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Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Complicated Engagement

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

A/N: This is a stab at humor and light-hearted material than what I usually write and as such I've changed a few details (e.g. such as avoiding any mention of Sasuke).While this may render the story less "realistic," I thought that anything regarding Sasuke would dampen an otherwise fluffy-one shot. This decision was made by my own discretion and not because of any anti-character sentiments. For those of you who are familiar with an atrocious story I wrote that started with a "B": yes, this was the last chapter of that. Call it "recycling." :)
A Complicated Engagement
Author: Ceras Gala

7:05 AM, March 14 --

When Tsunade woke on a late-spring day, she greeted the sun and sky with a scowl.

She even turned away from her likeness carved onto Hokage Mountain as if annoyed with it and when her maid came with her morning-meal, she dismissed the serving girl with a grunt. There were a number of reasons that could’ve been attributed to Godaime’s foul mood: hangover, loads of paperwork, possible meetings she didn’t want to attend to, etc. But no, none of them were the true cause.

It was in fact: age.

Now of course, everyone who knew the Hokage would’ve laughed at this considering that the woman retained the youthful appearance of a twenty-year old. But alas, it was not beauty that was Tsunade’s concern. Rather, it was the fact that she really was too…

...old…

...to be Hokage anymore.

The issue that bothered Tsunade so much was this: it was time for a Sixth to be appointed, the Elders had declared. However young and fit Tsunade looked, the fact that her cells were aging did not change the slightest. She was sixty-two years old, the Elders grumbled, and it was high-time for a new Hokage to step up and take the reins. Her one-time use of her regeneration jutsu had cut some ten or more years of her life. Who knew what would happen?

Of course, when asked to name a successor, Tsunade flatly refused.

But the Elders didn’t give up.

After a decade of persistent nagging, grumbling, and several shouting matches, the Fifth finally threw up her hands and acquiesced. Eight months were then spent to search and debate over possible candidates.

It was on this spring day that Tsunade was to attend a Council meeting with the Elders to appoint her new successor. So when she arrived (late) to the Council Room, she found the Elders impatient and cranky. But when she began to speak, their attentions were directed to her alone though they fervently wondered in the back of their heads who the next heir would be. So naturally, as the Elders leaned back in their fine chairs, they thought that Tsunade was sure to select one of the First Rank ANBU captains that they had feted as their favorite.

But when was Tsunade the one to follow the mainstream?

So when she announced her successor’s name, the Elders suddenly felt ten years worth of complaints had been a complete waste.

“You’re not serious…” The Second Elder stonily stared at the Fifth.

“I am.” Tsunade answered, pleased to see the Elders all squirm in their chairs.

There was a long, uncomfortable pause.

“He’s a Jinchuriki” An Elder said, pronouncing the old prejudice aloud.

“And despite his achievements,” another Elder added, “he is an impulsive man. He acts on what his heart tells him, not his mind. He’ll struggle with a Hokage’s duties—“

“I assure you, he’s more than capable.” Tsunade interrupted, giving the Elders a hard gaze.

“But we must question the impartiality of your choice.” Another Elder replied. “You’ve exhibited a kind of favoritism toward him over the years which we feel has negatively influenced your decision—“

He was interrupted when the Fifth slid several crisp files across the table to him.

“You’ll find,” she said, “the information of all the prospective candidates we selected on the basis of merit, skill, and other ‘noteworthy qualities.’ You tell me after reading those files which one stood out from the rest.”

“Military skills aren’t the only requirement to be a Hokage,” the Second Elder silkily replied, refusing to touch the manila folders although his fellow members reached out for them.

Tsunade's eyebrows rose.

“When this Village was founded, my grandfather and great-uncle were not politicians. They were military men who knew how to defend and acquire their territory well. They chose the Third primarily for his martial skills.”

“That was then,” the Second Elder snapped, “this is now. If this Jinchuriki really is as capable as you say, does he understand the political duties he has to fulfill?”

“It’s only been recently that we’ve implemented diplomacy with other countries rather than sparking combat. My successor may not have an outstanding background in politics but neither do the other candidates,” Tsunade went on, ignoring the Second. “What’s more is that the Sixth can learn.” She crossed her arms. “Just as I had to, when I was chosen as the Fifth.”

“I’d rather have a seasoned ninja for this—“

“The power to appoint a new Hokage resides in the current leader, not the Council.” Tsunade coolly interrupted. “May I also remind you, Elder, that when Yondaime was twenty-three and barely had any political experience when he was chosen.”

“That was a special case.” The Third Elder said, coming to the Second Elder’s rescue. "Namikaze-sama exhibited extraordinary talent and skill—he was the best! The Third would’ve been a fool not to appoint him as Hokage—“

“Yes, because the Fourth managed to win a war with a dozen kunai instead of using a treaty.” Tsunade coolly interjected. “But aren’t we in agreement, after looking at my successor’s file, that his accomplishments are nearly equal or better than the Fourth’s?”

When the Elders said nothing to counter this, she went on:

“All our candidates have excellent military reputations. But few are flexible or open-minded enough to teach them how problems need to be solved these days. We all saw this during the interviews we held—“

“And you think,” the Second Elder snorted, “that he will listen to you?”

“He has wanted this chance for as long as I can remember. He knows full well what’s to be expected of him and will do anything to ensure the Village’s safety.” Tsunade confidently replied.

“A cavalier statement,” the Second Elder flatly remarked, “and yet I think you chose the worst possible man to be Hokage.”

“You mistrust my judgment?” Tsunade asked, leveling her eyes with the old man’s dust-colored ones.

“On this, I do.” The Second Elder scowled. “Your successor is impetuous—”

“Headstrong.” Tsunade interrupted.

“A mere amateur—“

“—a First-Rank ANBU captain.”

“Not to mention he has no notable connections—“

“—the son of a previous Hokage and a Sannin’s student.”

The Second Elder glowered, his face turning into an ugly shade of red as every one of his arguments were countered. "Do you honestly think I'd ever support your decision in appointing a beast that could lash out at any moment--"

"Enough."

Everyone fell silent. One look at the Fifth was enough to discern that the Second Elder had crossed an invisible line.

“I don’t understand." Tsunade glared at the table. "Naruto is more than capable to take on this position. He has an excellent military reputation, lineage, and is on good terms with Kazekage and Mizukage. If anything, he is a more suitable choice than the rest of the candidates.” She paused. “I'd think rather poorly of this Council if it was to late pride and prejudice jeporadize Konoha's future by depriving it of a competent leader."

To this, the Council made no reply. All they did was gaze at her through wrinkled faces and beady eyes that had seen too much over the years they had presided as councilmen. But the Fifth did not sway from her position and after a few moments, the Elders realized that they were fighting a losing battle. Nothing could be done; they had to accept her decision. And as if knowing she had gotten her point across, the Fifth turned away to leave when—

“Unbelievable,” She heard the Second Elder say. “A Jinchuriki to lead our Village…”

Inspiration struck Tsunade on the spot. To add a last dose of subtle spite, the Fifth turned around.

“Believe it.”

With that, she slammed the door behind her, leaving the Elders blinking at a solid wall of wood and her farewell ringing in their ears.

Two weeks later

When the official banns were published and announced, no one was surprised. Most of the Village, if not everyone, had a shrewd idea that the Sixth’s name was going to start with N and end with an O. The new Hokage, in question, however had been thoroughly surprised—

No, Tsunade caught herself, not exactly.

His initial response had been…

Well…it was difficult to explain.

According to Nara Shikamaru, who was with him at the time when the announcements were made, the new Sixth sunk into a quiet, pensive mood. He seemed “unresponsive” as Shikamaru put it, even when his other friends came around to offer their felicitations. Then to everyone’s bewilderment, he simply vanished for about a week. No one—not even Sakura—could find him.

Then Tsunade, ANBU, and the Council went into a frenzy trying to look for their missing successor. The villagers on the other hand, were left in blank confusion and had to deal with the Sixth’s absence until on the seventh day, they saw a tall blonde-haired figure sauntering up to the Village gates. After the tumult of cheers, shouts, and bellows subsided, the Council members (including the Fifth) then summoned the Sixth and shouted at him for leaving the village without any notice, and shirking away from responsibility.

Where have you been?! Everyone demanded.

To this, the new Sixth gave no satisfactory explanation other than the statement that he went to Sunagakureto “deal with business” and refused to say anymore beyond that. Furious, the Council dismissed him and left his friends to grill him.

When the Sixth managed to shake them off, he was unfortunately accosted by Sakura who not only echoed the Council’s and their friends’ reprimands in a fantastic impersonation of a lion’s roar, but punched the daylights out of him and yelled before the entire village that he’d be sleeping elsewhere until her humor improved. So, after hurtling himself into a storm of tantrums and rages from all sides, the Sixth emerged from it with two dulled eardrums and a temporary eviction from his home.

It was only after several days of persistent supplications that Sakura grudgingly forgave him.

The morose and secretive man the Sixth had briefly transformed into the week prior, had suddenly vanished. All of that seemed to have evaporated when people began congratulating him in the streets and even took to calling out his new title to him.

Then he began to celebrate.

That night, the Ichiraku Ramen chef told Tsunade later, was the most profitable night he ever had in twenty years. Just how many bowls the new Sixth had consumed that night was beyond anyone’s reckoning. Yes, he had been more than excited—why shouldn’t he have been? He had wanted this for years. So it came as a nasty shock when Tsunade's successor had come into the Fifth's office and brought rather unexpected and quite unpleasant news…

“Are you serious?”

Tsunade stared incredulously at the ANBU captain standing before her desk. When he made no reply, the Fifth continued:

“You are going to miss the Council’s meeting tonight,” she said slowly as if speaking to a five-year-old, “that will outline the details and duties of a Hokage and your inauguration ceremony.” She paused to let the words sink in.

“You’re telling me that you’re not going to attend a significant council session that involves your future position as Hokagewithout giving me any explanation whatsoever—

“It’s not like that!” the ANBU captain protested behind his mask.

“Naruto!” The Fifth snapped. “Did you listen to a word I said?”

“But—“

“And take that stupid thing off!” Godaimedemanded, reaching over to grab the ANBU mask.

“Ow, ow, OW!” Naruto shouted indignantly, recoiling after Tsunade flung his mask aside.

“I can’t hear you when you talk behind it.” The Fifth retorted, sitting back in her chair. “And neither do I want your excuses. You’re going to meeting whether you like it or not—“

“But I need you to reschedule it—“

“Do I look like your secretary?!” Tsunade asked, looking highly affronted.

“But today is—“

“Naruto!”

“Tsunade-baa-chan!”

The two glared at each other.

Is there something wrong with him? Tsunade wondered. When he told her point-blank that he wasn’t going to meet with the Council, it was as if he had yanked the carpet under her feet. She didn’t understand. First, there was his sudden disappearance (which was still unexplained) and now…this incident. What was the matter with him? Here, this boy (a man now) whose favorite phrase had always been “I’m going to be Hokage one day” and whom she had relentlessly supported in spite of the Elders’ protests—was actually refusing to go to something that pertained to his new leadership?

Why?

True, she disliked going to the council discussions herself but even she had obliged to attend her session with the Elders and had dutifully gone over the preparations and outlines of what a Hokage could not do and could do, when the ceremony was to take place, where it would occur, etc. So was it fair or even right, for Naruto to miss his?

Absolutely not!

“Well don’t just stand there!” Tsunade bristled, wanting to hear his excuse and find a way to shoot it down. “Say something!”

“Today’s March 28.”

Tsunade stared at him. “And?”

“And it’s Sakura-chan’s birthday.” Naruto said, as if the answer was obvious.

“Does it look like I care?”

“Tsunade-baa-chan—“

“You’re NOT missing this meeting because of a birthday party—“

“It’s not just that—“

“Then WHAT IS IT?!” Tsunade slammed her hand on the desk in frustration.

Suddenly, she found herself staring at something in Naruto’s hand. She blinked then frowned, to think that the captain had the audacity to just thrust something in her face….

“This is why I can’t go tonight.” Naruto explained, handing the object to her, which turned out to be a tiny, black box.

Tsunade’s brows furrowed. “What is this?”

“The reason I went to Sunagakure.” came the unexpected reply.

Tsunade pointedly looked at him, looking both surprised and intrigued. Frowning, she turned her attention to the black box and opened it.

“…”

“So…” Naruto hesitantly asked again. “Can I bail out of the meeting tonight?”

“…”

He waited for her to look up from the box. “Tsunade-baa-chan?”

“…”

“Er…” Naruto blinked, seeing that the Fifth seemed to struggling to speak. For once, he had left her speechless. Finally after several moments, she cleared her throat.

“You…” She paused, looking at Naruto in disbelief. “So today is…?”

Naruto nodded.

Tsunade’s eyes hit the box. She blankly stared at the contents before snapping it shut and handing it back to Naruto.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything a week ago,” Naruto said, making her look up from her desk. It was the first time he was actually apologizing for his sudden absence and at this unexpected admission, Tsunade was once again struck dumbfounded.

“So I can I just go tomorrow? Er…please?” Naruto added quickly, seeing the look on her face. But Tsunade was silent, pursuing her lips as she weighed the present matter. This wasn’t good. She didn’t want him to miss this meeting but neither did she want to be responsible for impeding this…this…occasion. The Elders wouldn’t stand for it at all, and neither did she. But then again…she glared at Naruto, who recoiled from her desk.

“Let me make this very clear,” Tsunade said, clearing her throat as her amber eyes fastened on the terrified ANBU captain. “I will never,” placing heavy emphasis on the word, “let you get away with this kind of thing again. Do you understand me?” She paused. "I suppose I can persuade the Elders--"

“Really?!” Naruto burst out with a huge grin, before instantly sobering up at Tsunade’s glare.

The Fifth leaned back in her chair, not letting Naruto escape her gaze. “...I’m guessing you’re going to a restaurant?”

“Yeah, about that,” Naruto’s hand immediately went to his blonde hair as he nervously laughed. “Well, I’m kind of broke now since…”

“How can you be broke?” Tsunade retorted, shock fizzling into anger. “You’re an ANBU captain. Not to mention the Sixth Hokage now! Your current salary is double than that of—“ she broke off, releasing an angry sigh. Her hand curled into a fist. “And where exactly do you plan on holding her birthday?”

“Well, I was thinking Ichiraku—” He stopped when he saw Tsunade’s stony gaze.

“I mean—“ Naruto blundered on. “I got her a cake—“

Without warning, Tsunade yanked the bottom drawer of her desk. A second later, she threw a packet of what appeared to contain crisply folded ryuu to his chest.

“Make reservations at a decent place.” Godaime haughtily ordered as Naruto caught it with his hands. “Spend it on anything but Ichiraku ramen.” She sat back in her chair. “And use it wisely—that’s a bit of my salary in you have, right there.”

Naruto gaped at the Fifth.

“And get flowers.” Tsunade continued, acting with a kind of indifferent mien as if she just hadn’t given Naruto a generous sum of money. “I’d tell you what her favorites are but I don’t know. You could ask Shizune, she might have an idea.”

“But,” Naruto said weakly, holding the neat packet. “There’s got to be like—“

“Why are you complaining?” Tsunade asked icily. “You’ve always bothered me about giving you a raise—“

“I’m not!”

“Then leave me in peace!” Tsunade scowled, imperiously gesturing to the doors. “Now get out. I have a lot of work to do, thanks to you.”

“No you don’t. You take your sake break at this hour—

“OUT!”

“Okay, okay,” Naruto nervously backed away. His hands groped for the doorknobs. “But thanks…Tsunade-baa-chan…a lot…” He turned to go when—

“Naruto.”

He looked back.

The surly expression on the Fifth’s face was gone and replaced by a grin that seemed to reach from her lips to her honey-amber eyes.

“Good luck.”

Now, it was Naruto’s turn to smile. “Thanks but, I don’t think I’ll need it.”

For a fleeting instant, Tsunade thought she saw a triumphant gleam in his eyes but before she could look at it more closely, he was already gone.

“Tsh” Tsunade sighed after him, watching the doors close. “That little, arrogant prick…”

For a long time, she sat in her chair, staring after the double doors where Naruto had passed through. All the while, her mind kept flashing back to that tiny box he had handed to her and the glimmering contents.

“Shizune!”

There was silence until Tsunade heard the tell-tale patter of footsteps and a moment later, her assistant stepped into the office.

“Tsunade-sama?” Shizune greeted, closing the doors behind her. Her dark eyes swept over the office and settled on Naruto’s forgotten mask on the floor. “Oh...did the meeting not go well?”

“Hmph!” Tsunade crossed her arms, unsure of how to exactly describe what had just happened.

“Did he ask to accompany Sakura on her missions again?” Shizune warily asked, observing the Fifth’s expression. “I’ve told him not to bother you with that but he just doesn’t listen.”

“What do you think?” Tsunade asked.

Shizune paused.

It had turned into a custom: Naruto constantly visiting the Fifth’s Office and pester Tsunade, asking if he could accompany Sakura on her mission or if he could do it himself instead of having Sakura be sent (provided he had a good excuse, which in almost all cases, he didn’t). The reason for this behavior was excessive concern combined with his “over-protectiveness.”

Quite frankly, Shizune should’ve been used to hearing Naruto beleaguer Tsunade but somehow, she was always amused whenever she glimpsed him down the hallway and burst into the Fifth’s office and hear him make his usual demands…

“Besides,” she heard Tsunade say, breaking her thoughts. “You’re the one who keeps informing Naruto what and where Sakura’s missions are.”

Shizune colored. “Well…that’s…” She sputtered. “I mean it’s just…”

“I know, I know,” Tsunade waved her hand impatiently. She straightened a little in her chair. “In any case, no, Naruto didn’t come in asking about Sakura. But I do have several things I need you to do.”

“Yes?” Shizune straightened a little.

“Tell the Elders that the session with the Sixth will have to be postponed till tomorrow evening.”

Shizune blinked. “Eh? But it’s supposed to be—“

“You may tell them that Rokudaime needs to oversee an extremely important matter tonight and will be unable to attend,” Tsunade overrode, before briefly pausing.“Shizune…is Sakura scheduled to leave for any missions tomorrow?”

“Ah…” Shizune frowned, unsure. “I can check—“

“If she is, I want you to find another medic to take her place.”

Shizune looked surprised.

“Sakura can have a couple days off.” Tsunade went on.

Her assistant blinked, confused. “And may I ask what brought on this leniency?”

Then as if to add to her bewilderment, she saw Godaime’spainted lips curve into a smile. “Just do as I say.”

Somewhere in Konoha, at – District, in – Restaurant

“I’d like to reserve a table for two, please.” Naruto requested to a young hostess, as the concierge slid the bamboo screens to a close behind him. Above them was a high vaulted ceiling upholstered in wine red and snow white silk. Sconces of lights glittered all around the walls while behind the hostess’s stand he glimpsed rich tablecloths swept over fine tables and waiters walking around in smart black jackets.

Some place…Naruto thought, feeling odd and slightly nervous. Personally, he felt that Ichiraku was a much more comfortable place to eat but since tonight was a special occasion, he was willing to lay aside his preferences for Sakura’s sake. Besides, this restaurant didn’t look that bad at all. It was very nice. Fancy enough for a girl’s liking, Naruto supposed.

“Of course,” Naruto heard the hostess say, grabbing a pen and opening her organizer. “And what name will the reservation be under?”

“Uzumaki Naruto.”

The girl looked up in surprise. “Rokudaime-Hokage?”

“Yeah,” Naruto grinned. Even after several weeks of accepting the appointment, he had yet to adjust to the fact that people were now addressing him in such a way.

“Oh…” The girl knowingly trailed off. A strange smile played on her lips as she scanned down the pages. “And I suppose your guest must be Haruno Sakura?”

“That’s right.” Naruto proudly answered, oblivious to how a complete stranger knew about his personal relationship.

“Ah,” the pen scribbled the names with a flourish. “You’ve been dating her for quite a while, haven’t you, Hokage-sama?”

“Uh, yeah…” Naruto sheepishly admitted as the hostess laughed at his pinking cheeks.

“Well then,” her pen paused, “is it true?”

Naruto blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Isn’t it true?” The hostess slyly repeated, watching the Sixth’s face very closely to see any indication of an answer.

“Er…” Naruto blinked again, bewildered by the hostess’s bizarre question and manner.

“There have been several rumors flying about,” she smilingly said, her eyes never leaving the Sixth’s face. “I heard, according to a very close friend of yours, that you’re planning quite a surprise for Haruno-san.”

Naruto frowned, a nasty feeling creeping into him.

“Have you been looking into any jewelry stores, recently, Hokage-sama?” The hostess sweetly asked, determined to unmask whatever he was hiding. “Did you by chance, purchase—“

“What times do you have available?” Naruto cut in before she could say anymore. All the while, his head was racing through a list of names and faces, trying to find the likely culprit for this gossip—

“Right…” The hostess replied, turning back to her organizer. “Well, we have several spots open. What time will you and the future Mrs. Uzumaki like to arrive?”

Naruto paused, unsure how to answer her.

“Seven?” The hostess suggested.

“..Okay.” Naruto replied hesitantly.

“Any other services you’d like to requestHokage-sama?”

“No, thank you.”

“Surely the staff could do something to make the night a little more special.” The hostess entreated, getting back on her game. “After all, it’s not everyday we get such a prestigious and memorable occasion to happen here—”

“Thanks” Naruto interrupted once again, swiftly turning around to leave.

“We’ll be expecting you tonight, Hokage-sama!” The hostess called after him just as the Sixth exited the restaurant. As soon as the double doors were closed by the concierge, the manager of the restaurant and his assistant suddenly flocked to her.

“Well?” The manager eagerly asked. “What did Hokage-sama say?”

The hostess sighed. “He neither denied nor confirmed it.”

“So it’s not true?” The assistant asked, sounding quite disappointed.

“No, no.” The hostess shook her head. “I know what I heard. That Yamanaka Ino? The other day when I was at the flower shop, she was complaining to someone that ‘Naruto has zero taste in jewelry.’ And Ino-san is supposedly Haruno-san’s close friend and if she said—”

“You based a presumption just on that?!” the assistant asked, incredulous. “What are you, stupid?”

“Eh?! Why else would Hokage-sama be so anal about picking a ring—“

“You don’t even know if it’s a ring! He probably didn’t even buy one! All you heard Ino-san say was Rokudaimehas bad taste—“

“Do you know how close Haruno-san and Hokage-sama are? Do you know how long they’ve been together? After all this time, he’s bound to—“

“Sshh! Mine-chan! You’re too loud—the customers—“

“Ah! I’m sorry, Oyabin…”

“But you’re sure?”

“Sure of what?”

“Well, is Haruno-san’s last name going to change tonight?”

There was a pause.

“Positive. I know my source is reliable.”

“Then it’s settled!” the manager declared. “I’ll have the chefs create an exclusive menu for them both and if all goes well tonight, they might even ask us to cater for future events.”

The manager and assistant then retreated further into the restaurant while the hostess resumed her duties. But none of them, it seemed, had noticed that Hokage-sama hadn’t left at all but had been listening from outside, the entire time. Disgruntled, he turned away, all the while silently cursing the very person he thought he could trust:

Damn you Ino and your big fat mouth…

7:05 PM

By the time Naruto and Sakura arrived at the restaurant, it was anything but what either of them wanted: packed and noisy. It was odd that a prestigious restaurant could have such a rowdy atmosphere and accommodate so many people. The cause was uncertain but what was worse (particularly for Naruto) was when he encountered the same hostess from this afternoon.

“We’ve been expecting you,” she preened at the couple. “Right this way…”

She gathered up their menus and escorted them to their reserved places. The trio walked past numerous tables laden with fine silverware and clusters of people, all merrily chatting away with their party. Many of them eyed the couple with bright interest and began exchanging covert whispers. Regardless, Naruto and Sakura ignored the newfound attention and looked elsewhere: at each other, the vaulted ceiling, the glittering lights. All around, they could hear buzzes of conversations mingled with ambient music. By the time they were seated, most had turned away to continue their own conversations.

“Your waiter will be with you shortly.” The hostess beamed as she handed the sleek menus to them. “And good luck, Hokage-sama.” With a wink and a turn of her heel, she sauntered away, leaving Naruto fuming and Sakura perplexed.

“ ‘Good luck Hokage-sama’ ?” Sakura repeated, looking over to Naruto.

“I think she meant the meeting I have tomorrow with the Council,” Naruto lied, “Remember?”

“Oh…right.”

“Yeah.” Naruto nodded. Breathe, breathe…she didn’t notice anything…

“Well then, let’s see what we should get.” Sakura grinned at him, flipping the menu open. The light of the paper reflected off her face, giving it a kind of glow that powder couldn’t emulate. Tonight, she had fashionably tied her hair back and discarded the standard Konoha uniform for a stylish dress. It was a welcome change of appearance although, Naruto had to admit, he preferred her to be naked in his bed. But before he could get himself groggy-eyed and aroused, he felt an affectionate peck on his lips.

“Thank you,” he heard as Sakura withdrew.

“For remembering my birthday,” she added with a sweet grin, turning back to the menu.

“How can I forget?” Naruto smiled, opening his own menu to scan down the items when—

“…Naruto?”

He didn’t answer, blinking at what he was seeing in front of him. In bold, elegant calligraphy, his and Sakura’s name were prettily written alongside the paper’s border and at closer inspection it seemed that the menu items all were renamed into something like: The Promise of a Lifetime cake to the Together Forever mixed drink.

“Why are our names on the borders?” Sakura asked, turning the pages in confusion.

“I have no idea.” Naruto replied stiffly, turning around to see the beaming hostess give him a thumbs up. “Maybe it’s a thing they do for customers—you know—put people’s names on the menu to make it—er—a more personal dining experience.”

Sakura peered over other tables. “I don’t see their menus written like ours…did you see the names of the meals? They’re just weird. Who came up with this—“ she stopped, looking behind him.

Naruto turned.

To his shock (and horror), a very large group of their friends were walking to a banquet table across from where he and Sakura were. Once Ino caught sight of them, she waved. The girls were simply beaming at the couple while the guys threw exasperated, if not crestfallen looks in Naruto’s direction. What he did to warrant such behavior was unclear, but it was certain that none of the young men seemed excited to be there as the girls were.

“Wow, it looks like everyone’s here.” Sakura said, perplexed as she waved back at the group.

“I noticed.” Naruto said, nonplussed.

For a moment, he expected them to come over and invite them to join their table but no one came forward. Instead, the Konoha Eleven crowded around their own table and proceeded to chat with one another. Of course at some intervals, they glanced at Naruto and Sakura with a kind of expectation on their faces, as if they were waiting for something.

“They’re staring at us…” Sakura remarked belatedly.

“Well, it’s your birthday and they probably just wanted to…you know, hang out here…with us…”

Lame, lame, lame, Naruto’s conscience berated.

“Well that’s kind of odd,” Sakura frowned, “considering that none of them really wished me a happy birthday, let alone remember it.” She added, on a surprised note.

Naruto nervously laughed but knew at once that something was off. No one remembered Sakura’s birthday? How was that possible? Ino definitely knew. Shizune probably did too. The two of them could’ve told dozens of people in between them. So how could people forget? How did they even know what restaurant to go to? He had just made the reservations today and told no one about it. Was it just coincidence that the Konoha Eleven were all here—

“May I get you a drink?”

Naruto and Sakura looked up from their menus to see a waiter standing beside their table.

“No, water’s fine for me.” Sakura said. Naruto nodded in agreement.

“Then are you ready to order, Hokage-sama? Uzu—ah—Haruno-san?” The waiter said, flustering at the last part. Naruto glared at him as if he had said an obscenity. The waiter turned red.

“Actually, we’re not ready yet.” Sakura said obliviously, her eyes back on the menu. “Can you give us a couple minutes?”

“Of course,” The waiter bowed, glad to get away from the death-stare that Naruto was giving him. When he left, the couple browsed their way through the ridiculously-titled courses and after several minutes of discussions, they ended up choosing a kaiseki meal. The dishes as such, would be for the chefs to decide.

“I just remembered,” Sakura frowned when the waiter returned to take their orders and menus away. “Did you take your medication this morning?”

“All three,” Naruto lightly replied, reaching underneath his black coat to pull out the respective bottles.

Sakura relaxed. “Good…”

“No, I didn’t forget.” Naruto said, slipping the capsules out of sight. It was a routine that he had acquired ever since he had injured his arm after testing out the newly-modified RasenganThe first year, his medication consisted of five different kinds of drugs taken at certain hours, with meals, no alcohol, etc. Gradually, the instructions changed as did the pills but the irksome task of remembering to take them remained. Terrible pain then, became punishment for forgetfulness.

“Sakura-chan.”

She looked up.

Naruto paused as his hand surreptitiously slipped into his pocket again, this time to draw out the box. “Do you remember when I went away for like a week?”

A scowl appeared on Sakura’s face. “Yes.”

“And how I didn’t explain to you why or I where I went?”

Green eyes narrowed. “Why are you reminding me of this?” Sakura asked, clearly annoyed. “Are you literally asking me to kick your ass again?”

“N—no.” Naruto stuttered. The box fell back into his pocket. “I wanted to tell you why I was—“

“—you didn’t even leave me a note! Do you have any idea how worried I—everyone—was?! We couldn’t even get a trace of your whereabouts—“

“Sakura-chan…”

“Don’t ‘Sakura-chan’ me! Tell me where you were all that time. Now.”

“I will, but—“ Naruto stopped, staring at Sakura. Her eyes were widened in complete surprise and were looking straight through him.

“What…what is it?” Naruto asked, bewildered. “Sakura-chan?”

Sakura blinked. “My…my parents are here.”

“What?”

Immediately, Naruto swiveled his head back. Sure enough, there were the Harunos being escorted to their tables. A moment later, Sakura’s mother caught sight of him then tapped her husband’s arm. The old couple beamed at Naruto and Sakura while the latter could only stare and nervously wave back.

“What are they doing here?” Sakura asked, too nonplussed to remember that she was irritated.

“Haven’t a clue.” Naruto muttered, glaring across the restaurant in Ino’s direction, thinking her to be the likely culprit. Glad that Sakura was distracted by her parents’ arrival, he seized the opportunity.

“I’ll be right back…I need to go the bathroom.”

“Wait—what—“

Too late.

Sakura turned back to her place, fuming.

With purposeful steps, Naruto strode across the restaurant to the large party that had just arrived. People followed him with their eyes again but he took no notice of them other than Ino: the big fat mouth responsible for all this. Closer and closer he approached Ino’s table where he could see her animatedly chat with Tenten. They all were finishing up their drinks; the menus were absent.

“Ino” Naruto called in a dangerous voice, causing everyone to turn around. “Just how many people did you—“

“AH! Naruto-kun!”

Instantly, Naruto felt himself be tackled and jostled by four or five different bodies.

“About time you came over to say hi!” Kiba grinned, punching Naruto’s arm. Five others comprised of Shino, Sai, Rock Lee, Shikamaru, and Choji rounded him and Naruto, shielding each other from Sakura and the other girls at their own table. Neji, who preferred not to associate himself with these kinds of gatherings, stayed behind.

“I didn’t.” Naruto scowled, looking around the crowd of guys that surrounded him. “I need to talk to Ino.” His blue eyes blazed behind Kiba’s shoulder to the girl who was frowning back at him.

“Why?”

“Because she—“ Naruto accusingly pointed at Ino. “—told the entire village that I’m—“

“Don’t you start on her!” Choji said, his eyes narrowing into slits.

“Hey, hey, we didn’t come here because Ino blabbed.” Shikamaru cut in, in a conciliatory manner. “We heard from the streets that you were planning to do it here.”

“What? That’s imposs—how did you—“

“Er…well Akamaru overheard some girls talking about it at a cafĂ©. They both worked here and said you made reservations.” Kiba shrugged. “I told Hinata then I guess she told Ino, then—"

“I get it.” Naruto cut in. Still, he was none too happy. The fact that not only his friends and Sakura’s parents for that matter were all here, expecting him to ask, the element of surprise was nearly impossible to add in at this point. Sakura was going to find out before he could even say one little word. This was not how he imagined the evening would go.

“Don’t keep us waiting.” Shino murmured behind the high collar of his coat.

“Waiting?” Naruto repeated. “For what?”

“Well,” Lee eagerly said, his bowl-cut head popping into view. “Let’s see it.”

Naruto blankly stared at them. “See what?”

“Come on, Naruto!” Kiba thumped the Sixth’s shoulder. “You can trust us.”

“Eh?”

“Don’t look so clueless.” Shikamaru said, sounding annoyed. “We know what you’re planning to do tonight.”

“What are you—“

“Look, you’re setting the standard and we’ve got to know what we’re up against.” Shikamaru impatiently replied.

“ ‘Setting the standard’ ?” Naruto repeated stupidly. “For what?”

“Show us the ring.” Shino ordered, indifferent to Naruto’s question.

Naruto stared at them. How in the hell did they know so much?

“Look, guys,” he began slowly. “I don’t know what you’re getting at but—ah—AH!”

“Got it!” Kiba yelled happily, thrusting a tiny black box in the air after tackling Naruto and blindly reaching through his pockets.

“Shit—Kiba!“ Naruto barked, whirling around but Kiba was already dancing out of his reach. Immediately, the others crowded around and a second later, the box was flipped open.

A sudden silence descended upon them as they all stared at the contents. Some two minutes of quiet must have passed before—

“Aw, crap!” Kiba scowled.

“How troublesome…” Shikamaru sighed, looking up to the ceiling in dismay.

“Is it supposed to be that…?” Choji blinked, unsure how to describe it.

“You know, I once read in a book that jewelry often reflect one’s taste,” Sai remarked, studying the box, “I guess Naruto doesn’t have any.”

Naruto resentfully glared at him.

“It’s…” Lee breathed, his black eyes dilating to the size of dinner plates. “It’s as if the flower of youth has been eternally imprisoned in sparkling shininess!”

Naruto’s mouth twitched, unsure on how to respond to the insensible comment. But the laughter faded when he realized that the six were rounding him like a pack of dogs, surveying something that they disliked.

“Can I have it back?” Naruto blinked, staring at their faces.

Kiba snapped the box shut and returned it, fuming.

“What’s wrong with you?” Naruto asked, turning from Kiba to everyone else. “Does it really look that bad? You don’t think…” Color drained from his face. “…you don’t think she won’t like it, do you?”

“Absolutely not, Naruto-kun!” Lee said loudly, his face set. “Although I must admit I am disappointed that you’re staking permanent claim on the lovely sakura flower…”

“Well it’s not like he took the best-looking girl,” Sai said, in what he thought was a consoling remark.

“What did you say?” Naruto thunderously asked.

“Calm down,” Shino warned, stopping Naruto with a firm grip on his arm. “We’re in a public place.”

“Yeah,” Kiba seconded. “But I don’t understand why you had to go all out with this whole thing: nice clothes, flashy jewelry, fancy restaurant. You’re making us look bad in front of the girls.”

“Seriously,” Shikamaru wearily sighed, running a hand through his spiky hair. “Thanks to you, Temari’s probably going to start nagging me when I’m going to give her one.”

The others chortled after him.

“Uh, right.” Naruto replied uncertainly. “But you didn’t answer my question. You think she’ll like it or not?”

“If you haven’t noticed, Naruto, we’re not Sakura.” Shikamaru rolled his eyes. “It’s not like we can read her mind, now can we?”

“I think it’s ugly.” Sai brightly commented, earning him another fantastically angry glare from Naruto.

“So,” Shino interrupted as all eyes turned on him. “when are you planning to propose?”

“I was going to do it a minute ago.” Naruto growled. “Until you all showed up—“

“—to give you moral support, man.” Kiba doggedly replied. “Hey, look: I got you a little good luck charm.” And with a flamboyant gesture of his hand, he presented Naruto with a small packet.

“Uh…thanks…” Naruto warily took the object, only to gape at it a moment later when he beheld an extremely pornographic picture of a woman, splaying her legs out and…well…

Blood rushed to his face.

“What the hell is this?” Naruto hissed.

“What d’you mean ‘what the hell is this’—it’s condoms, moron.” Kiba impatiently said. “Look, I even got you the variety pack. There’s flavored, textured, glow-in-the-dark—which are awesome by the way—“

“Will you shut up?!” Naruto hotly interrupted, practically scarlet.

“Don’t be such a prude.” Kiba dismissively answered. “How about a drink, eh? I think you need one for nerves.”

But before Naruto could reply, he turned to see that Sakura waiting at their table. She did not look happy.

“Just take it!” said Kiba, shoving the packet back into Naruto’s hands. “You know you’re going get laid tonight.”

“Lucky bastard,” Shikamaru muttered, aside. Temari was in Sunagakurewas not expected in Konoha for another two weeks, leaving the strategist bereft of womanly comfort in the bedroom.

“Well that’s strange.” Sai remarked aloud, inspecting the condoms with mild interest. He turned to Kiba. “Why did you get him the regular-sized ones? You should’ve got him extra-small—“

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Kiba suddenly restrained Naruto as he threateningly advanced toward the ANBU while everyone roared with laughter. “Calm down. Sai was just kidding…”

“Actually, I wasn’t.” Sai responded politely. “Really,” he added seeing Kiba’s raised eyebrows and Naruto’s furious face, purpling in anger. “I mean, he’s definitely got one but the size is hardly significant, if you ask me—“

“FOR THE LAST TIME, SAI—LAY. OFF. ON. MY. PENIS!” Naruto roared. “I DON’T HEAR SAKURA COMPLAINING, DO YOU?!”

The entire restaurant went quiet. For a whole minute, everyone stared at Rokudaime and Sai (who clearly seemed to enjoy the newfound attention) before bursting into laughter. Some of the older diners looked scandalized (Sakura’s parents included). Sakura too, was staring Naruto down with a dangerous glint in her eye.

Naruto blanched, seeing the look on her face. “You know what—I better go back.”

Shikamaru glanced at Naruto’s forlorn table. “Agreed. Sakura looks pissed.”

“Well good luck,” Kiba patted Naruto’s shoulder. “And don’t forget to hide those,” he added under his breath, nodding to the condoms.

“Don’t screw up, Dickless,” Sai cautioned with his trademark smile.

“When this night’s done, I swear to God I will pummel you to the ground.” Naruto ground out, looking murderous. But Sai, as usual, was unaffected. After the other boys gave him another round of early felicitations and well wishes, Naruto finally broke away from them and walked back to his table. Sakura had her arms crossed and with a shrewd gaze, she watched her boyfriend return to his place and apologetically smile at her.

“I’m really sorry,” Naruto said, trying very hard to get back to Sakura’s good graces. “I got kind of blocked by Kiba and the guys…”

“I noticed.” Sakura said tartly, her green eyes narrowing into slits. “And just what was all that talk about your penis, back there?”

Naruto flushed into a bright shade of red. He stammered, trying to defend himself but resigned himself to lower his eyes to his table, unable to look at Sakura eye-to-eye. To his surprise, he saw that his and Sakura’s meal had already been laid out. Neither trays were touched.

“You didn’t eat yet?”

“I was waiting for you.”

“Oh,” Naruto replied guiltily. He stared at the gleaming utensils, cold and unsullied. “I’m sorry for making you wait.” He paused, his eye roving to find a safe spot to fixate on. He settled on watching Sakura’s hands, which clenched in irritation then finally relaxed. She picked up her fork and pricked her fish with it. He watched her for some time until his tongue loosened to talk.

“Look, Sakura-chan,” Naruto began, in a low voice. “I will explain why I went to Sunagakurewithout saying anything…just not now. I will though, soon. Trust me, okay?”

“You know I trust you.” Sakura answered, slipping a forkful of haddock into her mouth. She reached for her water. “But I still don’t like the fact that you left without even giving me notice. I almost thought you left me.”

“I’d never do that to you.” Naruto said, wincing.

“Then why couldn’t you, at the least, leave me a note?”

There was a pause.

“It was… a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I can’t tell you too much otherwise…” He stopped, unsure how to go on.

Sakura pointedly gazed at him. When he didn’t respond readily, she sliced her fork into her fish again. “I’m glad you’re back,” she said quietly, not looking at him. “But don’t expect me to be so generous if you pull this kind of stunt again.”

“I won’t.” Naruto mumbled, picking up his own fork. “I just hope I didn’t entirely screw up tonight. I mean you had a rough week and all, and I…wanted to lighten your mood a little.”

Sakura paused over her water; a faint, wry smile graced her lips. “I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, Naruto. I do.”

He smiled and with an apologetic look, he reached across the table to touch her hand.

They ate their meal in companionable silence, only looking up from their plates every once in a while or when their waiter came by to ask how the meal was, was everything all right, etc. Others at the restaurant however, were fidgeting with impatience and threw harried glances at the couple. But the minutes passed, uneventful, and by the time Naruto and Sakura had finished, half the restaurant was already done with desserts and were ordering another round of drinks.

Despite the fact that some groups were long finished with their meals, they chose to stay,anxiously waiting behind their wineglasses and frivolous chats for the Sixth to drop on one knee. It had been a very long time since there had been a happy, exciting occasion like this. It’d be a shame not to take part in it. Unfortunately, the guests were ill-surprised when they saw, to their shock and disappointment, Hokage-sama call for the waiter to pay for the bill.

The Konoha Eleven exchanged dumbfounded looks with each other before turning back to Naruto and Sakura. The latter didn’t look remotely joyful or radiant. In fact, her expression was a mixture of confusion and annoyance. The former looked sheepish and was avoiding her gaze. He kept fidgeting in his seat, waiting for the waiter to return with the bill.

“Oh no,” Ino stared on.

“Figures,” sighed Shikamaru. “Naruto must’ve screwed up.”

“That is a definite possibility.” Sai smiled. Lee looked incredibly hopeful at these words. Hinata, who had been quiet all evening, said nothing and merely twirled her ginger ice cream with her spoon. Occasionally, Neji spared a sidelong glance toward his cousin’s direction but remained quiet and continued to listen:

“Or,” Ino wondered aloud. “You don’t think he…broke up with her do you?”

“Nah.” Kiba shook his head, though he looked pretty mystified himself.

“Then where are they going?” Tenten asked, her brown eyes following Naruto and Sakura as they rose from their table and proceeded to walk out. “Oh no…they’re not holding hands. Maybe it did go bad…”

“Or Naruto-kun hasn’t asked yet,” Lee said gloomily, sadly gazing at his uneaten oshiruko He sighed, absent-mindedly poking his dessert with a fork. “He’s so fortunate to have a beautiful woman like Sakura-san.”

“Why couldn’t we use your bugs to eavesdrop on them?” Ino turned to Shino, annoyed.

“I don’t make my insects to do purposeless things,” Shino blankly answered, his sunglasses glaring at the young woman.

“Well we’d know by now if he proposed or not!” Ino bristled. “Maybe he did ask and she just said no.”

“If that happened,” Shikamaru said, fumbling through his vest pockets for a cigarette pack, “Naruto would’ve suffered a nervous breakdown right in front of our eyes.”

“I second that.” Kiba nodded, taking a swig from his glass of cognac.

“Third.” Choji snorted, before diving into his second plate of katsutera.

“Well then,” Ino leaned back, into her seat scowling after Naruto’s and Sakura’s empty table, “where are they going?”

9:30 PM

“Naruto, slow down.”

“Sorry, sorry.” Naruto apologized hurriedly. The tail of his black coat whipped behind him as he rushed down the street, pulling the girl with him by hand.

“Why did you want to leave—“

“—there were too many people there and I didn’t…well I’ll explain later.”

“You always say that.” Sakura grumbled, her mood not improving at all since Naruto had abandoned her in the middle of their dinner to chat with their friends. Something was wrong with today—of all days, her birthday no less. First, her scheduled mission had been called off with no explanation to her. Second, Naruto was acting odd. Of course, she didn’t complain the slightest when he had announced to her where he was taking her out but still…she had expected that they would be quietly spending her birthday at their place.

She didn’t understand it, but everything about today was just…off.

Her twenty-fifth birthday seemed to have been largely ignored and yet, many of her friends had showed up at the same restaurant Naruto had taken her to. Including her parents.

A promising, romantic dinner that had turned into a fairly cold and mundane one after Naruto left in the middle of it. She didn’t even get to dessert. Then, there was that issue about the menu…

Something was going on.

People in the streets began to stare after Naruto and Sakura as they briskly walked by. Some tittered at the sight of the well-dressed couple before turning away and ambling to their own destinations, while others looked after them, smiling to themselves. A few minutes passed before Naruto and Sakura made it back to their apartment but as they approached the door, Sakura was to be mystified yet again. Instead of bringing out the keys and turning the knob, Naruto just turned around and smiled at her.

“We’re going on the roof.”

And a moment later, Sakura found herself sitting in bemused silence at the top of their apartment. She waited, perplexed, as she heard Naruto loudly rummaging through their apartment from an open window. Pursing her lips, her eyes turned to the sky as if to exasperatedly ask it what was going on. The stars were dim tonight but still visible. Silently, she traced the constellations by sight alone until she heard distinctive thumps.

“Happy Birthday Sakura-chan!”

And there Naruto was: half out the window, holding a pink cake-box and a pillow, flashing a toothy smile. He was about to get out when suddenly, his elated expression faded into surprise and pain. His right arm then gave an involuntary spasm, causing the box and pillow to fall—

In an instant, Sakura rescued the objects and managed to slip her arm under Naruto’s shoulders to keep him from falling out.

“Idiot,” Sakura breathed, helping Naruto climb out of the window while balancing the cake box in her other hand. The pillow had dropped beside her feet. “You forgot to take your meds, didn’t you?”

“Ah, Saku—guh—“ Naruto grimaced, feeling a fresh wave of pain over the affected limb.

“Do you have the pills with you?” He heard Sakura ask as he stumbled about to lie down on the roof.

“My pocket,” Naruto grunted. His right arm was throbbing.

A moment later, he felt Sakura’s fingers reach in to his right pocket then left before extracting the desired bottles. Three pops later, Sakura’s palm pressed against his mouth, dropping the pills inside. He swallowed them with difficulty and felt them uncomfortably pass through his throat. As he coughed, Sakura helped him climb down from the window then bade him to lie down. After setting the pink box aside, she grabbed the fallen pillow and immediately placed it under Naruto’s head.

“How could you forget to take them?” Sakura asked exasperatedly, straightening the pillow.

“…sorry.”

“Never mind. Just lie down. It should take about half an hour for the drugs to take effect.”

“No…I’m really sorry...” Naruto apologized weakly, feeling bad for causing such an inconvenience. “I wanted to…the cake…I wanted to give you the cake.”

“Cake?”

With his left hand, Naruto waved behind her.

Turning around, Sakura retrieved the box behind her. When she opened the top, she found a slightly squashed cake decorated in white fondant and candied flowers. Her initial chagrin and annoyance vanished on the spot. She looked up to see Naruto smiling at her before wincing again.

“Strawberry cake…” Sakura remarked, discerning the kind from the sweet smell. “You got my favorite.”

“ ‘course.”

“But,” Sakura paused, looking around. “You didn’t bring forks.”

“Oh right,” Naruto said sheepishly. But Sakura only laughed.

“Well, we’ll just have to improvise.”

So with little grace and dignity, Sakura tore pieces of cake with her hands and shared them with Naruto. Once or twice, they licked each other’s lips whenever there was a stray streak of frosting then laughed when it got too ticklish. Finally, after wiping their sticky hands on Naruto’s jacket, which Naruto insisting on using as a napkin, Sakura threw herself onto the pillow and titled her head to the sky.

“Today was good.” She smiled, her eyes on the stars. “A little weird but still good. One of my better birthdays.” She turned to Naruto and kissed his whiskery cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Naruto mumbled, grimacing as he shifted to his left side. He wanted to stroke Sakura's hair but his right arm was too stiff to move. Cursing his forgetfulness, Naruto had to content himself with watching her.

They lapsed into a companionable silence while Sakura’s fingers would ever so often run through Naruto’s blonde hair or playfully tap the tip of his nose.

“Mmm…Sakura-chan…?” Naruto lazily grinned after some time had passed, “you want to look at stars?”

Sakura’s eyebrows rose. “But what about your arm?”

“I can manage.” Naruto replied, experimentally raising his hand then lowering it.

Sakura hesitated. “…Okay.”

She turned away from him then lied flat, raising her hand while Naruto did the same.

“So…where’s Polaris?”

“Right there, Naruto.” Sakura pointed.

“Wait, here?” Naruto asked, raising his arm.

“No, no…more north…there.”

“...Sakura-chan, isn’t that Orihime?”

“Where?”

“There.”

“No, that’s not it. Orihimecomes out during the summertime.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

There was a short pause.

“Now wait a minute—that has to be Orihime. Look at it! It’s huge!”

“That’s not it!”

“Sakura-chan, I think your eyes are getting bad.”

“Huh?!”

“It’s right there!”

“Stop lying!”

“I’m not! Look—it’s—right—there.”

To Sakura’s disbelief, she saw Naruto’s hand slip something on her left hand. She stared. A faint, luminescent band circled her ring finger and there, right in front of her eyes, was a dazzling adamant. The gem glimmered, piercing in its clairty as it winked back at Sakura. But she didn’t dare to move, transfixed on the ring and where it was placed: her left hand…her ring finger…wasn’t that…

Her mouth went dry.

“N—Na—” Sakura struggled to speak, before pressing her lips together. Unbelievable. She was actually stuttering. Her heart thumped against her chest, as if trying to bang some living sense into her dumbstruck body. A large, warm hand cupped her cheek and turned her face toward two very blue eyes that stared at her with equal uncertainty, nervousness, and hope.

Naruto swallowed hard. “This is why I was gone that time, why I couldn’t tell you where I was and…”

Sakura stared. She felt his hand stroke her hair and his thumb trace her jaw line. She waited for him to go on, absorbing every word that she heard:

"After I found out, you know about the Hokage thing, I'm not gonna lie...I freaked out." Naruto paused, his lips twisting into an awkward grin. "Don't get me wrong, I really wanted it but then I started thinking about what I had to do. I wanted to know what the hell I was getting into so that's why I went to Sunagakure. To figure things out. Talk to Gaara about how he handled being a Kazekage...and think about where we were going."

Sakura remained silent, gazing at Naruto as though she was seeing him for the first time. Had he really put in this much thought about their relationship? Well, of course, she silently berated herself. If he didn't, neither of us would be together...

"...I thought being Hokage was kind of a way to prove to myself how far I could go and prove to everyone here that I'm not some insensitive jackass who doesn't know what's really important in life." Naruto continued, brushing Sakura's lower lip with his thumb. "But then I also thought about well, how amazing you are."

Sakura blinked.

"You are amazing, Sakura-chan. Like super-duper amazing." Naruto smiled widely. "And you deserve a super-duper amazing guy who'd go to hell and back for you. I know I'm not some genius like Shikamaru or an elite like Neji, but I'm willing to step up and try to be that for you. I'll do whatever it takes because you're worth all the trouble. I'll do that and more, if I have to because..."

She said nothing, waiting for him to finish.

"You deserve the best, Sakura-chan." His hand dropped to clasp her fingers. "You deserve the best of the best.." He trailed off, brushing a finger on her ring. "And I wish I could promise you a happy ending, Sakura-chan but I know I can't predict the future. I don't know what's going to happen in the next year or whatever. But I can promise you this: I won't walk away. I won't let go. I won't give up on you, no matter what. And...I...Sakura-chan..."

Her breath hitched.

"I'm crazy about you..."

She bit her lip.

"...I'm in love with you."

She clenched her hands.

“Sakura-chan…will you..."

Come on, come on. Don't mess this up! Naruto's conscience screamed.

"Will you marry me?”

Everything went quiet.

Blood pounded in Naruto’s head while his heart beat fast within his chest, desperately banging against skin and bone: say yes, say yes, say yes, please say yes...

For a moment, he expected the shattering utterance of the word “no” but there was only pregnant silence. Confused, he looked up and was instantly struck by the look on Sakura’s face. Her eyes looked brighter all of the sudden, her cheeks were streaked with a kind of glow, and there was a smile dancing on her lips that grew wider and wider with every passing second.

Hope swelled inside of him.

This was it.

Any second now, Haruno Sakura could be his forever. Any moment now, she could make him the happiest man on earth or utterly ruin his life.

He held his breath.

Now, she was drawing closer and closer to him until her lips hovered just inches away from his. All he could see were two green eyes staring back at him with the same amount of love and care that was reflected in his own. Her ring glimmered in the dark.

“Idiot,” Naruto heard her whisper affectionately, “you’re supposed to be on your knee when you ask that.” And before he could answer, she caught his lips in a kiss to heartily signify her consent.

-fin-

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