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A definition:

 

Growth

Noun

  1. The process of developing physically, mentally, or spiritually

 

 

Sakura is thirteen when her world shatters.

The recovery of Konohagakure following its invasion by Orochimaru and Sunagakure is a hasty one, spearheaded by Lady Tsunade, the new Hokage, who takes full advantage of Konoha’s status as most powerful and influential of the Five Great Shinobi Countries.

Any other village would take several years to rebuild. Lady Tsunade gives herself the less generous deadline of twenty-four months.

Sakura adds the milestone to her head, feeling inspired. Naruto is leaving to travel the world and train with Jiraiya, The Toad Sage. Sasuke’s betrayal to join Orochimaru is a wound that hasn’t been given enough time to close yet.

The next intake of genin has been postponed until further notice, thanks to jōnin being needed for the recovery effort, and so Sakura will not be gaining new teammates any time soon.

As an added blow, Kakashi-sensei’s skillset is required elsewhere. He lets Sakura hold Pakkun again as he tells her. The last time she had held the ninken had been after the invasion, when they were summoned as therapy dogs. Sakura decides they have been doing very well in the time since.

“For how long?” she asks. The ground seems to sway beneath her.

“I’m not sure.”

“Okay.”

He puts a hand on her head and smiles. “It’ll be alright.”

“Yes,” Sakura says, almost flippantly. “I will see you soon then, Kakashi-sensei.”

“Yes,” Kakashi repeats. “Soon.”

Sakura makes up her mind. If the boys have claimed two of the legendary Sannin as their respective sensei, then Sakura will have to do so as well.

So she chooses her best outfit, and requests her mother to make her special mochi as a gift. Then, heart pounding out of her throat, she asks to be taken under the Hokage’s wing as her medical-nin student.

Honestly, she isn’t really expecting Lady Tsunade to say yes.

 

 

A definition:

 

Reconciliation

Noun

  1. The restoration of friendly relations

 

 

Sakura is fourteen.

Fourteen-year-old Sakura is adjusting to the absence of her team and appreciating the distracting plod of studying.

Medical-nin are required for all ninja squads, and to become a fully accredited one takes four years. There are thirty students in her year. One of them is Ino.

Something stirs in Sakura. She brings flowers to their first class together as a peace offering. Ino does the same, and they laugh about it, before deciding no boy will ever come between them again.

Their first year is to be spent learning anatomy, pathologies and chakra control.

The textbooks pile up on Sakura’s desk at home. During the day, she attends seminars run by Tsunade. At night, she spars with the other students. A medical-nin is the most important member of a team. They are to be protected at all costs, but a defenceless medical-nin is useless.

Sakura will not be useless.

She has a hole in her heart where her team belongs, though. Tsunade points it out after a month. It’s preventing her from controlling her chakra to the best of her abilities, so on the weekends, Tsunade sits her down and makes her meditate.

The first time is difficult. Sakura has never been patient, and meditation is certainly something that requires patience. But Sakura knows how to do breathing exercises—any genin does—and she doesn’t want to be alone with her thoughts. It’s stupid.

“Breathe,” Tsunade instructs, ignorant. “In through your nose, out through your mouth.”

Sakura does and hates it. Tsunade doesn’t care. They do it for two hours every Saturday and Sunday without fail.

In through your nose, out through your mouth.

 

 

On Mondays and Fridays, she gets to go to Konoha Hospital. Tsunade works in the emergency department and occasionally the Intensive Care Unit, so Sakura spends her time learning how to help the nurses with the never-ending influx of patients.

“These are your foundations,” Tsunade tells her the first time she steps foot inside the hospital. “You must start at the bottom in order to climb a mountain.”

They are very wise words, and Sakura tucks them away for safekeeping.

The secretary of the ward is a dragon lady, but the filing is impeccable and everything runs as smoothly as an emergency department can, so it’s a worthy price.

The nurses are much nicer. They teach her how to make a bed properly—the hospital way—and how to move patients from beds to wheelchairs and so forth.

Sakura learns how to use a stethoscope to listen to a patient’s lungs, and wonders at the different sounds. One patient, a jōnin returned from a mission gone wrong, has lungs that crackle like sweet wrappers. He doesn’t last much longer after that.

Sakura tries and fails at not caring.

The nurses show her how to use observation machines, how to administer pain medication, how to insert catheters, how to draw blood. They make her practice on thick-skinned fruit, and then Sakura’s hands are shaking the first time she tries on an actual patient.

“Good,” Tsunade praises her, and Sakura beams.

Tsunade lets Sakura draft patient notes, and when she’s happy with it, Sakura writes it into the file and feels a stab of pride course through her.

These are the basics, she repeats to herself like a mantra, glowing. These are your foundations.

 

 

She hasn’t heard from Naruto, and that’s alright, because he’s busy off in the world doing his own thing, and he will be back one day. Radio silence from Sasuke. It’s less alright.

Kakashi-sensei contacts her after her final assessments. She is at the top of her year.

Sakura, he writes. Well done on your exams. See you soon. Kakashi.

It’s brief. It sounds very much like him, though, and Sakura places it carefully into her journal, smoothing it to lie flat against the pages.

Soon, she reminds herself.

 

 

A conversation:

 

“Billboard Brow!”

“You know I hate that nickname.”

“I do,” Ino says but she doesn’t apologise. “Anyway, as I was saying before I realised you weren’t even paying attention to me, the chūnin exams are coming up again.”

“Yes,” Sakura nods, stirring her tea absentmindedly.

Ino squints at her. “I’m going to have to spell this out, aren’t I? Fine.”

“You know, you sound more and more like Shikamaru every day.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what happens when you date someone.”

Sakura scrunches her nose up. “You two are weird.”

Ino throws a piece of her cookie. “Shut up! He’s hot.”

“Right,” Sakura hums, thinking about Shikamaru’s greasy hair, and then she has to duck another stray biscuit. “Hey! Cut it out.”

“You deserve it. Quit staring at Mr Barista.”

Sakura’s gaze shoots down to her tea. “Ino!

“Oh please, your eyes are literal love hearts.” Ino sniffs, looking past Sakura to appraise the barista who has been Sakura’s crush for the last two months. “He’s kind of cute, I guess.”

“Why do you have to be so mean?” Sakura laments.

“Because it’s fun,” Ino sticks her tongue out. “Ask him out!”

“What? No.

“Aw,” Ino pouts. “But then we could double date.”

No,” Sakura says, stealing a quick glance at the barista.

Curse the impracticality of waist-length hair; Sakura misses being able to hide herself behind it.

Another long-suffering sigh from Ino—Sakura is really going to have a talk to Shikamaru on passing his habits—and then she says, “While we’re on the topic of my boyfriend—”

And Sakura rolls her eyes, because that is so like Ino, rubbing her relationship—and therefore, higher status—in Sakura’s face.

“—he is already a chūnin, but Chōji and I need three to participate in the exams.”

“And?”

“I’m asking you to join us, duh.”

“Oh.”

 

 

Sakura is pretty sure they almost die, but they graduate to chūnin level, and it’s another achievement to add to her list, so it’s sort of worth it.

 

 

Fifteen arrives like a long-awaited summer.

Fifteen heralds the beginning of Sakura’s actual hospital practicum, so she spends her days in rotation between surgery and emergency.

She shadows Tsunade in operations, learning how to stitch wounds caused by stray kunai, how to realign broken bones and hammer through them with nails and screws.

The hardest ones are the jōnin who return from fights where they’ve lost. The concept is simple: stop the bleeding, stabilise the patient. But they come in, with punctured lungs and destroyed chakra pathways, and Sakura hates the fragility of life.

It’s on days like those that Sakura spends her lunch breaks in the safe haven outside. The Land of Fire has many sylvan refuges, and Sakura exploits them to their fullest extent.

Her nights are filled by sparring with her fellow students. Agility training is essential, given evasion is the main technique a medical-nin will use in battle. Sakura likes to get her hands dirty though. She gets very good at punching up the ground.

Tsunade still makes her meditate on the weekends. It’s less trying, but nowhere near enjoyable.

Soon.

 

 

An overheard comment:

 

“An ominous team, if you ask me. Her sensei was that Friend-Killer Kakashi, and her teammates were that poor orphaned Uchiha and the Nine Tails jinchūriki boy. She’s better off without them.”

 

 

Sakura already knows about Naruto and Sasuke, but the comment of Kakashi strikes quite deep. Friend-Killer? She knows Kakashi was a prodigy of his generation, and that he did his duty with the war, but why the murderous moniker?

When she asks Tsunade about the rumour, Tsunade dismisses the nurse from the emergency ward. Then she sits Sakura down and tells her what happened all those years ago with Kakashi and his teammates. Sakura sits there, drinking it all in, feeling too young for the responsibility of such news.

“He always wanted us to get along,” Sakura says. “I see why, now.”

“Yes. You mustn’t listen to the gossip, Sakura,” Tsunade warns. “As shinobi, we must stick together. There is solidarity in numbers. It’s one of the few healthy coping mechanisms that prevent us from going mad.”

 

 

When Sakura finishes her exams once again on top, Kakashi writes again. Her talk with Tsunade has made her apprehensive, but she opens the letter anyway. It is far less succinct than its predecessor.

Sakura,

Excellent to hear about your final grades; Tsunade says you’re on your way to being the next best medical-nin in Konoha. Perhaps Naruto might have competition for that Hokage spot, eh?

I’ll see you soon.

Kakashi

Sakura’s heart warms. She presses the letter to her chest, making up her mind. Tsunade is right. She won’t listen to the gossip. There is solidarity in numbers.

 

 

A week later, Tsunade misses her deadline.

Sakura peels her off the Hokage desk, eyeing the multiple bottles of sake as she escorts her sensei to the Hokage residence.

Coping mechanisms, she thinks sadly.

 

 

Just before Sakura turns sixteen, two things happen.

The first: Naruto comes back to Konoha, marking the beginning of a new chapter. He’s taller than her now, and he’s filled out in all the areas he was scrawny in before. Sakura notes the changes in her head, wondering if it will always feel this strange being around him. It’s like learning how to ride a bike again.

The second: Team 7 is resurrected with Kakashi’s return. He hasn’t changed at all; still aloof and awfully tardy, face hidden behind his mask and Icha Icha book in hand.

They are to have another bell test, just like from their genin days.

Sakura follows the lines of Kakashi’s jōnin uniform, imagining the chakra pathways she could block from this distance, and how successful she would be against his Sharingan.

Kakashi’s uncovered eye meets hers, like he knows what she’s thinking, and Sakura suspects he is probably smirking. Very well. Let him believe she is still the thirteen-year-old he left. He has no idea what she is capable of now.

 

 

Kakashi is ashen-faced with the first punch Sakura delivers to the earth.

“Such strength,” he says faintly.

It is Sakura’s turn to smirk.

 

 

They get the bells, but only because Naruto threatens Icha Icha spoilers. It’s slightly anticlimactic.

 

 

A conversation:

 

Pakkun sits in her lap once more. Sakura rubs his ears as she addresses her old teacher. “So what did you do for two years?”

“Unfortunately that’s classified. Why don’t you tell me what you did instead?”

“Well.” Sakura eyes slide over the book in front of Kakashi, before meeting his gaze. “I grew a lot.”

“That’s abundantly clear, yes,” Kakashi says.

Sakura turns her attention back to Pakkun, feeling bold. “Lady Tsunade told me about your teammates.”

Kakashi is silent for a very long time. “Ah,” he says eventually. “And what did you have to say about that?”

“That I wanted to thank you,” Sakura says honestly. “For trying so hard to keep us together.”

Kakashi’s gaze pins her to the spot. “You have grown.”

 

 

A definition:

 

Familiarity

Noun

  1. Close acquaintance with or knowledge of something
  2. Relaxed friendliness or intimacy between people

 

 

For eleven months, everything is almost perfect.

It starts with her studies. The third and fourth year is to be dedicated to specialization. Sakura finds trauma surgery to be her most enjoyed area, so she chooses that.

Ino calls her brave, and opts for intensive care.

 

 

It is like learning to ride a bike; Naruto may look different, but he’s still unchanged in other ways, like his awful sense of humor, and his brash approach to everything. The familiarity of it is comforting, and Sakura finds herself sharing dinner with him on most nights.

“Tell me how you’ve been,” she says when they’re eating curry after training.

“I already did tell you and Kakashi,” Naruto answers, but Sakura shakes her head, because she only knows Naruto explored his Wind Release affinity, and how he is stronger with his summons.

“Not that,” Sakura says. “I mean you. Mentally. Emotionally.”

“I don’t know. That’s a big question, Sakura.”

“It wasn’t designed to be taxing,” Sakura rolls her eyes. “I just wanted to check up on you. It has been two years.”

“I think I’m okay?” Naruto says, and he scratches the back of his head. “Why, are you not okay?”

Sakura bites down on the ready reply of no. “I’m just tired,” she says. “It feels like I have no time anymore.”

“I get that,” Naruto nods. “Man, Jiraiya worked me hard every single day, and now I kind of want a holiday. Just to run away from everything.”

“Like Sasuke?” Sakura blurts out. She slaps a hand over her mouth. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Probably not.” Naruto shrugs. “Have you heard from him at all?”

“No. I would have told you.”

“True,” Naruto agrees. “He’ll come home eventually.”

“Do you really think that?” Sakura says, finally voicing the large cloud of doubt that has loomed over her since their teammate left.

“I have to.”

 

 

Team 7 get sent on a few B-rank missions—thankfully nothing too major—and Sakura splits her time between the hospital and training.

It’s somewhat humbling being around Naruto.

She’s been honing in on her chakra control for two years now, and she knows she is on track to be a very good medical-nin—possibly the best—but Naruto is strong. He trains and trains and trains, and it’s something Sakura never really thought he was capable of—being stubborn enough to push through the pain and exhaustion day after day—but it makes sense. He went from the bottom of their genin class to being one of the best in their chūnin exams just because of how perseverant he was, and then he gallivanted around the world with one of the legendary Sannin, so the improvement is to be somewhat expected.

Sakura hides her appreciation in her bubble tea though, because Naruto will mock her endlessly if he knows she thought that about him, and she doesn’t know if he still has that silly crush on her. Doubtful. It has been over two years. They have grown, the pair of them, and not just physically.

“Stop staring,” Naruto sticks his tongue out at her. “You’re gonna make me blush.”

“Good,” Sakura retorts. “Your footwork was getting sloppy.”

“Well get over here and show me how it’s done.”

So she does, and they end up on the ground in less than a minute, Sakura’s fist perilously close to Naruto’s head. Naruto laughs and tickles her, and she kicks out at him, hard, meeting flesh. He grunts in pain before throwing her to the side along with a well-aimed hit to her thorax, and they lie there in varying degrees of pain.

“I missed this,” Sakura pants when her ribs aren’t screaming so loudly at her.

“So did I,” Naruto chuckles. “I missed you. And Kakashi-sensei. And Sasuke.”

“Always Sasuke,” Sakura teases, fishing to see if the aforementioned crush on her still lingers.

“Yes,” Naruto says, less amusedly. “Always Sasuke.”

Apparently not.

Sakura rolls carefully onto her stomach and props herself up on bruised elbows. “We should talk about him.”

Naruto is staring at the darkening sky. “We should, shouldn’t we?”

Sakura pokes Naruto’s cheek. “Don’t be like that. He was all you ever talked about.”

Naruto bats her hand away. “I don’t even know what to say about him anymore. I just want him home.”

“Yeah, you and me both, buddy,” she remarks.

“I’m not sure that’s true,” Naruto says, and Sakura feels a stab of hurt at the implication that she doesn’t want Sasuke home, before she sees Naruto’s face and realises.

Oh.

She’s seen that look before in her mother, when her father is away on countless work trips. She knows what it means, and in that instant, Naruto’s eyes are so very blue. They shut briefly, before reopening as he stands.

He holds a hand out for her. “He better be home soon. Or I’ll get him myself and kick his ass.”

Sakura accepts his help, heavy with the unspoken confession of Naruto’s feelings. A million questions zip through her mind.

“That would be a sight to behold,” she manages. “Be sure to send me an invite.”

 

 

Kakashi tells her they need to work on her genjutsu. She has a knack for it, apparently.

“Maybe,” Sakura says, thinking maybe later when I’m not stretched so thin, but Kakashi talks to Tsunade and so Sakura’s weekend meditation sessions get shortened to make room.

“You’re late,” she tells Kakashi on their first Saturday.

Kakashi holds his hands out. “And when am I ever punctual, Sakura?”

“From now on,” Sakura replies, fierce in her determination. “It is the height of rudeness to leave me waiting here for over an hour for you, and considering you’re the driving force behind this genjutsu training, I expect nothing less.”

Silence.

Sakura’s heart is hammering out of her chest, and already she has ten apologies waiting on the tip of her tongue, because gods, she just spoke to her sensei like he was her equal, she is never going to live this down.

Kakashi’s lazy appraisal of her makes her turn even more red. “You know? You sound exactly like Tsunade.”

“That’s a good thing,” Sakura says stiffly.

“Yes,” Kakashi says slowly. “Yes it is.”

She doesn’t know what to make of that, but in the times afterwards, he isn’t late.

 

 

Genjutsu is hard. In their initial session, Sakura swims alone in her own head for a while before Kakashi fishes her out.

“That was good,” Kakashi says softly, one hand on her lumbar spine to steady her.

The pressure is a warm, comforting. Sakura blinks up at the gathering clouds, nerve endings awash with the strange sensation of drowning.

 

 

There are times when Kakashi just sits with her and they meditate together. The first happens after Sakura’s focus keeps slipping, and he deems it unsafe for her to be lost in a genjutsu.

“I hate meditating,” Sakura mutters after he announces his intentions.

“I’ve gathered,” Kakashi says, sitting across from her and closing his eyes.

His hitai-ate is still pushed up, and Sakura gets a little lost as she traces the scar along his eyelid, and wonders if the skin under his mask is smooth.

“I can feel you staring at me,” Kakashi muses, and Sakura flushes. “Did I forget to wipe my face after breakfast or something?”

“Obviously,” Sakura says, but the comeback is terribly weak, and she says nothing more.

 

 

The weeks begin to bleed into months, and Sakura wonders if ever there was a time when she was well-rested. Time is a precious commodity, and something has got to give, because her days are crammed with practicum, theory, meditation and chakra control with Tsunade, sparring with Naruto, genjutsu with Kakashi, and on top of that, team training. There is growing unrest in the Shinobi world, and the rumour mill is full of stories about jinchūriki being hunted down by the Akatsuki for their Tailed Beasts.

“Do you believe them?” Sakura asks.

Naruto shrugs. “What’s stopping them?”

Sakura’s brow furrows. War is coming. She can feel it. “I hope Sasuke is safe.”

“Me too,” Naruto says. “But he’ll be home soon.”

Sakura knows he’s saying it for himself more than her.

 

 

She does well in her mid-year written and practical exams, and Naruto announces they have to celebrate the event rather than just eating ramen at his apartment, so he drags her along to a steakhouse. Kakashi is punctual again. He greets her with flowers.

“Well done,” he says, and Sakura’s face feels as pink as her hair as she takes them from him.

She puts them on her desk, and Ino notices and teases her endlessly.

 

 

In October, she moves into the accommodation at the hospital to be closer to work and her team. Kakashi and Naruto help, as does Ino.

“I just want to sleep for a decade,” Ino complains afterwards.

The four of them are sitting in Sakura’s cramped quarters drinking cheap sake from plastic cups.

Sakura stretches her legs out. “Me too,” she agrees, but for the first time, she feels more alive than ever.

Naruto elbows her playfully, and Sakura spills her sake on Kakashi, and then he reaches out and puts her into a headlock to ruffle her hair and she narrowly avoids punching him through the wall.

Moments later, whilst they’re gasping for breath from laughing so hard, Ino takes a polaroid of Team 7 and puts it next to Sakura’s bed before she has to go for dinner with Shikamaru. Sakura lets Naruto sleep over on the condition that he doesn’t snore, and Kakashi snorts at the impossible request before bidding them goodnight.

Sasuke should be here, but three out of four isn’t so bad. Sakura goes to sleep that night looking at her team.

Yes, the eleven months are pretty close to perfect.

And then. Then everything falls apart again.

 

 

A definition:

 

Maudlin

Adjective

  1. Foolishly sentimental

 

 

An argument:

 

It isn’t a screaming match, but it is certainly far from civil.

The setting: Team 7’s genin training ground, nearing ten at night.

The participants: Sakura furious on one end of the sparring pit, Naruto across from her, defiant.

Then, quietly: “I have to find him, Sakura.”

“No, you don’t,” Sakura shoots back, and gods, she isn’t going to cry. “We’re a team. We do things together. You can’t go by yourself.”

“You’re still training to be a medical-nin and I can’t just sit around Konoha waiting for him to show up whilst a war brews,” Naruto argues. “He has to come home.”

“If he wanted to, he would already be here,” Sakura says resentfully. “You can’t save someone who wants to drown.”

“I won’t give up on him like that. He is our teammate.”

“And he left us,” Sakura says, feeling very small. “Don’t leave too.”

“I’m not leaving,” Naruto pleads. “I’m coming back.”

“You can’t know that for certain."

Naruto crosses to her and grasping her hands. “I adore you, you must know that.”

“But you won’t stay.”

Naruto frowns. “I love Sasuke too.”

Sakura’s eyes are burning, and she can’t stop the childish, “More than me?”

Differently,” Naruto says. “You know that.”

Well, yes, but they never talked about him, did they?

“What are you even going to do when you find him? He isn’t just going to come home because you ask.”

“I have to try,” Naruto answers. “Someone has to.”

There is a flicker of hurt, and something else. And then Sakura replaces them both with anger, because she won’t be seen to be weak by begging another boy to stay. Not again.

“Go then,” she says, even though it’s the last thing she wants Naruto to do. “I can see you’re beyond reason.”

“That’s not fair and you know it.”

But he leaves.

 

 

She goes straight to Kakashi.

“Sakura?” he asks, sleepy and confused.

It’s two steps forward until her forehead bumps into his chest, until she curls in on herself and prays he won’t mind that she’s woken him up at this ungodly hour.

He doesn’t.

A moment, and then his hands cup her shoulders. She feels his cheek on her head.

“What happened?” he says into her hair.

A deep, shuddering breath. “Naruto left to find Sasuke.”

And then she can’t say anything more, and he doesn’t press. He holds her tightly as she cries.

 

 

A definition:

 

Regret

Verb

  1. Feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over

 

 

Sleep escapes Sakura.

When she does dream, they are fragmented pools of thought, coalescing together in nonsensical plotlines and colours. Then she watches Naruto being stabbed over and over again, and that wakes her, makes her cry into her pillow for a few minutes.

It’s been three years. Three years since those terrible chūnin exams, three years since she cried her heart out to Sasuke in vain, three years since he left Konoha.

Sakura is sixteen and her heart is breaking.

There is a thunderstorm outside. The wind howls. Rain lashes at the trees. Sakura watches it with drying cheeks, and wonders how it got to this: Naruto, leaving once more to chase after Sasuke in the great unknown, and Sakura, alone again.

 

 

A definition:

 

Eschew

verb

  1. Deliberately avoid using; abstain from

 

 

Sakura pours herself into her studies until there is nothing left. When Tsunade comments on her lack of a life outside of the hospital, she takes up running. Cardio has never been her forte, but she likes the way her lungs burn, and how her legs shake afterwards, and the feeling of being infinitely small as she sprints through the forest.

 

 

In the quiet of the night, when Sakura no longer has any excuse to avoid her thoughts, she faces the stages of grief. She spends a fair amount of time in Bargaining. Sometimes it feels like it’s getting easier, and then other times, it seems like she’s made no progress at all. On nights like those, she runs and runs and screams into the dark sky.

 

 

A conversation:

 

“Sakura.”

She whirls around, caught off guard. With Spring and her seventeenth around the corner, the cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom, and so she has sought them out to use as a place of solace. Kakashi raises a hand in greeting, closing the distance.

“Won’t you sit?” she asks, patting the grass next to her.

It isn’t often she gets free time. She’s making the most of it.

He sits. “You were lost in thought. What about?”

Sakura scrutinizes the tree branches. “Naruto.”

“Ah.” Kakashi’s hand plucks at the grass. “You know,” he starts almost cautiously. “After Rin, and Obito…I wanted to kill myself. The guilt was overwhelming.”

There is a small pile of grass between them now, and Sakura stares at it, wondering what has prompted Kakashi to be so earnest with her.

“I realize this isn’t quite the same,” he continues, “but the concept remains.”

“And that would be?”

“That avoiding the problem only exacerbates it.”

Sakura screws her nose up, because even though he’s right, she’s a little like Kakashi: being earnest doesn’t come as easily to her anymore. “I just thought everything was finally falling back into place.” More grass. “I saw Naruto every day and I didn’t realize he was planning to leave on a suicide mission.”

“Is it really a suicide mission? You should have more faith in him.”

“Did you just come here to tell me what I’m doing wrong?”

“I came here to try and help.”

“Well you’re doing a pretty terrible job of it,” she snaps. “I already feel like I’m always chasing after them, trying to catch up. I don’t need you to make it worse.”

Kakashi has every right to snap back, but he says instead, “Our teams are often the closest people to our hearts. But your identity cannot be in them. It has to be in yourself.”

The words feel like a slap in the face. She blinks, mortified to realize her eyes are beginning to sting when she looks at Kakashi again. She doesn’t know how to answer, and Kakashi seems to have run out of pseudo-wisdom, because he says nothing.

Sakura’s mood stews in the silence, before she dissects his question. “They’re all I know,” she says quietly.

“No they’re not,” Kakashi says. “Doubt doesn’t suit you. Where did the Sakura of the last two years go? The one at the top of her class, the one on track to be even better than Tsunade?”

Sakura makes a face, embarrassed, vulnerable. “She left with Naruto.”

“No she didn’t.” He shifts, then puts his hand on her shoulder. “Self-pity is an endless abyss,” Kakashi says. “Take care not to fall in headfirst.”

 

 

Sakura’s first thought is that Kakashi is an absolute utter ass. Her second thought is that he’s right; she became this good without Naruto, or Sasuke, or Kakashi.

Still doesn’t change the fact that the boys have left and you’re still stuck in the same spot.

She goes for another long exhausting run.

 

 

Kakashi doesn’t train her in genjutsu on Saturday.

“Debriefing is paramount in our occupations,” he says, “without it, the trauma would eat us up alive,” and he takes her to a café instead.

They sit opposite one another with steaming coffees in front of them, and Kakashi prompts her to talk.

“About what?”

“Anything.”

So Sakura talks about her studies, because it’s really all she knows now, and then somehow the conversation segues into Naruto’s second departure again. She voices her guilt over him leaving.

“Why do you feel guilty?”

“Because my last words with him were an argument, and now it’s been two months and I’ve heard nothing. I already lost one friend, and then he left as well. I gave up.”

“Was it really your responsibility to keep them here?”

“Wasn’t it?”

“I don’t think so.”

 

 

“Perhaps it’s the silence,” Sakura says, running her finger along the rim of her cup. “The not knowing.”

“Yes, you’ve always liked knowing everything,” Kakashi muses, and Sakura swats him on the arm.

Thanks.”

“I’m serious,” Kakashi chuckles.

But at the end of their coffee, after talking about it all, Sakura feels lighter than she has in months.

 

 

A definition:

 

Trust

Verb

  1. Believe in the reliability, truth or ability of
    1. Allow someone to have, use or look after (someone or something with importance or value) with confidence

 

 

Sakura meets Kakashi under the cherry blossoms the next Saturday. They train for an hour, and then he tells her about his friendships with Rin and Obito; how he went from seeing them as obstructions to appreciating them as individuals who very much wanted to be part of his life. It takes time; Sakura sits quietly and lets Kakashi talk at his own pace, feeling like the stories he tells her are gifts.

“I get it,” he says. “When you’re with people day in, day out, you put so much of yourself into them. It’s hard being on your own again.”

“Yeah,” Sakura nods, hating the way she’s tearing up again.

“It’s difficult,” Kakashi continues. “I know how hard it is.”

“Does it get better?”

“Of course,” Kakashi’s hand lands on her shoulder again, just like the other day. “You just have to be patient. It’ll happen sooner than you think.”

“I hate that word,” Sakura laughs dryly. “Soon. It never comes.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

 

 

She finds Anger the next day, and tracks Kakashi down. “You can’t honestly think Naruto did the right thing by leaving.”

“You don’t think so,” Kakashi muses. “I’d argue that it is neither of our places to say our judgement is better than his. He clearly sees something redeemable in Sasuke that we don’t.”

“He deserted his team.”

“To bring back his teammate.”

“He still deserted his team. You said it yourself; teammates come first.”

Kakashi drums his fingers on the the grass. “You’re not wrong. Would you have done the same?”

Sakura scoffs. “I can’t just leave. I’ve got my studies to think of, goals to achieve.”

“Well, perhaps Naruto’s goal lies with Sasuke, then.”

 

 

Kakashi comes with Sakura on her next run. The morning is crisp enough to make it feel like she’s breathing in pure flames, but Kakashi is with her, and she won’t be beaten by him. They race each other through the trees, hearts on fire.

She wins.

Afterwards, when they’re trying to calm their pulses, Kakashi suggests coffee again. Sakura opts for an iced long black, wanting the coolth and bitterness.

“I like this,” she states, gesturing vaguely at the pair of them. “This helps, whatever this is.”

“Coffee?” Kakashi says slyly.

Talking,” Sakura rolls her eyes, even though it’s a little more than that, too. “Now hurry up and finish your drink before we’re both late for work.”

 

 

A routine:

 

5:00am – Wake up

5:15am – Run with Kakashi

6:30am – Coffee

7:45am - Work

 

 

Ino comments on her increased interactions with Kakashi. Sakura tells her friend not to read into things so much.

“We’re a team. We’re supposed to spend time together.”

Okay.”

 

 

(Ino wouldn’t know, and Sakura has a hard time admitting it to herself, but sometimes the coffees are the highlight of her day, because for once, she isn’t expected to perform).

 

 

One day, Sakura decides not to wait for the weekend to meditate. She does it in the quiet of her room in the evening, sifting through the day’s events. Once that’s taken care of, she digs deeper, allowing herself to think of Naruto and Sasuke. And then, after a week or two of that, when she’s brave enough, she goes further, down into the core of herself.

I am Sakura, she thinks. I am control. I am strength. I am whole.

She cries after that, feeling like something is finally starting to knit back together.

 

 

When she tells Kakashi, his gaze goes soft, and he drags her into a hug.

 

 

Good things are not perpetual though.

Later on, Sakura will realize it was prolonged sleep deprivation on her part, and split attention on Kakashi’s end. However, clairvoyance is a skill neither of them possess, and so it happens.

It begins with him trapping her into such a harsh genjutsu that her mind practically melts, and ends with her curled in a ball on the ground, desperate for air, for clarity, for some kind of grip on reality.

Kakashi is upon her within seconds, arms strong around her. “I’m sorry, I took it too far,” he apologizes, “I’m so sorry.”

 

 

It takes two weeks for Sakura’s mind to heal properly.

It takes another week to convince Kakashi to train her again.

No,” she says vehemently when he shakes his head. “I refuse to allow you to let your guilt complex stop me from my training.”

“This isn’t just about grades, Sakura!” Kakashi returns just as firmly. “It’s about your safety.”

“And I’m not just here for grades,” Sakura snaps. “So either pull yourself together and help me become a medical-nin for our team, or I will find someone else.”

 

 

Later, Sakura buys them ramen as a peace offering. They sit together next to Konoha Lake and Sakura wraps her arms around Kakashi’s frame.

“We both have things weighing on our minds,” she says softly. “You helped so much with mine. Let me help you with yours.”

“No promises,” Kakashi says, but he presses his cheek against her forehead, and he doesn’t pull away.

 

 

A definition:

 

Realization

Noun

  1. An act of becoming fully aware of something as a fact

 

 

When she’s eighteen, Sakura begins her fourth and final year. Kakashi delivers flowers to her after her first day, and then helps her Spring clean her apartment. The bouquet sits on the windowsill and Sakura watches him drying dishes. Domestic Kakashi is a lot more attractive than Sakura had thought.

 

 

Once a seed is planted, given the right conditions, it will inevitably grow. Sakura feels the affection blossom in her chest, and can’t find the self-control to pull it out.

And oh, it’s a wild, wild thing, sinking its roots in deep. When Sakura finishes at the hospital, Kakashi is there to walk her home, to ask how she went, and how she feels.

They stop for dinner along the way, and hope blooms afresh with each answer, each conversation, each interaction.

 

 

“I have a lot of regret,” Kakashi tells her one evening, hidden behind the steam of her miso. “It’s an ongoing work in progress.”

Sakura regards him carefully. It’s as much of a confession as she’s going to get.

“Well,” she starts. “I find there’s something therapeutic about just talking. Why don’t we try that?”

 

 

(Easier said than done. More often than not, Kakashi will sit and read Icha Icha and Sakura will engross herself in researching surgical techniques. Then sometimes, Kakashi will talk about his emotional state. They’re fleeting moments, precious and sacred).

 

 

On the anniversary of their death, they visit his teammates together. Sakura bows at Rin’s grave and Obito’s engraving, and Kakashi tells them about the happenings of Konoha, about the broiling diplomatic unrest. He tells them about Sakura, and how she’s the brightest medical-nin since Tsunade, and Sakura blushes all the way to her toes.

“You didn’t have to come,” he says when they leave for the day.

Sakura looks down and squeezes his hand. “Thank you for trusting me.”

 

 

In July, Kakashi gets summoned for a mission by Tsunade. It’s top secret, and Sakura knows not to pry either party.

Pakkun sits in her lap at the café the day he is to leave, and it all feels very familiar.

“Take care,” Sakura says, throat working around the sudden lump. “I suppose I will see you soon.”

“Soon,” Kakashi nods. “That’s always been safe, hasn’t it?”

She should kiss him. She so badly wants to.

She doesn’t.

She gives him a cowardly hug, burying her nose into his flak jacket.

 

 

Cherry blossom season fades into summer, and all of a sudden Sakura is focusing on the upcoming chūnin exams. Apprehension is high despite it being nearly five years since Konoha Crush, and the effects are shortened tempers and higher stress levels. There are mountains of paperwork to wade through, and Tsunade is tearing her hair out with security demands, but hospitals don’t pause for anything, so it’s another burden to add to Sakura’s already precariously balanced workload.

No word of how Kakashi’s mission is going, which isn’t doing anything for Sakura’s anxiety. She’s sleeping less than normal, relying heavily on coffee, and she’s pretty sure Ino is worried she’s going to do something stupid. Which, she isn’t. She just has a lot on her plate right now, as always.

“Take the afternoon off,” Tsunade says when Sakura is going cross-eyed at the medical file of one patient.

“But—”

“That’s an order,” Tsunade adds, taking the folder from her. “Go home and sleep. You’re no good to anyone when you’re tired.”

Sakura swallows the bitterness rising in her throat and nods, gathering her things, feeling like a failure.

She doesn’t go home to sleep though. She tracks down Ino and the two of them go to a cafe, even though Sakura isn’t hungry and Ino is on another diet. She’s getting herself a revenge body, because she’s broken up with Shikamaru again and thinks the way to his heart is by being anorexic.

“You okay, girl?” Ino asks.

“No.”

“Okay then, let me see,” Ino says, counting them off on her fingers. “Is it Naruto, Sasuke, or Kakashi? I swear, you have more boy problems than I do.”

“Shut up.”

“Well, it has to be Kakashi then, because Naruto is clearly in love with Sasuke.”

Sakura looks at her friend. “How long have you known?”

Ino smirks. “Since Naruto came home and all he could talk about was his lost love? One would have to be blind not to notice.”

“We never really talked about Sasuke.”

“Yeah, that was probably some noble protective move on Naruto’s part.”

“I don’t need protecting.”

“No, but you do need sleep. I can see the bags under your eyes from here, darling.” Ino sighs, and then laces her fingers with Sakura. “Look, let’s get you home. You can have a bath and we’ll drink cheap wine, and then you can talk to me about Kakashi.”

“Who said it was Kakashi who is giving me grief? I’m just tired.”

“Yeah, and I’m the next Hokage. Come on.”

 

 

A confession, after a bottle (or two) of chardonnay:

 

“I really like Kakashi.”

“I know.”

 

 

Sakura meets Yamato and Sai when they are introduced as the new members of Team 7 in Kakashi’s absence. They’re both ANBU, and it shows in the way they hold themselves.

“That’s an interesting seal,” is the first thing Sai says to her, referencing the diamond on her forehead.

Sakura frowns at his forwardness, shaking his hand anyway. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Are you?” Sai says, and Sakura feels even more out of her depth.

Yamato gives her a much less abrasive first impression, although he doesn’t say anything beyond a greeting. Sakura can only hope their future interactions as a team are better.

Naruto, where the hell are you? She thinks, frustrated.

 

 

(Their team interactions are better eventually, but it is a lengthy process in which Sakura uses the excuse of sparring to land some solid punches at Sai because he has absolutely no emotional intelligence).

 

 

Sabaku no Gaara is part of the envoy from Sunagakure taking part in the chūnin exams. He greets Sakura with hushed confidence, and she notes the softness about him now, the quiet force.

Later, she learns he is vying for the title of Kazekage. A lifetime ago, she could never have envisaged it, but now? Naruto’s influence, she thinks, is contagious.

 

 

Motivated, Sakura disciplines herself even more. She runs in the morning and spends time refining her chakra control, missing Kakashi’s company, and shaking her head at the barista Miko when she queries where her boyfriend is.

“He’s on a mission,” she says, not bothering to correct her.

In the evenings she meditates.

I am Sakura. I am control. I am strength. I am whole.

The space in her ribcage exists still, but it no longer stings. It’s a dull ache, a healing wound.

 

 

Tsunade appraises her one day, says a flippant comment about Sakura’s increased prowess with her chakra control and studies. “I think it’s time I stopped babysitting you. You’re more than ready to stand on your own two feet.”

Sakura beams, and wishes she could tell Kakashi, and Naruto, and Sasuke.

Soon, she repeats like a mantra, warmth spreading throughout her chest.

 

 

After the second stage of the chūnin exams, Sakura gets news.

It arrives in the form of a nurse grabbing her by the arm and saying, “Sakura, it’s Kakashi,” and then a blur of nonsense about a failed mission.

Her heart stops.

Then she’s running, meeting the medics who have an unconscious Kakashi on a gurney—and gods, that’s a lot of blood. She touches his face under the pretense of asking about his vitals and how long he’s been out. I’ve got you, she thinks, before instructing them to wheel him into theatre.

The nurses begin the preoperative procedures whilst Sakura scrubs up haphazardly, wondering how the hell she is supposed to operate when she can’t even don her mask without shaking.

“We’ll follow your lead,” Tsunade says as she scrubs up next to her.

And that’s fair, because there is no way Tsunade will be at her best with the amount of blood on Kakashi, and it’s also cowardly to ask Tsunade to lead the operation anyway, when this is Sakura’s area of specialization and she is more than capable—possibly even better than her sensei now—but still. Sakura is only human.

She presses the heel of her hands to her eyes as she reminds herself, stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient.

Then once more, for good luck, because it isn’t just any patient, it’s Kakashi.

Stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient.

 

 

It takes six hours.

Sakura barely notices the time ticking by; she’s too busy making sure she doesn’t accidentally cut the dura of Kakashi’s spine. His chakra pathways look like they will heal eventually, but Sakura has no idea how long it will take.

The anesthesiologist doesn’t say much, and Sakura is really too focused to talk properly with the rest of the operating team, but they keep up a low hum of conversation around her and Tsunade walks them through what she and Sakura are doing. Sakura is grateful for it; she feels the silence would drive her mental.

At the end, Sakura’s vision is beginning to blur, and her legs feel like lead, and her trunk extensors are aching, and her hands—so steady at the start despite her nerves—are now beginning to get clumsy, but it’s okay, because he’s stable, and all that’s standing between Kakashi and a room is her stitching the wound up.

 

 

Kakashi wakes at midday. Sakura is slumped against his bed, having refused to go home despite Shizune and Tsunade telling her she needs to.

“Sakura,” Kakashi says, all lazy and drawn out, like he hasn’t just woken from lifesaving surgery.

Sakura’s eyes are watering, and she’s praying to all the gods of her childhood in thanks. She wants to kiss him, but she isn’t brave. That was always Naruto, wearing his heart on his sleeve.

“You idiot,” she says instead, “You absolute idiot,” but she’s holding onto him for dear life, so the bite of her words is lost.

 

 

Whereas time had always felt like it was flying past, now it seems to screech to a halt.

The days drag on, and rehab is slow.

Rehab is long hours in the gym with the physical therapy-nin Sato, performing strengthening exercises and flushing Kakashi’s pathways with healing chakra to get his legs working again, because the attack on his spine means he’s lucky to even be standing, and he can only do one lap of the parallel bars before exhaustion takes over.

It’s awful to see him confined to a wheelchair.

They take extra care with Kakashi’s proprioception, and Sakura tries her hardest to be at every one of his sessions, but trauma patients don’t wait for schedules, and sometimes she misses him.

She makes up for it by having dinner with him, and the weeds inside her—although they can’t really be called that when Sakura has been nurturing them, can they? —grow even stronger.

They should talk about this thing they have, but they don’t. She spends more time at his than her place, and sometimes it feels like her emotions are so obvious, he’d have to be blind not to see, but they don’t talk about it.

Sakura hides behind the excuse of him being too preoccupied healing.

 

 

A month of relentless physiotherapy results in Kakashi moving to crutches. Sakura watches, heart in her throat as he does four laps of the parallel bars. She catches him at the end and they collapse to the floor, delirious with his success.

 

 

Sakura completes her final exams and the two of them sit next to Konoha Lake, watching the meteor shower.

“You’ve come so far,” Sakura says in a low voice.

“I could say the same about you.” Kakashi’s head is tilted up towards to sky, so Sakura cannot see his expression.

It’s just as well. The moment feels vulnerable.

“I’d say we both have,” she answers, following suit and staring up into the inky expanse.

 

 

Frustration is inevitable.

For someone as prodigious as Kakashi, it’s expected. Sakura takes him on their running route when he graduates from crutches to walking sticks, and he loses his temper.

“You’re lucky,” Sakura reminds him.

Fuck luck.”

He yells into the vastness of the forest and Sakura holds him as tightly as she can, like she can keep him from falling to pieces.

 

 

They sit with Rin and Obito later, and Sakura tells them of Kakashi’s progress, and how proud of him she is. She tells them of Naruto, and how he is coming back with Sasuke, and that their bond as a team was largely thanks to Kakashi.

“Why did you do that?” Kakashi grumbles afterwards.

“The same reason you did it to me the first time,” she retorts. “Because I appreciate you.”

 

 

Kakashi only needs one walking stick the following week. He thanks her for her patience. She places her hand over his heart and calls him an idiot.

 

 

Graduation day arrives.

Sakura’s parents send her a beautiful black hakama embroidered with cherry blossoms for her to wear, and promise to see her at the graduation dinner.

Sakura feels wholly unprepared for the reality of her being a medical-nin, but she manages not to trip as she accepts her testament on behalf of her cohort. Tsunade kisses her cheeks, pride written all over her face, and Sakura thanks her again before delivering the valedictorian speech.

 

 

Kakashi finds her outside when the ceremony has come to a close, aidless and breath-taking in a suit.

“Where is your stick?” Sakura scolds, holding him up so that the world doesn’t see how much she adores him.

“Do me a favour and stop treating me like an old man,” Kakashi chuckles. “I wasn’t about to turn up to your grad like an old man and an invalid.”

“You could never be either of those,” Sakura says disapprovingly. “Never.”

Kakashi’s appreciative gaze is warm and solid and grounding. He presses his lips to Sakura’s forehead, and murmurs, “I’m proud of you.”

Sakura’s heart is doing funny flips in her chest, from the affection, and from wistfulness, because Naruto should be here too, and Sasuke.

“Thank you,” she says, shutting her eyes against the longing she feels.

 

 

The graduation dinner is held at Mizu Restaurant in the heart of the Village. Sakura sits next to Kakashi with Ino and their parents, nervous with the proximity.

Kakashi is oblivious, monopolising her attention for the majority of the time. Sakura blames it on the fact that he isn’t sociable. The sake is in ready supply and they clink cups too many times to count. Sakura feels Kakashi’s gaze on her every time she takes a drink.

Tsunade’s gives a final address to bring the evening to a close. “It is our duty as shinobi to work with our teams to protect the peace that we have been afforded in the last few years,” she says, “and we must extend this another step as medical-nin, by preserving life.” She looks at Sakura when she speaks next, “There is solidarity in numbers, and with recent events, it can be easy to let fear become the only shades through which we view our world.”

Sakura sends her a smile amongst the quiet applause from the rest of the room.

“Don’t forget your teams,” Tsunade continues. “Whilst you take care of them when they’re down, let them take care of you as well. It goes both ways. I wish you—and your teams—the very best luck and success.”

Ino makes a face at her, the same way Shikamaru does, and it makes Sakura think of her own teammates.

Kakashi meets her gaze. “Soon,” he whispers.

Sakura doesn’t quite need the reassurance, not anymore, but it’s appreciated all the same. She finds his hand under the table and squeezes, hard.

 

 

With the formal part of the evening over, Sakura bows farewell to both her parents and promises to visit home. Their eyes slide over Kakashi, who Ino has engaged in conversation, and then to her again. No words are spoken, but Sakura flushes regardless.

Her mother cups her cheek in a silent promise to address it later. “We’ll see you next week.”

When she returns to the table, Ino grasps her arm and drags her to the bar, not altogether unwillingly. Shots actually sound nice after the stress of years of studying. The alcohol burns pleasantly as it goes down.

“Don’t be a baby,” Ino scolds when Sakura stops at one. “You’re having at least two.”

Sakura waves her hands around. “I’ve already had a lot of sake, Ino.”

“Wonderful!” Ino crows, handing her another glass.

 

 

Kakashi offers to escort her home, though it’s almost a moot point; they have already presumed they will leave together. Ino waggles her brows at Sakura but says nothing.

The night air is refreshing, and the alcohol haze clears slightly. Sakura breathes in deeply, head still swimming. She knocks her head against Kakashi’s chest, giggling when he slings an arm over her shoulder.

“Dance with me,” Kakashi says softly, eyes twinkling.

Oh, Sakura thinks, wanting very much to kiss him.

He pulls her close, and it’s not dancing, really, it’s just shuffling around in a circle and trying not to trip over each other, but Sakura doesn’t care.

 

 

They arrive at her complex, and of course, it’s completely chivalrous for Kakashi to walk her to her apartment. Then they stand outside her door, contemplative.

“Thank you,” she says, awkward. “For, you know, walking me home.”

“Ah,” Kakashi nods sagely. “Couldn’t have you on your own.”

“No,” she agrees. “Though now I will be, I suppose.”

“Yes,” Kakashi says.

Sakura looks up at him, bold. “What will you do about that?” she murmurs.

In the dim light of the corridor, she can see the moment Kakashi makes up his mind to chase after the small opening Sakura gave him. He hesitates, then reaches his hand out to touch her waist. It curls around, settles on the small of her back. Sakura’s pulse is thunderous.

“Sakura,” he says evenly.

“Kakashi,” Sakura replies.

There can be no mistaking the tension, and yet even now, excuses dance on her tongue. It’s been a long day. They’ve had a lot of sake. She should sleep.

She could thank Kakashi for a wonderful dinner, and go to bed. She doesn’t.

Instead she reaches to push his hitai-ate up, and then carefully, she pulls his mask down. He holds her gaze as she drags feather-light fingers over the smoothness of his mouth.

“Sakura,” he says again, far less evenly.

 

 

When she kisses Kakashi, he gasps into her mouth as though he’s been waiting a lifetime.

 

 

The sparks of heat that have been simmering in Sakura’s belly for months on end roar to life, but Kakashi seems content to hold her there rather than progressing forward, lips moving against hers in a steady cadence.

It feels very much like her first genjutsu session with him, except drowning was never this enjoyable.

Kakashi dips his head to mouth along the skin of her neck and Sakura works on the buttons of his jacket, trying to catch her breath. She can feel the hard line of his erection against her hip, the broadness of his shoulders and the contours of his chest through the dress shirt he wears, and the realness of it is overwhelming.

“A little help here?” she huffs out when her efforts have only eventuated in Kakashi’s jacket being pushed down his arms.

He laughs softly against her cheek, and Sakura’s heart warms. “Of course.”

Once the jacket is gone, she seals their mouths together again and walks them to her bed, crawling readily into his lap as soon as he’s seated.

“Wait, wait,” he chuckles, nipping at her bottom lip. “It’s alright, don’t rush.”

It’s really the last thing that Sakura wants to do, but she is caught between nerves and desire, and so she sits back, flushed, shy. Kakashi kisses her softly, then guides her hands to the buttons of his shirt.

It gets discarded somewhere on the floor, and then, she asks Kakashi to undress her. His expression of surprise is odd, given the endless amounts of trust she has demonstrated towards him before, but then it fades to a sort of reverence as he nods.

Now, time is not of the essence.

His fingers are slow and deliberate as they undo the ties of her hakama. Sakura watches, transfixed. She hears every rustle of fabric as he moves, deathly loud in the quiet of the room.

Kakashi’s eyes bore into hers. He pulls gently at the collar of her kimono, as if to unwrap her, and it takes forever to pool around her elbows, on the mattress beneath them. One hand presses against the space between her scapulae, then counts down her vertebrae, one by one.

“Is this okay?” he asks, hushed.

“Yes.”

The staccato of Sakura’s heart is unrelenting, and Kakashi pauses to catch her mouth in more of those dizzying kisses.

 

 

Once naked, they lie together on her bed, streetlights from outside casting the room in an orange glow.

“Can I touch you?” Kakashi murmurs, one finger tracing circles on her hip.

She nods, reassured. The dark makes her brave, and she hooks one leg over Kakashi’s in answer, searching for the right angle—there—

The sigh that Kakashi voices matches her own, and they rock together. If this is all their night is, Sakura will not complain. The friction is a surging tide, and waves crash upon the shore when Kakashi’s mouth closes over each of her breasts.

Sakura tugs him up for another kiss, wrapping both her legs around his waist this time, greedy for the contact. Kakashi’s tongue laps at hers, and he presses open-mouthed kisses to her face as his fingers card through her hair, like coming is the last thing on his mind.

 

 

Sakura has always prided herself on being a superb student, yet the harsh reality of sex is certainly uncharted territory, and when she links her fingers around Kakashi’s erection, and he stifles a groan into her throat, she isn’t quite sure if it’s a good thing or not. Her knowledge of anatomy never helped with this.

“Is this okay?” Kakashi asks again, frowning, and Sakura falters.

“Shouldn’t I be the one to ask that?”

“No,” Kakashi says hoarsely and shakes his head, nosing at her cheek. “I’m obviously more than okay with this. I want you to be okay too, though.”

“I feel the same as you,” Sakura whispers, and then she decides her ego can afford to be left at the door for now. She is teachable. “Tell me what to do.”

 

 

“You first,” Kakashi says, scattering kisses along her chest, stomach, thighs.

He doesn’t kiss her there, something that Sakura is grateful for because the mere sight of Kakashi between her legs is making her far too self-conscious, but he does press a finger into her, and the pleasure that spikes through Sakura makes her forget all about her insecurity.

“Gods,” Kakashi mumbles, resting his cheek against her thigh.

Sakura’s hands clench in the bedsheets, trying to hold onto her bearings. He’s still there when she opens her eyes again, still driving a constant rhythm into her. It’s indescribable.

“Come here,” she says, wanting to be held and kissed, and Kakashi’s smile is fond as he follows.

 

 

Sakura comes with two of Kakashi’s fingers inside as his thumb sweeps circles on her clit. He helps her by lacing their fingers together, and they stroke him until he spills onto both their hands.

Then he kisses and kisses and kisses her.

 

 

Sakura falls asleep to the low hum of Kakashi’s breathing, and the steady thump thump of his heart.

 

 

A definition:

 

Now

Adverb

  1. At the present time or moment

 

 

At the beginning of summer, after Sakura turns nineteen, Naruto arrives in Konohagakure, bloodied, bruised, and brimming with raw power. It rolls off him in waves, orange energy charging the air around him. With him is Sasuke.

Sakura flies at them, having heard roughly five minutes before of their arrival, and no distance or duty could have stopped her. Kakashi will be with them soon, having been unable to keep up.

“You’re alive,” Sakura cries, arms flung around Naruto’s neck.

Naruto’s laugh is rich, deep, and otherworldly. “I said I’d be back.”

Sakura draws away, vision blurring. She scuffs her nose on her glove and turns to appraise Sasuke. His eyes are red. His jaw is stronger, and his hair has grown. He looks at once everything and nothing like Sakura remembers.

“Sakura,” he says, uncertain.

Sakura nods in understanding, forgiveness, because there’s so many years to catch up on, so many stories to be told, so many apologies to be said, but for now, it doesn’t matter, because he’s home, they both are.

She hooks her arm around his neck, pulling in Naruto as well, and they stand there, the three of them, locked in an embrace.

Now, she thinks, heart full.