Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, nor do I make money. It's a cause of despair. Woe.

Notes: I'm kind of fond of this; I started writing it a while ago for Telos – yet another mutation that started off as a crack fic – and I had a lot of fun with it. Finished today, when I should've been writing Butterfly for Winter's birthday, but I thought I'd post it anyway!

Set in the gap between the time jumps! Feedback is forever appreciated! XD

Sakura climbs the stairs to Kakashi's apartment in a scurrying hop, half torn between wanting to see her teacher – it's been a while now since anyone has, and the Jounin are tutting worriedly whenever she asks about him – and wanting to get Tsunade's last task for the day over with so she can go home and collapse in peace without yet another question without an answer.

What does a medic look for when being barraged by shuriken?

Who is the first ninja of the team a medic should treat?

Why should a medic ninja never cover the rear of the team?

It's not that she doesn't think the training is worthwhile – because Sakura's not an idiot, she knows exactly how miraculous a deal she sprung when Tsunade agreed to take her on as an apprentice – but she misses her boys constantly, especially when she helps out in the office, and gets to greet the teams for their debriefing. Sakura is starting to see the slowly growing confidence of her old classmates, and as Hinata comes back from C and B class mission, loyally flanked by her team-mates – Shino's calm strut all-powerful and smooth, contrasting with Kiba's manic, dauntless bounding – and Sakura's strong enough now to know that she's jealous.

She's finished today's training early though, so she's thrumming on the energy she hasn't yet spent as she gently pushes at Kakashi's door. It's open, of course. Hatake Logic demands that no enemy dumb enough to use the door would get very far into the room unnoticed anyway, and Sakura breathes a sigh of relief that this, at least, hasn't changed.

"Hello?" Sakura calls, inching round the door so as not startle any pointy-sharp anythings that might be living in Kakashi's apartment. She's never actually been inside of it before, and the first thing that strikes her is how brilliantly clean the place is. "Kakashi-sensei?"

"Sakura? Something's wrong?" He's obviously just got out of a shower – the mask, of course, already safely covering his face – and Sakura can see the fabric darkening with moisture as he hangs his pale upper body sideways out of the doorway. Sakura narrows her eyes at the way he hides the left side of his body, but dismisses his worry with a bright grin and shake of her head.

"Hn. Pass me those clothes, then." His voice is light and playful, and Sakura hands him the pair of black uniform trousers and the black uniform jumper from where they're folded so precisely on the bed and then takes a seat on the edge of it, fiddling with the edge of the cover as she waits for him to come back out of the – if the apartment's anything to go by – tiny bathroom.

Sakura thinks about the paleness of her Jounin teacher as he dresses in the other room and finds herself blushing a little. She's almost fifteen now, after all, and when your ninja life has been dictated by perverts you learn a thing or three along the way. Jounin Man Flesh, Sakura reasons with a mental drool, promptly shaking the thought away. This is Kakashi after all, and there are some depths you don't sink to, even in the realms of meaningless girlish fantasies.

She glances around the room trying to distract herself from the thought that her teacher is treating wounds in there. He is, or it's something more scandalous, because she can smell the medicinal alcohol wafting in from the other room. The bottom drawer of his bedside chest rests on the floor, and Sakura squeaks as something moves from beneath the bundles of clothing; she can see a few old shirts and is that a pillow? A black nose snuffles out from under its nest of old clothes followed by a scruffy muzzle, a longish tail flopping from the other end gives away the pup's build, and Sakura clamps down on the urge to ask her Sensei the questions she knows he will not answer. Where he's been and what he's done, why he's injured and why this dog, of all dogs, is given preference.

Kakashi emerges after a few minutes, slouching familiarly against the wall with an eyebrow raised. His damp hair is brushed down to obscure the Sharingan (she's a little amused that he got his hair to behave), so all she can see of her Sensei is all she could ever see, and it's at once so familiar and foreign that she starts babbling, bitching about Tsunade and her lessons, bemoaning Naruto-that-idiotic-bastard and his sporadic letters back home that tell her nothing.

She prattles on about the other teams, and how they're so improved together and she hates it, just hates it when they all come home, together, and they're not alone in all of this mess and barely even feeling it. She's almost yelling – and there's the sound of a broom-base pounding down irritably on the ceiling from the room above Kakashi's that makes him sigh – because she has to make sure she's not the only one that feels this, this desperate weight, and she remembers how Kakashi used to take them for picnics, and ruin it by bringing healthy food and forcing them to make their own entertainment as he sat and read his dirty books, and she's not at all shocked that she misses it, terribly.

Kakashi hands her a warm drink with a soft look, and she's a little embarrassed that she was so caught up in her outpouring that she didn't even notice him move. She came here to prove that she's grown since Sasuke left, since Naruto left, that she's a student a teacher can be proud of, a capable shinobi, and the first thing she does when faced with that familiar nonchalance is act the way she always did.

"Tsunade's recommending you for the Chuunin exams." They're the first words Kakashi's said since he was face to face with Sakura, and she doesn't know whether it's an explanation or an accusation. Whatever it is, the meaning's buried too far deep beneath the surface, if there was ever any meaning there at all. "You'd better prepare yourself to make it look effortless. You are the Hokage's pupil, after all."

Sakura can't figure it out, she just can't, and he must understand her lost look better than she thought he could because he just grins infuriatingly and slouches a little more. "You're going to make Chuunin, and then Tsunade's going to start spilling all her fabulous secrets. You have to prove yourself to a Sannin before they teach you anything useful, Sakura-chan!" He crouches down a little, like he used to when she was his student, and she feels protected like she hasn't felt in months. "Naruto and I…we intend to keep our promises. Sometimes it just takes a little time to see the results. Life is all about timing, Sakura, and mine's usually terrible. But yours…"

"Sensei?" It should be more awkward than it is, Sakura realises. She never spent quite so much time alone with Kakashi as the other two did; Kakashi had visited Naruto regularly outside of training, if only to force feed him vegetables, and she can remember Sasuke's frustration when his private training always seemed to turn into hour long dango breaks. Sasuke never liked sweet things though, and Sakura was pretty sure that was the point. She alone had a family. She alone wasn't so emotionally fucked up that she couldn't tie her own shoelaces without having a nervous breakdown, and she thinks now that was why Kakashi spent so much more time with them. So much more time trying to mould their destruction and disaster into something more stable.

"Sakura, make Chuunin. Learn from Tsunade." Kakashi has a look on his face that makes Sakura nervous. His posture is tense, like on a mission, the slouch too precise to be anything but intended, but there's a resolve in his face that she can't decipher. "The day you're strong enough to beat me is the day we'll start to bring Sasuke-kun back."

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura gasps, setting down the cup and hesitating, unsure whether she wants to move closer to Kakashi or further away. She never wants to beat him. She's wanted to kill him on a regular basis since she was twelve years old (but that's a natural reaction where Kakashi's involved) but he's for so long been the Example, the balance between shinobi genius and teasing pervert that she's used to him, more than anything; she relies on him to be better, and she doesn't want to break the student-teacher hierarchy the other teams are improving on. "I…I'm your student."

"Exactly." Kakashi says, opening the door and pressing the heel of a hand gently to the base of her neck. She takes the hint, stepping quickly out of his apartment, out of his space, catching from the corner of her eye a large puppy wriggling on three legs from the drawer, whining a little as it catches the white cast of its fourth leg on the wooden edge. "When you can beat me, we'll be equals."

"I… Oh!" Sakura cries, digging through her thigh holster for the scroll Tsunade sent her to pass onto Kakashi, distraught when she discovers it missing – she'll forever be a child around her teacher, then, if she fails even this. "Oh no! I had a scroll for you, from the Godaime-sama!"

"You mean this one?" Kakashi grins, eyes narrow slits as he dangles the scroll in front of her, proving just how far she has yet to go before she has a hope of getting her boys back, and that's it, isn't it? That's the lesson.

"Yes. That's the one, Kakashi-sensei." Sakura narrows her eyes a little, daring him to tease. "Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get training."

"Ah, I see." Kakashi says, and closes the door on his student. Sakura is the student of the Godaime Hokage, and she's learning incredible things. Before that, though, she was the student of the Copy Nin, and she knows how to read beneath the underneath. There's more to being a medical ninja than a couple of antidotes, but she hasn't got a chance of discovering the Hokage's incredible strength until she can prove she's learnt more than a list of useless rules.

One day, Naruto will come home, and they'll be their teacher's equal, and she'll have more than all the other teams have ever had.