the greatest pretenders
Chapter One: Repress
If there was one thing that she was grateful for, it was the sweet, life-inducing relief when a promise was unbroken.
Everyday since Sakura became a mother, she tried to follow a tight routine: she would go to work at the hospital, come home around 3:30PM, take a quick shower, catch up on house chores that she hadn't been able to get done, and begin to prepare dinner for her and her daughter. Just as she would be setting the plates onto the table, Sarada would burst through the door, sighing after another long day of training. There was hardly a day where the Second Tsunade would slack off from the duties she was responsible for, and she didn't really have an excuse to slack off, no matter how one tried to look at it. If she wasn't at the hospital filing paperwork and treating her patients in the west wing, she was at home, trying to make a tolerable home for her family to live in. Craning her neck every now and then, Sakura glanced at the clock on the wall before her. 2:45PM.
She drew in a deep breath and held it for a few seconds, before forcefully letting it out of her mouth.
"Is everything alright, Mrs. Uchiha?" her new male assistant spoke, his eyebrows twisted in that way that people did whenever they were expressing concern, but didn't want to pry too much.
"Yes," she replied, smiling, "just tired, is all."
Reaching for her purse under her desk, she paused and bit her lip. "What was your name again?" she asked, her smile awkward.
"Right," Sakura nodded, "you're new right?"
She stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder, stacking her paperwork in a neat pile in the corner of her desk, then placing a glass paperweight on top of it. Her heels clacked against the linoleum as she crossed the room to where the now frightened assistant sat, his eyes wide with the prospect that he did something wrong. Sakura leaned slightly over his desk, her smile as sweet as ever.
"Please help me to work hard," she said simply before walking towards the door. She could feel the young man's eyes on her, and she could have been nicer to him on his first day, but with each passing day — despite her best efforts — she was becoming more and more like her loud, sake-drinking, ruthless master.
"H-have a great evening, Mrs. Uchiha," Yuzuru stuttered, abruptly standing from his seat.
Sakura smiled again, turning to look at him just in time to see his entire face lose color.
"You too, Yuzuru," she enunciated, "and it's Ms. Haruno."
Ever since the Fourth Shinobi War ended, all the people she knew from when she was a child were revered as heroes. For Ino, she was offered jobs throughout different countries as a top interrogator, and they certainly paid well, but she wanted to stay in Konoha with her family. Shikamaru was to be the head of a division for a task force involved in investigations, but he declined, deeming the job too troublesome. As for the rest of her classmates, they were each praised for their unique set of skills, especially if they possessed a bloodline limit that could prove useful in future political situations, like the Hyuugas and their respective counterparts, the Uchihas. Sakura smiled at the nurses that passed her by, wishing her a lovely evening and that they would see her tomorrow, and she knew that despite how kind she tried to appear to people, they would always see her as someone to be feared. It wasn't without reason, but still. If there was nothing for her to be proud of, she could certainly say that she made a name for herself.
Pulling out her cell phone, she sent a quick message to her husband, like she always did. This was a part of her routine that she didn't really divulge to anyone, even her own daughter. She cleared her throat as she walked towards the main part of Konoha, her sights set on Ichiraku Ramen, one of the first places she had bonded with her teammates at. She allowed a half smile to form on her face before she allowed the smell of chashuu ramen to fill her nostrils, feeling like she was remembering things she didn't want to. As she approached the street behind the Hokage's office, she felt a vibration in her bag and hastily pulled it out, her heart thumping in her chest.
That was all it read.
Admittedly, every time Sakura sent these messages to him, he almost always replied with the same answer. It was difficult to expect anything from someone who was never around, but a part of her still hoped and prayed anyway, because she knew that when it came down to it, she made the decision to marry him. On some days, it left a bitter taste in her mouth, even as she was at work and doing what she loved, or even when she spent late Friday nights by the TV with their daughter, laughing at old sitcoms and making their own inside jokes. Even though Sarada never complained, Sakura knew she missed her father. HIs absence was felt even more prominently on the quieter nights when both of them were too tired or too stressed to speak with each other. Not that Sasuke would've made a difference, but at least he would have been there.
Looking towards the pale sky, Sakura made a mental note to unpack all autumn clothes from the boxes she kept in their closets, and to start changing the air conditioners in their house to heater mode. Summer was coming to an obvious end and the townspeople were starting to wear light jackets and their boots. The trees were beginning to shed their red and brown leaves, and and warmer drinks were served at restaurants instead of cool ones. When she reached the junction that led to downtown Konoha, Sakura felt some kind of weight placed on her shoulders.
"Dangos! Fifty ryo for three sticks!"
"Stop by our izakaya for a thirty percent discount!"
"It's Ladies' Night at our karaoke bar, come sing your heart out!"
Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, Sakura looked straight ahead of her, ignoring the flyers being pushed in her face and the questions that were thrown at her. The downside of living in a place that was modernised was that it was a struggle just to get home. She smiled politely as she passed by florists and mini-markets, bowing her head slightly and bidding them hello. It wasn't until a good fifteen minutes later that she finally opened the gate that led to the steps of the home that she had originally built with Sasuke. Staring at the wooden door, Sakura cleared her throat as she felt an unsettling sense of hollowness invading her thoughts. Taking one stair at a time, she pushed the door open and turned on the lights, taking in the sights of her empty home before her. She stretched her arms upwards, hearing her back pop in places that suddenly made her feel like she could breathe again. Making her way upstairs, she felt a vibration in her purse once again, which made her raise an eyebrow. Settling down onto her bed, her adept fingers quickly checked her messages and she could feel her stress taking form in the shape of potential wrinkles on her forehead.
Having dinner with Chouchou at Ichiraku. Be back in two hours.
Sighing, Sakura flopped onto the bed and threw a pillow over her face, then proceeded to scream into it. Sure, she was a strict parent who hardly ever allowed last-minute plans to be executed, but she didn't exactly have a reason to say no to Sarada. It wasn't like there was going to be some big surprise waiting for her daughter when she came through the door, which would have made both of them incredibly happy. Part of the reason that she loved routine was to that she didn't have to think about the missing gaps in her life that made her question her own decisions.
Rolling over, Sakura eyed the photo frames that she kept on the dresser, hesitating to really look at photos of her own face on it. Every time she tried to look at them, she felt like she was looking at someone else and the notion of such disassociation was one that she would prefer to deal with quietly. She exhaled through her nose and focused on Sasuke's emotionless face instead, and felt even worse at the prospect that she was probably raising a broken family all on her own.
Letting her eyes flutter closed, she couldn't help but wonder how much of an idiot she had been.
It goes without saying that despite the evident choices she made, she understood that she couldn't afford to be an irresponsible person. Just because Sasuke was never home, and just because she hardly talked to any of the people she used to laugh with over a bottle of sake several times a month, it didn't mean she could neglect her responsibilities. That fact was made even more prominent because Sasuke wasn't around. There were factors, and people, that made her life feel a little more worthwhile, even though the entire reason she begged the Fifth Hokage to take her under her tutelage was so that she could become a better ninja. In retrospect, being one of the top medical ninjas at Konoha's hospital was probably what kept her from going off the deep end.
Pushing herself off the bed, she sauntered over to her bathroom and washed her face of her makeup instead of taking a shower. Her toothbrush, she realized, was beginning to become frayed from excessive brushing. She touched her fingers to her cheeks and yawned, walking out of her bathroom and turning out the lights as she went along. Sakura may have disliked loud places, but at least it never made her feel alone. Her fingers reached for the stack of bills that she left on the coffee table in the living room, and she made her way to the dining table where there was a box of tissues sitting right next to her favorite seat, the one that was closest to the view of the streets at night.
With a red pen, she marked the bills that she had already paid while she was at work with a check mark, and made small notations at the top right corners of the ones she had yet to pay via her credit card. She would complain more, and rant about the unfairness of having to pay bills by herself, but every now and then, she received more than enough money to cover the house's expenses for a few months from Sasuke. There was never a letter, never even a note that he bothered to send her to thank her or to assure her that he was safe, but as long as she periodically received his wordless support, she felt it unfair for her to shoot her mouth off. After all, he was the one who told her he wanted to repent for his sins, even though the very definition of such an action meant facing the ones he had hurt.
Her hand moved to where her heart still lay beating and she remembered the pure devastation of knowing he had truly wanted to kill her. Simply because he was so lost in his own thirst for strength.
Simply uttering the words 'I'm sorry' was a farce and it was doing the bare minimum in the process of wanting to change your bad habits into good ones. Sakura knew this, and she knew this fact very well. During the war, she had seen countless people who confessed their final regrets before she realised that she couldn't save them, and the remorse she heard in their voices was enough to tell her that they really meant it. With Sasuke, it had always merely felt like a formality. He never actually meant it, except maybe when it came to certain people. The guy apologised to Kakashi for walking out on the village before he apologised to her for breaking her heart.
She leaned against the back of her chair and sighed, setting the pen down beside the envelopes before her.
Every now and then, Sakura remembered that all the animosity she felt for the crimes he committed simply wafted away as soon as he poked her forehead, telling her that he was sorry. All he had to do was touch her in all the places where it hurt, where she craved to be loved, and maybe the tragedy of that fact was that she didn't know any better. She was a smart, capable woman that knew right from wrong, but when it came to matters of her heart, she was a goner.
Truthfully, she had no idea what it was that she needed in order to make her happy.
"I'm home," Sakura heard her daughter call out from the entrance, and immediately perked up.
"That wasn't two hours."
"We decided to just stop by the convenience store and get some potato chips."
She moved to rest her cheek against her knuckle and waited for Sarada to come through the door. The dark-haired teenager offered her a tiny smile and set her things near the TV, plopping down onto the sofa.
"Long day?" Sakura joked.
"It always is."
"We have some leftovers from last night, if you want any."
"You didn't cook dinner for yourself?"
Sakura laughed, trying her best to convince her daughter that she was fine, and that nothing was out of the ordinary.
"I actually had some food right before I left the office, but I'll eat with you."
Sarada paused as she moved forward on her seat, her brow furrowed.
"Why do we have so many leftovers, anyway?"
"You know me," Sakura said casually, "I tend to overcook."
Looking at her daughter, Sakura felt the smile fall from her face. Leave it to the child of an Uchiha prodigy and one of the best medical ninjas in Konoha to figure out things she didn't necessarily want to know. She sighed, rubbing her temples.
"I know it's been hard —"
"You know that he's not coming back."
"Sarada, that's not fair."
"I'm just saying," the teenager shrugged, "after the first few hundred times of you trying to get him to come home for a simple dinner with his family, you'd think he'd take the hint, Mom."
"Don't be rude," Sakura warned, "your father is constantly on the move, and he always ends up in different places each day."
"Do you really believe that?"
Standing up from her seat, Sakura rubbed the back of her neck and exhaled through her nose. Glancing at her daughter, she felt like she was being interrogated for a crime that she was wrongfully accused of. Although, Sarada most probably had merit for talking to her this way. She just didn't like the fact that it was her teenage daughter, and not her actual husband, that she was having this conversation with, even though she owed it to the young woman to be honest.
"It doesn't matter what I believe, Sarada."
"I mean," she said, "you're his wife. It kinda does."
"Well, if that's the case," Sakura replied as she walked towards the living room, "then yes. I believe him."
"Why do you put up with it?"
In the last decade or so, there was only one person who had asked her this question: her own mother.
"Don't you miss him?" Sakura retorted quietly, evading the question entirely.
"He's my dad," Sarada answered honestly, looking away from her mother, "but he's never around."
At the prospect of having an absent father, Sakura felt like she was failing her only daughter, especially because she didn't know how to be there for someone that she was supposed to be raising into a fully functioning adult. A creeping sense of guilt washed over her. She had been alone when she gave birth to Sarada, because Sasuke was away on his journey of self-discovery. Her mother and Ino had been there, helping her breathe through the pain, and she remembered crying the first time Sarada opened her eyes to look at her. Sakura held her child in her arms and had promised herself that no matter what, she would do everything she could to give her a life that would help her grow into an independent, smart, young woman. It became difficult when Sarada looked this way though, when she spoke of her father with obvious restraint, like she was in fear that she was going to say something that would reveal her true feelings.
"If you're keeping things from me," Sakura whispered, "you need to know that I'd rather you tell me than you bottling it up."
"You go through a lot, already."
"It's not your job to worry about me yet."
"He's my dad, but he's also your husband."
"Sarada," Sakura breathed, "I will always give you what you need, so don't think that you have to hide anything from me."
The teenager didn't say another word but instead rested her head against her mother's shoulder. Neither of them said anything as they became lost in their own thoughts, but there was a kind of comfort that permeated the air around them. While she was growing up, Sakura was constantly criticised by her mother for not being womanly enough, or being too focused on her studies, and as she stroked Sarada's hair, she couldn't help but wonder if in some twisted way, her unhappiness in her life right now was because of who she was previously. Oftentimes when she felt this way, she knew she wasn't looking at her situation from every possible angle.
Sarada wasn't exactly planned, but Sakura wouldn't have had it any other way. Even if Sasuke found it difficult to come home to see them, she had decided long ago that she would be the parent that would always be there for their daughter. When things became this difficult, Sakura tried to remind her that she had a father, but that he was just busy. The reality of their situation was that she knew they only had each other, at least for now. She wrapped her arm around Sarada's shoulders and kissed her hair.
"How's training been?" Sakura asked abruptly, sitting up straighter.
"Still can't trigger it," Sarada humphed, her voice exhausted.
"It takes time," the green-eyed woman reassured her, her expression emotionless.
"That's what everyone keeps saying," she replied, "but it's been a while."
Sakura thought for a moment, her lips pursed in that way they did whenever she was pensive.
"Patience is a virtue," she said finally, earning an eye roll from Sarada, "which means you just have to keep trying."
"Dad got his when he was doing the Chuunin exams."
"That's because…" Sakura started, "…he had lost a lot of people important to him prior to those exams."
Sarada hummed and stood up, grabbing her bag and bidding her mother goodnight before walking out the door and up the stairs, her feet padding against the wooden floors. Sakura sighed when she heard her bedroom door close and she rested her neck against the headrest, thinking that her daughter was even more like her husband than she realized. Standing up, she walked over to the console table where baby photos of Sarada sat, along with a photo of her and Ino and in the very back, the very first photo of Team Seven. Her fingers grazed the corners of the silver frame and she smiled when she pulled it up to take a closer look.
Her smile had been wide and fresh; innocent, even. Sasuke, on her right side, was scowling and on his head was Kakashi-sensei's hand forcing him to look at the camera. Sakura chuckled when her eyes moved to her left side, to the orange-jumpsuit-wearing ninja, who also wore a scowl that was directed at Sasuke. He had always been loud and boisterous, whose fighting spirit didn't match anyone Sakura had ever known. Their enemies were always taken aback by the way he fought until he won, until he could fight no more, and at the memory of the war, Sakura set down the frame and walked over the window.
Green eyes settled on the lit up streets below their house, watching as the people walked by and politely nodded at each other. Crossing her arms, she moved her gaze to the tower that stood in the middle of the village, the one that she always used to run into to see Tsunade for training and for urgent meetings. Even years later, she could still see herself making her way through the building, walking in the halls with photos of their previous leaders. For every S-rank missioned that she was assigned, the first place she would visit was her master's office.
There was a light that was on, on the top floor of the building, where Sakura knew very well that the Hokage would be sometimes, late into the night. They'd be working, or in meetings, or just filing some paperwork for some missions that they were to assign the following morning. She frowned slightly at the image of a blond, short-haired man, who still dressed in orange, bent over his desk signing papers and not watching the clock. The man had never been a hard worker, but ever since he was dubbed the ultimate hero of the Fourth Shinobi War, he could do nothing else except live up to that title, and become a person that apparently suited the title of Hokage.
Disheartened, Sakura turned away from the window and walked towards the light switch of the dining room, flipping it off. She didn't turn around as she headed for the stairs, and up to her bedroom. All she could see, even as she climbed into bed and pulled the covers over her head, was the ghost of a smile that she hadn't seen in ten years. She remembered the sound of his laugh, and hearing it so clearly in her ears made her want to punch a wall. She chose this life, she was the one who didn't confront him about the truth of what he felt for her. Without either of them saying a word to each other after the war, he ended up marrying the woman that was known as the "Princess". As far as Sakura knew, he didn't love her, but she still showed up to the wedding with a smile on her face and words of congratulations uttered by her tongue and lips.
Even when he was given the chance he had been waiting for, he still chose someone else.
The next morning, Sakura quickly prepared breakfast for herself and Sarada, though a slice of buttered toast in her mouth as she ran out the door wasn't exactly breakfast. She had left her teenage daughter at the dining table as she traversed to work with her breakfast in her mouth, her phone in one hand, and her purse in the other. Sakura had always been a very organised person, but she had her moments in which she wanted to do everything at once. If any of her coworkers pointed out her impulsive nature, she would smile and say that she felt more productive when she was doing five things at once. In the end, everyone knew that the quality of her work was exceptional, even if she scrambled to get it done.
It was about an hour before everyone had to clock in, but Sakura actually liked getting to work early so that she could get a head-start on her work. It was a habit that she carried with her from her pre-teen years until now, and her hard work was always rewarded, whether it was with a few shots of sake with her coworkers or the smiles of her patients when she finally told them that they were healthy enough to go home. Perusing through the halls, Sakura gave a warm smile to each person that passed her by until she reached the elevator that would take her to the eighth floor of the hospital, where Yuzuru was already waiting for her with a stack of documents in his arms. His expression was nervous and the closer Sakura came to him, the more she felt like she could see his fear of messing up on the job.
"What're those?" Sakura asked as she set her purse on the desk, placing a hand on her hip when she turned to face him.
"Lord Hokage's advisor — Shikamaru, was it? — came to drop off some files," Yuzuru replied, clearly struggling to keep the folders from spilling important documents, "and there were a few nurses who dropped off what looked like patient files."
"They said they're for the newly admitted patients in the east wing," he blinked and said sheepishly, "and that you asked for them."
"Wha…?" Sakura began, furrowing her brow, "but Yuzuru, I don't go to the east wing. That's Lady Tsunade's job, since she's the head of the hospital. Why would the nurses say I asked for the files?"
The two stared at each other with an expression that was just as baffled as the other's. Sakura held out her hand and Yuzuru scrambled to give her the correct file, which she sifted through briefly before she sighed and set it on the corner of her desk. She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear and furrowed her brow.
"I mean," she began, "it's not really a big deal, but it was obviously some kind of mix up."
"That's not your fault, though," she smiled at the assistant who was clearly shitting himself, "but those nurses should have known better."
"Then," Yuzuru squeaked, "should I go and give these files to Lady Tsunade and send her your regards?"
"No," Sakura huffed, "I'm her student. How would it look if i sent my assistant in my stead to see my master? I'll go."
The air of the room was awkwardly silent as Yuzuru shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his gaze refusing to meet Sakura's. She cleared her throat and moved to her seat, but Yuzuru's called out her name sheepishly.
"Would you like me to," he stammered, "get you a cup of coffee?"
"Yuzuru," Sakura said softly, "why are you so scared?"
"Scared? What? I —"
"You really look like you're going to piss yourself any second now."
The young man, whose light brown eyes still refused to look at her, cleared his throat. His hands straightened out his already prim and proper clothes and took three deep breaths before taking a step towards her and bowing his head. Sakura raised an eyebrow.
"You've been my hero," he enunciated, "ever since you became Lady Tsunade's apprentice. Your role in the Fourth Shinobi War, as well as your role today in this hospital has awed me."
The woman who was commonly known for her brute strength and tenacious nature glanced around the room as though there was an audience watching. She had no idea how to react.
"When I got the call to say I got this job," Yuzuru continued, "I was floored. To be your assistant meant that I got to work closely with you, and I never thought that would happen. So, thank you."
"What? What for?"
"For giving me this opportunity," he lifted his head and smiled, one that was so bright it made Sakura's heart soften, "and I promise from now on, I will do my best!"
She couldn't help but smile back at him, thinking that his words were clearly from the heart. It had been a while since anyone was honest with her, and the way Yuzuru's baby face seemed to become brighter after his words left his mouth was certainly inspiring. Sakura leaned back against her chair and glanced at the file before her again. Her previous assistants had been afraid of her, of course, but she had grown tired of the smiles they kept restrained whenever they were around her. It was a good thing that they usually ended up resigning due to personal reasons or because their families were moving away, because it meant she didn't have to prolong their dreaded fear of her.
It hadn't even been her idea to hire Yuzuru in the first place; she was perfectly fine with doing all her work on her own, but the insistence of Tsunade, she simply couldn't say no.
"Thank you," Sakura whispered, "that really means a lot to me."
Wordlessly, Yuzuru left the room and Sakura chuckled at his purity and the idea that he loved his job because he was working for someone he admired. Truthfully, she could relate to the high of it all: to work with or for someone that the entire shinobi world dubbed as fearsome was a feat that wouldn't really match the thrill of working for someone merely because you wanted a job. It especially made more sense if there was an apprenticeship involved. That meant that you were establishing a teacher-student relationship, which, Sakura had to admit, she didn't hate.
"I didn't know how you wanted your coffee," Yuzuru said as he walked back into the room, "but I made it sweet because the nurses said you like sweet snacks."
"Good call," Sakura laughed.
"Is there anything else you need?"
"Actually," she replied, leaning forward on her desk, her expression pensive, "I have a question."
"Yes, of course!"
"Are you looking to be my disciple?"
The dark-haired man stood before her, his expression shy and his hands fumbling. He reverted back to his shy nature and darted his eyes around the room as though he could find the answer to her question written on the walls.
"How did you know?"
Sakura laughed. "I did the same thing with Lady Tsunade."
Yuzuru shifted his weight between his feet and rubbed the back of his neck. "If it's not too much trouble —"
"So you were looking for an apprenticeship."
"I had heard that Lady Tsunade was hard on you when you asked her to train you," he said apprehensively, "so I didn't want to cross any lines or anything."
Sakura hummed. "When I went to her and asked her to train me, Konoha was in a state of emergency. Lord Third had just been killed during the Chuunin exams…"
"By his own student."
"Right," Sakura nodded, "and there were no suitable candidates that resided in Konoha at the time. So the Seventh and one of his patrons went to look for Lady Tsunade, instead."
"Weren't you and the Seventh friends, Ms. Haruno?"
Surprised at his question, Sakura could feel the smile fall from her face. If Yuzuru noticed, her certainly didn't let on that he did. Using her hand as a cushion, she rested her chin in it and watched her assistant, trying to think of a suitable answer to give him. There were a myriad of reasons that she and Naruto stopped being friends, but none of them were reasonable enough. Their relationship had always been one to survive adversity, but there came a day when she knew he didn't see her the same way he used to, and the same held true for her. Things had changed, and not in the way that she would have thought.
"Yes," she finally said, "we were."
"Do you still talk?"
"He's the Hokage, Yuzuru," Sakura replied, "he has a lot on his plate. I doubt having a drink with an old friend is at the top of his priority list."
Her words were biting, but out of all the events that transpired in her past, Naruto was a touchy subject. She constantly saw his face on television and on billboards throughout the entire village, and because they were a modernised society that would expel the threat of war, he seemed to be more relaxed. Yuzuru had shrunk back and nodded at her comment, but quickly smiled and said he would get back to work. It really wasn't his fault, because he had no way of knowing that her relationship with the Seventh Hokage was one that was sensitive. She sighed and sifted through the other files on her desk, absentmindedly reading through reports when she noticed a summons from none other than Tsunade herself.
"Hey, Yuzuru," Sakura said.
"Did any of Lady Tsunade's staff contact you before I came into the office today?"
Pulling documents from her drawers as well as the ones Yuzuru gave her just five minutes ago, Sakura quickly stuffed them into an empty folder and stood up. She bade Yuzuru a 'see you soon' and walked out the door, her white lab coat swishing from side to side. The elevator was, thankfully, mostly empty at this time of day, but the people using it smiled at her out of courtesy and thanked her for her service in the war. Sakura smiled and bowed her head, but had always felt that it was a little weird that even over a decade later, people still thanked her. She frowned.
Perhaps, to her dismay, she was beginning to undermine her own actions.
When she reached the tenth floor, she took long strides and reached the door of her master's office, panting. For someone who worked at a hospital and promoted health, she sure was unfit. Sakura knocked on the door three times and waited for Shizune to open the door, a smile on her face.
"Sakura!" the older woman exclaimed, pulling her into a lung-crushing hug.
"It's been a while," Sakura managed to utter, "you've been traveling a lot lately!"
Finally, Shizune let go and held her at arms length, looking her up and down. "Well, I am still a medical ninja. Thousands of people need my help."
"We're never not needed," a voice behind a desk came, whirling around to look at the two women. "Sakura, you came."
"Sorry I'm late," she began, "I only just saw the summons after Yuzuru handed me these bunch of files —"
"The ones for the patients in the east wing?"
"Yes, exactly that. How did you —"
"I gave the order to give them to you."
"But why? With all due respect —"
"You were next in line."
"Is that why you sent me a summons?" Sakura replied, holding up the piece of paper that Tsunade had signed. "You could've just asked Yuzuru to pass on a message instead of hiding it in another file."
"She wanted it to be a surprise," Shizune replied, rolling her eyes.
"Wanted what to be a surprise?"
Tsunade stood from her desk and made her way across in the room in just a few short steps, towering over Sakura. The woman was wearing heels, but it never got any less scary whenever she was facing anyone. There was a reason she was, and still is, a feared Sannin. Sometimes, Sakura forgot that fact, which wasn't entirely fair, but the current era was a lot safer than it was back then. Still, Tsunade's golden eyes stared down at Sakura with anticipation.
"I want to retire."
The statement was a joke, at best, and an impulsive act, at most. Sakura raised her eyebrows and waited for her to say more, but the woman was standing her ground and waited for her student to say something. The green-eyed woman glanced to her senior, who also stared at her with some kind of expectance. Opening her mouth then closing it again, Sakura wasn't entirely sure what the purpose of this summons was, so she couldn't help but ask.
"What does that have to do with giving me patient files from… oh."
Tsunade slapped her on the back, laughing and making Sakura cough.
"That's right. I knew you'd figure it out."
"But Shizune has seniority!"
"There is no person who is more fitting than you, Sakura," the black-haired woman replied, her smile bright.
Being moved by the notion was a gross understatement on Sakura's part, but she was still certain that she was dreaming, even as Tsunade held out a necklace that had some kind of key on its chain. Without a word, she clasped it onto Sakura's neck and let it hang, admiring it against Sakura's shirt. She smiled and placed a hand on the other's shoulder, her eyes determined.
"I know you can do this," Tsunade beamed, "you were trained for this."
"It's a huge responsibility," Sakura replied hesitantly, "and who's to say I'm ready for something like this?"
"We didn't choose you on a whim," Tsunade said casually as she turned around and walked back towards her desk, "we actually ran it by the Seventh."
Sakura's eyebrows shot up at the statement, an involuntary action that earned an eyebrow raise from Tsunade herself. She cleared her throat and stood up straighter, smoothing her clothes even though there were no wrinkles. I feel like Yuzuru, she thought to herself sheepishly. Forcing herself to calm down and to look at her master directly in the eye, she made sure her voice did not crack.
"What do you mean you ran it by him?"
"Well," Tsunade started, "as you know, all official positions in the village have to be approved by him."
"So, when we were recommending names for him to look at to help us decide," Tsunade said as she poured herself a shot of sake from her secret stash in her desk, "he didn't really give it much thought before he said to pass the baton to you."
"Did he say why?"
"Not really," Shizune chimed in, "he just said that the obvious choice was you."
Sakura nodded and moved her gaze to the tiled floor beneath her, not knowing what to say. She wondered if she should say thank you, if she should decline it and say she didn't really want the job, or if she should pretend to be ecstatic. None of those options, she realized, sounded anything like her. She could feel the other two's eyes on her and she had to admit that she hated situations where she was put on the spot. That statement was even more true when it involved anything that praised her work ethic. She sighed.
"I don't really have a choice, do I?" she said sarcastically.
"Nope," Tsunade smiled, "and you also have to tell me about your husband."
"There's nothing to tell," Sakura replied frantically, waving her hand.
"Ah," her master nodded, "so he still hasn't come home for a simple dinner with his wife and daughter."
Sakura didn't utter a word as her senior and her master continued to offer their words of support, should she ever need a helping hand in raising her child or with anything money-related. She bowed and said her thanks, giving each of them a big, monster hug before they reminded her to stop by more often to say hello, especially since she was now the head of anything medicine-related in Konoha. Walking out of the room almost felt like a fresh breath of air, but Sakura understood that her responsibilities have now become heavier, and that she would have to alter her daily routine just a bit. She huffed and walked slowly towards the elevator, giving herself time to think.
In her coat pocket, she felt her phone vibrate and begrudgingly, as she got into the elevator, she pulled it out and was surprised to see that it was from Ino. She blinked twice before she actually read it, wondering what prompted her old friend to want to have drinks.
Just wanted to catch up with everyone!
Sakura bit her lip. She knew that if she declined, like she had been for the last couple of years, Ino would flat out ask her what was wrong, which would make the nature of the night out to turn into a therapy session for her. Obviously, that was something Sakura had absolutely no intention of doing. Affirming that she would show up at their favorite yakiniku place, she took a deep breath as she passed through the hallways back to her office, suddenly aware of the fact that she owned all this now. In a way. Not entirely, of course.
"Ms. Haruno!" Yuzuru exclaimed when she came through the door frame, "You were gone a while. Is everything alright?"
"Yes, don't worry," she replied as she sat down at her desk, "Lady Tsunade simply promoted me, that's all."
"That's fantastic news!"
"Thank you for your kindness," Sakura chuckled, "but I'm not entirely confident in the choice she made."
"You'll do great," the young man beamed, "there's a reason she chose you, after all."
Technically, Naruto chose me, she thought bitterly.
"Do you want to come with me to celebrate?"
"I would love to, if it's not too much trouble."
"It'll just be me and a bunch of the girls," Sakura said, "but we all haven't gotten together in a while, so I'm sure they'll be okay with having a new friend."
"I'd be honored, Ms. Haruno!"
At his enthusiasm, Sakura couldn't help but feel her spirits lifted as she sifted through more piles of work. They were going to weigh more now, and the choices she made were going to have more of an effect than she was used to. Even though there were a number of people that believed in her, as far as she was concerned, that number was small. She would wake up earlier than she usually did now, and she would make breakfast much quicker now and leave it in the fridge for Sarada to take when she woke up. Things would be harder, more tiring, but at the very least, she would be making more money so that maybe, she didn't have to rely on Sasuke anymore.
The thought made her tired.
With Yuzuru sitting at his desk and doing his own work, Sakura found it surprisingly easy to go through the following week's documents and deciding which issues took priority, despite the fact that she had been entirely too nervous to take on the job in the first place. The Chuunin exams had already passed and she made notations in her calendar to help the ones who had sustained minor to mild injuries. There was not a single name of a child that had suffered a major injury, much to Sakura's ultimate relief. There were quite a few names on the list, which, to her recollection, was very realistic. Now that she was in charge, she had the power to hire new staff as well as a new administration that would help her make the hustle and bustle of the hospital even more efficient. She was good at that: coming up with new ways to make her life, as well as others' lives, a lot easier.
Of course, that fact had its flaws and limitations. Sakura cleared her throat and checked the time.
"We should leave in seven minutes," Sakura said to the young man absentmindedly, who was about to make a phone call on her behalf.
"Sure," he replied, "but do we have to be there at a certain time?"
"They said 7:30PM. I should've pushed for later, but that's okay."
Yuzuru's voice was enthusiastic as he made his phone calls, bright and bubbly, and Sakura couldn't help but think that the role of her assistant suited him very well. That meant everyone she knew would love him, which would be a plus for both of them. He would have more friends to hang out with, and she could actually forge a strong bond with the guy instead of worry about him being too afraid of her. She watched him as he wrote down notes on a sticky note and stuck them to the whiteboard beside his desk, his expression anxious.
"Everything okay?" she teased.
"Huh?" he blinked, "Yeah, just trying not to mess up your schedule."
"You're still in your first week. You'll learn."
He scoffed playfully and mostly ignored her for the next few minutes before he clapped his hands to signal that he was done for the day. Sakura nodded and slung her purse over her shoulder and stacked her papers like she always did at the end of the day. They walked towards the exit and punched their work cards out, the sound of the small machine giving Sakura a sense of relief and satisfaction that she didn't quite understand. Yuzuru walked beside her in silence, checking his watch every now and then, but never uttering a word.
"Do you have to be somewhere the night your boss asked you to come out with her the first time?" she joked.
"What?" Yuzuru said, his tone surprised, "No! But I think I have to make a quick run to the drug store."
"Do you want me to wait for you?"
"No," he smiled, waving his hands, "I'll meet you there!"
Without so much as another word, Yuzuru ran off — surprisingly quickly, too — in the direction of the drug store that was in the opposite direction of the bar. Sakura shook her head, sighed, and continued walking towards the Hokage tower. She stuffed her hands in her pockets as she looked at the building before her, remembering when she would run through the building with Naruto, dragging him by the ear to receive orders from Tsunade. She smiled softly at the memory and couldn't help but think about how crazy it was that the person sitting at the Hokage's desk was no longer Tsunade, or Kakashi-sensei, but it was her very own teammate.
The one whose dream she had so badly wanted to protect.
Sakura knew that the both of them had committed countless mistakes that destroyed any chances of them being close again. She had braved through his wedding with a big smile, just as he did hers, and she pretended that she didn't know he was so unconditionally, so irrevocably in love with her for so many years. The reason for that was mainly because right after the war, he started spending a lot of time with Hinata. She was also not an idiot, and could read between the lines well enough to know if someone didn't really want her around. If she thought about it from all angles, she also didn't really make the effort to tell him about her feelings, either.
At the end of the day, both she and Naruto lost.
In regards to being honest with each other, anyway.
The blue banner with the white kanji of Ichiraku came into her view. Lit from the inside with lanterns, the stall was filled with quite a few customers, despite being such a small stall. As she came closer to it, she could hear loud laughter and smiled, happy to know that there were so many people who could safely have fun. Her eyes moved to the banner above the stall and she remembered when it wasn't very well-known, when it was dingy and made deliveries to people that were too lazy or too busy to leave their homes. Through it all, she could see Naruto's warm, smiling face, and she felt a knick in her heart at the image, like she saw something she wasn't supposed to see.
Shaking her head of her reverie, she kept walking, when amongst the dark blue and silver scheme of Ichiraku, she saw a flash of orange move about and duck out of the stall. It moved for only a few seconds, but then it stopped right before her, unmoving. Her feet were glued to the ground and she could see that his were, too.
It was silent for a good five minutes before she cleared her throat, making an attempt to tell him that she needed to get going, without actually saying a word. Thickheaded as he always was, he wasn't budging and kept standing before her, perhaps too afraid to let anything leave his mouth in the form of words. Slowly, Sakura averted her eyes upwards to look at his face, his tired, worn out face, and felt a pang of guilt when he half-smiled at her. It wasn't genuine, like it used to be. The bags around his eyes were deep, proof that he hadn't gotten much sleep in a very long time, and the blue that used to be as deep as the seas were now dull. He opened his mouth.
"Yo," Naruto spoke, his tone apologetic, "it's been a while."