Chapter One

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto

That smile. It was an honest one; a pure, happy and tired grin that reached the sky to beyond the heavens. Sakura saw it even from her raised position on the hill top. She sat there stiffly on the grass watching through hooded eyes as Naruto stumbled into the village carrying a limp and bruised body in his arms.

She did not need to closer inspect the person in her friends grasp. The unconscious man's presence was blatantly obvious, even from afar. As the crowd of villagers descended upon Naruto, Sakura lifted her head up to the sun. It was a relatively warm day but occasionally a biting wind would gust across the village reminding the occupants that it was still early spring.

Closing her green orbs she listened to the faint rustle of the trees around her. The sound made her feel sleepy; made her want to curl up, hibernate until the wind had passed and all that was left was the heated promise of summer.

Raised voices pulled her back to the scene below her. It seemed as though the entire village had turned up for the occasion. It was like they all came to welcome back Naruto and the legendary Uchiha in his beaten, bloodied form.

As if sensing her gaze on him Naruto met her eyes with his own. His face was red and swollen. His clothes were stained with crimson. Was it his blood or Sasuke's? Maybe both? He looked worn, sore and dirty. None of that seemed to matter however, because he also looked so joyous. Sakura had not seen his face hold such happiness for a long time and it pained her to think that she was not the one to inspire such feelings in him. Laughing he extended his arm and gave her a thumbs up sign, victory.

Painting a painful smile to her soft lips she reciprocated his gesture before standing to leave.

Naruto …you kept your promise to me. You brought him back. So why am I not smiling with you?

S & S

"But…don't you want to know?"

Chewing on a piece of meat Sakura pretended to contemplate the question before responding.

"No."

"Ugh!" Picking up her chopsticks Ino violently shoved the fish and rice into her mouth all the while glaring at Sakura.

*"You're unbelievable you know that? After all these years of chasing after him and training to drag his ass back here; now you tell me that you don't even care!" Pointing a finger of accusation at her Ino continued, "You're a liar Haruno."

Frowning Sakura bit her tongue. Usually she would just tell Ino to be quiet and follow it up by calling her a pig. But something in her friend's words rang true and it stung. Placing her chopsticks down Sakura pushed the half eaten bowl of food away; it felt like she had just consumed a rock.

"A liar huh…?"

In just a matter of seconds the small distance between herself and Ino was filled with by an awkward silence. It continued for several minutes; both of them staring at the passers by from their seats at the shabby food stand.

It had been Sakura's idea to eat there. Even though the exterior was tattered and torn it still sold the best fish dishes in Konoha. She still became as giddy as a child over the sweet honey pudding.

She had learned a long time ago that appearances were most definitely deceiving and distanced herself from society's ideas of what 'normal' should be. Thinking back to how she had once acted with Naruto made her cringe with embarrassment and deep shame. No better than those who had shunned him, Sakura had treated Naruto like an idiot without understanding the hardships he had been forced to suffer through in his young life.

Watching a young dark haired boy chase after a bird down the street, Sakura observed as he giggled and shouted. She remembered when she was a child, how shy she had been; teased because of her large forehead that now did not seem so big. She remembered the young Ino taking her under her wing by giving her a pretty bow, teaching her confidence and showing her a strength that had lain dormant for so long.

Letting her eyes stray to the girl opposite her, Sakura ran her gaze across the features of her friend. Ino had grown into a woman. Sakura could think of no other way to put it. Her face had matured and her body had filled out in all the right places. Her hair was cut in a fanciful short style which made her look far older than her seventeen years.

Scratching the top of the wooden table Sakura compared herself to the voluptuous woman sitting opposite her. Whereas Ino had developed early Sakura had not. She still looked the girl next door. Her breasts had yet to fill out. Her legs, though long, were too skinny; and her face, while attractive, still held an innocent look about it.

Sakura found that she hated that look; the look of a young girl who was still helpless and weak. A girl that cried at taunting comments and stood back watching uselessly whilst others fought. A girl that had begged and pleaded with a boy to stay and love her only to have her cries met with a harsh blow to the back. It still hurt, even if it was now just a memory.

"I thought…I would be happy," her voice was barley audible and for a second Sakura thought Ino's ears had missed the comment. However the blonde's eyes shifted from the bustling street onto her.

"To see him?"

Shaking her head Sakura rested her cheek on a fisted hand.

"No, happy that it was over." Scratching the table top once again she frowned deep in thought..

"I won't have to chase after him anymore. For the past five years that's all I've done; it's all I've known. Train hard, get stronger for Sasuke, fight for him and bring him back." Placing her palms face down on the table she looked up at Ino.

"I woke up one morning with tears in my eyes. I realized that even after all this time I was still chasing after something that didn't want to be caught. I should have come to terms with that the night he left me there on the bench, but I was such a child then…I refused to see the truth." Swallowing down a lump, Sakura fought back nausea.

"That's why…that's why I couldn't stand by Naruto's side when he fought Sasuke. He wanted so badly for Sasuke to come home; even more than myself. I wanted him to come home willingly. I wanted Sasuke to walk through the gates of Konoha and smile by his friends' sides. But instead he was beaten…dragged back here, and will now be forced to face a sentence."

She remembered the first time they had succeeded in finding Sasuke; how he had stood there like a statue. His once dark and mysterious eyes had turned dead and cold. He had dismissed her and Naruto as a thing of the past. A burden that he wished to rid himself of. He began mocking the two of them and their hope to bring him home. Then the Uchiha had attempted to take Naruto's life once again. Balling her hands into fists, Sakura gritted her teeth together as anger flowed through her veins.

Neither had emerged successful that day. It would take two more years until Naruto became strong enough to defeat his best friend and rival. However, Sakura knew that this changed nothing. Sasuke no longer cared for the village. He made it clear that day as he stared through her and tried to wipe them from his life forever. The pain of his rejection for the second time in her life had been too harsh for her to fathom. He had managed to break her heart once again from afar and he had done so spectacularly.

Biting her lip until she tasted blood, Sakura turned her face away from Ino's praying that the girl did not see the pain and fury on her features.

"He doesn't want us. He never wanted us. We gave him everything. All of our second chances, all of our blind hope, our trust and he just stood there. He didn't even show a glimmer of emotion when he saw us. He didn't care!"

As her rage reached its peak, Sakura fought down the urge to slam her hands on the table and scream. She wouldn't loose her composure like this; not over Sasuke, never over him.

"I hate him," she gasped, her anger giving way to anguish.

"When I saw his body in Naruto's arms a part of me hoped that he was dead! Then I wouldn't have to care about him again, he wouldn't make me feel anything anymore…and I would be free."

Burying her face in her hands, Sakura felt all the anger and sorrow seep from her body leaving an aching numbness inside. It wasn't until Ino's arms were around her, rocking her back and forth, cooing to her friend in soft gentle tones that Sakura even realized that the wet stripes on her face were tears.