Title: The Twelve of Two

Timeline: Just after the Sasuke Retrieval arc.

Chapter 1.

Disclaimer: I do not in any way own Naruto or any characters related.

10:03 PM:

It was a quiet summer night in the village of Konoha. The crickets chirped softly as the cool night breezes drifted through the calm and peaceful silence. At ten in the evening, a good portion of the peaceful town was already asleep; content in the awareness that such powerful shinobi and kunoichi lived there and would protect the people with their lives if necessary. Ninja's had always been brought up with the teachings that emotions were never to be placed or shown within the battlefield, for the fact that shinobi were always expected to move with a cold and swift purpose. Not all shinobi, however, lived by this code for feelings can bring out the best, as well as the worst traits in an individual….

Uzumaki Naruto walked down the main street in euphonic content having just finished eating a couple hearty bowels of miso and beef ramen, his stomach cooing happily. "I think that old man makes it his mission to stuff me, not that I would complain," he thought smugly while he walked. Lately, Teuchi at Ichiraku's had been extremely generous with the servings such as offering him numerous free bowls, as well as also making sure the broth was right near the top. Somebody had obviously filled him in on the details of the failed mission from five days ago, though Naruto hadn't bothered asking him whom.

He'd just been released a couple days ago from the hospital, quicker then expected thanks to Tsunade's healing skills and the advanced medical staff although it was mostly due to the fast regenerative abilities of the nine tailed fox that resided within him. The powerful beast had also been the one responsible for repeatedly saving his life during that desperate battle with Sasuke. Without it, he would have been killed the moment Sasuke's chidori had plunged through his chest into his lung.

Upon being released, he'd been heavily lectured by both Tsunade-baa-chan and Shizune to take things easy and not too overstrain his still-healing body, even though both knew quite well that it was a hopeless conversation. Once Naruto had his mind set on something, law or no law, there would absolutely be no way to deter him. Immediately expecting a stubborn reply to her demands, Tsunade had been fully prepared to engage in a war of words with the youth, despite his heroic actions. Her fiery resolution was instead replaced with surprise, as he'd merely nodded in acknowledgment and had replied politely, "No problem, Obaa-san," a gleeful grin present on Naruto's face at the sight of Tsunade's blank expression. Shizune had smiled in relief while Tsunade had leaned over and ruffled his hair like a mother caring for a mischievous child, kissing his forehead in thanks. "Sometimes I just don't know what to do with you..."

Naruto smirked at the memory. Truthfully, he really had wanted to go after Sasuke and he would have but, after seeing the worry and concern on the women's faces, had changed his mind and instead resolved himself to 'follow orders' as much as that annoyed him. He would never have admitted it to anyone but realistically, the entire ordeal had worn him out mentally and somewhat emotionally. Despite the new law that had been cemented into place, and Kakashi-sensei being needed on more and more missions, Naruto had decided to continue training by formulating his own routine to follow. The program consisted of a various set of drills and advanced exercises, designed to strengthen his meager chakra control. While the exercises were kept simple enough, the important aspect was that the physical strain he was putting on his body kept his mind occupied and focused on something else besides the present situation. Earlier today he had done some exercising to keep himself busy and motivated. Now, after a thorough couple hours of working out and a filling supper, he was about ready for a hot shower and a good night's sleep.

Naruto was making his way past the quieting business district when a distant sound brought him to a sudden pause. His keen ears twitched as he searched for the source of the noise. He was in an alley between two houses near a corner where the road rounded around to a bridge over a wide, shallow stream. "Must be somewhere around the corner," Naruto remarked. As he made his way closer to the bend, the noise became more and more distinctive to that of someone crying. A girl, most likely, from the way she moaned.

Naruto felt himself frown; he'd done enough crying of his own when he'd been a child to recognize it from a distance. Without Iruka-sensei there to confide in back then, he didn't know how he would have been able to deal with the constant misery of being alone. It made him feel grateful that he had friends now who could see him for who he really was instead of just some loud-mouthed troublemaker who only thrived on receiving some form of attention.

He briefly considered an alternate path as to avoid who ever it was—thinking that they might not want any unwelcome visitors—but there was no other detour he could take and he was already standing at the corner. "Maybe I can sneak around," he said as he rounded the bend. He had barely taken two steps down the road when a familiar sight caused his initial idea to dissolve away.

Standing in the middle of a stone arch bridge about fifty feet away from where he was positioned stood the pink-haired kunoichi, Haruno Sakura, who looked to be shaking heavily; her arms were folded along the top of the bridge while her head was buried in the back of her hands. Even from his standpoint, Naruto could easily tell that she was crying hard. Nobody would ever shudder like that if they weren't. He easily remembered just how hard she had been crying almost a week ago when she had tearfully begged him to bring Sasuke back. It had been so difficult to just smile and reassure her, when his own heart had been aching with the fact that no matter what he did, he would never have her heart the way he had hers. His promise to her had been sincere. For her, he probably would have given his very soul in order to insure her happiness. But when he'd been in the hospital, as far as he'd known, she had only come to visit him once during his stay. It had really made him question whether or not she really even cared at all. Still he was her friend, through and through, and nothing would ever change that fact. Even with his own uncertainties still present, he would always make time for her, even if she wouldn't offer him that same luxury.

"I should really see how she's doing," Naruto muttered as he slowly approached the bridge, not wanting to disturb her but, on the same token, needing to know if she was going to be okay.

Standing at the bottom curve, Naruto glanced up at her as she sobbed softly, completely oblivious to his presence. Her pink locks of hair shone in the moonlight that softly cascaded around her like a velvet curtain.

"So pretty," he thought to himself. After taking a couple seconds to gather his nerve, Naruto tentatively cleared his throat and spoke out in a soft tone, "Sakura-chan?"

Sakura sniffed loudly as she slowly raised her head, her eyes searching for the source of the voice that had called out to her. She was immediately rewarded via a familiar pair of concerned, blue eyes belonging to her teammate and friend.

"Naruto," she uttered huskily. She quickly rubbed the back of her hand against her face crudely wiping her tears away. "How are you feeling?" she hurriedly asked in an attempt to redeem her composure.

"I'm all right," he carefully replied as he made his way up the bridge to stand next to her. "I had a lot of bed rest in the hospital, not that I had much choice in the matter considering Tsunade-baa-chan had me under constant watch the whole time. There's just no trust anymore," he added somewhat jokingly in the hopes of getting a chuckle out of her or at least a small smile.

To his mild disappointment, Sakura turned her head away from him as she gazed out into the distance. "I'm glad that you're feeling better," she offered softly.

Naruto frowned as he stared down at the stream of water flowing underneath them, his jovial mood gradually fading at her discontent. "How have you been doing?" he quietly asked, remembering why he had originally come up here in the first place.

"I'm coping," she replied simply.

Instead of trying to cheer her up again, Naruto merely nodded as he continued to stare down at the shallow stream. His eyes lost in the continuous flow of the water. He knew how hard she was taking this, probably much harder then he was, but he'd never imagined that she was this lost without Sasuke around. It had never made sense to him, really, to see how someone like Sakura could be so mistreated by Sasuke and not be hindered by it all while continuing to make him the object of her affections by doubling her efforts. On so many occasions, he wished that just once, he could have her look at him the way she looked at Sasuke but it was a dream that was becoming more and more difficult to indulge in, especially now considering the state she was in.

The two stood there quietly, not exchanging any words or actions, merely reveling in there own thoughts. Only the sound of the water and the whisper of the trees remained ever present around them with the occasional person bustling past the two in a hurry to get home from work to their loved ones. Realizing that this silence was going nowhere, Naruto decided that he was going to have to push just a bit.

"You never came to visit me after the first time," he spoke up, breaking the dull stillness between each other. He felt a twinge of guilt creep through him at how easy that came out, as well as knowing that that probably wasn't the best way to start a conversation—especially under the given circumstances—but he had also wanted a bit of an explanation to his inquiry, although he already had a pretty good suspicion built up as to why.

"I'm sorry about that," she replied apologetically. "You're right; I should have come to see you while you were in the hospital. I apologize for that."

Naruto involuntary nodded at her answer. "I understand and it's okay. I shouldn't have asked so abruptly like that. I'm sorry, too," he said, only partially meaning it. He turned his head slightly hoping to catch a glimpse of her face, but her bright locks of hair hid the majority of her away; his peripheral vision only allowing him to see her sad lips.

Naruto sighed as he continued to stare down at the lazy stream, his reflection barely noticeable in the dim light. He desperately wanted to say something to make her pain subside, even if just for a couple moments, but the harder he tried the more eluded the words became.

Despite it all he was angry; angry with Sasuke for leaving the way he did and causing such a mess, angry with Tsunade-baa-chan for not allowing him to leave to go after Sasuke, angry at Ero-sennin for not sharing in his optimism and leaving him on his own to train. He even wanted to be angry at Sakura for loving somebody who would never return the feelings she had always kept for him but he couldn't find the means necessary to be mad with her, he loved her too damn much for that.

A familiar sound brought him out of his bitter thoughts. Turning his head, he noticed that Sakura had started to shake again, unable to hide her turmoil anymore. Naruto knew that she was desperately trying to hide away her bleak despair from him, but it was a battle that she had no hopes of winning. By showing up, all he had managed to do was delay the inevitable.

As a friend, he wanted so much to just scold her, hoping that might possibly snap her out of this depression, but he couldn't trust himself to say the right thing and he knew from first hand experience alone that a insensitive mistake like that could be very costly. What she needed right now was a friend and as a friend, Naruto would comfort her in the only way he could possibly think of at the moment.

Fully turning towards her, he reached out and placed a calm hand over her quivering shoulder. "Sakura-chan...you don't have to hide it anymore," he offered soothingly. At the sincere sound of his voice, Sakura slowly turned to face him and for the first time since he'd arrived, Naruto could see just how red her eyes were and how puffy her cheeks had become from all this excessive weeping she'd been doing. She tried a smile, despite the trickle of tears running down her face, but it was a meaningless attempt.

Shaking his head, Naruto reached out and, ignoring her look of mild surprise, slipped his hands around her waist and gently pulled her towards him. Later, she could hit him for thishe didn't carebut right now, he knew that she needed the physical contact. Once she was close enough, he slipped his hands up her back pressing her against his chest. "I know it hurts, Sakura-chan. Just let it out, you can be strong later," he promised as he held her. She resisted for merely a moment, old habits coming into play to mix with her fresh pain caused her muscles to tense at the unfamilar feeling of being held like this. But only for a moment. Finally unable to hold back anymore, Sakura gave in and allowed her tears to flow freely as she pressed her face into the crook of his neck and right shoulder, her arms were tightly wrapped around him in return. Naruto placed a hand against the back of her head; his fingers gently threading their way though her hair, as he rocked her back and forth like a lost child. Her hot breath felt ragged against the skin on his neck as she sobbed hard.

"Idiot Sasuke. Does something like this make you happy?" he thought harshly while continuing to hold her, ignoring some of the curious stares of the villagers that walked by. The fact that he was openly hugging her like this without being punched was one thing, but to see her grasping onto him like this showed just how much agony she'd be in. Even though he knew he'd never have a shot at making her his girlfriend, he could at least be that rock of support for her whenever she needed it.

Finally, after a couple minutes, Naruto noticed that she was finally beginning to quiet down from her emotional barrage. Deciding not too overstay his welcome, he carefully released her while she pulled away from him, slightly hiccupping. Reaching up with his thumbs, he brushed away the last of her tears that lingered on her cheeks. "Better now?" he asked giving her an attentive look.

"Yeah...a lot better," she sniffed with a much more reassuring smile.

Naruto smiled back in return. "Good," he said, reaching up and giving her shoulders a light squeeze before releasing her completely.

"I guess…I should have came and seen you after all," she mumbled dryly, wiping her nose with the edge of her hand.

Naruto shrugged nonchalantly as he leaned up against the railing. "At the rate I've been going, I'll probably end up in there again in no time. You can make it up to me then," he offered jokingly, finally getting that light bout of laughter that he'd been hoping for.

"Probably the first time she's laughed in awhile," he remarked to himself, watching as she turned to stare down at the tranquil stream, traces of a pleasent smile lingering on her lips.

Having noticed her look of content, Naruto sighed inwardly as he turned to gaze up at the peaceful moon that shone brightly overhead. "Must be thinking of Sasuke," he rationalized, ignoring the small pangs of jealousy that threatened to inhibit his mind. He would have loved to have her smile like that for him, but only his deepest fantasies had he relished such hope. He'd already pushed too much by holding her so brazenly without asking for her consent, even though she hadn't pushed him away or insulted him like she usually did. Despite her willingness to be held, he once again began to wonder what she thought of him, but of course, he already knew the answer to that question.

"Stupid and annoying as always…"

He suppressed a sudden yawn, feeling the weariness that he had managed to subside a couple minutes ago returning in waves, the need for sleep began to win out again. He was so zoned out that he hadn't been aware that Sakura was trying to ask him something until he finally heard his name being called.

"Naruto?" she called out again, finally breaking him out of his thoughts.

"Huh? Oh, sorry. You wanted something, Sakura-chan?" he asked, shaking his head to clear some of the persistent mind fog away.

Sakura shook her head. "It's not that important. You just seemed like you were in another world there for awhile," her light voice laced with slight concern as she looked him over.

"I'm all right. Really I am. Just a bit tired, that's all," he reassured her, adding a beaming smile to ease her worry. The last thing he needed right now was for her to turn around and start worrying about him, even though he thought it was kind of a nice change of pace.

Ignoring his disarming grin, she lightly scolded him. "You should really go home and get some sleep then, Naruto. You still haven't quite recovered yet from your injuries, let alone even be training," the familar tone of sternness creeping into her voice.

He nodded judiciously, knowing that she was right, but he still didn't want to leave her out here by herself either. Not that she needed to be protected from any mugger or thug that happened to be roaming in the area. In a confrontation, they wouldn't have lasted too long anyway. "Want me to walk you home?" he offered, trying to be more attentive then pushy.

Naruto felt a brief sensation of Déjà vu as she shook her head at his request. "That's okay. I'm feeling a lot better now," she said, offering another smile to reassure him. Her emerald eyes seemed to have a bit more life to them; at least they weren't dull and tearful like they were before.

Still, he wasn't quite convinced by either expression as he carefully scrutinized her. He wasn't willing to argue with her by any means, but he also didn't want to take the unnecessary precaution that she would do something rash, like try to go after that idiot only to get herself killed in the process. For Sasuke to leave, that was one thing, but the thought of losing Sakura because of some desperate whelm was something he couldn't even begin to fathom. Anxiety won out.

Deciding to be blunt he asked her, "You're not going to run off and do something crazy like try and go after Sasuke yourself, are you?" His voice taking on a gruff edge while he gauged her reaction to the question.

Despite the firm inquiry, Sakura's smile never wavered as she gazed down slightly, her cotton candy hair hiding her eyes. "A couple days ago, maybe even a few minutes ago, I might have considered doing that. Kami knows I was desperate enough, but...I couldn't now," she answered him truthfully, her hands casually fidgeting with her red dress while she spoke.

Instantly feeling relieved with her answer, Naruto reached forward and again placed a hand on her shoulder, feeling less hesitant this time. "That's reassuring to hear. I would have hated to had to have gone after you, too," he told her teasingly, her skin felt warm under his touch.

Sakura dismissed the statement. "I'm really glad that you showed up when you did, Naruto. Thank you," she said while continuing to look down at the ground, an unfamiliar touch of gratitude present.

"Umm...me too, and you're welcome," he quickly replied, feeling suprised and a little taken back by the complement. He hadn't really done anything particularly special, or that could remotely have been justified as being super extraordinary. He thought that he'd been more bossy and invasive then anything, althought that might have been what she needed in the long run to begin nudging her out of this funk. He just wouldn't make it a custom to employ those types of methods all the time, or else he would be tasting the brunt end of her fist.

His mind settling back on the prospect of getting some well-deserved sleep, Naruto gave her shoulder a final squeeze before relinquishing his hand and letting her go. "Have a good night, Sakura-chan," he said. The mild scent of sweet perfume lingered briefly in his nostrils as he made his way around her and started towards the opposite end of the bridge. He hoped again that he hadn't been overly pushy in these circumstances.

Walking away, Naruto could feel the weight of her gaze settling against him. The fact that that she would show any such interest in him was both confusing and exhilarating, it also made him realize that he really hadn't said what he had needed too. He also wasn't certain that she wanted to hear any of this right now but he knew that if he kept it inside, it would only just make him more miserable.

"Screw it," he finally muttered, bringing himself to a halt. Sleep could wait for a little while longer, this was more important. Turning to glance over his shoulder, Naruto called out, "Hey, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura had been staring at him in mild curiosity, but her eyes instantly became focused and she stood a bit straighter as soon as he called out her name. "Yes?" she asked, feeling a touch embarrassed that she'd become so flustered all of a sudden. It was only Naruto, but something in his stance…

Naruto composed himself. "I know that you loved him—still love him. I don't think Sasuke ever had an inkling as to how lucky he was to be cared for by somebody as precious as you are," he spoke candidly as he looked upon her with a neutral expression.

Sakura, on the other hand, had a strange almost dumbfounded look on her face as she struggled to process his comments. Her cheeks quivered slightly while she listened.

"I feel sorry for him," Naruto slowly continued, "but only in the sense that he chose power and revenge over friendship and people. I also feel compassion for the sadness that he was brought up on...but at least he had real memories of his parents, and all the good times that he shared with his clan. Some people don't even have that," he added, talking more so about himself then Sasuke. To his own ears, those words sounded harsh, probably even harsher for her, but he knew that he needed to get all of this out in the open.

"I can't really feel any remorse for what he's done to us, but I know that I can forgive him…eventually." Naruto gingerly bit the inside of his cheek, knowing that this next statement would be quite difficult for her to take in although judging from the puzzled look on her face, she was seemingly having a difficult time as it was…but he needed to say it.

"Sakura-chan...you'll probably hate me for saying this...but is Sasuke really worth shedding all these tears for?" he quietly probed, feeling guilty that he was dipping into such a tender area. Even though her cheek's continued to quiver, she didn't interrupt or burst in with a sharp retort. Instead, she decided to remain silent, allowing him to speak his mind. "He never…gave you the time of day, and he was always cold to you. He never showed you any respect, no matter what you did for him," he continued, allowing the twinge of anger to filter in.

Sakura bit her lower lip in anxiety. She'd never heard him talk like this before, ever. It was as if all of his negative thoughts were surfacing from a dark well of hidden depth within. "Naruto, why are you…?" she began to speak in response to his confession but he held his hand up, cutting her off.

"Please let me finish, Sakura-chan," he quietly requested. Subdued, Sakura nodded, forcing herself into silence.

"Yet, despite all that," he continued, "you loved him and deep down, I know that he loved you too—even though it was probably hard to notice at times, or any time for that matter. But I don't think he could really express any of that to anyone, because of what he promised to do for himself...and for his clan. At least, that's what I think," he hypothesized. At that last sentence, his facial expression shifted as he tenderly gazed at Sakura. "I want you to be happy, though, Sakura-chan. You deserve to be happy—and that's why I'm going to keep my promise to you, no matter what. One day, I will bring him back," he spoke with unnerving determination. "So, please, don't cry anymore, Sakura-chan," he smiled brightly before turning and casually walking away, not giving her a chance to respond.

Sakura could only stare in total bafflement as she watched her friend disappearing into the night, his declaration still echoing in her mind. "Naruto…" she whimpered, the prickle of hot tears threatening to cascade down her face again. "H-how can you care so much?" she wondered.

At any other time, an attempt by Naruto to embrace her would have ended up with him flying into orbit, but this time when she had hugged him openly; all of her anxieties and worries had simply melted away, leaving her with nothing but the peaceful feeling of being held. In all of her life, she had never felt as cared for like she had been moments ago.

She'd dreamt and fantasized so many times of Sasuke holding her close, the warmth of being relished by the one she cared so much for. It had been something she had held on to and wanted for so long, but she knew deep down that it was nothing more then a diminishing dream. But with Naruto…

"Why…why do you care so much for me? What have I ever done in all the time I've known you to earn that kind of respect?" she desperately asking, continuing to stare into the shadows that Naruto had disappeared into. She bit the bottom of her lip hard, feeling a sudden pang of dissatisfaction at the way he had left, despite her telling him she was all right. "I know he was worn out. I could see it in his eyes but...still, he would have stayed no matter what I had told him, wouldn't he?" she asked, but the only response she received was the wind rustling through the trees.

Sakura sighed as she glanced up at the darkening sky. It was starting to get late and she was well aware of the fact that her parents were fairly stringent when it came to curfews, especially her mother. Thankfully, they'd already been fast asleep when she had snuck out of her room earlier to get some fresh air. Being a kunoichi definitely had its advantages at key times, not that she really cared right now if she got caught or not. It was of little importance.

Curiosity, however, was gradually beginning to win out, her thoughts continuing to waver back and forth between the Naruto she thought she knew and the Naruto that had just departed. It wasn't what he'd said that had struck a chord but the intensity behind his words that had shocked her. Naruto was usually self-reserved and kept such blusterous comments to himself, unless he was trying to show up Sasuke. But while those attempts were usually comical and short-lived, there was nothing humerous in this instance—and she started to think that maybe there was something more to Naruto then just the interpretation of a happy-go-lucky joker whose only goal in life was to become the leader of the village.

But was it really something more, or...was it something else?

Standing there, Sakura realized that if she went home without chasing this any further, she would only remain perplexed by the whole situation and that was a circumstance that she had grown extremely tired of. She wanted—no—needed her questions answered and whether she liked it or not, Naruto was the only one who could provide those explanations for her.

"I can't just leave it like this. He's not getting off that easy," she resolved as she wiped away the last of her tears. Casting one look at the stream, she pushed herself away from the railing and walked along the bridge towards the same path her teammate had traveled mere minutes ago with all the intentions of getting some much needed answers, no matter what.

To be continued…

Author Note: Hopefully this doesn't seem like a sloppy beginning! When I had originally started to write this, I was just going to make it a one shot but I didn't want to make it something where it would end right abruptly so it didn't quite turn out that way. I actually began working on a rough draft of this in a scribbler around six months ago to kill some time during the work season. Despite the unoriginal setting, I hope you guys enjoy it.