16-06-2010 edit: I am editing the chapters of this story as I cross post onto AO3, but they're mostly just light edits. Also, if you read the original, you MIGHT (probably not) remember Sasuke's name being dropped in a later chapter. He's been a naughty boy in this fic. That said, I REALLY don't want to bash him. However, the late stages of the story RELY on certain things that are connected to him, so I have to leave him in the antagonist position.
BUT: I will endeavour to make it as realistic and non-bashy as I can. I would like to think I'm a much more mature fanfic writer now than I was back in 2012 when I started this story. So please remember I don't hate him when reading this.
Also: this is a humour/romance story with drama, the occasional mild parody (don't bother squinting to see it), and some distant relative of angst. I don't find this story as funny as I used to, so keep this in mind if you read and don't like. All flames/flamers will be deleted/blocked and then forgotten.
That said, enjoy. ^_^
Chapter One: Decisions, Decisions.
"What do you think the Kazekage is like in bed, Shika-kun?"
Shikamaru Nara was a decent enough Shinobi, an excellent strategist and a dreamer with low expectations of himself outside of extraordinary situations. But he had never been very good at conversations that surrounded sex—especially when those words had come out of someone normally so reserved. She was playing with her pen, her gaze drifting from the hard, wooden table top she was lazily leaning into and the frustrated Hokage across the desk. Nothing miffed her more than being the personal assistant of such a delinquent Hokage, but she'd bitten her tongue when her father had "arranged" it without consulting her.
She'd just interrupted Shikamaru too—he was giving his Hokage every last bit of information he could from his good will mission to Suna. He was beginning to think Naruto had drawn straws with his assistant—how else would he have been given the job as ambassador between their villages when he had a team of his own now?
Hanabi Hyuuga looked up at Shikamaru expectantly. In his musings, he hadn't answered her question. He just shook his head and sighed.
Hanabi scoffed. "It was just a question."
"Yeah Shika-kun," Naruto Uzumaki chimed in. "What's he like?"
Shikamaru sighed. "Enough jokes Hokage-sama."
Hanabi shook herself. She would just have to find someone who knew the answer later—her curiosity could wait. "He's right." She shifted the papers in front of her. "We're supposed to be deciding who to give this mission to."
"I wouldn't have taken you for a fan girl, Hanabi-chan," Naruto cooed.
She ignored him. "What are the requirements, Hokage-sama?"
Naruto groaned, gazing down at the papers in front of him, as he chewed on the end of his pen: damn that Hanabi and her ability to distract him with work. "She'll have to be closer to Gaara's age. The Kazekage doesn't trust people too young or too old."
Hanabi scoffed at that. "Weird."
Naruto smiled slightly. "Well, Gaara's been betrayed by many people, but since becoming Kazekage, none have been in his age bracket. Shikamaru just confirmed that Gaara's easily annoyed by old bats and young brats."
Hanabi smiled back. "Okay, what else?"
"Hm." The Hokage returned to the list. "Anyone from a Shinobi clan is out of the question—he'll spot things like the distinctive marks of the Hyuuga, the Inuzuka, or the Akimichi, and he's got a great sense of familiarity with members of the Yamanaka thanks to Ino's crush on his older brother."
"A civilian born ninja then?"
"Uh huh, and I definitely want a Kunoichi."
"Huh?" Hanabi frowned. "The Kazekage gets fan girls Naruto-sama, so a girl would—"
"It's perfect," Naruto said dismissively. "A civilian girl who doesn't fawn over him—he won't know what hit him."
"Or he'll get suspicious and spend most of the time trying to figure the girl out, ruining all chances for her to gain his trust."
"I prefer to think of it as realistic."
Naruto blew a raspberry at her.
Hanabi rolled her eyes. "We're deciding on which Kunoichi to send to Suna to trick the Kazekage and potentially get herself killed over it, so take this seriously would you?"
"I need a new assistant," Naruto mumbled.
"I heard that."
The Hokage sighed. "There isn't anything you don't hear, is there?"
"You remember what my father told you?"
The blonde nodded, growling softly. "I remember. Hiashi Hyuuga is a devious snake, blackmailing me like that."
"Don't you want to marry my aneki?"
Naruto groaned. "Of course, I do! But the Hokage is not supposed to be blackmailed Hanabi!"
"It's not blackmail," Hanabi said, suppressing her desire to laugh at him: he was acting like a child. "It's a verbal agreement—you start acting like the Hokage and he'll stop pestering you to put off your engagement to Hinata. Very fair, I think."
"Clan members…" Naruto sighed, frustrated.
He wished Hiashi would lighten up, that Hanabi would stop reminding him how important appearances were when it came to the Hyuuga, and that Hinata hadn't been born into a clan. He loved her more than anyone, and probably more than he loved the village—though that was never something he could admit, being the sixth Hokage. And he would vehemently deny it if it ever came up.
He frowned at his future sister-in-law. "I've already decided on someone I trust—someone close to me, who won't make fun of me, or‒"
"Oh no," Hanabi whined, burying her face in her hands. "You didn't?"
"Not yet," Naruto admitted. "But just think about it—Sakura-chan would be perfect!"
The Hyuuga shook her head, still hiding her face. "You are such a bad Hokage."
Hanabi groaned, looking up at him. "I'm not playing that game with you again."
Naruto smiled sheepishly. "Fine, but I'm still sending Sakura-chan."
Hanabi grumbled. "And how do you expect to convince her? You know if she doesn't like the mission, she won't take it—she never does."
"I know that—I'm going to make it sound good."
She scoffed. "You've run out of bribery tactics with her—what are you going to offer this time?"
A sly grin twisted his features and Naruto gave a soft cackle. "Oh, you'll see."
She sighed. "Why did I agree to this job?"
Seriously, she should've just told her father she was too busy. Or run away from home—whatever.
The Hokage gave a non-committal shrug of his shoulders, and shunshined out; his assistant quickly stalked out after him. Shikamaru remained standing, gaping at the now vacant chair behind the Hokage's desk, frustrated in the wake of their departure. Naruto had forgotten to dismiss him… again.
"Are you kidding me?"
"You want me to…"
"Naruto, I don't know…"
"You'll enjoy it."
"What, seducing the Kazekage?"
Naruto nodded his head, a light pink tinting his cheeks. He managed to hold back the maniacal grin that was attempting to force its way onto his face. His acting skills were getting better and better under Hanabi's tutelage. She wasn't just his assistant to help him with paperwork, after all. He sucked at being diplomatic.
Sakura Haruno groaned. Kakashi Hatake stood to the side and behind Naruto—the usual position for Hanabi. The copy ninja was looking at Sakura passively, but having known him for years, she could see the infinitesimal hint at pity. She scrunched up her nose at him and he smirked… the bastard.
What does he know that I don't?
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, unnerved as he always was, by her silence. "Can you‒"
"I'm not in ANBU Naruto," she said haughtily. If they weren't best friends, she wouldn't be talking to him like this. "And as a result, I wouldn't know the first thing about how to seduce a political figure."
The blonde cleared his throat, that slight shade of pink on his cheeks now reddening. "Y-you use your womanly wiles, S-Saks."
She snorted as Kakashi chuckled. The copy ninja decided to put her out of her misery. "You don't have to sleep with him Sakura—just hold that in reserve."
"Yeah, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said, perking up. "There's always an opening in the Kazekage building for a receptionist, and you're good at that stuff."
Sakura allowed a small smile to grace her features. "And am I to go in alone?"
Naruto shook his head. "No," he said, noting the way the pinkette's eyes drifted over to their former Sensei. "Kakashi isn't going with you—he's too conspicuous, what with that eye and his porn reading habits."
"Romance," Kakashi countered.
"Dirty romance," the Hokage said, pulling a face when his former Sensei sighed deeply. "My point is Sakura; I'm sending someone with you—someone who can pass as father figure: someone nondescript."
"Tenzou," Sakura corrected.
Naruto shrugged. "I like Yamato better."
"But he's younger than even Kakashi," Sakura said.
"A brother then," Kakashi said. "I'll go fetch him."
He shunshined out and Sakura rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Uh, there's a flaw with your oh-so-Hokage logic Naruto. I've met Gaara, don't forget it was just the one time, and when I was thirteen, but he'll remember me for my hair if nothing else."
Naruto waved away her concern. "Semantics."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "What are you up to?"
"Nothing," he said. "Don't accuse your Hokage of naughty things, Sakura."
She smiled at that. "Sure, then don't do them, Naruto."
"Okay," he said happily, and she frowned at him, worried again.
"Seriously Naruto, you're freaking me out—what aren't you telling me?"
Sakura frowned. "Like I believe you. Do you even know what I'll be walking in to?"
"We have intelligence," Naruto said defensively. "Gaara's not currently involved with anyone—or at least, not officially. Shikamaru has confirmed this much, directly from Temari, and that woman knows everything."
Naruto nodded. "And apparently, the Kazekage prefers women with more spirit—you'll catch his eye in no time."
She scoffed again; she had once made the mistake of telling Naruto she thought the Kazekage was cute, so he obviously thought that would make her jump at the chance of seducing him. But if she could avoid sleeping with him, shouldn't she? She hadn't been joking when she said she had no idea how to do that. She'd had a few lovers, but she was never the one in control. Still, Gaara Sabaku struck her as the dominant type.
Sakura blushed at that thought, occupying the silence as they waited for Kakashi and Tenzou with picking at her fingernails. There were more than so-called-semantics to work out if Naruto wanted this mission to be a success. She had to worm her way into a position to either confirm or deny the rumours of the red head's intent and while she was good at subterfuge, doing so under the watchful eyes of a Kage made her more nervous than the possibility of having to sleep with him… sort of.
If it was anyone other than the Wind Shadow, she'd have already hit Naruto and stormed out of the building the moment the knucklehead suggested it.
Still, the idea had merit…
The two former ANBU arrived quickly, and Naruto sat up straight in his chair, like he thought pretending to be taking this seriously would make them respect him more.
"Yamato," he said dryly. "Thanks for coming."
After Naruto explained the mission (albeit vaguely), the wood master nodded compliantly. The Hokage always lamented on how difficult Sakura was to convince of these things. But then, Tenzou wasn't the one taking the real risks on this one. The man's eyes flickered curiously over to Sakura before settling on the Hokage.
"When are we to be ready?"
"Once I have the plans for Suna's administration building, I'll schedule your mission briefing, and you should be able to leave in a few days."
Sakura pulled a face. "Fine, but you're telling me everything, and no half-handed excuses this time, okay? I'm not going into this blind, baka."
"Don't worry Sakura-chan," Naruto said. "He loves mysterious women."
The pinkette gave him a wry smile that hinted at her desire to pummel him and followed Tenzou out of the room.
Kakashi frowned at his Hokage. "You just made that up."
Naruto grinned mischievously.
"She's going to be pissed with you when she finally figures out you're not being completely honest with her."
The blonde shrugged his shoulders. "Eh, I'm the Hokage—what can she do?"
The Memorial Stone was as it always was—another fine example of what happened to those who chose the life of a ninja. It was heart-warming, depressing and a kick in the stomach, all rolled into one. She honestly didn't know why she kept coming back here. The surrounding trees were never overrun, the grass never long and the stone cenotaph never dirty: it rained here too much for that anyway.
And Sakura Haruno loved the rain.
Running her gloved finger over the most recent name on the Memorial Stone, she vaguely wondered if her name would one day be carved in next to it, and how much longer she had to wait for that to happen.
She shook her head and drew back her hand. The name on the cenotaph was just another reminder that she had to be positive. After all, she really was sick of it—waiting, hoping, and needing what was never going to happen. Her teammate wasn't coming back, and she needed to move on. If such a thing was possible.
But he plagued her mind, nonetheless. She had avoided seeing him for so long, and when they finally ran into each other, she was left with nothing but regret.
Really, what did one say to another after they attempted to murder you? That he hadn't been on some killing spree, simply doing what he thought was best for his mission? Or that somewhere deep inside of him at the time, she was sure he'd never really been looking to kill her?
Sakura growled, kicking the tuft of grass in front of her, promptly unearthing a clump of roots.
"Watch what you're doing, ugly."
If she hadn't been so far gone into her depressed thoughts, Sakura would've laughed out loud. His sudden appearance didn't startle her. More than Naruto, Kakashi, or Tenzou, Sai had a way of making her feel better. He still thought up some colourful excuses why she should be grateful he let himself be seen in public with her, but it was oddly comforting.
"Stand in front of me next time," she said, as he stepped up next to her. "Then at least I'll have a target."
His soft smile returned hers—she was grateful, that since Danzou's death (and the removal of that damn seal), he'd found it so much easier to bring a genuine one to his face. "Are you saying goodbye before your mission?"
She nodded, gripping his arm. "I think it would be good to get out of the village for a while anyway—everyone keeps looking at me like I'm some degenerate for turning down the most recent marriage proposal."
He shook his head. "I still don't know why they keep coming after you."
"I'm popular, okay, that's why. But the last thing I need right now is some overbearing clan leader thinking it's my civic duty to marry into his clan. It was bad enough when the Inuzuka was prowling after me."
"And the Hyuuga," he said sagely.
She rolled her eyes. "I do not need reminding of that."
Hiashi Hyuuga had tried to get her engaged to his nephew; Sai was currently engaging in what he called "carnal bliss" with Hanabi. Hiashi was getting the Hokage and apparently, Sakura would complete the set—like she was some kind of collectible. But while Sakura and Neji got along well enough, neither had feelings for the other, and Hiashi got the hint… eventually. Neji's very public proposal to Tenten definitely helped.
Sakura giggled, remembering how Tenten had hidden away for days after that. Who knew the Neji Hyuuga had a thing for serenades?
"Everyone but me knows where they're going," she said, after a few minutes of silence.
She nodded. "Yeah, even you."
"Where am I going, Sakura?"
She eyed him warily. "Your relationship with Hanabi hasn't progressed out of the physical stage?"
"You don't want something more?"
"I'm ex-Root, so it's not easy."
Sakura's eyes flickered over the name on the Memorial Stone again. "I wish… things were different."
"He's not coming back."
"I know that," she growled.
Sai ignored her tone. "I think this is unhealthy—Kakashi-Senpai is rubbing off on you."
She leant into him and for once, Sai embraced her: a one-armed embrace, but an embrace, nonetheless. She rolled her eyes. "You're here too," she pointed out.
He just shrugged. Tomorrow, she'd be leaving for who knew how long, and it was with this thought that Sakura realised something.
"Aaww, you're going to miss me."
AN: The chunin exams went differently. Remember that. :)