Sasuke trudged down the slushy streets of Shimo, hands shoved firmly in his pockets, eyes trained to the two feet of ground right in front of him. At either edge of his vision, he caught glimpses of his teammates.
On his left, Naruto was strutting down the street like he owned it, winter cloak slung behind him, waving to anyone who looked his way like he was the goddamn daimyo or something. His overbearing cheerfulness made Sasuke's head hurt—too bright.
On his right, Sakura was flitting nervously in and out of his sightline—she was wringing her hands together and shooting him concerned looks. He sighed. Why couldn't they just leave him alone? The delivery of their mission's scroll to the client had been accomplished and now all he wanted to do was head home for some peace and quiet.
But nothing ever came easy for Sasuke, as Kakashi proved yet again by placing his large hands on the two boys' shoulders, stopping Team Seven in their tracks.
"Job well done, team. I think we've all earned a bit of…leisure time." Sasuke was just about to ask what exactly he meant by leisure time when Kakashi's gaze trailed from the team to several giggling women peeking from behind parasols—their painted faces and luridly-colored clothes were at odds with the monochromatic landscape of the Land of Frost. "Just be sure to meet back up at the inn before dark."
Sasuke was about to resume his trek back to the inn—leisure time...more like wasted time, he scoffed—when Kakashi called him over. Suspicion loomed in his narrowed eyes as he met Kakashi halfway between his tittering companions and the rest of Team Seven. He'd better not be looking for company on his ridiculous adventure, he thought—Sasuke wanted no part of Kakashi's twisted hobbies. He could feel the holes being burned into his back by Naruto and Sakura. Sasuke was sure they were both jealous—but for completely different reasons.
Naruto was always whining about how Sasuke was Kakashi's favorite. If Naruto would take a minute to think, he'd see that the main reason Kakashi took Sasuke aside to teach him Chidori was because of his Sharingan—the technique was near-impossible to pull off without it. The fact that he was clearly the most talented member of Team Seven might be another reason, Sasuke thought with a derisive snicker. If Naruto thought otherwise, maybe he should step up and prove it.
Sakura, on the other hand, was jealous because every step Sasuke took toward Kakashi brought him closer to those three garish women his sensei was charming and further away from her. The girl needed to rethink her priorities—sure, stalking him might improve her stealth, but she was lacking in so many other ways. A real commitment to some rigorous training should be her main concern, not wasting her time swooning over him.
He raised an eyebrow at his teacher, letting him know that he'd come as close as he cared to and Kakashi should make his intentions known before Sasuke changed his mind. Shaking his head, Kakashi took the few steps to close the gap between him and the boy. Leaning down to fix Sasuke with a meaningful stare, he said, "Spend some time with Naruto and Sakura today. They are your teammates."
Sasuke turned his face away, indicating his disinterest, but Kakashi was relentless.
"Consider it today's mission, Sasuke. You have to figure out a way to connect with at least one of them or I'll leave you in Konoha during our next mission."
That got Sasuke's attention and he quickly turned a furrowed brow in his teacher's direction. "You wouldn't dare leave me behind," he challenged.
"Oh, wouldn't I? Just try me," he warned dangerously. Straightening up, Kakashi waved to Naruto and Sakura as he shoved Sasuke back in their direction. "You kids have fun!"
Sasuke quietly seethed as he watched the pervert proffer his arms to the girls and saunter away. Being left behind while the other two went on a mission was out of the question—he needed every meaningful assignment he could get in order to become stronger. Itachi was out there somewhere…waiting for him.
Her nervous stuttering woke him from his dark reverie. Apparently, Sakura had reached the limit of her ability to stay away from him. He lifted his lids slowly to pin her with a dull stare.
"Um." She tugged on her heavy cloak and squirmed under his gaze. "Do you want to go to the carnival? I hear they have ice sculptures," she said, her eyes shining with hope.
"No," he said before he even processed the question. He expelled a long, bored sigh that billowed like smoke in the freezing air. "Annoying," he said under his breath as he passed her. He heard her gasp—when would she get the idea that he had better things to do than waste his time on stupid carnivals?
Apparently, Naruto had noticed Sakura's distress and decided he would be her knight in shining armor. "Hey, you bastard! Take that back. Sakura-chan is not annoying. You are!"
"Nice comeback, loser."
Sasuke kept walking, knowing Naruto would shake his fist and chase him until the two came to blows and Sakura would cry and tell Naruto to leave Sasuke alone. Every mission ended the same way. Same story, different town.
"Naruto," Sakura called.
Here it comes…but it was a little early for her defense, Sasuke thought.
"Would you like to go to the carnival? I hear they have the best takoyaki."
Sasuke froze mid-step. Wait—what did she say?
"Sure, Sakura-chan. Hey, maybe we can try sledding. I heard some kids talking about sledding on Mount Shimata."
"Shumisen, Naruto. Mount Shumisen," Sakura corrected, red-faced.
He was stunned. Were they…walking away from him? No. This was not the way it happened. He was the one who pushed them away. His legs started moving in their direction before he could stop himself.
"Oh, did you change your mind, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked, smiling sweetly.
"Hm." He shoved his hands back in his pockets and ignored her. He would go to the stupid carnival and get Kakashi off his back. He would not get left behind.
Around the next corner, Sasuke saw rows and rows of street vendors hawking everything from deep-fried food to hand-painted fans. He watched his teammates' smiles grow as they walked through the fair. Conversely, Sasuke's frown deepened the further they got into the brightly decorated streets—he hated crowds and these kinds of events drew plenty. Sasuke liked his space. He despised being touched—and being touched was practically unavoidable in crowds like these.
The first person he expected to touch him was Sakura. He braced for the inevitable tug on his arm as she tried to cajole him into playing games, eating candy or giving his opinion on some ridiculously girly item she intended to buy. Like a moth to the flame, Sakura drifted away from them and began examining silky furisodes. The brightly-colored garments were well out of her price range—they were several hundred ryō. Sasuke wondered why she bothered lingering over them so long.
He waited for her yank on his elbow and some irritating babble that would end with Sakura asking him what he thought of some intricately woven scrap of silk. When several minutes went by with no pulling, he searched the crowd of young women pawing through the furisodes for a hint of pink hair. Finally, he saw her in the back of the store.
Watching from a distance, Sasuke observed as Sakura shook her head at the salesman's relentless attempts to get her to try one on. Carefully picking through the crowd to get closer, he heard the vendor coo over her unusual coloring. Sasuke snorted at the slick man's assurances that she would look like a princess in a forest green kimono. Her face turned from pink to bright red and Sasuke knew she'd heard his derisive noise—he was sure she would be running from the store in tears very soon.
However, Naruto chose that exact moment to wrap his arm around Sasuke's neck and drag him toward a bug racing booth. Struggling to witness her reaction, Sasuke gaped when he saw Sakura grab the silky, green dress and disappear into a changing room.
After an hour of watching the idiot bet on bugs, fish for chicken and stuff his face with every food item at the fair, Sasuke began to wonder where his other teammate had gotten to. He was about to tell Naruto to go look for her, when he saw a flash of pink at the candy counter.
He stalked closer, ready to chastise her for vanishing, when he saw twin boys spinning confections for her as she giggled and clapped with approval. He froze at the sight of her delighted expression as they twirled melted sugar into lacy hearts and graceful animals on sticks that they pressed into her hands. When she reached for her wallet, they shook their heads in unison and pointed to their puckered lips. That got him moving as he dove into the sea of people, pushing through the crowd until he stood directly in front of Sakura.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
"S-Sasuke-kun?" She looked surprised.
"Hey, buddy. We were talking to her first," said one of the twins as they glared at Sasuke.
He shot them both a withering look as he slid his arm behind Sakura's back, pushing her away from the booth and toward Naruto. He ground his teeth as she twisted her head back toward the boys to shout goodbye and wiggle her fingers at them.
"Hey, Sakura-chan! Where'd you get the candy?" Naruto asked, eying up her treats.
She grinned and handed a swan-shaped taffy to her blond friend. "Over there," she said, pointing. "Those boys were so nice and really talented," she added, nodding at Naruto and sucking on her candy heart. Sasuke folded his arms and looked away as his teammates strolled down the crowded street eating contentedly.
He hated sweets anyway.
Over the next three hours, Sasuke grew more and more angry. Sure, Naruto ticked him off when he tried to force-feed him octopus balls and taunted him with outrageous claims of victory in children's games of chance, but that wasn't what was eating at Sasuke. It was Sakura. She'd happily shopped, played, ate, and enjoyed the damn carnival without once begging or whining or dragging him by the arm to join her.
He narrowed his eyes as he watched her talking to an older Shimo boy who was renting sleds. The boy was looking her over carnivorously as Sakura, oblivious to the boy's attention, inspected the toboggans. When she turned to ask him a question, he came closer—too close—and smiled broadly at her. The boy laughed ridiculously loud at something she said and Sasuke scoffed—who did this local idiot think he was kidding with that act? When Sasuke saw Sakura tuck her hair behind her ear and blush, he stormed over to the kiosk.
"She doesn't need anything," Sasuke said to the idiot as he grabbed Sakura's wrist and began to lead her away. "Let's go."
As he dragged her away, Sasuke glanced at her out of the corner of his eye only to see her looking from him to the sleds and back again. He felt her tense up and was surprised at her resistance. When he turned toward her to reprimand her incautious behavior—she was just lucky he was around to protect her—he loosened his grip on her arm. She took the opportunity to wriggle free and take off running for the sledding hill.
He was stunned.
"I'll take a sled for two hours," she told the boy quickly, glancing frantically in Sasuke's direction. When the boy stood her sled in front of her, she slapped some ryō in his hand and ran with her toboggan up the mountain. Sasuke stood for several seconds at the foot of the mountain, thunderstruck at her defiance.
"That's some girlfriend you got there," the boy sneered at Sasuke. "Better tighten that leash before she gets away." He chuckled at his own joke.
Sasuke fumed as he climbed the path to the sledding hill on Mount Shumisen, his fists clenching. He was several minutes into his climb before he realized that boy thought Sakura was his girlfriend. Despite the freezing temperature and the fact that his feet were slogging through a foot of heavy snow, Sasuke felt waves of heat pass through his body at that thought. He quickly clamped down his response and reminded himself that he was angry at Sakura for…for…what was he angry about again?
"It's about time you decided to have some fun, Sasuke!" shouted Naruto as he came running up the path behind him. His nose and cheeks were apple red from excitement and cold and his breath came out in cloudy huffs. "Sledding is awesome! I'm faster than anyone!"
"Pfft. This isn't a skill, Naruto. You flop your stupid carcass on the sled and fall down the hill," Sasuke pointed out mockingly.
"You're just saying that because you suck at it."
"No. I'm saying that because it's true."
"Bet I can beat you to the top!" he yelled, pushing Sasuke down the hill as he took off running. Taken by surprise, Sasuke stumbled and fell in the wet snow. He channeled chakra to his legs, cursing as he tried to outrace the blond to the top, but the heavy blanket of snow that covered the path made Sasuke feel like he was running in quicksand.
"Shit," he bit out under his breath as he crested the peak, watching Naruto flip him off as he laughed his way down the hill on his sled.
"You know, Sasuke," he heard a voice say. "If you really want to catch up to Naruto, our combined weight would move much faster." He was shocked to see Sakura sitting on her sled at the summit. When he continued to gape at her, she tuned her gaze back to the snowy vista and sighed. "It's the second law of objects in motion."
It took him only a second to respond, but it felt like a lifetime went into the decision. He thought of Naruto laughing and all Sasuke wanted to do was win and rub it in his stupid face.
And then he thought of Sakura and her sled.
And how close they would be.
And that boy calling Sakura his girlfriend.
"I steer," he demanded. She scooted forward while he settled himself behind her. He pushed down the uncomfortable feelings that came with having her sit so close as he jammed his feet against the wooden bar that directed the sled's runners. Slinging the tow rope behind his back, he pushed off the ground behind him, starting their descent.
Now, he was focused on winning. Or he was until Sakura's hands gripped his legs just above the knee. He told himself that didn't make him gasp—it was his breath being taken away by the unexpected speed they were plummeting at. That's all.
The speed really was unexpected—and so was the snow flying off the mountain and into his face. They were moving so fast that Sasuke had to activate his Sharingan to slow things down a bit—he realized only now that he had no idea how to steer or where the path led.
They hit a patch of small hills which caused them to bounce in the air and quickly slam back down onto the toboggan's slats. Sakura grunted after every hit so Sasuke instinctively held her tighter with his legs, locking his knees to keep her secure. The last hill threw them so far up that they were airborne and, if not for Sasuke's grip on the tow rope, completely separated from their sled. Seeing Sakura rising higher, he let go of the rope with his right hand and grabbed her around the waist, pulling her in. When they hit the ground, Sasuke's one-handed grip caused them to veer hard to the left. They were now off the path and racing through the woods at a breakneck pace.
Low-hanging branches whipped at their faces. Sasuke had no idea where they were headed. He felt Sakura's fingers dig into his legs as she yelled his name in panic. Her leg wriggled out from under his and she jammed the rudder to the right. Then he saw the tree. His trained mind ran the calculations and he knew all they could do was brace for impact. He added his pressure to hers on the rudder, but he knew it was in vain. He pushed her head down, trying to protect her from the inevitable collision, but she kept squirming out of his grip.
"Sakura," he grunted into her ear. "Stay down."
The wind rushing in his ears must've made him think she just told him no. Sakura didn't tell him no. He told her no—to everything. Before he could roll that around in his mind, he felt Sakura's hand moving up his leg. What the hell was she up to? Almost instantly, her hand poked out from under her cloak with one of his kunai. She looked around quickly and threw with a grunt.
"Hold on tight," she commanded. Stunned by the authority in her voice, he clutched onto her waist as instructed. Sakura spooled off a length of wire and, just as it went taut, she channeled chakra to her arm and pulled them off course. As she let go of the line, they tumbled off the sled. He wrapped his arms around her head and pressed her face into his chest with all his might, hoping to cushion her as they rolled down the snow-covered mountain. For what felt like hours, his world was a spinning, bouncing, plummeting blur of pink and white—before everything went black.
His eyes blinked open. There were blotches of brown and gray above him—rock? Blinking away the blurriness, Sasuke discovered that he was lying down in a cave. His fingertips brushed a wooly softness and he recognized his cloak beneath him. He turned his head slightly to get a better idea of where he was and why his body felt so drained, when a sharp pain pierced his skull. He sucked in air, squeezed his lids shut tightly and grit his teeth to bear it.
He heard shuffling and allowed his eyes to open just a crack. Between his lashes, he saw nothing but pink and he knew it was Sakura who was hovering over him, inches from his face. He opened his eyes a little wider and watched—as if detached from his body—as she moved closer, pressing something cold against the side of his aching head.
She looked from her hands into his eyes as she smiled gently and asked, "You okay?"
He blinked at her very slowly…once…twice. His eyelids felt too heavy. His throat was parched and his lips were so dry. He tried to swallow and lick his lips to answer her, but there was no moisture in his mouth. When his lids dropped for more than a second, he felt the world spin. A hand under his neck lifted him slightly and he felt something icy and metallic touch his lips.
"Drink this," she commanded softly, tipping cold liquid into his mouth. He swallowed greedily and tried weakly to lift his hands to the cup as she took it away. He was so thirsty.
"Sorry, Sasuke-kun. Little sips. Any more and you'll be sick."
Irritation flared through him. He was desperately thirsty. And what the hell did she know? He wouldn't be sick. He'd just have to get it himself.
In one swift motion, Sasuke sat up and opened his eyes. Immediately, he felt his balance shift to the right and his vision hazed. His stomach lurched as he leaned into the vertigo and the watery contents of his stomach were ejected onto the pearly, snow-covered ground.
"Tch. I told you. Lay down," she said reproachfully. He panted as he tried to stop dry-heaving while his head was still whirling. With a soothing gentleness that belied her irritated tone, she put one hand behind his head and one on his shoulder and eased him back onto his cloak.
He continued to breathe heavily as her cool hand rested against his overheated cheek. Somewhere in the very back of his mind he realized she must be freezing, but he was just so glad to get some relief from the heat that was burning his face. Her thumb lifted one of his eyelids briefly and then she moved to the other. She gently turned his head to the side and he felt her running her fingers through his hair methodically. Was she looking for something?
He tried to call her name, but all that came out between pants was a barely recognizable croak.
"It's okay. Just relax." She smiled at him again, but her brows were furrowed with concern as she ran her hand over his cheek. He was still huffing and her hand felt so wonderfully cool against his face. He shakily reached up and laid his hand atop hers.
"Feel hot." It was an effort to get out even a few words, but she seemed to understand as she ran her other hand over his forehead and down his opposite cheek.
Cupping his face, she said, "Sasuke-kun, you hit your head in the fall. I'm pretty sure you have a concussion." She removed her hands and dug in her pouch—he missed her cold touch immediately. She produced a small bag of leaves, pulled out a few and began to crush them between two smooth rocks. Sweeping the mixture into the cup, she swirled it around, saying, "I know it's hard, but you need to drink this." She brought the cup to his lips again. "It's willow bark. It'll help with the pain and I just added some peppermint for your stomach."
He eyed her warily as she pressed the cup to his mouth and lifted his head. How did she know what herbs would relieve pain? And when did she start wearing that second nin-pouch? Another stabbing pain in his head prompted him to swallow a few small gulps before she pulled the cup away from him—obviously expecting him to make a grab for it. He wouldn't be making that mistake again.
Sakura tenderly eased his head back down as he felt his stomach unclench. Only then did he realize how tight all his muscles were. With a long exhalation, Sasuke forced himself to unwind.
"I'll be right back," he heard Sakura's voice call from what seemed like very far away. He lay there wondering how he was going to get them out of this mess—he knew Sakura would be expecting him to save them. He also knew he was in no condition to move. As he shut his eyes, he thought that maybe, if he just took a moment to regroup, he'd figure something out. The spinning had stopped—that was a good sign. He'd just rest and then he'd find their way home.
When Sasuke opened his eyes again, he saw an orange glow reflecting off the wall of the cave. He felt a comfortable warmth by his feet and he shifted slightly, trying to move closer to the heat.
Sakura was instantly in his field of vision. He blinked a few times and put his hand up to his head. Instead of skin, he felt windings of linen bandages wrapped around his skull. He rubbed his fingertips along them, noting that his pain had dulled significantly and he didn't have that horrible queasiness in his gut.
His first inclination was to nod—he was not one to waste words when a gesture would do—but, remembering the vertigo, he thought better of it and answered, "Yes."
"Are you cold? Hungry? Thirsty?" He irritably thought that she asked too many questions—so like Sakura—until he realized the answer to all three.
"Okay," she said smiling.
His stomach rumbled and he thought maybe he should've taken Naruto up on that offer of takoyaki—he hadn't eaten since breakfast. He imagined the smell of cooked meat—even if it wasn't real, it made his mouth water.
Sakura stood above him, straddling his legs. She bent and grabbed one of his hands and slid her other hand behind his head. Carefully, she pulled him up into a sitting position. He braced for the dizziness and the vomiting, but, much to his relief, neither happened. He closed and rubbed his eyes then stretched out his back and shoulders.
"Here," Sakura said, holding out a stick of skewered rabbit and a cup of tea. He took it and looked around. He closed his eyes tightly and opened them again—was he still dreaming? Sakura was poking at a roaring fire, around which she had staked several sticks of rabbit meat. As he gaped, she came back over and began to unclasp his cloak and pull it out from underneath him. Unconsciously obeying her unspoken command, he leaned from one side to the other, releasing the pinned cloth.
She removed her own cloak and draped it around his shoulders. He pulled off a piece of meat and wondered what she could be doing. He closed his eyes in pleasure as he thought how pungent and salty the rabbit tasted—he really was hungry. He relaxed, thinking how Sakura's cloak was so comfortably warm from her body heat.
His eyes shot open as he sensed a change in Sakura's chakra.
She was running a chakra-filled hand down the length of his winter coat, drawing the water from it. He watched, fascinated, as droplets of melted snow were wrung out of the cloth as if she was brushing them away. He immediately recognized the logic in what she was doing—if they used chakra to manipulate the water beneath their feet, the same theory could be applied to any part of their bodies. He wondered why he hadn't thought of that—but quickly realized that he hadn't needed to. He assured himself that, if the situation had been reversed, he would've discovered this trick.
Finishing his dinner, he threw the skewer on the flames and sipped at the tea she had brewed. It was good. He saw the makeshift teabag—some leaves rolled in linen—near the fire and he wondered what leaves she used. He began to take stock of the cave they were in—she'd moved some rocks and snow to the mouth of the cave to close off at least some of the entrance. A flash of his Sharingan told him that she'd also put up a genjutsu trap. He found himself nodding in approval as he drained his cup. He turned back to his teammate and watched her hold his cloak over the flame for several minutes before laying it down on a mound of pine needles. When did she gather those?
Wordlessly, she crouched near him and took his hand. Why he complied, he wasn't sure. He didn't even think to question her as she led him over to the rustic bed. She removed her cloak from his shoulders and helped him settle before feeding their fire a few larger logs and checking her genjutsu. A mellow heaviness seeped into his limbs and his lids slid to half-mast. He let his eyes close as a peaceful sensation overtook him—he was full and sleepy.
He felt her weight next to him on the leafy cot. After some fumbling, she shook out her cloak, covering both of them as she pressed her body against his side. His eyebrow twitched as he wondered what exactly she was doing. He was shocked to hear not the authoritative, commanding voice he'd obeyed all day, but the timid, unsure tone of a girl he was more familiar with.
"Um, Sasuke-kun…I'm sorry, but…I'm worried. You see, the cold and your injury…"
He was too tired to talk—certainly too tired to argue with her—so he wrapped his arms around her back and leaned his cheek against the top of her head. She was warm and soft. The smell of pine and Sakura mixed together in his nose. He was so drowsy, but he felt an overwhelming sense of contentment—maybe touching wasn't so bad. They were in a cave in the middle of nowhere, freezing to death, with little hope of rescue and he realized he didn't want to be anywhere else right now.
She sighed and relaxed against him. Only then did he think how exhausted she must be. She'd hunted for their dinner, built their fire, protected them and cared for his injury. Drifting off, he pressed his face into her sweet, pink hair. He was lucky to have such a teammate…and a friend.
A cold chill ran down his front as Sakura jumped away from him at the sound of Naruto's voice. She dispelled the genjutsu and ran out of the cave.
"Naruto! We're over here!"
Sasuke flung his arm over his eyes to shield them from the bright sunshine that was streaming into the cave. How long had they slept?
He heard the murmurs of their voices conversing before the scuff of boots told him that Kakashi had stepped into the cave, followed by his teammates. He felt Sakura back at his side, moving his arm away from his eyes. They fluttered open, squinting into the light, before she moved to block the sun from his face.
"You okay, sleepyhead?" she giggled as her hair glowed with the light behind her. He wanted to smile at her, but Kakashi's gray haystack replaced Sakura's pink halo as his sensei leaned in to assess his condition.
"Think you can walk?"
Sasuke frowned. Even if he couldn't, he'd never let Kakashi know. He slowly shifted himself into a sitting position, waiting for the dizziness. Instead, he felt clear-headed and well rested—it had been a long time since he'd had such a satisfying sleep. He nodded and pushed himself up off the floor, fastening his cloak. Naruto and Sakura were already cleaning up their campsite. Sasuke's eyes shifted to Sakura—to the sureness of her movements, to the second nin-pack on her hip, to the strength in her expression. He felt like he'd just woken from a long sleep to find the girl he'd known before so completely changed.
"So, Sakura did a fine job caring for your injury, eh?" Kakashi asked as he popped the last dango into his mouth—how he managed to do that without exposing his face still puzzled Sasuke. He resolved to use his Sharingan during their next meal to find out.
Sasuke nodded and ran his hand gingerly over the large lump on the side of his bandaged head. It was just past midday and they'd stopped for lunch before they crossed the border into Hot Springs Country. He glanced at Naruto and Sakura at the next table. Naruto had gotten it into his head that Sakura needed to try his onigiri and she'd refused. Instead of taking no for an answer, the moron pressed and tried to feed her himself. When he ended up smashing the rice ball into her cheek—making her a sticky mess—Sakura saw red. She clubbed Naruto on the head, raising a lump that matched Sasuke's.
He shook his head at the contradiction that was Sakura. He recalled when they left Frost this morning—he'd listened carefully as Sakura answered Kakashi's questions about her newfound medical skills. She told their sensei how she'd been reading some medical texts. She bashfully admitted that she'd been awed by Tsunade's healing power when she'd cured both Kakashi and Sasuke after Itachi's genjutsu assault and how she hoped, with some training, to one day be as useful a part of Team Seven as Tsunade was to her team.
Kakashi smiled at her, ruffled her hair and said, "Good job, Sakura," before continuing the long trek home.
Team Seven camped that night on the edge of Fire Country. As sleeping bags were rolled out around the fire, Sakura sat in a nearby tree on first watch. Sasuke flipped and turned in his bed roll, unable to find that deep relaxation he'd had last night. He flushed when he wondered if it was because Sakura was sleeping beside him. Realizing that kind of thinking wasn't going to get him any closer to sleep, he sat up and sighed. Maybe he should just ask her.
He pushed out of his sleeping bag and jumped onto the branch she'd settled on. He was pleased to see that he hadn't surprised her—she was sitting expectantly with one finger tucked into a book, holding her place. He glanced at the cover—Powerful Medicines and Their Effects. He looked at her face and opened his mouth to speak…but realized he didn't know what to say. He knew he wanted to ask her how she had done it—how she'd given him one completely blissful night's sleep that was free from the restlessness and the inevitable nightmares that haunted his head—but he didn't know how. What if he was mistaken and it wasn't some herb she'd dropped into his tea? What if it was the fact that he'd spent the night holding her? His eyes dropped to his knees as he felt a burn across his cheeks at the thought.
He heard her tuck her book into her pouch as she scooted closer to him.
"Sasuke-kun? You okay?"
Why did it feel like that was the question she asked him more than any other? He was okay…wasn't he?
"Is your bandage too tight?" she asked, her eyebrows pulled down in concern. He shook his head as she ran her fingers across his wrapped head. She skimmed her fingers down his cheek to his chin and tilted it up, forcing him to meet her eyes. As she looked carefully from one eye to the other, Sasuke watched her. He'd never looked in her eyes and seen anything other than nervous concern or soft adoration. To see a detached professionalism in her green eyes was startling. He felt like he could almost see her brain at work. He'd always known Sakura was smart, but to see it displayed so blatantly in front of him was…new.
He felt a strange warmth in his chest as he reached up for the hand that held his chin.
He looked in her eyes once again and found the soft adoration he'd always known…but it was different now…somehow deeper? He recognized that he hadn't let go of her warm hand—he surprised himself when he realized he didn't want to. He felt paralyzed. He couldn't look away. It was hard to swallow.
Say something! his brain screamed at him.
"I…can't sleep," he confided. He wanted to tell her how much easier it would be for him to fall asleep if he could just hold her again—to feel the security and warmth of her presence near him—but those words wouldn't come. He almost tugged on her hand to bring her with him into his sleeping bag, but, instead, she broke the silence.
"What?" He shook his head, dispelling the fog, but he couldn't relinquish his grip on her hand.
"Last night, I put some valerian root extract in your tea to help you sleep. I thought a good night's sleep would help ease your symptoms. Do you need some now?" she asked, slipping her hand out of his and digging in her pouch. She produced a small brown bottle which she uncorked and handed to him. "Just a mouthful," she warned.
He brought the bottle to his mouth and tipped it back. He handed it back with a sense of disappointment swelling in his gut. As she tucked it back into her pouch, Sasuke turned to drop from the branch. She'd pulled her book out again and opened it to a chapter on antidotes to poisonous mushrooms. He gave her one last appraising look—Sakura was becoming more and more unfamiliar to him, but, oddly, it made him feel…proud of her.
"Sakura." Her head popped up and he looked her in the eye, a smirk on his face. "You'll be a good medic." Her blush bloomed quickly, but her radiant smile warmed him—he was glad he'd told her. He dropped to the ground and, before he crawled back into his sleeping bag, he snuck something forest green and silky into Sakura's pack. He felt the heaviness of sleep begin to seep into his body and he exhaled deeply, profoundly relaxed.
In the dark years to come, Sasuke would occasionally turn to a small, brown bottle of valerian root on nights when sleep was impossible. When he would finally drift off, the smallest of smiles would turn up the corners of his mouth and the smell of pine and Sakura would fill his nose.
A/N: Many thanks go to Paige O.o for seeing the forest...when I was busy looking at the trees. Thanks, Paige!
I hope you enjoyed it. Reviews really are nice, you know...