Utakata felt a strange twist in his stomach when it was time for them to leave Ame.
Yugito had arrived bearing good news about the trigger. Everything had gone well, for the most part. Saiken was sitting back, satisfied with what the humans had managed to accomplish. B and Gyuki were having some sort of conversation in their head.
But she'd also asked to speak separately with 'someone called Konan', and although Utakata didn't hear her words, he saw Konan's face turn blank as stone. The beautiful leader of Ame went away shortly after, allowing them to leave by themselves. He watched her go, and pretended that he hadn't glimpsed the look of anguish on her face before she'd turned.
"Yugito, what exactly did you tell her?" He asked as they walked through the streets of the village, under the overhangs that shielded them from the rain.
"It's for her ears only," Yugito replied, "but it's alright, she'll be fine."
On her other side, B was looking at her confusedly, "how do you know, kono yaro?"
She shrugged, "you learn to recognize it, after a while. I've seen people who broke after hearing things like that. But she's not one of them. She's another like Tsunade-sama and Naruto and Kakashi-san, even if she's more…subtle."
"She'll have a lot on her shoulders," Utakata sighed, "an entire industry to rebuild, and months of excavation to be done. Will she handle that between her grieving? Maybe we should send word for Tsunade-sama to take Ame. They can do it at this point, and maybe Hi no Kuni's resources will help them recover."
"No need," Yugito said confidently, "Konan will look over this village."
The next morning, the former Sandaime Hokage opened his hospital room door to see two familiar figures standing outside. He sighed.
"Koharu-san. Homura-san," he greeted wearily, "I am still under recovery. I must admit that this is not the best time to discuss foreign policy. May we put off our meeting until I am out of the hospital?"
His two teammates took in his bandages and the bags under his already wrinkled eyes. Homura looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. Koharu looked the same, but she held a small package in her hand.
"We did not come for that," Homura said stiffly, "your position has been taken by your student, Tsunade. She has…er…'retired you'."
Hiruzen breathed a sigh of relief, "oh, good. I am surprised she took it so quickly, but she'll do well."
"We are inclined to disagree," Koharu stressed, "she has no patience for the wisdom of her council. This will be a long and arduous time for all of us."
He sighed. Typical Tsunade-chan, offending people on her first day as Hokage. Nevertheless, her name would definitely go down in history. Hiruzen smiled slightly. Taught by the Nidaime, became the Sandaime, nominated the Yondaime, and taught the Godaime. A good shinobi career track indeed.
"So why are you both here?" He questioned, glancing down at the package Koharu was holding.
His former teammate shoved the small, brown-paper wrapped box of something into his hands. "This is jackfruit," she said sternly, "eat it."
With that, she and Homura quickly closed the door and left. Hiruzen looked down at the small package and smiled.
When Maito Gai opened his eyes, he blinked at the morning light streaming in through the hospital windows. When his eyes grew used to the brightness, the first person he saw was the Youthful and Radiant Kato Shizune, dressed in a pale iryounin uniform. He smiled widely and pushed himself up to his elbows, glad to see that she had stayed sitting by his bedside. What a Youthful and touching thing to do.
The grin melted away when he saw the murderous look on her face. But…his Shizune never looked angry. Sure, she was quite exasperated at times…most of the time…but anger was new. Anger was not good. He struggled to raise his aching arm and give her a weak thumbs-up.
"Shizune! How nice it is to-"
"You took Tonton."
By now he was quite sure that he was shaking. Wondering if he would regret it, he gulped audibly and gave her a questioning look.
"I told you to keep Tonton safe!" Shizune burst out, hugging her clipboard close, "you could have given her to someone responsible while you were away, but you decided to take her on a dangerous mission where she almost drowned and had to be saved by Orochimaru!"
Maito Gai was more frightened than he had been while fighting the Edo Tensei.
"She's sensitive!" his – former? – lover went on, "and she hates water!"
"I…" Gai wasn't sure what to say. He vaguely recognized that he had made a mistake. A big mistake. He wasn't sure what he would do if Shizune left him, but it would involve serenades and apologetic notes and flowers. LOTS of flowers.
For a while, the room was silent.
Five seconds, later, Gai was smiling in relief when the iryounin threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly, clipboard discarded to the side. His sore muscles were screaming, but he ignored them and weakly held her back, feeling the worry melt away. This was Shizune, after all. He should have known better than to think of such Unyouthful possibilities.
"I thought you were dead!" She sobbed, "you're not leaving this room for a month, not until you're fully healed!"
"I'll be fine," he assured, "I have gone through worse." He took to toning down the Youth around Shizune. She was Youthful enough as it was, even if Tsunade-sama occasionally made fun of her for having been single for almost thirty years.
"You're not going on another stupid S-rank without me on your team as your field medic," she mumbled into his shoulder.
"Nor would I want to!"
There was more silence, but it was a comfortable pause and Gai simply basked in both it and the wonderful feeling of Shizune in her rough iryounin uniform.
"She'll…she'll probably need pig therapy," Shizune eventually sniffed, clenching her fingers into his loose hospital gown.
"I shall learn how to perform this therapy immediately," Gai promised.
Three hours later, two jonin were standing rather awkwardly in front of the same hospital room, deciding if they wanted to go in.
Hyuga Neji looked at the door of their sensei's hospital room, and then turned back to his teammate. "Tenten, is this really necessary?"
The kunoichi was making a valiant effort to stand her ground, "we have to do this," she told him, "Lee's out on his mission. Now it's our responsibility." She paused, "so…um…how do I look?"
"Sufficiently…green," Neji replied stiffly, "and…"
"You look…fine," Tenten replied, "I can't believe you actually kept that, though. I mean, I kept mine because I thought he was kind of cool at first even if I didn't want to wear it, and it's been collecting dust in my drawer for six years."
"Hn. I thought it made good memorabilia of my first day as a genin," the Hyuga boy replied, "I never thought I'd actually have to use it."
Tenten raised a fist in determination, "but this is our responsibility as his students!" She said, sounding more like she was trying to convince herself, "Gai-sensei has come back from an incredible battle against S-rank missing-nin and we must show our support!"
Neji nodded. He had to admit that he was slightly impressed. "Indeed," he said solemnly. Their sensei was…Youthful…but he was also a powerful shinobi.
"I'm not taking off my flak jacket, thought," she muttered, "this really wasn't made for kunoichi."
"I don't doubt that."
"Wasn't really made for you, either," she remarked, "you look horrible in green. You should stick to that loose-fitting Hyuga stuff."
Neji's eye twitched.
"Well, it's time," Tenten went on bravely, "let's do this, Neji."
With that, the two pushed open Maito Gai's door. They entered immediately, before they could think of escaping and stripping naked.
Gai-sensei was sitting upright in his bed with a look of extreme concentration on his face while he tried to figure out what hospital-room training he could do without Shizune coming to yell at him. When he saw the two of them enter, he beamed, and then stilled as his eyes swept over their forms.
"Um…" Tenten cleared her throat, "we've…uh…come to wish you a…Youthful recovery." She shifted and tried to ignore how the fabric of the set of green tights clung to every inch of her.
"Indeed," Neji said stiffly, "may you be…forever Youthful." He smoothed his hands over the sleeves of his own pair of green tights.
Gai had tears in his eyes. "My Youthful students have come to wish me. Such a glorious thing it is, to be a sensei!" He yelled while sobbing. Then he held out his arms, "come, my students! Let us celebrate Youth together!"
Tenten and Neji sighed as they submitted themselves to their sensei's Most Youthful Embrace.
Back in Konoha, Akimichi Chouji was glaring at Inuzuka Kiba. They were seated across from in each at Yakiniku-Q, in a Team Asuma and Team Kurenai dinner to celebrate the successful completion of their long A-rank. They had considered inviting Kakashi's team as well, but Naruto would've probably doubled the bill by himself.
"Erm…something wrong, Chouji?" Kiba asked nervously, wondering why the other boy was giving him a death glare.
"You took the last piece." Chouji stated.
"Aha, sorry about that. It's just that it was there, you know?" Kiba rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.
"You took. The last. Piece."
On either side of him, Ino and Shikamaru took hold of his arms, giving the rest of Team Kurenai apologetic looks.
"It's ok," Ino hurried to say, "he won't really kill you, alright? He'll just kick you around for a bit once we get out of here. You'll be fine, I promise!"
Kiba gulped audibly, and his stomach suddenly regretted its existence. He sat back slowly on his knees, and Hinata put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"It's ok, Kiba-kun," she soothed, "I'll be sure to heal you. I mean, I'm not that good but I think I can try…"
"I cannot perform iryounin-jutsu, but I will bandage your injuries. Nevertheless, I would advise coming to me instead," Shino advised, "why? Because if you leave it to her your organs may not remain in their correct positions."
Kiba gulped again, feeling the general tension of the small room rise. Hinata frowned and reddened slightly, knowing that to be true. She'd tried her hand at iryou-ninjutsu, but all the fishes kept dying and she hadn't had the heart to kill any more. Neji nii-san told her to stick with Jyuuken; the Hyuga were never known to be iryounin.
Sitting at the edge of the table together, the two jonin-sensei watched their students. Asuma was sitting back against the wall with a cigarette in his fingers, angling his head so that the waiters wouldn't see him smoking in the restaurant. A quick futon jutsu would get rid of the smell later on. Beside him, Kurenai was leaning her chin into her hands, watching Hinata and Kiba with a slight smile on her face.
"This was nice," she spoke up, "we should do this more often." Her small, empty plate lay on the table nearby.
Asuma coughed, and it sounded slightly like 'then you pay next time.' His wallet suffered enough from having an Akimichi on his team, he didn't need his lover adding her students into the mix as well. But one look at Kurenai's beautiful eyes never failed to convince him that he was the richest person alive.
Ino was eyeing them coyly, remembering the flowers her sensei had bought earlier. Shikamaru, who had already spotted the small box Asuma had been toying with for the past week, was leaning back lazily against the wall. That box hadn't left his pocket yet, although its outline was still visible against the material of his pants. Sarutobi Asuma was a worthy shinobi, but he was also a real worrier.
"-not fair! One dinner should do it!" Kiba was yelling, "I only took one piece!"
"It was the last piece," Chouji replied sagely, "it's worth ten times as much as the others. That means you owe me at least five dinners."
"Go easy on the kid," Asuma joked, "he didn't know. Remember that time when we first went to dinner, and Ino stole your last piece?"
"Hah!" The blond girl proudly flipped her long hair over her shoulder, "I held my ground! No offense, Chouji, but there's no way I was going to break my wallet buying you dinner."
"That was a bad month," Shikamaru winced, remembering their training sessions, "a very bad, troublesome month."
"So why can't I hold my ground?" Kiba whined, "why do I have to break my wallet?"
Ino sighed, "because I've been his friend since we were little kids, and he went easy on me," she explained.
Chouji nodded, "it's hard to be mad at Ino for too long. She's too nice."
"You're too nice," Shikamaru muttered.
"But you're on your own, Kiba," Chouji narrowed his eyes.
"Why don't we meet here again tomorrow?" Kurenai suggested lightly, leaning forward on the table, "I'll pay, I think Asuma's been drained enough."
"No, no!" Asuma rushed to protest, waving his hands, "it's alright, I'll pay." Stupid, traitorous mouth. There goes my next mission's pay. The small box in his pocket seemed to dig into his leg.
At that moment, the window behind them was pushed open. Everyone present was on full guard as their heads turned to see a black-clad anbu member balanced on the windowsill.
"Is it an emergency?" Kurenai asked sharply, fingering the senbon hidden in her kunoichi outfit.
"No, nothing like that," the anbu Firefly shook her head, "it's just a message that I've been instructed to deliver by Sandaime-sama."
Asuma frowned, "what did my father say?" He had always regarded the old man as practically indestructible, so he wasn't too worried.
Firely paused, still balanced on the edge of the window, "well, I'm not sure if I'm actually supposed to tell you this," she admitted, "I believe that Sandaime-sama did not think he would return, when he gave that order, and he is not allowed visitors in the hospital so I cannot confirm it…"
Kurenai frowned. The Hokage hadn't expected to return from his mission? "Tell us," she asked, "something like that must be important."
"It's an informal message for Asuma-san," Firefly told them. Somehow, her voice indicated that she was grinning under the mask. Even the anbu had to have some fun now and then. "Sandaime-sama would like me to inform you that he approves of Kurenai-san."
For a while, there was silence in the small room. Firefly stayed on the window, waiting for her dismissal.
"Message…received," Asuma stuttered, watching in relief as the figure shunshined away. Then he turned back to regard the six curious faces with dread. Mouths had dropped.
"It's out. Troublesome."
"Now that I think of it, Asuma-sensei, you should've gotten red roses instead of pink. Red would be better for long-term commitment."
"Asuma-sensei…is with Kurenai-sensei?"
"You're such an idiot, Chouji, it was obvious. She came back smelling like him every Saturday. I mean, I thought they were just hanging out, but I guess that scent was a little too strong for that…"
"K-Kurenai-sensei? Is t-this true?"
"I knew it. Why? Because her lipstick was smudged. On him. It's still there, actually. You can see it on his collar if you look."
Asuma self-consciously reached up to rub vigorously at his neck, hoping the mysterious lipstick stains would disappear. The he turned to slowly look at Kurenai, who was giving him a mischievous smile.
"Oi! No time to hesitate now, sensei," Ino called, cupping her hands around her mouth as if she wasn't loud enough. "If you order within the next week, I'll give you a discount on red roses."
He groaned. Trust Ino to make an awkward situation worse.
"Ch. If they have children, I'm staying away until their kids are five. Babies are so troublesome."
No, scratch that. Shikamaru was much worse.
"If she and Asuma-sensei get married, will they still take us with them for dinner, or will they go by themselves? Because then we won't get to eat barbeque every week, and I don't think we can sacrifice something as important as that just for sensei's happiness," Chouji spoke up seriously.
…And Chouji might just be the worst one out of them all. At this point, his cigarette had fallen out of his fingers and was on the floor somewhere. Along with his dignity.
Kurenai was giving him a soft, encouraging smile while her three students looked on. With an inward groan, Asuma stumbled to slip his knees out from under the table and face her. He inserted a hand into his back pocket and drew out the small box he'd picked out about a week ago.
"Yuuhi Kurenai, I've…known you for a long while now. We became friends when we first saw each other in the academy, and since then I've thought of you as an amazing woman and a talented kunoichi."
She was still smiling that gentle smile. He wanted to go on with his mentally prepared speech about their relationship…but some of that wouldn't be too appropriate in front of their students. Well, that could wait for the bedroom later that night.
"Kurenai…will you marry me?"
Ino awe-ed and Kiba was silently hoping his sensei would say no. Just for the drama. Drama was fun. It wasn't like he liked her or anything. She was really pretty, but he'd successfully beat the sense into his brain and told himself that she was about fourteen years older.
The jonin sitting opposite him smiled her unreadable smile, "well, how could I refuse the recommendation of Sandaime-sama himself?" She smiled, "yes, Asuma. You take too long for these things. If you had waited any longer I would looked much too large in our engagement pictures." Shinobi didn't usually have the large marriage festivities that the civilians liked to have, but she already had plans for a small reception whirring in her head.
When the younger occupants of the room realized what she had said, mouths dropped once again.
Many days later in Kumo, Utakata, B, Yugito, and Hotaru stood in the Raikage's office. A looked and each of them in turn. This time, even B shook with slight fear. His brother hadn't glared, yelled, or broken anything yet, and that alone was scary. Finally, A's eyes came to rest on the newest person B had brought back with him.
"Alright," the Raikage began, eyeing Hotaru contemplatively, "how many tails does this one have?"
With her cheerfulness and undying determination, Hotaru had a way of making everyone fall in love with her. Even though they had stressed that no, she was not a Jinchuuriki, and no, she wasn't even an incredibly powerful young prodigy. As such, Utakata and B had no trouble getting her an official position as a genin of Kumo, to be personally tutored by a Kumo jonin-sensei along with her studies under her shishou and her enka lessons under Killer B that everyone groaned about.
In class, Hotaru spent all her time explaining to her jonin-instructor how amazing her shishou was in grandiose detail. By the second week of class, the poor Kumo jonin was convinced that Utakata was some kind of god.
Rumors spread quickly in Kumo. By his third week back in Kumo, Utakata was standing beside Yugito outside the Raikage's office building. Before them stood a line of Kumo jonin, all clapping and smiling. He still wasn't sure what the strange badge he had been given meant exactly. When the small crowd left, he followed Yugito into the shinobi headquarters, and into the small room she'd been given for her own use for the purpose of briefing her subordinates.
"I have a question," he began, watching as the blond kunoichi shrugged out of her flak jacket and hung it on a hook. On the bench nearby was a pile of her clothing. Civilian clothing.
"What is it?" She asked, undoing her braid, "we have to leave for our mission in two hours. I would suggest you leave and get changed into your civilian attire quickly. Darui-san requires us to be in disguise for this escort."
"What just happened to me?" Utakata asked blankly, "out there, in that small ceremony."
She gave him a dry look.
"I'm serious," he went on, "when I woke up this morning, I received a message to be outside the Raikage's office in five hours. You were there when I arrived, and all they did was tell me what a loyal jonin I was. And then they mentioned something about a force and gave me a badge," he looked down at the small blue patch on his flak jacket, "what is this?"
"Do you not read your letters?" She asked.
He shook his head. Hotaru usually read through them for him when she came over for morning training, although it wasn't 'reading' so much as 'browsing through the first lines'. Most of them were just mass-released updates given to all the Kumo jonin, because the Raikage thought it was terribly important that everything was aware when B was having one of his enka concerts. He'd taken to humoring his brother to make sure B never left again.
Yugito sighed, running a hand through her long hair, "turn around," she instructed, "the others have probably changed already, and we're going to be late."
Utakata did so. He heard the rustle of cloth behind him.
"The Kinkaku Force," she began, "is a team of Kumo's strongest jonin, put together by the approval of the Raikage himself. In times of war or emergency, they take control of Kumo's chunin and jonin. With unanimous vote, they have veto power over the Council."
"I see," Utakata trailed, "and…I'm part of this team, now?" He fingered the badge, noting the tiny script that did, indeed, say 'Kinkaku'.
"Yes," Yugito replied, "you have officially been made a member of the Kumo Kinkaku Force. Be proud, it's quite the accomplishment." Another rustle of cloth sounded as she slipped on the civilian clothing for their mission, "you can turn around now."
"And why were you there?" Utakata asked, "were you made a member too?" He turned around, and raised an eyebrow at her attire. She was wearing a plain blue dress, similar to those the civilian women thought were fashionable. Nii Yugito was wearing a dress. His eyebrows remained raised.
"I've been a member for over a year," she told him, crossing her arms and looking slightly perturbed at his staring. Her kunoichi clothing lay in a heap on the bench. She walked over. "I was there because I was the one who nominated you."
He looked slightly surprised, "you can do that, Yugito?" He was vaguely aware that she met frequently with the Raikage and Darui and Killer B, but her exact title never came up.
"Of course," she said smoothly, "as of two weeks ago, I'm the captain of the Kinkaku Force."
Temari burst into the Kazekage's office, looking ecstatic. She dropped her large fan by the entrance and sat in a chair in front of the desk, looking proudly at the person sitting behind it. "I rushed back from the mission when I heard. I think my teammates all dropped from exhaustion on the way."
"It was only a matter of time," Gaara replied from where he was sitting calmly, writing a letter, "but I find my schedule is becoming busier."
"Of course." Temari leaned forward, recording a mental image of her little brother wearing the Kazekage's hat and Kazekage's robes, sitting behind the Kazekage's desk and becoming the Rokudaime Kazekage of Sunagakure. The image was coated over with a sheen of pride. "I think you're the youngest Kage in history, Gaara. Suna has a sixteen-year-old kage. Wow."
The red-haired boy looked up, peering beyond the edge of his hat, "such a thing does not lend support to the strength of our country, Temari. In fact, it hints at the opposite. If I were a citizen of a larger village such as Kumo, it would not have been so easy for me to gain kage status. But Suna is still small and our shinobi training systems are not nearly as effective. We do not have many strong shinobi."
"You're too humble," Temari grinned, "just leave the training to me. I started our small academy all those years ago, but if I had a little more funding I could have an actual school built. We could begin shinobi education at five, like Kiri does."
Gaara nodded. He slipped a hand into his desk, easily slipping back into the familiar actions of Suna's Kazekage. It had been a while, but this position was too well ingrained in his mind, too much a part of him. It was what he had always defined himself as, and returning to it was like entering a childhood home and smiling in recognition at every familiar trinket that lay around.
He drew out a sheet of paper, and scribbled down a few subheadings. Then he held it out to Temari, who took it and peered at it curiously.
"It's a funding statement," he explained, "fill it out with whatever amount you need. You'll have it. I wish to place importance on education," he frowned, "I have to meet Matsuri for training, soon. Unfortunately it takes up much of my consulting time."
His sister looked confused, "what, you're still going to train Matsuri-chan? But you're a Kazekage now, you don't have time for that!"
"Tsunade-sama is able to keep a student," Gaara replied stiffly, "I am aware that she is far more experienced, but it is also true that I have many more hours to spend in the day." Even now that Shukaku was gone, he needed minimal sleep. In his previous time, he had been amused at stories of the Kazekage being non-human after the citizens would see the lights of his office shine all through the night.
"Well, alright," Temari sat back in the chair, folding the sheet, "you're strange, Gaara. Many people in your position would want a strong student to succeed them. You plan to dedicate so much time to a new genin who'll probably never make jonin, no matter how nice she is. But that's part of what the people like about you, after all, so you must be doing something right."
Gaara looked back down to his letter, and continued writing in his neat script. A small smile tugged at his lips.
"Why did we have to do this at night? There are snakes in these grasses and they are not the harmless kind."
Orochimaru stood beside his former teammate and new Hokage, eyeing the small memorial stone that had been erected at the edge of the village. It was placed amongst the grasses above the Hokage sculptures, where it could look down over Konohagakure in its entirety. The name had been carved into it in a beautiful script that he suspected belonged to Shizune.
"Interesting thing for you to say," Tsunade said dryly, although he had to squint to see her pensive expression in the darkness, "and did you want someone to see you?" He'd rented out a small apartment next to the Sarutobi grounds with his S-rank pay. The place was barely occupied; he spent all his time in the labs underneath the Hokage's tower pouring over scrolls that had been tossed down as national treasures no one bothered to read, looking for any hint, something that would help him in the weighty project he'd taken on.
"Besides," she went on, "I can't get any free time during the day. They keep giving me paperwork." She wrinkled her nose.
Orochimaru stayed silent, simply realizing that this was as close to the position that he would get. There had been a time where he would have reveled in that paperwork, eagerly and diligently reading through everything addressed to the Hokage. He suspected he'd have to do that anyway, since Tsunade didn't do paperwork, and it was only a matter of time until she decided he looked like a good replacement for Shizune.
He gazed down at the bin of carefully arranged files he was carrying, "and why," he asked, "did you ask me to bring the off-duty shinobi mission files with us?"
Tsunade smirked, and inserted one, manicured hand into the stacks of the bin. When she drew it out, it held a small white bottle. "This is where sensei hides his stock," she explained, shaking the bottle proudly. The liquid inside clinked against the clay. "I guess even he wasn't perfectly tuned to the stress of being a Hokage. I've been trying to limit myself, though. At least until Sakura's next birthday, his hidden stores are all I can get my hands on. Shizune won't bring me any, and she's issued a notice to every place selling sake that I can't order it."
"That poor chunin girl," he observed dryly, setting the bin down on the grass, "she's going to regret becoming your student. At least I gave mine a choice in breaking the law."
But Tsunade simply smiled and took three small cups out of her pocket, setting them on the grey stone. They were pale in the moonlight.
He watched as she opened the bottle of sake and carefully tipped some into each cup, making sure the sake never sloshed even though his keen eye noted the occasional tremor in her hand. She set the bottle near the stone, and picked up two of the cups, holding one out to him without looking his way.
Orochimaru eyed the small cup apprehensively and made no move to take it, "I do not drink sake. Large quantities can harm the nerves of my Fushi Tensei."
"I don't care about your Fushi Tensei. Drink it." Tsunade deadpanned, pushing it into his reluctant hands. He watched her gulp her own cup down before sighing and bringing it to his lips.
"Such a pointless tradition," he winced at the horrid taste, "and such a pointless drink."
Tsunade ignored him. Her hand moved to take the rest of the bottle back, but she paused, and instead decided to let it remain standing on that small grey stone, right beside the carved name. He could see her grin in the faint light filtering through dim clouds.
"He can have that one," she said airily, "I still have two more, I think. I'll have to do a more thorough search of the office when I have some free time. And anyway, even though he berated me for it we both know he loved sake too."
"He did," Orochimaru agreed, "but only because it helped with attracting girls," he sighed, "a drinker and a porn-writer. Such interesting people my teammates have grown up to be."
Tsunade smiled again, because Orochimaru was Orochimaru and she could hear the consolation in his tone anyway. She looked back down at the third cup of sake, and the clear liquid that rippled gently in the nighttime breeze.
The first thing Naruto felt was a searing pain in his cheek, and before he knew it he was sliding down the wall of Kakashi's extra bedroom. He groaned and clutched his bruised cheek, forcing his eyes open to see the pink-haired monster slowly walking towards him. Her right hand was tightly fisted.
"I can't believe this!" Haruno Sakura yelled, "you're leading your very first mission today, and you're sleeping in? Baka!"
Naruto paused, feeling a vague sense of dread creep up inside him. Memories of a mission briefing flashed by, and his eyes flew to look at the calendar on the wall. Then he stumbled to his feet and headed for the small alarm clock on his bedside table.
It wasn't set. He'd forgotten to set it.
He gulped audibly, and then turned to her, "um…it's ok, Sakura-chan. We'll just have to finish the mission extra-early, right? Right?" Sakura looked completely unimpressed.
"Ch. At this rate you'll never make jonin."
Naruto groaned again and reluctantly turned to look at his open window. Sasuke sat on the windowsill, swinging his legs into the room. He looked around, and then down at the bed, raising an eyebrow.
"Ramen, dobe? Really?"
"Oi! I like those sheets!" It had taken a whole lot of begging before Kakashi-sensei had relented and allowed him to change some of the stardard-issue furniture in the room. Naruto liked his new bed sheets just fine, ramen-cup decorations included.
He stood up and straightened his panda-bear sleeping cap, trying to ignore how his cheek pulsed with pain. "So…um…just hold on while I get something to eat…"
"You don't have time to eat," Sakura fumed, "and with the speed we'll need to travel at, it'll all come back out anyway." She crossed her arms over her chest, giving him one of her best glares.
At that moment, the door to Naruto's room swung open, and a grey-haired head peeked in lazily. Upon seeing the two other occupants, Kakashi stepped into the room, giving them a small wave.
Sakura and Sasuke stared.
Kakashi rubbed his head sheepishly, "mou…what's wrong?"
"You're not wearing your mask," Sakura said said carefully, because he wasn't. "I thought you slept in it."
"Well, there's no point wearing it in my own home anymore," Kakashi shrugged, "and you three have seen it already anyway." His voice was light, but the other members of Team Seven could hear the resolve in his tone.
"The dobe's late for his mission," Sasuke informed him, "you know, the one he's supposed to be leading. The easy A-rank Tsunade-sama gave him because she felt sorry for him being stuck as a chunin. While everyone else in Team Seven has advanced. Sai's waiting at the gates."
Kakashi frowned and turned back to Naruto, who was pulling his orange jumpsuit from a hanger in the closet, "you know, responsibility is part of being a jonin. It's not only about how strong you are."
"Yeah, I know," Naruto muttered, "I'll be really responsible. I'm going to become Hokage one day, after all, and the Hokage has to be responsible." He slipped behind the closet door and they all heard the rustle of cloth. The panda-bear sleeping cap went flying as he threw it to the bed.
"I fear for Konoha," Sasuke muttered, eyeing the worn-out cap that was laying among the sheets.
"Sasuke, where's the bird?" Kakashi asked while they waited for their new failure of a taicho to change out of his pajamas. "How will you feed it when you go on missions?"
"It's off, somewhere," the Uchiha boy shrugged, "it flies off sometimes, and finds its own food. Good riddance. But you don't need to worry," he went on at Sakura's frown, "the stupid thing comes back at least once every two days to bite my fingers."
"I'm glad," Sakura smiled warmly, because she knew that the bird – stupid as he called it – made him smile sometimes. "We'll be going then, Kakashi-sensei. Maybe you'll want to put your mask back on. Yamato-senpai is coming by later on."
Naruto walked out from behind the closet door, dressed in full orange gear. "Um…let's go, then! The first mission I lead has to be awesome!" He pretended not to notice the bruise on his cheek, but winced when he tried to smile.
Sakura sighed, and held a hand out, "come here, I'll fix that. Maybe I was a little too hard." She held back a giggle.
At that, he promptly made to walk across to where she was sitting. But there was a strange tugging sensation along his leg when he tried to move, and he stopped immediately, looking down at himself.
"Maybe you'd find it easier to move if your pants weren't on backwards," Kakashi offered helpfully.
Laughter filled the small room, and for some reason Naruto couldn't find it in him to protest.
Some say that a story must end in a wedding or a funeral. We decided to end with both.
The first chapter of Lightning Speed is posted. LS will deal with the final unresolved issues that's we've left for it. Read the prologue and you'll understand ^^
I'm also writing another Sasuke, Itachi, and Naruto-centric time travel story on my alternate penname 'Riya3'. Maybe you'll like it? Here's the info:
Title: Kokuten (yes, that's the Shippuden OST that plays during Sasuke's epic battles ;D)
Summary: When Sasuke finds a way to turn back time, he sees it as a chance to protect his clan and take revenge against his brother. He never expected to find himself in the midst of his clan's hostility, or to learn the truth about Uchiha Itachi. As Konoha's hidden discordance rises to the surface, he struggles to pay for his mistake and keep his friends alive. Time-travel.
We hope you've enjoyed, and that you'll stick with Naruto (and anime in general) 'till you're old and grey!
Link to continuation: s/9786209/1/Lightning-Speed (if you can't copy/paste, just find it on my profile)