Kakashi was going through old paperwork when he received the message to report to the Hokage tower. Casting a glance at the files he had opened, he frowned in dismay. Going through old missions and ninja files was hardly Kakashi's idea of a good time. But he accepted his future role as Hokage seriously, and he was determined to go through old missions so he would know what was going on. While he didn't mind acting like a fool to put people at ease, acting like one and being one were entirely different. The archive was not a frequently visited place, as evidenced by the amount of dust in the area. Tsunade had forgone this action when she accepted the title, not that he blamed her. After all, she had been gone for years, and it was difficult enough for her to balance with current events.
Kakashi knew that Naruto, whenever he was ready to take up the post, was going to be a different sort of leader. And so Kakashi made it his objective to close up some of the old missions, eliminate unnecessary rules, and tie loose ends. Going through several decades of reports was not an easy task, made more tedious by the amount of cross-referencing he had to do. The last time he had been so involved with paperwork he had been in the Academy, and that was nearly thirty years ago.
He was getting old. How depressing.
Sighing, he stacked the files back into their places, and headed towards the Hokage's office. Tsunade was clicking her heels in impatience; Sakura stood at her right.
"You're late," Tsunade said in annoyance.
"My apologies, there was a massive amount of paperwork I had put up. Speaking of which, I notice you have not made any progress at the pile near your desk since I last saw you." Kakashi eyed the crooked tower of paper that came up to Sakura's waist. He had a sinking suspicion the paperwork was going to stay there until he took the post. Tsunade narrowed her eyes at his disrespect.
"Hokage-sama," he said respectfully, although far too belated to be sincere.
Tsunade leaned back in her chair. "The Ehime family has a caravan headed for Snow Country."
"Ah, I see. Date?"
"In three days."
Sakura's face twisted in puzzlement as she listened to their exchange.
"I'll get my bags," replied Kakashi.
Sakura crossed her hands in front of her chest in aggravation. "What are you talking about?"
"My apologies. I thought your esteemed fiancé would have informed you." Kakashi took pleasure in watching the flush rise to her cheeks. He couldn't determine if it was out of embarrassment or anger, but he was growing fond of the reaction.
"The daimyo has requested the two of you to escort a caravan to Snow to protect it from it from thieves."
Tsunade continued when Kakashi did not. "Not that I've heard of a serious attempt since I've been Hokage."
Kakashi grunted. He had been guarding the caravans for years, and all the thieves with the skill to take an entire caravan were unlikely to bother with it.
Sakura had a growing look of horror on her face as she realized that she would be forced to go on a mission with the man she was anxious to avoid and her betrothed.
"Um… do I have to go?"
Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "I thought you would enjoy this mission. The daimyo didn't specify which other ninja was supposed to go. This is an opportunity for the two of you to catch up, since I know the two of you used to be quite close. The times are changing; I thought you would appreciate my gesture of one last mission."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow at her phrasing. He hadn't told anyone of his future role as Hokage. Tsunade could be fickle and he wasn't certain when she would make the announcement. So either she decided that it was time for him to take up the post or Sakura had chosen a date for the wedding. Either way, she was doing him a favor.
Tsunade leaned forward to rest her elbows on her desk. "Is there some particular reason you don't feel comfortable with Kakashi?"
Sakura shook her head, "Oh! Uh… no. No, everything is fine. I'll get my things." She left the room quickly and did not see the smirk on Tsunade's face.
"Thank you," Kakashi said sincerely as the door shut.
Tsunade took a drink from her glass. "Hmph. You shouldn't thank me quite yet. There are a lot of obstacles in your way and I don't think that your little personal mission will be successful. Then again, you have surprised me before so I'm willing to give you an opportunity. You are very good at finding out the heart of the matter and tying up loose ends. You may give Sakura a bit of closure on her own. Don't screw it up."
They met at the village gate three hours later. After a few brief words they began to travel, their journey held in silence. Kakashi wondered how long it would remain as such. He highly doubted that Sakura would last the three days it took to get there. Sakura wasn't notorious for her skills in the patience department. And so they traveled through the day, and found a secure spot to camp from the night. Both of them were accustomed to the rituals of setting up camp and did so with nary a word.
Kakashi had first watch and propped his feet up on a log as he read a book he had been given during his travels. The greatest disturbances were a few wolves that approached which he had to shoo away. A few hours later he woke Sakura up for her turn and crawled into his sleeping bag and closed his eyes.
He grunted in annoyance. He could have sworn he just fell asleep. Opening his eyes he saw the fire had not even dimmed.
"The point of a watch is to allow the other person to sleep," Kakashi said as he rolled over to glare at Sakura.
She was leaning over him, her face frustrated but curious. "Why you?"
"Why me what?" Kakashi wasn't even certain if that was a sentence, but he knew she would understand.
"Why were you chosen for the caravan? You usually don't do bodyguard missions."
"It's a long story, Sakura, one that can wait until tomorrow." He was desperately trying to avoid looking down her shirt. Sakura would be mortified if she knew the excellent view she was giving him. Normally, he would take an unashamed glance, but his current position left him extremely susceptible to a punch in the kidneys.
Sakura frowned. "It is tomorrow."
"Sakura," he said, trying to come out with a stern command. He was appalled that his request came out more like a plea . Was she already wearing him down?
Sakura did not notice his alarm and huffed. "Fine. Get some sleep."
Content, he did just that.
Her curiosity vanished in the daytime, hidden under a veneer of stubbornness. Kakashi found this deeply amusing, and chose to deliver the answer to her question until lunchtime.
"The daimyo has had me escort his caravans for years. One of my earliest missions for him was twenty-five years ago. The only time I do bodyguard missions are if they are a personal request in which my name is asked, or if Lord Ehime gives a request."
"Twenty-five years?" she said faintly. "How old are you again?"
Sakura chewed the information over in her head. That meant he had been nine or so when he started. She had heard the inevitable rumors about his past. Konoha was a gossipy village and someone as private as Kakashi was bound to have a plethora of rumors, shrouded in lies and truth. But hearing that he was the youngest ninja in history was different than hearing it straight from Kakashi. If he was doing missions for the daimyo at age nine, it meant he had plenty of experience.
She cringed when she thought of what she was like at age nine. That was probably when she had a crush on Kiba. By that time Kakashi had been… twenty-three.
Sakura picked at her bowl of rice, once again aware of the age gap between them. It was a bit strange and only now was she becoming accustomed to the thought. Her conversation with Kakashi by the lake provided some light on his reasoning and intentions. Norio's proposal had made instant sense to her, and the opportunity for an escape from her life was too welcome. It was so easy for her to say yes to him, even with the twelve year gap. But Kakashi asking for her hand in marriage was a different story, and she found herself wary.
Getting Kakashi to talk about his past was always difficult; he was a private man who kept his mouth shut, his thoughts silent. He didn't brag about missions, share secrets and foreign jutsus. Even plying him with alcohol failed to pry open the secrets in his head. Instead, Kakashi had a habit of telling uncomfortable truths, addressing taboo subjects that everyone knew but were too afraid to address.
The last time that happened, Kakashi told everyone how Sai's nicknames originated. Ino had not been pleased.
But now Kakashi was sharing things with her of his own volition. His hands had caressed her hair by the lake, he left her a flower on her kitchen table, and cleaned up her apartment from the flower attack. These things would have made her giddy a few years ago, and she would have met with Ino to giggle over it in delight. However, time had passed and Kakashi was a man. His actions came with expectations she couldn't fulfill. Nonetheless, he was sitting across from her, eating his food, completely unperturbed that their mission meant they were going to see her betrothed. It was baffling.
"Are you done?"
"Mmm? Oh, yeah." Sakura crammed the last bit of food in her mouth and picked up her bag from the ground so they could begin their journey once more. Kakashi, she noted, was carrying himself in his usual fashion: a slight slouch, relaxed shoulders, even walk. He claimed to be serious about his request, but he wasn't bothered at all by their journey.
It meant that he had a plan.
She had seen some outrageous things in her life. People had been raised from the dead. The destruction of entire villages. Naruto. The full list of things that astounded her would be longer than Tsunade's gambling debts. But Kakashi with a plan was one of those that escaped the list, because his actions were not obvious. As ninja, they were trained to observe their surroundings and make decisions quickly. Some people, like Shikamaru, were excellent at strategies and used those methods to predict actions. But Kakashi's mind was wired in a different way. While Shikamaru predicted, Kakashi manipulated.
She had only been aware of his methods once, although who knows how many times it occurred that she was not aware of. Truth be told, she didn't even know the full details because it was so complicated and surrounded in mystery. It had involved a planned assassination which Kakashi made appear as a suicide. Somehow he managed to rope in four different unrelated missions to advance his own task, using circumstance and the target's own paranoia. Kakashi's methods were only discovered a few months later when the client made a passing comment of admiration to Genma.
Sakura didn't think that Kakashi's plan was as elaborate as that. Besides, she was already aware of the tactic he was taking. He had admitted in the note that he left on his kitchen table that he knew her. And Sakura had already voiced her own issues that rebuffed his argument. Kakashi was going to exploit his personal history with her, and he was opening up to her slowly by revealing the inner workings of himself. And she would not be able to resist him out of her own curiosity.
He was aiming for her heart.
She chewed at the inside of her cheek, terrified of what this escort mission would bring. And Sakura looked at her partner one more time. Sensing her gaze, he turned to her, tilting to the side. One of his hands came up, and pulled at a few strands of hair just below her ear. Goosebumps rippled down her neck and across her scalp pleasantly.
She cleared her throat. "Was there something in my hair?"
Kakashi's eye snapped to hers. "I suppose."
Sakura pressed her lips together. The lazy man didn't even come up with a proper excuse. He was only playing games with her.
Anxious to arrive at the Ehime estate, Sakura stepped up to pace. Her heart had fluttered at his touch, her body becoming aware of his presence. She clenched her teeth in anger as she heard Kakaski's footsteps follow behind her. She wouldn't be fooled into believing in something that did not exist.
The Lord of Fire Country was an extremely profitable man, and thus, the Ehime estate was a beautiful place. The gardens were neatly coiffed and serene and brought people pleasure.
Kakashi couldn't stand it. There was something deeply disturbing in perfection. All too often it was a lie, carefully crafted under a pile of lies and bodies. Perhaps it was his own personal experience but Kakashi found something fascinating in imperfection. His visits to the cenotaph were a perfect example. Many people suspected he visited the place to mourn Obito, Rin, and all of the others whose names were etched on the stone. It was partially true. That had been his initial reasoning during his years as a muddled teenager who sought absolution from the dead. But there was only so long that one could stare at a name on a stone before the emotion began to feel hollow.
One morning, his new eye felt itchy and he moved his headband to rub at the Sharingan. And through the gift of the eye, Kakashi saw a different scene. The grass where people had come to pay their respects was disturbed and bent. Off to the left were the path of Anbu members who had come after an arduous mission, the matted grass and tiny flecks of blood as proof of their visit. But the spot that Kakashi found the most interesting was at his feet. The grass had worn away to reveal a patch of mud that was exposed to the elements. The Sharingan picked up the change of sandal treads, the depths of indentations that revealed different weights.
The little patch of mud was an imperfect spot in front of the monument. While the names of the cenotaph honored the sacrifice of his fellow ninja, it meant nothing if no one cared. The patterns in the mud eventually became more important to Kakashi. One could tell the view of current events by staring that that patch. During tough times, the earth would be exposed in gaping sections as people paced back and forth, hoping to find meaning in death. In good times, the spot was covered with flowers. And if a mission came back as a failure there would be a new set of footprints on the ground, the treads becoming familiar to Kakashi as the anonymous ninja paid daily visits. And when the person found acceptance, the footprints would be less frequent.
In Kakashi's opinion, beauty was found in flaws.
Tsunade's revelation of Sakura's broken heart made her more appealing. According to Tsunade, the only people who were aware of what occurred were the members of Team Seven, and none of them were divulging the truth. Sasuke was still gone, Naruto had requested a transfer to the border of Fire Country, and Sakura asked to be taken off active duty. Tsunade had balked at the initial request but relented when she saw Sakura's change in attitude.
The revelation had not stunned Kakashi, he wasn't idiotic enough to believe that life was static when he was gone, and loss was part of the ninja lifestyle. Yet, he failed to see this change in her demeanor during their brief conversations, so he confronted her at the lake.
And when he pulled her close he found the proof in a small tremble of her body. It was just enough that Kakashi would have thought he imagined it, if it weren't for the hitch of her breath at the same time. So he had been honest with her, appallingly so, unwilling to distance Sakura out of her own fear.
The change had become even more apparent on their journey to the daimyo's. The crafted demeanor she wore so gamely on the first day didn't hold on the second day as a simple touch made it disappear. And on the third day Sakura Haruno stood in the lush gardens in the Lord of Fire Country looking terribly out of place. The garden's perfection was preserved by a schedule that had fallen leaves picked up hourly, the water in the fountains were replenished daily, and the shrubs were measured weekly. Sakura stood at the edge with skin so pale it was almost anemic and with clothes wrinkled from a three-days journey.
Plus, there was one more flaw that caught Kakashi's attention, the very thing that made him reach towards her neck the previous day. There was a thin scar that was hidden behind her ear and crawled down her neck. He thought it was a piece of dried grass at the time; under normal circumstances the scar hid from eyes under her hair. But the sweat from their journey made her hair damp, making the strands of hair cling together and exposing it to his eyes.
As a medic, there was little reason for Sakura to have a scar on her body unless she was unable to heal it in time. Kakashi frowned as he looked at the scar; it was far too close to her neck. At this moment, Sakura looked too old. And if she looked this bad, what did he look like?
Sakura tugged at her hair, covering the scar once more. "You should straighten out your shirt, you look like a hobo."
Kakashi frowned in annoyance, looking down at his uniform. The girl was deluded; it was a harsh overstatement from her exhaustion. Some of his uniform was patched and certainly, his sandals had a gash in them and yes, this was the same flak jacket he had worn during his entire two year mission. But there was a difference between him and hobos. For a start, he wore clean underwear.
He was about to tell her this when he saw a servant appear. He promptly shut his mouth to keep the quip to himself, uninterested in becoming the latest servant gossip.
The servant gave a short bow when he approached them. "We have been waiting for your arrival. I am to lead you to your respectful rooms to allow you to settle in before dinner."
Kakashi waved a hand, "That won't be necessary; you only need to tell us which rooms have been prepared, although I wouldn't say no to a bath." He squinted at the servant, trying to remember his name.
"Certainly Hatake-sama. You both have been placed in the south wing, yours is the Ivory Room and Lady Sakura in the Crimson Room."
Kakashi turned to Sakura. "The South wing? You must have made quite an impression; they usually don't bother preparing a room in that wing for a one night stay."
"I guess," she replied warily.
An hour later he emerged clean and comfortable, wearing a newer uniform and headed towards the outdoor dining area. When Kakashi saw Sakura's hair from a distance, he sped up his walk. From the doorway he immediately noticed her posture was stiff and she was swirling the liquid in her cup out of nervousness.
It was a stark contrast to The Lord of Fire Country who sat across from her, a jovial man in his sixties. He was a man whose understanding of people and business led to continued success. It was for this reason that Fire Country was financially stable despite the wars that blocked trade routes and strained relationships. It helped that the daimyo's caravans were well-known to have top notch protection, and an array of talented ninja were willing to protect his imports. Ninja's loyalty was earned through the daimyo's admiration and ensured with generous pay.
Kakashi was no exception.
"Hello, Uncle." He saw Sakura's jaw drop open.
"Ah, it is good to see you once more Kakashi! I don't believe I thanked you for the assistance in Moon Country two years ago?"
Kakashi settled himself into a seat. "It so happens the trade route coincided nicely with an errand of my own I had to complete. It wasn't any trouble." He tugged his mask down and popped a strawberry in his mouth.
"First berries of the year," said the daimyo grandly.
The tall man next to Sakura chuckled softly. He had a bowl of strawberries of his own and raised one between his fingertips. "I spoke with the gardener last week about them. During our conversation he made a comment of how he kept finding marbles buried in the earth."
"I wonder why," replied Kakashi nonchalantly. He thought of his time as a "nephew" to the daimyo, and how he hid in shrubs with only a bag of marbles to distract him from boredom. Tomio smiled back at Kakashi.
The daimyo spoke up. "Have you heard the news? Norio is to be married to your esteemed partner." He reached over to pat Sakura's hand. Her eyes stayed firmly on her glass.
"Yes, that is all anyone talks about these days," Kakashi replied.
"I'm thrilled with the news. I tried to persuade Norio out of it; kunoichi rarely had any interest in settling down, but he wouldn't hear of it. Speaking of which, when are you planning on having some heirs of your own?"
Kakashi saw Sakura sink her head in her hands.
"Well, I've given the matter some thought, I'll admit. But it is not set in stone right now."
The daimyo smiled. "Anyone I know?"
Kakashi chuckled. "I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise." He saw Sakura's body sag in relief and Tomio fiddled with a strawberry in front of him.
Kakashi looked over his shoulder to see the speaker, another man with a charming grin on his face.
"Father, why didn't you tell me you invited my future wife to come with us?" Norio cast an adoring look at Sakura.
For the first time since they arrived at the estate, Sakura smiled.