Title: Only Me Now
Author: Jinhito
Summary: Sakura wasn't a girl of simple emotions herself, that much was for sure. But there was always that someone else who had to come along and make things even more complicated in the end. She supposed it was simply Naruto's nature to be that person.
Author's Note: I wrote this a long time ago, and I'm not even kidding when I say that. The time this was completed was somewhere before chapter 290 was released, I know! You're like wtf? Why so late? Well, the reason was beta-issues. They've all been resolved though so no harm done. Apologies for the lateness and I hope you like it. This is the fruit of my labor and lazing habits You'll get another chapter out of me in a couple weeks because I'm thinking seriously. College comes first, fanfiction comes second... please understand. Enjoy!


Naruto puffed out his cheeks in resentment. It was the same childish expression he was famous for back in his genin days when he didn't get his way or failed to meet his own expectations. Tried and true, it had managed to survive three A-class missions (one now pending completion), fifteen B-class missions, countless C-class and D-class missions, and a Chunnin exam. Each only minor trials in the lifelong road of one Uzumaki Naruto.

Sakura was used to this however, and so she paid it no mind. He was just sore about losing to Sai because the Anbu member had somehow managed to 'outfox' him in apprehending their instructor during that afternoon's simulation.

Well, that and Sai smarting off about the confusions of friendship and denying the love brothers should feel... Best to forget that even happened and focus back on Naruto... Yeah, that sounded like a plan.

Sakura continued to watch him fume over their black-haired replacement. She figured that it was best to let this hissy-fit, like so many others before it, run its course and then chastise him about his childish attitudes later. They'd have plenty of time for that tonight when they weren't so focused on training anymore.

Speaking of tonight, today would be the last night they had would have together before the mission officially started.

To say she was nervous was admitting to weakness. Tsunade-hime had taught her better, and Sakura knew she was a better kunoichi than that, so she summed up the unease she felt in her midsection to bad indigestion.

'Shouldn't have eaten the extra onigiri earlier at lunch...'

She patted idly at her stomach, how awful. Too bad her conscience kept reminding her otherwise - no amount of chakra could fix this problem. Sakura sighed and stood up to stretch away from the oak tree she had previously been resting under.

After Yamato-sempai had concluded his own exercises with both the boys, he had excused himself to let them each train independently as they wished. She and Naruto had snuck off to a more open area of the woods to train together, but separately.

Spending time in the same general vicinity of one another was kind of tiresome. He was still at it too; training just as hard as he had been the moment his sulky self had begun practicing jutsus. He'd moved onto weapons since then, but she'd given up trying to keep pace with his stamina a while ago; hence her sitting beneath the tree.

She didn't like being alone with those two other strangers, but it wasn't as though she'd be telling Naruto that anytime soon. It might only encourage his date hounding, another one of those little kiddish habits he still had lying around.

Although she had to admit it had been some time since he'd done it, actually. Sakura blanched silently, she didn't miss it, but part of her was beginning to feel a bit like an old maid because he'd stopped asking her out for ramen now and again. Maybe she was becoming unattractive in her old age?

Nah.

She brought a stiff left arm up to ease some of the tension that had built up while watching Naruto train vigorously out of the corner of her eye. A small smile quirked her glossy pink lips, he was still pouting all right.

Eyes clenched shut tightly as he muttered obscenities under his breath, words like bastard, retard, jerk-face, asshole, and countless others much too vulgar to be named reached her not so virgin (anymore) ears.

Jeez, with the way he was carrying on you'd have thought Sasuke had said something to upset him...

She stopped herself before she got ahead, Naruto flipping sharp pointy objects at the poor unsuspecting trees now temporarily forgotten.

Sasuke...

A dull thump sounded in her empty chest. He broke her heart all those years before. The shattered pieces cluttering the hollow cavity were still cutting deep and digging sharply to this very day. She didn't think it would ever be whole again, not after what he'd done.

He had crushed her hopes in the worst way, so methodical and so precise that no one else could compare. The way he had burned his image into that spot permanently left no room for anyone new. No other man would be him.

To say she missed him would have been an understatement. The emotions she could associate with the dark boy were hundreds, no thousands strong. Burning hatred, blinding anger, desperate longing, unrequited love, and even justifiable despair were among the top few.

She hated him for what he did to her, the way he had shattered her trust, squashed her admiration and not even blink at all fazed by his own cruel actions.

She was angry with him for being able to move on so easily and forget the not so recent memories and relations they had formed over the years as members of team seven together. He forgot her -- he forgot them all! It was like they never existed at all in the first place.

But she still missed him, and would willingly accept him back again into caring arms... her crush for him was not something to be taken so lightly. True love would have to prevail, right? That's what all the storybooks and romance novels told her… that's wanted she wanted desperately to believe.

And all at once, a more sullen part of her wept endlessly. It had given up hope long ago when it finally came to realize that all her fruitless wishing was for nothing. Sasuke didn't care, probably never had and more than likely never would. She doubted that he'd reach a sudden epiphany in the next coming days... how ridiculous to even think so.

"Sakura-chan?" It snapped her out of her tumultuous thoughts. Naruto was a lifesaver, he was her anchor to the only real remaining world she could build her foundations around. No number of thank you's could ever repay him for the wonderful gift of friendship he constantly gave her.

Certainly no love for him in the future as she thought he may have wanted, but definitely something more meaningful that meant to last a lifetime was there. She would treasure him always.

"Uh, yeah?" Sakura momentarily stuttered in her thinking. She really had to stop dwelling, it was so unbecoming of her.

"We should be heading back don't ya' think?" He offered her a warm sincere looking smile. Even if it was fake underneath the guise, it was real enough because he offered it to her in a time of need without a second thought of his own feelings.

He always went to such great lengths to keep her happy. Sakura nodded properly while taking a few seconds to reel in her wayward thoughts. Within the span of a few minutes they were already traveling back to camp.

Naruto had a certain determination in his step as they kept walking. A certain arrogance he was attempting to portray (awfully at that) but giving off something akin to it nonetheless. Somehow she knew it had to deal with Sai, about what exactly was still up in the air. An unseen mental shrug and she patiently followed.

It wasn't long until they reached the clearing. Somewhere off in the distance, perched precariously high on a ledge above, she could see Sai hunched over. No doubt scribbling away in that abstract notebook of his.

She had seen him drawing in it this morning. They'd had a brief discussion of its contents... the reminder of his empty words sent an unpleasant shiver through her body. No one should ever be so jaded...

Now however, he seemed to be adamantly working away. That made this the second time she'd ever seen him so absorbed in his art. For someone who said he didn't care, he certainly seemed caught up in a peak of artistic inspiration. Drawing like there was no tomorrow, not a care in the world -- and it was probably true too since this was Sai she was talking about.

That vaguely bothered her. Did he think this mission was some kind of joke? That training seriously for the last time should be taken so lightly? Well, did he?

Mildly miffed at his aloof carefree behavior, Sakura told herself that he had all the right in the world to do as he pleased, no matter how much it may have bugged her. At an age around her own or maybe a year or so older, he was perfectly capable of making his own decisions, more than mature enough to think for himself.

Besides, she remembered Tsunade-sama mentioning something along the lines of him being a special Anbu member at one point or another.

Shaking her head, she turned back to gaze at Naruto. His own eyes looked displeased and his lower lip jutted out a tad bit agitated. He had more than likely seen Sai as well, but Sakura was grateful he had decided to keep his mouth shut rather than provoke the other into a fight.

Verbal or not, Sakura had a feeling she wouldn't be able to stop them. Naruto and Sasuke could have exercised more control towards her, but Sai was still a stranger... she didn't dare assume anything of him otherwise.

"Oi! Where's that creepy bastard sensei of ours?" Naruto voiced his opinions a little too loudly. Sakura winced at the volume, inwardly chiding him because their new instructor could be anywhere near them. He would probably wait for the right line to be said and then pop up to beat the living hell out of the blonde shinobi who dared talk ill of him.

He had rights to do that you know... senseis were extensions of your family. At least, that's how their authority had always been viewed in Konoha.

But the next few seconds came rather quietly, nothing out of the ordinary and certainly no raving Yamato who promised a pummeling to her best friend. She sighed somewhat relieved as Naruto continued to search the nearby treetops in hopes of spotting some eerie eyes with a dark brown fringe.

Nothing, not a damn thing…

"Naruto, you should really watch what you're saying... Hasn't anyone ever told you to think about things before you follow through with them? Hm?"

Sakura had decided now would be the perfect time to educate him in the ways of higher logic. Best to have tried warning him before this could happen again. At least then she figured she'd feel less at fault when he decided against taking her good advice.

"Of course they have!" he muttered, paying her words no real mind. "Kakashi and Iruka-sensei tell me that all the time..." Sakura nearly face vaulted. How could he be so dense? Really!

"So why don't you ever listen dammit?" She lost her temper slightly. You'd think someone would learn the third, maybe fourth time around?

He said nothing in return. Naruto always had been nice enough not to simply brush her off... saving the reply "Che," for someone else who had made him solid in his belief that she was a human being after all.

Besides, it would have been rude. He had never been known to act that way to her. But others had to him...

A few more minutes of wasted waiting and Naruto opted to plop himself down in the grass. He had gone through his initial genuine concern, and felt now there was no more for him to offer. Sakura continued to stand however, hands poised listlessly on her hips. Some part of her wanted to just quit and join her companion on the forest floor, but a tiny amount of pride told her no.

She had spent half the afternoon watching him train while sitting around uselessly. Couldn't have him seeing her as a good-for-nothing that dwindled around all day now, could she? That might give him ideas…

"What do you think that jerk's drawing over there?"

It was sudden, a little surprising, and completely out of character from the usually prude boy she knew. Why, it even seemed a little uncouth that Naruto might actually want to be nosey.

Sakura knew she herself was nosey by nature and had long since accepted Ino's teasing. Being curious was normal; acting on it just took a little more work. She didn't mind expending that kind of energy to be in the know.

"Huh?" she gave him a puzzled look. She wanted to make sure she hadn't mistaken his words for something else entirely.

"You heard me..." he mumbled slightly flustered. Naruto felt uncomfortable talking about Sai in general, let alone whispering about him while he was only a shout or so away.

Recognition hit her when she remembered that Naruto too had seen Sai's sketchbook. Having thought nothing of it at first, she must have forgotten about the whole thing.

Well... almost, no one could forget the priceless look on Naruto's face as his manhood had been insulted. But the most peculiar thing, and it wasn't something she was about to voice aloud, was that he had not refuted Sai's claim. It struck her as strange when she thought back to childish arguments between two boys, both once members of team seven, as they fought on the other side of a hot spring's thin paper walls.

It almost had her laughing at her friend's expense. Almost... and yet, now was not the time to be lingering on that embarrassing kind of talk. She mentally slapped herself for getting sidetracked.

Mind still running away with uncalled for questioning, she only gave him a shrug in the best indifferent grace she could feign.

"How would I know?"

Perhaps a bit too snippy, but it was the honest truth. From what she had caught a glimpse of, it hadn't been anything other than endless twisting spirals with gentle guiding lines. He wasn't a realist or a landscape artist… that much was for sure.

Whatever it was that Sai drew, it was only for him to know.

When Naruto had gotten a look at the most recent design on the mostly white pages, he had only scoffed and said how insignificant the artwork had been. It didn't hold his interest he complained; that and he never really did care for something so plain, bland, and devoid of any creativity what so ever.

Looking for deeper meaning wasn't his sort of thing, and certainly being interested in others' affairs was up there with it. He shouldn't have cared what Sai was doing right now. In fact, he was inwardly patting himself on the back for his apathetic attitude towards the teen after their little talk this morning. But maybe it was something from last night that was carrying over into today…

Maybe he was curious, for once, of what another person was thinking of him.

Freaky shit aside, Naruto just had some inclinations as to what Sai may have been doing. Yesterday had been disturbing... Very. Maybe Sai was telling of it in his little book? Only God knew he could be writing in it, let alone if he was drawing something equally obscene.

Thinking better of what he said previously, Naruto opened his mouth again. "Nah, I don't even know why I asked." He trained his gaze in the opposite direction of their afore mentioned teammate. "It's not like I care or anything..."

Sakura watched him silently.

"I mean it doesn't matter right? That's what he said himself... tons, millions of drawings with no point. He said it was no different from those other ones." She said nothing to interrupt. "And that's why they're all shit too. If you don't feel anything, where does the heart come from? How do you express the nothingness you feel?"

Sakura agreed. Oh how she believed in his conviction of an artist… but she knew it wasn't their place to say. Neither of them were ever artistically inclined so who were they to pass judgment on someone they knew so little of?

It almost didn't seem fair, and even if she had felt a slight amount (okay, a good portion) of disdain towards their new team member, she couldn't find it in herself to fully hate him. After all, she didn't know what had made him this way in the first place.

Naruto stared off into space and Sakura realized he had decided to leave her alone with her thoughts. Stay quiet long enough and the Kyuubi vessel assumed you were snubbing him. She guessed she deserved it, but she hated the sentiments it stirred.

Sakura had nothing left to add to his new shut-in, shut-up behavior lately. Maybe this was his way of growing up? Dealing with ignorance by fighting back with an equally cold shoulder now was he?

She didn't realize her arms had slackened during her thinking. They now hung limply by her sides, fingers needing no purchase to keep her entertained. Emptiness was such a lonely feeling…

"Oi! Pansy pants! You done doodling up there? How about doing something actually productive like helping look out for Yamato-sensei?"

The grade schooler remark was said amongst stifled laughter. Naruto felt alliteration could be fun when it came to insults. Sakura certainly hadn't been expecting something so childish in phrasing to come out of her friend's mouth either.

It was relieving in some way as it assured her he wasn't mad about the silence seconds before. She couldn't help but giggle a little either, even though she knew they were far too old to be saying such things and actually hoping to get a rise out of their other companion with it.

At first they got no response. The turned back didn't seem to acknowledge a word said.

But before Naruto could open his mouth to persist in his badgering (and Sakura could've sworn Sai had to have eyes in the back of his head to know when to strike at the last possible moment), a gloved left hand with one lone finger pointed skyward was raised over a shoulder in their general direction.

Both Sakura and Naruto sported twin looks of disbelief on their faces. That bastard! He'd just flipped them off! And so calmly at that!

But as all things today had happened at the most inconvenient of times, even before either of the senior members of team seven could make a comeback to save their wounded dignity, their missing party member showed up in a swirl of leaves, dispersing chakra.

"Are you all ready to set up for camp?"

Sakura pivoted her line of vision between her instructor and the jackass on the mountainside. Chancing the gaze behind her with a quick twist of the waist she confirmed that he was in fact Yamato. Her expression hardened into a glare as she removed herself from the initiated challenge.

"Something the matter?"

Where the hell had he been? And why the hell did he choose to show up just now and butt into an argument that was clearly none of his business?

Naruto didn't seem to notice any of this though. Yamato wasn't a threat at this point in time. Deep annoyance rolled off him in waves, and Sakura swore there might have been a light steam floating off his skin in response to Sai's latest action.

"Why you son of a bitch, fuckin' asshole, shit-faced cock sucke-" Sakura felt her ears catch metaphorical fire, Yamato's eyes too widened an unusual amount as the blonde teen's sailor talk got out of hand.

He was rambling on endlessly it seemed. Half the things he was saying didn't make much sense as he mashed them together in a monstrous heap of cussing. Sai didn't care however, continuing to sketch regardless of the foul language aimed at him. He never really had cared much about what his peers thought of him.

After a good three minutes or so of solid cursing, the oldest in command felt it his responsibility to step in and end the one-sided conversation.

Knowing a little more about Sai than the other two, Yamato was sure the boy had long since been blocking the racket out even before his arrival. Naruto was just wasting his breath (as well as a good portion of oxygen) as he continued to carry on undeterred. That kid really must be stupid if he thought for one measly little second that he was actually hurting the other boy's feelings.

You had to have feelings before you could maim them.

A sound smack to the head and mother hen tut later, Yamato had managed to stop the raving child, mid-sentence. As if his many creatively deductive phrases on the arrogant Anbu member weren't enough, he uttered one last curse under his breath to address the pain.

"What the hell was that for?" Naruto rubbed harshly at the sore bump he was now sporting just above the knot on his forehead protector.

"You kiss your mother with that mouth Naruto?"

It was asked honestly. There had been no traces of cruel intent - well none anyone could speak of on the surface - behind it.Yamato barely knew these kids beyond their mission histories and anything else the Hokage may have felt was important for him to know.

And sure, it should have seemed a bit out of place for him to question something so personal, but he really didn't care. If stepping on a few toes to get his desired reaction was all it took, well, everyone take your shoes off and ready the ice.

There was a momentary pause in Naruto. The slight dilation of his pupils and the minor tick that originated at the juncture of his lips, you would have missed them if you weren't looking for the signs... Naruto was thinking back, mind trying to connect a face to the foreign words. Except he was finding himself empty-handed at the end of his journey...

It didn't take longer than a few seconds for him to realize he had never had a mother to call his own. It was one of those awful repressed memories he had long since taught himself to forget.

Sure he was lonely, and yes, every day when he went back home to his apartment he knew there would be no one waiting for him... but he could lie to himself - he could trick his less perceptive consciousness into believing otherwise.

It's just when someone brought it up, he couldn't hide the fact that his family wasn't still on a long vacation... that they'd only left him behind for a little bit... and that he was all alone, always so alone.

People should know better than to pick at old wounds. Especially those that can be rightfully violent if irritated too much...

Instead of anger though, he was now forming images to take precedence over those heavily weighted realities.

The image of Mrs. Haruno popped up immediately, along with various other mothers he knew by contact through their children. People like Mrs. Yamanaka attending to her many gardens with Ino by her side. Women like Mrs. Nara scolding her son and her husband for lazing about all day. Even ones such as Mrs. Yakamichi offering snacks and drinks to her son's friends… countless others as well... but never his own.

No, there were no memories of her just as there were no memories of his father.

As he continued to travel through his thoughts, he didn't see the pitying look Sakura shot him or the cool and collected expression Yamato flashed because he'd finally succeeded in shutting the troublesome boy up.

He wasn't even paying enough attention to notice Sai's once pencil-laden hand had long since stopped scratching away on white sheets.

"Hmph," was the response Naruto finally gave Yamato in exchange for his previous question. A small part of him knew it would have been admissible to say "No, only your mother," but he was sure that wouldn't have gone over so well.

And even if that kind of retort could easily be expected of him, what with a prankster past and a reckless future lying ahead, he knew he had more tact than that.

Mothers were something special. They deserved all the respect in the world. Naruto felt that even if he couldn't have one, he would not go around so easily sullying anyone else's.

Hate the person who started it all, but never the innocent woman who had raised them.

Nobody seemed satisfied after the confrontation had come and gone. The tension was still thick in the air among all three of them: Naruto nursing his wounds, Sakura fighting to say something, and Yamato not caring either way.

Hell, Sai had almost been completely forgotten at this point... That is, until he picked up his pencil and started drawing again. He could have fooled any passerby right then that all was well in the world, and nothing so awkward as before had just transpired.

It was quiet; no one dared mention anything more after that.

Yamato performed the seals needed to activate his Shichuuka no jutsu and proceeded to set up camp for his younger subordinates. The two of which who were closest to him, entered the wooden structure somewhat begrudgingly. He told them to claim their sleeping quarters, settle in for the night, and chirped that dinner would be ready in about an hour.

Nothing seemed to faze the man. Ghastly eyes and all, he was just too out of the loop to let anything get him down.

Naruto was the first to head up the single flight of polished stairs. He staggered down the oddly shaped hallway, making a beeline for the last room at the end nearest a window. He turned right without so much as a glance to his pink-haired partner watching patiently on the top of the stairs. It was a little away from sanctuary, but had the relative prospects of peace since it was facing a wall from the master bedroom.

That was obviously Yamato's seeing as how it was twice the size of the other three rooms provided.

But Naruto also had the added addition of a bathroom resting in the corner to separate his room from what would end up being Sai's tonight. That was probably the only reason he felt safe enough to pick such a risky spot in the first place - somewhere so far away from her…

Sakura always picked the rooms closest to the stairs; she had always been that way.

It was just a precaution for an easy escape, she supposed. Luck favored the prepared, or so it had once been said. But somehow she knew he wanted to be left alone right now for one of two reasons: either to separate his feelings or to better let the scuffled exchange from outside saturate some more. That intuition alone was all she needed to strengthen her own personal preference.

Sakura heard a door creek shut distinctly behind Naruto after he gave her no more than a "Later" from behind the corner.

Oh how she was going to give that Yamato a piece of her mind later on...

No one had any right to make Naruto feel so worthless or unloved like that - not now, not ever! It was a lesson she had learned with the ending of the real team seven and the beginning of her true friendship with the blonde boy.

--------

Sasuke had left them, left her and all that remained now was a perverted teacher and a loudmouth bother.

After Naruto's return, a more serious Kakashi came forth. He was someone who could handle any situation in a very adult-like manner. That also gave him every right to walk around like the know-it-all he'd always seemed to be.

During the first couple days she had been angry with Naruto. Immensely disappointed in him because he failed to keep his promise about bringing Sasuke back. Of course she knew that was selfish, and of course she knew it was wrong... none of what Sasuke did had ever been Naruto's fault, but she could be mad anyway.

She could still blame him for all that was wrong in her life... and she did - but only at first.

After he finally woke up, and after all her own futile attempts to flee the Hidden Leaf in search of her missing nin did she accept reality for what it was at face value. Sakura went to visit Naruto everyday in the hospital from then on. Her ever-present caring nature now turned its once blind eye on the boy who needed her coddling the most.

Ohayo, Naruto...

She opened the door warily, doing her best not to make a lot of noise. Shutting it just as carefully behind her, she made her way into the room.

Sakura played the role of a worried mother over her bed-ridden child. She realized though, not so shortly after her arrival - with all the hints from his awkward and hesitant behavior, how odd it must have seemed for her to even be there in the first place. She had never worried over him like this before, so of course he had reasons to wonder why she'd started to now.

Sa-sakura-chan! What brings you here?

Anytime anyone could ever remember her visiting the hospital previously, it had never been for Naruto. Maybe once or twice she had meant to go stop on by, but not once had she actually caught him in such a weakened state to be admitted as a patient.

I just wanted to... visit is all... I'm not disturbing you am I?

The mummified boy sat up as straight in bed as his bandages would allow. He raised a chunky cast-ridden hand in greeting and gave her a brilliant toothy grin.

No! NO! Not at all! Take a seat - make yourself comfortable! Though, it's kinda hard to in these nasty hospital chairs, ne Sakura-chan?

She went to take the offered seat slowly, scooting it closer to his bedside.

Yeah, it is I guess...

Now here she was looking down on him in a new light, something nobody could have seen coming.

Naruto… I-

He had gladly accepted her though. Arms wide and open with no amount of suspicion whatsoever once he knew her true intentions. It was all too sudden that she could almost overlook her past mistakes... but never really forget them.

Don't worry about it Sakura-chan, I swear I'll keep that promise to you! I just need-

You don't have to! I mean… you don't... you don't have to Naruto.

B-but Sakura-chan...

Things went more smoothly after that first day. There were no more weird silences and no more deadpanned pauses. Just the honest conversation with heartfelt raw emotion remained.

Regardless of the fact that she'd managed to come to a wonderful conclusion such as that, it didn't mean she would be taking him up on his ramen dates anytime soon.

He had generously offered many, many times in an attempt to make it up to her. But making what up she wasn't quite sure. Occasionally she had have to remind him that she wasn't interested in that way... and things were fine enough for both of them.

Past hurts could heal; they would be there for each other from now on.

--------

A much more mature Sakura giggled at her own nostalgic memory. Yes, she had come to terms with many things that year. Most importantly her attitude had begun to change towards others around her.

Even if it had seemed okay at the time, it wasn't ever right the way she had treated Naruto prior to Sasuke's departure. She especially had been one of the many denying Naruto all along.

But people could change couldn't they? She was living proof wasn't she?

Yes, she nodded, bending over to unlatch the clasps of her calf-high boots. Sakura was different now and things were finally getting back to good.

Her relationship with Naruto was strong; she couldn't wish for anything more.

And now more than ever, it was her responsibility to protect that bond... it was her turn to stick up for the shunned boy like she should have been doing beforehand. Sakura would make amends this time; it was her own ninja way.

--------

A while later Sakura found herself sitting on the top of the stairs with her head in whose gloveless hands. She had hoped that by now Naruto would have made some attempt to actually leave his room, but so far, no such luck. There hadn't been so much as a peep from the end of the hall since he'd locked his door behind him.

In all honesty it was rather unnerving. He just wasn't the kind person to back down from a fight like that nor was he one to ever let something so minor as Yamato's hurtful remarks get to him. She sighed suddenly, very tired. There was still so much that needed to be resolved before tomorrow, and it was all to her dismay.

But respecting Naruto's privacy was key; so to keep her ever-worried mind out of his business, she pushed herself up and began to make her way downstairs alone. With or without him by her side, she was still going to say something to their teacher.

Dinner had been scheduled in an hour, no doubt the time it took for Yamato to boil up their rations. Currently she was early. Fifteen minutes to be exact. But that didn't matter... it wasn't like she was impatient; bothering her instructor by constantly asking if the ramen noodles were ready... heh, no she wanted to talk to him about something more important than food.

And she needed to do it before everyone else joined them for dinner. This was a private matter, nobody else had to know.

It didn't take long to find him; he was right where she expected him to be. Sakura could see the outline of his body in the kitchen's artificial lighting. He was just outside the large sitting area of the first floor, busy lounging on the large wooden deck that bordered the house. He had made a small pit of rocks to contain the fire he was using to boil water.

Maybe that's where he had gone off to earlier? Get them water?

He usually provided for them, the house they were currently in was no exception. Something unusual of a teacher, but it wasn't wholly uncommon. She had overheard Kiba once before about how Kurenai-sensei was one of those rare sweet teachers who would always make sure of their comforts while out on a mission. Yamato didn't strike her as such a guy. It just didn't fit his personality at all.

Sakura chose that moment to open her mouth in an attempt to get his attention, then...

"Good evening, Sakura-san." He beat her to it.

She made an affirmative sound, letting him know she'd heard it and ventured further into the room.

"Y-yes, good evening Yamato-sempai," Sakura cursed her slight stutter. Why should she be nervous? Swallowing her previous hesitance, she stopped to wait next the screen of the sliding door. Most of her body was hidden; her reflexive reactions gave away her unease.

"What brings you down here thirteen minutes early?" Of course he'd know, and to a T at that. He wasn't a special Anbu for nothing. His question was mildly friendly, but there was something else in it... something slightly more menacing that she couldn't quite put her finger on.

"Nothing really..." she lied, arms supporting her weight against the doorframe. This kind of situation was putting her in an awkward position. When it was just the two of them, he made her feel like a timid little girl all over again. Where had all that lion's courage gone that she'd generated upstairs earlier in her room? Why had the roar died in her throat? Were these all his fear tactics finally coming to the surface? Sakura bit her lip in quiet contemplation.

"Did you come to help me set up for dinner?" The older man peered over his right shoulder and offered her a moderate smile. Always the sucker and way too agreeable to turn down anything for her own good, she accepted the chore with little argument.

"Sure."

"Good!" he piped up. Standing up off the stoop, he dusted his knees off. There probably wasn't any dirt to speak of, but she said nothing to the action.

Yamato walked over to stir the dark pot's contents, making sure not to burn them. Noticing that Sakura's presence hadn't moved since she'd volunteered so nicely, he turned to give her a confused expression.

"Do you not know where the bowls and chopsticks are?"

Snapped out of her stupor, Sakura mumbled an apology and wandered away from the doorway. There was a small black pack against the wall; she recalled the day or two before at the inn when she'd seen him stash their tableware in there.

He'd already taken the liberty to furnish a table for them. It was low, traditional looking, definitely uncomfortable without the cushions for seating. But it wasn't as bad as eating outside on the grass with your bare hands... She would have been more thankful for her teacher's consideration if she weren't being reminded of her current situation. She still had to discuss the topic of Naruto.

"Uhm..." Why was it so hard to get started?

"Yamato-sensei? There's something I want to talk to you about."

There, she got it all out! Inner Sakura mentally patted her on the back for a job well done. So far so good... just keep going!

The older man stopped in his stirring and turned to grace her with all his attention.

"Something the matter?"

Sakura kneeled down to unzip the bag, making it a point to face away from her teacher at all costs. His eyes unnerved her, she didn't know if she'd be able to continue if she looked into them.

"Well, actually... yes..." Her ungloved hands fluttered into the dark recess of the pack as she fished out four wooden bowls and gingerly placed them by her side. There was a loud hiss and a sighed crackle behind her as Yamato put out the fire cooking their meal. Sakura's nose could smell it was done just as well as her stomach told her it would taste heavenly after such a long day.

A little more shuffling and she knew he had entered the large sitting room with her. Untying her apron about her waist, she daintily folded it and set the thick material on the middle of the table. Yamato accepted her kind gesture by placing his charge on it immediately. She had just saved him the odd shuffle of looking around for a temporary potholder.

"Thank you Sakura-san."

"Ah. No problem..."

"So then, what did you want to talk to me about?" he reached down near her legs to where she'd placed their tupperware and began to set up himself. He was giving her a chance to pick up some restaurant quality chopsticks from the bag. Those could get rather sticky and be quite the hazard to fetch if you weren't careful. Imagine that, chopsticks the enemy...

"Actually, it has to do with Naruto... and the things you said earlier."

Ah, so she did have a voice.

"Excuse me?" Yamato asked politely for her to elaborate.

"You know what I mean, the mother comment..." Her victorious hand had managed to retrieve four red packets and she stood to set out one at each end of the table, right next to the bowls Yamato had set down.

"I don't think it was very considerate of you to hurt his feelings like that. He's not weak, but he's sensitive on the topic of his family. You see he's never had one so-"

"Sakura-san?" Yamato interrupted her, setting down the last bowl particularly loud for added effect. "I don't think you understand me."

Now it was her turn to become confused. "I'm sorry?"

"I'm a man of little concern for others, and I certainly feel no remorse for hurt feelings as you call them. If that's what it takes, then I'll gladly follow through. Naruto's own personal issues do not involve me, and they certainly don't involve you.

"I don't care how my remarks make him feel. We came here to complete a mission together and keep from fighting unnecessarily - but certainly not to be best friends. I will use fear, I will use guilt, and I'll even go so far as to stoop to sadness if it means getting things done."

Sakura's eyes widened at his attitude, so this was the kind of man he really was.

"As a true Konoha ninja, it's all the same to me."

What a cold, unfeeling bastard... her fist itched to leave a mark on that cool complacent face. And she would have too if not for the next interruption that followed the end of their little discussion.

"Good evening!"

Sai paused in the entranceway and gave the pair a friendly wave. He had his sketchbook and art materials under his left arm. Finished for the night apparently and more than likely ready to call it quits. "Dinner?" he pointed to the black pot on the table, seemingly asking if it was ready.

"Yeah..." Sakura answered first. Sai closed his eyes and smiled softly. He then turned on his heel to go in search of his own room.

"Sai?" Yamato stopped him before he could take another step. "Bring Naruto with you on your way down."

"Sure thing." And he was off again, only far enough from earshot did he chuckle quietly about what he'd just witnessed.

Sakura watched him round the corner and disappear. His light weight up the stairs hardly made any noise even if wasn't trying to be stealthy. Her hands clenched tightly, they suddenly itched to fiddle with her apron - she really hated Yamato... but she hated herself more. Why the hell couldn't she say something in return? Why was she just standing here feeling scolded like a bad puppy?

She bit her lip to keep from screaming out the frustration, all the muscles in her arms tightening as unbidden chakra began to flow through her system. Dear God she was angry.

Yamato had taken to pouring out an even amount of broth into each of the bowls. Once that task was complete, he looked over to the girl near him again.

"Have a seat." That wasn't friendly, and it wasn't disguised... it was an order.

"Hn..."

She didn't dare speak the honorary to address him; she felt he didn't deserve a response in proper english. Sakura made her way to the small width end of the rectangular table, sitting at the head right across from her latest enemy. No, she didn't like this man. And yes, she would show him just how much she detested him later. But right now, this was not the time... tomorrow was a big mission, and he was still in charge.

So until the end, she would listen to his instruction. But heaven help him after they turn in their mission report… Tsunade-sama's legendary strength was not going to be put to waste. Hell, Sakura was thinking of making a name for herself with it.

All in good time, all in good time... Yamato finally settled down in front of her. Inner Sakura seethed to kick his ass, and for once both the halves of the pink-haired girl's mind agreed on something.


Formatting here pisses me off so much and it's one of the reasons I dread posting. (sigh) At any rate, hope you liked the chapter, I know it was mostly Sakura-centric and yes that surprised even me. I hate that girl... so why did I write 18 pages from her point of view? Because we need outside party influences! And it sets us up perfectly for another Naruto-centric chapter about the evening happenings during and after dinner. Heh more SaiNaru action is planned so please be patient for it. It'll definitely be worth it, promise!