopsticks, effused authority, had money for a private guard…

“Can I please eat too?” Sarada said at Sakura’s arm, looking up to her with eager readiness, the chopsticks outstretched.

“Of course, Sarada,” Sakura said and smiled at her. “Eat as much as you’d like.”

“Always eat well when you can,” Mrs. Nohara added, “you must get strong, Sarada. And determined.”

She was hungry too, Sakura realized as she saw Sarada dig in with a huge appetite. The food looked delicious. And expensive. The waitress brought more, soup for each of them, a variety of side dishes. With a side glance at Kakashi, Sakura took up her chopsticks too.

“You should eat,” she told him softly.

“Listen to your companion,” Mrs. Nohara snickered, “she knows what’s good for you. And please, don’t waste the tea, you must drink it before it gets cold.”

“Will you leave Sarada alone if I become Hokage?” Kakashi asked quietly, looking down at his hands.

“I can’t do that,” Mrs. Nohara said friendly. “The Sharingan is a matter of national security. But her existence gives us more options. Fewer people will have to suffer. Let’s say I can offer you time. If you become Hokage before the summer is over, she can have a normal childhood for a while.”

Kakashi nodded, still looking down. Don’t do it if you’re that unhappy about it! Sakura thought, her heart reaching out to him. We won’t let this woman take Sarada away from us, whatever you choose.

“Are you plotting a rebellion?” Mrs. Nohara asked her with a sugar sweet smile. “Girl, you are a very capable medic. We will make sure you become even more capable. But don’t be naive. You have no idea what you’re up against.”

“You could always tell me,” Sakura said snippily.

“I could,” Mrs. Nohara smiled, looking like a predator ready to bite her head off. “But I won’t.”

Sakura was getting angry again, but she saw Kakashi was taking up his own chopsticks and thus began busying herself with moving dishes close to him for easier reach.

“More than loyalty, I see,” Mrs. Nohara observed drily. “This is not your place, girl.”

“Listen, lady!” Sakura snapped, sitting on a mountain of rage that was ready to erupt like a volcano, “what business of yours is it whether I like him or not?”

That earned her a reaction from Kakashi, who looked at her with surprise - and a glare and snort from Mrs. Nohara who chose to ignore her again afterwards.

What? Sakura thought as she looked into Kakashi’s Sukea eyes. You think I can’t say it out loud? You think I don’t mean it? You think I’m not serious? I’m here with you, am I not? I won’t let anyone hurt you.

“We should eat,” he said softly, his eyes moving from her eyes to her lips, making her heart pick up speed. Do you want to kiss me? Kiss me. She leaned forward a little. She will blow a fuse. I’d love to see that.

He leaned in too and there was a strange look in his eyes she was trying to figure out - but before she could, the door was pushed open with force, making both of them jump. The person interrupting this time wasn’t the waitress but a guard. He sank to his knees, clasping his hands around his sword. “Lady Nohara,” he reported breathlessly, “they have found out where we are already.”

“The other people who have followed us?” Kakashi asked.

Mrs. Nohara looked at him with slitted eyes. “You have to go.”

Kakashi got up and signalled to Sakura and Kaeru to do the same.

“My men will escort you,” she said, signalling to someone behind her in turn. “Move.”

“What the heck is going on,” Sakura whispered to Kakashi as they were rushed down the stairs and out onto the street, “who is she? And why did you not tell me that you knew we were being followed? By two parties even?”

“I will tell you later,” Kakashi said evasively and before she could complain any more, he had hand signalled Kaeru who promptly grabbed Sarada and made a run for it. The Nohara guard reacted instantly by splitting in half, one fraction going after him, the other trying to form a ring around Kakashi and Sakura. There was a second of confusion in between, which was enough for someone like Kakashi to gain the upper hand. As quick as lightning he struck, one, two, three, four, five, all down, grabbed Sakura and jumped up onto a roof where he took to running fast like the wind.

“Wait here for me,” he said a while later when it looked like nobody was following them.

“No,” Sakura protested, “I want to come with you.”

“Okay,” he said, “I’m going back though.”

“W… why?”

“I want to see who it is,” he just said and started running again without any further explanation.

They took up a position on a rooftop near the restaurant behind a chimney.

“Dim your chakra signature,” was all he said. She had thousands of questions for him, but now was not the time to ask them.

At least they didn’t have to wait for long.

A group of masked soldiers appeared in the street below, Sakura counted fifteen, but that wasn’t why she suddenly felt sick. They were wearing Oni masks and fur, like those men. The ones whose blood had painted her bedroom red.

In their midst walked a woman, several heads shorter than the men around her, yet clearly the one in charge. Curiously, Sakura bent forward a little more.

Did the woman possess special sensory powers? In any case, she suddenly looked up with a frown. Sakura pulled her head back quickly. Had she been seen? Peeking out again carefully, she came to the conclusion that she had not… the men and the woman continued their way down the street and towards the teahouse.

A brown haired woman who seemed very familiar to her.

“Did you see her face too?” she turned to Kakashi, hoping he would be able to help her, but getting quite a shock when she saw his face.

He looked like he had seen a ghost.

“Are you alright?” Sakura asked full of concern. “What happened?”

“Rin,” he whispered. “It’s Rin.”

And before she could do anything to stop him, he had already jumped to the roof on the opposite side and was running towards the teahouse.

 

Chapter Text

It couldn't be Rin.

He had killed her. He had cruelly snuffed out the shining light she had been. His world had shattered as he held her stiffening body in his arms. After blacking out, he had woken up in Konoha's hospital with an unbearable pain in his head, remembering every gruesome detail of her death, his hand twitching with a bloody memory of its own.

I am sorry, Minato Sensei had said with tears in his normally so cheerful eyes. I am sorry I couldn't be there for you. You shouldn't have lost everyone you care for at such an early age. I am so sorry.

It couldn't be Rin.

They had buried her at Konoha's cemetery while he hid behind the trees at the back. He couldn't get himself to go near the hole in the ground, his legs had shaken so violently he could hardly stand. It had taken weeks before he had been able to visit her grave and even more weeks before he had managed to find words to say.

It couldn't be Rin.

And yet, Kakashi knew in the depth of his heart with absolute certainty that it was her.

A Shinobi must never show attachment. A Shinobi must never show emotion. A Shinobi must always put the mission first. A Shinobi must always carry out the mission assigned. A Shinobi must...

The essential rules of a Shinobi rushing through his head in a desperate parade could do nothing to stop him. He had to go see her, go hold her, go talk to her...

... what would he say?

I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

...which were not even remotely the words he knew needed saying.

Take my life in exchange, will that make up for what I have done?

Better. But was his life one he could give away freely? Did his duty to the village allow him such a decision?

What happened to you, Rin?

No headband. A face as hard as stone when it had once shone with the softest kindness. How much had she suffered, how much had she endured? Knowing she had been alive all these years without having the protection and appreciation of the village only brought renewed pain and made his guilt even bigger than it already was. He should have known. He should have...

"Kakashi, stop!"

There was a shadow trying to bar his way, but Kakashi dodged to the left, dismissing it as minor nuisance, his eyes looking for the quickest way down from the roof to enter the teahouse. He cared nothing for stealth, that would only slow him down.

"STOP!"

The attack that followed was swift and forceful, but he dodged again, roughly shouldering aside the annoying person, aiming for a pressure point on the assaulting arm when a flash of surprised green eyes pierced his tunnel vision and his gut contracted painfully, bringing awareness back into his mindless urgency.

But his outstretched fingers had already connected with Sakura's body. The feeling of snapping bones underneath her skin brought instant nausea. Horrified, he tried to grab onto her so that she wouldn't fall and hurt herself even more - when BAM, Sakura's chakra infused fist hit him square in the chest, knocking all the wind out of him, slamming his body backwards onto the roof with formidable force.

Serves you right. You hurt her.

"What are you doing?" Sakura hissed at him, furiously rubbing her injured arm with an expression of pain before sending chakra into it to heal herself, "It's surely a trap!"

Kakashi was trying to breathe but there was a sharp pain in his chest that spread to his throat. He desperately needed to tell Sakura how sorry he was, but there was no sound coming out of his mouth, only labored gasps.

"I might have hit a little harder than necessary, you spooked me," Sakura murmured, taking his arm and dragging him out of sight. Once that was accomplished she squatted down to check the street below.

"It didn't cross your mind that those guards gave up pursuit too easily? Mrs. Nohara probably only wanted to separate you from Sarada!"

Kakashi tried to sit up, which didn't go so well. Of course! How could he not have considered it? Someone who had been thick with Danzo would not shy away from using her own daughter to get what she wanted.

"Just lie still!" Sakura said, "it'll pass quicker that way. I didn't damage anything vital but there will be quite a bruise."

Now she looked guilty. When it was him, him who had messed up so royally. Suddenly feeling acutely embarrassed, Kakashi was glad his throat couldn't muster words yet. If he was lucky, he would be able to get his thoughts into a semblance of order before speech came back to him.

"It's definitely no reanimation jutsu," Sakura mused, joining him behind the chimney. "That's good. Right?"

No reanimation jutsu? Indeed, Rin's eyes had been normal. Orochimaru and Kabuto knew how to do that forbidden jutsu and though he could not think of any scenario in which it made sense that they had used it on Rin, he almost wished they had. Simply because he could not deal with seeing Rin alive, aged naturally, walking in the company of enemies when he had thought... all these years... tears stung his eyes.

"I'm sorry," Sakura said and lifted her hand, probably to comfort him.

He deserved no such sympathy. Kakashi turned his head away and closed his eyes in silent agony. If only he wore his mask, that would at least afford him some privacy.

Wordlessly, Sakura's hand reached for the scarf he was wearing around his neck and pulled it up to cover half his face, arranging it careful before averting her face too.

"It is really her, isn't it," she said unhappily. "You must be so shocked."

She had covered his face.

Earlier in the teahouse, Sakura had taken his side fearlessly, challenging someone like Mrs. Nohara who exuded authority that spoke of connections to the highest political levels. What business of yours is it whether I like him or not? she had hurled at the woman. So brave. So foolish. And she had said it like she meant it.

Don't like me. Get away from me.

"Don't think dark thoughts, Kakashi" Sakura said, her eyes looking into his with much tenderness, "I'm a doctor. I am sorry if I overstep boundaries saying this, but you were traumatized back then. Your PTSD went untreated because nobody in Konoha knew how to deal with battle-scarred youths. You still have it and Sasuke's Tsukuyomi made everything much worse. It is completely normal that seeing that woman who meant... means so much to you makes you lose your head. But hey! Nothing happened just now, you're safe."

How can someone like you exist in this world? Kakashi thought full of wonderment. Someone so kind and selfless, someone who says 'you are safe' when it is my job to keep you safe? I don't deserve your attention.

He wasn't quite sure what Sakura saw in his gaze but she blushed a very deep red and began fiddling around with her brown colored hair. Kakashi's heart shuddered painfully. Whatever happened, Sakura had to be safe. Sakura and Sarada. Even if his entire world crumbled, that he could live and die by.

There was still a lot of pain in his chest, but Kakashi pushed himself up and took Sakura's hand, managing not to sway or stagger. Even if the fool in him longed to stay, worse, longed to burst into the teahouse to see Rin and hear the truth about what had transpired - the fool in him also knew when to yield.

***

She had hit him hard.

Keeping an eye on Kakashi's movements as they left the town swiftly but carefully as not to be seen, Sakura reassured herself that she hadn't hit too hard and that he could breathe again with no impairment. She should probably have offered to heal him, he must be in considerable pain, but she knew him well enough to know he would refuse.

He remained silent even though she was certain he had regained his ability to speak. His eyes showed so much vulnerability and guilt she felt moved to hug him and tell him everything was going to be alright - but refrained from doing such a thing because she knew he wanted to be left alone.

Getting to Sarada and keeping her out of Mrs. Nohara's hands had to be their main goal now when he probably wanted only one thing: to be reunited with that woman he had thought he'd killed.

That woman.

Rin Nohara. How and why she was alive was beyond Sakura's ability to comprehend but whatever the reason, it was major bad news, she couldn't think of it any other way.

She had panicked and had hit Kakashi with too much force because she was afraid to lose him. It was as simple as that. As simple and as complicated.

She didn't even know what he had felt for Rin beyond camaraderie. It wasn't her place to ask and he had never offered to talk about his past. And yet, she had been in his mind twice, behind those seals, reliving very intimate memories that he had locked away. He had let her in there when he was the most private person she knew - well, apart from her own husband. She knew that Kakashi carried major scars from his youth. And she understood what the biggest, most painful scar was - not the death of Obito. Not even the death of his father. Kakashi had learned to make peace with those ghosts from his past. No, the biggest and most debilitating scar was Rin.

That she had diagnosed Kakashi with PTSD to his face without being asked to was overstepping all the professional boundaries she lived by - but that too came from her fear that their worlds were drifting apart and that by telling him his condition she would somehow be able to bind him to her.

Of course she wanted him to become Hokage, he deserved it like nobody else, no - Konoha deserved it. Hatake Kakashi was the most intelligent, most experienced, most capable Shinobi Konoha had, serving the village all his life with single-minded dedication. But if there were people like Mrs. Nohara who tried to arm-twist him into that office ... maybe she didn't want him to be Hokage after all.

And very truthfully, maybe she didn't want him to be Hokage because she feared that with their statuses already being so different, the gulf between them would become unbridgeable.

Sakura sighed. How presumptuous of her to have such thoughts. To lose someone, you first had to "have" him. Quite unbidden, Anko's words popped up in Sakura's head: "You can't tie down the wind. Hatake Kakashi is not one to keep still, never was." Followed by Ino's cryptic remarks: "You can't fall in love with him, that would get much too messy."

Well, there was no use denying it. She had fallen in love with him. She of all people should know better than to pine after a man that couldn't be hers. She hated the vulnerability and the neediness it entailed. She had spent her entire dignity chasing after one man already. Would she be able to do it for another, knowing just how futile it was going to be?

It was an agonizing trip out of that town that prepared itself for joyous festivities, with dark thoughts getting darker and hope retreating further and further the more she thought about their current situation, but at least Kakashi seemed to know exactly where they were going and didn't seem worried or anxious, telling her he had faith in Kaeru's abilities to keep Sarada safe.

It was already dark when they stopped in the forest, somewhere to the South-West of the town. The sky was cloudless and moon provided enough light to see shadows. They had gone in a semi-circle and Kakashi had checked often whether they were pursued. That didn't seem to be the case for now, but he also deployed at least twenty clones at one stage.

What if she asked him whether she could have one of his clones? Just to keep her company. When he decided to go somewhere she couldn't follow.

Kakashi whistled low and seconds later, Kaeru let himself fall from a tree.

"Sensei! I was getting incredibly worried, why did it take you so long?"

"I'm taking first watch," was all Kakashi said in reply. "Where is our gear?"

"Over there," Kaeru said, pointing to a bush.

Kakashi went over, rummaged around in his backpack that he pulled from its hiding place and started stripping.

Sakura's eyes grew round and like the good girl she was, she averted her eyes when the shirt came off, but all that Kakashi did was get rid of of his Sukea disguise. After fastening his mask and stowing away everything neatly with what looked like considerable anger, he stomped into the forest, his silver hair disappearing into the shadows.

"Did you... did you fight?" Kaeru asked her with a worried frown.

"No, we didn't!" Sakura gave back, her heart contracting painfully with worry for Kakashi. "Something pretty crazy happened."

"Oh," Kearu said wide-eyed, "shit. ...what?"

"Can I ask questions first?" Sakura addressed him. "Where is Sarada?"

"On a tree," Kaeru answered. "We got here quite some time ago."

"What if she falls down?" Sakura worried, looking up but seeing nothing.

"No worries," Kaeru grinned, "I made her a little bed and tied her to it with chakra strings. She's sleeping. We should go up too, it's too dangerous down here. Need help?"

"No!" Sakura bristled and made sure to run up the tree he indicated a little faster and much more elegant than she would normally have done.

As Kaeru had said there was a little nest high up on a sizeable crotch and two additional ones not far from it. Very crafty.

"Just admit that you're impressed," he grinned after watching her face quite eagerly.

"You!" Sakura fumed, finding his smugness insulting, "you are one to talk. Gambling! Are you CRAZY? Your stupid stunt earlier jeopardized everything!"

"Shhhh," Kaeru urged her, edging away from her, probably fearing she would hit him, "Sarada will wake up."

Too late.

A presence stirred in the little nest made from a sleeping bag and chakra ropes and a head appeared.

"Is it auntie Sakura?" Sarada yawned, fumbling for her glasses.

Au... auntie?!

"I'm not an auntie! I'm barely older than... this one," Sakura heard herself utter before she cringed at her own reaction.

Kearu snickered contently while Sakura felt her face grow hot. God, as if it mattered what the girl called her. Auntie was at least better than mother.

"I'm very glad you're alright," she murmured to no one in particular. It seemed that Kakashi and Kaeru had agreed on this meeting place long before the incident today. It also seemed like Kaeru had retrieved all their possessions in time. Of course, Kakashi had known they were being pursued and had taken precautions without telling her. Sakura felt a little left out, but she was also suddenly too exhausted to care much.

"Who will eat all that food the Lady bought for us now that we're gone?" Sarada wanted to know and yawned again.

"Why, did you not get enough?" Sakura asked after a split second of not quite understanding what the girl was alluding to, then thinking she didn't want to be in charge of feeding little girls, it only reminded her that she hadn't eaten enough either. She'd have to take a food pill later if she didn't want to be miserable all night. And Kakashi? He hadn't eaten at all. Did he carry food pills with him?

"I had no sweets," Sarada said ruefully and with a little pout, coming to the heart of the matter.

"I'll buy you sweets the next time we stop somewhere," Sakura promised the girl. "Your favorite."

"Milk buns?" Sarada asked hopeful.

"Sure," Sakura nodded, "milk buns sounds good. The ones with cinnamon and sugar? I like them too."

"The ones uncle Kakashi gave me last time?" Sarada said, her sentence clearly containing a question, her eyes looking for someone who wasn't here.

"Kakashi is guarding us," she reassured the girl, "you will see him tomorrow."

Sarada nodded and put her head down, snuggling into the little bed high up in the trees. "Good night," she said.

"Good night," Sakura echoed and within seconds, Sarada had fallen asleep again.

"Phew," Sakura sighed, "close call today."

"What happened?" Kearu urged her, pointing to a branch a little distance away where they could talk without waking Sarada. The temperature had risen quite miraculously in a very short time - even though night had fallen more than an hour ago, it was still warm enough to sit around without extra layers of clothes.

"I haven't finished asking you questions yet," Sakura told him sternly once they had settled down there. "Hiroto, huh? You might want to do some explaining, maybe."

"Mrs. Nohara was the warden at the orphanage," Kaeru said quietly. His face grew very still, with not a trace of smugness left.

"Was there a... cult? That took children away?" Sakura asked.

Kearu turned his face in her direction. It shone white in the night. "How do you know about this?" he whispered.

"It was in Kakashi's memories," Sakura explained, which only confused Kearu further since he knew nothing about the Genjutsu sessions. "I really don't know anything, but I think I begin to at least see some parts of the puzzle."

"I was one of the children they took," Kearu admitted. He sounded pained and Sakura thought she wouldn't pressure him for more information if he didn't want to give her any. "As was my sister. They did... experiments. I don't remember much, I probably wanted to forget or... was made to forget? Mrs. Nohara knew about it, but she did nothing to stop it."

"Was it Danzo?" Sakura guessed.

Kaeru nodded. "Yes. But there were others too. I got selected into some special combat group, not many were that lucky. It took me a long time to come up with a foolproof plan: I had one chance to get my sister out of the laboratories. It worked and we ran away."

"When was that?"

"Ten years ago, a bit more," Kaeru answered.

"Where did you go?" Sakura asked, thinking back to that time. Before the war. When her and her friends' lives had revolved around how to get Sasuke back... dead or alive.

"Anywhere and nowhere," Kaeru said very quietly. "We lived on the street. In the forest. In abandoned buildings. We earned money with gambling, it was hard. When the war started, things got much worse. A group of bandits took us in, well... as long as we paid. After the war, I continued to gamble for them until things went very wrong and they... it was Kakashi Sensei who saved us. He went up against all of them by himself, there were more than thirty."

Kaeru grew quiet. It was obvious that there was a lot he wasn't saying but true to her earlier promise, Sakura didn't pry.

"You're worried about your sister after what that old snake said?" she asked instead.

Kaeru nodded. "I didn't know she kept track of us," he said, "why would she even care?"

"I've never met her before today," Sakura sighed, "but I've met her type when Tsunade and I went to the capital to beg for money for the hospital some years ago. She seems to have connections. Only the powerful talk with that kind of arrogance."

"I'm more than a little worried," Kaeru admitted and sighed deeply. "I'm sorry I was so useless, seeing her so unexpectedly made me freeze up completely... Kakashi Sensei is very angry with me, isn't he."

Sakura sighed too. Another one with PTSD and she hadn't even asked him why they had grown up in the orphanage. There was a lot to do for someone who wanted to specialize in mental health, wasn't there?

"He isn't. In that teahouse, he fished for as much information as he could get out of Mrs. Nohara. We haven't spoken about it, but I'm sure the meeting was very useful. He knew us leaving the village would flush some interesting people out of hiding. Ultimately, the one that messed up is me - not you."

"He really likes you," Kaeru said sullenly as if that changed the fact that she should never have left Konoha with Sarada in tow.

"I like him a lot too," Sakura replied, raising her voice a little to make sure Kaeru understood every syllable. "I don't care if you approve or not. And I'm not just using him."

Kaeru didn't reply but he sighed again, looking up at the moon, shifting his weight a little on the branch next to her.

"She'll come after us," Kaeru said, "I think it would be better to head back to Konoha right away."

"I fear Sarada is not safe there either," Sakura said.

"What are we going to do then?" Kaeru asked.

"I don't know. I think I will have to go talk to Kakashi. I want to know what he's planning."

"Do that," Kaeru said. "I'm worried about him."

Rightfully so.

Sakura sighed once more. "We saw Rin. Rin Nohara. His team mate. It seems she is alive."

"Oh shit," Kaeru summed it up concisely, almost falling off the tree. "SHIT."

***

Anger was a convenient emotion. It suppressed others like sadness, anxiety, helplessness, not giving them room to surface. Kakashi was surprisingly good at stoking the flames of his anger for someone who was known to be laid back, with a tendency for laziness if circumstances allowed.

The problem with anger was that the higher the flames burned, the quicker it was over. There were only so many people he could blame for his current state of mind and most inconveniently, it was mainly himself he ended up blaming over and over.

But Kakashi was no stranger to self-loathing. It was what had defined him in his youth, bringing him to the brink, where the wish for self-destruction was the force that had kept him alive when all he had really wanted was to die.

He threw a small stone at a tree, speeding it up like a bullet. Rip. The resin that flowed out from the damaged bark looked like thick blood for a moment. How foolish these emotions now seemed to him. This selfish suffering, ridiculous!

One of his shadow clones interrupted his seething by messaging that he had come across people but that was far to the South and it seemed to be a group of bandits that had nothing to do with their current problem. Kakashi made a mental note though because this group of bandits was quite sizable and Konoha would be held accountable for not taking care of such insecurity in the Land of Fire.

There were no further incidents after that, only a forest full of sounds that grew more and more quiet.

He had expected Sakura would come but when she did, escorted by another clone, his heart started beating faster nonetheless. Why? Because he was a fool who was ready to grab onto a woman more than a decade younger than him for consolation. Burying his head at her neck was what he wanted to do, forgetting everything for as long as possible

"Are you the real Kakashi?" she asked when she squatted down next to him on his branch. "I thought I could tell, but this one fooled me again..."

She looked at the retreating clone's back with a pout. He didn't look back. They were all in a bad mood of course, the lot of them feeling sorry for themselves and their laughable state of mind. Shadows of him, a fully functional copy for however long he upheld the chakra link.

"Does it matter?" he asked back more sullenly than intended. What could he say to her? He had let her down, like he had let the lot of them down. He wanted to be alone and knew at the same time that wouldn't serve a purpose at all.

"Hm, yeah, I guess it does," she said and moved a little closer. "Did you take a food pill? I wasn't sure you carried any with you, I brought some just in case."

"I hope they're not self-made," he said.

"Hey!" she complained. "Rude. Here...," she picked one from a little pouch she carried at her belt and held it up to his mouth. "Eat."

He put out his tongue and she placed the black pill there with a small smile. How nice of her to smile when she must know how miserable he was feeling.

"Kaeru is worried," she began the conversation.

Kakashi nodded. "He always is."

"He told me about his past. You saved him and his sister even though it was extremely dangerous?"

"Not that dangerous," Kakashi shrugged. He had only been hurt a little because those bandits had played extremely dirty.

"You're a good man," Sakura said. "Thank you."

Kakashi snorted. Yeah... right.

"I hurt you on that roof," he said bluntly. "You should have hit me even harder."

"How are you?" Sakura asked, "does it hurt?"

It did and it should.

"Can I see?"

"No," he said.

PTSD she had called his affliction. It was a recent name for something he had lived with all his life, dragging it into the light when it wanted to lurk in the shadows. He had learned how to remain functional despite of it, but many had not been strong enough. It probably was the reason why he was one of the last of his generation on active duty, while the rest of them had settled down in the relative safety of the village.

Someone like him could have been bitter about his own sacrifices, going out into the field again and again so that others could live good lives. Maybe bitterness had never come to him before because it was all he had. His life only had meaning when he put it on the line.

But maybe that was a lie.

If he had not thought that Rin was dead... he would not be who he was today.

His life... built on a lie.

"Look, I brought the book," she said and pulled it out of her back pocket, "the one I bought you."

"It's dark," he replied.

"Hm, but I carry a flashlight," she said lightly. "Do you want me to read to you?"

No, his lips wanted to say, he was feeling snotty and ready to hurt those who cared for him, but how could they? What Sakura was offering was companionship and his entire being yearned for it. Her warmth, her wit, her strength, her determination, her righteousness.

"Yes," he said, "yes, please. I would like that very much."

"Alright!" Sakura said, switching on her flashlight, handing it to him to hold while she opened the book on page one. "Let's hope you like it!"

He watched her lips as she read to him, not even trying to hide his tears. He didn't really listen to the story, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that she was here with him, offering consolation, offering the illusion of a world that wasn't crumbling. With her by his side, he could make himself believe that everything was going to be alright.

 

Chapter Text

“We go to the Land of Water as planned,” Kakashi told them curtly the next morning. It didn’t sound like he was expecting to hear differing opinions.

They were having breakfast up on “their” tree, nothing warm for the lack of a fire, but water, fruit and some pastry that had gone a little dry. Sarada was sitting in the last remaining sleeping bag nest with the cutest bed hair and was munching on an apple while curiously observing a family of birds nearby. The birds were watching the group of human intruders in turn, heads tilted to the side, nervously dancing from left to right and back.

“Is that wise, Sensei?” Kaeru asked cautiously.

Sakura applauded him in her head because it took courage to question a squad leader who spoke with the kind of authority Kakashi had just used on them.

“They will come after us wherever we go,” Kakashi shrugged moodily, “might as well go forward.”

“And when you say ‘they’ you mean…”

“We will see.”

“Sensei, I’m not comfortable with so many unknowns,” Kaeru lamented. “What does Mrs. Nohara even want from you? Is she thinking you’re taking away Konoha’s biggest asset to give to our enemies?”

Kaeru pointed his chin at the oblivious Sarada.

“I’m not sure what she wants,” Kakashi replied, his eyes on the child too, “but I will find out.”

Deciding they had reached the end of this conversation, Kakashi moved over to put some crumbs into Sarada’s hand and showed her how to hold it out to the birds.

Kaeru looked to Sakura for help, but she shook her head helplessly. If Kakashi didn’t want to share anything, he didn’t, end of story. And if Kaeru thought she had better insights into what went on in his head, he was mistaken. If Kakashi didn’t want to talk, he didn’t. And they were very clearly in a not-talking phase.

They had made love four times last night.

Four times. With no talking at all. She still felt lightheaded, slightly confused and… sore. But she was also damn worried.

When she had read to Kakashi, he had cried. It had been very hard not to cry as well, she could barely look at him and his blatant pain. She could not possibly fathom what he had to be feeling. But it also scared her, this vulnerability of his. If he was in such a brittle state of mind, what would happen once they inevitably met Rin? Would he crumble completely? Would he abandon them? Would he… no, she didn’t think he was capable of handing over Sarada to anyone. But still, the Kakashi she had come to rely on so many years ago was not like this Kakashi. This Kakashi scared her.

Then again, that someone like him let her see his vulnerability… it was like a precious gift she feared she might not handle correctly. All she could think of was to comfort him any way she could. They had woken Kaeru to take over the guard duty one hour after midnight. When Kakashi had pulled her into his sleeping bag nest afterwards, she had snuggled up willingly - well, after initially worrying about making sudden movements and falling all the way down. But of course, it wasn’t like they could just hold each other without anything else happening. The closeness of his body had a very obvious effect on hers and as it seemed vice versa. It didn’t help that the book she had bought for him had been scandalously quick to get very specific about the protagonist’s love life. Reading such things out to Kakashi was… Sakura felt all kinds of warm at the memory. So damn arousing.

But it was more than obvious to her on this morning that sex solved no problems. Maybe it even made everything worse. As it was in her nature, Sakura had started to feel extremely self-conscious about their situation sometime during the night. What if it didn’t matter to Kakashi whom he was making love to right now?

It had been different than before. It was like he was hungrier, much less patient, seeking for something he didn’t get from her (why else four times?). She had almost expected him to utter that other woman’s name at the peak of satisfaction and maybe she would even have preferred that to his scary, loaded silence that made all her insecurities flare up like wildfire?

A muffled squeal from Sarada jolted Sakura out of her anxious thoughts. One of the birds had come to sit on her fingers and was picking away on the crumbs while eyeing the girl nervously. Kakashi steadied Sarada’s hand, smiling at her enraptured face.

“A little patience gets you far,” he told her once the bird had flown away.

“Are we going to find my mommy now?” Sarada asked him after wiping her hand on her top and trousers.

“Yes,” Kakashi nodded. “I promised you.”

Maybe you shouldn’t promise so many things to so many people, Sakura thought sullenly before realizing she sounded just as meddlesome as Mrs. Nohara.

“I need your help though,” Kakashi added, the smile disappearing from his face. “You need to tell me about everything you remember. Where you lived before you came to Konoha. What made you leave. Everything.”

Sarada looked scared, but nodded. So Kakashi thought the girl was ready? Or did the urgency of their situation command that he got her to talk? Sakura decided not to intervene, but felt slightly apprehensive.

“We lived by the sea,” the girl began haltingly.

“How big was the village?” Kakashi asked. “Smaller or bigger than Konoha?”

“Much smaller,” Sarada answered, now sounding a little more self-assured.

“Many fishermen?”

“Yes,” Sarada nodded, “fishermen. I also helped with the fish, every morning. It was very stinky.”

“Who was in charge of protection?”

“I… I don’t know,” she answered unhappily, looking at Kakashi like she feared to be punished for her lack of knowledge.

“Don’t worry,” Kakashi said. “It’s not that important. Tell me some more about what the village looked like. Where there any mountains nearby? Forests? A river perhaps?”

Sarada described some features that a child would find important - like where she and her friends had played, how a group of boys had always tried to beat them up, which parts they were not allowed to go to - all of which wouldn’t help them at all to find that spot, Sakura thought with a sinking feeling, it could be any village in the Land of Water. And what made Kakashi think Karin had gone back anyway? Or wasn’t that the point at all?

“When you saw me there, your mother had gone missing?”

Sarada nodded, but her face became very unhappy. Alarmed, Sakura straightened her back. She tried to catch Kakashi’s eye to signal him to stop, but he ignored her.

“And I brought her back.”

“Yes,” Sarada said in a small voice. “But father was very angry with you.”

“I am sorry,” Kakashi followed up immediately, though the info seemed to come as a surprise to him, “but you said your father is dead now?”

Sarada’s eyes filled with tears as she nodded again.

“Is that the reason you left the village with your mother?”

Sarada nodded again, sniffling.

“Kakashi…,” Sakura interjected sharply only to be ignored again.

“Did someone hurt him?”

“Yes,” Sarada sobbed, “yes.”

“Did they wear masks? Like Demons?”

“Yes,” Sarada continued sobbing. “The Demons hurt my father.”

Kakashi leaned back a little, almost as if he was content to have a hunch confirmed. “My father died too, Sarada, when I was around your age. Just make sure to cry a lot, until it hurts a little less. It will always hurt though, don’t believe those who say you will get over it.”

Which made Sarada burst into a waterfall of pitiful tears. Kaeru reached over to press the child against his chest, looking extremely unhappy and ready to cry too.

“Kakashi,” Sakura hissed at him, “that is not how you talk to a child who has gone through so much! She isn’t a prisoner you question with such blunt methods!”

Kakashi looked at her with no apparent emotion. “It doesn’t help anyone if we tiptoe around the truth for much longer,” he said.

“How can you be this cold!” Sakura said appalled.

He reacted with a scowl. Okay, she was being unfair. He wasn’t cold, she knew that. At least not normally.

“I’m sorry for not living up to your expectations today,” he said, though didn’t sound particularly sorry. “You think you could have done better? But your profession’s methods are not efficient enough. We’re out of time.”

“But that doesn’t mean you can…”

Kakashi cut her short by standing up and indicating for her to follow him to another tree. Feeling both angry and hurt, Sakura did.

“Sarada's tears are a horrible thing but if these tears are a means to her safety, they are a small price to pay. What exactly are you unhappy about?” Kakashi asked her blunty once they were out of earshot.

It was strange that now that his face was covered again by a mask as usual, Sakura felt like she was deprived of important information regarding his emotional state, which bugged her.

“You!” Sakura said. “I’m unhappy about you. You don’t talk about what’s going on, you're behaving strangely and you didn’t consult with us at all before deciding to move ahead with your initial plan.”

Kakashi lifted his eyebrows. “And why should such a consultation take place?”

“We’re not your subordinates,” she fumed, “we’re…”

“Kaeru is my subordinate,” he said, “and this is a mission. You are my client. I don’t consult with my clients, I decide what is best for the mission and act.”

“And what is the mission?” Sakura asked flabbergasted. Hadn’t it been her who had gone to Tsunade to ask for Kakashi as her guard while she went to the Land of Water on a research trip? He had to know everything was only a sham! There was no formal mission!

“Keeping you and Sarada safe while identifying and eradicating a threat to Konoha,” he answered simply, taking some of the angry wind out of her sails. But only some of the wind. A client? Her?!

“Do you normally sleep with your clients?”

“Not that often, no,” he answered way too smoothly. “Do you take issue with it?”

Sakura blinked, feeling extremely irritated.

“I don't think I need to tell you about Tsunade and how she operates,” Kakashi added, looking over to Kaeru and Sarada with another frown. “I’d bet my right hand she let you come after me with Sarada because she knew that would jolt hidden forces into action. And I’ll bet my left hand that she knows how well I know her. We don’t need to speak face to face for me to know what kind of mission this has turned into.”

“Are you saying my Shishou is using all of us to uncover what is going on?” Sakura asked when she already knew the answer.

“Correct,” Kakashi answered, like it was the most normal thing in the world, “though it’s mainly me she’s using - like she’s allowed to. So, I’m saying we move forward because I’d rather draw our adversaries away from Konoha.”

Sakura stared at him. Not a trace of his emotional turmoil remained this morning. All cold Shinobi efficiency. How did he do that? And at what cost?

“You’re still unhappy,” he remarked.

“Yes,” Sakura admitted. “I’m worried. About you.”

“I don’t need people to worry about me,” he said.

“Then don’t do things that make them worried!”

“Like what?”

“This!” Sakura made a helpless gesture towards him, the tree, the forest, everything. “Talk to me. Tell me what you are thinking, what you are feeling!”

“Feeling? I’m feeling great urgency to leave this place this morning,” he said, though she was certain he knew what she was referring to.

“I can understand that you want to block me out,” Sakura said. “This… this goes way back for you and I am not entitled to an opinion nor do I have a say about anything in your life. But this also goes way beyond you and me. Why do you keep shouldering everything alone? Do you think I don’t care about Konoha? Do you think so little of me that you do not want to share your theories with me?”

Instead of giving her an answer, Kakashi shook his head in exasperation and tried to go passed her back to Kaeru and Sarada.

“Stop!” she exclaimed.

Immediately, Kakashi sprang back and took a defensive stance. “Are you going to hit me again?”

Sakura sure felt like it, even though it gave her pause that he would seriously consider she would. The bruise on his chest was large and pronounced and she was sure it hurt a lot - but being the kind of person that he was, he had not given her a chance to heal him, not even during their recent intimacy. It was probably a form of self-punishment.

“I will hit you again if I have to,” she said bitterly, “you certainly deserve it.”

“I can assure you, whatever happens, I will function perfectly well,” he said, “no need to worry.”

“Function? I don't want you to function!” she shouted. “How can you just pretend your world wasn’t turned upside down yesterday?”

“I am not a guy who wants to be analyzed,” he said sharply.

“Okay,” Sakura said, “then let me speak as your client: I am not convinced you are suited for this particular mission anymore. Can I request for another Jonin to take over?”

That earned her a pronounced frown.

“Got your attention? Good,” Sakura said with some satisfaction that at least, appealing to his professional ethos and pride had worked to pierce his shields. “What is going to happen once she stands in front of you? Any idea?”

“Ah,” Kakashi nodded, “now I understand what is going on. You think I will lose control if I see her. I can assure you, I am fully capable of…”

“Just stop,” Sakura interrupted him. “Stop, Kakashi. Even if you can successfully lie to yourself, you cannot lie to me. I will not let you. Like you shouldn’t sleep with clients, I shouldn’t be a doctor for people I sleep with, I get that! But before I became your “client”, you were once my teacher and I was your student. Even if everything between us goes to hell one day, that will never change.”

He stared at her as if she was speaking a language he didn’t understand.

“Kakashi,” she said much more softly, her feelings for him threatening to choke her all of a sudden, “I think I know you really well. I care about you. The closer you let me get to you, the more I care. I want to help you. I want to help us, this little group on this tree. I want to live in peace. And I am ready to fight for that peace myself.”

His whole demeanor changed when his vulnerability came back to the surface, called forth by her words, almost like a spring tide that surges too quickly and floods the surrounding land with no mercy. But just as quickly as it surged, he suppressed it, it was almost eerie.

“If you know me and if you care, you have to know that I cannot let go of my defenses,” he said quietly. “I cannot let my past affect me. You must have realized the danger we are in. I will not function because I have a choice, I will function because I have to.”

At his words, Sakura’s own anger crumbled completely.

“I’m not asking you to let go of your defenses,” she said. “That is your personal business. But I’m asking you to accept my help. Let’s make a plan together.”

“Okay,” he said. “I understand. Okay, I’m sorry.”

He looked somewhere to the left until he turned his head to back to her. In his eyes was something like resignation, which she hated to see. Was it her fault? Had she been too selfish in her probing and demands? But no. He was the one who had always preached about teamwork. He wasn’t allowed to simply reverse his own rules.

“You saw who Rin walked with?”

Sakura nodded. “Yes. You think she’s an enemy?”

Kakashi nodded too. “It’s an assumption we need to make. From how the interaction in the teahouse went, I also do not think that Mrs. Nohara controls Rin’s actions. We are up against two different groups and I do not yet understand how their interests align or clash.”

“But do you think what happened to Sarada and Karin in their village is connected to Mrs. Nohara? Or only Rin.”

“Rin. I think it’s Rin,” he said, “Sarada gave me confirmation just now when she mentioned the Oni masks. Rin might also be the one who commands Susanoos.”

“Oh shit,” Sakura said and clasped a hand before her mouth.

“There was a woman there…,” Kakashi said and closed his eyes. “I can’t remember, dammit.”

“You know they’re also in your sealed memories, the Oni masks?” Sakura remembered with a shiver.

Kakashi nodded.

“What does it mean?”

“Probably that the answers to all this can be found in the past that I have forgotten or sealed away?” he answered bitterly.

“Maybe it doesn't matter,” Sakura said softly. “Maybe the past is now here to answer your questions?”

Another silence followed.

“You know,” he then said. “It’s not true.”

“Am I wrong to think Rin will be able to…?”

“No,” he interrupted. “Not that. This is not about the past. You are wrong to think you are not entitled to an opinion nor have anything to say with regards to my life.”

“Oh,” Sakura said, suddenly feeling very weak in the knees, especially when he took a step towards her.

Dressed in all black, his hair particularly messy now that it was free from the wig, sticking up in all possible directions like it wanted to challenge the world, Kakashi looked irresistible to her. Yes, she had to admit to herself, she was afraid to lose him. Maybe she was lying to herself. Maybe she was just afraid that he would shut himself off from everything and would be gone, just like that. Maybe she was pushing him to lower his well-honed, life-long defenses because she wanted to see the truth behind the walls, wanted assurance that she stood a chance now that that woman was back.

“Remember what I said that first night? When… we… in the shower… about wanting for you to be happy?”

“Yes,” Sakura nodded breathlessly. “I do. Of course I do. I remember everything you said, every single word you have ever spoken to me.”

“I am not the person who can make you happy, Sakura,” Kakashi said. “I am too old, too damaged. I have baggage, so much baggage…”

“I don’t care about that,” Sakura interrupted him, her heart beating very fast. “And most importantly, I will not stand by and watch you do any of that noble idiot, self-sacrificing shit you men are so good at.”

“Hm,” Kakashi chuckled. “You are good at analyzing people.”

“Will you promise me not to do anything rash?”

“I never do anything rash.”

“Then promise me to think of me when you decide on your next steps and before you rush headlong into mortal danger. Think how horrible it will be for me if anything happens to you.”

“Sakura…,” he said throatily. How much emotion could there be in the utterance of a name? It was the end of her reason. She stepped right up to him and hugged him very tightly.

“You scared me,” she said, “I really, really like you, you know that, right? I never want to be without you anymore.”

Had she been unsure she would be ready to chase him? She wasn’t anymore. She would chase him across the entire world and into every shadow the world of a Shinbori was so full of if necessary. But maybe no chasing was necessary. He hugged her back, pressing her body against himself just as tightly. “I would like to promise you the world right now, Sakura,” he whispered. “But I cannot. At the very least, I want to promise you that I will be there for you, always. For you and for Sarada. Whatever happens I will…”

He suddenly stiffened in alarm.

“What is it?” Sakura asked, lifting her head off his chest, “what happened?”

“We’re in trouble,” Kakashi said, “one of my clones was just killed nearby. We need to move. NOW.”

***

It went quite well for a while, considering the circumstances. Fooling their enemies with the help of his shadow clones and water clones that looked like the other three bought them time, but that trick would not work forever.

It was very tiring to keep that many active clones scattered in the field, but the much bigger problem was that Kakashi’s knew this was a fight that they could not win. Mrs. Nohara was a citizen of Konoha and it seemed her private guard was too… as a shinobi serving the village he could not fight against Konohans without an explicit order from his Hokage. In addition, if his hunch was correct, Mrs. Nohara had connections to the very top, potentially even to the Fire Daimyo - which made the entire Land of Fire unsafe for them. If that woman wanted Sarada and used her connections to get her, what could he, a mere Jonin, do to stop her?

The second big problem was that he would have to fight Rin. Her he was allowed and even expected to fight, she and her Oni masked warriors had already presented themselves as a severe threat to the village. Would they have time to talk though? Would he… would he be able to apologize? Or would they just clash. He could pretend the thought didn’t affect him all he wanted, truth was he knew that this inevitable meeting would be an extremely hard test. If worse came to worse, would he be able to kill her again?

“We take break,” Kakashi said around 4 o’clock since it was obvious that Sakura needed one.

“I’m fine,” she lied, guessing it was because of her, but he signalled to halt anyway. They were very close to the border now, an hour or less away from the Land of Water. This direction had confused at least one part of their pursuers - Mrs. Nohara had probably wrongly surmised he would head back to Konoha after their run-in, but he had first led his group south-east, then north-east.

“You should walk around a bit for blood circulation,” he told Sarada and went down on one knee so that she could more easily climb down from his back.

Sakura took the stiff legged girl by the hand and led her behind some bushes so she could relieve her bladder.

The forest around them had been changing for the last hour or so, it was lighter here, with less pine trees. The sky had turned a little stormy towards the East and the fresh leaves rustled excitedly in the stiffening breeze. Kakashi breathed in deeply. There was the faint scent of the ocean in the air.

“Sensei,” Kaeru said, “I was wondering, would Hokage-sama have sent backup for us?”

Kakashi had considered the possibility, but they couldn’t count on it. And even if Tsunade should have sent help, it wasn’t certain their friends would find them in time.

“Let’s assume she hasn’t,” Kakashi answered. “We have to be very alert when we continue. None of my clones has met any enemies for the last two hours. I fear that’s not good.”

“Should I carry Sarada for a while once we continue?” Kaeru asked after processing this information with an unhappy expression.

“No, it’s fine,” Kakashi said. Sarada had insisted on getting on his and nobody else's back this morning and she weighed so little he really didn’t care. “When the enemy makes an appearance, I will hand her over to Sakura.”

“Sakura is keeping up well,” Kaeru observed with a side-glance towards the bushes the girls had disappeared behind.

“As expected of a well trained and very talented kunoichi,” Kakashi murmured. Even seven years of long hours at the hospital had not changed that in substance. Of course, she was trying extra hard to keep up, probably because she was afraid he would take anything else as an excuse to sideline her again. Which he would in an instance if it meant she was safe.

Sakura stepped out of the bushes and when she saw him looking in her direction, she smiled.

“You alright?” She asked as he walked towards her. “You look a little tired.”

“Mhm,” he answered.

He had stolen glances at her all day. Her face was particularly lovely, it had to be the gentle light that highlighted the green of her eyes. Looking at her standing there in her travel attire immediately led to thinking about those curves, that soft skin, her readiness to be pleased, her slight awkwardness to please back… how thoroughly inappropriate in a situation like this. But what could he do? She hadn’t accept his attempts to distance himself and harden his heart. Foolish attempts, his heart was hers anyway, soft like goo and utterly defenseless.

She was so surprised she made a little cute sound when Kakashi’s lips met hers. Mmmmh, she smelled very good. He grabbed a fistful of her dyed hair and pulled her even closer.

“Stop, we’re on a mission and there's a child!” Sakura disengaged herself, pushing against his chest, turning a very dark red.

Sarada who had stepped forward right behind her looked at them a little puzzled. Kakashi turned his head back at Kaeru but the young Anbu was concentrating hard to look elsewhere. Good boy.

Kakashi smirked at Sakura. “You look even more alluring when you're flustered. Does the rest of your skin turn red too? Can I find out tonight? I would like to sleep with my client again if she has no objections.”

“Kakashi!” Sakura complained, looking so cute in her embarrassment he almost wanted to coo.

“Uncle Kakashi”, Sarada asked, pulling at his shirt, “can I stay with Auntie Sakura and you if we don't find my mommy?”

“Yes,” Kakashi said without thinking.

“What?” Sakura exhaled.

Had she forgotten what he had promised her this morning? He would always be there for her, for her and for Sarada. Did she think he didn’t mean it? He was almost ready to tell her about the babies with pink hair he wanted, at least three when suddenly, his nose picked up the scent of molten metal. All alarms went off in his head at once.

“Take cover!” he shouted right as the air parted and a towering, shimmering figure appeared out of nowhere.

“Oh shit,” Sakura yelled, grabbing Sarada and racing behind some rocks with her.

It was the orange one.

“Remember, it can absorb chakra,” Kakashi yelled at Kearu before dodging the humanoid’s hand and racing up a tree, hearing the heavy steps behind him.

Remote controlled again, he assured himself by checking between the eyes for a human passenger. Was she near? She had to be.

“How do I activate this damn Mangekyo Sharingan,” Kakashi murmured as he jumped to another tree, the machine close behind him.

“Kaeru! Go for the chakra cell,” he shouted, “can you see it? It was in the chest last time!”

“No!” Kaeru shouted, “Sensei, be careful and don’t look at it for too long, it hurts the eyes.”

True, the armor was glistening like sun on water, making it hard to focus.

Rin. Why? What do you want?

There was a sudden memory of a dream - only it probably wasn’t a dream. She had taken him prisoner, hadn’t she. When? She had said she had a grudge. She had not wanted to be called Rin. And she had very expertly hurt him.

“I’m an idiot,” he said to himself, turning around to face the Susanoo.

Shiden had not helped. Lightning was out of the question. He tried an earth jutsu next, with mediocre results. Wind? Horrible. Water… not his favorite, they needed too many handsigns.

“I need some time,” Kakashi signalled Kaeru and began: Ushi, Sara, Oo, Nae, Ee, Tori, Ushi, Uma, Tori, Nae, Tora, Inu, Tora, Mee...

He was fast, but the Susanoo was faster. It jumped forward and crashed into the tree Kakashi was standing on, its weight toppling it over with an ugly, breaking sound. Kakashi managed to somersault into the air and push himself off the branch of another tree soon finding his balance again - but there was no way that damn thing would leave him enough time to do over forty sings.

But he had forgotten a particular well trained and very talented kunoichi.

Shannaro!” Sakura yelled and the earth split from the impact of her fist, a jagged line of exploding soil racing towards the Susanoo.

Not time to be impressed and proud, now or never! Ushi, Sara, Oo, Nae, Ee, Tori, Ushi, Uma, Tori, Nae, Tora, Inu, Tora, Mee... faster! Faster! … Tori, Jin, Nae, Ee, Tori. “Water style: Water dragon jutsu!”

It was a formidable dragon that appeared from the ripped earth, and Kakashi felt quite content that despite bleeding chakra all day for his clones, he still had enough of it to draw forth the groundwater like this. The water dragon crashed down on the already staggering machine and threw it off its feet and halfway into a ditch.

“Run!” Kakashi yelled and jumped to the rock where Sarada was.

“We cannot outrun this thing!” Kaeru observed wide-eyed.

“I beg to differ,” Kakashi said as he passed Sarada to him. “I will catch up with you. Head North-east!”

Kaeru nodded and ran, grabbing Sakura’s hand as he passed her.

“I’ll join up with you in no time, Sakura!” Kakashi yelled at her. She nodded and complied despite looking unhappy about the situation.

After making sure they were not pursued, Kakashi turned around and started to gather Lightning chakra into his hand until his entire arm crackled with it. Lightning nature did not work against this thing’s armor normally. But only when it wasn’t lying in a pool of water.

“Raiton: Shiden!” he yelled and shot the purple energy into the water. Feeling very pleased he watched the electricity envelop the machine completely, destroying one joint after another with a loud crackling sound.

When it was over, Kakashi stood very still.

“Are you there, Rin?” he asked into the forest. “What happened to you?”

The stillness was almost absolute.

“I will not let you hurt anyone I care for,” Kakashi said. “I will kill you again if I have to. But Rin, if you come to your senses… I will be there for you, okay? I will help you.”

Not a single leaf moved.

She wasn’t here. Was he glad or disappointed? Sometimes, when facing hard tests, you want nothing more than have them over and done with.

***

It was getting very late. Sarada had fallen asleep on his back, Sakura suppressed frequent yawns. The fog around them was getting thicker and thicker.

“I don’t like this,” Kaeru whispered as if he feared to have his voice heard in this creepy surrounding, “are we lost?”

“Not at all,” Kakashi said. “We just head for where the fog is thickest. It can’t be far.”

Indeed. Not fifteen minutes later, they came to a high wall.

“Where are we, Kakashi?” Sakura asked full of wonderment, stopping in her tracks and throwing her head back to look as far up as possible.

“The Village Hidden in the Mist,” Kakashi said with satisfaction.

It wasn’t easy to find, but he had been here before. Minor detail: back then just like now, he had not had an invitation. They might all have served in the war together, but that didn’t change the fact that Shinobi villages were very suspicious of one another. Even in peacetime, ninja warriors were not permitted to enter other Shinobi villages without permission.

“I don’t think we have time to knock and wait for them to open the Gates,” he said. “Let’s scale the walls and then ask politely whether they would let us in, shall we?”

Sometimes, when facing hard tests, you had to do risky things in order to ensure an optimal result.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Hatake Kakashi,” the leader of the masked warriors hissed, “you’ve got some nerve!”

Sakura had to restrain herself from nodding in agreement. Scaling the walls of another Shinobi village at night? So recklessly dangerous! But Kakashi had winked at her upon seeing her stunned expression and had said “trust me” before walking up like there was nothing to it.

Because trusting him was second nature to her, she had followed despite her doubts. Now, she was trying to calm her rapidly beating heart, asking herself whether the sea of swords held dangerously close to their necks had been included in Kakashi’s “trust me”. He had a plan, right? He had just forgotten to tell the rest of them about it once again?

Apart from the leader, who was dressed in a blue kimono with a striped, turtleneck undershirt, the rest of the sizeable group had on a standard uniform with grey flak jackets. They were all wearing masks with their village symbol on the forehead, thin slitted eye-holes and a wavy design in place of the mouth. That gave them away as Kirigakure’s Anbu and Sakura was instantly reminded of Haku, the first death she had witnessed up close and would never forget. Zabuza and Haku’s desolate lives and the heartbreaking circumstances of their deaths had come to symbolize all that was wrong with the Shinobi world. Even now, after the 4th Shinobi World War, when perpetual peace no longer sounded like a silly utopia, she thought of them and their sad, sad fate often, a reminder for sheltered people like her that she knew nothing of true hardship.

This village they were in now was where students wishing to graduate from their academy had had to fight their peers to the death, and only those who survived could advance to the ranks of shinobi - to eradicate emotions in exchange for combat efficiency. Sakura shuddered violently at the thought of it. The practice had been discontinued after Zabuza had killed an entire class of students, but everyone Kakashi’s age or older had lived through it. What inhumane treatment!

Then again. Danzo had established the same brutal rules in his Root and it had taken much longer to abolish that. There was no reason to feel morally superior at all. There was not one shinobi village that didn’t have skeletons in the closet.

“Ao,” Kakashi addressed the man lightly, “you’re still in the Anbu? I didn’t know there were people older than me not finding the exit in time.”

“Pffft,” the man addressed as Ao snorted, “I could be your father. You Shinobis from Konoha have no stamina, retiring when you’re still wet behind the ears. Is it true you have issues filling your ranks?”

“Ah,” Kakashi smiled, wisely ignoring the question, “there seems to be enough stamina to break into your village though. Is it not wonderful that the peace we have fought so hard for allows for your level of complacency? No other defenses than this mediocre mist? I’m pleasantly surprised.”

“Be quiet,” Ao bellowed and moved his sword several inches closer to Kakashi’s jugular, making all his men do the same to the rest of them.

Smiling encouragingly at Sarada who grasped her hand in panic, Sakura cursed fouly in her head. Trusting him was one thing, but silently going along with men’s bravado and intimidation techniques was not what she had any interest in doing. She was just about to voice her displeasure at their posturing when she caught an urgent look from Kaeru. The look said: Don’t even think about it. Sensei knows what he's doing!

“What do you want,” Ao said gruffly. “I hope your answer is satisfactory, I have no qualms killing you and wouldn’t even have to fear any consequences.”

“True,” Kakashi smiled, “our Anbu also has permission to kill intruders on the spot. But you must know that your Mizukage would be unhappy about my death.”

“Would she now?” Ao said, sounding mighty unconvinced.

The Mizukage… Sakura had not cared much about the politics in the Land of Water, but she had heard that Mei Terumī had quit a few years ago because she had gotten married. Tsunade had joked about it for days, though there was a certain bitterness in her attempts to ridicule the other woman. “The Hairy Christmas Tree” had been Naruto’s nickname for the Fifth leader of the Hidden Mist Village. Sakura had not had a lot of interaction with her during or after the war, but she remembered her as a tall, slender woman with fair skin, green eyes and ankle-length, auburn hair styled in a weird... Christmas Tree like manner.

“Yes,” Kakashi said, “Keiki owes me a favor and I know she takes great care to pay back all her dues.”

“A favor?” Ao echoed.

“Yup,” Kakashi said, “a favor. It’s a large one and I am here to claim it.”

“And who are they?” Ao asked gruffly, rudely pointing at them with his chin.

“Part of my mission,” Kakashi answered with a quick glance back at Sakura almost as if he wanted to assure himself she was behaving.

Yeah, I’m still standing still, she thought viciously, but not for much longer. You will get an earful from me later for gambling with our lives!

“I will throw them in prison as hostages to ensure you won’t do anything stupid.”

“No, you can’t throw them in prison,” Kakashi answered with a frown. “They’re part of the favor.”

“I warn you,” Ao said, “if you’re lying to me…”

“Oh no,” Kakashi said, “I would never lie to you.”

“Shut up, Hatake!” Ao bellowed. “Come!”

They were ushered forward and at the same time separated, a common technique to make sure prisoners could not easily exchange information or coordinate. Sakura refused to let go of Sarada’s hand, which earned her a few harsh words, but the soldiers accepted her role as “mother” quickly, they seemed to have some decency at least. The man called Ao put his mask up, revealing the face of a middle aged man, his right eye covered with an eye-patch.

A Byakugan, Sakura remembered. He had stolen one from a Hyuga. Kakashi knew how dangerous it was to bring a Sharingan into enemy territory, right?! That went for his almost as much as for Sarada’s.

The man’s uncovered eye swept over her and lingered on her face with piercing intensity. Clearly a sensory-type Shinobi with considerable abilities. Like I care, Sakura thought and smiled at him until he turned his head away, even if you’re a mind-reader, I am a hard nut to crack.

They walked through deserted streets with little light, patches of fog occasionally wafting around them, until they got to a wide and tall cylindrical building. If this village was anything like theirs, it had to be the Mizukage's office. They were ordered inside and up the stairs to the very top, where Ao knocked on the wide, wooden doors. When they swung open, they entered… not an office, but what seemed to be the private quarters of the Mizukage.

Sakura had to close her mouth forcefully after a few steps. It had sprung open in appalled astonishment. The person living here clearly liked the color red and tacky, tasteless ornaments.

A bit further in, they got to a low lit room with large, curved windows and a woman slouching on a long, snaking plush sofa. It was red, what else. The woman had auburn hair that was cropped very short, emerald green eyes, boney thin features and the fit, lean body of a trained fighter. She sat up, her legs parted widely like a man and spit something into a pot on the floor. It was tobacco, Sakura realized.

“Damn. Look what the cat dragged in,” she said, narrowing her eyes at them. Ao stepped up to her and whispered something into her ear.

“Keiki,” Kakashi smiled.

“Kakashi,” the woman addressed as Keiki grinned toothily, “you climbed the walls? Were you that desperate to see me?”

Sakura didn't like the closeness the first name basis with no titles implied and even less how the woman looked Kakashi over, slowly checking him out from head to toe like he was a tasty appetizer.

“You've kept in form,” she remarked.

“I do what I can,” Kakashi replied, “and so do you, it seems.”

“Ha! And I improved a lot,” she boasted. “It’s a bit late for a match, but I’m not letting you go without one! I know I can beat you this time.”

“Hm,” Kakashi said and scratched his head with a smile, “many people think that.”

“So… why have you come?” Keiki asked, craning her neck to look at the rest of them standing behind Kakashi. “I expected to see you next with the Hokage’s hat on your head.”

More people wanting him to be Hokage? It was almost like an epidemic! Poor Tsunade, Sakura thought, she had done a good job overall. In most domains at least. It had been very hard to guide the village through the war and the aftermath.

“It’s simple: I’m here to ask for the favor you owe me,” Kakashi said.

“Good,” the Mizukage answered, “you know how anxious it makes me to have an open score. Tell me what it is.”

“I need to find someone.”

“Someone in the Land of Water?” she asked, looking over to Ao for more information, but he shook his head.

“Yes,” Kakashi said. “As fast as possible.”

“Fine, my hunter-nin corps is at your disposal,” she signalled to Ao who nodded reluctantly. “Who is it?”

“A woman with red hair, but that’s all I’m going to tell you for now, sorry,” Kakashi smiled.

“So who are they?” Keiki’s eyes were piercing as they swept over them, almost like Ao’s. Her eyes lingered on Kaeru and she snorted. “The boy is clearly Anbu, I can spot you guys from a mile away. But the girl and the woman?”

“Part of a mission,” Kakashi said simply.

“If someone like you is with them, they're ultra important,” Keiki remarked. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to bring them here? My debt is large, but is it that large?”

“Pfft,” Kakashi said, “Tsunade is always looking for ways to put me in my place, this is no S-rank mission, it’s B, which stands for Babysitting. One of them is a student of hers and she’s trying to gather information on healing practices. But that’s not why I’m here. It’s for the girl. She and the person I am looking for are connected.”

“Hmmmmm,” Keiki said. “I don’t believe you, but let’s leave it at that - for now.”

She got up and stretched leisurely, almost like a cat, her joints popping audibly. She was tall, Sakura noticed, and moved like a predator. Her all black, well-fitting clothes matched Kakashi’s like the uniform of a special warrior caste. Even without it, it would have been obvious to everyone looking at them that they were from the same world. The world of shadows. The old one.

“Tsunade’s student,” she addressed Sakura, “until Kakashi finds whom he’s looking for, you can move freely in my village and gather information on our healing practices. I suspect you will find some of our research very interesting.”

“In what ways?” Sakura asked curiously.

“We’re researching prosthetics and implants for both civilian and combat use,” the Mizukage said proudly. “Most of it is classified, of course, but you can see some of the facilities and assist at the hospital.”

Sakura got very excited at the prospect. Why had she not been aware of this? But immediately, something in her head told her to be extra cautious. This Keiki person was a bit too friendly and accomodating, wasn’t she? It couldn’t all be because of that favor she owed Kakashi? And besides, what kind of favor was it she was so eager to be rid of?

“They can stay in the guest house, it’s late, the child needs sleep,” Keiki said and waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “You stay,” she told Kakashi sharply when he took a step. “We have a few terms to discuss.”

What the… Sakura was about to object, when Kaeru grabbed her arm and whispered “go along with it, this woman is extremely dangerous.”

But…

“Sensei can handle her, but not if you interfere.”

Throwing one last a look at Kakashi before she was pulled out, Sakura felt extremely uneasy. He was hiding it well, but it was obvious to her how tense and wary he was. They were on enemy territory, no question about it.

After the 4th Shinobi World War and the founding of the Shinobi Union, the rivalries between the villages and the different nations were officially over.

Officially.

Unofficially, every nation continued training military personnel. Unofficially, experienced people like Kakashi could not retire because it was far more than cat rescue missions and VIP escorts the villages needed to be ready for. Officially, everybody played along but at the same time, they were all waiting for the next big conflict they considered inevitable.

With Keiki and Kakashi facing each other in the dim-lit room, like deadly creatures from the same, lost world, the same age, nearly matched in skills, survivors of a darkness most only knew from stories, it suddenly seemed to Sakura like the old world of conflict was rearing its head, sniffing the wind and smiling viciously.

***

The room at the guest house, which was another round structure with scrubby vegetation at the top, was clean and spacious, smelling a little of moss and something more pungent that Sakura couldn’t identify. Looking at the sleeping Sarada bundled up in her blanket on a proper futon made Sakura realize that her bones ached in anticipation of a good night’s sleep in a normal bed.

They had been served sweet and salty snacks and refreshments, just enough to fill their hungry stomachs. Together, they had laid out bedding for the four of them and extinguished all the lights safe for one lantern. Sakura had assisted Sarada with brushing her teeth, washing herself, combing her hair, putting on her pajamas and settling down for the night, her glasses neatly put where she could easily reach them.

Sarada hadn’t spoken at all, she was surely very spooked by the events of the day, but Sakura had stroked her hair and had whispered encouraging words to her until she had fallen asleep.

Sitting cross legged on the floor, his back against the wall, Kaeru stifled a yawn.

“Why is he not here yet?” Sakura asked him in a low voice.

The longer Kakashi stayed absent, the more anxious she got. Kaeru shrugged, but he looked worried too.

Both of them were at a loss about what Kakashi was planning, which confirmed what Sakura had feared - that he had given in to her prodding only for show and was still doing what she didn’t wanted him to do: secretive, potentially self-sacrificing stuff. Granted, getting the help of Kirigakure's Hunter-nin Corps to track down Karin was pretty ingenious - even she knew they were the best trackers in existence. As for the rest… Rin and her machines were still out there somewhere and that Keiki woman freaked Sakura out in a variety of ways.

Kaeru had told her everything he knew about the Mizukage as soon as they had found themselves alone. Apparently, she was the previous Mizukage’s twin sister and had never had an interest to rule until her sister had retired. Her nickname was “the Undertaker” and she had been the Head of Kirigakure's Hunter-nin Corps for more than twenty years, first getting that position at the age of fifteen. She was said to be brutal and ruthless and extremely skilled.

“And Kakashi knows her from…”

“I think they go way back,” Kaeru had surmised. “As far as I know they already fought against each other in the Third Shinobi World War.”

“They didn’t seem like enemies to me,” Sakura had protested sullenly.

Kaeru had shrugged. “Sometimes, your enemies become almost like friends. I am pretty certain they’ll be at each other’s throats first chance they get though.”

Enemies almost like friends that would get physical if they could sounded very bothersome to Sakura. She couldn’t sit still any longer.

“I’m going out to look for him,” she said and got up brusquely.

Kaeru got up too. “Are you sure? Maybe I should go.”

“No, they know you’re Anbu, they won’t like you walking around the village this late. What time is it anyway? Midnight?”

“At least,” Kaeru said.

“You stay with Sarada in case she wakes up and doesn’t know where she is. Don’t leave her alone, okay? No gambling!”

“Where could I go gambling at this time of n…”

“You are not actually thinking about it, I hope?!” Sakura frowned. She had spoken in jest.

“They took all my money away, those bastards!” Kaeru complained. “Once we’re back in Konoha, I’ll get it back, just you wait! You will get your share back too.”

“I’ll help you,” Sakura said, getting her coat from the hook by the door, thinking she would love to beat up Mrs. Nohara’s guard one by one.

The air outside was clammy and smelled of the ocean. Sakura went to the Mizukage Tower first, but there were no lights and all the doors were barred. It could mean all kinds of things, but she told herself not to worry and repeated that as many times as it took to convince herself that Kakashi was not in there in the dark - with that woman.

Only, if he wasn’t… where else could he be? Sakura let her feet choose a direction and walked along a broad, deserted street, trying to distract herself from dark thoughts by comparing this village’s buildings to Konoha’s. Apart from Kirigakure’s preference for round, tower-like structures, the biggest difference was the lack of people in the streets. Sure, it was late, but in Konoha, there were so many places staying open until way after midnight, there were always people on the streets even in the wee hours.

Feeling a twinge of homesickness, but deciding to follow the main street for as far as it went for lack of a better idea, she was finally rewarded just when she wanted to give up. There he was! A lone, black figure on the dimly lit street, just turning into a sidestreet that seemed to lead up to a rocky ledge towering above them.

“Kakashi!” Sakura called out, feeling such a rush of relief she wanted to cry. “Hey! Where are you going?”

He turned around and stood still letting her approach. Stood still? Not really. He was swaying and squinting in her direction.

“Oh, is you,” he slurred, grinning widely. “My little cherry blossom.”

“K… Kakashi, are you drunk?” Sakura said in disbelief. He reeked so strongly of alcohol she feared she might get drunk just from the breathing the same air.

“N… no,” Kakashi claimed and waved his hand dismissively through the air, “they are. They couldn't even get up.”

“Did you… did you do a drinking match? With all of them?”

He nodded smugly. “Ssstrange alcohol,” he hiccuped, “foreign. Golden. Sh….shdrong.”

Oh dear. Well, better to get pissed drunk than wounded or killed.

“Come,” she said, grabbing his arm. He’d be sorry soon enough, no need to scold him. “I’ll take you home.”

But Kakashi shook off her hand, turned around and continued staggering up the street like she wasn't even there.

“Where are you going?” she asked in alarm.

He murmured something she couldn't understand. What else could she do than tag along?

“Kakashi, what did you discuss for so long?” Or had they just gotten insanely drunk?

“B...business,” Kakashi hiccuped.

People said the Mizukage hated nothing more than open scores. Kaeru was certain that Kakashi had very deliberately indebted Keiki to have leverage. They had then both listed a few things they thought it could be. Saving her life, saving someone who was dear to her, killing someone for her… couldn't have anything to do with money, Kakashi didn't have any, but Kaeru had vaguely remembered hearing a story once, one of many told about Kakashi in the Anbu. Only, he had not been able to remember any details, only that a woman had played a role, which had only made Sakura more nervous about everything.

“Did she try to seduce you?” Sakura burst out.

“Sh...shedush me?” apparently, Kakashi found that thought extremely funny, he started chuckling to himself and wouldn’t stop until Sakura had enough.

“It’s not funny, she looked at you like she wanted to eat you!” she bristled.

“She prefers w...women,” Kakashi smiled and clumsily ruffled her hair, “cute little things like you and she eatssem for breakfast.”

“Kakashi!” Sakura complained at being treated like this.

“Whatshoo even doing here alone,” he said with a frown, squinting at her again. “Is dangerous.”

“I was looking for you!” Sakura told him, “of course it’s dangerous, don’t you think the same applies to you?”

He made another dismissive gesture and said “pah!” They had gotten to the end of the steep street by now. Determined, Kakashi turned to the left. There was a wooden gate there. A light flared up and before Sakura could fully realize what was going on, Kakashi had rammed his Chidori through the door frame.

“What are you doing?” Sakura squealed, but he had already pushed open the broken door and walked in, looking at his hand in a somewhat puzzled manner.

“Ish there no light,” he murmured, the chidori flaring up again. “Ah, here.”

He had apparently found a light switch, because a water wonderland lit up before them. Sakura realized they had stepped into this town’s public bath, a picturesque landscape of shapely boulders, rich vegetation, and hot water. It was lit up with colorful underwater lights, given a dreamlike quality to the steamy scene before them.

Kakashi started undressing.

“Wh… what…what are you...,” Sakura stammered, but it was apparent what he was doing, wasn’t it, no need to ask. He was undressing to take a bath. He was very swift too. Off came the shirt, off came the pants, off came the underpants, off came the mask - five second later, Kakashi was buck naked. Gloriously naked and completely oblivious to the effect that had on her.

She had never even had a chance to really look at him without his clothes on. The sight made her blush violently, even when they had been intimate so many times already. She stared at the sculpted muscles of his back and his bottocks, the elegant lines of his thighs and calves, feeling like a peeping tom yet unable to look away. She noticed faint scars on his skin, all of them speaking of won battles in the past, badges of honor shinobis got to wear, and her fingers itched with a sudden need to touch him.

He threw his clothes to the side and then looked around, stomping off to a bench to collect a towel. Grabbing one seemed to remind him she was there too. He grabbed a second, turned around and grinned at her naughtily.

“Like what you see?”

Before she could even think of an appropriate answer, he had closed the distance between them, lifted her up, threw her over his shoulder and walked right into the water with her.

“Kakashiiii!” Sakura squealed - but splash, he threw her into the water with all her clothes still on.

The water had the kind of temperature that made you want to purr, stretch yourself and then soak in it for hours. When Sakura came up for air, spluttering and coughing, Kakashi’s unmasked face was very close, beaming at her.

“Good of you to shoin me,” he said and lifted his hand to touch an index finger against her nose. “I missed you.”

The heat and the alcohol were reddening his cheeks and his hair was increasingly flattened, pulled down by the weight of the condensing steam yet trying to resist the inevitable by sticking up in all directions.

“To think you are considered a venerated Sensei by some,” Sakura laughed at this cuteness before her.

“You shouldn’t go into the water wish clothes,” he said sternly, “ish against the rules.”

He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close.

“Mmmmh,” he purred, “can I take your clothes off?”

Not even waiting for permission, he started to fumble for zippers and buttons, in the process tickling her. She squealed loudly and squirmed, but he just grabbed her again.

“I want to look at you,” he breathed into her ear. “And then I want to eat you for dinner.”

Afterwards, staring at his face, his lashes, his lips, one hand playing with the strands of his hair, the other travelling lightly over the barely visible scars on his chest, Sakura had to cry a little. She was surprised by the intensity of the emotions that wanted to choke her. She was so very happy, feeling like she was floating on a cloud, so snug and warm in his arms, all the tension driven out of her body by his stormy, shameless affection and the heat of the water that relaxed her to the bone.

Kakashi didn’t see her tears. He had his eyes closed, his head resting on a stone ledge, looking blissfully happy too. In fact, he looked happier than she had ever seen him. Was it that which made her cry? This face of his and her knowledge that such happiness could only be fleeting? The realization that tomorrow would be full of danger and hardship?

Or was she this shaken by what he had said in drunken carelessness.

In between their love making, he had kissed her stomach reverently, his fingers drawing circular patterns around her belly button.

“I couldn’t shtop thinking about babies all day,” he had murmured, “is so distracting.”

Kakashi had said babies. While fondling her stomach.

Even after being in this bath for more than an hour, he was still badly intoxicated, which she could easily accept as the reason for such a statement. But he had said more.

“I once had a dream about a house in the forest, my ninken lived on the third floor. There were so many puppies, everywhere!”

He had chuckled, a dreamy expression on his face.

“We didn’t leave the bed often,” he had whispered with longing. “It was huge and very comfortable.”

How could she possibly have said anything after hearing this?

Even now, at least half an hour later, her heart still trembled. This happiness… could it ever be theirs? Why was the thought tinged with so much fear?

Could we just run away? A house in the forest… I would like that. I want you to leave everything behind. I want you to be safe. I want… an image appeared in her mind, a pudgy face with unruly silver hair, little feet running across the wooden floor, short arms extended in her direction.

“Sakura,” Kakashi whispered and opened his eyes.

“Y… yes?” she stammered, feeling like she had just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

“You need to do something for me tomorrow,” he said. He sounded considerably more sober now.

“Yes?” she said. Apprehension set in. The happiness had left his face.

“Open all the seals in my head. I want you to break all of them open. Every single one of them.”

What?

“Then take my blood and use the facilities here while I’m gone. Start working on a cure. For Sasuke.”

What was he saying?

“It’s just a precaution,” Kakashi said. “Of course I will be back. With Karin. In the meantime, I made absolutely sure you will be safe. Safer than you could be anywhere else.”

 

Chapter Text

“Uncle Kakashi! Uncle Kakashi!” a weight plopped down next to him and a hand touched the side of his face in a clumsy caress, jolting him from a place of restless, violent dreams. “You are back!”

“S… Sarada,” he groaned. What time was it? He carefully opened his right eye. It was still dark outside. He felt like he hadn’t slept at all. And there was a particularly vicious enemy shinobi hammering red-glowing nails into his skull from the inside.

“Auntie is still asleep,” Sarada whispered in a conspiratorial tone.

“Good. Don’t wake her,” Kakashi whispered back, finding his voice hoarse and his throat raw. Damn, he was thirsty, almost as if he had walked through a desert all night.

He turned his head to look at Sakura’s sleeping form. The brown color of her hair gave him pause every single time he set eyes on it. Only when he looked at her face and into her green eyes did the strangely discomforting feeling of looking at someone he had once known but lost since go away.

He turned his head in the other direction, finding Kaeru sleeping with his head against the wall, his sword across his knees, his mouth hanging open in a rather unflattering way.

Well, no need for everyone to get up this early.

“Did you just wake up?” Kakashi asked and pushed himself into a sitting position. The pain in his head promptly intensified and he briefly pressed the palms of his hand against his eye sockets, which helped exactly nothing.

“Yes,” Sarada said, “I’m not tired anymore.”

“Let’s go to the kitchen,” Kakashi suggested, kicking his legs free of the blanket and standing up, fighting down a surge of dizziness.

There was a kitchen space across the corridor, to be shared by the different parties staying at the guest house. Nobody else was here at the moment though, which meant they had it all to themselves. A small though important blessing on this very early morning.

Last night, after somehow getting back here, Sakura had forced him to eat fruit and drink water. She had scolded him for a whole list of things, but he had been too distracted to listen. Some of her skin was visible through the towels she had wrapped around herself for the way home. Her clothes had gotten a little wet - or maybe not only a little, he noticed they were still draped over a chair in the corner to dry.

Long story short, instead of peeling his orange, peeling Sakura out of the towels had appealed to him much more.

Shaking his head at himself as he remembered her cute and slightly outraged squeals, Kakashi filled a glass with water from the tap and emptied it in one go. And again. And again. Had he misbehaved last night? It was all a little hazy but the more he thought about it the clearer it seemed that he had shamelessly misbehaved.

Oh well. He put down the glass resolutely. It had been very enjoyable. Even if it would shock a lot of people, he should maybe misbehave more often, it sure helped to get his mind off the many troubling things he needed to resolve.

Tomorrow, he would leave with Kirigakure’s Hunter-nin. If Karin really was near like Naruto had suggested, they would find her. Eventually. The Land of Water was large though and if she had moved on… Kakashi sighed.

“Do you want an omelette for breakfast?” he asked Sarada, noticing she was watching him attentively in his struggle to hydrate and collect his scattered thoughts.

“Yes, please, uncle,” Sarada nodded politely.

The girl had been so frightened again yesterday. At least, she would be able to stay in this village for a few days, with no enemies chasing her. It was as much as he could offer her at the moment. That and breakfast.

The fridge contained a few basic ingredients including eggs, pickled fish, and cucumbers.

“Do you know how to make tea?” Kakashi asked the girl after taking all the necessary things out and looking for seasoning in the cupboards. She nodded.

“That’s great. Would you like to make some for me?”

Beaming from ear to ear, Sarada got to work, filling a water cooker and taking a teapot down from a shelf. Watching her put in tea leaves carefully and then waiting for the water to boil, Kakashi made the omelette after his very own recipe, folded it neatly into a pile, cut it into cubes and put it on a plate with the fish and a bit of cucumber that he cut into a flower shape.

“Breakfast is ready,” he declared.

“But… I'm not finished making the tea yet,” Sarada lamented.

“You can eat first,” Kakashi told her, “no problem. This type of tea is better with water that has cooled down a little.”

Sarada was obviously very hungry, she ate fast and without looking up even once. Kakashi tried a bit of fish but his stomach revolted. With a sigh, he swallowed a food pill instead. Had he made enough food for her? Children were not on diets like aging shinobis.

She assured him she was full when she took her dirty plate to the sink. He helped her pour the hot water into the teapot, after which they sat quietly while sipping tea for a bit. It touched his heart how eagerly she tried to hold her cup like a grown up and how she watched him carefully to copy everything he did. One of the things he had always had an issue with was children looking up to him like he had any real wisdom to teach them when he clearly knew so little even after living for almost forty years. The biggest reason why the original Team 7 had so quickly become an important part of his life had been their flatout refusal to idolize him. All three of them, Sasuke, Naruto and Sakura had in fact always been his biggest critics, which had given him a reason to do better.

“Let’s go to the roof,” Kakashi told Sarada after her cup was empty, “there’s something we need to do before everybody wakes up.”

He only realized that he had created a crisis for her when he was halfway out of the window and looked back, wondering why she wasn’t following. She stood in the middle of the room wringing her hands, her eyes huge and startled behind her glasses.

Oh, right. Normal people used the stairs. But stairs were too easy to watch if one wanted to be informed about certain guests’ movements.

“Sorry,” he went back in, “I should have explained. I don’t want people to see us. Hop on my back, I’ll take you up - unless you want to try yourself that is.”

“I can climb up by myself?” she asked timidly.

“Of course,” Kakashi assured her, “remember what Iruka Sensei told you about chakra and how to control it? It’s the basic for everything and I am sure you will get very good at it very fast. You could even become one of the strongest shinobi of your generation.”

“Really?” Sarada asked, sounding doubtful.

“Much stronger than me,” Kakashi nodded. “I have no special abilities whatsoever. You on the other hand combine the bloodlines of two very powerful clans.”

Sarada looked even more doubtful, but she climbed onto the window ledge and poked her head outside. “We used to climb rocks a lot,” she said. “Where I lived.”

“Then you don’t even need my help,” Kakashi said lightly.

He stayed close to her to make sure he would be able to catch her if she should fall, but there was no need for it. Though Sarada did not seem to know how to use chakra efficiently she bravely climbed up using the rain pipe, various ledges and other possible hand and footholds, right to the top.

The day had sneaked up on them with a faint, gray hue over in the East. The majestic mountains in the West showed their impressive jagged height through wafting patches of mist. The air was fresh and cold with just the necessary bite to help Kakashi clear his head further. He turned around his axis once, checking the adjacent rooftops for the presence of Kirigakure Anbu, but they were alone.

“Sarada,” he said to the shivering but proud Uchiha offspring in front of him, “I’m leaving this place for a bit tomorrow and Kaeru will leave too. Auntie Sakura will stay with you though. You will be safe with her. But I have to make absolutely sure nobody will get the wrong idea about your eyes.”

“Will you take them out?” Sarada asked and made a step forward. “I don’t want them anymore.”

“Take them out!” Kakashi echoed. “Child, what strange ideas you have!”

“It hurt so much the first time,” Sarada whispered. “Everything was so red… I thought I was dying too.”

“Come here,” Kakashi said and extended his hand. “Sit down.”

He guided Sarada to a low stone bench in the middle of the rooftop. Then he went down on his knees in front of her so that their faces were about level.

“I cannot take away the pain and I cannot take away the fear,” he said, “but I will show you how to use these eyes in ways that will make you feel good about them. I promise.”

Sarada extended her hand and touched his brow.

“You have them too?”

Kakashi heaved a deep sigh. “I am not an Uchiha like you. I was only gifted the power of your clan’s eyes - twice. But I’m sure Sasuke will teach you everything I can’t. It will be alright.”

Sarada nodded reluctantly.

“What I will do today is put a seal on them,” Kakashi told her. “It will suppress their power while I’m gone. Besides, it will act like a barrier talisman. That means… nobody can take them.”

Sarada nodded again bravely though it was unlikely she understood the details of what he was saying.

“Those earrings you’re wearing, can I touch them?” Kakashi asked. No need to use talisman earrings like Ao did to protect his Byakugan, these would provide a nice and inconspicuous anchor for the seal too.

Sarada’s hands went up to her ears to touch the small blue stones. Her face fell as if a wave of sadness had hit her out of nowhere.

“My Papa gave them to me,” she said in a small voice. “Please don’t break them.”

“I don’t mean to break them. Hey, do you want to see my Papa?” Kakashi asked and his hand went to his pouch. He didn’t look at the picture often - it was enough to just carry it with him.

Sarada took the crumpled photo from his fingers gingerly and her lips curled upwards a little as she studied it.

“He looks just like you!” she declared, giving it back.

“You’re right,” Kakashi smiled. “That hair runs in the family.”

Hopefully just for boys, he added in his head as he put it back into his pouch. Wouldn’t a girl look very strange? Then again… he imagined a girl with his kind of hair and smiled broadly.

“My Papa didn’t look like me at all,” Sarada said. “Is it because he wasn’t my real Papa?”

That wiped the smile off his face quickly. They got smart much too fast. Every day, a little less carefree - if they had ever had the chance to be children and not worry about all kinds of things. Maybe not having children was the much better choice.

“Yes,” Kakashi said, “your real Papa looks very much like you.”

“I know,” Sarada said, suddenly sounding whiny. “But please don’t make me live with him. I want to stay with you.”

“I told you I will find your mother,” Kakashi said with a heavy heart though he had already promised her something along those lines only a few days ago like the biggest fool, “and then we will have to see. But do you want to tell me what your other father looked like?”

Despicable, Sakura would probably say, cold. Unfair, that would be his defense, he was neither, but he also wasn’t going to miss out on gathering more information that might help him locate Karin faster.

“He was no fisherman, am I right?” Kakashi said.

Sarada nodded. “But he sometimes helped with the fish,” she said. “He had… white hair. Whiter than you. His eyes were purple.”

“Pointed teeth?” Kakashi asked indicating the shape with his fingers.

Sarada nodded again. So it really was him! Maybe a part of him remembered that meeting Sarada and Karin had talked about after all? From the moment Sarada had told them her father had been killed by the Demon masked soldiers, Kakashi had almost been certain she had grown up with Suigetsu Hōzuki by her side.

This confirmed it, he had made the right decision to come to Kirigakure. As far as he knew several members of the Hōzuki clan lived in this village. It was highly likely they knew about the incident and the circumstances of Suigetsu’s death.

“He was a very brave man,” Kakashi told Sarada, “highly skilled with the sword and very devoted to his cause. You can be proud of him.”

Those were the kind of words people said to grieving children, well knowing they were just words with no real power to heal. But words like these were better than nothing. When his father had killed himself there had only been silence - a deafening silence all around him. Would it have made a difference to hear people say something nice about Hatake Sakumo? Kakashi pulled out a few kunai from his pouch, feeling a familiar bitterness constrict his throat. It was possible his heart would have hurt a little less all these years. It was possible the bitterness would not have taken over so easily and so completely.

He drew two circles around the bench on which Sarada sat. Then he positioned six kunai around the inner circle and three on the outer.

Turning his back so she would not see it, he deeply cut his index and middle finger and wrote the necessary signs on the circle with his blood. Sealing Barriers were complicated and strenuous jutsus. The combination of Fūinjutsu and barrier ninjutsu necessitated utmost precision, but he had learned from the best: from Kushina Uzumaki and his Sensei Minato Namikaze.

“Please take off your glasses and then put your hands to the side - yes, like this,” he instructed Sarada. As quickly as he could, he wrote the sigils from the outer circle up the side of the bench, onto her hand, up her arms, her shoulders, her bare neck to her earrings - twice from both side.

“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Are you ready?”

Sarada nodded. Kakashi first ran through the necessary hand signs in his head, but he remembered perfectly well. Signalling them in quick succession, he put both his palms on Sarada’s eyes.

“Fūin Kekkai!” he said and watched how his written words raced up Sarada’s arms towards her ears until they were all gone.

“Done,” he said, leaning close to have a look at her earrings. There were tiny markings around them that were barely visible. That had gone really well.

She blinked at him.

“You can put your glasses back on,” Kakashi said. He really wanted to go back to bed now.

She did, but continued blinking.

“Something the matter?” he asked alarmed.

“No,” Sarada said happily, “it doesn’t hurt anymore. Thank you, Uncle Kakashi.”

Kakashi smiled. Not bad for someone with a headache like his. Not bad at all.

***

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Sakura asked.

Kakashi sat down at the kitchen table and put his hands down resolutely.

“Yes,” he said.

Kaeru had gone out with Sarada to give them sufficient privacy. More than half the day had flown by in the blink of an eye, with another visit to the Mizukage’s tower, this time Keiki’s office (if she liked women, why did she look at Kakashi even more hungrily today?), the viewing of Kirigakure’s labs (impressive infrastructure!), the shaking of hands of the main researchers (the head of research was barely older than her, he must be really smart), an extensive tour of the town (there were restaurants but not near the Mizukage’s tower) - and a lot of swooning over Kakashi’s carefree, dishevelled looks on this day.

Sakura wasn’t quite sure what had changed, but she couldn’t look at him without getting wobbly knees anymore. It was almost like he had put a button in her head and pressed it every time t