AN: Sorry, sorry, sorry! It's been a while, but I have not given up on this story. I've just been really busy. I am still writing it!
Ino and Chouji remained perfectly still as the footsteps made their way down the hallway, pausing outside her door, then continuing on to her parents' bedroom. It felt like hours had passed waiting for her mother to go to bed, but with her father still not home, she had finally gone to bed.
That Dad hadn't yet returned bothered Ino. What had happened? Was Shikamaru in such danger that Inoichi felt it was necessary to stay by Shikaku-san's side? Were they going to the hospital only to join in a death watch?
Shaking her head slightly to clear the thought away, she rose from the bed and began preparing to leave, avoiding Chouji's eyes as he did the same. She knew he was thinking the same things, and somehow, seeing the confirming look in him would be too much.
She nodded and opened the window.
Sakura yawned under her umbrella as she made her way to the hospital for the midnight shift. She only pulled this duty one week out of six, but that never made it any easier. Without the adrenaline that comes with a mission, it was hard for her to stay awake once the moon was high. So she forced herself to move and would pick up a cup of coffee before beginning her shift.
But glancing up at the building, she noticed something unusual. Two figures were walking on the wall, looking into the windows as though trying to find someone. She watched them for a moment, then dropped the umbrella and, applying chakra to her own feet, sprinted toward the wall and up it, her powerful fist ready to strike if the figures posed a threat to herself or anyone else.
Before she ever reached them, however, they were stopped by ANBU. Although his weapons were not out, Sakura knew he would be no less threatening.
Then, the voice of argument reached her.
"We're just trying to find our teammate!"
The shrill, argumentative tones of that voice were familiar to Sakura, and the long blonde hair only confirmed it for her.
Wide-eyed, Ino turned from where she was arguing with the mask.
"Sakura?" Her eyes lit up. "Sakura, tell him we're not doing anything wrong!"
"You're trying to sneak into a guarded room in the middle of the night," Sakura commented. "That's not 'not doing anything.'" She looked curiously at Ino's now angry visage, then at Chouji's more disappointed one. "Where's Shikamaru?" The lazy genius was usually the one who stopped Ino's harebrained schemes.
"Sakura," Chouji spoke up, his voice unusually soft, "something happened to Shikamaru after we returned from our mission. He is in this room, but they won't let us in to see him."
"Sakura-san, this case is currently under investigation," the ANBU spoke up, reminding Sakura of his presence as he rose to his full height. "We are under strict orders from the Hokage that none are to enter the room without her prior approval." His attention shifted to the two who had been lurking outside the window. "The two of you, in particular, were mentioned by your fathers."
"But we're his teammates!" Ino screeched. "Don't tell me we're under investigation too!"
Sakura looked back and forth between her friends and the ANBU, the little information she had received twirling in her brain, trying to fit together into a logical answer. She wasn't quite at Shikamaru's level, but she was certainly not an idiot.
"Ino, Chouji," she started, attempting to keep her voice both consoling and stern, a skill she had had to learn as Tsunade-sama's apprentice. "If Shikamaru is being kept here on the third floor, it means his condition is not stable. And though we're standing here in the rain, both of your faces are pink. You're both sick- probably just minor colds, but if that is introduced into Shikamaru's room in his condition, it would only hurt him more." Her statements were just a guess at best, considering she knew nothing of Shikamaru's current condition beyond that he was in a guarded room on the third floor, but from the way they both shifted their positions and glanced at each other, she assumed she had been correct.
"I'm sorry, Chouji," she answered, cutting off his plea. "Go home. Get some rest."
Chouji's fist clenched and Ino glared daggers at her. Both had probably thought they had found an ally when she had appeared, but she had sided with the ANBU, and for that she felt sorry for her friends. She understood their feelings- she really did. If it was Naruto or Kakashi-sensei, or even Sai, Sakura knew she too would do all she could to see them, but this was impossible.
After collecting her umbrella, Sakura hurried inside with renewed vigor, desperate to find out what she could about her friend's condition. Tsunade was nowhere to be found, though the night shift seemed to be in a lather over the presence of ANBU around Shikamaru's room. Both Ino's and Chouji's fathers were sitting in the hallway outside the room, with Shikaku-san looking haggard and speaking quietly to them. All the faces looked grave.
Sakura did not enter his room. It would have been too much like impugning a family's need for privacy simply for her own curiosity, for she had been around Ino's father enough in the years before her falling-out with her best friend, to understand the closeness between the three families.
Instead, she went in search of Shizune to learn the truth of the investigation and the strong ANBU presence. As a medically trained shinobi, Sakura was able to separate her emotional self from her clinical one, and she did quite well, she thought, until she learned the state of progression the poison had been allowed to reach in Shikamaru. She knew poisons. She knew their stages. And she knew the damage left behind by them.
If Shikamaru had reached this state, how bad would the damage be?
It was morning before Kuma checked in. He appeared suddenly and silently in front of Tsunade, contrary to what many believed he was capable, carrying his large muscular body with all the grace of a dancer.
"Hokage-sama, the village has been searched with no sign of the assassin. Teams Ushi, Ryo, and Uma are searching the surrounding forests. Teams Tora and Raion are checking neighboring villages, to be joined by the other teams."
"Thank you, Kuma. Keep me updated." She tuned her attention back to the morning reports, but realized Kuma stood up, but not left.
"Hokage-sama, with respect."
"What is it?"
"While it is regrettable that the attack has endangered Nara-san, he was not the original target."
"I am aware of that."
"Your personal guards have been sent to seek out the murderer."
Attempted murderer, she corrected in her mind. He's not dead yet.
"If another attempt were made, you have no guard. I request that you pull back at least one team."
Tsunade sat down the report and folded her hands, carefully focusing on the masked figure standing before her. His stared unblinkingly back.
"Kuma-taichou, with the suspect on the run and the awareness of all our forces raised, I find it unlikely a second attack will follow."
"Unlikely, but not impossible."
"There are a few jounin teams in the village."
"Jounin are not ANBU." Tsunade leaned back in her chair. Kuma was always soft-spoken, and she didn't believe she had ever heard him speak so many words that were not directly related to the mission at hand. Obviously, something was bothering the young captain.
"What's on your mind, Kuma?"
His head lowered a fraction, though whether it was from shame or embarrassment, she was unsure.
"You are our Hokage. If something should happen to you- I do not pretend to understand the politics of everything that happens with the council, but I know I like this village at peace. I wish it to stay so."
"I understand, Kuma-taichou." Kuma, Tsunade had heard, was engaged to be married. She had no doubt this recent event had pushed his need to protect his Hokage. "Teams Kakashi and Yamato will be returning shortly. Both Jounin are former ANBU. They will provide additional protection as needed."
"Hai." His head had come up a fraction, as though surprised by her choice. "The presence of Ookami sets my mind at ease." He bowed and disappeared from the room.
Nearly seven years out of the Black Ops, and Kakashi was still a legend among them. Ookami, Wolf, was spoken with both awe and fear, and Tsunade couldn't help but wonder what the kid had been like in those years she had been running away to inspire such respect from the most elite of Konoha shinobi.