Sakura falls in love with Kakashi despite herself.
It's a minor irritation at first, mostly directed to herself because REALLY, Sakura? Of all the people and of all the times you allowed yourself to fall in love with Kakashi, it had to be now. Now when Naruto had finally grown up to the man she always thought he was, now that Sasuke was learning to become the man that she'd always hope he'd be. But Kakashi stays the same, past and present, unchanging and timeless, and it irritates her that he didn't have to do anything for her to start noticing him.
How very typical of her to fall in love with a man like that.
Of course it made perfect sense that the first thing she does is ask Tsunade to allow her to go on a medical mission in Sunagakure.
Tsunade had to quirk an eyebrow at that. "Why?" the Hokage asked. Her mentor never was one to let anything escape her notice.
Sakura shrugs and looks away, hoping that she didn't have to lie, not really. "I'm just feeling a little restless here, Tsunade-sama, and you know that I've always wanted to stay in Suna for a while and practice with their medic-nins there."
"I see," Tsunade said, not even attempting to hide how unconvinced she is at Sakura's explanation. "With Sasuke back and all, I thought you'd take advantage of…you know, time lost."
Sakura feigns thinking about it for a second. She doesn't know why she even keeps up this charade with Tsunade-sama, honestly. The woman can see through her like Sakura were made of glass, but she wishes that just for this moment, it's not the case. But she's ashamed of her feelings, as one always does when one doesn't understand them. "Sasuke goes whenever he wants to go, He never asked me to stay, so I won't," she finally says. Then after a slight hesitation, she adds, "I'm leaving tonight, if I can."
"Oh?" her mentor sounds genuinely surprised now. "So soon, Sakura? Do your teammates know?"
"My parents know I'm leaving. You know I'm leaving." Sakura says, trying to keep her face neutral. "Do I need permission to ask anyone for me to go anywhere?"
"Sakura…" Tsunade looks like she's about to launch into one of her epic sermons, but this time, the woman holds herself in check; just as Sakura expects. After all, far from it for Tsunade-sama to stop Sakura from running away, when she herself was a woman who's been running away for most of her life.
Sakura thinks, love makes you do the strangest things; especially if you don't understand it. She waits for her mentor to say anything more.
But the Hokage doesn't. The older woman just nods at her with a look of understanding. "Just write back regularly, do you understand? And if you're relocating, I want to know as soon as possible."
Sakura nods and turns away when Tsunade-sama shifts her attention back to her paperwork without another word. She's just about to reach the door when her mentor's voice calls back out to her.
"Sakura," Tsunade-sama says, without looking up.
The student turns around to look at her, pauses, waiting.
"Stay safe," the older woman says as she calmly shuffles paper around. "When you're ready to come home, I want you to come straight home, understand?"
She nods, knowing that if she didn't, the Hokage would take it upon herself to hunt her down personally. "Understood."
"Have a safe journey, Sakura."
In a land full of ninja, Sakura would be lying if she didn't feel at least a little relieved that someone has taken note of her plans to leave. She thinks she's been discreet enough. After all, she's not even carrying any luggage, having shipped all her personal effects a week before to Suna.
Sai is casually leaning against one of the gate's posts, arms crossed. He doesn't look judgmental or angry or suspicious. Sai being Sai, indeed, he doesn't even sound the least bit curious, asking the question as blandly as if he had just asked her about the weather.
"How'd you know?" she asks.
He shrugs and straightens up, puts his hands in his pockets. "You haven't been at the library recently, I went up to check on you and I saw you shipping off your things to Suna."
"You shouldn't have spied on me, Sai, you could've just asked," a tone of irritation creeps into her voice.
The boy shrugs again. "Old habits," he says lightly, as if that explained everything. His dark eyes look away for a second, then back on her again. "So why are you leaving?"
She thinks about the reasons. She wants to tell Sai, really, she does, but she finds that the words are stuck to her throat. Oh but she wants to try, but she doesn't know how to begin. Falling in love with Sasuke had been an impulse, capricious. Falling in love with Kakashi had taken her by surprise, and she doesn't want it, but it feels just as impulsive and capricious as the first time. How strange.
No, she doesn't want to think about that anymore. Sai is still waiting for his answer.
Sakura tries to smile, but it feels heavy. "It's just…my turn, I guess," she answers, as if that explained everything. Everyone in Team 7 gets to leave (and maybe return). It's about high time she had that chance herself.
There is no welcoming party for Sakura save for two bored-looking guard shinobi, who give her a grunt as they barely glance through her papers. It's the closest to courtesy she can expect from Kazekage, and indeed for any shinobi, to be so implicitly trusted to freely access one's land is honor enough.
She spends little time in the tiny one-bedroom apartment appointed to her. It is punishingly hot in Suna, not that she was expecting anything else, but she just can't stand to be in tiny, closed-in spaces for the meantime. She flees to the hospital, and spends the rest of her day touring wards. This place doesn't hold much memory for her, and she is glad for it.
Sakura takes extra time studying prosthetics, where Suna's mastery over puppets has been utilized to aid those who have lost limbs in the war. It's interesting work, and Sakura is grateful for finally finding the distraction that she's been looking for. She notes that they have named a ward after Chiyo as well. She knows the older woman would approve.
It's explained to her that with the combination of chakra and science, a prosthetic limb could be a near-perfect replacement for what had been lost. The possibilities are endless, and Sakura feels privileged to be considered a peer, to be asked questions, to have her opinions sought after.
If only one can replace the human heart, Sakura thinks, she would be perfectly happy.
Later, at the banquet held in her honor, Gaara presents her roasted scorpions on a stick.
Sakura smiles. (It's been a while since she's smiled.)
After Suna, the natural next destination is Iwagakure.
Where Suna is flat and open, Iwagakure is hard and walled and sharp-edged, and a welcome respite to the all the smiling she's had to do in Suna. She's here as a visiting medic-nin, and for the most part the villagers leave her alone. She is not thrown a welcoming dinner, and only has a short courtesy call on Iwa's Tsuchikage.
Iwagakure has a surprising artistic side to it, and Sakura spends her free time touring its open-air museums. Among the trees and the rocks, stone sculptures dominate a small valley in the village, both made by traditional methods and jutsus. They tell the history of the village, gods and men thrown in together. She brings over onigiri and hot tea and sits in the man-made park, contemplating immortality and history and how she fits in all of it.
Maybe it's post-traumatic stress disorder, she thinks to herself, this strange need to run and be alone and be quiet. She doesn't know—she hasn't gone out of her way to get diagnosed before she left Konoha.
She tries not to think of him, nor of the people she's left behind. In Iwa, she can pretend to fold in herself and make herself very small. Here she fits in the box of medic-nin, and all that's expected of her is to show up, do her job, and go home. She remembers to write Tsunade, and sends gifts to Team 7 every now and then.
To Naruto, she ships him a small, hand-carved seal of the Uzumaki. For Sai, she sends some artist tools favored by the sculptors in Iwa. For Yamato, she sends a piece of fossilized wood.
She sends Sasuke nothing. What else is there to say, between the two of them? All the things she wanted to say dissipated into thin air when he came back, when she realized the years have rendered them useless and impotent.
To Kakashi, she simply writes to him: Wish you were here.
For all her running, it's still true.
She's not quite sure why how she finds herself in Kusagakure, but here she is. And she doesn't want to be here.
Broken bridges that lead to nowhere and painful history, that's what Kusagakure is to her. Yet she can't find herself to just leave without having a look around.
Even a place such as this has its own charm. Like Suna and Iwa before, it did not escape unscathed from the war. Many of its buildings stand unrepaired as Sakura volunteers her services at the village's clinic. The shinobi already know of her due to the time she spent in Suna and Iwa, and only treat her with a minimum amount of suspicion. After all, they need all the help they can get. She finds that her status as medic-nin is practically a badge that allows her access to anywhere she wants to go.
When she's not crashing on her bed out of sheer exhaustion from treating countless patients, Sakura finally musters the courage to revisit the broken bridges of her youth, finding that she can't stay away, not really. One finds ways to remember despite one's best efforts, she is finding.
She views the Kannabi bridge first, is drawn to it by its inextricable tangle with Kakashi's past. Sakura can't help but wonder whose bad idea it was to name Kannabi bridge—the bridge where gods do not help. And help wasn't there when it was needed, during one of the most painful chapters of Kakashi's life.
You know you love someone when you take their pain as your own.
The bridge remains broken, its splinters and remains now covered in vegetation. Perhaps Kusagakure finally conceded on its accursed nature and left it that way, or decided to create another pathway altogether. Sakura doesn't know. The landscape of Kusagakure resembles the human body that way—new pathways created on top of the old, knitted together by scars and time.
The Tenchi Bridge brings another onslaught of memories—Naruto calling forth his Four-Tailed form and Sakura's sheer terror of it. She remembers reading somewhere, in a Psychology book, that people are drawn to revisit places where terrible things happened. She didn't understand it then, but as she views the bridges and their placement in her own irretrievable past, she begins to understand. It is as if viewing these relics of the past can bring comfort to those who suffered in them. She hopes it does.
What is it about Kusagakure that brings out the monsters in us? She writes in her journal later that day.
After viewing the bridges, Sakura leaves Kusagakure the next day, not wishing to linger, the sunrise on her back.
She strays nearer Konoha when she reaches Yumegakure.
It's a small, unassuming village and she passes through after a minor hitch with the guards. Apparently they're having a hard time accepting that a kunoichi from Konoha is casually jumping from one village to another, apparently aimless, with nothing better to do but to aid in healing a broken landscape.
She doesn't begrudge them the suspicion. It wasn't like they were very trusting the first time around. The recent years have not been kind to Yumegakure, and no longer does it resemble the village that she first knew. The village is still full of camps and makeshift homes, its citizens still struggling to find its foothold to get back up again; months' worth of repair and recovery gone in a devastating minute. It weighs down on Sakura's heart, and she works twice as hard to help in the camps, forgets about her own needs for weeks on end.
This is where Kakashi's letter finds her.
Hello, Sakura, his letter reads. Thank you for the postcard. We were all very surprised at your abrupt departure, as you can imagine, and Sai didn't even tell us he saw you go until a good month after. Not that you're asking me, but I think what you're doing is a good thing. Clear your head out, you know?
Oh, Sakura laughs. Oh, yes, she knows.
I'm not actually sure if you're going to be in Yumegakure anytime soon so I'm just sending it there on a hunch. It's not the most picturesque place right now but I think that's what's going to draw you right into it, since you love broken things despite yourself. I also had half the mind to send Pakkun or one of the ninken to look for you but I thought (wisely, if I should say so myself) not to, because I know you wouldn't like it.
I'm sorry this letter can't be chatty. Protocols, you know. Can't say much and as I've said, this one was sent blindly. I look forward to seeing you or hearing from you soon.
Yours most cordially,
Sakura laughs again. Most cordially, ha! Did he think he was writing to the Empress of the Five Countries or something? The man can't even bring himself to be more affectionate than he has to be.
She thinks of a way to respond. She sits long in thought, gazing out from her rented room to the forests and mists below. Yumegakure deserves its name, Sakura thinks. If not for the devastation of the war, it would have retained its strange, dreamlike quality, threatening confusion and disappearances. The mist hangs over everything like a heavy curtain, and the forest is older, unlike Konoha's. In fact, it looks nothing like Konoha's. The only thing they have in common is that it is a forest. She has to admit that she is starting to feel a little homesick.
She brings pen to paper to reply. She hesitates. After a few heartbeats, she brings herself to write:
Thank you for your letter
Thank you for writing
I'm doing well
How are you?
Finally, after staring at her writing, she crosses everything out and throws it away. Maybe it's better this way, she rationalizes to herself. Maybe it's better this way, that Kakashi knows nothing, that she's near enough but he doesn't know it. It's not like she's a missing-nin, it's not like she doing anything bad or illegal out here, it's not…then she catches herself making excuses and she laughs. She's seen war and destruction, diseases and death, and she can't even bring herself to write a response to her old teacher.
The heart can be a devastating thing.
So Sakura writes: I was very happy to receive your letter. When she writes it, she means it, and suddenly it is true and she's happier than she's ever been. He hasn't forgotten her, and it means the world.
She stays in Yumegakure for four months, and when she leaves, the place is better than when she first arrived. She's trained some, and treated many, and there are safeguards in place that ensure the continuing health of the villagers. It's one of her first successes as a traveling medic-nin and she would hold up her experiences at Yumegakure as a blueprint of what she has to accomplish in every new places she finds herself in.
There is a gaping wound in Kumogakure and the first thing Sakura does upon her arrival is to pay her respects.
The men and women of Kumo are hardy and resilient, much like the mountains that watch sentinel over them. They are in the middle of rebuilding when Sakura arrives, so she's surprised at the fanfare that comes with her arrival, surprised that they know her by face and by name.
The warm feelings of welcome are short-lived though, as Sakura finds herself at the bombed-out portion of the village where the Allied Forces building used to be. She recalls Ino's tear-stained face, Shikamaru's disbelief, and she can't help but weep herself as she leaves a bouquet of chrysanthemums at the site of their deaths. So much loss, and so much pain. She wondered if she would ever get to know true peace in her lifetime. The war is never far from Sakura's mind, especially not now when she sees living reminders daily. And in that war is his face, Kakashi, who's survived one war too many, lost friends beyond count. How he bears it, she will never know.
But the fact that he bears it, and still opens his heart for people to come (and perhaps break) is just one of the reasons why she loves him still.
Later that day she assists in childbirth. The mother is a kunoichi like her, and on her face Sakura sees the grim determination that she only usually sees on the battlefield. The smell of blood and antiseptic fills her nostrils as she holds out her empty hands for the crowning, for the slip-slip-slippery feel of new life falling into them, exhausted by its struggle.
She cleans up the blood and the sweat and hands the newborn to his mother. The unnamed kunoichi is a sight—legs splayed, bloody, wounded. Dealing out life is similar to dealing out death—mostly unsightly, ungraceful, and humiliating. Sakura lets the other nurses clean up. The new mother doesn't care. She is smiling. Sakura thinks about Kushina, even though she's never met her before. Had it been like this on the day she died?
Sakura stands outside on the hospital steps, exhausted. She wishes she picked up cigarette smoking from Shikamaru, just to give her hands something to do. She thinks about her father, thinks about what he said to her before she left:
"I hope you get settled soon," Kizashi had said, laughing at the way Sakura had rolled her eyes at him. "Not because I want you to marry for the sake of marrying, no, my love." He had held her by the shoulders with fond eyes before hugging her tightly. "Because I can see your heart has yet so many ways to unfold."
Back then she thought that her father had said that because Sasuke was back, and that she was eager to get back on to what they used to be. But whatever she was with Sasuke, three years might as well have been three million. There had been nothing to go back to, their younger affections a mere museum piece to be admired and carefully kept behind a glass curtain. She could not see Sasuke being a father, much less her husband. No. Sasuke only knows how to cut, is extraordinarily gifted in the precise art of destruction, but he does not heal. He would cut her before she could even unfold her heart to him.
She has to acknowledge that it is this realization that set her on this path in the first place, when she first turns to Kakashi and unfolds one part of her heart, a flower in first bloom all over again.
The crescent moon lies heavily on the horizon, as if eager to settle and sleep on the village it's been named after.
Sakura watches it with shuttered eyes as she curls one arm to pillow her head on. Today had not been a good day. A riot broke out in one of the village's breadlines, which has been growing longer and longer as of late. It took several shinobi to calm down, but left two civilians dead. Sakura knows that there is hell to pay tomorrow.
Once upon a time, the shinobi world was united against a common enemy that threatened to destroy everything that mattered. Today, the lines are not as clear. Getsugakure deployed many shinobi to war, never to return, and the remaining are green and reckless, quick to anger against the civilians they were meant to protect. Sakura does not intervene, not if she can help it. They might have been once united in the war, but the divisions are back up. Sakura is once again from Konohagakure, and has no say over how Getsugakure polices its own. She hates this, but she's long ago learned about the value of compromise.
She fought against the police though, discreetly taking out those who were too quick to raise their weapons against unarmed civilians.
It's in these moments, hours after the fact that she struck out against fellow shinobi again, where she doubts and places blame on herself that she misses Kakashi the most. They have had many talks on nights like this one, about their lives as shinobi and their place in the world.
She loved him then. She knows that now. That he could speak so frankly about his own feelings of unworthiness as shinobi, as a human being. That he could trust her with his own naked thoughts seemed like a miracle in the making, a revelation unto itself. She thought she knew enough about Kakashi due to the events leading up to the war, and following it, but it is quite another thing to know him with his own words.
She wonders if it's because she's afraid of tomorrow, why he's in her thoughts tonight. Loved ones appear softer, devoid of imperfections from far away, and she's afraid that she's romanticizing him again when she should be afraid for her own life, for the fate of the village. Sentimentality has no place in this world, but Kakashi would want her to do the right thing. And that is what she intends to do.
The next day, Sakura stands with the civilians as the police force march in. Their footsteps sound like drumbeats.
"Took you a while to get here, didn't you?" the shinobi guard at the gates leers down to her, after getting clearance that Sakura is no longer considered a criminal and no longer a threat against Getsugakure. She briefly considers punching his face in, but she's in no mood to see another holding cell just when she got out of one. Instead, Sakura produces the best fake smile she has in her arsenal.
It seems to work. The guard scoffs and waves her on. "Welcome to Ishigakure, Haruno-san. Don't cause any trouble."
Pretty rich, coming from a guard who made a living off sheltering renegade missing-nin, Sakura thinks. She lets it slide though, simply smiles in return as she gets her papers back. She tucks them securely in a hidden pocket, and walks in.
It's slightly depressing how Ishigakure is reminiscent of Konoha, with its narrow alleyways and traditional architecture. There's even a ramen place tucked in one of its corners. Sakura allows herself to relax for the first time in months. She seats herself in an inconspicuous corner of the ramen shop and pulls out a letter from her vest.
The letter is written with the impatience of a man whose letters have gone unanswered for weeks.
From what I've heard, you have been maintaining a regular communication with the Hokage, so I can only assume that you're alive. Or at least you still have your writing hand intact.
What are you doing? Are you trying to start another war between the countries? I've heard what you've been doing there. I know your heart is in the right place, and that you want to help these people. But you cannot, I repeat, you CANNOT get in the way of how a village conducts its affairs, especially an outsider such as yourself! Tsunade-sama has been very lenient on you by pleading your case, but —-
He's crossed out that last part, but Sakura is pretty sure that he'd written, "if it were me, I'd let you rot there," but he'd changed his mind and felt bad about it. He'd never really scolded her so hard since she was a chuunin, and his anger is perhaps compounded by the fact that she never wrote him back.
She skims the rest of the letter, it's good you're following your heart but I just hate that you're being so disingenuous about it at the same time.
She forgets to breathe when she reads the next sentences.
You know what I mean.
You shouldn't have run from me, Sakura.
Sakura feels disappointed in his words, and she feels a little more disappointed that she lets it slide, knows that he doesn't mean it. She knows that he's writing out of frustration, but if he's put in the same exact position she was in Getsugakure, he would have done the exact same thing.
It's strange that she understands so much of Kakashi's heart and how it works.
(It also frightens her. This is why she runs.)
She grips the letter in two hands, ready to rip it apart.
She learns how to drink in Shimogakure.
Sakura thought she knew a thing or two about drinking, but goddamn people from Shimo know how to drink. There's nothing quite like it, shooting down a shot or two, in the middle of a freezing nowhere. She likes what follows, that slow warm glow that suffuses her chest and makes her cheeks pink. She likes how it helps her forget her troubles, even for a short while.
"Don't enjoy it too much," a doctor of her acquaintance, Shigeko, jokes as she pours Sakura another one, clearly ignoring her own warnings.
Sakura gulps down the shot, a hot white line down her throat. Outside, the snow falls thickly, blanketing the village in pillowy white sheets. Snow has a strange muffling effect as well, as she finds out. The world is quieter in Shimogakure.
Shigeko chews on a lemon, the bright yellow wedge hanging between her teeth. She's young like Sakura, a veteran of the war. She has that upfront quality of the people living here, an unapologetic way of living. "Snow still looks pretty to you, huh, Fire Country girl?"
"Yeah," Sakura is the last person to have pretensions of sophistication. "It's beautiful."
"You came a long way," Shigeko comments as she flings the lemon wedge away. "I mean…I love this place, I grew up here, but I don't understand anyone who wants to come here and then actually stay. That is, unless they're trying to escape something." Dark eyes scan Sakura's face. "And by the way that you're drinking, you're definitely trying to escape something."
"Maybe I can hide out here," Sakura replies; she's too drunk now to even try to deny it.
Shigeko laughs derisively. "You can. You won't."
Sakura wants to tell Shigeko that she's tired and she wants to go home. In the short-term, she means that she's tired of sitting here with a person she already saw for the majority of the day, and that she wants to go home, to her rented apartment. In the long-term, she really wants to say, I'm tired. I want to go home to Konoha, where snow is a novelty.
She tries to say it, but it comes out differently. "I've tried…" she begins.
"Tried what?" her companion asks. The night is silent now, huddling in the cold with them.
"Not to be…" Sakura gestures, trying to grasp something that is unutterable, even to herself. "Not to be like this."
"Like this? Like you?"
"Yes." The kunoichi slumps against her seat, a dawning sense of defeat upon her. "I have this friend called Sasuke…and when I was young I admired him for always being so cool and detached." She doesn't know why she's talking about Sasuke, but she's drunk so she doesn't really care. "I thought that was a good thing, not to be fuelled by emotions all the time. But…"
But? If she is really honest about it, everything that Sasuke did, everything that she had admired about him, were not fuelled by an exquisite sense of unfeeling. On the contrary, everything that Sasuke did—right and wrong—was fuelled by his heart. As did everyone's.
The heart. That strange, tender thing, that small word that was used to encompass the many messes and failures of one's muddled humanity.
Shigeko is smiling. "You look like a woman who's just gotten a breakthrough," she says before she pours out another shot for Sakura. She raises it in acknowledgment. "Congratulations," she says, kindly, "You're officially a woman from Shimo."
Sakura doesn't really expect anything major to happen when she finally arrives home. Not because she underestimates her teammates and her family's affection for her, but because she's aninja and she wants it that way. So she pops up like a mushroom after the rain, says hello to a stunned Tsunade, drops in her parents, and sneaks back into her own apartment like a thief in the night.
Kakashi doesn't seek her out.
The rest of Team 7 is alerted to her return however, and she spends most of the week catching up with them and her friends.
Still, no word from Kakashi for days on end.
He doesn't show up unexpectedly, as he used to. He does not come to explain, or ask questions. They've had enough of that before she left, the recriminations, the deflections. She didn't want to be a projection of what he had. I'm not Rin, she had said. That made him very angry.
She doesn't seek him out.
Instead she reads his words. She never threw away his letters, couldn't find it in her to do it.
I don't know how to write letters anymore, Sakura. It's been just me for the longest time, and there was no one to write to.
She flips to another one.
Never realized talking to Sasuke again would be like learning a new language…
His other letters almost sound wistful.
Sometimes I get angry when I remember what you said before you left…
One letter simply asks:
Where are you?
Where is she? The simple answer is, of course, Konoha. She is in Konoha, and she is home. But there are homes of a different kind, outlined by maps only the heart could see. She's crossed borders and broken laws, thrown into jail and assisted births all this time as she drew and defined her own cartography.
She pauses as she reads his words again, considering her response.
KONOHAGAKURE, HOME (II)
His traps don't go off when she sets foot in his apartment. I want you to be here, why can't you understand it? She remembers his words before she left, and how she flat-out rejected it. She had been afraid then.
She could see his outline in the half-light. She slips off her shoes and pads softly to where Kakashi is sleeping. Around Team 7, he's a heavy sleeper. Around her, even more so. The realization of what this means makes her smile.
She pulls back his blanket carefully as she climbs in next to him. He feels warm, and is dressed in his funny shuriken pajama. He awakens with a little sleepy mutter, as one lidded eye opens to meet her own green ones.
"You're back," he says, his voice husky.
"I didn't think you…"
"No," she shakes her head. She knows he didn't expect her to come back to him. "I didn't either."
He reaches out and touches her hair softly. "What changed your mind?"
She laughs a bit. "Nothing changed. I just understood it a little better, that's all."
"You had to go running around the Five Countries just to do that?" He's trying to sound sarcastic, but he just looks so relieved that it breaks her heart a little.
"I know." She snuggles closer to him.
"I wrote to you."
"You never responded."
"I know." She shifts in his arms, pensive. She's run away only to run into herself, over and over again. She's been thick-headed, and she's been hurt. She's hurt him. She almost didn't want to come tonight. But she's unfolded her heart since leaving, and there he was. "I wanted to give the response in person."
"And what is that?" But of course he already knows the answer, had been waiting all this time for something he already knew and understood.
She meets him halfway for her welcome kiss.