I do not own Naruto or any of its characters.
This story was inspired by the song Ice Cream (Talk To Me) by DNR. Somehow I managed to weave it into this monstrosity...
By the time he finally found her, night had fallen and the sky was weeping. She was sitting on a bench at the park, hunched over with her hands clasped and elbows resting on her knees. If not for the drenched clothes and the unnatural stillness of her body, it would seem like she was merely waiting for a friend. Like him. Usually, that was the case. Not today.
Several emotions blossomed in his chest, warming his being when he saw her. After two hours of running around the village, splashing puddles up his ankles and asking around, it was inevitable that relief would be among those emotions. It was a relief to see her, even if she was in such a state. Just to make sure she was alright… some people did stupid things in times of grief…
The brief euphoria had been bitterly disrupted by a brutal wrench of grief. It was only natural that he would be saddened by the tragic incident and the deaths it had caused. Life was precious. Uzumaki Naruto knew that better than anyone.
He was worried about Sakura. She usually liked to boss him around, berating him when he refused to wear a jacket on cold days. And here she was, sitting unsheltered in the pouring rain, possibly for hours. He was worried about her health. About her mental stability. Of her view. Everything. There was little Naruto wouldn't give to make it all better.
He was glad that Ino had insistently pressed an umbrella into his hands when he had stumbled into the flower shop, dripping water all over the floor and seeking the girl he had not found. Thanks to the artificial shelter, he was relatively dry. He wished he could say the same for the desolate girl sitting in the park, but that was not so. She was absolutely, thoroughly, soaked to the bone.
Naruto had seen cheesy comics and read enough of Jiraiya's books to know that holding an umbrella over a girl who didn't have one was not something out of the norm. It was usually an act of chivalry, in response to a damsel's distress. Haruno Sakura was by no means a damsel, nor did she appear to be distressed. He stopped in front of her and raised the umbrella over her head anyway.
"Sakura-chan…" What could he say? Sorry? For what?
"Hi." Her voice was quiet and husky. She was looking down at his feet, wet, lank hair curtaining her face from his view.
"Are you… okay?"
Naruto winced. "Sorry." It was highly uncomfortable for him, an orphan who had never known family love, to comfort someone who had basked in her parents' affections all her life.
The moment was awkward. Naruto was unnerved by how still Sakura was. It was as if the cold bothered her no more than a feather would, as if she was a stone that was unmoved by joy and sorrow. It was almost as if she was lifeless.
A shadow clone appeared by Naruto's side with a quick hand gesture. It obediently held the umbrella over the human pair as the male shrugged out of his jacket and draped it carefully around the female's shoulders, wrapping it tightly to her thin frame.
"Are you cold?" Naruto asked softly, crouching down so that he could look up at her.
Sakura's dull gaze flicked up to meet his. Emerald and cerulean met and held for a long moment. Then, slowly, she shook her head.
Naruto hesitantly cupped a hand under her chin and tilted her head up slightly. The other hand gently brushed back the strands of hair that had plastered against Sakura's cheeks. Several beads of water were released from their perches and trickled down her face. Sakura let them slide down her cheeks and drip down from her chin onto Naruto's hand. There were many tracks on her face where liquid had left their mark, then washed away by reinforcements.
Naruto wondered how many of them were tears.
"How long have you been sitting here?"
"You're going to be sick."
"I know." Sakura slowly raised her eyes to stare into Naruto's. They were haunted. "What use is a medic if she can't save the ones she loves?"
"You weren't there, Sakura. You couldn't have done anything. It was an accident…" Naruto decided that this was an unhealthy topic for her to dwell on. He reached for her hand. It was cold. "Come on. Let's get out of this rain, yeah? You can stay at my place."
"I'll be alright by myself, Naruto."
Like hell you will be, he thought. "Granny and Shizune will kill me if they find out I'm not taking care of you."
"Then I won't be able to help you. Only Chiyo could bring back the dead."
She didn't respond. But she did raise her arms, holding them out in a manner not unlike a zombie.
Naruto turned his back to her, reaching out with his hands to find her legs. Her arms encircled around his neck, wet, cold and small. The clone immediately adjusted the umbrella for their comfort, sacrificing itself to weather's wrath.
Naruto purposefully took a route that did not require them to bypass Sakura's house, but she found other ways to reminisce and mourn. "My dad," she murmured into his shoulder when they were just blocks from Naruto's apartment.
"My dad," she repeated. "He used to carry me home like this when I was little. I was his Princess. He was my chariot."
His throat closed. "I'm sure he loved you."
"Yes," Sakura whispered, "me too."
The sun was shedding its rays in her eyes when Sakura woke the next morning. She lay in the unfamiliar bed for a long time, staring up at the ceiling. The paint was chipped, but she could make out what had once been a white hue underneath the stains and cracks.
How ironic, she mused sardonically. The colour of mourning.
The previous day was a blur when she tried to recall it. Getting summoned to the Hokage's office, fidgeting nervously under Tsunade's remorseful expression and Shizune's hands on her shoulder. Hearing the news, calmly thanking her master for informing her so promptly. Walking out in the hallway, staggering, stumbling. Running. Hiding. Sitting in the park. Enduring the rain…
His blanket smelled like him, Sakura noticed faintly as she fingered the covers. Then, sliding them back, she sat up and swung her legs over the bed. She stared thoughtfully at the trousers she was wearing. They were dark, long and had to be rolled up. Naruto's. The shirt was probably his, too.
If she pressed her mind a little harder, she could remember faint snippets of the night. There was no recollection of actually reaching Naruto's apartment, but she did remember having her clothes peeled away and then a pair of warm arms gently depositing her in a tub of equally warm water.
Sakura tried to summon the indignant fury she was usually more than capable of when someone touched her in the wrong places, let alone strip her down to her naked skin without her permission. But she couldn't. The water had been lovely and soothed the goosebumps from her chilled skin. Besides, it was Naruto.
Her next trail of memories led her to the bed, with warm covers settling over her body and something wet laid on her forehead. Turning her head to the bedside table, Sakura could see the cloth. She picked it up, pressed it against her head, smiling at the familiar feel. It was just like Naruto to play mother hen when it came to her.
Even when they were on missions together and she was hurt, he didn't let her heal herself unless it was absolutely necessary, giving the excuse that she needed to conserve her chakra. "Don't you trust me to protect you?" was his ace card. Sakura hated herself for giving in to such childish claims, but it was just so easy to trust Naruto. Her chest warmed and her heart mellowed and she sometimes felt that fighting a missing-nin would be easier than saying no.
In return, Sakura made sure that she was the one who tended to Naruto's injuries. It was painful to see him hurt, all bruised and battered. Somehow, sealing those cuts and healing the bruises made her feel better, so she kept doing it. Over and over again. She didn't know when, she didn't know how, but when one Uzumaki Naruto stumbled through those gates, bloody, one of the chunin guards would race into the hospital and send word that he was on his way, and one Haruno Sakura would abandon anything short of a vital operation to tend to her teammate's wounds. After all, she was a medic.
Oh God. Sakura sadly regarded the worn carpet under her feet, remembering.
"Mom, Dad! She said yes – Lady Tsunade said yes!"
"Hmm? Stop jumping, dear. Lady Tsunade said yes to what?"
"She's going to take me as her apprentice, Mom. I'm going to be a medic! I'm going to heal people; I'm going to save lives."
"That's great; you should work hard, Sakura. This is a very good opportunity."
Had her parents been thinking of her, their medic daughter, when the flames had seared their surroundings and smoke had clogged their breathing? Had they closed their eyes with the confidence that Sakura would be able to open them again? Had they died with disappointment in her?
Sakura jumped to her feet, frowning. She needed to do something, get her mind off things. Now.
Naruto's apartment was tidier than it had once been. After much disapproval on Sakura's part, he had finally dug up enough sanitary sense to thoroughly clean his house and get that dirty underwear washed. Sakura wished now that she hadn't been so insistent; he had done such a good job of it that there was little she could clean for him.
He wasn't home – likely doing his morning duties or reporting to Tsunade. Sakura glanced up at the clock as she passed it. Almost nine o'clock. Breakfast. She would make breakfast. For both of them. Quickening her pace with purpose, she made for the kitchen.
Apocalypse: Naruto had not done his grocery shopping. Sakura groaned. The cupboards and fridge were painfully low on stock. Absolutely nothing. Well, except for a few packs of instant ramen, but Sakura was not in the mood to commit herself to something that would be done in three minutes.
Finally, she wandered back into the living room and flopped onto the couch, throwing up her hands. "What the hell, Naruto!" she grumbled, throwing herself into the cushions. She felt like screaming into them.
"Someone say my name?"
Sakura bolted up. "Naruto?" she blurted in surprise.
And there he was, at the door, blinking confusedly. He had a thick stack of papers tucked under one arm. "Um, good morning?"
She almost sighed with relief. Naruto was here. If there was one thing Naruto was good at it was distraction. "Tell me one thing, Naruto?" Sakura asked. She walked over and leaned against the wall while he kicked off his sandals.
He stared at her for a moment. Then he smiled hesitantly. "Sure?"
"Why don't you have a scrap of food – proper food," she amended when he opened his mouth, "in your entire house?"
"I was going to go shopping yesterday but…"
Sakura did not give her depression enough time to surface. She grabbed the papers from Naruto. "What are these?"
"Ah, um, paperwork. For you. I told Tsunade that you were-"
"-sick and wasn't feeling well but she just gave them to me and-"
"-said it was supposed to be good – yes?"
"You're a lifesaver." Sakura squeezed his arm before pulling up a chair at the dining table and rummaged around for a pen, her face lit up with purpose.
Naruto smiled sadly. I'm not a lifesaver, he wanted to tell her. I wish I was, but I'm not.
"Thanks for letting me stay with you, Naruto," Sakura said as she left the bathroom, a towel tossed on her shoulders.
Naruto looked up. The sight of Haruno Sakura in his clothes – the smallest ones he could find – was rather appealing. He tried to ignore how his pants were rather loose around her waist and answered, "It's nothing. You can stay as long as you want."
She smiled at him. "Thank you."
"Mm, no problem."
But there were problems, an hour later, when both of them decided that it would be a great time to retire for the night and flicked off the lights.
Two people. One bed.
They stared awkwardly at each other in the darkness.
"I'll take the floor," Naruto said hastily. "I did that yesterday anyway."
"No, no, that's not right," Sakura said, shaking her head. "It's your home, I'm the guest – I take the floor."
"But you're a girl."
"What, you got something against that, sexist pig?"
"Ah, um, no! I mean, the floor's hard and it'll hurt your back – you won't be comfortable."
"Nor will you."
"I can manage."
Another long moment. Naruto shuffled toward the cupboard where he remembered leaving a spare futon.
Sakura sighed. "I think we'll fit."
He turned his head around so fast his neck cracked. "What?"
She ran a hand through her hair. "Look, Naruto, it's not right for me to take your bed but if refusing will make you feel bad, we might as well share. It's a cold night. As long as you don't… do anything, I think I can live with it."
Naruto hesitated. He had been surprised to see Sakura up and running this morning; after last night, he had been expecting her to be a mess. But she wasn't. She smiled and threw herself into work, acting just like she always did. She was in denial. It frightened him, and he didn't want her to do anything she didn't feel comfortable with. He would not "do anything", of course – they both knew that. It was no longer about cold nights and good etiquette, but rather leaning more toward Sakura's decisions and what she wanted to do.
"Are you sure?" he asked slowly.
The corner of Sakura's mouth tugged up. "Should I wear a few more layers of clothing?" she asked dryly.
Naruto's face reddened. "No, it's okay. I just meant… yeah."
Her gaze softened, and so did her voice. "I might feel a little better if I wasn't alone." It didn't sound like she was talking to him. Her voice sounded hollow, wavering.
He quickly grabbed her shoulders and steered her to the bed. "You take the inside."
She seemed to return to her senses in time to crawl onto the bed and shuffle to the other side. Naruto, awkwardly, followed her a moment later. Sakura found it amusing that he would be embarrassed. While he had matured, he still seemed to harvest a small spot of affection for her. She figured that this was the sort of thing he usually dreamt about.
Apparently not. "Do you want another blanket?" he asked. "I can get another one if you like."
Sakura shook her head and tugged the blanket up to her chin. "It's fine. Just sleep, Naruto."
His arm pressed against hers when he lay down. "Okay… goodnight."
It had started off as a roll onto her side. It was awkward with the two of them lying on their backs, side by side. Neither of them would get much sleep that way, so Sakura turned on her side, facing the window with her back to Naruto. She figured that would resolve any discomforts.
But whenever she closed her eyes, she felt like she was falling in a dark, empty void, and her eyes would snap open again. She tossed and turned, several times coming close to grabbing Naruto's side of the blanket or lashing out to kick him off altogether. Something clenched in her heart, as if something was missing.
"Sleep, Sakura… I'll stay with you until you feel better, honey. There's no need to be afraid of the dark. I'll always be here…"
Sakura pulled the blanket tighter around her. Her mother was such a great liar.
"Naruto?" she whispered in her softest voice. He didn't answer. Her heart took a plunge. That's silly… of course he's asleep. Since when does Naruto-
She felt a little lighter. "You're still awake?"
"I'm keeping you awake, aren't I? I'm sorry."
He had turned onto his side as well. Now he shifted onto his back. His fingertips brushed against the small of her back. "Something wrong, Sakura-chan?"
"Not sleeping well?"
Sakura found herself smiling faintly. Naruto was so perceptive sometimes. "Not really," she admitted.
"Want me to sing you a lullaby?" he asked in a lifted tone.
"Eh? But I sound good, I swear…"
"Sure, Naruto, sure." Sakura paused, but it wasn't long before the talons of dread extended and raked at her heart. She clutched her chest, squeezing her eyes shut until she felt something wet on her cheeks. It hurt, that hole where she knew something was missing.
She heard, felt, Naruto move. "Sakura…?" He was levering himself up on his elbows, trying to peer over her shoulders.
"I…" I want you to hold me, just like my mother used to, and rock me and smell like flowers. "I'm… cold."
It took a moment, and then Naruto was turning so that he was facing the same side as her. His arm tentatively circled her waist. Sakura moulded her back against his body, resting her head on his other arm, which had somehow found its way onto her pillow. "Better?" he murmured into her ear.
She nodded. "You're warm."
"So are you."
Sakura knew that she was being prompted, gently. "Now I know how you feel, Naruto."
"Living without parents. It's terrible. I'm sorry I made fun of you when we were kids."
His arm cinched tighter. "Sakura…"
She pressed a hand against her eyes, swallowing thickly. No tears. "We're shinobi… we see death all the time. I remember, the first time, I had a patient. He was just a little boy; he had a severe case of asthma. Shizune was busy with another operation, so I took him… I thought it wasn't anything major. I thought I could save him… but he died."
Naruto drew her closer. "I remember that time," he said quietly. "You told me. You did your best."
"I sat in the courtyard for a long time. I could still feel his little heart under my hand… it was warm and it kept beating faster, then softer… then it stopped. People die everyday… it doesn't seem fair for me to stop trying to save some of them because my parents…" Her voice choked off there. It was an accident, she reminded herself. Nothing could have stopped it. A vacation turned deadly.
"It's fair. Very fair," Naruto assured her. "They were precious to you. I never knew my parents so I don't know how you feel. But Jiraiya… that Pervy Sage was the closest thing I had to a father. I… I loved him. So when he died, I spent a long time trying to think about what it would have been like if he hadn't died. I kept trying to think of ways to keep him alive, like blaming Granny Tsunade and not letting her put his name on the Cenotaph. It hurts, doesn't it?"
Sakura laughed softly, brokenly. "Why do you always seem to understand, Naruto?"
He laughed, too, and then they were silent for another moment. Then, "Do you think you can sleep now?"
"I think so."
"No, stay, please… I'm still cold."
Sakura went to see Tsunade the next morning. The Hokage had already prepared two week's leave for her and had left her with a firm, heartfelt, "I'll be here if you need me." It was assuring to hear those words, but it also made Sakura want to hurl herself at her beloved mentor and scream and tell her that she was lyinglyinglying.
She returned to Naruto's apartment immediately, avoiding familiar and unfamiliar faces, immersing herself in a distracting prayer that her temporary roommate had not prepared ramen for the breakfast he had promised would be waiting for her when she returned.
For once, Kami answered her plea. Naruto had cooked a proper meal, composed mainly of tamagoyaki, pickles and miso soup. It was a relatively ordinary meal and it tasted nice, but Sakura found it hard to swallow when she saw that Naruto had placed a small, ripe cherry on top of the white mound that was her rice. He looked pleased with himself, so she didn't have the heart or courage to tell him that her father did the same when it was his turn to cook. The Princess' banquet, he used to say.
While she chewed slowly on the cherry, Naruto took the opportunity to tell her that he was leaving for a two day mission to one of the smaller villages in the Fire country. He was setting out tomorrow. Sakura digested enough of it, along with her breakfast, to wish him good luck.
She wished she had said more the next morning when she woke up and found him gone, with a note on the table informing her that he had already done the shopping and that he had also taken the courtesy of picking up some of her clothes from her house, which were in the second drawer of the cupboard. Sakura smiled at her friend's familiar scrawl, and tacked the note up on his noticeboard, alongside some photos and a form for the jounin exams.
The rest of the day was spent cooking, eating and watching the little box with colourful pictures that Naruto called his lifeline and she dubbed the television.
Ino and Shizune dropped by the next morning. Shizune arrived before Ino, and Sakura opened the door to a warm smile that shifted into an apologetic one when she explained that Tsunade had more paperwork for her to do. It was only a matter of swapping the new documents with the ones she had already completed, and then bidding the woman goodbye. Ino had a little more to say. She complained about Shikamaru over the cup of tea Sakura poured her, and then kept her updated on the village's latest news while she did Sakura's hair.
Neither Ino nor Shizune mentioned Sakura's parents.
It didn't feel… right… to be treated like some fragile vase that would topple and fall and shatter under the slightest buffet of wind. The feeling of being treated like that made Sakura want to scream. She understood that her visitors had not meant to offend, rather to comfort and provide her with a stabilizer to life – but it was frustrating.
She wished Naruto was back from his mission. Then she could talk to him and he would understand. The bed had seemed bigger last night without him breathing beside her, his arms wrapped around her, protecting her from the phantoms she called memories of happier days. It wasn't that she liked sleeping with him, she told herself firmly. It was just that it was… acceptable. And he was warm.
Sakura did not sleep very well those two nights.
She had been putting out the clothes when Naruto walked in through the door. She hung out the last shirt slowly, waiting for him to come out to the balcony and coax her inside and act like Naruto. She was in a desperate need of balance.
As predicted, he took her inside, seated her at the table. He smiled, he grinned, he made hot chocolate and set it between her hands before he told her that her parents' funeral was in three days.
Balance, Sakura hissed to her unbalancing stability. Balancebalancebalancebalance!
She wanted to sprout a third leg to kick herself when her lips rebelliously parted to ask, "How?"
Naruto gestured for her to drink up, and she did, then clutched the mug with white-knuckled hands. He took a deep breath. "The fire," he began carefully. "The villagers managed to put it out before… everything got burnt down. Families of the dead could go and bring the bodies… to give them a proper burial."
Sakura dully registered the facts and drew the dots. "You," she said hollowly. "Your mission."
"Closure… I thought you needed it."
She nodded. "I do." Then she slowly drew back her chair and got up, leaving the table. She headed for the door.
Naruto stood up, anxious. "Where are you going?" If he knew Sakura, clenched fists were not good. She was going to lose it. Again. Maybe this was a bad idea after all.
"For a walk."
And that was the last Naruto heard of Sakura. He let her be, understanding that his intervention would not be welcomed. The first night, he figured that it was normal for her to want to be left alone, and that her absence was to be expected. The second day, he was worried and went to Tsunade. They gathered the Former Rookies and scoured Konoha to no avail. Naruto was in despair. The bed was getting very empty and cold.
On the day of the Haruno's funeral, Naruto and his friends attended alongside the Hokage, her assistant and the jounins they had grown up knowing. Naruto felt stiff in his black garb and he kept looking around for the pink-haired girl he wanted, needed to see.
He wanted to apologise. He shouldn't have taken matters into his own hands and organised her family matters without Sakura's permission. It had been Sakura who had lost her parents; he had no right to intrude. Yet… it had been difficult. Since that night, the night he had held her, Naruto's heart had ached for her, releasing the pain she could not bring herself to express. Denial would not do her any good, and if he knew Sakura, she would not confront her emotional demons unless forced to.
But it was all a lost cause if she did not come to her parents' funeral. Naruto knew deep down that Sakura would come. She was not disrespectful in any manner. She loved her parents. She would want to see them off… a final goodbye.
Their friends seemed to have similar confidence. They did not whisper and glance around when Sakura failed to turn up when dirt was being piled onto the coffins. They waited, and so did Naruto. Sakura would come. She would, no matter how hard it was.
Naruto, alongside the other members of the remaining Rookies, shovelled the dirt into the ground. It was their tribute to the people who had brought their friend to this world. Tsunade stood alongside them and watched. Kakashi was emotionless; Naruto supposed that he had seen many of these events before.
Sakura came just before the final bows and respects were paid. She was dressed in a black dress which flapped around her ankles as she walked toward them. Her face was blank, carefully constructed into an unemotional mask. They respected that, and Lee shifted over slightly so that she could stand between him and Naruto. No one said a word.
The gravestone had been left blank. Sakura alone reserved the right to engrave her parents' names on the stone. In respect, everyone left her alone to complete the task.
They weren't present to witness Sakura breaking down.
She had spent the last two days in her parents' house. No one had thought to look for her there. For two whole days, Sakura had wandered around in the house she had grown up in, touched everything her parents had left behind. Sleeping on their bed, breathing in their fading scents, flipping through the photo albums… it was unbearable to swallow the knowledge that they were well and truly gone.
Focusing chakra to her finger, Sakura etched the names into permanent existence. The fine focus of the pressure and the rough surface of the rock broke her skin and spilled blood. When she finished, she carefully wiped away the crimson with the sleeve of her dress. Then she leaned forward on her knees, pressing her forehead against the cold stone.
She tried to cry. She couldn't. For a week, she had suppressed the tears, the grief, and now they were forever locked in her heart. It was heavy. Her heart hurt. Badly.
Fingers clawed at her chest, arms wrapped around herself. "I'm sorry," whispered Haruno Sakura as she pressed a hand against the soil beneath her. Her parents… "I'm sorry… I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Please…"
The agony was crippling. This wasn't supposed to happen. It was supposed to be a vacation, a chance for them to relax and enjoy themselves. Nature snatched them from her. A bushfire that had spread from the forest north of the village. The inn had been on the fringes of the settlement. It had been the first to go, followed by a few small houses.
Sakura wished, oh how she wished that her parents had not been in that inn, that they had left before then or had not arrived. But she knew, just knew. Tsunade had her sources. The team sent to deal with the damage had recognised most of the bodies. There had, apparently, been enough of Sakura's parents left distinguishable for identification.
I should have gone with them… they tried to get me to go. I could have saved them. I could have saved everyone. They didn't have to die. It's my fault. My… my fault.
Medic. Haruno Sakura was a medic. A good one. A talented one.
What good was that?
What did being a medic mean?
What did life mean?
How significant was one life?
How important were two?
Sakura wanted answers. She wanted them badly. She wanted to throw her head back and scream. She wanted to eliminate death. She wanted to close her eyes and retreat to a world only she knew and no one could find. She wanted her parents back.
She raised her head. Naruto. She dropped it again.
"I bought your favourite ice cream," he tried again, waving the treat. "Don't let it melt."
"I'm not in the mood, Naruto," Sakura said quietly.
"Come on. This isn't good for you. Cheer up-"
"I said I'm not in the mood!" she shouted, getting to her feet. She met Naruto's calm gaze with orbs of fury. She glared at the ice cream in his hand. Ice cream. Something given to for the purpose of cheering someone up. It was a happy thing. She hated it.
Melt, she willed it, bitterly. Melt. Die.
It didn't. It cheerfully prevailed. Why should something inanimate, so insignificant, outlive life?
Sakura growled and swatted it out of Naruto's hand. It landed on the grass, smudging cream over the ground. A smear of abandoned happiness. Naruto stared at it for a moment, and then shrugged and looked into her eyes. Her eyes were blazing, and she didn't know why. What good was fury at a time like this?
Naruto shared the sentiment. "You should calm down, Sakura-chan." And he was so calm. It irked her, spiked her irritation.
Coal under pressure became a diamond. Diamond under extreme pressure cracked. Sakura shattered.
"Calm down," she repeated tonelessly. "Naruto, how can you tell me to calm down? My parents are dead! They're not coming back… I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. I'll never see them again. They don't exist anymore!" She jabbed a finger heatedly at the gravestone. "A name. That's all they were. At the end of the day, they're just a bunch of scribbles on a rock. Do you now how much it hurts?"
"Sakura, I know what you're trying to say. I understa-"
"You don't understand! You don't even know what your parents look like! You never had a family!" Stop there, a cautious voice warned in the back of Sakura's head, and she wanted to comply so, so badly. She wanted to throw her arms around Naruto and cry into his shoulder and apologise and let him make her feel better. She wanted him to buy her ice cream.
Sakura sank down to her knees. Her chest felt tight and compressed, like it was going to explode. She moaned. "It was an accident," she whispered, choking. "No one intended… but… I wish someone had planned it. Then I would have someone to hit and kill. I can't bear… I can't take this anymore." She raised her haunted eyes to his and stared desolately into the bright pools. "What can I do, Naruto? Tell me… what can I do?"
Naruto's heart wrenched. He ached to hold her and protect her from anything, everything. He wanted to be there for her… but she couldn't see him even if he was. The sight of Sakura so helpless, so lost, made him want to snatch Kami from the skies and demand for life to be restored. Hell, if it would make Sakura happy, he would exchange his life for her parents'. But it wasn't possible. Kami would not respond. There was only Naruto, and only Naruto could help.
The ice cream was melting.
"Sakura… you can hit me."
She stared. "What?"
He smiled, shrugged. "You want to hit someone, right? Use me. I heal fast, you know. I'm perfect."
"Do you know what the hell you are saying, Naruto?"
"You idiot!" His grin, his smile… his warmth – she couldn't stand it. How did he thrive like he did? Why was he so indestructible? Nothing could deter him. Why? Whywhywhywhywhywhy was she the only one who got stumped? He was happy, she wasn't.
With a hoarse cry of blind rage, Sakura leaned up and drove her chakra-laden fist into Naruto's gut.
His eyes widened and his breath left him with a guttural gasp. She felt it brush against her skin. He was flung back several yards, rolling, flopping limply to the ground.
What have I done?
He was getting up, swaying, groaning. Then he was smiling, staggering toward her, stopping in front of her. One side of his face had scraped against a small rock and was bleeding. "One's not enough," he rasped. "More. Don't stop until you feel better, Sakura-chan. It's alright."
So she hit him. Each blow forced him back two steps, made him wince and double over.
Stop… stopstopstopstop! she willed herself. But it was impossible. She couldn't stop.
She was hurting the person who cared the most about her after her parents. She was hurting, killing, her best friend; the young man who had tended to her needs and made her feel safe and who loved her. Naruto.
Sakura cried. Tears streamed down her face, and she sobbed when his head snapped back under the force of her strength. Blood escaped from his lips and flecked the side of her cheek.
He stumbled back, then lifted a hand to wipe the blood from his mouth. He smiled. Most of his ribs were either cracked or broken, and he was smiling. It was that sad smile, the knowing smile, the understanding smile that only Naruto could muster.
He was swaying, toppling. Sakura sprang up, yearning to catch him. She knew her fist would get him first.
She was blindsided by a sudden flush of wind and whirl of leaves. When she opened her eyes, Naruto was surrounded by Lee and Shizune, and Ino was grabbing her arms. "Stop, Sakura," she ordered. "That's enough."
And it was enough. Sakura continued to cry. She tried to see Naruto, but all she caught sight of was a flash of his bright hair under the green glow of Shizune's hand. No, she wanted to scream, only I can heal him! Only me! Let me take care of him!
Then she saw the ice cream, by now no more than a crushed heap, and she felt a kunai ruthlessly stabbing into her heart.
I'm sorry, Naruto… I'm so sorry.
Ino was tugging on her arm. "Let's go. We're getting you cleaned up."
Sakura almost struggled. Naruto. She wanted to be with him. She could feel his warmth, his arms cradling her from that night. Naruto. How could she have done that to him? How could he have let her do that to him?
How could he still love her?
It took Ino almost an hour to get Sakura back into a relatively acceptable state. It frightened her how much of a zombie her friend resembled. She was like a doll, responding to commands without arguments. Ino did not know how Naruto had dealt with her for the past few days.
Naruto. Sakura couldn't stop thinking about him. Even as Ino let her into her house, the Yamanaka household did not feel like Naruto's small yet cosy apartment. It was too organised, too occupied. There was no Naruto in it at all.
The water Ino ran for her bath was warm and steamed and smelled of the fragrant flowers she had added to it. Sakura was left alone to bathe, but the faint memory of Naruto's hands on her shoulders, keeping her from sliding under the water's surface, would not leave her alone. Even the clothes Ino lent her, while fitting and comfortable, did not satisfy her. Sakura knew it was stupid that she would prefer Naruto's baggy scraps of clothing over… over everything else.
Did she prefer Naruto over Ino? Over everyone else?
Why did he care?
Why did hurting him hurt her so much?
Why was he Naruto?
Sakura barely remembered getting out of the water, stiffly dressing and walking out to meet Ino in the living room. She was sitting on the couch, watching television but Sakura wondered how much of the show her friend was actually absorbing; judging from the vacant, thoughtful look in her eyes, not much.
Her television was smaller than Naruto's, with better quality, brighter colours and more channels.
She wanted Naruto's.
"Feeling better?" Ino greeted her as Sakura sat down beside her.
Her chest constricted.
"Don't stop until you feel better, Sakura-chan. It's alright."
Ino nodded and continued to stare at the flashing box.
"I feel terrible."
"Now I feel horrible." It was like… like losing her parents all over again, having them torn from her groping fingers…
No, it was like losing her parents and Sasuke… except she hadn't lost anything…
"You are so lucky, Forehead," Ino said, drawing Sakura's half-hearted attention toward her. "To have someone like Naruto, I mean. Not every boy on the street will be willing to let you spatter his guts against his broken ribs."
"I couldn't stop." Her voice sounded very, very hollow.
Ino glanced at her. "I don't think that's the case here. He didn't try to stop you."
"I know." She could feel his ribs giving way under the force of her hand… Sakura shuddered and tugged her knees up to her chest, hugging them. "He's an idiot," she heard herself whisper.
"Is that all he is to you?"
Good question. Sakura didn't know.
What was Naruto to her?
A good friend.
Her best friend.
The teammate who had remained when the other left.
Her partner on the battlefield.
The boy who had almost gotten himself killed over a promise to her.
A man who knew her better than she did herself.
Someone who had stayed by her side through the harshest times.
Laughter that made her smile.
A pair of warm arms that made her forget everything.
A set of lips that whispered her name in a unique, familiar tone.
Someone who loved her.
A person Sakura could not stand the thought of losing.
"I think I know now."
Ino turned back to the television. "About time."
By the time she finally found him, the sun was setting and casting a warm glow on the village. He was stretched out on the same bench at the same park, lying on his back, arms tucked behind his head, eyes closed. It was as if he had fallen asleep waiting for someone. But she knew he wasn't asleep.
Several emotions flourished when she laid her eyes on him. She felt very, very warm.
She stood over him, casting her shadow on his face.
"Hi." His eyes didn't open.
"I bought your favourite ice cream."
It seemed like he was smiling, but it wasn't defined, wasn't the smile Sakura recognised… wasn't the smile she thought she might love.
"Don't let it melt," she said softly.
He chuckled, the soft laughter rich. His eyes opened and stared into hers, glimmering in the setting sun. For a moment, she thought he was going to turn the tribute away. It'd be fair, she thought desolately.
But he didn't decline. He reached up and accepted. "Thanks."
His legs didn't retract to allow her space to sit, but it didn't seem like he was ignoring her presence. He ate slowly, somehow managing to keep his shirt clean despite the laws of defying gravity he was putting the ice cream under.
She sat on his legs. He did not object.
"Yum," he said after a while.
"Eat up, then."
Her hand hesitantly fluttered to his stomach, palm laying flat against the thin fabric of his shirt. Small wisps of chakra found their way into his flesh, searching for damage. None. She pulled away.
"She wouldn't let me wait for you," he said, reading the strange array of emotions on her face correctly.
"I'm sorry." Two words. A hell of a lot more concealed in them. She hoped he would understand.
He did. "Forgiven." And she couldn't help but loosen up and breathe out a soft sigh of relief.
"Why do you keep doing these things for me, Naruto?" she asked quietly.
After a long moment, he sat up. He was close to her, his breath on her neck. "Why did you come?"
Sakura choked. "I'm not the sort of girl you want."
"Yes, you are."
"No. You need someone who won't treat you like a punching bag. You need someone who will care properly for you."
"I need someone who loves me."
"I'm not… I'm not sure if I love you." She expected him to push her off him and recoil and get angry.
He didn't. "Then how do you feel about me?"
"I…" Words abandoned her, and for a minute her mouth just opened and closed. "I just… I think I… I just like you… a lot," she finished lamely.
He shook with laughter. "That's good enough." Then he was serious so suddenly that she was scared. "I think it's my turn to apologise."
"Your parents' funeral. I shouldn't have jumped it on you like that. Sorry."
Sakura sighed. A light breeze lifted her hair off her shoulders. "No, it's alright. It was… hard… but I'm sort of glad you went ahead with it. If you hadn't forced me to face it, I probably wouldn't have accepted it. I would have run away and tried to hide. But it won't work and I know it. They're gone. They've left me. I can't let my life stop because of that."
"They would want you to be happy."
"Yes." Naruto's arm found its way around her shoulders and she let it pull her into his chest. His scent and warmth was reassuring. "I miss them, Naruto."
"You shouldn't think about how you wish they were still here. Just remember the times you had together – they are what matters, right? Hold onto them."
She swallowed thickly. "Naruto… can you hold onto me?"
And he did. He rested his chin gently on the top of her head and cradled her. It wasn't awkward anymore. The contours of her body fitted against his. It felt right.
"I suppose you're all I have left now," she murmured.
He gently pulled away and tilted her face up so that their eyes met. The sun was suddenly very dim compared to his smouldering gaze. He smiled.
"You're all I ever had."
His lips tasted like vanilla ice cream.