Thanks to all the reviewers! I love you! Look, longer chapter…

StarsOfYaoi: Summer means more updates. Faster ones. As promised, in this chapter there is Team Seven's reaction to Naruto's absence. :3 trust me, you'll like.


Rating: T

Summary: (SasuNaru, NejiShika, InoTen, eventually LeeSaku) Naruto is trying to forget his former team, busy in Chuunin missions. But as his past is left uncovered and many of his kind start to appear, old bonds are stretched to the maximum.

Warnings: yaoi, boy x boy relationship, angsty, torture, and such. Mental as well. Flames will be used to warm up food. OC warning as well.

Disclaimer: Not own Naruto. Masashi Kishimoto does.



Flashbacks, memories, dreams–



Chapter 05: Pain

Sasuke's eyes were fixed on the four masked ANBU around him, observing them as they stood silently, but he could not bring himself to glare at them. Even if their presence meant he would have no more privacy from now on, he knew they were simply doing what their mission required them to.

They had to control him, since he had almost betrayed Konoha.

Besides, even though he didn't like their presence one bit, it still meant he could leave the hospital, and that for him was good enough.

He had waited for this a whole month, heavily guarded, tied to the bed, only able to move a hour or so every day so not to lose the mobility of his body, with the sole constant companionship of the silent ANBU and sometimes of Kakashi –Sakura too, but still he didn't want to count her.

Shifting his eyes to the person that was sitting in front of him, Sasuke once again thanked his luck. Tsunade was speaking to him, explaining how his new 'freedom' would be.

Sasuke knew this was the best Hokage Konoha could have, and he was thankful. She was the best medic–nin in the five Countries, she had healed all his wounds, some of them aided by her chakra, some of them by the natural course of healing, so he would still be able to be a ninja, and she had been able to finish Kakashi's work on his cursed seal, with the help of the white haired man Naruto had seemed to fond of –two sets of small kanji around the black tattoo.

Sasuke had to admit that sometimes he still felt pangs and twinges coming from Orochimaru's seal now and then, but it was a distant pain, it never hindered his thoughts, it never clouded his mind. He was free.

For the first time in years, Sasuke's mind was blank. He had many things he should think about, like his revenge on Itachi, now that he could think without hatred blinding him, but he couldn't.

Itachi had never crossed his mind.

In the month he had been unable to move from his bed, constantly watched over, he had thought about everything. He could not let revenge take his life down the drain, and back to the darkness Orochimaru used as a hunting field.

He would get stronger. With age, training. He would not follow some futile chase of a power that would never be his own.

But over everything else, the thing he thought the most was Naruto. The words he would speak to the blond, how he could act…

Sasuke had tried so many times to picture Naruto in his mind, to analyse how he could act, but nothing could compare with the true one. He would have to throw away everything else in order to face Naruto and see on which ground they stood.

Where to go from there.

If Naruto didn't want to see him again… Sasuke had thought about that, too. The mere idea filled him with a massive pain, something fierce that stabbed him right in the heart. If Naruto really didn't want to see him again, Sasuke would not give up.

Naruto had not given up on him, he'd gone as far as to fight with him so to get him back.

Sasuke would do the same, it was a given.

Naruto was important. For the first time ever Sasuke realised it, and it had nothing to do with Mangekyou Sharingan or anything else. No. Naruto was his first friend. His teammate, the brother he'd longed for since… since Itachi's betrayal.

He could work. And live. Instead of waiting the moment he'd die after killing Itachi. He could have a life. A future, a present.

Naruto was part of all of this, he had to.

'He's far too important for me to let him go' he knew it was a weakness, a selfish thing, but this time, he would not let go. He wanted Naruto at his side. The blond had helped him so much all this time, but… now it was Sasuke's duty to help him back.

Naruto became his first priority. Because without Naruto, Sasuke was nothing.

"You will be followed and monitored by this ANBU team for the next two months" Tsunade's voice called Sasuke back from the depths of his mind. The blonde had a vague idea of what he had been thinking about, and wasn't sure how to react.

Sasuke's eyes fixed on her again.

"In order to make sure Orochimaru's seal won't flare up unexpectedly, since you're still pretty unstable, and to test your 'renewed' loyalty towards Konoha, you will have to bear with that" she continued.

Looking down at the boy, Tsunade knew he was not a danger or a threat for the village anymore; his eyes were just like Naruto's when she had told him of his promotion. He was, somehow, a victim.

She was the Hokage though, and for how much she liked to run away from her duties to drink sake, she knew how to work –the Elders had still a partial influence on her decisions, but they could be overruled.

They had asked the Uchiha to be reinstated, but she had to be cautious. Even if she trusted the dark haired boy because she trusted Naruto, the Uchiha had still a long way to go to regain her complete respect, to prove himself worth of Naruto's own.

"You will be forced to complete two months of daily D–rank missions alongside with your usual team missions" her tone was cold, but her eyes showed a bit more warmth, and Sasuke caught on this. "You will be allowed to train only with your sensei's supervision or an eventual trustworthy person that will need the ANBU's approval and permission. All your moves will be controlled, you will only meet people in wide open spaces, until the two months end".

Sasuke allowed himself to nod respectfully, showing he was listening. Naruto had been close to this woman, and it meant she cared for the blond, thus the only reason she wasn't skinning him alive was Naruto's will.

"When the time period ends, you will be freed of any accuse" Tsunade finished. "Now, you're dismissed. I suggest you to go home and sleep. Your team will meet tomorrow morning at half past seven in your usual place".

Tsunade's eyes were flashing with some kind of warning, but Sasuke had trouble deciphering it. He frowned lightly, not understanding.

The Uchiha bit his lip hearing the Hokage's words –he had wanted to go see Naruto first thing after he left the hospital, but maybe it would be better to wait and meet him the next day, with the rest of his team.

This way he could see how Naruto reacted to his presence, before trying something in solitaire.

Besides, Naruto could think he just wanted to kill him again…

Nodding again, Sasuke bowed ever so slightly. "I understand, Tsunade–sama" he muttered quietly, looking at her in the eyes.

Tsunade felt a vein pop somewhere in her temple but hid it well. She knew he wasn't trying to be respectful, but was simply accepting the current situation and trying to use it to his own advantage…

Kids these days. Damn them all.


Naruto stretched his back, wiping away the sweat from his forehead as he observed the training grounds around him with satisfied expression, his eyes slanted in his usual fox–face.

He had been training for the last couple of hours, and the results were far too clear for anyone to see –the ground was filled with holes, many trees surrounding the place were not… quite there anymore, or simply had been taken down by some jutsu, and even most of the grass had been sent flying everywhere in the fit of the battle.

Tsunade would probably pop a vein at the sight of the Training Ground Five after his sparring matches with Ino, Neji, TenTen and Lee, but she would cope with it –he hoped.

To be completely honest with himself, this was not the first time he had reduced a training ground in something like this, and Tsunade had never accepted it without punching him through a wall… but one could always hope, right?

In the last month he had been training really hard, completely focusing on re–learning what he didn't know, with his team and some random added bonus, Ino and TenTen. The blonde had been serious with her request to train with them, whilst the older girl had simply wanted to get better at other styles of fighting that did not involve weaponry. Her father was a master of ninja weapons, but seriously lacked in other departments, and TenTen's goal was to stop relying so much on them.

A month, a single month, and Naruto felt he'd entered a new phase of his life. It felt so different from before, maybe even more exciting. The missions were not discussed by Tsunade with Kakashi, and then delivered to them at their meeting point, but given off to them equally.

There was time left to train, and Naruto felt he was really improving –with his teammates confiding in his strength, and not pushing him off but helping him as he helped them.

The first thing that had changed was his clothing, of course. Dropping away his orange, finally admitting it couldn't but hinder him while ambushing (and it had been quite the shock, too, to learn the reason he had been unable to properly ambush was his choice of dressing colours), he had picked on milder clothes.

The day Ino and TenTen had forced all the team to go in a shopping spree, Naruto had truly understood the horrors of going from one shop to the other, watching the two kunoichi sift through tons of ninja clothing for himself and Lee, feeling much like a puppet.

Seven hours non–stop.

It had been hell, Naruto knew it, but at the same time… he spent time with his friends, and he had never felt happier.

Start Flashback–

"Naruto, please, stop complaining about it" Ino said merrily, smiling as she held her bags at her sides, glaring at Shikamaru who was trying to sneak away.

"But Ino–chan, I mean, I've got my clothes, why are we still here?" Naruto was almost afraid to know the answer to his question.

"Because, even though we found you some spare clothes, and Lee as well, we still need things! Why are you not happy, aren't you having fun?" both TenTen and Ino turned towards him with twin glares, almost daring him to deny.

Naruto grew pale and shook his head, "no! I mean, yes! It's fun!"

TenTen and Ino shared a knowing smile and turned around again, chatting happily about the best way to clean their weapons, whilst Naruto shared a pained look with Shikamaru.

Neji was grudgingly following them, since not even he could call himself out from his ex–teammate's wrath –TenTen knew what to do to make him pliant.

Even Lee and his unstoppable optimism had crumbled after the first four hours.

Even though, all of them had to admit that apart the shopping itself, it had been quite fun.

Ino and TenTen had dragged them all through at least ten shops, but the results were obvious and evident and not even Shikamaru had anything to say against their choices.

Naruto had mainly wanted black, because it was cool and would be a good choice in colour, but Ino had promptly denied him it.

Black, she had stated, was just like orange in a way; it was too visible in forests and normal natural settings, because unless hiding against charcoal, it was easily spotted. And at night even dark browns, greys and greens looked black, so there was no need to get such colour.

It was useless.

Naruto had relented, mostly because Shikamaru had agreed with Ino for once, and he had to admit it was not that bad, after all. Even Lee looked somewhat more… human (natural) with clothes that were not brightly green, spandex–looking and tight, and with his new haircut –that had been forced upon him to make him lose his bowl–head– he looked pretty decent.

As Lee and Naruto engaged a small conversation, something about Taijutsu training, ramen and determination, Shikamaru and Neji moved forwards, trying to determine whether Ino and TenTen would stop soon or not.

As they turned a corner, realising the two kunoichi had programmed their next stop at the dark haired girl's favourite weaponry shop, something pink attracted the four's attention. Ino widened her eyes as she recognized Sakura making her way towards the hospital. The pink haired kunoichi was bouncing around and waving at the people she passed by, holding something in her hands.

She was coming their way, too.

It looked like she was going to visit Sasuke again, and Ino felt a bit angry at her. Sakura needed to open her eyes.

Shikamaru and Ino shared a quick look before the blonde halted in her tracks.

Somehow all of them felt a bit protective over the whiskered shinobi, and probably meeting Sakura right now would dampen a bit his good mood. Shikamaru knew it was wrong to delay the inevitable, but at the same time…

"Ah! Naruto! How troublesome…" Shikamaru rolled his eyes and turned around, growling towards Ino. "I think I left my wallet in the last shop we visited".

"Oh? Really?" Naruto looked at him. "Wanna me to go pick it up?"

"Yeah, please, it's so troublesome for me to go back" Shikamaru slouched a bit more. "I'll give you ramen if you do".

In the blink of an eye Naruto was already running away.

Lee blinked in surprise and turned to look at Shikamaru. "But… I thought you left your wallet at home because you didn't want to have to pay for Ino–san?"

Shikamaru shrugged.

"You should probably go tell him" Neji quietly commented. He was also thinking of what reaction Lee could have if he were to see Sakura, too.

Lee blinked unsurely, but then smiled brightly at them, and started chasing Naruto down.

End FlashBack–

Naruto had yet to understand why Shikamaru had made him go all the way back to the shop when he hadn't really lost his wallet, but when he and Lee had returned, the lazy teen had bought him ramen anyway, so Naruto had not protested.

So, thanks to that day, now he had a whole cupboard filled with brand new clothes.

All in all, Naruto hadn't been all that unhappy to give up his orange for something else; at first he had thought it was like throwing away a part of himself, but then he had changed opinion.

His clothes had never been him.

They represented the person Naruto had wanted to be, the kid in need to be recognized; he was not that kid anymore… he was a ninja, and his dreams were no distant hopes anymore. He had a better understanding on how to accomplish them, and he had backup.

Though, the moment he had admitted this loudly, after a day of shopping, Neji's eyes had turned scary… the Hyuuga had eyed him, then the bunch of orange clothes, and had asked him if he could do something for the community.

Naruto still didn't believe Neji had burned his clothes outside his house.

It had looked like Neji was having fun, too. If the omnipresent smirk during all the burning hadn't been clear enough, the Hyuuga prodigy had also cackled quite evilly at some point, drawing on him the shocked expressions of his teammates and friends.

Even Kakashi–sensei had appeared there, looking very much proud of what was going on, and had happily aided Neji by throwing the orange garments into the flames until nothing but ashes was left.

Naruto had been quite freaked out indeed.

"Naruto, are you sure Hokage–sama won't get angry at us, seeing we destroyed another training ground?" Ino bit her lip worriedly as she and Neji walked near the blond, who shook himself out of his thoughts and shrugged at them.

"Well, she'll probably vent out against me, or something, but it's ok" he flashed her a smile.

Ino had been afraid of Tsunade's mood swings since she observed the busty woman slam Jiraiya through a wall and a door with a fist, the day she had caught the sennin peeping in the Hokage tower's female bathroom.

"Ah, indeed, this is so troublesome" Shikamaru hadn't been training with them for the day, as he had been wounded during their last mission and had been asked to relax and rest for three days, but he had still looked upon his friends' training to see eventual flaws.

The lazy teen flexed his arm, knowing he would be fine from now on as he was almost completely healed already.

"Shut up, lazy ass" Ino smacked him lightly on the back of his head, receiving a groan of pain from her friend but no retaliation. "At least you're able to move your arm".

Shikamaru had to admit it could have been worse.

"Lee!" Neji called out, and the black haired Taijutsu user sped up towards them, followed by TenTen who had been busy recollecting all her weapons.

"Hai Neji?" Lee stretched his back, literally shining in happiness.

Even though he now wore normal clothes –a white shirt and a pair of normal brown ninja pants with his Chuunin jacket– his attitude was far from changed. He was still pretty loud and boisterous, even though he had managed to calm himself a bit, resembling less and less Gai in his actions and words.

"Training ends here, Tsunade–sama said we're going to have a mission tomorrow" Neji looked at Naruto, then at Shikamaru. "Don't be late, we have to meet on the outskirts of Konoha at seven sharp".

Shikamaru groaned –it was not his fault if sometimes he ended up sleeping just that minute more, and ended up being somewhat late. At least he was not hours late like Naruto the first two days or so.

"Hey, I was used with Kakashi–sensei coming three hours after the meeting time, it took me a bit to realise we'd actually meet in time" the blond protested, receiving one slap on the back of his head from Ino.

"We know, Naruto" she laughed a bit.

"Well, then, until tomorrow" Naruto waved at Neji, Shikamaru and Lee, then turned to the two kunoichi as Neji spoke again.

"We will schedule the next training day when we come back" Neji spoke directly to Ino, since TenTen on her own had no problems deciding a training day. "I know you're going to start doing missions with your new team, so we will have to wait and see what your daily schedule will be, as well" .

Naruto blinked.

Had it been already a month?

Ino would start meeting with what remained of Team Seven, and that meant the month of confinement for Sasuke was concluded. The Uchiha would be released, probably he had been released already, and from the next day, he would be around Konoha again.

Naruto had to suppress a small shudder at the thought. A part of him was crying at him to screw everything and just go see him, but he knew better than just to give in.

He could not allow himself this weakness, or it would cause more pain.

He had to admit with himself that he had not realised he had been a month already since their promotion –with the training, the missions and everything else, Naruto felt like it had been a year instead of a simple month.

There had been times he had wanted to give up and return on his decision, but Neji, Shikamaru and Lee (not to mention Ino, TenTen, and the others from the Rookie 9) had been supportive on his part, not taking sides, but being there for him anyway.

He had wonderful friends, and now, even thinking at Sakura and Sasuke didn't bring that much pain anymore –a dulled out ache in his chest, but maybe he was getting stronger.

"Good luck Ino–chan!" Naruto smiled at the other blonde, who smiled back at him. "Well guys, I am going to eat ramen with Team Eight now" he cheered up a bit at the thought of his delicious food. "Kiba will be bragging about some random things, as usual".

"And you want to be there to be the one who brags more" Neji smirked at him knowingly.

Naruto's face lit up "of course!"

Even though Naruto and his team had been busy completing their missions and training with Ino and TenTen –and trying to come up with a name to go with, something that was harder than previously thought– they had also some spare time to meet up with Kiba, Shino and Hinata, the only team who had not been affected by Naruto's decisions.

All the three of them had been somewhat supportive of him though, to his delight and relief, and Kiba had actually told him he respected his decision. Nor the Inuzuka neither Shino nor Hinata thought less of him for dropping out of Team Seven.

He had yet to tell anyone the full extent of his thoughts, but they were not pressing on him to know, at least.

Surprisingly enough, he was getting better with things he had previously thought he'd never understand, like chakra control and Genjutsu. Neji had been very helpful in that department, and now Naruto could cast small Genjutsu –even though they were far too weak to work much, it was still an improvement.

Even Gai, with spandex and everything, had wanted to help the team. Since they were all Chuunin, and lacked the guardianship of a Jounin teacher like most teams, the Green Beast of Konoha had taken them under his wings, quite literally.

They were forced to join in morning jog and some of his Taijutsu training with Lee, and despite having to endure Gai and Lee's expansive attitude, Naruto was quick to admit it felt good to have so much attention on himself.

As he moved to get away from the destroyed training ground, Naruto looked over at Lee. He was changed, as well. Even though his bright attitude wasn't changed much, apart him lowering his voice a bit and acting a bit less boisterously, his appearance had greatly improved. He was not a Gai–clone anymore.

He was… Lee.

"Naruto, please! Remember –seven sharp!" Neji cried at his retreating back.

Naruto waved at them without turning.


To say he was nervous would be an understatement –and a big one at that.

Normally, he'd deny it, because not even under torture he'd admit he, Uchiha Sasuke, could be nervous about something as trivial as meeting up with his team.

But he had promised himself he would change. He would try to be more open, and that he would try to be more accepting. His clouded mind had done enough mistakes, allowing him to see them.

Now, he would never randomly smile at someone –he could still retain some pride when it came to others– but he was forcing himself. Naruto needed to see he was honest with him.

That was also the reason as to why he hadn't slept the whole night, tossing and turning around; maybe he had underestimated his current problem with Naruto, but his inner conscience (he probably had to have one) apparently hadn't.

Every time he closed his eyes, he could see nothing but Naruto's pained eyes at the Valley of End, tinged of red and swirling with hurt, anger and determination. The blond's face haunted his sleep and wake, and the knowledge he would meet him in the morning hadn't helped at all.

Sasuke didn't know what to do, for the first time ever. And he was confused.

He was so used to be confident and cold, and now he had to show in some way his confusion to Naruto. To make him understand.

Somehow, he had to.

He could not stand to stay away from his friend anymore. Somehow, in a way he could not understand, he needed Naruto. They had a deeper understanding. Despite their fights, the words they used to each other, they had truly being friends.

In that twisted way that characterized Sasuke so much, Naruto was his best friend and the fact that he'd been ready to kill him showed how much he meant for him.

At five in the morning Sasuke was already up for his meeting at six, tying his pouch of kunai and shuriken in his hands as he made his way outside the compound, firmly holding the scratched hitai–ate that belonged to him in his hand.

He could not change it, not even if it was scratched, because it was part of what he had decided to let go, and it would be a reminder. He would get another one, and wear both, as a symbol of his decisions.

He was vaguely aware of the ANBU stationed on the tree in front of his house, but he paid no heed to it as he made his way through the village, knowing he would have to bear with that surveillance for the first months.

He'd probably get only D–rank missions for a while as well –Konoha could not spare an ANBU team to follow a Genin group in outside missions. But that would also mean he could see Naruto in neutral territory, and it was a good thing.

Naruto. Every step made him closer to the bridge, where he could finally see him. He still didn't know what he could say, or do, but the thing he needed now was to see Naruto, to see if he was ok.

It was worthy the twinges of pain coming from his cramped up muscles, still after a month. It was worthy his future training to get back in shape.

The first thing he saw when reaching their usual meeting spot was a familiar pink head pressed against the railing of the bridge, her eyes lost on the passing water down below. Sakura was a face he really wasn't that happy to see, since she came every single day to see him, and not even once did she voluntarily speak of the blond.

She had always managed to dismiss his questions by telling him Naruto was fine on his own and would probably be training.

Sasuke hoped she'd understand one day. If she really wanted to be friends with him, and nothing more because there was no place for her in a romantic way in him, she'd have to stop deluding herself.

"Ah –Sasuke–kun!" brilliant green eyes widened as she turned his way, probably sensing his approaching chakra.

He snorted at her, but she seemed blind to his current tension and approached him, thankfully not touching him.

At least she had some decency left in her to know he wouldn't want her to touch him.

"Good morning Sasuke–kun!" Sakura was positively bouncing around.

It was the first time in months Sasuke was out from the hospital. She was so happy, they would be together doing missions again, and since she had been at his side all month, she was the only one for him.

He would see it.

It wasn't like Ino–pig could ever compete. She hadn't visited him, not even once.

"Sasuke–kun, how are your muscles? I hope they're not cramped up, and if they are, maybe I can, I dunno, massage you" she was sparkling brightly at the suggestion, her hands itching to touch him and Sasuke recoiled, backing away instantly.

"No" he said, clearly and tonelessly.

No, she had no decency at all.

Sasuke retreated towards the outer side of the bridge, pointedly ignoring Sakura's presence in order to watch for Naruto's arrival. It was almost seven, already one hour late for their meeting, he'd soon be there for sure.

Sakura stared at him mournfully, but sighed and let it go, for now. Maybe she had to show her professionalism so he could realise she was perfect.

Glancing at the road as well, she waited for Naruto's appearance; she was feeling a tad bit guilty because after all, Sasuke's words, coupled with Ino's, had forced their way into her mind, nagging her to death.

She was not a good teammate, at least not towards the blond, and he had taken her Sasuke back. He deserved at least her gratitude, but she hadn't visited.

Sakura had decided she would greet him and smile at him (even if he'd start fawning over her, she would simply endure) and act friendly.

Both Sakura and Sasuke's eyes turned sharply to the road as someone appeared, and both recognised the familiar bright blond hair belonging to their last teammate.

Sasuke stood straighter, his heart missing a beat, and Sakura mustered up a smile.

"Naruto!" the pink haired kunoichi lifted up her hand to wave at him, but stopped in midair as she took in his appearance.

Sasuke stared at Naruto and –simply stared.

He was… changed.

Gone was his orange. The brightness of his clothes was not there anymore, his hair and eyes the only things unchanged of him.

For his new mission Naruto had chosen to wear a brown shirt with long sleeves that had two pockets on each arm –TenTen had suggested him to hide exploding tags in there, should the need arise– and Konoha's symbol was painted on the back, right above his left shoulder.

He had a normal pair of grey and brown ninja pants, with the shuriken pouch tied to one leg. His Chuunin jacket wasn't on him, as he usually forgot he had it and left it at home.

To Sakura and Sasuke's eyes, he was almost another person.

Sakura's hand fell at her side, her lips opening in shock as she took in just how different he looked now. Staring at his frame, now not hidden by the orange jumper that had been far too big on him, hiding away his built, she noticed he wasn't that puffy, after all.

Was this… Naruto?

Hearing a familiar voice call him, Naruto looked up, shaking himself out from his thoughts. He was guilty, he knew it –he'd been thinking about Ino's first mission with her new team, and his thoughts had derailed towards a certain raven haired teen that had troubled him so much.

It still hurt, it seemed.

But he would have never thought he'd see him… Sasuke… this soon.

In front of him.

Real, tangible. There.

Sasuke was standing there, on the bridge. With Sakura, and they were both staring at him with shock clear in their eyes.

Naruto felt his heart clench considerably in his chest, his breath coming in a ragged gasp as he steadied his last faltering step.

Sasuke was there.

The bridge, shit. Naruto should have known better. Team Seven always met there. It was normal they'd be here, since they didn't know. And he hadn't realised he had to pass through there to get to the outskirts…

His lips flew open as words he didn't want to say tried to come out, words that were almost ripped from him but he swallowed them again.


He closed his mouth, forcing himself not to speak. It was harder than he thought –just seeing the Uchiha made his pain return tenfold.

'Why… why now… why here…'

Sasuke noticed how the blue eyes darkened considerably as he saw him, and moved forwards, not speaking but needing to show Naruto he meant no harm–

Sakura didn't see Naruto's flash of pain nor his hesitation, and moving forwards she smiled at the blond again, "Hey, Naruto, you look–"


Kakashi's sudden appearance made Sasuke stop and Sakura stumble backwards a bit, as the silver haired Jounin had apparently placed himself between them and the frozen blond.

The copycat had been lingering on a nearby tree with the ANBU as he stared at Naruto's arrival, wondering if it'd be ok to just allow him to meet with Sasuke and Sakura, but the moment he had seen Naruto's behaviour he had known it was still too soon.

Naruto was still hurting and it would be worse. Besides, Kakashi had this sudden urge to help Naruto, even if the Chuunin didn't need him.

"Yo!" Kakashi lifted his arm in his usual greeting, pointedly ignoring the displeased look on Sasuke's face.

This new protectiveness Kakashi was developing for Naruto was a bit frightening. He liked the blond and wanted to see him healthy, but he was starting to feel pretty old. Almost like an uncle of sorts. And he wasn't sure he liked it.

Sakura forgot Naruto for a second to turn towards their Jounin instructor, in need of something normal, something familiar –because the last month's happenings, Sasuke's attempted betrayal, and now Naruto's change of clothes were making her confused and nervous.

"Kakashi–sensei! You're late!" she yelled, only to stop when she realised Naruto was not yelling with her.

She blinked unsurely, feeling the last bit of confidence leave her. What was going on? Was the world turning on itself?

Kakashi ignored her as usual though, and turned towards the frozen blond, the only thing that showed his own tenseness was the tight grip on his favourite book.

"Ah, Naruto! It has been a while, has it? How are you feeling? Up for a mission already?"

Since both Naruto and Kakashi had been busy with their own missions, they had only met twice in a month.

Naruto blinked twice, the uproar inside his mind calming down at Kakashi's apparently carefree words, detecting an almost caring tone underneath.

Shaking slightly with the effort to not look back at Sasuke, who was still staring at him, almost penetrating him with his stare, he smiled at Kakashi.

"Ah, Kakashi–sensei" thankfully his voice was steady. "Yes, everything's ok" he was lying, and he knew the Copycat knew it. But it was enough.

"That's good to hear" Kakashi's visible eye turned into a half moon.

Sasuke knew something was wrong, but again, he had no time to speak, because someone else appeared on the other side of the bridge, coming out from the forest.

"Naruto–kun!" it was Lee, a very different looking Lee, but still Lee.

Sakura at first didn't even want to look at the Taijutsu user, knowing he'd suddenly jump at her to woo her, but when Lee stopped behind them and she didn't hear him speak to her, she turned around, only to let out a gasp at his new attire.

He wasn't Gai's clone anymore, and if she could trust her eyes, even his hair and eyebrows weren't the same. She was utterly speechless. Why… what…

Really, something had happened to Konoha –this was probably a Genjutsu or something, since both Naruto and Lee were dressed like any other shinobi and…

"Ah, Lee" there was so much relief in Naruto's voice that even Sasuke and Sakura were able to feel it, even though neither understood the reasons for it. "Hey!"

Next to Lee stood Neji, in all his stuck–up glory, one eyebrow lifted up, his right hand resting on his hips. And a few steps behind Shikamaru yawned.

Sasuke turned around and scowled.

Neji noticed the Uchiha's presence and his eyes turned cold, utterly glacial, his entire posture stiffening in barely contained anger. He could see the pain flashing in Naruto's eyes, and he didn't like it.

"Naruto–kun, we got a high B–rank mission today!" Lee was positively sparkling, trying not to bounce around in happiness.

Tsunade had given them from low C to low B–ranked missions, not trusting them yet to take on harder missions, since they were a newly formed team and all that stuff, but apparently she had decided to reward a month of their hard work with something dangerous.

Or possibly, she wanted to keep their pay for the high ranked mission to herself since they destroyed Training Ground Five.

Naruto momentarily forgot Sasuke's presence as he smiled, "that's so awesome!"

Sakura scoffed inwardly, mentally slapping herself as she realised she had been gawking at Lee until then.

If Lee's team was busy with such mission, Naruto would throw a fit when Kakashi handed them their D–ranked mission.

He'd have to bow and accept the fact that, for the next two months, they'd have to do only such horrible missions. Sakura felt a bit angry because it was, in a way, Sasuke's fault, but she knew better than accuse her love of these things.

Sasuke observed with a bit of anger Naruto's interaction with Neji, Lee and… Shikamaru? What was Shikamaru doing with Lee and the Hyuuga?

Where was the girl, whatever–her–name–was?

Kakashi hid his smirk behind the newest edition of 'Icha Icha Violence' and watched as the situation evolved in front of him. He was starting to have fun.

Neji cleared his throat, making Lee, Shikamaru and Naruto turn towards him. Regarding the Uchiha with a glare that could rival an iceberg for its coldness, the Hyuuga prodigy stood even straighter.

"We have to go now, we're already late" he said, narrowing his eyes.

Sasuke glared back just as hard. Neji was one of those that had followed him to take him back, despite the rivalry Hyuuga and Uchiha had, and Sasuke knew he'd done it simply out of friendship with the blond teen.

A new, sudden rush of anger hit Sasuke. He didn't want Naruto to be friends with Neji. He might have pouted, but there again, he didn't. He wouldn't back off in front of the white eyes freak.

Neji bowed respectfully towards Kakashi, then turned around (making his hair flow dramatically over his shoulder in doing so) and started to walk away, followed by Shikamaru.

Lee blinked at him and his eyes fixed unsurely on Sasuke and then on Sakura, biting his upper lip in wonder. For a moment, he looked like he'd move towards the pink haired kunoichi to speak with her, but a look at Naruto stopped him.

Sakura had caused Naruto pain. Naruto was his friend, and even if his emotions towards Sakura–chan were still raging inside of him, telling him that Sakura had not acted like this knowing it would cause Naruto pain, out of respect for his comrade and friend he decided to let it go, and not declare his undying love for Sakura this time.

Besides, he didn't want her to reject him as usual. It would feel worse this time, and Lee had the feeling it would hurt more than any other time.

He had to think it over for a bit, because these new thoughts confused him greatly… and he needed to stay focused on his mission.

Lee backed away, not daring to look at Sakura again, and with a wave followed his captain. His heart weighted painfully in his chest, but he knew he was doing the right thing.

Naruto was surprised by Lee's actions, not understanding what could have caused this turnaround, but decided not to dwell on it. Looking up at his ex–sensei's eye, he noticed he was smiling down at him with warmth, and felt like smiling back.

It felt easier when he wasn't looking at Sasuke. Even if Sasuke had never stopped looking at him (if not to glare against Neji, of course).

Sakura was still in shock for Lee's attitude and appearance, but noticing her teammate turning towards Kakashi she braced herself for the obvious tantrum he would throw about the level of their first mission.

What Naruto said shocked her again.

"Good luck sensei!"

Kakashi stepped forwards to ruffle at his hair. "I should say that, not you, Naruto!" he laughed amiably.

Neji turned smugly towards Team Seven and Naruto, making it obvious he was calling out to Naruto. "Naruto, let's go! We lost enough time as it is!"

Sasuke's eyes widened in shock as Naruto started moving, passing next to him without sparing a glance at him, eyes fixed on the Byakugan user on the other side of the bridge.

Naruto quickened his pace, eyes begging to flicker on Sasuke's stunned face, his heart constricting painfully in his chest and making his eyes burn, but he didn't give in.

'I am stronger than that'.

And he was.

With every step ripping at his insides, Naruto turned his back to Team Seven, literally, and reached for Neji, who took his arm and nodded at him, comfort flowing from his body through the brief contact they had.

Neji met Naruto's eyes, seeing the panic and the tears, and smiled at him.

"Everything is ok" he mouthed.

Naruto shakily smiled back.

It wasn't. but it would surely be. This felt like shredding the last thread connecting him to them.

Sakura and Sasuke never saw the haunted eyes of Naruto, fighting against tears (without even knowing why he should cry in the first place) as he walked away, quickly surrounded by Shikamaru, Lee and Neji.

Sakura felt her head spin in confusion, her legs strangely faint. Naruto was…

Was Naruto walking away from them?

Sasuke felt fear grip tightly around his heart, for every step Naruto took away from him. The blond wasn't turning back.

'Naruto…' Sasuke's voice was gone, he found himself unable to speak. His lips opening and closing without words coming out. 'Naruto, please… turn around…'

He wasn't turning around.

Disappearing in the forest without… without even…


Never looking back…

Footsteps caught Sakura's attention as she twirled around, meeting the sight of another blonde staring at them with determination.

Her bluish eyes, so similar and yet so different in colour and tone from Naruto's, held a darker hue, as she had observed what had happened from her spot behind a tree, but her face was carefully clean of emotions.

Clear blonde hair swinging in a tall ponytail above her head.

Sakura gasped.

Sasuke had long since stopped caring, his eyes still fixed on the spot Naruto had vanished into. At least until Kakashi spoke.

"Well, then" Kakashi's voice felt tired. "Let me officially announce you Naruto's substitute in Team Seven –say hello to Ino".

Sasuke's head snapped back at them.

What the hell…?!


StarsOfYaoi for those who like ItaNaru, read my other fic and drop me a review! I really enjoy them…

Drop a review for this one, too… it's easy, so please, make me happy…