Some things never seem important 'till they're gone.
Constantly struggling to make it on her own,
She becomes so aware, that life is ruthlessly unfair.
"Are you a virgin?"
Sakura froze and stared at the woman who had taught her almost everything she knew about being a ninja. What made the question even more awkward was that the man who had taught her everything else about being a ninja, Hatake Kakashi, was standing directly beside her, trying not to look interested in the answer by staring blankly at a light fitting. Two ANBU stood on either side of the door, their masks guarding whatever thoughts they had about the question, and the chunin that Tsunade employed to catalogue her records was working at his desk. By the way his pen had paused against his book and his eyes remained fixed to his work indicated he was listening pretty closely too.
A delicate blush, barely perceptible, tinted Sakura's cheeks. "Um… why do you wish to know Tsunade-sensei?" she asked, schooling her voice to keep calm. Before she gave a potentially embarrassing answer, she just wanted to know if there was a reason behind the question, and not Tsunade playing a cruel joke.
"Sakura, I'm sending you on a very tricky mission here," Tsunade told her. "I'm choosing you because you are the best Kunoichi in the village…"
Sakura's ego soared.
"…who isn't already on a mission."
The ego plummeted back to earth.
"I would rather prefer sending a more seasoned woman on this mission," Tsunade said, leaning back in her chair and tenting her fingers. "But situation requires more talent than experience… but experience really is quite necessary too. I would prefer if you had a little of the latter asset…"
Sakura tried not to look at any of the other men in the room, especially not her perverted teacher who was still staring at the light fixture. Her blush had intensified, making her face feel rather warm. "Y-You mean… experience of the s-se-"
"Sexual nature? Yes." Tsunade had a wry smile on her face. The kind of smile only an old woman who had seen it all could give a child who knew nothing. Sometimes it looked odd on her twenty-something face. "Which is why I ask you… are you a virgin?"
Sakura still couldn't work the words around the lump in her throat to answer.
Kakashi yawned next to her.
"I see," Tsunade said suddenly. "Oh, well. I'll just have to send Ino on this one. She may not have your strength, Sakura, but I hear she's quite the hit with the lads-"
"I can do it!" Sakura blurted impulsively as bitter jealousy surged through her veins.
She may have been on good terms with Ino these days, but even trips to the shops and blubbering together during sad romance films was not enough to kill the deep-seated rivalry they shared. A rivalry that, at times, could be more spiteful and psychologically traumatizing than the one between Naruto and Sasuke. Sakura was leagues ahead of Ino now that Tsunade had unwrapped her budding potential and nurtured it, but she could already hear Ino's crows of triumph for taking on an A-class mission that Sakura herself couldn't handle. Sakura couldn't let Ino win this one.
Tsunade's eyebrow tilted up. "Oh?" she practically purred.
"I-I…" Sakura swallowed her embarrassment quite literally with a gulp. "I have experience of that… nature. I can do whatever you ask of me."
The hokage grinned. "That's good. But honestly, you surprise me, Sakura… I really didn't peg you as that kind of girl…"
Sakura glared fiercely at her former teacher, discreetly hinting that she should drop it. Tsunade just smiled. She knew that Sakura's temper was too much like her own to risk igniting.
"Anyway, it's still a dangerous mission, even with your skills Sakura. Which is why I'm sending Kakashi with you. He is, after all, Konoha's strongest ninja…"
"Hokage-sama, you're too kind-"
"…who isn't an Uchiha, a Jinchuuriki, a teenager or away on a mission." Tsunade finished. "Plus, you're familiar with one another. I'd prefer to send a team on this one who already know and trust one another."
Sakura looked up at Kakashi and cursed her choice of standing on his left side. With his mask and the hitai-ate lowered over his eye, his face was completely hidden from Sakura's position. She sighed and looked away. She'd wanted to see how he'd reacted to that comment, because while they did know and trust each other… they hadn't actually spoken in almost a year.
Well, ok, they crossed paths in the street occasionally and he'd sometimes find the energy to lift his hand and say, "Yo." But that was the kind of thing you did when you spotted your best friend's cousin's mother's friend whom you knew, but you didn't particularly know.
He'd been her teacher for nearly a year, and after Naruto had returned, he'd been her commander. Yes, he'd said 'we're equals now', but they all knew very well that he was the one who called the shots and could still kick their asses in a fair fight – sans curse seals and kyuubis.
Two years on, and Team Kakashi now consisted of the man himself and three genin newbies who'd graduated last year. Sakura was a jonin, being drafted into various missions with all sorts of people she'd never worked with before. Naruto, having missed three years of Konoha life, had only just graduated to chunin and was training furiously to catch up with the rest of the peers who were now mostly enjoying jonin privileges with Sakura.
Sasuke still wasn't entirely trusted by Konoha, having only willingly returned with Naruto just over a year ago. He'd been branded as a mad genius, just like his brother, and was currently struggling to prove his mental stability and maturity enough to graduate from genin rank.
Sakura had to laugh. For all his arrogance and genius, it rankled him superbly to see the 'weakest' member of Team Seven reach jonin status before him. The circumstances were extenuating, so he managed to take it in surprisingly good grace, especially with all Naruto did to rub his face in it. And Sakura's unspoken tag of 'weakest' had evaporated quite abruptly the first time he'd seen her punch a hole three a three foot deep concrete wall. (Although, he hadn't been impressed enough to fall head over heels in love with her, as she'd hoped.)
But now, because of their different ranks, getting teamed up for the same missions was close to impossible. Sasuke was stuck fetching cats out of trees, Naruto was busy getting frustrated with average missions and if Sakura wasn't working at the hospital, she was taking on the tougher missions on offer. The three still spent an inordinate amount of time in each other's company, but Kakashi was never a part of it. It seemed that without the incentive of being a teacher, he simply had no inclination to socialize with the three.
Sakura wondered if this was simply because he was introverted, or if he just didn't care.
Looking at his blank profile in Tsunade's office offered little answer.
Tsunade handed the mission scroll to Sakura, enforcing the idea that this was really Sakura's mission. As Sakura read and Kakashi scratched his neck, Tsunade provided a verbal briefing. "As you can see in that scroll, the target's name is Matsura. Just Matsura. You probably know of him already, though."
"Yes," Sakura's mouth had gone dry.
"Particularly infamous nin of unknown origin," Kakashi said, as if remembering as he spoke. "Said to be on par with the legendary sannins. And has a particular fancy for… uh…"
"Underage girls," Sakura finished bitterly. She realized Tsunade's real intentions behind her earlier question regarding Sakura's chastity.
"You're one of the youngest female jonins we have at the moment," Tsunade said, her face oddly blank. "Seventeen is a little old for Matsura's vile tastes, but you're a slim, petite girl." She looked rather meaningfully at Sakura's chest as she said this. "You could claim to be younger and no one would be any wiser."
Sakura shifted uncomfortably. Now she didn't regret accepting the mission at all. She wouldn't have wanted Ino anywhere near this man. Rather me than you, Pig, she thought. Judging from the angle of Kakashi's head, he was looking rather intensely at the floor. The cataloguing chunin was back to cataloguing at twice his usual speed. The ANBU guards were impassive as ever.
"Of course, this is just a means of getting close to him," Tsunade continued. "Our client claims that Matsura stole a very precious family heirloom from him, and he commissioned this A-class mission to recover it. I'm tempted to say it's bordering on S-class, though. Matsura is not a man to take lightly. The scroll details what you're looking for and where you might find it."
Sakura finished reading and passed it to Kakashi who held it up to the light to scrutinize.
"Honestly, the only way I can see anyone getting near him is to prey on his weakness for young girls," said Tsunade regretfully. "I'm almost willing to believe that he favors younger girls for a reason – because he expects enemies to use women against him. It's a common tactic. Taking a child to bed is less of a threat than taking a grown woman who might potentially be an enemy kunoichi."
She thought for a moment.
"It's more likely he's just a pervert, though."
Sakura shuddered. She was happier with her common or garden perverts like Jiraiya – and to an extent, Kakashi. Naruto was shaping up to be quite the peeping tom, but these people were quite harmless compared to Matsura. Well… Jiraiya wasn't quite so harmless. Especially after the main heroine in the last Icha Icha book had her name briefly switched to 'Sakura' for two whole paragraphs.
Now Sakura knew why Tsunade didn't want a virgin on this mission. Things might get out of hand… acts might be carried out too far…
Sakura had never been so glad to hear Kakashi was accompanying her, although she wouldn't have minded having most of the male population of Konoha at her defense, and then some.
"I don't have to tell you that it would be unwise to engage him in actual combat," Tsunade was saying. "I'd have trouble with him. He'd flat out crush the two of you if things escalated to that degree. Just recover the stolen property and get the hell out of there as fast as possible – and don't either of you dare leave any clue that Konoha was involved. The last thing we need is someone like Matsura getting a bee in his bonnet about us. We've got enough problems as it is."
Kakashi shifted his weight and folded his arms. "Why not just turn the mission down if it's so risky?" he asked. His voice was light and nonchalant, as if he didn't really care. But Sakura had never known him to question the validity of a mission before. He must really have been concerned…
Tsunade sighed. "The money is too good, Kakashi. The village needs it."
"It's alright," Sakura said to him. "We can do this."
He looked down at her, and for the first time since she'd entered the room, their gazes met. But as usual, Kakashi's exposed eye was dark and unreadable. Sakura hated to think how easily he could read hers in comparison, and so quickly looked away.
"I'll leave any other arrangements and plans to the two of you," Tsunade said, pulling a wad of folders from her inbox towards her. "I'm sure you're plenty able. You can leave tomorrow. Our client hasn't set a deadline, but it would be nice if you could make it back within a week. It simply wouldn't be safe otherwise."
Sakura nodded. "Yes, Hokage-sama."
"Hokage-sama," Kakashi echoed.
"Alright then!" Tsunade lifted her hands and flapped them. "Shoo shoo. Sort this out between yourselves."
The moment Kakashi closed the door behind them, he turned to her with his hands stuffed in his pockets. "Are you sure about this?"
Sakura's throat tightened. "I can handle it."
It was the same old thing. Everyone felt they had to look out for her and protect her because she was weak and female and she would rather heal a friend than kill an enemy. That was why it was so funny that she was the only one who'd graduated to jonin from Team Seven. Because no one had expected it.
But why? Why couldn't she be expected to perform just as well, if not better than her male team mates? Why did Kakashi have to open his big stupid mouth and make her doubt her own ability?
"I'm sure Ino would be more than willing to take this mission off your hands…" he went on.
"No," Sakura said abruptly. "I don't want her on this. She's not strong enough. And besides… they want someone who can pass for fifteen and younger. Ino's too…" Her face grew hot again. "…developed."
The girl in question had enough 'development' to rival Tsunade. Personally, Sakura thought it was a bit of handicap for a ninja to be so top heavy, but Ino was quite happy. As were most of her boyfriends.
It was just another area of competition for Ino to lord it over Sakura…
"Alright then," Kakashi eased back slightly. "We'll find a room at jonin headquarters and start planning then," he said. Sakura nodded her agreement and traipsed after him, mission scroll tucked safely away in her belt pouch.
They didn't say much on their walk to the headquarters that lay a few blocks and bridges away from Tsunade's office. Kakashi probably felt it was quite a comfortable silence. Sakura had never felt so awkward in her life.
She wanted to say something friendly and companionable and have him engage in gentle banter and small talk. He'd never actually been one for idle chatter, but normally it wasn't so hard to at least get the ball rolling. But the last time they'd really spoken had been at her inauguration to become a jonin. Which had gone something like:
"Good job, Sakura. Well done."
"Thank you, Kakashi-sensei."
"Oh, you shouldn't call me that anymore. We're both jonins now. I've finished teaching you."
"Ok… then what should I call you?"
"Kakashi-sama will do."
"I think I'll just stick to senpai…"
"If you like."
"Do you want another sausage on a stick?"
"Don't mind if I do. This is a bit fancy, isn't it? Back in my day, we didn't have sausages on sticks for jonin inaugurations."
"Back when the ice age was just finishing up?"
"Yes. I seem to recall the wheel being invented around the same time."
"What did you have for jonin inaugurations then?"
"We were given A-class missions and sent into battle and inevitably got a third of our teams killed by negligence and inexperience. Fun times."
"You're a party pooper."
After the party she'd gone off for drinks with Naruto and Sasuke and bought them enough alcohol to make them forget that she'd graduated before them. "Why!" Naruto had wailed. Sakura had responded with a prim, if not drunkenly slurred, "Because I'm more m-mature and intelligent than you two stupid-heads. Hic."
With no need for a teacher, Sakura hardly saw much of Kakashi after that. If ever she had a problem with a jutsu, she went to Tsunade, as they had more in common in terms of abilities. She rarely worked with other jonins unless it was it was a particularly difficult mission, and even then, the chances of being teamed up with Kakashi were slim.
Sakura wondered if he felt a bit neglected.
Then she realized she was probably the one who'd been neglected. Who'd been the one to devote all his time on the Uchiha prodigy, forsaking his obligation to his other students? Who had a habit of walking past her in the jonin headquarters without even acknowledging her with a glance?
Kakashi didn't get attached to people, she realized, a little sadly. He'd always been like that.
It made her feel more childish for expecting extra consideration.
Room 6B was free when they arrived. Sakura settled down on the sofa supplied and propped her feet on the coffee table.
"Want some tea?" Kakashi asked her.
A lot of planning went on in these rooms with meetings that could take all day, which was why each room came with its own supply of tea bags, coffee granules and kettles. Kakashi began banging around the cupboards, trying to locate clean cups as Sakura pawed through the batch of leaflets that had been sprawled across the coffee table. Most seemed to be advertising life insurance.
Sakura had already tried taking out a policy. She'd been turned down on account of being 'too female, too young, and too likely to be killed within the next ten years' by the insurance company. That had been a bit upsetting. It was hard to think her life was worth nothing in monetary values.
Someone like Kakashi on the other hand, was probably worth a fortune. Only problem was, Sakura didn't think he even had a family to support, so why bother?
A cup of tea was set down before her, and she mumbled a soft thank you before leaning forward to drop a few cubes of sugar into her drink. She offered the bowl to Kakashi who promptly tipped half the contents into his own tea. Sakura shook her head.
"So that's why you wear a mask," she murmured.
"You've rotted all your teeth out, haven't you?"
"Ah, you caught me." He shrugged and sipped his tea – through his mask as usual. Sakura didn't find this to be a particularly hygienic method, but Kakashi was a bit neurotic like that.
Sakura opened up the scroll and spread it on the table between them. "Ok, so… apparently this guy lives in a fortified compound east of here. About a day away. If we leave tomorrow morning, say, six o'clock, we should be there around midnight maybe."
"Mm." Kakashi looked bored.
"We don't know how he obtains these poor girls, so it might be wise to simply hang around an observe-"
"He usually buys them in some way," Kakashi interrupted. "He'll do a favor for some guy, and in return, some guy will hand over his daughter for a few nights."
Sakura's face twisted, but she said nothing.
"Mostly he seems to just pick them up on his travels. There are a lot of unprotected orphan girls in a time of war, desperate enough to go with him in return for food and shelter," he said.
"Ok… ok," Sakura read through the last paragraph on the scroll. "Ok… I'll probably need your help to get inside the compound then. You can say you want to commission Matsura for a mission and you can hand me over as some kind of payment in advance."
"Mm." Kakashi shrugged. He didn't look happy. But then he didn't look much else either…
Sakura chewed her cheek. "Can you think of something better, Kakashi-senpai?" she asked. It was her mission, and he was only coming along for extra precaution, but if he felt he could do better, he'd better just spit it out.
"No. It's a good plan," he said.
Kakashi started picking at his nails.
Useless. Sakura dropped her head into her hands and rubbed her temples. "This is insane… this guy sounds like he's as strong as our hokage. If anything goes wrong-"
"I'll be there to protect you," Kakashi said softly.
Sakura looked up at him. Normally proclamations of this nature would rile her, but in this situation she was grateful for it.
Kakashi sat up with a sigh, elbows rested against his knees. His eye was closed as ran his fingers through the short locks behind his right ear. "You do know why Tsunade wanted to know the status of your chastity, don't you?" he asked lightly, as if very tired.
Sakura flushed hotly. This was not the kind of thing she wanted to discuss with her former teacher. It was bad enough speaking about these things with her own mother. "Mm." Great, now she was resorting to Kakashi-style answers.
"It's unlikely, if Matsura initiates anything with you, that you'll be able to stop him," Kakashi told her evenly. "It's a terrible way to lose your virginity and very traumatic if you have no prior experience."
Unconsciously, Sakura squeezed her thighs a little closer together. "I know that," she said shortly.
His eye opened and he regarded her lazily. "Are you sure you're not a virgin?"
Sakura grinned suddenly. "If my dad heard you saying that to me, you'd be found floating face down in the river the following morning."
Kakashi didn't even blink. He waited for an answer.
Sakura's grin died. "I'm not, alright? I've had sex. There's nothing Matsura has that I haven't seen or touched before. I can handle old perverts leering at me. I can handle this."
That came out braver than she actually felt, and Kakashi leaned against the sofa, draping an arm over the back. "I see," was all he said.
Sakura felt thoroughly embarrassed. For a moment she wished he were a complete stranger. Someone who hadn't known her since she was a child, who wouldn't care enough to ask such personal questions. There were just some things she didn't want Kakashi to ever think about her. She wanted him to be proud of her, for being strong and clever and capable. She didn't want him imagining her trapped on a bed as some sweaty old pervert violated her.
She wouldn't let that happen. There was no need for him to worry. But she didn't quite have enough courage to tell him that…
"So who's the lucky guy?"
Sakura blinked. "What?" she asked.
"The guy you're seeing."
"I'm not seeing anyone," Sakura replied.
"Alright then. Who did you have sex with?" he asked quite easily.
Sakura blanched. "You can't ask me something like that!"
"Oh?" He seemed to think about that for a moment. "Ah, perhaps. But since I already asked, would you mind telling me the answer?"
Sakura's fingers flexed so tightly around her tea cup that she heard the porcelain crack tightly. She forcibly relaxed. 'Monstrous' strength could be a bit of handicap when she lost control of her temper. "No one you know," she told Kakashi bluntly.
"Ah…" he nodded in understanding. "When was this then?"
"Sorry, sorry," for the first time that night, he gave her a sheepish smile. "Can you blame me for feeling protective of my favorite student?" He leaned forward and ruffled her hair.
Sakura blew out a huff. "I bet you say that to all your students."
"Well, yes, actually I do," Kakashi admitted. "It's a good motivator. But I only mean it when I say it to you."
Sakura flushed. "Really?" she asked hesitantly, hoping he wasn't joking. Kakashi had a weird kind of humor, so she wouldn't put it past him. "How come?"
"You're smarter, more mature, a fast learner… you don't run off with evil men or perverts, so generally I don't have to worry about you as much." He grinned at her. "And you always leave the green button sweets, which is great, because I love the green button sweets. We compliment each other like that. Normally I'd have to beat Naruto and Sasuke to death to get the green button sweets."
Sakura relaxed slightly. "Thank you, sensei…"
His grin faded to a smile. "I thought I told you to stop calling me that?"
"Yes, but I still feel like I could learn things from you," she said honestly.
Together they mapped out some of the finer points of the mission over the next hour. Kakashi promised to bring most of the necessary provisions if Sakura made preparations to take a few years off her face and body. "You look younger with longer hair," he informed her. "There's a hair salon near Ichiraku that specializes in hair growth. It's expensive, but put it on Tsunade's tab under mission expenses."
"What else?" Sakura asked.
"No make-up," he said. "Wear a plain yukata. You need to look poor and orphan-ish, and a yukata will help diminish your figure somewhat."
"Oh, yes," Sakura said, rolling her eyes. "Because I'm just so curvaceous."
"Sakura, big breasts don't a woman make," he lectured, much to her mortification. "From the waist down, no one could mistake you for a child."
His gaze moved down to her lap to prove his point. Sakura squeaked in a way that was probably quite undignified for a jonin. "Stop looking! Dirty old man!"
"Hey," he sounded wounded. "I'm perfectly clean, thank you."
When they'd finally worked everything out and there was nothing left to discuss, they stood and made their way out the building. Despite the circumstances, Sakura couldn't withhold a small smile. "I missed working with you, sensei," she told him as they paused outside the main entrance.
"Oh?" He blinked in surprise.
"Knowing you'll be with me… it eases my mind. I feel safer."
Kakashi gave a helpless shrug. "This is why you were my favorite," he said, reaching out to ruffle her hair again. "You're so much cuter than the other two."
"…I was trying to be serious."
"I know. That made it so much more adorable." He moved down the steps and headed off into the night at a leisurely pace, one hand in his pocket and the other one raised in farewell. "I'll see you tomorrow. At six. Don't be late."
Sakura went to the salon first. They'd shut, but when the owner heard it was for a difficult mission, they let her in and sat her down. Hair growing jutsu felt very much like having a rather overweight person swinging on her hair. It hurt enough to bring tears to her eyes, and Sakura wasn't at all happy with the end effect. With hair fanning around her elbows, it was very much like being twelve again. She was unhappily reminded of the point in the chunin exam when that horrible girl had trapped her by the hair and accused her of caring more about her looks than her purpose as a ninja. It had hurt, because it had been true.
She'd risen to the occasion and proved them all wrong, going wild in her effort to defend her fallen team mates. She'd been so brave and courageous that she'd impressed even herself.
That idiot Sasuke just had to have been unconscious for the ordeal, hadn't he?
After tying her hair in a knot at her nape, Sakura told the stylist to send the bill to Tsunade and staggered off to find the nearest bar. After half a bottle of sake she was looking around room, searching for a familiar face. There were none.
Spinning on her stool, Sakura threw up her hands and swayed delicately. "I have till six to lose my virginity," she slurred. "Is anyone inter… in… intertrest… is anyone going to help me?"