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[personal profile] oroburos69
Title: Friendship By Numbers - Landing Badly
Beta:[profile] lady_of_scarlet and [profile] subtle_shades
Rating: T/FRT
Summary: Sakura's too young, Kakashi's too...different, and neither knows what to do with a real, live friend. Clueless and incompetent, they stumble down the path of friendship
A/N: Picks up directly after Gossip and Lies (Part 7).

Previous Parts
1. Something To Look Forward To
2. Worth It
3. Bad Decisions and The People Who Make Them
4. It Seemed Funny At The Time
5. Under the Sun
6.
Challenged
7. Gossip and Lies

Sakura checked her watch again.

Four forty-five.

She sighed and started stretching. Shizune must have gotten caught up in something at the hospital.

The afternoon sun felt like full summer had already arrived, beating down merrily on the small clearing. Sakura had healed her skin from incipient sun burn three times since Tsunade had left.

Sakura closed her eyes, pushing herself down until her chest and stomach pressed against the length of her leg. Her back popped and cracked.

A gentle breeze danced over the leaves, cooling the layer of sweat on her skin. Sakura switched legs, holding the position for thirty seconds, too bored to do any more than the bare necessity.

She’d hoped that someone would show up, but she hadn’t heard anyone nearby since Tsunade left at two thirty.

Sakura sighed again, forcing the pout off her face. Shizune and Kakashi were both jonin with busy schedules, it was ridiculous to be put out because they didn’t come see her. She was lucky to spend as much time with the higher ranks as she did. Most chuunin only worked with jonin once in a blue moon, excluding the jonin who taught them.

Of course, most chuunin were teamed with their old genin squad.

Sakura stood up, checking her watch. It was only four fifty, but she was sick of training. She kicked a rock into a tree, lodging it three inches deep.

There was a feeder channel of the Konoha River that passed by the edge of the training ground. It filled a clear pool in the ground that had been excavated by one of Sakura’s fists, the first time she’d managed to direct chakra through her knuckles with enough power to shatter rock. She liked the pool.

She tossed her dress onto a branch of the only surviving tree in the trunk-studded clearing—the others had been destroyed in games of ‘Protect the Client-Tree,’ but she’d managed to save the young willow from Tsunade’s attacks. Sakura liked the tree, too.

Sakura tugged on the ties of the bandages that she used in the place of a bra when training, then left them. Kakashi usually showed up late, and she’d rather not be completely naked if he did come by. With that thought in mind, she left her shorts on, too.

The water was nearly freezing compared to the air. Sakura lifted her toes out, then jumped in feet first.

She sank in a flurry of bubbles, dropping until her heels touched the shattered gravel and fissured stone at the bottom. A touch of chakra anchored her to the largest rock, and Sakura stared up through the splashing, sloshing water, ripples of sunlight dancing over her skin.

Sakura started counting. Rumours said that Mist had developed a jutsu that allowed one to breathe under the waves. Sometimes Sakura dreamed of exploring the sea like that. Somewhere warm, like Haha Island, where the bright, colourful fish lived.

Her lungs twitched, trying to breathe. Tiny air pockets in her hair slid over her scalp then drifted toward the surface, sparking silver in the sunlight.

Seventy, seventy-one, seventy-two...

She stripped the oxygen from the air in her lungs, holding it separate. It was getting harder to concentrate.

Sakura opened her mouth, letting the oxygen-depleted air in her lungs pour out in a long, snake-like bubble held together by her chakra. The glimmer of green energy inside it was oddly lovely, like fire flies had hidden in the scant air.

She let the bubble float away, holding her control over it until just below the surface, where she made it burst.

Two hundred, two hundred one, two hundred two, two hundred three...

Her chakra control wavered, nearly dislodging her from the rock holding her down. Her chest thrummed, desperate for air.

There was enough oxygen in her, despite the sense that she was drowning. Sakura overrode her body’s protests.

Three hundred fifty, three hundred fifty-one, three hundred fifty-two, three hundred fifty-three...

Sakura gritted her teeth, recirculating the last dregs of oxygen in her blood, forcing her cells to accept it. Her vision darkened at the edges.

Her counting sped up, not counting seconds but heartbeats.

Four-hundred-eighty, four-hundred-eighty-one, four-hundred-eighty-two...

Her hair swayed in front of her, purple in the blue light. Sakura concentrated on the cool current over her skin, the gentle movement of her hair. Her peripheral vision was nearly gone, and black star-bursts were eating the rest.

Fivehundredninetyeight, Fivehundredninetynine—

She closed her eyes, stopped counting and listened to the frantic shivering of her heart rattle like war drums in her ears. Someone was practicing earth jutsu to the west, the rumble and groan of the earth telegraphed through the bedrock.

Six Hundred.

Sakura released the chakra holding her to the rock, kicked off and drove herself through the water toward the surface.

The border between the water and air parted around her hands, and then her head. Sakura sucked in air, frantic and uncontrolled. She let her limbs float to the surface, buoyancy aided by a touch of chakra.

The end of the bandage around her chest pulled loose and drifted lazily with the current. Her hair stuck to her face like a lovelorn octopus.

“Ten minutes.”

Sakura didn’t jump, largely because she was still trying to convince her lungs that the air wasn’t going to disappear in the next two minutes and inhaling all of it was unnecessary.

“Tsunade—can last—for an hour,” she said as her eyesight returned, all the brighter for having been gone.

“Have you considered that comparing yourself to the greatest medic ninja of all time might be a trifle ambitious?” Kakashi sat at the edge, gingerly dipping his toes in the water. “She’s what, forty years older than you?”

Sakura laughed unsteadily, her breathing not yet normal. “Thirty-seven, actually.”

The ground rumbled, shaking the leaves of the willow. Tiny ripples danced from the edges of the pool, colliding into a discontinuous shimmer of sun and shadow.

Kakashi shrugged his vest off and folded it carefully into a square, placing it further away from the pool. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, brushing invisible dust from the green fabric. “I got lost trying to find you.”

“Liar,” Sakura said, grinning. She tucked the trailing end of her bandage-bra back under the rest of her wrappings.

“Actually, I didn’t know where you trained,” Kakashi replied, amusement lacing his voice.

Sakura rolled over and swam to the edge, clambering out onto the warm rocks. “So how’d you find me?”

“I, um.” Kakashi was suddenly very interested in the bandages holding his pants legs in place, tugging the ends free and unwrapping them with impressive focus.

Sakura sprawled over the rock, basking in the sunlight. She was going to have to heal her skin again, but it felt soooo good. “Sorry, what did you say?”

“I asked Tsunade,” he admitted, coiling a bandage around two fingers to make a roll.

“Oh.” Sakura looked down. “Did she...say anything?” She secretly congratulated herself, because that could refer to either the fake engagement or Kakashi’s suicide attempt.

Sakura shivered, the water on her skin drying cold.

“She laughed,” Kakashi said, setting his bandages on top of his vest. He slid off his gloves, tucking them into a pocket on his jonin vest.

Sakura sat up, dropping her feet back in the water. “Are you going to swim?” she asked, shoving a few more strands of hair behind her ears. He’d never gone swimming with them, back when there was a Team Seven. Sakura kind of understood, now, but back then, Naruto’s conclusion that Kakashi was afraid of water had seemed completely logical.

Kakashi looked at his vest. “I’m...thinking about it,” he said, rubbing his thumb over the strap holding his kunai pouch to his thigh. “It’s very hot out.”

A memory struck and Sakura snickered. “Do you remember that time when we tried to set a trap to knock you into the water?”

Kakashi laughed. “How could I forget?” he asked her, and he was grinning under the mask, she just knew it.

Sakura beamed. “Sasuke and I had a bet going—did you use genjutsu? Or did you teleport out?”

“That’s a secret,” Kakashi said solemnly, his eye twinkling. “Jonins only.”

She stuck her tongue out. “Meanie. Sasuke would owe me fifty ryo by now if you used ninjutsu.”

“Seeeeecret,” Kakashi intoned, wiggling his fingers. He raised his eyebrow. “I thought the two of you kept the bet amounts below five ryo?”

“Interest,” Sakura said. “He’s going to owe me so much money by the time he gets back—” her voice faltered and she looked away. “But yeah. We really thought our plan was fool-proof, that time.”

Kakashi poked her shoulder. “You’re kidding, right?” He watched her, assessing, then continued. “It was a rope tied between two trees, right next to the river. I would have to be walking into the river to trip on it.”

“We were going to ambush you...” Sakura trailed off, blushing as she remembered their ‘fool-proof’ plan. “Naruto thought it up. In retrospect, fool-made probably isn’t ‘almost the same’ as fool-proof.”

Kakashi chuckled, swinging his foot through the water. “Tell me more. I never knew what you little reprobates were thinking unless I eavesdropped.”

Sakura’s blush grew hotter as she wondered how much of her honestly pretty embarrassing youth he’d overheard. “Um...”

“I almost never did,” he reassured her, rolling up his pants legs to his knees.

“We were going to throw spiders at you until you tripped over the rope and fell in, because Sasuke was certain that you were afraid of spiders,” Sakura blurted out, “but we couldn’t find enough spiders, and Naruto kept naming the ones we did find, and then he wouldn’t let us throw them because he’d gotten attached, so we used fish instead.”

Kakashi looked up. “Spiders—”

“Yeah.”

He shook his head, then said, “Ninjutsu. You exploded a shadow clone by slapping it with a trout, and I hold the memory as one of the few times when I truly had no clue what the hell was going on.”

Sakura cracked up, setting Kakashi off. “Don’t you get the memory of the clones?”

“I was in a jonin meeting,” he said, muffling his laughter with his hand. “Pretty sure I looked like I’d just been smacked with a fish.”

She laughed until she couldn’t breathe, then shoved Kakashi off the edge and into the water.

“Brat!” he yelped, sinking in to his thighs before he managed to drag himself onto the surface.

Sakura laughed even harder, barely able to move. “Now Naruto owes me money!” she wheezed, giggling soundlessly.

Kakashi unbuckled the leather strap around his thigh, slowly, ominously, storm clouds gathering behind him in a minor environmental genjutsu.

“Oooo, scary!” Sakura laughed, dancing onto the water, chakra fizzing under her feet.

Kakashi set his kunai pouch next to his vest, then removed the one on his belt. “You have made a horrible mistake,” he warned her.

“Gonna take your shirt off?” Sakura asked, ignoring his threats. She bounced on her toes, grinning so hard that her face hurt.

“I—” Kakashi hesitated, then peeled off his long sleeved shirt, his mask remaining neatly in place. “Wouldn’t want it to get wet,” he said, his chest flushing light pink.

Sakura clapped her hands delightedly. “Come on!” she called, diving into the water. Four feet under, she twisted, spinning through the sparkling cloud of bubbles she caused, and headed back to the surface.

Kakashi peered down at her, wobbly and weird looking through the distorting water. He was very close.

Sakura squeaked, a stream of bubbles pouring from her mouth, and smacked his ankle. Kakashi wobbled and fell to his knees, drawing a startled grunt and probably bruising his leg.

“The water’s fine,” Sakura recovered, her head above the water. She observed the rippling muscles of his chest with interest and counted his nipples again, just for the hell of it (there were still six!). He was so close...she could reach out and grope him, if she wanted.

She really wanted.

Kakashi folded his arms across his chest, managing to obscure one set of nipples from her view. “Really, Sakura?”

“Huh?” She blinked, distracted from the really cute blush spreading over his skin. It made his nipples all pink and adorable and—

“Sakura!”

“What?” Sakura said, jerking her eyes away from his perfect torso. It was unfair that he was so pretty. How was she supposed to pay attention to things?

“Do I need to put my shirt back on?” he asked her. Sakura noted, that, despite his rapidly deepening blush, Kakashi wasn’t making a single move toward shore.

“No,” she said cheerfully. Sakura sank under the water and grabbed his leg, trying to drag him under.

Kakashi stayed stubbornly above the surface.

Sakura pouted and re-surfaced. “You’re supposed to let me pull you under,” she complained.

“Am I playing wrong?” he asked her, voice oozing with fake sympathy.

Sakura nodded, then remembered that there was more than one way to get someone wet. She slapped the water beside him with chakra enhanced strength, splashing a ten foot fountain of mist and droplets into the air.

Kakashi squeezed his eye shut until the water stopped falling on him, then disappeared, not even a ripple to betray where he’d gone.

Sakura slipped under the water, watching the sky warily. Hands grabbed her ankles, dragging her deeper. Sakura thrashed until he let go, then grabbed a breath of air and dove after him.

Kakashi waved at her, grinning. His hair looked soft and flowing in the filtered sunlight, pretty white-blue tendrils that swayed gently in the weak current.

In a burst of inspiration, Sakura formed the hand seals for an odd little jutsu—Boar, Rat, Tiger, Bird—and spun the chakra that flowed out of her fingers, giving it a long, slender shape.

Kakashi raised his eyebrow and swam a few inches to the right, out of the way of her totally awesome water tentacles. Sakura pouted and let them dissipate.

He pointed at the surface, then swam up.

Sakura followed, slightly dejected at her tentacles’ failure to grop—attack. She’d been attacking. Obviously.

“Did you just attack me with tentacles?” Kakashi asked as soon as her head was above the water.

“Maybe,” Sakura said, slapping a wave of water at his face.

Kakashi splashed her back. “I want that jutsu,” he said.

“My jutsu!” she declared. She’d created it from a medical jutsu that did something completely different and had immediately regretted having an apartment with a shower instead of a bath. “But I might—”

“Sakura?”

Sakura froze, glancing toward the edge of the clearing.

Shizune called out again, “You there?”

“How long can you hold your breath?” Sakura whispered.

“A couple of minutes. Why?”

“Okay, you’ve got to go under, now. Or Shizune will castrate you.”

“She’ll what?”

Sakura grimaced. “Okay, there’s this rumour about us, okay? And Shizune found out and now she’s going to castrate you if she sees us together, like, wet and half naked, yeah? And that’s bad because you need those.”

She fumbled with the words, embarrassed to even say them. Sakura didn’t understand why it was so hard. There wasn’t a single thing she was too embarrassed to tell a patient anymore and that included ‘Next time, use something that has a flange.’

“I agree,” he muttered. “She knows that rumour...isn’t...true, right?” Sakura had never heard him sound so awkward, not even when he’d been stark naked and slowly coming out of a orgasm-induced haze.

She stopped, realizing something. “Shit, you know?”

Kakashi blushed and damn near sank before he remembered to swim. “I found out last night—I was going to tell you—”

“Sakura?” Shizune’s voice filtered through the trees.

“Over here,” Sakura yelled, then switched to a harsh whisper, “As your primary medic, I’m telling you that you need to go under now. For the sake of your...”

Kakashi was gone.

“...future hormonal health,” Sakura finished, rolling her eyes. Jonin.

“I’m so glad you’re still here!” Shizune said cheerfully. “I got caught talking to those harpies, and they would not let me go until I told them every detail I knew about your whirlwind romance and engagement.” She sat at the edge of the pond, sighing heavily.

Sakura smiled brightly. “So? What did you tell them?” she asked, splashing as she swam toward Shizune because Kakashi was right behind her, grabbing his clothes.

“You fell in love on a hush-hush undercover mission where you were forced to use your burgeoning sexual wiles to seduce a lecherous old man with a fondness for pink-haired, barely pubescent—”

“Hey!” Sakura protested. She might be kind of flat, but barely pubescent was pretty harsh.

Kakashi used some kind of jutsu that dried him off.

“—don’t worry, you were thirteen at the time,” Shizune explained, hand-waving the whole issue.

“And Kakashi fell in love with me? Ew.” Thirteen was way too young for that kind of thing. ...Totally. Because fifteen is so much better, she thought, glum for reasons she didn’t care to examine.

Kakashi wrapped his pant legs with bandages and strapped on his various belts and pouches, completely silent. He looked far less incriminating fully dressed, compared to his previous state of half-naked and soaking wet.

“What? No! You fell in love. Kakashi was justifiably upset at the cruelty of making a child take such missions, and so he challenged Tsunade in hand to hand combat for your honour—”

Sakura laughed. “He did what?”

Shizune grinned, kicking a spray of water into the air. “They bought it hook, line, and sinker.”

“Did I win?” Kakashi asked, barely dodging the senbon Shizune spat at him out of surprise.. He was fully dressed and totally innocent looking, Sakura decided in relief.

“Of course not!” Sakura said in unison with Shizune.

“I could, you know. In the right circumstances.” Kakashi sounded disappointed at their lack of faith. “I mean, if she was blind drunk, and on the verge of passing out...?”

Sakura glanced at Shizune. “I dunno. Just seems unlikely, you know?” she said. After all. Tsunade.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He sat beside Shizune, pulling his sandals off and dunking his feet in the water. “So what happened next?”

“So, once you lost, it turned out that Sakura had gotten post-traumatic stress disorder from the terrible, no good mission, where she didn’t have to have sex because of Kakashi heroically crashing into the window and murdering the old guy before he could touch her, but the sight of so much blood—”

“Blood? You made me get psychological issues over blood?” Sakura wrinkled her nose. “I mean, sheesh, you may as well have me be traumatized because I saw ducklings fall down a grate.” She crawled out of the water and plopped down on Shizune’s other side, dripping all over the place. She should really have brought a towel.

“That would be very sad,” Shizune replied solemnly, the corners of her eyes crinkling from a barely suppressed smile.

“I’d be moved by their plight,” Kakashi added, sighing heavily and staring into the distance. “Poor ducklings...”

She stuck her tongue out. “Whatever. I obviously got over the whole blood thing.”

“True. So what happened to Sakura next?”

“Well, you had screaming nightmares about seeing that fat pig die, and your family couldn’t cope, so you had to move in with Kakashi—”

“And no one questioned that a thirteen year old girl was allowed to move in with me?” Kakashi interrupted. “That seems unlikely.”

“The nurses loved it,” Shizune replied. “Probably because I stole the story line straight from The Young and The Merciless, but hey, they thought it was romantic.”

Sakura winced. “Did I have to be so insipid?”

“Well, during the course of your recovery through the power of love—”

All three giggled (in Kakashi’s case it was more of a manly chuckle).

“—you managed to save Kakashi from his inner demons,” Shizune said.

“My what?”

Sakura raised her eyebrows.

Kakashi sighed, rolling his eye. “Fine, you could have aided me in overcoming some small, insignificant inner demon that I had not yet dealt with. Potentially my fear of spiders.”

“Wait, you really are afraid of spiders?”

“They’re creepy,” Kakashi said, shuddering delicately. “Why? What are you afraid of?”

“Monkeys,” Sakura lied.

“The dark,” Shizune said, probably lying as well.

There was a contemplative silence, where Sakura envisioned a monkey hidden in the dark, spiders crawling over it. She pursed her lips, realizing that it would, in fact, be pretty damn creepy.

“Still, saving someone from inner demons is pretty lame. Couldn’t I save his life on the operating table?”

“And taking advantage of a thirteen-year-old is pretty disgusting. Could Sakura actually be my amazingly talented girlfriend from the future who travelled back in time so she could take advantage of me all over again?”

Sakura looked at him from the corner of her eye. Kakashi almost seemed serious.

Shizune caved first. “You know I was lying about spreading that rumour, right?”

“I believed you might have spread such a rumour until you got to the part about Tsunade selling me out as a whore,” Sakura said.

“The first part?”

“Yeah. But it was good until then!”

“The hush-hush mission bit seemed reasonable,” Kakashi said. “Terrible time to fall in love, but I’ve seen it happen.”

Shizune ruffled Sakura’s hair, then did Kakashi’s for good measure. “Can’t fool anyone,” she sighed. "Though I should warn you, there are some very odd stories being spread about the two of you.”

“Girlfriend from the future?” Sakura asked, because being a time traveller for love would be kind of cool.

“Nursed back from Death’s door by the healing power of love?” Kakashi suggested, flipping open Icha Icha Paradise and pointing at an illustration inside.

Sakura saw a blurred glimpse of a mostly naked nurse before Kakashi spun the book around.

“Happily, no. Sakura? If a patient ever tries anything like that with you...” Shizune trailed off and gave her a significant nod.

Kakashi shifted, discreetly crossing his legs and tucking Icha Icha into his back pocket.

“I understand,” Sakura said. It was really nice to know that she cared, even if the execution was slightly creepy. “Thanks.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Shizune said, affectionately punching Sakura’s shoulder. “So, did the two of you—”

“Kakashi!”

The yell startled all of them. Sakura nearly fell into the pond, but Shizune and Kakashi bounced to their feet, produced weaponry from nowhere and generally gave the impression of being ready to fight and win a war, if needed.

“Ah-Ha!” For one horrible second, Sakura thought it was Lee, seeking her out to ask for a date, then she recognized the much broader shoulders and the extra foot of height as belonging to Gai. “I had suspected I might find you here!” He stopped, planted his feet, and gave the three of them a thumbs up, his hand back-lit by the sun sparkling off his teeth.

Shizune and Kakashi relaxed, their senbon needles and kunai disappearing as mysteriously as they had appeared.

“Gai,” Kakashi acknowledged, suddenly sounding listless and about one step away from falling asleep. He drew Icha Icha Paradise from his pocket, thumbing it open and peering at the pages disinterestedly.

“I apologize for interrupting your time with your Youthful Bride, but my student did not appear for training this Wonderful Spring Morning!”

Sakura stared, then glanced at Kakashi, wondering if she’d imagined the sharpness in Gai’s voice. He was always so nice—Kakashi looked up, and she knew that she hadn’t. “She is not my bride,” Kakashi muttered.

“Ah, Gai?” Sakura said, breaking eye contact with Kakashi. “I broke Lee’s leg when he challenged me yesterday—did you check at the hospital?”

“I heard of my Most Youthful Student’s Victory!” Gai cheered, the bitterness in his words gone. “Though I am certain that you fought with Great Vigour, I am Proud that my student Triumphed!”

“He challenged her when she was drained of chakra, and still nearly lost,” Kakashi said dully, flipping a page. His voice was apathetic, but the words were very nearly cruel.

Gai’s face went still, his dark eyes focused and intent. “That will not change my pride. Sakura is a very talented young kunoichi. Lee’s victory is not lessened by her lack of chakra. Choosing an appropriate place and time for a fight is just as important as fighting it.” The words flowed smoothly, lacking his characteristic emphasis.

Sakura shifted closer to Shizune, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. The sunshine wasn’t as warm anymore, and the tension in the clearing made her want to run.

“Capitalizing on an ally’s weakness in an effort into manipulate their emotions is not honourable, Gai,” Kakashi said, snapping his book shut with a flick of his fingers. “And worse, it tends to leave you with fewer allies.”

“Lee, um—” Sakura bit her lip to keep from running when Kakashi and Gai looked at her. She didn’t know what was going on—she’d thought they were friends—but if tensions got any higher, a fight was going to break out. “I’m not that mad at him,” Lee was still an ally, and she’d be pleased to have him on her side in a fight. “Did you check the hospital?”

“Indeed!” His face stretched into a wide grin, plastered over the frozen anger he’d shown earlier. “But I believe that something may be wrong—the receptionist indicated that he had not come in.”

She had broken his leg. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you could bandage up and grit your teeth about. “You checked his apartment?”

Gai nodded, his smile dropping away. “I did. I don’t believe he made it home last night.”

Kakashi had hit Lee. Punched him out of the way so he’d stop interfering with Sakura’s efforts to heal herself. Sakura looked over at Kakashi, not wanting to bring it up, but fairly certain that she had to.

“Did you check the training grounds?” Shizune asked, standing. She brushed the dirt from the back of her robe. “He tends to ignore medical advice and common sense when he’s upset.”

Sakura nodded her agreement, because there was more than one reason Tsunade had her use Lee as a guinea pig. He nearly always had half-healed injuries that he was ignoring.

Would he have walked home on a broken leg, though? Lee wasn’t stupid. Headstrong and stubborn, but not stupid.

“I checked those as well.” Gai hesitated, not precisely at the dark, cold state he’d been in before, but still more solemn than she’d seen before. “Sakura, I do not mean to offend, but please, was he alright when you parted company last night?”

From the way Kakashi’s eye widened, looking at Gai with something like guilt or shame, Sakura knew he was thinking the same thing she was.

“I...can’t say,” she said. “He punched my throat, and I couldn’t breathe. I broke his leg, but it wasn’t a bad break—I didn’t twist or anything. I had to forfeit then because I didn’t have enough chakra to heal myself and finish fighting him.”

“Shit,” Kakashi muttered, hanging his head. “Shit.”

The look on Gai’s face wasn’t one she could quantify, or even understand. He stared at Kakashi when he asked, “And you...left him there?”

“Sakura?” Shizune prompted her, when Kakashi refused to respond. “What was Lee’s condition? Broken leg? What else?”

“I hit him with a tree,” Sakura said. “He might have had a concussion from that, I guess. I don’t think I managed to land any other blows.” She pulled her dress from the willow tree and yanked it over her head, then slid her feet into her sandals. “But—”

“Lee tried to help Sakura after he punched her. She was healing herself and he pulled her hands away,” Kakashi interrupted her. “She couldn’t breathe. I knocked him out of the way so she could finish healing her throat.”

“How did you knock him out of the way?” Shizune asked. "Could he have been injured from that?"

Kakashi shook his head. “I...”

“He hit him hard enough that Lee went flying. I don’t know how far, and I can’t remember the direction,” Sakura said, silently apologizing to Kakashi as she did so. “I’m sorry. I was really mad at him for challenging me, and I forgot to make sure he was okay after I got out of the hospital.”

“West,” Kakashi added. “He went west, toward the forest.”

There was a quiet moment, where Gai and Shizune just looked at them. Sakura dug her thumb nail into her palm to keep from squirming.

They'd broken the rules, her and Kakashi. You were supposed to make sure your sparring partners were okay. There were public service announcements and posters and everything. It was the Buddy System.

Sakura didn’t see Gai move, but it was hard to miss the way he’d grabbed Kakashi, lifting him by the collar of his shirt. “So help me, Kakashi, if Lee is dead, I will not stop until you are, too.”

“Enough,” Shizune snapped. “We don't have time for that. Lee’s condition is unknown and Kakashi is the best tracker in the village.”

Gai snarled and shook Kakashi, but set him down. “I can’t believe I trusted you,” he muttered, turned away.

He didn’t see the way Kakashi paled, how even his hair seemed to droop as Gai walked away from him. Kakashi swayed gently in a non-existent wind, hands shoved deep in his pockets and shoulders sloped defensively forward.

“Sakura? How are your chakra stores?” Shizune asked, her face tight with some barely repressed emotion. “Will you be useful?”

She nodded. “I’m fine.”

“Good. Kakashi, send one of your dogs to the hospital. We may need Tsunade.”

“No.” Kakashi shook his head. “I can’t.”

“You’re low on chakra?” Shizune asked.

“My chakra stores are fine. My summons have...they don’t come when I call, anymore.” Kakashi cleared his throat. "It doesn’t matter. I can still track.”

“Good.” Shizune bit her thumb, summoning a slug. “Head to the hospital,” she ordered it. “Inform Tsunade that we will be coming in with Lee Rock, unknown injuries.” The slug wiggled its antennae, and slid slowly...very, very slowly...toward Konoha. “Well? Lead on, Kakashi.”

He nodded sharply, and started running, heading toward the training grounds they’d used yesterday.

***

Sakura stared at the three posts, trying to ignore the argument behind her. It was mostly Gai yelling at Kakashi and Shizune trying to calm him down. Sometimes Kakashi tried to say something, but Gai just talked over him, for the most part.

Kakashi was having trouble picking up the scent. Gai was furious at him. Sakura wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t think it was helping.

This was probably the worst mission she’d ever been on. It wasn’t even a mission, really. Just them trying to find someone she kind of cared about, and hoping he wasn’t dead. And know that, if Lee was dead, then it was her fault.

“Fuck you, Gai. I’m trying!” Kakashi snapped. “Back off and get away from the scent!”

Shizune said something and Gai quieted down.

The bugs in the trees hummed and buzzed, unaffected and uncaring. Sakura sighed, and wandered toward the trees. Kakashi was standing near them, holding too still to be hunting. “You look as miserable as I feel,” she whispered, coming up beside him.

Kakashi swallowed and nodded. “It been a long time since I’ve used my own nose,” he answered softly. “I...need to take my mask off.”

“Oh?” Sakura asked, curious despite herself.

“Promise not to look?” he asked, staring into the trees like they held answers.

Disappointing, but not unexpected. “Cast henge,” she suggested. “I promise I won’t try to break it.”

Kakashi’s hands flew through the seals, and the familiar gossamer shimmer of an illusion skimmed over his face. Kakashi hooked his fingers over the hem of his mask and yanked it down.

It took her a second to look away from the places where his mouth and nose should have been. He’d cast an illusion of his mask as if it was his face, reformed it out of skin. “That’s really creepy,” she whispered.

“It’s fantastic for scaring people,” Kakashi murmured, hunching forward and sniffing a bush. “I’ve got it. Could you tell Shizune?”

Sakura nodded, and trotted toward Shizune. “Kakashi caught Lee’s scent,” she said, stopping when Shizune was planted firmly between her and Gai. He hadn’t said a single cruel word to her, but Sakura was oddly afraid of him.

“Good. We’ll follow from a distance,” Shizune said. “Understand?”

Sakura said she did, but she suspected the words were meant for Gai.

***

Kakashi had dropped to his hands and feet, running across the forest floor in an odd, bounding gait, pausing brief moments to sniff piles of leaves and the trunks of trees.

Gai hadn’t said a word since they’d left the clearing and neither had Shizune. Sakura hadn’t either, mostly because she didn’t have the faintest clue what to say.

A broken tree spotted with blood—not much, but enough to make Sakura feel sick to her stomach—had taken Kakashi from the straight line he’d been running, and sent him charging north.

New spring growth tangled and ripped at her feet, the only sound in the quiet forest. Gai, Shizune and Kakashi made no noise, like ghosts on the run. Sakura could be as silent if she chose, but it drained her chakra, which she hoped she would need.

Kakashi howled. It was fucking loud after a half hour of running without words, and it rang through the trees like pealing temple bells. Sakura jumped and nearly tripped, catching herself at the last moment.

“Lee?” Gai called, his footsteps suddenly crashing through the undergrowth, stomping on twigs, kicking through leaves.

The next ten seconds were some of the most stressful she’d ever experienced—Sakura saw Kakashi, still maskless and faceless, staring into the canopy of a tree, at torn scraps of green fabric and tanned skin. She could see his hand. Blood was smeared over the palm, dark and dried.

“Lee?” she called, uselessly, because if he hadn’t heard Kakashi, then he obviously wasn’t awake. Or he was dead. That was also possible. If he hadn’t landed right, or she’d given him a concussion...

Kakashi tugged his mask over his face, and the glimmer of henge disappeared. “He’s alive,” he said. “He climbed the tree this morning. Has not moved since.”

Shizune started walking up the tree and Sakura followed, watching the swollen, dangling hand for any sign of movement. Lee was so still, like the corpses in the morgue, and Kakashi could be wrong. He could have died while she played in the water, not even thinking of him, not remembering

“His pulse is steady,” Shizune confirmed. “Sakura?”

Lee was sprawled in a nest of branches, the kind border scouts built to sleep in. His green jumpsuit was ripped and torn, blood smeared over the skin underneath in streaks and trails. His leg...Lee must have landed on it. He’d wrapped it with bandages, but the bulge to the side and the dark red-brown stain told her that the bone had pierced skin.

Sakura cast a diagnostic jutsu. Lee was a patchwork of old injuries, but scars were easily separated from fresh scrapes—and they were mostly scrapes. “He’s got a lot of scrapes, and he does have a concussion,” she confirmed, fear draining out over her, replaced by relief so strong that it nearly hurt. “Compound fracture of his right leg, and dehydration, but his back and neck are fine.”

Shizune nodded. “I’ll handle the concussion. You take care of the rest.”

“Yes,” Sakura said, forming the seals that would allow her to straighten and heal his leg. Guilt made her match her chakra to his, then deaden the nerves so he wouldn’t feel it.

She cut the bandages off, and grabbed his leg above and below the break. Lee hadn’t managed to straighten the bone, but that was unsurprising. Muscle spasms had wracked his leg until the bone may as well have been encased in steel. She burnt the incipient infection from his wound, pleased to see that Lee had cleaned the bone before binding it.

Sakura took a deep breath, her chakra buzzing in mimicry of Lee’s frenetic, lively energy, and pulled. She didn’t dare reinforce her strength. Chakra enhanced, Sakura was strong enough to rip a person limb from limb.

Bone scraped on bone, the vibrations traveling through her hands and shivering in her elbows. Lee’s body was strong, and it resisted her attempts to set the bone until sweat dribbled down her face.

Sakura bit her lip, and dragged the bone apart, gently enough that she would not tear him apart, firmly enough to put him together. The ends came together and Sakura wrapped a binding of chakra around the break, splinting it under his skin. It would wear off in a couple of hours, but they’d be in Konoha by then.

Shizune was still working. Sakura watched the vivid green glow around Lee’s head for a second, nameless anxiety crawling in her chest. Concussions were a dime a dozen among ninja, and there were hundreds of jutsu to relieve pressure on the brain, heal damage, and revive dying tissue.

Shizune wasn’t using them, though. Like Tsunade, she preferred to use her chakra directly, replacing medical jutsu with excruciatingly thorough chakra control and encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body. Sakura could do the same, and often did, but her chakra was like scalpels compared to their whisper-thin needles.

“You’ve set his leg?” Shizune asked, dropping her hand from Lee’s temples.

“Yes.” Sakura sealed the wound his bone had protruded from, focusing to grow new flesh rather than scar tissue. “His concussion?”

“Gone. He’s fine.” Shizune stretched, cracking her back. “We were lucky. His injuries could have been much worse.”

Sakura nodded, wordless. She could have killed him with her carelessness. “He’s asleep then?”

“Waking,” Shizune said. “You can come closer, if you’d like.”

Gai dropped from the branches over their heads, landing at Lee’s side. “He is well?”

“He’ll survive unharmed,” Shizune said. “It will probably take a month for his leg to heal, though.”

Gai seemed less cold, the calculating look gone from his face. He smiled. “I thank you for your aid!”

“You’re welcome,” Shizune chuckled, looking Gai over. “You’ll carry him down?”

“Gai?” Lee stirred, waking. “Are you there?”

“Indeed, my Most Youthful Student! It is I, the Blue Beast of Konoha, by your side!”

Lee smiled, his eyes half-closed and confused. “I knew you’d come.”

“When you failed to appear by five, I knew Something Was Wrong!” Gai declared, gathering Lee into his arms. “I spent the day seeking you, but Failed to find clues as to your whereabouts until I spoke to Sakura and Kakashi!”

“Sakura...?” Lee mumbled, clinging to Gai’s neck at he carried him down the tree. “Is she okay? I hit her...”

“I’m fine,” Sakura said. “Tsunade fixed it in about ten seconds.”

Lee’s eyes popped open, and he peered around Gai’s shoulder. “Sakura! You came for me?”

Sakura paused, then kept walking down the tree trunk. She felt like she was about to kick a puppy. “I...it was my fault. I didn’t even realize you were gone until Gai told us.” She stepped from the tree to the ground, ignoring the tiny rush of vertigo. “I’m so sorry, Lee. I should have made sure you’d made it to the hospital last night.”

“Weren’t you out of chakra?” Lee asked her.

“Yeah.” Sakura shrugged. She hadn’t gone to bed with chakra left over in months.

“And I hit you pretty hard.”

“I told you, Tsunade fixed it!” Sakura said in exasperation. “Lee, will you just accept my apology?”

Lee grinned at her, and it was different than his usual smiles. Boyish, and damn pleased with himself.

Sakura trotted at Gai’s side, barely noticing his soft huff of laughter. “Lee?”

“Apology accepted. You are forgiven for being tired and forgetful after using all your chakra, being punched in the throat, and being healed by Tsunade. Where would you like to go on our first date?”

She nearly ran into a tree. “What—Lee?” Was that sarcasm? Did Lee even know how to be sarcastic?

“Ah! My Dear Student! I shall race to the Hospital with you in twenty minutes or do five hundred push ups!” Gai shouted. He launched off the forest floor, leaping forward so fast that she barely saw him move, and disappeared into the deepening shadows.

Sakura slowed down, then stopped. Lee wasn’t...he didn’t...

“You know, Gai’s pretty cute,” Shizune said, jolting Sakura out of her stupor. “Do you know if he’s single?”

“What?” Sakura asked, shaking herself. It must have been her imagination. “Are you joking?”

Shizune shrugged. “I’ve never really spoken to him before, but it looks like he’s loyal, good with kids, and, damn, If he’s training that kid, can you imagine what he must look like under that jumpsuit?”

“It’s still a jumpsuit...wait, what are you talking about? What does Lee have to do with Gai?”

Shizune snorted. “Oh come on, don’t tell me you didn’t check him out when you were healing him. That jumpsuit barely covered him.”

“I...really didn’t. Shizune, did you see the eyebrows? Though it is kind of dark.” Sakura started walking toward Konoha. “Maybe you need your eyesight checked?”

“I thought they were very manly,” Shizune mused. “You really didn’t notice how ripped Lee is?”

“Kakashi’s better.” Sakura blushed bright red, but didn’t take it back. Lee was...okay, he was pretty good looking, if you didn’t count his face. It wasn’t like Sakura didn’t know that. But Kakashi had, like, mythical levels of hotness.

Shizune giggled. “Sticking by your fiancé?”

“I’ve still got to talk to him about that...” Sakura looked back. “Where’d he go, anyway?”
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