VVVVVV

What Kabuto was playing at was a speculative sort of game.

Kabuto was observant. Kabuto was shrewd. Relatively intelligent too, he liked to think – one didn't survive years of servitude to Orochimaru by being a cretin.

Kabuto was also curious. He was curious in the way that the scientific and the analytical are: when presented with a problem, his first impulse was to slice open, dissect and anatomize until he reached a satisfactory solution.

Kabuto's current problem was this: the one Sound nin who could always be counted on for the sort of unquestioning obedience that Orochimaru demanded had, in the process of recovering his health, somehow transferred his obsessive infatuation from Orochimaru to a medic temporarily enlisted to heal him.

And that medic was not, from what Kabuto had observed, fully aware of this state of affairs. Or if she was, her response was one which wasn't, in Kabuto's opinion, appropriately averse to it.

It was possible that like Kabuto, Sakura understood it as the psychological phenomenon that Kabuto thought it was: simply the deflection of Kimimaro's attention from one object to another when the first one was no longer accessible. And, being kindhearted and – Kabuto allowed himself an eye-roll – ethical, the medic responded with a kind of professional, neutral acceptance of Kimimaro's behavior.

However, he had seen enough to make him faintly suspicious of their interactions. Small signs, insignificant in and of themselves but when they were considered as a whole…

Unfortunately, all of this conjecture was supremely unsatisfactory for a man like Kabuto trained in the hard sciences. Give him facts or give him death by inference.

And so, when the opportunity presented itself with the broken door incident, Kabuto had conceived of a beautifully simple way of reaching fact-based certainty: a discreet button microphone in the palm of his hand, snap-click on the metallic underside of Sakura's cot when he dragged it into Kimimaro's room, and he would have his answer in a matter of hours, one way or the other.

His other problem was that there lurked, somewhere beneath his solipsistic focus on himself, a desire to be in that room instead of the bone-sprouting aberration. Bah. There would be opportunity, he hoped, for tackling that problem very soon. For now, he had the Uchiha to sedate. And some listening to do.

VVVVVV

In the semi-darkness of his ward, Kimimaro watched Sakura fall into a doze and gradually slide out of her sitting position to curl up on her little cot. He watched her breathe in the quick, shallow way of one who is not sleeping soundly. He watched her eyebrows contract and her mouth pull down almost imperceptibly at whatever vision had emerged behind her eyelids. He watched her sigh, turn, and clutch at her blanket before drifting into more peaceful slumber.

The onset of minor nausea when he pushed himself into a sitting position reminded Kimimaro of the ad hoc healing session he had just undergone. He rubbed gingerly at the bandage covering the previously injured area and peeled it off partially when he felt no pain there. His skin wasn't even broken any more, whatever wound had remained post-healing was taken care of by his bloodline's innate regenerative power.

His eyes settled once more on the slim form on the nearby cot.

So. She had healed him again. Saved his life again. And what had he given her? What could he give her?

The fact that Kimimaro had himself saved Sakura's own life on at least two occasions – including that very night – did not count, somehow. That was only the partial repayment an immense debt which included the resurrection – or something near it – of his once near-pulseless body, but also the injection of previously unknown impulses therein: an appetite for something more than a life of servitude, a yearning for something beyond the commands, a desire and hope for that guiltless spontaneity, the touching, shared beds, just holding the girl…

Kimimaro sat in silence until the ticking of the clock began to intrude insistently on his musings. He listened to seconds become minutes and heard to those minutes trickle away into hours. The concluding seconds, the last minutes, the final hours of time with this person, this medic, this woman who had somehow become the focal point of his formerly closely-bound, sharply-delineated world.

The fact that she would be leaving was a reality which he had, until this point, avoided confronting relatively successfully, except in moments of weakness when her thoughtfulness and good will contrasted unbearably with the life he remembered before, and the life he projected after her.

And now her departure was imminent and Kimimaro could only sit and suffer in silence from a perplexing ache in his chest which had nothing to do with his wound. She could probably alleviate this incomprehensible pain just as easily as she could all of his other lacerations, though it would, he knew, have to involve something other than her usual quick diagnosis and the green glow of healing chakra.

But the ache near his heart became such a prolonged pain and it returned with such insistent pounding at the thought of loosing this one thing that was actually precious to him that Kimimaro couldn't keep still, he slipped off of his bed to squat at her side.

Eventually, a hand drifted towards Sakura, hesitated a moment, pushed a strand of hair from her face, and withdrew. It returned shortly afterwards and traced feather-light touches down her arm, then back up, up to the oh-so-warm neck and the cheek…

Kimimaro pulled back in frustration.

It was ridiculous. This he had already ascertained some days previously.

It was weak. This too had been considered.

He was, essentially, made hesitant and powerless and vulnerable by her – a strong voice muted to a murmur against its will even as it reveled in making those whisper-sweet sounds. He who was the apex of his clan's bloodline and the summation of Orochimaru's wishes until disease ravaged him, he who had severed countless life-strings unfeelingly now wanted nothing more than to feel…

And it hurt. It hurt with an anguishing throb in the tender place in his chest that he didn't even know existed. It hurt with a pain so different, so much more acute than any he had previously experienced that he felt he might be sick with it, be consumed by it until it ached him away to a wretched bitterness.

He leaned to press his face into her hair, into her neck, to breathe her.

And it healed. It healed the leafless, desiccated sapling of emotions which had never had the chance to grow under the gentle rain of human interaction and human love. It coursed through dusty neural pathways whose previous activity was only indifference, or if not indifference, hate. It irrigated the barrens of inspiration, optimism, self-worth, and flooded them with potential. And it awakened the heart.

Thus did Sakura find herself lifted bodily and crushed against Kimimaro like he was going to break her. The air left her lungs until she was unable to breathe, much less scream, much less demand an explanation –

And then she was dropped lightly onto her cot again and two of Kimimaro's fingers were pressed against her lips while he looked at her with the shining eyes and vivid countenance of someone who has come to some epiphanic conclusion.

He sat back on his heels when he was certain that she wasn't going to scream and, almost unconsciously, brought those same fingers to his own mouth before breaking into the first real smile that Sakura had ever seen on his usually impassive face. A smile that went past the very white, very even teeth to reach the green eyes and crinkle their corners.

More than slightly dazzled, slightly groggy, and slightly concerned, Sakura gave Kimimaro a visual once-over before reaching for his forehead. It was warm to the touch but definitely not feverish and so she pulled back in perplexity. "Kimimaro. What is the matter?"

"Nothing." Kimimaro stared at her with something akin to happiness, or at least as much of such a sentiment as was possible on his inexpressive features. "Nothing is the matter."

Sakura raised an incredulous eyebrow, feeling increasingly grumpy about yet another nonsensical situation thrust onto her in the middle of the night. "Then what…? Are you feeling okay? I'm pretty sure I did a first-rate job on your stab wound but I might have missed something –"

Kimimaro shook his head no, bright-eyed with a febrile energy he was having difficulty containing. "It was nothing. I am sorry for having awoken you. We… you – still have half an hour to sleep before Kabuto returns." He drew in his lower lip – which his once-in-a-lifetime smile had managed to crack open again rather painfully – and nodded at the clock.

Still mildly disoriented, Sakura followed his line of sight and realized with a pang – Stockholm's! – that he was right. "Oh… wow. Time flies when you're having a good t– well. Well. There's no way I'm going to sleep now, you kind of shook me up and everything…" Sakura trailed off when Kimimaro crouched as near to the cot as was possible without actually being on it with her.

"I'll watch you."

"I'm not going to sleep."

"Then?"

"Then…" Sakura surveyed the room rather desperately for an activity she could suggest for herself or Kimimaro which would alleviate the expectant tension which suddenly permeated the atmosphere. Kimimaro reached slowly for both of her wrists and anticipated her quick withdrawal of them with unsettling ease, so that Sakura found herself manacled by his hands and trapped by the intensity of his green gaze.

Ah. Black eye. Bloody lip. Ye olde standby. "I could take care of these," Sakura finally said with a kind of triumphant relief, pulling back her hands with the slightest hint of chakra-induced strength – without which she wouldn't have been able to break the firm hold – to point to the black eye and the lip.

Kimimaro was taking over her personal space even more than usual, which was saying something. He nodded and Sakura found herself pressing herself – or being pressed? –rather uncomfortably to the wall by his leaning over her cot to look more squarely into her face.

Sakura straightened with a briskness she didn't feel and stayed one of Kimimaro's seeking hands with a swat before beginning the healing with gentle pressure around the scarlet markings of his lower lids. "This won't take long." Kimimaro's eyes closed and he tilted his face into Sakura's palm as though to maximize their contact and Sakura willed her hand not to stray as she felt the bruised area around his eye.

Unbidden, a smile stole across Sakura's face: Kimimaro really was enjoying this far too much. Time to shake things up a little. "These are pretty minor scratches, though. You could ask Kabuto to take care of them."

'Tease!' shrieked Inner Sakura with relish. 'Shameless baiting!'

Kimimaro's reaction to Sakura's suggestion caused her to burst into internal giggles – his eyes flew open to stare fixedly at nothing at all before he turned to look at her with some degree of horror at such an idea. However, when he saw her fighting a grin, he placed her hand back on his cheek with a look and said, "I would prefer it if you do it."

He was so docile under Sakura's hands now that she was reminded of his very different first reactions to her, when he had been tense and uncomfortable at the very thought of someone else's chakra in his system. Now he was the one nudging her, pushing her to continue, with this healing serving as an excuse for the delicious closeness which he so luxuriated in.

Sakura blinked hard to snap herself out of the debilitating mushiness which seemed to be taking over her bones but, alas, her willpower also appeared to have turned to jelly.

She hesitated for a moment – during which interval Inner Sakura partially quashed all restraint, caution and self-discipline – before drawing her healing fingers across Kimimaro's cracked lip. It was a good thing this was the simplest of operations because she was having real trouble concentrating, what with the unexpected softness she found there and the way his lips curved into a smile when she was finished and his searching mouth's trailing downwards to her inner wrist to press what could only be a kiss there –

And then they were nose to nose and Sakura was unable to look up because she knew, she knew that when she did all of those carefully-constructed barricades of hers would collapse at the sight of his refined features and his bewitching eyes and his utterly unguarded weakness for her... but his cheek nudged hers insistently and then his hands held her face and would not let her turn and did he always breathe that quickly? –

Sakura closed her eyes and felt their exchange of breath for the space of heartbeats until his nose bumped at hers and his mouth hovered above her skin. His antiseptic smell filled her until she was dizzy with their proximity, then he was touching his mouth to her cheek, pressing his lips to the corner of hers, dragging a hand to her waist to hold her to him, and all Sakura could do was mumble an inaudible "I don't think –" until she was silenced by his kiss – she threaded her hands into his hair and pressed herself into him and found his mouth with hers –

When Sakura nearly tripped over her own pack while being half-dragged, half-carried by Kimimaro to a more comfortable location – his bed – her self-discipline returned with an acerbic vengeance: kissing was tantamount to admitting she had feelings for him, and this would be tantamount to treasonous fornicati– er, fraternizing with the enemy. Unacceptable.

Her brain screamed stop even as she was biting one of his ear lobes and he was doing delightful things near her collarbone with his tongue. Sakura snapped back to reality with a lurch and pulled away from Kimimaro with unsteady knees and regret rising like bile in her throat – though whether the regret was at having stopped or at having to stop, she was too flustered to analyze at this instant – "I think that's enough –" she finally forced out rather breathlessly at Kimimaro's questioning glance. "I have to go."

VVVVVV

In his own quarters sat a markedly unimpressed Kabuto. He snapped off the small radio with an impatient flick.

Nothing interesting had been said at all. How disappointing. He'd heard himself mentioned but it was all in a perfectly legitimate context.

Aside from unexplained lapses into static-y silence – which could be attributed to anything from their unremarkable conversational skills to equipment malfunction – he had heard nothing of note.

So Sakura was a distant professional after all. Go figure.

After a glance at his watch, Kabuto swung his backpack on and made for Sakura's room at a brisk pace: he was one minute late.

VVVVVV

A/N Kissing scene no jutsu! Standard overuse of dashes technique!

Not as sexy a chap as many of you expected… what can I say, I've gone to considerable lengths to establish this Sakura as a self-controlled, smart woman who is more likely to follow her head than her heart… sad for us, but probably good for her.

Man, some of the Kimi introspection scenes there border quite hilariously on the pedantic and the pretentious. I'm sorry.

No one cares, but: my intention with the Kabuto stuff was to make people scroll back up and read the Kimi/Saku conversation and see how innocuous it sounded and thus realize how skillfully rendered the kissy-kissies were without having people flopping about moaning "OOH MMM". But never mind – it ended up being most unskillfully rendered thanks to my utter lack of writing finesse.

Chap 12 will be up in a couple days. I decided to split it from this one because the episodic nature of serial fanfic like this seemed to require 'PRESS NEXT' at this point. (Edit: never mind the quick update -- I'm working on my other fic for a change.)