Chapter 11.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any characters related.

10:50 AM:

"Bossy old bitch!"

Naruto was just barely able to make it outside before the obscenities that threatened to spill out of his mouth inevitably did. His voice was low, but that didn't keep him from calling the Hokage every filthy word his temperamental brain could muster as he aggressively stalked down the muddy streets and away from the Hokage's Tower or rather, to be more accurate, the Hokage herself. The words kept spilling loose like a dog shaking water off its fur and yet not one of them could come close enough to accurately describe how pissed he was at her right now. His overall disposition was the equivalent of a quivering volcano set to explode from pressure buildup. He would have taken a few swings at her, too, if he hadn't already been aware of the fact that he would have gotten his ass kicked in the process. Hell, he still might have given it a go anyways just out of spite—but then Shizune-nee-chan might have intervened, and he'd sooner take a set of thumbs to the eyes then inadvertently do something to her. She was no lightweight, but just the same…

Naruto gnashed his teeth together with all of the malice of a caged animal drowning in impotent rage from being unable to secure the freedom it so desperately desired. Seriously, why the hell couldn't Baa-chan show some goddamned discretion and keep her mouth shut instead of taking it upon herself to flaunt her position around and air out a bunch of unnecessary dirty laundry that didn't need to be aired out in the first place? And then to make things worse, she'd blurted all of that out in front of Sakura, who was already dealing with personal issues of her own. He couldn't even make amends without something going unexpectedly wrong. Naruto aggressively scratched at his pasted scalp as if he had a bad case of psoriasis and angrily kicked at a pebble on the muddy street out of frustration. Seriously, if it wasn't one damn thing, it was another damn thing! Fuck sakes…!

Glaring around in annoyance, Naruto noted that the rain was cascading down as heavily as ever, but a few of the villagers, both young and old, had apparently grown tired of being cooped up indoors and were deciding to brave the storm. Considering that he hated being stuck inside as well, Naruto didn't blame them for acting that way. Kids, closely watched by their parents, jumped into muddy puddles. Their dirty faces gleamed brightly with happiness and joy; their bursts of laughter echoed in the wet air. Naruto lowered his head as he walked by them, doing his best to stay—and eventually pass by—in an incognito state. No sense in being a killjoy and wrecking someone else's day if it didn't have to happen. He'd done enough of that shit already. A young boy cheered loudly behind him, and Naruto abruptly picked up the pace.

Only when both the noise and the bulk of the crowd was solidly behind him did he gradually slow down. There were still a few villagers wandering around outside of the business district, but not enough to make him feel presently uncomfortable. Generally he had no problems with being around people whatsoever, but the events of the morning had obviously brought about a couple dramatic shifts to his normally exuberant personality. It would have been convenient if he could blame somebody else for his present issues—throwing Baa-chan under the bus would have been awfully grand right now—but the only person that fit that particular bill was himself.

Yeah. Him. His distrusting actions and spiteful words had ultimately landed him in this situation to begin with. He knew now that Sakura had only shown up at his apartment—something he'd always dreamed of—this morning in an attempt to cheer him up, and instead of making her feel welcome like he should have done originally, he'd done everything he could to push her away…and had ultimately succeeded in doing just that. He'd succeeded so well that he'd pushed her and the friendship he'd had with her straight off into the horizon and right into the sun where it had no chances of ever being fixed. And as if that wasn't bad enough, he'd run after her in the hopes of mending broken fences only to discover that she'd injured herself. The odds of making things right had already been badly tilted out of his favor to begin with, but to come upon that scene and ignore any suspicion that he might have had something to do with what had happened…it had been utterly impossible.

Actually…it hadn't been. Any potential misconceptions that might have existed had basically been obliterated after the strip she'd torn out of his ass. It wasn't like it had been much of a surprise or he hadn't been expecting it, but it didn't make it any less easier to deal with. Just because you weren't afraid of your execution didn't necessarily mean you had to be in a hurry to face it either.

In this case, facing the music wasn't something he could avoid. He'd known that he'd done wrong and had to make reparations in the only way he knew was possible. After all, what else was he gonna do? Sit in his puke-scented apartment and stew over his fuck ups instead of doing something about them? Even so, it had taken everything he'd possessed to stand his ground and not let her chase him away like she'd clearly tried to do. She would have beaten the crap out of him if her ankle hadn't been injured, and he would have had to just stand there and take it for the sake of appeasing her. And considering that she'd tried to take a swing at him…

Naruto sighed. Yeah, she'd definitely made an attempt to clean his clock, sure, but that was only because he'd verbally provoked her into doing that. Calling her a bitch was definitely cause for a pummeling, but trying to convince him she wasn't hurt…seriously; how stupid did she think he was? He could understand if she was embarrassed or something, but dammit anyways! And even more insane was that she could have been clawing at him, kicking and screaming at him like a rampaging banshee, and he still would have hauled her off to the Hokage's tower for treatment. After all, what more could he possibly lose in this situation that he hadn't lost already?

On second thought, he didn't want to know the answer to that question…or consider if there even was one for that matter.

A wet gust of wind boldly swept over him like an invisible entity oblivious in the misery it was causing, forcing Naruto to dig his heels into the ground and bow his head even further. His gray sweatshirt, long since saturated, hugged against his upper body like a thick second skin, making him feel as if he were a misshapen snowman. His legs were predictably soaked as well, and his face was starting to burn from repeated wind and moisture exposure. It was little wonder that Sakura had developed a fever in such short time. He'd probably be feeling like dog shit as well if it weren't for the demon chakra boosting his immune system. It was either that or else guys were just naturally better equipped at physically dealing with weather changes then girls were. He didn't know, and he really couldn't have given two shits about any of that right now. Instead, he just kept his head turned down and continued to march down the road, his sandals squishing against the muddy surface—

"Hey, watch it!"

Naruto's head snapped up in surprise at the voice—and he abruptly turned and angled his body at ninety degrees just in time to avoid crashing into a couple who'd been walking hand in hand under the protective canopy of a black umbrella that had been built big enough to provide shelter for the both of them. They had sidestepped him in the opposite direction as well, but with far less aggression and theatrics then he'd probably needed to go with to avoid any potential collisions. "S-sorry about that," Naruto hastily muttered, possessing enough tact to apologize. "I wasn't paying attention."

"That's alright," the man quickly replied as he brushed water off of his shoulders. "The wind was blowing the rain directly in our faces so we had to angle the umbrella a bit so that we weren't getting the worst of it. It was probably just as much our fault as it was yours for not paying attention." He offered a friendly smile. "No harm, no foul."

"Aren't you cold, Naruto?" His girlfriend asked, looking him up and down with concerned brown eyes, clearly recognizing him.

"I—" Naruto stammered, caught off guard by the inquisitive question. "Uh, I'm alright. Just a little wet is all."

She nodded. "I see. Well you should probably get home where it's nice and dry before you catch cold out here. Speaking of which—" the girl glanced up at her boyfriend with a meaningful look, wrapped her right arm around his waist possessively. "Let's go home, Sanji-kun, before I catch a cold."

Clearly taking the hint, he slung his bulky left arm protectively over her shoulders, smiled down at her. "Sure, Rei-chan." With a final nod from him and a quick wave from her, they turned and continued on their designated route. Naruto silently watched as the girlfriend pressed against him affectionately which encouraged him to pull her even tighter against him in turn, even though they were already clearly sheltered by the umbrella they had with them. Despite the fact that he didn't even know those people and that they were probably five or ten years older then him, the sight of their obvious love for one another sparked an ember of jealousy that quickly burned through out his guts like a wild forest fire. It didn't help that she—the girlfriend—had a pretty look to her; chocolate eyes, sharp cheeks, and short-cropped dark hair that was decidedly similar to the look that Sakura had adopted. It practically would have been Sakura if God had melted a pail of pink bubblegum and dumped it on the lady's head with the exception of her eye color. A vindictive part of him wanted to rush over and gave her shit for being so…so damn pretty while another part of him that craved insight wanted to ask her—no, both of them—what it was they did that helped to keep their love so boundless and free. He wanted to ask them that and even started to take a step forward, but immediately felt leery that they would somehow scrutinize and mock him for asking such odd questions in the rain—his current age didn't help the situation any either. They'd been generally friendly with him so he doubted that it would come down to something irrational like that, but he still wasn't in the mood for the potentiality of anything undesirable right now so he kept quiet.

Besides, he already got the feeling that they would have told him all the things he d already known to begin with already. It didn't take a genius to understand that if you wanted to be treated with respect then you needed to dish it out in return; Iruka-sensei had only hounded him forever on that concept. And if there had been anything he could have possibly done to rewrite time and history to erase what he'd done for hurting Sakura, he would have done it all and more in the scope of a heartbeat. He'd tried already, but it was too little, too late. If making that atonement were as easy as it should have been, he sure as hell wouldn't have been feeling as sorry for himself as he was to this particular degree. Maybe that's why seeing that couple as happy as they were only seemed to irk him so. And maybe…maybe…he could have been just as happy as those two were if he hadn't let his paranoia and misgivings get the best of him. Could have—would have—should have—and on and on the black train went.

Naruto fumed dejectedly like a child unable to best an adult in a game of shogi. In all seriousness he'd made the choice to act the way he'd chosen to act and now he had to live with the consequences of those actions; a definite pisser, but what else could he do? It was part of that supposed 'bigger man' process that Oji-san had taken so much time to talk about this morning—though Naruto suspected he'd just sat around and emphasized all of that just to keep away from Oba-san for a little while. And only infants had the right to cry over a glass of milk they'd purposely pushed off the table. All he could do was learn as best as he could from this experience, do what he could with that knowledge, and try to move on with his life. Any one of his teachers—Iruka-sensei, Kakashi-sensei, and Ero-sennin—probably would have told him the same thing. Even Haku would have probably concurred with that notion as well.


His current conundrum was put on a back burner as Naruto abruptly found himself reminiscing over the gentle, but fiercely talented young man who'd fought alongside Zabuza in their attempts to assassinate Tazuna, the old bridge builder. His friendly smile, soft voice, raven-dark hair, and particular fondness for dressing in feminine-looking clothing had hardly illustrated him as a potential threat to Naruto and his team—which had obviously made for a very effective façade.

And he'd been honorable as well. Haku could have easily killed him in the woods had he chosen. Sleeping and defenseless after spending all day and night trying to control his chakra via climbing trees, he would have been an easy target; especially against somebody who was an expert in assassination. Knowing that he was the enemy, Haku could have done anything he'd wanted…but he'd instead chosen to spare and converse with him. At the time, Naruto had considered it a strange conversation with an equally strange girl—having not know Haku was a guy until afterwards—but thinking about it now, Haku's seemingly simple questions had held a deeper meaning then Naruto had initially tried to comprehend at the time. It wasn't until he'd defended his friends against Gaara that he'd fully understood the significance of Haku's words—and why he'd made the choice to defend Zabuza right to the very end.

But underneath Haku's desire to serve and protect Zabuza…there had been that underlying factor of loneliness that had driven him to live his life solely for the sake of somebody he'd considered important enough to eventually give his life for. It was just as Haku had said on the half-built bridge before he'd sacrificed himself; they—Naruto and Haku—were two of a kind.

'Do you have…anyone special in your life?'

Naruto shook his head hard at the past events as if he were an eraser trying to clean a question off of a chalkboard, scattering water droplets and his crystal necklace about, slowly looked around as if he were a foreigner trying to get a bead on his surroundings. It was at this point when he suddenly realized he had no clue as to where he was heading or what he should be doing right now. Going back to the apartment seemed like the most logical choice, but he was about a hundred percent sure that he was going to run into Oji-san sometime or another today who was probably going to come at him with an inevitable onslaught of questions that all involved Sakura, and whether or not she could look after his place while he was gone on training. It kind of sucked since Oji-san seemed to really like her for some particular season—probably because Sakura and Oba-san had similar personalities. At least that's what he assumed.

Well, whatever the case was, Sakura wasn't a suitable option anymore and that was all there was to it. He'd just have to find somebody else with the time he had left or else make some sort of arrangement with Oji-san. That conversation was going to have to take place sooner or later before he eventually left; Naruto knew that. He would just have to explain things to him and then do his best to find a suitable replacement. Even Oji-san couldn't possibly object to that.

But it wouldn't be today, Naruto determined as he continued traipsing forward again. Not a chance in hell. He wasn't having any more conversations with anyone today as far as he was concerned. Hell, he didn't even want to see any familiar faces today for that matter. If a path opened up in front of him that was guaranteed to take him on an endless trek and away from his problems—or at least this place—he'd probably take it without hesitation and might potentially never look back. That's how down in the damned dumps he felt right now. He hadn't been this despondent since the day he'd failed the academy test for the third time in a row, and that had been some time ago. Yeah, sleep seemed to be the most viable option at this point.

"If I can even do that," he muttered darkly, the random images of nightmarish creatures running through his head like some demented marching slideshow. Despite experiencing that massive epiphany in the apartment that had revolved around the issues that had plagued him for the last several days, his brain now felt just as equally weighed down by the morning events—if not more so.

Naruto glared furiously. Who the hell was he trying to deceit? He would never be able to get any sleep, not with the way he was feeling. He'd just end up tossing and turning like a doorknob again while Sakura's pointed insults rang in his eardrums. Yeah, she'd reluctantly apologized, but that had done little to boost his already low morale. Hell, as far as he was convinced, nothing was ever going to make him feel any better about himself again. Not now, not ever. Even ramen wouldn't cut it.

At the thought of food, Naruto's stomach began to growl ravenously. That made some sense considering that he'd puked out his breakfast in the apartment earlier in the midst of a panic attack. And despite the strong mint that Oji-san had given him earlier to suck on, Naruto could still faintly make out the lingering taste of sour bile on his breath. He would have to wash his mouth out with some oral rinse later on to get the rest of that crap out. At least he'd had the foresight to clean the mess up before leaving the apartment so that he didn't have to deal with a bunch of rancid smells and possibly get sick again whenever he got back.

But even if he wanted to go back home, the memories of everything that had gone on in there would catch up to him the moment he stepped inside: from the time she'd shown up until the moment she'd left and everything in between. And even if she weren't there now, the shadow of her presence would always be a consistent fixture in some way or another like germs on a plate that were forever waiting for him as a reminder of how badly he'd fucked things up. The utensils she'd touched, the garbage she'd picked up, the scent of her shampoo, even the delicious pastries she'd brought over would probably have to be thrown out. Like, how the hell could he possibly think of eating those with the way his conscience was currently floundering? Naruto shook his head. Not a goddamned chance.

So then what could he do? He didn't want to go home. He couldn't go back to the Hokage Tower. He couldn't leave the village. And it was too rainy and wet to stay out here…at least for 'normal' people it was. Again, he was hungry, but if he went to Ichiraku's, Teuchi and Ayame—like Oji-san—would only proceed to hound him with intrusive inquiries that he potentially might not want to answer which could turn into an awkward conversation in general. He always figured those two knew more about the inner politics revolving around the village then all of the members on the Konoha Council. Maybe he could have them figure out what Baa-chan was allergic to so that he could use it in an attempt to somehow make the old bitch stumble, even if just for a little bit—

Naruto's repetitive train of malicious and impractical thoughts abruptly severed as his feet collided with something solid and slippery, causing him to nearly trip forward. Bringing a hand down to catch his balance, Naruto quickly looked up in confusion…and found himself in a state of déjà vu as he suddenly became aware of his current location.

The bridge?

Naruto frowned faintly in response, but there was definitely no mistaken it. He was at the same bridge again where everything had unintentionally started going haywire in the first place…and he had set the whole thing in motion. To end up here again after everything that had happened was annoyingly surreal, almost uncomfortably so…and yet he found himself being propelled forward as if his legs were automated. The solid planks creaked slightly under Naruto's feet as he walked out towards the arch of the bridge, that sickly sweet smell of saturated wood quickly permeating Naruto's nose as he absentmindedly traced his wet fingertips across the equally cold, smooth surface of the protective handrail, knocking pooling bits of water loose. Reaching the middle of the bridge, Naruto turned and leaned forward against the chest-high railing, the bottom of his chin filling the cusp of his right hand while both elbows rested on the wet wooden surface.

He stood there like an oblivious statue for a few minutes, his eyes gloomily transfixed on the higher then normal river that ceaselessly flowed underneath him like some unrelenting beast. Leaves and branches were quickly escorted and carried away from view. Naruto briefly envisioned what it would be like to just be a leaf and be whisked off in the direction of the currant. It would definitely feel peaceful and relaxing as all hell. More importantly, it would get him as far away from here as he could possibly get. Let nature decide his course of action for a change of pace instead of people. Instant annoyance washed over Naruto like slug slime at the thought of knowing that escaping like that was a total fantasy and not a possibility. That would have been something he probably would have entertained back in the days when pulling pranks and being a regular shit-disturber was appealing for a quick grab of attention. Now, though…

Naruto wiped rainwater out of his face and sighed ruefully. Now he was just some lowly kid that had been thrust into a scenario involving a girl that he was ill equipped to deal with because he didn't have the experience or the knowledge necessary to deftly handle it. Subtlety had—and never would be—one of his strong suits and the fact that he was standing here unable to do anything except feel lonely and miserable, now devoid of the confidence he'd once possessed, only further attested to the consequences of that mentality.

Stacking his hands atop one another and lengthening his arms against the wooden railing, Naruto leaned down and pressed the left side of his cheek against the back of his right hand in an almost childish gesture, presently stumped with life. Naruto aimlessly figured that Baa-chan and Shizune-nee-chan had fixed Sakura's ankle by now and were now talking or doing whatever the hell it was women did when they were together. He suspected Sakura had spilled the beans on what had really happened with her ankle though Naruto suspected Baa-chan had figured that one out on her own. She wouldn't be much of a medical genius if she couldn't put two and two together, let alone be a potential teacher for anyone. Again, he didn't care. Hell, he was still pissed at the fact that she'd placed restraints on him in the first place. He'd been reluctantly okay with it in the beginning, but the more he thought about it, the more it annoyed him. Hokage or not, she had a lot of goddamned nerve telling him what he could and couldn't do in the first place. He seriously felt like going back there and calling her every dirty word he could think of just to get a sense of satisfaction. Again, he'd probably get pulverized or thrown in jail for his troubles, but he'd damn sure feel vindicated—

—And then he'd take one look at Shizune-nee-chan and the whole thing would come to a screeching halt. Out of the three women he'd left behind, Shizune was the only one he could have a rational conversation with and know it wasn't going to turn into bedlam. Hinata, too, he supposed, but he didn't really know her well enough to discern her personality aside from being slightly skittish. Maybe he'd talk to Shizune later on once he'd mentally cooled off a little. He didn't know what it would accomplish aside from burning off some frustration, but he genuinely did like the woman.

Speaking of teaching, Naruto wondered how that particular discussion had gone. Sakura had been adamant about getting stronger and could be very persuasive when she believed the ends justified the means. Course the same could be said for the person Sakura was trying to currently persuade, who was no pushover either. It was like the irresistible—irritable seemed a more correct term right now—force meeting the immovable—equally accurate—object for the most part. Knowing those two and their tendencies to have extreme reactions to practically anything that involved breathing, a conversation between them could go either very well or very sour in a hurry. And—


An animalistic roar of unbridled and unexpected ferocity abruptly tore through Naruto's very being like a thousand explosive tags simultaneously going off all at once. His petulant thoughts went up in a cloud of smoke and Naruto abruptly crashed to the bridge deck in a bewildered heap, almost certain that he'd ruined a pair of boxers.

"What—what the hell w-was that!?" Naruto demanded in a bewildered sputter. His eyes rapidly surveyed the damp area around him as if Orochimaru's men had infiltrated the village again and he was trying to anticipate the next attack while reflexively scrambling to unsheathe the hidden kunai he had taped underneath the bottom of his left pant leg. "What the…where the—!?"


Regaining some of his composure, Naruto abruptly frowned at the beastly but strangely familiar voice. He'd heard it only a handful of times over the last few months, and only under particularly extreme circumstances. Obviously this didn't fit the bill in any case. So why…?

"Kyuubi?" Naruto probed, his voice barely audible over the sounds of the falling rain.

"Correct," Kyuubi growled in confirmation, it's beastly voice taking on a more conversational tone. "Your abilities of recognition are impressive to say the least."

The sarcasm in the rebuttal was so thick that even Naruto could distinguish it. "Shouldn't you be taking a shit in that cage of yours something?" he sardonically asked, managing to regain some of his self-assurance.

"I was sleeping—until all of that damned racket going on in your head woke me up," Kyuubi growled in response. "For such a renowned little simpleton, your feeble little brain has been excessively noisy and annoying as of late."

Naruto frowned in puzzlement. "What do you mean 'loud'? I haven't been loud at all."

Kyuubi snorted derisively. "Maybe not verbally, no, but the inside of your brain has been like a damned war zone ever since the Uchiha brat made his departure."

Naruto felt apprehensiveness wash over him like boiled mist. He started to babble, "I—I don't know what you—" but Kyuubi cut him off with a swift and decisive explanation.


A lump the size of a full-grown turtle instantly appeared in Naruto's throat at the intangible tone of absolute menace. Swallowing hard, he muttered, "Okay, so maybe my mind's been a little preoccupied lately, but—"


The tactless words of the Nine-Tailed Beast abruptly summoned a burst of scathing anger in Naruto that broke down the wall of anxiety surrounding his psyche. Forcing his way into his subconscious and leaving the present environment behind, Naruto's feet aggressively splashed through the thin film of water pooling on the mirror-smooth floor as he stormed up to the massive structure that housed the unwanted guest residing within. Once he got close enough, Naruto stabbed a finger at the leering fox and shouted, "IT WAS THE FORTH'S IDEA TO LOCK YOU UP IN HERE AND NOT MINE, SO QUIT YOUR BITCHING, YOU STUPID ASS FOX!"

Glisteningly curved claws slowly slid through the bars towards Naruto, then angled upward in an appearance that almost resembled a come-hither motion. "My hearing isn't quite what it used to be. Why don't you come a little closer and repeat what you said, or better yet—why don't you remove this bothersome seal so that we can better converse without such unnecessary ridiculousness," Kyuubi said in a rich and sly-soft tone.

Naruto rolled his eyes at the more-then-obvious deception involved. "That sounds nice," he said in an enthralled tone, then held up his hands and extended both middle fingers high in the air. "Why don't you come a little closer and see this."

Kyuubi barred his teeth and growled in retaliation, "Your idiocy is as clear from this distance as it is from anywhere else in this damned cage."

Naruto matched the scathing look Nine-Tails was giving him with an equally piercing glare. "For somebody, or something, that's supposedly so all-powerful, you don't seem to be having much luck removing that seal without needing somebody to do it for you. You've had years to figure out a way to get it off and yet you call me an idiot? Get a clue, already."

"The complexities involved are beyond your pitiful human comprehension, foolish boy. If it were as simple as you claim to think, I would have escaped by now by ripping a hole through the abdomen of your grizzled corpse and destroying this wretched village once and for all," Kyuubi uttered in a soft and dangerous tone.

A sharp reply lingered on the top of Naruto's tongue but something in the back of his mind convinced him to keep it to himself. Arguing with and antagonizing Nine-Tails wasn't going to lead anywhere productive and would ultimately do nothing more then create additional resentment between the both of them. Instead, Naruto looked about his current surroundings. Up until now he'd never really bothered to pay attention to it, but the area itself had a strange industrialized look to it. The abundance of pipes along the walls and ceiling—hell, even the smell—gave him the impression he was standing in some oversized boiler room for a massive complex. He'd never been in an actual prison cell before but Naruto had the distinct impression that this overall appearance, not including the cage itself, was deliberately meant to emulate that particular setting. That was his guess, anyways. Hell, he didn't know how this subliminal crap worked. Still, it would make for some interesting questions providing Nine-Tails didn't raise shit over it. Speaking of which…

"You said you heard my thoughts," Naruto said, reiterating the beginning of the impromptu conversation. "How long have you been able to do that? Since you've been sealed in here?"

From behind his cell, Kyuubi rumbled something indecipherable.

Interpreting that as a yes, Naruto continued: "Is there any way to silence my thoughts so that you can't hear them?"



"By opening this seal and allowing me to tear you limb from limb," Kyuubi answered without preamble.

Naruto sighed in annoyance. This conversation was both rapidly and predictably turning into something he would have expected from some older teenager attempting to bully him behind some locked window. "You know what I meant."

Kyuubi growled moodily. "And you heard what I said! I hear all the insignificant babble and events that revolve around you. Pay attention or you'll live to regret it!"

Another sigh, but for a different reason this time. "So then you heard the conversations I had with Sakura-chan?" Naruto cautiously ventured, not particularly sure where he was going with this.

"I've heard enough banter between you and the Haruno girl to make any living creature sick to their stomach!" Kyuubi exclaimed even more sharply. "Your petty problems are not my concern. Do not discuss them with me."

"Yeah, I got that, dickhead," Naruto growled, seriously tired of this conversation. "I just—you know what, forget it. I'm wasting my time here discussing this. I'm sorry my thoughts 'woke you up' but that's something yer gonna have to deal with when you're occupying the body of a kid dealing with life and the shit that might go on from time to time. If I could do something about it that doesn't cause problems, I would—but I can't. All I can tell you is to sleep through it or do whatever it is you do here and let me handle this stuff as best as I can." Offering a final nod as if to put a period on the situation, Naruto turned to leave for the exit—

From behind him, Kyuubi started to cackle softly.

Naruto glanced over his shoulder. "What?"

Kyuubi grinned widely, a sort of predatory expression that put all of his sharp canines on display. "Oh nothing, boy. I simply find it comical that I'm stuck inside of a dimwitted child gifted with the inability to see what's in front of him. Your idiocy and misery brings me a joy that you could scarcely hope to understand. By all means, return to the prison that you've clearly created for yourself. You see—I might have been locked up in here without my consent, but at least I can rest easy knowing I wasn't given a choice in the matter. You, on the other hand, had the ability to pick otherwise and you chose…poorly."

A muscle in Naruto's cheek tightened considerably as if somebody had taken a screwdriver to it. "What's your point?" he countered frostily.

"My point, as you put it,is that you had all of the opportunity in the world to take a bad situation and turn it into something advantageous, but you ultimately blew that by rejecting the girl and pushing her away. Somebody who truly desires to become Hokage takes every single opportunity that comes their way and serves to exploit those opportunities to full advantage. Failing to realize that will never allow you to better yourself."

Naruto shook his head, instinctively knowing the direction Kyuubi was trying to take this into and not liking it one bit. "You're full of shit. People aren't tools like you think they are."

"Aren't they?" Kyuubi retorted softly. "Ninja die in battle so that the innocent can continue to persevere in life. Through that preservation, the innocent continue the process of breeding and producing offspring so that future generations will be given the same option of deciding what side of the toolbox they wish to occupy: a tool of life or a tool of death. When it comes down to it—humans are nothing more then husks of flesh driven by the sole purpose of maintaining their dominance over the world and everything that resides within it; including each other. This is what I've come to understand about you humans and the lengths you'll go to in order to ensure your own survival."

Naruto glared at Kyuubi and his over-inflated assessment of mankind; but behind that outward veil lurked a carefully guarded sense of caution that was rapidly beginning to bloom at how ridiculous this discussion was becoming. He'd never had a long-winded conversation with the Nine-Tailed Fox before and it was getting more and more likely that it would be a long time before he ever allowed the opportunity to present itself again. Listening to life lessons from the perspective of a tailed beast was like a girl watching him pee; it just didn't feel right.

"Believe what you want, you stupid fox," Naruto said, abruptly tired of this conversation and making it very clear in his voice. "I don't know what's all gone on with you over the years, but I make my own directions in life and nothing or nobody is gonna convince me otherwise." He turned and started to leave again. "Go back to—"

"—You talk a tough game, boy, but I know you better then anyone; and in the end you'll end up like me: incarcerated in mind and body, unloved and forever alone," Kyuubi gloated mockingly in a brutally cold and blunt tone. "And on the day you come to realize that, you'll—"

"—Kick your goddamned ass," Naruto announced in the same tone, cutting him off and fixating the fox with a knife-sharp expression. "Stay out of my head and don't you ever get involved with my life, unless I ask for it. Your job is to earn your keep and pay your rent with chakra when I need it." He shook a furious fist at Kyuubi. "And don't you fucking forget it!"

Kyuubi said nothing but merely grinned as a red blanket of chakra abruptly rose up around the fox's devilish countenance like some curtain that rose up out of the very pits of hell. The water on the floor was strewn about violently as the outpouring of chakra began to swirl and circle into a massive funnel of glowing energy. It started slowly but quickly picked up momentum as it whirled from the massive tower of bars, ran along the sewer floor and towards Naruto—who stared at the looming monstrosity rapidly approaching him with a dumbfounded expression. His fight-or-flight response was screaming at him to make some kind of a move, but he felt like he was standing in super glue.

Then Naruto's eyes abruptly shifted into horror as the approaching maelstrom of bright chakra transformed and shifted into a nightmarish visage of the Nine-Tailed Fox. Eye-piercing colors of red and orange made up its face while it's blacker-then-black eyes gleamed like those of the very devil. It lingered for a second as if taking a moment to size up Naruto like some almighty finger of God basking in triumph over the idea of taking a life before surging forward. Knowing that everything was going to depend on what occurred in the next second, Naruto clenched his teeth in preparation and abruptly leaped backwards with every ounce of physical power and chakra his legs currently possessed—

—and abruptly shattered through the shell separating reality and his sub-conscience as Naruto abruptly fell backwards on the bridge deck, landing back first on the hard wood in a ragged heap. Endless pellets of rain glanced off of Naruto's sweaty face as he lay there gasping for breath, trying to discern just what in blazing hell had happened. His heart thudded painfully against his ribs as if it were a punching bag, and that familiar unpleasant feeling of invisible insects chewing on his skin was prominent as well. All of the muscles in his body literally felt like rubber bands that had been pulled and stretched to the point of nearly snapping. The cold necklace pressing against his chest offered little if any relief to his current condition.

He laid there for another estimated thirty seconds before bringing his hands up by his hips and very slowly bringing himself up to a sitting position, anticipating and cringing from random aches and pains that pulsated through his body. Getting to his feet and bracing himself over the railing was enough to make his exhalations come out in wheezy, cloudy rasps that were easily noticeable in the cold air. It was like he'd swallowed a glacier and part of it had ended up lodged in his lungs. That assessment was enough to prompt the little voice in his head to speculate that he was potentially getting sick. Naruto scowled in response as he wiped both the sweat and rain off his forehead with his equally saturated shirt.

Seriously, what had that crazy fox been attempting to do with that strange tornado of chakra, anyways? That weird conversation had been bad enough, but add something potentially dangerous like that in the mix and who knows what could have happened? It wasn't like he needed any chakra right now so what had the point of that been? Scare him, maybe?

He didn't know, but the uncertainty of it all was reason enough to appreciate just how fortunate he'd been to narrowly escape whatever that prick of a fox had been trying to do. Naruto knew enough about Nine-Tails to know that he was a tailed beast, possessed a shit-ton of chakra, and that if he—Naruto—ever died, so would Nine-Tails—but that's all he knew. He knew the general aspects, but nothing specific about what Kyuubi could actually do in terms of abilities or the amount of influence it could mentally exert on the host it was currently sharing bodies with. Naruto had seen firsthand that the seal itself was enough of a preventative measure that Kyuubi could not realistically or physically escape its prison unless the host—Naruto himself, deliberately released it. And, as Ero-sennin stated, that seal doesn't stop Kyuubi from sharing its enormous reserves of chakra in situations that tended to border on life-or-death—and there'd been a few of those occasions already.

But then, how far did that go? If Kyuubi was able to freely share its chakra without restraints, what else could it then possibly slip past the seal? Could a tailed beast somehow exert some form of mental control over the host it's occupying without the host knowing about it? Up until now, the idea of something like that ever happening had never even crossed his mind, but it was hard not to consider the possible ramifications of what could happen if the Nine-Tailed Fox truly had that sort of power.


But in light of that, Naruto also had to believe that if the fox actually wanted to take over his body, or mind, or soul, or whatever the hell it believed would be of the most benefit to its cause, it probably would have done it already as it had just stated. Needless to say, it was definitely something he was going to have to bring up with Ero-sennin soon before something ever potentially got out of hand, because the last thing he ever wanted to do was unintentionally hurt someone he cared about. He had no idea what the training was all going to entail, but it was definitely going to include the fox in some way.

"If he ever gets back here," Naruto muttered aloud in an irritated voice, the last bits of adrenaline and fear draining out of him and gradually being replaced by the previous and familiar vein of despondency that had latched on so strongly as of late. Ero-sennin had said that he would be leaving for the training the moment he'd gotten out of the hospital. Well it had been a few days now since he'd been released and, aside from the hospital visit, the old perv hadn't made an appearance yet. Naruto could half-ass understand if he was out gathering information on that weird group involving Sasuke's brother and that weird, but strong fish-guy that had attacked in the hotel when they'd been looking for Baa-chan, or even getting 'research' on various women for whatever stupid reasons, but come on already!

Naruto cringed, felt as if his stomach was on the verge of devouring its own juices in a mad attempt to satisfy the growing need for nourishment, but there was something mesmerizing about watching the water running underneath him; an endless consistency of churning waves running along a designated path with unpremeditated purpose. It possessed no answers to any of his problems, held no secrets he could learn, couldn't help him in anyway…and still he stared at it as if were the undisputed heart of the universe.

Naruto's hunger pangs soon began to desist and evaporate as the hypnotic lull of the river drew him further and further under its voiceless melody. Almost as if lost in a spell of genjutsu, Naruto's colorful eyes clouded over in entranced haziness as he continued to scrutinize the surface of the water with unnatural intensity, staring so deeply that eventually the present environment around him faded as his mind slowly drew him into another place; a portrait of earlier times…

It was an early morning on the first day of September, and Naruto's first official day into the Ninja Academy. Young and naive, but possessing the same adamant desires for acknowledgment, Naruto sat high up in the back of the large classroom he'd been assigned to with no idea of what to expect or what he should have brought for that matter. All he'd known was what The Third had told him at the time, which was just to be present and accounted for. It was both great and shitty for him in the sense that he was finally taking his first steps towards becoming Hokage, but he'd probably have to deal with a bunch of stuck-up assholes as well. He had made it a point on this day to be the first person in class just to see firsthand whom he'd have to deal with.

Boastful boys and giggling girls started to casually file in a few minutes before class officially started, and Naruto's anger began to rise as several of them where jerks he'd encountered at one time or another who'd gone out of their way to treat him with disdain; they'd more or less been acting like assholes who believed their shit didn't stink. Some of the boys—and even a girl—had spotted Naruto sitting by himself and had predictably resorted to laughing and pointing at him as if he somehow differed from them. One of the boys even gave him the finger for no good reason; Naruto scowled and flipped the bird back in his scowl depended even more as Sasuke entered the room, setting himself apart from the other kids with his emotionless demeanor and self-assured confidence. Like Naruto, he too slowly scanned the room as if he were mentally compounding all of the factors that could have gone wrong and all of the present people that could have influenced those factors. Eventually that gaze found its way to Naruto and immediately narrowed into a look that essentially stated 'keep your distance'. Naruto instantly mirrored the look with crystal clear intensity before furiously turning the cheek and glancing away, bringing the brief battle of 'size the other person up' to a close. Sasuke's reaction was no doubt the same, but Naruto had already put him on ignore and continued to observe and study the mass of people showing up to class like cattle on a farm. While most of them were still listed on the dickhead section in his book, some of the others, like Shikamaru and Chouji and Kiba—acquaintances for now, but potentially friends in the near future—were personable enough to associate with. Even a couple of the girls looked friendly enough, too, but he didn't see himself running over to make introductions; especially to that boisterous and energetic blonde whose family owned that local flower shop. He'd seen her enough in the past to generalize she was one of those pushy types that were often times too smart for their own good; the sort of person that loved to argue just for the sake of arguing and, irritatingly enough, were often successful in validating their points. Even now, he could see her pulling—practically dragging—someone into the room. Naruto initially frowned at first, but the look faded as his sharp hearing picked up on the flower girl's friendly words of persuasion to the person—a girl, he assumed—clearly in need of some encouragement. Since she wasn't here yet, Naruto assumed it was that shy Hyuga girl that he'd once helped (well, tried to help, anyways) when those bullies had tormented her. Then the mystery person was finally tugged into the classroom, and all ideas and concerns were immediately shelved as Naruto's heart skipped a beat.

Wearing a long-sleeved green qipao dress that ran all the way down to her knees and a pretty red ribbon that held her pink hair back, Naruto swallowed a hard lump in his throat at the sight of this pretty but nervous-looking girl who looked as if she were about to bolt at any second and probably would have if the flower girl didn't currently have a firm-looking grip on her hand. Naruto, on the other hand, stared at her intently as if she were some shining star that had somehow fallen from the depths of the sky and had mistakenly arrived here on Earth to grace the land with her angelic presence. He'd probably seen her around the village at some point, yes, but had never actually 'seen' her until today. How he'd managed to miss or overlook her presence up until now was beyond his comprehension.

Now he watched in childish wonder and fascination as flower girl escorted the pink-haired angel, who now appeared to be carrying a fancy pen and notepad up to the third row of the class; his fondness for this girl increasing by giant leaps and bounds with every tentative step she took. From the way her hair casually bounced against her cheeks to the way her clothes seemed, well…perfect for her. Hell, everything about her in general didn't seem real at all. To try and describe the weird and not so entirely unpleasant sensations that radiated through his beating heart was all but impossible. A minute ago he was in the midst of wondering how he was going to deal with these people, but now…

The girl was about to sit down with the blonde when she happened to look up, and Naruto caught his breath as he abruptly realized that she'd caught him staring at her. For the briefest of moments she stared at him with a peculiar look; Naruto held his breath in response, every muscle in his young body tensing up as if he were watching a majestic sunrise slowly coming into bloom. His eyes were like that of a camera as he captured her portrait and carefully framed it in the recesses of his mind where it would hang for the rest of his life.

The moment inevitably passed as she finally took her seat and faced the front of the class for the lesson to begin, but Naruto knew that this girl had instantly enriched and shifted his outlook on life—just like that. He still didn't know her name but he certainly hoped to learn that and lots more about her during the time he had to spend here in the academy. Maybe they'd end up on the same squad once they both graduated. He couldn't say for sure on that, either but he honestly hoped so. He'd never met anyone in his life that he had wanted to protect more so then this girl with the pink hair. He only hoped that if the day where she needed to be protected ever arrived that he would be there for her in time. He was still debating that when the teacher finally arrived. Class began—

—And a sharp drop of rain struck Genin Naruto on the nose, bringing him out of the daydream with a sharp jolt and returning him soundly to the bridge yet again, completely soaking wet and perpetually frozen at this point…and somehow managing to have an even lower opinion about himself as the memories of those initial days lingered in his mind like some hungry old crow sitting the shoulder of a scarecrow.

The stink of it all was that it wasn't like it was a fabrication or anything. When he'd first seen Sakura in the classroom that day, he'd been practically enchanted by her in every way possible. Everything about her had seemed so good and pure to him at the time. She'd brought something special to his life that he didn't think had even existed up until that point: the desire to open his heart to someone with the possibility of having those feelings returned someday. And despite eventually learning that Sakura was far beyond him in terms of smarts and that she already had a full-blown crush on Sasuke, he'd still done the best he could to try and impress her in any way possible up until the day of graduation and beyond that. It was stupid, of course, but Naruto had to think that that sort of behavior was only natural, or at least common, in these triangle crush scenarios with one guy liking a girl, the girl being liked preferring someone else, and the third person/that 'other guy' either oblivious or not particularly caring enough to acknowledge those advances. It probably wasn't necessarily always like that with people, but he only had what he'd seen to go by.

As for trying to win her over, though, obviously those attempts had all but gone south for the most part. It was just like Oji-san had said: a girl that has her mind and heart set on somebody else can never be won over—no matter what. He'd had to learn that the hard way on numerous occasions until the desire to gain strength had slowly but surely taken prominence over everything else.

Including her.

An uncomfortable pulsation coursed its way through Naruto's legs as he slowly rubbed his hands together in a half-hearted attempt to warm them. It had all started when Sasuke had saved him from the Demon Brothers during their first C-rank mission. He'd been so thrilled at the prospect of being on an actual mission that didn't involve doing mundane chores like finding lost cats or digging up vegetables that he'd never even taken into account that he might be in an actual life-or-death situation. His naiveté had convinced him that being a ninja was the only way to gain the villagers acceptance, but he'd never compounded the enormous risks that had come with that role until that moment he'd witnessed Kakashi-sensei supposedly being sliced to bits and him being next on the list…until Sasuke stepped in and handled the situation as naturally as a person rolling out of bed in the morning. He'd always been envious of Sasuke for being better then him in every way but had never truly despised him until that moment when he'd actually proved it without a shadow of a doubt. And without even trying!

But that moment had also been pivotal for him because he'd been forced to accept the fact that he couldn't just play pretend ninja and think that that was actually enough to become Hokage. He actually had to be a ninja and slowly accept that things could and would go wrong in battle and that he had to adapt to those situations or else him and the people around him were going to face being potentially killed. It was that simple. And knowing that there was somebody out there that was potentially relying on him made getting stronger all the more necessary. It had started with the idea of outclassing Sasuke and impressing Sakura at first, but the importance of doing what he needed to do in order to protect those around him had started to transcend those initial goals into something more.

But it was also those goals that had caused everything to get so totally screwed up to begin with.

His lower lip was ravaged at this point but that clearly wasn't enough to deter Naruto as he began to chew at it as if in self-repentance. He'd run the scenario through his head many times and he still couldn't quite figure out what had triggered the beginning of all of it. He remembered him and Sakura visiting Sasuke in the hospital. It had started off fine at first, a casual visit, nothing out of the ordinary. He'd bantered with Sakura, teasing her for being all flighty around Sasuke who'd retaliated by smacking him across the head, sending him tumbling to the ground in a dizzy stupor. He'd lain there only briefly before a loud clatter of noise—a plate hitting the floor—quickly brought him to his feet. He'd taken one quick glance at both Sakura's expression of frightened shock and Sasuke's icy look of determination and had immediately become confused as to what the hell had gone on over a matter of seconds.

But that confusion had quickly given way to an equal feeling of intentness the moment Sasuke had demanded a fight.

Naruto should have said no, should have said it was crazy to have a battle in Sasuke's condition and in front of Sakura and that it should have been postponed until he'd fully recovered, but there had been something in Sasuke's eyes that had made declining the request virtually impossible. He'd relished the chance of overcoming Sasuke in a battle someday where the odds would finally be more in his favor and now that opportunity had finally revealed itself.

Naruto had known from the beginning that Sakura hadn't wanted to see it, but from the moment Sasuke had declared battle until the end when Kakashi-sensei had intervened, he'd wanted to win and have Sasuke admit that they were both equals in terms of shinobi. That's why he'd demanded Sasuke put on his hitai-ate before they fought. Ultimately he hadn't, which had incensed Naruto to the point of using any and all tactics necessary to win—which had triggered Sasuke to do the same likewise. He'd wanted to beat Sasuke so badly that he hadn't considered the ramifications of what might have followed. He'd never considered that the girl who had consistently rejected him with such blunt honesty at times would attempt to intervene by jumping in front of both him and Sasuke…and putting herself in harms way like that. Or that Sasuke would end up leaving the village and going back to the same snake bastard that had marked and left him on the verge of death in the forest during the exams. Or that Naruto would have been the one to try and clean up the emotional mess that Sasuke had left behind by tending to Sakura and ultimately failing on the account because he'd been too bogged down over his own feelings of guilt to properly address hers. Or that he'd been the one—

"—I made him leave," Naruto said in a low and empty voice of solemn admittance.

There were no feelings of guilt released. No fireworks of insight going off, no massive epiphanies, no great life lessons to file away for future reference—nothing that resembled what he'd experienced in his apartment as far as any of that went. Just a bleak acceptance of what he should have known from the very beginning…or maybe he had always known and just never wanted to give any power to the possibility that his involvement had caused all of this, but it had been like dropping a bottle down into the river below and watching it being carted away as fast as the eye could follow. The longer he thought about the various overlooked details and it how tied together, the more he became convinced that it couldn't be anything else but the truth.

Sasuke had left the village to seek Orochimaru because he'd felt it was the only possible thing he could think of to gain strength so that he could fight his brother, but he never would have felt the need to go to drastic measures like that had Naruto not given him an excuse to do so. He'd seen the look of surprise on Sasuke's face the moment he'd unveiled the rasengan. Naruto had counted on that surprise to show him that he had a technique of his own that could match up to the chidori, but all it had done was add fuel to the fire that had obviously been waging on within Sasuke's own psyche. Sasuke's desire to have an impromptu battle on the hospital rooftop had been set up sorely to give himself an ego boost and prove that he was the superior one, but Naruto had given him a better run for his money then he'd initially anticipated and had unnerved him enough that he'd chosen to become a rogue…and a potential enemy of the village; just like Orochimaru had undoubtedly become.

And just as his actions had dictated Sasuke's behavior, they had equally affected Sakura's with precise deplorability. All of her despondency, heartbreak and sorrow—start to finish—he was responsible for all of it. He was the one who'd taken Sasuke away from her. He was the one responsible for almost getting her physically hurt on the roof. He was the one who should have taken responsibility and told her everything instead of trying to make excuses. He was the one who was supposed to go and fix everything but had done the exact opposite and ruined everything by hurting Sakura when she'd needed him the most by pushing him away. It was all on Naruto; every last bit of it.

And he should have been there from the get go. He should have been!He'd known damn that she was battling with insecurities and going through a rough time that he'd admittedly helped cause. And instead of being forthcoming and honest with his personal insecurities—like she had been—he'd proceeded to attack hers whilst trying to hide his own like a damned coward. Afterwards, he'd tried to justify his actions by convincing himself that he'd been in the right only to end up puking from panic-induced anxiety. It was as if his body internally understood that his mindset was wrong and was forced into showing him the errors of his ways. He'd already decided in the apartment that going after her and helping her out for the sake of penance was the only possible way he could think of to make amends for what he'd done. There was just no way he could have sat around and brooded like some child, not after the way he'd treated her. It really didn't take a genius to understand that being the bigger man didn't involve hurting the people you love. The memory of Kyuubi's gloating voice lingered in his ear like an evil manta: 'In the end you'll end up like me: incarcerated in mind and body, unloved and forever alone…'

And he had hurt the people he'd loved; and that's why he ultimately deserved to feel the way he did now: Lonely. Empty. Ashamed. Adrift. Alone. Hell, he'd already spent the majority of his life under those miserable circumstances already. Why would it matter if he returned to that state of mind?

In answer, a hazy mist consumed his vision and Naruto wiped at his eyes furiously as humiliating tears sprang up like an old geyser bursting out of the ground. "Fuck sakes," he angrily muttered, feeling both instantly embarrassed and instantly relieved that nobody could see him looking like this. Using the heels of his hands, Naruto made small but hard grinding circles around his eye sockets until he managed to shut off the ducts. He'd already deduced all of that bullshit and rehashed it enough times to make a person sick to their stomach. So why the hell was he the one on the verge of crying like some bawling baby now? And of all places, why here?

Having already known the answers to those questions and not particularly wanting to explore them, Naruto rubbed at his irritated eyes once more and slowly sighed. If he could have one wish granted to him, it would be to go back in time, use the knowledge he'd gained over the last several hours and done all of this the right way. He would have made damn sure that he disclosed all of the things that had been bothering him to her and would have listened—really listened—to her without suspicions or delusions guiding his words and actions. He would have enjoyed the pastries she'd brought. He would have accepted her dinner invitation without hesitation and would have taken it upon himself to go the extra mile and make sure they both had the best time possible. It would have been fun and a welcome break from everything that had happened. At least that's probably what she had hoped for until he'd managed to louse that up from wearing his blinders too tightly. Maybe then she might have forgiven him for separating her from Sasuke…or else despised him forever for his actions; again probably the latter.

The sound of somebody being lectured caused Naruto to angle his head slightly to the right. Through his peripheral vision, he could see even more people up and moving around now then he had earlier. A curious frown carved his lips as he abruptly found himself wondering what time it was anyways. He'd been standing out here for so long now that he'd completely lost track of everything.

An older man with a graying beard sheltered under a large red umbrella walked down a road that ran perpendicular past the bridge. Naruto called out to him and asked for the time. Sparing a glance at his wrist, the man grunted a quick, "eleven o' clock," before turning off and heading down the street that Naruto had walked up without breaking stride.

Naruto considered his answer for a moment, chewed the inside of his mouth as he factored in a few other things as well. The first time he'd gone to bed last night he'd been, ironically, concerned about what was going to happen today. Along with that, he had mostly just lay there and reflected on the events that had gone on over the past week; basically just the sort of thing any other person would have done if they were in the same position.

That wasn't what he was contemplating though.

When he'd been on the verge of falling asleep and there had been a knock at the door, he'd obviously gotten up and gone to answer it out of sheer peevishness that someone had seen fit to show up at his home at such a ridiculous hour. And being as late as it was, he'd naturally taken a moment to glance at the clock he'd set up on his night table to see just what time it actually was.

He didn't have to think hard about it. Like a dog being called, the numbers yanked free from the garden of his mind with ease and shone freely exposed with crystal-clear clarity. The time had been—

"Eleven o'clock," Naruto uttered softly. "It was eleven o'clock when I got out of bed."

Yes, that had been the time. It had been eleven when Naruto had gone to answer his door and let Sakura in. Obviously the task had no particular reverence and was no more unordinary then scratching his ass or taking a leak. It just seemed like some grim coincidence that his highest of highs and his lowest of lows with someone he knowingly loved had both started and ended on the same number on the clock; from eleven to eleven.

Twelve hours…he'd managed to screw everything all up in the span of twelve lousy hours.

Standing in the middle of the bridge in a state of solitary defeat, the unbearable weight of conclusive finality pressed down on the tops of Naruto shoulders, making his chest ache. His eyes were closed, but in his mind's eye, he could see Haku, dressed in his pink kimono, standing in the middle of the raging river below him shaking his head, a quiet and displeased look further shadowing his already naturally melancholic face before turning and walking away into the horizon like a person out for a casual stroll without a care in the world. Naruto called out to him and begged him to stay, but Haku merely ignored the plea and vanished into the mist that hovered along the top of the river like some great white curtain, his snow white obi the last thing to remain before it too began to disappear. Something tore inside of Naruto and he continued to demand, to beg, to plead and scream Haku's name. He—!


With his nerves already in a state of disarray, Naruto jumped and abruptly spun around in shock from the sound of his name being called, his frazzled brain convinced that he'd gotten a visit from a ghostly presence. It took him only a moment to realize that an apparition hadn't visited him. His mouth fell open as if somebody had punched him in the stomach and all of the air had rushed out of him in a giant burst. His limbs quivered as if he were straining to lift some massive boulder out from the ground that was much too heavy for him as he stared in total disbelief at the very familiar person who had spoken to him.

Dressed virtually the same as she had been before with the only difference being that her umbrella was now open and exposed like a velvet black rose and maybe a few scuff marks on her raincoat, Sakura peered up at Naruto from the edge of the bridge with a peculiar expression and proposed the same inquiry that she'd asked this morning when Oji-san had let her in: "Are you okay?"

Naruto blinked stupidly as if he were a child that had been caught exploring in a dirty basement. "Y-yeah," he gradually muttered in a creaky voice, an unpleasant mixture of embarrassment and nervousness blazing through him at knowing the shoe was on the other foot now as he turned to face the river. "I was…I'm just getting some air."

Adjusting her grip on the umbrella, Sakura nodded twice in confirmation. "Well, there's nothing wrong with that," she answered in a light and casual tone that was almost the complete polar opposite of what had transpired how ever many minutes ago. "After everything that's happened today, I'd say we both could use some of that."

Naruto nodded without looking, feeling completely caught off guard and having the beads of sweat to prove it. The inside of his clothes felt hot and uncomfortably itchy despite the cold atmosphere, making him fidget. "Yeah, definitely," he said, then mentally braced himself as he heard her walking up the bridge towards him, her foot steps echoing softly on the bridge deck. Despite the abundance of moisture in the air, the inside of Naruto's mouth felt dry and tight.

Completely oblivious to his trepidations, Sakura casually came up beside him—but not quite close enough to the point that she was infringing on his space—and looked over the edge. "Wow," she beamed softly underneath the protective layer of her umbrella. "I almost forgot how hard the current gets when it's been raining. I could watch this sort of thing for hours and never get tired of it."

"Y-yeah, me too," Naruto replied shakily, desperate to maintain his part in this bizarre conversation whilst pretending he didn't currently have the sensation of being caught with his pants down. "What the hell was happening here? Was this genjutsu or a dream or something? This couldn't be the same Sakura! No way!"

Sakura glanced over at him. "Speaking of which; it almost looks like you've been out here for some time yourself," she said, her tone mildly chastising. "How long have you been standing here?"

Naruto shrugged as best as he could, trying to be nonchalant and hardly feeling it of course. "A c-couple minutes now. I didn't feel like going home right away," he quickly added as if he needed to justify his reasoning to her for being here while at the same time desperately forestalling any potential argument. He then looked at her, more specifically her leg, shakily pointed and asked, "H-how's your ankle?"

Sakura reached down and touched the newly healed leg with her free hand. "It's really good," she said. "Tsunade-sama did a fantastic job on it. She's kind of intimidating at first like you said, but she's super nice after you to talk to her for a little while. I sure wouldn't want to catch her on an off day though," she added with a nervous giggle.

Naruto pursed his lips and nodded somberly, whole-heartedly agreeing with that assessment despite his current tiff with the older woman. "I've seen how she gets when she's all pissed off, so yeah. But at least you got your leg fixed." He was going to say something else when Sakura abruptly brought the umbrella over Naruto's head, finally sheltering him from the rain. He didn't glance at Sakura, but could tell that she was looking at him. "I'm a-already soaked—" he started to say.

"—And there's no sense in you being any more soaked then you already are, or potentially catching a cold—which might end up happening at this point—so don't fuss about it," Sakura evenly countered.

Naruto didn't bother replying with something that was just going to earn another retort—and a potentially sharp one at that. Instead he just focused on a random spot on the river below him, trying and failing to make sense of what was going on here. He felt like he was trapped between two walls of helpless confusion that were crushing against him with incredibly slow and deadly precision unless he gave the correct answer to some incredibly complex puzzle that was totally beyond his comprehension. Wasn't she supposed to be at Baa-chan's getting training or something right now? Had Sakura even been accepted as a student? Seriously, what was she doing out here right now?

"Ask her then," his mind exclaimed. "You won't get any answers if you just keep thinking up questions and not asking them. You said that if you could have any wish, it would be to make amends, right?"

"So w-what are you doing out here then?" Naruto asked, going along with the suggestion while striving to keep his tone conversational and not as someone who'd been standing out in the pouring raining, feeling like trash. "If Baa-chan accepted your request and agreed to be your teacher, shouldn't you be with her and Shizune-nee-chan getting your training underway or something like that?"

"She did," Sakura hesitantly replied, the exhalations of her breath coming out in misty puffs. "She wasn't going to at first, but she ended up changing her mind afterwards."

Naruto frowned in puzzlement. "Why's that?" he asked, the intent of his question directed towards Baa-chan's hesitance.

"Mostly because she's still in the process of learning how to be Hokage," Sakura answered. "Getting comfortable with a powerful position like that takes a lot of time and effort—even for a legendary kunoichi like her. And along with learning medical jutsu, she'd also like me to be an assistant as well."

"An assistant?" Naruto echoed with obvious apprehension. "You're gonna replace Shizune-nee-chan?"

Sakura laughed softly and shook her head. "No, no," she chided gently. "I'd be working along side of Shizune-san, helping both her and Tsunade-sama around the office filing paperwork, running errands, taking notes—that sort of thing. It's mundane work, but it's important work at the same time…if that makes sense."

Unable to understand the significance of what she was trying to explain, Naruto shook his head and bluntly said, "Not really no, but you might as well do it then if that sort of thing makes you happy."

Sakura nodded, having already figured that that was the response she was going to get. "Apprenticeships are typically like that," she explained offhandedly as she gently pinched at her nose with thumb and index finger, politely cleaning her nostrils. "There's often a lot of extracurricular work that gets lumped in for learning purposes. And as for your other question, she asked that I take the day off and let my ankle heal up so that there aren't any complications from what she mended. Plus, she'd like me to pick up some books from the library as well so that I can get a head start on the study portion of it."

Naruto absentmindedly nodded, his gaze still locked on the river below him, when he was really just trying to avoid eye contact. Sakura's presence—despite the last couple minutes where he'd agonizingly reflected on what he wished he would have and wouldn't have done—had put him on edge to the point now where he felt like a fly caught in a spider web that was kicking its legs around in a big mess of helpless confusion while an omnipotent spider meticulously crept out of hiding and began to crawl over in preparation for a great feast.

"You should probably go the library then," Naruto abruptly said without looking at her, trying intently to make it look like he was studying something interesting about the river—and probably doing a lame-ass job about it. "Baa-chan obviously has plans for you, and it's probably in your best interest not to disrupt those."

Sakura nodded in compliance as she stared down at the river as well, a thoughtful frown curving her lips before nodding a second time. "You're absolutely right," she replied firmly, the countenance of her face chiseled in serious tones. "After all, she took the time to consider and accept my request and I need to honor that without hesitation."

The muscles inside of Naruto's legs relaxed somewhat with her answer as he quickly grew less tense. "Yeah, for sure," he started to say. "And—"

"You should come with me as well," she said in the same tone.

Naruto instantly stiffened up again, all of his defenses immediately rising up like a cannon set to fire as he blinked stupidly at her request. "W-what? W-why's that?" he bumbled foolishly in reply.

"Why not?" Sakura countered as she adjusted her grip on the umbrella. "I mean, you just said you were out here getting some fresh air and weren't in a hurry to go home. You've obviously got nothing better to do, so you might as well come with me. This way you can get inside someplace where it's nice and dry and not feel so soaked to the bone like you obviously are now."

Naruto nervously cleared his throat. It wasn't like he could argue with the obviousness of her logic or rebuke what he'd blatantly said to her because of how sharp her memory was. Still… "T-thanks, but I'd rather stay here for awhile and think about some s-stuff," he muttered, casually folding his arms over the rail to further accentuate the point that he was staying put.

An expression that clearly indicated she wasn't at all satisfied with that answer slid over Sakura's face like an uncomfortable scarf. "Fair enough," she replied evenly, "but you could do that sort of thing indoors, couldn't you? A warmer environment would definitely—"

"—I prefer it here," he said bluntly, cutting her off.

The drumbeat sounds of rain pitter-pattering against the ground accentuated the sullenness between the two as Sakura silently stared out towards a similar spot on the river like a statue of a maiden while Naruto was content not to say anything either. What the hell could he say? Hey, how's it going? How's the ankle feeling? How's life after I kicked you out of the apartment because I was a total asshole? The bonfire of injustice he'd had a hand in creating only seemed to grow hotter with intensity as if her presence was indirectly adding fuel to those flames. The feeling of being at her mercy again did not go by unnoticed; the angry threats and quips that were coated in full-blown frustration before he'd managed to get her the help that she'd needed abruptly fresh in his mind. And he was painfully aware that he deserved whatever further retaliation she seemed fit to dish out, but couldn't she have at least waited a little longer until she'd taken it upon herself to exact whatever revenge she was planning on him in such a short amount of time? Obviously not, since he couldn't think of any other particular reason why she'd chosen to seek him out apart from what he'd already discerned.

After another moment, Sakura's voice broke the uncomfortable silence. "Why do you prefer it here?" she asked him.

Naruto shrugged his tension-laced shoulders. "I like the quiet," he vaguely replied.

Sakura turned her head slightly in his direction. "That doesn't really seem like you at all, she said, a note of concern in her tone as she added, "If anything, that almost sounds like something Sasuke-kun would say."

He shrugged offhandedly again but didn't say anything this time, nor did he address the comparison. He knew that he was being difficult as hell right now, but awkwardness and silence were the only things he could realistically offer her. He couldn't put on a façade of exuberance and gleefulness when he was feeling anything but that right now. Those emotions were like stars to him: they were simply too far and too out of his reach to grab and touch.

Apparently picking up on that same notion as well, Sakura's next question was blunt and to the point: "Would you like me to leave?"

It was a simple question in hindsight, but the complexity of factors involved in that were cumbersome to say the least. Did he want her to leave? The answer was yes. But if he said yes, she would know right away that something was up, and that was if she hadn't figured out already that something was wrong—which she probably did, which would lead to who knows what. But if he said no, then she would probably stay, and this uncomfortable conversation would continue on until something really did go awry. He was screwed either way. So he answered her with the only viable reply he could think of that wasn't at all bullshit and one hundred percent genuine.

"I don't know what you should do."

An unreadable look came over Sakura's eyes as if Naruto had somehow managed to score a higher mark on an academy test then her and she was in the midst of wondering how in the holy hell it could have possibly happened. From the corner of his eye, Naruto could clearly tell she hadn't been anticipating an answer like that at all. That hadn't been his intention at all, but he didn't know what else he could have said to her that didn't resonate with how he was feeling.

It was roughly about ten seconds before Sakura timidly uttered, "I…I guess that's an understandable answer. After all, I said a lot of really awful things to you earlier when you were only trying to help me out of a jam that I got myself into in the first place. My frustration, my anger and bitchiness…I projected all of that onto you when I had absolutely no right to do so in the first place. You have all of the right in the world to feel resentment towards me for treating you the way I did—e-especially after I called you a hypocrite."

Sakura then glanced at the sky quickly as if she was attempting to gather strength from a higher power before lowering her chin. "I know that maybe what I'm saying right now might seem like bullshit to you," she said in a soft, slightly pleading voice, "but you have to try and believe me when I tell you that it was completely wrong on my part and I'm really sorry that I called you all of that. It's just…well—the truth is that you're—"

"—A hypocrite," he interjected in a blunt and bland voice.

She stared at him fully now, that same unreadable question mark of an expression stamped on Sakura's face as she stared at him fully now. "W-what?"

Naruto didn't return the look but instead continued to gaze outward in the same spot as if he were a war-torn soldier on duty. "I learned a long time ago that when people talk to you when they're angry, they tend to tell the truth whether they realize it or not," he spoke in a low voice that was barely audible over the sound of the falling rain. "And the angrier a person gets, the more brutally honest they become."

A sense of understanding rapidly consumed Sakura's eyes as she immediately realized where he was going with this, but held her tongue.

"I'm not mad at you for what you said earlier or that you're trying to apologize, Sakura-chan," he continued in that same troubled tone, "but the truth is that you shouldn't be the one apologizing to me when really…I should be the one who should be apologizing to you. I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but you and I both know that the only reason you even ended up in that situation to begin with is because of how unwelcome I made you feel in the apartment. You were only trying to do something helpful and check up on me, but I was too dense to understand that and instead acted like a total asshole. It was really wrong of me to act that way towards you and…and I can't even begin to tell you h-how sorry I am for that."

Sakura gazed at him with an open mouthed expression of shock. "N-Naruto," she stuttered softly as the gravity of what he was telling her began to slowly sink in. "It wasn't your fault at all! I-I know you were trying to cover for me back in the office, but it isn't—"

"—Yes it is!" he abruptly yelled, startling Sakura badly enough that she jumped a meter to the side, exposing Naruto to the rain again. "It's my fault that your ankle got injured in the first place! There's no way at all that that would have happened if I had actually just listened to what you had to say instead of being stupid like I always am; no way at all!" He quickly nodded as head as if to reinforce the factuality of his opinion on the matter.

"Naruto," Sakura said his name carefully, regaining her composure as she sought to alleviate the blame he'd placed on himself. "People say a lot of things out of anger and frustration, yes, but that doesn't mean you can take every single bit of that to heart or at face value—especially if somebody is clearly overwhelmed about something. The stability of a friendship isn't—or shouldn't be—so weak that it can be ruined by a bunch of nasty comments." An example touched her mind and she immediately seized it. "Me and Ino…we insult each other and call each other names all the time, but we both know that it'll never jeopardize our friendship. And even if it ever did—and yes, it has—we would talk to each about it and work the matter out until everything gets resolved," she said as recollections of past memories played through her head like an old movie.

Sakura then sighed heartily. "What happened there with my ankle was my own fault," she said without pretense. "Was I upset that things didn't work out as I thought they would? Yes. But I was also in a hurry to keep my appointment with Tsunade-sama as well. It was just a combination of factors that ended up causing things to happen the way that they did. End of story."

Naruto shook his head hard in obstinate defiance, shaking countless raindrops loose from his scalp. "I don't believe you," he flatly replied.

"Why would I lie?" she countered evenly. "Did you physically push me into the mud and make me hurt myself then?"


"Did you mentally push me into the mud or use any jutsu?" she questioned without being antagonistic


"Did you have any remote clue that I'd even hurt myself until you ran outside and actually saw me?"

"Well…no, Sakura-chan."

"Then—and ignoring everything I said to you at that time because it isn't the truth—what makes you think you were directly involved with me hurting my ankle?"

Naruto's eyes flicked suspiciously towards Sakura, who gazed back at him with a neutral expression. The facts that she was presenting him with made it, of course, irritatingly hard to argue with her. And he could also tell from the sincerity of her voice that she didn't want all of those misgivings to remain a permanent fixture in the grand scheme of things…but trying to change his current mindset on everything wasn't as simple as rolling up a carpet and putting it away; he'd have done it already if it were. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he begrudgingly muttered, making it more then obvious that he was not satisfied with the facts she was providing him with.

Having been forced backwards from the shock of his previous outburst, Sakura took a careful step towards him and again faced the direction she had previously before, this time giving Naruto even more space. She also didn't offer him the umbrella either, having the presence of mind to consider that he probably didn't want or need the portable shelter as she remembered what he'd said about it being basically useless earlier (she'd previously said that as well). Instead, she gingerly suggested, "How about we do this then: How about we both agree to accept the fact that you and I both made some mistakes and said some things over the last while that we aren't proud of, but we're both willing to let bygones be bygones and move on from this without further provocation. Would that be something you'd be willing to consider?"

Naruto inhaled sharply, but it wasn't from annoyance or exasperation in regards to her proposition. "Sakura-chan…it's not that easy for me," he answered her in a quiet, tight-lipped voice, his hands aggressively gripping the rail as if he were bracing himself for an immediate earthquake. "I want you to know—y-you have to believe me when I tell you that you did absolutely nothing wrong; nothing at all."

"Neither did you," she quickly replied, but he furiously shook his head again.

"Why are you out here, Sakura-chan?" he demanded, abruptly deciding to just force her hand already instead of trying to dance around a minefield of caltrops and losing his temper in the process. He had the distinct suspicion that there was something going on here that she wasn't telling him and he wanted to know what it was. "You didn't just show up here out of the blue like this because you felt like it. Tell me the truth!"

Sakura opened her mouth to say something, paused for a long moment, inhaled and loudly exhaled in a hard sigh of defeat. "Tsunade-sama asked me to come check on you," she told him in a rational, non-combative tone. "I guess she felt a little bit concerned about your overall state of mind and physical well being." Sakura helplessly shrugged her shoulders. "I told her everything that had gone on over the last bit, but she still insisted." She was going to say something else but the stony look that appeared on Naruto's face abruptly halted that idea.

"That snoopy old bitch just doesn't let up in making my life miserable." Naruto muttered bitterly under his breath, his legs vibrating as if wanted to stomp a hole right through the goddamned bridge—hell, he probably would have had Sakura not been standing next to him. "It's bad enough that I can barely get around this village without somebody trying to keep tabs on me. Now she's got you doing her dirty work as well." Naruto shook his head hard enough to make the back of his head hurt. "This just keeps getting better and better," he sarcastically concluded.

"She was worried about you, Naruto," Sakura said, allowing some sternness to creep into her own voice. "You might think it's annoying, but she's just doing it because she cares. It's no different then what Iruka-sensei, Kakashi-sensei, or Jiraiya-sama would do if they wanted to keep you safe. And that goes for me as well."

"It's goddamn bullshit is what it is!" Naruto angrily fumed, feeling pissed off all over again. "She's doing shit like that just so that she can throw her weight around and be a big shot. That's why she couldn't resist opening her big mouth in the office and saying what she did—especially in front of you!"

Sakura shot him an incredulous look as if he'd just kicked the hell out of a cat. "You honestly believe that she's doing this just to spite you and make your life as miserable as possible? Is that honestly what you think is happening here?" she demanded.

Naruto growled in response. "Don't defend her as if you've known her forever. You don't know what she's really like."

"I never claimed to know her forever—or as long as you have, for that matter," Sakura shot back, Naruto's testy words further awakening her stubbornness. "But trying to convince me that a person—my teacher—is hindering you to the degree that you claim she is; that's not going to happen. Not after what she told me, anyways."

Naruto abruptly froze, his face taking on an ashen-gray color. He felt as if currents of electrical energy were running up and down the sides of his neck, periodically shocking him. "And what exactly was that?" he warily probed.

Sakura seemed to brace herself, obviously sensing that Naruto wasn't going to like what she had to say but plowed through regardless of her trepidations. "I told Tsunade-sama that you've been having really bad nightmares lately in response to your behavior because we were both concerned about it. She deduced that your dreams might have been an emotional response from any potential guilt you might be harboring over the past while. And…I think that she's correct in her assessment."

Naruto's head jerked as if it were connected to a string that was being manipulated by a demented puppeteer. "W-what guilt are you talking about?" he demanded, his blue eyes reflecting a grim desperation that could only be shared by that of a person attempting to pull himself up from the edge of an abyss only to realize he didn't have the strength necessary to defy gravity.

This demeanor had not gone unnoticed by Sakura as she, too, had picked up on his overall tone. "I think you already know the answer to that, Naruto," she softly replied. "And…I think it's important that we address and discuss it."

"There's nothing to discuss!" he woodenly replied through clenched teeth as if she were another adult talking down to him. "Nothing at all!"

His agitation was clearly apparent, but Sakura refused to be deterred. "Oh, really? Then why would you choose this place of all places to get some air, then?" she asked, referring back to his initial explanation. "You could have gone to any other place around the village, but you chose to come to this spot instead—the same place I decided to go to last night. Why is that?"

Naruto bristled. "Why don't you tell me, Sakura-chan," he argued back in impatient defiance. "You're the one with all of the smarts here."

Sakura deliberately ignored the snide comment. "Naruto, I know the truth of why you've been mentally feeling the way you have been lately. But you need to know that everything that happened—absolutely none of it was your fault to begin with. I don't want you to blame yourself for an aftermath of events that you couldn't have possibly foreseen."

Slowly, Naruto turned to fully face Sakura for the first time since she'd shown up, his face a contorted mess of furiousness that probably would have unnerved even the most seasoned shinobi. "Blame myself for what?" he said in a frosty tone.

Having already anticipated this elementary response, Sakura returned his gaze squarely without rancor, refusing to return fire with fire. "For thinking that you caused Sasuke-kun to leave," she quietly answered.

For a moment it felt like a massive bomb had been detonated in the middle of Naruto's skull, blowing away all possible rationality and logic that might have held any shade. Following the explosion was a burst of anger so intense and so seething that he felt as if the entirety of his body was literally drenched in red-hot lava with absolutely no possible means of alleviating those torturous sensations.

"Naruto?" Sakura asked in a careful voice, clearly having more then enough obvious sense to see he was agitated as all hell now. "Are you okay?"

Naruto turned away and did not answer her, only shaking his head no to give her at least some sort of reply. He didn't know what words would have come out of his mouth right now and he couldn't trust himself to say anything appropriate. It was practically tantamount to being kicked in the balls and then trying to yell an appropriate comeback, only you were to busy holding your groin to make anything else a priority.

"Naruto, there's nothing you need to be mad about here," Sakura said tentatively, trying to ease any hurt feelings she'd inadvertently caused for the greater good. "I-I admit that I put a lot of pressure on you to bring back Sasuke-kun when you already had a lot of other things on your mind as it was then. It was really wrong of me, but that's why I made that promise to you back in the hospital—so that I could rectify all of that in the first place. So that by the time you come back from your training, you and I will both be much stronger, and—"

Naruto frowned even more sharply in response. "She told you about my training as well?" he peevishly asked, not even caring anymore that his annoyance was out of proportion right now. It wasn't like he was trying to keep it a secret or anything, but the chip on his shoulder felt as if it were a glass shard pressing deeply into flesh and bone.

"Of course she did," Sakura replied, the resonance of her voice taking on the partially familiar norm of a slightly irritable edge. "She told me that you and Jiraiya-sama were going to leave on an extensive training quest. I originally thought it had something to do with Sasuke-kun, but then she told me that an unknown faction consisting of a group of powerful ninjas are currently pursuing you. Is that correct?"

Naruto turned his hands up and made a lame dismissive motion. "You tell me."

Sakura shook her head. "No. I want you to tell me instead."

He fixed Sakura with a sour look. "Yeah. It's true. So what?"

"So why couldn't you have told me that firsthand instead of me having to find it out from somebody else?" she questioned, genuine aggravation painting the tone of her question. "You know, I could honestly understand you not wanting to disclose anything to me after everything that's happened, but I sure would have appreciated it if you'd taken a small bit of time to tell me at least that."

The accuracy of Sakura's words pierced through some of the fog of vindictiveness that had clouded over Naruto's mind so heavily, forcing him to relent a little bit. "I was going to tell you about that this morning," he quietly conceded, staring down at the drenched wood. "But I never gave the conversation enough of a chance to let it go in that direction."

"I wish you would have," Sakura said, trying, and not really succeeding, at keeping the admonishment out of her voice.

Naruto uttered a bitter sounding snort of disesteem as he resumed his river vigil. "Yeah, well, what can you expect from a screw up like me?"

Sakura frowned in disapproval. "Now what's that supposed to mean?" she demanded.

"You already know the answer to that," he snapped, becoming abruptly tired of the questioning behind the entirety of this conversation. "And you want to know something else? It doesn't matter anymore now. You and I both know that I'm nothing more then a worthless loser who can't accomplish jack shit without somebody leading me around by the nose. I was a screw up back in the academy and I haven't changed one bit since then, so you might as well quit dancing around whatever point you're dead set on making here—whether it's lecturing, or punishing me, or beating me up—and just get it over with already."

Sakura gaped at him, a bewildered look of genuine shock and confusion completely consuming her young face again. "That's not true, Naruto!" she exclaimed in disbelief, the abrupt change in the conversation completely knocking her for a loop. "That's not true at all! You're not a screw up!"

"Yes it is!" Naruto fervently replied, refusing to be dissuaded from what he'd come to know was undisputed fact. "How can you even stand there and say that after all of the times I made you guys and Kakashi-sensei cover for me after all of the mistakes I've caused? Or all the times I should have been smarter or stronger in simple situations?" He shook his head angrily. "Face it, Sakura-chan; I never should have been placed on Team 7, or even allowed to graduate from the academy in the first place. I should have just stayed there until I accepted the fact that I…I was…I was never meant to become a ninja in the first damn place!"

Having finally seen the magnitude of the burden Naruto was carrying, Sakura's eyes went wider then she'd ever thought possible. She'd never heard him this way before and it bothered her immensely to know that he was in worse shape then her and Tsunade-sama could ever have imagined. To try and fool herself into thinking she'd been prepared for anything like this would have been absolute ludicrous to say the least. The situation practically begged for her to say something supportive and be encouraging, but what the hell could she possibly say after listening to that? "Wing it and hope for the best," she told herself before plunging ahead.

"Naruto…you need to understand that everybody makes mistakes," she said in a carefully controlled voice, trying to calm him on the basis of simple logic as her teacher had done for her. "I know just as well as anyone how frustrating and overwhelming it can be when you feel like nothing is going right and everything is going wrong, but you must realize that every single person that lives in this world has made a mistake of some kind at some point in their lives. One of the hardest things I've come to learn is that doing everything right and expecting—whether it's in either the ninja world or else every day life—positive results one hundred percent of the time isn't always the case."

Naruto was shaking his head so much that his neck was starting to get sore yet he continued to do so, again refusing to believe her. "Now who's being the hypocrite," he scoffed in reply. "You had perfect marks back in the academy and could basically recite every single lesson that was taught to you word for word."

"And I had to be placed in real life or death situations before coming to realize that being one of the smartest students in the academy doesn't guarantee coming back alive from a mission," she firmly countered, this time having to work to keep the hostility out of her voice. "That's a lesson I had to learn from the mistakes I made on the battlefield. And it's because of you and Sasuke-kun that I'm still around to benefit from the lesson."

"But Sasuke isn't."

Sakura sighed annoyingly. "Naruto…you didn't—"

But Naruto wouldn't listen—couldn't listen to what she had to say. "No, Sakura-chan!" he declared with finality, exhausted and completely fed up. "I was the one who made Sasuke leave. I was the one who should have brought him back and ultimately failed in doing that. I was the one who couldn't keep my promise to you and ended up leaving you the way you're feeling now. I should have been the one to look out for you and do everything I could to make sure you were feeling better but couldn't put my personal problems aside enough to even do that right. I'm responsible for all of it, Sakura-chan. It's all me!" He ran out of words and stood there, bracing himself for whatever she was going to say next.

But nothing happened. Sakura didn't reply to any of this, her eyes defocusing as if she were busy gathering all of the factors to a difficult question on a final exam that was worth half of her grade, an unreadable expression on her face.

She then slowly disappeared from his vision as Naruto closed his eyes, shame and embarrassment prompting him to do so. It was all out in the open now. Everything he'd spent the last twelve hours and beyond subduing for the sake of his own guilt was now all of Sakura's to do whatever she chose. His fists were clenched at his sides as if he were preparing for some decisive blow that would send his spirit into the fires of oblivion; he felt the hard lump of his Adam's apple bobbing like a cup in a sink filled with dish water. The persisting itch on his sweaty skin now felt like a wildfire of agonizing torture that blossomed wherever clothing touched flesh. And he was breathing hard as well; probably had been for a while and hadn't even noticed up until now. It was all of the classic signs of the fight-or-flight response except he didn't know which side of the road he wanted to go towards. He'd done all of the fighting he could possibly do and all it had accomplished was being pigeonholed further and further into a corner until the possibility of unobstructed flight was all but impossible. And he wasn't going to be able to just walk away from this like that happy couple he'd accidentally bumped into earlier, or be like one of those kids running about in the rain laughing and playing and having the time of their lives over the simplest of activities. He might have even carried a sense of envy towards the solitude of the cage that housed the Nine-Tailed Fox if the current occupant wasn't such a malevolent bastard who had no desires save for death and destruction towards all of humanity. Naruto silent cursed Baa-chan yet again for putting him in what had to be the culmination of this whole debacle.

As the uncomfortable silence continued to hold sway, Naruto abruptly cringed in pain as his stomach rumbled yet again; the hardest hunger spasm yet. He'd earlier decreed the factors behind why eating anything locally was problematic right now, but he felt hungry enough to rip out a clump of grass and start eating it like a lazy cow. Not only that, but he noticed his bladder was starting to tingle with that familiar need-to-pee sensation as well. Terrific. Just something else he needed to worry about right now. He'd sooner piss his pants then have to hold it in right now. It's not like it would be noticeable or anything considering how soaked they were.

But it had happened once before, and on that occasion he didn't have the rain to hide behind. Sheltered behind closed eyelids, Naruto vaguely remembered being younger and on the receiving end of yet another beating after having to listen to a bunch of older idiots denounce him for wanting to become a Hokage and quickly fighting back because he had refused to be disrespected that way. The only problem was that he'd needed to use the bathroom in the worst way and had initially been on his way there before being grabbed from behind and pulled into a nearby alley. By the time the skirmish had ended and they'd finally left him alone in a fallen heap, the pressure on his bladder had been too much and he'd ended up pissing himself. At first there'd been relief—but that relief was short-lived and had gradually given way to a stronger sense of degradation that he hadn't possessed the strength or will power to get back on his feet and at least go behind the corner. Unable to cope with that fact, hot tears had poured down Naruto's dirty young face as he began to softly cry…

Present Naruto made a muffled sound of quiet dismay. Maybe it was just the abrupt recollection of that situation and the way the past mirrored the present in considerably simpler and similar terms or just a mental overload of everything that's come and was yet to come, Naruto tried to put an immediate stop to what was about to happen, but the acidity in his eyes superseded any preventative measures and an encore of salty tears escaped unheeded past his eyelashes and began to trace their way down his already soaked cheeks. His cheeks grew even hotter and Naruto raged inside at being unable to halt this, but managed to keep calm outwardly despite it all. The rain was a mask and as long as it held up, he was relatively safe. Good. It was about goddamned time this weather worked for him instead of against him—and then that theory was abruptly put to the test when Sakura abruptly touched his arm.

"I-I'm fine," Naruto muttered roughly before she could ask any obvious questions, partially wishing that he'd had the foresight to look away. "The wind just blew some junk in my eyes and I was just trying to clear them out."

It seemed like a valid complaint despite coming off as fairly dull, but it appeared to do the trick because Sakura replied with, "Yeah, that's what I figured too. You looked like you were struggling with something for a moment; didn't look like you were having much fun regardless."

"That's for sure," he quickly replied, going along with her assessment as he rubbed at his eyes under the pretense that he was trying to remove whatever foreign debris might still be lingering. That sucked balls since the corner of his eyes were sore as hell, but it was miles better then having her seeing him in tears. Fuck that shit.

"You know you're wrong, right?"

Naruto continued to rub at his eyes despite the fact that a shiver ran down the center of his spine. "Wrong about what?" he asked her, playing dumb.

"About what you said about everything being your fault," she answered, cutting to the chase. "I know that you think blaming yourself for anything you might have inadvertently caused is penance for whatever guilt you're currently feeling, but did it ever occur to you that there are different angles to look at situations, and that your particular angle might not be the correct one?"

In spite of his hardheaded stance, Naruto was genuinely puzzled by her theory. "What do you mean?"

"I mean…that maybe there's really no blame here to be had," she spoke, taking on an analytical approach. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe Sasuke-kun was going to leave the village sooner or later regardless of what happened here? How do you know there weren't other subtle factors that played a part in the choice he made, or that he wasn't already going to do something like this further down the road?"

Naruto frowned in puzzlement. "I…I don't follow you, Sakura-chan."

"Well, think about it, Naruto. When we first met Kakashi-sensei and he had us tell him our interests and goals, what did Sasuke-kun tell him?"

The answer to her question sprang to Naruto's mind uncommonly quickly. "He talked about rebuilding his clan and that he wanted to kill a certain someone—his brother."

"That's right," she said. "I've done some research on the Uchiha Massacre and was only able to turn up a few theories and vague suspicions. Anything concrete is either destroyed or sealed away in scrolls that I can't access." She shook her head softly as if she were about to add something but thought better of it. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are too many unknown factors involved here for you and I to understand. Trying to comprehend the depths of why a person would feel the need to slaughter his own clan member…Sasuke-kun has probably spent many days and nights trying to figure that out as well. In the end, he probably summarized that leaving the village was the only thing he could think of in order to destroy his brother and avenge his family. His mind and heart were set on this long before we became a team; just as your mind and heart are set on one day becoming the Hokage."

Naruto bristled at the reminder. "Okay. So I get that it's a complicated deal. I get that. So why didn't we see this coming then. Why couldn't he have just up and told us all that stuff in the first place instead of just leaving the way he did?" he demanded.

Sakura shrugged. "Who can say? Sasuke-kun's mind is more attuned to that of a ninja in the sense that he keeps his thoughts private and says only what is absolutely necessary. But you know that as good as anybody. And besides, we all have things go on in our lives that we'd rather keep to ourselves." She quickly held up her hand to stop him from saying anything decidedly antagonizing before she'd finished. "All I'm saying is that you can't go beating yourself up over another person's choice of actions, no matter how much that particular person means to you. Sasuke-kun made his choice, and now he has to deal with whatever consequences might result in the wake of that choice."

Naruto frowned heavily at her. "That's really easy for you to say, isn't it?"

Sakura frowned back at him. "Not even in the slightest," she replied earnestly. "That particular truth hurts me beyond words and I wish to God that I could find it within myself to try and dispute it, but I'll never become stronger if I continually live in that state of mind. And like I said in your apartment: I'll always love him, but I have to improve myself for my own sake for now until the day finally arrives when I can properly pound some sense into him for being a selfish jerk. Period!"

Her voice then became compassionate as she added: "I've also come to realize that maybe the reason you're feeling the way you are now is because of how close you and Sasuke-kun have become and that you've somehow been given the impression that you let him down. And considering that it's only natural that two rivals with different yet similar upbringings would gravitate towards one another like you and Sasuke-kun have done over all of this time, it's easy to feel distraught when you've lost the one person you can call your best friend."

Naruto felt his stomach turn to stone as he gave her a flabbergasted look. "W-what the hell g-gives you the impression that I actually miss that dumb ass?" he harshly growled.

"Probably for the exact same reason that I'd be feeling how you would be if Ino had left the village," Sakura retorted. "Like I said: her and I fight like we're trying to kill each other at times—and she'd tell you the exact same thing—but deep down we really are best friends. That's why I can get a sense of understanding as to why this affects you so much now."

"Well, you're wrong," Naruto helplessly muttered, but even he could hear the uncertainty in his voice, just as Sakura was probably picking up on it as well. He loathed the fact that this conversation was making him feel incredibly transparent right now and that she'd been continually poking holes in all of his loose logic this entire time without that standard sense of antagonism accompanying her usual quips. He knew that she was only trying to do what she could to help him sort out his own personal issues and comfort him to the best of her ability, but he was unable to register the grasp of her words and it felt like nothing she said could change the way he felt about the whole situation. He hated the feeling of knowing she was wasting her time, and that she probably felt the same way as well. But Sakura probably wasn't going to leave here, either, if she continued to suspect that he wasn't kosher, and Naruto simply didn't have the patience to continue on this haphazard conversation—and his eyes continued to sting as if a cobra had injected venom into both of his pupils.

"Naruto, it's okay to be hurting," Sakura continued again, her voice becoming gentle and reassuring. "I can't imagine life was easy for you growing up without any parents and I can never claim to understand what that was like for both you and Sasuke-kun. But you also need to realize that missing somebody that has meaning to you is a natural thing and that you're not alone in this. You have people here that care about you and are willing to do whatever it takes to help you deal with any issues that are bothering you. You just…all you need to do is let somebody in." She then reached over and lightly touched his wet wrist in an attempt to be comforting, quietly added, "Because you don't have to be alone right now."

The unfamiliar warmth of Sakura's hand combined with her friendly words of encouragement had rapidly worn down the wall of repression in his mind and had overwhelmed him to the point that his emotional center couldn't handle this continual sympathetic onslaught. With tears continuing to run down his face, Naruto abruptly started to giggle nervously as if she'd just told him a funny joke and he just now understood the punch line in a last ditch attempt to desperately conceal the sensation of being torn up inside.

"Don't b-be so silly, Sakura-chan!" he stammered, lightly brushing her hand aside as he furiously rubbed the back of his scalp whilst involuntarily pasting a cheeky grin on his face. "I already know that I've got all you guys to b-back me up whenever a situation turns bad. You don't gotta convince me of that!" he said in chastisement, accentuating the remark with a smattering of laughter that was clearly an attempt at embellished humor.

"W-well I'm glad you've come to realize that," Sakura announced, slightly caught off guard by his response but feeling significantly relieved to hear him sound a lot more like his old self again. "Hopefully you won't be so hardheaded the next time somebody tries to cheer you up."

Naruto nodded hastily. "Y-Yeah, well I'll try and k-keep that in mind in the future," he rambled in the midst of his tittering. "You know h-how dumb I can be at the best and worst of times."

Sakura laughed somewhat at this remark as she brushed a few wet strands of hair away from her eyes. "I guess you have a point there," she said with a light smile, her tone mild and teasing as she waggled a finger in front of his face; the traditional beginnings of a scolding in the works. "But just the same," she started, "you need to start taking better and more productive steps when it comes to dealing with these kinds of issues instead of keeping them all inside of you and letting them make you feel sick like old milk might, because…"

The words trailed off as Sakura began to stare at him as if she'd caught him opening a birthday present that wasn't meant for him, her eyebrows furrowing in puzzlement. She then proceeded to glance downwards at the bridge deck for a moment, that same expression again prominent on her attractive features. Naruto stared in confusion as she angled her body so that she was peering over the bridge towards the river with the same amount of time, then up at the sky itself as if she were mentally calculating the variables to a personal equation. An estimated ten seconds passed before she slowly lowered her gaze, that strange introspective look on her face gradually giving way to one of wary concern.

"Wha—What is it, Sakura-chan?" Naruto nervously asked, continuing to laugh as if there were clowns doing a series of tricks and stunts in his skull. "Do I have a pimple on my face or somethin'?"

Sakura shook her head but didn't say anything.

"Okay!" he exuberantly replied, quickly added, "Well I figured I didn't since you were looking all over the place as if you'd lost your pen again or something else that was important to you. And I already know how much that pen means to you because of how relieved you seemed when I gave it back to you this morning, so I'm really glad to know that you didn't lose anything cause I think it'd be pretty hard to find small stuff like that outside when there's puddles and mud all over the place. Plus there's a bunch of people starting to walk around out here now so there's a pretty good chance that anything you might misplace out here might be picked up and kept by somebody who's not being really honest. I know for a fact that that happens because one time I was going to Ichiraku's and I had a free dinner voucher with me, but when I got there and went to fish it out of my pocket, the damn thing was gone. I must have looked all over the village before I finally realized that someone had taken it which really sucked because I was looking forward to that meal!"

Sakura stood there in silence, allowing him to ramble on and present whatever smokescreen he was trying for out in the open. Only once he'd finished did she finally say, "Naruto, you don't need to pretend like everything is okay for yours and my sake anymore. We both know that isn't the case. And like I said already: it's okay to be hurting over a situation that bothers you; it really is."

"W-whatever do y-you mean, Sakura-chan?!" he stammered in a desperate attempt to feign innocence, trying to regain some sense of footing he might have previously possessed.

But it was not to be. Sakura's vibrant eyes took on a somber glow and a touch of sadness caressed her lips as she slowly lowered the umbrella she'd been holding and closed it, the plastic tip at the end gently caressing against the smooth deck. "You can stop now, Naruto," she said in a mellow voice. "You don't have to put on an act for me anymore. It's over now."

Naruto witnessed the act in bewildered confusion. "Sakura-chan, what are you doing?" he exclaimed, gesturing for her to reopen the umbrella. "Put t-that back up! It's raining out here and yer gonna catch a cold if you don't keep yourself covered up!"

Sakura shook her head. "I won't catch a cold," she explained calmly.

Naruto frowned sharply at her. "Yes, you will!" he insisted. "The rain—!"


"Yer gonna get wet!" Naruto harshly lectured as if he were a parent speaking to a child who refused to see the truth for what it was.

She shook her head again, compassion adorning her face like that of a concrete angel. "Naruto, it's finally stopped."

"What's stopped?" he practically shouted in frustration. "Give me a clue already!"

"The rain, Naruto. It's stopped raining," Sakura quietly uttered as she casually pointed her free index finger at the ground. "Look?"

Naruto swiftly turned his gaze to the spot she was indicating, the more then familiar sight of wood and water abruptly meeting his vision. He then scrutinized the sweltering surface as if he were expecting a demon hand to suddenly rise up, grasp him by the ankle and yank him downwards into whatever mystical realm it resided within. Nothing popped out at him. There wasn't any movements or sounds or anything that made his senses tingle. Save for a serene silence that permeated the air, there was nothing—

And then it clicked in his dull brain like a door closing shut. There was nothing…

Naruto hastily wiped his right hand across his drenched pants and held it up in the air, turning it palm up so that he'd immediately notice the moment a drop of rain touched his skin. He waited…but nothing happened. He then turned his eyes upwards—and immediately noticed that the grayness that had blanketed the sky so endlessly was sifting apart into separate clouds as the sun that had been hidden since the break of day had finally managed to break through the gloom that had seemingly cursed the land. Betrayal twisted Naruto's features as fresh morning sunshine shone down upon him like some final cruel trick of fate. From off in the distance, a plethora of birds chirped and sang in cheery union as if to further rub salt in his wounds.

Like a bystander observing the aftermath of an accident, Sakura could only watch with helplessness as Naruto slowly brought his hands across his face, pressed them against his eyes, pulled them away and proceeded to stare at them as if he were just noticing them for the first time. She'd suspected already that his attempt at being humorous was nothing more then some ill-advised scheme to try and offset the mood he was in. Unfortunately, it was just as Tsunade-sama had already stated: Naruto simply didn't have the underhandedness it took to become a proficient liar. She'd always considered him annoying for being so energetic and brash in situations that probably should been handled with tactfulness, but she understood now that he was simply wearing his heart on his sleeve like that of a gladiator. She, on the other hand, had chosen the role of spectator and had seamlessly acted that part by consistently cheering him for his triumphs and booing him for his failures with the latter often overtaking the former. But judgment had consistently been reserved for what she'd seen on the outside, never the inside. This Naruto looked like some poorly conjured clone created from improper jutsu. The real Naruto was full of life and love and hope. And until the last twelve hours, she had never considered that he too possessed a sensitive heart that was capable of experiencing emotional turmoil and despair.

She knew now what a blunder that had been and it utterly crushed her heart to know that he'd been reduced to this broken state.

Open tears continued to run freely down Naruto's stricken face as he continued to stare at his hands like a lost child that had just dropped and broken an expensive toy and was powerless in his ability to fix it. "I…I, uh, umm…I don't, I—I just," he babbled incoherently, shaking his head as if he were attempting to deny what he was seeing on his own quivering palms.

Sakura dropped the closed umbrella she was holding and started forward, immediately understanding what she needed to do here as she placed both of her hands on his shoulders in a comforting gesture. "Naruto, I—"

"DON'T TOUCH ME!" Naruto shrieked, abruptly pushing her away hard out of reflex.

Sakura's eyes went wide in horror as she lost her balance and fell to the wooden deck next to the umbrella with a wincingly hard thump. Her protective hood flew off, fully exposing her pink scalp that had become matted over time. She hissed in pain as she reached down and gently probed at the recently healed limb, making sure that nothing had been damaged in the fall.

Naruto stared down at her in a stupor, unable to comprehend what he'd just done to her in this latest act of cruelty. She stared back at him as well, lips pinched together and her palms both braced against the wood as if she were trying to determine what he was going to do next and how she could anticipate it from her prone position.

"I'm…I'm sorry, Sakura-chan—I'm sorry—I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm—"

Naruto abruptly ceased his convulsion of apologies and began to make a strange whining noise, his eyes squeezing shut as he grabbed two handfuls of his own hair and began to yank hard. The air that filtered through his heaving nostrils had a scent that resembled melted plastic, and his teeth felt as if they going to simulteniously shatter and rip apart from the amount of pressure being exerted. His entire body quivered and shook as if he were a hot boiler set to explode and there was no dump valve built in to help regulate the temperature. Chakra and sweat rose from him into the humid air, producing a cloak of steaming blue that seemed to cascade around him like an unnatural fountain. Any emotional control that he might have grasped had completely vanished like the rain itself.

And then from deep within his psyche came that same horrible voice that had ridiculed him so mockingly from the depths of the mist in his dream. Ridiculing and profoundly more sinister then even that of Nine-Tails, it seemed to penetrate through the internal storm with all of the precision of a surgical scalpel and the persistence of a demonic gremlin as it whispered in his ear one last time with: "You're a total and complete failure now. And you will forever be a failure in everyone's eyes; especially hers."

It was the final straw that broke the camels back as something snapped inside of him. Like an animal being threatened, Naruto abruptly screamed as he blundered past Sakura and took off on a dead run in the same direction they'd both previously come from earlier. He could briefly make out her voice calling out to him once more before distance gradually silenced her altogether.

Naruto's heartbeat thudded in his ears as he sped through the village at a frenzied pace, a furious look of determination carved deeply into his face. His legs quivered and trembled as if he'd just woken up from a very long sleep and hadn't had time to get the blood circulating. His lungs burned as if the air that rapidly inflated them had been birthed from a cold winters day, but he continued to push harder and faster as if it were all an obstacle that needed to be overcome. A few of the villagers he passed by presented him with strange looks while others moved completely out of his way to allow him ample room to get by, clearly not willing to stand between him and the objective he was so dead set on completing. The embittered expression he wore probably had a hand in hastening them aside as well.

Naruto didn't register any of them though; he didn't register anything really for that matter. The fury that had festered within him like a cyst had abruptly broken open, emotional puss now acting as a fuel to spur him on, eradicating all forms of good sense and reason as he turned a corner and darted down a side road, his body ostensibly possessing a mind of it's own.

But that wasn't the case whatsoever. He knew exactly where he was going and what he was doing. It was the same thing he should have done the moment he'd gotten out of the hospital. Naruto brushed a hard knuckle over his snotty nose and set his jaw, the conviction in his heart bubbling over and encompassing his very being with all of the righteousness a person could possess, adamantly secure with the knowledge that the action he was promptly taking was one of necessity in the task of saving another persons life. Either way, the motive was clear: He was going after Sasuke again. And this time, come hell or high water, he was going to successfully bring him back to the village; whether he had to lecture him, bargain with him, beat the hell out of him—whatever it took. One way or another, shit was going to happen; right here and right now. And nobody—not his friends, his teachers, the officials, the leaders, or even his enemies—were going to stop him. Baa-chan could take all of her goddamn rules and regulations and shove them up her fifty-year-old ass for all he cared. Playing by the whims of another person over the sake of what they considered his 'best interests' had never yielded positive results before and it never would as far as he was concerned. All he knew was that he couldn't abandon a friend who might or might not be in great peril. He wouldn't know any of that for sure until he tracked him down. He also didn't have a plan either aside from returning back to where he'd last fought with him. Getting back there first was the number one priority. From there he could scout the area out and determine which way he'd gone through clues and the use of his own particularly sharp senses. Once he determined that, he'd formulate a plan and alter it based on the factors he uncovered and whatever obstacles that he would undoubtedly encounter. And he also had the element of surprise on his side as well, meaning that he could pull this off by himself because nobody on Orochimaru's end would have expected him to be ballsy enough to pull off a solo mission of this magnitude. The idea became more and more appealing with each new step taken, and he once again blasted Baa-chan for trying to stop him from doing this in the first place. He'd told both Ero-sennin and Sakura that this was what he was going to do, and now he was finally making good on that vow.

Naruto had passed by two blocks when, in the midst of his adrenaline, he gradually became aware that his stomach was cramping up, the pain radiating in violent waves as if he needed to use the toilet in the worst way or else he was going to ruin a perfectly good pair of underwear. His knees buckled from the sudden intensity, forcing him to slow his reckless pace. The pressure slowly dissipated from his abdomen area as he relented, but quickly returned the moment he started to run again. Naruto gritted his teeth, continued to push through the agony of an invisible knife slicing through his guts. He rounded another familiar curve, saw spots flash before his eyes as a wave of unexpected dizziness swept over him, causing him to trip and almost fall over. Naruto swore viciously as he regained his footing, unable to comprehend why this was happening to him now of all times when he needed every last bit of his strength to pull this off. It was as if some insidious goblin had been summoned from the pits of hell and was now set on debilitating him via any means necessary. In desperation, Naruto formed a picture of Sasuke in his brain that depicted him with a cocky smile as a focal point to draw all of his current strength out and direct it towards the task at hand. It seemed to physically bolster him to the point where he was able to continue moving at a rapid pace despite the inner lightning storm afflicting him.

After another minute of weaving down different streets, Naruto could rapidly make out the enormous gate that led out of the village. No sentry guards appeared to be in sight or on ground as he got closer and closer. That was good since he didn't want to have to engage in any skirmishes that probably would have slowed him down. Mud and water flew from his sandals as he ran faster and faster. He passed through the gate, got about a dozen strides in when he thought he heard a voice of authority shouting something. He spared a glance backwards, tripped on a wet patch of grass, and sprawled forward in a heap, scratching his exposed palms and banging his knees. Anxiety made him slip the first time getting up, determination caught him the second time. He took a few more paces forward; found that his stamina and strength were utterly becoming sapped like he'd just run a hundred laps around the village which didn't make sense at all. He was breathing like he'd aged seventy years in the blink of an eye and not the way he'd been taught in the academy. The strange stomach pains also persisted like a fire that could not be extinguished. Hell, his entire body felt like a vibrating mess as if he'd tried coffee for the first time. Something just wasn't right…!

Eventually the cramping got to be too much for him and he was steadily forced to slow his pace to a walk, as it was the only way he could tolerate it now. Frustration at his inability to rise above these physical issues and the unfairness of it all burned away at his spirit like a cold fire. He continued to picture Sasuke in his head, but his overall resolve was starting to crumble away as fast as the idea that this impromptu mission was going to actually work. Eventually he had to stop as the overall reality of the situation began to rear its ugly head into the present scenario.

Who had he been trying to dupe? He didn't have his gear. He didn't have any weapons on him aside from his backup kunai. He was hungry as hell, which probably explained why his stomach was acting the way it was. He was cold and probably becoming sick from being out in the rain for so long, just like what had happened with Sakura which meant he probably wasn't thinking straight right now. And despite what he'd previously told himself, he really had no realistic plan that would guarantee he could successfully bring Sasuke back. Orochimaru probably had him hidden away so well now that being able to track him down was probably next to impossible. And even if he were somehow able to find him whilst evading whatever traps and safeguards that had been implemented in place, the chances of coming away from it without a confrontation with that snake bastard, his dick head of an assistant Kabuto, or any other weird shinobi they might have had stashed away was just as unlikely. He'd probably be able to do some damage, but the idea of somehow defeating both Kabuto and Orochimaru on his own while dragging Sasuke away and escaping a hideout that had probably been especially built to keep intruders out without any assistance on his end seemed impossible. And if Sasuke really had gone there on his own accord, which he already knew to be the truth…

Naruto leaned up next to a nearby tree, panting and exhausted, still unable to wrap his mind around how a simple run had fatigued him to this point. He'd been keeping up with his training and hadn't had any overall complications there, but he hadn't pushed himself like this lately either. No, it didn't help that he'd allowed his body to be exposed to conditions that normally wouldn't have affected him. He couldn't be sure if Nine-Tails was deliberately withholding its energy or if it was the fact that he was still recovering from injuries, but both reasons seemed to further instill the notion that continuing to try and go after Sasuke like this was borderline suicidal.

But he didn't care.

He didn't care that he was breaking rules. He didn't care that he had no one to help him. He didn't care that he was willing to go to hell and back. He didn't care what Ero-sennin and Baa-chan had previously said to him. He didn't care that he was either potentially going to die or else be permanently expelled from the village if he carried this task out. He didn't care about his own body and the temporarily or permanent damage that might happen to it. He didn't care about fulfilling promises or breaking them. No, he didn't care about any of that. He just—!

His weary mind once again returned to the Demon Brother skirmish. Kakashi-sensei had just defeated the both of them with the simplest of ease after Sasuke had stalled them without help of any sort. Naruto had sat there in stunned silence, unable to fathom just how close he'd come to nearly being killed in his first official battle. Kakashi-sensei had just finished apologizing for getting him hurt and was dragging the two killers away. Naruto had been swept up in his own frantic mental analysis of Sasuke and how he'd been able to handle himself without so much as breaking a sweat or dirtying up his clothing. It was then when Sasuke had called out to him with the question that would forever alter both of their destinies in the matter of a few seconds.

'Are you hurt…scaredy cat?'

His voice, clear and condescendingly caring, floated up to his ears like a warm wind, completely eradicating his emotional control. The tears that he'd tried and ultimately failed to hide over the course of the morning now ran down his face again freely as Naruto slowly fell to his knees and began to openly sob with loud and heavy bursts against his dirty palms. His heart hammered against his chest as he stayed this way for several minutes, unable to move, unable to do anything but grieve for the friend he'd unexpectedly come to befriend, love, and now miss so dearly.

So lost in his storm of emotional distress, Naruto barely registered the hand on his shoulder until he found himself being shaken. He whirled around in shock and simultaneously slapped the person's hand away, expecting to see a Jounin or a member from one of the Anbu squads behind him.

Sakura's face was a mixture of sadness and concern as she quickly knelt down in front of him, her hands again trying to grasp his shoulders. In a state of panic, Naruto knocked her arms away again and quickly started to backpedal, his jumbled mind perceiving her to be a threat. She kept on him just as adamantly as he kept retreating from her, a rambling mess of pleas and apologies rushing past his lips as he tried to ward her off. His back bumped into another tree, cutting off his retreat, and Sakura continued forward as if craving nothing more then to invade his personal space and forcibly hurt him.

"No—no—no—don't," he rasped harshly, his blue eyes wide with fright, his hands continuing to ward her off like a helpless child trying to ward off the boogieman. Dexterously seizing his hands, Sakura quickly lunged forward and wrapped her arms around the back of his head, drawing him in close. He struggled hard, trying to escape from her persistent grasp, but she refused to let him go.

"It's okay, Naruto! It's okay!" she whispered hastily against his ears, her hands quickly caressing the back of his head. "You don't have to be strong right now. You don't have to be strong for anyone. It's over now. Shh, shh…"

Naruto persisted violently and briefly before the gentle words he'd similarly used on her began to gradually take effect on him like a sedative. His arms went around her slender waist, hugging her tightly as he pressed his face against her upper chest, wailed despairingly, "I TRIED TO BRING HIM BACK, SAKURA-CHAN! I REALLY TRIED!"

"I—" Sakura's voice broke for a moment, and she took a few full breaths to get her own emotions under control. "I know you did, Naruto," she quietly uttered, the sound of his heartbeat mingling against her own. "I know you did."

Naruto continued to cry against Sakura, his sobs fierce at first but gradually become softer and quieter, her body heat sweeping over him like a warm quilt that had just been taken out of the drier. Her grip on him adjusted, and Naruto felt her fingertips treading through his dirty hair as she continued to hold him tenderly in her arms like a mother holding a child, her soft words of gentleness filling his ears.

Through his tears, he muttered, "I should have tried harder."

"There was nothing more you could have possibly done," Sakura gently answered.

"I…I could have done more. I should have been able to do more," he said in a disparaging voice. "I'm just…"

"Just…?" she quietly probed, encouraging him to finish the statement.

Naruto shuddered hard. "I'm just…weak."

Sakura lightly frowned. "Why would you think something like that?" she asked him, genuinely confused.

"Because it's true," he replied, his voice breaking upon admittance. "I try not to think about it and do everything I can to rise above it, but it's hard not to think about it when it's what you are, and other people aren't, and they can go out all the time and do whatever it is they want, and I know that I can't do that because I'm always worried about somebody actually knowing that and pointing it out to me, but then that makes me want to go out and prove that person wrong even when I'm not sure that I can or not because I've failed at a lot of things for most of my life now and I've always had people tell me that I'm nothing but a failure and that I'll never become Hokage because of how low my marks were back in the academy and I couldn't graduate from the academy because I couldn't master transformation jutsu and kept screwing everything up, and then I got put on a team with two of the smartest graduates from the academy who pretty much showed me up in every which way, but it was good because it forced me to push myself even harder to become stronger, even though I knew that I could never match up to you guys in terms of smarts and talent, and it just seems like that harder I try, the more I fail, and this all sounds really stupid, doesn't it?"

"Not at all, Naruto. It doesn't sound stupid at all."

Hot tears continued to flood down his eyes while Sakura continued to stroke his hair. "I hate feeling this way." he finally sniffed. "I hate knowing that I tried so hard to hurt you and push you away when you were only trying to help me. I just…I didn't want you to see me like this—didn't want you to feel sorry for me or see how much I missed that idiot." A sob arose in his throat and he buried his head even deeper against Sakura's qipao dress—her raincoat absent—as he began to lament in pitiful bursts at his own foolishness. "I'm so sorry, Sakura-chan! I'm really sorry!"

Sakura closed her eyes as she continued to comfort him as best as she could, the feeling of Naruto's current instability momentarily becoming reminiscent to that of what she'd experienced last night when he'd been sleeping next to her only to become plagued with a night terror so disconcerting that she'd called upon the aid of an old remedy in the form of a lullaby to soothe and put him back to sleep. That had all been fine and dandy when he was comatose and out cold, but this time was different and those same magic lyrics she'd used wouldn't possess anything that came even remotely close to remedying the inner agony that was openly exposed now for all of the world to see. In response to his turmoil, a single tear rolled down her cold cheek in grievance for the boy she'd grown to depend upon more and more with each passing day and would most likely continue to do so through the eventual coming of age and beyond that.

She'd suspected all along that he'd been hurting to some degree, his lack of enthusiasm and uncharacteristically gloomy demeanor as well as other bits and fragments he'd been unable to hide from her making that all too clear, but she never could have conceived that it would all lead up to something as heart wrenching as this. Had Tsunade-sama somehow known that he was in this bad of mental shape from her initial inspection? Her concern had been apparent in the office so she must have known something was going to happen. Why else would she have suspected that Naruto was going to do something so asinine as to leave the village like Sasuke had done before him. At least that's what Sakura perceived he'd been attempting to do before she'd caught up to him. It was probably a damn good thing she had gotten to him first before somebody with potentially less sympathy had shown up. And seeing that she felt responsible for prodding and poking him to this point, it was up to her—not because of Tsunade-sama and her orders, but Sakura herself and the friendship between Naruto and herself that had slowly sprouted from the ground like a flower in bloom—now to do what she could to sort this all out as best she could. Sakura had no spells to con him with, no tricks to play, and no riddles to utter. The only thing she had left now that would either make or break this situation was the unbridled truth. With all of her dependency now riding on a virtue, Sakura hoped with all of her heart and soul that it would be enough to finally set him free.

Turning her attention to Naruto, she slid her hands down to his shoulders and said in a soft, maternal voice, "Naruto…look at me."

He aggressively shook his head no. "C-Can't…!" he gasped in between sobs. "I—I can't!"

"Sure you can," she said with gentle conviction. She wrapped her left arm around his shoulder so that her palm was on his back, took her right index finger, placed it underneath his chin and gently lifted up until she managed to coax him into looking at her. His dejected face was a messy mix of tears and sweat and snot, but she looked deep into his quivering blue eyes as if she wanted to tend the wavering fires of his soul with those of her own.

"Naruto, you are not weak," she carefully explained. "For as long as I've known you, you have never once given me the impression that you're weak, a coward, a fraud, or any belittling ideas that you claim to distinguish about yourself. Do you know why?" She waited until he shook his head no before continuing: "Because I wouldn't be sitting here right now, talking to you like this, if that really was the case."

He shook his head, started to say something in protest, but Sakura immediately placed her free thumb over his trembling lips, silencing him.

"Let me do the talking, Naruto," she said. "You just concentrate on breathing and listening to what I have to say because this is important. Okay?" She again waited until he acknowledged the request with a jerky nod before removing her thumb and continuing.

"As I said earlier, what happened with Sasuke-kun and him leaving the village is something he chose to do on his own accord, yes, but what you need to understand is that he didn't do it to spite you, or me, or anyone else for that matter. He did it out of love for the people he grew up with and ultimately lost because of what his brother did. There was no chance of persuasion from either of us to make him stay and, in all honesty, I think he would have left even sooner then that had it not been for one thing that probably kept that idea on the back burner for the time being. You know what that one thing probably was?"

Naruto slowly shook his no, having no clue whatsoever.

Her hand slowly came up to rest on the left side of his cheek as she smiled softly at him. "It was probably you, dummy. He stayed…because you were an anchor for him when he probably needed one in the worst way. He was left all alone and had no one to turn to in a world that had left him an orphan for tragic and unexplainable reasons. It was the circumstances that you both shared that brought you together like brothers. I know I told you that already, but you and I both know it's true."

Naruto lowered his eyes as if he couldn't meet her gaze out of personal remorse. "I…I don't…"

Sakura simultaneously caressed his cheek and back with both hands. "There's nothing to explain, Naruto. You're not responsible for whatever happened to your parents, just like Sasuke-kun isn't. You've both done nothing wrong except live your lives to the best of your abilities with what you've been given. And that's something nobody can ever fault you with."

Her voice was so friendly and compassionate right now. Naruto slowly leaned the side of his head against her sternum, felt her bare arms instinctively come around his shoulders again, drawing him close. He pulled her close as well, her body light and warm against his. The familiar scent of her clothes and hair and skin mixed with the earthly aroma of grass and trees after it had just rained relieved him beyond words themselves. A few tears trickled down his cheek, but he felt like the worst of his trauma was over.

They stayed this way for a time, simply holding each other as if they'd been caught in a sudden snowstorm and were doing the best they could to warm the other up. The pains in his stomach were blessedly absent as he held her without intrusive motives, not wanting to move or do anything to push her away. He'd been convinced to the horizon and back that he'd gone and thrown whatever friendship he'd possessed of hers away in a place so profoundly dark that even light itself couldn't hope to breech it. Words themselves couldn't begin to describe how he felt in knowing how hard he'd tried to do something that could have been irreversible had he gone too far or if his conscience had not driven him to the point of madness the way it had. He'd been unfathomably broken inside from an amalgamation of issues that had stacked and stacked and stacked in uneven portions until something ultimately had to give—which clearly it had.

Sakura must have sensed something or felt something physically shift in him because she chimed in with a muffled: "Everything okay?" Naruto didn't say anything—and Sakura took that as a clue that he wasn't. She drew herself up on her knees and rested her hands on the curves of his shoulders, peering at him with an inquisitive look and waiting patiently until he finally met her eyes before she repeated the question via raising her eyebrows.

"Very quietly, he said, "I honestly thought that you hated me."

Sakura's expression didn't change. "Why would you think something like that?"

Naruto lowered his chin. "Because of everything," he muttered back. "Because I couldn't bring back Sasuke for you. Because you're always lecturing me on all the things I should have learned back in the academy. And mostly…because I always thought I annoyed you."

Sakura tilted his chin up again; keenly aware of where he was coming from and already knowing what she needed to say to set his mind at ease. "Do you honestly think that I could really be happy if you'd managed to bring Sasuke-kun back only to have something ultimately happen to you?" she asked him. "You might annoy me at times, yes, but do you think I'm so heartless that I could sleep at night with ease if I had even the slightest inclination that you'd gotten hurt or even died for my sake? Do you know how much time I've spent sitting beside hospital beds and bringing flowers to people I care about since the exams started?"

Naruto shook his head in shame. "I…I guess not. I just…I don't…."

Sakura released his chin, reached inside of a hidden pocket in her dress, tugging free an handkerchief, brought it to his face and gently wiped the tears and spittle away. She then held it firmly over his nose, instructed him to blow—which he did. She then brought it to the ground beside him, wiped it there before folding it up and placing it back in the pocket. Locking her gaze with his again, she placed her hand on the side of his temple, softly said, "It hasn't been an easy upbringing for you, has it? You're always so energetic and determined to succeed that a lot of times I forget you grew up without the love and support of parents to be there for you. I could never even begin to imagine what that was like for you growing up. That's why you went out of your way to pull the pranks that you did and act so mischievous that you had half of the village in an uproar on several occasions—because you were lonely and needed to be acknowledged. And it was because you grew up alone and self-reliant that you were forced to deal with all of your problems, big or small, on your own. That's why you couldn't tell me what was going on with you in the first place—because it goes against everything you've come to learn about dealing with life."

Naruto felt his mouth quiver. "I…I guess," he muttered. "Mostly I was just scared."

Sakura stroked his cheek. "It's okay to be scared. We wouldn't be human if we weren't a little scared at times. The important thing is that we don't let it beat us into the ground. We rise about it and do the best we can with the hand that life deals us…like you've been doing."

"I—I have?"

"Of course you have!" she said, astonished that he'd even say something like that. "I mean, look how strong you've become in the short time since I've known you. Look how far you come in the Chuunin Exams. Look at how many times you've come to the rescue and managed to pull all of our butts out of the fire. Or the amount of times you've reinforced our spirits when we thought everything was lost and over. We could never have accomplished what we did without you by our side, Naruto. It's not even a question, but a statement of fact. And not only that—you've become a good and loyal friend who goes out of his way to make sure the people around him are taken care."

Naruto swallowed hard, felt his cheeks redden in embarrassment. "I w-was just…"

"Naruto…you saved my life," she said in a light voice. "If it hadn't been for you and what you did, I would have died during Gaara's rampage. You prevented a disaster from happening, kept Sasuke-kun and I alive, and became a hero of the village in the process. It's something I'll never forget for as long as I live…and neither will Sasuke-kun."

Sakura's smile then turned somber as she began to scrutinize him carefully. "I don't know what it was that you were planning to do here, Naruto, but until Jiraiya-sama shows up to take you on your training expedition, you have to stay here in the village. Doing something reckless like what I suspect you were trying to do will not solve any problems and will only get you hurt or possibly killed in the long run. And besides," she added, smiling slightly to take the edge off her warning, "if you leave now, who would I have to yell at?"

The statement had completely come out of left field, the surprise of it all so completely out there and yet so characteristic of Sakura that it had pierced the knot of negativity that had been tied so tightly around Naruto for what felt like so long now. It felt as if a cork had been pulled from a wine bottle as a smile began to slowly unfold over his lips like an expensive carpet being unrolled for the world to see.

"That's much better," Sakura cooed in genuine satisfaction, wanting to keep this break in his moody condition going as she patted his cheek. "I knew there was a smile hiding in there somewhere."

Naruto almost choked as healthy laughter abruptly burst from his diaphragm like water from a blowhole. He shakily rubbed at his eyes, wiping away the last remnants of tears as if a leaky faucet had finally been closed for good. "It's been a little while, hasn't it?" he weakly admitted.

"You had your reasons," she said in a commiserating tone. "And a good cry has never hurt anyone. The important thing now is that we're both on the same road to recovery now. And that's all that matters. Right?"

Naruto dipped his head in a firm nod, the genuine smile coming much easier this time. "Right."

Sakura smiled back, her hand lingering on his cheek like an artist writing her initials on a portrait before she slowly withdrew both hands. She then leaned back and casually stood up with the simplest of ease. Peering down at him with a smile that only a princess from a fairy tale could have possibly emulated, she lowered her left hand down to his sprawled out form and, with the sun shining silently behind her, quietly uttered, "Let's go."

Naruto peered up at her in confusion. "Go where?" he asked.

"To eat," Sakura replied simply as she rubbed at her narrow abdomen. "I'm starving right now and I know that you are as well; I could hear your stomach rumbling like a thunderstorm set to erupt. And I did promise to take you out for dinner after all, soo…" Sakura cocked her head in the direction of the village, fixing him with a meaningful stare, "let's go."

Naruto stared up at the offered hand, a sharp sense of déjà vu grabbing hold as the vivid dream of Sakura and Sasuke walking off into the clutches of Orochimaru suddenly filled his head like juice being thrown on a canvas. Panic instantly grabbed hold like an assailant out for blood and he clamped his eyes shut, his heart suddenly beating wildly. "Sakura-chan…!"

"It has no power over you, Naruto," Sakura answered as if she could read his mind. "You control your mind; your mind doesn't control you. Let go of your fears and rise like the hero you've become. You can do it."

Sakura's strong words of encouragement washed over his brain like glacially clean water. The image abruptly vanished as quickly as it began, finally leaving him in peace. He inhaled deeply and slowly as if it was the first full breath he'd been able to take in ages, and then exhaled just as carefully as he slowly opened his eyes and looked up. His vision blurred for a moment but eventually Sakura came back into clear focus, her hand still outstretched to him, firm and unwavering, like the sunlight that framed her in a divine glow. She nodded down at him and beckoned once more: "Let's go."

Taking another breath, Naruto slowly reached up to her with his right hand, felt her cool fingers tighten around his wrist as she firmly began to help him up to his feet while he simultaneously pushed off the ground as well with his other hand, decreasing the effort she needed to exert. Three seconds and a few pops from his knees later and Naruto was finally standing again, the back of his pants and legs soaked again from lying in the freshly saturated grass.

Sakura's hand stayed wrapped around his wrist in a firm but comfortable grip as they regarded each other in a peaceful silence. He made no attempt to free himself, offered no acknowledgment to give the notion that the action was bothering him—which it wasn't. Glancing to the left, Naruto could make out the road he'd been willing to throw himself down minutes ago with absolutely no regards for his own personal safety, not knowing what could have been awaiting him at the end of the trail had circumstances been different. He'd wanted to think—no, wanted to hope that Sasuke would have been down there somewhere…waiting for him; waiting for the map and compass to point him in the direction of home…where he belonged.

Sakura regarded him thoughtfully. "What is it?"

Naruto sighed heartily, wished he wasn't so easy to read. "I miss him, Sakura-chan," he quietly answered, being blunt with her and his feelings. "I can't hide from something like that."

Sakura made a light sound of agreement. "I know you do," she said in a tone of agreement. "And I don't think anyone would want you to hide from that, especially me or Kakashi-sensei. That's why I want us to go out for dinner and talk about a few things right now. I don't want to be alone right now; just like I'm certain that you don't want to be alone, either. So instead of being alone and miserable by ourselves about the situation, why don't we do something more preferable like hang out and cheer each other up? At least this way we can miss him together. We can even act like he's still here if that would help."

Naruto paled. "B-but he's not here, Sakura-chan."

She instinctively tightened her grip on his wrist as if she'd thought he was going to try to dart off again. "I know he's not here, Naruto, but just hear me out on this," she explained, acting on the sudden brainstorm that had popped in her head and beginning to run with it. "Let's pretend that everything that happened over the last couple days up until the point Sasuke-kun was recovering in the hospital…didn't happen. Instead of you and Sasuke-kun getting into that fight, lets just say that he got mad at us and kicked us both out of his room. We were both a little sad about it at first, but then we turned around and decided to have fun on our own…just like we can do now. We can even go all out and call it a date. So what d'ya say?" she asked, smiling in a way that she knew would make him feel pleasantly uncomfortable.

Naruto chewed his upper lip nervously, felt his heart beating in response to the look she was giving him as tingles of warmth spread through his body. "I g-get what you're saying, Sakura-chan. I just—he's not…"

Sakura sighed melodramatically and heavily, pretending to be tired of his hesitance. Her ability to read his body language made it clear that she'd almost persuaded him into it; he just needed one more little nudge to fully put him in the right direction. That being said, Sakura felt her own stomach flutter as she abruptly growled, "You're really being difficult right now."

"I'm s-sorry, Sakura-chan," he stuttered, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment with his free hand. "It's just that it's been a weird morning and—"

Naruto abruptly paused in mid-sentence, shock and amazement consuming him as Sakura placed her free hand atop of his cheek once more, leaned forward and—slightly angling her head so that they wouldn't bump noses—leaned in and kissed him softly on the mouth. Naruto could only stand there like a mannequin in a store, helpless to do anything as her velvety soft lips lingered on his for a good three seconds before she slowly pulled away. Rendered utterly speechless by the gesture, Naruto offered no resistance as Sakura silently turned and began to tug him in the direction of the village.

Walking in silence for a few seconds and with his mouth still tingling from the surprise of it all, Naruto gradually noticed two familiar objects lying on the grass ahead: Sakura's raincoat and umbrella. She walked to her raincoat, bent down and picked it up with her right hand. "Get my umbrella, please," she asked without looking at him as he was already in the midst of plucking it off the ground. Once he had stood up as well, Sakura released his wrist and, instead, took his hand as she continued to escort him into the village. They were only a few steps into the walk/date when Sakura quietly cleared her throat.

"Don't get the wrong idea about that kiss we just had, Naruto," she said in a hesitant voice. "I only did that b-because you were being stubborn and I couldn't think of any other possible way to persuade you on going out on a date with me. So don't be thinking that I did that just because you're going to be leaving the village soon and that I won't be seeing you for a while. I'll miss you, yes, but that doesn't mean I kissed you for that particular reason—or any other reason then what I already stated! And what happened there between us—that stays between us! I don't want anybody—and I mean anybody—knowing about what went on there!" Her voice lowered in exasperation as if she wanted to do nothing more then conclude the lecture she'd initially started with him. "J-just don't make a big deal out of it or anything. Okay?"

Naruto nodded without looking at her, allowing the confusion from her strange outburst to pass through him without bothering to give any attention to it. "I understand, Sakura-chan. Y-you can let go of my hand if you want to. I'm not going to do anything that would inconvenience you anymore."

Her hand clenched even tighter around his in response as she abruptly made an unladylike snort of what she thought of that idea. "Yeah, fat chance of that happening, Naruto," Sakura sneered. "You honestly think I'm going to drop my guard and let you go off after everything that's happened so far? Well, you can just forget it. Somebody has to keep an eye on you until Jiraiya-sama returns. And until he does—that someone is gonna be me." She fixed him with a quick glare. "And don't you dare argue with me right now because I'm hungry, and you never…ever want to argue with a girl when she's hungry," Sakura stated.

She cleared her throat again, said in calmer voice, "And, just so you know, I'm kind of cold right now. You must have really good metabolism or something because your hand is really warm. Either way, don't argue or fight with me on this cause I'm not in the mood," she said, her obey-me-or-die voice leaving little room for a rebuttal.

Naruto nodded again and said nothing to contradict her as they continued to walk through the giant entrance that led into the village, instead replying with: "Uh, I guess I'm supposed to ask if you'd be interested in keeping my apartment clean while I'm away with Ero-sennin. My landlord—Oji-san—wanted me to ask you on his behalf. Oba-san was gonna do it at first, but I guess she's been dealing with some physical issues that I didn't know about until this morning when he stopped by. And—" he rolled his eyes at his knowledge of the old man "—he says he'll pay you, too, though I doubt it'll be very much."

Sakura giggled. "Was that the 'favor' he mentioned when he let me into your apartment?"

Naruto chuckled in response. "Y-yeah," he replied. "You don't have to do it if you don't want to, but he—and me—would really appreciate it if you'd consider it. And it'd just be some really simple stuff involved; dusting mostly. And if you needed a quiet place to study or get away from your parents for a while, you'd be more then welcome to hang out there."

"That does seem like a good idea when you put it that," Sakura murmured, the thought of having a private workspace of her own rapidly appealing to her teenage mind. "We'll talk to him about it and a couple other things and get something figured out after we've eaten. Does that sound good?"

Naruto nodded, feeling pacified by that reply as additional weight came off of his shoulders. "Yeah. I'd really like that."

She squeezed his hand, said, "Good. Let's get to Ichiraku's now before the dinner rush starts." She started to pull him, but Naruto gently stopped her. She glanced at him in light surprise.

"The dinner rush won't start for a bit yet," he assured her, having more then his share of dining experience to fall back on. "I'm super hungry, too, but…let's just get there without rushing. My stomach was a little sore earlier from running like an idiot and I don't want to agitate it if I can avoid it."

She glanced at him suspiciously. "A little sore…or really sore?"

"Really sore," Naruto answered truthfully, resisting the urge not to swallow the lump in his throat. "I kinda…puked after you left," he said, then quickly explained, "It—it wasn't your fault or anything. I guess I just got nervous about thinking that I wrecked our friendship that…"

"…you tossed your cookies," Sakura finished for him, a look of understanding flashing across her face. "I've done that my share of times over the fear of failing a written or practical exam before and, believe me, it's never fun." She smiled and shook her head as her own previous experiences cycled through her brain like pages from a book before looking back at him, a solemn look on her face.

"Nothing is ever going to break our friendship, Naruto," she firmly promised him. "There might be times in our life where it might become strained or weakened from events—like with me and Ino, as I said—but I'll always be there for you if…and when…you need someone to lean on." She reached forward and gently tapped the side of his temple as if she were trying to push a button that wasn't operating properly. "Ignore all of that pessimistic crap that's trying to convince you otherwise. Just flush it all down the mental toilet and let it swirl away into the sewer where it belongs. Okay?"

The solidity of her words abruptly banished the doubts and insecurities away and a long-awaited, badly needed sense of peace that was as warm and calming as the light of the day slowly stole through him with each step taken, sealing shut the dark incision on his heart that had painted the world around him in colors of toxic green and midnight black. He'd been so consumed with doing the right thing and tending to the needs of the people who needed him that he'd nearly lost himself to the poisonous bitterness that had seeped out of whatever pipe had become squashed from the fallen building weight of his shortcomings. He'd hated himself for being unable to change the mindset of the one person he could truly call his best friend and being unable to keep his promise to Sakura so much so that he'd lashed out at her, thinking he was unworthy to be friends with someone who'd initially trusted him. And between that mindset and the onslaught of powerful dreams, with the latter convincing him that he could do nothing but cause continuous pain for her and vice-versa, he'd basically treated her as someone who was portentous and couldn't be trusted. It was a combination of former characteristics on her part mixed with new fears on his. He hadn't been able to distinguish present Sakura from past Sakura who'd made it clear time and time again that she'd loathed him. And thinking that this Sakura wouldn't have understood his reservations as opposed to the other Sakura made explaining anything seemingly pointless. He knew now how badly of a mistake that had been. He'd been trying to judge a person based on how they used to act instead of how a person was currently acting and it had been the worst thing he could have done. Thankfully she'd been astute enough to understand all of that and had managed to quell it without having to beat the hell out of him—which she probably could have been entitled to had she wished it to be. It was just one more example of how intelligent she really was and how easily she could run circles around him had she chosen to do so. He could never hope to match wits with her…and that was okay, because Naruto knew that it would never come to that. The reassuring hand that held his made him believe that everything was going to be fine now. He couldn't live in the past, and he couldn't worry about the future except plan for parts of it. All he could really do was exist in the now—the present, and try and live that to the best of his ability. Sakura had made a start at following her dreams, and now it was time for him to follow suit once more and do the best he could with what he had so that one day he would truly become what he'd sworn out to become: The Hokage of the village.

Naruto felt his hand being squeezed hard, and he suddenly realized he'd never answered her last question. With all of the renewed conviction he possessed in his heart of hearts, Naruto squeezed her hand back and nodded without question, heard and felt the genuineness in his own voice as he utterly exclaimed: "It's the promise of a lifetime, Sakura-chan! Believe it!"

She must have sensed it, too, because she smiled as if a long and dreadful battle had finally come to a conclusive end. "You need to eat," she firmly concluded, "but let's take our time getting there then if you're not sure about your stomach and go from there. I don't want you hurting yourself if it can be avoided." She turned and, without any prompting on her part, Naruto matched her casual pace as they continued to walk hand-in-hand through the village in peaceful silence, their individual spirits rising and melding together by the faith and trust they had for each other—for life—their friends—love and time itself as the sounds of the village and the bustling people they'd both sworn to protect for the rest of their lives provided all of the noise they needed.

Watching from his hiding place atop of the sentry point by the protective outer wall of the village, an expression of satisfaction lined Jiraiya's aged face at the peaceful sight of his foolhardy pupil holding hands with a beautiful young lady who looked to be the same age. For such a little bungler, Naruto appeared to be quite the Casanova. Perhaps Jiraiya would have to start taking him a little more seriously in the future. Only once they'd gotten far enough into the village did Jiraiya undo the frog spell he'd used to quell the pesky guard who'd been attempting to shout for reinforcements upon seeing Naruto running out of the village and violating the law Tsunade had implemented. How annoying.

"Didn't your mother ever teach you it's rude to interrupt a boy and girl when they're in the midst of a friendly chat, pal," Jiraiya lectured as he continued to watch the two.

"M-my a-apologies, Jiraiya-sama," the guard sputtered in reply, still reeling from the effects of the jutsu, "but the Hokage m-made it quite c-clear that Uzumaki Naruto was to be monitored at all cost."

Jiraiya folded his arms and smiled. "I'm aware of Tsunade's orders, but let's bend the rules this once. After all, he didn't get very far and was escorted back. So let's just keep this between us and leave your busty employer out of this whole minuscule little episode. Agreed?"

The guard saluted, clearly having enough discretion not to push an issue in the presence of another authority figure. "I have no qualms with that whatsoever, Jiraiya-sama! Had I known that you were in the area, I never would have attempted to call attention to the matter."

Jiraiya made a dismissive gesture. "No harm, no foul, friend." He smiled at the two once more before turning and facing the guard. "From my experience, it's oftentimes better to ask for forgiveness then it is to ask for permission. That mentality is probably why a lecherous man like me could never have become Hokage." He rubbed the back of his head and laughed. "That and I hate responsibility and the idea of being cooped up in a village let alone being trapped being a desk while there's so many attractive young women walking around just waiting to be ogled."

"Uh…I…I understand," the guard stalled, his reluctance to contribute to the esteemed figure's desires obvious. "Might I ask what brings you back to the village, sir? Nothing to do with Orochimaru I hope."

Jiraiya shook his head. "Nothing that bothersome. I just came back to Tsunade and check on a few things. I had also heard my latest pupil was recently released from the hospital and wanted to see how he was faring."

The guard breathed a sigh of relief, relieved to know that a visit from one of the legendary Sannin wasn't a foreshadowing of ominous things set to come. "Good to hear, Jiraiya-sama. And as far as I can tell, Naruto has been recovering well."

Jiraiya nodded, frowning slightly. He had already known that Naruto would be okay physically under the watchful eye of Tsunade; mentally, though…well, that was a different bowl of rice altogether. The roguish actions of Uchiha Sasuke and Naruto's friendship with the boy had sparked a carefully hidden ember of worry inside of Jiraiya as memories of how he'd reacted when Orochimaru, who he'd once considered his best friend, had betrayed him and the village. It was as if his past had circled around to rise and torment someone else of this generation.

As for any chances of reconciliation, it had taken a lot of fighting; a lot of verbal exchanges, and a lot of alcohol before he'd reached the fateful conclusion that Orochimaru was a lost cause and could no longer be reasoned with. He had relayed those sentiments to Naruto as he'd been recovering in the hospital in the hopes that he would gain perception on what Jiraiya himself had come to learn about people from his past dealings. He'd hoped, anyways…but he hadn't been overly surprised to hear the determination in Naruto's resolve, either. After all, Jiraiya had been the same way too when he'd been his age. And Naruto was Kushina's child after all…

Thinking of her was a mistake. Jiraiya's heart sank as the same old sense of regret that continually threatened to expose itself for failing to protect his students filled the pit of his stomach whenever his memories brought them to light. It seemed like such an old and useless reflex that it should have outgrown whatever purposes it had seemingly served and yet it continually existed like a painful burn that he could never hope to erase. But he felt that this time would be…different. He was sure of it. Jiraiya had learned from the failings of his past and would do everything he could in his power to ensure that Naruto would be as ready to deal with the threats that would inevitably be coming his way—and then he heard the sentry guard's voice and abruptly realized that he'd been daydreaming.

"Jiraiya-sama?" The guard carefully probed. "Forgive my intrusion, but are you alright, sir?"

The Toad Sage nodded in compliance. "I was just visiting the past for a moment. It's not always a particularly fun place to visit at times as I'm sure you know that feeling as well."

"All too well, sir," the guard adamantly agreed, then asked. "It's not often I get to deal with esteemed guests such as yourself. Would you care to have some tea, Jiraiya-sama? I would have some with you, but my replacement doesn't arrive for another hour yet and my superiors wouldn't take too kindly to me neglecting my post."

Jiraiya smiled. "Tea would be nice, but I'm going to need something a little stronger then that. And besides, I think I've occupied enough of your time as it is." He reached forward and clapped the man solidly on the shoulder. "Continue your watch, honorable soldier. The village and the people that reside within it depend on loyal men like you to keep them safe. Just be sure to have a little fun once you're off shift. And please keep what Naruto did to yourself."

The guard boisterously saluted as if fueled by the fact that he was sharing a secret with a man of such legacy. "Yes, sir!"

Giving the man a final thumbs up, Jiraiya casually leaped out of his hiding place and quickly turned himself into a nondescript-looking citizen. No sense in drawing any more attention to himself then he needed to right now. He also didn't want Naruto knowing he was back in the village just yet. Better for him to recover a bit more in both mind and body first, with the former taking more prominence then the latter. And if he had just gotten out of the hospital, then he deserved to have a little leisure time before his training inevitably began. Plus it looked as if Naruto and his lady friend were about to go out on a date of some kind. Far be it for Jiraiya to ruin an outing between a boy and his girl. He would ultimately talk to Tsunade and get the word from her before he ultimately decided when it was time for them to leave. He imagined she could probably do with a few drinks as well. Not that her boobs needed any further nutrition.

And as for Naruto and his unpredictable destiny…

Jiraiya turned his head and peered up at the Hokage Monument that overshadowed the village, particularly the furthest stone on the right, laughed and said, "He's gonna be a handful, Minato, but I'll do what I can with him. Just be sure to watch over him when the day that I can't inevitably arrives." Continuing to smile as if privy to some great secret that only he knew about, Jiraiya continued his walk towards the Hokage's Tower.

Chiseled in stone and forever ingrained in the hearts and minds of those who possessed The Will of Fire, The Four Hokage continued to peer down at the village in silent admiration as the light of the day continued to shine.

When the tree leaves dance, one shall find flames. The fire's shadow will illuminate the village, and once again, tree leaves shall bud anew

To be continued…

Author's Note: Hi there! Before I even start to write this thing, I just want to send out a big apology to all the people who have been leaving reviews and asking me not to abandon this story. After putting all of that previous time and effort into bringing things this far, the idea of letting all of this just go to waste never once entered my mind. It was always my intentions to continue writing and eventually present what I hoped would be a decent conclusion (this isn't the last chapter btw). It really does just take me frickin' forever to put stuff together and then edit it a thousand or so times to make sure it comes out somewhat coherently on my end. When it comes to self-critiquing, it's basically the same old, same old for me. I was extremely happy with how this particular chapter turned out in the end (although the writer's block got intense at times) and it was definitely a labor of love. Hopefully you guys enjoyed it as well!

Additonal Note: Due to a guilty conscience and knowing deep down that I didn't give this story the ending that it deserved, I've decided to delete chapter 12 and work on a new ending. Honestly, I'm not mad and am actually really grateful. The constructive criticism you guys graciously offered me showed that it was not the proper way to go. I guess I was just scared that all the work that'd I put into that last part was a waste of time. But that's all on me, and has nothing to do with anyone else. All I can say is that I hope you guys can be patient (if you're willing too, it's super cool if you're not though) and give me the time that I need to put together hopefully something much better. Again, my apologies for acting so brash. Thanks and all the best.