A/N: I'm sorry for the slow update, but real life has not gone as well as it could. Thanks for sticking with me on this story.

As always, many thanks to scarlett71177 for knowing how to be a true friend. All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.

Chapter 9

Sakura waited until Naruto's breathing deepened and his arm had gone slack before she quietly left his side. For a few moments she stood perfectly still and watched him sleep. In the low firelight the messy hair that framed his face was the color of burnished gold and his skin seemed to glow. He looked so peaceful and happy, and it made her smile.

With each step she took away from the fire the sand beneath her feet grew colder, and when she ducked beneath the curtain of laundry the air on the other side seemed colder still. But the chilly sensation didn't matter much. Although she was in the belly of a diving toad, submerged in a lake, in the dark, and no one – not even Naruto – could see her, Sakura was already keenly aware of her nude body. She felt different. Changed. She was no longer a naïve girl.

Carefully pulling the old man's soft blue shirt from the clothes line, she slipped it on but didn't bother to button it. Then she stepped over to the stump with the washbasin and, as quietly as she could, splashed cold water on her face and dried off with a scrap of towel. It wasn't that she was trying to hide anything from Naruto, she reasoned. It was just that she wanted time alone to sort out her thoughts. She had to do what needed to be done as quickly as possible, and it would be easier without his questions and concern.

Sakura closed her eyes and listened to the toad's heartbeat. Focusing healing chakra into her hands, she placed them on her lower abdomen. Relief from the bruising and soreness was a simple bit of self-healing, and whatever discomfort she had felt swiftly melted away. But that was the easy part.

What came next – what absolutely had to be done – was a procedure she had learned during her training but had never performed; a technique that Tsunade-sama required all Konoha medics to know. The field deployment of kunoichi made it an unfortunate necessity, since there was always a risk they could be captured by an enemy at any time and subjected to sexual assault. Consensual sex among the ranks was always a risk as well, regardless of command disapproval. She and Naruto were living proof of it.

It may not have been the best decision to give in to temptation and complicate their situation, but she could still limit the consequences. They were simply not prepared for such a responsibility. They had just started to really know and understand each other. They were young shinobi on a dangerous mission in the middle of a war, and it was by no means certain that either of them would ever see their village again. They were in no position to risk bringing an innocent, defenseless life into the world.

Squaring her shoulders with resolve, Sakura concentrated and then flooded her womb with chakra. She followed the specifically-tuned energy with her mind, just as she would if she were healing another patient, but it wasn't as straightforward. It was much more difficult to maintain the precision required when the signatures of the healing chakra and the target tissue and organs were the same.

Fortunately her intimate knowledge of Naruto's chakra and physiology served the task well. Easily distinguished from her own, the millions of living cells encoded with his DNA were perfectly clear to her mind's eye, and in a matter of seconds each one went dark and collapsed, torn apart by a microscopic chakra needle.

The needles rushed on, and in a final controlled burst she made two small, bilateral incisions and fused them closed. There would be no possibility of pregnancy now, at least not until she was ready and chose to have the procedure reversed.

Sakura leaned back against the stump and hugged herself for a while, watching her toes sift through the sand without really seeing them. She had done the smart thing and done it in time. It was the right thing for both of them, she was sure of it. So why did she feel so strange and empty?

Breathe, she reminded herself. Just breathe.

When she returned to the fire Naruto was lying on his side, curled up in defense of the damp chill with his arm stretched across the space where she had been. Sakura dropped to her knees and reached for the blanket before she crawled onto her bedroll. Although he was still half asleep, Naruto shifted to his back again and drew her to his side. She pulled the blanket over their legs and settled down, positioning herself where she could see his face.

"Where'd you go, Sakura-chan?" he mumbled, his eyes closed.

"Oh, just to splash a little water on my face," she said.

His arm tightened around her. "I like it better when you're with me."

Sakura smiled at his simple manner. "Me too." It was true. His warm strength made her feel safe and hopeful again. After a short silence she said, "Naruto?"

"Yeah?" His chest rose and fell in a calm rhythm but his eyes remained shuttered.

"What do you think people will say – the others – when they find out two teammates from their academy class are having sex?"

She could tell her question had filtered into his sleepy brain when his forehead wrinkled. "Who had sex?"

Dense brain was more like it. Sakura angled her head to stare at him. Incredulous, she propped herself up on an elbow.

"Look at me," she commanded. The unbuttoned indigo-blue shirt she was wearing fell open, and when Naruto obeyed she knew he had a good view of her breasts. "Who do you think I'm talking about?"

He blinked but did not answer.

She nudged him roughly with her hand and sighed in frustration. "We're both lying here naked. For all intents and purposes we've been sleeping in the same bed since we got here – you know, like husband and wife. We just kissed and touched each other and—" Abruptly running out of bravado, Sakura's face burned with a fiery blush and she fell silent.

Naruto was wide-eyed by then, the expression on his face transforming into a contorted mixture of shock and panic. His scrambling heels dug into the bedroll as he tried to sit up.

"I'm s-sorry, S-sakura-chan," he choked out in a garbled stutter. "I didn't mean to – I mean, I would never – please don't—" He paused to swallow hard. "I'm sorry – really sorry—"

His genuine fear that he had done something wrong or had somehow treated her with disrespect brought unexpected tears to her eyes. "Hush," she whispered softly, shaking her head. She leaned in to offer a kiss of encouragement, and although he was struck with uncertainty he took it. "You have no reason to be sorry, Naruto. I'm not."

She offered another kiss that he returned with more confidence, and then she urged him to relax and lie down. He put his arm around her and pulled her to his side once more. Neither spoke for a while, and Sakura spent the time with her hand resting over Naruto's heart, wondering if she would ever understand the way his mind worked. She always seemed to say things and react in ways that made him feel stupid or in the wrong, when in her heart she wouldn't do it for the world. How long would their relationship be an obstacle course of traps and exploding tags?

"Please don't take this the wrong way," she said finally, "but it's kind of hard to believe this has really happened. You know, that you and I have happened."

"Yeah," he said, tucking his free arm behind his head. "A couple of times I've wondered if… maybe I'm asleep or something."

Sakura smiled again. "Asleep? Why would you say that?"

"Well, because I used to have dreams like this," he said, his tone uncharacteristically quiet and serious.

Used to. There was no point in asking what he meant. She had beaten him over the head with her tragic love for Sasuke so many times that he had learned to push his own feelings aside. It might not have been as obvious as the beating he had taken from Karui, but Sai had let Sakura know in no uncertain terms that she had hurt Naruto far worse. She had been so stupid for so long.

"Naruto, I need to tell you something," she said.

"Okay." Although that word on its own didn't betray him, there was a sudden tension in his muscles – as if he was afraid of what she might say next.

"One day when I was with Tsunade-sama – when she was in her coma – Sai came to see me. He told me that you… that you were in love with me."

"That bastard," Naruto ground out, thumping his fist against the bedroll. "What a big mouth. I ought to shut it for him so he'll learn to mind his own business."

"Don't be that way, Naruto," Sakura said softly. It wasn't his fault that he didn't understand. He wasn't there that day. It had been her bitter lesson to learn, and every convicting word Sai had said was burned into her memory. "Sai did it because he's a true friend. He really cares about you."

"But I didn't want—" Naruto sighed in an irritated way. "He shouldn't have done it."

"He shouldn't have told me the truth just because you wouldn't tell me yourself?" She felt the sting of tears in her eyes again; it was so painful to think about what she had done. "You think he was wrong for making me see that the feelings I had for Sasuke were hurting you, and I was too selfish and blind to figure out why you really made that promise to me?"

His silence gave her the answer he wouldn't admit out loud.

Sakura stared into pulsing darkness above them. It would be easy to assume Naruto was simply angry at Sai for meddling in his love life, but she knew it was deeper and more complicated than that. Sai was a constant reminder that Team 7 wasn't the same anymore; he was a living, breathing testament to Sasuke's decision to turn his back. Naruto was still locked in a private battle with Sasuke, and didn't want anyone or anything to interfere. In the end it had been easier for her to let go.

After a while she said, "I used to believe Sasuke was better than both of us, and all I wanted was to be good enough and pretty enough that he would notice me. I was so serious about him taking me seriously."

"I know," said Naruto.

"And I mistook that feeling – of wanting his acknowledgement – for wanting him. I thought it was love." Sakura took a deep breath and released it slowly, then shook her head against Naruto's shoulder. "The truth is… I think I would have gotten over it a lot sooner if he hadn't given me hope."

"What hope?" She didn't need to look up at him to know he was frowning; she could tell by the sound of his voice. "When was that?"

"Oh, a long time ago – way back when we were still in school," she said, absently gliding her hand over his smooth chest. "I was sitting alone one day and he showed up out of the blue. He gave me a compliment and almost kissed me. I really thought he wanted me but was too shy."


She craned her neck to plant a kiss on Naruto's neck. "But now I know it was really you the whole time."

His whole body seemed to tense up again. "What, uh… what do you mean it was really me?"

"I mean that all that time you were better than Sasuke. I mean that it's you I want to be good enough to be with." She reached up and gently turned his face toward hers. "It's your acknowledgement I want."

Naruto gathered her in his arms and pulled her on top of him. "Sakura-chan," he whispered, his unnerving blue eyes darkened with emotion as he searched her face.

If she had thought straddling his hips left little to the imagination when they were wearing clothes, it was nothing compared to the raw honesty they shared now. Maybe she should have been past her old insecurities already, but talking so openly about her feelings and the painful past had made them seem fresh and vivid. In that intensely private moment, when she knew what was going to happen, Sakura suddenly felt self-conscious again. Stripped bare and vulnerable in every sense.

Unable to look at him, she bought time by trailing kisses from his cheek to his ear, then slowly down his neck to his chest. His fingers were playing in her hair, and then, after some time, he took her face in his hands and drew her upward. The warm and gentle kiss he placed on her forehead filled her with a sense of peace and acceptance her heart had never known.

Sakura relaxed and let her weight rest on his chest as they kissed, knowing he liked to play the part of willing captive. She searched for his wrists then and held them down near his head, kissing him as slowly and deeply as she could. When he breathed a low, desperate-sounding growl against her lips she smiled, excited by the hot thrill that shot through her.

Naruto easily broke free from her grasp and smoothed his hands over her behind the same way he had before, this time gripping it so fiercely she was sure it would leave marks. The indigo shirt fell like a curtain on either side of them, and she loved how it felt each time her breasts touched his chest. Heat and need pushed them on, beyond the awkward moments when his hands steered her hips into position.

Trading slow kisses, they eased together completely. With no nervousness, fears, or pain to distract her, the experience was very different. This time she felt warm and tingly with electricity. And vaguely anxious. Naruto urged her to sit up then, and within seconds the electrical current seemed to double.

As if a dark shade had been drawn, the light of rational thought was blotted out and instinct sought to guide her. Sakura closed her eyes and began to move her hips. She took it slow at first, reveling in the feeling of wild freedom and the strength of Naruto's reassuring hands on her thighs.

But the warm tingle grew stronger and stronger, becoming a sizzling fuse that flashed with a white-hot brightness when it finally detonated. A shuddering shockwave seized her entire body then, and she barely had the sense to recognize that the soft, gasping appeal for more was her own voice.

Naruto planted his hands on the bedroll beneath them and pulled himself to a sitting position, bringing her with him and forcing her legs wider as her knees connected with the driftwood headboard. He reached up to push the unbuttoned shirt off her shoulders, and the fabric slithered down her back to gather around her elbows. He balanced her in his arms and like a seductive swan, Sakura arched backward.

Without hesitation his mouth was at one breast and then the other, over and over until the white-hot light flashed again. She opened her eyes to find Naruto looking up at her face, the smallest trace of a smile on lips. She leaned down to kiss him but he broke away, and all too soon it was over.

They sat still for a minute or so until their breathing slowed, and then in an awkward sort of tumble they separated, both shifting around until they could lie next to each other but comfortably flat.

"That was… I mean… compared to the first time… wow," Sakura said breathlessly, brushing the hair away from her forehead. She felt flushed. Radiant. "I have never felt anything like that before." After taking another slow, deep breath she sighed. "Wow."

"I know." Naruto shifted to his side, an easy smile on his own flushed face. "It's better than… ramen."

"Better than ramen? Oh yes, that's what a girl wants to hear," she said, frowning petulantly as she thumped him square in the chest.

"Sakura-chan," he said, taking hold of her hand and turning her toward him. "I just meant… well, ramen was the best thing I could think of."

Sakura woke in the loose hold of Naruto's arms. They must have both fallen asleep quickly because the last thing she could remember was his silly comparison of sex and ramen. The fire had been unattended for quite a while, as it was mostly embers and ashes now. It was still warm enough for the time being, but would need to be stoked soon.

Although his eyes were still closed, she didn't let that stop her from trailing her fingertips down his neck to the hollow at the base of his throat. She couldn't get enough of touching him, it seemed. His lashes fluttered open then and he smiled.

"I have a question," she said, watching the progress of her fingers on his skin.


"The way you made me feel… it was like you could read me. Like you knew what I wanted." She met his gaze. Accepting that he was a kinesthete was one thing, but understanding it was another. "How can you do that?"

"Because… I'm awesome?" he said, flashing his familiar cheesy grin.

It was all Sakura could do not to laugh. "As a matter of fact you are – that's what I'm saying – but you lose points when you brag about it." His expression reminded her of a scolded puppy. "And you didn't answer my question."

"That's because I don't know. I don't know if I can explain it." He seemed lost in thought for a few seconds. "When I touch something… or try stuff… that's how I figure out how it works and what I'm supposed to do."

"So you're saying that… when you touch me you just know what to do? Like magic?"

A slight blush in his cheeks made the whisker marks stand out. Naruto half-shrugged. "Yeah, I suppose… sort of. I don't really think about it. It's more like… I can hear what my body says. It tells me what to do and I do it."

Sakura's mouth twitched with a smile. "Who would have thought that you, of all people, would turn out to be such a good listener?"

"Okay, now you're just being mean, Sakura-chan," he said, slowly flexing his fingers into claws, "and it's payback time."

For a while their private world echoed with her shrieks and giggles as Naruto tickled her without mercy, but before too long they were kissing again. Lying naked beneath him, Sakura could not remember ever feeling so much joy or trust in another living soul. This kind of happiness – this liberty – was dangerously addicting, and they were on the verge of a serious binge.

"Naruto," she whispered, using a break for air as a chance to speak. "We're getting carried away again."

"So?" he murmured, continuing to kiss her.

"I don't want you to be right – that I'm too much of a distraction," she said. As her words started to sink in his kisses slowed, and then he finally leaned back. "We're on the most important mission of our lives but we're not acting like it."

He gave up then and rolled over onto his back, making no effort to hide that he was aroused again. "Damn it," he said, his forearm covering his eyes. "So we're just… never going to do it again?"

Sakura pulled the blanket up to cover herself. "Not never. I'm not saying that at all." She was tempted to comfort him but didn't dare. Not yet or they would be back where they just were. "I'm saying it can't be all we do or all we think about. And really, you're the one who said it was wrong in the first place, remember?"

Naruto cursed again before he sighed heavily. "Yeah… I know."

Although he seemed resigned she knew he wasn't sold yet, but she had an idea. Propping herself up on an elbow, she took care to hold the blanket against her chest. "The ramen cup you shared with me – that was going to be your reward, right?"


"Well, let's make this the reward instead."

His arm slipped away from his face and he stared up toward the hidden ceiling. "So I have to beat the last three biju first?"

Put that way, Sakura didn't like the deal. They had no way of knowing how long it would take. "How about… um… a reward for every biju?"

The words had hardly left her mouth before Naruto was on his feet. After a brief, chaotic search for his underwear and pants he found them in the sand just beyond the halo of firelight. Sakura had to shield herself from the rain of sand when he shook them out, but a few grains got in her mouth anyway. She was trying to spit them out when he zipped his pants and turned to her.

"I'm going to train," he announced, his chest puffed out and his determination to focus on the mission restored.

"No, you're not."

He stared at her, a deep crease lining his forehead. "But you just said—"

"What I mean is, I don't want you training until I get back." It wasn't easy to stand while trying to keep herself covered. After several unsuccessful attempts Naruto offered his hand and pulled her to her feet. Once they were eye to eye and she had the blanket securely wrapped around her, she explained. "I need to be here in case you need treatment. I promise I won't be gone very long."

"Gone? What are you talking about, Sakura-chan?"

She launched the same clothing search he had just been through. Finding her pants, tee shirt, indigo shirt, and underwear, she picked them up and headed for the clothes line. Naruto was right behind her.

"We're almost out of food, Naruto," she said over her shoulder. "I need some more liniment too, if I can find it." Ducking beneath the curtain, Sakura dropped the armload of clothes and let the blanket fall away. She pulled the black mesh camisole and skirt of the Kumo funeral dress from where they were draped on the rope and began to dress. "The last time I was outside I saw a small settlement to the north – just a few kilometers away. I don't think I took all the food from the old man's cabin, either. What I don't get there I'll get from the village."

"I don't like it, Sakura-chan." Sakura could see the toes of Naruto's sandals so she knew he was standing there waiting for her. "The diving toad moved because someone got too close. We don't know who was out there – or if they still are."

"I know that, Naruto, but we don't have a choice." She twisted the skirt around to align the seam and zipped it up. The hip scarf was easy to tie on. "You can't say how long it will take you to win against the last three, can you?"

He sighed. "No."

"So we can't think the food we have will last until you do, can we?"


Pulling the mesh shirt over her head, she tugged it into place and quickly adjusted her breasts. "Then the way I see it we have two choices. Slowly starve while you try to fight them in a weakened state, or get food now and you can fight them strong."


"Wait," she said, cutting him off as she pulled the jacket on and flipped her hair out of the collar. "There is a third option – I could help you fight. I mean, we'd still starve but not for as long."

"You know I don't want you to fight with me again," said Naruto. "It's too dangerous, Sakura-chan."

"That's what I figured you'd say. Therefore, since my orders are to manage your health – and I outrank you – your orders are to wait to start training again until I come back with enough food to get us through."

"You're pulling rank on me? That's really low, Sakura-chan."

She bent down and stepped through the partition of laundry. Once she had the jacket fastened with a knot at her waist she looked him in the eye. Naruto stared at her, a patch of red beneath set of whisker marks once more. She braced herself for his argument.

"Why are you wearing that?" he said.

Apparently the dress was adding fuel to his fire. "Because it's the only camouflage I can use," she said.

"I don't get it."

"Like you said, the toad moved so we know someone got near the lake. But there is no way whoever it was could have known we were here," she said, hoping it didn't sound as if she was lecturing him. "And I got to thinking about it… the alliance must have sensors out doing constant sweeps looking for you, and the enemy would know that. Neither side would want to give away their position or activities, so it's much more likely that it was a sensor who got too close and then moved on."

Naruto rubbed his jaw as he thought it over. "And if an alliance sensor found you… they're on our side."

"It wouldn't be ideal, but I really don't think we have to worry. There's a limited number of sensors and a whole lot of ground to cover. The odds are against one being close enough to detect me in the short amount of time I'll be outside. Especially if I stick to the shadows and keep my chakra levels to a minimum."

"So why that dress?" he said, reaching out to touch the loose ends of the waist knot.

Sakura stepped forward and put her arms around his neck. "Because if I have to go into the village for supplies, all they will notice is a woman from Kumo."

"That's not all they're going to notice," said Naruto. He glanced down at her cleavage before he leaned in and kissed her.

Had it been days or weeks since he had first kissed her? There was no way of knowing. But however long it had been, Sakura couldn't imagine how she had managed to live so long without it.

"Would you please dig out my pack while I put on my sandals?" she said.

When both had completed their task they met halfway in the space that separated them. Sakura took the pack from his hand and opened it to make sure it was empty, then went for the only thing she planned to take with her. When she knelt down by the collection of chakra spheres she had left in the sand after his last treatment, Naruto did the same. From the expression on his face he was lost.

"I need to take Saiken's poison outside and hide it," she explained. "If they were to break in here it could kill our host." She smiled. "And I've become very fond of toads."

Naruto held the pack open for her while she carefully stacked the spheres inside, and then helped her get it in place on her back. Pulling one of the kerosene torches from the sand, he led the way to the thin line of the toad's mouth that stretched across the smooth, grey-green wall.

He jammed the torch back into the sand and spoke loudly. "If it's safe, take Sakura-chan to the same spot as before," he commanded.

The toad jolted into action immediately, and they held on to each other for the ride. As the toad swam to the surface the cave became brighter again, and the driftwood landscape that had been hidden from them appeared out of the gloom. It didn't seem to take very long before the toad's movements slowed to a stop, and its mouth stretched wide.

"No training until I get back," she said, poking his chest with her finger.

"Yeah, I'll wait," he said.

"You won't have to for long, I promise. I mean, the sooner you can train, the sooner you'll win – and then we can both claim your reward."

Naruto smiled in a way that warmed her inside. "Be careful, Sakura-chan."

"I will, don't worry."

She turned away from him, but as she reached up for a handful of reeds Naruto's fingers closed around her arm above the elbow. In a swift motion he had pulled her into his arms for a deep, lingering kiss.

"Hurry," he choked out, as if he hadn't had any attention from her in days.

Sakura rolled her eyes.

It had been a lot more difficult to crawl out of the diving toad while wearing a long skirt, but with Naruto's help she finally managed. Hiking the hem nearly up to her waist, she had slogged out of the sedge and onto the breezy lakeshore. From the position of the sun it looked to be late afternoon, although it was difficult to tell for sure because of the heavy cloud cover. From what she could tell the toad had returned her to the exact same spot.

She faced her host. "Okay, same deal as before. No one is allowed in with Naruto but me, right?"

The toad blinked once.

"I'll meet you here as soon as I can, all right?"

Another blink.

"Thank you," she said, then softly added, "and please… take care of him."

The toad blinked one last time before it sunk below the water's surface and swam out of sight. Sakura turned on her heel and made for the trees.

The slit in the skirt allowed her to run and so she did. The air was so fresh, and under different circumstances she might have gone the long way – just because it felt good to be outside – but she would have to save it for another day. A day when she could run with Naruto.

Rather than stick to the exact same path she had used before, she decided to try a shortcut through the woods and it paid off. Covering far less ground than she had the first time, she could see the old man's rustic cabin just ahead. She slowed to a walk and then, as she drew close, hid behind a tree for cover as she made her initial assessment.

The windows were just as grimy and dark as before, and all the glass remained intact. There was no smoke coming from the chimney, and the pail was still sitting by the well right where she had left it. Even the decaying apples she'd left behind were on the ground beneath the gnarled tree, untouched. The place seemed eerily quiet. Her confidence increasing, Sakura slipped around the side of the structure to have a look in the back windows. There wasn't enough light to see detail from that angle, but she was certain there was no movement within the tiny, abandoned house.

Sakura entered through the front, thankful that despite its overall condition the door did not creak on its hinges. In what little daylight that did filter into the place, she could see the footprints her own sandals had made in the thick layer of dust that covered the roughhewn floor. Just hers and no others. It would appear that no one else had been there since.

She headed straight for the kitchen to have another look around. As it turned out she had picked the pantry a little cleaner than she had remembered, but there was another partial bag of rice and some dried fish left, as well as an open jar of umeboshi paste. Removing the lid she took a quick sniff and checked for insects and mold. It seemed good enough, at least as good as the rest of the food they had.

Standing on her tip toes she felt around on the top shelf to make sure she hadn't missed anything, but there was nothing else. When she grabbed the strap of her pack to pull it from her shoulders she heard a soft clink, reminding her that she had to unload the poison spheres before she could pack the food. Burying them near any of the surrounding trees outside would probably be safe enough. After all, if no one had ever found the old man after he died, or been to check on him in the days following her first visit, who would be digging around the trees in these woods?

Time was at a premium, though, even more on this trip than the last one. She couldn't do anything too elaborate. Thinking through her options, Sakura remembered the pail by the well. It could serve as a makeshift hand shovel and help speed up the process.

On her way outside she glanced toward the bedroom in the back of the house. The old man's rotting bed was still there, just as it had been. She had only gone a few steps farther when her brain processed what she had seen. Backing up slowly, she took another look at the bed. What had been left of his body – the hair and bones – was gone.

A reexamination of the disturbance pattern in the dust confirmed her original conclusion; she was the only person who had walked on the floor in the recent past. That did not exclude ninja who could walk anywhere without leaving a trace, but what interest would any ninja have in the mortal remains of a lonely old man, and why would they go to such lengths to conceal it? It didn't make any sense, and Sakura found it far more likely that the bones had simply sunk down through the rot.

Carefully, quietly, she stepped forward, through the bedroom doorway and up to the edge of the mattress. The center of the bed was a fetid black mush – nearly the texture of pudding – and despite her medical training and strong stomach Sakura struggled to master her disgust. The old man's remains had indeed sunk since she had stood in that spot, but there was something else she hadn't noticed before. It looked like a wilted flower.

The instant she leaned over for a closer look, two shiny black tendrils burst from the mattress and coiled around her wrists. The power of the whip-like restraints caught Sakura by surprise, and although massive amounts of chakra flooded her body with super strength she could not free herself.

A third tendril snaked out of the sludge and wrapped around her neck. It was then that she sensed an intelligence within it, as it had enough knowledge of human anatomy to subdue her without choking her to death. The tendrils that bound her wrists suddenly arched high in air, forcing her arms above her head. Then the three black coils twisted into one and fused, and began to descend into the rotting bed.

Sakura was powerless. She closed her eyes and mouth tightly, breathing a last gasp of air into her lungs before she was pulled in. Shuddering violently as bones and slimy shreds of mattress slid past her face, she sensed the black intelligence enveloping her like a cocoon. The smell of earth was everywhere.

Blind and frightened, the last thought that echoed in her mind was a scream for Naruto.

A/N: This is the first chapter that hasn't ended with Naruto and Sakura holding hands. : (