the greatest pretenders
Chapter Eight: Apprehension
The air inside the dining room was cold with an intensity that crawled down Sakura's spine as she glared at the black-haired man who sat in front of her, his expression complacent. The chakra in her fists had now dissipated, but her hands stayed bunched up as though she might need to focus her energy into the very same hands that she'd once used to cup his face as she kissed him on their wedding day. She remembered now, and along with the bitter memory came a rage that was as old and tired as she felt.
"I asked you what the hell you're doing here," she gritted through her teeth, "in my home that I demanded you stay away from."
Dark eyes merely stared back at her, its deepness once one of the very things that made her fall in love with him. Her stomach churned as she waited for him to answer, but in the end, he merely let out a small exhale and closed his eyes, furrowing his brow. Sakura took a step forward, and at the sound of her slipper moving forward, he cracked his eyes open, his expression unchanging. He glanced to Sakura's hands, which were now beginning to glow with the faintest blue light, and his eyes moved back across her face, studying her like she was some kind of experiment.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." He said plainly, every part of his body still relaxed, still unmoving from his spot.
"You barged into my home."
"For good reason."
"What good reason? I clearly told you-"
"You're going to wake up Sarada."
At his own statement, Sasuke finally stood up and walked over to her. Sakura stared up at him as he towered over her, remembering how much taller than her he actually turned out to be. Her eyes widened as her fury was beginning to reach new heights, a boiling fire that was about to spill over. She wanted to scream at him, to punch him so hard that he hit the wall. Yet, as his eyes watched her, her throat closed up with the intensity of both rage and sadness. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and muttered to him to step away from her. When she heard his feet shuffle backwards, she opened her eyes again, much calmer than before.
"Tell me you didn't meet her."
Sasuke raised a brow. "Of course I didn't."
"How did you get in?"
"Sasuke." Sakura scolded softly, rolling her eyes, her rage dissipating through her head like smoke.
"The kitchen window. I coaxed it open."
From where she stood, she could see the window right in front of the sink. It was properly shut now, but in the back of her mind, she was disgruntled and figured that she had to change the lock… somehow. She let out a harsh exhale and crossed her arms, moving her eyes to the ground so she wouldn't have to look at him. It would confuse her. It would upset her, too.
"Why are you here?" She asked softly, her tone calmer now.
Dark eyes pierced into hers as he drew closer, but she felt herself taking a step backwards. If he noticed, he didn't say anything. He studied her face before finally looking away, instead averting his eyes to the kitchen. Pursing his lips, he clicked his tongue and his brow furrowed. He spoke, his tone low enough that Sakura quickly understood that someone just might be listening.
"There's been a weird chakra around here," he mumbled, "but it's only when you're not home."
"How do you know that?" She asked in the same hushed tones. "You've been watching the house?"
He turned back to her, mildly surprised. "Of course."
Sakura shook her head and closed her eyes. Taking in a sharp breath, she opened her eyes again, this time her expression more concerned. She would get angry at him, but starting a fight in this situation would do no good. Clearing her throat, she looked at his face. "What did you find?"
"What weird chakra are you talking about, then?"
Sasuke thought for a moment, but kept his eyes on her face. "It's chakra that's out of control."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know, but it doesn't feel stable." He walked into the kitchen and grabbed an empty glass before turning on the tap and filling it with water. Sakura could hear him gulping the water as he downed it in a matter of seconds, and then watched him furrow his brow at the window before him. "All I know right now is that something is out there."
"Then I'll take some measures," Sakura chimed in quietly, "so you don't have to worry about it."
Finally, Sasuke turned to look at her with an expression of mild disbelief, but he didn't say a word. He rested his palms against the sink and tilted his head downwards, as though looking at the sink. At first, Sakura watched his back - just as she had always done when they were growing up - but when she felt her fingers twitch in a desire to touch him, she looked away and stepped back into the dining room, pulling out a chair for her to sit in. She rested her head in her nimble hands and sighed.
"I know you think you're doing the right thing, and maybe you think you're redeeming yourself," she uttered quietly, knowing he heard her well, "and I appreciate it. But I told you to stay away."
The only indication that he moved was the slight creak of his chair as he sat back down in it. Sakura lifted her head from her hands in time to see him sit across from her. He was emotionless, even as he regarded her face looking for some semblance of hesitation. His lips turned downwards in a frown when he didn't find it.
"I'm sorry, you know." He leaned forward in his seat slightly, resting his elbows on the table. "I shouldn't have left."
"You leaving to do your repenting or… favors for the Hokage is fine." She said honestly, feeling the long-buried pain in her heart resurface. "But not once in fourteen years did you come back. I raised a daughter alone, and you think sending money is enough?"
"It was to help."
"We're not divorced," she answered, her voice quivering, "which means you were supposed to be here. Raising her with me." She paused, her lips parted open as she looked up at him. The weight of her feelings landed on her shoulders and a soft chuckle came through her lips in irony. "I'm so sick of being upset about the same thing."
"We have to get through it. It's been fourteen years since I last saw you."
"Whose fucking fault is that?" She spat, her anger boiling over in spearmint eyes.
Sasuke didn't flinch. He still watched her face and seemed to be waiting for something - anything - but when it didn't come, he leaned back in his seat. Tapping his fingers on the dining table slightly, he let out a soft sigh and furrowed his brow before he stood up and hovered over Sakura, placing a large hand on her shoulder. A gesture that had once sent goosebumps up her neck now made the weight of the things he'd done settle heavily on her conscience. She scoffed and shrugged him off.
"I want you to get out." She said plainly.
He blinked. "What?"
She pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. "I'm not ready, okay? Stop trying to force me to just accept you with open arms." Tears brimmed her eyes and threatened to fall down her cheeks. "You left me. Remember?"
Sasuke took a step back as she stood from her seat and the two stared at each other for a few seconds before he nodded slowly. He began shuffling his feet towards the kitchen with the intent of going out the second door, but Sakura tugged at his wrist. When he turned to look at her, her expression had softened.
"Give me time." She whispered. "I'm not asking you to leave forever."
He nodded once and gently released his wrist from her hand. As he walked away, Sakura heard his footsteps becoming fainter and fainter, until finally, she heard the front door close gently with a click. She let out a breath of relief, though the heaviness in her chest hadn't completely gone away. Walking into the kitchen, she glanced at the window in front of the sink in earnest. She made a mental note to purchase a new window lock and key and very vaguely thought that fūinjutsu would be a useful alternative. Shaking her head, she reached above her for one of the overhead cabinets and pulled out a cup.
A few more steps to the fridge, she pulled open the door a little too roughly and hastily stopped it from banging into the wall next to it. Her hand reached for an unopened bottle of sake and she gently closed the door with her shoulder. She set both the bottle and cup on the dining table and looked at the two items as though she was trying to decide whether or not it was a good idea to drink - even though she already pulled out what she needed to. Fingers ran through her hair and tucked a lock behind her ear and she bit her lip in hesitation.
Her thoughts flitted to Sasuke's face, then the events of Yuzuru's training, and finally, to the way Naruto had looked at her as she held his father's kunai. As soon as she remembered the fūinjutsu inscription on the hilt, she felt the anxiety of not knowing enough about the S-ranked mission that was assigned to her crash down on her. If it was her shishou, she would have known exactly what to do, and yet, Sakura stood in her dining room alone, completely paralyzed at the thought that she was now to take Tsunade's place. Her quivering fingers popped the cap off the bottle and she poured the liquor into her cup in earnest.
The alcohol was sweet as it ran down her throat, but she still felt her nose scrunch up at the slight tang of the liquor. She clenched her jaw to keep from yawning from the fatigue of the day, and poured herself another shot. Spearmint eyes didn't move from the spot that Sasuke sat at, and she didn't even understand how suddenly, that seat by itself was now daunting. For every thought that entered her mind about Sasuke, or Naruto, or the mission she'd been assigned, she took another shot. Her vision became hazy, and ironically, she felt thirstier than she was before.
She remembered washing the cup that she had been using, and she remembered putting away the sake into the fridge. All her actions were mechanic; robotic, especially so when her fingers were able to turn off all the lights without her even thinking about it. Her feet dragged her upstairs all the way to her bedroom, and as though it was for good measure, she looked out her window that overlooked the town and let out a sharp exhale. If Sasuke was right, that meant that someone could be watching from the shadows, just like he had been.
Slowly, she turned around and walked to the other end of the hall, where Sarada slept.
The door hardly creaked open, and peeking her head in, Sakura smiled at the sight of her daughter sleeping soundly. She had always been a heavy sleeper, and hardly anything woke her up lest she was shaken awake. Lithe steps took Sakura towards Sarada's bed and she gently sat at the side of the bed, her eyes softly watching the young Uchiha sleep. Carefully, she lifted her hand to stroke her dark hair, and tucked a small lock behind her ear before leaving her hand to linger and to stroke the soft strands one more time.
Sarada stirred, much to Sakura's surprise. She quickly removed her hand and began to stand up, but just as she turned away, her daughter's voice resounded in her ear.
"Mom?" She said sleepily. "What time is it?"
"Late," Sakura tried her best not to slur, "I was just checking on you."
"Did you just get home?" Sarada yawned as she sat up, rubbing her eyes.
"A while ago, but I was downstairs doing some work."
At her mother's words, Sarada opened one eye and watched Sakura suspiciously. She was silent and shifted slightly, her expression skeptical, though she didn't say anything. No part of the pink-haired woman betrayed her. Still, Sakura knew the look in her daughter's eye - the one she had opened - very well. She was her father's daughter, after all.
"Did you drink?" Sarada asked quietly, a little more awake now.
A breathy laugh left Sakura's lips. "A little. Was just in the mood."
Dark eyes watched Sakura before Sarada finally reached next to her to turn on her bedside lamp. She leaned back against her bedframe and sighed, her eyes studying her mother as though she were looking for something to bring up. Sakura propped herself at the foot of the bed, and the irony of her own daughter looking her up and down the way a mother might do to her own daughter would have made her laugh, if she didn't feel like she was somehow… being a terrible mother. She looked at the floor.
"Did something happen?" Sarada finally asked, her tone soft. "You don't usually drink while you work."
"No, nothing happened." Sakura lied. "It's just a lot of work, lately. It's been hard to keep up."
"Wracking my brain for solutions," she smiled sheepishly, "that's all. Nothing for you to worry about."
Sarada looked to the side, her expression worried.
Allowing silence to fill the room, Sakura patiently waited for Sarada to finally look at her and say something, silently praying to whatever gods could hear her so that for once in her life, she could be there for someone. Her hand reached forward and brushed through dark hair, and when wide, dark eyes turned towards her, Sakura did her best to give her most encouraging smile without uttering a word. There didn't need to be words - just faith that everything truly was okay.
It wasn't, but she didn't want to add more weight to the shoulders that to her, seemed so small.
At the brightness she saw on her mother's face, Sarada visibly relaxed and offered a small smile of her own. They stayed that way for a few minutes, and although she tried her best to push away thoughts that nagged her for keeping more secrets from her daughter, Sakura savored the need for reassurance that radiated from Sarada. It was subtle and it was fleeting, but the pink-haired woman recognized insecurity in those eyes.
"Everything okay?" She asked softly.
"You don't… get anxious." Sarada sat up straighter and hugged her knees to her chest, her brow furrowed in confusion. "Is this really hard to crack or something?"
Spearmint eyes blinked. If she was tipsy before, she was definitely completely sober now. "Why do you ask?"
"Mom," Sarada sighed, "you always take things in stride. People look up to you for that."
"I have a feeling this isn't a compliment." Sakura joked. Sarada playfully rolled her eyes.
"All I'm saying is," Sarada said quietly, "I believe in you. You'll solve this, whatever it is."
A lump rose in Sakura's throat as flashes of the young girl who wasn't that much younger than Sarada popped into her mind, each memory more vivid as they came one after another. She remembered the protruding veins, the eyes that stayed open, the pale skin - the fact that somehow, some way, the horror of such a brutal death had stemmed from fūinjutsu. Moreover, the persons who wanted to watch the world burn as it had before, wanted to use shinobi with kekkei gengkai for their games. Sakura gritted her teeth reflexively.
"Mom?" Sarada blinked. "Did you hear me?"
Tilting her head towards her daughter's concerned gaze, she smiled again and nodded. "I did, I was just caught up in my thoughts."
"You underestimate yourself," the teenager scoffed, "you always tackle the problem head-on."
A sad smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "Is that so?"
"I don't know anyone as fierce as you," Sarada laughed, "and you're really fierce, Mom."
Sakura knew that Sarada was right - to an extent. When it came to her work and improving her skills as a medical ninja, she approached the task with a ferocious tenacity that was only matched to Lady Tsunade and her senpai, Shizune. She worked tirelessly and always gave her best effort - which was part of the reason she hired Yuzuru in the first place: she just simply couldn't do everything herself. Still, problems in the hospital were much easier to deal with than problems in her personal life, excluding her daughter, of course. She remembered the autopsy again, as well as the conversation that she had with the Seventh about a potential mission that was away from home. Spearmint eyes softened as she regarded her daughter with great consideration.
"You know," she started, "I have to wonder how you got so wise."
"Maybe it's a gift." Sarada shrugged as she lowered herself under the covers. "Probably got it from you."
Sakura remembered what kind of teenager she had been towards her own mother. She was often scolded for not being more "ladylike", for not doing as much housework as she was expected to, for putting her education above all else. It was only on the day of her wedding that her mother finally stopped nagging her with shoving expectations down her throat. Even now, well into her thirties, there were unresolved feelings she had towards her mother who always made her feel like she wasn't good enough, and maybe the gods were finally repaying her for making her suffer so much. Having Sarada for a daughter was a god-damn blessing, and all the animosity she had felt her entire life towards her mother had wafted into the air and was replaced by the immense and unconditional love she had for Sarada.
As the young Uchiha settled comfortably into her bed, Sakura reached over to turn out the bedside lamp. Sarada was already facing the opposite direction, and Sakura began making her way towards the bedroom door. She was already on the other side, her hand was already on the knob, about to pull the door shut, when Sarada abruptly turned over to look at her, her expression unreadable.
"I love you, Mom." She uttered.
Taken by surprise, Sakura blinked and smiled, then whispered "I love you too" before pulling the door shut until she heard a faint click. She leaned against the wooden door and drew a deep breath and expelled it slowly through her nose. Anxiety seeped through her mind as she made her way back to her bedroom and prepared herself to sleep. Just by hearing the encouragement from Sarada, suddenly Sakura felt as though she really could do anything. She turned to the window that overlooked Konoha and pulled open the sliding door, stepping out onto the balcony.
Konoha was a village that never slept.
If she was completely honest, she hadn't always loved the bright lights that filled the town even late into the night. At first, they were a nuisance, and had made it hard for her to sleep, but as she got older and her insomnia grew more consistent, they served as a comfort. It didn't make the insomnia go away, but she felt something settle into her heart knowing that like her, there were plenty of people who were unable to sleep. Spearmint eyes flitted to the Hokage Tower, which of course, was still very much lit. She leaned her weight on the railing and laced her fingers together and sighed.
Whatever it was that Sasuke had seen hovering around the house, she knew she needed to leave on that mission so she could find more answers. There was no guarantee that the two things were even related, but she knew better than to ignore potential dangers. She stayed that way for at least an hour, pondering all the things that she was wary of and anxious about, thinking that part of her wasn't cut out for the responsibilities she'd been given. Most of the time, she feared that every single person around her would find out that she was a fraud - that she really wasn't as good as they thought her to be. Still, Sarada's words came to mind, and Sakura shook her head in an attempt to chase out the bad thoughts.
If there was at least one person who was going to believe in her, it was going to be her daughter. For that reason alone, there was no way Sakura wasn't going to give it her best.
Other than Naruto, there was no person who had more piercing eyes than Ino. That was a fact that Sakura was absolutely certain of as she watched the woman stare at her, a hesitance in her eyes. They sat across from each other, each with their own steaming cup of coffee. All around them, other customers were beginning to walk into the shop they sat in, and the whirring of the coffee machine filled the air, accompanied by the rustling of newspapers and light laughter. Sakura frowned.
"I have to go," she whispered, wrapping her hands around her hot coffee, "but I feel awful about leaving her alone."
Ino sighed. "You wouldn't be. I just don't understand why you're asking me to check up on her…" A perfectly manicured hand reached for her cup and she took a sip before speaking again. "I mean, she'd be staying with Chouji, and I'm telling you that you can trust him."
The pink-haired woman huffed and leaned back in her seat, resigned. "It's not really about me trusting him, because of course I do."
"Then what is it?"
"You're her godmother." Sakura said plainly. "If anything happened to me, you're the one I'm entrusting her to."
"Sakura," Ino started, her expression becoming soft, "nothing is going to happen. She's stayed at Chouji's plenty of times, and even more so when you had other missions. Right now," she reached for her cup to take a sip, "you're just anxious. But everything will be okay."
"Ino, just tell me you'll check up on her."
A silence hung in the air but before Sakura could say anything, Ino let out a breath and hummed. "Okay. I'll do as you ask."
"I don't mean to make you feel uncomfortable," the medical ninja said, her tone hushed, "but doing what I do… I have to prepare for a day I hope may never come."
"I remember." Ino nodded. "I guess we just wanted to forget that that was a possibility."
"Of course. Who wants to constantly think about being unable to watch their kids grow up?"
Another silence settled between them as their eyes met, and what was meant to serve as a comfort ended up making Sakura even more uneasy. Not that long ago, she would have beamed at the thought of an S-ranked mission that ensured she had to travel, that practically guaranteed time away from home. The only difference now was that she had a daughter, and a life, that she could lose within the blink of an eye. She let out an exhale and tried her best to smile, because one way or another, Ino was right. Obviously, that wasn't exactly something she would say out loud. Immediately noticing the change in the atmosphere, Ino leaned her head to one side, her expression curious.
"What?" Sakura asked, raising her eyebrows.
"Something seems different." Blonde eyebrows furrowed. "I noticed it the second you came in, but I can't… did something happen?"
"I don't know…" Ino pursed her lips. "Besides your anxiety about this whole thing, anything happen last night?"
Sakura almost choked on her coffee. Trying her best not to cough, she continued gulping down her drink. Shit, she thought to herself, I can't lie to this woman! After slowly setting down her cup, she leaned back in her seat and regarded the blonde in front of her with as neutral an expression as she could manage. Shaking her head and jutting out her bottom lip, she hoped that Ino would buy it-
-Which, of course, she didn't.
"You forget I've known you my whole life," Ino chuckled, "so I can tell when you're trying not to cough."
Almost instinctively, Sakura side-eyed the people that walked past them, and although they were in a public place in a relatively safe era, she knew better than to completely trust her surroundings. Ino must have quickly realized this fact, as her smirk quickly fell from her face and was replaced with an understanding that this had nothing to do with juicy gossip, nor was it a story that was to be held in public. No one could ever be sure who was listening, after all.
"Well," Ino said finally, feigning enthusiasm, "whenever you're ready, you can tell me."
A small smile spread across Sakura's lips, and she mouthed 'thank you' to one of the friends she wished she hadn't left for fifteen years.
As they stepped outside the cafe, the increasingly biting autumn wind whipped at Sakura's cheeks, and so she shuddered and pulled her muffler over her nose and cheeks. She bade a quick farewell to Ino and stuffed her hands in her pockets, eternally grateful that the hospital was just right next to the cafe. Another shudder rolled off her back as she entered the building and the central heating warmed her body through her coat.
The journey to her office felt relatively short, compared to how long it usually took, and without fail, she saw Yuzuru sitting on one of the sofas in her office, idly looking through his phone. His eyes lifted only when he noticed his shishou approach the glass door, and he sprang to his feet to open it for her before she could wave her hand to let him know it was unnecessary. He gave her a polite smile and gently closed the door behind her and stood there, way too polite for Sakura's taste.
A pink eyebrow was raised. "Everything okay?"
"Yes," he replied, "just waiting for you, Ms. Haruno."
Spearmint eyes blinked. "Right. Uh, there's some things that I have to tell you."
Her coat slipped off her shoulders and she placed her muffler on her desk, suddenly aware of how messy it actually was. She smiled, gesturing to her disciple to sit on one of the sofas. His large brown eyes watched her cautiously, but he did as was asked of him, and set his hands in his lap, clearly feeling unsettled. Truthfully, Sakura understood, and especially so because he had passed out from exerting himself too much from their last training session. She made her way to the two-seater next to him and crossed her legs. He cleared his throat.
"Is this about my training the other day?" He asked, his voice quivering. "I learned my lesson. I know not to push-"
"This isn't about the other day," she reassured him, "but it's actually about… the mission that I was given."
Brown eyes widened slightly. "Shouldn't we discuss this somewhere more private?"
"If we hide," Sakura whispered with a smile on her face, "there's no telling who could be making note of the things we do to try and be discreet."
Yuzuru raised his eyebrows in curiosity before he finally smiled, too. "Hide in plain sight."
Sakura winked. "Exactly."
"So, what did you want to tell me? Do we know more?"
"Actually," the medical ninja started, "I know more than I let on since we did the autopsies."
"What do you mean?"
"The reason that her veins were like that," she uttered in a low voice, "was because of poison, yes- but not just any poison."
Sakura pursed her lips, hesitating. She cleared her throat. "It's a poison that comes from a substance called utsushō."
Brown eyes stared at her with confusion, then they shifted from confusion to absolute, utter horror. Sakura looked at him pointedly, reminding him that they were in an office with glass walls and a glass door, and even though he reigned it in, she could still see the fear in his eyes. It was raw, unadulterated, and she felt the same terror that he did. The only difference was that she had to be the adult, and so she had to inspire confidence.
"You mean… that…?"
Sakura let out a strained breath. "We don't know that much yet… but I only knew because of Lady Tsunade's records."
"Wouldn't she have more on that kind of thing?"
She winced. "When she first found out about the substance, there really wasn't… any information on it."
"Then we have to go!"
Yuzuru tilted his head, looking at her in disbelief. "What are you talking about?"
"There's an outpost-"
"Let me finish." Sakura leaned back in her seat and uncrossed her legs, suspecting that he would react in this way. He looked up to her, after all. "I haven't been given any orders yet, but I know that I will be going."
"Then I'm coming with you."
"It's not safe."
"You going yourself isn't safe!" He hissed, his tone alarmed. "You need to have someone to have your back!"
"I'm sure the Seventh will provide me with someone who can carry their weight."
Yuzuru squinted. "Are you saying I can't?"
She tilted her head and looked at him sadly. "It's too dangerous, kid."
"How am I supposed to learn if you don't trust me?"
"I do trust you."
"Doesn't sound like it." He sighed and stood from his seat, pacing back and forth around the sofas, huffing every now and then, as though he couldn't figure out what to say. His eyes glanced at her every now and then, and every time she looked, Sakura felt guiltier. "You have to let me go."
"You only just started training."
"I just started training to be an iryōnin, not a regular ninja. I can pull my own damn weight."
A frustrated huff left her lips. "You know that's not why I'm not taking you."
"Why you won't take me."
"I appreciate that you're looking out for me," she enunciated, "but I need you here. In Konoha."
With furrowed brows and a harsh breath, Yuzuru leaned his head against the back of the sofa, clearly at a loss for what to do. Every inch of him wanted to be there for her, and learn more from her, but she was right - just as she usually was. Sakura crossed her arms and a thousand thoughts ran through her mind about the predicament she was to face. When her disciple finally looked at her, his eyes had become calmer, and she could see the Yuzuru that was more like her. She huffed.
"We need more information," she stated, "and while I'm out there looking for it, I need you here to look at what we already have and try to make more sense of it."
"You're leaving me in charge?"
"No," she shook her head, "but I've asked Shizune to help you. You need someone with experience watching over you."
"Why not the Fifth?"
A sarcastic scoff passed through her lips. "I don't think you're ready to deal with her temper. Most people aren't."
Chocolate brown eyes rolled. "If you're gonna punish me and leave me here-"
"Not punishing you."
"-then at least let Lady Tsunade look over me." The look in his eyes was hard as he glared at her with determination. "Please. I want to be better."
Sakura made a sound in the back of her throat and sighed, running her fingers through her hair before finally settling her eyes on her disciple's hopeful face. She pinched the bridge of her nose and clicked her tongue in resignation. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed his shoulders relax and he let out a breath of triumph. "It won't be easy," she warned, "and you're gonna wanna quit many times."
"Then I'll just have to keep working harder."
She gave him a small smile. "Exactly." Uncrossing her legs, she stood up and walked towards the door before looking at him one final time. "I'm counting on you, okay?"
Her feet were already outside the frame and the door was closing behind her before he could respond, but judging from the way the passing employees were looking into her office, she knew that he was celebrating getting through to her stubbornness. Whether that was by dancing, intensely throwing his hands in the air, or playing air guitar - she didn't know, but a small part of her shared the triumph he felt. Surely enough, he was growing into a fine, determined young man.
Still, the cynical part of Sakura knew that he still had a lot to learn.
An unnerving silence filled the Hokage's office as Naruto skimmed through a report that had been sent from Sai, who was still in the field, monitoring the outpost in Kirigakure. Every time he reached the end of the document, his eyes would move up once more, and he would read the entire thing again, almost as though he was in disbelief. He clicked his tongue every now and then, and his gaze would shift from the document to Shikamaru, who patiently waited for the Hokage to say something. Shifting in his seat every now and then, it was apparent to Sakura that he was getting incredibly frustrated. Finally, he looked up from the paper he held and eyed her, his expression hesitant.
"Sakura-chan," he sighed, "it looks like you were right."
She blinked. "What?"
"I think you do have to go on this mission…" he scowled, "...as much as I hate to admit it."
Her heart thumped. "I have to go?"
"According to Sai," Shikamaru explained, "the situation has shifted from being a 'monitoring' situation to an 'investigating' situation." He hesitated, his shoulders falling slightly as he looked at her. "It means that we have to start taking action."
"Which means sending me." She said flatly.
"If you want," Naruto chimed in, "we can assign someone to go with you."
"So I can babysit someone?"
Shikamaru scoffed. "So you'll have backup."
The two men stared at her, waiting for an answer, but truth be told, she wasn't entirely sure that she needed another person. She was a jōnin, and she had been on plenty of difficult missions before. However, as much as she hated to admit it, this time around, the situation was much closer to her heart than previous times. She swallowed a lump in her throat and took a deep breath, and couldn't help but notice the way Naruto's face had winced in worry.
"Okay," she resolved, "do I get to choose?"
As Naruto began opening his mouth, they heard a soft knock on the door. Whirling her head around to look at the closed door, a sinking feeling in Sakura's stomach settled as her instinct told her that someone she didn't want to see was behind that door. Her heart began thumping in anticipation, and when Shikamaru called for the person to enter, she felt her anxiety simmer into a low fire. Her eyes caught sight of black hair that was now trimmed, and that permanent scowl that she wondered how the hell she fell in love with appeared, before she looked at Sasuke's entire face and felt her heart drop.
As Sasuke closed the door behind him, Sakura turned to look at Naruto, her expression incredulous, when she realized that he wore the exact same expression as she did. Scoffing softly, she folded her arms and leaned her weight on one leg as Sasuke took his place next to her.
"Lord Seventh," he addressed Naruto coolly, "you summoned me?"
"What's this in regards to?" Sakura asked, her voice so hard that she might as well have been grinding her jaw.
"I needed Sasuke to go on a mission for me."
"Don't tell me it's this one."
"You're going on a mission?" Sasuke asked casually, turning his head towards his wife. Spearmint eyes glanced at him from the side, but Sakura said nothing. Instead, she focused her attention back to the blond man who stood before them, whose own eyes had suddenly become dull. She cleared her throat.
"I believe that whatever mission you've chosen for Sasuke to go on is a perfect fit for him."
Shikamaru, who certainly did not ask to be a part of this seemingly awkward situation, shifted his weight uncomfortably before he pulled a document off Naruto's desk and cleared his throat. As though he was being nudged, Naruto looked from his advisor to Sasuke, then finally, setting his eyes on Sakura. He drew in a deep breath.
"Sasuke," he said, his voice low, "you're gonna go to Suna to find some people that we haven't been able to locate in the last few months. They're important for this mission."
"So it's a bounty hunt."
"Not exactly, but I just need you to find them, rescue them if need be, and report back to me."
Sasuke hummed - a sound that Sakura swears she never heard in her life - and turned towards her. His dark eyes moved up and down as he watched her, and she could do nothing but ignore him. After all, punching her husband into a wall wasn't exactly a good way to tell the world that she was having marital problems. She sighed and opened her mouth, but was quickly interrupted by the man who stood next to her.
"Maybe I should go with Sakura."
Her eyes widened then in anger, but looking at Naruto, there was a darkness that seemed to descend onto his face that didn't disappear even as he gave Sasuke his best, most convincing smile. Standing up, he dragged his feet and looked out the window behind his desk and stood with his arms at his side. He wasn't wearing his Hokage cloak that made him incredibly authoritative, but he exuded an energy that showed he was not one to be reckoned with. Sakura cleared her throat.
"I don't think," she started, "that that's exactly-"
"Sasuke." Naruto said, his voice low. "I need you in Suna. I get why you'd wanna go with her…"
The pink-haired woman might have been imagining it, but she heard the Seventh Hokage's voice tinge with a strange emotion.
"...but she has her duties, and you have yours."
Growing up, the two men had always been at odds with each other, thinking of one another as a rival. Sakura was a grown-ass woman, but upon remembering what their relationship used to be, she felt herself tense up at how powerless she truly felt when it came to them. The Uchiha was never one to compromise, and it almost always ended in a brawl with Naruto, or at least a heated disagreement, which was why it took her by absolute surprise when Sasuke nodded his understanding and stood tall, waiting for further instruction.
"Alright. What are my orders there, once I've reported the whereabouts of these people?"
"You stay there for a few days," Naruto said diplomatically, turning around to look at him, "and keep an eye on the northern part of Suna. Gaara already knows you're going to be there, and he's arranged for a team of his best ninjas to assist you, should you need it."
Sasuke narrowed his eyes. "ANBU?"
The blond nodded. "They know the terrain. They'll be an asset to you."
The Uchiha nodded and bowed slightly before ducking out and heading out the door, letting it click shut behind him. Shikamaru, who had been watching the entire thing, cleared his throat and mumbled that he had to take a smoke break, and practically sprinted out the door. With just her and Naruto in the room, Sakura stared at him with unadulterated confusion. "What was that?" She asked, her voice quiet.
He blinked. "What was what?"
"You looked so pissed when he said he wanted to come with me."
Broad shoulders fell slightly. "I thought you wanted to do this yourself."
"No, of course I do!"
"Was I not supposed to defend that?"
Sakura sighed and lifted her hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. "I just thought you'd let me tell him that myself."
When she looked at him, she saw that the lines in his face deepened, and that he was frowning. Surely, she wasn't actually angry with him for saying anything, but a teeny, tiny part of her questioned the tension that was evident between her two teammates. It was so incredibly intense that even Shikamaru had to leave the room. Naruto, who had been staring at her the entire time, finally cleared his throat and looked at his desk.
"You're, uh. You're right." His fingers fidgeted with the corner of a document on his desk. "I shouldn't have done that."
"I'm not… mad," she said softly, "I just think you didn't have to be." She took a few steps forward until she was close enough to smell his cologne. "Like you said, I'll be fine."
He finally looked up at her and gave her a soft smile, his eyes lingering on hers before he took two steps back and cleared his throat.
"Still, Sakura-chan," he sighed, "I think you should take someone with you."
"Question is: who?"
"See," the Hokage smirked, "I think since I can't go with you, and Sasuke isn't going with you-" he winced at their teammate's name, "-then I think a very special sensei should go with you."
She chuckled. "Seriously?"
"He expressed interest in going."
"He's an ex-Hokage."
Naruto snickered and shrugged. "You could just say it's a diplomatic mission. He's now an ambassador."
Rolling her eyes at him, she had to admit that he did have a point. No one would question an ex-Hokage being in Kirigakure on a diplomatic mission, especially since age-old rivalries had now dissolved and had been replaced with alliances. Sakura nodded, already planning in her head what routes they were going to take to get to Kirigakure, where they would camp while on the way there, and their course of action once they actually got there. Turning towards the door, she felt the hairs on her neck stand on end when Naruto called her name, his tone softer than usual. When she looked at him, she felt her heart thump at the worried expression on her face.
"Sakura-chan," he whispered, "just…"
"I know," she nodded, "I'll be careful. I promise."
With one final nod, Sakura left Naruto's office just in time to see Shikamaru make his way back down the hallway from his smoke break. She smiled as they passed each other, thinking vaguely that he had nothing to feel awkward about - because they were friends. It was silly, and it would have been funny if she was actually convinced that she genuinely saw Naruto as a friend. She shook the thoughts of Naruto that were more than a little friendly from her mind, and reigned it in to focus on her mission with Kakashi ahead. Still, even as she made her way to the elevator, she couldn't shake the worried and anxious expression that Naruto always wore when he told her to be careful. Of course, he cared about all those who set out on missions on his behalf, but when it came to her, he would - without fail - always exorcise extra care.
The elevator doors closed and spearmint eyes watched as the number on the screen changed until finally, she was on the ground floor.
As the doors pulled open, Sakura almost stopped dead in her tracks when she saw that Sasuke was waiting for her.
In plain sight.
Where people could see him.
She let out a harsh breath and began making her way towards him, wanting to get his issues out of the way so she could just leave.
"You were waiting for me?" She said casually as she approached him. "Something you need?"
"No," he replied, "just wanted to wish you good luck on your mission."
"I'll see you when we both get home."
A pink eyebrow raised in question. "You're coming home?"
He looked at her seriously then, his dark eyes piercing through her like they had so many times before. As suddenly as she was angry at him, she felt the walls she carefully constructed start to tremble. She hated that he could look at her a certain way, and she would feel her resolve weaken. Forcing herself to look at her feet, she willed the love that was now filled with cobwebs to go away, lest she start reminding herself of all the horrible things he did to her.
"I'll come home as long as you'll let me."
Sakura knew it would be a mistake to look up at him. Something in her conscience was telling her that it was a bad idea, but still, when he didn't move his feet at his clearly departing words, her chin raised in curiosity to look at him, and suddenly, she knew she should have listened to her conscience.
His dark eyes burned into hers, like he was pouring his soul into her, and reaching forward with his hand, he tapped the yin seal in the middle of her forehead and gave her a soft smile. Though he couldn't see it, and though she couldn't feel the tears, she knew they were forming.
"I promise." He whispered to her finally, turning around to walk out of the Hokage Tower without looking back at her.
Sakura watched his back, just as she had always done, and wondered when she would stop loving the shell of a person who could not promise to love her. She drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, momentarily turning back towards the elevator, wondering if it was wise to love two people, and not know what the right thing to do was. No one was stopping her from taking the elevator all the way up to Naruto's office, to where he sat in his chair for most of his days, and crash their lips together in desperation. At the thought, Sakura bit her lip and worried it, telling herself she was an awful person for feeling regret at having lost more than just a part of herself. It was her choice, after all.
In the end, she walked right out, and headed straight home.