In your heart

A NaruSaku story

Chapter 4: Best man


In marriage never taunt with a past mistake.
- Maxim

So I'm here.
Safe Dear.
a fiction in your arms.

Am I no good to you now?
Am I no good to you now?

(So much I can do, falling apart)
Whoa-oh, whoa-oh whoa-oh
we're spilling over.
Whoa-oh, whoa-oh whoa-oh
we're falling apart.

So get me out
Start me over
Forever changed
I should have told you
Whoa-oh, whoa-oh whoa-oh
I'm falling apart.

~Matt Nathanson


"Good afternoon Sasuke-Kun!" chirped a happy Ino who seemed to be floating a foot off the ground as she plopped down into a chair across from him in the tea shop where he was enjoying an—until then—quiet lunch.

"Ino." He nodded in acknowledgment before going back to the documents he was reading.

'Whatcha reading?" she tried to read over the top of the papers while simultaneously ordering a coffee from the hostess.

"Chunin exam team entries." Was his quiet reply, as if those four words said everything that needed to be said.

"Oooh Tsunade-sama's letting you proctor this year?!" she chirped happily her eyes bright and sparkly before taking a sip of her freshly delivered coffee. "That's wonderful Sasuke-kun. What part are you doing?"

For a moment Sasuke quirked an eyebrow at her before going back to the documents he was perusing. Ino pouted when it seemed like he wouldn't answer her but before she could protest he did.

"I'm refereeing the final rounds and any preliminaries if needed." He said simply but Ino sharp as always caught the hidden implication.

"What's going on? Is it the Rock again?" she asked her eyes sharp as she narrowed the possibilities in her mind. When the last Tsuchikage had passed on a power struggle had ensued with multiple factions vying for power, and the other nations had been caught up in the ensuing civil war.

"The Ash." Sasuke answered without looking up. "An old contact of mine seems to think they'll be trying to insert ringers this year."

"Again…?!!" Ino's voice was half shock, half exasperation 'You'd think they learned their lesson from last year after Hinata caught them."

Sasuke merely shrugged his shoulders and made a non-committal grunt as if he'd already gone down this line of discussion with someone else and continued reading.

Ino sat quietly nursing her coffee and contemplating a number of things; not the least of which was her dinner with Choji tonight and how she would approach it, and the burgeoning relationship between them. Her train of thought was broken though when Sasuke suddenly looked at her pointedly and asked in his usual no nonsense voice.

"Why are you so happy today?"

"That's none of your concern." She stuck her tongue out at him childishly though a slight red tint to her cheeks told him all he needed to know.

"So you and Choji are finally going out together; that's good." He responded simply and resumed reading as Ino spat her coffee into the face of another customer who yelped painfully and started cursing at Ino about getting his clothes cleaned.

"Wha-wha-how-we…" she sputtered as Sasuke smirked at her before giving the cursing shinobi a menacing glare that told him to apologize for his clumsiness and find other things to do elsewhere. The coffee covered shinobi promptly fell all over himself apologizing to Ino and left as fast as humanly possible.

"It's not that big a stretch." He answered her glare with a raised eyebrow "It was patently obvious that he's always liked you, and I saw him carrying you home last night while I was talking to Karin." He paused a moment to sip his own tea. "Also I saw Choji sporting the stupidest grin on his face this morning. I've only ever seen Naruto wear that same grin after Sakura kisses him so I put two and two together…" he answered and rolled his hand to indicate where he was heading; at which Ino promptly turned beet red and tried her best to shrink into her chair.

"It's not like that…" She sighed and saw his raised eyebrow and the pointed look he gave her. "Nothing happened last night he was a perfect gentleman, and tonight were going out for dinner that's all there is to it."

Sasuke merely rolled his eyes at her before shaking his head and resuming reading. Ino though wasn't quite through and decided to poke a sensitive topic for Sasuke in return.

Namely his relationship with the fiery red headed Karin and where it currently stood. A topic that was much in discussion around the water coolers and other gossip hangouts around Konoha, right up there with the wedding, and whether Sakura's hair was a natural pink or not.

"So you and miss redhead huh…?" she smirked as Sasuke choked for a second on the tea he was sipping at that moment; before he glared full force at Ino who merely smiled back innocently as if she had asked about how clear the sky seemed.

"That's not a concern of yours!" Sasuke sputtered when he'd finally cleared his airway, only for Ino to give an exaggerated snort and roll her eyes.

For a second as Sasuke fidgeted in his chair Ino thought about pressing her advantage and seeing if she could make the stoic Uchiha heir really squirm. But ever aware of the human psyche, she saw something in his eyes that seemed to say that something else was bothering him beyond her teasing.

"Hey Sasuke-kun I was just teasing ok?" she spoke up in a conciliatory tone before he could say anything more. "What's bothering you?" she asked directly something she'd learned was best when dealing with him. She noticed instead of answering that he was looking around as if to see if anyone was listening.

Making her decision Ino reached across the table and grabbed his hand and pulled him with a sputtered protest of surprise from behind the table as she tossed down a hastily counted tip and money to cover their tab. Then Ino proceeded to drag him to one of the training grounds which, was about as isolated as things got in a ninja village.

"So spill, what's on your mind Sasuke-kun." She demanded in a gentle voice with a touch of firmness behind it that told him she wouldn't be letting this go anytime soon.

"I'm worried Ino." He spoke slowly as if feeling out the words "I'm worried about this wedding."

"The wedding!?" Ino's shock was evident "What's got you worried? Is it Sakura?" This time her shock was replaced with anger, and the hint of a challenging edge to her voice.

"No I'm not worried about Sakura…" he began only to have Ino snort, her whispered "Not like you ever were." Not going unheard. Ino noticed Sasuke flinch and go ashen momentarily, and she winced before apologizing.

"Sorry Sasuke-kun that was a low blow." Ino felt chagrined as she knew how close the three members of Team seven were, and what they had gone through to become that close.

Sasuke merely shrugged it off; it wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last time he'd get such abuse, but he'd endure it as long as he lived rather then allow such a betrayal to happen again.

"Don't worry about it..." he shook it off before turning and looking right at her. Onyx eyes locked with cerulean blue as if he were deciding whether he could trust her with this. She bore up under the scrutiny and he nodded his head in acknowledgement before speaking again. What he said though threw her completely for a loop.

"I'm worried about Naruto."

"Naruto!!" Ino nearly shouted out loud before laughing, and causing Sasuke to reassess whether he should have spoken aloud in the first place.

"Oh come on Sasuke-Kun." She poked him in the shoulder causing him to narrow his eyes at her. "He's fine. Seriously; you should have heard him last night at the club. Did you know he can play piano?" she asked.

"Yes." He answered simply looking at her shocked expression, and giving her a look as if to say "What? You didn't?"

"Wait! You knew too!?" she shouted causing him to wince at the volume. "How? When?" The sputtered questions popped out one after the other.

"Since we were kids." He said simply "My family was there the night of the recital." He paused a moment as he processed the memory, a short look of pain flashed through his onyx eyes and Ino couldn't help but sympathize. "My father was the one who carried her to the hospital where she died; my mother took Naruto home that night with Itachi, and me."

Ino shuddered at the mention of Uchiha, Itachi. It was just plain odd to hear Sasuke talk so casually about his older brother, the man whom he had spent most of his life obsessing over for revenge. The man who was responsible for killing his entire clan leaving Sasuke as the only survivor. the man who had joined Akatsuki the organization who had nearly succeeded in killing Naruto.

The man whose name incredibly now sat engraved on the memorial tree in the center of Konoha; where the names of all the heroes who sacrificed their lives for the village now lay carved into the trees iron hard bark.

To this day Ino still found it hard to believe the information Sasuke and Naruto had revealed to the village. Hard to believe, and even harder to accept, yet when Yamato-Taicho had first created the massive tree in the center of the newly formed lake; Naruto had insisted that the first name carved into it had to be Uchiha, Itachi.

Shaking off the ruminations for another time she looked seriously at the last Uchiha, and listened as he spoke up.

"I'm not worried about Sakura, because she's strong enough." He explained "She always has been. She was the heart of our team long before she trained with Tsunade-sama."

"She might get down or even a bit upset but she'll pull through like she always has." He finished and Ino nodded in agreement. She remembered her and Sakura talking on the balcony of the club last night. Even if Ino tended to still see Sakura as a fragile little cherry blossom she was always strong. Still that didn't add up to Naruto being in some type of trouble.

"So's Naruto…" she began only to have Sasuke interject "But he's not Ino!"

"He's strong on the outside, but on the inside he's far more fragile than anyone realizes!" The intensity in his voice caused Ino to step back wide eyed and Sasuke realizing her fright took a breath and slowed down.

"He's been alone for so long…" he paused a moment "Now all of a sudden he's everyone's hero. He's getting married to the girl of his dreams, he's being acknowledged by everyone like he's always wanted." He paused a moment to let Ino digest his words before continuing.

"And it's too much Ino. I'm afraid he's going to crack under the stress." He spoke seriously Ino looked like she wanted to say something but he cut her off again "I know." He said as if reading her thoughts "Put him in a fight and he's fine, but this isn't a battle. That bloody mask he wears is beginning to crack, and I'm afraid that one wrong word, one misconstrued incident will push him over the edge."

Ino took a moment to chew through all that she had been told. Her keen mind searching thoroughly through every interaction she'd had with Naruto recently. She focused her attention on Naruto specifically and tried to see if she'd missed something.

It was with a shock that she suddenly realized she had. Nothing major stood out but small things she remembered did. The same grin, the same shining eyes, but now that she looked closer at her memories, a hint of strain around the edges of that grin, the slightest troubled look that would flash in his eyes ever briefly the closer they got to the wedding. Small things that he would quickly hide especially when Sakura was around; distracting her by acting goofy or stupid; which would inevitably result in Sakura's temper exploding.

Small things that showed that Naruto might be better at reading Sakura then people realized. A person used to hiding behind a mask and who may be uncomfortable stepping out from behind it now that it was no longer necessary.

"I'll talk to Sakura about it." She spoke finally "If anyone can bring him around it's her."

-ooOoo-

She was about to say more when suddenly Sasuke stiffened and then she squeaked as she found herself being carried in Sasuke's arms. She felt a rush of wind and then heard a massive explosion from where they had just been standing. Sasuke set her down on the branch next to him before turning the red of his Sharingan on the spot of the impact.

"What the hell was that?!!" Ino cursed out loud as she waited for the dust to clear.

"Naruto and Lee…" Sasuke spoke up, and Ino nodded. A world of explanation in three words, she watched closely as a green and orange blur flashed over the training ground at dizzying speeds.

For a moment they separated as Lee connected with a thunderous spin kick that sent Naruto sprawling; only for Naruto to bounce up like a spring and launch himself at Lee like a meteor. The crack of Naruto's knee smashing into Lee's jaw caused Ino to wince, and then shake her head as he two began another round of back and forth attacks; fists and feet flying like hail in a storm.

As the two went at each other moving at speeds that boggled Ino's mind she slapped her palm against her forehead, and groaned. "Sakura's going to kill both of them."

"Not if they kill each other first." Sasuke's quiet response caused her to look over at him and she was struck at just how much he was like one of the great red hawks she saw at the Konoha zoo. He was perched on the branch his arms at his sides like wings being readied to take flight. His Sharingan eyes focused on the battle below as if he were waiting for an opportunity to dive and strike. Then she looked closer at the battle taking place and was shaken with the realization that this was no mere sparring session.

This was a fight.

Suddenly she felt a massive wave of sheer killing intent wash over her. A wave of murderous pressure emanating from the fight below that drove her to her knees, and took all of her self control to keep her breakfast down. "T-T-This is…" she stuttered

"Shit!" Sasuke cursed and suddenly he was gone vanishing from the branch in a blinding burst of speed.

He reappeared in between Naruto and a downed Lee who was lying in a crater trying to get up. His hand locked in a vice like grip around Naruto's raised arm in which he held a powerful Fuuton-Rasengan. The wind chakra filled ball of raw energy howled like some demonic chainsaw that was hungry for the blood of its master's opponent. The dark crimson of the Sharingan locked with the blazing slit eyes of the Kyuubi. For a moment Sasuke felt his knees turn to jelly at the raw murderous power and emotion blazing from those eyes, and he nearly bolted. The thought raced through his head "Dammit! He's really going all out! He's really going to kill us!"

Then a flash of red popped into his minds eye. Red hair, red eyes "Karin!" He thought, and suddenly his knees solidified and he grabbed his courage hard. The Sharingan spun like a tornado, and he drove his power into Naruto's eyes trying to break through the crimson rage and the demon that was pushing his best friend to murder.

"Naruto!! Stop!!" He yelled trying to break through the blood and fury that was roaring through his brothers ears. He pushed the power of the sharingan further feeling the pull of chakra to his eyes. He felt Naruto push forward and his feet giving ground as Naruto tried to get to Lee in his fury. He felt a sharp sting on his cheek and warm blood flowing down it as a flare of wind chakra sliced him open. He ignored the pain and continued to push. Finally he felt the resistance give and he found himself inside the sewer like mindscape of the seal. And there before him was the greatest of the tailed beasts; the Kyuubi no kitsune. But it wasn't the nine tailed fox that drew his attention in spite of its roars of rage at his intrusion.

Instead it was the small figure on the ground surrounded by a whirl of red chakra that he went to. The chakra snapped at him, but it was the sharingan that had power here and he walked confidently through the blood red storm, the crimson chakra parting before him like a boat parted the waters before kneeling down by the small blond figure.

"W-w- what are y-you doing here?" the small childlike representation of Naruto's mind asked him while crying. For a moment Sasuke was stunned at the realization of what must be happening. He knew Naruto was having troubles but this was worse then he imagined. The last few times he had used his sharingan to do exactly this; the mental representation of Naruto had always been the same as his outer appearance. But now if his grasp of psychology was any good at all, this meant that Naruto was regressing in more ways than one.

"I'm here to take you home Naruto." He sighed softly as he kneeled and put his arm comfortingly if somewhat awkwardly around his teammate.

"Are you my friend?" the crying childlike figure looked up at him with wide hopeful eyes. And Sasuke couldn't help but be shaken by the memory of a younger Naruto sitting alone on a swing as people passed him by. It was the same hopeful look that would flash in his eyes whenever anyone would look at him with anything other than contempt, or hatred, or indifference. For a brief moment his own hatred for the village bubbled up inside him, but he quickly shoved it back down and locked it away before smiling warmly at the small figure before him.

"Yes; were best friends Naruto." He smiled and then stood up and turned and offered the small boy his back. For a moment Naruto seemed to consider him as if wondering if he could trust the person before him. Then he made up his mind and crawled up on his back.

"So were going home now?" the small hopeful child like voice came over his shoulder.

"Yes." He replied "I'm taking you back to Sakura now." he felt the childlike weight squirm in his grasp but held on tighter. "Don't you want to see Sakura?" he asked Naruto.

A hesitation and a sob proceeded soft words which caused his eyes to widen in shock. "She hates me…"

"No she doesn't Naruto." He chuckled at the absurdity of it, even though he couldn't help but be shaken a little by the memory of a young Sakura sitting there and answering Kakashi's question "The one I hate is…Naruto!"

"She loves you very much and you know it Naruto." He reassured him but only silence greeted him and he looked over his shoulder to see that the child like representation was fading away and being replaced with the more adult version, while simultaneously the Kyuubi was receding into its cage. Sighing softly Sasuke left the mindscape of the seal and came back to him self. Though it felt like he had been in the seal for several minutes he knew it had only been for the briefest of moments.

The Fuuton-Rasengan had dissipated and Naruto's eyes were slowly changing back into their usual deep blue. In those eyes Sasuke saw a deep and abiding pain, and he didn't want to see it. It reminded him too much of his own pain and it was a pain that didn't belong in those eyes.

"Feel better?" he asked standing up and releasing his grip on Naruto's forearm.

Naruto's eyes strayed to the cut on his cheek before he looked away shamefully. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, then opened it to try and say something before he finally looked away and decided to say nothing. Sasuke could see his shoulders shaking visibly as if Naruto were shaken to his core by what had almost occurred.

A stir behind him caused his head to turn where he saw Lee being helped up by Ino who had leapt down to pull the injured Tai-Jutsu specialist out of harms way.

"Naruto-kun!" The younger Gai clone spoke up loud and clear. "I gladly accept your request, and would be proud to stand by your side at the wedding to your beloved!!" he finished with a wide sparkling grin and a thumbs up in spite of the condition he was in.

"Wait!!" Ino snapped out. "Are you two telling me this entire mess was about you being asked to be one of his grooms men?!" she stared incredulously at them both, before throwing her arms in the air in exasperation which caused Lee to flop to the ground with a surprised squawk, her long blond ponytail lashing back and forth like the tail of an angry cat. "I swear; Sakura is going to kill the two of you, and if she doesn't I will!" She snarled at them and both seemed chagrined. Naruto seemed to sink even deeper into himself at the mention of Sakura.

"Thanks Lee..." He muttered before suddenly shooting skyward and vanishing over the village.

"NARUTO UZUMAKI GET BACK HERE!!" Ino shouted to the now empty sky before tuning in a huff to Lee who cringed under the combined glare he was receiving from the two standing over him. "And you!!" she snapped at him causing him to shoot to attention in spite of the battered state he was in. "Do you have to turn everything into a challenge?!!" she shouted "When are you going get it through that thick skull of yours that she is in love with Naruto!!"

"But Ino-san!" he snapped out crisply "I do know that!" He said quickly "their love is most youthful and glorious! Sakura-san seems to glow when she is around Naruto-kun. He makes her very happy and that is what is most important!"

"Then why…?" Sasuke began only to have Lee cut him off with a fire in his eyes as he shook his fist in his intensity. "Because I could see how troubled Naruto-kun is!! His every dream is coming true but it is as if the fires of his youth are being drenched in the preparations!!" he shouted loudly trying to make them understand.

"I thought that maybe I could reignite the fires of his youthful passions by making him fight for that which is most precious to him! Then are battle escalated into such a brilliant show of youth that I took my weights off and…" Sasuke and Ino groaned simultaneously. Ino slapped her hand against her forehead for the second time, while Sasuke looked to the sky as if praying for strength.

Any further conversation was put off at the appearance of several Shinobi including a few ANBU.

"Uchiha-san, Yamanaka-san." The bear masked ANBU acknowledged them coolly. "Would either of you like to explain why we felt an enormous killing intent, and a dangerous chakra coming from here not more then a few moments ago?"

Sasuke could only sigh, and shake his head. It seemed he would not be able to finish his lunch after all. Ino shook her head also, and wondered quietly what else could possibly go wrong.

-ooOoo-

Naruto may have been flying over the roofs of Konoha, but his mind was rapidly beginning to outpace his body.

"What did I do?" The thought burned in his brain over and over again; the flash of red chakra, the roar of the Kyuubi, the crimson curtain of raw rage that had descended over him at the end of his fight with Lee. And dominating all of it; the image that had precipitated the whole debacle. Sakura in Sasuke's arms, it had just popped into his head. An image sent by the damned fox, he was positive of that.

But more worrisome to him was the timing. It had only been three months since wave, three months since the fox had attempted to influence him during his battle with the trio. It had used his rage and pain over Sakura's attack to try and slip its bonds then. But now so close to the wedding it had tried again, and this time it had nearly slipped its leash even just slightly, and worse had used the one mental image that still gave him doubts.

That was what was driving him insane with worry and stress. He Knew!! He knew!! He absolutely knew that his Sakura-chan loved him with all her heart. He knew that she only thought of Sasuke as a friend and brother and teammate, and he felt the same.

"But there was just so much history there." A tiny voice that sounded suspiciously like a younger version of his own whispered in the back of his mind. It would explain why Sakura had been so crazy lately. She'd become so stressed out that she clearly wasn't acting like herself anymore. It had to be the wedding; it had to be the thought of marrying him. "A monster…" The voice whispered in his head, the same voice which had been whispering since the Kyuubi had tried to slip its leash over three months ago.

And no matter how hard he tried he just couldn't silence that voice. That nagging edge of doubt, that feeling like icy fingers running down his spine; that it was his fault.

His thoughts were interrupted as with a sudden lurch he felt his chakra just give out and gravity grab him with its iron grip. He yelped in shock as he suddenly plummeted like a lead weight and the unforgiving ground rushed up to greet him.

-ooOoo-

For Sakura the last couple of days had her near the end of her rope. The wedding was approaching like a fireball jutsu and was proving to be nearly as explosive. It was bad enough that "The Slut" was here but now word had come down that both the Mizukage, and Raikage were also going to be in attendance.

She nearly had a fit then and there and half threatened to call the whole thing off, and then half threatened to take Naruto and elope. Tsunade's calm explanation that this was the wedding of the century, and that they were two of the most famous people in the shinobi world went only partly heeded as Sakura was too busy trying to get the blood to stop roaring through her ears, and keep herself from knocking the smirk off her beloved Shisou's face.

Eventually her mother had arrived to discuss further wedding preparations and had promptly calmed her down. But the stress was still there. She knew she should be happy. Every one of the girls; Ino, Tenten, Hinata, Temari, Rin, her mother, even Anko, and Shizune, and Ayame had thrown in to make the wedding a success. But in many ways lately Sakura felt like she was just along for the ride most of the time.

She prided herself in having taken control of her destiny and having built herself up from a purely mundane shinobi into a kunoichi mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Sannin. Through hard work and determination she had made something of herself, where once she had been merely average and destined to obscurity; thanks to Naruto, and his brilliant inspiration. His life and death struggles had driven home to her just how far she had to go. So she had embraced his example, and dedicated her life to pushing her limits. In the process she had discovered much about her teammates and a lot about herself as well.

She had discovered that the pain of her own childhood was minor in comparison to the pain Naruto and Sasuke had gone through. She'd learned that both had suffered for the burdens they carried; for Sasuke the burden of hatred he had taken on willingly, and for Naruto the burden of the greatest of the tailed beasts which he had taken on unwillingly. Yet both had persevered in their own ways and risen to be better than anyone else in the ninja world.

And she; she who had once considered herself nothing more than a burden to them both, she had changed most of all. Once lost in nothing but a fairy tale and the illusion of what love was, had discovered what it truly was at the side of the very person she had once—foolishly, childishly, stupidly—claimed to hate.

She knew! She knew with all her heart that she loved Naruto! It had been made painfully clear to her how much she loved him; when on the rain soaked ground of Amegakure the final battleground chosen by Madara for his ultimate plan. She had poured all of her heart, soul and love into a single kiss. A kiss which said everything she just couldn't bring herself to say at the time given how her words had failed her in the past.

Inwardly Sakura cringed as she remembered her first botched confession to Naruto in the snows of Iron country. In a twist of irony she, like Naruto before her when learning the Rasenshuriken had been trying to look left and right at the same time. She had been trying to protect him from the potential pain of losing Sasuke, while simultaneously confessing to him that she was open to his feelings, ready to see him as more. Trying to tell him of the special place he had taken in her heart.

But he hadn't believed her he had been so convinced that she would always love Sasuke that her attempt to divert him from his promise, combined with her surprising revelation about her feelings had caused him to push aside her confession.

He hadn't been ready for the change she offered, and in her shock—She had never even considered that he wouldn't react positively to her openness—she had fired back angrily causing a small rift between them. She had grown beyond such childish notions or so she thought, and who was he to tell her how she felt and what she was being truthful about? Who was he to dismiss her feelings so easily? So she had gone to confront Sasuke. Her intentions being to protect Naruto by putting him down permanently in spite of the pain it would cause her, and with the certainty in her broken heart that Naruto would hate her and then turn to Hinata.

But Madara had laid a trap for her, and left Kiba and Lee and Sai beaten badly. It was only Naruto's timely intervention with Kakashi and Yamato that had saved them all, that and the surprising intervention of Karin that kept her from becoming a hostage for Madara to use to draw Naruto into his grasp. Sai—the sneaky bastard—had left an ink clone behind to tell Naruto what she was planning and of course Naruto had come to the rescue. It was Karin though who had helped her put things in perspective. She had helped her escape only after asking her two questions which had resonated in her heart since that day. What did Naruto mean to her, and what would she do to save him.

On the way back to Konoha things had been decidedly chilly between them; a quality not easily attributed to the cold weather. But before they could make full amends they had been accosted by Danzo and his Root operatives. Word had not yet reached Konoha about Danzo's betrayal of the Alliance and thus he was still acting Hokage. All of them had been placed under restriction with Naruto being jailed under the Hokage's office under heavy guard. Danzo had then allowed sound shinobi into Konoha under the pretence of a peace agreement with the Sound and its leader Kabuto who he had saved by nearly assassinating Anko Mitarashi; an attempt she only barely survived. His final attempt to appease Madara had failed drastically though, and he had paid the ultimate price for his hubris. But Konoha had nearly paid a worse price when it was discovered that Naruto with his chakra sealed and unable to defend himself, and had been taken by Madara.

Sakura paused in her walk back to Konoha from the brief trip she had taken to a small village nearby for a medical consult before she left for her honeymoon. She clenched her chest as her heart was pounding painfully and a sob welled up into her throat at the memory. It had been a waking nightmare for her. The worst possible scenario, the very thing she had been trying to protect Naruto from in the first place. And she had been nearly destroyed on the spot by the horrified thought that she would never be able to see him again. Never be able to work things out with him. Never be able to tell him how she felt without the specter of Sasuke, or that thrice damned promise hanging over both their heads.

Surprisingly it was Hinata who with her quiet voice had asked her directly what they should do. The shy Hyuuga heiress had nearly died in the fighting to free Konoha, and while her voice was quiet her pearl like eyes held a powerful determination that seemed to burn into her own tear filled emerald ones. It was then and there that Sakura remembered what Karin had asked her before she had freed her.

"Who is Naruto to you?" the red head paused and adjusted her glasses "What would you do to save him?"

Everything and anything that had been her answer; he was her most precious person, the light and inspiration that had driven her to be better then she was. Her precious teammate and the man she had slowly but steadily fallen in love with. The man who according to Sasuke had been the one she had been in love with all along. Her mind raced through the aftermath of the rescue, and the horrific final battle between Team Seven and Madara. A battle which had nearly been the end of all of them, especially Naruto whose brave nearly suicidal final attack had finally ended the Uchiha founders immortal life permanently.

She had been so happy then, crying as she held him close to her unwilling to move or let him go for fear that he would fade away if she did. And now; it seemed like she was losing him all over again. All of the preparations for the wedding were driving them further apart rather then close together. She could see the stress in Naruto's eyes, he thought she didn't see but she did. He would attempt to hide from her by acting stupid and trying to intentionally push her buttons—Which would work more often then not—but she could see through the grins, and the smiles and the act. And it scared her, it scared her a lot. That damned fox grin of his was coming back and she was scared because she'd thought that they had gotten past his need to use it.

It was like the moments after they had made love in the resort, when he had tried to deflect her concern. She had snapped then and given him an earful. Sakura thought they had finally gotten to a better understanding then but now she was becoming more afraid as the time drew nearer.

More afraid of that final commitment, and whether it would be enough. Could she give him all she had for the rest of her life? Could she be the person for him that she had promised him she would be? Or would she fail to keep her promise, and be crushed under the weight of her own self doubts? Self doubts that it seemed Naruto now shared.

Too many questions; Gods she needed some perspective. Maybe she could talk to her mom or Ino when she got back. Things had been so crazy lately she hadn't had a chance to really sit down and speak to either of them for long due to the need to constantly be on the move, constantly going to one appointment or the other to prepare for the wedding; appointments for the dress fitting, the rehearsal, the tasting at Choji's restaurant, and so on and so forth. It was enough to drive one to drink and for a moment she understood why her Shishou drank as much as she did.

Any further thoughts she had were interrupted as even a few miles outside the village she suddenly felt a distinctive and enormous wave of malevolent chakra wash over her like a fog before being blown away by the breeze.

"Naruto!!" she shouted out loud before suddenly leaping to the trees like a shot. She raced forward her heart hammering against her chest as she ran in fear of the unknown enemy that could make him draw upon that power with such intensity. She never even paused as she raced past the gates and towards one of the training grounds almost running over someone in her haste. A curse was shouted out behind her to watch where she was going but she paid it no heed as she raced to where her love battled the demon he held. The feeling of the malevolent chakra died down as she ran but she never slowed in her pace determined to be there for him and protect him with all she had.

"I'm coming Naruto! Please hang on!"

-ooOoo-

The impact against the roof of the building was bone crushing, and was made worse by the fact that his momentum was not stopped. Instead he caromed off the roof and slammed face first into the unforgiving waters of Lake Uzumaki.

The lake centered in the middle of Konoha was the result of Pein's Shinra-Tensei and was created in the crater left at the epicenter of the blast which had leveled the majority of the hidden village. In the middle of the lake which was formed by converging two of Konoha's rivers into the center through judicious use of both Suiton and Doton Jutsu was a small island upon which a towering oak tree sat. The massive trunk and its branches reached up to the sky a living representation of the village in all its majestic glory. Upon its iron hard bark were carved the names of the fallen, those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for Konoha.

It was here at the roots of the memorial tree that Naruto after skipping across the water like a stone came at last to rest. Pushing himself up he managed to make it as far as one elbow before he coughed and spat up blood. With a pained groan he collapsed onto his back and stared up at the blue sky overhead and the branches swaying in the wind.

"Naruto!" someone was calling his name with a concerned tone. He opened his now bruised and blackened eye and through the blurred vision caught a flash of long dark purple hair and a concerned female face sans the catlike ANBU mask she wore "Yuugao…" he recognized the ANBU operative who had been a teammate with Kakashi sensei and who had been like a big sister to him when he was younger.

"Don't move Naruto you took a bad fall. I'll get someone to bring Sakura here…" she started only to have him suddenly look away

"No don't want help just want to be alone…" He muttered while trying to turn away from her. The image of Sakura in his mind crashed down on him and he just wanted to curl up into a small ball and cry.

"Naruto answer me…" Yuugao's voice was concerned but firmer and more insistent now. "What happened to you?"

"I fell…" he muttered over his shoulder at her not wanting her to see the pain and anguish on his face that couldn't be attributed to his injuries. Injuries which the bloody Kyuubi was already healing on its own; instead of letting him wallow in his pain like he wanted to. Did the damned fox always have to interfere? Did it always have to influence his life in some fashion? The mental cursing he sent at the Kyuubi was enough to curdle fresh milk but the fox greeted his vitriol with only silence.

"You're lying…" She scolded him and her tone caused him to wince. "So what…" He threw his over his shoulder, the unspoken "Go away!" hanging between them.

"When do you fall?" her tone was both conciliatory and a little challenging. As she laid a comforting and gentle hand on his shoulder causing him to sit up slowly as he turned to her.

"I fell in love didn't I?" He whispered and his body shook at the flash of long pink hair and bright green eyes, and the loving smile from a pair of lips that he had kissed ran through his mind.

"Ahh I see…" Yuugao replied quietly her tone remaining neutral not giving away what she saw.

"See what?" he turned slightly to look at her over his shoulder but she only smiled mysteriously. At least he was responding to her. It was a start.

"Talk to me Naruto…" she prodded gently "Tell me about falling in love with Sakura."

"I'm losing her!!" he shouted and stood up so suddenly it startled her "I love her so much every day and I'm losing her!!" and as he turned to look at Yuugao his eyes burned and the tears came unbidden and he couldn't stop them no matter how he tried. As he collapsed to his knees Yuugao scooting under him to support his weight as she hugged him closely. And then he just let go and cried.

After a moment he seemed to settle and took a second to wipe his face clean before looking at her vest now wet from his tears apologetically. "Sorry…" he began to apologize but she merely raised an eye brow at him and waved him off. "It'll wash out."

"Feeling better now?" she asked and he nodded though he still looked like he might curl up hide in a hole at any moment. "Why are you losing her do you think?"

"Because…!!" he shouted suddenly then shook his head as he discarded the answer, and the next one; each one seeming to be more ridiculous then the next. "She hates me she said so…!" he started only to have Yuugao appear in front of him eye to eye her dark eyes burning into his sapphire blues with such intensity that he nearly stumbled backwards.

"When she was twelve and a child." She spoke quietly but with an intensity that willed him to understand and to let go of the doubts and subconscious fears that were plaguing him. He was trying; she could see the conflict in his eyes as he tried to reconcile the truth of his feelings with what he was saying.

"But Sasuke…" he began only to have her cut him off again.

"But Sasuke nothing!" she scolded him. "Stop making excuses, stop blaming others for your own insecurities!" he looked down but she continued to drive home her point. "When you were kids it was easier wasn't it? Easier to believe that she could never love you; that she could only ever have feelings for Sasuke you even convinced yourself so well of that fact that when she came to you and confessed you accused her of lying!" this time he did look down the pain in his eyes palpable as his heart clenched at his own stupidity.

"And now…" she paused a moment to collect her thoughts and let him stew in his own juices for a moment. "…and now when she so clearly does love you, and you have a chance to spend the rest of your lives together you're letting your fear and self doubts get the better of you." She let him have her final salvo the one she'd been saving to really drive home how foolish he was being.

"It's easier to make excuses and blame the wedding, or the Kyuubi or Sasuke and her old feelings for him then to face the fear and stand up like a man. Easier to hide behind that stupid grin, and let your doubts eat away at you then to follow through with your promises isn't it?"

This time he looked her directly in the eyes his anger building but she didn't look away all but challenging him to take a swing at her, and undeterred she plowed on willing him to see the truth. "Do you love her?"

He looked shocked as if she were insane for even asking the question and pouted as if she'd just insulted him but she didn't let him off the hook so quickly.

"Do. You. Love her?" She asked once more emphasizing each word to make sure her point was driven home. He vacillated for a moment chewing over his answer before quietly responding.

"With all my heart… But it doesn't matter any way!" he snapped still not quite willing to concede the point yet. "She'll be happier without me…" he began only to yelp in pain when Yuugao her patience wearing thin finally swatted him on the head hard. He pouted at her his eyes wide in shock but she merely raised an eyebrow at him as if daring him to contradict her.

"Stop sniveling like a baby." She sneered at him "Sakura's hit you a heck of a lot harder then that and she's had more provocation to do so. You're just lucky she isn't here now or you'd likely be using your flying ability to get back from Suna."

He couldn't help it he snorted at the mental image of Gaara's face as he crashed into his office and splatted on his desk; then broke down laughing. For a moment she looked at him like he'd gone crazy then as he laughed her shoulders twitched and then she too laughed as the same image entered her own mind; though hers was a little more contained. His though was genuine she could tell, and she hoped that he was finally past the last of his self doubt and torture.

"Thanks Yuugao-neechan." He chuckled a little more and she smiled before hugging him softly. "I was being stupid wasn't I?" his words were more statement then question but she merely nodded.

"You're welcome outoto." She chuckled herself before sighing then she pushed back from him and looked him in the eyes one more time, noting this time that his eyes were now clear and he was looking at her instead of away.

"Do you love her?" she asked pointedly.

"With all my heart." He answered and the smile he gave her as he did was warm and genuine and he seemed to glow with the realization of it.

"Then go get her baka!" she chided him "Get married ,have babies, do married couple things." She shooed him off and he turned and leapt skyward with a joyous shout before vanishing over Konoha. Yuugao took a moment to catch her breath and shook her head at his enthusiasm. She then looked at one of the names engraved on the trees bark taking a moment to run her fingers over it.

"Oh Hayate they're so much like we were, I hope they have a happier ending then we did." She whispered softly to the wind.

Yuugao stood there for a moment and as she raised her mask she felt a breath of wind flare her waist length purple hair out, and caress her cheek almost as if she were being kissed by the breeze. She closed her eyes a moment and smiled before hiding her beautiful features behind her catlike ANBU mask.

"Yes love I think so too." She smiled then vanished as if she had never been there at all.

-ooOoo-

"Sasuke!! Ino!! Where is he? Where's Naruto?!!" Sakura shouted at the two who were standing in the hospital lobby as she ran up to them.

She had hurried to where she felt the Kyuubi's chakra coming from, only to find a couple of teams of Chunin and Genin cleaning up one of the training grounds which looked like a bomb had gone off in it. She had asked what had happened only to feel her heart drop into her feet when one of the Chunin had told her that a fight had broken out and one of the participants had been taken to the hospital. She had promptly bolted for the hospital leaving the Chunin standing there slack jawed before he could explain who. This brought her to her current predicament as she tried to make it to the hospital in time.

She knew Naruto wouldn't want anyone except her or her Shishou to work on him and would even bypass the hospital entirely until one of them was available. She had scolded him on more than one occasion about such reckless behavior and his only response had been that maybe he'd allow Ino to also but he still felt safer with her. She had of course huffed that he was being childish but inwardly she felt a burning pride that he felt only she could truly help him.

"Where is he Sasuke-kun?!" she asked the concern in her voice palpable as she tried her best to calm down and asset her professionalism, but she was having trouble doing so as the stress of the past couple of weeks had begun to really overwhelm her and this new event wasn't helping any either.

"Ino! How bad is he hurt?!" she turned and accosted her maid of honor who she started to shake in her intensity. She was stopped from practically ringing Ino's neck when Sasuke took her hands and pulled her around with some difficulty—she was exceptionally strong—to face him.

"He's fine Sakura he wasn't hurt." He assured her and she noticed for the first time his cheek had a blood soaked bandage on it. Seeing the question she wanted to ask in her eyes he sighed and explained.

"Lee challenged him for your hand…" he paused as her eyes narrowed and he gulped softly as he could see the vein in her forehead beginning to pulse. The one that usually meant along with her knuckles popping that someone—usually Naruto—would be getting a painful beating for pissing her off. "…They fought and Lee took it a bit far, combined with the stress of the wedding I think he just lost control a little…" he explained only to have Sakura look at him as if he were crazy.

"A Little?!!" she snapped "Sasuke-kun I felt that chakra a mile out from the village!" she began to scold him only to have Ino chime in.

"He knows that forehead!" she said defending her former crush "He put a stop to it and helped calm him down!"

"But why Ino?!" she turned on her "Why is this happening to us?!" she wailed "All we want is to be married, and we can't even do that in peace!" She ranted her stress finally breaking through her control. "The weddings been turned into a circus and were the main attractions, we've even had a sideshow with the Kyuubi and "The Slut" here!"

"And what's next?! The Mizukage and the freaking Raikage and his brother are coming! I mean gods is Kirabi going to want to sing at the wedding?!!" She continued on a roll now before finally running out of steam and collapsing to her knees tears running down her cheeks.

"All I want is to be married to the man I love and now this…" she began to sob "it's all falling apart on us!" she sobbed as her emotions spilled over. Sasuke looked helplessly at Ino who shook her head before he knelt down and awkwardly put his hand on her shoulder.

"Sakura…" he spoke quietly but firmly trying to get her attention "Sakura look at me."

She hesitated for a moment her body shaking as she sobbed and tried to regain her composure. Finally though she took a hanky that Ino offered her and smiled gratefully as she wiped her nose and eyes clean before looking at him.

"Sakura I know things have been crazy for you…" he began and she rolled her eyes, and he did the same seeming to realize how stupid that sounded but he pressed on, secretly he wished Karin was here instead of down in the Konoha archives she was always better at this sort of thing than he was. "…For both of you, but this…" he paused as if to gather his thoughts "This isn't like you at all."

Sakura looked like she wanted to protest but he continued before she could "You've both been through far worse than this and come out better than before, and this situation is no different."

"Do you love him?" He asked her directly onyx eyes looking directly into her emerald ones. Once such a gesture from him would have made her the happiest person alive, but now it just made her feel respected. Now it was a pair of sapphire blue eyes that made her weak at the knees when they looked into hers, and so she answered with a warm smile.

"With all my heart." She answered and the smile on her face was too genuine to be false causing Ino to smile as well.

"Then when he comes here you'll talk, and work things out." He answered calmly "Maybe even take a small break outside the village at the hot springs; I'm sure Ino wouldn't mind a little pampering." He smirked in her direction only to have her huff and stick her tongue out at him while crossing her arms childishly. The gleam in her eyes however was indicative of her interest.

"Things will be fine Sakura." He gave her a small but encouraging smile "You'll see; you're both going to be just fine."

As he finished she smiled brightly and hugged him warmly. "Thanks Sasuke-kun, thanks for everything." She said gratefully then smiled as she pulled back and laid her hand upon his cheek, the green glow of healing chakra easing the sting of the cut and closing the wound easily.

"Now all we need to do is find…"he began only to have Ino squawk in shock "Naruto!!"

The scene was frozen in a vivid tableau as three sets of eyes locked onto one pair of sapphire blues. A pair of eyes that took in the scene before them and began to darken as the light slowly bled from them.

"No!" Sakura thought, as she saw the light leaving his eyes. "Nononono…!" Then she realized the situation as he saw it. Her standing next to Sasuke her hand on his cheek, Ino smiling nearby, with the stress he'd been trying to hide from her over the last two weeks, and her past history.

Oh Hell No! she wasn't going to let this stand, she was not going to let him misconstrue what was a perfectly innocent moment. She was going to grab him—by his manhood if necessary—and shake him, and kiss him, and make him listen to her. But her words died on her lips as he smiled painfully and said something which caused her stomach to clench painfully.

"I hope you'll be happy."

Then he turned and leapt skyward from the hospitals grounds only to suddenly crash into the ground and skid along it. Sakura felt like she was mired in mud; for some reason her legs refused to work right and her tongue was glued to the roof of her mouth. He saw him rise up slowly and painfully and then leap skyward again only to crash a second time into a cabbage vendor's cart which caused the skinny owner to scream in horror at his destroyed wares. His cries went unheeded as Naruto rose from the wreckage a third time. This time though he didn't jump instead he raised his hands in a familiar seal. The sight of this seal caused Sakura's paralysis to break and she shot forward trying to reach him before he could.

"Naruto!!" Sakura shouted her voice piercing the air as she ran for him the tears already beginning to flow from her eyes. But she felt her heart shatter as he looked over his shoulder at her, and smiled an oh so familiar smile. It was the same smile he'd given her when he'd promised her that he would bring Sasuke back that first time. Then he vanished in a yellow flash as the Hirashin carried him off to who knew where.

As he vanished Sakura felt her knees give out on her, and she collapsed to the ground her fingers grabbing the empty space where the love of her life had been only moments before. He was gone again, and this time who knew where or even if he was coming back. Sakura's shoulders shook as she felt Ino by her side hugging her. Meanwhile standing above her Sasuke just shook his head.

"Idiot…" he muttered but there was no bite to the word and whether he directed it at his now vanished teammate or at himself none present could say.

-ooOoo-

Tsunade walked slowly into her office as Shizune trailed dutifully nearby. She was nursing a headache of considerable magnitude due to the fact that the duly elected council in its infinite wisdom had decided that the wedding of Haruno, Sakura, and Uzumaki, Naruto should be based on their ability to produce children within a timely fashion. Since Naruto was the only heir of the Fourth Hokage and Sakura's abilities were special in their own right it was announced that they must produce children within a year to ensure a valid bloodline be created.

They had nodded and clapped themselves on the back at their wisdom and then promptly been silenced when Tsunade stood up and told them all to go to hell. The enraged Godaime Hokage had then launched into a marathon rant about how the wedding was already being turned into some type of circus because of the fame of the two involved and how she had already allowed one too many concessions—VIPs, wedding advice, etc etc—and she'd be damned if she allowed this farce to continue.

She'd quickly put them back into their place and reminded them of their "Advisory" position before storming out with Shizune following her though not without giving them a glare of her own. All she wanted right now was to sit at her desk and just take a nice long drink to take the edge off, and then she needed to think. It was high time she put a stop to this farce of a wedding and allowed her two most precious people to get married in a quiet dignified service like they had originally wanted. Maybe she'd just up and send them both on a trip to Karakura town where people could get married for a hundred ryo and then enjoy the casinos afterward.

She was interrupted in her humorous contemplation of the apoplectic looks on the faces of the council when she had suggested just that, by the sound of someone rooting through her office. She sped up and burst through the door to find.

"Naruto?!" she asked confused "What do you think you're doing?!" she scolded him as he took her stamp and slapped it down on one of the mission scrolls she kept nearby. Her eye caught the flash of black and red that denoted a double SS rank mission "A Suicide mission…!" the thought raced through her mind as he chucked the scroll at her which she caught easily before turning and looking at her with a wide grin on his face, a grin she noted that did not reach his eyes.

"Don't worry Baachan I'll bring her back ok!" he gave her a thumbs up then formed a familiar seal and before she could protest he vanished with the distinctive snap of the Hirashin.

"Why didn't he fly out?" Shizune wondered out loud before she looked at her master who was reading the scroll he'd tossed to her. She saw Tsunade's eyes widen in horror before she crushed the scroll in her hand.

"Shizune get me Sakura Haruno, and Sasuke Uchiha right now and tell Uzuki Yuugao and Kakashi Hatake I want them to find Naruto before he leaves this village, Now GO!!" she snapped and Shizune was already out the door her shouted "Hai Tsunade-sama!" floating in the air behind her.

As Tsunade sat down she pressed her fingers to her temples as she tried to soothe the headache that she felt getting worse. She contemplated the scroll he'd just signed. An SS ranked mission to the land of Lava, to rescue the Princess of the Earth country from an S-ranked missing nin holed up in a castle which was situated in the caldera of an active volcano, surrounded by lava and guarded by a thousand armed warriors; almost certainly a suicide mission by any stretch of the imagination; even for a ninja as powerful as Naruto.

As she sat there she looked out the window and caught a glimpse of the face of Minato Namikaze and she silently thought "Oh Naruto what happened to make you choose death rather than love?"

To be continued