"You know, Sakura," Ino started conversationally, twirling a strand of hair around her finger, "I've decided I don't want to be alone any more."
Sakura stifled a groan. Alone? Ino? If she were truly single (and Ino was nothing if not focussed, so she presumed it to be the case) it was a recent development. Extremely recent. In fact -
"What happened to that Chuunin examiner?" She couldn't remember what village the handsome nin had been from, but she'd been expecting his attractive features and relative mysteriousness would have kept her friend entertained for a month at the least. But considering the exams had finished less than a week ago...well, she'd obviously overestimated his appeal.
Her friend snorted.
"Him? Please. Easy on the eyes, to be sure, but his conversation skills weren't that amazing."
Sakura, who had never known Ino to be interested in anyone for their conversation, wisely kept silent.
"And so, I've moved on. I even have someone in mind, and this, my dear, is where you come in."
Ino was looking at her expectantly. Sakura blinked. This...this was new. She couldn't remember the last time Ino had required her assistance in obtaining a boyfriend. In fact, she was certain Ino had never needed any help on that front. Her friend was tall, blonde and had at least two assets that rendered any aid Sakura could give entirely unnecessary. Unless...oh shit...
Ino twitched. "I'd appreciate it if we never spoke of the moment you thought I might be attracted to Naruto ever again."
Oh. "Well forgive my confusion, but you have to admit, asking for my help with a boy is certainly...different. I don't know what I could possibly do to help." Something occurred to her. "Is he injured? I can only heal recent wounds, and I can't take away disfigurement. Dammit Ino, if you're that shallow--"
"Sakura!" Ino sounded scandalised. "Thanks for the faith in me. Nice to know my best friend thinks I'd need her help in curing a potential boyfriend from disfigurement." Her tone was laced with sarcasm, and Sakura was surprised to find an undertone of hurt as well.
"I --" I didn't mean it? "I'm sorry."
Ino waved it off, impatient to get to the good part. "No, don't worry. All my guys are stunning, I can see where you're coming from. Where was I? Yes, I need your help. This one...you know him better than I do. I want you to drop a few hints, let him know I'm single, tell him a few amusing anecdotes that paint me favourably. So none of those ones you like to tell about when we were twelve, mnkay?"
Okay, now I'm totally confused. Ino was incredibly sociable, and moved in circles Sakura was barely familiar with. Her vaunted cleverness was failing her, and she wished she could channel Shikamaru so that Ino's logic would become clear. In fact, she wondered, not for the first time, why of all the guys of Ino's acquaintance, Shikamaru had never been considered suitable boyfriend material. She rubbed her forehead tiredly, hoping all would be revealed soon. It had been a long day and bed was looking extremely attractive.
"Ino, I'm too tired to even hazard a guess as to who you've got your heart set on." This time. "So if you could just tell me, I could go to sleep, and maybe an awesome plan will come to me in my dreams." Now that, that was a bare-faced lie. But she hoped it would appease her friend and cut the evening short - once she'd set her sights on someone, Ino could expound upon their virtues for hours at a time. And while Sakura was usually content to be a supportive friend, she was too sleepy to listen much longer.
Ino blushed. Sakura stared, then shook herself. She was possibly hallucinating. Surely there was no way Yamanaka Ino had just blushed while thinking about a boy. They were both seventeen now, and Ino had been unattached only rarely since blooming early a few years ago. Sakura had never filled out much, but she was resigned to it by now. And really, a larger chest would get in the way and reduce my accuracy with shuriken. Her reasoning was sound, she told herself. But really, who wouldn't have a complex after working with Tsunade-san every day?
"Come on, Ino, spill it! My eyes are closing by themselves." She reinforced that with an elaborate yawn, hoping the other girl understood. Ino cleared her throat.
"Well...you have to promise not to laugh."
Against her will, Sakura's curiousity was piqued. While annoying, Ino's coyness was unusual - her honesty and open appreciation was an attractive feature, and guys liked to know where they stood with her. She'd been through many relationships, to be sure, but they'd all ended amicably and Sakura was hard-pressed to think of any ex-boyfriend of Ino's that wasn't still friends with her. This mystery boy had to be someone completely different from Ino's regular type, and for the life of her, she couldn't think who it could be.
"Of course I'm not going to laugh."
Ino touched her two pointer fingers together in a gesture of uncertainty, then cleared her throat.
Sakura gaped. The boy that had Ino in a tizzy was a man! And not just any man...Sakura's teacher! She tried unsuccessfully to gather her wits, and managed only to gape a bit more.
"Sakura...Sakura, say something!"
She swallowed. How to say this? How to dissuade her friend from this foolish notion?
"Ino...he's a bit older, you know that?"
Ino nodded. "Fourteen years older than us. I've always considered fifteen years to be the extent of a suitable age gap, so it's all rather lucky, isn't it?"
Sakura clutched for more reasoning.
"Um, you haven't ever seen his face, right?"
Her friend frowned. "Really Sakura, you're not going to start on that disfigurement thing again, are you? Kakashi-san is fine the way he is, mysterious and aloof. Although I imagine he'd need to take that mask off for some things..." She giggled coquettishly and Sakura struggled against the urge to slap her.
"I just...I just don't know."
Ino sighed. "Sakura, I know he's been the leader of your team for five years now, but it doesn't detract from the fact he's a very good-looking man. Maybe if you opened your eyes and actually looked at guys as guys for once, you'd see what I mean."
Sakura was slightly offended that Ino considered her immune to masculine allure, and told her so. Ino sighed again.
"It's not that you can't bring yourself to see men in an attractive light, it's that you don't. You're clinging to Sasuke's memory, and it's holding you back. And really, Sakura...you need to move on. He isn't coming back. There are plenty more fish in the sea, and some of those fish aren't even pompous asses who don't give a shit about your feelings. I mean, I know you like that sort of thing, but nice guys do exist."
Standing abruptly, Sakura pushed back her chair with more force than she'd intended. It crashed onto the floor, and heads turned curiously toward the girls' table. Ino gave the other restaurant patrons a flustered smile, and they returned to their meals. Sakura pulled money from her hip-pack and dropped it on the table.
"Sakura," Ino pleaded, following suit then continuing outside. "Don't be like this. I'm sorry I said the S-word but I'm right and you know it."
Sakura stopped, then turned, her voice dangerously calm. "Do me a favour, Ino, and mind your own business." She started off in the direction of her house.
Ino remained behind her, watching her go. She called out, "Think about what I said! We'll talk about my situation tomorrow!"
Raising her hand in acknowledgement, Sakura continued home. Now she was more awake than ever, and she knew it was going to be a long night.
The Hokage was where he expected she'd be, sitting behind her desk, the mounds of paperwork obscuring its surface as always. He'd expected, as well, that her features would be tight with annoyance, her irritation at being kept waiting scarely concealed. What he hadn't anticipated was the added presences of Jiraiya and Naruto, their faces grim.
"Kakashi." Tsunade's tone was curt.
"Yo." He sauntered in and waved cheerily, eyes crinkling into a smile. Too late now. It'll just have to be a case of 'begin as you mean to go on'.
"How nice of you to join us." She gestured impatiently at a seat next to the others, and he wandered casually over to it and sat, suddenly curious as to why he'd been called before her. Missions had been few and far between recently - the shortage of qualified shinobi was a thing of the past, with excellent chuunin and jounin swelling the ranks and leaving him with more and more free time.
And judging by their expressions, Jiraiya and Naruto already knew what was going on. He waited.
Tsunade frowned and shuffled some papers. "He...Orochimaru. Reports lead me to believe his intention is to move on Konoha Village. It's not certain what he's planning, but I understand he has one objective, and two ways of reaching it."
Kakashi raised his visible eyebrow.
She continued. "You have to understand, it's in the interests of protecting the village, Kakashi. If I could do it myself I would, but I can't escape the responsibilities of my home any longer." She eyed Jiraiya, who shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Naruto stared at the floor, fists bunching on his thighs. Kakashi cursed his love of a late entrance, and wished Tsunade would stop being so cryptic.
"So what is you want me to do?"
Shit. He hoped he hadn't sounded too eager. But these last few weeks had been so quiet and he was unaccustomed to having so much spare time. It certainly didn't help he'd read every one of his books cover to cover over the years, and it was probably too late in life to be branching out into alternative genres. So his apartment was spotless, and his friends were sick of him, and thank goodness the chuunin exams had been last week or he'd have gone insane.
And subsequent sets of one-fingered pushups were just as boring as the first.
So he looked back at the Hokage with a facade of bland indifference, while inwardly relieved his days of inactivity were over.
"I'm glad you asked." Tsunade smiled, then, and Kakashi's eye drooped. Uh-oh.
He didn't notice Naruto had followed him until he was halfway home.
The boy was out of breath, and Kakashi realised he'd probably been calling him for some time now. He stopped, and regarded his student. Naruto had grown under Jiraiya's tutelage. His abudant chakra still hummed with barely leashed power, but it was less volatile now...somehow controlled, and more dangerous. He'd gotten tall, and stood straight and proud, no longer the excitable child of five years ago. Nothing could dampen his spirit, however, and he was surprised to find a feral smile on Naruto's face, especially in light of Tsunade's request.
Well, mission. He'd politely asked her if she could "request" it of someone else, and she'd promptly changed it to a mission - one that he was not permitted to refuse.
He felt a sudden pang at his neglect of Naruto. The boy had just as much power as Sasuke, but he'd ignored it in favour of the young Uchiha, whose skills and personality had reminded him so much of himself. And Sakura...dammit. Hindsight was a bitch.
"We're leaving tomorrow. Jiraiya wanted me to tell you we're heading south, so it would probably be best if you two went in another direction. We don't want to make it easy on...that bastard." He noted absently that Naruto hesitated much like Tsunade did when it came to naming their enemy.
He nodded, and leaned against a shop wall. He crossed his arms and looked down at Naruto, who obviously hadn't finished.
"What's the matter?"
The boy flushed, and bit his lip.
"Jiraiya...that ero-sennin...he said if you wanted to, you could swap. You could take me, and he could..." he trailed off, moving from one foot to the other, eyes downcast.
Kakashi narrowed his eyes, and after a moment, reached out and patted Naruto on the head. The boy looked up, surprised.
"Tell your teacher we won't be exchanging charges. I've read every one of his books, and that's given me pretty good insight into his psyche. We'll keep things the way Tsunade wished, shall we?"
He smiled down at Naruto, who looked relieved.
"Ah...good." He nodded stiffly and moved to leave, before stopping and looking back.
"Look after her, will you?"
Apparently embarrassed, Naruto gave him an awkward wave, and then left without waiting for an answer. Kakashi watched him go, touched by his concern. I guess Tsunade was right. They were a lot closer than anyone realised.
The doorbell roused Sakura from her stupor. She'd managed to get to sleep ridiculously late (or early?) and had awoken groggy and irritable. She was banging pots and pans in the kitchen, which served to take the edge of her anger but did little else to improve her mood. She would have felt better if there was someone - preferably Ino - that she could shout at, but both her parents were at work and Naruto had said something about meeting with Tsunade-san earlier that morning.
"I do not," she grumbled, cracking an egg into the frypan, "cling to anyone's memory." She mixed it about with a spatula, and slammed some fish in beside it. "And I am not," she flipped both, "as Ino seems to think I am," she cut a slice viciously from the bread on the table, "a masochist!"
She thumped the plate of breakfast onto the table and rummaged in the drawer for chopsticks. She wasn't particularly hungry, but managed to get halfway through the meal before the doorbell rang.
In the mood she was in, she hoped it was Ino.
She was both disappointed and surprised to find the person indirectly responsible for her current fury. "K-Kakashi-s-sensei," she stammered, moving aside to let the jounin through. "What can I do for you?"
He moved down the hall, sniffing the air, and she followed him to her own kitchen, feeling ridiculous. He stopped and looked down at the rest of her breakfast.
"Good," he said, almost to himself. "You'll need the energy."
Ino, did I mention he's really weird?
He sat down at the table, and smiled up at her, and she got a sinking feeling that she was going to have to do something she didn't want to do. She knew this smile, and it didn't bode well.
"Pack your bags, Sakura. We're going on a trip."