A/N: There is nothing I can say – I'm so very sorry it took so long. It's just, this chapter...this story is getting SO hard to write. But the good news is this is the second to the last chapter. Then an epilogue, of course...
It's gonna be such a bittersweet moment when I finish -a bit depressing, actually. I'd rather think about the 40+ reviews I got for the last chapter ALONE...you guys kick ass! Thank you so much for all of your reviews! You keep this story going, and brighten up my day. I deeply appreciate each and every word of encouragement, critiques, and comments, all of it. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Please try to enjoy. I did my best, and I know it isn't that great, but this was by far the most difficult chapter yet. Thanks to one of my awesome pre-readers Sylvia for pre-reading and helping name the chapter for me...I was creatively dead once I finished writing it! Thanks!
And I'm very sorry it took so long!
"Ts-tsunade-sama?" Sakura groaned, moving to stand back up on her feet.
Before she knew it was happening, Sakura found the imposing figure of the Godaime standing right in front of her, that scary grin still plastered to her face.
"I need to discuss something with you, Sakura." Tsunade said, as casual as could be. "And I'm pressed for time at the moment, so if you could just sit," With that, she lightly tapped Sakura's shoulders, sending the young woman flat on her butt onto the ground, breaking a few of the old hardwood panels in the floor.
"Gah...!" Sakura groaned in pain, knowing that something in her body was either broken or very badly bruised.
"I'd be eternally grateful." The brutally strong blonde finished, bringing both hands up to rest on her waist.
Sakura could only look up at the woman, who had now begun to pace back and forth before her prone and slightly battered figure. Sakura wanted to get up and run, avoid whatever Tsunade had to say since it really couldn't be good. But now, running was no longer an option.
What does she want from me...?
This obviously has something to do with Naruto.
Why can't everyone just understand that I'm no good for him and let us both move on?
We aren't supposed to be together.
"I am the Hokage."
Sakura's brows furrowed in confusion. Besides stating a widely known fact, the woman had done so with a look on her face that screamed 'this makes no sense'. Whatever Sakura had expected Tsunade to say, that wasn't it.
"I am The Godaime of Konoha village."
Sakura nodded dumbly, unsure if it was alright to talk yet. Tsunade had yet to look at her, and was still pacing back and forth, not showing any signs of slowing.
"Do you know why I shouldn't be the Hokage, Sakura?" Tsunade questioned, finally standing in one place to look at the confused pink-haired nin sitting on the floor.
Sakura shook her head, completely at a loss.
"Because," Tsunade began, resuming her agitated pacing. "I am, by nature, a little bit of a selfish person. I like to gamble, drink sake, and I don't like brats. In fact, I can't tolerate brats, loud people, and overconfidence. So you can imagine how utterly annoyed I was when I met someone who encompassed all of these things a few years back."
Sakura had a strong feeling she knew who Tsunade was talking about, since she was aware of the story of Naruto and Jiraiya's search for the female sannin. The one thing that left her looking and feeling completely confused was where her mentor could possibly be going with all of this.
"As you may have guessed, I'm talking about the little blonde bastard himself, Uzumaki Naruto." Sakura's eyes widened considerably. "The one-and-only, number one, hyperactive perpetual pain in my ass since day one."
"One thing about Naruto struck me that first meeting we had, and it was how much the boy cared. He cared for god knows what reason about everything and everyone." Tsunade chuckled lightly, a wistful expression coming over her face. "And I wrote him off as some over-confident brat who didn't deserve my respect."
Sakura lowered her head, biting her bottom lip in thought. She knew what Tsunade was talking about. At first glance, or even second, third, fiftieth glance, Naruto seemed like the type that was all talk. Some people, like Hinata and Iruka, seemed to see Naruto for who he was right away. Whereas people like herself, Tsunade, and countless others had to learn.
Another reason I don't deserve you, Naruto.
"You see," Tsunade's voice snapped Sakura out of her thoughts and she lifted her head, only to see the woman actually crouching in front of her with a serious expression. "Naruto earned my respect, and he is going to make a great Hokage because unlike me he has the ability to love -- unconditionally, unselfishly, and indiscriminately."
A short silence came between the two women as they looked each other in the eyes unflinchingly. Tsunade's gaze was intense, and as much as Sakura wanted to look away, she couldn't. Part of her was frozen in place while the other part was simply tired of running away.
"Unfortunately, this means that Naruto even loves those who aren't as deserving as others." There was a sudden edge to the blonde's tone that made Sakura almost shudder. It was the cold, brutal, and honest truth coming from someone she admired greatly.
Which Sakura found hurt much more than the woman's fist ever could.
"And while he may be a bit of a moron," Tsunade continued, still fixing Sakura with her gaze. "He is one hell of an amazing little moron, who deserves to be loved in return."
But not by someone like me.
There was another deafening silence. A full minute passed before Sakura realized that the other woman was waiting for her to say something. For a split second, she considered lying, telling the Godaime that she wasn't in love with Naruto, and keeping up the act that had seemingly fooled Hinata in this very house all those months ago. It would be so easy to fall back into that pattern and reject the urge to be honest just this last time.
Maybe it was because the situation was blown out of proportion enough already.
Maybe it was because her intense feelings for Naruto were finally getting the best of her.
Maybe it was because Tsunade was glaring in that way that made you want to spill your guts if only to make her stop.
For whatever reason, at that moment Sakura felt compelled to come clean. If there was someone out there, one person in the world she could be completely honest with it was the woman standing in front of her right now. The idea that it would get to Naruto didn't even cross her mind once. In fact, the only thing Sakura could feel was the compelling urge to scream her frustration out over the situation she managed to find herself in.
She was trapped.
And the chance to run might be long gone...
But she wouldn't scream.
"Tsunade-sama," Sakura was relieved that her voice betrayed her inner turmoil. She almost sounded calm, if not a little shaken. "I agree. Naruto does deserve love, probably more than a lot of us."
Sakura shook her head faintly. "But not from me."
The smile disappeared, replaced instantly by a deep frown.
"And why is that?" Sakura could feel the anger coming off of the woman in waves.
"I don't deserve him. It's that simple" Sakura sighed. "And I'm tired of people telling me otherwise-"
"Well don't worry about getting that crap from me," Tsunade's eyes narrowed as she crouched down once again to meet Sakura face to face. "I am well aware of the fact that you don't deserve Naruto."
Sakura stared blankly at the woman. "Then why are you...if you don't..." she trailed off hopelessly, not knowing what to say.
"I'm here because I care about the brat." Tsunade answered. "The same brat who came to me not more than ten minutes ago, wet and shaking from standing on top of that goddamn monument in the rain!" The blonde bellowed, breaking even more floorboards with her fist.
Sakura's eyes widened and she could only bow her head in shame at Tsunade's words. It hadn't occurred to her until just now that Naruto had been up there during the rain. She had figured that he would have gone inside at that point, given up on her.
He waited for me in the rain...?
At that moment, she could hardly imagine what Naruto must have felt like up there, hoping and waiting for her even as it began to rain. She remembered the blonde telling her how much he hated the rain ever since that battle with Sasuke at the Valley of the End. Even with that, he had still waited for her like he said he would in the letter.
And I never came.
Never before had Sakura thought it possible to feel as guilty as she did now.
"You know," Tsunade began. "If I had my choice, I probably would have chosen someone like that Hyuuga girl to be with the runt." Sakura whipped her head up to look at the Hokage, who had a mischievous glint in her eyes, a small smirk playing about her features. Sakura quickly looked away. "Who knows? Given time, the kid could learn to love her instead...that would be for the best, wouldn't you agree, Sakura?"
Sakura could do nothing but nod weakly, still not looking Tsunade in the eyes for fear that the truth would be too clear to the older woman. She knew that it was bait, knew that Tsunade was waiting for some jealous outburst - but she wouldn't play along.
"Yes, Tsunade-sama. That would be for the best."
"My ass it would!"
Before Sakura could even sense the movement, Tsunade's hand had quickly come up to her face. The pink-haired Jounin couldn't help but flinch before realizing that the blonde was simply reaching up to grab her chin between two slender fingers and a thumb. Sakura was forced to look face to face, eye to eye, with the intimidating Hokage.
"I am very disappointed in you, Sakura. After all this, it appears that you are still just a child." The words were harsh and precise, with just the right edge to make Sakura know the Godaime was deathly serious. "Instead of dealing with things head on like an adult, you run away, lying to yourself and everyone else. You are stubborn, willful, can be beyond ignorant, and have no idea what love really is!"
Sakura tightened her lips, wanting nothing more than to turn away, but found that as she struggled, the grip on her chin only tightened even more. There was already a dull pain reaching to her jaw and all she could do was wince. Her breath was coming in gasps, and she could already feel the tightening in her chest signaling the coming onslaught of tears.
She didn't want to hear these things, didn't need to hear any of it.
And she refused to cry in front of Tsunade.
"If someone like Naruto is willing to love your sorry ass, then accept it! Cherish it!" Tsunade was almost yelling at this point. "You are a shinobi, Sakura, meaning that tomorrow is not guaranteed." Sakura could see a fire burning in Tsunade's eyes that almost frightened her.
"Maybe you're right, Tsunade-sama." Sakura hated how her voice shook, but couldn't help it. "Maybe I should be happy, glad, and thankful that someone like Naruto would want to be with someone like me. So, say I were to accept his feelings and go to him and say we do get together, what then?"
Tsunade was frowning, her grip on Sakura's chin not lessening as she raised a single pale eyebrow in question.
"It wouldn't work. I'm Haruno Sakura. That's all I am, and that's all I can be. I have nothing special to offer Naruto," Sakura couldn't stop her voice from rising, the emotion in her tone thickening as each word was spoken. "I'm not even that good of a person! He's-"
Sakura never got to finish that sentence, because at that moment an open palm had come across her face, not hard, but just enough to shock her speechless.
Tsunade had never slapped her before.
She's been thrown, pushed, shoved, and even punched a few times by her mentor and former teacher, but...
But this...this was different.
It was demeaning, and it shook Sakura to her core.
What the hell...
The pink-haired Jounin didn't even have to ask the question out loud.
"I am so tired of this." For the first time, Tsunade's voice truly sounded weary.
Sakura had brought a hand to her cheek, her eyes still blinking a few times in shock. Her face was turned away from the other woman, but it was clear that the Godaime was now standing.
"You and Naruto both mean a lot to me, and I've worked my ass off these past few months trying to make you two happy for the good of this village, and the good of you both." Sakura slowly turned her head, looking at Tsunade's black shoes, not able to look the woman in the eyes yet. "And it's annoying the hell out of me," The blonde continued. "You just don't understand, do you?"
At those words, Sakura lifted her head, daring herself to look the woman in the eyes. What she saw was a rare display of open warmth from the powerful Hokage. It almost took her breath away.
"Can I ask you something, and get an honest, straight answer from you in return?" Once again, Tsunade got down on one knee in order to address Sakura more personally.
The pink-haired Jounin wasn't sure what to expect, but what Tsunade had said a little bit ago was true, and it was bothering her. She had been lying to everyone for so long. It had to come to an end eventually, if only this once. If only she could be honest this once, with someone who wouldn't judge her or make fun of her. It might be alright, she herself might be alright.
"Ok..." Sakura mumbled.
"Are you in love with Naruto?"
Sakura couldn't say anything, she couldn't even blink. She simply stared back at Tsunade's scrutinizing gaze with wide eyes, her mouth opening and closing helplessly. She knew that she should have seen this question coming from a mile away. It was the same one she got from Hinata, the one she had dodged too easily that day. This time, evading that question won't come as easy. Sakura was sure of that much.
Didn't I already answer that by saying I wasn't good enough?
What more does she want?
"You've told me that you don't deserve him, that you have nothing to offer him," Tsunade calmly stated, as if reading her former student's mind. "But you've never once told me how you feel about him, directly."
"I know." Sakura admitted, willing her own voice to stop shaking.
"Good." Tsunade closed her eyes, smiling softly and nodding her head once. "So I'll ask you again." Hey eyes opened. "Are you or are you not in love with Naruto?" The serious look was back as she gazed down at Sakura.
"Because if you aren't," Tsunade continued, not giving the younger woman a chance to answer. "And if all this has been one big misunderstanding on our parts, then I'll let you leave. I'll allow you to go back to Suna. Hell, I'll even cover for you for the Kazekage." Sakura could only stare at Tsunade helplessly, not knowing how to respond.
"But know this, Sakura." A single index finger of the Godaime's rose in front of Sakura's vision. "If you are in love with him, and you give him up for some idiotic reason like the ones you've presented me with tonight, then you'll regret it for the rest of your life."
Sakura gulped, blinking hard as Tsunade continued, unrelenting in her speech. She could feel her chest tightening at the blonde's words, her resolve crumbling with each passing second, but couldn't stop herself from absorbing everything that was said.
"And as far as Naruto deserving someone with a bloodline, or money, or better looks...well, you know how that goes, right?"
Sakura could only look at Tsunade questioningly, not knowing what her mentor could mean by that. After a few moments of tense silence, the older woman sighed exasperatedly, shaking her head in dismay.
"You used to be in love with the Uchiha, correct?" Sakura nodded, grimacing slightly upon remembering just how infatuated she was with her black-haired teammate. "Well, say you did have feelings for Naruto, some might wonder why you would want him now instead of Sasuke."
Sakura looked away from Tsunade, choosing to set her gaze on the broken floorboards instead as she thought harder about what Tsunade was saying.
Naruto is so different from Sasuke, in every way.
There is no comparison, no point in wondering who is better.
Naruto would always win.
"Just look at the Uchiha." Tsunade continued while Sakura's head was lowered. "He's got it all. Looks, money, strength, status, not to mention that bloodline. He's even gotten over that inferiority complex of his. Who wouldn't choose him over Naruto, right? It really is a no-brainer-"
Sakura whipped her head up to look at the smiling Hokage, and before she knew what she was doing, before she could think twice about the repercussions, the words had already left her mouth. "None of that matters! Naruto is bett--!" Sakura slapped a hand over her mouth, effectively cutting herself off as her green eyes widened in shock.
Tsunade was now sporting a full blown grin. The woman had laid out the bait, and Sakura had taken it without thinking twice.
I'm such an idiot.
"Doesn't it though?"
Sakura stared at Tsunade with furrowed brows for a few moments, before slowly inching her hand away from her still-covered up mouth. "W-what?"
"You see, Naruto could have someone like Hinata. Instead, he wants you. The same way you could want him instead of someone like Sasuke. Do you understand now?"
It made sense to Sakura, but she didn't want to accept it. Part of her was afraid to accept it, because it meant accepting that everything up to now had been in vain. Had she really put Naruto and herself through all this for nothing?
No, that can't be it.
There's more to it than this.
There has to be!
"B-but, Tsunade-sama," Sakura began desperately. "Sasuke – he doesn't love me, he never did. If Naruto can have someone like Hinata, then why not?"
"Because he doesn't WANT Hinata!" Tsunade snapped, standing up to her full height and glaring down at Sakura. "He wants YOU! It makes no sense to me either, but the kid won't give you up. So stop feeling sorry for yourself and suck it up, because I am going to ask you one last time, and this time, I want a goddamn answer!"
Sakura gulped, she could only bite her lip and close her eyes tightly, praying for some type of strength that would help her through this. She knew what Tsunade was about to ask, and also knew that the Godaime most-likely already knew the answer.
What she wanted was for Sakura to admit it out loud, because in doing so, she would have to take some sort of action. There would be no more running away from what she wanted most, no more hiding her feelings. Tsunade would make sure of that.
Of course, Sakura knew that she could always just say she doesn't love him, lie once and for all. Go back to Suna and never return to Konoha. Seeing Naruto will never get any easier, and he'd be ok once she's completely out of the picture. In time, he'd get over her, right?
But then I'd really lose him.
But maybe it's better that way...?
Or maybe it's not.
Please, Tsunade-sama, please don't ask me something I'm not ready to answer!
"So, are you in love with him or not?"
Sakura closed her eyes as she felt a single tear fall down her cheek. She knew right then that it was over. There was only one thing left to do. If lying one more time could make all of the roadblocks go away, and could give Naruto the chance to get over her once and for all, then she had no choice.
In a few months, he would be over her. And she still wouldn't be good enough.
"Well?" Tsunade pressed, tapping her foot a few times impatiently.
Sakura took a deep breath and stood, not worried about being pushed down again since Tsunade had already made it clear that she had said everything she came to say.
It's my turn now...
That was all Sakura could say before a frantic and slightly wet blonde appeared at the still open door, making his presence known to the two women in the house with a loud, shaky breath.
"Tsunade-baba...don't." Naruto rasped between breaths. "Just...don't."
The two women were standing side by side, both gaping in Naruto's direction. After a few moments of stunned silence Sakura turned her head to the side to look at Tsunade, who was still looking confused for a half a second before quickly collecting herself, her expression changed to one of open anger.
"I'm kinda busy here, brat! Get back the ceremony, I'll be there once I'm done with-"
"NO!" Naruto roared, slamming his fist into the open door with a resounding crack, his fist going straight through the wood. Sakura couldn't help but jump, and notice that not only did Tsunade not jump, but she looked even angrier than before.
The tension in the room was thick; both women were now silently staring at the blonde in the doorway, the blood from his wounds dripping steadily onto the hardwood floors. The wounds had already started to heal, but it didn't look like he noticed either way. His clothes were damp, and his fist was clenching tightly despite the barely healing wounds.
"Like I said," The Godaime began, sounding calmer and fiercer than ever, obviously not happy about being both yelled at and interrupted. "Get back to where you belong. And tell Shizune-"
"You don't belong here either." Naruto's voice was also quiet, but filled with emotion. The sound of it made Sakura's chest tighten.
"You heard me, Tsunade-baba. Sakura-chan...she's made her choice already." The raw defeat in his tone made Sakura feel sick to her stomach. "Let's leave her alone, she deserves that much. Please? Let's just-just go..."
Why can't you stop caring?
What is so great about me...?
Find someone who actually deserves you, damnit!
The pink-haired Jounin could only stare dumbly at Naruto, who pulled his fist back through the door with a nasty cracking sound that made her inwardly cringe. Tsunade was still watching Naruto, but she seemed to be thinking about something. Whatever it was made her move to stand directly in front of Sakura, her back to the blonde in the doorway. Tsunade's arms were crossed as she loomed over the younger girl threateningly, her penetrating gaze fixed on Sakura.
For a few moments Tsunade continued to watch her carefully, as if searching for something, as if asking a question that Sakura's eyes refused to give away. The very question Sakura had been about to answer before Naruto interrupted. Before Tsunade could read her emotions Sakura shut her eyes and turned her head away, biting her lower lip in shame as she did so.
"Well, runt, it looks like for once you're actually right. She deserves to be alone."
Sakura's eyes widened, she stared unseeing at the hardwood floors underneath her feet. She knew that Naruto didn't mean it in the same way Tsunade meant it, but that didn't make the words hurt any less. Those words were meant to hurt, they were deliberate and honest.
And they were so true it made Sakura feel sick.
She clenched her fists in frustration, feeling a strange satisfaction as she felt the skin of her palm break under the pressure of her nails. It would bleed, but she didn't care.
Without Naruto, I really have been so alone...
I have Temari and everyone else in Suna, but it's different.
Nobody can replace him, nobody else has that smile.
Do I need him to be happy, to live in peace?
Am I that weak?
"Am I that pathetic!"
Sakura whipped her head up to look at the two blondes that were staring at her, one in confused shock and the other with a sad sort of understanding that could only come with age. She really hadn't meant to say that out loud, but was glad she did. Part of her really wanted an answer, needed an answer.
"You're not pathetic, Sakura." A rare gentle smile came over the older woman's face, her eyes holding an answer that was clearer than anything Sakura could remember.
'You're in love.'
Sakura wanted to say something, she didn't know what, but she knew there was something she should say, if not to Tsunade then to Naruto. But her throat had tightened, and she no longer trusted her ability to speak in a calm voice. She didn't want to appear any weaker than she already did, and she cursed herself as her eyes began to water against her will.
You'll regret it if you don't...
A million thoughts raced through Sakura's head, all trying to push themselves to the forefront. She knew this was one of her last chances to reach out to Naruto, if not her very last. After tonight, she would go back to Suna. There would be no more opportunities like this one, and Tsunade wouldn't help even if she reached out to the older woman.
It was now or never.
The blonde froze in place, not turning around but standing in the doorway with his back turned to the pink-haired Jounin. Upon hearing Sakura's small voice Tsunade whipped her platinum pig-tails around as she turned to face Sakura, a look of mixed approval and curiosity on her features. A challenging glint was present in the older woman's eyes, almost as if daring Sakura to be honest for once.
Easier said than done, Tsunade-sama...
Slowly, the blonde turned, as he did so Sakura felt her heart sink to the bottom of her stomach.
That damn smile was back.
That fake, pitiful, forced smile was plastered onto his face, its falseness more pronounced then ever. He couldn't even hide the guarded expression in his eyes, and Sakura vaguely noticed that it was a first for him. He had never let himself look so vulnerable while the act was in place.
His acting wasn't as good as it used to be.
Either that, or he really was hurting that much.
I'm tired of this.
It's stupid and pointless.
And it's gone on long enough.
"Tsunade-sama, can you give us a minute alone, please?" Sakura politely asked, giving the blonde woman a pleading look.
For a moment the Godaime simply fixed the younger woman with an analyzing stare, picking apart her student for any type of ill intent. Sakura tried her hardest not to wilt under the intense scrutiny, willing herself not to look away. As if finding what she was looking for, Tsunade smiled, telling Naruto he had two minutes, and that she would meet him in the arena. He agreed, and much too soon, it was just him and Sakura, completely alone.
The silence was deafening. Everything that wasn't said threatened to consume the two young shinobi as they stood in the silent house. The only noise that could be heart was the dripping of the rain from the ledge outside of Sakura's door.
The pink-haired Jounin was facing the blonde, her arms hanging loosely at her sides. Naruto was standing in the doorway still, his body only halfway turned as his neck was craned towards Sakura. He was grinning, yet still, the slightest crease in his eyebrows was there.
"Why, Naruto?" Sakura blurted out, tired of the silence.
"Why what, Sakura-chan?" The blonde smiled wider, sounding so cheerful it made the pink-haired Jounin sick.
Fake, fake, fake.
"Don't give me that crap!" Sakura yelled, satisfied with the way the blonde's smile faded minutely. "If you're sad, be sad, if you're angry with me, be angry with me! I'm not buying that perpetual smile, I know you too well." She took a deep breath, shoving her guilt aside. "Let's just be honest with each other for once, ok?"
That set something off. The moment those last words came out of Sakura's mouth the blonde automatically frowned, turning around completely to face the pink-haired Jounin.
"For once, Sakura-chan?" It was a tone Sakura had hardly ever heard Naruto speak in. He was deathly serious. "I've been honest since day one about my feelings. What about you?"
"What about me?" Sakura bit back, fixing him with her most defiant expression, not wanting to show him how much he was affecting her.
"We're being honest, aren't we? Why'd you really go to Suna?"
"I told you, I-"
"And I'm telling you that your reason is crap, Sakura-chan."
Sakura stared at him. This was uncommon ground for her. He wanted honesty, and not too long ago she demanded it. But was she really ready?
"Why did you go to Suna? Why," Naruto took a deep breath. "Why did you run away from my apartment earlier? Huh?"
"How could you be so close, but still be so damn far away? Why doesn't it – why doesn't it make any sense, Sakura-chan...? Why can't I just..." Naruto brought a shaky hand up to his face, rubbing it over his eyes roughly. "Why can't I just let go?"
"I hate it, you know, Sakura-chan? Not-not being good enough, never being good enough."
At that, Sakura furrowed her brows in confusion. She watched as he lowered his hands to his knees and sighed loudly in frustration as he bowed his head. He looked so weak, so defeated. So much like how she felt at that very moment. As much as Sakura tried, she couldn't understand what he could possibly mean by not good enough.
Good enough for who?
He can't mean...
"What do you mean, not good enough? Not good enough for who?"
"Who do you think?" Naruto shrugged helplessly. "It's always been you, Sakura-chan. It'll always be you. You make me so goddamn crazy I can't take it anymore!"
"YOU can't take it anymore!" Sakura exploded, not able to stop the words from pouring out. "Do you know how it feels to be me, Naruto? How it – how it feels...do you?"
"Maybe if you told me-"
"Fine, I'll tell you! I'll tell you whatever you want to know. That's what you want, isn't it!" Sakura knew she sounded slightly hysterical, but didn't care. She was beyond caring. "You wanna know why I'm so far away all the time, hmm? Is that what you wanna know? HUH?" She barely registered Naruto wincing, and that she was suddenly standing in front of him. She didn't even remember moving to the doorway, everything was so mixed up. Her entire body was shaking uncontrollably.
"Sakura-chan...?" Naruto was looking more and more concerned by the second, his hand moving to her shoulder. Sakura smacked it away before he could make contact.
"Don't...please," Sakura shook her head. "Just - just don't."
"Alright. I won't. But - um, look, it's fine, ok? If you—"
"You wanted to know, right? Why I left to Suna, why I ran away from your apartment? It's because I'm afraid!" The trembling in her voice was impossible to suppress. "I'm a goddamn pathetic coward, and I'm scared of being close to you because..." Sakura felt her lower lip begin to tremble, and didn't even try to stop the tears that were already blurring her vision. "Because I know – I know if I get too close then, then I wont be able to let you go."
"Then don't!" Naruto rushed the extra step forward, grabbing Sakura's shoulders with both hands before the pink-haired Jounin could do anything. "Be with me, come back to Konoha and stay here." He sounded desperate, his voice pleading. Sakura closed her eyes tightly, letting the stray tears fall down her face. She didn't want to look him in the eyes. "Please...I need you."
Sakura opened her mouth to speak, not even sure of what she was going to say. Before anything could come out though, she felt the sobs begin to wrack her body, the strength on her legs leaving her. Within seconds she was being cradled in Naruto's warm embrace, his large hand smoothing her pink locks to her head and his arm held her securely around the waist. She wasn't sure what he was saying, the sound of her own crying ringing in her ears. What she did know, was that whatever he was whispering in her ear really was so very soothing.
As she continued to cry into his chest, she felt him fall gently to his knees, holding her as tight as ever.
Maybe...maybe this is ok.
Maybe I don't have to lose him.
If I can hold on a little longer...
Sakura's tears began to subside, her body shaking as she let herself relax even more in his arms. She could hear him shushing her, whispering reassurances as he continued to pat her head somewhat awkwardly. She knew he wasn't used to showing or receiving much affection.
"Sakura-chan, I'm not gonna let go of you..." She could hear his voice rumbling through his chest, somehow the sensation managing to warm her heart. Or maybe it was the words, the ones that gave her an overwhelming sense of relief and hope, mixed with a bit of dread. "Not unless you give me a really good reason, ok?"
A really good reason, huh...
I only have one reason.
It's probably time I let you know.
"I duh duuvuve oo..." Sakura furrowed her brows, frowning at her muffled words.
"Hmm?" Naruto gently asked, pulling her away from his chest.
They were both sitting on the hardwood floors, his arm now encircling Sakura's shoulders as he brought a single hand forward to gently and carefully tuck a few stray strands of hair behind her ears. Her green eyes met his blue ones, and Sakura was tempted to drown then and there.
Instead, she decided to repeat herself.
"I said that I don't deserve you. That's my reason." Sakura mumbled, looking at him in the eyes, waiting for him to say something, anything. The suspense was killing her. He simply stared at her, as if contemplating something. After a minute, her patience could hold on no longer. "Well, Naruto? Say something!"
"That's...the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"That's the best you could come up with? And Sasuke-bastard says I'm a moron, just wait until he gets a load of this..."
"I mean, wow..."
"Hmm? You say something, Sakura-chaaan?" Naruto looked at her innocently, only the barest hint of mischief was still clear in those expressive blue eyes of his.
Sakura shook her head in exasperation, gaping at the future Rokudaime.
"I give up. What the hell do I even see in this blonde idiot? Is this karma? Is that it?" Sakura asked nobody in particular, rubbing her closed eyes with the heel of both palms. "Did I like royally screw up in my past life...? Is that why I'm doomed to be in love with a moron in this one? I mean, Come ON! What the he-"
Me and my stupid mouth.
"You're...in love with me?"
Please let me die now.
Earth, swallow me up.
I'm waiting and ready.
"Sakura-chan...look at me."
"What!" Sakura cried, digging her fingernails into her knees, only wincing slightly as she felt the skin break.
"...look at me. Please."
His voice was so gentle, so calming. Before Sakura could make herself stop, she found her head tilting up slowly but surely in order to look the blonde in the eyes. What she saw there made her breath catch.
His gaze was boring into her, that sensation of drowning came back full force. Hope, fear, happiness, anticipation...all of it was screaming out to her from beneath those blue orbs. It was all she could do not to start crying again.
"I'm not asking anything else...I just wanna know if what you said was true. Because if it was, then I'm not gonna be able to let you go back to Suna. You can't give me something like that and just take it away; it won't be like last time, Sakura-chan."
"I – I know."
Sakura gulped. She took a few deep calming breaths hoping to relax her nerves enough to say what she needed to say. There really was no turning back after this.
God, I hope I don't regret this...
Please, don't let me regret this.
"Yeah...it was the truth." Sakura said softly, feeling her heart rate triple as she saw his eyes widen in shock, a bright smile making it's way onto his face. "I- well, I've been in, I mean, I've had feelings for...ugh!" She grunted in frustration, shaking her head and closing her eyes tightly in concentration. "The point is, I'm in lo-mph!"
Before she could finish, Sakura's words were muffled by a pair of warm lips closing over her own. Her eyes whipped open, widening as her body stiffened in shock. She barely registered that his eyes were closed tightly, his own body stiff as if scared of being pushed away or rejected.
What an idiot...
As the initial shock began to wear off, Sakura could feel warmth spread through the pit of her stomach, consuming all of her thoughts. Her body was screaming, telling her that his feathery touches against her lips wasn't nearly enough, she needed more. She needed this, needed him more than anything else she had ever needed before.
Not giving it a second thought, Sakura gave in to the sensations, unable to hold herself back and not even sure why she would want to in the first place. Shifting slightly in order to sit on her knees, she wrapped both arms around his neck, barely moving her own lips against his as her fingers toyed with the soft hairs at the nape of his neck.
As if encouraged by her actions, Naruto sat up on his own knees, moving one arm to wrap around her slim waist as the other moved up, one large hand gently caressing her cheek as their lips gently moved against each other. Neither had any real experience kissing, and while it was still new and awkward, it was so much more than Sakura could ever have expected.
The need for air became an issue as the two separated, breathing deeply and gazing into each others eyes. A few moments of silence passed between them, their arms still not moving from their previous positions at they simply knelt, not even ten feet away from the still open door. The cold breeze was simply an afterthought in Sakura's haze-filled mind. After a minute or so, Naruto pulled her into his arms, holding onto her in a tight embrace.
"You're not gonna leave me again...are you?" Naruto whispered against her left ear, sending a shiver down Sakura's spine.
She could only laugh, causing him to pull back a bit to stare at her questioningly, a single blonde eyebrow rising.
"What do you think, Naruto?"
With that said, Sakura tightened her grip in the back of his neck, pulling his face to hers. As their lips met she could feel his smile, his real smile, and felt her heart jump in excitement. His grip tightened around her waist, pulling her until they were flush against each other.
Sakura jumped, feeling heat spread through her body as she felt something wet drag across her bottom lip. All she could do was gasp in shock, before instantly realizing that might not have been the best thing to do. The second her mouth was open Naruto's tongue gently pushed through her open lips, tentatively searching for her own.
It was all she could do not to faint as a million sensations tore through her body. Part of her wanted to push him away and tell him to take things slow, while another much louder part told her to give back as much as she was getting.
Apparently, she wouldn't have to make a decision because at that moment, they were interrupted by a loud howling noise coming from the direction of Sakura's doorway.
"Now THAT'S how it's done, boy!"
"E-E-Ero-sennin!" Naruto sputtered, his and Sakura's faces burning bright red as they pulled away from each other so fast one would think they were on fire.
"And Tsunade's student no less! Nice going! You mind if I use this in my material? I find that real-life experiences can be-"
"Shut the hell up you damn PERVERT!" The blonde screeched, standing up to his full height in order to glare threateningly at the older man who was still grinning lecherously at the two, despite the murderous, albeit embarrassed aura coming off of them.
Sakura also stood; trying her hardest to will away the persistent blush that she just knew was present. Her cheeks were on fire, and as much as she tried, she couldn't rid herself of all of the sensations still buzzing through her body.
"Come now, kid, there'll be lots of time for that after the ceremony."
Jiraiya sighed exasperatedly, fixing the blonde with an expression that screamed pity.
"Please tell me that you didn't seriously forget your own ceremony. It's already 8:45."
"Athough I can't say I blame you..."
"Damnit, damnit, damnit!" Naruto wailed. "The hag is gonna kill me!"
"It's probably worth it, kid. Honestly, if I were in your position, with such a young-"
"I thought I told you to shut the hell up, pervert!" Naruto glared at the older man, who merely shrugged indifferently.
"Sakura-chan, are you coming?"
"Huh?" Sakura stared dumbly at Naruto, who held his hand out to her as he waited. For the past minute or so she had been watching the two interact, wondering how someone could be so openly perverted, when the blonde called out to her.
"Well, you're coming to the ceremony, right?"
Sakura glanced at Jiraiya, who was eyeing her with mild interest. Not in a perverted way as she might have expected, but as if he were trying to figure something out.
Probably wondering if I'm good enough.
But...there really is no point in asking that now, is there?
Our minds are made up, for better or for worse.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world, Naruto." Sakura answered, smiling widely as she reached out and grasped the blonde's outstretched hand. She was instantly rewarded with another one of his genuine heart melting smiles as he squeezed her hand gently and led her to the door.
She noticed that Jiraiya smiled at them both, winking and nodding once as he disappeared in a puff of smoke.
"Damn flashy bastard." Naruto grumbled to himself. "So, you ready to go?"
Sakura smiled. "Are you?"
"Ha!" The blonde yelled enthusiastically. "I've been ready since the day I was born, Sakura-chan!"
"Then what are we waiting for?"
Naruto grinned mischievously, laughing outright while scooping a protesting Sakura into his arms. The pink-haired Jounin yelled helplessly as he dashed through Konoha, jumping through the rooftops as he made his way to the ceremony, laughing all the while.
A/N: I'm SO sorry NaruHina fans...it just wasn't meant to be this time. Please don't be angry...Mimi doesn't like having sharp objects thrown at her. For the record,I actuallydo support thatpairingbig time. Check my profile!
Anyways, I hope you guys liked this chapter! I wonder, will any of you be attending Anime Expo? I personally can't wait! This fic WILL be finished before then, I promise.
Thanks for reading, reviewing, and sticking with this story all this time everyone. I've said it before and I'll say it again – I have the best readers out there! I can only hope that this didn't disappoint.