Chapter five
Carry on

----

Naruto felt rather than saw the two guys approach Sakura, and it took all of his willpower not to run over and demand what they wanted with her. It would be immature, for one thing, but more importantly, it would blow their cover. The mission was ridiculous and time-wasting, but it was still a mission and certain protocol had to be observed. He settled for fuming quietly and glancing off down the street, waiting for her to come back.

"Were you listening?" One of the girls, the one with the annoying laugh, touched his arm again. While the touch was in no way threatening, it didn't feel quite right either. He wasn't an expert on physical intimacy - he'd been shunned for most of his life, after all. But there was something missing, something not quite right. He didn't get the tingling prickle that Sakura's touch gave him and it felt a bit bland, having these girls so close.

"Sorry!" he said abruptly, cutting off one of them mid sentence. "I have to go now. It's been nice talking to you, bye!"

He pushed past them and set off down the road, veering into the side street that Sakura had gone down. Those two guys had looked shifty. Yeah, shifty was definitely the word. They were too clean and happy to be real farm workers and their smiles had been too big and far too bright. Definitely shifty. They had to be up to something and they'd assumed Sakura was new to town and therefore gentle, easy prey.

His mouth turned up into a wicked grin. If anyone had asked him, he'd be able to tell them that when it came to battle, Haruno Sakura was anything but gentle. It was unfortunate, then, that nobody had thought to ask him. Oh well. They'd find out, soon enough.

The side street seemed to drag on forever but it finally turned and he rounded the corner, unsurprised to find that his suspicions were correct. One of the guys held Sakura's hands in front of her while the other one, the blonde one, was running his hands appreciatively down her back, sliding over her hips before reaching out to cup her bottom.

"Aren't you the little blossom?" the blonde crooned into her ear.

She turned, eyes snapping. "Get your hands off me."

"I don't think so," drawled the brunette lazily. "We just might take our time."

"I believe I'll be taking time to snap all your bones, after I do unspeakable things to all your major organs," she replied tightly, a tic appearing in her jaw. "Starting with one in particular."

Both men laughed and the blonde one tugged at the hem of her dress. "There's some unspeakable things I'd like to be doing with something right about now."

Something popped and fizzled behind Naruto, but he barely noticed, heat seeming to rise through his veins and coat his skin in honeyed bubbles of flame. The sound attracted the dark haired man's attention, and he glanced up, his surprised expression changing instantly to one of stupefied horror. "The fu--" he managed, before his head snapped back, Sakura taking that second of inattention to pull her arm loose and give him a cracking uppercut, sending him flying back into the wall.

There was pressure building at the base of his spine but the feeling was irrelevant. All his logic and faculties seemed to be on hold for the moment. The only thought running through his mind was that Sakura was in danger and he'd make these bastards pay. He leapt forward and said something but the words lodged in his throat and a growl came out instead, but it didn't really matter because he had nothing to say to scum like this anyway. Sakura had whirled to face the second guy but Naruto was there faster, crossing the distance between them in the blink of a slit-pupilled eye.

"Oh sh-" was all the blonde guy got out before a red-hued claw shot forward and knocked him against the opposite wall to his friend. Mortar crumbled away from impact and coated his inert form with dust and powder. Naruto turned, stalking toward the unconscious man with no real thought or strategy, just the incredibly overwhelming urge to cut him and hurt him and make him pay with blood.

"Naruto!"

He paused, a strange, cool sensation on his burning hot hand. He looked around slowly to see Sakura gripping his arm, her hands protected by the pale blue glow of chakra, a worried look upon her face. "I'm okay, Naruto. You don't have to do anything else!"

He blinked at her, confused. Anything else? He hadn't done anything at all. Her eyes were wide and while they weren't clouded with fear, there was a strange kind of apprehension in them, along with something darker he couldn't quite identify. He blinked again, and it occurred to him that he was still feeling rather hot for some reason, and looking down, he noticed for the first time that his skin was coated in the telltale red glow of borrowed chakra. He cut the connection as fast as he was able to, feeling the fiery smoothness spiral back under his skin to simmer in wait until the next time his control snapped.

When the last vestige of power went back to where it belonged, he stumbled, suddenly clammy and weak. Sakura caught him and let him rest his weight on her shoulder. Dammit. The Ero-Sennin had warned him against losing his temper like that. Honestly, Sakura had had it under control. He should have known better.

"I had that under control, you know," she told him tartly, though her hands were gentle where they checked the state of his skin.

His arm tingled and he tried to ignore it. "How many?" he asked, forcing the words through a suddenly dry throat.

She glanced away.

"How many tails?" he repeated, a furious cut to his voice.

She looked back at him and her eyes were calm. "Only two," she replied, her voice steady. "It's okay, it was only two."

He closed his eyes. Dammit! Two tails for a minor disturbance like this. His control had been fine those last few missions. Nothing had happened at all. There was no reason for this to have happened. The only thing different was the situation and...the fact that it had been Sakura in danger.

She picked at his palm, holding it between both of her hands. "You're blistering," she said disapprovingly, tracing a careful finger across his pink, raised flesh. "I know you heal quickly but I'll put some lotion on you back at the hut. Let's get rid of these two and then go back. I think we're pretty much bust on this stupid mission anyway."

He nodded slowly, still staring at his palm clasped between her own. Then the moment was shattered as she dropped his arm and went over to the brunette, bending down to grab a leg and arm and heave him onto her back.

"Get rid of?" he echoed stupidly, unsure of what she meant, since the demon fox's bloodlust still rang seductively in his veins.

"Take them somewhere they'll be shown justice," she elaborated. "A police station or something. It's lucky I'm a kunoichi, so I was never in any danger to begin with, but other less fortunate women could certainly have been taken advantage of." She clenched her fist. "We need to make sure they can't try this on someone else."

He managed a smile, the action awkward on his heated face. "You're right, Sakura-chan. Let's take them somewhere nice." He picked up his own unconscious burden and then they leaped as one to the rooftops, skipping across town in search of a place to put things to rights.

----

They dropped their obnoxious packages off at the local police station, waiting until someone came out and discovered the two limp forms before making their way back to the hut. It took a good hour of travelling time to return, so Sakura knew she'd have a fair while to go over things in her mind.

The guys had been sleazy. Shifty, even, right from the outset. She would have been far more suspicious if Naruto had been with her instead of talking to those annoying girls, but they probably wouldn't have even approached her if Naruto had been by her side. Maybe it was his fault. Yeah, that sounded about right.

And she'd had it completely under control. She'd been angry, not scared. It hadn't occurred to her even for a second that they'd be able to overpower her at any stage. She'd been waiting for the right moment to retaliate, and even if Naruto hadn't come and gone Kyuubi she would have punched them both into next week. In fact, if he didn't seem so forlorn about the whole thing, she would have slapped him one for his interference.

She stole a glance across at him. His face was set and his eyes were in shadow, and it was difficult to ascertain his mood while leaping through the air. She hoped he wasn't blaming himself for what had happened, even if she had tried to pin it on him only minutes before. Truthfully, it was no one's fault, and nothing had happened anyway, but even if it had, she would only have herself to blame.

She bit her lip. It had been jealousy that had sent her into the side street. She hadn't wanted to see Naruto surrounded by those pretty, giggling girls, girls that led simple, carefree lives the likes of which they as shinobi could only dream about. It hurt to see him with them because it drove home how different she was to them. She had told the truth before, she did have it under control. She was a Konoha kunoichi and that meant she was strong and resourceful. Those guys couldn't have done anything to her that she didn't allow them to, and even as their filthy, lecherous hands had moved down the length of her body, she'd realised with startling clarity there was only one person in the entire world she would ever allow to touch her like this.

And he had big blue eyes, lines on his cheeks, and a heart the size of the Fire country.

It was a funny time to have an epiphany, really. To realise that she loved Naruto while a petty crim groped her butt. Maybe that was the irony in the world, coming in to land. Either way, it had happened, and she couldn't undo the knowledge or the strange, frightening excitement that tugged and pulled at her chest. She loved him, and she wasn't going to lose him. If she was anything, she was gregarious. In this, she'd be getting her way.

----

The trip to the hut was completed in total silence, and Naruto spent the whole time having a heated internal discussion about how stupid he'd been. It had been a sign of how weak he still was, if he still couldn't keep it under control. At least he'd pinpointed the emergence of the demon to one of two things - danger to Sasuke, and danger to Sakura. One was gone now, a contingency he didn't have to concern himself with any more, but the other was right beside him, dropping down into the clearing with graceful, practiced ease.

No doubt she was disgusted. She'd just gotten used to hiding her emotions. He'd have to explain things to Tsunade and request that he not be paired up with Sakura on a mission again. He couldn't endanger her, couldn't endanger any other people with this lack of influence over his own emotions.

He dropped to the ground also and followed Sakura inside, ducking past the tent that had never been replaced as a door. She was ready for him, sitting him down firmly and brandishing a pot of salve with a clear no-nonsense attitude. "I'm putting this on you, Naruto," she said, her voice grim, "and you are going to let me do so without a fight."

"Okay." It was always better to just agree with her when she got like this.

She blinked, apparently expecting more resistance. "Um...good!" She uncapped the jar and picked his hand up, dropping it into her lap before taking some of the ointment and rubbing it between her palms. He tried not to think where his hand was resting and glanced away, but not before catching a pinkish tinge to Sakura's cheeks. Huh? Why was she blushing?

She picked up his hand and started gently smoothing the cream across his skin, a thoughtful, focused look taking over her face. "You know," she said conversationally, "I could have taken those guys by myself. While I appreciated your input, I would have been fine."

Her movements were slow and regular and he felt a sort of lethargy settle over his bones, making it a while before he realised she expected some sort of a response. "I knew that," he said defensively. "I just...got mad, is all." It sounded lame even to his ears, but she went pink again and this time it couldn't be a fluke. Had something happened to her? Maybe those guys had done something to her after all. "Are you okay, Sakura-chan?"

She dropped his hand and fumbled with the cream. "Of course I am!" she replied with a forced kind of heartiness. "Now, give me your other arm."

Obediently he offered his hand and she took it, rubbing the salve into it with trembling fingers. "I'm glad you protected me," she said eventually, staring at his hand as if afraid to look away. "I'm so glad that you've always protected me. You've always looked out for me and I appreciate it so much."

His heart tried to do a back flip but it was wearing concrete shoes, and all it managed was to ram itself against his ribcage with a disturbing amount of force. "Um, that's okay," he said, at a bit of a loss. Usually he'd rub his head in this situation but Sakura had one arm trapped and the other was sticky with salve.

"I've treated you badly," she continued, still staring at his arm. "I've been stupid and blind and such a whiny pain in the arse that I'm surprised you keep me around."

He swallowed. Where was she going with this? He was reading something into it but that would have to be wrong. It was like those crazy dreams he had every so often, the ones that made him wake up in a different sweat to the nightmares. "Ah, you're being weird, Sakura-chan."

She looked up and her eyes were clear, the dark parts larger than he'd ever seen them before. "I'm sorry, Naruto," she said softly, and before he even had a chance to ask her what she was apologising for, she'd leaned right froward and kissed him on the mouth.

----

Sakura felt him stiffen under her touch and jerk himself away from her at once. "S-Sakura-chan!" he cried, eyes bright. "Are you okay?"

She counted to three. "I'd be a lot better if I wasn't feeling incredibly rejected by you right now."

He stared at her, breath coming in heaving gasps. "Rejected?"

Had she misjudged? He'd always cared for her as a friend, was it wrong to hope he felt something more as well? "Well, I kissed you," she pointed out awkwardly. Was she supposed to explain it all like this? Wasn't he Jiraiya's apprentice?

"I know!" he said, eyes still wide. "Why?"

She suddenly felt like crying. Whatever she did always seemed to be the wrong thing. She reached out for the lid to the ointment jar and screwed it on with trembling fingers. "Because I wanted to," she muttered, unwilling to look at him again.

A hand came out to stop her shaky movements and she noted that the skin was already clean and blemish-free. "You wanted to kiss me?" he asked, voice breaking at the end. "I'm not Sasuke, Sakura. I'd do anything for you, but don't make me a replacement."

She looked up, horrified that he'd even think such a thing. "I would never consider you a replacement for anyone, you idiot." She snatched her hand back and rubbed angrily at her eyes, biting back an expletive when she got salve all over her face. "You're unique."

He seemed to be holding his breath and she took her chances, looking out from under her fingers. His face didn't seem to know what to do with itself and ran the gamut of emotions from fearful to hopeful, from happy to sad. His eyes were shadowed with pain and she ached for him - with him - because she knew exactly of whom he thought.

"We said we'd move on," she said carefully, picking at her dress. "And those words let me break free of something I've been letting hold me down since I was twelve. You helped me open my eyes, Naruto. You and your friendship and your kindness and your heart. I couldn't live without you."

He said nothing, betrayed no sign of having heard her.

She brought her head up, suddenly angry. "I'm saying that I -"

"I know." He was grinning now and it was sad and hopeful and joyous as well. "Me too."

She blinked. There was water in her eyes again, even after she'd promised, too. "Idiot," she said crossly, a shy smile crossing her face.

"Okay," he said, leaning forward. "What were you doing before I apparently rejected you?"

She sniffed. "I think it was this," she replied and crossed the space between them, taking his lips with her own. He smiled into her mouth and she wondered once more at his generous nature. And then she stopped wondering about his nature and started wondering about his shirt, and the best way to get rid of it without breaking their contact. Or how to take off the pesky dress that had been too light earlier in the day but was now far too heavy and oppressive.

And then as things often did, they sorted themselves out, and then she was bare against the floorboards but he was warm enough for the both of them.

"Sakura-chan," he whispered, the words hot against her neck, and she wondered why she'd never noticed before how much they sounded like 'I love you'.

"Naruto," she whispered back, wondering if the meaning conveyed, and then she stopped wondering for the time being, because thought and reason fled her and only sensation and love remained.

----

"You're a sly old slug queen," Jiraiya commented, sitting casually on one of the windowsills that made up one wall of the Hokage's office.

Tsunade smiled, bringing a languid hand to her her head and flipping back a hank of hair. "I have no idea what you're talking about, you illiterate old geezer."

He jerked a thumb out the window, indicating her two favourite ninja. "Naruto and Sakura. You really are something." The inflection in his voice might have been admiration, so she took it as her due.

"They just needed a bit of help," she replied, walking across the office and leaning against the next window, surveying the pair as they walked off down the street. Naruto was telling some story that required his arms to wave about excitedly, and while Sakura appeared to be listening, something incensed her at one point and she smacked him on the head. They both paused, and after a moment she tugged him down by the hitai-ate, pressing her lips to his scalp. He whooped and grabbed her around the waist, spinning her in midair before placing her back down gently and grabbing her hand, leading her off down the street.

Tsunade smiled again. How nice to be young. They lived in dark times, in a dark world, but these attachments, these moments, could live on forever in their hearts. Her Hokage-in-waiting could do with being tempered a bit, and her young apprentice deserved that light back in her eyes.

And at least with them together, their other piece would still be kept alive in their hearts, living on in their memories and the future they'd build between them. The future of Naruto. The future of Sakura. And the future of Konoha, the village they would help to shape.

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THE END :)

I've never typed that before for a fanfic. This is my first complete one, and wahhhh! What an awesome feeling! I dedicate it to Nushi, for giving me the idea and impetus to keep going with it. Huge thank you to DarkenedSakura and sureasdawn for betaing it, as well.

While I appreciate everyone who took the time to review, I would like to especially thank blackestfaery, Hououza, hinan0, ClassiestMokuren and TVO for sticking by this from the beginning, and leaving such thoughtful remarks. I wish I could single everyone out but then I'd get reported and the story would get deleted and then I'd become a sad panda. :(

I hope the ending wasn't too rushed or anything, I had always planned this to be a five-chapter piece, and this is how it turned out. Hopefully no one was expecting too much plot or insight - this was always just a light fic, written for fluff. I'm sorry for killing off Sasuke, but it hurt me too. (He's one of my favourite characters!)

Anyway, thanks once more for reading the whole thing, and I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I enjoyed the journey. Let me know what you think!