Greetings, one and all! This is my entry piece for the Shakespeare Challenge issued by the wonderfully talented monderndayportia on the KakaSaku LiveJournal page. Each contestant was to pick a Shakespeare play and adapt it anyway they could to the Naruto characters and world.

A quick word before reading: As far as I know, the exact politics of the Hidden Villages and the Countries they're in haven't really been detailed by Kishimoto. If they have in a data book, I'm not aware of it and apologize for any inconsistencies that may follow. Everything about the village politics and all that is purely my own conjecture.

The usual disclaimers apply: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto and Julius Caesar belongs to William Shakespeare.

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

He wanted nothing more than to crawl beneath the worn, shuriken printed quilt on his bed and disappear for a few days with his Icha Icha books. Like the much younger people that had arrived with him, he was exhausted to the point that his bones ached. After a week of traveling, fighting amongst themselves as well as enemies, and sleeplessness, all he wanted were the simple comforts of his own home.

But when he glanced to his right and took in the stooped shoulders and bowed head of the girl walking next to him … any ideas of hiding in his cramped apartment for the next month flew right out of his head.

Sakura hadn't said a word for the last week, not since he'd gone against his own resolve and led her to Sasuke. Or, rather, the last place he'd been. The ninken had guided them to a wide, rocky stretch of land in Iron Country – one that bore the obvious signs of a recent battle. There were patches of charred earth, shattered rocks, decimated trees … and blood. Lots of blood. And it'd been everywhere. But outside of the battleground, Uchiha Sasuke didn't exist. No one – not him, Kiba, the ninken or Akamaru – could pick up the slightest trace of his scent anywhere. Either the scent had been scrambled … or else the body completely destroyed.

It'd done something to him, watching as she struggled to accept that the trail was cold. Seeing the way her eyes had shimmered briefly before hardening with a numb sort of resolve had been … painful. He'd known that one day she would have the eyes of a kunoichi, someone who had seen too much of the ugliness in the world. That didn't mean he had to like it. He'd felt the need to touch her, maybe hug her to him so that she could cry and hopefully wash that jaded look from her eyes.

But he didn't. Instead, he'd stood there, watching as she struggled to keep control of herself. He still wasn't certain if that had been the right course of action or if he should have followed his instincts and gone to her. It was too late to change things now. All he could hope was that she somehow picked up on his unspoken concern for her.

Her continued silence and seeming indifference to anything beyond what was required of her as part of a team had affected his mood as well. Many of the nights where he couldn't sleep were because he'd stayed awake listening to her breathe, just in case muffled sobs were intermingled with the inhales. He kept his eye on her constantly, tracking whenever she left the camp and waiting tensely for when she would return. It wasn't that he thought she would go back and try to locate Sasuke on her own; he was more concerned about trying to be there should she need him.

He was so preoccupied with thoughts of Sakura that he didn't notice the ANBU squad waiting for them inside the gates until Kiba muttered, "Oh, shit."

Kakashi stopped dead in his tracks and his four companions followed his lead. There was only one reason why an ANBU squad would be at the gate to receive them: disciplinary action. He couldn't say that he was terribly surprised. All of them did, after all, leave the village without permission to pursue two S-class criminals on an unapproved mission. Add to that the fact that he'd left the village's ace in the hole with only one guard and he'd be surprised if all they got were mission bans.

Shifting his weight to one foot while being mindful to keep his hands visible and apart at all times, he remarked dryly, "How nice, someone sent a welcoming committee."

The tension in his group was so heavy it felt nearly tangible. Sakura took a half step closer toward him, but whether she was seeking protection or offering it he didn't know. She never completed to movement though as one of the masked faces pointedly turned her way. "Kakashi-sensei…" she whispered, and there was no mistaking the uncertain quaver to her voice.

He smiled and forced an easy chuckle that normally would have accompanied an affectionate hair ruffling. "Don't worry, Sakura. I don't think they're interested in you … or are you, Yugao? Your hair looks nice, by the way."

The woman tensed at the use of her name, and he was certain that she was glaring at him from behind her white and red cat face. She tossed her head, causing her dark hair to flutter, but the effect wasn't quite the same now that it was barely chin length. "You know it's against protocol to reveal an ANBU member's real name while they're on official business," she hissed, though it lacked the true fierceness he knew she was capable of.

Kakashi nodded and very slowly tucked his hands into his pockets. "No need to remind me, Yugao. I haven't forgotten ANBU procedures."

Not that they were on official-official business. If Yugao and her squad had been there to haul them in for insubordination, his team wouldn't have made it two feet beyond the gate. Not to mention there was the fact that she'd been part of his team, once upon a time. The higher ups would never send a squad whose captain had conflicting ties with the person being arrested.

He also had a sneaky suspicion he knew what was going on. Suna's messengers certainly worked quickly.

As reluctant as he was to go through with this, he really didn't have much choice in the matter. And knowing how these things went, chances were good he'd be stuck there for at least a few hours. So much for passing out on the couch tonight.

Kakashi sighed under his breath and shrugged. "Okay, take me in."

Sakura spun toward him so swiftly it was a miracle she didn't suffer any whiplash. "What?!" she exclaimed bewilderedly as the ANBU positioned themselves around him. "You're going to go with them, just like that? Kakashi-sensei!"

"It's okay, Sakura-chan. Besides, if I don't go, Yugao here will hate me forever."

"There are days where it's a definite possibility, sempai," the dark haired woman muttered before motioning for their group to get moving. Kakashi followed her, smiling pleasantly at the two ANBU who fell into step alongside him.

Footsteps sounded from behind him, shortly before a petite frame squeezed between him and the ANBU on his right. A slim, callused hand grabbed hold of his shirt sleeve and jerked him to a stop. "Kakashi-sensei, no!"

He blinked in surprise at her audacity before shooting a pointed look at the man behind her who had his katana partially drawn. The man cleared his throat and returned the blade immediately. Satisfied that he wasn't going to have to beat someone for almost attacking his student, Kakashi tilted his head cheerfully and said, "I'm flattered you want to spend more time with me, Sakura, but this probably isn't the sort of hangout spot you'd enjoy."

"I'm not stupid, Kakashi-sensei. I know something's going on and I won't let you go alone!"

Kakashi was about to argue with her … but he made the mistake of looking at her. She had gotten better at controlling her emotions over the last three years. There were times however where she still wore her heart on her sleeve; this was one of those times. The naked fear on her face was enough to nearly knock the breath from him. She was scared – for him. It made his heart ache and he had that strange urge to reach out to her again, to brush the tendrils of pink away from her cheek.

His hands fisted tightly in his pockets to keep from doing just that. Instead, he smiled and soothed, "Sakura, trust me. Everything is going to be okay, I promise."

Apparently, he needed to work on the whole reassuring thing because rather than stand down, she fit him with a hard, unyielding glare. "Fine. Then I'm coming, too. I'm not going to let you face whatever it is alone."

"Yeah, and we're comin', too," Kiba added, taking a bold step forward. Akamaru growled in agreement.

"We are all accompanying Kakashi-sensei," Lee insisted as both he and Sai moved closer.


"Kakashi-san, I must agree with Hag," Sai argued. "If you are to be taken to task over our actions, then we should all be treated in the same manner."

"That's a very noble sentiment, Sai, but none of you want what's coming to me." He instantly regretted making such a cryptic joke the minute panic returned to Sakura's eyes.

He was about to try and lay her fears to rest, but Yugao slid closer to him and murmured in his ear, "We need to go now, Kakashi-sempai. This is a time sensitive matter and we've already dawdled for too long."

Nodding once, Kakashi leveled a stern look at his team and ordered, "None of you are coming with me: no questioning, no arguing."

For a moment, Kiba and Lee looked ready to protest being ordered about, but then the former shook his head and grumbled, "C'mon, Lee. We have mission reports to fill out." Lee hummed a disgruntled agreement and followed without another word.

Sai still hesitated, his eyes darting from Sakura to Kakashi and back again. "Hag, we have to go."

"We don't have to do any such thing!" she snapped, not once breaking eye contact with the object of her ire – that being her team leader. "You can go if you want to, but I'm not leaving."

"Sakura-chan… I don't believe Kakashi-san is in real trouble."

Not even the use of her name was enough to jar her stubborn nature. "If he's not in trouble, then why won't he let us come with him?"

Even though the question was phrased to Sai, Kakashi knew it was being directed more at him.

He understood why she was afraid for him. It was hard losing teammates, whether it was death or abandonment that took them. The only one she had left right now was him, and if there was one thing he knew about Haruno Sakura it was that she had a fierce tenacious streak. She wasn't going to let him go without a fight.

Kakashi could see her inner struggle clearly in the pinching of her features. She wanted to trust him that everything would be alright, but the need to stand by and protect her teammate was just as strong. He'd taught her that. And here he was telling her to go against his example.

He was reaching for her before he realized what he was doing. Her eyes widened a little when his hand settled on her head. His fingers slipped back through the soft strands, but he didn't ruffle them like he normally would have. Kakashi felt his heart speed up drastically and saw her swallow hard as a shuddering breath slipped between her parted lips.

"I'll stop by and check in with you when we're done, okay?" he offered, trying not to stare at her mouth too much.

It took a moment, but Sakura finally closed her eyes and nodded. "Okay," she whispered reluctantly. "Don't forget."

"I won't."

"And if I don't answer, you have permission to just come in."

"Only if you promise not to punch my head off."

Sakura rolled her eyes, but there was a twitch to her lips that hinted at a smile. "That happened once."

"Yes, but once was more than enough for me, thank you." Kakashi grinned and let his hand fall away from her. There was a flash of emotion across her face, but it was too quick for him to pinpoint. If he had to take a guess, he'd almost say she was disappointed … but that didn't make any sense.

They stood there for a moment longer, her staring fixedly at his chest and him focusing on his feet. Yugao cleared her throat pointedly and immediately they both fidgeted awkwardly, as if the air were suddenly rather uncomfortable. Kakashi took a deep breath and turned his back on Sakura at the same time she did to him.

Kakashi felt Yugao watching him as they headed quickly toward the rebuilt jounin headquarters, but he pretended he didn't notice. His cheeks were a bit warm beneath his mask and he was more grateful than ever for the strip of black. It would be a damaging blow to his reputation if it was spread through the ANBU ranks that Copy Ninja Kakashi was reduced to blushing by his sixteen year old teammate.

Yugao had the courtesy to wait until Sakura was out of sight before murmuring, "She's a bit young for you, don't you think?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about it," he mumbled back as he oh-so-casually tried to fix his hair over his exposed ear. The heat was beginning to creep upward.

"Sure, sempai. Whatever you say," the dark haired woman chuckled.

Kakashi barely managed to suppress a groan. Today was definitely in the running for Most Frustrating Day Ever.

The door to the Hokage office slammed open and the person responsible immediately froze when two ROOT guards appeared by his side, kunai pressing threateningly against his neck.

The boy, a genin judging by his lack of forethought in bursting into the Hokage's office, flicked wide brown eyes from one painted mask to the other before fixing on the man who had yet to look up from the papers on his desk. "D-Danzou-sama … there's news."

Danzou's hand didn't so much as waver as he continued signing the forms Torune kept placing before him. "You're a rather impertinent boy, aren't you? What's your name?"

"My name, sir?"

This caused him to pause and look up with a hard frown. His dislike for having to repeat himself was aggravated by the fact that he was the Hokage – a fact the young brat had ignored upon addressing him. "Yes. Your name."

"Futokuyouryou," the boy replied.

Danzou's hand stopped mid character and his gaze lifted once again to pin a stern glare on the insolent boy. "I know past administrations would have been amused by your cheek, but this one fails to see the humor in a disobedient attitude. I'll say it again: your name."

The boy's brow pinched in confusion. "But I already gave you my name."

He leaned back in his chair, the fingers of his unbound arm tapping irritably against the desk. "So, what you're saying is that your name is futokuyouryou – irrelevant?"

Beaming as proudly as if he'd just been promoted to jounin, the boy nodded and said, "Yes, Danzou-sama."

"Torune, Fu, escort him outside and teach him how to answer the Hokage appropriately."

"Wait!" the boy cried as the two assistants rounded the desk with purposeful steps. "But … my name is Futokuyouryou!"

"Come on," Fu growled as he grabbed the back of the boy's shirt roughly. "Time to teach you some manners, brat!"

"H-Hey! Wait a second, I've gotta message for Danzou-sama!"

"That's the Hokage you're addressing," Torune reprimanded sharply. "You will show proper respect for the man who faced Uchiha Madara and survived!"

"But the message! I've gotta…!" The boy grunted as he was shoved none too gently through the door.

The trio nearly collided with another ROOT nin as he came sprinting into the office. "Danzou-sama, we have a problem!" the man exclaimed breathlessly.

Danzou let out an irritated sigh and dropped his pen on the desk. It appeared today he wouldn't be getting any paperwork done. It also seemed to be the day for people to forget his proper title. "What is it, Mifune?"

"Hatake Kakashi has returned."

"That's hardly a problem. Have him arrested for treason, seeing as he disobeyed a direct order from the Hokage."

Mifune shook his head and spread his arms in a helpless gesture. "We can't, Danzou-sama."

He frowned hard at that and leaned back in his chair with a stern glare. "And why is that?"

"Because … the jounin convened without our knowledge. They intend to vote him in as the new Hokage and were waiting for his return to make it official. To arrest him now would cause a riot."

To those unfamiliar with the subtleties of Danzou's expressions, it would have appeared that the news had very little effect on him at all. But there was a slight tightening near the corner of his eye and through his jaw, a quick flash of pain through his dark eye that said these words hit him harder than he would ever admit. He took a deep breath and released it slowly, just barely resisting the urge to press a hand at the deep, pitted scar marring a good portion of his chest beneath his robes. It throbbed slightly with remembered pain and a chill swept down his spine as his mind flashed back to his near miss with death.

Shinobi were supposed to be prepared for death – to accept it, meet it unflinchingly. It was their duty, not only to the village but to those who shared in their profession. He knew this very well, better than some, and yet it was a concept he had always had trouble embracing. His fear of dying had clashed with his duty as a shinobi several times in the past.

The most recent of those times being when he faced two Uchihas with complete mastery of their sharingan. He'd barely escaped with his life that day; in fact, if it hadn't been for Torune and Fu activating an emergency transport jutsu on the fly, he doubted any of them would have. They all bore scars from the battle, both mentally as well as physically. He had quite literally poured every last ounce of himself into that battle … and he had failed.

And now the village that he had nearly died to protect was favoring another to be their Hokage. He'd hoped to have established himself firmly as Hokage before anyone thought to challenge the Daimyo's decision. The title was once again slipping from between his fingers and he was powerless to stop it.

Belatedly, Danzou realized that his men were waiting for some sort of response from him. He cleared his throat, but his voice still carried the edge of a rasp to it as he said, "He accepted their nomination, no doubt."

To his surprise the guard shook his head quickly. "No, he didn't. Not yet," he replied.

His eyebrows rose as he slowly set the pen down. "So, the jounin haven't voted yet," he murmured, speaking more to himself than to those in the room.

Mifune responded anyway. "Yes, Danzou-sama. ANBU just intercepted him a few minutes ago."

This meant there was still time to act. He'd worked too long and hard to gain his position to let a man half his age simply walk in and take it from him.

Still though, it would be unwise to make a move against Kakashi at this point in time. He was the people's darling, a highly praised and respected member of the village. To arrest him, however deserved it was, would indeed cause a riot like Mifune said – and that was something he couldn't afford right now. He wasn't so blinded by his position that he was unaware how the villagers viewed him. His control was tenuous at best, but it would shatter completely if he took their hero from them.

Danzou's eye closed and his hand smoothed flat across the desk. "Is anyone else with him?"

Mifune knew, without being specifically asked, who his master was inquiring about. "Yes, Danzou-sama. Sai is with them."


"Kakashi returned with three others, identified as Rock Lee, Inuzuka Kiba, and Haruno Sakura."

He nodded at the last name. "Tsunade's apprentice, a rather talented medic nin from what I hear. She was also part of the original Team Seven … but she didn't leave with Kakashi. What about the Nine-Tail and ANBU captain?"

There was a slight pause before Mifune reluctantly admitted, "Their whereabouts are unknown, sir. They didn't return with Kakashi, so it can only be assumed that they remained in Iron Country. We've already dispatched our best trackers to locate them."

Danzou opened his eye and nodded again as he rose from his seat. "Set half the trackers to locating Uchiha Sasuke and the other half to Uzumaki Naruto. Chances are, the latter is in pursuit of the former, so it will be best to cover all sides. Do not engage the Uchiha. Simply observe, mark the location and stay out of range." He couldn't afford to lose those loyal to him, not when his control over Konoha was so tenuous.

"And the Nine-Tail, sir?"

As much as he wanted to say 'haul him in', Naruto had risen in status as well, thanks to his bravery during the initial invasion. And with Kakashi back and holding sway over the people's hearts, one whisper from him and the village would rise up in defense of the Nine-Tail vessel.

"If the opportunity arrives to contain him and bring him back quietly, do so," he ordered as he walked toward the door, his guard falling in around him neatly. "Otherwise, do not engage unless he comes face to face with the Uchiha. Should they meet, extract the Nine-Tail as soon as possible. Send regular reports and await further orders."

"What of the ANBU captain, Danzou-sama? He won't take kindly to us stealing back the kyuubi," Mifune questioned.

Danzou gave the man a long, hard look. "What of him, Mifune?"

Despite having a white and red mask covering his features, Mifune's smirk was evident in his voice as he bowed and said, "Understood, Danzou-sama."

Satisfied that all would be taken care of, Danzou left the office with his ROOT detail in tow. One of Konoha's finest had just returned home. It would be unfitting if the duly appointed Hokage wasn't there to welcome him.

Kakashi eyed the new jounin headquarters with a mildly impressed look. "This wasn't here when I left," he commented idly as one of the ANBU held the door open for him.

"Danzou ordered that all administrative buildings be rebuilt as soon as possible," Yugao replied, nodding in thanks to her teammate as she stepped inside. "The Hokage's offices and residence, the jounin and ANBU headquarters… It was all built within a week."

He nodded thoughtfully as his eye swept over the rubble surrounding the well-made building. Broken glass and rocks, twisted metal piping, chunks of walls and the foundations of what he knew had been homes before the destruction were all over the place. It made sense to establish base commands, but still… "What about homes for the villagers?"

Yugao was quiet for a long time before saying in a tight voice, "A work in progress. Konoha doesn't have the funds to cover all that was lost. Notices were sent out just yesterday that it was the individual responsibility of each villager to find a means of getting by."

"But what about the shelters Yamato built before we left?" There had been at least two dozen new structures that his kohai had created, some of which were more than adequate for housing.

"Assigned to those with the most need."

The ANBU to his right snorted and muttered, "Yeah, if by 'need' you mean part of ROOT."

Kakashi arched a brow at that but didn't comment further. There was no proof to substantiate the ANBU's claim of preferential treatment, so he couldn't treat it as fact. He could, however, be morally outraged that the villagers were told to fend for themselves. That was just asking for trouble in the near future – trouble Konoha really couldn't afford. It was bad enough they were on the brink of war; they didn't need internal struggles as well.

They walked down hallways that still smelled strongly of pine and sealant until they arrived at a set of wide double doors. Yugao paused with one hand on each panel and glanced at him over her shoulder. "Are you ready, sempai?"

Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly to steady his nerves, Kakashi said, "No, not really."

"Too bad." She pushed the doors open and led the way into what had to be the biggest and most crowded meeting room he'd seen in his entire life.

Risers extended high over his head and where crammed full with ninja. They couldn't possibly be all jounin, not unless Danzou had recalled everyone from missions … which, in all likelihood, he had. That theory supported what Yugao had said about the funds being extremely limited. If no one was accepting missions, the village wasn't making money. The people sitting nearest to the door were watching him and his escorts curiously, some leaning over to point out their progress to their neighbors.

Up ahead, the Jounin Council was seated at a large, round table. Yamanaka Inoichi, the head of the Council, was standing to address the room, but is words were getting buried under the murmur rippling through the assembly. He heard snatches of his name being passed around, saw people rising in an attempt to catch a glimpse of him as he and the ANBU stepped out into the open meeting area.

As soon as he was in full view, the crowd erupted with noise. Kakashi tried to maintain an aloof front, but he couldn't deny the thread of apprehension twisting through his gut. It was hard to tell whether the other jounin were excited or outraged at his sudden appearance.

A loud thud sounded from the table as Morino Ibiki slammed his fist down on the wood. "Settle down, all of you!" he growled, glaring out at the assembly.

Under the combined weight of his tone and glare, everyone returned to their seats, though there were a few rude gestures from those who weren't above a genin's maturity level. Kakashi used the few seconds before the meeting resumed to see who all was present at the Council. Nara Shikaku was sitting between Inoichi and Akimichi Chouza. Shiranui Genma was, as usual, sitting backward in his chair just to piss off his neighbor, Hyuuga Hiashi. Yamashiro Aoba and Namiashi Raido were present as well. Maito Gai smirked at him, knowing what was to come, and Yuhi Kurenai smiled as she rubbed a hand idly across her rounded belly. Ebisu was, as usual, taking notes of the meeting.

And in the chair that was normally occupied by himself was Shizune. It made sense to include her in this discussion, not least because she was an incredibly talented and proficient kunoichi. But he was a little surprised that she'd accepted the position, considering the circumstances.

The only person who was missing was the current Hokage. Something told him that Danzou hadn't been invited to the party, which struck him as being rather duplicitous. Then again … they were all ninja. Having two faces was part of the job. He just didn't think it was a good idea to employ it against a man as dangerous as Danzou.

"As you all know, the Daimyo of Fire Country approved a successor to the office of Hokage," Inoichi continued when the noise subsided enough for him to do so. "However, the nomination was never ratified by the jounin of the village. At the time Shimura Danzou was appointed to office, another had been considered as well. Someone we – myself, Shikaku-san and Chouza-san – feel would benefit the village greatly."

"But what about Danzou?" Raidou questioned. "He was the Daimyo's choice." A small murmur of agreement met his comment.

"Traditionally, the Daimyo is included in the discussion of who will lead the village as a courtesy," Nara Shikaku spoke up solemnly, "but final say has always been determined by the jounin."

"Then who does the Council suggest as our Hokage?" a woman demanded from the audience. She cowered backward when Ibiki shot her a warning glare. When her neighbor tapped her arm and pointed toward Kakashi, her eyes widened in shock before the two started whispering to each other.

Now he knew what a guinea pig felt like. It wasn't pleasant.

"Hatake Kakashi," Inoichi began in a somber tone that didn't fit the smirk tugging at his lips. "The Jounin Council has submitted your name for the office of Hokage. What do you have to say about that?"

Kakashi tucked his hands in his pockets and said, "Nothing."

Ebisu paused in his scribbling to look up at him. "Nothing?"

He nodded. "Respectfully so, yes."

A couple of the Council members exchanged glances and whispered to each other. Some, like Ibiki, were damn near ready to bust a gut from holding back the laughter. Others, like Hiashi, were less than amused by his response. Well, what did they want him to say? That this was a tremendous honor? That he would be happy to have the entire village carried on his shoulders?

Clearing his throat, Inoichi said loud enough to be heard over the thrum of whispered voices, "Very well, then let's just get to it. Before we vote, are there any objections to the nominee?"

Silence met him in response. Not surprising. No one ever questioned the Council's decision.

"I object."

… But there was a first time for everything. Gasps of surprise and startled whispers circulated the crowd as four people made their way to the platform. Danzou and Kakashi locked gazes briefly before the older man glanced at the Jounin Council with a rather unfriendly look. There was a brief standoff between the ROOT and ANBU guards as they met, but it didn't move beyond glaring and some light posturing. It was the same sort of behavior Kakashi had witnessed in rival dog packs; nothing but a few snarls and maybe some tree pissing.

Hyuuga Hiashi was the first to address Danzou's presence by stating coolly, "This was a closed meeting, for the village jounin and clan leaders only."

"And as the duly elected Hokage, jounin business is my business," Danzou replied with the same amount of ice in his voice.

"He's right, Hiashi-san," Kakashi agreed, causing his political rival to shoot him a suspicious look. "Even if the Daimyo's decision is ignored, Danzou-sama is still a member of Konoha's Council."

The Hyuuga leader didn't look too please at being chastised in front of the village's most prominent ninja, but he didn't make any further comments.

Shikaku leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers together. "Please accept our humblest apologies, Danzou-sama, for not having the forethought to include you sooner," he said smoothly. "No offense was intended by the exclusion. Continue speaking, by all means."

Though delivered with the utmost civility, Kakashi could still hear the lie beneath the Nara clan leader's words. Until that moment, he hadn't been aware that Shikaku harbored any ill will toward the older shinobi.

Giving a slight bow of appreciation for the courtesy, Danzou moved to a more central location on the platform. He was making certain that all eyes remained on him – a simple tactic, but effective. "First, I want to be clear that I am casting no aspersions on Kakashi," he began, his age roughened voice carrying with amazing clarity in the large room. "He is without a doubt one of the finest ninja our village has ever produced."

"Thank you, Danzou-sama, you're far too kind," Kakashi interrupted cheerfully, causing a few people in the front to laugh quietly. If he wanted to play a game of subtlety, fine. He wasn't the only one who knew how to effect the situation. By introducing levity, he was effectively diffusing the somber atmosphere that had fallen on the assembly at Danzou's arrival. Since the older man used the fear in others as a means of controlling them, it made his job a lot more difficult if the people were in a good humor.

Danzou, however, wasn't just a fear monger; he was a shinobi and a politician as well. As such, he was used to thinking quickly and switching tactics when necessary. His lips quirked into a slight smile as he chuckled under his breath. "There's nothing kind in speaking the truth. And since we're discussing the truth … perhaps you will be so kind as to explain why you abandoned the village you love to pursue a criminal? A criminal, I'd like to add, who was one of your former students."

The low blow wasn't unexpected, but it still stung upon receiving. He hadn't thought the gloves would be coming off so soon. Kakashi gave the other man a long, unreadable look before asking softly, "Did the Council second the decision to name Uchiha Sasuke a criminal?"

"Excuse me?"

"In order for a ninja to be declared a criminal of Konoha, it must be approved by both the Hokage and the Council of Elders," he continued, speaking blandly so as not to seem accusatory. "This is to prevent any personal vendettas from influencing village policy – but you know that already, I'm sure."

Danzou didn't so much as flinch at the implication behind those words, but he also didn't respond – which actually said quite a bit. If he said yes and it came out that the Council hadn't, then he would be outted as a liar. And if he said no, then he was admitting that he gave orders to kill a legitimate member of the village on sight. Neither option would serve his purposes, so he opted for silence so as to claim plausible deniability later on.

Kakashi allowed the silence to stretch out a few seconds longer before releasing a sigh of feigned disappointment. "Sorry for interrupting you, Danzou-sama. What were you saying again?"

"I was questioning your qualifications to be Hokage," the older man answered curtly, turning to look at him head on. "There is no doubt that you are an exceptionally talented and intelligent shinobi, however your leadership skills leave much to be desired."

Kakashi cocked his head curiously and asked, "How so?"

"Your first mission as a team leader. One teammate abducted, one killed, and the mission almost failed. Two years after that, you and a team were sent to investigate a reported border breech. Two teammates were permanently injured, the other was out of commission for one year. The mission? Again, barely successful. Your first genin team: one disappeared with a rogue ninja, another sought teaching outside of your guidance, and the third abandoned the village to consort with Orochimaru. Need I say more?"

"No, no, that's good enough," he replied breezily, rocking back on his heels as casually as if they were discussing the weather. "I have to say, Danzou-sama, I'm rather flattered you're so familiar with my record."

There was a quiet chuckle from the audience and a couple of the Council members had to quickly bite back on their smiles. Even Danzou smiled, though it lacked any real humor. "I make it a point to know who is who in Konoha."

"Which is certainly expected of a Hokage, of course. Tell me though … how many missions total have I been assigned?"

Danzou's eye narrowed suspiciously. He'd obviously just figured out what he'd stepped into and didn't like it one bit. Good. "One thousand, one hundred and forty-one."

"Really, that many?" He didn't bother trying to make the surprise sound genuine. "Now, of those one thousand, one hundred and forty-one missions, how many were unsuccessful?"

There was a slight pause before the Hokage-elect bit out, "None."

Kakashi hummed under his breath and nodded. "Not bad for someone with questionable leadership skills, wouldn't you say?"

Once again, Danzou refused to respond.

"We're not here to debate on the qualifications of one man over the other," Shikaku spoke into the silence. "We're here to decide what is best for the village. Both of you have attributes that are beneficial to the position, and to Konoha."

"Agreed, but right now there are more important things we need to take care of."

"What could possibly be more important than voting for a new Hokage?" Hiashi demanded with a hard frown.

Kakashi spared a glance for the Hyuuga leader before turning to address the assembly as a whole. He could hear their incredulous whispers as clear as day and knew they'd misconstrued his words. "First, we still have villagers living in tents," he began, speaking louder so that everyone could hear him. "There's also the fact that, while some buildings have been remade, Konoha is still nothing more than rubble and half-standing remains. We need to clean the village out before we can rebuild it. Then there's also the matter of supplies: how to get them, how to pay for them… And of course, there's Fire Country's defense, not to mention our ravaged inter-village relations."

"All of that is of pressing importance, Kakashi-san," Inoichi conceded. "But we need an officially named Hokage to organize all that."

"You're correct, Inoichi, which is why I'm going to bow out."

If the pandemonium from before had been loud, the one now was near deafening. Once again, seats were being abandoned as the jounin leapt to their feet in protest. It was obvious to everyone who they wanted to lead them. Kakashi almost felt sorry for Danzou – almost. The guy had done quite a bit of damage to Konoha's public relations, after all. Not to mention the fact that he'd blacklisted Sasuke without Council approval and was trying to keep Naruto caged to the village for whatever reason. And no, he didn't buy for one minute that Danzou's sole motive was to protect the Nine-Tail jinchuuriki.

"Goddamn it, all of you shut up!" Ibiki bellowed, slamming his fist down on the table again. "This isn't a free-for-all, and you're not a bunch of hyperactive genin. Sit down and keep quiet!"

There was still some grumbling, most of it rude stuff directed at Ibiki, but the jounin still complied with his order. When everything was settled once again, the Interrogation Expert huffed irritably and waved a curt hand. "Go on, Kakashi."

Kakashi nodded his thanks and continued calmly, "The Daimyo has made his preference clear, and we need his support if we're to survive. The Jounin Council has already acknowledged that Danzou-sama is qualified for the position. Therefore, I think that the best course of action would be for me to thank the Council for the honor of being nominated and to decline."

Shizune waited for him to finish before leaning forward so as to address the entire Council. "Kakashi-san is right in that we need to be a village united in order to pull ourselves up again. However, I feel that no matter who we select, whether it's the Daimyo's choice or ours, tensions will be created as a result."

"But we need a Hokage," Inoichi insisted.

"Yes, we do," Shizune agreed in a calm, reasonable tone. "But where is it written that we can only have one Hokage at a time?"

Kakashi wasn't the only one to gape at her in surprise. Everyone was looking at her as if she'd just suggested they reverse heaven and earth for the fun of it. Kurenai in particular was frowning hard as she glanced from him to Danzou and back again thoughtfully.

As if sensing the reluctance in her peers, Shizune shrugged indifferently and added, "It's just an idea. Besides, the position of Hokage is extraordinarily detailed without having to worry about rebuilding an entire village. It might be best to split it between two people, just to make certain everything gets done."

"This was tried once before," Danzou commented, "with Senju Hashirama and Uchiha Madara."

"There's a difference between then and now," Shikaku pointed out. "And that is that Uchiha Madara was more concerned with his clan than he was with Konoha. Since both you and Kakashi-san share a similar interest, I'm going to agree with Shizune-san's suggestion."



One by one, the Jounin Council sounded off in agreement to the proposal of two Hokages. Kurenai was the last to cast her vote, and she did so with open hesitancy. Kakashi wondered for a moment whether it was due to the people being selected or the idea of two village leaders, but he didn't have time to ponder it long. Before he could fully process his own thoughts on the matter, Inoichi was calling for the rest of the assembly to vote and all he could do was watch as every hand shot up in favor of the compromise.

It was overwhelming, really. Kakashi gazed out at all the jounin in the assembly and was struck speechless by the show of support. Somehow over the years (and despite his introverted nature) he'd managed to acquire quite a few people he cared about and who, apparently, cared about him. How that happened, he had no idea but it gave him a sense of propriety over the village. This was his home and he would do everything in his power to protect it.

But he didn't really want to do it with the mantle of Hokage thrown over his shoulders. As far as he was concerned, Tsunade was still Konoha's leader. It seemed a bit … presumptuous to assume her role while she was still alive. Then again, she wasn't in any condition to fulfill her obligations to the village, and no one knew if she ever would be again. Konoha needed someone now … and whether he liked it or not, he was part of that solution.

"Then it's settled," Inoichi announced as he and the other Council members rose from the table. "Until Konoha has been restored to its fullest potential, we will have two Hokages: Shimura Danzou and Hatake Kakashi. We'll allow you two to decide who handles what aspects of the job."

Immediately, the assembly broke out in riotous cheers, and unlike the last few times they'd gotten unruly, Ibiki didn't bother trying to silence them. Instead, he was one of the first to get up and come over to congratulate the newly elected co-Hokages.

From there, everything was a blur of handshakes, back thumps, beaming smiles and congratulations. Kakashi was completely inundated by all the people, and not just a little uncomfortable as well. Sure, he knew quite a few of them personally and had worked with several more in the past … but he'd never been a very social guy to begin with and was feeling quite a bit claustrophobic.

There was only one break in the constant press of people, and that was when Gai helped Kurenai get through to shake his hand. "Congratulations, Kakashi-sama," she murmured gravely. She hesitated for a moment before leaning closer so that only he was able to hear her next words: "I have a really bad feeling about this."

Kakashi drew away from her, momentarily taken aback by what she'd said. Then, figuring she was joking with him, he smiled and said, "You and me both. I can barely keep a plant alive, and now they're expecting me to take care of an entire village?"

Kurenai's frown deepened and there was a solemnity to her eyes that made his blood run a bit cooler than normal. "That's not what I meant. Just … watch your back, okay?"

For a moment, they stood facing each other in complete silence, but after a bit he murmured, "Okay."

Relief flooded over her features at his response. Her eyes closed and there was a hint of a smile on her lips as she whispered back, "Thank you." Gai offered a quick congratulations as well before turning to follow her back through the crowd.

Even after they had disappeared in the swarm of jounin, Kakashi stared after them. Kurenai wasn't a woman to mince words, and she certainly wasn't one to stir up trouble without due cause. There was no doubt her concern was sincere, but at the same time it didn't seem to be founded on any facts. He had only just returned to Konoha, and he knew by Danzou's presence at the meeting that the other man hadn't seen the communications from Suna before hand. True, that didn't mean he couldn't plan something later on … but he stood the risk of that backfiring on him severely.

Still though, Kurenai was a high caliber kunoichi with amazing instincts. If she felt there was something off about this, his first reaction was to believe her. It certainly wouldn't hurt to exercise a bit of caution going into the future. This meeting, no matter its intended purpose, had made one thing very clear: the people of Konoha were not satisfied with their current leader. If Danzou expected to remain in power, he had no choice but to play nice with Kakashi. It was hard to tell if this political blackmail was a good thing or a bad thing.

After all, the cornered dog was always the most dangerous.

Sakura didn't know how long she'd been pacing the small ground space of her tent, but it felt like forever. When they'd arrived at the village, it had been late in the afternoon. It had to have been at least an hour since the sun had set, leaving her tent completely dark. Due to the fragile state of the village, an order had apparently been issued that no lights were permitted after sunset. She was cold, her meal had been meager at best, and she'd tripped so many damn times on the root bisecting her living area that she was seriously thinking about ripping the damn thing up.

But more than being miserable due to her current living conditions, more even than being utterly exhausted … she was worried.

Where was Kakashi? He should have been back by now, shouldn't he? Damn it, she knew she should have gone with him! That stupid smile of his … this was the second time she'd let it fool her. It was his way of keeping her safe, she knew, but she still resented him for it. She didn't need or want to be protected; she wanted to help her teammates and stand by them no matter what.

Apparently, he still didn't think she was ready. Sakura felt tears stinging her eyes and swiped a hand across them irritably. She was so tired of crying over these stupid … boys! For once, she wanted them not to lie because they had this misguided need to spare her feelings. She was sixteen years old, half way to seventeen, and a talented kunoichi – not a medic nin. A kunoichi. She'd saved lives and taken them in the name of her job, just like her teammates. She knew just as well as the next kunoichi that reality wasn't always shiny and pretty. So why did people always feel the need to protect her? Why did they lie to her, cut her out of things? And why, why, why did she always fall for it with Kakashi?

Sakura sniffled hard and didn't bother trying to keep the tears in check any longer. She was so sick of being second guessed, of working so hard that she nearly collapsed only to find out she still wasn't good enough to warrant the respect of truthfulness. At the very least, she deserved it as a friend and someone who was there from the beginning. Even if he didn't want her as backup, Kakashi didn't need to lie and tell her everything was going to be okay when it obviously wasn't. She'd thought back in Iron Country, when they'd lost Sasuke's trail yet again, that he'd … that maybe he'd —


She spun around with a startled gasp at the familiar greeting and in the split second it took for her to register the pale contrast of his hair in the dark, she was flinging herself on him. Kakashi grunted as her body collided hard with his, and after a moment's hesitation his arms circled her in return. She could feel his discomfort with the gesture in the stiffness of his body, but he didn't try to push her away like she half expected him to. Instead, he patted the space between her shoulder blades awkwardly and said, "Sakura, would you mind easing up a little? It's a little difficult to breathe."

Her arms tightened around his neck even further. "Sorry," she mumbled into his chest. She was probably smearing his flak vest in snot and tears. She didn't care; it served him right after all the worrying he'd put her through.

Sakura's eyes closed when she felt his chest his beneath her cheek. He sighed and the tension drained from his body as he submitted to her hug. "I did tell you everything would be okay," he muttered into her hair.

"Yeah, but you smiled at me." Just like the last time you said things would be fine.

She didn't say it out loud, but then she rarely ever had to with him. Kakashi always seemed to know what she was thinking, and this time was no different. His arms tightened marginally around her and his hand began rubbing in slow, soothing movements across her back. It wasn't a very noticeable reaction when compared to what others might have done or said, but for a man who typically wasn't demonstrative of his emotions it was a lot. She was grateful and more than a little touched that he was willing to share that with her.

Sakura wasn't sure how long they stood there simply holding each other, but neither of them seemed inclined to let go. As far as she was concerned, he could do so all night if he wanted to. With everything that had happened – the village being destroyed, her beloved mentor left fighting for her life, one teammate consumed by revenge, and the other focused on saving him – she needed something familiar to cling to. Kakashi was her constant through it all, always there when she least expected but most needed him. Yes, he could be a heartless jerk and she certainly didn't approve of his porn addiction … but he was someone she could depend on.

Without thinking beyond how nice he felt against her, she turned her cheek into his shoulder so that her nose bumped the stiff, padded collar of his vest. Sakura took a deep breath in and savored the familiarity of his scent.

There was nothing particularly special to how Kakashi smelled. He'd never worn cologne as far as she knew and her nose wasn't sensitive enough to detect that 'unique' scent her romance novels always mentioned. He smelled like a mixture of generic soap and the forest surrounding Konoha; it made her think of home, and she supposed in a way that was rather unique to him.

She broke from her thoughts when Kakashi cleared his throat embarrassedly. Blushing hotly as she realized just what she had done (and how he might possibly perceive it) Sakura released him and took a couple steps back. "S-So," she stammered once a more appropriate distance was between them. "How bad was it?"

Kakashi released a slow breath and replied, "I think you'd better sit down."

Oh, no … it was worse than she'd thought. Sakura swallowed hard and nodded, belatedly realizing that he probably couldn't see her. Her stomach was a fluttering mess as she turned her back to him and crouched down by her cot, one hand groping blindly through the grass until it came into contact with the small camping lantern that had been provided for her. She opened the little door with one hand while fumbling through her hip pouch for a pack of matches with the other. The crack of the match head being struck seemed loud in comparison to the soft creaking of insects outside and she hoped that none of the guards roaming around outside heard it.

Once the lantern wick was lit, Sakura quickly turned it down so that the barest of glows emitted from the glass casing. It was just enough so that she could see Kakashi's face amidst the shadows. Maybe it was the poor lighting, but he looked as exhausted as she felt. There was a heavy, dark coloring underneath his exposed eye and it seemed to her like the lid was drooping more than usual. Even the perpetual slouch to his shoulders was more pronounced and she was willing to bet good money that he hadn't eaten all day.

Sakura hesitated a moment before motioning toward her cot awkwardly. "You should sit down, too."

The way he stared at the cot was the same way she imagined a man caught in Suna's desert for a week would appraise a well. However, instead of taking her up on the offer, Kakashi shook his head and said, "No, better not. There's a good chance I won't get up again if I do."

Once again, there was a disconnect with her brain and her actions as she blurted out, "You can stay, if you want. I don't mind the company."

Kakashi shot her a disbelieving look before quickly ducking his head. She couldn't be sure, but she'd almost swear there was color peeking out above the edge of his mask. Sakura stared at the flattened grass she was crouched over, her lower lip caught between her teeth as she fought to control her own blush. What was wrong with her tonight? This was the second time she behaved questioningly toward him. Thankfully, it was Kakashi and not some other guy who would take her up on the offer. Any second now and he would thank her and politely refuse the offer….

Her head shot up in shock when the cot creaked under his weight. Sakura's eyes widened as he shifted around until he found a comfortable sitting position on the narrow frame. Finally, he let out a contented sigh as he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "I don't know if I'm just tired, but this cot isn't too bad," he remarked as humor momentarily brightened his dulled gaze.

It took her a couple tries before she managed to choke out, "Yeah, it's … not bad. I guess." Still unable to meet his gaze directly, she undid her belt and dropped it along with her hip pouch to the side so that she could sit more comfortably on the grass. Once she was situated as well, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an effort to control her nerves. After repeating this a couple more times, she nodded for him to continue.

"Well, it's like this," Kakashi began, pressing his fingertips together thoughtfully as he stared at a spot just over her left shoulder. "The Jounin Council convened today to vote in the new Hokage."

Sakura sucked in a sharp breath but refrained from interrupting. She'd known it was only a matter of time before Danzou was named the official Hokage, but she'd sort of hoped that with everything going on the vote would have been postponed.

"Obviously, Danzou's name was brought up as a candidate. But there was one other person as well that they were considering."

Her brow furrowed as she quickly ran over the older ninja she knew of that they might approve. When she couldn't come up with anyone that was even remotely capable of doing the job, she asked, "Who?"

Kakashi's eye locked with hers steadily as he said, "Me."

All she could do was gape at him dumbly. Now she knew why he'd suggested she sit down. If she hadn't been, she would have probably collapsed at this point.

It wasn't all that astonishing that Kakashi's name would be mentioned for the role of Hokage. She knew, probably better than most people, that he would be an excellent leader for the village. What knocked her speechless was the fact that his name was brought up by the Jounin Council when the Daimyo had already approved another. As far as she knew from reading up on the history of Konoha that had never happened before. Whoever the Daimyo selected was always ratified by the Jounin Council.

Sakura shook her head sharply and held up a hand as if to stop him from speaking further. "I'm sorry, but … did you just say that the Council nominated you for Hokage? In place of Danzou?"

"No. They actually voted that the office be split between me and Danzou."

"What?!" He had to be kidding. There was no way the Jounin Council would do that, not when the village structure was already so frail. To have two Hokages was just asking for trouble.

Kakashi spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "It was Shizune's idea, not mine. Although, I have to say she did have a good point on the workload aspect. The village needs to be rebuilt and we need to keep generating revenue to do so. I don't think any one person could hope to do both at the same time and succeed."

"But that's why the Hokage has to delegate certain responsibilities," she countered. "With two Hokages at work, no one is going to know who to go to for what purpose. Not to mention all the political pressure and constant intrigues… It just seems like it'd be easier to have one clear leader who assigns people to certain responsibilities."

"Again, this wasn't my idea. It was presented by a Council member to the entire jounin assembly, and it passed without a single vote against it."

Sakura's eyebrows rose at that. "Really? Everyone voted in favor of this?"

He nodded and even though the lower portion of his face was covered, she could tell he was smiling. "Really, they did."

She felt an answering smile pulling at her lips and hastily tried to bite it back. There was no doubt in her mind (or his either, apparently) that the reason everyone voted in favor of the decision was because they wanted Kakashi to be the next Hokage. "Will this be permanent or –"

"No, it's temporary. Until Tsunade recovers or Konoha is put together again, whichever comes first."

"And then?"

"And then…" Kakashi sighed and shrugged. "I suppose they'll take another vote to determine the sole Hokage."

This time, she couldn't keep the grin from spreading across her cheeks. "So, Kakashi-sama," she remarked, putting emphasis on his new title. "When do we start?"

Confusion furrowed his brow as he repeated, "We?"

"Yes, we," Sakura returned as she gave him a stern frown. "You and me. I am gonna be your assistant … right?"

Judging by the way he quickly shifted his gaze elsewhere, that wasn't what he'd been thinking at all.

Disappointment slammed into her hard, instantly wiping the smile from her face as her shoulders curled forward. Apparently, she'd been very wrong to assume that he would want her by his side for this. It hurt to know that even now her knowledge wasn't what he was looking for. Taking a deep breath to try and tame the tears, she managed a steady voice as she said, "It's okay, I get it. I mean, I'm probably not the only one in the village who knows the difference between an HFCC-1500 and an M-1640 requisition form."


"And of course everyone knows how to calculate the projected budgets for the village, not to mention figuring in a padding area should things run higher than planned."


"Oh, and you probably have someone in mind who already has a good rapport with the other Kage assistants and who—"

Her eyes widened when Kakashi suddenly clamped a hand over her mouth.

"I'll remove my hand in a minute," he explained slowly, as if to make his words as clear as possible, "but only after I tell you that you are the only person I would ever consider for an assistant position with me, and that the only reason I would hesitate to ask is because it will mean a big change in your current responsibilities."

His hand fell away, but she could still feel the heat and weight of his palm across her mouth. Her heart began to pound hard in her chest and she had to fight the urge to lick her lips. "W-What do you mean exactly? How will my responsibilities change?" she asked softly, hating how her voice quavered so noticeably.

"Well, for starters you probably won't be able to go on as many missions as you'd like to," he replied. She watched curiously as his fingertips rubbed together idly; it was the same hand he'd placed over her mouth just moments before. "And that would mean a setback in any future promotions."

"I can live with that." Yeah, it would be a bit difficult to be a chuunin for a couple years longer than her peers, but that was okay. At least she'd already cleared the chuunin hurdle.

"It would also mean you'd have to cut down a lot of the time spent at the hospital," he continued, watching her intently for her reaction.

She wrinkled her nose and shrugged. "I won't deny that'll be a little tough, but I'll still be a part of what goes on there. Besides, I'm a fast learner and I work hard. I'll be able to keep up, no problem." Or so she hoped.

"You would also have to give up on searching for Sasuke."

That made her breath catch in her throat a little. For so long now, all that had mattered was bringing Sasuke home. She'd worked and trained every single day for almost three years just to gather the skills necessary to see her goal to completion. Sasuke was the reason why she'd sought out Tsunade in the first place, why she'd perfected her chakra release to the point where it was reflexive to her. And now….

Now, she wasn't sure all of it had been for Sasuke. What if, all this time, she'd been telling herself it was for Sasuke when in fact … it was for herself? She'd made herself stronger because she wanted to be. It wasn't for Sasuke or Naruto or even the village she served. It was because she, Haruno Sakura, was tired of living for someone else.

A strange sense of calm permeated her entire being. It was unlike anything she'd ever felt before, as if suddenly the entire world made sense. Yes, she still wanted him to come home safely, but she no longer felt the need to drag him back by whatever means necessary. He would either make the decision on his own or she would never see him again. And quite honestly … she was okay with that.

Sakura lifted her eyes and met his stare evenly. "What time and where?" she asked.

For a moment, Kakashi's eye widened a bit, letting her know that he hadn't been expecting that answer from her. Then, his features softened happily and there was a definite thread of pride in his voice as he said, "Seven tomorrow morning, outside the Hokage's office. And see if you can locate a couple boxes as well as a spare desk. I've a feeling we'll need them."

They both stood and walked toward the entrance of her tent. "Very well, Hokage-sama. I'll even bring the coffee."

He paused in the entry to turn and beam at her cheerfully. "And that, Sakura, is why you were always my favorite."

Sakura rolled her eyes and gave an inelegant snort. "No, I'm your favorite because I'm the only one who would allow you to shove all the boring paperwork off onto them."

"Well, there is that. I take my coffee black, by the way."

"You'll take it however I give it to you and like it."

There was a strange look in his eye as he regarded her silently. His hand started to lift from his side, and for a second she thought he was going to touch her like he had at the gate. A tingle worked its way down her spine, contrasting sharply with the warmth coiling through her stomach. Her heart sped up again and her breath caught in her throat as she recalled how nice it had felt to have his fingers combing through her hair so gently.

But then he stopped. Very slowly, his hand fell back to his side and disappeared into a pocket. Sakura chewed her lower lip and looked away. Heat rushed to her cheeks as she struggled to push back the unfamiliar sensations coursing through her.

Kakashi lingered just a little longer before stepping out of the tent. "Goodnight, Sakura."

She cleared her throat and whispered, "Goodnight, Kakashi … sama."

Sakura waited until he turned his back before shutting the tent flap securely against the night air. Even though it wasn't particularly cold out, she had goosebumps marching up and down her arms and the hairs on the back of her neck were on end. She went quickly over to her cot and sat down to remove her boots for bed. Not bothering to change (and since she only had one spare set of clothes right now, she didn't want to sleep naked) from her usual attire, she pulled her bedroll on top of her and tried to get some sleep.

Unfortunately, her mind was unwilling to cooperate with her worn body. It kept replaying everything that had happened over and over again – particularly the way that Kakashi had touched her earlier. It had only been a simple thing, barely even worth mentioning to Ino, but it had felt like so much more. She knew it she was probably reading more into it than was intended and blamed it on the fact that she was physically drained and under a lot of emotional stress.

She continued to toss and turn on the narrow frame as best she could long after he'd left, until finally she gave up and just stared at the pointed top of the tent. Tomorrow was going to be such a busy, important day … and here she was stuck with a bout of stupid insomnia.


"Is that the last of it?"

"Yes, Danzou-sama," Torune answered as he passed a stack of documents over to Fu for shredding.

Danzou nodded and sank carefully into his chair. His joints always ached more at night when the air was cool and moist, but tonight the discomfiture of his own body took a back seat to the turmoil in his head. As soon as he was able to slip away, he'd hastily returned to his office and ordered the destruction of any and all documents that could potentially be used against him. Spies were also assigned to watch Kakashi at all times and were instructed to report back where he went and who he spoke to.

He also put into effect the kuroi meikan order; essentially, it stated that all ROOT business was to be conducted privately and through coded messages. Should anyone violate that order of secrecy, it would mean death. As soon as they tried to speak or write any of what they knew, the seal on their tongue would release and act like a suicide pill.

There would be no second chances, no plea deals – no exceptions. He couldn't risk Kakashi gaining enough intelligence on him and his operation to use as ammunition later on down the line.

Things were going to be quite a bit different now … but he'd been around long enough to know how to navigate uncharted waters. He had lived through three Hokages (though the third was still technically alive herself), seen two full out ninja wars, and survived a battle with the world's most notorious criminal and his pet Uchiha. He was confident he could outlast one man with little to no political experience.

The meeting had gone almost as he'd expected, the exception being the former Hokage's assistant posing the idea of two Hokages. Had the jounin simply voted between him and Kakashi, he had been prepared to counteract their decision by threatening to inform the Daimyo. The Jounin Council couldn't risk losing the monetary support of their patron and would have backed down.

Unfortunately, it didn't work the way he had hoped. Kakashi had even refused the nomination twice and the jounin still voted to give him equal status.

It had been a pretty speech, but two words in particular had stuck out to him: right now. Meaning, in short, that Kakashi fully intended to pursue the Hokage position for his own once the village was reassembled. He was surprisingly good at the political game … but Danzou wasn't fooled in the least. All the noble intentions and good deeds in the world couldn't hide an ambitious mind from a professional politician.

He looked up from his desk as the door opened and closed noiselessly behind the man he'd been waiting for. Sai walked further into the room, pausing at a respectful distance to bow deeply to his master. He didn't offer a word of greeting, merely waited impassively to be addressed – as was expected from a properly trained soldier.

"Report," Danzou ordered.

"As you know, I left the village with Haruno Sakura, Inuzuka Kiba and Rock Lee on an unauthorized mission to track down Uzumaki Naruto," Sai began mechanically. "It was Sakura's plan to intercept Naruto before he could engage Uchiha Sasuke in combat and convince him to stand down."


He hesitated a moment before admitting, "Because I said something to her, Danzou-sama, about Naruto's feelings toward her. She felt that the reason he was so persistent in locating Uchiha Sasuke was out of obligation to a promise he'd made her when they were genin."

Danzou closed his eye and leaned back in the chair. He should have figured it was for a foolish reason like that. "And what was her objective after she convinced Naruto to stop?"

"She intended to kill Uchiha Sasuke herself."

"What prevented her from doing so?" Not that he for one second believed a mere slip of a girl like her could get one blow in with someone as advanced as the last Uchiha.

"… Me, Danzou-sama. I knew Sakura didn't stand a chance were she to confront Uchiha Sasuke, so I alerted Kakashi-sama to her plan and used a clone to help guide him to our location."

His eye opened slowly at the new title attached to Kakashi's name. Setting aside the fact that Sai had acted in a way that went against his entire ROOT training, he murmured, "So … you've already heard that the jounin convened."

Sai was very careful to keep his expression flawlessly neutral. "I assumed that was the intent when the ANBU squad received us at the gate. If he was to be questioned officially, they would have arrested us all. Since they seemed only interested in him, I figured it was for another purpose. His election to Hokage seemed the most logical choice."

Danzou exhaled slowly and suppressed the pang of outrage at the reminder that the village had unanimously voted for another. One finger tapped slowly against the edge of the desk as he regarded Sai thoughtfully. "What are your thoughts on the matter?" he asked.

For a brief second, Sai's impassive façade slipped. His brow creased marginally as if whatever thoughts were going through his head were too confusing to voice. But he regained control of his expression quickly and said, "Kakashi-sama is undoubtedly one of the best shinobi in Konoha. He is the only person since his father to have a flawless track record in terms of missions. The jounin respect him, and there is no questioning his experience."

"That's not an answer, Sai. That is a list of attributes," he remarked sharply, causing both of his assistants to glance warily at him. "What do you think about Kakashi becoming Hokage?"

Sai's expression faltered once again as his eyes closed and his shoulders relaxed in resignation. "I don't know what to think, Danzou-sama," he admitted at last. "During my time as part of his team, I have come to respect him myself. His methods are unfamiliar and sometimes I question the effectiveness of them, but overall he is an admirable leader."

Danzou nodded, letting his eye close. It was as he had feared. He'd had doubts about sending someone as young as Sai to infiltrate Team Kakashi, but assigning an older, more experienced ROOT agent hadn't been an option. It would have given the appearance that he was trying to supplant his man as the team leader, something Tsunade would have crushed in an instant. Sai had seemed to be the perfect compromise: young enough to assimilate with relative ease, old enough to understand the boundaries. He was a talented shinobi as well and had the potential to go far in the ranks. To lose his support was a serious blow.

"I understand," he responded. "In fact, I agree with you."

There was a brief lapse in the shredding as his assistants gawked at him in shock. Even Sai seemed taken aback by the admission, though he hid it a good deal better than his counterparts.

"Kakashi has many commendable qualities," he continued. "He also has a natural charisma that makes people want to follow him. The question is whether or not he would be an effective Hokage. Just because people like him doesn't mean he can lead them through a war."

"Kakashi-sama doesn't believe a war is coming," the dark haired man replied quietly.

"Then he's either naïve or blind. War is coming, whether we want it to or not. I've seen it too many times before not to recognize the signs now. And as noble as Kakashi's intentions of peace are, at this point in time it's unforeseeable and unrealistic. We cannot put our village in further jeopardy by associating with potential enemies. This is the same reasoning employed by the Sandaime and Godaime – and look how it worked out for them."

Sai didn't say a word in response to that.

Danzou sighed and relaxed into his chair. He was tired, physically, mentally, and spiritually. He was tired of constantly scrabbling to keep hold of what he'd earned, tired of always having to fight to the top of the pile. All he wanted was to achieve something great before he died, but it seemed at times as intangible as Kakashi's mission for peace.

He ran a finger along a gouge in the desk, his eye focusing on nothing in particular as the silence extended. "A shinobi's duty is to his village," he said at last. "He is to protect it from enemies, represent it proudly in battle. He is a tool. His life begins and ends with the village. That is what it means to be shinobi."

His gaze locked with Sai's. "If the time comes, will you choose to fulfill your duty to Konoha or indulge in your love for a handful of people you barely know?"

Sai opened his mouth but closed it promptly as he averted his eyes.

Danzou managed a bitter smile and stared down at his desk. "Forgive me, Sai, for putting you in such a troublesome position. Have a written mission report ready by the end of the week. Dismissed."

He bowed again before turning and leaving the office.

Torune waited until the door latched closed before tentatively asking, "Are you certain we can trust him, Danzou-sama?"

A slow, knowing smile curved his lips. "Sai will make the right decision, Torune. Have no fear of that."

Sai frowned as the roughly constructed stool he was sitting on sank into the soft ground again. He stood up, pulled the legs free, and adjusted the position of it in the hopes that it would solve the problem. This routine had already been repeated eleven times, so he wasn't particularly optimistic on the twelfth time being a success. Gingerly, he began placing his weight on the stool top, gradually adding more and more until he was seated fully. The stool didn't budge. Sighing heavily, he picked up the portable desk from the grass at his feet and resumed his sketching.

Art was the only time he ever let go of himself. It was his release, his way of expressing himself when otherwise it was impermissible. Whatever he was feeling or thinking and couldn't divulge in words was revealed through canvas and paper. He'd discovered while exploring the various artistic mediums that certain ones fit certain moods. He worked with charcoals and pastels when he was feeling happy, paints when he was sad. Markers were for worry and fear, and he mixed all of the above when he wasn't sure what to express.

Tonight, he was in an Ink Mood: confusion.

He used ink primarily as a weapon, as if by lashing out with it he was fighting against the turmoil of his thoughts. But lately, he had been turning to it more and more as a medium source. It was fitting, he supposed. He was more confused now than he could ever recall being in his entire life.

Things had been simpler before his current mission. He had seen the world much like the sketch he was working on: black and white, no in between shades. It was all about his duty, his mission orders, his current objective. If something fell outside the scope of that, it was unimportant. Friends didn't exist. Emotions had to be curtailed. He was a shinobi, and a shinobi was a tool for the village.

And then he was given his current assignment.

Everything changed once he started to assimilate into Team Kakashi. Things – feelings – he had long ago thought were purged from him began to resurface. He'd begun to remember things that had been locked away due to his training, to experience things he hadn't before. It was terrifying … but at the same time, it had felt right.

He had wanted to study these new feelings and ideas down to the last detail. In ROOT, the team was the machine of which a shinobi was but a single part. In Team Kakashi, it was something completely different. It was about trust and friendship, of standing by one's teammates rather than cutting them loose when they were a liability.

It was run more like a family than a squad of ninjas, and that baffled him.

Sai's brush swept across the page in a long, thin line. He didn't know what he was drawing; he rarely ever did when his emotions dictated the picture. His hand simply moved where it wanted. There were sketch books filled with the product of his catharsis, pages of random lines and curves that were either abstract masterpieces or had the appearance of a child's art. On occasion, the unplanned shapes took true form, becoming withered flowers or twisted trees. He didn't think tonight was going to be so defined.

It didn't surprise him to receive a summons from Danzou. He had actually been expecting it as soon as he crossed through the gate, and the fact that it didn't come for almost two hours after their arrival had been puzzling – not to mention a little disconcerting. Whenever Danzou was angry (though he never expressed it as such) he would not acknowledge the one to make him so. Sai had fully expected his rage. He had, after all, disobeyed orders and left the village with Sakura.

He didn't regret the action at all, but he had spent the last week formulating what exactly to say when Danzou questioned him on it later. It was considered an unforgivable crime in ROOT to lie to their master … but then, he wouldn't have been lying to say that he went with Sakura to find Naruto. He just wouldn't explain to Danzou why he wanted to find the kyuubi.

The debriefing, however, had been much different than he'd anticipated. Instead of asking him about his motives or what he discovered, Danzou had instead asked him about Hatake Kakashi. He had been what Sai would almost term kind and very pleasant, which was almost worse than having him displeased. Danzou's disapproval he knew how to respond to. His kindness, he did not.

It didn't take long for him to realize the direction of the conversation. As he had guessed when the ANBU showed up at the gates, Kakashi had been nominated by the jounin for Hokage. Danzou had asked him several times, in many different ways, how long he had known about it. He had spoken honestly and said he hadn't. From there, his master had spoken of how Kakashi was yet another from the Sandaime's school of thinking, how his pacifist mentality was going to leave the village vulnerable to enemies.

Sai had to admit that he agreed with Danzou on a few points. The last three Hokages had believed in trying to unite all the Hidden Villages together, to form a ninja coalition. However, despite their talks of peace, some of the worst attacks in Konoha's history had happened during their tenure. There was the Third War, which culminated in the Nine-Tail decimating a good portion of Fire Country before the Yondaime was able to seal it away. During the Sandaime's second time in the role, Orochimaru staged an attack with Suna that had not only destroyed a portion of the village but had resulted in his demise. And now, when Tsunade was Hokage, the village was completely destroyed and their future uncertain.

He respected what they – and Kakashi and Naruto – were trying to accomplish, but it was simply not practical. Ninja were first and foremost warriors. They were assassins, soldiers, living weapons. Peace meant an end to what they were. He could appreciate why it was such an appealing ideal … but he didn't understand it.

Sai didn't know how to be anything except what he was. He tried to though. He read books and went to popular social events, opened dialogue with his peers made every effort to emulate their mannerism. It was important to him that he understand these dissimilar ninja. The job called for him to learn their motives and plans, but it extended beyond that for him. He needed to know the whys of their actions more than he needed to know the whats.

And that was the problem. Because he was so engrossed in comprehending why they did the things they did, he lost sight of who he was: a shinobi of Konoha. A member of the elite ROOT force. He wasn't like them at all, which was why he didn't get them. He was a weapon of the village, bound by duty to obey orders and complete the missions assigned to him.

Danzou had reminded him of that tonight – not directly, that is. He had done so by discussing Kakashi's past, how he was too emotionally involved with his students to do the job as efficiently as he could. Sai had listened silently as his master spoke of Hatake Sakumo's failure and how he feared Kakashi was treading the same path. As much as he respected Kakashi as a team leader, he could see why Danzou was so worried for Konoha.

A soft sigh escaped his lips and he closed his eyes, letting his hand still against the paper. As much as he wanted to set aside his thoughts and let the ink flow across the page, it seemed tonight that escape was not to be had. No matter how hard he tried to clear his mind, he kept hearing Danzou's voice in his head repeating the question he'd posed before dismissing him:

If the time comes, will you choose to fulfill your duty to Konoha or indulge in your love for a handful of people you barely know?

Sai opened his eyes and stared dully at the swirls and strikes he had drawn. Disorganized, chaotic marks with the occasional run of ink causing the edges to waver. As usual, it was the perfect representation of his thoughts. He was about to set it aside when his gaze suddenly fixed on one perfect line slicing diagonally across the mess. There were no bleed marks, no sudden bend or break to it. The ink was smooth and solid before tapering at the end into a thin, barely there tail. It alone was the one steady place in a muddled world.

He set the ink sketch down and stood up, his features hardening as it became clear what he must do.