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Part 6 - Choices

 

Stalking - Shinobi Style

"I can't believe it. I just can't believe it," moaned the Obito voice.

"Believe it," replied the voice's host. Kakashi sighed as he lay on his bed looking up at the blank ceiling. He had just returned from his guard duty at the museum.

"There's no way that pretty little nurse prefers Raidou over us. Just look at his face!"

"Do you know what's the difference between being scarred and showing it and not being scarred and hiding it?" said Kakashi thoughtfully.

"Umm, is that a rhetorical question?"

"Do you know what rhetorical means?"

"Er, not really."

"Sigh."

"So stop wearing your mask! She'll go back to you in no time. Never understood why you have that fixation in the first place."

"It's a family custom."

"Family of weirdoes!"

"Idiot! The answer to the question is."

"I thought rhetorical means there's no answer."

"Sigh. Not exactly. It means.what I mean to say is she prefers him, period, okay?"

"But look at his face!"

"Apparently she's not as shallow as the women you prefer. Besides, you're one to talk."

"What's that supposed to mean?" The Obito voice sounded angry now.

"Let's face it. You never got compliments on your looks."

"What? Rin once said I was cute."

"She said that to bugs, too." Kakashi smiled a bit while reminiscing about his past comrades.

"Okay, that's it! I was going to help you with that nurse, but now you can just forget it!"

"I don't need your help."

"Oh, yes, you do!"

"Just forget it."

"Forget it? No way! Now it's a matter of pride. You have to win her away." Somehow Obito just did a 360.

"What I need is a low stress distraction," Kakashi mumbled.

"Oh? Like what?"

"Let's go see `Make Out Violence' again..."

After washing up a bit and eating a quick dinner, Kakashi headed over to the movie theater. He had seen "Make-Out Violence" five times already, but it was his favorite movie next to "Make-Out Paradise." He couldn't wait until the DVD special edition came out.

Kakashi walked with his usual slow saunter as the Obito voice continued to whine in the background.

"I don't wanna see that movie again! I wanna real woman. One we can touch. Okay, forget the nurse. Anyone one will do. Let's go to Otafuka, you got paid last week, right?"

But Kakashi was in no mood for another meaningless one night stand. The events of the previous night still disturbed him. He did not want to admit to himself that any woman could so easily forget about him and move on to someone else. Despite his apparent nonchalance, he still had a very stubborn, very arrogant streak inherent within him. His pride could not so easily let it go.

A block away from the theater, Kakashi's sharp eagle-eye vision spied the pretty little nurse with her new beau. Her hand clung to his arm and surprisingly, she stood on Raidou's left side.

Part of Kakashi told him to turn around and go home, but the less rational Obito part insisted on following them. Kakashi gave in to Obito's wishes and transformed himself into a generic looking villager with plain grey robes. With his superior hearing and eyesight, he saw them buy a ticket to the new "Gone with the Wind" movie. It wasn't his sort of movie as it was only rated PG-13, but he bought a ticket and entered the theater, carefully walking far enough behind them so they wouldn't notice him.

He was curious to see what Kaori saw in Raidou, who was as exciting as a plank of wood and about as much fun as removing a splinter from under a nail. Was he the kind of man she wanted? Serious, responsible, he would make a good provider, Kakashi had to admit.

He sat in the back row where he could see Kaori and Raidou sitting five rows in front of him. The theater was quite crowded since it was a recent movie, but there was no mistaking the two of them with Raidou's spiky hair and Kaori's characteristic bun. He could see Kaori crying at all the tearjerker scenes no matter how cliché and shameless. She used up all her tissues so Raidou lent her a handkerchief (it was actually cut from bandages). `How prosaic,' Kakashi thought. He also saw Raidou giving Kaori sidelong glances throughout the movie as if to assure himself that she was still with him.

Halfway through the movie Kakashi observed Raidou trying to make the classic move - a yawn and stretch to put his arm around Kaori's shoulders. Kakashi picked up a piece of popcorn from the floor, angled it so that the trajectory could not be traced back to him, and threw it at Raidou's head.

Interrupted, Raidou abandoned his attempt to look around for the culprit. Kakashi, sitting in the back and looking innocent, hardly seemed like a likely candidate compared to some of the rowdy teenagers. Raidou frowned and glared warningly at all the younger folks. Each time Raidou made an attempt to put his arm around Kaori, Kakashi would throw something he picked up from the ground like popcorn, Jujubes, peanuts, Good and Plenty, and other candy. Each time Raidou abandoned his attempt to knock away the projectory before it hit him. Each time he glared at the suspicious characters. But he did not want to make a scene in front of Kaori, so after several attempts, he gave up, to Kakashi's satisfaction.

The movie was a nice dramatic romance, though there were parts that could use some more oomph. Not nearly as good as "Make-Out Violence" Kakashi evaluated, though the lead female was definitely doable. He knew he hadn't read the book before, but parts of the movie seemed very familiar. Kakashi couldn't place the déjà vu feeling. The ending was classically tragic with the male lead dying in sacrifice for his love and the female lead crying piteously over his body.

`Who would cry for me?' he thought. There were a few who would shed some tears, but no one would cry for him like that - a heart rending anguish cry of the deepest grief. No, no one at all.

The credits rolled before he knew it and he had to admit the movie was better than he had expected. It did not have the humor of the "Make-Out" movies but the chemistry and emotions portrayed by the characters seemed genuine.

His targets filed out with the rest of the audience. Kakashi stayed behind, thinking about his next step.

So what was he doing? Stalking a woman who no longer wanted him? Pursuing a relationship that never existed? And if he had her alone to himself what would he say? That he was wrong for treating her so poorly after all she had done for him? That he was a first class idiot? And even if she still wanted him, what would be the point? There would be no happily ever after. If anything, he'd end up like the protagonist in the movie he just saw, and she'd be crying over his body. He did not want anyone crying over him like that. It was better to die unloved than to hurt the ones you loved.

His serious musings were interrupted by the Obito voice which chimed in, `What's the matter with you? They're getting away. Move it!'

Despite his misgivings, he transformed into a buxom platinum blonde with red eyes and a short yellow dress - so short, his long silvery white hair touched the hem.

`Oooo, nice," ' said the Obito voice.

`Naruto's influence,' Kakashi replied wryly. He wasn't sure why he chose that look, but he wanted to attract attention this time. And should he need his sharingan, the red eyes would mask it. After a second thought, he reduced the size of the bust to a respectable 36C, bigger than Kaori, but not too big to look like a skank, and shortened the hair to waist length.

He followed the unsuspecting couple to the most expensive restaurant in town - a hibachi steakhouse with the finest cuts of beef and expensive bottles of sake. Kakashi winced at the thought of how much it would cost him for a single drink, but he purposefully entered the restaurant and sat down at the bar.

He need not have worried about the cost as several single men eyed him immediately. The boldest, a tall, well built, dark haired man, came up to hit on him first. "Hey honey, love your dress. How `bout I join you or you join me for a drink?" he slurred.

Kakashi's transformed rosy lips curled in a seductive smile and he nodded his approval, but as soon as he got his little bottle of expensive sake, he subtly hypnotized Asuma to leave him alone. `Thought he was with Kurenai. Wait till I tell her about this. No, I'll hold it over him instead.' More men came up to him, but he hypnotized them all to go away, though he did have a passing thought about a particularly handsome young blonde.

He observed Raidou and Kaori drinking sake and talking. He had the ability to read lips and he could concentrate chakra to his ears to sensitize his hearing. Kakashi decided on the latter as he did not what anyone to notice he was staring at the couple. He slowly nursed his drink as he eavesdropped.

"That was a good movie wasn't it?" Raidou asked.

"Yes, I've read the book."

"Was it a faithful adaptation?"

"The main storyline was the same, but there were more subplots and detours in the book, of course."

"So is that the type of movie you like?"

"You mean romance? Yes, I guess so, but I like all types," Kaori hastily added in case Raidou was put off by chick flicks. "What about you?"

"Documentaries mostly - it's always good to learn something. I don't usually read or watch fiction, sort of a waste of time, in my opinion. But, er, this was a nice change," Raidou quickly added so he wouldn't seem too stuffy.

Kakashi yawned. Raidou had the personality of a piece of chalk. `Documentaries, imagine that, as if facing real life every minute of the day wasn't enough. How could anyone not escape into fantasy?'

The small talk continued as Kaori feigned interest in documentaries and Raidou feigned interest in romantic fiction and as Kakashi listened in, getting more bored by the second. Kaori definitely seemed more interesting before. He wondered if he were remembering things incorrectly. After all, when one got down to it, there were women better looking (himself included), with better bodies, smarter, with better wit, more interesting and exciting. So why was he sitting in a bar looking like he wanted to be picked up by a man? Maybe it was something subliminal. He wondered what she did to him while he was unconscious.

Still he stayed and when the couple left, he transformed again, this time to a young boy of eight. He followed them to Kaori's apartment. The trick in stalking, shinobi-style, was repeated transformations, but not to the same generic looking type individuals - to a shinobi that could be suspicious. The best thing to do was to alternate from someone quiet to someone who stood out. Now as the little boy, Kakashi picked up a stick and some stones from the ground. He threw a stone in the air, then hit it with a stick. Thanks to his expert eye and reflexes, the stone hit Raidou squarely in the back of the head. Or it would have, but Raidou was no slouch and he caught the stone in his right hand before it made contact.

Boy Kakashi looked scared and quickly said, "Sorry mister, didn't mean to do that!" He ran away and hid behind a tree.

"Kids today have no respect," grumbled Raidou angrily.

"He was just playing around. It was an accidental. He didn't mean to hurt you," Kaori said in defense of the boy.

Raidou frowned and forced himself not to argue. The little nurse was too nice and naïve. These kids were future shinobi, future killing machines. He was sure that kid did it on purpose to test him.

Kakashi waited outside Kaori's building, timing how long it would take Raidou to come out. A simple good-bye at the door shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes. A nightcap would be another half hour to an hour. Anything more than that was cause for concern.

Raidou came out in about five minutes, looking none too pleased, but that was his usual look.

A platinum blonde with an ideal bust sidled up to the lonely scarred jounin. "Hey mister, I noticed you at the restaurant. How `bout you lose the pseudo redhead and come with me." Kakashi smiled seductively.

`A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,' Raidou instinctively thought, but then shook off such unfaithful considerations. He was with Kaori now, and he would wait, even though it had been a while. "Sorry, miss, thank you for the offer, maybe another time."

"Suit yourself. You don't know what you're missing. You know, I can be very discreet." Kakashi gave him a wink, leaned in closer, and slightly jiggled his transformed chest.

What man could resist something like that?

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

Rooftop Rivals

Another sunny morning in Konoha, with laundry hanging outside on clotheslines, drying naturally by the wind's gentle breath. Things were quiet at the hospital. There were few rooms occupied and few staff members around. It was a nice quiet morning - soon to be disrupted.

One room was occupied by a boy and a girl, both physically on the verge of adulthood, but their experience was years more advanced. They had both seen people die, people killed - especially the boy.

Sakura sat by Sasuke's bed, cutting and peeling an apple for the apple of her eye. But Sasuke was in a foul, foul, bitter mood. He had spent a sleepless night at the hospital brooding over Naruto's power. How was it that that fool was able to defeat Gaara of the Desert and Aoi the missing-nin while he, Uchiha Sasuke, promising prodigy, sharingan wielder, turned out to be nothing but an impotent child. His efforts were futile. He was swatted away like a fly both times. And that moron Naruto reaped the glory. The humiliation was unbearable.

But what made it even worse was the presence of Sakura. The girl who idolized him, who saw only his positive aspects, none of his flaws. The way she doted on him sickened him because there was no basis for her devotion. He could not protect her against Gaara; he could not complete his mission against Aoi. How could he hold his head up in front of her or anybody else?

Naruto got strong, very strong. Training with whom? Not Kakashi. Naruto was training with one of the legendary sannin, Jiraiya. Someone better than Kakashi. He should have been the one to train with someone like that. Someone worthy of his potential. Not Kakashi. Not Kakashi with his insipid lectures on teamwork and friendship.

Kakashi had taught him how to increase his speed to utilize his sharingan effectively, some taijutsu moves, and the chidori. But Kakashi's sole original jutsu was not as special as it seemed. It failed to take down Gaara. It failed against Itachi. It failed again against Aoi. He needed more power.

What was he doing in Konoha? Spinning his wheels going nowhere, while Itachi was out there free, roaming around, doing whatever he wanted, going wherever he wanted, wreaking whatever havoc he wanted. He had to catch up with Itachi. As fast as possible or he might never be able to reach him at all.

"Here Sasuke-kun, I peeled and sliced an apple for you. Just the way you like it," Sakura held out a pieced for him with the knife.

Sasuke knocked it out of her hand. His reaction surprised her so much she dropped the bowl and the other slices on the floor. He did not bother to apologize. Instead, he glared at his other visitor.

Naruto had just opened the door, prompting Sasuke's angry reaction to the offered apple. The sight of the dumb blonde set off the time bomb building within Sasuke. Why him? Why did Itachi want Naruto? Itachi had ignored him as if he were nothing but a nuisance. Instead, he was interested in Naruto. What was so special about this incompetent idiot?

"Hey, you okay Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked as the knife, bowl and cut fruit clattered to the floor.

"I'm fine. My hand slipped," Sakura said, trying to excuse Sasuke's outrageous behavior.

"No, it didn't. I saw it. Sasuke did it. Say sorry to Sakura-chan!" Naruto ordered.

"Go to hell, bastard," Sasuke growled back.

Naruto had expected a not too pleasant, but somewhat friendly visit with his teammate/rival, but all he got for his concern was a glare from the somber dark-haired dark-eyed boy. He was hoping to have some fun rubbing in the fact that Sasuke was injured while he was fine. But it seemed Sasuke was even more pissy than usual.

"Fight me," Sasuke said abruptly.

Naruto was taken aback for a second, but he slowly smiled and nodded. "Right, I was thinking the same thing."

"Wait, what are you two doing?" Sakura tried to block the door, but Sasuke pushed her roughly aside.

"Stay out of this Sakura-chan," Naruto said seriously.

"No, stop you two, please." Sakura begged futilely. She could do nothing but watch in despair as her two teammates climbed the stairs to the roof of the hospital. She didn't know to do. All she knew was she couldn't stop them.

-.-.-.-

Kaori was the only nurse on duty today since she had, in her dazed state after learning the truth about Kakashi, unknowingly granted leave to everyone who had asked her yesterday. She had completed the morning rounds by herself and now sat at her desk slowly shuffling papers from one pile to another, not really doing any work at all.

She was trying not to think about Kakashi but to concentrate on Raidou instead. They had a nice night out. The movie was good, but it reminded her of how she read the original novel to Kakashi and that made her cry even more than usual. Raidou took her to the best restaurant in town which was impressive, but she had little appetite so all they had were drinks and appetizers. Such a wasted dinner, she sighed, maybe he'll take her there again. It seemed that he genuinely liked her. She liked him well enough, but there were no bells or music in the air, or the scent of roses, or stars in her eyes. She liked him about as much as she liked most people who were nice to her. But she had sworn to herself to give him a chance. Even if she wasn't in love with him, it didn't mean she couldn't love him, in time. As long as he was a good person, that was all that should matter, shouldn't it?

Yet thoughts of Kakashi kept diminishing her resolve. Was it just because of his looks that she fell in love with him? Was she that shallow? Wasn't there something more to him that she loved? She tried to think back to what attracted her beside his looks, maybe Raidou had the same aspects.

Physique, both were quite tall, both well built, no - that counted as looks, what else. Background, both were orphaned at a young age, so were most shinobi their age who had shinobi parents, thanks to the Great Ninja Wars. Talent, both were jounin, but Kakashi was more well known and respected and probably wealthier, but success shouldn't matter that much. Personality, that was most important. Kakashi had an aloof air, a cool detached nonchalance, but undercut with mischievousness. There was something exciting about him and he could be charming and amusing when he wanted to be and there was always warmth in his voice when he spoke of his genin. Raidou failed in comparison. He was serious, too serious, lackluster, but he seemed like the faithful type, conservative and considerate. Interests, Kakashi liked romantic adult novels, but Raidou preferred educational material. She liked a mix of both but had to admit she leaned toward Kakashi's tastes. But couples didn't necessary need to have the same interests or personalities. In fact, personalities and interests should be complementary, she reasoned, stretching to give Raidou extra points.

At her age, she could no longer pick and choose. She needed someone who would make a good father. Raidou seemed like the stern disciplinarian while Kakashi seemed more like the fun dad who gave horseback rides. Raidou would keep the kids in line which would be less stressful for her. Kakashi looked like the type to join the kids' hi-jinks and give her more headaches. Raidou was really the better choice, she reasoned.

After some time together, Raidou was sure to loosen up. She could spend the rest of her life with him, couldn't she? She tried to imagine them being permanently together, but couldn't. She tried to imagine the two of them in bed, but couldn't. Still she stubbornly ignored her instincts and desperately fixated on Raidou being Mr. Right. After all, what other choice did she have?

Kaori's obsessive musings were interrupted by a hysterical voicing screaming, "Fight! Fight! Please you have to stop the fight!"

She broke out of her reverie and saw Sakura running toward her. She calmly asked the genin to explain herself, while she took out a brush and scroll, prepared to write an emergency message.

"Sasuke-kun and Naruto-kun are fighting on top of the roof. Someone has to stop them or they'll kill each other!"

"I'll send out an emergency message to Kakashi-sensei while you try to stall them," Kaori immediately decided. "He should still be on guard duty at the museum."

Sakura nodded and ran off to the roof, thankful there was hope that Kakashi would arrive in time.

Kaori took out an emergency summoning scroll from her desk to summon the fastest of the hospital's messenger birds. She quickly performed the activation seal and a peregrine falcon appeared as the smoke dissipated. "Fly as fast as you can to Kakashi-sensei. He should be at the museum." She decided to dispense with the note. "Tell him to come to the hospital immediately, Naruto and Sasuke are fighting. If he's not there, fly around the village with the message encoded. He might see it or someone who knows where he is will see it," Kaori said. The bird nodded and quickly flew off.

Then she tried to page the medics, but no one answered her calls. There should have been two medics on duty according to the roster. Where were they? Men's room? At the same time? She groaned at the coincidence and decided to go up to the roof herself to see if there was anything she could do at all. Maybe the presence of an authoritative adult figure like herself would induce them to stop.

Even before she reached the roof she felt the pulsing of chakra in the air. This was a serious fight, with near killing intent. She quickly ran the rest of the way.

But she arrived too late to do anything. When she arrived, all she saw was Sakura crying pathetically like a little twelve year old girl instead of a tough kunoichi, and her sensei trying futilely to comfort her. The two boys were nowhere in sight.

"Don't worry," she heard Kakashi say, "everything will be all right." He smiled reassuring from under his mask.

Kakashi noticed Kaori's presence and looked in her direction. He gave her a nod of appreciation, realizing she was the one who had sent the messenger bird. Then he cocked his head in Sakura's direction, as if instructing Kaori to watch over his little kunoichi while he pursued his other genin.

That look, that look he gave Sakura, that look he gave her. A comforting warm look, full of sincerity and confidence, a look that made her skin tingle all over. Even though most of his face was covered, she could see it in his eye, hear it in his voice, feel it from his words. Kaori finally admitted to herself that she was still in love with Kakashi. She realized at this moment she was likely to love him forever, whether she could have him or not, whether he could love her or not. There was no one else who had ever made her feel that way.

Kaori nodded back and place her arm comfortingly around Sakura's shoulders. "That's the way boys and men are," Kaori said. "They're competitive and aggressive even with their own friends. And you know, you guys are at that age when hormones take over any reason. I'm sure things will go back to normal once Kakashi-sensei has a talk with them."

Sakura sighed and shook her head. "They never listen to Kakashi-sensei. It's been over a year since we've been a team and it's just like day one. Those two are just too stubborn. Sigh, none of the other genin teams has this problem."

"I'm sure each team has its own problems. Don't worry too much. It'll give you wrinkles prematurely." Kaori smiled to show she still had no wrinkles.

"Really?" Sakura stopped crying as she considered the validity of this beauty tip. `Sasuke-kun wouldn't like me with wrinkles.'

"Of course. Look at me, guess how old I am."

"Umm.thirty two?"

"WHAT?!"

"Oh, I meant that since you're now the Head Nurse you must have been here a long time. But you don't look older than twenty," Sakura quickly explained. But she really thought Kaori was at least 25.

"That's better. Look, see, no wrinkles." It was actually thanks to her mother's beauty treatment once a month. Kaori actually worried a lot, especially about her love life. "Anyway, why don't you help me clean up the mess."

Kaori surveyed the roof and sighed. It was a mess with water everywhere. The sheets that had been hanging out to dry were all dirty, ripped or scorched. Most of the sheets were damaged beyond repair. The two water tanks had gaping holes and no water. They would have to call in shinobi who specialized in metal and wood jutsu to repair the water tanks, and another specializing in water to fill them.

Poor Kakashi-sensei, to have two such troublesome charges. Kaori shook her head sadly. Who would have thought that Sasuke would be such trouble. Naruto was well known throughout Konoha not only for being the nine-tail fox container, but also for being a mischievous brat. Since he became a genin, he seemed to be more responsible and there were no longer weekly complaints about his pranks, but now this. Tsunade-sama was not going to be happy about this at all.

Then she sighed again. She had to break up with Raidou. She had to tell him the truth - that she loved Kakashi and no other. Raidou was not going to be happy about that at all.

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

Raidou's Mission

Raidou was no fool, and he hated more than anything to be played for a fool. Beautiful women did not come up to him and proposition themselves - unless they wanted to be paid. His instincts automatically told him that the bold blonde with the ideal bust was up to something. He squinted his eyes and looked hard at her.

"What exactly do you want, Kakashi?" he growled.

The bodacious blonde blinked in surprise. "Who me?" Kakashi purred.

"Yes, you, Hatake Kakashi. You can't fool me. I'm a jounin too you know. I can see through your henge."

Kakashi remained nonplussed. He shrugged and said in a sweet soprano voice, "Well, I'm still available." He then smiled and winked, still in his transformed state.

"Does this have something to do with Kaori-san?" Raidou asked bluntly, his brow furrowing in anger. "You can forget it. I'm not interested in other women, or men, and especially not a trashy one."

"Trashy?" Kakashi frowned and transformed his hair to pile it up high and artistically curled on top of his head. His dress hemmed flowed down to ankle length and the neck line rose up. Now he looked like a classic goddess. "This more to your liking?" Kakashi persisted.

"Y.No! I don't know what you're trying to accomplish by doing this, but you can forget it." Raidou walked away angrily, though feeling a bit conflicted. The blonde was a knockout - the most beautiful, exotic looking woman he had ever seen.

Kakashi finally transformed back to his regular self. Raidou had passed the test. He was faithful to Kaori. He was good enough for her. Kakashi could now give her up without further regrets.

-.-.-.-

That was three days ago. Now Raidou was heading back to Konoha from his mission with Genma, Shizune, and Iwashi, a chuunin with hopes of making jounin. They were sent to patrol the northern border, checking out rumors of Orochimaru's movements. They found no validity to the rumors, no sign of Sound-nin. Orochimaru seemed to be lying low after his confrontation with Tsunade and Jiraiya months ago. Tsunade recalled them after their initial report of no findings since there were more missions still pending.

Raidou did not like long missions - they interfered with his routine. That's why he preferred the position of the Hokage's bodyguard. But Tsunade had Shizune as her attendant and she didn't feel that she needed a bodyguard (not that Sandaime needed one either - it was all for show). That was fine with Raidou as he found the new Hokage to be lacking in every Hokage requirement compared to the Great Professor. The woman was an insufferable alcoholic, bad tempered, rude and crass. Sure she was powerful, strong, the legendary healer, but she was nothing compare to the Third. He sighed as he thought of his former boss - patient and kind, wonderful and wise. Was he prejudiced because he was still faithful to Sandaime? No, Tsunade was definitely lacking in every virtue, especially diplomacy. He couldn't understand how Shizune put up with her.

Shizune was one of the nicest people he had ever known. She was almost apologetic when she issued orders, not like one of those pushy kunoichi who always felt they had to prove themselves in front of men. She was their team leader on this mission since Tsunade thought she needed the experience. But though she and Genma were somewhat involved, she was professional and let no trace of their relationship show. Despite her apparent docility, she was a smart and decisive team leader, but Raidou could see it was not natural and she had to make the extra effort to be assertive.

His friend was lucky to have someone like that. Though the two men were friends, they were not the type to compare little black books. Genma said little about how their relationship was progressing, leaving Raidou to wonder if it was working out better than his.

He genuinely liked Kaori. He wanted a woman like Kaori who seemed serious and intelligent, unlike the many silly giggling girls he'd encountered. She was nice, caring and considerate, unlike the many cold selfish kunoichi (with Shizune being an exception) he knew. He could see spending the rest of his life, albeit possible a short one, with the pretty little nurse. But did she feel the same? What if she didn't? How could he find out without making a fool of himself? He couldn't come out and ask her directly. That would put her on the spot and she'd be likely to say something she didn't mean. How else could he find out how she felt? He could ask Shizune, after the mission, he decided. Now would be inappropriate; even though they were returning to Konoha they were still on official duty and personal business had to take a backseat, he reasoned in his serious way.

At this thought, Raidou quickened his pace behind Iwashi. He wanted to get back to Kaori as soon as possible, before Kakashi could make more trouble.

Halfway to Konoha the team decided to take a break. But there was something wrong. They felt the presence of others with powerful chakra. They seemed to be coming from the other direction, from Konoha. The chakra felt unfamiliar, intense and evil, out of place in the peaceful woods. The two senior men went to investigate while Shizune and Iwashi waited for their report.

Raidou and Genma immediately recognized the four adolescents as Orochimaru's henchmen. The ones who set up the barrier around Sandaime. The ones who helped Orochimaru escape. There was no forgiving these punks, nor could they be taken lightly. Orochimaru must have held them in high esteem to rely on them for his plan to destroy Konoha.

A girl and three boys, the big one carried a large barrel. What was in the barrel? Something clearly important. From Konoha? That's the direction from which they came. They were apparently headed north to Sound Village .

Genma observed, "From your direction, it looks like you guys are on your way back from Konoha Village. Steal something important? Maybe we should take a look inside that barrel."

The dark boy with his hair in a ponytail took a second to evaluate the two before replying, "Fighting against two jounin might be a little rough." He gave his comrades a look and a nod.

The air turned cold, as if the heat from the environment was sucked in to fuel their chakra. Black marks of varying design appeared across their necks and faces. Every one of Orochimaru's team had a cursed seal.

Kunai and senbon clashed. The powered-up Sound-nin were fast, very fast, but as jounin, Genma and Raidou were just that much faster and more powerful even as they each faced two enemies. But then there was another surge in chakra and the enemies started to morph.

Raidou woke to find himself lying in a hospital bed with bandages around his head and chest. His head hurt like hell and he ached all over. In the bed next to him was his friend Genma looking not much better. He couldn't remember much of what happened. That they were defeated by Orochimaru's minions was obvious. Shizune and Iwashi must have come to check on them and luckily for them, Shizune was an expert medic nin. If she hadn't been on their team, it was likely neither of them would have survived.

Who were those kids? What experiments did Orochimaru perform on them to produce such creatures? He shuddered as images came to him of a humanoid spider and demonic twins.

Seeing that they were now conscious, Iashi, the medic on duty, immediately called Tsunade who wanted them awake for questioning as soon as possible.

"What happened?" Tsunade asked abruptly upon arrival, with her green gambling robe opened in front and flowing behind her.

Genma spoke first. "We came upon four Sound-nin, the same ones who assisted Orochimaru in the attack months ago. They were carrying a large barrel. It must have been very important, they were apparently protecting it."

Tsunade nodded thoughtfully. "Uchiha Sasuke might have been in that barrel. I don't know why - seems a rather uncomfortable way to travel," she added flippantly.

"Uchiha Sasuke?" asked Raidou in surprise.

"Yes, he left Konoha yesterday morning. I've already sent a team to retrieve him."

"Who?" both Genma and Raidou asked in concern.

"Uzumaki Naruto, Nara Shikamaru, Hyuuga Neji, Inuzuka Kiba, and Akimichi Choji."

"A bunch of genin?" said Raidou derisively and shook his head at her incompetence. Sure Shikamaru was smart and a chuunin, but he was a new chunnin with no experience and only one technique. There was no way a hodgepodge team like that could defeat the monsters they witnessed.

Genma calmly recommended, "If Uchiha Sasuke was in the barrel, then there's no way a group of genin could defeat them when we jounin were defeated. A special team should be formed to back them up."

Tsunade shook her head and said, "We can't. Konoha has lost power since the attack by Orochimaru. Jounin and chuunin have been sent to deal with threats to the country, both internal and external. Even if Orochimaru gets the sharingan, averting war with other countries is the top priority."

"But once Orochimaru regains his powers he'll immediately." Raidou was about to say.

Tsunade cut him off. "I've already thought about it and I've made my decision."

Raidou would have felt better about her confidence in the genin team if she had not been carrying around a sake bottle.

Tsunade listened to the two men as they recalled their fight with the Sound-nin. After hearing about the second surge of chakra and their transformations, she looked more concerned. Still she said nothing about sending backup when she left.

Genma sighed, "I hope those kids will be okay."

"Yeah, the last thing we need is to fill up these hospital rooms, or the morgue," Raidou said cynically. He sighed too, and lay back on his bed, thinking about how close he had been to death, again, and how much he missed as a shinobi. Life was fleeting, he realized, and he had spent it not taking any chances other than in battle. He never did anything on the spur of the moment. He always thought things through, and analyzed the possible consequences. Even in his relationships with women, it was hard for him to express his feelings because of his well reasoned fear of rejection. They found him cold and unfeeling, even before his face was damaged. All the while he wanted to get close but couldn't. Now he decided.

-.-.-.-

It had been a crazy couple of days in Konoha. First there was Naruto's and Sasuke's fight on the hospital roof, then reports that Sasuke had left the village, then Raidou and Genma were admitted to the hospital. The hospital became a very busy place, particular for the Head Nurse, Kuchiki Kaori.

Upon learning that Raidou and Genma had been injured coming back from their mission, Kaori immediately checked their status. They were in stable condition thanks to Shizune. She tried to analyze how she felt about possibly having lost Raidou, and had to guiltily admit to herself she was distraught not just because he had been injured, but because Kaori had planned to tell Raidou about her feelings for Kakashi, which she expected to lead to a breakup, but now she couldn't. Such a blow could set back Raidou's recovery and her patients' health always came first. But Shizune then assured her they were fine and recovering quickly, which meant maybe she could get it over with. After all, ripping off a band-aid was less painful than slowly peeling if off, wasn't it? Well, maybe not to the one who had to endure the sudden painful shock.

Lunch time had arrived and with it came time for Kaori to check up on her patients. She smiled at the two now conscious men as she set up their lunch on the movable collapsible tables. "Hope you're hungry. That means you're recovering well," she said brightly.

Raidou gave Genma a look that among men meant he needed some privacy.

"I have to use the bathroom and wash my hands first," Genma said as he slowly got up, ignoring his moaning painful joints, and made his way over to the little boys' room.

"Kaori-san," Raidou started to say when they were alone. "There's something I have to tell you."

"Well, actually there's something I need to tell you, too," Kaori said hesitantly as she moved his table over.

"Please, let me say this first. I know we haven't known each other very long, but I, um, care about you a lot. You probably don't feel the same way right now, which I completely understand with my face being as it is, but I want you to know that my intentions are honorable and I intend you make you my wife. That probably comes as a shock and I know you're not ready to give me an answer to something so important right now, but in time." Raidou spoke quickly, afraid of losing his courage, afraid of Kaori's response.

What could Kaori say to that? The man actually wanted to marry her after only two dates. How could she break up with him now? How could she tell him about Kakashi? Of course she couldn't. Instead she forced a smile and said, "We'll have plenty of time to discuss this later. You've just been through a traumatic experience so you're probably not thinking too clearly right now."

"But I am. In fact I already had these thoughts before my mission. I'm sure you're the right woman for me. You're intelligent and serious, beautiful and kind. You're an excellent nurse with a perfect bedside manner. I don't understand why some man hasn't claimed you already. I can't believe how lucky I am to have this chance..."

All the flattery went to straight to Kaori's head. How could she say no to something like that?

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

Author's Notes: I adapted some of the lines from the anime/manga, but Raidou and Genma surprisingly were not bandaged up after their fight with the Sound Four.

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

Kaori's Dilemma

Was it better to love or be loved? One feeling was full of excitement and pain, the other of security and comfort. She had had enough of the latter; after all, in the end, it was not enough and she was still alone. And yet if the other option were not mutual, the result would be the same.

What to do, what to do? Accept Raidou's proposal or continue to pine after Kakashi? It was something she could not resolve independently. After agonizing over her decision, Kaori reluctantly decided to seek advice from external sources.

First she consulted her sister. Sumire always had a good head on her shoulders. She was reasonable and calm, not biased, and not crazy like their mother. After work, Kaori walked over to her house, planning to speak to her without the presence of their mother's prying ears.

Sumire and her family lived near the center of town in a three bedroom apartment on top of the beauty salon run by their mother. It wasn't because they couldn't afford a house, but because they wanted to be near the stores, schools and work. With three kids it was just too difficult to get around.

It was just before dinner, when Kaori knew their mother had closed up shop and returned to her own abode. Sumire was surprised to see her sister at her front door since Kaori rarely visited Sumire directly. They were both so busy and it was easier for Kaori to see everyone at once during their biweekly dinners. Sumire immediately deduced something was wrong. Kaori looked tired, defeated, as if a life changing, crushing dilemma was bearing down on her thin shoulders. It had to be men problems for Kaori to be unable to handle the situation.

Sumire knew that at work, her older sister was decisive and confident. With men, she wavered and faltered. Kaori could never decide whether she liked someone enough, whether they were good enough, for a long term relationship. Even worse was her indecision and inability to end a relationship even when it was obvious she was no longer interested. It would take some great faux pas on the man's part in order for Kaori to lose her temper and drop them like a hot kunai.

With the baby tucked in one arm, Sumire held the door open to allow Kaori to enter and waited patiently for her sister to explain herself.

"So, er, how's the kids," Kaori asked, thinking about how to broach the subject of her troubled love life.

"They're fine. We're all fine. So what brings you here on a work day?" Sumire had no time to beat around the bush. The baby was fussing again. He squirmed in her arms and whined plaintively to be fed. The other kids could be heard arguing from the back bedroom, fighting over their hokage action figures.

"I, umm, haven't been exactly truthful lately about my relationships," Kaori started to say.

Sumire just nodded, not surprised. Her sister was honest in most things, but when it came to confronting their mother about her single status, the pressure was bound to get to her. She walked into the kitchen while Kaori followed.

"It all started when Hatake Kakashi was brought in unconscious," Kaori sighed at the memory of Gai with Kakashi slumped over his shoulders. "I sort of fell in love with him while I cared for him," she reluctantly admitted, then blushed when she recalled how she read Icha Icha books to her coma patient. "When you met him at dinner, he was doing it to return a favor I did him." Kaori didn't mention the blackmail part or the part about forcing him to recall facts about their fake relationship. "Then we were supposed to go on a real date and he invited me to the hot springs, but he stood me up. I thought he was out with the ramen girl so I broke it off with him, and went out with Namiashi Raidou. But then I found out the ramen girl was going out with Iruka sensei, but then it was too late, but I think I'm still in love with him, but Raidou just proposed to me and now I don't know what to do!" It all came tumbling out, almost incoherently, but Sumire was smart enough to figure it out despite Kaori's manic speech.

She asked the most obvious question, "Is Kakashi sensei interested in you or not?" She balanced the baby on one arm and took out a bottle of milk from the refrigerator.

Kaori frowned and shrugged her shoulders. "I'm not sure. That's the crux of the problem. He didn't seem to be at first, but then when I went out with Raidou we ran into him and he started interfering with our date and I had to tell him off." Kaori hung her head. "I'm such an idiot!"

"Have you seen him since?" asked Sumire calmly, ignoring Kaori's side ramblings. She poured some hot water from a thermos into a mug and placed the bottle of milk in it to warm it up.

"I ran into him a few days ago, but we didn't say anything to each other, but he wasn't mad at me or anything," Kaori quickly added.

"So tell me about Raidou-san." Sumire noticed most of Kaori's ramblings was about Kakashi. But there must be something about Raidou she liked or she wouldn't be having such a hard time.

"He's okay. We've only been out a couple of times. He was recently injured and now he thinks I'm perfect for him."

Sumire took the bottle of milk and dripped a bit on her wrist to check the temperature. She placed it back into the warm water. "So what's wrong with him?" asked Sumire, knowing that Kaori would find flaws.

"Well.he's just too serious," Kaori said. She did not want to mention his scarred face yet.

"What's wrong with that?" Sumire could not wait any longer for the milk to warm up. She stuck the bottle into the crying baby's mouth. How she wished her sister would offer to take the baby from her, but Kaori was too involved in her own problems.

"My job is depressing enough as it is. I need someone with a sense of humor."

"Gai sensei was pretty funny," Sumire laughed at the memory of Gai and the turkey.

"But that was unintentional. I want someone with a good wry sense of humor."

"Is that the only problem?" Sumire carried the baby into the living and looked for a clear place on the sofa to sit.

"Well, he doesn't smile or laugh much at all." Kaori started to pace in front of her sister.

"Maybe you can make him smile," Sumire suggested. But in all honesty she didn't think her serious minded sister would be much fun.

Kaori shrugged at the suggestion and continued pacing and thinking.

"So why are you even considering his proposal?"

"Because." She shrugged again. Kaori didn't want to say she was desperate to be married.

"The way I see it, mom's pressure has gotten to you. You don't want to marry a guy you don't love, but you don't have a relationship with the guy you do like. Just wait for the right one to come along. You still have time." In actuality, Sumire thought how the older you got the more difficult it would be to deal with kids.

"But what if the perfect guy never comes along?"

"He doesn't have to be perfect. He just has to have mutual feelings for you and vice versa."

"Sigh, you're no help at all." Kaori sat down on the sofa next to Sumire in defeat. A squeak came from under her bottom. She reached under and pulled out a rubber frog covered in drool. She quickly dropped it on the floor and wiped her hands on her nurse's skirt.

"Well, in that case, don't ask yourself whether you can love Raidou, just take it easy and let things develop. Don't analyze and judge every action. As for Kakashi, quite honestly, his behavior at dinner was.appalling. Either he was being obnoxious on purpose, or he's just an insensitive jerk. But if you still want him, just swallow your pride and tell him. Honestly though, I think you should give Raidou more of a chance," Sumire said impatiently. She was tired of telling Kaori the same thing every time she had a romantic crisis. Kaori never listened anyway and Sumire had more important things to attend to, like dinner for her family. "So, would you like to stay for dinner?" she asked more kindly, now feeling sorry for Kaori who only had an empty apartment to return to.

Kaori shook her head. Dinner with Sumire's family usually meant sitting through lots of yelling and screaming, spilt drinks and flying food.

And Sumire's suggestion, about staying with Raidou, was not what Kaori wanted to hear at all.

-.-.-.-.-

The next consult was with her friend Shizune whom Kaori saw for lunch the next day at the hospital. Shizune happened to be between missions and was staying in town since Tsunade required her advice because of the recent developments with the Sound and Sasuke.

The two women set their trays on a small table by the cafeteria window. The room was nearly empty as they were having a late lunch. That also meant there wasn't much of a lunch selection and they had to settle for what other patrons did not want.

First they engaged in the usual small talk about their work and difficulties dealing with subordinates (in Kaori's case it was Otoha) and superiors (in Shizune's case it was Tsunade). Then Kaori not so subtly led Shizune into a discussion about Raidou vs. Kakashi.

"Do you mind if I ask how things are going with you and Genma?" Kaori wisely broached the subject through discussing Shizune's relationship first.

"Oh, no, that's fine. In fact, I'm glad to have someone to talk to. Umm, things are not really going anywhere. I don't know.he hasn't made any moves, but I haven't really encouraged him either. We only went out a few times before our mission together and we had to be professional during the mission. Then he was injured so.I wanted to let him know how much I cared, but Raidou was in the same room. But then again I'm not sure what I should be doing to let him know that I want to. you know." She blushed and played with remnants of her soggy yakisoba noodles.

Kaori was actually not that interested in Shizune's relationship with Genma at this point. She only asked to be politely curious. She did not want to give advice considering her own love life was a mess, but the proud authoritative side of her liked giving advice. "You mean you like him and you want him to know it?"

Shizune nodded and blushed again.

"You could try dressing more.revealing, tighter, but tasteful. Sit closer, lean in closer, smile a lot, that sort of thing. Take his arm when you walk around. Shouldn't be too difficult for him to get the message. All men are dogs." Kaori muttered the last part with a sigh.

"Huh?" asked Shizune innocently. Although she was experienced in terms of beating up men, she was inexperienced in terms of dating them.

"I mean, you'll definitely know if he's interested once he knows you are. Anyway, I have something I need your help with." Kaori again launched into an abbreviated and censored version of her non-relationship with Kakashi and Raidou's proposal. "So what do you think?"

"Me? Well, I can't really." Shizune stammered. She felt she was the last person to give any romantic advice.

But Kaori pressed her, "You know the two of them. Who do you think is better? Who would you rather have?" Kaori unconsciously stabbed her uneaten dry chicken breast with her fork.

"Well, I.I'm not you but.let's see. Hmm, well, I think they're both really nice. But.Kakashi-san is not very.Well, I don't know him very well, but he's kind of .strange. Raidou-san is a good person. I think I learned a lot about him during our mission together. I think he's the better choice in the long run. He's dependable and responsible, intelligent."

"And serious," added Kaori with a sigh.

Shizune nodded, "And serious. Is that the problem?"

Kaori shrugged, then nodded.

"What's wrong with that? You're a serious person, too. So am I, and Hokage-sama, and Genma-san and."

"But not all the time right?"

"Well, Raidou-san is not always serious. He smiled and laughed a few times at some things Genma-san said about Tsunade-sama's age and appearance." Shizune smile and recalled how Genma had said that in Tsunade's case, diligence and diplomacy had been sacrificed for beauty and bosom. "And conversely, Kakashi-san seems rarely serious. That could be a problem too based on your personality."

"What do you by that?" asked Kaori defensively.

"You're quite a serious person, don't you think? You don't smile and laugh and make jokes that often, do you? When you do smile, isn't it to be professional rather than because you're happy or thinking of something amusing? No offense, but I remember when we were kids and while the rest of us were running around laughing and playing, you were ordering us to follow the rules of the game. I think Kakashi-sensei would probably aggravate you once the initial infatuation wears off." Shizune hadn't meant to say so much, but in all honesty, she wanted Kaori to be with Raidou, that way she would have a closer friend. If things became serious with Genma, and his best friend Raidou was with her friend Kaori, why they could be one big happy not too dysfunctional family.

But Kaori was not thinking along those lines. She was annoyed that her friend had unexpectedly summed up her personality with great insight.

And that was not what Kaori wanted to hear at all.

-.-.-.-

Instead of listening to her two consults, Kaori resorted to consulting with her nemesis Otoha. This was practically her last resort. Otoha always seemed happy or at least pleased with herself or her men, but she did not seem to have any intention of being permanently bound to a man. Maybe, at the sacrifice of Kaori's private life for public fodder, she could offer some insight.

So it was with great hesitation that Kaori casually asked, "Um, so how are things going with Gai sensei?" Kaori did not look at Otoha as she said this, but pretended to be going over some files.

Otoha perked up at the question. She had been bored with filing her already perfect nails, but now she stopped and smiled. "Great, but I think I'm ready to move on. I don't think my body can take much more."

"There's more to a relationship than that."

Otoha shrugged in response. "He's exciting, nice and generous, I guess, quite a good catch for anyone who doesn't want a boring, predictable marriage."

"Well, umm, what do you think of Raidou-san and Kakashi-san?

Upon hearing those two names, which she knew were Kaori's latest men's, Otoha sat straight up. She immediately deduced that Kaori wanted advice from her, Konoha's resident expert on men. "Ah, Kaori-san, are you asking for advice from little o' me? Why what would I know about men? I thought you were the expert. After all, I only date your leftovers," Otoha said snidely.

Blood rushed to Kaori's head, half in anger, half in embarrassment. The veins at both temples throbbed convulsively. She said nothing in reply but the poor manila envelope she was holding was suddenly ripped in two.

Seeing that she made her point to her know-it-all boss, Otoha returned to her casual conversation mode and asked "So who's better in bed?"

"What? I don't know.I haven't. what kind of criteria is that?" protested Kaori with her face still as red as a ripe strawberry.

"The most important one! Otherwise, mind as well be a friend, like a female friend, not a boyfriend or lover or husband. What's the point of dating and not know if you're compatible in the bedroom? I mean, the whole point for someone like you, dating is to get married and have a big happy family, right? So you have to know what they're like in the bedroom."

That made Kaori stop and think. Otoha did have a point. She hadn't even kissed either one of them. What made her think either one was "the" one?

Since her superior had no retort, Otoha continued, "But in your case, based on what I know of those two, and I admit I haven't slept with either one of them, I think Raidou is your best bet. He's more likely to be faithful from what I've heard." Otoha had chosen Raidou vindictively. She knew Kaori preferred Kakashi, but she did not want Kaori to get Konoha's most desirable bachelor.

But Kaori naively didn't realize the depth of Otoha's resentment. She believed her assessment was genuine. So that was it. Kakashi got three strikes. Time to let sleeping nin dogs lie and not pursue Kakashi again.

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