A Safe Pair of Hands
By the time I arrived she was already there, sitting alone at a table toward the back. She seemed at home. Comfortable, even, and I wondered how often she came here. Although the place was nearly full, the voices of the other patrons were little more than a hum that blended perfectly with the warm wood and soft light. As I approached I could see she was already into a bottle of sake. I bowed and hesitated.
"Tsunade-sama." The way I had said her name sounded like a question. It was unusual for the Hokage to ask anyone to meet for barbeque, especially a student. Even an apprentice such as myself did not receive invitations to socialize. I had no idea what to expect.
She lifted her index finger from the porcelain cup she held, the red-polished nail pointing to the empty bench. I obediently slid onto the seat across the table from my master, and waited for her to explain why she had summoned me. She didn't say anything, and something in her watchful expression made me uneasy. I held her favor, I knew, but there were times I still felt very young and unskilled in her presence.
Before any explanations could be made the food arrived, and Tsunade-sama nodded toward the collection of beef, sashimi, vegetables, and rice. I wasn't hungry at all but put a few slices of meat on the grill anyway, grateful for a task to occupy my hands. She continued to watch me, and then, as if some unasked question had been answered to her satisfaction, she shifted her attention to the food and making conversation.
We spoke mostly of village matters as we ate. Tsunade-sama talked about the slow but complete recovery Konoha had made, the new promising students at the academy, and the training progress and current assignments of my friends. She had a smirk on her face when she said that Shikamaru was spending extra time at the cryptology lab, and I smiled when she added that his decision to volunteer more of his time there was not her suggestion. And then she mentioned the Tanabata festival that was happening tomorrow night, saying how it would be good for everyone's health to celebrate life and renewal together.
It was all very positive, but none of it was new information. I listened dutifully anyway, believing Tsunade-sama wouldn't waste her time if it wasn't leading up to something important. It wasn't until she waded into the second bottle of sake that she very suddenly got to the point.
"Sakura," she began, her eyebrows drawing into a familiar frown. The violet seal seemed especially dark against the pale skin of her ageless forehead. "What are you going to do about Naruto?"
My face burned painfully as if she'd struck me, and I was sure all the other conversations around us fell silent. But I was overreacting. I had to be. Just because Naruto was on my mind all the time, and I asked myself that same question countless times every day, it didn't mean anything. It was a coincidence. There must be an assignment or some other duty regarding Naruto that I'd forgotten to complete, that's all. There was no reason to panic.
"N-naruto?" I said, trying to keep my voice low and, more importantly, steady. "What about him?"
Lady Fifth's imperious frown became an impatient scowl. "He loves you."
She'd said it as if it were common knowledge. As obvious as the sun in the sky. Now there was a reason to panic, and I had a racing heart and dry mouth to prove it. Had Sai been running his big mouth again? Had he said something to her? Sai needed another seal on his tongue, and I wanted to put it there myself.
"Tsunade-sama, I don't…why…what makes you think—"
"Your team leaders," she said gruffly. "They report more than the technical results of missions and training to the Hokage. I expect them to report anything that might affect team performance. Or Konoha's future."
"K-konoha's future?" I whispered the words as Tsunade-sama studied my reaction carefully. My mind was buzzing, numb with shock. Now I wished it had been Sai. "Kakashi-sensei…Yamato-taicho — they told you Naruto…that Naruto—"
"No." The hair that framed her face swayed slightly as she shook her head. "How Naruto feels about most things is no secret," she said, smirking again for a moment, "and that includes you." She took another sip of sake and quietly set the cup back on the table. "No, Kakashi and Yamato…they are under the impression that you might also love Naruto."
The embarrassment and confusion I felt fused into fear. Did everyone in the village know? Was everyone talking about us? About Naruto and me? Was Tsunade-sama involving herself in this as the Hokage or my master? I guess it really didn't matter. She must have her reasons for asking something so personal, and if she was asking she would expect an answer.
And the truth was I had been wishing for someone I could talk to about him, about everything that had happened. Someone I could trust to advise me what to do. There was no one my age, no girl friends. It was the fate of a kunoichi: you spent your life with boys. Two boys….
I stared at the leftover food on my plate, prodding it with a chopstick while I tried to calm down. Tsunade-sama would think less of me if I became emotional or hysterical, especially if what she said was true. I felt small and unskilled again.
"I don't know where to start."
"You do love him, then?" she said with a softer tone.
I nodded miserably. "I haven't always. For a long time I loved…someone else. Or thought I did. I'm not sure what I felt anymore. I only know it all changed, and that Naruto is…he's the one I—" I felt the sting of tears I did not want my master to see. "But I've made a mess of it. So many mistakes. I haven't done anything right."
"Sakura," she said, pausing thoughtfully. She drained and refilled her sake cup before continuing. "It isn't easy."
"Easy?" I poked at a defenseless radish, afraid to look at her.
"To realize that the one you've grown up with — the one you've trained with and fought beside — the person you found so irritating that you willfully beat the hell out of him and rejected him over and over—" She caught herself pounding the table with her fist and stopped, slowly taking a deep breath. "That he somehow became the one you don't want to live without. It isn't easy."
The far away sound in her voice drew my attention to her face again. Tsunade-sama was composed and in control of herself, but there was something else in the depths of her eyes. She was speaking from experience. Painful experience. All the sake made sense now.
"But it should have been easy," I said, sounding almost as disappointed in myself as I felt. "Naruto was always there for me, he always cared and I ignored his feelings—"
"It was the same with Jiraiya."
"Jiraiya-sama?" I hoped his name had slipped out with more respect than surprise.
"When we were young he made so much noise – loud , foolish noise over me. It was annoying. Embarrassing."
I couldn't help but smile. "That sounds familiar."
She nodded, knowing it would. "All those years I spent with Jiraiya, I thought I understood his ways. I thought I knew who he was. Because of that I never once took him seriously, and—" Her voice had gone hollow. "And it hurt him. Even if I didn't love him then, I owed him more than that."
Didn't love him then. Did that mean at some point her feelings had changed? Did she love him now? As I watched her empty her sake cup again I had to believe she did. And now he was dead. I refused to think the parallel could go that far.
"It was not until Jiraiya found me again, and I let go of the past – that I grew up and stopped living for ghosts – that I saw him clearly."
"I'm not living for a ghost," I said quickly, certain she had chosen those words just for me. "Not anymore, anyway. I've tried to tell Naruto that, tried to explain, but—"
"It is not enough to tell him, Sakura," Tsunade-sama said sternly, and loudly enough that I cringed. "You must show him. Talk does not give a man you've hurt the assurance he needs." She was pounding the table again. "Words are a useless substitute for sharing your life…sharing yourself with him. Words will never hold you close in the dark."
A shiver crawled through me. I understood what she was really saying – about her own loss as much as what could happen if I failed to take her advice – and I felt a fresh wave of panic.
"I'm afraid I've already missed my chance with him."
"Why? Has he said that?" she demanded.
"No." I was staring at my plate again. "But you don't understand. I've said things. Done things. Things I wanted to mean when I did them, but…he didn't believe me. Naruto knew I wasn't sure. And just because I really am sure now, why should he trust me?" I listened as Tsunade-sama sighed heavily, but I didn't know what it meant. "Besides," I added, totally pathetic now, "he doesn't have to settle for me. He knows he has other options."
She scoffed as if I'd said the stupidest thing she had ever heard. "Has he done anything about these options?" She leaned forward then and I had to look up and face her. She was smirking again. "Has he?"
"Well, not that I…I don't…how would I know?"
"Have you seen him with someone else? Has anyone?"
"Have you ever known Naruto to turn away from anything or anyone – no matter how difficult – once he has made up his mind how he feels?"
The answer was so obvious I didn't have to think about it. "No."
"He is much like Jiraiya," she said.
"Tsunade-sama, I know what you're saying but it's just not that simple. The timing isn't right. I—"
"You are an excellent student, Sakura," she said suddenly, and despite the circumstances I still blushed with pride at the rare praise. "One who has listened and learned well. If I have taught you anything useful let it be this: don't make him wait."
I had stared into the darkness of my room most of last night, thinking about everything Tsunade-sama had said. She was right. Words were not enough. Even actions were not enough if they were the wrong ones. And I had thought a lot about what actions I could take to make things right with Naruto. In my imagination every possibility ended with the same result: I would finally know what it was like to feel his arms around me, what it was like to kiss him, and he would have no doubts about me. Maybe it was a good sign.
Since I was unable to sleep I was up early. Naruto, I knew, would not be up early so I had tried to fill my morning with constructive things while I waited. Around noon I had gone looking for him. I went to his apartment first, then to Ichiraku, and eventually found him on a side street walking along with Shikamaru.
By the time I had caught up with them I was nervous, and barely managed to say hello before I stuttered out a request to speak to Naruto alone. It wasn't exactly unusual – we were officially still on the same team, after all – but Shikamaru was suspicious right away. He had sighed in a disgusted way that said "oh great, more relationship talk," but at least he'd had the decency to turn his back to us. I tried my best to forget he was there.
Naruto's expression, on the other hand, was blank when I had asked if he wanted to go with me to the festival tonight. Then he seemed to notice I was wringing my hands as we stood there, and he said, "You mean, like a date?" I don't remember if I said yes or if I just nodded. All I know for sure is he said okay, and we agreed he would come by to get me just before dark.
Daylight was fading now. It was going to be a clear night, so this year for certain Orihime and Hikoboshi – the mythical lovers we were gathering to celebrate – would be able to meet and share their love in the stars.
I stood in front of a small mirror in my room, studying my reflection. It was nice to wear something new, and this yukata was soft and beautiful. Although it was mostly black, the green leaves brought out the color of my eyes and the large lavender and pink flowers matched my hair, which I had put up in a knot held with a black-beaded pin. I looked as pretty as I could.
Not that it would make any difference to Naruto. He has seen me at my best and worst – clean and dressed for occasions, dirty and sweaty on missions, first thing in the morning – and it is all the same to him. It isn't that he doesn't notice, he just doesn't care about details. It took me a long time to figure out it was actually flattering; that no matter how I've looked he's only seen me.
I went to watch for him from my window overlooking the street, but he was already near our front door. I flew down the stairs as fast as a yukata hem would allow. Shoving my feet into my sandals, I called to my parents to say that I was leaving, and stepped outside to meet him.
Naruto might not care about details but I do, and he looked…handsome. He had changed so much in the last year. He seemed older and had grown a little taller. Yes, handsome. There was no other word for it. His yukata was new too, dark blue with white swirls and dragons. It was perfect on him.
"Sakura-chan." Naruto smiled easily, and while there was nothing new about that, I could tell by the way he said my name that he was happy to see me. Maybe it was another good sign.
The festival was wonderful and very crowded. The village had been transformed into a sea of color and energy; I don't remember ever seeing so many happy families and smiling faces. Tsunade-sama had been right that a celebration of life was what we all needed. Every citizen of the Leaf seemed to be out in the street, milling around the bright paper streamers, feasting, and playing games beneath the stars.
And they all recognize Naruto. Everywhere we walk people seem happier to see him than anything else at the festival. Many can't resist speaking to him, some are still thanking him. Others want to get just close enough to catch his eye. He was trying to smile and take it in stride, but it wasn't easy for him to accept the attention from so many well-meaning admirers. Naruto was famous whether he was ready to be or not.
We took our time and tried several of the food stalls. Naruto quietly paid for everything, including the skewer of dumplings he knew were my favorite.
"Thank you," I said sincerely, wanting him to know it wasn't a condition or expectation he had to meet like I'd always made it before.
"We're on a date," he replied.
I smiled at him and he smiled too, a little, but then he looked away. I didn't want to make something bad out of it.
After eating all we could hold, we stopped at another stall for tanzaku paper and spent a few minutes composing our wishes. I wrote mine quickly, asking for perseverance, acceptance, and worthiness. I believed the holy spirits and my ancestors would know what I meant. With a final prayer I tied the ornament to the nearest bamboo pole.
Meanwhile Naruto was staring at his slip of paper and scratching his head. He hadn't written a word.
I leaned over his arm and pointed. "It's not a test," I whispered. "Just write your wish."
"Hey!" He shifted to block my view. "Not fair. I didn't look at what you wrote."
I giggled. "Okay, I won't look."
He threw a glance over his shoulder to make sure I was a safe distance away before he started to write. I spent the time watching all the other handwritten messages as they twirled on their strings, set in motion by the cool breeze. I didn't realize he had finished until he suddenly yelled.
Kiba and Akamaru were in front of the kingyo sukui stall, and Naruto tugged at my sleeve – his way of asking me to follow him across the street.
"Are you going to play, Kiba?" Naruto asked hopefully.
"Kind of a waste of money," Kiba returned. "It's pretty easy."
"Figures you'd say that," Naruto said with a laugh.
Kiba smirked. "Well, I know I can beat you, Naruto."
Kiba glanced between Naruto and me. "Are you two on a date?"
Before I could answer Naruto said, "Don't change the subject, Kiba. Let's play."
A minute later, armed with their scoops and bowls, they were furiously chasing goldfish around the tub. Kiba had faster reflexes, but kingyo sukui was a game that didn't necessarily lend itself to speed. He had more fish in his bowl but his paper scoop was ruined before Naruto's. It ended in a tie.
"Best two out of three," Kiba barked.
Naruto said, "Deal."
And they were off again. Naruto won the second game, but by only one fish. By the time they started the third round I couldn't stop laughing. Their rivalry had escalated to some vicious elbow jabs and splashing, and I felt sorry for the helpless goldfish. The stall owner looked grim but he didn't interfere, probably because he hoped to cash in on the small group of people that had gathered to watch.
Both paper scoops were basically useless now, with Kiba the easy winner. But he couldn't resist giving Naruto a final shove, and in the process dropped his bowl of fish back into the tub. Akamaru howled. Naruto was still crowing his victory when the stall owner handed him the plastic bag full of fish. There looked to be about twelve crammed into a very small amount of water.
Angry over his loss, Kiba jumped on Akamaru's back. "I don't want to get in the way of your date so I'll see you guys later," he said, making an excuse. He smiled, though, enough to show his sharp canines. "Get wild." With a bark Akamaru took off, and he and Kiba disappeared into the crowd.
"What do you plan to do with those?" I asked Naruto, still laughing. His blank look convinced me he hadn't considered the consequences of his triumph.
"I knew you'd win," said a very small voice. It was a little girl, about four years old, who was standing between her parents. One of her tiny hands was in her mother's, the other clutched a beautiful lotus blossom on a long stem. Despite being timid, and probably very tired at this late hour, she was fascinated by Naruto.
"You knew, huh?" he said, grinning as he kneeled down to meet her.
"Shiori. My name is Shiori."
Naruto held up the bag of goldfish, and her huge, wonder-filled eyes were magnified by the water. "Then I think you should have these, Shiori."
She looked up at her father who nodded with an indulgent smile, and she let go of her mother to reach out. Naruto put the treasure into her hand and helped her hold it until she got used to the weight, then he tousled her hair before he stood up. The parents bowed and thanked him.
They hadn't gone farther than the next stall when the little girl returned and shyly handed Naruto the lotus flower. I watched his face as he watched her run away. He was so kind. Such a natural with children. It made me feel warm inside.
It was then that I knew Tsunade-sama was right about something else. Last night I had been too shocked to realize why she pointed out Konoha's future. How something so big and intangible could possibly have anything to do with me or what I was "going to do about Naruto." But I could see it now. Naruto was Konoha's future. This night had proved it. He was about more than pride or hero worship to these people; they felt as safe with him as I did. Naruto – the boy with no family of his own – had become Konoha's son, and Tsunade-sama wanted me to understand everything that is at stake.
Naruto seemed more embarrassed by the little girl's gesture than the rest of the attention he had received tonight. He sheepishly put the flower in my hand – more, I think, so he didn't have to walk around with it than as a gift to me. Still, it made me smile.
It was almost midnight now and the crowds around the stalls were thinning, so we made our way to the river to watch the wishes burn. The bamboo poles had been gathered from the streets and set in the ground along the riverbank, and one by one they were set afire. Each paper wish flashed brightly as it caught the flame, curling and twisting into wisps of smoke, the soot falling into the water to be carried away by the current.
The poles themselves burned more slowly, and as soon as the wishes had gone most of the crowd headed for home. It was late and tomorrow there would be work and chores.
Naruto and I were in no hurry, staying and talking until nothing remained but charred sticks. By the time we started back there was hardly a soul in the streets. In observance of the stars the lights were out in the shop fronts and most of the homes, making it unusually dark for a walk.
I held the fragrant blossom to my nose, glad to have it as a distraction since every step forward meant my time with Naruto was almost over. He was so close to me – the power inside him, his breath, the sound of his voice – and yet he was impossibly far. I kept my arm nearest him free at my side, hoping we'd touch accidentally or he would take hold of my hand. But he didn't.
We slowly made the turn onto the street where I live. Mindful of the quiet neighborhood, Naruto was speaking softly now, something about assembling a team for a paid mission. I wasn't really listening anymore. There was so much tension building in my chest that my heart hurt from the pounding. And then, completely against my will, I was back at my front door.
For a few long seconds the awkwardness that filled the space between us gave me hope. I could make out the outline of his arm; his hand was at the back of his neck, ruffling his hair the way he did when he was anxious and didn't know what to do. As if it would help me read his mind, I edged as close to him as I could without making a bolder move.
"I guess I'll…uh…see you later then," he said finally.
He turned to leave but I caught his hand. I could feel him go completely still.
"Naruto, I need you to forgive me," I said quickly, before I could think too much. My voice was trembling. My whole body was trembling.
"For being blind." The tears were there immediately, and I instinctively slipped my arms around him and held on so he couldn't see them. "I took you for granted before. My only defense is that I was stupid. I need you to forgive me and to…to believe you're everything I want."
My feelings were tumbling out in a messy rush. This wasn't one of the possible scenarios I had imagined. Was I just telling him again, or was I showing him? Either way I couldn't stop.
"I'm so proud of you, Naruto. I admire you so much. Everything you are, everything you've done. You don't know."
I sniffled and took a shaky breath, and then my heart sank when he gripped my shoulders and gently pushed me back a step. It was going to be the same as before.
Unwilling to take my hands off him unless he made me, I left them resting on his chest. The flower was pressed against his heart as I braced for rejection. When I finally brought myself to look at his face I could see his expression was clouded with emotions I didn't have the courage to interpret. His blue eyes were brilliant even in the darkness.
"Sakura-chan," he said, his voice low and hoarse, "you still cry so easily."
"I know you think that."
It was agony waiting for him to go on.
"You have a large, charming forehead. Makes me want to kiss it."
Those words were nothing like what I had expected. I was about to say I didn't understand, and ask him to repeat it, but then I got a strange feeling as an old memory flickered brightly in my mind. I tried to read his expression again, and he nodded as if he could see the same memory in his mind.
"That was you that day," I whispered, as much to myself as to him.
He shrugged and I could see the white of his teeth as he flashed his most self-conscious smile. "It was something I would say…because it was how I felt." He hesitated before adding, "I mean, how I feel."
I began to feel sick over the things I remembered saying that day – things I had said not knowing it was him. Not that it would have mattered; I was stupid enough to have said them anyway. Just as Tsunade-sama said, even if I didn't love him then I had owed him more than that.
Naruto seemed to be remembering too, and found it difficult to look at me when he spoke again.
"You said I didn't understand anything about you. That I didn't understand what it was like to want acknowledgement from one person more than anyone else. But I did."
"I was a senseless girl. I'm so sorry."
"I thought it meant something about you and me — about us — because we felt the same way about something so important." He looked me in the eye then, and his heart was beating faster beneath my hand. "I just wanted to be the one who could make everything right for you."
"Naruto—" I knew there were more tears in my eyes, but I really didn't care if he thought I was weak or childish. I raised my hands to his shoulders, letting the sleeves of my yukata slide down so I could put my arms around his neck. I held him as close as I could. "You can make everything right for me if — I mean, if you still want to. Just tell me I'm not too late…that you forgive me."
He was terribly still again, his arms unnaturally at his sides. At least he wasn't trying to get away.
"I said this before, I know," I went on, the side of my face resting on his shoulder. "And after all that I can't expect you to believe me when I say I love you — that I'm in love with you — but I am. I do. I love you." I was begging in whispers. "Please believe me."
There was nothing more I could do but hold my breath and wait for his reaction. I was trembling worse than before, and every second was like its own forever until I felt his hands come to rest at my waist. Was he going to push me away again?
The question was answered the next moment when his arms slowly tightened around me instead. And they kept getting tighter until I could barely breathe. His mood was suddenly so intense. I didn't complain; I knew he was happy, but I also believed he was feeling things I would never completely understand.
So we stood there, holding each other, and as time passed it felt as if everything around us was changing. The sky was blacker, the stars were brighter, and except for thousands of crickets and a soulful owl, the village was quieter. The world seemed like a much smaller place now that I felt as if we were the only two people in it.
After some time Naruto relaxed a little. I could breathe freely again, but couldn't have escaped his hold even if I wanted to. And I did breathe; breathed in the smell of his skin, his hair, his clothes. In the hazy, private moment I pressed a kiss to the soft spot between his sideburn and his ear, and another to the whisker marks on his cheek. He turned his face enough to kiss my forehead, and I could feel his mouth curve into a smile just before he looked down at me.
But the smile was gone when he leaned in and kissed me. His lips were warm and soft, and I loved how they felt, even if we were both awkward and uncertain. With each kiss we were experimenting, learning what to do together.
As quickly as his smile had faded it was back. "Your nose," he said.
Old insecurities needled my temper. "What about my nose?"
"It smells like the flower."
I didn't get much time to giggle before he was kissing me again. But then he stopped again, this time laughing in the impish way that told me he was proud of himself.
"Now what?" I demanded.
"Hmm," he mumbled, sneaking in another kiss before he answered. "You taste good. Kind of sweet. I've always imagined you would, since the first day I saw you."
That seemed to be the last thing he wanted to say for now, and in the same way he has always undertaken any physical challenge, Naruto became intent on mastering his new technique. With the kisses, the way he held me, the words he said in my ear, it wasn't long before I was weak in the knees.
I finally lost my bearings and we sort of stumbled backward, his arm taking the impact as we thudded against the frame of the front door. We hardly noticed. Things were escalating fast. You'd think we had been together like this before, the way his hand wandered over my curves…the way I let him do it. He breathed my name and we were pressed so close together that I had no doubt what he was feeling, no doubt that we could very easily lose control. Naruto finally realized it too, and with some embarrassment he forced himself to slow down.
"May I ask you something?" I said, thinking a little conversation might help clear our heads. I was still breathing unevenly. "Was this — us — what you wrote? What you wished for tonight?"
He was acting a little strangely suddenly, almost shy. I knew I shouldn't pry but I couldn't help myself. I really wanted to know. "What did you ask for then?"
"That whatever you had wished for would come true," he said simply.
My heart was so full I could cry. Yes, again. But it was the most romantic thing I had ever heard, and I was humbled to know that tonight, even when I didn't realize it, Naruto was still wanting to make everything right for me.
I kissed him then. And then I kissed him again. And in no time we were back where we were, panting and close to desperate.
"I should go home now, shouldn't I?" he said, trying to sound responsible.
He sighed and started to pull away so I tightened my arms around his neck. "But not just yet."
His expression was glib and confident. "You can't get enough of me," he said. It was right on the line between an accusation and a statement of fact.
"And you'd better get used to that."
We kissed a few more times, soft and slow as if that would make it any less exciting. I really didn't want him to leave but we couldn't stand here all night. Someone would see us. Like the neighbors. Or my parents.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then?"
"No, you won't."
We each kept kissing the other while we tried to talk.
"Why? We're not Orihime and Hikoboshi. We can see each other whenever we want."
He had to mumble the answer against my lips. "Paid mission…with Konohamaru. Leaving early, remember? I just told you."
"You won't be back tomorrow?" I asked, petulant.
He shook his head. "This will have to last you a couple of days, Sakura-chan."
Now I really didn't want to say good night. It was strange. At the worst times, when things were so terrible and frightening, I hadn't worried about seeing Naruto again. I always assumed I would. But now that I know how much I love him, and how much I want to be with him, every goodbye – if only for a few days – was painful.
We kissed a few more times and then he held me a little too tightly again. "Don't forget I love you," I whispered.
When we eventually let go of each other he walked backwards for a few steps, then finally turned away and headed home. It was so dark that I lost sight of him sooner than I wanted.
I slipped inside and closed the door, leaning against it for a moment. The lotus blossom in my hand wasn't as fresh as it had been a few hours ago, but I held it up to my nose and filled my lungs with its fragrance. I removed my sandals, and as I started up the stairs to my room a distant, enthusiastic cheer split the night. It was a good sign.
Notes: This story was written for Scarlett71177's birthday. Many thanks to Lina and Mila for their help. All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.