Title: Seduce My Wife!
By: Dr. Destructo
Rating: Teen/PG-13 (language)
Summary: Read the title, kid. All will become illuminated. Sasuke/Sakura, Naruto/Sakura.
Disclaimer: No profits! Nevah had it! Nevah will!
Uzumaki Naruto was a glutton for punishment.
People who knew only the most superficial facts about him could tell you this. Only a glutton for punishment would struggle to become the protector of a village that had hated him for his entire childhood. Only a masochist of the highest calibur would devote years to returning his only rival for the affections of the love of his life. Only a pure-brained moron with a lust for pain and misery would even be listening to the shit Uchiha Sasuke was saying this very moment.
"Could you repeat that?"
Uchiha Sasuke sat in his chair across from the Sixth Hokage looking somewhat bored and disinterested. Naruto was familiar with the expression, but felt such outlandish talk should be accompanied by a similarly outlandish expression. That bastard Sasuke, however, refused to cooperate and seemed to be annoyed at having to repeat himself.
"I told you," Sasuke said in a tone that tried to express indifference, condescension and discomfort all at once. "We can't have children."
Naruto rubbed the bridge of his nose and, perhaps for the first time since getting his title, looked at the pile of paperwork on his desk longingly. Naruto had once thought it would be a snowy day in Sunagakure when he would prefer his mound of formal documents over ANYTHING.
"And?" Naruto asked, hoping against hope that the man with the raven-black hair and dark brown yukata wasn't going to say something stupid. Naruto really should have known better.
"And," Sasuke said, annoyed at having to not only spell everything out, but dredge up such personal information. "There needs to be an Uchiha heir. I need to rebuild the clan, Naruto."
Naruto shot a glare at his former teammate and quasi-friend. "Then adopt," he said flatly. "There are over a dozen kids in the orphanage who come from good ninja families. You want to rebuild the Uchiha? There you go."
"You know I can't do that," Sasuke said, looking away.
"No," Naruto responded. "I know you WON'T do that. There's a difference."
"Fine," Sasuke spat. "I want heirs who will have the Sharingan. Happy?"
"Not remotely, but at least you're almost being honest for once," Naruto said, turning away to look out the office window. "What do you want?"
Sasuke bowed his head, suddenly finding his feet fascinating. Closing his dark eyes, he took a deep breath before continuing. "I need your help."
"Ha! My help? I don't see what the hell I can do for you."
"Well, when I said we couldn't conceive, I misspoke," Sasuke said, bowing his head further. "It's more like... Sakura can't have children."
Naruto closed his eyes. It was times like these that he wished Kisame really HAD gutted him like a fish.
"We've tried," Sasuke said. "We've tried everything. Medicines. Schedules. Positions. Do you know how many-"
"Okay, I get it!" Naruto shouted. The last things he'd ever, EVER wanted to hear were the details of his friends' sex lives. Especially concerning Sakura-chan. "How do you know it's Sakura-chan and not you?"
"Trust me," Sasuke said, for once broadcasting his discomfort. "Sakura's run every test on my sperm imaginable. Everything's working fine."
Great, and now he was learning about the health of bastard Sasuke's sperm. Gee, what other wonderful insights awaited? Naruto wondered if he'd still be added to the cliffside monument if he Rasengan-ed his own head off.
"Sasuke," Naruto said tiredly, letting his face fall into his hands. "Far be it for me to disagree with the medic-ninja protege of Granny Tsunade, but plenty of couples try and, ugh, try again with no luck. Then, when they're not thinkin' about it, BAM! offspring galore. So, just... I dunno, just don't think about it and please don't tell me about it."
"Five years, Naruto," Sasuke said. "We've been trying for five years. We've talked about it. Sometimes it's all we talk about these days. But I'm- we're ninja. Our time is short. And I need every second to rebuild the clan."
"And where the hell does 'my help' come into this? I'm not using the Sexy no Jutsu and carrying your kid, Sasuke. You're a good friend, but not THAT good of one."
"You," Sasuke said, finally looking up to glare at the Sixth Hokage. "Are a vulgar and disgusting person."
"Wow, you sure know all the words to use for asking a favor, bastard," Naruto muttered.
"I have a plan."
"I can hardly wait."
"I need," Sasuke said, hesitantly, "for you to seduce my wife."
Naruto had not become the Sixth Hokage by being stupid. Oh sure, he wasn't the sharpest spoon in the drawer, but Naruto was pretty quick on the uptake for most things. He'd done lots of stupid things, certainly, but Naruto'd also learned from most of those mistakes.
And something told him Sasuke's entire plan and the logic behind it wasn't just stupid. It was beyond stupid.
"Let me see if I've got this straight," Naruto slowly, once again rubbing his temples as he let his head rest on his desk. "You want to either annul your marriage to Sakura-chan, or restart this concubine custom. But you'd rather annul the marriage, you just don't have the balls to actually tell Sakura-chan you're divorcing her. So you'd rather somehow get her to fall in love with me (HA!) so you can remarry guilt-free and everybody wins, right?"
"More or less," Sasuke mumbled, not particularly liking the slight to his manhood. Especially after having experienced several batteries of tests concerning that same topic.
"Out of curiosity," Naruto asked, "have you mentioned the concubine thing to Sakura-chan?"
"Kind of. She seemed receptive to the idea," Sasuke shrugged.
"Uh-huh. Right. I'm sure she did."
"You don't believe me?"
"The fact that you're still in one piece gives you away."
"You realize," Naruto said, slowly. "That she probably WOULD agree to it, you know. For you. For Sasuke-kun."
"I know," Sasuke said, picking his words carefully, "that she would be miserable. More than she already is."
"And you don't care what people would say about having your wife 'stolen' from you?"
"Well," Sasuke said, a smirk tugging at his lips. "Who could resist the charm of THE Sixth Hokage?"
Naruto looked up with a raised eyebrow before laughing at his friend's quip. Then he said, "She's going to kill us both. You realize that, right? No amount of childhood crush is going to save your ass this time."
"Maybe you," Sasuke said. "I can still outrun her."
"Har. De har. Har," Naruto said, lowering his head once more. "And what the hell makes you think she's going to fall for me anyway? It's not like I changed much once I got the funny hat, you know."
"For one thing, she misses you, moron," Sasuke said, his voice gruff. It stung a little to think of just how much Sakura seemed to miss Naruto at times. Though he couldn't exactly blame either his wife or the Hokage. Things had just... changed between them all.
"She bitches at me twice a week about the hospital and medic training budgets," Naruto said, propping himself up once more. "She sees me plenty."
"Only on the clock," Sasuke said, patronizingly. "When was the last time you saw each other outside of the tower? No ninja stuff."
"Hmm," Naruto hummed, thinking back. "That get-together at Shikamaru's a couple months back."
"Grr," Sasuke growled in frustration. Sometimes the village leader could be so DENSE. "I meant just the two of you, moron. No ninja stuff."
Naruto blinked for a second before turning away. Looking out at the bustling village, he said in a faraway tone, "We had ramen together the night you left for Sound. Heh, I remember I was so disappointed that the only thing she wanted to talk about was you and that cursed seal of yours."
Sasuke gasped, nervously fingering shiny scar tissue along his neck.
"Listen, Sasuke," Naruto said, still looking out across the village. "As much as I appreciate the thought, I think you should just make the effort toward fixing things between the two of you. She chose you for a reason, and I think you should honor that."
"I'm already really behind on all this paperwork, so I should probably get to it, ya know?" Naruto said, cutting off his friend as he reached into the uneven pile. The brief flash of a pained smile was all the dismissal Uchiha Sasuke was given. The pale ninja stared at his usually bright counterpart for a moment before removing himself from his chair to make his way to the doors. Before he left, the Hokage spoke, not looking away from his paperwork. "I would give some serious consideration to adoption. After all, we both know that kind of loneliness."
Sasuke nodded his head and left the Hokage to his dry scrolls and hollow office.
"Wow," said Jiraiya as he paused from sipping his sake. "That's quite the, er, proposition, Naruto."
Naruto leaned away from the low dinner table and into his floor cushion. The Hokage's Residence was a rather large and sprawling little complex not far from the tower itself. And while Naruto had revelled in the sheer enormity of it upon first moving in, it'd quickly grown desolate and foreboding. Hence why Naruto was enjoying supper with his former master despite certain... perverse proclivities.
Anything was better than eating alone in a giant house.
"Tell me about it," Naruto said, stretching a bit. It had been awkward relating his conversation with Sasuke to the toad master, but Naruto had learned long ago that as long as it didn't involve breasts, Jiraiya's counsel could be trusted.
"So what'd you tell him?"
"Whaddya mean 'what'd I tell him?' I told him no! I'm not gonna move in on a married woman, ya lech!" the Sixth Hokage shouted, indignant.
"Are you stupid?!" the retorted the legendary ninja. "You're retarded for the girl! More so than usual! And you're not even going to try?! What the hell kind of Hokage are you?!"
"Apparently the only one who ever had any scruples! Geez! Tsunade's a drunk gambler, the Third and Fourth were bigger pervs than you-"
"-and I don't even wanna know what the First and Second did in their off-time!"
"Listen, ya little shrimp," Jiraiya said, jumping up to glower over the blonde ninja. "You're still hung up on the girl. There's no use denying it because you're a horrible liar. You were baptised in the blood of a Hokage and christened by the Death God himself and now you're suddenly all sissyfied about pursuing a woman whose husband DOESN'T WANT HER?!"
"It's not that he doesn't want her, it's that-" Naruto started before being bashed over the head.
"IDIOT! MORON! FOOL! What kind of man offers the woman he loves to another?!"
"This isn't one of your sick books, Perverted Hermit!" Naruto yelled as he returned fire, knocking his former sensei into a wall. "What happens if I do go after her? Huh?! What the hell are people going to say about us? About her? I'm used to that kind of shit, but she isn't!"
"I don't know," Jiraiya muttered, climbing out of the wall. "But it's bound to be better than what they'll say if Uchiha takes a concubine. You can't interfere in inner clan politics. The most you can do is illegitimize his kids from his official mistress. Then he just has to file adoption paperwork and presto, they're Uchiha. And where's that leave Sakura, huh?"
Naruto sank back into his cushion and stared at the spilled food on the table.
"And where's that leave me if this all blows up in my face?" Naruto said, gently nudging the table with his foot. "There's a difference between being second best and finding out you were never in the running."
Jiraiya stepped over to the sake and poured a generous amount in his saucer. Looking at it for a moment, he grinned. "Look at it this way, which would you rather regret? Making an ass out of yourself, yet again? Or having never even tried?"
Naruto raised an eyebrow and looked at the older man as he sipped his sake. After a moment of thought, Naruto finally replied, "Fuck. At least I'll be able to regrow my nads when she castrates me, right?"
"That's the spirit, brat!"
"Just pass me the booze, perv, before my survival instinct kicks in."
Whoever coined the phrase "Easier said than done" must have heard about Uzumaki Naruto, the Hokage decided.
The Sixth Hokage had acknowledged that he still had feelings for Sakura. Not a big deal. Naruto'd acknowledged that he would probably always have feelings for Sakura. The Hokage had also decided that he WOULD win her heart. It seemed his heart-winning skills, however, were severely lacking. In fact, non-existant would be the word of choice.
"Why can't you see how important this is to the welfare of our village?" Uchiha Sakura asked, her voice starting to increase in volume.
"There's only so much I can allocate for medic-nin stuff," Naruto said in a weary voice. "Unless you'd rather everyone go without kunai."
The past half-hour of the Hokage's life had been passing in exactly this manner. Sakura represented the medic-ninjas for both Konohagakure's hospital as well as their field medics. Her responsibility was to make sure that the med-nins had the resources to save lives. As such, the entire meeting had consisted of her demanding more money from the Hokage and him telling her no. Normally, Naruto tried to make it into a game; he would try out responses that would make Sakura THINK he'd agreed, but in actuality hadn't promised squat. Shikamaru had once told him it would be good training for married life.
"Geez, Naruto," Sakura said, exasperated. "It's not like everyone has your kind of recovery."
"You're right, Sakura-chan. Maybe we should see if there are any more tailed demons roaming around. Sealing them in infants can be our new health care program," he muttered, rolling his eyes. He hadn't even put up the pretense of being polite this time. God, Naruto was starting to regret ever listening to that damned toad hermit.
"Sorry, Hokage-sama," Sakura said, looking away. "I didn't mean to bring up-"
"Eh, it's no big deal, Sakura-chan," Naruto said honestly, waving at her dismissively. He couldn't remember the last time anyone'd brought up his curse. "I shouldn't have been so snarky. I know you're just doing your best."
"Thanks, Naruto," Sakura said, smiling as she sank further into her chair. Naruto noticed her tuck non-existant stray hairs behind her ear, a nervous habit she'd had since the Academy. He frowned, trying to find the words to subtly allow Sakura to talk about her problems at home.
"So what's the problem?" the Hokage asked, once more failing miserably at subtlety.
"There isn't a problem," Sakura said, shaking her head.
"Right. And the old hag's taken a vow of sobriety," Naruto said, snickering at the thought a permanently sober Tsunade. And the hell that would be Shizune's life. His mind returned to the topic at hand when Sakura opened her mouth to protest. "The only other time you've mentioned my demon is when," Naruto started matter of factly before realizing where the conclusion led.
Crap! He was supposed to be discreet!
"When things aren't okay," he finished lamely. Sakura noticed the abrupt change as well and he knew that she knew what was really supposed to follow. 'When Sasuke's being an utter bastard.'
"There isn't a problem," Sakura repeated, this time letting her features pinch into a scowl. The medic-ninja made a point of locking gazes with the Hokage. "There isn't."
Naruto had risked his life and very soul for the young woman sitting in front of him, challenging him with her sea green eyes. And not once--not ONCE!--had he ever wanted to just shake her until teeth rattled and she could just SAY whatever the hell it was she was raving about in her head. Until now. Not with everything Sasuke had mentioned yesterday.
"Well, I'm convinced," the Sixth Hokage practically growled as he returned Sakura's glare. "Up for some ramen?"
"I'd love to," Sakura spat. Her fearsome countenance soon crumbled when Naruto rocked back in his chair laughing. Sakura blinked owlishly as the blonde ninja started to pound his desk in throes of hilarity. "What's so funny?" she asked, perplexed.
"Now I KNOW there's something wrong!" Naruto chuckled, wiping tears from his eyes with a fist full of his robes of station. "You HATE ramen, Sakura-chan!"
"I do not!" Sakura exclaimed, embarrassed at how easily the Hokage seemed to know her. "Okay, so maybe it's not my FAVORITE thing to eat..."
"Ahem," Naruto said, clearing his throat with mock severity. "Quote, 'I would rather eat the corpse of an Aburame than eat another bowl of that crap.' Unquote. Sound familiar?"
"Okay, fine. You caught me," Sakura said, grinning. "I don't like ramen much. But that doesn't mean anything."
"Well, for one it means you're a traitor to the foodstuff I hold most dear to my heart," Naruto said, pouting a little.
"I'll try to live down the shame, Hokage-sama," Sakura said with a roll of her eyes.
Naruto sighed and slumped in his chair a little. Finally he gave her a defeated look and said, "I AM the Hokage. I could just make you tell me what the hell's going on, but I'd like to think you could tell me your problems without an official edict."
"I don't-" Sakura started and stopped, watching Naruto stare at her some mixture of disappointment and resignation. It was an expression she was unaccustomed to seeing on the young Hokage's face. Though it seemed all to familiar on another's. "I'm sorry, Naruto. It's just... it's rather personal."
"I'm not Ino, Sakura-chan," Naruto said, a small, lop-sided smile emerging on his lips. "It's not like I'm going to be asking the Raikage if he's heard the latest gossip concerning Konoha's best medic-ninja."
"Now, the Kazekage on the other hand is always DYING to know..." he trailed off with a grin, ducking beneath his desk as several kunai flew through the space previously occupied by his head.
"You sure you don't need to send a messenger?" the Hokage asked, poking at the small hearth fire with a stick. The inner garden of the Hokage Residence was a large section of land with vibrant plantlife as well as a large pond. Near the northern patio, the fire pit set a foot or so in the ground and allowed for outside cooking without disturbing the abundant nature. The garden also happened to be one of the few places Naruto felt comfortable eating alone.
"For what?" Sakura asked, carrying a large tray of salad and rice to the nearby table.
"Well," the Hokage said, drawing out the word. He eyed the curry, beginning to simmer in the large pot above the fire. "I wouldn't want MY wife dining alone with some handsome and dashing 'Kage."
Sakura looked away, frowning. Naruto nearly slapped himself for being so blatant. Why didn't he just outright ask if she was barren, too? Ugh. Thankfully, Sakura shook it off and gave a strained chuckle.
"I'll trust our chaperones to rein in our baser impulses, Hokage-sama," Sakura said, nodding toward Gamakichi and Gamadaiken.
Gamakichi, small and orange in a neatly cut blue vest, brandished a webbed thumbs up toward the two. Gamadaiken, a large, pale toad standing nearly three stories tall with two swords strapped to his back, merely blinked at his summoner and his guest. Gamakichi hopped his way across the garden to perch atop Naruto's head, his favorite nesting area, while Gamadaiken shuffled his hind legs a bit to remain comfortable in the slightly confining garden.
"That's a lot of faith to put in a couple toads, Sakura-chan," Naruto laughed, even as Gamakichi gave his scalp a small swat.
"Oi! What the hell's that supposed to mean, eh?" Gamakichi asked from atop the Hokage.
"What the hell do you think it means?! You're totally unreliable!" the Hokage shouted.
"What?! I'm only about six inches tall!" the small toad fumed.
"GRRRRRIIBBBBBBBIIIIIIITTTT," rumbled Gamadaiken.
"Maa, maa," Naruto waved dismissively at the large battle toad. "I didn't mean you."
"GRRRRIIIIBBBT," replied the mollified toad.
"I still don't know how you can understand those guys," Sakura said, shaking her head. "All the slugs can speak normally."
The Hokage shrugged. "I just can. I'm sure it's just part of the contract. Though it'd be just my luck to finally develop a bloodline ability, and it's just understanding toads."
"Oi!" shouted Gamakichi.
"Geez, you're sure touchy today," the Hokage grumbled, going so far as to pick up the small toad from his blonde roost and glare at him. Sakura smirked in amusement; none of her summons gave her the amount of grief as any one of Naruto's could.
"Oh reaaaaaally?" Naruto asked, grinning from toad to toad.
"What? What is it?" Sakura asked.
"Kichi's got girlfriend problems!"
"You're dead to me, Daiken! Do ya hear me! DEAD!" Gamakichi exclaimed, shaking a webbed fist at his older and vastly larger brother.
"Girlfriend problems?" Sakura repeated uncertainly. She knew that Katsuyu was the origin of the lesser slugs, but Sakura had never really thought about where baby slugs came from. But maybe it was just the nature of her particular animal summons. Either way, Sakura wasn't really sure she wanted to know what constituted toad courtship.
"GRRIIIIBBBBBBBIIIIT," said Gamadaiken, causing Naruto to snicker as the smaller toad hopped with the outrage that only he could express.
"Hey! I'm still young, alright!" the small orange toad yelled. "And I don't see you and whatshername with any tadpoles either!"
"Settle down, you two," Naruto chided, turning his attention to the now bubbling curry. "Some of us just ain't cut out for romance, is all. S'nothing wrong with that. The old hag and perverted hermit got along fine without it for years. Hell, even Kakashi-sensei is okay, living a sad, lonely, depressing, and empty life devoid of real human contact."
"Wow, Naruto," Sakura said, rolling her eyes. "Do you need help, or can you open your wrists by yourself?"
"What? I wasn't talkin' about me," Naruto said as he moved the curry pot from the fire to a small place stone. "Or did you forget about the whole 'handsome and dashing' bit earlier?"
"Oh, right," Sakura said, feigning recollection as she set out plates of rice and chopsticks. "That explains why your toads are getting more action than you are, huh?"
The Hokage had the decency to cough discretely into his fist and blush. Sakura thought it amazing that he still COULD blush. "I thought I was the one who trained with a pervert, Sakura-chan," he said after a moment of embarrassed decorum.
"Hokage-sama," Sakura said primly. "As a medic-ninja I think I've seen MORE than enough of the human anatomy for my liking."
"And how the hell do you know how much 'action,' as you like to call it, I get anyway? I don't recall that being part of the physical."
"Well," Sakura said, this time it was her turn to blush a bit. "It's not exactly a secret how much time you spend at the tower."
"Uh-huh. Ino's started up her damn betting pool again, hasn't she?"
"We just want you to find happiness, Naruto," Sakura said.
"Funny you should mention that since you've avoided talking about whatever's making you UNhappy, Sakura-chan," the Hokage said, ladeling the curry onto the plates. He picked up a set of chopsticks and silently dug into his meal, letting the burden of the conversation fall onto his friend's shoulders. Not that he particularly cared if the conversation continued, since he was already having a resurgence of doubt.
"Well, it's not the lack of sex, I'll tell you that much," Sakura said bitterly before tucking into her own meal. Her face set into a pinched scowl, she completely ignored the Hokage's ensuing bout of choking. Thankfully, the near asphixiation masked his embarrassment quite well.
Sakura chewed on her curry and rice vigorously before swallowing and locking her brilliant green eyes onto the Hokage's soft blue ones. Finally, her voice tense with the promise of violence, she spoke, "If I tell you this and you mock me, I'll hurt you. Do you understand me?"
Naruto blinked in shock. Sakura did not make idle threats and he couldn't ever remember hearing her use this tone of voice. Unsettled, the Sixth Hokage just nodded his head.
"Okay," Sakura confirmed and then took a deep, steadying breath. But instead of resolute, she looked fragile and hunted. "Things between me and Sasuke-kun. They aren't- We aren't doing so well."
'No shit,' Naruto thought, but wisely kept this to himself.
"You know that he wants to revive his clan," Sakura continued. "So we've been... trying. For a baby, I mean. I know we're still a little young, but we're ninjas and anything could happen, right? And, sure, it'll knock me off track for a little while, but that's okay. I want kids, too."
"But?" the Hokage asked, trying to gently keep her on topic.
"I- I don't think I can have kids, Naruto," Sakura said, the weight of her admission crushing. The Hokage could tell that speaking the words out loud had been costly.
"But you don't know, right, Sakura-chan?" he asked softly.
"Naruto, he doesn't just want an heir!" Sakura shouted, her eyes beginning to grow glassy with unshed tears. "He wants a litter! When we first got married he said he wanted eight kids! EIGHT! I bargained him down to three! But I'm running out of time, Naruto!"
For a moment, Naruto was taken aback. The sheer horror of having eight little Sasukes running around Konohagakure forced him to repress the shudder racking his spine. 'Though if they all had pink hair...' he mused for a second before remembering what else Sakura had said.
"You guys are still young. There's not a deadline for these things, Sakura-chan," he said. Sakura only responded by looking at her plate and shuffling around the curry and rice. "Is there?"
"He thinks," Sakura whispered, voice quivering. "I think he thinks I'm useless."
The Hokage winced at her choice of words. He had spent the majority of his ninja career listening to how much Sakura hated feeling useless. To her it was a curse greater than having any tailed-demon sealed within. Naruto couldn't help grinding his teeth and blaming his other teammate for the damage he could so casually inflict.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto said haltingly. God, why was HE always the one stuck in these awkward as hell positions? "I'm sure Sasuke cares for you very deeply," he said, skirting the issue somewhat.
"Every morning. Every morning he asks. Even if it's not out loud, he hints at it," she said, her words clipped but starting to rise in volume. Naruto stared in shock, despite knowing how direct the Uchiha could be. Gamakichi and Gamadaiken traded unsettled glances and moved away from the emotional scene spiraling out of control. "And every morning I have to tell him no. No, Sasuke-kun, I'm still not knocked up. Nope, better luck next time. No new Uchiha Clan yet! Afraid, I'm still useless, Sasuke-kun!"
Sakura slowly moved a hand to the fingers gripping her jaw, blinking rapidly as if waking from a dream. The tears she'd held back finally fell, but she blinked them away, unsure of what was going on. Gentle pressure on her chin guided her vision back to the Sixth Hokage's scowl. Sakura noted, in a somewhat offhand manner, that his eyes were still blue even though she could see his enlarged canines and thicker cheek-stripes.
"You are not now," Naruto said, struggling to speak though his anger (at BOTH his ex-teammates) and his changed dentures. "Nor have you ever been useless."
Sakura blinked in response as he smoothed some of her hair out of her eyes.
"And I can think of a helluva lot worse fates than having to make love to you, Sakura-chan," he added softly, letting his features subside into a small smile.
Sakura stared at him as his eyes remained that familiar, tranquil blue and his features lost their savage countenance. She felt her lips twitch into a smile and whispered her thanks. Tearing away from those blue eyes she stood and left the Hokage sitting with his curry and his toads. For several long minutes, there was only silence as the azure sky bled into vibrant pink and violet colors.
"GRRRRRIIBBBBBBBIIIIIIITTTT GRRIBBBIT," Gamadaiken offered, breaking the silence.
"No kiddin'," replied Gamakichi hopping over to the abandonned plate of curry. "But considering who he trained with, ya gotta give him a handicap. Still, pretty smooth, bro."
Letting his shoulders slump, the Hokage prepared a larger offering of curry for Gamadaiken and then returned to his own meal. After a contemplative bite, he muttered, "It's times like these I think the ol' hag was onto something with the alcoholism."
Matsuri and Hibari shook their heads as they marched into the Sixth Hokage's office, arms full of papers and books. When the two friends had become chuunin, they had expected something a bit more exciting than gopher work at the Tower. Sure, it was an opportunity to make in-roads with the administration and perhaps even soak in some of the ambient knowledge from the more seasoned ninjas. Unfortunately, the only soaking that had been going on was in the hot springs after a long day of toting paperwork.
Hibari blew her hanging brown bangs out of her face and slumped when she saw the Hokage staring out the window, all of the paperwork on his desk processed since the last trip. Matsuri, the more aggressive of the two, growled beneath her dark dreadlocks and slammed her stack of papers onto a clear corner of the desk. Dammit! She was going to have carry all this crap downstairs!
Naruto idly turned away from the window to take in his two chuunin helpers. He didn't know if it was just an upsurge in kunoichi enrollment shortly after he'd graduated or Jiraiya was somehow pulling strings, but ever since he'd been in office, Naruto's assistants had always been girls. He smiled at them, not unkindly.
"I was spacing out again, wasn't I?" he asked, reaching up to scratch the back of his head.
"Er, no offense, Hokage-sama," Hibari said, cutting off her friend before she could begin her rant. "But you seem to be going through the paperwork unusually fast the past couple days."
Naruto blinked. That was a first.
"So, you're saying I'm doing too good a job?" the Hokage asked, grinning as one chuunin wilted and the other's forehead sported a massive, pulsing vein.
"You're killing us!" Matsuri shouted, slamming her fists onto the desk. "Do you know how many stairs we have to go up?! You're never this fast!"
"Calm down, Matsuri," the sandy haired woman pleaded with her friend. "You know what Anko-sensei used to say about your temper."
"How 'bout you girls take a break, eh?" the Hokage suggested. "If I get through with this batch, I'll just send some clones down with the papers."
"Thank you, Hokage-sama!" Hibari exclaimed bowing. After a quick elbow to the ribs, Matsuri followed suit. When the two finally left the office, Naruto allowed himself to turn back towards the window and bask in the sunlight with his eyes closed.
"Ah, I see you're as busy as ever," came a sardonic voice from behind him. "This must be why you're taking so long, eh, dead last?"
Naruto kept his eyes closed and allowed a small frown to play across his lips. "It's not exactly like there's a Steal Someone's Wife Technique out there, you know. Trust me, I looked."
"Still, you're taking too long."
"Yeesh, you really ARE on a schedule, aren't you?"
Sasuke sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Let's just say that there are... circumstances that would make things much easier if you moved a little faster."
"'Circumstances?'" the Hokage parrotted, swinging his chair around suddenly to snarl at the last surviving Uchiha. Naruto's twitching blue eyes scanned Sasuke's face before he finally whispered, "You cheated on Sakura-chan."
"Listen, Naruto, it's not-"
Sasuke's words never left his throat as he felt large, powerful hands clamp around his neck and his head slam into the office doors. Gagging, he couldn't help but chastize himself for forgetting just WHY the dead last was Hokage in the first place.
"What," Naruto breathed, allowing some of the fox demon's chakra to pour out. "Did I tell you would happen to you if you hurt her?"
"Didn't," Sasuke choked out, "cheat. Not sleeping. Together."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Naruto asked, setting the pale would-be clan leader on his feet.
"We're not sleeping together," he spat, as he massaged his bruising throat. "As in, not having sex. Not that it wasn't good, but it just... became a chore. As it is, we barely share the sheets now."
"Again with your sex life," the Hokage muttered, wincing at the new information. "And only you would turn it into a chore. But hey, that's a good thing, right? What with me trying to 'steal her away' and all?"
"No, it's not," Sasuke said, glaring at the village leader. "Don't you understand anything?"
"Apparently not," Naruto said, rubbing his eyes with his palms.
"Because if you don't win her over first, and she goes to you after the break-up, then you're the rebound guy. And that never lasts."
Naruto stared at Sasuke for a moment. Then he asked, "How do you even know this shit?"
"I have my sources."
"More like you've been reading those 'Icha Icha' books again, haven't you?"
"A source is a source."
"Oh god, my life is a bad porn novel written by the Perverted Hermit," the Hokage bemoaned as he shuffled over towards his office chair. "This is all your fault, Sasuke."
"Yes! If you hadn't gone to Otogakure, Sakura-chan would've realized how much of a jerk you were earlier and we wouldn't be in this mess!"
"I-" Sasuke started to argue then stopped to think about that line of reasoning. While he didn't necessarily agree with the 'jerk' part, Sasuke acknowledged that maybe this whole ordeal could've been avoided. Of course, there would've been no need for leaving if Itachi hadn't slaughtered his family. And for some reason, blaming this whole mess on Itachi felt both familiar and comforting to Sasuke. He said, "Nevermind blame. You need to get to business."
At his friend's choice of words, the Hokage let his head thump the desk with a little more force than gravity normally supplied. Finally he said, "Why don't we just tell Sakura-chan?"
"Are you STUPID?" Sasuke sneered.
"We're gonna hafta tell her eventually, you know," Naruto said, absently noting that his forehead seemed to have worn a small indentation into the desk. Or maybe it had been beaten into it by Hokages past. If his tenure were anything to judge by, Naruto could easily envision such precedence.
"Hn. YOU can. I want to live, personally. Hell, you might as well tell her I slept with Ino."
"YOU SLEPT WITH-?!"
"IT'S AN ANALOGY, MORON!"
The two ninjas stood in the office, letting the silence grow as they thought about how complicated the whole ordeal had become. The Hokage sighed and slid into his chair.
"You know," Sasuke said, hesitantly, "This isn't easy."
"When is it ever?" Naruto asked, as he turned back to smile at his friend.
Most of the time, Sakura loved drawing pediatric duty. The workload was pretty light, consisting mostly of academy student accidents from practicing their beginner techniques or pre-academy tots with light sprains or colds. Sure, it was hell on the immune system, but Sakura had yet to meet a child who wasn't instantly fascinated by her bubble gum-colored hair. She also got to talk sillier than she did to most of her other patients.
But today, Sakura just wasn't feeling her usual enthusiasm. Her cheeks were aching from having to fake her smiles all day. Not that the kids weren't great, but she didn't want them to think it was their fault she was unhappy.
There was something Sakura never thought she'd hear herself say. Or think. But damned if her Inner Sakura weren't starting to voice that same thought. Which was funny, considering that Sakura's inner voice had been fairly quiet for the past few years.
But the past year had seen Inner Sakura's return with a vengeance. Particularly after an argument with Sasuke that had resulted in Sakura agreeing meekly all the while her mind struggled with the imagery of her beating her husband with a frying pan.
Sakura spun around, jolted out of her thoughts by whomever had decided to shout her name. Standing right behind her, was the Sixth Hokage, looking furious enough to cow the Death God himself.
"Hokage-sama?" she asked uncertainly. Rarely had Sakura seen Naruto so angry, and she couldn't really ever remember him directing his anger at HER. It was more than a little disconcerting.
With a gutteral growl, the Hokage grabbed Sakura by the wrist. Suddenly there were trees and the gentle sounds of a stream nearby. Sakura had to close her eyes until they could adjust to the harsh sunlight. Still blind, she heard Naruto chuckle.
"Sorry 'bout that, Sakura-chan," he said, all evidence of his temper having vanished.
"Gah," Sakura responded, her first attempt to eye the outside world painful. She should have something done about that fluorescent lighting. "What the hell, Naruto?!"
"It's lunchtime, I thought we could both use a break," Naruto said, tugging her in some direction by her still captive wrist. "'Specially you, Sakura-chan."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she managed, rapidly blinking her restored vision into focus.
"I've been getting reports concerning your performance," he said, serious and concerned.
"Reports? From who?!"
"Sakura-chan," the Hokage began wearily, "three bawling kids were in my office worried that they somehow pissed you off. I'd call that a concern."
"Oh god," Sakura said, bringing up a hand to hide her face. "I'm sorry if the kids bothered you, Hokage-sama, but I WAS being pretty damn cheerful. I'm sure they're just overreacting."
"When Nara Shikayumi finds something more troublING than troubleSOME, I don't think it's a four-year-old being sensitive," the Hokage said, crossing his arms.
"Wow. That is bad," Sakura muttered, reaching up to scratch the back of her head.
"Yup," the Hokage nodded, grinning at the familiar gesture she'd adopted. "That's why I've assigned myself a super secret triple-S-Class mission to take you to lunch."
"Well, it's not ramen, so god only knows what could go wrong, right?" Naruto said, the grin on his face undermining the attempt at seriousness.
"And you couldn't have just asked like a normal human being?" Sakura chided while taking in the fresh air.
"Normal's for chuunin, Sakura-chan," Naruto said dismissively. "Now, er, you may want to hold on tight. It's gonna be a bit of a jump."
"Where the hell exactly are we going?"
"Inari's running this awesome inn over in Wave Country," Naruto said, grabbing both of her wrists this time. "The eel cuts they have are enough to give ramen a run for its money. But, uh, don't tell ramen I said that."
"I'll try to be discrete, Hokage-sama," Sakura said, rolling her eyes before realization dawned on her. "Waitaminute. WAVE COUNT-?!"
And with a slight lurch in her senses, Sakura found herself holding onto the Hokage's arms inside a beautifully ornate hotel lobby. Polished hardwood flooring coolly met her feet where but a few moments ago tall springy grass tickled her toes. The tangy scent of sea water hung in the air, enhancing the newfound aromas of something very appetizing in the next room. Sakura felt her stomach twinge in anticipation.
"Naruto! Sakura!" said Inari as he bustled into the lobby from a curtained doorway. The Wave Country boy had grown up and traded in his fishing hat for a small, white chef's hat and a stained apron. He gave the two Leaf Ninjas a wide grin and motioned for them to head through the doorway. "Glad you could make it! Mom still worries about you guys, ya know."
"Then tell her to put a little extra sauce on everything this time," Naruto said. "I'm wasting away in that office."
"Naruto?" Sakura asked as she followed him into a large open dining area. Most of the tables were full with colorful and chatting patrons. A few interrupted the two on their way to say hello and proffered their thanks for services from years past. When they were seated in a small booth, she pressed again. "How did we get all the way here in Wave Country?"
"Oh, that," Naruto said, shrugging as if it weren't a big deal. "Well, after I learned the Hiraishin technique, I had the summoning seals placed in a buncha different places. There's a path of them set the maximum distance apart that leads to here. Same with a path to Sunagakure and Iwagakure. That way, if I want to talk to Gaara or Hikaru, I can pop over."
Sakura bit her lip as she digested this new information. "Okay," she said after a moment. "I can understand using it for Suna and Iwa, but here?"
"Well," Naruto drawled, turning away with a sheepish grin. "There's also some set paths to, uh, some less vital places. You know, to throw people off and stuff."
Sakura blinked and then comprehension flooded her. "You set up teleport paths to all your favorite restaurants, didn't you?" she said, her tone less questioning and more accusing.
"What? I would never!" Naruto proclaimed, indignant. He crossed his arms and huffed loudly at the criticism.
"Not ALL of them, Sakura-chan," he muttered.
"Right. Just tell me what's good here so I don't have to think about your flagrant abuse of your power," Sakura said, rolling her eyes.
"It's not like I do this every day or something," he continued in his defense. "And the freshwater eel is great. Tsunami makes this spicy sauce that's awesome."
"I don't really like spicy foods," Sakura said uncertainly.
"Feh. You don't eat spicy foods, Sasuke doesn't eat sweets. No wonder you guys are a mess, you never eat anything GOOD."
"Thank you for summing up my marriage so wonderfully, Naruto," Sakura said, frost practically hanging in the air from her icy tone.
"Well, it's true," the Hokage said defiantly. "Neither one of you likes to explore or add any variety to anything. EVER."
"That isn't what's wrong, Naruto."
"Really?" Naruto asked, picking up a menu. He already had a good idea of what he wanted to order, but the small booklet provided a makeshift barrier between him and his rosette companion. "When was the last time you learned a non-medic jutsu?"
"I don't know," Sakura said, following his lead and picking up her own menu. "Not that it matters, you can't heal people with Doton jutsu."
"And you can't hold back a mob of missing-nins with chakra scalples," Naruto retorted.
"Fine, how many healing jutsu do you know, then?" Sakura spat back.
"The Nine-Tails keeps me pretty healthy," Naruto said, setting his menu down and staring Sakura in the eyes. "But I'M the one who has to watch out for the people precious to me."
"Oh," Sakura said, averting her eyes.
"Besides, I'd be a pretty crappy protector if all I could do was blow shit up," he continued, grinning as a small, harried-looking waitress approached their booth. The Hokage smiled widely as she nervously greeted them and in a slightly wavering voice told them the day's specials. "I'll have the eel meal set, but, uh, can I just have the miso soup instead eel liver?"
"Of course," the waitress said, bowing slightly and nearly dropping the small writing pad in her hands. "And you, miss?"
"I'm not really sure-"
"Just give her a number five, if that's okay, Akane-chan," Naruto said, interrupting Sakura's order. Akane flushed at the familiarity and bowed quickly before making an equally hasty departure with their menus.
"What the hell did you just order?"
"If I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise, now would it?" Naruto replied, grinning.
"And what was her problem?"
"Don't you remember, Sakura-chan?" the Hokage asked. He huffed in mock agitation at her obviously confused stare. "Our first C-ranked mission was here. Tazuna-san finished his bridge hoping that it would help their economy after Gatou cut them off. Well, since Gatou wasn't alive to keep up the pressure, things went back to normal, but they also had their bridge to improve things. Hell, by the time I finally made chuunin, things here were booming. Team 7 are all seen as heroes here, Sakura-chan."
"I didn't know," Sakura said.
"Don't worry about it," Naruto said. "I wouldn't have known if I didn't drop by once or twice a year."
"So that was some bit of hero worship?" Sakura asked with a raised eyebrow. When the Hokage just nodded, she continued, "So how do you know her name, eh?"
"Because Inari has a big ol' crush on her," he said, grinning. "He's such a chicken, I swear. The only time he ever asks her out or anything is after I've come by and flirted a little."
"Wow, skilled ninja AND match-maker," Sakura snorted. "How do you do it, Naruto?"
"I don't know, Sakura-chan," Naruto said, shrugging. "I guess I'm just awesome and the rest falls into place."
"Like your modesty, right?"
Naruto shot her a lopsided grin and shrugged in a manner that said 'hey, when ya got it...' The Hokage was spared physical injury when Akane arrived at the table carrying trays of steaming food. Plates and ornamental dishes clattered as the nervous waitress arranged the meal before her guests.
"Wow," Naruto said. "That was fast."
"Inari-kun wanted to make sure your food was really fresh," Akane said, fidgeting with her tray for a moment. "Let me know if you need anything else," she squeaked before dashing back toward the kitchen doors.
"Looks good, don't it, Sakura-chan?" Naruto smiled, licking his lips as he separated his chopsticks. The Sixth Hokage closed his eyes and made a show of inhaling the sweet aroma from his barbecued eel and sides. "Mmm-mm!"
"Naruto?" Sakura asked, cutting into his reverie. "What. The hell. Is that?"
Naruto looked past his own meal and towards the small assortment of eel, fish and vegatables. Small slivers of egg were arranged in a jagged zig-zagging line over seafood cuts artfully placed to resemble a face. A face with a yellow, pointy hairdo and six lines suspiciously resembling whiskers. The Hokage grinned, his teeth eerily matching the shape of the white radish on her plate.
"It's the number five," he said. "The Uzumaki Special!"
"Naruto," Sakura said, her voice flat. "I'm not eating anything that looks like your face."
"You sure? It's really tasty," the Hokage said. "Look, you can even play with it!"
And with that comment he leaned over the table and made quick, precise gestures with his chopsticks. Sakura gaped at the leader of her village abandonning all etiquette and messing up her food. When he sat back down, Sakura just focused a glare on his grinning countenance.
"See? Now you've made your Hokage sad," Naruto said, pouting and pointing at her plate. Sure enough, Sakura noticed that the features on her plate had somehow been transformed into a frown and pout. How the hell did he get vegetables to look like they were POUTING, fer cryin' out loud? "Eat me, Sakura-chan," Naruto said trying to make his voice faint and echoey through his chuckles. "Eeeeeeat meeeeeee."
"Fine," Sakura relented, picking up her chopsticks. Grudgingly she captured one of the pickled vegetables making up the fox-like eyes and began to eat. Sakura's eyes widened as she continued to chew before swallowing. The pink-haired medic quickly nabbed different items from her plate, almost wolfing them dowm. After sampling a couple of the 'whiskers,' Sakura hummed her delight, "Mmm! Naruto, this is delicious!"
"Please refer back to my previous statement about me being awesome," he said, grinning widely as he plucked morsels from his own dish. Sakura rolled her eyes and continued eating. With the Hokage's running commentary on the emotional state of his edible counterpart, however, a smile was never far from her lips.
"I'm home," Sakura said as she unfastened the clasps of her boots. Leaning against the wall for support, Sakura looked at the papers in her hand as she shook off her footwear. The remainder of her day had been great, with only treating a few sprained ankles and a broken arm, but the real surprise came just as she was leaving. Apparently, someone had given her recent patients the idea that Sakura needed some cheering up. So each of the kids she'd treated in the morning had returned with some drawing or painting.
Sakura had spent an extra hour or so talking and playing with the kids at the hospital. She'd hung up a few of the pictures in her office with the promise that the rest were going on her refrigerator at home. One particularly sunny picture featuring Sakura and a puppy (well, she was told it was a puppy) brought a smile to her face as her other boot fell to the entryway floor.
Finally unshod, Sakura sighed in relief and scrunched her toes, enjoying the sensations of the floor against her feet. Bending to straighten up her boots, she noticed a familiar pair of ninja sandals. Sakura felt her smile fade as she considered the lack of reply to her return home.
Not that she really felt at home in the sprawling Uchiha residence. While the rest of the Uchiha district had been sold off piecemeal to various entreprenuers and hopeful residents, Sasuke had held fast to the main house. And all that it encompassed.
One of those things had apparently been silence.
Sliding into some house slippers, Sakura padded across the living area and into the small study area. Behind a small mountain of aging scrolls and decrepit books sat her husband. A pensive frown crinkled Sasuke's brow as he pored over the nigh illegible scroll before him. Sakura lost the remainder of her smile to a frown as she cleared her throat.
"Sorry I'm late," she said, her tone somewhat flat and not altogether sincere.
"I'm used to it," Sasuke said, his eyes briefly flicking toward hers before returning to the work at hand.
Sakura grunted a noncommittal noise as she turned away and made her way toward the kitchen. After acquiring a can of soda from the fridge and a deep, cleansing breath, Sakura focused once more on her gifts and how best to arrange them across her appliances. The picture with her and the mutated puppy would go on top, she decided with a grin. While perhaps not the best drawing, it had the brightest colors. A portrait of Sakura with a giant purple slug would go just below it.
Sakura tried to recall if she'd ever summoned a purple slug before. Katsuyu was blue and so were most of her other summons. "Oh well, it's pretty," Sakura said out loud, voicing her reasoning. The other two drawings were of slightly higher quality, probably from Shikayumi and that academy student. The first featured a small litter of kittens, each one an odd color of the rainbow. The second caused Sakura to pause for a moment.
Displayed on the paper was an image of Sakura laughing as a large green toad sat on the Sixth Hokage. Whoever the artist was had apparently used some pictures for reference, because somehow she or he had captured Naruto's trademark pout almost perfectly. Sakura's portrait was a little more generic, but then again, she was supposed to be laughing at the trapped blonde. Sakura chuckled as she turned the page over to see who'd drawn it.
It had been Nara Shikayumi who'd done it. The little girl had also left her cheerful message: "The Hokage makes everyone smile."
"Yeah," Sakura agreed, smiling as she flipped the image to see the cartoonishly squashed Naruto. "I guess he does at that."
Sakura jumped a little at the voice right behind her. She was an elite jounin and somehow Sasuke STILL managed to constantly sneak up on her. It was just another small thing Sakura hated about the Uchiha residence -- no one caught her by surprise outside of it.
"Oh, some of the kids I treated today made me some pictures," Sakura said, turning to smile at her husband before pinning the remaining pictures onto the refrigerator. Shikayumi's picture displaced the one with puppies for the top spot. "Shikayumi, you know, Temari and Shikamaru's girl? She made this one of Naruto being sat on by one of his summons. She also wrote a little note about how he's always good for a laugh."
"Ah," Sasuke agreed, looking at the colorful drawings now adorning his fridge. He remembered when his own pictures had hung there and, for a moment, considered mentioning adoption to Sakura. Considered backing out of this whole plot in which he'd entangled his two best friends. But Sasuke had considered the option more than a few times, and knew that he needed blood to bind him to any children. He needed something of himself, of his mother and father, to pass on. It just wouldn't be the same otherwise.
"So," Sakura said, clapping her hands together. "What's for dinner?"
Sasuke blinked at her, not really understanding. Finally, because he knew he still had to voice some of his thoughts, "I don't understand."
"Well, what did you want for dinner?" Sakura asked. "I was thinking maybe we could go out for once."
"Yeah, maybe to that place that serves all that Lightning Country food," Sakura said, trying to muster up as much enthusiasm as she could.
"You don't like spicy food," Sasuke replied.
"Well, I was thinking of changing my opinion."
"It gives you gas."
Sakura opened her mouth to protest, but Sasuke was already heading towards the rice cooker. Deflating a bit, Sakura opened the fridge and fished out the ingredients for their usual Wednesday faire. As the door closed she caught sight of the Hokage under his toad and smiled a little wistfully.
Setting the food on the counter for preparation Sakura was subjected to a derisive snort from her Inner Sakura, who added, 'Naruto loves gas.'
Sakura couldn't help but giggle and earn a short glance from her confused husband.
One of the first experiments Naruto tried when he became the Sixth Hokage was to use his shadow clones to help him go through his paperwork faster. What Naruto found was that while he could remember processing everything that went by him, there was no sense of time to it. Anything that referred to an earlier document lost its context since the clone that read it may or may not have been dispersed and Naruto may or may not have assimilated its knowledge. Admittedly, the Hokage did have clones going through the archives and histories at all hours of the day. But all of that knowledge could be placed categorically in the BEFORE section of his memory.
So, Naruto faced his paperwork in the method of his predecessors: one at a time.
But that didn't mean he had to be bored out of his skull while doing it.
"Hey, bro," Gamakichi said, hopping onto his head. "Me and the guys were wonderin' when you was gettin' outta here?"
Naruto looked from the small orange toad to the dozens of eyes around the office. Feeling in need of some company, Naruto'd summonned every toad he could without overstuffing the office. The thirty-some-odd toads had kept him entertained as they chattered and croaked away the morning hours. Or rather, HOUR, singular.
"'Kichi, it's only nine," the Hokage said. "I've still got at least another stack of scrolls to go through before I head down to the mission hall."
"But it's so boring!"
"Well, that's why I summonned you guys," the Hokage said, turning back to his scrolls. "To jazz things up a bit."
"But 'Tatsu won't shut up about his new vest. 'Geez, just 'cause pops wants him to look respectable, we gotta suffer," Gamakichi whined.
"Didn't he give you a tanto or somethin' last year?" Gamagyuudan asked. The large orange battle toad hopped closer to the desk, letting his iron gauntlets clatter against the floor. Several of the smaller toads hopped onto his head and the open areas of Naruto's desk at the question.
"Yeah," Gamakichi muttered, uncomfortable with his sudden popularity. "But I at least knew when to shut up about it."
"Sure, after Hebimushi threatened to swallow you whole," Naruto said, grinning as he felt the perched toad flinch. It had taken years of effort for the toad and snake summons to be civil towards one another after the enmity of their former masters. Though it didn't stop the occassional taunt or threat.
"Hey! He was the one with the attitude!" Gamakichi shouted, thumping the Hokage on the head. Naruto frowned at the abuse before noting the varying different nods from the rest of his friends.
"I guess it's true what they say," came an amused, feminine voice from the office doors. Summons and summoner alike looked up to see Yamanaka Ino strolling into the office, her ANBU tiger mask hanging from her left hip. "The summons DO take after their master."
"Since when did we get a master?" Gamatatsu asked, turning to look at his older brothers.
"I think she means me," Naruto said, a wry grin on his face. Nodding towards the blonde kunoichi, he continued, "What'd ya need, Ino-chan?"
"Can we get a little privacy, please?" Ino asked in an impatient tone, indicating the crowd of amphibians.
The Hokage nodded, face turning serious. "I'll see you guys later," he said before dismissing the toads in a giant cloud of ninja smoke. Facing Ino again, he asked, "What's the situation?"
"I don't know," Ino said, crossing her arms. "What IS the situation?"
Naruto opened his mouth for a moment before closing it in confusion. Ino's body language conveyed a certain amount of frustration and anger, but at what he had no idea. God, he hoped this wasn't another one of those woman things. Finally, he said, "That's what I asked you."
"Don't act like you don't know," she said.
Shit! It WAS one of those woman things! Shit! Tsunade and Shizune had tried their best to teach him just how taciturn a kunoichi could be, but those lessons had always, without fail, ended in him getting a fist to his skull. And while Ino couldn't hit that hard, she was vicious and would probably aim for somewhere a lot more sensitive.
"I give up, Ino," the Hokage said, at last. "I can't read between the lines. Just tell me what it is you think I've done."
"You," Ino said, pointing at him. "And Sakura. I know what's going on and I don't like it."
Naruto blinked. She knew? 'How the hell could she-? Sasuke would never-! Wait a minute. What the hell does she think she know?'
"And just what do you think is going on, Ino?"
"You think I haven't noticed the amount of time you've spent with ol' Forehead? The lunches? The dinners? She even giggled when she talked about the last budget meeting!"
"No!" Ino roared, slamming her hands onto his desk. "But she blushed and looked away! That's, like, ten times worse!"
"Oh," the Hokage said, feeling confused. It felt great to know that Sakura-chan was thinking about him, and in ways to make her blush. But he didn't like being interrogated by her best friend, especially since he doubted he could entrust her with Sasuke's plot. "Well, it was a pretty embarrassing meeting," he said, pulling out his Kage-level evasion skills...
"Embarrassing, my ass!"
...and failing spectacularly. Hmmm. Waitaminnit!
"Sheesh, Ino," Naruto said, throwing his hands up theatrically. This ALWAYS worked on Tsunade, and she was friggin' Legendary. "Maybe she just wasn't feeling fresh or something? You know, girl problems and stuff."
Naruto gave his ANBU commander a smile and a shrug and basked in the silence. That was, until, he saw the vein on Ino's forehead begin to bulge. Then, he could actually HEAR the blood rhythmically pounding through her enraged face. It was fascinating to watch the blonde kunoichi's lips snarl as she fought to control her fury.
"I can't stay in this room much longer without killing you," Ino said, her words soft and venomous. "But let me just tell you that if you hurt her, no funny hat in the world will save you."
The Hokage raised an eyebrow as Ino struggled to not say more. Quivering with suppressed homicidal intentions, she made an about-face and marched out of the Hokage's office. Naruto wasn't surprised when the doors slammed hard enough to rattle their hinges. When the coast was clear, Naruto sighed in relief and slumped back in his chair.
"Bro? What'd you mean by 'feeling fresh?'" Gamatatsu asked from the Hokage's pocket. Naruto looked down, surprised. He thought he'd dismissed them all.
"Ask your dad," he replied before dispelling the small, yellow toad.
"Perfect," Sakura said, nodding in satisfaction as she settled the last paper lantern into position. Time had not been an ally that evening, but Uchiha Sakura had triumphed yet again. She smiled as she surveyed the living and dining areas of the Uchiha clan home. Similar paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and walls, a few scattered along the floor, creating a path of soft light from the entrance to the low sitting table. Their finest dishes, a beautifully lacquered set of forest green with cherry blossom designs from Sakura's mother, and scattered blossom leaves bathed in the flickering golden glow of lantern light.
"Ambiance, check," Sakura said, nodding once more. She quickly padded over to the kitchen. A brief inspection reported that, yes, the tonkatsu was evenly cooked and staying warmed. Sakura smiled and went to the bedroom to change.
Holding the sea green kimono, Sakura watched the vibrant silk shimmer as the woven fan patterns emerged and disappeared like stars on a cloudy night. It was gorgeous and Sakura decided to ask Ino where she'd gotten it. As she slipped into the luxuriant silk, Sakura also decided to ask what the hell had made Ino decide that NOW was the time for a birthday present to make up for all their years as rivals.
The clothes and a couple offhand comments on marriage had given Sakura the idea for the surprise dinner. Sakura hadn't actually seen much of Sasuke lately, which didn't worry her since he COULD get a touch obsessive from time to time. But there just seemed to be some sort of... distance now. Not that theirs was an effusive, chatty relationship, she mused. But there was a difference between silent companionship and just silence.
Finished with her obi, Sakura stepped over to her small table mirror. She quickly pulled her hair into a tight bun with a single pin to hold it in place. Smiling, she pulled a few strands loose for an artfully dissheveled appearance. A hint of perfume and some light lipstick and Sakura made her way back to the living and dining areas to wait for her husband.
With the first sip of sake, Sakura decided to be a little daring and pull her kimono askance -- just enough to expose the pale flesh where her neck and shoulder met. A couple hours and a liberal amount of sake later, the robes were hanging onto her shoulders by hope alone. Sakura watched the wall clock slowly tick away the seconds, not noticing her own teeth grinding in sync. Watching the last of the paper lanterns go out, Sakura heard the sounds of the front door opening.
'Well,' she thought trying to banish all the things she wanted to shout. 'This is still salvageable. He didn't know I was planning anything. It's okay.'
With no trace of footfall, Sasuke entered the room to see his wife partially undressed, surrounded by little boxes and some stray leaves. Quirking an eyebrow at the state of her appearance, Sasuke asked, "So... what'd I miss?"
'And now he must die,' seethed her Inner Sakura. Sakura just looked at the empty sake bottle, wishing there was at least another drink left. The whole ordeal might have been easier to endure had her buzz not worn off half an hour ago.
"Oh, nothing much," Sakura said, glaring at the table. "I just thought it would be nice to have a romantic dinner."
"But it's dark," Sasuke said.
"Yes," Sakura said, sliding her glare from the elaborate dinner placements to Sasuke. "Yes, it is."
"I thought you'd be working late again," Sasuke said, his voice softer, perhaps even apologetic.
"It looks very nice."
"Thank you," Sakura said, looking back at the table. The tonkatsu, greens and rice were sitting in disarray, hunger having overcome Sakura long before. Despite the food having no doubt cooled by now, Sakura rallied her confidence for a final charge, and said, "Would you like me to reheat you a plate?"
"No, I already ate," he said walking toward the study. He stopped before leaving the room and turned, watching the one woman who'd never given up on him slouch in the shadows. He felt his throat constrict, but he said the words anyway, "But it does look very nice."
Sakura nodded as he left.
Some days Ino really hated being Sakura's best friend.
Though both kunoichi were jounin and Ino had been a captain in Konohagakure's ANBU for a few years, the blonde kunoichi still had to force sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes. Panting, Ino glared across the ruined training ground, scanning the upturned earth for any sign of her pink-haired opponent. Ino fought back her frustration -- she had trained damned hard to get where she was and here Sakura was mangling the landscape like it was tissue paper.
The low rumbling of displaced earth interrupted Ino's thoughts as she scrambled to relative safety.
"Ack!" she yelled, the ground beneath her feet shifting and hurling her toward the treeline. Hitting the grass with a roll, Ino shouted, "I give, Forehead! I give! Knock it off, already!"
Looking back towards the training area, Ino saw her petal-hued friend panting with clenched fists and a thunderous scowl. For a brief moment, the ANBU captain feared that Sakura would continue her assault. Thankfully, instead of smashing Ino's skull like a melon, Sakura slumped over to rest her hands on her knees. Gasping for breath, Sakura replied, "Sorry... Ino... Got carried... Away."
Ino felt a twinge of bitterness, contemplating just how strong SHE'D be if she'd had a Hokage to train under instead of just her dad and her lazy-ass jounin-sensei. With a weary sigh, Ino let it go and just made her way over the uneven terrain.
"Mind telling me what crawled up your ass this morning?" Ino asked, brushing loose strands of hair out of her face. She was then able to see the murderous glare sent her way with both eyes.
"There is nothing up my ass, Piggy," Sakura snarled, flexing her gloved hands instinctively. Sakura had a good idea of what she wanted to crush next.
"Then what the hell's your problem?!" Ino shot back, standing straight and setting her shoulders firmly. She continued, "I gave you my best infiltration and seduction clothes, dammit! You shouldn't even be walking!"
Sakura's brow furrowed in confusion before all the blood fled her face as she understood her friend's comments. Immediately after the horrified expression left, she felt her face heat up in embarrassment.
"You didn't break Sasuke-kun, did you?" Ino asked, a teasing grin on her lips.
"Hardly," Sakura spat back. "Though I'm thinking of skipping straight to the homicide part."
"Ouch," Ino said, wincing. "What happened? No cuddling?"
"Try no talking, no touching, no giving a shit," Sakura said darkly. "Though apparently I looked 'nice.' That's a fucking relief."
Ino flinched at her friend's cursing. She had been pissing Sakura off for years, so Ino knew exactly how threadbare Sakura's patience had to be for her to start swearing.
"Oh, I'm sorry. It was all 'very nice.' I'm completely over-reacting."
"'Very nice?' In that dress? That's it?" Ino asked, disbelief forcing her voice to higher and more shrill octaves. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Though after waiting three hours, I was barely in it," Sakura muttered, looking down and kicking at some loose rubble.
"Sakura," Ino said seriously, grabbing the medic ninja's shoulders. "That dress is like a get-out-of-abstinence-free card. I've been covered in gore while wearing that dress and STILL had people hitting on me. Ebisu's even hit on me. It's foolproof."
"Wait, isn't Ebisu...?" Sakura asked, looking up and making a limp-wristed motion.
"Foolproof," Ino repeated, nodding.
"Shit," Sakura said, looking down again. "Then what the hell does last night mean?"
Ino hesitated for a moment before replying, "I couldn't tell you, Sakura."
"Naruto would probably know," Sakura said, turning in the direction of the Administrative Tower. Ino grimaced. That was not the result she'd had in mind when she'd forced the dress into Sakura's hands.
"I don't know, Sakura," Ino said, hoping to keep her clear of the Hokage. "It's not like they're the type to share feelings and stuff."
"True," Sakura responded, crossing her arms in uncertainty. She stood amidst the broken training ground for a moment lost in thought. Then, with a smirk, she said, "But I'm sure Naruto'd be willing to beat it out of him."
"Sakura, you can't just sic the Hokage on your husband because he's being an ass," Ino said, matter-of-factly.
"Maybe not," came the pink-haired ninja's reply. "But he's still a good listener. Even if he does have ramen on the brain, you'd be surprised how helpful he can be."
As her friend marched out of the field, Ino furrowed her brow and crossed her arms. The difference in attitude and gait just at the mere mention of the Sixth Hokage bothered the ANBU captain. Turning to glare at the sixth face on the cliffside monument, Ino muttered, "That's what I'm afraid of."
"I'm sick of these D-ranked shit missions! Give us a real mission, you blonde jackass!"
Naruto looked up from the lists and boxes of mission scrolls on the table to watch Team 3's jounin-sensei gag the mouth of Umino Saeko. Her two genin teammates paled and shook with fear as Sarutobi Konohamaru wrestled the violet-haired girl to the ground. When Saeko flipped the Hokage the bird, the taller boy fainted and Konohamaru brought out a large bundle of rope.
"Sorry 'bout that, boss!" the jounin said, offering a weak and obviously distressed smile before concentrating on hog-tying his vulgar student. "Crazy kid! Do you know who you're talking to?! Aha! Just a sec, Hokage-sama! Stupid genins! I should have failed you all! One more minute, boss!"
"Take your time, Konohamaru," Naruto said, leaning back in his chair and scratching at the whisker-like lines on his cheek. With a shake of his head he turned to his left and asked the tall white-haired man walking up to him, "I was never that bad, was I?"
"Oh, of course not, Hokage-sama," Jiraiya said grandly, his shock clearly false. He held the expression for a moment before letting it melt into a satisfied grin. "You were tons worse."
"I was afraid of that," Naruto muttered, turning back to the see Saeko nearly mummified with rope and wriggling around like a demonic inchworm. Konohamaru had apparently abandoned her to try and revive his unconscious student. To his chuunin assistant he said, "Hibari, remind me to place some more offerings on the old man's shrine."
"Of course, sir."
"Feeling guilty, brat?" Jiraiya queried as he pulled up a stool to sit near the Hokage.
"Incredibly," he admitted, wincing as he watched Saeko roll into Konohamaru in an attempt to knock him over. "So, what'd you want, Perverted Hermit?"
"Well, first, a little respect would be nice," Jiraiya grumbled, crossing his arms. "But since I know better, I'll just ask that you stop hogging all the toads."
"What?" the Hokage asked, frowning at his old teacher.
"You're keeping all the toads too busy for me to use in my spying," Jiraiya said.
Naruto snorted and tossed a D-ranked mission scroll to Konohamaru. With a grin, he said, "The Fifth Hokage needs some clever genin to watch over a litter of piglets. If you can complete the mission and fleece the old hag of a hundred ryou each, we'll see about that C-ranked mission. Sound fair, Saeko-chan?"
"Mmmfph!" the muzzled girl replied, excited. Konohamaru muttered something foul as he hoisted Saeko over his shoulder and led his now fully awake team out of the mission room.
"Rather cruel, don't you think, Naruto?" Jiraiya asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Cruel to who?" he replied with a smile as he marked the D-ranked mission off his master list. "Granny Tsunade's luck is horrible. It shouldn't be much of a challenge."
"Yeah," Jiraiya nodded, "but slug beats snake. She'll take Saeko to the cleaners."
"Maybe, maybe not," the Hokage said. "Depends on if she decides to act more like Iruka-sensei than Anko-chan for once."
Jiraiya shook his head. "I still can't believe someone was crazy enough to marry that girl, much less mate with her."
"Yeah, well," Naruto said, shrugging. "It's amazing what full-body fishnets will accomplish. And I thought Gamabunta asked you to stop using the summons for your 'research,' ya ol' lech."
"Ha! Like I'd leave something important to toads!" Jiraiya shouted, offended at the mere notion. "Speaking of important missions, how's the, uh..."
Naruto shot his mentor an annoyed look before glancing around the Mission Hall. Situated just past the front lobby of the Administrative Tower. The Hokage sat behind a table that stretched the length of the hall, with several chuunin assistants sitting further down, handling the mission requests and accounting. Behind him, large windows revealed the inner courtyards and allowed the sun's rays to bathe the tables in warming light. Seeing no other ninjas waiting for missions, the Hokage dismissed his staff and waited for the Mission Hall to empty.
"Well?" Jiraiya finally prompted once he and the Hokage were alone.
"Well what?" Naruto responded, waspish.
"Sakura-chan! How's the seduction coming along?" Jiraiya said throwing his hands up in the air. "Tell me you didn't wuss out on this!"
"Could you be a little louder?" Naruto hissed. "After all, it's not like we're in a city full of ninjas or something! And no, I didn't 'wuss out.' Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Hey, brat," Jiraiya said, using a large hand to knock back the Hokage's hat and ruffle his tawny hair. "We're just worried about'cha, all right? We want you to be happy, ya know."
"Thanks, old man," Naruto said, readjusting his broad hat before freezing. "Who's 'we,' Perverted Hermit?"
"Who did you tell?" Naruto asked, his voice quiet with menace.
"Just Tsunade, brat," Jiraiya said quickly, holding his hands up in a defensive gesture. "I figured if I knew you wouldn't mind her knowing, too."
"Is that all?"
"Well, she'd also be able to offer suggestions and stuff. Not on any of the fun stuff, but on the actual wooing and-"
"I meant is she all who you told!"
"Yeesh, maybe you SHOULD take up drinking. You're a bit high strung," Jiraiya said, shaking his head at the disappointing sight of his student near apoplexy. "But yeah, she's the only other one who knows."
"She's the only one who knows what?" Shikamaru asked stepping into the Mission Hall.
"She who?" Jiraiya asked, attempting to feign confusion. Naruto, who'd known Shikamaru much longer, knew such tactics wouldn't fool the Nara clan leader and just shook his head hoping Shikamaru would find it too troublesome to pursue.
"That's what I was asking, wasn't it?" Shikamaru asked, raising an eyebrow and crushing Naruto's prayers.
"I was just telling the ol' pervert here," Naruto said, inclining his head toward his former teacher, "that Temari's the only other person who knows how I kick your ass in shougi every year."
"Geez, you're such a pain in the ass," Shikamaru huffed, crossing his arms as he looked away. Naruto knew that the yearly birthday matches were a sore point for the man, so he'd normally never mention it. "Anyway, I guess I have to talk to you."
"You guess?" Jiraiya asked.
Shikamaru opened his mouth to elaborate, but then shut it and shot the legendary ninja a glare. Continuing his act, Jiraiya just smiled at the obvious wish for privacy. When it became apparent that the toad hermit wasn't leaving, Shikamaru sighed and spoke, "It's about Sakura."
"What about Sakura?" the Hokage asked, the slight smile slipping from his features.
"Do you really want me to get into this in front of him?" Shikamaru asked, nodding towards Jiraiya.
"I don't see why not," Naruto said somewhat gruffly.
"Fine," Shikamaru replied. "People are starting to talk about how much time you and Sakura are spending together. And when I say 'people' I mean Ino and when I say 'talking' I mean jumping to insane conclusions without thinking."
"Wow," Naruto said, sarcasm dripping from his voice. "There are wildly inaccurate rumors about me and Ino's behind it. Who'd have guessed?"
"She told me that she'd talked to you about this," the jounin said.
"Did she now?" asked the Hokage.
"Yeah," Shikamaru said, staring at the village leader. "You mind telling me what the hell's going on?"
"What do you think's going on, Shika?" Naruto asked.
"Troublesome," the man muttered, running a hand through his hair. "What I THOUGHT was that Ino was reading too much into whatever problems the Uchihas might be having. I THOUGHT that you'd never move in on another man's wife, even if it was Sakura. What I think NOW, is that you know more than what you're letting on about this whole thing and I'm DAMN SURE that it's going to give me headaches when whatever it is spirals out of control."
Naruto stared back at one his oldest friends, his blue eyes unwavering as they met the challenge in Shikamaru's dark brown ones. Seconds ticked by as both silently dared the other to look away first. Finally, Naruto smiled and said, "No wonder I always kick your ass. You suck at this stuff, Shikamaru."
"So you and Temari remind me every year," he said, looking away and shaking his head. "Just promise me that whatever you're doing, you'll wrap it up before Ino gets Temari involved. You know how those two can be when they actually get along. At least Shikayumi takes my side. Most of the time."
"I'll do what I can," Naruto said, running his own through his hair as the man left the Mission Hall muttering under his breath. When the room was deserted again, Naruto sighed. "So much for secrecy."
"Yeah," Jiraiya nodded. "But he's right, ya know. It'd be best to go ahead and make your move before those kunoichi start their whispering. The gods only know how much a pain in the ass rumor mills can be once they get started."
"You're right. You're both right," Naruto said rubbing his face. "I'll... I'll do something. Tonight or tomorrow night. No later than the night after. Sunday at the-"
"Idiot!" Jiraiya exclaimed, smacking the Hokage's head in frustration. "How the hell did someone as cowardly as you become Hokage?"
"Because facing death by pointy things is infinitely preferable to surviving whatever the hell Sakura-chan will do to me if this doesn't go well!" Naruto shouted, rubbing his stinging scalp.
"Okay, you've got a point there," Jiraiya said, rubbing his chin. "She IS Tsunade's successor, after all."
Naruto nodded in sage-like understanding.
"Say, brat," Jiraiya said, getting the blonde's attention again. "Isn't that Nara kid supposed to be a genius? How is it you beat him at shougi? You suck at that game!"
At this new and lighter line of questioning, Naruto grinned widely. The Hokage leaned toward his conspirator and whispered, "Easy! I cheat like a sonuvabitch!"
Sakura pulled the hood of her medic-nin uniform back to let her pink hair fall around her face. Strands of dusky rose spun in the air as she shook her head, hoping to fling away some of the day's sweat. Raking it all back and finally feeling human again, Sakura slumped into her hospital office chair. She closed her eyes and briefly considered taking a short nap on her office cot.
Wearily, she rubbed her eyes and grimaced at the puffy skin. The day had started out, well, not great, but she'd worked out some of her aggression with (or rather, ON) Ino. Sakura'd even had a nice chat with the Hokage with the promise of lunch. Unfortunately, she had been forced to skip her meeting when Konohagakure's ANBU had dropped off a squad of severely injured shinobi from Takigakure at the hospital. The next hour had been a whirlwind of activity as Sakura and her staff had pulled the four Waterfall chuunin from their impending mortal fates.
Sakura had just started to catch her breath when Rock Lee had brought in one of his genin disciples for treatment. Apparently the novice shinobi had been working on opening his own Inner Gates and nearly turned his arm into sausage. After some intensive bone alignment and fusion, the day had slipped away as Sakura spent more than a little time giving Lee no small piece of her mind concerning his teaching methods.
With the sky already bleeding the softer, orange hues of sunset, Sakura looked at the scrolls and logbooks that needed to be completed. Perhaps the only downside to being the most skilled medic in the village was the paperwork involved.
"At least the Hokage has his shadow clones," Sakura muttered, adding a small amount of water to her inkstone. A few swipes with the black stone and she was ready. Sakura fought the swelling urge to yawn as she documented the cases of the Waterfall team. She lost the battle, however, when she had to stretch after just listing their names.
"You look like you could use a nap, Sakura-chan," Naruto said from a corner in her office.
"Gah!" Sakura yelped, dropping her brush and jumping away from her desk. Narrowing her eyes when she saw him grin, Sakura grumbled, "Why is it people are always sneaking up on me?"
"Because you're so cute when you're surprised," the Hokage said, as if it were obvious. Sakura rolled her eyes, but allowed her lips to quirk into a quick grin.
"I hope that's not why Tenten does it," she said, scooting her chair back toward the desk. Thankfully the scroll didn't have TOO many ink splatters.
"Naw, she's just got lingering resentment from when Tsunade picked you as a successor," the Sixth Hokage said, turning to look at some of the multitude of pictures hanging up on the office walls. Most were of the graduating genins from her class, particularly Team 7. A few depicted Sakura in the company of Tsunade and Shizune. Grouped together were pictures of Sakura with different kunoichi holding newborns. Naruto smiled at how dissheveled his former teammate always looked, and how in every one she wore that same ear-to-ear grin.
The only thing remotely certificate-like in the office was a picture behind Sakura's desk showing the Fifth Hokage with an angry expression next to, what he presumed was, a quote from old bat herself: "BECAUSE I SAID SO!" the often bellicose Tsunade seemed to be saying.
"What? She never told me that!" Sakura exclaimed, ruining the remaining strokes of her kanji.
"Well, Neji told me that after the old hag's third drunken rampage, she kinda got over her hero-worship," Naruto said eyeing the first Team 7 group photo on her desk. "But old habits die hard, ya know?"
"I know," Sakura said softly, turning back to her work.
When Sakura started to nibble on the end of her brush, Naruto nodded to himself and shoved the scroll off her desk.
"What the hell?!" Sakura yelled, looking from the mess in the floor to the Hokage.
"Sakura-chan, you're obviously tired and hungry," Naruto said, crossing his arms imperiously. "So you're going to slip into something comfy and we're going to have dinner."
"Oh am I?" Sakura asked, her words thrumming with hostility.
"Doctor's orders," Naruto affirmed, grinning.
"From which doctor?" Sakura asked, with a harsh chuckle. She didn't think there was a medic in the entire hospital who'd dare order her around.
"Well, as the closest ninja to a doctor in this office, I'd have to say me."
"You're not a medic-ninja, Naruto," Sakura huffed, crossing her own arms in retaliation.
"And you're not Hokage, Sakura-chan," Naruto countered, letting his grin widen. Sometimes it was worth dealing with the seemingly endless paperwork just to be able to pull out that little trump card on occasion. "Besides, I know you've got some sweats in your closet for when you spend the night here. I'll be outside while you change."
Sakura had the self-control to merely glare at the blonde as he left instead of the full raspberry she so desperately wanted to perform. Once the door was closed, Sakura took another glance at the crumpled scroll on the floor. Well, she DID skip lunch, she pondered, trying to at least put up a front of responsibility.
"It can wait," Sakura told herself before walking to the closet.
"Eeep!" Sakura squealed as she and the Hokage popped into existence. A cursory check revealed that the two of them had traveled perhaps two kilometers from the village walls. Raising an eyebrow in a reprimanding manner, Sakura said, "You know, one of these days you're going to get into trouble abusing that technique."
Naruto shrugged and offered her a half-smile. With dusk rapidly encroaching on their wooded locale, he was grateful that his discomfort could be masked. 'This is it,' he thought, swallowing his anxiety. Affecting nonchalance, the Hokage grabbed onto Sakura's wrist tugging her toward their dinner. "This way," Naruto said thickly as he forced himself not to think about the future.
"Fine," Sakura sighed, allowing her friend to tow her along. Sakura felt that she could use a nice relaxing bath more than dinner, but was still feeling better after having slipped out of her medic uniform.
Sakura normally wouldn't be caught wearing her scruffy, broken-in jounin pants and oversized, pink sweatshirt (a gift from Shizune stating in bold kanji "Slugs do it slooooooow!"); thankfully, it was just Naruto, who never seemed to care what she wore. Sakura briefly mused over how her husband and the Hokage could be alike and yet so very different in that respect. Tripping over a tree root in the fading light, Sakura asked, "Just where the hell are we headed, anyway?"
"Here," Naruto said, pulling back the hanging foliage of a willow. Against his will, the Hokage's voice came out flat and guarded. He tried to relax--to breathe--but Naruto could only hold the branch and draping greenery as he gently led Sakura toward his surprise.
And what a surprise it was! Sakura was familiar with the small waterfall clearing, remembering many summers with Ino splashing in the shallow stream. She'd never seen it at night, however, with dozens of softly glowing lights beneath the surface. Small balls of yellow illuminated the water, turning the stream and lower portion of the waterfall into flowing, cascading gold.
Naruto roused Sakura from her gawking with a snap of his fingers. She spun to face him just in time to watch the ambient gold turn to an sunny orange and then to a deep pink. At her confusion, he nodded back toward the river. Sakura turned and watched as the glowing balls moved beneath the stream's surface. Each orb of light lost its last tinges of orange as they all began to pulse with a blossoming glow.
"How's that, bro?" a high, reedy voice called from the ground.
Sakura blinked in wonderment as her eyes took in the sight of a small toad glowing pink beneath a small beaded necklace.
"Maybe cycle through the colors every minute or so," Naruto replied. "What do you think, Sakura-chan?"
"It's beautiful," she murmured, looking from toad to summoner and back to the glowing water.
"There's your seal of approval, Gamayuubae," Naruto said, feeling the bands constricting his chest loosen. With a genuine smile he added, "Tell the others to keep up the good work and send out Gamanuma."
"Gotcha!" the glowing (and now yellow) toad said, saluting smartly before launching itself back into the water. Naruto watched the small yellow ball of light join the rest of its brothers and sending off a wave of changing colors.
Inhaling and exhaling a deep, soothing breath, Naruto chanced a glance at his companion. Sakura stood still, quietly taking in the clearing's gentle illumination. Looking at the sky, she could see the first stars peaking through night's veil. Finally, she turned back to the Hokage, surprised--though not entirely--to see a subdued expression on his face as he stared back. Gathering her wits, she said, "Naruto? What's all this?"
"Dinner," the Hokage said, flashing a wide, fox-like grin. As if to emphasize just how worried she should be, Sakura heard a rumbling gurgle from the midst of the stream. Amazingly, a large turquoise toad emerged from the center with a low-set table sitting atop its unusually flat, broad head. As several of the glowing toads hopped onto the large toad's head and the table, Sakura found herself laughing.
"You've got to be kidding me," she managed between titters. To her delight and amusement, another trio of toads hopped onto the table and began to hum a soothing melody. "You've GOT to be KIDDING me!" she exclaimed again, nearly doubling over in laughter.
For a moment, the light was dimmed and the music faltered. Naruto just huffed and waved for his summons to carry on. Rubbing the back of his head, the Hokage grinned sheepishly. "I guess they did go a little overboard, ne?" he said, hoping to deflect any suspicion.
"No. No," Sakura said, wiping tears from her eyes. "You just- I just never expected something like this. And with the toads and all. It's just- It's wonderful, Naruto. I mean. Wow. This is... it's really wonderful."
Naruto let his smile grow into a full-blown grin. The glow from the toads also flared momentarily. Holding his hand out, he asked, "Onto the feast, Legendary Medic Sakura-chan?"
"I'd be delighted, Legendary Hokage Naruto-sama," Sakura said primly as she alighted her hand in his. Their manners lasted for exactly two seconds before both broke into sniggering frenzies.
Naruto hopped onto the partially submerged toad's head and with a flourish, hoisted Sakura onto the amphibian dais as well. A quick hand gesture and the moisture on the table and chair flew into the faces of humming trio. After a fit of sputtering, the melody continued. The Hokage removed and unfurled a small scroll from one of his jounin-vest pockets. A melodramatic bite of his thumb and smearing of the parchment yielded two large sitting pillows and a glazed, ceramic jar.
"What're these?" Sakura asked, kneeling onto a pillow to open the small blue jar. The Hokage's only response was a wide, toothy grin. Quirking an eyebrow, she dipped a calloused hand into the container and fished out a small, green blob. "Umeboshi?"
"You wouldn't believe what I had to trade Ino for information on your favorite treat," Naruto said. He placed his seat just to the right of Sakura's in order to lean onto the table conspiratorially.
"You asked Ino?" Sakura asked.
"Well, I was pretty sure that you'd take me stalking you the wrong way," Naruto said patronizingly. "So I picked the lesser of two evils."
"Hey! When did I become more evil than Ino?" Sakura exclaimed, but apparently not too upset to take a vicious bite of her pickled plum.
"The day you caved in Hoshigaki Kisame's head with one punch, Sakura-chan," the Hokage deadpanned.
"He was completely asking for it," Sakura defended.
"Well, YEAH," Naruto said, rolling his eyes. "I've fought lots of people who've asked for it, Sakura-chan, but you don't see me splattering their brains on you."
Sakura smirked at his whining tone and sampled another plum. It'd been... a really long time since she'd enjoyed her secret treats outside of the occasion onigiri. Umeboshi was great for killing bacteria, but it seemed anytime Sakura'd tried to sneak in some of her favorite guilty pleasure an emergency cropped up. Closing her eyes to better savor the fruit, Sakura said, "These are really good."
"I can tell," the Hokage said gently. Sakura noticed the softer tenor of his voice and opened her eyes as he cupped her chin. "Looks like you got a little carried away," he said as his thumb brushed her lower lip, cleaning away some excess jelly. Sakura jerked at the tingling sensation of warm, callused fingers stroking her face.
"Oi. What'll you'se guys be eatin'?" Gamakichi interrupted as he hopped onto the table. Sakura sighed in relief before snickering at the formal, but tiny robes adorning the orange toad.
"I dunno, what are the specials?" Naruto asked, resisting the urge to flatten his summon. Why was his life plagued by such horrible timing?
"Specials? How the hell should I know somethin' like that?!" the small amphibian barked, slapping the Hokage's knuckles.
"I guess it's too late to sign your slug contract, huh, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, shaking his offended hand.
"Sorry," Sakura said, her grin proving that she was anything but. "But I think Katsuyu's a little too flashy for you, anyway. The toads keep you grounded and understated, Naruto."
After a moment's silence, Gamakichi turned to her and with a narrowed expression said, "You're makin' funna me, ain'tcha?"
"Don't worry," the Hokage said, resting an elbow on the table so his arm could support his chin. "You're not the only one."
"What would you suggest for dinner then?" Sakura asked the irate toad. The grin hadn't left her face.
"Flies," Gamakichi said, not missing a beat. "But I hear the stuffed steamed squid is pretty good."
"Squid huh?" Sakura mused. "You don't have any chicken dinners?"
"You honestly want Gamatatsu plucking your food?" the toad asked in disbelief.
"What? As opposed to stuffing a squid?" she retorted.
"Just start us off with some tea and tempura snacks. Then some of that veggie stir fry and hot peppers," Naruto said shaking his head. "Oh, and get one of the 'Tako brothers to do the cooking. You know, or someone with somewhat opposable thumbs?"
"Bitch bitch," Gamakichi muttered disappearing in a small cloud of smoke.
"It's like they're TRYING to kill me," the Hokage said, pinching the bridge of his nose with his free hand.
"So," Sakura started, looking around the now orange grotto. She tried to push away the memory of scratchy fingers grazing her face and the uncomfortable knot of tension that accompanied it. "What's the occasion?"
"Well," Naruto said, sitting up straight now. "You mentioned you wanted to talk about something this morning. We didn't get a chance to have lunch, and you had a rough day from what I heard, so you're getting a five-toad meal. It'd be five stars, but they really can't cook worth a damn."
Sakura responded to the weak joke with an equally weak grin.
"What? I can't do something nice for once?" Naruto asked, crossing his arms and pouting melodramatically.
"I- That's not what I- !" Sakura stammered and shook her head at the turnabout. Finally, her eyes focused on placing the ceramic lid back onto the jar, she said, "You shouldn't be doing this. It's not your job."
"I know who's job it is," Naruto said crossly. "But someone needs to make sure you're happy."
Sakura glanced up, touched but uncertain, and found herself suddenly fighting to refrain from laughing. Her friend's fierce scowl was serious enough, but the way it contrasted with the wavering pink light from the stream was nearly too much for her. "Hey," she said, nudging his shoulder. "I can take care of my own happiness, ya know."
"I know, I know," he sighed with an audible growl. "Ya know what, just go back to eating your plums. I'm the last person to give lectures."
"Awww, there there, Hokage-chan," Sakura cooed, patting the blonde's mop of hair. Absently, she noted the fine texture of the yellow strands. Curiosity overtaking her, Sakura ran her hand through those same yellow strands, comparing its lighter qualities to the another's.
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, his breath lodging somewhere behind his heart. Sakura stared at him strangely, the yellow light changing to orange and making a stranger of her friend. That was, until their seating--toad and all--shuddered and launched them both into the honey-hued water.
"The HELL?!" Naruto sputtered, sitting up in the stream.
"GRRRIIBBBBBIIIITTTT," rumbled the toad upon whom they'd been sitting.
"Leg cramp?! LEG CRAMP!!! You're a huge freakin' toad!" Naruto ranted, before turning to his still somewhat submerged dinner date. Watching her smile, the Hokage couldn't keep his own grin away. Pushing the hair out of his eyes, he chided, "I told you, completely unreliable."
Sakura, for her part, started cracking up.
Naruto entertained thoughts--evil, slow roasted, barbecue flavored thoughts--about how he could feed all of Sunagakure with one massive set of frog's legs, before shaking himself out of them. Tugging his soaked robes and vest in a futile attempt at straightness, he offered a hand to Sakura. When she didn't immediately grasp his hand and instead choked on some of the water, he clarified his intentions. "Here, let me help you up."
"Thanks!" Sakura managed, between raucous laughter. In the middle of being hoisted upright, however, Sakura slipped on the polished stones along the riverbed. Naruto soon found himself crashing into the water. Apparently, it was even funnier the second time.
"You're not altogether reliable yourself, Sakura-chan," Naruto grunted as he pushed himself out of the water. He watched Sakura try to affect a hurt expression before collapsing into the water again. The water turned colors, causing her floating hair to merge with the pink stream. The Hokage swallowed forcibly, the light embuing Sakura with an ethereal aura.
Taking advantage of Naruto's stunned expression, Sakura smirked and grabbed onto his robes. Blue eyes reflecting rose-colored light widened in shock just before she knocked one of his supporting arms out from under him and rolled. With a loud splash and yelp of surprise, the Hokage found himself lying in the shallow area of the stream with a grinning, panting medic pinning him with one hand. Yellow light sparkled off dancing, green eyes.
Pink hair shimmering with amber light clung to Sakura's forehead and cheeks in wet clumps, with the bulk falling in dripping curtains around either side of her face. Tentatively, Naruto reached up with his right hand and pushed one of those curtains back behind her ears. Lightly tracing her earlobe, Naruto left his hand to rest at the base of her neck.
Chills raced along Sakura's spine as the warm hand offset the cool stream water. Closing her eyes, Sakura leaned back into the hand. She sighed as the pleasing pressure moved to where her neck met her shoulders. Sakura wasn't thinking about where she'd shifted her weight or even who owned the nice, warm hand sending small shivers down her back. In fact, not thinking was precisely what Sakura was doing when she leaned forward, closer to the man captive beneath her.
A languid smile pulled at her lips as Sakura felt shallow puffs of breath tickle her nose. She almost giggled at the familiar scent of ramen.
'Ramen?' Sakura thought, opening her eyes. Meeting her own were a pair of entranced, half-lidded eyes whose normally blue irises shone orange in the stream's light. Gently, the heated palm moved back to cup the base of her skull and urged her closer. Sakura acquiesced, focusing only on the vivid electric eyes behind the shimmering light until she could feel their noses touching. 'Waitaminute. RAMEN?'
Both Sakura and Naruto jerked at the new voice, splashing unceremoniously back into the deeper parts of the stream. In a tangle of soaked limbs, the two struggled back to the stream's bank.
"Sakura, we've got an emer-" Ino started, her voice quick with urgency. The ANBU came to a stop, however, when she spied the head medic-nin clambering out of the illuminated stream with the village Hokage. Ino lifted her intricate tiger mask and rubbed her eyes just to make sure she wasn't in a genjutsu or just plain going nuts. In a tone that brooked no argument, Ino said, "We will talk about this later."
Naruto was sure his ANBU captain didn't mean just talking. Running a hand through his dowsed hair, he tried to bring the discussion back to the reason for the interruption. "What's the emergency?" the Hokage asked.
"An A-class prisoner was being moved to area fifteen and escaped," Ino said crisply, rattling off the details. "She managed to cast a genjutsu on her ANBU escorts and incapacitate them. She also critically injured eight other ANBU in the pursuit before her recapture. A team of jounin were also involved and received minor wounds in the process."
"When the hell did this happen?" the Hokage bellowed.
"We captured her only about ten minutes ago," Ino said, flinching for a moment. "Morino-sempai has her secured and is proceding with the planned questioning."
"Are there any fatalities?" he asked, voice tightening with emotion.
"Not yet," Ino said. "But the hospital's overworked and they need Sakura."
"I'll be there in-" Sakura started, before Naruto grabbed her hand and vanished with her.
Ino stood dumbstruck in the small, glowing waterfall grotto for a moment before realizing that the Hokage must've teleported the both them directly into the hospital. Sometimes Ino forgot that Naruto possessed the skill that meritted his status. Before making the seals to do her own short-range teleport, she glanced around the stream once more. She noted the spilled table and the multitude of gently glowing toads.
"We're definitely having a talk about this," Ino muttered as she vanished from the clearing.
Even from within the confines of her office, Sakura could hear the pandemonium that had engulfed the hospital. She remembered that something like a dozen ANBU had been critically injured in the recapture of the prisoner. Generally there were never more than a handfull of highly-skilled medics staffing the hospital at any given time. Medic-ninja were often on missions and the rotation was devised so that while there was always someone on the floor, there was also a team available for field dispatch.
And while Tsunade and Sakura had fought and scraped to assemble an incredible program, it never seemed enough in the event of such catastrophes.
Throwing her modesty away along with her wet clothes, Sakura quickly slipped into her white medic gear. Not waiting for any dismissal or farewells from the Hokage, she marched to open her office door.
"Like hell," Naruto said, pulling her away from the door with a firm yank.
"What the-? Let go of me, Naruto," Sakura demanded.
"Sakura-chan, you were bordering on chakra exhaustian not an hour ago."
"And I've had time to recover," Sakura said, narrowing her eyes and giving a not so gentle pull on her arm. "I have patients to save."
Naruto made a sound that could have been the bastard lovechild of a sigh and growl. He'd only brought Sakura back so she could supervise, not kill herself trying to save everyone. In retrospect, Naruto should have known better. With that thought in his head, he prepared to bend the words of his last promise to Tsunade.
"Fine," the Hokage said flatly. "But after I make sure you're not going to run out of steam. Can you perform Kage Bunshin?"
"Yes," Sakura said, blinking at the seeming non-sequitor. "But even with my control, I can't do that many."
"That's what I'm going to fix," the Hokage muttered and started flashing through hand seals. Sakura marveled at the number of seals Naruto sped through. The sequence seemed reminiscent of some of the more difficult medical jutsu Tsunade had passed along to her. Ending in an inverted horse seal, Sakura gasped when the Hokage firmly pressed his right hand onto her abdomen.
What followed the familiar touch was a vertigo-inducing sense of power, like an endorphin high on soldier pills.
"What is this?" She choked out, trying to stay upright.
"A forbidden technique straight from Granny Tsunade herself," Naruto grunted, smirking despite his obvious concentration. "From what I remember when she taught it to me, it combines the chakra reserves of the user and subject."
"And why is your hand on my stomach?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"It's easiest to do this when I'm connected to your hara," he replied, having the graciousness to seem a bit embarrassed by it. "And the easier it is, the more I can concentrate on keeping ITS chakra down."
"Oh," Sakura said, understanding just who's chakra was inferred by "its." Immediately the sounds of the hospital came back to her. A precisely executed ram seal later, and now the office was full of pink-haired medics. With a nod from the real Sakura, the clones dashed out of the office, perhaps almost two dozen in all. Normally, Sakura would feel a noticeable dip in her chakra reserves after creating a quarter of that number, however, now she felt like she could create another dozen or so. And perhaps jog around the village. Grinning, she turned back to the close blonde and said, "No wonder you're always so damn hyper."
"Yeah, well," the Hokage said, rolling his eyes. "Just don't get used to it. You're gonna feel some phantom exhaustion when the technique's cancelled."
"Ah," she said in understanding. Then a thought occurred to her. "Why the hell did Tsunade-shishou teach this to you and not me?!"
"To use her own words," Naruto said before clearing his throat, "'Because every damn medic-ninja worth their whites would be stupid enough to use it in a heartbeat to save someone and it's too much of a hassle to train them.' If it makes you feel any better, she never taught it to Shizune, either."
"Still," Sakura grumbled. "Why'd she teach it to you?"
"Because I'll never run out of chakra, Sakura-chan," the Hokage said without inflection. This time Sakura looked away, muttering a soft apology.
"Whoa!" she exclaimed, placing a hand on Naruto's shoulders for support.
"What happened?" he asked, anxiety tinging his words.
"Two of them are stable now," she breathed, eyes unfocused.
"Maybe you should only have them disperse one at a time," Naruto suggested uncertainly. "I know Kakashi-sensei always worried about mental overload from using the clones for training."
"Didn't you use something like a hundred at a time, though?"
"Eh, it was more like a thousand," Naruto said, shrugging. "But you don't want to pass out and cancel the jutsu in the middle of something important."
"Yeah, that'd be horrible," Sakura agreed, already visualizing a clone poofing away in the midst of handling an organ or restarting a heart.
"We should probably go ahead and get something to eat while we're at it. I'm a little hungry."
"You're always hungry, though," Sakura said, running a hand through her still-damp hair. As the sudden rush from Ino's news abated, Sakura found herself fighting a tide of drowsiness.
"Besides, I'm eating for two now, Sakura-chan," the Hokage said with a grin. Watching Sakura turn away, Naruto felt like kicking himself over his choice of words. Nothing like reminding a girl of her infertility and the reason for her ailing marriage. After nearly a minute of uncomfortable silence, he said, "And using this chakra point will probably mess with your appetite."
"I'm not hungry, Naruto," Sakura said.
"Are you sure? This is right over the stomach," he asked.
"Naruto, the hara doesn't just control hunger," Sakura said as though lecturing a genin. "It also affects-"
Sakura stopped herself when she realized just what the hell she'd been about to say. Her face turned a shade of pink frighteningly similar to that of her hair. Furious at the possibly VERY intimate connection, she turned to pummel the Hokage. That was, until she saw the confusion and utter innocence etched onto his whiskered face. Swallowing back her anger and embarrassment, Sakura asked in a very slow and deliberate manner, "Did Tsunade-shishou tell you about using this particular chakra point?"
"Of course!" he defended, somewhat taken aback. Before Sakura could cock her fist back, however, he continued. "She said that using it on any other chakra point would mean I'd either be touching someone's private parts, or might melt their brains. I'm not an idiot, Sakura-chan."
Sakura just groaned and started to massage her temples. Great. Just great. She'd just managed to fool herself into thinking that the little episode in the water hadn't happened and now this. Sakura decided to follow in the steps of slug summoners past and ignore the whole thing for now. If it worked for Tsunade and twenty-some years of gambling debt, it would work now.
"Where exactly are we supposed to get food, anyway? Hmm?"
"Yo," Gamakichi said, waving away the ninja smoke that accompanied his arrival. The other webbed foreleg held an oversized (for a toad, at any rate) lacquered tray with two rectangular porcelain plates overflowing with fried meat and vegetable skewers. "When I got back, 'Numa and 'Yuubae told me somethin' came up. Here's yer tempura snacks," said the small orange toad, setting the tray down before them. "Gamatatsu's havin', er, problems wit' da stir fry."
"Problems with stir fry?" Sakura asked, curious and more than a little relieved at the distraction. The Hokage merely groaned and savagely ran his free hand through his hair.
"That kid still thinks he's gotta tail some days," Gamakichi confided, crossing his tiny orange arms and attempting to shake his head. "Tragic, really."
"The only tragedy is that you assigned him the cooking chores," Naruto muttered. "How's take-out sound, Sakura-chan?"
"No ramen," came her immediate reply.
"Yeah yeah," the Hokage agreed, deflating at the near-instantaneous denial of his first option. "What sounds good?"
"Whatever the special is at Hanakatsu's should be good," Sakura offered. The tempura snacks which were starting to look pretty appetizing had put Sakura in the mood for some of the specialty kebabs from the Lightning Country restaurant.
Naruto hummed for a moment, musing on whether or not they could kebab ramen noodles. Deciding it was an idea best pursued when he had both hands available, Naruto just turned to his toad summon and asked for two of the specials. Gamakichi, however, had something to say about the new development.
"I'm a combat toad, dammit! Since when the hell'd I become a friggin' gopher!?" he shouted, hopping onto Sakura's desk for a better scowling position.
Sakura snorted at the display.
Naruto let his lips twist into perhaps the most cunning and sly smile she'd seen on the blonde. When he spoke, it was with quiet, subtle menace. "Since the old pervert might like to know the real reason his 'research' at Shirahochi was interrupted. As I recall, he's been banned from coming within two hundred kilometers of their nude beaches."
"You want extra sauces wit' dat?" Gamakichi asked, his voice reaching higher octaves than before.
"That'd be nice," Naruto said, nodding. In another plume of ninja smoke, the orange toad vanished.
"That was a little hardcore just for take-out, wasn't it?" Sakura asked, frowning at the Hokage.
"Naw," Naruto said, laughing. "Jiraiya already knows. And if monogomy hasn't stopped his little peeping trips, a bunch of city officials ain't even gonna slow him down."
"Ah," she said. "I guess I can see- oh! Another patient stabilized."
"Good work, Sakura-chan," said the Hokage. Sakura fidgeted under the attention. She could also feel his fingers moving slightly over her stomach.
"It's not like I'm really doing anything," she contested, wanting to cross her arms, but stopping herself. Instead she place her hands on her hips and looked away.
"Oh sure," Naruto said, rolling his eyes. "It's the toads telling the clones how to operate."
"It might as well be," Sakura said. "I feel like I'm just sitting on my hands."
"Maybe now," Naruto said, moving and gently turning Sakura so he could sit on the edge of her desk. "But when you're sorting through all their memories, you'll feel like you were with all of them."
"Yeah," he said. "Just remember to focus on where you're at NOW. It'll help the other memories fade into the background a bit more."
"How do you know all this?"
"That's a double-S-ranked village secret, Sakura-chan," the Hokage said with a smile. "I could tell you, but then I'd have to actually admit that I once spent about an hour freaking out because I thought I was dispelling myself over and over."
"An HOUR?" Sakura exclaimed, green eyes going wide with shock.
"Give or take," Naruto said with a shrug. "However long it would take to relive over a thousand clones dispersing themselves. Thankfully Shino glued me to the wall to keep me out of trouble."
"Glued you to the-?" Sakura started before cutting herself off. "This is one of those stupid man-things that if I hear the rest of it, my brain will implode, isn't it?"
"Probably," the Hokage conceded with a grin. He let the silence settle into the room as he wrestled with how to steer the conversation anew. He closed his eyes for a moment, emptying his mind and just focusing on the pulse of his chakra as it entered and mixed with Sakura's. Naruto redoubled his grip on the demon's chakra, not because there was resistance, but because of the lack of resistance. He'd learned long ago to never trust a sleeping fox--demon or otherwise.
"Guess you're wondering what I wanted to talk about, huh?" Sakura asked, looking away. When it looked like Sakura wasn't going to speak anymore, Naruto let out a silent breath and took a skewer of tempura from their appetizer plate. He thought it looked like shrimp, though it could have been some brightly colored vegetables. Who knew with toads?
"Mmm, not bad," he said, noting that it had been shrimp. "You should eat it while it's still warm."
"I'm not that-" Sakura said before being interrupted by a long, low rumble from her stomach. "Holy crap am I hungry," she amended, snatching her own skewer from the plate. Sakura abandonned propriety as she tore two fried vegetables off the wooden stick in one bite. A satisfied moan escaped her throat as she tasted the savory morsels, only to freeze when she heard the Hokage chuckling. Cheeks puffed out with food, Sakura shot him a glare for the smirk adorning his features. "Shu' 'p," she grumbled around her food.
"Didn't say a THING, Sakura-chan," said Naruto with a smile before he sank his teeth into another fried square of food.
"Damn straight you didn't," Sakura muttered around her tempura skewer. The office held a tense silence as the soft sounds of chewing were left to fill the uncomfortable void. With a particularly hardy swallow, Sakura continued, "I tried to seduce Sasuke last night."
Naruto choked, dropping his wooden skewer to pound on his chest with his only available hand. After coughing up a mangled cube of what might have been beef, Naruto glared at his medic companion. Hoarsely, he grumbled, "A little warning next time, ne, Sakura-chan?"
"Sorry," she said with a half-smirk. "I didn't realize that the protege of the great Super Pervert was really such a prude."
"Just... spare me the details, 'kay?" Naruto asked, shrugging like he was trying physically dislodge his anxiety. Maybe this was his karmic backlash for daring to try and court a married woman. Even if it WAS at the behest of her husband. Now he was probably going to learn even MORE about their sex lives. Where was a homicidal cult of criminals when you needed them?
"There aren't any details, Naruto," Sakura said bluntly, letting some of the disappoint and anger she'd been holding back finally seep into her voice. She turned her body away from the Hokage, not taking into account that where she went, he would have to follow. "That's just it, you see? I had everything planned out. The dinner. The mood lighting. Ino even gave me a beautiful green dress and I-"
"Hold on," the Hokage said, interrupting her clipped confession. "You were wearing Ino's green dress? With the fan embroidery and stuff?!"
"Yeah," Sakura confirmed uncertainly. She hadn't heard that particular strangled, panicked quality in the Hokage's voice since shortly after he hit puberty. It might have even cracked a little just then. "Um, how do you know that dress?"
"What?" the Hokage asked, suddenly focusing on Sakura. He opened his mouth to answer when his mind immediately told him exactly what he was going to sound like if he spoke the truth. Snapping his teeth together, Naruto tried to think of a suitable lie. Finding none, he said, "No reason."
"Na-ru-to," Sakura said, each syllable of his name its own curse.
"I, um," he stammered. How to phase his response in such a way as to remain conscious? Blushing, he settled for as much of the truth as he figured Sakura could take. "I used to have, er, dreams about that dress."
"You dreamed about a dress?" she asked, taking a small step back.
"Vividly," he muttered, absently rubbing at the pressure behind his nose. Noticing her odd expression, the Sixth Hokage rolled his eyes. Lying by omission, Naruto added, "Trust me, I wasn't the one in it."
Naruto decided that he might just have to kill Uchiha Sasuke for this alone. Living another man's dream had to be punishable by death, right?
"Oh," Sakura said, blinking a few times as her mind pushed out kimono-clad images of Naruto's Oiroke no Jutsu form. "Anyway, I was in that dress you seem to recall so clearly and he just brushes me off a verbal pat on the head. That's it."
"That's it?" Naruto repeated.
"That's it," Sakura said, her eyes tightening in anger. "I talked to Ino about this earlier and just thinking about it again pisses me off!"
Naruto felt more than heard her anger, her sadness. The quick flare of the Nine-Tails' chakra mirrored Sakura's outburst. Keeping his metaphysical hold on it, Naruto grunted at the surprising amount of effort it took to suppress the demon's chakra. The fluctuation couldn't have gone unnoticed by her clones, either.
"Come here, Sakura," he said gently, using the hand on her stomach to usher her closer. When her back was almost flush against his chest, he said, "Let's sit and calm down a bit."
"Hokage-sama?" Sakura asked, not turning to face him. Though he couldn't see her red face, Sakura was certain the Hokage could feel her stomach tighten into an anxious knot. Sakura felt a little ridiculous at her own embarrassment. After all, it was only Naruto. But then again, she'd never been this close to him, with his large hand firmly pressing into her stomach and his chakra spilling into hers.
Not finding any chair large enough to hold the two of them, Naruto carefully guided them to the floor. Making sure there was plenty of space between them, Naruto sat Sakura down between his splayed legs and leaned forward to support her back. His free hand snaked around to clasp the wrist of his right hand, encircling her in loose embrace. "Just relax, Sakura-chan," he sighed, resting his chin on her shoulder. "Getting worked up will just affect the performance of your clones."
"Oh no! I didn't-!" she jerked, turning in his embrace.
"No, no, you're fine," the Hokage said with a smile. "I'm just telling you that maybe... maybe NOW isn't the time to talk about things that are making you so angry. With our chakra reserves combined, it'd take a pretty solid impact to dispell one of the clones. But while it doesn't take a lot of concentration to keep the technique up, it does take SOME."
"Ah," she said in understanding, nodding to herself. "So I guess this means no talking about Sasuke-kun, huh?"
"Not if all he does is make you mad, Sakura-chan," Naruto said. He exhaled a small sigh and looked at the office door against the opposite wall. Closing his eyes, he focused on the demon's chakra and clamped it down even tighter.
"That's not all he does," Sakura said, leaning back into the warmth on her shoulder. With a small smile, she added, "Sometimes he makes me sad, too. Every now and then content and special. But... it's been a while."
"Sakura-chan," Naruto started, trying to scrape his brain cells together for whatever words would make everything better. She cut his words off, however.
"Yikes! Another two patients made it!" she said, excited. "I think that's half of them."
"Congratulations," Naruto said drowsily. Noticing the languor in his own voice he quickly sat up a bit and shook his head.
"Am I putting you to sleep, Naruto?" Sakura asked with a small giggle.
"Only in a good way, Sakura-chan," Naruto said, fighting back a yawn. "You're all soft and cuddly."
"Naruto," Sakura said primly, with a hint of teasing. "I am the apprentice of the Legendary Slug Tamer. I am NOT soft and cuddly."
"Fine," Naruto said, smirking. "You're hard and abrasive."
"Are you taking me lightly, Hokage-sama?"
"Nope," the Hokage said, this time letting a yawn escape. "I am merely bowing to your superior knowledge. If you say you're not soft and cuddly then who am I, but a lowly Hokage, to disagree?"
Sakura turned in his arms, her nose almost brushing against his. She leveled a gaze full of consternation at the blonde and grumbled, "I think I like you better when you don't talk."
"Pfft," the Hokage exhaled, blowing both pink and blonde bangs out of their faces with a small gust. "Like I don't hear THAT all the time."
Sakura smirked at his self-deprecation. "You could learn to work on- WHOA!" she shouted, jumping as though hit with a mild lightning elemental technique. Memories and knowledge not precisely her own cascaded across her consciousness. Sakura stammered and blinked, trying to wrestle with the mental vertigo. "That's-! That's the rest of them! Ha ha! They all pulled through!"
Sakura literally bounced in place in sheer delight. Throwing her head back, she laughed at the ceiling. Giddy couldn't even describe the relief and sense of accomplishment that flooded through Sakura. She had, literally, just saved five people all at the same time. A heady victory for any healer, but for a shinobi -- whose life is already full to bursting with blood and death -- such is a feat worth crowing about.
"That's awesome, Sakura-chan!" Naruto shouted, exulting in her happiness.
"Because I'M awesome! YES!" Sakura shouted, punching the air as though the stars were crowding her. Naruto tensed as he saw her open grin vanish, only to be replaced with a slightly cross-eyed, dazed expression. "Oh. Oooh, that's the rest of the clones, I think," Sakura mumbled, wobbling.
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, turning Sakura to face him. The Hokage frowned as he saw the varying dilation of her pupils, creating uneven rings of green in her eyes. Sakura kept blinking as though she couldn't quite see him, even if Naruto was mere centimeters from her face. "Focus on me, Sakura-chan," he commanded, his voice inscrutable granite. "Just focus on the here and now. Look at me, Sakura-chan. FOCUS."
"Focus?" Sakura repeated, head waving like a palm in the breeze. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, not dismissing the conflicting images and thoughts in her head, but certainly noticing the diminished pressure behind her eyes. Sakura swallowed against the lump in her throat and looked at the Hokage. At Naruto.
"Focus on my voice, Sakura-chan," Naruto continued, smiling as he saw clarity return to her eyes.
Sakura felt waves of euphoria and desperation and anger ebb as she watched Naruto try to coax her away from the dangerous shore of mental fatigue. She listened to his calm and steady words, like firm earth supporting unbalanced footing. Sakura analyzed his mouth as he kept talking, entranced at how such strong words could come from curling lips she would bet her hair color were soft and pliant. Feeling strong and emboldened and ALIVE from the technique binding them together and chakra flooding back into her, Sakura leaned forward to test her luck.
"That's it, just- Mmph?"
The kiss was awkward and somewhat off-center, Naruto couldn't help think for a moment before the full weight of reality settled upon him. Sakura's lips felt light and a little chapped from a life of nervous biting, but they were full and made his own tingle. At first tentative, Naruto's confidence and passion surged as he kissed back and tightened his embrace. The hand connecting his chakra to hers twisted at being trapped between them, and Naruto moved it to her hip. The Hokage only barely registered that the flow of chakra was stronger now that their bodies were pressing against one another.
Sakura smiled as Naruto broke away first, eyes closed and reveling in sensation and how much better her luck was than her mentor's. That elation slowly crept away when she opened her eyes and stared into Naruto's flushed and heavy-lidded gaze. Sakura's stomach clenched and knotted as her fight-or-flight response (or in this case kiss-or-freak out) played havoc with her instincts.
"Na-Naruto?" she asked, the breathless quality of her voice not quite masking their earlier intimacy or her blossoming nervousness. Out of reflex, she bit at the slight throbbing in her lower lip.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto said, conquering his impulse to swallow his own tongue. He could see his own disquiet mirrored in Sakura's bright green eyes. Something leaden and heavy dropped into his gut as he saw the medic-ninja slowly begin to edge toward panic. Forcing a sliver of a smile onto his face, Naruto chided, "Say something, Sakura-chan."
"I'm," Sakura started, licking her lips as her eyes darted around the room. Anywhere in the small office seemed fair game as long as it wasn't into those two blue eyes staring back at her. "Naruto," she said trying to scrape together some form of composure. "Hokage-sama, I'm- You know I'm- Me and Sasuke- I'm married, Naruto! I have to-"
"Stay here," Naruto blurted, not fully realizing he'd cut off her rambling or what words he'd cut her off with. He wasn't ready for this. Not for The Moment of Truth(tm). This wasn't how he wanted things to be. Naruto needed more time to find the right words, the right setting. Hell, he'd settle for at least not having to face those emerald eyes while they were so startled and terrified. Were the situation not so grave, Naruto would laugh.
The number one ninja at surprising people had surprised himself. Instead he charged forward, as always. "With me," he finished, searching her face for any sign of hope.
"What?" Sakura asked, flinching at just how disbelieving and almost affronted she sounded. "Hokage-sama, Sasuke-"
"I don't care," Naruto said. Pausing, he gathered his nerve. It was now or never. Put up or shut up. Uh, and some other cliches he couldn't bother to remember at the moment. "I care about you, Sakura-chan. I've... always cared about you. Right now... Right now Sasuke's not part of this. This is you and me.
"And I don't want to let you go," Naruto whispered. He didn't say that he should never have let her go. Or that Sasuke already had. Whatever else he thought about the bastard, he'd been right about one thing: this needed to be Sakura's decision.
Sakura discretely bit the inside of her cheek, praying that she'd managed to fall prey to a genjutsu attack. She sucked in a harsh breath as earnest eyes stayed within her field of vision. They were so close that she had problems focusing on both eyes at once without her eyesight going blurry and instead timorously looked at one, then the other.
Sakura didn't know what to think, or what emotions she should be feeling. Certainly the idea of her and Naruto together had crossed her mind, and no matter how quickly dismissed, those thoughts and musings had increased in frequency lately. Staring at him now -- accepting her regardless of her flaws with his heart exposed to the world -- did nothing to silence those voices. She was married to Sasuke, however, and still held him close to her heart. The arms around her were both loving and constricting; asking her to choose between them was like asking her to stop loving the other one.
And Sakura knew she couldn't do that.
"I," she started, but didn't finish. It was only a pronoun, the barest beginning of what she needed to say. If she weren't just centimeters away from his nose and lying flush against his chest, Sakura might not have noticed Naruto's full-body flinch. Had she blinked, Sakura would have missed the flitting anger and hurt flashing across his face before it settled into a mask of accepting finality. As it was, she happened to be so engrossed with Naruto that she didn't even register the door to office opening.
"How did I know that I'd find you both here?" Ino grumbled, lifting her red striped tiger mask as she closed the door behind her.
"Ino?" Sakura exclaimed, turning to face her childhood friend. The blonde kunoichi's expression was nothing short of withering and Sakura flushed when she recalled just how close she was to the Hokage and exactly what they'd been doing.
"Mold as much of your chakra as you can, Sakura-chan," Naruto said, gaining the attention and questioning looks of the other two. "The technique doesn't exactly allow for an even split between us, so the more chakra you mold the more you'll get when it's cancelled."
"Technique?" Ino queried, not quite as enraged as before.
"Yeah, just a parting gift from the old hag before I took office," the Hokage said. As he spoke, he maneuvered around to where only his hand was touching Sakura's stomach once more.
Sakura shivered when his body heat receded. She couldn't tell if Naruto was colder as well, when he flashed that obnoxiously large grin at her. Well, he certainly seemed to be trying to make things as unawkward as possible, she thought as she began to focus chakra into her hands. When she could feel the power in her fists almost itch with anticipation, the Hokage severed their bond.
'Shit, why did I have to think about it like that?' she shouted to herself.
"Wow, I didn't think a couple dozen clones using medic techniques would be so draining," the Hokage laughed and scratched the back of his head. "Uh, have a report on my desk by morning, Ino-chan. I think I should get in a nap. No need to go all red and foxy in a hospital, right?"
The two kunoichi looked at each other for a moment in surprise. The Hokage being tired? Didn't he routinely practice with clones and high-level ninjutsu in the THOUSANDS? Their second of near telepathic questioning, however, was all the time Naruto needed to vanish from the office without even a trace of ninja smoke.
"What the hell was that?" Ino asked, not bothering to look at her friend as she kept staring at the spot where her village leader had been standing.
"I don't know," Sakura replied, not bothering to get up from the floor. Even though she felt completely recharged, Sakura sagged as though massive weights had been dumped onto her shoulders.
"Really?" Ino sneered, finally deigning to face the pink-haired woman. "You didn't look like you were in the middle of 'I don't know' to me."
"Would you shut the hell up?" Sakura asked, her question a cross between pleading and demanding. "My head's still a little weird from all those clones, okay?"
"Right," Ino mocked. "And I guess it's got nothing to do with being on Naruto like white on rice, either."
"I was not!" Sakura shouted, bolting to her feet.
"Oh please!" Ino huffed, crossing her arms and turning so she could glare at Sakura from the corners of her eyes. "This was twice I found you two tangled up in each other tonight! Listen, I don't care what you do with your love life, but don't lie to me, okay? I think we've been friends long enough to where I deserve that, at least."
"Ino, we're not," Sakura said, massaging her forehead. "There's nothing between me and Naruto. Not now, at any rate."
"We kissed," Sakura admitted, looking away in shame. "And he asked me to stay with him."
"Oh good god," Ino muttered. She SO didn't need to this. After a moment, she asked, "I take it you said no?"
"Well," Sakura tossed a glare at her friend as she spoke. "I was about to when you came barging in."
"Oh," Ino said, feeling a little embarrassed. The two stood in Sakura's office, letting the stillness envelope them. Each one mulling over the day's drama and events. Finally, Ino furrowed her brows and looked back at Sakura. "Sakura, why would Naruto do that?"
"What do you mean?" Sakura asked, not sure what her friend was getting at.
"You and Sasuke have had arguments before," Ino said, her ANBU captain part of her mind starting to wrestle the facts away from the gossip-loving part. "I know Sasuke's had to sleep over at the Hokage Residence a time or two. Plus, he takes a lot of missions and has all that clan stuff he's involved with."
"The point, Piggy?" Sakura prodded, trying to hurry things along.
"The point, Forehead," Ino said, frowning. "Is why would Naruto, who's apparently never stopped wanting your sorry butt, choose NOW to start pursuing you when there have been plenty of other opportunities?"
Sakura blinked, going over her friend's analysis. It was true that Naruto had always been available to offer support or even just an open ear. Even though there had been some distance between them after she and Sasuke had married, he had always been friendly and respectful of what he assumed were his boundaries. She tried to pinpoint when he'd started trying to be a little bit MORE than friendly.
"Well," Sakura said, biting her lower lip. She had hoped that she would never have to go through the pain and embarrassment of broaching this one particular subject again. Ino was her best girl friend, but some things were still private. "I think it may have started after I told him Sasuke-kun and I were having... problems."
"What kind of problems?" Ino asked, feeling both anticipation at learning the root of the issue and a little dread.
"I think I might not be able to have kids," Sakura confessed, trying to force back the tears and bile that the topic always seemed to coax from her. "I've done the tests. Sasuke-kun's not the problem. I am."
"Sakura," Ino said, feeling for her friend. With quick steps, Ino closed the distance between the two of them and gave her a tight hug. "I'm so sorry."
"Thanks," Sakura sniffed. Her eyes were glassy, but at least this time she wasn't bawling or raving like she had in front of Naruto and his toads. Naruto and his comforting voice and strong fingers. Closing her eyes, she returned Ino's embrace. "Yeah, I think that's definitely when it started."
"Maybe," Ino said, pulling back and screwing her face up in concentration. "But why would he try to seduce you -- which, for the record, should be impossible with as many toads as I've seen lately -- instead of just smacking Sasuke-kun around. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that how he settled that bedroom dispute between the two of you?"
Sakura blinked. Then blinked some more.
"But," she said uncertainly, "I told him that Sasuke-kun had already ruled out adoption."
"And that would stop the Hokage from pounding Sasuke-kun's head in... how, exactly?" Ino retorted with a grin. Damn, she loved figuring this stuff out! "They haven't even had one of their quarterly I-can-blow-up-more-crap-than-you fights have they? And telling Naruto something like that... well, he's not the CALMEST of ninjas."
"I think," Sakura said with a hard edge to her voice, "we should keep looking underneath the underneath. And I'm just sure dear Sasuke-kun would be able to shed some light on it. Don't you, Ino?"
"Absolutely," Ino said with a nod. "Do I need to requisition the manacles?"
"No, but bring the thumb-screws."
The Hokage wouldn't say that he hated the taste of sake. After all, hate was a rather strong word and in Uzumaki Naruto's memory was connected with burning chakra and demonic rage. In fact, there were very few things he hated and sake wasn't one of them. Oh sure, the taste repulsed him and the much-touted affect eluded him, but Naruto would be damned if he was actually going to manifest chakra tails over a stupid bottle of rice wine.
"I don't see how the old hag can stand this crap," he muttered, staring into the shadows of his residence. Taking another pull from the glass bottle, Naruto wondered if he should pop over and visit his predecessor. The Fifth Hokage certainly wasn't known for turning down drinks and could even be tolerable company when Tsunade had the strength to keep her illusion of youth from wavering.
But obligation to Konohagakure kept the Sixth Hokage from venturing too far from home. That and it would feel too much like running away, which was something he didn't abide. Still, village protector or not, it would have been nice if he could have maintained an alcohol buzz for longer than a minute.
Some company would have been nice, too. Unfortunately, Naruto wasn't exactly sure with whom he could speak about the whole sordid affair. Or attempted affair. Whatever. Hosting a get-together wouldn't exactly speak well of him if Sakura or Ino decided to drop by to talk, either.
The sound of poofing ninja smoke captured the Hokage's attention.
"Bro?" Gamatatsu asked, his small voice and yellow skin identifying him as Naruto's youngest summon. Well, the youngest one without a tail, at any rate. Hopping toward the blonde with a bag in tow, the toad spoke again, "You weren't where Gamakichi-niisan said you were so he told me to deliver your food instead. Is that okay?"
"Yeah," Naruto said, smiling a little. He was one hundred per cent certain those weren't the words 'Kichi had used. "That's more than okay, 'Tatsu. I'm about half-starved."
"Oh! I got here just in time then," the yellow amphibian said, dragging the carry-out meal with him.
"Sure did," Naruto replied, reaching over from his seat at the low-set table for the brown bag. "Smells good, 'Tatsu. I think it's even still warm. Good job!" he proclaimed, brandishing a quick thumb up.
"Yay!" Gamatatsu said, performing a sort-of backwards flip and not quite sticking the landing. "Good job!"
The Lightning Country cuisine was, in fact, cold. Almost chilled, the Hokage thought, wondering if maybe his more temperamental summon had ensured such. At least the food had some flavor, he found as he ripped the meat from the kebab skewers. He couldn't quite bring himself to diminish Gamatatsu's accomplishment, though.
"Where's Sakura-san, Bro?" Gamatatsu asked innocently, his bulbous eyes blinking as he turned bodily to search the dining area.
"Knowing Sakura-chan, she's prob'ly still at the hospital," the Hokage said with a half-hearted chuckled. Tucking into another skewer, he continued, "That or gone home by now. One a' those."
"Oh," the toad chirped. "Then does that mean you two aren't?" he asked, holding up a webbed foot with only the smallest digit extended.
"Looks like," Naruto said, his smile fading until just the corners of his lips were upturned. "Looks like," he repeated.
"That's okay," Gamatatsu said, nodding his head in affected wisdom. "Pops says Gamachisei-chan really likes you! I'm sure she'll be happy to mate with you!"
The Hokage, to his infinite credit, did NOT spit the sake in his mouth out, nor did he gag and choke in a humorous display of near asphyxiation. He DID, however, pause his imbibing and stare at his yellow companion with a raised eyebrow. Gamatatsu smiled at the attention, pleased that he could be of help.
"She's pink, too," the toad added, as if sweetening the incentive. At that, Naruto did choke and spit out his drink, imagining a small pink amphibian nuzzling up to his ankle while shouting "Shannaro!" Once his lungs were able to draw oxygen again, he started laughing and gave the yellow toad an affectionate pat on the head.
"I'm lucky to have you guys around. Don't ever change, 'Tatsu," Naruto said. As Gamatatsu beamed with pride, the Hokage added, "And tell 'Bunta, HELL NO."
At the whisper of the front door opening, Sasuke went from lightly dozing to fully awake. For a highly skilled ninja, sleep was merely a blanket to be kicked off at a moment's notice and Sasuke was no exception. Dark eyes scanned the shadowed bedroom until finding the green, glowing numbers of the alarm clock. A highly skilled ninja didn't necessarily need an alarm clock, especially if they'd spent any time under to the tutelage of the infamously tardy Hatake Kakashi. It was handy, however, when ascertaining exact times in the middle of the night (or day if either he or Sakura were on a night shift).
The muffled thump of shed boots informed Sasuke that it was his wife returning at such a late hour. He allowed a smile to mar his features for a moment. Ino had appeared earlier searching for his wife to handle a small emergency at the hospital, but something else had to be afoot to keep Sakura out this late. Sasuke idly mused that it had taken the dunce long enough.
Closing his eyes, he listened to Sakura's almost noiseless steps take her from the living area to the kitchen. Any other place on the continent she would have been as silent as a grave, but this was HIS house and nothing escaped his notice within it. From the sounds, it seemed like she was getting something from the pantry. The pantry held the cookies and rice crackers and Sakura only ate those when nervous, not after potentially catastrophic upheavals in her life. That was promising, at least.
A gentle, tickling sensation on the tip of his nose distracted him from that line of thought. Not wanting to betray his wakefulness (even though logically Sakura should know that of course he'd wake up to someone entering the house while asleep), Sasuke scrunched up his face and tried to wiggle his nose. The tickling only abated for a moment, however, and Sasuke tried wiggling it away again. When it persisted still, the ninja resigned himself to scratching his nose.
Sasuke's arm refused to move.
Eyes wide and blazing red, Sasuke lunged against incredibly secure restraints. Sharingans spinning, he looked into the amused grin of one Yamanaka Ino.
"Ah ah aah," came a feminine purr, as her long, blonde hair dangled to just barely brush against his nose. "No doujutsu while we're playing, Sasuke-kun."
Sasuke glared at the entertained ANBU captain for a moment longer, willing his chakra to mask him in a genjutsu. Harsh knuckles tapping his crown, broke his concentration. Craning his neck, he took in the sight of his wife sitting behind him and wearing a thin smile of her own.
"Now, now, Sasuke-kun," Sakura said while mussing up his already bed-tousled hair. "Listen to Ino-chan and let's all play nice. I'd hate to have to scramble your nerves for this."
Sasuke slowly let his eyes bleed to black. He remembered being at the mercy of such techniques and had no desire to feel such physical confusion again. Though, considering his captors and the nature of his predicament, Sasuke wondered if maybe having his central nervous system fried might be the kinder option. Glancing from one kunoichi to the other, he managed to ask in a dignified and nonchalant manner, "I'm guessing everything went well at the hospital?"
"Dazzling," Ino said.
"Wonderful," Sakura chimed in.
Their expressions and attention hadn't wavered in the slightest. His crafty diversionary tactics weren't going to get him out of this particular mess. Sasuke considered the Hokage's favorite ploy, but realized in time that he had neither the healing capabilities nor the near instantaneous mobility of his friend. For one horribly ironic moment, Sasuke couldn't help but wish his two most devoted former fangirls were as easily swayed now as they had been in the past.
"I suppose if we're not going to play cat and mouse," Sasuke said, arching an eyebrow as though he weren't bound to his bed by ninja wire, "then you should just say what you have to say."
"I think you already know what it is I have to say," Sakura said pointedly.
Sasuke closed his eyes and couldn't quite suppress a groan. As a husband of several years, he knew the game well. It was a classic 'If you don't know, I'm not telling you' maneuver. Damn! Why didn't she just ask him if she looked fat, too? Sasuke had raised himself to be an instrument of death since he was seven; he wasn't wired for mind games like this.
"I guess the moron spilled his guts then?" Sasuke asked, not really needing an answer. Of course Naruto would have told her everything. She was 'Sakura-chan' after all and he was a complete buffoon.
"Among other things," Ino muttered, garnering a shocked look from Sasuke and a meaty slap to her arm from Sakura.
"There was no spillage," Sakura stated darkly.
"Whatever," Ino said, unconvinced as she rubbed the red welt along her bicep. The pain wasn't distracting enough for her to miss the barely perceptible sigh from the Uchiha patriarch.
"Regardless," Sakura said, moving the interrogation forward with a brief scowl. "I'd like to hear what you have to say for yourself, Sasuke-kun. You know, just for the shits and giggles of it."
Sasuke, were he not indeed a killing machine in training since toddlerhood, would have flinched. His wife swore infrequently and generally only at the Hokage. Profanity had always been one of those warning signs that meant he should probably find a lengthy A-ranked mission of some sort. And that he should always return with some souvenir. Pushing down his baser, prey-like instincts to seek shelter, Sasuke responded with the worst thing he could have said, "It's nothing personal."
"I'm sorry?" Sakura asked, aghast. Ino felt like that small phrase required repetition as well, but was unable to force words out of her mouth.
Not showing any outward concern, Sasuke glanced from one captor to another. He opened his mouth to elaborate, when he settled his eyes back on Ino. Clearing his throat, he grumbled, "Do you mind, Yamanaka?"
"What?" Ino offered with a shrug. "I'm going to find out one way or another. Sakura and I don't have secrets. Besides, who else is going to keep her from killing you in a murderous rage? Naruto?"
Good gods, she had a point. Blinking for a moment, he ignored the gradually building killer intent behind him and asked, "No secrets?"
"That's right, rope boy," Ino replied with a wink and a smirk. Sasuke paled and not for the first time wondered if death might not be the better alternative. "But please," Ino said, "don't let me interrupt what you were about to say."
"I don't," Sasuke said, stalling for a moment to glare at Ino. "I didn't want you to get hurt. This is just... something I have to do."
"Congratulations," Sakura deadpanned. "You failed miserably."
"What the hell were you thinking, duck butt?" Ino sighed.
"I thought that it would all work out and everyone would be happy," Sasuke defended. He immediately reviewed Ino's comments and asked, "'Duck butt?'"
"You have permanent bed head, Sasuke-kun," Ino said with a smile.
"Ino? On task, please? Thank you," Sakura chirped. "Now, maybe I'm just not the product of genius, Sasuke, but how does getting me and Naruto to sleep together work out to everyone being happy?"
"I think that one's obvious, Forehead," Ino said with a slight leer. She had more than a couple volumes of the Icha Icha series, and a vivid imagination.
"Not helping!" Sakura snapped, turning a little red with anger. Yes, it was just anger. And nothing to do with her own perusals of those damned books.
Sasuke looked from one woman to the next, unsure how Naruto's potential for sexual deviance had entered into the whole situation. Sakura still looked angry, but Ino was now... Sasuke discovered he didn't have a broad enough vocabulary to adequately describe the teasing perversion on the blonde kunoichi's face. These factors, however, were not masking that feeling he had of figurative ground giving way beneath metaphorical feet.
"You're supposed to fall in love with him," he said, hoping that he'd made everything abundantly clear. Watching Sakura's eyes get wider with every word he spoke, Sasuke experienced what could only be his stomach dropping from a high altitude. "Then we'd annul the marriage," he continued, unable (to his horror) to stop despite his best efforts. "And I could... find someone to... help re-establish the clan.
"He didn't tell you any of this, did he?" Sasuke asked, his own stunned expression mirrored in his wife's. For a moment, no one in the night-filled bedroom spoke, relegating all energies toward breathing and coming to terms with the truths uttered in the dark.
Unsurprisingly, it was Ino who broke the silence.
"This is the part where we kill him and hide the body, right?" the ANBU captain said, her voice light but possessing a menacing edge.
"Ino," Sakura said, her voice soft and distant. "Can you wait in the kitchen? Please?"
Ino jerked to look at her friend, mouth already open with a scathing retort. The pure, undisguised hurt and confusion though, took her aback. With a sigh, Ino stood up and gave Sakura a reassuring pat on the shoulder before exiting the room. Besides, she was a ninja, it's not like she wouldn't be able to eavesdrop.
"So this entire thing is about the clan?" Sakura asked, finding her resolve at her friend's supportive gesture. For what felt like the hundredth time that evening, Sakura held tight to her emotions, not sure which ones she should be expressing.
"Yes," Sasuke said, choosing to stare at the ceiling instead of his spouse.
Sasuke shuddered at the lackluster quality to her response. Sakura had been one of the few people to accept him after his return, to continue to care for him despite his own self-destructive ambitions. She had mended him in ways beyond the physical and he had cared -- still cared -- for her deeply. Sasuke desperately searched for the words that would at least let her understand and perhaps ease, though not vanquish, her pain.
"It's," he started, glaring away from her. "It's not just about the clan, Sakura. It's more than that."
"Oh really?" she asked, barking out a harsh laugh. "We're not all geniuses, so you're going to have to actually spell it out for me, Sasuke."
"I- I need them back," he whispered, closing his eyes. In the darkness, Sasuke could almost FEEL them. His father with his tea and police reports at the breakfast table. His mother licking her thumb to help wipe away some stray swatch of dirt. Even his brother, tapping him on the forehead and making some joke. "I need for some part of them, any part of them, to be back, Sakura. Even if it's not the same as having them with me, at least a piece of them will be with me. I- I do care about you and... I'm sorry. I just need this."
Sakura frowned and ran her fingers through her hair. She had only ever seen Sasuke open himself up a few times, and never had she heard such raw pain in his voice. Sometimes it was so easy to forget all the horror her teammates had endured. She closed her eyes and tried, honestly tried, to come to grips with the naked honesty she'd witnessed. It wasn't every night that one of the men you held closest to your heart admitted he needed his ghosts more than you.
She surprised herself at both how much and how little Sasuke's confession hurt. Sakura willed herself to acknowledge that pain and push through it. She couldn't begrudge Sasuke for wanting his family back, even if it was in the form of a new one. Sakura didn't have to LIKE it, but she could understand it.
"I think," Sakura said slowly, hoping the moisture in her eyes didn't spill, "that I can accept that."
"Thank you," Sasuke said, relieved, unburdened.
"Now, what I'd like to know," she said, popping the knuckles on each fist in turn. "Is what made you think it was a good idea to, instead of DISCUSS this with me, talk Naruto into trying to seduce me?"
Sasuke snaked his head back to stare at the feminine spirit of vengeance sitting oh-so close to his head. Somewhere in his mind he'd registered the sounds of Sakura priming her monstrously destructive fists for smashing. That important detail, however, seemed to pale when the sheer force of her malevolence slammed into his senses. If he hadn't been so worried about her choice of targets, Sasuke might have actually told Sakura that she was gorgeous in her rage.
Brought back to attention, Sasuke opened his mouth to speak, only to find his words gone. Well, more accurately his SMART words.
"It was either that or reinstate concubines," he said. And, because the Speed of Stupid is only slightly faster than the Speed of Thought, Sasuke had a full, worry-free second before he realized what he'd said and to whom he'd said it.
"Did he just say 'concubines?'" Ino asked, stepping into the bedroom with her ANBU sword drawn.
Apparently, there WERE worse things to say to a woman.
Jiraiya, to the consternation of everyone who'd ever known him, had seemed to stop aging sometime around his forties. Oh, he had accumulated some wrinkles and thinning hair, but his vibrant attitude and attire pulled people's eyes away from those details. The Legendary Ninja was still as spry and nimble in his golden years as when he first learned to remove a chest binding with one hand. Having mentored two famous Hokages, Jiraiya was not an uncommon sight as he sauntered, nay practically SKIPPED, to the highest office in Konohagakure.
Jiraiya slid a sly wink towards the chuunin pages. Matsuri rolled her eyes at the old man's advances while Hibari simply smiled. Even that small attention, though, was enough to make Jiraiya puff himself up a bit more. Sure, he and Tsunade had settled into some sort of mutual, er, mutualship thingy, but a man had eyes for a reason, Jiraiya rationalized.
Hibari just thought Jiraiya reminded her of her great-grandfather, but had the kindness not to burst his bubble.
"Is the runt in?" he asked softly, leaning against the wall in what was probably a cool manner... forty years ago.
"Er, I believe Hokage-sama is attending to his journals," Hibari said, trying to recall if there were any appointments lined up for the day.
"Yeah," Matsuri said, brushing back some of her dreadlocks. "He was still writing a couple minutes ago, but who the hell knows? He could have poofed out of there by now."
"His journals? Writing?" Jiraiya said with a grin. "Now this I've gotta see."
"Asked me if I knew a word that rhymed with 'armistice,'" Matsuri grumbled.
"'Lists us?'" Hibari offered, before flinching at her friends scowl.
Jiraiya chuckled at the back and forth between the two for a moment before sidling up to the large double doors of the Hokage's office. Briefly he pondered finding a place for them in his next novel, but decided against it. Tsunade tended to ask uncomfortable questions about his work. Or rather, she asked questions and put an effort into making him uncomfortable. Legendary or not, bruises were bruises and concussions were concussions. Besides, if Gamakichi could be trusted, his favorite student had just provided him with the story of the century.
And Tsunade wouldn't even be able to hit him, since it'd be a memoir sort of thing! Life was just too great sometimes, he mused as he opened the door.
"-not you, it's me, okay?"
Jiraiya stopped in his tracks. In his wide experience as a connoisseur of writing, women and blowing crap up, Jiraiya knew down to his very soul that nothing good ever came from those words. And from the sound of it, it was the Hokage speaking them.
'Great heavens, please let the moron not be speaking to Sakura. Please! I need this! Think of the craft!' Jiraiya prayed as he pushed the door further ajar.
"I mean, I just got out of some mad scheme and I really need to like me now before I can think about liking somethi- er, someone else," the Hokage said, emphatically if awkwardly.
Jiraiya looked from the blonde ninja leader sitting behind his cluttered desk to the melon-sized, pink toad sitting atop it. The toad nodded listlessly.
"I think I understand, Naruto-kun," Gamachisei said despondently.
"Besides," Naruto rambled on, throwing out every damned cliche and trope he could recall. "You're going to meet someone who can really appreciate you and treat you right, ya know? And he'll probably even have webbed feet and cute little yellow spots or something."
"Really?" the pink toad asked, hopefully.
"Hell yeah!" Naruto exclaimed. "And, um, we'll still be friends, or summon-buddies or whatever, so I'll make sure he remembers your anniversary and all that good junk!"
"Eeee! Thank you, Naruto-kun!" Gamachisei squealed, clapping her feet and hopping atop the Hokage's desk, scattering scrolls and papers. "Oops! Sorry! I should probably get back!"
"Good luck, 'Chisei," Naruto said, smiling as she poofed out of existence. As soon as the ninja smoke cleared, the Hokage sank into his chair, a boneless heap.
"You know," Jiraiya said, carefully deliberating over his words as the Hokage jolted upright in his chair. "I've always tried to embrace and lend direction to your weirdness, brat. But I don't think I even want to know what the hell that was."
"'Tatsu's trying to help me 'hop back' on my feet," Naruto said. After hearing the words from his own mouth, he groaned and allowed his head the smooth comfort of the worn groove on his desk.
"I see," Jiraiya said, rubbing his chin in contemplation. "Instead of training you to survive a cult of demon collectors, I should have focused more on that whole 'Birds and Bees' thing. And how it doesn't involve TOADS."
"You're taking enjoyment from my suffering," the Hokage mumbled from his desk. "There's a shocker."
"This is totally making the book, just so you know," Jiraiya said with a grin.
"You're writing another book?" Naruto asked, eyebrow cocked as he raised his head to meet his perverted sensei's eyes. "I thought the ol' hag had a tighter leash on you than that."
"Well, if you must know," Jiraiya said with a grand gesture and a small twitch. "I HAD been hoping to chronicle the great romantic exploits and entanglements of the Legendary Sixth Hokage. Judging by your break-up speech with the toad, I'm guessing I can scrap THAT little gold mine, eh?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I had hoped this mad, insane, utterly AWESOME scheme would have lead me to my greatest work, my magnum opus," Jiraiya said, wiping away an imaginary tear. "It could have been listed in non-fiction sections. It'd still hold true to the values that 'Icha Icha' was founded upon, but it'd be unassailable as a memoir! I would be immortalized along with you and what's-her-name!"
"Her name is Sakura-chan, perv," Naruto said, irritated.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Jiraiya said, waving off the correction. He smiled at his former student's aggravation. Pushing that kid's buttons was a hobby unto itself, sometimes. Alas, Tsunade'd pulverize him if he didn't at least try to help him, so he rapidly shifted gears. "So. Wanna talk about it?"
"Not much to talk about," the Hokage said, neutrally. "I pulled out all the stops. She said no anyway. I haven't heard from her all week."
"And that's it?"
"I'm sorry my utter and complete humiliation isn't enough for you, Perverted Hermit," the Hokage said, rolling his eyes. "I'll see if I can't somehow work in a knee to the groin somewhere along the way. Would that help?"
"Help?" Jiraiya asked, scratching his chin. "Naw, but it'd be funny. Knock yourself out, shrimp."
"I'll get on that."
"Get on what, Hokage-sama?"
Jiraiya held back the sarcastic remark on his tongue when he remembered just who owned that interceding voice. A glance at the Hokage trying not to swallow his own tongue was all the proof he needed. With as much suave and nonchalance as he could muster, Jiraiya turned to grin at Uchiha Sakura. Years as a ninja and the target of no small number of assaults, Jiraiya critically analyzed the Fifth Hokage's apprentice and medic-ninja successor.
No obvious weapons were present. No killing intent detected. No sense of chakra accumulated to her fists. Hell, there wasn't even that weird tick that let him know Sakura's more... aggressive side wasn't indulging in some unspoken threat. All Jiraiya saw was a rosette kunoichi in typical jounin gear (alas, Sakura hadn't adopted Tsunade's more revealing form of dress), looking a little confused. With no apparent sign of violence, Jiraiya relied on the instincts he'd forged throughout years of warfare and peeping.
"Who wants to live forever!" the perverted sage shouted as he ran toward and jumped out of the office window. His descent caused his last words to fade out as he fell. "Regret nothing, brat!"
Naruto stared at his empty balcony window, mouth agape. After waiting for a few seconds, the Hokage stood from his chair and walked over to ledge. Finely honed ears detected his remaining guest following him. Blue and green eyes scanned the surrounding area. When at last he could be pretty sure the old pervert hadn't been turned into street pizza, Naruto asked himself aloud, "When did I become the sane one?"
"Well, sane is a pretty relative term in a village full of ninjas," Sakura offered, wondering just how much the remaining Legendary Three Ninjas knew of recent events. Or if they were that much closer to senility.
"Maybe distant cousins," Naruto scoffed. Sakura blinked for a moment before catching the pun and snickering. He flashed a toothy grin for a moment before turning back to stare out at the village.
Silence, like a worn sweater, enveloped them but not uncomfortably so. Naruto let his eyes roam over the village, absently remembering past pranks and notable scenes from his past. He smiled at his old apartment building. He still paid for his decrepit apartment, since Naruto was pretty sure whoever the Seventh Hokage turned out to be wouldn't want his predecessor sleeping in the residence. Taking his own sigh as a sign to stop putting things off, the Hokage cleared his throat and directed Sakura towards one of the chairs in front of his desk.
"So," Sakura said, her intonation indicating that more words had meant to follow, but none came.
"So," Naruto agreed. Knowing that both could keep up their monosyllabic pussy-footing until the sun went out, he forced the issue. "How've you been?"
Okay, so perhaps it was more nudging than forcing.
"Busy," Sakura replied.
"Ah," he acknowledged. Neither of them made eye-contact, or if they did, never held it. It wasn't long before a round of throat clearing and thoughtful hums echoed within the office. When he caught himself rearranging some of the paperwork on his desk, Naruto decided a line had to be drawn. He'd rather hoped it would have been drawn by Sakura, but them's the breaks. "I guess you have a lot you wanna say, huh."
"A bit, yeah," Sakura said, shifting in her chair. After a significant pause, she brushed back an errant strand of hair and continued. "I know that it was Sasuke's idea."
"Figures he'd spill his guts," the Hokage sulked. "Bastard always thought he was too fast or too good looking for you land a punch on him and he never learned to take a beating from a slug summoner."
Sakura blinked before protesting, "Hey! What makes you think I beat Sasuke?!"
"Didn't you?" Naruto asked, hoping that Sakura hadn't pent up her aggression just for him.
"Just a little!" she defended.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto said bluntly. "A little from you can pulverize a mountain. But I'm guessing you and Ino showed some restraint since I haven't heard anything about the last of the noble Uchiha being put into intensive care. Although you do control the hospital..."
"It's nothing he won't recover from," Sakura said haughtily as she crossed her arms. Naruto just nodded until he saw her razor of a grin. "In about a month," she added, almost like an afterthought.
"I reckon this is where I take my lumps, too, ne?" Naruto said, putting aside his hat with a small smile. "All I ask is that you leave the hair alone. It parts funny when my skull's dented."
"I'm not going to hit you, Naruto," Sakura said, her rolling eyes not taking from her smile. The confusion on his face was amusing, right up to the point she saw his hands come together as if to dispel a genjutsu. At the second attempt at illusion breaking, she added, "If you keep that up, I'll be more than happy to change my mind."
"Sorry," the Hokage said, scratching the back of his head. Trying to wrap his brain around the development, he asked, "Um, if you're not here to cave my head in -- not that I'm not thankful by the way! -- then, uh, why ARE you here?"
"You knew everything," Sakura stated, getting to the heart of the matter. "Why didn't you tell me about this little plan?"
Naruto pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled a great gust of air. He'd known the reckoning was unavoidable, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Staring into Sakura's eyes, he said, "What was I supposed to say, Sakura-chan? Sorry you're barren and your husband wants to have little Sharin-kids with someone else, but hey, I'm still on the market?"
"If that's the truth, then yes," she countered firmly. "I know you two are friends, but you're supposed to be my friend, too, Naruto. Sasuke made a mistake, but you should've known better than to go along with it."
"You're right," he said, frowning at his desk. "I'm sorry."
"Hey," she said, getting him to look up again. She offered him a weak smile and continued, "I said you're weren't blameless, not that it was entirely your fault."
"Did you mean what you said? In the hospital?" Sakura ventured, after a moment's pause.
"Sakura, I-" Naruto started, trying to read her expression. He didn't know what she was leading up to and it frightened him. He didn't want to alienate his oldest and best friends. And whatever truths he uttered would do just that -- drive a wedge between the three of them. Or a bigger one, as the case may be. Collecting his thoughts, the Hokage said, "I would never try to come between you and your happiness, Sakura-chan. That's... that's all."
"So all those meals," Sakura said sharply. "All that time together, that was just so I'd be happy? You were just looking out for helpless little Sakura-chan, because apparently she can't handle her own life. Is that it?"
"What? No! That's not what I meant!" the Hokage exclaimed, smacking a hand on his desk.
"Then what the hell did you mean, Naruto?" Sakura asked crossly.
"I don't know, okay?" he yelled, sinking back into his chair. "I don't know. Maybe I thought, I dunno, I could be the one to make you happy or something. That we could be happy together. That... that you had options, ya know?"
"Options? Like you?"
"Yeah," he sighed, rubbing at his eyes with his palms. "Like me."
"And why, exactly, would I consider you an option?" she asked, voice devoid of intonation. He winced at the implication. "I mean, sure, you've always been kind and tolerant of my... quirks. You make me laugh even when I feel like the world's coming apart. And I might -- under strict duress -- admit that you're kinda handsome when you smile."
Naruto looked back up from his hands, eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. The Hokage tried to puzzle through the stark difference between Sakura's words and her tone. Something just wasn't adding up, so he asked, "What are you saying, Sakura-chan?"
"What would you have done if I'd stayed there, Naruto?" Sakura asked, the venom gone. "Would you have told me about everything then?"
"I, uh, hadn't really thought that far ahead, to be honest," Naruto said, one corner of his lips twitching in a weak smile. "Was kinda afraid of thinking about after. Probably woulda gone to Ichiraku's. I wouldn't have kept anything from you, if that's what you're asking."
"So you'd have said, 'Sorry about tricking you, Sakura, but your husband didn't want you because you were barren. But hey, you still got me, right?'" she mused, half grinning herself. "And who seduces someone with ramen?"
"What?" he said, frowning. "No way! I'd have said it much cooler than that! Maybe something like, 'You're really pretty' or 'I hear Sasuke's kid pissed on him again, aren't you glad you ditched his ass?' You know. Something with class. And don't mock the ramen, Sakura-chan. It's very sensitive."
Sakura actually snickered at the Hokage's definition of 'class.' Heaving a sigh, she was glad that he'd found a way to make light of the situation. She had been working on trying to deal with the betrayal of trust amongst her former teammates, and still wasn't too sure about it. Thankfully, speaking with Naruto had seemed to ease the pain. Somewhat. Maybe time would help with the rest.
"I'm glad to know that you haven't lost your flair for words, Hokage-sama," Sakura said, coughing into her fist to hide her grin. "And while I'm glad that we've cleared the air a little, there's some formal paperwork I need to submit for the Uchiha Clan."
"Ah," the Hokage said, nodding. His smile stayed in place, though he felt relief and disappointment warring within him. Naruto couldn't decide which was stronger, so he settled for just being happy for his friends. "Whaddya need, Sakura-chan?"
"Sasuke and I are annulling our marriage," she said, as she pulled out a scroll from her side pouch.
"Well that's ni- I'm sorry," Naruto said, already into his pleasantries and reaching for the scroll when he caught up to her. "You guys are splitting? But I thought... I thought you guys had, y'know, worked through everything!"
"We have, Naruto," Sakura said handing him the scroll. "And while I'm still not... happy... with certain aspects of what's happened, I realize that this is necessary."
"Aw crap, he mentioned the concubine thing, didn't he?" Naruto said, one hand massaging his temple while the other took the scroll.
"Yeah, he did," Sakura muttered darkly before shaking off her impending fugue. Sighing, she resumed her explanation, "But that's not the only reason, Naruto. Sasuke... he really needs this, okay? And it wouldn't be fair for me to take something like this away from him. Not this. It hurt when I found out about his little scheme, I won't say it didn't. But I think he was just... trying to make everyone happy in the only way he knew how."
"What? The round-about and retarded way?" Naruto jibed, remembering all too well Sasuke's other plans: defecting to Otogakure for power; summoning Manda as a character witness during his trial for treason; pointing out that he could see through Tsunade's illusion during Naruto's inauguration as Hokage; stating the Fifth Hokage was still very attractive to Sakura at the hospital afterwards; and Naruto didn't even want to think about the near-international incident with the Mizukage.
"Pretty much," Sakura agreed, remembering when and why she'd tried adopting some of her mentor's clothing choices for about a week. THAT had been an utter disaster. "For a genius, he really does some stupid shit, doesn't he?"
"Yeah," Naruto mused, grinning. With a flick of his wrist, Naruto unfurled the scroll. A quick perusal confirmed Sakura's earlier statement. Naruto looked back at Sakura, his eyebrows seeking her approval before proceeding. And with a single nod of her head, the Hokage branded the scroll with his seal and placed it in his outgoing file tray. Wiping his hands together as if divesting them of heavy dust, he said, "All done. Um, legally, you can keep your name as Uchiha Sakura if you want."
"I know," Sakura said with a smile. "But I think Haruno Sakura fits me better. She was hard to like at first, but I kinda miss her."
Naruto tried following that sentence, using his finger as a guide. Watching Sakura smirk, however, made him huff. "That's one of those woman-things that if I ask about my head'll explode, ain't it?" he asked cheekily, throwing her own words back at her.
"Maybe," Sakura said with a chuckle. Both paused to sigh, breathing easier now that most of the tension between them had been worked through. Small smile present, Sakura opened her mouth to speak when she was cut off before she began by someone knocking at the door.
"Um, Hokage-sama?" Hibari asked, peeking through the large double doors. "The emissaries from Kirigakure are here."
"Thanks, Hibari-chan," the Hokage said. "Tell them I'll be with them in just a minute."
With a furtive nod, the chuunin assistant nodded and closed the door behind her. Sakura watched as Naruto made a sour, pinched face. It lasted only a moment, though, before he slumped back in his chair and gave her an apologetic grin. "Sorry, Sakura-chan," he said, regret evident. "But it looks like we're both still paying for that bastard's mistakes."
"I don't un- Oh," Sakura said, remembering. "The Mizukage thing, right?"
"'Fraid so," he said, resituating his hat atop his unruly hair.
"Aww," Sakura said, trying to pout through her widening grin. "I was hoping we could sneak out and get some ramen or something."
"Ow!" Naruto exclaimed, clutching at his heart as he stumbled from behind his desk. "Twist the kunai a little more why don'tcha?"
Sakura laughed at the antics of the most powerful shinobi in Fire Country. Shaking her head, she stood and allowed him to walk her to the door. As his hand settled on the handle, he stopped and asked, "Are you going to be staying with your parents, or are you booting him out?"
"You couldn't GIVE me that house, Naruto," Sakura said with a shudder. "And actually I'm staying with Ino. She's planning on throwing me a bachelorette party. Only this time celebrating my return to singledom."
"She doesn't waste any time, does she?" he chuckled.
"More like she doesn't waste a reason to get hammered," Sakura said, rolling her eyes. With a shared laugh, the Hokage opened the door for her and straightened his vaguely conical hat. Watching him settle on a jaunty angle for it and flash her a grin, Sakura added, "Maybe it wouldn't take that much duress."
With that, Sakura strode out of the office and towards the stairs. A quick glance back revealed the Hokage still floored as his two assistants tried to introduce the visitors from Hidden Mist. As much as Sakura hoped she didn't cause her own international incident, she couldn't stop smiling.
Days like today made Sakura grateful Tsunade had taken her in as an apprentice. Every time Sakura saved a life she said a small thank you to her mentor. But every time Sakura could make her rounds at the hospital after a night of heavy drinking with no hangover, Sakura sent the retired Fifth Hokage a bottle of wine and a card.
Sakura grinned at her own apprentice, as she trailed behind like a flagging marathon runner. Admittedly, there had been an extra spring in her step the whole day, but Sakura derived no small pleasure from watching her pupil flounder at the frenetic pace. Seeing her apprentice pale even more at her widening grin, Sakura finally understood what Naruto was trying to describe when he'd trained his own squad of genin.
"I think the next patient on the docket is Hyuuga Hanabi," Sakura said with relish. "She was one of the ANBU contingent that was injured last week. Hanabi-chan was stabilized but needed some recovery time. We're going to do a routine check-in to make sure things are progressing nicely."
It may have been cruel, but Sakura wanted to cackle every time her pupil flinched at Hanabi's name. The young Hyuuga kunoichi had made a name for herself for her ninja skills, but she'd made an even bigger name for herself as a horribly uncooperative patient. That Sakura was prolonging her stay just a smidge may have contributed to her infamously sour manner.
"Sakura-shishou," Tomoe asked, her voice not quite steady. "Do you really need me for Hyuuga-san's check?"
"No, I guess I don't NEED you for it," Sakura drawled, offering the poor girl a tiny sliver of hope. Just before she summarily crushed it by saying, "But it'll be good practice!"
Sakura basked in the miasma of anguish Tomoe's aura had become. She was just about to tell the girl not to worry about it when she felt a familiar pull on her senses and her vision went spotty. As she blinked to accustom her eyes to the darkness of her new environs, Sakura asked, "What's the emergency, Hokage-sama?"
"Oh, should I only do this for emergencies?" she heard him say, his voice playful.
"Why start now?" Sakura asked as details gradually became clearer. Her eyesight fully adjusted to the darkness, she faced the Hokage asking, "And why are we in a broom closet?"
"I, uh, wanted to make sure we had some privacy," Naruto said, banging his elbow into a rack of cleaning supplies as he reached to scratch his head. "I don't know how, but I think the Perverted Hermit's got my office bugged. Probably yours, too."
"So you picked a broom closet?" she asked again. "You realize you've probably scared the crap out of my apprentice, right?"
"Oh and I suppose she was just itching to spend more time with Hinata-chan's sister," the Hokage retorted.
"Hey! That's training!" Sakura protested, angling to poke him in the chest and not altogether succeeding. "And you're trying to change the subject!"
"I was not," Naruto huffed and tried to cross his arms. Only instead he pushed some brooms over and knocked himself in the head with one. "Dammit!" he cursed.
"Naruto," Sakura said, letting him know her patience was running thin.
"Fine! I wanted to, y'know, check up on you. See how you were doing and stuff."
"I'm stuck in a broom closet with the world's craziest ninja, that's how I'm doing," Sakura said, delivering a kick to his shins despite her hampered mobility. "Is that it? You could've sent a toad for that, moron! Don't you have a village to run?"
"Ow, dammit! I told you those guys suck at this kinda stuff!" the Hokage said, thumping into a shelving unit as he instinctively tried to massage his injured legs.
"I also wanted to see if you had dinner plans or something! Yeesh! You're so pushy, Sakura-chan," the Hokage blurted, trying prevent yet another avalanche.
"Dinner?" Sakura asked, seriously. A feat in and of itself as the blonde ninja twisted and writhed to find a comfortable spot in the tiny room. "You popped me out from the middle of my rounds to ask me to dinner?"
"Well, I figured we never got to finish dinner last time and judging from Ino's dating history, she can't be a very good cook, right?"
Sakura opened her mouth to protest, but found herself agreeing. Vegetable curry and salads were fine in moderation, but Sakura was a dedicated carnivore. "I guess I can stand a break from the clam fest," Sakura said, smirking as her words shocked Naruto into more head trauma. "No ramen, got it?"
"I'll see what I can do," he said, earning him a none too gentle shove. "Gah! Okay! Okay! I'll think of something!"
"And no toads," Sakura asked, after a moment's consideration.
"That's fine," the Hokage grumbled, trying to find somewhere else in the cramped utility room to occupy his gaze and failing miserably. "I can save them for the proposal or something."
"Wait," Sakura said, holding up a hand. "You plan on proposing?"
"Um, yes?" Naruto asked, hoping he'd picked the right answer. As he watched Sakura's eyes go wide and the blood drain out of her face, he desperately hunted for the correct words. "No! Er, maybe?"
When she didn't respond, the Hokage growled in frustration and collided with the metal shelves again. Huffing, he somehow managed to cross his arms, though any seriousness was hampered by the limited space available. Lips twisted in a frown, he grumbled, "It's not like I have to anyway, ya know. The initial proposal's still on the table."
This statement seemed to jolt Sakura out of her shock. Confused, she asked, "Initial proposal?"
"Yeah, the first time I asked you to marry me," he said, nodding resolutely, even if his body language was far from assertive. Every twitch and fidget only became magnified and obvious at such close proximity.
"Naruto," Sakura said closing her eyes and trying to fathom his words. "We were NINE."
"And don't think it hasn't been hell waiting for you to say yes," the Hokage said, turning his nose up haughtily. His arrogant manner ruined by the way his eyes captured nervous glances of her. "Hey, you're the one who said I was handsome!"
"You'd ask me to marry you?" Sakura asked, amused and somewhat incredulous. "Even after I'd been married to your best friend for five years? Even knowing I can't have kids? Even with me spending so much time at the hospital and with being a medic? Even with all the rumors and gossip that'll spread across the village?
"Even if I didn't pick you first?"
"No," Naruto said, frowning, twitching. "I already DID ask you to marry me, even with all that other stuff. Come on, Sakura-chan, you're the smart one, remember?"
"What if I'm not ready to get married?" she asked, softly.
"I can wait," Naruto said firmly, stunning Sakura for a moment before she started to smile. Of course he could wait for her. He'd had a lot of practice after all. Sakura took a deep breath, and thought about what a crazy and painful and wonderful past few months she'd had. "We still get to live in sin and stuff, right?" he asked with a wink, proving to her once and for all if there were a singular perfect moment, men would find a way to ruin it.
"Hmm," Sakura said, raising an eyebrow. "It's not even the first date yet and you're already propositioning me"
"Er, I'm not being serious, Sakura-chan," he stammered, hoping he hadn't overstepped his bounds with his teasing.
Closing the space between them. Sakura grinned as Naruto smacked the back of his head on the closet door in his skittishness. Somehow she managed to run her fingers through his soft, yellow hair without smacking her elbow. Pressing up against him, she stretched up to meet him, her breath tickling his chin. "Oh? That's too bad... I was about to say yes," Sakura affirmed before sealing his lips with her own.
My god, it's finally done! Finally! This little project had initially only been intended as a short piece six months ago. Now it's a sprawling novella rounding out about 80 pages in MS Word. Hopefully, I've managed to balance humor and drama with characterization and plot. Hopefully.
This work would not be possible without the continual support and ridicule of Random1377.