Author's Note: They really don't tell you how much your junior year of college is going to suck. There needs to be a way bigger warning. I'm in a constant state of exhaustion *weeps* Anyway, I wanted to post this when I had finished the first chapter of my Harry Potter fanfic, but it needs more planning :/ As I've learned from writing A Rat's Nest, when you don't have everything planned, it takes much longer to write. I've learned my lesson, so I'm going to take my time planning before I start posting chapters.
[EDIT] It's come to my attention that I did a bit of name jumbling during this chapter :P I went back and fixed them, but let me know if you guys find anymore errors!
Disclaimer: I in no way own Naruto, so please don't sue me.
~ Chapter 7: Unraveling ~
Itachi kept his forehead against Sakura's, waiting for her to react. He'd said the words, but it didn't matter unless she said them too; Itachi's plan didn't work if only Naruto was in love. The physical response was there; from the few inches between them, he could see her eyes widen and hear her breath catch. Say something, Sakura, Itachi pleaded in his mind, I just said I - Naruto loves you, and you're just going to stand there?
She didn't give him a verbal response, but she bit her lip and smiled at him. Itachi felt safe to assume that meant "yes."
They finished dressing in silence, and Itachi picked Sakura up, walking the two of them back to where Gaku was waiting.
As they got farther from the river and closer to their camp, the sound of arguing got louder and louder. Itachi picked up the pace to a run, rushing past trees until he was in front of the rock cove.
Gaku was being held against a tree by his shirt collar, being yelled at by another Kumo shinobi. Itachi vaguely recognized him as the man who had visited the cells only moments before their escape. Itachi held Sakura closer, adjusting to a more secure grip.
"Do you want to die, you fucking idiot?!" The nameless Kumo shinobi shouted.
"I didn't think–" Gaku tried to defend himself.
"Exactly! You didn't think! You never think!" The shinobi shoved Gaku into the tree trunk harder. Itachi stepped forward to intervene, but before he could speak, Sakura stopped him.
"Yaku?" Sakura's voice cut through the two men's shouts. The two Kumo men snapped their heads towards her voice, suddenly realizing their conversation had an audience.
Gaku was released from the man's hold. The mystery shinobi turned to Sakura and Itachi, "Hey, pinky."
Sakura nudged Itachi to put her down. Itachi put her on her feet, stabilizing her against a tree. "What are you doing here, Yaku?" Sakura said, gripping the tree trunk for support.
"How do you know him?" Gaku asked in a quiet voice. Itachi was just about to ask the very same question. From their conversation in the interrogation unit, Itachi had deducted that the man and Sakura had come into contact outside Kumo, but he had no further information as to how they were acquainted.
Sakura waved off Gaku's question, much to Itachi's disappointment. "What's going on Yaku?" Sakura tried asking again. Yaku sighed, shifting the weight on his feet.
"We can talk later," Yaku picked up his bag, "The ANBU teams have a scent, so the first order of business is losing them."
Itachi wasn't entirely surprised they had ANBU teams tailing them, but the immediacy of their deployment was a surprise; it had only been a few hours since their escape. The Kumo ANBU had forgotten the interrogation unit in favor of celebrating national pride; he assumed they'd have a few days before two escaped Konoha prisoners would be noticed.
Although this man had warned them of the plan to hang Sakura and had just now warned them about the ANBU, Itachi wasn't about to let this man lead them anywhere. Gaku had a soft heart, perfect for manipulation. This man, Yaku, seemed to actually have a modicum of intelligence.
Despite Itachi's reluctance, Sakura seemed to have no problem trusting the man's orders. She was already hobbling over to where their things were piled, throwing a bag over her shoulder. When she looked as though she were going to fall, Gaku rushed to her side. Itachi's eyes narrowed at their proximity. Oblivious to Itachi's contempt for Gaku, Sakura gladly accepted Gaku's help. "Where are we headed?" Sakura said.
"Back to Konoha," Itachi immediately replied. He needed to get Sakura and himself as far away as possible from Kumo. They had escaped the prison, and now it was time to go home. As he looked at the two Kumo men, however, he realized there would be opposition to this plan.
Yaku was sighing, and Gaku was slowly shaking his head. "You shouldn't," Gaku said, "You should find a safe house here, wait out the manhunt, and go home when things have quieted down."
Before Itachi could argue with Gaku, Yaku spoke up. "I hate to say it, but he's right. If you start running for the border now, you won't make it. The farther from the city you go, the less shelter there is. After a certain point it's just pine forests, and I think we both know how little protection trees are against an ANBUmanhunt."
Itachi wanted to strangle the Kumo shinobi. They were right, but it didn't lessen Itachi's need to violently kill both of them. "Fine," Itachi said, annoyed. He strode up to Sakura, yanked her out of Gaku's arms, and scooped her into his own arms. Sakura squeaked in protest, mumbling something about being strong enough to walk on her own. Itachi completely ignored the comments, grunting at the two Kumo men to start running.
Sakura didn't know why Naruto was being so rough with her. It wasn't like him to be so short with people, especially when it came to friends. She felt well enough to try and walk on her own, but Naruto had completely ignored her. His grip was hurting her, but she didn't think now was the time to complain. She looped her arms around Naruto's neck, hoping he would loosen his grip if he felt her holding onto him. No such luck.
"Naruto?" Sakura said tentatively, trying to draw his attention. "Naruto, what's wrong?" Her voice wasn't getting through at all.
The rest of the trip was completely silent until they were finally in front of a modest brick home shrouded by pine trees. "Home, sweet home," Gaku mumbled.
The tension between the three men was inexplicably thick. Sakura had no idea what had caused them to be so terse with one another, but the atmosphere was not going to work if they were to cooperate. "So, uh, this is your home?" Sakura asked. She knew small talk wasn't going to make everyone happy again, but at least it would break the silence.
She had expected Gaku to answer, but instead it was Yaku. "Yup. Welcome to our humble abode."
Yaku and Gaku lived together? "Are you and Gaku roommates or something?" Sakura guessed. Her reply was two chuckling men. She wasn't sure what was funny, but the laughing was definitely an improvement.
"I wish we were just roommates," Yaku laughed, "We're brothers." Sakura wasn't the only one surprised by the news; she felt Naruto's arms twitch. "Can't you tell from our names?" Yaku continued. Now it was Sakura's turn to giggle. She had thought the similarity was weird, but she wrote off the coincidence as perhaps her ignorance of Kumo naming customs. She did, after all, know next to nothing about the snowy country.
"Our mother had a . . . weird sense of humor," Gaku added, grinning.
"I'm sure your mother is very nice," Sakura said, returning Gaku's smile. She turned to Naruto, expecting him to contribute to the conversation, or at the very least make a small comment. He seemed to sense her gaze, but as he turned towards her, she saw nothing but a scowl. What reason did Naruto have to wear such an expression? Surely scowling at the two Kumo men was an overreaction.
Naruto turned away from her, adjusting his grip again. "Open the door." Gaku and Yaku both gave Naruto curt nods, walking towards the thick wooden door.
Sakura would have liked to explore the house more, but Naruto rushed past every room until finally entering a bedroom. Sakura thought that was quite rude of Naruto; they hadn't even asked if they could use the room. Before she could say anything, Naruto abruptly tossed her onto the bed. "Naruto, wha–"
"We have to leave this place," Naruto said, pacing in front of the bed.
Sakura pushed herself onto her elbows, "They're right, you know. We wouldn't last a day against the manhunt."
"We could. It'd be difficult, but not impossible," Naruto replied, still pacing.
"Naruto, listen to yourself! We haven't had a moment to rest since either of us entered this frozen country. I'm injured, you're exhausted, we have no supplies – how on earth would we make it to Konoha?"
Naruto halted his pacing. "He's in love with you."
"What?" Now Sakura was completely lost. She couldn't follow Naruto's logic at all, and it made her worry. Perhaps the mission was finally taking its toll on Naruto's psyche.
"Gaku. He's in love with you." Naruto's voice was bitter and hard.
"So what?" Sakura said slowly, punctuating the words. She shook her head; why were they talking about this?
"And they're brothers, of all things. We can't stay here. We need to go." Was Naruto even listening to her? He lunged for their bags, riffling through them with frantic hands. "We'll take what we need from their house, then we'll sneak away after nightfall."
Naruto was too busy to notice Sakura prying herself off the bed, using any part of her that didn't hurt as leverage. She clutched the bedpost, watching Naruto's face rapidly change emotions as he sorted through their supplies.
She'd had enough. They hadn't been in this house for more than five minutes, and she was already losing her mind. She was starting to miss their time in the cell, when Naruto was unconscious and peaceful. Now, all she wanted to do was hit him. Actually, if Sakura had the strength, Naruto would have been hit ages ago.
"Uzumaki Naruto, you listen to me right now!" Sakura braced herself against the bedpost as anger and frustration threatened to overcome her. "I am not some mindless sidekick you can boss around. I am your partner. And as such, we do things like talk and collaborate. You will stop this stupid fussing right now, or so help me, I will put you in a coma and drag your unconscious ass back to Konoha! Do you understand me?"
Naruto stopped messing with their bags and stood at the end of the bed, motionless and in shock. The only sound in the room was Sakura's labored breathing as she struggled to calm down.
She had never felt so ignored and trivialized before. She may be injured, but she was a strong, capable kunoichi, whose abilities were deserving of respect. Worst of all, she would have never expected Naruto to make her feel such a way. Even in their genin days, Naruto had been nothing but encouraging as Sakura struggled to face simple adversities during missions. He had been her inspiration to be not just a good shinobi, but to seek Tsunade as a mentor and to excel at medical ninjutsu.
She didn't recognize the Naruto before her now. This Naruto was condescending, treating her more like a fragile flower than the powerhouse she really was. He may have fooled her earlier, with his kind words and gentle help, but now she could see she had misinterpreted his actions.
Sakura let go of the bedpost and hobbled out of the bedroom. She underestimated her wounds, only making it halfway down the hallway before she slid to the floor. Thankfully, it was Gaku's hand she felt help her up and not Naruto's. She looked up at Gaku, hoping she didn't look too pitiful. But it wasn't pity she saw in Gaku's eyes; she saw understanding and sadness.
He lifted her off the floor, putting an arm around her waist. "Let's get you something to eat, hm?" Gaku said with a soft smile. She returned the smile, placing an arm around his shoulder as Gaku led them towards the kitchen.
After recovering from the initial shock from Sakura's outburst, Itachi's only reaction was to hurl their bags at the wall.
How could Sakura not see the danger they were in? They were in a foreign country, taking refuge in a foreign home, relying on two foreign men. These things hadn't been tested for neither their safety nor trustworthiness, and yet, it had only taken a matter of moments for Sakura to accept them. And then she had the gall to lecture him! Yes, yell at the only person who cares about your safety – that seems like a great idea.
Itachi was beyond seething, but he didn't have time to cool down. His rational mind knew that he needed Sakura's cooperation to get out of this infernal country; an angry Sakura was not a cooperative Sakura.
Itachi heard Gaku in the hallway with Sakura, mumbling something about food. His stomach growled. When was the last time he'd eaten a real meal? Perhaps some decent food would help Sakura as well; no doubt hunger was worsening both their tempers.
He stayed in the bedroom for a few moments, picking up the bag he threw and organizing its contents.
When Itachi felt he'd let Sakura cool off enough, he lazily walked to the kitchen. He made sure to walk loudly, hoping if they heard him coming, they'd have time to adjust to the idea of him being in their company. That was the theory, anyway.
Yaku and Sakura were seated casually at a small dining table, while Gaku tended to a steaming pot with a ladle. He noted that Sakura was no longer dressed in her previous outfit, consisting of a few strategically wrapped bandages. She was now in a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, both obviously meant for a male twice her size. Her newly clothed figure drew Itachi's attention to his own state of undress.
Itachi cleared his throat, getting the attention of Yaku. He was pleased to see a neutral expression on the man. Apparently Sakura's opinions of "Naruto" hadn't affected their demeanor toward him.
Itachi nodded his head toward Sakura and her borrowed outfit, "Any chance I could also get some clothes?"
Yaku chuckled softly. "Sure, I'll grab some for you. In the meantime, come and sit. The food is almost ready."
Itachi nodded his head in thanks. As Yaku left the room, though, Itachi realized he probably looked strange standing in the doorway when there were three open seats at the table. He could choose one of the seats next to Sakura, an option that risked offending Sakura if she wasn't calm yet. But, sitting across from her would likely increase her anger, interpreting the choice as him avoiding her.
"Are you gonna sit, or what?" Sakura said, breaking his train of thought. Noticing the edge in her voice, Itachi thought that sitting was an all-together bad choice, and perhaps standing was his safest option.
"Yaku will be back soon with the clothes, so . . ." Itachi voice trailed off, not really knowing where he was going with the excuse. Itachi's charade was stuck in limbo. The "normal" Itachi would have just glared at her until she shut up, and the "normal" Naruto would have profusely apologized for being awkward and immediately sat down like a good dog would. He hadn't given up on being Naruto, but he knew he was slipping. Was it even worth the effort at this point? He was stuck with the henge, but that didn't mean he had to keep being Naruto. Maybe it was time to tell Sakura the truth.
"Hey, Sakura . . ." Itachi started, but before he could finish, Yaku came back.
"Here you go!" Yaku pressed a bundle of clothes into Itachi's hands, "It's not much, but they'll at least be better than what you're wearing now." Itachi examined the rolled bundle, finding a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants identical to the ones Sakura had borrowed. Naruto would have joked about their matching outfits, but Itachi didn't think the humor would be appreciated. He didn't really have the energy to, anyway.
Itachi excused himself to change, heading back into the bedroom. He had forgotten just how much clothing had been lost during the course of their travel. Between his imprisonment and bandaging Sakura's wounds, he only had his shorts left.. His body temperature improved the moment he took off the half-wet cloth. He slipped on the t-shirt and sweatpants, reveling in their plush warmth. He walked back to the kitchen in better spirits.
When he reentered the kitchen, he saw that the Kumo shinobi had made the decision for him about where to sit. Yaku sat across from Sakura, while Gaku sat to her left. Itachi settled into the remaining chair to her right, acknowledging everyone with a short nod.
They took turns handing their bowls to Gaku so he could ladle stew from the steaming pot in the center of the table. The four shinobi mumbled "itadakimasu" and ate the stew with quiet appreciation. Itachi's body temperature had returned to normal with the dry clothes, but the stew created a hot pool in his stomach, radiating out to his limbs. Itachi couldn't remember the last time he felt so content.
The stew seemed to have the same effect on Sakura. Itachi hadn't noticed the pallor of her face until he saw her cheeks return to a healthy pink glow. He couldn't help but smile when Sakura closed her eyes, clearly holding back a verbal reaction to the stew. He watched in fascination as she took another bite and slowly pulled the spoon out of her mouth, tightly wrapping her lips around the metal. The spoon exited with a wet pop, and Itachi was surprised by how hypnotizing the sound was.
He quickly focused his eyes on his own bowl of stew, shoveling it into his mouth with gusto. Worried that Sakura would watch him eat the same way he had watched her, he finished the bowl as quickly as possible and refused seconds.
Itachi pushed his bowl away and cleared his throat. "Thank you for all your help thus far," he started, nodding his head to the two Kumo men. They returned the gesture. "But, despite how long we've been in this country, neither Sakura nor I are any closer to completing our mission. And, while I would like to return to Konoha as soon as possible, we can't do so until we complete our mission. Right, Sakura?"
Itachi was happy to see her genuinely listening to him and nodding in agreement. It seemed that regardless of their previous argument, the mission took precedent over bruised egos. As someone who always put the mission first, he was happy to see Sakura held similar opinions.
Sakura leaned back in her chair, folding her hands in her lap. "Yaku, Gaku. I came to Kumogakure to meet with the Raikage and talk about the reasons behind his attacks on Konoha shinobi. Since I entered this village, I haven't gotten any answers. With the manhunt and the widespread anti-Konoha sentiments, doing information recon would be near impossible. Our only hope of gathering any information is you two."
Gaku paled at the suggestion, dropping his spoon. "You can't be serious," Yaku laughed. "That's treason."
"Oh, so now you're worried about treason?" Itachi scoffed. Sakura punched his shoulder, but that didn't make his comment any less true. He pointed at Gaku, "You freed two of the most high profile Konoha shinobi from a top-level ANBU interrogation unit," he now pointed at Yaku, "And you decided to hide said wanted shinobi in your house. You're both already traitors, how could leaking a bit of information makes things worse?"
Yaku looked like he was ready with a retort but decided to bite his lip instead. Gaku avoided eye-contact with Sakura and Itachi. Before Itachi could continue berating the men for their belated caution and self-preservation, Sakura placed her hand on top of his. The contact had startled him, both because he hadn't expected her to touch him and because he hadn't expected to feel calmed by it. He looked at her hand, slightly disappointed to see Naruto's hand underneath it. How would his hand look underneath hers?
"What Naruto is trying to say, is that we are a little . . . confused," Sakura sighed. Itachi was too distracted by her hand to object to her word choice; they weren't confused, they were just uninformed. There was a difference.
"We've lost countless shinobi fighting against your country, and we don't even know why," Sakura continued, "For what reason are we sending young men and women to early graves?" Itachi had to admit that Sakura was doing a good job. The two men were shifting between expressions of guilt and defeat, cringing at what Itachi assumed was the thought of all the fallen shinobi.
Itachi shimmied his hand out from underneath Sakura's, clearing his head. "It's not just our shinobi dying. Yaku, you told me that the Raikage had promoted many shinobi to positions they weren't skilled enough for. What do you think happens when an untrained shinobi fights an actually trained shinobi – who do you think dies?"
His words may have been harsher than Sakura's, but he felt their arguments were made clear. Now, it was up to them to decide whether or not they'd help.
"I don't know how much help we'd be," Gaku started. Yaku shot a glance to his brother, brows furrowed, but Gaku ignored the gaze and continued, "The Raikage has been hiding a lot of information, leaving us with mostly just rumors."
Sakura smiled, "Any help is appreciated." Gaku returned the smile, nervously fumbling with his hands.
Yaku folded his arms, scowling. "Fine. What do you want to know?"
Itachi looked to Sakura, only to find that she'd done the same thing. What did they want to know?
Itachi thought momentarily about the information they already had, and the holes in their knowledge. They knew that the Raikage had shut himself off from communication a while before the attacks on Konoha shinobi had started. Soon after the first attacks, the Mizukage and Tsuchikage inexplicably joined forces. To Itachi, the biggest questions resided in these two facts. What happened to the Raikage, and how did he convince Kirigakure and Iwagakure to attack Konoha?
"Has the Raikage been . . . different lately?" Itachi asked. Sakura nodded her head, probably thinking the same question.
"I don't think so–" Gaku started, but Yaku interrupted him with a grunt.
"He's definitely been weird," Yaku explained, "But it's been like that for a while."
"How long is 'a while'?" Sakura pressed.
The two men looked at one another. Yaku nodded to Gaku, turning back to them. "Probably since . . . well, since Killerbee died."
Now it was their turn to be speechless. Killerbee was dead? How? When? Why didn't Konoha know? Itachi leaned back in his chair, hearing Sakura's chair creak as she did the same. Killerbee was admired by many high-ranking shinobi – surely news of his death would have made it to Konoha.
Yaku cleared his throat, "I guess you guys didn't know."
"No . . . we didn't," Itachi flatly replied. What else didn't they know?
Sakura's eyes were tightly closed, and her jaw was clenched. He was reminded of the way she hadn't hesitated to reach out to him, both physically and emotionally. He was sure she only did it because she thought she was helping Naruto, but that didn't make it any less welcome to the man beneath the henge.
Itachi wasn't the type to initiate contact with a woman; so much can go wrong that it was usually better to wait for them to act. He clenched and unclenched the fist in his lap. Was this the right time? She looked pained - would she want to be consoled? People reach out to those that need consoling, right?
He shot his hand out, knowing that if he were slow about it, he would have pulled back. His hand reached for the closest part of her, which turned out to be her knee. Her face snapped to look at him, and her startled eyes made him immediately regret the move. Itachi started to pull his hand away, but Sakura grabbed it, drawing it into her lap. She focused her gaze on his hand, running one thumb over his knuckles while they other thumb kneaded small circles into his palm.
Itachi couldn't help but feel as though he were the one being comforted, when the whole point had been to comfort Sakura. He supposed Naruto would feel sad over Killerbee's death; he was a friend and mentor to the blonde shinobi, and they had bonded over their shared burden as jinchuriki. Would Naruto have cried over the loss of Killerbee? Would he have sought out Sakura for consoling? He'd never seen the man mourn a loss. Itachi didn't really feel sad right now; his emotions were more akin to frustration than loss.
Sakura's muffled sniffles drew Itachi's gaze back to her face. She was crying.
Since his hand hadn't been rejected, Itachi felt more confident as he slid his chair flush with Sakura's. He pressed his thigh against hers. He wasn't a hugger, but he felt the contact was enough to let her know he was there. He felt her thigh tense for a moment, but sure enough, her leg relaxed against his, and she clutched his hand harder.
"We're sorry . . . we didn't know you were close to Killerbee," Gaku said with a soft voice, "How did you know him?"
Sakura straightened her back, releasing one hand from Itachi's to wipe away the wet tear trails. "Killerbee trained Naruto for quite some time. We were all great friends by the time their training had ended. He was a kind man."
Yaku and Gaku nodded, keeping silent as they too remembered how kindhearted Killerbee had been.
Itachi was careful not to react to Sakura's words. Despite reading the file on Naruto's training with Killerbee, he knew very little of what had actually happened during those months on the island. He prayed that his lack of expression seemed like shock and would deter any questions about Naruto's time with Killerbee.
"As much as I'd like to mourn Killerbee, this news doesn't change our present situation," Sakura said, struggling to keep her voice even. She cleared her throat. "You, uh, said that the Raikage was different after Killerbee's death? How so?"
Yaku and Gaku mirrored Sakura's straight posture.
"He's always been a strange man, but Killerbee's death did something to him. He isolated himself for weeks; he didn't even come to Killerbee's memorial service. But, after weeks of silence, he just sprang back," Gaku explained.
"He went bat-shit crazy," Yaku amended.
"We shinobi were the first to notice . . . irregularities," Gaku continued, "Missions were on-hold while he was away, so we thought there would be tons of work after he returned, but all we got were scouting missions on the Konoha border. Then the promotions came." If there was one thing Itachi couldn't stand, it was wasting lives because an idiot commanded it.
"Shortly after the promotions and scouting missions, shinobi form Kirigakure and Iwagakure flooded our country," Yaku said. He paused, smiling wryly, "I remember when they first arrived in Kumo; there was so much tensions in the air. People knew war was coming, and no one wanted be on the wrong side. Within a few days, everyone was shouting how much they hated Konoha."
"That explains a lot," Itachi grumbled. He remembered how vehemently the townspeople had cried for Sakura's death.
While he had a lot to say about the prejudice in Kumo, he had to stay focused on the task at hand. Yaku and Gaku had given them more information about the timeline of events, which previously had some gapping holes. The holes were still there, but they were shrinking – slowly, but shrinking nonetheless.
Killerbee's death, while unfortunate, did supply a sufficient explanation for the Raikage to become mentally unstable and declare war. What seemed to be the big question now, was what part of the Raikage's madness made the Mizukage and Tsuchigake become allies? Surely the two Kages would have seen the Raikage as nothing more than an emotional mess and would have decided to steer clear of his war declarations.
Gaku and Yaku had been helpful, but their knowledge was limited. The only gapping hole left was the timeline during the Raikage's seclusion. Itachi would bet that the madman had made all his war plans while hidden away; they needed to speak to someone who knew exactly what he did during that time. Filling one gap had revealed another.
Sakura must have also realized this, sliding her bowl forward and slumping in her chair. Itachi would have preferred to keep questioning the two Kumo men, but Sakura's sigh had been coupled with a wince of pain. What she needed – what they both needed – was some rest.
Itachi got up from the table, mumbling his thanks to the Kumo men for both the food and the information. He positioned himself next to Sakura's chair and held out his hand. "Come on, Sakura."
Sakura peered up at the hand stretched toward her. There was something comforting about Naruto's hands. They were always so warm and large, and they never failed be a soothing balm to her nerves. She gladly placed her hand in Naruto's, sighing contently as the other wrapped around her waist to help her stand. She didn't even bother resisting Naruto's help; the minute his arm was around her, she forgot her protests.
They hobbled together to the bedroom, and Naruto helped lower her to the bed, gently easing each limb onto the mattress. It wasn't the most comfortable mattress she'd slept on, but it definitely beat the forest floors and cement she'd been sleeping on during time in Kumo.
She scooted herself back until she could rest against the headboard. Naruto stood next to her, and the situation gave Sakura a heavy dose of déjà vu. Less than an hour ago, they had been exactly as they were now: Sakura was on the bed and Naruto loomed over her. Last time, Naruto had chucked her onto the bed, and the two had erupted into a senseless argument. Had that really just been an hour ago? With the news of Killerbee's death, their argument seemed ancient.
Sakura looked up at Naruto, only to meet his blank gaze. Had he been staring at her the whole time? Naruto was barely breathing; his chest taking shallow dips with each breathe. "Naruto?" She murmured. He averted his gaze to the floor, but made no sign to respond to her. Sakura wasn't used to seeing such a blank face on Naruto. She couldn't tell if he was mourning Killerbee, regretting their argument, or embarrassed about his behavior – or maybe it was none of those; she was only grasping at straws.
"Naruto . . . look at me . . . please," Sakura said, keeping her voice soft. She had no fight left in her, and all she wanted was Naruto to return to normal. She longed for a friend and companion, and he wasn't acting like either of those things right now. Naruto hesitantly eyed the spot next to her on the bed, shifting from one foot to the other. In that moment, Sakura realized that Naruto probably wanted the same thing as she did; Sakura wasn't the only one who'd lost a friend today.
She patted the spot next to her on the bed, smiling encouragingly. She wanted to laugh at the way Naruto audibly swallowed before taking her offer. She wanted to tell him there was no need to be nervous, that she wasn't mad anymore and that everything was going to be okay. The silence that had descended upon them was too heavy to break, so Sakura instead tugged on the fabric of his grey borrowed shirt, not letting go until his side was resting against hers.
The warmth radiating off Naruto's skin was too tempting to resist, and Sakura's hands unconsciously wound around his waist, pulling the blonde closer and nestling her head on his chest. "Sakura . . ." Naruto tone was soft, but she couldn't deny hearing the warning his voice held. "This . . . this isn't okay."
Sakura rubbed her cheek against his clothed chest, holding him tighter. She didn't want to give up this warmth. They had only been in Kumo for a few days, but her relationship with Naruto had been on a rollercoaster. She'd left Konoha knowing she had a best friend to return to, and when she saw him dragged into her cell, she was both elated and anguished by his presence. Now, in this bedroom, it was as if they were on a mission as awkward twelve-year-old genin again, embarrassed to share a tent with their opposite gendered teammate.
She'd had more mood swings in the last few days than she'd had in the last year, and her nerves couldn't take much more. Why couldn't they just settle on a dynamic? Was he going to be her friend or . . . or maybe something more? The thought of Naruto being more than a friend was a foreign concept to Sakura but not an unwelcome one.
Naruto – or any male shinobi, really – weren't the most forthcoming with their feelings, so it wasn't as though he and Sakura could talk about these new developments. There's no way Sakura could fix a problem that needed both their efforts. What could Sakura do?
Sakura continued to skim her cheek across Naruto's cotton-covered chest, his steady heartbeat anchoring her in the present. When Naruto realized she wasn't going to move, he shifted underneath her, his hands moving to grip her shoulders. She had no fight left in her, so she let Naruto push her away. She tried not to ignore the sting in her chest, attributing it to her many injuries and not to the pain of Naruto's rejection.
But the pain in Sakura's chest was quickly forgotten as Naruto clawed at her shoulders. Sakura gasped as his fingers dug relentlessly into her skin. It took a moment for her to finally look up, to see why Naruto had such a death-grip on her poor shoulder – which was already injured, Sakura wanted to add.
Naruto's face was twisted in pain, his arms and chest shaking as he tried to repress whatever was happening to him. Sakura extricated herself from Naruto and leaned over him, her hands readied with green chakra. A ragged, strangled cough slipped through Naruto's control. Coughing? Again? Sakura frantically thought. As if on cue, she relived the panic she'd felt when she witnessed Naruto's coughing fit for the first time in the prison cell. Her hands were drawn to his chest like a magnet.
Despite her own body's desperate need to heal, Sakura drew her chakra away from her injuries and pushed it into Naruto's chest. She flooded his system with as much chakra as she had at her disposal. Chakra conservation was the least of her concerns right now. Within seconds of her chakra seeping into him, Sakura met an obstacle. A thick wall of chakra surrounded Naruto's lungs and heart, and it was treating Sakura like a foreign invader, rejecting her healing chakra.
Sakura prodded the wall with her chakra, and the more she investigated it, the more familiar it was. She sifted through her memory. Where had she encountered this before? Patient charts and medical records flashed in her mind.
Before her mind could identify the familiarity, she felt Naruto's shaking hand grip the front of her shirt. She looked down at the clenched fist, noticing for the first time that he still had his shackles on. She took one hand off his chest and, remembering how Gaku took hers off, diverted some chakra to the metal cuff. She reached for his other hand and did the same, but the instant the second cuff fell away, Naruto shot forward, his entire body curling in on itself. Sakura infused her arms with chakra to push him back down to the mattress, finding herself struggling to overcome Naruto's monstrous strength.
But just as quickly as it all happened, it ended.
Naruto's body relaxed against Sakura's hold, and she was able to lay him back down. His convulsing and coughing had mysteriously stopped. Sakura felt his chakra levels rising and absently wondered if the return of his chakra was stabilizing his condition.
What happened next would leave Sakura both slack-jawed and ready to punch someone.
The first thing to disappear was Naruto's trademark whiskers. Black ink dyed the roots of Naruto's once golden hair, spreading until ebony hair fanned across the pillow. His soft facial features shifted to reveal a strong jaw and prominent cheekbones. This wasn't the face of a teenager. This was the face of a man.
Sakura's gaze tore away from his face as the rest of his body changed. Gone was Naruto's bulky frame, replaced by lean muscle and hard planes.
A long groan drew Sakura's attention back to his face. "Sakura?" His eyes fluttered open. Sakura vainly hoped to see the brilliantly clear blue eyes she knew so well. But her hope was short-lived as the identity of this man dawned on her.
The Sharingan looked out beneath silky eyelashes, their gaze seeking out Sakura's.
How could I be so stupid? Sakura scolded herself. Why couldn't I sense this wasn't Naruto? The false kindness, the coughing spells . . . it was so obvious . . .
"Sakura?" He groaned again.
It took Sakura a moment to find the words she wanted to say. What do you say to someone who has deceived you? Who has impersonated your best friend and manipulated your feelings?
I'm such an idiot . . .
She cleared her throat. "Haruno-san," she corrected. Confusion clouded his face. "I don't believe I've give you permission to use my first name . . . Uchiha-san."
Author's Note: Itachi isn't Naruto anymore! FINALLY! I was so tempted to write this whole chapter in Itachi's perspective – I reeeaallllyyy like writing for Itachi :D I'm trying to be more fair with my POV splitting, but we'll see if I'm successful with that. Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed it :)
Please read and review!