A/N: This is not my usual pairing—truth to be said, I had second thoughts when I first read this request from narutokun378. I also fear I will make OOCs out of the characters, especially Sakura, who comes last in my fave Naruto people list. But Na-san was very, very sweet and nice in her email that I had to put aside my pairing biases just this time to give way for her request.
I hope you enjoy reading, narutokun378!
A NaruSaku / NejiTen request grant for narutokun378
From the brown mud that covered the entirety of her small crumpled form, she turned her eyes to the outstretched hand in front of her.
Following the trail of sun-baked skin sloped upwards, she found herself face-to-face with a little boy her age, whose head was covered with a mop of sunny yellow hair. His blue eyes looked down at her kindly. His scratched cheeks were curved into two gentle Cs, revealing a wide grin.
"No one saw you fall, don't worry," he continued quietly. "Everyone else had gone home."
Remembering how she slid down the muddy quadrangle of the Academy as she hurried to catch a glimpse of the new boy in town, Uchiha Sasuke, and how she could have already missed the chance to see him, her emerald eyes watered.
The grin on the boy's face vanished. "What's wrong?"
Oh, how could she go home drenched in watery dirt? And her red dress… her mother would surely scold her for ruining this newly-bought dress!
And most importantly, Sasuke-kun! She wanted to see Sasuke-kun!
The boy watched her intently, and then raised his arms. She turned to him, surprised, when he handed her his clean shirt.
"Wear it on your way home. The people won't notice the dirt on the bottom part of your clothes," he told her.
She eyed the shirt hesitantly.
"You can give it back to me anytime you want to," he said assuringly.
Clumsily, she got up, shaking legs and all. She then put the immaculately white shirt over her spoiled top. Retying her ribbon behind her head, she turned to him, asking if she looked away.
He grinned, and then told her simply, "You're so pretty."
She couldn't help it; a smile formed on her face.
Haruno Sakura slowly opened her eyes, growing more and more aware of the movement around her.
"Eh? Sakura-chan?" The familiar voice she had heard since childhood rang from below.
"N-Naruto?" she asked groggily. Where was she? Where were the ceilings of her bedroom?
"Yup! You know, I've always thought that girls are exempted from snoring. But you proved me wrong," said the lad from beneath in a conversational tone.
Where is Naruto? Baffled, she looked down to find the source of the voice,
And then did a double take. Uzumaki Naruto was carrying her on his back! All thoughts of going back to her interrupted slumber vanished. She leveled her back and concentrated on gathering her scattered wits.
Sensing his childhood friend's silence, Naruto looked up at her quizzically, wanting to know what was on her mind.
"What am I doing on your back?" she asked him after a while. There seemed to have a backlog in her memory today. Earlier events in her mind were all muddled up like one giant blur.
A vein popped on her head, as her mind started to lose its fogginess.
"You were calling out my name," he continued somberly. "You were saying, 'Master Naruto, oh please command your humble servant! I long to please you with all my heart!"
That woke her up. A quick powerful punch landed on Naruto's crown. "I was asleep, not under temporary hallucination, idiot."
Naruto looked at her, a large bump on his head and all. "Seriously though, Sakura-chan. You don't remember?"
"I won't bother asking if I do," she sighed.
"Then I won't tell you!" he chirped in a sing-song tone.
"Stupid!" She banged her fist on the back of his head.
"OUCH!" yelped the boy. "Fine! You radioed for help a couple of hours ago, and I was the one sent to rescue you."
"O-Oh yeah…" She was suddenly starting to remember everything now. This late morning, she went to the forest to search for the ingredients she needed for the medicine she was making. Accidentally, she lost her footing while inspecting some bushes that concealed a shallow hole under an old gnarled tree. Falling in between the human-sized gap between the cold damp earth and the crushing roots of the tree, she barely managed to whistle and summon one of the famed dove messengers of Konoha to bring her hairband / forehead protector to the Godaime's office. It was her only hope of getting out of the place, as her sprained ankle, even with the best of her medical abilities, could not heal in time for her not to die of hunger.
Curse those diet plans, she grumbled then, recalling she only had but a glass of skim milk and a few carrot sticks this morning. It seemed like years ago.
"How long had I been sleeping?" she wondered aloud.
"A couple of hours tops," Naruto replied. "I found you still sleeping. I tried to wake you up, but you were really out cold. I had no choice but to carry you on my back."
So she had fallen asleep. Well, she was expecting to be saved within a quarter of an hour. But after what seemed like an eternity of waiting she couldn't fight fatigue anymore. The last thing she remembered was the overwhelming desire to close her eyes and try to forget her hunger.
"What took you so long to come, anyway?" she demanded.
"I lost track of the bird when I was following it," he shrugged. "So I had no choice but to just figure out on my own where to find you. Good thing I brought along a map—"
"But you don't know how to read maps," she protested.
"Whoever said anything about map reading?" he asked. "I was just about to say that it was a good thing that I brought a map of the forest along, so I could use something as a paper fan while I think and solve the problem."
She allowed herself a sigh to express her annoyance. "So how did you find me?" "Instinct." He grinned at her.
She paused, smiling a little too. It was the same reply he would give to her whenever he would easily find her in their training games with Hatake Kakashi back in their genin days.
Hide and seek among the three of them was, in Kakashi's words, a good exercise for their ability to conceal their chakra from the enemies when executing stealth missions. Yet for the life of her, the blond always, always knew where to find her, no matter how random her hiding spot would be.
"Sakura-chan?" came Naruto's voice, disrupting her reverie.
"Now what?" Had she only have the strength, she would have placed her hands on her hips. But right now, her powerless arms lie withered around his neck, contented to borrow little strength from his form. Startled, she discovered that this was the nearest she had been with the boy ever since she remembered.
"Would you mind reaching into my pocket?" he requested.
Her cheeks turned warm. "Baka! Just because you rescued me, it doesn't mean that you can ask me to do those… those kind of things!"
"Whoa, hold on!" he cried. "What kind of things?"
Despite the pleading tone of innocence in his voice, she was completely not fooled. After all, she knew that him being immersed for quite some time in the rowdy companionship of the perverted Jiraiya-sama, the lad had practically gotten a crash course on everything raunchy. The mischievous glint in his cerulean eyes gave him away, too.
"I was just going to offer you the chocolates in my pocket," said Naruto with a mock huff. "You've grown hungry by now."
"Yeah, right." But she still made no move to retrieve the said food from the side pockets of his trousers. "I'm on diet," she explained after awhile, sensing his inquiring gaze.
"Ne, Sakura-chan, you should really get rid of that diet thingie. You look good the way you are now," he suggested.
"What does someone like you know about the proper body proportion of a woman anyway?" she snapped.
"Forget it," she groaned, rolling her eyes. How could have she forgotten? Since age six, Uzumaki Naruto had studied thousands of female anatomies in porn mags and adult graphic novels just so he could sculpt the perfect form for his notorious Sexy no Jutsu that brought down several great men into a pool of nosebleed, including the Sandaime and the Jiraiya-sama himself.
"It's kind of like this," he said, ignoring her. "Guys like looking at girls with nice contours. It's something like admiring the sceneries or tasting a really expensive restaurant type of meal. But what we really like at the end of the day is going back to girls with normal curves, or the normal lack of it," he elaborated, earning him a glare from her. "Because just like how we always crave for the messy apartments we call a home, or the good ole Ichiraku noodles, we would always look for the people and things familiar to our hearts."
"Familiar…" she echoed, liking the sound of it on her lips.
"I myself like my woman with some meat," he said smilingly. "I want to hug someone without getting pierced by a pointed elbow or something."
She blinked, and then looked away, blushing faintly. "I wasn't asking about you."
"Never said you were. I just felt like sharing, you know." A layer of amusement bubbled underneath his casual tone though.
Before she could deliver another blow on the back of his head though, he suddenly perked up, pointing to a distance. "Hey! I can see Neji!"
"Neji?" She frowned delicately. What was the all mighty, unfeeling Hyuuga prodigy doing in this part of the forest? Lee often recounted to her some tales of the Hyuuga counting birds or something, but she could never bring herself to believe such a ludicrous exercise would be done by the male. Bird-watching for a clan genius' training. Yeah, right.
As if reading her mind, Naruto told her, "Granny Tsunade must have thought that I myself would get lost too, so he sent someone to rescue me so I can rescue you!"
She sweatdropped. "Why didn't she just send Hyuuga Neji in the first place?"
"Oh, you know, Neji," said Naruto, waving dismissively. "Unless you're his relative or you're married to him, he'll never give you a minute of his time. That's the jolly fellow he is."
"So what is he doing here?" she asked, puzzled.
"Oh." Comprehension surfaced in his voice. "Tenten's with him, see?"
She nodded slowly.
"For a prodigy of the Tsunade-sama to be trapped in the roots of a big, bad tree…" Tenten shook her head in mock pity at the sight of the pink-haired nin carried on the back of Uzumaki Naruto.
She bit back a retort. Over the weeks, she had her share of biting remarks from people who couldn't believe that a bookish type of kunoichi whose life used to revolve around Uchiha Sasuke would be chosen by the Godaime to be her very own student. After all, she showed no previous glorious display of powers or skills in her battles, unlike her two other teammates.
But when she finally released all her hurt to her mentor, Tsunade only had this to say.
"They can taunt a snail all they want for its slowness, but they will never have the same thing the small creature possess—time and certainty."
Neji eyed the orange-clad boy, then shook his head. "Stubborn as always."
Naruto frantically made a hushing sound, but Tenten was already speaking.
"It was Chouji whom Tsunade-sama sent, not you!" The brown-haired kunoichi eyed her with a sigh. "Once the Hokage-sama hears that you used Henge no jutsu—"
Sakura looked at him in surprise. Of course, why didn't it occur to her? Her mentor would never allow Naruto to do a rescue mission on his own because he lacked the technical skills in forest navigation!
Tenten was still scolding the blond boy, who was rubbing the back of his head. "Furthermore, you worried Tsunade-sama so much when the real Chouji came into her office, clueless as to why soldiers kept asking him if he had already found the Hokage-sama's pet student yet!"
"Granny Tsunade is always overprotective of me," said Naruto, sulking.
"She was just worried that Neji and I had to rescue two people instead of one," she rejoined.
"Tenten, that will be enough," said Neji from behind. "We should all head home so the Hokage-sama would stop worrying."
"Roger, Boss Neji!" she saluted mockingly, and then turned to the pink-haired kunoichi again. "Oh, by the way, Tsunade-sama asked me to make you take this." On her palm was a small vial of grounded herbs, which upon closer inspection, she had classified at once.
"This is a tranquilizer," she said, looking at the brown-haired girl.
Tenten nodded to herself. "Tsunade-sama had anticipated that you will say that. But she told me to tell you that when taken at half its customary dosage, it will serve as a muscle relaxant, enabling your muscles to heal faster."
"I see." Sakura took the small bottle, gazing at it closely. Yes, she still had a long way to go before she could reach even half the milestone of Tsunade-sama's expertise in medicine. This small vial was a glaring evidence of it.
But she was greatly determined to devote her life in improving her craft in this field. What she lacked in combat skills, she was more than willing to make up for in other ways she knew.
"You're so pretty."
And for the life of her, she trusted him. Even when people stared at her in curiosity, sometimes in amusement, as she made her way down the crowded alleys that would lead her back to their house.
Only when she arrived home had she only known that her face was caked with mud all over. If it weren't for her mother who immediately asked what happened to her, she wouldn't have known the reason why some people were laughing at her as she passed by.
She cried the whole night, embarrassed that she walked down the streets of Konoha, looking like a filthy water buffalo.
The next day, she found the blond boy, sitting on his own by the swing set of the Academy playground. She wasted no time to confront him, blaming him for her embarrassment.
He looked sad as he listened to her. When she finally allowed him to speak, he said softly, "I'm sorry. I didn't know everyone would find you hideous. But you were really pretty for me, even with all that mud."
He had long walked away, but she was still standing speechlessly at her spot, stunned. It was the first compliment she had ever heard in her whole life.
"She was still sleeping when you saw her?"
"Tenten, quit acting like Lee."
"Only if you quit acting like Mr. Grouchy."
"I do not know any man who comes by that name."
"You're not exactly Mr. Friendster Happy Face, so that's understandable."
Sakura could only see darkness, but the voices rang clearly in her mind.
Looks like I measured the medicine wrong, she mused sleepily. Her senses long to return to their interrupted latency, but the conversation flowed freely in and out of her auditory nerves.
"Don't fight, you two!"
"Naruto, this isn't a fight. It's how one talks to Neji to elicit an actual comprehensible response from him."
"I beg to disagree."
"Let's go back to what I was asking," said the female voice briskly. "What did you do when you saw her sleeping? Did you hold her hand?"
"I… checked her pulse," said a boy's voice weakly.
"Maybe you hugged her!" squealed the girl excitedly.
"Tenten, you're acting like a lovestruck idiot."
"Indulge me. Besides. what do you know about being struck by love, anyway, eh, Neji?"
"Besides, I didn't do anything to Sakura-chan."
They're talking about me? Sakura felt some of her sleep roll away.
"Sure?" asked the female voice. "You're alone with the girl of your dreams and you did nothing?"
"I only… I only stared," said the boy's voice embarrassedly, one she could now clearly recognize as Naruto's.
"Stared?" echoed the girl's voice. Tenten, she now recalled.
"Don't parrot words, Tenten. It's idiotic." Hyuuga Neji's voice was unmistakable.
"You only stared?" Tenten clicked her tongue. "At what?"
"H-Her face." An uneasy chuckle from her teammate. "It's something hard to do when she's awake. She always catches me, and when she does, she gets mad."
"No kisses?" The girl sounded disappointed.
"That isn't something for me to take," replied Naruto, and she could imagine him shrugging. "Seeing her for more than a glance worth is enough for me."
"But I really am happy," said Naruto, almost to himself.
"Hmm?" Tenten, puzzled.
Sakura opened her eyes just a little, and looked at Naruto, who was seated on the side of the hospital bed, grinning.
"It's been so long since I got to tell her that she's really pretty, without her getting mad at me," he explained, blushing faintly.
Something warm touched her heart. Then and now, Naruto had always… Naruto had always admired her. The thought made her smile inwardly. To feel that she was special even to just one man… it filled her with a kind of blissful contentment. A lot like happiness, if she would admit it.
Tenten nudged his ribs. "You're already happy with just that?"
"What are you talking about?" He turned to the brown-haired kunoichi. "After I told her that, she suddenly smiled at me!"