A/N: Sorry this chapter took so long. I have some fairly significant health challenges that prevent me from writing as much or as often as I would like. But I love this story and have every intention of completing it.
When reading, please keep in mind that my plot veered away from the manga at chapter 568. That means some facts in the current chapters are not facts here.
Many thanks to Scarlett71177 for patiently listening to my ideas and ramblings. All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.
His injuries and failure against the tailed beasts forgotten for the moment, Naruto was on his feet the instant Sakura had named her conditions for their date. The way he saw it, if they were going to wash the laundry, bathe, and cook a warm meal before they could play cards, he had way too much to do to be lying around.
Even when she begged him to rest longer, and offered to read the old man's novel to him out loud while he did, Naruto had beamed, insisting he was fine and didn't need the down time. This one, Sakura knew, was definitely on her.
She also knew better than to be too flattered by his enthusiasm. Naruto was always like this once a clear goal such as work before play got into his head. He did seem happy and excited that she had agreed to call it a date, though, and if the swarm of squiggly butterflies in her stomach was any indication she was happy and excited too.
The first task she had assigned him was building the fire they would need to heat water and cook the food. Following a brief, chin-scratching survey of their small camp, Naruto had chosen a good spot some distance from the foot of their bedrolls and excavated a shallow pit in the sand.
Phase Two had them both out collecting as many large rocks as they could find on the cave floor to stack around the fire pit, and with a few well-timed suggestions from her Naruto used the flattest rocks in their collection to build a sort of hearth to make cooking easier.
The whole project was looking pretty good, at least until Sakura realized there was no place to hang the blackened kettle she had taken from the hook over the old man's fireplace. After a moment's thought, Naruto's eyes had brightened and he'd held up a grimy finger. He had jogged out to the wrecked boat and bent over the side, rummaged around for a few seconds, then jogged back with a metal fishing spear in his hand.
Meanwhile Sakura had used her bare fist to pound a smooth piece of driftwood into the sand on either side of the hearth, and wedged the point of a kunai into each of the tops. Naruto slipped the straight end of the spear into the finger hole of one kunai, and waited while Sakura scrambled for the kettle. She slid the handle onto the metal bar, and then Naruto set the spear's tip into the finger hole of the other kunai.
They stood side by side, grinning as they watched the kettle gently swing back and forth. It was suspended a perfect distance above where the flames would be.
"Yes!" they cheered simultaneously, sharing a loud, palm-smacking high five for their teamwork.
Naruto continued on, strategically stacking kindling and firewood into the pit while Sakura got started on the laundry. Neither felt a need to speak, and the muted beat of the toad's heart set a comforting rhythm to their chores.
Sitting cross-legged on her bedroll, Sakura had begun pulling dirty clothes from their packs when she noticed the cheerful smile had disappeared from Naruto's face. There was no reason to ask why; the distant expression in his downcast eyes told her he was thinking of Sasuke.
It had already crossed her mind too – when she'd first asked Naruto to make the fire – but she'd hoped that by some miracle he wouldn't think of it. She had hoped that maybe, just once, the past could stay in the past where it belonged. But it seemed that Sasuke was always with them, even when he was as distant as he could be in the ways that counted most, and old routines could be a powerful trigger.
Sakura stole another glance at Naruto as a stream of images from their shared history flickered in her memory. He might be strong and amazing now, but that wasn't the case when they first started out. Back in the early days of Team 7 he hadn't been very good at much of anything, including building fires.
And suddenly, like a movie reel, she could see it all with her mind's eye – how Sasuke used to make a point of saying they needed a fire and then smirk, knowing Naruto would fall for it and jump at the chance to prove himself. She could see Sasuke sitting back, confident and shrewd, letting Naruto do all the work. Letting Naruto run around collecting the firewood and building it up – only to fail at actually getting the fire started.
There was usually a reasonable explanation – damp wood, wet ground, no matches, too much wind – but that was never the point. Sasuke always let Naruto flounder for a while – at least until the ear-splitting shouts and excuses started – and then he would smirk again, as if Naruto were the dumbest guy in the world, and effortlessly breathe the flames to life.
It was Sasuke showing off, pure and simple, and looking back it seemed cruel that Kakashi-sensei never put a stop to it. Maybe he'd thought it built character. But it was the same dirty trick over and over, and it had happened more times than Sakura could count.
She heaved a heavy sigh. It had been unrealistic to hope Naruto might forget being treated that way; it was written all over his face that he hadn't forgotten a thing. His heart was too kind to hold a grudge, but even his forgiving nature couldn't erase the truth – that Sasuke had spent years making him feel second rate, and that part of her used to think it was cool.
The irony was bitter, and Sakura closed her eyes against the shuddering pain in her chest. I'm sorry, Naruto…
"Everything okay, Sakura-chan?" said Naruto, still preoccupied with his intricate pyramid of bleached firewood.
Banishing the ugly past from her thoughts, she replied, "I'm fine. Just feeling chilled."
"Well, you won't for long," he said.
Naruto held up his hand as a signal he was ready for matches. Sakura picked the box out of their collection of supplies and tossed it into the air, and he caught it without looking. Striking a single match and holding it to the splintered pieces of kindling, there was an initial billow of white smoke and then the fire quickly took hold.
He met her gaze from behind the smoky flames then, and they both smiled at the same time. Yes, they were doing perfectly fine on their own as a two-man team.
Once he was sure the fire would keep burning, Naruto left the fire pit and moved to stand near her, his hands on his hips. She was pleased to see that the bandage covering his stomach remained white and dry.
"Getting water," she said. It didn't seem to bother Naruto in the slightest that she was sorting through his underwear. "We can use the wash basin like a bucket. Filling and dumping it into the tub a dozen times will be a lot easier than trying to fill the tub once."
"Hey, how'd you know about that?" He used the toe of his sandal to nudge her knee. "About the toad being able to hold water?"
"Oh, it told me," she said mysteriously, as if she and the diving toad had a long history of sharing secrets. Sakura paused to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "It's very handy, you know – for a toad. And loyal."
"He told you? But Gamakichi said diving toads can't talk."
"It didn't talk," she said.
Sakura glanced up at Naruto then, finding his brow predictably furrowed in confusion. "It didn't actually speak to me," she said.
He frowned. "Then how did you know he could—"
"Because I asked a question out loud and noticed the toad blinked its eyes. I thought maybe it was blinking once for yes and twice for no, so I devised a test to find out." She batted her eyelashes in dramatic illustration. "Then when I got back to the lakeshore with the bath tub I realized we'd need water. I asked the toad if it could store some and it said it could," she said, shrugging and returning her attention to her task.
"The diving toad's not an it, by the way," said Naruto. "He's a he – a him. Male."
His tone was so uncharacteristically studious that Sakura couldn't hide her smile. "How do you know?" she said, fishing her hand around inside his pack one last time to make sure it was empty. Pushing both packs aside, she began to gather all their dirty clothes into a single pile. "It's a smart little thing so it's probably female."
"I know because of his markings." Naruto folded his arms. "I've met a lot of toads on Mount Myoboku, Sakura-chan – and I did a big ecological survey on the Kumo island." Out of the corner of her eye she could see him nod confidently. "You'd be surprised how good I am at wild animal sex," he said.
Sakura's hand immediately flew to her mouth to smother an outburst of giggles. She had no idea what Naruto was talking about, or how he could possibly mean what he had just said, but he was so serious – so proud – so hopelessly cute about it that she didn't want to laugh at him.
She didn't even dare to look at him until she got control of herself. Instead she pretended to cough, as if she had accidentally inhaled a few grains of sand.
"Are you okay? Are you going to get those croaking hiccups again?" he said, sounding almost hopeful.
She stared up at him, still covering her grin. "No," she choked out, coughing one more time for good measure.
"Huh. You know, it's kind of funny. At first you said toads creeped you out," Naruto said with a skeptical smirk. "Then you started sounding like them. And now – now you think they're pretty cool and good to have around."
He offered a hand to her and she accepted, allowing him to pull her to her feet.
"So just admit it, Sakura-chan," he said, as momentum brought them together and he held her loosely with one arm. "You're starting to really like them."
Shaggy blond hair outlining his face, the look in his bright blue eyes was so warm. Almost mesmerizing. And in a moment as hazy and soft as a silk ribbon floating through her mind, Sakura realized Naruto wasn't really talking about toads at all. He was talking about the two of them.
It was as if he'd somehow read her thoughts from before – about how much they had both grown up, how much they had changed – and he understood what she was feeling. Somehow, he knew.
They stood motionless, smiling and staring.
"Water," said Naruto.
"Yes… I – I thought we'd use the uh… the um… iodine-treated water in the… that… in the pot," she said, altogether too distracted by the sensation of his hand at the small of her back to point the finger she had lifted from the curve of his shoulder. "And we should fill the uh… the kettle – with toad water – for our bath – I mean… heat it up for the bath."
Naruto seemed to be watching every small movement of her mouth as she spoke, and that in turn drew her attention to the smooth fullness of his lips when he echoed, "For the bath."
"Hhhnnng," she sighed as she nodded, only vaguely aware that it wasn't a real word.
All of her senses sparking and buzzing, Sakura obeyed her instincts. Her hands slowly glided over his warm skin, along his collar bones to meet behind his neck, and then she leaned against him. Naruto made a sound that wasn't a real word either, and when he tried once more to speak his voice was raspy and uneven.
"S-sakura-chan, I… I really want to—"
As his gaze drifted from her lips to her broad forehead, old insecurities broke the spell and swamped her. Self-doubt forced her to look away, and a second later Naruto's arm dropped from her waist like a lead weight. Her hands slipped off his shoulders when he took an uncertain step backward.
"Naruto—" she whispered. Feeling indescribably empty and afraid, she watched him reach for the wash basin.
"Water," he mumbled.
Sakura tried to hide her feelings and recover as they gathered a tub full of water and lugged it back to their camp. The silence between them was intense and painful, and in the same way he had after the tickling episode, as soon as he possibly could Naruto wandered off to collect more firewood while she finished filling the large kettle and hung it over the fire to boil.
Why did they keep getting so mixed up? One minute everything had been fine. They had been doing their chores and talking about toads. Then the next minute everything had become completely weird and blurry – like some kind of genjutsu that turned them into dizzy idiots who couldn't speak coherent sentences.
For a few seconds Sakura followed Naruto's progress as he walked along the outer edge of the cave, as far away from her as he could get in the confined space. Even from that distance she could read the pensive, moody expression on his face, and the squeezing in her chest came back with a vengeance. It was difficult to breathe.
At least there was a small mountain of laundry to keep her busy while her mind raced. Eying her options among the logs laying nearby, Sakura rolled a short, relatively flat-topped one to a convenient spot and stood it on end. Once it was firmly settled in the sand she set up her washing station and got to work, hoping the diversion would help calm her nerves.
No such luck. Instead, the more she thought about what had happened the more her temper flared. She began to take her frustration out on Naruto's helpless orange tracksuit, first drowning it in the small wash basin and then angrily scrubbing at the stains with a bar of soap.
So just admit it, he'd said. Admit what? What did he want her to say? That she believed in him? She had already said so. Was she supposed to admit he was more important to her than anyone else? She'd already said that, too. Admit she loved him? She'd said it. That Sasuke wasn't in the way anymore? Said it – twice. Admit she'd been wrong? That she was stupid and sorry? Said it, said it, said it.
The top half of the tracksuit was drowned again, turning the water in the basin a cloudy greyish white.
All I hear is you straining to make excuses. I know you too well, Sakura-chan.
Sakura brushed her hair back with a wet forearm and growled under her breath. Excuses? Well, the blade of familiarity cut both ways and she wasn't fooled one bit. Naruto was straining to make excuses too.
He was the one who stood in the snow in front of their friends and still wouldn't admit his feelings – one way or the other.
He was the one who flirted shamelessly but never followed through on anything.
He was the one who didn't play fair.
Her cold-reddened hands seized the tracksuit and twisted the collar as if Naruto's neck were in it. Soapy water sloshed out of the basin then, soaking her feet, her pant legs, and splattering the sand in every direction. It was a small thing, a dumb thing, but right then it felt like the last straw.
Leaning against the smooth tree stump, Sakura fought the need for an all-out cry. As if all the other stupid, embarrassing things she had said and done before weren't enough…
She'd let herself get confused. Let herself get caught up in a moment that was probably never a real moment. She'd made a fool of herself, hanging on Naruto like a lovesick girl begging for her first kiss, and yet all he'd seemed to see was her forehead. That's what hurt.
The tears quickly pooled and spilled over, trailing down her cheeks as her narrow shoulders slumped.
If you don't like me, then just say so!
She was still waiting for his answer.
By the time Naruto returned Sakura had pulled herself together, more or less. Of course there was no way of knowing how much time had passed, but it was long enough that she'd managed to get everything washed except for what they were currently wearing, and all the wet clothes were draped over the rope that was stretched between two of the kerosene torches.
Naruto glanced at her as he dumped his double armload of firewood into the sand. Shivering, Sakura hugged herself with damp-sleeved arms and waited for him to finish stoking the fire before she spoke.
"If you're done there, I'd like it if you would take off your clothes," she said.
As soon as the poorly chosen words were out of her mouth she cringed inwardly. From where he knelt by the fire pit Naruto gaped at her. A stain of pink was slowly coloring his whisker-marked cheeks, but Sakura was sure it wasn't from the heat of the flames.
"You want to take off my pants again?" he said.
If there had been even the slightest hope they could get back to normal – whatever that even meant anymore – it was already ruined. Just that once, why couldn't he have understood what she meant?
Hands clenched into tight fists and mere seconds away from smashing something out of sheer frustration, Sakura put her back to him and pretended to survey their supplies again.
"Don't flatter yourself, Naruto," she said, casting a cold glance over her shoulder. "I need to wash them."
She didn't know what made her say such things. What made her lash out and want to punish him. The rational and honest part of her brain knew it wasn't how she really felt. She knew it wasn't his fault that she was feeling so embarrassed and needy and tangled up inside.
Pulling one of the clean but dingy towels from the stack of spare linen she hesitated, gathering the courage to face him and apologize. She turned back, intending to make the towel into a peace offering, but Naruto had moved from the fire to stand right behind her. Caught by surprise, she nearly bumped into him.
He was studying her face in the same quiet way he had when they'd first seen each other outside his room in Kumo. And like that night, what he was looking for, or what he could see, she didn't know. On that occasion she had known how to react – it had felt right to hug him and say she was sorry. What was she supposed to do now?
Afraid she might cry again if she didn't, Sakura avoided the questioning concern in his eyes and focused on the towel in her hands instead.
"You can wrap yourself up in this," she said, trying to calm the unmistakable quiver in her voice. "Just until I've washed what you're wearing. Then I'll get out of the way and you can take your bath first. The water should be plenty hot by now."
As Naruto reached for the towel his fingers touched the back of her hand and lingered there, and her heart skipped a beat. He tipped his head to catch her eye, and this time she didn't look away.
She couldn't explain it to save her life, but there was something hidden in the brilliant smile he gave her. Some kind of special power. It was infectious. Contagious. It was totally unfair that he could make her feel happy when she didn't want to be – that he could so easily erase all the reasons she had to be hurt and upset with him. It wasn't fair. Nevertheless, against her will, against her instinct for self-preservation, Sakura felt her lips slowly curve into a smile.
"Once I'm clean what do I wear?" Naruto said casually, as if she chose what he wore every day. The touch of his fingers slid away as he took the towel from her.
"I thought – I thought some of the old man's clean clothes. None of yours will be dry until tomorrow. I'll set them out for you."
"And what are you going to wear?"
He waggled his eyebrows at her before he scanned the makeshift clothesline. His grin flipped to a frown right about the time he noticed the pieces of her black Kumo dress hanging there, dripping onto the sand.
"Same as you – some of the old man's clothes," she said.
Naruto scowled. "You mean you're going to wear some old dead guy's clothes on our date?"
"It's not really a date, Naruto," she said quietly, too confused about where they stood with each other to play the game anymore.
"It is too. You said so." He nodded smugly. "Besides, if you're not going to let me train then the least you can do is go on a date with me, Sakura-chan – and wear something pretty."
"I'll be wearing the same thing as you," she said, rolling her eyes. "That means we'll match – isn't that better?"
He slowly shook his head, the grin restored. Pointing toward the Kumo dress, he said, "No, that would be better."
His gaze dropped to her chest then, letting her know in a very unsubtle way that he was remembering exactly what her breasts looked like in the revealing black mesh. He seemed pleased with himself for making her blush, but it was just more of his shameless flirting and she wasn't going to let him enjoy it at her expense.
Sakura deliberately folded her arms in an effort to block his perverted imagination. "Aren't you supposed to be taking a bath?" she said.
"Huh? Oh, right." Naruto swallowed loudly and blinked. He looked down toward his stomach and twisted the towel with his hands.
Anticipating his question she said, "You can't wear that bandage in the tub or you'll ruin it, so I'm going to remove it temporarily. I should have another look at your burns anyway." She took a step forward and dropped to her knees before him.
"Uh… d-do you have to?"
"Well, I don't have an endless amount of bandages, you know, and we need to be careful with our supplies." She leaned back slightly to look up at his face. "I won't knock you out, Naruto, if that's what you're worried about. I promised."
"I know. I get it." He sounded exasperated, as if her reminder of their situation had implied he was stupid.
"Then stand up straight, please," she said in a softer tone.
His hand that clutched the towel was in her way. Gently pushing it aside she tuned her chakra to release the bandage and then began at the top, carefully prying it from his skin.
"Sakura-chan—" Naruto's voice was reedy and his breathing was uneven. As she neared the waistband of his pants his free hand fidgeted and tugged at the edge of the bandage. Impatient, as always. "I – I can do this myself—"
"Hush. If you would just hold still I'd have it done already," she chided.
Her fingers slipped down below his waistband to loosen the bottom edge of the bandage. Working quickly, she pulled the gauze free and carefully folded it in half, putting the clean sides together. Then she paused to examine the seal up close.
His flesh remained red and angry, and warmer to the touch than it should be, but the wounds that bordered the concentric circles and tomoe were closed and hadn't bled again. Taking hold of his hips to steady herself, Sakura closed her eyes and leaned in to smell the lesions – just to make sure. Naruto shuddered and swore under his breath.
"I'm sorry – I know this tickles," she murmured against his skin, "but you know I need to—"
She didn't get a chance to finish checking for necrosis before he abruptly backed up and walked some distance away. Only trained reflexes kept her from falling face forward into the sand.
Sakura was about to complain when he turned and she saw him in profile, and the reason for his odd behavior finally registered. Until that moment her personal experience was limited to textbooks, but there wasn't any doubt. Naruto had become aroused – very aroused – and literally right under her nose.
Clapping a hand over her mouth in pure shock, the tingling blush that burned through her body was immediate and painful. She felt strange. Speechless.
This was why patients were sedated. If Naruto hadn't made her promise not to knock him out – if he hadn't assured her he preferred to be awake during his treatments – something like this could never have happened.
Although his back was turned, Naruto was the first to break the awkward silence.
"So do I have any of that… necro stuff?" The tone of his voice was falsely cheerful, as if he might be hoping she hadn't noticed his… problem.
"N-no, I – I don't think so," she said.
Sakura got to a shaky stand and brushed the sand from the knees of her black uniform pants. His preserved bandage was forgotten in her hand.
"Then I can take a bath now?" he said, wringing the towel nervously.
"I think – I think as long as the biju don't attack you while you're in the tub, you should be okay."
Without looking at her again Naruto nodded and walked to the fire. Using the towel for protection, he retrieved the hot kettle and disappeared behind the curtain of wet laundry.
After setting Naruto's clean clothes and underwear discreetly beneath the clothesline, Sakura retrieved the kettle he'd left within reach and got to work cooking their meal.
Using a bowl to measure the iodine water, she put enough in the kettle to cook rice and then hung it over the fire. She put another measure of water into the larger pot, and spent a few minutes cutting up pieces of dried fish with a kunai. Placing the strips of fish into the pot to soak, she took a few cloves of pickled garlic from the jar and crushed them in a separate bowl before she tossed them in with the fish.
The last ingredients she added from her meager pantry were a few drops of honey and two pinches of salt, using one of the old man's chopsticks to stir the mixture. It wouldn't be the best food they had ever eaten, but it would be warm and reasonably fresh, and a lot better than starving.
Waiting for the rice water to boil gave Sakura time to think. Now that the shock was wearing off she felt cold. Hugging her knees, she stared blankly at the warm flames and tried to figure out how she and Naruto were going to move forward.
It wasn't going to be easy. Their path – their relationship – was beginning to feel like an obstacle course with tricks, traps, and exploding tags around every corner. Was anything they felt… was anything between them actually what it seemed?
Sakura was determined to be rational and stick to the facts. Using the handle of the chopstick she made a tick mark in the sand. Fact one: Naruto never said he was in love with her. There was only Sai's word for it, and by his own admission Sai was clueless about feelings.
She made another tick mark. Fact two: Naruto could have kissed her earlier if he'd wanted to – when she practically threw herself at him – but he didn't. If he was in love with her, what was he waiting for?
Sakura flicked a small shell out of the way before she stabbed the next tick mark into the sand.
Fact three: sexual relationships between current teammates were strictly discouraged. She could still remember the academy lectures about the dangers of sex with your teammates, how it was too distracting and destabilizing and it "risked destroying the complex bond of confidence, trust, and reliance between two people who have trained together for most of their lives." Sometimes such relationships worked out – and there was always gossip floating around about couples who had done it – but not nearly as often as they failed.
Never touch a man below the waist unless you are prepared to deal with the consequences.
Tsunade-sama's uncompromising voice echoed inside her head. The advice had been given in a medical context – in the form of the infamous patient privacy rule – but Sakura understood now, in a way she hadn't before, that there was a more obvious meaning. It actually applied more to lovers than patients. Tsunade-sama had been trying to warn her about the complications of sex.
Fact four: they were on a mission. The shinobi world was counting on Naruto, and he was counting on her. She was supposed to be a good medic. That was the reason she had been ordered to Naruto's side in the first place. She needed to stay focused on his health and morale, so he could stay focused on the mission.
Sakura sighed and made a final line. Fact five: despite all the other facts, it didn't change how she felt. It might have taken a long time to realize she loved Naruto, but now that she knew she only wanted to be close to him. She wanted to be at his side in every way.
It was dangerous, and she would die before she admitted it, but as she stared into the flames again Sakura let the wicked truth run free in her mind. Her fingers straying into his pants had set him off. Being on her knees in front of him, gripping his hips and leaning in to breathe his skin had turned him on. Knowing that, and seeing the hard evidence for herself, had done something similar to her. Something wild…
Suddenly she felt overheated and laid back in the sand, away from the fire's heat to stare at the high, grey-green ceiling. This time the toad's heartbeat couldn't match the pounding of her own. Slowly but steadily she cooled off, and once her senses had realigned she could hear the faint hiss of the water boiling in the kettle.
Sitting up, Sakura poured in a measure of rice and set the small lid on the kettle. She noticed that the handle was slightly bent so the lid didn't fit perfectly. Reaching for one of the strips of towel she'd made earlier, she folded it and set it beneath the lid.
"What's that do? I mean, what's it for?"
Naruto's voice was unexpectedly close. Unaware that he had finished bathing and was watching her, she shrugged self-consciously.
"The lid doesn't fit right and that will let the steam escape," she said, much more calmly than she felt. "Without steam, rice won't cook properly. The cloth helps keep the steam in the pot."
Naruto lowered himself to sit beside her, the scent of soap clinging to his skin and damp, unruly hair. He casually brushed the sand from the back of her shirt, and then raised his hand to softly dust it from her hair. She shivered involuntarily.
"You're so smart, Sakura-chan," he said with an easy smile. The shirt she'd set out for him was in his other hand. No doubt he was waiting to put it on after she reapplied his bandage.
She understood from his tone and manner that he was trying to act totally relaxed – to make things seem normal. He was trying too hard, and that could only mean one thing. He knew that she knew he'd been excited by the bandage incident – and it was best for both of them if they steered clear of that particular exploding tag.
"It's just a trick I learned by watching my mother," she said, smiling faintly.
They were both silent for a while before Naruto spoke again. "I never watched my mom cook rice, but I did learn a trick from her."
"You did?" Sakura stirred the softening fish with her chopstick. The garlic was beginning to smell wonderful thanks to the heat.
"She showed me how being loved makes you happy, and how being happy makes you strong," he said.
At first he didn't look at her, but then he turned and met her gaze. The blue of his eyes was warm again, and for a moment she felt dizzy.
"T-that's a trick?"
Naruto laughed. "Well, it kind of seemed like one to me."
"Is that when she – your mom – helped you take Kurama's chakra?"
"Yeah." He sighed and picked at a loose thread on the shirt laying across his lap. "But it wasn't like Mom was really there in my head. It was just that little bit of her chakra left in the seal."
Sakura shivered involuntarily again, but for a different reason this time.
"Naruto, remember how I said that maybe – maybe we could gang up on the biju?" She stirred the fish stew again.
"Yeah." His immediate interest forced him to sit up straight. "What did you mean?"
"Well," she began, still unsure of the facts, "when I heal you – through the seal – I've noticed that I can… I mean, I think that your body is adapting to my chakra signature."
"Whoooaaa," he said, a peculiar smile lighting his face. "Really?"
Sakura nodded. "The first time I directed my healing chakra like I would with any patient – controlling where I wanted it to go – where it needed to go. The second time… you did."
It didn't seem possible that his smile could get any wider but it did, and then it faded. "Huh. I guess I don't get it, Sakura-chan. How does that help us gang up on them?"
"Because… what happens when you're fighting with them? The intense fever and pain from the wounds around the seal breaks your concentration, and you have to drop out of meditation, right?"
"Well, what if I… I don't know," she smiled at him anxiously, "what if I meditated with you and kept my healing chakra in the seal? I could control your fever and pain, while you fight the biju."
"You are so smart," he said again. He rubbed at his chin for a second, lost in thought. "I've never tried to meditate with someone else."
"Do you think it could work?"
Naruto grinned broadly, and sitting that much closer to him she could smell toothpaste on his breath.
"I bet if I can do it with anyone it's you, Sakura-chan." Almost bouncing with excitement he took hold of her hand. "Come on, let's try it!"
"Now? No." She shook her head but didn't pull her hand away.
"Well, let's see." She pretended it was a struggle to remember. "Because… you're supposed to be resting. Because the rice is almost done and we need to eat this fish stew while it's hot," she said, using her chin to point at the pot, "and last but not least, while you may be all nice and clean and sweet-smelling, I haven't had the luxury of taking a bath yet."
"But you're always sweet-smelling, Sakura-chan."
It was such a cheesy effort to charm her into doing what he wanted that Sakura couldn't stop herself from giggling. "And you are a liar, Naruto."
Getting the rice done and pulling the stew pot from the fire was all she managed to accomplish before he wore her down and she agreed to try the meditation – just to shut him up.
They sat face to face, both in the lotus position. The best he could, Naruto explained the principles of Sage meditation so she would know what to expect. The most important thing, as she would have guessed, was that she hold her body as still as possible so she didn't interrupt his concentration. Otherwise his rule was in force: no conversation, no noise, no nothing.
At first they tried it with her leaning forward, her chakra-charged fingers as near the seal on his abdomen as she could get them. But despite her efforts and superior chakra control, she couldn't hold the position for long without making small compensations in her posture that he found distracting.
They tried again and again but it wasn't working. Not surprising, she grew frustrated more quickly than Mr. Never Give Up. Taking a momentary break to stretch, Sakura handed him a canteen with an order to hydrate.
"You said my body knows what to do with your chakra, right?" he said, taking a large swallow of water.
"That's how it felt to me, yes."
"Then you don't really need to lean over and force your chakra into the seal – I can do it."
While she considered his suggestion, Naruto put the stopper in the canteen and buried its base in the sand near his hip. He positioned his elbows on his knees and then raised his hands.
"Let's try it this way," he said, his eyes already closed as he waited for her to match his pose.
Sakura tightened her lotus and scooted as close to him as she could get. Their knees and shins were pressed together, as were the palms of their hands. Naruto was right; this was going to make it much easier for her to control her posture.
In a matter of minutes Sakura felt the familiar pull of the seal, and she could already tell it was going to be different than any other healing she had ever performed. Although her mind still followed her signature as it traveled along the channels, the coils in Naruto's body were assisting her technique as they had before, dynamically drawing the healing chakra from her on their own.
It couldn't have been more than a few hours since she had last treated his burns and fever, so his tissues and organs had not deteriorated much under the constant presence of the unrestrained biju. Because Naruto was more or less controlling his treatment, there was no specific urgency on her part to concentrate on healing. That gave her the rare opportunity to fully experience the sensations of their blended energy – to better understand how it worked.
Her awareness – of her own body, of Naruto's, even that of the toad hosting them – was significantly heightened. There was a strong and steady current everywhere, as if everything around them was charged with electricity. It wasn't flowing through her, exactly; it was flowing through Naruto, and she could feel it within the coils of his system, speeding alongside her own chakra. Sakura assumed it was an effect of Sage meditation, but she didn't dare open her eyes to see if Naruto's were marked with orange.
She felt warm. Strong. Fearless. And as she settled in, and became more used to the strange and prolonged connection to Naruto, Sakura could hear them. Somehow, the swirling knot of tailed beast chakra felt more controlled than the other times she had sensed it. More confined. It was focused entirely on Naruto. Because he was with them, engaging them directly in his mind, the blistering anger of the biju wasn't raging unanswered in his flesh.
Trying to imagine what Naruto was saying to them – what they looked like – what it was like to face them and fight them – Sakura's curiosity grew. She urged her chakra along the core of Naruto's central nervous system, and then climbed his spinal column. In a span of time too brief to measure, her energy had reached the bright, golden space of his conscious mind.
The temptation to join him – to enter Naruto's subconscious – was very strong. But she felt like an intruder. It seemed to her that if he had needed her there, or had wanted her there, he would have directed her chakra himself.
The raging grew louder, and mixed in with the roars was Naruto's voice. He was shouting, at times yelping in pain. Sakura concentrated, sifting through the noise and surging power for Naruto's chakra signature, and realized that with every sound he made there was a corresponding drain on her healing energy. Like a tiny leak. He was in trouble.
Unwilling to hesitate any longer, she pushed her thoughts through the window to his inner mind and was immediately disconnected from her actual body. Although she understood that she was still sitting in the cave meditating with Naruto, she could no longer sense it. Nevertheless, she retained physical form, and that was her first clue that the rules were different here.
Dressed in her usual red top, black shorts, pink apron skirt and boots, she was standing at the shadowy edge of a huge, dimly lit circle with what felt like solid ground under her feet. Her hands were gloved, pink guards covered her elbows, and her Leaf forehead protector was there – tied like a headband the way she always wore it. Since she had not chosen this appearance, it must have been Naruto. This was the way he thought of her.
The sound was deafening, and the scene before her was like nothing Sakura could have imagined. Positioned similar to numbers on a clock, the biju formed a circle facing each other. They were like monstrous skyscrapers – forty times the height of a human if they were a meter – and Naruto, looking small and outnumbered in his orange tracksuit, was on his hands and knees in the center.
Tightening the fit of her gloves as she ran, Sakura headed straight for the circle. As she skidded to a stop beside Naruto, the roaring dulled and sputtered into side conversations and mumblings. The tailed beasts seemed surprised by her presence. All but one. The Nine Tails, who occupied the top spot in their grotesque clock, began to laugh.
"So… it is her," said Kurama, peering out from behind the bars that caged him. His huge teeth were revealed by a sinister smile. "Hmm… it's just as I thought."
"Sakura-chan – what are you doing here?" said Naruto, wearily sitting back on his heels.
"I'm not really sure," she said. "I could hear you in here and I thought – I thought maybe you could use a little help."
She offered him a gloved hand and pulled him to his feet. Rewarded with a brief but dazzling smile, they automatically moved to stand back to back and began to turn in a slow circle as Sakura got her first chance to evaluate their opponents.
In addition to Kurama, the tailed beast at the two o'clock position was also restrained and confined behind bars. It was a huge blue cat that seemed to be made of flames. It didn't speak to her, but when she met its odd gaze – one gold eye and one green – it nodded formally. There was a blank space between Kurama and the blue cat, and Sakura assumed it was the place reserved for the One Tail that was still missing.
The others, in order, were a turtle with a crab-like shell and three shrimp tails; a gigantic gorilla with yellow eyes and red fur; and a white horse with a dolphin's head spiked with five horns of various lengths. Due to her familiarity with Katsuyu, Sakura paused to take a closer look at the immense six-tailed slug that was next in line. It was blue-white, with two feet and two stumpy arms, and appeared to be covered with an unusual hissing slime.
The last two were what looked like a blue-armored rhinoceros beetle, and a half-ox, half-octopus with eight enormous tentacles. She knew that Killer Bee had been the jinchuriki of the Eight Tails, and the words were tumbling out before she stopped to think.
"Naruto told me about Bee," she said, bowing slightly. "I'm very sorry." The beast nodded its massive ox-like head but didn't speak.
Without missing a beat, Naruto leveled his gaze at the giant beetle. "Chomei, you and your slug buddy there – Saiken – ganged up on me before, but it looks like this fight might be a little more even."
To Sakura's astonishment a loud argument instantly broke out between the slug and the beetle. It seemed that neither wanted to be considered the other's "buddy." She had to wonder if Naruto had chosen to say it that way on purpose.
His hands on his hips, Naruto raised his voice and shouted over their squabbling. "Well, what's it going to be?"
The beetle, Chomei, shuffled forward. Six of its tails were fanned out like green insect wings, while the seventh trailed along the ground like a long whip. Its movements were odd, both fluid and disjointed at the same time, and unlike anything Sakura had ever seen before.
"Two for the price of one?" it said in a happy, almost sing-song voice. "It's my lucky day."
Upon those words Naruto nodded to accept the challenge and proceeded to fill the space behind them with clones to cover their flank. From the sound of it the beetle intended to fight for itself, by itself, but it was always best to expect the unexpected.
Sakura wasn't sure what to do. The reality was she was out of her league against tailed beasts. She had no experience with them beyond having witnessed Naruto in partial transformation. But she had no fear. Her body was safe in the toad cave, and her chakra was safe within Naruto. She was willing to help him however she could.
More of his clones appeared, casting her asea in an ocean of blond hair. The noise level was thunderous again as the other tailed beasts became interested in the building fight. They acted like spectators at the Chuunin Exams, watching and commenting and cheering from the stands.
Naruto's clones were forming Rasengan all around her, and in a synchronized maneuver they rushed toward Chomei. A few of the blows landed, but the beetle dodged the rest by beating all six of its wing-tails and levitating just high enough to get beyond their reach. Another staged assault turned out the same, resulting in Chomei's sickeningly cheerful laughter.
But during that second attempt Sakura noticed that Chomei's seventh tail never left the ground. That was the key. She turned around and quickly worked her way through the flanking clones. As if they could read her mind, some of them shielded her from view as best they could while the rest mounted a third campaign.
As she dashed from cover to get in position behind their opponent, one of her escort clones accidentally brushed against the six-tailed slug and dispersed in a cloud of noxious gas. The blond sea surged toward Chomei, who was already laughing at the futility of such a predictable attack. The beetle fanned its wings once more, obviously planning to evade the blows by flying out of range.
Sakura flexed the muscles in her arm, and with a subtle nod to Naruto's clones she slammed her fist against the beetle's tail and pinned it to the ground. Like a hideously ugly kite reaching the end of its tether, the Seven Tails was abruptly jolted in mid-air. The other beasts howled with laughter.
Chomei twisted its enormous armored head around to confront the source of its humiliation. Glowing orange eyes were fixed on hers, and all six of its blue legs – armor-plated appendages with sharp tips – slashed at her. Sakura easily evaded the thrashing limbs and retreated quickly, rejoining Naruto as his clones moved forward.
Taking full benefit of the diversion she had provided, many more Rasengan hit their mark this time and the giant insect sagged under the power of the attack. About half of the clones suddenly dispersed, but those that remained began to rearm. Sakura could feel the tension in Naruto and sense his intention. With Chomei on the defensive, this was his best shot.
She felt a sharp increase of power coursing through Naruto's body. All the copies of him she could see now bore the orange markings of Sage Mode, and each glowing mass of chakra they held had exploded in size.
"Still think it's your lucky day?" Naruto yelled to the struggling beast, and he and his clones advanced on the beetle a final time.
Not willing to give up easily, Chomei boomed a hissing howl and somehow seemed to double its body mass. The other biju were all roaring advice – some to Chomei, some to Naruto. But to Sakura's mind, if this assault was going to work she needed to provide another timely distraction.
It had to be something new. An ancient force like a tailed beast would never fall for the same simple trick twice. Instead of attacking from below, this time she would attack from above.
In a split second Sakura had made her decision. Edging her way near the front of the crowd, she whispered her simple instructions to two of Naruto's clones that were standing by.
"Give me a boost," she said.
They nodded, joined hands, and leaned down. Allowing herself some room for momentum, Sakura ran at them and planted one booted foot on the step they had formed with their hands. Their combined strength sent her soaring high into the air, and as she tumbled and spun she caught the eye of the real Naruto. That was all it took to agree on their plan.
The clones rushed forward in waves. As expected, Chomei attempted to escape through flight, but its eyes were heavily shielded by armor and that severely limited its field of vision. It had lost sight of her.
Reaching maximum height Sakura began a graceful but strategic fall, and as she sped downward toward her target she flipped into position. Streamlining her body like a missile, she aimed right for the top of the beetle's head.
She could see the impact waves as Naruto's Sage-enhanced Rasengan hit their mark below. Chomei thrashed and flailed, and in a desperate rush of wing-tails it began to lift off the ground. Focusing all the strength she had into her arm, Sakura's fist made contact with the beetle's armored skull. The force of the blow she delivered dropped the beast flat on its abdomen, and before it knew what had hit it – literally – Naruto's clones closed in.
While some pummeled Chomei with the last of the Rasengan, others began to pull at the threads of chakra that had begun to separate from its body. The beetle roared its displeasure again and tipped its head back. A dark sphere was forming in the back of its throat, but a clone stepped forward and released the final blow.
Sakura landed on the ground near enough to see Naruto's chakra envelope the beast's head and finally sever its hold on its chakra.
The real Naruto was some distance away, systematically dispersing the clones and gathering all the chakra threads into his body. The moment he had completely absorbed Chomei's chakra there was a spark of light, and Sakura could feel Naruto's energy signature change. It was as if an invisible dial had been turned up and the core of his being was vibrating with pure electricity.
Restraints dropped from the darkness above, some pinning Chomei in position while others formed a cage around its subdued body. A swirl of chakra became a lock at the front, and when it darkened into the shape of a tomoe Sakura was sure there would now be a corresponding third tomoe within the seal on Naruto's abdomen.
Naruto ran toward her then, his fist punching the air and his smile a bright flash of teeth. Expecting another high five, in the space of a heartbeat his arms had slipped around her waist instead and he lifted her off the ground. Sakura giggled happily as they twirled in a dizzying circle of victory.
Once her feet finally touched down again she felt dangerously lightheaded, but didn't want to spoil the moment of Naruto's success with a complaint. Instead she clasped her hands behind his neck and eased against him slightly, letting his strong arms help hold her steady.
"Now this – this is what I call a date," he said.
His eyes were warm and mesmerizing again, just as they had been before. But this time, without any stuttering or hesitation, he leaned in and kissed her.
It wasn't a quick little kiss. It wasn't a shy one, either. It was soft and insistent, a kiss that held the heat of the sun. The honest warmth radiated through her, filling her up… melting her fears and confusion. Here, where the rules were different, Naruto was free to show her how he felt. He was free to make her believe that in his mind, at least, she was the most beautiful and amazing girl in the world.
Sakura tightened her arms around his neck and kissed him back, making her head spin even more. She didn't want it to end, but their private moment was invaded by a sly voice that rumbled above the conversations of the other tailed beasts.
"It's about time, Naruto," Kurama snickered. "But it's not the best time."
Naruto reluctantly released his gentle hold on her lips. "Huh? What's wrong with now?"
"Idiot, can't you feel it?" Kurama hissed impatiently. "Her chakra is fading. You have nearly drained her."
Sakura's knees buckled then and she collapsed in Naruto's arms. His panicked shouts drifted away until they became a distant ringing, only to grow louder and louder again. When she fought to open her heavy-lidded eyes once more they were back in the cave, still sitting lotus to lotus and palm against palm.
"Sakura-chan, are you all right? Sakura-chan—"
Naruto's rough voice was tight, his blue eyes wide and desperate with fear. She wanted so much to calm him, to tell him that it wasn't his fault, but she didn't have enough strength left to speak.
Sakura's senses blurred and began a slow, streaking fade to black. As if by his own strength he could somehow stop her from slipping away, Naruto grabbed her hand and pulled, twisting her into his lap before she hit the sand.