Written for the Holiday Exchange at the KakaSaku LiveJournal Community. heatherlyy, this one is for you! I really hope you enjoy it.

To everyone else, Happy Holidays and thank you for reading as well!


The Land of Iron was cold. Sakura had known that from her first (very brief) visit there nearly three years prior – right before the start of the Fourth War. Now that she was back again, she could fully appreciate just how cold it actually was. In fact, she'd almost say it felt colder than the last time.

She glanced up as Kakashi came up next to her. How he could stand there in the falling snow without huddling into his thick flak jacket was a mystery to her. As grateful as she was to have her own jacket rather than that stupid and utterly impractical traveling cloak she'd worn the first time, she was still shivering fit to chatter her teeth. Her hands, which were covered in fingerless gloves (the better to grip a kunai with if necessary), were tucked under her armpits and her legs were stinging with cold. The wool pants she'd opted for instead of her usual attire had long since become soaked with snow.

"W-Well?" she asked. She inhaled sharply through her nose to keep the snot from falling down her face.

Kakashi looked about at all the snow and sighed. The only reason she knew he sighed was the puff of breath that rolled out from the general area of his mouth. The wind was far too harsh and loud for her to hear much at all, and the snow was falling so quickly there was no need to cover their tracks. In the flat spaces, the snow came up to her knees, but there were deeper drifts that extended almost up to her hip. She'd had to use quite a bit of chakra just to get through it all.

When he didn't make a reply, Sakura turned to him said more sharply, "Kakashi?"

He turned to her as if just now realizing that the figure next to him was his teammate, not a snowperson. Not yet at any rate. "Hm?"

Sakura's shoulders slouched forward. "We're lost, aren't we?"

"Well, the road to life has many unexpected twists in it. It's probably safe to say we're all –"

"How long have we been lost?"

"We're not lost. We've just taken a longer—"

"How. Long?"

Kakashi shifted his weight to one foot. It would have appeared a casual movement to any onlooker, but to a highly trained kunoichi like Sakura who also had the advantage of having worked with him in the past it was clearly a tactical maneuver. He was gearing up for flight, which meant the answer was going to piss her off. "Twenty minutes, give or take."

Her eyebrows rose. "Twenty minutes."

"Give or take," he added, as if that little bit of information really mattered.

She nodded, and the motion was surprisingly collected despite the rage that was beginning to boil up inside her. "We've been wandering around aimlessly in blizzard conditions for the last twenty minutes."

"Give or take."

"Stop saying that!" she shouted, whirling toward him angrily. "Ever hear of a little thing called hypothermia? How about frostbite? Or maybe something called freezing to death?"

Kakashi looked at her and she knew, even though she couldn't see his face, that he was frowning. "There's no need to be so dramatic. We can't be that far off course."

"You just said we've been lost for twenty minutes!" Even the wind seemed to be cowed by her screaming because it chose that precise moment to quiet down.

And it was a damn good thing it did too. The snow banks on either side of them suddenly broke apart to reveal four heavily armed samurai – all with weapons pointed at them. It wasn't exactly the warm welcome she'd been hoping for, but at least if they were taken into custody they'd get out of the snow for a bit.

Kakashi very carefully raised his arms to lace his fingers over the back of his head. "You should probably do the same, Sakura," he suggested blandly.

Sakura groaned under her breath and did as he instructed. This was so not how they'd discussed the mission playing out!

They were supposed to be on their way to Lightning Country to deliver documents from the Hokage to the Raikage. It wasn't a very difficult task, but the documents were top secret and therefore required high clearance to deliver. Hence the reason she and Kakashi were assigned to the job. If worse came to worse and they were attacked, he would fall back to defend and she'd rush on toward their final destination. Or destroy the documents if things went badly.

Cutting through the Land of Iron would shorten their trip by almost three days, but getting the clearance to do so wasn't as easy as all that. In fact, Sakura couldn't recall whether permission had been approved at all. She was guessing, given that there were now four fully armored and very hostile looking samurai surrounding them, that the arrival of two Konoha ninja hadn't been announced.

Sakura was just beginning to brace herself for either an execution or rapid retreat when one of the samurai in front of her suddenly lifted his mask and took a step toward them, his spear lowering. "Hatake Kakashi?"

Kakashi blinked and then immediately his shoulders relaxed a bit. His eye creased happily as he called out, "Kumujiro-san. What a wonderful coincidence."

Sakura shot him a sideways glance. It wasn't like Kakashi to relax so quickly, not while having weapons still pointed to each side and his back. She had to wonder just how coincidental it was that they got 'lost' cutting through the Land of Iron and just happen to run into a squad of samurai whose apparent leader was on good terms with hers. Something wasn't right here.

That prickling of wrongness increased when the samurai identified as Kumujiro quickly moved forward and gave Kakashi a hug. Sakura's eyebrows went up in shock at the display. Hatake Kakashi, permitting physical contact? It was like the entire world as she knew it had been turned over on its head. This was doubled over when, to her utter amazement, Kakashi returned the embrace. She would have fallen over in the snow were it not for the strong, gauntlet-clad hands that caught her.

"Kumujiro-sama, we should head for cover, before the storm gets worse," the man at her back shouted over the wind.

Kumujiro nodded and flipped his mask down again, beckoning with one hand for everyone to follow.

Sakura quickly righted herself and smiled at the samurai who'd caught her. "Thanks, I'm fine now."

He grunted in reply and released her, and she was grateful that he didn't ask if she was sure. Apparently, unlike shinobi, samurai took a person at their word. It was kind of nice not to be questioned. She trudged along after the group, making certain to keep at least two backs in view at all times.

It felt like forever that they went wading through the snow. She was tired, her chakra was a little low from having to use it to keep up, and she was so cold that her skin felt tight and burning. Chances were very good that she had frostbite all over and she couldn't wait to get inside somewhere warm so she could strip out of her wet clothing.

Finally, they came to the side of an enormous, jagged hill. Its peaks and angles were so sharp that they managed to be seen through the swirling snowstorm. All across the far side was nothing but darkness. As the wind shifted, it became apparent from the scent of pine that the shadows were actually trees. From what little she could tell, the swath of pine trees circled around and down into what might have been a valley to her left. She was certain by daylight it was probably a breathtaking view, but right then all she cared about was finding shelter.

Their guide led them to a solid section of rock. Sakura looked up the side of the hill and dismally wondered if they would have to climb it. To her surprise, Kumujiro walked right through the rock wall as if it wasn't there. Genjutsu… She hadn't been aware that samurai used those techniques. One by one, they all crossed over the invisible barrier and into a wide, spacious area.

It was obvious at a glance that they were in the main room of a military outpost. Three long wooden tables were spaced out in the middle of the room with benches pushed beneath them. An enormous fireplace was across the way and burning bright enough to light the room warmly. Weapons lined the walls, everything from spear racks to what looked like explosive packs. One of the tables still had leftovers from dinner on it, and at the sight of food her mouth began to water.

"We've been expecting you for some time now, Kakashi-san," Kumujiro said as he stripped his helmet and mask off completely. Sakura was a little taken back to see how young he was. He couldn't have been more than a few years older than she. He wasn't bad looking either, with coal dark eyes and short cropped hair.

But what struck her the most was the thin scar that bisected from just above his right eye all the way down his left cheek to his jaw line. It was very neatly done, hardly noticeable unless he turned his face more directly into the light. She understood now how he knew Kakashi; they'd obviously met up during the Fourth War at some point, possibly when being patched up by the medics. The repair job on Kumujiro's face had Shizune's handiwork all over it.

"Sorry we're late," Kakashi began as he joined the other man at the table with food on it. "The blizzard hit a little earlier than anticipated."

Wait a minute… He'd planned this all along? Sakura gaped at the back of her teammate's head and very quickly capped the urge to go over and punch him. What bothered her more than the fact that he'd not only known their course but also known about the weather conditions was the fact that he'd deliberately mislead her. Kakashi had very purposely led them off course to get here. The question now was why.

Kumujiro chuckled softly and shrugged. "Iron weather is unpredictable at best. It's a lucky thing we'd gone out looking for you though, otherwise it's doubtful either of you would have survived."

"Don't underestimate us. Sakura can be very stubborn, you know. She wouldn't have let the elements overtake her without a solid fight."

A bit of warmth swept through her at his compliment, but it wasn't enough to detract her from the fact that he'd deceived her. He, who always preached about teammates being open and honest with each other, had essentially lied – to her as well as the Hokage.

"And you?" the samurai pressed as he began loosening his armor.

"Oh, I'm allergic to death by freezing."

Sakura rolled her eyes and cut in sharply, "If that were true, you would have been dead from anaphylaxis hours ago. What you meant is you're immune to it." Honestly, if he was going to use a medical diagnosis like that, he should at least have the decency to use the correct one!

Kakashi turned to give her a thoroughly delighted smile. "She's also very smart, too. Did I mention that?"

"Can it, sensei. We need to talk."

Kumujiro glanced at the cringing Copy Ninja and ventured slowly, "I take it you didn't tell her then."

"There really wasn't a lot of time to tell her," Kakashi replied quietly. "You said it was important we got here as quickly and quietly as possible."

Now Sakura was really confused. "What? What the hell is going on here? Kakashi, why did you drag us here? We have a mission to do!"

"Perhaps we should get changed into dry clothes and have a little dinner first," he suggested.

It was obvious he was stalling … but she was shivering worse than ever and the idea of being warm and full was too tempting to pass up. Shooting one last glower in his direction, she allowed herself to be escorted by one of the other samurai toward a curtained area to the right of the fireplace.

"It's not the most luxurious of places, but it's pretty cozy," the man's deep voice rumbled as he flicked on the light switch.

The dull yellow bulb in the middle of the small space revealed it to be sleeping quarters. It was no bigger than a double bed room at the hospital. Two-story bunk beds were on every wall, including the one by the door, and a small table was in the middle of the room. None of the beds looked to have been touched, their sheets being crisply folded and unwrinkled. What it lacked in personal warmth, it more than made up for in cleanliness; she couldn't see a trace of dust anywhere.

Sakura smiled and dropped her pack on the floor by the bunk by the door. It was the closest one to the fireplace, which meant it'd probably be the warmest. "It's just fine, thanks," she replied. Her eyes drifted to the empty beds again.

Picking up on the unasked question, the samurai explained, "Since the war ended, we've not had a need to keep this outpost fully manned. There are enough of us in the other two barracks to handle anything that comes along."

She nodded at that and surveyed the room again. So, there were two other barracks besides this one, and if each room hosted the same number of bunks and were full then she now knew there were sixteen samurai present in the outpost. The man had just given her their exact numbers, so he either trusted that they weren't going to try anything or was confident that his comrades could handle two ninja. Or else he was an idiot.

She began stripping her gloves off and he took that as his cue to leave. Sakura let her wet gloves drop onto the table before shucking off the rest of her clothing, right down to her underwear. It was a risky thing stripping down completely naked with a room full of men barely even a shuriken toss away, but there wasn't much choice in the matter. She couldn't exactly sit around in sopping clothes all night, could she?

Sakura had just barely tugged her shirt down over her stomach when the curtain shifted and Kakashi stepped inside. She sucked in a sharp breath and darted a glare at him as she quickly smoothed her shirt flat. "Ever hear of knocking?" she demanded.

He looked pointedly at the curtain, specifically how un-knockable the fabric was. "You've been in here for almost twenty minutes. That seemed like a reasonable amount of time to get decent," he commented.

She rolled her eyes at him before rooting around in her bag for a length of wire and two kunai. "Women take longer to get changed," she said as she strung one end of the wire through the loop at the end of a kunai. "It's our prerogative."

Kakashi snorted softly at that and wandered further into the room. "I'll keep that in mind next time." His tone was utterly bland and flat, which meant he was probably already shoving the information out of his head.

Men. They could be so ridiculous. And speaking of ridiculous… "So, care to fill me in on what's really going on, partner?" she asked, putting a healthy dose of sarcasm in the last word. She jammed first one kunai into the rock wall and then the other in the opposite side, thus making an impromptu cloths line.

"Don't be like that, Sakura," he chided lightly.

"Like what? Pissed off that my partner, who I'd trust with my very life, has been lying to me this whole damn mission?"

"I meant don't be immature. We're ninja. Lying is part of the job description."

"Not to each other it isn't!" she snapped. It came out louder than she'd intended because all activity on the other side of the curtain stopped. Sakura closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths to collect herself, and continued in a more conversationally appropriate tone, "We're teammates, Kakashi. Equals. I'm not a genin needing to be trained, and you're not my elite jounin instructor."

Kakashi's back was to her. His own bag was hanging from the end of the bunk opposite hers and facing the doorway. Several small items had already been removed and were now placed on the thin mattress: toothbrush and paste, soap, a couple stabbing kunai (they were longer than the ones for throwing), and of course Icha Icha Tactics. She couldn't see his face, but she'd had years of being able to read him without it and knew by the slight curve to his shoulders that her words had stuck a nerve.

"The entire mission is a ruse," he admitted softly. "It wasn't my decision to keep you in the dark about it though. The request came through that as few people as possible were to know about the situation."

"And it was deemed that I wasn't to know, even though I've been assigned to whatever the hell it is we're doing," she filled in. She didn't bother hiding the bitterness. After almost five years of working hard and struggling to prove to herself and everyone else that she was a damn good kunoichi, even without a bloodline limit or special powers, she still wasn't more than a pawn to them. Not even that: a peon.

She was so wrapped up in that miserable realization that she didn't know Kakashi had moved until she felt his hand on her shoulder, squeezing warmly. "The mission we're on is very much off the books, Sakura," he explained. "This won't be logged in any report and there will be no extraction team if things go badly. It was deemed safer for you to know as little as possible coming into this, so that if we do get captured and questioned you can legitimately claim to know nothing of it."

"Who determined that?"

"If Tsunade had been allowed her way, you wouldn't even be here. Someone else would have," he answered. He was avoiding her question directly so that, if asked, he could honestly say he didn't tell her, but he was also answering it at the same time.

The anger she'd felt at initially being deceived started to fade, leaving in its wake a deep, raw hurt that her mentor – a woman she looked up to and respected with every fiber of her being – was still treating her like a kid. She swallowed hard and asked softly, "Then how did I end up here?"

"Because I told them that the only way I'd agree to this was if you were partnered with me. Our mission – our real one – very well could require someone with your particular talents."

"Which are?" she pressed, fighting the smile that pulled at her lips. Yes, she was fishing for compliments now, but damn it after being kept in the dark like this she deserved a few flatteries.

Kakashi knew what she was up to but, judging by the way his eye crinkled at the corner to suggest a smile, he was in the mood to indulge her a bit. "You're very smart, you strategize almost as well as Nara Shikamaru. You're easily one of the best medics in the village, not to mention we have a history of working well together. Plus you've got one hell of a ferocious punch."

She couldn't hold back any longer; the smile spread across her lips. "Thanks, sensei," she said softly, hoping he understood just how very grateful she was for those words.

All he did was smile before mussing her hair affectionately. "I didn't even need to get into how you're also a very beautiful woman who could stop a man at fifty paces with just a smile."

Sakura laughed out loud and playfully shoved him away from her. "Now you're just trying to score some bonus points!"

Kakashi hummed and tilted his head in a false display of thought. "Too much?" he asked.

She measured a small space between her first finger and thumb. "Just a tiny bit."

"Ah."

"You had me up until the fifty paces part."

"Duly noted."

She'd been expecting him to maybe elaborate on why they were at an outpost in the Land of Iron, but instead he turned his back and crossed to his side of the room. Her eyes widened at the grind of a zipper being undone. His jacket and vest fell to the floor with a heavy plop and all the air left her lungs as he began working his long sleeved shirt off.

"W-What are you doing?" she asked, her voice coming out a little raspy due to the sudden dryness in her mouth. All she could see of him were his bare arms, but that was definitely more than enough to draw the eye. Hatake Kakashi didn't have the biggest biceps in the village, but he was well-defined. What he had was all practical muscle, sleek and tailored for optimal use.

It was also very nice to look at.

Kakashi turned toward her and she quickly pretended she hadn't just been admiring his arms. It was impossible to tell whether he bought it or not because the one eye she could see was completely unreadable. He glanced at where her clothing was dripping onto the floor and table and said, "Getting into dry gear."

"Oh." That made sense. It occurred to her that she should probably leave the room … but for some reason her feet weren't listening to her.

He arched a brow, having probably guessed from her hesitancy to vacate that she'd been checking him out. She would have bet her mission pay that he was smirking beneath that damn mask. "Just so you know, Sakura," he said, "I plan on taking everything off. Now, you're welcome to stay if you—,"

"I'm going," she cut in hastily before rushing out through the curtain into the main room. The last thing she wanted to see was her former teacher's very naked backside... and yet, for some reason, the idea made her stomach flutter.

Kumujiro was the only samurai in the room, the others having either returned to their guard posts or gone to bed. His smile was friendly as he motioned to a place on the bench across from him. "Please, take a seat. Are you hungry? We're not exactly top chefs, but it's at least warm."

Sakura went over and sat down, swinging her legs over the bench. Her eyes drifted over the selection of food critically before deciding on a thick stew. A pitcher of water was near her elbow as well as a glass that looked relatively clean. She was about to pour herself some when Kumujiro held up a finger to stop her.

"How about something a little more warming?" he offered as he unhooked a flask from his belt.

She arched a brow at him. "Samurai drink on the job?"

He chuckled and the sound combined with his smile made him look even younger still. "It's not alcohol, Haruno-san. This is enten, a special type of drink to keep us warm on patrols."

She nodded and held her glass out. "Okay. Thanks." She didn't normally accept drinks from a stranger, but Kakashi seemed to know the man so the likelihood that he was trying to poison her were slim to none.

He poured a bit into her glass before doing the same for himself. It was clear, a little thicker than water, and cool on her tongue. As soon as it trickled down her throat though, it became suddenly warmer. Sakura gasped as it practically burned its way down her esophagus, leaving a more pleasant heat in its wake.

Kumujiro grinned at her from over his cup. "Good?" he joked.

"Fantastic," she wheezed back, blinking away the tears in her eyes. She'd had some strong stuff before, such as Naruto's take on curry and Tsunade's sake, but this took the cake. She stared into the contents of her cup and wondered if maybe it was poisoned after all.

Kakashi emerged from the room then and took a seat next to her at the table. He was wearing pretty much the same thing he'd arrived in, minus the flak vest. Not for the first time, she wondered if he had any clothing other than uniforms. When Kumujiro tilted the flask in his direction, he gave a nod and soon he too had glass of the strange drink.

He paused in bringing the cup to his masked lips to glance her way. Sakura very discreetly pretended not to be looking at him from the corner of her eye. Apparently, he didn't buy the act because he kept the mask in place while taking a sip. She snorted softly and rolled her eyes. Even after everything they'd been through over the years, he was still unwilling to let her see his face. He could be unbelievably ridiculous sometimes.

"So," she said, making note that even the great Copy Ninja shuddered at the taste of enten, "which of you two is going to explain what's really going on here?"

"Apologies, Haruno-san, for being kept in the dark this whole time," Kumujiro said. He seemed sincere enough that she was willing to forgive him – but only just a little. "The situation is very tricky and requires great care."

"Yes, Kakashi mentioned that already. What exactly is the situation?"

It was Kakashi who answered her question this time. "Do you remember General Mifune?"

Sakura nodded. She didn't know him personally, not like her superiors did, but she'd seen him a few times during the war. She more knew the name and reputation than the man, so to speak.

"Well, his daughter was kidnapped."

Her eyes widened with the news and it took her a moment before she could ask, "But why? And by whom?" She couldn't imagine anyone being foolish enough to kidnap the most powerful samurai's child.

"The why is for political leverage," Kumujiro supplied, "and the whom is Yuseii Mizuyu, the second in command. For the last ten years he's been secretly strategizing to have General Mifune removed so that he can step in and take control. He couldn't simply order the general killed. Mifune is too well liked. Killing him would turn him into a martyr and Mizuyu into the most hunted man in the Land of Iron."

"And the ninja countries," Kakashi added. "I doubt there's a single Kage who would let Mifune's death go unavenged."

Kumujiro smiled and gave a grateful half bow to the show of support. "This is precisely why Mizuyu abducted the general's daughter. She's only eight, Kakashi-san, and Mifune adores the very ground she walks on. If he has one weakness, it's her … and Mizuyu is exploiting that to its fullest potential."

The samurai paused and reached into the pouch on his belt, pulling out a scroll. "This was sent to General Mifune two days after Hato went missing."

When Kakashi made no move to take the scroll, Sakura reached across for it. She undid the seal and let it fall open, her brow furrowing as she read the hastily scrawled script.

Hato is safe, but that can easily be changed. In three days, you will announce your resignation and the appointment of Yuseii Mizuyu as your successor. Any actions taken to thwart this will send your daughter home – and there is no guaranteeing how many pieces she may arrive in. For one year after your resignation, Hato will remain a guest of the new general to insure your support. Again, any action to violate these orders will result in her death.

Her eyebrows rose as she set the letter aside. She had to hand it to this Yuseii Mizuyu; he'd clearly thought the operation through. By keeping the girl hostage for one year, he was preventing Mifune from staging an uprising against him while buying time to spread his influence over the rest of the samurai. It was a clever plan … but hardly one that should involve Konoha.

"I don't understand," she said. "You're all samurai. I've seen your kind in action during the war. This should be nothing for you. Why do you need us?"

"Two reasons," Kumujiro explained. "First, the instructions said that any actions General Mifune takes will result in her death."

Sakura's lips parted in shock. "He has no idea you contacted us," she breathed. The shock was quickly followed by anger. "You idiot! You just condemned that poor girl to die!"

"No," the samurai cut in sharply. Any thought of arguing with him died beneath the weight of his glare. "Mizuyu isn't a fool, Haruno-san. He'll know having ninja come into the Land of Iron wasn't Mifune's idea. The general would never seek to involve outside aid for an internal matter. Our country has always been autonomous from the ninja world, and Mifune wants to keep it that way no matter what."

"Fine," she conceded, though she wasn't at all reassured by his explanation. "What's the second reason?"

Kumujiro hesitated, casting his eyes down to the table top. "The second reason is that samurai are ill suited for this kind of operation. We're … not as subtle as ninja."

Kakashi leaned into her and said in a stage whisper, "What he means is that we're more bad ass."

"What he means is that we're sneakier," she corrected testily. "We're also expendable. Just a couple of rogue ninja moving into territory they don't belong in – correct me if that's not a third reason, Kumujiro-san."

The samurai shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "There is the lack of political fallout should the mission go badly, yes," he admitted.

Sakura smoothed her hands flat against the tabletop. She knew her partner was looking at her, but she carefully avoided meeting his gaze. So, that was why he hadn't told her anything until they got there. Kakashi had known all along that they were walking into a potential political mind field. "And Tsunade-sama is okay with all of this?" she asked.

"Off the record, yes," Kakashi said. "On the record, this mission doesn't exist."

She nodded slowly, her eyes narrowing. "You know, the next time you decide to drag me along on an S-ranked mission, it'd be nice if you told me in advance."

"I'm just glad to hear you say there'll be a next time."

"So, what's the plan then? Kakashi and I sneak in, snatch back General Mifune's daughter, and get the hell out?"

Kumujiro nodded and said, "That's it."

"You don't want us to take out this Yuseii Mizuyu and his group?"

"We will take care of him, just as soon as we know Hato is safe."

Sakura sighed heavily, one nail tapping against the table as she thought the situation over. It hadn't been stated, but she knew that if she chose to back out now she could … but she knew no matter her decision, Kakashi would stay and do the job. And this wasn't a mission that could be done alone, even if he was the Copy Ninja. Besides that, she couldn't leave now that she knew the victim was a child.

Shaking her head, she shot a sideways glance at her partner and grumbled, "When do we leave?"


They left, it turned out, directly in the morning, before the sun had a chance to rise and thaw the earth even a teensy bit. Sakura hadn't slept well, partly because the bed was highly uncomfortable (despite that one samurai's assurances to the contrary) but also because her mind was still trying to wrap itself around the situation.

Kakashi – no, the entire upper echelon of Konoha – had tricked her into accepting an S-ranked mission. Her teammate had told her again, right before slipping into their respective bunks, that if he'd had his way she would have known from the start. She wasn't so sure she believed that because then it would mean Tsunade had lied to her and that made her throat tight with tears. Sakura knew better than anyone that, as Hokage, Tsunade often had to make difficult and sometimes very painful decisions for the sake of the village. She'd just never expected to be on the receiving end.

It was morose thoughts like those that kept her tossing and turning on the thin mattress all night. Despite all her best efforts to catch a little sleep, she'd been unsuccessful. All she could hope now was that there wouldn't come a point during the day where they would need to rely on her intellect because they would be completely screwed.

As soon as that thought entered her head, Sakura knew she'd probably just jinxed them.

She and Kakashi were up, packed, and exiting the outpost before any of the resting samurai were aware of their departure. The only one who saw them go was the lookout she could just barely spot in a thicket of evergreens. He didn't so much as nod in their direction as they waded out into the snow, each of them now carrying a flask of enten on their belts as well.

It was still colder than anything she could ever imagine, but at least it wasn't a blizzard. The sun was warm on her right side as it just started peeking over the snowcaps, staining the pristine whiteness a fiery orange. In this early light, the landscape more resembled Suna than the Land of Iron. Too bad the cold stinging her skin reminded her it wasn't.

"We'll travel faster running on top of the snow," Kakashi said as he did a quick scan of the area. "There's not a lot of cover out here, so move quickly and head for any tree lines you can see."

"At least with it being so open the enemy won't have a chance to hide either," she offered hopefully.

He hummed in agreement before stepping out of the thigh high snow and up onto its surface. Sakura joined him quickly, adjusting the chakra into her feet to compensate for the snow's deceptively frigid surface. She'd forgotten how strange it was to walk on snow. It wasn't anything like water or sand walking. Some areas were more compact than others, so it was difficult to gauge how much chakra was needed to stay on the surface.

Kakashi turned northward, shielding his eye with one hand against the sunrise. "It's going to be bright today," he commented. "Did you happen to bring sunglasses?"

Sakura gave his back a narrow-eyed glare. "No. It's not like I'd planned on spending more than a day here."

He sighed and there was a very obvious note of disappointment in it. She had to fight the urge to shove him face first into the snow. Who the hell did he think he was, being disappointed that she wasn't prepared for a mission when she didn't even know what it truly entailed? Her irritation abated however when he reached into his hip pouch and handed her a pair of tinted goggles that were clearly designed for a man.

"Keep your eyes open and moving," he ordered as she placed the goggles over her eyes and tightened the straps around her head. Immediately, the world became tinted a bronze-brown color and the increasing sun glare was more tolerable.

Kakashi took off running across the snow and Sakura fell in behind him, which wasn't that hard considering he was so much faster than her. The view wasn't bad either. Seeing Copy Ninja Kakashi in action never ceased to amaze her.

They ran nonstop until the sun was starting to arc toward the noon position and Kakashi called a break when they hit a stand of pine trees. Sakura leaned back gratefully against a rough trunk, panting heavily. She forced herself to take controlled, even breaths. Her hands were braced on her thighs and she could feel the tiny muscle spasms beneath her fingertips.

"Where to from here?" she gasped, pushing the goggles up onto her forehead to get a little cool air on her sweaty face. She blinked and squinted at the sun's light flaring off of the incredibly white snow.

Kakashi had gone over the maps of the surrounding area with Kumujiro. With the sharingan, he'd been able to memorize the basic terrain and geographical points. "It's believed that Yuseii Mizuyu is holed up in the higher northern peaks," he replied, pointing in the general direction he was speaking of.

Sakura nodded and secretly reveled in the fact that she could see a thin sheen of sweat on his face. "But you don't agree with that."

He shook his head. "No, it's too obvious. Not to mention by gaining the higher ground they'd be holing themselves in. There isn't anywhere to go but down. I doubt he'd be foolish enough to trap himself in like that."

"So where do you think they would go?"

Kakashi was silent for a moment as he considered the question. She could almost see him replaying the maps he'd memorized last night in his head, considering the pros and cons of each potential area. After a moment, he pointed westward and said, "That way, toward the hills. There's thicker pine coverage there, not to mention it's within sprinting distance to the border if needed. All they'd have to do is jump the line, trigger a watch patrol, and claim asylum."

That made perfect sense. However… "I'm not so sure, Kakashi. I mean, Kumujiro-san knows the area and the target better than we do."

"You're right, Sakura, which is why we're going to split up."

She blinked in surprise. "Huh?" He couldn't be serious. This wasn't the kind of mission that either of them could work alone!

Relief swept over her when he pulled out a familiar scroll and a kunai. A quick nick to his thumb and a puff of smoke later and a pack of barking, excited dogs appeared in the forest.

"Cooooold!" one of them howled, picking its feet up in a quick, mincing little dance. "It's cooooooold!"

"Snow! Snow, snow, snow!" another yipped as it went diving into snow banks like an oversized rabbit.

The rest of the ninken were busy milling about the area and claiming trees – all except for Pakkun. He was sitting at Kakashi's feet and looking very miserable about having his curly tail planted in the snow. "Y'know, a little warning woulda been nice," the pug grumbled. Sakura silently agreed with him on that.

Kakashi ignored the complaint and said, "We're looking for a little girl who's been kidnapped."

Instantly, every single ninken went still and attentive, their ears perking at the news. It seemed even they weren't too keen on someone hurting a child.

"The samurai believe she was taken north into the mountains, but I'm not so sure. I'm thinking they went west instead, toward the border."

"Whaddya want us to do?" Pakkun asked.

"I want Bull, Shiba, Uuhei, and Bisuke to go west. The rest of you come north with me and Sakura. Whoever finds the enemy sends one of you to alert the other. Do not engage until the other party is there, understood?"

Sakura stiffened as he shot a very pointed (and very stern) glare her way. "What? I'm not going to do anything rash, Kakashi."

"Like you didn't do anything rash during the battle at Blue Bridge?"

She shifted uncomfortably at that reminder and mumbled, "Well, it worked." And it had, too, although she'd nearly died when the bridge had collapsed on top of her. She hadn't quite planned for that to happen when punching out the main support beams … but they were in a hurry, so there hadn't been much time for careful demolition.

"Barely," he countered.

Sakura squawked in protest and took one stomping step toward him. "Kakashi, you've no right—,"

He was gone and running before she could finish chewing him out, four dogs racing right behind him.

Sakura scowled after his back and shook her head. He was such a pain in the ass sometimes! She channeled some chakra to her feet and quickly closed the growing distance between them.

By afternoon they'd covered quite a bit of ground, fanning out a bit to better comb the area. The western lands were more hilly than mountainous, similar to Konoha's terrain with the exception of thick snow and differing plant life. There were no towering oaks or rugged maples here, nothing but tall, sleek pine trees and the occasional patch of lichen on bare rock. The silence that lived amongst the evergreens was deeper than the one she was used to in more deciduous forests. It was beautiful, albeit foreign and freezing.

Admiration of the scenery aside, she wasn't quite sure what she should be looking for. They were in the middle of nowhere with no sign of civilization to be seen. The sun was quickly beginning to sink down over the horizon again, the light sending elongated shadows across the snow. It was difficult enough looking for a hidden camp during daylight hours when she had no idea what she was looking for. Doing a night search would be damn near impossible.

As the last light faded from the sky, Kakashi paused at a particularly enormous pine and surveyed the area. The ninken regrouped, a taupe and white one bounding soundlessly across the ground toward him.

"Anything?" she asked.

The dog swiped a paw across his snout and said, "Nothin' but squirrels an' rabbits. No humans. No little ones."

Kakashi reached down to give his ear a good scratch. He groaned and leaned into her palm happily. "Good work, all of you. I guess we'll just make camp here and—,"

He stopped mid sentence, at the same moment that every single ninken went utterly still. Their ears were perked, noses snuffling at the cool air attentively. Sakura had seen this behavior enough times before to know that something was up. Very slowly, she slid a throwing kunai from her hip pouch.

"Urushi, Akino," Kakashi whispered, but the two dogs were already in action.

Just as the first samurai dropped from high above, upwind of where they were standing, the two dogs winked out in a puff of smoke. Sakura sidestepped the spear that was jabbed toward her chest and took the owner out in one hard, brutal blow to his chest. She spun low to the ground and swung her leg to trip up the one following after. Bone crunched as her chakra-enhanced foot met his ankle and he fell with a scream.

More screaming came from behind her, as well as snarls and the wet gnashing of canine teeth in flesh. She didn't turn to look; those sounds were enough to haunt her without adding visual detail. Sakura threw her kunai, saw it lodge into the armored thigh of another samurai, and kicked off the ground just as a sword came whistling down toward her head. Her fist was cocked back midair, and when she landed she sent it slamming into the ground.

Trees, snow, and dirt erupted around her, the blast radiating out toward the new wave of samurai rushing toward her. She heard them shout over the dull roar of torn forestry and caught glimpses of them hurrying to get out of the way of falling trees. A familiar crackling sound came to her ears, almost as if there were thousands of birds in flight. For a second, the forest was bathed in brilliant blue tones as Kakashi's chidori thundered through the air, temporarily blinding her in the glare. The smell of charred flesh hit her nose, letting her know he'd succeeded in taking down his target.

The samurai kept coming, fanning out to encircle them. Sakura bumped into something and spun about, ready to attack. She managed to retract her fist at the last second when she realized it was Kakashi. They continued fighting, keeping their backs together and turning as necessary to deflect the attacks being sent their way. Around them the two remaining ninken snarled, snapped, and clawed at whoever made to move in closer.

Sakura felt a quick electric spark sting across the back of her arm and knew Kakashi was preparing for another chidori. She quickly ducked down, squeezing her eyes shut in preparation for the attack. It never came. One minute, the forest was alive with bird song, and the next it was as quiet as it'd been before.

She opened her eyes and was surprised to see that Kakashi once again had his fingers laced behind his head. The ninken were still growling, but it wasn't the same we-will-rip-your-throat-out menace from before. She looked around and when she saw what had caused her teammate to halt, her eyes widened in alarm.

On top of the debris pile she'd created was a man … and directly in front of him with a knife leveled at her throat was a little girl. She was pale, poorly dressed for the weather, and absolutely terrified. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and Sakura could tell even from where she stood that the dark splotches on one side of her face weren't just particularly heavy shadows. Someone had struck the girl, and hard. Her fists curled angrily at her sides.

"Call your dogs off, shinobi," the man bellowed at them. His voice was low, gravelly, and colder than ice.

Kakashi hesitated, but when a low whimper came from the girl he ordered, "Pakkun, Guruko, stand down!"

There was a final snarl from both dogs before they fell back alongside their summoner. Even in the dim moonlight Sakura could see they were covered in blood and that Guruko was limping a little.

The samurai – she was assuming it was Yuseii Mizuyu – kept his knife trained on the girl and said, "Your bitch, too."

It took Sakura a moment to realize he was talking about her, and if it weren't for Kakashi quickly catching hold of her arm she would have stormed up the pile of twisted, broken trees to demonstrate just how much of a bitch she could be. "Don't do it, Sakura," he cautioned.

Sakura released the breath she'd been holding and nodded before shaking her arm free. He was right, of course. She couldn't make a move against the man as long as he had Hato hostage.

"Now then," Yuseii asked in deceptively conversational tones. "What brings two ninja from Konoha to this part of Iron Country?"

"We were sent on a mission to Lightning Country," Kakashi replied smoothly. "We got lost in the blizzard last night and ended up out here."

"That sounds reasonable enough," the man mused. "One problem though: Lightning Country is northeast of here. Either your Academy failed to teach you directional skills or else you're lying."

Kakashi shrugged indifferently. "What can I say? I have a horrible sense of direction."

"It's true. He's constantly getting us lost," Sakura added wryly. Her teammate shot her an unfriendly glare, to which she shrugged. "So, as you can see we're no threat to you and your men, so if you'd kindly—,"

"No, I'll not kindly do anything. Where did your other two dogs go?"

"To take a piss? Dogs do that, you know," Kakashi replied flippantly, causing her to groan.

Yuseii chuckled and made a motion with his hand. Sakura's breath caught as another samurai joined him on top of the debris pile. They shared a whispered conversation before the new arrival took hold of the girl. A tiny sob broke through the woods as she was quickly led away.

Her heart hammered in her chest as the leader of the rebellion descended, and the rush of adrenaline made her hands shake. She clenched them into fists, causing him to pause a few feet from her.

"Hands up, kunoichi, or I'll have my man kill the girl."

Reluctantly, Sakura forced her fingers to relax before lacing them behind her head, mimicking Kakashi's pose for the second time in a little over twenty-four hours. Six samurai moved in quickly to secure them. The two dogs growled menacingly and they stopped, clearly daunted by the carnage that had been unleashed (no pun intended) on their comrades.

"It's okay, guys," Kakashi said. "Just go along peacefully."

"Not my nature," Guruko growled. The hair from his nose to the tip of his tail was on end and the way his jowls curled back to reveal stained teeth was more than a little menacing.

Sakura took a risk and reached down to smooth a hand over the top of his head. The dog jumped, but he didn't snap at her. "Calm down. It'll be fine. Everything will be just fine." She felt bad for lying to him, but what choice did she have? If they did anything now, Hato would be dead. All she could hope was that Urushi and Akino found the others soon.

Guruko subsided after a moment or two of soothing pets and the samurai moved in. Sakura soon found her hands manacled behind her back. She hesitantly sent a flare of chakra to her wrists and was thrilled to discover the metal bands didn't contain any dampeners. Kakashi on the other hand had his wrists bound in dampening wire before clapped in irons. Obviously, the samurai didn't consider her as much of a threat to their well being as him. But then she hadn't been the one to rip someone's chest cavity open with a bolt of lightning.

Either way, this worked to their advantage; she could shatter metal as easily as someone else could shred paper … and judging by the look Kakashi sent her way, he was thinking along the same lines. Pakkun and Guruko were forced to the side and held at bay by a ring of spears around them. They too had picked up on the unspoken, hastily formed plan, otherwise they could have just dismissed themselves and been out of danger.

Both she and Kakashi were shoved roughly to their knees in front of Yuseii. The snow melted quickly into the material of her pants and the cold bit sharply at her flesh. Sakura remained still as the renegade samurai came closer, peering at both their faces curiously. Kakashi didn't so much as flinch when the man pushed his hitae-ate up from his sharingan and tugged his mask down to reveal his entire face.

Sakura forgot to breathe for several seconds, and the only reason she noticed this was when a wave of dizziness swept over her. Kakashi wasn't just handsome; he was handsome. As in, even the samurai pointing swords at their throats gasped in awe. She understood now why Ayame at Ichiraku Ramen always got flustered and flushed whenever he came through the door. Now that she knew what was beneath that mask of his, she doubted she'd ever be able to look at him the same way again.

Of course, there was a very real chance this would be the one and only chance she got, seeing as the samurai were gearing up to kill them.

"Sakura," Kakashi said, "what makes Naruto's signature jutsu so effective?"

For a moment, all she could focus on was his mouth. The voice was familiar to her, but seeing his lips move to form the words, the lower one just a little fuller to create a very sensual pout, was beyond fascinating to her. And also very alien. It was difficult to reconcile that face with Hatake Kakashi's voice.

But then his question registered in her head and her brow furrowed as she considered it. He wasn't talking about the rasengan; while Naruto had perfected the technique, it wasn't actually of his creation. What signature jutsu was he…? Her eyes widened. The Sexy no Jutsu. It worked to capture an opponent's attention and distract them from noticing whatever else was going on around them. She looked again at Kakashi's face, her eyes narrowing as she took in the smooth angle of his jaw, the perfect line of his nose, and the eyes that could only be called….

His eyes. Both eyes were open and the sharingan was spinning slightly.

She wasted no time in snapping the manacles off, jerking a sword from one of the bedazzled guards, and launching into a full out attack.

The samurai didn't even see it coming. How could they when Kakashi held them in a sharingan-induced genjutsu? The few that hadn't been ensnared came rushing toward her, weapons raised as they fell into an offensive pattern. Sakura ran to meet them, sword poised to strike.

A flash of movement came from the trees, bringing with it the most blood curdling snarls and animalistic growls she'd ever heard. Urushi and Akino had returned with the rest of the ninken and they were now launching themselves at the samurai in a fury of fur and ripping teeth.

Sakura spun about when she heard the whistle of a sword arching toward the back of her head. She blocked the strike and channeled more chakra into her arms as she pressed the attack, meeting the samurai blow for blow and even pushing him back further into the forest. Once again, she heard the familiar screeching of a chidori and, just behind it, the death scream of whoever was on the receiving end. Kakashi had just joined the fight, having somehow freed his hands, and he was giving their enemies utter hell.

The fight was quickly dissolving into utter chaos. Samurai were sprinting through the snow and trees with ninken in hot pursuit. Some of them were regrouping near the ruined section of the forest – and Yuseii was amongst them, his back to the fight. Sakura was sprinting toward them without a thought in mind but to kill him dead.

"Sakura, no!" Kakashi shouted, but it was too late.

Yuseii spun toward her, met her eyes … and with a cruel smile jammed his knife into Hato's gut.

The girl didn't have time to scream. Her eyes went wide, her mouth opened, and then she was shoved face forward to the ground. The snow began to darken beneath her, the blood steaming in the cold air.

"No!" Sakura screamed as a rush of icy fear flooded her veins. She changed course immediately, uncaring that Yuseii Mizuyu and his men were beating a hasty retreat. She fell to her knees beside the bleeding girl, one knee landing in a pile of blood soaked slush. Carefully, she rolled Hato over and fought back the tears that burned in her eyes as the little girl gasped in pain.

She heard Kakashi behind her barking orders to the ninken, but it sounded like he was far away. Her eyes locked on Hato's, and the agony she saw in that dark gaze tore at her heart. This was all her fault. If she hadn't been so focused on taking Yuseii out, then this child wouldn't be … wouldn't be….

Sakura jumped when she felt a hand settle on her shoulder. She relaxed when she realized it was Kakashi. He was looking at her, the concern apparent on his face. "Can you heal her?" he asked softly.

"I-I don't know," she admitted. "Gut wounds can be… they're very…." She didn't need to finish the statement. She could tell by the way his finger squeezed her shoulder that he understood; the risk of terminal injury was very high.

"P-Please," Hato whimpered, reaching one blood covered hand out toward them. "Please … help."

Sakura nodded, sniffling back her own tears. "I will," she whispered. And this time, the promise wasn't a lie. She would save this girl, no matter the cost. There was no way she could live with herself otherwise.

She ripped the girl's dress open to expose the ugly, torn wound in her side. The blood was pulsing steadily from the gash, letting her know instantly that there was some internal damage. She needed to stop that immediately or nothing else would matter. God, there could be so many smaller injuries. Torn flesh, cut blood vessels, nicked organs… She would have to search every single millimeter of the wound to make certain she didn't leave anything behind.

Her hands settled over the girl's side, covering the wound. Her fingers were very quickly made slick from the blood. She took a deep breath, released it, and summoned healing chakra to her hands.

Hato cried out and tried to wriggle away at the first touch of chakra entering her body. "Stop, it hurts!" she cried.

"I'm sorry," Sakura murmured distractedly. She was trying to stay focused on the task of finding every little nick and tear in the girl's body. Normally, she would have preferred using an anesthetic to numb the area so the patient didn't feel their flesh knitting back together, but she needed Hato conscious for this. "I know it doesn't feel good, but you have to stay still."

The girl sobbed louder and made a grab for Sakura's hands.

"Hato? That's your name, right?" Kakashi asked gently.

She nodded slowly, turning her tear-streaked face toward him.

"That's a very pretty name," he continued in the same soothing tones.

Sakura felt the girl begin to relax and knew that he'd used a genjutsu on her.

Kakashi settled himself more comfortably on the ground next to her, taking one of her tiny hands in his. "Did you know there's a constellation named after you?"

Hato shook her head. A spasm rocked through her as Sakura finished the initial exam. No organs had been hit thankfully. Either Yuseii wasn't well versed in anatomy or he'd never intended to kill the girl to begin with. Whatever the reason, it made her job easier.

As she continued working, Kakashi kept Hato occupied by pointing up through the gaps in trees to trace out the different constellations in the sky. He told her about the chained princess and the scorpion, as well as the seven sisters and the bull. She listened, utterly fascinated to learn there were shapes in the stars.

At one point, he indicated a particularly bright one and said, "That star there is part of the Great Bear. You can find your way home with that one."

"Really?" Hato asked, her voice nothing more than an awed whisper.

"Mm-hm. That star always points north, so if you know that you'll never get lost."

Sakura snorted and remarked dryly, "Says the man who is always getting lost on the road to life."

She couldn't be sure, but she was almost positive she could feel Kakashi glaring at her.

Sweat was slipping down her brow as she focused more and more of her chakra into the girl's body, reattaching blood vessels and tissue. She didn't like working so hastily, but there wasn't much choice. The longer they stayed there, the more likely Yuseii would regroup and attack.

Right on cue, the faint sound of leather armor creaking in the nearby trees reached her ears. Sakura's eyes opened and met Kakashi's. He nodded before turning his attention back to the little girl on the ground. "Hato, I need to go away for a moment," he explained, carefully brushing her dark hair back from her cheek. "You need to be brave and stay still for Sakura-san, okay?"

"W-where are you…?" the girl asked, reaching for him as he stood up.

Kakashi flashed her a smile, one that more than a little forced. "I'll be back, don't worry. You're safe with Sakura-san."

Sakura glanced up at him as he fixed his mask back in place. "Be careful, Kakashi," she said softly.

His eyes creased cheerful as he tugged his gloves more firmly over his knuckles. "If you were really concerned about me, Sakura-chan, you'd give me a good luck kiss," he teased. Her cheeks warmed at his words, but she didn't reply as he turned his back to them.

He disappeared into the shadows with the ninken following right behind him. Shortly after that the pine trees began to shiver violently as snarls and screams of terror echoed in the night sky.

Taking a shaky breath, Sakura smiled and said, "So, Hato, do you have any brothers or sisters?"

Hato shook her head, wincing sharply as Sakura sealed the wound in a long, bright pink scar. She made a shushing sound, rubbing her hand gently over the girl's bare stomach.

"Any pets?" she pressed in an attempt to distract her from what was going on in the woods behind them. She took off her own jacket, wrapping it around the girl's shoulders as she sat up.

"A bunny," Hato murmured. A particularly horrific scream rose from the tees, causing her to jerk sharply and clutch the jacket tighter around herself. Her breathing increased drastically, bordering on panicked panting. She turned wide, frightened eyes toward the trees.

Sakura immediately hugged the girl to her chest, directing her away from the scene. "Hato, close your eyes. Don't look at it, alright? Just close your eyes and tell me about your bunny."

Relief swept over her when the girl complied, squeezing her eyes tightly shut. "H-His name is Gin. He's white and he has floppy ears. He's very big. Daddy got him for my birthday last year."

"Did you always want a bunny?" Sakura asked as she kept her eyes one the trees ahead. The sounds were moving further away now, but whether it was because the samurai were being driven back or Kakashi was purposely leading them away was unknown.

The girl managed a nod. Her body was trembling and her arms were wound tightly around Sakura's neck. Sakura rubbed a soothing hand down her back, rocking back and forth like her mother used to do for her. "I always wanted to have a pet, but my parents never let me."

"W-What did you want?" Hato asked.

"A pony," Sakura replied. "A white one with a long, flowing tail and mane."

"That sounds so … pretty."

She smiled and was happy to note that the arms around her neck were relaxing a little. "I thought so, too. But I never got one."

"Were you bad?"

Sakura laughed softly and shook her head. "I wasn't bad, at least not compared to some of the other kids," she said. "It's just that there was so much training and learning to be done. Did you know there are some ninja who started going on missions when they were your age?"

Hato's drew back, her eyes widened in surprise. "Really?" she breathed.

She nodded. "Kakashi, my partner? He was one of them."

"Wow…"

"I know, right? He's one of the best ninja in our village, too. When he's not busy showing up late and reading por— er, yeah. Kakashi-sensei is really cool."

"How come you don't have a pony now that you're grown up?" Hato asked.

Sakura, glad for the provided change of topic, said, "Well, when you get older, you get busier. I'm still learning things and going on missions. Not to mention ponies are a little expensive."

"My… My daddy says I have to take care of Gin myself. I have to feed him and give him water and play with him – but very gently, 'cause he's a bunny."

"And I bet you take really good care of him, don't you?"

She nodded eagerly, and for the first time her eyes lit up happily. "I do! My mommy says I spoil him, but I don't think I do. He likes yogurt treats. Didja know bunnies can eat yogurt?"

"No, I didn't. That's very interesting!"

"D'you think ponies can eat yogurt, too?"

Sakura's eyes narrowed speculatively. "I'm not really sure. But maybe when we get you back home we can find out."

Hato giggled at that, but it was short lived. The trees rustled and cracked loudly in front of them, and immediately the girl tensed up in fear. It took Sakura a little effort to disentangle herself from her clinging hands in order to stand up and draw a kunai. "Who's there?" she called.

Her shoulders sagged in relief as Kakashi came out from the shadows, looking a little worse for wear but alive. The ninken were nowhere to be seen though.

Sakura raised the kunai between them. "Prove yourself." Bunshin were a ninja technique, but she wasn't taking any chances. Besides, Kumujiro's outpost had a genjutsu placed on it. Who was to say the samurai didn't pick up some other techniques on the way?

Kakashi obligingly lifted his hands and said, "My name's Hatake Kakashi. My favorite books are the Icha Icha series. I live alone, like to go out to eat with my students, and didn't get a good luck kiss from my favorite teammate."

She blushed at the last one, even though he only meant it as a joke. All of those were legitimate answers … but they were also ones that could be legitimately obtained. "The first line of page thirty-seven from Icha Icha Tactics. Recite it," she demanded.

There was no mistaking the flush of color that swept up over the edge of his mask. "Uh…."

Sakura relaxed and returned the kunai to its proper place, a wide grin spreading across her lips. Only the real Hatake Kakashi could read porn in public but not recite it. 'Sorry, Kakashi-sensei. Just had to make sure."

She heard him swallow before saying in a strained voice, "Of course. Very, ah… sensible of you to do."

"No, sensible would have been to make you say it out loud, just to see if you really do know it by heart," she replied, snickering.

His eye narrowed suspiciously at her. "But in order to prove that, you'd have to know it by heart, too…."

Realization dawned on him, causing his eye to round in shock. Sakura lifted a brow and pointed a finger in his direction. "Breathe a word of that to anyone, and you'll wish I didn't let you live to regret it."

Kakashi nodded faintly. "No problem."

Sakura looked down at the girl peering out from behind her. Hato was staring at Kakashi very fixedly, her lower lip caught between her teeth. She could recognize hero worship when she saw it. Smiling, she gave the girl a gentle push and said, "Go on. Kakashi-sensei loves getting hugs."

The look he shot her way wasn't at all kind. She smiled sweetly in return as Hato raced across the short distance and practically launched herself into his waist. Sakura saw him wince and very quickly turned her giggle into a cough. He gave her an awkward pat on the shoulder while looking to the sky as if asking for celestial help. It never came, and so he was stuck having a very grateful little girl limpeted to his side.

She didn't know why she did it, but Sakura went over, stood on tiptoe, and kissed his cheek. Maybe it was sympathy for his current plight, or maybe it was relief at seeing he was okay. Whatever the reason, she was rewarded with a very startled look from him and another dose of color to his cheeks.

Smiling as she stepped back, Sakura tapped Hato's shoulder and said, "Wanna piggyback home?"

Hato's grin was nothing but pure delight. She nodded eagerly and wasted no time clamoring up onto Sakura's back.

"Hold on tight, Hato," she warned before pushing chakra into her feet and taking a running leap into the air. The girl on her back squealed with glee as they landed in the snow several feet away from the trees and took of running. Kakashi was right behind them.

Sakura could say that her speed in getting back was to reunite a kidnapped girl with her family … but the reality was that she was in the middle of the Land of Iron without a damn jacket and she was freezing cold.


General Mifune was beyond overjoyed at his daughter's safe return. Both Kakashi and Sakura very politely pretended they didn't see the tears in his eyes and looked away whenever he made a subtle attempt to blink them away.

Yuseii Mizuyu and his men were found not far from the scene. They'd been neatly strung together up a tree and were in various states of poor physical condition. They were all also incredibly cold and more than eager to sell the man behind the operation out in order to obtain a few basic comforts. Yuseii never made it back alive though. He'd been caught trying to escape and was accidentally killed during the skirmish to apprehend him. At least that's what it said on paper.

Hato was grateful to be reunited with her beloved father, too – so much so that she begged him to give 'Kaka-san and Sakura-neechan' gifts. He, being a doting father, had agreed without so much as a token protest.

To Kakashi she gave a very beautiful compass. It was made from brightly polished silver and was shaped like a star. "To help you not get lost all the time, and 'cause you told me about the stars," she explained.

"Thank you," he said as he carefully tucked the lovely item into one of his vest pockets. "I'll keep it forever."

Hato beamed up at him, clearly pleased by his promise. Sakura could practically see the crush developing from where she stood.

When the girl turned to her, she smiled and hoped her eagerness wasn't transparent. "I wanna give you something very special, Sakura-neechan," Hato said.

Sakura smiled and demurred, "You don't have to, Hato-chan."

"Oh, but I want to! You were so nice to me and you saved my life! Daddy always says that if someone helps you, you should do something nice for them, too. And there's nothing nicer than saving somebody's life, right? So, I want to give you something very special."

And that was how Haruno Sakura ended up leaving the Land of Iron with a cream colored pony in tow. Needless to say, she wasn't exactly thrilled with the prospect. Oh, she more than appreciated the sentiment behind the gesture … but it was a pony. A chubby, grass-grazing, plodding pony.

"This is just great," she complained as soon as they were far enough from General Mifune's house not to be overheard. "You get a beautiful compass that you'll probably never use … and I get livestock."

"Mm, you're right. I really don't need a compass," Kakashi replied. He pulled it out of his pocket and held it flat in his palm. The light caught off the bright silver, sparking just like a real star. "It is very pretty though, don't you think?"

Sakura scowled at him. "Sure, rub it. Seriously, Kakashi, what the hell am I going to do with a pony?"

He turned to regard the beast in question before shrugging his shoulders. "I have no idea, Sakura. But think of it like this: that's one less thing on your wish list."

She snorted at that and shook her head. "So that leaves finding a decent man and becoming the best medic Konoha has ever seen. My life is great."

"From what I saw back in that forest, you are the best medic in Konoha."

A small smile made its way across her lips. How did he always know what to say to cheer her up? It was impossible to stay mad around, or at, him.

Her eyes widened when she felt his hand brush across hers. She looked down as he twined his fingers with hers just as naturally as if they'd been holding hands for years. "You can scratch decent man off the list as well," he replied, smiling cheerfully down at her.

Sakura would have argued there was nothing decent about him … but his hand was warm and the way he was looking at her made that fluttery feeling return. She'd never thought about him and her as a them before, but now that she was … it was kind of obvious. They worked well together. They brought balance to each other: her being outspoken whereas he was more reserved, him having patience where she didn't. Add to that the fact that they got along reasonably well, and it was almost baffling how she'd never considered the idea of Kakashi being a real partner before.

Besides, maybe she could bribe him with a few kisses to take the damn pony off her hands.


The prompt heatherlyy asked for was a star on top of a tree and for Sakura to get a real pony. I had a blast making that happen!