Title: Body Heat
Author: Wicked Raygun
Summary: Sharing body heat is a traditional survival tactic used during low temperature conditions. It's also a great excuse for snuggling. NaruSaku.
Disclaimer: I do not own this – obviously.
Notes: This is my very first Naruto fanfic, but hopefully not my last. Let me know how I'm doing.
Spoilers: It's kind of hard to say where this fits in storyline-wise. It may very well not, to be honest. So I guess you can consider it an AU Naruto Shippuden.
Distribution: Ask and you shall receive. Just email me and I'll get back to you quickly using new-fangled technology. See, I get email on my phone now. Surely jet packs and flying cars are just around the corner.
Kami, it was cold!
Naruto shivered as he tried to pull his blanket somehow tighter around him. He was inside a small tent, laying on his side with his knees tucked up to his chest, with his hands resting under his elbows as he hugged himself. Except for his sandals he hadn't stripped off any of his clothes. He was even wearing socks. Socks! A ninja shouldn't even own socks! And yet here he was wearing three pair all at once.
He yawned and felt his teeth chatter as he closed his mouth.
"St-st-stupid m-m-mission," he said quietly to himself, his teeth chattering all the while.
Troubleshooters the Hokage had called them. It was how she was going to classify him and Sakura from now own. Instead of having their own team, they would work alone or be assigned as needed to other teams whose mission parameters would require their specializations. And on a more classified level, they were also meeting contacts within the Hokage's personal spy network.
It sounded like an excellent idea when he first heard it. It meant he would go out on more missions, work with different friends and yet still be able to spend time with Sakura. And honestly, most of the time it was great. But it also meant that sometimes they would spend so much time away from Konoha that at times it would start to feel like they were homeless-nin.
All of their communications were relayed through summons to the Hokage herself. Naruto would send a toad, they'd wait at a designated area, and then they would get a reply via a slug. They generally were never actually required to report back personally. And in fact they hadn't been back home since the early months of summer.
At least now they were finally getting a chance to go back home for some downtime. Tsunade had been very clear about that in her last message: a minimum of three weeks spent resting in Konoha – absolutely no missions. And while Naruto was sure he would be going stir crazy by the end of it, at least he would get a chance to spend the winter holidays at home with friends.
The thought of home conjured up images of steaming hot ramen and he shivered some more, tucking his legs even tighter to himself. An amused part of his self wondered if he could squeeze into his backpack like this. The light blankets they had brought with them back in the summer were woefully inadequate for this kind of cold, and they hadn't been in a proper town to resupply themselves in a couple of months.
Naruto sighed as he thought about how ridiculously easy their last mission had been. A group of bandits in the area were attacking merchants along several different trade routes. They were rumored to be employing ninja.
The rumors were only partially true though. They tracked down the bandits but there was only one ninja, and Sakura had beat him to within an inch of his life without even breaking into a sweat, while Naruto had taken care of the rest of the bandits using shadow clones. The whole "battle" hadn't taken more than ten minutes. Honestly they spent more time tying up the survivors and alerting the local authorities.
So here they were heading home. Even moving at the pace they were, they were still roughly five days away from Konoha; although, they were taking a shortcut plotted by Sakura that could, in theory, cut a day or so of travel from their time. So with their current course and the cold weather being the natural deterrent that it was, the threat of ambushes was relatively small, so they didn't need to set up a watch. But this far from their home village it wasn't a good idea to advertise where they were either, so they couldn't light a fire.
It was going to be a long, cold trip home.
Naruto heard some rustling noises coming from Sakura's tent and then footsteps. Out of caution, he quietly grasped a kunai.
"N-N-Naruto," Sakura's voice called out to him. "Are you awake?"
He said nothing.
There was a pause and then he heard her say, "Kakashi-sensei has pink toenails."
Naruto let out a relieved huff of breath. That was one of their codes that everything was okay.
"I'm awake, Sakura-chan. J-j-j-just cold."
There was another very long pause, and then he heard her quietly ask, "Can I come in?"
Naruto frowned at the question, but answered, "Sure." He sat up as she unzipped the tent flap and came inside. She was bundled up with her own blanket. She sat down on crossed legs facing him, the thick blanket coming up to her eyes and making her look like a pink-topped teepee with green eyes. With a turn she then quickly zipped up the tent again.
"What's wrong, Sakura-chan?"
"I'm c-c-cold." She wasn't kidding either. She was shivering much more than he had been. He couldn't stand to see her suffering like that.
"I'll start a fire."
"We shouldn't do that."
"It's okay. I'll keep watch while you sleep. I'm not really that tired anyway," he lied. As he moved toward the tent flap he felt her suddenly grab his arm.
"Baka! We spent the entire day tree hopping. You need your rest."
He smiled at her. "I'll be fine. Don't worry about me, Sakura-chan."
"Sit down!" she ordered him. He obeyed. Arguing with her when she got like that was pointless. Besides, on these missions she technically outranked him. Although he had a suspicion that even if that weren't the case, he would follow her orders anyway, if only to avoid her wrath.
She huffed in annoyance and then took a deep breath. "I have another idea."
"Okay. What is it?"
She hesitated before answering in a quiet, shy voice. "We should stay in the same tent tonight."
Naruto could have sworn he felt his heart literally skip a beat.
We should stay in the same tent," she repeated a little louder.
Naruto thought about what she said, blinked several times and then shook his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts.
"What?" he asked again, stupidly.
"Baka." She took a shaky, shivering breath, and her teeth clattered. "We need to keep warm, and we can't risk a fire. So we need to share body heat. It's a common survival tactic."
"Naruto!" The eyes of the Sakura Teepee glared at him and spoke his name in that slow, menacing way that told him he had done something either stupid or perverted and deserved to be punished violently. He flinched, expecting some form of retribution that never came.
"Don't get any ideas," she said in a voiced laced with cold steel. "This isn't about anything other than survival. We could catch pneumonia at the very least like this. Until we make it over the mountains, we need to be careful and stay warm."
"O-o-o-okay," he said, stuttering nervously. Sleeping next to Sakura-chan, even under the circumstances, was like a dream come true. Still his survival instincts kicked in enough for him to know that he should be very careful with his next actions.
After a moment, he moved over to the far side of his tent, allowing her to lay down on the other side. He hoped his actions didn't appear over eager. She would pound him into paste for that.
Thankfully, she withheld the violence and laid down on the other side of the tent, facing him. She curled herself into a ball, just as he had. While it was too dark to see any real detail, Naruto could hear that she was shivering almost violently.
"Good night, Sakura-chan."
"G-good n-n-night, Naruto."
Naruto's tent was never meant to be shared by two people. In fact the tents were rarely used unless it was raining. Tents restricted a ninja's movements, making it harder to respond to a sneak attack. On a night like this though, it would hopefully provide a little extra warmth.
But regardless of all that, it was still a small tent. Even with Sakura and Naruto laying on their sides with their backs against the fabric, they were really only separated by about less than two feet. If they both laid flat on their backs, they would only be separated by inches, if that. As it was, their bent knees kept bumping into each other.
In theory, just being this close in an enclosed area should eventually warm them up considerably. Naruto, in fact, was already feeling slightly warmer. Of course, he supposed that could have just been because of the blush he had worn since Sakura laid down next to him. A blush he was thankful she couldn't make out in the darkness.
But if Sakura was feeling warmer, she didn't show it. She was chattering her teeth and shivering as much as she had when she first came in. And she also seemed to be obsessed with warming her hands. She would cup them and blow her warm breath into them. And then she would spend several minutes rubbing them together.
When Naruto shifted his blanket around him, Sakura apologized for making so much noise and not letting him sleep. Then she continued with her routine for another ten minutes.
All his life Naruto had never been able to sit by and watch Sakura suffer. It was hard-coded into his personality and everyone who had ever known him knew that. So it really shouldn't have come as such a shock to her when she felt his hands wrap around hers. But shocked she was, so much so that she let out a small gasp.
"Shh. It's okay, Sakura-chan."
And then he started to rub her hands.
His hands weren't that much warmer than hers, not really. But to Sakura it felt almost as warm and inviting as a cup of freshly brewed tea. And although it would have been very easy to stop him, she didn't. It was an intimate gesture, but in the end she felt it was also a harmless one. She trusted Naruto with her life after all, so it was easy to trust him to not go too far.
And besides, it felt really, really good. Not that she would admit that out loud.
The rubbing continued for a while until Naruto hesitantly brought her hand close to his lips and breathed into them. Sakura blushed and a warm tingle went up her spine.
"Is this okay?" he asked her in a low, husky whisper.
"Yes," she answered quickly.
'It was very much okay!' her inner self thought.
Sakura sent the mental equivalent of a shove to her hidden other half, ordering her to behave. Something she found herself doing more and more lately for reasons she was terrified to dwell on.
And that was the new pattern. Naruto would rub her hands for a few minutes and then breathe into them. And each time he did, Sakura would feel a little warmer. After a while her teeth stopped chattering, soon after that her shivers even stopped. She started relaxing more and more, and soon found her eyelids growing heavy. She didn't fight it.
The last thing she remembered clearly was her self taking a moment to say, "Arigato, Naruto-kun." And then she slipped into unconsciousness.
Naruto realized almost immediately that she had fallen asleep. He rubbed her hands for a few more minutes and then brought them to her lips. Feeling daring, instead of breathing into her hands he placed a feather-light kiss on her fingertips. Sakura stirred slightly and made a small, quiet noise of approval that he was barely able to hear.
He finally stopped rubbing her hands. He thought about pulling his hands away, but decided not to. Hopefully, Sakura wouldn't get mad at him in the morning.
Naruto closed his eyes and drifted quietly to sleep, a small smile on his face.
The next morning, Sakura woke up in a very awkward position. Somehow, for some reason she couldn't fathom, she ended up laying on her stomach with one of her hands grabbing something firm and warm. Not fully awake Sakura started to squeeze whatever was in her hand. It was then that she felt it shift and move.
'It's alive!' her inner self screamed in fear.
And consciousness slammed into her being. Unfortunately, when she came to, she didn't let go, so when she was finally able to asses the danger she was in, she realized something terrifying.
She was holding Naruto's cheeks, but not the ones on his face.
For ten seconds, she did nothing. And then for some reason that she would never be able to explain to herself fully – even if she lived for a thousand years – she squeezed again.
Thankfully, Naruto didn't react except to mumble something incomprehensible. And it was then she realized something else. Naruto's face was only inches away from hers.
So to summarize: Sakura was grabbing Naruto's butt and was only inches away from his face. At least one of those two things needed to be corrected immediately!
And, amazingly, she chose the wrong option.
She threw her head back away from Naruto's face violently, but without having let go of him first. This resulted in them actually being pulled closer together around their middle. And this time there was too much movement and fuss for Naruto not to notice.
He smacked his lips and opened his eyes, while Sakura remained frozen in fear, a blank look of horror on her face.
"Oh, Sakura-chan," he said sleepily. He took in their proximity and her hand on his rear. "Still dreaming, I guess. Good morning, Dream-Sakura-chan. I'm still sleepy."
He yawned and then went back to sleep.
After another ten seconds, Sakura was able to breathe again. With careful forethought she extracted herself slowly from Naruto's tent. She went outside, tree-hopped for several minutes. And when she was sure she was a safe distance away, she yelled in frustration and slammed her head into a towering tree – ancient oak met kunoichi over-sized forehead.
The poor tree never stood a chance.
When Sakura returned to their camp, she found Naruto sealing his tent supplies into his scrolls and munching absentmindedly on a piece of jerky. Despite a little blushing and some nervous chuckling, he gave off no indication that he remembered that morning's incident. The blushing could have just been about sharing the tent and warming her hands the previous night.
Or at least, Sakura really hoped so. It would have been a bother to murder Naruto and have to bury his corpse somewhere discreet.
So despite a little bit of awkwardness they both unconsciously wanted to treat the previous night as a non-issue. They were after all friends, partners, comrades-in-arms. They have shared many things together. It just so happened that in order to stay warm that night, they needed to share a tent. It really shouldn't be a big deal.
Except that for some reason it was. And Sakura desperately wanted to understand it.
As they set off tree-hopping towards their home, Sakura tried to analyze the situation from every angle she could.
Was it just that he was male? Is that what made it different? No, that probably wasn't it. To test that possibility, she tried thinking about going through the same situation only with other men she knew. It probably would have been equally as awkward, sure, but she didn't think it would have left such an impression on her.
Was it because she was uncomfortable around Naruto? No, that idea was shot down immediately. There was no one on this planet that she trusted as implicitly as him. He was occasionally a pervert, sure, but a relatively harmless one. And that was despite his years of training with Jiraiya. Besides, he had proven on multiple occasions that he would literally prefer to die than hurt her.
Was it because she found Naruto attractive? This made her pause.
This wasn't a new concept to her. She had admitted it to herself before. Naruto was attractive, but then again so were most of the ninja males she knew. And while the thought would occasionally make her blush, it had never gotten in the way of their friendship or their duty. She kept rolling the thought around in her mind. And while she didn't think it was just because she found him attractive, she had to admit that it might be part of it.
Was she just lonely? This also made her pause.
She supposed she should have been lonely. They had been far from home, for a long time now. And while she did feel homesick occasionally, she couldn't really say she was lonely. She had Naruto with her after all. The man made it his life mission to make sure she smiled at least twice a day. And even when he wasn't trying to make her happy, she would find herself laughing and smiling at his antics. He was simply a joy to have around.
So, no, it wasn't because she was lonely.
Was it because she liked Naruto? Or even that she might love him?
She didn't have an answer to those questions, and that scared her. Only Sasuke had ever truly made her feel like that before, and of course that had ended horrifically. His rejection and then later defection from Konoha, had scarred her deeply.
Sakura felt something tighten painfully in her abdomen. That was the scary part. Losing Sasuke had felt like losing a part of herself. It had been painful, yes, but she was able to pick up the pieces and keep going. But if she somehow lost Naruto –
The clench came back stronger than ever. She didn't even want to complete the thought.
They had been traveling for hours and she still wasn't closer to an answer. And that was definitely a problem because it was already colder than it was yesterday, and the sun was about to set.
In the end, all she could conclude was that it was Naruto, and somehow he always made things different.
Naruto was removing his supplies from his scrolls when Sakura approached him.
He looked up to her and gave her a strong smile. "Yes, Sakura-chan? Do you need something?"
Sakura paused at those words. "I was just thinking that it's going to be really cold tonight. And I was wondering if we could share a tent again?" she asked with a nervous tremor in her voice.
Naruto stared at her with a blank expression on his face.
"Of course, I mean, if you were, you know, uncomfortable about it, then, then just forget I asked. I won't bother you again," Sakura said while getting more embarrassed with each mumbled word. She swore at one point she actually started shrinking.
"It's okay!" Naruto said, much louder than he really intended to. And now he was embarrassed. "I-I mean, it's okay with me. You don't have to be embarrassed. I just thought you were mad at me or something." His last words trickled out of his mouth quietly.
"Mad at you?"
"Yeah, you just seemed so quiet today. I thought I might have upset you."
"Oh, Naruto, that wasn't about you. I just – I had a lot on my mind."
"Yeah?" he asked her, his doubt clearly evident.
"Yeah – we're just so close to home, and I haven't seen everyone in a while," she said, trailing off.
"Oh. Okay." He smiled at her, having been assured.
To Sakura, the problem with lying to Naruto wasn't that he wouldn't believe her. It was that he always would. And the fact that he could trust anyone so whole-heartedly, let alone her, just made her heart ache whenever she had to do it. It was rare that it happened, and usually it was over something very small, but it still made her feel like pond scum.
"Anyways, like I was saying, I think we should share a tent tonight. It's going to be really cold tonight. Hell, it's really cold now."
Naruto nodded reassuringly. "Yeah. Okay."
So then they went about setting up their camp. Occasionally they would look at one another and smile wanly or chuckle nervously. Then they would reassure one another that they were being silly. That this was really no big deal.
Even though they both felt differently.
Once their tent was put together, they ate a meal of jerky and washed it down with water from their canteens. It wasn't exactly a meal fit for kings. But they were bingo book renown ninja traveling in hostile territory, they had long ago learned to live without the little luxuries. And besides, the company, as usual, was impeccable.
They talked about home and their friends. They wondered about the things that had changed and the things that had stayed the same. The weather may have been dismally cold, but there was a happiness and excitement in the air that warmed them.
But soon enough it was time to get some rest. Naruto left Sakura alone so she could get ready for bed, leaving him to recheck the traps they had set. And just that quickly all the anxiety that she had forgotten about earlier came rushing back.
There wasn't much she could do to get ready for bed except relieve herself, brush her teeth and wash her face a little bit. She felt self-conscious and began wishing there was a river or lake nearby to bathe herself at least a little. But of course that was just an idle fantasy, she might have well wished for a hot spring while she was at it. So instead she crawled into the tent, made herself comfortable, and began to fidget.
Naruto for his own part made sure to check every single trap at least twice. He didn't want to risk interrupting Sakura doing anything private. Her wrath should anything untoward happen would likely be quick and without mercy.
And that was why he was so confused.
Sakura had always been quick to brutally punish him for any perceived transgression. Now even he had to admit that she had mellowed over the years and was less likely to beat him half to death, unless she suspected he had purposefully crossed over the line; but, well, his entire problem lately was that he was never really sure what "the line" was anymore.
It wasn't just last night, although that was a big part of his current confusion. It was just that there had been moments lately where they would get close to each other, not touching usually, but a closeness, a proximity, that was acceptable, that was comfortable, indeed that seemed to even be enjoyed, if he was reading things correctly. Of course, he didn't want to presume anything, which is why he almost always let her be the one to get near first. Well, that and he didn't want to have his bones shattered.
Naruto shivered as an image of Sakura punching him with all her power flashed in his mind. Sweet Kami, she was freakishly strong.
Paranoid, Naruto turned his head left and then right. Thankfully not seeing Sakura, he sighed in relief. He was smart enough to never say thoughts like that out loud anymore. But sometimes he swore she could read his mind.
Meanwhile back at the camp, for some strange reason Sakura's eyebrow instinctively twitched in annoyance.
"I sense something," she said to herself in a quiet, menacing voice.
Naruto went back to the camp slowly. He performed his nightly routine, getting ready for bed and then finally approached the tent. He took a last calming breath and reminded himself that this honestly wasn't that big of a deal.
And then he prayed that he wouldn't do anything biologically embarrassing.
Naruto opened the flap and crawled into the tent, mindful to go to the side opposite of Sakura. Bemusedly, he noticed that she was in teepee mode, her blanket wrapped around her body and hanging just below her eyes. She was already shivering a little. With all of his worries assaulting him, he failed to notice just how severely the temperature had dropped over the hour.
"Are you okay?"
She nodded. "Just really cold."
He laid down and pulled his blanket tightly around him.
"Good night, Sakura-chan."
"G-Good night, Naruto." With that the teepee laid down on its side to get some sleep.
After a couple of hours the temperature had dropped severely. Traveling during the day itself had been chilly, but manageable. But now in the dead of the night, it was unbearable. Even Naruto had started shivering pretty badly. And just like the night before, they're hands were touching. Only now it wasn't enough.
The previous night had been almost as cold as this, but at least it had been peaceful. Now a fierce wind was howling, pushing against the tent and producing screeching wails that flung through the trees. Even if they wanted to start a fire there was no way they could control it safely, assuming they could get one burning in the first place.
It was going to be a long, freezing, sleepless night. Their only consolation was that at least it wasn't raining. But neither wanted to be the one to actually vocalize that thought. After all, sometimes Kami-sama had a mean sense of humor.
Within their tent the two ninja shivered. If there had been any significant light they would have been amazed to find that they could see their breaths leave their mouths like steam from hot tea.
"This isn't w-working anymore," Sakura said.
Naruto, agreeing, closed his eyes and made a decision.
"S-Sakura. Turn around."
"Just do it."
Confused, but too tired and cold to argue. She rolled over so that she was facing away from Naruto. She heard some rustling behind her, and then felt Naruto's light blanket being laid on top of her.
"Naruto? What are you doing? You'll freeze!"
Naruto said nothing, and before Sakura could turn around to question him again, she felt the blankets behind her being tucked loose. Her back felt a sudden chill as they were pulled up past her body. That ended quickly when something solid and warm pressed itself behind her.
"Naruto?" Sakura asked in a quiet, insecure voice.
"It's too cold," was his only answer.
Sakura nodded weakly. "Oh. Okay."
Inwardly, however, her thoughts were bouncing back-and-fourth like some crazed game of ping pong. She trusted Naruto, and knew that he wouldn't try to take advantage of the situation. That wasn't really the problem. No, the problem was that lately she wasn't sure she trusted herself.
They weren't actually touching. Their bodies were simply very close to one another. Of course all it would take was for either of them to shift slightly. Idly a part of Sakura wondered what it would feel like if Naruto threw an arm around her and pulled her in close. She blushed at the thought. He didn't of course, and oddly she wasn't sure how she felt about that.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked her.
"Yes. I'm fine."
"I'm sorry about this."
She hesitated, but then said, "Don't be."
They stayed like that for a while. The atmosphere was tense since both tried desperately to not make the other uncomfortable. They were getting warmer, but they weren't falling asleep. The cacophony of the wind screeching in the trees wasn't helping either.
After a long while, Sakura noticed that Naruto kept shifting slightly behind her.
"Are you okay, Naruto?"
"Yes. I just—" His voice trailed off.
"Don't lie to me," Sakura said in a small and quiet voice. It wasn't an order, but a desperate plead. It was a tone of voice she rarely used and never consciously. And Naruto who was never good at denying Sakura anything in the first place, always found himself crumbling to it.
"Well," he said, but then hesitated. He wanted to be careful here. "It's just that I don't usually sleep on my side. I'll be fine. It'll just take me longer to sleep."
"How do you usually sleep?"
"On my back. Sometimes on my stomach. The blankets are too small for that though. Like I said, I'll be fine."
An idea danced across Sakura's mind and she blushed. Steeling herself, she turned around, facing him. It was dark, so she didn't see the look of astonishment that crossed Naruto's face when she gently, but firmly placed her hand on his chest and pushed him onto his back.
She said nothing as she laid down on her side, next to him. On a whim, she wrapped her arms around his arm.
"Is this okay?"
Naruto desperately didn't want to think about what parts of Sakura his arm was touching. But he did anyway.
"Are you comfortable?" she asked.
Comfortable? He couldn't remember being more freaked out in his life!
"Yes, I'm fine."
Sleep! He had to sleep! He needed to stop thinking about anything else and sleep!
A particular part of his anatomy decided not to listen. He prayed she wouldn't notice.
Sakura, for her part was feeling very comfortable. Something about the warmth of Naruto's arm and his smell—
Sakura drifted off to sleep.
Naruto, meanwhile, simply laid there, not moving and staring up at nothing. And for the first time in his entire life, he wondered if Sakura was evil. It would explain so much.
Naruto was tired, very tired. He hadn't sleep at all, just drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the night. But he didn't care. How could he? He got to spend the night basically snuggling with Haruno Sakura. It was almost everything he ever wanted.
If only she loved him.
And with that depressing thought, he coasted into unconsciousness again.
When he came back, Sakura was still there next to him, still snuggled into his arm like some sort of pillow, still snoring adorably, still smelling absolutely wonderful.
And still the only person he had ever wanted to share his life with.
His heart broke a little at the thought that in a few hours this would be over. The morning would come, they would break camp, they would return to Konoha and they would pretend this never happened.
Or at least, he hoped he could pretend. He didn't want to hurt or confuse her.
A shiver went down Naruto's body that had nothing to do with the cold air. The movement disturbed Sakura, and for a second he thought she would wake-up. Instead she made a noise that sounded almost like a purr and snuggled his arm harder. And then she adjusted herself and laid her head on his shoulder, using it like a pillow.
Naruto stared at her incredulously for a few moments before looking up at nothing again. He smiled sadly and then closed his eyes.
When Sakura finally woke up that morning it was to find the tent empty. She had been expecting to wake up next to Naruto. A chill that had nothing to do with the crisp morning air went down her back. She stretched quietly, getting some of the kinks out of her body, and then made her way outside.
Naruto was sitting cross-legged on a mossy rock. Judging from his closed eyes and posture, Sakura knew he was meditating. He would do that from time to time. Most people wouldn't think he would be the meditating type, since he was so hyper most of the time. They would be even more surprised to know he did this long before he even began his sage training.
Even she had been surprised, although, in retrospect, she really shouldn't have been. After all, meditating was a way for Naruto to relax and train at the same time. How could he resist that?
Sakura smiled wistfully at that thought.
Naruto's eyes opened. "Good morning, Sakura-chan."
"Good morning. I didn't disturb you, did I?"
"I was finishing up, anyways. My clones should be reporting in, any minute now."
Sakura nodded. That was something Naruto did every morning. He would send out ten to fifteen clones and have them scout in all directions looking for anything interesting.
A distant look entered Naruto's features, and then he blinked several times. Sakura knew that meant that he was processing memories he received from his clones.
"Huh," he said with a tone of surprise. "It looks like we've been making better distance than we thought. The mountain path is only a few miles from here. If we hurry, we could be on the other side by tonight. We might even make it to the Valley of the End."
Sakura was surprised. "Wow, I guess that shortcut through the forest really did work."
Naruto nodded. He stood up and turned away from Sakura, making his way to the tent. From over his shoulder he said, "Yeah, we did great. Just think, tonight we won't have to worry about the cold weather."
"Yeah," Sakura said, with an odd tone in her voice. "That's – that's great."
Naruto's prediction had been mostly accurate. In fact, they made better time than even he thought possible. They actually reached the Valley of the End by mid-afternoon. Their speed could be attributed to two factors:
One, they were both desperate to find a body of water where they could properly bathe themselves. It had been three days since they had been near a real one. Their shortcut had led them away from any lakes, or rivers.
And two, they were both feeling incredibly nervous around one another. And in their anxiety, they pushed themselves to move faster than normal. After all, it was a better alternative than having to face the other.
They could have pushed on even farther, but the thought of a nice relaxing bath was too tempting to both of them. So they made a quick camp, set off towards opposite ends of the lake and took their time with as long of a bath, as they could manage, with the light waning as it was already.
The water was invigorating, although not exactly relaxing. It was nearly winter, after all. And even in a perpetually warm place like Fire Country, the temperature did drop. Still they managed to get clean.
Sakura arrived back at the camp first. The night had already set. She debated with herself about setting a fire. They were officially within their own borders. Of course, that didn't necessarily mean that they were safe.
She hesitated for a few minutes, but then she sighed, and began preparations for a fire. With a fire they could take turns with a watch, and sleep without tents. The fire could expose them to potential enemies, but with one of them on watch while the other was nearby, they should be prepared in case of an ambush. It was a well though out, tactical decision that should protect them.
It also meant they weren't going to sleep next to each other.
Sakura paused in her preparations, and sighed. That was irrelevant and shouldn't bother her.
But it did.
Naruto himself was feeling much more conflicted. The first night had been confusing, but last night had been torturous. He had spent the entire time wanting to run away from her, as much as he wanted to draw her closer.
It was just so damn confusing. Sakura was just, well, not acting like Sakura. And that infuriated him. Few things upset him more than when he thought people weren't being true to themselves. And at the end of the day, despite how she was acting lately, Haruno Sakura did not feel that way about Uzumaki Naruto. Wishing and hoping didn't change that fact of his existence.
Naruto clenched his fist and resisted the urge to pound it into something. With age, had come restraint, albeit not a lot of it. Rage, properly focused and directed, was a useful tool for battle, but had little place elsewhere in his life.
After some deep, cleansing breaths. The anger and bitterness subsided, leaving only some trace feelings of confusion and a familiar ache of sadness.
It was just for survival. It hadn't meant anything other than that. Tomorrow, they would be home, and they could move past this awkward phase and they could be the same friends they always were.
It should have been a reassuring thought.
But it wasn't.
When Naruto returned to the camp, Sakura's fire was already blazing. He had really lost track of time, trying to sort through his emotions. At least he had enough foresight to do most of his soul searching after he bathed. Had he stayed in the water, he'd be a Naruto-flavored Popsicle by now.
As it was, the fire was warm and inviting, and Naruto immediately found a place near it. He placed his hands close enough to the licking flames to feel a gentle warmth along his fingers. The temperature was no where near as bad as it had been the last couple days, but it was certainly cool enough to allow him to appreciate the comforting feel of the small blaze.
"We'll be home tomorrow," Naruto said, with a little forced enthusiasm in his voice.
"Yes. We will," Sakura said back, hesitantly, but with some forced enthusiasm of her own.
Neither one noticed the false cheer.
They spoke to each other for another half hour, but this time their conversation lagged and stalled occasionally, giving way to awkward silences and nervous chuckles. But they were so caught up in their own discomfort, that they didn't notice the occasional blush, or wringing of the hands, or brushing of a hand to wipe away a sweaty brow. Small things to civilians, perhaps, but large warning signs for ninja.
Uzumaki Naruto and Haruno Sakura – two of the most feared ninja of Konoha, apprentices to two of the Legendary Sannin, each labeled as an S-Rank target in the various bingo books that populated their world, with a combined bounty that could feed a small village for months, who had faced some of the deadliest ninja in the world only to come away victorious from each encounter – were terrified of their own feelings.
Mostly, because they didn't understand them.
And later, when Sakura laid down to sleep, after Naruto offered to take first watch, they both had basically the same thought, at roughly the same time.
Please, don't let me screw this up.
That morning, when they had picked up their camp, there was an obvious tension in the air again. And both of them were afraid of it. Their relationship was different now. That much was obvious to both of them.
They could go forward, or they could stay where they were now, but going back to being "just friends" was an impossibility.
And, now, Sakura was starting to suspect that even that concept had been an illusion all along. Their friendship had always been an intense one, fueled by powerful feelings. Although, admittedly, not always positive ones. She had been so cruel to him when they were younger – a regret that she had spent years trying to make up for. In truth, making up for her past aggressions was something that still drove her.
And, yet, Naruto had forgiven her.
Except that, no. That wasn't really true. Naruto had always acted as if there was never anything to forgive in the first place.
They knew so much about the other, and worked so well together. Anticipating each other's thoughts and actions had become second nature to them. So much so, that it was sometimes difficult to remember who thought of what first.
No team of ninja, in their entire generation, were anywhere near as in sync with each other. This made them powerful, deadly and feared.
They trusted each other. Relied on each other. Protected each other. Would die, without a second of hesitation, for each other.
And most importantly, they lived for each other.
But did that mean they loved each other?
It was hard to say.
But Sakura did know one thing for sure. If what they shared was not love. She wasn't sure she could possibly handle the real thing. Or even if she would want to.
Sakura was a woman who denied herself many things, because the few things in her life she had ever truly wanted, she had lost. And she could not lose Naruto. If she did, she was sure it would destroy her, because, honestly, she wasn't sure if she even knew how to live without him, anymore.
She needed him too much.
They had tried simply walking at a leisurely pace back to Konoha, but they were both far too nervous, so they took to the trees again. Traveling like that, they expected to be at the gates just after noon.
But although they were moving fast, they took occasional breaks. After all, at this point, there really was no hurry. And whenever they did take a break, they spent their time trying not to get caught staring at the other.
For Naruto this was particularly frustrating because he just couldn't understand what it all meant. Oh, he knew what he wanted it to mean, but he had become used to the static nature of their relationship for far too long to hope that it might progress further now.
His best hope was that when they made it back to Konoha, things would calm down enough that they could at least be comfortable around each other again. He couldn't bear the thought that she would want to end their partnership, or worse, their friendship.
But what if she actually did want more?
Naruto nearly missed a tree branch when he thought that, but recovered quickly and without hurting himself. Thankfully, Sakura was leading and hadn't seen his klutzy mistake.
If Sakura wanted more—
If she wanted more, well, then he would be the happiest ninja that ever lived. For a second, he allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of holding her, kissing her, making love to her, going out on dates, teasing each other, laughing, playing, getting married—
Naruto shook his head to clear his mind. If he thought about it anymore, he was sure he would get depressed. It was just too much to hope for. A life like that with Sakura was a dream. And one he couldn't achieve through mere hard work and determination.
What they had now, even as fragile as it was, was beyond what he ever could have really hoped for. Sakura was an amazing, vibrant, passionate woman. He had known that from the very first moment he saw her. That she was willing to share any part of her life with him was an amazing gift that he treasured.
Hoping for more beyond that was just him being selfish and delusional. She wasn't under any obligation to feel the same way he did.
He was just going to have to learn to accept that. Again.
They continued traveling through the morning. And, eventually, they finally got their first glimpse of Konoha through a small clearing of the trees.
They both stopped for a moment to take it all in. Their smiles were ear-to-ear.
"Sakura," he said reverently, going as far as dropping the usual suffix – something he did when he wanted to be completely serious with her.
Sakura smiled at him, and in a moment of bravery, she put her hand in his and squeezed it.
They both turned to each other, still smiling.
Emotionally, they were standing at the edge of a precipice. And there was a chance that he could lose her forever. And that sobering thought gave him one last push of courage.
If he was going to lose her, then he wanted one last memory to treasure her by.
Naruto moved his hand up to her face, pulled her closer to him, and then slipped his thumb underneath her forehead protector. He lifted it up just an inch, and moved his face next to hers.
And then, very gently, very delicately, and very lovingly, he placed a soft, lingering kiss on her forehead.
When he pulled away from her, her smile was gone and replaced with a look of utter amazement. For as long as he had known her, he had always wanted to do that. Something about her forehead just made him want to kiss it.
Naruto tilted his head to the side and smiled impishly at her.
And then he took off like a shot, his laughter echoing behind him.
Sakura smiled at that and then loudly cracked her knuckles.
A race, huh? We can do that.
She took off behind him. Her laughter was just as loud as his.
Naruto laid in his bed, staring moodily at the ceiling. As predicted, he was already feeling miserable.
He and Sakura had laughed and ran pretty much all the way to the Tower of the Hokage. It was only once they were there that they sobered up and began acting like professionals again. They reported in to Tsunade, telling her everything that they couldn't say before, even using summons. The debriefing took hours.
Once they were done, they had walked quietly outside again. The earlier stress and tension had returned again.
Finally, Sakura spoke.
"Naruto, we need to talk."
He swore he felt his heart break right there. Thankfully, before he could make a fool of himself by breaking down and crying, they were interrupted by Ino and Sakura's mom. They had heard that she had arrived, and came to see her.
After the initial pleasantries, Naruto took advantage of the situation to excuse himself. He all but ran back home.
Surprisingly, he didn't actually cry. He supposed he was saving that for when Sakura and he finally did talk.
A part of him wanted to be angry, but he just didn't have it in him. Instead he just resigned himself to his fate. He and Sakura had crossed a line, and so now they would just have to give each other some space and hope that in time their friendship, at least, could somehow be salvaged.
Naruto continued staring at the ceiling, his thoughts getting darker and darker.
Then there was a small knock at his door.
Naruto got up mechanically, and opened it to find Sakura standing there looking nervous. He supposed now was as good a time as any to have his heart broken. He stepped inside so she could come in.
"Um, Naruto, I – We – That is, I–" Sakura trailed off, and then sighed. She took one deep breath, steeled herself and then grabbed both of his hands. She looked directly into his eyes, and then spoke.
Naruto's eyes widened. He had been looking directly into her eyes and saw something there when she said that – something terrifying, something unbelievable, something amazing.
Naruto let go of her hands, and walked past her to close his door. When he turned back to her, he saw the obvious fear in her eyes. But it wasn't fear of hurting him, it was fear of rejection.
Without a word, he pulled her into an intimate hug, holding her close, their faces mere inches away from each other. He smiled at her, and she brought her arms around his neck, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do.
There was only one thing he could possibly say.
"I'm cold, too."
And then he kissed her.
And she kissed back.
It was better than either one had ever dreamed.
Dedicated to my wife who kept poking at me to finish this story because she thought Sakura teepee was hilarious.