DISCLAIMER: If you think I own Naruto then you need to step away from the fanfiction. The sooner, the better. :P
AN: This fanfiction takes place in the future. Naruto and crew are 18/19 years old. This means they are either Chuunin- or Jounin-level shinobi. It is also an alt. pairing fic.
I am using the manga story line up to chapter 236 or so. Everything after that point is my own creation. So I guess you can consider this to be an AU. Remember that before telling me that this character died or that character survived or what the true motives are for Akatsuki, etc. I keep up with the manga so I am aware of current developments.
I started to write this before it was confirmed that everyone had survived the initial mission to bring Sasuke back to Konoha (BEFORE the time skip). So, yeah... I have Chouji dead in this fic. Sorry. I didn't do that because I don't like the guy - I did it because I really thought the poor kid had died.
That said, I do make it a point to try to keep all of my characters 'in-character.' Due to rapid developments in the current manga storyline, it is impossible for this fic to completely fit within the cannon. As much as I would like it to fit, it is impossible to do that now.
And now... on with the fic!
dawn·ing (v.): (1) to begin to become light in the morning; (2) to begin to appear or develop; emerge;
(3) to begin to be perceived or understood
.:morning brings clarity:.
From her days as a Genin to the moment she accepted the title 'Hokage,' Tsunade didn't like to wait. Especially when the need to act had been gnawing on her guts since the day she first learned of the Akatsuki. She was known for moving when others hesitated and speaking up when her peers remained mute. Time and experience had taught her patience, but there were still occasions that set her hands fidgeting.
Rhythmically clicking her fingernails together, Tsunade stood on the balcony that overlooked Konoha. The streets below were empty. Only a handful of residents who had to rise before dawn to open their businesses or deliver various goods were up and about. Unless pulling an all-nighter, Tsunade was rarely awake at such an hour. On this developing summer morning, it would have been impossible for the Hokage to sleep. A very important piece of information was coming her way and it required her immediate attention.
Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, Tsunade clenched her jaw. Years of investigation yielded nothing concrete. She could neither confirm nor deny if the Akatsuki had disbanded. After the war with the Sound and Orochimaru's death, the group of S-class criminals went dormant. In the beginning, her fellow kages were as suspicious as she was, but time had a way of changing perception. After years of silence, most of them simply accepted that the group no longer existed. Even without proof.
Tsunade wanted to believe that, too. Accepting that assumption would certainly help her sleep at night, but she knew in her gut that it just wasn't true. She could never shake the feeling that the Akatsuki Organization was in 'wait mode.' Waiting for her and her allies to let their guard down. Waiting for a prime moment of weakness to strike.
As Hokage, she couldn't allow such a moment to occur.
With a sigh, Tsunade folded her arms over her chest and resisted the urge to pace. She really hated waiting. Anxiousness zigzagged up her spine and electrified her nerves. The longer she waited the more nervous energy her body created. It was starting to pool in her extremities, demanding release. Shifting her weight, Tsunade sucked in a deep breath and tried to relax. If her informant bore bad news, she would need a clear mind in order to plan Konoha's next move.
Currents of air suddenly swirled around her, lifting strands of blonde hair to twist around her face. She didn't acknowledge the arrival of the veteran ANBU until he spoke.
"Hokage-sama," he said, voice quiet and respectful. Sitting perched on the balcony railing, the shinobi's body bore testimony to his long night of hard travel. Sweat dripped from his brow, moistening his breath muffle and causing silver hair to cling to his skin.
Tsunade regarded him with well-trained eyes and frowned. He looked horrible. Exhausted. "Come inside and sit," she held the door open and motioned for him to enter. "You look like hell, Kakashi."
The ANBU stepped into the office ahead of the Hokage and found a seat near her desk.
"Thirsty?" she asked, motioning to a tray with two empty glasses and a pitcher of water.
Tsunade filled a glass and handed it to him. Mask hanging loose around his neck, he quickly consumed the liquid.
"You shouldn't drink it that fast," she chided.
He swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I always drink this fast."
Sighing, Tsunade sat. She only allowed him a few seconds to get comfortable before she tapped her fingers twice against the desk and said, "Alright, let's get down to business."
"Six days ago," he said, refilling his glass, "I received word that our contact in the southern province of the Wind Country needed to meet with me. I made it to our designated rendezvous point and waited there for 24 hours." The ANBU paused to drink, "He never showed."
Tsunade raised a brow. "Ryozo didn't show?"
"I used Pakkun to track him down," Kakashi finished his water and leaned back in his chair. "I haven't been able to find him. He hasn't contacted me or any of his other sources. I believe he's been killed."
'This isn't good,' Tsunade thought. Worry hardened in her belly, forming a tight knot.
"Were you able to confirm this?" she asked.
"No, but you know how dependable he is."
"I sent Pakkun to scout the location where Ryozo was staying. It had been burned down."
Heart thumping hard in her chest, Tsunade's mouth went dry. Konoha spies had a very closely guarded system for protecting top secret information. In case of agent capture or death, a Konoha shinobi would be sent to retrieve the scrolls left behind by the spy. If they still existed.
By all appearances, the scrolls looked very mundane. Some contained recipes, some were filled with haiku or short stories, but all appeared completely innocuous. Only the spy sent to gather the intelligence and the Hokage who sent him knew the jutsu to unlock the scroll. Once unlocked, the camouflage text transformed into detailed reports.
Very few people knew that such a system existed. High level ANBU and a select few special Jounins were told of the scrolls. The fact that Ryozo was missing, and the house he had been staying in was burnt down sent a cold chill down Tsunade's spine.
Itachi knew of the system, and therefore, the Akatsuki knew as well.
'But the contingency plan,' Tsunade thought. 'Ryozo wouldn't leave his scrolls someplace so obvious. He must have—
"There wasn't much left of the house," Kakashi continued. "Pakkun didn't search for bones, and I didn't ask him to. I didn't want to expose my presence to the arsonist."
"You know for sure it was arson?"
The ANBU rubbed his nose. "Yes. It looks like someone used Ryuuka no Jutsu to set it."
Kakashi's observation gave Tsunade some hope. The Ryuuka no Jutsu, a fire jutsu, was considered a Konoha specialty.
"You think Itachi set it?" the Hokage asked.
The veteran ANBU nodded.
"But there is a chance that it wasn't an Akatsuki member."
Kakashi hesitated, sighed.
'I wonder when he last slept?' Tsunade studied the tale-tail signs of exhaustion on him. 'He's thinking remarkably clear for a man so obviously fatigued. It seems he drained much of his chakra to get here this morning. Anyone else would have passed out from exhaustion by now...'
"Perhaps Ryozo was covering his tracks," she said, pushing him in the direction of her hopeful suspicions. "He knows some fire jutsus. And something like that would be in his nature, wouldn't it?"
"That's true," he agreed.
"How long has it been since you've slept, Kakashi?"
"A few days. I took a soldier pill about four hours ago. I'm close to crashing," he admitted quietly.
She frowned at him, then sighed. "I see."
Leaning back in her chair, Tsunade tapped her chin with her index finger. "In any case, the scrolls were probably destroyed in the fire. One possibility is that his cover was blown, so he destroyed the house to prevent what he learned from falling into the wrong hands."
"I was able to locate a scroll," the ANBU said.
Tsunade's brows shot up.
"I summoned the Fang Dogs to search for them and they were able to find one," he said, reaching into his vest and pulling out a dirt smeared scroll. He placed it on her desk and pushed it toward her.
Tsunade turned the scroll over in her hands, inspecting it for any obvious signs of tampering. Even though his Sharingan eye was completely covered, Kakashi looked away, allowing the Hokage a brief moment of privacy to perform the seals necessary to unlock the scroll. Only when he heard the parchment unravel on her desk did he turn his attention back to her.
"Where did you find this?"
"It was buried about a quarter of a mile from the house," he said, chin resting on the palm of his hand.
Kakashi bit back a yawn as Tsunade poured over the scroll. Wearing her very best poker face, her expression gave nothing away. Several minutes ticked by and the copy ninja was starting to lose his battle against his need for sleep. The muffled click of her fingernail as she tapped on an entry that caught her interest gave him a start.
"This should shut the old men up," she commented dryly. "Based on Ryozo's observations, there's no doubt that the Akatsuki is active again... but I doubt the Mizukage and the Tsuchikage will accept this as proof of anything. The Kazekage will take it seriously though."
"Was the Kazekage mentioned specifically?"
"No, but the Wind Country was," she said. "So was the Earth Country. You can be sure that Gaara will be very interested to learn what we know."
"But the Mizukage and Tsuchikage won't?"
"Oh, they would be interested," The Godaime's lips parted into a cold grin. "The Wave Country and Earth Country have always been interested in our intelligence gathering. And they've always questioned it. They will be the first to cast doubt on Ryozo's observations. That's why I don't plan on sharing this information with them just yet. I'm tired of playing their political games. I want evidence. And I want to rub their noses in it. Then their little façade of being our allies will finally be exposed for what it is."
Tsunade rolled the scroll back up. With a quick nip of her thumb, she smeared blood across the outside and sealed it once more.
"Kakashi, go home and get some sleep. I need you well rested for your next mission."
The ANBU gave her a curious look.
"You and Shizune are to go to the Earth Country tomorrow evening to follow one of the leads in this scroll. I'm sorry I can't give you more time to rest, but this is too important to wait."
"I want Naruto and Neji assigned to your squad."
Standing, he stretched his arms up over his head. "That sounds fine."
"I'll have Shizune gather and brief the team while you rest. I want you to lead."
Another nod, then the lower half of his face disappeared behind his mask.
"There's also a chance you'll encounter Itachi," she added.
"Then Gai should come, too."
Tsunade pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and sat back in her chair. Sending Gai to the Earth Country made sense, but she quickly changed her mind when another use for him occurred to her.
"Gai taught Lee how to fight a Sharingan user," she said. "Take him. Gai should remain here for now. We have to prepare for the worst. If the Akatsuki is active and the missions to the Earth Country and Wind Country fail, we should assume that they will eventually come to us."
• • •
The pillow smelled of him. Musky and dark. It pleased her to detect a hint of her perfume intermingled in the bouquet of aroma. It was comforting, thrilling and a little scary all at the same time. Like a dream come true. After years of wanting him to notice her, he finally did. And now she was in his bed. The heat of his body next to hers made her feel good all the way down to her toes.
The words he whispered into her neck the night before still lingered in her mind.
'I've taken you for granted,' he said, the warmth of his breath sending tingles down her spine. 'I won't do that again...'
The kiss that followed those words turned her insides to jelly. Though she hadn't had as many boyfriends as Ino, Sakura wasn't inexperienced when it came to kissing and fooling around. She'd had flings before. Gone out on dates. Even had a boyfriend for a couple of months when she was 17. Her desire to be the best kunoichi in all of Konoha was the excuse she used to explain her lack of a love-life, but everyone knew the unspoken truth. Sakura simply couldn't let an old flame die.
The greediness of his kisses left her breathless. She wanted to go slow, to savor the moment, but his need overwhelmed her.
'I want you, Sakura. Always.'
Her fragile resistance crumbled to dust. He was leading her to the bedroom, pulling at clothes and nipping at flesh. She submitted to his need, relishing in the wonderful feeling of being wanted by the one she loved for as long as she could remember. When the deed was done, she fell asleep beside him, her heart filled with the promise of a new chapter of her life... with him.
But now it was morning. Sunlight burned her eyes and chipped away at her confidence. Self-doubt nagged her heart. Everything happened so fast... did she make a mistake? Was this really the start of something wonderful...?
Her heart quickened when she felt him stir beside her. His eyes blinked open and stared at the ceiling.
"Good morning," Sakura whispered, eyes full of hope as they stared at his profile through long-locks of disheveled pink hair.
His jaw muscle jumped. "...'morning."
The silence that followed his half-hearted greeting made her stomach twist into knots. Without another word, he rose from the bed and made his way to the bathroom. Sakura cringed from his coldness, her worry strengthened by the fact that he didn't even look at her.
'Oh, no... no, no, no...'
Not knowing what else to do, Sakura remained in bed. Sheets pulled up to her chin, she eyed her discarded clothes. Her panties were the closest to the bed, but the rest of her clothes were scattered all around the room. Sakura wondered if she should get dressed when Sasuke made a reappearance.
He pulled on a pair of boxers and looked at her for the first time that morning.
"You should get dressed," he said, voice distant. Cold.
She blinked, and felt her mouth go dry. Her clothes were out of reach. Even though Sasuke had already seen her naked, even been inside her, she didn't want to expose herself to him. Especially when he was being so curt.
Clutching the sheets in a white-knuckled fist, she said, "Could you... hand me... my... clothes?"
The annoyed expression he wore when he complied with her request made her want to cry.
She pulled on her panties as he pulled a shirt over his head.
'Maybe... maybe he has an appointment he has to go to,' Sakura thought hopefully. 'Maybe he's just grumpy because today is supposed to be his day off...'
Wanting to believe his detached demeanor had nothing to do with her and what they did the night before, she asked, "Do you have a meeting this morning?"
"I don't," was the deadpan reply.
Dread solidified in her gut. Throat constricting and eyes stinging with unshed tears, she willed herself to keep calm.
'He said he wanted to be with me... he said he cared about me...'
Clinging to his words from the night before, she found the nerve to swallow the lump in her throat and speak once more. "Do you want to get together later?"
"I have things to do today," Sasuke said, offering her the rest of her clothing, "You should leave."
• • •
Naruto was the first to dig in. Chopsticks heavy with food, he filled his mouth to capacity. As soon as he got one mouthful of ramen swallowed, another load of noodles quickly followed. The pace of his eating was almost too much to watch. The more he shoveled into his mouth, the more Ino began to feel sick. Worse, Kiba and Shikamaru ate in pretty much the same fashion.
'Men can be such pigs when they eat,' she thought with disgust.
"Hey, Ino," Naruto eyed her bowl of half-eaten ramen. "Aren't you hungry?"
"I was," the blonde kunoichi muttered, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "You guys eat like you haven't been fed in days."
Kiba wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "That's how it feels."
"Didn't they give you any food?" She asked.
"They did," Naruto said. "But it tasted like crap."
The dog sitting patiently beside Kiba barked in agreement.
"It was pretty bad," Shikamaru agreed.
Ino picked a chunk of beef out of her ramen and chewed it slowly. "Weren't you guys sent to guard some Feudal Lord... Fishy-something?"
"Fushi," Shikamaru corrected around a mouth full of food.
"Right. Fushi," Ino said. "He's rich. He didn't have a good chef or something?"
Shikamaru snorted. "He's too cheap to do something so troublesome."
"But I heard he made a special request to the Hokage," Ino said.
Kiba smirked. "I don't think the Godaime will take anymore special requests from Fushi anytime soon."
"Fushi is a cheap-skate," Shikamaru said, voice heavy with sarcasm. "He told the Hokage that he needed two shinobi to guard his daughter and a few of her important 'guests.' He wanted a third shinobi to investigate a couple of high-ranking people. A mission like that is a perfect C-class mission for a rookie Chuunin and a handful of Genins, but this guy insisted that we classify it as a B."
"That's right. And he told Tsunade-oba-chan to send the best Jounin in the village," Naruto merrily piped in. "So naturally I got stuck with the job."
Kiba rolled his eyes.
"You probably volunteered for it just to get the extra cash," Shikamaru said.
Mouth full of food, the blond Jounin grinned with his eyes.
"That was my reason for going," Kiba said.
"Anyway," Shikamaru cut in. "It sounds like an easy mission, right?"
"Well, Fushi forgot to tell us that Naruto and Kiba would be guarding a wedding reception. With at least 400 guests. Civilians." Shikamaru paused to eat some of his ramen before continuing. "He wanted me to do background checks on about 40 dignitaries from the Fire Country, Wave Country, Earth Country and Wind Country and organize the security at this reception. So we told him it was too troublesome for just three shinobi. Naruto, with his Kage Bushin, could have guarded the guests, but the job as a whole was ridiculous."
"Not to mention the fact that he lied to begin with," Naruto added.
Ino blinked, "He really wanted you guys to do all that?"
"I said the man was cheap," Shikamaru said.
"What did he say when you told him you couldn't do everything he wanted?"
"He got pissed and sent us back," Kiba said as he waved down a waitress. "Said he could hire a couple of Jounins from the Grass Country to do everything he hired us to do, for half the price." He rolled his eyes, "Pft. Good luck with all that."
The waitress took Kiba's empty bowl.
"Could I get more ramen?" Naruto smiled up at the server. "Please?"
"Me, too," Kiba said.
The waitress nodded, and made note of the request on her pad of paper.
"Would you like anything else?" she asked Shikamaru and Ino.
Ino smiled politely, "I'm fine."
"I'll take another bowl," Shikamaru said.
With a nod and a smile, the waitress promised to return shortly with the next round of their meal.
"I can't believe you guys are still hungry," Ino commented dryly.
"Feh." Kiba rubbed Akamaru behind the ears, "That Fushi guy only gave us one shitty meal. One!"
"But you guys got back last night, didn't you?"
"We got back late and I know I went to sleep as soon as I got home," Naruto took a drink of his beverage. "This is breakfast for me."
Ino sighed. She hadn't expected to be eating lunch with Naruto, Kiba and Shikamaru. Running in to them on her way to her parent's house had been a whim. She chatted with them for a few minutes before Naruto's stomach began to growl. When they invited her to join them for lunch, she didn't want to say no. Being around them, especially Shikamaru, reminded her of old times. It was nice.
Another helping of ramen set before the three men, they quickly went to work devouring it. Ino watched them eat for a few minutes before shifting her attention to the tables surrounding theirs. The lunch-time rush was just beginning to peak and the seats were filling up fast. It never ceased to amaze Ino how much things had changed from her days as a Genin. It wasn't too long ago when the Ichiraku Ramen Shop was nothing more than five stools and a bar. Now it was a restaurant. With tables, waitresses, busboys...
Sipping her drink with a straw, Ino's eyes wandered to watch the pedestrians on the street. A young man about her age caught her eye. Tall, cute...
'...and taken,' Ino thought, when she spotted the girlfriend in tow.
The blonde woman shifted in her seat. The lull was making her uncomfortable. She grew up with Shikamaru. Their father's were best friends. They even dated for a few months after she became a Chuunin. But she didn't know Kiba and Naruto all that well. They were friends, certainly, but not close friends.
As she sat watching the people walking by and trying to think of something to say to spark another conversation, a familiar head of pink hair caught her eye.
"Be right back," she said in a rush as she hastily got up from the table. Making a beeline for the door, she called out to her best friend just as she was about to cross the street. "Hey, Sakura!"
The young woman paused mid-step and turned her head to see who was calling to her.
Ino moved around a slow moving pedestrian to catch her friend's sleeve, "Sakura, I'm so glad to see you!"
The blonde kunoichi hesitated and peered at her friend. There was a droopiness about her, a detectable note of sadness that caused Sakura to appear lackluster and plain. "Is something wrong?" Ino asked.
Sakura hesitated for only a moment, and then smiled. Pushing a long lock of hair behind her ear, she shook her head. "No coffee this morning," she said.
"And your hair is down," Ino added.
Sakura shrugged. "I was in a hurry."
Ino peered at her long-time friend thoughtfully. For years, she had tried to talk Sakura into cutting her hair. Or at least doing something different to it - something other than just braiding it day after day. And now it was down. Long, loose waves of pink hair spilled freely over her shoulders and appeared haphazardly brushed. On top of that, her hitai-ate was missing. After her experience in the chuunin exam, Sakura made it a point to keep her locks under control and that usually meant keeping it pulled back in a braid, even when she wasn't on a mission or on-call at the hospital.
But not today. It just seemed... odd.
"Are you sure everything is okay?" Ino pressed.
"I'm fine," she said. "Really."
As Ino studied her, Sakura's smile widened, revealing dimples. Ino knew Sakura had become fairly good at hiding her emotions, but not that good. Something was up. Ino could feel it in her bones. Then a thought struck her and her blonde eyebrows lifted in wonder, "Did something happen last—"
"What are you doing out here?" The medic-nin said, cutting her off in mid-question. "I mean, I thought you had plans for the day."
Ino blinked at the interruption, but said nothing about it. Sakura was still smiling. It seemed more relaxed and natural, but still... something didn't seem to be quite right.
"Weren't you planning to go out shopping today?" she continued, "New shoes or something..?"
"Shoes, a couple of new sports bras and whatever else catches my eye," Ino said with a grin. "And you should come with me, by the way. You could stand to improve your wardrobe. I've seen the boring stuff you wear under your tops. Terrible."
The blonde kunoichi waved off her protest, "There are stylish sport bras out there, Forehead. And you can certainly afford to splurge a bit on yourself. Anyway, I was on my way to stop by my parent's house before hitting the marketplace when I ran into Shikamaru. Naruto and Kiba were with him, so we got lunch."
Gesturing to the ramen shop behind her, Ino said, "You should join us."
Sakura hesitated. "Well... I..."
"You don't have training with the Godaime now, do you?"
"Well, no... but I..."
"Good!" Ino grinned. "Come join us for some food. It's been a long time since all of us had a chance to sit and chat. We can all catch up."
Still hesitating, Sakura didn't budge.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Ino grabbed Sakura's arm. "Come on," she pulled her toward the restaurant. "You have nothing to do right now so there's no reason to not visit for awhile. Besides, it'll cheer you up."
"I don't feel like—"
"Come on," Ino maneuvered the two of them through the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. "It'll just be for a few minutes."
Already moving past the threshold of the shop, Sakura muttered, "Okay..."
Ino grinned and grabbed an empty chair for the pink-haired medic.
"Sa-ku-ra-chan!" Naruto said singsong. The endearment remained long after the crush ended. Even so, his joyful greeting still managed to color the young woman's cheeks.
The males made room for Sakura, thoroughly crowding the table with arms and elbows. The lighthearted conversation that followed was very amiable. Now that the guys were sated with food, they were quick to smile and joke, trading barbs and talking up their ninjutsu skills.
Sakura smiled through it all and her mood seemed much improved, but Ino knew her mind was elsewhere. Probably on a certain dark-haired Sharingan user who only wanted to be around the pink-haired girl on his 19th birthday. Ino smiled to herself as she wondered how the evening went. For a brief second, she wondered if her moodiness when she first encountered her on the street had anything to do with him. In years past, he could dampen her spirits faster than anyone or anything, but seeing her now, her lips curled into a grin and eyes reflecting her amusement, Ino was certain that it had to be something else bothering her.
'Sakura has made huge strides with Sasuke,' Ino thought as she watched her friend out of the corners of her eyes. After all the heartache that Sakura had suffered due to the last Uchiha heir, it seemed that she had finally gotten through to him. It was remarkable how patient Sakura had been with Sasuke. Even Ino, who had once pined for him, found herself growing cold toward him after he had been dragged back to the village. But not Sakura. Ino had worried about her for a long time - worried that she wasn't seeing him for what he truly was, but the medic-nin kept insisting and stubbornly kept working with him through his rehabilitation.
And, grudgingly, Ino had to admit that she may have been wrong. That's not to say that Ino had completely forgiven Sasuke for what he did, but she trusted Sakura's judgment (at least most of the time - she still had terrible taste in clothes that did absolutely NOTHING for her petite figure) and that was enough. Now it seemed like Forehead's patience had finally paid off. When the moment presented itself, Ino decided to give her friend a good-natured tease as she fished for information about the night before.
"You seem kind of tired, Sakura," Ino said, a smirk playing about her lips. "Late night with Sasuke?"
Sakura and Naruto both froze in their seats, each wearing completely different expressions. One seemed distressed and the other perturbed. Focused on her friend, Ino knew she had hit a nerve. A very tender and very deep nerve. As soon as the question left her lips, the color drained from Sakura's face. Her green eyes suddenly watery, Ino was certain her best friend was only seconds away from crying. The transformation was so quick and thorough, Ino feared something horrible had happened.
"Sa... Sakura," she fumbled, feeling terrible for causing her friend such distress as her protective urges began to coil within her. "I—"
"You mean, 'late morning,'" Kiba said between swallows of his beverage, the only one unaffected by the sudden tension.
Four pairs of eyes moved in his direction.
"I didn't think the guy was interested in women," he continued, oblivious to Sakura's sudden heartache. Still trying to keep up the good-natured tease, he said, "With the way he's so obsessed about his skill level and revenge and everything."
"Kiba, don't," Ino warned.
Sakura swallowed hard. Naruto glared.
"But my sense of smell tells me otherwise," the dog-ninja tapped the side of his nose, smirked and then winked. "You slept with him, didn't you?"