Sakura could feel the pair of bright blue eyes that were focused on her with such intensity, it was a miracle they weren't boring into her skull. She did her best to ignore the stare but it wasn't long before she cracked under pressure.
"Aagh! What is it, Ino?"
"You think you are such a smooth criminal, don't you?"
"I came home last night from my mission to find out that someone had been in my apartment and messed with my stuff. And on the bathroom sink, I found strands of pink hair." Ino narrowed her eyes. "You broke into my apartment and took my new shoes. I haven't even had a chance to wear them yet, I was saving them for a special occasion," she said with a pout, "or at least for this Saturday."
Sakura sighed as she set down the wedding plans. She went to Ino's apartment the other day because it was closer to the Hokage Tower and she didn't want to keep Norio waiting in Kakashi's office. The chakra she had expended when she worked on Kakashi's eye had left her with a huge appetite. It made more sense to use Ino's apartment since she was already in possession of the spare key.
"I have your shoes at home," Sakura said. "I promise I will give them back to you."
Ino waved her hand dismissively. "Don't bother to return them. I am sure that you stretched them beyond repair with your enormous feet."
"Ino!" Sakura's pencil snapped in her hand, offended by her friend's words.
"I'm surprised that you even noticed my shoes. You normally have such horrible taste in clothing." Ino wrinkled her nose in distaste. "They were sexy and you don't have a sense of style. If I had to give it a name; I would call it 'Mom-wear.' I was certain you would start wearing granny dresses by next year."
"I wear what is practical," replied Sakura in an unrepentant tone. It was hard not to be offended, even though she knew Ino was being vicious because she mourned the loss of her shoes. "I spend most of my time in a lab and when I go home, I want to prop up my feet and not wear silly heels."
"Your style has gotten a little better lately. I've noticed you have taken more care in your appearance ever since Kakashi came back." Ino tapped a finger to her chin in thought. "Now that I think of it, the two of you have been spending an awful lot of time with him."
"I… that's not true." Sakura wiggled in her chair. Her change in appearance was a mere coincidence to Kakashi's arrival. It was not a subconscious effort to draw his attention. Nor was it a conscious effort, she corrected in her mind. It was a coincidence.
But Sakura's words were lost on Ino, and she continued to ramble. "And then you were hanging around him when he became Hokage. You know, he looks amazing in black. When I was getting a mission last week I noticed that you can see the outline of his muscles when he reaches up for that top shelf. That was a view you couldn't see when he wore the jonin uniform. And… ooooh!" Ino gave a furtive giggle in her hand. "I see what's going on."
Oh no. Sakura began to panic as her friend gave her a coy look. "Ino, it's not what you think."
"Oh, that's exactly what I think!" She gave a smug smile. "That's why you were so defensive of Kakashi. I thought it was a little suspicious. You two knew each other well enough, but I didn't think you were close enough to know so much about his personal life. You were trying to keep him and his fabulous style to yourself!" Ino waggled a finger.
"The Hokage is such a brave man to take on a fashion disaster like you. But I suppose if anyone is able to do it, it would be a gay man."
At any other time, she would have leaped to Kakashi's defense, but that meant Ino would sniff around for another explanation. Her best friend had always been rather good at wrenching the truth out of her, and Sakura couldn't risk it.
"I would appreciate it if you kept this to yourself, Ino."
"I'm your best friend, aren't I?" Ino flung arm around Sakura's shoulders and gave her a small hug. "I understand that you want to keep the truth of your horrible fashion sense a secret from your betrothed."
"Anything for you, Sakura. Now, let's get down to the details. How is he?"
Sakura looked at Ino in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean," replied her friend as she leaned over closer. "Have you slept with Norio yet?"
Sakura scowled. "We barely know each other and he's nobility. It would be improper."
"I'm concerned about your well-being. Part of that concern means I have to make certain that the man you are going to marry is good enough for you," replied Ino in a professional voice. "You should be spending time with Norio instead of me."
Sakura lifted up the heavy envelope that sat on the table. "I have a wedding to plan."
"Go spend some time with him," Ino said as she snatched the envelope out of Sakura's hand. "You need to make certain that this wedding is even necessary before you finish the plans."
"Fine." Sakura stood up and grabbed her bag that was sitting in the empty chair of the restaurant. "I'm going to marry him, you know."
Ino gave a tight smile. "You still have six months to change your mind."
Sakura rolled her eyes as she left the restaurant. There was no way this wedding was going to be called off. She wouldn't allow it.
Yamato could hear the whispers as he approached the table, and became wary when they were silenced as he reached hearing distance.
"What is going on?" he said as he flicked through the messages that were in his mailbox. Shizune shared a secretive glance with Kurenai, while Anko stared at him without shame.
"Are you Hatake's lover?" she asked. Yamato saw Shizune plunge her head in her hands in shame as his own jaw dropped open.
Anko examined him with narrowed eyes as she leaned over to Kurenai. "He stuttered. I think that is a sign of guilt."
"I am not his lover!" Yamato said with more vehemence. "What is more, I don't see why this rumor has become so important to everyone in the village."
"We've never seen him get laid, that's why," replied Anko. "For all of the porn he carries, I've never seen him make a pass at anyone, woman or man."
"He dated Kasumi," replied Kurenai. "I think that counts for something."
Anko rolled her eyes. "Puh-leez. It would have been impossible to drink all of the alcohol she downed at the celebration. Some of the stuff she drank would have taken out the Kyuubi, much less all of it combined. I've searched for her in all of the Bingo Books and I haven't found a single mention of her. I think she was some sort of genjutsu or something. I don't think she even exists."
Her smile became predatory as she looked at Yamato. "You, on the other hand, I know you're real. And you are always so keen to… follow him."
Yamato scowled. "I've seen Kasumi several times in Mist. She's real enough. I shouldn't be surprised that you are spreading this ridiculous idea. I, for one, believe the Hokage's sexuality is none of your business. It does not affect his standing as our leader; nor does it matter of he is gay or straight. But he is not my lover, nor is he gay."
The three women stared at him.
"Put me down as a 'yes,' Anko," said Shizune. "He was a little too defensive for me to believe him."
Yamato huffed in impatience as Anko pulled out a clipboard. Feeling unwanted, he left the room in search of some peace and quiet. He found a shady spot under a nearby tree and began to go through his mail once more. At the bottom of the stack was a report from along the border. He opened the envelope and gave it a cursory glance. Sighing to himself, Yamato tucked the report back inside the envelope and made his way to the Hokage Tower. But after a few steps, he had the distinct feeling that he was being watched. He turned around, but there was nothing suspicious around him. But when he looked a bit higher, he saw the three women peering out at him from the window above. Kurenai and Shizune vanished deeper in the room when they saw he noticed them. Anko, on the other hand, proceeded to open the window.
"Have fun at the Hokage Tower, Yamato," she called out as she waved her hands in a suggestive manner.
Yamato felt his face turn red as he turned around and walked away. It was unfair that she was treating him in such a manner, especially since he had some private information concerning Anko that he had been keeping from the public. He made a little note himself to take an embarrassing photograph of her the next time they were on a mission together.
Yamato shuffled the reports in his hands as he made his way up the stairs to the Hokage's office. Naruto nor any of the other teams that had been situated along the border had yet to see any sign of Sasuke. It was unsurprising news, but unfortunate. He found that the Hokage grew impatient with the lack of progress and would not be pleased. He knocked on the door to the Hokage's office and twisted the handle. As the door opened, he could hear a shrill giggle.
"Oh, Norio! You are sooo funny! Don't you think he is funny, Kakashi?"
"Hilarious," replied the Hokage in a bored tone.
Yamato stared at the scene before him in amazement. Norio Ehime was sitting in a chair and Sakura was sitting on the armrest, her hands going over his hair in affection. Kakashi was sitting at his desk across the room, a hand propped up to hold his chin. Instinct was telling Yamato he had come across a very unpleasant situation and he should leave before it was too late. He began to shut the door.
"Come in, Tenzou," said Kakashi.
Damn. Kakashi had broken the habit of calling him Tenzou years ago. The only time the name was ever spoken was when Kakashi's mind was occupied with other matters. Yamato poked his head through the crack in the door and gave a polite smile. "I can return at a later time."
"No, I insist that you stay," replied the Hokage in a cheerful voice.
The feeling of dread in Yamato grew. Kakashi's good mood translated into off-beat comments and dry humor, nothing that could be considered charming. Pleasantry meant Kakashi was trying to cover-up his true feelings of anger. The situation was worse than he thought. He entered the room with his body tense, ready to flee the room at the soonest opportunity.
"Norio, this is one of the village's top ninja, Yamato."
"I thought you said his name was Tenzou? Or is that your pet name for him?" Norio inquired in a sly tone.
Yamato closed his eyes, determined to remain impassive. He wondered what horrible deed he had done to merit this day. His misery intensified when Sakura gave a shrill giggle.
Kakashi ignored the insinuation as he turned back to Yamato. "What do you have in your hands?"
"I received the reports back from the border," replied Yamato, as he tossed aside his own indignation. "I suspected you would want to hear about it as soon as possible."
Sakura stood up from the armrest. "From the border? Does that mean Naruto wrote something? What does it say?"
"I'm afraid I need some privacy for this matter." Kakashi stood up and made his way around the desk to usher Norio and Sakura out. "You and your boy-toy will have to leave the room."
Sakura turned to Yamato, her eyes pleading. "Can't you tell me what it says?"
Glancing over her shoulder, he saw Kakashi and Norio locked in a staring battle. "Ah… I'm afraid that's classified information, Sakura."
Norio blinked first, then shook his hand and walked to Sakura's side. "It does not matter. Let the Hokage and his subordinate take care of matters. There is much to this village you have yet to show me."
Sakura was pouting as he led her away to the hallway. No sooner had the door clicked shut that Kakashi began to verbalize his anger.
"Did you see that? Can you believe his nerve? Norio walks into my village, sits in my chair and treats her like that." He shook his head as he began to pace the room.
"Pardon me, Hokage-sama, but I do not see what is so distressing."
"He treats Sakura like a pet. Like she is some sort of exotic animal that needs to be handled with care and guided. And the worst part is that she lets him ."
Yamato kept his mouth shut as Kakashi muttered out loud. He was at a loss on why the matter was so important. Kakashi stopped pacing and rubbed a hand over his hair.
"I apologize. Those two have been in my office for over two hours and during that whole time, she was making that terrible noise. I thought she stopped laughing that way when she was twelve." He sighed. "Has there been any progress at the border?"
"I'm afraid not, Hokage-sama."
"I thought as much." Kakashi rubbed his neck. "It doesn't matter. I have Kasumi looking at the border towns in Mist. If Sasuke is hiding there, she'll be able to find him."
Yamato hesitated before he asked his question. "Why is it so important to find him now? Has he done something more?"
Kakashi nodded. "I think he's become mentally unstable. The villages were content to leave him alone, but he's taken to attacking innocent people with little provocation. We have six months to find him and eliminate the problem."
"And what happens if we fail?"
Kakashi cleared his throat. "The other four great nations are considering cutting off trade with us. That would be devastating for our entire country, not just the village." He looked at Yamato. "We have very little time. Let's try to end the situation soon."
He looked out the window to see the bustling crowds below. Kakashi could not see the small pink dot of Sakura's hair, but he knew she was down there somewhere, walking with her hand in Norio's. There was no doubt that she was following his lead as she had done this entire week. Part of him wanted to throttle the girl with frustration, uncertain why his Sakura had vanished into such a submissive role. It had been like that the whole week, and Kakashi was on the verge of losing his mind. She hadn't been so annoying during their trip to Snow Country; her screeching laughter and blatant pandering were limited. Something had occurred to make her so desperate in the recent weeks.
"I think I'm going to call it a day," he said to Yamato. "Can you give me the reports? I'd like to look over them myself."
Yamato handed over the envelope. "I should warn you that Naruto writes about grass for three pages."
Kakashi took out several more reports from his desk and added Yamato's file at the top. "He always does."
He and Yamato walked out of the office, splitting ways in the hall. He nodded at the ANBU standing guard as he entered his home and flicked on the lights. It was still early in the day, but he didn't want to see any more people. Two hours straight of her laugh had given him a pounding headache. If Sakura knew her false mirth was comparable to the pain that his Sharingan gave him, she would have been mortified. But that meant he would have to get her alone when she wasn't being a simpering idiot, and that wasn't happening right now.
He set the reports down on the coffee table and went to his refrigerator. He wasn't hungry; the couple who had visited his office had killed his appetite. Instead, he pulled out a bottle of juice and took it with him to the couch. He had brought reports from the border. The Mizukage and Kazekage had been kind enough to forward some observations of their own. Kakashi studied all three in tandem, hoping to discover some link to the bizarre attacks so that he could-
Sakura had been caressing Norio's hair.
The unbidden thought came to his mind and distracted Kakashi. His hand tightened around the bottle of juice and he could feel it begin to crack in his grip. Shaking his head, he dismissed the thought. There was little he could do about the matter that he hadn't already done. It would be easy for Sakura to end the marriage, but she was being stubborn. He would simply have to wait it out like he always did.
Kakashi awoke to a familiar knock on his door, his mouth dry and a sore neck from his awkward sleeping position. He had not intended to fall asleep in the living room.
The hesitant knock came once more and Kakashi made his way to the door with little enthusiasm. He had yet to have a visit during the middle of the night that held any importance. His gut told him he should ignore it, but he trundled over to the door anyway. Kakashi opened it and looked at the familiar porcelain mask.
"Forgive the intrusion, Hokage-sama, but there is a visitor here to see you." There was little enthusiasm in the voice, and Kakashi suspected that the guard derived as much pleasure from knocking as he did answering the door.
"Send her away. I didn't ask for her to be here and everything else can wait."
The ANBU guard's voice became distressed. "Hokage-sama…it's not a female."
Kakashi felt the lingering headache intensify. "Fine. Let's get this over with." The guard disappeared into the hallway and Kakashi swore under his breath.
When the guard came back he was followed by a tall figure. Kakashi couldn't recognize the man in the shadowy darkness and he was beyond caring.
"Hokage-sama, sorry to intrude at this time of night but there were a couple of things I wanted to talk to you about. I've heard rumors-"
"Be quiet, Ebisu," Kakashi ground out when he recognized the visitor. There was no reason for the jonin to be here. He didn't know if Ebisu was straight, gay, or bisexual, but he knew there was no way he would have been knocking at Kakashi's door in the middle of the night of his own volition. Ebisu was a person whose sexuality could be described, generously, as repressed. It meant there was someone putting him up to knocking on his door in the middle of the night.
Kakashi was not in a mood to humor this speculation anymore. His awkward sleeping position had given him a headache and his mouth was dry. He had spent the earlier part of the day watching his cousin canoodle with his Sakura. Tenzou's report had rattled him and he was sick of his lack of control. All he wanted to do was crawl into his bed, hibernate, and wake up to find Sakura had called off the wedding. Since that was unlikely, he would have to take out his frustration in another place.
"Did someone put you up to this?"
Ebisu coughed into his hand and pushed up his glasses. "Yes, Hokage-sama."
Kakashi made his way down the hallway to the exit. He heard the ANBU give an unhappy moan and Ebisu's sharp intake of breath. Kakashi twisted the doorknob and flung open the door to see a small crowd waiting. He heard some of them swear in surprise.
Kakashi gave them a stern look as he began to speak. "All of you should be ashamed of yourselves. I thought you knew me better enough to be obsessed by this ridiculous rumor and I thought you all would have more lives than to be here in the middle of the night." Kakashi saw some of them bow their heads' in embarrassment.
"And you," he pointed to Kiba, "If I hear of one more rumor started from your mouth, I will make you in charge of washing the ANBU uniforms for a year." Kiba squirmed as he gave a guilty nod.
"Excellent. Go home and get some sleep." He saw the crowd disperse, some of them slipping money into each other's hands as they went on home. Kakashi made his way back to the building door, where the ANBU guard held the door open. He ignored the invitation, and grabbed a firm hold of the guard's vest.
"I never want to be interrupted in my sleep for such a ridiculous reason again," he hissed. "The next time you knock at my door, it had better be important. Someone better be dying, or an invasion, or something else of that nature. If not, I'm going to rip out every strand of your hair, and I'm not talking just about the ones on top of your head."
"You don't mean…"
"Yes," said Kakashi in the most vicious voice possible. "That includes your eyebrows."
Rock Lee let out a moan of dismay as Kakashi let him go and slammed the door shut.
Norio had only visited Konoha one time before, at a time when the village was hit by a massive invasion that incapacitated the fifth Hokage. He would never forget the gigantic mass of rubble that was piled under the Hokage Mountain. He was astonished to see the vast change that occurred in the four years since. Any trace of devastation had disappeared among the throngs of the crowd and the festive atmosphere. He had arrived at the village alone, riding on a horse and packed lightly. He was not arriving to conduct business or to show off his wealth.
No he was here for Sakura, to gaze up on her face once more before the winter months settled and he would be shut in the Estate until the spring arrived. It would be then that he could make Sakura his wife. He was pleased to see the crowds in the village. He had not liked the idea of her stuck in a ravaged village.
Norio assumed that she was delighted by his surprise visit to her. Despite her stiff demeanor when he had kissed her that first day, she had been warm and kind the rest of the week. She even invited him to her work, so that he could see firsthand how she had gained her reputation as a kunoichi.
He gave a polite nod to all of the nurses that peeked around the corners of the hospital.
Sakura looped her arm around his and she led him down the hallways that smelled strongly of antiseptic. Norio kept his head firmly in his pocket, refusing to submit to the urge to rub his nose. He walked down the stairs where she led him to her office, listening vaguely as she explained her work, where she was responsible for the creation of antidotes, serums and antibiotics. He paused at the door, catching sight of his reflection in the glass pane.
"I look horrible," he muttered, holding a hand to his face.
Sakura giggled as she tugged his arm. "It's the lights, they make everyone look dead. Imagine what the cadavers look like."
"I wish you would not make jokes like that. It is not very funny." Norio frowned as he looked around the lab, where glass tubes sat on shelves and petri dishes were stacked with careful labels. He did not like the thought of Sakura standing over a dead body, her hand inside a chest cavity.
Sakura's smile faded lightly. "Oh. Okay."
She spoke to him as she showed him the lab, her dulcet tones washing over his ears like poetry. Strange beguiling words that held no meaning came from her lips but he could see her love and passion and it took everything he had not to kiss her right there.
Sakura flushed. "Are you listening to me?"
"What lips are those that can utter such wonderment?"
Her mouth curved again into a smile and the urge became stronger. He needed a distraction. "Is it time to eat?"
She nodded and they made their way out of the deep caves and into the village. They settled into a booth, savoring the foods from each other's plate. Norio enjoyed the laughter that left her mouth, delicate and high, a sound that overwhelmed the sound of the dull crowd.
"I should get going; there is work to be done."
"Stay." He tried to persuade her, his hand caressing her wrist. "There are others who can cover for you."
"I need to go. I missed part of the day earlier this week so I can't afford anymore."
He stayed at the table for a few minutes longer, watching her walk away from the restaurant window. He did not notice the man who slid into his booth until a moment later.
"Who are you?" The stranger was a Konoha ninja, young and tall with fair hair. His most distinctive feature was the scar around his neck that crawled up the side and vanished into his hair. He rubbed at his chin, surveying Norio before answering the question.
"They say you're going to marry her. I thought you should know something important about Sakura Haruno." He leaned across the table, looking at Norio with a completely sober face. "Everything about her is a lie."
Norio frowned at the unwelcome guest. "I suggest you leave. Your presence is unasked for and unwanted."
"Sakura calls out another man's name in the middle of the night. Have you noticed that?" The stranger set his drink on the table.
"How would you know?" Norio was struck by the stranger's tone and bold demeanor.
"I was her boyfriend and it was the worst mistake I ever made. It was bad enough that I was attacked by that traitorous former teammate of hers." He held up a hand to point to the scar along his neck. "And she didn't even help me out when she arrived. She just cried into his arms. If it weren't for Uzumaki, I'd be dead."
"Then she didn't even heal the wound right." He gave a sarcastic laugh. "And they say she's one of the best. When I heard her mumbling another man's name in my bed, I had had it. Don't be fooled by her. Some of the things that you love about her are the exact things she will use to screw you over."
The stranger shook his head. "You're the future leader of Land of Fire. The last thing I want for you is to be humiliated by a pretty face."
Intrigued, Norio poured the man another cup.