Chapter 9.

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

9:14 AM:

Kneeling on one of the streets she'd scurried down earlier, wrist deep in one of the many dirty puddles she'd hopped around without the least bit of care for any of them then save for her sandals and feet, Sakura now scoured about in of one of those seemingly insignificant puddles with her fingertips, assuming the role of a girl being driven by impotent annoyance over losing a bauble that was of some personal importance to her. It was probably a good thing her instructors couldn't see her splashing around now like a baby, abandoning trained discretion to pursue an object of materialistic value. Not that she would have really cared what anybody thought of her at this inopportune moment, least they wanted their eyes ripped out that badly. It might have made her feel better right about now, she considered grimly…

And, by all rights, there shouldn't have been any problems. Aside from the lack of sleep and the slight chance that her complexion might have taken a beating, things had gone swimmingly for the most part. Her parents had met her at the front door in a calmer state of frame then what she had initially expected. Apparently Ino had taken the swift liberty of contacting Okaa-san right after she'd left, using the fabricated alibi that they had devised together to explain her overnight absence. Sakura figured that an act of foresight on behalf of Mrs. Yamanaka had also played a part in Ino's prompt call. Both mothers were quite good friends with each other and Mrs. Yamanaka—she was about the closest thing to a second mother that Sakura could ever ask for, a good friend as well. She probably would have done the same thing that Ino had done had Sakura asked (though a similar scolding would have come with that bargain). Regardless, Ino had come through in a real pinch, and Sakura owed her big time for that, even if she had to put up with her constant nagging reminder over that detail. That almost seemed like a fair price to pay.

Almost.

On the other hand, she hadn't had to put up with much resistance from her mother, who'd been rather enthralled with the idea that she take up tutelage with the Hokage—so excited in fact that Sakura had had to repeatedly remind her that it was only good unless Tsunade-sama was willing to take on an apprentice. At least her happiness had taken the edge out of any unpleasantness that might have ensued. Parents' were an odd lot when it came to things like that. But it wasn't until she'd showered and dressed in fresh clothes when she'd came upon the unfortunate discovery that had led her to these present circumstances of floundering around like some mutt looking for an old bone to chew on.

Her pen…her favorite pen. Normally she didn't have much of a weakness for materialistic possessions, but that pen had been given to her upon her acceptance into the academy from her grandparents. While more of a hand me down, Obaa-san had presented it to her saying that a budding fruit in training needed the right tool for adequate cultivation, and Sakura, as a child, had felt that she needed every last bit of luck that she could muster then. She would then make it a strict, yet overly exaggerated point to use only that pen on all of her written assignments and tests in the high hopes that it would help bring her high marks via self-imposed 'enchantment'. Even though she did do her homework and diligently studied for tests, the fact that she was earning perfect scores or else close to them with Obaa-san's pen only further inflated the supposition that she needed to keep using it to maintain those high marks. It wasn't until befriending Ino and learning how to be self-confident when she finally realized that the pen had no enchanted properties, no attached ninja seals or associated mysticism mumbo jumbo of any sort. It was her ability of memorizing and retaining knowledge that had allowed her to excel in her studies whereas the pen was nothing more then that of a basic instrument to transfer that information to paper. It wasn't any more unexceptional then a shuriken in a holster set.

And yet, that did little to devalue the fact that it had still been a present; given to her with all the expectations that she was to do her best to succeed as a kunoichi. And even without that impression weighing on her mind, the pen still held personal value to her. It had stuck with her the entire time she'd been in the academy and she had wielded it with the utmost pride and trust in herself—so much so that she'd had it personalized upon graduation to make it truly hers. Nothing overly glamorous, just a little something to help keep her focus centered—and a means of uniqueness to make it a bit more identifiable should it ever become lost, as what should have been the case presently.

But that wasn't helping her now in the slightest. Unless her eyes were playing tricks on her, Sakura had thought she'd seen a marginal speck of something that had resembled the look of a pen in the shallow murkiness a few moments ago. Adding to the fact that it was one of the bigger, slightly deeper puddles in the vicinity of the street only further justified the need that a quick search be conducted, but it was becoming distressfully clear after a few moments of puddle splashing that the pen wasn't here. Sakura made one more determined sweep along the immersed ground, then reared her hand back and took a frustrated swipe at the water's surface before sitting back on her haunches, sighing as she readjusted her grip on the handle of the umbrella that she held in her left hand.

"Well, shit," she grumbled softly, totally irritated with her inability to keep track of something that should have been so easy to safeguard in the first place. Even more irritating was that she didn't make it a habit to misplace things of importance to her; maintaining inventory was one of those fundamental lessons that had been drilled into her head at the academy. Especially when life and death scenarios weren't so kind as to favor the ill equipped. And she knew full well that this really didn't fit into that category of catastrophes'. It was more the aspect of it that pissed her off—enough that she almost wanted to take another few rounds out of the puddle for good measure, no matter how puerile it seemed. Playing this game of hide and seek was one of the last things she wanted to be doing this morning. Instead Sakura picked up a handful of pebbles and irritably tossed them into the water hard, then, having heard some of the rocks bouncing against the other smaller puddles, tucked her knuckle up underneath her chin and sighed sullenly.

As hampering as these circumstances were, Sakura possessed more then enough frame of mind to understand that there was very little that she could do now except retrace her steps and hope that her pen was lurking somewhere on soggy ground and not be submerged or water-damaged. The furious downpour had created numerous puddles all over the place and several of them had grown quite large and deep—far too large to try and probe them all individually. She'd have to wait until some of the water evaporated before she could even think to search them. Hopefully it wouldn't have to come down to that, but Sakura was starting to have a few doubts that things would be that convenient. She'd already covered her house from top to bottom and had looked around the Yamanaka flower shop, mostly where she had stood and tossed pebbles at Ino's bedroom window. She'd even snuck back into Ino's bedroom via the unlocked window to check under the bed sheets, thinking that it might have slipped out of her pocket when she'd caught that very brief nap, but to no avail. There was also the possibility that Ino had found the pen and had placed it someplace, but Sakura had no real ambitions of going and asking her. She'd already had to stomach one slice of humble pie today. No way was she going to chew on a second piece. And she doubted that it was there, anyways. Ino probably would have mentioned it in the phone call—teasingly, of course, as only piggy could be.

Sakura sucked on her lips in irritation, pushed the tips of her fingers into the wet soil, stood up and brushed the more notable dirt clumps off the knees of her raincoat with her free sleeve. Yeah, piggy would have razzed her big time for this. The shitty thing was that she would have been justified in the whole thing. She hated admitting it, but Sakura knew that the whole puddle search was just a freaking waste of time. She'd already searched the streets between the two houses and had been meticulous in checking the majority of the waterholes there (the ones that weren't humungous anyways). If it was submerged up ahead or someplace she'd missed, then there was a fair chance that the pen was as good as ruined anyways, the ink definitely. That was something that she would just have to deal with if it did turn out to be the case.

And unfortunately, it very well just might have to be that way. Time wasn't on her side this morning and she definitely couldn't afford to squander any more of it away then what she had already out here. After leaving the flower shop, Sakura had gone directly to the Hokage's tower in the hopes of catching the Godaime early enough to inquire about the possibility of becoming a pupil without being a nuisance. Having heard that the newly appointed Hokage possessed quite a temper had not deterred Sakura, and upon being granted an audience she'd proceeded to plead both her case and reasoning for her earnest aspirations in a manner that had been firm, polite and sincere without embellishment or attempting to butter her up. That was the absolute last impression that she wanted to exude. She didn't want Tsunade-sama to think that she was some run-of-the-mill dimwit seeking any sort of trivial fame or fulfilling some childish fantasy to study with somebody of considerable status.

Her thoughts tracing back to that unsanctioned meeting, fresh tendrils of false butterflies pulsated through Sakura's stomach and she smiled meekly. Her impression of the older woman was that she seemed quite self-assured; an impression that hadn't changed since she'd first witnessed Tsunade-sama walk into Sasuke-kun's hospital room and heal him with the simplest of ease. She'd been too preoccupied at the time to truly appreciate it but after hearing how she'd healed Kakashi-sensei who'd also been affected by Itachi's sharingan as well, Sakura had been unabashedly convinced that Tsunade-sama was one of the most talented women she'd ever seen. Yet she also knew that such elaborate skills could not have come without a great deal of knowledge in human anatomy, superb chakra control, and a heavy measure of discipline. She was definitely not somebody who had achieved power by taking shortcuts.

Sakura shivered, and it wasn't just from the rain. Regardless of her position, the older woman definitely had an authoritative presence about her—somebody who was clearly not to be trifled with or mislead. Not that that probably mattered anyways. There was no doubt that she could read a façade from a mile away. It was almost like a combination of Okaa-san and Anko-sensei rolled into one. That was a frightening concept in itself, but it was what it was.

At least Tsunade-sama had accepted the proposal of taking on a pupil without much in the way of interrogation. Sakura also considered it a stroke of luck that Kakashi-sensei had shown up like he did to file a report only a minute or so afterwards. He'd shown such genuine graciousness about her decision to study with the Hokage that it had both pleased and saddened Sakura. She couldn't imagine that he'd likened the idea of having the majority of his team split off to do their own separate things but it was almost for the best; at least where she was concerned. Because of Orochimaru's attack and the loss of several of Konoha's shinobi, Kakashi-sensei had been forced to devote his talent and skills in various divisions in order to compensate for those who were needed to help rebuild and protect the village from any further attacks. To try and aid him in any undertakings now would have only made her a liability that she knew he couldn't afford to burden. It would have been no different if she'd gone with Naruto's group to try and bring back Sasuke-kun. She would have just gotten in the way there as well…

Sakura glowered down at the puddle, her bout of trepidation metamorphosing into a flame of determination. Well, that was all going to change in a real hurry. Whatever tasks Tsunade-sama—taichou (she hoped) had planned for her; Sakura was determined to meet them all and give nothing less then a hundred and ten percent. If she couldn't be of any help on the field—she sure as hell had to make up for it by learning everything she possibly could from her new sensei regarding the art of healing. No matter how difficult things were going to turn out—and she knew that they would, Sakura made it a personal pledge that she was never going to give the newest Hokage the slightest inclination towards thinking she was wasting her precious time, not even for one second—

"Overconfidence makes for such a grand defensive mechanism, doesn't it?"

Sakura rolled her eyes at the validity of the mental comment. Yeah, she couldn't exactly walk into the Hokage's office with weapons blazing, but approaching the situation with an empty holster was detrimental as well. That's why Sakura felt it was important to meet with Tsunade-taichou at the instructed time—anywhere between ten-fifteen and ten- thirty was what she had specified for the first official training session, though that sort of flexibility seemed a trifle unorthodox to her when compared to the rule abiding need to be punctual for every class back in the academy days or meetings with Kakashi-sensei—even knowing that he would be more then often late by hours for the majority of those. That was one particular student-teacher trait she wasn't willing to inherit. Sakura almost wished that the Hokage had sanctioned a more…precise time instead. It sure as hell would have eased some of the residual nervousness that she was feeling right now…

Like a bulb being twisted in its socket, a flash of insight swept her mind. Why play a guessing game about it at all? Why not just make it concrete and go there at ten o'clock and make ten-fifteen the deadline instead? It wasn't like she'd get reamed out for being early or anything. Plus it would make her feel a little more at ease about time constraints and would most definitely save her the trouble of playing any additional mind games with herself; an almost common practice nowadays. Sakura really wished that she didn't have to live with that almost pivotal urge to keep things always organized in her life, almost wished that she could have things a little more unceremonious.

Like Naruto did.

Wiping water off of her brow, Sakura shifted her glance down the road that lead towards Naruto's apartment, a slightly concerned frown crafting her facial muscles. She couldn't help but wonder how Naruto was faring now. Considering how late she'd kept him up, the poor guy was probably still sound asleep. Maybe he'd finally sleep well enough to supersede any further nightmares that might have been trying to filter through his head. Wouldn't that have just been a boon and a half? It certainly would have been nice to act ignorant and think of it as such. Sakura viciously gnawed the inside of her cheek, quickly forced a damper on the egocentric path her mind was trekking before those familiar misgivings tried to run amok again.

But it would be good to know what was causing those intense dreams of his in the first place and possibly help him work to quell them. She'd already felt convinced that it had something to do with Sasuke-kun and the falling out that had happened between him and Naruto. That was the broad outline of it. Pinpointing it precisely was the problem, and Sakura really doubted that Naruto would ever come forth and flat out speak to her about any of it. Probably just smile and say that everything was okay like always, even if the person he was telling knew perfectly well that it wasn't; that self-delusional dummy. She earnestly hoped that he'd start to feel like his energetic self again soon. Trying to pummel Naruto when he wasn't himself was like plucking the wings off of a butterfly; it just felt morally wrong. Sakura had to smile at that.

Well, any sort of physicality she felt like inflicting would have to come at a much later date. Sakura studied her watch again, seen that she had plenty of time yet to spare—just under an hour or so. That was good. It was more then enough to wrap up any other last business that needed attending, and there was. Picking her away around the puddle, she took a few careful steps over to a nearby house with an overhead canopy protecting the entryway. Bending down, Sakura picked up a small plastic bag that she'd deposited earlier for safekeeping, opened it along with the paper bag inside to check the condition of the contents, was relieved when she found they hadn't been damaged by the rain.

Walking home after talking to the Hokage, she'd come across a bakery that just happened to be one of the more popular establishments in town—very well known for its particular desserts and sweet buns. Waiting lists were not at all uncommon. Neither was being totally sold out before noon either. Luckily the store had just opened when she was walking by, allowing her free access to look around without her options being limited by a bustle of people. Recalling Ino's advice and after taking a few minutes to glance about, Sakura had picked out a small assortment of freshly prepared sweet buns she felt were guaranteed to please any range of palate. Of course, that was a little irrelevant considering Naruto was almost on par with Chouji when it came to finding any means necessary to eat his own weight in food.

Closing the bag, Sakura chuckled as she turned and started to walk down the street. At least she didn't have to worry about her efforts going up in smoke. Still, it would have been better if she could have baked something personally but there just hadn't been any time for that. She could go out on a limb and say that she herself had made the treats yesterday—boys tended to respond well to little things like that—though that was one monster of a stretch when considering the quality of the food. While it shouldn't have mattered on whether they were homemade or store-bought, Sakura would have much rather preferred to tell him that she'd made them herself just so that he might enjoy them even more. It was for that reason that she almost guiltily hoped that he was still asleep so that he wouldn't ask questions or anything until later. That was if things worked out like she hoped they would.

What she had initially planned on was leaving them with his landlord, have him give them to Naruto and then leave it up to him to come up with some imaginative anecdote about how she'd stopped by with the reminder that she wanted to take him out for dinner later on. The minute long conversation she'd previously had with him days ago had left her with a crystal clear impression that he was well versed in storytelling. And while he had been pleasant enough to talk with, she definitely had no qualms that Naruto had picked up some of his straightforward mannerisms from that particular gentleman. Sakura also had reason to believe that he fit the universal senior pattern of being an early riser, which is what she'd been kind of counting on. Trying to fit her way into other people's schedules seemed to be a repeating occurrence lately…

"Well if you had put that note out in the open where the dummy could actually see it to begin with, you wouldn't be wrapped up in this 'need to redeem' scenario."

"Piss off already," Sakura hotly retorted. She didn't need her attesting inner voice to pronounce her screw-ups' when she was already well aware of them. Putting that note underneath the glass of water was a stupid idea—the arts and crafts approach even stupider when he'd probably just throw the thing away without a second thought. The only reason she'd done that was out of etiquette for his furnishings (leaving a cold glass on a wooden table without a coaster underneath it makes a nasty-looking mark). It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and it still did. The only reason she felt perturbed by the mistake was because she didn't want Naruto to think that she was ungrateful in any sort of way and would just leave without giving any sort of indication when that just wasn't the case at all. Buying him the treats had been a split between both redemption and a bribe on her part to make up for keeping him awake half the night and for the cake he'd graciously left out for her to eat. And it was considered bad form to visit somebody without bringing some sort of present…

"So is being overly girly. Drop the goddamn baggage of paranoia already and get a move on," she grumbled, feeling overly grumpy from being in the rain too long and a nasty urge to bang both Ino and Naruto's heads together for no reason. Sakura quickly sliced her way through the streets at the pace of an obsessed power-walker until the rustic shape of Naruto's apartment rapidly filtered into her perception. Rustic was about the only genuine title she could possibly give the place that had some peonage to it without being overly insulting. It wasn't as if the building was totally atrocious or anything—especially if the landlord was having financial difficulties or something of that nature. If anything it just needed refurbishing in certain areas, like a fresh paint job on both the outside and inside. She couldn't imagine that many people would want to stay in such a place where paint was peeling off the walls at an alarming rate.

Then again, there were people out there that didn't have been a choice in the matter. Sakura chewed her bottom lip hard in chastisement. She needed to get in the habit of abandoning the pedestrian aspect of things and think outside the box. It wasn't right to evaluate one area of focus when there were a lot of places in a lot of towns that were rundown and decrepit; it was a universal part of life and culture, and it was best not to forget that. Especially when the line of study was only revolving around one location. Sakura would have thought that such pettiness might have dissolved itself after her time spent here, but it seemed like it was the other way around and that royally sucked because then it meant Ino's whole 'fretting' statement had some power/truth to it. Best friend or not, the idea of being thought of as transparent was something that wasn't sitting well with her at all.

Well she could worry about that later. Standing out here wasn't accomplishing anything, not with a time frame looming over her head. Because of that, Sakura had already decided that she was going to leave these with Naruto's landlord. If that weren't possible, she'd put them by Naruto's door and hope that wouldn't get overly soaked and then come back later today for a proper visit when time was more permitting for her. After all she did need to let him know about the party Ino's squad was throwing for Chouji. Finalizing her thoughts, Sakura started towards the lot for the second time in less then half the day. At least those feelings of intrusiveness weren't as jagged as before and it was more then likely that they would continue to dull as time passed. Whether that was a good thing or not…remained sort of debatable (old habits died hard).

Reaching the steps, Sakura felt relieved to be getting out of the wind and rain temporarily; maybe not so much the rain but at least it wasn't as bad as being directly out in the open. She started to climb up the steps, paused, felt a tickle rising in her nose, reared back, turned her head and ferociously sneezed, spittle and snot flying all over in a total unladylike fashion. Yeah…not as bad, all right. At least she'd possessed enough foresight to sneeze away from the grocery bag instead of towards it. Sakura rubbed her mouth against her right shoulder, cleaning her nose and face, hoping that she still looked somewhat presentable. She found out quickly enough.

"Holy hell, little lady! That's quite a sneeze ya got there! Any harder and yer nose woulda flew clear off!" a familiar gruff voice teased from above her. Startled, Sakura looked up, found herself looking up into the friendly face of Naruto's landlord—the very person she needed to speak to. Of course the circumstances couldn't start out to be anything but embarrassing. Straightening out as best as she could, Sakura smiled fondly at the man. "Good morning, sir. S-sorry you had to witness that display," She spoke in a deeply humble, apologetic tone as she walked up the steps and closed her umbrella, feeling no need to hide such disconcert when it was clear that she was feeling it.

Standing at the top of the steps underneath a wide canopy that sheltered him from the worst of the rain, the old man made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "A good sneeze ta clean out the pipes ain't nothin' ta apologize about, miss. Jus' means ya have a healthy schnozzle ta go with that cute face of yers," he said with an open grin.

Sakura chuckled. That really didn't sound 'cute' at all but she didn't mind. His candidness was a welcome change of pace from the ornery leaders that consistently wrapped themselves in a state of sternness and strict mannerisms without any obvious shred of lightheartedness. She'd only had the 'pleasure' of dealing with a few of those and it had been quite enough to convince her how not to turn out if she ever aspired to become a teacher herself. Naruto's landlord had a gruff exterior that commanded respect as well, but he also had an easy-going personality that didn't make exchanging dialogue with him seem like a chore. His matter of speaking was a little unorthodox sure, but he sure as hell didn't beat around the bush either, and Sakura felt a real sense of appreciation for that. Maybe it was because he was the only adult she'd ever met that had absolutely no impact on her where studies or ninjutsu or anything even parent-like was concerned—totally neutral in every sense—and yet, to her, he seemed like the sort of person that you could confide in where advice was needed and depend on where confidentially was necessary. Maybe it was a little rash to jump to that conclusion after only having one, now two conversations with the guy (she'd just begun the second), but that was the vibe she felt and Sakura generally trusted those when it mattered. Still, it might be a good idea to retain some disclosure and not lay any of her eggs in a basket for now until she had a better understanding of him. For all intents and purposes, this might be the last time she spoke to him anyways. "I suppose you're right, sir," she replied, looked over her shoulder to glance at the landscape, "I guess it is a little chilly out here."

The landlord nodded. "Ain't that about the truth, little miss. Another day of this mess and ya'll be needin' one of them damned scuber suits ta get around." This seemed to elect a small burst of laughter from the young lady, which caused him to chuckle in return. Hell, he didn't know what the damn things were called. "Still, good bouts o' rain ain't nothin' ta jus' pass up these days either. This country can get as dry as a popcorn kernel in a hurry if there ain't any moisture ta slosh the ground up a bit." He smiled at the girl as she joined him. "Inconveniences only go as far as the eye can see. Long term, things ain't so bad."

Sakura paused, managed to conceal her lapse of mystification with a quick smile. As innocent as it sounded, something about that last comment managed to strike a cord with her. It seemed a little too deliberate to be random for her tastes though Sakura had to admit that she was probably just over thinking thing as usual. Still… "That's true. Some rain is better then none at all," Sakura finally remarked, getting back to the matter at hand. "And I guess it has been getting a little warm lately."

He grinned in return. "I'm jus' sayin' that some things ain't worth raisin' a fist over. A good bout o' rain is a time o' recovery for everyone and everything." Nodding at his answer, the old man reached into his coat and pulled out a cigarette, glanced at the girl apologetically. "Forgive an old man's habits, miss, but do ya mind if I have a smoke in yer presence?"

"Not at all. Please, go ahead."

Sighing with relief, he placed the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. "Thanks, little miss. Figured I should ask outta the sake o' politeness before lighting one up. The wife is always giving me the gears about that."

Sakura offered a small smile. "It's not a particularly healthy habit, sir."

He nodded. "That it ain't, miss." He took a long drag, purposely blew it out in the opposite direction that Sakura was standing so that it didn't inadvertently blow smoke in her face. "So, what brings ya out this way on such a blistery morning?" he asked in a hopeful attempt to try and change the subject.

Sakura contemplated a reasonable answer. "I was just…looking for my pen," she said, just suddenly realizing that she hadn't thought of it for the past while now. It wasn't as if she were lying about it either so it made a good alibi. "I lost it out here someplace and I've been trying to find it for the past while now. It's…sort of important to me and—"

"Was it a fancy-lookin' blue pen?"

Sakura blinked. "Um, you've seen it, sir?"

The landlord smiled, pointed down the steps. "Dropped it down there when you was makin' a beeline outta here. A thousand raindrops ploppin' around makes it a little hard ta discern those soft sounds," he added.

Sakura let out an unabashed sigh. That was certainly a weight that she didn't need on her shoulders anymore. "I figured I'd dropped it somewhere close by here," she said, notes of leftover frustration filling her voice. She shook her head, then looked up at him, flashed him a radiant smile. "Thank you for taking the time to pick it up for me. That pen means a lot to me—it's silly, I know—but," her voice suddenly took on an embarrassed edge and she blushed, "it makes me…happy as hell to know that it's not floating in a puddle somewhere."

He looked at her with a peculiar expression, raised an eyebrow as if he was being forced to reevaluate his initial impression of the young lady that stood beside him. That wasn't much of a surprise since he'd already detected that there was more spunk to her kind personality then she liked to let on—a quiet flame burning on a small island in the middle of a pond. That seemed to fit the profile of most aspiring kunoichi. And if the missus was anything to go by, then it also made for the best of them, too—speaking in the past tense, of course. Still, he could see why Naruto liked her so much. He reached over and patted her on the shoulder in a friendly way, smiled. "I know the feeling, little miss, and it ain't somethin' ya need ta worry about or be ashamed of. It's a damn good feeling ta find somethin' that ya've previously lost. Take it this pen was somewhat important to ya?"

Sakura nodded fractionally. "It was a present from my grandparents. It's the only pen I've ever used up until I graduated from the academy…sort of a good luck charm, I suppose," she said, the last part coming out in an apprehensive sort of way, which led to her quickly adding, "It's just that I've had it for such a long time…and it would really bug me if I'd lost it now," she said, keeping the explanation simple. No sense in overcomplicating things and babbling on.

The landlord nodded, puffed and exhaled again in the opposite direction. "I suppose that's reason enough, miss." He flicked his cigarette butt away, looked at her and grinned. "Well I'd love ta give you yer pen now, but I don't have it with me, unfortunately." He pointed off to his right. "I left that with Naruto fer safekeepin'." he said. "I figured that was the best course o' action since I wasn't sure when ya'd be comin' back, and 'course you'd see him a lot sooner anyways."

Sakura's eyebrows rose, managed to keep her voice in casual tones. "Oh, he's awake?"

He nodded, then rubbed his eyes and chuckled. "Yeah…I think I woke the poor guy up, though. Had ta go over there earlier ta take him some laundry that muh wife had mended fer him as well as some goodies she made up this mornin'. Course I misplaced muh damn keys, and I didn't feel like stickin' around and bein' caught in the path o' the tornado while she wuz doin' her bakin'. Far as I'm concerned, a whirlin' battleaxe comin' at ya is about the second most dangerous thing around."

Caught off guard by the rude, yet utterly comical tirade, Sakura stifled back a sudden bout of the chuckles with the back of her hand, wishing she had a hanky just in case snot started to drip out of her nose. Yes, this gentleman/silly ass certainly had no problems or impediments when it came to telling it like it was. Sakura couldn't help but strongly speculate that if she were five or six years older, Naruto's landlord would be instead trying to invite her to come inside for a few highballs and sips of sake instead. And, quite frankly, that didn't seem all that far from the truth. "Y-you shouldn't talk that way, sir," Sakura admonished, still in the midst of recovering her composure.

The old man laughed at this. "Marriage ain't always a neat and tidy deal. You'll find out all about it when yer older." He reached over and pinched the side of the bag she'd been holding since she showed up. "What have ya got goin' on here?"

Recovering her dignity somewhat, Sakura opened the bag for him to see. "I was by the bakery earlier and seen that they were just finishing up some batches of sweet buns. I…sort of inconvenienced Naruto the other day as well and wanted to apologize for it, so I figured I'd get him some of these as a peace offering," She rubbing the back of her head while he examined some of the pastries. "I would have preferred to make him something myself instead," she said to him in confidence, "but the bakery I got these from has some of the best sweets in town."

"I see. Well I wouldn't be worrying about that sort o' thing, miss," the landlord reassured her. "That boy has a bottomless appetite ta match that thick skull of his. He'll eat anything without givin' it another thought. He'll certainly enjoy these. And ya could always fib a bit and say that ya did go and make these just ta make him think a bit."

That last sentence set a bell off in Sakura's mind and she capitalized on it. "About that, sir. I was wondering if…maybe it would be a better idea that I leave these with you instead of going up there. This way I wouldn't wake him if he did decide to go back to sleep," she added, being careful not to hasten her voice so that it sounded like a plea.

"I doubt he'd be asleep, miss," he said, recalling their last exchange of words. "It sounded like he was gonna eat some of that cup ramen crap that he likes so much fer breakfast. How he can eat that stuff all the time makes muh stomach churn. Still, he generally stays up once he's awake in the mornings'." He then smiled quizzically. "Were ya in a hurry or somethin'?

Sakura contemplated quickly. "Well…see, the thing is that I have a very important meeting with the Hokage in a little while," she explained honestly, "and it's very important that I'm punctual so as not to give the impression that I'm wasting her time and make a bad impression for myself. That and looking for that stupid pen of mine screwed up my timeframe as well…I sort of pigeonholed myself a bit is what I'm saying." In her case, it was about as good an excuse as any. And she was telling the truth for the most part. The other, fractional bits—he didn't need to know about those. Unfortunately for her…

"I see," the landlord said slowly. "Still, I reckon he'd still be awake at this point." He considered carefully, said, "I really think it'd be a good idea if ya went up and seen him fer a few minutes—jus' so that you can drop off those goodies fer him and retrieve yer pen. Naruto would probably appreciate seein' ya. That and I think the kid can only take so many doses' o' muh ugly ol' face before he starts ta get uppity," he added lightheartedly in an attempt to persuade her. She'd seemed so adamant a week ago when asking for Naruto's apartment number. Now it seemed almost out of place for her to take such a reluctant approach, at least to him. Unless she'd already gathered a clue about Naruto's anxieties and was being deliberately cautious for some particular sake; he had no idea. What he did know was that the two of them were going to have to face each other sooner or later. And either way, he wasn't going to have any participation in the matter. This was something they'd have to work out themselves.

Sakura seemed to come to this conclusion as well, even though her guts felt like they were being slowly stretched and twisted. "Well…after wasting my time looking for it in the first place, I suppose I could go and get my pen, seeing as I'm here now," she said aloud, held up the bag. "And I really would like to drop these off as well," Sakura added even though she still felt hesitant.

"Might as well," the landlord agreed warmly. "I mean, why not bring a smile ta each other's faces' on such a dreary day?" He turned and began to walk up the walkway, gestured with his hand. "Follow me, miss. I got muh keys' with me this time. We'll just see if he's up. If not, then ya can at least drop yer stuff off. I'll let him know later that yer aware that yer pen is in his possession. This way he can chase ya around fer a change o' pace when ya ain't so busy."

Following behind him, Sakura smiled weakly at the old man's charismatic enthusiasm in wanting to play the role of tour guide. At first she'd been slightly disappointed that her plans to leave the sweets with the landlord had gone array, but it was hardly a shock considering that the man had little need for diplomacy and flowery embellishment. On the upside though, at least she could finally drop these damn pastries off without having to worry anymore about them turning into mush. That, and reclaim her pen as well. Courtesy aside, it would have been a waste if she'd spent all this time looking for it and then not take it back when it was within means. It only made sense.

But common sense or not, her guts still felt like they were being churned through a meat grinder, and it should have had everything to do with knowing that she was going to possibly be receiving personal tuition under the most powerful woman in the village…but it didn't. In her wildest dreams, she would never have predicated a point in time where a simple visit with Naruto would prelude with foreign feelings of utter nervousness as of those she was experiencing undoubtedly now.

Sakura ravaged her lower lip, glanced down at the bag, and knew straight up that she'd wanted to do everything that wouldn't involve personally delivering these to Naruto. Whether he found them by his door or whether the landlord gave them to him; it didn't matter. Just as long as she didn't have to plop them in his lap and say to Naruto: "Here you go. Enjoy!" No, it really did not matter to her. But proper intentions aside, Sakura really had to wonder if she was doing the right thing in coming back here so soon. Naruto's landlord seemed to think so, but that was little comfort considering he hadn't been the one who'd had a somewhat biased vendetta against Naruto in the past even though that shouldn't have mattered. Ino had made it perfectly clear during their very drawn-out conversation that Naruto wasn't the sort who took to letting people get him down. That was a pretty safe bet, considering how many times she'd beaten him up.

"So drop the baggage and stop worrying already! Next thing you know, you'll be accusing yourself of wasting Ino-pig's time! You're here now, so let's keep to the schedule and get this done!" Inner Sakura encouraged

Sakura took a breath, blew it out along with most of her anxieties, and then gave her head a hard shake for good measure. Yes, there was no sense in 'fretting' over pretentious nonsense. It wasn't like it had taken this much thought the first time she'd resolved to be a little nicer to Naruto and this shouldn't either. And she wasn't about to present Ino with another opportunity to give her any additional ammunition either. That just wasn't going to happen, period. Her self-confidence restored, Sakura sped up her walking speed so that she could match pace with the landlord, who was but a few steps ahead of her. She caught up with him easily enough but, in the process of haste, she accidentally kicked up a bit of water off the walkway that hadn't properly drained, splashing the back of his pant leg as result. "Oops! Sorry about that, sir! I didn't mean for that to happen!" she exclaimed embarrassingly.

The landlord reached down and brushed the back of his pants off, smiled. "Oh that ain't nothin' ta worry about, miss," he said, shrugging it off. "A bit o' dirty water ain't gonna hurt me none. Muh clothes have already taken' a beatin' as it is." He shook each pant leg a couple of times, wiped it clean with the back of hand. "Good enough! Muh wife will take care of the rest." Standing up, he resumed his task of playing tour guide though that would only last for a few moments more. Finally reaching Naruto's apartment, the landlord stiffly knocked on the door twice, turned his head and listened intently, his forehead contorted in concentration. Unable to make out anything that resembled his footsteps, he knocked again with the same intensity, listened. "Can't…quite tell," he mumbled softly

"I can just leave them out by his door," Sakura offered quietly, looked up at the roof to see if any water was dripping through the boards. "It doesn't look like the rain would get inside the bag."

Pulling his head back from the door, the landlord made a dismissive gesture, as only a stubborn adult would do. "Nonsense," he said while reaching inside his pocket and withdrawing a set of keys. "We'll just take a moment ta scout this situation out and then jus' see what happens." Picking out one particular key, the landlord brought it up to level with the doorknob and slid into place.

Still trying to pay attention to the still new subtle noises coming from the apartment, Sakura suddenly frowned. She could have sworn she heard someone (presumably Naruto) saying something—more like shouting something—from inside, followed by strange banging sounds. She silently urged the landlord to continue on with his business. Giving the key a simple twist, the landlord complied with her unspoken wishes and opened the door. Out of sight for the time being, Sakura held her breath, heard Naruto clearly say: "I really hope that this is important, Oji-san, because I'm going to be royally pissed if you came here just to antagonize me about something else." Gazing over at her, Sakura noted the amused expression on the landlord's face, a strangely quizzical look on his face, asked, "Is the kid always klutzy like this in the morning, miss?"

Sakura looked in between the hinges, seen most of Naruto sprawled out on the hardwood floor in an awkward, comical manner, felt the corners of her mouth slowly lift. Aside from a few particular times when she could tell he'd put in a considerably late night of practice, he was generally pretty orientated in the mornings. Still, seeing his clumsy state put her at a state of ease. "Just sometimes," she admitted. The landlord nodded knowingly. From inside, Sakura heard Naruto nervously ask, "W-who are you talking to, sir?"

Without preamble, Sakura pressed her hand up against the door and gently pushed it open all the way, answering his question. Ignoring the look of confusion that was plainly etched on his face, she smiled warmly. "Good morning, Naruto. Are you okay?" she asked, already knowing the answer to that inquiry. In predictable fashion, Naruto's Adam's apple bobbed as he quickly nodded in acknowledgment. He then looked to her left where the landlord was standing, stared for a few seconds, suddenly made a odd-looking face that seemed to match dispirited and then slumped to the ground, the sound of a sigh fluttering across his lips and along the floorboards. Slightly confused but not showing it on her face, Sakura glanced over, seen a slight smile cross the lips of the landlord but nothing really devious enough to cause this sort of reaction; unless she'd just missed it.

Clearing his throat so as to give his voice a rougher disciplined edge, Naruto's landlord shouted, "Look alive, kid! Ya have company here. Time ta get up and say hello." To Sakura he said, "Go on inside, miss. Get outta this rain before ya catch a chill. Have Naruto make ya some hot tea. It'll help warm ya up." Gently ushering Sakura forward, he gruffly called over to Naruto. "Boy, ya hear what I said? Get the hell up off yer ass already and make Sakura-san some tea!"

Sakura considered telling him—both of them now—that tea wasn't necessary, then denounced the idea almost instantly. It would have been like talking like a brick wall, and he was clearly similar to Naruto when it came to accommodating guests. Hell, she probably would have done the same thing if the roles had been reversed. It was probably best to just go with the flow for now and not kick up any fuss. Placing her things down on the floor, Sakura started to take off her boots.

Seeing that things were spinning into motion and knowing that it was time to take his leave, the landlord said, "Well, I'd best take muh leave, miss. It was very nice seein' ya again. All the best in yer tuition with the Hokage."

She smiled up over her shoulder. "Thank you, sir," then added in hushed confidentially, "Thanks for unlocking the door for me."

He patted her on the shoulder again gently. "Yer welcome." The landlord then looked at Naruto, who was now sitting on the floor, carefully rubbing his stomach as if he was just about to have a baby, said, "Hey, kid?"

Naruto looked up, his face a mix of irritation and caution. "Yeah, what?"

"Ya remember that favor—" he gestured quickly with his chin at Sakura's back, "—I asked ya about? Jus' keep it in mind, if ya could?" he asked, keeping to his promise not to force the issue. Especially since Sakura was standing right in front of him in absolute earshot.

Naruto knew exactly what he was referring to, sighed inwardly, then nodded in compliance. The idea of asking Sakura-chan to play caretaker while he was away seemed just as much of a terrible idea now as it did when the landlord presented it earlier; a real waste of time, but he knew full well that he couldn't dismiss the suggestion either—especially when it concerned Oba-san. And aside from Iruka-sensei or possibly Kakashi-sensei (the latter being a real stretch), he couldn't think of anyone else that would be up to the task. "Alright."

The landlord smiled lopsided. "Good ta hear. You kids have a good visit" He gave Sakura's shoulders another squeeze before releasing her and stepping back outside. Pulling the door shut, he almost felt like making a quick crack about leaving two young teenagers alone by themselves without an adult chaperone but thought better of it. Seeing the little miss so soon after that long-winded diatribe probably had Naruto wrapped up in a fit of knots as it was. Adding to that wouldn't make him feel any less unsettled. Sweets and pens aside, it certainly did seem odd that she would show up here again so soon after leaving only a couple hours. The only thing he could attribute it to was that she was having a guilty conscience over reasons of a personal nature. He would have liked to think that she had some interest in the boy, but then remembered Naruto making it absolutely clear that she didn't like him in that sort of way. The chances of any romantic inclination were about as null as that of a weeklong rainstorm quenching a dry desert. It just wasn't there. Or maybe that's how he wanted to think…

Laughing at himself, the landlord reached inside and pulled out—regrettably for him—his last cigarette, lit it, took a very satisfying puff. Christ was he glad that he wasn't a young man anymore! The idea of dealing with adolescent problems again was about as enticing as trying to give up drinking, and that just wasn't going to happen. Hell, he'd been listening to that kid for so long now that he was starting to overanalyze things, and they weren't even his problems to begin with! A few drinks to get his mind on straight (or backwards) were just what the doctor ordered. Plus he deserved a reward for being such a good listener (though that was mostly out of justification for suddenly feeling like a glutton).

And yet, his mind would be centered on these two kids for the majority of the morning, the boy especially. As much as he liked to razz Naruto, the father figure within hoped that some of what he'd said had benefited in some way. He really didn't like seeing the kid in a despondent state, especially over something so silly as a girl, and—despite the age—a reasonably compassionate looking one at that, though he supposed he was the same way once upon a time. She sure seemed a lot less ornery then the old lady had been back in the day but that was just from his perspective (woman had the uncanny tendency to be devious like that). Hopefully Naruto could buckle down and get things figured out so that he could at least have the chance to get his head on straight. Unfortunately, that didn't always lead to the best conclusions. His past experiences as a youth were discernable proof of that notion. But who the hell could tell with today's generation?

He paused, took a final glance at Naruto's apartment, quietly sighed, a trail of narcotic smoke escaping from his nostrils. "Try n' be the bigger man, kid," he finally spoke in earnest tones of firm honesty. "I can't tell ya any other way to be except fer that. And if ya can't, then…do what ya think has ta be done." With a confident smile pasted on his lips, he turned and—with his last smoke planted firmly between his lips—made tracks down the sweltering walkway, firmly pointed in the direction of home.


With the door clicking shut and Oji-san finally making his exit, Naruto simply sat there on his living room floor in a cross-legged state of disbelief, unable to do much of anything except gawk at Sakura, who was in the calm routine of taking off her boots—seemingly put at ease by the landlord's invitation. That made sense after remembering Oji-san saying that he'd previously talked to her. By now he had to think that there was a bit of camaraderie between the two of them. It sure explained why he was so insistent on having Sakura look after the place. Hell, he should have just asked her himself then. Mischievous old prick…

Taking a hard breath, Naruto glared intently at the floor for a few solid seconds before his gaze finally softened out of reflex, released his inhalation and forced himself to relax. This was absolutely not the time to take on an ornery attitude. If he did, it would take control of his mannerisms and he might end up saying something that he shouldn't. And if he did that, he would disgrace the time that Oji-san had spent in listening to his problems—along with the advice he'd given. Naruto owed him that much courtesy. Ignoring the biting ache in his ribs where that stupid pen had almost skewered him, Naruto gathered himself up while making sure not to trip like a dork again. "Hi, Sakura-chan. D-did you sleep okay?" he asked.

Sakura looked at him, gave him an once-over, then smiled lightly. "Probably as well as you did."

"I doubt it," he thought, yet smiled in return; she did have a point. "I guess that depends on whatever time you got up at. Did you even sleep?"

Kicking off her last boot and placing them neatly aside, Sakura undid her raincoat and—after opening the door and snapping the excess water away—placed it on the floor, where it wouldn't make as much of a mess. "Yes, I did…a little bit," she answered hesitantly, "but I had a lot of things on my mind and didn't doze off all that well." She stood her umbrella against the wall, turned and grinned at him. "That and the late night tea and cake didn't much help either—caffeine and sugar being stimulants and all."

Naruto had to smile at that. She did have a point. "Well, like you said, you were the guest. I wouldn't have felt right to not offer anything during your visit here. Speaking of which… "I should probably go and make you something hot to drink before you catch a cold or something for being out in rain," Naruto said, remembering the old landlord's words. Ignoring the fact that it was déjà vu at it's finest, Naruto started for the kitchen.

Sakura took a step after him. "Naruto, I came here to—"

He stopped, snapped his fingers suddenly. "Oh! I almost forgot!" he falsely exclaimed. Pulling her pen from his pocket, he turned and walked over to where she was standing, handed it to her. "Oji-san said you dropped this outside when you were leaving. Good thing he spotted it when he did or else it might have gotten water-damaged."

Ignoring the light scolding, Sakura gently took the pen from his grasp like a mother hen would care for a hatchling, warm relief uncorking itself from her diaphragm and spreading through out her entire body like a peaceful wave. "I must have looked for this stupid thing for over an hour," she murmured, tracing a finger over the outline of her fountain pen. I'd figured I had left it some place close by but I wasn't sure." She shook her head. "It was just one of those things that I had to find or else it would have bothered me forever," she said, not getting into any details or elaborations—and not needing to. She knew full well that he knew full well how stubborn she could get at times. Sakura figured Naruto must have known that too for he smiled.

"Well you'll have to thank Oji-san for finding it—he dropped it off. I was just holding on to it for safekeeping," he said, being modestly honest with her without any attempts of bravado. And even though he hadn't had time to check, Naruto suspected that the pen—aside from the usual wear and tear that she put it through—hadn't gotten really damaged. Besides, she should just be happy that she got it back in one piece—and he could easily tell just from looking at her face that she already was.

"Though it would have been nice if she'd waited until I'd had something to eat," he thought sulkily, his stomach ravenous from not having had his breakfast yet. By now his precious ramen noodles were probably swimming in near lukewarm water since he hadn't remembered to place a cover over the lid to keep the steam from escaping while he'd been busy answering the door. That was a heartbreaker because the microwave that Oji-san had previously provided for him a while back was a third-rate piece of crap that didn't want to work half the time; he avoided using the thing as much as possible which wasn't hard considering that most of his meals came from boiled water. Plus the thing just looked dangerous to him, with all those weird buttons and numbers; almost like a ticking time bomb ready to explode in his kitchen. That and he really just hated electronics. Sakura could probably make the damn thing work though, if he asked nicely…

But he wasn't going to. Straightening out his sleep-tangled hair with the palms of his hands, Naruto re-cinched the knot around his bathrobe and straightened out his sleeves. "Um, I was just about to have breakfast…before you came in. If you don't mind, I'd like to go and finish eating before it gets cold."

Sakura smiled apologetically. That kind of explained his previous klutziness. "I had a feeling that I'd caught you at a bad time. I told your landlord that he didn't have to let me in, but…well, you know him better then I do," she said, shrugging helplessly. Sakura really didn't want to blame the landlord, especially after the kindness he'd shown to her, but they both knew it was the truth. "Please don't blame him, though. He was just doing what he thought was polite." She held up the bag that she'd been safeguarding for the last hour. "Hopefully this makes up for the inconvenience."

Naruto's expression was a predictable mask of confusion and bafflement, his eyes darting between her and the slightly damp-looking package that dangled from her hand. He'd noticed it when she'd first walked in but had paid little attention to it until now. "Um, what's that?" he asked woodenly. Even a bystander would be able to make the connection that she wasn't in the habit of giving him things out of the goodness of her heart. Knowing that she could turn uppity at the blink of an eye, Naruto gingerly took the package from her, looked inside the paper bag, then her in surprise. "Did you make these?

Sakura balked. Of course he would have to ask that question and instantly put her on the spot. She'd already deliberated on whether or not to tell him that they were homemade. Seemed like a dumb thing to kick up a fuss over yet she thought it would sound better to say something that sounded more meaningful. Taking a chance, Sakura exclaimed irritably, "O-of course I did, dummy! Why else do you think I had to leave so early?!" she awkwardly demanded, yet was strangely hopeful that she sounded bitchy enough to press Naruto into dropping the subject.

Apparently she didn't have to try to hard. Taking that as the norm, Naruto said, "You mean it only took you an hour to make these? Wow. I guess that just goes to show how talented you really are." He smiled down at the bag of goodies. "These look just as good as the ones they make in the bakeries. Hopefully they weren't too much trouble for you to prepare.""

Sakura's cheek twitched and she glanced off to the side, grumbled, "We-well they weren't and I'm not expecting you to eat them all, but you'd better at least try some of them…so that I'll know if they're worth making again or not. And since I was rude and didn't bring you anything last night, well…I figured I owed you something for that." She then sighed loudly and folded her arms. "Anyways, just do your best to enjoy them and lets leave it at that, okay?"

Closing the bag, Naruto looked at her, smiled slightly and nodded in agreement. That sounded just fine to him. She clearly wasn't in the mood for answering questions, and he simply wasn't in the mood to ask them. Hell, he was content to just leave things be and not question her motives as far as anything was concerned. Plus he wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth; free food was free food/good food. And it wasn't like she could poison him either. "Thanks for making these, Sakura-chan. I'll be sure to eat them all." He turned and, with out another word (he didn't know what else to say), walked into the kitchen to put them away.

Arms still folded, Sakura dropped the stern façade and relaxed a bit, the lightest of smiles touching her lips. Although it hadn't been much of a surprise where things had been concerned, Sakura was pleased that Naruto hadn't tried to raise a fit over the present/peace offering she'd brought for him. It certainly made it worthwhile to know she hadn't been walking conservatively through the wet streets protecting a package of goods for nothing. Of course, that was a silly thing to think as well. Proper etiquette decreed—as she'd been taught—that it was rude to come to someone's home without bringing a gift of some kind. Naruto had to have had some understanding along those lines as well.

"Why am I worrying about this?"

Sakura grasped her elbows with her hands and looked around the room, trying to ignore the chill that was threatening to settle in her bones like a bad flu virus. She sniffed the air, wrinkled her nose slightly. There was a faint but very definable tang of narcotic smoke in the apartment, the sort of smell that seemed to be associated with older buildings and structures for years and years to come; a real lived in sort of odor. It seemed an odd thing to note when considering that this was her second time here now. Her olfactory senses seemed to be right primed and working double time right now, modes of high efficiency. That or last nights rain had strongly affected her…except that it was raining right now. Maybe it was the deteriorating scent of paint reacting to the dampness or some time of mold (that was a gagging notion). Something was working it's unsightly magic on her right now. Annoyance inspired investigation, and she began to walk about the place like a curious cat looking for something to play with. The empty food containers and drinking cups littered around seemed like they made prime suspects but she couldn't remember them smelling this atrocious earlier. Nope, this seemed a bit more…recent…if that was possible. Walking over to the couch, she noted that the smell seemed to be even sharper now yet there was an odd familiarity to it; aged came to mind—

That's when she looked down and spotted the culprit: discarded cigarette butts sitting/floating in the bottom of an empty ramen container. Apparently Naruto's landlord had taken up a brief position of residence on the couch for whatever length of time. She could tell that he'd been sitting here because there was still a faint cloud of bitter smoke floating out of the cup like an ugly aftermath and the millimeter or two of remnant brown broth scattering the ashes around did little to nothing to staunch that smell. Curiosity and teenage adolescence rampant, Sakura wondered just what the landlord and Naruto had talked about for whatever length of the morning in private; yet another first to stack up on the list. She was normally not the sort of person who pried into non-life threatening matters without a particularly good reason for it but this last while was potentially threatening to make a mockery of that mannerism and Sakura couldn't say for sure if she liked that or not.

But what she didn't like right now was the smell of this living room and, apparently, it was up to her to do something about it and that's what she was going to do. Looking about the now familiar confines of the living room, Sakura spotted a few empty grocery bags lying on the floor along with some discarded junk food and potato chip bags. Grabbing the largest bags—including the big chip bags, she placed them on the couch and began stuffing them with what she considered were the grossest smelling cups, stacking one inside the other so that she could get rid of the whole lot in one large load. The chore seemed endless and it took some searching but by the time she was done, all the ramen cups, throwaway chopsticks and any other perishable food that was deemed capable of making a smell had been bagged away: three grocery bags and nearly two full chip bags full to be exact. There was probably other crap sitting around that she'd missed but what she'd picked up was the worst of it. It just needed a good airing out now, along with a can or two of air freshener to eviscerate some of the odors…and a quarantine sign stating that this complex was to be fumigated.

Snickering, Sakura tied the plastic bags tightly, and then tied them together and around the chip bags so that they could be properly sealed up, making a bag parade of sorts. Whatever. It looked a hell of a lot neater then before…well, a little bit. Picking them up the link by the middle bag, she trotted into the kitchen, stopping only briefly to stoop down and pick up some wrappers with her free hand. She then proceeded straight to the sink, or more precisely what was underneath it, that being the garbage can. That she happened to remember since it was where she dumped the remainder of that cake. She pulled it straight out and dropped the bags and wrappings inside, easily succeeding in filling it right full. Sakura contemplated stomping it down, looked down at her bare feet and immediately changed her mind. Instead she took the bag right out of the garbage can, pushed the other bags right down and tied it up in two solid knots. She dropped the bag beside the cupboard and started to look for another bag to replace its fallen companion when she spotted Naruto standing in front of the microwave, pushing several buttons in what looked to be frustration. That didn't surprise her since any electronic device with more then two buttons attached to it seemed to present a situation of bafflement for the poor boy. It wasn't meant to be condescending; it was just how his mind worked—or how she perceived it worked. Either way, Naruto and high/mid tech devices just didn't seem to jive. Combing out her hair with her fingers, she walked over to where he was standing.

"Having some problems?" she neutrally asked.

Naruto scratched the side of his head, looked over at her with a grumpy expression. "A little bit. I hate microwaves." He then glared back at the face of his current nemesis. "Especially this piece of crap. I've always had trouble trying to make this thing work," he exclaimed, putting an irritated tone of emphasis on the word 'thing'.

Sakura kept her face bland but inside there was an impish smile threatening to bloom over her lips. Clearing her voice so that she didn't happen to develop an insensitive case of the giggles, Sakura gently elbowed him out of the way so that she could get a look at what he was dealing with.

Naturally it was an older microwave: the type that didn't possess all the conventional settings like appropriate heat and time buttons for cooking different varieties of foods. This one just had the numerical pad, along with a defrost setting, clock, a lo/med/high power setting, and of course, the on and off buttons along with a large rectangular button to open it. Overall it should have been a very easy unit to operate. Even a child should have had little problems in making it work…"What are you having problems with," she asked, letting that near accustomed urge to get peevish and possibly smack his skull in for not being able to figure out a simple device dissipate.

"Ah, well I keep pushing buttons," he said, pushing a few just to prove his point, "but nothing's happening. It's just a piece of junk that doesn't want work most of the time." He made a dismissive gesture with his hands. "I should just throw it away."

Frowning slightly, she studied it again, this time peering at both the buttons and the screen. "I don't think it's got anything to do with the microwave itself, Naruto. Let's see now…" First thing she did was open the door, activating its dim interior light. Upon seeing his full cup of ramen sitting in there, a brief pang of sympathy touched her. She really had interrupted him when he'd been trying to have his morning meal. It wouldn't bother her as much if she didn't already know that he was recuperating, recovering from his injuries and working to get better. Breathing out a short exhalation, Sakura closed the door gently but firmly, making sure that it was properly closed. She then pushed the 'on' button but only got a beeping sound in return.

"See?" Naruto immediately exclaimed. "It's nothing but junk."

Ignoring him, she continued to stare at the screen, more so the four green zeros that shone brightly in a neat horizontal order, frowned again. The first digit was flashing on and off in a steady wink. She placed her finger over the '1' button and pushed it, watched as the blinking digit instantly configured to that chosen number. The second zero then proceeded to blink but instead of pressing another number, Sakura examined the keypad, made sure that there was no lettering or any other instructions pasted. Seeing none, she pressed the 'off' button, clearing the display completely so that now only three zeros showed on the screen. Smiling, Sakura then pushed the 'six' button and the 'on' button almost simulteniously and, as if knowing that it was in the hands of somebody competent, the machine instantly roared to life. She then gazed at an utterly astonished Naruto and exclaimed sweetly, "All better now."

Naruto's response was a typical one. "Umm, yeah, I can kinda see that. How'd you make it work though?"

Sakura's answer was blunt. "First show me what you usually do."

He shrugged. "Well…usually I push this button," he carefully pointed at the word 'clock' so as if not to trigger a nuclear meltdown, "but it usually doesn't work so I just start pressing buttons until I get it to go, but that doesn't happen very often," he said, punctuating the explanation with a predictable burst of laughter.

She shook her head. "Oh, you dummy. Why do you push the clock button?"

"Because it makes the numbers show up."

"What numbers?"

He pointed at the display, more so the numbers ticking down to zero. "Those numbers."

Sighing, Sakura waited until the microwave was done. As soon as it started to beep, she pushed the 'off' button. "Show me what you do," she said, slipping swiftly into the role of instructor.

As he'd already explained Naruto pushed the 'clock' button, again displaying a row of zeros. He then pushed several numerical buttons along with the 'on' button, trying to make it work like she had just done but was unable to match her results. "I don't understand," he muttered, feeling utterly scandalized. "Don't I have to push the stupid clock button to get it started?"

Again she was direct. "Nope."

"No?"

"No," she repeated.

"Well how'd you make it work so easily then?" Naruto demanded, his tone taking on a peevish note. "What the hell am I doing wrong?"

Sakura blinked at him. "Did your landlord even show you how to turn it on?"

Naruto's brow crested in thought. "Well…kind of, but he was pretty quick about it, and it was his to begin with. Guess I wasn't quite paying attention," he muttered. Opening the door, he reached inside, took his now steaming noodles out and placed them on top of the microwave before they could be subjected to any further abuse.

Taking pity on him, Sakura began to explain to him what he needed to now. "The clock button is only used when you want to set the time on it. It's no different then setting a watch or a clock on the wall. You only use that when you want to know what time it is in the day." She pushed the button, looked over at a nearby clock that was hopefully accurate and set the appropriate time so that the two matched. "This button, you never have to press again. Now if you want to cook something," she continued to extrapolate, running the back of her hand down the numerical keys, "then all you have to do is push these buttons along with this button." She pointed at the 'on' button.

"All of them?"

Sakura sucked in her breath, her patience beginning to wobble at this point. "No, just for how long you want to cook your food. Lets say you want to cook your food for forty second. You would just push the number four button because there's already a zero behind it and then the on button. But if you want to cook something for longer, say four minutes, then you push the four button, then the zero button, then the on button." Before he could throw her a confused response, she quickly added, "It's just the way your microwave is programmed. Give it a little time and you'll get used to it." Looking at his eyes, Sakura could tell that some of this was beginning to take root in his psyche…or at least she hoped it was.

"So it's just the numbers and the on button I have to worry about?" he asked, making a real attempt to process this newfound knowledge for himself. "Nothing else?"

"Not really. The only other button you do need to know is the off button. This is just so that you can clear the display screen back to zero. This way you won't have any problems cooking any additional meals for yourself. It's no different then turning off a TV or a light when you're done with it. The difference with a microwave is that when you press the off button, it just resets the functions but doesn't totally shut it off. It'll always stay on unless you unplug it from the wall socket. " She scrutinized him carefully in the same sort of way that teachers tended to do to students when they might not necessarily be on the same page. "Do you kind of understand how it works now? Just a little bit?"

Naruto chewed his lower lip thoughtfully as he peered at the machine, feeling a hell of a lot more enlightened now then he had two minutes ago. It wasn't necessarily going to change his outlook on how he felt about electrical devices—he still thought of them as junk—but at least he was somewhat freed from the supposition that the damn contraptions didn't totally possess a mind of their own…at least most of them. "Yeah, I kinda do," he finally said. "Some of it still doesn't quite ring a bell but I'm sure it'll come together with a little practice."

Sakura nodded; overly glad to see that he was taking a sensible approach to this. She'd helped him some time ago with chakra control (ignoring the likely fact that he'd only asked in an attempt to upstage Sasuke) and it really seemed to work wonders for him. He had to have had some additional help along the way but it was still pleasing to know that she'd contributed in some way that benefited in furthering himself. She wasn't necessarily going to help him with every single problem that came his way but knowing that he listened when she did aid him gave Sakura an indisputable warm feeling inside, even if it was just over something simple like a microwave.

"Well there's always those sweet buns for you to practice on. Just please try not to ruin them or anything; I did put a lot of effort into making them," she reiterated her lie again, though in her ears it didn't seem as forced this time around. That couldn't be a good thing… but it didn't necessarily seem like a terrible thing either. A little white lie with a lot of merit seemed a whole lot better then the very opposite of that phrase.

Didn't it?

And she'd already been over this. Getting her brain back on track, Sakura quickly said, "Well I'm glad you've got it figured it out. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to wash the dishes that I used last night while your having your breakfast. I'll, uh, wash the other dishes too since it only makes sense to do so." Hands clasped behind her back she steered away from him and calmly walked back to the sink, not caring how weird that last statement sounded.

Naruto made a token protest. "Sakura-chan, please, you don't have to—"

Sakura peered over her shoulder and smiled. "You need to start keeping your apartment more tidy, Naruto. It's not really polite when you have guests over," she lectured, that all-too familiar high-handed tone taking precedence though it deliberately lacked the frosty contours of irritation. Before he could say another word, Sakura turned and, finding and plugging in a stopper, began to fill the sink with hot water and soap from a nearby dispenser and began to work.

Lifting his hand in a prohibiting gesture, Naruto drew breath into his lungs, prepared to voice another objection…and simulteniously dropped both his hand and head in exasperation in that same moment. He could try and put up a veto front all he wanted but it would be a waste of time. It would have been tantamount to poking a rhinoceros on its thick skin. Irritation would sooner or later override its serene nature and eventually it would start charging at its aggressor. That was practically Sakura in a nutshell! And even if he tried to say something deterring she would just turn around and spout some more empowering jargon on guest etiquette. It would virtually be a recap of her speech from last night/this morning and that was something he could do without; the patience just wasn't there, and deflecting a charging rhino just totally seemed beyond his ability right now.

But she did warm up his noodles and right now his stomach was churning like a witches' kettle. Taking the ramen cup off of the microwave and grabbing a used set of chopsticks, Naruto reluctantly took a seat at the table, feeling like a worm that was dangling on a hook. Etiquette or not, he really didn't feel comfortable sitting here and eating while she was working at the sink doing his dishes but what else was he going to do? Eat in the bathroom? Not the worst idea in the world but not one he was going to act on either. He'd never done it before so why start now? Repressing a frown, Naruto dipped his chopsticks into the steaming broth and began to eat, slowly sipping the noodles into his mouth so that he didn't burn his lips. Not quite as hot as he preferred them but they were still quite edible. Doing his best to try and enjoy the soup, Naruto put the clatter of dishes on ignore and tried to organize his present thoughts.

The real truth was that Sakura being here altogether was really putting him on the defensive. Oji-san's long-winded anecdotes and lessons, while all in good form, had unnerved him somewhat. The way he'd worded a couple things made him feel like he was almost an outsider to both Sasuke and Sakura, like he didn't have a real integral part on the team. Naruto wasn't totally daft and even he knew that that wasn't the old man's intentions, but the miserable dreams he'd been having along with Sakura's oddly nice behavior was making him edgy. If it weren't for that damned pen, he would have assumed that she was totally off her rocker being here and do everything in his power to kick her out of the apartment. He could honestly admit that he wasn't fully prepared to see her again so soon and had literally been caught off guard by her arrival. It was like finishing one tough battle and being drawn into another but he should have assumed that things wouldn't work out like he wanted them after Oji-san had shown him the pen. That seemed to be the story of his friggen life lately and there wasn't much he could do about it. No, the best thing he could is eat his noodles as quickly as possible, run to the bathroom to perform his morning rituals—wash, brush his teeth, comb his hair, perform number one or two (possibly)—and hope that she went on her merry way. He briefly remembered Oji-san mentioning something about talking to the Hokage for training so it wasn't like she could spend all day here anyway—or so he hoped. Apparently she hadn't been joking around about that matter. Well that was good for her, he supposed. It wasn't like she wasn't smart or tough enough for whatever training she would have to endure. It couldn't be any harder then whatever perverted Ero-sennin had in store for him.

Naruto sighed, remembered Oji-san's insistent words on finding somebody to keep his place tidy, was even more insistent on having the person who was currently washing and drying his dishes at a steady pace. She really did seem like a prime candidate for the job, but whether or not he wanted to give her a key for the place so that she could come in here whenever she wanted was up for debate. And he was still somewhat convinced that if he broached the subject, she'd do little more then give him the finger, good mood or not. But if Oba-san wasn't doing as well like Oji-san had described, then he didn't have much choice. He really couldn't think of anybody else that would be right for the task, especially considering that the village was still being repaired from the damage that that snake-prick, Orochimaru, had caused during his attack. All available hands were either taking on tasks within the village or else completing whatever rank missions needed accomplishing. Kakashi-sensei was definitely out of the question then, and Iruka-sensei would be busier then ever training cadets and monitoring their progress. That meant—

"Did you hear me?"

Naruto looked up from his ramen, startled, a quizzical look on his face. "Huh?"

Holding a freshly washed dish in her hand, Sakura gave him an admonishing look. "You must really be out of it. I said I went and talked to Tsunade-sama earlier. Do you remember me telling you I was going to ask if she would take me on as her apprentice? Well she was sort of busy and it took a little persuasion—and a little consideration from Kakashi-sensei—to sway her, but she eventually agreed to take me on as a potential student," she happily exclaimed, a very distinctive note of triumph residing on her tongue.

Naruto offered a strong nod of encouragement, found it quite easy to smile along with her at the accomplishment in spite of his own web of confusion. It was the first time in a while he'd seen her legitimately happy since before Sasuke had left, before this whole stupid mess had started. This whole apprentice thing, he'd thought she'd been talking out of her…well, cute posterior, or just for the sake of continuing a conversation. And while he'd been both verbally and mentally supportive, he hadn't been totally assured that she'd go and actually talk to her about the matter. Tsunade-baa-chan was seriously, seriously scary at times; hell, most times was a better way to put it. She was fully capable of terrifying ninety-five percent of the people that came her way with just a stern glance. To know that and yet still seek her out in the hopes of tuition…

"Wow, that's really good to hear, Sakura-chan. You had a lot of guts to go and ask for a request like that and I'm…I know that Sasuke would be real proud of you," he said, briefly stuttering for a moment. He really wasn't sure how Sasuke would have felt about that but it would probably help to pacify her deed. Despite how Sasuke would have felt, Naruto was sincerely proud of what she had accomplished for herself. Whether that mattered or not… "So when are you supposed to report to her for training?" Naruto asked inquisitively for both obvious and not so obvious reasons.

Drying the dish she was holding and placing it on top of the others next to the sink where she'd been stacking the assortment in a tidy assembly for Naruto to put away, Sakura leaned over to the left for a moment, "Um, in a bit actually," she answered, her sharp gaze finding the clock on his wall; a few minutes past nine-thirty was what it read (she hoped that was the right time). "I'm supposed to meet with her between ten-fifteen and ten-thirty but I'd like to get there a little earlier if possible. She had said that her mornings tended to let up after nine but there was still extra work that she needed to complete before the majority of the workload was completed. I would have been here earlier but I had a few things I needed to do. Plus, I was looking for my pen as well—thought I had dropped it down one of the streets or something," she explained bashfully.

Naruto again nodded, thankful for her openness. He supposed it was a good thing that she'd taken the extra few moments to look for her pen or else she might have shown up when he and Oji-san were talking. Otherwise it might have made for an awkward moment. "Well you got it back and that's the important thing," he told her. Gobbling up the last of his soup, Naruto dropped his chopsticks into the cup and stood up, stretched extravagantly as if he'd finished a magnificent banquet (that would have been nice). "But I think I'm going to get changed and get cleaned up a bit. Um, thank you for doing the dishes for me and helping me with the microwave. I would have figured it out eventually," he said, trying but not quite able to hide the ambivalence out of his voice. He seriously hated that damned machine but he did feel confident that he'd be able to master it on his own. That and Sakura-chan had a strangely uncanny knack for making instructions stick and stay planted in his head. He could even remember most of her explanations—well, the important ones anyways. "Again, thank you for the help."

Sakura smiled in that sunny way of hers. "It's really no problem. You'll figure it out if you take a little time to practice. But yes, you go and get tidied up." She then smirked, jokingly added. "I was getting a little tired of seeing you in your bathrobe anyways."

"Yeah, well that wouldn't such a problem it you'd just leave me alone" Naruto mentally grumbled, his brain abruptly running on autopilot. The thought immediately left him with a strong sense of shame…and a strange feeling of alleviation that made his teeth chatter. In defense of the former, she had seen him in his pajamas since last night so it seemed almost natural to think in such crabby terms. Contrary to what people thought of him he did possess a sense of modesty. "I might be a while in the bathroom so you really don't need to wait around for me in case you get strapped for time," he said apologetically, hoping that didn't sound overly superficial. Though if number two had to happen, well…it wouldn't be much of a lie. "Thanks again for baking those sweets for me," keenly away that that phrase was becoming a broken record.

Sakura's brow furrowed for the briefest of instances but then she nodded. "Don't worry about it. There were a few things I wanted to talk to you about but you're right—I am a little stressed for time. I'm just going to finish up these dishes and do a couple other things and then I'll be on my way," she explained lightly, soothingly.

Taking relief in that assessment, Naruto stood up a little straighter. "Great. Hopefully I can see you off before you leave." Cinching his sash around his robe, he turned and headed for the bathroom, feeling utterly relieved that he could finally create some honest distance right now—and he really did have to pee—

"Naruto?"

Figures. Naruto quirkily glanced over his shoulder, hid his perturbation. "Yes?"

Sakura brushed a lock of elegant salmon colored hair out of her left eye, gently cleared her throat. "Did you sleep okay? I mean, I should have asked you that when I walked in here the first place. Its just, well, I—"

Naruto grinned broadly. "After that one bad dream you woke me from, I slept like a log. Seriously, Sakura-chan; it was one of the best snoozes' I've had in a long time. I kind of wished I could have slept longer, but Oji-san, well, he woke me up so I didn't have much time to enjoy it. It was such a beautiful dream too, about an all you can eat ramen buffet. All different types and flavors and endless—it almost makes me sick to think of what I missed out on," he said both extravagantly and sadly.

A silent alarm went off in Sakura's head but she stuck it on the backburner, instead sighed incredulously. "You and your ramen. Well as long as you slept well, then that's fine by my books. You'd better go now and freshen up a bit. I'll try to stay around for as long as I can." Her gaze became hard and authoritative. "Go on; I can smell you from here."

Raising his hand in a sort of wave, Naruto disappeared around the corner, the déjà vu sound cycle of a door being opened and solidly closed and then locked, followed immediately by the activation of the motorized whirl of the fan meeting her ears. Turning back to the remainder of the dishes left in the sink, only a few utensils really, Sakura's lips curled into that of a concerned frown. Being around him this closely now, Naruto's mannerisms and personality quirks were starting to register in her brain like a memorization pattern; meaning that she could tell when he was being sincere and when he was trying to pull the wool over her eyes, like he'd tried to do just now. Whether it had been a stroke of deliberateness or ignorance, the way he'd been twitching like a scared rabbit before she'd lulled him to sleep was not the sort of reaction that came from an all-you-can-eat ramen buffet. She had hoped that after spending this much time together that he would turn around and open up to her a bit, maybe let her in on what was troubling him so much. She had to imagine that he could only feel better if he got it out in the open, as long it wasn't too personal or embarrassing for him; he could always talk to his landlord if it came to that. For all she knew he probably already had. But then if he had, wouldn't that mean he'd be more forthright now?

Yeah, that was the question and one that she wasn't sure she could try to answer. It's not like she could just be totally nosy and ask him (Naruto) what they'd talked about while she'd been away. She was perturbed, not paranoid. And yet it might just be best to come out and ask him directly what was worrying him so. Maybe a direct question would lead to a direct answer. It wasn't like she was worried about him telling her to get lost—he'd have told her years ago if that were the case. And…he did say that he loved her. It might have been off the top of his head but she had to think that the sincerity was there. Maybe it was time to see if he really meant that…

Drying the last spoon, Sakura set it next to the others and set the dishtowel along the edge of the counter, allowing it to air-dry. Yes, that was she was going to do. As soon as he got out of the bathroom—and if it was within time constraints, she was going to ask him to tell her what he had been dreaming about that had him so rattled. She was convinced that it would make him feel better in the long run, maybe not so much in the short, but whatever initial embarrassment he might have felt would dissipate eventually. And if he raised a polite fuss, then she could just turn around and remind him about that dinner she'd promised. Surely he'd provide her with some straight answers then and if not, then she could always pummel it out of him but that was better to be left as a last ditch resort. She was a guest after all, and considered herself fairly diplomatic when it came to verbal situations. Plus she did help him with his microwave. That had to put the odds in her favor just a little.

Sakura smiled reassuringly, felt her confidence increasingly growing along with the firm belief that she was doing the right thing. He had always listened to her before and thus she held no qualms that things would be any different now. It seemed unrealistic to think otherwise. And…she could also ask him if he'd read or had even seen that note. Now that she was inside again, any present desire to take a reprimanding attitude was completely overwritten by a simple curiosity. Sakura supposed she could always take a quick looksie in his room but decided against it. She had seen enough in the dark to know that it was a real pigsty, dangerous as well. Reaching into the sink, Sakura took the plug out and let the warm soapy water drain away. Once it was empty, Sakura turned the faucet on again and splashed water against the remainder soapsuds, cleaning the sink completely, household habits of her own coming into play. This task done, she then decided that she would return her attention towards the living room; cleaning out whatever garbage she had missed until Naruto was out of the bathroom. Any additional work was something she would leave up to him. Drying her hands, Sakura walked out of the kitchen and started to walk into the living room, paused in the hallway, looked at the bathroom door, eyelashes fluttering with inquisitiveness.

She hoped that he was okay. Sakura didn't need woman intuition to know that he didn't seem himself but that seemed tolerable considering that he hadn't gotten much sleep. Hell, she wasn't in the best of shape either but she was coping, and she knew he was too. She couldn't help him with that no, but she felt assured that she could help him with whatever was on his mind mentally. An impeccable need drove her to that and she felt compelled to follow that need. It wasn't just the fact that she'd promised herself to be nicer to Naruto or her girl time with Ino or any of that. No, right now she just…she just wanted to be here for him. He'd grown on her quite frankly and some maternal part of her didn't seem to mind that at all.

"Sail on silver boy. Sail on by…"

Sakura smiled softly at the memory, at the thought of being able to protect him at his time of need. The memory invoked pleasant warmth that spread through her body like a spike of sunshine, all the way down to the nails on her toes. He'd slept after that, slept after she'd awoken, slept when she'd left him the note, slept while she'd gently pulled the blanket over him, smoothed his hair, caressed his warm cheek—

"Gush later. Let's get some work done before we need to leave, hmm."

Pulling her head back into reality, Sakura coughed lightly and gently rapped her fist against the wall in a dismissive gesture. Right, time to kill some time. Hopefully Naruto got out of the bathroom before she had to leave. She was feeling boisterous right now and needed somebody (namely him) to bounce that energy off of and had no qualms that he would disappoint her in that aspect.

If he ever hurried up that is. Grinning with all of the exuberance of a young teenager on a mission that could only end in success, Sakura stepped out of the hallway, into the living room and began to get down to business.


Closing the door behind himself and hastily flicking both the light and fan switch on, Naruto waited until the latter was at maximum hum before sighing heartily, an expansive gesture that served only to boil out a fraction of the unnerving feeling that had been bubbling in his gut. Any relief that might have been beneficial was instantly overturned by a sense of frustration for feeling so yellow-bellied right now. Regardless of his fine sense of bladder control and the solidity of morning rituals, being in here was an absolute copout, a barrier to keep her from intruding. Yeah, he was going to make a really great future Hokage at this rate. How was he supposed to get the people to respect him when he couldn't even understand his own teammates? Sasuke goes off on a wild tear and abandons the village, making a total mess of things in the process and totally not giving a crap whom cleans it up, yet Sakura was still content to keep loving him and give him the benefit of a doubt through it all. Oji-san had tried to explain that part to him—about first loves'—but it hadn't come out all that clear in his mind and he doubted it ever would. And no matter how knowledgeable he might have claimed to be in that area, Naruto doubted that even Oji-san really understood that whole matter either. Discrediting him seemed an easy thing to do right now. Especially when Naruto himself was pretty much lumped into the same category—Sakura being his first love and all—but he considered that invalidated since he'd already promised himself to give up on her. After all she would never see him for anything else besides an idiot that was in her way all the time, like giving attention to an attractive pony that didn't want attention. Well if that's what it took to be a bigger man then he was fine with that. He didn't have to be happy about it, but he could live with it, and it seemed like the best thing to do under these circumstances; leave the two to their own devices.

So how was he supposed to get over her when she kept showing up here then? And why had he felt so pressed to put distance between her and himself right now? The first question probably answered the second, and he'd already accepted the practicality that he couldn't hope to avoid her—being on the same squad and all. He would have like to digest a few things mentally but the whole pen matter had all but nullified that hope and there wasn't much he could do aside from accepting and tolerating it. Accepting it was one thing, but standing in here like a dummy trying to buy time…

No, it was cowardly and Naruto was anything but that. He'd deal with her in his own way if he had to but he wasn't going to allow himself to feel like she'd chased him in here, not in his own home. Hell no. Undoing his sash and tossing his bathrobe in the corner along with his t-shirt, he stepped over to the sink, turned both faucets on so that the water mixed, more so on a shade of the hot side before splashing his face, instantly feeling a lot more awake then he had a minute ago. It felt so refreshing that he splashed himself a few more times for good measure, sighing with vigorous relief. Oh did that feel good. Looking at himself in the mirror, Naruto wasn't all that impressed with the reflection that gazed wearily back at him. Holy hell did he look like a mess right now. Yuck. Good thing he wasn't the sort of person that was ruled by narcissism otherwise he might have been concerned. Naruto then sniffed himself, considered whether he really needed a shower right now or not. He didn't totally reek of BO but it wouldn't hurt him either if he hosed himself down either. Overcome with a sense of grubbiness, Naruto stripped down, hopped in the shower and proceeded to rinse himself down, making sure to apply a generous amount of shampoo and conditioner to his scalp as well as scrubbing the rest of his body down with a bar of male-scented soap. By the time he was done and toweling himself down, he felt a hell of a lot more awake and a lot less muddled. Yeah, it had been real foolish to think that he could stay in here forever. Tsunade-baa-chan was already trying to treat him like a prisoner in the village. Letting her potential apprentice make him feel the same way…yeah, that made a lot of sense. Wrapping the same towel around his waist, Naruto opened a drawer underneath the sink and grabbed a toothbrush and a half-filled tube of toothpaste, squeezed a generous portion out on the brush, then proceeded to giving his teeth, gums and tongue a hard scrubbing (he didn't brush his teeth as often as he should have). Once he felt satisfied that his mouth was clean enough, he spat the bubbling minted-smelling foam into the sink and rinsed his mouth thoroughly with water, spat again, cleaned his brush, then splashed some water into the sink to clean the remaining mess away along with his brush. Tapping his brush clean, Naruto stuck the two items back into the drawer, reached inside for a small container of men's deodorant, opened the lid and gave his underarms a quick swipe. He didn't care much for the smelly stuff but again Oji-san had been persistent in telling him that guys and girls, no matter their profession, were expected to use these types of products sooner or later for hygienic reasons. It made sense from his perspective and it seemed like too petty of a detail to argue over, so he just stuck it on once in a while for the benefit of not totally smelling like a dirty shirt. Closing the lid and placing it back, Naruto shut the drawer, looked himself in the mirror again. His hair had all the discipline of a shaggy dog: a maze of tangles and chaotic strands but he liked it that way…well, almost. A quick comb through to take out some of the knots was what he preferred, but his only comb was in his bedroom. No big deal. He was pretty much done in here anyways.

Picking up his bathrobe off the floor and putting it back on, Naruto grabbed his t-shirt, shorts and unmentionables, stuffed them both in an empty pocket. Then, unlocking and opening the door along with shutting the light off (he deliberately left the fan on), Naruto walked out of the bathroom and made the short jaunt to his room. From behind, Naruto thought he could a rustling of movement coming from the living room. He supposed that that was the answer to his question. Once inside his room, Naruto tossed the previous articles of clothing aside and made sure that the door was firmly closed before proceeding to disrobe completely. Finding his comb and gave his scalp a once over, Naruto placed it on his bed so that he'd remember to put it back in the bathroom and began to search for some fresh clothes to wear. Really not the easiest thing to do when his room was in a total friggin shambles and he practically wore the same thing day in and day out. Managing to find a clean pair of underwear, Naruto settled on a gray sweatshirt and a pair of black slacks to wear along with a pair of comfortable socks. Might as well try to wear something warmish when considering how well the furnace worked in this place. Good thing he'd had a hot shower to begin with; the dampness of this place was really starting to settle in on his bones. Wearing that bathrobe might have been a good idea but frankly he really was getting a little tired of wearing it around her. Looking around the room, Naruto noticed that his still-lit lamp had toppled over. No doubt when he'd been in the agitated process of constructing a rasengan to settle his sluggish doubts. Naruto straightened it up and shut the light off, looked down at the drawer shelf where he'd stuck Sakura's note away. For a moment he thought it might be useful if he had it on him but decided not to bother with it. She'd probably forgotten all about it by now just because of its earlier unplanned obscurity anyways. Besides it wasn't all that important now. Speaking of which…

Yeah, she was still here and he had some doubts that she'd leave before getting a few more digs in, no matter the length of time he tried to shave away. That wasn't really his style anyways: keeping himself stashed while things were going on, no matter his insecurities. Running his fingers though his hair and taking a firm breath, Naruto grabbed his towel and comb off the bed and left the sanctity of his bedroom without trepidation. Walking back down the hallway, Naruto stopped at the bedroom and deposited his comb, hung his towel back up and shut the fan off. Using that droning pitch as a mask, Naruto quickly shuffled up the living room entrance where he'd heard that noise from earlier, looked inside, smiled uneasily.

Hunched over a large bag that looked to be half filled with familiar paraphernalia and garbage, Sakura looked busy as she sorted out various materials from the coffee table, her attentive hands working to distinguish what she perceived was garbage and what was…less crappy. Though he doubted it, Naruto hoped that she wasn't junking anything importantish. Growing up alone had crafted him with the bad habit of being a packrat. A lot of the papers' he had were mostly insignificant and irrelevant yet he kept them just for the sake of keeping them. Nobody had really taught him how to file notes or determine what was important and what wasn't. He supposed he could have asked for assistance at some point but he was a bit too hardheaded for such a petty matter. It just made more sense to keep everything and not burst a gut over it. He never would have imagined that she would be sorting through his things like a demented secretary. A lovesick part of him really appreciated her for doing that for him…but he was also keeping grounded enough to know that she was only doing this to kill time. For what purpose he didn't know but he wouldn't find out at this rate.

Maybe he never would. Taking a slow breath, Naruto gently cleared his throat, said aloud, "You don't really need to do that, ya know."

Whirling around from her hunched position, Sakura's hip bumped against the coffee table, causing a small avalanche of crap to fall to the floor—mostly some more empty ramen cups, junk food bags, papers and loose items; nothing substantial in noise. Even so, Sakura ran a hand over her face and hair in disbelief. In all her life she'd never been in a home where garbage had taken such a degree of precedence. She supposed that this was what was considered the normal lifestyle of a regular bachelor. In translation: the place was desperately crying for a woman's touch to extend some cleanliness on this fiasco. "Naruto, you really, really need to make more time for house cleaning." She looked up at him, gave his choice of attire a once over, smiled critically, "I suppose you just picked all that up off the floor, didn't you?" In truth she liked it. It was a nice change of pace from his trademark orange jumpsuit. While not quite as colorful, it offered interesting tones of a mature nature. Actually, whether he picked up off the floor or not, she found that style of clothing to be downright attractive on him. Naruto could be rather handsome looking when placed in the right light.

Oblivious to her private thoughts and her teasing entirely, Naruto shook his head at the question. "This was just some old stuff I had kicking around in the drawers. My regular clothes were torn up from training, so Oji-san took them to Oba-san so that she could repair them." "These…" he tugged at his sweatshirt, "I'm just wearing these because of how cold this place gets when the weather turns crappy." Thinking about it now, Naruto wasn't sure if he'd ever worn this stuff before. Gray and black were a far cry from his favorite colors, but they were the only things he could find that didn't look totally disheveled and…and why did it matter to him what she thought of his clothing in the first place? Shrugging mentally, Naruto switched gears and asked, "I didn't think you'd still be here. When do you need to report to Tsunade-baa-chan again?"

Pulling some more garbage off the floor and plopping it into the bag, filling it to the brim, Sakura stood up smoothly like an athlete ready to run a race, tied the bag. "By around ten-thirty was when she wanted me to be there," Sakura reiterated patiently. "I'd like to be there before then to make a good impression but I figure I've got a little time until I need to be there." She then held up the bag she was holding, said, "Last night when I came out here to sleep on the couch, I accidentally knocked some stuff over on the floor. Figured I'd do you a favor and clean this up for you before I left." Actually she couldn't remember if she'd knocked anything over or not, but the alibi was rock solid for the most part. And it wasn't like he could argue with a full bag of garbage. She assumed that he must have reached that same conclusion too for he walked over to her and gently took the bag from her grasp.

"Sorry about that," he murmured bashfully. "Aside from Oji-san and Oba-san, I hardly get much for company over here, let alone have people spend the night so I usually don't have much reason to keep the place clean." Certainly not the greatest explanation in the world but it was straightforward and offered no apologies for his choice of lifestyle. Yet he remembered the small fit that Oji-san had pitched earlier about tidiness and added quickly in pacification, "But I'm going to do some housecleaning after you leave here. I figure I should start keeping some better habits then what I have been. Besides it's not really right for you to be doing my housecleaning when I should be the one doing it." That part was true. Good intentions or not, he just wasn't okay on standing aside and letting her do what she wanted here. It seemed like a decision based more on petulance then anything but that was how he felt. Nodding his thanks, Naruto took the bag over to the porch area and placed it by the front door. He could toss it in the dumpster later. A thought suddenly touched his mind. "Uh, what did you end up saying to your mom? I can't imagine she would have been pleased with you being out all night."

Touching her index fingers together in a gesture of embarrassment, Sakura said, "Um, well, after leaving here, I went and talked to Ino at her house. She, uh, promised to cover for me so that I could avoid getting into trouble with Okaa-san. It took a little persuasion but she eventually agreed. She also told me to tell you that she and her team are planning a party for Chouji sometime tonight and that all the squads are invited. It's sort of a united celebration to good health for all the guys in the hospital after…well, you know.

Naruto nodded gravely. Shikamaru, Chouji, Kiba, Neji and Rock Lee (Bushy brows to him); all of those guys had fought with everything they had in an attempt to try and bring Sasuke back to the village. At the very least they deserved something like this to honor their bravery. He was happy to know that people were acknowledging their contributions to that…well, failed cause. "That's good to hear. Do you know what time their planning that party?"

She shook her head. "They're going to wait and make sure that he's getting out of the hospital today before giving any further details. They'll get everyone together and make plans from there." Sakura gave him a light smile. "I assume you'll be there?"

If she'd been expecting an immediate affirmative, she'd be in for a shock. Naruto shrugged. "I'd like to though I guess it depends on how I'm feeling later. I might just try and sleep if possible." After all he was still on the mend as well. Surely she had to understand that.

Sakura kept her face neutral but inside she was frowning. Naruto was potentially turning up a free meal? That really didn't seem likely. She couldn't see him being fatigued enough to pass up such a golden opportunity. Acting on a suspicion, Sakura said flatly, "Well it's up to you whether you feel like going or not. I just promised her that I'd pass the message along to you."

"Oh no, I totally understand what you mean," Naruto quickly said, catching those brief but familiar undertones of crankiness. "I just meant that because I didn't get much sleep this morning, I might end up napping the afternoon away and may not be around for that celebration so you'll just have to give my regards in my place if that happens." Walking past her to the kitchen, Naruto inwardly smiled at himself for handling that so well but deep down he really hoped he was awake for that. Free food was again free food, and knowing Chouji's eye for exquisite cuisine, he'd pick out of the better restaurants in the village. Ah well. He could always hit up Ichiraku's later.

As if on cue, Sakura suddenly chimed in with, "But you'll be awake around noonish, won't you?"

Naruto looked back at her, thoughts of housecleaning filling his head. "Should be. Why?"

Sakura smiled, but it was an embarrassed looking expression. "Well, see, I wrote you this note before I left here and put it underneath your glass in your bedroom as a coaster. I was sort of hoping you would have seen it when you got up this morning but being that it was in an obscure place, it didn't seem likely that you would find it unless you picked the glass up. Um, you didn't happen to see it, did you?"

As soon as he heard the word 'note', Naruto's stomach for whatever reason immediately started to churn like it had been caught in a raging typhoon. He could have sworn because of its insignificance that she wouldn't bother bringing it up. It seemed absolutely stupid to feel this worked up about it about something like this and yet he was. Resisting the impulse to swallow the apple in his throat, Naruto carefully asked, "A note?"

Sighing notable, Sakura said, "I figured you wouldn't see it. I just wrote that I was going to take you out for dinner at noon or whenever I got finished up with my lesson with Tsunade-sama if she does take me on as a student. It was just bugging me that I put it in such a stupid place when I should have had it in plain sight just in case I didn't see you until later. Sorry about that."

Naruto scratched his head, felt that weird anxiety drift out of him like a heavy steam. "I, uh, wouldn't worry about it too much," he said, though it clearly seemed that this had been an important matter for her. He honestly wanted to tell her that he had seen and read it yet he still felt that odd uncomfortable feeling about being around her. It just didn't feel like she was being totally legit right now. Deep down he knew that if he hadn't seen and approached her on the bridge, hadn't opened his big mouth to begin with…. she would never have come over here in the hopes of looking for a shoulder to cry on. From the very start it had been all about Sasuke, had known all along that it had been about Sasuke but had tried to allow himself not to think like that, to not let jealousy get a solid grip on his psyche. It had been the right thing to do, the only possible thing that he could have done, be the 'bigger man' as Oji-san had already told him. He supposed that this was his cross to bear for asking her if Sasuke was really worth all the grief. Maybe he was destined to suffer for instigating the whole matter in the first place. It was just hard to say.

"So you think you'll be around?" she asked, her warm voice (which was still oddly strange to him) cutting into his thoughts. It really seemed like she was doing that a lot lately.

Biting his lip visibly, Naruto pretended to consider while he was really trying to find a way to get out of the whole deal, which again seemed totally taboo to him. Hell, two days ago he would have crawled through a ring of fire just to get her to go out with him, but the commitment he'd made for himself brought that matter to a null. Again, how was he supposed to stay steadfast to that if she wouldn't leave him alone now? Feeling cornered, Naruto babbled a reply, "W-well maybe. I'll see how I feel after I get done kicking the cobwebs out of here." He then shook his head as if to clear some of his own, pressed the back of his hand against his forehead. "I'm not feeling all that great today. Might be coming down with a cold or something," he added though in all honesty he couldn't recall at all ever being really sick, aside from getting the cramps from food poisoning. Another 'perk' of having the demon fox as a tenant.

Now Sakura was confused. Okay, she could kind of understand him not attending Chouji's party, being that that was more of a spur of the moment deal, fine, sure; but turning down a date at Ichiraku's, and with her as the date? What the hell? Housecleaning or not, something in this equation was not adding up. Taking four long steps forward, Sakura examined Naruto's face with all the intent of an apprenticing nurse/medical ninja in training. She considered feeling his brow for a second—being that it would be easier to tell if he'd suddenly spiked a fever—but decided against it. "You don't look all that sick," she deduced after a couple seconds of careful observation. His pupils seemed normal (at least to her) and he wasn't sweating bullets, shivering nor coughing. She thought he seemed rather healthyish to her standards. "I can pick you up some medicine from Tsunade-sama if you're not feeling all that great," Sakura cheerfully offered. "I'm sure she has some sort of concoction that could help you out. I could bring it over, and then give you a hand with cleaning your apartment so that you get it done faster. That way I can still take you out for ramen. You can take a nap if you want afterwards and then hopefully you'll feel up to going out for the party that Ino's putting on for Chouji." It seemed like logical reasoning to her, but it was the fact that she was trying to reason with him that made this so bizarre. Even now, as she looked at him, his eyes had a real dodgy look and his body language—well, he was fidgeting like a cat. It almost seemed to her that he was searching for a legible excuse to try and get out of the plans she'd made for him. Why he would do that…well, she had no idea and somehow she doubted that he was going to let her in on whatever problems he was having without some sort of persuasion. It probably had something to do with those stupid nightmares again. What in the hell was dancing though his head that had him this worked up? She sure would have liked to know but again she doubted that he'd flat out tell him.

"But I should still try to do something…"

As if hearing her mental question, a slightly exasperated Naruto shook his head. "It's up to you to do whatever you want I guess. I can handle the cleaning by myself and don't need any help with that. And you don't need to pick me up any medication either. Tsunade-baa-chan gave me enough of that crap already." His annoyed tone was directed more towards the well-endowed Hokage then Sakura, but that wasn't always easy to distinguish to the person who was listening—and it wasn't quite true either. Whatever purposes she had in mind, Naruto was getting to the point where he didn't want to argue with her anymore, was to the point where he just wanted her to stop with whatever charade she was trying to pull. He wasn't…he didn't know how he was supposed to feel right now. Annoyance didn't seem like the right word, but the strange shroud that was starting to fill his mind that could almost be defined as a reddish color was making him…peevish.

His facial expression must have been clearly visible because Sakura abruptly asked, "Naruto? Something wrong?"

Resisting the urge to say what was on his mind because he wasn't sure what was going to come out of his mouth, Naruto quickly regained what he hoped was a friendly composure. "I'm okay, Sakura-chan. I'll, uh, go and make you some tea before you leave. That way you'll be able to keep warm when you're walking through the streets." Ignoring the fact that his last comment didn't make much sense while attempting to save face Naruto quickly walked into the kitchen like he'd originally planned before she could say anything. Grabbing his kettle off the stove, he walked over to the sink and turned the faucet on, began to fill it with water.

Stunned by his abrupt actions, Sakura quickly followed him into the kitchen. "Naruto, you don't need to make me any tea. I'm fine, really I am," she tried to protest; yet it did little to discourage Naruto. He continued to slowly pour water into the kettle as if his mind was fixated on the task at hand. Walking towards him slowly until she was standing behind him, Sakura placed a hand on his right shoulder in an attempt to deter him. "Naruto—"

Stiffening at her touch, Naruto abruptly dropped the kettle into the sink. He made no attempt to pick it up but rather braced his hands against the edge of the countertop, the flow of water plummeting steadily against the silver, half-spherical appliance, mumbled words of, "Can't do this…I can't do this." Sakura immediately pulled her hand away from him, reflexively took two steps backwards away from him. Lessons of enemy psychology immediately touched her brain for some unknown reason but she willed the necessary precautions and appropriate countermeasures aside and instead tried to read his body language which didn't exactly invoke a sense of confidence in her eyes. She had a real icky feeling that whatever it was that he was going to do, going to say…it was something that she wasn't going to like.

And she was right. Lifting his hand and turning off the faucet, Naruto slid the kettle off to the edge of the sink, turned—almost dramatically—and looked at her, his gaze immediately affixed with a familiarity of cold steel. Upon seeing it, Sakura immediately backpedaled another step. She hadn't seen a look like that since he had lectured her after trying to step in between him and Sasuke during their testosterone-driven battle on the hospital rooftop. It instantly sent a terrifyingly sharp shiver down the back of her spine, not the bad memories, but the fact that he was skewering her with that look again. Swallowing the gulp that had been rising in her throat like lava from a volcano, she both hesitantly and meekly said, "Naruto?"

His gaze firm and piercing, Naruto's voice immediately took on an authoritative edge, almost as if he'd abandoned ship on trying to keep an air of pretense and was instead going for a bare bones approach. "Sakura-chan, why are you here?"

Sakura's heart almost instantly skipped two beats. The way he phrased that…it was like the person she was talking to wasn't the person she was talking to. His tone completely lacked the warm, bumbling personality that she had grown accustomed to, even started to like—but this harsh edge…it wasn't him, not by a long shot. It was almost the same as when he'd tried to sleep on the couch and he hadn't let her, even though the circumstances had been different. "I…I already told you why," she stuttered. "I came here because I wanted to bring you those pastries as…well, as an apology for inconveniencing you like I did. And my pen…I wasn't sure if I left it here or not, so I thought—

"—That you would come by to see if it was here or not," Naruto cut in, finishing the explanation for her, allowing himself to submit to the strong feeling of empowerment that washed over him. "I know all that already, and it makes good sense and all, but, seriously, why are you here? I mean you didn't just come here because of some silly pen, did you?"

Obviously seeing that Naruto was riding on a steadfast path of blunt measures, Sakura met Naruto's sharp gaze with one of her own. "No, that's not the only reason. I also came here because I wanted to check up on you. I wanted to see how you were feeling after the bad dream that you had. Do you remember that?"

Naruto nodded curtly. "Of course I do. You woke me up and gave me a glass of water. I remember all that. My memory's not all that crappy, Sakura-chan.

Sakura folded her arms, the trepidation steadily evaporating. "I never said it was," she replied coolly. "I just asked if you remembered that particular event. You were in such an absolute mess after that whole episode that I wasn't sure if you did or not. It's easy to out block things like that when your mind is in a panic. "

"Well it's not," he said, pushing firmly in trying to put a seal on the whole question. "I woke up from a scare, you helped me get through it, and I slept the rest of the night away without a problem. And right now I feel fine; perfectly fine." He must have seen some form of doubt on her face because he added, "Really, I am."

Sakura kept her face totally neutral. She was smart enough to know that he was trying to sucker her into the fabrication by taking on a stringent approach—or maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was under the assumption that he was telling the truth, but she'd seen enough to know first hand that that wasn't so. Like she'd said: the mind sometimes has the capability to block certain events out. It was possible that he might not have remembered what he was dreaming about when she'd been trying to calm him down, but her own personal experiences had taught her that the bad dreams were easier for the mind to grasp and take hold of then the good ones. Why that was, she couldn't say she knew, and maybe it wasn't totally right to act on something that wasn't concrete, but there wasn't much she could do now except push forward. This part he wasn't going to like hearing. "I don't think you are, Naruto."

Naruto genuinely frowned at her. "What makes you say that?"

"Because you seem very perturbed right now for no real reason," she swiftly replied, abandoning the art of sugarcoating and instead striving for straight out honesty. "I told you last night that I was going to take you out for dinner and you didn't seem too enthusiastic about it." She held her hand up before he could say anything. "Now, I know you were tired. I understand that—I was too. But when I brought it up to you here just a few minutes ago, you completely acted like you didn't want to go. And sick or not, turning down a fresh bowel of ramen with all of the toppings just isn't your style. You also can't tell me that you're trying to cut down on the stuff either. I cleared away enough of your empty noodle cups to know that it isn't so." She wasn't being humorous but was rather stating a point. "And I also thought, considering you've been asking me the last several times now, that you'd be happy to go on a date with me."

Even though the collar of his shirt wasn't itching him, Naruto rubbed the back of his neck in discomfort. "Call me crazy, Sakura-chan, but you didn't seem all that happy the last time we went on a date," he stiffly reminded her. "What makes you think that this time would be any different?" Naruto then shook his head as if he wanted to bring a cease and desist on the whole idea. "Look," he said, voice softening as if he knew that he'd been in the wrong in the first place for bringing up her half-hearted enthusiasm on their previous outing. "I…appreciate that you want to take me out for dinner—I do, but today…today I just don't feel up to going out. I know it sounds strange but please don't argue with me about it." He looked at her hopefully. "Okay?"

Sakura didn't say anything, and for a second Naruto thought that she was bracing herself, gathering breath in her lungs for a full-out verbal assault; maybe even physical. Going off her body language, that was hard to say. He could probably count on his right hand—fingers even—the number of times he'd had to be forceful with her. It was borderline taboo if anything to argue with her and, considering how temperamental she could get, was a pretty simple philosophy to follow. Maybe it was just from spending this much time with her that he could take a firmer approach instead of feeling obligated to being agreeable. Overall it was hard to say, especially since Sakura was still standing there in a state of muteness. The silence was tangibly uncomfortable and was almost begging for some sort of response from her. She couldn't see it from her standpoint but Naruto's palms were saturated.

"At least tell me why?" she finally asked softly, her tone clearly and copiously downtrodden. It didn't take a lot of smarts from Naruto to know that he'd hurt her feelings. What he didn't have the smarts for was how to eloquently put into words a reply that would both satisfy her and allow him to exit this situation gracefully without causing further damage. He'd never been good with words, had never bothered with diplomacy; he'd always used his fists to do the talking, but the latter wasn't going to do him any good in this situation. Hands on what he considered her shapely hips, Sakura was clearly awaiting some sort of answer and Naruto—for the first time in his life—was utterly pressed in the uncompromising situation of being unable to provide her with one. "Well?" she pushed.

Gathering what he could for tact, Naruto rested his arms at his sides, squared his feet to control his ankles that threatened to shake and looked her square in those emerald colored eyes without blinking. Knowing that he was screwed on both sides of the tree, Naruto stuttered and simply replied with, "I…I can't say."

In both predictable and classic fashion Sakura's portrait shifted into a state of dubiousness, her previous hurt all but forgotten as she repeated his words: '"You can't say?"'

Feeling more miserable then uppity, Naruto shook his head. "No, I can't." "Not without hurting you," he silently added in thought.

Sakura pursed her lips. "Why can't you say?" she pried in mixed tones of gentleness and firmness, trying very, very hard to show some understanding in a situation that was hardly so.

"Because I can't. It's…it's a…guy thing," Naruto weakly added.

Abruptly abandoning all hopes of trying to be civil (the leash had already been short), Sakura tossed her arms up in the air and impatiently blurted out, "What the hell does that mean?!"

Repressing a groan, Naruto simply said, "It means what it means." He'd already known that that last answer wouldn't hold a drop of water but he didn't know what else to tell her…besides the truth. It was really an awful toss up: tell her something she didn't want to hear or tell her something she wasn't going to like hearing. Either way he was screwed. What he wouldn't give right now to have Ero-sennin suddenly show up and whisk him away for the training expedition. "I-I'll make you some—"

"I don't want any goddamn tea, Naruto!" she cut him off, angrily and curtly. "What I want is for you to tell me why you're being uncommunicative like this. You're totally acting like a child right now and I want you to tell me why? I mean, I came all this way just to bring you that stuff," she pointed at the bag on the table, "and you hardly seemed to appreciate it. And then I tell you that I want to take you out for dinner, and you try to find these stupid excuses to get out of it!"

Naruto had to take a step backwards. Holy frigging crap! He'd seen her upset before but never like this, and this was simply no trick like before. No way was this a farce. This was utterly candid, completely and unadulterated. "Sakura-chan," he said, trying to find a way to somehow calm her down before she got pissed enough to start swinging, "please, I told you I'm—"

"Don't lie to me!" she said, again cutting him off with authority. "You weren't sick last night so there's no way you could suddenly come down with an illness now. No, that's not going to fly with me, mister!"

Naruto resisted the impulse to brush the growing beads of tickling moisture off his forehead. She was exercising some wicked crazy mood swings right now. Why was she so angry? He could understand her taking no for an answer, sure, but she was literally flying off the handle right now and it completely seemed out of proportion—even for her! "What do you want me to say, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked her, suddenly feeling desperate. "What kind of an answer do you want me to give you?"

I want the truth, Naruto!" she answered. "You're completely beating around the bush and not being straight with me and I want to know why." Her nostrils flared. "At this point I think you owe me at least that!"

At this point Naruto could do nothing now except simply close his eyes in frustration, his closed fists pulsating to the drum of his beating hear. Oh man was she driving him crazy. He knew he was screwed, completely cornered with no possible way out except to pull something drastic, but what? Tell her to just screw off and make a beeline for her first lesson already? Hell he was almost ready to do so just that; it's not like he had much of an option now. Trying to get on her good side now or flatter her was pointless too. The intensity of her anger, once unleashed, didn't just extinguish at the turn of a hat. Time was the only thing that would pacify her now, but he wasn't going to just stand around and wait for her to cool her heels (not that was possible anyways both time and reality wise) nor was he going to play the role of punching bag either, no matter how warranted it seemed.

"I'm sorry, Oji-san, but I don't think I can be the bigger man like you hoped I would be. It's just like Ero-sennin said in the hospital about Sasuke. 'As shinobi, we must make sure that we have proper judgment and make good decisions. If you want to live as a shinobi you must be wise. If you're a fool, then it will be a world full of pain. That's reality.' "

Naruto slowly opened his eyes to both the present and the harsh truth of reality. His reply to Ero-sennin was that if giving up on Sasuke were what it took to be wise, then he would be happier living as a fool. But now the shoe was on the other foot and the luxury of that role…wasn't possible now. Sasuke—his best friend, and Sakura—his heart's desire; he realized now that the possibility of having both…was an impossibility. That was truth—that was reality. The purpose behind these repeating dreams…that had to be it. It was what he'd known all along. To have one, he'd have to give up on the other, and even as a fool, Naruto had to strongly believe that that was truly what it meant to be the bigger man. Naruto swallowed a lump in his throat. Doing the right thing to keep a promise had never been so difficult as it was right now. "Forgive me, Sakura-chan. I—"

"I'm waiting," she said, abruptly interrupting his thought while tapping her foot on the floor for almost intentionally good measure.

It was at that moment that Naruto's stomach grew incredibly and abruptly queasy with discomfort. Suddenly desperate for some sort of solidity, Naruto backed up until he was leaning against the countertop, gingerly rubbed his mouth as to try and hide the fact that he was extremely close to tossing his cookies right now. Naruto was already starting to feel dizzy from stress, and the way she was tapping her foot against the floor wasn't physically helping him any. He immediately blamed both the goddamn soup he'd felt so pressed to eat at the time and Oji-san for his warning over the possibility of developing a serious case of food poisoning from eating dried food. Now he was paying big time for it, and until he got her out of here, there was nothing he could do about it except tolerate it to the best of his ability, meaning that he only had a few minutes at best before things really went to pot. "Well, Sakura-chan, the thing is that…I…well…I…I don't really want to be around you right now."

For a moment she didn't know what to say, her agitation quickly taking a backseat. His comment was so brutally unexpected that it didn't really register in her brain. The background noises—her heart beating, the tapping of her foot and the rain beating unsteadily against the roof—seemed to grow louder within her eardrums, almost to a point where it felt deafening. She forcibly pressed her foot down against the floor and mentally pictured that it was being pinned down with a heavy boulder just to curb that odd sensation. "You don't want to be around me?" Sakura asked him, making sure to put a very strong emphasis on the word 'don't' as if she was trying to convince herself that he really hadn't said that and that her mind was abruptly playing tricks on her for no reason.

Naruto nodded, looking both serious and uncomfortable. "That's right. I'm sorry, but you being here…isn't a good thing."

Sakura blinked and shook her head as if she were recovering from a hard blow to the temple, then abruptly issued him a stern frown; trying hard to match the uncharacteristic one he was giving her. "Naruto, if this is about what you said earlier I told you already that you're not sick or anything fast acting like that. You might be a little crabby because you were up late and I can understand that, really I can. You have all the right in the world to be mad about that…and I had a bit of a feeling that you might be. That's why I'd really like to take you out for dinner as a peace offering."

"This isn't about that," he said in a soft, strained voice. He could almost swear that his churning stomach was on the brink of a total meltdown.

The look on her attractive face deepened. "Isn't what? Are you talking about that whole 'guy thing' again?" She shook her head as if suddenly coming to terms with the machismo bit that followed guys around, along with their blockheaded tendencies; especially this one. "I know that I'm cheap and that it's customary for a boy to pay for outings when it comes to girls but I'm telling you that this time it's okay. You don't need to worry about that—"

"It's got nothing to do with that either," he said, firmly cutting her off, and forcing himself not to feel shocked at how cold his voice sounded. "All that stuff you're talking about—it's got nothing to do with the fact that you shouldn't be here."

Sakura's lips parted slightly in surprise. "What you're talking about…is this from before?" Her brow crinkled and she suddenly started to smile nervously. "I'm sorry for getting mad at you like I was, but you really weren't making any sense there. It was just getting on my nerves you see, and I think that it's just leftover crankiness on my part too." She rubbed the back of her head, felt that she on the verge of giggling. "I guess I should try to fit a nap in sometime today too—"

"Sakura-chan, stop."

Her uplifted hand instantly froze in mid movement. His tone…it held a distinct note of familiarity from a minute earlier, not so much rashness but more focused and directed. The verbal reflection was there but there was definitely something different involved here. She'd managed to keep her wits about her before by trying to wrangle with him but this chilling calmness now, it felt like she was standing in ice cubes. "S-stop what?" she asked him in a stutter.

His lips took on a firm edge as he answered her question. "Just…stop trying to be nice to me. This whole time—you've been talking to me and doing stuff for me like we've been best friends our whole lives' and…and I don't really appreciate it. "

Hearing Naruto's curt words of somewhat unbridled accusation, a bewilderment that was so encompassing in scope took hold of Sakura's mind and was literally rampaging across the surface like a lightning storm that zapped every last bit of intelligent understanding out of existence. She tried but was unsuccessful in stopping her mouth as it unconsciously opened in shock. "Na-Naruto, I don't…what are you…you—you're not making any sense," she babbled uncontrollably, utterly too caught up in her own confusion to give a damn that she was accomplishing just that.

"You've been pretending, Sakura-chan," Naruto continued in a soft vein, so soft that Sakura could barely hear it over the roar of her accelerating heartbeat. "You've been doing everything possible to try and put on an act of trying to like me when really all you are doing is trying to fool yourself. I might not be the smartest guy around, Sakura-chan, but even I'm not retarded enough to be fooled with something like that. Again I…I truly appreciate the fact that you were trying to do what you thought was right," his tone turning apologetically humble, "but I think that it's simply for the best if you just stopped this all together."

Her sudden perplexities over his abrupt candidness followed by his stream of contrite-filled words quickly had the tempo of her disposition swinging and alternating like a pendulum between the hands of confusion and stinging anger. She had to think that he understood that the line he was currently walking was about as thin and sharp as a slice of scrap paper. Considering his ignorance though… "A-and just what, prey tell, makes you think that I'm pretending, huh?" she asked him, managing to regain some of her composure as she tried to sort though his impudence. "You have a lot of nerve for saying something pretentious like that. I mean seriously; making a wild allegation like that is a really ignorant thing to do without some sort of theory to back it up." She blatantly hoped that her diverse words would confuse him enough to renege on the nonsense he'd just spouted. A straight jab to his nose wouldn't exactly hurt her feelings one bit either. "Now really, why would you say something like that?" Sakura demanded.

"Because you know I'm right," Naruto simply said without a need for preamble, dismissing the need to take a reflexive breath in spite of his stomach. "Face it, Sakura-chan: the only reason you showed up here last night and this morning is because your hurt that Sasuke isn't around here anymore. Missing him like you are now makes it easy for you to come someplace like this where you normally wouldn't or ask me to go to Ichiraku's on another 'pretend' date." He shook his head at the memory. "You can say whatever you want or act however you want about that but it was pretty easy to tell that being there, it was a strain on you. You really can't hide stuff like that from me."

Her breath catching in her throat, Sakura gave him the coldest look she could manage. The sheer audacity of this guy…was he really looking to hurt her feeling badly enough to invoke such a death wish upon his soul? Apparently so since Naruto didn't have the look of somebody who was joking around. "Oh, so now you want to try your hand as a pretend counselor who specializes in psychoanalysis now?" she testily retorted, not knowing or particularly caring if he understood what those words meant, his unwarranted objections clearly upsetting her.

Now the impulse to toss his arms up in the air in a clear gesture of irritation in response to her open tantrum was nearly irresistible to contain yet Naruto squelched the impulse like closing a book. After all he couldn't stand there and not say that her angry burst of words hadn't been warranted. He'd pretty much steered her in that direction with his lack of finesse and sugarcoating and thus deserved every bit of her stinging retort. Unfortunately he was really running out of patience with this whole discussion and wasn't in the mood to continue it. There didn't seem to be anything more to discuss anyways. He'd stated his piece/opinion to the best of his ability, knowing that she wouldn't like any of it and—surprise, surprise—she hadn't. The rebuttal from her seemed to be a foreshadowing of a pummeling to come. Well, he supposed she could do whatever she wished to make herself feel better—she'd been doing it all along anyways—but it wouldn't change the general linguistics of the situation. "You can be mad at me all you want, Sakura-chan, but the fact of the matter is that I know you're just using me to make yourself feel better about yourself." He bowed his head down slightly. "I can understand why you would be but the truth is—"

"SMACK"

Naruto never got a chance to finish his sentence as Sakura quickly bounded forward, as if previously restrained by an invisible cord, and slapped him right across the face, his head snapping to the left/his right. For such a lithe hand of feminine proportions, the sound was inconceivably brutal and harsh to his eardrums. Upon impact the struck side of his cheek immediately turned cold as if stung by a angry queen bee. For a moment Naruto didn't move, stunned into utter silence by the violent assault. She'd punched the lumps out of him enough times that he should have been used to her physicality yet this was utterly different then all those other occasions. On a whim was one thing; but to be struck like he had just been…yeah, that was really something else. Despite the numbness, her hand lingered on his face like a troublesome fly. Naruto thought that she was going to repeat the gesture just to add an exclamation mark to her demonstration but that didn't seem to be the case. Slowly turning to glance at Sakura, Naruto noted that she was quivering like a frightened child. It was almost as if she'd just realized that what she had done was wrong and was now going into all the formalities associated with her pretentious actions. Her cheeks twitched and there was a light smattering of tears dispersed along her tortured countenance. Regardless of her deplorable actions and his own turmoil, Naruto found it very difficult—found he couldn't get upset with her. He supposed that that was just a part of himself that he simply couldn't let go of. At least his stomach didn't ache as bad. "Sa-Sakura-chan?" he finally whispered, managing to find his voice.

Sakura's hand immediately left his face, grasped him hard by the shoulder instead. She was still trembling but her eyes were hard and clear. "You…you really have a lot of nerve, you know," she told him without fear of a backlash "Telling me how I should and shouldn't feel. What gives you the right to stand there and lecture me on something like that?" She shook her head as if to clear out her personal cobwebs. "Instead of trying to stir up facts about Sasuke-kun or how you think I feel about anything or anyone, did it actually ever cross your stupid pea-sized brain that I wanted to try and do something nice for you just because you're you?"

Naruto didn't say anything, really didn't dare to issue a response at this point. Despite what she thought of him, Naruto was acutely aware that he was treading on so very thin ice right now. Death and destruction would inexorably come towards him if he so much as even uttered something of an outlandish nature, even twitched wrong. Her nail-sharp grip on his somber-colored sweatshirt was tight, so much so that he could feel prickles of pain blossoming on his bare shoulder like that of a fast-acting sunburn. Regardless of the needle-like sensations or his nightmarish trepidations that sheliterally was cradling his very life in her pristine hands, Naruto refused to back peddle away from her. He'd made this very uncomfortable bed for himself and now he was going to have to lie in it. If there was anything he'd learned this morning, it was to know when you had to take responsibility for your actions. That sure didn't make having her stare a hole through him any easier. "What do you want from me, Sakura-chan?" Naruto finally found himself asking her, almost in a plea.

Wiping the tears off of her face with her free hand, Sakura tilted her head up slightly. "I want you to answer one question for me," she swiftly told him, her grasp on his shoulder tightened seemingly with anticipation. "And don't you dare say no or else I'll hit you again. Got it?"

Even though he already had half a notion of what she was going to ask him Naruto willingly nodded acceptance. Didn't have much of a choice anyways. "Okay."

Sakura took half a step backwards, gazed at him sharply, her cool inhalations and hot exhalations blowing steadily across his face. "Did you have a nightmare after I left here?"

Naruto sighed openly. Friggin figured. "Yeah, I did," he replied, almost defiantly. "So what?"

"Was I in your dream?" she asked in a low tone.

Naruto gave her a look, felt like telling her that that was two questions instead of one though that probably would have resulted in other blow. Instead he said, "What does that matter—?"

"It matters, Naruto!" she insisted, finding herself incredibly incredulous that he would try to play this off. "These dreams—you've been having them for a reason and I think it's best that you try and talk them out right now. You wouldn't be acting like this if there wasn't something going on with you upstairs." The door to her hypothesis widely exposed.

"Why would you assume this has anything to do with dreams?" he wanted to ask her, again feeling that rising need to try and reason with her even though he was well aware that part of her questioning was correct. That…and he'd been jealous. No sense in denying that. He'd known that for a long time now. Through all the battering and the sharp words, Naruto could never hide the fact that he loved her. Last night he told her, told her that it was strictly on a friend-to-friend level but it had always been more then that, more then teenage hormones or anything so simple. And that was why he'd sworn to give up on her, strictly because of his love for her. It couldn't be because of the dreams, could it? He didn't want to think so, yet how could he not?

Seconds continued to tick by as Naruto continued to stand in a silent vein; his mind currently conflicted with personal thoughts. It didn't matter; Sakura knew right then that she was on to something with her diatribe. "Why didn't you tell me?" she finally asked him.

Naruto's cheek tightened. "Because it's none of your business. What goes on in my head at night is not your concern. You have no right to stand there and make assumptions." Reaching up, Naruto pried her hand away from his shoulder and took two firm steps backwards so that she couldn't grab him again. "Whatever's going on with me is something that I have to deal with on my own," he told her, the words spilling out of his mouth like hot vapor. "Just like whatever's going on with you. You need to deal with your problems on your own. I can't help you with it. I'm sorry." Naruto immediately turned downcast, practically expecting her to explode in another tantrum. Hell, she'd probably beat the crap out of him again for being so obtuse. Whatever. It wasn't like it was anything new. He was used to it. He didn't care.

"In your dreams…I hurt you badly, didn't I?" she finally asked, her voice mellow and apologetic. "That's why you don't want to be around me right now, isn't it?" Both questions seemed so rhetorical right now. She knew the answers yet amidst all of the knowledge, the training and the discipline, a childlike part of her needed to hear the answers anyways.

Feeling his lip droop, Naruto quickly mumbled. "It's late, Sakura-chan. You need to go and meet Tsunade-baa-chan now. She's not the sort of person you want to keep waiting. Not if you're hoping to be her student."

Sakura swallowed a lump in her throat, feeling discouraged. Having been here for such a length of time, she'd almost forgotten about her appointment with the Hokage. It seemed almost conveniently appropriate that he would now remind her of that. Maybe that was for the best in the long run. He was obviously upset with her for personal reasons and she simply didn't know what to tell him that would pacify his confused sentiments. She felt an almost desperate need to try and assure him that she would never deliberately harm him as badly as she seemingly had in the privacy of his nightmarish dreams yet she could tell from just looking at him that such words would be a waste of time. It was disturbingly clear that her presence here seemed utterly portentous to him; enough so that he was telling—not suggesting—but telling her to leave. She had to think that he was in this state of mind before she'd slapped him for his scathing bluntness but that was cold comfort to her right now.

Had it always been like this with him, she wondered? How many times had he come back to this place after a day of missions in a state of total dejection after being lambasted verbally or physically or both by her? How many times had she unknowingly entered his dreams to harm him in some way or fashion? She knew full well that she couldn't necessarily blame herself for all of that but she also couldn't help but think that way at this point. Sasuke had once told her that she disgusted him after she'd gone into a spiel over Naruto's handicaps and mannerisms, and while the revelation had both humbled and humanized her, Sakura had never completely understood the purpose of Sasuke's scathing words until today. The blunt words that now fell from Naruto's lips in regards to Sasuke-kun…they'd been spot on. The only thing that her actions and sharp words had done was to further contribute in driving Naruto's point even further. From her end it was a mark of feverish denial, and he was astute enough to realize that while she was simply floundering about like a stupid fish trying to swim on land.

"This…this wasn't supposed to happen!" she mentally shrieked, wretched desperation and anguish intermingling to create an echelon of misery that overshadowed her previous sentiments. "Everything was supposed to go right today! You were supposed to just come along with me and not ask any questions about it, you bastard! Can't you see how badly I need you to help me get over Sasuke-kun now! Can't you see how much I'm hurting right now? Can't you see how badly I need you to be with me right now? How dare you abandon me when I need you the most! How DARE you choose this day of all days to not want to be with me! Damn you, Naruto! DAMN YOU!"

Her mind was a raging mistress of a maelstrom right now. She was to the drastic point now where she wanted to either knock his lights right out period or else do something like...like blindly grabbing him by the scruff of his shirt and forcing him into a desperate lip-lock that she nearly preformed before in a last ditch attempt to make him try to see things her way, yet neither option provided any form of longstanding logic; plus it could very well make the situation even worse then it already was. The simplicity of the situation was that she could not convince him. It was akin to trying to open a door with the wrong key. His defenses' were far too high right now to invoke any sort of answers from and she simply couldn't calm herself down enough to try and negotiate with him. It was a total impasse.

Precious seconds slipped away like leaves in the breeze. She needed to leave yet she couldn't bear to leave things as they were now. Not without at least trying to successfully insert a piece into the complex puzzle that was standing in front of her like a sullen statue. "I'm…I'm sorry I slapped you like I did, Naruto," she whispered remorsefully. "I really am sorry. I just…all I wanted to do was to get you to open up to me. I…Is there anything I can do or possibly say to make up for anything I've done to you? Anything at all?" She wasn't talking about hours now—nothing so paltry at this point, but rather spoke in terms of both months and years, for all the times she'd deliberately and inadvertently harmed him. For him, grasping that universal point was inconsequential, yet it meant everything for her.

The statue that was Naruto shook his head, a slow sway of his own body mechanics and structure, rock solid in his own testaments and disposition. "There's nothing, Sakura-chan. Nothing at all. Again, I understand why you did what you did—you don't need to explain yourself there. I just…I can't hold your hand with this right now. I am sorry, but you need to just go now." The pulsating pain in his stomach seemed to lend him strength right now, enough so that he was able to turn away from her completely. Hands on the edge of the counter, Naruto bowed his head slightly and stared down at the gray sink; filling both his mind and vision with it's neutrality, almost as if trying to become one with the inanimate object. "Please," he mumbled, uncaring if she heard him or not.

Sakura stared dejectedly at his back, the last lingering embers of her flagging hope finally doused by Naruto's closing word and gesture. So this was it then? He was dismissing her. Didn't seem like a surprise really. She'd done it to him enough times. Why not have the tables turned for a change? A sob threatened to rise from her throat yet she somehow managed to choke it off. A minute or two and she'd be outside where she could act however she needed to act, break down or do whatever. It all needed to be out of her system regardless before meeting the Hokage. "Y-yes, you're right," she replied, seemingly both to him and the idea as well. Leaving Ino's this morning, Sakura had been so confident in thinking, scratch that, knowing that she was doing the right thing yet Ino had shakily warned her about retaining an air of honesty during this visit. Had she known something that Sakura hadn't? Ino's ability to read people via street smarts almost seemed to say yes. It didn't seem to matter now anyways. All she knew was that she'd somehow screwed things up for herself to such a degree that she couldn't make it right again, no matter how intelligent she was.

The most despondent thing was that she had nobody to blame but herself for this. You can only treat people like garbage for so long before their ability to tolerate becomes strained to the point where they needed to push back. How could she assume that Naruto would be any different? She'd started to change her habits but it seemed that she was already too late and now she was paying for it. That was the most difficult pill to swallow, even harder then not being able to prevent Sasuke-kun from leaving. Lifting her hand slightly, Sakura started to take a step in his direction, an abrupt desire to suddenly touch him giving way but then she quickly stopped, flung the impulse away and stood there again, felt the cylinder shape of her recently found pen gently pressed against the side of her leg. She couldn't help him, couldn't do anything for him. Hell, she couldn't even help herself. Squaring her lips, Sakura turned and shakily started to walk out of the kitchen, the ache in her heart growing steadily as both her heel and toes pressed and worked in synchronization against the hardwood floor. Never in her life had it been so difficult to try and leave a building under her own power. It hurt so much that she stopped after a half dozen steps, halfway in between the kitchen and hallway. Closing her eyes as he might have been doing now, she uttered in finality, "They become so meaningless, don't they?"

Naruto turned his head slightly, his right ear facing her, frowned at the dials on his stove in light confusion. "What becomes so meaningless?" he asked.

Sakura swallowed hard, worked hard to keep her voice firm. "Apologies. The more times you use them on somebody, the less meaningful they become over time. It's…it's just something I realized now. Even so, please forgive me for this last intrusion."

Naruto spun around fully, began to ask her why she was telling him this but she was already out of the kitchen. His ears picked up on a quick rustle of clothing followed by the clacking sound of her sandals. Naruto started to take a few steps forward but could already hear her opening the door. The sounds of the open wet world instantly filtered into the apartment, briefly filling the apartment with a mixed familiar abundance of life and the outdoors. The fresh air touched his nose and Naruto suddenly realized just how long he'd been cooped up in this place, how dry the air had been. He took another two steps when the door suddenly shut, the cool breeze retracting like a knife in its sheathe. Her footsteps rapidly taking her away from her; quieting with each new step taken until he could no longer hear her.

The place was once again silent, once again his.

And she was gone yet again.

For a moment Naruto didn't move, unsure of what to do or what to say. He supposed he could say anything he wanted now. Nobody was here to listen to him. Oji-san was long gone, probably inside eating Oba-san's freshly prepared food or else standing outside having yet another cigarette. If the latter were the case, he'd no doubt see Sakura running by to make what she was probably hoping her first lesson. Naruto had no doubt that he'd try to have a brief word with her before she left. And if that was the case, Oji-san was probably going to come back here and give him supreme shit for something he did or didn't do. He briefly resigned himself, felt almost sure that he'd hear the old man trudging up the walkway any second now. He gave it two minutes, another minute, relaxed somewhat after three minutes had passed. He really didn't need him coming over here again for yet another lecture of some kind. Naruto wouldn't have known what to tell him anyways. Sakura-chan, on the other hand…

His stomach wretched upon thinking of her. Swiftly moving out of the kitchen and into the bathroom, Naruto immediately went to the sink and began to thoroughly splash cold water on his face, alternating between dousing his cheeks and taking long gulps to soothe his suddenly parched throat and hopefully aid his upset stomach. He did this repeatedly until he felt somewhat pacified on both ends. Turning the faucet off, Naruto blinked between a mixture of water and his own sweat, looked at his reflection, swore that he'd somehow looked even worse then before if that was possible. Bags were starting to form underneath his eyes and he could almost swear that he looked twice his age, minus the facial hair though that would probably come naturally in six or seven years. He grabbed the nearest towel, still damp from his earlier shower and quickly dried his face and tossed it aside. He walked to the living room but instead of going to the couch, he shoved his hands in his pockets, leaned his back against the threshold and slowly slid to the floor, grunting lightly at the mild impact of his ass hitting the wooden floor. Draping his left arm over his risen knee, Naruto sighed roughly and began to contemplate what he could have possibly said that would have improved his conversation with Sakura-chan.

Unfortunately he couldn't think of anything that might have benefited him or that would have been of any use, though it might have helped if he hadn't totally lost his cool to begin with. That part had been his fault, straight up. The reasoning behind his actions was childish but he'd been convinced—still felt partially convinced—that she was only doing it out of reasons that only benefited herself and not for him directly. He couldn't let that reasoning go for whatever intents and purposes. Naruto simply refused to believe that she would simply change gears like that in such a short span of time. How could he? The circumstances didn't matter either. It just didn't fit. He'd always considered himself a fairly good judge of character when it came to people and something just wasn't jiving here.

The other factor was that those goddamned dreams he'd been having really were clouding his judgment badly. Jealousy factor aside, he hadn't wanted Sakura-chan around right now because he'd been trying to work out the reasoning behind why he'd been having them in the first place. Nothing happened without a reason and there was definitely a reason behind these events. He just needed to figure out what it was. That was the key to everything. A part of him knew this to be true. It had to be. But what was it though?

Gritting his teeth, Naruto forced himself to recall the terrible visions that he'd tried so hard to bury in his self-consciousness so that they wouldn't plague him at untimely moments. Nightmares tended to be more easily recalled then pleasant dreams, simply because the former tended to leave a longer lasting impression then the latter. He wasn't sure if that was the same for everyone yet it certainly seemed that way for him. Naruto would have to play it like that. Calling those ghastly images back to light, Naruto recalled with grim clarity just how badly he'd suffered in those scenarios. Being squished to death by a massive snake, crushed by Gaara's deadly form, being killed by Sasuke while being forced to watch as Sakura walked away with him and finally her unpreventable death at the hands of some unknown assailant. All of this had some wayward pattern to it but what? He hadn't been able to prevent any of those scenarios from happening so what was the point to all of it. Hell, it'd been all his faut in the first place. What was the reasoning—?

And then, it suddenly hit him; some tiny point that had slipped his mind rampantly fell into place and created an abrupt moment of real clarity like a burst of boiling water. The dreams had nothing to do with anybody else. They had nothing to do with Sasuke or Sakura-chan or anybody period for that matter. It wasn't them at all.

It was himself…and his failure.

And at that moment, through all the impatience, the drama, battling with both himself and Sakura-chan, an overpowering wave of relief and insight touched and warmed him like finally standing in bright harsh sunlight after weaving and battling through a wave of cold shadows and darkened misery. The revelations pulsated through him, pressed him neatly against the very wall that he was leaning against, shocking him to the very depths of his soul. Somehow he'd known it all along and yet…he hadn't. Not until this very instance when he'd been forced to actually dwell on the matter without trying to bury the hurtful images deep down inside of his very being.

Yes, it was his failure. That's what the mocking voice in that last dream was referring to. His inability to retrieve Sasuke from falling into the greedy hands of Orochimaru had somehow penetrated deep in his psyche, pressed down on some small part of his minuscule brain strongly enough to invoke these…these projections. That's what it was. He'd been keeping the denial buried deep this entire time, had buried and covered it with easy excuses and jealous truths' to keep it from rising and dismantling his ego or some vital aspect of his character. As if relieved at this acknowledgment, Naruto's stomach began to relax and settle while seconds ago he was completely certain that he was going to ruin a good pair of underwear. It almost felt like a trick of the body yet it was hard to denounce the strange relief that he was feeling now—the after effects of a mental bowel movement? That seemed to describe it best. It was as if Oji-san and Sakura-chan's visits here had overloaded his system to the point where something essential had to give way before he could view this in the proper perspective. Taking a deep breath, Naruto stood up from the floor, wiped the perspiration that had been growing on his palms off on his pants. Taking that as a sign that the place was getting too muggy for his taste, Naruto started to walk to the door, feeling a need to get another bite of that fresh air when he stopped, frowned slightly as a long and narrow object leaning against the wall abruptly caught his eye. It took only two seconds of mental searching before quickly realizing that it was Sakura-chan's umbrella and another dimwitted moment to realize that she'd forgotten to take it with her. The first thing that came to mind was to open the door, look outside and see if she was still in sight so that he could tell her that she'd forgotten her umbrella yet that didn't seem like a very smart thing to do, especially after he'd practically just told her to get lost.

Naruto bit the bottom of his lip, felt the back of his neck itch uncomfortably from his misdeed. Nightmare crap aside, he'd definitely gone and pigeonholed himself. He couldn't bear to think that it was total stupidity on his part but the fact that she'd left here without taking her umbrella made him think that he'd upset her very much, especially after she'd gone and slapped him like she had. The fact that he'd seen tears on her face didn't help his case any either. He wanted to think that she was going through something else besides wishing that Sasuke wasn't gone but he doubted he'd ever know. Naruto supposed that that was something she'd have to deal with as well. He hoped that she'd feel better soon. He hoped.

"And she's tough," Naruto muttered to himself, trying to draw strength from that firm analogy. If anything, she was probably one of the toughest people he had ever known. Anyone that could still love someone like Sasuke after all the stuff he'd pulled definitely deserved that title. He'd always thought so though he tended to keep that tidbit quiet for the most part. Blurting something like that would probably get his ass kicked. It still wouldn't change the fact that he thought she was tough. She was tough. Being out in the rain wouldn't make her melt.

Well she was gone and there wasn't anything he could do about that. What he could do now was take her advice and do some housecleaning like he'd already stated that he was going to do. Keeping his body and mind set on doing minuscule tasks would keep him from dwelling on things. Feeling an uncharacteristic need to do some cleaning, Naruto put the umbrella down, walked over to the table that Sakura-chan had been working on and began to sort out papers that she had left untouched for him to look at. Most of it was basically just crap and crap and more crap, yet she had been nice enough not to toss what she'd probably herself had considered garbage away. It looked like she'd already junked quite a bit of it away. Looking around, Sakura had also tossed out most of the ramen cups and other food wrappers away as well. It seemed strange that she'd try to clean this place up when she really didn't have to do any of this. He'd already commented on that as well but the fact that she had, along with doing all the other stuff that she had was really unnecessary on her part, yet she had, and all he'd managed to do was upset her and make her cry—

Naruto stopped dead in his tracks, the smooth underlay of wood rubbing painfully into his heels at the abrupt halt of movement yet the blemish of pain didn't register. Something far more encompassing, a slow and creeping feeling, began to settle over him like a rock being pushed in front of a cave entrance in a patient movement to block out the sun. Naruto unconsciously grabbed his stomach as if expecting it would start to act up again in aggressive trembles but it wasn't that—not his stomach. No. Something else—a strange sinking feeling that he'd never felt before—

It was at that moment when he noticed that he was starting to have trouble breathing. Feeling panic settling in, Naruto began to walk back and forth the living room while taking long deep breaths in an attempt to shake whatever was going on with him. The harder it became for him to suck in air, the faster he moved. It was as if death itself was going to spring up on, take him by the shoulder at any given moment. Sweat ran down his brow like a valve had been twisted opened. He was hyperventilating, starting to do so profusely now, and felt like he was going to vomit, felt all the more certain that he was going to die for real this time. His head spun like a tornado. Dying—!

Naruto's legs gave way and he fell to the ground in a heap, nausea quickly enveloped him like a rampaging disease, the back of his mouth watered in an uncomfortable state. Naruto bowed his head, felt his stomach tighten immediately. Immediately squeezing his eyes shut in grim acknowledgment of what was to come, he began to throw up. Tears and sweat ran down his face in a pour as he continued to spew bile in violent, seemingly endless spasms. After a minute or so, when he was certain that he wasn't going to hurl anymore, Naruto slowly pushed himself away so that he was a good enough distance away from the mess he'd just made even though he could feel some of it lingering on the back of his hands, backed away even further for good measure and began to dry his soaked face using the sleeves of his sweatshirt. The vile tainted taste of ramen mixed with toothpaste created a sweet, sickly taste in his mouth. That alone made him almost feel certain that he would toss his cookies again but his stomach gave no threat or indication and it seemed that the worst was over. Instead he sat there on the floor, gasping and coughing as he sought recovery from this latest fit. It was as if his body was dead-set on punishing him for the false provisions he'd been trying to shield himself with. He'd tried to convince himself that Sakura-chan leaving was for the best, had refused to let the grim weight of reality take hold of him but now it had and he couldn't shake it. Not now. Naruto had done something that he had never thought could be possible.

He'd hurt her.

He'd made her cry.

And it had been his fault.

Naruto abruptly felt his hands shake, looked down and visually saw them shake. He was shaking. Sakura-chan…she really hadn't come here to make herself feel better this time. She'd come here to make him feel better. She'd known that she had to keep her appointment with Tsunade-baa-chan yet she'd still managed to make time to come here and check up on him, even in this heavy deluge of rain. She'd come here to make amends for her actions and all he'd done was push her away just as Sasuke had done. Naruto was no different then him. If anything he was even worse because he'd thrown her feelings for Sasuke back in her face just when she might have been finding a safe plateau to distance herself from the matter. Naruto had thought of Sasuke as being a straight up prick for hurting Sakura, but at least it had been inadvertently and not completely deliberate like Naruto had just done. He was the bastard here, not Sasuke. He'd hurt her deliberately and that made him more of a monster then any tailed-beast animal could possibly do.

Abruptly grabbing the side of the coffee table, Naruto's animalistic rage wrestled briefly with common sense, tried to nourish him with the idea that throwing the damned thing through the wall would make him feel so much better. Hell, even punching a few holes through the plaster would work wonders. His mind was in a haze of absolute anger; chakra blazed off his very being in a mixture of red and blue, almost as if in a dare. The need to cause damage to something was for the moment irresistible. The pain in his throat almost seemed to add fuel to the fire. Nails turning into claws, Naruto began to lift it in the air as if it were weightless—

And as if regaining control of his senses, Naruto dropped the table, instead grabbed the remaining clutter of junk atop and threw the pile in the direction of the kitchen. Dropping to his knees, Naruto hammered the hardwood floor with both of fists and yelled a few choice obscenities for good measure before clenching his fists in seething tight balls. He desperately yearned for destruction right now but the knowledge of knowing how problematic for him in the long run placed a sheathe on those desires. Slowly his nails reverted back to normal and the borrowed demon chakra slowly subsided, leaving him with the unwavering truth that he had done wrong.

"I hurt her…I hurt Sakura-chan," Naruto whispered in a quivering harsh tone. "How…how could I do something like that to her? How could I possibly do something like that to her of all people?" He knew, but that didn't stop him from questioning himself. The fact that he'd made excuses, had tried to convince himself that he wasn't a failure by blaming the people around him; it had cost him in the end, had led him up to where he was know. He was truly a failure now, a third-rate stupid ninja that could do nothing except screw anything and everything up. Everybody else though of him as one—seemed to be no sense in fighting it. Oji-san had tried to convince him that the Fourth hadn't sealed him with the demon fox just to be a shameless asshole but it was hard to think otherwise right now. Didn't seem to matter anymore anyways. He was alone now and would always be alone, utterly and truly. Maybe that was the price he had to pay for his very existence. Acknowledging that now…it didn't hurt as badly as he thought it would. All he'd had to pay was losing his best friend and the girl he'd loved. It could have been worse.

The only question was that he didn't know how it could possibly be any worse then what it was now.

His eyes began to burn in pity and his Adam's apple started to bob but he refused to give in to the tears that threatened to fall. Crying wouldn't help his case any now; it had never helped before. Instead he stood up and began to look for something to clean up the puke. He found a dirty towel by the side of the couch and was starting to mop up the mess when he suddenly noticed that Sakura's forgotten umbrella, which he'd left by the door, had fallen over. No doubt from when he'd dropped the coffee table. The vibration had probably done it. Cleaning up the mess, Naruto picked up the old towel, placed it in a pail and stuck it outside where it could air out. Upon opening the door, Naruto quickly deduced that was raining even harder now then it had been a few moments when he looked outside, scowled viciously at the blustery sight. "Hope you're happy with yourself, Naruto, you stupid dick. This is your fault!" he chastised himself sharply. "She'll be soaking wet by the time she gets to the Hokage's tower." The urge to run out there and catch up with her so as to give her back her umbrella quickly beckoned the white knight within him, yet he couldn't see her being all that grateful for it. If anything she'd probably start to curse him up and down like she used to before they became teammates, especially now since they wouldn't be in his apartment anymore. Out there she could pretty much say anything she wanted without disclosure, and it would all be fully warranted of course; he knew he deserved it. Running into the lion's cave to feed the lion wasn't what he considered motivational, but he couldn't just stand here and twiddle his thumbs like a 'tard when he knew she was probably getting soaked because of his actions. Consequences or not, Naruto knew what he had to do, but it still terrified him to know that she possibly hated him even more now and that he would have to meet that hatred head-on. Perhaps even more so then that of which he was now feeling for himself...

It was at that sudden moment that Oji-san's words, or rather what Oji-san's teacher had bestowed upon him, filled his mind: 'Think about yer anxieties in terms of a shadow. People that walk this world have their own individual shadow. Worryin' about what another person thinks of you is the same as worryin' about the shadow they're projecting, which is complete foolishness. If ya live yer life with no excuses, you'll never have ta worry about havin' regrets.'

Naruto took those words like a sudden burst of tonic. Oji-san had taken the time out of his schedule to try and teach him that being the bigger man was the most important thing to do in times when situations weren't favorable. It was knowing that doing the right thing took precedence over times likes these where he knew he was probably going to get his lights punched out. She could hate him all she wanted sure, but if he could somehow protect her in the midst of it all, maybe…maybe that would somehow make everything right in some way. He'd already screwed up big time—Naruto knew this—but maybe if he could do just this one insignificant deed to try and make up for one of the many series of foul ups he'd already performed, maybe he wouldn't have to feel miserable forever.

He honestly didn't know…but he wouldn't stand here and rack his brain over it any longer either. Finding his wallet and house key and slipping on his sandals, Naruto grabbed the umbrella, closed and locked the door before speeding off down the sweltering walkway, sprays of water flying everywhere. He made it down the steps and was just about to head down to the ground level when he spotted his landlord standing in front of his room, predictably holding a stale cigarette and flicking away ash. Hair already drenched from the rain, Naruto quickly ran up to him and blurted, "Oji-san! Sakura-chan, did you see—?"

Water dripping off his hat, the old man pointed with one bruised finger. "Took off that way, towards the Hokage's tower I'm guessin', kid. She was runnin' pretty fast, faster then what she was before. I was gonna say hi ta her but she looked upset, didn't even have her umbrella with her" He gave Naruto a critical once-over; looked down at the umbrella Naruto was holding, frowned slightly. "Ya went and done somethin' stupid, didn't ya?"

Naruto stammered. "I…I did, but it wasn't my fault—I mean it was, but, yeah, I did something stupid, but I'm gonna make up for it right now and—"

The landlord waved his hand in front of his nose. "Holy shit, kid! What the hell did ya eat? Yer breath smells like a fish waltzed in and went belly up." He reached into his pocket and pull out a tin of strong mints, offered him one. "Take one o' these before ya go anywhere's. Put it under yer tongue and don't choke."

Naruto promptly took one, gasped at the abruptness that his nose hairs were on fire. "Th-thanks," he gulped.

The old man shrugged off the comment. "Don't worry about it. Do ya need a quick sip o' tap water as well?" he asked.

"No," Naruto quickly replied. "No, I just—I gotta go. Sakura-chan left without taking her umbrella and I gotta catch up to her. You're sure she went towards the tower?"

"I'm sure. Now get goin'. And—" putting the cigarette between his lips, he reached forward, took the umbrella from him and nimbly locked it open, returned it to him, "—this thing works a lot better when it's in bloom," the old man chided. "Now, go and make whatever dumb thing ya done right. Ya hear?"

Naruto looked up at the now exposed umbrella, swallowed a lump in his throat. "Yeah, I hear."

"Well move, kid! Hell ya waitin' fer? Permission? Haul ass already!" He slapped him firmly on the shoulder, and Naruto instantly turned and stumbled away, resuming his present course of action. Like Sakura-san, Oji-san watched as Naruto ran down the steps, down the short path, turned to round the corner and then finally disappearing. Taking a long drag from his cigarette and exhaling slowly, the old man couldn't help but smile as he recalled the day Sarutobi had brought Naruto to him when he'd just been a toddler. From that time until now, the boy had brought nothing but a long stream of good memories and pleasantries. To watch the kid now running after someone that resembled Kushina so closely from beauty to brains and personality, it made his heart swell to know he'd played a miniscule part in helping her son out.

"There ain't but two desires in life," he muttered, recalling an old but very true saying as it crossed his mind. "One is not ta get yer heart's desire. The other—," he paused, glanced back behind him where his wife was still cooking up a list of goodies. She nagged him furiously and sometimes she had all the mannerisms of a farm hand, yet her gentle touch and the way she moved about without complaining of her aches and pains; it made him thank God everyday for allowing him to be with her.

Well, almost everyday.

Stamping out his cigarette that he'd taken from his fresh pack, Oji-san nodded at the path the two young teens were both set on, chuckled softly. "The other is to get it," he finished. Taking off his well-worn hat and turning it sideways, exposing his matted gray scalp, he walked back into his own apartment and closed the door, leaving the world and the people, both young and old, to their own devices, especially those two.

"Make things right, kid."

To be continued…

Author's Note: It's been so long since I've gotten a chance to write one of these notes. I almost like to consider these as a reward to myself for taking so much time to write out and edit these chapters. Maybe not such much the previous times, but this one in particular I can honestly say I feel warranted as a reward to myself. That might seem a little confusing to some people but that's really how I feel right now. The chance to write something more in free flow instead of purposeful? Sure, I'll go with that.

Where to begin? Well, I went through a point in time where I stopped writing for quite a while: a good year and half or so. Basically life got in the way, as it does at times, and it reached a point where I had a hard time opening my laptop and getting on with this thing. I lost my focus and I had a hard time getting back on track. It was until last winter where I really started to write again, a paragraph or two at times mostly; sometimes more, often times less. I know I've stated this in a few of the other chapters already but this was easily the most difficult chapter I've ever written for a story as I knew it would be when I first started writing it a few years ago. To try and bring two already insecure characters into a complicated conflict based on their hopes and fears that actually made sense (to me, anyways)…yeah, it was really hard. Even after looking over this thing a bunch of times and making corrections and edits, I honestly can't say for sure that I totally succeeded word for word but I am fairly happy with the way it came out for the most part. I know that I've probably repeated some phrases or sentences as well but I guess I can chalk that up to amateurish authoring. I honestly wish that I had the talent that some people exude when it comes to writing but I'm just don't have it. Otherwise I would have had this whole thing finished a long time ago. There have been many times where my own inner voice would say, "Soo...just how long were you going to leave Sakura in the rain?" *shakes my head* Ugh.

I also know that some people, upon reading this particular chapter, are going to say, "Well that doesn't make sense," or, "That's out of character for them," but I've spent a great deal of time on this as well and I can honestly say that the character portrayals, in my defense, are about as true to character as I can possibly make them, given their circumstances and what not. When it comes down to it, people—no matter their profession or how young or old they are—are still people. That was another challenge as well: trying to keep Naruto and Sakura within their adolescence as both ninjas and young teens without trying to push them beyond that scope. That too is something I can't say for certain that I completely succeeded in but from an author's perspective, I'm generally pleased with the whole thing. I'm very aware that readers who are big time N/S shippers in hindsight are not going to like this chapter for both obvious and not so obvious reasons, but all I can say in regards to that is that life universally can be very harsh and unfair at times and does not always go the way we want it too, no matter how much hard work or dedication we put into things or people (I know this very well). I believe that while we all can't necessary reach the top of the mountain, we can certainly find a comfortable plateau where we can look at things in perspective and take solace in our accomplishments. I haven't yet reached that with this story and neither have Mr. Naruto or Ms. Sakura but I hope to accomplish this with the next few chapters. Anyways, I just wanted to express a quick thanks to the reviews and the e-mails (Marquis Les'Quack, hotwyr, DanddoSeri, Naruto yamanaka, Mad Library Scientist) regarding their kind comments or else regards to chapter status—my apologies for taking so long to update. I also want to say thanks to the very few real-life friends I've kept in the loop about this and who encouraged me to keep writing. You have my sincerest gratitude. It hasn't always been easy—downright difficult eighty percent of the time—but I can still say without doubt that I've really enjoyed writing this so far. I honestly did make a promise to myself a long time ago that this quirky story would not be abandoned and I fully intend to keep that promise. Hopefully the next chapter won't take as long to write (Yes, I'm very aware that I've said that before too (T.T)), but this really was kind of the mountain peak in the story so going downhill should be a lot easier, at least for me. Sorry for the long-winded anecdote and for the very long update. Now I'm going to go catch my breath and have a cold one or two. Take care.