Sasuke frowned at his friends, both of whom seemed to be in some sort of shock. Sakura was staring at him as though she'd never seen him before, and Naruto looked like he was trying to sink into the ground and disappear forever.
"Are you okay?" he asked when neither of them moved.
Sakura's mind dimly registered that Sasuke had come into the room, and that he'd asked her a question. She blinked several times, hoping to rattle her brain into working again...had Naruto really meant...?
And now that she looked for it, she could see it. To anyone else, Sasuke would have appeared as he always did: cold, aloof and expressionless...but Sakura knew better. She could see the way his shoulder hunched a little, the slight wariness in his eyes, the way he was clutching the plate of apple pieces just a shade more tightly than was necessary.
Sakura never would have thought Sasuke capable of it, but he looked...vulnerable, almost worried.
It was probably a good thing he hadn't come in time to hear Naruto blurt everything out.
Naruto, of course, took the opportunity to make himself scarce. "I-I gotta...I'm going to...to see Hinata, bye!"
And he bolted from the room like a cat confronted with a hose.
Sakura watched him go, still rather stunned.
"I...brought you some more apple pieces..." Sasuke said, placing the plate on the bedside table and shifting uncomfortably.
"Thanks," Sakura beamed, taking a slice from the fresh plate and ignoring that fact that she still had a half-full one on her lap. "Any other reason you came?"
She knew this might be considered a little cruel: deliberately baiting Sasuke when she knew very well what he was trying to do...but, dammit, she though she'd earned a little fumbling and groveling on his part after what he'd put her through!
Sasuke pressed his lips together, relaxed them, looked like he was about to speak...then looked down at the plate of apple slices. Then he did it again. And again. The cycle repeated several times, and Sakura sensed Sasuke was about to make a strategic retreat out of sheer mortification.
Apparently years of emotional repression wasn't going to be undone in a moment – no big surprise there, but Sakura figured she'd have to give him a helping hand at least, if not guide him through this entirely.
"Sasuke..." she sighed at last, shaking her head. "You really suck at making a move."
When his eyes found hers in shock, she grabbed his collar and used it as leverage to pull him down to her level before she pressed her lips against his in a brief, chaste kiss.
It was nice – really nice – and Sakura didn't really want to stop, but she forced herself to.
"Now, as soon as I get better and this whole disease-thing is cleared up, we can go get lunch sometime," Sakura announced, hoping her face didn't betray the anxiety she felt. Sure, Naruto had said he was trying to make a move on her, but years of rejections had left her far from confident when it came to Sasuke.
Sasuke, for his part, was still trying to work out how he'd lost control of the situation. For that matter, how had Sakura known he was going to make a move?
He felt the same way he imagined a highwire walker would if they slipped. Frightened, nauseous, dizzy with the possibility of failure...
Then he saw the hint of insecurity in her eyes and felt strangely reassured. This was important to her too.
So he drew the fragments of his dignity to himself and nodded, "I'd like that."
"Good." It didn't seem possible, but Sakura felt her smile grow wider. "Now...another kiss?"
A small bubble of happiness swelled in the medic's chest as Sasuke obeyed her suggestion with a satisfied smirk.
'And that's how you make a move!' she thought triumphantly.
Chouji groaned. "Come on, guys, I need someone to talk to – this is very unfair!"
Hinata and Naruto didn't seem to hear him, and appeared quite content to continue kissing. But Shikamaru and Ino disengaged and turned to him, their lips slightly swollen.
The disadvantage of sharing a room with a couple and one half of a couple (when the other half visited every spare moment he got) was that they spent a lot of time very heavily involved with each other.
He was about to make some comment on that to his two teammates when the door opened and Tsunade came in, smiling, flushed with something that looked close to triumph...and brandishing a set of formidable-looking hypodermics.
Naruto and Hinata sprang apart, both blushing darkly.
"Wh-what are those f-for, Lady Tsunade?" Hinata asked, nodding at the needles.
"We have found a cure!" the Hokage announced, holding up a vial filled with clear liquid.
Around the room, eyes widened and lips parted in astonishment like a troupe of synchronized mimes.
And then they all snapped out of it at once.
"Really?" Naruto bounced up from Hinata's bed like a jack-in-the-box.
"I knew it would happen!" Ino crowed. "No stupid disease is going to take us down!"
"Th-that's very g-good news," Hinata said quietly, a timid smile hovering on her face, as though she were almost afraid to celebrate too soon.
"At least this troublesome business will finally be over..." Shikamaru drawled.
"How?" Chouji wondered. "I mean, if you don't mind me asking..."
"We were studying Sakura's white cells to see how they were capable of defeating the bacteria," Tsunade explained. "And the scientists found that they were producing an enzyme that somehow stopped the bacteria from being able to draw on their host's chakra, rendering them vulnerable to the immune system and antibiotics. We're not sure how to induce other people's white cells to produce this enzyme, but we've been farming it in the laboratory...and now we have enough."
"Enough to do what?" Naruto asked, eyeing the needles mistrustfully.
"Enough to inject the enzyme into the people infected," Tsunade went on, already preparing the first needle. "Hinata, please hold out your non-dominant arm."
Hinata did as instructed, and Tsunade injected the enzyme into the vein at her elbow.
"Sakura's body is producing it naturally," the blonde woman continued as she prepared to inject Chouji. "So we're certain it has no detrimental effect. And since we've isolated the chemical alone, we don't need to worry about matching blood types."
She moved onto Shikamaru. "Although since your bodies don't produce it naturally, you're probably going to have suffer through these injections at regular intervals until the bacteria have been completely eradicated."
"Neat," Ino pronounced, grinning broadly. "So...we'll be cured, soon, huh?"
"As soon as possible," Tsunade confirmed.
"Alright!" Naruto practically crowed. "Then we can go out, Hinata, just like I promised."
The Hyuuga girl smiled shyly and nodded.
"And I can collect on that dinner you owe me," Ino smirked at Shikamaru.
"You really think these will work?" Kiba wondered aloud, staring with morbid fascination at the bloody ball of cotton wool he had been instructed to keep pressed to the puncture in his skin.
"By all accounts, I think so," Tenten said, her arm bent to keep her own cotton ball against the needle mark. "After all, this is what Sakura's cells are making, right? And Tsunade says she's getting better all the time..."
"If it would get me out of this hospital, I would be quite happy to let the Hokage inject me with acid," Neji commented.
Tenten chuckled, blowing him a kiss in a rare act of blatant flirtation. The idea that they might be able to rejoin the rest of the world soon was rather exciting to her as well; they'd spent far too long in these hospital beds.
Two and a half weeks later, Tsunade stood back with some satisfaction as she watched her patients finally leave the isolation wing.
They were a little shaky, but that was to be expected – weeks of being practically bed-ridden did nothing for muscle tone. Sakura especially was looking a little on the fragile side, and she'd already yelled at Sasuke for scaring an intern at the hospital who'd really done nothing more serious than breathe on her.
Naruto and Sasuke had been the most difficult to cure; seeing as the chakra-eaters infecting them were in dormant form, the enzyme would do nothing as the bacteria weren't feeding off their chakra.
Then one of the scientists had pointed out that if the chakra-eaters were in dormant form their immune systems could probably deal with them adequately, given a week or so. After all, the only reason the other patients' immune systems couldn't eradicate the bacteria in time was because it only took a couple of days for them to become set to the host's chakra signature, and become invulnerable to the immune system from then on. In fact, the only reason Naruto and Sasuke weren't bacteria-free was because they were constantly being re-infected by contact with the patients.
So, that decided, Tsunade had shoved both Naruto and Sasuke into two of the other isolation rooms, though neither of them had been very happy about it. Naruto had been practically bouncing off the walls, and towards the end of the week he was so stir-crazy and hyperactive that Tsunade had seriously considered sedating him. Sasuke had been even more aloof and irritable than usual, though she had a feeling most of that stemmed from the fact that he hadn't been allowed to see Sakura.
She wasn't sure how she felt about her student's nascent relationship with the Uchiha. On the one hand, it made Sakura happy, but on the other hand, Sasuke was...Sasuke. Of course, she couldn't be sure how much of this was unbiased judgment and how much of it was latent maternal instincts insisting that no man would ever be good enough for Sakura. But she was sure of one thing; if Sasuke hurt her, she'd make him very sorry for it.
But putting her emotions aside for a moment, the Hokage had other, larger problems to deal with. The Akatsuki. Their attempt to take down Konoha might have failed (and Tsunade would ensure that the enzyme was shipped to their allies just in case the organization tried the same tactic on another village) but they would be sure to try again.
The Akatsuki had become a problem they could no longer ignore or put off. They had to be dealt with as soon as possible.
Tsunade knew many councilors objected to the idea of trying to hunt Akatsuki down and eliminate them, if only because they stood to lose a lot of shinobi in such an effort...but a line had to be drawn somewhere.
And she was drawing it here. Akatsuki had become too much of a problem for them not to take action.
Besides, she already knew which teams she was going to send.
Kakashi's mask hid his smirk, but Sasuke knew it was there.
"You two seem closer," he commented, gesturing down at Sasuke's and Sakura's linked hands.
"Hn." Sasuke refused to blush. It would be foolish to blush; he and Sakura had kissed, for god's sake – that was far more intimate than holding hands and he hadn't blushed then!
And the holding hands-thing wasn't even his idea. They'd been walking out of the hospital and Sakura had simply seized his hand in hers. And he hadn't dropped her hand or shaken her off because...he hadn't really felt like it. It had felt...nice.
"Don't start with any smart comments, Kakashi," Sakura grinned cheekily, enjoying the feel of sunshine on her skin and fresh air in her lungs.
"I wasn't going to say a thing," Kakashi said with mock-innocence, the line of his visible eye curving as it did when he smiled.
The Sakura in front of him was a little paler than the one he remembered, a little thinner...but she was smiling fit to put the sun to shame and was perfectly, marvelously, gloriously alive!
And Kakashi was more relieved than he'd ever admit.
Sakura's smile became softer as she watched Kakashi's face grow more somber, and she didn't have to think hard to know what was on his mind. She knew he would never say he had been worried about it – he just wasn't like that – so she simply smiled for him and let him ruffle her hair the way he had done when she had been a genin, offering him silent but tangible reassurance.
"You owe me dinner!" Kakashi's attention was attracted by Ino's proclamation. The blonde was trotting out of the hospital doors beside Shikamaru, her grin even wider than Sakura's. "And I expect some nice restaurant, I'll have you know, not some cheap bowl of ramen at Ichiraku..."
"Troublesome woman," Shikamaru muttered, his sentiment rather contradicted by the smile that seemed to be hovering just under the skin of his face, as though ready to fly out at the slightest nudge.
"Ichiraku is a nice restaurant!" Naruto insisted, loudly defending his favourite eatery. "I'm taking Hinata there for our date!"
Said Hyuuga blushed like a ripe cherry, and Kakashi snickered.
"Aren't they cute?" Sakura cooed, watching the two couples wander away from the hospital.
Sasuke rolled his eyes, and she promptly elbowed him gently in the side. "Agree with me!"
Neji and Tenten had greeted the waiting Lee and Gai with a weary but fond smile in Tenten's case and a less frosty demeanor than usual in Neji's. Kakashi had quite deliberately tuned out the past several minutes of conversation (which, he was certain, had contained many references to the couple's youthful healing vigour or something along those lines) but it seemed that Neji and Tenten had taken their leave of their teammates and were departing together, heading in the direction of the training grounds.
Kakashi had always thought that training with your lover probably gave a very kinky lean to sparring. But then again, his choice of reading material might have skewed his perceptions a little.
Akamaru was running joyous, howling rings around Kiba, sniffing every inch of the man, licking frantically at his chin as dogs did when they were reunited with a pack member. Kiba was scruffing his loyal partner's ears in return whenever the dog was still enough.
Chouji was making his way back to his home, muttering something about getting proper food after weeks of eating hospital meals. Kakashi could sympathize – his own ninja career meant he'd been hospitalised more times than he could count, and the one thing he'd always despised was the food he was given. Disliking hospital food was a big cliché, but clichés formed because they had a basis in fact.
In short, the village seemed to have suddenly – without any warning – returned to normal. Looking at the people around him, Kakashi never would have guessed that they'd been laid up in hospital, battling a disease specifically designed to kill them.
But then again, they were ninja, and they bounced back a lot faster than civilians did.
It was rather strange to think that the disease which had plagued the village for months had been dealt with so quickly.
"Anyway, we're off to lunch, now," Sakura went on. "Thanks for your blood, by the way, Kakashi."
"No problem," her erstwhile teacher rejoined, taking out his infamous book and flipping through it. "Though it seems kind of morbid to thank me for it..."
Sakura shrugged, then began pulling Sasuke down the road. "Come on, I want to check out that new seafood place – although I guess it's not really new now, when you consider how long we've been in the hospital..."
Kakashi gave them a careless wave which, predictably, Sakura returned and Sasuke didn't. He smirked to himself, turning away to see the Hokage standing by the hospital doors, Shizune at her side again. Tsunade looked extremely satisfied and well-pleased...but there was a hint of grim resolve behind her eyes.
Apparently sensing Kakashi's eyes on her, her head turned towards him. She regarded him silently for a moment, as though weighing something within her mind, before she gestured him over.
Not knowing what she could want, Kakashi closed his book and approached.
"So we're going to be hunting down the Akatsuki?" Naruto echoed.
"Not really hunting down," Tsunade clarified. "But whenever we have information on a sighting, or an incident that might be connected to the organisation...you four will be dispatched to find and eliminate any Akatsuki you encounter."
Naruto grinned. Sasuke smirked. Sakura and Kakashi – not quite as knuckle-headed as the other two – looked a little grimmer, but there was a flare of excitement in their eyes nevertheless.
"It should also be noted that yours won't be the only team doing this," she added. "Team 10, Team 8 and Team Gai will also be assigned this mission."
The only way Tsunade had gotten the council to agree to this proposal was if the teams in question continued with their usual roster of missions when not responding to an Akatsuki sighting. Multiple teams enlisted insured at least one group would be in the village and available at any one time.
Sheer strength of numbers was also a factor. Tsunade knew how dangerous this mission would be, and the more powerful ninja in it, the higher the likelihood of everyone surviving.
"Your first mission," the Hokage continued, tossing a scroll at them which Kakashi caught. "The Akatsuki sighting in Wave. Find out if this disease was all they did, and if they're still nearby. Kakashi, you're in charge. Dismissed."
Ten minutes later, after weapons and assorted shinobi trappings had been assembled and apartments locked up, Team 7 stood by the gates of Konoha, performing a last minute equipment check.
Kakashi, Sasuke and Naruto had already finished cataloging their items, but Sakura was still sorting through her medical supplies. Kakashi had often felt rather sorry for medical ninja; their extensive med-kits often meant they were carrying almost twice as much as other ninja. Sometimes he wondered if Tsunade had developed her super strength just so she could carry her equipment.
"Come on, Sakura, we need to go!" Naruto whined.
Sasuke rolled his eyes, and Sakura pointedly ignored the blonde, her mind too busy to retort.
"Idiot," Sasuke scoffed. "Has it occurred to you that these medical supplies will probably end up saving your ass when you get it trampled on, as always?"
Naruto opened his mouth to bellow some retort or denial, but Kakashi rapped him sharply on the head with the spine of his book. They were about to set off; he couldn't be bothered to deal with one of their arguments yet.
Sakura shoved her med-kit into her bulging pack and smiled at her boyfriend. "Thanks, Sasuke."
Then she looped her arms around his neck and pulled him close to instigate a very involved kiss.
Naruto huffed, but he was more considerate than he appeared, and he gave them a few moments. But when the kiss showed no sign of stopping, he began to whine again.
"Come on, guys, we need to go!"
"This is unfair! You can't rub the fact that you two get to do missions together while me and Hinata can't in my face!"
Still no response.
Kakashi shook his head in exasperation, turned around and took to the trees, confident that his former students would follow. His keen ears caught Naruto's complaining grumble as Sakura and Sasuke disengaged.
"Are you guys going to be like this for the entire trip?"
AN: Thanks to justcallmefaye for beta-ing this chapter, and thanks to everyone who reviewed this story – I couldn't have done it without you! Well, I probably could have, but it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.