Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi, etc. Only borrowing the series and characters for entertainment. No monetary gain
Chapter 21: On the Subject of Explosives
The scene was reminiscent of countless ones that have unfolded in Konoha's administrative complex from over ten, fifteen, years ago: a troublemaker streaked through the hallways with irate officials pounding after him. In place of a brat, grinning as he left a trail of destruction, was now a jounin, panicked, though not by his pursuers.
The Godaime Hokage-sama was melancholic. Between the peep of a moon that managed to slip through the clouds still icing the landscape outside and the somber conversation she was having over tea, she was feeling a half-century's worth of listlessness. Her mood was rent by the slamming of the doors against the walls—the same ones that just yesterday were repaired and had cost her an afternoon nap.
"Oi, Baba!" bellowed her guest. "I've come back like you—" As if remembering a recent trauma, the young man was reduced to an ojou-sama, hiding behind her paper fan. "Um, uh… Tell me when you're, uh, decent and I'll open my eyes."
Honestly. Tsunade-hime regarded the tensed jounin. She got no respect at all in this place. No respect whatsoever. Not for the first time, she wondered why she had allowed the snot-nose in front of her to drag her back to this backward town and let a bunch of constipated geezers to saddle her with such responsibility. Not to mention the retirement plan sucked, as exemplified by her esteemed predecessor—if your successor happened to get chewed on by a loosed demon, you get to take over again. Really, disgusting.
"Hokage-sama," spoke her sinfully gorgeous tea partner, a vision of sweet comfort after his long, much-rued absence. "I'll handle this."
"Do," Tsunade said drily. "I think we've had enough of your so-called narration."
Her cowed, but still comely, companion ignored this. "Called up the carpet again, huh, Naruto? I guess, hoping you changed over a month or so was too much ask, wasn't it?"
Naruto calmed down for a few heartbeats and opened his eyes to look at the one-eyed wrinkle of a smile from underneath a gray mop.
"Kakashi-sensei!" he exclaimed, happily enough, it seemed, but not enough to distract him from the problem at hand. "Welcome back, sensei. Oi, baba, about that thing we talked about last time…"
To her credit, Hokage-sama waited a full minute before getting tired of the young man's sudden muteness.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she suggested.
"You know it!" the blond insisted, bristling as he shifted his legs. "You remember that you kicked me out of the window—I still feel like there's a piece of glass stuck on a buttcheek."
"You need to give me a specific time frame. My foot is so acquainted with your ass, I can't tell anymore when they last met. Well?"
"It's that thing about Hinata-chan, geeze!"
"What thing about Hinata? Spit it out, boy!"
"You told me to come back when I have an argument—I'm back!"
Tsunade considered this, placated by the young man's mien. "Okay, I'll probably regret it, daring to get my hopes up. Go on, boy."
Hatake Kakashi watched the boy flounder, not unlike his first whack at barehanded fishing as a genin. See, Naruto wasn't a fool, as foolish as he acted at times. He didn't lack brain cells, but he wore his emotions like a reflective vest—I'm here! Look at me! In all the years Kakashi has handled the kid, Naruto had never overdone reflection before action.
But, no, he was no fool.
"I tried it like Sasuke said," the boy confessed. "And I… I liked it."
The jounin sensei deflated a bit.
"I kinda felt like a pervert at first, but thinking about other people doing it pissed me off. So… you're going to stop it?"
"… is this the point," the Godaime asked, "where I make conclusions and give you blunt advice that will prevent you from looking at me in the eye till you die?"
Naruto didn't get that.
"What did you try that Sasuke liked?"
"Not Sasuke, baba! I did. I liked it!"
The Hokage started to make strangling noises then. Kakashi decided he needed to cut in, as not only did he not know what to do with a person stroking out, but that Tsunade-sama not being able to keep up the glamour that kept her youthful appearance was reportedly a horrible thing to witness. The boy wouldn't balk at explaining himself, anyway; he just needed direction. (For what it's worth, his logic, if not infallible, was entertaining.)
"Naruto," Kakashi said, trying for the world-polished advisor angle. "Let's start from the top. You came to Hokage-sama before to ask her to do something for you. She said no and for you to come back when you have a convincing argument. Now, you're telling her you did something Sasuke suggested and you liked it. We don't get the connection."
"Oh. Yeah, well, Sasuke's gonna marry Hinata, right?"
"That was the idea."
"They don't exactly like the idea, but they don't hate it."
"But you hate it." Naruto frowned at the skepticism in his sensei's voice, but did not interrupt. "So what did you try with Sasuke, that you liked but he didn't?"
"No, no. He doesn't seem to have an opinion one way or another about Hinata-chan, but when I was asking about Sakura, he got all pissy."
Any number of off-color remarks entered the jounin-sensei's head, but he resisted further aggravating his ultimate commander. "Naruto-kun, do us a favor and tell us what this "something" is. We're kinda just imagining dirty stuff right now."
"Speak for yourself," Hokage-sama muttered.
"Well," the boy said. "I finally caught up to Sasuke to shake out his plans from his usual flat face. Only he has a cold right now, so he doesn't look as flat. He told me to ask myself the same questions I just asked him."
"Sounds like you've had a confusing night," Kakashi said, sounding sympathetic.
"Tell me about it." Naruto stopped pacing before the Godaime's desk and turned a stymied face to his elders. "I know how I feel, Kakashi-sensei. I just can't say it."
"I thought as much. Shall we start with the questions you asked Sasuke?"
"I asked him if he really intended to marry Hinata-chan. He said yes."
"Naruto, do you really intend to marry Hinata?"
"No." The response was clipped, was followed by a huff. Naruto rubbed his nape and resumed pacing. "I mean, if I had to, I wouldn't mind."
"Okay." The sensei sighed and decided to take a less blunt route. "What do you think that means?"
"I don't know. I haven't really gone anywhere after that. Just that, Hinata-chan is Hinata-chan, you know? I suppose it's not hard to think of her as wifey. She's the sweetest person in the world, even more than that obaachan next door who used to make me pancakes for breakfast every June 1st—she thought it was my birthday.
"Hinata-chan's apple pie and ramen, and rainy days, and long walks… and she won't yell—probably—even if do something stupid, which will make me feel sorrier than if I had gotten yelled at. Even just being quiet together is as great as telling her stories, but that's probably the being wet and cold talking, 'cause when she listens…"
His voice dwindled to incomprehensible. "I didn't get that," Kakashi said. "Come again?"
"…er, like the world's is, too," the boy stammered.
"But you know, I'm not husband-y at all, so that would suck for her."
"I'm starting to have hope for you," Hokage-sama said.
"I can be a cool husband, too, i thought. But I couldn't think of how I'd do that exactly, and I started hyperventilating. I came here, so Baba can help me not die."
"Or help you along from the looks of it," Kakashi said, scratching at the stubble of sideburns he had tried and failed to grow. "What did you ask him next?"
"After that, I asked him what about Sakura-chan? Like I said, he got pissy, as if it's obvious, and don't I love her, too? I finally figured then that he was being pissy because he thought Sakura liked me. Long story short, I told him they were probably not talking properly again, and that he's stupid, but I didn't say that exactly because I didn't have time to get into a real good fight.
"Then I asked him if he loved Hinata-chan—wait, wait, I asked him if he loved Hinata-chan last. I asked him if he wanted to bone—I mean, build! Build his clan with Sakura-chan."
"Well, do you?"
"Do you want to bone Sakura-chan?"
Naruto turned sheet-white, so Kakashi concluded that it was an off-limits thought. Translation: if he tried, he'd be worse than dead.
"Who would go around boning people randomly?" the boy sputtered instead. "And I asked build! Build!"
"You do have to do one thing first to be able to do the other, you know." Kakashi shrugged. "So you think Hinata-chan wouldn't be as averse to the idea of building with you?"
Naruto turned alternating colors of red, white, and gray.
"W-what does that 'aa,' mean?" the mortified boy demanded.
"Why don't we start with something simple?" Kakashi had a lot of practice on this, reading the Icha-Icha series, and falling back to analyzing everything from character and plot development to word choices, while waiting for the next installment to be released. "So I know now that you're attracted to both of them. However, the idea of Sakura-chan breaking your neck if you tried keeps you from pursuing that attraction—"
The younger man opened his mouth to protest.
"That, and the man-crush thing you and Sasuke have going on."
The poor boy almost seized. Kakashi shook his head. How long was he supposed to deal with this denial thing again?
"So then what keeps you from acting on your attraction to Hinata?"
His student's eyes widened even further, till the whites swallowed most of the blue. Kakashi realized that this wasn't even an off-limits thought; it used to be non-existent until he asked it.
"Keep it concrete, Kakashi," Tsunade advised. "Or you're going to have to scrub brain matter off my floor."
"Okay," the masked man conceded with a sigh. "Forget about getting married right now. Let's pretend you're a kid at the academy. Hinata-chan confesses to you. Will you go steady with her?"
"How about now?"
The boy hesitated. "Are we pretending she asked me this time, too?"
"He's chicken shit," Tsunade decided.
"I know," Naruto growled. "I know I'm chicken shit. It's just that she's my friend. And… Well, look at Sasuke and Sakura. They're so messed up between that friends and not-friends thing, it breaks my brain thinking about it."
"Those two are at a whole other dimension, the gods help them. You're considerably more normal in this department."
"Thank you? But see, Baba, isn't it normal I don't want to ruin something? I mean, I think I know that Hinata-chan and I have something going. I mean, we're super tight but it's not like how Kakashi-sensei is saying about going steady and hot girls."
"So you think Hinata's the wifey type," Kakashi clarified, "but she's not hot enough to mess around with or be girlfriend material?"
"You don't make every hot girl you run into your girlfriend, sensei!"
"So you think," the Hokage muttered.
"And I'll gut the bastard who tries to mess around with her!"
Kakashi ignored that. "So you don't think she's hot?" he pressed.
"She is!" Naruto ran a frustrated hand through his damp hair. "And that was part of the reason I was freaking out, but I'm a guy. So what?"
"I mean, it's wrong to think about your friend that way, so I try not to, but it's not like I can't notice. The Prince guy was talking about Hinata-chan while she was splashing around at Chanting falls with the genins. He was something else, sizing up her boobs and hips, and talking about stuff like carrying babies, and using flowery words and all… I called him a pervert and he said I'm the pervert for thinking it pervy to admire a girl like that. Or I think that's what he said."
Naruto paused, steeped in his confusion, then resumed unwillingly.
"Okay, so maybe I do like her that way. Do I have to do something about it? What if I want to leave it alone?"
"Will you keep freaking out every time you think she—or her family—has finally found the one?"
Naruto tugged on a whisker in irritation. "I'm not freaking out."
"Let's say you tell her you like her like that, and she doesn't like you back that way, would you stop being friends with her?"
"'Course not." There was no hesitation in the answer. "It's not her fault she doesn't like me like that. I might stay away for a bit, because it'll be embarrassing… and it'll hurt… but we'll be friends."
"What else did you ask Sasuke?"
"Nothing else, but he asked me to change how I look at her in my head… and that doesn't it fit, too?" Naruto crossed his arms, brows scrunched. "And like I said, when he said that, I remembered what Prince said, about her being made to be a mother and I thought that was random, but not really weird. Does that make sense?"
"Naruto-kun," Kakashi drawled, his single eye crinkling. "At this point, I'll be happy if you make sense out of even one thing in that flight of fancy you just puked on us. Make your sensei proud and please say something that will not make Tsunade-sama try to kill you."
"Well," Tsunade asked after a moment's silence, the warning in her voice clear. "Have you reached a sensible conclusion, boy? You came back here and I just tolerated a recitation of your rambling, semi-coherent thought process. I feel violated, quite frankly, and dumber for having listened to it. Talk!"
"Godaime." The sensei's voice was chiding. "Listen, kiddo. I don't want you to think I'm leading you on with these questions. If it helps, forget about it all, and just tell me: what are you thinking?"
"What am I thinking?" Naruto echoed. He touched his lips, as he considered the question. "Actually, I've been thinking about the day I ran into Hinata-chan after her dad decided she needed to stop being ninja for a bit."
"Hinata-chan was sad, of course, but I think she was pissed, too. She had her usual wrinkle here." Naruto touched his forehead. "I poked her, and then, her eyes squished shut, and she just lost it."
"To laughter, you mean?"
"Yeah." Naruto snickered at the memory. "You know how when you dribble soy sauce on broth, and the color just sits in that spot for a few, then spirals out sneakily? Her cheeks were like that then. I remember.
"And you know how Hinata-chan gets this expression on her face, like she's waiting for something she doesn't want to come? But when she laughs, she forgets for a bit. And it's just her whole face, all of her, changes like whoa! It's like taking the lid off the pot and getting all that steam and yumminess on your face.
"Maybe I'm full of myself, but I want to be the only guy in the world who can do that. It's not just laughing—even Sasuke made her laugh, did you know that? It's her shrugging off all the weight of the Hyuuga and being just… Hinata-chan. I want to be the one to know Hinata-chan when she is Hinata-chan the most. If that means I need to go steady with her, I'll do that."
"… it took you a long while to come to that," Kakashi said, his manner kind after letting the boy to stew for eternity and a minute. "So now you understand that coming to grips to these things won't be any easier for Sasuke, right?"
"Yeah and that you have favorites," Naruto sniffed. "I get it. I'll cut him some slack."
"Hokage-sama's still waiting for that winning argument, though."
"Well, obviously, I can't try going steady with Hinata-chan if she's already married." The boy was sullen as he squatted before the Hokage's desk. "What else do you want me to say? I don't want Hinata-chan to get married. At least, not yet, and not to just some random person her family thinks will be useful to Hyuuga world domination, or whatever they're plotting."
"You know." His teacher blithely broke the dramatic pause post Naruto's pronouncement. "This is the most unromantic confession I've ever had the misfortune to witness, but I think it's a breakthrough. Hokage-sama?"
"That's all very well and good," Tsunade said. "But my hands are tied in this case."
Naruto snorted. "You're the Godaime Hokage, baba."
"I'm Godaime Hokage because the law says I am. If I overstep my bounds, I'll be subverting the very laws that give me authority. The Main house has announced Hyuuga Hinata's engagement. The Hokage cannot interfere in a clan matter like this."
"You heard me. She's getting married before the year ends."
Without another word, the young man turned on his heels and ran. This time, his teacher thought ironically, none of his pursuers would even catch a glimpse of his shadow.
"Hokage-sama," Kakashi ventured after a few minutes of silence. "You messed up, didn't you?"
"Shut up," growled the woman some laud to be most beautiful in the world. "This is a Hyuuga problem. They're going to take care of this, the idiots. And you said so yourself, they're not children, anymore."
"I sure hope you're trusting the right people."
". . . when I think about the S-class missions I have and will be authorizing assignment to that boy, I feel faint."
Kakashi chuckled. "Aw, you don't mean that, Hokage-sama."
"So you really won't intervene?"
"The Godaime Hokage will not intervene."
"No, Dad!" it sounded like, and he was half-embarrassed, half-relieved to hear it. The initial three jabs to his face were not followed by more there or elsewhere. His jarred brain recovered and registered the ache of his face. He touched a cheek gingerly—no matter how much inhuman power a person amassed in a lifetime, the human body responded to injury with pain, often disproportionate to the actual damage acquired. Right then, he didn't have enough adrenaline in his blood to make him ignore his pain receptors.
"Get him out of my sight before I do something you'll hate me for," Haruno Kido barked at his daughter. That wasn't very likely to happen, Sasuke thought, but he held his tongue. He looked instead at the daughter, who avoided his eyes, grabbed him by an arm, and led him into her house.
There was no sign of the tears Naruto had accused him of causing. In fact, Sakura seemed to have stepped fresh out of the shower, her pink hair damp and smelling of some tropical fruit. However, judging from the greeting of her father, Sasuke dourly concluded that the dobe wasn't making things up. He felt compelled to address it. ('That's the sort of things friends do,' flitted across his mind, but the line was getting worn out at that juncture.)
He wasn't sure why he had ended up in the Haruno home for the second time that day. He had himself showered and readied for a long-overdue rest, when he was summoned. After he took care of that, he found himself standing in front of her door, evidently having walked there in abstraction. To his defense, he regained his senses before he actually knocked. Unfortunately, Sakura's father had already seen him through the windows and had flown out of the kitchen to pick a fight in the slush.
Presently, Sakura stopped before the stairway to the second floor and yanked his coat off.
"Out of those," she said, pointing to his pants. "Out! Now!"
Unperturbed, he pulled off his standard cargo pants to reveal a pair of dark blue pajamas. She might have sighed in relief but he couldn't tell for sure, as she was already halfway up to her room. He followed her, sat on her bed, and took the ice pack she offered.
"I can't believe Daddy drew blood," she muttered, examining the laceration on his temple. With the hood of his coat no longer catching it, the blood had trickled down his face and neck. "Heaven forbid your pretty face scars—it's the only thing people find tolerable about you."
So far, he had been manhandled and verbally abused. The dobe had to be smoking something to seriously suggest that this woman is—
"Sasuke-kun, lie on my bed and close your eyes."
… Damn that Naruto, anyway. Damn him and damn the power of suggestion.
"Oh, don't be such a baby!" Sakura was puttering about her dresser. She unearthed some gauze, which she pressed against his wound. "I'm just going to repair the cut with chakra. No needles, and it's less likely to scar."
He lay down at the foot of her half-made bed, daring her to comment when she opened her mouth. She didn't, likely more because of the pinking gauze on his head, rather than the stony expression on his face. She grabbed her rolling chair, positioned herself beside his head, and went to work.
"Incidentally," she said, breaking the lengthening silence. "Thank you for not hitting back my father."
He raised an eyebrow in response, tempted to speak. The fact that he was at a disadvantage, position-wise, dissuaded him.
"I apologize for his behavior," she continued. "I think he may have misunderstood something.
"Evidently, he has more of a clue about what just happened than I do," Sasuke said without humor. "The dobe said you're a liar."
There was no change to the occupied furrow of her brow. "Is that so," was all she said, as she continued to stimulate the slow, steady regrowth of his broken flesh.
"He even thinks we're playing a game. I'm not playing anything. Are you?"
"Is that what you came here for this time?" Her tone was mild, cajoling even.
"I came to see what you can do about my cold." Who was she kidding? He had more practice at this expressionless thing than she had. "You were asleep earlier, so I've came back. Any truths uncovered are incidental. Are you done?"
She sat him up.
"Thank you. The congestion is gone."
"It's a simple trick," she said. He thought he saw her expression crumble, but when he looked again, the mednin Haruno was back. "Is that all?"
"I also learned something useful in my otherwise pointless mission this week."
"Hmm." She began examining him again, he supposed, for his complaint of cold.
"The unnamed status you've sought for years now takes most mednins a lifetime to reach," he accused.
"And people wonder why?" She laughed. "Have they seen with whom I've been hanging out recently? You and Naruto are stellar role-models on keeping obsessive goals, you know."
"The title itself is secret to the society of mednins, but when spoken, it confers to the bearer access to biomedical information without restrictions, without regard to any socio-political borders."
"That sounds more fantastic than a cure-all serum," she quipped. "Open your mouth."
He had to wait for her to finish looking down his throat before he could continue his accusations. "Most governments, much more with hidden villages, are reluctant to share what they know of Orochimaru's immortality studies."
"Your throat is red but has no pustules," she said. "I think that's just from irritation from the post-nasal drip."
Sasuke ignored her assessment. "You have a breathing specimen right here," he said, staring at her intently, as if it could break her slightly smiling mask with just that. "Why are you so rushed to get rid of this patient?"
"It's just a cold, Sasuke. You'll be fine."
"You regurgitate speeches about friendship and social support systems all the time. I'm pretty sure you don't want me out of your life that badly. You scoff every time I suggest you teach someone else to deal with the curse seal, so what the hell was that about earlier, hammering down protocols and not wanting to see me off hours?"
In spite of herself, she glared at him and side-stepped the question. "I'm glad those sermons served some purpose, but right now, I think I'd rather you leave than stay and be bad-tempered."
"Were you trying to win me?" he guessed. "Save the princess trapped in a tower, concoct the antidote, and wake her up? So when the princess decides to get up and walk away you just let her?"
The mednin stared at him in a mixture of horror and shame. That, however, was quickly replaced by indignation. "What are you implying, Sasuke?"
"Just because I don't indulge in fantasy doesn't mean I don't get it. You think playing 'nice,' gives you license to moon around feeling sorry for yourself?"
"You are so full of it!"
"I could say the same about you." He sneered. In passing, he figured it would have had more impact if his nose wasn't running. "You drop the martyr act."
"The martyr act?" She shot to her feet, her hands finding her hips as she stared him down. "You think I'm staging a show here? You don't think I have the right or the capacity to work towards something, even something as microcosmic as your metabolism problem? Sorry for not aiming for something more earthshaking, but this is all this lowly one can manage."
"You can't bluff your way out of this one," he managed before he had to turn away to blow his nose. The words had the intended effect, however, for in her fury, she lost her train of thought and simply stood there, mouth ajar. Had she been banking on his disinterest in human interaction and didn't think he knew? Now that it was out in the open, her orchestrated reaction was slightly insulting.
"I, for your information, am not doing this for you," she enunciated. "I have baggage, too, from five years ago. It may not be as deep-rooted or brain-breaking as yours or Naruto's, but I have to work through them just as carefully and steadily. If you choose to wallow in your own misery—"
"You'll let me waste away in my own muck?"
"What?" That caught her off guard. "Of course, I won't!" She sounded exasperated, but her face retained the icy calm. "Just… Just understand that my trying to find an effective treatment for your curse seal is part of my job, as well as my own baggage. I'm doing this for myself."
"Let me do something for you, then," he proposed. "Let me pay for your services, Dr. Haruno. I can't keep taking advantage of you, after all."
She swallowed. Something passed across her green eyes, a shuddering moment of vulnerability, and then the agate in them returned.
"I need you to understand that this isn't some charity work," she said when she regained control of herself. "This is me working for my goals. This is you simply benefiting, by chance. And I'm sorry you haven't found new goals, Sasuke, but don't displace your frustrations on me. Don't attack me!"
"Who says I don't have new goals?" He inched closer, smiling what he felt was a predatory smile.
"W-what are you doing?" Her voice hitched, reached for breaking point as she realized he wasn't taking her seriously still. She was wrong, of course. After all this time, Sasuke felt that he finally understood her motives. He took her very seriously.
Wasn't he risking life and limb here?
"Don't!" she yelped, shutting his nearing face from her line of vision. "Whatever you're planning, don't! I don't need you to do anything. I don't need your misplaced pity or… or… or payment. Whatever the hell you call it, you just stop!"
And then her voice did break.
"Please, Sasuke. Of all things, don't make me feel like a whore."
And just because he knew it ticked her off when he threw advices and what-not right back at her: "Shut up and don't be such a baby."
He felt her pucker up, as if encountering something sour. When he opened his eyes and drew away just enough to look at her, he saw her scowling at his ear. Her nose flared. Her jaws were clenched to push back sobs that instead manifested on her trembling shoulders. Hers was a rage held back, and it wasn't directed at him. Hers was an anger fueled by pride, anger over some weakness she perceived in herself, some mistaken notion that her imagined weakness made her ill-deserving of all that she had achieved.
How long has it been, really, since he honestly thought this woman weak?
"What payment?" he said half to himself. "You're a glutton for punishment, woman, but as long as you remember what you just said, you'll survive me."
Her glare deepened impossibly. "Survive you, what?"
That was all he allowed her, however.
He let go.
Haruno Sakura, if she'd say so herself, was quite smart. If she applied herself, it rarely took her more than a minute or so to take stock of a situation. She wasn't dropping in on the middle of a business negotiation, so she was quite startled to find herself so flummoxed—at least, the last remaining bastion of rationality in her was. That Sakura, after picking her jaw from the floor, was busy scratching her head, trying to navigate the convolutions of the conversation that just passed. Rational Sakura wasn't making much headway, however, because all the thinking was being drowned out by the ecstatic wolf-whistles of one Inner Sakura.
Just imagine all the 'firsts' you can plan on celebrating this New Year. Or not plan for—who knew his type of stodgy had a spontaneous side after all.
. . . Wait. Whoa.
Even Inner Sakura had to shut up when Sasuke shifted, burying her deeper into the sagging mattress and the fluff of her comforter. The subtle movement redistributed his body weight over certain parts of her body that were a) more responsive to the touch, and b) effectively cutting off air exchange. She pushed him away, if only to get more oxygen, but he eluded her in a twist she couldn't follow. His mouth landed on her forehead.
This lent her a moment of clarity. It was wasted on wondering what he was going to do next.
What are you doing? demanded Rationale Sakura. There was an opening!
But the man draped over her had moved on after giving that one, chaste kiss. His lips grazed her nose as it traveled to her chin and applied more of those little kisses along her jawbone.
He had to stop, she managed to decide. He had to stop right now before her entire brain denatures.
"Sasuke," she said.
Her palm was on his forehead, hyperextending his neck, while her other hand was yanking on his cheek, distorting his face.
"You're feverish!" she squawked. "You should know better, what with my regularly scheduled sermons on keeping hydrated and basic first aid. Geeze."
He rolled his eyes, angled his head to her hold, and basted her inner wrist with his tongue. She yelped, wriggling away from the searing touch, and enabled him to put away her meddlesome arms, up, over her head. He paused, as if to admire his captive, and then returned to nipping. Sakura tried for indignation, but her speech disintegrated against the waves of sensory information that competed for her attention.
His hair was wet, she realized, giddy from forming a thought, and it was not from rolling around the snow when her father attacked him. Sasuke used a super old shampoo brand that's been around for at least a century and an even older soap brand that local lumberjacks liked to use. As a result, he smelled like the old-fashioned generation of grandpas who prided themselves on their manliness—no fancy named herb or tropical fruit scent for them. He smelled clean and awfully respectable and not the type who would force his clean, newly washed body on the clean, newly washed body of a nubile girl.
Drug store shampoo and old geezer soaps are turn-offs, Rational Sakura reminded.
Not on this one, promised Inner Sakura. Are you turned off?
I so am.
Not to mention, he's using that uber spicy mouthwash nobody likes because it's so spicy you can't taste anything for an hour after you brush your teeth.
Oh please! It was on sale for dirt cheap last month, wasn't it?
Yes, and now I know why it ran out after two days. There's an important reason for us to stop, and I need your part of the brain to make us stop kissing back!
"Apricots," Sasuke's husky pronouncement interrupted her train of thought.
"What?" she huffed stupidly, feeling even more stupid when she realized he wasn't half as breathless as she was—and he had a cold! And what was up with the laced-with-triumph tone thing? Apricots!
"Shampoo," he said. "Your toothpaste: Princess Patch, Strawberry-guava flavor."
The mednin flushed, realizing he was making the same assessments as she was, even as he worked to suffocate her with his mouth.
Turn on much? Inner Sakura crowed. What do you think?
Pupils dilated, cheeks flushed, breathing quickening. Rational Sakura was true to her name. I'd say yes.
Yes! Now, say something before he thinks we're catatonic!
"I have sensitive teeth."
He ignored that and dipped his head low. His lips trained across her collarbone, the fever-dried skin abrasive against her sensitive one. The sensation changed to hot and wet when his tongue darted out to sample the depression at the base of her neck. Then he headed south, past the folds of her mussed up shirt.
"S-sasuke," she babbled, unable to come up with a reason why he shouldn't head that way. In desperation, she redirected his face to hers once more, ignoring his chagrin.
She kissed him a little clumsily, forcibly deeper than any of his forays so far. This seemed to distract him from his path, stilling even his errant hands. (Notice that there was no mention of his toes, knees, or abdominal flexors. Neither of the Sakuras had the guts to confront that facet of the situation yet, and by consensus, refused to qualify any movements originating below his nipple line.) Competition came naturally to this man, after all, and he returned the press of her tongue and then some. It was obviously a challenge, though for what she wasn't sure.
Unfortunately, it distracted her, too, and she seemed to have forgotten why it was important for them to stop…
"Sakura-chan!" came the alarum. "The Godaime said—!"
Ah, the Godaime.
Even with the reminder, she was still slow to respond. It was Sasuke who reluctantly broke from her, rolling to his side to glare at the newcomer.
Naruto stared back, mouth open.
Sakura's mind took a moment too long to piece this scenario together, as it would look from her old friend's vantage point.
"Oh, good god," she said when she did, wiping her face with the back of a hand as she righted her clothing. "Shishou sent you to get me, didn't she? Is she furious?"
Naruto ignored her.
"This is the last place I expected you," the blond jounin said levelly. "Doing that." He glanced at their pink-haired teammate.
"Wait a minute!" she sputtered, taking offense at his chiding look. "I'm as clueless as you are here. He totally took advantage of my confusion!"
Sasuke shifted his dark eyes blearily from one to the other. "I was taking his advice," he informed her. "Incidentally, I wasn't planning on reporting a certain breach of patient-doctor relations with the use of mind-altering drugs that happened some years ago, but I might be forced to, after all, given its repeat?"
Sakura stared at him in horror and was effectively hushed.
"What I don't understand," Naruto grounded, his tone dipping, "Is how you think you're marrying Hinata-chan and on the side going around sucking on Sakura-chan's face."
"I was getting ready for bed."
"That doesn't explain why you're sucking on Sakura-chan's face."
"I resent that description!" asserted said owner of face.
Naruto shrugged to signal his lack of understanding, as well as in half-apology to Sakura.
"I was summoned by the village elders and told the Hyuuga are willing to overlook my last two failures, if I redeem myself tonight," Sasuke said. "I told them I was otherwise occupied."
"He has a cold," Sakura explained, before Naruto could form any assumptions as to what "occupied" meant.
"Yeah, he was sneezing four, five times on one go," Naruto agreed, wide-eyed in spite of himself. "It was the freakiest thing—"
"I left after that," Sasuke continued.
"So they decided to marry her to someone else?"
"To whom?" Sakura asked, brows furrowed. "Neji?"
"Neji?" Naruto snorted. "Why Neji? I mean, they're cousins. Even he wouldn't—"
"You think so?" The mednin then turned to their taciturn companion. "Sasuke, what was the mission you failed today?"
"A duel that didn't happen because the target wasn't where Intelligence thought," the avenger said. "A Cloud nin."
"Let me guess, something to do with that incident when Hinata-chan was a small child. The Cloud ambassador tried to kidnap her and was then killed by the Hyuuga head?"
"Supposedly his heir."
"You didn't find him?"
"He left Meadow country unexpectedly, according to his companions. Some rigmarole about a dead sister."
Sakura nodded, as if this did not surprise her. "And the children stayed?"
Sasuke raised an eyebrow at her.
"Did the genin team leave with him?"
"They stayed to complete their mission. The chuunin assumed the role of team leader."
"What are you two talking about?" Naruto finally demanded.
"This is insane," Sakura told him, disconcerted. "If it's true, then it's a very well-kept secret. It explains a lot about him, though."
"The Cloud sensei with Prince? What about Shinoda Iga? I still don't get it."
"Neither do I," the girl said absently, now lost in thought.
"I'm the team's resident moron, remember?" the blond insisted, uncharacteristically cold. "You have to explain things better than that."
"Sasuke just came back from his mission for the Hyuuga."
"Which he failed, he said."
"Do you mind?" their subject growled.
"So he was supposed to duel with the Cloud ambassador's son. You know the story right?"
Naruto nodded tightly.
"The son of Sanada Kazuya was in Meadow Country supervising his genin charges, as they bodyguard the Prince of Rock. He is a guest there." She glanced at Sasuke to confirm this, but he didn't as much as blink. "And he unexpectedly left them. You can imagine the gravity of the situation, if he was allowed to do such a thing. They didn't try to hide the fact he was gone, correct?"
"I was invited to dinner," Sasuke said.
"Fuwa Amarillo and his retinue answered your questions and were hospitable to you, wasn't he?"
"I was recognized from the stories of one Uzumaki Naruto." Sasuke gave an ironic bow to said man's direction. "The Prince sends his compliments."
"Prince, what?" Naruto repeated. "The prince is Prince?"
"Yes," said Sakura. "Hinata's suitor."
"So Iga is the son of the guy killed by Hinata's dad?"
"It appears so."
"You're saying we had Hinata's assassin all that time?" The lanky boy was incredulous, disbelieving. "He had all the chances in the world to hurt her."
"I don't think he wants her dead, Naruto. If he is a Sanada…" Sakura paused, pondering over a number of what-ifs in her head. "This is huge. Shinoda Iga must have done everything he could to dissociate himself from the Sanada name. To have established himself as a mednin of his caliber without using that name…"
"Who are these Sanada?"
"A family of mednins. They're obscure, so they're not universally recognizable in the shinobi world, but no mednin doesn't know of them—or of developments they have willingly shared to the rest of the medical community."
"So they're nice people?"
"It's more complicated than just saying they're nice people. Same applies to Shinoda Iga."
"You've met him," Sasuke said.
"Yes," she answered, looking at him directly. "While I was looking for your cure, princess."
"What business does a Cloud nin have with my so-called cure?"
"Orochimaru's implanted enough of his curse seals for many a mednin to have encountered—and become intrigued by—them. The fact that you've survived and outlived its creators makes you an ultra-rare specimen. It's one of the reasons why we prefer not to advertise your still bearing it."
"I don't get it," Naruto said. "So Shinoda Iga was also looking into the curse seal? What's that got to do with Hinata-chan?"
"I'm not sure. Only that the Sanada family has a hold on the Hyuuga, and I think I understand now. I think Shishou thinks I understand it best, which is why I'm being summoned."
Sakura stood up and headed for her bathroom.
"We'll talk later, Sasuke-kun."
Naruto stared after her, as if not seeing her through his confusion. Sasuke interrupted his thoughts after a long silence.
"You say Hinata's engaged," he said almost wryly. "So she was able to reject me, and not this new fiancé?"
Naruto spun to gape at his old friend. "Wait, she rejected you?"
"Me?" Sasuke returned. "What about you? What are you doing here?"
Perhaps, he ought to have been more curious, Neji thought, not for the first time that night. The Hyuuga compound had been buzzing with rumors of guests for tonight's dinner. In a momentary lapse, he indulged in the peevishness that flashed in his head and decided that he didn't care to meet yet another potential suitor of his cousin. The coming of another foreign prince or a famous shinobi from an allied village was not unlikely, regardless of whether the elders had already gotten wind of Hinata-sama's decision to reject Sasuke beforehand. Still, Neji felt he would have appreciated the warning and was not pleased about their continued withholding of information.
With Sasuke failing to duel with the head of the Sanada family, Neji didn't think it appropriate to entertain another potential suitor. It was high time the Hokage exerted more influence on the matter, before things come to a head with the Cloud. He couldn't imagine his pride-crippled family settling all their hope on the Uchiha, but neither could he appreciate the alternative others have hinted.
The assignment center was buzzing with indignation; a recent bout with an unwelcomed guest has soured the night staff's disposition towards visitors. Neji didn't have any problem with pissing them off further and had barged in to the Hokage's office despite their protests.
"Pardon the intrusion," he said peremptorily. "I was calling to request the opinion of Tsunade-hime on a family matter, one private citizen to another. She wasn't home."
"You look well, Neji-kun," Kakashi said as he set down his cup of tea. "I heard your sensei's gone to pieces since I left."
The Hyuuga was thankfully spared the trouble of replying, for Tsunade chose to turn her seat then and speak her displeasure.
"Well?" she barked. "Are you going to demand I make pigs fly?"
Neji took this with equanimity. "If that involves turning the lot of my kinsmen into swine, I can't say I find that request unreasonable."
"Those old farts will be the death of me," the Hokage told him.
"Hinata-sama refused Uchiha Sasuke."
"Is that what it is?" Tsunade took a swig from her cup of tea in a way that made Neji suspect it wasn't actually tea. "The official reports I've just gotten state Sasuke had refused to take the challenge to redeem his earlier failure. Are your old farts attempting to pin their matchmaking failure on Sasuke, too? I don't need this right now."
"Hinata-sama and the Uchiha do have minds of their own," Neji suggested.
"Don't take that tone with me, young man. Naruto is a boor, but I expect better from you."
"I think I can speak for all three of us in saying we were not expecting to become embroiled in political games."
"Good. You understand why I'm hellishly pissed right now."
"Fair enough," Neji relented. "Can we at least stop the farce of seeking the world for a suitable suitor? I believe there is another tonight."
"I'm afraid you can't drive away this one, boy."
There was a pause, as Neji pieced together everything and calmed his initial reaction all with an unchanging, slight frown. "Since when did we know about this?"
"Which part?" Kakashi murmured helpfully.
"By international treaty," Tsunade continued without letting the others pursue a discussion. "We are forced to recognize his claim over your cousin. He is free to take her this very evening, if he so wished."
Neji maintained his poise and bearing as he made his respectful way out.
"Naruto was here, by the way," Kakashi added. "He might use some of your level calm, Neji-kun."
Neji's maintained poise and bearing faltered just a tad.
"Since you are here," Tsunade said, shaking her head. "Please make sure that idiot doesn't cause an international problem on top of everything."
"With all due respect—"
"Shikamaru is already deciphering the contract, correct? Your family had already asked someone to look into the Anahata gate and its role in such binding curses. Others who might have more insight on the intentions of this man and those who control him have volunteered to expand their investigation.
"In the meantime, I suggest you get yourself home to your cousin with her own little mind. I'm sorry, but you'll need to babysit the children a while longer."
When Neji reached home, dinner was in full swing, though not as vivaciously as the idiom suggested. The Hyuuga silently partook the cooking staff's finest viands, and in their midst was the equally silent group of important-looking foreign nin, obviously a formal delegation. The heiress and her guest of honor were not in their appointed places.
All moved to look at him, even the Spartan Cloud with expressions befitting their name. Not one betrayed emotion on their calm faces. None of them had any inkling of how awkward their little party would be to some random idiot who accidentally walked in. As he was neither a random idiot nor accidentally there, Neji was quick to understand why he felt immense discomfort.
The Cloud retinue had absolutely no fear of any misstep from the Hyuuga or Konoha, no repeat of what happened nearly two decades ago: they will be safe till they step out of the village borders. Thus, they bore no aggression or defensiveness; they looked simply to see who it was that came so late to dinner.
The Hyuuga… Ah, the Hyuuga. Neji wasn't quite able to pin the rush of emotions he felt towards his family. He understood now their unflappable calm, and why they had never seemed to find it a priority to take care of their future leader's hidden conundrum, a problem caused by their previous leaders. They held little interest, much less rancor, toward the former enemies that sat in their midst.
They looked at him with confident expectation.
"Where is Hinata-sama?" he managed.
"In her apartments, Neji-sama," murmured the doorkeeper, as everybody else returned to their meal. It wasn't, he supposed, disappointment exactly. The certain sense of waiting cooled, however.
(This is why the Hyuuga is diminished, Neji thought with contempt. Our blood has cooled to the point of reptilian, sluggish, dispassionate, and treacherous.)
To her rooms he went. Considering he wasn't at all decided on a course of action, he appraised how coolly he seemed to be marching to the crux of a problem he had stepped into months ago, against his better judgment. Now of all nights, he realized that he was very foolish to think that. There was no judgment involved on his part—he was going to be sucked into the concealed sandpit whether he liked it or not, only to end up where they had plotted him to be in the first place.
It was not just another mission, just another battle. He was walking straight into the well-designed machinations of his beloved family. When he opened the misleadingly simple sliding door to his cousin's apartments, it would be like opening a door to his own birdcage and slamming it shut after him.
(No. Neji gripped the despair, the helpless fatalism that steeped his and his ancestors' secret selves all their lives, and submerged it back where it hid. He had not decided yet. He had yet to fall.)
He stopped before that fatal step and listened to the familiar voices conversing inside the room.
"I will tell you the truth," came the voice of the spacey Cloud sensei they had first met a month ago. "My father, by his own will, tried to take you from your home, because we were desperate to find a cure. They had known even at that point that the Raikage's disease is in essence a corruption of the chakra pathways, and the skills of a clan such as yours would be instrumental in understanding it.
"I have inherited this desperate need to find a cure. It falls on me now to continue my kinsmen's mission, for all the good or ill it has or will cause."
The young man paused, but continued when the young woman said nothing.
"I need you to help me raise the Raikage," came the pronouncement of the Sanada head. "If only long enough to prevent the chaos of a forced Ascendency race, we need him conscious, alert, and of clear, unquestionable mentation.
"I have laid out all my cards, and I have nothing else to say, but what I came for. I, Sanada Sayuri, ask for your hand in marriage. Please grant me this honor, Hyuuga Hinata-sama."
The door slid open before the Hyuuga heiress could open her mouth. Once again, Hyuuga Neji's sometimes begrudging sense of responsibility reared its ugly head and caused him to tread in paths even fools left alone.
But see, that's the thing: Neji was no fool.
"Forgive the intrusion," he said, again peremptorily. "I am compelled to speak in defense of the Hyuuga clan's honor. There are certain rituals involved in the matters of courtship and marriage that are being bypassed. It is incumbent upon me to advocate for Hinata-sama's rights as an equal-standing party of this agreement."
"Are you saying you will champion her?" Sayuri asked. He seemed genuinely startled at this, and Neji knew this man, even then, had watched and studied carefully. If he chose to make him his opponent, Sanada Sayuri had the small advantage of knowing Neji's ambivalent feelings towards his family.
(Now the question becomes this: is Sanada Sayuri's assessment of Hyuuga Neji wrong?)
Before Neji could answer, the carefully made up mannequin that was his cousin seemed to come back to life. Her pale face colored to match the burgundy of her dress, but if it was from slight embarrassment, her white Hyuuga eyes betrayed no quarter as she stepped forward, tall.
"Can I champion myself?"
AN: Finally. After only 20 revisions... Thanks to mikochan noda once again for the beta-reading.
Again, thank you for reading and for the comments.