Hello Dear Readers,

I am so sorry for the enormous delay; let's just say real life has been throwing massive spanners in my direction. I am currently in the process of buying a flat...the paperwork is endless and boring! I am also looking for a new job and also my beta is currently embarking on a new fantastical journey of discovery, so I would appreciate your continued patience and understanding. Updates for all of my stories are in the works though – I haven't forgotten!

Thank you to Moderndayportia for her wonderful beta-ness as usual and I hope you all enjoy this chapter.

Chapter 20: Home is where the heart is...

The forest sped past underfoot, greens and browns mixing in a long smudge of olive. Yet again Sakura felt a surge of adrenaline spark through her limbs in anticipation of what lay ahead. The dull aching of her bones and joints was completely forgotten, and the exhausted cloudiness that had hung heavily over her head like a damp fog for the last three days had finally lifted, leaving only keen and jittery expectation behind.

The nervous excitement singing through her body could have been attributed to her encounter with the ever infuriating Hatake Kakashi, but as she bounded after him through the trees, she realised that, no, this need to break something – tear something apart – came not from her team leader's impromptu molestation, but from the volume of chakra crackling like a storm a short distance ahead of her.

She could tell her team-mates were feeling it too. Kakashi's shoulders were coat-hanger rigid, and his hands kept twitching minutely towards his weapons pouch. Yamato was much the same, his chin dipping low towards his chest in a subconscious attempt to protect the major arteries, and the two dogs that had decided to come back to shepherd them towards the source of power, whipped between her legs in a frenzy, the hair along their bent hackles jutting up defensively.

Sakura embraced the sensation, the primal instinct to fight, to attack, to kill – because otherwise she would be overcome with very real fear; something this powerful was very close to her home and, therefore, very close to the people she loved.

It was hard to distinguish specific signatures amongst the noise, but Naruto's strong energy came to her first, followed by those of the rest of her team, and then other familiar auras flickered one by one into her senses.

There was a sudden break in the trees, and evening sunlight flowed into the space like water into a bucket. Her arm came up to block the glare as she leapt to the forest floor. Naruto was at her side instantly, his fingers wrapping round her upper arm, "Sakura-chan, look!"

She did look, and as her eyes adjusted her mouth fell open.

There were maybe a hundred or more figures, shimmering and indistinct in the meadow ahead of her, their bodies blurred and stretched as if viewed through half closed eyes or the flame of fire. It was hard for Sakura to gauge the distance between herself and the figures because her sense of perspective was oddly flattened as she peered into the foggy distortion. For a split second, Sakura could have sworn she saw a translucent barrier appear, its surface tight and iridescent like cling-film spread across a bowl.

"What the hell..." she started, moving forward.

Her feet were caught mid stride by a sudden and uncomfortable pressure which spread up her legs and around her chest. A bird shot past her face and as it hit an invisible wall two feet in front of her it instantly burst into flames. Its small, blackened body dropped like a stone. A blue flash spread from the point of contact, arching up into the sky to highlight the shape of a large dome.

Slowly, carefully, Sakura was manoeuvred back into a standing position. With a substantial amount of effort, she turned her head to regard Nara Shikamaru.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he flatly drawled, jerking a thumb towards the clearing. Sakura felt her own arm mimic his gesture. "We have two men in the hospital after they tried the same thing. Troublesome jutsu."

The shadows wrapped around her loosened, spiralling down the column of her body and rapidly retreating back to their owner.

The skin between Sakura's eyes furrowed. "Shikamaru, what is it?"

She fought against the urge to reach out and run her hands through the dense air before her.

Kakashi's low voice answered, "Some sort of chakra field."

Shikamaru's head dipped in agreement. "Yes, it seems to be self-perpetuating although able to leech chakra from anything it comes into contact with: birds, insects, people. It sucks up jutsu like water through a straw...I've never seen anything like it."

"Are those people in there?" Sakura asked.

"All women," his eyes rolled at that. "We've counted eighty three of them so far, some of them armed in what looks like standard issue shinobi gear, some dressed in civilian clothing. We've started an inventory of their appearances and weapons, although even Neji and Hinata are having trouble focusing through the distortion of the field."

Sakura's eyes scanned the tree line, finally noticing the other people present. Genma and Sai were talking to Neji, whose intense white gaze was fixed on the figures in the meadow. Raidou and another older Jounin were erecting a wooden hide while Yamato had started building another with his dwindling chakra reserves. The edge of the clearing was buzzing with activity. Several other shinobi sat clustered in small groups, writing their observations down on long scrolls. Hinata was shooting quick glances towards Naruto while fumbling with a canteen of tea.

After a thoughtful hum, Sakura let loose a litany of questions, "Have they attacked? Have they moved? Have their numbers increased? What have they been doing? Do they appear..."

"Their presence was only discovered about two hours ago, but from what we've observed...nothing."

"Nothing?!" Kakashi cut in, his voice surprised.

Shikamaru gave a long rolling shrug before stuffing his hands deep in his pockets, mirroring Kakashi's pose, and scuffing his foot against the parched grass. "Yes, nothing. It's like they are just waiting for something. They haven't so much as looked in our direction. It's like we don't matter. Or they can't see us. I'm trying to work on a way to bring down the barrier...but so far nothing is working."

"Waiting for what though..." Kakashi mused, scratching his fingers along the hem of his mask.

"That's the big question. I could use your help on this Kakashi-sensei."

"Hm. She's put you in charge?"

Shikamaru scoffed. "With my father out on a long term mission, it seems that the Hokage thinks this would be a good test of my abilities. We are short-staffed, what with the civilian evacuation."

Kakashi gave a short nod of understanding, "After I hand in my report, I'll request the assignment."

"Thank you," Shikamaru said over his shoulder as he turned towards a group of shinobi huddled in the shade of a giant oak, their laps overflowing with scrolls.

Kakashi turned his attention to his dogs sniffing around the barriers edge. "Thank you, Pakkun, you can leave now." Pakkun gave a perfunctory bark before disappearing into a small cloud of smoke, and the other summons quickly followed suit.

"Come on," Kakashi called, raising his voice to address the team as a whole. He leapt back into the trees, heading down the gentle incline of craggy moss-carpeted rock towards the village's main gates.

Tsunade's fingernails flexed against the rough wood grain of her office windowsill. With her back to the group of exhausted looking shinobi, she allowed herself a long calming inhalation and blinked hard against the sharp sting that was irritating her eyes. She focused on the middle distance to clear her vision. Dust. Surely just dust.

There was a shuffle of feet behind her. A muted cough against fabric.

She released the lungful of air in a slow steady stream from between pursed lips that caused the blonde bangs framing her features to flutter. Then turning, she allowed her gaze to sweep over the group, lingering a little on Sakura and then Naruto, before settling on Kakashi. Her eyes prickled. Damn allergies.

Firstly, she addressed the ANBU contingent of the team. "Shiranui, that mask is for wearing on your face, not on the back of your head. I expect your full report in three hours. You may go."

Genma snapped the mask back over his face and, with Yugao and Yamato, somewhat grudgingly left the office. When the door clicked shut she gave Kakashi a sharp nod.

"Report." She demanded, with carefully schooled professionalism.

Sakura felt emotionally battered. They were finally home; finally back within Konoha's fortified walls. The journey from the Nara grounds to the Hokage's office had been short and uninterrupted, and while Sakura had never been so pleased to be home, she couldn't hold back the contradictory wave of homesickness that crashed over her.

The streets were eerily quiet without the usual hustle and bustle of the civilian tradesman selling wares and imported goods. The cafes had been shuttered and locked, their chairs sitting upturned on their tables. The ubiquitous scent of frying tempura mixing with the sugary odour of cinnamon baked apples from the many competing bakeries was strangely absent, and this lack of colour seemed to have drained away much of what made Konoha...well, Konoha.

The Hokage tower held the same tight atmosphere of abandonment. Only key personnel were seen flitting through the corridors, all with their heads down and arms full - on their way to do something somewhere or another. The ANBU guards stationed at the entrances and exits looked jumpy and agitated, as if the last thing they wanted to be doing was standing around.

In the growing darkness outside, Konoha seemed smaller – claustrophobic even – without the usual sea of yellow light thrown up by the many stalls and streetlamps lining Konoha's roads.

Sakura fidgeted with the handle of a kunai in her pocket, throwing Naruto, whose eyes had glazed over about an hour ago, a sympathetic look.

Tsunade's previously clear desk was now littered with the various folders and files which Naruto and Sai had retrieved from the underground base near Taki. Some of the documents had become sodden and illegible from sewer water, but most had survived within the water-proofed interior of Sai's satchel. Sai was quickly and efficiently transcribing all legible information from the papers which had not been so lucky.

Kakashi hunched over a large folded map which Sai had retrieved, puzzling over the coloured key, while Tsunade flicked through the detailed records listing the abilities and achievements of Konoha's shinobi.

"I can't believe our enemy is privy to all this information, while we know literally nothing of their strengths." The Hokage's voice was tight. Sakura knew it would not be long before a bottle of saké found its way to the table.

"Aah, but we do. We know that the majority of the recruits are from Waterfall with next to no previous shinobi training. The whole conversion process is short...I'd estimate four to six weeks of intensive and invasive mind alteration in which the subjects are reprogrammed and then trained. So we can assume that their attacks will be limited to techniques inherent to the region – from what we've seen, largely water-based jutsu. These would be most suited to the subjects' natural abilities and to those teaching them. I did encounter a genjutsu user at the compound, but it is more likely that she was an initial recruit, part of the first wave used as reconnaissance,"

Kakashi scratched at his mask, hating the itch caused by being unshaven. He dragged the back of his wrist across his exposed eye, wishing he could just be asleep in bed.

"We know who their leader was. Kuma orchestrated this operation, and from the looks of it, ROOT was just as eager to put a stop to this as we were. Perhaps Danzou might co-operate and share some information?"

Tsunade snorted bitterly. "That'll go down well. But, I just might get the council's support on this one."

"Kuma-senpai informed me that there were others working within Konoha," Sai cut in. "We should organise a search of all personnel and civilians for the orchid tattoo."

Tsunade's lips drew into a grim line. "We are stretched enough as it is. I already have the pre-genin working like fully established ninja: organising the civilians and making sure their needs are attended to. The genin and chunin are overseeing them or on border patrol. People are overloaded. Our top priority is finding a way to break that barrier and remove the threat."

Sakura finally came alive. "Remove the threat? You mean slaughter them?" she whispered, her face aghast. "Y-you can't be serious? Our priority should be freeing these girls, helping them, not senselessly slaughter-"

Tsunade's sharp gaze cut off Sakura's impending tirade.

"Sakura," she said firmly and quietly, matching Sakura's own volume, "this is not a situation which lends itself to helping people. There are just shy of a hundred enemy units gathered outside of our city gates. From the information presented here, it is clear that Kuma's objective was to create as much chaos and instability as possible. That means the death and 'slaughter' of our men and women, and I will not allow it."

Remove the threat. Enemy units.

The leather of Sakura's gloves squeaked in protest as her fists squeezed into tight balls at her sides. Why was everyone so quick to see these young women as disposable? They had families; they had lives that had been erased by what Kuma had done to them. A fierce heat was curling around the back of her neck. The exhaustion. The adrenaline still pumping from the sight in the meadow. Her frustration... Her teeth ground together noisily.

Tsunade's eyebrows rose at her apprentice's thinly veiled impudence, and from the corner of her eyes she could see Naruto moving closer, ready to lay a calming hand on Sakura's shoulder.

Straightening, Tsunade crossed her arms over her large chest and stared coldly down her nose at the girl. "Fine then, out with it. You might as well get it off your chest."

Sakura forced herself to relax, visibly shaking off some of the anger, but the fire in her eyes still burned. She began to speak in a low and even tone, "Shishou, with respect, I feel that there is enough information available in this journal," she pulled the leather bound book from her weapons pouch and waved it at each person in the room, "to use to research a way to break the orchid seal. This innocent, largely civilian group of girls could be returned to their country, to their families! Isn't killing them when there are other options to explore as unemotional and cold as what was done to them in the first place? I am a medic," at this Sakura levelled an accusatory glare at Tsunade, "I believe in healing, I believe that killing them outright without even trying to help them is...just...stupid!"

"Sakura. That's enough," Kakashi barked angrily, slamming his fist down on the table and making her jump. "You are totally out of line. This is your Hokage and she will be addressed with respect."

"-but Kakashi, you don't understand we-"

"No. You don't understand." His voice was gravelly, and his exposed eye was uncharacteristically cold with anger. "Every enemy we fight has a country, or a home, or a family, or something to fight for. Every enemy. Do you really think that every time we take a life we are taking the life of someone who is solely evil? I know you are not that naive. Whatever their situation, these girls are our enemy. They intend to do us harm, and while they may not be responsible for their actions, they are a threat to our country, to our friends, and to our families."

The heat at the back of her neck fanned out to cover the rest of her body. Sakura deflated, her head bobbing down so that her chin rested against her chest. With her pulse pounding in her ears and the needling sting of humiliation irritating her eyes, she studied the knots and cracks in the wooden floorboards. Was it disrespectful to have so directly questioned her Hokage? Yes. Was it made worse by Kakashi's firm admonishment? Definitely. But did this still excuse the death of all those young women if it could be helped? –Well, she didn't think so.

She couldn't look either of them in the eye. She needed sleep. Proper sleep.

"I-I apologize Shishou," she murmured half-heartedly. She sensed Naruto's presence at her side, his warmth making her feel slightly less alone. It was a wonder he hadn't spoken up about this – but for once Naruto seemed to be agreeing with the logical, cold conclusion.

Tsunade's heavy sigh cut through the thick tension in the room, and slowly Sakura raised her head to meet the half amused, half irritated expression etched into her Shishou's face. It made her look closer to her age, and Sakura felt her stomach lurch guiltily in response.

"Shizune!" Tsunade bellowed.

There was a long silence and then a shuffling of feet from the side office. The door opened and Shizune's brunette head bobbed into the room.


"Give Sakura the complete file on our patient. She will be taking over that case."

"Y-yes of course." Shizune bobbed back out of view, only to return seconds later with a thin file in the crook of one arm and a dozing Tonton cradled under the other.

Sakura looked to Tsunade questioningly as she took the file with both hands.

"We managed to detain one of them, although she is in no state to cooperate with us. That file documents our attempts to revive her in the hopes of sending her to interrogation. Since you seem to be so invested in the well-being of these initiates, I suggest you start work on the orchid seal. Her detainment cell and observation room are yours to do with as you wish."

"You're putting me in charge of her case?" Sakura asked disbelievingly while flicking through the sparse documentation.

"If you can get her to a lucid state – great. If you can find a way to undo the sealing and strip away the programming – even better. You are not the only one who would like a bloodless solution to this conflict." Sakura felt a shadow of a smile pull at her lips as Tsunade continued, "But! At the first sign of enemy incursion you are to take your place on the battlefield and offer medical support. I will not call off attempts to access these girls, and when we are successful, they will be dealt with. So if you can find a way to neutralise them, then you will need to do it quickly. This will be a test of your skills Sakura. From what I have seen of that journal, it looks like complete nonsense and I doubt those girls are going to hang around in their protective bubble forever."

Sai, stacking his notes perpendicularly to the edge of the great wooden desk, spoke up in that slow and measured way of his, "I would like to offer my assistance to Sakura for this task. I am the most familiar with Kuma-senpai's methods and could provide some insight into the programming techniques."

"Yeah, me too!" Naruto chimed. "I don't know anything about Kuma, but I could help anyway, right?"

"No," Tsunade stated flatly, "You will both be assigned to a patrol rota like everybody else. In your free time, you may do as you please. Now all of you, get the hell out of my office and get some sleep. You'll be notified if there are any developments."

Sakura, Sai and Naruto began to file from the room, and Sakura paused to look back at where Kakashi stood unmoving, his hip leaned casually up against the desk. He made a simple shooing gesture with a gloved hand without taking his one eyed gaze from the pile of papers. An irrational spark of anger found its way back into the nape of her neck. His dismissive attitude coupled with the way he had chastised her earlier...well it stung. He wasn't even going to look at her? So, maybe it was inappropriate to be worrying over it at a time like this –but she was confused, his anger was obvious. Had sticking up for her beliefs really caused this sudden drop in temperature between them? It felt like they had just taken two steps forward and ten steps back. Were they even going to talk about what he had done in the forest, or was this it? Was he just going to shun her and-

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto stage-whispered, jabbing her in the side with his elbow.

She scowled at him before snapping, "Fine, I'm coming." The door slammed behind her a little harder than necessary.

Tsunade clucked her tongue disapprovingly, and Kakashi couldn't agree more. Sakura was acting like a petulant teenager, which, when he thought about it (and he really didn't need reminding), she was.

"Idiot." Tsunade grumbled under her breath.

Kakashi blithely replied, "She's just tired."

"Not her! You, you idiot!"

Kakashi dropped the papers in shock, slicing his thumb on the corner of a manila envelope. "What did I do?" he grumbled, inspecting the bleeding flap of skin. Why did paper cuts always seem to hurt more than a stab wound? It was one of life's great mysteries.

"Are you just going to leave it like that? It's not like you to hold grudges...you know she is just going to go home and worry herself sick over it."

"She was being disrespectful," he defended.

"She was standing up for her principles. You flew off the handle. It's obvious that this mission has caused some sort of friction between you both. It is unacceptable to allow this to fester. Teams need trust and cohesion."

Kakashi groaned dejectedly. He didn't want to be thinking about friction and cohesion with Sakura either.

"And what would you have me do?"

"Sort it out, whatever is causing all this tension. Fix it... the paperwork will still be here when you come back."

A strong, pervading wind ripped through the park, tugging Sakura's top tight against her body and causing the flaps of her medic apron to slap wildly around her legs. It took the edge off the night's humidity, but its strength and direction served as a precursor to something bigger. The rains were finally coming. Konoha desperately needed them; the grass underneath her feet was brittle and sun scorched. It was usually at this time of year that Fire country earned its name.

Sakura was almost home. A shortcut through the park took a good five minutes off her journey and was preferable to walking through the creepily quiet streets. Konoha was now a ghost town; its soul was with the missing people.

She couldn't wait to get home, shower, wrap herself up in a fluffy towel, and not think about Hatake Kakashi.

Of course he had other plans.

She hadn't heard his approach over the howling wind and didn't feel his chakra until he was standing in the path several metres ahead of her.

The distance between them felt like a mile.

"What do you want?" she flatly demanded. The wind snatched away her voice, but Kakashi could lip read. He'd work it out.

"I didn't mean to upset you." He accounted for the fact that she couldn't read his lips by practically shouting.

She bristled defensively, "You didn't upset me. Why would I be upset? Sure, you kissed me in the forest, then ignored me, then cut me down. You only humiliated me in front of everyone. Why the hell would that upset me?"

Well that was certainly loud enough for him to hear, his hands fisted into balls but were quickly hidden out of sight in his pockets.

"You're being irrational and melodramatic. Don't you understand that there are more important things going on right now than what happens between us?" He pinched the bridge of his nose, "This is exactly why we shouldn't pursue this. It becomes difficult to separate the personal and professional. It might not be easy for you to underst--"

"Stop saying that I don't understand! I understand perfectly: you fucked up! You fucked up with me and now you're trying to run away from what you did! It's not fair Kakashi, this can't all be on your terms."

"You are letting your emotions cloud your judgement. You should get some sleep, and you'll be less affected tomorrow," he responded evenly, but there was a small frown began to form between his eyebrows, it was quickly replaced by indifference, an expression he could pull on as easily as the dark fabric mask obscuring the lower portion of his face. She was getting to him; she knew it and it filled her with a sadistic sense of achievement.

"Good job Kakashi, great apology, I feel much better," she spat bitterly.

"Very mature, Sakura-chan."

Sakura hissed a breath through her pursed lips. She wanted to rip her hair out, hell she wanted to rip his hair out. Her short fingernails bit into her palms as she tried to quell the rage shaking her system. He kept staring at her so dispassionately, kept shifting everything onto her shoulders. Well he had done this, he had crossed that line. If he would only tell her what he was thinking, why he was being so damn contradictory, what did she have to do just to know where they stood?

She stamped towards him, invading his personal space until she had to crane her neck to stare him in the face. He didn't move or react to her sudden intrusion, only kept staring down at her with that same passive, bordering on bored expression.

Her chin jutted out defiantly. She met his tepid, uncaring gaze with one of her own.

There was only a sliver of space between them; above the loud wailing wind she could even hear his breathing, deep and rhythmic. There was a tension simmering under his skin, she could see it in the tick of his pulse–a barely visible fluttering of the skin-tight fabric around his neck.

Sakura reached out to place a hand against his chest and let her palm rest against the hard planes of his pectorals to feel the steady beat of his heart. He was warm in contrast to the frigidity between them. She spoke quietly and almost to herself, "You're pulling the maturity card again and it's just an excuse."

Her fingers slowly drifted down, brushing against his ribs then his abdomen. She felt his skin jump at her touch but his face remained stubbornly blank. She wanted a reaction...any reaction. Emboldened she continued, her fingers becoming surer as they moved lower still. Was he daring her? The challenge sent an electric chill down her spine. Would he stop her? Surely he would stop her.

She pushed her hand under his shirt, pressing her fingers against his burning skin and kneaded the string of muscle that dipped between his hip bone and the waistband of his pants. His eyes tightened incrementally. His breathing was getting heavier.

Tingling warmth stretched throughout her belly, a desire so unannounced that it made her own breath catch in her throat. Her fingers twitched against his skin as if trying to remind her brain of what they were doing. He didn't look quite so uncaring now. His focus was back on her mouth. It always seemed to be on her mouth. She licked her lips self-consciously and his vacant stare flared to life.

She was going to do it. She was going to do it, she was going to...

As her fingers slipped beneath his waistband, his hand enclosed around her wrist. Tightly, too tightly.

She resisted the urge to squirm as he removed her hand from him. He didn't release her wrist.

Sakura knew she was pushing her luck, knew that she should think of the consequences, but the conflicted, confused look in Kakashi's eye gave her the courage she needed. She sprung onto her tiptoes, pushing her body flush against his and leant up to whisper lowly into his ear,

"It looks as though you aren't as unaffected as you'd like to think."

The she wrenched her hand free and stormed towards home.

Kakashi watched her retreating form until she was totally swallowed by darkness. He stood there for an even longer while, allowing the wind to batter his body and cursing the erection Sakura had undoubtedly noticed when she had pressed herself against him.

"Didn't go so well?" Tsunade asked jovially as Kakashi lurched through the door looking paler than she had ever seen him.

"You could say that."

Tsunade swooped beneath her desk to pluck a tall bottle of saké and two large chipped coffee mugs from amongst a nest of papers. Kakashi's cocked an eyebrow at the oversized vessels.


"You look like you could use a stiff drink before I send you home to rest. Looks like you haven't slept in days."

In his opinion Kakashi didn't need a stiff anything. He needed a cold shower and a tranquiliser. "Paperwork, I have to do the paperwork."

"You can do it tomorrow."

"I have to file the report..." he gestured at the chaos surrounding them.

"You look like you haven't slept in days."

"Aah. That's because I haven't."

"Well, unless the village starts burning down, you will be getting a mandatory eight hours. You can come back tomorrow at nine, and on time— in fact, you'd better be early." Tsunade poured them both a generous helping of amber liquid and thrust the cup into his hands. Swirling the saké around, she took a deep inhalation while plonking herself down on her leather-backed chair.

"Mmm, this stuff it glorious, Jiraiya bought a crate of it back from Lightning a few years ago. You can practically taste the ionisation."

Tiredly, Kakashi scooped a pile of documents up from a wooden stool and deposited them haphazardly onto the desk, skewing Sai's careful arrangement. He perched awkwardly on its hard surface and slipped his fingers into the hem of his mask. He gave Tsunade a quick assessing look and she pointedly averted her gaze. He dragged the mask over his chin, wincing as the fabric snagged his coarse stubble, and took a moment to adjust to the intense assault on his olfactory system.

"Drink. Hokage's orders."

Tsunade was right; you could smell the ionisation in the saké...it smelt reminiscent of blood and the overlaying scent of alcohol instantly bought forward images of hospitals. Blood and disinfectant...He shook his head to clear the unpleasant association and forced the mug to his lips anyway. The burn was welcome against his lips, the fiery taste coating his throat as he swallowed. He hummed a little as the warmth spread through his body while his shoulders dropped even further into their custom slouch.

Tsunade's lips quirked up, "You might as well still be wearing that mask for all I can see through that stubble," she said glibly.

Kakashi felt his cheeks heat and resisted the urge to cover himself.

"You're not supposed to look," he flatly declared, draining his mug in one long gulp and moving to pull up his mask. His fingers stilled as Tsunade waggled the bottle at him.

"No, I guess not."

"Isn't getting blind drunk while swearing to protect the village from imminent attack a little...imprudent?" Kakashi said while the liquid flowed in gasping glugs into his mug.

"Ah, well you know it'll take at least five bottles to knock me out, and besides, I have no intention of getting blind drunk. I seem to recall, Hatake Kakashi, that you are a terrible lightweight."

"...so you're trying to take advantage of me?" he giggled at that and swirled the saké around with his index finger.

"Case in point."

He downed the second glass and then waved it at her expectantly.

"Come on then. Fill me up Buttercup," he sang breezily.

Sakura shuffled into the small observation room located in the restricted section of the hospital which was reserved for high priority cases, enemies with sensitive information, and protected witnesses.

She slid her pack off her shoulders and tossed it at the corner of the room, then took a weary look at her surroundings.

Living in the civilian quarter had its benefits: the roof traffic was quieter, her fellow shinobi were more likely to use actual doors than windows (lest they upset their civilian neighbours), and the buildings themselves felt more personable without the rigid monotony of shinobi accommodation. Generally, living amongst civilians meant that noise was minimal and that she was occasionally brought home cooked meals by some of her more kindly elderly neighbours. The down side was that rent was more expensive (but hell, that was the price you paid for begonia covered communal gardens and for neighbours that weren't constantly bleeding to death on your doorstep!) and that her apartment was situated a little further than she would have like from the Hokage monument and the hospital. Oh, and then there was the fact that during a civilian evacuation the power was cut and the doors padlocked. She had kicked the door in frustration until its hinges squealed and its surface buckled. She stopped short of ripping it open entirely. Was it too much to ask that she have a home to come home to?

This had compounded her already foul mood.

In the end, she had managed to access her apartment without trouble by scaling the wall and slipping through her window, but without air conditioning, running water and electricity, and with no provisions in her fridge and her cupboards bare, she might as well have been roughing it on the forest floor.

So Sakura had grabbed her medical books, a pile of fresh clothes, and her sleeping bag and headed to the mission room (which appeared to be particularly chaotic) to see if any of her dear friends were off rota and would let her to crash on their sofa.

Ino was on patrol, as were the rest of her family, until tomorrow morning. Tenten was out off Konoha with team Gai on a retrieval mission, though they had probably been recalled already...and Hinata was up at the Nara grounds. This pretty much ruled out everyone she was comfortable with staying with. Naruto's couch would probably give her Ebola. And his bed? Well...no. Just no.

Sai was still in Root's clinical dormitories, and while he had his own large studio room complete with kitchenette, she didn't really fancy waking up tomorrow and enjoying a communal shower with god knows how many closed-circuit-cameras trained on her.

Tomorrow she would go over to Ino's and appeal to her sense of hospitality.

For now though, the hospital was a fine choice. The ANBU guarding the entrance to this area had assured her that they would find her a spare bed to sleep on. There were shower cubicles, a cafeteria, and she could wake up in a few hours and get straight to work on her patient.

Sakura looked through the one-way glass at the frail, wasted figure wired up to countless bleeping machines. She appeared stable; in fact, her notes indicated that she had been placed into a medically induced coma to prevent her condition from deteriorating further. This girl looked so young, so dwarfed by the monitors and thick cables. The oxygen mask strapped over her mouth swamped her petite features and the thin white gown sticking to her undernourished frame only served to bleach out her complexion more.

Sakura began unpacking, moving the entirety of her paperwork onto a steel, wheeled gurney which would do as a makeshift desk until she could procure one. Luckily, a fold-out chair was already stationed at the window between the observation room and her patients; she dragged it over and sat down, pulling the hem of her medic apron under her to avoid creases.

The doctor's leather-bound journal stared up at her, and automatically her fingers reached to caress it's abused but loved surface. The leather was worn and warm to the touch, the natural webbed pattern that spiralled across it felt as defined as a fingerprint, totally unique. She flicked it open to the first page – a contents table, which had been continually altered and updated, it's carefully written itinerary scratched out and rewritten over and over again until it was a sprawling mess of chicken scratch and inky blotches. Sakura turned to the second dog-eared page, dated four months ago and titled:

'Introduction of high Dopamine levels into the cognition and frontal cortex. Section one: Manipulating the Neurotransmitter systems.'

A hastily jotted list of chemical compounds followed, as well as a layering of sticky post-it notes which all seemed to have variations of the same theme in red ink. There was a shopping list including napkins and dango stapled to one corner.

It was going to take forever to make any sense of this, but Sakura was excited by the challenge. Soon, the idea of sleep was forgotten, her anger over Kakashi's behaviour fell away. It was just her and her books and the quest for knowledge, and that was something she relished as her nose buried itself amongst the pages.

"Should be sleeping." Even though said quietly, the smooth if slightly slurred sound of Kakashi's words jolted Sakura from her deep concentration. Her heart leapt straight to her throat and the pen she had been sucking on exploded in her hand, spraying her notes and clothing with blue ink.

"Shit Kakashi! Don't sneak up on people like that!" she roared, jumping up from her seat and frantically dabbing at her ruined notes with the hem of her medic apron.

Kakashi lurched further into the room, his eyebrows dipping down in puzzlement.

"Sneaking is my job. Yes. It is."

Sakura sucked a frustrated breath through her teeth and turned to face him to find that he was suddenly standing far too close. She could feel the heat of his skin through his thin blue top as he pressed his chest against her arm to peer over her shoulder at what she was working on. Sakura's heart beat fell over itself in reaction to his proximity, her awareness suddenly tunnelling to the small area where his clothed torso met her bare arm.

He hummed, an odd mix of uncaring and curious, and the tremors worked their way through her arm and straight to her chest where they seemed to only exacerbate the frantic rhythm of her heart.

It had been a different story when she had so boldly challenged him earlier...but then that had been in her control. Or at least mostly in her control. The wide open space in the park had offered some security; she could run, she could shout. In the small observation room, wedged between a gurney and his warm body, she had nowhere to go.

"What do you want." She said shortly, hating how breathy her voice sounded.

"I went to your apartment. It was locked."

"...Why did you go to my apartment?" That was not a hitch in her voice.

His head turned towards her. His tilted chin ghosting through her hair.

"They've evacuated that area. I found you here."

"That's not an answer Kakashi. And why did they even let you in? I haven't put you on the approved list yet."

"I know those boys. They were wet behind the ears when I knew them. They let me in because I know those boys." He sighed, his breath heavy with the smell of...what was that, alcohol?

Sakura shoved away from him, putting enough distance between them so that she could get a good look at his face. His visible eye was red and bleary and the eyelid that seemed perpetually at half mast looked even lazier than usual.

"Have you been drinking!? You have, haven't you!" Sakura gasped, her hands clamping onto her hips in annoyance.

Kakashi looked around, over his shoulder in a paranoid fidgety kind of way and then nodded once...and then giggled.

"Oh my Gods. Tsunade-Sama got you trashed didn't she? You stink!"

The Copy-Nin managed to look mildly affronted by that accusation, and then immediately tried to take a subtle sniff at his underarms. Sakura growled in the back of her throat.

She injected as much venom as she could into her next question, "What. Are. You. Doing. Here?"

"What are you doing here?" he returned with a happy eye crease.

"Working. Now go."

He seemed to consider this for a moment before once again sidling into her personal space and then shuffling her papers into a less than neat pile.

"Kakashi! Stop that, I was working on those."

"Nope, not today, tomorrow." He stated flatly and continued shuffling. Her pack was somehow in his hands and he was shoving the papers into them.

"Hey, no, you can't do that, hey – Kakashi!" she made a blind grab for her pack, but even inebriated, he managed to slide from her grasp like an oily fish. "Stop it! These things have an order, you can't just..." His index finger was against her lips.

"Shh." Distractedly the tip of his finger traced the curve of her bottom lip and his eye seemed to glaze over as if focused on something much closer. Slowly, he removed his hand and his eye creased back up into its curved smile.

"You haven't got anywhere to sleep?" he continued after far too long.

Sakura was too busy to trying to find her voice to notice that Kakashi had begun steering her towards the door.

"I-I...umm...no. I am sleeping here. They're finding me a bed in one of the empty wards."

"No, I like to see my team well rested. You are sleeping with me."

Sakura bit her tongue in shock.

Somewhere the Gods of the universe were pointing and laughing while cosmically kicking her in the head.

"I don't think that's appropriate sensei." She was such a hypocrite. She was seething and furious and confused and-

"I'm sorry." He sounded so forlorn and before she could even ask which apology this was, because in her opinion she was owed many, he spoke again, "I'm not happy with you sleeping with the enemy." He jerked his head to the window.

"Kakashi...she's in a coma. Do you always act like such a child when you're shit-faced, or is it just the saké?"


"What are you apologising for now?"

"This!" He sang cheerfully and slapped his hand down on her shoulder. With a juddering lurch the world snapped sideways.

The contents of Sakura's stomach rolled unsteadily as the falling sensation came to an abrupt halt, her whole body pitched forward and her hands blindly sought something, anything to stop her fall. Quick fingers snagged the collar of her top, pulling her back against hard, warm firmness.

The swimming green patterns across her vision slowly cleared, the wave of nausea abated.

'I must be getting better at this teleportation business,' she managed to think clearly above the screaming confusion going on in her own mind.

The space was unfamiliar, but the chaotically anal organisation was not. Ahead of her was a bookshelf, full to bursting with books and scrolls of every size and colour. They seemed to be subdivided by genre and alphabetized. She could see the little blue labels with nearly impossible to read spidery handwriting poking out sporadically throughout the vast collection. On the top shelf stood a small contingent of adult fiction (labelled as 'Adult Fiction') and amongst these were several brightly coloured dust jackets that she recognised instantly. His Icha Icha collection.

Sakura found herself standing in Hatake Kakashi's apartment and really not knowing what to do.