Author: Tintinnabula PM
He didn't want to take responsibility for her. Sakura was nothing to him, and Kakashi was certain that he was nothing to her. With the way he'd treated her, how could it be otherwise? kakasaku Rated M for a reason. Please use discretion.Rated: Fiction M - English - Angst/Romance - Kakashi H. & Sakura H. - Chapters: 8 - Words: 68,199 - Reviews: 418 - Favs: 299 - Follows: 380 - Updated: 02-02-10 - Published: 04-10-09 - id: 4983648
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Sorry for the delay in posting this-- I've been ill.
"Get away from me."
With an alacrity he'd rarely seen from her, Sakura bounded away from Kakashi and out the village gate. He sped after her, if only to prevent the curious stares of onlookers.
Kakashi caught up with his teammate a good three kilometers from the village. He hadn't needed to track her, thankfully—she'd stuck to the route traveled by most heading south from the village. But the fact that she eluded him for a good five minutes said volumes about his body. It was aging, and he was nowhere near as fast as he used to be.
"You're breaking protocol," he stated quietly, mustering the least emotional voice he possessed.
"I don't give a flying fuck," Sakura replied in a significantly more emphatic tone.
"We're supposed to spend this time going over the mission."
"We have days before we reach Tea. I'm sure I'll get the details from you before then." Despite her contrariness, Sakura slowed to a vigorous walk. She didn't look at Kakashi, instead preferring the scenery of the bleak winter understory. But she was allowing him to walk beside her, a good sign, Kakashi hoped. Perhaps it meant that her anger was abating.
He was wrong, of course.
Really, he should have known better.
Sakura used her proximity to launch a full-scale verbal assault.
"Have you always been an asshole, or is it a recent thing?"
"Don't answer. It was a rhetorical question. You know, one would think you might have learned something about me after all the time we've spent together. Especially after living in close quarters. But no. You either don't know me at all, or worse, you don't care."
First round fired, she now ignored him. This wasn't going to be a conversation, Kakashi quickly realized. He waited for the next volley.
"You had no right to ask Naruto to remove me from this mission. No right, Kakashi."
He disagreed, vehemently. For someone in Sakura's mental state to take part in a mission like this was foolhardy—not only on her part, but on the part of anyone who'd sanction such a mission.
He tried to get a word in, despite the likely result of doing so. "Did you consider that I might know some details you don't?"
She ignored him, as expected.
"You made me feel like a child. Like I need looking after. Completely impotent. I'm a jounin, Kakashi. I worked hard for the rank. I made sacrifices—" Sakura's voice broke.
Sacrifices. That was the very point. She'd made sacrifices that had cost her too much. To leverage those sacrifices further was unconscionable.
"I know that, Sakura," Kakashi replied softly. "That's why—"
"How can it be why?"
"If you'd let me finish a sentence."
She stopped short and he nearly fell against her.
"Go ahead. Finish. Say what you have to say."
"This mission is too close to what you've already endured."
"Says who? Dr. Hatake? Ibiki gave me a clean bill of mental health. You didn't know that, did you?"
He didn't. But Sakura was smart enough to fool the typical psychological test, even one geared toward the wiliest of ninja. There was no doubt in Kakashi's mind that she'd done so in this case.
"But what Ibiki thinks is immaterial, ultimately. This was my decision to make. For you to butt in and proclaim your reservations openly—"
"I asked to speak with Naruto privately."
"And he denied you. Because he knows more about team morale and cohesion than you do. And what are the chances of me getting captured, anyway? You took out a whole crew of these thugs single-handedly. I should be able to escape them, if nothing else."
In hand to hand combat, that was certainly true. But not if she were drugged or otherwise incapacitated. But that wasn't his point. It was the trauma of seeing young girls abused that concerned him. But he'd already made this point. It was obvious Sakura wasn't listening.
"I agree," he said instead. "I'm not going to let you get captured, but even if you did I have faith that you'd take care of things."
Sakura exhaled a sigh of frustration, turning toward her adversary with hands on her hips and a green fire in her eyes.
He took a deep breath before trying once more.
"They're kidnapping children, Sakura. Girls. Selling them. Doing who knows what to them. I don't want you to see that."
"You don't get to make those decisions, Kakashi. You're not my father. You're not even my friend."
"It's not a good sign that my teammate thinks less of my abilities than the Hokage does."
"So it's wrong to want to protect you, Sakura? To want to be your friend?"
"That ship has sailed." Sakura was finished apparently, because the next 40 kilometers were hiked in a silence broken only by the sound of frost blackened leaves crushing underfoot.
When they stopped for a water break, Kakashi tried to break the tension. "Shall we devise a plan?" He already had one sketched out, but it would be better, he knew, to start from scratch so that Sakura was equal partner in its development. Besides that, Naruto had not assigned a leader to this mission. He'd been clear that they were to handle decision making as a team.
"I guess you'd better tell me all you know about this guy."
"Very little. I'm not even sure of his identity. I'd guess he's Yamakiri Hajime given Sencha's description. But I never saw him. I took out everyone in the camp. But according to her, there was a man in a hitae-ate."
"The fact that he was able to assemble a new gang so quickly says something about him."
"He's either very powerful, and the crew holding Sencha was only a small part of his group, or he's very charismatic."
"Able to recruit quickly."
"Assuming it's the same guy at work here, what makes you think this is more than a simple kidnapping?"
"Lady Sencha wasn't ransomed. They had no idea who she was."
"They couldn't ID a princess?" Sakura snorted in derision.
"She's not terribly princess-like, to put it mildly. And she'd never been seen in public before the kidnapping."
"She lived her life behind a screen?" Sakura raised her eyebrows in disbelief.
"Pretty much. She had no idea what was going on. Their true motives. They didn't touch her, which suggests what they'd planned for her."
"That would devalue the product."
Kakashi nodded. "And they were headed to the port. Sencha is fourteen but you would never guess it. Anorexia. She hasn't even had her growth spurt yet. She has the body of a ten-year-old. And there's a subset of men…" He didn't continue. The subject was too distasteful.
"That's why Naruto wanted me on the mission. Don't you see? These girls will need a female to lean on once we rescue them. My medic's skills will be needed. And my own experience—" Sakura's face darkened in thought.
"Yeah." She was right, assuming the girls survived their recovery. But that didn't justify her inclusion on this mission.
Kakashi thought the worst of Sakura's mood was over. She was quite civil to him for the entire afternoon, offering to refill his water bottle when they encountered a stream large enough to lack an ice layer. And she'd even laughed once or twice as they brainstormed plans of attack.
But her foul mood returned as they set up camp.
"Why wouldn't you bring a tent? Do you have any idea how cold it's going to be tonight? You can smell it in the air."
"I'm used to roughing it."
"And I'm not? The difference is I'm not stupid."
"Don't worry about me."
"I don't plan to. Have fun building your lean-to." Sakura rolled several stones into a ring and quickly set up a small fire, boiling just enough water for her own cup ramen.
Her comment might have been intended as a passive aggressive snipe, but Kakashi wasn't bothered. He knew that occasionally Sakura took an extraordinarily long time to let go of her anger. She was angry at Sai for a good month after he'd drawn an unflattering cartoon of her, even after he produced three attractive portraits of her as mitigation. If nothing else, at least Sakura's anger hadn't taken on a physical manifestation. Kakashi didn't relish the idea of entering the daimyou's palace with a black-and-blue eye.
"I'll take first watch," he said after boiling his own dinner. He didn't add "happily," although he might have. He had no desire to spend an evening in the presence of Sakura. They'd likely argue again and end up saying things that shouldn't be said. Anger tended to loosen the most well-hidden opinions, to the detriment of all. Friendships ended this way. And despite what Sakura might think, Kakashi most definitely was still her friend. Sometimes space and silence were what a relationship needed. He was certain this was one of those times.
After finishing his dinner and washing up all of the implements from their evening meal, Kakashi fished his traveling cloak from his rucksack, then set the well-worn pack beneath the nearest tree. Sakura was right, he realized. It was getting colder. His nose was already cold, as were his fingers, despite their half gloves. He jumped into a nest of tree branches and settled himself in for a long evening. He'd forgo building a lean-to, he decided.
He'd sheltered in the cold before. There was nothing to it, really. He pulled the hood of his cloak up to stop short the greatest source of potential heat loss, and drew his legs close to limit exposed surface area. He wished he was wearing boots instead of the typical ninja footwear with its open toes, but he'd decided against them. Their rigid soles limited movement, particularly tree walking too much. At least he had thought ahead enough to wear socks. It was a pity they were cotton, not wool.
It was too dark to read, so he leaned back against the tree trunk instead, and listened to the forest noises. An occasional owl was all he heard: the other occupants of the woods were seemingly settled in for the night, another indicator of the evening's likely weather.
Kakashi pulled his cloak more tightly around him as the temperature continued to drop and minute droplets of rain began to fall. He wasn't concerned. The tree he'd chosen as lookout was a conifer, which meant he'd be sheltered from the worst of it.
Sakura was right, he thought as he closed his eyes for a moment. He knew this on a gut level. Her presence was needed on this mission, as her skills would be invaluable if the girls were injured or traumatized. But it seemed horribly unfair to place their well-being on the shoulders of a woman who'd endured much the same.
She couldn't be over her mizuage. Her behavior with men suggested far different. What would happen if the girls weren't being treated as humanely as Sencha was? What would she do if this gang were harming these girls? Would she be able to handle it? Kakashi had his doubts. Sakura was anything but weak. But because she was kind, in possession of a healer's heart which full of empathy, she'd feel their pain herself—she'd take it on. Its effect on her couldn't be positive.
He didn't want to see her fall apart again.
And he wasn't sure if he could maintain a distance between them. She was all he thought of.
The rain was freezing, he realized, and moving almost horizontally, urged on by a wind that was silent earlier that evening. Needlelike water droplets on the verge of becoming ice assaulted him, and he noticed the twigs of nearby branches were already coated with a glassy layer. His hair felt a bit crunchy, as well. Maybe he'd drifted off for a little while: his woolen cloak was coated with a lawn of frozen droplets.
Kakashi jumped to the ground much more heavily than he intended, his legs half-asleep. The shattering of the ice covered undergrowth awakened his teammate, who groggily unzipped her tent.
"It's three a.m. Why didn't you wake me?" Sakura rubbed her eyes before lighting a lantern and throwing on her cloak. The slightest tinge of fear distorted her features. "Shit. You'd better get inside."
Like the best medics, she did not allow her worry to distract her.
Sakura zipped the tent shut after pulling an unmoving Kakashi into the small space, and felt his forehead. Her eyes narrowed as she concentrated.
"About 29 degrees. Not good, Kakashi."
She worked on his hands first. She didn't rub them vigorously but instead placed them under her armpits until they warmed slightly.
"No crack?" she asked as she removed his hands. "Not even a joke?"
The medic yanked off his sandals and applied warming chakra to his feet. He felt stabbing, needlelike pains in his formerly blue toes as her treatment began to take effect.
"I'll be right back," she said once she was satisfied. "In the meantime, get undressed and into my sleeping bag."
Kakashi didn't protest. He disliked the idea of rousting Sakura from her warm bed, but his brain was working too slowly to mount a rebuttal. Besides, his teeth were chattering. But the button of his cloak seemed frozen in place and the zipper of his jounin vest was intractable. He'd never undressed more slowly in his life, particularly when being ordered into a woman's bed.
Not that this was anything like a roll in the hay. He felt the urge to giggle, inappropriate though that was.
Sakura returned with several rocks from the waning fire bundled into her cloak. She set them down next to the sleeping bag, close to his torso, cursing as she did so.
"If I was a fire type, I'd have these glowing by now."
"And burn down the tent in the process, no doubt." She hadn't done a bad job. The rocks were steaming as they warmed they damp cloak beneath them.
"You're cracking jokes. That's a good sign. You were incoherent a few minutes ago." Sakura placed a hand on his forehead, then unzipped the sleeping bag enough to feel his chest and arms.
"You're still freezing. Idiot."
He didn't reply: he was too tired.
"Have you forgotten your basic survival training? Hypothermia is nothing to laugh at." She placed her hands on his neck, again pushing warm chakra into his system.
"I'm not laughing."
"Why are you wearing cotton? The winter uniform is wool, for good reason: it insulates when wet. You were soaked, moron."
"Wool's too itchy."
"The quartermaster doesn't provide silk."
"So you'd risk your safety just to save a few ryo?" Sakura continued her well-intentioned harangue. "There was no need to stand watch tonight. Only a fool would be out in this kind of weather." She yanked off her shirt, then her boots and skirt until she was kneeling next to him in only a spaghetti-strap top and panties.
She looked delightful, despite the glare she sported. Who would have thought she wore black lace underwear when on missions? And that camisole had to be made of silk. He wanted to touch it to make sure. The contrast of the dark fabric against her skin was appealing, even half out of it he recognized this. Pure, firm, milky-white flesh that was an absolute pleasure to observe.
He didn't object when Sakura pulled back the top portion of the sleeping bag, although in his addled state Kakashi did wonder how the two of them would both fit. Ah, that was it. She was planning on sleeping on top of him.
"Don't get any ideas. I'm still angry at you. And if the weather was better, you'd better believe I'd make you sleep outside." She lay atop him, her flesh against his, her camisole rolled up to better allow her warmth to penetrate. "But it would suck if you died on this trip. I'd never hear the end of it."
Kakashi felt her warmth flowing into him, and the gentle tug of her chakra on his muscles and vital organs. His body responded, slowly. First the feeling came back into his hands, and then his feet. Finally his mental faculties went back on line.
"Sakura?" She was out, either asleep or unconscious. He carefully rolled her off him, then turned to his side so that lay face to face. He gently rested one arm across her torso, and cradled her head with the other. She'd probably be annoyed when she woke up: he guessed she had no desire to spend the evening in his embrace, considering her earlier anger. But she'd furious if he left the warm cocoon of her down-filled sleeping bag, and he certainly wasn't willing to have her suffer through a cold, wet night.
She'd depleted her chakra: that explained her unresponsiveness when he tried to rouse her. Kakashi half chuckled. They were quite the pair: a seasoned warrior falling victim to a modest ice storm, and a medic draining her energy reserves in an effort to mend him. If an enemy were to come along right now, they'd both be toast. He was warm, but still fatigued. And she was completely out. There was nothing he could do about this strategic disadvantage, he thought as he nestled into the curves of her body.
He was glad he was exhausted, actually. Although her raw sexuality was hard to ignore, his body was in no condition to act on its desires. But if he woke up, rested, and found her next to him, intertwined with him, he didn't know what might happen.
He didn't need to worry. Kakashi woke to an empty tent and the smell of a traditional breakfast. He thanked the woodland gods for the small favors. Given the raging hard-on he had at the moment (a bit more intense than his body's usual morning announcement, no doubt due to Sakura's proximity the night before) he was glad she'd risen before him.
He crawled to the entrance of the tent and shivered at the cold seeping in through its metal zipper.
"My clothes? Sakura, could you hand me my pack?"
"Be right there." She came to the tent's entrance with a bundle in her hand.
"It was uncovered all night. I brushed off the ice as best I could, but the stuff inside got wet." The clothes she handed him were the ones he wore the night before, but permeated with the smell of wood smoke.
"How long ago did you get up?" Hours, he guessed, if she'd had time to dry his clothes. They were barely damp, he noticed as he pulled on his shirt.
"A while ago. Hurry up, your breakfast is getting cold."
He complied, and quickly joined her by the rebuilt fire. Miso soup, and rice and eggs. It wasn't standard mission fare—carrying eggs in one's pack was rarely a successful endeavor—but he wasn't complaining. Add a bit of broiled saury and it would be his favorite breakfast.
"You're kidding," he exclaimed as she handed him a small, rectangular tin, a small metal key still attached to its top. "Why would you—"
She'd been angry at him when they left the village. Why would she pack a food she hated that he adored?
"An army travels on its stomach." She scraped the remains of her breakfast into the fire, poured water into the rice pot and began to heat it.
"Well, thank you."
She shrugged in response.
"You're not yourself, you know." She didn't face him as she talked, instead focusing her attention on cleaning up the morning's repast.
"What do you mean?"
"It's not like you to do something so… stupid as exposing yourself to the cold. And you left your pack out in the rain. That's Genin 101. You barked at Naruto when he did that years ago and the wild dogs got into his food."
She was right. Every first year genin knew that you treed your pack if it had food in it, and kept it safe otherwise. His obsession with Sakura was the clearly the cause of these oversights. It wasn't like him to let his frustration with another blind his ---
"Although I shouldn't complain. It helps to see that you have clay feet."
"How so?" He'd never realized that in her eyes he was on a pedestal. Or once was.
"It makes it easier to work with you, I guess. I've always worried that I wasn't good enough."
"What are you talking about?"
"Team Seven. I was the odd man out. Girl. No special talents, no family inheritance, no stunning jutsu. Just a boring civilian trying to make it as a ninja."
"A girl with superb chakra control. That's something. It took me years to reach the level of control you were born with."
She shrugged again.
"Speaking of which, you went a little too far last night."
"I know. But thanks to this," Sakura tapped her ankle, reminding Kakashi of the chakra-laden tattoo placed there, "I was able to put things to right when I woke up." She frowned at the fire. "You should have woken me, you know."
"And let you shiver in the cold while I hogged your sleeping bag? Not on your life. Close quarters is the norm on missions. Even if you're angry at your partner."
He was hoping for an "I'm not angry," but Sakura did not oblige. She changed the subject instead, irritation clearly evident in the scowl she flashed at him. "So what's going on with you? It's not just last night. You'd never back talk a superior the way you did to Naruto yesterday."
"It needed to be said."
"But what business is it of yours? He's the Hokage, you're merely an officer."
"I respect the chain of command, if that's what you're getting at. But a person has to know when to speak up. How many atrocities have been committed because a soldier was unwilling to question his orders? I didn't check my brain at the door when I became a ninja. And if it means I get busted down a rank or two for ruffling feathers than that's a price I'm willing to pay."
"But again, it was none of your business. The missions I take on are between me and Naruto. Not you. How many times do we have to go over this?"
"You said I wasn't your friend. You're wrong."
"You don't act like a friend."
"You're not looking closely enough."
Sakura swished fresh water on the morning's dishes and quickly repacked the mess kits, slapping them onto the ground when she was done.
"I know what it is," she said in a voice filled with authority. "You're having a mid-life crisis."
"If you say so." Kakashi rose and began breaking camp.
It wasn't a mid-life crisis. He was barely into his thirties. He was definitely distracted, but worries over the path his life had taken surely were not the cause.
It was Sakura. He'd have to be an idiot not to recognize this. It was more than him wanting her however. His distraction revolved around Sakura, the genin he'd let down, the chunnin he'd allowed to make jounin by paying a terrible price. He'd be inhuman not to be distracted by the guilt generated by the simple act of not acting.
It wasn't wrong to want to protect her now. It was human.
"We still need to talk strategy." He hadn't noticed that she'd come up behind him. Damn. He really was impaired.
"I was thinking a split reconnaissance effort. You?"
"That would be most practical." Sakura pulled her rucksack onto her back and began walking. "I guess the attack will depend on what we find."
Kakashi followed, noting that ice still covered almost every horizontal surface. He gestured toward a more deeply forested area, so that they might walk through the rough fern undergrowth instead.
"No. It will need to be two-pronged. The girls are the critical factor here. We'll need to secure their safety, preferably at the very start of the attack."
"That's my job."
Kakashi nodded. "They held Sencha in a cave. It seems likely they'd do the same again. Tea country has karst geology. Lots of sinkholes and caverns."
"I remember. Hard water, too."
"Which is easy to crumble." Sakura flexed her gloved hand unconsciously.
"Effective, but too noisy. I agree that it would be better to get the girls to safety before we take out the gang, but I don't think it will be possible. We'll have to do the extraction while the attack is proceeding. There was one guard, last time. I'd expect at least two, given the number of girls they're holding. You'll need to divert their attention--"
"Another reason why a kunoichi was the perfect choice for the mission."
"—while not further harming the girls."
"Damsel in distress, then. Or genjutsu. And I won't appear at the mouth of the cave. I'll take them on further out."
"Good." Kakashi nodded in approval.
"Well, if it really is Yamakiri Hajime we're dealing with, I'm at an advantage."
"Because lightning bests earth."
"Right. And there were rumors that his secondary type was wind."
"That's decided then. As if there was any question about it."
"A week, then. Tops."
"Assuming they're in Tea."
"The minor countries are the perfect location for this kind of thing. They'd never get away with abducting children in a country with its own hidden village. And like I said, there are all the caves. Tea is the perfect place to have a hideout."
"Is that why Naruto seemed so eager for the village to take on this mission?"
"It might be a part. I'd guess the relationship he's forged with the daimyou is most of it. He sees people where others see opportunity. But in this case, the two coincide. Strategically, having Tea as an ally is huge. You've never been to Southport, have you? It's deep water, and more and more of the continent's trade is coming through it. Almost no taxes, so it's very attractive to the countries across the ocean. Tea will become a very wealthy nation soon, so it's best to have them on our side."
"I've never thought of Naruto as a strategic thinker."
"You might be surprised. He's still a bit slow on the uptake, but he's got a good head on his shoulders."
"Yeah. And he's a great friend."
"Right." Kakashi didn't miss the subtext of her statement, but he held his tongue. He had no desire to start arguing again. "It's another day to Tea but if we push it we can get there by midmorning tomorrow." He gestured to the low-hanging conifer branches around them. "The ice should be melting within an hour or two."
"Can't wait to be done with this, can you?" The sullen look of the day before had returned to Sakura's eyes, and Kakashi was momentarily flummoxed by her unique ability to turn the most simple of observations into a personal attack.
"Am I looking forward to freeing several young girls from their captors? No, not really. Other than that, this is just like any other time-critical mission. Meaning the sooner we get in and out, the better."
Kakashi shifted his pack onto his shoulders and broke into a trot. He was pleased when Sakura didn't follow suit: he suddenly needed his space.
They didn't make it to the Tea border until noon the next day. The ice storm was more severe in the mountainous region to the south of Fire; its residue slowed them down more than he predicted. Not only was it treacherously slippery, more so as the elevation increased, but the added weight of ice on tree limbs meant that they were not safe for walking. They journeyed through the understory instead, picking their way through icy patches.
Kakashi was surprised to see a small party waiting for them as they crossed into Tea. Two kago stood empty on the main road, their porters apparently on a cigarette break. But a servant clad in the livery of the daimyou approached them, paper in hand.
He smiled when he recognized Kakashi.
"The Lady asked that we bring you back to the palace. She has been waiting anxiously for you." The man, clad in a kimono that was black except for the oversized mon on its reverse, waved them toward the two sedan chairs.
Although Kakashi usually was not comfortable in being transported through the sweat of others, he was happy to make an exception. Sakura had no compunction about jumping into the basketlike contraption. Or maybe it was the two bearers assigned to her, both of whom were boyishly attractive. Either way, Sakura's face lit up as she moved toward the conveyance, and it was pleasant to see her so happy for once.
Kakashi was grateful for the solitude the kago afforded. He took advantage of the rare opportunity to read, bothered little by the shifting shadows created by the bamboo screens to his right and left. But he gave up after a while: it had begun to rain, fairly heavily and the light was obscured. Apart from that, Sakura was too much on his mind for him to focus on literature, however well written.
Sakura would find Sencha amusing, he guessed. The girl's energy was infectious, and in her natural element she'd likely direct her orders to the staff and not her companions. At least, he hoped so. An international incident might ensue should the young girl push the hot headed kunoichi a centimeter too far.
Kakashi heard the lady of Tea before he saw her. The heavy rain meant poor visibility, but the girl's near-strident voice was impossible to miss.
"If you're going to hold the umbrella, hold it over me! It's dripping all over me. God, never mind. Just get away!"
The kago was lowered to the ground, and the bamboo screen rolled up to allow Kakashi egress. Sencha stood right before the small vehicle, alone. Her servants, one with an elaborately painted umbrella, the other with a brazier that steamed in the rain stood off to one side, apparently cowed. The house stood behind them, impressive as it was the first time Kakashi saw it, and no less elegant in the dismal rain. Camellia trees flanked the impressive entrance to the palace. They were already in bloom—several months ahead of schedule. They'd likely been tricked into blooming by the gardener toiling at their roots.
Kakashi directed his attention to the young mistress of the place. She looked different. Her imperious expression was very much the same, but her face had filled out. She still looked like an innocent pre-teen, however. Her actions underscored this assessment.
She yanked Kakashi's arm to pull him out of the cramped kago, heedless of the bamboo curtain swinging perilously above her.
"Ninja! You came! You came! Finally! Do you know how long I've been waiting?"
Hours, the copy ninja guessed, based on the bedraggled state of her attendants. He disembarked from the junior-sized conveyance, unfolding his lanky legs from an equally constricted torso. The princess of Tea danced around him as the needles of regained sensation stabbed through his feet.
"And Sakura? Where is she?"
"Here." Said kunoichi emerged from her own vehicle without help or pretense, and eyed Lady Sencha curiously.
"But how do you know my name?" Sakura asked after straightening her skirt and attempting to smooth the wrinkles from her red and white zippered shirt.
"It was in the traveling papers," Kakashi broke in.
"No." Sakura's eyes narrowed. "That would be a break in protocol, Kakashi. And we both know how important it is to follow the rules."
She was right. Sakura didn't miss much. The specific ninja assigned to a mission was almost never announced to the client in advance. Should the messenger be waylaid on his journey, sensitive information could fall into the wrong hands.
"Oh, I just figured it would be you," Sencha explained sunnily. "Kakashi-san told me all about you."
"Did he?" Sakura's brow lifted even higher. "And what did he say?"
"Lady Sencha, I hate to impose on you, but would it be possible to show us to our accommodations? We're both tired and grubby. You know how traveling is." Kakashi wished telepathic jutsu were effective on civilians. In this case, however, his urgent plea would have to suffice.
"Oh! Right!" Sencha snapped her fingers and the umbrella-carrying servant came scurrying. "Get moving." She smiled again at her ninja guests. "Daisuke will show you the way. And Daichi will be along shortly with your bags."
Sencha turned toward the house and pointed to several floor to ceiling windows on the east side of the residence. "Join me at four for the afternoon tea ceremony. In the tea room. Daichi will show you where it is." This was stated as imperatively as the directions to her staff.
Kakashi and Sakura followed the two servants into the luxuriously appointed palace and down a wide, marble-tiled hallway abutting a manicured courtyard.
Daichi, his face as downtrodden as before silently opened the sliding doors to a room as big as Kakashi's entire house.
"It's amazing!" Sakura bounded into the room, any timidity she might have felt at coming face to face with royalty long gone.
The room had its own tokonoma, highlighting a vase that was likely priceless. It held a single, well-chosen branch, bare to suit the season. Behind it hung a silk edged scroll: a ink painting of a winter scene, featuring a blossoming camellia tree. The carved transoms running the perimeter of the room were also decorated with stylized, multi-petaled flowers, a fitting tribute to the ruler of a nation so indebted to the tea plant.
"Look at this courtyard! It's a scholar's garden! Amazing! Don't you think?"
Kakashi moved to the window and peered out at a rainy landscape of huge, spiky boulders, made not of the local limestone, but of a rock found only at the farthest reaches of the Earth country. It must have cost a fortune to move them to their current location. But given the owner of the place, that seemed appropriate.
The thud of their bags hitting the room's tatami mats caused Kakashi to turn around, just in time to note a look of disbelief blossoming on Sakura's face. Her knuckles tightened into white lumps as she faced Kakashi and hissed a quiet request.
"Tell me we're not sharing this room."
"That was the lady's request, ma'am." Apparently Daichi had excellent hearing. Not to mention a very poor sense of judgment. Sakura had decked others for insults lesser than "ma'am."
Confusion quickly turned to ire and Kakashi jumped between the freakishly strong kunoichi and her intended target.
"It's obviously a mistake, Sakura. I'll fix it. Right away."
"What did you tell her about us?"
Kakashi didn't stick around to answer. Instead he high-tailed it out of the room, noting wryly that Daichi was smart enough to get out of there as well. Both ran into Sencha just outside the main hall.
"Do you like it?" The Lady's mischievous smile informed Kakashi that their accommodations were not a mistake.
"We'll need separate rooms, Lady Sencha."
"I told you to call me Sencha. Why don't you? And why would you need your own room? Did you have a quarrel?"
"No quarrel. No relationship. How many times do you have to hear it?"
"Very well. Daichi, get Daisuke and tell him to make up the Spring room." Her servant hurried away, glad to be out of the little dictator's reach.
"So tell me. How have you been? Anything exciting happen since you left?"
"Nothing that's not classified."
"Your lovers' spat is classified? How boring for me."
Kakashi sighed. The girl had a one-track mind. "And you?"
"I'm settling in to the job. My father trusts me enough to leave me in charge in his absence."
"Where is he?"
"He went to Southport."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "Business, I guess," he ventured.
"We own several ships, and he knows almost every other ship owner or corporation head. He thought those men might be planning on stowing the girls aboard one of the smaller ships and sailing to Snow or the great continent."
"I see." How stupid could the daimyou be? Any ship owner involved in human trafficking was not about to admit to it, and certainly not to the most powerful man in the land. A throat slitting would be the expected response, not honesty.
Daichi returned then, out of breath, but Sencha immediately gave him new orders. "Take ninja-san to his room. I assume it's ready by now. Don't forget, Kakashi. Tea at four. You'll find something to wear in your room, in case you don't have anything appropriate to wear."
"We'll brief then?"
"Of course. As soon as my father returns."
Kakashi followed Sencha's lesser servant to his new quarters. Not surprisingly they were adjacent to Sakura's. A wall of fusuma separated the two spaces, such that the two rooms could easily be converted into a larger suite, not unlike the rooms in a hotel conference center.
His room was just as elegant as Sakura's, although its decorating was a better fit to the kunoichi, given its theme. This room had a tokonoma, as well. This one featured plum blossoms, which like the camellia outside had been forced into bloom. He might be at a ryokan—one of the highest caliber—given the attention to detail of his surroundings. A kimono and juban hung on a bamboo rack at one end of the room. The tea ceremony was to be quite formal, he surmised. Hopefully it wouldn't be as long and drawn out as the ones he'd endured in Fire, where the way one held ones cup communicated more about social status than clothing or speech patterns.
Kakashi showered quickly in the well-appointed bathroom, not taking the time to appreciate the almond fragrance of the toiletries provided for him, nor to luxuriate in the thick Wind country towel he wrapped around himself. He rubbed his hair dry with several swipes of the plush textile then ran his fingers through the resulting clumpy mess in a near-futile effort to subdue his uncoiffure.
He dressed quickly, as it was approaching four p.m., and went next door to inform his partner of the evening's sartorial directive. He needn't have bothered, however.
Sakura answered her door dressed in a pale green kimono, its color a bit out of place for the season, but perfectly suited to her complexion. She'd blown her hair dry—a rare luxury when one was on a mission, and one she'd complained about heartily during her younger days—removing the stubborn wave that caused parts of her bobbed hair to curve outwards.
She smelled of roses. He couldn't help but notice.
"It's close to four," he said, as there was little he could mention without provoking a negative response. "Shall we?"
"Isn't it standard practice that you be late?" Sakura asked drily, accompanying him nonetheless.
"Not for the daimyou of Tea. Nor for his daughter." His reply was equally arid.
"Some bad news," he added after a moment, once he was sure the hall was empty.
"He's gone to Southport."
"The daimyou? Don't tell me he's hunting them down himself."
"Why would he do something so stupid?"
"Ah. You haven't met the man." Kakashi stopped himself from rolling his eyes. "Guilt?"
"What do you mean?" Sakura's voice softened a bit as they entered the palace's main reception hall. Thankfully Sencha was not present.
"He got his daughter back. But his subjects…"
In his previous visit to the palace, Kakashi had not visited the tea room. It was not what he expected. Instead of a simple, zen-like room with minimal furnishings this room was ornately decorated with flowers and several cages of songbirds hung from the ceiling. They appeared to sing on demand.
"Nightingales," Sakura noted. "Although it isn't evening yet. I didn't realize Tea had links to the western nations."
"We don't," Sencha replied as the entered the room. "Daddy just built it for me."
Kakashi and Sakura exchanged glances.
"Isn't it great?" the Tea princess continued. "I was reading about the Gongfu tea ceremony and Daddy, well he'll do just about anything for me."
"He sounds like a wonderful man," Sakura murmured.
Sencha giggled. "I've got him wrapped around my little finger!" She turned away from her guests and bellowed into the hall. "Daichi! Where are you?"
The servant came running. Kakashi noticed a small facial tic just below the young man's mouth. The copy ninja wondered if the man was indentured, or free to leave his employ. Probably the former: Kakashi couldn't imagine the unending stress of working for the demanding girl.
"Daichi's our tea master. That's why I hired him."
The rather nervous servant knelt next to an extremely low table covered with the implements required for the ceremony. Kakashi prepared himself for the worst. He and Sakura sat completely still in a seiza pose, as was customary for the ceremony they had both experienced in Fire.
But instead of a silence allowing an appreciation of the tea master's well-practiced skills, music began to play, in a dissonant pentatonic scale. It utterly ruined any semblance of concentration Kakashi struggled to maintain.
"This is a ceremony of pleasure, not contemplation," Sakura laughed as Daichi handed her the first cup of Oolong tea. "You're just supposed to enjoy the flavor."
The girl sipped her tea, then nodded to Daichi, who poured two more cups of the steaming beverage.
"So!" Sencha clapped her hands before her guests were half-finished. "You can go now, Daichi."
"But my lady…"
Sencha shrugged as she turned away from the poor man. "There are more steps, actually, but I'd rather skip the boring parts." Daichi slunk away, looking even more forlorn than before.
"Let's get down to business. My dad will be along any minute."
Kakashi gave a small sigh of relief. He had half expected news of the man's murder, instead.
"He's returned?" Sakura asked.
Sencha nodded. "He didn't have much luck. Four ships had already left port before he arrived, including one owned by some foreign group. Daddy's men paid off the longshoremen and they admitted they'd carried aboard several large crates. They heard noises coming from inside and assumed they were zoo animals. That's what they said, anyway."
"The girls…" Sakura bit her lip.
"They must have taken lodgings somewhere in Southport. Did your dad check on that?" Kakashi doubted this. The daimyou's men weren't ninja. They didn't know the ins and outs of surveillance. If anything they'd made the coming mission more difficult. Amateurs.
"You can ask him yourself."
The daimyou of Tea entered the room, as blond and impish-looking as his daughter, but in a fleshy, stocky way. He sat down on a chaise and Kakashi noticed that several servants, Daichi among them had entered with him. They quickly rearranged the room's furnishings into an impromptu court. The servants were clearly skilled at anticipating the great lord's needs, apart from Daichi. He held back, unsure of how to act.
Sakura took pity on the man she'd nearly pounded earlier, bestowing on him a 150 watt smile of encouragement. Daichi's face lit up accordingly and immediately he seemed much more at ease.
"And who is this young thing?" The daimyou's grass green eyes glimmered as he directed his gaze at the still-beaming Sakura.
"Lord Koichi, may I introduce my associate, Miss Haruno Sakura, jounin of the Village Hidden in the Leaves."
Sakura left her chair and bowed deeply.
"I didn't know ninja could be so beautiful."
The pink-haired kunoichi blushed at this pathetic excuse for a pick-up line.
"And so ladylike. Maybe you could teach Sencha a thing or two while you're here."
"Daddy!" The young Lady glared at her father, who winked in her general direction. His focus was still on Sakura, much to Kakashi's irritation.
"Sencha briefed you on the situation, I gather."
The pair nodded, and Sakura spoke next.
"Did you determine where they were staying? A hotel or safehouse, maybe?"
"Sadly, no. My men and I were a bit pressed for time. Our objective was to save the girls."
"May I ask why you didn't wait for us?"
"No time! I sent a message as soon as it became clear that there was a pattern of kidnappings, but I knew it would be days before you got here. Young lives were at stake." He looked at Sencha as he spoke, and Kakashi knew he was thinking of her younger years, and seeing his daughter's face on each of the lost girls.
"Your dedication to your subjects is commendable, Lord Koicha. But you realize that you placed yourself in great danger, don't you?" Kakashi worded this as tactfully as possible.
The sometimes pompous man reddened but he waved his hand dismissively. "My men carried out the search and interviews, not me."
"But now they know you're onto them."
The man couldn't be that dense. Thankfully, Sakura jumped into the conversation again, liberally lacing her words with honey.
"They must know someone at the docks if they were able to secure a ship so easily. And I hope you'll pardon me saying so, but a person of your prestige—and even your men—would stand out clearly in that sort of place."
Lord Koicha puffed up. "Yes, I suppose that's true."
"Do you still want us to track this man?"
"Track him? I want you to kill him."
"Did your men get a description of him?"
"Nothing different from what Sencha said. Sorry about that."
"If the man is who we think he is, there's a bounty on his head. Killing him won't be an issue—"
"But the problem with that," Sakura interjected, "is that if we take him out straight away we won't be sure that he is the one responsible for these kidnappings."
"I see. A very good point, Miss Sakura."
She actually blushed again, like a preteen girl. But it was clear she had him eating out of her hand. This must be her intent, Kakashi mused. Trust a kunoichi to smooth an otherwise bumpy situation into glass.
"What would be the best course of action, in your view?"
Kakashi couldn't agree more.
"We need to spend time with them, find out the scope of their operation."
"Obviously we won't let any more girls come to harm. They'll be returned safely to their families," Kakashi added.
Lord Koichi nodded vigorously.
"You'll be leaving tomorrow, then?"
"No, the day after. We'll need supplies and clothing if we're going to pass ourselves off as civilians."
"I see. Well, then. We'll have some time to entertain you." He motioned to a servant, who came forward quietly. The two spoke briefly and the servant left the room, taking most of the attendant staff with him.
"My chef has prepared a light meal for you, if you'll follow me."
The group entered the main dining hall, where the "light feast" was laid out.
Sakura did not object when the daimyou pulled out a chair for her—the seat just to the right of his own—nor when he monopolized her for the entire evening. If anything, she seemed enchanted with him. She laughed freely: not the forced, studied laugh she'd used on karaoke night, but the sparkling, vivacious laugh that came when she was truly amused.
Kakashi had no intention of eating, despite the quality of food being served. Fish carted in from the southern sea, and broiled to a golden brown succulence tempted him sorely, but there was no reason for the daimyou, his daughter or the palace staff to see the copy ninja's face. Kakashi consoled himself with the thought of sneaking a plate back to his room and busied himself by talking to Sencha.
His eye kept drifting toward the far end of the table, however, where the daimyou and his companion for the evening were giggling.
"I love a good appetite on a girl," the daimyou half-shouted in the blustery voice usual to him. "Sencha, you could learn a thing from Sakura."
The daimyou's daughter glowered as her father continued.
"Makes you wonder how you're not fat as a cow."
Sakura did not react the way Kakashi expected. Just weeks before he had said something similar, though no way near as indelicate and the kunoichi had lit into him. But she simply smiled at the daimyou's tactless observation and offered a reasonable explanation.
"Shinobi exercise far more than the average civilian. As a result our resting metabolism can be three to five times faster than normal. I have to eat, or I'd just waste away." She tucked into the second helping of roast duck a servant set before her, causing the daimyou to laugh.
"Lucky," He patted the distended belly that hung over his low-slung obi, and leaned in to exchange private words with her.
"Don't worry," the Sencha whispered. "He won't steal her away. I already told him you're a couple."
"You what?" Kakashi's words echoed through the hall, putting an immediate stop to the daimyou's animated conversation.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"Er, Sencha was just telling me how much she spent on the Tea room."
The daimyou shrugged. "Oh, yes. I really should put her on an allowance. Sakura," he turned his attention back to Kakashi's partner, "Will you let me show you the palace? I'm sure you haven't had a proper tour."
"I'd be delighted!"
The pair quickly left the room, much to Kakashi's consternation. There was work to be done if they were going to hit the road the day after next. And even if Lord Koicha had no interest in Sakura, his hands were a little too touchy-feely.
He felt eyes on him and looked up to see Sencha observing him. Her smile was Cheshire-like. "Well, I guess dinner's over."
"Do you have any maps of the country? Detailed ones."
"Of course. I'll have Daddy's secretary get them from the library."
"I'll need a geological survey and one showing all villages, no matter how small. And I'll need the names of the villages the girls came from."
The maps and related information were quickly procured and Kakashi excused himself for the evening. He had a lot of work to do.
His room wasn't the best place for studying a minutely detailed parchment, given its indirect lighting and lack of a workspace. But it had one huge advantage: solitude.
Some patterns began to emerge. Every girl was taken from a village with between 500 and 1000 people. This made sense: in a smaller village strangers would be noticed, while in the larger villages, people were more vigilant about strangers. But in these medium sized villages, members of the crew were most likely able to move undetected.
Kakashi circled the sites on the map, and noticed that although they were widespread in location, they formed an uneven ring. It stood to reason that their base of operations was likely somewhere near the center, roughly equidistant from all of them. The copy ninja smiled. At least he knew where they'd be heading.
His next job was to examine the topographic map. The larger caverns were mapped, but these seemed unlikely candidates for a hideout: too public.
Kakashi stretched and wished he'd asked Sencha for a magnifying glass. His eye was bleary from focusing so closely. He leaned over the map once more, but his concentration was broken by the sound of laughter.
It was coming from next door—from Sakura's room. And it wasn't just female laughter. A loud baritone harmonized with her alto, and Kakashi immediately knew who was visiting.
Something was extremely amusing: Sakura's giggles turned into barely controlled screeches of glee. That was the sake's fault. It had flowed quite freely at dinner.
Kakashi rose in disgust and headed for the bathroom. He wouldn't be able to concentrate as long as the pair were carrying on so loudly. And he didn't dare interrupt them: who would interrupt their host, especially a daimyou?
He turned the shower on full blast, and left the room to grab his pack. The clothes inside were damp from the ice storm and smelly by now. He pulled them from the bag, and threw them into the tub, happy that the pelting spray completely obliterated the sounds from next door.
Laundry complete, it was his turn. He spent a good half hour in the shower's spray, and did his best to fully appreciate it. Who knew when he'd be showering again?
Thankfully the next door noises had stopped when he reentered his bedroom. He knelt once more over his maps, noting several more geologic features.
But then he heard moaning.
Not painful moaning, rather cries of a different kind.
It was Sakura, damn her. He should have known she'd carry on in this way, even on a mission. She was completely out of control.
She had to know that sleeping with a client was forbidden. It was the type of offense that could strip a jounin of his (or her) rank.
But there was nothing Kakashi could do, not really.
He could slide back one of the fusuma separating the rooms, just a crack, and confirm what his other senses told him. Part of him was in favor of this plan of action—strongly in favor. The sight of Sakura with her partner had been strangely provocative last time, although he'd felt terribly dirty afterward. Even listening to her now, to her short quivering breaths and soft cries of near-ecstasy made him want to assault himself.
But he held back.
He paced the room instead, putting his nervous energy to work.
A man like the daimyou didn't deserve her, no matter how rich and powerful he was. He wouldn't be able to appreciate her free spirit, nor her dedication to her craft. He saw only Sakura's beauty, and maybe (if he were a more intelligent person than Kakashi thought) her dry wit. But loads of women had those attributes. Sakura was much more.
Kakashi rolled up the maps, threw on some clothes and bounded next door. He'd just play dumb, he decided, and remove her from the situation. He'd make no insinuations, no judgmental statements. The daimyou would leave, blustering with embarassment, and his little tete-a-tete would be over. Sure Sakura would be angry, but more importantly, she'd be rid of him.
He banged on the sliding door, and listened for the hurried rustle of lovers searching for their abandoned clothes. It was strangely quiet on the other side of the door, however.
It slid open and a bathrobed Sakura peered out.
"It's late. What do you want?"
"You left before we could discuss strategy. Can I come in?"
Sakura glowered, but stood aside, allowing Kakashi access to her impromptu love nest.
The room was empty, and a quick glance to his right where the bathroom stood open showed him that he and Sakura were the space's only occupants.
Her hair was mussed, and her robe was belted tightly around her waist. That suggested someone might have been here. But how could he have left so quickly? The room had only one exit. And her face wasn't flushed, the copy ninja noticed, nor were her lips swollen from passionate kissing. Kakashi scratched his head in puzzlement.
"I've been thinking."
"About the infiltration."
"Right." Sakura folded her arms across her chest in a show of impatience.
"About our cover."
"Are three word sentences your limit this evening? Out with it."
Kakashi forcibly spat out the words, and cringed as they hung in the air.
"We'll need to pose as lovers."