They send Sakura to Suna.
They send Sakura to Suna. Alone. And Kakashi was rabid with anger and terror.
He’d seen war before, seen tension building between nations in the space that is labeled weakness, seen this sort of ‘diplomacy’ that is merely sacrifice. He knew exactly what Sakura was being sent to do and it was not fix their hospital; it was to be a hostage, to be a show. Sakura was a sacrificial lamb to see if Suna would keep their promises in the wake of their defeat or if they would respark the flames of violence. And Sakura was what will be that spark with her blood staining the sand.
That she was requested by name was what absolutely terrified Kakashi, because that spoke of grudges and vendetta. Someone wanted Sakura specifically and Kakashi knew of no one in Suna who should even know her name.
When Tsunade had announced Sakura as the sacrificial lamb for this tentative peace, Kakashi had been enraged, had snarled and snapped, and if he had been anyone else he would have been tossed in a cell of his disrespect. When Tsunade said she would be going without even a single other person, no guard no team, Kakashi saw red and would have went for her throat if it had changed anything.
Kakashi had lost Sasuke to the seduction of power and revenge, but the boy had chosen that path. He had lost Naruto to a better sensei and the safety of not staying in one place, but Naruto had chosen that. He had half lost Sakura to a better sensei and a better specialization, but he would be damned if he would lose her to Suna without her choice.
The only comfort offered was Tsunade’s command of ‘keep her alive’. Kakashi took what he could with desperate hands and turned desperate eyes on a nervous Sakura. He would damn well make sure she could survive, would make sure she was a desperate and deadly as he could make her in so short of time. If had to be cruel to do so, he would.
And so he gave her what he could, running her into the ground to show her what it felt like to be prey, what it felt like to be threatened. He showed her what defeat tasted like in the training ground dirt.
“You will survive,” Kakashi growled, low and threatening in her ear as he ripped her world out from under her feet, “You will survive.”
And it was a command, an order, and a demand all in one.
“Kakashi,” Sakura said softly in return.
And Kakashi ripped that softness apart. He could see her straining under his training, see her faltering at the deadly pace he pushed her, see her getting more and more tense as the day of her departure grew closer. But Kakashi was not sorry. He was not sorry he had taken any hope of a good future out of her, he was not sorry he had destroyed any kindness she might have carried into Suna. He was not sorry he had made her as suspicious and twitchy as him at his worst. Because everything he did would help her survive.
The last thing he gave her was a small tube of lip chap to protect her against the wind and heat and sand. And if his hand lingered in hers a moment later, fingers feeling her pulse, it was only to reassure himself he would see her again.
And then she was gone, swallowed up by the desert and he could only hope it would not taste her blood.
Kakashi made himself useful, because if he didn’t he would wither with worry and grief. He donned a white mask with red markings in the shape of a hound, though he did not turn to an ANBU commander for directions. Instead he pulled the mask on and sat in the Hokage’s office like an immovable statue that nothing but sleep and the need for food could take him away from.
Tsunade said nothing, not even when Maito Gai came pleading her to smack sense into him. Gai. Pleading. Tsunade merely dismissed him and slid a cup of sake across her desk in Kakashi’s direction. Kakashi didn’t touch it.
One month, two, and only a few short coded messages that simply said ‘I am alive’. The few spies they had in Suna sent their reports to Jiraya and he relayed nothing.
And then came the all clear. It was a longer message, stilted and coded to say that for now the peace was holding, that there were no blades hidden besides the normal ones. It requested the backup medical team to be deployed.
“Someone was reading over her shoulder,” Kakashi said flatly as he picked up parts of the code that he himself had beaten into her.
“What did you expect?” Tsunade snorted.
Kakashi reread the scroll as Tsunade started to write the mission scrolls that would send a team of four after Sakura. Unfortunately, they had to be medic-nin or he would have jotted his name down before she could find fault. They also had to be expendable in the sense their loss wouldn’t hit Konoha hard. The problem was finding a balanced leader who would be able to help but also wouldn’t be missed.
Kakashi had no idea who Hiromi was with his avoidance of the hospital, but he already pitied her.
Hiromi’s reports came more frequently, going only through some form of TI before reaching the Hokage. This showed Sakura was under more surveillance. Kakashi grew more and more still in the shadow of the Godaime. He became a ghost to everyone but Tsunade, only a flash of silver hair here and there. Gai tried to beat it out of him and when that failed, turned to making sure Kakashi ate at the very least, roping his genin team into cleaning Kakashi’s apartment and leaving meals. Only their concern for Sakura and their understanding stopped Team Gai from complaining about what amounted to D-rank missions. Instead Lee cleaned Kakashi’s apartment from top to bottom and Tenten left encouraging notes on tupperwares of food, and Neji shadowed Kakashi when he knew the man was drooping from exhaustion.
Kakashi felt empty inside, hollowed and broken in a way he hasn’t been since Minato’s death. He tried to tell himself Sakura was still alive but the desert was a cruel mother and Kakashi was so jaded he did not expect to see her escape it’s howling winds.
Kakashi dedicated himself to Tsunade, to becoming, once again, the Hokage’s dog. Tsunade was kinder than Sarutobi, less deseperate, and so Kakashi was a guard dog instead of a hunting hound. He sat in her shadow and any show of disrespect and aggression was met with snarling. Kakashi came off as a feral stray reigned in only by Tsunade’s temper. This helped in her favor during a variety of negotiations and business. Kakashi could not even feel satisfied in completing his duty these days though.
Every letter from Sakura was a burst of warmth in his life, a swelling of brief crushing hope. He was laying in wait, waiting for Tsunade’s command to fetch, and he would fight hell to retrieve his student. For now he sat still, growing colder and quieter every moment he sat in the shadow without Sakura’s light.
He forgot how much caring hurt.
Hiromi sent a coded message one day, full of flowery writing about how Gaara had been named and crowned Kage of Suna. The words seemed simple, a simple factual report on the occurrence. But her coded message screamed at them; GET SAKURA OUT NOW.
Kakashi felt his blood pound and burn. Heard his own heartbeat in his ears as he strained his muscles. He waited on the edge of his leash for the command of ‘go’; He did not get it.
“Hiromi is a good doctor,” Tsunade said calmly, rolling up the report, “But not good on high stress missions, which is why she was regulated to full time hospital work.”
“Let me,” Kakashi said, voice strained.
“No,” Tsunade said definitively, “If Sakura has not made a run for it or put in a request for withdrawal I will leave it be. I believe her analysis of the situation over Hiromi’s. She is doing important work.”’
Kakashi growled low and deep in disapproval, not at the idea that Sakura knew what she was doing, but that Tsunade wouldn’t let him rush off.
When Hiromi’s next message read Rape, Kakashi merely curled into himself and hid in Tsunade’s shadow. Tsunade did not have the luxury of hiding behind a mask in the shadow, so she processed the message and set about reviewing their therapist profiles in expectation of Sakura’s return.
None of Sakura’s messages even alluded to anything discomforting, seemingly flat and analytical of the politics.
His first sight of Sakura was like the first dunk into a hot spring; it was shocking, shuddering, and warmed him down to his marrow. She was garbed like a local, in dusty red colored clothes, bright yellow slashes of bandage to keep the openings bound tightly to her skin. From finger tip to toes she was covered and wrapped tight, hidden away from the sun and prying eyes. Even her eyes weren’t visible behind the dark shades over her veil but Kakashi recognized her instantly.
“Kakashi,” Sakura exhaled at the sight of him.
Kakashi heard a rush of emotion in her voice, heard the draining of fear and tension and tears all in one. She shuddered and he saw the moment she faltered, the moment her strength gave out. Kakashi recognized the way she had been dragging herself despite bone deep exhaustion, the sight of safety draining the very last of her strength. He caught her, pulling her close and she clung, limp in his arms, trembling faintly.
She weighted too little, felt too thin, smelled so terrified and relieved all at once. Kakashi made a snuffling noise he used with his dogs and pressed their masked cheeks together, holding her so tight he was worried he’d snap her in her half. He reached up, pressed the glasses up onto her head to look at the bright spring green eyes. He unclipped the tricky little face veil brushed a thumb across her cheeks. Her skin was paper dry, her cheeks sunken in from stress and lack of water. She had wrinkles. All of sixteen and had wrinkles at the corner of her mouth from scowling and the corner of her eyes from letting them pull tight.
He took in the gauntness, the tension etched into her skin, and gave a mournful little growl.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, voice shaky, “It’s okay now.”
Kakashi saw the shift of sand at their feet and resisted the urge to lift her and flee. He glanced over her shoulder even as she slowly pulled away from him. Subaku no Gaara was watching with a frown, hostility written in his stance and in his eyes. Kakashi bared his teeth right back, not at all intimidated by this young blooded Kage. Sakura smiled up at him and Kakashi tried to let her know he would take her away right now. Instead she pulled away and slipped back to the red-head.
Kakashi didn’t have eyes for anyone other than Sakura but he was too good of a shinobi to dismiss everyone else since they could be threats. He saw the way Hiromi and her chunin stood half a step behind him as if trying to edge behind Kakashi’s protection, saw the way Hiromi watched with terror and worry as Sakura approached Gaara. Kakashi watched the way Temari, diplomat to Konoha, watched Sakura with a satisfied smile, watched how Kankuro watched the Konoha ninja. Their eyes met briefly and Kankuro dipped his head in acknowledgement, tilting with a meaningful look at Sakura. Kakashi had one ally on that side at least. Kakashi also kept half an eye on Naruto who was only adhering to the peace with bad patience as he shifted. The others he knew would hold formation.
Kakashi kept his eyes on Sakura’s back, unable to see her face from this angle but still able to see Gaara’s.
“Gaara,” Sakura murmured, “Thank you for your care this past year.”
Kakashi strained to hear the whispered conversation, his enhanced sharp hearing catching the low murmurings. When Gaara stepped into Sakura’s personal space, grabbing at her wrists Kakashi tensed, faintly shifting his stance to be more threatening. He felt the alarm of the Suna delegation guards hidden in the sand at his move but they held position as he did nothing else.
“Stay,” Gaara demanded in a tone used to obedience.
“No,” she said easily, something like adrenaline in her voice as if she was doing something dangerous, “I’m sure I’ve taught you enough to understand why I must leave.”
He leaned in close and Kakashi gave a growl under his breathe. Sakura didn’t lean away or tense but her completely disinterested stance told Kakashi she was used to this but did not completely welcome it. Their voices dropped too low to hear but Kakashi saw Gaara slouch before Sakura broke his hold and kissed his cheek. They exchanged more words and Kakashi saw the moment Gaara didn’t get the answer he wanted. He gripped her so hard Kakashi could feel her bones grind. Kakashi saw Temari look pointedly away but Kankuro watched, eyes careful. He gave Kakashi a ‘hold still’ movement even as Kakashi tensed, ready to launch himself between them. Kakashi eyed the man, wondering if he should trust the Kazekage’s brother, but Kankuro was watching Sakura not his brother and had a better view of her face and reaction. He didn’t seem alarmed yet.
Sakura suddenly relaxed, posture loosening, and Gaara stared at her in surprise. Then Gaara leaned in an kissed her, desperately. Kakashi saw the fumbling, the desperation. He saw how passively Sakura took it, like this was a common occurrence. He flexed his hands and wondered if Tsunade would kill him if he were to attack the Kazekage and throw them into war. The only thing that held him still was the fact he would undo all the work Sakura had done, undo all her sacrifices. So he waited, ready to grab Naruto if he stopped flailing and moved forward.
A few last words were exchanged and then Sakura pulled back and turned back to them. Kakashi saw the disinterest in her eyes, as if something important had happened but she had no real attachment to it. He saw the clear disassociation in her face and knew she had been doing that far too long. Sakura looked at everyone, offering only a respectful dip of her head to Kankuro and then walked back to Kakashi.
She came up to his side, tilted her head back and looked at him square in the face, chin tilted defiantly. He clasped her shoulder and she smiled.
“Are you proud of me Kakashi-sensei? I survived.”
He looked at her, looked as deeply as he could. He heard the tenor of defiance in her tone, as if to say ‘call me on it’ as if to challenge him. He looked at this worn thin girl he had sent off to her death only a year previous and who had walked out of the desert with her flesh sloughed off and her skin rubbed dry and something dark folded in her heart. He smiled
“I’m as proud as I have ever been of you Sakura,” he told her honestly.
Sakura was silent the journey back, sticking so close to Kakashi that she would have tripped him up had he been any less skilled. At night she curled into his side and refused to move, following him like a shadow when it was his watch. She refused to be parted from him and clung while she slept, a hand fisted in his shirt as if to reassure herself he was real.
Shikamaru was a genius and he saw everything Kakashi did with less background knowledge of the situation. He made only careful slow moves around her, talking slowly and carefully and not expecting any answers. Chouji followed suite without any prompting. Hiromi looked as if she wanted to speak but then looked between Kakashi and Sakura and took a step back, keeping her chunin in order. Naruto was the only problem because as good as he was with people, he didn’t understand. He didn’t believe in the level of darkness people could carry every day and the small things they could do that could carve gouges in your psych.
“So…” Naruto tried to broach, “You and Gaara eh?”
Sakura turned away from him and Kakashi took that moment to trip Naruto straight out of the tree. Naruto yelped and complained and then Shikamaru was in between them, distracting Naruto. When night fell and they settled around a fire Kakashi got physically in between Naruto and Sakura before the blonde could ask any questions.
“If you don’t back off Naruto,” Kakashi said flatly, no sign of his patent eye smile anywhere, “I will have you blacklisted from all further missions with Sakura.”
Naruto gaped but Kakashi didn’t care, angling his posture to say ‘try me’. Shikamaru gently tugged Naruto away to murmur something. Naruto wasn’t dumb, he just needed things spelled out sometimes. After the first night he gave them space, shooting Sakura worried looks that only grew as her mouth stayed sealed and her face veil up. She had not changed form the Suna garb and looked wildly out of place shrouded as she did. Kakashi recognized hiding when he saw it and Sakura had gotten good at it even in plain sight.
“Thank you,” Sakura whispered on night when everyone else was asleep and they were tucked up in a tree keeping watch.
“For what?” he asked.
“For teaching me chidori.”
“I shouldn’t have,” he said, “I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t blow up in your face without the speed and ability of the sharingan.”
Sakura scoffed, a familiar sound that made him relax.
“As if having a sharingan truly helps with it. It just helps with reaction time and speed. I just have to be more careful. I’ve learned to heal the damage it does as well.”
“Good,” he hummed, “It came in handy then?”
He had of course heard about the Akatsuki, but he was quite sure that was not what she meant. Sakura was silent for a long moment.
“Every time he touched me,” Sakura said, “I knew that if it came to it, if I wanted it to stop, I could rip his heart out with lightening….it helped.”
Kakashi reached out slowly and she did not flinch or draw away as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. He thought about asking why she hadn’t used it. But he was not that insensitive.
“Any thing I can do to help,” he said instead, “All you have to do is ask it of me.”
When they arrived in Konoha, Tsunade kicked everyone but Sakura and Kakashi out of the office and pulled Sakura immediately into a briefing. Kakashi was only allowed to remain because he was a useful shadow and was aware of the situation. Sakura didn’t question his presence before reporting. She spoke calmly, clearly, and a tad flatly and Kakashi and Tsunade both saw moments where she dissociated to report. They said nothing and showed no surprise, keeping cool calm faces on. Their emotions would not help Sakura here, so they let her say what she need.
Afterwards Sakura signed the mission scroll and only then did Tsunade stand and sweep her student into a hug. For one long moment Sakura was stoic and solemn, and then a sniffle, a choked cry and Kakashi looked away as Sakura started to bawl. Tsunade shushed her and held her as Sakura sobbed like a child, snot and tears streaming down her face as she clung desperately to her sensei. Being so on guard and tense for a year in enemy territory had carved its scars into Sakura. It was a good sign she could even cry in the perceived safety of the office and the arms of her sensei.
Kakashi stayed even as Sakura disrobed, shucking the suna garb to let Tsunade give her an immediate physical. His eyes traced the unnatural thinness from low water consumption, from lack of proper eating due to stress, from the tension that must have made her lose a few meals to the toilet. Tsunade said nothing as well, simply giving her a dietary regime to follow, giving Kakashi a side glance. Kakashi nodded to the silent order to make sure Sakura obeyed.
When Tsunade brought up rape counselling Sakura actually smiled and shook her head.
“The whole thing was a mess, but it wasn’t quite like that,” Sakura said, “He didn’t hold me down and force me. Perhaps it wasn’t a healthy relationship, but I never once said no.”
“There is no shame in rape,” Tsunade said firmly, “And there is a very little difference in saying no and not saying yes.”
“The therapy helps,” Kakashi spoke finally, “I attended it many years ago.”
Sakura stared with wide eyes at that admission. If she asked Kakashi would tell her of the days spent in a Lord’s castle as a servant, trying to get information and trying not to get caught in the man’s bed at fourteen years old.
Sakura looked at her feet, looked at her hands, breathed deeply and accepted the recommendation for a therapist Tsunade trusted explicitly. If only for the fact she had spent a year on a long-term mission isolated in enemy territory.
Sakura’s parents still had a room for Sakura if she wanted it, but there was nothing she wanted less at the moment. She loved her parents obviously, but she was still twitchy and tense and civilians were often loud and oblivious. Instead Kakashi folded her into his apartment. He enclosed her in his bedroom, letting her have the security of his traps and seals. His dogs were nin-dogs and they recognized trauma very well. They spent the nights piled around her protectively and Sakura spent many nights sleeping like the dead in their embrace as if she was short a year of sleep.
Kakashi made sure to have snacks on hand and stuffed in every cupboard and the fridge, constantly handing Sakura a plate of food without even asking. She was on a few weeks of leave but he helped her in the training grounds and made sure she was moderating herself. When Konoha’s jonin exams approached her helped her apply.
She passed the exam with flying colors and the twitchy disposition of a veteran that had more than one person backing away carefully. Konoha’s shinobi were used to twitchy high strung eccentric shinobi and so Sakura was folded in happily and carefully, no one being too oblivious to miss the signs. When she went straight to the hospital to finish their exams, Kakashi was there to keep the rather unobservant medic-nin outside of her personal space. It was ridiculous how the people who dealt with trauma and injury every day never noticed it. Maybe they were oversaturated by it and it was now an invisible aspect of every day life. Maybe they were all in the hospital and not the field due to lack of observation. Either way Kakashi kept them at back.
He had become Sakura’s shadow and no one questioned it. Either they knew he was keeping a careful eye on her out of concern or thought he was keeping a careful eye on her to reaffirm her loyalties after a year in an enemy village.
As if Sakura had done nothing but learn and survive in Suna, she was named a poison master by Shizune only days after being declared a doctor. Kakashi didn’t ask how, but he saw the letters she exchanged with the Kazekage’s brother still, the small packages of vials and notes arriving. He also saw the thin wooden sheathed blade she kept on hand for many months after Suna. He was glad one good relationship had come from that trip.
Naruto who was back home for good after his world tour with Jiraya had a million and one questions. He was a tad subtler after the lecture from Shikamaru, but he was still his loud insensitive self and often Sakura merely turned away from him. Kakashi was there to growl at him if he pushed to hard.
Despite the fact they were both his students, Naruto had disappeared for years while Sakura had still been in his peripheral. Besides that he had gotten a few months of close coexistence during her pre-Suna training. Then a year spent listening for every whisper of her, a year of worrying himself into an early grave. Post-Suna, they practically lived on top of one another. Kakashi would not be ashamed to admit she was now his clear favourite (to be honest, smart, temper-under-politeness Sakura always had been).
When Sakura was not in the hospital or not on a mission with ‘Team Seven’, she was set out with Kakashi as his exclusive partner. Sakura grew in leaps and bounds under this partnership, Kakashi training her whenever she wanted it in anything she wanted. He might have been over indulgent of her requests but he could not say she was not a brilliant student (as she had proven under Tsunade).
The sound of their chidori’s echoing always gave him a sense of peace, even as he went for a kill, because it said she was alive right there beside him.