A/N: I CANNOT BELIEVE HOW LATE THIS IS. Gawd, and after all the work I went through to keep updates on time. But I didn't "forget," no. This was truly and really out of my hands. Well, here it is! Shameless fluff, etc., is all on the house, pre-packaged and delivered straight to yew.
One more thing. I'm going to be extending Abendrot in the near or far future, because it's way too short and I had more ideas at the time that I didn't write down and I am ASHAMED.
Wild Goose Chase
Chapter 4 – Confusing
He was lying in the hospital bed absolutely mummified in bandages, and for a full minute, all Sakura did was stare and listen to the pounding drum of her heartbeat in her ears. She could already see that any chance perhaps conceivable before this moment, of reconciling with the man and making things all right, vanished into nothingness, to—
"Sakura? I'm over here."
And then, more importantly, she saw she was looking at entirely the wrong person. Tenzou was on the other side of the room. Of course.
"Oh, I—" Sakura pushed her hair back with a shaking hand, clutching the bottom of her shirt childishly and redirecting her origin of anxiety. "I thought that was you over there—" She gestured lamely towards the faceless man comatose on the opposite bed and swallowed. Tenzou didn't seem to notice her nervousness, but by now she knew better than to even assume he didn't. He saw. How he interpreted her actions was another thing, though.
Clean and smooth, the bed he lay in created a perfect picture of a cliché hospital scene. White sheets, white pillow, whitewashed iron body frame, and the man currently among them, wearing a light green hospital gown, completed the image. A second glance-over revealed no lacerations or discolored patches of skin evidence of a poisoning, just a large bandage on his arm where a blood transfusion occurred, a band-aid on his neck, and a stern expression on his face.
"Tenz—Yamato, I—I didn't want you to think…" Sakura began in a frenzied rush to beat her tears. "That was so stupid, what I did. I want to explain it to you."
His demeanor never wavered. "Well, go ahead. I'm sure the Hokage and I both will be interested to hear the story behind this."
And he could sit there and make spiteful comments like that—! Sakura nearly burst into tears at the force behind them, prayed that this wild affair wouldn't be the end of her relationship.
"For your information," she struck back, breath hitching. "It was practically Lady Tsunade's idea! She wanted to do this whole surprise party thing and I just wanted us to go out or something! You have to believe me!"
Now the man just looked bemused. "Are you telling me that this whole thing, the fake mission and the attack, were all just part of the Hokage's plan to throw me a surprise party?"
"No one had any idea you'd be attacked!" Sakura snapped testily. "We sent you to the most boring part of the country to you'd run around in circles for a while and them come back later when the decorations were done!"
"Do you have any proof of that?"
Sakura drew back, and the tears came again, budding at the corner of her eyes. She hated crying, it gave her the most awful headaches and a painful ache in her throat.
"You don't…believe me?"
"Well, Sakura, I'd like to, but due to recent events I'm inclined to doubt."
"I…I don't know what to say…"
For a few minutes, the two faced one another, she standing at the foot of the bed and he bundled up in it, emotions tangible in the space between the reach of their eyes. Sakura floundered in her confusion, grasping for the ideas darting before her mind. What could she possibly do to convince him of the truth, if not the truth itself? For that matter, how did he even figure it out in the first place?
Disbelievingly enough, the woman who started the madness came rushing in to conclude it. Or maybe it wasn't that disbelieving, since Tsunade, while drunk, possessed a nasty habit of listening to private conversation, wearing exciting underwear, and signing so much as a napkin that passed across her desk.
"I can vouch for her, Tenzou. I couldn't help but follow Sakura to here and see if you were all right, and, consequently, I also couldn't help but eavesdrop on your lovely conversation." Tsunade slid the door aside and stepped into the room confidently, if a bit wobbly—this time wearing genuine clothing—facing the man in bed with pursed lips. "It was all my idea and I sincerely apologize for your trouble. But no worries, I've already sent backup to the area who weren't at the party and things are being taken care of."
And then she disappeared back into the hallway. Sakura had to smile brightly in her mentor's deus ex machina-like appearance. For as much as everyone labeled her a lazy, gambling-corrupted drunk, she really had her moments of redemption. Somehow, when tight situations arose, a busty blonde always appeared ready to rescue her student, her subordinate, and anyone else in need of help.
As Sakura fondly regarded the rare occurrence (for her part, these rescues came far, far apart), she heard a familiar cough behind her and rushed to the source. With a great deal of relief, she noticed the post-Tsunade-interlude Tenzou seemed infinitely more calm and collected, far the callous stranger from before. But once again, staring preceded the upcoming apology session in both timing and importance. This just wasn't a moment for eloquent, sappy speeches and epiphanies. Getting over an incident like this would take copious amounts of mental flexibility.
"So," Tenzou began hesitantly. He glanced at the door again, maybe expecting Tsunade to poke an eye around the corner at any second. "I guess I owe you an apology."
"No, no, no. Tenzou, I'm sorry." Sakura looked at her feet and went on, ashamed. "That was totally irresponsible, what we did, and I should've known from the beginning it was a bad idea. I mean, I can understand sending you on an errand across the village, but sending you anywhere meant grounds for disaster. Anything can happen, even on a little recon! So stupid. This—this whole time I've been imaging you laying in pieces somewhere, and all because I wanted to have a little party. It wasn't so bad in the beginning…it was just going to be close friends, and then people heard about stuff, and rumors went around, and—Tenzou, there are twenty people at my apartment right now, and that was after we got almost everyone cleared out!"
Sakura caught her breath and glanced up from the fascinating pattern of powder yellow and white linoleum. To her emotional liberation, Tenzou was smiling. It was a small smile, but a smile all the same! She managed a small one back at him, praying that her fingers, twisting nervously, could brave through the urge to shoot chakra into his system to make absolutely certain the other medics hadn't missed anything.
Tenzou reached out with his good arm. "Come here." It didn't sound like a question, the way he said it.
Cautiously, Sakura slipped out of her high heels, wrinkling her brow at the sight of them tilted sideways on the floor. The fact that she still donned her party dress and hairdo completely went over her head while en route to his room, and now she felt more than a little foolish. What did he think of her in this borrowed dress, standing there and trying to redeem herself? But Tenzou waited, arm outstretched, so she crossed the last few feet separating them and sat on the edge of the bed.
The hard mattress barely depressed under her weight; she felt sorry for Tenzou, pulling her to his side with the one hand, who would have to endure it for two more days. Or was that three? Actually, the way he looked, he could be out in a matter of hours. No, no…wasn't there something about poison…? That's right, monitoring for slow-working poisons. Sakura sighed, one part weariness and one part too-tight bodice.
She tilted her head down and observed his face from the corner of her right eye, and saw genuine concern. Honestly, here he lay nearly dead and he worried over a sigh. Still, the gesture warmed Sakura's heart. They were going to be all right after all!
"It's okay, it's okay." She laid her head cautiously on his shoulder, came up with a wince when the dress's seams protested the action. "This dress, it's—Ino let me borrow it, it's a little stiff on the top. Do you mind if I…?"
"Do I ever complain?"
She smirked at the sly narrowing of his eyes. "No, you don't."
Pulling herself up on her knees with the help of the bedside and Tenzou's thigh, Sakura quickly liberated herself of the oppressive blue mess of fabric, tugging it over her head and tossing it to the next bed over with a new sigh of gratitude. Reduced to a full-length slip, she squirmed under the covers and resumed her previous heat leeching.
"Tenzou…are we okay?"
"Yeah…just don't ever do something like that again, okay? You could get into serious trouble. I know you say that Lady Tsunade was responsible for the idea—"
"—but the fact of the matter is what you did was incredibly naïve and deceptive. I might have a little more trouble believing you now even for little things. You'll have to earn that back again. Next time, I hope that if Lady Tsunade ever brings up a scheme like that again, you'll have the sense to protest it."
"I know. I know…but I do want to know something."
"How did you know already what happened? You were upset right when I came in the room."
"I had a suspicion from the very beginning, obviously because ANBU missions are only given direct by the Hokage, but I shrugged it off because you're her apprentice—there could always be something that came up to impede the Hokage from personally calling one of us—trusted you enough to think you'd never try to pull something off like that. But the scroll checked out, so I didn't think anything about it after that. In fact, it only clicked the second you walked in here. That guilty look on your face…there only could've been one reason."
Sakura buried her face in his chest, willing the beat of his heart to lull her to sleep. She deserved all this berating.
"I don't know what else to do other than to keep telling you I'm sorry. I'm sorry I broke our trust, and…I understand if you want me to leave you alone for a little while. You know, give you some space to think about it."
The thin fabric of his hospital shirt echoed rustling noises deep inside her ear as she tilted her head up to look him in the face. Tenzou, as usual, completely barricaded himself behind a wall of solemnity. Whereas before Sakura would have pried and dug to get him out of his carefully crafted shell, now she just waited for a sign that it was okay to believe again, okay to sigh and smile.
"I…did say we were okay. But yeah, I'd like to think about this for a little bit."
Sakura sighed. She'd be a fool for expecting any more, and, frankly, she was glad to at least have this. This was a start, not an end, she reminded herself.
Extracting herself from his warmth made leaving difficult, but Sakura knew she needed to leave. She did still have guests over, and now that she mentally and physically sorted out Tenzou's far-from-life-threatening situation, the time had come to return to the apartment and brave the rest of those…lovely presents.
Standing beside the bed, she turned back to her—boyfriend? lover?—and looked up to the ceiling, mind plodding along sluggishly.
"Tomorrow," she enunciated each word as though each one was precious. "I'll bring you our presents. I think you'll be surprised at what some people's assumptions were."
He smiled warmly at her, almost as if he already knew what people might think, and then he rolled out of bed after her, oblivious to the comical exaggerated creases in the hospital suit, and clutched Sakura's arm. He led her to the room's open entrance, as though she were the sick and the lame, heedless to any possible hampering of his recovery. It reminded her of a date, when the boy escorted the girl to her door, parting with a kiss and a promise. She knew without a doubt what this promise was.
Tenzou waited until Sakura crossed the threshold before meeting her gaze one more time.
"Sakura…when I was attacked, the only one I thought about was you. I'm not angry."
The door shut softly before her as she smiled in return.
"And he said that? That's so sweet!"
Sakura giggled with Ino, huddled under a blanket before her fireplace. In reality, it was something like seventy degrees Fahrenheit outside, even at midnight, but that was the beauty of adjustable thermostats. You didn't have to sit in seventy-degree weather if you didn't want to. So there they were at forty degrees, the absolute lowest it would go, snuggled under three layers of cotton sheets with crumpled-up, orange tissue paper tossed into the faux hearth.
"I think he was on painkillers, Ino. I've never seen him so docile in the entire time I've known him. I practically expected him to forgive me for everything I've ever done, and offer to rub my feet or something. Seriously, I pull a huge one over on him, and he was being so nice. I hope he doesn't come to his senses when he comes home."
"Oh, don't play it down like that!" Ino wrinkled her nose at her best friend, reprimanding. "You're making him look bad, and you should be ashamed of yourself. Don't be an ungrateful person, Sakura. I'm sorry, but you need to just be thankful Yamato didn't slap a bitch and call it off."
"He would never do that to me. He's not that type of person, Ino."
"Yeah, yeah. It's just a scenario. But come on, at the very least you knew somewhere inside of your heart of stone that he'd be pissed off when he came back, even if he didn't almost get killed by a thousand black ops."
"I know. It's what Chouji told me. Figures."
"No, no, no. I wasn't talking about that. Well, yeah, that's ludicrous…also, I guess, but…I just kind of forgot how really important his job was. If he was a chuunin—no, it would just be wrong no matter what. Gah, I hate talking about this. But I just can't stop thinking about it. I acted like such a child. I can't believe Kakashi didn't stop me. You know how gung ho he is about teamwork and trust and shit."
As if on cue, Kakashi stuck his head into the living room window and glared half-heartedly at the two women.
"And 'shit'? I don't recall ever mentioning that in my briefings. I'm insulted."
"Go away!" Both of them snapped in his direction irately.
"Fine, fine. Why the hell is it so cold in here?"
"Close the window and get back outside, Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura screeched. "You said you wouldn't listen to this conversation. I don't even know why you're still even here."
But he had already slipped under the silent windowsill.
"So," Ino drawled, and Sakura prayed she was changing the subject. Anything to get Tenzou off her mind. "Are you guys actually going to get married eventually? Because that would be cool. I mean, I would set up the place, get the ceremonial sake…"
"No, Ino." Sakrua groaned. "We've been through this."
"Well, tell me why not again. I already forgot whatever half-assed reason you gave me."
"Okay. For the last time. It's like this. So, we don't want to get married because it would only make things more emotionally complicated if one of us happens to die. I mean, because not only do you have a connection, but it's a legal connection. So you have to go and file all the papers after they die, and you're responsible for their belongings…it's just too much to deal with."
"Oh, that's just a bunch of bullcrap. You've never actually talked about it, have you? Your relationship, I mean. That's ridiculous. You can't just "be together" with someone unofficially. It's philosophically impossible."
"Oh, what, you're into philosophy now, Ino?"
"Yeah, Sakura, I am. And one of the things it talks about is how you can't be something and not be something at the same time. Like, it's either Wednesday or it's not Wednesday. You can't be both or in between. And I know you're trying to bait me out of the topic at hand, but come on. You guys need to sit down and talk about what's up."
"No, no, no."
"Why, why, why?"
"Well—I already told you what it was like when we first started doing stuff together. It was impulsive, and we didn't love each other. It just sort of happened."
"Did one of you really lose a bet? Because I heard—"
"We are not going to go there, Ino-pig."
"Oh, I suppose. Can you hand me my cake down there? Thanks."
"No problem. So what were you talking about with all that Wednesday stuff?"
"Oh, right. See, you can't think you're in a relationship when nothing has been established. If you're just sort of kind of living together and maybe a little bit going out every once in a while…that's not really real."
"But what I told you was real. It's true that T—Yamato and I haven't talked about us, but I don't want us to get so serious as to get married because I really worry about all that stuff. I don't want to have to keep being reminded of him after he dies, and I'm afraid that if we talk about it, he'll not want to be with me anymore. I don't want him to leave like Sasuke."
"Know what that's called? Anxiety. A fear with no rational basis. You're afraid of all this stuff that's not in front of your face, Sakura. You can't keep seeing Sasuke in every single guy you come across, or you'll never have a stable relationship with anyone. It's like being afraid of being pushed off a cliff when you're a thousand miles from so much as a hill."
"But, going back to our little philosophical drift, doesn't having the idea of a relationship make it real? I mean, you can have sex with someone and not love or care about them. So does that mean that true relationships are all mentally based?"
"No way! If you two just go around like you are now, just thinking you're the happiest couple ever, and you never…convey that to one another, I guess, then there's no connection. And if there's no connection, there's no relationship."
"This is so unnecessarily dramatic."
"I know, right?"
"…You want some more ice cream?"
"Yeah, okay. But promise me you'll talk to him about it?"
"I only have chocolate chip cookie dough."
"Sakura, promise me you'll do it, even if it's not a full-blown talk. This just needs to happen, trust me."
"I'll get your bowl."
"I'm going to tell him for you if you don't."
"Actually, do that. I don't want to do it."
"Sakura! How can you say you like where you are right now when you don't even know where that is?"
Sakura extracted herself from the sheets and stumbled over to the thermostat on legs long fallen asleep, socks dangling limp from her toes. She turned it up to normal and sighed gustily as she listened to the gradual decreasing hum from the air conditioning unit, glad for things to go back to normal. She just couldn't help it, she loved living in a rut. It took some serious willpower to make a difference in her life: going to Tsunade, agreeing to train in both medicine and combat, learning to stop obsessing over Sasuke…but those things all caused pain. Was it worth repeating a big step?
A crushed lily lay desolate on the tile of the kitchen floor, and Sakura stared at the jumble of colors and pollen strewn about. So much carelessness, even if it was only one flower.
"All right, I'll tell him. Eventually. Just not right now."
Ino scoffed and flipped her hair, abandoning the thin covers to the floor. Stalking over to Sakura, she took her place standing beside her, pursing her lips at the broken flower. She picked up the pieces and threw them in the sink in one fluid motion.
"I guess that's the best answer I'll get out of you for now."
Sakura grinned and tipped her head back. "Yeah."
A few days passed, and Tenzou was released from the hospital as promised, totally free of narcotics, poison residue, and touchy hospital staff. It was surprisingly a lot easier than Sakura had suspected; the poison squad didn't even want to run some last-minute checks on him, not even for the pure joy of watching a positive test come up. (As that usually meant something exciting was about to happen.)
After the ceremonial trashing of the hospital clothes, Sakura dragged Tenzou over to her apartment by a newly healed arm. Yesterday, she'd given him a list of some of the presents stacked up in her living room, and promised that she'd go through all of them with him as soon as they got back. That was then, and this was now. They walked through her front door hand in hand—Sakura had been surprised at the offer he made; normally he didn't like touchy stuff in public—and she led him to the couch in the living room where Kakashi had sat days before.
It didn't take long before they began to ruffle through the gifts—organized now, thanks to the handful of pocket change currently nestled in Kakashi's jacket. Tenzou and Sakura began peering at each one as if it were an ancient artifact, as if examining its every nook and cranny might somehow give them insight into why in the name of all things good anyone would ever want to buy it. Soon enough, Sakura went through all the presents she herself had opened—the children's book and ribbon, the spa card, and all the rest—and finally got to the section that received a guest opening by Naruto, who didn't want to wait until Sakura got back from the hospital.
And there were some pretty memorable items, too.
A rubber katana wrapped up in clear cellophane paper…
"What would you even do with it?"
"I guess try and trick someone into thinking it was the real thing."
"If someone was talented enough to handle a sword, I imagine they'd have to be absolute dumbasses to fall for this."
"Oh, I don't know. I know some pretty empty-headed people in ANBU. You didn't hear that from me, though."
…a combination mini washing machine and cigar case…
"Is this just duct tape holding it together…? Who is this from?"
"There's not a name."
"Well, jeez, I wouldn't put one, either."
…a huge book on the history of indigenous art…
"Ooh, this is probably from Sai. Oh…Jiraiya? Huh."
"I guess you never know with some people."
…and a giant, rainbow-striped beanbag chair, among other, more normal things.
The beanbag dented in the center wonderfully when Sakura and Tenzou attempted simultaneously to sit in it, the dried beans inside rubbing against one another with a clean sound, like a wet summer rain. After scooting and vying for space, the two eventually found it easiest to sit in a single dent, pressed together on all sides by the sloping edges.
Sakura reached across Tenzou's lap and ran her hand over the peaking seams. The fabric, tough but flexible, didn't mimic any other beanbags in any store she'd ever seen. She looked Tenzou in the face, sizing him up for a conversation, and he stared at her hand with a blank expression on his face, a contemplating stare.
"I think someone made this for us, Tenzou."
"That was…nice of them."
"No, I mean I think they sat down and sewed it up. See, there are real beans on the inside, not plastic, and these gaps in between seams are just barely irregular in some places. You can't tell unless you look super close, though, so it's not like it'll fall apart or anything."
Tenzou nodded thoughtfully. Sakura laughed softly at him, ducking her head and coughing before she continued.
"So, I mean, they must like us a lot. I know this material would be difficult to sew by hand. Was there a card or something?"
"I looked. There wasn't."
They sat there for a while before Sakura tried again.
"You…said you weren't angry."
"So, am I acting angry?"
"No, but—well, you're kind of acting condescending. Like I'm not worthy of your conversation. Like you just want me to leave you alone and let you think."
Tenzou's eyes sparked bright and aware, and he physically turned to face her fully.
"Do you really think that?"
"Nothing in between. Do you really think I was being that way?"
"Right then…yes. Yes, I really thought so."
Tenzou's hands came up from his sides to rest palms on her cheeks. Sakura waited, for a reprimand, for a speech, for something, but for the longest time he said nothing, just looked at her. Amazing how so much managed to express itself in so little.
He breathed in once, twice, and on the third time, he tilted her face up and kissed her softly on the lips. Sakura immediately regretted putting chapstick on when Tenzou pulled back rubbing his lips together contemplatively. But then he kissed her again, and again after that, and the chapstick crisis migrated to the recesses of her mind where it belonged.
"Don't," he breathed, "think I would ever patronize you. It's true I was upset earlier, but I see how this whole thing was a mistake, all right? I know you felt bad and you're not going to do it again. I'm not even thinking about that anymore."
"I was just thinking how beautiful you look when you stand in the sun, and how I love to watch you when you don't know I'm there."
"Tenzou, that's unusually poetic for you," Sakura giggled nervously. "And kind of creepy, I have to say. That, um, last bit."
He smiled slyly. "Hey, it happens."
"Then I guess I can put this whole thing aside, I suppose. We just have to sort through all this stuff and decide what we're going to keep, and…yeah."
"Sounds good to me."
"Oh! Right, I forgot about something Ino wanted me to do."
Tenzou mock cringed. "Is it something legal this time?"
"Oh, stop it. Actually, she wanted me to talk about us. You know, our relationship and stuff."
"So didn't we do that already?"
"I think so. And I think we did a bang-up job. But there was this one other thing…"
"Always the one other thing."
"She wanted us to talk about…well, I dunno. Getting married." She hurried the last bit in a rush of nervousness, unsure of his reaction. But to her surprised, Tenzou rewarded her with a rare, full-out laugh.
"Because of all the talk going around, right?"
Sakura nodded sheepishly.
"Sakura, you don't have to talk about it. That girl doesn't rule your life."
"I know, but…I don't want to lie to her."
"Okay, okay. So do you want to talk about getting married? Go and get hitched right now, shotgun wedding?"
She giggled again. "No, no…I don't want to talk about it at all. I'm sorry, Tenzou, I really like—well, love you…a lot, but—I just—it's something I'd have to think about when I'm alone, at length."
Tenzou's eyes turned downcast, but didn't sadden. He just…understood, and for a moment, Sakura felt a thrill in her stomach. It was so easy! And here she thought it would be like pulling teeth. With blunt tweezers. Still one more thing to clean up, though.
"Tenzou…do you want us to think about getting married?"
"I've never thought about it at all, to be perfectly honest, so I'm putting all the weight of the initial plunge on you, I'm afraid." He stood up from the beanbag and held a hand out to the pink-hair girl nestled in the cozy spot where his body heat lingered. Sakura accepted the proffered hand and stood nose-to-nose with the man.
"I don't think it's a good plan to think about any of that just yet…I know I'm repeating myself, but…"
"Well, then let's don't think about it. Besides, I want to see you in that yellow thong, the one with the zipper on it, and I think that's what should matter the most."
Sakura grinned and took his hand, and then led him over to the pile of underwear she'd received, snatching the mentioned pair before leading him off down the hallway. She relaxed out of her nerve-wracked state from earlier, knowing that if he was already back to finding every possible excuse to do the deed, then without a doubt, things were back to normal, regular, everyday bliss. It was all going to be okay.
At least, it would be until the following holiday...
A/N: I have learned from this experience that it's so much nicer to have everything already written out before you publish the first chapter. I am SO doing that next time, and then I'll actually be able to keep a freaking deadline no matter HOW much work I have.
Cynicism aside, I hope you guys loved this! I just love screwing with my characters' heads, yes I do.