Author's note: You know I can't write an old-school Naruto fanfic without having our protagonists enjoy a sparring session that brings nothing to the plot, but everything to the UST.
Sasuke's mysterious, and unnecessary, library visits, ceased after this exchange. This was good news for Sakura, who received an invitation to finish her discussion with the Council the next week. She hit the books hard, fine-tuning every aspect of her presentation so that she could convince that band of old-school doctrinaires to inject some new blood into their village before the Mist took away the opportunity entirely.
On this particular afternoon, she made her way home from yet another stint at the library, burdened by a large stack of books. The front door to her building was shut and so Sakura, loath to put her books on the ground, leaned back on one leg and tried to open the door with her foot.
The door was locked. At this point, the topmost volume on the pile of books decided to make a break for freedom and began to slide off; Sakura caught the corner of the cover with her teeth and made a muffled sound of distress when the next book began to slip...
Of course, Ino would chose that moment to walk by.
"My timing is impeccable as always, I know," said Ino, plucking the book out of Sakura's mouth and relieving her of the ones that threatened to fall. "I have, like, a sixth sense about you."
Sakura spat out the taste of old paper. "You do, and thank god. Keys are in my right pocket, if you'd be so kind…"
Ino sighed in a put-upon way as she fished out the keys. "I suppose. Where's Kimimaro?"
"Out with Gai and co., I think..."
"Pff. If I had a ward, I'd make him my errand boy and never have to carry anything ever again," said Ino, unlocking the building's double doors. "I just got off work – are you free?"
"For a bit. Just dropping these off and then I've got a training session…"
They unloaded the books on the counter and Sakura disappeared into her room to change into her training gear. Ino, who hadn't been over since her return from the retrieval mission, poked around the apartment.
"Ooh, so this is Kimimaro's room now," she said, sticking her head in what used to be Sakura's study. "Cute. But I would've put the dresser on the other side – and you need like, an accent colour to pull it together, maybe some throw pillows..."
"I don't think he really cares about the decor," called Sakura.
"Ooh, and what's this?" asked Ino, having found a few shirts draped over a chair. "These are new. Are they his? They're pretty…"
"Yeah, I had them made for him," said Sakura, sticking her head out of her bedroom to see what Ino was fussing over. "He didn't really have anything to wear, so…"
"Fancy. They must've cost you," said Ino, holding one up.
Sakura tugged a tank top over her sports bra. "A bit. The Council funds most of his expenses..."
"Ooh – is this his family's crest?" asked Ino, studying the motif on the back. "You had that put on for him?"
"Yeah, it seemed like a nice thing to do. You clan people really like your symbology…"
"It was a nice thing to do," said Ino, folding the shirt back up with a kind of thoughtfulness. "And what's this?"
Sakura was now rustling around by the front door, looking for her boots. She glanced up at the little bouquet in the middle of the table that had caught Ino's eye. "Camellias, I think..."
"I know they're camellias, you doofus," said Ino. "Of all people, I'd know that. Who're they from?"
"Uh – Kimimaro found them somewhere and brought them back for me – said they were pretty…"
"Pretty, yes," said Ino, touching the white flowers and pulling a few up higher to give the bouquet a more artistic effect. "Camellias are a token of devotion. Did you know?"
"Are they?" asked Sakura absently as she slipped on her boots.
"Yeah, they are. God… you buy him stuff, he gets you flowers, you live together… you guys might as well be together."
This was an offhand remark on Ino's part – and so it would have remained, had Sakura not suddenly blushed and grown unnecessarily focused on zipping up her boots.
It wasn't fair, how sensitive Ino was to her moods. Ino turned towards her slowly in the face of this sudden blushy silence.
Then, a second later, a little gasp from Ino's lips marked the moment when she put the pieces together.
Sakura pretended to struggle with her zipper and did not answer.
"Hey," said Ino, sliding half of her butt into the chair that Sakura was occupying. "I'm talking to you."
"Ino, you're in my way–"
Ino edged herself into Sakura's lap. Sakura looked up to find Ino staring at her with those crystalline eyes. "Are you… into him?"
"Into who?" asked Sakura stupidly.
Sakura scoffed. "Don't be silly."
Ino leaned in close. "Oh my god. You are. You so are."
"Pff," said Sakura, turning away to shield herself from Ino's eyes, which only confirmed what Ino had just understood.
"You – this is – he's – oh my god, though?!" said Ino with stunning coherence.
"No – wait – this makes so much sense? And you… you're so happy…?" said Ino, hyperventilating a little now. "Ohmygod..."
"You're reading too much into things–"
"No no no. I haven't been reading enough into things," said Ino. She grabbed hold of Sakura's face. "Stop denying it."
"No," said Ino, frowning fiercely. "I'm already annoyed at myself for missing it, and I'm going to get annoyed at you if you keep playing dumb."
"I have to go," said Sakura.
"We need to talk about this."
"I'm going to be late–"
"You can be late," said Ino, settling herself more firmly on Sakura's lap.
"No, I can't," squirmed Sakura.
Ino held her down with her hands on her shoulders. "Why? Who are you training with that's sooo important?"
Sakura opened her mouth to fabricate something and promptly forgot the names of everyone she'd ever met in her life.
"It's – with – with, um–"
"...It's him," said Ino shrilly. "It's so him. Oh my god, this is too good…"
"It's not, and you need to get off me, before I toss you off," said Sakura, grabbing hold of Ino's waist with every intention of flinging her away.
Someone knocked on the door with irritating joviality.
"What?" said Sakura.
"Hello, Sakura!" said Lee, pushing the door open and jogging on the spot. "Would you like to run together to the training grounds? Kimimaro is waiting for you there! Let's not be late...!"
Lee's enthusiastically punctuated words trailed off at the sight of Ino on Sakura's lap, Ino's hair draped over Sakura's shoulder, Sakura's hands on Ino's hips...
"Yes," said Sakura, standing up and dumping Ino onto the floor in the process.
"I knew it!" shrieked Ino from the floor.
"Bye," said Sakura.
Lee followed her out, discreetly wiped his bloody nose on his sleeve, and was unusually dreamy and pensive all the way downstairs.
"You ready, Kaguya?" said Sakura to Kimimaro.
Their little audience at the training grounds – Gai, Lee, and Tenten – shouted out some words of encouragement that were partially lost to distance. Sakura had chosen one of the outer training fields for this little skirmish – mostly because she could rough it up without anyone getting too angry at her for ruining the landscaping, but also because it was far away from curious eyes.
"Taijutsu only, no weapons, and say yield when you've had it," said Sakura, recapping the brief set of rules they'd agreed on. "Anything else goes."
"I am ready," said Kimimaro.
As for Sakura, she was as ready as she could be. She had sparred a thousand times in her life, of course, but she had never entered a session with this peculiar combination of excitement and butterflies and adrenaline.
Her plan was simple: keep prodigy-boy here off balance, get him in close range, and give him a good reason to yield in the form of the threat of skull-shattering punches. (And she had an ace in the hole, if that didn't work; an unorthodox, kind of unfair little move which she almost hoped she'd have occasion to use, because it would be so much fun...)
"You know so much about my techniques and I so little about yours," said Kimimaro as he watched Sakura adjust her black gloves. "It does not seem fair."
"Well, you're about to learn," said Sakura with a smile, because what's a sparring session without a little trash talk. "I look forward to educating you."
"BEGIN!" shouted Gai.
Kimimaro and Sakura moved in on each other in careful circles, judging each other's readiness. Sakura had known that Kimimaro would be faster than she was and, much to her annoyance, he lost no time in confirming it.
They danced in a spiral that widened fast as he seemed determined to keep her at a distance until he learned just what he was dealing with. Sakura saw the ease with which he moved on this terrain – this dusty flat ground that provided just enough friction for stable footing, and just enough give for him to slip out of her reach when he needed to...
So, after a minute of this little dance, when it became clear to Sakura that she wouldn't be getting Kimimaro into close range any time soon, she decided to change the terrain. His only forewarning was the flare of chakra that surged to her fist – and then her knuckles hit the ground with enough concussive force to fling anyone nearby into the sky.
Sakura looked up among clouds of billowing dust to find that Kimimaro had already been airborne when her fist hit the ground and thus avoided the worst of the quake. He landed on one of the newly formed hillocks a short distance away, looking with surprise at the altered landscape around him.
"I thought I should keep my distance from your fists," said Kimimaro as he observed the high ridges of new earth emanating from the point of impact. "Now I know it."
"Great idea, in theory," said Sakura, "now whether or not you can actually implement it is another thing…"
She darted to where he stood and, a moment later, Kimimaro found that his little hill had crumbled to rubble beneath him. He flew to the next one, graceful as always, only to find it disappear in a split second beneath his feet. The next one exploded into slippery shale as soon as he landed.
An elegant tumble later and he'd found solid ground again a little further away.
"Strong," said Kimimaro, from where he thought he was safe.
"Yes," said Sakura, a little breathless now, before slamming a fist into the ground perfectly calculated to open a fissure beneath his feet.
Kimimaro did not say much after that, too preoccupied now with landing somewhere that didn't immediately split into a void beneath him. Sakura gave chase with glee: it was fun to knock him off-balance as he jumped and flipped and found his footing on new ground apprehensively, before it disappeared from under him again.
"You're running out of places to hide," panted Sakura as she pursued him to the outer limits of the training field.
"Yes," said Kimimaro.
Sakura pulverized his newest perch and Kimimaro found himself dangerously close to being cornered.
He considered his predicament with an impassive face. "Perhaps it is time to go on the offensive."
"Finally," said Sakura. "Come and get me."
Something in the way she said these words made him look at her – really look at her. And she stared back, defiant, a queen of destruction among the rocky remains of the training field, dirt smudging its way up her arms and across her face, her chest heaving from exertion.
She waited for him to make a move but he was mesmerised by the sight of her like this, strong, a little wild, her blood up, her eyes bright.
Sakura did not have time to indulge such flights of fancy. A strand of hair escaped her ponytail and got caught on her lip; she pushed it away impatiently.
"Well?" said Sakura.
"Well?" said Kimimaro from somewhere behind her.
Kimimaro out-sped her; this she already knew, but she didn't expect to miss him moving merely by blinking. But, so it was. Sakura whirled into a roundhouse and missed him completely, fell into a handspring with that momentum and kicked up again with a few feints that he didn't bother to dodge–
And then Kimimaro did go on the offensive, and Sakura found herself hard-pressed to block the bewilderingly rapid series of punches that followed. One block she flubbed – his feints were more sophisticated than hers and a right hook tricked her – and that punch would've hit home on her shoulder, except he pulled it, of course, and it was only a tap, just to let her know he could've shattered that joint, you know, if he'd wanted to.
As she defended against him with increasing desperation, Sakura began to understand that fighting someone like Kimimaro wasn't a matter of reaction, it was a matter of anticipation. With most of her sparring partners she could be responsive – your turn, my turn, your turn – but with him, if she wanted to get anywhere, it would be a question of foresight, guessing, pre-empting…
So she let him carry on this flurry of punches that she now knew wouldn't hurt her and dodged and blocked what she could, and learned. He had an artistic bent, this she knew, and in the context of this casual spar, he allowed himself to fall into little patterns, symmetrical almost – left followed right, two rights followed two lefts. (Sakura also realized at this point that he was, for all intents and purposes, ambidextrous; an excellent ability for a hand-to-hand fighter and she was a little jealous.)
Then, having had enough of the thuds of Kimimaro's pity-punches on her skin, Sakura back flipped out of his reach. She twirled away again when he caught up to her in what seemed like no time at all.
She found herself able, after this brief study at close quarters, to anticipate him a little more, and so she was able to block his next punch solidly with the palm of her hand, and when he tried to pull away, her fingers tightened around his fist and she said, "I don't think so."
Her hand slid to his wrist and his eyes widened because he could feel the strength there, and he knew that he wasn't breaking that grip easily.
They stilled, breathing hard at each other.
Distant cheering made Sakura look up. Others had joined Gai, Lee, and Tenten across the field: she thought she could see Kakashi's scarecrowy figure, and Ino, and the spiky heads of Naruto, Kiba, and Shikamaru...
"Now what?" asked Kimimaro.
"Well," said Sakura, holding her other fist level with his face, "if you were an actual enemy, I'd be redecorating the ground with your brain at this point."
"Oh," said Kimimaro.
"Yield?" asked Sakura.
"No," said Kimimaro.
Sakura was interrupted by a sweeping kick that caught her behind the knees. She had a split-second decision to make to break her fall before her head hit the ground, and she made it: she let him go.
She watched Kimimaro dart out of her reach, sure-footed and elegant as ever – until she jammed a heel into the ground with three thousand pounds of perfectly controlled chakra-fueled pressure behind it.
"Hah," said Sakura when Kimimaro dropped into a pit that wasn't there a second ago.
There was the sound of scrambling and Kimimaro flipped his way out of the hole and dusted himself off, looking annoyed.
"Um – what are you doing?" asked Sakura when Kimimaro pulled off his top and hung it onto a nearby fencepost.
"I did not think that I would be getting so dirty," said Kimimaro.
Sakura took this as a compliment.
"Well," she said with a smirk, "you're about to get dirtier."
Which was all the warning Kimimaro got before another crevasse, bigger than the first, swallowed him whole.
But Sakura, in her enthusiasm, misjudged the strength required, and found the ground splitting below her too.
"So that's what that feels like," she muttered to herself as she recovered from the disorienting tumble.
Across from her in the rocky depths of the crevasse she saw Kimimaro's pale figure vaulting its way back up. She smashed at the wall hard enough to shake it, but not collapse it, and Kimimaro's grip failed, and he was back at the bottom of the pit with her.
He tried again, and again she shook the walls so that his handholds and footholds disappeared where he touched them. He landed on his feet with a grace that was starting to irritate her – no way she'd be that nimble tumbling down 20 feet…
"Hm," said Kimimaro, looking up at the treacherous walls and taking stock of his new situation in life.
"So what's your next move?" asked Sakura.
"Against an enemy – Sawarabi No Mai," said Kimimaro. "Dance of the Seedling Fern."
His eyes roved the rocky wall, looking for another way up. "Then I would be in control of this battleground and move on it where I willed, without these holes materializing under me..."
They fell silent, taking advantage of the lull to take a breather. Sunlight peeked into the crevasse from above, filtered to golden filaments among settling dust.
"Dance of the Seedling Fern," said Sakura, wiping sweat from her brow with the back of a glove. "It sounds pretty."
"It is, in a way," said Kimimaro. "A dead white forest..."
"You'll have to show me one day."
"Whenever you wish."
Sakura healed up a few scrapes and Kimimaro did the same, though unconsciously.
"...Shall we carry on?" asked Sakura at length.
Truth be told, she almost didn't feel like it, now – the fire in her had blood abated a little and she was enjoying this interlude with Kimimaro, down here in the dark, with the cool earth pressing its silence around them.
"If you want," said Kimimaro, perhaps in the same kind of mood.
They circled each other slowly, almost lazily, in the narrow confines of the crevasse. Sakura made a few half-hearted jabs; he avoided them; they circled again. This newest display of evasiveness made Sakura decide that the next time she caught hold of him, she would make him yield. He seemed to have gotten an inkling of this intention and stayed just out of reach of her and her iron grip.
He was quite beautiful, flickering here and there between shadows and the streams of sunlight that flowed in from above, so intent on her and her movements, and still breathless. And he'd lost the shirt, which made him particularly interesting to look at–
Sakura's inattention was rewarded by a bop on the nose that she wasn't fast enough to block.
"Daydreaming," said Kimimaro. "Focus."
Did he just tut at her?
"I'll show you focus," said Sakura, affronted, and she bombarded him with a dozen rapid-fire punches.
Kimimaro looked amused at her annoyance and skittered away, avoiding her renewed ferocity with a kind of exhilaration, and even laughing here and there when she snarked at him to stand still. Sakura chased after him and, finally, landed a solid kick (less the chakra that would've hurt) to his chest.
He grew more serious after that and then it was her turn to be chased around as he went on the offense and she was reduced to evading what she could and tanking the other hits with gritted teeth, knowing that any one of them could've put her out of commission until she healed, in a real fight…
"Brat," said Sakura, when she blocked a hit, took a swing, and found herself punching thin air again.
Her momentum carried her into the rocky wall of the pit, which she crashed into sideways. Her skin was immediately aglow with green to heal fresh abrasions – but there was little she could do for her torn-up tank, which now hung uselessly off of her bloodied shoulder.
Sakura pulled off the ripped thing over her head and muttered to herself that she should've followed Kimimaro's lead earlier and done without; her sports bra would've served her just fine the whole time.
Kimimaro studied her new attire without comment. Then he blinked. "Ready?"
"Yes," said Sakura.
She deflected his next hit and spun away. After a few more scuffles, Sakura began to notice that Kimimaro wasn't as concentrated as before: his blows were coming in a little less perfectly; his dodging wasn't so impeccable…
He was distracted.
When they broke apart and he drifted into a stare in spite of himself, she understood that she was the reason for it. She didn't feel particularly attractive right now, sweaty and grimy and more than a little beaten up – but maybe she was, in a dirty, athletic kind of way, and she was showing way more skin than he was used to, which probably explained it…
Sakura paused to wipe at the rivulet of sweat that trickled into her cleavage, a movement which she suspected would further captivate his attention – and it did.
That gave her the opening she was looking for to move in and bop him on the nose.
"Daydreaming," tutted Sakura. "Focus."
Kimimaro stared at her with his mouth half-open for a moment – and then she was treated to one of his brief, bright smiles.
"You are right," said Kimimaro.
"What's got you so distracted, Kaguya?" asked Sakura, even if she already knew what the answer was.
"You," said Kimimaro.
"Yes. It is not a fair fight."
Sakura looked him up and down – lean muscles, glistening skin, those eyes – and said, "Trust me – it's a fair fight."
They resumed their positions and took a few false jabs at each other but Kimimaro made no effort to really keep away this time. He let her get up close, close enough that she was able to snatch his wrist for the second time that day.
"Yield?" asked Sakura again.
"No," said Kimimaro.
His little knee trick didn't work this time; she pulled him down with her.
Somehow she knew he'd cushion her fall, and he did, with a hand cradling her head. They tumbled around the rocky floor, no longer sparring, really, but roughhousing like idiot genin when school's out.
And it became, as such things are wont to become, a game of who could be on top. Both of them were good at it: he was so stupidly quick he could snap out of her holds and she was strong and could toss him off whenever he managed to clamber onto her. They played the game for a bit, panting at each other, with Sakura swearing at him for being so slippery and him clenching his jaw whenever she flung him off of herself with a palm against his chest, like he weighed nothing at all.
Then, as they approached a point of exhaustion through this wrestling game, they slowed down, and Sakura threw him off more slowly than before, and he just lay on his back, breathing hard, and didn't react when she climbed onto him and locked her knees around his hips and told him, this time, this time he wasn't going anywhere.
He didn't answer; their chests heaved in time, touching, now, because she was leaning in to hold his hands in place above his head. He gave a half-hearted struggle; she pressed down harder.
"Yield," breathed Sakura.
"No," said Kimimaro.
"Fine," said Sakura. "You leave me no choice."
She felt Kimimaro brace himself beneath her, expecting to defend himself from a blow. Sakura laughed and shook her head at him.
"It's not a... a conventional move, the one that I'm going to use on you..."
"But," she said, leaning into him and whispering, "I'm not above using it, if I have to."
In the shadows, she felt more than saw the shiver that she elicited with these words and the promise held therein. Her mouth brushed against his neck and she could feel tiny ripplings of goosebumps there.
"Yield," said Sakura into his neck.
"No," said Kimimaro.
Sakura huffed out a little sigh, like he was trying her patience – but, really, she was savouring this soft moment of surrender-but-not-quite, of him lying beneath her and watching her with pupils made large by the shadows and something else...
"Stubborn," said Sakura.
(She was too, of course, the look he gave her told her that.)
His wrists were still being held above his head by her unyielding grip; he wriggled a hand halfway out and she permitted its escape, curious about what he thought to do next.
His fingers ran up her arm, past her shoulder, and to the nape of her neck. "Come closer."
Sakura looked down to where she was pressing herself against him. "Closer than this?"
"This is not enough," said Kimimaro, eyes green-black, and veiled, almost, by her nearness, the weight of her against him, her heated skin on his.
(And then, in a voice so low that she almost didn't hear it, "It is never enough.")
He took a breath when she smiled and lowered her face to his neck again, and dragged her lips along his hot skin.
"Are you sure you don't want to...?" said Sakura, whispering the words against his jawline. His eyes fluttered shut and it gave her a rush; it was a heady power, to make him drift into this quasi-trance because of her mouth and the words that accompanied it, he who had dominated her in their spar moments ago and was now powerless, and at her mercy.
He opened his eyes. "Come closer."
"I will – if you yield."
Again her lips drifted closer to his, promising contact if only he'd give up already and give her the victory.
"Yield," she whispered against the corner of his mouth.
It pleased her that, this time, it took him some effort to say no.
"You want me closer."
"You want me to kiss you."
"So yield and admit I win."
"...No," he said, his lips brushing against her cheek.
Sakura bit her lip. How far were they going to go, how long could they keep playing this, before one of them gave? She herself was feeling the tension of it, almost a pain in her bones, the ache of hormones and heart and old wants coming alive again – all of which were compelling her to yield, and reach down, and press hot kisses on his lips, and run her hands down him, and relieve them both of this tension so unbearable and yet so… so...
She breathed against his mouth. "But you want to."
He swallowed. She skimmed her nose and mouth here and there on his face; his cheek, his forehead between those two red circles.
"You – want – to," said Sakura, and with each word her mouth flitted little kisses against his.
His jaw was clenched; he was trembling a little below her.
He opened his eyes – a stormy whirl of attraction and love and want so potent it gave her vertigo to see it. His fingers on the back of her neck tightened momentarily as though he wanted to end this game and pull her to him – then he breathed, and regained his self-control, and his grip loosened into caresses.
The moment of surrender was slow. He swallowed and brushed the back of his hand along the side of her face.
Their eyes met – and then, so did their lips.
To be continued...