Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of the other characters and places from Kishimoto Masashi's manga series. I do own the people and places that I made up for this story, even though they were based on Kishimoto-sama's models. I don't plan on making any money off of them anyway. This will serve as my disclaimer for the whole story, so I don't have to write a new one for every chapter.

Author's Notes: This is my first Naruto fic. It's hard to write fiction for a series that isn't finished yet, but it seems to work for the Harry Potter fans, so what the hell, eh? At the time I started writing this, the latest chapter of the manga to be released was 212. So obviously this is going to conflict with canon events that will inevitably take place after that. That's the way it goes in this business.

Well then, on with the prologue!

     Sakura ran. She'd been there when the messengers arrived to tell Tsunade-sama that three ninjas fitting the description of Nara Shikamaru and those two sand nins, Kankuro and Temari, had arrived at the gate with an indeterminate number of others who were either unconscious or dead, requesting to be let in.

     "Maybe Naruto is with them!" Sakura thought as she ran still faster, keeping pace with the Hokage who was probably allowing her to do so. "I hope he has Sasuke-kun with him!"

     She stopped when they reached the village gate, and Tsunade-sama ordered the guards to open it. On the other side stood the three aforementioned ninjas, looking pretty put out.

     "It's about time," Kankuro said. "Is this how you treat your wounded comrades around here when they get back from a mission?"

     "I ordered them to inform me the moment you returned, and not to let you in until I arrived," Tsunade-sama explained. "It was for security reasons that cannot be explained at present."

     "In any case, you might want to get a doctor or something," Temari said. "These three are hurt pretty badly." She was referring to Neji, whom she had draped over her shoulder, Kiba, who was carried by Kankuro, and Chouji, who was carried by Shikamaru. The three conscious ninja didn't look like they were in very good shape either, especially Shikamaru.

     "Where's Naruto?" asked Sakura. The hope she'd felt a moment ago was quickly being replaced by panic. Had Naruto not made it? And that would mean that Sasuke-kun was lost as well…

     "He went after Sasuke," Shikamaru explained, handing Chouji over to one of the guards.

     "Gaara went to help him," Kankuro added, as he and Temari handed over their burdens as well. The guards quickly departed with their charges for the hospital.

     "Gaara!?" Sakura asked, not consoled in the least. "You mean…?"

     "It's all right, Sakura-chan," Tsunade-sama said, resting a hand on the young girls shoulder. "I asked the three of them to help Shikamaru's team. Gaara will be of great help to Naruto, I assure you."

     Sakura wasn't convinced, but she wasn't about to argue with Hokage-sama. Then another thought struck her.

     "What about Lee-san? He left his hospital room without telling anyone! Did he go after you?"

     Kankuro shrugged. "I didn't see him. He might have met up with Gaara and your little hyper friend."

     The fact that Gaara and Lee might have encountered each other only served to make Sakura even more uneasy.

     "Hey, can we come in already?" Shikamaru asked. "We may still be walking, but we fought pretty hard as well, you know. As long as those guys are going to live, right now I want to go sleep for about a day."

     "They will live," Tsunade-sama assured him. "It will take some time for them to recover fully, but they will live; I will see to that. The three of you may go rest. I recommend spending the night in the hospital."

     "Yeah, whatever," Kankuro said. He brushed past Sakura and headed into the village, Temari following soon after. Shikamaru stopped on his way past and turned to speak to her.

     "Naruto'll bring Sasuke back," he said. "That guy doesn't know how to be defeated."

     "Arigatou…Shikamaru-kun," was all she could say, but he'd already continued walking away.

     "I need to post some more guards here," Tsunade-sama murmured to herself. Sakura got an idea.

     "Ano…Hokage-sama?" She asked, sounding a lot more like Hinata than herself. "Would it be all right if I was one of the guards? I'd like to be here the moment Naruto and Sasuke-kun come back."

*          *            *

     Tsunade regarded the young girl for a moment before smiling. Putting a genin on guard duty wasn't exactly the best idea even under normal circumstances, but in this case she figured she could make an exception. She'd just send a skilled jounin along to balance things out.

     "I think that will be all right," she said. Sakura beamed. "I'll send someone out to join you immediately."

     "Arigatou gozaimasu, Hokage-sama," the young girl said, bowing deeply. She then leapt up to the guard post on the wall, and Tsunade set off to acquire her companion. She knew just the one: someone who'd want to wait there just as much as Sakura did.

*          *            *

     Sakura had been alone for almost five minutes without incident when she heard her companion arrive. She looked up, and was surprised at the person Tsunade-sama had sent to join her.

     "Gai-sensei!" she exclaimed. "You're working guard duty?"

     "I want to be here the moment Lee-kun returns," the jounin said. "Besides, guard duty under these circumstances would easily be equal to a B-rank mission. It's not best to leave a genin to the task without strong support, and Hokage-sama realized how important it is for you to be here as well." He flashed her his infamous grin. In truth, she was glad someone like Gai-sensei was there, in case there was trouble.

*          *            *

     Five hours had gone by, and Sakura's eyelids were getting heavy. Still, she refused to fall asleep. She was determined to be present and awake when Naruto returned with Sasuke-kun, and she also didn't want to disappoint Tsunade-sama and Gai-sensei by falling asleep on guard duty.

     The sun was due to rise soon, and the beginnings of dawn's first light had begun the approach over the horizon. She looked into the distance, hoping the faint light might stimulate her into a state of more alertness. As she did so, she thought she saw something against the din of the horizon. She squinted to see, but it was difficult to make out.

     "Gai-sensei," she called the older ninja's attention. "Do you see that out there?" She pointed in the direction of the object. Gai-sensei placed his hands over his eyes and squinted.

     "I see it, but what is it?" he said. Sakura returned her gaze to the distant object. It seemed to be drawing nearer.

     The two of them stood like that for several minutes, and the object was indeed getting closer. Recognition hit Sakura as the silhouette became big enough to distinguish.

     "It's a person!" she squealed excitedly.

     "No, several people," Gai-sensei said from next to her. "I can't make out who they are yet, though." They continued waiting for a few more minutes, until the sun rose enough for a small amount of light to gleam off one of the faces. In the distance, she could make out blonde hair, and a face that was obviously weary, but grinning nonetheless. He had a large load on his back, and he was waving. It seemed he could see her much more clearly that she could see him.

     "Naruto!" she cheered fervently. She jumped from the high wall all the way to the ground and landed nimbly with strength and grace she was not even aware she had. Behind her, she could faintly hear Gai-sensei chuckling as she leapt.

     The second she hit the ground, she ran toward her teammate. There was another person walking next to him, who also had a large load on his back. When she got closer, it became clear whom that other person was. Sakura gasped as she realized it was none other than Gaara of the sand, walking side by side with Naruto, and the load on his back was Lee-san!

     Did that mean…she had to run a little closer to see…Naruto's load…it was Sasuke-kun! He'd done it! He'd brought Sasuke-kun back!

     "Sakura-chan!" Naruto was calling as he waved. She was within earshot now.

     "Naruto!" she yelled happily. It took another twenty seconds or so to reach him and as soon as she did, she plowed into him and hugged him.

     "Ow! Easy, Sakura-chan!"

     She realized her mistake. He and Gaara had been traveling at a fairly slow pace, which meant he was either extremely worn out, badly injured…or both.

     "Gomen…" she said timidly as she pulled away.

     "Nah, it's all right. Good to see you too, Sakura-chan," he said while scratching the back of his head with his free hand. This brought Sakura's attention back to the young ninja he had draped over his shoulder.

     "You brought him back," she said simply. "Arigatou, Naruto."

     "Well, he wasn't too happy about it," Naruto said. "It took everything I had to bring him down."

     "Bring him…down? You mean he fought you?" She looked at Sasuke, who was more beat-up than Naruto. The fact that he was also unconscious should have tipped her off, the back of her mind quipped.

     "Like an animal," Naruto said. "That curse mark or whatever it is that those sound ninjas had…well, Sasuke has one too. It makes them really strong. It's a good thing Lee and Gaara came along and took care of that bone guy for me or I wouldn't have been in good enough shape to fight him."

     Sakura looked over to Gaara, who had remained absolutely silent through the whole exchange. He simply watched their conversation, as if waiting patiently for them to start walking again so he could join them. Also, the look in his eyes was…different from what she remembered of him. She felt compelled to thank him.

     "Arigatou, Gaara-san," she offered a small bow as well.

     "Hmm," was his reply.

     "He's not a big talker," Naruto chuckled. "Let's get back to Tsunade-baba right away. I want her to take Sasuke. I don't know if that curse seal will refill his chakura, but I know he's gonna try to escape as soon as he wakes up. I don't think I could fight him again."

     This news surprised Sakura. Did Sasuke-kun want away from them so badly? Was it something she had done? Or something she hadn't done? She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't notice when Naruto and Gaara started walking again.

     "Hey, Sakura-chan, come on!" Naruto called. She shook her head to clear it and jogged to catch up with them.

     "I can take Sasuke-kun if you're tired, Naruto," she asked.

     "Nah, I've carried him this far. Besides, he's helping me keep my balance. Hehe." Sakura couldn't help but giggle.

     When they got back to the gate, Gai-sensei took Lee-san and Sasuke-kun from Naruto and Gaara, and Naruto did indeed fall over. Sakura took his arm and supported him as he walked.

     "Arigatou, Sakura-chan," Naruto managed. It seemed that now that he'd reached the village, every bit of his energy was gone and it was difficult for him to walk or talk at all.

     Gai-sensei had taken Lee-san and Sasuke-kun directly to Tsunade-sama, and two chuunin had already been present to take the next guard shift. Sakura took Naruto to the Konoha hospital, and Gaara walked along next to them silently.

     As soon as they arrived, Naruto was checked into a room and Sakura bid him farewell, thanking him with another hug before she left. Gaara had no place to stay, so he went to the room his siblings were in. Sakura then left the hospital and headed to Tsunade-sama's office, hoping to see Sasuke-kun and Lee-san. However, when she arrived she was told that no one was allowed to see them just yet. After a brief protest, Sakura was sent away, and decided the best thing to do was go home and get some sleep. She had been up all night.

*          *            *

     The next day, Sakura was once again told she was not allowed to see Sasuke-kun, but was informed that Lee-san had been sent to his old room at the hospital and that he would be fine in a day or so. So she decided to go and visit him as well as Naruto. She stopped by Ino's flower shop first.

     "What happened?" Ino asked her as soon as she stepped in to the shop. "I go on one C-rank mission by myself and come back to be told the rest of my team is in the hospital. Is it true?

     "Yes, it's true," Sakura said to her. "Sasuke-kun tried to run away, and Shikamaru-kun was put in charge of a team to get him back."

     "Shikamaru leading a mission?" Ino sounded shocked. "Wow, I never thought I'd hear those words." She chuckled for a moment, and then something struck her. "Wait…did you say Sasuke-kun tried to run away?" Sakura nodded. "Why would he do that?"

     "It's a long story," Sakura said, not really wanting to go into it. "Anyway, they managed to bring him back, but it was tough. Shikamaru-kun, Kiba-kun, Neji-senpai, Chouji-kun, Lee-san and Naruto are all in the hospital."

     "All of them?" Ino was amazed. "What about Sasuke-kun?"

     "He's with Tsunade-sama," Sakura said. "Naruto had to beat him up pretty bad, and they're also afraid he may try to run away again."

     Ino was silent for a moment as she took this all in. Then she asked Sakura a question that should have been obvious…at least Sakura felt so.

     "So what are you doing here?"

     "I came for flowers, what else?" Sakura answered, keeping any trace of annoyance from her voice. She was too relieved that everyone had come back safely to feel malice of any kind towards anyone. "I'm going to visit Naruto and Lee-san in the hospital."

     "I'll come with you," Ino said. "I should go see Shikamaru and Chouji after all." She handed Sakura two daffodils, which she knew the pink-haired girl loved to bring to friends in the hospital, and picked up two of her own, thinking they weren't at all a bad choice. "On the house," she said.

     "Oh, we should bring one each for Neji-senpai and Kiba-kun as well," Sakura said. "I'd feel bad if we went to visit everyone except them. Naruto told me Neji almost died to protect the rest of them, and when I saw Kiba-kun the other night it looked like he almost did, too."

     "You're right," Ino said, smiling. She picked up two more flowers and then called to her mother, saying she was going out.

*          *            *

     When the girls got to the hospital, they decided to visit Neji first, and that way neither could complain that the other was trying to play favorites to her own teammates. When they arrived, they found the young Hyuuga prodigy sleeping peacefully with a massive bandage over his left shoulder and another one on the right side of his stomach. He looked in pretty poor shape.

     "They say that if he had gone even another half hour without treatment he would've died," the girls heard a voice from behind them and turned to see Neji-senpai's teammate Tenten standing in the doorway.

     "Was it really that bad?" Ino asked. The older girl nodded.

     "He was stabbed several times in the back, and punctured all the way through on his shoulder and the side of his stomach. It'll be almost a year before he heals completely, if at all." Tenten's voice had a tinge of sadness to it that she did not attempt to hide.

     "I'm so sorry," Sakura offered.

     "Don't be," Tenten said. "It was a mission. Neji knows the risks as well as the rest of us. Besides, the mission was accomplished and nobody died, right?" She managed a small smile.

     "I guess you're right," Sakura agreed. "And just so you know, Naruto said that Neji-senpai and Lee-san really saved them."

     This seemed to cheer Tenten up considerably. "Really?"

     Sakura smiled and nodded.

     "We were going to visit Lee-san next," Ino said. "Would you like to come with us? He's on your team too, right?"

     "Tenten smiled brightly this time. "Yes, I'd like that."

     The girls left a flower in Neji's room and trekked over to Lee's room. They found him doing sit-ups on the floor in his hospital gown.

     "Lee-san!" Sakura exclaimed. "You're supposed to be resting!"

     He seemed shocked to see them and actually stopped halfway through a sit-up.

     "Sakura-san! Ino-san! Tenten! What are you doing here?"

     "We came to visit you, you dork," Tenten teased him.

     "I take it you're feeling better, Lee-san?" Ino asked somewhat sarcastically.

     "Of course! Besides, I can't afford to lapse in my training, especially now that I've regained my arm and my leg!" He went back to his sit-ups. "506! 507! 508!"

     "We'll leave this here, Lee-san," Sakura said, placing one of the flowers in a vase on the small table next to his hospital bed. "We're going to go visit Naruto now."

     "Is Naruto-kun all right?" Lee asked, pausing in his sit-ups again.

     "Yes, he's fine, Lee-san. Just a little bruised and tired is all."

     Lee grinned. "Ah, good. Naruto-kun always recovers quickly, too." He resumed his sit-ups once more.

     "I think I'm going to stay here for a while, and then go visit Neji again later," Tenten said.

     "Okay," Sakura said. She and Ino headed towards the door. "Good bye, Tenten-san. Goodbye, Lee-san."

     When they entered Naruto's room, they found him with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

     "Ohayou, Naruto!" Sakura greeted brightly. He instantly sat up.

     "Sakura-chan!" Then he noticed Ino as well. "Ino?"

     "What?" Ino mockingly challenged. "I'm not allowed to visit you?"

     "No, I didn't mean that…"

     Sakura cut him off. "How are you feeling, Naruto?"

     "Huh? Oh, I feel fine. But they won't let me leave!" he complained. Sakura and Ino sweatdropped. Lee-san was right; he did recover quickly.

     "Um, we brought this for you," Sakura said, placing the flower in a vase as she had done in Neji's room and Lee's room. Naruto's eyes widened, as if he couldn't believe someone was bringing him a gift of any kind.

     "Sakura-chan…" he whimpered, tears forming in his eyes. Sakura sweatdropped again. Behind her she could hear Ino chuckling.

     "Um, we were going to go visit Shikamaru-kun next," Sakura informed him, feeling awkward for some reason. "Did you want to come?"

     "Sure!" he cheered, jumping up out of his bed. "Anything to get out of this room!"

     "Well let's go then, you nuisance," she said. It was something that she used to use against him as an insult, but now it was just friendly and playful. She didn't really know when that change had taken place.

     On the walk to Shikamaru's room, Naruto asked what had been done with Sasuke.

     "Hokage-sama has him somewhere," Sakura said. "She was just as worried as you about him running away again."

     "Okay, hold on a minute," Ino said, causing the other two to stop in their tracks in the hall. "What exactly is going on here? Why did Sasuke-kun run away in the first place? And why's everyone making such a huge deal out of it?"

     Sakura hesitated, not knowing if she should tell her friend-turned-rival the true story. She didn't have to make the decision though, as Naruto did it for her.

     "He has some kind of curse seal," Naruto explained. "The sound nins we fought to get to him had the same thing. He got it from that Orochimaru guy."

     "Orochimaru?" Ino asked, stunned. "You mean one of the legendary sannin, and the one who attacked the village and killed Sandaime-sama?"

     Naruto nodded. "That's him all right. I don't know when he gave Sasuke the seal, but…"

     "During the second test."

     Naruto and Ino looked at Sakura, who had her head hung low.

     "Sakura-chan?" Naruto was clearly confused.

     "He got it during the second test of the chuunin exams. Don't you remember, Naruto? When we fought those huge snakes?"

     "That was Orochimaru!?"

     Sakura nodded. "You were already knocked out when it happened," she explained. "It was after you saved us from him and saved Sasuke-kun from that huge snake. He bit Sasuke-kun on the neck and gave him that curse seal, saying Sasuke-kun would seek him out for power. Then Sasuke-kun made me promise not to tell you about it so you wouldn't worry."

     She could see in Naruto's eyes that he was putting the pieces together. Ino too had a look of realization on her face.

     "So that's why Sasuke-kun was so strong when he fought those sound nins, and why he was acting so strange."

     "Hai."

     "I didn't know he'd had it for that long," Naruto said, more to himself than to anyone else. "Sasuke, you bastard."

     "What's wrong, Naruto?" Sakura asked. "Are you mad because I didn't tell you? Sasuke-kun made me promise…"

     "I'm mad at him!" Naruto shouted, causing both girls to jump a little bit. "I'm mad at him for not telling me! I'm mad at him for making you promise not to tell me! And I'm mad at him because that means he knew exactly what he was doing when he ran off with those sound nins!"

     The girls were taken aback.

     "What do you mean?" Ino asked. It was the same thing Sakura had been about to say.

     "When I was chasing him, and then when I caught him, I thought those sound nins had tricked him into going with them. I thought they hadn't told him the whole truth, and that he had no idea Orochimaru was involved." Naruto was fuming now. "I thought he only really turned against me once the curse seal had grown to its full strength and he didn't have control anymore. But the bastard knew exactly what was going on the whole time. He knew what was going to happen right from the start, before those sound ninjas even showed up."

*FLASHBACK*

     "I finally caught you," Naruto declared proudly as he dropped down from a tree directly in Sasuke's path.

     "Get away from here," Sasuke said coldly, "or I'll kill you."

     This left Naruto a little confused. "What are you talking about? I'm here to bring you back to the village. We beat those sound guys, and the least you can do is say thank you. Besides, I promised Sakura-chan that I'd bring you back, so I'm not leaving without you."

     "Heh." Sasuke's face remained cold, and the grin that appeared on his face was very unsettling. "Don't you get it, dobe-kun? I'm not going back. So get out of my way now if you want to live."

     "What?" Naruto wasn't understanding Sasuke's behavior at all. He was acting even stranger than usual. "Come on, Sasuke, this isn't funny anymore. Quit fooling around and let's go home before more of those sound guys show up." He reached for Sasuke's arm, but before he could get a hold of it, Sasuke whipped to the side and punched him in the face, sending him tumbling backward.

     "Ow!" Naruto complained as he stood up, rubbing his face. "Sasuke, you jackass! What was that for?"

     "I told you; I'm not going back. Now get out of here or I really will have to kill you." The look in his eyes told Naruto that he was absolutely serious.

     "What's gotten into you?" Naruto demanded of his now former teammate.

     "I've told you before, I'm an avenger," Sasuke said. "It doesn't matter what happens to me, so long as my mission is accomplished. I will do whatever I have to do to obtain the power to complete that mission of revenge. It's none of your business."

     "The hell it isn't!" Naruto shot back. "What about Sakura-chan? She cares about you a lot, and more than you deserve! And you just toss her aside like you do to everybody! And what about me? And Kakashi-sensei? What about fuzzy eyebrows, who always wanted to fight us and now he finally has a chance to again? What about all the people who came after you, some of whom might have even died by now, all because we were trying to save you? Does nobody matter to you at all? Is your stupid brother all that you can think about?"

     Sasuke's face contorted in anger. "Shut up! What would you know about it? You've never had to live your life hating somebody, wanting to kill them with every fiber in your body! You've never had to deal with the fact that no matter what you do, you'll never have enough power to defeat them! Well now I have that power, and there's nothing you or anybody else can ever say that will make me give it up! I live only to kill my brother, and all means to that end are worth anything. I didn't want to have to kill you, but since you won't leave it looks like I don't have a choice. Sharingan!" The extra pupils appeared and Sasuke's eyes turned red. Naruto knew that he'd have to fight it out. But he couldn't afford to have Sasuke's Sharingan copy his best techniques. He needed a plan.

     Unfortunately, he had no time to come up with one, as Sasuke was charging him. At the last second, he kicked up dirt with his foot and it hit Sasuke square in the eyes. The punch still connected, as he knew it would, but he'd rather take a hit than have Sasuke copy his best technique.

     He rolled quickly and stood up, looking to make sure Sasuke was still rubbing the dirt from his eyes.

     "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" He created fifty clones; he wasn't sure if he'd have a chance to create any more, and he had to go for broke.

     "You're kidding, right?" Sasuke sneered as he recovered from Naruto's previous attack. "I can tell which is the real you, you know. That was a nice trick, by the way; making it so I couldn't see you perform your jutsu. You're smarter than I expected."

     "Hmph," Naruto responded. "Even if you can tell which one is the real me, big deal. You still have to fight all of us!" With that, all fifty clones as well as the original rushed at Sasuke. Sasuke's taijutsu skills were slightly better than those of Naruto, but with such a difference in numbers that didn't really make a difference.

     Sasuke managed to fight off several of the clones, but they were quickly getting the better of him. That is, until strange black marking started spreading from his left shoulder across the rest of his body.

     "What the…" Naruto said as the black marks spread and Sasuke gained a great amount of speed and power, dispelling Naruto's clones a half dozen at a time.

     "This is the power I told you about, Dobe-kun," Sasuke said triumphantly after he'd defeated the last clone. "With this, I can easily defeat you, and then I can finally kill my brother as well."

     "Heh. What a weakling," Naruto chided.

     "What!?"

     "You heard me. You couldn't get strong on your own so you use some evil ninja's power as a shortcut. I thought better of you, Sasuke."

     "Say what you want, it doesn't change the fact that now I'm going to kill you," Sasuke replied coldly.

     "Go ahead and try it!" Naruto challenged. Sasuke ran at him and before he could even register the movement he was slammed in the face by Sasuke's fist, a lot harder than before. He managed to get to his feet again.

     "Do you see now, Dobe-kun?" Sasuke jeered. "You can preach all you want, but this power makes me ten times stronger than I ever was before."

     "Hmph. I still say you're a cheater and a coward," Naruto said defiantly, wiping some blood from the corner of his mouth. This seemed to anger Sasuke, who charged and punched him again. This time Naruto skidded along the ground until he ran into a tree and stopped abruptly. Sasuke stood and mockingly looked down at him, a smirk on his face.

     "I have to knock him out somehow," Naruto thought. "If I can get him back to the old hag, she can get rid of that seal and he'll be back to normal." He slowly made his way to his feet again. "Is that all you've got?" He taunted. "Kiba hit harder than that!" This time he got a kick to the gut, followed by an uppercut that sent him flying into the air, only to land again about six feet in front of his opponent.

     "I…promised…Sakura-chan…that I'd…bring you home," Naruto grunted as he pushed himself up to his knees. "Those guys…all risked their lives…so we could get to you." He brought his right leg up and placed his foot on the ground. "The old hag trusted us with this mission…" he slowly began to stand up, bringing his other leg forward as he did so…"And I'm not about to fail just because you don't feel like going back!" He stood erect, and just as Sasuke was about to respond, the ground behind him exploded and a blonde ninja popped out of the ground and grabbed him, holding him fast.

     "What!" Sasuke gasped in shock. "When did you…?"

     Naruto smirked. "When you defeated all my clones, you missed one," he said, stalking his way toward the immobile Sasuke. "I had it burrow under the ground while you were focused on me. It was tough; I had to maneuver you to just the right spot. You hit hard." He rubbed his cheek. "But now it's over. All I have to do is knock you out, and then I can carry you back to the village without any trouble." He cracked his knuckles and prepared a good punch. He stopped a moment later when he noticed Sasuke was smirking, indeed shaking with low-pitched, subdued laughter.

     "What's so funny?" Naruto demanded.

     "You think this is all the power I have?" Sasuke asked, as if it were funny to think such a thing. "This is over all right, and you lost." His eyes glinted gold for a moment before returning to their Sharingan red, and then something truly bizarre began to happen. Sasuke's hair turned a dark gray and grew down past his waist. His body grew ever so slightly, and his skin took on a darker, browner color. Through it all, Naruto could actually see chakura swirling around Sasuke's form.

     "What the hell?" the fox boy couldn't think of anything else to say. Sasuke was literally transforming in front of him.

     "Why so surprised?" Sasuke's voice was somewhat deeper and more gruff than usual. "This is the same as those four sound nins you fought."

     Naruto thought for a second. "The same…"

     Then, with a mighty yell, Sasuke hurled the clone from his back and it smashed into a tree, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. Naruto didn't even have time to think before the same was done to him.

     He rubbed his head, looking around for Sasuke. He didn't have to look for long; the young Uchiha was on him again in four seconds and flung him into another three.

     "Kuso!" Naruto thought. "I need to think of something fast! But what should I do? He just…transformed and got a whole lot more powerful all of a sudden. He's like that Gaara…" A light bulb went of in Naruto's head. He quickly focused chakura to his legs and jumped away just as Sasuke came down on him again. While in the air, be bit the end of his thumb and began the seals necessary for the technique, all the while pleading with the Kyuubi to lend him some power. When he hit the ground, he thrust his hand downward and called out, "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" There was a puff of smoke, and Naruto found himself sitting upon an eight-foot toad.

     "Huh?" Naruto asked, confused. He'd expected bigger. "Who are you?"

     "Gamakawazu1," the toad replied. "Did you want my help or were you just going to be rude?"

     "Man, where's Gamabunta when you need him?" Naruto grumbled. "I guess I must've used up too much chakura earlier, and that damn fox is being stingy. Well, I guess you'll have to do."

     "Thanks a lot," Gamakawazu replied. "So what's going on?"

     "An old teammate of mine as a curse seal that's made him really strong and also really crazy."

     "Sounds bad," the toad observed. "All right, here's what we'll do. I'll lure him into a straight fight, and then you come from behind and get him with your kunai."

     "I thought I was supposed to come up with the plan!" Naruto shouted. "Besides, we can't kill him. We just have to defeat him and then take him back to the village."

     "Geez, you didn't mention that part," Gamakawazu said. "Fine, we'll do it your way. What's the plan?"

     "Naruto!" Sasuke's cry came from above him. The moment of cover he'd gone had passed, and now he had to fight again. Or run. It seemed that was all he was doing.

     "Look out!" Naruto called to the toad. He didn't need to, as Gamakawazu had already begun to jump back. Sasuke's blow hit the ground and dust and rocks flew up everywhere. A few of the rocks hit Naruto, beating him up even worse.

     "Okay, here's the plan," he said to his partner. "Do you think you can keep him busy for a minute or so?"

     The toad thought for a moment, even as he again jumped to avoid another attack from Sasuke.

     "Just a minute? Yeah, I think I should be able to handle that. Why, what are you going to do?"

     "I'm going to try to gather enough chakura for an attack that should be able to bring him down. I'll signal you when I'm ready, and then you have to try to get him into position, because if I miss, we're dead."

     "Gotcha. But don't take any longer than a minute. This guy's crazy strong. Running away is one thing, but if I'm actually fighting him…"

     "Don't worry, I can do it," Naruto assured him.

     "All right, then." The toad then drew a small sword from his back that Naruto hadn't even noticed before. "Here, jump off at this tree."

     "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Naruto cried softly so Sasuke wouldn't notice while still surrounded by the dust from his last attack. He left the clone on Gamakawazu's back and jumped onto a tree limb as they flew past it.

     "Naruto!" He heard Sasuke's altered voice shout. "Who's the coward now? Is running all you and your pet frog can do?"

     "You wish, you bastard!" The clone yelled. The fight had begun. There wasn't much time left.

     "Hey, you damn fox!" Naruto called to the Kyuubi residing in his stomach. "This is pretty important! I need your chakura! Just give me a little bit and we can get out of this!" He heard – or rather mentally sensed – an annoyed growl, but felt nothing else. Then, after a few seconds where he feared the fox would not help, he felt the red chakura flow into him as it had on so many dire occasions before. Naruto grinned and held out his hands, preparing the Rasengan.

     The battle was heating up. It was clear that Gamakawazu wouldn't be able to hold on much longer, and Sasuke was sure to discover that it was only a clone riding the toad. It was now or never. Naruto released the jutsu controlling the clone, and it disappeared. The signal.

     "What??" Sasuke growled. He jerked his head, looking for the real Naruto, and was clipped in the jaw by a powerful frog's leg. He landed on the ground about fifteen feet from the tree Naruto was in. Perfect.

     The young blonde ninja leapt from the tree and dashed toward his opponent as fast as he possibly could. Sasuke was already standing up, his back hidden by the long, wild gray hair that grew down over it. He seemed to hear Naruto's approach just as he stood up straight, and turned to meet it. But by then it was already too late.

     "Rasengan!" Naruto thrust the swirling ball of power right into Sasuke's torso. The transformed shinobi seemed to spin wildly in place for a moment before flying backwards at high speed, finally stopping when he slammed into a rather wide tree. He fell to the ground limp, and his hair and skin returned to their normal state. Naruto had won.

*END FLASHBACK*

     "How horrible," Sakura spoke after several seconds of silence. "Sasuke-kun was really like that?"

     Naruto nodded solemnly. Ino was left speechless.

     "And now I know it wasn't because of the curse seal like I thought," Naruto said, disgusted. "He did all that of his own free will."

     Sakura could do nothing to refute him. He was right. "Sasuke-kun…"

     "Hey! What are you guys all doing standing outside my room?" Sakura looked over to the source of the voice to find Shikamaru standing in a doorway.

     "We…ah…came to visit you, Shikamaru," Ino said. She was doing her best to regain her composure.

     "Oh yeah?" The chuunin sounded vaguely interested.

     "Well, of course!" Ino replied, putting some more cheerfulness in her voice. "What, did you think we were going to let you just rot in the hospital by yourself?"

     "Hmm. Whatever," he said, shrugging. "Come in if you want." He turned around and went back to his hospital bed. Ino turned to Sakura and Naruto.

     "We came here to make these guys feel better, so let's try to not be all broody about Sasuke," she said.

     "Right," Sakura agreed.

     "Yeah, you're right," said Naruto.

     Sakura took notice that for the first time, Ino did not add the "kun" suffix to Sasuke's name.

     The three of them entered Shikamaru's room and walked over to him. Aside from some scrapes and bruises, he looked fine. He probably didn't need to be in the hospital at all anymore, but was just milking it for the time off.

     "How are you, Shikamaru?" Ino asked anyway.

     "Huh? I'm fine, I guess. How are the other guys?" He looked away while he asked, deliberately not looking them in the eye.

     "They're alive," Sakura told him, "and should fully recover…eventually."

     "That's good." The tension that was so rare in Shikamaru's visage eased up just a little bit.

     "So, Naruto," he asked. "Did you finally find Sasuke?"

     "Um…yeah, I found him. He's back."

     "Well, I guess we succeeded then, eh? What about those sand ninjas? Where are they?"

     "They're here. They needed some rest too, I guess."

     "Say, Shikamaru, did you want to come visit Chouji with us?" Ino asked.

     "Hmm? Is he awake?"

     "We don't know," the blonde girl answered. "We haven't been there yet."

     "I guess I should go. I was the one who allowed him to stay behind and fight, after all."

     "What do you mean?" Ino asked him as he got up and the four of them walked out of the room. Sakura and Naruto just listened somehow feeling it would be out of place to take part in the conversation.

     "The first enemy we faced…Chouji said he'd stay behind and take care of him so the rest of us could go ahead and have a chance of catching Sasuke. I let him. And…I'm pretty sure he took all three pills."

     Ino gasped. "You're not serious!"

     "I warned him not to, but if the guy he fought was anything like the others and could transform, then he probably would've had to."

     Transform…Sakura thought back to Naruto's description of his battle with Sasuke. From the look on Ino's face, she could tell her friend was thinking the same thing.

     "Sasuke-kun…what's happened to you?"

     They arrived at Chouji's room, and Naruto poked his head in.

     "Is he asleep?" Sakura asked. Naruto nodded.

     "We'll just leave the flower here then, so he'll see it when he wakes up," Ino said, placing the flower next to his bed.

     "Heh…Chouji gets flowers," Shikamaru remarked sarcastically.

     "Oh!" Ino said. "You get one too, Shikamaru. I forgot because you don't really seem injured." She stuck her tongue out at him as she gave him his flower.

     "Whatever," he said as he took it. He looked at it, not really sure what to do with it. "Hmph. How troublesome."

     "Well, we don't want to wake him up, right?" Naruto said. "Let's go see how Kiba's doing."

     They made their way to Kiba's room. This time, the patient was awake for their visit.

     "Hey, Kiba!" Naruto greeted cheerfully.

     "Naruto?" The dog ninja replied, puzzled. Then realization reached his face. "You got him, then?"

     Naruto simply nodded, not wishing to say anything else on the matter.

     "Hey, that's great! How's everyone else doing, are they okay? No one died, right?"

     "No," Shikamaru answered calmly. "No one died."

     "Ah, that's great. Hey, I never got a chance to thank that puppet guy. Anybody know where he is?"

     "You'll get your chance," Ino told him. "He's around."

     "Any news on other stuff?" Kiba asked. "I mean, the sand obviously aren't our enemy anymore, but what about the sound? Have they done anything else?"

     "Not that we've heard about," Ino said. "Sakura, didn't you say you were on guard duty with Gai-sensei? Did he say anything?"

     Sakura shook her head. "No, he didn't. And Hokage-sama hasn't said anything either."

     "They'll be back," Naruto said. "That Orochimaru guy isn't the type who'd just roll over and give up."

     Sakura had too many thoughts swirling around in her head. She needed to get out of the hospital and get some air.

     "Um, I think I'm going to go take a walk," she said finally, interrupting the group from the conversation she'd lost track of. "I need to clear my head. I hope you're feeling better, Kiba-kun." She gave a slight bow and left the room.

     "Hey, Sakura-chan, wait up!" Naruto called and ran after her.

     "You guys leaving, too?" Kiba asked of Ino and Shikamaru.

     "No, I think I'll stay around here today and see if Chouji wakes up," Ino said.

     "Which means you'll be hanging around me all day, right?" Shikamaru clarified.

     "Well of course, Shikamaru-kun!" she teased. "Who else would I hang out with?" She stuck her tongue out for effect. Shikamaru crossed his arms in exasperation.

     "Hmph. How troublesome."

*          *            *

     Sakura walked along the path that led to the bridge that had always been team seven's meeting place. Naruto walked alongside her in silence. He'd asked where she was going upon catching up to her, to which she replied that she just needed some time and a place to think. He hadn't pressed the matter, and she was grateful to him for that.

     Finally they arrived at the bridge, and Sakura took a seat on the side rail, facing the water. Naruto hopped up on the rail next to her, about a foot and a half away.

     "Naruto…"she began suddenly, "Was that all true? About Sasuke-kun?"

     He nodded. He wore a serious expression that was not often to be seen on the carefree young ninja.

     "I wouldn't lie to you about that, Sakura-chan. I know you like him a lot."

     She did. Didn't she? She wasn't so sure anymore. The image of Uchiha Sasuke that she'd always maintained in her mind was nothing like what Naruto had described to her, or even what she herself had experienced firsthand the night he left. She had tried to just let it go then, and figured that if Naruto could just bring him home then everything would be all better. Sasuke-kun would be the same old Sasuke-kun that she'd had a crush on for as long as she could remember. But it hadn't turned out that way.

     "It hurts," she said finally. Naruto looked up at her quizzically. "To like someone so much and have them brush you aside like you're nothing. It hurts."

     "Yeah, I know." Naruto's response almost sounded like he was saying it to himself. That's when she remembered how she'd always used to treat him. How everyone had always used to treat him.

     "I'm sorry, Naruto," she said. "I was horrible to you for years and you had every right to hate me for it but you didn't. Thank you for that."

     "No problem." He grinned at her, and that was it. She couldn't believe how easy it was with him. With the life he'd led, with all the troubles she knew he'd gone through, he was still such a good person. She was glad to have him as a friend, and realized that she was openly admitting that to herself for the very first time. God, how horrible she'd been to him if that was the case.

     "There you are," came a voice from above. They looked up in unison to see Kakashi-sensei looking down on them from what had always been his regular perch over the bridge. "You weren't at your homes and you weren't at the hospital with the others; if you weren't here I wouldn't know where to begin looking," he said. His laid-back tone was a little less laid-back than usual, Sakura noticed.

     "What's wrong, Kakashi-sensei?" she asked. His reply was something she hadn't expected at all, and it gave her a big chill.

     "Sasuke's gone."

*          *            *            *            *         

Done! And this is just the prologue. Crap von Crappen! (My fancy way of saying "holy crap!") The rest of the story will take place far in the future (well, maybe not "far," …it's all relative, you know). I just needed this to set everything up. That's why they call it a "prologue."

To those of you who are waiting for me to update Say What You Mean (my Ranma fic), it's coming. I just hit a bit of a snag in how I wanted to word a certain part, so I had to go back over it several times. That happens. I should have it figured out pretty soon. And as for this one, the title will come into play later. Not later later, but later. I used it as the title because it is a major part of the story, and because it sounds cool as a title.

Note 1: Gamakawazu. "Gama" means "toad," and "kawazu" means "frog." It's a lame play on words, you see?