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Mountains for the Sea

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. ~ oOo ~ .

The girl paused in the narrow doorway, all trembling hands and clumsy legs and rushing blood, before steadying one last glance at the woman responsible for her inner chaos. But a sly upturn of lips lit upon the face of the older blonde, accompanied by the support of two warm, familiar hands, and the girl's green eyes widened with the small seed of hope. The girl stepped through the archway to embrace her new path.

The sound of approaching footfalls echoed loudly in her ears, matching the sharp staccato of her beating heart, and the girl gathered her courage. Raising her head to greet her fate, surprise wrapped its fingers around her spine, snapping it to rigidity, and the girl's breath caught sharply in her chest.



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

Sunlight, clean and strong, forced its way down through leafy branches to carve bright patterns upon the forest floor. It was a fine day, the cool undertones of spring giving way to the warmth that summer brings. Sakura arched her back, pulling her arms to the heavens and releasing the tension that had built up in the muscles there. At times it could be hard work, crawling about on hands and knees while delving into thick undergrowth and difficult soil, but the girl looked forward to the days when her shishou sent her out to search for herbs. In the wilderness of the woods, out of sight and mind of the village busy-bodies, Sakura was free, unstifled by rules and traditions and expectations.

They weren't her rules or traditions, after all.

It wasn't that she was rebellious or disrespectful. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Sakura was a model of filial piety, devoted to a mother that wasn't hers by birth. The gratefulness her heart housed for her guardian was unmatched by any other. Lady Tsunade had taken her in, a weak, poverty-stricken orphan from a distant village, when others would have left the child to perish. The woman had provided Sakura a safe haven, sheltered and loved the girl as if offspring from her own womb, and taught her the healing arts. In a world that treated outcasts with a harsh hand, it was a kindness that Sakura could neither forget nor repay. And her loyalty to the old healer made the girl adamant that she should not bring shame to the house of Senju.

But they weren't her expectations either.

With a self-satisfied smile, Sakura patted the leather purse slung across her right hip. Luck had been with her as she foraged, bringing her a hefty bounty. Her search had taken her to the far northern stretch of the woodland, a good hour by foot past her normal haunts, but she would be returning with a month's worth of valerian root. Thoughts of her shishou's proud face made the girl giddy to return, so she gathered her things, the canteen and cloth bag containing remnants of dried meat and fruit, and changed her heading to that of home.

A mere half-pace later, goose bumps travelled over her flesh, her finely honed instincts running on overdrive. With careful, deliberate movement, Sakura slung one arm behind her head and collected the bow and an arrow from the quiver on her back, deftly stringing the weapon. But before she could knock her arrow, a deep growl sounded from above her. The girl darted her eyes to and fro, surveying the canopy with urgency, preparing for her retreat. Golden, predatory eyes locked on to her from the height of a large pine, less than twenty yards from her current position.

Stupid girl. You let yourself get too complacent, let down your guard.

Sakura flew. The bow was an elegant, deadly weapon, one that she was very proficient with, but it was no good in close quarters. Her only hope was to extend the distance, to create some space. It would be a challenge. The animal, a female mountain lion on the hunt, was powerful and swift, but there was a clearing ahead and perhaps, without the obstacle of trees, Sakura could get one shot in before the beast overtook her. All she needed was one shot, one arrow.

Her blood pushed forcefully through her veins, striving to keep up with the body's demand for oxygen, as her boots trampled roughly through the underbrush. Hands, one tight around a wooden curve and the other gripping a feathered shaft, worked to properly knock the arrow as the girl cleared the tree line. Adrenaline, combined with the jostling caused by her sprint, made the task near impossible. Panic crept into her mind, but Sakura quickly squelched it. A clear mentality would be required if she was to survive. As she tried to calm her nerves and fix her shaking fingers, a fierce snarl sounded in Sakura's ears.

Close. Much too close.

Dropping to her knees, Sakura abandoned her weapon and dodged the creature's first attack.



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

Kakashi was enjoying the day from the shade of his front porch. The man had finished his chores early, those that he actually chose to do, and had promptly decided to spend the rest of the day reading through the scroll he had borrowed from Genma, one of the few friends he kept in contact with, the last time he had been in the village trading his furs for dry goods. Truth be told, he had read the scroll many a time already, enough that he could replay its contents by memory, but Kakashi enjoyed the feel of the paper under his fingertips and the smell of ink as it wafted in the air. Reading the written word was not just a way to take in a story; it was an experience.

And this particular piece of fiction was a rather titillating one.

Lounging peacefully, a mattress of canvas and wool separating his lean body from the wooden floor, Kakashi settled in with his sole companion, a canine named Pakkun, curled next to his feet. He read about lusty women, and their entertaining pursuits, and the sun shifted from morning to afternoon in a very pleasant manner. Eventually, hunger got the best of both man and beast, demanding loudly to be attended to, so Kakashi rose to scrounge up a makeshift meal for the pair of them.

He was returning from raiding the poorly stocked pantry when he heard Pakkun's sound of distress - a low, throaty growl that gradually swelled into a frantic bark. The man snatched his sword from its place over the mantle and rushed out the door, slamming it open in his haste, to ascertain the cause of his companion's panic.

Across the meadow, a girl suddenly burst through the foliage at breakneck speed. There was something in her demeanor, besides the rapidity in which she moved, that plainly spoke of a danger to her person. Kakashi strode forward at a fast clip to intercept her, to offer his protection, but it was a sizeable distance from his cottage to the edge of the forest. As he made his way towards her, he realized that she was attempting, unsuccessfully, to ready her weapon. The confirmation of a threat to be neutralized had him increasing his pace, to no avail. The beast emerged and pounced before he could even get off a shout of warning to her and his heart went cold with dread.

The girl was lithe and nimble though, dropping and twisting in a neat evasive maneuver which caused the large cat to miss its mark. The motion caused her head scarf to fall away, fluttering on the wind, and Kakashi sucked in an involuntary gasp. Her long hair, now loose about her shoulders, was the color of the wildflowers – a pale, radiant pink. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before and his feet froze in fascination.

The girl had given up her bow, dropping it to the wayside. As she turned to face the predator, she gripped at something on her hip, drawing it out with a quick, practiced motion. The bright afternoon sun reflected off steel dangerously and Kakashi could see that she held a tanto ready to strike.

The beast caught its footing and doubled back for a second attack, strong sinew legs and mighty jaws at the ready. That realization, that the girl was about to face the ferocity of the mountain lion alone, loosened the hold on Kakashi's limbs and he resumed his previous endeavor to reach her.

But it was all for naught. The cat had a great speed advantage and had rounded on her again while Kakashi was still a good fifty yards away. In horror, he watched the girl's face contort into a fearsome grimace as she readied her weapon and stood her ground. The predator and prey danced about each other, a symphony of growls and grunts, claws and teeth and biting metal. Red seeped through the sleeve of her tunic where her left shoulder had felt the creature's terrible caress. Sensing weakness, the cat turned savage, blood lust and instinct imperative, and drove the girl to the ground. A brief struggle ensued and then all noise ceased.

Kakashi dropped his sword and doubled over, bringing his head between his knees to try and quell the churning of his insides. He knew, without any doubt, that this scene would haunt his dreams.

He hadn't made it in time. Again.

A faint stirring brought his attention back to the situation at hand and he clutched his sword. The animal would have to be finished off before Kakashi could do anything else. It had a taste for human blood now and a beast like that was too dangerous to let live. After the deed was done, he would take the girl's body to the Konoha for a proper burial.

As he approached, the man watched the beast roll over, limp and lifeless, and he gasped in cautious relief. But he was still at least a dozen paces away and he couldn't be sure if what he was seeing was real or if he was just projecting his hope too strongly, so Kakashi kept his sword firmly in hand and a wary eye trained ahead.

The girl, after extricating her limbs from the beast's, slowly rose to her feet, tremors from the receding adrenaline giving her an unsteady lilt to her stature. But she maintained her footing admirably, using both hands and sight to take inventory of her injuries in a methodical manner that indicated to him that she had probably been trained to do so. Splatters of crimson marred her face, stained her hands, and soiled her clothes, while her hair blew about in wild tangles, but her concern seemed only for the wound inflicted on her shoulder. His own shoulders sagged in relief; the girl suffered less than her appearance initially suggested. Kakashi was close now, enough so that he could see that her eyes were the green of the new spring grass and that she had slit the lion's throat clean through. And she was young, though her sloping curves indicated that she was definitely not a child, most likely in her late teenage years. Her hands carried the callouses of diligent work, but still held the elegant lines that differentiated female from male.

There was something altogether exotic about the girl, something that went beyond the unusual hue of her hair. It was the fierceness in her eyes and the amount of fight encompassed in such a tiny package. He would not have believed a woman capable of such a feat had he not seen it with his own eyes. Even her choice of clothing spoke of a daring and independent spirit. The women of the village wore loose, ankle-length tunics and flowing vests woven with simplistic patterns. But this girl's clothing was a strange balance of feminine form and masculine function. She wore breeches under her knee-length tunic and a gorgeously embroidered vest, form-fitting and aesthetically pleasing, highlighted by a wide sash around the small of her waist. Her headdress, before it had fallen, was the only article that was common between her and them. Kakashi could safely say that she was like no one he had ever seen before.

But she still hadn't seen him. That much became painfully apparent as she started to divest herself of her clothing, first her sash and then her vest, until the girl was standing before him in just her thin tunic and breeches.

"Wait, please," Kakashi calmly spoke, not wishing to frighten her further, given her current state.

She paused in her attempt to untie her tunic, turning impossibly wide eyes his direction. Kakashi held her gaze, his dark eyes softening as he took in her bewildered expression, and put up his hands in a friendly surrender. Slowly, wholly keeping him in her line of sight, she bent to retrieve her vest from where it had been discarded and held in front of her body like a shield. The verdant green of her irises captivated, absorbing his every attention with silent entreaty. There was a vulnerability in her then that cut him to the marrow and it was with great difficulty that he found his tongue once again.

"I'm going to turn around," whispering, he gestured to the garment in her grasp, "and when you're finished, I'll help you dress your wound. Alright?"

A sharp nod was all the response she gave, but it was enough so that he could recognize that she understood. Kakashi reluctantly broke eye contact to make good on his offer of chivalry. There was the soft rustling of fabric, punctuated by muted groans of pain, and then she quietly cleared her throat.

"I was on my porch when I saw your struggle. See, my home is right there," Kakashi pointed to the cottage at the far end of the clearing. "And I have medical supplies. Will you come with me?" The unspoken question – Do you trust me? – lingered in the air between them. She gave him another nod in the affirmative and he let out a sigh, a grin sliding across his lips. "Oh, good. I'd rather not make multiple trips if I don't have to."

He motioned to leave, believing all to be settled, but she remained in place. Her head turned this way and that, searching the ground about her feet. Kakashi cleared his throat and recaptured her attention, raising a single silver brow in inquiry.

"My bow," the girl remarked, her voice sweet yet firm, despite the slight wavering in tone. "I will not leave without it."

"Of course." Kakashi brushed past her to retrieve the weapon, partially hidden by the long grass a few strides behind the girl. His perverse delight in her audacity caused him to chuckle. Most men found a headstrong woman undesirable.

He was not most men.

With her bow secured, safely tucked back into its quiver, the girl allowed herself to be led away. She maintained a respectable distance from him, her bearing stiff and formal, as was proper for a woman in her particular circumstance. Kakashi found it ill-suited her.

"You've left behind your covering."

"It is of no consequence," she retorted lightly, her expression carefully neutral.

The urge to tease her, to be the cause of a fresh bout of fierceness in her eyes, was suddenly overwhelming. "What does it say about a woman when her weapon is of more import than her modesty?"

A flash of emotion the flickered through her features, but she repressed it admirably. "It says that she has many scarves, but only one bow." The hint of a wry smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "People will always find something else to gossip about. After all, my lack of head covering will only hold their interest for so long. But without my weapon, my family will starve. What should be of greater import?"

Smug self-satisfaction infused Kakashi's bow of acquiescence, though he did not give voice to it.

He had gotten under her skin and it was beautiful.

Upon reaching the cottage, they met with Pakkun, whom was keeping guard for his master. A few sniffs of his keen nose later, he had decided that the girl was no threat and let her pass with no further thought. Kakashi ushered her through the still-open door and into a roughly hewn wooden chair. He gathered the necessary supplies while she sat primly, taking in her surroundings with subtle movements of her head. Kakashi placed the items on the adjoining table and pulled up a chair of his own.

"First, I'm going to cut your sleeve so that I can see the extent of the wound," he gave explanation, hoping that the knowledge of his intentions would foster trust in her. "Then, I will clean the area with the…"

"With the saké," she interrupted. "The alcohol acts as a disinfectant, preparing the wound for bandaging or stitching, depending on the depth of the lacerations. A healing salve will then be applied to strips of clean linen to prevent the cloth from sticking, which would pull away flesh when changed otherwise. An outer layer of cloth is wrapped around tightly to encourage clotting and to prevent contamination."

Kakashi leaned back into his seat, contemplating the girl with an appraising eye. "You are well versed in the healing arts."

"I should be. My guardian is the village healer."

"I see." Knife in hand, he cut a vertical slit down her sleeve, hoping to preserve its structural integrity while still gaining access to her arm. He then took a damp cloth to the area, carefully removing the coagulating blood, the excess red, so that the nature of the injury was apparent. There were three lines cut into her pale skin, near six inches long each, but much to his relief, they were not deep. After the initial cleaning of the wound, he rinsed the rag thoroughly and offered it to her for her face and hands. While she was thus employed, the bottle of saké was retrieved.

"This part will hurt." Her statement was followed by the tightening of her fists, her small knuckles white in anticipation of the next step.

"Yes." Kakashi soaked a rag with the drink thoroughly before pressing it against her. Her teeth bit down tightly, pulling in her bottom lip to prevent a sharp gasp from falling into the air. He worked quickly, with a gentle hand, and watched her bravely bear the pain in near silence. "May I ask what your name is?"


"Well, Sakura, the worst is over."

He spread thick salve over several pieces of linen, making sure that the length and combined widths would be sufficient to cover the area, before smoothing them over the gashes. During the process, the girl studied him with open, interested eyes. Sometimes a gasp, breathy and barely there, would escape her and her lids would shutter him out briefly. Kakashi worried that he was causing her undue pain, but when he asked, Sakura just shook her head and gestured for him to continue. After applying the medicine-laced strips, he bound the entire wound up securely on the outside of her sleeve, hiding the tears in the garment. Then he proceeded to clear the mess.

"Thank you, sensei."

The title in which she referred to him made him pause, the bloom of nostalgia bittersweet in his chest, and he looked to her in curious supplication. But her face was tilted firmly to the ground, giving him no indication of the purpose behind her softly spoken words. He chose to dismiss it as a slip of the tongue or the silliness of an impressionable girl and, rather than take part in a verbal confrontation, the man followed social protocol. "You're welcome."

Sakura stood, flexing her arm to test the fidelity of his bandage, and after a deep bow of respect, made her way to the door. Kakashi put himself in her way, stopping her hand with his as it reached for the latch. "It is more than two hours from here to the village by foot. You won't make it before sundown."

"After all that talk about my modesty, surely you are not suggesting I stay here?" Frown lines marred her pretty face. "That would be highly inappropriate."

Kakashi laughed then, an easy, pleasant sound to break the tension, and her indignation transformed into puzzlement. "Of course not." When he left the rest of his explanation unsaid, she tapped her toe in impatience. The man waited until he could see the boiling point of her temper rise, finding great amusement in raising her hackles, before he elucidated. "I have a horse. We shall ride to the village."



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

The journey back to the village swiftly became an exquisite torture for Sakura. She had been placed on the front of the horse, nestled back to chest between the man's thighs, and her quiver was strapped to his back rather than her own so that it would not dig into his abdomen. One arm controlled the reins, frequently brushing her side in rhythm with the cadence of horse hooves. The other wound itself firmly about her waist, a strong protective cradle, to keep her upright in the saddle.

Women of Konoha, once they were of marriageable age, were not permitted to touch or be touched by a man not of her immediate household without formal permission for courtship. It was a tradition rather than village law, and as such not subject to punishment, but it was simply not a thing to be done. Her shishou had neither husband nor son and did not permit Sakura to treat male patients, so her sudden envelopment by this very manly form was disconcerting. She was, by turns, both terrified and thrilled.

Well, this is a strange juxtaposition.

And the remembrance of his fingertips ghosting over her arms and his hand wrapped carelessly over hers, of the skin to skin contact, caused her cheeks to redden and her heart to pump erratically. The girl was sure that he would feel it through their connected bodies and though the idea mortified her, she could not bring herself push the thoughts from her mind.

He was handsome, in an older, slightly roguish way, with a fair face marked by a single jagged scar over one eye. The damaged eye had partially changed color due to injury, no longer solid ebony like the other, bearing instead a chaotic pattern of deep, unnatural crimson. Silver streaks of hair, tousled by the wind, escaped his turban to whip about his cheeks and neck. His frame was tall and fit, with hardened muscle and wide shoulders, in the wiry way that many of the tribe's elite warriors exhibited. For Sakura, he was the very picture of virility, much to her surprise and dismay.

"How did you learn to fight like that?" The question he posed startled the girl out of her reverie, but it was a welcome change of pace. Perhaps speaking would banish the thoughts that she could not will away.

"From you, sensei." Sakura was proud that her voice came out steady, her affected nonchalance convincing at least to her own ears.

The man tensed behind her, fingers digging slightly into her waist. "Dishonesty is not an admirable trait, Sakura. Women are not allowed to be trained in the martial arts."

"Neither is jumping to conclusions." She mustered her bravery and forced his hand to release his grip, quietly prying his fingers up one by one to release the stifling pressure. "I never said you trained me." At that statement, his body relaxed around her, the former casual demeanor taking over, so she continued. "I used to watch you with your students, two in particular. They were both like me, the last of their clans."

"The Namakaze and Uchiha heirs?"

"Yes! Well, we became childhood companions of a fashion. But as we got older, we went our separate ways. I learned the way of the healer while they trained to be warriors. For a time, I was intensely jealous. Whenever I could be spared, I came to watch their sessions. I studied carefully and practiced in the woods when I was sent to gather herbs. I did not want to be left behind."

"You have done very well, Sakura. You're quite formidable." The praise was quite genuine.

The girl turned in his arms so that she was partly facing him and beamed. "You should see me with my bow, sensei."


"I'm afraid I don't understand." Sakura wrinkled her nose in confusion.

"Please call me Kakashi." She opened her mouth to reply, but he squeezed her hand gently where they were still entwined from her earlier intervention. "I'm no longer anyone's sensei. I prefer to be addressed by my given name."

"Of course… Kakashi." His name tumbled from her mouth and it felt strangely liberating, akin to doing something forbidden. Her pulse quickened once again as a delicate hush fell between them. The heavy weight of his hand pressing her own into her side burned into her skin.

It was not unpleasant.

Gradually, the serenity of the forest and the rocking of their travel purveyance lulled Sakura into a light slumber. She was vaguely aware of stirring breath and the warmth of another at her back. For all that it unsettled her, his presence was unexpectedly comforting and she was glad that she did not have to return alone. She felt the distance covered in the aches in her body and the shifting of the light across her eyelids, but the girl saw none of it. The afternoon's ordeal had left her weary and she trusted Kakashi to safely bring her back to her shishou.

Sakura always trusted her heart.

Her name, whispered huskily against her ear, brought her back to the conscious world. "Sakura?"


"What clan do you hail from?" Kakashi's voice had a tender quality to it that, combined with the way his shoulders curled protectively around her slight frame, threatened to bring tears to her eyes. No one had spoken of her family for years, at least not out of concern rather than idle speculation. "You said that you were the last."

"I am Sakura of the Haruno clan," her breath hitched on her family name, but her pride came through with clarity. "I hail from Haruno Village, once located on the eastern seashore before it ocean reclaimed it, along with all its souls. All but one."

Kakashi's chin dropped to her right shoulder and his nose buried deeply in her rose-colored hair, bringing his mouth to the shell of her ear. "I am Kakashi, last of the Hatake clan. I hail from the village of Konoha and my family has proudly defended the innocent with the payment of all its souls. All but one."

Sakura shivered, but whether it was from Kakashi's words or his presence, she was unsure.



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

Their arrival at the village was marked by the orange, pink, and purple glow of sunset. Most citizens were already indoors, partaking of the evening meal and readying their families for the soon approaching bedtime. But for the stragglers left on the street, Sakura and Kakashi left an impression that would no doubt make its way through the gossip chain. Her companion did not seem to care, so she held her head high and refused to dwell on what the vicious-minded may say come morning.

Without any instruction from her quarter, Kakashi made his way directly to the home she shared with her shishou. The surprise left her speechless, even through his leap from the back of the steed and her subsequent removal just after. It persisted as he led her, a large hand pushing on the small of her back, to the front door of her home. When it was clear her inaction would continue indefinitely, the man rapped his knuckles on the door. Shortly thereafter, the door burst open with the creak of worn hinges to reveal Sakura's worried guardian.

"Sakura! Thank the heavens!" Relief showed on the woman's face briefly, before the replacement of anger arrived. "Where exactly have you been, young lady? And don't you dare open your mouth to feed me a line of bull…" A sharp cough interrupted the blonde's tirade. "Oh. Oh! Kakashi, is that you? Sakura, what is going on?"

"It's been quite an afternoon, Tsunade," Kakashi drawled, an exhausted smile crinkling his eyes. "Perhaps we could speak inside and let the girl get some rest."

"Fine," the healer replied tersely, but the heat of her wrath had dwindled to mere irritation. "Well, don't just stand there looking like idiots. Come in, come in!"

He strolled into the receiving room with a grin. "It's good to see some things never change."

Sakura sat quietly while Tsunade fussed over her injury, declaring the treatment of it adequate, and Kakashi relayed the day's events. Then the older woman brought out their dinner, inviting Kakashi to share. Over food and drink, the conversation turned to the recalling of past times and the corruption of village politics. The scene unfolding around her was surreal – her would-be rescuer and her beloved shishou were old, dear friends apparently – and she seemed to be the only one out of sync with reality.

How could they be so familiar if she had never properly met him before?

Sakura forced down enough of her portion to placate her shishou. Suddenly, everything that happened, all the twisting of her emotions, felt like the work of a silly child's imagination. The contrast of their conversation, adult to adult, to that of her easily worked-up heart had the blood draining from her features, leaving her pale and cold.

She had gotten ahead of herself. She was but a child in the grand scheme of the world.

Kakashi stopped mid-sentence, his forehead furrowed with lines of concern. "Sakura?" She raised her head to meet his gaze, but did not answer. "You alright?"

"I…" She swallowed and tried to find her words. "I'm rather tired, I think."

"Of course, with that wound you should be in bed." Tsunade smiled fondly, before dismissing her. "Now off to bed with you, young lady. I'll be in to check on you shortly."

Sakura nodded listlessly and turned to leave.

"Wait a moment, Sakura." Kakashi stood to his full height, removing leather straps from across his chest as he moved to intercept her. He pushed the quiver, still warm from where it rested on his body, into her hands. Long, rough fingers brushed over the back of her hands, lingering for a prolonged moment, as he leaned over her. Kakashi spoke softly, with the same tenderness that his voice held back in the forest. "You shouldn't forget this."

His dark eyes spoke with secret entreaty and the girl wondered if her heart had been correct all along. "Of course. Thank you, Kakashi."

He was seated again before she realized that she could move and in her embarrassment of such a scene occurring in front of her guardian, Sakura rushed from the room. Over her shoulder she heard him call after her one last time. "And don't forget to clean your blade and sheath. The blood will make them rust."

Tsunade leaned fully into the cushions at her back and shook her head, shoulders vibrating slightly with the suppressed laughter of one that is privy to the punch-line of joke that no one else can understand.

Kakashi arched an eyebrow in query, but the only answer he received was a knowing feminine smile.



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

Over the course of the next few weeks, Kakashi found himself in the village on frequent occurrence. Boredom had gotten the best of him three days after his run-in with Sakura. Deciding that he was in need of new reading material, the man made a visit to Genma. Much to Kakashi's consternation, his friend did not have any new scrolls nor the time for a visit, due to the harping of his wife. That left Kakashi to find enterprise elsewhere. His steed directed him to the healer's home of its own volition.

At least, that was what Kakashi chose to tell himself.

Tsunade welcomed him in immediately, having no patients to attend to at the time, and the two had a pleasant chat over tea. Sakura joined them eventually, stumbling onto their impromptu party by accident when she came looking for her guardian. The pretty blush that stained her cheeks revealed that she was surprised, but the girl sat to his left, a respectful distance away, and added to the conversation with her quick-witted comments. Kakashi enjoyed himself immensely.

And lulled into complacency as he was, before he left Kakashi had agreed to serve as a companion and protector to Sakura whenever her duties had her travelling into the forest, at least until she was fully healed. The girl had tried to challenge Tsunade's suggestion and when that failed, attempted to dissuade him from accepting. Her reluctance made him wish to be contrary, spurring him to acquiesce to the elder woman's demands.

Twice a week for the past three weeks, Kakashi met Sakura at the village gates.

It was strange at first, the time spent in mostly awkward silence while Sakura steadfastly refused to look at him directly. Kakashi got the impression that she was angry with him, or perhaps just that she did not get her way. The first day, her stubbornness amused him. But by mid-trip on the second, he had grown weary of it. Sizing up his mark, Kakashi prepared for battle. He peppered her with teasing remarks and silly questions, counting on her temper and clever tongue to do most of the work for him. On their third outing, her defenses had finally broken down and, after she hotly responded to the insinuation of her lacking femininity, he apologized, laughing as he did so. As the ridiculousness of the situation dawned on her, she joined him in mirth and they had soon slipped into a comfortable companionship.


"Hmm?" He hummed, sitting with his back against a large trunk, while she trimmed the leaves of a nearby plant with his knife.

"Why did you leave the village?"

"Sakura." Kakashi frowned as she continued on with her foraging. The girl certainly had no qualms about asking personal questions. He had found this out the hard way, as her inquiries grew more invasive with each meeting. But he rarely refused to indulge her, so he supposed that he shared some of the blame. Even now, though Sakura had unwittingly brought up a subject most painful to him, he couldn't bring himself to deny her. "Bandits killed my best friend and his wife they last time the attacked the village. I was there, right there. Close enough to watch, too far away to stop it. After that, I just wanted to be alone."

Sakura stilled her hands and turned to him then, face scrunched in thought. "Is that still what you want?"

He remained silent and Sakura sat next to him, sharing the tree at his back. She smelled of rich, warm earth and pungent herbs and wildflowers. Kakashi closed his eyes and reached for her hand. Particles of damp soil clung to her fingers, creating friction as he laced his digits through hers. "I don't know."



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

Their next outing found the girl unnaturally subdued. Normally, now that they had become accustomed to each other, Sakura initiated their conversations with a bright greeting. Nothing had been forthcoming from her this time though. Moreover, there were purple rings under her eyes that told of a lack of proper sleep. And when Kakashi lifted her into the saddle, she sunk into his chest with a discontented sigh. He tightened his hold on her and tried to ignore the concern swirling in the pit of his stomach.

Later in the day, when she finally broke her self-imposed introversion, her words built upon that concern.

"Sasuke returned to the village yesterday."

"Oh?" Kakashi asked, his tone mild. "The Uchiha boy?"

Sakura slipped back into silence for a few more minutes, long enough that he considered that she might not continue. The man longed to poke and prod at her, to demand a reaction, but thought better of it. There was something off in her demeanor and he did not want to chance an unpleasant confrontation.

"Yes." Her answer was accompanied by yet another sigh, given so long after his question that Kakashi struggled to recall what he had asked. "He came to see my shishou."

"And that upset you? I thought you were friends?"

"He has been gone a long time," Sakura stated, her voice starting to waver. "Three years. Before he left there was an unspoken understanding…"

As her words trailed off, Kakashi tensed and he gripped the reins tightly. "What kind of understanding?"

The hard edge to his usually lazy drawl took Sakura by surprise. Her breath hitched sharply, vibrating in her chest, and it her a moment to collect herself so she could respond. "A marriage."

Visions of violence suddenly ran through Kakashi's mind. His head filled with the blood that his quickened heart rate forced upwards, throbbing in a deafening manner. His breathing turned sharp, struggling out of him in rough gasps, and he had to make a conscious effort not to spoil her innocent ears with the curses waiting on his tongue. He curled into her possessively, resting his forehead on the curve of her neck, and willed himself to calm down. After several minutes, when he could trust his words again, the man spoke. "Is that what you wanted?"

"It was, but…"

"Is that still what you want?"

Tension spread between them during the long moment she took to consider his question.

"No." A small hand tucked itself into his larger one and he slumped against her.

This time, Kakashi did not leave her at the village gates. Instead, he returned her to Tsunade's doorstep and, after Sakura had gone inside, requested an audience with his old friend.

The healer let him in and sagely decided not to point out the suspicious absence of herbs in Sakura's purse.



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

Kakashi journeyed to Konoha early the very next day. It was rare for him to be so active in the morning hours, but sleep had eluded him and he had business to attend to anyway. Besides, he would be free to rest once his objectives were completed.

As he made his approach, smoke drifted over the trees, dark and ominous. Kakashi dug his heels into the horse's side, spurring the mare to speed. Fear clutched at his heart with urgency.

Something was very wrong.

Chaos and turmoil ran rampant through the village streets. The screams of innocent bystanders filled his ears, shrill and blood curdling. Several homes were on fire and the wind kicked up sparks that threatened to spread the devastation to other buildings. Men, large and menacing in black leather armor, openly stalked the citizens, breaking down doors and brandishing crimson-stained blades. Kakashi drew his own weapon and prepared to join the fray.

Several of Konoha's warriors were already pushing back against the bandit horde, Genma among them. Kakashi rode through their ranks with a brief nod of acknowledgement before continuing on to his destination. It was no longer his job to fight for the village. His offer of protection extended to only one.

Kakashi worked his way toward the far end of the village, striking down the enemies that confronted him directly while leaving the rest to others. In his haste, he could not be bothered to do more. Upon arriving at Sakura's residence, he was distraught to find neither her nor Tsunade there. He turned his sharp eyes away from the house, scanning the area for any signs of the women.

In the distance, near the old Uchiha family grounds, a flash of pink crossed his sight.

Kakashi leapt down from the saddle, his fleet-footed steed bringing him upon the scene quickly, and stuck down two men before the others even realized he was there. There were six more surrounding Sasuke, Tsunade at his back, and another held Sakura tightly by her hair. Three of the bandits broke rank to deal with the newcomer, while the others used the distraction to take on the Uchiha.

As a master of the sword, as well as several other forms of combat, his adversaries posed little challenge for Kakashi and soon lay lifeless on the ground. Sasuke dispatched two bandits with practiced ease, but the third made a hasty retreat. The last man panicked, pressing his blade point roughly into Sakura's neck in warning. It did not pierce deeply, but the sight of red trickling down her neck caused Kakashi to vibrate with barely-restrained fury. He could not act though. To do so would mean certain death for the girl.

Sakura smiled for him, a wry, devious little quirk of her mouth, and then readied her stance. And he knew that her clever mind had worked out a plan. All they had to do was be ready for the opening she would provide. Her hand drifted over to her hip, gripping the hilt of her tanto, and Sakura's smile thinned into a hard line.

In one smooth motion, she removed the blade from its sheath and swung it behind her head, shearing her hair just under the hands of her captor. The blade cut true and in a soft rain of petal-pink, she was free. Sakura then dropped to her knees and spun out of harm's way, rising behind the man. The role reversal, her blade now at his neck, caused the man to blanch. The girl pushed him away and Sasuke ran him through.

Throughout the village, shouts of victory could be heard as the warriors routed the invaders. Tsunade rushed to take her ward into her arms, thankful the ordeal was over, but halted as the girl crumpled in pain, cool steel protruding from her shoulder. Sasuke's third bandit, thought to have withdrawn, circled back in time to exact vengeance for his fallen comrades. As the healer and the Uchiha saw to Sakura, Kakashi dealt with the assailant.

He was given no comfort or quarter.

Sakura lost consciousness shortly thereafter.

Kakashi carried her home, once again counting on the swiftness of his four-legged companion, and Tsunade set to work.

The next seven days were the longest in the man's memory.



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

Thanks to the old woman's skill and her own hearty disposition, Sakura healed up nicely. Swift treatment had staved off infection and by lucky coincidence, or lack of skill on the part of her attacker, no bones or organs had been pierced by the blade. She would have to be careful with her stitches, not to mention the soreness that would permeate over the coming weeks, but the girl was well on her road to recovery.

Tsunade woke her early to check her bandages, pleased with what she saw. "How are you feeling today?"

"Sore," Sakura grimaced just a bit as shrugged off her bedclothes, "but good. It's nice to finally move around."

"I'm glad." Tsunade's smile was tender, but there was a mischievous gleam in her eye. "Please wear your formal robes."

"What's the occasion, shishou?" The girl asked, curious, but obeyed the women's request. "Shishou?"

The healer waited until the girl was fully dressed before responding. "Your engagement ceremony."

Sakura rounded on the woman, shock bleaching her features. "What?!"

"Now, Sakura, there's no need to raise your voice," the old woman admonished. "An offer has been made for your hand in marriage and I have agreed."

"Exactly who am I supposed to be marrying?" The color had returned to her face in red-hot anger. "Don't I get a say in this?"

"Sakura, do you trust me?"

"I..." The question hit her like a blow to the chest, knocking the anger out. Her knees weakened, forcing her sit on the edge of her bed. "I…"

The blonde sat down next to her and took her hand. "The answer is a simple yes or no, child."

"Well, yes, of course. But…"

"Sakura, I have watched you wait for three long years, losing a piece of yourself every day. I have watched you struggle in a male-dominated world without the protection of a man to support you. The events of the past few days, past few weeks even, have made me realize that I want so much more for you. You deserve so much more." Weathered hands swiped saline from her cheeks. "And now, someone has come forward that can give you that."

"But, shishou, this is all very sudden!" Sakura pleaded, her green eyes plaintive.

"It is a good match, Sakura." Tsunade gently scooped her into a warm embrace, mindful of her injury. "But when you see your betrothed, if he is not who you want, I will stop the ceremony before the guests arrive. I give you my word. This is more than most women get, you know."

Tears fell quietly down the girl's cheeks. "I know, shishou. I know."

"Good. Now let's get you ready."



. ~ { ooOoo } ~ .

The girl paused in the narrow doorway, all trembling hands and clumsy legs and rushing blood, before steadying one last glance at the woman responsible for her inner chaos. Sakura's expression reflected her confliction well – anxiety, nostalgia, excitement, and just a touch of anger. But a sly upturn of lips lit upon the face of the older blonde, accompanied by the support of two warm, familiar hands, and the girl's green eyes widened with the small seed of hope. The heaviness of her garments, delicately embroidered and beaded with lavish design as was per her clan's custom, eased just enough to no longer suffocate and the girl stepped through the archway to embrace her new path.

Behind the receiving table she sat, kneeling demurely on silk cushions with her head bowed in contemplation, nervously awaiting the hand that was to be tied to hers for all her years to come. The sound of approaching footfalls echoed loudly in her ears, matching the sharp staccato of her beating heart, and the girl gathered her courage. Raising her head to greet her fate, surprise wrapped its fingers around her spine, snapping it to rigidity, and the girl's breath caught sharply in her chest.

In but a moment later, a man knelt beside her, his handsome robes brushing the hem of her own, pooling on the floor in an intimate tangle of the two. Her eyes had followed him faithfully, never leaving his obsidian gaze, even while the rest of her body refused to comply with her instruction to breath, to move, to do anything. Sakura's lungs began to burn and her heart stilled, waiting for acknowledgement from his quarter. Gently, almost hesitantly, he took her hand and the air finally left her throat in a small, shuddering gasp. His amiable, lazy smile broke through all her insecurities and a joyful relief filtered through the entirety of her being, shining brightly in the flush of her cheeks.

"So, Sakura, do I meet with your approval?"

"Of course." A radiant expression of happiness, genuine and sweet, lit up her pretty face. "Kakashi, last of the Hatake clan."

Quickly, before the lady of the house let in the public, Kakashi lifted her chin and pressed his lips to hers. His mouth made a trail of soft, barely-there caresses from her mouth to her ear. Lingering for just a moment, his warm breath tickled her neck as he whispered, "I don't believe I'll be the last for long."

Then, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened, Kakashi straightened his body and faced ahead to greet the incoming guests with proper decorum. Not to be outdone, Sakura did the same with a poise that would the envy of many, though her rising blush almost gave away her secret. Under the table and out of sight, a rough fingertip wrote a message into her palm.

I love you.

Yes, this was a hand she would most willingly take.



. ~ { The End } ~ .