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: he had a suspicion that 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 kind-hearted 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 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. But these were thoughts for later. For now, he had the Uchiha to sedate. And some listening to do.

VVV

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 take the quick, shallow breaths 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 him of the ad hoc healing session that he had just undergone. He rubbed at the bandage covering the injured area and peeled it off 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 kekkei genkai's regenerative power.

His eyes settled once more on the slim form on the 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 he had himself saved her 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-girl, 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 her, and the life he projected after her.

And now her departure was imminent and Kimimaro could only sit and suffer in silence from an ache in his chest which had nothing to do with his injury. 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 became such a prolonged pain and it returned with such insistent pounding at the thought of losing this one thing that was actually precious to him that he couldn't keep still; he slipped off of his bed to squat at her side.

Eventually, his 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…

He pulled back in frustration.

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

It was weak. This too had been considered.

He who was the apex of his clan's bloodline and the summation of Orochimaru's dreams until disease ravaged him, he who had severed countless life-strings unfeelingly – and now, now he wanted nothing more than to feel…

It hurt. It hurt with an anguishing throb in the 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 and be consumed by it until it ached him away to a wretched bitterness.

His fingertips traced her cheek and then her jawline.

And it healed. It healed a desiccated spirit that had never had the chance to experience 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.

VVV

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 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, perplexed.

"Kimimaro. What is the matter?"

"Nothing," said Kimimaro, staring at her with something akin to joy, 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've missed something–"

Kimimaro shook his head no, bright-eyed with a febrile energy that 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. Well, there's no way I'm going to sleep now, you really shook me up…" Sakura trailed off when Kimimaro crouched as near to the cot as was possible without actually being on it with her.

"Then?"

"Then…" Sakura surveyed the ward rather desperately for an activity she could suggest for herself or Kimimaro which would alleviate the expectant tension which suddenly permeated the room.

Ah. His black eye. His bloody lip. The old standby.

"I could take care of this," said Sakura with a kind of triumphant relief, pointing at his black eye and split lip.

Kimimaro was taking over her personal space even more than usual, which was saying something. Sakura straightened up with a briskness she didn't feel and stayed one of Kimimaro's seeking hands before beginning work on his black eye.

"This won't take long," she said, putting gentle healing pressure around the scarlet markings of his eye.

Kimimaro closed his eyes tilted his face into Sakura's palm, as he had months ago when she had healed up a bruise on his jaw. This time, she did not pull away her hand – because at this point, with half an hour left… well, what the hell.

He sighed a small, contented sigh.

A teasing smile stole across Sakura's face. "These are pretty minor scratches, though. You could ask Kabuto to take care of them."

Kimimaro's reaction to Sakura's suggestion caused her to grin even more widely: 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, "no."

He was so docile under her 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 and pushing her to continue, with this healing serving as an excuse for the delicious closeness which he so enjoyed… which, let's be honest, they so enjoyed…

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 her idiot heart 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 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 breaths for the space of heartbeats until his nose bumped at hers and his mouth hovered above her skin. The antiseptic smell that she associated with him was filling her nose, and her awareness of quite how close he was was making her dizzy.

She opened her eyes and he was there, an inch away, and the longing in his gaze matched the one beating crazily in her chest.

He had a hand on the back of her neck and the other was warm on her cheek.

"Can I?" he asked in a breathless whisper.

Sakura was only able to nod; her throat was too tight to do otherwise. She saw his eyes brighten and 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 bag 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.

This was unacceptable and dangerously stupid.

Her brain screamed stop even as she was pressing her lips to his like it was the last thing she would ever do, and his hands were gripping her hips like she was the last thing he would ever hold…

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…

"Kimimaro, it's time. I have to go."

VVV

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.

VVV

Original author's note: kissing scene no jutsu! Standard overuse of dashes technique!

Not as sexy a chapter 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.

Author's note, May 2016: actively working on finishing this fic.