The Circle

Chapter 9: Secrets

Note: I apologize for having no breaks in any of the previous chapters! I thought everyone was crazy in the reviews, because I do put in scene change breaks when I'm writing. Apparently somewhere in the uploading process they get lost. So now I feel really smart... XP Anyways, enjoy this chapter! New, with scene breaks! Hehe...

Makoto was woken by an odd tap on the window. For a while he just sat there, the fog of sleep slowly sifting clear of his mind, wondering if he had really heard anything at all. Then it happened again - an insistent tapping. He grabbed the stone pendant necklace off of his bedside table and put it over his head. The moment the stone touched his skin, the world was alive with possibilities again. There were few words in this language that could explain how he could feel the flow of time around him. Some places it moved fast and quick, inevitable as a raging river, but in others it was slow and swirling, full of eddies and creeks branching off.

Now he could feel it, the raging river of time and space, pushing him towards the window. It was an important event, he knew that much. So Makoto walked up without fear, pushing the window open.

"Izumi?" Makoto drawled with a slight surprise, watching the blond who was standing outside his window with nonchalance. Her long, loose hair swung like curtains as she tilted her head playfully.

"Let me in, Makoto," she said in that impatient tone she often took with him. He had been slightly hopeful after the first night when she had kissed him that things would continue that way, only to find that they hadn't. It had been some kunoichi trick, a henge or something… Makoto felt silly to be ashamed of it, but he was. He didn't even know who had actually stolen that kiss from him. Trying not to notice the way the moonlight touched her smooth, slightly-tanned skin, he crossed his arms over his chest as he watched her. Ino rested a hand on one cocked hip.

"Why don't you just use the front door like a normal person?" Makoto asked. Even as he spoke, she walked closer. Too close to be casual. The blond smiled in an uncharacteristically sweet way and ran a hand up his arm so lightly it left a trail of goosebumps. Makoto swallowed.

"What, do you need the password?" She pouted. So close now that he could smell her skin, warm like peaches, Ino leaned in to whisper in his ear. "Tsunade." When she pressed her lips against his neck just below his ear, Makoto felt a shiver run down his spine.

"W-what are you…" Makoto started, but found his willpower falter as she ran her nails down his back and around his middle towards the top of his pajama pants.

"Geez, lighten up, Makoto," she said teasingly as she shoved him back from the window suddenly and climbed into the room herself. She was always so graceful and sure. When Ino pressed her lips against his and gave a little moan, whatever had been left of Makoto's willpower crumbled into dust. They fell onto the bed already entangled.

When they reached the resting spot, Sakura hoisted Kakashi off of Kai and set him under the pile of fallen trees that would be their shelter until he awoke. The pine needles underneath were mostly dry. It was a bit shallow, but it was long enough to fit even a tall man from head to toe.

"Good job, Kai. This is the perfect spot," Sakura told the great bird as she adjusted his scarf. She still loved the fact that he'd let her make him a pink one the same color as her hair. Then again, Gio seemed to have an odd fascination with making a nest out of her hair in the first place. Maybe all birds liked pink.

"Well, you're welcome," Kai said with pride, rustling his great wings over his back. A bird's face had no way of smiling with lips like humans, but there was a slight squint and curve to the eyes that she had come to recognize as their smile of sorts. Kai gave that look now, and Sakura returned it with a wide grin of her own.

"Hopefully I will find reason to see you again soon, Kai," Sakura said, petting the great bird's tawny chest. Kai hummed and nodded.

"Be well, little one," he said, bumping her chest with the round front of his beak before disappearing in a cloud of smoke.

Kakashi was still unconscious, though she could tell it was a light unconsciousness by the way his eyes moved beneath his eyelids. Sakura sighed and went to sit beside him, checking his vitals. He seemed okay, but his heart rhythm was a bit subdued and erratic. It might be a while still before he woke. Sakura wasn't sure how long now until the sun would rise, but hopefully he would rise before it. She didn't want to have to drag back an unconscious Kakashi. There wasn't a good explanation for that.

Well, there wasn't really a good explanation for this, either. Sakura folded her cloak more tightly around her, thinking of her options. She could say she'd found him and carried him slowly here, but that didn't cover everything. He'd probably hidden in the first place because he knew he was being pursued, and she wasn't sure she could explain away several angry ninja without mentioning her kunoichi skills.

She should just leave. He was fairly safe here, and she didn't doubt his ability to find his way back. Still, the thought of leaving him here alone, unconscious and still fighting the damages done to his system… Sakura couldn't do that. It had been her feelings for him that had saved his life and allowed her to discover Denna in the first place. Once he shows signs of returning to consciousness, I'll leave before he wakes fully, she told herself. That way she would be assured he was healthy and she wouldn't have to explain anything. Easy enough.

Sakura felt her eyelids slide shut heavily. She jerked them open. Maybe not. Using her chakra to filter through his blood as long as it had taken to remove the trace amounts of poison had really exhausted her.

"Awake," she told herself to be. If Kakashi woke up when she was asleep, he would have who knows how long to think of all the ways she might secretly be some sort of spy here to kill him. She didn't want that. Still, it must have been later (or earlier?) than she thought, as exhaustion tugged at her.

"I'll just lay down, that's all," Sakura said, trying to convince herself as she laid down a good foot away from Kakashi. His breathing was low and heavy from beside her, and she refused to let her mind wander to the way his face might look like if she just reached over and pulled down his mask, or what it would feel like if she curled up against him…

No! Sakura mentally slapped herself out of it. She began to force herself to recite the names of all the bones in the human body in her mind, all the while listening to Kakashi's breathing for signs of waking. Of course, that was probably worse than counting sheep when it came to sleep. In a few minutes, Sakura was utterly unconscious.

Sakura woke suddenly, to the thud of a clump of snow falling off of a tree right above their shelter. As she realized the sound was harmless, she also realized that she'd fallen asleep. On top of that, she found herself very close to Kakashi. She had pretty much joined him under his black ANBU cloak, which was significantly warmer than her own. Of course, it helped that there was a large, warm man in it as well. Sakura found herself looking right at the dark material of the shirt unfortunately covering his chest, and as sleep drained quickly from her head, she realized their limbs were quite entangled. Panic fluttered in her chest. Not that she wanted to move anytime soon. Kakashi's hands rested on the small of her back. Where her head was resting she could hear his steady heart beat. Now as she was waking up, something changed, as the beat of his heart picked up some speed. Still, Sakura was pleased to find that it sounded healthy.

She knew he was awake, and he probably knew she was as well. Yet for several heartbeats, neither of them moved. Then Kakashi lifted his hands to hold her face gingerly, lifting it up to face him.

"I know you're awake," he said lowly, his voice rumbling in his chest. Sakura felt her mind halt, unable to think as she looked up into Kakashi's eyes - one dark and heated, the other red and swirling very slowly. As she processed his words, she forced herself to look away. She found her mind cleared some, and she forced herself to remember who she was. Sayuri. She needed a good excuse, and fast.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled, pushing away from him and escaping from his cloak with some effort. "I… must have gotten cold."

"Hm," Kakashi said, his hands letting her go after only a slight hesitation.

Outside, it had snowed a great amount, and her breath hung in front of her face like a ghost. Light was just beginning to touch the horizon. It wouldn't be too long before the sky was pink with sunrise and her team would be up and about, heading to the health clinic. Sakura felt the inevitable question coming, but she stood up like all was normal, brushing herself clean of snow and pine needles.

"Sayuri, why am I here?" Kakashi asked her levelly, standing behind her silently. Sakura pursed her lips. The events of the night were still jumbling about in her head, and it didn't help her to clear her thoughts waking up the way she had.

"You were poisoned. I took it out of your system and brought you to a safer place. That's all," Sakura told him. Kakashi was silent for a moment.

"Sayuri, last I knew I had five angry thieves on my tail and I was far outside of Touna. How did you find me there? More importantly, how on earth could you get me out so quickly?" Kakashi speculated flatly, though there was something about the way he said it all that made it sound like some impressive feat. Sakura tried not to let the pride swell her head. It wasn't that difficult… She glared determinedly into the silent forest.

"I don't know what happened with the thieves," Sakura hedged in her best innocent Sayuri. "All I know is I found you when I was taking a walk in the woods. You were sick, so I healed you. It wasn't far to drag you to this spot from there." She thanked the heavens that new snow had fallen last night. Explaining the giant bird footprints might have gotten tricky.

Sakura chanced a glance at Kakashi to see him watching her thoughtfully. He reached over and picked something off of her cloak. It was a tan, downy feather. Kakashi frowned a little like he was trying to remember something, and Sakura felt fear slide down her back - ice cold. There was no way he'd been conscious enough at that point to remember anything… Right? After a moment he flicked it away with a dismissive blink, and Sakura had to hold in her sigh of relief.

"Hm," he said simply. There was nothing about the way he said it that made Sakura think she had fooled him. For all he knew, she'd been with the thieves last night. Still, she refused to say anything more. It would only be digging the hole she was in even deeper to show any guilt now. For a long moment Kakashi was silent. She would have considered it one of those companionable silences if Kakashi wasn't currently deliberating on whether or not she was some spy, assassin, or something otherwise harmful.

Finally, somewhere in the distance, a bird sang a single note. Following that, the morning chorus that preluded the dawn began. Sakura thought of Gio, and Naka… what were they doing? How would Makoto react to the news that Denna was here?

"Well, we should probably be getting back," Kakashi said casually. Sakura blinked but took it in stride, fastening her cloak more securely around her.

"Where's my ANBU mask?" Kakashi asked. Sakura stood up and watched as he looked around for it. She laughed as she saw it stuck in his hood on his back, reaching up to grab it.

"It's in y -" Sakura stopped short and the laugh was strangled in her throat when he whirled on her. He grabbed her wrist before she could take the mask out. There was a hard, searching look in his eyes now. Apparently his nonchalance had been an act. Her lies put him on edge. Only now did it sink in that this was Kakashi Hatake. He actually was a dangerous man, when he wanted to be. Adrenaline coursed through her, and she was instantly calculating escape routes. If she had to fight him off, could she? Sakura wasn't sure.

"Y-your hood," she choked out. She bit her lip and looked away feebly, even though she really wanted to snap out of his hold and find something hard to defend herself with. Of course she could see his logic. Kakashi already knew well enough that she wasn't here for what she was supposed to be, and now he knew she was still hiding something. Sakura had been foolish to wait around to make sure he was healthy. She'd really stuck her foot in a bear trap falling asleep like that.

Still, she didn't regret it. Nothing seemed clearer to her now than the fact that her feelings for Kakashi were what had lead her to discover Denna. Makoto had chosen her for a reason, and Sakura was sure now that this was it. Sakura cared for Kakashi, and whether or not that meant she got sent off the mission, she would protect him. If she had to do it, she would save him again. Just remembering the way his feet had poked out feebly from under that snow-covered rock empowered her confidence in her decision.

With that thought strengthening her, Sakura looked back up at him as he reached up and grabbed the mask out of his hood with his other hand. Kakashi had an unfathomable look in his eyes, both of which were open, and then she found herself only looking into the pale, cherubic face of a white cat.

He released her wrist and then gestured outward.

"Ladies first," he said in a stone-cold voice. Sakura felt her shoulders tighten, but did as she was told and walked in front of him towards the town. Kakashi walked behind her, like a true guard might, but she felt more like a prisoner than anything. She knew it was silly, but it hurt her for him to treat her so coldly. With each step that he followed her in that unfeeling way, Sakura felt worse.

They weren't actually very far from town, so even walking it didn't take long to get there. Sakura kept her shoulders square the whole time, not looking back even though she so itched to.

When they reached the town, Sakura headed back to her hotel without hesitation. She had no doubt Kakashi was still trying to figure out what to do with troublesome, confusing little Sayuri. While he figured that out, she was going to do her job and complete her mission. Hopefully Makoto would have some good advice for her when she got back to Konoha - if she got that far.

Outside the hotel, Sakura saw Kurenai waiting. It was hardly dawn, but she was fully-dressed and looking quite alert.

"Sayuri," Kurenai called out when she spotted her, concern in her voice. Sakura waved in response, not even daring to fake a smile. Her emotions were all over the place with Kakashi still walking behind her silently, so it was difficult enough to keep her face impassive.

"Are you two alright? I got your note," Kurenai said to Kakashi. Sakura could feel the weight of his gaze on the back of her head, but ignored it.

"Fine," Sakura said. Kurenai didn't miss the heavy silence that came from Kakashi, but after considering him for a moment she seemed to let her thoughts pass with a shrug.

"Well, Kaede and Itsuko already headed over to open early," Kurenai told her, only glancing at the looming Kakashi once. "You're free to take some rest and join us as soon as you can. Mid-morning, at the latest."

"Thank you," Sakura said. She didn't need to rest, but maybe with some time alone she could find a way to talk to Naka. Sakura headed into the hotel and up towards her room. Kakashi didn't follow.

Kurenai was giving him that look like she knew his whole story. If only she did. Then she might be able to help him make some sense of it all.

"What was that all about? You needed her for medical assistance?" Kurenai said in a deadpan. Kakashi was thankful for the ANBU mask, as he hadn't needed to hide his shock upon hearing that Sayuri had forged a note from him. The fact that she could do something like that well enough to fool Kurenai in the first place was worrisome. Hiruzen may have been right after all about him underestimating his enemy. Then again, he found it hard to believe she was his enemy in the first place… A normal enemy would not have played games this long. Kakashi had given her the ultimate opportunity last night by being unconscious, and she had done nothing but save him. There had been no deception in that fact. Even if she had been a member of those teams, whatever mission she'd had by being sent to befriend him in the first place could have easily been accomplished last night.

"Uh, yeah," Kakashi said belatedly, realizing he'd gotten lost in his thoughts a moment too long. Kurenai blinked at him, and then smirked.

"Oh, I see now. Is that what you men are calling it these days? Medical assistance?" Kurenai scoffed, letting out a short peal of laughter. Kakashi didn't miss the suggestive undertone there, but he ignored it.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said flatly. He didn't have the mental stamina to play a round of innuendoes with Kurenai. There were some things he needed to figure out. Her red eyes looked a little confused, but Kakashi ignored that as he leapt away to a secluded rooftop. Once there, he took a seat and let himself think.

Kakashi was sure of two things.

One, Sayuri was not who she acted to be. He had thought that her subdued manner was merely an attempt at being polite and feminine. Now he could see it was much more. She was trying to hide how capable and cunning of a woman she really was. Just how great her skills were was hard for Kakashi to tell from his few intuitions about it, but based on the events of last night they must be great. She had carried him a great distance against the will of those skilled thieves, and on top of that she had removed a very fast-acting toxin out of his system completely before it caused any damage. It was quite possible she was actually a skilled kunoichi.

Two, as much as Kakashi knew that he should be wary of Sayuri and her secrets, he could not bring himself to face the idea of turning her in. The Hokage would send her back to Suna at best, and would torture her for information at worst. Both ideas made Kakashi's insides coil unpleasantly. Just thinking of it now made his fingers unconsciously tighten around the roof shingles he was sitting on. Confusing and worrisome as her true skills and purpose were, he couldn't deny that she was a good person.

Kakashi was an excellent shinobi in part due to his ability to read people, and never once had he felt ill intentions from her before. Even when she'd hit him upside the head the day he met her, there had been a sort of love in it. For all the angry flashes in her eyes, there had been even more warm looks and smiles. He had been incredulous of the fact at the time, but each day he spent with her only confirmed her virtue. On top of that, it had become clear to him, when he'd snatched her hand away from his hood and seen that resolute look in her shining green eyes, that he could never bring himself to hurt her. After getting to know her now, there was an ease to which he could distinguish her "nice" smiles from her genuine ones, and many towards him had been genuine. He even saw that when she looked away or mumbled an apology, her jaw would tense or her eyes would flash. It showed her hidden inner strength, though Kakashi knew that to most others her subtle slips would be lost on them. Despite the suspicion he felt towards her need to hide who she was from him, Kakashi felt the need to protect her more than the need to persecute her.

Other than that, the ANBU member was at a loss. There were thousands of possibilities as to why Sayuri was in Konoha and why she might be befriending him, some harmless and some very troublesome. Despite that, when he thought of those possibilities and tried to match them to that warm smile and the compassion in her gentle hands, Kakashi simply couldn't see it.

Besides, even if he was sure she was up to no good, he wasn't so sure he wanted to let Ibiki take care of it. Already he found his mind drifting to replay that quiet moment in their little shelter together, when she had breathed his name so softly in her sleep. It was a shame she'd had to wake up.

Suddenly, he recognized a certain man walking down the street. His shoulders were slumped and his short, dark hair had an odd cow-lick just by his left eyebrow. The way he moved lacked true confidence, though he tried to feign it. It was Makoto, with a large pack on his back. Kakashi stiffened, watching the man from Suna meander down the street. He stopped in front of Sayuri's hotel and seemed to consider it for a long moment. Then he walked in. He had come all the way here, to see Sayuri? Did she know? Was she looking forward to it?

Kakashi hesitated only a moment. He was supposed to be the guard for this trip, wasn't he? Kakashi let himself in through a hallway window and began to make his way down towards the lobby. He would just be rid of silly Makoto, and that would be that.

The next morning, Makoto was alone in his bed, though the sheets still smelled like her. Peaches. The occasional sound of dishes clinking came from the kitchen, and so he walked out of the bedroom.

When he slipped his arms around Ino's waist from behind, his stomach filled with dread as he felt her stiffen uncomfortably. She shoved him off deftly and turned around to face him, holding a soapy dish between them. Her blue eyes scanned his face for only a millisecond before there was a flash of understanding there.

"Oh shit, not again," she said. Makoto felt like he was falling. It had been a fake. Again. A fake that had somehow found out the password. Yet it had felt so real, and now he was looking into the eyes of his lover to find they had gone cold. Damn this mission to hell.

"She knew the password," he said feebly, suddenly very conscious that he wasn't wearing a shirt. Ino seemed alarmed at that, but she turned around quickly.

"Don't worry, we'll handle this," Ino told him, like a doctor comforting a terminal patient. Makoto didn't even bother to pretend like he felt better.

"Sayuri sent a message last night when you were passed out," Ino continued, impervious to the dark cloud following Makoto around the kitchen, "saying that she spotted Denna in Touna."

Makoto stood up straighter, grateful for something else to focus on. He close his eyes for a moment and touched his amulet for a moment. The vast majority of holes in time and space that one could travel through went to inconsequential places, such as thirty miles under the surface of the planet. However, a rare opportunity seemed to become clear as he scanned through them.

"I think I can get there and back today," he said as he headed swiftly to his bedroom to prepare.

Sakura didn't even open her eyes when she heard Naka's almost silent landing on the windowsill. From where she lay on the bed in her hotel room, she could almost pretend that last night had never happened. Of course, she could never escape for very long before a memory brought her back. That cold grip of Kakashi's on her wrist, in stark contrast with his gentle hands holding her face only moments before…

"Sayuri," Naka's calm voice came lowly from a closer spot, inside. Sakura's eyes snapped open in surprise. She hadn't heard the owl move from the sill, but now she was perched on the edge of the bed.

"Did you tell Makoto?" Sakura asked, pushing up onto her elbows.

"He did not respond when I tapped his window, so I contacted Izumi. She has probably told him by this time. I did not wait for his response because I worried you might need me here," Naka said. For once, she actually seemed to look a little tired. Then again, it was mid-morning, and the bird must have been flying all night.

"Well, thank you, Naka, but I'm really okay. You can get some rest," Sakura told her with a gentle smile. Naka didn't seem to need anymore encouragement. With only a pause to check if the coast was clear, she soared out. Sakura followed her to the window, and was surprised to see Makoto in the street. Quick, she admired mentally. He was looking up at her, and she gave him a grim smile and a wave. His lips twitched, but that was all before he headed into the lobby below. Sakura watched him go, still amazed at his ability to get here so quickly. Then again, he was a master of time and space.

It was unlikely that the innkeeper would let some stranger up, so Sakura slipped her shoes back on and headed down. As she walked down the steps, she could already hear the low tones of Makoto's voice.

She was not shocked to see Kakashi barring the way. She had a feeling it was going to be highly difficult for anyone to talk to her with him watching her every move like a hawk - friend or not.

"Makoto," Sakura said aloud, as if this was the first time she'd seen him. "What are you doing here?" It pleased her to see Kakashi visibly stiffen in surprise. He didn't turn his head when she approached, but Sakura knew better than that. She could feel his eyes on her.

"Oh, just doing a little traveling. I thought I'd stop by and say hello," Makoto said convincingly enough, though it was a bad enough lie that Sakura knew he hadn't been expecting to run into anyone he'd have to lie to. Some master of time and space he is, she thought. It seemed that the moments her team leader amazed her only set him up to be a bigger let-down when all of his other skills were fairly average.

"Why don't you come up to my room and we can have some tea?" Sakura said with a smile. Makoto returned her smile, but glanced at Kakashi who was still looming behind her. She turned to him as if she'd just remembered the guard.

"It's okay, this is my friend, Makoto," she told him, overly polite. As if he doesn't know, she thought bitterly. There was an awkward silence that followed. Kakashi shook his head almost imperceptibly.

"I'm sorry, I can't allow a stranger up to the rooms," Kakashi said in a formal tone. As if it was just mission policy. Sakura huffed a low breath. Of course it still made the hair on the back of her neck stand up to be under such close scrutiny by the copy ninja, but she really needed to speak with Makoto. This was a pivotal point in their mission.

"Don't be absurd. He's not a stranger. Come on up, Makoto" Sakura said, acting unfazed. She grabbed Makoto's hand and began to walk past Kakashi. After only a few steps she felt the time-traveler stop in his tracks. Kakashi had put a strong hand on Makoto's shoulder.

"It's not just your room. I am telling you he can not go up," Kakashi said, deadly serious. Sakura narrowed her eyes at him. Makoto pulled his hand away from hers quickly, suddenly looking very nervous. It seemed like short of knocking him out, they were not going to get by the overly-helpful ANBU guard.

"It's alright Sayuri, I should keep going anyways. It was nice to see you," Makoto said quickly, backing away out of Kakashi's grip. Sakura just watched in frustration as Kakashi put his hands back in his pockets like he'd saved someone's life today. As Makoto walked off, she saw him subtly massage his shoulder where Kakashi had stopped him.

"What was that all about?" Sakura turned on Kakashi, jabbing him in the chest with a finger. She was relieved to find he didn't grab her hand away like the last time she'd reached for him.

"I'm your guard," Kakashi said simply from behind that damned mask. At least with his normal mask she could read his eyes.

"Hardly," she ground out, not needing to remind him who had saved him from his own failed mission last night. He stiffened.

"You shouldn't be letting him treat you that way. I'm just looking out for your own good," Kakashi scolded. Sakura wasn't sure, but she thought he sounded a little defensive as well. She could only blink dumbly at that, and she felt the anger falter a little on her face. She had almost forgotten what Kakashi thought she felt for Makoto.

"He treats me just fine," Sakura said stubbornly.

"Please," Kakashi said, "do you think you're special to him? What makes you think he would leave Izumi for you? I've seen this before, Sayuri. You're just going to get hurt. You should stay away from him." Sakura felt her mouth drop open in surprise. Was that really his concern? Not that she was plotting some disastrous takeover of Konoha? If only they could be having this conversation when he wasn't wearing that ANBU mask; she was dying to know the expression on his face. She wasn't sure what to say. It was too preoccupying to think that he might care for her enough to stop her from being with Makoto… or at least be jealous enough. From any other man, implying that Makoto wouldn't leave Izumi for her might have come off as an insult, but she could see beyond that sentence. Kakashi was trying to stop her from being with Makoto. He cared.

"It's not like that with him," she finally said, figuring it better to keep up her unrequited love bit. "Besides, what do you care? It's none of your business." Sakura knew well enough that he wouldn't have intervened like that if he hadn't cared in some way. Jealousy or love, whatever it was, it was too much. He only cared for Sayuri, not Sakura, and once this mission was over, Sayuri would be gone forever. Just another loved one that Kakashi Hatake would lose.

There was a long silence. Kakashi's head moved just slightly. Maybe he was stunned, or maybe he was lost deep in thought. Sakura studied his blank mask as if it would give her answers, but there was nothing there.

"Sayuri…" Kakashi started. His voice was husky, and Sakura could sense this was going in the wrong direction again. He shouldn't care about her, and she shouldn't be leading him on. Whoever Sayuri was, this girl Kakashi might be having feelings for, it was not her. She was Sakura Haruno - pink-haired, strong, and stubborn. She knew what Denna looked like now, and soon Sayuri would be gone. It would be better for him if she ignored him from now on, and let his feelings fizzle out. He would not remember Sayuri but as an odd blip in his timeline.

"I ought to be getting to the hospital," she said coldly. Sakura walked away without looking back.


Don't do anything more. Just come back to Konoha immediately. You are too closely watched there.


The message in the small note was clear enough to Sakura; Makoto didn't want her to follow Denna. He had managed to slip it into the pocket of her medical uniform sometime before she had gotten to work, and Sakura had promptly destroyed it upon reading. Still, she wished she hadn't read it. They were so close to Denna, and the chance of finding her again was slipping away with each passing moment.

Makoto was her team leader though, and Sakura had to trust his abilities to understand the way time worked. She had done a great amount already, and so she should just praise herself for that.

All through work that day, Sakura focused on her patients. She kept the conversation flowing, which kept her mind off of Kakashi for the most part. There were still less patients than the day before, so she was forced to find other activities to keep her mind occupied. Sakura even talked to Itsuko at great lengths. Anything was better than imagining the way Kakashi had held her early that morning, with all the tenderness and passion of a lover. It drove her mad, how much she wanted that back. For the most of the day, she managed well. It was only when night finally came and Kaede gave her a strong hint to stop asking silly questions that the thoughts consumed her. Where was Kakashi now? Was he thinking of her?

It was a long, fitful night. The next morning, Kaede had several large, purple bruises on her legs.

"Sayuri, geez! What happened last night?" Kaede was saying in astonishment as she ran her hands over the marks.

"Oh, sometimes I kick in my sleep," Sakura said with a sheepish laugh. She helped Kaede heal the bruises before the girls got ready and packed up their things. Today they would head back to Konoha. The anticipation of seeing Kakashi again coiled like snakes in her stomach.

Once they had packed everything, they headed out. It was only shortly down the trail that Kakashi joined them, his cloak pinned around his neck but pushed back over his shoulders to show his bare arms in the bleak winter sunlight. He seemed to look at her closely, even as he gave a little nod in greeting to Kurenai. Sakura touched her hair self-consciously, checking for leaves. There should be no excuses for anyone to touch her today, Kakashi most of all.

By the time they reached Konoha, the sun was lowly skimming the trees and Itsuko had a tired slump to his shoulders. Sakura felt warmed-up after the gentle walk, but the rest of the team mumbled their goodbyes in a tired manner as they parted ways at the town gate. Normally, this would be the time she would be writing up a report, but as a shadow she didn't have to. It felt oddly anti-climactic.

When Sakura got to her apartment, she found that Hinata was still wearing her medic uniform, reminding her that life had gone on while she was away. The kunoichi was busying herself with something in the kitchen.

"Welcome home," Hinata said as Sakura let her bag fall to the floor with a thump.

"Thanks," Sakura replied, kicking off her shoes. "Where are Izumi and Makoto?" She had at least expected Makoto to be here to ask her about Denna. The following silence made her look up more seriously.

"Izumi's still at work," Hinata answered after a moment, but she was looking away. "Makoto will be gone for the next few days. He is bringing a family member of his to this time."

"What? What happened?" Sakura asked.

"We think the henge user visited Makoto again. It was last night," Hinata said quietly. Sakura thought about this, remembering his dejected look when she'd spoken to him after the first time it had happened. It was odd that he hadn't mentioned it when he'd come by Touna that day.

"What about the pass code?" Sakura started.

"She knew it," Hinata said, even more quietly. Sakura felt her brow furrow.

"How?" Sakura said slowly. There was a long, uncomfortable silence that followed. Hinata met her gaze and seemed to mirror her own worries in her false brown eyes.

"It's deeply troubling, to say the least," Hinata responded, not really answering her question. Sakura slumped down in a chair, pondering that.

"Poor Makoto," she said. There was a moment of silence after that.

"Yes, poor Makoto," Hinata agreed solemnly.

"Ah, Kakashi, this report is… shorter than usual. And that's really saying something," Hiruzen said with a frustrated sigh.

"Do you want me to rewrite it?" Kakashi asked with a lazy blink. Hiruzen seemed only more frustrated at that question. It was likely he knew well enough that asking Kakashi to rewrite it would only get him the same report, just slightly reworded.

"No, just explain this to me… You said the woman in the team managed to figure out your identity and your shadow clone instantly. How?"

"I'm not sure. It was no technique I've ever encountered before. I didn't spend too much time trying to figure it out either," Kakashi responded honestly. "As soon as I had the scrolls and box, I fled the scene. I was lucky to be able to do so." The report had failed to include the fact that it hadn't been luck, but a mysterious girl from Suna. He no longer felt conflicted about keeping her secret - whatever it was.

She liked him more than she knew. Kakashi had felt it that morning. She had said his name in her sleep. It was just going to take a little convincing, and then things would work out. Despite his identity being revealed and having narrowly escaped being captured, he was actually feeling pretty good. After all, he still owed Sayuri a visit to return her book. That was enough to have him wearing a subtle smile under his mask throughout the day.

The next few days went normal as usual. Sakura fell back into the rhythm of shadowing at the hospital easily. In the evenings, she, Hinata, and Ino talked on how they would teach Makoto to sense a disguise and how they might otherwise protect him. It almost felt normal to be thirteen years in the past. There were moments where she couldn't differentiate this Konoha with the one she had grown up in, and then she would catch a glimpse of someone she knew, or even worse someone who was dead. It was eerie.

Sakura had been entirely on edge upon returning, expecting a masked squadron to appear to imprison her at any moment. With each day that passed, she grew more surprised and more nervous. She was surprised that nothing had happened yet, and nervous that this might only be because something even worse than she could imagine was on its way. It certainly didn't help her sleep at night. She'd taken to letting Gio spend his nights in her bed with her, even if it was only for her peace of mind.

On the second day, Makoto had managed to send a note through a very small hole in time. In it he told them to prepare to leave for the holidays. The hospital would be granting them some vacation time over the winter, and during it they would be 'visiting Suna,' which the three girls had agreed was most likely code for 'searching for Denna.'

By the fourth day, Sakura figure herself safe. It seemed that for some reason, Kakashi hadn't snitched on her. There was no way the Hokage would take the report of what had really happened lightly, so Sakura could only conclude that Kakashi had lied. Though he never showed his face, she often got the feeling that he was around, watching. There was even one day when she came home to hear from Gio that Kakashi had snuck into her room. Sakura found no hint of him having been there, but it was peculiar nonetheless. In her dreams, he appeared with either one of two faces - harsh, cold, unyielding scrutiny, or the other of heated, agonizing desire. Both left her waking up panting and twisted in her sheets, albeit for entirely different reasons.

To make matters worse, Rouri had been mysteriously absent from work all week. Sakura didn't quite believe she was sick as the rest of the employees at the hospital did, but she could hardly go about raising her skepticism there. Ino and Hinata showed a more appropriate concern, as they too had thought it suspicious that Rouri had been in Touna at the same time as Denna. In the end though, they could think of no good reason for Rouri to be there without guessing, so they let the thought rest.

On her last day of work for the week, Kaede was kind enough to let Sakura leave early to get some extra time to pack before her winter holiday visit back to 'Suna.'

"How long will you be gone again?" Kaede asked as Sakura was packing up her things.

"Two weeks," Sakura said. "Unfortunately, nearly half of that will be travel time."

"It's a pity your family can't all just come here. Does it snow in Suna?" Kaede said. Sakura had found that ever since they had bonded some over their trip to Touna, the medic had been much more friendly. Kaede blinked after a moment and let out a laugh. "I guess that's a silly question. It's the desert!" Sakura laughed along with her, somewhat appreciative she didn't have to pretend like she knew Suna so well.

When she got back to her apartment, Sakura was surprised to see not two people but four. Ino, Hinata, and Makoto were there, along with another girl. They were sitting around her kitchen table playing a card game, as if their worries were so trivial.

"I'm back," Sakura called out as she closed her door behind her. Everyone turned to face her.

"Sayuri, this is my little sister, Shoukichi," Makoto said with a lazy gesture towards her.

"Maakootooo, I told you not to call me that…" The girl mumbled at her older brother. Now that she could see her face, Sakura could see she was quite young. She hardly looked a day over twelve. "Just call me Shiki," the girl told Sakura with a wide smile.

"Hi, Shiki," Sakura said with a genuine smile. Shiki had a fox-like face similar to Makoto, except her cheeks were a bit rounder. She had the same pitch-black hair, though hers was long and she wore thick bangs over her forehead. She was clothed in simple attire, and had a deep blue stone pendant hanging from her neck that made Sakura think of Makoto's black one. It must hold significance with their abilities somehow. More striking than all of her put together was the way her eyes looked - multi-colored zigzags and corkscrews all winding around each other. The details were so fine and intricate that from afar her eyes appeared as a single, flat brown. In reality they held a multitude of greens, browns, greys and blues all patterned together. Shiki's eyes made Makoto's look absolutely normal. It was so distinct that she wondered if this family had a doujutsu after all.

"Oh, you were right Makoto, she is odd," Shiki said, examining Sakura as closely as Sakura examined her. She felt her eyebrow twitch. They were definitely related.

"Don't start on the colors thing again," Sakura said, rolling her eyes.

"Eh? Colors?" Shiki snorted.

"I told you, it's not exactly colors," Makoto sighed. Shiki just clicked her tongue and placed two cards face-down on the table.

"Whatever," Sakura said, resigned. She flopped onto her small couch, where she watched them play their game.

"HEY! You can't do that!" Ino shouted suddenly, slamming a hand on the table. Hinata nearly jumped out of her skin.

"S-sorry…" Hinata mumbled, de-activating her Byakugan. Sakura smirked. She'd never seen Hinata be competitive before, but there it was. As the card game went on, it became quite apparent that Shiki was winning by a landslide.

"I give up. Playing with Shoukichi is so unfair," Makoto finally said, dropping his cards in the middle of the table. The mentioned girl stuck out her lower lip in a pout at the name.

"Seriously, what's with you?" Ino moaned, setting down her cards as well.

"I can't help it," Shiki said, and there was such a mature sadness in her tone that a moment of pause followed it.

"This is why I brought her on this mission. While her traveling skills are poor, she is very good at… seeing, for lack of a better word," Makoto said.

"No, I know a better word. Knowing. With seeing, you could close your eyes and not see. You can't not know, and that's how it is for me. When I look at or touch something, I know where it's been, and where it will go," Shiki said solemnly.

"So you can tell the future," Ino said, slack-jaw in awe.

"Yes and no," Shiki said. "Some things and people have a clear, set path. Others are not so clear, and when the paths diverge into multiple possibilities, my guess is as good as anyone's. Some of the things that happen are supposed to happen, meaning they already have happened and never stop happening. These events are structured. Other things that happen are random, meaning that each time they can happen a little differently. These events are more chaotic. They're the kinds of things that you might change in the future if you do something wrong here in the past."

There was a pause after that. Ino was scratching her chin and looking confused. Sakura just furrowed her brow, moving to sit up straight on the couch as she listened to Shiki. The girl was mature for her age, but there was still an indignant way she spoke that showed it. Sakura couldn't imagine the kinds of things one person might see with such an ability - both horrible and beautiful. It must be humbling for such a young girl. Then again, that was the same age she herself had been learning how to move silently and kill an opponent without being detected, so maybe Shiki wasn't so bad off.

"Why are some things unchangeable and some things changeable?" Sakura asked, curious now. Shiki sighed exasperatedly.

"Nobody's sure why. Some people in my family believe it has to do with people. They believe that people have some greater power, be it their soul or whatever, that allows them to choose their path in time. They think that when the first conscious choice was made, that cast off a chain of events that were random and changeable. Of course, there's no proof for or against that theory, so it's arguable. Everything's theory at this point. Our family isn't exactly made of scientists and researchers, and few others know of our ability," Shiki said. As she spoke, she was creating a pyramid of cards that seemed to defy gravity.

"Grandpa still thinks it's because of Uranium in the water supply," Makoto said with a chuckle. Shiki gave a genuinely amused smile at that, making her look younger. Sakura was still curious and wanted to ask more, but there was a weariness to Shiki that made her hold back her prodding.

"So we're going to Suna tomorrow, right?" Sakura said instead.

"Ah yeah, we're going to leave mid-afternoon tomorrow," Makoto said. "Konoha insists they escort us until we're out of Fire country, so we'll have to double back after the escorts are gone."

"Double back where?" Sakura asked, the only one out of the loop.

"Touna," Makoto responded simply. It was nearly the opposite direction from Suna.

"That's a ways to go," Sakura sighed. Not that it would be difficult. Just tedious.

"It's going to take forever!" Shiki groaned, knocking her whole card structure over. The table was a smattering of red, black, and white.

"Seriously," Ino agreed, adding her cards. Hinata pursed her lips, quietly beginning to pick up the cards and put them in a neat stack. Sakura realized something then, and a slow smile grew on her face.

"I think I have a solution for us," she said.