They may have called her the Legendary Sucker, but the Godaime Hokage was nobody's fool. Sure, on the odd occasion she fell for a trick. Or two. Everyone had faults, failings they would rather hide. Her weakness was an open one. Though she'd enjoyed relative anonymity during those years away from Konoha, now that she was in a position of great standing it seemed no one minded if she indulged in the odd spot of gambling. It wasn't like the villagers completely ignored her weakness, but instead of regarding her with anger or disgust she'd find them giving her an indulgent smile, or a respectful bow.
"Hokage-sama isn't perfect!" she'd heard one villager whisper to another during one of her excursions into town.
"And that's why she's fit to lead us," the other replied sagely. She watched them nod in agreement from the corner of her eye and wondered why she hadn't applied for the position earlier if a title was all she'd needed for universal forgiveness and respect.
Maybe that's why he wanted it so badly.
She sighed and leaned back in her chair, rubbing at the skin across the ridge of her nose. Perhaps the villagers, too, had underestimated her awareness of the things around her. A sucker she may be, but her obtuseness was limited to the anticipation of a card table or the breathlessness of a pachinko parlour or the expectant hush in the high roller room. When it came to her job and her people, she saw quite a lot, thank you very much.
Perhaps they thought her eyes were painted on. Perhaps they hadn't cared if she'd heard. Perhaps they'd intended she'd hear them right from the beginning, in a bid to attract her attention -
No. Now she was being ridiculous. There was no need to read so far into things, no point in searching for conspiracies that weren't even there. She'd had a teammate who'd done that, but he was out of reach forever and she would not let her thoughts rest too long upon him. He'd tainted one of her own already with his twisted mind and skewed logic. In his quest for power he had acquired knowledge, loyalty and a young disciple, and in the meantime he'd ruined friendships, families, and the lives of more than one Konoha shinobi.
As Hokage, she felt each loss keenly. It was another wound upon her soul every time he acted against them. She'd never understood why Konoha had to suffer for his gain, and yet she understood better than anyone else ever could. Memories had far more pull than most people knew, and both of them had experienced pain here in the village. She had opted to forget their home, and he had worked to destroy it.
He was good at that, destruction. It came easily to him, a second summons of sorts. She could call slugs and misfortune and the other third of their trio - the base of their triangle - had a talent for toads and friendship. He was good, Jiraiya. Far kinder than herself or Orochimaru could ever be. His eyes saw many things, more than he led others to believe. His roving eye was common knowledge but open secrets usually masked other ones of more import, and the Toad Sannin, the Ero-Sennin, held far more aces than he let on.
He'd seen it first, had known what the boy was and could be long before she'd let herself look - really look - into that clear blue gaze. Naruto's eyes were young yet ageless; he had the eyes of an innocent child that also held the pain and wisdom accrued by the very old. They said that eyes were the windows to the soul, or so she'd once read, and Naruto's soul was the most generous one she'd ever encountered. His eyes were more expressive than the boy would ever know, and sometimes what she spied in their depths pained her because she saw that same elusive flicker in the eyes of someone else.
A clear green, a deep jade, as transparent as Naruto's and as opaque as his as well. Her apprentice shared the boy's hurt and there was tragedy, shattered hope and resignation mirrored between them whenever she saw the two together. Sakura's eyes had become hollow ever since Sasuke's death, and Naruto had taken it just as badly, if not worse.
No. He'd taken it far worse. When Tsunade looked at him she saw the deflation and pain that also etched Sakura's features, but there was something else, a trace of hope laced with bitterness stamped down with self-disgust and fear.
Sasuke was gone, but Naruto was still here. The boy had done the math and it seemed like he hated himself for even dreaming.
He was steady, and she had always been loyal, but Sakura's eyes didn't see as much as she probably thought. Which was why it was up to Tsunade to give her young apprentice a little help, an extra push. They were Konoha ninja, after all, and she had sworn to do everything in her power to take care of her flock. They were hurting and she could foresee a solution, so if she put things into motion now, hopefully they'd take care of the rest themselves.
She stood up. "Genma. Raidou." Her voice was loud in the chill silence of the office. The windows behind her opened out over the village, slumbering quietly in the relative peace of winter. Missions were fewer in the cold months but that was another perk of her position. Not all missions were consigned ones. If a Hokage was devious enough, they could quite freely create their own.
Tsunade was plenty devious, and it wouldn't have been the first time she'd done such a thing. Bureaucracy could be very dull and even Hokages needed a little fun.
The two jounin blurred into attention in front of her and she gave them both a serious look. "I require your services."
They bowed low and waited for her orders, Genma's senbon twitching in apparent anticipation.
She eyed the needle for a moment before continuing. "Bring me Uzumaki Naruto and Haruno Sakura. It's not urgent, but I'd appreciate efficiency in your return."
They straightened and nodded, Genma even sketching a mock salute.
"Understood," replied Raidou, and they disappeared, leaving Tsunade alone in the office again.
She moved to the window and leaned against the sill, resting her chest on her arms and looking out with a sigh. She had been charged with the welfare of all of Konoha, but surely it couldn't hurt to take an interest in these specific two? It was another open secret that she regarded both with fondness, but she tried to avoid outright favouritism. Sakura's strength and thirst to prove herself were traits she remembered from her younger days, and Naruto's unbending will and generosity had saved her more than once.
She wanted them to be happy, and there was nothing wrong with that. But was she going about this the right way? Should she leave well enough alone and wait for fate to play its course?
She sighed again and stayed where she was. It was a gamble, and she didn't have the best luck in the world, but it needed to be taken. Fate was slow and temperamental. If she wanted things done, she'd have to do them herself.
Sakura lifted the paperweight and watched the scroll roll itself back up with a whispering crackle. The research had been old and misinformed and her brain ached from trying to decipher the archaic wording. How perfectly ridiculous the early medic-nins had been. Their ludicrous methods had probably caused more ills than they'd cured, and she repressed a shudder at what the scroll had contained. Blood-letting to reduce fevers, removal of broken bones...what had they been thinking?
She picked up the yellowing ribbon used to bind the scroll and tied it carefully back into place. It had been very little help in the end, but had made for an interesting couple of hours nonetheless. She returned it to where she'd taken it from the overflowing bookcase and let herself out of the storage room, shutting the door carefully behind her as she left.
She'd stumbled upon the trove of medic scrolls a few weeks ago, in the hunt for her instructor. Tsunade frequently disappeared from the Tower in the afternoon and more often than not Sakura was enlisted to assist with the search. Usually, Shizune and Tonton were able to find her and drag her back bodily, but on this particular afternoon the Godaime had proven difficult to track down, so they'd broadened the search base. Sakura had become lost down an unfamiliar corridor and had mistaken the room for an exit. She hadn't found Tsunade but she had stumbled on some other interesting finds and returned nearly every day since that time, going through the contents with wonder.
It was intriguing, and distracting, and she cherished the time alone.
Time alone was time away from the sympathetic looks, the pitying glances. It was time apart from the whispers, the murmurs, the hushed comments not meant to reach her ears.
They hadn't been so careful about it, in the beginning, but the first one who'd openly voiced their opinion on the deserved death of the 'Uchiha traitor' had rather effectively been the last. She'd seen red and the speaker had seen stars, thrown as he was through three fences and a brick wall. She'd gotten a stern talking-to from Tsunade and a raised eyebrow from Kakashi, but Naruto had given her a proud smile and told her with brimming eyes that he would have done the same himself. Of course he would have. That's why she'd done it in his stead.
It wasn't that it hurt so much, any more. The loss had instead dulled to the throbbing ache of a knitting bone before rain. It was pain that would never go away because she wanted to keep it with her. It was all she had left of him, and it was a fitting tribute, since pain had been his only gift to her even when he still walked amongst them. She kept the pain and she cherished it, because he lived on in that small way. Some might have considered it a burden, but it was one she was more than willing to carry alone.
Not that she was allowed to shoulder it by herself. Naruto would never let her - could never let her - because he blamed himself, thought himself the cause. Everyone had told him that he had nothing to do with the defection and subsequent loss, but he wouldn't accept it and refuted each attempt gently, seriously, with maturity and grace.
"I may not have taken him there," he'd say, those clear blue eyes unwavering and bright, "but I didn't bring him back again." Then he'd smile and change the subject and after a while they all stopped bringing it up. He was still troubled, she could see that, but he too needed time alone.
She wondered if he had the nightmares as well. The dark dreams of hopelessness where even her best was never enough. Sometimes she couldn't remember them but most of the time she did, and her unvoiced concern was that they'd spill out over into wakefulness and taint her conscious actions with the fear that stymied her unconscious ones.
It was probably why Tsunade hadn't assigned her to any difficult missions since that time. Months had passed and she was still only receiving B- and C-rank orders, despite a shortage of qualified shinobi and overworking of most. Maybe there were whispers on her coddling, too, but Sakura had stopped caring for what people thought about her long ago. The perceptions others had of her were insignificant in the end. All she asked was acceptance by those close to her heart, and now that he was gone everyone who counted seemed to care for her too. How nice to be wanted. How stifling. How hard.
She moved down the corridor, having become familiar with the labyrinthine halls by now. She would never have suspected the Hokage Tower would be so big, but the parts above ground were as deceptive as an iceberg, and below it was like a rabbit warren, massive and convoluted. Halls ran every which way and doors lined every panel, and she could see that once she exhausted her current escape-room, she'd find plenty of material to entertain herself in another. The room had become her haven, but luckily, hardly anyone seemed to have noticed her frequent disappearances.
She whirled, startled at the sudden voice. Pressing one hand to her chest she surveyed the intruder with narrowed eyes. Dark hair, scarred face...he was one of the elite jounin in the Hokage's employ. How had he found her? Were her ventures down here not as secret as she had thought?
"Raidou-san." She nodded back politely and gave him a bland look. "Were you looking for me?" It seemed likely. She expected that he, unlike some people, was being kept busy with errands if he wasn't being used on a mission worthy of his skill. There'd be no need for him to roam the halls, passing time.
He nodded curtly, stepping to the side and gesturing for her to precede him down the corridor. "Yes. Hokage-sama wishes to speak with you."
She blinked. Tsunade had sent a jounin to get her? "Do you know what about?"
"No, I'm sorry." He was silent for a moment as she fell into step beside him, and then he gave her a small smile that lifted his scarred cheeks and reached his eyes. "But if I had to guess, I'd say she has a mission for you. You must be aching to do more than just pick through musty old rooms, right?"
She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from gasping and reminded herself that Tsunade was a Sannin, one of the most powerful shinobi Konoha had ever seen. There was a reason her face was on the mountain, chiselled into stone beside four other exceptional nin. She saw and she knew and Sakura had been deluding herself to think her jaunts had gone unnoticed.
"Right," she said after a moment, returning Raidou's smile. It held only a little of the warmth his own had offered, but for the moment, it was the best that she could do.
Naruto ignored the steps to his apartment and climbed easily up the wall, holding his groceries carefully lest any should remember that gravity applied to them too. It was much faster just climbing up and jumping in, and he wondered, not for the first time, why they even had stairs at all. The windows in nin houses were always made extra wide with this contingency in mind, so why weren't more shinobi principles applied here?
Maybe in case of injury, he mused, letting himself in and dropping lightly to the floor. Also, for the benefit of non-shinobi. Sometimes he forgot that not everyone could do the things he could do. It was a mindset that had probably carried over from his days at the academy, where everyone was light years ahead of him and he'd always been 'dead last'. Back when friendship was just a word and Sasuke was just a boy...
He blinked away the memories and crossed to the fridge, pulling open the door with more force than necessary. He was shaking again, and really, this had to stop. For his sake, for Sakura's sake, for everyone's sake, he had to stop letting it drag him down like this. People left and the ones left behind had to pick up the pieces and move on because lives joined with other lives but were fleeting in the end. It had been naive and stupid of him to expect that mere friendship could keep them together. People could be a support or a burden and Sasuke had proven with his actions which category he considered them to be.
He bit his lip and misjudged the distance to the fridge, a jar of mayonnaise slipping from his fingers and shattering on the floor. He stared dumbly at the fragments, bogged down as they were in splattered condiment, and gave an inward jeer at his sluggish reflexes and delayed reaction. Too slow to stop the fall. All you can do is pick up the pieces.
He shut the fridge and crossed to the sink, grabbing a cloth before returning to the spill. He picked gingerly through the glass shards and threw the large ones into the bin, mopping up the rest when he was satisfied it was safe.
The cut took him by surprise and he didn't notice it straight away, realisation dawning only when his blood left a pinkish smear on the linoleum. He stared at it, transfixed, before letting go of the cloth and bringing his hand closer to his face. It was a small gash, and narrow, but the edges had gotten pretty deep and blood flowed freely, spilling down his palm and pooling on the floor. Missed a piece, he thought. Not so good at picking them all up.
"Nasty." The familiar voice came from behind him, interrupting his thoughts.
He repressed the urge to squeal and counted to three before glancing over his shoulder. "Genma," he returned carefully, unsurprised to see the jounin had made himself comfortable and was leaning against the kitchen bench.
The other man waved. "How have you been, aside from bleeding?"
Naruto gave him a quick grin before getting to his feet, walking around the mess on the floor to get a tea towel from the drawer. He folded it as best he could with his good arm and then pushed it against the wound, wincing at the pressure. "Pretty good," he said after a moment. "Bored. The Baa-san's got me on easy missions for some reason and I've spent more time at home in these last couple of months than I did over the last few years before that."
Genma nodded, pointing with his senbon at the immaculate state of the room. "Looks like you've been keeping yourself busy. Clean, I like it."
Naruto turned away and moved to the sink, dropping the bloodstained cloth on the counter and running water over his wound. "I guess it's not a social call?" he hazarded, waiting for the jounin to explain his presence.
Genma shook his head when Naruto turned back around. "Spot on. Hokage-sama wants to see you and while she said she wasn't in a rush..." he trailed off meaningfully and Naruto knew exactly what he meant.
He grabbed his jacket off the back of a chair and shrugged into it, zipping it up with practiced ease. "Let's go then," he said, walking past Genma and clambering up onto the windowsill.
The other man didn't move. "Don't you want to at least bandage that?" he asked, the needle in his mouth pointing down at his hand.
Naruto blinked. "Bandage what? Oh!" He raised his hand and showed the nin his palm, which was slightly pink but otherwise unmarked. "I heal fast." He turned with a grin and jumped out and off, racing up to the roof with Genma not far behind.
They were halfway across town before Naruto caught the reply and speculative look from the other man. "You don't say," Genma murmured, matching his pace so that they reached the tower in unison.
Naruto shrugged. He was used to it by now. It and the reserve chakra were the only perks of the Kyuubi's unwelcome tenancy in his body. He'd learned to take the good with the bad and it had helped out in the past. There were probably worse things than having a demon fox living inside you.
He knocked politely on the office door but let himself in before Tsunade had the chance to tell him to enter. He'd told her a while back that he had the right to go straight through, since it was going to be his office one day, and although her lips had thinned into an unamused line, she'd never mentioned it again.
He stopped once inside, nearly causing Genma to collide with his back. "Sakura-chan!"
She gave him a tired smile from her seat in front of Tsunade's desk. "Naruto. You look well."
He opened his mouth to reply but couldn't bring himself to return the greeting. She didn't look well at all. She looked peaky and pale and seemed greatly weaker than the last time they'd met up, which couldn't have been more than a week ago, at most. Was she eating? Was she sick? Was she -
He blinked when she gave a soft laugh and patted the seat beside her. "You looked so funny," she said, by way of explanation. "Worried and horrified, both at the same time."
He nodded to Genma, who left with a wave, then sat down and wondered if there was a tactful way to say it. Sakura-chan, you seem to have taken Sasuke's loss worse than anyone else, and I'm afraid that you're making yourself sick from thinking about it. You need to rest, eat and let us take care of you...care for you...
Tsunade cleared her throat. "If you would be so kind as to listen, Naruto?" Her eyes glinted dangerously and he snapped back in his chair.
She gave him another steely look before indicating the paper in front of her. "I have reports of civil unrest on the borders into the Wave country, and I want you two to go on a reconnaissance mission and gather information. Be discreet," she gave Naruto a warning look and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, "and don't reveal your allegiance. I don't care what scenarios or reasoning you employ, just keep it confidential and return in a week." She sat back and ruffled some more papers, apparently finished.
He blinked. "That's...it?"
She glared at him. "Is there something wrong, Naruto?" Her voice lowered dangerously and he thought better of questioning her rather vague request.
"Uh, no!" he replied, getting to his feet and flashing her a winning smile. "Great mission! We'll do our best, won't we, Sakura-chan?"
The girl nodded, standing up as well. "I'll be packed shortly. Did you want to meet at the gates, Naruto?"
"Sure." The gates were as good a place as any, even if it did mean they'd have to go halfway around the village to set off towards Wave. "See you there in half an hour?"
Sakura agreed and they went their separate ways, Naruto returning home and giving his fresh food a mournful look. He shouldn't have bothered shopping today. Everything would be off by the time he returned.
Oh well. He packed some lunch and filled his bag with essentials before leaving, locking his window carefully and then bounding off. For whatever reason, Tsunade had finally seen fit to give them a mission. He'd have to treat this an an opportunity to get some insight into what it was that troubled Sakura. He had a fair idea of what it might be, because it troubled him, too.
He sighed and added more strength to his jumps, pushing toward the gates with as much power as he could muster. He'd been chafing unknowingly and it would be good to get out of the village for a bit. And he'd definitely be able to make Sakura feel better. Grief was one thing, but not looking after yourself was something else entirely. There was no point in letting this eat her from the inside. He'd help her out, he'd have to. Everything would be okay.
At least she didn't have the nightmares.
My first foray out of Kakasaku! I love the Narusaku pairing and I wanted to write something for it, so I asked the fantabulous Nushi (to whom this is dedicated) for ideas on what to write about. The couple doesn't really move her, so she responded with this:
I have no idea, BUT it does need to have 1) Fighting/yelling followed by hot make-out, 2) Cuddling, 3) Jiraiya (not as in WITH them however), 4) Sakura emoness and 5) Raidou has to make an appearance as well.
And so...here you have it. My filler fic, so to speak. The story is complete in five chapters, and I'll be posting updates every few days. It starts off a bit angsty, but gets gradually lighter, and I'd even go so far as to say it's got a fair bit of WAFF towards the end. :) Thanks also to darkenedsakura for her mad skills, and to sureasdawn, whose beautiful Narusaku ficlet started me down the road to enlightenment. I hope everyone enjoys it, and let me know what you think!