Uhh... yeah... it's me again... remember me?

Right, moving on! Apparently, for some reason, FFnet didn't let certain reviewers review on the last chapter. -sad face-

SO, AS A FAVOR TO ME, to those of you who review this chapter but weren't able to review the last chapter, could you please include your thoughts on the last chapter in the review for this chapter? I'd love you forever and ever, and I really want to know what people thought of the last chapter and the whole Naruto resolution. Thank you! :]

The Gate Amidst the Ivy

Chapter Eighteen

Naruto lay motionlessly on his cot, his arms and legs straight. It was so unlike how he usually slept—carelessly splayed all over the place—the Sakura immediately had the urge to muss the sheets, cross his arms, do something to make him appear less dead. But, despite his myriad cuts, which had been carefully bandaged at the behest of the Hyuuga heiress, and bruises, he was alive, as the rise and fall of his chest attested to. His slight eyelashes, almost invisible because they were so pale, fluttered delicately against his cheeks, which were red and inflamed from when the guards, noticing the whisker-scars on his cheeks, had decided to deepen them—again and again.

He was still so beautiful, though, despite his withered body. Sakura could almost see him smiling again, as though nothing had happened in all their years apart, as though she had never betrayed him.

There were no healers in the room at the moment, only Hinata and her, and Sakura felt the suffocating weight of all the guilt that she had pushed behind her piling up once again. Because of her, Naruto was this lifeless husk of the person he had once been, bruised and decayed and desiccated, malnourished and stunted. His survival hung on a tenuous thread, the healers had told Hinata indifferently, and the strength of the thread was based entirely on the strength of his will to live—which did not appear to be so strong, actually. The idea of a weak, defeated Naruto was so foreign to Sakura that she could not comprehend it.

And Sakura possessed the exact skill set needed to thicken that thread of survival into rope.

"Hinata," said Sakura tentatively, "please let me work on Naruto. I've had healer training back in my village, and I'm certain I'll be able to help him."

Hinata, who did not know Naruto nearly as well as Sakura did but who still felt an undeniable concern toward him, was hesitant. "A-are you sure? I—I don't mean to o-offend, but th-these Hyuuga healers h-have been trained in the b-best medical schools."

Sakura, already donning her precise medical persona, told Hinata, "They're not as good as me, though." The statement might have been arrogant had she not sounded convinced.

Hinata acquiesced. "Very well then, S-Sakura." She wasn't stupid; she had seen how indifferent the healers were to Naruto, an insignificant commoner to whom Hinata had developed a passing affection for some inscrutable reason. Whatever help Sakura could give, then, was welcome.

Sakura smiled at Hinata and methodically pushed back her nausea and guilt. "Thank you, Hinata. Please, if you can, get another cot moved to Naruto's room, so I can rest there once I've finished healing him."

"B-but that's i-improper, you s-sleeping in the same room as a m-man—"

Sakura's voice was suddenly fierce. "I've just found him, and I'm not leaving him. Anyways, as you can clearly tell, Naruto's not exactly in a position to be entertaining dirty thoughts of ravishing me, so it'll be fine."

And suddenly, Hinata understood. Sakura loved Naruto, in a way far deeper than friendship, and abruptly she was very sad. How could she compare to a bond like that between Naruto and Sakura, a bond that lasted through the years, not just a bond but a Bond?

"Y-you love him, d-don't you?" asked Hinata wonderingly. She was envious, but she couldn't possibly hate Sakura for such love, no matter how it twisted her heart.

The self-loathing in Sakura's voice was palpable. "Yes, though you wouldn't know it from the way I've treated him."

Hinata found it very difficult to smile, but somehow she managed. She should appreciate what she had, as a rich and powerful noble; she should let Sakura have this one thing, at least. "I—I see. V-very well then, I w-will have a servant p-put a cot in this room immediately."

As Sakura closed her eyes, entering her trancelike healing state, Hinata left the room. It was suddenly very difficult to see straight, as her vision was blurring, but she convinced herself that it was more out of squeamishness at the sight of blood and bone than anything else.

With her magic, Sakura explored Naruto's seething, roiling magical aura. It was chaotic, a constant clash of blue and red, so volatile that she had to handle her own magic with the utmost care. Still, it was wonderfully familiar, and for a moment she let herself fantasize about a true reunion with Naruto, a reunion unmarred by her folly. She let the dream slip away after a fleeting moment; she needed to concentrate to avoid the magical backlash of Naruto's massive aura.

Finding an opening after a few minutes of tentative exploring, she dove in, spreading her magic throughout Naruto's body, from the tips of his fingers to his heart, to assess the condition of his body. It was a thorough diagnostic, though one rarely performed, since it required great intimacy between both the healer and the patient, but great intimacy was the one thing they both shared. Despite all its initial volatility, Naruto's magic recognized her, even after all these years, and Sakura situated herself quite comfortably as she filtered her own soft pea-green magic through his body.

His wounds had been superficially healed, the shallow scratches almost completely gone, but the job was sloppy and half-done. Sakura noticed with disdain that, rather than focusing on the deeper, more serious injuries, Naruto's healer had focused instead on the shallow wounds or slightly bruising that could be easily healed and give the appearance of wellness—though Naruto hardly looked well. And the state of his back—Sakura couldn't believe the idiots had actually laid him on his back after seeing what mess it was—

She rolled him onto his side so that his back was facing her, a task that was pathetically easy due to his light weight. Impatiently she tore open his shirt, a task that all healers eventually learned after years of handling emergency patients. His back had been bandaged, at the very least, but no longer trusting the healer's skills, Sakura removed them, deciding that she needed to be able to see the full extent of his injuries before attempting anything.

They were whip wounds; bloody gashes, the edges angry and red. The sight was sickening, but Sakura was well used to them, having treated several in the village after a noble got overzealous with law enforcement. Still, the sheer number was mind-boggling, and though the wounds had been cleaned, they were obviously still infected, oozing pus. She supposed this was the one time she ought to be grateful to the demon inside of him; without it, Naruto would have been dead by now.

Placing her hands on his shoulders, the only non-bloody portion of his body near his back, she saturated his back with her magic, almost completely lost to the world now. Slowly, the wound knitted back together, draining Sakura's energy stores palpably. And that was only one wound on his body of several major ones. Sakura could tell that eventually she would have to resort to blood magic.

She stopped once the wound was clotted, knowing that Naruto's body would be able to heal the rest and to do anymore would be a waste of energy, when there were so many other injuries to attend to. Methodically she moved onto the next whiplash, gratified when its inflamed red edges subsided and it also clotted, but afterward she had to stop. She was breathing hard, and sweat already beaded on her brow.

It was still sunny out, indicating only a few hours had passed. In between her healing, a servant must have come, because there was a second cot in Naruto's room, as well as several bowls of water, a glass of water, and a plate of whole, hearty food near her. Sakura devoured the bread and apple ravenously, drank a half glass of water though her parched throat begged for more, and saved the broth, which contained thick chunks of meat and vegetables, for later.

She then returned to his back. Her magic filtered through his skin again, saturating his body with an incandescent, peridot glow, and only when her magic began to flicker underneath her very fingers did Sakura stop. Still, she managed to dredge up the last stores of her energy to serve her one vanity—she healed the angry marks on Naruto's face, so his whisker marks were barely noticeable once again, rather than the horrendous marks of shame the guards had made them into.

Satisfied, she finally severed the connection between them, gulped down as much broth as she could, half-asleep as she was, and crawled into the second cot. The moon was high in the sky; and she was dead to the world before her head even hit her pillow.

The future Duke Nara collapsed in the huge, king-sized bed of his quarters, clenching his fists. Ino, idiot Ino. It didn't take a genius to figure out what she had done and why, and Duke Nara had never been called stupid in his life.

He supposed he couldn't blame her. After all, who wouldn't jump at the chance to become a part of the court, to take all the joys and comforts being a lady of the court had offered? But he'd known ever since he'd met her that Ino wasn't meant for a life at court; the blonde was too blunt, too dependent on the better instincts of others. That was why it was always so easy for Ino to make friends, but in a place like the main court, with its scheming and intrigues and back-biting, Ino's qualities were useless, even dangerous.

And now Ino had fled—or, more likely, been forcefully shipped off to—a remote manor in the middle of nowhere, and Sakura was somehow a wanted traitor to the crown. Obviously they had fallen to the machinations of some higher noble. Ino, trusting as she was, was never one to flee when a confrontation was involved. Sakura would never betray the Uchihas, not out of patriotism or any particular love for them, but because she would never risk her father's life, which was completely dependent on her income.

He knew that he was at least a little to blame for this. If only he'd never concealed his status from his friends, and Sakura and Ino, however unlikely, had been his friends, then they would never have had these problems. Ino would not grasp desperately for any sponsor if she knew she was friends with one of the most eminent nobles of the land, and she would not have taken Sakura down with her. They could have been happy together at the castle; they could have stayed there, idyllic and comfortable as the clouds he adored. Sakura and Ino could even have quit their jobs; Shikamaru had more than enough money at his disposal to have given them a modest living. Ino would have jumped at the chance, of course, as Ino's love of fine things was very well known; the real challenge would have been getting Sakura to accept such charity, though if he appealed to her weakness for money to support her father, he could most definitely have gotten her to accept…

Yes, to a certain extent, he most definitely deserved at least partial blame for the whole fiasco. And now it was up to him to set everything right again, to save Ino from her imprisonment in gods-knew-where, to clear Sakura's good name, to weed out the deceptive noble from the court for daring to hurt his friends, to warn Sasuke about the scheming going on under his very own nose—

But it wasn't the sort of thing he could tell Sasuke about. The man was utterly convinced of Sakura's guilt, even though it was obvious to the both of them that he wanted to do anything but accept it; still, Sasuke would believe anything King Itachi told him.

The real question, then, was figuring out exactly how someone as famed and discerning as King Itachi had been fooled.

...The plot thickens? Sasuke will appear next chapter, yay!

I wrote this chapter while listening to the soundtrack for the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, especially the song "Liz On Top of the World," played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet (lol, try saying THAT name five times fast), which is beautiful btw. You should listen to it if you would like to hear a pretty piano song~

Review, or the human-eating hamster will get thee as thou sleepest! It doth be a terrifying monstrosity, twenty leagues tall and as wyde as it be high, and thou shalt be helpless as a newborn babe against its fearsome fangs and eyes that cause death at one glance upon its moste awful visage! It doth be the Medusa of the animal worlde, the bringer of Death and Judgment upon ye hopeless souls!

uploaded 2.20.10