Tsubaki

**Author's note: Thisis a long overdue gift fic for Blackestfaery. Happy really belated birthday! I hope it was worth the wait. Thank you for being there when I needed a friend.

Many thanks to leafygirl and to sakura haru for their beta skills and their support. This story is also dedicated to them for the blood, sweat, and tears they have given in writing their incredible stories. They have also been my inspiration these past few years when I've been lazy and lurking. I have no excuse for not updating "Quiet Storm" other than a writer's block.

This is also dedicated to nushi akubi and fallingstar12204 who have listened when I was at a low point in my life, and to many many others who may not have realized their impact of their presence and their fiction have made in my life. Thank you.

-Part One-

Sakura frowned. Eyeing the stack of papers that needed to be reviewed and filed, the young kunoichi decided this was not her idea of "training with Shishou."

Tsunade hadn't overlooked the girl's ability to learn. She suspected Sakura possessed an eidectic memory and used her to recall items that would have taken hours of searching through mountains of paper. Sakura guessed that it was a form of payment for training time with her. Not that Sakura was complaining.

Still, she didn't get to see a lot of her peers as much as she used to, and she really missed them some days. But in a strange way, being around them also caused her to feel awkward and isolated. They all talked about team missions and group exercises. They were excited about their shared experiences with each other. While Sakura did go on missions with different members of the Rookie Nine, it wasn't the same as going on a mission with her old team. It was unnerving having to trust different people every new mission she undertook.

So when Tsunade assigned Sakura with Hyuuga Neji to travel into Suna and bring back a crucial batch of medicinal herbs from their famed greenhouse, she was both excited and anxious at the same time. Her experiences with the Hyuuga boy were limited, and though Neji had always been nothing but respectfully courteous to her, she was nevertheless still nervous around him. He was a jounin already! Naturally, she felt intimidated. And of course, this was the first time she was ever on a mission alone with him.

Yet Sakura found things interesting about him, just like she did with all the other young men with whom she had been paired with on missions. Kiba was loud and exuberant - not unlike Naruto - so being with him was both trying and comforting at the same time. Shino was quiet, unassuming but very dependable. Chouji was fiercly loyal and Lee was the most hard-working individual she'd ever met. Recently, in working closely with Shikamaru in intelligence planning, Sakura noticed that his lazy, chauvinistic attitude was merely a front for the very sharp and sensitive nature of a person who cared deeply about his friends. And now in Neji, Sakura saw what Sasuke could have been had he been able to overcome the pain of loneliness in his young life. She found Neji was that odd combination of being both friendly yet mysterious, approachable yet professionally distant, considerate yet exacting – all at the same time. His presence was achingly familiar, and once they had crossed the border into Wind, she finally realized who she reminded him of – her old genin teacher, Kakashi-sensei. An on-time, serious version of him anyway. As much as she was grateful for Tsunade-sama's attention on honing her shinobi skills, she did miss Kakashi's steady presence during team missions.

A third of the way through the journey back from Suna, they came upon a good size creek and Neji determined it was time for a break. Welcoming the rest, Sakura plopped her eighty-pound bag of requested herbs on the ground next to her and took a refreshing splash of water on her face, while Neji took the time to scan the area as a precaution. It wasn't but ten seconds when Neji signaled Sakura over with urgency, his byakugan eyes fixed in one general direction.

Sakura immediately grabbed her bag and hurried over.

"What is it, Neji-san?" she whispered anxiously, alarmed. She was surprised having to worry about fighting so deep in Fire Country. Her fingers instinctively fingered her kunai pouch.

"I was doing my routine scan when I picked up a chakra signature at two o'clock. Only this signature doesn't seem to be moving. It seems to be at a state of rest."

"Rest?" Sakura frowned, thinking over the possibilities. The person could be an ANBU operative sleeping, but that seemed unlikely this far away from the border and in such a vulnerable position. She quickly began to ask medic-related questions. "How strong is the signature?"

"It's very weak," he replied, turning his intense gaze on her. She kept her eyes on his, despite the fact that the byakugan's effects slightly unnerved her, and waited for him to make a decision. "Let's investigate."

The signature was almost a mile away, and Sakura had to wonder about Neji's amazing abilities. When they had a visual, Neji was suddenly tense.

"Sakura…"

Before he could say anything further, Sakura leapt ahead. Suddenly a pack of eight dogs came out of nowhere and stood in a tight circle around the prone body, growling. When she noticed the distinct gray hair and the mask, the kunoichi's heart froze.

I know those ninken! Kaka-sensei!

"Pakkun! It's me! The one who used to use the same shampoo as you!" she called out. If the situation weren't so dire, the exchange would have been laughable. But the intended joke had the desired effect, and immediately the pug acknowledged her and called the other dogs away.

"Thank goodness," he rasped, "we were summoned right when he lost consciousness."

Sakura began to check her unresponsive teacher for obvious signs of trauma. He was breathing, and his heartbeat was not terribly weak. When she ran her chakra-laden hands on his dorsal side, Sakura cried out.

"Shit!"

At once, Neji knelt down next to her. "How is he? Can you - ?"

"We can't move him," she interrupted, trying to keep her voice in check while keeping a straight face. "His back is broken."

Sakura watched his jaw tighten. Neji stood up and walked away for a bit, presumably to fight off the panic that she herself was feeling in her chest. On resuming her preliminary check up, she also determined that he had also severed his right Achilles tendon. Sakura suggested this to Neji that perhaps that was the initial injury and he had probably fallen from some height, thereby breaking his back.

Neji took in her assessment calmly. Apparently the wave of uncertainty inside him was gone.

"What do you suggest we do?"

Surprised at his deference, Sakura wiped the sweat that began to gather on her forehead, even though it was a cool autumn evening.

"You have to go on ahead and bring back help. We can't move him, so I'll - I'll stay with him. Bring one of the dogs with you so that it'll be quicker for the rescue team to find us."

Neji didn't miss her hesitation. "Are you sure?"

Sakura wanted to say, No - this is my first real field experience, I am scared to death.

Instead she said in as steady a voice as she could manage, "Yes, I'll be fine."

The Hyuuga's face contorted as he activated the byakugan. He checked the surrounding area again.

"Whoever attacked him isn't in the vicinity."

"Good. I think we're far enough in where we should be all right. I believe Kaka-sensei received this injury outside the border. Look at the blood trail he left."

Indeed, Neji tracked the trail for about two miles or so and returned to Sakura confirming her suspicion.

"I'll bring back help as soon as I can. Here." He opened his pack and left her with a bottle of water, his blanket, and some of the food that they had brought back from Suna - a courtesy package from Gaara-sama, the current Kazekage. "I won't be needing these."

Sakura gave Neji a grateful smile. "Thank you, Neji-san. Pakkun, can you instruct one of the ninken to go with Neji to Konoha and to bring help back here as quickly as possible?"

"I've already told Uhei to go with him."

The lanky dog with the bandaged head loped forward, tongue hanging out its mouth and his tail wagging in anticipation.

Sakura gave Neji a final look.

"Be assured that I will move as fast as I can, Sakura-san."

Sakura gave him a genuine smile of confidence, slightly touched. She had never thought he would say something like that. She always thought he was very much confident of his abilities and never had to tell anyone such a thing.

"I have complete faith in you, Neji-san. Please be careful."

As she watched the young jounin set off with Uhei, a sinking feeling began to creep into the pit of her stomach. Konoha was still at least two days away, and even for a fit jounin such as Hyuuga Neji, it was quite a haul for him to travel non-stop for that amount of time.

"I'll keep you company and help you out as best I can, Sakura-chan," Pakkun piped up, startling Sakura out of her moment of dread. She'd forgotten Pakkun was there.

"You remember my name?" Sakura asked, laughing a little while attempting to heal Kakashi's back with her chakra.

"Kakashi talks about you all the time."

The young medic's concentration slipped a bit. "What?! No way."

"He does. Well, he speaks of you, your loud blond friend, and the Uchiha brat the most, anyway. I figured you three were his genin."

Sakura had to pay attention to her healing, so nothing more was said for a while. Pakkun watched her work with interest, while the other dogs laid about the area in a half-circle around them, either napping or rolling around in the forest foliage.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes of fusing three split vertebrae back together, Sakura sat back on her heels, panting. Sweat poured down her face in rivulets. She had never worked so hard before. Based on her preliminary check, only three vertebrae were cracked, and thankfully there was no nerve damage. She related this piece of information to Pakkun.

"That's great, Sakura-chan," looking as relieved as a pug could look. "You think we could move him? Shiba says there's a nice covered place just a few paces down from here, inside a tree root. It would be a good idea - I smell rain in the next two hours."

"Oh! Yes, he's stabilized enough so that we can move him, but we still have to be rather gentle." Sakura turned and petted the waiting Shiba. "Lead the way, Shiba-kun."

Sakura had thought Kakashi would be fairly light, considering his slight frame, but she had grossly underestimated his body mass. The man definitely was not fat. On those bones was pure muscle, and she had forgotten the basic equation of muscle having more mass than fat. Even with help of the other dogs, it took them almost a half-hour to move Kakashi thirty yards without jostling his body too much. Once she checked on his vitals to make sure the movement had not jarred his system, she collapsed in a heap, thoroughly exhausted. She felt like she had just run a marathon.

The dogs gathered around her and nuzzled her.

"Are you alright?" Pakkun asked.

The kunoichi managed a tentative smile, strangely pleased that a bunch of dogs could be so attentive.

"I'm actually not done with healing him yet. He has a fever and I'll have to take great care in keeping his temperature balanced. Also, I have to mend his Achilles tendon."

As she sat resting, she heard Kakashi stir, mumbling incoherently. He was shaking slightly, and there were large beads of sweat dotting his forehead.

"Pakkun, please have the others bring us some dry wood for a fire. I've got to try to break his fever as soon as possible."

When the dogs left, Sakura made use of both her blanket and the one Neji left and wrapped Kakashi as best she could to keep him warm until a fire could be made. She had also given Kakashi a pain reliever pill and water, which her teacher easily accepted despite being out of sorts. Sakura thought that this would be the perfect moment to finally see her teacher's face, but her sense of propriety won over. Carefully shifting his body so that she was behind him, she pulled down his mask just enough so that she could feel his lips, and then she administered the pill and water.

This is too much, she thought to herself. If anything, he better damn well appreciate my thoughtfulness.

When the dogs returned with an ample supply of fire wood, Sakura had already laid out the ingredients she needed. A fire was started, and in no time, she angled herself back behind the copy ninja and lifted the hot liquid to his lips. The medic patiently waited for him to swallow.

By the time he finished it, the rain was falling relentlessly. All the dogs had gathered inside the tree root around the fire, and Sakura was glad they were there. Pakkun told her of their respective personalities and soon the girl could tell that Urushi didn't like rice, and that Bull was actually the quietest dog in the lot, despite his ferocious mug. Her favorite besides Pakkun was Shiba. He took to her immediately and had the sweetest disposition, always hovering nearby, ready to please.

Every half-hour, one of them would run out and fetch more wood. She shared a portion of her food with them, and when she finally got her strength back, she began healing Kakashi's severed Achilles tendon.

At length, Pakkun made an extraordinary remark.

"I can see why you are Kakashi's favorite."

Sakura snorted out loud, as if finding the notion ridiculous, but was not distracted from wrapping Kakashi's ankle. She had mended the tendon as best she could for the moment. She would look at it again in the morning.

"Whatever gave you that idea, Pakkun? I think you've got me and Sasuke-kun confused. He likes Sasuke best."

"That's not what he said."

The kunoichi sighed. She was having an argument with a dog about something that she knew was the unequivocal truth.

Sakura knew that Kakashi was at a loss when it came to teaching her. She had no bloodline limit, was only average skill-wise - the only remarkable thing she had really going for her was precise chakra control, her bookish intelligence, and a knack for identifying genjutsus. Sakura didn't really blame him for neglecting her, as he did fob Naruto off to Jiraiya-sama. Sasuke's approaching madness was definitely a more important issue than babysitting her and Naruto.

Putting away the bandages to keep them dry, the young medic decided to humor the pug, who hadn't elaborated on what 'he' had 'said'.

"All right then. So what did he say?"

Pakkun stopped stratching his left ear.

"Hmmm. He had just given you a recommendation to be taught by Tsunade-sama. But he was pretty upset. 'I didn't have the chance to teach her myself.'"

Sakura stared at the pug. "That's it?"

Pakkun resumed scratching his ear.

"Kakashi didn't want to teach Sasuke, Sakura-chan. He was told he had to, for obvious reasons."

Sakura switched her gaze to Kakashi. He was sleeping fitfully, his fever not yet broken.

"That doesn't mean I'm considered his favorite, Pakkun. Besides, Kaka-sensei didn't like to teach, period. I think he was glad that I became Tsunade-sama's responsibilty. He's better serving Konoha out there, doing S-ranked missions, getting his back broken, having his old student worry sick about him."

Pakkun said nothing. Sakura was being facetious, but he could tell that she was hurt. He recognized her inferiority complex and understood that she was this way because of all the leading circumstances.

When Naruto and Sasuke trained, they each grew leaps and bounds. Both were able to learn new and powerful techniques very quickly, leaving her behind. Kakashi had to spend a lot of time just with Sasuke alone, seeing that the boy was unstable and needed all of his attention.

But Sakura - she may not have learned fantastical ninjutsu, but what normally took most medic ninjas many years to master just controlling chakra, Sakura was already mending tissue with that chakra. She could pulverize boulders with a single flick. Pakkun could feel his balls shrivel at that kind of power. And yet not many looked to her as someone who has as much skill and power as her high-profile teammates.

Still, she just healed a broken back, for God's sake. That in itself usually required many years of extensive training. Sakura was barely sixteen years old. On top of that, she mended an Achilles tendon, normally a career-ending injury, like it was a mere scrape.

Yet in the end, she felt that since Kakashi didn't give her the one-on-one attention like he had with Sasuke and then with Naruto, her skills must be wanting. Logically, she deduced that one was a result of the other: that he didn't want to spend the time with her because she wasn't worth his time. Kakashi was probably to blame for it. He was a man of few words, and a lot of what the man truly felt was lost in the silence.

Sakura threw another batch of wood into the fire, and the noise startled Kakashi. He mumbed something incoherently, and the kunoichi took the moment to check up on her patient.

"Kaka-sensei, are you feeling a little better?"

The man attempted to move slightly in response, but the throes of pain left him slightly delirious and he kept his eyes tightly closed.

"S-sakura?"

Sakura froze, frightened.

How did he know it is me? She didn't want him to know that his once unfavorable student was the one taking his life into her hands. That wouldn't do, would it?

Kakashi struggled in this blankets, trying to free an arm and blindly reach out.

"Sakura? Sakura - is that you?"

Pakkun watched the exchange, eyeing Sakura as if willing her to respond. She looked torn and uncertain.

"It's not Sakura-chan, Kakashi."

The kunoichi's eyes widened. Pakkun!

"Her name is…Tsubaki. She'll take good care of you, just do as she tells you. Help is on the way."

Sakura reached out and grabbed the pug into a fierce silent thank you hug. Over the dog's small furry body, she glanced at Kakashi and noticed he had once again fallen back to a feverish sleep.

"Pakkun…"

"Why don't you want him to know?" he asked softly. "I thought you wanted him to acknowledge you?"

"He's not out of the woods yet, Pakkun. I don't know if I mended his back properly. Haven't you noticed that he hasn't moved his legs yet? He could very well have nerve damage. I'm not at the level yet where I can begin to heal that."

"Don't be ridiculous. Even Tsunade-sama can't regenerate damaged nerve cells. So why don't you want him to know?"

Sakura had laid down now, gratefully using one of the bigger dogs as a warm floor pillow and keeping the pug on her chest. Pakkun almost fell asleep to the warmth of her body when she finally whispered a response.

"I don't want to disappoint him again."

~o~

Sakura awoke with a start, sitting straight up, a feeling of dread mixing in the pit of her stomach. She swore loudly when she realized she had fallen asleep.

Shiba had just dragged another log onto the fire when she heard Pakkun's voice.

"Relax, you've only been asleep for two hours."

The medic rubbed her eyes harshly and immediately went to check on Kakashi.

And realized something was very wrong.

Sakura was looking for Kakashi's skin to be warm, yet moist from sweat, and he should have been a little more responsive. But the medic felt a dry, very hot forehead, and when she checked his eyes with her penlight, his pupils were slow to constrict.

She quickly rolled Kakashi onto his side. There wasn't a second to spare. Sakura pressed her hands into the area where she had repaired hours before and immediately realized there was a raging infection. The rest she had was probably a godsend - she had now almost 100% of her strength back and immediately began treatment.

The infection was fierce. In a few minutes, large sweat drops fell from her forehead and hairline and left dark circular shadows on the ground before her. Pakkun sat, staring at her labors on his master silently. It wasn't the first time in his life where he felt Kakashi's life was in real danger and each time was harder than the last. He paced anxiously. Time felt like it stood still.

Finally, after almost two hours, the glow in Sakura's hands faded and she fell onto her back in a heap, breathing fast and hard. Pakkun went to her directly, nuzzling her cheek.

"Need anything, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura pointed in the general direction of her water canteen. The pug dragged her bag over and in the meantime emptied its contents to reach her thermos. After she recovered enough to drink and she was finally able to catch her breath, Pakkun made a point to sit in front of her.

"Is he going to be okay?"

Sakura nodded. Gathering her scattered belongings, she came upon a well-creased piece of paper that, upon glancing at the well-known block lettering written on the inside, looked very familiar to Pakkun.

It was the letter Kakashi had sent his student a few days before she was to pass her chuunin examination. Apparently, Sakura cherished it enough to bring it with her.

Sakura:

I'm sorry I couldn't make it back in time to see you make chuunin, but you see, there was this old lady that needed me to take care of her house while she was away to see her son, and well, you know.

Good job, Sakura. Well done. I had faith in you.

Kakashi

"Sakura?"

"I took care of the infection. It was a case of meningitis, but I woke up just in time. If I hadn't --" She sharply sucked in air, as if she were in pain, and her voice choked with a sudden sob.

Pakkun didn't need to hear the rest of that thought. There was no doubt that Kakashi may have died if she hadn't been able to heal him.

The medic didn't finish her sentence, only hiccuped and sniffled loudly while her shoulders shook. Her tears fell out of her eyes and down her cheeks unchecked. She clasped Kakashi's letter in her left hand tightly.

Pakkun was essentially helpless. He wished the other dogs were around, especially the affectionate Shiba, to help calm her.

He thought back to the moment in time when this eventful letter had been written.

"It's late, Kakashi. Couldn't this have waited til mornin'?"

"I don't want this to be late, Pakkun. I promise some extra nice dog treats for you when I get back."

"You're always late with everything," the dog snorted. "Why is this such a special delivery? Is it for Tsunade-sama?"

"No, someone closer to me. It's her apprentice."

Pakkun looked blank for a moment. "The pink-haired girl who uses the same shampoo as I do??"

Kakashi had smiled faintly at this odd recollection as he enclosed the letter inside a small envelope. As he secured the parcel on the back of his summon, the pug observed that Kakashi's amused expression was gone. It was replaced with one of solemnity, a very rare emotion to be read on the copy nin's face.

"Her name is Sakura. Please deliver this to her personally and make sure she opens it directly."

Perhaps Sakura felt that Kakashi had misplaced his trust in her, given the fact that he had almost died in her care. Pakkun didn't know what to think of that.

Soon the air was full of rustling noises outside, with several different voices and dog barks calling out. Immediately, the kunoichi hurried to calm herself, standing up shakily and facing the entrance to the shallow tree root that had been their shelter for three days. The voices outside were indistinct, but soon she recognized one of them.

"Sakura-san!"

Neji had returned.

~o~

"What's the matter with that brat now?" Tsunade brought her fingers to the bridge of her nose, in a vain effort of hiding her displeasure.

Shizune never understood why she always called Hatake Kakashi by that misnomer. It was slightly unnerving to call a man of twenty-nine years old a "brat."

"Apparently nothing is really wrong with Kakashi-san now. His L3-L5 fissures were mended perfectly. She also fixed his Achilles tendon--"

"She fixed?" The Hokage moved for her sake cup. "Who fixed?"

"Sakura-chan, Tsunade-sama. I thought you knew--"

"SAKURA?" Slamming the now forgotten sake cup on her well-worn desk, Tsunade stormed out of her office and headed straight for the Hospital.

~o~

Outside Kakashi's room, Neji waited for Sakura to return from the restroom. His room was quieter than expected. Apparently there was really nothing for the medics and nurses to do for Kakashi, except for inserting an IV and getting his fluids replenished. Sakura had healed the man all by herself, and out there in the woods with nothing except her skills and her wits.

Earlier, he had found Sakura in the base of a hollow tree root not far from where he had left her three days earlier. She looked like she had been crying and at first Neji thought the worst had happened. Sakura immediately assured him that everything was all right and that she was just exhausted from the combination of exertion and lack of sleep. It was just like her to give everything she had - an all or nothing philosophy that, when one really thought about it, was shared with her teammate Naruto and even to an extent, Sasuke.

"Neji-san?"

The Hyuuga turned and regarded the kunoichi carefully. She looked a little less weary, but the dark circles under her eyes had remained. Despite that, she seemed tense and anxious. He had thought she would be more relaxed, especially now with them being safely back in the village.

"Is something the matter? You seem worried."

"What?" Sakura looked up at him sharply, only to acknowledge his observation with a sigh. "Neji-san, I…I need to ask you a favor."

Surprised at her request, Neji turned and faced her fully.

"What is it?"

Before she could say anything, she heard the tell-tale clicks of a woman in heels walking in her direction.

"Where is Hatake's room?" Tsunade's booming voice echoed down the corridor. After some meek replies to her question and some scurrying, the lady Hokage herself appeared at the door of Kakashi's room, glaring at her apprentice through her blond fringe before entering. Neji and Sakura silently followed her in.

~o~

After a thorough examination of Kakashi's injury, Tsunade could only marvel at her young apprentice's skill. She turned to Sakura with more than just relief present in her bright light brown eyes. Currently her protege's ex-teacher was out cold, and would probably remain so for the next several days, but all in all, Sakura's chakra had left the man in perfect condition for a smooth recovery.

"Sakura," she addressed her, watching the girl's body grow rigid in anticipation. "I'm very impressed with Kakashi-sensei's current prognosis. It's as if nothing had happened to him." The Hokage gave her student a rare half-smile. "The brat couldn't be in better hands."

Neji turned to his companion and was surprised to see little reaction to Tsunade's praise.

"Thank you, Shishou," the younger kunoichi responded softly. "I--"

The pause was long enough for Tsunade to look up from making notations on Kakashi's chart.

"Yes, Sakura, what is it?"

"I - I would rather that anyone not tell Kaka-sensei who healed him, if he were to ever ask."

It occurred to Neji that this was the favor that Sakura was about to ask him out in the corridor just minutes before.

The room was silent; Sakura tried to gauge the reactions and found Neji impervious but intent and Tsunade fuming.

"What is the meaning of this?" she immediately demanded, not one able to contain her anger for long.

"I almost failed out there, Tsunade-sama," Sakura answered, her voice surprisingly steady and firm. "I don't want Kaka-sensei to know that I was the medic who barely kept him alive--"

"This is ridiculous," Tsunade interrupted sharply. "You saved his life, regardless. He's the last person on earth right now who would be picky about how his life was saved, and should be proud that it was one of his own students who was able to do the saving."

"Just tell him that the medic's name was Tsubaki and that the rest is confidential." Pakkun's voice was so unexpected that it startled everyone, even Neji.

"Tsubaki?" Tsunade repeated. "What in the world, Pakkun?"

"Pakkun and I already chatted about this while waiting for help to arrive," Sakura replied. "Kaka-sensei knowing would bring on more pressure for me - and honestly, I was just lucky this time. I just want the expectations - both for myself and for others - to be realistic." She paused, collecting her final thoughts. "It is for the best...for everyone. Please, Hokage-sama."

Again, the room was silent, except for the steady low hum of medical machinery working in the background.

The Hokage frowned, incredulous still and faintly indignant. What is it with people and their propriety? Sakura should be yelling from the rooftops, proclaiming how she had saved a life for the first time - at sixteen - and the life of the famed Sharingan no Kakashi, no less. She had saved him from becoming a paraplegic and/or a cripple - in essence, for a ninja of Kakashi's calibur, an agonizing existence in shinobi limbo. And here she was in sincere modesty, shying away from the accolades she truly deserved, frightened of disappointing phantom figures of authority.

Tsunade blew off Sakura's vague excuse. The girl was intimidated by her old sensei, that much was plain to see, and would rather remain unnoticed in Kakashi's sphere than seek the praise she obviously desired; she would rather seek anonymity rather than risk subsequent censure and letdown by someone who she evidently respected.

"I don't know what this is about - nor do I care - but...I suppose it wouldn't really hurt anyone to do something this bizarre." She pointedly glared at both Sakura and the pug. "But I will give you this piece of info. Kakashi is one who appreciates the chances given to him, and he shows it by personally thanking the ones who took care of him. He's always done that ever since I've known him. I suggest you be honest with him when he asks."

"Shishou, thank you. I promise I will tell him when I'm ready." She turned to look at Neji, who rewarded her with a simple nod. Sakura let out a breath and picked up Pakkun in relief, seeing that her secret, at least for now, was safe.

Tsunade then cleared everyone out of the recovery room, shuffling and herding them through the narrow door. On her way out, Sakura quickly looked back at Kakashi with a brief expression of uncertainty.

As she walked back home that evening, Sakura remembered Kakashi's letter, and the reason why she always kept it with her, recalling his simple words which time and again, seemed to inspire the young kunoichi to believe in herself.

Good job, Sakura. Well done. I had faith in you.

Tomorrow, she would visit Ino's family store and decide just how to tell her old sensei that he now owed her one.

~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~

Part Two coming soon! Again, I hope this was worth the wait. Reviews are welcome.