Thanks for over 15,000 hits on this story! IMPORTANT: The first chapter slowly becomes more and more AU as the real manga progresses, especially in light of what really happened to Sasuke. Imagine instead at this point that Madara set a trap for the Konoha ninja that injures both Naruto and Hanata, and things might still work pretty well. Thanks again!

Naruto Shippuden

Kissing the Wind

Recent memories kept playing themselves through her head, robbing her of sleep. She usually welcomed memories, as the good ones helped to sustain her, and keep her sane. Yet as she stared at the old photograph in the wooden frame, as she had almost every night since that day, those memories felt different. They seemed distant now, as if they were nothing more than a dream that was easily recalled as she woke, but faded later in the day. There were no tears this night as there so often had been in the past. For Haruna Sakura, the events of the past week had changed everything.

Sakura sat alone in her tiny apartment at the edge of her bed. She had gotten her own place when she had become a Chuunin, but it was still only a block away from her parents' old place. As Sakura thought of the years growing up living in that house, a much younger Sakura stared back at her from the photograph. That Sakura had her long pink hair styled without a single tangle and was smiling without a care in the world. She had been so naive then, her biggest worries being how to avoid her nagging mother and winning the attention of the boys, especially Sasuke.

"Sasuke." Sakura whispered to herself.

He looked so ridiculously grumpy in the old picture that it had the opposite effect. He ended up looking cuter than ever, especially with Kakashi Sensei ruffling his spiky black hair like that. Sasuke certainly had grown, for better or for worse. Thinking about him this way, Sakura wondered if she had really grown up too, or was she was just kidding herself? Her parents still treated her like a kid, after all. Her mother still came over to nag her, and she still behaved as if Sakura's time as a ninja was just a phase that would soon pass.

"Proper young women weren't warriors," her mother would often say.

In her mother's view, it was the job of the woman to maintain the home and raise good little ninja children. And her father . . .

Sakura closed her eyes and shook her head, not even wanting to think about it. Her father was a different matter altogether. But the worst thought of all was the fact that even after all this her hard work, all her research, and all her training with the fifth Hokage, she was still unable to do anything of great importance for either Naruto or Sasuke.

She couldn't protect Naruto from that masked Akatsuki member, and all her impressive strength and skill was useless next to Sasuke's twisted logic and that new team of his.

And now . . .

And now tears did well up in Sakura's pale green eyes as she looked at Naruto with that big stupid grin on his face. Right now Naruto was recovering in the hospital again. That blond idiot just couldn't seem to keep himself out of the place. Worse than that, they'd failed to save Sasuke . . . again. And this time they were so close! Sakura just couldn't understand it. Instead of coming back home after defeating his brother, Uchiha Itachi, Sasuke had chosen to continue on with that renegade team of his . . . and that tramp!Indeed, it was the most recent memories that were keeping Sakura awake this night, swirling in her mind again and again like Naruto's Rasengan. Even the Rasengan was useless against that masked Akatsuki, who somehow just let every attack they threw at him phase right through him as if he were ghost. The enemy ninja made a fool of everyone, including himself at times. It soon became clear that his antics and way of insulting people while sounding like he didn't mean any harm were all for the purpose of antagonizing and frustrating Naruto in particular.

Naruto, to Sakura's relief, refused to give into his anger, even when the ninja in the orange and black-swirl mask mentioned that Sasuke was probably already dead at the hands of Itachi by now. This seemed to frustrate the Akatsuki, and he began to get serious. One by one their comrades were put out of action. Kiba and Akamaru fought with amazing synchronization and timing, but their adversary was too fast for even them. Captain Yamato prevented a final killing blow to the man-dog team, but was somehow ensnared and trapped in his own wooden cocoon. Shino, for all his skill, was no match either. The enemy pretended to be annoyed by the swarm of insects sucking at his chakra until for reasons still unexplained, an influx of chakra from the Akatsuki overloaded Shino's own system, causing him to pass out. Hinata seemed to gain the upper hand, driving the quick enemy ninja backwards with her gentile fist style. She aimed for chakra points instead of physical matter, and it seemed to be working. As she pressed her advantage, Naruto and Sakura had tried to coordinate an attack from the masked ninja's flanks. Sakura had the wind knocked out of her by a mighty kick to the abdomen, but Naruto was able to hold the Akatsuki down using a wind jutsu that Sakura had never heard of. Naruto had created a vacuum of air in front of him, and it bound the masked ninja in place for Hinata to make a final strike.

But then the Akatsuki caught Naruto in a genjutsu. Naruto writhed on the ground in phantom pain as the masked ninja descended upon him. Hinata got there first, only to be run through the gut with the enemy's kunai. Her last act was to slap Naruto back to reality.

Naruto recovered quickly, caught Hinata as she fell, and leapt to safety with her. Then Hinata said something so softly that only Naruto could hear here before she passed out. Back at ground level, Sakura struggled back to her feet. She could tell that Naruto was struggling to hold back the horrible power inside of him at that point. She tried to rush to his side, but Kakashi Sensei stopped her. He raised his headband, and targeted the Akatsuki with his powerful Mangakyu Sharingan vortex technique.

But it was to no avail. The vortex refused to form . . . refused to target. It was then Kakashi realized the masked Akatsuki also had the Mangakyu Sharingan but he was too late to avoid the trap, and Kakashi passed out from the severe psychic backwash. It was left to just her and an unstable Naruto.

Their teamwork had never been better. Their combined fury should have been a match for any ninja to ever leap through the trees. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying, knowing that failure here was not an option. Sakura even dared to think they'd won when, with an ultrasonic blast she created a sinkhole in the ground while the Akatsuki was engaged in an airborne duel with Naruto's clones. The ground appeared undisturbed, and the enemy chose to land right where she had predicted. He sank into the loose earth up to his neck in an instant. The Akatsuki looked powerless to evade or even phase Naruto's attack out as Naruto followed up with his Rasenshiruken, but a powerful ball of flame, unlike anything Sakura would have imagined possible came from the enemy. The intense heat power of the blast was the last thing Sakura remembered before hitting her head against a tree and slipping into darkness.

She awoke to find Captain Yamato kneeling over her. Naruto was passed out not far from them. Yamato explained what happened as Sakura set about healing her friend as best she could. Naruto had been critically burned by the blast, and his body apparently had no choice but to rely on the Kyuubi's chakra to heal and save him. The masked Akatsuki had actually taken control of Naruto as soon as the chakra began to leak out. The Captain had watched in horror as he the enemy began to extract the chakra cloak outside of Naruto's body. Yamato described it as a brutal, painful tug of war for Naruto as the Kyuubi within him fought hard to stay where it was. Sakura could barely take the thought of Naruto in so much pain, and pressed Yamato as to what happened next.

The Akatsuki was attempting to undo Naruto's seals when another of his organization simply materialized out of a nearby tree. Yamato described this one as having one side of his face painted or tattooed black, while the other a pale white. He seemed to have giant carnivorous plant mandibles growing from his back.

This newcomer had only said, "It is over. Sasuke won."

At this the masked Akatsuki seemed surprised. Yamato was close enough to here him speak, and he recited word for word for Sakura what had been said.

"That's interesting. So Itachi overdid it then. I warned him not to rely on that power too much. No matter. It would seem the time is not yet right to move."

The Akatsuki was indeed now missing the lower half of his mask, and Yamato said he had the features of an Uchiha and a much deeper and more sinister voice than the one the mysterious ninja had been using while wearing the mask. The enemy stopped drawing the Kyuubi chakra from a half-baked Naruto and told him he had other things to attend to, but he would soon return to finish the job.

Presently, Sakura put the photo back in its place on the dresser and stood up. It was no use. There would be no going to sleep at this rate. She decided to go for a walk. Sliding the straps of her shimmering pink satin nightgown off her shoulders, she let the garment slide off her to pool at her feet. Moments later, Sakura tightened her headband with a sharp tug, smoothed her hair over it, and with a satisfied nod that she was meeting regulations, turned and headed out into the quiet night streets of Konoha.

It was a cool autumn night, and Sakura found the fresh air was already helping to clear her head. She rounded a corner, and headed past the ninja academy, where so many good memories still lived. There was also that swing. Sakura remembered how Naruto would often just sit on it, alone, while everyone gave him else gave him cold looks and a wide berth. As a little girl she couldn't understand why, and now that she new the truth of the horrible burden he was destined to carry, she was as determined as ever to help him reach his dream. The fact was many people would still rather not have him around. Her father for instance . . .

Sakura continued on by the light of the hanging paper street lamps that were still traditional in the hidden village. They swayed slightly in the breeze, causing Sakura's shadow to flicker eerily as she walked. Her shadow grew large as it fell across the Konoha hospital and medical center. She had spent countless hours here too, and many sleepless nights studying under the tutelage of her master. In a kinder world, Sasuke would be in there as well as Naruto, especially after the state that they had found him in when they had finally discovered that secret place of the Uchiha clan.

The state of the place had been terrifying. The roof and most of the interior had been completely demolished. What a battle it must have been between Sasuke and his brother. They found him passed out near his brother's lifeless body. Sasuke had been burned by a fire unlike anything Sakura had ever seen or heard of. Black flames still flickered all around the area, of which Naruto warned them not to go near. At first, Sasuke looked to be alright, but a quick analysis revealed he and was in danger of bleeding to death from some internal injuries, or suffocating as a result of a collapsed lung. Some of the fire was somehow still burning him, and Sasuke kept waking up and passing out again from the pain.

Tears had filled Sakura's eyes as she tried desperately with all of her knowledge to heal him, but no amount of chakra healing manipulation would stick. He had inhaled some of the fumes from the flames, and that was what was causing his lung to collapse as the fumes slowly burned him from the inside. Fearing there was nothing she could do but ease his pain, Sakura prepared herself for the worst.

But Naruto didn't. He believed in her just as he always had. He reminded her of Chiyo, of her Sacrifice, and how the elder ninja had believed Sakura would surpass even her master. Naruto offered what remained of his chakra to her in the same way he had to elder Chiyo for Gaara. Sakura had refused, explaining to Naruto that in his condition it was too dangerous.

"If it will work . . .then take it." he had urged. "Even if I die, I don't mind. We'll have succeeded."

Together they stopped the burning in the collapsed lung, and Sasuke began to breathe with less difficulty, but there was still a long way to go. Sakura still didn't know if she could heal all the damage in time until that girl, Karin, had showed up with Sasuke's new team. Karin was more adept at sensing the flow of Chakra than anyone Sakura had ever met. Although the fiery redhead's medical skills were not as developed as Sakura's she managed to heal Sasuke from the inside out, drawing on his own chakra, while Sakura concentrated on the outside in. Together, they healed the internal concussion injuries, repaired the lung, and restored his trachea. Together, they save Sasuke's life.

This was someone Sakura thought she could respect, but the entire healing session had felt tense, and not just because Sasuke's life was on the line. It felt as if another fight would break out at any moment. Naruto, though weak and no longer able to rise to his feet, watched the lean, white haired boy with two enormous swords very carefully. Sakura thought one of them looked like Zabuza's sword, and Naruto would tell her later he was sure the other had belonged to an Akatsuki member. The other member of Sasuke's team had the cursed seal. He scared Sakura. He just felt broken to look into his eyes, as if would go berserk at any time, but especially if Sasuke died.

Sakura nearly collapsed as Sasuke finally stabilized, and the work was done. It was then that . . . that bitch smiled sweetly and said,

"I am grateful for your help, but be warned, stay away from my Sasuke or I'll kill you."

Sakura snapped out of her thoughts for a moment and looked around the quiet Konoha street, wanting to punch something. The nerve of that woman! Her Sasuke? As if sasuke would actually go for an ugly frizzy, haired, four-eyed, she-wolf like her! Sakura felt her fists tighten as she stormed away from the hospital. Calm down, she thought at herself. You came outside to relax.

But Sakura continued to relive the moment that Sasuke had regained consciousness, for this troubled her above all else. Without a word, Sasuke took aid from his new team members and began to leave. Naruto launched into a grand speech about how Sasuke's path, if he turned his back on his friends again, would only lead to ruin. He pleaded for Sasuke to see that true power lied in the strength of his bonds with his comrades. Sakura found she could do nothing but cry again, and it haunted her to this moment. Sasuke wasn't listening to Naruto, and Sakura refused to beg again.

Not this time.

She managed only one argument, remembering how she had even offered to help him with his vengeance once.

"Your vengeance is complete now isn't it?" Sakura had asked simply after Naruto had finished. At this Sasuke actually signaled for the boy with the cursed seal to stop. "So . . . So come back with us now, there's no reason for you to fight alone anymore." This drew a nasty look from Karin. Sasuke turned to look at Sakura, his dark eyes boring into her soul.

"There is still . . . one more I must kill." Sasuke said, not without some difficulty.

"And even when he does that!" snapped Karin, "what makes you think Sasuke would ever want to go back and play with you weaklings?"

Sakura had ignored that tramp and focused on Sasuke's eyes, but in them she could only see emptiness, darkness, and . . . sadness. It both made Sakura ache and chilled her to the bone.

Sakura had then watched helplessly along with Naruto, Captain Yamato, and Kakashi Sensei as the trio made their way to the exit. None of them were in any condition to do anything but let it happen. Naruto screamed Sasuke's name one last time, and their former team mate halfway turned to say one thing.

"Naruto . . . Take care of Sakura."

Sakura was now halfway down "Main" boulevard which lead from the entrance to the Hokage's mansion. She could see the mansion now in the distance as these memories finished cycling through her head again. Sakura stopped and looked up at the stars.

Didn't Sasuke realize that Naruto had always done everything he possible could to take care of her? Didn't he realize that more often than not, it was Naruto that needed caring for?

So much for fresh air, Sakura thought. Right now all she wanted, no all she needed was to talk to Naruto. But right now the hospital was locked down for the night, and he was probably sleeping peacefully. She should just leave him be. Yet, Sakura was a medical ninja after all, and getting in to see him wouldn't be too much trouble. She made her decision.

Sakura spun on her heal and headed back to the hospital.

Naruto was sleeping peacefully. Sakura sat in a chair by his bed, simply watching him. Moonlight from a half moon filtered in through the window, highlighting one side of his face. Naruto had been badly burned on the right side of his body, but as usual he was healing rapidly. Cool bandages were wrapped around his torso and right leg, and his right arm was in a cushioned cast, the result of using the Rasenshiruken too much again. Every now and again, his cheeks would twitch, and he would mumble something incoherent. It was kind of . . . cute. She couldn't bring herself to wake him. She couldn't really think of anything to talk about that wasn't depressing anyway.

Sakura remembered sitting by Sasuke's side like this for hours on end, back when he was in a coma induced by his own brother. She'd brought flowers for him almost every day. She kind of felt guilty about not having anything for Naruto at the moment, but it was different with Sasuke, wasn't it? Naruto was a good comrade, probably her best friend but . . .

"Its not a problem of small or big. What's important is the strength of the feelings you have for Naruto. Sakura, I can tell just by looking at you. In reality you . . ."Captain Yamato's words. Why was she thinking about that? Watching him sleep like this was stirring all kinds of strange memories within her. Watching him closely, she studied those strange birthmarks on his face. So often they had the illusion of whiskers, especially when he smiled that ear to ear smile of his. Naruto's smile . . .

"You always cry so easily, Sakura. Don't worry, because I'll save Gaara."

Sakura still wasn't sure if Naruto understood that it was he, not Gaara that she had been worried about back then, but it didn't matter. His confidence had put her at ease, and it started with that smile. He always managed to do that, to make her feel safe.

Her eyes drifted back to the cast on his right arm. Was he really shortening his life using that technique? Sakura had warned him before not to use it again recklessly, but against any enemy that strong, was there any choice?

Still, Naruto always saw the bright side in everything . . .

"Though actually, I'm kind of enjoying this." Naruto had said back then.

Sakura had acted surprised, but she hadn't really been. After all, she enjoyed being with him too. But as soon as Naruto saw that on her face, he changed his tone. He had concluded.

"It's like you and me are getting closer to Sasuke."

She always appreciated him being optimistic about Sasuke, but at the time she had been somehow, disappointed. His right arm had been in a bulky cast then, just as it was now. That proved problematic for Naruto.

"I guess I'll help you. Give me your chopsticks." She had said as she slid her stool closer to the frustrated Naruto. She was kind of glad when Sai proved quicker with the chopsticks, but part of her was just as annoyed as Naruto.

Something stirred within Sakura as she watched her old friend sleep. Vaguely, she realized she was lightly stroking his spiky blond hair, running it thoughtfully through her fingers as if it were her own. It was still singed in some places. Sakura froze her hand in place, and felt embarrassed.

"What am I doing here?" She whispered to herself.

She stood up to leave, when the sound of Naruto's voice made her freeze in her tracks.

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan," Naruto half moaned.

"Naruto," Sakura said without turning. "You know you don't. . ."

Sakura had slowly turned back toward Naruto as she prepared her words to convince him he didn't need to apologize yet again. When she saw him, she realized she was still asleep.

Naruto shifted uncomfortably, making a soft whimpering noise.

"Please, Sakura-chan, Forgive me," he mumbled.

Hearing this, something tugged at Sakura's heart. Even in his dreams, she thought, he agonizes over that promise.

"Don't worry, I'll bring him back. That's the promise of a lifetime!" He's said with a smile. Then later, both then and after the first time they lost Sasuke, he'd assured her, "I won't go back on my word, because that's my ninja way!"

It had meant so much to her. It was a memory that she would never let slip away.

She crept over to his left side, and placed her hand on his good left hand. She wondered if she could ease his dreams if she spoke softly to him.

"Naruto, its ok," she whispered into his ear. "Next time we will . . ."

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto croaked, thrashing his head from side to side. "I swear I didn't expect to see you naked, please don't hurt me!"


It took Sakura a moment to process what Naruto was really dreaming about. She could actually feel her blood pressure rapidly rising. Her teeth ground. She cracked her knuckles. A growl began to form somewhere deep in her throat.

"Na-Ru-To!" Sakura snarled the name as she punched his forehead just hard enough so that she knew that it would really hurt. Naruto was lucky he was already injured, Sakura decided.

"Ow! What? Help!" Naruto cried as he shot up to sitting position. He tried to rub his stricken head with his right arm, forgot it was injured, and cried out in pain again.

Sakura suddenly felt a little guilty. Just a moment before she had decided it best not to wake him up. Still, he shouldn't be having dreams like that when she was in the middle of having serious feelings for him.

"Shut up, Naruto!" Sakura snapped in an angry whisper. "You'll wake up the whole hospital."

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto was clearly confused. It almost made Sakura laugh to think of the predicament she had put him in, but there was no turning back now.

"Stop having indecent dreams!" Sakura admonished.

"B-But Sakura, why are you . . ."

"I came to see if I could accelerate your healing." Sakura quickly lied. "Sometimes, when a patient sleeps, their body can respond to healing techniques more readily."

This much at least was true, but Naruto eyed her suspiciously while he adjusted his white pajama gown.

"You should be sleeping too, Sakura-chan." He said while glancing at a circular clock on the wall behind her. "Its two in the morning."

"I . . . I couldn't sleep." Sakura admitted seriously.

Naruto tilted his head thoughtfully.

"Hmmm. Did you try you meditation techniques?"

Naruto was referring to calming and breathing exercises ninja used to sleep whenever possible when under the stress of a long mission. Sakura had tried some of these, with little success.

"Yes," she replied. "But they didn't work."

"Glass of warm milk?" Naruto asked.

"No, Naruto I just . . ."

"Count sheep?"

"Don't be silly, I just . . ."

"Oh, wait. I know! Music!"

"Naruto . . ."

"Hey, I got this neat CD full of relaxing stuff back at my place."

"Naruto, really . . ."

"My keys are over there on the dresser, now if I can just remember where . . ."

"Naruto!" Sakura shook Naruto by his good shoulder to get his attention.


"Please. I'm fine. I just . . .the truth is . . ." Sakura swallowed. Why was this so hard to say? "I just wanted to be . . . with you . . .for a while, Naruto."

Naruto blinked. For a moment he looked stunned. Then he smiled broadly, and relaxed back onto his pillow with his left arm folding back behind his head. He tilted his head to look at her with those pearcing blue eyes of his, a satisfied smile still on his face.

"Sakura-chan, if you ever want to be with me, you don't have to sneak around. "Even if I'm asleep, I'll be glad to wake up for you." His eyes twinkled in the moonlight as he rubbed the fresh not forming on his forehead. "Just go easier on the wake-ups, okay?"

Sakura laughed. "I'll do my best."

"So," Naruto said. "I'm awake now. Is there something you want to talk about?"

"Well," Sakura said thoughtfully. She got to her feet and walked back around the bed to plop back down in the small leather chair meant for visitors. "I didn't really intend to . . ." Naruto frowned, just a little, and Sakura stopped herself from saying, "talk about anything important."

Naruto was ready to listen, and the way his attention tended to drift during the day,

Sakura figured this might be a rare opportunity to ask whatever she wanted. She decided to start with something simple.

"But I have been wondering something," she added quickly.

Naruto struggled to sit up again.

"What's that?"

"Lay down! You'll mess up the bandages," Sakura said as she slid the chair closer to the front end of the bed so he could see her better. "Anyway, back at our last battle. What did Hinata say to you, if I may ask, before she passed out?"

Naruto's face drooped with sadness and worry.

"Hinata." Naruto's eyes met Sakura's again. "How is she?"

"She's still in intensive care," Sakura said. "But Tsunade-sama is confident that she is stable now and out of danger."

Naruto nodded. His lips still tight with worry.

"It was nothing special," he said at last. "Why do you ask?"

"I've never seen you fight with so much power. I was so scared that the Kyuubi was releasing again. But it was your own power, Naruto. It was taming the kyuubi's. I've been looking for my own way to help you, so . . .

Naruto sighed. "She said I could do it, that I could win. That she's always believed in me, and . . ." Naruto paused, to scratch his head. He was clearly struggling with something. "She, ah . . . she said she loved me."

Sakura's eyes went wide at the same time Naruto began to blush a little. She suddenly felt like her heart had been flash frozen, and it made her inhale sharply. At the same time, it all made sense, knowing the way Hinata acted around Naruto. For some reason, Sakura also felt a warmth for Hinata that she had never experienced before, as if they were suddenly kindred spirits. What was this feeling? Fear?

"And . . ." Sakura began carefully. "Do you . . . love her?"

"I-I'm still a little overwhelmed," said Naruto, stalling. "I never really thought about it. I mean, she's very cute, and strong. I've always liked her, still . . ."

Sakura waited, hoping the interest on her face would encourage him to continue.

"Still, it was never like what you feel for Sasuke."

Sakura felt tension leave her shoulders as her whole spine slumped back into the chair. She closed her eyes. What was wrong with her?

"I see."

There it was. Everything always came back down to Sasuke for them. Was that tramp right? Would Sasuke want to come back? She sighed.

"Naruto. I hope you never feel for anyone what I feel for Sasuke. To love in vain, it . . . it hurts too much. I always thought the pain would be worth it in the end,

but . . ."

Naruto reached for her with his left hand when he saw the tears billowing in her eyes, but he could not quite reach her face by reaching across his own body. Sakura let him take her hand.

"But I think . . .I wish . . .I wish I loved someone like you, Naruto.

Naruto smiled an understanding smile. Those eyes . . . she felt like they could see right through her, to an extent even greater than the Byakugan. She felt naked, exposed. She felt short of breath. And still Naruto just smiled at her. She resisted the urge to bolt from the room, and only because Naruto was holding her hand softly. She hadn't really said anything at all. She could have meant anything by it, but Naruto understood. He always had.

"I love you too, Sakura-chan." he said.

Sakura's heart leapt to her throat. She stammered, her mouth working soundlessly, searching for some reply . . . any reply. None came.

"Its okay, Sakura-chan," Naruto said. "I don't expect anything. I know we are not meant to be together, but you don't mind if I try asking for a date every now and again, do you?"

He grinned. It was his biggest, stupidest one in while, and it made something within Sakura snap.

She threw herself at him, lips first, and found her target. Her lips met his with enough force to pin his head to the pillow. Naruto never stood a chance as she thrust her tongue between his lips.

Naruto's body went ridged as he barely managed an, "mmmph!" before Sakura's kiss fully enveloped him. A moment later he relaxed, and she felt an arm slide across her shoulders and a hand cradle her neck as he pulled her closer and returned the kiss.

Sakura relished the moment, even as it suddenly became awkward. She realized that she needed to be less forceful, let him lead the dance at times. Every pass of his tongue made her shiver, the touch of his lips on hers warmed her. She reluctantly parted with him with a long, wet smack, and only because she needed to catch her breath.

"Wow," Naruto breathed. "That was much better than kissing Sasuke."

Sakura laughed. And kept laughing. She doubled over next to the bed and laughed so hard she could barely breath. Tears came to her eyes as she realized Naruto was laughing too, only more controlled. But it fueled her laughter, and try as she might she was unable to stop.

"Sakura chan, Shhhh! Shhhh! Now you are the one who is going to wake everyone up!"

"I-" Sakura gulped. "I had almost forgotten about that time! I was so . . .ha! ha! . . .I was so jealous of you!"

Sakura regained control of her breathing at last, and wiping her eyes, she stood up.

"Thank you, Naruto-kun. I haven't laughed like that in a very long time."

Naruto smiled warmly. Then he looked serious again.

"What does this mean, Sakura-chan?" When Sakura offered no answer right away, he continued. "I mean, I know what I would like it to mean, but . . ."

Naruto looked away, and Sakura had an idea what he was about to say.

"What happens if, sorry, when Sasuke comes back?" she finished for him.

Naruto nodded. "And we will get him back, Sakura-chan."

"I know."

Sakura knelt beside the bed again and took Naruto's good hand in both of hers.

"I . . . I don't know, Naruto. I'm sorry. Please be patient with me a little while longer."

"I understand," said Naruto. "And waiting is no problem, its just that . . ." Naruto was visually struggling with his next words, his eyes shifting from side to side. "For so long I've been resigned to just be your friend, but now, if I let myself love you, won't I always just be the guy you had to settle for?"

Sakura was actually stung by that, and Naruto read it on her face, because he said,

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan. I'm just scared of . . ."

"I know, Naruto. And I understand, I do. But if I give you my heart, you have it all. I don't do things half-ass."

"I know." Naruto said, his eyes twinkling again.

"Just a little more time." Sakura assured him. "I just need some time to think. And . . . for what its worth, I think Sasuke wants us to be together."

Naruto's eyes widened, and she knew he had remembered the last thing Sasuke had said to him. She kissed him goodnight, but on the forehead. Then she left without a word.

Later, back in her room, Sakura fell asleep with a new good memory.