A/N: Hey guys, enjoy this long update! Second year is going to start for me pretty soon so I just wanted to give you a chapter before I start getting busy again. I just wanted to quickly say that I didn't expect this story to get so much attention from so many different people, and it's quite surreal to me that you all like this so much! I really appreciate everyone who has been reading thus far, and especially those who take the time to tell me what they think! You're all golden, and I hope this story lives up to your expectations and stays with you. All my readers mean the world to me. See you all next time!
the greatest pretenders
Chapter Seven: Tribute
If she were to ask everyone she knew about her sleeping habits, they would generally agree that she was terrible at what most people around here were pretty good at. Most nights, it was beyond impossible for her to fall asleep even when her head hit her pillows, which resulted in her lying awake for hours on end before her body finally gave in. Prior to her husband showing up quite literally at her front door, she only had to worry about her work at the hospital as well as missions that she had been assigned. The last few nights that she spent at home instead of her office had bore to fruition an irrational fear that Sasuke was going to ignore her demands to stay away from Sarada. She never heard the knock on the front door and she never felt his chakra in her presence in the middle of the night, but somehow, she knew he was there. Perhaps, under the guise of protecting her daughter, she was simply waiting for him to betray her. Again.
If she loved him as much as she tried to convince other people she did, knowing he came back for her would have given her comfort. It was in moments like these that she wished to be able to live in ignorant bliss. At least that way, she wouldn't have to worry about whether or not she was happy. She sighed as her ears vaguely picked up on a beeping noise, but her feet stayed where they were. Spearmint eyes regarded the vending machine before her with great consideration, wondering if it made a difference that this was the only choice in her life that she felt she could make without hurting anyone else.
"Ms. Haruno," Yuzuru called out softly, "your hot water is done."
Sakura blinked slowly, turning her head towards her disciple who was sitting at one of the tables in the kitchenette. "What?"
"That beeping… it means it's done."
Without a word, Sakura took three steps towards the kettle - the damn thing that beeped when it was done boiling water - and reached for the cabinet above her and pulled out a mug. Her eyes moved beside the kettle and saw that there was already a matcha packet laid out for her. Nimble fingers reached for the corners and quickly tore it open, dipping the tea bag into the mug and tying the thread around the handle to secure it. The pink-haired woman only lifted her head slightly to now focus on lifting the kettle to pour the boiling water and watched her cup slowly turn a deep green-brown, but what was bothering her was that Yuzuru was not saying anything in this unbearable silence. She cleared her throat in an attempt to get him to say something, but no words came from his lips.
"Everything okay?" Sakura asked quietly as she set down the kettle, pressing her palms to the counter, listening to him shuffle his feet uncomfortably.
"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" he replied, a tinge of awkwardness in his voice. "You've barely said anything these last few days."
Finally, she turned around to look at him, but she had no real desire to answer his question. Instead, she bit her lip and furrowed her brow, her eyes lighting up with the realization that she wanted a little bit of brown sugar in her tea. She cleared her throat and with one hand, opened the drawer directly behind her and pulled out the sugar packs as well as a spoon. Without uttering a single word, she turned back around to face her steaming cup of tea and poured in the sugar, stirring with the spoon in earnest. She had never been good at the patience game, but the fact that Yuzuru had still not said anything was almost commendable. Hesitating, she drew in a deep breath and spoke. "I'm fine. Just tired."
"What about your… uh-"
"My husband?" Sakura finished the thought for him, turning around to finally look him in the eye and see that he was genuinely and absolutely worried about her. "He seems to be doing fine."
Yuzuru blinked. "Seems? Is he not staying with you?"
"We're working it out," the shishou waved her hand dismissively, "but it's fine. Everything is fine."
The biggest suffering that Sakura had to endure was loving Uchiha Sasuke. Even when he had tried to kill her on multiple, separate accounts, she had chosen to keep loving the parts of him that she convinced herself were there, shrouded in a darkness he needed help to get out of. They had exchanged their vows and she had accepted that she had a duty as a wife, just as he did as a husband. There was something nagging at her that she had hoped would go away in the fourteen years that he had been gone, but it came back just as suddenly as he did. To her, and to everyone else with common sense, something was missing.
It had been about a minute before Sakura realized that she had merely been staring at Yuzuru, who was now very visibly uncomfortable. She offered him an encouraging smile. "Are you ready to start training?"
"Are you sure you want to do this today?" he sputtered. "You don't really seem like yourself."
"It's just the basics, Yuzuru," Sakura replied, "since this requires a chakra control that's different than taijutsu. It's better to get a head start."
"There's no but. We're starting today."
Yuzuru winced at the hard way she enunciated her words, but he nodded, nonetheless. Quickly shuffling his way over to the water dispenser, he poured himself a cup of water and downed it like he was downing a shot. Curiously, Sakura raised her eyebrow but didn't say a word as she watched him nervously try to calm down. When he accidentally made eye contact with her, she offered a smile, as genuinely as she could. When his shoulders visibly relaxed before her eyes, it dawned on her that he wasn't nervous about training, but that he was genuinely worried about her demeanor that was so different than it usually was.
"You know," she started slowly, "I'm not pressuring you."
"Oh," he breathed, "I… I see."
"I don't want you to think that I'm being forceful or anything. I just really believe that you're ready to start learning."
"Shishou," Yuzuru whispered, "I've been wanting to be like you for years. I'm so grateful you want to teach me."
"But I have to wonder if you really are okay. You're not just a shishou to me, you're someone that I care about, too." Brown eyes filled with fervor pierced through Sakura as he showcased his resolve. The pink-haired woman gulped, thinking that there was something incredibly familiar about the way he looked at her, but Yuzuru did not tear his eyes away. "You're trying to distract yourself, so I'm worried that you're not teaching me to the best of your ability."
At his proposition that she might be unable to impart her wisdom effectively to him on this particular day, Sakura cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. She wasn't angry, to say the least, but she was a little annoyed that he would insinuate something that was so unlike her in the first place. A deep breath was drawn through her lips and she settled her gaze on him steadily. "Whatever may be happening in my personal life, I take learning very seriously. When you asked me to train you, I had every intention of carrying it out. You don't have to worry, but don't you dare tell me that I am in no condition to teach you right now." The words had practically left her in a growl, but she clenched her teeth in order to keep that ferocious expression on her face. Yuzuru softened and his shoulders slumped just the slightest bit.
The young man raised a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose - surely a habit he picked up from her - and took a deep breath. "You're right," he uttered sheepishly, "I don't know what I was thinking. I'm sorry, it won't happen again."
If Sakura had been in his place while she was training under Tsunade - which had happened many times before - she would have been reprimanded heavily. Though she loved her own shishou, she recognized that their methods were different. There were some things that she borrowed from The Slug Princess, but her explosive anger was not going to be one of them. At least, not all the time. Sakura let out a harsh exhale and regarded her disciple with consideration. Finally, she set down her mug in the sink behind her and straightened her back.
"I'm heading to Tenten's shop," she said, her tone a tinge diplomatic, "I want you to join me there when you're ready." A beat after she started to walk away from him, she turned around again. "Don't take too long. We don't have all day."
Sakura had left him slack-jawed, and so clearly confused. Her heels clacked against the linoleum while she made her way through the hospital towards the exit. The nurses that she passed on her way out had bowed to her and bade her good morning, and she answered in earnest with curt nods and polite smiles. With her autumn jacket still on from when she came into the hospital earlier that morning, she pulled it tighter around her as the automatic doors at the exit opened and a gust of cold air bit her cheeks.
She couldn't stand the cold.
Stuffing her hands into her pocket, she made the somewhat long journey towards Tenten's weaponry and smiled at the bright-eyed, brown-haired woman who spotted her almost as soon as she came into view. Approaching closer, Sakura noted that Tenten had disappeared into her shop before coming out again with a cup of something that was hot. She would've laughed if it wasn't so damn cold, but she opted for focusing on the steaming cup of tea that she knew her old classmate had prepared for her. When she finally set foot on the premises, Tenten ushered her inside the shop which had, much to Sakura's surprise, had installed a new automatic door with a touchpad on it.
"That's sssavvy," she shivered, "i-is it n-new?"
"Why don't you ask questions once you've had a sip?"
Tenten pressed her fingers to the touchpad and the door opened to reveal her now upgraded shop with some extra scrolls and a few extraordinary kunais and knives that were now for sale. Sakura eyed the shelving of her shop and had to admit that she was incredibly impressed with how well business was going. Tenten had cleared her throat and when Sakura turned her head to look at her, she saw the hot cup of tea in her classmate's hands instead. She smiled sheepishly. "S-sorry," she said, "d-didn't want t-to be a b-bother. P-plus, I've… al-already-"
"You're shivering. Don't be ridiculous."
The freshly boiled tea burned the tip of her tongue, but Sakura merely winced as she slowly sipped her way through to the end of the cup. Tenten was standing at one of her display counters and was examining some kind of metal, barely saying a word, which if Sakura remembered correctly, wasn't exactly like the old Tenten at all. Still holding her cup, she quickly shimmied out of her jacket and left it on her seat as she stood up and walked over to a particular set of scrolls in the back.
The space that was shown to the public was a somewhat small one, but Sakura knew that Tenten had a back room where she did all her repairs for her customers and all her records were back there. She hummed as she moved throughout the shop, admiring the work that her classmate had put into fixing things up and running one of the best weaponries throughout Konoha, and even throughout the Land of Fire. Her wide eyes had focused on a set of peculiar looking kunais that had writing carved into them, set in an open box that was seemingly on display, but they appeared to be waiting for someone to pick them up. Sakura furrowed her brow, trying to read the inscriptions when Tenten spoke up, interrupting her thoughts.
"Those belonged to the Fourth."
"What?" Sakura asked in surprise. "These? They're so unique."
"That's because they are." The brown-haired woman replied, finally looking up. "Apparently, those kunais are how he became known as The Yellow Flash."
Spearmint eyes widened. "Really? How?"
"The inscriptions on those kunai were fūinjutsu."
"I know," Tenten laughed, "it's pretty intense. You should ask The Seventh about it."
"Naruto?" Sakura said incredulously. "He's the one that told you this?"
"Sent them here to be polished," she shrugged, "said he had a few others that belonged to him but wanted to get these ones done first."
"The Fourth, huh." Sakura whispered to herself, her eyes running over the unique curve of the blades and the inscriptions engraved into them. It was inconceivable to think that Tenten didn't know that the Fourth Hokage was Naruto's father, but Sakura wasn't about to blabber it out loud just in case she really didn't know. She remembered the easy smile that Namikaze Minato had worn during the war when he laid eyes upon his son, but she also remembered the off-handed girlfriend comment that he made right in front of her. Her cheeks tinged pink at the memory, wondering if that's what it really looked like.
The gleam of the metal made her fingers itch to touch them, merely because she wanted to know if they felt the same as regular kunais, but as soon as she raised her hand, she heard the automatic door slide open. Moving her head to see who it was, she felt her heart thump when a mess of blond hair was in her line of vision, whose dark jacket seemed to be way too thin for him.
"Lord Seventh," Tenten admonished, "it's getting colder outside. You gotta stop wearing that one, Hinata asked me to warn you since you obviously don't listen to her."
"She worries too much," Naruto said casually, "and you don't have to call me that."
"Don't get smart."
The atmosphere in the front part of the weaponry had grown tense when blue eyes settled on Sakura, who swore that her legs were suddenly threatening to give out beneath her. His lips spread into a small smile as he took a few steps towards her and the pink-haired woman was suddenly aware of the fact that she was still standing in front of the box that displayed the Fourth Hokage's unique kunais. Although she hadn't said a word, she offered him a smile before his eyes moved to the box on the counter and his blue eyes dulled a little. "Oh." He obviously meant for more to come out, but his lips just weren't working.
Sakura closed her eyes and willed whatever she was just thinking about his lips to go away, and opened her eyes again to find that Naruto had picked up one of the kunais and was turning it around in his hands. He glanced at her and gave another smile. "What're you doing here?"
"Waiting for Yuzuru."
"You're waiting for him at a weaponry?"
She laughed nervously. "It's for, uh. Some training."
"Oh, right," Naruto said, coming to a realization, "this place was that market that Granny used to own, right?"
"She didn't own it," she corrected him, "but she knew the people that gave her access to the basement."
Naruto snorted. "Access to the basement, huh?"
"Shut up," Sakura laughed, "I was actually trained here. I just thought I'd use the same space for Yuzuru. Hope that's okay, Tenten." The pink-haired woman called out to her classmate, who merely waved her hand in agreement as she continued examining the metal she had been looking at. "Clearly, I'm very welcome here," she joked.
"Training, huh?" Naruto inquired. "Medical?"
"Of course. Can't train him in Lady Tsunade's freakish chakra-filled punches in a basement, after all."
"That's right," the blond laughed, "you'd need a whole damn forest."
They both chuckled at the memory of Sakura's body being flailed about in the early stages of her training. Naruto hadn't been there at the time, of course, but whenever they met up and she still had bruises on her skin, she had no choice but to tell him about her intense training regimens. In the time of their youth, Naruto surprisingly had a strong belief in ointments and balms that he only obtained once she started training, which was ironic because he never seemed to use them himself. It was almost as if he only got them in case she got hurt, but that was a thought she didn't touch on in fear that he would be able to read it on her face. She cleared her throat and looked pointedly at the blade in his large hands. "Those kunai are unique."
Naruto glanced behind him only to find that Tenten was already on the phone and was speaking with what sounded like a customer that didn't reside in Konoha. He smirked as he turned back around to her, his eyes soft. "They were my dad's."
"So I've been told."
"Tenten knows he's my dad?"
"No, no," Sakura shook her head, "just that they belonged to The Yellow Flash, but I didn't know you were using his technique."
"I got my mom's last name," he uttered, "so it only seemed fair that I got his secret technique, right?"
His fingers brushed the hilt and without thinking, Sakura held out her hands and looked up at him, eyes filled with the kind of curiosity that always showed itself when she was just learning to become an iryō ninja. Wordlessly, blue eyes looked up at her and regarded her with a softness before Naruto gently placed the dagger in her hands.
"Feels light," Sakura noted surprisingly, "but I guess that makes sense if he used it for Hiraishin."
"Ero-sennin told me that he developed it on his own," he chuckled, "so he really was kinda like a prodigy."
Lithe fingers skimmed the inscriptions that indicated a seal that, as though just by touching it, Sakura would understand the craft more. Before she could open her mouth to ask him, Naruto's index finger pointed to an engraving at the bottom end of the hilt and spoke in hushed tones. "My mom taught him this." His foot took one step closer to her and Sakura quietly breathed in the peppermint scent that came off him, vaguely wondering if it came from his old hobby of gardening. Her breath hitched in her throat when she looked up at him and she found that he wasn't looking at the kunai, but rather, directly at her.
"She… she did?" she croaked. "That's… she must have…. Loved him a lot."
"She did," he breathed, "but he also wanted to learn it."
"He told me," the blond whispered, his eyes studying her face, "that he wanted to protect her, since she was…"
"A Jinchuuriki," Sakura finished, "right."
In the past, she had always worried about his well-being, and was always able to instantly tell when something was wrong: if he was too quiet, too rigid, too harsh - she would know that something was bothering him. During a time that she was still allowed to, she comforted him and he had opened up to her, and soon enough, even before he was able to react to something that upset him, Sakura would already be there, waiting for him to confide in her. Now, as she looked into his eyes, there was a softness she had not seen in years, one that she recognized as having been only for her, or at least, she wished it had been. As she opened her mouth to say something, she saw his eyes dart to her lips before he licked his own.
Her skin pricked with goosebumps at the gesture, and she let out a soft exhale in order to collect herself. She cleared her throat and looked back down at the kunai, breaking the reverie that they both were just in. "It's…. It's beautiful." When her eyes fell upon the hilt, a small gust of disappointment hit her when she saw that Naruto drew his hand away.
"Yeah," he cleared his throat, "I-I'm glad you think so, too."
She knew she shouldn't. In fact, every single thought that entered her head was warning her that they were both married, and a love that she had buried fifteen years ago was not going to resurface just because he was looking at her… the way he did. As though reading her mind, Naruto gave her a sympathetic smile and took a step back, gently taking the kunai from her hands and placing it back inside the box on the counter. They chuckled awkwardly as they looked at each other, wondering what was appropriate enough to say out loud, but thankfully, it was short lived when they heard Tenten call out Sakura's name.
"Someone's here for you," she said, her expression neutral, "I think it's your student."
"Oh," she breathed, "right." She waved a hand, signaling him to come inside. He put up his hood from his coat and his teeth appeared to be chattering, but as soon as he entered the door, his features visibly softened as the warmth of the shop washed over his skin.
Upon seeing Tenten at the counter, he bowed politely and rubbed his hands together before blowing on them in an attempt to warm them up. He sighed as he took off his coat and laid it on the seat next to his shishou's, but when he looked at her - and saw that she was standing dangerously close to the Seventh Hokage - his brown eyes widened by a fraction. Not enough for someone who didn't know him to notice, but Sakura definitely noticed. He looked as though he was a stray dog who had been caught rummaging through the trash bins for food. Naruto, ever the man who never knew the meaning of embarrassment, now stood before her with slightly reddened cheeks as he took a few more steps backwards, covering his blush with his signature wide smile.
"Yuzuru!" He exclaimed. "Sakura-chan's been waiting for you."
"Right," the younger man said slowly, "um. In the weaponry? Is there something here?"
"Yes," Sakura chimed in, "this is Tenten's weaponry, but it used to be a market with a basement."
"A basement?" Yuzuru queried. "For what, exactly?"
"Lady Tsunade used to train me here," the pink-haired woman replied as she took a step towards her disciple, "and I thought that maybe you starting to learn here would be good for you. It has everything we need."
Spearmint eyes rolled. "Yes. A weaponry. You'd think that you'd be weirded out knowing that it used to be a market."
"Well, no, because markets had herbs that would be used for this."
Both blue and spearmint eyes stared at him, then glanced at each other, realizing that he was right. What Tsunade had thought was a good front for hiding her private chambers was actually a terrible disguise for those that knew what they were looking for. No one probably thought to advise her because she was a formidable kunoichi and therefore knew what she was doing, or because she was terrifying and no one had been brave enough to tell her to discard the idea. Naruto's laughter burst out of him, which caught Tenten's attention before she started smirking to herself, too.
"I… Okay, you're right," Sakura admitted, "but now it's not obvious, right?"
"No… I guess not."
The pink-haired woman clapped her hands together as though finally satisfied. From the corner of her eye, she saw Tenten signal her to access the secret basement that was once Tsunade's private chambers. Beginning to walk towards the back room where she knew there was a seal that her shishou still had intact, she was abruptly stopped by a hand that tugged at her wrist. When she turned to face the man she once thought of as her best friend, she raised her eyebrows at him in curiosity.
"Something you need?" She asked casually, as though she hadn't just been vaguely thinking about his lips.
"You mind if I sit in on his training?"
The woman blinked. "You wanna watch? Why?"
Wide, broad shoulders shrugged. "I've always wondered what iryōninjutsu training looked like." He only paused for a beat before he gave her a hesitant smile and his hand rubbed the back of his neck. "You always made it look easy, but I know it wasn't…. So I want to see."
Yuzuru cleared his throat but when Sakura glanced at him, he merely stood in his spot with his feet glued to the floor, and his eyes were looking at anywhere but them. Her disciple's demeanor towards the Seventh was a completely different one when compared to Sasuke, though it seemed that the reason was obvious, in that Naruto was the Hokage, and Sasuke was - well, merely her husband. She could have snorted at the thought, but Naruto's eyes were now set on her, a hopefulness touching the vibrant blue. A small smile spread across her lips.
"Looks like you have an audience, Yuzuru."
There was a reason that iryōninjutsu was not for everyone to learn.
In the world as they knew it, there were many different forms and arts for shinobi to learn and master, and each one came with a different set of tactics and techniques that eventually helped a person to become stronger. Within each category, there were techniques that were forbidden and deemed illegal in certain lands, while there were others that were safer to practice. For iryōninjutsu, it required the user to be almost expert in controlling his or her chakra. Most shinobi learned as they grew older, forming different hand seals and channeling different chakra reserves through their bodies when they fought against rival shinobi.
Of course, this was not always the case for iryōninjutsu. Sakura remembered a time that she thought her chakra control was adequate for a young girl of thirteen, but after the countless hours where beads of sweat gathered at her forehead as she worked hard to perfect techniques that were considered the simplest, she had realized she was wrong. Watching her own disciple now as he faced the big sealing scroll before him, with the now injured fish on it, she had to smile. Before her eyes was the spitting image of her when she had been training under Tsunade, though with a few details changed. Stepping forward, she encouraged Yuzuru to watch as she hovered her hands over the creature and expended chakra that came out green instead of blue. The young man's eyes stayed wide and focused, though she could tell he was more than a little confused.
"Do you understand why this is the first step?" She asked.
"To see what the problem is?" He replied earnestly.
"Right," she nodded, "but the reason that we have to see what the problem is, is because normal chakra reserves come out blue. When you use regular chakra on another person, it could be harmful to them, which is why you have to take your regular chakra reserves," she demonstrated as her hands hovered closer to the fish, "and control it in a different way. When you do this, you're able to look at who, or in this case, what exactly you're healing."
"So this first step is basically assessing the situation?"
"Yes, and no." The glowing green from her hands dulled as she directed her focus to answer her disciple's question. "Assessing the situation in a normal context would be looking around to see if there are any external dangers to both you and the patient." Slowly, Sakura moved her hands closer again, the familiar green glow lighting up, and Yuzuru's eyes watched as the fish's tail twitched. "But in this case, you are also checking the condition of the patient, and you can only do so by controlling your chakra like this," she said pointedly, "before you start to use this very same chakra to begin healing them."
"So…" Yuzuru mulled, "that means when you're checking the condition, you're doing it to see what the best course of action is?"
"To see what level of healing is best?"
"Easy?" Sakura laughed. "In theory, sure. But like I told you, chakra control isn't easy. Especially when you're using it in this context."
The young man drew in a deep breath through his nose and closed his eyes, mentally and physically preparing himself for the exertion that was required of an iryōnin. When his brown eyes shot open again, Sakura recognized the determination and fear that pooled in them, a sensation that she understood extremely well. He took steps closer to the animal that laid on the table on an opened scroll and tentatively hovered his shaking hands over it, inhaling a sharp breath. The pink-haired woman, who had taken a step back to give him space, watched cautiously as his trembling hands produced the familiar green glow and finally stabilizing as his jaw tightened and he focused better.
Of course, it wasn't that easy.
Yuzuru's hands quickly slipped into blue chakra before they fizzed out and he would grunt in frustration before trying yet again, the steady green glow flickering. In an attempt to let him find his way, Sakura had moved to one of the many shelves that had countless scrolls on medicine and poison antidotes. Each time she heard her disciple vent out his frustration and anger, she hardened her resolve to make him as great as Tsunade had made her. As she watched his determination take form, her eyes continued to read through her shishou's scrolls when out of the corner of her eye, she caught Naruto take a few steps closer to the action before him. She whipped her head around and had failed to notice that Yuzuru was heaving and had rested his hands on the table in attempt to steady himself.
"Yuzuru!" She exclaimed, her feet immediately moving towards him as he stumbled, but Naruto was the person who caught him first.
"Take it slow," Naruto uttered to him, "don't push yourself."
Sakura watched as Naruto wrapped his arm around Yuzuru's waist and dragged him to the one sofa that she remembered as being the place she had passed out in while she was training. Hastily, she grabbed a cloth from one of the shelves without scrolls and soaked it in the pond before the training table and squeezed it before making her way to her disciple whose sweat was gathering at his forehead. Naruto's large hand pushed back his hair and Sakura's nimble fingers neatly placed the wet cloth over the exposed skin. Yuzuru sighed and his eyes fluttered shut, but there was a hint of a smile at the corner of his lips.
"Why are you smiling?" Sakura asked, her voice strained. "Now isn't the time to be smiling."
"I'm happy," he answered in earnest, "because I finally feel like I'm getting somewhere."
Naruto used a hand to cover his own smile.
"Yuzuru," Sakura sighed, her tone scolding, "that's not how this works. You have to be careful. I literally just told you that twenty minutes ago."
"Does he need to stop for today?" Naruto asked curiously. "He only just started."
"No," she shook her head, "he just needs a couple minutes. Chakra control is no joke, after all."
The two of them didn't say a word as Yuzur's eyes fluttered shut in exhaustion. Gently, Naruto lifted his head and carefully placed him on the sofa before standing up and stretching. As though something on one of the shelves caught his interest, he began to quietly drudge over and pulled a book and skimmed the title before his eyebrows were raised in curiosity. Sakura watched, waiting for some kind of reaction from him, when her eyes fell upon the title that read 'Tome of Fūinjutsu: Volume I'. Involuntarily, the corners of her lips curved into a small frown.
"I didn't know this was here," he whispered in her direction, "I actually thought it was kind of a lost art."
"Not really." Sakura shrugged. "Lady Tsunade kept a lot of records since her grandmother was an Uzumaki."
Blue eyes moved to study her face carefully. "Right," he nodded, "I forgot you knew that."
Slowly lifting herself off the sofa, Sakura made her way to where he stood and eyed another book that she knew Tsunade had taken a great interest in when she was younger. She read the title a few times and stole a glance at Naruto, whose brow was furrowed as he read through the book he held. The corners of Sakura's lips lifted in a smirk at the familiarity of the simple action and cleared her throat quietly. She took a deep breath, but did not meet his eyes as she spoke. "Do you know anything about Uzushiogakure?"
"Nah," he replied without a beat, "just that my mom's from there."
"Did you ever want to see it someday?"
Naruto paused before he slowly closed the tome and put it back on its shelf. She could feel his blue eyes on her, but still she held her ground and did not turn to look at him. He sighed. "Are you trying to go there - or what's left of it - so you can do more research?"
She winced even though it was only fifty-percent true. "No, I just wanted to understand you better."
"What?" He chuckled. "You've understood me for such a long time. Why does this matter?"
Perhaps she lost her nerve in trying to fool him, or perhaps the small increment of time in which she didn't answer his question was a factor in him realizing that he understood her just as well as she understood him. "Sakura-chan, no."
"I can't do anything from here-"
"It's destroyed. There's nothing there!"
"Except a port town that houses a bunch of criminals from before the war!"
"That's all the more reason for you not to go!"
"Oh, come on, Naruto," she hissed, "it'll help us in the long run."
"I'm not givin' the okay on this." He lifted a hand to rub the back of his neck and huffed. "Not now, anyway. There's too much we don't know yet. Just because you found a connection with fūinjutsu doesn't mean that that's where our target is."
"You know better than to say that."
"I do, but I'm not sendin' you there when I don't know anything."
She let out a harsh breath. "What happened to you? You used to jump headfirst into everything."
"I have more to lose now."
As soon as the words left his lips, he turned to look at her as though they were by accident. The vibrant blue of his eyes that she had come to fall in love with shone with a kind of regret, a kind of remorse that reached far beneath the surfaces of what she could reach. She scoffed, her heart feeling the cutting slice of his words. Tightening her jaw as she turned to face him head on, she felt as though she was looking at a man that had, in some ways, not changed at all. "You always had something to lose," she uttered, "but that never stopped you from taking risks."
"Things are just different now."
"Like," he exasperated, "I can't go with you, so if something happens to you, that's on me!"
"As Hokage," she started, "you very well know the risks that pose your shinobi-"
"I'm not talking about as Hokage."
Sakura blinked as she processed his words. "What? What're you-"
The sound of Yuzuru coming to on the sofa interrupted the question that was now burning at the tip of her tongue. In a haste, Sakura made her way to where he was beginning to sit up and he pinched the bridge of his nose. The cloth that she had placed on his forehead was now stuck there, and Naruto couldn't help letting out a laugh at the sight. Sakura, who hadn't heard him laugh like that in years, let out a small chuckle and peeled it off his forehead and slapped him on his shoulder, making him jump. "What just happened?" Yuzuru said with wide eyes.
"You were pushing yourself too much." Naruto replied. "So you passed out."
"You're kidding," Yuzuru said, looking to his shishou for confirmation.
"Unfortunately, he's right."
"Well, that's embarrassing."
"Don't worry about it," the blond waved his hand, "you're doing great."
"Well," Sakura vaguely protested in a high-pitched voice, "he's not entirely right, but you are trying your best."
"And I passed out for it." Yuzuru deadpanned.
"No one gets it right on the first try," she reassured him, "believe me."
"I'm uh. Feeling a little overwhelmed."
Yuzuru placed his hands on his legs and stood up, pacing around the space around the sofa, looking at anywhere except at Sakura. She could see the quickly growing panic in his eyes and the way his mouth was set in a frown. Throwing a quick glance at Naruto and seeing him nod as he took a step back, she took a deep breath and stood up to face her disciple.
"You know," she said slowly, "it's normal to get carried away."
"I can't get carried away when I'm trying to heal someone else - or even myself." Yuzuru sputtered. "What if someone really needs me and I pass out - or worse - because I got carried away?"
"That won't happen."
"How can you be so sure?" He said, his voice tinged with a venom she's never heard before. "You never had to endure this."
"Yuzuru." She practically gritted his name through her teeth to get his attention, and when it worked, she tightened her jaw. "You are freaking out, and that's fine. This is a big step that you're taking today, and it's okay to feel a little vulnerable."
"Let me finish." Sakura tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear and crossed her arms, trying to project the energy that Tsunade had always shown to her: strong, confident, formidable. "It won't always feel like this. You'll learn the more you keep at it."
"I don't know if I can keep... doing this. Today."
"You can," she reassured him, "because the first step is always scary. But once you get past that fear and focus on what you're capable of right now," she took his hand and led him to the table where she had trained all those years ago, "then you'll know that speed is not what's important here."
"It's… not?" Yuzuru asked slowly.
"Whatever gave you the impression that it is, is obviously wrong." Sakura gently placed his hands so they hovered over the fish on the opened scroll. "Take three deep breaths and just focus on what's before you."
Yuzuru straightened his back and did as she said before the familiar green glow came from his hands, fluctuating, but not as much as it did before. She looked to his expression, which had gone from panicked to a slow determination, indicating that he had found his bearings. His slender fingers twitched as he worked to stay focused on the task at hand, and treating that as her cue, Sakura took a step back and watched expectantly as Yuzuru continued to keep trying, just as he did before.
Glancing towards the back of the room, she noticed the tall, broad-shouldered figure of the Seventh Hokage watching her, his cerulean eyes lit with admiration. She let her eyes stay glued to his face before they ran down to the shape of his mouth that was now curved into a smirk. Dragging back her eyes up to his, she felt her cheeks redden and in an attempt to will away the rush of the unnamed emotion that made her heart thump, she crossed her arms and looked away.
Still, not every part of her body listened to her. Least of all the sweet, small smile that pulled at her lips that the Seventh Hokage definitely saw.
"Are you sure you don't want me to walk you home?" Sakura asked, a worried expression on her face. "You pushed yourself a lot today, and you're tired, so I think-"
"Nah," Yuzuru grinned, his spirits much higher than they were before, "what kind of student would I be if I made my shishou send me home? I can still walk."
"Well, what kind of teacher would I be if I didn't look after my students?"
"Seriously, Ms. Haruno, it's fine. My place isn't far from here anyway."
"But are you sure?"
A warm laugh came from the young man, who then looked at her in amusement. "Yeah, I'm sure. It's getting late, anyway. I'm sure Sarada-chan is waiting for you."
Before she could say another word, Yuzuru raised his hand to wave her goodbye with a huge smile on his face. Sakura watched as he walked away, seemingly quicker than his usual pace. He hadn't achieved that much in the hours that he spent crouched over the table, and when he had looked as though his energy was depleted, Sakura was quick to make sure he wasn't going to pass out again. Still, she was impressed at how quickly he learned to take her advice to take the training slowly. She sighed, turning to the man that stood behind her.
"He can be so stubborn," she admonished, "I don't even know what to do with him sometimes."
"Sounds familiar," Naruto chuckled, "but I'm sure he just doesn't wanna burden you."
"That's not possible. He's kind of my responsibility during the day."
"He'll be fine," the blond reassured, "he's probably just excited that he's finally getting stronger."
Sakura snorted. "Speaking of which, I've been wondering why you didn't leave to go back to the office. You know Shikamaru's gonna kill you tomorrow."
"I had a clone watch over things. It's hard staying up there all the time, even when I do love my job."
"And the Hokage's advisor is okay with this?"
"He's the one who suggested it."
They began walking in silence back towards the center of Konoha, where they knew all the shops were still open and bustling with customers. Occasionally, he would make sure his gait was slow enough as he strode beside her, their arms brushing every now and again, making her wonder how on earth they were standing so close. Any time her thoughts began to turn slightly inappropriate, she thanked the gods that everyone knew they were teammates in a different time, and would never think to question how comfortable they were around each other. Of course, not many knew of the fifteen-year hiatus that she had taken from him, but they didn't need to know that.
"Can I ask you something?" Naruto said, his voice low. "Is everything okay with Sasuke?"
The knick she felt in her heart was more than enough to have reality come crashing down on her. "What do you mean?"
"Has Sarada-chan met him yet?"
"I don't want her to freak out," Sakura sighed as the bright lights marking the end of autumn came into their view, "and I just want to prepare her first."
"There's no way to prepare someone for that kind of thing."
"I just… need time."
Naruto shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other as he came to a halt, making Sakura turn to look at him in concern. He cleared his throat. "She spent pretty much her whole life wanting to meet him. Why are you putting it off?"
"Do you really think she's ready for the emotional intensity of meeting the man who abandoned her?" Sakura said softly, her voice quivering. Whether it was due to the cold, or due to the fact that she was trying to keep it together, she had no idea. "He just comes back like it's nothing, spewing crap about wanting to be a family, that he came back for me or… whatever." Naruto's eyes had widened by a fraction at the obvious detail that she hadn't yet disclosed to him. She huffed, readying herself to justify herself further, but Naruto gave her a sympathetic smile.
"He's still her dad," he whispered, "and even if you think she's not ready, that's not really up to you. It's between her and him."
"Sakura-chan," he reassured, "you did your job as her mom. You have nothing to worry about."
Her eyes studied his face for any sign of him lying, but nothing betrayed him. She looked down at their feet for a few moments, collecting her paranoid thoughts, and finally, looked up at him with resolve. When she nodded and wordlessly agreed with him, he placed both his hands on her shoulders and looked her dead in the eye. "It's going to be okay," he whispered. Sakura cocked her head to the side and looked away, suddenly feeling embarrassed that all the times she had tried hiding how she felt from everyone else was undone in a few mere moments by the man she had once called her best friend.
"You're right," she said finally, "I'll think about it."
When Naruto gave her another smile, she thought back to the moment in Tsunade's private chambers. Her head mulled over their conversation a few times as they continued walking into town until they were in plain sight of the civilians who waved at them and bowed in respect. She nodded at them politely and Naruto waved back jovially. She knitted her brow and worked up the courage to listen to an answer that hadn't even left his lips yet.
"Hey," she said, and he looked at her curiously, "back in Lady Tsunade's chambers… about…. You know, taking risks?"
"What did you mean when you said it would be your fault if something happened to me…?"
At her words, Naruto turned to look at her, an unreadable emotion in his eyes. He clenched his jaw and Sakura could see that there was a process of thoughts that was going through his head, perhaps the very same one that had gone through hers before she even asked the question. As though it was a nervous tick, he stuck his hands in his jacket pockets, and she was convinced that she was hallucinating when she saw a sadness light his eyes. "You mean if I let you go to Uzushiogakure?"
"Listen," he said, "I know you're capable of a lot of things. I believe in you, but it used to just be you and me as part of Team Seven and sending you off alone just doesn't sit right."
"Well, for the reasons I said."
"You said you wouldn't be taking responsibility as Hokage."
As they passed a few stalls that called for their attention, he didn't answer at first. His eyes kept darting to the foods that were on sale, and suddenly, Sakura saw that he was hesitating in answering her. Patiently, she walked with him through town and watched the way his face seemed to twitch and soften as he mulled over his answer. Naruto had never been one to doubt her, but for the first time since she knew him, she felt as though he was about to break that streak. As she opened her mouth to tell him to forget it, Naruto sighed and looked at her, then gestured to a nearby bench for them to sit down. The wood felt cold underneath her, but she stifled her shivers as she looked at him, preparing herself for the worst.
"Okay," he started, "you're right. You would be completely fine if I let you go." His cerulean eyes pierced through her with something close to ferocity, but he didn't waver. "But I don't wanna let you go alone."
"Right, because of the risks that you apparently don't want to divulge to me properly."
"No," he shook his head, "that's not it."
"Then what is it?"
"What if something happened to you?"
"So you're worried I can't protect myself."
"That's not what I'm saying."
"You're sure finding a lot of words to say 'I don't believe in you, Sakura-chan'." She hissed. "You might as well just say the actual words."
"Sarada already has a dad who left her," he countered, "what if she lost her mom who I swore I would protect?"
"No one told you to protect me!" She exclaimed, exasperated. "You're just looking for an excuse to not let me go."
"I don't want you to go because I can't stand the thought of you going and getting hurt."
Sakura knitted her brow in confusion. "What're you trying to say?"
A harsh breath came from him. "You're important to me, even though you iced me out for fifteen years, acting like you didn't even know me. But that's okay, because I trusted your judgment. But this is you going to a place I can't get to quickly enough for you, and you would potentially be getting hurt." He huffed. "I just want you to be safe."
Spearmint eyes widened.
"...Because I'm your friend, and it's fine for me to worry. Right?"
The word sliced through her heart as though he had used an actual kunai, and she felt her expression fall. Of course he was going to say friend. She hadn't known what she had been expecting him to say, even though a part of her knew exactly what she wanted him to say. She tightened her jaw and nodded somberly, worried that if she said a word, it would come out shaky and quivering. Her eyes averted to her hands neatly folded in her lap, and as though she was drowning, she felt the weight of the guilt that washed over her. She cleared her throat.
"You knew I was avoiding you?"
"You're not that hard to read."
"Liar," she attempted to joke, "I'm not an open book."
"I know you well enough to know when you try to convince yourself you're fine."
There was a lingering question in the air. She knew it, and he knew it, too, which was obvious by the way he kept nervously shifting in his seat. Sakura looked to him, and the look on his face mirrored the one on hers. Friend, she thought to herself, repeating the word in her head until it started to taste like dust. She let out a breath. "I'm sorry," she whispered, "I shouldn't have done that."
"Why did you?"
She bit the inside of her cheek as she felt her face turn red and her heart began to thump in her chest. "I was just trying to deal with Sasuke being gone," she lied, "and I didn't wanna burden you because you were also starting your own life."
"I would've been there for you."
She shook her head. "I would've been interfering in your life, and if I did that, I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself."
"Sakura-chan." He said pointedly, her name slipping so easily off his tongue. "You could never be a burden to me."
A breathy laugh left her lips, the regret seeping deeper into her bones even as he smiled at her. She was sure that one day, his lips would be the death of her - and as the thought crossed her mind, the blush returned to her face at how unintentionally and utterly inappropriate that thought was. Still, her eyes flitted to his lips for a mere half second and she cleared her throat. She watched as he pulled his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together, trying to stay warm. She forced herself to smile.
"Thanks," she uttered, "I really appreciate it."
He turned to look at her, and before he could voice whatever he was about to say, the store clerk from one of the nearby shops came up to them, holding two cups of sake, a huge smile plastered on his face.
"Lord Seventh! And Lady Sakura, as well!" He exclaimed, the cold clearly not getting to him as he stood in a cotton uniform. "We noticed you two sitting out here, so I brought you two some sake. Might warm you two up."
"Oh!" Naruto enthused. "We really appreciate it! Thanks, old man!" His hands reached for the cups and he handed one to her before he saluted to the old man, who then bowed and retreated back into his shop.
"What was that?" Sakura laughed as she brought the cup closer to her mouth.
"I don't know," he chuckled, "waving always feels weird and just nodding feels too much like Kakashi-sensei."
Her laughter had increased twofold. "Do you remember how he tried to act all cool and collected, but really he was reading porn, like all the time?"
Naruto's booming laughter filled the air as he reminisced with her, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "He always acted like the books were the best thing he'd ever read, but they were awful."
Sakura cocked her head. "You read them?"
"Ero-sennin took serious pride in his works."
She scoffed. "I remember Lady Tsunade always used to scold him for his research."
"Those trips were always the best."
Gasping due to her disbelief, Sakura playfully hit him in the shoulder and he laughed.
"Well," she said finally, "I guess this is a toast."
"To our teachers," she smiled, "because without them, we'd be unbearable."
"The unbearable duo?" He asked. "We've always been that. People just got used to us."
They clinked their cups and poured the liquor down their throats. Sakura savored the sweetness of the sake and vaguely began to understand why her shishou had loved the thing so much. Gently, she placed her cup at the bottom of the bench, but was surprised when a waiter from the restaurant came outside and took their cups from them. She nodded and smiled as he shuffled back to the shop, the door shutting gently behind him. Naruto cleared his throat, and when she looked at him, his head was leaning against the back of the bench, his eyes watching the sky. She felt her face soften.
"You know," he said quietly, "Ero-sennin was in love with Granny."
Pink eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Really?"
"Yeah," he nodded, "I remember he told me he always regretted not telling her sooner that he really loved her."
"Why didn't he?"
Naruto was silent for a moment, his eyes still looking up. He took a deep breath then turned to her, the blue in his eyes suddenly dull. "She met Dan."
The atmosphere in the air had changed, and as though struck with the intensity of her emotions, she couldn't look at him. She fidgeted with the hem of her jacket and when the silence started to form visions of a different life borne out of ache, she forced herself to remember that they were both married. It was a record; she already had to remind herself of this fact twice today. She looked up at him to find that he hadn't looked away from her the entire time.
"I think," she began, "a part of her loved him, too."
"Believe me," she sighed, "I think she regretted not saying anything, too."
"For all the things he said about Dan, I think he was actually happy that she was happy."
"Of course," Sakura smiled, "he was a good man. Jiraiya wouldn't have wanted anything less for her."
In the background, they could hear the laughter of the customers who stood in front of stalls as they waited for their food. The air around them kept changing, going from easy to difficult, from tense to easygoing, and then doubling back again to tense. There was a time that just being around Naruto was easy, and he had put her at ease whenever she was restless, but this was not one of those times. She knew that there were things she was withholding from him, and for good reason. Some things were better left in the past, never to be dredged up again, especially if it could bring a lot of pain for both parties. Sakura let out a breath and willed away the sense of dread that was threatening to consume her, but before she could say anything more, Naruto abruptly stood up.
"It's getting late," he said, "we should head back."
"Right," she replied, a tinge of regret in her voice, "I guess I'll see you tomorrow for mission updates?"
"Oh," Naruto blinked, "I was going to walk you home."
"Oh! You don't have to."
"I know I don't have to. I want to."
The Seventh Hokage was never one to listen to anyone when he wanted to help them, and so Sakura didn't protest when she stood from her spot and they began walking in the direction of her home. She knew better than to wave off his acts of kindness, but she still couldn't find a single thing to say to him, even as they began to walk further and further away from the hustle and bustle of people in the center of Konoha's town. There were a million things running through her mind, but most of all, how he had known that she had been avoiding him for the last fifteen years. She frowned at the thought that he lived with the knowledge and never said a word, and never held it against her. She hadn't lied about not wanting to be a burden, either, but it still felt like a lie because she knew the other half of that 'truth' that she was keeping concealed.
"I'll think about sending you to Uzushiogakure," Naruto said softly, "but promise me you won't just take off."
"I won't just take off."
Naruto scrunched his brow at her response, and Sakura could see that a fleeting thought entered his mind before he shook his head, willing it away. "I'll talk with Shikamaru about some camp establishments."
"I can be part of those talks, too."
He shook his head again in protest. "We have to focus on the outposts for now. We're just getting some last-minute information, then I promise you'll be the one we send."
She couldn't think of what to say except a small 'thank you', to which Naruto smiled and nodded. They walked side by side in silence and had reached the park where she and Sasuke had spoken the night he showed up. Her green eyes flitted to the bench there, then they slowly made their way to the Hokage Tower that stood in the distance. Suddenly, the pathway that she took everyday back home seemed foreign, despite the fact that she had a daughter who was most certainly waiting for her inside the house that they could now see coming into view.
As she began making her way up the steps to the front door, she felt Naruto tug at her wrist. Slowly, she turned to look at him, a concerned expression on her face. The feel of his fingers wrapped around her wrist had threatened to send shivers down her spine, but she forced herself stay steady, even as she looked at the electric blue of his eyes. Every time she saw a sliver of sadness that touched him, she felt her own heart ache, especially when he tried to brush it off, like he was trying to right now. He smiled encouragingly.
"Thanks for today," he said softly.
Spearmint eyes blinked. "What for?"
"Letting me watch Yuzuru train."
Sakura let out a soft chuckle. "That's not thanks to me. You were the one who wanted to stay."
"Still," he laughed, "I appreciate it." He paused and cleared his throat, studying her face closely. She could see that a thought crossed his mind, his eyes lighting up, but it went away as quickly as it came. He hesitated now, but still, he smiled at her. "Goodnight, Sakura-chan."
"Goodnight, Lord Seven-" She abruptly stopped when he gave her a disapproving look despite the fact that he knew she was joking, and she laughed, then corrected herself. "Goodnight, Naruto."
The blond saluted her and they both chuckled. Pressing her thumb onto the handle, Sakura gently pushed the door open and looked to him one more time, giving him a smile before she stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Her hands stayed pressed against the wood and she took a deep breath, the warmth of her home seeping over her even through her jacket. She shimmied out of the garment and hung it up on the nearby coat rack, and looked through the eye hole on the door to see Naruto walking away, a hand rubbing the back of his neck.
Sakura closed her eyes and took three deep breath in an attempt to recenter herself to the reality that she was back home now, and that he saw her as a friend. A person that he would confide in, a person he would respect, and as she walked through the threshold of her home and through the door that led to the living room, she reminded herself that she was no longer the person he had once been in love with. While she figured that there was no way he harbored feelings for her, she neatly packed away the ones she had for him and prayed that one day, it would stop aching.
Perhaps, at some point, she would have to finally be honest with herself.
As she began making her way to the dining room, she heard the sound of one of the chairs creaking softly against the wooden floors. Panic crept up her spine and reached her neck, raising goosebumps in her now exposed skin. Carefully, she took slow steps towards the area that was now covered by the closed shōji door. Her hands curled into fists and she focused her chakra there, gritting her teeth as she prepared herself to strike at the first chance she got. Slowly, her fingers slid the door open easily, just enough for her to see the person that was sitting in one of the dining chairs. She felt her brow scrunch up in confusion as she looked at him through the small slit, but she found that his eyes were closed, as though in contemplation. She stood up straighter and stood before the door, sliding it open even further.
Finally, he opened his eyes, his cool expression intact.
"Sasuke," she said, her voice strained, "what the hell are you doing here?"