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Part 3 - A Gradual Awakening

Tsunade's Return

"Tsunade-sama is coming! Tsunade-sama is coming!" The news spread through Konoha faster than a fire justu amplified by frog oil. She was sighted a few miles away from Konoha by the hawk-eyed watchtower guards. This news was of special importance not only to the elders of Konoha, who wanted to appoint her as the next Hokage, but also to the hospital staff who knew her as the legendary healer. They had critically injured patients that required her expertise and among them were the sole surviving Uchiha, and Konoha's copy nin.

Head nurse Kuchiki Kaori had just returned from lunch when she heard the news from her subordinate Otoha, who heard the news from the medical supplier, who heard the news as he was walking through the village. For some reason the news disturbed her.

It had been over two months since Kakashi was admitted to the hospital - a nice, relatively peaceful, couple of months without Gai popping up unexpectedly. Kaori had expected that it would only take a couple of weeks for Naruto to return with Konoha's foremost kunoichi, but the weeks passed without any word.

After a month, Kaori thought it was possible that Tsunade would not return at all. At first the possibility depressed her. To see her object of affection lie in bed for 24 hours a day without a hope of ever waking up, sometimes made her tear up. But as the weeks passed she became more possessive and thought of Kakashi as hers only. Seeing him and reading to him gave her something to look forward to everyday. The mundane tasks of changing bandages, checking monitors, and the tragic tasks of injecting painkillers, preparing a corpse for identification, were more bearable.

She liked things as they were. She did not mind having the man in her life in a coma. He was perfect that way.

But what would happen now that Tsunade was really here? She had thought about it over and over. In her fantasies her patient would wake and acknowledge her dedication, and, in turn, dedicate himself to her happiness. But she knew in reality that Kakashi would wake, maybe thank her, and that would be it. Chances were the next time she'd see him would be in a body bag.

It had been a problem avoiding her family's questions. Since the dinner fiasco with Gai, she had seen her family four times. Each time she was grilled on what the man in her life was like and who he was. Each time ended with her family saying a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, how great Gai sensei was, and how she should have stuck with him.

From the movie set in Tea Country, Gai sent her and Lee messages once a week. He had agreed to the extended mission on the condition that he be allowed to use the messenger birds to relay messages to his loved ones and that he would be informed immediately when Tsunade arrived. Gai wrote about the actresses on the set and how they were eying him, but he swore to be faithful to Kaori.

She thought how they must have been eying him meaning they were wary of the madman. At first she wasn't sure whether or not to write back, but then she decided she could make it clear in a letter that she was not interested and encouraged him to date other women. Either the message never got there, or Gai ignored it. He continued to write to her.

But Tsunade did not immediately go to the hospital. She had business with the elders that took the rest of the day and part of the night, so Kaori was left waiting and worrying. She felt guilty that she was not excited about Tsunade's return and Kakashi's recovery, yet she waited impatiently, wondering what could be more important than her patients.

When she went on her afternoon rounds, she saw the pink haired genin at Uchiha Sasuke's bedside. Sakura looked up expectantly when she heard someone approach, then looked disappointed when she saw it was just Kaori and not one of the legendary sannin that she expected. Kaori smiled at her and tried her best to be enthusiastic, saying "Don't worry it won't be long. I'm sure you've heard Tsunade-sama has returned to Konoha. She's probably busy catching up at the moment but she should be here soon."

"Yes, they're finally back. When I see Naruto I'll have to let him have it for taking so long!" Sakura shook her fist bravely but inside she thanked Naruto from the bottom of her heart for his effort.

"Well, go easy on him. I'm sure there was a good reason," Kaori said, but she secretly agreed that it had taken way too long. Neither one of them knew about the detour to the hot springs, or Tsunade's temptation to bring back her loved ones, or the fight with Orochimaru, or Jiraiya's "investigations" at houses of ill repute. The legendary sannin each had questionable ethics.

"Why don't you help me change the sheets and blanket and freshen him up before Tsunade arrives," Kaori suggested. There was no real need to change the sheets since Sasuke and Kakashi were in stasis, but she did it once a week to prevent dust from collecting.

Sakura complied, happy to do something for her beloved Sasuke. "So, I bet you're just as excited as I am. Pretty soon Kakashi-sensei will be okay too. He should be really grateful for all you've done for him," Sakura said while helping move Sasuke's body as Kaori changed the sheets. Sakura made full use of the excuse to hold Sasuke in her arms.

Kaori shrugged nonchalantly. "I'm just doing my job. I'm sure I'll never see him again after he's discharged," she said steadily although the thought made her depressed again.

"You never know," Sakura encouraged, "he's sort of unpredictable. If you like him, don't give up. I think he could use someone like you."

"Thanks, and the same to you," Kaori replied in appreciation. Suddenly she felt closer to this girl than the members of her own family. After all this time the two had formed a bond of some sort and Kaori no longer thought of her as a love obsessed annoyance.

But still there was no sign of Tsunade even after they were done, so Kaori continued her rounds.

She found Lee outside in the courtyard exercising again, with apparently renewed vigor. Lee stopped when he felt her approach. "Nurse Kaori-san," he said in greeting. "I thought you might be Gai sensei. He was sent a message as soon as the guards reported seeing Tsunade-sama nearby."

"Tea Country is pretty far. I don't think he'll be able to make it back here in just a few hours."

"Gai sensei can do anything! I'm sure he will be here even before Tsunade-sama." Actually, Lee was partially correct. When Gai received the message that Tsunade had been sighted near Konoha, he was off like a shot, leaving Neji and Tenten behind to take on his role as well as their own. The usual two day travel would take him less than half the time.

"Well, I'm really excited for you. You've worked so hard on your rehabilitation, I'm sure everything will be fine," Kaori said genuinely. She had grown quite fond of the respectful boy, despite his getting her into that mess with his sensei.

Finally she came to Kakashi's room. She had already finished the Icha Icha Paradise set was almost done with Icha Icha Violence. Occasionally she tried to read other books, a couple in the same genre, but Kakashi was apparently very faithful, and nothing else sparked a response.

"I have some great news for you," Kaori nearly choked on the words, "Tsunade-sama is back in Konoha. She should be here soon and you'll be fine in no time at all." She tried to smile, but her lips stopped halfway at the thought of losing him in a matter of hours or minutes. Instead she felt her eyes tearing.

'Damn it! What's wrong with you Kaori? You should be celebrating and here you are acting like a spoiled child whose toy is being taken away. Get it together! Do you think Kakashi would want someone as weak-willed-pathetic as you?' she berated herself.

She did not feel like reading. All she wanted to do was hold his hand and look at him. But first things first, as she went back to her official mode, so she untucked the sheets and blanket, rolled Kakashi over carefully, and changed the bedding.

"I'm going to miss you," she said sadly to her sleeping prince after she was done. "You were the best friend, boyfriend, I've ever had. That's kind of sad, isn't it? But you're a great listener. Most people care only about themselves and talk only about themselves. And you don't offer unsolicited advice. I'm really going to miss you." Kaori couldn't help but sniffle as the time when they were to be parted came closer and closer.

The afternoon came and went and Kaori's shift was over, but the dedicated nurse resolved to stay at the hospital until Tsunade came so that she could witness Kakashi's awakening.

"You should just go home," Otoha advised. "I promise to contact you when she gets here."

But Kaori rightfully did not trust her coworker whom she suspected would try to take the credit for his care.

"Look, she's probably tired from traveling and probably has all these important meetings to attend. What's a couple of comatose patients? They're not going anywhere. Chances are she won't be here until tomorrow. Go home, get some rest, you look like hell. You don't to be looking like that when Kakashi wakes do you?"

The last part struck a nerve. Her eyes were probably red from (not) crying. She felt frazzled and emotionally exhausted. She did need to rest. "You're right," Kaori acquiesced. "I'll leave when it gets dark, then I'll be here first thing in the morning."

But Kaori did not get a good night's sleep. She spent it tossing and turning and thinking about Kakashi. Each time she fell asleep, she started dreaming. The dreams were obscured and all she could remember when she woke was that she was reaching out for him, but he walked away from her without looking back.

As soon as it dawned, she washed up, had breakfast and changed back into her uniform. She took extra care with her hair and makeup to ensure she was looking her best when Kakashi woke. She skipped her exercises, since she was still tired from lack of sleep, and went directly to the hospital.

When she arrived there, Kaori saw the entire medical staff waiting in the main lobby, even those who were not due for their shifts, and those whose shifts were over. Panic struck her as she feared Tsunade had already come and gone, but Iashi saw her reaction and quickly explained that Tsunade was expected this morning had not arrived yet. Kaori sighed in relief and waited with everyone else.

They waited and waited while Tsunade met with the two elderly advisors, said hello to Shikamaru and his dad, then finally followed Naruto to the hospital. It was nearly ten o'clock by the time they arrived.

A hush fell over the medical staff when the newly appointed Fifth Hokage entered the building. They all immediately dropped on one knee, except for Otoha who had to be pulled down by Kaori.

Tsunade stared at the crowd haughtily and frowned. "Don't you all have patients to attend to? What the hell are you all doing here wasting time?" she scolded angrily.

There was an uncomfortable silence as the crowd slowly broke up to attend to their duties. Those who were not on duty still hung around.

Naruto could contain himself no longer. "Let's go! Let's go! Sakura-chan's probably there right now!" He pushed Tsunade toward Sasuke's room. Kaori, Iashi, and Shizune with Tonton in her arms, followed close behind.

"So.Shizune-san, how have you been," Kaori tentatively said to her childhood friend as they walked toward Sasuke's room. "It's been a long time."

Shizune was surprised at the rather formal address. Since when did they go from "chan" to "san"? She and Kaori had been best friends as children, until Shizune graduated the academy before Kaori. Things changed after that. Shizune graduated the Academy at nine years old and became a chuunin at thirteen, while Kaori graduated at twelve but failed to become even a lowly genin. Shizune left Konoha soon after her promotion and spent a rather lonely life as Tsunade's protégé/servant.

'How long has it been since I left Konoha with Tsunade-sama?' Shizune thought to herself. It had been nearly fifteen years since Tsunade officially left. Although they occasionally visited Konoha, they did not stay for more than a few days. "Yes, it's been a while. I'm glad to be back, for good this time, I hope," Shizune smiled at her old friend.

They soon reached Sasuke's room whereupon Tsunade asked for a report. Iashi quickly summarized Sasuke's condition, but Tsunade was barely listening. Instead she observed the young girl by Sasuke's side. She noticed two flowers in a vase and realized that they weren't brought on the same day. They were most likely from the girl and Tsunade deduced that she had been visiting this comatose boy everyday. 'Young love...when I was her age I was on the front lines. Love didn't come till much later and then...' Tsunade forced the thoughts of her lover Dan out of her head as she concentrated on the task at hand.

The legendary healer channeled green chakra and placed her palm on the boy's forehead. No one spoke a word as they witnessed her power. Less than a minute later, Sasuke blinked his eyes and then sat up as if in a daze. His faithful teammate immediately threw her arms around him and started crying.

Naruto finally realized how much Sakura cared for Sasuke and in a rare tactful moment, left the room, signaling Tsunade and the others to follow.

The touching scene caused Kaori to think about her own reaction. She could not throw her arms tearfully around Kakashi. He didn't even know her. All she could do was stand by and watch. She followed the rest of the group in thoughtful silence until Shizune spoke to her.

"So.umm.Kaori-san (Shizune decided to use the same address), how long have you been working here?"

"Oh, I've been here for nearly ten years now. After a couple of attempts at making genin, I gave up, decided that the medical field was more to my taste anyway. Never cared for all the fighting," Kaori said pointedly to save face.

"I'll have to agree with you," Shizune said reflectively. "Just being a medic is better. I'd rather save lives, but back then, medic nin were also needed during combat. You're lucky you were never sent to the front lines."

Shizune's words shamed Kaori. Shizune was still the same nice considerate girl. She didn't realize how envious Kaori was of her superior talent. The nurse then looked over at the legendary healer, redirecting the target of her envy. Tsunade would probably be the first person Kakashi would see when he woke. What if he fell in love with her first? She was way, way too old for him, but she looked great for her age, with long golden hair and a bust that rivaled Otoha's.

Kaori whispered to Shizune, "Your auntie looks just like she did before you left. She hasn't aged in decades!"

"She uses a special jutsu to mold her chakra," Shizune explained.

"That's really something," Kaori sighed, jealously thinking how the half century old woman looked younger and had a much better figure than she did.

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The Awakening

Alone in a dark void for days uncountable - no sight nor sound, nothing to touch or smell or taste, not even an enemy to torment him. Most would have gone mad from the endless solitude, but he was used to it. Nearly all of his life he was alone, first by circumstance and then by choice.

It could have been days or months or years, or just mere minutes. The effects of Itachi's attack distorted time. All he could do was wait. Wait for something to happen. Either for his existence to be extinguished or to be somehow saved from this darkness.

But there were short periods of time when there did seem to be something or someone out there trying to reach him. It was as if the darkness grew lighter and his mind cleared from its fog. That helped save his sanity. And now he felt a new presence.

Somewhere in the distance he saw a pinpoint of light. It was dim but grew stronger and larger and gradually became a green beacon. He instinctively walked toward the light and it soon encompassed him with a feeling of comforting warmth. It grew too bright for either of his eyes to withstand and he had to close his eyes tightly against the blinding radiance.

When he felt the heat and the brightness of the light dissipate, he slowly opened his eyes and found a buxom blond hovering over him. At first he wondered if he were truly dead and had gone to Icha Icha Heaven, then his eyes finally focused and he recognized one of legendary sannin.

"Hmmph, I heard you lost to just two traitors. I thought you were a genius," Tsunade berated Kakashi for all to hear.

Kakashi hung his head.

Any respect Kaori had for the legendary healer vanished in that instant. For Tsunade to say something so cruel to a man who had nearly sacrificed himself to protect the village, was unforgivable. It took all the will power Kaori had to not jump on the pretentious old hag's back and pull out her hair. Knowing how futile that would be, all Kaori could do was grit her teeth and hang back with the rest of the group. Kaori knew Tsunade could kill her with a flick of a finger and she didn't want to be the subject of gossip. She could already hear Otoha yelling "catfight!"

Just then, Gai arrived, almost out of breath. He was concerned about his protégé, and barely acknowledged Kaori, despite his claim that they were meant to be. Instead, he focused all his attention on Tsunade. Kaori found herself unreasonably miffed at this sudden lack of attention.

"Forget about that idiot! Please take a look at my student Lee!" said Gai impatiently.

Shizune and Iashi followed Gai and Tsunade, but Kaori decided to stay. Naruto had left earlier to meet with Iruka. He didn't bother to stay to see how his sensei was faring. Sakura was still with Sasuke. It seemed no one cared about poor Kakashi at all.

Someone should be with him, she reasoned, after all, Sasuke had Sakura to look after him. "Good morning, Kakashi-sensei. I'm Kuchiki Kaori, your nurse." She paused, uncertain what to say next. "I'm sorry, but I just have to say...that wasn't fair of Tsunade-sama to say what she did. No one should shoulder such a burden. You can't be responsible for the whole village."

He shrugged as if it hadn't bothered him at all.

"Now that Tsunade-sama has healed you, I'm sure you're fine now, but one of the medics will be by to give you a thorough checkup. Would you like anything in the meantime?"

He just shook his weary head.

"Well, you're probably hungry. How about I bring you something to eat?'

He nodded.

"Anything in particular?"

Kakashi shook his head again.

"I took the liberty of stocking your bathroom with a few toiletries. I figured you'd want to freshen up when you woke."

"Thank you," he finally said.

His awakening did not go as Kaori had hoped or imagined, but at least she got her thank you and there seemed little chance of Kakashi falling for Tsunade. Still she was bothered by Tsunade's terrible bedside manner. Why would she say something like that? Was there something between her and Kakashi? Did something happen in the past? Tsunade left over ten years ago, but Kakashi had been a full fledged shinobi long before that, so there was a chance that they knew each other well. Maybe he had served under her. Still, to be greeted like that as soon as you were out of a coma must have been distressing. So unfair that the Uchiha boy received tears and hugs for doing something as stupid as trying to take revenge on his much more powerful brother, while Kakashi received criticism for saving two of his comrades.

`Kakashi deserves better,' she thought, `someone like myself who would take good care of him.'

On her way to the cafeteria she asked one of the medic nin on duty to check on Kakashi. She didn't know what Kakashi liked to eat, but since he had not eaten in months she thought something easily digestible would be best. She decided on a bowl of chicken soup and Jello, nice red, not green Jello, and a pint of apple juice. By the time Kaori returned to Kakashi's room, the medic was done with his exam. Kakashi was in the middle of pulling down his shirt when she arrived so she got a nice glimpse of his sculpted torso and cursed herself for stupidly not assisting during the exam. She wondered if Kakashi had taken off his mask during the exam since he still had it on.

"Everything seems to be in order," Kanpou said. "You can probably go home today, but I recommend staying overnight for observation."

"I'd like to go home."

"Well, it's up to you, but wait a few more hours, just in case. Maybe late afternoon. Kaori-san will check your vitals before you go to make sure," the medic said on his way out.

Kakashi nodded and glanced over at the nurse who started to set up his meal on a little side table by the bed. She was a very pretty petite woman in her mid-twenties, he estimated, with large hazel eyes and reddish brown hair with a luxurious sheen.

"I thought something easy on the stomach would be best after so long," she said as she moved the table in place.

"How long has it been?" her patient asked.

"Ten weeks, two days," Kaori automatically answered.

"That long, huh. What's been going on in the village?"

"Well, as you saw, Tsunade-sama just arrived yesterday. She's probably going to be the Fifth Hokage. I don't know why it took Naruto-san and Jiraiya-sama so long to bring her back. Anyway, nothing's much has changed. There's been no sign of Sasuke's brother or his friend. Oh, I'm sorry you probably don't know about Sasuke..."

"What happened to Sasuke?" A note of urgency crept into his voice. He was finally showing some emotion.

"Sigh, after you were admitted, Sasuke-san was brought in by Gai-sensei. He was trying to warn Naruto-san about his brother. Sasuke-san was apparently subjected to the same jutsu as you, so he's been in a coma all this time, too. But he's fine now, Sakura-san is with him," Kaori smiled reassuringly.

Kakashi nodded in relief.

"I brought a few newspapers I've been saving. I figured you would want to catch up," Kaori offered. "Some light reading and rest is best. If you need anything, anything at all, please don't hesitate to press the call button." She pointed to the side of the bed.

"Thank you." After experiencing the cold solitude for months, Kakashi would have preferred some company, any company, but how would it look for him to ask the pretty nurse to stay? For a veteran shinobi to make a request based on such a cowardly emotion as loneliness, was unmanly at best, so he said nothing else.

"Oh, I almost forgot," Kaori turned back and took a book from a bag on the bottom shelf of the cart. "Umm, maybe you'd like to borrow this - in case you finish with the papers." She blushed as she handed over her copy of "Icha Icha Violence Volume 3."

That definitely sparked a response. Both of Kakashi's eyes widened in surprise and excitement. He grasped the book in both hands as though he had found a long buried treasure. Embarrassed by the contents of the book, Kaori quickly left before Kakashi could thank her.

When he looked back up, all he saw was her retreating form. He hadn't thought much about who had been attending to him during his coma. Something about her seemed very familiar. He had undoubtedly seen her before, when Sasuke was admitted to the hospital after he sealed Orochimaru's curse, but there seemed to be something more than that. He glanced down at the book and wondered what she was doing with it and why she had given it to him. But he just shrugged to himself, put aside the book, lowered his mask, and dug into his soup, trying to finish all his food before anyone could see him without his mask.

On the way back to her desk, Kaori heard the bad news about Lee from Shizune. Multiple bone fragments were embedded deep within Lee's nervous system. Even with an operation there was only a fifty percent chance of succeeding and if it failed, he'd die. Despite all the trouble Lee and his sensei put her through, her heart went out to them.

Lee was alone when Kaori entered his room since Gai had run off to talk with Tsunade again. As experienced as she was in consoling people and delivering bad news, it was still difficult. How many times had she had to tell a patient who had just woken up from surgery that they had to remove a limb, or that his comrades didn't make it. Bad news really should have come from the medics, but they always convinced her that it was better coming from a nurse who could not be held responsible and who would not be the target of the patients' anger.

"I'm sorry, I heard the prognosis from Shizune-san," Kaori said to the unusually quiet boy.

Lee sat on a chair in his room with his head lowered and staring down at nothing but his bandaged hands. He nodded mutely. "I do not know what to do," Lee finally said. "A fifty percent chance is not very good, is it?"

Kaori sighed, "No, it's not. I don't want to influence your decision, but maybe fate has its reasons." She gave him a consoling smile. "Not being a shinobi is not the end of the world. It's not so bad. I mean look at me - I couldn't make genin after several tries. Now I'm just as happy being a nurse. I get to help people. It's a satisfying job..."

"I do not want to be a nurse."

"I'm just saying there are other things you can do."

"Proving that I can be a shinobi with hard work is my dream," the boy said defiantly.

"You've already proven yourself to everyone. Gai sensei is already very proud of you." Kaori placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"This is just as hard on Gai-sensei. He had such hopes for me. I do not want to let him down." Lee sniffed.

How touching, he was as concerned about his sensei as himself. Why weren't Kakashi's genin like Lee? "I'm sure the two of you will pull through this together. Either way he's proud of you and will always be."

Lee managed a smile for the nurse, which made both of them feel better.

Kaori completed the rest of her morning rounds with a visit to Sasuke's room. She found Sakura feeding Sasuke and decided to leave the two potential lovebirds alone. `How romantic,' she sighed, and wished very badly she could do the same for Kakashi. That way she'd get to see his face again. But adults were different from children. Adults did not wear their hearts on their sleeves. They hid the emotions that could embarrass them. That was the case for most adults. There were some carefree souls like Otoha who did not care what people thought, who said and did whatever they wanted, like a child who didn't care about possible punishment. In that respect, Kaori envied her rival.

When Kaori finally returned to her desk, it was already time for lunch. In her excitement she hadn't brought anything so she had to make another trip to the cafeteria. There she found Shizune, puzzling over what to order. She raised her head and smiled when Kaori greeted her.

"So where's your aunt? I thought you'd be with her. You two are practically chained together," Kaori teased. She knew Tsunade was not Shizune's real aunt but had adopted her after the deaths of her parents and uncle, another orphan. Kaori guiltily thought how she took her own family for granted.

"Tsunade-sama likes to...umm...have lunch in places that serve alcohol. I don't really drink so I thought I'd just grab some lunch here and later see if there's been any changes since we left."

"Well, we've updated the computer system fairly recently and all the old records have been scanned and archived. They've also improved the food. Before, the food was little better than the shinobi rations." Kaori grabbed a low calorie chicken breast sandwich that came with lettuce and tomato, and a diet soda.

Shizune decided to go for the special - pork katsu over rice, a side salad with tamarind dressing, and a couple of gyoza. She also ordered milk tea with double sugar. Kaori calculated that Shizune was consuming twice the number of calories as she was. Then again, Shizune was several inches taller, stronger, and probably needed the extra energy for jutsu, or maybe she was going to feed some of her food to that little pig that she carried around. No, maybe not, since she did order pork katsu.

"So how have you been? Married? Children?" asked Shizune as the two women placed their trays on a little table.

"No, neither. You?"

"Like Tsunade-sama would let anyone get close," Shizune sighed. "But I'm surprised you're not. Are you seeing anyone special?" Shizune was actually interested in who was still available, as she did not want to accidentally trespass on someone else's property. She remembered Kaori was the jealous type.

"Well...sort of... it's complicated," Kaori said evasively, wondering how much of Gai's crazy antics and her crush on Kakashi she should mention.

Shizune was surprised her old friend was not hooked up. Kaori had always been one of the prettiest girls. She somehow kept every hair in place even during strenuous training. Although her dress was usually understated, it was always fashionable and Kaori held herself with a confident ease. But Shizune always looked a bit strung out and unkempt. It was a complete surprise to both of them when Shizune's talent for jutsu blossomed in their second year of classes at the Academy.

"Umm, Gai sensei seems very nice. You don't see many sensei so concerned about their students," Shizune started to say.

A little lightbulb switched on in Kaori's head.

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

 

Kaori's Courage

Kaori spent the afternoon preparing paperwork for Tsunade's review at Shizune's request, including current personnel, staff openings, training, budget, and equipment requests. She had a suspicion that Shizune would be the one reviewing the stack of reports rather than her aunt who seemed more likely to sit in front of a slot machine all day than behind a desk. Why else would she wear a robe advertising gambling on the back?

Despite procrastinating as much as she could to avoid the inevitable, it was time for her afternoon rounds and to check out Kakashi. 'I will not be upset. He is just another patient. After this, things will go back to being like they were. Back to my boring so called life. But I was fine with that,' Kaori insisted to herself. She made him her last stop.

Kakashi was sitting up in bed reading the Icha Icha book. The newspapers were barely touched. He looked up lazily as she approached.

"Do you think you're ready to go home today? You really should stay overnight," Kaori suggested hopefully.

Instead of answering he asked, "You're the one who's been taking care of me all this time?"

"Well," she blushed, "there's several of us and we take shifts, but I'm the primary caretaker on record." Although there were two or three other nurses on duty during the time Kaori was off, they worked the night and graveyard shifts and were not required to check the status of comatose patients. Not that Kaori would allow them anyway.

He held up the book. "You read this to me?"

She turned several shades darker. "I...er...read both series to you. I heard they're your favorite and...um...they seem to be the only books that you respond to. based on your brainwave pattern. They say reading to comatose patients can help in their recovery. I...um... wouldn't normally read something like that...but I have to admit I can see why they're so popular..." Kaori rambled on, too embarrassed to look at him as she checked his blood pressure and temperature (using an ear thermometer because Kaori could not trust herself to use an oral or anal one, though they were more accurate). "I wish I could heal people like Tsunade-sama. Why would someone with such great power abandon her village? How can anyone be so irresponsible? If I had her power, I would use it to heal people 24/7, and for free if they couldn't pay. But I'm so pathetic, couldn't make genin after graduation, can barely mold or channel chakra. Just a nurse..."

"There're things just as important as medical jutsu. I'm sure your pleasant bedside manner had a healing effect." It seemed he smiled at her from under his mask.

That was it. There was no way she could let him walk out of her life. Kaori summoned all the courage she could muster and looked at him directly. "I know you'll be leaving now, but if you need anything, anything at all, you can count on me...I mean, that is, if you need someone to help you out...It'll be a while until you're fully recovered. I can run errands for you or help with chores...or if you just need someone to talk to...a friend, you know..." That was all she could say before her courage ran out.

Kakashi said nothing for a minute and looked at the pretty nurse appraisingly. He was no fool when it came to reading people. It was obvious she had developed feelings for him. Not uncommon among patients and medical professionals. And it was likely she had seen him without his mask. He sighed - that always happened. That's why he put in his medical records not to remove his mask - complications like this always came up.

"Thank you for the kind offer," he said evasively. Sometimes when a woman threw herself at him, he would go along. But it depended on the woman. He tried to avoid the serious ones. Kaori looked like the serious type. Not the type to just have a little fun, but the type who would be heartbroken when she realized he wasn't the type to commit.

As usual, real life was nothing like fantasy. The Kakashi in her dreams would be all over her by now. Instead, he barely registered any interest. But there was nothing more Kaori could say or do to stop him from leaving. "You're good to go. I've already checked out Sasuke-san. I don't know if you've heard but Rock Lee's condition is still serious. Even with an operation there's only a 50 percent that he'll recover." She left out the "or die" part since that was too distressing. Lee hadn't been in his room. It seemed he had gone out for a walk to think about his decision some more.

Kakashi just nodded thoughtfully at the news. He handed back her copy of "Ich Icha Violence Volume 3." His last words to her were, "Thank you for everything."

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

`I wonder if he'll be okay. I wonder if he can take care of himself. I wonder if he'll contact me.'

Kaori's musings were interrupted by the thorn in her side, Otoha. The vapid nurse had not been at her desk all day. Instead she had been running rapid with the rumor mill.

"So how did it go with your lover boy?" Otoha asked.

"I don't know whom you're talking about." Kaori's ears started burning.

"Did you declare your undying love to coma man?" Otoha teased.

"I don't know what you're talking about." The vein above Kaori's left eye started to pulsate.

"Did he reject you? Maybe you're not his type. Hmm, I think I'll look him up. You don't mind do you?" Otoha was actually serious about this.

"What you do is none of my concern." She slammed a stack of files onto Otoha's desk.

"Oh really? In that case I'll head over after I get off. Hmm, let's look up his address..."

"I'm afraid you've been recruited to involuntary overtime," Kaori ordered.

"What? You can't do that!"

"Sure I can. I'm the head nurse now, so if you want to keep your job..." Kaori pointed to the stack of files. Kaori had recently been promoted. Her dedication to her work finally paid off, over Otoha's friendliness with the hospital board of directors.

"Fine! But just so you know, you're not the one who healed him. He's much more likely to fall for that Shizune. She's his equal," Otoha said maliciously. She'd rather see Kakashi with anyone but her annoying, controlling, holier-than-thou boss.

Kaori did not deign to answer. That thought had crossed her mind and she already had a plan to prevent it.

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

Kaori didn't need to look up Kakashi's home address - she already had it memorized. After learning of Otoha's intentions, she decided to drop by after work and luckily she got off a couple of hours earlier than Otoha, foiling her rival's plans. She stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few staples (bread, milk, eggs, and oranges) and then the ramen stand where she bought two bowls of vegetarian ramen to take out. Vegetables were more easily digestible and more nutritious than the meat items, she reasoned. Then she made her way to Kakashi's abode with her heart beating faster with each step.

'What am I doing? Am I stalking Kakashi? Here I am bringing him food, just dropping in on him. Just like what Gai did to me...What the hell?! I'm turning into Gai!" But she decided it was too late to change her mind as she had already bought the ramen and groceries.

Kakashi lived in one of the jounin dorms - small efficiencies meant for those who were rarely home. She thought how he could afford a much nicer and bigger place and wondered why he still lived there. She made her way up the stairs and found his door on the top floor. After taking a deep breath, she rang the doorbell three times. A few seconds later, she heard him call out, "Who is it?"

"It's Kuchiki Kaori, the nurse from the hospital," she responded calmly, though her knees were shaking.

Another minute passed before she heard footsteps coming toward the door. When he opened it, she saw he was dressed in a sleeveless dark blue shirt with a mask that extended to cover the lower half of his face and a pair of dark blue lounging pants, both similar to his usual attire.

He said nothing but just looked down at her.

'He's seems so tall, but maybe because I'm so short,' thought Kaori who was barely 5' 2" while Kakashi was 5' 11" according to his medical records, 'or maybe it's the hair...'

"I...uh... bought you some groceries and some ramen for dinner. I was afraid you didn't get a chance to go shopping and anything in your refrigerator probably went bad after all this time."

"Hmm, I just cleaned out my fridge, pretty disgusting. I was just about to hunt for some canned food and there're always shinobi rations - they last practically forever. But Ichiraku ramen does sound better." He reached out and took the bags she was holding out. "Thank you for the consideration. Do you treat all your patients like this?" he asked with a teasing tone.

Kaori couldn't help but blush again. "I.uh. I can't help but feel responsible for you after all this time," she said with dignity.

"Well then, thanks... mom," Kakashi said with a laugh.

'This is not what I wanted! I don't want to be seen as a mother figure!' Kaori turned red, in contrast to her starched white uniform, and frowned in response which made him chuckle even more.

Kaori never liked to be teased. Her family said she lacked a sense of humor about herself. So rather than subject herself to further embarrassment, she went into her professional mode. "You should get some more rest and not worry about cleaning your apartment for now. I can arrange for someone to come over tomorrow and..."

"Yes, mother," he said in a falsely serious tone, which embarrassed her even more.

"Of course you can take care of yourself. I guess I'm just being silly. You've been doing it for years. You don't need me to tell you what to do. Sorry, I should get going. Goodnight," Kaori said, trying to save face.

"Good-night and thank you again." This time he sounded genuinely serious and appreciative. Kaori simply nodded and made her way home, feeling very confused.

Kakashi secretly did want someone to take care of him. Being rather lazy, the thought of cleaning his apartment was not a welcomed one. And after living independently for over two decades, it would have been nice to have the little nurse cater to him. How cute she was, blushing when he called her his mother. He had never actually known his mother, who died before he could form memories. He no longer had any family pictures. Their ancestral home was destroyed in Kyuubi's attack. All he had was his father's ninja registration photo, and nothing of his mother at all.

"You should have asked her to stay," said the Obito voice that spoke to him at times.

"Then one thing would lead to another and..."

"When was the last time you got any?"

"Yeah, well, it's been a while. I've been busy with my team."

"So what's stopping you now? You know she wants you!"

"You know how complicated things get with serious girls like her."

"So what? Worry about that later. Have some fun now."

"It's not going to work out in the long run."

"You don't know that. You're just saying that because you're afraid."

"Me, afraid? I've never been afraid of anything in my life."

"Ha! Say that to Orochimaru and Itachi."

"You're very annoying."

"You'd be dead without my eye. You owe me. So listen up!"

"Sigh, if she persists...and gets the nerve to ask me out...well then maybe. After all, who am I to turn down a pretty lady?"

"You're too lazy to ask her out yourself!"

"Lazy? You're calling me lazy..."

If anyone had known Konoha's top jounin had these conversations with himself, Kakashi would have gotten a one-way ticket to the shinobi asylum.

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

Lee's Decision

Kaori spent the night thinking about recent events and the men in her life: Kakashi, whose behavior confused her; Lee whose condition depressed her; and Gai whose behavior always aggravated her. She knew she had to make it 100 percent clear to Gai that she had no romantic interest in him. The past attempts had failed but now that Kakashi was awake, she could not have him thinking that she was interested in Gai. It would be nice to have Kakashi fight over her, but he seemed more like the type to walk away from too much effort.

But with Lee's condition as it was, the soft hearted nurse could not bring herself to break Gai's heart twice. What if Lee decided to undergo the operation and didn't make it? She might be stuck with Gai forever! Kaori selfishly resolved that Lee not undergo the operation. Then after a couple of weeks later, when Lee and Gai had accepted his fate, she could break it off with Gai with no guilt. So that was Kaori's plan when she reported to work in the morning.

Lee was not in his room during her morning rounds. And thanks to Tsunade-sama, there were many more empty rooms, including Sasuke's and Kakashi's, but out of lingering habit, she checked those rooms anyway. 'How empty and quiet,' she sighed when she entered Kakashi's room. The monitors were no longer beeping; there was no longer the low sound of his slow shallow rhythmic breathing. The bedding had already been changed for a future patient. But now with Tsunade and Shizune back in town, chances were any future patient would have a short stay. Not wanting to return to her desk, where another stack of files waited for her, she sat down in the chair where she had sat reading to Kakashi for the past couple of months. Her hand strayed to stroke the pillow where his head had lain while she reminisced about how her sleeping prince adorably reacted to his favorite books and how satisfying it was to see the peaks on the monitor.

When she returned to her desk, one of the other nurses informed her that Lee had not gone to rehab and that Sakura was looking for him. Kaori was worried despite the brave face Lee put on for her yesterday, but she also cursed missing the chance to ask Sakura to convince Lee not to go through with the operation. Since Lee was missing from the hospital, her first concern was to get him to return for rehab, so she sent a message to Gai via one of the hospital's messenger birds. "Lee is missing. Please bring him back for rehab. Let him know that there are other things he can do besides being a shinobi - Kaori," she wrote.

While waiting for Lee to return, Kaori thought about other possible careers for Lee. The boy would always walk with a limp and though his left hand would function normally, it'd be weak. Still he would be stronger with just one right arm than the average civilian. He was polite and enthusiastic. There should be plenty of other things he could do.

'Hmm,' Kaori mused, 'He's not that bright so anything involving math like accounting is out. If he wants to continue physical work, maybe a carpenter, or a bouncer at my brother's gambling den...well...he'll have to be a bit older. A motivational speaker - that's a good one. He can talk about how to continue to live life to its fullest despite a tragic injury. He seems like he'd be good with kids, maybe a teacher or host of a kiddie show. The green jumpsuit might be appropriate for ballet.but he won't be able to dance with a bad leg.'

Less than a half hour later, the two shinobi returned to the hospital. They were met at the main door by Kaori who scolded gently, "Sakura-san was looking for you. You were supposed to be in rehab."

Lee ignored her scolding and smiled at her instead. "I have come to a decision about the operation."

"That's good," Kaori began to say, "Your life is more important than anything. There's plenty of other..."

"I have decided to take the risk."

Kaori frowned and looked at Gai. "You...didn't you talk to him?"

"Of course I did. That's why Lee realizes what it means to be a man, to be a shinobi. Life is nothing if not risk!"

"I can't believe you approve..."

"What do you mean? Of course Lee has to pursue his dream. What else is there to live for?" Gai was shocked that the woman of his destiny disagreed with him.

"There's lots of things to live for! Being a shinobi is not the be all and end all to everything! This village needs all kinds of people."

"Gai-sensei said if the operation failed, he promised he would die with me," Lee announced proudly.

"What?! Are you crazy?" She turned to Gai. "What kind of promise is that?" she asked, but a small part of her thought how that would definitely solve her problem.

"It's the promise of a lifetime - no one should die alone. Our souls will enter the great beyond simultaneously."

"No one should die alone, that's true, but that doesn't mean you should die with him. It means there should always be someone with you when you die," Kaori explained in exasperation. Gai had a strange outlook on life. "And you're not going to die," Kaori quickly added for Lee's sake.

"No, I am not. A positive outlook will improve my chances," Lee said optimistically. "Thank you for taking care of me these many weeks, but I have made my final decision," he said to Kaori.

Just then Shizune entered the room. She interrupted quietly. "Did you come to a decision?" she asked the boy, though she had overheard the discussion.

"Yes, I have. I have decided to take the risk."

"I came to tell you that Tsunade-sama has been working very hard since yesterday on your case. She's increased the probability to 60 percent (Shizune rounded up). Tomorrow's the inauguration so we'll have to schedule the operation for the day after that. I'm sure by then the chances will increase even more," Shizune smiled reassuringly.

Lee and Gai now ignored Kaori and focused their attention on their new angel. "What has Tsunade-sama discovered?" asked Lee.

"Well, she said the key is chakra. Since cells can be many different things, we must activate them all at once. It's difficult, but it can be done."

"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you so much for saving my precious one!" Gai said while unabashedly hugging Shizune.

"The operation's not till later. You can thank Tsuande-sama afterwards," Shizune said in embarrassment as she tried to push him off.

Kaori did not like being left out, nor did she think Shizune should encourage such a decision even if the chances were improved. But then she had another thought. Gai no longer seemed to be as interested in her now that his attention was focused on Lee's operation. This would be a perfect opportunity to end it all, and she could shift Gai's affection to Shizune. Sure Shizune was an old friend of hers, but her sanity was more important than friendship. And though she disapproved of the risk, for her it was a win-win situation. Should Lee die, Gai would be gone too. Should Lee live, Kaori could credit Shizune and pass Gai's affection onto her. 'BAD! BAD! BAD Kaori!' she scolded herself for such terrible selfish thoughts. 'You're a professional and you must treat this as a professional case!'

"Let's leave Lee to his rehabilitation session. His therapist is here now," Kaori ordered, while giving Shizune a look that meant "We need to talk."

The two women waited until Lee and Gai disappeared from view, then Kaori turned to Shizune to say, "How could you encourage him to take such a risk?"

Shizune sighed. "Lee already made his decision. I was just trying to make him feel better about it."

"But you could have tried to convince him to change his mind."

"It's not up to us, is it? We can give him the facts, but we don't know him well enough to make a decision for him. What if being a shinobi really does mean everything to that boy? What if he's miserable for the rest of his life, wondering what if he had gone through with the operation? These genin, they're no longer children, Kaori-san. You can't control them."

The last part struck a nerve. Control, that was one of Kaori's problems. Her siblings always complained how she had control issues. She was the oldest so she was used to bossing them around. As a nurse, she was used to telling the patients what to do. And as a senior nurse and now head nurse, she was used to telling the other nurses what to do. She always tried to maintain control of her life, and her feelings. But she had no control over life and death.

Kaori frowned but nodded in agreement. "Of course you're right. It's just... Lee's been here so long. He's like a little brother to me. I'd really miss him if..." Kaori sniffled a bit at the thought of attending another funeral.

"Have faith in Tsunade-sama," Shizune smiled. "She's really more trustworthy that she acts."

The rest of the day followed uneventfully (Otoha was off), though Kaori looked up every time someone entered the hospital, hoping Kakashi would drop by for a visit. But he never came. She couldn't help thinking of him despite other pressing issues and wondered if she should drop by his place again. It was tempting, very tempting, but how would it look for her to so desperately chase after a man? It really should be the other way around, shouldn't it? So with that thought she stubbornly decided not to go out of her way to see him. But then again, his place was sort of on the way home, and so what if she happened to drop by, as a medical profession, to see how he was. And if she were to do that, then she would have to bring something. You couldn't visit someone without bringing something.

So with that reasoning, Kaori decided to buy two orders of fish congee and went to visit Kakashi after work. Not that she thought he would eat both orders, but she hoped he would invite her in to share.

Kakashi's first thought when he saw Kaori with more takeout was:`Hmm.the way this is working out, I may never have to buy dinner again!'

`You cheap bastard!' said the Obito voice.

"Hi.I.uh.I'm just checking to see that you're eating properly. I brought you some fish congee. That should be easy on your stomach. No fried foods for a while until your system adjusts," Kaori advised in her professional tone.

"Hmm, the medics didn't tell me these things."

"They don't really think too much about post-op care once you leave the hospital. But I always try to educate my patients."

"That's very considerate of you, but I'm fine. You don't need to bring me food." But he took the bag from her anyway. `I wonder why she brings me two orders. I don't eat that much for dinner. Well, I can always save one for lunch like last time. Hmm, I may never have to buy lunch or dinner again!'

`You super cheap bastard!' said the Obito voice.

 

"Of course not. I don't plan to do this again. I mean. I'm just doing this seeing that you don't have someone to tend to you. not that you really need someone to do that.but it's better to have someone watch over you when you've just left the hospital in case of any unforeseen problems." Kaori rambled.

"Hmm, that's true, but I'm fine, really. Thank you but you don't need to do this."

`Invite her in you idiot! She wants you bad!' said the Obito voice.

"Right, you can take care of yourself now.um. so are you going to attend the inauguration tomorrow?"

"I suppose everyone in Konoha will be there," he shrugged.

"Well, the hospital has to retain a skeleton crew in case of emergencies, but it's my day off, " Kaori hinted.

"That's good. Maybe I'll see you there," Kakashi said noncommittally.

"Yes, well, then I'll see you."

"Goodnight and thanks again," Kakashi said as he closed the door, before Kaori had a chance to finish her thought.

-.-.-.-.-

"You should have asked her in. It's not like you get many visitors," complained the Obito voice when Kakashi was alone.

"Shut up."

"What's the problem? Her boobs not big enough for you?"

"I didn't notice."

"Yeah, right. She's a nice piece of eye candy. A bit lacking in front, but no big deal."

"Sigh, give me a break, I'm still recuperating. Maybe later, all right?"

"Recuperating? You mean resting your lazy ass! Get off your butt and get some action!"

"That's it, I'm turning you off!"

"As if you could! As long as you have my eye, you're stuck with me."

The odd couple continued to argue late into the night.

 

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

Lee's Operation

The next morning, the air buzzed with activity. It was the day of Tsunade's official inauguration and it seemed all of Konoha had surrounded the Hokage administrative building. Everyone strained his neck looking up toward the rooftop, where the participants were gathered. The ceremony started with the elders giving the usual speeches, praising the former hokage, giving the illustrious background of the new hokage, and promising good things to come. They were unreasonable expectations given the state of the village, enemies lying in wait, and Tsunade's alcoholism, but the elders had no other choice of hokage candidates, and the village needed a morale boost.

Kaori was stuck with the congregation of medical staff, who had immediately called her over when they saw her looking for a good spot to view the ceremony. She was obligated to be with her coworkers, but she really wanted to be with Kakashi. During the ceremony, she desperately tried to get a glimpse of Kakashi among the thick crowd, tiptoeing her highest. She barely heard any of the speeches, but she could hear Otoha and Houshou "discussing" Tsunade's past.

"Is it true she's afraid of blood?" asked Otoha.

"Yes, after the tragic death of her lover, she had a mental breakdown and developed hemophobia."

"How ironic and weird. I mean, she's a medic nin and a super shinobi. She should be use to blood and death. Sure, someone close to her died, but to develop a phobia from that. just seems like a weak personality."

"Don't let her hear you say that. She's known for her physical strength."

"And her boobs! Are they for real? I mean, she's like what 50 or something, and she looks like she's still in her twenties. I heard she uses a special jutsu, but you'd think she'd have some humility and tone those down."

"Ha-ha, they are quite nice. But yours of course are much nicer, and they're real for sure!"

So it seemed her ex-boyfriend Houshou, the handsome medic nin, was now involved with Otoha. A twinge of jealousy passed through Kaori, but she shook it off. They continued to gossip about Tsunade's past, including the deaths of her brother and her lover, her fear of blood, her withdrawal from Konoha, her gambling addition and debts, and her love for drink. None of it sounded positive at all. But it didn't concern Kakashi so Kaori didn't care. Despite her comrades' doubts about Tsunade, and her terrible bedside manner, she did heal Kakashi and for that Kaori was grateful.

The crowd roared as Tsunade appeared. She had refused the official white hokage robe and stuck to her usual attire, a gray tunic and a green robe, but accepted the red and white hokage hat to keep the sun out of her eyes. She said a few words and ended the ceremony by announcing that she would protect the village as the Fifth Hokage. Everyone clapped even louder, especially because her speech was so short. Many remembered Sandaime's tedious pontifications (twice!) and Yondaime's inspirational speech laden with overly long quotes from his predecessors.

Kaori finally caught a glimpse of Kakashi standing at the outer fringes with Sasuke. But he was too far away for her to attract his attention. The crowd began to disperse as the ceremony ended. She managed to make her way over to where she saw him, but he had already gone.

What to do? It was her day off and she had no plans other than a few errands. She wanted to visit Kakashi again, but she needed a good excuse. Or did she? What the hell, she could just go up to him and ask him out directly. Worst he could do was say "no" and she'd probably never see him again. So with that thought she headed toward his abode.

`It's only been a couple of days since he left the hospital. Maybe he needs more time to recover. Maybe I should leave him alone for a while,' she argued with herself, but her feet kept on walking in the same direction. `Maybe he's not home...'

A small part of her wished he wasn't home so that she would have an excuse not to confront him. Why was she doing this? Was she really in love with him? She wasn't an adolescent with a crush. She didn't believe in love at first sight or undying love. And what did she actually know about him? Still she felt that she did know him, better than anyone else. So with that thought, she rang the doorbell.

Kakashi answered the door quickly this time. Without a word of greeting he said, "I'm sorry, I'm on the way out. Got a mission."

"A mission already? Your recovery is more important! Are you sure you'll be okay?" Kaori asked with a frown.

"Thanks for your concern." he almost said mom again, "but I'll be fine. Seems that Konoha is accepting every mission that comes along to prove we still have the manpower. Sigh, turns out Tsunade-sama is a real slave driver. So.uh.what can I do for you?"

"Oh, it's nothing. Nothing at all. I was just in the neighborhood. But since you're busy.maybe when you get back.maybe we can go out to dinner for some real food... when your system's back to normal."

`How cute, she's trying to ask me out.' He appraised the brave young woman in front of him. Kaori was out of uniform and dressed in normal clothes - an understated but flattering light blue dress (green was more her color but she resolved never to wear green again) with dark blue trim and cap sleeves, and high heel black sandals. She had dressed more formally because of the ceremony. Her hair was loose and settled nicely on her shoulders, without a stray strand anywhere. A vision of loveliness. A sad longing stirred within the veteran shinobi, but he automatically said in his disinterested way, "Er, maybe, gotta go, bye." He closed his door and ran off, leaving poor Kaori feeling embarrassed and confused again.

Kaori had never had a problem getting a guy she was interested in, albeit there really weren't many, so she was not happy with Kakashi's ambiguous attitude. He did not exactly agree to go out with her, but he didn't say no either. He seemed genuinely grateful to her and she had made it quite clear that she was interested, so there were only a few reasons she could think of as to why he did not take the bait. He obviously had no one special in his life so either:

1) He was not interested in women. (No way!)

2) She was not his type. (So what was his type? Did she need bigger boobs?)

3) He was not in a position to be involved with someone. (Was he really too busy with the backlog in missions?)

4) He had some type of sexual dysfunction. (How tragic! But there was nothing in the medical records indicating that.)

5) He was a confirmed bachelor. (Psych problems?)

She sighed and spent the rest of her day running her usual boring errands, and wondering when Kakashi would be back from his mission and why she was chasing after him. She knew men could be really dense. Unless you spelled it out for them, they wouldn't or couldn't comprehend women's feelings. With that thought, Kaori felt encouraged, that it was not because he did not want her, but because he was an idiot like most men.

At their semi-monthly dinner, her family pressed her again for information about the mysterious man in her life. While serving the chicken curry over rice, her mother accused, "I really think you're making him up just to shut us up, so we won't fix you up with someone else. If you don't bring him around soon, we're going to assume it's all a lie and you'll have to go on a series of blind dates with no objections. That Gai-sensei was a good catch."

This time Kaori replied, "Oh, you will be meeting him very soon. He's on a mission now but next time we have dinner together."

"Really? At our next family dinner we'll get to meet him? I'll have to cook something extra special. Can you at least tell us his name? If he's on a mission he must be a shinobi."

"Just be patient. He likes his privacy so I shouldn't say anything until."

"Ten to one no one shows up," said Kaori's bitchy sister-in-law.

"He'll show up!" Kaori said defensively, but inside she had a sinking feeling that things would not be so simple.

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

Lee's operation was scheduled for the next morning. Tsunade spent the early part of it prepping the medics and nurses who would be assisting her. She looked over at the assembled team with approval. They seemed competent enough, but they were all fairly young without her many years of experience. Still, she was the one performing the operation and they were only present for her to borrow their chakra if necessary and to stabilize the patient. Luckily, Shizune was there and she could always count on her.

Lee was placed under general anesthesia. The complicated operation could take several hours, well past lunch time. The many bone fragments had to be converted to harmless material easily assimilated by the body, while the bones of the left arm and leg had to be regenerated. There was little room for error since if even a small fragment remained, it could block a blood vessel, causing instant death.

Tsunade's long blonde hair was tucked underneath a medic's cap, causing her to perspire more than what the stress normally would have caused. It had been a very long time since she had had to perform an operation of this complexity. Could she still do it? But she could not allow her confidence to waver. She had to save this boy. This odd boy in green who, like the loud one in orange, represented the spirit and future of Konoha.

Lee lay face down on the gurney with his back exposed. Tsunade performed a series of seals and then placed her hands hovering over the upper part of the thoracic vertebrae, slowly moving up and down his spine, repeatedly, again and again, for hours, until the emanations given off by her chakra indicated that there were no more bone fragments. By the time this first part of the operation was complete, Tsunade's arms were almost numb, and even her great reserve of chakra ebbed low.

She took a short break as the medics positioned the boy's left arm and leg for the next stage of the operation. Although this part was technically less hazardous, it was just as risky because of Tsunade's fatigue. Now she had to borrow chakra from Shizune and the other medics. They stood in a ring around Lee, each touching a part of his body with one hand and holding hands with the other. They infused Lee's body with chakra while Tsunade re-channeled it into her own.

The medics were impressed not only with Tsunade's ability, but also because her hands were so steady despite her drinking right before the operation. Luckily, Lee was an orphan with no relatives to file a malpractice suit should the operation fail.

After what seemed like a tense eternity, Tsunade finally sighed and nodded, signaling the medics that she was done. She happily announced to the room, with a rare genuine smile, "The operation is a complete success!"

The participants all clapped, cheered, and heaped mounds of praise on their new hokage. Then Kaori was given the privilege of telling Gai the good news while the rest of the group cleaned up and handled post-op monitoring. It was not so much that they thought Kaori and Gai were a couple and it would be best coming from her, but because nobody wanted to be on the receiving end of Gai's reaction once he was informed of the good news. So poor naïve Kaori, oblivious of the staff's true reasons, exited the OR.

Gai had been waiting all day in the waiting area just outside the OR. Kaori found him nervously pacing the floor and ceiling. He stopped and dropped down as soon as she appeared.

"Lee?! How's Lee?!"

Kaori tried to keep her face as neutral as possible, but she couldn't help but break out into a smile when she announced, "Lee's operation is a complete success! He's fine. He should be out of the OR in a little while."

Gai immediately grabbed Kaori in a tight bear hug and spun her around and around and around until she felt her stomach lurch. "Isn't it wonderful! Now the three of us can be a real family, together!"

`Family?! I already have one crazy family! That's it, no more of this!'

"Put me down, please!" ordered Kaori. When Gai finally complied she straightened out her uniform, took a deep breath to recover and said, "Er, yes it is wonderful. You really should go thank Shizune-san. She's been very supportive of Lee and she was Tsunade's primary assistant during the operation."

"Shizune? Yes she's been very helpful and quite affable, indeed."

"In fact, I think the two of you have a lot in common."

"You know you are the only one for me!" Gai protested, suddenly suspicious of Kaori's intentions.

"Er, well, about that.you see.I.uh. really meant to tell you earlier, but.umm. with Lee's condition." Kaori stammered. `I need to tell him the truth. I need to make it absolutely clear...' Kaori finally blurted out, "I'm in love with Kakashi!"

"What? What?! WHAT?!" NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Gai grabbed his head with both hands and let out a scream that came from the depths of his soul.

Somewhere in Otafuku Village, over five miles away, a distant cry of anguish was heard reverberating throughout the mountains, lasting for nearly a minute.

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

 

Author's Notes: Beginning quote (morning mantra) is from comedian Al Franken as Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live (from a long time ago).

Challenges

`I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And dog-gone it - people like me!' Gai repeated his morning mantra over and over to himself in the mirror. It was an old habit that originated from the time he was a genin and picked up a self-help book. The book "Why I'm Better Than I Think I Am" had given him confidence and changed his life.

He repeated his mantra for longer than usual as he had barely recovered from yesterday's emotional roller coaster - first elation that Lee would be able to stay a ninja, then desolation when his destined one claimed she was in love with his eternal rival. Why did fate always conspire against him? First Rin and now Kaori (not to mention dozens of others).

Kakashi had only just recovered from his coma - how could Kaori possibly be in love with him? No doubt Kakashi had cast some sort of genjutsu. That would explain it. Why else would a woman prefer someone as lazy and perverted as that to someone as vibrant and chivalrous as himself?

Gai then realized that it was a test, a test to prove himself worthy of the fair Kaori, which meant he had to challenge Kakashi to a duel of honor, or rather several duels, until Gai won the greater majority.

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

Kakashi was just minding his own business as usual, heading home after a solo mission resolving a kidnapping case (where he used his sharingan to hypnotize all the witnesses), when all of a sudden he heard Gai's irate voice.

"You! You! Hatake Kakashi! Eternal rival. Sharingan shammer. Revolutionary man. Genjutsu jester. Thorn in my sandal. You have just made the biggest mistake of your life!"

"Huh?" was all Kakashi had to say to the odd man in green.

"Don't even try to deny it! I know you purposely did it just to have your revenge!"

"Revenge?"

"For my record of 53 wins versus your 52. You thought you could surpass me by resorting to something so underhanded. Never! I'll never let you!"

"Sigh, look, I'm kind of tired right now. Can't this wait till tomorrow?" Actually, Kakashi expected to be away again tomorrow.

"No! It's unforgivable! This must be resolved right here, right now! Name your challenge!" Gai pointed furiously at his rival.

"Sigh, fine, let's get this over with. Hmm.thumb war?" Kakashi yawned disinterestedly.

"No. Did that."

"Odd or even?"

"No. Did that."

"Rock, paper, scissors?"

"No! Did that!"

"You said name the challenge."

"A new challenge!" Gai astutely did not want the same challenge as one he had lost in the past.

"Sigh, let's see." After having endured over a hundred challenges, most of them different, Kakashi had to think really, really hard to come up with a new one, especially one that would require minimal effort on his part. Of course Kakashi had no clue what Gai was talking about, that he had stolen Kaori away, but that was nothing new. He always played along with Gai's insane rants.

"Umm.hopscotch?" Kakashi finally suggested.

"Something as simple as that?" said Gai with furrowed super-brows.

"It's a test of balance, aim and accuracy," Kakashi patiently explained.

"I see.yes! Hopscotch! I was an expert in my younger days. There's no way I'll lose to you!"

"Fine, you draw the boxes," Kakashi said lazily as he leaned on a tree to watch. `I thought only girls played hopscotch,' he added to himself.

"Chalk.I need chalk," Gai fumbled in his vest pockets but came up empty. Afraid that his rival would just walk away, he bit his right index finger with his perfectly straight sharp teeth and drew the boxes with his own blood.

They used a shuriken as the game piece to throw onto the boxes. No chakra was allowed to jump and hop in or over the boxes, not that two grown men needed to. It was a ridiculously easy and silly game, but Gai played it seriously all in the name of love. Kakashi had planned to throw the game once they got toward the end, hoping to get some peace and quiet. He couldn't care less about winning.

But then, when Gai reached for the shuriken in the number nine box, something happened. He was balanced on his right leg on the number eight box and was about to grab the shuriken when a large dragonfly flew at him. He used his hands to shoo it away, but it persisted so he tried to catch it. It must have been a special summoned insect as it somehow avoided Gai's clutch. He then lost his balance slightly and touched the ground with his still bloody right hand. He ended up accidentally summoning a tortoise that took up the entire box. His hand slipped and touched the box border. He lost instantly.

"Well, that's it for today," Kakashi remarked coolly and continued on his way home.

"No! How could this have happened?" Gai looked at the poor tortoise accusingly.

"Hey, you tell me. You must have made the seals and sacrificed the blood. If you don't need me, I've got better things to do." The tortoise yawned, shrunk back into his shell and disappeared with a puff of smoke.

"Seals?" Gai thought hard. He finally realized that in trying to get rid of the dragonfly, he must have performed the summoning seals.

"AAARRRRGGGGGGHHHHH!!!!"

Somewhere in Otafuku Village.

-.-.-.-

Before Kaori blurted out the words, she had refused to admit to herself that she was really in love with Kakashi. She hadn't meant to break up with Gai in quite that way (not that there was ever a relationship to break up), so she felt terribly guilty (though very relieved) afterwards. She decided she needed some distance from both men. She realized that she was becoming too much like Gai by practically stalking Kakashi, so she made no other moves. After all, the shuriken was now in his court and it was his turn to return the serve.

Nearly two weeks passed without any word from, or any sign of, her former prince, or her former stalker. The lack of attention left her disgruntled and depressed. Kaori told herself over and over it was because Kakashi was too busy due to the backlog in missions and she wasn't going to humiliate herself further by running after him.

But now Kaori was getting desperate. Dinner with her family was just a couple of days away and Kakashi had not contacted her at all. How was she going to face them? She could lie and say they broke up, but then they'd know there was no one in the first place. And there was no way she'd give her bitchy sister-in-law the satisfaction.

Otoha noticed her superior spacing out, which could only mean one thing: she was thinking of a guy, and the guy had to be Kakashi. She decided to cook up a juicy rumor.

"Hey, guess what I heard. Rumor has it that the Ichiraku ramen waitress saw Kakashi-sensei's face. The poor girl immediately fell in love with him and that's why the service and ramen quality has declined. I hear they're going out now." The first part of the statement was true, but the latter, made-up part, nearly sent Kaori spinning.

Kaori was livid. How could an uneducated nobody like that attract Kakashi? The girl was pretty enough, had a decent figure, but she had to smell like fermented bean curd! And wasn't she a bit too young and immature for him? What could they possibly have in common? Kaori wanted to find out the details, but she was afraid to question Otoha. After all, she was not a lovesick desperate teenager. Instead, Kaori pretended she was not interested at all.

But Otoha could tell from Kaori's red face and even redder ears that she was very upset. That delighted the buxom brunette to no end, so she just had to say, "Ah, too bad about Kakashi. I was going to jump him myself, but I've been too preoccupied with your ex-boyfriend."

Kaori shrugged and said coldly, "I don't mind you having my leftovers."

"I think you made a mistake there. Houshou's really something. Not as intriguing as Kakashi, of course, so when I'm done with him, maybe Kakashi will be done with the ramen girl. Sorry, Kaori, you'll have to wait your turn." Otoha punctuated that with hysterical evil laughter.

Kaori bit her lip part in anger at Otoha's teasing and part in sorrow at Kakashi's betrayal. After all, it was a betrayal. She was the one who watched over him for months. She was the one who embarrassed herself by reading those smut books. She sacrificed the book jackets of her favorite books to hide the Icha Icha covers. What did that ramen girl do for him? Stuff him with over priced starches? It just wasn't fair. Why didn't Kakashi ask her out instead of the ramen girl? She was not going to let either of them get away with it. The lovelorn nurse tried hard to keep from crying and it was only because of her rival's unwanted presence that she succeeded. She would not give Otoha the satisfaction.

Then Kaori maturely reminded herself that Kakashi was never hers to begin with, so she really couldn't fault either him or the ramen girl. Still, someone had to pay for her bad mood, so she turned to Otoha and said, "Hope you didn't have any plans for the weekend. We're going to need you to work overtime. It's time for a full inventory since the annual audit is coming up."

"Audit? That's not for another month!"

"We had some problems with missing narcotics last year, so now that I'm in charge of supplies, I think we should get an early start."

Otoha gave her superior a murderous look and swore revenge beneath her breath.

-.-.-.-

Kakashi had had a strange couple of weeks since his awakening. First there was that cute little nurse who kept dropping by. Then there was Gai's absurd constant challenges.

His life was complicated enough right now with the many missions and his concern over not being there for his genin team. He really did not need any more complications like having a clingy woman around. To his relief, and regret, the nurse stopped stalking him. He hadn't seen her since inauguration day. Though he missed the free food, he told himself it was for the best.

But for some reason, Gai continued to challenge him every time they crossed paths. Luckily, Kakashi's missions kept him busy and often away from Konoha. But it was getting to be too much - Gai began to call him out in the middle of the night with new ideas for challenges. He had tolerated Gai's challenges in the past as it helped him set benchmarks for his skills every quarter or so, but now it was just ridiculously annoying. Kakashi had tried to let Gai win as often as possibly, but somehow the record stayed fairly even. That apparently was no longer good enough for Gai, who now insisted that he must have a two-thirds majority of victories.

It took Kakashi a while to figure out the reason for the sudden increase in challenges, since much of Gai's normal way of speaking was nearly indecipherable: "You subverted my destiny. You interfered with fate's hand. You've provoked providence."

Kakashi was finally able to glean that it had to do with a woman. Nothing new, he was used to men cursing him out for supposedly stealing their women when he had done nothing to encourage them at all.

Now at three in the morning, just hours after his return from another mission, Kakashi heard a voice right outside his third-floor window. "You destiny defiler! You genjutsu-ed your way into her heart. A flower of such pulchritude cannot be plucked by one as sullied as you."

Finally, Kakashi asked his rival, "Look, you're already ahead 69 to 65 now. Can't we go back to quarterly challenges? Don't you think 30 challenges in two weeks is a bit much?"

"I must prove that I am the better man!" Gai said as he hung upside down outside of Kakashi's window.

"If you want I'll sign an affidavit."

"No! It must be proved legitimately or the fair Kaori will not be convinced."

"Kaori?"

"The nurse! Can't you remember anyone's name?"

"Oh. I don't know what's going on between you two, but I don't have anything to do with her. In fact I haven't seen her in weeks."

"How despicable! She gave you her heart and you stomped all over it!"

"It's really none of your business, but I'm not involved with anyone right now."

"Hah! On to your next conquest? You are lower than slug slime! Name your challenge."

-.-.-.-.-

'All men are ungrateful dogs!' Kaori angrily muttered to herself. 'I thought he was different, but he's just like the others - chasing whatever tail wags before him! How could he? Bastard! But this came from Otoha. Maybe it's not true. Maybe she's just out to get me. Maybe I should ask him directly...'

During her walk home, Kaori's thoughts swung back and forth from endowing Kakashi with the vilest character to canonizing him as a saint. Just when Kaori was about to either give up on Kakashi, or start stalking him again, he appeared by her door. She immediately wondered how he knew where she lived and how he suddenly appeared. Kakashi, with his sharingan, had actually deduced her movements as she walked home. He ran ahead of her and waited for an opportune movement to magically appear next to her to look extra cool.

"Let me get that for you," he said gallantly as he concentrated his chakra to his hand and somehow opened the locked door as she fumbled for her keys.

His presence took her by complete surprise so all Kaori could do was stammer, "Th.thank you." But then she recovered and quickly invited him in. 'He's finally come to see me! I knew those ramen girl rumors were lies! Otoha, that bitch!'

But instead of entering, Kakashi got directly to the point. "I need you to do me a favor, please." He said it nonchalantly but there was a hint of urgency in the "please."

"If I can," Kaori said cautiously. Even though it was Kakashi, she was instinctively wary of doing favors. But her heart cried out, `Anything! Anything at all! Whom do I have to kill? Ha, ha, you're really here to ask me out. Cute that you'd consider it a favor.'

"You have to get Gai to stop challenging me. I don't know what's going on between the two of you, but..."

"There's nothing going on between us! He's crazy!" Kaori protested, fearful that Kakashi had the wrong idea.

"Wait, let me explain," Kakashi continued, "We used to have these challenges a few times a year. No big deal. It makes him happy and keeps him off my back the rest of the time. But now, he challenges me every time he sees me and recently he's been tracking me down during missions."

`Kill Gai? Is that what you want me to do? No problem! No, wait, yes problem.This is not a date request?' Kaori said nothing for a minute, trying to understand exactly what was going on. "I'm sorry, I have no control over Gai sensei," she finally replied, a bit coolly, miffed that Kakashi was not there to ask her out.

"Sigh, as I understand it, for some reason, he thinks we're involved. If you'd just set him straight," Kakashi said, oblivious of the crushed look on Kaori's face.

"Sorry, there's nothing I can do," Kaori said coldly, thinking how it was all his fault she would have to suffer humiliation from her family.

"If you can think of anything..." he persisted, leaning in closer to her.

Kaori then had a flash of brilliance. "Hmm...okay, I'll try, but in return you have to go out on three dates with me."

"Three dates? How about one?" He did not seem to be excited by the prospect. `And who's paying?' he wondered.

Kaori frowned. It seemed he was not interested in going out with her at all. "Three dates, all my choice, you pay, or else say hello to your new roommate Gai!"

'So Kakashi expects me to help him out while he's making time with the ramen girl! I'm not letting any guy use me or push me around. Not even Kakashi!' Kaori stubbornly resolved.

What could poor Kakashi say to that? The thought of prospective roommate Gai would have made him walk through the esophagus of a gigantic rock frog from the Myouboku Mountains. "Right, three dates," he agreed with a sigh.

-.-.-.-

Author's Notes: I wrote a thumbs war challenge (see "Waiting and Wishing") and an odd vs even challenge (see "Kakashi's Stolen Sharingan") already, so I'm just writing the one Hopscotch challenge for this story.