Hello all! This is my first Naruto fic, so I hope it is enjoyable!

Here's the facts: This fic takes place immediately after the Second Battle at the Valley of the End. Naruto will be paired with someone to be determined, probably by vote.

For mature readers only! Flames will not be tolerated (assuming anyone takes the time to send me one), but good criticism is heartily appreciated.

Yes, there will be spoilers, but frankly it's inevitable. Also, Kyuubi can speak with Naruto more easily than he can in the manga.

Disclaimer: even though Masashi Kishimoto is abusing his ownership of Naruto by releasing crap, he owns Naruto. Not me. (Besides, his manga is still good and I can't draw, so it all works out.)

Italics thoughts.

Bold Italics ­ Kuubi speak

Bold jutsu declaration (Bear with me on the Japanese; I'm no expert, barely even adept.)

On with the show!




The trees whizzed by in an indecipherable blur; only the green-ness of it all gave it away to the pathetic, beaten orange lump that piggy-backed on the famous Copy-Ninja as he launched himself from tree to tree.

The path returning to Konohagakure was relatively short; they would make the village in a few hours. What bothered Hatake Kakashi was the orange lump. He was just that: lumpy – immobile, not moving, dead-like. Normally one couldn't get Naruto to shut up and sit down without the aid of a vast supply of ramen, but now…

Kakashi looked over his shoulder at Naruto, and then swiveled his gaze to Pakkun, a stare that desperately sought the answers to it all.

Shaking his head, the little ninja dog had nothing to offer. Any answers about Naruto's condition would not be forthcoming until the blonde-haired shinobi was ready.

Until then…

"Sir!" an eager med-nin shouted as his squad fell in beside him in the tree-jumping. "We have news about the status of the genin team sent to retrieve Sasuke!"

Kakashi shook himself from his thoughts and focused on the ninja.

"Report." Was the taciturn command. Pakkun shook his head; some things never changed.

"Sir!" the nin said yet again as Kakashi waited for him to expand his annoyingly short vocabulary. "The genin have been recovered from various locations throughout the forest. Akimichi Chouji is in critical condition; his body is deteriorating at a rapid pace, and he doesn't have much longer unless his condition improves soon."

"Hyuuga Neji was found next. He has extreme tissue damage in his shoulder and extensively across his muscular system. He too is in critical condition, but shows signs of recovery."

The med-nin took a deep breath before continuing. "Inuzuka Kiba, Rock Lee, and Nara Shikamaru were found to be in stable condition and were able to assist us in helping them return to Konoha. They will all need further treatment however except for Nara-san, who only suffered a broken finger."

Kakashi chuckled inwardly at that. Kami-sama knows he probably defeated his opponent with his vastly superior logic and intellect. Few could match him in that area.

"Our allies from Sunagakure were extremely helpful in assisting Inuzuka-san, Lee-san, and Nara-san; they are waiting in Konoha and have suffered no injury." Kakashi smiled at this; Gondaime-sama had truly brought Konoha into a position of strength once again. However…

"Sir!" the med-nin repeated. "What is Uzumaki Naruto's condition?"

Kakashi paused at this. Absent from the medical shinobi's tone was the condescension, hatred, or disgust usually present when the average person referred to the young jinchuuriki. Shaking the feeling off, he stated calmly, "Naruto is suffering from physical and charka overexertion. He has no serious injury that I can detect, but is rapidly losing consciousness."

The med-nin nodded gravely, and they continued in silence.

During the report, Naruto was overwhelmed by his emotions. Pain and agony over the betrayal of Sasuke fought bitterly with the guilt quickly accumulating over his failure to make his friends' sacrifices worthwhile.

If they die… he thought, it's all my fault. Just because I wasn't strong enough to break the bond like Sasuke-teme did. If they die because of me…

He couldn't bear the thought any longer, and his mind began to shut down for repairs.

As his eyes closed, his last sight was of his friends, his teammates leaping through the trees in front of him, looking back expectantly, waiting. Someone finally expected something great from him…

"Besides," Neji said, grinning. "You have better eyes than me."

Naruto beamed his fox-like grin.

They knew he would succeed in bringing Sasuke home. It was his job, the reason he was brought along!

And yet, he failed, and all he had to show for his effort was a symbol of his reluctance to act like a shinobi. The scratch across Sasuke's forehead protector was a sign that he could have killed Sasuke but didn't. Yet this didn't stop Sasuke from leaving, only from not killing Naruto.

His last sight was of his friends.

His last thought was worse, repeating like a mantra until he lost consciousness completely:

Sakura-chan's gonna kill me…

However, killing was exactly the opposite action on Haruno Sakura's mind as she stormed up the steps to the Hokage's office.

Disgruntled was a mild way of describing her mood.

Her normally perfect hair stood out in the strangest directions, her skin showed a lack of hygiene (she hadn't showered), and her eyes blazed with ruthless anger.

Royally pissed was a better way of describing Sakura's mood.

However, unlike normal situations she refused to let her temper get the better of her. Acting with a cold and calculating attitude that would have shamed Orochimaru, she stalked towards the two special jounin outside the Gondaime's office.

Sakura had learned three things in the span of a few hours, and they were pretty good lessons:

1. She had better charka control than Hyuuga Neji, but the stamina of a newborn baby – maybe less.

2. Naruto was infinitely more talented a ninja than she, and she knew why. A ninja had three basic moves: henge, bunshin, and kawarimi (transformation, replication, and replacement respectively). In these three areas Naruto had no equal, for his understanding of the techniques surpassed even hers, Sasuke-kun's, and Neji's combined. They were his main weapons, and combined with his quick-thinking tactical mind he was formidable indeed. I'm smart, she thought, why can't I think like a baka like Naruto?

And finally, 3. She had to get stronger, and fast.

Knowledge is power, many have said.

She grinned. Tsunade-sama wouldn't know what hit her. Her mission was simple: become apprenticed to one of the most powerful ninja in Konoha, a legendary Sannin.

The jounins tensed at her approach, then relaxed when they saw the not-very intimidating approach of Sakura.

One smiled and said kindly but firmly, "Sorry Haruno-san, but the Gondaime isn't seeing anyone today."

Sakura smiled and kept on walking, causing the jounins to fall into a ready stance. "Miss, please stop where you are or we will stop you."

Sakura grinned again and took another step.

With a yell, the two jounins leapt forward, kunai out and slashing to meet the obvious imposter. They sliced forward in unison –

And hit nothing but air. The bunshin continued walking until it vanished in a merry burst of smoke, leaving two very wary and confused jounins who needed to get out more and hone their skills.

For they failed to notice the outrageously pink-haired shinobi calmly enter the office of Tsudande, the Legendary Sucker.

Tsunade was amused, if the curve of her pink lips was anything to go by. Reassured, Sakura closed her eyes for a moment to prepare her long and complex argument on why she should be trained as the next greatest medical ninja of all time.

Satisfied, Sakura walked over to Tsunade's desk and slammed her palms down so hard that the dutifully-ignored paperwork shook.

"Train me as your apprentice!"

"Boo-yah!" Inner Sakura yelled.

Tsunade opened her mouth, but at that moment a doctor appeared at the door, escorted by two harried-looking jounins. They glared when they saw Sakura, who only grinned cheekily in response. They snapped to attention almost immediately though, and the doctor stepped forward.

"Gondaime-sama, the medical team has returned with the genin team. It has been suggested that you come to the hospital immediately where a full report can be delivered." He stared pointedly at Sakura, who had the grace to blush and look down.

Tsunade sighed. "Sakura-chan, our conversation will have to wait. However, I have an assignment for you. Notify all the genin who know any of the following: Chouji, Neji, Shikamaru, Kiba, and Naruto. Tell them to report to the hospital in three hours."

Sakura could only stare. She wanted to know what had happened on the mission, but realized that she would have to wait until she could visit Sasuke-kun and Naruto in the hospital.

"Hai, Gondaime-sama." Sakura ran out; she knew exactly who she needed to find. Then, she could visit Sasuke-kun and Naruto.

She didn't even think of the possibility that Sasuke-kun would actually go to Orochimaru…

Well, whaddya think? You already read it, why not review it? More to come!