Synopsis: I'd spent the majority of my life believing one thing, and then BAM, life smacked me right between the eyes, leaving me dazed and befuddled. Why had I never realized my feelings for him until now[NaruSaku
Author's Note: This story is a mere one-shot, so what you see is what you get. (wink) I'd say it takes place maybe ten years after the current manga chapters. Hope you guys enjoy.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
In Anger and Affection
It's funny, sometimes, how things turn out. There are many words that can describe my current situation – ironic, ridiculous, regrettable. I'd be all too happy if I never had to leave the shield of blankets currently covering me as I lay in bed, bemoaning the sudden turn in my life. Those around me were ignorant about the reason of my despondency, and in fact, I knew they were quite mystified by my sudden seclusion.
I'd spent the majority of my life believing one thing, and then BAM, life smacked me right between the eyes, leaving me dazed and befuddled.
When had it happened?
How had it happened?
And why was I so pissed off? Why did I feel the need to smash my fist into the ground with all my might, and create a crevice the size of the village? Why did I feel the need to clench my teeth when talking? Last week, for the first time in my life, I literally saw red for almost an entire day. I'm well aware that I'm emotional woman, but to say my recent reaction was normal would be stretching the truth.
In the beginning, when I had first noticed my troubling reaction, it hadn't been too bad. Maybe a little irritating, and slightly surprising, but nothing to overly fret about. When I had snapped my pencil cleanly in two, I'd frowned and mentally shrugged. Then when I had slammed my hand down so hard on the Hokage's desk that I had broken it, I'd raised not only my eyebrows in distress, but the rest of those who were in the office as well. But, when the small, invisible tie keeping my feelings contained had snapped just yesterday, everything had come flooding out like an explosive tidal wave, blinding and enveloping me in a rage that had been barely controllable. And without a word I had left the crowded room for fear of causing bodily harm to those around me.
Of course the root of my problem would have to be a man. My infuriating, naïve, optimistic, confident, and irksome best friend, in fact. He created some problem every week with his trademark smile curved on his lips, and his eyes twinkling with a hint of mischievous temerity. After years in his presence, I've learned to deal with the ridiculous escapades that he always manages to drag me into some way or the other. But what has me so angry is not one of his retarded little plans, but something different entirely. And in truth, he isn't the main person that my fury is directed at. But I'm still very cross with him, have no doubt.
The first time that I saw her, I knew trouble would be brewing. Bright red hair, legs that went up to her eyeballs, lips so pouty and pink that they could entice even the most eclectic of men. I had come to the conclusion right after meeting her and watching the surrounding men follow her in a stumbling stupor that she sucked out their souls when they stared into her eyes. Women, thankfully, were immune to it. Her clothing wasn't revealing in a scandalous way, but it was just perfect enough to give an ample view of her charms without showing anything. Her fingernails were even painted the same obnoxious red as her hair. It was damnably annoying how the men salivated.
If she hadn't been a representative of the Waterfall Village sent to help negotiate a peace treaty, then I would have happily kicked her ass out of the village and then some for good measure.
But most importantly, what I can't quite understand is why the Rokudaime had to be her own personal tour-guide? Couldn't Naruto have designated some other dignitary or respected jounin to fulfill the duty? He had more important things to do as the leader of the village that didn't include the leech-like presence of Fai.
I shuddered unconsciously at the mere thought of her name.
With a grimace, I threw back the sheets from my face and took a deep breath of fresh air.
Every time I saw her manicured fingers grip Naruto's forearm, or come to rest on any part of his anatomy, I felt a vein bulge in my forehead. Her tinkle of laughter sent tremors down my spine. Her voice curdled my blood. It was almost embarrassing how much I disliked the woman. Well, in all honesty, dislike is too kind a word.
There was one thing yesterday, however, that annoyed me the most. For something so apparently simple, it had sure triggered a response that had been beyond imagination for me. I'm still reeling from it.
I closed my eyes, and nibbled absently on my lower lip.
Fai believes herself to be a master at telling jokes. If there was a way to inform her that her jokes fell flat without seeming rude, I would have been happy to point out her failings. But, alas, there had never been an opening. Yesterday's joke had been just as awful as the ones before it, but for some reason at the end, Naruto had smiled. But it hadn't been the smile he typically gave Fai after her jokes, the one he presented with his head cocked to side, his lips curved, eyes tinged with a little bemusement. It hadn't even been the smile he carried on his lips for all occasions – polite and open. It had been the one he only presented to me. The one where his eyes deepened to a slightly deeper hue of blue and bespoke of a secret amusement, and where his lips curved slightly to side, not too shallow, not too deep. I had felt like he might as well have punched me in the gut when the expression crossed his face, and Fai had preened so proudly of herself in response.
I hated knowing that someone else, especially her, was privy to something that had always been exclusively mine, even if it only was something so simple as a smile.
I could feel my turbulent emotions swirling in my chest, making it harder to breathe, harder to think, harder to move. And I just knew that it would be terribly hard to face him when under the grasp of such tangled thoughts. As tangled as they were, I knew that this was deeper than anything I'd felt before. I hated to put a name to it and make it real and touchable. But, who was I trying to fool? Certainty not myself. I'd never be able to go back to being oblivious or ignorant.
Would he be able to see through me? My heart skittered nervously in my chest, and I heaved a heavy breath. It was beyond frightening to deal with emotions that I had been peacefully oblivious of until now. It seemed almost unnatural for them to spill out uncontrollably all at one time and leave me dizzy in the aftermath. It would have been better, more comforting, if there had been something gradual about it – some sort of slow realization that was heart-warming and tender and contented.
As a little girl, I had admired the fastest, the most skilled, the best looking boy there had been. As a teenager, I had become infatuated with said boy to the point I had naively believed myself in love. As a woman, I had come to realize that the feelings I had always felt for Sasuke weren't as deep, as pure as I had once hoped. I did, and still do love him. But, not in the way I had always thought. I wasn't in love with him. No. Somehow I'd fallen straight, head-first into love with the blond squirt who had always seemed so annoying and childish. I'm not quite sure how he had laid siege to my heart without me even realizing, and I'm extremely befuddled on how he managed to take over without warning, but the emotions lodged in my chest are very real, very permanent, and very, very annoying.
I suddenly felt the overwhelming need to punch Naruto. Hard.
I sat up in bed, snatched my flattened pillow and had been about to take my frustration out on it when I heard a soft knock at the door of my apartment, followed by a tentative "Sakura?" from my mother. I rolled my eyes heavenward, tumbled unceremoniously out of bed and stalked grumpily out of the bedroom. By the time I reached the front door, my mother's knock had gotten louder, as had her voice.
When she set eyes on my tousled hair, dark-rimmed eyes, and the thin set of my mouth, she said, "I knew something was wrong. You didn't sound sick on the phone." She raised an eyebrow and stared at me for a moment as if waiting for me to contradict her, and reaffirm the lame lie I told her over the phone a few hours ago about food poisoning of some sort. When I remained mute, she continued, "Do you want to talk?"
"Nope," I replied decisively. I was quite aware of the problem, and though I knew my mother could give me some very good advice at a time like this, I wasn't willing to share feelings with her that were still so new and foreign.
Rather than be offended by my curt answer, she sighed melodramatically. "Are you sure?"
I leaned against the doorjamb and offered a tight smile that I knew would pacify her for the time being. "Very sure."
She stood still for a moment, frowned, and cocked her head to the side. "Call me if you change you mind, Sakura."
"You know I will, Mom."
I watched as she turned and walked briskly down the hall. I closed the door when she rounded the corner, and I couldn't see her anymore. It was as I was walking back to my bedroom when my stomach let out a loud, angry growl, and I realized exactly how hungry I was. I tucked an errant strand of hair behind my ear as my course changed to the kitchen, and I decided that cereal might shed a brighter light on my current dilemma.
The morning at the hospital had been pure hell. A plague of clumsiness had taken over the village, and it had seemed the whole population had spilled into the waiting room with injuries ranging from a paper cut to broken limbs. I take one day off, and this is what I get the following day. Ridiculous.
By the time I managed to escape for a break, it was mid-afternoon and every part of my body ached including my eyebrows. I was hungry, but I just wasn't in the mood to go somewhere and wait in line or sit at a table for food, so I decided I'd grab something from the hospital later. I needed to find a place to just relax and let the tension ebb from my body.
I wasn't exactly sure where I was going, but a short while later, I found myself in a patch of woods not far from my workplace, and heaved a sigh, shoved off my shoes impatiently, and collapsed onto the ground. At first, I closed my eyes and relaxed as the familiar sound of the outdoors filled the humid air – the wind, the trees, the rustle of hidden wildlife. The sun was bright against my closed eyelids despite the peppering of shade provided by the high-reaching leaves.
It was a habit of mine to loose myself in the enveloping presence of nature whenever life became particularly stifling. I was somehow able to blot out my worries, my fears, my expectations, allowing my mind to become wonderfully blank. To not think, to not have the heavy press of everyday life's nuisances on my shoulders helped to make everything more bearable in the long run. It was unfortunate, however, that my problems didn't just evaporate into the air.
I opened my eyes and stared at the various rays of sunlight peeking through the crisscross of green leaves. There were days when it was harder to escape and empty my mind, like today, and I always ended up mulling over whatever was causing such an upheaval in my life.
Naruto's face suddenly materialized in my mind, a picture of carefree lightheartedness, his blue eyes hooded with amusement, his lips slightly curved, his hair tousled as if he'd run his hands through it several times. I was mortified to feel to feel my heart stutter nervously in my chest, and my cheeks burn with an impromptu flush. With a jolt, I sat up, buried my face into my hands, and groaned.
Here I was, sitting in the woods, mooning over some man. But, not just any man. Naruto. Naruto, for heaven's sake. I grimaced suddenly as I wondered what Ino would say about my newfound feelings for my best friend. For my former teammate. For the Hokage of Konoha. I groaned again, but louder this time.
"You sound like you're dying. Please tell me it isn't so, because I'm no good at your medic nin stuff," I heard over my shoulder.
Slowly, I lifted my head and turned toward the familiar voice, and stared in horror at my petite, blond friend. "Ino," I choked out. God, I sounded retarded even to my own ears.
She scrunched her nose in confusion and stared down at me with her hands placed on her hips. "Did your cat die or something? You look and sound horrible, Sakura."
I suddenly thought of my obese orange-haired cat at home and mentally grimaced. Damn. I forgot to feed him this morning. He's going to use my legs as scratching posts tonight when I get home.
Ino raised her eyebrows at my drawn-out pause, and I managed to find my voice in time to say, "Uh, no. Live. I mean he's live. Living. He's still living." I wondered how many more ways I could tell her that my cat was still alive. By the look on her face, she obviously thought I'd fallen and whacked my head on a rock.
Ino settled down on the grass slowly, her eyes never leaving my face. She frowned for a moment before telling me, "I think we need to talk about whatever's bothering you."
I resisted the urge to run off in the other direction, and gave Ino a forced smile. "You shouldn't worry. Nothing's wrong. I'm just having a difficult day at the hospital."
She quirked an eyebrow and leaned back. "So you're just going to lie to me?" She waited a beat for me to respond, but when I remained mute, she sighed. "You're too secretive for your own good, you know that? It's healthy to get troubling issues off your chest and out in the open. Are you afraid I'll make fun of you?"
It wasn't that, really. I know she'd be amused, she'd laugh and perhaps crack a joke or two or twenty, and then find every opportunity to shamelessly embarrass me in front of Naruto. But, it really boiled down to the same reason that I hadn't confided to my mother the previous day. I had barely wrapped my mind around the idea of such a heavy, deep emotion for Naruto. I needed to understand what was going on in my mind before sharing such private, delicate thoughts with others – even those closest to me. I know a time will come when she'll find out, but it won't be today. Or tomorrow. Or probably the day after. And what made me suddenly smile as I watched Ino dust dirt off her leg was that she wouldn't be hurt by my silence. Despite being fully aware that she would badger and make my life hell, I know that she'll understand. She always has.
"There's nothing wrong with me," I responded adamantly, my chin upraised as I stared at her.
She raised her eyes heavenward for a moment, and shook her head slightly. "Well, as long as you're going to remain a stubborn, ridiculous mute," she started sardonically, "you might as well come with me to get some food. I'm starving."
I sighed. I would get no more peaceful solitude in this patch of forest for the rest of the day. Might as well do something productive before I had to report back to work. "What do you have in mind?" I replied as I shoved my bare feet into my shoes.
"Not ramen," she immediately retorted with a shudder. "Maybe some odango."
I couldn't help but grin as I stood and walked away from the trees.
I shouldn't have been surprised when he walked into the hospital later that same afternoon, his arm bleeding profusely, a typical smile of sheepishness on his face. I was tempted to duck behind my current patient's wheelchair, but then I'd look and feel like a complete moron. Instead, I headed quickly to the hallway, pushing the wheelchair, hoping desperately that he'd somehow miss me.
It was the hair. The pinkness must be some sort of beacon – unique and obvious. Maybe I should shave it all off. But, would being bald be more conspicuous? I sighed. I'd miss my hair, anyways.
I turned my head and watched over my shoulder as he hurried over to me, his arm tucked close to his stomach, the blood seeping into his tunic.
The elder woman in the wheelchair smiled broadly at the Hokage and tilted her head back to look at me. "Why don't you take care of him, dear? I'll just get the nice young woman over there to take me back to my room."
I bit back a groan and smiled weakly as I handed her over to the floor nurse. Naruto came to a stop beside me as she was taken away.
"I was hoping to catch you," he said, his lips curved in a bright smile, despite the obviously painful wound.
I glared pointedly at the long gash, and raised a questioning eyebrow. "Dare I ask how this new injury came about?"
He shrugged. "A construction accident downtown."
"And you were there because you're such a wonderful carpenter…," I queried dryly.
"Just helping out," Naruto said with a quick smile.
I sighed and grabbed his uninjured arm, tugging lightly to get him to follow me. Surprisingly, his skin was cool against my palm despite the warm weather outside. I kept my eyes peeled in front of me, and tried to not think of the close contact for fear that my cheeks would become embarrassingly red. When had I become this bashful? It was absurd.
"I didn't see you yesterday at the picnic," he chatted as we made our way down the hallway.
It took me a moment to remember what I'd been using as an excuse for my absence. "I got some bad food poisoning," I replied hastily, glancing briefly back at him. I bit my lip to keep from smiling when he visibly blanched. The poor thing was probably terrified he would be the next victim, what with his bottomless, food-loving stomach.
"Food poisoning! From where?"
Damn. I hadn't thought of that. I hesitated slightly, and then said, "I think it was some expired crackers I had in my apartment."
Naruto made a funny noise that sounded suspiciously like choked laughter. "You eating expired food, Sakura-chan? That's not something I ever imagined you doing. You've gotten onto me constantly for doing just that."
He was making fun of me! I glared at him and yanked him rather roughly into the empty examination room. That seemed to amuse him even more, but the smart man tried to hide it in an attempt to curb my wrath. He was learning.
I pointed to hospital bed. "Sit."
He did so, and watched me as I gathered the materials to help close the wound. He was surprisingly silent as I pulled up a chair in front of him and took his injured arm into my hands. I cradled his wrist with one hand and lifted the other to cover the wound. With a deep breath, I relaxed into my flow of chakra and let it cover, mold, and envelop the gash. When I briefly glanced up to his face, I noticed it was slightly whiter than before, but otherwise you couldn't tell he felt any pain at all. After a few seconds, my healing seemed to take effect, and some of his color returned.
"Are you planning on returning to the construction site?" I asked softly.
His eyes caught mine. "Told 'em I would."
"Is that for reassurance the mighty Hokage wasn't irreparably injured, his future doomed?"
Naruto chuckled, and I felt my lips twitch in response. "A small, splintered beam couldn't possibly take me out, have no fear."
My eyes went down to his injury, then back to his face, and I gave him a sardonic glare. "Small?"
"Okay. So, it was big. But, still."
I stopped the flow of healing chakra, and grabbed for the wet washcloth to clean off bloody residue. There was still a thin slice along the length of his arm, but it had ceased to bleed, and no longer needed invasive stitches.
As I applied ointment, I told him, "You can go, I guess, but try to avoid anything strenuous. I'd hate for you to undo all my healing."
He grunted as he watched me. I grabbed the bandages and began to wrap his arm. I was acutely aware of his eyes on me as I worked, and it made irrationally nervous. Thankfully, it didn't take me long to finish.
I heard more than saw him stand up and meander slowly away from me. I busied myself with clearing away some of the mess I had made.
"You busy tonight?"
Surprised, I glanced up at him. He stood across from me in the doorway with his back against the doorjamb, and his arms folded against his chest. His hair tumbled messily over his forehead protector as it always did, and his eyes were innocently inquisitive. I opened my mouth to reply, but I couldn't figure out how to form the words. I sucked in a breath and tried again.
But before a garble of nonsense could spew from my mouth, he continued. "I haven't eaten ramen in so long. I finally talked Fai into eating something different from the stuff she usually insists on. I can hardly wait."
He seemed genuinely excited, too. But, at the mention of Fai's name, I suddenly remembered how to talk. I averted my eyes, and smiled slightly to help soften my decline of his offer. "I have a date with my kitchen, actually. I'm trying to learn how to successfully cook this recipe of mother's and it hasn't been going so well. I was planning on taking another stab at it tonight."
I heard him sigh. When he placed his hand onto my shoulder, I jumped slightly, surprised by his sudden proximity. My gaze flew to his. I had never realized how bottomless his eyes were – how clear a blue they were. You could drown in the crystal clarity of them. My lips parted as they seemed to almost smile at me, though his expression didn't change and lips remained straight.
"If it works out, promise to make it for me sometime, will you?"
I nodded slowly. "Sure," I murmured.
His stomach suddenly let out a loud rumble of annoyance. A grin split his lips, and he said, "See! I'm already hungry for your cooking."
My lips quirked. "It's just mad about the recent lack of ramen."
"Nope. I'm positive it's pining for your culinary delights."
I rolled my eyes heavenward, reached out and shoved his chest as an act of rebuttal. "Don't you have somewhere to be, Hokage-sama."
With a step back, he cocked his head to the side and sent me a lighthearted smile. "That I do. Promise to run into me sometime soon, Sakura-chan?"
"I'll make no such promise."
He chuckled as he walked backwards. With a parting dip of his head, he turned and headed down the hall towards the exit. I watched as he stopped numerous times to greet patients, visitors, and hospital employees. I shook my head with a smile and returned back inside the room to clean up the mess.
I spent the next week trying to avoid over-analyzing my feelings. Most of my time was spent burying myself elbow-deep in hospital work. Although Tsunade wasn't the Hokage any longer, she had remained as the temporary head of the medical unit. She had been very specific about the temporary part. I think she fully planned on returning to the wandering life she had been enjoying before being tied to the village years ago.
During the middle of the week, she'd decided to take a small break, and had left most of the responsibilities of keeping the hospital in working order to me.
What a nightmare.
Admittedly, it had been a nice distraction from reality, but I didn't hope to repeat my slave labor anytime soon. I had almost kissed the ground at Tsunade's feet when she had returned earlier this afternoon. But, she had been kind enough to offer a few days break. I had almost been tempted to refuse the free time, because I knew I'd just lay around the house and become a victim to my ever-churning mind, but I knew I needed some kind of down-time from sick and bleeding people.
I was currently in the small cafeteria in the hospital, my feet propped on top of the table, my head leaned back, and a cup of steaming coffee cradled in my hands. I wiggled my toes to ease the ache, and moaned at the heavenliness of the chair, even though it was a hard, plastic thing that wasn't very comfortable. A chair was a chair, and who was I to look a gift-horse in the mouth?
In hindsight, I guess I shouldn't have let my guard down, but I was tired.
"Sakura…." I should have run when I heard Ino use that tone with me. It was never good. However, I did keep my eyes closed, and pretended not to hear her. "Sakura, I need a favor."
I sighed. "You and everyone else in the entire village."
I heard a chair scrape along the linoleum floor. The table jiggled slightly as she sat down and leaned against it.
"Will you just hear me out?"
I cracked an eye open. "Before details are revealed, what benefit do I get from a plan I know I'll most likely dislike?"
A funny look crossed her features, and I knew she had nothing to offer. Just great. She started to reply, but instead I cut her off with a wave of my hand, and removed my feet from the table.
"Never mind," I mumbled. I set the coffee on the table. "What do you need?"
She shifted in her chair. Never a good sign. "Well, it's not actually for me, per se."
I quirked an eyebrow, and over the rim of my coffee cup, I replied dryly, "I'm shocked."
"It's for Lee, actually."
Now, I hadn't expected that. "What does he need? And why are you asking me for him? He's never had a problem talking to me before."
Ino sighed. "I need to use him for a mission, his taijutsu skills to be specific, and since he's currently tied down with his team, I can't peel him away. I was wondering if you'd agree to watch his team for a couple days, so I can get him agree to go on the mission with me."
Out of the ninjas our age, only Lee currently had taken on a team of three genin level ninjas. The others had joined the ANBU or participated in only jounin-levels missions and ect., and had artfully excused themselves from the unwanted "babysitting" duty by arguing they didn't have the time or patience yet to deal with young ninjas. Lee seemed to be genuinely excited about his charges. I hadn't really heard much about his ninjas, but the thought of watching over three adolescents didn't seem like something that would be relaxing on my days off.
"Can you talk about this mission?" I asked with a frown.
Ino shook her head. "No. But, I can guarantee it won't be longer than two days."
I was torn between the temptation of having something to occupy my thoughts for the next couple days, and the unwanted prospect of dealing with three pre-teens who thought they were gods of the universe. I glanced at Ino's expectant expression, and cursed myself for being such a sucker.
"Call me after you talk with Lee, and make sure to get the place and time I'm supposed to rendezvous at with his charges."
A slow smile spread over Ino's lips as she visibly slumped against the side of the table. I watched as her eyes caught my coffee cup, and then lifted slowly to mine, expectant and greedy at the same time.
I snorted and took a sip. "Get your own, Ino Pig."
They weren't actually that bad. For the first day, Lee left some odd little manuals for them to read and discuss amongst themselves. Their work ethic was fairly normal for pre-teens – they stared at their assignment for maybe half an hour, and then decided they had better things to do with their time. There had only been maybe five occasions during the day when I'd wanted to give the demons a piece of my mind, but I had contained myself.
To keep their attention for a longer period today (our final day, thank goodness), I planned on ignoring the training regime that Lee had left (by explaining I'd lost the itinerary list), and doing something completely different. Something I thought they would enjoy.
"This is the dumbest thing ever."
Well, maybe not. I obviously wasn't psychic.
With a narrow glare, I turned to the short boy with spiky blonde hair. What was with little blonde kids? Why did they always have to be so damn opinionated?
"Well, I apologize you're not having the time of your life."
The second boy snorted. "I agree with Kisuke. Couldn't we do something exciting? Lee-sensei's manuals were better than this."
The girl beside me rolled her eyes dramatically and leaned close to me, and whispered loudly, "Boys."
I felt like snorting and telling her she had no idea, but merely quirked my lips in response.
As if he needed to get his point further across, Kisuke stalked up the roof's railing where Fuku and I were stooped in front of. "Why in the world would you think we'd want to sit here and admire older men?" He sounded utterly disgusted. Put that way, I did feel slightly sorry for him.
"I didn't bring you here to 'admire' anyone. I figured this would be a good place to get in some actual hands-on practice of all that material you read about yesterday."
Kisuke leaned against the railing and sighed heavily. "You're full of crap."
I bolted up indignantly, a quick retort on my tongue when Fuku snagged my skirt and yanked hard while hissing, "He's looking Sakura-sensei!"
I gave a startled choke and flattened myself to the roof's concrete. I clenched my teeth tightly together when I heard him yelling my name from down below. I could tell he was laughing from even so far above. With a soft curse, I stood and dusted off my legs before peering over the banister and smiling weakly down at Naruto.
It had been merely an unfortunate coincidence that he had been assisting in the construction of the adjacent building. I had only realized he was over there about a half-hour after we arrived when I heard his familiar burst of laughter.
I had tried to go through the motions of some basic nin skills, but the knowledge that Naruto was so close ate away at my attention. Finally, when Fuku had perched herself by the banister to observe the "construction", I'd parked myself down right beside her. Fifteen minutes later, the boys had gotten whiny, Fuku had gotten stars in her eyes, and I had gotten spotted.
I watched as Naruto waved enthusiastically at me; my answering wave was pathetic in comparison, but that was because I felt like a moron.
"I'm coming up!" he shouted.
In a sudden panic, I felt all my blood rush to my face. I leaned quickly over the banister and swung my arms in a wide arc.
"No! No, no, no. It's a practice session." I gulped in a deep breath before I continued shouting. "No outsiders."
He tilted his head to the side in a puzzled manner, but I could hear the smile in his voice when he replied, "You sure?"
"Yes!" I practically screamed.
Beside me, Fuku groaned in disappointment. Behind me, the two devils boys murmured something about the heat being too much for me.
I ignored them, keeping my eyes trained on the familiar blond below. For a second there, it looked like he was going to just ignore everything I'd just dictated, and come up to the roof anyways, but one of the construction workers next to him grabbed his attention and started leading him back into the building's half-built infrastructure.
I sank onto the ground beside Fuku and let out a sigh of relief.
I brushed my bangs from my forehead, and murmured, "How would you guys like to leave, and go get some food?"
They all made wonderful sounds of approval.
"Good. Let's scram."
Training-wise, the day was a complete waste, but I do think I redeemed myself in the eyes of the boys by buying them a ridiculous amount of junk food. And I couldn't help but splurge for myself as well. I needed comfort food. When it was time for the kids to go home for the day, I followed suit, and ended up passing out on the living sofa after vowing I'd never eat again in my life.
I was sent on a mission the following week – one that I could have done in my sleep, in all honesty. I was glad to be away that week, however, because it was the final stretch of days Fai would be in Konoha, and by the time I was scheduled to return, she'd be long gone, which was a thought that made me grin like the village idiot.
During the mission, when I wasn't concentrating on the task at hand, I was either brooding over my feelings and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into or zoning out and daydreaming about him. It really was quite mortifying to be caught off in lala-land, thinking about Naruto when another member of the mission was calling my name or waving their hand in front of my face to get my attention. I was sure I'd heard them whispering about whether I'd walked into a tree or something and temporary scrambled my brains.
But while Naruto had been prevalent in my thoughts, I'd come to no conclusions and hadn't made any decisions on what I was going to do with myself. I was still as lost as ever, wading uncertainly through an ocean of doubt and hesitation.
When my teammates and I arrived back to Konoha after our week-long mission, I'd made a beeline to my apartment to wash the accumulated dirt from my skin and hair. I honestly did like running amuck through the trees, but drew the line of enjoyment at looking like a mud monster with dried, caked mud flaking off every part of my body. It was hard to even tell what color my clothes were beneath the grime.
I avoided street traffic by sticking strictly to the roofs. I entered my apartment through the bedroom window after I finagled the glass open. With a heavy sigh, I had moved to peel off my shirt when I heard a knock at the front door.
I was so close to ignoring the person, but instead grumbled with annoyance as I trudged toward the door, leaving a trail of dirt flakes in my wake. I skipped looking through the peep-hole and whipped open the door with a scowl on my face.
I half expected it to be him, but I was surprised find absolutely no one. Scrunching my brow with confusion, I stepped into the hall, looked both ways, and still found nothing.
"Moron," I mumbled under my breath at my phantom visitor.
It wasn't until I turned around to go back into my apartment that I noticed the scarlet colored slip of paper attached to my door. With a frown, I snatched it and closed the door behind me.
My mood plummeted as I read the note addressed to me.
Your presence is requested at the
banquet honoring Hisagi Fai at 8:00pm
tonight at the Border Inn.
My fingers curled uncontrollably around the piece of paper – its color a perfect match to the hated woman's hair and long nails. Kiri, Naruto's secretary, always liked to play with small, stupid, annoying details like that. I hurled the note into the sink with a growl and stalked off to the shower to clean myself up. I nearly burned my skin off with scalding water when I forgot to adjust the temperature. By the time I'd washed the dirt from my skin, however, I'd managed to calm myself down a bit.
The mantra I kept repeating to myself was 'one last time, one last time, one last time' to remind myself she'd be leaving soon. I'd honestly thought she would already be gone, but I had either miscounted the days or she had extended her stay, the witch.
I spent more time getting ready than I usually did, just so I wouldn't feel like a dump next to her sculpted, flawlessly dressed form. As I walked out the door, with a lid firmly keeping my annoyance in check, I was proud at how calm I seemed. Kiri let me into the Inn and motioned to where was supposed to go. The room I stepped into was quite large – big enough to seat fifty people comfortably, with a long buffet along the wall that smelled so delicious that my mouth watered. At the end of the room was a semi-circle of floor to ceiling windows that displayed the surrounding woods beautifully. If the sun had been out, the scene would have been even more picturesque.
Fai stood next to the entrance, her back to me. Her tinkle of laughter made my skin crawl and with a grimace, I moved to the windows where I'd be as far away from her as the room would allow. I didn't see Naruto, which relieved me. At least the time she'd use to slather all over him would be cut short.
The room filled up rather quickly. Ino was annoyingly cheerful when she arrived, but she did manage to keep my attention from drifting to the redhead. When Naruto did finally arrive, we were taking our seats at the long dinner table. He flashed me a quick smile that made my stomach flip before he sat down next to Fai. During the first course, I managed to keep up and participate in the conversation with those around me.
I was distracted mid-sentence, however, during the serving of the entrée when Naruto's burst of laughter filled the room, making my cheeks heat involuntarily. Ino sent me an odd look and had to give a rough nudge so I'd continue talking.
I moved to speak, but the words died a swift death in my mouth when I heard Fai utter, "I'm trying to convince Hokage-sama to be one of the few to escort me home." She turned her beguiling gaze to him, her lashes fluttering. "I just know you'd love it." Even from my place at the other end of the table, I could catch the intimate heat in her gaze. I expected Naruto to at least seem a little uncomfortable, but he merely smiled innocently and reached over to place a hand on her shoulder. He was either the densest man in the universe when it came to recognizing solicitations, or very skilled at acting like he was the densest man in the universe.
"So kind of you, Fai. But, I just can't leave," he replied.
Fai visibly deflated. If I hadn't hated her so much, I might felt sorry for her. Instead, I felt like celebrating Naruto's ability to push her away. But, then every cell in my body froze as I watched her slide her hand underneath the table. From Naruto's mildly surprised expression, I'd have to surmise she had placed her hand on his knee – thankfully nothing incredibly indecent. However, it still felt as if the room was suddenly smaller, too hot, too bright, too everything.
Jealousy was evil monster whose claws I had managed to stay relatively free of until recently. Sure, I'd felt green with envy before, and Ino and I had had our spats, but this was nothing compared to that. Those deadly claws twisted in my chest now, making it hard to even breathe.
I turned my gaze to the white, lacy tablecloth to reel back some composure. I mumbled a hasty excuse to Ino as I shoved back from the table. I could feel the surprised gaze of some guests on my back as I hurried out of the room. It wasn't until I stepped outside, and my vision began to gray around the edges that I realized I was holding my breath. I sucked in a deep breath of the night air as I walked away from the Inn, not caring which direction I went.
As my eyes scanned the night shrouded forest, I felt the tenacious grip of jealousy slip slowly away, my mind calmed by the solitude. With a tumultuous sigh, I moved forward through the trees, allowing the blackness to form a welcome shield around me. With each step, I moved farther away from the root of my anger, away from the source of my tension. My indignation began to wither, and gradually, those overwhelming feelings melted into a puddle of mush. And in the end, I just felt utterly retarded and childish.
When would I ever grow up? I felt like I was a teenager again, in the midst if my first soul-searching crush. Everything shouldn't have to revolve around Naruto; I shouldn't feel as if I'm about to explode in anger whenever my enemy did something I didn't approve of or like. And why was I even thinking of Fai as my enemy?
Like the thirteen-year-old my brain thought I was, I suddenly flashed back to that manicured hand running across Naruto's bare arm, and involuntary clenched my teeth.
I blinked and cleared my thoughts. Boy, I sure was getting nowhere fast. Why did I always end up thinking circles around myself, not focusing on what I needed to be agonizing about. Fai should be the least of my worries. Was I going to do this with every woman who showed Naruto the smallest amount of affection?
But, the most important question I needed to ask myself was what I planned on doing with my feelings. When did I plan on telling him how I felt?
I snorted as I sat down on a fallen log and turned my gaze to the sky. I wondered how many years that would take me? Two? Ten? Fifty?
I sighed warily and muttered, "I need a new brain."
It was ridiculous how close I came to screaming. Some ninja I am.
With my heart thundering in my chest, I turned to glare at Naruto's chipper face and hissed, "Why don't you just stab me with a kunai?"
His expression slacked into adorable confusion. "What?"
"You scared the crap out of me. If you plan on murdering me, do it quick instead of making my heart do somersaults. Idiot!"
He was smiling by the time I finished, amused at my irritation. "Sorry," he replied softly as he sank down beside me on the log.
I turned my gaze away from his searching eyes, and glared at the sky.
"Why'd you leave?" I asked.
"Why'd you leave?" he retorted. I could hear the smile in his words.
"It was just…really…stuffy," I managed lamely.
He made a sound of understanding deep in his throat, and said, "I was just bored."
I snorted in response, and couldn't help the quirking of my lips. I was about to ask about what exactly he thought was so boring when he made a sound of disappointment, and murmured, "I don't see it."
I slid him a wary glance. "What?"
"There are too many clouds."
I looked up at the blackness, noticing for the first time that the stars were completely hidden. I could just barely make out the hazy grayness of the hovering clouds. "What exactly don't you see?" I questioned, curious.
"The Mighty Frog."
He said it so matter-of-factly that I had hard time trying to keep the urge to laugh at bay.
"There's no frog up there, Naruto."
"Oh, yes, there is."
"No, there isn't."
He made an odd noise in the back of his throat, and slid his fingers around my forearm to make me look at him. "It has this huge tongue sticking out of its mouth, and it takes up like a fourth of the sky. It's impossible not to see it, Sakura-chan."
"Did you make him up yourself?"
He nudged my side and frowned. "Of course not. Jiraiya showed him to me years ago."
I sputtered with laughter. "I should have known."
He grinned bemusedly at me. "You still don't believe me?"
I shook my head with a wide smile.
"If the clouds weren't there, I'd happily show you."
"I know you would."
He sighed heavily and stood up from the log. I watched with surprise as he lowered himself onto the ground and laid back on the leaves. He muttered something unintelligible under his breath and crossed his arms behind his head, allowing them serve as a makeshift cushion.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm just going to sit here until the clouds part, so I can show you The Mighty Frog."
"And what if the clouds don't part?"
"They will." He paused for a moment, then ticked his gaze over to mine. "You'll have a better view over here."
I hesitated for a moment, and then sighed. He humphed with approval when I settled down beside him on the ground, and turned to look up at…well, absolutely nothing.
"We should remember this place for our next sky-gazing escapade. Maybe we'll see something another day," I said.
His laughter was a soft rumble. "We'll see something tonight." He seemed so sure of himself. If I hadn't gotten the night's weather report of 'completely cloudy', I might have actually believed him.
The silence that surrounded us as we stared blindly at the sky was surprisingly comfortable. He was intent as he willed the clouds to part; I had to bite my lip to keep from smiling. I fidgeted occasionally to re-sort the leaves poking my back. It was minutes later when a facetious thought came to me. I argued myself out of acting on it at first, but then I just gave into my vicious mind.
"So did Jiraiya ever show you The Super Slug?"
Naruto's eyes were bright with excitement when he asked, "There's a Super Slug?"
If I had responded immediately, I would have burst into irrepressible laughter, so instead I managed a weak nod, which unfortunately still made him suspicious.
"You're lying to me aren't you?" he asked with a narrowed gaze.
"No," I wheezed out.
"Are you going to show it to me?" he asked, still guarded.
"Uh, of course." I would have to make sure he pointed out his frog first, so I could make sure the slug wouldn't overlap.
He eyed me for several moments before turning away and muttering something about his frog being real under his breath.
He had only been silent for about minute when he spoke next. "So how big is this slug?"
And I grinned.
I woke in an odd position, and I couldn't feel my left arm. I always hated that. For a moment I always panicked, wondering if somehow I'd lost it during the night.Irrational, but very true.
With a wince, I pulled my arm out from under the thing restraining it, and flexed my fingers as needles of awareness stabbed by nerves. I started to shift my torso to get into a more comfortable position – I really was twisted in a contortionist kind of way – when I heard an animal like growl in my ear. My eyes flew wide open, and I forgot to breathe for moment. I only had a cat at home, and I'd never heard him make such a deep sound before in my life. And then I realized I wasn't at home.
I was still in the woods.
I'd spent the night sleeping in the leaves.
My first impulse was to bolt upright, and put much space between me, and the warm body that made funny noises. But with a deep inhalation of breath, I managed to stay still.
He was on his back; I was on my side. His shoulder pillowed my head, while his arms curled around my upper body. I could see his chest rising and falling evenly as he breathed, though I wasn't able to see his face. My arm had apparently been crushed by his torso, which explained why the circulation had been cut off. My hair slipped slowly into my eyes, and I huffed softly with annoyance.
I cannot believe what a moron I am. How on earth had I fallen asleep so easily?
Naruto made that odd noise again, and I felt like rolling my eyes with exasperation. I held my breath as I shifted, pressed my hands down onto the ground, and slowly sat up. At first, it seemed as if my change in position had no effect on him – his breathing remained even, his face slack and devoid of the troubles of the world. But, when I pushed back a little more, scraped my knee on a poorly placed rock, and let out a soft, but distinctive expletive, his eyes opened, groggy and unfocused. Advantageous
I froze, my heart beating rapidly, and prayed that he'd just sink back into sleep. When he blinked and the fogginess began to clear from his vision, I cursed my bad luck, and I cursed the damn rock on the ground. If I found it later, I planned on throwing somewhere. Far. And hard.
At first, Naruto just looked confused and disoriented. I'm sure seeing me looming over him wasn't something he'd expected. In fact, I'm quite sure it intimidated him a little. Or at least I hoped it did, I thought sadistically.
After a few moments, the confusion blended with curiosity, and he lifted a hand to run through his already disheveled hair.
"Good morning?" he said in a questioning tone.
"Ah, yeah. Good morning," I mumbled back, averting my gaze.
He sat up gradually, letting the last vestiges of sleep fall away. We were side by side when he was fully upright, though facing opposite directions.
My mind was reeling for something to say. Anything. I'd never been so tongue-tied in my life. Words stuck to my throat, and thoughts rattled around in my mind like ping pong balls. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn his head toward mine. My heart beat a staccato rhythm at the proximity, and it took all my strength to keep staring ahead at the tree lines. I vainly tried to focus on the bark of the tree not far away. Admire the brilliance. The strength of it. Its blond hair. Wait, trees don't have hair. Damnit, I can't even admire a tree without thinking of Naruto.
"Next time," he murmured softly in a teasing tone that I knew meant bad news, "can you be the pillow, instead of me?"
At first I didn't think I'd heard him right, but then my eyebrows slammed together, and I whipped around to face him, my face bright red with outraged indignation. "Who said there would a next time!"
He grinned cheekily, and gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Why wouldn't there be?"
"Am I missing something?"
He leaned closer, if that was even a possibility. "What do you think you could be missing?"
"Don't be cute."
Oh, God he was so close. I could see the stubble on his face, the hint of lines beside his eyes that bespoke of amusement, the swirl of brightness in his blue gaze. I was so close to breaking, to saying to hell with it all, and letting my impulses be my guide.
"You think I'm cute."
"That's not – I didn't…don't put words into my mouth," I stuttered.
"But, that's what you said," he persisted, cocking his head to the side.
"No, I didn't!"
"That's what I heard."
"Then you're hard of hearing," I snapped. I suddenly hoped my anger would blind me to the sudden desire of running my fingers through his hair.
Naruto sighed, and leaned back the slightest amount. Without thinking, I leaned forward to makeup for his movement. A slow smile slipped over his lips, lightening his whole features.
"If I'm not cute, then what I am?"
It would have been so easy the snarl back at him, to let his teasing roll off my shoulders like I had always let it, and then hit him over the head in a teasing, yet serious sort of way. But, for some reason, I actually thought about his question, and felt my ears begin to burn with awkwardness.
Anything my mind came up with was too sappy, too inappropriate, too ridiculous to say aloud, and I was afraid I would just end up humiliating myself. So I gave into the urge that had gripped me ever since his eyes had opened and he had looked at me with that lazy inquisitiveness that made my blood simmer with something I dare not describe.
Without a further thought, I reached out, clasped his head between my two hands, and leaned forward to press lips against his. I didn't feel the proverbial fireworks, or the splash of blinding color behind my closed eyelids. But, when the shock drained from his limbs, and a hand came up to cradle the back of my neck, something much better washed over my senses – something completely indescribable. When I gasped and he deepened the kiss, I sank against him, my arms going around his neck, my tongue trying to follow his in a dance I had never perfected, had never wanted to until now. I felt giddy and dizzy and nervous. My heart throbbed uncontrollably, and I felt like my stomach had turned inside out. Nothing had made me feel more alive in my life.
I tilted my head to slant my lips over his at an angle, and felt a wave of tingles shimmer down my spine. This was more than an exploration of mouths, lips, tongues, and teeth. It was more than the base desires that rooted and flamed within my body.
This was Naruto. This was my best friend, my confidante, my former teammate, my punching bag. This man was more important to me than any other.
The silky feeling of his mouth along my lips made my toes curl, my skin warm, my ardor intense. My hands slipped down from his shoulders, over his chest, and tightened on the fabric of his thin shirt. I followed him as he slowly leaned further back until his back was against the ground, and I was pressed against his chest. My hair fell into his face, but if he noticed, he gave no sign. I sighed against his lips, before slipping my lips more fully over his tangling my tongue with his. I had lost all semblance of reason at that point, overwhelmed with the knowledge of who this was beneath me, what we were doing, and how utterly delicious it felt. Naruto groaned softly, his hands on my waist, his fingers grazing the skin of my waist.
A snap in the distance filtered slowly into my brain, and echoed softly. The knowledge that there was something out there in woods, perhaps watching us, made me suddenly uneasy. Naruto must have heard it was well, for he gently pushed me away just as I broke contact with him. We were both breathing heavily, still caught up in the emotions that the kiss had evoked. I looked away from Naruto and toward the direction where the intrusive sound had emanated from just in time to see a small white rabbit hop into the clearing, sniff, and then disappear back into the brush.
When I glanced back at Naruto, his eyes were still on the spot the rabbit had just vacated. After a few moments, he turned his head back to mine, a half smile gracing his lips. He reached up, and brushed some of my hair back behind my ear.
He chuckled. "You're cheeks are as red as apples."
I'm not quite sure why, but for some reason that comment caught me off guard, and made me bristle with offense. Maybe it was because I was on sensory overload, or maybe it was because I was instinctually trying to put distance between the two of us, even though that was the last thing I actually wanted to do. I slammed by brows together with annoyance, pushed myself to feet, and glared down at Naruto with eyes sparking with frustration.
"Don't make fun of me!"
I spun on my heel, the image of Naruto's acute bewilderment burned into my mind. I had only taken a few steps when I heard him rise hastily to his feet and hurry after me.
I kept going, even though I had the strongest urge to stop.
I wasn't surprised when he suddenly skidded to a stop in front of me, his expression slightly panicked. I moved to side-step him, but he was too quick, and dodged my attempt of escape.
"I'm not making fun of you," he was quick to tell me. "I –," he sucked in a deep breath, "I…please don't misunderstand me."
He lowered his head a split second, then grabbed my wrist tightly, and raised his shirt with his other hand. My lips parted with surprise, and I watched as he pressed my hand against the bare skin of his chest.
"What are you - "
"Do you feel that? I'm so nervous. So unwound." His heart was beating so fast, I had to wonder if he was close to having a heart attack. I opened my mouth to order him to take a deep breath, but he continued, "It gets like this every time you're around." His eyes were so earnest when they caught mine. Desperate. Uneasy. Intense. "You always seem so put together, and I feel as if I'm falling apart every time I'm with you."
In response to his words, to the feel of his heart beating a rapid race beneath my fingertips, I felt my own heart accelerate. My palms began to sweat, and I suddenly had the urge to sit down to keep my knees from giving out on me. They felt like jelly.
And, suddenly, I knew that this wasn't something that I could run or hide from even if I wanted to, which I knew I didn't. Far from it. I wanted to let the feelings currently surfacing to envelope me with their foreign, yet familiar brilliance. I knew I'd never be the same after this. Naruto had captured my very being, not just my heart. Though I hadn't realized it, I had lost to him long ago. So long ago.
I wanted this. I wanted this so badly.
I clenched my free hand to keep from reaching out and threading my fingers through his messy blond hair.
He looked thoroughly bemused at the moment, his eyebrows pinched, his mouth straight, his eyes slightly clouded. I knew he wanted me to respond. He wanted some kind of reassurance, something that would broaden the slim slip of hope curling in his eyes. This new connection between the two of us so fragile, and could be broken so easily.
I pulled my hand out from beneath his and away from the hopeful pounding in his chest. With my fingertips, I gripped the top of his pant pockets, and I lowered my face to his shoulder. His scent was warm, earthy, and achingly familiar. I turned my head and pressed my nose to his neck, my breath hot on his skin.
"My heart's beating just a fast," I whispered softly.
His hands trailed up my sides to my upper shoulders. With a gentle, yet firm grip, he pushed me away from him. His eyes snared mine, and my breath caught at dark navy they had deepened to. They were rich with emotion – threaded through with a tangle affection, pleasure, and longing. I could have drowned in them.
He trailed the fingers of one hand along my cheekbone, and then down the side of my neck. My chest felt so tight, so full. All those childhood dreams of finding the one, and those expectations, hopes, and wishes paled in comparison to the reality.
I had the sudden urge to hunt down Fai, and childishly stick out my tongue. My lips curled at the thought, and Naruto quirked an questioning eyebrow. I merely shook my head in response.
With a slow smile, I leaned forward, stood on my tip-toes, and pressed a quick kiss to the corner his mouth.
"If weather permits, meet me out here tonight. You still haven't gotten the chance to show me The Mighty Frog."
His hands grabbed my upper arms to keep me from moving too far away from him. "I won't be free until late."
"I don't get off from the hospital until late," I countered.
"Could you bring some food?"
"I get hungry at night," he said almost defensively.
"You're always hungry. Admit it."
He remained stubbornly mute. And then his stomach growled.
My lips curved sardonically and against his lips, I laughed.
We did meet there that night. Ate. Argued. Let ourselves become acquainted with the new avenue of our confusing relationship. I'd be remiss to say it's been all kisses and roses, smiles and tickles since then – but, really, what would I do if I couldn't argue or bate him. Punch him or tease him mercilessly. He's the only person who can piss me off so thoroughly that I can't speak in coherent sentences. And conversely, he's the only one who can thaw the heat of my anger and melt me into a breathless puddle of nerves. Perfection is overrated anyways. I'd much rather pick my way uncertainly through this overwhelming bond with him than fall into a boring routine of monotony and predictability.
I've fallen into the habit of sitting beside the bed and watching him as he sleeps. I smiled into my steaming coffee and took a cautious sip, my eyes never leaving his tousled frame. He snored loudly. Drool pooled on the sheet below his head – he had knocked the pillow onto the floor in the middle of the night. With my foot, I reached up and stabbed him in the side with my toes. He cut off mid-snore and slowly cracked open one bleary eye to glare in my direction.
"Meghn," he groaned into the mattress.
I grinned. "Pardon? I don't speak mumble."
Naruto grunted and lifted his torso off the bed slightly. With sleepy eyes and disheveled hair, he repeated, "Mean."
I remained stubbornly silent in response and merely quirked an eyebrow. I set my coffee mug down on the nightstand and watched as he twisted lazily onto his back, his breath whooshing out with a heavy sigh. I barely had enough time to admire his bare chest before I decided that I want to be closer – I wanted the feel his warmth. Quickly, I snuck onto the edge of the bed, and wedged myself against his prone form. He watched me with half a smile, and silently curled an arm around me to hold me tightly against him. I lowered my head down slightly to catch the lazy mutter of words he whispered. "Stay with me."
I knew he was merely expressing his want for me to remain nestled against him for the time being – before he had to wake up fully and go back to the tedious work of the Hokage. But now, in this moment, I take it to mean forever. To stay with him until I can no longer physically. I smiled to myself and wondered how I got to be such a cheesy sap, and I almost rolled my eyes.
But, instead, I leaned down and against his lips I told him, "In anger and affection – I'll stay."