Author's notes:

Wanna thank my sis, Kishimoto Masashi and all of you out there reading and reviewing his story!
Real and most important 'Author's notes' are at the end! Don't skip 'em!

-
-- means flashback

--------------------

The sky was grey. Dark, large clouds hanging low above the village and preventing the sun from illuminating the streets. A low rumble rolled through the clouds, closely followed by the bright flash of lightning as it lashed out at the houses below.

It had started raining already yesterday, large puddles of dirty water filling the sidewalks, bilding occasionally small waterfalls where the water cascaded down a gaping hole in the street. The constant downpour of cold water had extinguished the last smaller fires and smoke was rising up from large heaps of debris.

There was nobody outside.
Most villagers had taken refuge in the large Uchiha district several days ago. This part of the city had miraculously survived the battle, most houses and stores still more or less intact and offering the homeless families shelter and a place to stay until their own houses were rebuilt.

As Sakura looked out of the window of the Hokage tower, she couldn't prevent the heavy sight from escaping her lips.

"Why's it always raining?" She asked herself softly, watching a man running by in the street with an old tattered newspaper as only cover against the relentless downfall.

Allowing her palm to slide down the frame of the window, she slowly turned around and faced the still tightly closed door. Behind it, Hokage the sixth was currently talking to the last remaining sannin in private. What the conversation was about, Sakura didn't know.

What she 'did' know was that they were running late.
The country would surely not wait for four ninjas to get their asses the hundred or so meter to the area where the event of the day would take place in some minutes.

Snorting, Sakura stared at her impatiently tapping feet and cringed inwardly when she saw the faux pas of her lifetime screaming mockingly at her face. And as she allowed her eyes to travel up her legs and torso, she really had to suppress a shudder from running through her body.

The shoes were standard ninja boots, the trouser was a sickly green and then there was the only shirt she had found in the large heap of clothes. A mesh shirt. Nothing more, nothing less.
The only piece of clothe on her body, the pink-haired kunoichi was somewhat comfortable with, was a dark blue jacket with an Uchiha fan on its back.

Why she was wearing the odd combination was simple: She had nothing else to wear anymore! Her clothes had fallen victim to the war, just like everything else she had at some point in her life called her possession. But she wasn't about to voice her complaint, because there were people out there having even less than her. She still had her mother, a miracle, she thanked heavens every day for.

The jacket that was covering her modestly (the mesh shirt wasn't really 'covering' anything) had once been hanging in a closet of a member of the clan the symbol on the backside stood for. Now it had been dug out of a large container and served as spare clothes to her. Though, she wasn't the only one in this village running around with such a piece of ancient history.

Smiling faintly, Sakura asked herself silently, whether any old Uchiha fan-girls had fought for the complete outfit.

"Sakura"
Looking up, the young woman found the one visible eye of her former sensei looking tiredly up at her.

Kakashi was sitting in a wooden chair, his masked face anything but relaxed. It seemed like the seat he had chosen a half hour ago wasn't as comfortable as he had originally hoped and he looked like his back was killing him. Literally.

"Don't worry." He said with false cheerfulness. "'s not like you're the only one with an outfit rivalling our green beasts' jumpsuits." The silver-haired jounin mentioned casually to the overly "sexy" combination of blue short trousers and chuunin vest he was wearing. Sakura was pretty sure, Kakashi would be freezing later in the rain.

So much for appearing in black...

"You're a hundred years too early, if you think I'll even listen to you, brat!" A loud voice errupted from the other room and with a surprised look, Sakura noted, that the door was now wide open. Inside she could make out Jiraiya,
arms crossed defiantly in front of his chest, and Naruto showing him his opinion in form of a raised middle finger.

"Whatever! I don't give a damn about your thoughts, Ero-sennin!" The blond yelled back, storming past his master and halting in the door when he realized that he was not alone. "Hey! Sakura, Kakashi-sensei, I just... " He looked at his two friends sheepishly and walked over to where Kakashi was sitting un-fazed, one droopy eye watching the scene somewhat amused.

"Oh, lets just get this done and over with." Naruto declared, grabbing a crutch from nearby and handing it Kakashi.
With an effort, he made it into a standing position in between his two ex-students and, without any of the gracefulness he normally possessed, hobbled across the room to the open door.

Rolling his eyes openly, Naruto watched as Kakashi tried quite unsuccessfully and way too clumsily to walk on his own. The copy-nin himself had refused vehemently to get rolled to the funeral in a wheelchair (something about having been forgotten in that thing once too often), and his two former students had volunteered (Sakura had said 'yes' for the two of them) to help him with his test of youthfulness, as Gai had called it...

Painstakingly, the three shinobis made their way down the gloomy hallway in silence. When they had reached the staircase, Naruto turned around slightly, glancing at Sakura who was standing at Kakashi's left side. The other man's arm was slung across her shoulder as she carefully helped him down the steps to the first floor of the Hokage tower.

"Sakura?" Looking up, the medic frowned at her friend quizzically.
"Hmm?"

"How do I look like"
If the question surprised her, Sakura didn't show it. She merely allowed her eyes to travel up and down Naruto's orange-white form and finally settled on his flushed face. She decided then, that he looked cute when he was embarrassed and that she would have to scrutinize him more often from now on...

"You look like an idiot. So nothing new there." She finally replied with a large smile gracing her lips.
"W-what! But"
"Naruto, listen. You're probably the only one in this village with some of his original clothes left. It doesn't matter what color they have or what you look like. She wouldn't have minded anyway and this whole 'come-in-your-most-beautiful-black-griefing-outfit-blah' is so overrated! Tsunade had hated formalities and despised funerals. She would have wanted us to appear in clown costumes, just to get a good laugh at our expenses."

"And how she's gonna laugh..." Kakashi mumbled into his mask, shaking his head as he felt the first chilling breeze wrap around his naked shins.

----------

When they arrived, the funeral was already nearing its climax.
People, mostly ninjas of all ranks, had lined up in front of the large altar on which uncountable pictures of fallen shinobis and civilians were standing. In the middle was the photo of the Fifth Hokage, Tsunade. She was grinning a bit unnerved back at them, the large hat of the Hokage drawn deep into her face.

The men and women were carrying each a white rose, some having tied small gifts to the stems. One after the other, they laid the flowers down in the center of the altar right in front of Tsunade's picture. Soon, the pile of roses had grown enough to hide most of the dead woman's face.

"Let's get in line as well." Naruto heard Kakashi say in a low tone of voice.

Awkwardly, he lifted his arm from around Sakura's shoulder and straightened with a barely audible grunt. Slowly he walked over to the end of the long line and waited for a young genin to walk up to him. The boy was carrying a bunch of roses and handed all three friends one. They nodded curtly before averting their eyes and watching the next person lay down the offering.

A lump formed in Sakura's throat when she realized that the woman now standing in front of Tsunade's picture was Shizune. The black-haired woman was crying openly, tears streaming down her face and Sakura could feel her own eyes slowly filling with the salty liquid as she watched Shizune utter something down at the picture. Pulling up her nose subtly, Sakura strained her ears to catch the exact words, but could merely hear the desperation and grief in Shizune's voice.

Breathing heavily, Naruto glanced at his not-so-secret love sideways. Sakura's face was a mask of schooled neutrality, though he could see her eyes slowly getting glassy as she tried to bite back the tears that were already forming. And with a slight sting in his heart, Naruto realized that she was trying to be the brave, emotionless kunoichi she had always strived to become over the years.

"Naruto"
Startled, the young man leaned forward slightly, looking across Sakura's shoulder in an attempt to hear her voice better.
"Will you leave me as well?"

Swallowing hard, he felt his heart constrict painfully inside his chest and his hand clenched tighly around the stem of the rose. He felt the necklace, Tsunade had given him many years ago, press heavily against his sternum, a silent reminder of an old promise he had made.

"Sorry, I shouldn't have..." Sakura suddenly mumbled, looking up again and staring ahead into the distance. "Sakura, I..." A sorrowed frown spread out on his forehead as he watched his feet taking another step towards the altar. "I can't promise you to live forever, or to outlive you. All I can offer is a promise to give everything I have to try. I will do anything in my power to survive. But my life is worth nothing without you and I will protect you and everybody else in this village till the very end..."

Naruto felt a hand wrap softly around his own. When he stared at them, he found Sakura's back still facing towards him. Her arm was drawn back slightly as she kept on looking ahead at Kakashi's back. Slowly, Naruto turned his hand, palm meeting palm and fingers intertwining carefully.

They stayed like that for almost half a hour until it finally was Kakashi's turn to lay down the rose he was holding. He bowed slowly and with considerable effort, suppressing another pained grunt. He whispered a small prayer and walked back to where they had come from.

Sakura felt her breathing picking up slightly when Kakashi had left the place directly in front of Tsunade's picture. A strange pressure was building in her chest and with a start, Sakura realized that her legs refused to move. She felt a new emotion welling up inside her.

Fear.

She knew quite well, that it was unreasonable, even though understandable, and that she should just walk up to the altar and say the text she had devised some hours ago, but her mind was blank. She had forgotten everything.

New tears prickled at the back of her eyes and Sakura could feel the hot gazes of the uncountable shinobis gathered behind her, their bewilderment, understanding and pity, burning her body. Her chest was heaving irregularly, but her lungs felt like there was no oxygen left to use. A feeling of suffocating engulfed her being and her hands started shaking violently.

"Sakura?" Naruto's voice broke through the haze like a thunder and in an instant, she regained control of her body again. "Lets do it together, ok?" He softly whispered the all too familiar words into her ear, tightening his grip around her hand and walking past her. She followed him like in trance.

"Yo, old hag." Naruto said with a false smirk. "Seems like the time for goodbye has come. Hope you're fine wherever you are right now... And don't worry! Gonna take care of everything for ya"
"And that's supposed to reassure her?" Sakura mumbled, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth as she gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

He turned his head around slightly, giving Sakura a warm smile of his own. He was just glad that she was still there.
He knew that no matter how tough the situation, 'his' Sakura would never break.
Yes, she would cry, she would protest, she would scream and would fall. Sakura would grief and swallow pain, she would beg for help and would comfort. But she would never crumble and break.

Sakura would always be the strong and proud woman he had come to love.

Together they laid down the roses and bowed slightly. The pink-haired medic inhaled deeply, calming down the strange burning in her dry throat. She caught Naruto biting his bottom lip out of the corner of her eyes and caressed the back of his hand soothingly with her thumb.

Walking away from the table-like altar, they came to a halt beside Kakashi, smiling tightly back at the tired looking man. His one arm was slung across the crutch and his knuckles had gone white from his straining grip on the handle. Without a word, Sakura slipped under his other arm and helped him into a more comfortable position. At the same time she allowed some of her chakra to slip into his chakra channels. It coursed through his body as she started numbing the pain in his aching muscles and relaxing some in his back and limbs.

Blinking in surprise, Kakashi stared at her intently.
"Thanks." He finally whispered, gaining a faint grin in return from the kunoichi. He immediately noticed the distant look on her face as she was obviously deep in thoughts...

--

"I guess we've gone far enough." Tsunade muttered to herself, turning around to face her young companion thoughtfully.

Indeed, the two kunoichis had travelled quite a distance already. They had been jumping through the crowns of the trees for close to four hours now and were deep in the forest of the 7th training area.
Two days ago, her sensei had given Sakura the order to meet her today at five am in front of the gate with everything she'd need for a three day field trip. Naturally, she hadn't spilled anything specific about the nature of the strange assignment, but Sakura had obeyed nonetheless.

So now, the two women were standing in the middle of one of the most dangerous traning grounds, all kinds of monster animals looming in the shadows of the large trees and waiting patiently for the right moment to strike.

"I better get started with details of this trip, 'cause time is running out..." Sakura heard her teacher say in a somewhat strained voice. "You've been learning under my supervision for almost one and a half years now and I don't have to mention that you're a gifted medic, like no-one I have met so far."

Pride was swelling inside Sakura at the encouraging words of Tsunade. Though she still had some problems grasping the connection to their current situtaion...

"Lets see what you are really capable of then, Sakura." There was a strange undertone in the blond woman's voice,
and Sakura decided, that Tsunade sounded like she was challenging her.

"Thirty-two minutes ago I injected myself a poison. It's pretty strong and I haven't taught you anything about this one, yet."

With a smirk, she found Sakura's eyes going large at her words. "The poison has spread out through my body, and I don't have to tell ya, that that jumping around wasn't doing me any good. I estimate, that I have approximately 40 minutes left until lung and heart function ceases. I have no antidote with me, nor have we time to reach my office before I die. I recommend you get going, 'cause I don't see how you're gonna explain my death to the council."

With that, Tsunade broke down right in front of the perplexed kunoichi. Sakura barely got the chance to catch her teacher's head before it could have hit the hard ground.
"You're kidding, right!" She asked incredulously, the desperation clearly audible in her voice when she felt for a pulse at Tsunade's neck. "This has to be a damn joke!"

"Do I look like I'm getting any fun out of this, huh?"

It was then that the spell broke and Sakura's training kicked in.
Carefully, she laid down Tsunade's head, using her rain poncho to stabilize her neck. Sakura hastily pulled open her backpack and grabbed her medical kit, taking a glinting scalpel with trembling fingers.

Deliberately, she placed the sharp blade at the side of Tsunade's belly and closed her eyes momentarily. Exhaling a controlled lung of oxygen, Sakura sent a small amount of chakra into the skin and deadened the nerves located in that area.

Supressing the twitching in her finger muscles, Sakura made the first cut. She was hyper-aware of anything then. The different layers of skin, fat and muscle tissue she was slicing through and the blood that was instantly gushing out of the open wound, staining her hands crimson.

Not waiting, she leaned over Tsunade's unmoving body and made a second cut on the opposite side. She placed the scalpel in between her lips and pulled the white shirt further up on her teacher's torso until it caught under her breasts.

Sakura took two calming breaths and without further ado, forced her chakra into Tsunade's form.
Sweat was gathering on top of her brows as she tried to imagine the course, her energy was taking and isoltaed as much of the poison she could without losing the conrtol over her chakra.

"Sakura?"

Startled out of her concentration, the person in question nearly broke the contact to her energy. With an effort she maintained it and watched Tsunade through already exhausted eyes.

"Imagine you were lying here in my place. You were aching, your body wouldn't respond anymore and you were losing all feeling. Somebody was kneeling beside you, working on your body and slicing you open. How'd you feel"
'What?', Sakura asked herself silently, thinking that there was no time to play a damn game of 'questioning-my-
stupid-student'!

"Afraid, frightened... alone..." Something clicked inside Sakura's mind and she had to suppress the need to slap her forehead. "I shouldn't just work on the patient like he was a doll. Talk to him, reassure him, take his fear"
Tsunade, instead of answering verbally, grinned up at her sweating student approvingly.

"Well, uh..." Sakura stuttered, extracting the first large ball of poison and blood. She let his fall into a small bowl and averted her attention again to the task of finding out what exactly it was. She would have to make an antidote soon and needed to know the symptoms the toxin was causing.

"Did I tell you, that I got another letter from Naruto?" She suddenly asked, not waiting or hoping for an answer. Tsunade's eyes were tightly closed and her features had taken on a very sick pale colour. Her hair was matted to her face from sweat and her breathing was slightly labored.

"It's the second one he has sent so far and again he tries to explain what new jutsus he's learned without actually giving away the name or details." Thinking fast, she tried to measure how much time had already passed. 'Have only twenty minutes left', she thought with a jolt of fear and doubt, trying not to let it show on her face.

"Of course, he is pretty easy to read. I wrote back and told him to never mention his not so secret moves ever again..." Her chakra left Tsunade's system, when Sakura couldn't find any poison inside her body. "Who knows what freaks are reading the letters beside me!"

Suddenly, Sakura's ears picked up the noise of something crashing through the underbrush of the nearby bushes.
Something large and angry.

"Oh, shit!" She said, eyes wide, when a gigantic skorpion dashed out of the forest into the clearing they were currently on.

Without thinking, Sakura swivelled around and brought her fist down hard on the ground, feeling a bone in her hand breaking from the impact. The earthy rock broke open with an ear deafening crack, the skorpion nearly falling completely into the gaping hole.

Jumping up from where she was still crouching, Sakura rushed to where the creature was crawling up towards the top of the long ridge, her hands flying through a combination of familiar seals on the way.
Almost instantly, a low rumble vibrated through the ground, when suddenly a wave of earth rolled up from her left, trees rising and bending dangerously and smaller animals fleeing heedlessly into all directions.

When the wave reached the skorpion, Sakura watched in amazement as the earth broke open when it crashed against the small canyon Sakura had produced mere seconds ago. Masses of rocks and soil spilled out of the cracked ground, burying the attacking, angry beast underneath tons and tons of earth.

Breathing heavily, Sakura stared at the gigantic heap of earth, watching as small rocks rolled down and gathered at the 'mountain's' base.

Coughing, she turned back around and headed towards the still unmoving Hokage. To her surprise, a small smile was on Tsunade's lips, though her eyes were still closed.
"Fifteen minutes." She announced in a weak tone of voice, the smile vanishing into nothingness.

Chest still heaving heavily from the straining jutsu, Sakura kneeled down again and rummaged through her medic kit for the ingredients of the antidote.
"Seems like this is a neuro-toxine, combined with a..."

"Just get it over with..." Tsunade mumbled weakly, "I've got a headache..."

Grinning softly, knowing she was right with her treatment and that the situation would soon be under control, Sakura started mixing the components in a mortar, watching as Tsunade faded in and out of unconsciousness...

--

With a start, Sakura realized that the funeral had come to an end.
It seemed like everybody had already left, the rain having long ago ceased almost completely. She was standing in a large puddle, feet wet and cold.

Kakashi's form, leaning heavily on her shoulder, shifted slightly, reminding Sakura that she wasn't so alone actually. Naruto was still standing by her side, eyes casted downwards at his own boots as he listened to the sound of somebody approaching from behind.

"Thought they'd never leave." They heard the deep voice of Jiraiya errupting from beside the trio.

He walked past them, stopping right in front of Tsuande's picture.
Crudely, he pushed the heap of white flowers to one side, clearing a small space for his own offering.

Bringing the bottle of sake to his mouth, he opened it with his teeth. At the same time he placed a small porcelain vase on the altar, put a small flower, he had probably gatherd on his way here, into it and started filling the vessel with the bitter liquid. Soon, the sake started pouring over the rim of the vase, cascading down the smooth surface in small rivulets.

"Cheers." He said in a barely audible voice, lifting the sake bottle to his mouth and taking a long swig. Grimacing as he gulped down hard, he swept his mouth clean with his sleeve.

"See you soon."

----------

"Uchiha Sasuke!" A loud familiar voice boomed from the doorway, gaining Sasuke's attention at once. "You are to come with us."

Breathing slowly, the raven-haired man got up from the soft mattress of his bed and straightened. He had been waiting for this call for almost a week now and had feared he would never get his chance.
"Still a jerk, ne, Neji!" Sasuke teased the other man with a smirk on his lips, taking a slightly wobbly step towards the door. Without being able to see anything, he had been forced to get accustomed to rely on his other senses only. His sense of smell, hearing and sense of touch had improved dramatically and he had no problems moving around in his cell without bumping against various itmes. He had also trained his sense for the different chakra patterns, people were emitting and knew most of the staff by their energy signature only.

"Look who's talking." A voice echoed from the second person of Sasuke's escort. It was much lighter, but he easily classified it as Kiba's. Of course the low growl of his canine friend and the strange smell of the two companions had contributed to Sasuke's realization.

Not answering, Sasuke lifted his arms, waiting patiently (though a bit unnerved) for the obligatory chakra shackles or whatever they thought would keep him from attempting an escape.
'Whatever', he thought, sighing inwardly, when he felt two hands grabbing each one of his wrists and dragging him through the door.

Frowning, Sasuke stared open-eyed at where he assumed Neji's face.
"Hokage gave orders not to cuff you." He replied as if reading Sasuke's mind.

"So she finally decided what to do with me, huh?" There was the slightest hint of anxiety in his voice and he hoped no-one had noticed the slip of emotional control.

Deep inside his mind, Sasuke was terrified. He had rarely felt so insecure and frightened.
Having been kept in the dark about his future, literally, had given him very little hope as to what exactly the council would finally decide. There were only two real options left anyway: death or life.

Sasuke himself wasn't sure what 'he' would prefer. He merely hoped that if he was to die, not anybody of his old 'buddies' would be forced to execute his punishment.

"Hokage the Fifth died almost one and a half weeks ago during the battle." Neji's strained voice broke through the other man's thoughts and Sasuke's head snapped around to eye him surprised at the revelation. He never saw the small grin appearing on the Hyuga's lips though.

"Tsunade, the great female sannin is dead?" He asked incredulously, averting his blind sharinganned eyes. "And they've already decided on her successor? Who is it?" The sole surviving Uchiha demanded to know.

"Rokudaime 's gonna answer your questions now." Kiba announced, shoving Sasuke not so gently into a room to his left, grinning impishly as the young man staggered ungracefully inside.

"Thanks Kiba, Neji."

A bewildered frown appeard on Sasuke's brows when he heard the soft female voice.
"Sakura"
"Come on, lemme help." She said and Sasuke could imagine the smile on her lips. He felt a hand wrap gently around his wrist and soon was being led further into the room.

After some seconds, he felt another chakra pattern materialize.
One he had been studying for many years.

"Yo, bastard! Take your filthy hands away from Sakura, or I'll chop 'em off"
"N-Naruto? What the hell..."

A light bulb, the size of the Hokage monument, went off above Sasuke' head and he couldn't prevent his eyes from staring widely at the man in front of him. He imagined him standing there, lopsided, cheeky grin and victory pose.
"Don't tell me, you..."

He heard a suppressed chuckle from the woman beside him, but couldn't speak then.
Describing his state as baffled would have been the understatement of the century, Sakura decided with a large grin.

"Uchiha Sasuke, last living member of his clan, bastard, stupid idiot and weakling"
"Naruto, cut the crap already!" Sakura interrupted her friend mid-sentence, making the blond cringe in fear.

"What I wanted to say, is that your apartment is a total mess. Actually, the whole damn building is mud and your stuff has already been removed hundreds of years ago anyway, or so. Meaning, you've got no place to go to and no clothes to wear." Naruto explained in a cheeky tone of voice, the grin almost audible.

"I arranged a small apartment for ya near the east gate. It's actually in the same block like mine... Sakura's gonna live with me for the time being," He heard her clearing her throat soundly, "'cause she has no place to go to right now. That's all the reason behind this, I swear!"

Sakura's hand squeezed Sasuke's wrist slightly and he could hear her inhaling as she prepared to speak.
"You still need special treatment and we need the room you've been kept in for the last week or so. That way, I can take care of that and keep an eye on both you and Naruto."

"Hey! That's unfair! I'm Hokage now and don't need you to baby sit me all day long!" Naruto whined in return, pouting when Sakura waved his argument off with a dismissive hand.
"And that's exactly the reason why you need me! Look at you! I just showed you again three damn times the seal to lock the hidden door!"

Glowering, Naruto stepped around his new desk and stopped right in front of Sasuke. He watched him intently, slightly annoyed when he found the red pinwheel eyes staring back at him blankly. The stoic man knew that Naruto was standing right in front of him, but was unable to focus on his face without being able to 'see' him.

"Maybe you've already figured it out with that believed to be super-genius brain of yours." Naruto inhaled deeply, allowing the feeling of finality to wash over him. "We're not gonna decapitate you or plant explosive tags all over you or whatever you have imagined we'd do to get rid of ya. The catch is, that you'll have to report to either Sakura, myself, Kakashi or Neji once a day. I want to know when you got up, what you had for breakfast and when you went to the toilet. Sakura keeps track on your physical progress, but help you God if I find out you take advantage of that..."

"Na-ru-to." Came the sweet warning of the kunoichi, shutting up Naruto immediately.

"Uhm... oh, right! And no ninja activities for one year. No jutsus, no shuriken, not even a damn toothpick! Nothing related to anything ninja-ish! Sakura actually thinks it'd help you to get accustomed to your blindness. Don't want ya to jump 'into' the tree instead of 'on'!" Naruto couldn't suppress the chuckle at the image of Sasuke sticking to a tree trunk.

Having finished his speech, Naruto watched the motionless form of his friend and comrade carefully.
Sasuke's face was devoid of any expression. Not even a twitching eye muscle or any other sign that he had comprehended the news. There was no emotion radiating from his body as he kept on staring at Naruto's cheek, unseeing.

The silence that had descended was unsettling and Sakura felt herself squirming as she waited anxiously for any reaction of the black-haired young man beside her.

"Why?"

Startled, the two friends stared at Sasuke in bewilderment.
Not exactly what Naruto had anticipated, but at least Sasuke hadn't swallowed his tongue.

"And I thought you had conked on us... 'Why' you ask? Phew... excuse me, but I'm not in the mood to tell ya all the complicated details why I don't wanna chop off that stupid head of yours. Sakura and Kakashi refused as well and asking anybody else... Just too troublesome." Was all the answer, Naruto offered.

"Just one more thing, Sasuke-bastard." Naruto's voice lowered dangerously and Sakura sighed heavily at what had to come now.
"There are a lot of people who are not sure whether I'm doing the right thing here. I can only hope and trust you, though they try to tell me otherwise. Gimme a reason to doubt my decision and I'll happily pick somebody out of the still pretty long list of pals who would gladly volunteer to kick your ass to the moon and back."

Again a heavy silence spread out through Naruto's office and Sakura's eyes nervously flickered back and forth between Naruto and Sasuke.

"Ha, ya wish, dobe."

Gulping hard, Sakura glanced up at Naruto, catching him closing his eyes and sighing soundly in relief.

----------

The place at the foot of the Hokage tower was crowded.
Hundreds of villagers, shinobis and civilians, had gathered down there, some already staring up at the top of the building in excitement and expectation.

"Did you hear the news?" One man asked in a whisper, leaning across the shoulder of a friend conspiratorially.
"No."

Right then, Shikamaru walked past the two men, unable to suppress a curious look as he edged closer to catch what they were saying. Eavesdropping wasn't his normal way of gaining information, but he couldn't help himself then.

"A friend of mine, a jounin, told me that the council of elders has picked a high ranking Hyuga"
"No, no, no! I know for a fact, that the great Jiraiya has agreed to become Hokage this time!"

"You are all wrong"
Startled, Shika swivelled around to find another man rushing towards the arguing couple, nearly running into the chuunin's back.

'If they only knew...', Shikamaru thought with a sly grin, shaking his head as he heard several other men and women jumping into wild assumptions and comclusions. 'They'll get the shock of their lifetime.'

"Hey, Shika!"

Looking up, the man with the ponytail found a group of young ninjas standing at the edge of the large croud. Chouji was standing slightly off with Ino, waving him over to them. The normally ever present potato crisps bag was missing, instead he was holding Ino's much smaller hand in his.

"What a troublesome day." Shika muttered, coming to a halt right beside his best fiend. He stared up into the sky,
eyes following a white cloud moving in front of the blue background. Some small birds were flying through the warm air, catching insects or carrying small twigs towards their nests.

It was a beautiful day, the strategist decided, hands jammed deep into his pockets.

"Oh, Neji!" The booming voice of Maito Gai errupted from behind Chouji, gaining everybody's attention at once.
"What a wonder your youthful loins have produced!" He declared, either ignoring or just not noticing the deep red blush on the white-eyed man's cheeks. "And, oh, how gorgeous he looks in this small costume! A proud successor of the Hyuga clan! Though he might have even looked cuter with that small green romper suit I gave you for him, Tenten!" Gai declared with a bright smile, imagining the infant in the miniature spandex.

Cradling the baby in his arms, he made some strange noises as he allowed the baby to suck happily on his finger.
"Dubi-duchi-bu-bu-buuu!" He cooed. "Lee! Help me to show this wonder that the green beasts can be as gentle as a lioness! Women love men with a knack for babies!" Gai winked not so subtly to a group of young women and gave his student his famous 'nice-guy-pose'. Soon Lee was mirroring his teacher until the baby stared wide-eyed up at the green duo.

Having heard more than enough, Tenten carefully took her son out of her sensei's arms, rolling her eyes when Gai heaved a heavy disappointed sigh. He slumped back in his wheelchair, pouting and watching longingly as Neji took the squriming bundle from his fiancee's grasp.

--

'KNOCK.'

Looking up, Neji and Tenten waited expectantly as the door to their private infirmary room opened. A man dressed in a black overall stepped inside, the expression on his face a strange mix of embarrassment, boredom and annoyance.

Kankuro walked further into the room, his puppet nowhere to be seen. Instead he was carrying a small letter in his hand. He stared at the sleeping bundle in Tenten's arms and rolled his eyes inwardly. He hated children.
"Gaara wanted me to deliver this..." He said, obviously unnerved beyond words that 'he' of all people had been forced to do the errand for his baby brother. "Dunno what it is, but have fun."

With that he pressed the letter into Neji's hands, the baffled expression not going unnoticed by the sand-nin.
But he dismissed it and just turned back around, leaving the room faster than the couple had time to answer.

"Well..." Tenten stuttered, eyeing the white envelope with the seal of the Kazekage suspiciously. "I guess you can open it."

Frowning, Neji carefully undid the lid and pulled out a simple sheet of paper. As he read the only word written right in the middle of the sheet silently, the frown deepened even more...

--

"Neji!" Lee's voice broke into the Hyuga's thoughts with a start. "Pu-leeease! Lemme hold him again!" He asked in the most whiniest tone of voice the other man had 'ever' heard!

"No, Lee. You've held Jiyuu all morning long"
"But..." Lee started, but was cut short by three ninjas entering the small circle of old friends.
"Hey, everyone!" Sakura said cheerfully, waving a hand in greeting. She was flanked by two man, both taller than her.

Stopping beside team Gai, the pink haired kunoichi waited patiently for the overly baffled expressions and initial shock to subside enough for the rest of the gang to breathe again.
Naturally, Lee was the first to recover. If he had been shocked at all to begin with...

"Sakura! Why aren't you with Naruto!" He exclaimed bewilderd, stepping closer and invading 'somebody's' personal space.
"Yo, Lee. Would you mind." The raven-haired man standing to Sakura's right grunted disapprovingly.

"Forgive me, Sasuke. I had the impression you were aware of me being here." The young man with the orange leg-warmers said honestly, bowing slightly and stepping back some feet to get some air between himself and the Uchiha heir.

"Never mind..." Sasuke mumbled. He was very uncomfortable with everyone standing around him and could feel them gaping at his unexpected appearance like some fish out of the water. He swore, he would have to tell Sakura next time to leave him the hell alone, when he 'said' he wanted to be left the hell alone, dammit!

Sensing Sasuke's discomfort, Sakura squeezed his hand slightly and smiled up at Lee.
"Naruto wanted to be alone. I'm down here for moral support and to lend some whiny men a hand." She gestured with her chin first to Sasuke and then to the second man standing by her left side.

"She insisted..." Kakashi shrugged nonchalantly, slowly walking around Sakura and coming to a halt right in front of Gai. The other man was sitting in his wheelchair, fuming when he found himself in a sticky situation he had been trying to avoid for days...

"Seems like I win, Gai, huh?" The silver-haired jounin asked in a sugar coated voice, crouching down and eyeing Gai's physical state in obvious amusement.

"What!" Lee suddenly cried, his eyes even larger than before as he ragarded first Gai and then Kakashi with confusion and disbelief written squarely across his features. "Why would Gai-sensei 'lose'!"

Lips quivering, Gai thought back to the day when he had made 'the' bet.

It had been a tie. Kakashi 'and' Gai having had 64 victories and the green beast decided that he would be damned if his eternal rival would take the lead in their strange, infamous quarrel! So he had come up with a plan, he had been 100 percent sure, Kakashi could NOT win!

"Kakashi," he had said in his usual my-youthful-being-will-conquer-your-genius tone of voice, "I bet, you will not be able to beat me in a marathon around Konoha on your own feet by the end of the week!" Gai had proposed, so sure of his imminent, magnificent victory that he hadn't noticed the sweatdropping Kakashi wriggling his toes underneath the sheets of his bed.

It had seemed a good idea that day.
Kakashi still unable to move an inch and himself already running around the infirmary complex, nose deep in his hard taining sessions. He had merely stopped when Sakura or Shizune had dragged him back into his bed by his ears.

Three days ago, though, some higher being had outed itself as great Kakashi fan.

Gai had been running through the corridors of the hospital, trying to achieve a new best time, when suddenly a door had opened that (Gai could have sworn by his youth!) hadn't been there before! It had smashed his nose, setting him off-balance. He had lost his footing, had toppled across a bucket and had fallen down the staircase of the three storeys of the hospital building, having landed with a very painful thud at the exit door.

Sakura had stitched his wounds up, had stopped the aching and tingling nerves from protesting, but unfortunately had refused to heal the fractures in 'both' of his legs. She hadn't undertsood the necessity of his spirited body to be able to walk and train again. She had actually felt like it would be a good thing, if Gai stayed in the wheelchair until both legs were healed (on their own) again.

So now he was sitting, beet red, in his wheelchair, legs propped up and pointing straight away from his body. 'V'-shape style. He had stopped apologizing for kicking people accidently already two days ago. And to round off the picture of his misfortune, he just knew he looked kinda strange (Tenten had called it actually 'even' stranger)
with the legs of his spandex cut off right above the end of the two casts... middle thigh.

"65 to 64, I think... and if I'm not wrong, it's my turn to pick the next contest, ne?" Kakashi asked, one visibly eye wrinkling up into a bright smile as he patted the cast on Gai's left leg happily.

"Nothing has changed." Kakashi heard Sasuke whisper. When he looked up, he foundnd the young man standing motionless beside his female companion, staring blindly at the ground.

A harsh chuckle escaped Sakura's throat. She shook her head amusedly, grinning as she met her sensei's gaze.
"It is time, you open your eyes, Sasuke... Maybe 'you' have changed so much, that you can't 'see' the differences around you." She said, smirking when Sasuke grunted his disapproval at the pun.

"Yo, pals." Shika suddenly announced, nodding his chin up to the top of the Hokage tower. "Show time."

----------

"You can do this... Naruto, just fucking do it..."

Mumbling encouragements to himself, Naruto slowly (very, very slowly) made his way across the small space of the rooftop to the railing marking its edge.
He was wearing the traditional robe marking him as Hokage of Fire country, hat and all complete with two special items he had refused to leave behind.

One was the necklace he had won of Tsunade and the second was a leather bracelet wrapped several times around his right wrist. Sakura had given him the present some days ago. She had insisted quite vehemently when he had mused out loud that he would so not look manly, but had given in when she had said, that it would give him strength and help him through anything.

Naruto thought she was right.
It had come from her, which could only mean luck!

Carefully he stepped closer to the end of the path, his eyes already catching sight of the outer line of the croud.
And much to his agitation, they had spied him, too.

A sudden murmer rippled through the rows, followed by stunned, unnatural silence.

When Naruto finally reached the railing, not even the birds were singing anymore.
An ominous, threatening stillness had descended upon the gathered people and Naruto could feel the first beads of cold sweat breaking out on his brows. He could see the perplexed and even fearful looks some of the villagers were throwing up at him.

Mothers were pressing their children tightly against their legs and men were moving protectively in front of their families. An old woman even started crying, hiding her face in her wrinkled hands.

Naruto had anticipated that.
But he hadn't been ready for it at all.

A lump rose in his thorat and his lips went dry. When he tried to wet them with his tongue, the blond found his mouth unable to open. He could feel his hands trembling slightly and the muscles in his legs strained painfully.

He wanted to run away.

He had felt like this many times before.
When parents had pulled their children away as he had tried to play with them.
When they had kicked him out of their shops in disgust as he had wanted to buy some food.

When they had called him demon after he had graduated from ninja academy.

Gulping hard, he drew the hat deeper into his face, casting his features in dark shadows. He felt ashamed of the angry tears that were threatening to run down his cheeks.

'Even 'you' can't make everybody love you!', Kakashi had said and had been right in a most gruesome way.
A vast majority of the civilian population would surely need some time to get accustomed to the prospect of having the 'nine-tailed demon fox' as their supposed to be protector, and he was farely sure, most of them would never acknowledge him for 'who' and not 'what' he actually was.

"But I'm not alone..." Naruto mumbled, inhaling deeply and straightening visibly. He clenched his hands into tight fists, chin lifted high as he tried to look braver than he felt.

"NARUTOOOOOOO!"

Startled, his eyes flickered across the perplexed croud.
All heads had turned as one to a small group of shinobis standing slightly off to the left. A woman with pink hair was standing in the middle, arms raised high above her head as she waved madly up at him.

"NARUTOOOO! LONG LIVE OUR HOKAGE!" Sakura shouted at the top of her lungs, the smile on her face threatening to split her face in two and tears streaming down her cheeks as she jumped around on the spot, all the time waving her arms.

Naruto watched dumbstruck, feeling tears of joy and something else, welling up in his already watery eyes. As he waited for the first salty drops to roll down his cheeks, he suddenly realized why he was standing up here, wearing a costume that (as Sakura had stated some hours back) so didn't suit him.

He had become Hokage to continue the will of the First and all his successors.
Naruto had to protect those dear to him. If they loved him the way he was or not.

Naruto inherited the will of the fire.

"GO, DOBE!"

Wide eyes watched as Sasuke, hands jammed deep in his trouser pockets, grinned slightly up at him. His eyes were open, revealing the pinwheeled sharingan. Sakura, still beside him, elbowed him angrily in his side, eliciting a warm chuckle from the other ninjas gathered around them.

Shikamaru stepped forward, raising his arms high above his head.
And started clapping.

Kakashi, Chouji and Ino followed their lead, applauding loudly. It sounded strangely feeble above the low murmur that was still rolling through the rest of the croud. But that didn't matter then to Naruto.

Everybody else of his friends had started clapping enthusiastically as well, Lee and Kiba whistling loudly and even Shino and Neji had a small somewhat proud smile plastered on their lips as they showed Naruto their respect. The young Hyuga bowed slightly and his fiancee, Tenten, waved the tiny hand of their son up at Naruto.

Unable to ignore the tight feeling in his chest any longer, Naruto lifted his arms and started waving back, one hand grabbing the rim of the hat and pulling it off of his head. His blond hair was messy and looked like he had just awoken.

With energy surging through his body, Naruto jumped up onto the railing, nearly falling over as he continued to gesture around wildly. He was screaming 'Thank you' at the top of his lungs and allowed a feeling of absolute happiness and contentment to wash over him.

His ears caught the sound of other people starting to clap their hands to the strange rhythm of his friends, soon followed by many others. Some of them he recognized as fellow shinobis, Asuma and Kurenai both trying to be the loudest among them. Others he knew from the streets and shops. There was the old man of the ramen shop and his daughter, or that old lady from next door.

"Narutoo!" Again Sakura's voice overpowered all the clapping and whistling, catching Naruto's undivided attention.

Spreading his fingers wide, he allowed the slight warm breeze to blow around his digits as he stared smiling up at the blue sky. After some seconds, his gaze averted from the horizon and he allowed it to wander down to the Hokage monument. Five faces were staring blankly back at him and his eyes fell on the head of the Forth.

'See?' Naruto thought, 'I made it'
Naruto grinned lopsidedly back at the features chiseled into the massive sone of the mountain and gave the sky a thumbs-up.

He had finally reached his goal.
He was Hokage, had friends so close to him, that he could call them 'his' family and had kept all of his promises.
To Sakura, Sasuke, Gaara, Hinata, the world.

'So now...', Uzumaki Naruto, Rokudaime, vessel to the kyuubi and ramen-addicted ninja thought smugly, grinning wildly up at the vast, bright blue sky above him, "What am I gonna reach now!'

--------------------

FINIS!
(note the exclamation mark at the end...)

So this was it? I feel like crying... SNIFF! T.T I had so much fun writing this! I like the end very much and hope I'm not standing alone with that! This might be the final chapter, but that doesn't mean I don't wanna know your opinion! So before you forget me completely (Hey! Stay awake for another two secs!), write some lines and lemme know what you're thinking!

I wanna thank at the end of this 9th and final chapter everybody who has read this story and express my joy over every single review I have gotten! I loved reading your comments (and hopefully will in the near future).

Pairings intended in this fiction were Shika/Tem, Kerenai/Asuma, Jir/Tsu, Ino/Chouji (I like them P) and Ten/Neji. As for the Sakura couple...I have consciously left the question open, whether Sak/Sas or Sak/Nar. Haven't decided yet which one I prefer the most! Hope you didn't mind and hate me! I love 'em both and guess, until I make up my mind otherwise, Masashi should play with them for as long as he wants! ;)

Oh! You may have toppled across the name of Tenten and Neji's son, ne? If not, scroll back or read the next lines carefully:

'Jiyuu' it is!
Means 'freedom' and I took it mainly because I really liked how it sounded. Hyuga Jiyuu... love it n.n Here are the other names I had on my list (they're in no particular order, just random! There are also those names some of you have suggested! Don't be mad if we (sis and I) didn't chose them, we had a really hard time deciding!

Arashi (storm), Tori (bird), Tsubasa (wings), Hitomi (pupil), Washi (eagle), Isan (inheritance), Shiryoku (eyesight) Michi (way), Takuya (didn't find the right meaning, sorry), Koji (orphan), the kanji for seven ("It's a lucky number, usually pronounced 'Nana'. However, there's an alternate pronunciation: 'Shichi', shi for death and chi for power... ninja-ish?" end of quote) and Tokeru (to loosen, too fuse... not sure that are the right meanings though...).

I thank you all again and again! Hugs and kisses for you all!

Another matter would be a new idea I'm currently developing. It'll be another huge action/advenure fic with lotsa feelings and fights. Maybe you are interested... o.O'
So better stay tuned! I'm not willing to let the Naruto universe rest any time soon! Muahahahahahahaha!

Now have fun and you are free (my spell forces you subtly, though) to review!
Your Sarah aka grilledjellyfish