Merry Christmas, fanfic friends. Welcome to Storm's Christmas Bash, a triple update of fanfics!

This chapter begins with Deidara's POV. It was rather difficult for me since I haven't written Seven from his point of view since the first chapter, written in December of '09. Since my writing's improved since then, I pretty much had to re-create what I consider to be Deidara's way of thinking/writing for his POV. But for my struggle I got to at last write a DeiSaku scene. That scene marks the place in this story when the samurais' feelings for Sakura (Deidara's first, of course) are acknowledged as less "lol" and more "srs." Beware.

April 4th, early morning

Having spent three weeks in the ever-changing whirlpool of Tanzaku, a world of noise, danger and heated intrigue, waking up in a neat little cottage on a sleeping mat made just for him was very odd for Deidara. On the other hand, he had spent the previous night sleeping with warriors under the stars, so why was this so remarkable?

He lay on his stomach and balanced himself on his elbows, laced his hands—damp as usual—and felt the warm silk coverlet on his back. He observed the little room that had been reserved just for him. Each samurai was handed off to a family to be sheltered and pampered and treated like a god and Deidara liked that. He especially liked deserving it. But his room, with its propped-open window and new incense sticks and a little abacus on the table, was kind of humbling. This village was not the wild, moving beast that Tanzaku was, but it felt pleasant and warm to be here.

The window outside showed a square of sky that was still shaded heavily pink. Really early. The Inuzuka family were farmers like most others here, but their morning farming chores were probably being postponed so they could sleep off last night's food and festivities. But the enemy wouldn't be doing that, would they? Weren't the villagers really damn clear about how the bandits liked to sit a quarter mile outside the village and just stare at them?

Yes, they would be there. And if they were there, Sakura would be there, too. She would stand and glare and dare them to come an inch closer. Actually, she'd be there even if they weren't, to watch the sun rise and prance about her home territory. "The bandits have all gone!" She would say to him. He would see light playing on her skin, all of her skin. He would see her sun-smile. "Do you know…that means to world to me, Deidara…? Deidara."

This thought forced him out of bed. The gods only knew what would happen if he remained lying on his back thinking about her. The place his hands would go.

Standing up now, he remembered that he'd changed into his one sleeping yukata before going to bed, and his clothes—his clothes were in the corner, folded and looking suspiciously crisp and smooth. He picked up his cloak and a trace of river water and summer air on it. Someone in Kiba's family had washed Deidara's clothes as he slept. A kind favor on top of their idolizing, on top of their gratitude. 'How…nice.'

No matter what Tanzaku or its slithering population said, favors were not all covers for requests in return. He changed clothes, and felt instantly as fresh as though he'd come up from a bath. Even the phoenix he had long ago painted on the back of the cloak glimmered as though with an extra coat of paints, each little shine and stroke a new and unexpected display.

Deidara put a hand into the tiny space between the sliding door of his room and the wall, and pushed it gently aside. Here in the main room lay Kiba's mother. She was curled facing the fire pit and covered with a homemade blanket. He stalked neatly past her and opened the door at the opposite end of the room to the outside. Now dawn in all its pastel shades and fine blends of shadow were open to his eyes, along with a dozen or more cottages, connected at their doorways with whimsically curving dirt paths. Deidara ignored all of these and instead headed the way he knew the front of the village was. On the way, he spotted Anko—she was a butcher or cattle-herder, or something with cows—he hurried behind another cottage so she wouldn't see him. He was in no mood to talk with a grateful local right now.

Three homes later, the maze of cottages was behind him and Deidara could see the downward slope that led to Konoha's massive field of crops. On the other side was the little hill with its five little cottages. Surely beyond them Sakura waited.

It was almost obscene how much of his thought she occupied, a vague little rational part of him murmured. But Deidara tended to look at rationality only long enough to spit on it. Rapture was rapture, and she inspired that anew in him with every step and smile and breath. Every explosion of violence and loyalty, and every naïve little nuance that suggested she didn't quite detect that he was attracted to her. Today, he would change that, he resolved. It was time.

He thought about ways to change that as he strolled down one of the many straight paths cutting through the crop field. Its many scents assaulted him the entire way, but he was through the place and climbing up the hill to the fore of Konoha quick enough. Once the five homes on this hill were out of the way, he could see Sakura. She was next to the plain little wooden arch that marked the entrance to the village, in a new kimono that was deeper red than the only other one he had seen her in. It, too, was made short enough to expose most of her legs, and it, too, unfortunately, was accompanied by a garment that covered the tops of her thighs from being exposed, rather like pants cut far too short…or cut fantastically short.

She had her hand atop her sheathed sword as though it were a walking stick and was holding something up to her mouth. Her posture became stiffer suddenly, and she turned around and saw him. After daintily swallowing a piece of her fruit, she waved at him. "What are you doing here?" she asked when he was within arm's length. "You have hours to sleep yet before anyone will be up."

"Same goes for you."

"Same does not go for me. This is my favorite time to be awake and about and a feast the night before won't change that."

He scoffed at the pinkette. "What about a battle, mm? Does that change anything?" She raised her brows and inclined her head the slightest bit and looked adorable. Deidara's eyes lingered on the minute movement of her lips. "I'm wondering if you would sleep longer if you felt sure the enemy wouldn't come back in the morning. Or am I wrong?"

She inhaled deeply once, but not to prepare a retort like he thought. "You're not wrong. They've snuck up on us before and I can't tell when it'll happen again. So yes, I'm also watching for that."

Deidara felt a flare of satisfaction at having guessed her thoughts correctly; though the moment faded, it burned inside him yet. And steadily. "Then I'll watch with you, mm. Sit down with me."

He was the first to move, but he kept his eyes on her, watching her movements, the small sways and gestures she did by habit, uncontrollably. Her reaction was the tiniest frown, her fingers squeezing lightly down onto her palm. She must have sensed he wanted more than to sit next to her. How much she sensed remained unknown to him, even as she sat in the grass by him, facing forward but with her slim legs folded to the side, knees pointing toward him. The first light of dawn was spilling onto her legs. "Sakura. Look at me."

The morning around them was blessedly quiet; when Sakura obeyed and turned her head slightly to look at him, all he could hear or sense was that she was finally seeing him. She did not mistake his intentions now.

Deidara moved in close till their breaths were mingling, but for only the length of one. For one breath he tasted the scent of blossoms grown in the sun and in the next the taste of Sakura became his. He kissed her and an great piece of him imploded with joy, burst and burst and soared again as he ran his tongue across her smooth lips.

All before realizing what he was tasting and reveling in were rather small. Because what he had touched his lips to was not Sakura's entire mouth. She had turned her head minutely to the side just before he could press his lips completely to hers. She tried to dodge.

And then she backed away—'Nonono come back! Please!'—and stared at him. Mouth parted, eyes faintly narrowed and with her fingers spread like angry claws in the grass. "What was that." She stated, instead of asked. It came out weakly, and he frantically invented reasons as to why she would say such a thing. But he had to say something, too, more clearly than ever.

"That was my way of finally getting you to understand I'm attracted to you. I'm attracted to every move you make and every word you say and I have been since I saw you fight that man in Tanzaku. So now you really know."

Sakura stared at him with a blank face. Then her eyes narrowed slightly, pulling her soft brows together. This news appeared to neither shatter or elate her, and that frightened him. Her reactions were all wrong. There was no way that she felt…negatively toward him; he would have known. Between them, Sakura's right hand was kneading the grass between her fingers. "Y…I had…I think this is a problem."

All of Deidara's mouths bit their tongues.

"This is a problem because if you're speaking truthfully—"

"I'm speaking truthfully, mm!"

"Then I-I'll be—" The grass under her fingers came up, clawed through. She paused. And it went on forever. "Deidara. What did you come to Konoha for?"

"Because you wanted me, Sakura. And I want you to want me as more than a useful swordsman. I want to be your lover."

This revelation shattering all her impressions of Deidara and bringing forth strange new ones was clearer than a thunderbolt. She looked conflicted again. Confused. And then scared. She was a hundred tiny thunderbolts now, sparking everywhere and he was instantly fighting not to kiss her again. "No one's ever wanted me like that before." she said quietly, and he quashed the hissing little bit of his conscience that said she was blind as a bat for thinking that. "At least not in the way I think you mean. A lover can also mean someone you sleep with and never speak to again. I don't want—"

"That is not what I'm talking about." He said, and it was fierce enough to convince her. She went on.

"I know men who are like my fathers and brothers, but never ones like that. A…suitor."

Now his own hands were kneading the grass, and the little fangs inside them took frustrated bites out of the ground. "Well, now you have six who aren't going to leave you alone. You have to pick one of us."

She glanced at him with a funny half-smile on her face. "Six. You and the other five samurai?" He grunted a confirmation and her smile grew. "That's…insane. Incredible." He paused, because she was right about that, and deserved a few moments to allow the knowledge to soak in. "I had…wondered. A bit. That explains their faces. And a lot of things you all said."

His hand-mouths still bit the ground. "I can't understand how it took you this long to see. But it doesn't matter, mm. You know now. The other five would say this to you just like I am if they got the chance, and more. We're here for you and you can't ignore us or make us go away."

The acknowledgement of six men hunting her was frightfully new. She smiled, but it looked like resignation. "I suppose I can't. But I can always…leave the area if I see you coming. Or hide."

"Then we would come after you." He chuckled. The idea of chasing a swift and flustered Sakura was more than he could bear at that moment; the image was darkened and put away. He thought of something else. "Or just leave Konoha, mm. Maybe then you would come after me instead."

The reaction was that of a wildcat. The shooting up, shoulders tensing and eyes narrowing so swiftly the pupils seemed to contract to a feline's demonic slit. She looked powerful, like a lioness, like a storm with many secrets. The lioness' frowning mouth murmured to him, "You would leave Konoha? So easily?"

For her, of course, he thought dazedly. "Of course."

Sakura attacked him. Her fist connected to his left shoulder like a running bull, and then he was flat on the ground yelling aloud at the pain. He thrashed once and was beat down again. Her legs were on him, all of her was on him, and suddenly her sword was being shoved two-handed against his throat. Deidara panted. He heard her growling at him, "Take that back. Now. I didn't bring you to my home so you could leave it behind whenever you want! Take it back or I'll drive you out myself!"

"You couldn't be rid of me if you wanted to, mm." He rumbled back. "I do care about Konoha. I care about you more. And I'll protect it and you."

The sword stayed still, but Sakura was trembling as she straddled him; he felt it everywhere. "…I'll beat you if you're lying to me."

"Yeah, I know." He chuckled back, and even that sent a fresh, red flare of pain all around his torso.

"I hope I won't have to," she replied, very fast, and rambled on, "Because you've been an admirable beacon of hope and all types of strength since the first day and you're really very funny and I like you."

Deidara's neck was a hair away from being punctured by a sword and he probably had bruises underneath his phoenix-backed cloak, but he didn't care. He soared. The wind blew against their sides and reminded him that the world was still turning outside their private space. As it died down again, he grabbed Sakura's blade in his left hand. She was reluctant to move it, but it didn't matter. Sakura's soft and unsure confession marked the starting point of his true claim on her. And if he truly wanted her, he would have to expose all of himself: all his virility and artistic beauty, and his ugliness.

He opened his hand fully and stretched the fingers. Her eyes widened hugely. They looked like perfect spheres of jade, a treasure the shogun would curl his greedy fingers around, but this treasure was now his. If she would accept what she saw. A little mouth biting down on her blade.

She stared at it. And stared. It was just like a few minutes back, when her reactions were all unpredictable and cool. Kami-sama, if she shied away from him now…

The closest the pinkette would come to a reaction was to loosen her grip on her sword. Deidara's mouth kindly let go then stuck its tongue out slightly before pulling back in. Sakura held her sword upright in one hand, pointing up at the clouds. It dropped and swung like a broken clock hand and thumped down onto the ground. And a hundred furious beats of Deidara's heart later, he realized her eyes contained no horror. She looked confused indeed, but Deidara was an artist and he recognized fascination when he crossed it. He heard her say, "And what's that?"

It was done. She hadn't fled or even turned away. Deidara felt the flare from before begin to burn in him again. "That's my secret for now, mm. I can tell you soon." He had been lying almost flat for a while. Now he began to sit up. "I want to know yours, too. I want those secrets to be mine."

Sakura, who still sat atop him, was fidgeting and looking like a trapped sheep now, but that was to be expected. He put his arms around her and trapped her fully. "I want to start…like this." He kissed her again and she did not dodge from him.

This time with the meeting of their lips she jolted in his lap, unwillingly pushing her body closer to his and rising up just slightly onto her knees. The movement parted her lips for him and he pushed past her cherry lips and let himself in her mouth. The feeling of near-implosion he had felt before returned nearly full force again, and he knew Sakura felt it, too. She grabbed his shoulders to steady herself and clenched her lithe fingers on him.

Deidara pulled back not even an inch for breath and for a glance into her eyes. He saw that her fluid mind and her natural responses to him were fighting for the rule of her. He almost chose to watch this war, but realized her breath came out in a soft pant, and couldn't stop himself from going to her again. Even if Sakura was too dazed to really kiss him back, he reveled in this moment. If she chose him in the end he would kiss her and feel her against him many times, but nothing would be quite like their first true touch.

She curled her fingers further on him. He took in another swift breath, but Sakura suddenly gasped, her eyes nearly closed. That sound, a mere, "ahh," echoed in his ears. It was soft but undeniable evidence that that had been her first taste of pleasure and it had been from him. He touched his lips to hers a third time, very briefly, and stopped. Yes, it probably was time to stop.

Here, Sakura drew a breath and licked her lips once; she still tasted him. She locked her gaze firmly on his shoulder, so that she was neither looking straight up nor bowing her head. "Now what?"

That was a good question. Now that he was completely clear on his feelings towards her, now… "Now you decide if you want me. Decide if I'm better than the others."

The maiden's eyes shot open suddenly. She scrambled up onto her feet, half-kicking him once and coming close to his hurt shoulder. She was looking around like a frantic bird and in another day or time it might have looked hilarious. He did chuckle at it a little.

"Oh, gods. Oh gods. Someone might have seen. WhatamIgoingto—" She paced once and ignored his gentle request to sit down again. She whipped her head back at him and stared. "I'm—I'm just not used to the idea that people can see us doing that. People are going to be doing things like that to me and my villagers might see."

Now it was coming close to hilarious. "Well, that's the damned point, Sakura. This isn't a secret. Someday soon you will hav—" He stopped, only because her expression was too drastic to ignore, and was no longer amusing. She looked haunted. Horrified. Like Kakuzu and a thousand demons and all of burning hell were walking across the plan toward her.

He turned slightly on his spot in the grass and felt sun on his back. "What's so frightening about this, mm?" He asked her.

"I don't know." she murmured back. The noble, fanged lioness had faded on the wind. She was a cub now. "All of it. Every aspect that I don't even know yet. I have to pick a lover and I have no idea what I'm doing. Or if I even want this." She paused. "What if I don't want this, Deidara? What if I say no to everyone?"

'Ridiculous.' He thought instantly. Sakura's efforts had pulled six godly samurai into her presence, each one strange, each one powerful, and each one, Deidara knew by the black grudges in their eyes, aware that he was in the presence of formidable foes. They tolerated each other only for her. For this woman before them of power and sweetness and honor who put them each on their knees. None would be dissuaded. None would leave. And all were worthy of her. The idea that Sakura's future lover would be anyone but one of the six samurai she took home with her from Tanzaku was utter bullshit.

Deidara smiled at her. "That won't happen. You will choose one of us."

She remained quiet and observed him from across their small gap of space. From over the hill, beyond the five houses upon it, they both heard a sudden sound: a voice calling Sakura's name, and heavy footsteps thumping closer. Sakura's lips parted and closed and she gulped, some of her terror returning. She looked at him for assurance and he gave it tenderly, truthfully. "People are going to see,Sakura, but that's not a reason to worry, mm. It doesn't matter. This is about what we want." We, he said. As though they were already one.

The voice called her name again but Sakura wouldn't turn her jade-jewel eyes from him. "I'm not the only one who's going to be judged here." She said.

And he had something great to say to that, something fantastic, but the goddamn villager appeared from behind the foremost house and came plodding forward. It was the fat son of the fat cook. Chosuke.

He waddled down the hill, carrying a plate of some fruit or something. His sleeves were tied back as though he was preparing to go do some physical labor. Sakura turned her body towards him and said, "Hello! Good morning, Chouji. Why aren't you eating the leftover ribs for breakfast?"

Chouji. That's right. (Hadn't he missed someone else's name recently?) Deidara stayed still and unbothered as the cook's son came a step closer and bowed to him. "And good morning to you, too, samurai-sama!" Deidara more or less tried to sound nice and friendly when he returned the greeting. Sakura lifted a slice of purple something off the plate and bit the edge of it. But then, "So what are you two doing over here at the front hill so early?"

Something very like a bomb went off in Sakura's head, collapsing her smile. Deidara found it to look amusing; he grinned at her and Chouji saw it. "Aha! Discussing battle tactics!" Chouji said, gesturing forward a bit with his plate. He, too, was grinning. "My parents wondered how soon it would be before our protectors started cooking them up. Well, here, take this, I have lots more at home. But don't eat that reddish one, throw that to the birds. See you, Sakura!" Chouji shoved the plate into the pinkette's hands and ran like a racing hound across the hill and then down the opposite side.

Sakura stayed still. "He knows."

Well, his gossip-hen face had been difficult to miss, splattered all over his face like it was. He sniggered. "Yup." He tapped his foot on the grass. "Come back here, Sakura. Relax with me before all your friends wake up, mm."

And there, just like that, the lioness flared to life again. She was ready and sharp, and confused, but there was a definite shine of thought and a plan in her eyes. "'Relax' with you. Mm-hmm. I'm not sure if I want to just right now, Deidara."

"Yes, you do want to, Sakura, or else you wouldn't have let me do it the first time."

"I mean right now." She said a little more softly. "I have no idea what I want right now. Except time to think about something. Are you going to make me feel bad for that?"

Of course not. Perhaps through the light of her true personality, he could see it better: she simply wanted to leave the situation without hurting him, or any of the others. 'Let me go and find out who I want and what's going on,' is what she was saying, whether or not she really knew it. And that was…fair. So he said, "No. But I'll keep waiting for you to come back to me. You gonna make me feel bad about that?"

She squinted her eyes at him just a little bit, irritated. He chuckled at it. "No. I'll…" She looked away, and then up. Anywhere but at the man who might have her and claim her very soon. "I'll see you later. At lunch or something." She turned away and began walking, almost in defeat. Weakly. Perhaps now that he couldn't see, she still moved her tongue about her mouth and lips in search of a last taste of him. Perhaps that was why she was turning her head back at him a bit as she walked. "Thank you."

From beyond the fifth and last house on the little hill, Deidara suddenly spied Sakura's mentor, the lady Tsunade, whose face was more impassive than an Uchiha's. The blonde kept his eyes on the retreating girl, conveying his intentions for the new observer a last time. Just in case she had missed it.

Tsunade flashed out of sight and Deidara absolutely did not miss the smirk on her face.

April 4th, mid-morning

The time was right, and the time was now. Tsunade approached her apprentice from behind as she went down the village's front hill and toward the large crop field. That she wasn't noticed or heard was a little incredible. The girl's pale legs still shook minutely and it was time to find out why, from her mouth instead of the samurai's. The woman called, "Sakura. Come here."

She looked back, surprised. "Tsunade-sama, good morning. Yes, I'll wait for you." She could see Sakura's face now, a little flushed. Her lips were minutely swollen and a weak, panting breath fluttered through them. She had bright eyes and hands that didn't know where to place themselves and a gait affected just so by the swaying of her hips. Sakura's pose and presence and voice were painted completely with the nervousness of a girl's first encounter with a man. About damn time.

Tsunade walked a bit faster to move in line with her apprentice and they started down the hill together into the crop field, feeling sunshine and a few kinds of warmth. "Good. Walk with me. And tell me about the samurai, my dear."

"What do you want to know about them?" the pinkette asked mildly.

The samurai woman smiled a little. "Well, the fact that each one is attracted to you is what I'm really interested in."

Sakura's face collapsed into horror; Tsunade almost choked on laughter upon seeing it.

"Sakura, it's beyond obvious now. Perhaps you didn't notice as you met them and brought them home, but your face right now looks pretty aware. Deidara-san must have told you himself. And then turned your lips and cheeks red and made your legs shake." These features on Sakura suddenly were highlighted and she walked with her hands cupping her elbows, pathetically feigning that nothing was happening, nothing was wrong, while she continued to suffer little shakes of new pleasure. "Look at you, you're still panting from whatever the ordeal was. What happened between you two just now? It was your first romantic experience and you will tell me what happened, young lady, this is very interesting."

And there it was. Sakura wasn't getting out of it now. "Tsunade-sama…how did you find out?"

'When I saw you approaching the battle yesterday with warriors who watched a woman instead of the bloodshed.'

"Oh, I got my first hint when the redhead wouldn't leave your side during the battle. Then another samurai kissed your forehead afterward and another held your hand…oh, and of course, Sasori and Madara told me themselves."

The pinkette sputtered and tripped on seemingly nothing. "They told you? What?"

Tsunade inclined her head slightly at the vegetation leaning green hands all around them. "It was yesterday, as we walked to the feast. It was on this very path, in fact." She replied with a smile. Sakura looked her in the eye, lips parted slightly. There seemed to be no answer coming from her so Tsunade rolled onward. "They told me about all the members of the samurai troupe, how each one is attracted to you and can hardly stop thinking about you. Madara said something to the effect that he'd like to be your god, and Sasori about pounced on him for saying it. They asked for my blessing in courting you and I was impressed enough to give it."

Her apprentice was watching the ground before her feet with the eyes of a cow seeing its own impending death at the butchery. Tsunade gave it little thought and spoke on. "And you just learned of their feelings from Deidara, I assume. So tell me how you feel about this. I'm really curious, Sakura, this is your first romantic experience, it's exciting! Of course, the way it's happening is astounding and a little ridiculous, but it's here and it's real. Tell me, tell me, how do you feel about these men?"

Here it was, here it was! She said, "…I don't know. They're all admirable men…I enjoy their company and…and I like them, I suppose. I thought they could help save us. I thought I found saviors."

Well that was nice and all but where was the meat? "…and?"

"And what?"

"You did bring saviors home, Sakura, and they're extremely attracted to you. That's the part I want to know about.

"And what am I supposed to think about that, Tsunade-sama?"


Sakura snapped around. Her eyes and whole presence burned as though Kakuzu were here to ignite her rage, and Tsunade took a step back from the fire. "What should I think? What? Should I be enchanted and melting at their feet? My village is being assaulted by murderers every other day and suddenly I have to stop and deal with, with romance?" Tsunade stood like a weak stem on a rainshower. Waiting…and suddenly sad. "I have no idea what I think about this because, you're right, it's ridiculous and it's not fair, and I don't know how to act around them now."

The samurai girl turned slightly and put her curled hand and its sleeve over her face, almost out of Tsunade's view. "Deidara said he wants to be my lover." She said, and the blonde's brows shot up in at his boldness.. "He made it sound like he wants more than just sex from me. But how can I tell? I have no idea how to tell what a man wants, not like this. I don't know and it's not fair and I like them all, and I don't want any of them to just…use me."

Of course, Tsunade realized. Of course. Gods, what in the hell had made her miss this? "I'm such a gibbering, fucking gossip." She said instantly. She put her hand over her girl's shoulder. "Sakura, Sakura, I'm so sorry. I should never have assumed or forced you. I saw that men were approaching you, good men, strong and noble ones and I thought…I thought that…you haven't had a speck of romance in your life, and you should. I just thought that one of these men could surely make you happy and realize what this lifestyle has made you miss out on. My old impatient ways came back and I just couldn't wait to hear what your first kiss was like."

Her small hand uncurled and now all the fingers covered her face. "You asked me what it was like, when you already saw it?"

Well, now she had to laugh. Just a little bit. A little. "Hmm, yes. It seemed pretty…positive to me."

Sakura exhaled one swift giggle with her eyes closed. "Yes." She confirmed, but said nothing else. They walked on. Asuma, Kurenai, and woodcutter Kyoji were already dressed and tending to the yams and rice plants along the nearest parallel path in the field. They all waved to their protectors. Tsunade kindly returned the gesture and blocked Sakura's lowered posture with her own.

"I know it's very sudden, my dear. And strange. But you needn't worry so much about it. The samurai don't view you like some brothel girl. You know that. I know it, too. They told me so." Sakura lifted her head a little from the safety of her hand's cover, open to assurance. Tsunade smiled and gave it. "I told you how I gave Madara and Sasori my blessing in their courting you. That's not something I give out to any single-minded, ugly little lowlife. Only the best deserves you. I gave my blessing to strong, good-hearted men who think you're the brightest, most admirable and perfect woman they've ever seen."

The pinkette's listened attentively, and Tsunade gave her more. "Sasori was very clear in assuring me he doesn't want to force you into anything. He wants you to come to him. He wants it to be your decision, and while you decide, he will covertly protect you from the others he sees as a danger. Madara especially seemed to ruffle his fur, only because he's not really…he's a little flamboyant." Sakura smiled a little more and agreed to that point. Suddenly the April sun was a little warmer on them. They were halfway across the crop field.

"They talked a bit about all the others, too." The samurai woman went on, this time with a small drizzle of distaste in her mouth. She hadn't exactly given her blessing to the other four yet. Especially for that one…but she had to go on, had to tell Sakura that her outlook was grand, and it was. "Hidan, the cultist, froths at the mouth like an angry sailor in battle. During the feast, when he was around you, it was most definitely toned down. He civilized himself. And Sasuke…well, their good word for him was nothing compared to how devastated he looked when you stopped holding his hand yesterday. Like the sun itself was leaving him behind."

Sakura inhaled a little. "I noticed." She said. "Holding hands with him was nice. I suppose only now I see…that that was quite meaningful."

Her mentor nodded. "They're all good, Sakura. Never think that you're merely a pretty brothel girl in their eyes. No one would dare think that of you. But," and Sakura reacted a little too guardedly to the word, "don't pretend that desire isn't a part of attraction. Some of this is sexual, and that's new to you, but you can't exactly avoid it. It's certainly not just for brothel girls. It, too, is positive. Don't be afraid of it."

Her apprentice met her eyes with a small frown. "But I am. A little. Or more than a little."

"Mm, natural, I suppose. It's quite the opposite of anything you're used to." She quirked a brow and crossed her arms. "Actually, your opinion of things like that is probably black as a hellpit since you've only heard such words and concepts from the mouths of drunken tavern-dwellers. And perhaps Ino."

"I guess I'll deal with it when it comes." Sakura murmured quietly. "I guess my only option is to see what happens. And to be honest with myself. But," she turned her head slightly, pulled all attention to her fierce expression. "I will in no way put this before Konoha's protection, Tsunade-sama. I'm a warrior for this village first, and always."

And always, indeed. It would be many turns of the moon before Sakura so much as thought of stepping down from her post as Konoha's great guardian. Tsunade clapped her hand on her student's shoulder again. "Good. I'd expect nothing less of you. This doesn't mean you get to weasel out of telling me about your first kiss, though." Sakura's smile fell a fraction. "But before that, I have a more serious matter to talk to you about." And she was at full attention again. "How familiar are you with the chakra these men carry?"

The answer was hardly necessary. Both of them clearly knew of it, but there was reason to worry still. "Not enough, unfortunately. As always, it's very hard to sense. But I think that most of them have at least a sliver of it." Sakura said evenly. "Sasori clearly has just enough to create strings to hold up his puppet. His maneuvering of it using the strings is masterful. Madara and Sasuke each have a small reserve, but it seems to be contained completely in their eyes."

Tsunade grunted softly to herself at the pinkette's deductions. Nothing less was expected from her. "Good work. But they are not the ones who greatly concern me. What do you know about Naruto's chakra?"

A bird called overhead and cast a shadow on them both. Sakura said, "I had meant to bring this up myself. Excuse me for forgetting such an important matter. Tsunade-sama…Naruto claims that his chakra talks to him, and its name is Kyuubi." No words would properly fall from the samurai woman's mouth in reply, so her apprentice continued. "The first time we met, we shook hands, and I felt it myself. I felt it within me like a splash of water. And afterward he told me my name, where I was from, and that I like watching sunrises. And I could feel and understand things about him, too. I knew his name instantly. Just because we touched."

Kami-sama, her guesses had been nothing in comparison. This was like a myth, a fireside tale. This didn't happen in any folk's life. Where had that boy been? "You know, I'm inclined to believe him." Tsunade replied. "If only because I can feel his chakra myself." It was a strange thing to say, to even suggest. Chakra was, almost always, not a force that a person could feel like the whisk of cool water or turn of the wind. There was a bit more to say, though. The rest had to come and it seemed stuck in her throat like some adolescent confession, but dammit, this had to be addressed! Sometimes you just had to spit things out. And there. "And his chakra frightens me."

And there. She could see Sakura's face turning dark in confusion, in wonder, and she couldn't be blamed. This was an unexpected thing and it made them both silent and subdued. But clearly one of them had to lead, and her apprentice always followed her, so she went. "It's vast as a sea. That I can feel it at all is testament to that. And it's dangerous, make no mistake. On the other hand, you've had direct contact with it, so you know more than I."

She looked up absently at the approaching hill, where most of Konoha's homes were. It was a swift reminder that their reclusive time on this crop path was almost done. "He described it as an orange fox." The girl began. "And that's exactly what I saw when he touched me. It was an angry thing and it scrutinized me. Pulled at me. I thought that perhaps he pulled things away from me. My name, and such. I really believe Naruto's chakra is…is sentient."

Now for the final step. "What does the Kyuubi think about you, Sakura?" Tsunade asked. Did it have killing intent?" 'Are my fears right, and did you truly bring a monster home with you?'

But she shook her head. "Not that. At least not for me. Kyuubi has tried to make Naruto hurt people in the past. But he said that Kyuubi pointed me out to him and told him to," She paused to chuckle and look away. "to look at the samurai vixen."

"Goddamn." Tsunade chuckled mirthlessly. She noticed Lee and his father on the roof of Miyako and Goro's cottage. Soon they would notice the two women coming closer and expect some waving, then some conversation. This talk had to end now. "Sakura, I believe Naruto is a good young man. But his talking chakra is not something I know how to deal with. These samurai mean well to you, all of them, but you must use caution around Naruto. I don't know what could trigger some ugly release of his Kyuubi." And there was the waving. She waved back. Lee shouted something about a hammer.

"I'll come up and lend you a hand!" Sakura shouted up at him, and with her eyes still on the smith's son, "So today I start my days of romance with men and talking chakra."

"You'll be fine." Tsunade murmured. "You and I will find out about Kyuubi together. But today, we're all free to relax from Kakuzu and his ratty little army. So be off now." And she sped her walking, curving imminently rightwards away from Lee and where any villager was currently walking. Sakura continued up the hill towards her friend and Tsunade went her own way, past Iruka's home and the Yamanaka's, till she found a lane between two houses where she was safe to wear her emotions on her face. She copied her apprentice and covered her face with an open palm. She hid, tried to smile, and hoped.

'Be safe, Sakura.'

April 4th, just past noon.

The day seemed long. Too hot. There was some impossible tension in the air, as though the bandits were on the horizon, but there was no accompanying confidence nor will to fight. No protective instinct, no desire to crush bones and cut through hideous bodies. Something all around her was calling on her fear and not calling on her strength at the same time. Sakura had not been so simply scared in a very long time.

Lee was having her assist in hammering new roof tiles onto someone's home, and they ate dried fruits and the leftovers of yesterday's fish together. They were alone on that roof for a good while, above everything. She took the opportunity to keep watch, as always, but not for her usual suspects. What if Sasuke appeared and asked her to take a walk? What if Naruto wanted to eat with her? Would they expect her to react nonchalantly now? Would they know what Deidara had said and done? What the hell would happen in such a…such a strange situation?

"Sakura, the next nail, if you please." She dropped it smoothly into her friend's calloused palm and wondered what it would be like if the nail had pierced through his hand. Or if the roof collapsed. Or if it started to rain, or if Kakuzu sent an army of cats to attack the village. Anything except the idea of men being attracted to her.

Where the hell had that come from? And why ?

And what was to be done? Her scrambled, subdued speech to Tsunade had covered her emotions and thoughts at the time and seemed to hold up in her mind, and her sensei's, too, but now that the moment was gone. Now, there was a day of respite, but likely tomorrow, or surely the day after, another attack would be on the rise. Spears would be flying and bones would be smashed and a handsome samurai would approach her and ask to talk with her, to sit with her, to lie with her…

Sakura shivered. Ground her teeth. Quashed a sudden desire to smash something. Her samurai had come at the perfect time, and yet with a directly opposite purpose than they should have. They thought Konoha was worth saving, and she was worth wanting. Could she really hate them and drive them out for that? Could she refuse and expel these powerful men, when they were so stunning?

Kami-sama, something had to be wrong with her. Perhaps the ugly miasma of Tanzaku still lingered on her skin and in her mind: "Stunning" was such an improper word for her to use like this. "Stunning" hinted at something other than her admiring, good feelings for them. It hinted at other thoughts that an unused piece of her mind created for them and they were strange. She vehemently refused such thoughts and they weren't strong enough to wrest control of her attention anyway. Anyway…


Anyway. Sakura looked down and saw Naruto running up the hill from the crop field. His red cloak with the black flames lining its hem was gone, leaving him in a rather amusing orange and black outfit. She could see the shine in his eyes from atop the roof. "Hi," she called out to him, and then she thought frantically, 'Say something else something else something else COME ON!' and added, "Your first objective in Konoha is to take a free day and relax. Or eat a bucket of ramen, if you prefer. Ayame and Teuchi's home is two cottages down."

"But I wanna spend my free day with you!" Naruto whined. She noticed he carried his sword in one hand…and hers in the other. Kami-sama only knew how he'd gotten hold of it. "I was with the Hyuugas all morning talking about strategy and stuff. And their girl Hinata said you'd probably be over here today!"

She cocked her head just a bit, spilling a line of short hair down her shoulder. "Hm? You boarded with the Hyuugas?"

"Yeah, they have the biggest house in the whole village! Hiashi-san pretty much wouldn't let me stay anywhere but at his home." the blonde explained. "He's a good man, I think. But he doesn't treat his daughter that nice. I told him to cut it out or I'd go stay with someone else and he about dropped dead right there."

Hiashi Hyuuga falling over was...funny. Especially since the fellow was in some desperate need of either a heavy dose of humor, or a smack to the back of the head. Most of the village would grudgingly agree. Her reaction came slowly, due to having to process such a ridiculous picture. "Wh-! You really said that to him?"

"Yup," Naruto crossed his arms and puffed out his chest absurdly, creating a sort of picture of masculinity as a child might see it. "You want proof, you can go look in one of his big old front windows. He's staring outside looking dead. But at least he didn't spill his precious tea!"She couldn't help it. She laughed. She giggled and wished aloud that she could have been there to see the cranky old goat drop his beloved composure. Composure and civility were actually preferable in her mind, but there existed a select group of people who simply needed to get very large sticks removed from their ass. And threatening them with her sword or her fist was not socially acceptable.

And now that all that had gone through her mind, it became obvious that silence was settling into their conversation. In a moment, he'd restate his desire to be with her. Which was charming, exciting and too frightening all at once. Perhaps she could get away with…with something. Avoiding him and this just a little longer. There had to be just a bit more time to be on her own, before this insane situation really got rolling.

"Sooo, you coming?"

'Yes? No. I think I should. Shit.'

"Sakura, you be off with him." Lee said amicably. "Naruto-sama's desires are certainly of greater importance than this mere roof! I insist." It was only too easy, and too satisfying, to mentally bare her fangs at him. 'I may just cave in this roof when I'm through with you!' She thanked Lee and slipped off the roof, and he clambered onto the opposite side of it. Naruto came up to her like a frolicking pup and she had to fight to keep where she was. If he touched her again, she might feel Kyuubi pulling on her, as she had when they first met. He was coming closer and clearly meaning to grab her hand with his. She couldn't stop it. It was coming. Coming.

Yes, she felt it. First, there was nothing but the warmth of a human hand. No chakra, no monster's presence. But it leaked into her neatly, crawling up her arm and spreading everywhere, into her fingers, smooth down her legs. It was prodding, snagging in places, and warm all around. There was a moment during its travel through her body wherein she didn't breathe. It felt like heat indeed, but her mind insisted it was like a disease. She wasn't supposed to have foreign things inside her like this. Its heaviness kept her from reacting as she wanted. She wanted to gasp and leap away. Naruto, perhaps not seeing her discomfort, laughed at her. "Okay, great! I can't wait! Let's go play." He took her hand and stood waiting. "You gotta tell me where, though. I don't know where there's space."

She stood waiting, too. There was a clear difference between sparring, as the swords he carried hinted, and "playing", as he'd just claimed he wanted to do. Her confidence was wobbling back up with this intrusive heat, so she dared to say this aloud. "Why do you say we're going to be 'playing' if we're bringing swords with us?"

"I said 'playing'?" He repeated, and cocked his head, again like a pup. "Oh. Oh, sorry. I think that was Kyuubi. 'Playing' is what he's thinking. He calls me a pup, like I'm really little, and you're just a little younger than me so he calls you a pup, too. And pups don't really hunt or anything, they just play, so...that's what he's thinking." The explanation was rambling and half-constructed. He hadn't said all he meant to say. Or there was something specific he meant not to say. The running heat of his chakra gave no information to her this time. But she wondered with a mental hiss if he was not pulling information from her, and refusing to give any in return?

"Naruto, before anything, I need to make sure Kyuubi is not dangerous to Konoha." She said, all boldness now. "My sensei and I know of chakra. Having chakra that's its own entity, that can speak to you, is unheard of for us. We'd like to know about it, if you're willing to share."

He looked close to offended. "'Course I am. I'll tell you anything, Sakura-chan. Just ask." His sincerity was...incredibly sweet.

"Only one question for now. How much influence does it have on you? Can it make you do things you don't want to do?"

He paused and didn't say anything for a few frantic beats of her heart. But he kept her hand clasped in his own, spreading its warmth into hers. It was a pleasant feeling, and she wished for more warmth to chase off this chill. His expression was unsettling. "Yeah. Once in a while he takes control of me. He makes me hurt people. He gets angry really easy and wants me to kill people we don't like. But he likes you, Sakura-chan! He loves you."

The samurai girl remained still and sharp-eyed. But Naruto pushed forward, coloring his words with a matching, light smile. "He does. I do, too. Remember how in Tanzaku I said you're mine? I'm not being silly. I'm not joking with you. You really are mine." He pulled their hands closer, and the rest of their bodies were forced to come along. All of her body was feeling the strange running stream of foreign energy. It made shivers crash up and down her legs and torso. It made her draw attention to his eyes. They were not the same. She could not, would not, pinpoint what, but it was fact. And she could not stop looking.

"Kyuubi says you know who your mate is when you see him. He says that's how it is for his kind and so it has to be like that for me, too. You're s'posed to feel a pull towards him. Do you?"

What kind of creature was this? What kind of human being was this? What answer did he want? "I...feel you pulling on my chakra."

The blonde samurai exhaled one swift laugh, echoing delight. "That's it." That was ridiculous. This entire thing was ridiculous. Why couldn't Kakuzu and Kabuto just attack right now? "And that's really good. But we gotta go do some training now, don't we? Kyuubi's being weird and thinking it's playing, but this is serious. We'll be fighting together for a long time, so we better learn how the other one does it. I know you fight really well, Sakura-chan, I love to watch you doing it. I saw you punching people at the battle yesterday, that was the most awesome thing ever, you know? Like, slice, slice, BAM! Sword, sword, FIST! Hahaha!"

Sakura's lips slipped up into a slight grin despite herself.

Inside, in between the foreign coils of Kyuubi in her, she was more unsure than ever.

I originally wrote quite a rushed ending since I very much wanted to post this on Christmas Day, even if it had to be at 11:59 that night. Fifteen minutes later (now) I edited the last section to include Naruto and Sakura's interaction. As you can see, it's kind of important that Naruto has the Kyuubi in him (as in canon, it's really just a pile of living chakra) and that it makes both him, and his feelings for Sakura, darker than they seem. I probably could operate the story without a Kyuubi-host-Naruto, but, pardon the freaky fangirlishness, I just adore the idea of both Kyuubi and Naruto loving Sakura.

Well, here's your "cat comes out of the bag" chapter. Sakura had to have the blatant realization of the samurai's feelings for her sometime. She had some inkling of it before (it would take a person of Naruto-level idiocy to not think something of their flirting) but did basically have to have the truth spat out for her. In a kiss scene ;D Tsunade's words/feelings on this ordeal this chapter threw me for a bit of a loop, since she was not previously aware that her "daughter" was confused and even angry about this ordeal, which makes it less funny. At least, for now. They are both essentially on board with the fact that something big will probably happen in Sakura's life due to this.

But! The truth's out now, and Konoha will be protected by samurai on one side and bombed with a love hexagon on the other. Next chapter, it'll be time for another bandit attack. Perhaps you'll get a hint on why the bandits are so dead-set on destroying Konoha in particular, and who's in charge of the operation.

And since it's December 26th now, I can say I hope you all had a very merry Christmas. This is my first gift to you! Look out for the others in the next few days.