Standard disclaimers apply. I'm just borrowing these characters for a little while.
Author's note: Kishimoto-sensei's plan is to fit the entire 4th Shinobi War Arc into a matter of days in the Naruto timeline, but I'm taking the liberty of extending it since war is never so quick and clean-cut. Events from the manga will be added, removed or shifted around. Please pardon my impudence.
Apologies for the delay in updating, but real life has been a little strange lately. And also, I got distracted by the awesomeness of Zutara Week and had to read all that stuff. Oops.
"What they said about the white sake from Iwagakure's Blue Dragon Springs is true: this is the best. Damn. Sake. Ever."
Gaara's response was to nod politely at the grinning Hokage across the table in one of the interrogation-styled rooms, their aides conspicuously missing and the door firmly sealed with probably more sound barriers than necessary. While Tsunade was already on her second tokkuri of sake and had completely forgone with the use of the choko cup, Gaara only had half a cup – a gesture of political correctness more than anything else. Treaties have been signed, trade routes opened, and wars ended over shared sake between Kages, and Gaara acquired a sense of general indifference towards the drink over the years. So what if he was a little more than two years away from being able to consume alcoholic drinks legally?
He had committed far greater sins, Gaara reminded himself.
Finally, his patience proved to be not as long as he would have liked it to be.
"Hokage-sama, I requested this audience to discuss certain matters with you."
The underlying comment of "I did not request this audience to watch a woman get drunk so she can evade my questions further" went unspoken, but was loud and clear.
Tsunade took one last swig of her sake, then placed it none-too-gently on the table.
A hairline crack had begun to form from the contact point of the bottle with the table, but Gaara made no comment on it.
"Shikaku and Inoichi have spoken to me briefly. I know what questions you come bearing, Kazekage-sama." Tsunade sounded perfectly sober and serious despite the light flush on her cheek, "And my only answer to you is that this is Konohagakure internal affairs, and if the other Hidden Villages try to extract more information about the covert operation against Kabuto, we will consider this a serious breach of trust and act accordingly."
How ironic, mused Gaara.
"Then may I remind you, Hokage-sama, that I am the Regimental Leader of this war; the task of locating and taking down Kabuto Yakushi was assigned to the strongest tracker teams in each Division and we gave them the best resources and information possible, and now I am finding out that you had effectively withheld information that would have led to his capture. Do I even need to mention that your covert operation was no less than a slight on my position of leadership?" Gaara's voice was moderated and devoid of any emotions; he was simply stating a fact, as far as he was concerned.
Tsunade pressed her fingertips together and glared at Gaara; Gaara mirrored the gesture and gave as good as he got.
With a heaving sigh, Tsunade finally broke the silence between them, eyes closed as she spoke, "As far as I am concerned, everything that we've achieved to date in this war is entirely attributed to the Allied Shinobi Forces, with no single person claiming credit for any victories. I did overstep certain boundaries by not informing of this covert operation, but I really cannot disclose this information without destroying the reputation of my Village. However, I can assure you this operation was not meant to steal your thunder, and my operative did succeed in his mission; we have taken down Akatsuki's two strongest weapons: the White Zetsu clones, and now, the resurrected shinobis and Kabuto."
"Do you speak with absolute certainty that Kabuto is by all accounts dead and no longer a factor in this war?"
"I will give you the answer soon."
"I've sent out a team," at this, Tsunade raised a hand to stop Gaara from interrupting her, "To the last communication point we received from my operative. Their orders are to bring back Kabuto's body, and any other information that they may find in the process. This information I will hand over to the Intelligence Division."
Gaara frowned, "So you are telling me that while the curse of Edo Tensei has been broken, Kabuto could well have escaped and may still be alive to use more of such foul techniques?"
The sand in Gaara's gourd slid against each other abrasively, an indication of their owner's agitation.
Finally, Gaara asked, "When do you expect them back?"
"I sent out the fastest team possible. They should be back after your birthday celebrations tonight."
Tsunade just had to mention the one other event in Gaara's life that he had no control of even with his position as the Regimental Leader; the smirk on her lips told the Kazekage that she knew exactly what she was doing.
"The entire affair is getting out of hand. I should apologise to Shikaku-san in advance for all the security measures that he had been busy setting up for this… event," Gaara muttered as he pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Speaking of affairs, Kazekage-sama, how are you and my young apprentice getting along?"
The redhead studied the smiling blonde across the table, trying to detect any traces of sarcasm or a desire for something juicy to gossip about. However, Sakura was and still is Tsunade's apprentice – the Hokage would never deliberately embarrass her student or put another Kage on the spot.
… At least, that was what Gaara hoped.
"She has been receptive to my courtship thus far."
Tsunade's little snigger might have something to do with his choice of words, but bringing Sakura into the conversation only reminded him of what he had been meaning to ask Tsunade since yesterday.
Gaara suddenly straightened in his seat and leaned forward, "Hokage-sama, I will respect your Village's desire to protect its secrets, but as Regimental Leader, I must ask this one question, and you as a Kage must answer it."
Tsunade cocked an eyebrow, lips slightly downturned at the tone of demand.
"I will answer on the condition that the question will not harm relations between any of the Five Shinobi Nations."
Gaara nodded, and without breaking his gaze from Tsunade's, asked in an almost accusatory voice, "Was the secret operative Uchiha Sasuke?"
A fine mist of sand was starting to seep from the cracks in the cork of Gaara's gourd.
"Why am I not surprised by your question?" Tsunade wanted to roll her eyes, but refrained from doing so; this was the question she had been expecting to answer after Shikaku and Inoichi's appearance yesterday near Dan's cell.
"This is one question you can answer, I presume."
"I can," said Tsunade with a nod of her head, "It was not Uchiha Sasuke. I cannot and will not send a known Kage killer; Sasuke murdered Danzo while he was Hokage, and that crime can never be pardoned. Even if Sasuke is the best candidate for this operation, with him having spent so much time around Orochimaru and Kabuto, he remains an unknown factor to those closest to him."
Gaara tilted his head, "I heard that he nearly killed his own teammate in the process of eliminating Danzo-san."
Tsunade's huffed a mocking laugh before replying, "A more appropriate description of his actions would be 'he used his female teammate as a crucifix'."
Gaara leaned back and closed his eyes, sighing softly. The most probable shinobi for assassinating Kabuto had just been ruled out, and with no other candidates coming to his mind, it seemed like a political scandal just waiting to break out.
He decided to probe no further – to become a party to this secret would only endanger Sunagakure in turn.
"I can only hope that whatever decisions you have made by carrying out this covert operation, that you would not come to regret them, Hokage-sama," Gaara hardened his gaze before rising from his seat to signal that he had enough of his share of political wrangling.
"There is one decision that I may have come to regret, Kazekage-sama," Tsunade rose from her seat and folded her arms across her chest.
Never had she seen a sterner glare from the young Kazekage when those words left her lips.
"For what it's worth, I do not share the same sentiments. She will assume the role of the Kazehime eventually, and I will not be persuaded to place that title upon another woman. Ever."
"You presume a lot, Kazekage-sama. Have you considered her position within Konohagakure? Do you think Sakura will abandon her duty to her own people and Village? Do you think my Senior Council will let you whisk her away so easily, knowing that she is probably the best poisons specialist in the shinobi world? And did you consider the political implications if you took the potential regent for an heirless Kage for your wife? What of the power imbalance when two Hidden Villages ally themselves through a marriage that in the eyes of every shinobi appears to be used to plot against other Villages?"
Tsunade sat back down, her gaze never leaving Gaara's steadily stiffening posture, then added for good measure, "And have you asked Sakura if she had considered all these factors as well? Her duty may be to you right now, but after the war, she will go back to being a Konoha kunoichi, and we both know how much that means to her."
Gaara drew a calming breath and replied as he exhaled, "When I assumed the role of Kazekage, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into: a world of political wordplay and maneuverings. You mean to dissuade me from my course, but I love Haruno-san, and I know that whatever her decision may be, it will be one that she has not come to lightly."
"… And when were you planning on telling me about the Kazehime Trials? I know Sunagakure's practice is to only bestow the title of Kage on men, which is why it is also the only Hidden Village to require a 'hime' title for the Kage's partner. While I have full confidence in Sakura to excel in what your senior council may throw at her, I will not allow Sakura to be held in lower regard just because of her gender," Tsunade finished with another swig of her sake.
"When the time comes, Haruno-san will pass the Trial," Gaara had uttered that sentence more as a fact than anything else, "And when I take her as my wife, I will change the law of Sunagakure to ensure that the Kazehime is to be treated with all the respect the Kazekage gets.
"I have never seen my mother in the political arena, but I have studied the lives of the previous Kazehimes. Haruno-san's place will be by my side always as both advisor and confidante – she will not be secreted away from my council's presence as were the previous Kazehimes. She will be nothing less than your equal, Hokage-sama."
Tsunade had to fight back the urge to reach over and smack Gaara around for assuming so quickly that Sakura would willingly become his wife after the few months they have spent together.
Not to mention, she had to fight the urge to fall to the floor in laughter at the seriousness of both Gaara's words and expression at the same time.
Instead, Tsunade reached around behind her to pluck a new tokkuri of sake and made a gesture with her hand to indicate that she wanted to be left alone.
But not before she said to the retreating form of the Kazekage, "You have only barely convinced me to allow this relationship to remain as thus, Kazekage-sama; there are three other Kages and their councils that you will have to persuade to see things your way."
Gaara's reply was a rather unsubtle slam of the door as he left the room.
… It may actually be easier to get a pardon for Sasuke than for Gaara to win over both Sakura and the other Hidden Villages, Tsunade concluded silently.
Nara Shikamaru was a big fan of cats, no surprises there.
Cats exuded dignity in everything they did – they walked gracefully, they ate daintily, they sat as if they were in the presence of a Kage, they fought with grace to defend their own, and they even slept as if they were resting on delicate silk sheets.
Perhaps the only downside to cats was that most of them were not openly affectionate, if at all; Public Displays of Affection and dignity were the polar opposites of each other.
This could not be said for the sand-cat, which seemed to favour Shikamaru almost as much as it did its pink-haired owner.
And why were cats on his mind, one might ask of Shikamaru?
It was because he was presently standing at the top of one of the larger wooden watchtowers with Sakura, and her ever-present sand-cat was alternating between winding itself around Sakura's legs and Shikamaru's, and back to Sakura it went before repeating the pattern.
And the second question now would be, what was the Proxy Commander doing up on a watchtower with the Regimental Leader's Personal Medic?
As odd as the answer would seemed, it was because of shenanigans.
Well, the prevention of possible shenanigans by the shinobis during The Birthday Party of The Century, to be precise.
Sakura was no stranger to shenanigans herself; too often, she was caught in innocent but extremely compromising situations with Gaara. However, with the introduction of alcohol into the camp for even just one night…
There would most definitely be Shenanigans of Epic Proportions, to say the least. And not between herself and Gaara, she had quickly added.
To be fair, Sakura did not use the exact word 'shenanigans'; Shikamaru just used it as a substitute for her longer explanation of "possible inappropriate behaviours that would be unbecoming of shinobis". It made Sakura's fretting sound less serious in his mind.
Not that Shikamaru did not agree with her that the situation did merit attention; it was just that a serious Sakura was usually a short-tempered Sakura, and that meant an increased possibility of getting a right-hook from a chakra master.
"You should know as well as I do, Sakura, that having heard news of the sake for tonight, we are looking at a significant drop in morale among our forces if we were to withdraw it from the party."
Sakura shook the unfurled scroll in her hands in vexation and replied, "I know, but the war is still not over, and I think any enemy with half a brain would choose tonight to attack our encampment. We can't have drunk shinobis accidentally impaling each other with their shurikens and kunais while fighting off Akatsuki, or worse yet, while facing Madara."
Shikamaru turned his head and coughed discreetly into his fist, telling himself that he should not point out to Sakura (hee, point out) that there will be a lot of 'impaling' happening tonight given the overall mood of the camp.
Shikamaru was in a pretty good mood himself, apparently.
It was hard not to feel at least one's spirits lifted a little when standing amongst the shinobis; just days ago before Gaara's birthday celebrations (and before a host of other reasons were thrown in to justify such an extravagant event), the Allied Shinobi Forces were still hunting for Kabuto while facing off the seemingly endless stream of resurrected shinobis. Kabuto had begun literally hitting closer to home by utilising the supply of fresh corpses, provided by none other than the Allied Shinobi Forces themselves.
The Intelligence Division had sent a concisely worded but unmistakable announcement to the Regimental Leader and his ranking officers just this morning – Edo Tensei was confirmed to have been broken. There was nothing else in the message sent: no explanations or anything of that sort, but this was a matter grave enough that no joke could be made, or lies told about it.
Gaara's countenance was stony, and remained as such when he left to convene with the Hokage. He did, however, assure his officers that the news was true before his departure, and that he had seen the curse break with his own eyes.
With the news that the Edo Tensei curse was lifted, this respite from having to constantly watch out for recently deceased friends-turned-enemies could not be more welcomed for the weary shinobis. Not even Temari's constant scolding of the kunoichis for their swimsuit attire or insistence for a more subdued tone of decorations could possibly dampen their mood.
… Okay, the possibility of the promised sake being taken away from them might be a downer, and that was the issue that Sakura had approached him with that morning. She had led them to the watchtower to converse to avoid the energy-charged buzzing around the camp, and the topic she wanted to broach was best done out of earshot of the shinobi population in general anyway.
"Wartime rationing," said Shikamaru suddenly.
"Sorry?" Sakura blinked in confusion.
Shikamaru turned to her and made a dismissive gesture as he explained, "If you don't want to see a bunch of shinobis drinking like fishes, you can just say that the supply of sake delivered was limited, so everyone is restricted to just one choko; or if you're generous, one masu each."
Sakura pondered but for a moment on Shikamaru's suggestion – it was reasonable given the circumstances. The sake would not have to be withheld from the more indulgent shinobis, and at the same time, one masu of sake should not dull most shinobis' senses or even embolden them enough to commit Random Acts of Regrettable Stupidity.
It was as shenanigan-free a solution possible they could employ in short notice.
"What would I do without you, Shika-kun?" Sakura was smiling as she shook her head mildly in amusement at how easily solutions came to the Nara heir, while she had spent the better part of the last two days trying to solve this problem.
Shikamaru tilted his head and smiled at her, replying, "Don't sell yourself short, Sakura. You would have come up with something on your own; you always did your best w…"
Shikamaru stilled in his speech so abruptly that Sakura took a step closer to ask in concern, "Shika-kun?"
It was approximately six heartbeats later that Shikamaru seemed to come back to himself and muttered something under his breath. He nodded his head in the direction of the steps leading to the top of the watchtower, grimacing as if he had just been on the pointed end of a spear.
A spear made out of sand, to be precise.
"Nara-san," came an equally neutral acknowledgement.
"Kazekage-sama," Sakura greeted a moment later, still looking Shikamaru oddly out of the corner of her eyes.
The sand-cat was now entwined between Shikamaru's legs, hunches raised and tail waving slowly.
That cats chose to play favourites was nothing new to Shikamaru; however, he wished that the sand-cat could have picked a better time and place to display its obvious preference of him over Gaara.
"I wish to speak to Haruno-san," Gaara intoned solemnly, then added, "Privately."
The request would have seemed off under other circumstances, but Sakura and Shikamaru had forsaken the shelter of the watch tower and were then standing on an open-air overlook while Gaara stood at the doorway leading to said overlook.
Additionally, it did not seem to be so much a request as an order; if there was any doubt about the nature of the command, it was quickly cast aside by Gaara's act of moving away from the doorway to let Shikamaru pass.
Not wanting to be at the wrong end of Gaara's menacing aura, Shikamaru bent over to pick up the sand-cat and marched past Gaara, still remembering to observe formalities, "By your leave, Kazekage-sama."
Gaara waved Shikamaru away, a mild tilt of his head to acknowledge his Proxy Commander's words and nothing else.
The oddity of his behaviour, however, did not end there. Instead of stepping out into the overlook to join Sakura, Gaara stood his ground and closed his eyes after having caught sight of her.
Sakura was dressed in her usual red shinobi attire.
It should not have affected him as much as it did – most of the shinobis have already returned to wearing their usual attire instead of the standard-issue wartime shirts and slacks in anticipation of tonight. Certainly, caution was still on their minds, because every shinobi (barring those in… swimwear) still donned their flak jacket. At the drop of a pin, almost every shinobi would be battle-ready.
That hint of red under her jacket, combined with her shorts, reminded Gaara of the time when he first laid eyes on Sakura over a year ago when Naruto's team was sent to retrieve him from Akatsuki's clutches.
A time when they were but Kage and Konoha kunoichi – nothing more, nothing less; barely even acquaintances but for Naruto's own friendship with him.
Could he bear to return to that time, to let Sakura return to her duties in Konohagakure after the war and have everything back to status quo?
Unconsciously, he raised his hand to his chest and clenched at the fabric over it.
No, I cannot, he finally admitted.
Unaware of the internal war Gaara was fighting with himself, Sakura, puzzled by his continued preference for the sheltered enclave of the watchtower, walked towards the doorway and effectively blocked most of the sunlight.
"Gaara?" She chanced.
The redhead looked to her, and the pain returned sharper than before; haloed as she was by the sun behind her, she appeared to be a literal shadow.
"I'm fine, Sakura," he replied.
Gaara forcefully lowered his hand, looking once again every bit the Regimental Leader as he leveled his gaze to meet Sakura's concerned ones.
"You look a little pale, Gaara. You didn't drink any of the tea that Temari was sending around the camp, did you?"
Gaara unconsciously rubbed at his abdomen for a moment, remembering how Baki had arrived that morning with a teapot and cup on a tray. His former teacher had said something about the drink being intended for Sakura by Temari, whom in turn received the orders from Shizune.
"I don't think so. Why?" asked Gaara.
"Erm…" Sakura started turning pink, "It's a contraceptive tea. Shishou claims that it'll lower the incidences of inter-Village pregnancies given the party planned for tonight.
"Personally, I think it may be a little late since the bikini parade began three days ago, but even a sip of that particular tea will prove to be effective for a period of five days… after."
"Is there any reason why you were given an entire teapot's worth?" Gaara could feel the beginning of a headache forming; no doubt his sister had a hand or two in this.
"I'm not sure," Sakura was so innocently oblivious at that moment that all Gaara wanted to do was to tuck her away in his robes and hide her from all the conniving minds of the world, which would mean Sakura having to spend the rest of her life pressed up against him.
It did not seem like such a terrible idea. In fact, it was downright appealing to a certain part of Gaara's male brain.
And just as suddenly, Sakura put two-and-two together and groaned aloud, smacking herself in the forehead as she uttered, "Oh, stars, they must have thought that you were planning on knocking boots with me tonight. Well, they are forgetting that as a medic, I have my own supply of contraceptives and I have never even missed a cycle of it. Not even once! Besides, that contraceptive tea is meant for accidents and not a preventive despite its name."
Sakura's righteous anger was clearly directed at the wrong issue, which explained the odd look and slight smirk that Gaara was sending her way.
"The tea doesn't go bad for a long time. Actually, it would be more accurate to call it a potion, but the inventor eventually went with 'tea' because it sounded more palatable. Before contraceptive pills were invented, this tea was carried around in small vials by kunoichis on missions," Sakura automatically recited as if she had a medical scroll in front of her.
Sakura's knowledge of medicine loved to make itself known whenever possible, but this was possibly its worst timing yet.
Shut up, stupid medic-nin brain!
Gaara was outright chuckling by now.
"Shishou made me memorise all those medical scrolls after she found out about my photogenic memory when it came to my studies – I didn't ask to remember that tidbit of information!" Sakura huffed and turned her pink-tinted cheeks away with what might be described as a little more force than necessary.
Ah, the Hokage.
The mere mention of her was enough to sober Gaara up immediately.
Sakura's eyebrows knitted together once more as she asked, "Are you certain you did not accidentally drink the tea, Gaara? It is known to cause indigestion-like symptoms in men."
"It's something else entirely, I can assure you," Gaara scowled lightly and then turned to look Sakura in the eyes, "I had a meeting with Hokage-sama this morning. We discussed certain matters pertaining to you."
Inwardly, Gaara braced himself for the shouting fest that was sure to follow.
Oddly calm for a change, Sakura walked into the shelter to stand a few steps away from Gaara and folded her arms, asking, "And what exactly were these 'matters' that you talked about?"
There was no use beating about the bush when Sakura had that particular look in her eyes, so Gaara answered her as neutrally as he could – "We spoke about your status as a Konoha kunoichi, and how you will return to that station once the war is over. Your Hokage is quite adamant about keeping you within Konohagakure."
Sakura pursed her lips; Gaara continued.
"Hokage-sama has also mentioned that the other Kages and their nations may not approve of a union between Konohagakure and Sunagakure – they will see it as the creation of a power imbalance that may one day lead to war," Gaara's shoulders slackened briefly before he assumed his erect posture once more, "I'm not certain if we will be able to convince them that there are no politics involved in our relationship – I am the Kazekage, and you together with Shizune-san are next in line for the title of Hokage."
"Wait, that's not correct, Gaara. Our daimyos elect the next Hokage through a voting system," Sakura's eyebrows were knitted together in confusion.
"Perhaps the war has taken centre stage for now and Hokage-sama did not wish to burden you with such details, but I believe she has found the time to add such a clause towards the title of Hokage. She mentioned once that she did not want anyone like Danzo ascending to power, so she has put forward the motion to the daimyos of your country that the indisposed Hokage's closest kins will rule as a regency until a new Hokage is elected unanimously by both the daimyos and the people of Konohagakure. Her reasoning was that this would lessen the chaos in the aftermath of a Hokage's sudden inability to perform her duties as there would be immediate leadership for the Village to fall back on, and while this motion has not been officially sanctioned by the daimyos, the other Kages including myself have given our written agreement to such an arrangement. It is very likely to be passed as a law once the danger of the war ceases to hang over our heads, so I'm not surprised that you've not been informed of your future responsibilities yet."
Gaara watched closely as Sakura took in the life-altering information; she went from gaping in disbelief to a shade of white so pale that she looked ready to faint. Finally, she balled her fists, and Gaara warily kept an eye on the blue chakra that was slowly licking its way up both her forearms.
"I'm sorry," Gaara bowed his head slightly, "I know I should not be the one telling you such sensitive information – your Hokage should have been the one to speak to you first."
"I'm not mad about that," Sakura said through clenched teeth.
Gaara raised an invisible eyebrow in askance; Sakura advanced upon him and came close enough to jab a finger squarely into his chest.
It was with some relief that Gaara noted how she had drawn the powerful chakra back from the hand that was on his body right now.
"I am mad… no, I am furious, that you and shishou think that you can plan out my entire life for me behind my back and without consulting me even once when I am just a summon away," Sakura whispered quietly enough to make her tone somewhat unnerving.
"Every shinobi's lot is decided by their ruling Kage. You have proven your worth in this war, and I have no doubt that Hokage-sama will see to it that yours will be improved considerably once Madara and Akatsuki are gone for good," Gaara answered as emotionlessly as possibly, "The other shinobi nations will not allow an alliance between our Nations once your rank is raised, as they will see this as a consolidation of power between Sunagakure and Konohagakure."
"I do not deny that shishou's words would overrule that of even my parents; such is the right of the Kage. The infuriating part of this is that both you and shishou have assumed to lay out my life for me," Sakura leaned back, arms crossed and drew herself a little taller, "Well, guess what? Appointing two regents is just a fail-safe – Shizune nee-san would no doubt be viewed as my senior even if we became co-regents, because she was shishou's first apprentice. My position in that arrangement is simply that of a backup should anything befall both shishou and Shizune nee-san.
"As for you, Kazekage-sama – I would not simply drop everything and start picking out the colours of the Kazehime robes the moment the war ends. You speak of a marriage alliance between our Villages as if it is a foregone conclusion. Did you somehow forget that I have to pass the Kazehime Trials? Or if I even wanted to relocate my entire life to even consider entering the Trials at all?"
She was not being fair to Gaara; Sakura knew as much. She entered the world of the shinobis, acutely aware that her life would be at the command of her Kage, and that she would have no say in her own future. It was her lot in life, and Sakura never had a reason to second-guess her decision to become a kunoichi.
However, it now seems that her life not only is at the beck and call of her own Kage, but is also the subject of much scrutiny by the other four Kages, one of whom was trying to claim ownership of her life as well. In a romantic manner, perhaps, but a claim nonetheless.
Gaara had been oddly silent throughout Sakura's outburst, and it took Sakura an extra moment to grasp that she had been studying her toes with great intensity since goodness knows when; It was no wonder she missed whatever that emotions that Gaara might have let slip past his carefully guarded countenance.
So it was with some measure of surprise that she found Gaara's hand extended to her, palm upwards. She looked up at Gaara's face, but he was a completely blank canvas to her eyes at that moment.
Finally, Sakura lifted her hand and placed it upon his palm, and Gaara's fingers closed around hers just firmly enough that he was able to draw her against his chest by tugging on her hand.
It was when Gaara's exhale fanned across the top of her head that Sakura realised she now only came up to his cheekbones; the young Kazekage was finally hitting his growth spurt, while she was stuck at her present height.
"I'm sorry," Gaara's breath caressed her bangs, tickling her forehead.
"… I'm sorry, too," Sakura closed her eyes and pressed a little closer, "It's just that…"
"That there is an on-going war, and that you do not need to be further burdened by politics right now?"
Gaara could feel a smile from Sakura's lips forming against his collarbone as she said, "That's not it."
"… That the idea of moving from a land of green to another of sand is something that you need to give more thought to?"
"Leaving my hometown permanently is certainly something I need to wrap my head around, but that's still not it."
Gaara loosened his hold and leaned back just enough to gaze into Sakura's eyes and confess quietly, "Then I am utterly confused."
"I'm just frustrated that everyone is making so many assumptions about our relationship and the future, including you, Kazekage-sama," Sakura prodded his chest with a finger, and blushed, "And we have not even gone on a proper date yet."
Gaara cocked an invisible eyebrow, and Sakura flushed even more as she ducked her head once again and quickly added, "Yes, I know we are in the middle of a war with heavy casualties, and you are the Regimental Leader who cannot be expected to leave his post for any reason. But it just seems like all the time we have alone nowadays involves one of us being injured or sick, which is supposed to be the original nature of our relationship, since I am your personal medic, and…"
Gaara pressed a finger against her lips to stop Sakura from running her mouth off; he needed to get a word in edgewise.
"Today is my birthday, therefore I am taking the night off. We will spend it together, and I won't let anyone interrupt us. It'll serve as a 'date'."
If he was expecting Sakura to be pleased by his decision, her completely flummoxed expression said otherwise.
"But, but… you're the Regimental Leader! You can't take the night off! There is no such thing!"
Gaara simply replied calmly, "I have a Proxy Commander, whom I intend to have take my place for those few hours – Shikamaru-san will not run the army into the ground within such a short timeframe. And this birthday party… thing… The other Kages will be here, along with their seconds. We will not be lacking in strength should Akatsuki choose to attack. In fact, we may be stronger than they expect us to be.
"Besides, it is my birthday. I get to make one wish, and I decided to make it that I will have time alone with you for at least today. It gives me a reason to escape the debauchery that may or may not occur, and it will give us both time to catch up on matters outside of this war."
Sakura opened her mouth with a retort on her lips, but no words came out. Eventually, in the face of Gaara's bemused smirk, she decided to let him win this round and tucked herself neatly under his chin.
"… we are both very stubborn, aren't we?" Sakura finally whispered.
"We would not have made for a very good match otherwise."
"I'm being serious, Gaara." A light thump of her palm against his chest – she seemed to be getting into the habit of doing that to Gaara a lot these days; physically admonishing him whenever he gave her cheeks a reason to burst into a brilliant hue or red.
"So, will you honour me by going on a date with me tonight, Haruno-san?"
The seriousness in Gaara's tone was completely overshadowed by the twinkle of mirth in his eyes.
Sakura's muffled reply was lost against his robes; Gaara took it as a good sign.
"We should go back to our tent. Baki-san informed me that there would be some debriefing by the Intelligence Division with regards to tonight's event."
With Sakura still clinging to him and showing no signs of wanting to let go anytime soon, Gaara decided that the best way to transport them was through the use of his sand. Automatically, Sakura pressed closer as the cloud of sand from his gourd engulfed them…
… And landed them both in an ungainly heap on a soft and slightly bouncy surface that felt like it could be either one of their beds.
That should not have happened – Gaara knew the placement of every object in his tent by heart, and had calculated for the sand to transport them near his paper-strewn desk. Their beds should have been on the other side of the tent.
This meant only one thing: someone had been inside their tent, and had deliberately moved their furniture about. The only questions remaining was how did a spy infiltrate their encampment in spite of all the precautions that the security team had taken, and what the perpetrator had hoped to achieve by ransacking their tent to the extent of shoving entire pieces of furniture out of their place; none of the Division Commanders, including the Regimental Leader, kept any sensitive information in physical form as a precaution against spies, so the puzzle was getting more complex by the minute.
"Gaara?" Sakura pitched her voice into a whisper, her thoughts catching up with his in an instant; Gaara would not commit the error of dropping them on an unexpected surface – his slight hitch in his breathing gave his own surprise away – so it was probably correct to assume that something was off.
Knowing that she could not see his gestures in the darkness of the tent, Gaara reached down to touch her thigh holster instead; Sakura let her hand reach down to unbuckle the clasp on her holster as quietly as possible, encountering a gentle but reassuring squeeze of her fingers from the Kazekage.
Arm yourself. Be ready for anything.
A burst of light erupted in the tent, quickly illuminating the entire interior and causing Gaara to throw up a shield purely out of instinct. It was only after his brain had finished processing the single, shouted word that the sand shield began to dissolve away, revealing both Gaara and Sakura to an equally stunned gathering of familiar shinobis whom have formed a semi-circle near the centre of the tent, each bearing gifts of all shapes of sizes.
At that point, nobody was certain who was more surprised: the Kazekage and his personal medic, or his well-meaning (but obviously poorly timed) birthday-wishers.
Someone in the group cleared his throat; Gaara quickly released his hold on Sakura's hand.
The situation was obviously an unexpected one, and someone had to take control soon before the silence in the tent grew any heavier.
Naturally, that position fell to Temari.
"Ok, which idiot forgot to tell Gaara about this?"
Baki bowed his head slightly and stood forward, "I mentioned to Kazekage-sama that he should expect company in his tent, though I did not tell him the true purpose in order not to ruin the surprise."
"Well, the surprise is still ruined!" Temari scowled as she pointed at the rigid forms of her brother and his lover.
"My eyes are ruined," Kankurou grumbled quietly to no one in particular.
"Baki-san," Gaara pushed himself off the bed, careful to avoid any physical contact with Sakura that might worsen the blush on her cheeks, then marched to stand before the gathering of shinobis, "In the future, while I do appreciate the care you took to help in setting up this surprise, I hope you will mention if any major movement of furniture is to occur in the process."
Baki bowed even lower in deference to Gaara's status, then straightened up and apologised, "I will make special note of that, Kazekage-sama."
"Erm, it's not really Baki-san's fault," Naruto's voice had a slightly sheepish tone to it, "I thought your tent was a bit cramped, so I tried to clear some space."
Gaara cast a sweeping glance towards Naruto's redecorating efforts, and noted that his best friend, well-intentioned as he was, was definitely a little too enthusiastic about his task; there was now enough empty standing space for at least a crowd four times their current size.
Finally having gathered her senses together, Sakura rose from the bed and cracked her knuckles dangerously in Naruto's direction, causing the blonde jinchuuriki to flinch on instinct.
Fortunately any thoughts of violence on Sakura's part was quickly banished by the sight of Shikamaru entering the tent with the sand-cat trailing after him and holding a very odd ball of what seemed to be crumpled wrapping paper. A heartbeat later, she found herself shrieking in a very unlady-like manner while jabbing an accusatory finger at Shikamaru.
"My present! What did you do to it?!"
With the alarm bells going off in his head, Shikamaru quickly raised the ball-shaped mess in front of him as a shield; surely Sakura would not risk damaging her present for Gaara, right?
"Shikamaru! You said the sensor shinobis were just going to do a security clearance on it, but it looks like it exploded and you hastily wrapped it up in whatever you could pass for gift wrapping!"
"There is a very good reason for this," Shikamaru began as he lowered the package slightly, "Apparently, your parents must have asked a shinobi to perform a shrinkage jutsu on it or something, because the moment we cut the string on the package, your… present went back to its normal size and would not fit in the original wrapping anymore.
"And, erm, I think this is from your mother – it came in the package," Shikamaru quickly thrusted both the present and a small envelope at Sakura, thereby keeping her hands safely occupied and unable to do him any bodily harm with them.
Correspondence from their homes were rare: the War Council had agreed to a regular delivery of mail from the frontlines back to their Villages, but the responses had to clear security before they could be passed on to their recipients. With the frequent deliveries of supplied and other necessities to the camps, coupled with the constant coming and going of squads on perimeter duty that needed clearance, the screening of personal mail was given a lower priority as a result, with most shinobis having received only one or even no letters despite being almost six months into the war. While Sakura had sent letters to her parents to assure them of her well-being, this was the first time she received a reply, and it had to come inside the package that the sand-cat brought back in order to pass clearance faster than the normal route.
With Sakura oblivious to everything except the envelope in her hand and having relinquished Gaara's present to a nearby chair, she failed to catch his little scowl of frustration as his friends and loved ones began shoving their presents in his face in rapid succession.
I hope this letter gets through to you. We have been receiving your letters and replying to them, but I don't know if you've received any of them yet. If you didn't get any of them yet, just know that everything is well at home.
Your father had another attack of gout, but he is doing fine.
Your animal companion is tracking sand all over the house. Does this mean you are seeing someone from Suna? What is he like? Does he treat you well? I hope it is not that Gaara kid that attacked you during the invasion of Konohagakure by Sunagakure.
Your father just reminded me that Gaara is now the Kazekage.
I don't know why Hokage-sama decided to assign you to him, knowing your personal history with that sand punk. I hope he remains hearty and well throughout the war so you need not spend so much time with him.
Your father also mentioned that if you are seeing someone from Sunagakure, he will accept no offers for your hand in marriage unless it is from the Kazekage himself. I am ignoring him.
Anyway, because your cat is so small, and the item you requested is so big, I asked our retired shinobi neighbour Takemoto-san to cast a jutsu on it. It should remain compact and flat until you cut all the strings off the outer package.
Is it really that cold where you are right now? I hope this does not mean that they are not giving you everything you need to stay fit enough to take care of that sand punk.
Your father reminded me that you are at war and not at a party, so rations would be distributed according to rank. I am going to keep ignoring your father.
Please stay safe, Sakura. And write back if you can.
Lots of love,
"… be a quilt of some sort."
At the sound of Temari's voice, Sakura snapped back to the present and quickly looked over at the chair where she had placed Gaara's present.
The sorry excuse trying to pass for wrapping paper was the only thing there.
Sakura whipped around to the little gathering in their tent, and found Gaara holding her present in his extended arms as if he didn't know what to do with it, or what it even was in the first place.
"No, it feels waterproof," Shikamaru poked at the rolled-up fabric, and then pointed to the side, "And I'm pretty sure quilts don't come with a zipper."
"Gaa… Kazekage-sama!" Sakura gaped, quickly stuffing the letter into her pouch and strode over to the group of probing onlookers.
As if in silent agreement, the shinobis parted to give Sakura a direct path to Gaara, who was still studying her present with a look of mild confusion knitted on his brows. She practically saw in slow motion as Gaara's gaze shifted slightly in that certain way whenever he had come to a decision, and could do nothing to stop the Kazekage from abruptly flicking his hands to let her present unfurl like a scroll.
Sakura was certain that crickets didn't come out during the day, but she could have sworn she heard their chirping over the baffled silence when the fabric came to a stop just before touching her toes.
Naruto, as expected, was the one to break the silence.
"… Sakura-chan, is this a… sleeping bag?"
Temari turned to face Naruto and snapped, "That's ridiculous; they have beds in their tent, for goodness sake. Why would Sakura give Gaara a sleeping bag?"
"It doesn't change the fact that it is a sleeping bag," Shikamaru added most unhelpfully.
Deciding that the best defense was a good offensive, Sakura rested her fists on her hips and said as calmly as her voice allowed, "And why did you all decide that it would be alright to open my present to Kazekage-sama without asking me? Couldn't you have given him your own gifts first?"
Naruto leaned over, one foot placed in such a way that he would be able to dodge a punch should Sakura decide to launch one, then whispered, "Sakura-chan, all of us gave Gaara his presents already. You were just standing there reading, and you even ignored Shikamaru's prodding."
Looking down at her feet, Sakura watched as a tendril of shadow retreat in an almost discreet manner while Shikamaru maintained his unperturbed countenance. For some reason, the Nara prodigy's gaze was shifting towards Gaara every now and then, as if he was afraid of being caught with a hand in the cookie jar or something.
Sakura, still blissfully unaware of the number of people now privy to the knowledge of her dating history with Shikamaru, could not for the life of her figure out why Temari elbowed Shikamaru in his kidney.
"So… any reason for this choice of a birthday gift, Sakura-chan?" Kakashi piped up from near the back of the crowd.
There was absolutely no way she was going to tell anyone, ever, that Gaara was still most insistent upon letting her sit on his sash and lean against his gourd every time the both of them went to star-gaze in the desert; Sakura simply could not shake off the idea that she was somehow being disrespectful towards a Kage whenever she was asked to sit down next to Gaara, no matter how often he had reassured her that he held no such notions.
With Gaara's constant habit of star-gazing, combined with the chill of the desert winds at night, Sakura thought that she had stumbled upon the perfect gift idea of getting him a bed roll – the both of them could sit on it, and Gaara would stop sending her mind into very embarrassing places by trying to give her the robe off his back whenever her skin became a little colder to the touch than he would like; she could just curl up on it and stay warm, and there would be plenty of space for Gaara to still sit next to her.
Also, she was getting a little tired of picking sand and dirt off her thighs, to be honest.
… Alright, so it was not strictly a present for Gaara, but something she wanted as well. But it was still mostly for Gaara.
It's the thought that counts, right?
"Thank you for the presents, and the thoughts behind them," Gaara addressed the small crowd as he cast a wary eye at the pile of gifts stacked on his table, the sleeping bag still slung over one of his arms like an overgrown towel, "Especially since we are in the middle of war with Akatsuki and Madara, and some of you had to make special arrangements for the gifts to be brought here."
Everyone except for Gaara simultaneously turned to look at Sakura, then quickly turned back to their former directions when one of her fists began to glow with blue chakra.
"Shikamaru-san, I will take a few hours off tonight. You'll take my place for the time that I am gone," Gaara announced.
"You're going to bail on your own birthday party!?" Temari's voice was raised, "Gaara, it may not be your coming-of-age birthday party, but it is still your party. You have to be here."
"I am not going to 'bail out' on the party. I will be here for all the formalities, after which I wish to spend a few hours away."
Baki started shaking his head, "This was not accounted for, Kazekage-sama. We will need to arrange for security detail to follow you, even if you wish for just a few hours of privacy."
Gaara folded his arms across his chest and replied, "I will be within a safe distance from the encampment, I assure you, Baki-san. I do not want to be interrupted tonight, and I will hear no more about this."
One did not need to be a shinobi to see the dangers that were likely to arise in the situation that Gaara had just presented: the warring shinobi world was going to have a quick break from the carnage for a night of (strictly limited) alcohol and (still battle-ready) relaxation. As if that was not an invitation for Akatsuki to attack the Allied Shinobi Forces, the Regimental Leader had just declared that he was going to wander off to goodness knows where and refused to have a small army accompanying him.
It was a recipe for disaster, as far as anyone could see.
Except for Naruto, who was alternating his gaze from Sakura, to the sleeping bag, to Gaara, and then back to her again.
Then came the rudely jabbed finger in Gaara's direction as Naruto declared in his too-loud voice, "Are you planning on going on a date with Sakura-chan tonight?"
Shikamaru face-palmed himself.
The rest of the shinobis were displaying various states of incredulousness at Naruto's seemingly absurd statement.
Gaara simply nodded.
The tent exploded.
"You're going on a date? With Sakura?"
"Kazekage-sama, while I respect your need for privacy, your security…"
"Way to go, little brother!"
"Am I supposed to chaperone them? Hokage-sama made it clear that I had to protect Sakura-chan's virtue," same a small voice from inside Sakura's flak jacket.
The slug summon, whom had been oddly tolerant of Gaara and Sakura's non-platonic interactions for a while now, decided to be the voice of reason.
At the worst possible time.
"I do not deny that I will be spending time with Haruno-san tonight," Gaara replied, glaring in the direction of Sakura's collar, "But we require no chaperone. I will protect Sakura, just as I have promised Hokage-sama as well."
"But how are you going to protect her from yourself?" the slug inside Sakura's jacket collar finally popped her head out, her tentacles waving in an agitated fashion.
"… I pose no threat to Haruno-san whatsoever, Katsuyu-san."
"We'll see about that!" Katsuyu puffed herself up to look bigger.
Taken out of context, the conversation was an embarrassment to overhear.
Taken in context, Sakura was about to combust from a mixture of indignation and mortification.
Someone in the tent coughed deliberately, and reality snapped back into place.
"Okay!" Temari clapped her hands together, the grin on her face wider than Sakura had ever seen, "Tonight will be a quadruple celebration: our defeat of the White Zetsus, the defeat of Kabuto, my brother's birthday, and the day he becomes a Man!"
If fainting dead away was a graceful option, Sakura would have taken it.
Unfortunately, it was not, so she settled for the less graceful option of bodily shoving everyone out of the tent, and nearly taking Gaara along with the press of protesting shinobis.
Naruto, however, could be just a forceful when he wanted to be. Before Sakura even knew it, he had slipped out of the crowd and was standing in front of Gaara.
"If you ever hurt Sakura-chan, Gaara…" Naruto left the rest unsaid.
"Out!" Sakura reached for Naruto's collar and tried to pull him out of the tent, but was caught by surprise when Naruto laid a hand over her wrist and clasped it.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto's voice was pitched low, "Don't ever be unhappy, okay?"
You never forget your first love.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Sakura forced out a weak nod. Naruto, apparently satisfied for now, nodded back and left the tent without another backward glance.
Gaara closed the distance between them and asked quietly, "Are you alright, Sakura? I apologise for Temari's words – she can be rather… excitable at times."
"No, no, it's fine," Sakura reached up to tuck a non-existent strand of hair behind her ear awkwardly, "I know they are just teasing us."
Katsuyu tried to say something, but Sakura smoothly placed her hand over the slug to quiet its colourful vocabulary that followed.
"Then we have a date tonight," Gaara smiled softly and leaned over to press a kiss to her temple, then whispered, "And please try to keep Katsuyu-san here in the camp."
Suddenly, Gaara turned to face the tent flap, and after a moment's pause, sighed and looked to Sakura, "The other Kages are here. I must go and receive them."
Sakura nodded; in spite of her rank, she was not required to be present at the Regimental Leader's side all the time, and for that, she was grateful.
Especially now with all the blood capillaries that have burst in her cheeks in the past few minutes – she resembled every bit a pink-topped tomato.
With Gaara gone, Sakura sank slowly to the floor and clasped her cheeks with her hands, one horrifying, irrational thought overriding everything else in her head.
Oh, stars, I don't have a single thing to wear for my first date with Gaara!