Author's Note: This is the first piece of writing that I've done for Naruto. This is only a one-shot, so no more will be added to it, unfortunately. Those who read, I sincerely hope you enjoy.

Flashbacks are in italics.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable Naruto characters, settings, etc. are the property of Masashi Kishimoto and Shueisha Inc. The original characters and plot are the property of me, the author. I am making no money with this, and no copyright infringement is intended.

A Blackened Mist

Light and Shadows

A thick, curling smoke filled the dark air, its slim fingers of obscurity wrapping steely around prone and overcome forms. The night hung ominously, threading a heavy cloak of bleakness over the desperate Konoha. Distraught and weary bodies stood brokenly, facing the conflict waged before their frightened gazes – the painful brutality of the night's events washing over their minds in a white panic. Those who were not crumpled in agony from the cascade of wounds riddling their flesh were haltingly frozen in time, lost in the ferocity before them. The atrocious scent of mingled blood and sweat permeated through the shadows.

The most elite - the most decorated of Konoha's ninjas had fallen like pale shadows, their seemingly insurmountable power a weak imitation of the unrestrained supremacy of a madman – a man who threatened to overturn the very way of life respected and enjoyed by those of this village.

A wide cloud of dirt and scattered debris was thrown into the sky as loud boom of energy zapped through the air with a shock of intensity so rough that onlookers shuddered with a knowing anxiety. A flame of light burst, lighting the blackness with a blinding yellow, causing eyes to narrow and breath the catch in unsteady and weak chests.

The only shinobi left –

The only one able to stand –

The only one entrusted with the security, the future, the very lives of those inhabiting Konoha –

the last hope

…was the Hokage himself…

Uzumaki Naruto.

Desperation clogged in her throat, blocking Sakura of breath and of her steady mind. Her fingers swam disjointed in her blurry gaze – her mind reeling with an overtaxing anxiety. Sakura's lips parted as her stomach rebelled, a queasy heave of pain clenching the muscles of her abdomen. She bent over, her eyes dimming as black swirled in her gaze, forming a shadowed abyss.

She had to snap out of it…

She needed to regain at least a tentative hold on her whirling mind…

Clenching her teeth together, Sakura tightened her hands into strained fists, digging the tips of her fingernails into the smooth skin of her palms. The stab of pain was instantaneous and worked as she intended, causing her eyes to snap open with a wounded clarity as a hiss of pain slithered from between her lips.

Sakura blinked as she tried to focus and vainly push the shattering hinges of reality from the forefront of her mind. If she didn't concentrate on the work before her, her mind would take over again, and the possibility of sinking in a black hole of doubt would be imminent and unbreakable.

A tense and nervous activity surrounded her on all sides. The moans and splintered cries of the wounded rang dreadfully into the cool black air, filling the night with an injured countenance.

Sakura was growing weaker by the minute, her chakra lessening with every person she healed – every person that she brought back from the grasping fingers of death. Her shoulders were tight with tension and her head pounded with an infuriating headache that refused to lessen.

The constant charge of her job, and the ritualistic practice of her medical training had become second hand nature, ingrained in her mind. If it hadn't been so natural to her, the possibly of her uselessness might have a blaring fact instead of a looming thought in the back of her mind. The dread she tried to tamp down on and suppress was like a menacing demon, constantly there and causing a slight tremor in her hands.

Sitting back as she let a heavy breath of exhaustion depart from her lips, Sakura ran a hand against the moist skin of her forehead in a vain attempt the lesson the pressure behind her eyes.

The man lying before her was a friend – a comrade – a damn good shinobi.

The fact he had been so easily defeated, so easily overpowered by Konoha's attacker, caused her throat tighten reflexively.

Running her fingertips over the sleeping man's forehead, Sakura bit the inside of her cheek. Lee had given it his all. He had showered the fight with his strength and left no stone unturned in his attempt to bury the enemy. Instead of success, he had been thrown into the medium between life and death, the purgatory only she was able to heal him from.

The forms of other familiar faces were shockingly disheartening as Sakura let her gaze rake the fallen ninjas, her clouded eyes slipping painfully over their prone bodies. Lowering her head, she bit her lip, her fingers catching the torn green material of Lee's clothing and clutching it tightly.

The attack had been unforeseen.

Her knowledge on the matter was annoyingly limited and choppy. She had remained within the confines of the medical unit, healing the wounded brought to her. When news of the fighting had broken, she had been routinely teaching a group of younger ninjas medical techniques. At first, the threat had seemed almost nonexistent, barely making a dent in the provisional defense that their village force had applied. But when the medical unit became flooded with wounded, and overflowing with the gasping, writhing bodies of fallen ninjas, Sakura's attention had become narrowed, her mind situating itself around the seriousness of the situation.

The thought of defeat, though, had never been an option. It had never once slipped into her thoughts.

The real uneasiness hadn't reached her until she heard snippets of information from those bringing in the wounded. The enemy before them was one they had never seen before, and one that they knew nothing about. They were from a place no one had even heard of. But the enemy's knowledge of Konoha was staggering. The Konoha ninjas' weaknesses were known and exploited, their abilities picked apart and studied until styles, forms and tactical movements had been mapped out. While Konoha had been oblivious, the enemy had undergone extensive surveillance, and training, containing a depth of knowledge that was painfully baffling. They had seemed to know when to infiltrate the village, taking immediate advantage of the lack of Jounins and Chuunins who were dispatched on various missions, their absence acutely apparent now.

Though the leaf nin had fought bravely, taking down as many enemies as possible, leaving only a handful of lower ranked enemy ninjas and their mighty leader, only one man had the needed strength left in his body to counter the remaining attacks.

From broken conversation Sakura had heard circulating around her, their esteemed Hokage remained steady is his resolve and furiously unflinching in the sweltering gaze of his adversary. The amount of time he had battled alone was staggering when faced with this new foe. Some murmured about how he was growing weaker by the minute, his strength slowing seeping from his body, while others argued his strength knew no end and was in fact growing in intensity.

The lack of knowledge was driving her insane. Sakura needed…wanted…had to know what was happening out there in the blackened mist of the night. The discrepancies in the information, the wide range of opinions, and the jumbled ramblings left an incomplete jigsaw puzzle ingrained in her thoughts – one she had no way of piecing together.

Sakura sat back, shifting her posture and standing. Wiping bloodstained hands against the front of her tunic, she moved to the side and knelt beside a man gasping for breath, his eyes detached from reality. She ran a cursory glance over him, assimilating the depth of his injuries, and formulating a mental plan for his treatment. And while she forced half of her mind to concentrate on her important work, Sakura couldn't help the drifting of her mind, and the slight detachment of her thoughts.

To those who knew Naruto from a distance, he may appear larger than life – a true hero and unflinching leader. He was a slim ray of hope trying to light and remove the oppressive darkness blanketing his peoples' souls. Where once he had been an ostracized young boy, considered a dangerous anomaly, Naruto had evolved into something before their very eyes…something amazing.

…but…Sakura viewed Naruto through different eyes, not clouded with a blinding awe for the symbol he represented or filled with a singular fascination that circled around his tremendous capabilities. She viewed him through eyes filled with respect, knowledge, and a clear understanding. She saw him as he was…the vulnerable man beneath the shield of the mighty nine-tailed fox…the man who held the very root of her existence in the palm of his hand.

She had watched as the small blond boy grew, slowly morphing into the mature, capable man that he now was. His outer appearance, though now years older, still held that unique spark of mischievous tenacity, his sky blue eyes still remained startlingly open and truthful. Despite the challenges and hardships he had faced and passed, Naruto was able to hold his anomalous integrity intact, as well as his passionate outlook on all things in his constantly revolving and ever-changing life.

Through it all…Naruto was still Naruto.

As time had passed, and people within Sakura's life had changed, moving on and leaving the past behind them, Naruto remained a steady beacon of trust that she could count on, rely on, and completely expect. And though she had blinded herself to it at first, denying the truth that her heart pleaded to enfold, Sakura eventually opened her mind to the true feelings compressed deep within her.

She finally accepted what she had known all along – a truth that had seemed so effortless, and so right when revealed.

She loved him.

…body, soul, heart…

She simply loved him.

Since admitting it to herself, it was hard to imagine how she had deluded herself for so long…how she had been able to make herself believe in a "love" with Sasuke that had never truly existed…a hollow love. She questioned how she had been able to cloak her dense mind in a revolving fantasy that had swallowed her almost completely.

Sighing heavily, Sakura sat back from her work, biting her lower lip and casting nervous eyes at the flashing sky lit by a battle she hated, feared, and knew pitifully nothing about. It was the unknown that rooted into her subconscious, leaving her unsteady.

It was the unknown that was tearing her apart.

But she knew her mission. She knew she was needed. Sakura narrowed her gaze, sharpening her inner resolve. Before she became utterly surrounded in the inner ramblings of her mind, there were people who required her. And she wouldn't let them down.

He could feel his control slipping. Blinking against the wave of power sweeping over his form, Naruto placed a hand down on the roof beneath his feet, and leaned down to catch his breath. Winded, his lungs heaved for much needed air; sweat beaded his forehead, joining the blood escaping from a sharp wound underneath his hairline. His side stung with an agony that made Naruto wince reflexively as his narrowed gaze followed the predatory ascent of his opponent.

The man who called himself Haruhu was almost invisible, his strength and knowledge of the forbidden nin arts amazing and confounding.

The fatigue of using so much chakra was weighing down on Naruto, slowing his movements and leaving him in a state that was painfully vulnerable.

Grunting as he pushed himself up, Naruto gritted his teeth, his eyes scanning Haruhu as the man walked forward, a twisted smile gracing his lips. Haruhu was tall, and gaunt, his cheekbones protruding in an unusually sordid manner, his eyes a beady black that was bottomless…and soulless. Odd stripes of purple body paint were streaked down his face, forming a stark contrast with his pale skin. Long strands of dirty brown hair hung limply, brushing the perverse expression blurring his abhorrent features.

A shuddering blast of sharp wind blistered past Naruto, narrowly missing him as he jumped quickly to the side, landing with a muted thump on the adjacent roof. Naruto's expression remained determinedly set as a slim sliver of blood curled down his cheek, sliding from a new cut lacerating the skin over his cheekbone. He watched the subtle rise and fall of Haruhu's chest as a wicked sense of amusement passed over the other man, entertained by the Hokage's wounds.

Naruto's face darkened. Moving his hands in a swift blurring motion as his mind became exclusively focused around his current jutsu, a deep, curling sound began in the base of Naruto's throat, climbing and escaping from his lips in a feral growl.

Naruto could sense the desperation of his people…those who were hidden in secret hideouts scattered throughout the village…those who stood nearby in morbid fascination, eyes wide with uncertain trepidation…those who lay wounded in a multitude of suffering and dread. The future of their lives depended on him. Their hopes, dreams, and aspirations were all paramount on this fight…this moment…this night. In a cruel twist of hard and unrelenting fate, Konoha had been thrown into a disaster that it might not able to conquer.

The numerous faces of people, friends – loved ones – flashed before Naruto's wide eyes, spinning an intense remembrance that hardened his steely resolve.

Failure was not an option.

Back hunched, intense chakra flowing through his body as his eyes glowed an iridescent red, Naruto charged forward, a horribly prevailing wrath surging through his mind.

Her hands were shaking as she withdrew them, cutting off the healing flow of chakra. Sucking in a shuddering breath, Sakura leaned back and lowered her face into the palms of her hands. She had healed all she could. Any more release of chakra would cause her to loose the tentative hold she had on her consciousness.

Only a few remained untreated, but their wounds were not severe and could be handled by the less experienced. An odd silence had descended for the moment around the pained forms, leaving an increasingly uneasy atmosphere.

A booming clash of sound in the distance caused Sakura to raise her head and narrow her weary gaze, eyes catching the disruptive violence exploding in the middle of the village. Her position on the outskirts along the forest line, hidden under the canopy of protective tree branches, seemed almost disconnected from the action, a remote island of pain amidst a rampant war.

Her eyes widened as a red hue exploded into sky, lighting the blackness with an incensed wrath. Flickering flames of a distant chakra seared the dark air, illuminating it with a tremblingly viciousness that reflected its bearer's inner turmoil.

Sakura rose to her feet unsteadily, her heart racing. The unleashing of the Kyuubi's power was a grave sign. A fellow medic-nin came to stand beside her, his eyes attached to the dyed night sky.

"Kami, save us," he uttered lowly under his breath.

As she stood there, her eyes rooted hypnotically to the flaming light before her, Sakura clenched her fists at her side. She had to know what was happening. She had to find the answers that had so annoyingly eluded her until this point. Despite the lives she had saved, the bodies that she had healed, and the people who had leaned on her in these hours of turmoil…she felt useless. While others had fought, she had remained on the sidelines, painfully inadequate in the face of one of their greatest adversaries.

Blinking revealing moisture from her emerald gaze, Sakura took a step forward. Now that her usefulness as a med-nin had deteriorated with her diminished chakra, Sakura had no attachments holding her back and restraining her from going to the forefront of the fight. She might not be able to actually fight in her weakened state, but she could at least try to do something – anything - to be helpful. She didn't know how, she just knew she needed to be there.

The aches of her body were pushed back, her mind becoming solid with a resolution that filled her. Hardening her eyes, she clenched her jaw as she walked forward. The shinobi behind her uttered a sound of surprised dismay as he watched her, raising a hand as if to stop her.

"Sakura-san, no," he started. "We need you."

She stopped, turning her unyielding gaze to him. "I'm leaving you in charge, Shinsuke. Keep things under control until I return."

Shinsuke was visibly distressed, his eyes widening as he swallowed. Opening his mouth to reply, the words caught in his throat and he could only nod with silent conformity, watching as Sakura began to once more move forward, away from the med unit.

Her steps were deliberate. The dark night wrapped tightly around her lone form, erasing Sakura's presence from the surroundings. The farther she moved and the more steps she took, the faster her pace increased. Though her muscles screamed in protest, her walk became a jog and her job became a run. And then she utilized her environment, grasping the side of a passing building and somewhat clumsily pulling herself up to a higher, more coveted perspective. Sakura continued to hurry, breath leaving her lungs in tired, short pants. Her hair clouded her searching gaze momentarily before she brushed the errant pink strands from her face impatiently.

The red light of the powerful chakra bathing the sky flashed slightly, deepening into a more severe shade of fierce determination.

Grunting as she landed awkwardly on a billowing awning, Sakura pushed herself up hastily, latching a hand onto the side of the roof and hefting her body up and on top.

Now, she could see.

But her eyes reflexively closed as she was suddenly blinded by a burst of light so utterly bright it caused unconscious tears to form. Stumbling to a rapid stop, Sakura squinted against it, setting her posture in a firm stance. As she stood there, halted by the staggering luminosity, time seemed to halt, dwindling into an unrecognizable thrum of inactivity. The sudden detachment enfolded her, as her mind was suddenly and unintentionally reminded times past…times that she recalled with an open clarity.

And as she sucked in a deep breath, the past flooded her mind.

The hardest years of her life…and Naruto's…had been those following the desertion of Sasuke. A deep wound had opened and festered, leaving a world doubt. She had drawn into herself, while Naruto had tried to strengthen himself, building an enormous power that he hoped would someday aid him in the recovery of his best friend.

Best friend…

Those two words seemed to rip through him whenever mentioned, leaving a scalding wound. Instead of looking at the traitorous day where Sasuke's intent had been to kill him, Naruto focused on the good – he focused on the promise he made to Sakura. A strong man had been born in those days of hard training and determination. Though he had fought numerous battles, taken down many enemies who had tried to thwart him, Naruto's sole purpose had been to find Sasuke.

He had wanted to save his friend.

But some things were never meant to be.

The years that Naruto had spent with Jiraiya seemed like a blur to Sakura. While notably gone, his absence had allowed her to gain a meaningful foothold in her life without outside help. That feat had been something she had needed to accomplish by herself. The personal demons parading around in her mind were thought entities that only she could conquer in hopes of completely vanquishing the despondency that they evoked.

The physical and mental training she had endured with Tsunade had been a welcome distraction during the sunlit hours, keeping her blissfully occupied, while also helping her gain the stamina, strength, and importance that she so needed. Standing in the background, watching her partners fight admirably before her had become maddening, making her feel increasingly useless during times when strength and cunning were paramount. Those years apart from Naruto had served as not only a spiritual buffer, but a physical one for Sakura.

Naruto's eventual return had awakened her to the fact that, though she might have conquered her inner fears during their separation, a large piece of her life remained missing. Exactly what was missing from her life had remained elusive then, and she had decided not to dwell on it at the time.

Sakura had taken the first hard, perilous step on her own, but it was with Naruto's help that she was able to continue forward and face her life…what had become of it…and what she would make of it.

During that time, a kindred companionship had been born between herself and Naruto, giving them a much-needed cushion of reliance to lean back on and fully expect. Naruto almost seemed to think of it as a duty, to insure that she remained unharmed physically and that mentally she wasn't shattering into mosaic of madness. His concern had affected her deeply – his actions began to warm the shield of ice she had erected around her heart as time had passed, and the elusive man that she thought she loved remained painfully absent.

Naruto became a fixture. Though she hadn't been aware of it at the time, he had planted himself deeply within her subconscious, wrapping the true importance of his welcoming presence around her like a blanket – warm, comforting, and familiar.

Five years after Sasuke's departure, Naruto became a member of the ANBU. His missions were varied, the durations of time spent on the tasks diverse in longevity. And yet despite that, when reports a familiar shinobi turned up, he went off to investigate and find if there was any truth in the reports. All were falsities.

But when a certain accounting came to Tsunade's attention, she assembled a team including Naruto to investigate. The seriousness that Tsunade had given to the situation had shown that she believed the information given to her.

Total mission time had been unknown, and the twinge of uneasiness that had built in Sakura's stomach had been acute. As she had watched Naruto disappear, his form blending with the trees, her only prevailing thought had been to pray for his safe return. That request had been supreme, while the root of the mission that carried him away from Konoha was secondary. They had been gone for a month when all the members of the search group returned, save one. All were wounded in varying degrees of seriousness. Their explanations of the event were broken and diverse from person to person, but one fact remained constant between them.

They had all seen Naruto vanish into the mist, following the specter that was Sasuke. They hadn't seen him again after that. It was uncertain as to whether Naruto had been killed, wounded, if he was lost, or just close on Sasuke's heels trying to hunt him down.

It had been harder than she had ever imagined, waiting, watching – hoping – that she would see his familiar form stumble forward with that characteristic smile which spoke of humble humor and sheepishness crossing his features. One week melded into two, two weeks streamed into a month, and then another and then…

He was there.

Konoha scouts had found him stumbling through the forest surrounding the village, severely wounded and barely alive. The immediate treatment of his wounds had been long, drawn-out, and tense. Her heart racing with trepidation, her hands clenched in tight fists, Sakura had stood next to Tsunade, aiding in his recovery. It had taken almost all of their combined strength to stabilize him, but they had.

The hospital room was dim, the windows shadowed with coverings that kept the mid-afternoon sun from seeping in. Only a pale spilling of distant lamplight cast a yellow glow, illuminating the surroundings softly. The chair she sat in was uncomfortable, but that went unnoticed as Sakura's eyes remained rooted to one spot in the room.

Inhale. Exhale.

Inhale. Exhale.

Inhale. Exhale.

Her eyes remained rooted to the movements of Naruto's chest. The subtle rising and falling as he breathed, his lungs taking in the needed nourishment of the air.

Inhale. Exhale.

For a few moments as she had assisted in treating him, it had looked as if he wasn't going to pull through. The thought had spurred her actions, making her movements steadier. At one time in her life, the strenuous situation would have made her falter, her hands unsteady when faced with such an important task. But, training and maturity and had helped her find a way to assimilate her emotions and use them for needed fuel.

Sakura pressed a hand to her chest as her heart tightened, and she shuddered, finally allowing herself to descend down from the small world of detachment that had allowed her to remain a least a little objective during that hard time.

It was then that she thought of what could have been. If the scouts hadn't found him in time - if Tsunade had been unavailable - if she had fallen into pieces…

Inhale. Exhale.

If that had happened…

That gentle rise and fall of Naruto's chest would have been a figment of her imagination. The flush of color on his face amidst the covering of bandages would have been only wishful thinking.

Thank goodness everything had fallen into place.

Biting her lip, Sakura closed her eyes, imprisoning herself in a blackness that closed her off from Naruto's wounded form.

It was painfully hard to imagine a life without him, a time where he didn't exist. No…not hard. It was impossible to even think of that – to even count that as a possibility.

Sakura leaned forward, lowering her head onto Naruto's hospital bed, next to his side. The sheets smelled of clean soap and were warm from the radiating heat of his body. Sakura sighed deeply, her breath muffled.

The last few days had been nightmarish, and this moment of calm and quietness seemed odd. But, yet, it allowed her a few minutes of needed introspection. The way she had reacted to this event outwardly and inwardly spoke volumes, and it slightly baffled her.

It was as if…

As if…

Her thoughts halted as fingers slid through her hair, loosely tangling with the pink strands. Fingertips brushed the flushed skin of her cheek, causing Sakura to lift her head slightly, her gaze catching the quizzical slant of Naruto's sleep hazed eyes. His fingers remained in her tousled hair as she sat up a little more, leaning on her elbows as she stared into the familiar blue of his eyes, loosing herself in the gentle hesitation held within the depths.

As she stared, her breath clogged in her throat. She suddenly knew. The culmination of her suppressed feelings rooted solidly in her chest, causing her green gaze to deepen and her lips to part with gradual realization.

Naruto noticed the subtle change in her expression, his eyebrows dipping with speculation. She could see the question on his lips as he studied her.

And before he spoke, as her thoughts shifted around her sudden insight, she knew her existence no longer revolved around Sasuke. Sakura knew that whatever news Naruto had to offer about Sasuke, whatever it was, it would define her no longer. Sasuke would always be important to her in some way, no matter where he was. No matter what he had become. If he returned, he would be her friend. But nothing more.

The man before her was now her life.

And nothing would change that.

Sakura sucked in a deep breath, shuddering as the blinding light before her was suddenly wiped away, leaving her blinking warily against the darkness. Black dots swam in her gaze, blinding her. She leaned forward, shaking her head and letting her loose hair fall into her gaze.

A desperate aura filled the night air, snapping her attention to the present and pushing her forward again. She was a few short minutes away from the bursting fight. Grunting as she pushed forward, Sakura hurried ahead, the cool wind brushing against her heat-flushed cheeks.

A livid roar sliced through the air, blackened fury palpable in the dark sound. Sakura's green gaze widened slightly, her mouth hardening into a thin line. It wasn't difficult to imagine what the expression on Naruto's face would be at this moment and the hard-edged emotions which were crossing his mind. She had witnessed the unleashing of the Kyuubi before. At that time, it had appeared almost as if the Naruto she knew was swallowed by his inner demon, overwhelmed by the foreign power trapped within his body. In a situation like this, if she could represent one thought, one moment that could help calm his madness and soothe his mind, then Sakura would take the chance to go to the front of the battle, and immerse herself in it.

The closer she went, the more intense the feeling of power overwhelmed her. The night had become a swimming obsidian, crackling with revealed energy and saturated with a striking power.

Sakura ran swiftly, her feet catching the roofs and helping her lift off with a renewed authority.

Not only was Naruto her leader, teammate and best friend – Naruto was her husband - the man who was everything in her life, who completed it…fulfilled it.

And she would do anything to aid him.

While her feelings for Sasuke had hit her full force the moment she had laid eyes on him, the emotions that she felt for Naruto had been slow in forming, almost lackadaisical in their pace. It first started with a tentative toleration of him, then a hesitant friendship had formed between the two, deepening as their time together as Team 7 had formed a tight companionship between the three partners. It wasn't until later that she truly recognized and respected the fierce protectiveness Naruto had, the singular passion he viewed all things with and the importance that he began to represent to her…it was with this and other things that she slowly began to realize he could be more to her. He could be so much more.

It had been like a fire, starting as a small spark, glowing and spreading slowly through the provided brush, and finally raising its flickering red fingers and deepening into a passionate flame – all consuming and burning with an ardent intensity.

It filled her and completed her.

And she would preserve it at any cost.

The red hue of the encircling, foreign chakra shaded her exposed skin, bathing her in a sea of color. She had almost reached the place of hardship where Naruto battled their new assailant. Disturbed dirt clouded the air as a weakened slip of wind shuddered over her. Sucking in a sharp breath, Sakura narrowed her gaze, her pace slowing.

The roof below her feet shook as hard impact smashed into the house's foundation. Unsteady, Sakura leaned down, placing a hand against the tiles. Crawling slightly, she made her way to the edge, where she held onto the corner of the roof and swung herself down. Her feet caught the widow seal, allowing her to jump down steadily, landing with a hushed thump onto the cracked pavement.

The broken foundation of the house littered the ground.

Sakura ducked quickly as a fast-moving object sailed over her head, ripping into the building next to her with a resounding boom. The impact left a large, crumbling hole in the wall; the object, which had caused the trauma, was now buried under the resulting rubble. Sakura's eyes widened as the rubble shifted and a red radiation of light seeped out from beneath the rocks in pale slivers. The debris shifted as a hand emerged, cloaked in a visible shining of chakra. It grabbed onto a steady rock, gaining leverage. A familiar form appeared, struggling up slowly as he pushed hindrances aside.

Sakura watched as Naruto stiffened his shoulder line, stepping out from the rubble. Blood streaked down his face, mixed heavily with sweat and dirt. A large bloodstain covered the lower half of his shirt. His hair was almost brown from the overwhelming amount of dirt showering the air, an unequivocal result from the furious struggle. Naruto's mouth was curled into a disgusted grimace, the now enlarged canines from the fox visible as he bared his teeth in anger. Eyes flashing a maddened red, they reflected the true extent of his turbulent emotions.

He was so blinded by the fight, his mind centered solely on his opponent, Naruto didn't notice Sakura standing almost directly in front of him, rooted in place, her shoulders hunched.

A vicious spiral of wind smashed into him, causing Naruto to raise his arms in front of his face defensively. The attack only seemed to add fuel to his already raging fury, his eyes narrowing as he lowered his arms, which were now laced with thin, bleeding cuts that spanned the length of his forearms. He bent down, gaining needed leverage before jumping up in a motion so fast that Sakura had trouble keeping track of him. His voice was unrecognizable in his frenzied yell which split the air as his form disappeared, grappling intensely with the enemy.

Sakura ran out into the middle of the street, raising her widened gaze to the swirling sky. Their movements were extremely fast, hurried and nonstop. The enemy was thrown back by Naruto's next attack, his body landing jarringly on the street and leaving of cloud of disruption a distance away from Sakura. Naruto flew down from the sky towards the fallen man with a renewed wildness, his fists raised and muscles tensed for the imminent impact. He slammed into his opponent, an enraged yell emerging from his throat.

"Get the hell out of my village," Naruto growled ominously, swinging back his leg and crushing it into the man's stomach. Blood sprayed from his mouth as he flew backwards. Naruto stalked forward, his gaze intent.

Naruto seemed lost in his fury, concentrating only on the ultimate defeat of his powerful opponent. Sakura feared the Kyuubi had begun his gradual take-over, feeding off Naruto's anger and basking in the ferocity of the fight. The forewarning of their former instructors on the unleashing of his rage echoed in her mind. Naruto would die if he stayed in the state of livid anger much longer. His body, though powerful, couldn't sustain the profuse amount of borrowed chakra racing through his limbs.

"Naruto," she whispered softly, taking a step forward.

As she watched the fight continue before her, Sakura felt her eyes close against the revolving madness, her mind disconnecting from the terrible reality. Holding her breath unintentionally, Sakura felt her life shift before her, showing her a familiar slideshow of family, friends, cherished moments, and also times that she wished she could forget. And though she wasn't the one who was struggling in a momentous battle, she could feel the weight of the village on her back and easily understood where Naruto drew the strength to fight, to protect, and honor his people.

Many things clouded her mind at that moment. Time slipped away from her unexpectedly, submerging her into the past once more. Sakura's mind held tightly onto the memory of a short conversation she had had with Naruto a few weeks ago – it had been a moment she viewed with a tender fondness.

Moonlight streamed through the open window, casting an ethereal illumination. The thin curtains rustled quietly as a soft breeze slipped through. The surrounding silence was peaceful, serving as a smooth blanket of tranquility.

In the comfort of the bed, Sakura watched the subtle play of the curtains as they danced with the gentle sway of the wind, hiding the incandescent moon briefly. Sakura sighed, caught in the silence, her light green eyes shadowed with distant thought.

The silence served as a welcome medium for rampant imaginings, the stillness buffering unspoken thoughts. Her eyes were hypnotized by the scene, and her mind was lulled by the quietness as time seemed to fade away. But, as the gentle waving of the curtains continued, their movement gradually broke her mental absorption.

Blinking, Sakura shifted, turning her concentration away from the window as she moved to lie on her other side, causing the sheets to twist around her waist. Her gaze fell on Naruto's bare back, his body turned away from hers as he slept on his side next to her, his arms curled around his pillow. Her eyes slid over the skin of his back, visibly trailing the deep lattice of scars. Raising a hand, Sakura lightly touched a thick scar with her fingertip, softly brushing Naruto's warm skin. The scar began at the base of his neck, traveled down the length of his back and tapered to a halt near his right hip. Sakura bit her lip, closing her eyes and leaning her head forward to rest against his back while her fingers remained pressed against him. Her breath heated his skin, her body and mind comforted by Naruto's close proximity. The steady beat of his heart against her ear lulled her with its soothing predictability.

The pattern of his breathing changed as he sucked in a deep breath, a low groan resonating in his throat. Sakura slowly opened her eyes, watching as Naruto shifted away from her so he was able to flip onto his back. She followed his movements with amusement clouding her gaze, studying his sprawled posture, and watching as he absently brushed a hand through his shaggy blond hair. Running her fingertips along his now exposed arm, Sakura wrapped her hand around his wrist, before lowering her fingers and slipping them over his.

Naruto twitched, letting out a grumbled utterance under his breath as he suddenly leaned forward, raising himself up over her form as she pressed herself back against the mattress. He trapped her between his arms, which were now situated on either side of her body, his weight supported by his forearms. Naruto blinked sleepily at her, his eyes hazed with drowsy detachment. His mussed hair stuck out in all directions, and his eyelids drooped heavily as he lost his awareness for a short moment.

Sakura felt a tolerant smile curve her lips as he leaned forward, half out of weariness and half out of the need to be near her.

"Sa-ku-ra – chan," he mumbled as he buried his face into the curve between her neck and shoulder, his breath whooshing into her ear. Goosebumps rose on her exposed skin, causing her to shiver involuntarily.

"Naruto?" she asked, her voice questioning as he sank more heavily against her. She placed a hand on his shoulder, nudging him as his weight on top of her increased. "Naruto?"

In response, he slowly raised himself up, holding his weight again on his forearms. When he pulled back enough to lock his lethargic gaze with hers, he remained still for a moment as the sleep slowly slipped from his vision, eventually leaving the blue of his eyes clear with needed lucidity. An expression that Sakura didn't recognize flickered in his now intent look, causing her to furrow her brow. He watched her for a while, silent and unusually contemplative. He had been acting somewhat oddly the past few days, torn between either a Hokage concern, or by an issue he wished to bring up with her. From the way he was looking at her, she deduced he had something he wanted to speak with her about, though she was at a loss of what exactly that was.

His next words surprised her, but she kept her expression schooled.

"Would you change anything, Sakura-chan?" Naruto inquired seriously, his tone uncharacteristically solemn.

"What kind of silly question is that?" she asked. Sakura reached up with one hand, brushing her fingers over his cheek, under his ear, and then tangling the digits in his ruffled hair.

Naruto sighed against her touch. "You know," he responded. "Would you change anything if you could?"

Eyes crinkling with humor, she replied, "Well…I'd try to make you smarter, less annoying, more attractive…" Sakura trailed off, biting the inside of her cheek as she watched the night's shadows cover the sour frown curling his lips. She was silent for a moment before saying, "No. I wouldn't change anything."

"Are you sure? I know this isn't how you imagined your life when we were younger, and I can only think - " His words were muffled as she pressed her fingers over his lips firmly.

"You think too much…" Her eyes searched his as she raised an eyebrow. "And when I say I wouldn't change anything, I mean it."

Naruto sat there for a moment, motionless as he contemplated. He lowered his blue gaze for a moment, before raising it back up. Sakura could see his acceptance of her answer in his eyes, though something about him still seemed irresolute.

"I'm sorry I was never able to keep my promise to you - to bring Sasuke back," he said in a low, hushed tone.

"Is that what you've been so moody about lately?"

His eyes became hooded with stubborn belligerence. "So what if it was?"

Sakura cocked her head to the side. "I told you a long time ago that I don't hold you responsible for that promise anymore."

"And you thought I would just discount your request, because you merely informed me that I wasn't responsible for it?"

Smiling, she replied. "I guess I should have known better."


"But, Naruto," Sakura started, resting her hands on his shoulders. "You can make me a different promise. And this one you'll have to keep. I'm not letting you off the hook."

He raised a questioning eyebrow, unsure as to how to respond.

"Always return," she murmured. She watched his lips curl into a slow smile.. "Wherever you go…always come back."

Naruto wrapped his arms around her, and leaned back as he pulled her on top of him. "You have my word," he replied huskily, his hands warm on her body as they slid over her skin.

She smiled into his chest, relaxing in his enveloping embrace.

As Sakura's mind drifted to the present, her eyes opened and softened with a sudden knowledge – a dawning realization that was tremendously reassuring. Searching the surroundings and catching sight of the vicious opponents, Sakura stepped forward, her light green gaze pinned to their swift movements.

In a moment of exhaustion, the two men landed on opposite roofs, across from each other. Each man was panting heavily, riddled with a damning multitude of wounds – each man filled with an obvious determination. And each with a different objective.

Naruto strove to protect.

The other strove to destroy.

Both resolute.

Both strong.

But, Naruto held a slight advantage over his gasping enemy. While his foe's bloodlust was a powerful and dangerous adversary, Naruto held the will to protect which encompassed something the other severely lacked.

He had a reason to fight.

A reason to uphold his beliefs.

A reason to win.

Naruto had the support, respect, and trust of his people. And that was the greatest incentive to obliterate the enemy.

His people defined his determination.

Rushing forward, Sakura called out his name, her soul carrying the word far and rapidly to Naruto's ears. On the rooftop, he visibly jerked at the sound. Sakura couldn't see the true reaction her interference brought on, but from below, she could feel the change in the air, the reigning of the unleashed fury.

A radiation of shimmering blue split the luminous red of his eyes as his head lowered slightly. Naruto stood there frozen for a moment, torn between the pull of the mighty fox and the sanity of his normal mind. His internal battle lasted for a short few seconds. Raising his unwavering gaze, a cool blue chakra intermixing with flaming red, Naruto harnessed the streaming energy raging through his bloodstream, his body moving in a blurred motion of total authority as he attacked for a final time – the killing blow.

Sakura watched from below, raising a protective hand as a vigorous clash disrupted the air, sending out a shockwave of power. It was hard to breathe as the sudden pressure shoved against her brutally. Squinting against the air's forcefulness, Sakura caught sight of Naruto as he was thrown back suddenly, while the limp body of his opponent fell heavily from the sky in the other direction.

Naruto's consciousness was fading, his vision narrowing into a constricted black slit as he flew backwards through the air, his strength completely spent, disallowing his counteraction of the fall.

Running, jumping up and gritting her teeth, Sakura launched herself at Naruto. She collided with him in midair, and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist. Her remaining strength was low as well. She couldn't slow or attempt to stop their rapid descent, but with her small remaining chakra she twisted their bodies so that as they slammed into the protective barrier of a wall, it was she who crashed through the concrete, bearing the brunt of the hard landing.

Naruto was unconscious, his body limp against her as she landed on the ground, breathless and stunned for a moment, dots of pain swimming in her hooded gaze. The lack of chakra in her system was incredibly weakening, and was now compounded by the bursting pain in her back. Leaning her head, Sakura surrendered to the darkness creeping into her vision, fainting underneath Naruto's own unmoving form.

Naruto could feel the sunlight bearing down on his closed eyes, the brightness staining the darkness behind his eyelids an annoying red. Quietness surrounded him, enveloping him in a consoling embrace.

Was he dead?

The heavy ache of injuries pressed down on his weary form, assuring him that he was, in fact, not dead.

Naruto groaned as his full consciousness descended, awakening him from the comforting cushion of his dreamland and depositing him in a reality that made him feel as if his injured chest was compressed inward, suffocating him.

The pain was horrible, and omnipresent – there didn't feel as if any place on his body wasn't suffering from some laceration or bruise.

And for some reason Naruto couldn't remember how he had gotten his body torn up this time. He lay there for a few moments, contemplating his actions, trying to ascertain what had landed him in the hospital again.

The last time he had felt this incredibly weakened had been years ago, in a bleak time when his mind had been in almost as horrific shape as his beaten body. It had been after his last fight with Sasuke. Though years had passed since then, to Naruto it almost felt like yesterday, the memory of the encounter clear in his mind. It was like a wound which had never, and would never completely heal, forever scarring him with profound remorse. The weakness and pain he had felt settling in his body after that clash had been crushing.

What a failure it had been.

Their time apart from each other had only served to drive Sasuke's thirst for revenge even further, his mind lost even more in the dwindling sanity he held within his thoughts. He had become completely cloaked in the need, the desire, and the addiction for the highest level of power attainable. The Sasuke whom Naruto had grown up with seemed to have vanished - the man who had stood before him a darkened shadow of vengeance and hate.

A massive, soul curdling hate.

But, despite the bleakness reflected in his friend's eyes, Naruto had still held onto the hope that underneath the disparity and ferocious rage, his best friend still remained.

So he didn't give up.

He would never give up.

The mission had been a surprise order from Tsunade. The seriousness with which she attributed to it put his senses on high alert, and had caused his heart to quicken with a fast anticipation. A month after the commencement of the mission, Sasuke had been found…spotted almost accidentally in a thick morning mist. On that fateful day, when Naruto had finally seen him for the first time in years as he watched Sasuke's form blend in and out of the omnipresent mist, he had come to realize that Sasuke still had no intention of returning to Konoha.

He had always known that convincing and facing down his former teammate would be hard…harder than anything he had ever done in his life. But as he had watched the cool collection of hate swirl in Sasuke's vision, his lips curled into a twist of lazy defiance, Naruto had realized how much he had begun to underestimate not only Sasuke's determination, but also the true depth at which his revenge raged through his bloodstream.

But that didn't stop him. As he had stood there, eyes locked on Sasuke's narrowed gaze, their forms held in a tense battle of wills, Naruto had felt his own determination to bring his friend back sweep through him like a typhoon of fortitude. He'd be damned it he would let Sasuke be further swallowed by a demon of passionate vengeance. He wasn't letting him leave without a fight – without a forceful reckoning.

Therefore Naruto had turned to brute force once again, applying techniques he hadn't used before, reserved for his mightiest of opponents to take Sasuke back bodily. But once again, their strengths and weaknesses were too easily matched, and their fight had ended in the simultaneous defeat of each other. But while Sasuke's unconscious body had been taken away by those he traveled with, Naruto had remained alone, his fate uncertain when faced with the brutality of nature and the seriousness of his wounds.

It had taken every ounce of strength left within him to return to Konoha's territory. The last thing he had remembered before passing out from the pain was the arrival of the scouts as they took immediate action to help save his life, which he had been holding onto with a very thin thread of uncertainty at the time.

The pain that had covered him during that period of recovery reminded him of the aches he encountered now. But the pain that afflicted him currently was blessedly devoid of thoughts of a great defeat – and though the wounds reminded him of a time he fervently wished he could repeat, it was nice for wounds to be only wounds, and that the pain remained only in his body, and in his already bruised soul.

But, damn, he wished he could remember exactly how these new injuries had been slashed onto his body.

A faint sound of amusement filtered in through the quiet, lighting up the silence with innocent delight. Naruto's mind shifted at the disruption, unraveling from a remembrance that brought inner pain, and leaving him distinctly vulnerable to the present.

Opening his eyes and squinting at the light, Naruto slowly turned his head to the side toward the direction where the hushed laughter had originated. His gaze was still slightly blurry, his vision hazed with his receding drowsiness and clouded with pain. But a deep relaxation settled into his limbs as his eyes caught sight of the duo framed by daylight, standing on the small balcony connected to the hospital room. The glass doors stood open, their curtains flapping as the wind brushed through the open space and into the room, leaving a cool freshness in the air. The balcony was small, the slight overhanging of concrete unusual for hospital rooms, and Naruto found himself wondering why exactly it was there. In different circumstances, he might think of it as convenient assistance for escape.

But all thoughts of escaping fled from his mind as his vision sharpened on those standing on that anomalous balcony, their faces lifted to the sky. In apparent fascination, one leaned forward, only to be restrained by the protective hands of the other. Arms lifted up, eyes widened, another happy giggle escaped from smiling lips.

Warmth spread through him as he watched the little blond haired girl squiggle impatiently in the arms of her mother, her intent to catch the slothful clouds in her small fingers foremost on her mind.

Sakura bent down, her hands going around her daughter's waist. Pulling the toddler back, she lowered her head down, resting her chin onto the little girl's shoulder.

Sakura sat there for a moment, seemingly caught in her imaginings. A heavy sigh filled her as the stray wind tousled loose strands of her pink hair. Something shifted in her shoulders, and it seemed almost automatic as her gaze turned from the sky and to the inside of the hospital room, her eyes falling on Naruto to assure herself once again that he was still there. She was surprised to see him already staring at her.

As his eyes locked with hers, he watched as the trepidation lifted from her gaze, the light green of her eyes swirling with a mass of tumultuous thoughts. And as he looked at her face, creased with lines of worry and stress, her body tense with restrained apprehension, Naruto remembered the previous events which had caused him so much bodily harm.

The truth flooded him with blinding flashes of realization.

He remembered seeing the fallen body of his opponent, Haruhu, as the man had been pushed back from Naruto's final blow. The sudden detachment of his gaze and the limp nature of his body noticeably expressed his ultimate demise.

But, most of all, he remembered the sound of Sakura's voice breaking through the intense flames of his anger, cooling him with a single word. She had brought him back from the curling folds of a darkened abyss, lifting him with an astonishing trust.

The little girl seemed to notice the direction of her mother's gaze and turned her bright blue eyes to the bed where Naruto rested. The clear sunshine glinted off her blond hair, showing a soft pink hue of the light tresses. When she noticed he was awake, her mouth parted with happiness as a large grin spread over her lips. She pulled out of her mother's restraining grasp, her steps hurried and little unsteady as she came towards him.


Though it hurt, Naruto smiled in response, his gaze soft as he watched his small daughter grab onto the side of the hospital bed, her fingers tightly grasping the white sheets. She seemed to struggle for a moment, attempting to lift her small body up and climb to the top of the bed. A sound of frustration escaped her as she struggled in vain, her small limbs not suited for her obvious intentions. Her blue eyes widened with noticeable delight as Sakura wrapped her hands around the small girl's waist, lifting the light body and depositing her gently on top of the mattress next to her father.

Immediately, she leaned down, wrapping her pudgy arms around Naruto's leg and snuggling against him. She pressed her cheek against his knee as she closed her eyes and mumbled something incoherent against the sheets. Sakura smiled tolerantly while running a hand through her daughter's hair affectionately, and turning her eyes to Naruto.

From the pained look on his face, which he tried to mask, she could tell that their daughter's hold on him wasn't comfortable. She moved to loosen the little girl's grip, but stopped when Naruto shook his head slightly.

Sakura curled her lips to one side, giving him a knowing look, but only sighed in response. Kneeling down, she rested her folded arms on top of the mattress, lowering chin against her forearms. Sakura studied his face, taking in the numerous bandages and the pale cast to his skin. Naruto's eyes seemed full of unvoiced questions, his usually mischievous gaze now holding a solemn undertone. She knew he wanted to know what had happened to Konoha after he had passed out, and how the village faired now that the threat had been dispelled.

"Everything is fine."

Just those three words seemed to lift his weary form, his chest rising with a heavily relieved sigh. He knew that if she was holding back information, a flicker of uncomfortable regret would flash in her green gaze, and her lips would curl in a slight, but barely noticeable grimace. Years of practice had made him attuned to her particular expressions, and it was comforting to know that Sakura didn't feel the need to keep any type of information from him just because he was inconveniently indisposed at the moment.

Now he knew that no insurmountable problems were present. Despite Konoha's weakened state, there would be no doubt in his mind that his people wouldn't be able to recover. The attack had been damaging, but it would not be crushing to either the village or the people who lived in it.

Sakura watched the alleviation of stress from Naruto's features, his deep blue eyes becoming clear with unfettered confidence. The man she knew began to slowly absorb the serious and severe persona which he had exuded during the time of trauma, and his features shifted, lighting with an playful liveliness that she was all too familiar with.

Though he knew he shouldn't, Naruto gave into the overpowering mischief that poured through him, causing his eyes to narrow with shadowed animation and his lips to curl with a teasing question.

He spoke for the first time since awakening in the hospital, his voice annoyingly hoarse from apparent disuse. "I don't like lying here."

Eyeing him with a warily, Sakura replied softly, "I'd be surprised if you did."

"You think you could get me out of here? Help me escape this prison?" he asked, spearing his wife with a carefully practiced, pleading stare.

The look she sent him made him inwardly grimace, his lips falling into a knowing frown with disappointment. She always had the best intentions in mind…even if it meant making him suffer from boredom in a hospital bed if the inaction made him heal more quickly.

"I'm not going to have to tie you to the bed, am I?" Sakura retorted, her eyes searching his.

She knew him all too well…

"Well, I don't know. If you tie yourself up with me, I - "

"Naruto!" she interrupted, her voice sharp with reprimand as she stared at him with annoyance, her gaze flicking to their daughter wrapped comfortably around Naruto's leg. "Hana isn't deaf."

He sent her a derisive glare. "Well, I realize that, Sakura-chan."

Sakura leaned in, her face moving closer to his so she could whisper without disturbing the currently sleeping Hana. "Well, then why are you - "

"Because I can."

"That's not an answer."

"It's good enough for me."

"I'm not surprised."

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah, really."

"Then I guess you won't be surprised by what I do next."

Sakura's leaned back, her eyes narrowed mistrustfully. "Do what next?"

"This," he replied, his strong grip catching her arms as he pulled her forward and onto the bed, forcing her body next to his on the mattress. The accompanying flash of pain that stabbed his gaze killed Sakura's loud exclamations of reproach.

"Do you have a death wish?" she bit out softly between clenched teeth, trying to struggle against his hold without causing additional bodily harm to his already weakened body.

"Well, if you'd top your struggling, then it would stop hurting," he said wryly, his voice next to her ear.

Sakura squirmed a little more for effect, before settling down, her gaze turning to Hana to make sure the toddler was unaffected by her parents' movements.

One of Naruto's hands remained on her back, while the other wrapped securely around her right arm. She lay on her side next to him, on the gap left between his body and the edge of the mattress. Hana had squished herself so tightly against his leg, Sakura was able stretch her own legs down the length of the bed without bumping her.

Reaching up, Sakura placed a hand on Naruto's forehead, checking for a fever, which might explain his brainless behavior. She muttered something low under her breath, her lips twisting with a glowering frown.

"Don't like being next to me, Sakura-chan?"

She lifted her gaze, watching the deceptively innocent expression cover his features.

"I just don't want to hurt you anymore than you already are. You're damaged seriously enough, you don't need me compounding the problem." She blew out a frustrated breath, her cheeks growing pink. Naruto wasn't sure if it was from just her aggravation, or their close proximity. His fingers ran down her back, catching the obvious bandages hidden beneath the thin protection of her clothes.

Sakura sensed the tensing of his muscles and obvious question building in his throat. "It's nothing," she muttered against the skin of his neck, her body finally relaxing against his and settling in the small nook of comfort that he offered. "Don't worry about it."

He seemed slightly appeased by her answer, though she felt her lips curl with amusement when he shifted so that as little pressure as possible was forced upon her evidently sensitive back.

"Are you going to eventually let us go?" she asked.


She snorted in derision, her eyes closing as the steady regularity of his even breathing lulled her. "We'll see about that," Sakura mumbled.

To Naruto, it seemed almost surreal that such a magnanimous clash had occurred only a short while ago, and the heavy disruption reigning uncertainty on their lives was now gone. The hushed harmony that surrounded him at this moment was serene in its unique calmness, the supportive feel of his small family a priceless reward that would be traded for nothing.

There were things in his life that he regretted, and some that he wished could be redone. But, he knew there was one part of his life that meant everything and anything to him, which helped to ground him during rough times, and support him when all else failed - the part of his life that he treasured above all else, and would always cherish.

He looked down at the restful forms of Sakura and Hana, their faces swept in an engagingly identical expression as they both held onto him with unconscious need, their forms curled comfortably against him in a complete trust that made his heart ache.

Though some things remained unresolved in his life, swallowed by the blackened shadow of doubt, Naruto could look forward the coming of each day – the refreshment of life.

Because of them.

Always because of them.