Sunrise arrived late in the morning in the small village. The Tora Estate was unusually quiet, lacking the usual activity of a typical day. Many of the party attendees had gone to bed late in the night and left remainders of their festivities all about the estate. Tucked into the topiary evergreens were abandoned glasses where the guests had used the trees as makeshift tables. Trash littered the ground and in the courtyard. Corners that were often criticized for poor lighting in the daytime had been exploited for their privacy, leaving behind single earrings and dirty napkins as evidence of tawdry encounters.
The servants had picked up the mess half-heartedly before they sought the comfort of their own beds. They were up once more a few hours later, ready to clean in earnest despite puffy eyes and lack of sleep. They cleaned in silence, none of them wanting to disturb the guests. One servant swept the walkway, the steady swish of his broom the only noise in the lethargic estate.
Away from the mess was Sakura, who was lying in the field by the tree line. She was once again clad in her own clothes, leaving behind the borrowed kimonos provided by the Tora family. The servants had washed and pressed her clothing until it was neat and crisp. She was motionless in the shade, splayed out on the grass like a piece of morbid artwork. As the sun crept up, the shade from the trees shied away from her, exposing the quiet meditation on her face to the world.
"Uuuurrrgghhh," Sakura groaned with all of the aplomb of a wounded cow.
She scrunched her eyes against the light. Realizing that the sun had come out in earnest, she turned onto her belly, her arms flopping ineffectively at her sides.
So much for her meditation , she thought as the grass tickled her nose.
Huffing, Sakura sat up properly and squinted up at the sky. Kakashi had informed her the previous night they were to depart before dawn. She had nodded and planned accordingly, showing up with her bag at the gate two hours late. Even with the generous time adjustment, Kakashi had not shown up as promised. Sakura had waited ten minutes for him before she went to doze under the shade. However, sleep eluded her despite the silence of the estate. Every time Sakura was on the brink of sleeping, her traitorous mind would renew the scandalous image from the previous night. The image of Tomio's hand clutching Kakashi's neck as they kissed, the look of surprise as they were discovered, of Kakashi's tongue as it retreated to his own mouth.
Sakura covered her face as heat crawled up her neck, not all of it caused by her own embarrassment. She needed to get over this.
Just as Sakura was getting comfortable once more, she heard a giggle coming from the trees. She snapped her eyes open just in time to catch sight of one of the daughters crashing through the bushes. The girl gasped when she saw Sakura, stopping to give a short bow and then running to hide behind her.
"Watch out," the girl squeaked as she dove behind Sakura. "He's coming!"
"The Beast," the girl said as she clutched the back of Sakura's shirt.
"Ahhhhh!" The eldest son jumped out of the bushes, waving around a set of tree branches. "Where's the girl?" Hitoshi demanded. He waved the branches around in menace once more.
Sakura heard the girl giggle behind her as she tightened the grip on Sakura's shirt.
"Who are you?" asked Sakura before she had time to stop herself from playing along.
"I am the Green Beast of Kohoha!" said the boy. "And I am the greatest threat you have ever known!"
"Oh?" Sakura stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "I think I can handle you." She tried not to laugh at the branches in Hitoshi's hands; it was most likely that Kakashi had not given the children a description of the Green Beast of Konoha. She wondered if the boy would be so enthusiastic if he knew the Beast wore spandex.
"Nyeah, nyeah," said the girl as she stepped forward to poke a tongue out at her brother before hiding behind Sakura once more.
"That's what you think! But I've done lots of things that you've never dreamed of. I can crush mountains and punch out an elephant and run faster than anyone and… umm…. fly. I'll win!"
Sakura bit her lip to keep the smile spreading from her face. "Okay I believe you Green Beast of Konoha. But I've heard a lot of rumors about you and do you know what they say?"
Hitoshi narrowed his eyes and then shook his head.
Sakura chuckled. "They tell of your greatest weakness."
The boy stepped back, his voice going a bit higher. "What? I don't have any weaknesses."
"It so happens that the Green Beast of Konoha is severely allergic to women," Sakura said, thinking of the real-life counterpart. "One little kiss is all it takes to put you out for good."
The branches in the boy's hands fell to the ground and his mouth dropped open in shock. "I don't think…." Hitoshi's cheeks reddened as Sakura took a step forward. He was at the awkward age of his life where he was of two minds, torn between his gut instincts to run and the other, which couldn't believe his good luck. Hitoshi's indecision ended as Sakura continued to approach and he ran away.
The girl behind Sakura burst out in peals of laughter, a strange noise in the quiet estate. "That was amazing!" she said as she reached into one of her pockets. "I think I should give you a thank you gift. Here." The girl held out a closed fist.
Sakura tried to shoo away the girl with a wave of her hand. "No, no, that's quite all right." The girl's earnest expression was all too familiar and it reminded Sakura of happier times. But that future had vanished.
"You should take this." The girl faced her palm up and opened it to reveal a small green rock in her palm. "It's a jade stone they use to decorate the bottom of the fountain. I took this one because it was shaped weird." The girl raised the stone to her eye and peered at Sakura through the hole in the center.
"I was going to give it to a friend, but I think this one belongs with you. It matches your eyes," she said shyly.
Sakura took the stone, ignoring the squeezing in her chest.
"Thank you," she whispered as the girl smiled and walked away to find another member of her family to play with. The hole in the stone wasn't very big, not even wide enough for her pinky finger to slip through. But it was enough room for a chain to slip through, perhaps as a small necklace or as a decoration.
Sakura placed the stone into a small pocket and crossed her arms in discomfort. She heard more laughter from the courtyard and caught a glimpse of the two girls running by. The sound made her feel lonely, and so she made her way back to the front gate. Norio was waiting for her there, his hair still disheveled from his sleep. Norio's hair was always slicked back and it was rare to see him in such a state. She resisted the urge to sink her fingers into his scalp to ruffle his hair. It was unlikely that Norio would appreciate her actions. The rest of the family was making their way to the gate, Kakashi's hair pinpointing his location at the back.
Sakura took the opportunity to give Norio a hug. His hands came up to drift along her neck and he planted a chaste kiss on her cheek, murmuring that he would send her a letter. She nodded and then turned to say her goodbyes to the rest of the family. Mitsuko gave a polite hug, but Lord Ehime gave her an enthusiastic hug. Sakura gave a small wink to the eldest son, who turned bright red at the attention. The pair of girls giggled.
Sakura tried her best not to stare at Tomio, for she already knew she wouldn't find a signs of his sexual preference by sight. She hadn't suspected anything before and the scene last night had caught her terribly off-guard. She had fled the balcony to the brightly lit hall and spent the remainder of her evening trying to ignore what she had seen. As the night wore on, she recalled some of the oblique statements made by the family, and why Norio was considered the heir to the family.
Tomio turned to look at her, his gaze unflinching and judgmental. Sakura flushed and hastily turned her attention back to Norio.
"Cousin," Norio said in a cool voice, "I hope your travels are well." He moved to the side to allow Kakashi to approach the gate.
"Yes, I imagine…" Norio had begun to walk away even before Kakashi had finished. Sakura frowned; Norio was clearly irritated by something.
Kakashi coughed into his hand. "Tomio, it was a pleasure catching up," he said politely.
Sakura stared at the ground with all of the interest she could muster. It was very awkward now that it was just the three of them.
"Yes. Good day, Kakashi. Lady Sakura." Tomio said just as graciously, giving one last look to her companion.
Sakura gave a small nod as the last member of the family went back to the house. Kakashi had already begun to turn around and was walking down the road. It wasn't long before they were hiking up the mountain and climbing out of the village.
Sakura had plenty of questions that she wanted to ask him. Was he gay? Was he bisexual? Was his proposal to her merely a flight of fancy? Was he really interested in children and thought she would be a suitable carrier?
Sakura kicked one of the nearby rocks in frustration. It rocketed forward and smacked loudly against a tree, a noise that echoed in the mountain. Kakashi grunted as he lifted a hand to his forehead. Sakura snuck a peek at him. Kakashi didn't seem gay. And some of the things he had said to her were a little bit too personal. He wouldn't have bothered with all of this effort if he wasn't serious. He was still a lazy person after all. Facetious actions were not his style at all.
If he wasn't gay, what was it that she had walked in on? Perhaps Kakashi thought Tomio was a stud and couldn't resist.
Sakura glanced at him once more. His hand was still against his forehead and he made no mention of the subject. No doubt Kakashi was hoping she would start talking about it first. And then he would use her embarrassment and come out the winner in their little duel of words like he always did.
If Sakura wanted to address the situation and come out with her pride intact, she would have to make him talk about it first. With her determination set, Sakura continued up the mountain. But with little else to entertain her, all she could remember was Kakashi's lips against another man's. She remembered that odd scar by his lip and the careless toss of his hair.
The road underneath her feet had turned to gravel, the remains of large boulders that were shattered under the storms of Snow Country. It was somewhat irritating that every step they took was accompanied by a noisy crunch as the rocks shifted underneath. She glanced at Kakashi again in wonder, concerned of his possible hangover. The noise couldn't be good for his head. To her irritation, he seemed preoccupied and seemed happy to continue their nonchalant climb up the mountain. He didn't even seem inclined to acknowledge the sticky situation Sakura found him in. Last night's kiss was a subject that neither of them wanted to address. They didn't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. It was the elephant in the room.
A Giant Gay Elephant.
She snorted. The gravel continued to complain under her feet, disguising the small noise of her amusement.
"Hee hee hee."
That one came out a bit louder, but Kakashi's only reaction to her was the slight twitch of her shoulder.
"Heh heh heh!"
Kakashi turned to the sniggering woman next to him. "Are you done yet?"
Sakura wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at him, only to burst in another round of laughter. She had now abandoned the journey, far too busy clutching the sides of her stomach. Sighing, Kakashi continued his journey up the mountain, pressing the bridge of his nose to relieve the pressure from his pounding head.
It wasn't his intention to travel back to Konoha the day after the party. However, Tsunade had sent a message to him early in the week with a mandatory arrival date.
Most of the guests were relaxing in the Tora Estate for another day, taking their time with the preparations for their journey back home. There was only one proper exit out of the valley and if Kakashi waited he would be caught behind a slow-moving crowd and show
up late for Tsunade's announcement. He had little choice but to depart immediately.
It meant he had to travel with a bit of a hangover. He really had not meant to drink that much.
Sakura cackled once more.
This is all her fault, thought Kakashi.
If she hadn't shown up so utterly perfect he would have been able to control himself. If she hadn't looked so right next to Norio then he would have been able to continue his little conquest for her hand in marriage with peace of mind. If Sakura hadn't looked like she belonged, he wouldn't have brooded on the balcony. He wouldn't have said yes to that damn kiss. And he most certainly would have not been caught making out with a man. Then he wouldn't have taken that entire bottle of alcohol and locked himself in the kitchen.
Oh, yes. Definitely her fault.
He hadn't said anything to her the night before, only shrugging his shoulders, picking up his woefully empty glass and heading for the hallway. And Sakura had avoided eye contact for the first two hours. But now she seemed to have found the tense situation riotous.
"Will you please stop that?" His nausea had faded, but the headache had not, settling tension behind his eyes. There was a good thing about the situation. Sakura's timid attitude disappeared as soon as she got away from Norio, the lords, and the rich. It was like she had come back to life.
Kakashi knew a thing or two about that.
As much as he appreciated the delicate beauty of "Lady Sakura," that personality seemed to have been born out of desperation. The Sakura next to him was the one he preferred. She was the one he pinned his hopes on, the one with a wide smile, confident attitude, and a shameless laugh. A little humiliation was a worthy price of returning one of his favorite people back to normal.
Kakashi sighed as he heard her scuttle to catch up with him. "Should I expect the story to make the rounds when we get back to Konoha?" He certainly hoped not, that would certainly put a dent in his respectability.
"No." Sakura waved her hand dismissively. "Who wants to hear about that?"
Kakashi blinked. "I thought you would take advantage of the opportunity." The news was a great relief and he concentrated once more on the simple process of placing one step in front of another.
"Well, yes. I thought about it." Sakura's voice turned strangely detached. "But I think everyone in Konoha at least one gay story."
Kakashi's mind was a finely tuned instrument. In battle, he memorized jutsus by the dozens. He analyzed the opponent with a keen eye and tried to anticipate enemy attacks, a skill that had served him well for thirty years. Outside of a mission, his mind sought the pleasant distraction of a raunchy story, Icha Icha at the pinnacle. And now Sakura, his lovely Sakura , had presented him with a delicious opportunity to combine these two honed skills. Genius that he was, Kakashi's mind had little choice but to plummet straight down into a Canyon of Debauchery.
Oh the possiblities…
Sakura seemed not to have noticed his distraction. "Nope, I'm keeping what I saw to myself. If I tell people it means everyone could tease you about it." She gave him a pleasant smile.
Kakashi's mind weakly fought to climb out of the Canyon of Debauchery, desperate to have a conversation with her that wasn't tainted by his own imagination. But it was very hard when Sakura chose that moment to set her pack down and give him a perfect view of her rear. And with his hangover still in place, he didn't have the willpower to fight it. Instead, Kakashi chose to trail his eyes up the length of her legs in appreciation.
Sakura looked back at him over her shoulder, her hair partly covering her face. "You must be throbbing."
His heart stopped beating. "I… what?"
Sakura straightened and made her way over to him. "Does it need a massage?"
Kakashi took a few steps back and caused gravel to skitter down the mountain. "No, no that's not necessary." He had to have heard her wrong.
She frowned. "You don't have to deal with that hangover, or have you forgotten that I'm a medic-nin? I can get rid of the headache."
"Ah..." The amount of disappointment that filled him was absurd.
The fight went out of him, he allowed Sakura to take off his forehead protector. Her fingers pressed against his temples, sending a gentle pulse of chakra through his head. Kakashi shut his eyes in relief as he felt the tension dissipate. Most medics didn't bother with headaches; they didn't have the talent to mess with something tied so close to the brain. He let out a sigh of relief when she was done and opened up his eyes lazily to look at her.
Sakura was smiling mischievously as her fingers slid upwards to thread in between the locks of his hair, the tips of her fingernails scraping along his scalp. The sensations were oddly relaxing and at that moment Kakashi wanted nothing more than to lean against her so she could continue for the next few hours.
Disappointingly, she removed her hands with her cheeks tinted pink in her self-consciousness. Sakura chose to hand over his forehead protector without eye contact. They continued their journey up the mountain and Kakashi racked his brain to continue the conversation.
"So the scene from last night is going to remain our little secret?"
"Even if I told the village about your kiss they wouldn't get the full effect. The best part of the whole thing was the look on your face. If I had a camera I would have taken a picture. That would have paid for my meals for the rest of my life!"
He looked at her in surprise. "I don't know about that."
She nodded emphatically. "Oh yes it would. Most people are used to seeing you with your mask on and it is hard to catch you off guard. Having both of those experiences at the same time is a huge bonus. Plus, the kiss itself…" Sakura looked at him furtively.
"What?" he asked with as much innocence as he could muster. She shook her head in response, determined to stay away from his baiting. Kakashi nodded in understanding. "Mmm… I see. It was sexy."
Sakura choked on her laughter, surprised by his bold statement. He smiled when she did not deny his words and chose to continue the conversation from a different angle.
"It is about time I had something good to hold over you anyway. This covers all the harassment you've given me."
She giggled once more as they passed a road sign. "That's right." She punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Race you to the next village," she exclaimed as she took off up the mountain.
Kakashi blinked at the pink dot that was rapidly getting smaller. It was hard to believe that this was the same girl who had timidly held his hand the previous night, a beautiful woman who was fearful of his words and bland in personality. Now she was acting like his proposal had never happened, back to the time when he was teasing her about bad haircuts and questionable flower pods. Sakura, Kakashi realized, responded to his vulnerability.
Pleased with this discovery, Kakashi started to run after her.
The announcement arrived in the mailbox the day after Sakura returned to Konoha, a brief message to meet at the Hokage Tower after lunch. Sakura gave it a cursory glance before stuffing it in the waste bin, far more interested in the large letter that bore the Ehime crest.
She ogled at the contents, one of which was a drawing of the outfit she would wear during her marriage ceremony. She needed company to appropriately drool over the outfit and set off to the marketplace. Sakura found Ino and Tenten in a small restaurant, their meals arriving as she plopped down on a seat next to them.
Sakura stuck her hand in the envelope and handed it to Ino. "Take a look at this." Ino was always visiting the seamstress to look over formal kimonos, even though she couldn't afford them.
"Oh my." Ino's face turned a little pink. Sakura used the distraction to snag a bit of food from both her companion's plates.
"Wow," said Tenten. "That's… uh… detailed."
"Can you believe how gorgeous this is?" Sakura sighed happily as she nibbled on a piece of pork.
"That isn't the word I would use." Ino smiled coyly. "I take it back. Norio is not a total idiot."
Tenten giggled. "Even if he was, as long as he did that it wouldn't be so bad."
"What?" Sakura yanked the page out of Ino's hands and realized that it wasn't the drawing of her wedding outfit. Instead it was a very detailed description of the many things Norio could do with his hands, his mouth and his….
Sakura stuffed the page in the envelope with shaking hands and took out the illustration.
"Here," she said, the embarrassment not yet gone from her cheeks.
"Ooooohh," they cooed in unison.
"I'd almost marry him for that," said Ino.
Tenten nodded. "Me too. And I'm not even really into that sort of thing."
Sakura frowned. "You two wouldn't marry Norio? What's that supposed to mean?" She felt possessive of him; he really had been good to her during their trip to Snow.
The other two glanced at each other.
"Look, it's not as if we really know the guy, so this is just our opinion," Tenten began. "I couldn't take it. All of those rules and perceptions are annoying. You have to listen to what your husband says and shut up. I'll pass."
"Me too." Ino nodded. "Look at Hinata. She has all of these standards to meet and she's in a clan. It has to be worse for daimyos."
Sakura opened her mouth to protest and then recalled how Minako acted at times. And by anyone's standards the Ehime family was relaxed. There were a few women at the party that had less personality than Sai. Sakura shook her head and dropped the subject, knowing that it would be impossible for her to win them over. When Sakura finished she waved goodbye to Ino and set off with Tenten to the Hokage Tower.
"So do you know what this is about?" Sakura asked as she avoided a child who was running down the street.
Tenten shrugged. "Nope. I didn't even get a chance to ask anyone else. I had to get a physical this morning so I spent most of the time in the waiting room."
"Darn." They rounded a building to see the street filled with ninjas on their way inside the tower.
Sakura turned around to see Shikamaru standing behind her. "Spill," she said as she turned around and raised her fist.
He had sped up as she turned, mysteriously ending up in front of her. "Isn't it obvious?" he said, holding the door open with his foot.
"Er… Sakura looked around to the assembled crowd and waved to Neji across the hall. "No." The room was pockmarked with holes where Tsunade's temper had caused objects to go flying.
Shikamaru grumbled. "You'll find out soon enough. Although I don't see the point, it's obvious the decision has already been made."
Sakura was about to ask further questions when she heard a moan of unhappiness. Standing on her tiptoes, she saw Yamato bury his head in his hands.
"Unbelievable. Why is today the day you show up on time?" he bawled as Kakashi crossed the room.
Yamato wasn't the only one vexed; there were more than a few jonin reaching into their pockets and handing over fistfuls of cash into Kakashi's gloved hands. Sakura snickered. She was glad that she had missed him when he proposed it; she would have placed her entire life savings on that bet. Some people were still grumbling when Tsunade entered the room.
She looked at them with a serious face. "Hello, everyone. I am certain that most of you have figured out why we are gathered here today. I have decided to step down as Hokage."
Sakura's jaw dropped in astonishment. She thought Tsunade would have warned her of all people. But she was one of the few who hadn't seen it coming as there were quite a few jonins who were nodding their heads in understanding like Shikamaru.
Tsunade smiled in approval. "I've already chosen my successor to make this easy on all of us. Get up here, Kakashi."
Kakashi stepped forward from the crowd and made his way to the front.
"So that's why you're on time!" grumbled Yamato.
Kakashi turned to face the room, his hands placed casually in his pockets as if he had not been nominated for one of the most powerful positions in the world. It would have been a very respectable scene if it weren't for the bet money that was bulging obscenely out of his pockets.
"I know that most of you have worked with him and I am certain that most of you saw this coming." Tsunade rolled her eyes. "However, I've been told that the jonin vote is a noble tradition and is required for the post to be official."
"What about Uzumaki?" said a man whose face was heavily bandaged. "I thought it was his dream to become Hokage." Sakura noticed that this man's pockets were clearly empty and wondered how much Kakashi had conned out of him.
Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "You tell the brat to abandon his post along the border and come here for some paperwork and see how long that lasts." There were a few chuckles and she continued. "I've already set out invitations for a party. So raise your hands to approve Hatake and we'll celebrate with a festival for the rest of the week. There's nothing like alcohol to soothe the loss of a bet."
"She would know," muttered Shikamaru.
Sakura groaned as she recalled her bet with Kakashi, undoubtedly there would be some sort of dance during the festival. She would have to dance with him twice in one month! She slapped her hand to her face as she recalled Lord Ehime's obscure statements. They had both known that Kakashi would take the post of Hokage by the end of July.
She felt an elbow dig into her side as Tenten poked her. "Sakura!"
"What?" she hissed back, annoyed by Tenten's rude interruption to her thoughts.
Sakura heard Tsunade clear her throat. "Well, that is it. Hatake is the new Hokage of Konoha with a final vote of seventy-three to one." The annoyance from her voice was unmistakable.
Sakura felt the blood drain from her face as some of the jonin turned to her. She had been so preoccupied with her thoughts she hadn't paid attention to the vote, making her the lone voice of dissatisfaction.
"Oh crap," she muttered.
Sakura looked up to the front to see Tsunade was frowning at her unhappily. It was a look that promised swift and painful retribution of some kind. Kakashi was nonplussed; clearly he knew the thoughts that left her so distracted. He chose to give her a cheeky wink, unseen by the crowd of jonin who were too busy staring at her.
A howl of disappointment broke the uneasy silence, an unnaturally masculine wail.
"Sakura, how could you? He was your teacher!" Gai questioned as the tears streamed down his face.