Written for the KakaSaku LJ community's Anonymous Challenge. Had to begin with "It started with a bang" and finish with "It ended with a cigarette." Many interesting entries were put forward as a result and here's mine. Hope you enjoy.


Cacophonous Attentions


1.

It started with a bang.

It had come out of nowhere, really, this silly infatuation with Kakashi-sensei. She'd always thought Ino a bit dim-witted to fall for her teacher when they were twelve, even if it had been mostly a joke since they'd both known it couldn't go anywhere. Now they were fifteen, much wiser and more mature, and she somehow found herself in the same boat.

Ino would never let her live it down – which was exactly why she hadn't mentioned anything to her.

So when she brought lunch to training one day – for all of Team Kakashi, even Sai, since she wasn't a complete idiot – she blithely ignored the strange look Kakashi gave her. Sure, she'd always complained about the chore and argued that just because she was a girl didn't mean she was in charge of food on missions. Sure, she'd given Naruto his fair share of beatings for the unflattering things he'd said about her cuisine. That didn't mean a girl couldn't go out of her way every now and again, right?

Besides, it wasn't that big of a deal, as she continually reminded herself. She was still getting over her infatuation with – okay, okay, obsession with – Sasuke, and a little distraction was in order. Her attention had wandered through most every male of her and Ino's acquaintance, which had given them plenty of scenarios to giggle over. She'd considered everyone who had came across her path, with the notable exceptions of Sai and Lee. She'd even entertained the notion of taking a fancy to Neji, but that had lasted for all of an hour until he'd given her one of those droll 'I'm so superior to you' looks, to which she'd flounced away and determined to seek him out for a spar. He hadn't seen her in action since she'd become Tsunade's apprentice and she'd love to see the surprise on his face when she smashed the ground from under him.

Why, after all that, her attention had fastened on Kakashi of all people she still had no idea. Granted, he was mysterious enough to warrant the curiosity but he was also consummately lazy, perverted, and a horrible liar. It made absolutely no sense. But he had been chosen interim hokage for a reason, right? So there must be something more else to him that subconsciously drew her.

As the weeks passed by she only grew more interested in him. She watched to see if he'd react any differently when she made his favorite food for lunch, or when she landed a particularly good shot – especially the few times he happened to be the target.

He seemed amused, and that was something at least.

Everything changed when he came to practice one day smelling of cigarettes.

She knew what had prompted the change. She'd walked with Ino through the guilt and grief when Asuma-sensei had died two weeks earlier. She'd seen Shikamaru walking around dazed and glassy-eyed, a cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips.

Instinctively she knew Kakashi was the same, that he mimicked his friend's habit to keep him close, that he relied on sensory memory, on that strong, distinctive odor, to recall things he never wanted to forget, all regardless of his oft-mentioned aversion for the coffin nails. He didn't even like the smell; she knew that much from watching him edge away from Asuma ever so slightly whenever the man had lit up.

Yet here he was, ambling onto the training grounds, an hour late as usual, and smelling strongly of the stuff. Either he'd smoked right before he came, which she doubted considering none of the others seemed to be picking up on it, or he'd smoked enough earlier in the day that it had completely saturated his hair and clothing.

She hadn't even known the two had been that close.

He walked up to them and gave a cheerful smile along with his typical greeting by way of some lame excuse as to the reason for his tardiness, and she realized that, aside from the smell, he was exactly the same. There was no other indication of his grief. He kept on his cheerful mask and she knew he wasn't letting any of them in.

So much for looking underneath the underneath, she scoffed.

She'd been deluding herself, thinking they were at all getting closer. Perhaps he hadn't recognized her gestures at all, just thinking her actions the erratic behavior of the typical fifteen year old girl. It didn't matter. It had been pointless from the start but she knew now there was no use in even pretending she could get to know him better.

Her crush was over right then and there, on that muddy training ground. It all ended with the smell of cigarette smoke lingering on his skin.


2.

It started with a thump.

The sound of flesh striking wood as it beat out a staccato rhythm against her door startled her awake. She jerked from her bed, her feet tangling in the sheets and sending her to the floor. "Go away, Naruto!" she bellowed. It wouldn't be the first time he'd woken her at an ungodly hour for something that easily could've waited.

"It's not Naruto!" came another voice, muffled by the door.

Her heart dropped into her stomach.

She was twenty-two now, a seasoned enough medic to deal with emergencies with efficiency, but someone summoning her before the sun was even up could only mean either the worst disaster Konoha had faced in years or it was something personal.

Throwing on her clothes as quickly as she could, knowing she likely wouldn't have the chance after talking to whoever was waiting, she threw open the door to find a disheveled looking Kiba pacing up and down the hall.

"About time," he growled, some of the edge taken off his tone on account of his breathlessness. "Naruto's in the hospital. Come on."

Naruto: who usually came to her first with any injury, so if he did have to go to the hospital he could wriggle some extra favors out of her and use her connections to get his favorite room. Naruto: who was taking after Kakashi and pretending to walk off most injuries anymore, despite how he loved being pampered by the nurses. (She had a sneaking suspicion it was because hokage were supposed to look 'tough'.) Naruto: whose unparalleled healing abilities meant he seldom had to actually be admitted to the hospital in the first place.

Naruto: laid up and in bad enough shape that someone else had to fetch her. He hadn't even sent a shadow clone to wheedle her into bringing him some ramen.

She only took the time to throw on her shoes before telling Kiba to hurry it up, taking off after him when he set a blistering pace.

They raced to the hospital, Akamaru nipping at their heels, and Kiba didn't even bother with the entrance, just headed straight up the hospital wall since he knew which window was their destination. It was open (a breach in hospital protocol for urgent care/high risk patients – Sakura would have to talk to his attending nurse later) and they landed inside to find Naruto awake, chatting with Kakashi, and looking all around…fine.

"Hey, Kiba, you got her! Thanks!" Naruto turned and waved broadly. "Hi Sakura! Kiba and I just got back from our mission and we were talking about…"

But she tuned him out. She didn't care for what inane reason he'd needed to wake her up in that fashion. No, most likely he'd simply asked Kiba to get her and the Inuzuka had been his normally rash self, not even thinking about the anxiety he'd cause her. All that mattered was that he was all right.

She sank shakily down into the chair Kakashi had just vacated, trying to quiet her private meltdown. Her world was jumbled and trying to hastily restore itself from the shattered mess it had been in just moments before. She was flummoxed, caught somewhere between wanting to cry with relief and wanting to throttle the two of them for worrying her so.

Suddenly a hand clamped down on her shoulder and her gaze followed it up to find Kakashi staring fixedly ahead. Somehow he'd caught onto the turmoil racing through her and his grip was managing to push through all her fears and nightmares to reestablish her mind in reality, in the here and now.

How he knew that's what she needed she didn't even dare to guess, but with one last squeeze he let her go, never so much as glancing her way.

She took one last peek at him as he took control of the conversation to shift attention from her – Naruto had apparently just asked her a question she hadn't even heard – grateful for the extra moment he'd just given her to pull herself together.

Then she launched wholeheartedly into the conversation, haranguing the two for their bad timing and promising retribution. Kiba scoffed but Naruto looked sufficiently cowed, and she knew Kiba would learn soon enough.

Kakashi just shook his head and chuckled.


3.

It started with a crunch.

The sickening sound of bone breaking was unmistakable as Kakashi slipped in front of her, taking the shot that should have been hers. She'd been the one closest to the enemy, she'd been the one he'd been looking at, she'd been the one he'd been heading toward, hands flying in the signs to start an unfamiliar jutsu.

Even with the threat of his unknown attack, she could tell by looking at him that one punch from her would have him flat on his back, even without the majority of her chakra. The fact that Kakashi had butted in irritated her more than anything. He and Naruto had been dealing with the leaders of the little group while she and Yamato had been taking on the stragglers and the small fry, Sai sitting on the sidelines and painting the scene or something else equally useless. Not one of the enemy had put up a decent fight and she'd been itching to get at least one good punch in.

Then her leader had come in and stolen her thunder – and for what?

Sakura slowly brushed herself off as she sought to control her temper, but quickly realized it was a losing battle. "What on earth did you do that for?" she demanded.

"What?" Kakashi asked over his shoulder, all innocence, even as he leaned down to check the enemy's vitals. The man's nose was broken, at the very least, blood pouring down his face, but he was still alive.

"What do you mean, 'what'?" she growled, not feeling like playing along. "You interfered in my fight when I was doing just fine, thank you very much. Did it look like I needed help?"

He shrugged her off which only irritated her further.

"I could've dodged that attack; in fact, I could've countered it."

He shrugged. "I saw the opening, I took it."

She glowered. "I can take care of myself, I'll have you know."

"I know you can."

For some reason, that just sounded patronizing. "What is this about, that I'm female? I'm not strong enough for this team yet? Some overgrown need to protect or some misplaced sense of chivalry you grew a decade too late? What?"

With a sigh Kakashi leaned back on his knees. "I've stepped in for others on this team as well, and you know it."

She crossed her arms and stared him down. "Not when they could easily defend themselves, and not for such low-level enemies as this."

"You're our medic, Sakura. In fact, you're the only medic for everyone here." There was another team with them who'd been scouting the enemy's location for months before the final attack was planned. Ever since Asuma's death Kakashi had been particularly sensitive about the medic issue. After seeing Ino falling apart afterward, Sakura could understand. It still didn't mean she couldn't watch her own back though.

"Look, I am not going to be a burden on this team." That was an issue she was particularly sensitive about. "I can pull my own weight. What happens if you get hurt trying to protect me?"

He looked at her like she was a bit dull. "Then if I did a good enough job in protecting you, you'll be fine enough to heal me up."

She wanted to argue more but there wasn't anything she could really say to that. Well, nothing based in pure logic at least. They both knew enemies like this didn't have any chance of landing a fatal blow outside of some monumental stroke of luck. Besides, Kakashi could outstubborn and outmaneuver anyone she knew, so arguing would be pointless anyhow. Instead she settled for glaring at his back while he trussed up the enemy for interrogation and wondered vaguely why he was using so much more force than necessary. He was acting strangely, even for him.

Maybe he'd just had a bad day and needed to take it out on someone. Now that she could understand.

- - - . - - -

The next day of the mission they came across another group of rogues, another branch of the nin they'd fought the day before. It was a good sign they were closing in on the enemy camp.

The rogues didn't attack immediately, though whether that was from wisdom, caution, bravado, or just plain stupidity wasn't immediately apparent to her. Only two of them looked wary, their eyes landing on Kakashi, while the other five heckled the lot of them, calling out insults.

To Sakura's astonishment Kakashi turned directly to her, eyebrow raised. "How about it? You up for a little fun?"

Puzzled, she sent him a look that clearly said define 'fun'.

"You think you can take them on or are they too much for you?"

She glanced back and forth between her team leader and the enemy, a slow grin spreading across her face. "Hell yeah."

The goons had little enough chakra that it was almost absurd. If they all took her on at once, though, it might even be a challenge.

Kakashi silenced Naruto's complaints about being left out by declaring that Sakura was going to show them just what she could do. Smartass.

"That'll give us a great chance to check out your, er, form, eh?" Naruto laughed.

She slapped him upside the head. She wasn't sure if he'd meant that lecherously or not, but either way it deserved a good smack.

Turning and giving her full attention to her opponents, who seemed to be amused by her team's interaction, she cracked her knuckles, the material of her gloves creaking loudly. Her grin turned menacing.

One man shivered; the others laughed as she stepped forward. Her teammates only shook their heads.

The poor fools.

None of the enemy seemed terribly anxious to go first to fight the 'little girl' and be low on stamina when the real battle began with the men-folk afterward, so four of them actually played jan-ken-pon to see who'd have that lowly privilege.

Sakura laughed. It was somewhat amusing to know hers wasn't the only side not taking this seriously.

Her first opponent stepped forward somewhat glumly, his eyes sliding past her to land on one of her male counterparts. Sakura decided she'd just have to teach him and the rest of his teammates some manners.

In a high, girlish voice, she called out, "Ready?"

Her opponent sighed. Oh, this was going to be too easy.

"Okay, go!"

He put up a defensive stance but grimaced back at his buddies. Apparently he had some problems with attacking a girl. How sweet.

"Chivalry on the battlefield is just going to get you killed," she told him brightly, even as she stepped lightly in for a punch that hurt more than it rightly should've, considering how softly she'd thrown it. Ah, what a little chakra manipulation could do.

When he grabbed his arm in confusion those behind him laughed, clearly thinking he was playing along for the sake of her ego.

He dodged her next punch, to the booing of his compatriots, but when she landed the next one she made sure he lost use of that arm, despite the fact she'd only made contact with two fingers.

She provoked him into tripping over a tree root to cover how she'd kicked him in the shin and nearly broken the bone, continually directing his teammates' attention away from what was really happening and just how capable she really was.

After five minutes of this her team was in stitches. "It's not very nice to play with your food," Kakashi chided, mirth lacing his voice.

She glanced up at the group of rogues. What made it even better was they all thought her teammates were laughing at the poor sod she had nearly incapacitated. Actually, looking down at him, curled on the forest floor, she prodded him with her toe. Scratch that – he was completely incapacitated.

Leaning close she smiled at him, speaking in a syrupy voice. "Mind if I call it? I'm sure those other boys would like a turn as well."

He nodded weakly. She made a show of dragging him out of the way and propping him under a tree, keeping a close look on his teammates the whole time out of the corner of her eye. The idiots still had absolutely no idea what they were up against.

This was far too much fun. She oh so loved breaking backward-thinking misogynistic misconceptions, especially when it came in the form of showing off.

Goon number two went much the same way, but she saw comprehension dawning in the eyes of a couple of the men behind him. No one as inept as she was pretending to be could be that lucky so many times in a row.

Goon number three was lucky to still be alive. The hecklers had been going strong throughout both previous fights but they were really starting to get on her nerves with their wolf whistles and ridiculous insults.

"Don't hurt the little girl, Hikari!"

"Aw, what's a little girl doing on the big bad battlefield?"

"Want us to read you a bedtime story?"

"Hikari, can't you even beat a little pipsqueak like her?"

That was it. So she wasn't as curvy or developed as some, but she sure as hell didn't look like a kid either. At least, she hoped she didn't.

The jig was up anyhow. She saw they no longer thought her a complete incompetent, plus her opponent hadn't pulled even one of his punches – not that he'd landed any of them. But she was beyond her boiling point and it was time to give vent to her irritation.

"You morons need to work on your field profiling. I'm twenty-two," she growled. "Although I would've been strong enough to kick your asses a few years ago as well."

She saw the change in her opponent's eyes immediately.

"Really?" he all but purred. "Then after I defeat you and all your little buddies over there, maybe I can have some fun with you."

She saw red. He was unconscious with one hit, the force of it propelling him into a nearby tree, where he crumpled in an undignified heap among its roots.

All his teammates winced in sympathy then quickly covered their privates, one of them paling significantly. She spun back around to see Kakashi nonchalantly playing with a kunai. She didn't have to guess what had happened behind her back.

Naruto was already crouched over the offender but Sakura warned him off. This was her fight, dammit. Besides, it wasn't like this was anything new. Such crude remarks were commonplace on the battlefield. She heard them all the time. Then again, her teammates had never been sitting idly by on the sidelines to hear them before either.

Goon four was on her in a minute, obviously frustrated when she easily held her ground. She could see that he wanted to call for help in the twitching of his eyes, the tenseness of his shoulders, but his pride wouldn't allow it. He only lasted as long as he did, all of two minutes, because she was going easy on him.

The others glanced back and forth at each other then all converged on her at once.

She smiled; looked like they'd finally gotten over their machismo.

She was outnumbered three to one, which was a slightly bigger problem than she'd anticipated since these guys fought dirty. When one of them had her in a headlock, the other two both going for punches, she'd thought for sure Kakashi was going to intervene, or at least release his hold on Naruto. His expression was anything but pleasant, even from this distance. She caught his eye though and glared, right before kicking out her leg to catch one enemy in the groin, then using his kneeling body to propel herself out of the hold she'd been in.

She turned to Kakashi with an 'I told you so' on her lips but he was just smiling at her. Sniffing, she spun back to the two remaining rogues, taking her time and withholding most of her chakra just so keep the fight going longer. There were only two of them left, after all.

When the last was down, Yamato making sure all their hands and feet were bound securely for when they were questioned later, she grinned triumphantly at all of them.

Naruto came over and thumped her soundly on the shoulder, wiping a tear from his eye. "That was the funniest thing I've ever seen," he guffawed. Sakura elbowed him lightly but it only made him laugh harder.

Then Kakashi walked up to her and she looked up into his face expectantly. "Good job, Sakura." So stunned was she by the rare compliment she didn't even put up too much of a fuss when he reached out and ruffled her hair, hand dropping to squeeze her shoulder briefly.

She smiled brilliantly, causing Sai to make a crack about her face breaking.

She didn't care. This was turning out to be a great mission.


4.

It started with a clatter.

Her unsuspecting victim dropped his fork onto his plate as she charged her chakra through his system, everyone else at the table turning to stare at her with a mixture of apprehension and amusement. She sighed. They were morons, really, all of them. Shouldn't they have suspected something?

Team Kakashi had gotten back from a mission the day before, successful but injured. She'd suggested rather forcefully that her teammates go to the hospital – Kakashi definitely needed some work while Sai and Naruto got off a bit more lightly, but still needed some looking over. Yamato she didn't have to worry about. He was the only responsible male member of her team and would head over to the hospital as soon as he'd finished nagging Kakashi into writing the mission report.

The others had all grumbled and whined and shrugged off her concern, so she'd decided on a little subterfuge and invited them all for dinner at her place the following night. Really, she should have pushed for that evening, for their sakes, but she wasn't that nice. She'd prefer going home and taking a shower and getting some much needed rest before waking up to cook for the ungrateful lot. Oh, who was she kidding. She'd likely just be ordering takeout anyhow. Her culinary skills hadn't exactly improved much above sandwiches over the years. She still wasn't going to give up her first night back for the stubborn idiots. Besides, if all went according to plan, things would actually turn out better if she was rested and recharged.

She sniffed. That's what she'd tell herself anyway. So after threats of hunting them down if they didn't show – something they knew from experience was not a pleasant happenstance – she walked away from the gate with an easy conscience. They should appreciate that she was going out of her way for them at all.

So the next night, after sitting them all at her small, round kitchen table and shoving food in front of them – which distracted them quite easily enough – she snuck behind Naruto and went to work.

She was surprised at the mildness of his reaction – simply stifling a gasp and dropping his cutlery. While he had the least remaining injury – aside from Yamato of course – she'd chosen to attack him first for two reasons. First, they were the most comfortable with each other and she knew he wouldn't freak out about what she was trying to do and would go along with it easily enough. Second, she'd hoped he'd be startled badly enough to give a much more amusing reaction. Alas, what a disappointment. At least he was going along with things as well as she'd expected though.

She only had to spend a couple of minutes on him before she moved one chair to the left and began working on Kakashi. He was all too used to her strong-armed tactics so he just sat, placidly reading one of his books, which she pointedly ignored in favor of the gash on his shoulder. He had to take his shirt half-way off for her to get to it but none of them paid it any mind; it was normal par for them. They knew if they wanted to keep their clothes in tact then they stripped, as she had no compunction about tearing a brand new garment to get to a wound.

By the time she was done with him they were all getting restless so she retreated to the kitchen for her plan b: dessert and booze. That would keep them entertained long enough for her to go to the other two – who thankfully were the more placid of the bunch.

Sai gave her lip when she bent down to work on a shin splint he had in his left leg, and when she shooed Yamato out of the next chair so she could sit and pull his leg into her lap it only got worse. She jabbed her thumb into what she knew had to be a particularly sensitive spot when any of his insults got too bad, but it didn't faze him at all. It was almost like he expected healing to come with a generous amount of pain. Then again, given his past with Root, perhaps it always had.

She had to give a wry smile though. After Danzo's death, Konoha's council discovered how he'd been using the Root and disbanded the group. First they'd begun working on a way to release the jutsu he'd placed on its members to bind their tongues. Ever since they'd begun on the counter-programming, though, Sai had started to gain a tiny bit of a personality, which turned out to be as bland and blunt as he'd always been. Now he was just overly-cynical as well. Anytime he was in direct contact with someone the insults never seemed to stop.

He fit into their motley team of the mentally unbalanced just fine.

Dropping his foot, deciding that was as far as she could get it today, she moved on to Yamato.

Chuckling, he held up his hands. "I'm all taken care of, see?"

She raised a supercilious eyebrow and just moved behind him. "Then as a reward for being a good boy and doing what you're supposed to you get a back massage."

She couldn't very well leave him as the only one not to get extra attention; maybe this would even induce the others to follow in his example. After all, her massages were almost legendary.

After a good fifteen minutes she plopped back into her chair, exhausted and drained of chakra, and dropped her chin into her hand. "You all should be grateful of the lengths I go to for you," she griped, knowing her complaints would only land on deaf ears and all she'd likely get in response was an eye roll or two. "Who's going to take care of me when I need a massage, huh?" she continued, going for the guilt. Maybe if they saw how much it exhausted her, or realized there might actually have to be some sort of recompense, they'd be better about hauling their lazy selves over to the hospital.

Her grumblings were, of course, met by streams of counter-complaints and rebuttals by her two peers.

Sai declared that since Root members were still under special care and supervision that she should feel privileged to be allowed to work on him. Naruto whined loudly about being beat up whenever he tried to give her a massage. It was true enough, mostly. He took too much after his old teacher, lecher that he was, and often his hands strayed from where they were supposed to be. It didn't happen every single time, but usually. Often enough that Sakura typically didn't let him near her unless she was desperate. She was too tired at the moment to try to keep track of him.

Yamato just looked around uncomfortably and Kakashi ignored them all.

Resigned to her fate Sakura slumped in her chair and rested her forehead on her arms, seizing up when she felt someone's hands on her back. She jerked, then twisted and turned.

"Kakashi-sensei?!" she cried, far too loudly.

He just shrugged and twirled his finger as an indication for her to turn back around.

She couldn't relax under his fingers though. It was weird having him touch her. She could touch him all she wanted and it was normal – she healed him all the time – but she didn't think she'd ever seen him go out of his way to touch anyone else.

He obviously felt the tension in her shoulders though as he pulled back his hands and asked, "Do you want this? Or were you just complaining in a poor attempt to make us feel bad? Take it or leave it because I'm not offering again."

"Y-yes," she squeaked.

"Okay then, relax," he commanded, pressing down on her shoulders.

"I'm trying, I just…can't." Suddenly her arms went dead; she could feel them, she just couldn't move them. "What did you just do to me?" she demanded, caught somewhere between curiosity and outrage.

"Master of a thousand jutsu, remember? Now your shoulders are lax and I can actually work on the muscles."

Only a minute or two in, she was already a boneless heap. "How in the world did you get so good at this?" Especially considering she didn't think she'd ever seen him giving a massage. He was applying chakra in strategic spots as well, similar to what a medic might do and what she'd done to all of them countless times.

"ANBU teaches you a lot of things. Right, Tenzou?"

"Right!" came the slightly slurred reply as Yamato raised his glass in toast to them.

"Regardless, it's a simple enough technique and I've been on the receiving end often enough to know how it's done."

She made an unintelligible noise into her forearms that was supposed to be an affirmative response but he'd just located a particularly stubborn knot in her back and she was enjoying herself too thoroughly to be more coherent.

He just chuckled lowly at her.

She woke suddenly, startled to find herself at the table. Blearily she rubbed her eyes to discover that according to her kitchen clock it was one in the morning.

She groaned as realization washed over her. She'd fallen asleep during the massage. In front of everybody. Oh, she was never going to hear the end of it.

Sitting up she felt something slide down her back and glanced down to see her blanket. Well, that was thoughtful of them. Then her face heated as she wondered which of them had gone to fetch it. She hadn't expected any of them to see her bedroom so it wasn't exactly up to public inspection.

Rubbing her eyes again she sighed at everything else she saw. Leftovers were on the counter, their plates still sat on her table, and all the lights were still on. No wonder she'd been squinting so badly.

Men.

Standing and stretching, she was amazed to find her back felt better than it had in ages. If it wouldn't feel so awkward, she'd be harassing Kakashi constantly to see if she could finagle another massage out of him.

Taking one last look around she shrugged. The mess could wait until a more reasonable hour. Grabbing her blanket and shutting off the lights she flopped onto her bed and fell instantly back to sleep.


5.

It started with a massive boom.

The explosion shattered the silence and startled them all. They looked furtively back and forth at each other, wondering which of them had set off the trap, but didn't have time to do more than that as they knew the enemy who'd set it would be upon them soon.

They took a minute just to gauge the surrounding forest as best they could, trying to determine if there were any other traps in their path, which would make for an easier escape and give them clues as to what direction the enemy was most likely to come from in the lucky event they weren't already surrounded for an ambush.

Sakura felt a tingle run up her spine even as she jumped to the next tree branch, the one behind her going up in flames.

Great. Someone behind them was using a fire jutsu.

Immediately they stopped their retreat and turned to face the oncoming enemy, backs to each other as it looked like, yes, they were being attacked from all sides.

As the flames spread and the heat became too much they had to drop from the trees – never the safest place during a fire – onto the ground, which of course was likely where the enemy had most of their traps planted, if they were still in range of them.

With a word, Kakashi set them all into action. They were easily outnumbered but all the reports said they were just average thugs. From looking at them Sakura guessed this was accurate, that the one with the fire jutsu was the ringer in the group.

Five minutes into the fight she realized she was wrong as a new enemy stepped out from behind the others, a host of kunai thrown her direction all at once. It was impossible to avoid them all but luckily she could block or deflect the rest of them.

Too bad she didn't see they were covered in exploding tags until right before they hit her. She felt like she was being pulled in two directions at once, jerked heavily, then the scene lit up before her and the world went dark.

- - - . - - -

She woke in a dark, damp cavern, freezing instantly for fear of having been captured. A quick hand on her shoulder reassured her.

Relaxing marginally, she squinted through the pale illumination to see she was lying on her own bedroll, two familiar packs at her feet, with Kakashi sitting by her side, his back to her.

He turned and leaned over her, his face close to hers in the dim light, and he seemed to be whispering something but it was too soft for her to hear. It just put her more on edge that he was being so overly cautious. Just how precarious was their location?

Something didn't seem right though. He was speaking more quickly now, in earnest, moving closer with the intensity of his words, his face mere inches from hers, and she reached a hand up to press her fingers lightly against his throat. His vocal chords were engaged. Which meant he wasn't whispering.

Her hands flew to her ears, both coming away with smeared with blood. Her right ear was ringing terribly but that seemed to be just from the sound of the blast, but the concussion seemed to have burst the ear drum in her left.

Something…strange passed across his face when he also realized her deafness, something more than just concern, something almost akin to disappointment, but she didn't have time to figure it out right then. She used hand signals to verify whether or not their position was secure and she could risk speaking. Those made deaf often couldn't control the volume of their voices.

"You're okay?" She was still a medic; of course it was the first thing she'd ask. Her deafness, though temporary as it likely was as ear drums weren't too hard to heal with the right amount of chakra, was a serious handicap, but nothing compared to something life threatening like a punctured lung. She had to make sure they were both in working order before moving onto the next step.

His shoulders sagged and in response he just pointed to her ears and then down to her leg. She winced as she saw the unnatural shape of the left one, knowing it must be broken. Now that she was made aware of it pain lanced through her, blinding and hot, and she stifled a gasp as she leaned down to check just how severe it was.

She sighed. Nothing she couldn't set and mend with chakra, though it would still take a while as she didn't have that large a chakra reserve and bones typically took multiple treatments for full healing anyhow. Resigned to her fate and the chore the next couple hours would be, she set to work first on her ears, then on her leg. At least then she'd be able to hold a conversation while she worked...well as much as Kakashi conversed.

Now that she was awake he turned the lamp up slightly; he must've been saving fuel in the meantime.

The fact that he hadn't built a fire either meant they were still in enemy controlled territory and couldn't risk being spotted or he was planning on their being there a while. Granted, since she didn't know how long she'd been unconscious they could've been there a while already, but luckily her internal clock didn't seem too far off so it shouldn't have been longer than a couple hours. But building a fire inside a cavern with no ventilation, from what she could see, would be a bad idea unless they were vacating soon.

She'd be able to get the particulars once her ear drum was repaired. The ringing she'd just ignore for now since she had other things to attend to, Kakashi included. Despite how he'd shrugged off her question about his physical state she was sure he must have some injury or another; he almost always did. It was almost impossible to get out of a fight like that without taking some damage, especially considering he'd likely had to protect her from the moment she'd fell unconscious, with the battle still raging on around them, then had to carry her to their current location.

In fact… She slanted her eyes his direction. That line of thinking just made her even more suspicious. She'd gotten her left ear fixed well enough for now so she'd just set her leg, pull something from her bag to use for a splint, and heal the surface lacerations so she didn't bleed out. Then it'd be his turn.

Now that she was hearing again, though, it was time for some information.

"Where's everybody else?" she asked, sensing no other chakra signals in the immediate area.

"Naruto found the scroll so I sent the others on ahead to make sure it was delivered safely to Konoha."

"Then why are we still here? Were the contents of the scroll so important it couldn't wait a few hours for us to heal up?" There was a biting snarkiness to her tone but she knew there was every possibility it was true.

"Actually, there's a sub-directive to this mission, something I need you for."

"Really?" she asked, slightly startled. Something like this had never happened on a mission with Kakashi before, and most surprising was that he was only telling her about it now. "Why didn't you mention it during the mission debriefing?"

He rubbed a hand across his face. "It's of a more sensitive nature and since it was unknown whether or not it could be achieved I thought it better to let it run its course and only bring it up if the opportunity arose."

"Sensei, I'm too tired for this." She pulled the knot tight on her makeshift splint and turned to him, though he was still faced away from her and only looked at her from over his shoulder. "Please just spell it out straight."

There was a short pause. "This group has been taking children – only children – for the last few months. Some disappeared as long as a year ago. Our mission was to see if we could determine for sure what had happened to them and to rescue any left. It's been so long though the chance of finding survivors is next to nothing."

She laid her head back against the cold rock floor. As a ninja it was normal to see the world's cruelty, but things like this still made her despair for humanity. "Why didn't you want to tell me about this sooner?"

"I didn't want to lay this on your shoulders if I didn't have to. If there was no sign of the kids, or the only evidence was that they were long gone, then there was no reason to tell you." So he'd keep all the guilt piled on himself alone.

She sighed, wincing as her head spun from blood loss and chakra depletion. "Then the reason you're telling me now…"

"I found them."

She bolted upright, craning her neck around, but still couldn't see anything. "Alive, right?" He'd said he wouldn't have mentioned it to her otherwise. "Then why aren't they here with us?"

He let out an irritated sigh. "They're in cages down at the end of that tunnel." He pointed toward the left fork. "I tried to get them out but I couldn't pick or break the locks, and the cages were too tight for me to try a chidori."

"So you had to wait for me to wake up."

"Yes. And I needed you to heal yourself first so you'll be more capable of taking care of them. They're going to need plenty of help and I couldn't have you running off to rescue them before securing your own safety first."

"I wouldn't have-" she started to argue, but he cut her off.

"We both know you would have, but that's all right. Considering what they've been through I also thought they could do without having two bloody shinobi collapsed next to them, so once we're both up and running we'll set about freeing them. As I said though, they're not in the best condition so it'll likely be a couple days at the least before we're able to move them, so make sure to take your time and not deplete yourself too badly. There's no knowing if any of the enemy nin were able to escape and might try coming back."

"Okay," she said, gingerly bending and straightening her leg to see how the splint was holding up. "Now let's see where you're banged up."

She scooted over to sit facing him, seeing him fully from the front for the first time. Her face paled. "S-shit, Kakashi. What did you do?"

His entire chest was one massive wound.

"You stupid idiot!" she ground out, even as she began carefully removing the remains of his tattered shirt. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt this badly? Why did you tell me to go ahead and heal my leg first? I could've easily just bandaged it to stave off infection; you'll be lucky to avoid it even with bandaging and the little bit of chakra I have left."

He opened his mouth to respond but she cut him off. "If you even dare go on about this 'you're the priority because you're the medic' bull then I'll just smack you unconscious so I can heal you at my discretion."

His eye narrowed at her tone but he didn't reply directly to her threat. "I didn't think it was all that bad." Sakura rolled her eyes because he never thought it was that bad. "As I said, we'll be laid up here with these children at least a couple days and that'll give you plenty of time to heal me slowly. They're the priority."

She hissed as a big chunk of skin came off with part of his shirt. "Yeah, that might work in theory, but you've lost a good amount of blood here and that requires time to make up, not to mention how much it's going to exhaust you physically. Even if you take a soldier pill that'll only help for a bit before you crash again, and you know you can't take many of those at a time. Considering the amount of time it looks like we'll be out here…" She sighed in exasperation.

"You really should've let me know before you bled out this much," she finished, worry leaking into her voice.

"I know what I'm capable of withstanding and I've had worse, so don't fret about it now that it's done. Just get the worst of it and bandage me up so we can go help them, all right?"

She shook her head. "You're going to use up the rest of my chakra; you know we always have to keep a little bit in reserve when we're out on the mission field." There was always the chance of being caught unawares.

"As I said, our objective is the children."

"And what are you going to do if you do get an infection? What are you going to do when you're sick with fever and I'm having to haul you around? How much help are you going to be to those kids then, huh? You said I have to be in a functioning capacity to actually help them and so do you."

He opened his mouth but she cut him off. "Medic's orders."

They both knew she was aware of the children in the next corridor, caged no less, and she wouldn't do anything to keep them in there any longer if she didn't have to. But it would do no good to troop over there if they were both so ragged when they arrived they were incapable of doing anything.

He sighed but closed his eyes and let her have her way.

In the end his wound wasn't quite as bad as it had looked but it was still worse than it should be considering he was in charge of their mission and set to be taking care of who knew how many underfed, injured civilian children. So after wrapping him up as best she could, she told him to get some sleep while she took watch. He'd been set to argue with her, she knew it; he wanted her chakra refilled sooner, but with the condition of his wound he'd be all but useless if he didn't recharge his body soon.

Her chakra would refill in its own time, even if it wasn't as quickly as he wanted, but luckily it didn't take all that much of a boost to give her enough strength to break a lock.

He woke after only a couple hours; not as long a rest as she'd wanted him to get but obviously longer than he'd wanted judging by the look on his face. So with a groan she stood and hobbled over to him, then heaved him into a standing position so he could lead her on to where the cages were at.

It wasn't far, really. He'd stayed within hearing range so he'd have been able to tell if any of the enemy had returned. The cages weren't just small, though, Sakura noticed, they were tiny and cramped. Even just using her hands to pull the locks apart she had to worry about the rebound from when the lock gave, what her hands and elbows might hit, whether the locks would come apart in two pieces grasped firmly in her hands, or whether they would splinter into bits and fly at the cages' inhabitants.

Luckily all the locks came apart without mishap, but once all the doors were opened and the children pulled out into the cavern at large, she was even more appalled at their condition. Now that she could see them clearly their severe starvation was apparent and obviously the biggest concern. The majority were nothing more than skin and bones while a few others were bloated almost beyond what the skin of their bellies could contain, another dangerous sign of starvation and their captivity.

Given their state she had to wonder when had been the last time the enemy had even visited them, whether there had been any purpose whatsoever to their capture, or whether it was an aborted adventure, or simply a scare tactic or blackmailing attempt for the surrounding villages.

She turned back to Kakashi and saw he had the same sadness in his gaze that she must have in hers. "What do we do now?" she whispered. "Even if we both split out our remaining rations that barely gives each of them a couple of mouthfuls." They were astonished to discover there were nearly twenty of them, almost all of those who had been reported as abducted. It was more than anyone planning for the mission had accounted for.

"Check my pack."

Sakura looked at him askance, wondering how many extra rations he could fit in a pack already filled with every other mission supply, but shrugged and did so anyway. She was restricting his movement as much as he'd allow, as she didn't want him bending over or carrying extra weight, therefore she had shouldered both their packs on the short trek to the cages. The latter part, ironically, hadn't seemed to bother him at all. She'd stashed them in a corner before working to break free the children and now knelt before Kakashi's pack and pulled it open.

It was stuffed, entirely packed full of rations.

She dug through it, looking for his other mission supplies, and saw nothing other than pack after pack of food. She stared up at him in amazement but he only gave her one of his vapid, benign smiles. He didn't even have a sleeping roll. How she could have missed that throughout their entire journey to the enemy camp she didn't know, but she did know she would be forcing him to use hers that night.

With the rations and small infusions of chakra here and there the children were able to travel after two days. Sakura tried to delay it, knowing Kakashi needed more rest and more time to heal than he let on, but he pushed them forward, anxious to get out of that network of caves and get the kids back to their families as soon as possible. One look at all their little faces let her know that really was the wisest course; they'd return to full health – both physically and mentally – better in the company of those they knew and trusted, so she let him ride over her concerns for his health and they pressed on.

- - - . - - -

It took them a full week to deliver all the children safely home; sometimes she still forgot how long it took to travel without chakra to boost it along. She didn't mind the pace all the much, though, as her leg was still healing.

It was still sore and giving her odd twinges when she and Kakashi finally marched through the red arch that demarcated their home, so she dragged him to the hospital with her. Since she was going as well, and was not letting go of the tight grip she had on his arm, he'd have to use his teleportation jutsu to get out of going, and they were both too tired to deal with the chase and struggle that would ensue, so he actually let her bring him along just this once.

A quick look over by a medic with a full chakra store fixed some of what ailed them, but for the most part it would just take time and rest. Luckily they had both coming to them in spades after the surprising happy twist to their mission. Not only had they gone far and beyond pleasing the clients who hired them, Tsunade was also happy – and not just from the extra bonus the clients had paid. They'd earned it and it looked like both of them were going to be spending the first day, at least, of their much needed vacation by sleeping.

Sakura was too orderly to go straight to sleep though. First she needed a shower. More than one kid had gotten sick on her during the journey and the lack of any running water that was more than a trickle was certainly showing.

When she got back to her apartment and pulled everything out of her pack for a good washing she discovered her bedroll smelled like smoke. She had no idea how he'd managed to sneak a cigarette without her noticing, but he was one of the elite and there had been more than enough distractions. Eighteen of them to be exact.

Stale smoke wasn't exactly a pleasant smell, especially when mixed with dirt and sweat, but she still waited to wash it until last.


6.

It started with a crash.

The sound of glass shattering and tables breaking covered the normal pub chatter as a row broke out. Sakura came out of the bathroom just in time to see the mad dash of people – some heading toward the fight, chanting as they went, others grumbling as they headed for the exit.

Another group of boys was just leaving the men's restroom, jostling each other as they picked up on the energy and adrenaline of the fight, uncaring about the size of the cramped hallway and the others in it. They smacked into her and she glared after them, tempted to follow and teach them some manners, but she was distracted by the sight of Kakashi heading her way – or rather more likely for the bathroom.

His gait was even lazier than usual; she might even be tempted to say he was weaving slightly. When he saw her he stopped in front of her to give her one of his typical one-eyed smiles. Just as he turned to head toward his destination, though, a late comer crashed out of the men's room, running to join his buddies lest he miss all the action, bumping Kakashi out of his way as he went.

She made sure to get a good look at his face as he sped by. That group was definitely in need of someone to teach them proper courtesy.

Her musing was brought up short as Kakashi toppled onto her and her brow puckered with concern. Just how much had he had to drink anyhow? It was pretty much impossible to tell with him. His glass was perpetually half-full anytime he went drinking, but whether he'd been refilling it steadily or hadn't even touched it was anyone's guess since no one ever actually saw him doing the drinking.

Still, the few times Sakura had seen him less than sober he'd still been functioning rather well. While that idiot had pushed him rather hard, it surprised her that he hadn't managed to retain his balance.

"Kakashi-sensei?" she queried gently. He was a dead weight against her, pushing her into the wall. His breathing was even enough she worried he might have passed out on her. "Are you okay?"

"Nggh," came his intelligent reply, muffled by her shoulder. She felt him gathering his strength and then his hands were tight on her biceps as he hauled himself up.

He didn't step back though, didn't let go of her arms, didn't make any movement at all, just looked at her with an unreadable expression on his face. Then again, with most of his face covered, the majority of his expressions were unreadable.

Then his head flopped forward and Sakura sucked in her breath as her eyes snapped shut. He was too close, way, way too close for comfort.

She could sense his face was directly in front of hers, then her eyelids squeezed together even more tightly as she swore she felt fabric against her lips.

She fought to control the tiny panic welling inside of her. It could be entirely psychosomatic – she could more sense that something was there than actually feel it. Besides, she'd seen the way his head was bobbing. It was more likely his nose brushing up against her, the edge of his jaw, his cheek as he looked after the bastard who'd instigated this whole mess, anything was more likely than his lips.

At the moment he probably lacked the coordination to do so, even if he wanted to, which he most certainly did not. This was Kakashi-sensei, after all.

Still, she was too much of a coward to open her eyes and find out for sure, on the slim possibility she was wrong. So instead she waited for him to find his balance and push himself back from her before she dared to crack an eyelid.

He was still in front of her, hands in his pockets, giving her a look that she was entirely unable to decipher. That mask of his really was a pain.

Then, without a word, he walked back down the hall and out the front door.

She was so stunned that for a moment all she could think of was, 'Wait, didn't he have to use the bathroom?' She stood like that for all of thirty seconds before hastening after him.

Looking left and right as soon as she got outside she was unsurprised not to see him. She just hoped he'd decided to walk instead of using his teleportation jutsu. Knowing his penchant for the lesser used walkways and alleys proved useful though and she found him only two streets over.

"Kakashi-sensei!" she called after him. She could almost see the sigh leaving him as he stopped. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine Sakura. I'm just going home to sleep it off."

Well, that was more coherent than she'd expected him to be.

"Look, um…"

He just stared at her drolly as she floundered for words. How did she ask what she needed to ask without insinuating anything? Damn her need to know.

"Well, what was that back there? Did I miss something? That was just a-an accident, right?"

He paused for a moment and she cringed at every second ticking past, wondering what it could portend. "Did you want it to mean something?" he asked finally. His head was canted to the side, as if his question was nothing but casual, but his gaze was deeply, uncomfortably penetrating.

Suddenly she was horrified that he'd somehow found out – or worse, had always known – about the feelings she'd had for him eight years prior. What if he thought she'd never moved past it? After all, she did have a track record for clinging onto crushes even when they proved futile.

Taking a step back in abject embarrassment, she felt her face heating with a fierce flush. "No, nothing, nothing at all!" she declared decisively, even if her voice was a little high. "It was just an accident, right? Yeah, an accident."

She started backpedaling. "Well, I've got to get back to the pub, everyone will be missing me. So I hope you feel better – drink lots of water and take an asprin before you go to bed, all right? All right. Well, goodnight then!"

Then without waiting for a reply she jumped up to the nearest rooftop so he wouldn't witness her escape, and headed back to the pub, hoping against hope he was too drunk to remember this conversation come morning.


7.

It started with a click.

Sakura placed her piece on the board loudly, irritated at how their game of go was progressing, and determined to make her annoyance audibly known. Shikamaru was winning, as per usual, but at least her mind was in the game today and she was putting up a decent fight.

It was a strange turn of events, really, that had led to them being playing buddies. After her last, rather embarrassing encounter with Kakashi, he'd gone on one of the many S-class missions the council still needed him for despite his being their team leader. Then again, everyone else was also often off on their own missions, following their own paths, so Team Kakashi rarely got missions together anymore. Whenever they did they were good ones though.

At first she worried he'd been so discomfited by her the night before that he'd decided to avoid her, but instantly dismissed it as ridiculous. Missions were handed out weeks prior because of all the preparations that had to be made; not only were there maps to memorize and landscapes to learn, there were the mission objectives, the covers of any contacts or other undercover operatives, figuring out a cover and learning as much about the local customs of the destination as possible. This was especially true on A-ranked and S-class missions, simply because of the higher danger level and the more complicated nature of the assignments.

Kakashi had been gone for four months and she hadn't seen him since. Despite knowing he couldn't have been directly avoiding her, something felt off, and that made her edgy. The way she chose to deal with it, though, surprised even her.

She'd seen Shikamaru coming down the path and on a whim asked if she could bum a smoke. He always had plenty with him. But why she wanted such a reminder of her sensei, and therefore the inevitable awkwardness that would hang over them once he returned, she had no idea.

Luckily for her, though, Shikamaru had obliged without question, on the condition that she go back to his place for a game of go. With Kakashi gone and his dad busy he rarely had decent partners anymore and he'd heard good things about her intelligence so wouldn't she give it a try?

She'd actually enjoyed the distraction. She hadn't enjoyed the cigarette. She should've known, really; the medic in her just couldn't stop visualizing the damage it was doing to her lungs with every puff.

She didn't enjoy the game as much as she would've expected, either. It was strategy, which was interesting, but it couldn't seem to hold her attention for the hours it would sometimes take for a single game. For all his lackadaisicalness, Shikamaru never quit in the middle of a game. That kind of single-minded determinedness was something she emphatically lacked in that area. There were so many other things to be doing with an entire afternoon: helping out at the hospital, having a spar or three, going to the spa, shopping with Ino, taking a nap, or any combination of these with time to spare.

She continued to play though. It was entertaining enough, usually, and she liked being able to spend time with someone who didn't question or make comments about her occasional, unfounded irritability. Ultimately she found she rather liked him. His calm demeanor was rather, well, calming.

Shikamaru did notice one thing though: she grew restless whenever he smoked, often making stupid moves – sometimes, he suspected, on purpose – just to end the game. He put the pieces together rather quickly, though he was also smart enough to realize that when she protested that she was fine with his smoking, either she hadn't made the connection yet herself or she was in complete denial.

He had enough self-preservation not to comment on it.

When Sakura left on her own long mission he bemoaned his fate and the lack of capable go players in Konoha.

- - - . - - -

Sakura was already having a miserable time on this blasted mission. It hadn't stopped raining, she'd been stuck keeping track of her mark in a fetid swamp that smelled worse than it looked, and to top it all off, she wasn't going to make it back to Konoha in time for the twenty-fourth birthday party Ino had promised to throw her.

If this didn't end soon she might just blow her cover on purpose just so she'd have an excuse to go out and strangle someone.

- - - . - - -

When she finally dragged herself back home, she dumped her still-damp pack in her tub and stretched her back before turning on the hot water. Maybe her pack wouldn't stink up the place quite as badly if the swamp water was washed out of it immediately. She stepped into the shower, clothes still on – they stank too and she was not going to do her washing before getting a decent night's sleep, and scrubbed everything down until her hands were red and raw.

Leaving her dirty things sitting in the bottom of the tub, she wrapped herself in her large fluffy robe before plopping down on her bed. Being clean felt good. She inhaled deeply before eliciting a happy sigh.

She sat straight up. Did she smell…smoke?

Cursing her luck, she pulled herself to her feet to start searching around her apartment. Everything was in proper order though and the smell was so faint she almost wondered if she imagined it. She sniffed one last time before giving up. Sometimes she would come back smelling of cigarettes after a match with Shikamaru, so perhaps the scent had lingered in the clothes she hadn't washed before leaving.

She was too tired to care more than that so she shrugged it off and crawled into bed.

- - - . - - -

She found Shikamaru on her doorstep the next day. He must really be desperate for a good game partner, she thought wryly.

Sure enough, he had the whole go set packed in a bag he'd brought along. "Too troublesome to go all the way back home when I'm already here," he said by way of explanation.

She laughed and stepped back to let him right in.

"Your mission go all right?" he asked, part way into the game. His query surprised her, as he normally preferred to avoid 'idle chit-chat' while playing.

She huffed irritably at the recollection of it. "It was fine. It just took a little…longer than expected."

He seemed amused by her expression so she glared at him. "Why do you ask?" Granted this was the only extended mission she'd taken since they'd become companions, but he'd never been so solicitous about any of the others.

He shrugged. "Kakashi was just concerned when you weren't here for your birthday after threatening him with bodily dismemberment if he didn't show. You had been expected to return after three weeks, not five. I told him I'd check for him."

Sakura leaned back, stunned. "If he's so concerned then why are you here instead of him?"

"Left for a mission a week ago," he replied, not really paying attention to the conversation anymore seeing as he'd said his piece. He was too busy staring at the board, scratching his chin as he planned his first move.

Just great, she thought, rolling her eyes. She could already imagine his trying to turn her absence in his favor, complaining that since she'd stood them all up that she'd have to forgive his perpetual lateness.

Well, if their schedules aligned and they ever got to see each other again, she'd let him know he was having no such luck.


8.

It started with a bang.

The sound of her office door slamming open startled her to her feet. The fact that it was Kakashi barging in, a look of determination writ across his face, was so uncharacteristic she was grounded to the spot, staring stupidly at him.

She hadn't seen the man in months, and here he was, striding in like he owned the place. Well she'd set him straight. She had quite a few things to say to him and quite a long time to think up just exactly how she wanted to phrase said things. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but was stuck on which point to proceed with first. She'd been so irritated by all the pointless worrying she'd been doing, but now seeing him, haggard and beat down, questions of concern overrode anything else.

That was before he touched her. His fingers on her chin were so out of place she froze, at a complete loss. Then without a word he solidified his grip, leaned in, and kissed her. When he pulled back just a split second later she could do nothing other than continue staring in abject shock, even as he pulled his hand back and ran it agitatedly through his hair.

He glanced up at her, his eye catching hers and holding it a moment, before seeing or not seeing whatever it was he was expected. With a shake of his head he turned on his heel and strode out, slamming the door again behind him as he went.

Sakura stood slack jawed, staring in disbelief at the spot Kakashi had just stood. What on earth had that been? He'd…he'd kissed her. In all of ten seconds her world had just been turned upside down.

It wasn't possible that he had feelings for her. Was it?

Her mind refused to accept the idea, throwing up a mental block. This was Kakashi-sensei, a man impossible to get to know, a man who shut most everyone out and only let the most superficial of things through. He'd never shown any overt interest in her, hadn't given her any more attention than anyone else on the team, had he? Sure, he'd treated her a bit differently but she was also the only girl so she almost expected it.

It wasn't true; it couldn't be. But as she tried to think of any other reasons for his behavior she came up with nothing. Kakashi wasn't the type to do that kind of thing on a whim or for a joke, especially considering how close they were and how often they worked together. For all his distance he tried to be very careful with people's feelings.

So she had to face the idea, what if it was true?

She pursed her lips, trying to imagine the scenario. Her breath caught in her throat, her heart lurching, as she discovered that if she squinted, tilted her head, and changed her perspective just a little bit, she could see it. What if he'd been telling her all along, just in ways too subtle for her blind, distracted eyes to notice?

Suddenly her heart was heavy in her chest, pushing against her sternum like a rock, and she knew with rising certainty what an utter fool she was as old feelings, those she'd thought long forgotten, flooded through her. Determination and stubbornness? She gave a derisive little laugh. All that had achieved was succeeding in deluding herself, believing her own lies that the crush she'd tendered near a decade ago had been snuffed out just from her own will-power. What a joke. While she'd refused to recognize them, her feelings had simply lain dormant in her subconscious, and now that he'd opened the door to possibility they were snapping at her for attention, making her knees weak with the sudden strength of it.

She sank down in her chair, head in her hands. She was a fool, and worse yet, a stubborn one at that. If these feelings had bided their time for this long then what was to say she could force them to go away now? She had no way of knowing why he'd just done what he did. It was so unlike him, what if he was doing it for some reason other than he simply wanted to?

Despite her not knowing what else could push him to it, her mind still grappled with the concept of him wanting her in any way. The tension in him, what if it had been anger of some kind? While she knew he wasn't the kind to fall to provocation, he was still something of a mystery to her and there were so many unknowns.

Well, there was no use wondering. Resolution made, she stood, strength returning as she had a concrete objective. She would just have to follow him and see what the hell he'd been thinking when he did that.

And if it was for any reason other than his harboring some sort of affection for her…she'd kill him.

She found him in his apartment, sitting quietly at his table, in the dark, as if expecting her arrival. He stood when she came in, the door closing behind her with a soft click, but he didn't make a sound, just…looked at her. She found it to be slightly unnerving.

"Why?" she asked simply, stopping a few paces away.

He was silent.

"Kakashi, tell me why."

"You know why."

She made an exasperated sound in the back of her throat. "If I knew do you think I'd bother asking you?"

"Do you honestly think I'd ever do something like that if I didn't mean it?" he asked irritably, as if even that much of an admission cost him dearly. She supposed it probably did.

"Promise me this isn't some kind of joke."

She felt the tension in him even as he said, "I promise," though then something changed in him. Something flashed across his face and if she didn't know better, she'd almost say it was something akin to hope.

"It's not driven by guilt, not that I remind you of someone else, nothing like that?"

He shook his head. "Nothing like that," he repeated.

She stepped forward until she was only an arm's length away from him and studied him closely. The expression on his face was yet again enigmatic, but she understood in that moment that he'd given her permission to look beyond that, she'd simply never realized it before.

She reached forward, watched as his eye followed her hand, until she was lightly touching the side of his face. When he didn't say anything or make any move to stop her she became emboldened, her fingers climbing to tug gently on his hitai-ate.

He sighed softly, and instead of feeling like he was humoring her, she felt the edginess flow out of him, and she saw him visibly relax under her touch.

"How long have you been waiting for me to do this?"

She thought she detected a hint of a smile beneath his mask. "A while."

She knew that was likely the only answer she'd get out of him but it was enough for now.

Taking a step closer she reached up with both hands and slipped his hitai-ate off, letting it slide down her arm as she teased up the hair that had been flattened down by the band. His good eye slid closed under her ministrations and after a few minutes she let her hands slide down to touch his skin, fingers ghosting over his eyebrows and trailing down his scar, pressing gently against his eyelids to feel the eyes beneath rippling, a gentle exhalation escaping her as his eyelashes tickled the bare tips of her callused fingers.

"Why me?" she asked finally, hands coming to a rest on either side of his face.

His natural eye opened and he gazed at her with a sudden intensity. "I could ask you the same thing." There was just enough of a sardonic hint to his voice, just enough of an arch to his eyebrow to make her smile.

Then she closed her eyes and smiled wider, pulling down his mask and knowing he wasn't going to stop her. They both knew now she was interested in the man more than the mystery. He made his first move then, leaning forward to finally press his lips against hers in a simple, delicate kiss that rocked her to the core. She thought she felt him shudder under her touch but it was impossible to know for sure since her fingers were trembling against his face.

He pulled back all too quickly for her liking and she whispered an emphatic, "More," her fingers locking behind his head, and he all too readily complied.

Lips parted and mouths melded. He tasted of smoke and heat and it was in that moment she fell headlong in love with him. Her heart sang with it, and as if in response he pulled her tightly against himself.

Only when she was too far gone, lost in a sea of sensation, did the irony of their journey hit her. When she'd been fifteen she'd been so sure of herself, of her maturity and interest in finding the depths of her teacher. Only when she'd smelled the smoke on him, realized how little she actually knew him, had he become a person instead of an idea, someone she wanted to get to know with no ulterior motive.

She thought she'd been failing miserably but today she'd found out perhaps she was wrong. Today the world was opened wide to her and she knew she wanted to take advantage of every opportunity presented to her to truly get to know this man.

As of this moment all she knew for certain was that he tasted wonderful.

But this was it for her. Even though she hadn't realized it, her search had been over nearly a decade ago.

It had ended with a cigarette.