A Naruto fanfiction, By Serenanna
Part 1 – Just Friends
Warnings and Disclaimers: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters. I'm just borrowing them to play with. I'll return them later, promise. There is adult language and content, as well as sexual situations in this story. So, if you're under 18, leave now before your virgin eyes are scarred forever. If you're over 18, enjoy!
Story Notes: Betaing by cultofdecay. This is a Kakashi/Sakura fic told in hopefully not so many parts. Yes, there will be lemon, but there will be plot first. This will be a real plot with a kitchen sink of genres in this, but above all, it will be romantic. Other pairings may occur, but are minor aspects to this story. I'm also cracking a few clichés here while tackling an already over-used plot, plus a few twists. Being this is fanfiction, liberties were taken with the actions of the characters and timelines. Certain parts of the fic are not canonical, I just don't know which ones. Any OC's created are mine alone and are important to the plot of the fic. No, they won't do anything too stupid. If you like them, please don't ask for pairings. It won't happen. All will be explained in the course of the fic. This story is the by-product of an idle mind with idle fingers, and too much romance lately. This is your fair warning to back out now before it's too late.
Sighing, Sakura closed her green eyes and turned onto her side, almost putting her face into a pile of leaves. It was late autumn and the day was practically perfect for Konohagakure's type of weather; the sky above rolled over with cloud after cloud among the endless stretch of blue. She could smell the changing season on the wind, in the slightly crisp feeling in the air, and it only depressed her further. The body beside her shifted, dumping red and gold leaves on top of her. The kunoichi would have screeched if her mouth hadn't been nearly clogged by the stuff. No, the only sound in the entire training field that day was that of Naruto chuckling to himself. The idiot hadn't even realized what he had done wrong until he got a face full of leaves himself. "Gah! Sorry!" he sputtered, his laughter abruptly coming to a stop.
"You better be sorry, you lazy ass!"
"I'm lazy?! Look who's talking!"
"I deserve a break, just to be lazy for once . . . At least clouds don't throw leaves and aren't so loud."
"Geez, Sakura-chan, your cloud envy is almost as bad as Shikamaru's. . ."
"I liked it better when you were quiet . . ." she mumbled before sighing again, ignoring his very existence. This was all his idea. Well, the part of him joining her in being lazy was, anyway. Laying out in one of the training fields to watch the clouds was entirely her idea, and she loved it, despite the company.
Soft thumps echoed from the trees in the distance. Sakura tried not to grin. The sound had to be his team of genin attempting to tree-climb without their leader's supervision. Naruto, as much as he loved kids, wasn't that much better of an initial teacher than Kakashi had been to them. But then again, who was she to say who would or wouldn't make a good teacher? She wasn't exactly the mothering type, and Naruto had a softer spot for young wannabe shinobi than she, making the Kyuubi container the better choice for a teacher. Besides, her life was busy enough as it was, when she wasn't being lazy, of course.
Sighing, Sakura started to get up, brushing the grass and dirt from her short, layered, crimson-over-red yukata and black shorts, while sitting on her knees. An indigo obi was tied around her waist with red braided cord, clasped with a red and black swirl brooch of enamel and steel, while the excess fabric was tucked into a short roll. The same shade of deep blue was used in the cotton band that held up her paneled sleeves, baring the long-sleeved armored shirt of steel mesh she wore underneath. Her feet were covered in a pair of tall, black sandals that stopped just under her knees, nearly the same style as the pair she had first worn at sixteen.
Groaning slightly, she plucked a fallen leaf from her long pink hair before searching for others. She'd stopped bothering to cut it, except for her bangs, four years ago, letting it grow so long that it nearly reached her rump. Ok, so perhaps letting her hair grow out again wasn't the smartest idea as it was heavier and took longer to wash and dry, but . . . the simple pleasures in hair care always made her feel like a woman again. A wave had set into her hair as well, no longer poker-straight as it had been in her youth. Maybe it was because she coiled it or braided it while on the job, and still using the forehead protector as a headband, it had made her hair grow all bent. Maybe it was a reflection of how her path in life seemed to have bent too.
The twist she had pinned it in left a small tail hanging down her back, which unfortunately attracted the most grass and leaves. After pulling a few pieces out, Sakura looked down at the black watch on her wrist. "He should be done by now," she muttered to herself, glancing towards the Jounin Building that sat across from the training fields.
"This is Kakashi-sensei we're talking about. He isn't going to be there any time soon. Lay back down."
Of course, Naruto was right. When was the Copy Nin ever on time? She settled back down, falling into the pile of leaves instead of on the grass, as if it were a bed. They stayed like that for a long while until the leaves shifted and she could feel the blonde staring down at her, even if she didn't see him. "You're thinking again . . ."
"It's why I come out here, to think. You're not helping."
The leaves crunched as Naruto flopped down. "You're thinking about men again, aren't you?"
"How do you know?"
"Because whenever Kakashi-sensei is busy and you're lonely in that way, you go talk to Ino. If you can't find Ino, you find me. If you can't find me, you visit bastard. If bastard isn't home or if he's preoccupied with 'clan relations' with his wife, you lay out here, alone, sighing over how miserable your love life is. It's just convenient today that I happened to bring my team to your favorite spot."
"I'm not that routine, Naruto."
"Yes, you are. The only problem is you're almost never alone anymore, or even in the village. Really, the only man you ever spend time with lately is Kakashi-sensei. If I didn't know any better . . ."
"But you do know better."
"Really, Sakura-chan, sometimes you both make me wonder," Naruto said with a small chuckle. "What exactly do you do on all those missions, alone in the dark of the night, with just our ex-sensei and no one to interrupt?"
"Sleep." Sakura rolled over and buried her face in the dry leaves, her words muffled. "You're as bad as Ero-sennin with his ridiculous sexual daydreams and perversions. And you're as bad as everyone else, assuming my relationship with Kakashi is more than what it is."
He snorted, noticing how she had dropped the honorific. Then again, she'd stopped using it in connection with the silver-haired jounin four years ago. "What is it then?"
"For the hundredth time or so, we're–"
"Just friends, got it," Naruto finished for her. "Is there any man in this village you're more than just friends with?"
The kunoichi frowned at the words.
That simple label explained almost every relationship Haruno Sakura had with any and every man in her life. They were all just her friends. Any love left in her life was strictly platonic.
She groaned, and that was enough of an answer to tell him that no, there was still no one to fill that void in the pink-haired jounin's life. He chuckled darkly, ignoring the flying fistful of red and golden leaves that rained down on top of him. She quickly gave up when he didn't stop laughing, sighing once more and settling back down. The heat of the sun and contrasting cool air made her at once drowsy, yet wide awake, caught in a state of near dreaming that ran rampant with her thoughts. Why did warm autumn days make her think like this? Naruto wasn't helping her state of mind either, questioning her on Kakashi. Why did everyone assume so much about him and his relationship with her? Didn't they know she had no love life to speak of, and gave up long ago on actively pursuing one?
There was not much to tell about her love life anyway, since the opinions of others covered just about all the details.
Ino, who was still battling for Shikamaru's attention with Temari, called her love life a tragedy. Tenten, who had been dating Hyuuga Neji for a while now, said her love life was just off to a rocky, slow start. Hinata, who was happily married to Naruto, was eternally grateful to Sakura's lousy love life. Temari, who still showed up around Konoha on the off chance Shikamaru would notice her, said her own love life was at least better than Sakura's. Kurenai, who finally broke down and moved in with Asuma, said she was lucky to have a life, period, after all the village went through to bring back Uchiha Sasuke. Anko, who still slept with anything male, called her love life non-existent, because really, it was. Even Shizune, who was eternally single too, said Sakura was too young to be wasting what little love life she could have on missions, missions, and more missions.
The only woman Sakura knew that held out any hope for her in all matters of the heart was her mentor, Tsunade. Every time the Hokage heard about her pupil being asked out on a date or being sighted alone with a man, she bet money that said man would be the one to finally stick around; to finally tame the feisty kunoichi. Yet, like the Legendary Sucker she was, the blonde always lost those bets. None of Sakura's relationships ever worked out despite how much she tried, not even when it seemed certain that it was meant to be.
Sasuke taught her that when he left and then finally returned. But instead of falling into her arms, he settled down with a woman who possessed the antithesis of her personality, to the surprise of the entire village, with the exception of herself. He wasn't the one for her. Despite how much she may have once thought otherwise, she knew it never would have happened anyway before the engagement was even announced, even if things in the past were different. Once he broke her heart and shattered the illusions she held about love, all of what she believed in was gone. One person in love did not make an everlasting relationship. In the end, she didn't blame him, only herself for thinking the way she did about him; for thinking her love was enough.
But that was gone, too.
She'd already moved on long before he officially came home. They'd been through too much to ever really work, anyway. It was painful at first, those first few days, but once she accepted that Sasuke had indeed gone into Orochimaru's training, the feelings went away like a weight that had been lifted off her shoulders. If she could accept that so easily, maybe it wasn't love she had felt to begin with. But, whatever she had felt was beside the point. They were friends now, once again, and she didn't regret it. There were other things she regretted, though.
Sakura looked over at Naruto, wondering for a moment about what could have been. She could easily see what the Hyuuga woman loved about him. Loud-mouthed, idiotic, but still loveable Naruto had finally grown up like the rest of them into a mature, handsome, yet still loud and sometimes idiotic man. Seeing him lying down beside her brought up so many memories, even if she sometimes wished she didn't remember them. In one night of near insanity, she lost her virginity to him based solely on the fact that he had finally said he loved her. Apparently, her long forgotten beliefs on what love was still made her come to the most idiotic conclusions. She had thought that had been good enough of a reason, but she had been wrong. They both had been wrong. While she didn't regret what they had done, their relationship didn't turn into what either of them had hoped for. They went back to being just close friends and not lovers almost immediately.
Her past relationship with Lee after being with Naruto had turned out similarly, going back to being just friends before she could even blink. Neither of them were the one for her, and it didn't surprise her. After the years both boys must have spent pining over her, no woman could live up to the vision of a dream love. She couldn't blame either of them for the failures, leaving her to only blame herself for how strange it felt when she was with either of them. All she knew was that it certainly wasn't love like she had always thought it would be, and both men had agreed. It didn't even feel like her crush on Sasuke. Maybe if she had tried a little harder, then maybe it wouldn't have felt so . . . different, unpleasantly different. Maybe love just wasn't supposed to happen to her. It was the only conclusion she could come to. If her friends could find love so easily, why couldn't she?
The more she thought about the subject of love, especially on lazy days such as that one, the more the kunoichi became confused. After all the years of trying, Sakura honestly didn't even know what love was supposed to feel like, or at least she thought she didn't know. All she did know was what it didn't feel like. "Naruto?" she asked suddenly, curiosity getting to her.
"What was it like when you first kissed Hinata-chan?"
She didn't need to see his face to know the heart-warming smile of satisfaction in place there. It was there every time his wife's name was mentioned. "Like holding fire with both hands," he said wistfully. "I never knew my meek little Hinata could kiss like that."
Sakura frowned, knowing that was never a feeling she associated with kissing. "What was it like kissing me?"
"Like kissing my sister, if I had a sister." His answer was met with another handful of raining leaves. "Hey! You did ask!"
The leaves stopped falling on his face. She propped herself up on her elbows to look at him. "Is that why we failed? Why I failed?"
Naruto shifted uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact on purpose. "Well . . . I'm sorry, Sakura-chan, but it just never worked between us. I thought it was what I wanted, what you wanted, but I don't think any of us knew really what we wanted. I'm sure Lee felt the same way . . ."
He did have a point. Kissing Naruto always did feel funny and wrong, but not the good kind of wrong. Kissing Lee didn't feel any better, no matter how hard she tried. It could have felt like kissing her brother, if she had a brother to kiss to tell the difference. Yup, of all her exposure to love and kisses, it only ever tasted like failure on her tongue. Sakura flopped back down in aggravation. "I'm cursed . . ."
"Well . . . you could try dating again?"
". . . my twenty-first birthday, remember?"
"Oh, good point. You always fought too much with him anyway. Shino?"
"Chouji's out too."
"Surprisingly, he's in love with the daughter of the barbeque shack owner. They're dating."
"A match made in heaven."
"What about Shikamaru?"
"Too pursued already; joining that hunt is much too troublesome for my tastes."
"Neji's practically married to Tenten. And Sasuke is–"
"Is married to a nice, simple girl, who richly deserves him. I was at that wedding, remember, and at least one of the births, I think. How many does he have now?"
"Two at least, I think. Three maybe? I know he just stuck another bun in the oven . . . Gaara?"
"The Kazekage? Too scary and too far away."
"Also too far away and a little too weird . . ."
"Too much of a smart ass."
"Too oblivious to everything, including me."
"Too ewwww, no!" Sakura shouted, throwing leaves at the blonde who laughed hysterically. "Is that the best you can come up with, Naruto? Gai?"
"Well, there is Kakashi-sensei . . ."
She flopped back down as his voice trailed off. Why did he have to bring up Kakashi again? Normally, Sakura would have been annoyed by his persistence, but she didn't say anything. She was too grateful that he didn't question her silence for once when it came to her thoughts on their silver-haired ex-sensei. Talking would have made him needle her more than silence. Then again, Naruto would have been very disappointed in her opinions if he was looking for scandal.
Kakashi was too unavailable.
At least, she always thought of him as unavailable, even if their history together intertwined now more so than ever, and even if she knew for a fact that he remained a bachelor. Sakura had to admit that out of all her old teammates, she had the closest relationship with the normally aloof man, closer than even her friendship with Naruto, which was hard enough to swallow. Of all her relationships with men that were just friends, she and Kakashi were so close that they were seemingly joined at the hip, and yet. . . not. Looking back on her friendship with the legendary Copy Nin of Konoha, it was a rather odd story how they got to that point.
It started with the end of Konoha's battles, and the dissolution of Team Seven as they knew it, just before her eighteenth birthday. Their problems were gone. Orochimaru and Hidden Sound were destroyed from within by Sasuke, which was a long story. Akatsuki was destroyed piece-by-piece when they pursued Naruto for the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox. Uchiha Itachi was the last surviving member of that criminal organization to be killed, by his own brother in one climactic battle. When it was all over, when they had grown so much in their adventures, staying together as one unit was almost impossible. They were too powerful together. So, it ended. Life moved on, almost leaving her behind again.
Everyone seemed to have something to do at the end of Team Seven except for Sakura. Naruto had Hinata and teaching his genin team. Sasuke had his clan to rebuild. Sai had ANBU as always. For about a month after the team had parted ways, each of them now a jounin, Sakura flipped back and forth over what to do with herself. She could have followed any path she wanted like they had: the academy, the hospital, the call of duty, or the call of family. But, nothing seemed right. The nostalgia of what once was still remained in her heart.
And then Kakashi showed up at her window one night with a mission scroll and a question.
He asked her to be his partner. Not a part of a new team, but a partner; just her and no one else. She honestly had no idea why he asked her of all people until he explained why. She could still remember his exact words: "Because I trust you with my life. Everyone else I've said that to has already died. You're still here after six years. That's more than enough proof to me that you'll be around for a few more, at least."
It was such a simple explanation, but it worked. Sakura was won over in spirit, and from there it was all downhill in her mind. The very next day they'd set out on the mission. That was followed by another mission, then another, and another. She'd stopped counting the number of missions they had been on together when it passed fifty. He had helped her decide her way, that the most important thing for her to do in life was her duty to Konoha by having his back.
And it felt all right being trusted with the safety of the man that used to teach her, albeit very little. Besides, while he still routinely trained her in areas she lacked in, they were beyond student and teacher now. They were equals, and, of course, friends. For the past four years, they'd been just about as close as two friends could be and still remain friends. This, of course, included just about every impossibly embarrassing situation two people could find themselves in.
There were at least five times he'd walked in on her changing clothes, twice in the shower or baths. She'd seen him naked three times, nearly naked thirty plus times, and mask-less for more than five minutes, twice, and quite a few times for less than five. They'd been pressed together in cramped places at least a couple dozen times, including hands in inappropriate places just as many. He'd been forced to kiss her on the lips once as an alibi, but no tongue. They both knew what the other looked like as the opposite gender after learning Naruto's Sexy no jutsu for one mission. They didn't die of shock at the revelation, either. They'd been forced to pose as being married or engaged, twice.
They had started sleeping in the same bed on missions one year into their partnership, when it no longer seemed odd or embarrassing, and when they realized it saved drastically on expenses. He always slept with his back turned to her, and she did the same, the two of them sleeping like brother and sister. He never ended up sprawled all over her by morning, either. Kakashi knew exactly when she'd get her period and how to avoid her hormonal temper. For her part, Sakura never said anything when she noticed his occasional bouts of 'morning wood'.
They had gotten drunk together innumerable times, usually after missions, and often reveled in each other's drunken secrets. They had enough blackmail bombshells on each other to sink ships. There was the time she was forced to pluck a fallen scroll of great importance from a manure pile it had been tossed into. There was also the time he had to let a woman take him home so that they could steal a priceless necklace from her neck which contained stolen diamonds, their real target.
Despite never having been intimate, they also knew each other's not-so-sordid sexual histories. For example, he knew about the time she slept with Kiba after one drunken birthday party, and how the poor boy growled incessantly while having sex and howled like a dog when he came. He has never let her live it down since. She knew that Kakashi didn't sleep around at all, even if he was seemingly notorious because of his Icha Icha obsession. It wasn't his fault what people thought, she realized, after buying a few of the books and reading them herself. Ero-sennin actually wasn't that bad of a writer when it came to romance. He just tended to speed things up too much and was sometimes just plain dirty.
Their personalities had also started to rub off on one another as well. She had succumbed to reading Icha Icha, and Kakashi knew this well, but she never read in public like he did, and she certainly wasn't obsessed with the books. She didn't try to rid him of his beloved books anymore, either. They were also habitually late, usually arriving within moments of each other, whereas the cherry blossom was always punctual before their partnership. Sakura blamed it on the fact that she now set her watch back just to keep up with him without dying of boredom. No one believed her reasoning, of course, except Kakashi. For his part, the Copy Nin wasn't so aloof anymore, at least not while around his female partner. He also seemed a bit more open, even if the mask still kept him about as expressive as stone.
Despite all this, their life together as shinobi had not been fun and easy since the peace came. It was still a job, after all, with all the hazards of a life of borderline crime. He nearly died in her arms, twice. The first time occurred because she panicked and was slow in healing him. He would have died the second time if she did panic, but she didn't, for which they were both grateful. Sakura nearly died once. She lived because Kakashi managed to break through his fear of hospitals to deliver her in time. After each near-death experience, their partnership almost broke. Yet, after all the arguments were over, there was no denying they worked well together.
Perhaps they worked together too well, if idle gossip could be believed. Naruto seemed to believe it, or at least listen to it. She and Kakashi were, after all, just friends, just very good friends. And really, how long could a man and woman just remain friends? It practically went against the natural order of the sexes, didn't it?
Frowning, Sakura turned onto her back and looked up again at the sky once more. She hated the feeling that reared its ugly head whenever her thoughts turned to Kakashi. Every time she tried to label it, the words never came out like she wanted them to. Whenever she tried to discuss it with Ino, the only person she could call a close friend of the female type, Pig always told her she was in love. Oh, right, like she could be in love with the man she worked with. If she asked Naruto, no doubt his answer would be the same: that she was in love with the masked ninja, her own partner. She frowned, reminded once again of the gossip. Why did everyone assume that? Despite spending nearly every waking moment together on missions, and training together, and sometimes hanging out, they were still just friends.
That was it: friends. There was nothing else between them to be had. Sort of.
At the start of their partnership, when the first incidences of embarrassment occurred, they'd set down firm acknowledgements of their feelings in a very open and frank discussion. She'd never forget the first words out of Kakashi's mouth either; the first time he had been direct in answering a personal question since she was a genin. He had said: "Everything I feel for you is out of friendship."
Nothing else needed to be said after that.
It made perfect sense back then, and still did. He never seemed interested in her in that way. He never came on to her in all those embarrassingly close situations. There were plenty of opportunities in the four years they'd been together, but nothing ever happened. Kakashi had seen her at her best, her sexiest, and her crummiest, but he always retained the same droopy, dark-eyed look. The one time he did kiss her, there was nothing but gentlemanly restraint in his lips. Never once was his touch anything inappropriate or uncomfortable. Boundaries, while skirted on occasion, were never pushed. She believed him at his word. Everything he felt for her was out of friendship; no more, and no less.
Soon after that night, she stopped calling him sensei. He stopped calling her Sakura-chan as well, unless he was teasing her, of course.
But still, some new feeling weighed over her, unshakeable and only growing worse in recent months as they passed by. As much as she always said they were just friends, she couldn't get rid of her doubts that she was missing something while being around Kakashi. What was wrong with her? Maybe it was because she couldn't put a name to that new feeling that bothered her. She didn't even know what to think about the man anymore, except that it wasn't love. Her past experiences had taught her enough of that to know.
Besides, how could she love him? He was an old, stubborn smartass with a book fetish and a perpetual tardiness problem. He never answered her questions directly unless it was important. While he did respect her abilities as a ninja and a woman, and honored her opinion when she freely gave it, he'd still argue with her until they were both blue in the face when he knew he was right. Kakashi usually was right anyway, damnit, which annoyed her to no end too.
When things weren't as important, though, he always teased her or purposefully made her angry for his amusement. He knew all too well how to get under her skin with just a few choice words, but he never insulted her either. If any other man spoke to her like he did, they would be force-fed a knuckle sandwich. Yet her temper gave him a free pass every time, only increasing her frustration with him. She never could be angry with Kakashi for long. It was a terrible weakness on her part. And when she did lash out at him, it was always playful. Really hurting him was impossible for her to do, another terrible weakness on her part.
Being around him wasn't entirely unpleasant either. She did laugh at his jokes and idioms when they were funny and not pointed at her. Sakura couldn't deny that they were comfortable around each other, often being lazy together almost unconsciously when there was downtime. It was much like how she was with Naruto, only it seemed to happen at least once a week instead of once a month. Kakashi also left her in peace to catch up on his reading while she daydreamed, whereas the blonde always wanted to talk. At those times, she couldn't complain about the Copy Nin's preference for silence and dirty literature at all.
She also couldn't call Kakashi entirely unattractive either. The first time she ever caught him without his mask was pure luck, walking in on him while he was shaving after a shower. He had simply blinked at her before finishing and putting the mask back on with no comment whatsoever. All of ten seconds had passed, but she had finally seen his face long enough to remember it. Kakashi was handsome after all, like she had always assumed, no matter what Naruto or Sasuke had speculated, but he wasn't drop dead gorgeous either. He was, for lack of better terms, heartwarmingly easy on the eyes and very much masculine in appeal, despite the droopy stare. An idle thought passed through her head that if her partner ever did smile in genuine happiness without the mask on, he could melt any woman into puddles of drool.
Was she just thinking of Kakashi's smile?
The kunoichi groaned, rolling off of the pile of leaves to clunk her forehead on the ground. "It's because he's male, that's it. And the fact that I haven't gotten laid in almost a year. There's no other reason why I should be thinking about Kakashi in that way."
"Oh, now she talks about Kakashi-sensei? 'That way', huh? I knew it, you are in denial!" Naruto laughed heartily, kicking back and forth in the leaves. "Keep telling yourself that you aren't in denial, maybe it'll come true!"
"I am not in denial! You did not hear any of that, or I'll tell Hinata-chan where Jiraiya took you before the wedding," she threatened, hissing at him. His laughter stopped cold, and she knew he was looking darkly at her turned back. "How in the world did–?" he started to ask before grumbling. "All right, fine. Blackmail it is, but now I have to know what you meant, so tell me. You do like Kakashi-sensei, don't you?"
"I do not . . . I was just thinking of what he'd look like if he actually smiled . . ."
"And you liked that mental image?" Naruto asked with a licentious grin Ero-sennin would have been proud of, all but wiggling his eyebrows. "Fish-lips and all?"
"I already told you. He doesn't have fish-lips. Don't be such a child," she said with a pout, kicking at the leaves. "He would be pretty irresistible if he did smile, though . . ."
"I think I smell love in the air, and denial."
Didn't he ever give up? "Fuck off," she said bitterly, curling up on her side.
"Ouch, harsh, Sakura-chan . . . All right, I believe you, maybe you aren't in denial. If you say you don't feel anything for him, then you don't, but . . ." Naruto trailed off, shuffling around in the leaves, "I just wish you'd be happy for once, with someone, anyone. Doesn't even have to be a guy. As long as you're no longer miserable and alone, that's good enough."
"Thank you . . . I think."
"You deserve to be as happy as I am," he said, reaching over the mound of leaves to pull the pink-haired young woman into a hug. She sagged into the warmth, not caring for a moment how they looked together. Naruto never seemed to care. He was her friend, after all. Given how much he hugged all his friends, as well as his wife, it was almost expected to find the over-exuberant ninja sprawled upon some unfortunate victim. He growled contentedly into her shoulder, not letting go. For a moment, she thought they'd both fall asleep right there when a loud, high-pitch screech shattered the calm. "Sensei!"
The Kyuubi container roared, rising up from the leaves to shout across the forested training ground. "I said no fighting, you pipsqueaks!"
"Sensei! Sensei! He fell, he fell!"
The yelling in the distance only seemed to get louder and more frantic. Sakura poked her head up, seeing two tiny figures jumping up and down by the trees. She sighed, lying back down. "I'll be fine. Go be a teacher to your genin. You'll miss them when they're all grown up."
"Kids . . . I can't believe Hinata convinced me to have our own. These three are more than enough of a reason to not reproduce, not counting the bastard's brood, too," Naruto grumbled as he got back to his feet, brushing off the leaves. "Hold on! Sensei's coming! Don't you three dare move!"
Sakura giggled as he stalked off, turning over to embrace the warmth lingering in the leaves. There was little for her to do that day except lay about since she and Kakashi had arrived back in Konoha earlier than anticipated. The mission, which had consisted of relieving a minor lord of a few funds he had illegally collected from their client, went off without a hitch. Her partner had already left to write up their report, turn it in along with the goods, collect their pay, and, knowing him, grab another mission.
She had to hand it to him. Since Team Seven had ended, his work ethic with missions was unsurpassable. The only times they ever took breaks was either when Tsunade personally ordered them on leave or around the winter and summer festivals. Given that it wasn't mid-winter yet, another mission seemed almost inevitable. If she was about to get another mission, she couldn't stay there all day in the field with Naruto or his three troublesome genin, as much as she would have liked to. She had another mission to pack for and a certain man to find, one who would have been more handsome if he smiled more.
Sitting up on her hind legs, Sakura grumbled as the thought of Kakashi and his non-existent smiles entered her mind again. She must have been out there too long; the sun was frying her brain. Yet, there was much appeal in basking in the sunlight, contemplating life, love, and clouds with little else to do. No wonder Shikamaru found it so entertaining when he wasn't trying to escape the two women vying for his attention. She glanced across the field, taking in the sight of Naruto being very un-teacher-like and chasing after the three screaming genin. Obviously, the one that had fallen from the tree didn't get hit too hard. Despite his earlier misgivings, she always did know he'd make a great father. Hinata was fortunate indeed, and she was happy for them both. But part of her still wished she was similarly happy, too.
The romantic in her just couldn't die some horrible death no matter how much she willed it to. Maybe Naruto was right. As long as she was no longer miserable, that was good enough. For all she knew, having love or just a man in her life might not give her what she really wanted. What did she want? Kakashi had given her a purpose in life again, but it still didn't feel complete yet. So what would make it complete? She knew the answer to that question wouldn't be as easy to find.
After pulling a clump of leaves from her tangled hair, Sakura looked at her watch. Now she was in danger of being late. And yet, she couldn't see the Copy Nin in the distance, hanging from his usual perch at the top of the Jounin Building. "He should have been done by now," she muttered to herself, trying not to sound worried.
Really, when was he ever on time for anything?
It didn't mean Kakashi would track her down when he was done, either. It was just like him to never be around when she needed him, and then to show up when she never wanted him. He could have been waylaid, which was also typical. For all she knew, his nose was pressed against some bookstore window drooling over Ero-sennin's latest work. Sighing in aggravation at the image in her head, Sakura stood up and stalked towards the building, intent to track him down.
The Great Copy Nin stood before the worn desk, waiting patiently for the Hokage to put in an appearance at her own office. Really, if she was going to torture him by making him stand, he could have done it in the hallway. It wasn't like he didn't know the way, either. Shizune didn't have to personally escort him after tracking him down inside the wings of the Jounin Building, but she did anyway. As soon as he'd entered the office, he knew that this was on purpose, probably to make sure he didn't disappear somewhere to read. Then again, he would have already skipped out if he had been left waiting in the hall this long. Icha Icha's call was like a siren's song to his idle mind, the weight of the book almost burning through his back pouch. Couldn't this have waited for later?
He slumped a little more where he stood, tapping a sandaled foot on the flooring. Maybe this was karma for all the times he had made other people wait. Just as that thought passed through his mind, the office door burst open, Tsunade sweeping past him into the room in a hurry with Shizune right behind her. "Ah, you didn't run this time," the blonde grumbled before sinking into her chair.
"I made sure of it, Tsunade-sama, just like you asked," the petite, dark-haired woman said while placing scroll after scroll on her mistress's desk. "Finding him wasn't easy, either. These are the scrolls you requested, along with his last mission report."
"Thank you. You may leave us," the Hokage said much too lowly to be cordial. The tone of voice between the two women and the pairs of eyes on him did not bode well, making him curious about this meeting. Shizune gave a short bow, then shuffled out of the room, sparing him one glance of pity and a smug grin before departing. Tsunade smiled at him almost too pleasantly, reminding him distinctly of a tiger's predatory look before it ripped an unfortunate victim's throat out.
No, he was definitely in for some sort of punishment now, or rather he and Sakura were.
"How many missions have you been on now with my protégé, Hatake-san?"
That was a good question, one that made him look upwards while skimming over the numbers in his head. "Um, one hundred and thirty-five?" he guessed.
"No, ninety-eight to be exact."
"I think I counted in the ones we didn't get paid for by mistake."
"How charitable of you," Tsunade said with a frown, leaning back in her chair. "When you first requested Haruno Sakura, my student, as your only teammate, I do admit to being a bit skeptical of your reasoning. The girl was good, we both knew that, but then again, all of Team Seven was extraordinarily gifted in their own ways. But why Sakura, I always wondered, when you had your pick of even more exceptional individuals? I suppose I'll never know completely. Ninety-eight recorded missions and four years later, you both are still together with one of the highest success records in the entire village. And you both keep findings ways to impress me."
"Thank you, Hokage-sama." Kakashi sounded a bit shocked at the praise, blinking. This was unlike their dear leader, which meant a noose lay hidden somewhere in her overly generous words. Tsunade's smile stayed in place, making him gulp in nervousness. "Such praise is deserved, to be sure, but . . ."
"Are you aware of a superstition in the village that no team has survived intact past their ninety-eighth mission, ever?"
He blinked. "Um, no?"
"Well then, now you know. It's something to think about as I hand you this scroll with your next mission, number ninety-nine."
That invisible noose around his neck constricted a little as he reached out to take the scroll. "Yes, Hokage-sama . . . Is there a reason you're handing this to me personally? It's not S-rank, is it?"
The smile on her face turned into a sly grin. "Only in the pay, I assure you, but it is a highly specialized mission. You were requested personally by our client. She wanted our best, and your name filtered to the top. She wouldn't have anyone else."
The noose strangled his words; he nearly choked on his own voice. "Really?"
"Read it, Kakashi," Tsunade said gruffly, dropping all pleasantries while waving the scroll in his face. "You don't have a choice in this one."
He took it and broke the seal, unfurling the paper on the desk. His eye scanned the inked words, looking for danger, death, entrapment, or something in there that would make the Godaime this mischievously pleased. When Kakashi read the mission objective, he suddenly knew. "We have to . . . I am reading this correctly, right?"
"Yes, Kakashi, your mission is to ruin this man's social life and good name by any means necessary."
"But, this is child's play. A few genin could do this easily. Naruto would love this assignment for his team. You cannot seriously believe this is all we have to do?" He balked upon looking down at the scroll again and finding their assigned fee for the work. "And they're being severely overcharged . . . Am I reading all those zeros correctly behind the six?"
"You mean the six billion yen? That is to split, by the way. The village's take is already deducted, and no, that sum was volunteered for the work, which is why this mission is labeled as S-rank. Pull this off and you both will never have to worry for money again."
Kakashi's hands shook slightly, barely grasping the scroll. This much money was too easy to be had. There had to be some catch waiting for them, either in their client, their target, or in completing the mission. Also, he had been requested personally, which always made him slightly more paranoid than normal. His eye shift sideways, away from the scroll and the blonde. "Is there something I'm missing?"
"This is not a joke, Kakashi. This is yours and Sakura's next mission. Your client is a very wealthy lady who will also be your contact. Her business address is in there. She is to receive first-rate service for the price she is paying. If her pleasure requires thoroughly ruining a man's life, you will make him out to be the scum of the earth before I let you back through Konoha's gates," Tsunade said sternly, making her point by bringing a fist down on her desk hard enough to create a few new cracks. "Am I clear?"
"I expect you both to be gone a month. If you're back any sooner, the money is forfeit. You both leave tomorrow, so take the rest of the day off. No one but the lady knows of this, so keep it that way. No one is to know she hired us. And take winter clothing. It's rather cold this time of year on the border between Wave Country and Water."
"Yes, Tsunade-sama." Kakashi tried not to frown, his eye drooping at the continued lecture. An annoyed blonde eyebrow twitched at his attitude, obviously not pleased. "Do not give me that look," she warned. "This one is practically a vacation. Enjoy yourselves. I'm ordering you to."
A cheery smile was forced onto his face under the mask as his eye creased at her. "We'll manage somehow."
"Get out of my office."
"Yes, Tsunade-sama," he muttered, quickly rolling up the scroll and bidding a hasty retreat while the getting was good. As soon as his footsteps no longer sounded down the corridor outside her office, the Godaime burst into maniacal cackles. This was perfect! Too perfect! This plan was so brilliant she could cry! Oh, to think how Jiraiya would eat his words and pony up his end of the bet when Sakura finally bagged a man. It made the blonde almost giddy in her devilry. There was no way she could lose this one!
Everyone in the village gossiped about those two no matter how much they denied it. Jiraiya brought it up to Tsunade first as it was, betting that Sakura wouldn't be able to fall in love with Kakashi in a month. She just had to take such a bet, and then this plum of a month-long and safe task just fell into her lap. It was karma, fate and luck smiling on all her past bad gambling judgments. There was no denying it in the blonde's mind that something had to be going on between the pair of partners. If not, their new mission was bound to start something remotely indecent! The superstition part was bit much though, but if it triggered the desired effect in Kakashi's mind, deception was worth it. Nothing like a little paranoia to jumpstart someone's thinking. Before she could bask in the grandeur of her manipulation, though, work still needed to be done. "Shizune! Send them in now!" she yelled out, sure that her assistant was hovering about somewhere.
Waiting for the next set of shinobi to appear through her door, Tsunade leaned forward over her desk, her fingers pressed together while resting under her chin. For once, the Legendary Sucker was banking on winning a bet, especially after the insurance policies she was going to take out to secure her success. They did need a pair of witnesses to testify that her protégé and the Copy Nin were together, after all; two people with invested interests in both parties and not in the betting pool. Sometimes love needed a little nudge in the right direction. And besides, Jiraiya never said anything about not interfering with the pair, after all . . .
The door to the Jounin Building swung open and swung shut again with such a bang that most of the people in the vicinity jumped at the noise. It was a miracle the sound wasn't followed by the crackle of splitting wood or the tinkling of falling shattered glass given who slammed the door in the first place. Sakura glowered darkly at the people around her that gawked in her direction and started to walk off, muttering to herself. "He wasn't there, he wasn't there . . ."
The kunoichi's feet stopped on the pebbled path, turning towards the male voice. A man in ANBU uniform stood just behind the right of her shoulder. It would have been impressive, as irresistible as most men in that uniform were, if it wasn't for the fact that she recognized the black spiked hair sprouting from the back of his head, and the baby cradled on his back by the familiar dark eyes. The kid drooled in the sling on the man's back while in the midst of cooing at her, and he winced. She couldn't help but grin; father and son. "Sasuke, I didn't think I'd run into you today, or little Takeru-kun?" she smiled, giving the baby a small wave.
He raised the red and white snake mask away from his face until it rested at a tilt on the side of his head. "My wife isn't too feeling well with the new baby only three months along . . ."
"So you're helping her out by watching one of them?"
"It was that or wash diapers and rinse bottles." His dark eyes gave her a significant look, as if he didn't have much choice in the matter. A slight giggle bubbled up in her throat. She couldn't help it, really. The idea of the deadly, scary shinobi that was Uchiha Sasuke as any other hen-pecked husband couldn't have been more amusing if she tried. "She must be very grateful to you then for taking care of the baby for the day," Sakura said, trying to sound sincere.
She couldn't pull it off, though, as he frowned. "Laugh."
The kunoichi blinked. "Excuse me?"
"You want to laugh at me for how far I've fallen for the sake of my clan, so laugh," Sasuke said with a seriousness and a glare that could to reduce anyone chuunin or under into turning white as ghosts. She silently met his gaze for all of three seconds, then burst out in silly laughter. He rolled his eyes and fought down a sigh, but as soon as she was done, he smirked again, just like the permanently smart-assed Uchiha genius she remembered. If anyone but the pink-haired kunoichi or their blonde ex-teammate ever laughed at him, kunai were soon to be involved. Even Sai had felt the brunt of his wrath on occasion for his misguided turn of phrase. Yet, somehow, the past had melted away his exterior enough that he could have somewhat normal friendships as opposed to blatant rivalries, at least with his old teammates. "It is funny, I guess . . ." he said, taking the toddler from his back. "When they're not throwing up, filling diapers, or crying, they are kind of . . ."
"Cute?" Sakura offered, highly amused by the image, even if she'd seen it before. "Babies and children are supposed to be cute."
"I remember this lecture after Akiko's birth. They're supposed to be cute to prevent the parents from wanting to get rid of them. I don't need to hear it again."
"I only lectured you because you took one look at your little girl and scrunched up your nose when you got one whiff of baby poo."
"Three children and at least ten thousand diapers per child later can change a man."
Sakura grinned slightly. His assessment must have included himself, even if it went unsaid. "What are you doing here, anyway? Is it bring-your-child-to-work day?" she asked, still grinning.
"Just training. Another mission?"
"Yes, just got back into the village from one. And knowing Kakashi . . ."
"I know," Sasuke said, "And I don't need to know more. You both will be fine out there."
"Thank you . . ." she trailed off, interested more in her sandals than meeting his eyes. "Funny, isn't it?"
"What's funny now?"
"Just the way things happen, I guess. I never pictured being partnered with Kakashi, but I never pictured a lot of things happening, either."
He started to take a step towards her, reaching to grab her by the arm. "Sakura–"
She eluded his grasp, holding her hand up instead. "I'm fine, really. Everything that happened has been my choice, and we both knew that. We're just friends. That's all we ever were to each other, friends."
Sasuke nodded. "Yes . . . and thank you . . ."
"For never giving up on me, no matter what I did to you both," he admitted, shifting the baby on his shoulder. "I never told either of you thank you."
Sakura smiled, peacefully and sincerely. "You're welcome. It's what friends do."
Suddenly, the kunoichi's feet shifted sideways, the need to get back to her search tugging at her gut. "I should be going. I need to find Kakashi . . ."
As soon as the name was past her lips, an amused look lifted his eyebrows. She stopped and scowled at him. Why did people keep having that reaction around here when she mentioned her silver-haired partner? "What?" she asked bluntly.
"Nothing, just that you must be eager to see him again so soon."
He teased her. Sasuke was teasing her, a rare occasion even if it did happen once in a blue moon. The Uchiha must have heard the rumors too. "For your information, I am not eager to see him so quickly. I can almost guarantee that when I do find our old sensei, it will be with either his nose in a dirty book or pressed up against some dirty bookstore's dirty window," Sakura groused, her arms folded under her chest as she stamped a foot. "But if I'm going to pack for another mission tonight, I should at least find out what I'm going to need."
At least that was one thing the Copy Nin excelled at in his old age: getting a rise out of her without even trying. Bouncing his son on his shoulder, Sasuke walked towards the Jounin Building like he had been doing before seeing the pink-haired woman abruptly walk out. "Good luck, Sakura-chan. And take it easy on him. He's not as young as he used to be."
"He's not that old! Thirty-six is not old!" she shouted back, even as he raised his hand in goodbye.
"He certainly doesn't act old . . ." Sakura grumbled to herself.
It had to be the hair. Everyone they ever encountered took one look at the Copy Nin's silvery-grey hair and assumed they were father and daughter at best, grandfather and grand-daughter at worst. At least only the village rumor-mongers assumed they were lovers, which they weren't. Why couldn't anyone get it straight? Pondering that very question and scowling to herself, Sakura stalked off again, ignoring all the other looks sent her way as her muttering continued unabated. "He wasn't there . . ."
Jumping down to street level from the Hokage's tower, a mixture of thoughts went through Kakashi's head, most of which centered on the mission scroll safely tucked away in a vest pocket. They still clouded his head, distracting him from the familiar little book in his hands. He never got paid that much for a single mission, not even at ANBU rates, and never one this easy. It was so easy it was nearly shameful.
How hard could it be to ruin a man? Women seemed to do it all the time with their exes. A few well-placed rumors about nasty habits, personal hygiene, or performance in bed could reduce any man to being lonely for months on end. It was why Genma had dry spells despite seemingly oozing charm around the opposite sex. Then again, his friend sometimes deserved it for how he treated them. At least all the gossip Kakashi knew about his own reputation centered on two things: his indecent love for Icha Icha Paradise and his relationship with Sakura, his friend and partner.
Sakura . . .
The thought of her made his pace slow down from a determined walk to his usual slouching stroll. That seemed to happen to him a lot lately whenever the subject of the fiery pink-haired kunoichi that he was all too familiar with came across his mind. It was annoying the way his eye and thoughts lingered on her longer than ever before. Beyond annoying. At least she didn't notice his stares and no one else noticed either, or the gossip might have been worse.
Kakashi frowned, staring blankly ahead. Why did he have to finally notice a few months ago that she was really quite lovely?
He had seen it coming when she was as young as sixteen, knowing that one day she'd grow into a real heartbreaker. Sure enough, Sakura filled out and thankfully he was too familiar with her to think of her as anything but a little sister . . . until that sisterly image got blown to hell and back. All it took to undermine his carefully built thoughts was the sight of her in full kimono at the last summer festival. While normally the kunoichi radiated cuteness and innocence in traditional clothing, there was something about her that night which surpassed that notion, skipped mere prettiness, and jumped headlong right into beauty and maturity. Sakura was truly all grown up and beautiful. She must have known that when she suddenly stopped wearing her usual red shirt and tan split skirt over black shorts, right after the festival, in favor of yukatas and obi.
Or perhaps she was just taking after her mentor's fashion sense instead.
Despite Kakashi's lingering thoughts on her appearance, at least he had managed to push it aside every time she was close to him, which was all the time practically. If he was truly attracted to her, it would have been a problem, a big problem. He really didn't need a woman in his life, or that's what he kept telling himself. Ever since Rin passed, tragically faded from his life was more like it, all the contact he ever had with women was an occasional one-night stand, and that was enough for him. That had stopped as soon as he passed Team Seven. Once he came to be around kids all the time, the need for sex fell by the wayside, so the books became enough.
Never again did he want a woman in his life. He didn't need the doting, or adoration, or cooing, or all the sappy things that usually came with relationships. The only thing he ever really wanted was just the comfort of someone beside him who cared if he existed or not. Sakura filled that void nicely, and changing that relationship into something else wasn't going to happen easily. It was almost a blessing that he wasn't attracted to her in any way, shape, or form.
But then again, as he looked up to see a certain pink-haired kunoichi stomping angrily towards him, why did his thoughts fly away like the autumn leaves? He must have looked dumbstruck standing there with an open book in his hands, eyes glued to her flashing green pair and pinched scowl. "You weren't in the Jounin Building, Kakashi," she said with an aggravated frown.
"Well, you see . . ."
"I don't want to hear it. You know that," she said before turning and dropping back to his side as he kept walking through the shaded path. He couldn't help but grin under the mask, knowing her well enough to know that his excuses for his tardiness didn't cut it anymore. Still, he didn't need excuses. He could feel the waves of anger in her calming down the further they got away from the Hokage's Tower until she finally asked, "Did you get it?"
Kakashi slid his book back into its place in his pouch and pulled out a thick envelope, tossing it to her. Sakura caught it easily, counting the bills inside. "Ah, next two months rent. I can breathe easily now."
He smirked. "Like either of us are ever home long enough to appreciate it."
"That's your fault. You never let us take breaks unless we really need it."
"So you'd rather be poor?"
"No, but that's beside the point. The point is winter is coming, and I'm looking forward to a nice long break, especially with Hinata so close to being due."
Kakashi tried not to groan. Uzumaki Naruto was successfully breeding with the Hyuuga clan heiress. Konoha would never be the same. "I take it you want to be there for the birth?" he asked.
Sakura nodded. "Apparently, she won't have anyone else but me to be the midwife . . . We are taking a break after this mission, right?"
"How do you know I picked one up?"
Both of her pink eyebrows shot up, not believing him for a moment. Was he that readable to her? Kakashi didn't answer her look, knowing it was pointless. Instead, he unsnapped one vest pocket, the scroll sliding into his hand. He tossed it at her. Sakura snatched the scroll from the air, looking at it curiously, then fearfully, when she saw the seal. "S-Rank?"
"In pay alone. Just read it."
She stuffed the money envelope into her back pouch and unfurled the scroll. The kunoichi had only read into the first few lines when she gawked, yelping as if she'd just inhaled a few too many balls of dango. "T-t-t-that can't be right! That's–! Holy shit! Wow! That's–!" she screamed, green eyes huge while taking in all the zeros. "It's an error, right?"
"Nope, there's no mistake about it, Sakura-chan, but do keep it down. You're attracting unwanted attention."
"But this is–!" she started to say until reigning her voice in to a harsh whisper. "This could make us the two richest people in Konohagakure! Even the Hokage's salary isn't this much!"
"It is to split."
"I know that! It's still a lot of money!"
"It's just money, and this is just another mission."
"How can you be so blasé about this? It's like super S-rank! ANBU don't even get paid this much!"
"I wouldn't knock it. Given their high mortality rate, ANBU operatives get plenty . . . Just maybe not that much in one lump sum . . . Have you even read the mission objective?"
Sakura blinked at him, then looked down at the scroll once more, her eyebrows shooting up again. "Is this for real?"
"Our client must be an idiot or desperate."
"Which would you bet on?"
"Desperate. Whoever this guy is must have really pissed our client off if they can put up this much money for a mission just to have us ruin him. What do you think he did?" she asked, rolling up the scroll again.
Kakashi took it from her hands, putting it back in the vest pocket. "Since our client is a lady, I imagine it would be something that would make a woman rather irate."
"I bet he cheated on her or something. All women love to get even with their exes."
"Vindictive much?" he asked, trying to smirk at the evil grin on the kunoichi's face. Sakura laughed nervously, scratching the back of her head as she looked at him. "Me? Vindictive? Don't be silly," she said while holding her head up proudly. "I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing to my exes."
"That's because you're still friends with them. Just friends."
Her green eyes narrowed on her companion as she frowned. "At least I have exes to speak of. The only company you seem to keep is Icha Icha and your hand."
"Ouch . . ." Kakashi winced, shifting uncomfortable on his feet. "I'm not the only one suffering with just Icha Icha and a hand currently."
He side-stepped just in time to miss the punch to his shoulder, grabbing Sakura by the wrist instead. "See, you are vindictive."
The petite woman snorted, twisting her arm instead to free it from his grasp before stalking past him. "I am not . . . I just don't do that sort of thing, you pervert, and you know it. This is all beside the point, anyway. We have a job to do starting tomorrow."
"Wait, I thought I was the one that was supposed to be focused on missions?"
Sakura playfully stuck her tongue out at him, holding her head up high again. Kakashi's eye rolled up; he was beginning to wonder what sort of monster he'd created. And yet, while she was turned away, his glance kept returning to her profile, the way the tail of her long hair blew in the slightly cold wind, the way she seemed so happy and oblivious despite their sometimes hostile occupation. Maybe he had created a monster out of the girl he once knew. Yet, that girl seemed to have grown into a beautiful monster . . . and a smart-mouthed one, too.
"Fine," Kakashi said after a few silent moments, purposefully looking away from her. "We meet tomorrow morning at the gates, winter clothes, and civilian too. The place we're heading into is the biggest city on the coast between Wave and Water, highly industrial and corporate-ruled. Not much nobility out there either, or other shinobi; a real business hub."
"What city is this?"
"Odd name for a city . . ."
"Snow falls there all the time, except for a few months in the summer."
"Winter clothes . . . Got it," Sakura muttered to herself before glancing over at Kakashi again. "You sound like you know this place. Were you there before?"
"One ANBU mission, long time ago. I don't want to talk about it."
The pink-haired kunoichi shivered slightly. ANBU missions weren't something to talk about, anyway. "At least this one will be more fun, that's for sure."
"Fun and ninja missions do not mix."
She giggled. "You are no fun whatsoever. Why am I still your partner?"
"My sparkling personality," Kakashi quipped with a false cheery smile and eye crease. Sakura snorted in disdainful laughter. He abruptly turned directions, walking away from her and in the direction of his building. And yet, the ninja stopped no more than a few paces away, turning back towards her. "Given it's our one night of freedom before another mission . . ."
She waved him off, turning to walk in the direction of her own apartment as she already knew what he was going to ask. "All right, I'll be there, but you better be on time this time. The last time you were late I almost punched Genma's lights out for leering at me too long."
"I'll be there to defend your honor, Sakura-chan," he said while smirking under the mask. "But you should consider just punching him next time."
Laughing again, she disappeared in a sudden swirl of cherry blossoms, the pink petals mingling on the ground among the golden leaves. As soon as Sakura was gone, Kakashi's hand slowly fell before being shoved into his pants pockets. It was annoying, really, how his thoughts and eyes lingered on her lately. But at least she didn't notice . . . yet. He secretly hoped she never would notice. If she didn't, then it was still just his problem alone, one he could brush aside. Maybe this mission and a break afterwards was a good idea. He could safely be around Sakura without scrutiny, and then avoid her after the month was up if something went wrong.
Nothing would go wrong, of course. It wasn't like Tsunade's little superstitious tale was even real. It was a nice try by the Hokage, but it would never work on him. If he got shaken up by stories and paranoia so easily, he would have been dead a long time ago. The only disaster this mission posed was to his working relationship with Sakura if things escalated, but that wouldn't be happening either. His self-control was like iron: unbendable . . . unless the kunoichi chose to cover herself in nothing but copies of Icha Icha.
Kakashi turned away abruptly, walking fast towards his apartment while muttering to himself, "Bad thought, very bad thought. Don't think that one again."
Ino glared at the man across from her at the table, about ready to slam the sake cup in her hands into his face. "Genma, I swear, if you make one more pass at me, I'll possess you and make you hit on Gai instead," she said darkly. "We're supposed to be on a mission. Tsunade-sama did not assign me to be your play toy."
"Oh come on, like watching after those two is much of a mission," the older man said as he took a sidelong glance at the pair seated at the bar. "I can just feel the sexual tension radiating off of Kakashi and the cherry blossom from here, like two blocks of ice. If they were any colder around each other, I'd get frostbite."
Her pale eyebrows flattened as she stared at him, pressed as much into a thin line as her lips. "You could be a little more considerate for your friend."
"Kakashi may be a drinking buddy of mine, but if he doesn't want a woman, more for me."
The blonde gave a boar-like snort before turning towards the couple at the bar, her friend and her friend's ex-sensei. Out of all the people in the village that knew the pair, why did the Hokage have to choose them to be reconnaissance and assistance? Working with Genma and being female was almost like ringing a dinner bell to him, like he had every right to flirt and tease shamelessly. It didn't help that their assignment, to help the two get 'closer' together by any covert means necessary for the sake of Tsunade's bet, required some small personal knowledge and discussion on the subject of love, as well as insider information on their targets. How hard could it be to make two stubborn people already so close fall in love?
And yet, while she did care about Sakura's love life, a little, as a friend, she had her own to worry about. Temari was back in town to visit, which meant the wench would be all over Shikamaru, just when she was about to leave on a mission. How that man could be so stupid boggled the mind. Why couldn't he just choose one of them or neither of them and be over with it? Making decisions in his personal life seemed to be the one thing the troublesome prodigy put off more that hard work. Didn't she send signals loud and clear after giving up on Sasuke? What did she need to do? Spell it out for him? Sighing, she sagged, catching her chin on the palm on her upturned hand.
Genma smirked. "Getting wistful already?"
"Shut up already. I'm just thinking."
"We already know Tsunade's going to lose this bet. She's lost every single bet dealing with Sakura, like the one where she infamously proclaimed that her protégé and the Uchiha boy would be married within the month after he returned. Or, when she claimed Sakura would settle into Naruto's apartment as soon as she lost her virginity to him. It must have been a truly horrifying experience sleeping with the runt if she slept with Lee afterwards, while the boy hooked up with that Hyuuga girl. Face it, Sakura and Kakashi falling for each other is not going to happen. Your friend is going to be an old maid."
She glared back at him. "No wonder Sakura keeps rejecting your flirtations. You're so negative when it comes to love."
"Love? Sorry, I lack a definition."
"It's a wonder you get laid at all."
Genma smirked, toying with the senbon hanging from the corner of his mouth. "There are a lot of things you need to learn, girl, especially about sex and men."
"There's a few things you need to learn, too, about love and women." Ino glared before her eyes abruptly shot back to Sakura and Kakashi. Apparently, the silver-haired man had said something that made her laugh lightly, her smile nearly beaming before she downed another cup of sake. How could her friend be so oblivious to the way his dark eye seemed to linger on her face? Tsunade must have seen it too. Then again, roaming eyes didn't mean love. If it did, Genma would have been in love with every woman in Konoha. She could almost feel his eyes sizing her up still, no matter how many times she snapped at him. Ino pouted. "He likes her, doesn't he."
"He likes looking at her. Hell, I like looking at her. Just looking won't make her legs part, though."
"Gah, can you not think about sex for one minute? Sakura is my friend after all."
"Do you really want to see her fall for him?" Genma asked, leaning back heavily in his chair. It was a good question. He was so much older than her, but definitely not unattractive, she supposed, if all the rumors of what he kept hidden under the mask were true. He was infinitely more mature as well, and experienced, but seemingly detached from the rest of the world, stuck in his own little bubble. Sakura, on the other hand, was very much grounded, sometimes immature for her age of twenty-two, and rather feisty when Kakashi wasn't holding her back. Slowly a smile crept onto the blonde's face as realization dawned on her. "You know, I don't think I could have picked a better man for her."
"You're just as love-struck as the rest. No wonder no one's popped your cherry yet," Genma muttered right before sake splashed all over his face, toppling over along with his chair in surprise. Ino threw the porcelain cup down on the table and stormed out of the bar before anyone could recognize her, radiating fury in her wake. A snort of laughter came from Kakashi as he turned away, shaking his head. "He must be losing his touch with women."
Sakura giggled, her inner self cheering on whatever woman had the guts to do that to Genma, vicarious revenge for all the times he'd tried to come on to her.
Now the laughing stock of the bar, the senbon-sucking man quickly picked himself up, and made a quick exit. He cursed under his breath the whole way out until he found Ino glaring at him from beside the doorway. Her arms crossed protectively over her chest, not a good sign. "If we're to continue working together, you can't flirt with me, and you can't insult me because I keep rejecting you."
"What? Can't take a little playing around, sweetheart?"
"Don't call me that. What you said in there wasn't playing around," Ino ground out through her teeth, just short of hissing at him. For a moment, the hurt in her blue eyes shone until she turned away, starting to walk off. "Do you want this mission or not? I will still go through with it alone . . . Not because it's my duty, but because I care about Sakura's happiness. She . . . she does deserve to be happy, after all."
Genma looked at the blonde for a moment, studying her. Maybe he was a little harsh to her. Usually he wasn't that mean to a woman who obviously didn't like him, like Ino. She really didn't want him. The thought made him scowl slightly despite the sting of sake in his eyes. "You really are her friend, aren't you?"
"I thought you two used to fight over the same boy?"
"We did, but then we grew out of it. Said boy wasn't all too great, anyway . . . This is beside the point, isn't it?" Ino asked, whirling back to face Genma. "Do you care about Kakashi's happiness or not? Are you in or not?"
"That man hasn't been happy since the day I met him," he said as the needle in his mouth bobbed up and down while he paused in thought, looking down. "At least he's not happy the way some people are. I don't think a woman is really gonna change that, but . . ."
Turning back to the bar for a moment before facing the kunoichi, Genma's posture slumped slightly, his hands shoved into his pockets. "Ok, you're right. He's too much of a sorry sack to be left completely alone, which is probably why I keep taking him drinking when he's around and not clinging to Sakura . . . Damn."
"Maybe you and Tsunade are right about them. No man in their right mind would spend that much time around a beautiful, intelligent, nice, yet somewhat scary and frighteningly strong woman with a mean right hook, unless he really did like her . . . or she was putting out."
Ino's anger unchecked in a spontaneous response to cuff Genma across the back of the head so hard it made him spit the senbon into the dirt. Furiously rubbing at his abused skull, he glared at her. "Geez! It was just an observation! Consider it lesson one in the male mind!"
The blonde had long since started to walk off, not even bothering to wave back at him. She yelled across the street instead. "Tomorrow morning at the gates! We leave an hour after they do! Don't forget, Tsunade said winter clothes!"
"See you tomorrow, sweetheart!" he shouted back, more in anger than endearment. There was nothing but an angry snort before she was gone. Left alone, Genma smirked to himself before wandering back towards the bar. "I do like them feisty. This'll be more fun than I thought . . ."
To Be Continued in Part 2 of Dirty Deeds, Frosted Over.