Disclaimer: As you might have observed, I actually don't have that much interest in owning Naruto-it would be called Sakura and all the bishies would live.
Hokage-it was Naruto's dream, just as Sasuke was his promise. And for a short, glorious time, he had them both. But when tragedy strikes, it is Sakura who must continue to bear the reality of the dream: endless paperwork, bickering Kage, and political factions.
Hokage By Necessity
-What We Treasure-
Sakura's alarm began blaring just after four a.m., the little slug's eye stalks waving frantically. Grumpily, her hand came down on its head, flicking off the alarm. The eye stalks stopped waving. For an instant, she drank in the silent stillness of the faint pre-dawn light filtering through her curtain. Then, with a huff, she heaved her body out of bed, shedding covers as she padded to her bathroom down the hall.
She started awake properly at the icy wash of water in the shower, quickly adjusting the temperature so that, while bearable, the water remained chill. Bracing her hands with her palms flat against the wall, her feet spread wide at the opposite end of the tiled cubicle, she stretched her body into a long curve, feeling the icy water pool into the channel of her spine, running down between her buttocks.
Leaning back further, she closed her eyes against the spray, holding her breath after inhaling deeply. She imagined carbon dioxide accumulating, her oxygen count depleting, then when she felt on the verge of suffocation, she dropped her head, cold hair sliding wetly over her breasts. Just as she had inhaled, she now exhaled, breathing out until she could feel the muscles in her chest compressing as she forced every bit of polluted air from her lungs.
She tried to memorize the sensation, the blissful, lightheaded emptiness of it all. But finally she could take no more and she allowed her abused lungs to resume their automatic function. Wasting no more time or water, Sakura made short work of the rest of her morning routine, brushing her teeth and drying her hair. She paused only for a moment to stare critically in the mirror, wondering if she should cut her already short hair even shorter.
But, banishing the thought for the next time she had her hair trimmed, she briskly pulled what there was of it into a clip at the back of her head. Naked, having abandoned her clothing in the laundry basket set outside the shower, she walked back to her room, pulling clothing for the day from the wardrobe.
Boyshort underwear and a matching sports bra that did little to enhance her lacking cleavage, both in a no-nonsense design, created the foundation. Before Tsunade-shishou had died, she used to joke that she had used up both her apprentice's luck in the breast department. Then a black skirt and a red sleeveless top that zipped up the front, hemmed in white. Fingerless black gloves that now went just above her elbow, having replaced the elbow guards and short gloves she'd used when a chunin. But her boots were of the same design, knee high with slight heels.
When she glanced at her clock, she found that there was still time for an orange before she left. Her apartment was silent and almost dark as she moved through it, but she didn't bother to turn on the lights. It wasn't as if she could get lost. There was only one more room that she had yet to visit that morning, and it was just ahead. The combination kitchen/dining/living room was small and lacked an actual kitchen, consisting mostly of a sink, hotplate, and microwave, which was why the rent was so low, but it suited her just fine. Sakura rarely had company and she never cooked if she could help it, which was why she subsisted almost entirely on a diet of takeout and fresh fruit in the summer.
Her dream of an orange was quickly crushed as she investigated her tiny refrigerator, but she made do with an apple.
She ate it on her way to the Hokage Tower, her eyes critically examining the stalls and stores, not yet open, as she passed through the commercial district. Two owners saw her as she passed and stopped her briefly, one to submit a complaint about a neighbor, the other to commission a genin team to help him unload a new shipment later today.
At twenty-three, her life was much the same as it had been at fifteen. She simply did the filing for a different Hokage.
In many ways, Naruto was a great, fantastic, shining example of a Hokage. Charismatic, kind, and capable of great enthusiasm for reform, the youngest ninja adored him, his agemates admired him, and the older shinobi respected him.
They had never had to do his paperwork.
A hidden village was nothing more and nothing less than a corporation. And, like all corporations, what kept it functioning was not lollipops and rainbows-it was paperwork. Reams of it. Forms to be filed, records to be kept, requisitions to be submitted, budgets to approve, promotions to be decided, resources to allocate, reports to be read...the list was potentially endless.
Naruto's interest in his position came to a screeching halt the moment it stopped looking like a job for Konoha's strongest ninja and more like something for the paper pushers. Sakura had realized with incredulity that even after years of observing Hokage in action and lusting after the position, Naruto had never realized what being Hokage actually did: it took you out of the field, put you behind a desk, and asked you to sign papers until you were certain your wrist would never be the same again.
The night guards nodded to her as she strode into the office of the Hokage, dropping the core of her apple into the Naruto's trashcan. Hands on hips, she frowned as she inventoried her battlefield. Naruto made it a point to spent as little time here as possible, which was fine, as he usually created more chaos than order as he tried to hurry through paperwork, but while Tsunade-shishou could usually be found in a bar when Sakura or Shizune had required her signature, Naruto was far more unpredictable, especially when she had forms she urgently needed him to sign.
Cracking the vertebrae in her neck, though it was a bad habit, Sakura set to work, sitting without compunction in the Hokage's chair as she efficiently began sorting through the stacks of paperwork that had trickled in after she had left last night. Naruto blindly attacked and was quickly overwhelmed, but Sakura had long ago developed a priority system.
At five, the guards outside the door were relieved and replaced. At six, the jounin and chunin who were on duty at the mission office arrived and the night duty shinobi handed over the requests for the day. At six-ten, Sakura received the missions and approved the ranks that had been assigned to them upon reception. Messengers had to be sent out if the ranking was changed, to inform the client of the changed charges and to confirm they still wished to have the mission executed.
Most of the shinobi who worked in the mission office were now familiar with her exacting standards and few changes were necessary. There were none this morning, so she handed them back to the chunin with a smile. She still remembered the terror of her own mislabeled missions as a genin. It was not an experience she would wish upon anyone else.
The shinobi of the mission office then copied out the missions summaries and record numbers into five color-coded scrolls, which would be used when assigning the missions to the shinobi. The original contracts were filed away and thus far had been maintained in perpetuity from the founding of the village, excepting the records that had been destroyed in their semi-regular disasters.
Sometimes they had to rush to meet deadline, but this morning the scrolls were delivered to Sakura promptly at six-fifty. She had time to glance over the missions once again, mentally assigning shinobi to missions before Naruto was due to arrive at seven. When he had not arrived by seven-ten, Sakura made her way to the mission office by herself. The chunin and jounin stood as she entered. Naruto would have put them at ease, but they regarded her with wary respect.
She was something of a legend here for verbal abuse, but at least she didn't break the furniture, as her master had made a habit of doing. At fifteen, she'd had more patience and more respect for her superiors. At twenty, she was their superior. And she had seen the price of too many poorly assigned missions to take this with anything less than the gravity it deserved. "The Hokage has not arrived yet," she announced, as if any of them could overlook the presence of their fearless leader. "We will begin with the D-rank missions today. The available squads?"
The mission office whirled into motion around her as files were pulled, specialties were compared, and jounin-sensei requests were considered. Some genin squads were able and willing to take on more than one mission. Some genin had requested individual D-ranks. Some contractors required that their mission be completed before or at a certain time. Some requested a particular team, others requested that the genin team they'd had last time not be reassigned to them. Those were investigated briefly, to make certain that the complaints had substance and whether they were actionable or not. Notes were made for genin teams that would require discipline.
D-rank assignment was inevitably a long and tedious task, which is why it was usually left until last or left mostly undone, because there was little risk to the genin involved. Not every team was Team Seven, able to discover life-threatening danger even when walking dogs.
But they begin with D-rank, in the hope that Naruto would arrive before they moved on to the more serious missions. When they finished the D-rank assignments, Sakura stepped out to send a messenger to locate the Hokage. Frowning, she returned to the office and they made quick progress through the C-rank and B-rank missions.
She dispatched several ambitious chunin and jounin who had come in early, but it was seven-fifty and they could delay no longer. The shinobi of the mission office awaited her decision. And it came easily. Because this was not the first time this had happened and it would not be the last. "Let's finish the A-class missions before the genin begin arriving. I'll take care of the S-class missions myself."
Naruto burst through the doors at eight-ten, just before the first group of genin. And he slipped easily into his role, laughing and joking with the gennin, teasing them about their assignment. Sakura barely looked up at them from her table to one side, but by the time the brief interview was over, she had the two S-class requests assigned to teams she was certain could handle them. Though not ANBU herself, her position as Naruto's aide afforded her above S-class clearance. Once the jounin herded his genin out the door, Sakura stood and subtly slipped Naruto the scroll.
He smiled brightly up at her. "Thanks, Sakura-chan! Guess some of Kakashi's habits are contagious after all."
Sakura rarely had the energy to scold him anymore. She saved it for people who actually listened to her criticism. That was also something age had taught her. So she only silently cuffed him lightly upside the head, retreating from the mission office. Now that the morning's assignments were finished, Naruto was more than able to hold his own. This was the part of the job that he enjoyed, after all. Not the weary work that made it possible. For all the growing up he had done he was still, at heart, Naruto-the same ninja who equated stealth with cheating and the same youth who had pursued the position of Hokage, not through a genuine desire to safeguard and serve, but for the recognition accorded to the office. His motivations were, naturally, not that simplistic in reality, but Sakura was often reminded of those shameless declarations, back when they were all unguarded children.
She took her lunch just after noon, once she had managed to discover that, yes, a desk did exist under all the paperwork. All that remained were proposals and correspondence that Naruto himself needed to look over. And she had carefully sorted through the former to remove any that would spark Naruto's imagination that the village didn't currently have the budget for. When she had first started doing so, she had felt faintly guilty, but time had eroded the guilt. Especially when she saw the disarray the office was reduced to when she returned from missions.
It was a perk of being the Hokage's aid, snatching up the choice missions, but Sakura underutilized it. She drew a salary and had precious few hobbies, so it wasn't as if she was pressed for money. Instead, she tended to choose missions she knew she was ill-suited to, knowing herself almost depressingly well. She had never progressed in her training unless confronted with a direct threat to her continued health. And without Tsunade-shishou to guide her, the only place she could find that danger was outside the village.
Her actual lunch was brief and very pointedly did not include anything that even resembled ramen. Sakura, by this point, had a very, very low tolerance for ramen, which Naruto still insisted was the food of the kami. She, on the other hand, wouldn't shed a tear if the daimyo made the dish illegal in the Land of Fire.
As a creature of routine, she then drifted around the commercial district, now lively and crowded, before she made her way to the Academy. Naruto visited almost daily, but Sakura tried to make room in her schedule to appear at least once a week. Watching the children train was certainly far more relaxing than telling an ANBU squad that no, they couldn't use village funding to acquire whatever sharp-and-pointy-and-likely-to-explode instrument of death the weapons manufacturers were touting. Iruka smiled up at her as she entered his classroom. "Sakura! It must be Thursday."
"That predictable?" Sakura inquired dryly.
Iruka grinned. "Like clockwork."
Clockwork. It was good metaphor, Sakura admitted as she prepared to leave the office for the evening. Her life was delineated by routine. It was a routine she had observed first as Tsunade's apprentice, as her training schedule plugged the few empty slots in the older woman's schedule. When still a genin, she'd begun to learn the forms and systems that greased the wheels of Konoha's bureaucracy, as Tsunade-shishou had shamelessly used Shizune and her both. Then had been the required residency at the hospital, where everything, from the administration of medication to the hours for visitors, was contingent upon dutiful adherence to procedure.
Routines were comforting and comfortable, for though the paperwork never stopped, it was predictable.
But it was also empty. Cradling her hand in her hands, elbows on the great desk she'd stood before so many times, she struggled not to cry.
It had all seemed so simple when she was younger. When Sasuke returned, everything would magically fall into place and she would be happy. But happiness now seemed behind her, in the days of chasing down Tsunade-shishou in seedy bars with bartenders who chuckled at her difficulties and aided her search, of sneaking out of the village to gather information and feeling so proud of herself for doing so, in the days before she'd seen war.
Sasuke had returned. What an ugly process that had been. And for Naruto, the magic did happen. Their bonds went deep-but it was a bond from which Sakura was excluded. It had been surreal, feeling lonelier in the presence of her team than when they been scattered across the continent. She had retreated into the hospital and Tsunade's paperwork. And her teammates had allowed it.
She had made jounin before Tsunade passed away. It had not been, upon reflection, a particularly impressive performance. It had been solid enough to win her the title, but it made for a poor balm for her self-confidence as Naruto and Sasuke both rocketed through the ranks.
Upon Tsunade-shishou's death, Naruto had assumed the mantle of Hokage, fulfilling his lifelong dream. And, once the tears were finished, all that had changed in Sakura's life was whose name she now had to forge on official documents.
She glanced up as she heard footsteps beyond the door. Composing herself, she heard Shizune's familiar voice through the door. "Sakura? Are you still there?"
"Yes," Sakura replied, standing.
The doors opened and her senpai entered, looking just as harried as she ever had under Tsunade. As senior apprentice, while Sakura had stayed on as Naruto's aide, Shizune had assumed control of Konoha's medical system. She had done so with ease. She had been with Tsunade-shishou for almost as long as Sakura had been in training to be a ninja, after all. Sakura was still called in upon occasion to consult, mostly about poisons as she officially headed Konoha's Office of Strategic Surprise, or to assist in a particularly difficult procedure, but she no longer put in the long hours she had as a chunin.
Shizune smiled at Sakura. "Still fighting the good fight?" she teased.
"It never ends," Sakura responded warmly. "Did you need something, Shizune? Or just here for a visit?"
Shizune smiled. "It's Thursday. I thought I'd come over in case it's a thirsty Thursday."
Sakura laughed, moving from behind the desk. "You know, I'm beginning to suspect that if I deviated from my schedule, there would be people panicking."
That made Shizune chuckle. "It's not quite to that point yet. You were planning on going out?"
Sakura nodded, crossing her arms across her chest as she semi-reclined against the Hokage's desk.
No one made much fuss about it anymore, ever since she'd more or less been devoured by deskwork and Sasuke had entered ANBU, but once upon a time they'd been called the "Second Coming of the Sannin."
Naruto had thought it was the coolest thing since the invention of ramen, but Sakura had been less impressed. Because not all the connotations of that title were pleasant ones.
Sakura had struggled when Sasuke returned. It had not been the rosy, heart-wrenching scene of friendship and reconciliation that she had imagined. It was much more cold-blooded. It involved a great many ugly promises. And it had broken Tsunade-shishou's heart.
Sakura had resented Sasuke for that. Resented him for all the pain and suffering he didn't regret inflicting. But Sasuke was a "valuable resource." He could not be alienated. When Sakura voiced her unhappiness, Tsunade had looked ever more tired. And that broke Sakura's heart, for Tsunade-shishou had given her everything she was proud of.
Sakura couldn't remember the point when the occasional drink, supervised by Tsunade-shishou, had developed into a full-blown habit. "Functioning alcoholic" was the technical term. But when Tsunade died, she became less "functional."
It was Shizune who had saved her from that, just as she had saved Tsunade so long ago.
Neither of them pretended it was a miracle cure. They were both medics. They did not need to delude each other, for both of them knew, in exacting detail, exactly what addiction was. It was not something purely physical. Sakura was a medic of almost unprecedented control. She was capable of increasing or decreasing her alcohol absorption, could with a thought break it down into harmless protein components. In part, she did it for the same reason Shikamaru smoked. It was her memorial, in tiny ceramic dishes stacked into tall pyramids, of her beloved Hokage.
But it was also her excuse for violence.
Sakura hadn't suddenly stopped drinking, when Shizune had begun to intervene. For a time, she'd just tried to take her drinking outside Konoha.
It had worked, until she beat a civilian almost to death for something she couldn't even remember.
Warm sake made her a weeping drunk, because it made her recall Tsunade-shishou. But anything else only erased her inhibitions. And as it turned out, her inhibitions were the only thing keeping her fellow drinkers safe from a hair-trigger temper. When sober, Sakura could smile and nod through an hour interview with the Council. But there was no kind way to describe her behavior when intoxicated except to say that Sakura was a mean drunk.
She bypassed obnoxious and loud behavior to delve straight into bar fights. Fights she often provoked. And enjoyed too much for anyone's peace of mind.
That incident with the civilian had been the one Shizune could not hide from Naruto, so Sakura had dutifully served out her probationary period, which hadn't looked a great deal different from her sober lifestyle.
Sakura supposed that Naruto thought that had "cured" her, for the bar fights stopped.
The drinking had not.
The fights had not.
She simply made certain that all brawling occurred on a training ground, where she could do as she pleased without legal repercussions. It was generally achieved by Shizune reluctantly acting as her spotter if she was too drunk to shift the battle elsewhere, but for the past several months Sakura had managed well enough on her own.
"Where did you want to go?" she asked Shizune, who actually cared about things like ambience and who might be among the crowd.
Shizune paused thoughtfully. "The Long Winter?" she suggested.
Sakura shrugged. As she pushed herself away from the desk, Shizune moved to fall into step beside her. It was with a comfortable, companionable silence that they made their way to the bar in question. Neither bothered to change or freshen up. Tenten frequented classier bars, the kind where atmosphere wasn't a euphemism for a quasi-legal haze and half the bar singing along to every song they recognized and getting a quarter of the words wrong. Hinata, though she had improved immensely in her social forwardness since their Academy days, remained characteristically disinterested in barhopping and Ino had become a sad and striking example of maturity of late. Though Asuma had left his daughter's training in Shikamaru's hands, it sometimes seemed as if Ino was determined that his team should raise her with the same care and dedication that her father had shown to them. And as little Ai was eight and intensely interested in everything that her three mentors did, they were all trying very hard to be good examples.
The Long Winter certainly wasn't a place a child should ever see, let alone enter. Just a block over from the red light district, it was patched and scarred from numberless brawls and it stunk like their signature "Will of Fire" drink, which featured cinnamon liqueur and an alcohol content high enough to induce certain alcohol poisoning if you didn't vary your evening. Of course, if you managed to down three without vomiting or passing out, the house would pick up the tab.
So far as Sakura knew, only Tsunade had ever actually won the challenge.
As Sakura slid into "her" spot at the bar, the bartender, a rough-looking woman in her forties, raised a brow in silent inquiry.
"Momushu," Sakura told her, then smiled as the brow rose even higher. "I'm starting slow."
The woman, who Sakura only knew as 'Mama,' snorted. "Right, girly drink coming up."
"Sasuke comes back from his mission tomorrow," Sakura muttered bitterly, accepting the drink when it was shoved toward her with almost enough violence to slosh it out of the glass. Someone will bleed tonight.
Shizune shot her a worried look, but Sakura swiveled around on her barstool, scoping the crowd for likely targets. A few targets returned the favor, as she wasn't the only shinobi with bad habits. In their line of work, a person must be at best be ambivalent about violence, at worst more than a little in love with it. No one stayed a shinobi who despised violence. They retired or died.
Sakura had been working towards the later before Sasuke's betrayal, but it had been a decade since the incident. She had grown and evolved-or devolved, depending upon your moral standpoint.
Her drink was almost too sweet and she grimaced at the taste of it. But as a man she could only vaguely recall navigated the crowd, wearing the distinctive flak jacket of a jounin, her lips tipped upward. And when he returned the lazy salute of her drink, her body almost vibrated with the joy of it.