Chapter One

Every bone in her body ached, but that wasn't anything unusual for Sakura. She'd gotten used to the long hours, the tiresome, grueling impact of practicing healing jutsu every day. Some people thought she was too dedicated and was going to burn herself out. Sometimes, she was inclined to agree with them. But mostly, she knew that someone had to do it.

If ever there was a thankless job, it could be found at Konoha's hospital. They were understaffed and underpaid, and if you asked her, most of them were under trained. But what was to be done? She couldn't personally oversee everyone's work, and she didn't have a reputation for being the most patient woman. Sakura did her job and did it well, but it was frustrating to be the one they called in the middle of the night, without fail, when there was a crisis.

She had pride in her work, but she was only human. And like any human, she was getting run down.

Pausing in front of her bathroom mirror, she leaned forward, rubbed her fingers hard under her eyes. Lines fanned out from the corners, dark smudges outlined them until she looked more like a raccoon than a woman. Her lips were cracked and pale, and her hair had lost its life and verve. To put it mildly, she looked terrible. She knew better than anyone that she needed a vacation, rest, time to recharge, but she simply couldn't ask for it.

Ever since Tsunade had fallen, Konoha had been in an uproar. Their Hokage and mightiest healer felled at once, with no clear successor in sight. There was no doubt Naruto was talented, but he wasn't ready yet. Not yet. And though they'd asked, Kakashi had stoutly refused to step up and take over, even for a short time.

Dipping her hands under the running water, she held them there for a moment, grimaced at herself. They'd become so scattered. Naruto was out furiously battling back anyone who dared come near his homeland, gathering more jutsu and trying to prove every day that he was strong enough to succeed Tsunade. Kakashi was always off on this mission or that, reporting only to the council and leaving little time behind to talk to anyone else. As for Sasuke...

Her expression didn't waver when she thought about him, and her heart didn't skip. He wasn't one of them anymore, and she'd resigned herself to that years ago. Instead, she just leaned forward, splashed her face, and let the water run down her neck.

Tiredly, she turned the water off and unwound the towel from the top of her head, letting her hair fall in a tangled mass around her shoulders. Because it was easier, she'd taken to letting it grow out again, and throwing it up in a ponytail every day before work. It said a lot about her these days, that she would let her vanities slide -- or, more accurately, that she was just too exhausted to bother with her vanities. It was too much trouble to worry about how she looked, and anyway, it wasn't like she had a particular person to impress.

Dating was something for people with free time. Sakura didn't even know what that phrase meant anymore.

Patting her cheeks with the towel, she padded out of the bathroom on bare feet, made her way into her little kitchen. Out of habit, she left the lights on, partly so that she could see where she was going, but mostly because of her recently developed fear of the dark. Though not afraid to live alone by any means, she was nevertheless uneasy in total blackness, and the villagers knew that if there were lights burning in her windows she was still awake.

Unfortunately, they also knew that if they came to her with their ails, she would most likely take care of them. She lived a good ways from the hospital in an attempt to dissuade them from calling her in most nights, but it didn't work. Instead, it just had the locals knocking on her door at all hours because they didn't want to travel across town to get to the hospital.

She tossed her towel on the counter and picked up her tea, cupping one hand under the base of it and bringing it to her lips slowly. Peppermint, to help her sleep, though she doubted it would really make a difference either way. Though her body was more than ready to crash, her mind was still whirling at a hundred miles an hour, and it would take serious drugs to get her to fall asleep quickly.

Rubbing a hand along the back of her neck, she rolled her head back, closed her eyes. A slight breeze blew in from her kitchen window and lifted the hem of her nightgown, reminding her that she needed to go around and latch all of her windows before she went to sleep. Though Konoha wasn't a violent town by any means, she lived below her means in a lower standard of housing, and what with all the conflicts...

You never know who would be lurking outside your window. Locks didn't do much against shinobi, but at least they would warn her. Sakura slept so lightly that a storm could wake her most nights.

The wind rattled the branches of a tree, sending them scraping across the side of her house. Scowling, she set her tea aside, and pushed the sleeves of her gown up as she approached the window. It was the one that stuck, which meant she had to strike a careful balance between her own personal strength and the resistance of the frame, or she'd knock out her window.

Gripping the wood, she furrowed her brows and applied equal pressure to each side, slowly easing it down. The frame creaked in protest, and she stood on the tips of her toes, pressing only her fingertips to the actual window as she attempted to slide it down.

Motion outside caught her gaze, and she stopped, blinking. Because all her lights were on, she could see little more than her own reflection in the window, but she could just make out a figure with a halting gait making its way toward her house. Annoyed, because it most likely meant it was some nin wanting treatment, she rolled back to the balls of her feet, huffed out a breath.

Then, because she couldn't just turn away from someone in need, she propped her elbows up on the window and boosted herself up and out. "How badly are you hurt?"

The person stopped, bringing one hand up to its chest and curling forward. For a moment, she thought they would simply crumble, but after a few tense moments it began walking again.

Concerned but wary, Sakura pulled back into her house and hurried around to her front door. The chill that an early winter's night brought wrapped around her and caused goose pimples to riot across her skin, but she strode forward anyhow, ignoring the sharp bite of twigs into the bottom of her feet. If push came to shove and this was an enemy faking injury to ambush her, she didn't need weapons to defend herself.

What she was betting on, however, was that it was a severely injured nin from Konoha, which meant she had a responsibility to help them.

When the figure limped out into the faint moonlight, she got a better view of the figure and realized it was a man. And unless he was a very good actor, he was in serious pain.

Rushing forward, she opened her arms just as the man stumbled, and braced herself to catch his weight. The scent was of blood and sweat, and unmistakable death. Cradling him against her, she slipped one hand underneath his backside and held the other steady between his shoulder blades, hoisting him onto her shoulder with a grunt.

Balancing his weight expertly, she ran back to her house and nudged the door open with her hip. Blood splattered against the hardwood floors in heavy drops, and she could feel it sticking to her gown, her skin. But that was the farthest thing from her mind.

Though it wasn't the most ideal place for treatment, she kicked her end table out of the way and settled the body on the floor. For the first time, she got a good look at his face, bathed as it was in the harsh yellow light from her lamps, and her heart stuttered painfully.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Panic clawed up her throat and paralyzed her hands, normally so steady. For a wild moment, she thought his body had given out during the brief trip from the road to her floor, and she couldn't breathe. Then, through the hair matted with blood and dirt, she saw one eye crack open.

It held hers, a word of pain clouding it, and everything inside of her calmed. He was alive, and she knew what to do.

Without further hesitation, she gripped the front of his jacket, tore it cleanly in two. Stuffing flew from the bursted seams but she didn't notice, disregarding the need for scissors as she applied the same treatment to his undersuit. A long, ugly scar marred his chest, bleeding heavily as his rasping breaths disturbed it.

Forming the seals quickly, Sakura pressed her hands to the wounds and bit her lower lip, concentrating as she knit the flesh and staunched the flow of blood. Still, she didn't know the entire extent of his wounds, and so she conserved her chakra as best she could.

As she made her way down his body, ignoring any semblance of modesty and throwing his clothes into a growing pile to her right, Sakura was amazed at the actual extent of his injuries. More, she couldn't believe he'd managed to support himself long enough to even make it back through Konoha's gates.

Satisfied that she'd stopped his bleeding from the heavy wounds, Sakura shifted her attentions to his face, hesitating over his mask. It was silly under the circumstances, but she'd always wanted to know what was under it. Kakashi hadn't moved during her healing ministrations; she doubted he was even awake. And he wouldn't even ever have to know.

Slipping her fingers under the fabric, she gently lifted it, and then squeaked when his hands flew up, caught her wrists. Both eyes opened, and though she could see the weariness and the pain still, she thought she caught a spark of amusement there too.

If he was well enough to worry about his face, anyway, then the danger must have passed.

Relaxing her tense muscles, Sakura shook her hands free and rolled her eyes. "I think it's the least you could do."

Fussily, she pushed his hair out of his face, scowled at the state of him. When he didn't respond, she glared at him, slapped his cheek lightly with her hand. "Don't have anything to say to me?"

Loosely, he wrapped his fingers around his neck, and she realized that it wasn't exactly that he wouldn't speak, it was that he couldn't. Serious once more, she nudged his fingers aside and gently probed his neck, feeling to see if there was any swelling. He closed his eyes, frowned, and then hoisted himself onto on shoulder, rolling slightly away from her touch.

"Hey!" Grasping his shoulder, she was going to roll him over again, but noticed he'd smeared his finger in his own blood and was writing a message.

It only took a few seconds for her to realize the word was poison.

"Poison?" When he sank back, relieved, she leapt up, sprinted to her room for her medicine box. She grew most of her own herbs and made remedies in her spare time, and because of that, she'd dedicated half of her bedroom to a work table that was cluttered with bottles and half-ground herbs.

Rather than pick and choose, she grabbed her medicine box with one hand and swept all the remaining bottles into her arm with the other, already trying to determine what he could have been poisoned with. Labored breathing and an inability to speak meant it was something that was affecting the lungs, probably a paralytic powder. Because it had happened in a battle situation, she knew it would be lethal, which narrowed down the prospects considerably. There were only a few poisons that, when put in a powdered form, could be deadly without considerable dosage.

Still, he'd survived this long, which meant it had been diluted or he'd realized what was happening and had stopped breathing.

Dropping to her knees, ignoring the fact that her delicate white nightgown was now spattered beyond recognition, she leaned down and closed her eyes, pressing her ear to his chest and focusing her chakra to enhance her hearing. Rising, her hair falling over her shoulders, she selected a vial of antidote with steady hands, loaded a syringe, and calmly administered it.

For a few seconds, he didn't move, then his shoulders relaxed visibly and he sighed a little. Relief washed over Sakura and closed her eyes, propping her forehead up on one hand as her shoulders shook. Whether it was the giddy rush of relief or barely suppressed hysteria, she couldn't have said.

"You just scared ten years off my life, Kakashi-sensei." Pulling her hand away, unaware she'd just smeared her forehead with blood, she looked down at him sternly. "I expect you to explain yourself fully -- tomorrow."

He smiled a little, or at least she thought he did. Rising, feeling the ache in every joint of her body, Sakura walked to her bathroom and wetted down a few towels. It was tedious, but she couldn't have him sitting in the middle of her floor covered in blood and grime all night long. Because of how often people were stopping by her house, she kept outfits and the basic necessities for an overnight stay in her spare room, and once she had him cleaned up, she would move Kakashi there so that he could rest and recuperate.

Because she knew him, she figured he would try to get out as soon as possible, so she would have to impress upon him the reality that he wasn't going to escape until she considered him well enough to be out on another mission.

She caught a quick glance of herself in the mirror, and decided that was far from the best thing to be doing.

When she walked back out, it was to see Kakashi in a sitting position, one hand dangling between his raised knees, looking out the window. Annoyed, but not really surprised, she ordered, "You need to relax for now. I'm going to wipe you up a bit and then you can stay in the spare room. I have some clothes and a bed."

He swiveled slowly, looked at her out of patient eyes. And shook his head.

"Don't argue with me, sensei." Briskly, she shook out the towels, tossed one to him and began to apply the others to the blood and dirt on his back. "You came to me because you were wounded, so I'm going to make sure you get healed properly before you go. It's no trouble, and I'm only going to get irritated if you sneak out, so don't even try it."

He cleaned his arms slowly. Though she knew the silence was unintentional, it still felt thoughtful. Bunching the towel up over his shoulders, she wrung it out, letting the water streak down his back for a few seconds, and then mopped it up quickly.

"Let's go to the tub, and I'll spray out your hair. Then I'll let you get dressed and go to bed."

When she would have helped him up he waved a hand at her and stood on his own. She understood it was some stupid male pride thing, but that didn't stop it from irritating her slightly. Even so, she led the way to the bathroom and turned on the shower, grabbing the nozzle and adjusting its spray so that it would be a steady flow to rinse out his hair.

He knelt beside the tub and she rinsed his hair, musing on the fact that she'd never invaded his personal space quite as much as she had that night. The water that swirled toward the drain was an odd mix of copper and brown, sickly to her eyes, but at least it was out of his hair. Without bothering to ask, she squirted some of her apple scented shampoo on top of his head and scrubbed it thoroughly.

"There. Clean enough." Wrapping his hair in a towel, she rubbed the top of his head briskly. He brought his hands up to take over the job himself and she took the hint, standing up and leaving the bathroom without further comment. She didn't notice that he watched her as she walked away, and probably wouldn't have had an explanation for it even if she had.

Nevertheless, his eyes followed her out of the room, and when he slipped the towel off of his head, he brought it up to his mask and inhaled.