Disclaimer : I do not own Naruto.

Thanks to all who reviewed.

And so begins the climax of the first arc of my story. Please enjoy.


Chapter 5

Of Scars and Steam

Two weeks passed without major incident and Sakura's wounds had begun to heal. The cuts on her thigh and arm had sealed without any infection, and the bruises that had turned her chest into purple and yellow motley had faded. Sakura's wrist, ribs and forearm however, were still a constant source of pain for her. Every morning, she struggled to sit up in spite of the pain. Sakura figured that when her wrist healed completely, she would be able to perform medical jutsu on her ribs that would speed her healing by weeks. When she was finally healed, she could return to Konoha.

And therein lay the problem. Sakura, while eager to heal, began to dread the day she would have to leave. Every day, Rien would be with her for as long as he could. They would speak for hours, Sakura speaking of her life as a medic and how she had learned to treat wounds of every kind, and Rien speaking of the trials and tribulations that came with running a complicated business. Sakura was surprised to learn how much risk was put into each trade endeavor, especially during wartime. Rien explained to her that essential goods were far more valuable when the country that supplied them closed off its trade. With the right contacts in many countries, one could move goods secretly and in the best possible case could turn a five thousand percent profit. Rien revealed under much prodding the story of how Jiyâ had managed to sneak a cargo of precious gemstones out of Rock Country during the last Shinobi War twenty years ago. According to Jiyâ, who came by halfway through the story and promptly whacked Rien over the head for telling the story without him, the then middle-aged man had moved his cargo right across the border during the middle of the day, while Konoha and Iwa Nin tore each other to pieces not a mile away.

As the weeks passed, Sakura started to realize what both of them meant to her. When she had completed her training with Tsunade, Sakura had bought an apartment and moved out of her parents' house. She had too many memories of crying herself to sleep for her to ever be comfortable at home again. Her apartment was a lonely thing, she would usually stay at the hospital working late whenever she was in Konoha and when she came there to sleep she would usually pass out the second she hit the sheets. Sakura used it like a stopover to keep her clothes and a place to sleep and shower. When Sakura would return from her missions she would spend most of her time either working at the hospital or acting as an adjunct to Tsunade. The life that poured through the house that she had come to feel such affection for evoked such feelings and tenderness within her. It made it hard for her to believe that she had been able to live so long in that dead stick of an apartment she kept. It felt as if color was being returned to her world after years of being colorblind. The blue of the sky from the veranda, the warm gold of the wooden floor, they seemed like more than just colors of a pallet to her new eyes. Each color held a memory, each memory a feeling of warmth. She wondered how she had lived without this warmth that she had thought had left her on that fateful day.

By the end of two weeks Sakura had realized she had become addicted to the security she felt when she was around Rien. It was not a physical security, he was obviously no shinobi, it was how she felt she could open up to him without fear of being scattered like leaves in the wind. His mere presence was like a pair of large warm arms encircling her like a blanket, no harm could be done to her while she molded herself into his embrace. His physical presence however, was like an open flame to her. Every instinct in her flesh screamed for her to mold herself into his embrace bodily as she did emotionally. Her rational mind rejected those impulses on reasons that seemed to become more flimsy each time she was tested. She had tried not to become so close to him, but she might have tried to stop time from turning for all the good it did her.

.xxxxx.

That evening, when Sakura had walked out of her room, Jiyâ spoke to her. "Hey, Sakura-chan!"

Sakura turned around to face him. "Yes Jiyâ-san?"

"Now that your cuts have finally healed, you might want to use the hot springs out back, there's nobody using it right now."

Sakura's face brightened, she loved hot springs. "That sounds really nice right about now, I'll be there presently. Thank you so much, again."

Jiyâ's face took on a note of exasperation. "You really need to stop thanking me. Especially this time." The latter he muttered under his breath. Sakura didn't really know how to take that so she bowed slightly, careful of her ribs and walked to where she knew the spring to be. Jiyâ watched Sakura walk away with a slight smirk that hid a secret plot.

When Sakura got to the changing room that opened up into the spring, she took off her clothes, still struggling with using only one arm. She picked up a small washing towel and brought it into the bath area with her. Sakura walked up to the tree-enclosed large circular stone dip with the large boulder in the center that made up the natural hot spring. The copious amounts of steam that rose from the bath exhaled into the moonlit night, covering the entire bath in a hot mist that immediately began to take the ache away from her remaining injuries. Sakura stretched out her foot to test the water…and Rien stepped out from behind the boulder.

.xXxXx.

Jiyâ almost felt guilty as he removed the drying towels and Sakura's clothes from the spring's anteroom. He assuaged his guilt by remembering how he'd caught the two of them staring at each other so many times over the past two weeks. He also remembered the only time he'd ever seen Rien truly weak.

He had not told Rien what he planned, and he would most likely be chastised for this later. It was also likely that the chastisement would involve something either sharp or heavy, knowing his luck. However, when he heard a surprised female voice give out a yelp of shock, he scampered off with his pilfered garments, praying silently that his plan would work.

.xXxXx.

Rien walked out from behind the boulder in the center of the hot spring. Sakura stared at him, momentarily transfixed by how his golden hair seemed paler in the moonlight and his eyes, wide with surprise gave off a shimmer she had not seen the day she and he had met. Sakura was amazed by his body. She had never seen any more of his skin but his hands and face. Below his neck and along his arms, his muscles were distinct and wiry, built for flexibility more than brute strength, and there seemed to be not an ounce of fat on him. Her disloyal eyes started to travel down his abdomen and her breath caught in her throat in horror.

Beginning at his right hip and curving up over his abdominal muscles was a set of three enormous wounds that looked as if some gigantic beast had scraped three claws across his body. Each cut was a little over an inch wide and near symmetrical. More than that, the gashes looked like they hadn't closed at all; it looked as if he could have been torn apart not ten minutes ago, though no blood leaked from the tears in his flesh. The sound of Rien's breath exhaling brought her back to herself and Sakura realized that she'd been standing in front of him completely naked for about seven seconds. Sakura yelped in surprise and practically dove behind another rock that lay around the edge of the spring, mind spinning catastrophically.

Rien's mind wasn't in much better shape than hers was. His head whirled as he stood rock-still and tried to control himself. Holy…pink…wow. Stop that! Calm down! Must...focus…maintain control…over self…Okay. Alright, you will maintain a poker face. You will not think about what you just witnessed. When you speak you will do so in a calm and controlled manner. You will not think about how soft her skin is, or how her silky curves hug her body, or how her………GODDAMMIT!!!! Okay, let's try that again. You WILL maintain a poker face. You ABSOLUTLY WILL NOT think about what you just witnessed. When you speak you WILL do so in a calm and collected manner. Easier thought than done.

Rien gathered his courage and attempted to converse with Sakura. "Sakura? Are you alright?" He heard her start behind the rock at his question.

Sakura answered him in a stuttering voice that screamed embarrassment from every syllable. "I'm sorry Rien, your grandfather, I mean Jiyâ-san said that nobody was in here and I just….ohhh…." she ended with a groan of mortification at her own predicament.

Rien breathed out a sigh, having figured out the culprit behind this incident. He also was pretty sure he knew what would happen next. Idly wondering what the old man had planned in his head, he made a mental note to rip open the bastard's skull later and find out firsthand.

.xxxxx.

Sakura was humiliated that he had seen her like that. And she was even more embarrassed at herself for staring at him so long. She was a trained combat medic, veteran of dozens of fierce battles, and she couldn't believe she had frozen up for that long. Determined to preserve what was left of her dignity, Sakura prepared to hurl herself toward the hot spring's anteroom and escape the extremely awkward situation. "I-I'll let you bathe…I'm sorry for interrupting you, I'll just get my clothes and leave quickly." Sakura spoke very quickly, as if speaking faster would lessen the embarrassment. But before she could run, Rien spoke.

"Did you see my clothes in the anteroom?" Rien asked quietly.

Sakura stopped her impending rush and thought for a moment. "No." she answered finally. "I didn't see any other sets of clothing besides my own."

Sakura heard Rien make a noise that was half sigh and half growl. "Then don't bother leaving. Your clothes are gone by now."

"What?" Sakura blanched and froze.

"Jiyâ." Rien spoke as if he were describing some aggravating boil on his butt. "This is a setup."

"Setup?" Sakura repeated, confused.

"The old bastard does this kind of stuff just to aggravate me. He loves putting me in these kinds of…uncomfortable situations. He'll either just get bored and return the clothes, or I'll just walk out, beat him with something and make him return the clothes. Until I have to do that, you should relax in the bath. You can sit on the other side of the rock, I won't look."

With that Sakura heard the small splash of Rien re-entering the water. She risked peeking out from her hiding place, and saw no sign of him. Sakura stepped tentatively toward the bath and slid into the water soundlessly.

As she sat there Sakura wondered about her nervousness at seeing his naked body. She was a medic ninja and had performed surgery with her mentor countless times. She had seen male patients naked before and had not been affected like this. Her conduct had been at the very least, reprehensible. Tsunade would have beaten her with a full bedpan if she had acted like that at the hospital. Maybe it was because he was a civilian. And not just a civilian of Konoha village like her parents, but a civilian not accustomed to ninja in general. Ninja relationships were guided by a strict set of rules, but Rien and the situation she was in did not seem to fit within any of the categories that she knew. Without a protocol of some kind to guide her, Sakura didn't have a clear code of conduct she could follow. And there was no understanding these burgeoning feelings that permeated through her about this place, or this person.

There was silence between the two for many long minutes as they both tried to recover their lost modesty and composure. Rien recovered first. "I'm sorry about all this, if the old man doesn't come back in ten minutes, I'll go and discipline him."

"Why would Jiyâ-san do something like this?" Sakura asked.

"The man is a psychotic." Rien answered. "I haven't the faintest clue why he does things like this, and frankly I don't want to try and explore his thoughts."

After Rien's brusque answer, it was another minute before Sakura spoke again. She asked cautiously, not knowing what his answer might be. "Excuse me Rien, but would it be alright if I asked you about your wound? It looks…bad." Sakura wished she had used a better word, but her mind did not seem able to form the right phrases.

"Wounds, not wound." Rien answered back after a tense minute. His voice betrayed none of his emotions.

"There's more than just the one?" Sakura asked, horrified.

"Yeah, there's another one on my back, starting under my left shoulder." Sakura could only sit in shock as he calmly made the statement.

When did you get these wounds? They look as if you were torn apart earlier this morning!" Sakura demanded of him, professionally concerned now.

Rien didn't answer her for a moment, as if struggling whether or not to tell her. He finally acquiesced. "Nearly seven months ago, I was on a routine job making a deal with a rare books broker in the Cloud country. I was walking across the border back to the Fire country when a huge noise goes off not thirty meters from where I was. Less than a second later, something huge comes out of the trees to the left of me. All I saw was fur, then excruciating pain, then nothing. Given the marks on my body, I would assume it had claws as well. I woke up five days later, here. Not all that different from your situation, except my wounds won't heal."

Sakura could not believe what she had just heard. And he had spoken like it was nothing, let alone his tormentor. Six months without change? This is impossible, how could the wound not heal, unless… fur….claws….that's it. "Your wound must be cursed." Sakura said softly.

"What?" Rien exclaimed.

"Your description sounds like either a demon or a kind of summoned creature. Their abilities and characteristics differ greatly from a human's. It's entirely possible that the thing that hurt you was a creature that inflicts cursed wounds. I have heard of cases where those who are injured by demons almost always die of their wounds. They die because the malicious chakra of the demon infects them though their wounds and acts like a disease, preventing them from healing or closing." Sakura spoke clearly and strongly, she was back in her element.

"How likely is it that what you just talked about is what's really affecting me?" Rien sounded curious but rather dejected as he spoke, he didn't seem hopeful that he could be cured. Sakura could only imagine what he'd been through the past six months; the pain alone should have killed him long ago.

"From what I saw and your description of its source, there's a very good chance that it is a malignant chakra of a creature. If it isn't, then whatever's causing this is far beyond my knowledge. I'm really surprised that you lived this long with such a wound, let alone continued to work."

Rien was completely silent, forestalling any answer he would give her. Then he spoke, so quietly that Sakura had to strain to hear him. "So all I have to do is find somebody who could heal this." The silence deepened as both of them fell into their own thoughts.

Sakura was thunderstruck by the man sitting not three feet of rock from her. He was as brave and kind as any person she had ever met. He had survived a wound that would have killed a lesser man in a day and yet he had continued to live for six months through what must have been a living hell. She knew that if he had been born in Konoha village, he would have become a shinobi of unsurpassed renown. Sakura knew then she would do everything in her power to help him as he helped her.

Sakura jumped a little as she heard Rien stand up. She shuffled to the other side of the rock as he walked towards the edge of the spring. "I'll go get Jiyâ before you overheat from the hot spring." He spoke with an almost disinterested air.

Sakura knew it was now or never. She edged back around the rock just enough so that she could see his back. She saw where the first scar began, near where his left kidney was, and she saw the full breadth of his second wound, which ran diagonally from just below his left shoulder to a little past the midpoint of his spine. The second wound on his back was thinner, but was still a horrible mess of three parallel gashes. Her heart caught in her throat, but she bulled past her block and spoke the words she was determined to speak. "I am a first-class medical ninja of Konohagakure village. I will heal you."

Rien heard the words as if in a dream. I will heal you. Four simple words that promised a respite. He had realized Jiyâ's true purpose in putting the two of them in here tonight. He wasn't supposed to know she was a medic nin, but her personal file, combat history, and medical records had been sitting on his desk for nearly two weeks. Jiyâ would know her abilities and he would definitely set this up, appearing as if just for fun. The true purpose of this planned encounter was hidden under a false shell. The man was much like his more famous brother, too perverted to be allowed, but too smart to be killed. He slowly turned his head about one hundred degrees so that he could see Sakura, shaking with nervousness at his silence and intense regard. He spoke gently to her.

"I have woken up with this pain for nearly half a year. On cold mornings, I have coughed up blood. Please don't give me hope and then take it away." Rien was now staring at her with one steel azure orb. His voice contained a variety of emotions, pain and sadness chief among them, but there was an emotion in the far reaches of those frightening spheres that she couldn't identify.

"This I swear to you, as a Leaf shinobi and Medical Ninja of Konohagakure village, when I am fully recovered, I will heal your wounds." Sakura spoke more forcefully now; she believed in herself; she could speak with the utmost confidence.

Rien, on his way out of the bath, turned around and walked toward Sakura. He stopped less than a foot away from her and looked down into her face. Emerald met azure and the air seemed to crackle with the electricity of their feelings. The two stood up now, gazing so intently at each other that neither noticed their nakedness.

Sakura met his testing eyes with a fierce pride in her skills that she had never felt before. Pride had not mattered to her; she had lost all reason to take satisfaction in her abilities. Now Sakura had a cause to throw every ounce of her into. Her healing had meaning not to Konoha, not to Tsunade, but meaning only to her and the one she healed. In that moment she was not a shinobi of the Leaf or Tsunade's apprentice, Sakura Haruno was only herself. And as herself she decided that she would heal the man who had saved her life, the man who had sheltered her, and the man who had given her life color and enjoyment once more.

Sakura poured these feelings into her gaze and met Rien's eyes with every fiber of strength in her being. Rien saw the reborn strength and knew his eyes would never pierce hers again. She had regained her will for life and would now be able to dominate her destiny once more. Rien watched her for a few more seconds, and then broke the connection that had solidified between them. He turned around and stepped out of the hot spring. Just before he stepped through the door to the anteroom, he took one last look at the beautiful young woman who had finally regained herself. He shut the door to the anteroom, assured that she understood his answer.

"I'll be waiting."

.xXxXx.

Jiyâ was sitting on a chair in his study reading the latest in his favorite series of novels when the door opened with a slam. Standing in the wake of the door was Rien, standing menacingly with the aura of a vengeful fire god. Adding mystification to this already interesting picture, Rien was conspicuously naked and dripping copious amounts of water onto the floor. Jiyâ, out of mercy and respect for Rien's modesty threw him a towel he had stolen from the hot spring's anteroom. Rien wrapped it around his waist and zeroed in on Jiyâ with a ferocious intensity. "Bath. Return. Clothes. NOW!" Jiyâ, fearing for his life immediately ran down to the anteroom and put Sakura's clothes back where he had taken them from. Jiyâ called an apology through the screen door and quickly went down to the secret meeting room in the basement.

.xXxXx.

Later that evening, Rien appeared in the meeting room. He sat down across from Jiyâ and shot him a smoldering gaze that showed the older man that he had not forgotten the earlier incident. Unexpectedly, when he spoke Rien's voice was calm, almost resigned when he finally addressed Jiyâ. "You planned that whole charade in there, didn't you?"

Jiyâ smiled in a way that looked like it would put the most nonviolent person ever to live in an uncontrollable blood rage. Rien settled for clenching his fists so hard they bled. Seeing that Rien's patience was about to snap, Jiyâ decided to answer. "Yup, I sure did! And guess where I got the idea?" He held up the book in his hand and Rien saw the title. It was Icha Icha Festival.

Rien's eye began to twitch seeing the familiar cover. "Put your smut book away and answer me. Why did you set this whole thing up?"

"Because you would not."

Rien looked to the side of him and saw his shadowy second in command entering the room. "What do you mean I would not?"

His second in command's expression did not change at his comment. "What I mean is that though you may be proficient at lying and deception, you seem to be unable to even think about taking advantage of your friends or comrades."

"You're disparaging me for that?" Rien looked almost indignant.

"No, it's actually a point in your favor. It means you'll only take advantage of your enemies and never use us wrongly. Creating a situation where you would "accidentally" let Sakura see your wound and taking advantage of her kindness so that she would heal you would be impossible for you. You would judge such a plan as an intolerable insult to you and her, making it absurd for you to even consider it."

Rien stared for a long moment at his second in command, mulling over the shadowy figure's logic. Finding no faults in his lieutenant's read of him he sighed, resigning himself to the current situation. He turned back toward Jiyâ. "What now?" he asked.

Jiyâ shrugged. "She heals up, she heals you, she goes back to Konoha, and we begin The Prelude."

Rien looked pensive. "Beginning The Prelude in three weeks might be difficult, I'll need the information on our targets processed and filed before that. I should be combat-ready a week after she heals me, and at one hundred percent within the fortnight."

It was then that Rien noticed that their fourth member had entered the room without him or any of the others noticing. None of the doors or windows had opened. He turned around, facing where Jast stood in the corner. "Jast, I'm going to need you to rate the difficulty level of each target, so we can decide which of us to send. Is that alright?" Jast nodded noncommittally and stared at him with eyes of dull bronze.

Rien looked around at the people who surrounded him. "It's decided then. The operation will begin within the month."


Please read and review.

It seems I have a system of coming out with a chapter every two weeks. They seem to be getting longer too.

Hopefully I'll be able to update in two weeks, finals approach me with a looming intensity.