Part II

Two weeks passed, during which a pattern seemed to form that Naruto found both greatly distressing and impossible to prevent. He brought lunch to Sakura nearly every day and she was relentless in picking at his motives for the continued intimacy with Sai when he supposedly didn't feel anything other than camaraderie with him. Naruto forgave her her presumptions because she was a woman and women tended to blame everything on emotions, however trivial the situation. Never mind that he really was beginning to like Sai far more than a teammate ought to—Sakura, on account of being a woman, could probably intuit his feelings anyway.

He chose to ignore the fact that he was being contradictory because Sakura humored him and he really didn't want to have to explain his feelings...ever.

After delivering lunch to Sakura, he continued onto Ichiraku where he had a bowl or ten of ramen and then made for the training grounds to meet Sai and various members of other teams that frequented the grounds at that time of day. They trained until sunset and then Sai and Naruto left for dinner and retired to Naruto's apartment afterwards.

It was what went on in his apartment in the evenings that distressed him because despite repeated attempts to ward off Sai's advances, it took little more than a heated kiss or a hand in his hair before he was falling hopelessly into sensation. He was becoming all too fond of the feel of Sai's skin beneath his hands and the small, happy smile Sai gave him before he left. He had even been tempted a few times to ask Sai to stay the night... which had then triggered the alarms in his head and forced him to accept that perhaps the situation had spiraled out of his control (when had he ever been in control, he wanted to know).

He liked Sai. And he wanted to impale himself on a bed of shuriken for it. Sure, Sai seemed to be awfully skilled at seduction, but he was inept when it came to actual emotions. In all likelihood, he probably felt nothing more deeply than friendship for Naruto—and really, it'd be unfair to expect more than that from a man as stunted as Sai.

Naruto bemoaned the sorry state of his life and hoped their next mission would be soon in coming as he carried a box of fried fish to the hospital. The morning had been unseasonably cool and Naruto hugged Sakura's lunch to his chest in a futile attempt to keep the heat from escaping too quickly. He frowned up at the sky, squinting to pick out the sun from behind the solid wall of drab gray clouds. How fitting that even the weather mocked him by reflecting his mood.

When he reached the familiar stone pillars that stood at the hospital gates, Sakura wasn't there waiting for him as per usual. He leaned against one of the pillars, angling himself so that he was shielded from the sharp breath of the wind. Sakura was rarely late so after a few minutes of waiting, he grew concerned. He continued on inside and greeted the nurse at the desk with a cheery smile.

"Can you page Sakura? I've got her lunch here," he said. He set the box, slightly battered from his handling, on the counter.

The nurse looked from the box to him, expression puzzled. "Haven't you heard? Sakura was on patrol duty last night and ran into some missing nin. She was brought in around 1 a.m."

"What?" He felt his chest seize before his heart plummeted into his stomach. He practically leaped over the counter, frantic eyes boring into the alarmed nurse. "Where is she? What room is she in?"

"U-um." The nurse twitched away from him, flustered by his proximity, and quickly flipped through her stack of papers. "Room 213."

Naruto shot down the hallway in a blur of yellow, relief singing through his limbs, Sakura's fried fish a forgotten detail. Room 213 was just a standard hospital room, nowhere near the intensive care unit. He skidded to a stop outside her room, heart hammering in his chest. The cool dread that had been twisting his stomach loosened as he sensed Sakura's steady chakra on the other side of the door. He cleared his throat to dislodge the bundle of frazzled nerves there before pushing the door open.

Sakura glanced up from the thick medical text in her lap and, upon seeing who her visitor was, attempted a bright smile that fell distinctly short. Her hair was tied back away from her face, which was wan and leeched of color. Her left shoulder and arm was tightly bound in bandages but there was no telling how extensive her injuries were since the rest of her was covered with thin hospital blankets. He approached her bed, lips down turned, looking her over to ensure she was completely in tact.

"I just heard. Why didn't you send for me?" he asked. He crossed his arms and attempted a scowl, but did about as convincing a job of it as she had with her smile. He wanted to be upset that he'd had to hear about her attack from the nurse, but he was really just profoundly relieved to see her in one piece.

"Because it wasn't serious," she said.

She closed her book and turned to set it on the nightstand alongside a thin vase of flowers. The clear plastic vase and carnations were standard issued hospital décor. He felt slightly mollified that she hadn't contacted anyone else about the attack either because Ino would have surely removed the tasteless floral choice by now had she been by.

"I spotted them while patrolling the western flank. At first I wasn't sure if they were Konoha ninjas or not but then they attacked me, which pretty much confirmed they were missing nin. By the way they moved and the levels of their chakra, I'd wager they were S rank." She shrugged, as if nearly getting killed was nothing to harp about. And in their line of work, he supposed it wasn't. "Luckily, I wasn't too far from Konoha's western wall."

"You didn't try to fight them, did you?"

She gave him a weary smile. "Of course not. I was outnumbered and I couldn't very well report their presence if I was dead, could I?"

He paled at the thought. "Sakura." He shifted on his feet and shoved his hands into his pockets to hide their slight tremor. "I... I'm glad you're okay."

He moved to stand by the window so she wouldn't see what the thought of her dying did to him. He squeezed his eyes shut, pushing away the unnecessary emotion. She was fine. It was better to focus on what course to take now. His eyes narrowed on a distant point beyond the scope of the view. The sun had yet to break through the clouds and the span of the horizon was cast in dark, turbulent shades of blue and green. The weather was an unwitting aid for the missing nin who were lurking somewhere out there amidst the trees. Fortunately, it was just as advantageous to their hunters.

His feet itched to tear from her hospital room and raze the forest, flush out the ninjas who hurt her so he could return the injuries they'd inflicted tenfold... but Tsunade was forever berating him for acting on his impulses and subsequently putting himself and others in dangerous situations. She would have been told immediately about the missing nin and was probably at that moment organizing a scouting party to search the area. She wouldn't deny him if he asked to join the search.

"Naruto," she said, her voice tentative, as if sensing his unrest.

He forced his mouth to curl into a smile before turning back to face her. She studied his face, eyes clear and searching, before her gaze slid away. Reaching up, she pulled the tie from her hair. It tumbled in loose waves around her face, still damp where the tie had rested, indicating a recent shower. She patted the edge of her bed, beckoning him to sit with her.

He moved to comply, sliding carefully across the mattress to avoid jarring her injuries. He tucked the blanket a bit more snugly around her, earning him an indulgent smile, before asking, "Did you recognize the missing nin?"

Her smile faltered and she tilted her head, pink bangs falling forward to shield her eyes. It was fortunate Sakura had never been able to master the dubious ninja art of stoicism. He reached out and grasped her chin between his thumb and forefinger before forcing her to meet his gaze. She glowered at him for his impudence but deflated at the solemn look in his eyes. She sighed and gently brushed his hand away.

"I can't be sure but... one of them was wearing the exact same ring I saw on Sasori's hand when I fought him. I'm assuming they were Akatsuki but... like I said, I can't be sure. They weren't wearing anything else to identify who they were, not even those weird cloaks."

His jaw had tightened at the first mention of Sasori, his lips flattening into an angry line. He felt warm fingers against his hand and looked down, surprised to see Sakura gently uncurling his tightly clenched fist. At any other time, he would have been ecstatic to receive her soothing touches, but he didn't want to be pacified. He shook his head and pulled away.

"If those assholes are after me again, I'm going to—ack!" He retreated from the bed, feet stumbling backward. He rubbed the rising bump on his head where she had smacked him and stammered out, "Oi! Why'd you do that?"

"I told you, I can't be sure! Don't jump to conclusions," she said, green eyes flashing. She dragged her medical text back into her lap and flipped it open, looking angry and harried. It was clear that she was much more concerned than she let on, probably for him. He cleared his throat, feeling suitably contrite for adding to her anxiety.

"Sorry," he mumbled. He rested his back against the wall and frowned down at his feet. His lips twisted into an impatient moue as he scuffed the heel of his sandal against the polished linoleum tiles. "But if itis them, then I'm not just going to hide in the village and let everyone else fight for me."


"No," he said, cutting her off sharply. She bit her lip, drawing back against her pillows, surprised by his tone of voice. He rarely raised his voice in anything but enthusiasm to her. He understood her concern and he appreciated it—deeply appreciated it. But he would never be able to just stand by and watch, not even for her. "You can't expect me to sit back while the rest of you fight.Don't ask it of me."

She stared down at her lap, brows drawn. "I know," she whispered.

There was a light tap at the window and they both looked up to find a small carrier pigeon pecking lightly at the window, a small scrap of paper tied to its foot. Naruto pushed away from the wall, eager for news or an order to act. The last two weeks had been sluggish in pace, measured only by Naruto's anxiety over the tragedy that was his love life. He'd had his fill of rest; he was ready for the heady rush of adrenaline to flush away the dregs of inaction.

He slid the window open and reached out an arm. The bird landed obediently on the curve of his hand, tiny claws digging lightly into his skin. He quickly retrieved the note and the bird took off, rounding the corner of the hospital and disappearing from view. He knew it was a summons before he even opened the missive. He glanced up at Sakura but her expression was hard to decipher.

He read the brief message and nodded in approval. The Hokage wanted him in her office immediately. Hopefully, she'd be sending their team out to search for the missing nin.

That, or she wanted him to stay put and keep out of trouble's way, in which case she had best be prepared for a tantrum the likes of which Konoha had yet to see.

"The Hokage wants me in her office." He tucked the message into his back pocket before approaching her bedside. "I'm really glad you're okay, Sakura. And I wish you could come with us."

She nodded and tried to smile, but he could see her concern weighing down the corners of her mouth. "Me too. Be careful."


Kakashi and Sai were already present when Naruto barreled into the Hokage's office, demanding to be sent with the scouting party. Kakashi greeted him with a painful look that might have meant either 'why is he still my student' or 'I have a serious case of the drips' but Sai didn't acknowledge him, his vacant expression shifting only minutely. Naruto ignored the way his stomach twisted at his regard, focusing instead on blistering the Hokage's ears if she was of a mind to keep him back.

Tsunade arched an eyebrow, unimpressed with his bluster. She waved a negligent hand at him. "Shut up and sit, runt."

Naruto contemplated this. She'd probably be more accommodating if he obeyed for now. He nodded and took a seat beside Sai.

"As I'm sure you've all heard by now, a couple of missing nin were spotted just west of Konoha last night. I've already sent Gai and his team ahead to investigate but I need you three to follow up and make sure they haven't run into any trouble."

Naruto grinned, relieved that she wouldn't try to coddle him. He fidgeted in his seat, fingers tapping restlessly against the chair's arms, anxious to set out. He straightened when Tsunade pointed an imposing finger at him.

"You. Be careful and let Kakashi lead. Don't run after them if you get separated and, for god's sake, control yourself out there."

Naruto's face grew darker with each order, his fingers gouging holes into the wood of his chair. He was perfectly capable of controlling himself! In fact, after he ripped them apart for hurting Sakura, he'd let Kakashi and Sai tie them up and deliver them to Ibiki.

Tsunade glared at them, brown eyes hard and assessing. "Well? Why the hell are you still standing there? Get moving!"

Naruto was the first out the door. He gestured impatiently at Sai and Kakashi as he stormed down the hallway, even though their team leader was quite suddenly conspicuously absent. He was probably halfway through Konoha already and would be waiting for them at the gates, pretending as though they were the tardy ones in the group.

"Hurry up, Sai, or I'm leaving you—" Naruto was cut off when a strong hand latched onto his upper arm and slammed him back into an alcove. His head hit the wall with an audible crack, pain shooting down his back. He lashed out at his attacker just as Sai's body covered his. "What the..." Naruto could hardly get out a protest before Sai's tongue was in his mouth and warms hands slipped underneath his shirt. "I...Sa...ungh... Sa—Sai... Sai, stop!"

He twisted his face away before rearing back and butting Sai in the head. With a startled grunt, Sai broke away.

"God, what the hell is your problem?" Naruto shoved at him, but Sai brought both arms up, palms flat against the wall, blocking Naruto in. His eyes narrowed, fists curling around the fabric of Sai's shirt. "Now really isn't the best time for this." His hands shook, an irrational fury rising inside him at being hindered, at the excess of energy churning in his gut that needed to be released, at the missing nin who'd hurt Sakura, but most of all, Naruto realized with the kind of shattering awareness that stole the breath from his lungs that he was furious with Sai and his inability to find anything other than physical pleasure in their encounters.

Sai leaned forward, forcing Naruto to press back against the wall, despite that he knew very well it wouldn't give. Sai's breath was warm against his mouth and it smelled like apples, a favorite snack of his. Naruto closed his eyes and pushed away all those stupid little desires that he'd known from the start he couldn't and shouldn't want. He didn't have time to deal with them, or Sai, at the moment anyway.

"You wanted to know where I'd learned how to pleasure another person."

Naruto's eyes opened and he angled a confused look at Sai, momentarily taken aback. Yes, he recalled he had asked that question at some point in the previous week, but Sai hadn't provided an answer—instead, he'd given further demonstration of those skills and Naruto's ability to string together words had been completely shot for several hours afterwards.

"I don't see what that has to do with anything," he said, keeping a short rein on his temper. He elbowed Sai in the ribs but the man didn't budge.

"Danzou-sama said my appearance was suited for missions that required a different approach. He sent me to be trained in the ways of seduction," Sai said. His demeanor suggested that he had accepted the new training as nothing more than another aspect of his duties as a ninja.

Naruto scoffed before the full import of what Sai was telling him sank in. His jaw went slack and he turned within the barrier of Sai's arms to fully face him. Frowning, his fists released the bunched up folds of Sai's shirt and he smoothed out the creases left behind with gentle, shaking fingers. The anger ebbed, suddenly feeling petty next to the severity of truth.

"I'm sorry," he said. His hands crept up Sai's neck, fingers sliding into the hair at the nape of his neck.

Sai fingers curled against the wall, his eyes betraying his confusion. "For what?"

Naruto shook his head and swallowed tightly, overcome with the daft urge to either hug the man or shake some sense into him. The burn of ire flared again in his gut, accompanied by an uncomfortable but familiar ache in his chest. Sai couldn't help the way he was; he had been conditioned to accept certain methods without the knowledge that they were unorthodox, even within a ninja society. It was a mark of his motivation to improve and evolve past childhood doctrines that Sai was even there with him.

Naruto was divided. On the one hand, the restlessness was still there, urging him to forcibly remove Sai and stop wasting time better spent on tracking down the missing nin. On the other hand, he now had a burning desire to hunt down the head of ANBU Root and strangle him with his own entrails for turning a ninja of Sai's caliber into a... a...

Naruto shook his head. It didn't bear thinking about. Ninjas were tools of war, but there had to be some limitations to what a ninja was required to perform to fulfill his duties.

"Why are you telling me this now?" Naruto asked. Nothing Sai did seemed to make sense lately. He bit the inside of his cheek, indecision keeping him rooted more firmly than the screen of Sai's arms. He didn't like feeling so uncertain; he was a man of action. He let his instincts guide him. But Sai was so... deceptively complicated and Naruto was abysmal in the matter of managing a relationship, even one as dubious as theirs.

"Because," Sai said. A small line formed between his brows and it took Naruto a moment to realize that Sai was actually frowning. "Danzou-sama made sure my range of abilities was broad enough to encompass what I might have had to do those years ago when I first joined your team. I was ordered to do whatever was necessary to get to Sasuke, even if it meant going through Orochimaru, or his bed."

Naruto felt something savage and heated twist in his stomach and he hissed in expletive but Sai ignored his reaction, continuing on in that maddeningly even tone of voice.

"Sakura wasn't deemed a threat and, although I couldn't match Yamato-sensei, I was fast enough to elude him if necessary. As for you," he said, stepping close enough so that his breath brushed Naruto's lips. Naruto lowered his eyes, wanting to shove Sai away and tell him to shut up at the same time he wanted to silence him by crushing their mouths together. He scowled, no longer certain who he was angry with anymore. "I was taught to manipulate seals."

Naruto's gaze snapped back to his in surprise. "Seals? What do you mean?"

Sai was staring at him, eyes dark and beguiling in their sudden depth. He dropped his arms and glanced away. "I'm sorry, Naruto."

"What do you—?" Naruto eyes widened in comprehension just as Sai's fingers brushed his stomach and pain exploded inside him. Kyuubi's chakra ripped from its cage and there was a blinding moment of white-hot pain as he glimpsed the determination in Sai's eyes before everything went black.


When it became apparent that he wasn't dead or ravaging the village as Kyuubi, the first coherent thought to form was, 'Sai is a dead man.'

Naruto cracked open an eye and groaned at a sight he was well familiar with. He was in a room located in the private ward of the hospital, several long and winding corridors away from the hospital proper. It was where he met with the Hokage every few months to check his seal. Typically the room was bright and airy, the curtains drawn and the window open to let in the breeze—all minor acts of consideration on Tsunade's part so that Naruto wouldn't feel like a test subject when he came in.

At the moment, the drapes had been replaced with thick wood-slat blinds and the window was shut. The lights had been dimmed and there was the sharp tang of burnt chakra lingering in the air. The walls glowed dully and it took him only a moment to decipher why—they were being reinforced with considerable amounts of chakra.

Naruto sat up, anger and confusion surging through him. He shook his head to dispel the wave of thoughts and emotions rising inside him. Why, why...? He sucked in a breath of air that did little to calm him and tried not to think about that just yet. He carefully molded his chakra and when nothing unusual happened, he jerked up his shirt to see that his seal appeared unchanged. The reinforced walls were proof that something had happened but it seemed Sai hadn't done any permanent damage.

Sai. He grit his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut, but couldn't delay the stab of helpless fury that wracked him. The tightness in his chestached and he felt disjointed and out of breath. His eyes burned and he rubbed at them, horrified at the sudden sting, swift and sharp like a whip. Stop it, stop it, stop it.

There was a knock at his door and he stiffened before rolling onto his side. He buried his face in the crook of his elbow, teeth sinking painfully into the skin of his arm to stifle the crushing anger.

The door swung open into his room and he immediately recognized the familiar pulse of Sakura's chakra. He took a steadying breath, the rigid lines of his shoulders bunching in resignation before he rolled to face her. She started, eyes widening when she realized he was awake.

"Naruto." Her voice was hesitant even as she rushed to his bedside, warm hands flitting over him to check his vitals. "How are you feeling? When did you wake? Are you disoriented? Does anything hurt?"

Plenty, he thought bitterly before pushing away the unwelcome emotion. "I'm fine, Sakura. What happened?"

She laid a soothing hand against his cheek and bit her lip. She seemed reluctant to speak and Naruto swallowed back the urge to snap at her for answers.

"Well, for starters," she said, "Tsunade-shishou says you're going to be just fine. There wasn't any lasting damage to your seal as far as she could tell. One of the eight points of the seal keeping the fox imprisoned was temporarily weakened, but it didn't affect the strength of the other points so the seal remained in tact. It just kind of... knocked you out. Seems Sai was looking to decommission you for a while."

At the mention of Sai, his eyes flickered away. He ran a hand through his hair to keep from reaching out and strangling something. "Sai... fucking Sai. What the hell did he mean by attacking my seal like that? Did he not want me on the mission that badly? I know I'm not always the most rational person but I wouldn't have compromised our safety or... god, when I get my hands on him, I'm going to mutilate him. What am I to him, a fuck buddy? Is that all I'm good for now? I'm not good enough to fight alongside him anymore? Agh!" He clutched his head, wanting nothing more than a sturdy rock wall to plant his fist into again and again until exhaustion dampened the burn of betrayal in his gut.

She rubbed small circles into his back, but didn't speak. She seemed to understand that he needed a moment to vent his frustration.

"I'm so pathetic." He rubbed his face. He didn't want to look at her and let her see everything he was unable to hide. "I don't understand what's changed. Why would he do that to me?" Hadn't he repeatedly told himself that physical involvement with Sai was a bad idea? Why couldn't he have listened to his gut rather than his libido? "I knew from the start that Sai probably didn't feel anything but friendship for me. I wasn't planning to expect anything more from him."

Her hand had dropped to her side and he glanced at her to gauge her reaction. He was surprised to find she was glaring at him, her eyes flashing with impatience. He shifted uneasily, uncertain if her anger was directed at him or Sai. He supposed being a complete fool would warrant that look.

"Naruto," she said, her voice measured with forced patience. "Had it been up to me, I wouldn't have wanted you to go either."

He drew back as if struck, confusion and hurt twisting his face. "I told you I could never just stand back and—"

"I know. And I'd never ask it of you. But not everyone would think to ask."

He frowned, sinking into his bed and crossing his arms. "I already know Sai didn't want me on that mission. I just want to know why."

She made a small annoyed sound and rubbed her forehead. "Sai knows you're capable of taking care of yourself. We've been a team for too long for him to doubt that."

He pursed his lips, feeling distinctly at a loss. He was missing something here, something vital, and he wished she'd just spit it out and tell him already. If Sai hadn't attacked his seal because he thought of Naruto as a liability then what reason would he have had to keep him from going? Sai's motives were still as unclear as powdered water.

Sakura was giving him an expectant look. He really didn't appreciate her adding to his anger by confusing him with her failed attempts to explain. "I don't see your point."

"Ugh! You are such a moron! Why would I want to keep you from going?"

The answer came easily. "Because you wouldn't want me getting hurt."

She beamed. He didn't get it.

What did that have to do with...? Oh. Oh.

Naruto's eyes widened. Then he scowled. "That's…no way! Sai wouldn't... he doesn't..."

She took a deep breath, apparently satisfied with the conclusion he'd finally reached. "If it's any consolation, Sai is a complete idiot too. But I don't think he was trying to hurt you. He just wanted to protect you."

He was beyond skeptical. "I don't need protecting."

"I know that. And normally, Sai does too but... well, honestly, I have no idea what he's thinking half the time, but I can guess." Sakura perched herself at the edge of Naruto's vacated bed, her gaze falling to her lap. Her expression shifted from frustration to something else, something Naruto couldn't quite place. "As far as we know, the only person Sai has ever cared about was the guy he called his brother, the one from his old book. And... and all we know about him is that he died."

He sighed. He didn't need to be reminded of the things Sai had gone through before coming to Team Seven.

"When we met Sai," she said, "he was incapable of feeling anything and why do you think that is?"

His eyes narrowed at the memory of what Sai had told him just before attacking him. In retrospect, Sai had probably been trying to throw him off. His ability to manipulate had apparently improved in recent years. Despite that, however, he didn't think Sai had been dishonest. "Because his superior, that Danzou asshole, made him that way."

She bit her lip and rubbed her thumb over the back of her hand in a mindless gesture. "Yes. Possibly. Probably. But maybe... maybe he also didn't want to ever feel the pain of losing someone close to him again."

He slid up his bed, pushing his pillow down to cushion his back. He rested his head against the wall, the flow of chakra buzzing lightly against the back of his head, and closed his eyes, remembering the nearly paralyzing fear he'd felt when he heard Sakura had been injured by the missing nin. "Sai doesn't care about me that way."

He glanced up at her and was startled to find her hands had curled into fists and she was glaring at him as though contemplating which of his limbs should go first.

"You are the thickest... ugh!" She slapped a hand over her forehead and muttered a prayer for patience before continuing. "Why else would Sai want to protect you?"

He tightened his jaw, exasperated with their topic of conversation. He was glad the debilitating grief of another betrayal, another team broken, had subsided, but Sakura was grasping for a happy ending that Naruto wasn't sure existed.

When he failed to reply, she said, "Because he cares about you, Naruto."

He jerked upright, eyes blazing. "That's bullshit! Sai knows damn well I don't need protecting and he wouldn't have fucking attacked me just to keep me safe. He's been a part of our team for three years and he fucking knows I've never let the Akatsuki take me—"

"But every time it happens, you come out of it with so many injuries it's a wonder you're still alive!" Sakura planted her fists on her hips and met Naruto's glare. They both fumed silently for several long seconds, adamant in their own opinion, before Sakura deflated. "Look, Naruto, I'm just making guesses, okay? Maybe I'm wrong. But maybe I'm not. Talk to him before you make any assumptions, okay?"

Naruto sank back down into the bed, arranging his blankets around him with sharp, angry movements. "Why the hell didn't the old hag arrest him anyway? Stupid, idiotic..." He continued to mutter insults under his breath as Sakura sighed in exasperation.

"Like I said, his intent hadn't been to hurt you. He was gone from the tower by the time the ANBU guards reached you. He went out to find Gai's Team on his own, but Kakashi-sensei sensed him and followed him out. They just got back a few hours ago and he's already met with Tsunade-shishou. I think the worst she can do is remove him from the team and return him to ANBU."

He didn't know how he felt about that. He was still pissed, but to a far less extent than he'd been upon waking. Sai had acted recklessly—for reasons Naruto wasn't yet certain of—but he was still a part of their team. Just as Sasuke was still a part of them, regardless of the years and distance that separated them.

And he really didn't like the idea of Danzou sending Sai out on another mission that would require him to use his lesser-known skills.

He sighed, resigned. "I'll ask the old hag to go easy on him."

Sakura beamed and abruptly threw herself at him. He stiffened, half expecting her to hit him and nearly jumping out of the bed when instead, she wrapped her arms around him and practically squeezed the breath from his lungs.

"But," he gasped, drawing in a much-needed breath, "that doesn't mean I'm going to forgive him that easily."

"Of course not," she said, stepping away and grinning much too brightly in Naruto's opinion.

"So how did the scouting mission go then? Did they find the missing nin?" He was eager to let the topic of Sai's motivations pass, not willing just yet to linger on what it could mean if Sakura was right. He'd been worried that the intimacy would shift their team dynamics and hadn't it done just that? Sai had gone temporarily insane and Naruto would now have to maim him for being so stupid.

"Kakashi and Sai are a little bruised, but they're fine. Lee's team as well. The missing nin got away though. We're still not sure what they were doing in the area but... I imagine we'll find out eventually if they were up to something."

He nodded, scowling darkly. "We probably would have caught them if I'd been there."

She made an impatient gesture. "Well, you weren't so just forget about it. You'll get another chance to go after them if they show up again."

He huffed, turning away to glare at the closed blinds. Light filtered in from between the slats and, oddly enough, knowing that the sky had probably cleared and the warmth of spring had reasserted itself over the village calmed him a bit. He kicked the blankets aside and slid from the bed, moving to stand before the window. He tugged at the blinds until sunlight flooded in and filled the darkened corners with patterns of light. He pressed his hand against the glass, the warmth focused through the glass seeping into his palm.

He said, "Thank you, Sakura."

He could hear her shift behind him before she said, "Tsunade-shishou wants you to stay here for at least another day so she can keep an eye on your seal. Just as a precaution."

He nodded and it occurred to him that he really needed to pee. He made the mistake of telling her so.

She gave him a disgusted look. "Er. Well, it has been a whole day. I'll just... go check up on my other patients. Try to rest."

He nodded and waved her out before stumbling to the bathroom. He hated being confined to a hospital room. He felt fine and Sakura had said herself that nothing was wrong with his seal; the old hag was probably just being paranoid.

A couple minutes and a great deal of relief later, he stepped back into his room to find a familiar figure standing awkwardly by the doorway.

He took one look at Sai and suddenly he was across the room, his fist connecting with the hard line of Sai's jaw. Sai stumbled backward, reaching out to steady himself against the wall.

"You let me hit you!" Naruto shouted, his voice reverberating against the chakra-infused walls.

Sai wiped at his split lip and shrugged lightly. "You seemed determined."

"Agh! You're such a prick."

"Naruto, I want to apolo—" Sai was cut off by Naruto's other fist. He collided into the wall, looking dazed.

"Ha! Didn't see that one coming, did you?" Naruto said with a triumphant bark of laughter. He turned away and crawled back into his bed while Sai composed himself. "So apologize then, asshole. And while you're at it, you better give me a damn good explanation for messing with my seal." He didn't like the way his chest tightened in anticipation, as if a part of him had already accepted what Sakura had said for truth... or at least hoped for it. But Naruto wasn't going to make a fool of himself again. He wanted to hear it directly from Sai.

Sai was still leaning against the wall, one hand poking gingerly at his face and working his jaw to ensure it wasn't broken. Naruto watched him silently, taking note that his eye, which Naruto hadn't touched, was beginning to swell from what must have been an impressive hit. He straightened, meeting Naruto's gaze without any sign of trepidation or remorse for what he'd done. Naruto's hands curled in his lap, restraining the urge to wrap them around Sai's neck.

"I..." Sai shifted on his feet, the only sign that he might be feeling as uneasy as Naruto. "I didn't want you to get hurt," he said, his voice stilted as if the words felt awkward in his mouth.


Sai frowned, the expression as odd on his face now as it had been in the hallway outside the Hokage's office. He opened his mouth but, even as Naruto waited, he seemed unable to form his thoughts into words. But his eyes, suddenly uncertain, shifted away and Naruto understood.

He sighed and cleared his throat. "Well, anyway, if you ever mess with my seal or do anything that stupid to me again, I swear I'll rasengan your ass."

Sai had the audacity to smile. "I'm sorry. I wasn't... I hadn't thought it out very well."

"Clearly," Naruto muttered. Sai moved to sit in a small metal chair set against the wall, his mouth curled into a smile that, despite Naruto's best efforts, made something warm unravel inside him.

"You look well."

Naruto scowled and wanted very much to plant his fist into Sai's face again, but the man already had enough bruises in that vicinity as it was.

"You actually let one of those missing nin hit you?" Naruto asked, gesturing at Sai's eye.

Sai shook his head. "Sakura did that."

Naruto was inordinately pleased by that bit of information. "Good to know she wasn't completely on your side. Now promise me you'll never try to stop me from going on a mission again."

Sai's face grew impassive again. Naruto could tell by the tightness around his mouth that he was thinking about something but refused to respond.

Naruto would not be deterred. "Promise me, Sai, or... or I'm going to ask the old hag to remove you from our team." It was an empty threat but Sai didn't know that.

Sai's mouth parted slightly in surprise and—Naruto almost winced—hurt. It made him feel guilty for lying but if Sai couldn't trust him to take care of himself then he couldn't trust Sai. Besides, he reminded himself, the man deserved it.

After a painful moment of indecision, Sai finally muttered, "You always get hurt."

Naruto felt the last of his anger dissipate and he was relieved to find that, in its place, was a reluctant understanding. "Probably. But we're ninjas, Sai. It can't be avoided."

Sai looked so uncharacteristically distraught that Naruto took pity on him. "Look, I'll give you a promise in exchange. I promise I'll try not to lose my temper and get myself into trouble on missions, especially if it involves Akatsuki."

Sai appeared to consider this. Finally, he gave a hesitant nod. "All right." His gaze slid away from Naruto's and focused blankly on the windows, clearly displeased with the arrangement. Naruto couldn't find it in himself to be angry anymore. Sai's show of emotion was reminiscent of the mystifying look in his eyes when they were naked and flushed from exertions not at all ninja-related. Naruto had never been able to decipher that look before.

The silence in the room was beginning to grow uncomfortable when Naruto finally huffed irritably and shifted over on his bed.

"Are you going to just sit there or get in here with me?"

Sai blinked in surprise. The tense lines of his shoulders loosened and, despite that his face was now turning various shades of purple in several spots, a small smile curved his lips. Naruto grumbled something about idiots and their stupid sentimental notions before patting the empty space beside him.

Sai joined him without further argument, sinking into the mound of fluffy hospital pillows, and dropped his head onto Naruto's shoulder. Naruto felt the last of his uncertainty slip away as he curled into the body beside him, the steady rhythm of Sai's breaths warm against his neck. Sai still smelled like the forest, the earthy scent of pine and wilderness clinging to his skin. Naruto turned his face into his hair as a strong arm found its way around his waist.

He still had to consider what this would do to their team and they would have to discuss matters with Kakashi and Sakura... not to mention he had to talk with Tsunade-bachan about Sai's punishment and then worry about what they'd do when Sai returned to ANBU in the unforeseeable future—that was taking into consideration the possibility that they even lasted more than a few months and Naruto wasn't at all certain of that.

But as Sai shifted against him, a tiny, possibly unintentional sigh of content slipping past his lips, Naruto decided he'd had enough of doubts and excessive deliberation. He pulled Sai a little closer and closed his eyes.


Ramen was a glorious thing after being bedridden for two days.

It was twice as satisfying when it was being paid for by your favorite ex-sensei.

"Iruka, you're thebest," Naruto said. Iruka gave him a strained smile, which was appropriate considering Naruto was simultaneously breathing down his ramen, thanking Iruka profusely, and grinning like a loon. He amazed himself sometimes.

"It's fine, really. Eat up, eat up." Iruka took a less robust bite from his bowl. "So I ran into Sai earlier this morning."

Naruto paused at the sudden change in topic. He cast Iruka a curious look, urging him to continue.

"Well," Iruka said. He rubbed the back of his neck and laughed uncertainly. "He told me you mentioned once that..." He flushed and the wariness Naruto was beginning to feel was promptly quelled by the warmth in Iruka's smile. "...er, that you thought of me like a father."

Naruto turned away to hide his own rising blush and shrugged, attempting to play off the display of emotion. "Well... it's true." What the hell was Sai doing saying such random things to the man anyway?

"And... well, because of that, he... er. He asked for permission to court you."

Naruto heaved forward, choking on his mouthful of ramen, and his chopsticks snapped between his fingers. There was a moment of silence as Iruka pounded on his back before...

"He did WHAT?" Naruto flung his broken chopsticks onto the counter. Iruka attempted to placate him but Naruto wasn't listening. What the hell was Sai's problem? He wasn't a girl and he was going to damn well show him that by kicking his ass all the way to Suna.

"I'm sure he had the best intentions, Naruto. He said he'd read a book about how that was the most proper way to date and..." Iruka fell silent at the dark clouds brewing over Naruto's head and shrugged helplessly. "Don't kill him, Naruto."

Naruto promised nothing, darting away to seek his quarry. Even as he stalked the streets, his masculine pride thoroughly insulted, he understood that the ridiculous request was Sai's twisted way of reassuring him that it had in fact never really been about just a physical encounter.

And for that, Naruto wouldn't kick his ass too hard.

The End.