Preview: A Single Step – 10

Naruto trained and worked, day in and day out, but when he had time to himself he would clasp his hands and focus in on that green butterfly.

More often than not it was fluttering in the same location. She was Konoha. He didn’t know how he knew, but he just did. It wasn’t until weeks later, on one quiet afternoon, when Sasuke was in the labs and Naruto had retreated to his room to rest, that he discovered her chakra to be quite far away from her usual spot. She was out again, on a mission.

He hopped up from his bed, energized. He crept outside undetected, and once he was far enough away from the the opening he jumped up to a limb he ran through the jutsu. The wooshing darkness consumed him immediately.

This time when he landed, he was ready for the disorienting feeling. He kept his eyes closed and his head down. Humidity wrapped around his skin like a warm blanket and birdsong filled his ears, but still he waited. After a few deep breaths, he blinked open his eyes. A lush green jungle filled his view.  He took a few slow steps, turning in a wide circle, and was surprisingly steadier on his feet than last time. He was getting the hang of it.

Huge banana trees grew everywhere, their leaves hanging like folded sails around him. He pulled one back to see he was at the edge of a well-worn path. Following it, he discovered he was atop a small bluff above a river community.

Huddled out over muddy, slow-moving water, rickety huts stood on stilts, connected by a spider’s web of boardwalks. Grey smoke trailed in thin streams from the corner of every shack. Boats full of fruits and fishing nets were tied to driftwood moorings. The river dwellers bustled about their day, hefting up baskets and sloshing into boats, scolding children and flicking back fishing poles, ducking under the tattered fabric flaps of the huts—

One curtain pulled back suddenly and pink hair blossomed among the weathered brown structures.

Naruto’s heart skipped a beat. He pulled back the banana leaf to get a better look.

Right on her heels were three Leaf shinobis he didn’t recognize. She gave them orders and turned away, leaving them to disperse, one back inside the hut and the two others down the docks. Sakura strode purposefully down the floating boardwalks, the sloshing footpaths never making her wobble, and turned onto a worn path — right in the direction of the bluff.

Naruto eased back, letting the leaves cover him again. In a few minutes he heard soft footsteps pad past him on the trail. A snatch of pink flashed through the overlapping leaves, and Naruto grinned to himself. With a satisfied breath, he smoothed down the front of his shirt, congratulating himself on another job well done in finding her, and noiselessly stepped out.

He crept close behind her — but making sure to keep well outside of her reach — and spoke. “Mind if I walk with you?”

Sakura wheeled around, startled, weapon drawn. But seeing him her expression dissolved to relief, then to exasperation. Naruto loved it

He grinned boyishly. “Didn’t mean to scare you!” But they both knew he did, at least a little.

She rolled her eyes, holstered her kunai and turned on her heel to start walking again.

Naruto took that as all the invitation he needed and fell into step beside her.

“What are you doing here, Naruto,” she growled. Naruto stole a sideways glance and saw her face was fetchingly pink and guessed she wasn’t as mad as she let on.

He smiled to himself and clasped his hands behind his head. “Oh, I was just in the neighborhood, and I….”

Sakura scoffed and he chuckled.

“I told you I wanted to see you again.”

Sakura stopped and turned to him. “And this,” she raised her hands, “this is where you picked?”

Sunlight dappled the ground around them and the birdsong was mercilessly loud. The humidity was working its way under his collar, making it damp. Sakura’s hair was already plastered to her neck, and the hollow of her throat glistened slightly. He tore his eyes away from her pale, damp skin.

“Seemed like as good a place as any. So what are you doing out here?”

“Medical mission,” she said tonelessly.

“Huh,” he nodded. A parrot shot over the trail, brilliant tail fanning out behind it, and Naruto stared openly at the creature.

Sakura narrowed her eyes. “Naruto, do you even know where we are?”

“Does it matter?” He flashed her a charming smile. “It’s wherever you are!”

Sakura looked at him dismayed. “Why would you come here? People are sick and—“

Voices carried up the trail and Naruto frowned at the interruption. He’d have to time this better.

He leaned forward, squeezing her bare arm, and looked up into her green eyes. “Keep up the good work. I’m sure you’ll heal them in no time!”

When he stepped back she just stared at him, her mouth parted and her face a picture of beautiful confusion. The steamy glow on her cheeks only heightened her beauty. He drank it in.

“I’ll see you again Sakura-chan,” he said warmly. Then he flash-stepped back into the safety of the jungle just as two shinobi were cresting the hill. The leaves rustled gently as if a creature disappearing back into the lush foliage, but in the green shadows Naruto stayed to watch her.

The shinobis stopped directly in front of him and looked at the trembling leaves then back to Sakura in some confusion.

“Uh, Sakura-san,” the younger shinobi said thoughtlessly. “Were you, um, speaking to someone?”

Sakura snapped back to reality and turned on the two, gritting her teeth and clearly holding back her anger. Naruto bit down on a knuckle, stifling a laugh. The older shinobi cringed and looked away.

Chastened, the younger nin tried to apologize. “Not that you’re crazy or anything, it’s just that—“

The older nin whacked him on the back of the head, pushing him down into an apologetic bow.

Sakura rolled her eyes and turned away from the spot where Naruto had disappeared

“No. I was just talking to myself,” she said overly loud, and Naruto knew it was meant for him. He grinned while she continued. “I have a lot on my mind right now. What have you found out….”

The younger shinobi wisely kept his mouth shut and unrolled a scroll. Sakura stepped around to examine it, then took it from his hands.

Naruto could see the words “Blood Test” written down the side, followed by columns and columns of data. The two med-nins wore serious expressions as they watched Sakura’s eyes scan up and down the lists.

Whatever she was looking at, she wasn’t happy about it. Sakura re-rolled the scroll then looked at the two medics. “It’s spreading.” It wasn’t a question. Beside her, the med-nins nodded grimly. “Let’s get back and run some more tests.”

They disappeared down the trail, and Naruto closed his eyes and thought about the being back at the compound. In the next breath he was pitched forward into darkness, leaving the steamy jungle heat behind him.