“Kakashi,” Sakura breathed.
She felt the press of tears, felt the relief like a drug pound through her veins. In one move all the tension she had been holding for a year seeped out of her. She lost her footing, lost all strength, and only Kakashi’s arms kept her from hitting the sand-packed ground. She clung, fingers digging into his flak jacket as she trembled with the relief that seeped into her marrow, chasing the fear away. She was so light she was light-headed.
Kakashi made a soft snuffling dog noise that meant comfort and pressed their clothed cheeks together. His one hand splayed across her back, holding her upright, the other came up, unclipping the veil and letting it fall to the side, before removing her sunglasses. He set her back on her feet, crowded into her space, and gripped her face with both hands. His thumb brushed against her dessert dry skin and over the stress lines at the corner of her mouth.
He took in the gauntness, the tension etched into her skin, and gave a mournful little growl.
“It’s okay,” she swallowed back the tears, “It’s okay now.”
Sand slithered across her ankle, curling across her boot, but Sakura didn’t shudder or shiver. Instead she slowly pulled away from Kakashi, eyes locked with his as she smiled.
She turned back to Gaara who was watching with a sort of resentful acceptance. His mouth was etched in a frown, teeth peeking out between the snarling lips. His angry teal eyes were narrowed and his sand restless. There had been no angry words over the past few nights of their journey across the sands. They hadn’t spoken a single word about her departure, simply lay in one another’s company. Gaara had curled around her in her tent, dodged her heels in the sand, kept her within his personal space at all times. He had almost seemed to cling to her the closer they got to the border and Sakura had not protested.
Kankuro was watching the other Konoha-nin, eyeing them with a smoke already tucked in his idle fingers. Temari was already greeting Nara Shikamaru, tongue and smile sharp. Sakura slipped back to Gaara’s side, uncaring of the eyes watching them now. Hiromi and her chunin were silent, already used to this ritual. Naruto was practically buzzing with energy but waiting as patiently as he could just behind Kakashi. The last member of the four-man cell, Choji, was sitting patiently beside Shikamaru.
They had picked a good team to come greet them. Two sets of good teammates, Shikamaru already introduced to the Suna delegate and calm Choji who would have his friend’s back. And then Naruto and Kakashi, the power to match Gaara but with the personal touch of Naruto as friends. It was the perfect team in terms of power-show and caution as well as respect.
“Gaara,” Sakura murmured, “Thank you for your care this past year.”
Gaara didn’t let her sweep into a bow, instead he stepped closer to her, into her personal space and grabbed her wrists.
“Stay,” he demanded.
But this was one request Sakura would not indulge, would not give into, one whim she would not allow.
“No,” she said easily, a smile curling her lip, “I’m sure I’ve taught you enough to understand why I must leave.”
He leaned in close, nosing the skin by her eye as he breathed in.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I will be your first love but not your last,” she said softly instead of returning the sentiment.
“Stay,” he whispered again, tone begging instead of demanding.
She saw cracks at the edge of his façade, his eyes crinkling, his mouth drooping. She broke his grip on her wrists and reached up, tilting his face down so she could kiss his cheeks.
“Oh Gaara, I’m just a letter away. I promise to visit, but Konoha is my first love.”
His mouth crumpled and he reached up to grip her hands almost pleadingly.
“You will find love. I think I’ve taught you well enough,” she told him.
“…did you ever love me?” he asked.
“Oh Gaara,” she sighed, “I will hold you in high regard forever, but…”
She could never have said this in Suna, would have feared him too much. But after all of it, after the entire year, and with Kakashi at her back watching carefully and Konoha so so close, she could do this. Now was the time for truth. She had taught him enough he would not break to hear these words now.
“I’m sorry,” she told him, “I am fond of you, but I don’t think it’s love.”
He gripped her hands so hard her bones creaked. There was something like anger in his gaze, but also desperation.
“Sometimes, love is hard to grow,” she told him calmly, “But you know what, love isn’t everything either. I am fond of you, I respect you, I trust you. That can be enough.”
“I wanted your love.”
“I would give it to you if I could,” she said, “But what we had, it’s enough isn’t it?”
He breathed deeply and Sakura waited.
“Yes,” he finally decided.
She offered him a beaming wide smile she had never given him before. She pushed all the happiness she felt at the moment into it. It was free of stress, free of tension, and free of fear. She beamed at him and he blinked as if blinded, looking wonderingly at her face.
Gaara leaned in and kissed her, deeply, passionately, desperately. He clung like she was being ripped away from him and she allowed it as he took as much as he could from her one last time. Behind her she heard a few strangled noises but this wasn’t about them.
“Goodbye,” Sakura whispered one last time as they parted.
“Never goodbye,” he said, “You shall always be on my mind.”
She smiled but knew those were a boy’s words. Maybe he would always remember her as his first love, but he had not known her well enough to truly remember her how she was. He would remember impressions and what he wanted. She let him have that though. Sakura pulled back and turned back to her team.
Naruto was looking like someone had smacked him with a fish. Shikamaru watched with sharp eyes that were far to knowing and Choji had looked away respectfully. Temari looked pleased and Kankuro, off to the side, gave Sakura a respectful nod and a flick of his fingers. Kankuro’s address was written down and tucked in her pocket and she knew she’d always have that friend in Suna. The chunin, much like Choji, had glanced away respectfully but Hiromi watched with concern and perhaps a touch of relief.
Kakashi looked at Sakura squarely, eyes assessing and she looked right back, chin lifted. When he clasped her shoulder she smiled.
“Are you proud of me Kakashi-sensei?” she asked, voice strong, “I survived.”
He looked at her, seemed to flay her with his eyes, and smiled.
“I’m as proud as I have ever been of you Sakura,” he told her.
It was enough.
The jonin exam was a breeze and Sakura passed it with flying colors to the astonishment of the other Konoha-nin, bypassing all the rookie nine apart from Neji to become the highest ranked member of their generation. She immediately went and took more tests at the hospital the same day and had the medic-nin cheering at the fact she hadn’t lost her touch. Her new expertise in poison had specific nin come a-knocking looking for advice even before she was declared a master at that art by Shizune.
Naruto, back home for good, had a million and one questions. Sakura answered precisely none about her time in Suna. Didn’t even look at him if he mentioned it. The name Gaara never passed her lips no matter his pestering.
Tsunade pulled her into a briefing and then into a hug, practically crushing her. And if a few tears were shed, no one could see behind the locked Hokage’s door. If Tsunade had to heal some permanently tense muscles, had to give her a personal dietary regimen to get back up to a healthy weight, no one heard. If Tsunade rested a hand on her shoulder and said she had been recommended to send Sakura to rape counselling, no one knew when Sakura shook her head and said with a slight smile, it hadn’t been like that. Sakura went to see a therapist anyways, one that Tsunade trusted explicitly, and it was simply for being on a long term solo mission.
And Kakashi…well Team Seven, mostly back together minus one traitorous teammate, went on missions sometimes. Naruto was learning from Jiraya still and Tsunade was assigning him tasks that would help him in his bid for Kageship one day. Sakura, now a jonin, was stationed at the hospital half the time but the other half she was paired with Copy-nin Hatake Kakashi. They made a good team. So good in fact they were often sent after certain criminals of S-rank stature. The sound of thousands of chirping birds now often heralded the appearance of two in-sync hunter-nin who moved seamlessly together both with fistfuls of lightening.
Kankuro she kept in touch with, the only one she kept in correspondence with back in Suna (though every once in a while Kankuro’s letters would have a small scribbled message from the Elder Chiyo). One day a letter showed up from him and it was simply a copied piece of new legislation that had just passed back in Suna. Same sex marriage was legal and though he never said anything Sakura knew he knew she’d had a hand in that. If her power over Gaara had given her the control to do one thing, she was glad it had been that.
Years later there was a woman on Gaara’s arm; a tad mousy and quiet but pretty enough. Gaara gazed at Sakura from under straight red hair and there was something in his gaze like desperation. She recognized the want from all those years ago. But there was also a question
Is this okay?
“Hello,” the woman smiled at Sakura, “You must be Sakura. Gaara told me so much about you.”
“All good I hope,” Sakura said, cringing at the cheesy answer.
She really should know the woman’s name, know she’d been told it, but for the life of her Sakura couldn’t find a reason to care.
“He told me you were the one to teach him what love was,” the woman beamed, “So I have to thank you for that.”
“Oh no, I didn’t teach him about love,” Sakura smiled, “I just taught him to be gentle.”
The woman looked confused behind her smile but she laughed as if the answer Sakura gave was funny and retreated back to Gaara’s side.
Dusky teal eyes gazed at her and something like a smile curled Gaara’s lips. He looked…softer. Sakura gazed back and wondered how this had happened. Maybe she really had helped. Gentle, she remembered her mantra.
Sakura watched as he was careful with the woman on his arm, as he was responsive to her and her needs, quick to speak for her but also to let her speak. She watched them move around together seamlessly.
And Sakura felt…
Well she felt a tad jealous. She was jealous that this woman got this softness, this new gentle caring Gaara.
But Sakura also felt…happy. Content. She may have only had Gaara when he was new and raw and anything but gentle, but she was content with that. She’d never meant to keep him. Never meant to have him at all but he had been a pushy demanding boy who took what he wanted. And somewhere along the line Sakura had become indulgent of that.
It was good to see him like this, to see him happy, normal.
It was good to see Gentle had stuck and looked good on Gaara.
“Sakura,” Kakashi called.
She looked away from Gaara up the dusty street to Kakashi, slouched and lazy, grinning in the sunlight. Sakura went to him and did not look back at the boy with blood red hair and sandy skin and angry teal eyes. She did not look back at the tall gentle man who stood at his wife’s side so happily and calm.
Sakura only liked to look forward these days.