Disclaimer: Naruto is the rightful property of Kishimoto Masahi. This work does not claim profit on any publicly recognized characters.
A/N: This is a stab at humor and light-hearted material than what I usually write and as such I've changed a few details (e.g. such as avoiding any mention of Sasuke). While this may render the story less "realistic," I thought that anything regarding Sasuke would dampen an otherwise fluffy-one shot. This decision was made by my own discretion and not because of any anti-character sentiments.
When Tsunade awoke on a late spring day, she greeted the morning with a scowl.
She turned away from her likeness carved onto Hokage Mountain as if annoyed with it and when her maid came with her breakfast, she dismissed the serving girl with a grunt. There were a number of reasons that could have been attributed to her foul mood: hangover, paperwork, a deluge of meetings.
It was in fact, age.
In the last year, the village Elders had pushed for a Sixth Hokage to be appointed. However young and fit Tsunade looked, they had explained, she was sixty-two years old and the recent wars had taxed her power reserves. It was high-time for a new Hokage to step up and take the reins. Her one-time use of her regeneration jutsu had cut some ten or more years of her life. Who knew what else would happen?
When the subject was first brought to her attention, Tsunade refused to even consider it and to their credit, the Elders didn't give up on the issue. Months of persistent nagging and a series of tumultuous events forced the Fifth to rethink her succession plan as inevitable rather than a possibility. A solid year was spent in identifying and selecting candidates, all of whom had been narrowed into a small pool. The search was scheduled to close on this March morning when Tsunade would make the final selection at a council meeting.
By the time she arrived, late as usual, she found the Elders impatient and cranky. Once the disapproving mutterings had stopped, she began to speak and the Elders leaned back in their fine chairs to brace themselves. In a perfect world, they would hear the name of the ANBU first-rank captain they had feted as their favorite and Tsunade would agree to retire quietly. But alas, this woman was unconventional and given her radical ways it should not have been surprising that whatever she decided would clash with their sentiments.
So when Tsunade announced her successor and her intention to stay on as counsel to the new Hokage, the Elders felt as though all the years of arguing during her reign rise to an alarming climax in which the result could only lead to an explosion.
"You're not serious…" The Second Elder stonily stared at the Fifth.
"I am." Tsunade looked pleased to see the council members squirm in their seats.
"He's a Jinchuriki" An Elder pronounced the old prejudice aloud.
"And despite his achievements," another Elder added, "he is an impulsive man. He acts on what his heart tells him, not his mind. He'll struggle with decision-making."
"I assure you, he's more than capable." Tsunade countered.
"But we must question the impartiality of your choice." Another Elder objected. "You've exhibited a kind of favoritism toward him over the years which we feel has negatively influenced your decision…"
He was interrupted when the Fifth slid several files across the table to him.
"You'll find," she said, "the information of all the prospective candidates we selected on the basis of merit, skill, and other 'noteworthy qualities.' You tell me after reading those files which one stood out from the rest."
"Military skills aren't the only requirement to be a Hokage; they need to be good politicians too." The Second Elder silkily replied, refusing to touch the manila folders although his fellow members reached out for them.
Tsunade's eyebrows rose at the remark. "My grandfather and great-uncle weren't politicians. They were military men who knew how to defend and acquire their territory well. They chose the Third primarily for his martial skills."
"That was then," the Second Elder snapped, "this is now. If this Jinchuriki really is as capable as you say, does he truly understand the nature of the duties he has to fulfil? Does he realize he will have to make difficult decisions in order to broker and maintain peace?"
"And do you believe that my successor has no experience with that?" Tsunade lowered her voice. "He has made sacrifices for this village's sake from the moment he was born. He endured years of bullying and petty slights yet he has risked life and limb for you every time that we have fallen into danger. He has lost his family, his teacher, and his best friend in the name of peace. How, after all this time, can you still express doubt in his loyalty and capabilities?"
The Elders colored in embarrassed but the Second Elder would have none of it.
"I'd rather have a seasoned ninja for this." He answered brusquely. "He's too young and only recently made it to ANBU first-rank. From what I hear, he failed his proficiency test when he was first recruited."
"The power to appoint a new Hokage resides in the current leader, not the Council." Tsunade coolly noted. "May I also remind you that Yondaime was twenty-one and not even in ANBU when he was chosen?"
"That was a special case." The Third Elder said, coming to the Second Elder's rescue. "Minato exhibited extraordinary talent and skill—he was the best! The Third would've been a fool not to appoint him as Hokage!"
"Yes, because the Fourth managed to win a war with a dozen kunai instead of using a treaty." Tsunade observed. "But aren't we in agreement that after looking at my successor's file that his accomplishments are nearly equal or better than the Fourth's?"
When the Elders said nothing to counter this, she went on. "All our candidates have excellent reputations but few are flexible in their opinions or open-minded to employ diplomacy in solving geo-political problems these days. We all saw this during the interviews we held."
"And you think," the Second Elder snorted, "that he will listen to you?"
"My successor has wanted this chance for as long as I can remember. He knows full well what's to be expected of him and will do anything to ensure the Village's safety."
"A statement we shall test in time." The Second Elder darkly promised. "And yet I think you chose the worst possible man to be Hokage."
"You mistrust my judgment?" Tsunade leveled her eyes with the old man's dust-colored ones.
"On this, I do. Your successor is impetuous—"
"A First-Rank ANBU captain."
"Not to mention he has no notable connections—"
"The son of a previous Hokage and a Sannin's student."
The Second Elder glowered. "Do you honestly think I'd ever support your decision in appointing a beast that could lash out at any moment—"
A deafening silence followed.
"I don't understand." Tsunade glared at the table. "Naruto is more than capable to take on this position. He has impeccable military reputation, lineage, and shares close friendships with nearly all the other kages. On those grounds, he is a more suitable choice than the rest of the candidates." She paused. "I'd think rather poorly of this Council if it was to let pride and prejudice jeopardise Konoha's future by depriving it of a competent leader."
To this, the Council made no reply. All they did was gaze at her through wrinkled faces and beady eyes that had seen too much over the years. And as if knowing she had gotten her point across, the Fifth stood up from her seat.
"I will make the formal announcement tomorrow. We can then begin arrangements for the inauguration ceremony. I was thinking mid-summer, unless there were any objections?"
When no one answered, she nodded in satisfaction and turned to leave.
"Unbelievable," She heard the Second Elder say at last. "A Jinchuriki to lead our Village…"
Inspiration struck Tsunade on the spot. To add a last dose of subtle spite, the Fifth turned around.
With that, she slammed the door behind her, leaving the Elders blinking at a solid wall of wood and her farewell ringing in their ears.
When the official banns were made from the Hokage Palace, no one was surprised. Most of the Village had a shrewd idea that the Sixth's name was going to start with N and end with an O. The new Hokage, in question, however had been shocked.
No,Tsunade caught herself, not exactly.
According to Shikamaru, who was with Naruto at the time when the announcements were made, the new Sixth sunk into a pensive mood. He appeared "unresponsive," as Shikamaru put it, even when his friends came around to offer their felicitations.
Then, to everyone's bewilderment, Naruto vanished a day later.
No one could find him. The only thing he had left behind was a single note to Sakura taped on their dinner table, explaining that he had been called away and would return very soon. The girl's reaction to this was best left imagined than described.
All hell broke loose.
Tsunade, ANBU, and the entire Council went into a frenzy trying to look for their missing successor. Everyone else was left in blank confusion and dealt with the Sixth's absence until they saw a tall blond sauntering up to the village gates about a week later.
After the tumult of cheers subsided, the Elders publicly berated Naruto for leaving Konoha without any notice and accused him of shirking away from responsibility. Not even Tsunade came to his defence because she agreed with their criticisms. When the Elders demanded to know where he had gone, the Sixth gave no satisfactory explanation other than the statement that he went to Sunagakure to "deal with business" and refused to say anymore beyond that. Furious, the Council dismissed him, leaving him to the mercy of his friends.
When Naruto managed to shake the rest of the Rookie Nine, he was accosted by Sakura. Her shouts could be heard from the village outskirts as she forbade him from entering their apartment until her humour improved. Hurtling himself into a storm of tantrums and rages from all sides, the Sixth emerged from it with tinnitus and a temporary eviction from his home.
Several days of persistent supplications coupled with a stream of apologetic love letters and bouquets, Sakura forgave him. Grudgingly, of course.
The morose and secretive man that Naruto had transformed into the prior week was gone. All of that evaporated when people began congratulating him in the streets and even took to calling out his new title to him.
Then he began to celebrate.
That night, the Ichiraku Ramen chef told Tsunade later, was the most profitable night the humble cook ever had. Just how many bowls the new Sixth had consumed that night was beyond anyone's reckoning. Yes, he had been more than excited—why shouldn't he have been? He had wanted this for years. So it came as a nasty shock when Naruto came into the Tsunade's office and brought rather unexpected and quite unpleasant news.
"Are you serious?"
Tsunade stared incredulously at the ANBU captain standing before her desk.
"You are going to miss the Council's meeting tonight," she said slowly as if speaking to a five-year-old, "that will outline the details and duties of a Hokage and your inauguration ceremony."
She paused to let the words sink in.
"You're telling me that you're not going to attend a significant council session that involves your future position as Hokage without giving me any explanation whatsoever."
"It's not like that!" the captain protested behind his mask.
"Naruto!" Tsunade snapped. "Did you listen to a word I said?"
"And take that stupid thing off!" Tsunade lunged forward.
"OW!" Naruto recoiled as she flung the item aside.
"I can't hear you when you talk behind it." The Fifth retorted as she sank back into her chair. "And neither do I want your excuses. You're going to meeting whether you like it or not."
"But today is—"
Is there something wrong with him? Tsunade wondered.
This boy , whose favorite phrase had always been "I'm going to be Hokage one day" and whom she had relentlessly supported in spite of the Elders' protests, was refusing to go to something that pertained to his new leadership
True, she disliked going to the council discussions herself but even she had obliged to attend her session with the Elders and had dutifully gone over the preparations and outlines of what a Hokage could not do and could do, when the ceremony was to take place, where it would occur, etc. So was it fair for Naruto to miss his?Absolutely not!
"Well don't just stand there!" Tsunade bristled, wanting to hear his excuse and find a way to shoot it down. "Say something!"
"Today's March 28."
Tsunade stared at him. "And?"
"It's Sakura-chan's birthday." Naruto said as if the answer was obvious.
"Does it look like I care?"
"You're not missing this meeting because of a birthday party."
"It's not just that."
"THEN WHAT IS IT?" Tsunade slammed her hand on the desk in frustration. In an instant, she found herself staring at something in Naruto's hand. She frowned. To think that he had the audacity to just thrust something in her face…
"This is why I can't go tonight." Naruto handed her a tiny, black box.
"The reason I went to Sunagakure." came the unexpected reply.
Tsunade was intrigued. Brows furrowing in speculation, she turned her attention to the box and opened it.
"So…" Naruto hesitantly asked again. "Can I bail out of the meeting tonight?"
He waited for her to look up. "Tsunade-baa-chan?"
"Er…" Naruto blinked as he saw the Fifth struggling to speak.
"You…" She paused, looking at Naruto in disbelief. "So today is…?"
Tsunade stared at the contents before snapping it shut and returning it to Naruto.
"I'm sorry I didn't say anything a week ago," Naruto said, making her look up from her desk. It was the first time he had apologized for his sudden absence. "So I can I just go tomorrow? Er…please?"
Tsunade pursed her lips as she weighed the present matter. She didn't want him to miss this meeting but neither did she want to be responsible for impeding this…this…occasion.The Elders wouldn't stand for it at all and neither did she.
"Let me make this very clear." Tsunade placed heavy emphasis on each word that followed. "I will never let you get away with this kind of thing again." She paused. "I suppose I can persuade the Elders…"
"Really?" Naruto burst out before instantly sobering up at Tsunade's glare.
The Fifth leaned back in her chair. "I'm guessing you're going to a restaurant?"
"Yeah, about that," Naruto nervously laughed, "well, I'm kind of broke now since…"
"How can you be broke?" Tsunade's shock fizzled into anger. "You're an ANBU captain. Not to mention the Sixth Hokage now! Your current salary is double than that of—" she broke off, releasing an angry sigh. Her hand curled into a fist. "Where exactly do you plan on holding her birthday?"
"Well, I was thinking Ichiraku…" He stopped when he saw Tsunade's stony gaze.
"I mean—" Naruto blundered on. "I got her a cake—"
Without a word, Tsunade yanked the bottom drawer of her desk and threw a packet of crisp banknotes to his chest.
"Make reservations at a decent place." She haughtily ordered as Naruto caught it with his hands. "Spend it on anything but Ichiraku ramen. And use it wisely. That's a bit of my salary you have, right there."
Naruto gaped at the Fifth.
"And get flowers." Tsunade continued, feigning supreme indifference as though she hadn't given Naruto a generous sum of money. "I'd tell you what her favorites are but I don't know. You could ask Shizune, she might have an idea."
"But," Naruto gaped at the money, "there's got to be like…!"
"Why are you complaining?" Tsunade asked icily. "You've always bothered me about giving you a raise."
"Then if that's all you wanted, leave me in peace!" Tsunade imperiously gestured to the doors. "Get out. I have a lot of work to do, thanks to you."
"No you don't. You take your sake break at this hour."
"Okay, okay." Naruto retreated for the doors. "But thanks…Tsunade-baa-chan…a lot…"
He looked back.
The surly expression on the Fifth's face was gone and replaced by a genuinely happy smile that reached her honey-colored eyes.
"Thanks." Naruto impishly grinned. "But I don't think I'll need it."
For a fleeting instant, Tsunade thought she saw a triumphant gleam in his eyes but before she could say anything more, he was already gone.
"Tsh." Tsunade sighed after his leave taking. "That little, arrogant prick."
For a long time, she sat in her chair, staring after the double doors where Naruto had passed through. All the while, her mind kept flashing back to that tiny box he had handed to her and the glimmering contents.
A tell-tale patter of footsteps and a turn of the knob later, her assistant appeared.
"Tsunade-sama?" Shizune's eyes swept over the office then settled on Naruto's forgotten mask on the floor. "Oh. Did the meeting not go well?"
"Hmph!" Tsunade crossed her arms, unsure of how to describe what had just happened.
"Did he ask to accompany Sakura on her missions again?" Shizune warily asked as she observed the Fifth's expression. "I've told him not to bother you with that but he just doesn't listen."
"What do you think?" Tsunade asked.
It had turned into a custom. Every month, Naruto visited the Fifth's Office to pester Tsunade, asking if he could come along with Sakura on her missions or if he could take her place, provided he had a good excuse which in almost all cases, he never did. Though it was a constant source of irritation for the Fifth, it also provided half-an-hour's worth of amusement for Shizune as she laughingly observed Naruto bursting into the Hokage's office and hear him make his usual demands.
"Besides," she heard Tsunade say, breaking her thoughts. "You're the one who keeps informing Naruto what and where Sakura's missions are."
Shizune colored. "Well…that's…" She sputtered. "I mean it's just…"
"I know, I know," Tsunade waved her hand impatiently. "In any case, no, Naruto didn't come in asking about Sakura. But I have several things I need you to do."
"Yes?" Shizune straightened a little.
"Tell the Elders that the session with the Sixth will have to be postponed till tomorrow evening."
Shizune blinked. "Eh?"
"You may tell them that Rokudaime needs to oversee an extremely important matter tonight and will be unable to attend." Tsunade overrode. "I also need to know if Sakura is scheduled to leave for any missions tomorrow."
"Ah." Shizune nodded, still unsure of where this was leading. "I can check for you."
"If she is, I want you to find another medic to take her place. Sakura can have a couple days off." Tsunade went on.
Shizune was stunned. "And may I ask what brought on this leniency?"
To add to her bewilderment, the Fifth merely smiled.
"Just do as I say."
"I'd like to reserve a table for two, please." Naruto requested to a young hostess as the concierge slid the bamboo screens to a close behind him.
Understated luxury was everywhere. The vaulted ceiling boasted elaborate plaster carvings of flowers. Sconces of lights glittered all around the walls and behind the hostess's stand, he glimpsed rich tablecloths swept over fine tables and waiters walking around in smart black jackets.
Some place…Naruto thought. Personally, he felt that Ichiraku had a far more comfortable setting but since tonight was a special occasion, he was willing to lay aside his preferences for Sakura's sake. This restaurant didn't look that bad at all. Fancy enough for a girl's liking, he supposed.
"Of course." The hostess grabbed a pen and opened her organizer. "And what name will the reservation be under?"
The girl looked up in surprise. "Rokudaime-Hokage?"
"Yeah." Naruto grinned. Even though it had been several weeks upon his acceptance of the appointment, he had yet to adjust to his new title.
"Oh…" The girl knowingly trailed off. A smile played on her lips as she scanned down the pages. "I suppose your guest must be Haruno Sakura?"
"That's right." Naruto proudly answered, completely missing the detail of how a complete stranger knew about this personal connection to him.
"Ah," the pen scribbled the names with a flourish. "You've been dating her for quite a while, haven't you, Hokage-sama?"
"Uh, yeah…" Naruto sheepishly admitted as the hostess laughed at his pinking cheeks.
"Well then," her pen paused, "is it true?"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Isn't it true?" The hostess slyly repeated, watching the Sixth's face closely to see any indication of an answer.
"Er…" Naruto blinked, bewildered by the hostess's bizarre manner.
"There have been several rumors flying about." She continued smiling. "I heard, according to a very close friend of yours, that you're planning quite a surprise for Haruno-san."
A nasty discomfort settled upon Naruto.
"Have you been looking into any jewelry stores, recently, Hokage-sama?" The hostess sweetly asked, determined to unmask whatever he was hiding.
"What times do you have available?" Naruto cut in before she could say anymore. All the while, his head was racing through a list of names and faces, trying to find the likely culprit for this gossip…
"Right." The hostess turned back to her organizer. "Well, we have several spots open. What time will you and the future Mrs. Uzumaki like to arrive?"
Naruto paused, unsure how to answer her.
"Seven?" The hostess suggested.
"Okay." Naruto replied after a moment's hesitation.
"Any other services you'd like to request, Hokage-sama?"
"No, I'm good, thanks."
"Surely the staff could do something to make the night a little more special?" The hostess entreated, getting back on her game. "It's not everyday we get such a prestigious and memorable occasion to happen here."
"I'm fine." Naruto swiftly turned around to leave.
"We'll be expecting you tonight, Hokage-sama!" The hostess called after him.
As soon as the double doors were closed by the concierge, the manager of the restaurant and his assistant flocked to her in an instant.
"Well?" The manager sounded eager and was quivering in anticipation. "What did Hokage-sama say?"
The hostess sighed. "He neither denied nor confirmed it."
"So it isn't true?" The assistant's face fell in disappointment.
"No, no." The hostess shook her head. "I know what I heard. That Yamanaka Ino? The other day when I was at the florist and she was complaining to someone that 'Naruto has zero taste in jewelry.' And Ino is supposedly Sakura's close friend and if she said—"
"You based a presumption just on that?" the assistant asked incredulously. "What are you, stupid?"
"Eh? Why else would Hokage-sama be so anal about picking a ring?"
"You don't even know if it's a ring!He probably didn't even buy one!All you heard that girl say was that Rokudaime has bad taste!"
"Do you know how close Sakura and Hokage-sama are? Do you know how long they've been together? After all this time, he's bound to—"
"Sshh! Mine-chan! You're too loud—the customers—!"
"Ah! I'm sorry, boss..."
"But you're sure?"
"Sure of what?"
"Well, is the lady Sakura's last name going to change tonight?"
There was a pause.
"Positive. I know my source is reliable."
"Then it's settled!" The manager declared. "I'll have the chefs create an exclusive menu for them both and if all goes well tonight, they might even ask us to cater for future events."
He and the assistant retreated further into the restaurant while the hostess resumed her duties. But none of them, it seemed, had noticed that the next Hokage hadn't left but had been listening from outside the entire time. Disgruntled, he turned away, all the while silently cursing the very person he thought he could trust.
Damn you Ino and your big fat mouth…
By the time Naruto and Sakura arrived at the restaurant, it was anything but what either of them wanted: packed and noisy.
It was odd that an exclusive restaurant could have a rowdy atmosphere and accommodate so many people. The cause was uncertain but what was worse, particularly for Naruto, was when he encountered the same hostess from this afternoon.
"We've been expecting you!" She preened at the couple. "Right this way…"
The hostess gathered up their menus and escorted them to their reserved places. The trio walked past numerous tables laden with fine silverware and clusters of people, all merrily chatting away with their party. Many of them eyed the couple with bright interest and began exchanging covert whispers.
Naruto and Sakura ignored the newfound attention and looked elsewhere: at each other, the floral arrangements, the glittering lights. All around, they could hear buzzes of conversations mingled with ambient music. By the time they were seated, most of the other patrons had turned away to continue their own conversations.
"Your waiter will be with you shortly." The hostess happily handed a pair of sleek leather-bound menus to them. "Good luck, Hokage-sama." With a wink and a turn of her heel, she sauntered away, leaving Naruto fuming and Sakura perplexed.
" 'Good luck Hokage-sama' ?" Sakura repeated, looking over to Naruto.
"I think she meant the meeting I have tomorrow with the Council." Naruto quickly thought up an excuse. "Remember?"
"Well then, let's see what we should get." Sakura flipped the menu open. The light of the paper reflected off her face, giving it a kind of glow that powder couldn't emulate.
Tonight, she had fashionably tied her hair back and discarded the standard Konoha uniform for a stylish dress. It was a welcome change of appearance although, Naruto had to admit, he preferred her without any clothes on. But before he could get himself groggy-eyed and aroused, he felt an affectionate peck on his lips.
"Thank you," he heard as Sakura withdrew.
"For remembering my birthday," she added with a sweet smile.
"How can I forget?" Naruto smiled, opening his own menu to scan down the items when—
He didn't answer.
In bold calligraphy, his and Sakura's name were prettily written alongside the paper's border and at closer inspection it seemed that the menu items all were renamed into something like The Promise of a Lifetime cake to the Together Forever mixed drink.
"Why are our names on the borders?" Sakura turned the pages in confusion.
"I have no idea." Naruto replied stiffly, turning to see the hostess give him a thumbs up.
Sakura peered over other tables. "I don't see their menus written like ours. Did you see the names of the meals? They're just weird. Who came up with this...? Oh!"
Naruto did a full turnaround in his seat.
To his horror, a very large group of their friends were walking to a banquet table across from where he and Sakura were. Once Ino caught sight of them, she waved. The girls beamed at the couple while the men threw exasperated, if not crestfallen, looks in Naruto's direction. What he did to warrant such behavior was unclear but it was certain that none of them were excited to be there as the women were.
"Wow, it looks like everyone is here." Sakura remarked as she waved back.
"I noticed." Naruto was nonplussed.
He expected them to come over and invite them to join their table but no one came forward. Instead, the rest of the Rookie Nine crowded around their own table. Occasionally, they threw furtive looks in Naruto's direction but quickly averted their attention when he caught them looking.
"They're staring at us…" Sakura observed belatedly.
"Well, it's your birthday and they probably just wanted to…you know, hang out here…with us…" Naruto fumbled in his explanation.
"Well that's kind of odd," Sakura frowned, "considering that none of them really wished me a happy birthday, let alone remember it."
Naruto nervously laughed but knew at once that something was off.
No one remembered Sakura's birthday? That wasn't right. Ino definitely knew and Shizune probably did too. The two of them could have told dozens of people in between them. So how could people forget? How did they even know what restaurant to go to? He had just made the reservations today and told no one about it.
"May I get you a drink?"
Naruto and Sakura looked up from their menus to see a waiter standing beside their table.
"No, water's fine for me." Sakura said and Naruto nodded in agreement.
"Then are you ready to order, Hokage-sama? Uzu—ah—Haruno-san?" The waiter flustered at the last part.
Naruto glared at him.
"Actually, we're not ready yet." Sakura's eyes were back on the menu and was oblivious to her server's mistake. "Can you give us a couple minutes?"
"Of course." The waiter bowed, glad to get away from Naruto's death-stare. The couple browsed their way through the ridiculously titled courses and after some deliberation, they decided on a chef-selection dinner.
"I just remembered." Sakura frowned when the waiter returned to take their orders and menus away. "Did you take your medication this morning?"
"All three," Naruto reached underneath his black coat to pull out the respective bottles.
Sakura relaxed. "Good…"
"No, I didn't forget." Naruto said, slipping the capsules out of sight. It was a routine that he had acquired ever since he had injured his arm after testing out the newly-modified Rasengan. Subsequent and infinitely more severe health problems arose as he acquired more fighting skills and tapped into other sources of chakra over the years.
At one point, his medication consisted of five different kinds of drugs taken at certain hours. Gradually, the instructions changed as did the pills but the irksome task of remembering to take them remained. Terrible pain then, became punishment for forgetfulness.
"Sakura-chan." Naruto paused as his hand surreptitiously slipped into his pocket to draw out the box. "Do you remember when I went away for like a week?"
"Yes." Sakura scowled.
"And how I didn't explain to you why or I where I went?"
"Why are you reminding me of this?" Sakura was growing irritated. "Are you literally asking me to kick your ass again?"
"N—no." Naruto stuttered. The box fell back into his pocket. "I wanted to tell you why I was—"
"You didn't even leave me a note! Do you have any idea how worried I—everyone—was? We couldn't even get a trace of your whereabouts—"
"Don't 'Sakura-chan' me! Tell me where you were!"
"I will, but—" Naruto stopped when Sakura's eyes widened in complete surprise and seemed to look straight through him. "What is it?"
"My…my parents are here."
Naruto swiveled around. Sure enough, there were the Harunos being escorted to their tables. When Sakura's mother caught sight of him, she tapped her husband's arm. They smiled at Naruto and Sakura while the latter could only stare and nervously wave back.
"What are they doing here?" Sakura asked, too bewildered to remember that she was upset.
"Haven't a clue." Naruto glowered in Ino's direction. Glad that Sakura was distracted by her parents' arrival, he seized the opportunity to make a quick getaway.
"I'll be right back."
"Wait—what—?" Sakura turned back to her place, fuming.
With purposeful steps, Naruto strode across the restaurant to the large party that had just arrived. Closer and closer he approached Ino's table where he could see her animatedly chat with Tenten.
"Ino." Naruto called out in a dangerous voice, causing everyone to turn around. "Just how many people did you—"
Instantly, Naruto felt himself be tackled and jostled by five different bodies.
"About time you came over to say hi!" Kiba grinned, punching Naruto's arm. Shino, Sai, Rock Lee, Shikamaru, and Choji rounded him and Naruto, shielding each other from Sakura and the other girls at their own table. Neji, who preferred not to associate himself with these kinds of gatherings, stayed behind.
"I didn't." Naruto was seething in frustration. "I need to talk to Ino." His blue eyes blazed behind Kiba's shoulder to the girl who was frowning back at him.
"Because she—" Naruto pointed accusingly. "—told the entire village that I'm—!"
"Hey, hey, we didn't come here because Ino blabbed." Shikamaru cut in a conciliatory manner. "We heard from the streets that you were planning to do it here."
"What? How did you—?"
"Er, Akamaru overheard some girls talking about it at a café. They both worked here and said you made reservations." Kiba shrugged. "I told Hinata then I guess she told Ino then—"
"I get it." Naruto interrupted. Still, he was none too happy. The fact that not only his friends and Sakura's parents for that matter were here, the element of surprise had been eliminated. Sakura was going to find out before he could even say a word.
"Don't keep us waiting." Shino murmured behind the high collar of his coat.
"Waiting?" Naruto repeated. "For what?"
"Well," Lee 's bowl-cut head early popped into view. "Let's see it."
"Come on, Naruto!" Kiba thumped the Sixth's shoulder. "You can trust us."
"Don't look so clueless." Shikamaru's face was the picture of annoyance. "We know what you're planning to do tonight."
"What are you—?"
"Look, you're setting the standard and we've got to know what we're up against." Shikamaru impatiently replied.
" 'Setting the standard' ?" Naruto repeated stupidly. "For what?"
"Show us the ring." Shino ordered, indifferent to Naruto's question.
Naruto gazed at them in disbelief.
"Look, guys," he began slowly. "I don't know what you're getting at but—ah—AH!"
"Got it!" Kiba yelled happily, thrusting a tiny black box in the air after tackling Naruto and blindly reaching for his pockets.
"Shit—Kiba!" Naruto barked, whirling around but Kiba was already dancing out of his reach. Immediately, the others crowded around and the box was flipped open.
A sudden silence descended upon them as they all stared at the contents. Some two minutes of quiet must have passed before—
"Aw, crap!" Kiba scowled.
"How troublesome…" Shikamaru looked up to the ceiling in dismay.
"Is it supposed to be that…?" Choji seemed unsure how to describe it.
"You know, I once read in a book that jewelry often reflects one's taste." Sai studied the box. "I guess Naruto doesn't have any."
Naruto resentfully glared at him.
"It's…" Lee's eyes dilated to the size of dinner plates. "It's as if the flower of youth has been eternally imprisoned in sparkling shininess!"
Naruto's mouth twitched, unsure on how to respond to the insensible comment. But the laughter faded when he realized that the six were rounding him like a pack of dogs.
"Can I have it back?" Naruto blinked, staring at their faces.
Kiba snapped the box shut and returned it, fuming.
"What's wrong with you?" Naruto turned from Kiba to everyone else. "Does it really look that bad? You don't think…" Color drained from his face. "…you don't think she'll say no?"
"Absolutely not, Naruto-kun!" Lee's face was set in resolution. "Although I must admit I am disappointed that you're staking permanent claim on the lovely sakura flower…"
"Well it's not like he took the best-looking girl." Sai said in what he thought was a consoling remark.
"What did you say?"Naruto thundered.
"Calm down," Shino stopped him with a firm grip on his arm. "We're in a public place."
"Yeah," Kiba seconded. "But I don't understand why you had to go all out with this whole thing: nice clothes, flashy jewelry, fancy restaurant. You're making us look bad in front of the girls."
"Seriously." Shikamaru wearily ran a hand through his spiky hair. "Thanks to you, Temari's probably going to start nagging me when I'm going to give her one."
The others chortled after him.
"Uh, right." Naruto replied uncertainly. "But you didn't answer my question. You think she'll like it or not?"
"If you haven't noticed, Naruto, we're not Sakura." Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "It's not like we can read her mind, now can we?"
"I think it's ugly." Sai commented.
"So," Shino interrupted as all eyes turned on him. "when are you planning to propose?"
"I was going to do it a minute ago." Naruto growled. "Until you all showed up."
"To give you moral support, man." Kiba doggedly replied. "Hey, look. I got you a little good luck charm." With a flamboyant gesture of his hand, he presented Naruto with a small packet.
"Uh…thanks…" Naruto warily took the object, only to gape at it a moment later when he beheld an extremely pornographic picture of a woman. "What the hell is this?"
"What d'you mean 'what the hell is this'—it's condoms, moron." Kiba said. "Look, I even got you the variety pack. There's flavored, glow-in-the-dark, textured—which are awesome by the way!"
"Will you shut up?!" Naruto hotly interrupted.
"Don't be such a prude." Kiba dismissed. "How about a drink? I think you need one for nerves."
But before Naruto could reply, he turned to see that Sakura waiting at their table. She did not look happy.
"Just take it!" Kiba shoved the packet back into Naruto's hands. "You know you're going get laid tonight."
"Lucky bastard." Shikamaru muttered aside. Temari was in Sunagakure was not expected in Konoha for another two weeks, leaving the strategist bereft of womanly comfort in the bedroom.
"Well that's strange." Sai remarked aloud, inspecting the condoms with mild interest. He turned to Kiba. "Why did you get him the regular-sized ones? He can't fit in these. You should've got extra-small."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Kiba restrained Naruto as he threateningly advanced toward Sai. "Calm down. Sai was just kidding…"
"Actually, I wasn't." Sai responded. "Really," he added seeing Kiba's raised eyebrows and Naruto's face purpling in anger. "I mean, he's definitely got one but the size is hardly significant, if you ask me—"
"SAI!" Naruto roared. "LAY. OFF. ON. MY. DICK! I DON'T HEAR SAKURA COMPLAINING, DO YOU?"
The silence that followed was deafening.
Everyone had turned around in their chairs and were staring at the Sixth and Sai (who clearly enjoyed the newfound attention) before bursting into laughter. Some of the older diners, Sakura's parents included, looked scandalized.
Naruto blanched in embarrassment. "You know what—I better go back."
Shikamaru glanced at Naruto's forlorn table. "Agreed. Sakura looks pissed."
"Well good luck," Kiba patted Naruto's shoulder. "Don't forget to hide those," he added under his breath, nodding to the condoms.
"Don't screw up, Dickless!" Sai cautioned with his trademark smile.
"When this night's done, I swear to God, I will pummel you to the ground." Naruto ground out, looking murderous.
After the boys gave him another round of early felicitations and well wishes, Naruto shook them off and walked back to his table. Sakura had her arms crossed and coolly watched her boyfriend return to his place.
"I'm really sorry," Naruto apologised, trying very hard to get back to Sakura's good graces. "I got kind of blocked by Kiba and everyone else."
"I noticed." Sakura narrowed her eyes. "And just what was all that talk about your penis, back there?"
Naruto started to blame Sai but realizing that it was no use, he resigned himself to lower his eyes to his table. To his surprise, he saw that his and Sakura's meal had already been laid out. Neither trays were touched.
"You didn't eat yet?"
"I was waiting for you."
"Oh," Naruto replied guiltily. "I'm sorry for making you wait." His eyes roved to find a safe spot to fixate on. He settled on watching Sakura's hands, which clenched in irritation then finally relaxed. She picked up her fork and pricked her fish with it.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto began in a low voice. "I will explain why I went to Sunagakure…just not now. I will though, soon. Trust me, okay?"
"Fine." Sakura slipped a forkful of haddock into her mouth. She reached for her water. "But I still don't like the fact that you left without even giving me notice. I almost thought you left me."
Naruto winced. "I'd never do that to you."
"Then why didn't you say goodbye?"
"It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I can't tell you too much otherwise…" He stopped, unsure how to go on.
Sakura gazed at him. When he didn't respond readily, she sliced her fork into her fish again. "I'm glad you're back." she said quietly. "But don't expect me to be so generous if you pull this kind of stunt again."
"I won't." Naruto mumbled, picking up his own fork. "I just hope I didn't entirely screw up tonight. I mean you had a rough week and all. I…wanted to lighten your mood a little."
Sakura paused over her water; a faint, wry smile graced her lips. "I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, Naruto. I do."
He reached across the table to touch her hand.
They ate their meal in companionable silence, only looking up from their plates every once in a while or when their waiter came by to ask how the meal was and refill their glasses.
Others at the restaurant however were fidgeting with impatience and threw harried glances at the couple. But the minutes passed, uneventful, and by the time Naruto and Sakura had finished with their entrées, half the restaurant was already done with desserts and were ordering another round of drinks.
Despite the fact that some groups were long finished with their meals, they chose to stay, anxiously waiting behind their wine glasses for the Sixth to drop on one knee. It had been a long time since there had been a happy, exciting occasion like this. It'd be a shame not to take part in it. Unfortunately the guests were ill-surprised when they saw, to their shock and disappointment, Hokage-sama call for the waiter to pay for the bill.
The Rookie Nine exchanged dumbfounded looks with each other.
"Oh no," Ino stared on.
"I knew it," sighed Shikamaru, "Naruto must've screwed up."
"That is a definite possibility." Sai smiled.
Lee looked incredibly hopeful at these words.
"Or," Ino wondered aloud. "You don't think he…broke up with her do you?"
"Nah." Kiba shook his head though he looked pretty mystified himself.
"Then where are they going?" Tenten watched Naruto and Sakura as they rose from their table and proceeded to walk out of the restaurant. "Oh look, they're not holding hands. Maybe it did go bad."
"Or Naruto-kun hasn't asked yet," Lee sighed, absent-mindedly poking his dessert with a fork. "He's so fortunate to have a beautiful woman like Sakura-san."
"Why couldn't we use your bugs to eavesdrop on them?" Ino turned to Shino in annoyance.
"I don't make my insects to do purposeless things," Shino blankly answered, his sunglasses glaring at the young woman.
"Well we'd know by now if he proposed or not!" Ino bristled. "Maybe he did ask and she just said no."
"If that happened," Shikamaru went through his vest pockets for a cigarette pack, "Naruto would've suffered a nervous breakdown right in front of our eyes."
"I second that." Kiba took a swig of cognac.
"Third." Choji snorted, before diving into his second plate of pastries.
"Well then," Ino scowled at Naruto's and Sakura's empty table, "where are they going?"
"Naruto, slow down."
"Sorry, sorry!" Naruto apologized. The tail of his black coat whipped behind him as he rushed down the street, pulling Sakura by hand.
"Why did you want to leave?"
"There were too many people there and I didn't…I'll explain later."
"You always say that." Sakura grumbled, her mood not improving at all since Naruto had abandoned her in the middle of their dinner to chat with their friends.
Something was wrong with today—of all days, her birthday no less.
First, her scheduled mission had been called off with no explanation to her. Second, Naruto was acting odd. Of course, she didn't complain when he had announced to her where he was taking her out but she had expected that they would be spending her birthday at their place.
She didn't understand it, but everything about today was just…off.
Her twenty-fifth birthday seemed to have been largely ignored and yet, many of her friends had showed up at the same restaurant Naruto had taken her to. Including her parents. A promising, romantic dinner that had turned into a fairly cold and mundane one after Naruto left in the middle of it. She didn't even get to dessert. Then, there was that issue about the menu…
People in the streets looked after Naruto and Sakura as they briskly walked by. Some tittered at the sight of the well-dressed couple before ambling to their own destinations while others looked after them and knowingly smiled to themselves.
When the couple made it back to their apartment, Sakura was to be mystified yet again. Instead of bringing out the keys, Naruto turned around.
He was grinning.
"We're going on the roof."
A moment later, Sakura found herself sitting in bemused silence at the top of their apartment complex. She waited, perplexed, as she heard Naruto loudly rummage through their rooms from an open window. Exasperated, she looked towards the sky as if to glean an answer for Naruto's strane behavior but the stars only winked back.
"Happy Birthday Sakura-chan!"
Turning, she found Naruto half out of the window. Flashing her a winsome smile, he held a cake box in one hand and a pillow underneath his arm. He was about to get out when suddenly, his elated expression faded into surprise and pain. His right arm then gave an involuntary spasm, causing the box and pillow to fall—
Sakura's hands shot out to rescue the cake. Setting them aside, she slipped her arms around Naruto's shoulders to keep him from falling out.
"Idiot." Sakura breathed as she helped Naruto climb out of the window while balancing the box in her other hand. The pillow had dropped beside her feet. "You forgot to take your meds, didn't you?"
"Ah, Saku—guh—" Naruto grimaced, feeling a fresh wave of pain over the affected limb.
"Do you have the pills with you?" He heard Sakura ask as he stumbled about to lie down on the roof.
"My pocket." Naruto grunted. His right arm was throbbing.
He felt Sakura's fingers reach into his lapel and extract the desired bottles. Three pops later, Sakura's palm pressed against his mouth, dropping the pills inside. He felt them uncomfortably pass through his throat and as he coughed, Sakura bade him to lie down. Setting the pink box aside, she grabbed the fallen pillow and immediately placed it under Naruto's head.
"How could you forget to take them?" Sakura admonished as she straightened the pillow.
"Never mind. Just lie down."
"No…I'm really sorry..." Naruto apologized. "I wanted to…the cake…I wanted to give you the cake."
Naruto waved behind her.
Sakura retrieved the box. When she opened the top, she found a slightly squashed cake decorated in white fondant and candied flowers. Her annoyance with Naruto vanished on the spot. She looked up to see him grinning before wincing again.
"Strawberry." Sakura identified from the sweet smell. "You got my favorite."
"But," Sakura paused, looking around. "You didn't bring forks."
"Oh right," Naruto said sheepishly. But Sakura only laughed.
"Well, we'll just have to improvise."
So with little grace and dignity, Sakura tore pieces of cake with her hands and shared them with Naruto. Once or twice, they licked each other's lips whenever there was a stray streak of frosting then laughed when it got too ticklish. After wiping their sticky hands on Naruto's jacket, which he insisted on using as a napkin, Sakura threw herself onto the pillow and tilted her head to the sky.
"Today was good." She smiled, her eyes on the stars. "A little weird but still good. One of my better birthdays." She turned to Naruto and kissed his whiskery cheek. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Naruto mumbled. He wanted to stroke Sakura's hair but his arm was too stiff to move. They lapsed into a companionable silence, punctuated by Sakura's fingers brushing through Naruto's blonde hair.
"Mmm…Sakura-chan…?" Naruto lazily grinned after some time had passed, "you want to look at stars?"
Sakura's brow rose. "What about your arm?"
"I can manage." Naruto experimentally raised his hand then lowered it.
"All right, but not too long this time, okay?" Sakura lied flat on her back and raised her hand while Naruto followed suit.
"Right there, Naruto." Sakura pointed.
"Wait, here?" Naruto asked, raising his arm.
"No, no…more north…there."
"...Sakura-chan, isn't that the Weaver Girl star?"
"No, that's not it. That star comes out during the summertime."
"Now wait a minute—that has to be the weaver at it! It's huge!"
"That's not it!"
"Sakura-chan, I think your eyes are getting bad. It's right there!"
"Excuse me? I had top grades in Astronomy, Naruto. You didn't even take the class!"
"I'm not lying! Look—it's—right—there."
Out of the corner of her eye, Sakura saw Naruto's hand slip something on her left hand. A luminescent band circled her finger and there, right in front of her eyes, was a dazzling diamond.
For a very long time, or so it seemed to Sakura, she didn't dare move or even speak. As though she were caught in a spell, her eyes remained transfixed on the ring and where it was placed. Her left hand. Her ring finger. She opened her mouth several times but no words came out. Not even a surprised gasp.
When the silence reached an unbearable point, she felt a warm hand cup her cheek and turn her face toward two very blue eyes.
"This is why I was gone that time, why I couldn't tell you where I was and…" Naruto said, tracing her jawline with his thumb.
"After I found out, you know about the Hokage thing, I'm not gonna lie...I freaked out." His lips twisted into an awkward grin. "Don't get me wrong, I really wanted it but then I started thinking about what I had to do, what kind of sacrifices I had to make, and whether or not my position was going to put me in more danger. That's why I went to figure things out and talk to Gaara about how he handled being a Kazekage."
Sakura gazed at Naruto as though she was seeing him for the first time. Had he really put in this much thought about their relationship? Well of course, stupid, she berated herself. If he didn't, neither of us would be together...
"I thought being Hokage was a way to prove to myself how far I could go and show everyone here that I'm not worthless. That I'm more than what they say I am." He drew in a shaky breath. " But the truth is, I never was worthless because I had people who cared about me...even if people said I was a monster."
"You're not." Sakura vehemently denied.
"I know, well, now I do." Naruto reassured her with a kiss to her forehead. "It's because of you. You...love me. For everything that I am and not. I'm not a genius like Shikamaru. Or cool and elite like Neji. I can't do laundry or cook but—but—" He added hastily, seeing the look on Sakura's face. "I'll do anything to make up for all that because you're worth it. I'm sorry if it seems like you're with the village idiot when I know you deserve to be with a prince. The smart thing would be to let you go to be with someone who's a hell of a lot better than I am…but…"
"Naruto." Sakura whispered.
"I don't care if that's the better decision." Naruto locked eyes with her. "I want you to be with me and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make you happy. That I can give you more than anyone else can. We've gone through so many fights and even a war together. After all that, I think we can deal with anything. The good and the bad. So…what I'm trying to say is…"
Her breath hitched, waiting for him and the inevitable question.
"Sakura-chan…will you..." Naruto's face reddened. "Will you marry me?"
Blood pounded in his head while his heart beat fast within his chest, banging against skin and bone in desperation: say yes, say yes, say yes, please say yes...
For a moment, he expected the shattering utterance of the word "no" but there was only poignant silence. In trepidation, Naruto's lips parted to repeat his question but was struck dumb when he saw the look on Sakura's face. For some reason, her eyes looked larger and brighter than usual while a smile graced her features. It stretched across her cheeks, growing wider and wider with every passing second as though it contained a tremendous amount of joy that could no longer be contained.
Hope swelled inside of him.
Any second now, Haruno Sakura could be his forever. Any moment now, she could make him the happiest man on earth or the most miserable being in the universe.
Closer and closer, Sakura drew to him until her lips hovered just inches from his own.
"Idiot," Naruto heard her whisper affectionately, "you're supposed to be on your knee when you ask that."
And before he could answer, she caught his lips in a kiss to heartily signify her consent.