Sakura practically collapsed backwards, only being saved from an embarrassing fall by one of the many wooden posts placed in the training ground. She slid down the post until she finally came to a stop against the rough ground below her. She achingly drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, then laid her head across her knees. She was exhausted.

She had been practicing Naruto's chakra building technique for…she wasn't sure for how long. The only measurement of time she had was that the sun had been high in the sky when she had started and now it was sinking below the horizon. She couldn't remember a time when she had trained so hard. Creating one clone, then another and another and another until she had reached her breaking point. Then, with no chakra left to sustain them, the clones would disappear into a cloud of smoke. She would collapse against the ground, utterly drained; then a strange thing would happen. Naruto would shout words of encouragement at her, and she would get back up and do it all over again.

He had that affect on her, and she wasn't sure if she should thank him or murder him for it.

She looked up drearily as she heard him approaching her. He was much better off than she was. He had been practicing her chakra control techniques just as long as her, and while the techniques weren't easy by any means, his immense stamina left him no worse for wear; though he had complained that all the concentration had given him a headache. With a day of chakra control exercises under his belt, he had wanted to attempt the Hiraishin, but after she had told him she was in no mood to put him back together if he screwed up, he had quickly fallen silent.

The blond plopped down on the ground next to her, and impulsively she let her head loll to the side and come to a rest on his shoulder. She didn't put too much thought into the move, but noticed the blush that crept into his cheeks almost immediately.

"What's the matter?" She asked, her voice a bit hoarse, reminding her of the screaming she had been doing earlier.

He shook has head quickly and blurted out, "Nothing!" He tilted his head back and let it rest against the wooden post, hiding his blush from her view. "So, how do you fell?" He asked, instilling some calmness into his voice.

She hummed thoughtfully, "I fell like…shit." She answered honestly, "But it fells good, you know?"

Naruto nodded. "Yeah. You did pretty good. You learned the kage bunshin faster than me. Faster than Konohamaru too, and he's related to a Hokage." He told her.

Sakura decided to take his compliment at face value and not bring up the fact that he and Konohamaru had both been twelve when they learned the technique. "I just wish I had been able to create more." She mumbled.

"How many did you get up to?" He asked.

"Four." She answered lamely. "How many did you do your first time?"

He shrugged, tossing her head slightly, "I don't know, like, a thousand or something." He said causally, causing Sakura to sigh. "What?" He asked her.

"It's just no fair." She told him.

"What's no fair?" He asked innocently.

She raised her head from his shoulder, which prompted him to lower his head to meet her eyes. "How strong you are." She told him bluntly, "It's just no fair."

"What?" He questioned in disbelief, "You're really strong too, Sakura-chan." He told her earnestly.

She shook her head, "Not compared to you, or Sauske, or Lee or Neji or even Shikamaru."

"You're strong enough to kick all of their asses," Naruto told her, "Even mine." He was being sincere, he was always sincere. It made her feel special to know that he believed in her that much.

She smiled at him, "Naruto, you-" But she was cut off as a loud rumbling emitted from her stomach, reminding her that she hadn't eaten since breakfast. Her mouth hung open in mid-syllable, her eyes widened in surprise, and a blush crept into her cheeks.

Naruto stared at her for a second as his mind processed what had just happened then he threw his head back and cut loose a bout of hysterical laughter.

Sakura's look of surprise quickly morphed into one of anger. She balled her fist up and stuck him in the arm, though she was unable to put her usual force into it. "It wasn't that funny you…you asshole!" She shouted.

Naruto quickly reined his laughter in, for the most part. He stood up and, while still poorly hiding his laughter, offered her his hand with a smile. "Come on, I'll buy you some ramen."

She regarded the offered hand with disdain for just a few seconds before she gave in. She took his hand and allowed him to pull her off the ground. They left the training ground side-by-side and it wasn't until they were out on the main streets of Konoha that Sakura realized he was still holding her hand. She deftly tugged her hand out of his, though he didn't seem to mind.

They kept their hands to themselves the rest of the way to Ichiraku's, and when they arrived at Naruto's favorite haunt, he promptly ordered up two 'Hokage-sized' bowls of ramen. The bowls were cooked with an amazing quickness and set down before the two patrons. Naruto immediately began digging into his bowl, while all Sakura could do was gape at the pure size of the bowl set before her. Really, it couldn't be accurately described as a bowl, more like a tub of ramen. She almost began to protest, there was no way she could eat the whole thing. Right?

Wrong. The scent of the ramen wafted up to her nose and her mouth began to salivate and her stomach began to rumble. Before she could even think, her hand had snapped up a pair of chopsticks and she was digging into the bowl with a ferocity trumped only by Naruto.

Needless to say, the old man and his daughter behind the counter were stunned.

The curtains parted behind the two ferocious eaters and Kakashi entered the stand. He too, was stunned at what he saw. "Um…Naruto, Sakura." He said. Neither of the teens responded, "How did the training go?"

Naruto mumbled something around a mouth full of noodles that Kakashi couldn't even begin to understand. Sakura, on the other hand, managed to take a break from her frenzy as she caught the look Kakashi was giving her.

"It's not what it looks like, Kakashi-sensei." She told him breathlessly, oblivious to the fact that she had bits and pieces of food stuck to her face. She turned back to her Hokage-sized bowl, which was more than half empty. "I'm just really…really hungry." She explained, and then dove back into her meal.

As it became apparent that that was the most he was going to get from either of them, Kakashi decided to sit back and watch the show. Naruto, of course, finished his bowl first, but Sakura wasn't far behind. Her stomach finally full, Sakura couldn't help but blush in embarrassment as her dignity returned to her. Naruto hadn't noticed anything different.

"What are you doing here, Kakashi-sensei?" He asked.

Kakashi cleared his throat and cast a questioning look between the two Chuunin before speaking. "I came here to tell the two of you we have a mission tomorrow morning."

"A mission?" Sakura questioned, "To where?"

"We can't talk about it here." Kakashi told them. He turned to the old man and his daughter who were busying themselves with cleaning up their kitchen. "No offense." He added.

The old man waved him off, "None taken. You guys go do whatever it is that you do. It doesn't concern us."

"But, the old lady forbid me from doing missions." Naruto said.

"Don't worry about that." Kakashi said simply, "Just meet me at the west gate tomorrow at six a.m." With that said he formed a quick seal and disappeared in a swirl of leaves before Naruto and Sakura could protest the early meeting time.

!-!-!-!-!

Naruto tiredly made his way towards the west gate, doing his sleepy best not to not trip over his own feet. It was early, just past six a.m. to be exact. The sun was barely out and he was the only person walking the streets. He knew he was already late, but he didn't care. It wasn't like Kakashi-sensei ever showed up on time.

Imagine Naruto's surprise when he finally made it to the west gate and found not only Sakura waiting for him-looking just as tired as him-but Kakashi as well. "You're late." The jounin said immediately.

Naruto glared at the man, mentally noting the irony of the situation but much too tired to point it out. "I..uh… saw a beautiful woman getting harassed and had to stop and save her." Naruto said in his best imitation of his sensei.

Kakashi pondered his excuse with a thoughtful hum then nodded. "Very well." He said, surprising Naruto. The blond boy raised an eyebrow before turning to Sakura, who was leaning against the wall of the gate with her arms crossed, her head hung and her eyes barely open.

"Oi, Sakura-chan!" Naruto shouted. Her head snapped up immediately.

"I'm wake!" She assured him.

"Good." Kakashi said, "Then let's get moving."

"Where are we-" Sakura didn't get a chance to finish her question.

"No questions." Kakashi said. Before they could say anything else he sped off in a blur leaving them to follow.

It was nearly an hour before Kakashi stopped running, and his two teammates were glad that he did; Sakura because she was still feeling the vestiges of her training with Naruto the night before, and Naruto because he was annoyed that Kakashi hadn't told them where they were going yet.

"Kakashi-sensei, just where the hell are we going?" Naruto asked angrily, approaching the man from behind.

Kakashi raised a hand to quiet Naruto. He gazed about the area where they had stopped. It was a plain field of grass, there was nothing around them for a mile but grass and trees. "This place seems good enough." He said to himself. He turned to his teammates and sat down amongst the grass and motioned for them to do the same.

"You want to tell us what's going on now?" Naruto asked as he lowered himself to the ground.

"We're going to Ame." Kakashi told them.

"Why Ame?" Sakura asked.

"Jiraiya-sama recently found some intel that a Jinchuriki by the name of Shoukan Kishi is in or around the village." Kakashi explained. "He also believes that Akatsuki is hot on the jinchuriki's trail."

"So why all the secrecy?" Sakura questioned.

Kakashi turned to Naruto, who seemed to understand. "The village council doesn't want me going on missions that involve Akatsuki." He said.

Kakashi nodded, "Correct. I couldn't brief you in the village because if word got to the council that we were going on a mission involving Akatsuki they wouldn't allow it."

"Oh…" Sakura said. She turned to Naruto, but he kept his eyes focused on the ground. "So, what's the goal?"

"The goal is simple." Kakashi told her. "We are to go to Ame and find Shoukan Kishi. If any Akatsuki threat exists, we are to defeat them and capture them for questioning. This is a highly confidential S-rank mission. Understood?"

Naruto nodded, but Sakura still had a question on her mind. "Why doesn't his own village protect him?"

"Because they don't care about him." Naruto answered for Kakashi. The jounin nodded, leaving Sakura to say only: "Oh."

"Any other questions?" Kakashi asked. When there were none, he said, "Good. Now let's go." And all three of them became indiscriminate blurs as they jumped up and ran at top speed.

!-!-!-!-!

Shoukan Kishi walked the streets of his old village in a plain white robe with a wide bamboo hat perched on his head. He had spent the entire previous day standing on the outskirts of the village just gazing at it, unable to work up the courage to enter. Today was a different story. He had found the will to step into the village, but he made sure to keep his head low and his face hidden. He was seeking redemption, but he wasn't stupid enough to think that everyone had forgiven him. He knew the majority of the village still hated him, but he knew of one person who might have forgiven him, and if she had forgiven him then she could sway the opinions of the rest of the village.

He came to a stop at a tall, administrative looking building. He looked up and focused his gaze on a window three stories up. It had been years since he had been in the village, but he was certain he had found the right window and if the rumors were true her office would be beyond that window.

He brought his head down and cast his eyes over the street. It was still early in the morning and the streets were empty. A strong gust of wind blew under him and lifted him up towards the window. Beyond the window was a plain square office, furnished with only a desk and a few chairs. She was sitting at the desk with her back turned to him.

He reached out to the window and slowly pulled it open. He had it about half way before her trained sense discovered him. She whirled around in her chair and flung a shuriken at him. He twisted in mid air and avoided the projectile, but he loss his concentration and the gust of wind below him died out. His hand shot out and grabbed onto the window sill and he stopped himself from plummeting to the ground.

The woman marched up to the window and looked down at him. As he hung there, he couldn't help but notice how much she had changed. She had let her dark hair grow out, her face had lost the roundness it had in her youth and become sharp and angular, worst of all her eyes had grown cold and hard. She leveled a glare at him and did nothing to help him up. He began to realize how bad of an idea this had been.

"Arashi-san." He began pleadingly. She drew out a kunai in response, twirled it around her finger briefly, then plunged the weapon into his hand. He had to bite his lip to stop from screaming.

Slowly, she leaned out the window and drew her face close to his. "Give me one good reason." She said, her voice layered in ice, "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't have you killed."