the greatest pretenders @snowyseas
Credence

A/N: I hope everyone is safe under self-quarantine and lockdown. Been dealing with mental health stuff while being at home and trying to stay safe and healthy, and figured you guys might feel better with a chapter. I know it makes things feel normal for me, at least. I realize that this chapter is kind of short compared to the other chapters, but I figured that maybe you guys needed a break from such heavy chapters anyway (even though this is by no means light reading). Until next time, guys. Thank you for reading!


the greatest pretenders

Chapter Twelve: Credence


"I want to meet our daughter."

The dark eyes that she had always put her at his mercy bore into her now, but there was a softness to it she had only seen one other time - at the end of the Fourth Shinobi War. Studying his face, she looked for any sign of the possibility that he was lying, but she found it hard to figure out why he would be lying in the first place. Sasuke did not utter another word, and did not make another sound as he watched her carefully. As she laid down her drink on the counter behind her, she felt a weight lifted off her heart, although she was still somewhat in disbelief.

"You want to meet her?" Sakura said softly.

"I was gone all her life," he replied, "and I just couldn't come home and face you. Which was unworthy of me."

Sakura's eyebrows shot up. "Couldn't face me?"

"In what way did it make sense for me to come back to the mother of my child after I had abandoned her?"

She stared at him, her eyes feeling impossibly wide. "Part of the reason you left was to redeem yourself for Naruto and the village."

"He didn't ask me to."

"That's true, but-"

"I'm sorry I left you." His face softened now as he looked at her, and if this had happened fifteen years ago, she might have run into his arms and held him, and not let him go. There were so many moments in her life that she wished she was that same young woman, but she looked at him now, her anger simmering deep in her chest.

"Why are you only saying sorry now?" she said through her teeth, more because she felt a lump in her throat than because she was trying to control her anger.

Sasuke could read her face even without using his Sharingan, and at her expression, he looked to his feet. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and took a deep breath before lifting his eyes to meet hers again.

"I finally gathered the courage to."

To Sakura, his reply was unexpected. It didn't sound like him - at least, the old him - and it was absolutely throwing her for a loop. She ran through the last fifteen years in her mind and remembered all the times that his absence was deeply felt by her as she was forced to raise their daughter alone. He hadn't been asked to redeem himself, and yet he still went on a journey and left her waiting for him yet again. Over the last few days since she had first seen him, she always felt as though he wasn't really there, almost as though he was a ghost. He stood before her now though, uttering words she had always wanted to hear.

Why was she finding it hard to trust him?

"You were running away from me," she whispered, "saying you were sorry to everyone else but me."

No words left his lips, but he nodded his head ever so slightly, and Sakura thought to herself that it was out of shame.

"Look," she sighed, "I appreciate that you want to meet her, but I don't think it's time yet."

"What do you mean?"

"Her father just up and left her and her mother for all her life. Seeing you might not harbor the reaction that you want, and it could very well end up in sending her straight to therapy," Sakura explained, "so you need to be tactful about this."

"So, what you're saying is-"

"I'm not saying no. Just... I need time before I'm okay with you meeting her."

Sasuke nodded without a beat, which made Sakura think that at the very least, he became a man who could respect her wishes. He was different than how he used to be, and she bitterly realized that all those years away from her was probably what guided him into being the man who could gather the courage to apologize to her. She looked up at him, wondering what to say next.

"I'm assuming she's not here tonight," he said.

"Sleeping at Chouji's."

He furrowed his brow as he looked at her, seemingly wondering about something that he hadn't yet decided if he wanted to voice out loud. Sakura quickly grabbed her glass and placed it in the sink and aimlessly turned on the faucet, washing her hands because suddenly, she didn't know what to do. She waited for him to say something, but it was only when she turned to face him again after wiping her hands on a cloth that he opened his mouth.

"Sakura," he uttered her name softly, "is it okay if I stay here tonight?"

At just his words, she felt her resolve begin to chip away quickly. She didn't know whether she had heard him wrong, since he was perfectly okay with staying elsewhere since he arrived in Konoha. Avoiding looking at him, she shifted her eyes to her feet, feeling weak. Part of her wanted to tell him to get the fuck out, but the other part of her, which was so muddled she could barely make out what she was feeling, seemed to be screaming at her to let him stay. She bit her lip, finding it hard to make a decision, especially since he had said everything she wanted to hear in the last fifteen years. Slowly, she lifted her eyes to meet his, and found that he did not waver as he kept his eyes on her. He took a step closer to her, and whatever resolve she had left was broken as he swept her cheekbone with his thumb. Surging forward, she crashed her lips against his and wrapped her arms around his neck.

She wasn't paying attention except only to the feel of him against her, but before she knew it, she was laying on her back in her bedroom, Sasuke hovering over her, his eyes bright as he looked at her face in the dark, the moonlight coming in through her window. They were both breathing heavily, and as he leaned down to pepper her neck with kisses, there was a twinge in her heart that made her realize that she was shutting down. Even as Sasuke made his way down and slowly peeled away her pants, she felt her heart break, and wanted nothing more than for it to feel full. She knew that he had been away for over a decade, and had missed him despite the fact that she was angry with him for leaving. A younger version of herself would have craved to be touched by him like this, and even when he turned her over so she was on her knees, she merely let her body take over as her heart succumbed to hollowness.

What was I thinking? she thought to herself as she lay on her side, facing the balcony. She pulled the blanket over her, pretending to be asleep. Sasuke had only stayed in bed for a short while after they were done, and when he thought she was asleep, he stood up and put on his clothes and walked out onto the balcony. Silently, she watched and listened to him - listened to his heavy sighs, and watched as he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one after another. Though she did not think it was possible, she felt her heart sink even more than it already did at the sight, thinking that she didn't actually know this man well enough at all. She wondered when he had started smoking, why he started doing it, and whether he would stop if she asked him to. Yet, both times she had asked him to stay with her, he left.

Sakura could find no reason why he would stop a habit for her, if he couldn't even stay with her.

Her tired, dry eyes watched him for as long as they could, but she saw how many cigarettes he smoked. She counted how many times he sighed wearily. She noted how often he looked up at the moon, almost as though asking it for some kind of guidance, the way people went to temples as a signal of new beginnings. Spearmint eyes welled up then, wondering if the two people who were supposed to be husband and wife just couldn't do so anymore. Subtly, she took a deep breath and rolled over to face the other way, deciding that she had seen enough. If he was acting this way when he thought she was asleep, surely it was hard for him to even come back to her and apologize. At the thought, she could not hold back the tears that welled in her eyes, and she buried her face in her pillow, willing them to stop.

It had never been more clear to her that he tried his best to love her. That was what people in committed relationships were supposed to do - find ways to stay committed to the other, and keep finding new reasons to love them, instead of letting love die. Even if it took him fifteen years to realize it, he still came to understand what he had to do, what his duty and responsibility was to her and their daughter. Her thoughts felt like cobwebs in her mind and she was unable to break through them long enough for her to just sleep. Hearing Sasuke close the balcony door, she half-expected him to crawl into bed beside her, but was dismayed when she heard the bedroom door shut behind him as he, once again, left her alone.


Dreams came and left her mind in a haze, that when she finally opened her eyes to the dawn, she wasn't sure if she had slept at all. Her bones were tired, her mind as weary as her limbs. As she sat up in bed, she averted her eyes to the closed door and sighed, knowing that Sasuke hadn't come back inside the bedroom. Gnawing on her bottom lip, Sakura tried not to feel disappointed, knowing that some part of her expected him to take off again. Still it didn't make the void in her chest go away.

There was no one to be angry at or upset with.

Drawing in a deep breath, she made her way to the bathroom and quickly got herself ready. There were a bunch of things that were on her mind that she needed to get done, and it was still so early in the day. Off the top of her head, she knew that she had to draft an official report for the Hokage, which she had to do from her office. She also intended to do more research into the mission - more specifically into utsushõ and Uzushiogakure - to see what other information she could find. She had also promised Sarada that she would allow her to sit in on Yuzuru's training, since it had been a while. Everything was running through her mind aimlessly as she got dressed, and she reminded herself that there was no time to feel pity for herself.

She opened her bedroom door to hear the sounds of plates clinking in the kitchen, figuring that Sarada had gotten home early and didn't want to wake her, but was too hungry and decided to make her own breakfast. Descending the stairs, she put her hair up in a bun as she approached the back door to the kitchen, composing herself so that her daughter would not sense anything was wrong. Plastering a smile on her face, she reached for the knob and opened the door, but what she found there was the last thing she expected to see. She froze, not sure if she was even awake at this point at all.

Sasuke stood before the stove, frying up food in a pan skillfully as he reached for two plates near him. Bewildered, the kunoichi stood and stared at the back of his head, unsure of what to say to him. She took a few steps towards him, knowing that he had heard her come in, but he still didn't utter a word.

"You didn't stay in bed last night," she decided to start, "I thought you left."

"I slept on the sofa."

"Oh."

"Go sit at the table. Breakfast will be done soon."

"Are you staying to eat?" she asked, thinking that Sarada would soon be on her way home.

"No," he answered without turning to look at her, "I remember what you said. I'll leave as soon as I'm done."

Sakura stared at the back of his head, unsure of whether she should start a conversation, or to just leave it be. She mulled it over in her mind for about a minute before she decided to just sit down at the dining table. There was nothing she could think of to talk about. How would you start a conversation with someone you haven't seen in fifteen years, anyway? Her eyes moved to the already-poured orange juice and she reached for a glass, taking a big gulp. Her hands, which were normally perfectly fine not doing anything when need be, felt fidgety and she busied herself by fixing her hair that she had previously decided was good enough. In her pocket, her cell phone vibrated, and she felt relieved when she saw Yuzuru's name on the caller ID.

"Hello!" she said, her voice a singsong.

"Ms. Haruno! Just wanted to check in with you. Are you coming into the office today?"

"Oh, don't worry about it. I'm coming in, but I guess I'm going to be a little late."

"Is everything okay?"

"Yeah," she lied, "just that Sarada still isn't back from the Akimichis', and I wanted to have breakfast with her before she goes off to the Academy today."

"Alright, no problem."

"Did anyone need me this morning?"

"Just that the Hokage dropped by and asked for you."

Sakura winced. "Ah, is this about the report for the mission?"

"No, he didn't say. He didn't seem too bothered though," Yuzuru pondered, "just kind of seemed like he wanted to say hi or something."

They said their farewells on the phone and hung up, a million thoughts running through Sakura's mind. She could picture how she would organize her desk for the day and which documents were most important, and what time she'd have to send them out by. Taking another swig of orange juice, she began to feel overwhelmed at the thought that this was the kind of shit that Lady Tsunade had to deal with. S-ranked missions that demanded one hundred percent of your attention, training an eager apprentice, and constantly having messages in the office that requested your presence at meetings or otherwise.

No wonder she was always fucking gambling and drinking, she thought to herself.

She became so lost in her thoughts that she barely noticed when Sasuke laid a plate full of food in front of her, then set an identical platter next to her. He uttered her name four times before she stirred, her eyes suddenly not so foggy.

"What?" she asked, blinking.

"I better go now," he replied, his expression something she still couldn't read. "Sarada might be on her way back."

Crossing her legs in her seat, Sakura nodded. They didn't utter another word as Sasuke moved to make his way back into the kitchen and out the back door, and she watched his back the way she did for so many years, helplessly following after him. Somehow, in the time that she had been zoned out, he had cleaned the pans that he used to cook their breakfasts and left them to dry on the rack beside the sink. He had worked silently, listening to every slight shift of her body, trying to make up for lost time where he didn't get to see her grow as a ninja and as a woman. Most of all, though, as his wife and as the mother of his child. Everything she had done to protect herself from getting hurt had made sense, even to him. There was no doubt that he fucked up, that he broke her heart, and on a level that no one would expect of him, he knew he had hurt her.

Still, as he turned the knob and stepped out the back door, she said loud enough for him to hear:

"Thank you."

The door clicked behind Sasuke quietly after a few seconds of deliberation, and just as she found herself on many days, Sakura was alone with a platter of food before her. It smelled absolutely delicious, and she wondered idly when and where he had learned cooking. Was it for himself, or was it also for whoever sat with him as he journeyed from one town to the next in the last fifteen years? She picked up a pair of chopsticks and made a cut through the whites of her sunny-side up eggs, her fingers trembling as she did so. Biting her lip had become habit when she felt distressed, but she found that this time, it was more because she was trying to alleviate the heaviness she felt inside her chest. In her thirty-five years of living, she was always told that time would heal all wounds, no matter how deeply they seared into a person.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she shoved the food down her throat, an attempt at stifling the sobs that threatened to erupt from deep inside her.

Though she had intended to wait for Sarada to come home to start eating, she decided it was probably better she ate first. There was something about eating the food that Sasuke made for her that triggered emotions that had been dormant for such a long time. In hindsight, it was incredibly cheesy, and as Sarada might say, absolutely gross. As she grew older, she really shouldn't be fazed by little things like this. She even felt a little bit embarrassed as she washed her plate and laid it on the rack. As she opened the fridge door for more orange juice, she heard her fourteen-year-old daughter call from the door, "I'm home!"

"I'm in the kitchen!" she called back.

Excited steps hit the wooden floor as Sarada made her way to the kitchen, throwing herself into her mother's arms and almost knocking over the carton of orange juice in her hands. Sakura smiled and stroked her hair. "You never hug me when you haven't seen me for a few days, did you do something bad that I should know about?"

"When have I ever gotten in trouble, Mom?" Sarada pulled back and rolled her eyes. "I was just excited for you to come home."

"Because?"

"Because you're my mom?"

"Nice try," Sakura laughed, "what's the real reason?"

"I can't wait to train with you again!" she beamed.

A pink eyebrow was cocked. "So soon?"

"You promised."

"I know I did, but you have a lot going on with school and your own missions, so the training is really only reserved for free time." Sakura noticed that there was a glint in her daughter's eyes that only showed itself when she was determined to do something. "What's the rush?"

"Mom," Sarada said, "when did you take the chūnin exams?"

"I was twelve."

"And I'm fourteen."

"Konoha also had tense relationships with its neighbors, so they needed their shinobis to start younger."

"Okay, but I plan on becoming one in my adult life, which means the choices I make now are going to affect my future, right?"

"Well-"

"We got an announcement from the Academy that they're going to hold chūnin exams again."

Sakura's eyebrows shot up. "Oh, really?"

"I'm so excited, Mom! You have no idea how much me and Chouchou have talked about wishing we could experience it. It just makes you feel like you're progressing forward as a shinobi, you know?"

She nodded and listened intently to her daughter, and even followed her to the dining table to watch her eat her breakfast that was made by her father. It was hard to display enthusiasm when all she felt was fear, her skin covered with goosebumps. Her mind had flashes of the girl that Sai found on the borders of Konoha, and she couldn't help but think to herself that if the Seventh Hokage had reinstated chūnin exams, there must be something wrong. If they were anything like the ones that she had experienced as a child, it was hard to think of an explanation as to why such dire situations were still needed. Children should have childhoods, not be traumatized into thinking that the life of a comrade depended on their skills as a ninja.

It seemed as though problems were piling up after one another.


The commute to her office felt longer than usual. Maybe it was because there were more people perusing the streets than usual, or perhaps it was because her mind had convinced her that it was so. Yuzuru had been making a pot of coffee as she stepped into the office and she threw him a quick hello before retreating to her office.

Her transparent, glass office.

She groaned as she took off her coat and set it on the nearby coat rack that Yuzuru had insisted she get. As soon as she sat down in her chair, Yuzuru came through her door with two mugs of coffee, a bright smile on his face. He placed one before her, then wrapped both his hands around his mug. He seemed to be bouncing on the balls of his feet, almost as though he was expecting her to say something. She cocked an eyebrow.

"Can I help you?" she uttered.

"How was the mission with the great Kakashi?"

She snorted. "Sometimes I forget how much of a nerd you are with this kind of stuff."

"No duh. I wasn't fortunate enough to be trained by him, or Lady Tsunade."

"Well," she sighed, "we got the mission done. That's what's important."

"So what's the next step?"

"That's for the Hokage to decide," she replied as she reached for blank paper in one of her drawers, "and he can only decide once he's had an official report. Which I still have yet to write."

"Yeesh," Yuzuru exclaimed, "you had all last night to start. Were you just too worn out from the mission?"

Sakura gulped as images of Sasuke hovering over her loomed in her mind. "Yeah, especially because it's been awhile since I actually went on a mission like this, even if it was only for intel."

"I could've helped you. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I give you enough work as it is."

They chatted for a few minutes more until Sakura playfully shooed him away, grabbing a pen and quickly writing down the date, along with the first few sentences of her report. It took her awhile to document the information that she obtained from Suiren, considering that it was more than she, Kakashi, or Naruto had anticipated. She wrote of Shin, and made a note in her report that he was someone to look out for, and potentially investigate. Perhaps having the ANBU keep tabs on him would lead them straight to the source of this entire operation, but she wasn't so hopeful at that idea. With S-ranked missions, things hardly worked out the way that they were expected to.

Her hand had guided her to write two pages now, and she wasn't even done. She had noted the condition of the port town between Konoha and Kirigakure, the ease with which she and Kakashi had entered the capital, and before she knew it, she had reached the point in the mission where she had found confirmation that utsushō was, in fact, native to Uzushiogakure. She took a deep breath then, remembering that she had already told Naruto in person that her suspicions were, as she had feared, true. Signing off her report, she heard the beep of her intercom, signifying that Yuzuru was paging her.

She pressed her finger on the button at the base of the machine. "Yes?"

"If you're done with your report, I can go and hand it to Lord Seventh."

"Normally, I'd let you do so, but I think I have something I want to ask him about."

"You gonna ask him something personal?" Sakura could hear the teasing lilt in his voice.

"No, you gossip," she rolled her eyes, "some genuine concerns that I wanted to raise. Some information I heard on a grapevine that I need confirmed."

Yuzuru chuckled, but did not press any further. Grabbing a folder to stick her papers into, Sakura's mind wandered back to that morning, when Sarada had told her about the Academy. She furrowed her brow, an uneasiness settling into her chest. Straightening her clothes, she put her coat back on and took one last sip of the coffee Yuzuru had brought her, which was more warm than hot at this point. As she made her way out of her office, she threw him a quick wave and headed for the elevator, hoping that there weren't too many people. She walked through the lobby and gave courteous smiles and hellos as the automatic sliding doors opened and the cold air bit her cheeks. Her mind was only focused on a few hundred things, and she couldn't decide how to approach each predicament calmly.

It was hard to tell what had made her this way. She didn't know where all her self-confidence had gone.

Eventually, she reached the Hokage Tower and was knocking at the Hokage's door. Shikamaru had answered her, beckoning her to come in. Her eyes rested upon Naruto at his desk, looking through a few scrolls that his advisor was helping him sift through. He hardly noticed that she was standing in the doorway, and she wanted to laugh at his furrowed brow. It was a rare sight.

She cleared her throat. "Am I interrupting?"

At her voice, Naruto looked up, surprised. "No, come in." He set aside the scroll he was reading, motioning for Shikamaru to roll it back up for him to look at later. Standing up from his seat, he began to make his way across the room as Sakura came closer, but she held up a hand, halting him.

"There's no need to come over," she chuckled, "you're the boss and I'm just here to deliver a report."

"I thought maybe you were gonna ask me to go for ramen."

Sakura raised her eyebrows as she handed the folder to Shikamaru. "You haven't had lunch?"

"Would it be presumptuous to assume that you haven't eaten yet, either?" Naruto smirked.

"Well," she laughed, "I came in late today because I was, uh, having breakfast at home."

"Ah," Naruto replied curtly, "I'm assuming you had breakfast in bed."

She cleared her throat. "No. I woke up to the smell of food."

The moment might have been awkward if Naruto had stayed silent, or if he stood before her and shifted his weight from one foot to the other in a desperate attempt to keep the awkwardness at bay. Instead, he laughed - though it sounded forced - and took the folder from her.

"I mean," he started as he gestured to her to follow him into the tea room, "I can always have Ichiraku deliver food if you wanna talk about your report."

"I can answer any questions you may have, obviously. Has Kakashi-sensei handed in his yet?"

"Not yet," Naruto shook his head, "and even when he does, I'll clarify anything that comes up from his report with him. Don't worry about it."

They sat down in the room, Shikamaru joining them by sitting in one of the chairs. He was still going through one of the scrolls that he had been holding when she came in, his brow furrowed. Sakura chuckled.

"If you keep furrowing your brow like that," she said, "you're gonna get lines in your forehead and Temari's gonna get worried."

"She already worries too much about me," he replied without looking up, "so not furrowing my brow isn't gonna make a difference."

Sakura snorted, then looked at the room. It wasn't much different than when Lady Tsunade and Kakashi had been Hokage, but that was just to the naked eye. Since Naruto took office, he had polished all of the previous Kages' photos and hung them up again. He refurbished the furniture, had a console table with a teapot and a few cups. The water dispenser was in the corner of the room, unnoticeable unless you were really looking. When she looked back at him, sitting across from her, he was still reading her report, nodding as though she was the one reading the information to him out loud. She cleared her throat.

"Everything up to code?"

"Seems like it is," he nodded, "but I shouldn't be so surprised. You were always good at makin' these reports."

"Only because Sasuke didn't care, and you always forgot."

They both laughed.

"Shikamaru," Naruto said, "can you do me a favor and ask the front desk to order some ramen from Ichiraku?"

Without a word, and without moving his eyes from the scroll, Shikamaru stood up and left the room, closing the door behind him. It was silent for a few beats, and Naruto was still reading the report. Sakura found herself fidgeting with the sleeve of her coat, mostly because she didn't know whether she should say something, or wait for him to say something. After he finally let out a heavy sigh, she straightened her back and eagerly waited for him to look at her.

"Well," he said, "I'll log this with Shikamaru and assign you when I decide what to do next."

"Wouldn't going to Uzushiogakure be the next step?"

"No," he shook his head, "there are other cases that demand our attention right now, and this is still an S-ranked mission."

"All the more reason to send me."

"Sakura-chan-"

"You can't keep saying that you believe in me, and then rescind that statement every time you're presented with a situation where I have to go somewhere that is only mildly dangerous."

"Okay," he sighed, "first of all, I never knew what it meant when you used that word-"

"Rescind?"

"That one," he chuckled, "and second of all, I have always believed in you. It's all I ever do."

"Then why are you waiting?"

"Because you have to remember that this is a mission that also involves other nations and their cases, too. We still need information from Iwagakure, and there's some towns that our ANBU are stationed in that have yet to report."

"So I'm just supposed to sit on my ass while I wait for shit to hit the ceiling?"

"I didn't say that."

"You don't have to," Sakura rolled her eyes, "but I thought you were going to make things different when you became Hokage."

The man before her cocked a blond eyebrow. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Sarada told me that she got an announcement from the Academy."

At her words, confusion dawned on Naruto's face. "What?"

"You have something you wanna tell me, Naruto?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Sarada told me that there was an announcement that there's a change in the chūnin exams, that they're gonna be conducted the way they were when we were taking it!"

The lively blue eyes that she had come to know so well were now dull as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, sighing. He appeared much older now and did not look at her at first. His thoughts seemed to be running in his mind, and Sakura waited patiently for an explanation. There was a feeling in her bones that what she was going to hear was not going to be what she wanted to hear, but it was hardly the time to allow herself the luxury of being oblivious and ignorant. "Naruto," she whispered, "what's going on?"

The Hokage sighed and closed his eyes briefly before opening them to look at her. There was a ferocity in his eyes that she hadn't seen in a long time, and then her stomach began to sink.

"No one is supposed to know that information."

Spearmint eyes blinked as panic washed over her. "What, like that wasn't something you had made public knowledge yet?"

"No," he shook his head slowly, "because I haven't run it by the other Kages yet."

An eerie silence filled the room as she stared at him in horror. She couldn't begin to form coherent thoughts that would come out in the form of questions - there was just so much going through her head. One of these days, all the panic and anxiety she endured was going to catch up to her. As much as she can convince herself to fight it off, at some point, she would give in. Things in Konoha, and elsewhere, had been running smoothly since the end of the Fourth Shinobi War. Peace had been achieved, and systemic abuse was abolished when the new generation of Kages took the stage. Yet, she sat on the sofa across from the Hokage, not understanding what was happening at all. It was the same way she felt when she found out that Sasuke had, in a way, started the war.

"I thought about it since you told me about the girl that Sai found at the borders," Naruto said slowly, "and it just seems like the children here - no, everywhere - aren't safe. Even if they don't have a kekkei gengkai."

She expelled a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding.

"What are you gonna do?" she whispered. "That seems like a serious breach of security-"

"It is," Naruto admitted, "but I have it under control, I promise."

"People are gonna think you're trying to start another war," she said softly, "and even if the other Kages know that you wouldn't do so… people here will start questioning your authority."

"There's always gonna be at least one person undermining authority," he replied as he stood up, making his way to the teapot, "and what I've learned from everyone before me is that I have to take it in stride."

Sakura moved to hold her head in her hands, sighing as hard as her lungs would let her. "Everything's such a mess," she breathed.

"You don't have to be the one to clean it up," he assured her.

It was true that since Lady Tsunade retired and threw her position into Sakura's lap, things had been challenging. She was assigned an S-ranked mission - the type of mission that she hadn't worked on in years, especially at the caliber that this particular one was. She removed her face from her hands to find that Naruto had placed a cup of tea before her, ready with some milk already poured in. Just the way she liked it. She looked up at him as he sipped on his cup of tea, his eyes exhausted. Remembering the morning that he had bade her farewell before she left with Kakashi, her shoulders slumped at the memory of his admission of how bad the insomnia had gotten. Naturally, Sakura felt sad for him, and if she was being completely honest with herself, she wouldn't let him face adversity alone.

"It may be your job to clean up this kind of stuff," she uttered, "but there's no way in hell I'm letting you do it alone."


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