Ah, well, my first Naruto story. For those of you that are veteran Naruto readers, aren't you amazed at the sheer amount of CRAP out there? Really, where are all of the good stories? The normal ones? There are so many bad cliches it's downright disgraceful.

Naa, well...here it is. Hopefully this old hag from the Yuugiou fandom can give Naruto some justice. Enjoy! (By the way, if you hadn't noticed, this is a Naruto/Sakura fiction. For those of you who don't like it, well, pfft. Face the facts. Sasuke's a villian, Naruto is awesome, and Sakura is going to stop being blindsided by preteen infatuation. So there. (Sticks out tongue.) )

Gin no Kyuubi

The Silver Fox Demon

The corridors were dark, dank, and smelly. The light source was unknown and indiscernible, as it came from no particular direction. The floor was covered in something that looked like water, but experience said it was something else entirely. It was thinner than sweat, unreflective, and smelled oddly like rotting sakura petals.

Naruto knew this place all too well. He walked down a particularly dark hall, fearless as venomous growls of a fearsome beast reverberated off the walls. He never thought it would come to this. He never wanted to admit he couldn't do it on his own. But the laws of nature...damn those laws. Damn them to the deepest pits of hell.

One person could not overpower a mass of assassins. Especially one person, no matter how trained, against the assassins of the red moon.

The giant gate of the kyuubi finally came into view. The tiny piece of paper that proclaimed 'seal' on it sat untouched and out of reach, as always. The blonde haired teenager raised his head and looked up at the beast inside. It was always so dark in there. Aside from red eyes of anger, Naruto had never truly seen what the face looked like. "Oi! Kyuubi! Wake up!"

The constant growl grew louder still. A torrent of wind rushed past him as the animal breathed out in anger. "You..." Its powerful voice hissed. "The weak, pathetic creature that is my cage..."

"Yeah, that's right. Listen up, damned fox."

With movement too fast for human eyes to see, the demon inside thrust its claws at the iron gates, but the seal wouldn't budge. "Let me eat you! When I get out of here, I will tear Konoha to shreds!"

Naruto was long used to the threats. "You'll do no such thing. Listen up, kyuubi. We're at a crossroads here. We have a decision to make, and if we don't make it now, both of us will die."

The fox laughed. "Is that so? Even the chakra I gave you is not enough? Pathetic worm!"

Naruto growled and bit down his retort. "Baka! If Akastuki gets a hold of us, you know what will happen!"

The demon quieted down. "If only you weren't so weak. Then I wouldn't be bothered."

Naruto crossed his arms and reflected at how strange it was to hear a demon mumble. "Then decide. Now."

The growls quieted to a vicious purr. Water drops echoed in the long, empty corridor behind him. Reddish tan fur rubbed up against the iron gates as the creature contemplated. Naruto wasn't worried. It seemed he could spend hours wandering through the halls, and wake up in the real world and barely seconds had slipped by.

"Fine," the demon spat. "However, there is one stipulation. I will give you as much power as your body can hold, and all of the knowledge I have concerning the arts of taijutsu, ninjustu, kinjustu, and genjutsu, but only if you release me before you die."

"What!" Naruto barked back. "And let you destroy my village anyway? Hell no!"

"Then we will die together."

Naruto crossed his arms. He would rather die than let the kyuubi out. "Fine."

Screams from the outside world entered the hallways of Naruto's subconscious. His very soul was screaming out in pain. The watery substance beneath his feet began to vibrate, and tiny rivulets of silvery liquid began to shoot out of the crevices of the walls. The silver liquid began to stain red.

"They're killing me," Naruto said.

The fox demon growled.

The ceiling above the gate began to shrink. The space the kyuubi inhabited started to grow smaller and smaller. A scratch appeared on Naruto's cheek. Blood dribbled down his lip. "Four..." he began to count. The iron gates grew smaller in size. The odd light source began to go out. "Three..."

So the fox was actually going to let it happen. Damned thing. Naruto's knees gave out underneath of him. He didn't want to die, but it seemed he had no choice. He'd miss everyone. If only Sakura had liked him more. He would always wish things had been better between them. He couldn't see the gates anymore. "Two..."

It was so dark...

And he was so alone...

He felt his heart beat hard, loud, and painfully. One last time...

"One..."

Before it was consumed in fire.

xxx

Jiraiya could only watch helplessly as Kisame's giant sword sucked away all of Naruto's chakra as it was thrust into his side. He himself was bound by ropes even a ninja couldn't break. Damn Akatsuki. Damn them all to hell. Naruto fell limp to the ground. There was a sickening 'thud' as he hit rocks and fallen wood. Jiraiya wouldn't doubt it if nearly every bone in the teenager's body was broken, busted, fractured, or chipped.

Kisame laughed, but Itachi looked on impassively. There didn't seem to be anything in the world that could rattle him.

"This should finish it," the strange fish man said as he lifted his gnarly sword one last time. "Dead enough so we can do whatever we want with him." And he swung down hard. The distinct noise of skin being torn from muscle vibrated in Jiraiya's ears. Kami-samma, he'd never be able to sleep another day in his life after tonight...

"Are you done yet?" Itachi asked of his comrade. His otherwise bored voice seemed to make Jiraiya's desperate situation even worse.

Kisame started wrapping the samehada back up in cloth. He laughed."That was more fun than I thought it wou-"

In a heart shattering moment, the laughter of Kisame was ended with a 'thwump.' Naruto's white haired sensei looked at a tree next to him to see Kisame pinned up against it, a shaft of electric red chakra sticking out of his chest. The energy sizzled and popped before it disappeared completely and allowed the Akatsuki member to fall to the ground, dead.

Naruto was standing again, alive and awake, but once again the characteristics of the demon inside of him began to show. His eyes were red and slitted, he cheeks hinted at whiskers, his canines had grown, he had claws instead of fingernails, and the chakra around him flicked and swayed like that of tails.

It was different this time, though. It felt stronger...more potent than ever before. Naruto turned his head and looked at him, and he suddenly realized why. He'd seen that look before, a long time ago. He'd seen the bloodlust that filled that grin. He'd had nightmares about it. It wasn't Naruto that was looking at him. It was the kyuubi. "Long time no see, kisama."

How? Had Naruto's spirit died? Did the kyuubi take over? Was that what it was waiting for? But how did it get pass the seal?

Naruto's body growled and snarled, and as he threw his head back and flung out his arms, eight different chakra infused kunai leaped out at Itatchi, whilst a dozen others headed towards the other members of the red moon that were present.

Naruto's claws dug into his hair. "Damn fox! Get out of my head!"He whipped around, and his chakra tails cut down three trees.

"Idiot child! How else am I supposed to give you this information!"

Oh, god. They'd merged.

The ground beneath his sandaled feet compacted under the immense pressure of the red energy. He'd start an earthquake if this kept up. Three assassins charged Naruto. The red chakra began to swirl around him and encircle him, like a giant form of the rasengan.

"By not taking control of me!" He screamed, and the giant rasengan exploded out from him. Jiraiya realized what an awesome ultimate defense that would be, if only he had the chakra to do it.

Two of the assassins fell dead at Naruto's feet. Itachi and the other assassin vanished from sight. Once again, Naruto screamed out of pure frustration, and a battle of wills ensued.

"Let me in...!"

"Never!"

"Naruto!" Jiraiya called out. "You can fight him! Keep him locked up! You can do this!"

"Uresei, kisama!" The kyuubi barked.

"Naruto!"

Naruto fell to his knees, and the earth rumbled. Trees toppled over. Blood fell down in rivulets around his blonde head from where his claws were digging into his scalp. "Ero-sennin!" He closed his eyes in pain. Why did his brain hurt so much at the moment?

'Stop fighting, baka. You're going to make this headache ten times worse the more you fight me.'

The silent words of the kyuubi resounded within his skull like a lead sledge hammer hitting the inside of a giant bell.

'I'll never let you out.'

'I know that. The only reason you're still alive now is because your will is too strong for your own good. Now shut up and absorb this information before we kill ourselves.'

Naruto opened his eyes and blinked in confusion. "Nani?" Was all Jiraiya heard him whisper before the high concentration of chakra exploded into the surrounding landscape. He was knocked unconscious before he could even understand what just happened.

xxx

The sky was the brightest blue he could remember seeing for ages. Fluffy clouds of the variety children love to gaze at strolled lazily across the sky. A bird chirped somewhere.

Ye gods, why did he feel like he had a bad sake hangover? He suddenly realized why and sat up in an instant. "Naruto!" The landscape swayed before his eyes, and he had to stop and steady himself. Perhaps that hadn't been such a good idea. "Naruto!" He called out again. He began to panic when he heard no answer. "Naruto!"

He stood up on wobbly legs and somehow managed to balance himself out. Strange...his wrists were no longer bound. He looked down at his hands and immediately wished he hadn't.

The ropes were definently gone. In fact, he was surprised his hands weren't gone too. His very skin had been burned away. Second and third degree burns covered his hands, most of his arms, and, oh god...He touched his face. Scratches, boils...no actual flesh gone. "Oh, no..."

The ground was covered in blast marks that led to the epicenter of the disaster. He followed the path slowly, making sure he didn't stumble and fall. Hitting his skin on anything would be very painful.

Step...step...step...

His knees wobbled. Easy, steady, don't fall. Whatever you do, don't fall down.

Jiraiya came to the edge of a hole in the ground the size of a large crater. Down in the center, flat on his back, he could just make out the outline of Naruto, completely unconscious. I wonder how long we've been out.

After about an hour and a hefty amount of cursing, the Sannin finally made it to the bottom of the crater. Naruto was, as he expected, for the most part unharmed. A small line of crusted blood was at the corner of his mouth and down his chin, but otherwise, the wounds Kisame had so happily afflicted on him were gone. The kyuubi's chakra had healed him, like it always did.

But was it Naruto that was still in control?

"Naruto!" he barked and nudged at the teenager's side. "Naruto!" He kicked again, a little harder than before. He probably should have felt bad, but his sinister side was pissed off that he was the only one left wounded. "Wake up!" He kicked again. He would have used his hands, however, in their state he doubted he'd have been able to pull apart chop sticks. Naruto snorted and moved his head a bit. Drool started to drop onto the blood by his mouth. "Naruto!" Jiraiya yelled again.

Two sapphire eyes blinked open ever so slowly. "Nnhn?"

Jiraiya sighed a sigh of relief. It was still Naruto.

"Eneh...ah...chiwe'o kenaaaah..."

Jiraiya blinked, confused. "Naruto?"

"Ekehl ste bah!" He rolled over, making to go back to sleep.

"Naruto!"

Naruto rubbed his head tenderly. "Perverted hermit...my head hurts..."

The Sannin knelt down carefully by his pupil. "Naruto, what did you say before?"

The teenager rubbed at his chin. "Eken'weh. That's what it was."

Eken'weh? Why did that sound strangely familiar? "What is that?"

Naruto blinked in confusion. "I don't know."

Jiraiya went to rub his head as he thought, but decided against it. His hands were still a mess. 'It must be something the fox demon knew. I wonder how much other information leaked through.' "Naruto, what did the kyuubi do to you? Can you think of anything else in your head you don't understand?"

Naruto yawned. "He taught me stuff."

Jiraiya paused. "Taught you? Taught you what?"

The teenager looked at the sky blankly. "Everything."

xxx

'Taught you? Taught you what?'

...'Everything.'

Jiraiya hadn't thought too much of it before, but as Naruto demonstrated his prowess in chakra draining water techniques, he began to understand. The kyuubi had actually taught him everything.

"Oi, Oi, Ero-Sennin! Watch this!" Naruto grinned widely and stood with pride. "Even Fuzzy-Eyebrows can't do this!"

Fuzzy-Eyebrows...oh, yeah. That Lee kid. Gai's student. If the old hermit was right, that was the Genin that could only do taijutsu, right? Close combat fighting techniques only. Lee couldn't mold chakra if his life depended on it. There was a lot that Naruto could do that Rock Lee couldn't.

"Pop!"

Jiraiya's train of thought was derailed as a sound of chakra energy 'popping' could be heard.

"Pop!"

Naruto started to turn red, and chakra began to flow out of him at an alarming rate.

"Pop!"

Oh, God no... "Naruto! You idiot, stop it! Don't open those life gates!"

The blonde shinobi simply laughed.

"Pop!"

The nine life gates. Chakra flowed through a circulatory system, much like blood runs though a person's veins. Forcing open the 'gates' of chakra allowed the energy to flow at an enormous rate. So much energy would literally burn a person to death. Lee could only open five of the gates, and even doing that many nearly killed him. Naruto started to perform some strange seals even Jiraiya hadn't seen before. What was he going to do? But, as another 'Pop!' was heard, Naruto's chakra began to turn from red to...pink?

"Pop!"

"Almost there!" Naruto cheered, and continued to perform hand seals. He was moving too quickly for Jiraiya to even follow any more.

"Pop, pop, pop!"

"All right!" Naruto boomed, then drove his fist at the ground. The hermit's good sense told him to jump, and thank goodness he did, for as his sandaled feet left the ground his pupil left a crater in the earth five miles wide. Jiraiya's descent to the earth was much longer than his ascent up. When he landed again, Naruto was standing there, but the chakra that had been around him was gone.

"Naruto...how..."

"Nah, it's really easy, now that I think about it. I just have to perform a bunch of these strange seals that I learned from the kyuubi and I can keep myself from getting damaged by the opening of the life gates." He smiled and scratched the back of his head.

Jiraiya realized that Naruto's abilities were now completely over his head. The sort of things he'd been seeing lately simply weren't done. They couldn't be done. How the hell could Naruto make a water dragon that was solid enough to break bones? Or wind vortexes that could battle a tsumani's awesome force?

For the past week, he and Naruto had been trying to figure out all the kyuubi had taught him, and how far he could go with those abilities. Naruto only had so much chakra, after all, and by right shouldn't be able to do most of the things he knew about.

Thank some deity for his instructor that Naruto couldn't use things such as, say, the Sharingan, or the Hyuuga's clan 'byakugan,' the blood inherited eye techniques that allowed the owner to see things no other living being could.

There were some things his blood just wouldn't allow.

But, oh, if he could open all of his life gates and not get harmed? There was no creature on the earth that could stand in his way.

Accept, of course, perhaps one.

"Naruto, what did the kyuubi teach you about the Mangekyo Sharingan?"

The blonde stopped his cheering for a moment and stood still. His deep blue eyes got a strangely intelligent look in them, something that hadn't happened before the kyuubi's 'lesson.' "It's strong," Naruto said at last. "And I don't have the ability to combat it, if he's ever able to apply it to me."

That 'he' of course could mean one of two people; Itachi or Sasuke, the last surviving members of the Uchiha clan, and two of the last three Sharingan owners alive. Or maybe both.

Naruto shook his head. "Spiritual torture is nasty, and always has a permanent affect. Kyuubi could try and fight it for me, but the success rate is still low." He rubbed his chin. "An overlay persona would fix that, but I don't have one."

Overlay persona? Where had he heard of that before... Obscure ANBU files mentioned something about its use in times before time... were there still people left who had one? An alternate soul within themselves that held emotions that shouldn't otherwise be used, overlay personas could also defend one's mind in the direst of times. Torture didn't work against them either, because the person's mind could literally 'hide' in that persona, and they wouldn't feel anything or be able to reveal any information.

Mangekyo Sharingan was a dangerous technique that sapped a lot of chakra from the user. If eye contact was made to those dangerous red and black eyes when a Mangekyo was being afflicted, hours and hours of spiritual torture were induced in a matter of seconds. There was nothing to combat it except to not make eye contact, or an overlay persona, another blood line limit that could be inherited.

"Naruto, do you know if there is anyone who still has an overlay persona?"

He closed his eyes, crossed his arms and frowned. "Eh, not really. The Haruno clan might still have something...but..." he shrugged. "Who knows."

The Kyuubi had been around for a long time, and remembered well the details of his adversaries. And his adversaries were many, vast, and varied.

Jiraiya sat down and crossed his arms. "Naruto, there is nothing else I can teach you. I suggest we head back to Konoha."

"But, Ero-Sennin, we've still got six months left before the three year training session is up."

Jiraiya sighed. For all that he'd learned, Naruto still was rather dense at times. "Naruto!" He said in exasperation. "If you already know everything, what is there left to teach you?"

Naruto scratched the back of his head and chuckled. "Right." Suddenly, he stopped smiling and blinked. His mind had wandered around to Sakura again, and the thought of Sakura also inspired the thought of what his other team mate had been doing. And she'd been training under Tsunade, the medical specialist ninja who was the Hokage of their village, and one of the most powerful ninja he knew. "Oi, Ero-Sennin, I know something the kyuubi couldn't teach me."

"What, respect for your elders?"

Naruto stuck out his tongue. "No. I still don't know any medical ninjutsu."

The Sannin took pause at that. Of course, the kyuubi wouldn't know any of that, would he? He'd know how the green chakra of medical ninjutsu worked, but he would be able to practice it. He wouldn't have needed to anyway. He healed all on his own. "I wonder how many other things the kyuubi never bothered to learn."

Naruto knew of one thing, but decided not to say it out loud. The kyuubi had never bothered to mate, and now that it was sealed it apparently really wanted to. And the damned demon's psyche was pushing Naruto to find out what it was like for him. 'Stay out of my love life, stupid fox.'

'Don't insult me, brat. Besides, I already know of your desires for the pink haired flesh bag. I find myself interested in what she tastes like.'

His skin crawled in disgust. 'I'll crush you.'

The fox laughed in deranged glee. 'I'd like to see you try.'

"Naruto!"

"Huh?" His eyes cleared as his sensei's voice entered his stream of thought.

"What are you doing? I've been telling you for a couple minutes now that we need to start heading back. Akatsuki is reforming, and we need to inform Konoha what's going on."

"Oh, eh, gomen. I was...ah, talking to the kyuubi."

Now they're talking to each other? This could get really complicated.

xxx

Konohagakure's wooden gates stood proudly open, welcoming home its ninja and enticing its prospective clients. Naruto stood tall and grinned as he looked at those gates. Oh, it had been so long... He smiled widely. 'It's good to be back.'

"Hey, Naruto! And Jiraiya! Welcome home!" Genma and another Jounin stood inside the gates and smiled. Watch dogs were laying down next to them, sensing no smell of alarm.

"Yo," was all the frog hermit said.

Naruto snorted. "That's original." Then he grinned. "I'm off to find people. See ya!"

A look of indignation cross the white haired hermit's face. "Naruto! We still have to report to the Hokage!"

"Yeah, yeah, I'll get there." He waved off his teacher and headed into the village.

Jiraiya sighed. "Some things never change." In a puff of smoke, he too was gone.

The village seemed quiet and docile. It seemed not much had changed in the past three years. Shops were open, people were about, and ninja walked about on their daily business. The office of the Hokage was a hive of activity, much like it always was. In fact...perhaps it would be a good idea to go there anyway. Sakura could be there training under Tsunade, and if she wasn't, the old hag should at least be able to tell him where she was. That was, of course, if she was in a good mood that day. Just as Naruto turned his feet to head in that direction, a person that was riding a large white dog that was nearly the size of a moose ran up to him.

"Oi! Naruto! Long time no see!"

"Kiba!" Naruto waved back at the black haired ninja, a friend he had made during the Chuunin exam. "A-Akamaru?" Naruto asked as he looked uncertainly at the dog.

"Oh yeah!" Kiba said. "That's him."

"He's gotten so big!"

Kiba looked puzzled. "Really? I hadn't noticed, I guess."

Naruto shook his head. He couldn't understand how Kiba hadn't noticed. Just two and a half years prior Akamaru often took to riding inside of Kiba's jacket rather than walk.

"You've gotten taller, though," Kiba noted. In fact... once he dismounted, Kiba looked up to Naruto.

"Oh, really?" the blonde asked. He touched the top of his head, as if feeling it would tell him how many inches taller he was compared with nearly three years ago.

'This conversation is platonic,' the kyuubi's deep voice rumbled in his head. 'Do something more interesting.'

Naruto visibly snarled. 'Go stick your head in your ass! Quit poking your nose where it doesn't belong!'

Kiba noticed Naruto's face change and wondered if he said something wrong. "Hey, what's the matter with you?"

Naruto shook his head. "Eh, nothing. Just remembering something Ero-Sennin said," he lied.

The dog centric shinobi nodded, but obviously didn't believe it.

"Naruto!"

Both of them were interrupted when a man wearing a green vest greeted them, a blonde haired woman walking next to him. Her forehead protector proclaimed proudly who she was. "Shikamaru, Temari! Wow, you two on a date?" Naruto chuckled.

"No," the Shikamaru said. His face looked bored as usual, which effectively hid the massive intellect hidden inside of his head.

"Like I'd go on a date with anyone as annoying as him," the woman scoffed. She was a ninja from the Village Hidden in the Sand, as her forehead protector so proclaimed.

"There's a new Chuunin exam coming up," Shikamaru explained. "I've got to be an examiner for some of the matches."

"Chuunin exam?" Naruto questioned.

"Yeah," Kiba said. "We've all become Chuunin already."

"What?" he asked bewildered.

"Yup," Shikamaru said. "And Neji, from the class above us, and Kankuro of the Sand, and Temari, are already Jounin."

Naruto frowned. He was the only Genin left from his year? That was...disheartening. "Heh," he chuckled. "I'll take it again, then. I'm going to pass this time! You'd better believe it!"

Shikamaru eyed him with one of his odd looks. Then he shrugged. "Ugh, how troublesome."

The day passed. Naruto found nearly everyone, including the blonde kunoichi Ino, and Chouji, the overweight ninja. In fact, he kept getting distracted from going to the Hokage's office as he had tried to do so earlier. As the day went into night, the kyuubi got more and more bored, and caused Naruto to become more and more annoyed. He much preferred it when the demon ignored him unless he was in dire danger.

And he still hadn't found who he was looking for. "Bah. Perhaps I won't find her till tomorrow," he said to himself. He finally made it to Tsunade's office around dinner time, hoping Sakura would be there training, only to find out she had left for the day. Tsunade acted as though Naruto hadn't even been gone and ordered him to write up a report on his training. She probably wouldn't believe a thing Naruto had to say about it, but oh well. That was her problem, not his.

Actually, he wasn't looking forward to going home. His apartment was probably going to have about three years of dust in it, probably some gnarly looking dirty dishes, and some new residents of the rodent kind. He frowned. He wasn't looking forward to cleaning it. And his garden would be a mess, too, no doubt. There would be nothing in it but weeds.

Naruto walked up to his door and checked around. His spare key should be in a tiny slot on the inside of the molding of the door. He ran his fingers over the edge of it and found it. Yup, right there. No one had taken his key. He inserted it and turned.

There was no click.

His door was unlocked. He hadn't forgotten to lock it, had he? He was sure he'd locked it. Too many people had tried to sabotage his living quarters before. It was only after he was older did he realize it was because of the adults that knew of the kyuubi inside of him, but it hurt just the same. He swallowed, prepared himself for the damage, and opened the door.

The first thing he noticed was the fact that a large puff of dust didn't billow out to him in greeting. The next thing he noticed was how his apartment didn't smell like ramen and corn chips. It almost smelled like...sakura petals. He frowned. I don't keep perfume in my place. That's way too girly.

He didn't have the wrong apartment, right? He wouldn't have forgotten were it was that easily, would he?

He walked in. "Hello?" A light was on.

The sound of a woman cried out in the kitchen. Maybe he did have the wrong place.

A woman with pink hair rounded the corner and looked at him. Naruto found himself starring into startled green eyes. "S-Sakura-chan?"

"Naruto!" she blushed.

Naruto noted that she was holding a feather duster, and had a dish towel slung over a shoulder. She looked kind of cute in the red apron she had on. And those black boots! 'Damn, those are sexy.'

The kyuubi laughed. 'That girl could tear you apart, brat. I remember that Hokage of yours, Tsunade. This girl's chakra enduced brute strength makes the slug woman look like a kitten.'

So she had gotten stronger in the past three years. "Sakura-chan, what are you doing here?"

She averted her gaze and mussed with her hair, which was still short. "Uh...well, I know that you've been gone a long time, and well...I couldn't just let this place go like that, you know..." She gave a nervous grin. "Couldn't let the foul smell go through all of Konoha, now could I?"

It was a lame excuse, but he didn't care. "Sakura-chan, you didn't have to do this!"

She seemed to regain her composure. "I know. You caught me on my weekly cleaning day. I've been coming once a week for about a year now. That's why I left training early today."

Despite the fact that she had on an apron, Naruto could clearly see that Sakura had developed a lot of curves. Particularly in her bust and hip area. After all, they'd only been twelve when he left, and three years later, they were both now fifteen. She had developed...much more than Naruto had anticipated. 'Don't drool, baka, because then she'll really deck you.' He tapped his foot nervously on the ground. "Ne, Sakura-chan, would you like to get something to eat with me? I haven't exactly had dinner yet, and I'm kinda hungry, and well, if you hadn't had anything to eat yet..."

Sakura grinned. "Fine, but only if you're buying."

'Fine. She said fine! Yahoo!' Naruto gave her a toothy grin. "You bet!" He was finally able to go out with Sakura-chan!

Sakura took off the apron and put down the feather duster and dish towel. She didn't really want to tell him the real reason she had decided to start maintaining his apartment.

It was true, she'd started about a year ago. In fact, about a year ago, depression began to overtake her. Her heart ached to see someone from her team again. She had no idea how much she'd miss Naruto before he left, and she found herself wishing for his company more and more each day. One day in particular had been incredibly grievous for her during training. She remembered the night well.

Sakura stared at her hands in horror. Deep red blood ran through her fingers in sticky rivulets to drop on the floor in a nauseating monotony.

Drip...

Drip...

Drip...

Tsunade had said that it wasn't her fault. No once could predict the fact that her first critical patient would be beyond even her mentor's help. 'It's not your fault,' Tsunade had said. 'You can't heal melted organs. No one can.'

But the poor man's screams...So much screaming...

Drip...

Drip...

Drip...

His eyes were drowning in agony. 'Please!' he had pleaded with her. Blood had then spouted of his mouth in a shower of red. Her hair was suddenly a few shades darker. 'Make it stop...help me...'

He died at her hands. His blood stained her skin. She may have had gloves on, but it didn't matter. She was stained. She was useless! She couldn't do anything!

A clear tear drop fell on her hand. It caused the red blood to turn pink.

The next thing she knew, she was running in a blind panic. Logic told her crying would solve nothing, and her heart screamed for comfort.

'Screamed just like the voice of the dying ninja I couldn't save...!'

She was at Naruto's apartment door. But Naruto wasn't there. Why would she be here? She should clean up. She should go home.

Face her parents with this failure...

The door had been locked, but that didn't seem to matter. Sakura found herself kneeling in a pile of wood splinters and sobbing harder than when she thought Sasuke, her estranged teammate, had died. The apartment was cold, it was dark, and it was dirty. No one had been there for well over a year. Of course it was dirty. Naruto had left in quite a hurry, and she found that the site of his bed, his pictures, his few spare clothes hanging in the closet that he couldn't fit in his pack, a comfort.

She suddenly realized that there was at least one thing that she could do to make herself useful, even if that one person didn't realize what she was doing for them. It was something that she could do, and she could do it right. She dried her tears, bathed in Naruto's bathtub, dressed in one of his black shirts and gray shorts and started to clean. She swept all of the wood splinters out of the door. She did the dishes, she swept, she moped, she replaced the door, washed the sheets and made the bed. She was up until the beak of dawn. At some point she fell asleep, on Naruto's bed, and realized that either Tsunade had given her the day off, or no one thought to look for her there, for the day had passed and it was well into evening and no one had gone looking for her.

The whole session had been rather therapeutic, in a strange way, and she found that once a week cleaning the apartment had kept her sanity more than stable.

She sometimes found herself eating there, thus needing to do the dishes that she created. His apartment became a bit of a retreat for her, actually. No one thought to look for her there. She was always able to get some quiet time to reflect, and a chance to ease the ache in her chest as she looked upon Naruto's things.

She only wondered once if he would mind, then realized he probably wouldn't, and never thought about it since. She never thought she'd actually get caught doing it, though. Now, she felt a little silly.

"I think Ichiraku Ramen is still open," she suggested.

His grin had never been wider. "Great!"

Naruto's one weakness was ramen, and Sakura hoped that mentioning the treat would take his mind off the fact that she had been breaking into his place frequently for about a year.

They walked out of the door and headed down the street. Sakura glanced over at him and looked...up. "Naruto, you grew!"

He looked at her and gave her a toothy grin. "And I got new clothes, too. I trained so hard, Ero-Sennin caused all of my old stuff to wear out completely."

Sakura did have to admit, the black and orange looked better on him than the blue and orange that he used to be so inclined to wear. His face had lost a lot of its baby fat, too. "Did you learn a lot?"

Naruto's face lost its smile and his eyes suddenly looked very far away. "Uh, yeah. Quite a lot, actually." He smiled again, a good indication of a subject change. "What about you? Did you learn a lot with Tsunade Obaa-chan?"

Sakura grinned. "I am now a fully fledged, fully trained Medical Ninja of the highest degree."

Naruto's face beamed. "That's awesome. Now, we'll be able to go after Sasuke together, and bring him back together."

Yeah...Sasuke...Their Uchiha teammate who ran off with the greatest threat to Konoha since the kyuubi attacked so many years ago. Sasuke was intent on nothing but revenge. His brother, Itachi, killed their entire clan single handedly, and now Sasuke wanted to kill him.

At all costs.

Sakura began to wonder if it was worth it to save him anymore. Naruto promised he would bring Sasuke back to her, as she believed that she loved him, and Naruto never broke his promises, even if it meant his life. Strange thing was...Sakura knew just how much Naruto liked her, loved her even, and yet he was doing this, just to make her happy.

Sasuke would have never done that for her.

"Ne, Sakura-chan," Naruto began.

"Hm?"

"Are you a Chuunin, too?"

"Aa. I passed the exam after taking it again about a year and a half ago."

Naruto frowned. "Oh."

"You should take it again, Naruto. There's another one next week. You'll pass it, I'm sure."

"Yeah, I know I will," he said without hesitation. "But...how am I going to get around the fact that I don't have a three man team?" he asked nervously.

"That's easy!" Sakura laughed. "There are plenty of people that have to retake it after they failed and other members passed. You'll just get paired up with other people, like me and a bunch of other people do."

"Oh!" Naruto said. "That makes sense." His shoulders relaxed. "I can't wait. I'll be a Chuunin, too."

"You should hurry," Sakura said. "Jounin exams will begin shortly, too."

Naruto looked at her in confusion. "There are Jounin exams, too?"

"Yeah, but they're more individual based. Jounin is a special level ninja, after all, so no one is allowed to know too much about the selection process. Tsunade said that I qualify for the exam when it comes around in the next few months."

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan! I won't fall behind!" Naruto gave one of his 'nice guy' smiles and a thumbs up. She only hoped so. Jounin had to have a lot of skill, and a lot of brains, and even though Naruto continued to surprise people, she didn't know if he could quite cut it to make Jounin rank.

Ichiraku ramen appeared in view as they rounded the corner. Naruto ran up to the counter and cried out in joy. "Hey! Old man! Three bowls of pork ramen! On the double!"

"Hey, Naruto! My best customer! Welcome back!"

"Oh! And spicy shrimp for Sakura-chan!"

Sakura sat down next to Naruto quietly. He remembered my favorite flavor...