Recent memories kept playing themselves through her head, robbing her of sleep. She usually welcomed memories, as the good ones helped to sustain her, and keep her sane. Yet as she stared at the old photograph in the wooden frame, as she had almost every night since that day, those memories felt different. They seemed distant now, as if they were nothing more than a dream that was easily recalled as she woke, but faded later in the day. There were no tears this night as there so often had been in the past. For Haruna Sakura, the events of the past week had changed everything.
Sakura sat alone in her tiny apartment at the edge of her bed. She had gotten her own place when she had become a Chuunin, but it was still only a block away from her parents’ old place. As Sakura thought of the years growing up living in that house, a much younger Sakura stared back at her from the photograph. That Sakura had her long pink hair styled without a single tangle and was smiling without a care in the world. She had been so naive then, her biggest worries being how to avoid her nagging mother and winning the attention of the boys, especially Sasuke.
"Sasuke." Sakura whispered to herself.
He looked so ridiculously grumpy in the old picture that it had the opposite effect. He ended up looking cuter than ever, especially with Kakashi Sensei ruffling his spiky black hair like that. Sasuke certainly had grown, for better or for worse. Thinking about him this way, Sakura wondered if she had really grown up too, or was she was just kidding herself? Her parents still treated her like a kid, after all. Her mother still came over to nag her, and she still behaved as if Sakura’s time as a ninja was just a phase that would soon pass.
"Proper young women weren’t warriors," her mother would often say.
In her mother’s view, it was the job of the woman to maintain the home and raise good little ninja children. And her father . . .
Sakura closed her eyes and shook her head, not even wanting to think about it. Her father was a different matter altogether. But the worst thought of all was the fact that even after all this her hard work, all her research, and all her training with the fifth Hokage, she was still unable to do anything of great importance for either Naruto or Sasuke.
She couldn’t protect Naruto from that masked Akatsuki member, and all her impressive strength and skill was useless next to Sasuke’s twisted logic and that new team of his.
And now . . .
And now tears did well up in Sakura’s pale green eyes as she looked at Naruto with that big stupid grin on his face. Right now Naruto was recovering in the hospital again. That blond idiot just couldn’t seem to keep himself out of the place. Worse than that, they’d failed to save Sasuke . . . again. And this time they were so close! Sakura just couldn’t understand it. Instead of coming back home after defeating his brother, Uchiha Itachi, Sasuke had chosen to continue on with that renegade team of his . . . and that tramp!Indeed, it was the most recent memories that were keeping Sakura awake this night, swirling in her mind again and again like Naruto’s Rasengan. Even the Rasengan was useless against that masked Akatsuki, who somehow just let every attack they threw at him phase right through him as if he were ghost. The enemy ninja made a fool of everyone, including himself at times. It soon became clear that his antics and way of insulting people while sounding like he didn’t mean any harm were all for the purpose of antagonizing and frustrating Naruto in particular.
Naruto, to Sakura’s relief, refused to give into his anger, even when the ninja in the orange and black-swirl mask mentioned that Sasuke was probably already dead at the hands of Itachi by now. This seemed to frustrate the Akatsuki, and he began to get serious. One by one their comrades were put out of action. Kiba and Akamaru fought with amazing synchronization and timing, but their adversary was too fast for even them. Captain Yamato prevented a final killing blow to the man-dog team, but was somehow ensnared and trapped in his own wooden cocoon. Shino, for all his skill, was no match either. The enemy pretended to be annoyed by the swarm of insects sucking at his chakra until for reasons still unexplained, an influx of chakra from the Akatsuki overloaded Shino’s own system, causing him to pass out. Hinata seemed to gain the upper hand, driving the quick enemy ninja backwards with her gentile fist style. She aimed for chakra points instead of physical matter, and it seemed to be working. As she pressed her advantage, Naruto and Sakura had tried to coordinate an attack from the masked ninja’s flanks. Sakura had the wind knocked out of her by a mighty kick to the abdomen, but Naruto was able to hold the Akatsuki down using a wind jutsu that Sakura had never heard of. Naruto had created a vacuum of air in front of him, and it bound the masked ninja in place for Hinata to make a final strike.
But then the Akatsuki caught Naruto in a genjutsu. Naruto writhed on the ground in phantom pain as the masked ninja descended upon him. Hinata got there first, only to be run through the gut with the enemy’s kunai. Her last act was to slap Naruto back to reality.
Naruto recovered quickly, caught Hinata as she fell, and leapt to safety with her. Then Hinata said something so softly that only Naruto could hear here before she passed out. Back at ground level, Sakura struggled back to her feet. She could tell that Naruto was struggling to hold back the horrible power inside of him at that point. She tried to rush to his side, but Kakashi Sensei stopped her. He raised his headband, and targeted the Akatsuki with his powerful Mangakyu Sharingan vortex technique.
But it was to no avail. The vortex refused to form . . . refused to target. It was then Kakashi realized the masked Akatsuki also had the Mangakyu Sharingan but he was too late to avoid the trap, and Kakashi passed out from the severe psychic backwash. It was left to just her and an unstable Naruto.
Their teamwork had never been better. Their combined fury should have been a match for any ninja to ever leap through the trees. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying, knowing that failure here was not an option. Sakura even dared to think they’d won when, with an ultrasonic blast she created a sinkhole in the ground while the Akatsuki was engaged in an airborne duel with Naruto’s clones. The ground appeared undisturbed, and the enemy chose to land right where she had predicted. He sank into the loose earth up to his neck in an instant. The Akatsuki looked powerless to evade or even phase Naruto’s attack out as Naruto followed up with his Rasenshiruken, but a powerful ball of flame, unlike anything Sakura would have imagined possible came from the enemy. The intense heat power of the blast was the last thing Sakura remembered before hitting her head against a tree and slipping into darkness.
She awoke to find Captain Yamato kneeling over her. Naruto was passed out not far from them. Yamato explained what happened as Sakura set about healing her friend as best she could. Naruto had been critically burned by the blast, and his body apparently had no choice but to rely on the Kyuubi’s chakra to heal and save him. The masked Akatsuki had actually taken control of Naruto as soon as the chakra began to leak out. The Captain had watched in horror as he the enemy began to extract the chakra cloak outside of Naruto’s body. Yamato described it as a brutal, painful tug of war for Naruto as the Kyuubi within him fought hard to stay where it was. Sakura could barely take the thought of Naruto in so much pain, and pressed Yamato as to what happened next.
The Akatsuki was attempting to undo Naruto’s seals when another of his organization simply materialized out of a nearby tree. Yamato described this one as having one side of his face painted or tattooed black, while the other a pale white. He seemed to have giant carnivorous plant mandibles growing from his back.
This newcomer had only said, "It is over. Sasuke won."
At this the masked Akatsuki seemed surprised. Yamato was close enough to here him speak, and he recited word for word for Sakura what had been said.
"That’s interesting. So Itachi overdid it then. I warned him not to rely on that power too much. No matter. It would seem the time is not yet right to move."
The Akatsuki was indeed now missing the lower half of his mask, and Yamato said he had the features of an Uchiha and a much deeper and more sinister voice than the one the mysterious ninja had been using while wearing the mask. The enemy stopped drawing the Kyuubi chakra from a half-baked Naruto and told him he had other things to attend to, but he would soon return to finish the job.
Presently, Sakura put the photo back in its place on the dresser and stood up. It was no use. There would be no going to sleep at this rate. She decided to go for a walk. Sliding the straps of her shimmering pink satin nightgown off her shoulders, she let the garment slide off her to pool at her feet. Moments later, Sakura tightened her headband with a sharp tug, smoothed her hair over it, and with a satisfied nod that she was meeting regulations, turned and headed out into the quiet night streets of Konoha.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
It was a cool autumn night, and Sakura found the fresh air was already helping to clear her head. She rounded a corner, and headed past the ninja academy, where so many good memories still lived. There was also that swing. Sakura remembered how Naruto would often just sit on it, alone, while everyone gave him else gave him cold looks and a wide berth. As a little girl she couldn’t understand why, and now that she new the truth of the horrible burden he was destined to carry, she was as determined as ever to help him reach his dream. The fact was many people would still rather not have him around. Her father for instance . . .
Sakura continued on by the light of the hanging paper street lamps that were still traditional in the hidden village. They swayed slightly in the breeze, causing Sakura’s shadow to flicker eerily as she walked. Her shadow grew large as it fell across the Konoha hospital and medical center. She had spent countless hours here too, and many sleepless nights studying under the tutelage of her master. In a kinder world, Sasuke would be in there as well as Naruto, especially after the state that they had found him in when they had finally discovered that secret place of the Uchiha clan.
The state of the place had been terrifying. The roof and most of the interior had been completely demolished. What a battle it must have been between Sasuke and his brother. They found him passed out near his brother’s lifeless body. Sasuke had been burned by a fire unlike anything Sakura had ever seen or heard of. Black flames still flickered all around the area, of which Naruto warned them not to go near. At first, Sasuke looked to be alright, but a quick analysis revealed he and was in danger of bleeding to death from some internal injuries, or suffocating as a result of a collapsed lung. Some of the fire was somehow still burning him, and Sasuke kept waking up and passing out again from the pain.
Tears had filled Sakura’s eyes as she tried desperately with all of her knowledge to heal him, but no amount of chakra healing manipulation would stick. He had inhaled some of the fumes from the flames, and that was what was causing his lung to collapse as the fumes slowly burned him from the inside. Fearing there was nothing she could do but ease his pain, Sakura prepared herself for the worst.
But Naruto didn’t. He believed in her just as he always had. He reminded her of Chiyo, of her Sacrifice, and how the elder ninja had believed Sakura would surpass even her master. Naruto offered what remained of his chakra to her in the same way he had to elder Chiyo for Gaara. Sakura had refused, explaining to Naruto that in his condition it was too dangerous.
"If it will work . . .then take it." he had urged. "Even if I die, I don’t mind. We’ll have succeeded."
Together they stopped the burning in the collapsed lung, and Sasuke began to breathe with less difficulty, but there was still a long way to go. Sakura still didn’t know if she could heal all the damage in time until that girl, Karin, had showed up with Sasuke’s new team. Karin was more adept at sensing the flow of Chakra than anyone Sakura had ever met. Although the fiery redhead’s medical skills were not as developed as Sakura’s she managed to heal Sasuke from the inside out, drawing on his own chakra, while Sakura concentrated on the outside in. Together, they healed the internal concussion injuries, repaired the lung, and restored his trachea. Together, they save Sasuke’s life.
This was someone Sakura thought she could respect, but the entire healing session had felt tense, and not just because Sasuke’s life was on the line. It felt as if another fight would break out at any moment. Naruto, though weak and no longer able to rise to his feet, watched the lean, white haired boy with two enormous swords very carefully. Sakura thought one of them looked like Zabuza’s sword, and Naruto would tell her later he was sure the other had belonged to an Akatsuki member. The other member of Sasuke’s team had the cursed seal. He scared Sakura. He just felt broken to look into his eyes, as if would go berserk at any time, but especially if Sasuke died.
Sakura nearly collapsed as Sasuke finally stabilized, and the work was done. It was then that . . . that bitch smiled sweetly and said,
"I am grateful for your help, but be warned, stay away from my Sasuke or I’ll kill you."
Sakura snapped out of her thoughts for a moment and looked around the quiet Konoha street, wanting to punch something. The nerve of that woman! Her Sasuke? As if sasuke would actually go for an ugly frizzy, haired, four-eyed, she-wolf like her! Sakura felt her fists tighten as she stormed away from the hospital. Calm down, she thought at herself. You came outside to relax.
But Sakura continued to relive the moment that Sasuke had regained consciousness, for this troubled her above all else. Without a word, Sasuke took aid from his new team members and began to leave. Naruto launched into a grand speech about how Sasuke’s path, if he turned his back on his friends again, would only lead to ruin. He pleaded for Sasuke to see that true power lied in the strength of his bonds with his comrades. Sakura found she could do nothing but cry again, and it haunted her to this moment. Sasuke wasn’t listening to Naruto, and Sakura refused to beg again.
Not this time.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
She managed only one argument, remembering how she had even offered to help him with his vengeance once.
"Your vengeance is complete now isn’t it?" Sakura had asked simply after Naruto had finished. At this Sasuke actually signaled for the boy with the cursed seal to stop. "So . . . So come back with us now, there’s no reason for you to fight alone anymore." This drew a nasty look from Karin. Sasuke turned to look at Sakura, his dark eyes boring into her soul.
"There is still . . . one more I must kill." Sasuke said, not without some difficulty.
"And even when he does that!" snapped Karin, "what makes you think Sasuke would ever want to go back and play with you weaklings?"
Sakura had ignored that tramp and focused on Sasuke’s eyes, but in them she could only see emptiness, darkness, and . . . sadness. It both made Sakura ache and chilled her to the bone.
Sakura had then watched helplessly along with Naruto, Captain Yamato, and Kakashi Sensei as the trio made their way to the exit. None of them were in any condition to do anything but let it happen. Naruto screamed Sasuke’s name one last time, and their former team mate halfway turned to say one thing.
"Naruto . . . Take care of Sakura."
Sakura was now halfway down "Main" boulevard which lead from the entrance to the Hokage’s mansion. She could see the mansion now in the distance as these memories finished cycling through her head again. Sakura stopped and looked up at the stars.
Didn’t Sasuke realize that Naruto had always done everything he possible could to take care of her? Didn’t he realize that more often than not, it was Naruto that needed caring for?
So much for fresh air, Sakura thought. Right now all she wanted, no all she needed was to talk to Naruto. But right now the hospital was locked down for the night, and he was probably sleeping peacefully. She should just leave him be. Yet, Sakura was a medical ninja after all, and getting in to see him wouldn’t be too much trouble. She made her decision.
Sakura spun on her heal and headed back to the hospital.
Naruto was sleeping peacefully. Sakura sat in a chair by his bed, simply watching him. Moonlight from a half moon filtered in through the window, highlighting one side of his face. Naruto had been badly burned on the right side of his body, but as usual he was healing rapidly. Cool bandages were wrapped around his torso and right leg, and his right arm was in a cushioned cast, the result of using the Rasenshiruken too much again. Every now and again, his cheeks would twitch, and he would mumble something incoherent. It was kind of . . . cute. She couldn’t bring herself to wake him. She couldn’t really think of anything to talk about that wasn’t depressing anyway.
Sakura remembered sitting by Sasuke’s side like this for hours on end, back when he was in a coma induced by his own brother. She’d brought flowers for him almost every day. She kind of felt guilty about not having anything for Naruto at the moment, but it was different with Sasuke, wasn’t it? Naruto was a good comrade, probably her best friend but . . .
"Its not a problem of small or big. What’s important is the strength of the feelings you have for Naruto. Sakura, I can tell just by looking at you. In reality you . . ."Captain Yamato’s words. Why was she thinking about that? Watching him sleep like this was stirring all kinds of strange memories within her. Watching him closely, she studied those strange birthmarks on his face. So often they had the illusion of whiskers, especially when he smiled that ear to ear smile of his. Naruto’s smile . . .
"You always cry so easily, Sakura. Don’t worry, because I’ll save Gaara."
Sakura still wasn’t sure if Naruto understood that it was he, not Gaara that she had been worried about back then, but it didn’t matter. His confidence had put her at ease, and it started with that smile. He always managed to do that, to make her feel safe.
Her eyes drifted back to the cast on his right arm. Was he really shortening his life using that technique? Sakura had warned him before not to use it again recklessly, but against any enemy that strong, was there any choice?
Still, Naruto always saw the bright side in everything . . .
"Though actually, I’m kind of enjoying this." Naruto had said back then.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Sakura had acted surprised, but she hadn’t really been. After all, she enjoyed being with him too. But as soon as Naruto saw that on her face, he changed his tone. He had concluded.
"It’s like you and me are getting closer to Sasuke."
She always appreciated him being optimistic about Sasuke, but at the time she had been somehow, disappointed. His right arm had been in a bulky cast then, just as it was now. That proved problematic for Naruto.
"I guess I’ll help you. Give me your chopsticks." She had said as she slid her stool closer to the frustrated Naruto. She was kind of glad when Sai proved quicker with the chopsticks, but part of her was just as annoyed as Naruto.
Something stirred within Sakura as she watched her old friend sleep. Vaguely, she realized she was lightly stroking his spiky blond hair, running it thoughtfully through her fingers as if it were her own. It was still singed in some places. Sakura froze her hand in place, and felt embarrassed.
"What am I doing here?" She whispered to herself.
She stood up to leave, when the sound of Naruto’s voice made her freeze in her tracks.
"I’m sorry, Sakura-chan," Naruto half moaned.
"Naruto," Sakura said without turning. "You know you don’t. . ."
Sakura had slowly turned back toward Naruto as she prepared her words to convince him he didn’t need to apologize yet again. When she saw him, she realized she was still asleep.
Naruto shifted uncomfortably, making a soft whimpering noise.
"Please, Sakura-chan, Forgive me," he mumbled.
Hearing this, something tugged at Sakura’s heart. Even in his dreams, she thought, he agonizes over that promise.
"Don’t worry, I’ll bring him back. That’s the promise of a lifetime!" He’s said with a smile. Then later, both then and after the first time they lost Sasuke, he’d assured her, "I won’t go back on my word, because that’s my ninja way!"
It had meant so much to her. It was a memory that she would never let slip away.
She crept over to his left side, and placed her hand on his good left hand. She wondered if she could ease his dreams if she spoke softly to him.
"Naruto, its ok," she whispered into his ear. "Next time we will . . ."
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto croaked, thrashing his head from side to side. "I swear I didn’t expect to see you naked, please don’t hurt me!"
It took Sakura a moment to process what Naruto was really dreaming about. She could actually feel her blood pressure rapidly rising. Her teeth ground. She cracked her knuckles. A growl began to form somewhere deep in her throat.
"Na-Ru-To!" Sakura snarled the name as she punched his forehead just hard enough so that she knew that it would really hurt. Naruto was lucky he was already injured, Sakura decided.
"Ow! What? Help!" Naruto cried as he shot up to sitting position. He tried to rub his stricken head with his right arm, forgot it was injured, and cried out in pain again.
Sakura suddenly felt a little guilty. Just a moment before she had decided it best not to wake him up. Still, he shouldn’t be having dreams like that when she was in the middle of having serious feelings for him.
"Shut up, Naruto!" Sakura snapped in an angry whisper. "You’ll wake up the whole hospital."
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto was clearly confused. It almost made Sakura laugh to think of the predicament she had put him in, but there was no turning back now.
"Stop having indecent dreams!" Sakura admonished.
"B-But Sakura, why are you . . ."
"I came to see if I could accelerate your healing." Sakura quickly lied. "Sometimes, when a patient sleeps, their body can respond to healing techniques more readily."
This much at least was true, but Naruto eyed her suspiciously while he adjusted his white pajama gown.
"You should be sleeping too, Sakura-chan." He said while glancing at a circular clock on the wall behind her. "Its two in the morning."
"I . . . I couldn’t sleep." Sakura admitted seriously.
Naruto tilted his head thoughtfully.
"Hmmm. Did you try you meditation techniques?"
Naruto was referring to calming and breathing exercises ninja used to sleep whenever possible when under the stress of a long mission. Sakura had tried some of these, with little success.
"Yes," she replied. "But they didn’t work."
"Glass of warm milk?" Naruto asked.
"No, Naruto I just . . ."
"Don’t be silly, I just . . ."
"Oh, wait. I know! Music!"
"Naruto . . ."
"Hey, I got this neat CD full of relaxing stuff back at my place."
"Naruto, really . . ."
"My keys are over there on the dresser, now if I can just remember where . . ."
"Naruto!" Sakura shook Naruto by his good shoulder to get his attention.
"Please. I’m fine. I just . . .the truth is . . ." Sakura swallowed. Why was this so hard to say? "I just wanted to be . . . with you . . .for a while, Naruto."
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Naruto blinked. For a moment he looked stunned. Then he smiled broadly, and relaxed back onto his pillow with his left arm folding back behind his head. He tilted his head to look at her with those pearcing blue eyes of his, a satisfied smile still on his face.
"Sakura-chan, if you ever want to be with me, you don’t have to sneak around. "Even if I’m asleep, I’ll be glad to wake up for you." His eyes twinkled in the moonlight as he rubbed the fresh not forming on his forehead. "Just go easier on the wake-ups, okay?"
Sakura laughed. "I’ll do my best."
"So," Naruto said. "I’m awake now. Is there something you want to talk about?"
"Well," Sakura said thoughtfully. She got to her feet and walked back around the bed to plop back down in the small leather chair meant for visitors. "I didn’t really intend to . . ." Naruto frowned, just a little, and Sakura stopped herself from saying, "talk about anything important."
Naruto was ready to listen, and the way his attention tended to drift during the day,
Sakura figured this might be a rare opportunity to ask whatever she wanted. She decided to start with something simple.
"But I have been wondering something," she added quickly.
Naruto struggled to sit up again.
"Lay down! You’ll mess up the bandages," Sakura said as she slid the chair closer to the front end of the bed so he could see her better. "Anyway, back at our last battle. What did Hinata say to you, if I may ask, before she passed out?"
Naruto’s face drooped with sadness and worry.
"Hinata." Naruto’s eyes met Sakura’s again. "How is she?"
"She’s still in intensive care," Sakura said. "But Tsunade-sama is confident that she is stable now and out of danger."
Naruto nodded. His lips still tight with worry.
"It was nothing special," he said at last. "Why do you ask?"
"I’ve never seen you fight with so much power. I was so scared that the Kyuubi was releasing again. But it was your own power, Naruto. It was taming the kyuubi’s. I’ve been looking for my own way to help you, so . . .
Naruto sighed. "She said I could do it, that I could win. That she’s always believed in me, and . . ." Naruto paused, to scratch his head. He was clearly struggling with something. "She, ah . . . she said she loved me."
Sakura’s eyes went wide at the same time Naruto began to blush a little. She suddenly felt like her heart had been flash frozen, and it made her inhale sharply. At the same time, it all made sense, knowing the way Hinata acted around Naruto. For some reason, Sakura also felt a warmth for Hinata that she had never experienced before, as if they were suddenly kindred spirits. What was this feeling? Fear?
"And . . ." Sakura began carefully. "Do you . . . love her?"
"I-I’m still a little overwhelmed," said Naruto, stalling. "I never really thought about it. I mean, she’s very cute, and strong. I’ve always liked her, still . . ."
Sakura waited, hoping the interest on her face would encourage him to continue.
"Still, it was never like what you feel for Sasuke."
Sakura felt tension leave her shoulders as her whole spine slumped back into the chair. She closed her eyes. What was wrong with her?
There it was. Everything always came back down to Sasuke for them. Was that tramp right? Would Sasuke want to come back? She sighed.
"Naruto. I hope you never feel for anyone what I feel for Sasuke. To love in vain, it . . . it hurts too much. I always thought the pain would be worth it in the end,
but . . ."
Naruto reached for her with his left hand when he saw the tears billowing in her eyes, but he could not quite reach her face by reaching across his own body. Sakura let him take her hand.
"But I think . . .I wish . . .I wish I loved someone like you, Naruto.
Naruto smiled an understanding smile. Those eyes . . . she felt like they could see right through her, to an extent even greater than the Byakugan. She felt naked, exposed. She felt short of breath. And still Naruto just smiled at her. She resisted the urge to bolt from the room, and only because Naruto was holding her hand softly. She hadn’t really said anything at all. She could have meant anything by it, but Naruto understood. He always had.
"I love you too, Sakura-chan." he said.
Sakura’s heart leapt to her throat. She stammered, her mouth working soundlessly, searching for some reply . . . any reply. None came.
"Its okay, Sakura-chan," Naruto said. "I don’t expect anything. I know we are not meant to be together, but you don’t mind if I try asking for a date every now and again, do you?"
He grinned. It was his biggest, stupidest one in while, and it made something within Sakura snap.
She threw herself at him, lips first, and found her target. Her lips met his with enough force to pin his head to the pillow. Naruto never stood a chance as she thrust her tongue between his lips.
Naruto’s body went ridged as he barely managed an, "mmmph!" before Sakura’s kiss fully enveloped him. A moment later he relaxed, and she felt an arm slide across her shoulders and a hand cradle her neck as he pulled her closer and returned the kiss.
Sakura relished the moment, even as it suddenly became awkward. She realized that she needed to be less forceful, let him lead the dance at times. Every pass of his tongue made her shiver, the touch of his lips on hers warmed her. She reluctantly parted with him with a long, wet smack, and only because she needed to catch her breath.
"Wow," Naruto breathed. "That was much better than kissing Sasuke."
Sakura laughed. And kept laughing. She doubled over next to the bed and laughed so hard she could barely breath. Tears came to her eyes as she realized Naruto was laughing too, only more controlled. But it fueled her laughter, and try as she might she was unable to stop.
"Sakura chan, Shhhh! Shhhh! Now you are the one who is going to wake everyone up!"
"I-" Sakura gulped. "I had almost forgotten about that time! I was so . . .ha! ha! . . .I was so jealous of you!"
Sakura regained control of her breathing at last, and wiping her eyes, she stood up.
"Thank you, Naruto-kun. I haven’t laughed like that in a very long time."
Naruto smiled warmly. Then he looked serious again.
"What does this mean, Sakura-chan?" When Sakura offered no answer right away, he continued. "I mean, I know what I would like it to mean, but . . ."
Naruto looked away, and Sakura had an idea what he was about to say.
"What happens if, sorry, when Sasuke comes back?" she finished for him.
Naruto nodded. "And we will get him back, Sakura-chan."
Sakura knelt beside the bed again and took Naruto’s good hand in both of hers.
"I . . . I don’t know, Naruto. I’m sorry. Please be patient with me a little while longer."
"I understand," said Naruto. "And waiting is no problem, its just that . . ." Naruto was visually struggling with his next words, his eyes shifting from side to side. "For so long I’ve been resigned to just be your friend, but now, if I let myself love you, won’t I always just be the guy you had to settle for?"
Sakura was actually stung by that, and Naruto read it on her face, because he said,
"I’m sorry, Sakura-chan. I’m just scared of . . ."
"I know, Naruto. And I understand, I do. But if I give you my heart, you have it all. I don’t do things half-ass."
"I know." Naruto said, his eyes twinkling again.
"Just a little more time." Sakura assured him. "I just need some time to think. And . . . for what its worth, I think Sasuke wants us to be together."
Naruto’s eyes widened, and she knew he had remembered the last thing Sasuke had said to him. She kissed him goodnight, but on the forehead. Then she left without a word.
Later, back in her room, Sakura fell asleep with a new good memory.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Sakura went to visit Naruto the following afternoon. She did the same the next afternoon, and the one after that. She made a point to bring him fresh flowers each time, and he seemed to appreciate it, though she could tell flowers held little interest for him. Still, it was a matter of principle for her. After checking on him and talking to him for a while, she would assume her duties as a medical ninja at the hospital.
If flowers were of a mild interest to him, Naruto made no secret about being interested in the Ichiruka Ramen take out that she had for him when came to see him for the fourth time.
"Waaaaaaah!" Naruto exclaimed as she pulled back the curtain to his room. "Sakura-chan you’re the best!"
"How are you feeling, Naruto? And don’t get too excited, you’re still paying for half of this."
Naruto waved her off. "Yeah, yeah. I’ll pay you back when I can get back to my room." He inhaled deeply through the nose, taking in his favorite aroma. "Ooooh! It smells so good! I thought I was going to choke on this hospital food."
They began with the same idle chatter of the previous afternoons. Naruto prattled on about what nonsense his teacher, Jiraiya, was really up to, and then he began to brag about all the new training ideas he had for himself when he was healed. They discussed disturbing things like who the masked Akatsuki might be, and argued happier gossip like weather or not Shikamaru and Temari were an item. Naruto kept insisting they were, but Sakura would not believe such foolishness.
Neither of them made any mention of that night three days ago, and especially not Sakura’s kiss. But the air in the room was different. It felt heavy and electrified, and even now Sakura was having a hard time not blushing every time she looked into those deep blue eyes. On the other hand, feeding Naruto ramen no longer felt strange at all. It felt normal, as if he had always needed her help with such a menial chore.
As he finished the last bite, and Sakura realized it would soon be time to help with the other patients, she remembered something she had meant to tell Naruto that day. Or maybe she had almost forgotten on purpose. In the end, Sakura decided that it would be selfish and unlike herself to keep such important information from Naruto.
"Oh! I have some good news," she told him as she got up to leave. "Hinata was moved to recovery today. You’ll be able to go and see her soon if you like."
Naruto paused mid-swallow as he was slurping down the rest of the ramen broth and looked up at her with hopeful eyes.
"I’ll be going to see her to aid with her treatment." Sakura continued. "If she’s awake. I can pass on a message for you."
Naruto forced down the last hot swallow, looking thoughtful.
Part of Sakura still felt queasy about the simple friendly offer, but even though Sakura didn’t quite understand it yet, she felt that understanding the relationshipbetween Hinata and Naruto would help reveal the truth about her own heart. As she stood there waiting for Naruto to think of something, which for him she knew might take a while, all the hard questions resurfaced in Sakura’s mind.
Was Naruto right to fear her feelings for Sasuke? If she gave into her feelings for Naruto would he always just be the guy she had to "settle for"? If she loved Naruto, she would have to let go of her feelings for Sasuke once and for all. She owed Naruto that much, but could she really do it?
Part of her would always love Sasuke, of that much she was certain, but did letting go mean she was just one step away from giving up on him altogether? What kind of friend did that make her?
"Just tell her, thank you . . . for everything." Naruto said at last. "Oh, and that I knew she would pull through."
"I’ll tell her." Sakura said. "See you soon, Naruto."
"Do your best, Sakura-chan!" Naruto cheered. "You’ll have us all fixed up in no time!"
Sakura gave him her most heartfelt smile as she left the room and made her way down the sunlit corridors to Hinata’s room.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Hinata’s room had a door instead of a curtain, and was kept completely sterile. Anyone going in had to have a covered mask and rubber gloves on at all times. Sakura pulled a fresh set of gloves and a mask from a box in the antechamber and fixed her hair in a tight bun before placing a white hood over it. As she entered, a nurse clad in white coverall was just finishing changing out Hinata’s I.V. drip. Sakura gathered up a stethoscope from a cabinet and Hinata’s chart from the end of her bed. She glanced through the chart as the nurse checked to make sure everything was secure, and then turned to leave. The young man gave Sakura a slight bow as he left, then hurried off to his other duties.
Hinata was awake, but she made no indication that she was aware of Sakura’s presence. She merely stared weakly at the ceiling, her snow white eyes half closed as if searching for flaws in the smooth white surface, her jet black hair spilled wildly over two pillows.
"Hello, Hinata." Sakura said as she came to Hinata’s and slid the earpieces of a her stethoscope into place. "How are you feeling today?"
Hinata turned and smiled thinly, and the small action was clearly taxing on her fellow Kunoichi. A quick check of Hinata’s vitals and the sound of her labored breathing told Sakura everything she needed to know.
"S-Sakura-san," Hinata whispered with some difficulty. "I’ve been better."
Sakura nodded at the obvious understatement.
"You have some scaring forming internally from the result of your wounds and the surgeries. I’ll be attempting to clear some of that up some this afternoon. It will allow you to breathe easier and hopefully get a good night’s sleep tonight."
Hinata nodded her understanding.
"This is going to take a while," Sakura warned, "But it will only be slightly uncomfortable. Can I get you anything?"
Hinata shook her head.
"Then let’s begin."
Hinata had been stabbed with a kunai cleanly through the abdomen. The weapon had pierced intestine, ruptured the spleen and caused abrasive damage to other organs. The weapon had cut almost completely through, but even worse, it had burned her on the way through. Five surgeries complete with a full regeneration ritual involving a lock of her own hair had been necessary to repair most of the damage. Now Sakura set about the difficult task of coaxing her organs to heal quickly and safely without further scaring. That meant getting the blood to move, platelets to stick, and not letting anything clot too much. It also meant Sakura would have to fight infection off with her own chakra, as a high white blood cell count in the area’s needing healing would complicate the process.
Sakura slid the bottom end of Hinata’s off-white hospital gown up slowly to reveal her bare belly and fresh stitches. Placing her hands there, Sakura began the treatment.
"By the way," Sakura said as chakra began flowing through her hands into Hinata. She was suddenly grateful for the mask that partially hid her expressions. Perhaps Kakashi Sensei was on to something. "I just came from visiting with Naruto. He says he wanted to tell you thank you, for everything, and that he never doubted you would survive."
Hinata’s eyes flickered, and her tired stare suddenly came to life, if only for a moment.
"Naruto-kun?" Hinata whispered. "So he . . . won?"
"No." Sakura said simply, and left it at that. Hinata did not pry any further.
Sakura’s hands had glowed with blue-green healing light for half an hour when Sakura, having never denied being the talkative type, just couldn’t stand the silence any longer. Every now and again Hinata would grimace and make a small noise like a whimpering puppy, but the lack of anyone to talk to was driving Sakura crazy. Plus, there was so many things she wanted to ask Hinata, but didn’t know how. Naruto had obviously told her what Hinata had said during the battle in confidence. It wouldn’t do to casually say, "So . . . Naruto says you love him, that true?"
"Hinata," Sakura said at last. "Is something wrong? You look . . . troubled."
Hinata looked at Sakura as if she had just entered the room, her chin actually lifting her head up off the pillow for a moment. When Hinata relaxed again she looked thoughtful, but still distant.
"It . . .that is I . . ." Hinata stammered and steepled her index fingers together nervously. "Its nothing really."
"Hey," Sakura encouraged. "Woman to woman. I promise I’ll understand."
Sakura thought she saw Hinata try and smile.
"I . . .I didn’t expect to live through this injury." admitted Hinata.
Sakura felt her brow furrow. "And that troubles you?"
"No!" Hinata squeaked. "Well, yes, actually . . . but . . . well its just that . . ."
Hinata couldn’t seem to finish what she was thinking, and even an encouraging smile from Sakura only seemed to make her bury whatever she was going to say deep down. The dark haired girl closed her eyes as if exhausted by her own thoughts. Sakura knew she should just leave it alone at that point, but the questions of her heart were burning in her now like a wildfire out of control, and so she tried another tactic.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
"Naruto would have been devastated if you had died." Sakura said. "You should have seen him after you were, you know, hurt. I’ve never seen him fight with such intensity."
Hinata gasped. She tried to sit up a little, but the pain drove her back down.
"Naruto-kun?" Hinata breathed. "He, he really was? Sakura-san, you really think so?"
"I know so." said Sakura.
Hinata sat quietly for a moment, a small smile creeping onto her face,
"Sakura-san," Hinata said after a moment. Her voice was crisper, and color was rapidly returning to her face. "Can we raise the bed up a little, so I can sit up?"
"Sure." Sakura said with a smile. "But not too much, I’ve still got a little bit of work left."
"Thank you," Hinata said as Sakura finished making the adjustments with a button on the side of the bed. The heir to the Hyuuga clan’s main family considered Sakura with eyes so white that they appeared pupil-less. After a moment the eyes flickered with . . . trust?
"Sakura-san," Hinata began. "The truth is I was terrified because . . . because I didn’t expect to see him again. Now he knows what I told him and . . ."
"By "him" you mean, Naruto" Sakura interjected.
Hinata nodded and took as deep a breath as her injuries would allow.
"Sakura-san, I’ve seen the way he looks at you and . . . and . . . how can you stand it? Sometimes I think I would give anything for him to look at me that way, but . . . but I am also terrified of it!"
It was Sakura’s turn to be taken aback. She licked her lips, not knowing what to say, and was again thankful for the mask. She couldn’t even meet Hinata’s desperate gaze, and lowered her eyes as if in thought. But Hinata didn’t stop. Her words poured out of her like a dam that had burst, and Sakura realized she’d been needing to tell someone this for a very long time, but was scared to find someone to listen.
"I . . . I’ve loved him all my life, admired him, believed in him. He’s suffered so much, you know. Nobody seems to realize that . . . but . . . but . . ."
"But he never gives up on his dreams, no matter what." Sakura finished for Hinata, who was on the verge of tears. And it was in that moment, that at last Sakura understood. She and Hinata were the same. Both of them had loved someone they placed on a pedestal. So high was their place that they seemed untouchable. They both hoped, hurt, and wrestled with their feelings as they tried to figure out how to get the attention of the one’s they loved.
Words began to march out Sakura, sounding at first like simple advise for her comrade. Yet, they resonated from somewhere deep within Sakura’s own soul, and she realized she was lecturing herself at the same time.
"Hinata, you can only love for the sake of love for so long, before it begins to eat at you. You can’t hide it, but can’t force it either. You have to make a stand somewhere." Sakura paused, and as she met Hinata’s eyes again she realized her comrade was listening intently. But Sakura had only just gotten through the easy part.
"And we’re ninja. Ninja adapt. Once you make your stand if love fails you, you have to move on. You have to read underneath the underneath, and not let yourself be consumed by your own passion. That doesn’t mean your love has to stop, but . . ." now Sakura felt her eyes fill to the brim as well, "but you have to find love that will be returned. Our business is too dangerous, the chances that we will die in battle too high to be waiting around for something to happen. Telling Naruto what you feel had to be done, but don’t get stuck there."
Hinata smiled broadly, showing teeth for the first time that Sakura had ever seen since she’d known her. The girl had taken the words to heart.
"Well then," said Hinata. "It seems we’re rivals."
"Right." Sakura said with a small laugh. "I won’t go easy on you though, and I think I may have a bit of a lead."
"That’s alright," Hinata said. "I’m not going to lose, either. But . . ."
Sakura raised an eyebrow.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Do you think there exists anyone else in the world like Naruto?"
Sakura considered for a moment, touching a gloved finger to her chin. Then she smiled broadly enough that it almost popped out the sides of her mask.
"I know there is!" Sakura giggled. "But just like I did with Naruto you’ll have to wait for him to grow up a little bit."
Hinata’s white eyes actually twinkled. "You don’t mean . . .?"
Sakura nodded. "Konohamaru."
"Thank you so much, Sakura-san" Hinata said, giggling.
"No, Hinata," said Sakura. "Thank you."
The healing session complete, Sakura left the room feeling free. Free from a burden carried to long, Sakura felt like she could float. She felt like skipping, singing, anything to let the world know how happy she felt. She couldn’t wait to fling herself on Naruto, ask him out for a change. She could love him with all her heart now.
She wouldn’t be giving up on Sasuke either, simply adapting, and she knew that when they got Sasuke back, her biggest hardship would be to explain how she had fallen in love with the future Hokage, and hope Sasuke wouldn’t be too hurt by it.
Suddenly there was an agonizing scream from down the hall that curdled Sakura’s blood. A cold feeling started to gnaw at the pit of her stomach as Sakura remembered just who it was she had fallen in love with. She sensed that horrible chakra, and as Naruto screamed again Sakura could hear the horrible howl of the Kyuubi behind his voice. It was coming from the courtyard.
"This is bad!" Sakura said to herself as she sprinted down the hallway.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Naruto Uzumaki was in good spirits. Everyone who had fought on the last mission was now safe. His burns no longer pained him, as long as he didn’t make any sudden movements. Even though the bandages itched, and even though he would have to where the cumbersome cast for several weeks, and even though Sasuke had gotten away yet again, he couldn’t think of anything that could ruin his mood. It was only a matter of time before they found Sasuke again, as he was still a priority mission for the Hokage, especially now that she knew from the results of the last mission that there was another Sharingan user of unknown identity running around with the Akatsuki. And next time, Naruto and Sakura wouldn’t be crippled and unable to do anything. But most of all, Sakura . . .
"Do your best, Sakura-chan!" Naruto cheered. "You’ll have us all fixed in no time!"
She turned and smiled at him. It was a smile that made him melt in his core, making his stomach flip and his heart turn to mush. Then she turned and walked away, and Naruto knew that if Sakura knew half the things he was thinking as he watched her go, or to be more specific, the lower half of her go . . . well, he wasn’t likely to survive the experience in his condition. Still, he risked it anyway. She was the perfect model of grace and form to him, despite the naughty thoughts that sometimes came with that opinion.
And she felt something for him too! She’d kissed him, and Naruto was still drunk off the euphoria the experience had brought him. Thinking about it made Naruto feel foolish. Perhaps he should not have made Sakura think twice about what she had just done. Naruto tried to convince himself that the time they spent together now, as lovers, would be worth it. Even if she did go back to loving Sasuke when they got their old friend back, Naruto knew he would treasure every moment of being by her side, holding her in his arms, kissing her again. I could handle the pain, thought Naruto. I did it before, I could do it again.
Yet Naruto was used to being wary of his feelings for such a woman as complex as Sakura, and he had opted to consider her feelings first. It meant that he would have to be patient, and patience was not something Naruto was particularly good at. He could admit that much to himself.
How he longed to feel Sakura’s lips on his again! He needed to hold her close again, to feel her touch. Every time she had come to visit him these past few days, he had yearned for her constantly.
Sometimes he thought he would go mad just at the sight of her, but he actually found her company to be soothing. They were times when he could truly relax, when his mind was most at peace. It was like her presence alone was enough to heal him of any ailment.
The ramen she had brought him today had been a nice consolation prize, and with the smell of his favorite food lingering in the air, Naruto lay back onto his pillow, closed his eyes, and prepared to daydream the afternoon away. Yes, Naruto would be patient.
The rustle of curtains announced the arrival of a new visitor. Naruto kept his eyes closed for the moment, pretending to be asleep but reaching out with his other senses. He tried to guess who it might be this time. Shikamaru and Chouji had come twice before. Those two seemed to have nothing better to do at the moment, and Naruto was glad for it. But this visitor was naturally silent.
Oh no! Naruto thought. Not Sai again. The creepy former member of Anbu "Root" meant well, but when he had come to visit two days ago he had tried to cheer Naruto up by doing some artwork on his cast while signing it. The picture he had drawn was a little too "fluffy" for Naruto’s taste, but Sai insisted he had read in a book that furry animals and rainbows were cheerful to people. Naruto had tried to keep the cast under the covers ever since.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
"Naruto." said a soft, serious male voice. "You should be well enough now to get out of bed, right?"
"Captain Yamato!" said Naruto brightly. Yamato had not been to see him yet, and Naruto was beginning to wonder if he was out on some mission. "Hey! How are you doing? Better than me I suppose."
"I’m good Naruto." said Naruto’s ANBU captain. "I was lucky. We need to talk, but I thought it would be nice for you to get out of the room for a while."
That was Captain Yamato for you, Naruto thought. Always right to the point. Naruto could see that Yamato, though he wore a pleasant smile, had something weighing heavily on his mind. Something in his dark brown eyes gave it away. Naruto also thought it strange that
Yamato was also still dressed for action, complete with his special ANBU headpiece. Designed to hold his wildcat-like ANBU mask in place while also housing a handy communication system, the headgear covered his forehead and sideburns with dull grey armor, but let his brown hair escape wildly. Naruto tried to imagine himself wearing something like that one day, and decided he would look quite ridiculous.
What could be wrong? Naruto wondered. Was it something about the masked Akatsuki? Sasuke? Naruto could only guess. Whatever it was, Naruto was certainly going to hear him out.
"Sure." Naruto said with a cautious nod. Yamato’s seriousness was a bit contagious. "I still can’t walk properly in these bandages though, and they’ve been telling me I shouldn’t move around too much yet while my skin heals. "
"Its been taken care of," Yamato said as he motioned to someone from out of view behind the curtain to come forward. A nursing assistant Genin clad in a white smock came forward into the room pushing a wheelchair.
Once Naruto was securely in the chair, Yamato thanked the young medical ninja apprentice and assured her he would watch out for Naruto from here on out. Naruto’s apprehension grew as Yamato wheeled him in silence down the corridors to the elevator, and then out into the hospital’s beautiful garden courtyard on the first floor.
"What is it?" Naruto turned to look over his shoulder at Yamato and ask as they neared their destination. Therefore, he didn’t see the three ninja that were waiting patiently in the courtyard. "Is something wrong?"
"Yes," said a gruff female voice. "But we’ll get to that. We have lots to talk about first."
Naruto’s eyes went wide. The Hokage had done a large part of his initial treatment upon being admitted to the hospital after the battle, but he hadn’t expected to see her again until he was to be released. She stood proudly at the center of the courtyard, her arms relaxed at her sides, her favorite green Kimono with the Kanji for "Luck" on the back adorning her busty figure. If Yamato had looked troubled, Tsunade looked positively heartbroken, her eyes sad and lined with dark puffy rings, as if she had not slept in days. Her youth jutsu also seemed to be slipping a bit, as her hair was lined with grey and a few wrinkles highlighted the corners of her eyes.
"G-Grandma Tsunade?" Naruto breathed. "What is this?"
Naruto was glancing from the buxom-blond village leader to the two masked ANBU that stood behind her, flanking her on either side. The one on Tsunade’s left was definitely female, Naruto decided, and was casually leaning over one knee with a foot placed on top of one of the courtyard benches. The other stood unmoving with his arms folded, dark hair protruding in a decorative bun high above his bear-like mask.
A soft wind blew through the courtyard, carrying Tsunade’s twin ponytail’s to her left as it scattered leaves of all colors across the walkways and freshly cut green grass of the courtyard. The fall flowers of yellow and violet had already bloomed, and though they had started to fade, they still made the garden look lovely. But the cold wind blowing was ominous, a sign that winter was near.
Tsunade sat on the bench, looking tired, and gestured for Yamato to wheel Naruto next to her. Yamato positioned Naruto so that his chair was next to the village leader, and he was sitting next to her almost as if he sat on the same bench. Then he took up a position next to the only entrance to the courtyard.
"I think," said Tsunade after a moment, "Its time you learned about your parents."
"My . . . parents?" repeated Naruto. All this heavy seriousness couldn’t be just about that, could it? Naruto thought. What else was there to learn? The Third Hokage had told him as a small boy that his parents had come from the former Whirlpool country, and that he was found near there shortly after the Kyuubi had virtually wiped that nation off the map. This was all a day before the Kyuubi had continued its rampage south toward Konoha. As far as Naruto understood, nobody ever discovered who his parents were, and he was labeled an orphan. Naruto had always assumed that was why the Fourth Hokage had chosen him to seal the Kyuubi, because he had no ties to speak of, and no parents to trouble with such a curse to place upon their child.
Re: Naruto Shippuden
B-But the Third told me . . ." Naruto began.
"The Third told you all you needed to know at the time." Tsunade interrupted. He had his reasons. They were reasons that I had felt compelled to honor. But now . . ." Tsunade’s eyes glistened, and her voice lowered to almost a whisper. "Now things have changed."
Tsunade composed herself. "We will start with your mother, who like the Third must have told you, was indeed from the Whirlpool country. But she didn’t die there."
Naruto felt his breath catch deep in his lungs.
"She was a ninja, Naruto. She immigrated to Konoha, following the man she had fallen in love with, your father, who was a ninja of Konoha. It is her family name that you have carried all your life. Her name was, Kushina Uzumaki."
"Kushina Uzumaki." Naruto repeated the name slowly, as if some lost memory of his mother would suddenly come to him. Try as he might, no secret memory resurfaced from the depths of his subconscious. Tsunade continued her story.
"Your father wished for you to take her name, both to protect your identity and to give you what he hoped would be a chance to make your own legend. He also implored the Third to make mentioning your status as a Jinchuriki against Konoha law.
Naruto’s mind was reeling.
"I don’t understand." said Naruto. "My own legend? My father . . . He knew what I was? I mean, what the Fourth had sealed inside me?"
"Your father," said Tsunade forcefully and with a hint of pride, "was a legendary ninja himself, known far and wide as the Yellow Flash of Konoha, and the Fourth Hokage, Minato Namikaze."
There was a time when Naruto would have hurried off to proclaim this news from the highest mountain top. He would have bragged to everyone he met in the street. He would have made sure to point out "I told you so!" to more than a few people. Although his heart did swell with pride, Naruto sat in stunned silence, letting the meaning of it all sink in.
"Somehow," said Naruto, "Its like I’ve always known this."
Naruto dug his left hand into his chest. "So my father, he . . . he did this?"
"Your parents both loved you very much, Naruto." Tsunade said. "It pained your father so much to do it, but with your chakra structure, you were our only hope." Tsunade placed a hand on Naruto’s shoulder. "Please forgive him."
Naruto’s eyes burned with hot tears. He wanted to be angry, but could not be. Everything he was, everything he had become, it all lead back to a decision his father made. But Naruto was secure in himself; secure that he could achieve anything through hard work and determination. His father’s legacy was to leave Naruto to make his own, and now Naruto was more determined than ever to do that.
"This damn, fox." said Naruto. "I won’t forgive it."
"And yet you must live with it." said Tsunade sadly.
"Hokage-sama!" Yamato called from the entrance. "Someone’s coming."
Tsunade let air seethe between her teeth. "Damn, already?"
"Naruto, listen to me," Tsunade said leaning in close to Naruto and talking urgently. Whatever happens next, you must remain calm. You must not lose hope, and you must trust yourself, as I trusted you."
Naruto followed Tsunade’s gaze to the sliver of blue-green crystal dangling about his neck. He swallowed and nodded. So it wasn’t just about my parents after all?Promise me!" Tsunade hissed.
"I- I promise. But what . . ."
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Tsunade produced a scroll and pressed it into Naruto’s good hand. Naruto stared the scroll for a moment, recognizing the type of animal contract immediately.
"This is . . ." breathed Naruto.
"The blood contract with you is already complete." said Tsunade. "Hurry up and summon him."
"But wh-" Naruto began.
"Just do it!" Tsunade snapped.
Naruto flipped the scroll in the air, bit his finger, and then unbound it in one motion. Slamming his palm onto the seal with perfect timing as it struck the ground in front of him, a large plume of smoke emitted from the scroll. When the smoke cleared, in its place was a medium sized frog about a large as Naruto’s forearm. The frog’s orange-brown skin looked leathery and old, and it had big bushy white eyebrows and a small pointed beard of the same color.
"Yo, kid." said the frog in a wheezy voice. "Nice to finally meet you."
Tsunade stood up and began walking towards the entrance.
"There’s no time for pleasantries I’m afraid, honored elder," said Tsunade without looking back.. "He needs to know now, before . . ."
"Before what?" said a shrewd, contemptuous voice from the entranceway. The voice had come from a weathered looking old lady, a long hairpin holding her silvery hair in a neat bun. She peered at Tsunade, and then at Naruto with beady little eyes that seemed to be barely open. Naruto recognized the council member Koharu Utatane immediately. Naruto had seen the other council member with her before too, but couldn’t place the name of the silver haired man wearing dark glasses. A third man that was in tow behind the two looked even more injured than Naruto. He walked with a cane, had only one arm, and his forehead was bandaged in such a way that it covered his right eye as well.
"Before there are any interruptions." Tsunade finished.
"You mean before we catch you going behind our back again. Don’t you Tsunade?" said the male elder."
"This matter is a private one for Naruto," countered Tsunade. "And I treated it as such."
"Nothing concerning the Jinchuriki is a private matter, Tsunade" the man chided. "Surely you must realize that?"
"I don’t remember reading that law, Homura-San" Tsunade spat.
Now Naruto remembered. The Man was called Homura Mitokado. He was the lady Utatane’s team mate from ages ago. But the sickly looking man Naruto still did not recognize.
He just stood there, still in the hallway, watching the whole exchange without so much as a twitch to his expression. He remained passive, almost oblivious, but yet Naruto could see a keen mind working behind the one uncovered eye. If anything was certain, that man was dangerous.
Wanting to escape the tense moment building between the village leaders, Naruto eyed the old little frog who had jumped up into his lap after being summoned. A closer look revealed a strange series of numbers branded across its back. 9, 31, 8, 106, 7, 207, and 15. What in the world could these mean? Naruto wondered.
"Its not about the law, Tsunade." said Koharu menacingly. "Its about your reckless actions. Allowing Master Jiraiya to go on that foolish errand for instance. You threw away one of our best assets!"
Naruto felt a cold chill in the pit of his stomach. What had the elder just said?
"Hey, kid!" said the old frog in his lap. "Stop listening to the bickering of old fools. We got business you and I."
"B-But what did she mean by . . ."
The frog suddenly looked sad . . . well . . . for a frog anyway. Naruto was getting more and more used to the subtleties of the small amphibians. And this one was definitely upset.
"It’s true, kid." said the old frog. "I was there with your teacher in the end. These numbers on my back were his last message to you. You’ll understand what they mean later, but first . . ."
"No way." Naruto said. "Ero-Senin is . . . Jiraiya is . . ."
It couldn’t be true. There had to be some mistake. He had to be just goofing off some pleasure house somewhere. He must have faked it. The cold feeling spread from Naruto’s belly outward to his chest. He couldn’t breathe. His eyes glazed over. He began to feel hot. The heat battled the cold, spreading from a place between his ears and rushing downward.
He’d felt it before. It was raw, untamed power, and already it wanted to consume him. But Naruto wouldn’t, couldn’t ever let that happen again. He took some deep breaths. Not this time, you damn fox! Naruto thought.
"But, how?" Naruto asked through gritted teeth.
"He went to gather information of the Akatsuki leader," said the frog. "But ended up running afoul of him. But nevermind that for now, first this is about your destiny! I have another summon for you and . . ."
"Damn it." Naruto growled. He gripped the arms of his wheelchair tightly, and the metal began to crack and bend. "Damn them. Damn them all! I won’t forgive them! I won’t!" Hot tears began to stream down Naruto’s face.
"Get a hold of yourself, kid!" the frog shouted.
"Yes, I would advise that." Jinchuriki, said the one armed man. Who had slunk forward toward Naruto as the two women bickered. "Emotions will lead to your ruin."
"Stay out of this, Danzo!" Tsunade snapped.
Danzo! Thought Naruto. So this was the man who Yamato had thought might want to wrest control of Konoha for himself. Naruto looked at the man with burning red eyes. He could feel his teeth begin to grow and grind, pleading with him to let lose, to tear the traitorous bastard limb from limb. This was the man who had ordered an assassination attempt on Sasuke!
Still Naruto fought with everything he had to calm himself. He had to know what this old frog was after. Old lady Tsunade was obviously risking much bringing him here. But why had she taken so long to tell him about . . . about . . .
"Why do you resist, brat?"said a voice from deep within Naruto. "Let us dispose of this threat to your precious village here and now, hmmm?"
Naruto began to feel more and more like he was trying to stay afloat in a riptide. Something dark and menacing was threatening to pull him down into the depths of his own heart, to places he dare not go. He fought for control, but he could feel it slowly starting to slip away. Naruto fell out of the chair and onto his knees, and when he looked at his good hand he saw it had begun to glow orange. His cast disintegrated, and suddenly his wounds had no pain. The old frog leapt away from him and up on top of the bench, while the two ANBU took up strategic positions at the open roof of the courtyard.
No! Thought Naruto. I have to stop this!
"Yamato!" cried Tsunade. "Help him. Quickly!"
"Right!" Said a voice from the corner.
Even though Naruto’s vision was clouded with red, he could see the spiked wooden stalks of Yamato’s sealing jutsu begin to grow out of the ground around him. So Tsunade had come prepared. Naruto began to feel relieved.
"Its useless, brat." Taunted the Kyuubi within Naruto. The demon had a way of goading him when he least wanted it. "Your master is dead because you were weak. You are too weak without me. Why do you delay the inevitable. Together we can put a stop to all of this foolishness."
"You see, Tsunade!" the elder Koharu spat. "Now you have endangered us all!"
"I recommend council members," said Danzo. "That we withdrawal from this place. You see now how our Hokage’s emotions have lead us astray. Of course, I expect you will take action to consider the steps necessary to place the Jinchuriki under my care? Just like I promised I can guarantee to keep him safe and out of the way."
Naruto couldn’t believe what he was hearing. And it enraged him further.
"You . . ." Naruto growled in an unnatural voice. "You mean lock me away! I won’t allow it!"
"Danzo! You fool!" Tsunade screamed. It was the last coherent thing Naruto heard.
Naruto spiraled downward into blackness. His skin began to burn. This part always hurt so bad. But he hurt worse on the inside. Everything hurt. His master was gone. Danzo had the council in the palm of his hand, and now . . . now they wanted to lock him up! The fox was right, there was no escape.
"Nooooooooo!" Naruto yelled. His voice an unnatural demonic scream as he assumed a posture like a four-legged animal. He could feel the power of the tails forming behind him, and his face contorted and began to change. But he couldn’t move, as if he was struggling against heavy chains. All he desired now was to break those chains, and lash out at his enemies.
"Hokage-sama!" A distant sounding Yamato called. "I can’t hold it! Its like before, when the masked Akatsuki was around, like its adapting to my seal!"
"Yes, boy. They can no longer hold you back." Said the demon fox into Naruto's mind as if in response. "Its time to claim your destiny."
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Sakura rounded the corner at full speed. Her heavy black boots echoed off the tile floors and down the corridor as she ran. Her heart beat heavily in her chest. Sunlight filtered through windows into the hallway she was in now. Right now the normal late-afternoon sunlight was mixed with a strange orange glow. Sakura knew exactly what that glow was, but she forced herself not to look. She couldn’t look. Not yet. The way her heart was drumming in her chest told her she still wasn’t prepared to face what she would find if she looked into that courtyard. She had to calm herself. She couldn’t lose her head this time, or she would be of no use to anyone.
As Sakura reached the entrance, she nearly ran over two elder council members walking purposefully toward the exit. They nodded to her politely, as if they were just passing on the street, and not fleeing a place of immanent danger. With them was the founder of ANBU Root, and an object of Sakura’s scorn, Danzo. Danzo took more than courteous interest in her. They made eye contact. Sakura narrowed her eyes, betraying both her distrust and her unspoken question. Why are you here? Danzo continued on after the elders without a word.
Sakura brushed past Danzo and into the courtyard, and skidded to a stop at the horrific sight. She had tried to prepare herself for what she would find. Naruto was in the middle of the courtyard. His bandages had begun to tear, burn and come unraveled, the cast had broken free of his arm, and it looked nearly healed. He leaned forward onto his hands as if they were a pair of front legs. His face was contorted, his incisors growing into long fangs. His eyes were red and menacing. The cloak of the Kyuubi had already formed two tails, a third was rapidly forming as he thrashed against the bonds that held him.
Sakura almost felt relieved when she saw Yamato’s sealing jutsu forming around Naruto, but she immediately realized something was going wrong with the technique. Yamato was holding the final sign of the summon, straining against his own hands as if he was in a tug-o-war with himself. The spiked wooden pillars struggled to grow completely out of the ground. Some unseen force kept trying to pull them back under. Two ANBU flanked Naruto on either side, and her master was in the middle, shouting orders. Tsunade held a small piece of paper in her hand., on which was a symbol of some kind that Sakura couldn’t make out.
"Keep him distracted!" Tsunade was yelling to the two ANBU and Yamato. "And are you sure this wing has been evacuated?"
"It was done as you ordered, Lady Tsunade." Said the female ANBU after dodging a strike from one of the tails. The impact drove dust and grass into the air. Sakura cried out in surprise and covered her eyes with crossed forearms as the ground trembled beneath her and an unnatural wind blew grass, flowers, and other debris her way. At this, the Fifth Hokage noticed her apprentice.
"Get her out of here!" Tsunade ordered.
"But Master!" Sakura called back.
Sakura didn’t get the chance to argue. She found herself instantly scooped up on the shoulder of the male ANBU as he sprinted for the door. The impact of the ANBU’s speed knocked the wind out of Sakura. Sakura struggled to look up, and found herself being carried away from Naruto feet first. A three tailed Naruto took notice, and tried to leap after them, but the bonds of Yamato’s jutsu held, and he was thrown to the ground. Seeing her chance, Tsunade pounced.
Sakura had difficulty tracking her master’s movement as she approached Naruto through his blind spot at full speed. Tsunade slapped the paper-seal onto Naruto’s forehead with perfect precision. Naruto froze, the red aura around him dimmed. The tails began to disperse. Sakura’s long time friend collapsed onto his belly, gasping.
Sakura grabbed the doorframe as the ANBU took her back into the hallway. Just as a large chunk of the doorframe broke off, she heard her master say,
Re: Naruto Shippuden
Naruto’s mind was a swirl of darkness and light. His eyes struggled to focus, to bring him back to reality. He smelled freshly burnt grass, and shapes moved in front of his eyes that looked like boots. Was it . . .old lady Tsunade? His skin tingled and burned, and he was short on breath.
"Am I . . . saved?" Naruto coughed.
He tried to stand, but only felt pain shoot up his spine. He cried out.
"Where are you going boy?" said a voice from the depths of Naruto’s mind. Darkness flooded over Naruto, pulling him away again. The smells and the sights vanished. Naruto’s throat was parched. It was hard to speak, but Naruto heard his own distant voice say in a cracked and desperate tone,
"No! Leave me alone!"
"Begging won’t get you anywhere, brat." said the menacing baritone. "Its like I told you before. You are only delaying the inevitable."
Naruto found himself in familiar surroundings. Filthy water wet his hands and knees, sending a cold chill up his spine. Naruto didn’t have to turn around to know there would be an enormous iron gate behind him, sealed shut with but the frailest looking of seals. The gate was clanging loudly as an immense force threw itself against its prison bars. The nine tails was determined. It would not settle for a chakra visage of itself this time. This time, it was determined to be free. Naruto knew he had to stop this, knew that everything depended on it, but for the first time, he began to doubt that he could. The young man refused to turn and look at the giant red fox eyes of his tormenter. Instead, he sat in the murky water, and buried his head in his knees.
"This seal is going to break today, child." Said the fox. "There is nothing you can do but let me show you what true power is."
Naruto raised his head, but still did not look at the fox.
"But, why here? Please, not here. My friends will . . ."
"Ha!" sneered the Kyuubi. "What friends? You mean the people outside that wish only to hold you down? To hold you back! You are of no use to them, they know they can’t trust you. Even that pink-haired wench and your so-called Hokage.""How dare you . . ." Naruto began angrily.
"How dare YOU! Brat."Hokage. What a foolish title. Why do you still desire only that, when with my power you could bring the entire WORLD to its knees?"
"I don’t care about any power except that which I can protect my precious friends with. Your power only hurts them. I don’t want it."
"No, you fool. YOU are the one that hurts them."Naruto was silent. He felt like crying. Could he cry tears in this place? The damn fox wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. Naruto had no argument. He was tired of arguing . . .so very tired of struggling so hard every day. Naruto felt his body go limp. He began to float with a slow current in the dirty yellow brown water.
"Now, boy. Give yourself over to me one more time."
Naruto did not resist as he suddenly found himself in the grip of a giant paw. Its force began cushing him as it pulled him slowly toward the gap between the bars. Naruto didn’t cry out at the pain, but he was certain that tears were rolling down his face
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