Chapter Seven: Never Meant To Fail
There's something I'm feeling
There's something that's wrong
These streets are revealing, in the early morn
The war was last night, these wounds are not healed
Never Meant To Fail – Alex Lloyd
Her bed was unusually hard today. Not to mention that when her alarm broke into her drowsy thoughts with its shrill cry, it was not the bedside table that her searching fingers found. Also – where was her blanket?
Sakura frowned and blinked blearily, rubbing at her tired eyes. I'm sleeping on the floor, she realised vaguely.
A second later, she bolted upright. The disarray of her belongings strewn chaotically across her room brought back the early hours of the morning in scrambled snippets. As green eyes widened, Sakura grasped that the confused panic rising in her chest had nothing to do with where she had been sleeping.
She was alone.
Calm down, she ordered herself. The apocalyptic state of her room was proof that she hadn't just woken from a ridiculously far-fetched dream – she couldn't tell if she was relieved or glad about that. Still, Sakura's heart was beating faster than normal as she picked herself off the floor and followed the sounds of running water.
She couldn't help but sigh when she reached the bathroom. Seeing him standing there, ruffled and bed-headed, flooded her with overwhelming relief. She had only just taken in his red hand in the sink when he noticed her, his head snapping around with frightening speed. When he saw her lingering at the doorway, the caution flushed from his face while his features broke into a sheepish grin. Sakura tentatively smiled back.
"Morning." Naruto jerked his head. "Your, uh, alarm is still going."
So it was. "I'll be right back."
Quickly silencing her clock – which had somehow been swept beneath her bed – Sakura found herself rummaging through the storage cabinet downstairs. She felt weirdly rushed. After nearly sending an entire shelf avalanching on her head, Sakura forced herself to slow down. Naruto wasn't going anywhere, she assured herself, and abruptly derailed her thoughts before she could doubt herself.
Naruto was hissing at the cold water that seeped into his open wound when Sakura returned. He was so absorbed that he jumped slightly when she leaned in. She almost flinched at his wound. "Wow, it's swollen."
"It's nothing. I've had heaps worse before," Naruto said unthinkingly. Then he stiffened.
After a pause, Sakura murmured softly, "Have you now?"
Naruto grimaced. What an idiot, he berated himself. There was nothing he could do but nod hesitantly. But Sakura didn't ask, only wordlessly reached for his hand. She gently mopped it dry, and then opened the first aid box to come up with a disinfectant spray. Naruto watched her face carefully as she treated him. He was grateful that Sakura didn't press for answers, but the longer the silence dragged on, the guiltier he felt.
Without warning, Sakura pulled tightly on the bandage she had wrapped around his palm. Naruto yelped in protest. "Oops. Sorry," she said absently, but the apologetic smile she flashed him fell flat. Naruto thought he saw her eyes darken before they shifted back to his hand.
Several moments passed before Sakura spoke up again. "Naruto?" He tilted his head to show he was listening. Sakura bit her lip. "I'll listen if you want to talk… but if you don't, I'd rather not know." She peered up at him. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
He did. She was scared. At that moment, Naruto realised that he was too.
So he just nodded. "I understand."
Sakura smiled, and just like that it was like nothing had happened between them. "I wonder if Dad is up yet," she wondered, casually changing the subject.
Naruto knew the answer to that one. He'd checked earlier. "Oh, he's gone."
Sakura's hands stopped. "Gone?" she echoed.
Naruto began to nod bemusedly before his lack of tact hit him. He hastily backtracked. "Not gone-gone. He's still here but not… not here-here… um, what I mean is-" Kami, he was terrible at this. Naruto continued to trip over his incoherent words, trepidation quickly skyrocketing.
He was on the verge of pulling his hair when Sakura finally took pity on him. "He went to work, right?" Naruto snapped his fingers like she'd won the jackpot and his face cleared with a large grin at his own stupidity. Sakura chuckled. She wouldn't tell Ino, but she had missed Uzumaki Naruto. "Baka," she teased him.
His grin widened impossibly.
Shaking her head, Sakura tied the last knot. "How's that?" she asked him.
Naruto ran a finger along the bandage, closing his hand into a loose fist. It reminded him of almost being run over by Kazuo's car all those weeks ago and following the man home to immediately be pegged a pervert by his daughter. Sakura had fixed his bandage back then, too. "Thanks."
She packed away the box. "I think you should still get my dad to take a look at it later. It looks… bad," she finished hesitantly. It looked more than bad. The torn flesh was chopped, uneven and ragged, like a dozen blades had sawn at it. Sakura was glad Naruto had cleaned it himself; the blood might have been enough to bring up her non-existent breakfast.
Trying to distract herself from the gory image, Sakura added, "Dad probably knows you're here. He always comes into my room when he gets called to the hospital in the middle of the night."
Naruto pulled a face. It was just like Kazuo to not say anything. Any other parent would be threatening with bodily harm if they found their daughter lying on the floor of her post-hurricane room with a boy who had vanished without a trace. Suddenly, Naruto paled. He hoped Sakura hadn't-
Of course, one look at his expression and she was on to him.
Her fist made solid contact with his face. Naruto staggered backwards into the bathtub and flailed wildly for a second before falling bottom-first into it. He gaped at Sakura's livid expression, red with mortification. "You were thinking perverted thoughts, weren't you?" she huffed. "About us and… and… ugh! You are going to tell Dad that there is nothing between us. Okay? Nothing!"
Naruto could only nod frantically. Survival instincts told him to withhold the surprise that came with realising the overwhelmingly normal girl in front of him packed a punch comparable to chuunin. Sakura ought to meet Tsunade – although it might be better for Naruto if she didn't.
"Don't you have school?" he pointed out weakly.
Sakura froze. School. French exam. That she had hardly been able to study for. "Oh no, oh no… crap!"
Naruto released out a relieved breath when Sakura rushed out of the bathroom. He waited until she was in her room, digging through her scattered belongings. Then he pulled himself from the tub and patted himself down. He paused to sniff at his sleeve; his clothes were still damp and held the salty tang of sweat. Naruto wrinkled his nose. He was crossing the landing into the study without a thought.
He opened the door – and stopped.
His room was exactly the same.
Naruto's mind went blank for several moments. For some reason, the familiar sight of his clothes haphazardly thrown all over the place floored him.
Not looking away, Naruto found his voice to shout, "Sakura, how long was I gone?"
The loud noises coming from Sakura's room faltered. She slowly straightened, half-packed bag in hand. Her eyes were downcast. So Naruto didn't know how long he had been away. It didn't sound like he had simply forgotten. Forcing the thought to the back of her mind, Sakura banished the uncertainty from her voice and called back, "Almost two months, I guess."
Naruto's lungs resumed their function once more. For a moment, he had feared that years had flown by. He couldn't believe he hadn't even considered how much time had passed until now. It was silly now that he thought about it. Sakura hadn't changed at all and she had accepted him as if he had only been missing for a few nights. Then again, Naruto recalled, she had welcomed him into her household without inhibition even when they had been strangers. That memorable day seemed lifetimes ago.
Two months. Naruto looked back at the study. It had only been his temporary sleeping quarters, and yet the Harunos had kept it exactly as he'd left it. He could see that someone – probably Sakura – had attempted to tidy up his mess, tucking in drawers and folding up his blanket. Kazuo's pot plant by the window was still alive, too – it had even grown taller. Otherwise, nothing had changed.
Naruto walked over and picked a spare shirt off the floor. Had Kazuo and Sakura expected him to return?
"No way," he chuckled to himself, just to hear it the logic. But Naruto knew that they would do just that. They would believe in him when he wasn't so sure himself. It reminded him of the unwavering faith his friends had in him even when he failed them. Somewhere along the way, Kazuo and Sakura had broken down the walls between strangers. He didn't know how his hosts felt, but to Naruto, they were as good as family.
The jeans and polo shirt hugged him almost as comfortably as his hardy trousers and jounin vest. Naruto folded the latter two and tucked them away into a drawer, along with the weapons pouch he was unspeakably relieved that Sakura had not noticed. They belonged in this world even less than he did, but having them on hand still gave him a little comfort. Just in case.
Glancing into her room, Naruto could see Sakura mumbling to herself with a thick book open in her hand. He cocked his head. Maybe she had a quiz or something. If he'd studied nearly as hard as she did, Iruka-sensei might have picked on him less. A sad smile flickered across Naruto's face as he turned towards the stairs. Too late for regrets now.
When Sakura came downstairs, the first thing she spotted was Naruto in a familiar paw-printed apron. The second was the platter of toast on the counter. The fact that they were already spread with strawberry jam told Sakura that they were meant for her. She helped herself to one. By now, she was skilled at pointedly ignoring the strange feeling that came with being reminded that this boy had literally blown into her room after disappearing for weeks without a word. Already, she was beginning to forget that Naruto had left at all. He was here now, wasn't he?
Naruto glanced at the wall clock. "You're going to be late. You know, just saying."
"Mou," Sakura groaned around the warm bread. "I'll run." She wasn't on the track team for nothing. In fact, this was why she was on the team. She had convinced Kazuo to stop dropping her off once she entered middle school. Her father was tardier than she was, in the same way the hospital was on the other side of town to her school.
She was ready to dash out the front door, French verbs ricocheting off her skull, when Naruto stuck a wrapped lunch box in front of her nose. For several seconds, Sakura just blinked at it.
Naruto was grinning. "Didn't have time, so I made you an Uzumaki sandwich. Stuffed with every edible ingredient I could get my hands on," he explained at her quizzical raised eyebrows. "Very nutritional."
Sakura took the offer with a dollop of scepticism. She was well aware of Naruto's eccentric cooking. At least it had never given her a stomach ache – yet. She carefully tucked the box into her bag. "I'll tell you what it tastes like when I get back," she told him.
"I say banana. Because I used a lot of them."
Banana. She didn't really want to know.
Sakura stopped with her hand on the door. She looked over her shoulder, meeting Naruto's eyes. She knew it was stupid, but she had already blurted the question without thought. "You'll still be here… right?"
Naruto's smile slipped – but only for a fraction of a second. Not missing a beat, he flashed her a thumbs up. "Definitely," he assured confidently. "You haven't seen the last of this handsome face!"
Sakura snorted but her expression cleared. "I'll see you later then, Mr Ego."
Naruto waved until she was out of sight. Which didn't take long – Sakura ran fast.
Later, as he leaned on the counter with half-bitten toast in his mouth, Naruto realised that it had been a long time since he had last been alone in this house. Even before his… voyage, he had spent school hours working at the Yamanakas' flower shop. Those were normal days, the kind that had replaced what Naruto had previously deemed routine.
During the first weeks of his stay, Naruto had jolted awake at odd hours, automatically reaching for a non-existent kunai. Even in the safety of his village, his paranoia of waking in enemy territory, in Akatsuki's hands, had plagued his sleep. He'd painstakingly weaned himself off it, but the restless hours had returned far too easily when Naruto had woken in Suna. The few hours he had managed on the floor, gripping Sakura like a life ring, was the most soundly he'd slept since then.
God, he was pathetic.
Fresh air – that was what he needed. Nodding to no one in particular, Naruto scrubbed down his plate and was already halfway to the door before he stopped. Keys, he thought. Back in Konoha, they'd stopped locking doors when it became obvious that thievery was the least of their problems. Most shinobi got by with simple warning seals as defensive alarms.
But this was not Konoha. The last time Naruto had forgotten his keys, Sakura had punished him by locking him out and slowly devouring the last cup of instant ramen on the other side of the door. He'd been shocked, to say the least; sometimes he forgot that Sakura was a teenager like him.
Now, Naruto impatiently dug through his room as he tried to remember if he'd left them in a pair of pants somewhere. No metallic clinking from any of the trousers piled in the corner. Trying the desk, he peered around the rectangular thing they called a 'computer' and felt around to see if the keys had fallen to the back. Nothing. He was seriously contemplating whether he should just leave a window open for the return trip when his hand knocked into them.
Naruto looked down. They had been there all along, sitting in the middle of the desk like they were waiting for him. Like someone had rummaged through his unwashed clothes knowing he would do the same thing.
The keys rested on a yellow post-it note.
Don't disappear like that again. Sakura was worried about you.
For a long moment, Naruto continued to stare uncomprehendingly at the note. His eyes ran over the slanted scrawl again. Kazuo's handwriting was horrid. He left his letters half-formed, pen trailing into obscure squiggles that were neither here nor there. It was worse than Jiraiya's. Naruto found himself chuckling at the likeness, shaking his head as he pressed the heel of his palm into the sharp sting behind his eye.
Naruto's face twisted as everything that had happened slammed into him like a battering ram keen to see him fall.
He wondered what Jiraiya had been thinking before he died, if he'd had any regrets. Had he sighed wearily at how lame his apprentice was, failing when he was never supposed to? Naruto had wanted the old pervert to see him rise to Hokage – but that was alright, though, wasn't it? At this rate, Jiraiya wouldn't be missing out on much.
Naruto swallowed the thick lump in his throat. He wondered if the Leaf Village would be rebuilt again. Shikamaru would make a great Hokage, but he would refuse. His lazy friend's lifelong ambition was to live a regular, unremarkable life, and becoming the first crippled Kage would make his life endlessly troublesome. Sasuke's heart was in the right place now but he detested leadership and the council would never sanction a former turncoat. Naruto idly considered his friends, trying to picture each one in the red hat and white robes.
He couldn't get past Hinata.
"You taught me so many things, Naruto. You taught me to believe, to never give up, to stay true to myself. So… so I'm not afraid to say that Hyuuga Hinata has always loved you… I-It's funny, isn't it, saying it now? But you also taught me…"
"Better late than never," Naruto said aloud, softly. He wished he could tell Hinata that he'd heard her, that she was an irreplaceably important friend, a sister. He wished he could have the chance to thank her, to find out if some deep, clueless part of him actually reciprocated her feelings. He wished that next time, she would choose someone who could stay to do all those things.
Naruto closed his eyes and sucked in a shuddering breath as it hit him that he would never see Hinata, or any of his friends again. Not the ones from that timeline, who had fought four years without him and had made Suna their home. If ever.
Something niggled at the back of Naruto's mind. That he had managed to return to Sakura's time, only months apart, was too much of a coincidence. He tried to remember what the Nine Tails had said, but his mind refused to be still. The only thing Naruto knew was that he would be safely grounded to this time if he didn't use his chakra – and why should he, when there was no need to? When there was no reason to?
When he didn't want to?
Suddenly, Naruto was furious with himself. He was frustrated by the pettish tears that made his vision swim – but what he hated most was the realisation that, all this time, he'd been avoiding the simple reality that he'd begun regretting the Rasengan he'd formed back then. If he hadn't done that, he wouldn't be so painfully guilty about letting the sheltered life here spoil him. If he hadn't done that, he could still hide behind the excuse that he had no choice.
Wasn't there anything he could do to let him forgive himself?
Kazuo's note was crushed in Naruto's fist. He opened his fingers and tried to see the crumpled letters through the watery blur, but then he blinked and the hot tears rushed down his cheeks.
Don't disappear like that again.
"Damn it," Naruto choked out, squeezing his eyes shut. "Damn it…"
"Pens down," their bald, double-chinned teacher said in his aristocratic accent.
Ino obliged all too eagerly. She pushed her exam paper away from her and arched over the back of her chair in a feline's stretch. Her long arms came a bit too close to Sakura's face, seated behind her, and Ino's knee thumped painfully into her desk as her friend kicked her chair. Somewhere to their left, Ken snickered.
It took far too long for their papers to be collected. The school was almost empty by the time their class spilled into the hallways. Once outside, Ino stretched again – properly – and sighed appreciatively. "Freedom never tasted so good."
Ken and Sakura, as usual, were discussing the exam behind her. Ino never listened in; too many times she had left an exam confident in a B to discover otherwise five minutes out the door. Ken and Sakura – whose marks only fluctuated between A- and A+ – could completely dissect the exam before they reached the school gates and still have more to stay about the strange wording of Question 34 on the walk home.
Ino glanced back at her friends now. It was just the three of them today; Yuumi didn't do French. She tried to remember how long it had been since they had walked down the same streets they had chased each other down since they were five years old.
"The extended response was weird. Two page recount of the happiest moment in your life. In French. What did you…" Ken's incredulous tone trailed off into raised eyebrows as he snapped his fingers in front of Sakura's vacant gaze. Jolting back, she automatically punched him in the shoulder – he knew she hated him doing that. "Someone's being an airhead," he teased.
Now this was a conversation Ino felt she could safely engage in. She spun around. "Haven't you noticed? Sakura's been an airhead for weeks, Ken." She countered Sakura's glare with a smirk. "You know it's true."
"In my defence, it is exam period."
"It was exam period," Ken corrected. "Which means we have tennis today."
Sakura stopped, blinking. She looked over her shoulder for what she knew wasn't there. "Crap, I completely forgot," she groaned. "I don't have my racquet today."
"Airhead." Ino felt her point was proven.
"Just borrow one from storage. Kimura-senpai might smoke us if we don't show up." Ken was always the 'good friend'.
Sakura nodded slowly. "I should," she mused, and then hesitated. Ino wondered at the strange emotion that flickered through her friend's eyes. It wasn't quite fear – milder, somehow, but urgent enough that Ino knew tennis practice was the last thing the pink-haired girl was up for. But because she was Sakura, personal issues came second. "Let's go-"
"To the hospital? Yes – let's." All eyes swivelled to Ino, who was looking pointedly at Sakura's blank face. "Your dad needs you to bring an important file to him, remember? Dear lord, amnesia must run in the family."
"Amne – Ino?"
Who was grinning at Ken's quirked eyebrows. He shook his head wryly. They'd both known Haruno Sakura long enough that they could read her like a book. Ino didn't like to think that Ken had become slower on the uptake, but what mattered was that they were on the same page now. "I'll tell Senpai you had an emergency," he grinned.
"Awesome. Kimura owes me a favour anyway." Ino grabbed Sakura's hand, skilfully ignoring her protests. "See you tomorrow, Ken."
She knew her intuition hadn't been wrong when Sakura only struggled half-heartedly as she was pulled towards the gate. After Ken was gone, Ino let her go and Sakura frowned. "What was that about?"
"Are you going to tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
Ino rolled her eyes. "You've been spacey ever since Loverboy disappeared. But today, you're a different kind of spacey. You're in a suspiciously good mood. Except every now and then you remember something that makes you tune out of everything around you." She gave her companion a look. "So talk."
Sakura really hated how perceptive her best friend was sometimes. Trust Ino to notice what Sakura wasn't even aware of herself. "Look, I'm glad you got me out of tennis-"
"See? You're hiding something."
Sakura groaned inwardly as she adjusted her bag. At least they were almost at the gates. She'd have to shake Ino off quickly, or she might end up at a café somewhere getting interrogated by the blonde girl. "I'm not hiding anything. I've just got something on my mind. You're like that too sometimes, hypocrite."
"'Sometimes' is when I'm crushing on a guy, going out with a guy, or breaking up with a guy," Ino replied unhesitatingly, raising three fingers. "In your case, it's usually the last one but since you barely noticed Ken at all, I'm going to say that post-break-up depression is out today. So," she concluded, "if you insist on using me as an example, then you are in love."
Sakura had been shaking her head in disbelief the entire time. At Ino's last words, she stopped to stare dumbfounded at the other girl – not because she was right, but because Ino's logic, usually so frustratingly insightful, sounded incredibly silly to her right now. "I don't love him-" Sakura sighed exasperatedly.
"I knew it!" Ino crowed. "There is a guy involved."
"–I'm worried about him, you pig. There's a difference."
"Who's a worrisome pig?"
And at the curious voice, both girls' minds immediately emptied of everything – everything but the tall blonde boy who had been waiting outside the school gates.
"What are you doing here?" Sakura blurted, just as Ino gawked, "Loverboy? Where the hell did you come from?"
Naruto blinked and bemusedly scratched his head. "Uh, I thought I'd pick you up. You know, like usual," he said to Sakura. When she continued to stare at him, he looked over at Ino. "And… I don't really know how to answer your question."
Thankfully, Ino didn't look deeply into his response. She was more concerned about other matters. Her expression scandalous, she rounded on Sakura while her finger jabbed into Naruto's chest. "You kept him a secret?"
Sakura groaned inwardly at the confusion on Naruto's face. "I've got this," she told him before he could ask. She turned back to Ino. "He came back this morning, okay? I just haven't had the chance to tell you."
Ino looked dubious. She would have pressed on if it weren't for the slight inflection she heard in Sakura's tone, as if she didn't want to go there. Ino sighed. Being friends with this girl was harder than any school exam.
Shaking her head, she looked over at Naruto. "Fine, I'll believe Forehead. But you, mister – you are going to tell me what in the world you were thinking when you vanished without saying anything." She narrowed her eyes. "Are you in trouble with the police?"
Naruto looked appalled. Ino nodded thoughtfully before he could even answer. "Thought as much. You don't look shady."
Sakura was also watching Naruto. She'd be lying if she said she didn't want to hear him explain himself. But some part of her urged her to grab Naruto and get both of them away from Ino, who was asking all the questions Sakura should.
Before she could make up her mind, Naruto laughed softly. "I guess I was a bit… homesick."
"Homesick?" Sakura echoed in spite of herself, and he smiled sheepishly. That was how she knew that even though he was far from telling them the truth, he wasn't lying.
"So homesick that you didn't even think to leave a note for Sakura and her dad?" Ino questioned suspiciously.
"If I'd had to chance to, I swear I would have done it," Naruto said solemnly. He glanced at Sakura, looking so regretful she wondered if he knew how afraid she had been for him.
Ino sighed as if she was exasperatedly with her two companions. They were hiding things, but Ino had always been conscious of the line between what she should know and what she couldn't. "Well, you're going to need to come up with a better excuse." She smirked at Naruto's frown. "My dad won't let you back into the shop without one."
Naruto blinked, taking several moments to process what he had heard. "Boss will still want me?"
"Why are you so surprised? You were actually really helpful, you know. You're the best delivery boy we've had."
Why was he surprised? Because it had happened again. Sakura, Kazuo, Ino – they had reaccepted him so quickly and easily. Naruto felt terrible that the only thing he could do to repay them, was to let them be incurably kind to him.
Ino swung her bag over one shoulder. "Drop by tomorrow morning, alright?" She grinned mischievously. "Dad values my opinion highly. If you rub my back, I'll rub yours. If you know what I mean."
Sakura rolled her eyes, but Naruto took her seriously in that childishly gullible way of his. "I'll make you a bento," he offered eagerly.
So Naruto was the reason Sakura had had homemade lunch today, for the first time since… ah, since Naruto had disappeared. Ino smiled wryly to herself. She'd missed that. The gesture would have meant so much more if Naruto and Sakura weren't both the type to selflessly help whoever they could.
Ino considered herself an expert in relationships. For the first time, though, she couldn't see what kind of road Naruto and Sakura were heading towards. Friendship or more, she couldn't tell. She had never met a pair like them.
Still, she would never tire of teasing them. "I'll let you two have your personal time," Ino said impishly. Turning away from Sakura's exasperated expression, she bumped Naruto on the shoulder. "I'm glad you're back, Naruto. But if you make Sakura worry like that again, I will personally make sure you die childless. Got that?"
Suddenly, Sakura was nodding in agreement.
The best thing about Naruto was that with him, silence was never awkward. He had a way of entertaining himself, humming quietly or casually trying not to step on the cracks in the footpath. Sakura was content to let him walk half a step ahead of her, swinging her bag around as he hopped on ledges along the way. Naruto had always been cheerful but today, he seemed particularly animated, as if he was trying to embrace everything around him. He acted the complete opposite to Sakura, who for some reason felt that it had only been yesterday that they last walked down this path.
She looked at him now, gazing thoughtfully at his broad back. She felt she should say something, because no matter how hard she tried, it just wasn't possible to pretend that he hadn't just… appeared in her room after an equally mysterious disappearance. But right now, listening to Naruto's off-tune humming, Sakura didn't want to break the moment. Right now, it was just another day.
When Naruto jumped ahead to the next crossing, Sakura found herself reaching out to hold him back by the shirt. "Let's go this way today," she said with a small smile. He blinked for a moment, and then grinned easily.
The harbour was tranquil as always. At this time of day, most people simply passed without stopping, on their way home. Sakura went over the edge, leaning over the silver rail. She gestured Naruto over, and pointed across the water at the other side of town. "Do you see that big hole in the ground over there? They cleared the land there while you were gone. A new mall is going to be built there."
"Bigger than the mall we usually go to?" Naruto asked curiously.
"Bigger. Heaps bigger." Sakura chuckled when his eyes widened. She remembered how easily the mall's size had astonished Naruto. "They haven't even started scaffolding though, so it'll be a few years before it opens."
Naruto's gaze grew distant. Where would he be in a few years? He couldn't really stay with the Harunos for that long, could he? It would be wrong to. Maybe he would find a place to live in this town, or set out to see more of this strange world. Or maybe, if fate hated him that much, he wouldn't even be here anymore.
An uncomfortable weight settled on his chest. Think about something else, Naruto told himself for the umpteenth time. If he went on like this, Sakura would notice and she would be concerned again. With that thought in mind, Naruto nodded to himself, plastered a smile on his face, and turned – and that was when he realised that Sakura was not by his side.
He whirled around, startled and tense. He couldn't help the instinctive dread that leaped at him. The adrenaline still tingling from his battle with Kisame buzzed and refused to settle.
"Chocolate or vanilla?" And just like that, Sakura was there, waving two ice cream cones in his face. Naruto's relieved breath whistled through his lips. He felt like a melodramatic idiot now. Being thrust back into the past had changed him.
"Chocolate is the best," he grinned, reaching for it. "Thanks."
"I say vanilla easily trumps chocolate," Sakura retorted.
"Yuck, it's tasteless."
"It just has a very subtle taste." Unconvinced, Naruto took a huge bite out of his ice cream. Sakura pointed at his brown-smeared lips. "See? That's why you can't appreciate vanilla. You don't even stop to taste it. Let it melt in your mouth and you'll love it."
He made a face. "Nuh uh. Chocolate has really good flavour, you know. It, like, explodes in your mouth the moment it hits your tongue. It's number one, hands down."
Sakura rolled her eyes. "Trust me, I've tried dozens of flavours and there are plenty heaps better than chocolate. I'm starting to think you hate every flavour that isn't chocolate."
"I only eat chocolate," Naruto boasted. It didn't really have the impressive effect he had been going for.
"What, so you haven't even tried anything else?" Sakura was shocked. "Why did you say vanilla was tasteless then?"
"A… friend of mine told me." Jiraiya had sworn it, sworn it on every single one of his 'best-selling' novels. Vanilla, he insisted, was like a porn magazine filled with thickly-dressed models whose last intention was to flash even one shred of their voluptuous bodies.
Sakura shook her head disbelievingly. She held her ice cream out to him. "Trust me, you're missing out. Try it. Then you can hate it."
Naruto eyed it dubiously. "Fine," he decided finally. He leaned forward, mouth poised over the milky scoop. At the last moment, he paused and his eyes flickered up to Sakura's. "Sure?" he asked. He remembered the kind of conclusions she could jump to just by considering that she had once lent him her pyjamas.
Sakura rolled her eyes again. "No, I won't smack you into the water for trying to give me an indirect kiss, okay?" She, Ino and Ken had been sharing lunches since elementary school. Looking back, that probably explained why all three of them were always sick at the same time.
Naruto took a bite. Sakura watched him expectantly. "Don't just swallow it immediately," she warned, and he almost choked. Of course, he had done just that, and she had to let him have another bite. "Well?" she prompted when Naruto's expression turned contemplative.
He licked his lips. "It's not tasteless," he concluded finally. "But I still say chocolate is way better."
Well, at least she'd tried. "I'll show you some really good flavours another time. You'll jump ship immediately."
Naruto puffed up his chest. "Bring it!"
Her ice cream had a tinge of sweet chocolate in it. Sakura tasted it thoughtfully as she watched Naruto from the corner of his eye. He looked happier now. It was still slightly forced at the edges and it didn't change the fact that the first thing Sakura had noticed about him was his tired eyes, which told her he had been crying. But at least he wasn't the shivering boy who had clung to her like she was the only thing anchoring him to sanity. Sakura didn't want to see Naruto like that ever again, not if she could help it.
A crisp crunch told her that Naruto had finished his ice cream and was licking his fingers. Sakura was only halfway through hers. They fell into companionable silence while she ate. Naruto began to whistle.
"You can do whatever you want, you know," she told him after a long moment. He looked questioningly at her. Sakura bit into her cone to stall. "If you're sad, you should let it out. I… I won't stop you."
It took several seconds for Naruto to catch on. The first time they had walked through the harbour together, he had yelled his throat hoarse, pouring everything that weighed him down into the ocean. This time, he probably needed to vent even more than that. It wasn't a bad idea.
But then the wind picked up momentarily and Sakura's long hair brushed against his arm, making him look down at her. She thought she didn't know how to help him in any way except to give him the space to help himself. Naruto felt himself smile. Sakura was one of the most intelligent people he knew, but she was unbelievably short-sighted when it came to herself.
He shifted so that his broad back shielded her from the breeze. "Chocolate is the best, taste and medicine wise," Naruto grinned. "Cheered me right up."
She looked into his eyes, and smiled sadly. She didn't look away as she said, "Liar."
Naruto frowned. "I am not. That ice cream really helped."
Sakura shook her head. "You're lying to yourself. Naruto, you're not okay. Trying to pretend that you are won't change that."
The playfulness in his eyes faded away. "Then what do you want me to do?" Faintly, he recognised the signs of his rising temper, fuelled by suppressed frustration. He tried to stifle it. He shouldn't be angry, not at Sakura.
It didn't help that her emerald eyes were blazing with a fierceness that made it clear that this was what she really wanted to say, and that she was no longer in the mind to care if it was the right decision. "Get it off your chest. Confront it."
"You said you didn't want to know," he pointed out. Accusation. It was uncontrollable.
"I don't," Sakura shot back. She was getting riled, too, determined to see it to the end. "But I said that if you wanted to talk, I'd be there to listen."
"If you don't want to hear it, why should you?"
"Because I want to help you. I don't want to see you like this."
"Well, you can't understand why I'm upset without hearing what I went through. Which would upset you," he pointed out. He was biting out each word, the same way her voice was rising. They were attracting curious glances but neither of them cared.
"Yes, it will upset me but-"
"Then you're lying to yourself too, aren't you? You don't want to know what's wrong."
"I know that! Fine, I'll be honest then!" Sakura threw up a hand. "I'm confused, worried and I don't know what I want to hear. I'm scared. Does that satisfy you?"
"Guess what – I feel the exact same way." Naruto gripped the rail, cold and hard. He tried to control himself. "You don't want to hear what I've been through, Sakura. Let it go."
"Let it go?" she repeated. "You can't possibly believe that letting go will change what I already know. Do you know how-"
"You don't know anything!"
"I know that you're not normal!"
A sudden silence dropped over them like a bucket of ice water.
Naruto's next outburst died in his throat. He was hunched over the railing, squeezing it so hard his entire frame was rigid. Sakura turned her face away from him, biting her lip. Her ice cream had begun to melt in her hand.
Neither of them spoke, eyes fixed on the water or the concrete. A dull hollowness ate into Naruto's gut. He was sorry he'd let his temper get the better of him. He wanted to apologise and put it behind them – but something chained him, something that left Sakura's words echoing loudly in his head. Because she was right; he wanted to talk to someone. He wanted to believe Shikamaru and stop trying to shoulder everything on his own. The only person he could confide in was Sakura. But he didn't want to scare her away.
He hadn't realised he already had.
He heard her inhale a deep breath. She still wasn't looking at him. Quietly, she said, "I saw you, Naruto. You dropped out of thin air and blasted my room into chaos. I saw you." She closed her eyes. "Normal people don't do that."
"That depends," he murmured. "I'm normal where I'm from. Mostly, anyway."
Sakura smiled faintly. "That's what I don't want to know. I… I want to keep pretending that you're just a regular boy, Naruto. I don't want to risk the chance that I'll never be able to look at you the same way." She lowered her eyes. "But seeing you like that this morning – you snapped. That scared me more than the fear of ruining our friendship. So if you want to talk, I will listen."
Naruto stared into Sakura's passionate gaze. She really was scared, cringing away deep inside. Yet she was standing next to him, so close even though they were worlds apart. Guilt ripped into Naruto as his eyes softened. "It doesn't work that way for me, Sakura," he said. He smiled slightly. "I'd rather snap than lose a friend."
They were both stubborn people. It takes one to know one, Sakura mused. "I'm not saying that hearing your side of the story will make me abandon you. You're not a bad person, Naruto. It's just… if I can help it, I don't-"
"Want to change the way things are?" Naruto finished. He felt the same. Sasuke had taught him what it was like to lose sight of your friends.
They were silent again. Sakura slowly finished her ice cream. She had vanilla all over her fingers and Naruto took a short trip to the ice cream stand to bring over some napkins. After she finished her ice cream, the two of them continued to stare into the ocean.
Naruto distantly watched an upturned beer bottle bobbing in the water. "Have you ever moved houses, Sakura?"
"Once, but I don't remember it. I was three."
"Oh. Lucky you."
Sakura glanced sideways at him. "You… moved away from your home, then?"
"More or less. I didn't want to move, though. It just happened." Naruto chuckled at that. 'Just happened' indeed. "I'd lived in the same place my whole life. It's just a village, nothing like the towns here. When I was little, lots of people hated me and I really wanted to run away sometimes, but I stayed because I had nowhere else to go. It was home. I wanted people to respect me, so I promised myself that one day, I'd be the village's hero, protecting everyone."
Sakura gave a small smile. It was a typical child's dream. Those were the ones that stayed with you. "But?" she said gently, because she knew it was coming.
"But," Naruto said slowly, "I went back and it turns out my home got destroyed while I was gone."
Destroyed. Sakura was going to ask before she recalled that, a long time ago, Naruto had said his home was in the middle of a war. She lowered her head. Suddenly, she felt a strange distance between the two of them. When they had met, he had been nothing but another boy to her. Even when he had climbed in through her two-storey window, Sakura hadn't suspected that they could be so different.
Naruto's shoulder nudged into hers. "Are you trying to look sad enough for both of us?" he joked.
"I don't think that's even possible." Sakura looked sadly at him. "At the end of the day, I'm not you. I don't know how you feel and pretending that I do is even worse."
"But you can listen, right?" he smiled. Naruto shrugged. "You know, I think it's the people that makes a place feel like home. My village was gone but the people who survived moved into another village. My friends were safe, too. I was happy – really, really happy."
"So what's the problem?" Sakura asked lightly.
The problem was that Naruto didn't really know what it was himself. He'd told Sasuke he had changed, but that didn't excuse the sheer isolation he'd felt in Suna. The relief he'd felt when he realised he was back in Sakura's bedroom made Naruto feel overwhelmingly guilty, as if he had betrayed his friends.
"Let's skip the problem," Naruto said quickly. "I can't try to explain it without saying stuff you don't… you know."
She couldn't ask for more. After all, they were trying to stay in the middle ground where both of them could understand each other.
"I'm sorry." When he looked confused, Sakura added, "Because I can't relate to what you went through."
Naruto looked at her. "You really don't want to, Sakura," he told her gently.
For some reason, that made her wince. Sakura was beginning to think that this wasn't fair. The two of them were both the same age, and yet Naruto seemed to have baggage even adults wouldn't have to carry. That thought alone was enough to make her lift her head and look her companion in the eye, "Try me."
It wasn't hard to tell when Sakura was serious. Naruto grimaced. She could say it so easily, but he knew neither of them wanted her to hear about what it was like to look at a crying child and feel as if you had hurt her yourself and had no right to hold her.
"Did you lose anyone close to you?" Sakura prompted softly, sensing his hesitance. It was among one of the most tactless questions she had ever asked. It was Ino who had taught her that sometimes, insensitivity was the only way to open someone up.
Naruto stiffened. "A… few," he managed to reply after a pause. Sakura looked sorry she'd asked, but her eyes didn't leave his face. Naruto took a deep breath. "When I went back, there was someone I really wanted to talk to. He was like a father to me – pretty silly sometimes but very reliable." He released the breath, a long sigh. "He wasn't around for me to talk to anymore."
A small warmth on his skin; Sakura was squeezing his arm. Naruto shrugged and smiled, even though it didn't quite reach his eyes. What was it like, Sakura wondered, to smile more easily for another's benefit than for your own?
"You've lost someone close to you, too?" he ended up asking.
Sakura paused as if to think. "Technically, yes." She shook her head. "Sorry, Naruto, I asked a stupid question. I asked you about something I can only imagine."
Naruto cocked his head. "I don't get it."
It was difficult to tell if he was genuinely curious, or if he simply wanted to change the topic. Either way, Sakura knew she wasn't going to get anything more out of Naruto. She was torn with hypocritical guilt; she wanted him to talk, but wished he wouldn't. If they went on like this, she would end up finding more about Uzumaki Naruto than she was ready to.
What if they flipped the coin? How much did Naruto know about her? Everyone had things they didn't bring up – but the two of them had decided that today was the time to do just that.
"It's nothing compared to your stories," she told him. Naruto waited; she already knew he was a good listener. "My parents divorced not long after I was born. It wasn't anybody's fault; they just weren't right for each other. They would have separated earlier, but then they found out my mother was pregnant with me and they thought they would give it another try. For me. It didn't really work out so when I was three, they went their own ways. Dad and I moved here."
Sakura absently scrubbed at the stickiness the ice cream had left between her fingers. "After a while, my mother met someone she liked and they saved up for a holiday. Mum wanted to stop on the way to the airport to see me before they left."
She closed her eyes to gather her thoughts. Her father never minced his words and he never lied to her. At times, Sakura wished Kazuo hadn't so obligingly given her 'the right to know' when she had asked. It was selfish, but it wasn't easy.
"It was raining that day," Sakura heard herself say. "The story goes that they lost control of the car at a sharp turn on the highway and veered into a truck in the opposite lane. Three other cars got involved in the crash. It was a big mess. Everyone got injured. They say it's a miracle there were only two casualties." She knew this because she had the newspaper cuttings folded and hidden in a shoebox in her closet. "They got taken to my dad's hospital. Dad was always busy back then and had to take me to work. So I was there too that night, playing with other kids in the pen. I… didn't even know."
She turned to Naruto then. He had been looking at her the entire time, and now Sakura understood what he had meant. It was weird seeing someone who looked more upset than you. It was also strangely assuring, comforting somehow. Naruto really wore his heart on his sleeve.
In a slightly more lifted tone made possible by years of resignation, Sakura said, "I don't remember my mother that well. Dad says she loved me and I'm happy to believe that. But when I think about her, it's hard to… grieve. It makes me sad but… it's not enough for me to understand what it's like to lose a parent." She smiled at Naruto. "That's why it was a stupid question. I asked even though I couldn't relate."
Naruto gazed into her eyes. The shimmer of the setting sun passing through them illuminated some kind of regret that made Naruto shake his head. "You do," he corrected. "Relate, I mean."
She raised an eyebrow. "Really? I don't see how."
He grinned. "Guilty for the wrong reasons."
Sakura blinked. Then she laughed. Naruto did too. She leaned into his arm and they laughed so hard passer-bys gave them weird looks. They were laughing for the wrong reasons, but at that moment, it was the only thing that felt right.
It suddenly started pouring when Naruto and Sakura were minutes from home. Sakura began rummaging for her umbrella until Naruto grabbed her wrist. One look at his bright grin, and they were racing each other through the streets, shoes slapping against the wet pavement as they tried to jostle each other into lamp posts. It looked like Naruto would be victorious – until they reached the gate.
Just as he made to throw himself over it, Sakura leapt and vaulted over him. Surprised and caught off balance, Naruto yelped and tumbled ungracefully to the other side while Sakura landed elegantly.
He spat mud from his mouth and groaned. "Cheater."
Laughing, Sakura flipped wet hair from her face and leaned over him. "Sore loser."
And that was how they were presented to Kazuo when they let themselves into the house – muddy, windblown and dripping wet.
He paused with a fresh mug of coffee in his hand. Naruto noticed him first, his complaints trailing off. Sakura followed his gaze, expecting something much more frightful than her father, home early from work. "Dad," she greeted, still breathless.
Kazuo appraised her with amusement. It wasn't the first time Sakura had come home drenched. What was new, was her flushed face and exhilarated glow. No one could miss the reason, not when it was standing next to her, slathered in mud.
Kazuo nodded at them. "Welcome home, you two. How bad is the rain?"
"Heavy. It came from nowhere." Sakura made a face as she took of her shoes and her wet socks squelched unpleasantly. "When did you come home?"
"Just then. I got called in at five so they let me off early." Kazuo glanced at the water draining from the teenagers' bodies to pool at the floor. "A shower might be a good idea."
"No kidding," Sakura agreed. She looked at Naruto, his front caked in dirt. "You first. If you take too long and I get sick, I'll make sure you do too." Kazuo coughed pointedly. Sakura gave her father an innocent look. "Yes, Doctor?"
Naruto watched as Kazuo rolled his eyes at his daughter. He knew he was making a dirty mess on the floorboards. It was the only thing he was aware of. He didn't even know that he'd dropped to his knees in a deep bow until Sakura gaped at him. "Naruto, what-"
"I'm sorry," he blurted out. He dropped his forehead to the wet floor and spoke to the ground. "I'm sorry," Naruto said again, squeezing his eyes shut. "You two have helped me so much and given me more than you had to. And the only thing I've done is make you worry. I…"
They had done more than that. They had kept his room the way he'd left it for two months when they had hardly known each other for longer than that. But Sakura had unquestioningly held him together as if just seeing him safe and intact was worth more than a trashed bedroom and long, silent weeks. Kazuo had given him a place where he should not belong.
"I'm sorry," Naruto repeated loudly.
For several moments, the only sound was the rain outside. Then Sakura was kneeling beside him, her hand on his elbow. "Naruto, get up first."
"No, stay there." Kazuo calmly sipped his coffee. "Get the broom, Sakura."
Sakura whirled around. "Dad?"
Naruto's eyes widened. Then he lowered his head again. He was surprised that Kazuo would be so relentless, but punishment had always been more appealing than unconditional forgiveness to Naruto. "Go on," he murmured to Sakura.
Sakura looked uncertainly at her father and dubiously fetched a blue-handed broom from the kitchen. Then she stood to the side, looking as if she was ready to jump between the two men.
Putting his coffee down on the counter, Kazuo took the broom. He flipped it deftly and tapped Naruto on the shoulder with the handle. "Kid, after you mop up this mess, you'll clean up the entire house, you hear?"
"Huh?" Naruto's head began to come up, but Kazuo kept him down with the broomstick. "Err, okay."
"Then you're going to wash the car, fix up the lawn and, hmm… I'll come up with more later." Kazuo looked down at the blonde boy kneeling before him. "Do all that and I might consider forgiving you for sleeping with my daughter."
"What? I – ouch!" Naruto's head had shot up so quickly his skull cracked into the broomstick. He gaped at Kazuo, then stared horrified at Sakura's mortified expression. "Sakura-"
Her face flushed a deep scarlet. "I'm taking a shower!"
Naruto reached out futilely. "Sakura! Wait a minute!"
She was already gone, disappearing upstairs in a whirl. As her hair fluttered out of sight, the patient tapping of Kazuo's foot told Naruto he was on his own.
It wasn't like she was eavesdropping because she cared or anything, Sakura assured herself. In fact, she wouldn't even call it eavesdropping. She was just… standing. It just so happened that they were also standing right below her, and talking in voices that were coincidentally loud enough to waft upwards towards her.
"Kazuo, listen, I… I didn't…" The sheer mortification in Naruto's voice threatened to give Sakura away with her barely-stifled snickers. Someone like him? Sleep with her? No wonder her father was picking on him.
Not like Sakura enjoyed being labelled a victim, or getting implicated into the act of flirting with a roommate. Both of which Kazuo had insinuated in one fell swoop. He was really enjoying this.
"Hmm? I can't hear you, boy." There was no way Sakura wouldn't be seen if she peeked, but it wasn't hard to imagine her father's expression. She knew her parent well. Kazuo was a brilliant actor. So many times, he had guilt-tripped his daughter with crushing disappointment just to teach her a lesson, when he'd forgiven her the moment she threw her small arms around his neck, crying.
A frustrated groan. "We didn't sleep together!"
"Well, that's what I saw you two doing on the floor."
"We were just sleeping!" Sakura silently slapped a hand to her face. Someone really needed to think before they spoke. "Wait – I mean-"
"Do you even care about her?"
"What? Of course I care about Sakura!"
"Then don't make her worry like that again."
Sakura raised her head, her gaze growing distant as it fell on the opposite wall. The vague shadows cast on it were still, silent. She closed her eyes. You were worried, too, Dad.
"I'm sorry," Naruto said softly, and Sakura could hear that he truly was. She'd felt it long before he apologised. Uzumaki Naruto was a sincere person – but sincerity didn't explain everything.
Turning away, Sakura left the low murmuring voices behind. She didn't need to hear more, even though she wondered if Naruto would tell Kazuo anything he hadn't mentioned to her. She doubted it. To her, Naruto hadn't changed. He was still bright and cheerful, still reliable – still complex, hiding a weighty solemnity that belied his age.
Sakura shook her head. She had to keep reminding herself that even if she gave herself a migraine thinking about it, there was nothing she could do to make the situation any less complicated. All that mattered was that Naruto was back, safe and alive. She could ignore everything else. For now.
Sakura hadn't forgotten what had happened in the morning – there was no way she could. But in the midst of everything, minor details did elude her. That was why she didn't notice anything strange about the sight of her room intact and tidy, until she stepped inside and immediately tripped over her tennis racquet. Usually, Sakura kept it hanging from the wardrobe door, but today someone had shoved it behind the door with the handle sticking out.
Grimacing as she rubbed her ankle, Sakura leaned over to pick it up. She paused to blink when she saw that the racquet was only part of a mound of her belongings crammed in the corner between the door and closet. Besides her racquet, Sakura picked out one of her plush toys, a handbag and a semester-old Biology quiz.
When Sakura looked closely, she could see that the orderly state of her room was only a makeshift one. Her belongings were sitting in the wrong places and positions, the sheets on her desk hastily dropped in a scruffy pile.
Sakura hooked her racquet onto the wardrobe. It would probably take her longer to rearrange everything than it would have taken to clean up the mess herself. Still, he had tried, and it was enough to tug her lips into a small smile.
Cleaning would have to wait. Right now, all Sakura wanted was to get out of her wet, heavy clothes. She gratefully changed into a set of dry pyjamas and gathered her sopping uniform. Then, towelling her hair, she exited the room – and walked right into Naruto.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Swerving, he hastily twisted on one leg and flattened his back against the wall before they could smack into each other. Sakura's head came up, surprised. Naruto tugged at his muddy shirt, smiling sheepishly. "Don't want to get you dirty."
Sakura wrinkled her nose and playfully flicked her towel at him. "Take a shower. You stink."
"Says the one who made me fall!"
"Shush. I beat you fair and square." Sakura grabbed Naruto by the shoulders and steered him towards the bathroom. "Now hurry up. I want to shower too."
Naruto grinned cheekily. "Let's shower toge-" He broke off in a pained hiss as Sakura swiftly kicked him in the shin.
She smiled sweetly. "You were saying?"
"J-Just that, um, you should leave the cleaning up to me. Because I got the floor all dirty downstairs… yeah."
"Trust me, it's all yours," Sakura promised. Then, almost self-consciously, she tucked a lock of pink hair behind her ear. "So… you talked to Dad?"
Naruto scratched his head. "Kinda." Seeing Sakura's sceptical expression, he quickly added, "He knows nothing happened though! I told him we were just… err, sleeping."
He had been expecting a red-faced response from Sakura and had even guarded himself from sudden kicks or punches, so Naruto was surprised when she simply nodded absentmindedly. She slowly dried her hair with the towel. Her eyes were on the toothpaste on the sink behind Naruto as she said softly, "Just to prevent future misunderstandings, you shouldn't… barge in like that again."
Naruto opened his mouth, and then closed it. They had been speaking in code for long enough that he knew what she meant. He could only imagine what it had been like for Sakura, having him blast into her room like that. He had completely reshaped her ordinary life – just hers. The two of them could only turn to each other – and even then they were only semi-honest with themselves and each other. It wasn't easy.
He opened his mouth – only to have Sakura's towel tossed over his head. "If you say 'I'm sorry' one more time, I'm locking you out of the house," she warned. "Just take your shower and stop thinking, alright?"
By the time Naruto managed to free his head, the bathroom door had already slammed in his face. He stared at the closed door for a moment, and then smiled to himself. "Hey, Sakura?" he called, because he knew she was still standing on the other side. "Thanks."
She didn't answer. Maybe she had already said everything she needed to. At least, that was what Naruto thought.
With his shirt pulled halfway over his head, he stopped at the sound of Sakura's voice, muffled and quiet: "Don't give up. Okay, Naruto?"
For some reason, he burst out laughing. "What are you talking about? I never give-"
His voice died in an instant. His eyes widened.
Sakura frowned, raising her head. "Naruto?"
On the other side of the door, Naruto was staring disbelieving at his reflection in the mirror. That was right. He never gave up. Even now, it was the one thing he literally could not do. And yet, he'd somehow… forgotten that. He had been stubbornly hanging on to his emotions simply because he felt he had to, not seeing that trying to see himself through this by avoiding it altogether wasn't like him.
Suddenly, he felt like an idiot. Sakura had noticed this immediately – she'd even shouted it at him. But for some reason, the full impact of her words only hit him when she wasn't even trying.
Naruto felt like smacking himself. "I'm so slow!" he said aloud.
Sakura blinked, eyebrow arched. Then she laughed. "Yes. Yes, you are."
It was strangely comforting, lying awake in a dark, quiet house. For Naruto, who had lived on his own from the moment he was old enough to, the simple knowledge that two others were alive and breathing with him under the same roof was unbelievably soothing.
Naruto shifted the positioning of his arms beneath his head. Midnight had come and gone hours ago. His eyes were red and tired; it had been a long day. But sleep was impossible. He was restless somehow, even though his mind was curiously blank. Eventually, Naruto came to the conclusion that his body wanted him to do something that his mind just could not figure out.
Sometimes, Naruto was surprised that he was still sane and standing. There was something about being knocked down so many times. It wasn't fun realising that he had spent all his life getting back up from one setback or another – sometimes several at a time. It meant that Naruto was good at putting the bad things behind him, but it didn't mean he forgot.
It seemed worlds away, but he could still remember what Shikamaru had said to him.
"You aren't the only one who screwed up, Naruto. You were gone for four years and in that time, we were the ones fighting. We couldn't defend our village. We can't fix that, alright?"
Naruto wondered if his friend was beating himself up over what had happened. He hoped Hinata had told him he was sorry… Naruto frowned. Of course Hinata would tell him. It wasn't like she wouldn't have the chance to. Even if she did pick a fight with Kisame – and Naruto knew she would; she was weirdly stubborn like that – there was no way Hinata would go down without a fight.
Not like she'll go down, he reminded himself. Hinata was strong. It was just Kisame. Kisame… the Monster of the Mist, with chakra reserves as large as a jinchuuriki's and who had easily fended off Konoha's attempts to have him eliminated.
Naruto sucked in a breath and squeezed his eyes shut just as the terrible guilt rode over him. He had to come to terms with it sometime. He had led his friends into danger.
No – he had led danger to them.
"We can't fix that, alright?"
Outside, a car horn cut sharply into the night. Naruto winced involuntarily. He always did; it reminded him of staring wide-eyed at certain death. A car shooting out from nowhere, a kunai in the gut, Fire Jutsu to the face… dying was just too easy. No one would believe Naruto if he admitted that he was afraid of death, but he was. He was terrified of dying with regrets.
Naruto opened his eyes. Then he took a deep breath, closed them again and went under. The darkness came swiftly, followed by the eerie red glow and stench of rotting hatred and old blood. He was getting good at this.
"Alright, Kyuubi. Let's talk."
A/N: This chapter was delayed by Christmas and New Years, and catching up with friends. I've gone back and changed the names in past chapters, just like I did with Precious People a while back. It's now Uzumaki Naruto instead of Naruto Uzumaki, simply because I'm losing track of which format I use in which story.
Anyway, hope this chapter was enjoyable even though it's mostly filler.