|To Sensei, with Love
Author: Tintinnabula PM
AU. Only months left to graduation-- and Sakura is saddled with a new teacher, a man whose sole purpose in life seems to be to drive her crazy with frustration. Damn you, Kakashi-sensei! Beware of Fluff. Kakasaku kakashi x sakura. Rated MRated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Adventure - Kakashi H. & Sakura H. - Chapters: 5 - Words: 34,235 - Reviews: 319 - Favs: 245 - Follows: 310 - Updated: 12-29-09 - Published: 05-15-09 - id: 5064509
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
To Sensei, with Love
Sakura awoke to the unnerving feeling that she was in a strange place. She could tell even before she opened her eyes that something was wrong, although this feeling was in no way a product of her intellect. Rather, a creeping, unsettling sensation enveloped her-- the feeling that she was in a completely new location. She opened her eyes carefully to assess this new environment.
The first thing she noticed was that the crack in the ceiling was not hers. The ceiling was similar: it was coated in the same rough popcorn texture, faintly dusted by age that littered her own ceiling, but the crack in her room ran from window to closet wall, not in the perpendicular direction. The second thing Sakura noticed was the bed. Its mattress was far more comfortable than her own sagging one. And the linens covering her were smooth and cool against Sakura's skin, a far cry from the threadbare set that sat upon her own bed. The duvet was navy and white, woven in a blurred edge manji pattern that reminded her of pinwheels or the throwing stars used by ninja in the manga her male classmates read.
Sakura pressed the indigo-woven fabric close to her face and breathed deeply. She furrowed her brow as she tried to place a fragrance she was sure she's smelled before. It wasn't an offensive scent-- the slightly acrid smell of indigo was long gone from the fabric, indicating this duvet was old, perhaps treasured. On the contrary, the fragrance lingering among its threads was one of those scents that caused a person to inhale deeply and savor the subtleties of the aroma. It was a musky, masculine fragrance, like those expensive men's colognes found at the cosmetics counter of Konoha's finest department store. Something a well-off businessman or clotheshorse might use to anoint himself.
She knew several well-off businessmen, Ino and Hinata's fathers to be specific. But she'd visited their homes. Even their maid staff had nicer bedrooms than this one. Sakura's brow furrowed again as she puzzled through the limited possibilities open to her.
If she wasn't in her own bed, where was she? Or more to the point, in whose bed was she? Sakura bolted upright, then sank back into the blankets as the walls and windows spun around her in a nauseating circuit.
Ugh. Maybe she'd been poisoned. What was that stuff sleazy men put in the drinks of their unsuspecting dates-- rohypnol?
But she hadn't gone out drinking the night before. Hell, she'd never even been to a nightclub.
Sakura gripped the sheets under her and held on tightly until the room came back into a clear, unmoving focus. Then she turned her head carefully to continue her survey of the environment.
This bed was bigger than hers, a king-size that almost filled the room. The only other object of furniture was a scratched maple dresser, one quite familiar to Sakura as her own bedroom contained a similar piece . The terrace window was covered in horribly dated vertical blinds, again familiar, and the light fixture above her was a cheap fluorescent one, its circular lamp housed in a wooden box.
It was almost her room, she realized-- just a barely more refined iteration.
This must be Sensei's place. But what on earth was she doing there? In his bed? Sakura shuddered for a moment as she considered several unsavory possibilities. She dismissed them immediately as far too ludicrous, and likely a symptom of whatever it was that was making her dizzy. Instead she screwed her eyes shut as she tried to recall any information that might help her make sense of things.
She vaguely remembered someone calling, "Sakura! Are you there?" although at the time she
thought this was just another part of the wild, fevered series of dreams she'd been experiencing all night. The image shifted as she heard the sharp cracking and splintering of wood: suddenly she was in a forest amid falling trees. A moment later she was back in her room, and an unfamiliar man was standing in her doorway.
She didn't jump in fright when she saw him. Her brain appeared to be working too slowly to permit that kind of reaction. Instead Sakura's mind noticed the oddest things about this intruder, small details that were of little importance.
He was handsome. And he'd yelled at her. Something about missing school. There was mud on his trouser cuffs which meant he'd undoubtedly tracked some into her home. For a moment of this dream Sakura wasn't sure whether she should be more angry at the mess he'd likely made of her carpet or of the fact that he'd invaded her privacy.
The next thing she remembered was a pillow soft bosom and the familiar voice of Lady Tsunade. Her voice was angry although she stroked her student's back the entire time she spoke. Obviously she was annoyed at someone other than Sakura.
No other memories trickled forth to accompany these brief images. Apparently this was the extent of Sakura's recall.
Tsunade had visited Sakura exactly twice before: once to deliver the news that her parents were gone, and a second time to make sure she was settled into her new apartment. Sakura didn't blame her for the paucity of interaction: Lady Tsunade was a very busy woman. Sakura was lucky to have her as a guardian of sorts. But for Tsunade to visit, something big must have transpired.
The pink haired girl attempted to climb out of bed, but the room spun again.
It was Sensei, she realized as the room reoriented. He looked a bit haggard, as though he'd spent the night partying. It was his hair, she realized. It stood straight up, as though he'd slept on it funny. And the one eye she could see had a dark ring beneath it.
"Why am I here?" She ignored his command and pulled herself upright in bed, doing the best to ignore the spinning and swaying of the room, which was refusing to cooperate with her.
"You don't remember?" Sensei shrugged. "Well, I guess that's not surprising. Are you thirsty?" he moved toward the bed after grabbing a water-filled carafe and glass from the dresser.
"Yeah." She accepted the glass gratefully, suddenly aware of the dryness of her throat and lips.
"So what happened?" she asked after downing the contents of the glass and holding it out for a refill."
"Flu. That's what Shizune said. A particularly virulent strain, apparently."
Sakura's brow darkened. "Naruto!"
"What about him?"
"He sneezed all over me yesterday." She didn't hide the disgust she felt at the memory.
"No, not yesterday. And he's at school as far as I know."
"Oh." It was easy to blame the blond, Sakura realized. Somehow Naruto became her scapegoat after arriving at the school. Perhaps this was because of the love triangle in which he'd included her. It was completely unrequited on her part, of course, but still. It was rage-inducing to watch him fall all over her when Hinata was standing a meter or so away. They'd be perfect together, if only he'd realize it.
"There are a few others out. Not enough to close the school, but..."
"Do they have babysitters, too?"
Hatake-sensei lifted an eyebrow. "No. They have family. Lady Tsunade was worried about you when you didn't show up at school."
"So she sent you? Or was she there, too?"
"Both. She came later, once I had you settled."
"But why am I here?"
"Here?" Sensei scratched his head. "I... broke your door down."
Sakura's eyes widened in disbelief.
"Don't worry. The custodian boarded up the entrance for now, until the new door arrives. Special order. Odd size or something."
Great. Just great. Another expense she couldn't afford. She had no idea how much a new door might cost, but it couldn't be cheap.
"You're an idiot. What did you think? That I'd been kidnapped or something?"
Sensei's expression changed momentarily. And when he replied to her outburst his voice seemed unnaturally calm.
"You're the one who doesn't have a telephone. Every teenager on Earth has a cell phone."
"Well, Sherlock, maybe I can't afford it. It's not my fault I don't have one."
The pale-haired teacher pulled a small silver object from his pocket and tossed it at her. "Now you do."
"You're giving me your phone?"
"I'll get another. Don't lose it, though. It was pretty expensive."
It certainly looked it. Even Hinata and Ino didn't have phones as thin or sparingly elegant, and with a slide-out keyboard for text. Just wait until her friends saw it--
"Hungry? You haven't eaten in two days."
"You were delirious. It took a lot to get your fever down. You sweated through your clothes several times."
Sakura blushed with embarrassment as she noticed the night gown she was wearing was not the one she'd worn to bed.
"Tsunade took care of it--"
Sakura tried not to sigh in relief.
"--the first time," he continued. And I took you to the bathroom a few times."
Sakura was sure Sensei was smiling under the silly navy-blue and white bandanna he wore.
"You don't remember?"
Sakura sank back into the bed and shut her eyes tight. Maybe if she wished hard enough Sensei would disappear and the nightmare of this new semester would end. Perhaps she'd open her eyes and find that all of this had been a horrible dream. Her world would go back to the way it was only days before: a world where she was surrounded by friends and fully enjoying a very lazy senior year.
The god of misery must have been perching on Sakura's shoulder, however, intent on showering her with his own peculiar brand of attention. When the high school senior opened her eyes nothing had changed.
She shut them again as tears began to flow. She couldn't staunch them, however. The dam had burst.
"Sakura?" There was concern in Sensei's voice.
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"Why are you ruining my life?" This came out as a whine, a terrible bleat of self-pity.
The bed creaked as Sensei sat down beside her, and she heard the low chuckle of his laugh.
"You think I'm torturing you? Punishing you?"
He was actually laughing at her. Bastard.
Her eyes flew open. "Yes! Exactly. You'll do something really nice, and follow it with something amazingly...mean! I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. You just gave me a cell phone, and you took care of me. What will you want in return? A pound of flesh?"
"You're wrong. Completely wrong."
"Then enlighten me, o wise one." She fairly spat the words.
"Let me get you something to eat, first." Sensei stood and regarded her critically. "By the way, what do you eat? I couldn't find anything but cup ramen in your kitchen."
"So?" It wasn't Sakura's fault that the cheap, instant noodle dish was the backbone of her diet. She couldn't afford good food.
"It's crap. No vitamins. Just starch, man-made fat and salt. No wonder you got sick. Your resistance must be abysmally low."
"I'm not really hungry." In truth, she was. But she had no desire to add to her debt.
"You have to eat. Miso soup? Everyone likes that."
"I'd prefer chicken." This was said just to be ornery.
"Chicken it is, then. I made some stock yesterday, just in case."
"You've been here the whole time? You missed school just for me?" Her eyes narrowed. This made no sense.
Sensei leaned over her and placed a refreshingly cool hand on her forehead.
"You're still feverish. Why don't you close your eyes for a while? I'll bring the soup in when it's ready."
Shizune was sitting by her side when Sakura woke again. She was taking Sakura's pulse, in fact, and had her stethoscope at the ready.
"Ah. Back from the dead." She gave Sakura a nurse's smile as she warmed the stethoscope against the hem of her sweater. "Sit up. Now breathe in, nice and deep. Again."
Sakura complied, grimacing as she did so. The room wasn't spinning as much as it had earlier, but it hurt to take such deep breaths. Especially when Shizune kept asking her to do so even more deeply. Then, to make things worse the nurse began tapping carefully on Sakura's back. The student closed her eyes and wondered if she had dreamed her conversation with Hatake-sensei. But no, this had to be his room. She was definitely still within her own apartment building.
She was feeling worse than this morning, if that were possible. As though a weight lay across her chest. Or more, accurately, inside it, blocking the path of oxygen into her lungs.
"If it was flu, it's not now. You're lucky I'm a nurse practitioner and can treat this. Have you been having chills?"
Sakura shook her head. Although she was feeling terribly cold right now. She pulled the blankets more closely around her as she sank back into the warmth of the bed.
"But it hurts when you breathe."
The pink-haired student nodded.
"What have you been doing with yourself, Sakura?"
"I got caught in the rain." And that was entirely Sensei's fault.
"That won't get you sick. It'll just give you a chill. Maybe lower your resistance, but only a tad. Have you been running yourself ragged?"
Well, Hatake-sensei had.
"Where is Sensei?" He'd promised her some soup, hadn't he?
"Hatake-san? School." Shizune responded to Sakura's blank stare with a further explanation. "He has afternoon classes to teach, remember?"
"You're lucky he stopped by your apartment. You had a 40 degree fever by the time Tsunade-sama and I arrived."
"It's only good if you're hoping for brain damage."
"He broke my door down." Not that Sakura had a complete recollection of this, but she thought it worth mentioning. It illustrated just what a lunatic the man was.
Shizune chuckled. "He has a tendency to overreact at times. But to be honest, Tsunade-sama was worried about you and sent him running. You never miss school, unlike some."
Sakura had known her compulsiveness when it came to attendance would come back to bite her on the butt. But truthfully, she was lucky to lead such a predictable life. Because of it, Shizune and Tsunade had found her, after all.
"So naturally she worried. Plus," Shizune fluffed the pillows behind Sakura, "she's feeling a little bit guilty about you."
"Absolutely. That's why he's here."
"Isn't he here because Gai-sensei...uh, left?"
"Well, that too. But Tsunade hired Kakashi--"
"Kakashi? Scarecrow?" Sakura found herself on the verge of laughter. What an extraordinarily appropriate name for the crazy-haired, lanky teacher.
"She hired Hatake-san because he has a broader and greater depth of knowledge than most teachers." Shizune sounded like a job announcement.
"Which he makes up for by having pathetically poor knowledge of teaching practices." Sakura rolled her eyes. "He's a slave driver, Shizune. Seriously!"
The dark haired woman smiled. "But that's at Tsunade-sama's request."
Sakura leaned forward in bed to grab the retreating woman's arm. "What do you mean?"
"I've probably said too much. Sorry."
"No! That's completely unfair! You can't let something like that slip and expect me to let it lie there." The coughing fit that ensued worked to her favor. Shizune's alarm was evident in the way she rushed to Sakura's side.
"You are as persistent as ever. Fine." She motioned for Sakura to lean forward as she sat down beside her. As she talked she moved her hands across Sakura's back, then side, in an odd drumming motion. Even more odd, it felt good. The student's next few coughs were productive, and Sakura felt it much easier to breathe as a result.
"Tsunade-sama feels guilty, like I said before. She feels that she's left you on your own too much. And that it's been unnecessarily difficult for you. So she's wanted to do something to make it better. It's been obvious to her that Konoha Academy's course offerings weren't enough for you. She has high expectations for you, Sakura. So she brought in... an expert, I'd guess you'd call him. She hired Hatake-san specifically to meet your needs, to make sure you weren't spinning your wheels final semester."
Sakura snorted, then lost herself if another bout of painful coughing
"Some expert," she said finally. "We've been doing Newtonian physics and nothing else. It's so boring."
"Really? I always enjoyed physics. Although we never got to play outside."
"Well, the trebuchet was okay. And the archery was, too. But he spoils it every time."
"He makes unreasonable demands of me."
"Like expecting me to figure everything out on my own."
"I hate to break this to you, Sakura, but that's the hallmark of a good teacher."
Sakura pulled the blanket over her face. "If that's all you have to say about Tsunade's big secret, then fine."
"Tsunade-sama. Show some respect."
"Yeah. Sama," Sakura said in a muffled voice.
Shizune tore back the covers forcefully, and Sakura was surprised to see an angry spark in the school nurse's usually placid eyes.
"Stop it. You have no right to act so cynical."
"That's the second time I've heard that."
"Because it's true!"
"Sensei said the same thing." Maybe he was right after all, Sakura realized. If she trusted anyone's opinions, it was Shizune's. The woman saw no need to dissemble, and never did. She even stood up to Tsunade on the woman's most hungover days.
"Tsunade-sama went out of her way to hire the best-- for you-- and you don't even appreciate it. You wouldn't believe the hoops she had to jump through to get Hatake-san released from his previous job. And the man-- damn it, Sakura, he just about saved your life! You're lying here with pneumonia and you have no idea how close you might have come--" Shizune's voice broke and she turned away.
Pneumonia? Sensei said it was flu. No wonder she felt so god-awful.
"You think that because you've lost your parents you have to be an adult. But really, I don't think you know what an adult is. It's not someone completely closed off from others, who sees the world in purely practical terms. But that's what you've become, isn't it? Cynical Sakura who thinks life is a game with a hidden set of rules. That success is as easy as getting the highest test score. God, where's your spirit? You didn't use to be like this."
Shizune wasn't angry any more. Her expression had softened into something resembling pity, and Sakura found herself shocked by the emotion.
She wasn't a person to be pitied. She was strong and self reliant, wise to the ways of the world, resourceful, popular and envied.
She felt tears slipping out before she could stop them.
Sakura shook her head vigorously, and immediately regretted it. The room spun ever so slightly in response to her head movement. Not as bad as earlier in the day, but enough to make her grimace in discomfort.
Shizune busied herself in rearranging the pillows she'd attended to only minutes before, steadfastly ignoring the girl's tears as she knew that was what Sakura wanted. Shizune had always been sensitive to others' needs. She was wasted as a school nurse attending to scraped knees and monthly maladies. How much better she'd be in a place she was truly needed, Sakura thought.
The nurse patted her leg and left the room, but returned with a half-filled glass, giving Sakura just enough time to collect herself.
She smiled as she offered her charge the container, then handed her two white pills.
"Antibiotics. You don't have the symptoms of viral pneumonia. If this doesn't do the trick in a couple of days we'll take you to a specialist."
Sakura swallowed the pills, washing them down with the juice Shizune had provided, and lay back in bed.
"I need to get going. I have a pig to walk and feed."
"You must have the most easygoing landlord in all of Konoha."
Shizune giggled, an unprofessional laugh that made her seem younger than usual. "I just might. Will you be okay by yourself until Hatake-san gets home?"
"Sure. I'll just sleep."
"Good idea." Shizune flipped the light switch on her way out, and Sakura lay in the gathering twilight. She was tired: her body ached, her head still hurt and her ribcage felt like it was confined within a corset. But she couldn't sleep. Shizune's words still stung.
When had she become such a negatively-minded person? Like every child she'd once faced each morning with joy and determination. But this year and the last were all about succeeding, about shoe-horning herself into the corporate world, about starting her climb on the ladder of success that had its lowest rungs in high school.
It was important to be a success, wasn't it? She had no one to fall back on if her dreams went south, no safety net of extended family or even a nuclear family of a mom and dad to catch her if she stumbled. Of course she'd become this way. It was too frightening not to.
The room was dark, Sakura noticed, suggesting she'd dropped off again. How funny to sleep the day away and awake more tired than before.
The only illumination in the room was that cast by the small lamp standing at the very end of the dresser, its shade directing the light downward into an insignificant pool that lit only a portion of the space. It was enough however, for Sakura to notice that Sensei had rejoined her. He was sitting at the foot of the bed, and he looked even more tired than he had that morning. His hair stood straight up in places and his posture was slump-shouldered. The paper-covered book that seemed to accompany him everywhere was by his side, opened face down on the bed. Sensei hadn't noticed she'd awakened. He was in the midst of a cell phone conversation, although it was difficult to get the gist of the conversation from hearing only his end. His replies were monosyllabic. The mobile, she noticed was different from the one he'd tossed at her that morning. This one was thin and black, but otherwise the twin to the silver one.
Who carried two cell phones? A two-timing boyfriend did, to ensure that one girlfriend didn't check the phone history or contacts of the other. Maybe Sensei was a playboy. He didn't seem the type, however. Sakura's teacher seemed far too lazy to juggle two women full time. She doubted he even dated much. That would require a modicum of discipline.
Interestingly, Sensei's face was uncovered, confirming that the man Sakura had seen in her feverish dream was actually him. She noticed the strength of his profile when he pushed the hair from his forehead. His nose was straight, its tip the slightest bit pointy. His cheekbones were well defined, although he wasn't gaunt, and his lips looked... kissable.
Sakura frowned at the thought. It must be the fever that was making her feel that way. As if she'd ever consider kissing a teacher. Let alone this one, the bane of her existence.
Or maybe it was Shizune's fault. The way she described Sensei made it seem as though his negative actions were on behalf of Tsunade. Maybe he was the kind person he sometimes appeared to be. If that were the case, Sakura would almost want to know him.
Sensei must have noticed she was awake, using that eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head vision bestowed on teachers. He turned toward her quickly as he ended the conversation.
"Speaking of whom. Gotta go."
He slid the phone shut, and for the first time Sakura was greeted by his smile.
It was toothy, although not predatory, the real type of smile one sees when a person is happily surprised.
"You look much better."
Although she certainly did not feel better, Sakura didn't reply. She was too busy staring at Sensei's face.
He was so very handsome. He certainly couldn't be called gorgeous, but he was attractive in a masculine, rugged way. He was quite unlike like the effeminate bishounen gracing the covers of the shoujo manga Hinata read, or the over-muscular centerfold in the magazine Ino had blithely purchased at an adult book store, then shared with the female portion of their class (and a couple of the guys). No, his good looks were real, and therefore subtle. The only vivid feature of his face was the the scar bisecting one side. It alone looked like something from a romance novel, and like the scars on those hyper masculine heroes, it didn't disfigure, but instead suggested its wearer was a man with a past, someone dangerous.
Of course, looks were often deceiving. Sensei was a math and science teacher, not a man of adventure. The only thing exciting about him was the bike he rode.
It probably wasn't even his.
Sensei caught on to her continued silence after a minute or two. Sakura laughed aloud as a red tinge crept over his face, indicating that he had realized exactly why she was staring at him. He turned away abruptly, only facing her again once a sad-looking bandanna was festooned across his still blushing visage.
"Why bother?" Sakura asked. "I've seen your face already. Why keep it a mystery?"
The teenager laughed again, this time with full on mirth. His mask-wearing was all about some phobia?
"If you were going to get sick, wouldn't it have happened by now?"
"No. I've been very careful."
"You're a little bit crazy, aren't you?"
Sensei's brow creased, indicating this arrow had met its target. As she was very pleased with this small success, Sakura couldn't help but continue.
"You're not one of those people who washes his hands two hundred times a day, are you?"
Her teacher's shoulders drooped. "You're calling me obsessive-compulsive. That's just great. A perfect reward for taking care of you these past few days."
His slightly passive aggressive volley hit home. Sakura's reply was appropriately meek. "Actually, I really do appreciate it. Tsunade really let you miss work?"
He barked a sharp laugh. "No. Not at all. Lady Tsunade would never let that happen. But my morning classes are with you, so it seemed reasonable that I stay here to take care of you."
"Shizune said you saved my life."
"I wouldn't go that far."
"Thank you." She meant it, she realized. She really did.
Sensei didn't deserve her constant ire. He was only doing his job. And if, as Shizune suggested his riding of her was at Tsunade's request, Sakura owed him an apology.
Sakura nodded as she realized she was indeed famished, and was pleased to realize that dizziness she'd experienced earlier in the day was finally gone. She felt horrible still, but perhaps the worst had passed.
This thought was contradicted by a sudden fit of coughing.
She fell back against the bed once she was done, exhausted.
"Let me get your soup."
Sensei left the room and Sakura sat up in bed, carefully arranging the bedding around her. The nightgown she was wearing was a thin one. It was made of nylon tricot, and was once fuzzy all over, but now worn thin in places. She wondered how much of her body he might have glimpsed over the past two days.
"Miso soup, just the way you wanted."
"I asked for chicken. I know I did."
"Kidding. It's chicken. Can't you smell it?"
Sakura breathed in deeply and was rewarded with the golden, mouth warming smell of homemade broth. Sensei carefully handed her a mug of this elixir of health, and his student eagerly sipped it.
As she drank a memory floated to the surface of her mind, a comforting remembrance of another sickbed, this one tended by her mother, with occasional, always entertaining visits from her dad.
Her mom had cooked soup like this, full of flavor and in her case, quiet devotion. She would take the day off from school and sit quietly with her daughter, embroidery in her lap. Whenever Sakura stirred she'd feel her mother by her side, the woman's patience seemingly unending.
And here Sensei was, doing essentially the same thing.
"I'm sorry I was snotty before. I really do appreciate you taking care of me." It wasn't quite like spending a sick day with her mom, but it would do. Nicely.
He didn't have to do this. He could stay in his living room while she lay here alone. But he didn't. He chose to remain close, germs and all.
Sensei didn't reply. He'd picked up his book while she was eating, and seemed fully engrossed by it.
"I said, I'm sorry."
He waved his hand dismissively, still not looking up from his book. "Drink."
She did, draining the mug of broth quickly.
"So, Sakura. What do you want out of life?"
Where did that question come from? Sakura regarded her sensei quizzically as he took the empty mug from her.
"I thought we were going to talk about why you're ruining my life. You promised me, this morning."
"Ah, but two are related."
"Excellent rejoinder. I'll get to your request, promise. But since you're in my house, in my bed, eating my food you should answer my question first. It's only polite."
She'd humor him, Sakura decided. It was the least she could do, given his hospitality. Even if Tsunade had ordered him to take care of her, he'd done it graciously.
"I don't know. What I want out of life. I mean, unless you're asking what I'm planning to do as a job. Career."
"They're not exactly the same--" Sensei began.
"I'm planning on business. I'd like to get my MBA and become a manager in one of the big corporations downtown."
"What do you mean, 'Why?' You sound like Shizune. Are you going to tell me I have no spirit, next? That I'm aiming too low?"
"Well, you don't seem to have..."
"The skill set? That's why I'd go to business school. To learn how."
"Because it's a lucrative field. I'll make good money as a manager."
"So it's about money."
Sakura felt her hackles raise.
"It's always about money. It's only the rich who are able to pretend that isn't true. You said you went to school on scholarship. So you should understand."
"I do, actually. You worry about making ends meet from month to month. You haven't had to get a job, have you? But the insurance money you get each month isn't quite enough."
"How do you know about the insurance money?"
"The school wouldn't have employed your parents without a policy, Sakura. Your parents might have bought one but the school takes one out on every employee, just in case. Standard practice."
Sakura frowned. She hated that the details of her life were so routine, its twists and turns so predictable to him.
"Did they leave you anything else?"
Sakura snorted. "You mean like a trust fund? My mom was a secretary, and my dad was the school janitor. There wasn't much left over each month, you know? It was all they could do to send me to the Academy." She touched her neck and ran her finger down a fine gold chain to pull out a locket.
"This was the only thing of value they left. Well, they gave it to me after they died. It came in a package the day I heard about their death. They'd sent it while they were on their second honeymoon. For their twentieth wedding anniversary..." Her voice trailed off. She didn't want to remember.
"May I see it?"
Normally she kept the locket close. She only removed it to bathe, but she handed it to Sensei without question now. She had no idea why: she'd refused every request from Ino or Hinata to examine it. But , oddly, she felt she could trust this man.
"It's beautiful." Sensei clicked a tiny latch on its side, and squinted as the small pendant opened.
"The three of you."
"When I was five. We were on vacation somewhere. In the mountains." She'd memorized the scene's miniscule detail: her dad stood on the left of the shot, her mom beside him, a pink-clad, pigtailed child standing in front of them. All squinted into the sun. It was summer, based on the clothes they wore. But the craggy mountain looming behind them was white capped.
"No idea where?"
"I'm sure they mentioned it. I just don't recall. I don't remember much from back then. It's funny, because most children do."
Sensei silently returned the ornately patterned locket to her.
"You'd never sell it, would you?"
"No! Of course not!" Never-- no matter how hungry she was. The locket was her only tangible link to her parents. After their death, everything else was auctioned off to pay for the funeral and to meet their other debts. Sakura was lucky Tsunade had instructed her to hide the gold pendant under her clothes before the appraisers arrived. It would have joined the other auction items otherwise.
"That's good to hear. Some things are priceless. Memories."
"You think you have the aptitude for it?"
"Why not? I'm smart. I pick things up quickly."
"But you'd be bored. Have you considered this?"
"Why would I be bored?"
"A person like you needs new challenges. You'd master whatever management strategies you learned in school, have a good couple of years implementing them. Hell, I could even see you climbing the ladder fairly fast."
Sakura smiled despite the fact that she felt the boom coming. This was Sensei talking. A compliment must always be paired with something negative. Each yin had its yang.
"But after that? Then what?"
"Once I'm a billionaire, who cares?"
Sensei chuckled. "So that's it! It's not about being secure. It's about being filthy rich. Thanks for clarifying."
"No. Not really. I was kidding, I guess. It's just about making sure I don't starve."
It was hardly the most noble motivation, she knew.
"Do you think you could do that kind of job for the next forty years of your life? Running meetings, overseeing sometimes lazy staff, analyzing endless spreadsheets of the same kind of data. Week after week, month after month, year after year."
"When you put it that way..."
He was right. She did become bored easily. This was why school was so horrible. Her teachers plodded along for an entire semester instilling the same facts she'd learned in week one.
"Well, what would you have me do?"
"Me? Who said I have any idea?"
"But you do. I can tell." Her mind worked quickly. "That's what this is about, isn't it? You and Tsunade have been testing me! Trying to see if I'm up to whatever it is she thinks I should do with me life. That woman..." Sakura didn't bother to hide her frustration. It irked her that her de facto guardian had approved-- no, suggested-- Sensei's torture of her.
Sakura looked up at the executor of the plot against her. She could tell Sensei was smiling under his wildly patterned bandanna. And the eye half-peeking out under his still wildly disorganized hair had a sparkle to it. But somehow his mirth didn't bother her as much as it should have.
"You are as smart as I figured. Yeah. It's been a test." Sensei stretched before continuing. "Lady Tsunade has been worried about you. Her goals for you are loftier than those you've set."
"How could they be? I'm planning on going to Kodai. That's the best school in the country."
He chuckled again.
"By traditional measures, yes, it's the best."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you could aim higher."
He and Shizune were reading from the same script. Tsunade's script. Sakura's fist's clenched momentarily, but she forced herself to calm down. If nothing else, he had earned a chance to talk without her angry interruptions. Saving her life was worth at least that.
"Towards what?" What could be better than four years at the nations most prestigious university, followed by a job with a top ranked company? That life was every hard-working student's dream.
"How about leading the life you really want? Have you ever thought about that?"
Sakura shook her head. She'd never given any thought to such a frivolous idea. Since her parents' fatal accident her plan had been to find a secure, high paying job. Her happiness had never figured into the scheme.
"When you were little what did you want to be?"
"A meteorologist." Seeing his surprised look, she amended, "You know. The weather girl on T.V."
"I liked the science aspect of it, and I was a bit of a ham when I was little, so... yeah. But that dream didn't last long. Next I wanted to be an adventurer."
"Like Lara Croft."
"An archaeologist?" Sensei's eyes indicated that he was smiling again, probably at the thought of said character's enormous breasts.
"No. To be honest, I've always found that part of her character a little boring."
"So, it's the shoot-em-up part that attracted you? Or the upper crust accent, the mansion... "
"Yeah. The guns... not the money. It's silly, I know, but I like how smart she is, and how she kicks peoples' asses so well."
"How she lives by her wits."
"Yeah." Sakura shrugged. "But basing your future on a video game targeted at adolescent boys isn't very smart. But, now that I think about it, my dad used to tell me adventure stories. Crazy stories about gallant spies, cat burglars and stuff. Kind of like James Bond stories, but minus the chauvinism. So maybe that's where I got it from."
Sensei chuckled. "Then what? What dream came next?"
"Nothing." she blushed. "Maybe I held onto the Lara Croft dream a little too long. Until I was almost sixteen, actually. But after my parents died I saw things the way they really are."
"And how are things, really?"
"Really? Well in reality, people work most of their lives, forty hours a week if the job is trivial, more than that if they want to get ahead. Plus getting ready each day, a long commute, and decompressing afterwards. Life is work. A person really only has the weekends and vacations to enjoy the fruits of his labor."
"So life is work?"
"Yeah. That's why it makes sense to make as much money as possible. So that your limited free time can be anything you want it to be."
"There's an easier way."
"Get a job you love. Then most of your hours are filled with doing what you enjoy, not waiting for five p.m. Friday."
Sakura laughed raucously. "Tell me you love your job."
"Who says I don't?"
"Your boredom is palpable." Sakura pointed to the book sitting next to Sensei on the bed. "I don't think you'd have your nose in a book all the time if you really enjoyed your work."
"You're wrong. There's something very satisfying in helping a person learn."
"And the pay is amazing, right?"
"Money isn't everything."
"Are you sure you grew up poor?"
"You have an amazingly bourgeois attitude."
"No, I have an incredibly realistic attitude."
"Sakura. How about we try a little experiment?"
She looked at her teacher curiously.
"I know I've pressed your buttons these past couple of weeks. I've been asking you to do things you have no desire to do. I get it. But what if--"
"What if what?" Her interest was piqued.
"What if you just went along with it for a week or two? Humored me?"
Sakura gazed at the man who'd come running when she'd gone missing from school, a man who'd stayed up for two nights to keep watch over her. Who'd made her chicken soup and sat by her side.
"I could do that," she said softly.
"I won't ask for anything more than that."
"You're just asking me to be a good student."
"More than that. To want to learn."
She could tell her reply had made him smile. His mismatched eyes crinkled over the garish bandanna.
"Shizune wants you in bed for the next two weeks. You'll stay here."
"Why? Can't I recover in my own bed? Surely the door will be replaced in a couple of days."
"You need looking after. God knows you'll starve to death if you stay at your place."
"I'm not completely helpless, you know."
"Far from it. You're the most independent teenager I've met."
"Really?" Sakura smiled.
"Lessons will continue. I'll bring home your school work. I'm sure they'll accept your assignments via email."
"I don't have a computer."
He shook his head in wonder at this technological deficit.
"You'll use mine, then. As for my classes..."
Sakura bit her lip, as she wondered what fresh hell Sensei had in store for her.
"Obviously physics is out of the question."
"I could use the textbook..."
"Nah. We'll do math instead." He thought for a minute. "I know just the thing."
"Do you like codes?"
"Like Morse code?"
"Sure. I guess. Doesn't every kid go through that secret writing phase?"
"No, actually. Although I guess you did." Sensei winked amicably at her as he stood and stretched.
He was right. She had. In spades.
"Cryptography is a branch of applied math. It's a perfect topic for you to study next, and as I'm kind of designing the curriculum as I go along, it's fair game."
Designing the curriculum as he went along: that figured. But Sakura did not voice this opinion. She opted instead to try on her new role of interested, cooperative student.
"It also happens to be an interest of mine. I've got a couple of books you can start reading tomorrow, if you promise to take it easy."
"Sure thing." She planned on sleeping, mostly, so keeping that promise would be easy.
"Do you need to use the toilet or anything?"
"No." This was a lie, but Sakura had no desire for a bathroom escort. Not in her half-see-through nylon nightgown.
"Well I've leave you, then. I'll be in the living room if you need anything."
Sensei shut the light on his way out, and Sakura wondered about the man tasked with taking care of her.
She'd misjudged him, she realized. He was the person Shizune had described, not the monster Sakura had built up in her head. She wouldn't have trouble going along with his experiment. She'd study cryptography willingly, and whatever else Sensei threw at her in the next two weeks.
Sakura dozed for a bit, and woke up to a bladder screaming for relief.
She crept out of her room and down the darkened hallway leading from the bedroom to bath. She passed that room, however, when she heard Sensei's voice.
He was on the phone again, this time speaking rather loudly, and almost angrily. He was talking in sentences now, not the single word phrases he'd used earlier, and Sakura found it a bit easier to piece together the conversation.
"Yes. Of course I did."
There was the slightest hint of exasperation in Sensei's tone.
"She's got it, alright."
Was he talking about her? She had a feeling that the answer was "Yes."
"Uh, huh. Definitely. A perfect match to the description."
A long pause ensued before Sensei's next response.
"No. No. Of course not. There'll be time for that later."
Then, angrily, "Look, it's my job to protect her, isn't it? I assumed I'd have some discretion in carrying out that duty."
Sensei began to pace the room, and Sakura took this as her cue to retreat.
She shut the bathroom door behind her as quietly as possible, and leaned against it as she rehearsed the conversation.
She's got what? Sakura wondered. Pneumonia? Who would want to know this who wasn't aware of it already?
And what was a perfect match?
What was this about duty?
And why on Earth would she need to be protected?