Title: This Is How We Operate
Summary: And the only way to deal with crazy people, she knew, was to comply with their demands and not make any sudden movement.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
This Is How We Operate
The first time it almost happened, the world was practically ending around them, dark skies crumbling down in blood-crusted flakes under the weight of apocalypse. The enemies were bearing down upon their last line of defense, which was being cut down faster than putty cheese under a meat-grinder, and things, to put a finer point on it, were either looking grim or were on fire. Or both.
"So," Naruto said as he wiped ash off his cheek, leaving a faint streak of red and grey. "When this thing is over – supposing we both live to see it, I mean – d'you think you might consider going out with me for real?"
Sakura looked up wildly, startled, and paused in the middle of tearing out a fresh ream of bandage just long enough to scream, "What are you talking about? What the hell are you even thinking?"
At that moment, there was a loud explosion some ten yards ahead of them, and they both ducked behind a fallen pillar as a shower of dust and debris swept over their heads in a hot, lashing wave. When it had passed, Naruto darted up for a look and quickly shrank back. His face and hair were finely powered with a film of white dust, giving him the appearance of having instantly aged thirty years, but beneath the grime, she could see that his troubled features mirrored the realization spreading across her own face.
The Akatsuki had broken through the last gate. And, judging by the way Naruto's paled brows were getting downright epic, they had fucking flamethrowers. Beautiful.
"Look," Naruto said, his breaths forming too quickly and hushing his speech. "We don't have much time here – I don't care how hard you're gonna hit me later, I'm not regretting this!"
"What…" she began, but was interrupted by the looming vision of Naruto's body as he lunged forward, his arms coming around her, one hand tangling in her unkempt hair and the other ending up somewhere around her waist. Another second went past that she'd never get back, and then she was promptly dipped backward and he was kissing her.
As first kisses went, it wasn't quite as smooth as could be expected, and his lips initially landed on her chin. But she quickly adjusted and then they were crushed together, their hot breath mixing, and as her hand moved up his shirt and rested on his stomach, she had time to wonder – Naruto's lips were cracked and bleeding, but damn it, they were really soft.
By the time she'd regained her bearing, he had moved away. She only just caught a sliver-glimpse of a choppy, pale gold grin before he was gone, shooting off like any true kunai ever crafted.
"Hey, assholes, you're looking for me, right?"
And all of a sudden there was a lot of noise in the background, screaming and explosion and general destruction, and everything seemed amplified as if somewhere in the world some asshole had cranked up the volume to max and the whole universe had tuned in to watch them lose the war. It was strange and terrible, and Sakura tried to keep one eye out for Naruto, but the stream of wounded was flowing in faster than ever and she was only one person, and it was just never enough. She didn't have the time to breathe, let alone think about what a kiss could or could not mean.
There was no time at all, especially when – much later, when she had decided that she had seen enough broken bodies and scattered concrete to last three lifetimes – her mouth was oily and coppery with the blood streaming down from her head injury, struggling as a blinding, agonizing force burned metaphorically behind her eyes and the palms of her hands burned literally from the effort to keep the enraged Kyuubi from bursting forth from Naruto's body, which seemed to be holding itself together with sheer force of will.
It was the worst moment of her life.
And much, much later, when the news of victory had sunk in with a dull, unrecognizable impact and everyone else who had survived had begun the process of piecing themselves together, she realized that she'd had no idea what she'd been talking about at all.
Because the worst was standing at Naruto's hospital bed, clutching white-knuckled at the iron railings in an effort to keep herself from falling down or throwing up or crying, and realizing that it was just never enough, that she didn't know enough, didn't even skirt the tip of the colossal iceberg that was "chakra poisoning". The worst was not knowing how to accept it – because since when did she do shit like that, like letting go? – and locking herself in her bedroom with her entire collection of medical journals and a jug of sake for twenty-eight hours, reading until her eyes blurred with exhaustion and stomach acid made her vomit sour liquor.
Rock-bottom was making a bonfire with all ten uselessly incomprehensible volumes and what was left of the sake after realizing that not one of them contained the information she desperately needed, was falling asleep with the pinprick flame dancing behind her eyelids and waking up to a smoke-filled room miraculously uncharred, to the visceral knowledge that she was bleeding through the gauze wrapped around her hands because she'd been hitting the floor in her sleep, and to Shizune's concerned face, all shadows and lines in the dark, the shaky assurance that everything would be alright.
In the end, they were.
Naruto, the Konoha healing wonder, came through with almost ironic reliability, and Sakura could laugh, except she was too busy sobbing in gratitude that day she walked into the ward to find gold hair disappearing into Tsunade's white lab coat as the Godaime cried the same happy, scared tears Sakura knew were running down her cheeks. And even later, when everything had mostly transgressed from "torn to shreds" to a vague semblance of order, she was still too occupied with telling Naruto to eat and stop breaking her heart to begin to think about having time to think about the meaning of something that might as well have happened a million years ago.
So it didn't happen, that first time.
The second time it almost happened was accidental at best.
Reconstruction had just gotten off the ground, and the village was barely back on its feet before it was cruelly struck down again by a terrible new nemesis: influenza. And Sakura, who had never been sick a day in her life, was appropriately baffled when she was kicked out of the ER one morning by Tsunade, who claimed that she was doing more harm than good toting those icky germs around already terminally ill people, and for God's sake don't get out of bed until her nose stopped matching her lipstick and was no longer taking up half her face.
Physicians, heal thyselves.
On Monday morning, while she making feeble, bleating sheep-noises pitifully in her pillows and wanting to die, the front door opened with a click and she mustered up just enough energy to moan, "Mom, I can't eat anymore leek chowder, and I swear if you try to paint my toenails again I will physically maim something. This is your only child begging you to please, please go away."
"That's very interesting," mused Naruto, who didn't have a key and therefore should not be standing in her bedroom. "But unfortunately more than I ever wanted to know."
Sakura unearthed her face about two inches from its cotton tomb, and buried it again when she realized the effort might actually kill her. "Oh my God, how did you get in here? Did my mom leave the front door unlocked so that any psychopath could just wander in and murder her sick daughter?"
"I love how the flu brings out the kind, nurturing side of you," Naruto said in what was clearly an attempt to get hit in the face. "I came by to see how you were doing."
"I think I might die," Sakura said wistfully, rolling over onto her side. "My entire body hurts."
"Yeah, leek chowder will do that you," Naruto said, shuddering faintly. "Hold the fort for a minute and I'll see if we can't get you something more palatable."
In the soothing environment created by the ensuing domestic-like noises emanating from the kitchen, Sakura found herself drifting off into a hot, half-hearted sleep.
"Hey, don't fall asleep just yet," said Naruto as he came back, accompanied by the smell of some steamy heavenly liquid. "Try to see if you can keep this down."
She pulled herself up into a sitting position as Naruto adjusted the pillow and placed before her the in-bed tray that Sakura had bought back when she was pretending to have a normal home life and had never used since.
"I think there's a fly nest somewhere beneath your sink," Naruto said, arranging spoons and napkins. "They were driving me crazy."
"I just try to live with them," she said, inhaling the wonderful smell of actual, edible food.
"No," Naruto said slowly, looking at her in what – dear god – might be genuine pity. "That's livestock. People don't live with flies. Though I see your mother is making some effort to prevent this place from turning into a registered disaster zone. I didn't trip over anything potentially hazardous on my way in."
"I know, isn't it horrible?" she whined. "She messed up my entire system. I can't find anything now."
"Your carefully-formulated system of haphazadously tossed clothes, you mean?" Naruto asked, throwing her own words back at her in what was probably supposed to be a sympathetic manner. "You'll get it back in time. Now eat."
"Oh my God," she gushed through a mouthful of something-chicken. "I might kill you for this recipe."
Naruto looked deeply amused. "It's a powdered formula."
"I never did get the hang of those things," she said ruefully, shoveling more soup into her mouth.
"It's probably for the best."
Sakura finished her soup, and Naruto pulled a stool up next to her bed, and she had to smile at the way his gangly body bent into itself to accommodate the tiny article of furniture. They shot the breeze in low, scratchy voices, and when Sakura complained that his volume was giving her a headache Naruto just laughed and fitted his knobby knuckles into the cavernous bones of her eyesockets, rolled them around a few times until she was drowsy from the motion. It was a very comfortable sight, him loose-limbed and awash in the dim light of her bedroom, moving his hands as he talked as though he were shaping the words with each sweeping gesture.
He talked about fantastic things like becoming Hokage and conquering the known world, and while she rolled her eyes copiously it was also a mostly nice moment, rare and uncomplicated. Sakura was quietly waiting for either one of them to ruin it spectacularly by being themselves, and when they both failed to behave in any significantly damaging way, she began to suspect that maybe that other thing would come up, the thing that she absolutely positively never wanted to talk about ever, especially not when she had the whole sick-breath, unwashed hair going on and her face was red and blotchy and swollen, and what kind of a time was it to spring something like that on a person anyway?
"Are you okay?" Naruto asked in faint concern. "You look, um, green."
Sakura was on the point of saying, Just fine, thank you, only hyperventilating slightly here, but stopped herself just in time. "Thank you," she said after a moment. "For all this, I mean."
"People should have others to take care of them when they're sick," he said, shrugging. "It's like the rule."
"What about you?" she asked quietly, and once upon a time this would have been top ten in the list of Personal Questions We Don't Ask Ever, but things changed.
"I don't get sick," he said, and all things considered it was probably true.
Not soon after, Sakura fell asleep, thinking, We're completely hopeless, it's probably incurable at this point, and when she woke the stars were just beginning to appear in the Konoha sky and Naruto was gone. There was a note on the nightstand; Naruto's mostly illegible scrawl informed her that he would be back when her flu and gallows humor had let up a bit, and if she hated her mother's cooking so much perhaps she should try fending for herself, with specific hints that she should fend with the stuff he'd left in her fridge, and not under any circumstances attempt cooking on her own.
A kiss could mean a lot of things, but sometimes a bowl of soup was just a bowl of soup.
The third time, the one that took place at Ino's engagement party, might or might not have ever actually happened, because Sakura honestly couldn't remember anything after the fifth tequila beyond vague blobs of colors. The hostess seemed much too amused to enlighten her on the matter, and Naruto, when faced with her inquiries-bordering-on-threats, would only respond in a series of embarrassed, increasingly unintelligible noises.
Later, she heard that Sai had sketches and took regular requests, whatever that meant, but could never lay her hand on any concrete evidence – they all had a tendency to disappear neatly underneath tables or sitting cushions as soon as she entered the vicinity, or were balled up and swallowed with gratifying expressions of intense pain by the guilty parties.
Go figure. The one time that mattered, and it didn't even count.
Long ago, Sakura had come to the conclusion that, at the rate she was going, she was becoming something like a bit player on a TV show called Naruto: A Chronicle or some equally ridiculous title. It was the kind of show where the ratings and technical quality were on the constant decline, and the hero kept inexplicably passing over the main love interest in favor of his dysfunctional best friend or the guest-star supervillain of the week.
Almost simultaneously, she had also come to the conclusion that it was no way to live, and that her life wanted none of that. Swift changes were in order. They were all about taking the initiative, and mostly involved increasingly intensive training schedules and breaking really hard things with her fists.
But now that was out the window, and all for what, exactly?
Well damn if she didn't have the answer to that. Uzumaki bloody Naruto, better known as the proverbial wrench in all her life plans. Naruto, with his bright hair and sloppy smile and his hero complex and his stupid face. Men. That was how they got you, she reflected. First they reeled you in with their chicken soup and their heartwrenching heroic gestures in a moment of crisis, and before you knew it they were sucking the life out of you.
Deliberation was one thing, but their whole "will we, won't we" dance had progressed to the point where all their friends had resorted to alternating between sighing pityingly at social gatherings and taking bets on the sly in the local pool run by Tsunade, and Sakura had to draw a line at that. The woman was her boss. It was wrong. The office tension was, she deduced, no longer remotely worth the tradeoff of a possible source of carnality.
Her professional life was typical in its general unhelpfulness. It had been a thoroughly disappointing week, filled with patients with tricky if terribly mundane injuries. It was, in all fairness, "laceration-fodder month" – the medics' fond nickname for that wonderful time of the year when a fresh batch of clumsy Genin would be unleashed upon the unsuspecting village. Give some twelve-year-old a kunai and suddenly everyone was an amateur ANBU.
By Saturday afternoon, Sakura decided that enough was enough, foisted her duties onto her whiniest intern, and informed the Hokage that she had spontaneously developed a psychological aversion to sutures. The blisters on her fingers? Were protest-blisters.
So she was middling along, minding her own business and wistfully cherishing a beautiful thought about the imminent vanquishing of the sentient beings masquerading as her three-week-old laundry, when who should she come across, leaning casually against a power pole and as cool as you please?
Uzumaki bloody Naruto.
"Hey, Sakura-chan. How's it hanging?"
Sakura stopped dead in her track. His face was nigh chopped in half by a shit-eating grin. It spelled TROUBLE, with strong emphasis on the caps.
"Oh my God, what?" she said by way of reply.
"I have no idea what you mean," he said innocently, pulling a galling "who me?" expression that she took great issues with, and continued to smile disturbingly. If he'd noticed her leaning away in horror, his face didn't show it. "I'm just here to share the good news."
"Whatever it is, please don't tell me," she pleaded, trying to edge away inconspicuously.
"I found a new lead on Sasuke," he said brightly, moving to effectively blocking her escape route. "It's fool-proof!"
Now where have I heard that before, Sakura thought despairingly, and after failing in her attempt to claw the skin on her face off in frustration, said, "Naruto, when I said last time was the last time, I really, really meant it."
It was saying something about the state of their relationship (or complete lack thereof) that one of them had already undergone an intensive Sasuke-related therapy session, and the other was obviously seeking one.
Naruto looked immediately crestfallen. "But I swear…"
"No," she said quickly, using the clipped, authorative voice that was going to make her the toughest, most widely feared resident medic on the surgical wing of the Konoha Hospital. "Look, one day, far, far from now, the nice and merciful members of the Miroku ninja clan might possibly consider removing that million-ruan price on your head for laying waste to their village, but in the mean time…"
"Well how was I supposed to know they weren't harboring Sasuke among them?" he sulked, pouting expressively.
Sakura gave the long-suffering sort of sigh that meant she hated him, and said, "The fact that they were a kunoichi village well-known for the use of deadly sexcrafts against men didn't clue you in? And besides, Sasuke isn't even a fugitive anymore! He's the esteemed new leader of the Hidden Sound Village, which need I remind you isn't even a hostile party at the present?"
Naruto scoffed, and waved this information away as though it were so much superfluous details. "It's different this time. I swear on my future Hokage hat this will work. I did promise you, didn't I?"
Sometimes, Sakura knew she seriously regretted manipulating Naruto into making that farcical promise when they had both been a/ deranged by grief and b/ too young and stupid to know any better. Because whatever issue she might have had with the third member of their former three-man team in the past, it was no where near as extensive as the one that was obviously eating away at Naruto's mind, causing some sort of psychotic break. Yeah, that was it. Clearly, as rational and sensible Naruto might seem in matters of 30-minute cooking, he still had a deplorably, inescapably tragic tendency to get manic when Sasuke's name came into the mix.
And the only way to deal with crazy people, she knew, was to comply with their demands and not make any sudden movement.
"Fine," she muttered in defeat, hating herself every second for it. "Last time?"
"Ever," he provided glibly, nodding like a bobble-head doll. "Now just follow me."
They had been moving in silence for a long time before Sakura chanced opening her mouth to ask what she deemed a somewhat critical question. "Naruto, why are we going into the forest?"
For a moment, Naruto looked like she was speaking in a completely foreign language – crazy, Sakura thought, totally, totally crazy – before slow understanding washed over his face and he laughed lightly. "We're just… meeting a contact. They'll… tell us where Sasuke is."
Sakura fought the urge to fling herself trembling at the ground in fear, and figured that, if it really came down to it, she could always bash him unconscious and hide the body in the forest.
The trees were thronging thicker around them now, the shades gaining in density, languorous and breathing coolly on their skin. The forest was an explosive riot of colors, mostly in the red-yellow-brown spectrum, softened and rounded with sienna shadows. The air was still warm, a sultry Indian summer that tingled on her tongue like cinnamon, and Sakura was surprised to find that the brief patches of sky above were an impossible late-October blue. The sky was always milder and kinder in Konoha somehow. The living was never easy for shinobi no matter the season, so she'd seldom noticed its changing, except in these moments.
Slowly, she took in a deep, mossy breath, and let her heart return to summertime.
"We're here," Naruto announced suddenly, and parting some thick branches theatrically, led Sakura into what for all means and purposes appeared to be an empty lot in the trees.
"Um," Sakura said, looking around. "Where's your contact?"
Naruto blinked, and looked at her tolerantly like she was a particularly slow child. "Well, clearly there isn't any."
It was Sakura's turn to blink. Then she did what she was becoming quite apt at, and freaked out. "You lied?"
Naruto looked horribly confused, though not at all uncomfortable with the implication. "Uh, yeah, sort of. But you knew that. Didn't you?"
Sakura privately felt that she was nearing critical mass on freaking out and sputtered, "Knew what? What was I supposed to know?"
"Ah," Naruto said sagely, nodding in apparent understanding. "You didn't stop to think about it. You just freaked out."
This conversation was going in all sorts of wrong directions. There was a slow crawl of awareness meandering across the landscape of her mind, and it was trying to tell her something. "Oh my God, what?"
Naruto smiled faintly and shook his head, probably because he was secretly vainglorious and knew it made his bangs fall into his face dramatically. When he looked up, his eyes were all lit and bright blue and shining, the bastard, and Sakura felt a vague shivery sensation crept down her back.
"I am claiming my date, of course," he said seriously, gesturing vaguely in the direction of a picnic basket that Sakura could have sworn hadn't been sitting under that tree just a minute ago. "Do you have any objection?"
Sakura's mouth was hanging open slightly, her tongue tip was out and she was beginning to drool a little, but seriously, who cared?
"Oh," she said after a horribly loud pause and manage to nod weakly, but stopped in confusion when she remembered she didn't know what she was agreeing to. "Why, you know, here?"
Naruto beamed at her, like light off glass, like the fucking sun, and said, "Oh, this place is amazing. I was seriously afraid you wouldn't get out of work early enough – you've been working so late all week. Look, come over here."
Sakura allowed herself to be pulled into the middle of the clearing, breathing in and out like paper bags were going out of style. "Now look up," Naruto instructed, and stepped away from her.
She looked up.
There was one moment when she was just looking up with her head tilted stupidly at the curving arch of trees, and the next her face was bathed in illumination. There was light, diffuse and soft, smoothing along the lines of the trees, pouring out of the sky and spilling into the lot like a pale gold liquid. The dancing motes of light floated down and around in what Sakura dully noted could be a scene straight out of the torrid romance novels she had gorged on as a teenager and committed to memory until their debased influences had been thoroughly eradicated by the electroshock therapy otherwise known as her medical study.
The more important question here was, how did Naruto ever come by such a notion?
"Well," said man-of-surprise in question. "What do you think?"
She immediately had a caustic reply prepared, but decided that, just this once, perhaps she should just can it and go with the flow.
In a way, it was – the kind of wonderful that made Naruto's expression all shiny and wholesome like so many lofty skies, and made her think of journeys, how they began and how they all ended and all the things in between that everyone knew were more important anyway.
So she closed her eyes against the warm, pastel glow, and thought suddenly of something she hadn't had to think about in a long time. She thought about the war, and how, after it was over she could only remember two things, and one was the memory of Naruto's heartbeats, which she'd learned and relearned into perpetuity, and the other was a dream she'd had that day she'd fallen asleep in a pool of vomit, lost in a haze of smoke and alcohol. In it, she was floating in the air beneath a violently purple sky, unnaturally deep and crushing and gathering clouds. And she'd looked below, and seen a lake, frozen and muted by winter, but black and dead and endless as a wasteland when the sun had gone down, had burned out of the sky…
Of all the vomitaceous metaphors her mind could have picked.
And then she opened her eyes, and saw Naruto's face, half-hidden in the dappling shadowlight, saw his eyes closed and his lashes curving dark against his cheek, and the sudden, tremulous wave that had crested for awhile threatened to rise up again and pull her under. He's going to kiss me, she thought suddenly. When he opened his eyes again, he was going to step up and put his hand on the back of her neck and kiss her, and it'd just be like the last time except hotter and wetter and messier and better – no more of that silly oxygen business. He was going to kiss her, and she was going to kiss back and let her hands map the plane of his stomach, seek out the identical scars where her scorched hands had been that terrible day, and she wondered if his lips were still soft…
In the next moment, Sakura was too busy being horrified at her brain and its uncanny ability to retain trashy romance content in spite of a medical-study lobotomy that she didn't even notice she was being stared at.
But Naruto, surprising to the last, just leaned back against a tree and said smugly, "Of course, you realize now that we're just meant to be."
Sakura smiled and stepped up in one fluid movement into his personal space, pressing his hands up to the tree trunk and holding them palm to palm. Above them, the sky was turning pink and dark blue. The sunlight was waning now, and the cold dying rays coming down through the branches only silvered Naruto's face, softening it until the burden they shared relented, until all the secrets that lay scattered across the years unwound and it was bearable once more to breathe.
"Stop before I slip into a diabetic coma," she ordered, and moved to take the initiative.