That night, Sakura had a strange dream about a figure chained to a rack in a shadowy place, illuminated only by unnatural blue-violet flames. As she watched, the flames rose, blistering and scorching at flesh. Then they abated and the figure glowed green, healing the hurts. The flames rose again and again scorched at the flesh (she could feel the pain of it; smell the awful acridity), and again the green glow of healing chakra returned, though more feebly this time…
Sakura awoke, breathing hard, to find that Kimimaro was shaking her.
"Are you alright?" His voice was worried in the dark.
"Yes – yes, I'm okay."
"Just a bad dream," said Sakura, still feeling the heat of those flames, still smelling burning flesh.
Kimimaro's fingers grazed her arm. "You are soaked with sweat."
It was true. She looked down to find that her top was plastered wetly against her and her hair clung to her neck, hot and damp. "God, it was so real…"
"What was it?"
"A purple fire, someone burning," said Sakura, pushing off her hot blankets. "And then healing, and being burnt again…"
Kimimaro hovered at the side of her bed, concerned, uncertain. She reached up and he pulled her to her unsteady feet where she clung to him, waiting for a sudden head-rush to pass.
"It was so vivid," said Sakura into Kimimaro's shoulder. "Almost had the clarity of genjutsu, you know, when someone's messing with you…"
"I don't know," said Sakura. "I don't think so. I didn't feel any chakra."
Kimimaro said nothing, but his hands on her waist were tight.
"I'm going to take a shower," said Sakura. "I need to cool down…"
She disengaged from Kimimaro's worried grip and made for the bathroom, peeling off her wet sleeping things in a daze, still shocked by the vividness of the dream. She'd felt the heat, the healing, the returning heat, a horrid endless torturous cycle…
The shower cooled her and calmed her. By the time Sakura was toweling off, she felt silly for having made such a fuss about what was obviously just a nightmare.
"I'm fine, really," she said to Kimimaro, who was waiting for her when she opened the bathroom door.
Her covers were soaked. Sakura stripped them off the bed with Kimimaro's help and stuffed everything into the wash, simultaneously amazed and grossed out at how much she'd managed to sweat. As if that fire were real, as if its heat were real…
Moving on now.
"Damn it," said Sakura to the linen closet when she opened it a few minutes later. "I had a spare set of sheets and stuff, but I forgot I used it for your bed, Kimimaro." She reached for the old bedroll that was stuffed into the top shelf. "I'll just use this thing."
Kimimaro's warm hand covered hers where it reached for the bedroll. He pulled it down.
"Sleep with me."
She might've said no, if she weren't still rattled from that nightmare and a little scared of going back to sleep. If she could remember the last time she'd washed that musty bedroll. If Kimimaro hadn't been standing behind her so that she could feel the warmth of him against her back. If he hadn't said those words into her ear in that smooth voice that made the suggestion so very comforting and agreeable…
But the stars had aligned just so on this weird night that Sakura hesitated for only a moment before nodding.
Kimimaro had been expecting a refusal; while she hesitated, he'd started saying, "Or you can have my bed and I can—"
And then the nod on her part made him cut himself off. He stared at her as though unsure that he'd seen what he thought he'd seen.
"Yes," said Sakura, to clear up any doubts there. "I'd like that."
Then, since he was still standing there mutely, she took his hand, led the way to his room, and clambered into his bed, a little giddy with her own audacity. Kimimaro turned off the lights and climbed in a moment after.
And Sakura, snuggling her way under the blankets, found herself feeling like a naughty teenager because they shouldn't be doing this, but they were, and it was deliciously illicit, and yet so innocent…
The combination of increasing butterflies and her awareness of her own ridiculousness – they were both adults, for god's sake – made Sakura giggle in the dark.
Kimimaro, who had been settling in next to her, paused. "What?"
"I feel like I'm doing something Not Allowed," said Sakura. "Like – like sneaking into a boy's room at night…"
"I never did those things, you know. I was super well-behaved. My mother wouldn't have stood for anything else. But I kind of get the thrill of it now…"
"So do I," said Kimimaro from close beside her in the dark. (So he too was feeling it, the low pulse of excitement, the loveliness of being so close, the delightful anticipation of what might happen next…)
Sakura turned onto her tummy and propped her chin up on her elbows. "I bet you would've been a well-behaved boy and listened to your parents and not snuck around at night. If you'd had a normal life, I mean. If you'd had the chance to be a normal teenager."
"Probably," said Kimimaro. There was a pause. "I have always followed orders. Wishes. Expectations."
"Always?" asked Sakura, her voice lilting into teasing in the dark. "Are you sure about that?"
(Because, yes, Kimimaro was generally rule-abiding and docile and biddable. Until he wasn't. Until he went and defected from his village for the sake of a Leaf kunoichi.)
"Well," said Kimimaro, and Sakura thought she heard him smiling. "There was one exception. Because of a girl."
"A girl," repeated Sakura with a faux-shocked gasp.
"Yes," said Kimimaro. "A girl…I think. Sometimes I think she is more than that. Like a thing from those stories they tell children…fairy tales."
Sakura laughed. "I think you're exaggerating."
"No," said Kimimaro. "Let me tell you about her…"
"Okay," said Sakura, resting her chin in her hands and biting back a grin. "Tell me about her."
"When our paths first crossed, I was very ill," said Kimimaro. "Dying. In some ways, I was already dead."
"This sounds like a sad story…"
"It is a good story. This girl – with her healing or her magic, I do not know – she brought me back. She worked on me for many months. Endured me for many months. And she believed in me, even when I did not. And though we were enemies, she treated me with kindness, always…"
Sakura smiled in the dark.
"Kind hands, kind words," continued Kimimaro. "And beautiful. She looks like she is from the fairy tales, too. Her hair – pink, like petals. I have never seen such a lovely thing. And her eyes – when she opens her eyes, it is like all of spring opens up in an instant before you…"
Sakura, not sure whether to tear up or die of her blushes, squeezed her pillow to her chest and said nothing.
"However. She took something in exchange for all of these things," said Kimimaro.
"What was it…?"
"Something that I did not know I had to give," said Kimimaro. His hand sought hers out under the sheets and pulled it to the left side of his chest. "A piece of me, just here."
Sakura's throat grew tight. "Oh…"
"After that, I could not help but follow her," said Kimimaro. "Not because I want it back…"
"Then…why?" whispered Sakura, grateful for the darkness that hid her tear-filled eyes.
"Because I want to give her the rest."
…He was going to kill her one of these days with these moments of purity and of love that came out of nowhere and overfilled her with feelings that she wasn't equipped to handle, feelings that threatened to overflow and explode. These moments of sincerity so acute and trust so strong – and for her? (It was her that he was talking about, it was her hand he pressed to his chest so she could feel his heartbeat under her palm, she was the pink-haired girl in his story with eyes like spring who had stolen a piece of him…)
Sakura's heart swelled so large – so painfully – that she found it hard to breathe. She bit her lip, struggling to tamp down this swell of emotions whose intensity almost hurt.
She pressed the heel of her free hand across her eyes and took a long, shaky breath.
He waited for her to continue, his fingers brushing hers where they lay on his chest.
"You need to know how lucky she is, this girl. To have you in her life. She might not deserve you. She might be too gun-shy, too broken…"
"She can fix herself. She fixed me," said Kimimaro. There was a pause, then he added, "Mostly."
Sakura smiled a gentle, sad smile at him in the dark. "You have such faith in me."
A kiss on the back of her hand was her only answer. They interlaced their fingers and moved closer to each other until Sakura rested her head on Kimimaro's shoulder.
A soft touch told Sakura that Kimimaro was playing with her hair, twining the silky rose strands between his fingers. He breathed out a sigh of contentment.
It was a moment of peace – and bliss, and beauty, and joy. And as she lay there in that bliss and beauty and joy with Kimimaro's hand in hers and his other gently laced into her hair, Sakura realized something all of a sudden.
She was falling in love.
And she had been for quite some time.
Falling in love… Could this even be called falling, this slow feather-light drift into a fathomless unknown? It was more akin to floating, really – on and on down in a leisurely gyre, with no end in sight…
Sakura took a breath; the fall and the disorienting whirl of emotions spiralling down with her were giving her the most pleasant sense of vertigo. She blinked out of it – or thought she had – but now Kimimaro's nearness was front and centre of her senses: the smell of soap, her leg against his, his hand over hers, the skin of his bare shoulder against her cheek, and the dizziness persisted.
She hid it away in the deepest part of her soul, this fragile new understanding, this feeling – for it to grow stronger among those secret recesses that reverberated with her heartbeat. And as she lay there with him, and his gentle hands played with her hair, she knew that it wouldn't be long now before it grew too strong for her to keep hidden and that she would be forced to be brave, and bring it to light, and tell him, and to hell with the repercussions; she would deal, because this – this was going to make her happy.
So she held onto him and closed her eyes and delighted in the fall.
And it was the loveliest thing, the loveliest, loveliest thing…
To be continued...