AN: Welcome to my first multi-chapter Naruto fic, The Will to Be Strong – Legends in the Making!

This epic is going to be divided into parts like the real Naruto series: first part is retrieving Sasuke, next is a fight with the Akatsuki, then the Chuunin Exams come, and then a short arc concerning the Hyuugas. Then the next is a very long arc concerning the Jounin Exams.

I'm going to make a second part of the epic as a separate story, entitled The Will to Be Strong – Legendary Sannin. The first part will be three years after the Jounin Exams, when there's going to be a big Sound invasion. Then, there'll be a final battle with Itachi and the Akatsuki. But obviously, I can't write about that yet.

The main pairings will be SasuSaku, NaruHina, NejiTen, and ShikaIno. There might be a GaaOC and an ItaOC, but very minimal, unless I make some changes. My twin sister suggested that I put an OroTsuna, but that would be just freaky. Just review if you want it, though.

The storyline starts after the recent manga arc, where they battle two Akatsuki, Deidara and Sasori. There might be some major spoilers about this arc, so beware. And whatever happens after that arc won't be of concern with this fic. I'm only going to go for the chapters before Chap 280 in the manga.

This fic is kind of an alternative to the next part of the manga. The happenings after Naruto and Sasuke's battle at the Valley of the End in the anime (i.e. Mizuki's escape from prison, Jiraiya, Sakura and Naruto's reconnoiter mission, etc.) don't happen. We follow the manga storyline.

So much fun, ne?

Anyway, without further ado, let me present Tenshi no Hana-chan's epic…

The Will to be Strong – Legends in the Making

Chapter 1: A New Mission – Reconnecting Old Ties

Disclaimer: This goes for this chapter and for all the chapters that follow. I don't own Naruto, never did, never will, unless I become a multi-billionaire and buy it from Masashi Kishimoto. But that's just wishful thinking.

Dawn's rosy fingers touched the sky, softly letting pink and purple hues take over the black velvet. The birds began their morning songs, and a few sleepy eyes fluttered open, a few more deciding to get a little more shut-eye.

However, a certain pink-haired chuunin couldn't let herself close her eyes anymore, not when she had an important mission briefing to get to.

Haruno Sakura stretched, earning her a satisfied crack around the sore joints. "Maa, what a good sleep I had," she mumbled to herself. She took a deep breath and let it out with a whoosh, then stood up. She did a couple of choice stretches until she felt content she was warmed up enough to start her day.

The fourteen year old kunoichi dressed out of her nightclothes into her usual ensemble: a simple sleeveless red zip-up blouse with the white circle on its back, her beige skirt, and black shorts. She tied bandages around her right thigh and attached a kunai pouch on it, and also attached a bigger pouch on her back. She combed out her short pink hair and wore her hitai-ate as a headband. After putting on her black leg warmers and her high-heeled open-toed sandals, she was ready to go.

She ate breakfast, said goodbye to her parents, and decided to take time in walking to the Hokage Tower, where Hatake Kakashi-sensei had said they were receiving details of the mission.

Nothing had changed much in Konoha since a couple of years ago, she decided. It was still an idyllic village, albeit powerful militarily, with its peaceful people and its quaint little shops. The shops surrounding her parents' own were opening up, and some of her neighbors waved their morning greetings to her.

"Mission again, Sakura-chan?" someone called.

"Just a mission briefing," Sakura called back cheerfully. "They keep coming these days!"

"Good luck then!"

"Thanks, Yamagata-san!"

She walked on until she arrived by the Yamanaka Flower Shop. She pushed the door open, and after a faint tinkle, there was an automatic greeting. "Welcome to the Yamanaka Flower Shop! What can I do for you?"

"Good morning, Yamanaka-san!" Sakura greeted, bowing to the middle-aged woman as she turned to face her.

"Oh, it's you, Sakura-chan!" the woman exclaimed. "Ino-chan! Sakura-chan's here!" she called. Then she turned back to Sakura, smiling. "She'll be with you in a minute."

Pounding on the stairs told her that the young blonde of the flower shop had arrived. "Hey, forehead girl!" Ino said, slinging her arm around the pink-haired girl's shoulder. "Welcome back from your latest mission! Ready for the next one?"

"As ready as ever, Ino-pig!" Sakura exclaimed just as enthusiastically. "Ja ne, Yamanaka-san!"

"Ja, okaasan!" Ino said, pecking her mother on the cheek. "This mission briefing won't take long."

"All right," Ino's mother said. "Stay out as long as you want, but be back for dinner."

The two strolled out of the shop, earning looks from male passers-by. Both of them had blossomed beautifully indeed. Ino's hair had grown back to its usual length and it swayed elegantly from its hair-tie. Both girls had developed their curves, although they had almost stopped growing in height, having reached the end of their growth spurt.

"So, Sakura-chan," Ino said, looking at Sakura interestedly. "Tell me what happened on your last mission."

"Well," Sakura said, "we managed to rescue the Kazekage, Gaara-san, from the Akatsuki. They were going to extract the Shukaku from him, but he survived."

"Details, Sakura-chan, details!" Ino exclaimed, waving her hand airily. "I want to hear the good stuff! How was it, really?"

"I managed to make a good friend out of Tsunade-shishou's rival from the Wind Country, Chiyo-baasama of the Sand. She's a puppet master just like our enemy, Sasori of the Red Sand. She used me as her puppet since she's not strong enough to battle with the usual puppets or using herself. I fought against Sasori's puppets, one of which turned out to be the Third Kazekage's body. It didn't have a soul anymore, but the techniques and the chakra were still intact."

"So basically you were fighting against a zombie puppet?" Ino said, wrinkling her nose. "Disgusting!"

"It was really powerful, you know, for a dead body," Sakura mused. "It had the ability to form iron sand with chakra. The iron sand would form into different weapons, and they were poisonous."

"But naturally, your training in dodging, plus the fact that you've gotten Tsunade-sama's knack for creating antidotes in a second, and your titanic strength helped you."

"It was good that I managed to make three samples of the antidote," Sakura said. "I took two and left one with Kankurou-san, who was also injured with the same poison that time. If hadn't taken one, I don't think I would've been able to fight. Chiyo-baasama…" Sakura looked down, feeling sadness coursing through her body. "She died to save me. I got run through by a poisoned sword… but she gave her life force to me. I was dying then, so she gave most of her life force to me. And she gave the last of it to Gaara-san..."

"The good thing was that you managed to win," Ino said, nodding. "And Naruto and Kakashi-sensei also won their fight with… what's his name?"

"Deidara. He has a weird affinity for art."

"Oh. And you came back…"

"…about three days ago."

Just then, a sudden yell made both girls jump. "Sakura-chaaaaan!"

"Naruto!" Sakura said, giving the blond fox a hard slap on the head. "Don't shout so early in the morning!"

"But, but, Sakura-chan, I was only happy to see you!"

"You didn't have to destroy our perfect sense of hearing," Ino retorted ruefully. Naruto grinned.

"Sorry, Ino!" In true Naruto fashion, he bobbed from one girl to another. "So, so, do you girls have any idea what this mission is about?"

"Unfortunately, no, Naruto," Sakura replied. "But if a lot of us have to go on this mission, that means-"

"This has to be an A-rank or an S-rank mission! Yahoo!" Naruto yelled happily.

"Naruto!" both girls exclaimed. "Not so loud!"

"Really," Ino said, shaking her head. "I'd have been happy with a B-rank mission, but this guy… he's overjoyed with the possibility of an S-rank mission."

Sakura laughed. "Well, that's Naruto for you."

They stopped in front of the Nara residence. "What are we doing here?" Naruto asked. Ino glared at him, as though it was his fault they were there.

"I have to wake up the lazy-ass," she said, jumping to the window. The members of former genin team 7 looked at each other inquisitively, then jumped up as well.

"Oi! Shika! Shikamaru!" Ino said, rapping at the window. Through the glass, Naruto and Sakura could see the genius tactician snoring, his bed things scattered around the floor. "Wake up! You'll be late! Shika!" Under her breath, she muttered, "He's pretending to be asleep again." Then the blonde grinned, and her companions winced. Both shinobi knew she was planning something. "Time to get serious."

"Ninpou: Shintenshin no Jutsu(1)!"

Sakura caught Ino's body as it fell limp beside her. She saw Shikamaru's body rise up and open the window. Then, Shika-Ino yelled, "Kai(2)!"

With a thump, Shika's body fell to the floor, and Ino, now back in her body, climbed the window. Before she could reach the floor, Shikamaru had opened his eyes and scampered to the door. However, there was no stopping the angry blue-eyed girl.


This being one the few times Ino was stronger than Shikamaru, she grabbed the tactician by the collar and began shaking him. "We're going to be late for the briefing because of you!" she yelled to the cringing Nara.

"I didn't ask you to wake me up anyway!" Shikamaru argued.

"But this mission needs your brains!" Ino said. "You're a genius, you should've figured that out! Really, maybe I shouldn't wake you up on times like these!"

Shikamaru smirked. "And even though we didn't need to walk there together, you still took all the trouble going here and waking me up." There was a moment's silence as Ino tried to register what he had just said. Then her jaw dropped and her fair complexion colored.

Flustered, the girl began shaking the genius hard again. "I didn't do it because I liked you in that way or anything, if that's what you're implying!" she cried. "It's just that you're my teammate! That's all!"

"Okay, okay, Ino! I'm going to get ready now!" Shikamaru exclaimed. "Geez, how troublesome." The two shinobi outside the window sweatdropped at the blatant flirting the genius was doing. Laughing, they leapt down. From inside the window, they heard Shikamaru say, "So you're just going to stay here and watch me while I undress? Sure, I don't mind."

"Kyaa! Shika! You – you – you pervert!" An instant later, Ino had jumped out of the window and landed on the ground, blushing to the roots of her hair, muttering, "Honestly!" Naruto and Sakura snorted in laughter.

A few minutes later, with his Chuunin vest and a bored look on, Shikamaru sauntered out of his house. "Come on," he muttered, putting his hands in his pockets. "Let's get to the Hokage Tower."

"But what about Chouji?" Ino asked.

"Nah, he was the one who woke me up. I told him we'd meet him at the Hokage Tower," Shikamaru replied.

"What?" Ino asked, her anger rising again. "Then why didn't you wake up after that?"

"I told him I wanted five more minutes, so he relented and went to the Hokage Tower by himself."

"Ooh, when I get to that Chouji, I'm going to beat him to a pulp. He should've convinced you to wake up!"

"Ch. Whatever."

After a few minutes of walking in silence, they arrived at the foremost building in Konoha, the Hokage Tower. They made their way into the briefing room.

"Sakura-san!" a voice called.

"Oh, it's Lee-san!" Sakura exclaimed happily. She separated herself from Ino. "Good morning, Lee-san. Are you all right now?"

Lee gave Sakura his nice-guy pose. "Of course! The fire of youth heals fast! But to tell you the truth, Sakura-san," he added, smiling sheepishly, "it is rather hard to fight yourself."

"Ah, you were trapped in a mirror jutsu, weren't you?" Sakura asked, and Lee nodded.

Just then, another voice called her. "Sakura-chan!" Tenten greeted, waving her arm back and forth.

"Tenten-san! Are you all right now too?"

"Well, you are a pretty good medic, Sakura-chan," Tenten said cheerfully. "Just what is expected from a student of Tsunade-sama. I wish I were an apprentice of hers too, but I'm a lot better being Neji's sparring partner."

Meanwhile, Naruto was working the room as though there was a party. "Hey, Hinata-chan!" he exclaimed happily, putting an arm around the female Hyuuga's shoulders. She blushed. "Haven't seen you in a while!"

"N-naruto-kun… welcome home…" Hinata said shyly.

"Uzumaki Naruto," said a stern voice behind him. The Rasengan user froze and turned to Hyuuga Neji. "Get your hands off Hinata-sama."

"I-it's all right, you know, Neji-niisan," Hinata murmured, smiling bashfully, but the Hyuuga genius put his hand on the Hyuuga heir's lower back and steered her away from Naruto.

"Aw, Neji, you're no fun at all," he mumbled. Then he tapped Kiba's shoulder instead. "Hey, Kiba! How're you and Akamaru?"

Kiba grinned, showing his fangs, and Akamaru barked happily. "We're fine, thanks. I have a couple of new jutsus that I'd like to show you one of these days."

"Oh yeah?" Naruto asked. "Yeah, me too! I'm going to fight you sometime then! That's a man's promise!" The fox thumped his fist against his chest in emphasis.

Kiba smirked. "I'll take your word for it. Don't disappoint me."

Naruto grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. "Of course not! That's my ninja way!"

"Settle down, everyone," another stern voice, this time female, said. Everyone turned to see the big-busted Godaime by the door. All the shinobi gathered in the room went to find their seats.

"That's better," Tsunade said, taking her place at the desk at the front of the room.

Sakura scanned the room and found everyone familiar to her. All of the Rookie 9, and Gai-sensei's team were there, although there were no jounins except Neji in the room. The green-eyed kunoichi assumed that he would lead the mission.

"Now, as all of you have probably noticed," Tsunade began, "we have a big team for this particular mission. I'm sure you've deduced by now, because of the number of ninjas, this is going to be a dangerous mission."

"Get to the point, Tsunade no baachan!" Naruto said loudly. Tsunade scowled, while Sakura hissed, "Sshh! You don't know Tsunade-shishou when she's really pissed!"

"Thank you, Sakura." The slug Sannin gave Naruto one last glare and continued. "The mission all of you are assigned to do is this."

"Retrieve S-class missing nin, Uchiha Sasuke from Orochimaru."

Sakura gasped, and Naruto's jaw dropped. Muttering filled the room.

Retrieve Uchiha Sasuke…

Sasuke-kun, Sakura thought, her chest tight and all the morning freshness zapped out of her system. She bit her lip. We have to get Sasuke-kun… We have to get him home… I can see Sasuke-kun again…

But what if he doesn't want to come home?

She glanced at Naruto, whose eyes were hooded as he looked down on his shoes. And after what he did to Naruto… And what those Sound nins did to xNeji, Kiba and Akamaru, and Chouji… Would everyone forgive him?

I… don't even know if I forgive him!

It might not have showed on her face, but Sakura was quite anguished and near tears. Even after all these years… Even after all my determination on gathering information to see him again… Now that I'm given the perfect opportunity to track him down and bring him back… Why am I hesitating?

Even the sound of his name affects me this way… She clutched at her chest. It hurts… so much… it hurts to think of that night…

And if we bring him back… what will happen to him? Will it go back to the old days, just like Kakashi-sensei promised? Or will we be forever apart from him?

Oh, Sasuke-kun… what have you done to me?

Sasuke… Naruto thought, glaring at the floor, his fist clenching. That bastard… finally, I'm going to get to find him… And I'm going to make him regret all the things he has done… I'm going to beat him to a pulp when I find him…

This is perfect. I'm going to show him how much stronger I've become during the past two and a half years, and I'm going to make him pay for betraying Konoha, hurting my friends, making Sakura-chan cry, and destroying our friendship.

Naruto glanced at Sakura, who had her hand on her heart, looking pained. What does she think about all this, though? She said before that next time… we'll do it together. But now that we're given the chance to, what does she think about this all? Does she still have deep feelings for him? This is going get more complicated if she does…

Sasuke-teme… if you could only see now what Sakura-chan is going through…

I promise, I'm going to beat the truth into you…

The other occupants of the room gave awkward glances at the subject's former teammates. Everyone knew how emotionally hard this was for both of them, though not in the same light.

Tsunade cleared her throat, snapping everyone's attention back to her. "The last mission of Hatake Kakashi, Uzumaki Naruto, and Haruno Sakura brought us news about where Sasuke is expected to be. In five days' time, Orochimaru will be meeting someone, presumably from the Sand, at the Tenchi(3) Bridge in Hidden Grass. It's logical to believe Uchiha Sasuke will be there with him. He can't afford to let Sasuke out of his sight.

"Apparently, the Sound nins have been on the move recently, and the reason is this: they are preparing Uchiha Sasuke, or more specifically, his body, for Orochimaru's soul to be transferred into it. I doubt Sasuke cares about this, and your job is to make sure he sees the light. If he doesn't, I want you to bring him back anyway, since Orochimaru is dangerous enough in a normal body, and much more if he gets his soul transferred in a powerful body like Uchiha Sasuke's."

Chouji raised his hand. "But why have they waited two and a half years to transfer Orochimaru's soul into Sasuke's body? I mean, if they wanted to win against us, why did they wait for so long?"

"To transfer bodies, Orochimaru needs three years of preparation, and I suppose it's also because they needed Sasuke's body to be strong enough," Tsunade replied.

"But why did we wait this long to get information?" Tenten asked. "Wouldn't it have been better if we tried to retrieve Sasuke earlier, when he wasn't as strong as he probably is now?"

"For the past two years, we have been trying to get information, in vain. And we already tried retrieving Sasuke even before he reached Orochimaru, but unfortunately, this only resulted in major injuries for some of you here," Tsunade answered, casting a glance at those involved in that failed mission. Shikamaru shifted uncomfortably, as though he still thought it was his fault.

"What we have really been waiting for was for all of you guys to get stronger. Most especially," she cast a glance at Naruto and Sakura, "both of you." Naruto set his jaw in determination, while Sakura nodded. "You couldn't handle Sasuke and his guard as genins, but as chuunins you'll do a better job," Tsunade continued. "Before, we were in a hurry and we hadn't had the time to gather you all like this. Now that we're better prepared, then I suppose we have a high probability that we'll get Uchiha Sasuke back for sure."

She looked around them all. "Sasuke will not be alone. He will most likely be with Orochimaru's guard, especially now that they can't afford to lose him. Some of you have had the misfortune of meeting them, so I want you all to be careful."

Shikamaru raised his hand. "Tsunade-sama, I don't want to contest your opinion, but I think Haruno Sakura and Uzumaki Naruto are not suited for this mission."

Buzzing filled the room. Naruto uttered angrily, "What was that?" while Sakura bit her lip. Ino tugged onto Shikamaru's chuunin vest, looking at him imploringly. "Sh-shika… that's nonsense… they're two of the strongest around here…"

Shikamaru frowned at Ino, then looked back at Tsunade as Kiba stood up to restrain Naruto from jumping onto the Nara. The blonde Hokage's brow creased. "Explain, Shikamaru."

"Those two are too emotionally attached to Uchiha Sasuke. I have a feeling that their emotions will jeopardize the mission."

"What do you mean, jeopardize the mission?" Naruto snarled. "Of course we're emotionally attached! He was my best friend and my teammate! It's only right we're going on this mission!"

"This is what I mean," Shikamaru said, giving Naruto a glance. "As much as it would be better to have more manpower on this mission, these two's emotions are going to get in the way. What if we have to kill Sasuke to prevent him from killing one of us?"

"Then I'm going to do the killing!" Naruto growled, taking a step forward.

"Sit down, Naruto," Tsunade said sharply. "I'm going to take you out of service permanently if you don't." The angry blond relented and sat back, sulking.

There won't be any killing, I assure you," Sakura said calmly, although Ino could see she was also battling with the urge to slap Shikamaru crazy. "And even if Naruto and I are emotionally attached, we also know him better than the rest of you. Naruto has fought Sasuke-" at this, Ino and Naruto noticed the blatant lack of the '-kun', "-and can tell you a lot about his fighting style. Preliminary knowledge often helps."

"She has a point, Shikamaru," Tsunade said. "Which is in fact why I chose these two to be on the team, aside from the fact Sakura is my apprentice and the fact that Naruto has also been training with Jiraiya. I don't care how emotionally attached they are, because some of you are emotionally attached too." Her gaze flickered onto Lee, Neji, and Shino. "Some of you wanted to fight him. All of you have been personally acquainted with him, one way or another. But all that it takes doing is for all of you – especially you, Naruto – to set aside your emotions and act professional." But then she smiled. "But I have known that sometimes, extreme emotion can help out a lot in certain situations. So remember to keep your emotions in check. Remember: a shinobi doesn't show tears. The mission is the top priority," she quoted.

Tsunade pursed her lips. "I have gathered the best young shinobi in this room, and I'm counting on the success of this mission. We have two Byaakugan users, a weapon specialist, a taijutsu specialist, two animal specialists, a mind manipulator, a tactical genius, a hulk of physical strength, my apprentice herself, and the most show-offy, hyperactive loudest ninja in all of Fire Country." She grinned while everyone sniggered. "Cream of the crop. Use all your talents to the fullest. Don't come back until you can give me something useful. Understood?"


"All right," Tsunade said, putting her hands on her hips. "For the mission details. This is a classified S-rank mission. Hyuuga Neji, being the only jounin in this room, will be the captain of this team. Nara Shikamaru will be head tactician, while Haruno Sakura will be head medic. I'd wish there were more jounins than chuunins in here, even if I know true strength isn't measured by titles, but a lot of the jounins are doing some kind of mission as well." She sighed deeply and continued.

"I want you all to cancel all your plans for tomorrow, because you'll be out of Konoha by six in the morning. I suggest you use the remaining time you have left in Konoha to pack and train and do a little research.

"Uchiha Sasuke may have not committed any crimes aside from leaving the village, and he is still technically a genin, but I can safely say that he could be classified as a jounin without the technicalities. So be careful around him. Don't compromise. We don't know what twisted logic Orochimaru planted into his mind. I want you to come back here as a complete team.

That will be all for now."

She handed Neji the mission scroll and he followed Tenten out of the door. Everyone filed out, leaving Sakura with Tsunade.

"I'd like to train harder today, Tsunade-shishou," Sakura said determinedly. "I have to… for the mission tomorrow."

Tsunade looked at her pink-haired protégé, feeling pride rise in her chest. This was a different Haruno Sakura, a lot different from the one who had knocked on her door and asked humbly to be trained. This Sakura was stronger emotionally, as well as physically and mentally. The slug Sannin was proud to be part of the success that was this kunoichi.

"I'm not going to go easy on you today, then," Tsunade warned, grinning.

Sakura grinned back. "I don't think you've ever been easy on me, Tsunade-shishou."

Meanwhile, in the lobby of the Hokage Tower, Naruto walked slowly, thinking about what was said in the briefing room.

"Oi, Naruto."

He turned, and he saw Shikamaru calling him, Ino beside him. He scowled, not forgetting what was said in the briefing room. "What do you want?"


Ino nudged the embarrassed tactician. "Go on, Shikamaru," she hissed. Shikamaru sighed.

"How troublesome," he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. "I wanted to say… I'm sorry. For what I said in the briefing room awhile ago. It's just… I wanted to spare you the trouble, I guess. But now that I think about it… it only caused more trouble."

Naruto grinned, clapping Shika on the back. "That's okay, lazy-ass. I forgive you. But you owe me. How about some ramen?"

Shika and Ino groaned. "Don't you eat anything besides ramen?" the blonde female asked.

"Well, I eat sweets," Naruto said, smiling brightly. "But ramen is my favorite food. I wonder how people lived without ramen when it wasn't invented yet."

"They probably still have live brain cells," Shikamaru muttered.

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?" Naruto asked, his eyes narrowing. Shikamaru shrugged.

"Nothing, nothing," he said. "Come on, Ino, we were going to train with Asuma-sensei and Chouji, remember?"

"Oh, yeah!" Ino exclaimed. "Well, bye, Naruto! Have fun with your ramen!" With that, the two disappeared into the crowd.

"N-naruto-kun?" said a small voice behind him. Naruto turned and brightened up.

"Hinata-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. "You wanna go eat ramen with me?"

Hinata twiddled her thumbs, blushing furiously. "I – I-" She looked up and smiled bashfully at the grinning fox. "A-all right… But wouldn't y-you rather go with Sa-sakura-chan?"

"Nah, she's training with Tsunade no baachan," Naruto replied. "Besides, she's sick of ramen, I think. She's scarier when she gets mad now." He grabbed Hinata's hand, and the Hyuuga heir colored deeper. "Come on!"



Ramen glorious ramen…


Who's there?



Wake up…

But my ramen…

"Naruto! Shannaro(4), wake up!"

Naruto jolted up, and his bear cap fell into his eyes. "Eh?"

Sakura stood in front of his bed, her hands on her hips, in full big-sister element. "We're supposed to be at the gates by six in the morning, remember?"

"Cripes! I forgot!" Naruto cried, scrambling out of bed. "Just wait there, Sakura-chan, I'll be right out!" He grabbed his usual orange clothes, now with black shoulders instead of blue, the high white collar replaced by a black turtle neck. He ducked into the bathroom, hurriedly throwing off his nightclothes, brushing his teeth, and washing his face. Then he wore his orange-and-black sweater over his black shirt and hopped into his orange pants.

"Naruto, hurry! We have fifteen minutes! You still have to eat breakfast!" Sakura called.

He scrambled out of the bathroom, hurriedly tying his black-clothed hitai-ate around his forehead. "Here!" Sakura said, handing him a bowl of instant ramen and his backpack. "Eat on the way there."

"Ah, thanks, Sakura-chan!" Naruto said. "I love you!"

"Don't push it, Naruto," Sakura said, scowling.

They both wore their footwear and walked out of the door. After a few minutes of silence (consisting mostly of Naruto slurping his ramen), Sakura asked, "Ne, Naruto?"

"Hmph?" Naruto asked as he chewed on the noodles.

"How do you think Sasuke is going to react?"

Naruto looked at Sakura, and frowned at the melancholy look she wore, something she did more often these days. Again, he noticed the lack of the affectionate term. He somehow missed the old Sakura, the one who was always happy and smiling. He supposed it was because she had her heart broken, even if it had been years before. This Sakura… she was stronger, smarter, and she didn't take any guff from anyone anymore, but she was getting more sad spells than ever.

It's all his fault, Naruto thought angrily. He left Sakura-chan… he always made Sakura-chan cry… I swear, when he gets back here… I'm going to kick his betraying ass!

"Naruto?" Sakura asked as she stared at the blond fourteen year old, his teeth bared in anger. "Are you all right?"

Naruto laughed sheepishly. "Oh, sorry, Sakura-chan. Yeah, I'm okay."

"So…" Sakura ventured again. "How do you think he's going to react if he finds out we're going to bring him back by force?"

"The same way he reacted before," Naruto said darkly. "He'll fight us like he has never fought before. He's going to go berserk on us."

"…oh." Sakura looked thoughtful. "I see."

"Why do you want to know?" Naruto asked curiously. He could see an odd light of determination in his best female friend's green eyes, and he had a gut feeling it was not to his liking.

"Naruto," Sakura said, stopping in her tracks. They were alone on the streets. Naruto looked around. Why were they were stopping? Sakura had a serious look on her face.

"Yeah, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked.

"On this mission, promise me one thing," she said.

"Okay," Naruto said cautiously.

Sakura took a deep breath. "Naruto. I want to fight Sasuke."

Naruto immediately regretted having said okay awhile ago. "You want to what?"

"I want to fight Sasuke," Sakura repeated. "Alone, without your help," she added. "So don't interfere."

Naruto looked worried. "But… but… he's so strong! I lost to him! I could probably match him now, but you-"

"Are you saying I haven't grown strong these past few years?" Sakura asked shrilly, the emotion, so long hidden, flooding her voice again. Naruto looked taken aback. "Are you saying I spent the last two and a half years slacking off? Because I wasn't! All these years, all I did was train and train so that I would become just as strong as you and Sasuke-kun! I wanted you guys to acknowledge that all three of us are equal, even if Sasuke-kun's not with us anymore! I wanted you guys to see that I could become stronger too, that I could grow too, that you two are not the only ones who are going to settle this, because this is my fight too!"

"Sakura-chan…" Naruto murmured, feeling at a loss for words.

"On that night… on that night when he left… the old me started to die," Sakura continued, tears starting to stream down her eyes. "I cried and cried, until my eyes had no more tears left. And then the Sakura you knew died. I'm not the Sakura you knew. I may still laugh and talk and play like her, but inside… I've grown. I'm more mature now, I can handle things I never used to handle before. That experience… of losing a precious person, has killed the old me, and produced a stronger me. I'm not going to just stay back and cry while you two battle it out. Never again. I'm going to fight too.

"On that night… I couldn't stop him with my words. I couldn't stop him with the love I offered. That's why now… I'm going to fight him. You fought him, it didn't work. Maybe now, if we switched roles, if you offer him words and I offer him punches, or if we worked together and interweave our techniques, maybe we can get him to come back."

"There!" Naruto exclaimed. "You just said it! We should work together! We're going to get him back together, okay?"

"We're going to get him back together," Sakura agreed. "But-"


"But I'm going to fight him. I'm going to show him that even if he stayed in the village, he would still become stronger, because even a weakling like me got stronger just by staying here." Then she grinned amid her tears, surprising her best male friend. "And I want to make him pay for all the sufferings he made me go through."

"But then I don't think you would've had the drive to become stronger if he hadn't left," Naruto mused, picking up the pace again, and Sakura walked beside him once more. "That's mainly the reason why you started training under Tsunade no baachan, right? So that you'd become strong enough to get him back."

"That's right," Sakura murmured. "We're going to get him back, because now we're both stronger. But Naruto, promise me you'll let me fight him on my own."

"But Sakura-cha-"

"Promise me," she repeated, stopping their walk again.

Naruto stopped. Then he grinned and offered his pinkie. "As long as you let me step in if you're near death or something. Deal?"

Sakura laughed and linked pinkies with Naruto. "You bet."

The eleven selected shinobi gathered at the gate of Konoha, waiting for instruction.

"Are we all here?" Shikamaru asked.

"Aa," Neji replied. "Explain the formation, Shikamaru."

Shikamaru nodded. "So this is what we'll do. Neji will go first with Kiba. Since Neji has the best sense of sight aside from Hinata, and Kiba has the best sense of smell, as well as the best knowledge of the terrain, they can warn us if enemies or traps are ahead us.

"Tenten and I will go next. When Neji or Kiba give me a signal that something's coming, I can warn you guys, or else stop your movement with my Kage Mane no Jutsu(5). And since Tenten is a long-range fighter, she can ward off enemies before they get to you.

"Sakura will come next. Since she has quick reflexes, she can easily warn the others behind her at the same time parry any attacks that I or Tenten let in accidentally.

"Naruto comes next with Chouji. With Naruto's explosive attitude, even before the attack can reach the others at the back, or the front if the attack comes from the back, it has already been stopped or reduced at a great percentage by him. Chouji has to be there too, since he has great physical strength.

"Lee and Ino follow Naruto and Chouji. Lee has great reflexes, while Ino can do long ranged attacks. Lee has the same functions as Sakura and Ino the same functions as Tenten, but since she'll fall immobile while performing her jutsu, Lee has to be there to take care of her body.

"Shino comes after them. He can send bugs to warn us, at the same time parry any attacks coming from behind, and vice versa. He'll also have the job of covering Hinata and Akamaru, who come last.

"Since Hinata also has the Byaakugan, she can spot any enemies coming from behind, and Akamaru can smell enemies as well. Everyone will be fitted with earpieces, even Akamaru, so that whatever Akamaru says Kiba can translate."

Shikamaru looked around. "Any questions?" Everyone shook their head. Neji handed out earpieces, which everyone attached to their ears. Kiba attached one to Akamaru's collar.

"Okay," Neji said in commanding tone, "fall into positions. Let's go!"

Everyone fell into position and they leapt into the trees, out of sight.

And so it begins, Tsunade thought to herself as she watched from her window the eleven young shinobi speeding out of Konoha.

She cuddled the piglet she had in her arms. "These are going to be interesting times, after two and a half years of boredom," she mused. She rubbed the chubby animal under its chin. "Ne, Tonton?"


Next chapter…

Sakura: If we look at the moon, the stars, and the sky at the same time, we achieve some kind of connection. Do you still feel it? Why do I still feel things for you? Why do I remember the past with you? I can't… not on this mission… Great, now I'm confused.

Next chapter… Forest of Memories – Unwavering Feelings.

I can't believe I'm still in love with you…

AN: (1) Ninja Skill: Mind-Body Switch Technique

(2) Release

(3) Heaven and Earth

(4) Damn it

(5) Shadow Copy Technique

Please tell me what you think! If I don't get at least 10 reviews, then I'll trash this fic while it's still early. Ciao, guys!