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PART 7 - PATHS CONVERGE

 

Fate and Destiny

Fate and destiny are strange, nearly indefinable and incomprehensible concepts. There are people who claim you can change fate with your own two hands. But wouldn't that be your destiny, to be able to change fate?

Was it fate for Uchiha Itachi to kill his entire clan? Then wasn't it Sasuke's destiny to become an avenger and Naruto's destiny to stop him?

And Kakashi's destiny to be futile in the face of tragedy.

-.-.-.-

"What?! What did you say? You sent only rookies to pursue Sasuke?" exclaimed Kakashi, uncharacteristically rattled. He was aghast at Tsunade's incompetence - sending a bunch of inexperienced rookies against Orochimaru's cursed seal team was more than stupid, it was irresponsible. He had just heard, upon his return from escorting the traveling museum exhibit, that Sasuke had left the village.

Tsunade replied defensively, "I had no choice with the state of the village as it is, but I made necessary arrangements." She did not bother to explain to her subordinate that she had sent the sand genin team as reinforcements. After all, who was he to question the hokage's decisions? He didn't understand how she had to walk a tightrope between balancing internal and external affairs. Couldn't he see all the paperwork on her desk and all the scrolls piled up on the floor?

But none of that was Kakashi's concern. His concern was his genin. To hell with his next mission, he had to make sure those kids were all right. Kakashi turned away defiantly and was about to leave when Tsunade ordered, "Your next mission has already been selected." She held up a sheet of paper with a map, pictures of three wanted ninja, and "S class" at the top.

"I'll finish my business and come right back. Don't worry," Kakashi said coolly, blatantly ignoring Tsunade's orders. That mission could wait. Those felons were not important, not right now.

Tsunade knew she could not stop him. In her heart, she empathized with Kakashi. She really wanted to go out herself and drag Uchiha Sasuke back by his ear and give him a good public spanking lesson.

Once outside, Kakashi's remaining genin called out frantically to him. "Kakashi sensei, it's already been two days since Sasuke left the village, but Naruto and the rest who are pursuing him haven't returned!" Sakura's voice wavered with worry. She had been waiting impatiently for her sensei's return since Sasuke left, hoping that he could do something.

Kakashi could see the desperation in the girl's blue-green eyes, which currently looked red and wet. "Yeah, I know roughly what's going on," he said calmly, as if the situation hardly merited any attention.

"I.trust Naruto. I trust him, but if anything were to happen between those two." she said, on the brink of tears again. What if one killed the other? What if neither one of them returned? Here she was, unable to do anything, just pathetically waiting for the outcome.

Her sensei placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder and smiled through his mask. "Don't worry, leave the rest to me," Kakashi said with feigned confidence. He casually walked to the main gates of Konoha where he cut his hand with a kunai and performed the summoning seals. His loyal pack of eight nin dogs appeared before him in a great puff of white smoke. "I need you to scatter and track down Naruto's and Sasuke's scent," their master ordered.

"Naruto and Sasuke? What happened to those two?" asked Pakkun. The little pug was the smallest, but oldest and wisest of the pack.

"I'll explain later. It's an emergency right now. Once you've caught their scent, call me right away. I'll run right over. Okay, split!"

The dogs quickly ran off in all directions. Unlike his genin, the nin dogs never questioned orders, and after all their years of working together, they knew instinctively what was required.

Sakura had followed her sensei and secretly watched from behind a building, but Kakashi knew she was there. He also knew it was useless telling her not to worry when she had borne witness to the fight on top of the hospital, and the destruction it wrought. He did not bother to speak to her again.

Instead, Kakashi thought back to what happened after the fight. He had tracked down and tied up Sasuke, and gave him a lecture condemning vengeance, trying to make him see its futility, trying to get him to appreciate what he had in the present, not the past. But now Kakashi realized how he was the one who was too naïve. It really was possible for his two genin to kill each other.

How long did it take him to realize his own folly? And yet he had expected Sasuke to immediately take his words to heart. After Obito's death, guilt and revenge were the only things that drove him. With Obito's eye, he learned jutsu after justu, killed enemy after enemy, but that did not bring Obito back. That did not help against the Kyuubi when his sensei, his friend, his surrogate father, sacrificed himself. There was no one to take revenge against for his death; he could not blame the infant housing the demon fox. And when Rin died in battle, killed by some nameless, faceless enemy, Kakashi finally realized how futile it all was. Revenge, war, death, an endless cycle.

From a distance, the veteran shinobi heard a howl. He ran at full speed in its direction, pleading desperately to fate and the heavens, "Please, let me make it on time." But fate had never been kind to Hatake Kakashi.

He quickly caught up with Pakkun and the two continued to track Naruto's and Sasuke's trail through the deep woods. Pakkun also detected the scents of the other Konoha team members, four unknown scents (presumably of the enemy) and the scent of blood. Some scents had broken off from the others until only two remained, the only two of interest for him and his master.

After running for hours, the trail led them near a deep valley on the border of Konoha where Kakashi suddenly got a very bad feeling. Immense chakra, two different ones, even from this distance they made his blood run cold. And to make things worse, it started to rain. It was one of those rare sudden storms that came out of nowhere. One minute the sky was blue; the next minute the heavy rain had drenched the two pursuers from head to toe, or paw in Pakkun's case. Although the shinobi uniform was water resistant, it was not waterproof, and soon Kakashi felt the uncomfortable dampness on his skin.

"Damn, why now? The rain will wash away the scent," Kakashi complained, wondering if the strange chakra had anything to do with the sudden change in weather.

"We're close, this way," his little comrade replied. Undaunted, the two doubled their efforts. They ran toward the cliffs, where a waterfall rushed down into the lush green valley below.

First they saw nothing, as if the trail had ended with the targets disappearing in thin air. Then Kakashi saw something orange down in the valley. It appeared to be Naruto's small broken body. Kakashi and Pakkun leaped down the cliff face toward the solitary figure lying by the waterfall's riverbank.

"We're too late," Kakashi said when he saw the prostrate form. His first desperate thought was that Naruto was dead. The rain washed rivulets of blood from the body. The clothes were torn all over. Yet upon closer inspection, he didn't see any obvious external injuries and realized to his relief that the nine tail fox demon's power had probably saved Naruto yet again.

Pakkun sniffed Sasuke's headband which lay on the ground nearby, trying to pick up his trail, but Kakashi had given up on Sasuke. He picked up the abandoned Konoha headband with the scratched forehead plate and placed it on top of Naruto's chest. "I'm sorry.I didn't make it in time," he said quietly to the unconscious boy. He then hoisted Naruto onto his back. This burden was not as heavy as the blame he placed upon himself.

Kakashi and Pakkun climbed back up the cliffs. They stopped to look down upon the valley below them and at the two towering statues carved from the cliffs themselves. The heavy rain continued pouring down into the waterfall and the river below, as if the heavens were crying for the two orphaned boys, as if the heavens were trying to wash away all bonds to the earthly world.

"The Valley of the End.for Naruto and Sasuke to fight in a place like this.it's ironic," noted Pakkun.

Kakashi shook his head sadly. "When I watch this river flow, it's as if I'm seeing a battle that will carry on for eternity, never stopping. Like the fate of the two represented by these statues, who founded the village of Konoha . Naruto and Sasuke, your lives are like theirs," he said pensively, as if to himself.

Fate, destiny, coming full circle, and Kakashi had failed his comrades again.

The rain stopped just as suddenly as it had started. The sun's golden rays pierced the clouds, but did nothing to warm his heart.

"We can't follow his scent anymore. Besides, before we go after Sasuke, we should tend to Naruto," suggested Pakkun. Kakashi silently agreed and they headed back toward Konoha at a less frantic pace.

Naruto, despite his injuries, had a weak but steady heartbeat and his wounds were already healing. But the jarring of his body, as it was carried on his sensei's back, rouse him from his healing slumber for a moment. He spoke in a tired, quiet voice that Kakashi had never heard before. "Kakashi sensei, where's Sasuke?" he asked.

Kakashi didn't answer. The words "I'm sorry. He's gone. I failed. It's my fault." choked in his throat.

-.-.-.-

Kaori and Kakashi

After weeks of relative peace, chaos now reigned at the hospital. All staff members were on call. All leave was canceled until further notice.

Akimichi Choji and Hyuuga Neji were in critical condition. Choji's entire body was experiencing cellular breakdown due to the side effects of the special pills he took which were not only toxic, but also not meant for such a young shinobi. Dozens of wires, which were hooked up to various monitors, ran in and out of his body. There was little the medical staff could do for him except monitor his vitals, give him sedatives to sleep and analgesics to ease the pain.

In intensive care unit 7, eight shinobi medics attended to the pride of the Hyuuga clan. Four of them sat at the corners of a complicated seal system drawn on the ground. The other four stood behind them. The group within the seal, led by Shizune (at Tsunade's request), channeled their chakra in unison to mend the gaping wound in Neji's shoulder. Three hours had already passed and the four medics were at their limit. The medics on standby switched off with those who could no longer channel enough chakra to aid the critically injured patient. Hyuuga Hiashi had made it a point that the Hyuuga clan would not be happy if anything happened to their strongest progeny, even if he was from the branch family. Fortunately for all, the hole in Neji's shoulder gradually started to mend.

There were other less critically injured shinobi, like Inuzuka Kiba and his little dog Akamaru. They still had to stay in bed but were luckily out of danger. Shiranui Genma had been released, but his comrade Namiashi Raidou was forced to stay behind another day as his injuries were more serious.

Hokage Tsunade was unusually studious and industrious these days. It was always a tragedy when one of their own died on a mission, but it was a worse tragedy if they were brought in alive and nothing could be done to heal them. She, the legendary medic nin, was not going to let anyone die on her watch, especially not the young shinobi who represented the future of Konoha. She consulted her medical texts over and over, calling for various ingredients including deer antler and exotic herbs which she ground together. She added solvent to extract the active ingredients, and then reduced the solvent to concentrate the solution. There would be no time to test the antidote for Choji's condition; Tsunade prayed that it would work.

Head Nurse Kuchiki Kaori always felt useless at times like these. She had neither the chakra or talent to truly help with the critical cases. All she could do was run errands like getting Tsunade her esoteric ingredients. Still she did the best that she could to keep everything running as smoothly as possible, which included scheduling breaks for her staff and rotating people, having some of them rest, but still on call for any further emergencies. She made sure the less critical patients were taking their medication regularly, and were comfortable and had everything they needed. She tried to keep their spirits up by being cheerful, patient and understanding, even though she nearly bit through her lip when dealing with the presumptuous and demanding Hyuuga clan.

What distracted her from her perfect work were the rumors. Uchiha Sasuke had left the village, became a missing nin, and those critically injured boys currently on the verge of death had been trying to bring him back. Were their lives worth less than that selfish brat who thought nothing of his village and comrades, who yearned only for and lived only for revenge? Whispers blamed his sensei who did not see it coming, who did nothing to prevent it. Just like all those years ago when Orochimaru left. There were those back then, and even now, who blamed Sandaime. If only he had killed his former pupil, then Orochimaru would not have returned just months ago to wreak further havoc and destruction. It was one of the very few, but very black, blights on Sandaime's record as hokage.

" Did you hear? Uchiha-Sasuke's gone rogue!"

" Uchiha Sasuke? That poor orphaned boy?"

" Who was his sensei?"

" That Hatake Kakashi. You know, the one who got his teammate killed and stole his sharingan."

" So he ruined another Uchiha?"

" What was Kakashi doing with him all this time?"

" Probably left him alone mostly."

" Some sensei he is. Probably corrupted the poor boy. Reading those porn books in front of him. Shameless!"

" Didn't watch over the kid at all. That lazy bastard's always just concerned with himself."

Kaori had to keep her temper around those who dared to say bad things about Kakashi. Despite her resolve to give up on him, she couldn't help having lingering feelings. Each time she heard something negative about him, her feelings were magnified. She wanted very badly to defend him to his detractors. How could they blame him? The boy was disturbed, ever since the massacre. It was noted in his Academy records, and the medical records recommended counseling. But no one had the time or expertise to counsel trouble young shinobi. The only thing they did at the Academy was give a general class on how to deal with death. What did they expect? It was not in Kakashi's job description to be a psychiatrist. She was sure he did the best that he could under the circumstances. But Kaori said nothing for fear of getting into a heated hysterical argument and for fear that people would think she was in love with Kakashi. She could not help but worry about what other people thought of her, what they said about her. So she bore Otoha's and others' gossip in silence, but she hated herself for lacking the courage to defend the man she still loved. She was a coward and she knew it.

The most recent rumors were that Kakashi was now in pursuit of his wayward genin. Of the team sent to pursue Sasuke, all but Naruto had returned, and all injured. There were speculations that the idiot Naruto had been done in by his superior teammate. Kaori prayed for everyone's sake that Kakashi would find Sasuke and Naruto and bring them back safe and sound, and prove to all his naysayers that he was a good, responsible sensei, not the lazy indifferent, irresponsible slack-off that he was purported to be.

It was now well past dawn. Kakashi had been gone almost an entire day. Kaori was already at the hospital looking over the most recent reports. Akimichi Choji and Hyuuga Neji were now in critical but stable condition. It seemed that the Hokage's ad hoc remedy had worked and Choji's cells were regenerating. Shizune and the team of medics were finally able to close the wound on Neji's shoulder. He was expected to recover nicely despite the great lost of blood and muscular damage.

Kaori sighed in relief. Despite not being fond of either clan (The Akimichi clan had the worst, most horrific table manners and the cafeteria was always devoid of food after their visits. The Hyuuga clan would have made ideal medics, but healing was deemed a lowly profession compared to being shinobi.), the two patients were young and full of great potential, which always made it doubly difficult for her in the event of death. `Thank the heavens for the return of Shizune and Tsunade-sama, ' she thought. `Now if only Kakashi would return with.'

The main doors opened and a team of medics rushed in, followed by Kakashi carrying Naruto, who was still unconscious in his deep healing slumber. Kaori quickly ran over to see how she could help. The medics called for a gurney which Kaori immediately provided. Two of the medics took the unconscious boy from Kakashi and rolled him into the ICU where there were more medics and nurses standing by.

Kakashi stayed outside the door silently contemplating what to do next. His head and back were bowed despite having been relieved of his 90 pound burden. He looked tired, defeated, and alone. He let out a long sigh that seemed to carry years of regret.

In that moment, Kaori realized that she genuinely loved this man. It was not infatuation as her sister and Shizune had suggested, nor was he the product of her fantasy as she had argued to herself. She loved him for who he was, faults, failings, idiosyncrasies and all. And he seemed to have quite a lot of them.

Breaking the silence, Kaori ventured to say, "I'm sure he'll be fine."

Kakashi nodded and stood straight. "Please watch over him. I have a mission now." She did not ask where the other one was, and for that he was grateful.

"Of course," she said gently, wanting very badly to say something else, something more comforting.

He turned to leave.

"Wait." She took a step toward him then hesitated. "It's not your fault," she finally said.

He looked back at her as if her presence just registered in his mind. The pretty little nurse with the red-brown hair pulled back in a bun, it seemed she was always there at the hospital, each time he had occasion to visit. She was always ready to help, always composed, always offering words of comfort to her patients. "You would say that," he said with a small smile. He turned back and disappeared from her sight without another word.

He knew he should have said "Thank you" instead, but words like hers were meant for someone who deserved it.

-.-.-.-

Kakashi and Kaori

Tracking down the three escaped felons and bringing them to justice took a bit longer than Kakashi had expected. Half a day going, half a day coming back, a few hours of tracking and another hour to capture all three. In his younger days, it would've taken no more than twenty minutes to capture them, and with less tracking time. Maybe it was because he planned more than he used to. Maybe it was because after so many battles he was in no rush to fight. Maybe it was because his heart was just not into another mission so soon after a failed one.

He had gone over the past year over and over in his mind. Where did he go wrong? He knew from day one that Sasuke's one and only goal was to get strong enough to take vengeance on his brother. Didn't he do enough to show him the importance of his comrades? He had spent a month training with him one-on-one. Didn't he listen to anything he said? What else could he have done? Should he have been like Iruka and taken Sasuke out for ramen every week as Iruka did with Naruto? After all, Naruto had developed bonds with his teammates and village - and he had had no one while growing up.

It was now dusk and the cold black stone, engraved with a multitude of names, shone ever so slightly in the dying light. Kakashi stopped by the shinobi memorial before he made his way home. Although the Obito voice was always with him, he knew his friend was long dead and all he was doing was talking to himself when the Obito voice answered. But here at the shinobi memorial, it seemed more real, that Obito was truly answering him from beyond the grave.

He fixed his gaze on Obito's name, and recalled his friend's funny face and whiny voice. "You know, I now have comrades that I'm responsible for, that are important to me. But like before, I'm still full of regret. I couldn't do anything. Even with this eye, I couldn't see what was going to happen. If you were alive, what would you say to me now, eh, Obito?" angsty Kakashi said to the cold black stone.

"I would say: 'You're pathetic!' Moping around for days. Are you just gonna give up on that poor excuse for a Uchiha? I can't believe my clan produced two such idiots. And you're not much better."

"Sasuke made his decision, despite my advice. We can't track him any further without entering enemy territory and Konoha has other problems."

"Excuses, excuses, since when did you have so many? That was my area of expertise. So you're just giving up?"

"No, there's still time. We have a couple of years. Time to prepare, and get stronger." That was his goal - train, get stronger so that he could bring back Sasuke, protect Konoha, protect his precious ones. Except, when you came down to it, there were no more precious ones to protect. Naruto would soon be leaving with Jiraiya. Sakura would be training with Tsunade. And he would be alone again.

But he was used to that. After all, it was years before he passed a genin team. And they were together for only one short year. What was that compared to all the time he spent alone? Still, he knew he was going to miss them, all three of them, very badly.

During this time, the sun had disappeared and the moon made its full appearance. Kakashi slowly sauntered home. There was no need to check on Naruto. Two days had already passed since he found Naruto. In all likelihood, the nine-tail fox demon's power had already healed him. Naruto would be fine. And Kakashi was not up to facing his genin, or the nurse who had such faith in him.

Upon his return to his small empty apartment, he removed his shinobi gear and stripped off his dirty shinobi uniform, haphazardly leaving it all on the floor. He quickly stepped into the hot shower with steam obscuring the soap and shampoo. He stood there a long time, allowing the water to wash away the dust from traveling and the blood from battle, before he soaped up and made the effort to scrub his body clean. The shampoo made his scalp tingle in a refreshing way. He stayed in the shower for an extra long time, enjoying the cleansing feeling.

When he finally felt completely relaxed, he grabbed a towel to dry off, but frowned when he realized that it was not a fresh towel and he would have to do laundry soon. Kakashi sighed and wished he had someone to do his laundry and all his household chores for him. Being away so much of the time made it difficult. And during what little time he had for himself, he preferred to spend it reading and resting, not cleaning or cooking. And he was too cheap/liked his privacy too much to hire someone.

It was already very late, past the usual time for dinner for civilians, but not for shinobi who ate at irregular hours, or whenever they could, or often not at all. This appeared to be one of those times; there was nothing edible in his refrigerator. He had not been home for days. He had gone on that mission to escort the museum exhibition, then to track Sasuke, then this one. No break at all. And no real food. There was still a box of shinobi rations left, but after days of that, he could not stomach another bar. With a sigh, he rummaged through the kitchen cabinets, looking for something in a can that he might have forgotten about. The last thing he wanted was to go out in public to get takeout, subjecting himself to accusatory eyes, reminding himself of his failure.

With great glee he came upon a can of tuna and some crackers. That would have to do for now. Fortunately, Tsunade had given him the next day off so he could run his errands. Actually, it was more like half a day. He promised to return for an assignment later in the afternoon. No rest for the weary.

Just when he was about to cut into the can with his can opener, the doorbell rang. Kakashi rarely received visitors. He thought it was probably one of his neighbors checking up on him to ask for the most recent news about Orochimaru or the Akatsuki. He almost decided not to answer the door, but then realized if he told his story to one person, he, or she, would most likely spread it around to everyone else, thereby leaving him in peace in the future.

But he wasn't dressed except for the towel around his waist. He quickly ditched the towel, grabbed a dark blue robe from his bed, and slipped it on his nude body. He pulled the robe together so that the lower half of his face was still somewhat covered, then tightly tied it at the waist. He was finally ready to open the door after the third ring.

There she was again, looking exactly like she always did: the same white uniform that she wore at the hospital; her hair in its perfect bun without a stray strand; her pretty face with its serious visage.

The full moon shone behind her. A halo seemed to frame her. A heavenly glow emanated from her. An angel, she was a perfect angel, an angel of mercy and forgiveness, an angel of bounty and sustenance. Kakashi observed hungrily that she had food with her. From the bag and takeout containers, it was Ichiraku ramen for two.

Kaori seemed to be surprised he was home, either that or she was uncomfortable being in his presence, for she stammered, "K. Ka. Kakashi-san, I just wanted to see if you were back from your mission. I wanted to let you know that Naruto-san's still sleeping, but his wounds have already healed and he's out of any danger." The truth was she had dropped by last night as well, hoping he'd be home, hoping for the chance to see him again, to offer him more words of comfort. But she did not expect to see him without his mask.

"Thank you for watching over him," Kakashi replied, while eying her bag. He wondered if one of the containers was for him, and if not, could he buy it from her.

"Food? You're still thinking about food? You should be hungry for something else!" ranted the Obito voice.

"He was lucky you got to him in time," Kaori continued, unaware of Kakashi's unseen imaginary friend.

That struck a discordant chord within the veteran shinobi. Luck? Kakashi shook his head and gave her a small ironic smile. "My genin tried to kill each other, again. And I was too late to stop them. And Sasuke's...I'm afraid luck is a relative term."

"You did all you could. That's all anyone can do," she insisted, bravely looking into his eyes, willing him to accept her words.

"I knew. Orochimaru knew. I knew Sasuke wanted to leave, but instead of watching over him, I chose to go on a mission. Another damn mission. I should have taken him with me. He was my responsibility." Why was he saying this to her? These thoughts that had been dwelling in his mind for days, that he could not voice aloud to anyone but Obito. Maybe he needed to talk to someone real for once, someone who would understand him.

But what could she say? She knew platitudes meant nothing. She knew that he was not looking for absolution or any words that would alleviate his guilt. So the little nurse did the only thing she could do. She placed her bag on the floor, stepped toward him, wrapped her arms around him, and gave him a comforting hug. A hug not from love or obsession, a simple passionless hug that she would have given to any of her patients. To her surprise, he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly, a bit too tightly. Kaori held her breath, afraid that the slightest movement would cause him to release her from this fantasy.

She could hear her heart racing and the slow steady beating of his heart, calm as usual. She could smell the shampoo in his hair (a nice rainforest scent) and the soap on his skin (a manly pine scent) where the robe slipped open at the throat, while she smelled like hospital disinfectant. She could feel his plush robe against her starched uniform and his sharp chin uncomfortably on her thin shoulder.

They stood like that in the doorway for a long while, until Kaori could hold her breath no longer. She felt lightheaded from the lack of oxygen and from the closeness of the man she had wanted for so long. Her exhalation broke his trance. Embarrassed, he released her.

"It's getting late. I should go," Kaori started to say, even though there was no place else she'd rather be. "Unless.you'd like me to stay...for a little while.I have dinner for two." She held up the bag which trembled in her hand. She was afraid he'd take the food and close the door on her as he did months ago.

But this time, the man of her dreams reached out and grabbed her by the other wrist. "Stay," he said as he pulled her through the entrance.

That little while lasted all night.

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

Unspoken Words

The Obito side won out this time as Kakashi swept Kaori into his arms. She offered no resistance - if anything she was returning his fervor with even more passion.

"Harder," she gasped. "I won't break," she added, impatient with his gentle caresses and soft kisses.

He readily complied as he slipped off his robe and carelessly tore at her clothes. But nurses' uniforms were made of very sturdy material, and expensive to boot, so practical Kaori escaped from his grasp to remove it herself.

As Kaori unbuttoned, unzipped, and unhooked, she took a moment to observe his abode, which was relatively orderly except for a pile of clothes and equipment lying by the bathroom door. The apartment was smaller than hers. The kitchen was just a small alcove; the living room and bedroom ran together as one large room. There was no dining table, just a side table by a single arm chair. It looked as if he never had a guest. There were several shelves of books neatly ordered by author, except for the Icha Icha books which had a special place by the bed's headboard along with a couple of framed photographs of his teams. The full size bed had been neatly made, and looked as if it hadn't been slept in for quite a while. The room was tastefully, though eclectically, decorated with a few paintings: a mountain landscape, an abstract piece of art, and a framed piece of calligraphy with the character for nin.

Her attention was drawn back to the matter at hand as Kakashi came up from behind her to undo her perfect bun. Her rich, vitamin-fortified, luxurious chestnut hair cascaded over her shoulders. His hands roamed across her front as he pressed himself against her back and kissed her neck and shoulders. She gasped at every touch; every sensation was magnified, even the damp tickle from his wet hair, because this was the man she wanted and no other.

Kaori had never slept with a man who hadn't told her he loved her. It didn't matter whether it was true or just a lie to get her into bed - she had to hear it. She had to hear it to see if she could respond to it in kind. And if she couldn't; could she, after sleeping with him? The answer was inevitable "no." All those men who told her they loved her, she did not love them, even after sleeping with them. Soon after, the relationship would fall apart.

This was different because he did not say those words, yet she was willing. Her body ached for his. She wanted to be part of him, to merge with him, to stay forever touching him. But her heart ached for those three little words he did not say, that she had always needed to hear.

`This is what I've wanted all along. The feel of his lips against mine. The feel of his body against mine. The feel of him inside of me. Everything feels more intense and real than anything in the past. I love him and that should make this feeling perfect. but something is missing. He doesn't love me, does he?'

Kaori was no fool. She knew he just needed someone at this moment and she happened to be there. He was using her like other men before him. But it was different, she insisted to herself. He was not using her to inflate his ego. He was using her like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man. And that was her job, to save people, selflessly, no matter what.

Was it selfish to want to be loved? All these years, was she the selfish one by insisting the man give his love to her while she did not offer her love in return? Was it selfish to want him to love her as much as she loved him? Could she be the selfless one now? Could she love him even if the feelings were not returned? All these years, being so self- centered had brought her no happiness. But loving him made her happy, even if it was a painful sort of happiness; there was no other feeling like being in love and making love to the man she loved.

So Kaori resolved to be whatever he needed her to be - friend, lover, caregiver, as long as she could be with him. She loved him and that had to be enough.

The cuddle time she was hoping for was interrupted by the rumbling from Kakashi's stomach. He laughed in embarrassment and explained he hadn't had a proper meal in days. Kaori gave him permission to eat instead; after all, his physical health was much more important than the emotionally fulfilling cuddle time. She watched him closely as he ravenously ate his seafood ramen in miso soup and then her ramen as well. His hair which had been wet looked even messier than usual, now matted from their bed play. But the rest of him was magnificent, from his perfectly curved high forehead to his exquisitely shaped long toes. It took all of two minutes for Kakashi to finish his meal, then he was back in bed with her, trying to pick up where he left off.

But unlike men, women like to talk in bed. That is when you have a guy's full attention. They will agree to just about anything once they're in bed.

Kaori wanted to discuss their new found relationship, if it could be called that, and tell him how she felt, but she was also smart enough to know not to tell the introverted man that she loved him, for fear that would drive him away. She sensed it instinctively - here was a man who did not want to be loved.

What she wanted to say was: "I love you, only you. I've never felt this way about any other man and I never will. I love you despite all the crazy things you say and do. I've loved you for months. All this time I was afraid you didn't feel the same, but you do, don't you?"

Instead she said, "I want you to know... this doesn't have to mean anything more. I just want to be there for you, when you need someone. I care about you, but it's okay if you don't feel the same."

Kakashi said nothing in reply.

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

It had been over a year since Kakashi took a woman to bed. He missed their soft curves, especially those of non-shinobi with their smooth unscarred skin, innocence, and naïveté. Before his genin team, he would take short breaks after completing missions, where he would transform to just a regular guy looking for a good time. The one night stands fulfilled his physical needs, but he knew there was always something missing. The handful of more long term relationships he had had, long ago, with women who knew who he was, all ended tragically, in one way or another.

He liked the pretty little nurse currently in his bed. Without her uniform, she no longer smelled like disinfectant, but of fresh floral soap mixed in with her natural sweet heady scent. Her body had good tone without being muscular. Her skin was soft and smooth with a delicate pink undertone. She was beautiful and feminine. But her response to his ministrations was neither delicate nor docile. She gripped him tightly as if she never wanted to let him go and met each thrust with an arch of her back, trying desperately to get even closer to him.

Her words had taken him by surprise. She did not declare undying love. She had made no demand. He did not know what to say in response. If she had told him she loved him, he would have had to give her the "it's too soon; you're moving too fast; it's not you it's me; you deserve someone better" speech.

He knew she was in love with him. That was obvious by the way she looked at him, blushing every time he met her eyes; by the way she smiled, almost nervously; by the way she touched him, almost reverently. She was like some other women who thought they saw in him an injured soul, who needed to be loved, thinking that would heal all wounds, that with their devotion he would open up to them and tell them his past tragedies.

When his father died, he built a wall around his heart. Letting no feelings show, he did not cry, not even at his father's funeral. He would not let anyone get close, not his sensei nor his teammates. Friends, he had none, just rivals. Not caring for anyone - that was what led to Obito's death. Then when Obito died, a crack appeared in the wall and he realized what a fool he had been. After a time, the crack mended and the wall still stood, but it was no longer rigid. It became a pliable and porous wall. Though he started to feel and care more for others, he still did not let anyone get close. Not even Rin who knew him better than anyone else.

But over the years, the wall that had softened, also grew, so thick and high, that even he the architect did not know how to scale them or tear them down. Now, as he looked at the woman lying with him, he wondered what he was doing with her.

`I care about you. ' Something about that line sounded very familiar. He recollected that voice in the deep recesses of his mind, the voice that persisted in the void where he dwelt for what seemed like an eternity, the voice that let him know that he was not alone, the voice that saved him from insanity, a voice full of emotion and comfort, her voice. `Wake-up Kakashi-sensei. There's a lot of people who care about you, who need you. I care about you. Please come back to us.'

So how did he feel about the woman who sat by his bed all those weeks? Her devotion to him during his coma, how she read to him books she normally would have avoided, the sacrifices she made for him touched him deeply and he wanted to express his gratitude, yet he could not find the words nor the proper emotion. Did he love her? Could he love her? He didn't know; despite his romantic books, it was a foreign emotion. She was someone precious - that he could admit. But still he said nothing.

It was so easy to slip away from reality, from life. Shinobi who knew nothing but battle had problems adjusting to peace once there was no one to fight. Some became missing nin, looking for more adventure, for another fight. Others like Orochimaru found other, even more destructive pursuits. Then there were those like Sasuke who had no one of importance in their lives - no one, nothing, to live for. Those often became self destructive. Kakashi now felt he needed someone, someone real, to keep him bound to this earthly plane.

So he decided not to discourage her, to continue with whatever they had, until she grew tired of him, of his silence, of his foolishness, as ultimately she would. `So let it be. Let's see how long this love she thinks she has for me will last.' Would she stay if she really knew who he was - a man incapable of returning any deeper emotion?

`I care about you, but it's okay if you don't feel the same.'

"I never said I didn't," he finally replied.

-.-.-.-

Raidou's Story

Kaori was on cloud 9.9! Kakashi didn't exactly say those three little words, but he did admit he cared about her, sort of, which for a shinobi was almost the same, given how they were trained to control their emotions, the little nurse reasoned to herself. She was optimistic that in time he would tell her he loved her. But even if he didn't, knowing that he cared about her was enough - it had to be.

The only dark cloud on the horizon was she still had to break it off with Raidou. That was going to be difficult, but she had to do it as soon as possible, no matter what new maneuvers he came up with to trap her. That's how she always felt whenever she was with him - trapped. The way he always made her feel guilty, especially about his scarred face, and even his proposal was a trap to ensnare her compassionate nature, intentional or not, and she had to stand strong against him.

Kaori had avoided visiting Raidou since his proposal and now he was due to check out of the hospital that morning. Kaori made sure she caught him before he left. "I'm glad to see you're all better," she said sincerely as she watched him pack up his shinobi gear and attach his pouch to his belt.

"Yes, thank you for taking care of me," he replied, but his tone indicated he was troubled by something and he did not look at her.

"There's something I need to tell you," they both said at once.

They stared at each other for a second then blurted out simultaneously: "I slept with."

".Kakashi!"

".!"

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

Last night while Kaori visited Kakashi.

Raidou was in a more than usual bitter self-pitying mood. He had not seen Kaori since his proposal and it seemed that she was avoiding him. He knew he was taking a chance when he told her of his feelings and it seemed he lost the gamble. And since then, he had heard rumors about her and Kakashi. She must have been on the rebound when they dated and there was nothing worse than being involved with a girl who was in love with someone else. It wasn't fair. Why did women always fall for the cool, good looking guys?

He was in the middle of cursing his continual bad luck when he heard the noise.

It was late and most of the hospital staff had gone home. Shizune was off to see Genma who was recovering at home and on light assignment duty. Only the skeleton crew remained, and Hokage Tsunade.

Tsunade was in a relatively good mood for once. Shikamaru's team members were now all on the road to recovery. The promising genin, the future of Konoha was preserved. So what if they failed to retrieve that Uchiha traitor. Sasuke and Orochimaru could be dealt with later. They were all safe and alive and that was cause for celebration.

Which meant sake! And more sake! And more sake! And more sake.

Without Shizune to stop her, Tsunade drank way too much. All day she had been in the hospital library archives researching cures, then monitoring the injured genin and adjusting their medication. Now it was time to relax. The hospital had a supply of super high alcohol content sake used as a solvent in extracting medicinal elements from plants and to dissolve drugs and to administer medicine in a palatable form. It was not really meant for drinking straight out of the bottle, but that didn't stop her. Over the years, Tsunade had developed a very high tolerance for alcohol, even higher than Gai's, but a couple of bottles of the 90 proof sake finally did her in.

"I've been a wild rover for many a year! And I spent all my money on sake and beer! And now I'm returning with gold in great store! And I never will play the wild rover no more. And it's no, nay, never. no nay never no more, will I play the wild rover, no never no more!" Tsunade sang as she roamed aimlessly through the hospital halls.

"Shut up! There's injured people here trying to sleep. What the hell's wrong with y." Raidou growled as he got out of bed to investigate what sounded like a cat yowling in pain. He stopped as soon as he realized it was his boss.

The two glared at each other angrily. Raidou saw the sake bottle in her hand and smelled the astringent on her breath and thought how all his concerns and criticisms about Tsunade being Hokage were validated. Tsunade thought how this lowly subordinate dared to insult her glorious singing. Neither was willing to yield an inch.

Tsunade finally sneered, "You, you're that loser on Shizune's team who lost to a bunch of kids from the Sound. Jounin, hah, that team of genin did better!"

"You, you're a lousy excuse for a hokage. The other hokage are all turning over in their gra.in the Death God's stomach. In fact, your personality is sour enough to make the Death God hurl!"

"How dare you.you insolent boor!"

"Old hag!"

"Ugly oaf!"

"Fake boobed wannabe slut!"

"That's it!" That was the final straw. Tsunade pulled back her right arm and threw a punch as hard as she could. But being drunk made her unstable and Raidou was able to easily dodge it. Tsunade fell forward but she reached out with her left arm and grabbed Raidou by his hospital gown.

The two stumbled into the room. Raidou found himself on top of his boss and her very plushy bosom. Tsunade found herself under a half naked man with very fine pecs.

What man or woman could say no to a situation like that?

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

Author's Notes:

Wild Rover is an Irish drinking song.

Shochu is a distilled liquor (up to 90 proof) made from either sweet potatoes or rice and is a pure white liquor often compared to vodka. Sake is not distilled and has an alcohol content like beer. But I used sake since most people know what that is.

Was considering GenmaxRaidou (there aren't enough kunoichi to go around). But now Tsunade can fix Raidou's face and Shizune gets her dysfunctional family:)

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

Otoha's Story

Otoha found her superior in an unusually light mood when she came in that morning. Kaori was humming to herself and made no comment about Otoha being late or not finishing processing yesterday's files. In fact, Kaori was practically glowing. Otoha had been all ready for a fight. She had a list of excuses and sarcastic comments. All wasted now that Kaori was happy.

`She must have gotten laid last night. I wonder who it was. Couldn't be Raidou, he's still in the hospital and she's not the type to do it at work. She doesn't know what fun she's missing. The only other man she's interested in is Kakashi.no way! She finally got him? That elusive."

Otoha just had to know if her suspicions were true. After saying a pleasant, but insincere good morning, she settled down and quickly finished her work from yesterday and then started on today's stack. She could work very efficiently when she wanted to, which was as rare as Naruto turning down ramen. Otoha wanted to keep her boss in a good mood so she could think about how to best find out about Kakashi.

"I'm sorry about not finishing the files yesterday. I'm done now and I should be done with the most current stack soon. Here's Raidou's file. I think he's supposed to check out this morning. Are you going to see him before he leaves? And don't you have something to tell him?"

That immediately placed a damper on Kaori's good mood. She was trying to avoid the inevitable, but now that Otoha had brought it up.wait did she know about Kakashi? How could she.? No, she must mean Raidou's proposal.

"You'd better tell him about Kakashi," Otoha prompted, taking a shot at the truth. She always preferred the direct approach. That definitely hit a nerve as Kaori turned red and her good humor vanished.

"How d.did you.?" Kaori stammered.

"It's written all over your face. So how was he? Is he everything you ever dreamed of?"

"Well, actually.y... You're right. I have to tell Raidou, now." Kaori abruptly got up and discontinued their talk, partly because she needed to see Raidou before he left and because she did not want to discuss Kakashi with her rival any further.

Otoha smiled in satisfaction. She got enough information to make up a nice juicy story to spread around the hospital and then the rest of Konoha. Kaori had apparently slept with Kakashi and he was good enough to satisfy her in bed.

But Kaori returned in a troubled mood. It seemed that her break up with Raidou did not go well. Otoha's radar beeped again. She just had to know more. She put on her most concerned sympathetic face. "Are you okay? I know breakups can be hard."

"How can a man propose one minute and sleep with another woman the next minute? What kind of man would do such a thing?" sighed Kaori, almost to herself.

"What kind? You mean what kind wouldn't. I guarantee that even married men can be easily seduced, and I would know. Wait, did Raidou.with who?"

Kaori did not reply. Instead she was thinking about Kakashi. Would he? Would he sleep with the next big busted woman that came along? She had thought that his admitting that he cared about her was akin to love, but what if it wasn't? What if it didn't mean anything at all? But she shook her head at those thoughts. She had had her doubts about him, but no more. She would believe in him no matter what.

Otoha read into Kaori's silence. She knew Kaori did not really care about Raidou. Kaori was probably thinking about Kakashi and whether he would be faithful. Ah, poor naïve Kaori probably thought he would be. But Otoha knew any man could be turned. It just took the right approach and the right timing.

Later that day when Kaori was making her afternoon rounds and Otoha was reapplying her makeup after lunch, Kakashi dropped by. He had just been given a mission by Tsunade and wanted to inform Kaori that he would be out of town for a couple of days. He wasn't sure whether he had to inform her, but it seemed like the right thing to do after last night. But Kaori was not at her desk. Instead there was the buxom brunette with the red lips and redder nails.

"Oh my, she's hot! Just look at those.they must be at least ten times larger than the nurse you were with last night," said the Obito voice. "I'll bet we could get a goodsound sleep sleeping on those. They look much more comfy than your pillows."

"Stop that!" Kakashi ordered angrily. "W.I'm with Kaori now."

"Hey, when did we decide we were going steady?"

"There's no we. I make the decisions, so shut up."

At this point Otoha looked up from applying her lipstick. She smiled her most softly seductive smile and said, "Kakashi-sama, you're looking well. What brings you here today?" She got up from behind her desk and walked demurely toward him, and slowly got closer and closer, invading the comfort zone of his personal space, but he did not step back. "Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all?" She leaned into him, showing off her cleavage.

"Man, just look at those! How could you not be tempted?" said the Obito voice.

"Umm, just tell Kaori-san that I'll be away on a mission for a couple of days."

"Oh, are the too of you involved?"

"Er, sort of," he said noncommittally.

"How involved? Is there any chance for me?" She looked up at him with large liquid adoring eyes framed with thick long lashes.

"She's scorchin' torchin' hot!" said the Obito voice.

This was it. Kakashi had to make his decision. What was he doing with Kaori? Did he want something more than a one night stand? If he took Otoha's offer, Kaori would never forgive him. It would end things without him having to say a word. But he couldn't hurt her like that. Not after all she had done for him and what he had put her through.

"Sorry, I have to go. Just relay my message, thanks." Kakashi was gone in a blink of an eye, leaving nothing but a puff of dust behind.

Otoha had observed Kakashi carefully. He had made no indication that he was aroused or interested in her. He had stood his ground and didn't even flinch. Not one drop of sweat. Impressive, it seemed he really was devoted to Kaori.

At first Otoha was annoyed and jealous, that Kaori was able to attract such a fine male specimen, the elusive number one bachelor in Konoha. But then she realized, Kaori in a good mood made her a better boss, one who would not nag her about her work. With that thought, Otoha relayed Kakashi's message when Kaori returned, and added, "You're lucky. I think you have the single most loyal man in Konoha. I can tell he's completely devoted to you."

Otoha's effusive compliments made Kaori wary rather than secure. "How would you know?" she asked abruptly.

"Well, I tried flirting with him but I could tell he wasn't the least bit interested. Not even a sidelong glance, not a drop of perspiration. He was totally cold toward me."

"Really?" Kaori was wary but she really wanted to believe her.

"Yeah, he told me he wasn't interested and for me to leave him alone." Otoha pouted petulantly to add credence to her words.

Somehow Otoha's words offered no comfort. The seed of doubt and been sown and was flourishing in her insecurity. Shinobi were taught to be guarded with their emotions, but how could Kakashi not be the least bit attracted to Otoha? There were even times Kaori couldn't help but think that if she were a man she'd be attracted to her. Why would Kakashi prefer her flat chest to Otoha's mountains? Her figure was much more like a boy's compared to Otoha. Maybe he was really gay or latently gay and didn't know it. Then she shook off these preposterous thoughts and insisted to herself Kakashi preferred her because she was a better person, and body and looks didn't mean anything. Still, not the least bit?

"So, it's serious?" Otoha prompted, trying hard to read Kaori's thoughts.

Kaori shrugged. "We're taking it slow. What about you and Gai?" She tried to divert attention back to Otoha's relationship.

"I decided I'll stick with him," Otoha smiled. "Like I said, men are pretty much all the same in bed, but he's great. He's also rich and generous and not too bright. He's away a lot so I can do anything I want and get away with it. It's really a perfect relationship for me."

Kaori was barely listening. She was still obsessing over what Kakashi's exchange with Otoha meant. There was Raidou who wanted to marry, her but slept with another woman. There was Kakashi who gave no real indication of his feeling or intentions, but turned down Otoha. Both cases made little sense.

If Kakashi could be so cold toward Otoha, would he ever warm up and open up to her? She loved him, but how long would he stay with her when he had so little attachment to others?

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

 

  Epilogue

Someone was crying in the distance. The crying became louder and higher pitched the longer he ignored it. He felt a shove from his left side and found himself on the floor.

Kakashi groaned and slowly stood up. The incessant wailing reverberated in his head until he felt his brain about to explode from the noise and the lack of sleep. He had never had a more difficult mission.

He walked over to the next room, the source of the noise. The room was smaller than his, painted light blue and decorated with fluffy white clouds - not his choice of colors. In fact, it seemed he had little control of anything in his life anymore. He sighed and bent over the crib to pick up the small bundle and lifted it into his arms.

"Umm, okay now. You can stop crying," he said to no avail.

The bundle squirmed in his arms as he performed the usual checks: diaper, not wet or stinky; clothes not confining; temperature appeared to be normal; which meant it was probably just hungry again. But how could that be? It had just been.he checked the clock on the dresser. less than an hour. He sighed again. It had been like this for days - incessant crying with no apparent reason. It wasn't a whimpering cry either, but a full blown top of the lungs completely freaked out type of cry. There had to be something wrong with it.

But despite the hardship, this child was his, his legacy, a more important legacy than his chidori.

As if sensing his thoughts, the baby suddenly stopped crying and opened its eyes.

But the eyes were not like his dark gray eyes, nor his mother's hazel eyes. They were red and black and now they started to spin.

He felt himself freeze. The bundle slipped from his grasp, but he was unable to move to catch it or call to its mother for help.

-.-.-.-.-

Kakashi woke from his dream/nightmare to find an empty space next to him. Kaori had already left for work, but she left a note for him by the alarm clock.

"Don't be late this time. Remember to bring something. Be nice and don't do or say anything weird!" the note read.

"Yes ma'am," Kakashi said with a smile. He was going to behave himself this time, really.

It had been six months since they got together. Kaori now felt secure enough to invite Kakashi to the family dinner again. Her parents were not thrilled at the news she was bringing Kakashi again, but someone in their daughter's life was still better than no one at all, no matter how weird.

Kakashi was about to open the refrigerator to rummage for some food (Kaori did not make him breakfast) when he saw another note (itemizing all the chores and errands he had to do) taped to the refrigerator door. He sighed. It was supposed to be his day off and he had planned to do absolutely nothing (except read his Icha Icha books) until dinnertime. But it was a fair trade since he had effectively moved into her apartment.

He had found himself visiting her directly after missions. Sure, there was the bed play, but there was also something else - the company, the feeling of being accountable toward someone, the need to belong to someone. The time spent in his own apartment was now minimal. He had an extra change of clothes and of his shinobi uniform at Kaori's, which she laundered weekly to his delight. This also meant lower utility bills for him and higher utility bills for her.

After doing all the chores (fix the leaky faucet in the kitchen, separate the recyclables, clean the bathroom) and running all the errands (pickup some groceries, drop off some mail, checkout what was on sale at various stores) Kaori had left for him, he started to get ready for dinner.

This time Kakashi carefully combed and slicked his hair back, but the forelocks stubbornly insisting on standing up. He applied the super hair gel concentrate Kaori had given him. She swore by it as it was what kept her hair in its perfect bun, without a stray strand, and was what Otoha made Gai use on his hair. It had excellent holding power but kept hair soft and non-sticky. A miracle gel! It even worked on his hair.

He dressed himself in normal civilian type clothes, a crisp white shirt and black slacks, all wrinkle free thanks to Kaori's obsessive efforts to make him look more presentable. He decided to leave his sharingan uncovered and just keep the eye closed as much as possible rather than wear the headband which, as Kaori pointed out, did not go with his civilian clothes. He looked at himself in the mirror and decided he looked quite respectable. Lastly, before he made his way over, he donned a black leather jacket and wrapped a white silk scarf around his face.

Yes, this time he was going to be good. Kaori had educated him on why her family liked Gai and encouraged him to be more like Gai. He would charm them with his wit, impress them with stories of his missions. He bought gifts for everyone. He would be just like Gai. For some reason, that thought made him shudder.

Then he thought of the disturbing dream he had last night. Dating seriously, moving in, living together, were normally done with the intention of marriage and family. Was that what he really wanted from life?

Life was always complicated - from the time humans achieve self consciousness, from the time they realize they can, and loved ones can, die at any moment. To compound that complication, relationships between men and women were always difficult and being a shinobi made it doubly difficult.

Shinobi were taught to mask their emotions. To feel no regret when killing, to feel no pain when comrades were killed. To die completing a mission successfully was a glorious death. But holding back feelings became the norm even off duty, which meant communication with a loved one was problematic.

With a civilian, how could a shinobi talk about his work, his missions, his killing methods, his development of more lethal jutsu? How could a civilian understand or care to hear the bloody details?

Then there were the kunoichi, limited in number, with a ratio of four men to one kunoichi. Most were bad tempered, jaded, another version of himself, few maintained their naïveté or gentleness.

But Kaori was different for she fell somewhere in between - a shinobi nurse, someone who was used to death, yet never killed, who was able to keep her innocence; someone who would not judge him or flinch away from blood and the necessity of killing.

He felt comfortable with her, a nice comfortable relationship. So why spoil it with talk of undying love, which happened only in books, because love dies when one party dies, and that was the truth.

He shook his head. No it wasn't. Love continued in the surviving loved one. And in their progeny.

Love. Did he really love her? For her he had agreed to dress like this. For her he had remembered to send an expensive floral arrangement and chocolates to her mother (Gai had only sent flowers) despite the ridiculous cost. He had put together a portfolio of profitable companies in Wave Country with investment opportunities for her father. He had even read a number of books on the discipline of children. (He liked the reverse psychology approach best. It was so.duplicitous.) He did all that because it was important to her that her family liked him. He did it because he probably did love her.

He could smell her mother's cooking as he approached the house. He could hear laughter and raised voices. He could see her family through the window, gathered around in the den. Family. To be part of a real family. Something he had never known. Something he yearned for without knowing. That's what he wanted, his own family.

With that consideration, Kakashi committed himself to Kaori.

He smile genuinely as her family welcomed him.

-.-.-END-.-.-