------------------------ ---------------------------------------------------

 

Part 2 - Pursuit by the Odd Man in Green

 

The Sleeping Prince
 
After a rather interesting lunch (she had to admit Gai was quite a storyteller, or rather a tall tale teller), Kaori returned to her desk. She thought little of the strange man in green but instead her thoughts dwelled on his eternal rival. `How irritating it must be to have someone like Gai in your face all the time. I wonder how Kakashi can stand it. He must have the patience of a saint.' She added that to the growing list of Kakashi's superior attributes.
 
Kaori settled down to her stack of reports to update before her afternoon rounds. She was actually in a good mood for once. Tomorrow was her day off. She had her usual errands to run such as going to the market and paying her bills, but she actually had something else to look forward to - her reading sessions. It was not exactly like having a man in her life, but it was something she could talk about to her family whom she would have to see for dinner tomorrow. But then Otoha came back from wherever she was loitering (probably the men's locker room) with a sinister smile on her too red lips.
 
“So I hear you've been hanging with Gai-sensei,” Otoha teased.
 
“What? Where did you hear that?” Kaori blushed furiously.
 
“Oh word gets around. I didn't think he was your type.”
 
`Damn, it must be the cafeteria workers.' “He's not,” Kaori stated coldly.
 
“He's not that bad. Nothing in the looks department but the body's solid and it's all done in the dark anyway. He looks like he could be fun.” The buxom brunette was trying hard not to laugh.
 
“You can have him.” With that Kaori abruptly stood up, grabbed her medical bag, and left for her afternoon rounds. She could hear giggles in the background.
 
`Damn! Now everyone's going to think Gai and I are involved. I'm going to kill her! Damn, wish I knew a lethal jutsu that can't be traced back to me.'
 
But then Kaori thought of how Lee and Gai were driven by their rivals. She decided that Otoha would not be her nemesis, her thorn in the side, but rather a rival. Not that she was much of one really. Otoha was not better in anything except attracting men. Why she could exceed her merely by getting breast implants.
 
With that thought Kaori decided to be each patient's favorite nurse and smiled extra brightly as she checked their monitors, took their temperature and blood pressure, and changed their bandages. She decided to furtively skip Lee for now and continued to Sasuke's room.
 
The pink haired girl was back and reading to her obsession. “Good afternoon Sakura-san,” Kaori greeted. She noticed that Sakura had brought a yellow and white daffodil to place in the little hospital provided vase, just as she did during Sasuke's last stay.
 
Sakura smiled up at her. She also seemed to be in a better mood. After all, the sleeping Sasuke was the nicest he'd ever been to her and he was all hers now (Ino had to pull double shifts at the flower shop). “Good afternoon Kaori-san. Has there been any change?” she asked hopefully as Kaori checked the monitors.
 
Kaori shook her head. “Not really but…see this blip on the brainwave monitor? It looks like he's responding to your reading.” Not exactly the truth but it couldn't hurt to make her feel better. Then Kaori had another thought.
 
“So I've been reading to your sensei. It's a romance book, the new one on the Konoha Times bestseller list, `Gone with the Wind.' Is that the type of book he likes?”
 
Sakura turned a bit red. `How could anyone in Konoha not know?' she wondered. “Er…not exactly. Umm…more like Icha Icha Violence.”
 
`So it's true,' Kaori thought in disappointment. “So what kind of person is your sensei? Is he really a pervert? I mean has he ever…made any inappropriate moves on you that…didn't seem like it was part of a jutsu?”
 
“Eeew!” Sakura exclaimed in horror at the thought. (Inner Sakura: “Bleach my brain!”) “He's not that kind of pervert. He's a …repressed pervert.”
 
“Repressed pervert? What does that mean?”
 
“Well…” Sakura pondered. She went into her analytical mode. “Kakashi sensei's propensity for porn appears to be an outlet for… not cultivating real relationships. I mean he's been our sensei for over a year and we know next to nothing about him. We've never even seen his face…” A light bulb went off in her head. “Hey, have you seen his face? Is that why you're asking about him? Did you fall for him? Is he really handsome? Please, please let me see his face! I'll owe you forever!”
 
`This girl is very astute, despite being a lovesick fool.' Kaori decided to lie. She did not need another person bugging her about seeing Kakashi's face. “No, I haven't seen his face and his file requested that the mask stay on except in emergencies. I was just wondering since I am responsible for him.”
 
“Are you going to read the Icha Icha series to him?” Sakura asked curiously.
 
It was Kaori's turn to turn red. “No, of course not.” `What's the point if he's read all of them?' “What I'm reading is perfectly appropriate.”
 
`Yeah right. Something like that would put a porn reader to sleep. She won't get a blip out of him with that,' Sakura thought but said, “Yes, of course it is.”
 
“By the way, I noticed that Kurenai-sensei placed herself down as Kakashi sensei's contact. Are they involved?” Kaori asked as casually as she could.
 
“Not that I know of. I heard from Ino that she's been making moves on Asuma-sensei but he seems oblivious. Sigh, why is it that the more a girl likes a guy the more he ignores her?” Sakura sadly thought how obviously she liked Sasuke, but he always gave her the cold shoulder while Naruto was the one who followed her around.
 
“I can't answer that, even at my age,” Kaori said gently. “But usually they come around to see what's good for them,” she added positively, giving the girl a reassuring smile.
 
“I hope so,” Sakura smiled back. “Thank you for taking care of Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-sensei. You know, the other nurse isn't as nice as you. She just gave me the look-over when she came by.”
 
“Some of us just aren't as professional. Well, it's been my pleasure despite the circumstances,” Kaori said in satisfaction, thinking how much better she was than Otoha. “So, uh, have you been by to visit Lee-san?” the senior nurse asked, wondering how far the shinobi gossip had traveled.
 
“I dropped by to visit Kakashi-sensei and Lee-kun earlier, but I haven't seen them this afternoon.”
 
“That's g… I mean, he seems in better spirits and I'm sure your visits help. He and his sensei invited me for lunch to thank me,” Kaori clearly explained, hoping to use Sakura to stem any further spreading of shinobi gossip. “Lee-san is such a nice, polite boy.”
 
Sakura nodded, “Yes, I didn't like him at first, but then I found he's someone you can rely on, a good friend.” Sakura emphasized the last part in case Kaori had any matchmaking ideas.
 
“Right, we can all use a friend,” Kaori agreed thoughtfully. She then left Sakura to her reading and went off to visit her last patient on this wing.
 
Kaori surprisingly found Lee not exercising. Instead she found the genin scribbling in a little notepad, which he quickly hid when he saw her approach.
 
`How cute - he must be writing little love notes to Sakura. I should try to push her toward Lee, but it's really none of my business,' Kaori thought then said, “I'd like to thank you and Gai-sensei again for a…very interesting lunch.”
 
“It was our pleasure Kaori-sama. We both enjoyed your company very much,” Lee said while bowing.
 
`My company? All I did was sit, eat, listen to them talk, and watch them eat voraciously. Then again, I wonder how many people are willing to do just that.'
 
“I hope we can all get together again real soon,” Lee continued.
 
“Well…I'm pretty busy but we'll see,” Kaori responded evasively.
 
“Will you be here tomorrow?”
 
“Tomorrow's my day off, but I might drop by for a little while… to check my mail.” Actually, Kaori wanted to spend more time with Kakashi.
 
“Oh…what will you be doing on your day off?”
 
“Umm, just relaxing, running errands stuff like that. I have no food in my fridge,” she laughed. “Then I have to see my family for dinner.”
 
“Your family? Do you have parents and siblings?” Lee asked with interest.
 
“Yes, my parents are both still alive and I have a younger brother and a younger sister. I know it's tough being a shinobi, so many of you are orphans. I'm sorry,” Kaori added sympathetically and a bit guiltily. Civilians were being protected by people like Gai and Kakashi, and even Lee. After so many wars, many of the shinobi clans had dwindled down to nothing. “I really have to thank you Lee, and the other shinobi, for protecting us civilians and this village,” she added positively while pumping up the blood pressure monitor.
 
“No, we should thank you for helping us when we are injured,” Lee said graciously.
 
“I guess we all have our role in life and we can only do our best,” Kaori said as she checked his temperature with the ear thermometer.
 
“That's what Gai sensei says too!”
 
“Well, he must be very wise,” Kaori smiled “Anyway, I glad to see you're getting some rest. It's just as important as training. Your vitals look good,” she said while writing down the numbers from the blood pressure machine and ear thermometer. There really wasn't anything wrong with Lee that they could do anything about, but it was just standard procedure to continue taking his temperature, pulse, and blood pressure.
 
“Yes! Gai sensei is the wisest man I have ever known.”
 
`Poor boy, doesn't get out much does he?' “Er, I'm sure he is. Well, I'll see you next time,” Kaori said as she readied to go. She noticed that Sakura had brought a fresh daffodil for Lee as well.
 
“Yes, good-bye for now,” Lee replied. He watched the nurse leave, then mysteriously took out his little notepad and started scribbling again.
 
After the rest of her afternoon rounds, Kaori practically skipped to Kakashi's room with her book discretely hidden in her bag of medical supplies and equipment.
 
“Good afternoon Kakashi-san,” she said cheerfully. She noticed that despite his immobility, that shock of gray hair was again covering his forehead. She gently brushed it aside and caressed his brow until that troublesome crease between his eyes disappeared again. “I hope you don't mind, but I've been doing some research on you. I'm sorry for all that you've been through. I know it's all for the village. I can understand why you read that sort of…escapist fantasy. We all need an outlet for stress, right? I haven't been able to find someone else who has the time to read to you, so I guess you'll just have to bear with me. Everyone's so busy nowadays with the Hokage gone.” Kaori sighed as remembered Sandaime's inspirational speeches at the Academy. She walked over and adjusted the shades for the night.
 
“I had lunch will your eternal rival today,” she laughed. “He's quite a character. I wonder how you put up with him. He claims he's beaten you more times than you've beaten him, but I'm sure he's just boasting. You must let him win, right? If he were really better than you, he'd stop competing with you,” Kaori astutely evaluated. “He and his genin Lee are really, really close. A bit too close, maybe unhealthily close if you ask me. He's supposed to be his sensei. He shouldn't play favorites, right? There should be some distance between sensei and their students, like I have with my patients." Kaori fluffed up Kakashi's pillow and carefully replaced it. "Sakura claims your genin don't know anything about you. That's not really true is it? You and Sasuke must have been close. That poor boy really needs a father figure to guide him and knock some respect into him. Lee is almost too respectful. Funny how they're so different. Of course, Sakura goes for the cool kid on the block. Maybe she'll wise up one day.”
 
She took his pulse by hand, just so she could touch his wrist, then his temperature and blood pressure. She checked the monitors and wrote everything down on his chart. There was also a fresh yellow and white daffodil in a little vase on the stand next to the bed. Evidence that Sakura had visited her sensei.
 
Kaori then settled down with her book. “I know this isn't the usual romance genre you like, but I think it's pretty good and we should be finished pretty soon. I don't think I can read the Icha Icha books to you…but maybe if you were to give me sign…” She laughed to herself. `Right, someone in a coma is going to suddenly move around because he wants me to read porn…'
 
Kaori dropped her book in shock when she saw Kakashi's body suddenly shift from its prone position to its right side to face her. `No way! It must just be a muscle contraction or something. Coma patients do not move like that…'
 
She picked up her book and walked over to observe her patient more closely. His eyes were still closed. She looked over at the brain wave monitor. There was a definite spike exactly at the time when she mentioned the Icha Icha books.
 
“You really do want me to read an Icha Icha book to you, don't you?”
 
A lovely arched eyebrow twitched in response and another, albeit smaller, blip appeared on the monitor. Kaori couldn't help but laugh in embarrassment. “All right,” she said slowly, “I'll try to get a copy. But today let's get through this. Maybe the…er…relationship will heat up towards the end.”
 
Kaori read for a long time, forgetting that her official work hours were over. The plot and romance sped up toward the end and she forgot that she was reading to an audience. Tears rimmed her red eyes and she had to stop several times to blow her nose. Finally she closed the back cover of the book. `Such exquisite tragedy, no wonder it was on the bestseller list. Sigh, so much more emotional depth than that explicit material.'
 
She looked over at the sleeping form, which had mysteriously shifted back to its original position. “Wasn't that a good book?” She looked over at the monitor but there were no other blips.
 
“You're not really a pervert are you? Didn't you like that twist at the end? Where the girl finds out the boy was actually a prince in disguise? But then it was too late…and that last line was really something...”
 
Kaori packed up her things and then leaned over to whisper the last line in Kakashi's ear, “Goodnight Sweet Prince, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
 
-…-…-…-
 
Author's Note: Last line is from “Hamlet”

 

Kaori's Day Off
 
Kaori got up an hour later than her usual workday time. She allowed herself the luxury of that extra hour on her days off. Anymore would be too disruptive to her system. She went through her usual morning routine and sadly opened her empty refrigerator, wishing very badly that magical elves filled it during the night. Alas, it was still empty except for the one-third container of miso ramen from last night, which she wisely saved.
 
After heating up and eating her leftovers, Kaori changed to her regular casual clothes - a simple red blouse, which complemented her chestnut hair, and black pants, which were practical. Instead of tying her hair up in her usual official bun, she tied it in a loose ponytail. The pretty nurse's brow furrowed as she applied her make-up, thinking over her two dilemmas: food and porn.
 
`First things first. I have to get groceries.' She then sat at her little dining table, pencil in hand, writing down her grocery list.
 
`Chicken, cereal, eggs, milk, fruit…bananas, oranges, grapes…vegetables…asparagus, lettuce, tomato…no that's a fruit…well, whatever…”
 
Then her thoughts strayed to her second dilemma. How could she get a hold of an Icha Icha book without anyone knowing? She could not just walk into an adult bookstore. She did not want even the cashier to know. After all, how would it look to have Kuchiki Kaori, the prim and proper nurse, an example to all her peers, be a known porn reader? She couldn't have it delivered either. Even though she heard adult material was wrapped in plain brown paper, anything from Pink's Bookstore would give her away to the postman. Maybe if she ordered it from a large bookstore which offered everything…but then it would take too long to deliver. And whoever filled the order would know. Even if she used a different name, her address would give her away and she had no P.O. Box. It was a dilemma she could not solve in her paranoid state.
 
`Maybe if I broke into Kakashi's home and borrowed his books…'
 
She was shaken out of her thoughts by a series of loud rapid knocks at her door. She opened it to find Konoha's self-proclaimed noble green beast standing there with his arms full of grocery bags.
 
“I hear you're in dire need of sustenance,” Gai said gallantly while entering Kaori's abode without her permission.
 
It took a minute before Kaori understood what was going on. Lee must have informed his sensei that she needed to buy food and Gai decided to run her errands for her. She watched as Gai unpacked all the staples (two dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, a ten pound bag of rice, ten pounds of hamburger meat, a dozen pork chops, four shell steaks, and a family pack of chicken drumsticks which would easily last her single self all week), fruit (a large bunch of bananas, a sack of oranges, a huge honeydew melon, and a quart of blueberries), and vegetables (a large bunch of carrots, a huge head of cabbage, five heads of broccoli, two bags of spinach, and a long vine of fresh tomatoes…no…that's a fruit).
 
“This should last you a couple of days,” Gai proclaimed proudly. He then proceeded to talk about the nutritional benefits of antioxidants found in blueberries, beta-carotene found in carrots, iron in spinach, potassium in bananas, and vitamin C in oranges and tomatoes, which were actually fruit.
 
“Er…thanks, but I can't eat all this. I don't think this will even fit in my fridge. I'll just pay you back for the few items that I need…”
 
“Pay? Pay me back for expressing my gratitude for the excellent care that you've shown my dear Lee? This is nothing! Take it all! I'll make it fit in your refrigerator.” Gai proceeded to organize the groceries. “I hope your dog likes the ground sirloin,” Gai added as he found a place for it.
 
“Dog? Oh…yes, I'm sure he'll love it.” Kaori knew she shouldn't accept the groceries, especially the meat since that was based on a lie. Ethically it would appear that Gai was bribing her to provide special care for his student even if he meant it as gratitude. But her practical mind screamed at her to take it and freeze whatever she could and eat whatever couldn't be frozen. Besides, who would know? And even if someone did, it was no different than a thank you gift basket of fruit or sausage and cheese, just much more.
 
Kaori decided to think of Gai as a large magical elf who just helped stock her refrigerator. He was well dressed for the part.
 
Then Kaori had another thought. “Can you do me a favor?”
 
“Anything for you, honorable lady.”
 
“Yeah, er, can you pick up a package from Pink's Book store? Tell them it's for …Inoue Otoha. I was supposed to pick it up for her, but I don't have time today to go to that part of town,” said the not-so-honorable lady.
 
“No problem. That's hardly a D mission for someone like me. Now if you would like me to deliver those books across the deserts of Wind Country to an opposing feudal lord who has a ban on books…”
 
“Uh, no, just pick it up and bring it here. I'm not sure how much it'll be but here…” Kaori fumbled for her purse.
 
“No need to give me any money. Think of it as a gift for your friend. Otoha… she's one of the other nurses, right?"
 
“Yes, well, please don't mention this to her since… she'll think I'm lazy.” Kaori could feel herself getting in deeper and deeper.
 
But luckily for her, Gai was not the inquisitive type. He was just happy to do a favor for the woman of his destiny. “I'll be back before you can bat even one of your lovely eyelashes,” he said with a wink and a thumbs up before he left the poor woman in peace.
 
“Thank you very much,” Kaori replied as she quickly closed the door and grabbed her phone. She immediately called Pink's Bookstore. She ordered the complete Icha Icha paperback set since it was less expensive than individual volumes and she figured paperback was good enough. She gave them Otoha's name and told them someone would come by in a few minutes to pay for them and pick them up. The clerk was confused and asked if she didn't already have a set. Kaori had to explain it was a gift for a friend. He also asked “Otoha” why she didn't return his calls. Kaori nicely told him she had been out of town and would love to get together with him later in the week. She felt herself sinking even deeper in the sea of deception.
 
Twenty minutes later, she heard the same loud rapid knocks on her door. Gai was already back with her package.
 
“The customer service at the bookstore is atrociously lacking,” he complained. “I had to wait for them to fill the order. You'd think they'd have it ready since it was pre-ordered. Those clerks need to undergo some of my speed efficiency training…”
 
“Er, yes thank you very much. Now I'm sure you're busy today so please don't let me keep you…” Kaori said guiltily, thinking how she just used him to get porn for his eternal rival.
 
“Yes, I have to meet my short handed team for another mission, but I'll see you later,” Gai said with a twinkle in his eye and in his too shiny smile.
 
“Later? But I…” Kaori was about to protest, but the odd man in green was already gone.
 
Kaori shrugged and figured she wasn't going to be home all day so there was no chance of running into Gai again. So she pushed away all thoughts of Gai and opened her package.
 
There they were. Three little orange books titled “Icha Icha Paradise” and three little red books titled “Icha Icha Violence.”
 
Kaori felt her cheeks warm and her fingers tremble as she reached for the first volume of the first set…
 
-…-…-…-
 
After running her errands (she still needed things other than what Gai bought) and eating lunch (vegetable omelet made from Gai's groceries) Kaori made her way to the hospital. She entered through the visitors' entrance and made her way quietly to Kakashi's room. But he was not alone. Her rival was there, suspiciously leaning over him.
 
“What do you think you're doing?” Kaori asked abruptly.
 
Otoha quickly turned and saw her superior glaring back. “Nothing, I was just adjusting his blankets.”
 
Kaori carefully examined the bedding and Kakashi's mask and clothes. It seemed Otoha was doing, or planned to do, much more than that.
 
“You don't need to be here anymore, I'll take over now,” Kaori ordered.
 
“Isn't today your day off?” protested the junior nurse.
 
“I'm continuing the reading sessions,” Kaori replied defensively.
 
“What's the point of reading to him? Even if he wakes up, he won't remember all you did for him. You'll just get a thank you at most and maybe a fruit basket - if he's generous,” Otoha said cruelly as she left.
 
“It's my job,” Kaori replied coldly to the closed door. But Otoha's words had hit a nerve. What would happen when Kakashi woke up? Would it be as Otoha said and she would never see him again? When would Naruto and Jiraiya return with Tsunade? It had only been two days. Kaori estimated it would take them at least a week. That was plenty of time to spend with her sleeping prince. She wouldn't have to worry about what came next for a while.
 
“Good-day Kakashi-san. Just ignore that bimbo. She's always wrong about everything. But I wonder when Jiraiya-sama and Naruto-san will return with Tsunade-sama. I wonder if Shizune-san is still with her. We used to be friends you know, but she's much more talented. I was extremely jealous back then and I'm afraid I wasn't very nice to her. Then she left and I never apologized. I haven't thought about her in years. I wonder if she still remembers me.”
 
Kaori sighed guiltily as she thought about her ex-childhood friend. Shizune was such a nice diffident girl, easy to pick on despite her talent. `I wonder if she's changed. She must be very strong now that she's been training directly with Tsunade-sama. So lucky, I wish I had a teacher like that.' Kaori didn't know what a drunken bitch Tsunade was, who rarely trained Shizune in anything. Poor Shizune had been reduced to being practically a slave these past years.
 
From her bag, Kaori took out “Icha Icha Paradise Volume 1” astutely wrapped in a book jacket titled “The Teachings of Konoha's Founding Hokage” in case anyone walked in. She had already ready the first 30 pages and found it hard to put down.
 
“I…er…brought over a copy of `Icha Icha Paradise,' the first book. I know you've read it already but I haven't so we'll start with that, okay?” Kaori looked over at her comatose patient and saw his right eyebrow twitching in anticipation. A series of little blips appeared on the monitor.
 
“It's much better than I expected. You can tell it's obviously written by a man, but the author has a good sense of what women want in terms of being courted and it's really funny. I have to admit I was shocked to learn the author is Jiraiya-sama himself. So that's what he retired to do…wait a minute… is he a pervert? How does someone come up with this stuff unless he is? Well, I guess he's had a hard life too, being in the shinobi wars and all that.” Kaori excused Jiraiya for his perversion since it seemed Kakashi was one of his biggest fans.
 
Kaori pushed a chair right up next to the bed. “Umm…hmm,” she cleared her throat and then tentatively read a sentence in a rather low voice and looked over at the monitor. It seemed her voice was loud enough as another blip appeared. Feeling a bit less embarrassed, Kaori read with more confidence, but careful to keep her voice at a low volume in case Otoha or someone else was spying on her.
 
Some time later, after twenty pages, Kaori sensed someone at the door. She quickly looked up and saw Sakura.
 
“Good afternoon Kaori-san,” Sakura said in greeting. “I just came in to check on the daffodil I bought yesterday. A daily change of water is best. I learned that from my flower arrangement class. Hey, what's that you're reading?”
 
“Er…it's a book of the first Hokage's teachings. You probably learned them at the Academy. I thought I'd take a refresher course,” Kaori said a bit nervously.
 
“Hmm, I should too, can I see that for a sec?” Sakura asked as she reached for the book.
 
`Oh no! What the hell am I going to do? I can't let her see that I'm actually reading porn! My reputation…' Kaori started to panic.
 
Suddenly she turned and pointed at the window. “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!” she shouted hysterically.
 
Sakura quickly ran to the window with kunai at the ready. A scared pigeon flew away at her approach. She looked out into the inner courtyard. There was nothing unusual at all.
 
“Oh, I guess it was just the shadow of a bird. Sorry about that. Here's the book.” Kaori had quickly employed kawarimi to exchange the Icha Icha book with the appropriate one, which she luckily carried in her bag. `Good thing I keep up with my ninja skills, no matter how limited.' She mentally patted herself on the back.
 
Sakura flipped through the book and nodded. “Yes, this is the same one we had at the Academy, only an older edition,” the girl evaluated. “Well, since Kakashi-sensei already has a visitor, I'll go visit Sasuke-kun.” She gave Kaori a knowing smile. It was obvious to her that the nurse had a crush on her sensei - why else would she be here on her regular day off. But why would she choose to read such a boring book?

 

Kaori's Family Dinner
 
“In the hot springs, the group of young women soaked for hours, allowing the natural salts of the water to cleanse and permeate their pores, and flow into their charming concealed crevices. Soon their skin would be smoother and softer than the finest silk. The thought of touching such sumptuousness sent tingles throughout his body's network of nerves, from the tips his fingers down to…” Kaori read, then blushed. So engrossed was she, she almost forgot about the single member of her audience, and the time.
 
Kaori looked at her watch. It was already late afternoon, almost evening. She was nearly halfway through the book. It was a short book but reading out loud took much longer than reading to yourself. And she had to stop at various point to catch her breath, take a drink of water, and to splash her face with some cold, cold water. The book had that particular effect on readers.
 
“I guess that's all for today. Let's see how you liked it.” The nurse checked Kakashi's brainwave monitor and saw that the normal baseline was definitely elevated throughout the reading session, and there were occasionally groups of peaks that seemed indicative of REM (rapid eye movement), which meant he could have been dreaming. She was well impressed by the response. `I wonder if it's because it's something familiar that he's responding to, rather than this specific book. Maybe if I read something familiar that's not porn…' Kaori decided that would be her next experiment since the close call with Sakura made it too dangerous to continue to read the Icha Icha book. It was well written, erotic, and quite amusing, but really not as good as a sincere romance with less anatomical detail. That depth of feeling was missing.
 
She lowered the shades and was about to smooth out the blanket when she noticed the area right below her patient's waist was bunched up into a tent configuration. `Oh my, I guess he had some really good dreams,' the embarrassed nursed thought. Kaori tentatively tucked the blankets in tighter around him, carefully avoiding touching the body there. Then she went to the bathroom again to splash some more cold water on her face. `Stop thinking those kinds of thoughts,' she scolded herself as she took a deep breath and held it to clear her head.
 
“Well, guess I should be going,” Kaori said reluctantly to her sleeping prince when she was done. “I have to visit the old folks, our bi-weekly family dinner. Sigh, I know exactly what they'll say to me. My mom will say, `Kaori, have you met a nice man yet? Or even a not-so-nice one?' And then my sister will chime in, `Any man will do at your age.' Then my brother will laugh and tell them to lay off me but then he'll add, `Maybe you should keep an eye on the young genin.' Then dad will get into his lecture mode and say, `Kaori, no man is perfect. Just settle down with someone stable in mind, body, and income.' Sigh, sometimes I wonder if having a family is really all that great.”
 
Then she looked at the lonely silent figure and thought how genuinely lucky she was. “I guess it's better than being completely alone, isn't it?” she asked no one in particular. “Why is it so hard to find a good man? I'm really not that picky.” She stared at her sleeping prince for a minute longer before whispering good-night.
 
`If only I really had a man like him - handsome, honorable, intelligent, strong, patient...' The lovelorn nurse listed all of Kakashi's presumed fine attributes on her way to her parents' house, on the outskirts of Konoha. She imagined him waking from his coma because of her healing skills and immediately falling in love with her. 'Kaori-chan, you are the only one for me, my guardian angel, my love...' Of course she would play hard to get for a while but then…
 
Daydreaming, Kaori took her time to get there. She preferred to arrive just before dinner, eat, then leave, without having to endure endless questions and advice from her family. But when she arrived, to her surprise, her family did not greet her with the usual teasing or questions about her love life. If anything, they seemed strangely subdued. They just looked at her, said hi, and went back to whatever they were doing. Maybe they had all given up on her.
 
That annoyed Kaori because she was ready with a response to whether there was someone special in her life. She had planned to say, “Yes, there is a man in my life. He's the top jounin in Konoha. Maybe you've heard of him, Hatake Kakashi.” But instead it seemed she was being ignored.
 
Kaori's mother, a pleasantly plump but attractive woman who looked younger than her years, busied herself in the kitchen. Her formerly chestnut hair, now lighter, was pulled back in a bun, just like Kaori's when she was on duty. She was in the middle of forming rice balls when her eldest child arrived.
 
Kaori tried to bait her mother first. “Hi, mom, need any help?”
 
“Oh no dear, you just go sit down and rest before dinner. I know how hard you have to work all week.”
 
“Yes…about work…I met this…”
 
“Fine, fine, we'll talk about it later. I need to finish making dinner and then change.”
 
Change? Since when did her mother ever bothered to change for dinner? Normally she would continue to wear her apron throughout dinner. But Kaori just shrugged and tried her dad next.
 
Her father was an average man in height and build, who luckily still had his hair although it was now mostly gray. He worked as an accountant for the largest accounting firm in Konoha, earning a decent enough living to provide for his family.
 
“So, Dad, when are you retiring?” was Kaori's usual question to him.
 
“When you get married,” was his usual response. But today he just said, “Soon enough. These old bones won't take much more.”
 
“Dad you're only 59 years old. Sandaime, may the heavens rest his soul, was nearly 70 and he was still able to stand up to his former student.”
 
“He didn't have three children to raise,” he replied with a laugh. “Children age you exponentially.”
 
Kaori waited for him to say something like, “I hope you'll discover that for yourself soon,” but he didn't. He went back to reading the Konoha Times.
 
Kaori next approached her sister Sumire, who looked little like her. Sumire, taller and strongly built, was not as pretty as she, in Kaori's humble opinion, but she attracted more boys when they were growing up together. Kaori was sure, like Otoha, it was because of her bigger breasts. Although she was a couple of years younger, Sumire already had a five year old daughter and a three year old son and a four month old baby boy. It seemed she came without her husband or her two older children today.
 
“Give me a hand `kay,” Sumire mumbled tiredly as she handed the crying baby over to Kaori.
 
Kaori walked the baby around the room, hoping to appease it while Sumire fumbled with the huge diaper bag. She finally found the baby's pacifier and stuck it forcefully in his mouth. The little tyrant settled down and sucked hungrily.
 
Kaori tried to hand the baby back, but her sister quickly stepped into the kitchen to heat up a bottle. That left her brother and his busybody crazy bitch of a wife. They were currently fussing over their only child, pride and joy, spoiled brat, two year old princess. The little monster was in the middle of ripping into her teddy bear and pulling out all the stuffing. But that didn't stop her sister-in-law from saying, “Pacifiers will ruin his teeth. Such a bad habit…”
 
“He doesn't have any teeth yet,” Kaori pointed out.
 
“That's not the point,” her brother Akira said, siding as usual with his annoying know-it-all-wife.
 
Kaori felt her good humor drop dramatically. The two of them always had that effect on her. Her brother was tolerable without his wife, but together they were unbearable. He had been such an easygoing, generous boy, but he was becoming more and more like her. Why did that happen with some men? They seemed to morph into someone unrecognizable to please a woman. Kaori swore that she would not try to change the man she loved, otherwise why would she have loved him in the first place.
 
She could have let their comment go, but Kaori was already geared up for a fight. “It's fine since his teeth haven't yet started coming in.”
 
“How would you know? You don't have children and you're not a dentist,” the bitch challenged.
 
“I'm a certified medical professional who reads up on all manner of medical texts, especially pediatrics,” Kaori countered.
 
“You're just a nurse…”
 
That did it. Kaori was now ready to tear out her jugular. “A pacifier to appease an infant is better parenting than buying expensive gifts to appease an already spoiled brat!”
 
“You don't know anything about raising a child! You don't know what it's like…”
 
Then her brother broke in, “Why don't you go help mom and Sumi in the kitchen.”
 
Kaori shrugged triumphantly and carried the baby into the kitchen to wait for his bottle.
 
“What's going on out there?” her younger sister asked.
 
“Nothing, just you know who acting like a you know what.”
 
“Sigh, why can't you all just get along,” their mother said.
 
“You don't like her either. That's why you hide in the kitchen all the time,” Sumire pointed out.
 
“I have to change,” their mother wisely decided not to get involved. “Kaori, can you please set the table,” she said while disappearing from their sight.
 
“Bottle ready?” Kaori tried to hand over the baby again. He seemed very ready to cry as his efforts to suck milk from his pacifier proved fruitless.
 
This time her sister accepted the little bundle of joy and poop, then expertly replaced the pacifier with the bottle with one hand.
 
“You know, for a nurse, and one that also works in pediatrics, you don't seem to like babies very much,” Sumire commented with an ironic smile.
 
“I like kids that have been toilet trained,” Kaori admitted. She waited expectantly for her sister to say something like, “Wait till you have your own. So when's that gonna be? You don't need a guy for it. Single parenting is in,” but she didn't.
 
Instead, Sumire asked, “So what happened in there?”
 
“What's-her-name said you shouldn't use pacifiers because it ruins teeth.”
 
Sumire shrugged. “You should just ignore her like I do. Stop being so contentious all the time.”
 
“Me? Contentious? Where's this coming from?”
 
“Nothing, it's just…I want things to work out for you.”
 
“Thanks sis, but I'm doing just fine. And what makes you say I'm contentious? I think I'm very nice, most of the time.”
 
“Sure you are, to your patients. But I remember how you eyed my boyfriends…”
 
“Those lame sacks of couch potatoes? I was just looking out for you.”
 
“Really? Lame? Is that what you think of Kazuhiko?”
 
“Who?”
 
“My husband!”
 
“Oh, yeah, him, of course not. He's a good guy.” Actually, Kaori could barely remember his name after all these years because he had made such a nonexistent impression on her. He was also an accountant at the same company as their father's. He was a quiet guy and you wouldn't know he was there until you tripped over him. Then you might think it was just your sandal straps that were loose. Still it seemed strange for her sister to be so serious.
 
“You know…I wasn't going to tell you this but…did you know when dad invited him for dinner back then, he was trying to set you up?” Sumire asked.
 
Kaori could not remember the incident at all. She just shrugged ambiguously.
 
“But you hardly looked at him and I did most of the talking. You dismissed him too easily so that's why I'm the one married to him,” Sumire continued.
 
`No big loss,' Kaori thought but did not reply. Instead she entered the dining room carrying a stack of plates, bowls, and chopsticks. The table was covered with the formal tablecloth, normally used only on special occasions like birthdays. The centerpiece was a large elaborate fresh flower arrangement. `We must be celebrating something…maybe Dad's really retiring or maybe someone got a promotion or maybe someone's pregnant again…' Kaori inferred.
 
But Sumire was not finished with the talk with her older sister. Despite not being as book smart or pretty, she had better people skills and a nonexistent temper, perfect for being a mother. She continued, “Like I said, don't be so contentious. Like how you are with that nurse you work with…”
 
“You mean Otoha?” asked Kaori as she placed dinnerware in front of each seat.
 
“You're always complaining about her.”
 
“Do I? But that's because I have valid reasons. She's annoying and lazy and incompetent. I do all the paperwork while she files her nails!” Kaori nearly broke a plate at the thought.
 
“Well…I guess what I really mean is you need to lighten up. Don't be so judgmental. Look for the good in people…”
 
Kaori glared at her sister. That was one of the words their parents always used when lecturing her. But Kaori had to admit it was true. She was judgmental and often thought she was better than others, but then again, she really was better in those cases, so what's wrong with that? But before Kaori could retort, their mother stepped back into the kitchen.
 
“Dinner's almost ready,” their mother announced. Kaori was surprised to see she had changed into her best kimono. “We can eat as soon as our guest arrives.”
 
“Guest?” Kaori was about to ask when the doorbell rang. `Oh no, they've set me up on a blind date without telling me! I thought after the last fiasco they gave up. No wonder they've been acting so strangely today.' The last time involved a traveling salesman from Earth Country who already had a wife and child.
 
“Kaori, please answer the door,” her father ordered.
 
Kaori sighed and moved to obey him. If it got bad she could always claim she had an emergency at the hospital. Being in the medical profession was good for times like this.
 
Kaori opened the door. She was about to say “Welcome to the Kuchiki household.” But all she saw in front of her was a huge 50 plus pound precooked turkey. Then a head peeked out from behind it. A very familiar looking head - with black fringe hair and thick black eyebrows.
 
Kaori felt a scream welling up from the deepest part of her diaphragm. It took everything within her power to suppress it.

 

Gai's Strategy

The previous night, Gai planned his love strategy with Lee, after Kaori had returned home.

Gai was well known for his brawn, not brains. But every once in while he had a great idea. At least to him it was a great idea, and to Lee. But to normal people, his great ideas were usually kind of out there.

"So are you going to send her flowers tomorrow?" Lee asked his sensei who dropped by after his mission.

"Something as simple as flowers would be fine for youthful expectations. But a mature woman like Kaori will not be impressed by a mere flurry of flora. In my long experience, doing something special for a woman is better than a simple gift of ephemeral floral arrangements," Gai said confidently, then pondered, "However, it does require knowing specifically what she needs."

Lee nodded enthusiastically. His sensei really did know the hearts of women!

"All right, now show me what you have on her," Gai ordered.

Lee took out his little notepad and squinted at his own handwriting. "She has the day off tomorrow. She plans to go grocery shopping and then visit her family. Her parents are still living and she has a younger brother and sister," Lee reported.

Gai nodded in approval. "I see.she's in dire need of food. That's what I can do for her! Judging by her diminutive size, she requires much more nutrients. Now her family.we need more information on them. Who are they, what are their likes and dislikes, what do they do for a living.a full dossier."

"I'll get right on it!" Lee volunteered.

Gai looked affectionately at his little accomplice. "Okay, now you've learned about data gathering (rather than spying or stalking) in the Academy and our missions. What do you propose?"

"Hmm." Lee pondered. Alas, Lee was also known for his speed and brawn rather than brains. The problem was, because of his injuries, he couldn't perform the usual mission duties like secretly following the target. "Do jounin have access to civilian records?"

"Ah, I see what you mean. We should check the hospital records - that should have her address and emergency contacts, which are most likely to be her parents. From that information I should be able to track down her family. Brilliant Lee!"

They waited until after dinner when the nurses would be checking on the patients, which left only one nurse on duty at the front desk. Two green figures silently scoped the hospital halls.

Otoha was at the main desk, impatiently waiting for her shift to end. She was wearing headphones and swaying in time with the music she was listening to on her CD player. Despite her inattentiveness, she noticed Lee walking by on his crutches. She looked up and asked in an irritated tone, "May I help you?"

Lee shook his head, "No thank you. I am fine. I just wanted to walk around a bit before going to bed."

Otoha went back to listening to her music and reading her magazine, "The Konoha Inquirer."

Gai gave Lee the thumbs up from around the corner.

Lee took a couple of more steps then suddenly fell to the floor, yelping in pain. The nurse ignored him. Her music was on so loud she didn't hear him at all.

Gai motioned for Lee to move in closer and do it again. Then again. Now Lee was really feeling the pain. The next time Lee crashed against Otoha's desk, sending the magazine flying out of her hands. She couldn't ignore him this time.

"Let's get you back to bed," the grumpy nurse muttered as she grabbed Lee by his bad arm. Lee yelped out in pain, for real this time, and allowed himself to be man-handled and forced back to his room.

Meanwhile Gai quickly sat in front of the computer terminal. He was no computer expert but luckily it was set up to search for patients' names.

Gai typed in Kaori as the first name and left everything else blank. There were seven patient records with that name. He clicked them one by one until the fifth record revealed Kaori's picture. He scanned the screen, looking for pertinent information, and jotted down her address, and her parent's names and address. Her medical history revealed that she had been in the Academy nearly two decades agoand she had twisted her ankle during practice.

Then he did a search on her parents' names and found that her father's insurance was paid for by one of Konoha's top accounting firms, which also happened to do independent audits on the Hokage's office. Gai knew that from the time the auditor had questioned him about his requisition for training weights of half a ton. There wasn't much information on her mother so he assumed she was a homemaker.

Footsteps approached so Gai quickly exited the screen and darted to the opposite hallway from whence the steps came. Otoha returned to her desk and stretched her long limbs lazily above her head, thrusting out her ample chest. Gai couldn't help but think it was a pity Kaori was lacking in that area. But that was all right as he had plans to turn Kaori into the perfect woman.

From Gai's long (and unsuccessful) experience in the pursuit of the usually fairer sex, he found that subtlety worked better than the direct approach (in his case). His youthful declarations of love were always met by cold stares or laughter. Instead of running into his arms, the girls ran away from him, with surprisingly impressive speed. He decided that the best way to win over Kaori was to win over her family, and make himself an indispensable part of her life (whether she wanted that or not).

So as his first step, he and Lee spent most of the night drafting a letter of introduction to Kaori's parents. The next morning he sent it along with his resume and a large floral arrangement.

To the most esteemed parents of Kuchiki Kaori:

I, Maito Gai, am writing this letter of introduction in order to declare my intention to court your most beloved daughter Kaori. I have recently realized that she is the woman of my destiny.

Flowers and youth may be ephemeral but like a stubborn weed I will stand steadfast by her side in all types of rainy weather, for like kunai and shuriken, blood and guts, peanut butter and jelly, and sweet and sour, we are destined to be together.

To prove my worthiness, I have attached my updated resume with the number and types of missions I have completed in my many years as one of Konoha's top jounin. Rest assured that your precious one will be protected both physically and financially.

I hope to have your approval and any assistance that may be necessary to win over her heart and soul like she has won over mine.

Please expect me for dinner tonight at 6:30pm sharp. This will also be a pleasant surprise for Kaori.

Sincerely yours,

Future son-in-law, a.k.a. Jounin Taijutsu Master, a.k.a. Konoha's Noble Green Beast,

Maito Gai

Kaori's parents were so pleased that their daughter finally had a serious suitor that they overlooked the rather strange letter.

Her father reviewed the resume and mission information with his calculator. "This guy's loaded! She's hit the jackpot!" he proclaimed after crunching some numbers.

Her mother was enthused by the beautiful and expensive basket of flowers. "And he's generous," she added happily as she touched the petals of the rare orchids.

Gai definitely had their approval, thus far. Of course, whether on purpose or not, he wisely did not enclose a picture with his resume.

Gai had inferred that since Kaori's father was an accountant, he was concerned with money and whether his daughter would be care for financially. Thus he enclosed his lengthy ten page resume which detailed his most dangerous missions and their corresponding commissions. He decided to send flowers to her mother who as a mature settled woman would appreciate the gesture. After all, how many dedicated husbands bought flowers for their wives after decades of marriage?

But the problem was how could he get in the good graces with her siblings? He did not get the chance to research them. Gai decided to worry about that later as he did have errands to run and official responsibilities to attend to the next day.

That morning, before his next mission, Gai went grocery shopping for Kaori, selecting the best cuts of meat, the premium size fruits and vegetables, and anything nutritionally fortified. By insisting it was a thank you gift for taking care of Lee, it took the pressure off Kaori. So instead of being overwhelmed and scared off by Gai's exuberance, she would accept the gift and then gradually accept him. At least that was his plan. It seemed to work as she trusted him enough to ask him to pick up a package at the bookstore. Gai never entered bookstores so he was not familiar with Pink's stock. He didn't mind running the simple errand for Kaori and thought how nice of her to offer to pick up books for her friend at the hospital. That other nurse was definitely not as hardworking as his Kaori.

The mission that morning involved a problem at the Nara laboratories and a renegade food scientist who was experimenting with growth hormones. Gai and his two genin team managed to capture the stray animals which had broken out of the laboratory. One of them was a huge turkey, which unfortunately met an untimely death during their pursuit. It broke its own neck when it tripped while escaping.

Gai had the bright idea of preparing it as his contribution to dinner. Tenten and Neji did not think it was a good idea to eat experimental animals, but their protests fell on deaf ears. After all, to Gai, the bigger, the more grandiose the gesture the better. And secretly he hoped growth hormones would help Kaori in the right places.

The afternoon was spent cooking birdzilla. Tenten and Neji were forced to watch it and took turns basting it while their sensei ran off to who knows where. Gai had ordered Neji to use his byakugan to ensure it was thoroughly and evenly cooked. As the two sat mournfully in Gai's kitchen waiting for the kitchen timer to go off every 20 minutes, they commiserated over their sensei acting weirder than usual.

"I can't believe we're wasting our time cooking this monster," muttered Neji as he pushed the turkey back in the oven after basting.

"Be thankful Gai sensei decided on the turkey rather than the two hundred pound pig. That would take days to cook," sighed Tenten.

"If it's not done in time, I'll have to cook it the jyuuken way."

"What do you mean?"

"I'll force chakra into it."

"That doesn't sound like a good idea at all."

"It's not going to explode. My chakra control is too good for that."

"No, I mean it's already been genetically modified. What if your chakra changes the cells at the genetic level? Maybe the turkey will become inedible. Chakra and science don't always mix well," warned Tenten.

"It'll be inedible any way if it's not cooked," Neji reasoned.

"Let's just wait and see. Gai sensei says six hours should do it. Sigh, he's done this before."

"You mean cook a 50 plus pound turkey? I didn't think something like that normally existed. Aren't they usually half the size?"

"I don't know. What I meant was he's gone overboard again to impress a girl."

"Who's the latest victim?" asked Neji indifferently, used to his sensei's obsessive behavior.

"Lee mentioned one of the nurses when I visited him yesterday," sighed Tenten.

"Hmmf, let's see how long this one lasts," pondered Neji, thinking of the previous victims. "The girl at the checkout counter of the grocery store left town immediately. The librarian filed a restraining order with a week. I heard she ended up getting plastic surgery and a new identity."

"Well, it's impressive how he rebounds each time. But now he's saying something about destiny."

"I thought that was my line." Neji made a very small attempt at a self-deprecating joke.

"He's going to have to make his own destiny. I can't see a woman falling for him that easily," said Tenten, shaking her head. "It's too bad really. I mean, sure he's not cool or that good looking, but he's a good person, honest and loyal and passionate."

"So does that mean you'd be interested in him if you were older," Neji asked cynically, knowing her response.

"No way! Not with that hair, those brows, that green jumpsuit."

"So you're just as shallow as the rest of them," Neji accused.

"Well.I'm allowed to be. I'm just a teenager. But older women should be more mature and appreciative of a man's good points," his teammate said in her own defense.

"What about Lee?" asked Neji coolly, but inside he was very curious about her answer. He had a fondness for Tenten he would not admit to even under torture.

"Lee? Well...uh..." Tenten hesitated. Her feelings tended to shift back and forth between her two teammates. "If he's not an exact clone, he'd be salvagable," she said evasively. "Anyway, I hope it's not another fiasco."

"Hmmf. Two to one she runs off screaming," Neji evaluated

"This one will last longer. She's a nurse - she's use to dealing with difficult patients."

"She's not a psychiatric nurse. I give her at most a week before she breaks."

"Hmm.I'll take that bet. A thousand ryou?"

Neji nodded, secretly confident that it would just take a couple of days.

Gai and the Kuchiki Family

Meanwhile Gai was trying hard to gather information on the rest of Kaori's family. He could no longer access the hospital records. He tried the Academy records but it seemed neither of her siblings had ever enrolled. But he then he had the bright idea of visiting Kaori's father's company, but with no clear plan in mind.

The man in a green jumpsuit and orange leg warmers stood out like an oozing sore thumb amongst the business suited accountants with their calculators and pencils in their left breast pockets, especially when the office was supposed to be closed for the day. He was immediately questioned by the non-shinobi security guard/desk clerk. Gai had an attack of smarts and said he was looking for Kuchiki's son, thinking that he wouldn't ask for Kaori's father but her brother instead and that he would be able to get some indirect information that way. However, the desk clerk called down Kaori's brother-in-law, Kazuhiko, who was putting in some much needed overtime thanks to his three kids.

A prematurely balding man, who looked older than Gai despite being about the same age, appeared. His eyes widened in surprise at the odd man in green. "You? You're the one with the half ton weights!" he exclaimed.

Gai looked at him quizzically. He was never good with names or faces (or numbers or letters). "I'm Maito Gai, Jounin Taijutsu Master, also known as Konoha's noble green beast. Might you be acquainted with the beauteous Kaori?"

"Er, yes, she's my sister-in-law."

"I see.perfect! I dearly hope you can help me with the pursuit of my destined beloved."

"Who? Kaori?" The poor accountant started to get a very bad feeling.

"Yes of course! If you could help me, my good man, I will be eternally grateful and at your service. What I need is just a bit of information. Now I'll be attending your little family gathering tonight."

"You will?" Gai did not seem like the type of man that would interest Kaori. In fact he looked like the type she would go to great lengths to exorcise.

"Yes of course, now I would just like to know a bit about her family. Like you for instance."

"Me? I'm not involved in.this am I?"

"Yes of course you are. Kaori's family will be my family. Now tell me about yourself."

Gai towered over the little accountant who swallowed nervously. "Er.I'm married to Kaori's sister Sumire. We have three kids."

"How absolutely wonderful! All those little tykes running around, keeps you young doesn't it? Ah the springtime of youth."

"Well, I actually had all my hair before the kids."

"So tell me about them. How old are they? What do they like?"

"Umm, I have a five year old girl and two boys - three years, and four months. Why do you need to know about them?" He looked at Gai suspiciously. Was this man really interested in women?

"To win the heart of the fair Kaori I must win over her family," Gai explained.

Kazuhiko nodded but a warning bell continued to ring in the accountant's head. It made sense, but knowing Kaori it was a long shot, equivalent to kicking a 60 yard field goal or making a basket from the other side of the court. No, it was more like getting all the credits and debits to reconcile during tax time. The woman was very particular and for some reason she never seemed to notice when Kazuhiko was in the room. He recalled the last time Kaori was unhappy with a date her parents arranged. She dumped her dinner in the guy's lap. So now Kazuhiko wisely decided not to go to dinner tonight.

"Umm, well, the two older ones and I probably won't be able to make it, but my wife will be there with the baby. My wife likes it when people play with the baby and take him off her hands for a while. The baby.well, he's like all babies. He's been fussing lately. Maybe he's teething."

Gai nodded and scribbled madly in his little notepad. "And Kaori's brother?"

"Akira has a two year old girl. His wife Sadako doesn't get along with Kaori, and vice versa. I think it's because they're sort of alike. But I have to admit Kaori is better. She may ignore me, but at least she doesn't insult me," the poor little accountant sighed. It felt good to get the dirty family laundry off his chest.

"Hmm.so should I be antagonistic to the sister-in-law?"

"Oh no, please don't add any more kindling to the fire. Just stick to safe non- controversial subjects and change the subject if it looks like it's going to get bad." But Kazuhiko thought to himself, 'Good luck, with those two even the weather's not a safe subject.'

"Does she get along with her brother?"

"She used to. Akira was an easygoing laidback kid. Kaori kind of bullied him when they were growing up. But ever since he's been with Sadako, he's been tougher and I think that annoys her." Kazuhiko was now thoroughly enjoying dissing his in-laws. He tried hard not to smile.

"What do the two of them do for a living?"

"Akira works at the gambling house in Otafuka. He's in charge of the dice tables. He met his wife there. She was a.hostess. Now she just takes care of their daughter. That one's worse than all my kids combined. She loves to destroy her toys." He added the last part in satisfaction. Those two deserved to have a brat like that.

"Hmm." Gai muttered as he scribbled away.

"I hope this helps. It's very smart of you to prepare yourself like this. Saves a lot of time in the long run."

"Yes! Efficiency is my middle name," Gai said with his sparkling smile.

'M.E.G? No, G.E.M., yes I see, he is so sparkly.' Kazuhiko was visibly impressed with this man who was so full of confidence, so strong, so smart. He even had an impressive head of hair, unlike his own. He wished he could be just like Gai. Maybe this man really did have a chance with Kaori.if it only weren't for that green jumpsuit.

-.-.-.-

Gai then made his way to the Kuchiki house and setup his surveillance equipment. He patiently waited as one sibling after another appeared. He casually listened in on their boring civilian conversations, then brightened when he saw Kaori approach. He listened carefully to the exchanges between Kaori and the other women.

As Kaori set the dinner table, Neji and Tenten arrived with the turkey. Gai immediately ordered Neji to find an indestructible toy and Tenten to find something for a teething baby that wouldn't affect its teeth.

Neji and Tenten protested that it was already late and most of the stores were closed, but Gai would have none of it. "It's a serious mission. You have ten minutes or I'll see you both tomorrow for special training. Your green jumpsuits will be ready."

As soon as Gai mentioned the green jumpsuits, Neji and Tenten sped away at top chakra speed.

Neji headed straight for the Hyuuga complex and toward the Head family's mansion. There he found Hanabi in the courtyard, just finished with her kunai throwing practice. Neji quickly knocked Hanabi over and grabbed her teddy bear, which she sometimes used for target practice. "Sorry kid, I need this more than you do!" he said as he rushed back to his love crazed sensei, leaving his poor cousin in tears.

Meanwhile Tenten resorted to breaking and entering of an infant supply store. But she did guiltily leave 250 ryou for the item she stole and another 2000 ryou for the lock she broke. Neji made no such apology. In fact, he rather enjoyed his mission.

-.-.-.-

'This is not happening. I must have fallen asleep during dinner. I must have been poisoned by tainted sashimi.' Kaori just stood in front of the door in a daze. Her mother roughly pushed her aside to greet their honored guest. Her father bowed, and patted Gai on the back like an old friend as he entered.

The rest of the family gathered around staring with interest at the man carrying the giant fowl. What they saw was a tall, well-built man, of good humor with very straight white shiny teeth. He was not particularly good looking but had nice masculine rugged features. He seemed friendly and personable. Quite a good catch they all appraised - until he put the turkey down on the dining table. Then they saw his hideous green jumpsuit in all its infamous glory.

"For today's feast, I bring to you the daimyo of all poultry!" Gai declared as he set down the turkey.

Everyone stared in awe at the large bird (and the green jumpsuit with clashing orange leg warmers). But Kaori knew that not only was it big, it was unnaturally so, so she asked in trepidation, "Umm.where did you get such a.fine specimen?"

"The Nara farm breeds the most exceptional animals," Gai replied a bit evasively. "Let's dig in! It's best when it's hot."

As Kaori's father introduced the other members of the family, her mother served the food, Gai cut up the turkey, and Kaori stayed silent and thought. 'What the hell is he doing here? He's stalking me! This morning he said he'd see me later so he must have planned this.but how? Wait a second.that Lee. I told him about seeing my family. I should never have saved him from that orange! Damn, what do I do now?'

Kaori looked over at her smiling family who had all taken their seats, leaving one seat for Kaori. Gai sat at one end of the table while her father sat at the other end. Her brother and mother sat on either side of her father. Sumire was next to their mother and crazy sister-law sat on Gai's left with the little tyrant between her and her husband. The empty seat was on Gai's right and next to Kaori's sister.

They seemed to be quite taken with the odd man in green. Gai now had Sumire's baby in his lap. The baby seemed to be fascinated, or maybe petrified, by Gai's eyebrows and stared at them, wide-eyed and unblinking. His chubby little arms reached up in an attempt to pull them off.

"Oh, before I forget." Gai took out a little package from his inner vest pocket. "This is for the baby.and this." He reached into his hip pouch, ".is for the little princess."

The two mothers smiled and thanked him for his gracious gifts. It was exactly what they wanted! The baby received an orthodontic pacifier, specially shaped as to not affect incoming teeth, while the little beast received a teddy bear, but one made of indestructible Kevlar, just like the shinobi vests.

With a sigh, Kaori took her seat next to Gai, who despite having a 20 pound bundle in one arm, immediately placed several large slabs of turkey on her plate. Kaori eyed them suspiciously. She knew the Nara farm also had a laboratory with experimental animals. "Umm.thank you but I don't like turkey," she protested. "It's too dry."

"It's just like chicken and everyone likes chicken. Just add some of this," Gai insisted as he ladled some gravy over her turkey.

"That's right dear," her mother added with an edge in her voice. "You like chicken so you'll like this too," she insisted. She knew immediately that Kaori was in her difficult mode.

Kaori's stomach clenched in objection. There was no way she would eat it. But she just nodded and piled some rice on top of it.

"So tell me about that. uniform you're wearing. That's not the usual Konoha shinobi uniform is it?" Kaori's horrible sister-in-law asked with amusement.

"Ah, yes, I'm glad you noticed. This here is an aerodynamic, breathable, elastic, custom made jumpsuit, personally designed by yours truly. It increases my speed and flexibility by 10 percent over the usual shinobi uniform and it's better for camouflage," Gai explained proudly. He continued to give details on the material, density, and weave, in addition to statistics on its performance as tested by himself and his disciple Lee. Then he went into storytelling mode with some of his most exciting missions.

Kaori wasn't listening. She was studying her family's reaction. The group of pathetic civilians seemed to be taken in by the excitement of shinobi life as they listened attentively to everything Gai had to say. 'Don't you all realize this guy is weird! He's stalking me! I didn't invite him to dinner!' she wanted to shout, but she stayed silent. After all, what if Gai were really crazy? What if her rebuff sent him over the edge? Nothing more dangerous than an insane shinobi.

She picked at her food, without eating anything, as she thought hard about how she could discourage her suitor and escape from this nightmare. 'I could pretend I just remembered I needed to do something at the hospital. But chances are he would insist on escorting me. I could pretend I'm sick. But then he'd probably make me some disgusting health drink. If I go home he'll insist on taking me. I can't escape, can I? Best I could do is make it short.'

Kaori's thoughts were disturbed as the baby and toddler both started to cry, apparently both vying for Gai's attention. Gai bounced the baby on his knee, while cutting a small piece of turkey. He then reached over, and zoomed it into the older child's mouth. Kaori's family all clapped at his expertise, but then something strange happened.

Someone hiccupped. But it wasn't quite a hiccup. It was more like a gurgle from the throat, or rather a gobble. Soon everyone except Kaori and the baby started to hiccup-gobble. Kaori was horrified but both kids started to laugh, especially the older one who found her own hiccup-gobbling to be quite entertaining.

'What the hell!' Kaori thought. 'It must be that mutant turkey. Who knows what kind of experiments they were doing on it at that place. But it seems relatively harmless. No one's sprouted feathers. Maybe once it's digested it'll go away.' "Don't eat any more of that turkey!" Kaori warned, though it was rather late for that.

But her family seemed to be enjoying it - they were all laughing and pointing at each other. "Lighten-gob-ble-up Kaori," her mother said between hiccups. "This is kind of gob-ble-fun."

The toddler shrieked in laughter and yelled "Gob-ble fun gramma!"

Gai looked at Kaori sheepishly and tried to explain, "Er.my.gob-ble.genin Neji swore adding chakra to help.gob-ble.cook the turkey wouldn't have side effects. But hey, the turkey was.gob-ble.good wasn't it?"

Kaori shook her head. Another misuse of chakra disaster. 'Don't these shinobi know that chakra can't be used to solve every problem?' All those kitchen fires from shinobi trying to light their old stoves with fireballs resulted in several accidents every year. Homes were damaged by shinobi using water jutsu to clean their floors, not realizing the floor had no drain to accommodate all that water. And now trying to cook a turkey with chakra.

"Well, hopefully this is just temporary. If the hiccupping doesn't stop by tomorrow morning, you should all go to the shinobi hospital," Kaori advised in her serious official voice.

Most of her family shrugged, but they all agreed not to eat any more turkey.

The rest of the dinner proceeded smoothly with Kaori saying little and Gai entertaining her family despite punctuating his action descriptions with gobbling. Kaori couldn't understand why her family took to Gai. They didn't seem to care that they all looked and sounded like idiots thanks to that fool's attempt to cook an experimental animal with chakra. They didn't seem to mind his odd looks and odder dress. What was wrong with all of them?

After another fifteen minutes of the dinner party from hell, Kaori tried to excuse herself, but her mother would have none of it. "At least help me with the dessert in the kitchen," she said while giving her daughter a stern look.

Kaori sighed and followed her mother, expecting another lecture. She was not to be disappointed.

"What's the matter with you Kaori? There's this great guy in there and you look like you'd rather be swallowed up by an earth jutsu."

"That sounds about right," Kaori responded coldly. "Did you know he was coming? I sure didn't!"

"Keep your voice down!" her mother ordered, not heeding her own advice. "Don't ruin your chance at another one."

"Another what? Another loser?"

"Why must you be so judgmental? All those other men were perfectly fine, but all you can see are their flaws. I mean the last guy we."

"You mean the married one!"

"So what? His other family is far, far away. And it's better to have a part-time husband. You get to have more freedom and independence that way. Remember, absence makes the heart grow fonder..."

Kaori just glared at her mother.

"No one's perfect and you're not getting any younger, unless you learned some special jutsu you haven't told us about. Once a women hits the big 3-0, she's more likely to be swallowed by a summoned demon than get married."

"You're seriously telling me to go for a guy who looks and dresses like that?"

"You know looks shouldn't be that important. It's the insides that count and he seems like a perfectly nice guy. And look how straight and white his teeth are. That should count for something. Sumire and I could always give him a makeover." Kaori's mother actually ran a beauty shop with her sister sometimes helping out.

Kaori decided to end the conversation by saying, "There's someone else I like. I hope you'll get to meet him soon."

That got her mother's attention and now she was willing to abandon Gai in the light of another suitor. "Really? Really? You're not just saying that to shut me up? Who is it?"

"You'll see," Kaori said evasively. "Our relationship is in the early stages so I don't want to jinx it by saying anything. But I promise you'll get to meet him soon and I'm sure you'll like him." Kaori was of course thinking of Kakashi who still lay in a coma, but her mother was now satisfied.

"If you like him, I'm sure we will. Why didn't you tell us earlier. poor Gai sensei, I'm sure he'll be heartbroken. You'll have to tell him."

"Er. yes of course." But Kaori knew it was easier said than done.

-.-.-.-

Author's Notes: Sadako is the ghost girl in the "Ring"

 

 

Green

Green, everything was green, a monotonal lime green that extended as far as her eye could see. The green miasma surrounded her and gradually closed in on her. When it touched her skin it felt cool and sticky, just like the cafeteria's Jell-o. She pushed against it but her arms disappeared into its semi-solid mass. Soon her whole body was enveloped in the green blob and all that was exposed was just her head. She tried to scream for help but it oozed into her orifices and she could no longer breathe.

Kaori woke from her dream, of being enveloped and suffocated by green Jell-o, screaming into her pillow. The man was everywhere - even in her dreams she could not escape him.

It was still dark. She tried futilely to go back to sleep, but her thoughts still dwelled on last night's events.

When Kaori finally left her parents' place to return home, Gai of course insisted on escorting her. She did her best to bring up the topic of how she wasn't interested in him, but Gai purposely avoided actually talking about their non-existent relationship. Instead he rambled on about the history of the medic-nins, how they served a vital function, and how wonderful everything would be when Tsunade returned. Kaori was terrified that he would expect a good-night kiss, but luckily Gai just dropped her off, saying he'd see her tomorrow. Before Kaori could protest, he was gone again.

Dawn came with a banging at her door. Kaori was just about to fall asleep again, but she gave up and got up instead. 'Who could it be at this hour?' she thought in irritation. 'I hope it's not an emergency at the hospital. Oh no, I hope something didn't happen to Kakashi!'

She quickly grabbed her robe and wrapped it tightly around her body. But who should she find standing in her doorway but the man responsible for her nightmares, with a gift wrapped box in his arms.

"Good morning! I have a special surprise present for you," he announced, oblivious of her bleary eyes and unkempt hair.

"Thanks, but isn't this kind of early for.visits and I can't possibly accept any more gifts from you. It's not appropriate." Kaori protested, trying hard to keep her temper.

"The early bird gets the worm, you know, and this will help you defeat all other birds!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Open it, you'll see," he shiny-smiled at her.

What woman could resist opening a gift box? Kaori just had to open it despite her misgivings and the alarm going off in her head.

She dropped the box as soon as she saw what was in it. What was in it was green. The same green as Gai's jumpsuit.

Nonplussed, Gai picked up the box and took out a miniature green jumpsuit for a petite size 2-4.

'No way! No way! No way!' Kaori screamed in her head. But all she could do was stare at it, dumbfounded.

"I noticed yesterday that you don't eat enough. I've decided to help you get healthier and fitter. First you need to get up early and do morning exercises."

"I already do!" protested Kaori futilely.

"Not my regiment. You see, the reason why you failed to become a shinobi is because of the poor training you received at the hands of some mediocre Academy teacher. I can improve your stamina in 30 days. Look what I did for Lee."

"But I."

"Wearing this jumpsuit is the first step. Then my exercise regiment, followed by a large nutritionally balanced breakfast, the most important meal of the day."

"No.I like being just a nurse. I don't want to be a shinobi."

"But think of what you can do as a shinobi medic!"

That made Kaori stop and think. If she could be like Tsunade, she'd be able to heal Kakashi by herself. So with that thought she tentatively accepted the hideous green fashion-faux-pas.

-.-.-.-.-

"Ugh! No more, no more, I can't take any more!" Kaori screamed after just twenty minutes of working out with Gai. She lay on the damp forest ground, dirty and panting. Every muscle, ligament, and tendon ached with the build up of lactic acid. Gai had made her run three miles, plus two with chakra, and do a hundred sit-ups and a hundred pushups. She collapsed at push-up 55.

'Kakashi can just stay in that coma till Tsunade gets back! I'm fine with the man in my life being in a coma. After all, the only time a man is perfect is when he's sleeping. That way he can't do or say something stupid,' Kaori muttered to herself.

Gai looked at her in profound disappointment. She was weaker than he expected (and for some reason she did not look as cute in the green jumpsuit as his dear Lee). While she was a bit taller and heavier than Tenten, she did not have even one tenth her stamina or determination. Pathetic. But not to worry, as Gai had further plans for improvement.

"Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and you're not close to being dead yet," Gai insisted seriously.

Kaori glared at him. 'The only thing that motivates me right now is killing him!' she thought angrily. But she took a more reasonable approach. "I think I needed to stretch more. I just pulled a muscle. (Actually all of them!) And I have to get to work soon."

"But according to your schedule, you don't start work for another two hours."

"Well, I have to shower and change, and fix my hair and apply makeup, and have breakfast and check the news for the weather report and." Kaori desperately tried to think of more excuses.

But it was enough to convince Gai to stop training for the morning. "All right. We can stop now and continue after work."

"After work?"

"Oh, and you may bring your dog."

"My dog?"

"I know you planned to have dinner with your dog today, but the training may go past your usual dinner time. And having a partner might make training more enjoyable. You know of the Inuzuka clan, don't you? It'll be good exercise for your dog as well. By the way, what kind of dog do you have?"

"Uh, well, actually," Kaori desperately thought of another lie to cover her original lie. 'Who knew this fool would actually remember something like that?' "My pet beagle is .uh.visiting his sick mother and won't be back for a while." 'There's no way someone would believe something like that. He must know I've been lying to him. Then maybe he'll give up on me. I hope!'

But Gai was moved to tears. "Ah, visiting his sick mother - filial piety exists even among animals. - sniff - How inspirational! Sets an example for us humans, don't you think?"

"Er.yes," Kaori sighed. There just seemed to be no easy indirect way to get rid of the odd man in green.

-.-.-.-

That morning, Otoha arrived early to cover for her predecessor, though she was fifteen minutes late. She noticed that her coworker was not her usual immaculate self. Kaori looked more like Otoha after a sleepless night of drinking and dancing. There were dark circles under her eyes and her hair was not in a perfect bun. So Otoha just had to ask, "Are you okay? You look like hell. Too much fun on your day off?"

"Not even close," Kaori sighed, too tired for verbal sparring.

Otoha's curiosity was piqued. "Anything I can help you with?" she asked sympathetically. Not that she particularly cared about Kaori, she just had to know what was going on.

Kaori had to talk to someone, even if it was her rival, so she replied, "How do you get rid of a guy you're not interested in without hurting his feelings? And I mean a really dense guy who just doesn't get it."

"Easy. Just tell him thanks for the attention but you're not interested because you're dating someone else."

"But I'm not."

"So what? Make it up."

"What if he decides to confront the nonexistent guy? He's very, very persistent." Kaori sighed again.

"You mean Gai sensei, don't you?" Otoha had heard rumors about how Gai pursued women with great persistence and intensity. "What has he done?" she asked, hoping to get some juicy tidbits.

"The other day he showed up at my apartment, uninvited, and filled up my entire refrigerator with groceries!"

"That doesn't sound like a bad thing," Otoha noted jealously.

"And yesterday he showed up at my parent's house for our family dinner, uninvited again!"

"Did he bring something?"

"I think he sent my mom a large floral arrangement and he brought a turkey."

"That was nice of him."

"But the turkey was mutated and everyone ate it, but me, and ended up gobbling like idiots!"

"Well, at least he brought something. Most guys won't bring anything but their stomachs," Otoha reflected.

"And this morning he woke me up at dawn and insisted I work out with him, in a green jumpsuit!"

"Well.green goes nicely with the color of your hair," Otoha offered.

"It's just too much! I give him all these hints that I'm not interested and when I try to bring up the subject directly, he somehow avoids it."

"Ah, I see.he's smarter than he looks. He's using the old avoidance trick so you can't dump him. He's hoping you'll start to like him after a while."

"Not a chance in hell!"

Otoha shrugged. "At least he's attentive. Like I said, they're all pretty much the same in bed with the lights out." Her sympathy disappeared and she started to giggle uncontrollably.

Kaori turned dark red. She stood up and left the giggling git to do her morning rounds. As usual she left Lee for last in the pediatrics wing.

Lee's appetite was no longer a problem, Kaori deduced from the empty tray. Lee beamed at her happily as he paused his stretching exercises (even he knew strenuous exercise after eating was not a good idea). "Good morning nurse Kaori-san! I hope you had a pleasant day off."

Kaori glared at him. She wanted to pick him up and shake him but she knew even with his injuries she was no match for him. "I'm afraid your sensei has the wrong idea. I'm not romantically inclined at the moment," she managed to say diplomatically.

Lee looked at her quizzically. Kaori tried again as she went through the usual medical checkup routine. "Your sensei is a nice guy but."

"Yes! Gai sensei is the nicest and the greatest man in existence!"

"Well.it's just that I'm not interested in having a relationship right now."

"Then later? Next week? Next month?"

'Never!' "Umm.I don't know. I."

"Gai sensei will wait however long it takes for his destined one."

"Destined?"

"Since you saved my life, it is obvious the two of you were meant to come together because of me."

"I save lots of lives."

"Oh." Lee frowned as he considered the ramifications. "But you two are perfect together."

"I'm sorry, but he's not my type," Kaori said bluntly.

"How could you not like Gai sensei? He's the greatest man to walk this earth!"

"Please have a talk with your sensei. Get him to realize that there's someone out there for him, but it's just not me."

"Gai sensei will be heart broken," Lee was the heart broken one right now as tears started to form in his oddly circular eyes.

"Well it's better to let him know sooner rather than later."

Lee nodded mutely. Kaori tried hard not to smile. She tried to look sympathetic, but she felt much, much better. It was as if a ton of training weights had been lifted from her shoulders. 'Using Lee to dump Gai was a great idea!' she thought proudly. 'Much better than Otoha's silly ideas.'

Kaori continued her rounds and finished up with Kakashi. "Good morning Kakashi-san," she smiled. "I've had a crazy 24 hours. Your rival Gai sensei is stalking me and my family approves! I'm not that desperate for a man. I mean, sure he's nice, but he's crazy! He practically killed me this morning with his so called low key warm up exercise routine! Ugh! But I think I finally took care of it."

Kaori went through her regular routine of checking the monitors then settled down on the chair next to Kakashi's bed with a book. "Let's read something else you're familiar with. I have a copy of the teachings of the First Hokage." Kaori flipped to the first page and started reading. Her voice drifted into a lecturing monotone. She was practically putting herself to sleep but she stubbornly read on. After all, it was either this or the Icha Icha books and the last time was just too embarrassing.

"'Shinobi rule number 25 - A shinobi must keep emotions on the inside, no matter what the situation you must make the mission top priority, and you must possess a heart that never shows tears.' That's really sad, isn't it? I remember first reading that in the Academy and I wondered if it's really possible to control your emotions like that." She looked over at her perfect man. "Can you? Have you ever told a woman that you loved her?" 'Or guy, I suppose that's possible.but.no way!' "I know it refers to missions, not your personal life, but there's a fine line, isn't there? How can you act one way on a mission and another way the rest of the time? Sigh, I suppose I'm not really cut out to be a shinobi. But then again I've never told a man."

Kaori read a while longer then stopped to check the brainwave monitor. Flat, no peaks at all. If anything, it looked like the baseline dropped! "I guess this was too boring. You really want me to go back to Icha Icha Para." Kaori barely finished her sentence when a blip appeared. She sighed. "All right, I'll try again later."

 

 

Kaori's Desperation

"Never give up! That's our motto isn't it, Lee?" Gai replied when Lee told him the heart breaking news during lunch. They were sitting together in the cafeteria with an abundance of food on the table.

"Yes, but what will you do now?" asked Gai's number one fan.

"I will continue to pursue her until there is 100 percent certainty there is no hope. Even if there were one chance in one hundred billion trillion, I will persist. That's what it means to be a man, Lee, to fight to the end with your last dying breath! Whether in battle or love it doesn't matter."

"Yes! Never give up!" Lee rooted, throwing his hands up in the air.

"You see, she's just not sure of her feelings right now. I have a tendency to overwhelm women with my brilliance. It just takes time for their eyes to adjust. So don't worry, it will all work out in the end," Gai said with his usual misplaced confidence. "In fact, I'm going over to visit her right after lunch with another gift."

-.-.-.-

'I wonder if Lee had a talk with his sensei yet,' Kaori thought as she washed her hands after lunch. 'I wonder how he took it. I do feel sorry for him. I wonder how many other woman rejected his advances. But really, I can't be seen with someone like that. I'd be the laughingstock of Konoha. I hope he finds someone else who'll appreciate him. Maybe someone who's partially blind.'

Kaori felt guilty about not dealing with Gai directly, and for not returning his affection after he had so generously filled up her refrigerator, but she had no regrets. The odd man in green would be out of her life and she no longer had to worry about him suddenly showing up.

Gai was waiting by her desk with another gift box. "Good afternoon, my dear! I couldn't wait till tonight to give you this," he said with a bow, presenting it with a flourish.

"Er. no thank you. I absolutely can not accept any more gifts from you. Did you get a chance to talk to Lee today?"

"Yes, but this gift is not what you think. It's for your training. No matter what happens between us, you must continue your training to be the best you can be."

"No, no more training. I can't accept." Kaori protested.

"Ta-da!" Gai ripped open the gift box himself to show his love how serious he was about her training. Inside was a set of weights. The collective metal bars weighed 200 pounds (the minimum beginner's set). It was a good thing Kaori did not accept the box - the sudden weight would likely have broken her puny arms.

Kaori fell speechless. The mere thought of more training, with additional weight, terrified her so much she was paralyzed with fright.

"I'll take these with me now, but I'll see you after work for some training before dinner. I'll have a special nutritionally fortified energy drink ready for you. It contains raw eggs, protein powder and." Gai continued to horrify her.

-.-.-.-

Kaori was on pins and needles the rest of the afternoon. She had to hide from Gai. Hide somewhere he couldn't find her. She could not return home. She looked over at Otoha and sighed, wondering if it were at all possible to hide out at her place.

"More love life problems?" Otoha asked, noticing her coworker's strange mood.

"He came by again after lunch. I thought after I spoke with Lee and Lee had spoken with him, I'd be free, but."

"Guys like that don't give up. What you should do is date him, take him for everything he has, and then be a total bitch so he'll dump you," the buxom brunette advised while looking into her hand mirror and applying more lipstick.

"Do you think that will really work?" asked Kaori. She seriously considered it.

"Well, there's always the chance that he likes being treated like crap. Some guys are into that. They like bitchy aggressive women who hit them on the head and run their lives." Otoha shrugged. "It's worth a try. Couldn't be worse, right?"

Kaori shook her head. "I can't do that. Not only is it against my ethics, that means I actually have to date him for a while. I need another way."

"Hmmf, good luck, guy like that won't take no for an answer," said Otoha, annoyed that Kaori would not take her sage, experienced, advice.

Kaori went back to brooding until her afternoon rounds. She was going to have another talk with Lee when she saw his teammates walking by.

"You two, you're Gai sensei's students. you have to help me! I'll give you all my savings (minus retirement benefits)! Save me!"

"What's the matter?" asked Tenten in concern. "Save you from whom?"

"From your sensei! He's stalking me! I can't get rid of him."

"Sorry, but once Gai sensei gets an idea in his head, it's stuck there forever and ever," Neji said, a bit maliciously.

"But he's stalking me! He shows up at my apartment, at my parents' home, and he's at the hospital all the time! I can't take it any more!"

"Well, we go on overnight missions occasionally, that should give you a break," Tenten offered sympathetically, hoping Kaori would last another week.

"Mission. yes. a mission." Kaori muttered to herself. The genin watched as Kaori quickly made her way out of the hospital.

"I was right, as usual. Two days, just what I expected," Neji said in satisfaction.

"Fine you win. That was a 1000 ryou wasn't it?" his teammate replied in disappointment.

"Just enough for a bowl of House Special ramen and a drink at Ichiraku. Let's go after we visit Lee," ordered Neji.

"Is that a date?" Tenten teased, but secretly hoping it was.

"Date? Hmmf. It's me teaching you a lesson - never bet with a member of the Hyuuga clan. These eyes see more than chakra pathways. We can read into the hearts and minds of people and predict their actions."

Tenten rolled her eyes. Neji was actually very dense when it came to understanding someone's heart.

-.-.-.-

Meanwhile Kaori went AWOL in order to seek out the two elders. There was no Hokage to appeal to, but she hoped his remaining advisors would be available to hear her case.

"Koharu-sama, Homura-sama, you have to help me!" she gasped out when she arrived at the Hokage's adminstration building. The elders were busy prioritizing the incoming mission requests.

"Calm down, miss. you are.?" asked old man Homura.

"I'm Kuchiki Kaori, nurse at the shinobi hospital. I'm being stalked by Gai sensei!"

The two looked at each other and then back at Kaori. They shook their heads in unison. "Not again," they sighed.

"I need a restraining order or something to keep him away from me." Kaori begged.

"We're sorry, but that's not going to help. Konoha is too small for a restraining order to be effective. And since you work at the hospital and Gai-sensei visits his disciple Lee all the time, it'll be impossible to enforce," explained old lady Koharu.

"Well, you have to do something! It's your job to protect the populace from menace, right? Send him away on a mission, a very long, very far away mission. Please! My sanity depends on it!"

The two elders nodded and looked at what was available. "Well, Gai sensei had requested missions close to Konoha since he wants to be with Lee in case something happened but." Homura began to say.

"Please! I just need a few weeks to come up with a plan.You see these gray hairs? New, just turned overnight!" Kaori persisted.

The two elders thought back to Gai's previous victims who were now safely relocated away from Konoha under new identities.

"How about this mission?" Homura held a scroll open for his comrade to read. "It should take at least a month and it's perfect for Gai and his team."

Koharu took the scroll in her wrinkled hands and read it over slowly. She nodded and said, "They're shooting a martial arts action movie in Tea Country and need some shinobi stuntmen to do double duty as bodyguards for the actors. Tenten is about the same size as the youngest lead actress. Neji with his long hair can double as the older girl or second male lead. And Gai is about the same height as the male lead. They don't even need to use henge. Perfect!"

"We'll talk to him tomorrow." Homura's wrinkles deepened as he smiled at the pretty nurse. After all, he was old, but not dead yet.

"Tomorrow? Can't you send him tonight?" Kaori asked desperately.

"We're sorry, but you'll have to hold out till then," Koharu replied a bit unsympathetically when she saw her comrade's overly affectionate smile.

Kaori sighed. How was she going to survive the night?

-...-...-...-

When Gai came by to pick up Kaori, she was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Otoha handed him a note.

Gai read out loud, "Sorry, but I won't be able to train tonight. My dog's mother suddenly died so I will be attending a private memorial service tonight."

Otoha curiously observed Gai's reaction. Would he really believe such a transparent excuse?

Gai teared up while saying, "How tragic...what devotion to a lesser creature. She is definitely worthy of my devotion!"

Otoha rolled her eyes. Gai's assumption that Kaori was a saint annoyed her so she just had to say, "Have you ever seen Kaori's dog?"

"No, but she said it's a beagle."

"You know, no one has ever seen Kaori's dog."

"Really? I guess he likes his privacy. Some people are like that too," Gai deadpanned.

Otoha rolled her eyes again. The man was just too dense. Still, there was something to be said for that...

-...-...-...-

Meanwhile Kaori was hiding out in Kakashi's room. She decided to spend the night there, away from her tormentor. Luckily she had an emergency change of clothes and a few toiletries in her locker. What she didn't have was a bed, but she took some extra blankets from the supply closet and tried to make herself comfortable on the floor next to Kakashi's bed.

"You don't mind me spending the night with you, do you Kakashi-san?" She smiled at the double entendre. "I'm afraid I have nowhere else to go. Your rival might try to hunt me down at my parents' or sister's and they're more likely to turn me in than help me out." Sad to say, but Kaori knew Kakashi rarely had visitors. Aside from herself, Sakura had visited her sensei a couple of times but that was it. Who had time to visit a comatose patient when the village was still in chaos? Gai was only concerned with Lee and paid his rival little heed now that he was no competition. So it seemed the best place to hide out for a night.

"Don't worry, it's just for tonight. By this time tomorrow, Gai sensei will be miles and miles away on a mission. A nice long mission. Sigh, but what will I do when he comes back? Well, Tsunade-sama should be here by then and you'll be cured. You'll protect me from him, right? I'm sorry I wasn't able to go through Gai's training. I had this silly idea that I could cure you rather than Tsunade-sama but I just couldn't do it. I guess I just don't have the will power. My mother says that's one of my problems, that I give up on things too easily. Of course she was mostly talking about the men in my life. Sigh, but maybe we can have dinner together once you're well. I bet you'll be really hungry when you wake. So what kind of food do you like? My favorite is eel avocado sushi, but it's a bit expensive so I can only have it once a week. I also like tempura green tea ice cream. The dumpling shop has it. Dumplings are good too. I love gyoza and red bean dango..."

All the talk about food made Kaori very, very hungry. Since she was hiding out, she could not go out for food, not even the cafeteria. All she had was some breath mints in her handbag. She thought of all the food in her refrigerator and nearly cried at the irony - that the man responsible for stocking her refrigerator was the same one who prevented her access.

"Well, no more talk about food. Right, I promised to read more Icha Icha Paradise. Let's see where we left off..."

She read deep into the night, trying to distract herself from her rumbling stomache. The breath mints were all gone. Mint was supposed to have an appetite suppressing effect but it seemed that was just fraudulent advice from diet gurus. Finally she stopped, yawned and rubbed her eyes. She checked the monitor and was pleased to see the elevated baseline and a few sizable series of peaks. 'Well...whatever works...'

Although her patient lay in a coma, his prestigious standing allowed him a private room with its own lavatory. Kaori washed up in the little room equipped with a small sink and toilet. Showers were still communal and she couldn't take the chance of being seen. What would people think if they saw her spending the night with a comatose patient? If she were male and the patient were female... the implications would be even more serious.

She changed into a T-shirt and sweatpants (her emergency clothing) and stretched out on the floor next to her patient. Despite feeling drained by the strain of dealing with Gai, she could not immediately fall asleep. She whiled away the time just observing her patient. She watched as his chest rose and fell in shallow breaths. She fought the temptation to remove his mask to gaze again upon his handsome noble visage. But the proximity of his body coupled with the dimness of the room, where the stars were the only source of light, made her bold. She sat up and leaned on Kakashi's bed, her arms folded and her head resting dreamily on her arms.

In her mind, she played out scenes from Icha Icha Paradise with herself and Kakashi as the leads. Temptation called and beckoned more strongly. To satisfy the urge, she reached under his blanket just to touch his hand, but she ended up holding it for a long time.

Exhaustion finally caught up. Her half closed eyes gazed at her sleeping prince with a sad longing. 'If only...when he wakes I wish he would pursue me as persistently as his rival. I wonder if they're also rivals in love...I wonder if he'll remember me at all...'

With that thought she reached over and brushed her lips lightly against a bit of exposed skin on his forehead. Kaori did not check the brain wave monitor before she fell asleep. If she had she would have seen an almost imperceptible blip corresponding to the moment when her lips touched Kakashi's perfect brow.