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. ~ {oOo} ~ .

"You're late, Pig."

"Yeah, well, it looks like you got started without me." Ino flicked her lengthy, blonde ponytail off her shoulder for dramatic effect, keeping up her long practiced attitude of disdain for her rival-come-friend, before sliding into the dark, grungy booth and seating herself opposite of the disgruntled kunoichi. "So I'd say we're even."

"Whatever." Sakura downed another shot of her warm saké, her eyes narrowing on an uninteresting spot of unidentified food-stuff stuck to the edge of the table.

"This place is so gross. We really should start going somewhere else."

"They don't water down the alcohol here."

Ino sighed, fully aware of the truth of her friend's statement, before forcing herself to ignore the lack of cleanliness. "So... Bad week?"

Sakura's cherry brows furrowed. "You've no idea."

"Oh, I'm sure I can imagine." The blonde's retort came accompanied by a short, mirthless laugh. "You're going to have to pour me one of those."

"You too?" Sakura queried, her fingers scooting a glass, now full, towards Ino's side of the table. In response, the blonde simply tipped back her drink. "Want to talk about it?"

"No." Ino shook her head adamantly. "You?"


"Good. Let's get plastered." A wry smirk travelled across Ino's lips as she held her cup out for a refill.

"I can drink to that."



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

The fourth shinobi war left the village of Konoha much changed. Most differences were not overtly apparent as the war had not physically touched down within its boundaries; a few scars were still left from Pein's invasion though, giving an appearance to the contrary. But for those that made the village their permanent home, the shift in climate, both political and social, was readily felt. A bittersweet hope for the future, built upon the sacrifices of fallen comrades, permeated the village walls and settled on its denizens.

The final act of the reanimated hokage, before Orochimaru released them to eternal rest, had been to name Konoha's next leader. Naruto, after receiving the blessing of his predecessors, accepted the position with more humility than anyone thought possible, promising to surround himself with those that could help him lead the village with wisdom and diligence. His appointment to kage strengthened the shinobi alliance greatly. Naruto's steadfast ability to understand others, coupled with his oft-surprising intellect, had gained him respect from his contemporaries, which in turn lead to a permanent drafting of the alliance treatise. The greater shinobi world began to look towards a lasting peace.

But Konoha had lost more to the cause than just its hokage. While it did not suffer the heavy casualties that some of the other villages had, most of their personnel killed in action had been highly specialized jounin or department heads. Naruto started his term with shinobi ranks in disarray and gaping holes to fill, but his determination to be true to himself and his promises left him undaunted. As such, his first few weeks of peace were spent not in much deserved rest, but rather the extensive reorganization of the military infrastructure and meetings, many rather uncomfortable, with each of the remaining teams in his employ. The man knew that there were changes to be made, lives and systems to be brought back into functioning order. And Naruto knew he had to be the one to set the example for others to follow.

He chose to honor the dead by learning to stand on his own two feet again.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

Sakura entered the hokage's tower with trepidation, though she managed to keep her emotions from playing out upon her face. She had heard the talk around going around the village, after all. Very few teams had been left in their original form. Some squads, of course, had required a replacement for an injured or dead member. But most were being rearranged due to simple reassignment. The kunoichi knew that she should have some faith because this was Naruto. The things he did rarely made sense to her, but they almost always came out with the desired results. Still, she did not look forward to losing the last bit of consistency she had in the form of Team Kakashi. She was so tired of everything breaking apart.

And besides, the whole thing was seriously surreal. The boy she made fun of, snubbed, most of her life was now her leader. The funny thing was, she honestly believed he would be the best hokage the village ever had.

It still didn't stop her stomach from turning over when she entered the room to find that not only her team was waiting for her arrival, but the remaining members of Team Gai as well. Lee gave her a discreet thumbs-up and promptly earned an elbow from the dark-haired kunoichi sitting beside him. The rest of the room merely nodded their acknowledgements.

"Hey, Sakura! Have a seat." Naruto welcomed her with a big smile, gesturing to some chairs, now arranged in a semi-circle in front of the her former mentor's desk. She looked at him hesitantly for a moment before taking the only chair open, which happened to be next to Kakashi. "Okay, now that we're all here, let's begin. Shizune, um, do you have the files for me? Thanks, that's all I need for now. You can take your break."

While the blond wrestled with the paperwork his assistant had handed him on her way out, Sakura took a moment to look around the office. It seemed Naruto had done little to the room apart from the addition of the chairs. Everything, down to the smallest item, was in the same position as the last time Sakura had entered, back when Tsunade still resided over the place. The desk was even piled with disorganized stacks of paperwork, half hiding the ever-present flask of saké – perched precariously on the corner nearest to Naruto – which the woman had been so fond of partaking from. The girl wasn't sure if it was a good or bad thing, but it made her heart clench and she shut her eyes.

"As you guys know, I've had to do a lot of restructuring. We're dealing with a lack of experienced shinobi and we need to fix that as soon as possible. My first priority is to get our numbers back to where they need to be and to do that, I need teachers." Naruto walked around his desk with two folders. "Tenten, Sai, you are both being assigned to lead a genin team. The files contain information on each of your students and you will be required to check in with Iruka before the end of the week to begin your assessments. Any questions?"

Sakura bowed her head and groaned internally. Sai was going to mentally scar his poor squad with his naïve insensitivity. She heard Kakashi shift in his seat and sigh. She had a feeling that his thoughts were probably working along the same lines as hers. No one spoke up though, other than the spandex-clad congratulations sent Tenten's way, so Naruto took the relative silence as his cue to continue.

"Yamato, I'd like to appoint you as the new head of the Root division." The blond leveled a steady gaze at the wood-user. "You don't have to accept, of course. But I want you to know that this is important to me and you are my first choice. I need someone who I can trust to keep me in the loop and still manage the secrecy that the organization needs. We can't afford another Danzo."

"I understand and accept."

The tension left Naruto's body and he broke out in a grateful grin. "Good. This file has the new guidelines I want to put in place. If you have any questions, you can come back after reading that through and I will answer them."

The hokage walked behind his desk then, putting his back to the group. But rather than taking his seat, Naruto simply gazed out the window at the mountain of faces for a long moment. As the change in his demeanor brought Sakura to attention, her back straightened up severely and the worry returned to her system. When he finally faced them, his expression was conflicted. Nostalgic eyes looked to his teacher and teammate with unspoken apology before he proceeded.

"Team Kakashi and Team Gai are now officially disbanded." Emotion strangled the man's voice and he closed his blue eyes, collecting himself so he could continue. When they re-opened, they were steady and resolved. "Kakashi, Sakura, Gai, and Lee. You guys are hereby assigned to Team Lotus. Kakashi is your team leader, but I would like Gai to take charge of training." Naruto nodded to himself and then gave a forced grin to the silver-haired jounin. "No offense, Sensei, but you could use a little work on your stamina."

"None taken." Kakashi replied mildly, his visible eye crinkling as he smiled. "Just don't expect too much, Lord Hokage. I am an old man, after all."

"Yeah, yeah. I get it." Naruto relaxed as the familiar comraderie overtook the tension that had been building in the room. "If there are no further questions or wise-cracks, this meeting is dismissed."

As the group began to filter out, already going over the meeting's results with each other as they walked away, Sakura stayed glued to her seat, letting everything sink in. Her team was gone. And it hurt like hell, the utter finality of it. But underneath the pain, she could recognize something that felt a little like relief. Because even though she loved Team 7, and its incarnation as Team Kakashi, she had to admit that sometimes the weight of that history could be suffocating. Naruto had been faced with some tough decisions and somehow, he had managed to make one for her that gave her the tiniest piece of hope. Sakura was free to start over with a new team, with people that she knew she was compatible with, but hadn't yet pigeonholed her into a set role. So yeah, she wasn't exactly happy about it all, because, really, there was no way to make this particular situation right. The war had changed everything – and everyone – too much and they were still dealing with the aftermath. But Sakura knew she owed it to her friend and hokage to see this through.

Given some time, she could accept this.

The girl finally rose, approaching her old teammate and pulling him into a fierce, yet silent embrace, not trusting herself to speak lest her emotions pour forth from her mouth or worse, her eyes. Then as she turned to leave, still without speaking, Sakura saw there was still another person left standing in the room. Patting his arm as she passed him, Sakura smiled to herself.

She still had Kakashi.

. ~ O ~ .

Naruto thoughtfully eyed Kakashi, whose eyes lingered in the direction of the door Sakura had just left through. "You want to talk about something, Sensei?"

Kakashi gave his attention to his companion and, rubbing the back of his neck, took in a deep breath. "Are you sure about all of this?"

"It's hard to give an honest answer if you ask a question that vague." Naruto smirked and leaned against the front of his desk.

"I was talking about Sakura."

Naruto's blue eyes filled with concern and turned on Kakashi with understanding. "She's refusing to grieve."

"I know." The jounin replied, trying to mask his worry with the even tone of his voice. "That's why I'm wondering if this is best thing for her right now. She doesn't take to change very well."

"Everything has changed anyway. Even without my decision today, she wouldn't have had the same team to come back to. Sasuke's still gone. I'm gone. And I have to make decisions for the whole village now, not just my team." Naruto straightened up, forcing his shoulders to relax under the heavy weight of his new responsibilities. "As her hokage, I need her to do her duty, but as her friend, I want her to heal and move on. I don't see why I can't try for both."

"And you believe this is the best way?" The jounin shifted his weight slightly and put his hands in his pockets.

"Sensei, do you remember what Sakura did shortly after Sasuke left?" Naruto watched as Kakashi's expression changed to one of confusion. "She went to Tsunade and asked to be trained as a medic."

"I remember." Kakashi answered with a frown, the lines of which etched themselves into the dark fabric of his mask, clearly not following the flow of Naruto's logic.

"We all knew she was grieving his loss, but she didn't like to show it. I mean, sure Sakura cried a bit at first, but then she focused all that emotion into getting stronger. Somehow, through whatever her internal process was, that seemed to work." The blond crossed his arms over his chest. "Now she just needs something to new focus on. And with her love of violence, taijutsu could be just the thing."

"I see." Kakashi smiled widely under his mask. "Gai and Lee are glorified practice dummies, then?"

"I'm glad you finally caught on. I figure that whether her grief comes out through her fists or through her tears, those two are the most capable of dealing with it."

"So where does that leave me?" Kakashi questioned lightly. "Surely, you're not going to leave your old 'Sensei' out of the fun."

"No." The serious tension returned and Naruto roughly ran a hand over his chin before continuing. "Actually, I'm glad you asked. I need you to make sure they don't push her too far. Or that she doesn't push herself too far. I want her to come to terms with things, not force her into a breakdown."

"I'll take care of it."

"Good. So, Sensei, I've got a bit of time before my next meeting." Naruto walked around to his chair, gathering up his informal hokage robe and looping his arms through. "Want to grab some ramen? My treat."

"Sure." The man easily agreed. "But you really should just call me Kakashi."

Naruto just laughed. "I know, Sensei."

"Cheeky brat." Kakashi grumbled, though he was far less put out than he let on. "Over lunch I think we need to discuss Sai's position, too. I'm concerned for his students."

"Oh, don't worry about them. His teaching contract explicitly forbids the use of the word 'penis' in front of students."



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

To say that Sakura was hot would be an understatement. Midday at the training grounds was never a pleasant experience, but today was especially so for the kunoichi. It was the height of summer, when the days are long and the sweltering humidity in the air makes it hard to breathe with ease; the monsoons were late in coming this year, so her hope for a sudden storm would most likely go unfulfilled.

But even worse than the weather was the liquid salt running into her eyes from her strenuous exertions, lead on by a pair of sadists in skin-tight green fabric. The ease in which they worked, their over-abused bodies barely even breaking a sweat while she was languishing to keep up, was what really had her blood boiling.

"Four hundred ninety-nine. Five hundred!" Lee counted off their push-ups gleefully before hopping up to his feet. "Shall we do laps around the village on our hands now, Gai-sensei?"

Sakura collapsed face first into the grass underneath her and groaned. Loudly.

"No, Lee. This week we will only be doing warm-ups. We will start serious training next week."

The girl buried her head farther into her hands, a futile attempt to block out the implications of Gai's statement, before giving up and struggling into a sitting position.

"Yes, Gai-sensei!"

"Everyone get some water and then we will do bear crawls and crab walks around the training grounds." Gai flashed Sakura his teeth before turning his attention to his rival. "Are you certain you don't want to join us in the excursions of youth, Kakashi?"

"I don't think it'd be wise. My ankle is still feeling poorly after twisting it." Kakashi smiled at the angry glare Sakura sent his way. "I wouldn't want to chance further injury."

"I could look at that for you, Sensei," the lone kunoichi spoke with false sweetness, her face aglow with put-on innocence.

"Thank you, Sakura, but I'll be fine with just some rest." Kakashi looked panicked for a rare, brief moment before smoothly responding. "I'm sure you need to conserve chakra for your excursions anyway."

"Of course, my worthy rival." Gai's interruption saved the man from the girl's attempts to reveal his deception. "Sakura, Lee, let us begin!"

Sakura left her canteen behind and followed their lead, sending one last dirty look towards the slacker resting under the lone tree on their particular training ground. He sent her a good-natured wave and then returned to the book on his lap.

Twisted ankle, my ass.

Sakura cracked her knuckles and rushed to catch up. She'd be damned if she let them get the best of her.

. ~ O ~ .

Upon finishing her first session with the beastly duo, Sakura was utterly spent. Her muscles were on fire, protesting loudly at each movement she made. She was covered in sweat, clothes damp and clingy, and the dust particles that had been kicked up in the air attached themselves to her skin, creating an uncomfortable grime. But the worst of it was the numbing fatigue in her legs. The kunoichi hated being unsteady on her feet. She hated feeling weak.

But, in spite of her physical state, Sakura was pleased with herself. She had managed to keep with the insanity of them, after all, and in doing so, she had been able to keep her mind off of how unsettled having a new team made her feel. There just wasn't any time to think, at all, when Gai was leading the exercises. The physical stress of the workout rendered her brain unable to register anything else. It was actually kind of freeing in a way, Sakura had realized part way through, and so she threw herself into the experience with abandon.

If she could just get home without collapsing on the way, the girl would consider the day a complete success.

"You did well."

Sakura bent down to pick up her canteen, feeling the increasing burn in her quads, and raised her eyebrows in frustrated disbelief. "And how would you know that, Kakashi? Your eyes were glued to that damn book the whole time."

"Language, Sakura," Kakashi chided as he lazily brought himself up off the ground and brushed off his pants before answering her question, his tone lightly teasing. "And not the whole time. Maybe you should work on your observation skills."

"Whatever." She huffed and turned to leave, the good mood that she had previously built up beginning to deteriorate.

"Let me walk you home." The man shoved his book into his back pocket and took two long strides towards Sakura.

"Why?" the kunoichi asked warily. It was rare for her former sensei to go out of his way to be friendly or helpful to anyone.

"Because you're dead on your feet." He spoke in an off-hand manner, as though the answer should be perfectly obvious.

Sakura clenched her teeth, attempting to keep her response from reflecting her anger. "Then, my answer is no."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't need you to escort me," Sakura growled, rounding on Kakashi. "I'm not a helpless little girl who needs someone to look out for her."

Kakashi's hands came up into a placating gesture. "I never said you were."

"You don't have to say it! Your actions are speaking more than loudly enough!" Sakura bit out fiercely, her voice rising in volume with each word that fell from her lips.

"Fine. We'll do this the hard way, then." His reply was smooth and even, despite the frustrated sigh that accompanied it. "I am walking you home."

"What the hell, Kakashi?" Sakura threw her hands in the air in exasperation. "I just said–"

"Are you going to disobey a direct order from your team leader?" He interrupted her tirade before she could really get going and was met with a prickly silence and an over-heated glare. Kakashi waited patiently and, after a few moments of watching her pace and mumble obscenities, she seemed to collect herself enough not to assault him.

"Let's go." Her terse retort held the promise of retribution.

"Of course. After you, Sakura."

The girl abruptly turned on her heel and started for her apartment at a brisk speed, refusing to look anywhere but directly ahead of her. She held her head stiffly, chin in the air as an act of defiance. So, she was tired and her body was not exactly wanting to cooperate with her at the moment. And okay, Sakura begrudgingly admitted, she was feeling a bit light-headed. And more than likely, she was suffering from a bit of dehydration. But she was an adult, a well-trained kunoichi, and a medic, for crying out loud. She could certainly get to her home all by herself.

Stupid double-standards.

He wouldn't be doing this for Naruto. Or Sai. Or Yamato. Or any other guy, for that matter.

And so what if she hadn't trained like that in a while? Or ever, for that matter? He had no right.

And... oh crap.







(She was going down.)



. ~ O ~ .

Sakura woke up on the couch in her apartment, her forehead covered with a damp cloth. Her blood was pounding in her head, echoing painfully in her ears, and each of her muscles were throbbing.

"You okay?" Kakashi spoke softly, removing the cloth and giving her a hand to help her sit up.

"How long was I out?" Speech, she quickly realized, was rather uncomfortable. Sakura felt like she had eaten a bucket full of sand, her tongue thick and dry.

He forced her canteen into her hands. "Maybe twenty minutes."

"Then I'm fine." Sakura took a slow, measured drink, easing the scratching dryness in her throat, and grimaced as her limbs protested the simple action of holding the small weight. "Or least I will be after some more water and a shower."

"You're sure?" Concern filtered through the man's voice. "Maybe you should go see Shizune."

"Seriously, Kakashi, I'm fine. Just a little dehydrated." She brushed off his worry. "I am a medic, you know. I am perfectly capable of diagnosing myself."

"Alright. I'll see you tomorrow then." Kakashi walked to the door, apparently ready to leave now that she assured him of her regaining health. But he paused for a moment and turned back. "And for the record, I know you're not weak, Sakura. You just push your limits more than the boys do."

His comment caught her off-guard and it showed in her wide-eyed expression. But she schooled her features quickly, not wanting him to see how much his statement unsettled her. "Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry I kicked up a fuss. Okay?"

Sakura hoped he was good with that because it was the best apology he was going to get. She was embarrassed enough as it was.

And He'd be waiting a long time if he expected her to admit that he was right.

Kakashi's exposed eye crinkled up in amusement. "Yeah."

When the door shut behind him, leaving Sakura alone, she sunk down into the cushions and gently shook her head, unsure of how she felt about the events of the day. She had been beaten down in training all day. Her team leader had used his authority to push his weight around, but didn't rub it in her face when it turned out that his concerns were well founded. And then he went on to actually compliment her. Kakashi never praised her, ever. (The one exception was when he acknowledged her chakra control back during her genin days). But he had done so today, and not just once, but twice. The novelty and absurdity of his actions left one thought swirling through her head.

What the hell was that?

Maybe a shower would wash the confusion away as well as the grime. A girl could hope anyway.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

"Now who's late?" The tapping of long, manicured nails accompanied Ino's sharp greeting. "I've been here for at least a half hour."

Sakura scooted into the booth gingerly. "Get over yourself, Ino."

"Impossible. I'm much too good-looking," the blonde quipped before narrowing her eyes on Sakura's stilted movements. "Rough week of training?"

Sakura poured herself a drink from the bottle of whatever Ino had ordered, thankful her friend had remember to ask for two glasses and fresh ice, and chose to ignore the question. "How about you?"

"No way. You're not getting off that easy." Ino huffed and crossed her arms.

"And what if I say I don't want to talk about it?"

"Then we won't talk about it. I haven't forgotten our agreement." Ino rolled her eyes with dramatic flourish. "Jeez."

"So how was your–?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Ino firmly retorted. An awkward silence hovered for a few minutes while the girls simply sipped their drinks and stared at each other, waiting to see who would be the first to crack. "Fine. Sakura, do you want to talk about your week? Or should we just drink?"

Sakura sighed heavily, giving into her friend's questioning. "Damn, those boys are going to kill me. The workouts are closer to torture than training. Everything, and I do mean everything, you've heard about how crazy they are is one-hundred percent true."

Ino leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. "So, how are you holding up?"

"Better than I expected, I guess. I'm starting to get used it. Really, it was only the first sessions that was that bad." Sakura frowned at the ice in her glass. "Though that was more because of Kakashi pissing me off than anything else."


"Yeah. He insisted on walking me home. He was a complete ass about it too."

Ino wrinkled her nose in confusion. "I don't understand why him offering to walk you home would be so distasteful. The man is hot."

"I overdid it at practice and he was patronizing me." Sakura's cheeks reddened, in part from her remembered anger, but also from the blonde's assessment of her teammate. "And seriously, the man is almost old enough to be our father."

"And the key word, my dear friend, is almost. And– Why, Sakura, you're blushing!" Ino exclaimed and her eyes widened in the excitement of getting something truly gossip worthy. She wouldn't disclose what her friend told her in confidence, of course, but that didn't stop her desire for juicy details. "There's something more to this. Spill."

"No, there's nothing... I mean– But–" Sakura sputtered as the red travelled from her cheeks to her neck and disappeared into her hairline. "I don't want to talk about it!"

"Alright." The blonde gave her a devious wink and raised her glass. "Then let's get to drinking already."



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

Sakura breathed in heavily, desperate to refill her lungs with some much-needed oxygen. Crouched in a defensive position, her arms a solid wall in front of her face, she blocked Lee's oncoming attack as she waited patiently for an opportunity of her own. It was a difficult thing, the timing of it, as the shinobi swarmed her. He had stamina and experience on his side, not to mention his larger and more sturdy frame. Intelligence, strategy, was the one advantage she had over him and Sakura intended to use it to the fullest. Forcing herself not to give into the furious emotions that normally overtook her in battle, the kunoichi calmed her mind and chose to bide her time.

When she struck, it was with a swift twist of her heel and hips, landing a fierce back kick to Lee's jaw, and her opponent was sent flying.

It had taken her two weeks, once Gai had deemed her in good enough shape to proceed from strength training to actual sparring, but Sakura had finally landed a critical hit on Lee.

Two freaking weeks!

But, damn, did she feel accomplished. Her excitement was so great that she didn't even care that she had been scooped up into an enthusiastic embrace by Gai and Lee, both of whom were lavishing profusions over her in ridiculous fashion.

"My apologies," – a timid looking messenger, from the looks of it most likely a freshly-made genin, broke up the celebration with his announcement – "but the hokage requests Sakura Haruno's presence immediately."

"Thank you." Sakura smiled at the poor kid. He was probably highly disturbed by the scene he had come across. The personalities of her teammates took some getting used to. "I'll head over immediately."

Sakura gathered her things to go, but was stopped by a hand on her elbow. "If you need to blow off some steam later, I'll be here."

The girl looked up abruptly, surprised not only by the fact that Kakashi was next to her, but by his cryptic words. "Okay?"

With her reply, he released her arm and sat back under the tree that had become his place during the past few weeks. After adjusting his body for comfort and resuming his reading, Kakashi waved her off without even a glance her direction. Sakura huffed at his laziness and headed out to see Naruto.

. ~ O ~ .

Immediately upon entering Naruto's office, Sakura realized that this meeting was not a social call. The blond stiffly gestured from behind his desk for her to take a seat, before turning his attention to the other visitor in the room. Naruto's eyes spoke cautious warning to the dark-haired shinobi that was seated casually in a chair parallel to where Sakura had taken up residence.

Sasuke Uchiha.

The man and his cronies had fought alongside the alliance in the final battle of the war, bringing with them the reanimated former hokages, and had helped to turn the tides. In light of his actions, Sasuke had received a full pardon and had been offered reinstatement as a leaf ninja. The Uchiha refused, stating that his goals did not fall in line with that of the village, but gave his word that he sought no further retribution towards his former home. Instead, he asked that he be given access to the Uchiha grounds and freedom to re-establish his clan as a separate entity, no longer holding direct allegiance to Konoha. Naruto, despite some misgivings from his council, readily agreed. Sasuke had been seen very little since.

"Sakura, Sasuke has come to me with a formal proposal that concerns you." The hokage rose and approached the girl slowly, handing her a long piece of ink-filled parchment with a wary hand. "The details are written up in this contract."

"Proposal?" Sakura asked, throwing baffled looks at both men. Naruto rubbed the back of his neck and Sasuke shrugged.

"Yeah," Naruto hedged, his voice holding a slightly nervous tenor, "but, as your hokage, I want you to know that you have the right to decline. I will support you whatever your decision is."

"Just let her read it, Naruto."

An uneasy hush hovered over the group as Sakura gripped the paper in her hands, trying to digest what was written on the page. It was mostly formal jargon, the style similar to that of the treaties and inter-village correspondence that Sakura had read during her time under Tsunade's tutelage; if that woman could get someone, anyone, she could trust to do her work, she had no qualms about doing so. It took the kunoichi a couple of reads through the entire document before she could believe what it was that Sasuke was asking of her.

And when the realization came, so did her fury. Her hands trembled, suddenly clammy with perspiration, and her face paled momentarily. Sakura stood abruptly and gently placed the retched thing on Naruto's desk, holding back her emotions behind a forced, sickly sweet smile.

"Sasuke?" Her voice was calm and she could see a tremor of fear work its way up Naruto's spine. Sakura watched as the blond gradually retreated to a position behind his desk.

Oh, good, she thought, at least the knucklehead knows to get out of the way.

Her former crush rose from his spot, making his way to Sakura's side, and looked at Naruto with something akin to derision. Her smile held beautifully, deceptively serene and widening slightly as Sasuke came within her range. The girl placed a single hand gently on his shoulder, her thumb rubbing small circles into the ridge of his collarbone as she spoke. "I think I'd like to give you my response now."

. ~ O ~ .

Sakura returned to the training grounds, stomping loudly and cursing in her unabated fury. Kakashi, true to his word, was still there with a book in hand and his butt parked in the shade of the large pine. A single silver brow rose in question, but when he saw the state she was in, he merely closed his book and rose, brushing the grass and dried needles from his pants.

"So, I really need to beat the piss out of someone right now." The kunoichi pulled her fingerless gloves from her side pouch. As she roughly shoved them on, Sakura pinned him with a challenging stare. "I want to remind you that you already offered."

"I remember," the man replied, smoothly leaping back as the ground at his feet gave way to her fist.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

"Sakura, you look like shit."

Sakura grimaced into her bottle. "Nice to see you too, Pig."

"I mean, really, would it hurt you to wear some make-up?" A delicate hand reached up to catch the disgruntled medic by the chin. Ino tutted under her breath before continuing her admonition. "And when was the last time you got a good night's sleep? You look almost as bad as Gaara these days."

"Lay off, Ino." Sakura jerked her face away from the blonde's scrutiny. "Besides, I could ask you the same thing. Your bags are showing even under all those layers of paint."

"Touché," Ino conceded, her eyes narrowed wryly. "But seriously, you look worse than normal. What happened?"

"Two words. Sasuke Uchiha."

"Oh yeah, I heard he was in town." Blue eyes brightened in curiosity. "So, did you guys have a run in?"

"I suppose you could call it that." Sakura stretched her neck back and forth, relieved when she felt a crack and some tension released.

"Details, girl! Details!" Ino clasped her hands excitedly. "What happened?"

Sakura's forehead wrinkled up, her brows furrowed in contemplation. "I'm not sure I want to tell you."

"Oh, no. You can't leave me hanging like that!" The blonde pouted, crossing her arms dejectedly over her chest. "If you weren't going to talk about it, you shouldn't have brought it up to begin with."

"Fine!" Sakura bit out. "He came to Naruto with a formal proposition for me."

"Okay... So, what was it?"

Sakura's face contorted in distaste at the memory. "Sasuke wanted my help in rebuilding his clan."

"So..." Ino blinked a couple of times, trying to figure out what her friend was saying. "So, he wants to marry you? Have kids? That kind of rebuilding?"

"No. The bastard wants me to be one of many women to bear his children." Sakura choked out a laugh, full of bitterness. "He doesn't want a wife. He wants a harem. And he actually thought I would want to– that I would be honored, privileged even, to be a part of it."

"I don't even know what to say to that." Ino gaped for a few moments, taking in the audacity of the man. "So, what did you say? I mean, I know you obviously refused, but what exactly did you say?"

"Oh, I didn't say anything at all." The proud kunoichi smirked.

Ino looked completely lost. "Not a single word?"

Sakura shook her head. "I gave him a chakra-enhanced knee to the groin."

"You didn't?" Ino's jaw dropped in surprise, then an overflow of giggling came out of her, causing her face to pink and her breath to shorten.

Sakura soon joined in.

When they had themselves mostly under control, Sakura threw one more dig out on the table. "Yeah. And Shizune told me it took her over an hour for her to get his balls to drop back in place."

Another round of giggles ensued.

It was the first time either girl had laughed since before the war.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

Eventually, Sakura got used to the new routine of her life. Team Lotus, though their training kicked her ass royally, had begun to become very important to her. Gai and Lee cheered her on non-stop, even when she utterly failed in her attempts to gain new skills. Their confidence in her bred a sense of belonging. The pair of them never failed to treat her as an equal and for that respect, the kunoichi was grateful. She hadn't had enough of that in her short life.

On days when the dynamic duo chose to train by themselves - for sometimes only they could appreciate each other's intensity - Kakashi would train with her. They'd gotten into the habit of it ever since she had failed to beat him down after her meeting with Sasuke. When Sakura had lost, and soundly at that, she challenged him to a future match. Kakashi was more than happy to oblige.

That session had given her a new goal to achieve. Sakura was determined to beat her former teacher down. Unfortunately, the best she had managed after three weeks, and ten rematches later, was to give his hair a slight trim from a misdirected shuriken. And now she was starting to get frustrated with the smug smirk he was wearing nowadays, simply for the benefit of getting under her skin. It didn't help matters that she wasn't sleeping well, hadn't for months now, and he was playing games with her.

It all seemed to be finally catching up with her.

Sakura scanned the grounds again, to no avail. He was playing hide and seek with her, and she wanted no part of it. The girl wanted to spar, to use the taijutsu skills that had been pounded into her body to punch his mask-covered face in. Mind games and stealth tactics were not what she desired, and her frustration was building up to the point of running over.

Dammit. She did not want to cry.

Sakura had not cried since returning home from the battlefield and she was determined not to cry over something as frivolous as losing face to her jounin teammate.

The kunoichi felt the warmth of his body behind her just before the sharp point of the kunai at her jugular registered in her periphery. Sakura raised her hands slightly in surrender, allowing the shuriken in her hand to fall, and he pocketed his own weapon. "You let your guard down, Sakura."

That was the last straw.

The girl spun into Kakashi, her fists striking out in quick succession. The first one landed, sending him sprawling to the ground in his surprise. Her fighting instinct took over, readily pouncing on the opening he had given her, and soon Sakura had him pinned under her while she peppered his body with a series of frantic jabs. There was little force behind them though, as she had gotten most of her anger out with the initial punch and she didn't have chakra left to add to them.

Kakashi didn't retaliate or defend himself, just allowed her to get it out of her system. Sometime later, when she had exhausted herself, he sat up, sighing and rubbing the back of his head. This was not supposed to be his role. "What brought all this on?"

"What do you mean?" Her retort prickled with defensiveness.

"Sakura," the man spoke quietly, "you're crying."

She touched a hand to the side of her face, gathering the saline wetness on her fingertips, and looked at it in surprise. "Oh."

"Are you upset with me?"

"Yes!" Sakural breathed out. "No– Oh, I don't know! I guess I'm just frustrated."

Kakashi eyed her hesitantly, wondering if he was the one who should really be here with her right now.

It wasn't that he didn't care. No, that was certainly not the case. In keeping an eye on her, as per Naruto's request, the man had become quite accustomed to her presence. And more so, Kakashi had learned that he quite liked being around her; she was an intelligent, sarcastic conversationalist and had an admirable work ethic. He just thought perhaps she'd feel better talking to someone else. Like Ino or Naruto, or someone who hadn't failed her so badly in the past. But he was the one that was there, for better or worse, and he couldn't just leave her to her devices. Even if he wanted to ignore her outburst, he'd promised Naruto to look out for her.


"Yeah. I'm so damn tired, but I can't sleep without seeing things." Sakura shifted off of his legs to sit beside him, folding her legs in front of her so she could lay her head on her knees. When she spoke again, it was barely above a whisper. "I was the one who found her, you know. They cut her in half and her eyes were still open, all glazed over. It haunts me."

"All of us are haunted by something, Sakura."

"You too, sensei?" Sakura asked sheepishly, looking for his reaction out of the corner of her eye.

The man nodded his head in affirmation. "What else?"

"What?" Her delicate brows wrinkled, not understanding his question.

"What else is bothering you, Sakura?"

"Does there have to be something else?"

"You knocked me on my ass, with a cheap shot I might add, and proceeded to thoroughly pummel me," Kakashi reminded her airily, unfazed by her mistreatment of his person. "You've had plenty of opportunities in the past few weeks, but this is the first time you've even tried. So, yeah, I think there's something else."

Several seconds passed before she spoke up, her eyes narrowed in accusation. "You knew about Sasuke, didn't you?"

"Naruto may have mentioned something."

Sakura's lips pursed sourly. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Well, I am on his advisory board." He shifted his position to face her and his visible eye watched her carefully. "But I am curious about your reaction. When I asked Naruto how your meeting went, the knucklehead went pale as a ghost and told me I had to ask you."

"Let's just say it may be a few years before Sasuke's recovered enough to actually sire any mini-Uchiha." Sakura tilted her head conspiratorially towards Kakashi and smirked. "I think his balls may have gotten lodged in his throat."

Kakashi chuckled. "That bad, huh?"

"What did you expect? He acted as if I should be kissing his feet to become one of his Uchiha-breeding whores!" Sakura spat out vehemently. "Like hell I would! He tried to kill me and then he still expects me to be in love with him? To want him to the point that I'm willing to share him with who knows how many other girls, just so I can be with him? After the way he's treated me over the years, he's lucky I didn't murder him."

A heavy hand rested gently on her head, tangling softly in the knots left behind by their earlier exercise. "He's an idiot."

Sakura reached her arms around the man's ribs, needing at that moment the physical presence of another, and laid her head on his chest, releasing a shuddering breath. "I know."

Kakashi curled his free arm around her waist, drawing her in closer as the fingers in her hair traveled to her nape. No further words passed between the two. He simply let her be lulled into much-needed rest by the steady beat of his heart.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

"Sorry I'm late." The blonde was out of breath by the time she reached their normal Friday night rendezvous point. "Wow. Someone's looking good tonight."

"Are you serious, Ino?" Sakura flashed her an incredulous look. "I look like I always do."

Ino huffed a bit, a feint of being put out. "I'm absolutely serious. There's definitely something different. I just can't put my finger on it."

"There's nothing. I'm wearing the same old clothes, my hair's done the same old way, and still no make-up."

"You can't fool me, girl." Ino surveyed her friend more closely, disappointed to see that Sakura was, in fact, telling the truth about her beauty routine. Then, after a couple beats, a new idea caught the girl's fancy. "You have a guy!"

"You're off your rocker, Pig." Sakura dismissed the thought immediately. "I'm not dating anyone and you know it."

"Maybe not, but there's someone you wouldn't mind dating." Blue eyes danced in merriment. "And you've probably been getting your flirt on or something, because no one looks that different for no reason."

"I already told you! There's nothing different!"

"I think you're protesting a little too much." Ino didn't like the look in her friend's eye at that statement, so she chose to redirect her curiosity. "Fine. I'll leave it alone."


"So, how was your week?" Pleasant politeness took over Ino's voice.

"Oh, you know." Sakura refused to look Ino in the eye.

The blonde frowned. "No, actually, I don't. I wouldn't have asked if I did."

Sakura smiled guiltily, forcing her green eyes up to her friends face. "Oh, I just beat the crap out of Kakashi and had a little meltdown."

"Ah, see! I told you a guy was involved!" Ino exclaimed, triumph written on her lips.

"No," – Sakura ran her hands through her hair – "it wasn't like that."

"Oh, I think it was." Ino wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Why else would you be so reluctant to tell me? So, was there any lip action?"

"Ino, sometimes you are unbearable!" The girl hung her head into her hands, peeking out at her friend from behind her fingers. "And no, there was no kissing."

"But you wanted there to be?"

"No. No! Of course not." Sakura wrung her hands. "Well, maybe. But not right then, though. I didn't think about that until later."

"You have a crush on your former sensei! This is just too good!"

"No! Seriously, Ino, just no. I just talked to him about... you know, finding her." A whisper of pain flitted across Sakura's features, but fled as she continued. "And he was– Oh, I don't know! He was unusually nice, especially for him, so my subconscious started playing with me a bit. It's nothing."

"Sakura, you do realize that this is the second time I've had the pleasure of seeing you blush because of a conversation about your former-sensei, right?" Ino leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands, and smiled with mischievious excitement. "You totally have a crush."

"Ino, I swear... if you say or do anything I will pulverize your pretty face," Sakura growled out her threat, low and full of malevolence. Ino seemed completely unperturbed.

"Oh, I won't be doing anything." A sly little smile quirked the blonde's lips. "You, my dear Sakura, are the one who will be doing something."

"Me? What the hell would I do?"

"You are going to find out if he likes you back." Ino winked.

Sakura blushed profusely. "You seriously need to get your head checked."

"If the war has taught us anything, it's that peace and happiness are hard to find." Ino pinned her friend down with a motherly stare. "Life is a fleeting thing, Sakura. Don't miss your chance to live the one you actually want to."


"But what?" The blonde stamped her foot in frustration. "This is the best I've seen you since before that damn awful war. If he's the one that makes you like this, you had better at least try, Sakura Haruno."

"But he's my ex-sensei! He probably only sees me as a little girl. And He's fourteen years older than me! Fourteen!" Sakura's eyes took on a panicked sheen. "What could I possibly have to offer that would make him want me?"

"Those are all excuses and you know it."



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

Ten days after what Sakura had dubbed their 'Kakashi' discussion, Ino was still refusing to meet her for their Friday girl's night, insisting that it was for Sakura's own damn good. The girl wouldn't have been too put out by her friend's actions - after all, their relationship had always been a bit temperamental - but she couldn't get what Ino had said out of her head.

The whole thing was starting to effect her teamwork during training.

The kunoichi had become hyper-aware of Kakashi, causing her to become quite flustered when they sparred. Sakura wasn't sure if Gai was just completely oblivious, or whether he had seen her discomfort and was purposely forcing her to get over it, but she was always paired with her former sensei during their sessions. Kakashi, much to her chagrin, had suddenly decided he would be a part of every training activity. Her one small consolation was that if Kakashi realized that something was different, he had yet to comment on it. The tension of the situation was reeking havoc on her nonetheless.

The man had finally stopped his games of hide and seek that he'd previously been so fond of. Instead, he began to stay in close range, allowing her free rein to use the skills she had acquired as a result of their new teammates. She should have been grateful. It was what Sakura had desired for all those weeks prior, the opportunity to bash his face in. But his new physical proximity was a distraction. The way his movements flowed with her, counteracting her strikes with fluid evasion, was like a dance. And whenever he brushed up against her, the thrill it sent down her spine caused a momentary lapse in focus that he never failed to take advantage of, lightly taunting her for it. If Sakura didn't know better, she'd swear he was doing it on purpose.

When the nightmares of the war, of finding her shishou, were replaced by dreams of silver hair and gentle hands, Sakura decided she'd had enough.

Though, she admitted, the dreams really were a very nice change of pace.

At the very next practice, before she could lose her nerve, Sakura took advantage of the first opening her gave her. The poor man never saw it coming. Their other teammates must have though, because made themselves scarce, grinning widely as they went. Once the shock of her innocent assault of his lips wore off, Kakashi introduced Sakura to all the intricacies what a real kiss should entail.

It was better than the dreams.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .


"So, what?"

The blonde sighed, exasperated. "I only came because you said you had something to tell me. Now get on with it."

"You're so pushy, Pig." She rolled her green eyes. "He's taking me out next Friday, so you'll have to find someone else for girl's night."

"A date?" Ino cheered, her face alight with excitement. "So, I take it my advice yielded good results. What did you say? How did you tell him?"

Sakura smirked, a devious sparkle in her eyes. "I didn't say a word."

"Really? Then how did–?"

"I stole a kiss," – Sakura's cheeks flushed, but she didn't look away – "and then he stole it right back."

"I knew it." Ino waggled her finger at Sakura, her voice smug.

The girl snorted. "Lucky guess."

"Nope." Ino leaned in, whispering to her best friend. "It's because I'm absolutely brilliant."

"Fine. I'll drink to that."




. ~ oO ~ {The End} ~ Oo ~ .