Chapter IV

"Oh, crap! I forgot the scroll!" Naruto exclaimed, slapping his forehead in exasperation.

"Hum... what?" Sakura asked confused.

Naruto looked at her and back at the Hokage Tower in the distance, apparently trying to decide whether or not to go back and get what he'd missed. He must have decided otherwise because he resumed walking the direction they'd been going: towards the area where team 8 was supposed to be helping with the repairs.

"I forgot to ask Baa-chan for the scroll to create the Foxes' summoning contract." he clarified for her benefit. He slapped his head again, "I also forgot to ask if it was going to interfere with the Toad's contract! Damn it!"

His words brought Sakura to the time, just a few moments before, where Naruto and Tsunade-Shishou had almost tore each others throats apart over the small black kit. What had all that been about? She'd never seen Naruto so... hostile, so bitter about Konoha and the Hokages... Was this his true feelings on the matter? Had all the abuse he'd suffered over the years due to the hate and shortsightedness of the villagers cause him to develop such darkness in his heart?

"Naruto..." the words came out of her mouth before she had the opportunity to stop them, "Do you... hate us? Hate Konoha?" her voice sounded feeble and weak even to her ears. She was afraid of the answer.

Naruto looked at her in bewilderment.

"What?" he asked, and to her eyes he did appear to be surprised at the question, "Of course not, Sakura-chan! This is my home. How could I hate it? How could I hate my friends?"

Sakura made a helpless gesture towards the Hokage Tower.

"But... You... I mean, just now..." she tried to explain, stumbling over her own words. Taking a deep breath to sort herself out, she tried again, "I'd never heard you talk about the Hokages like that, Naruto..."

The blond ninja sighed and looked up, appearing pensive. Then, instead of answering, he made his way to one of the many benches that sat alongside the road, accompanying the river that lead to the bridge where once their Team 7 had had its meeting spot. Sitting down, he made a gesture for her to copy him.

Naruto buried his chin on both hands, apparently trying to sort out what to say, while Sakura waited, her hands clasped over her knees, for him to talk. Why was she so tense about this? What was she afraid he'd tell her? Sakura herself wasn't able to find an answer.

"For the longest time, I idolized them, you know?" she heard him start.

"The Hokages?"

He nodded in acquiescence.

"Hai." he looked at the faces carved on the mountain behind the Hokage Tower, "Those guys were awesome. The first two built the village, and secured the Land of Fire from the Chaos of the Dark Ages. The Fourth defeated the Kyuubi – granted he sealed it inside me but until he showed up, the damn thing was just wasting the other ninja. And the Third, well, the Third was old as hell and he still was revered as one of the most powerful ninja alive."

Sakura sat in silence, looking at this contemplative aspect of Naruto that she had so few experiences of. With the coat and the huge scrolls strapped to him he really looked like a Hokage – or at least a Sannin.

"But, ever since I found out that the Bastard Fox had been sealed in me, do you know what else I've discovered?"

All Sakura could do was shake her head and wait for him to answer.

"Despite all they achieved, they were still just human. The First Hokage brought Order from Chaos with the creation of the Village but was still unable to stop the uprising that led to his death in battle against Uchiha Madara. The Second Hokage practically led to the cementing of the Village System but died on the Great Ninja War, leaving a mismatched team for councilors and a Sarutobi-jiji that was still too young for the role of Hokage. The Old Man treated everyone with respect and was liked by all the kids, but that kindness also kept him from doing what was necessary and led to his death at the hands of Orochimaru – his own student. We all know how that went on. And the Fourth..." he laughed, "the Yellow Flash of Konoha, the only ninja to receive a double S rank in both Cloud and Rock Bingo Books, it was all he could do to keep the Kyuubi from killing everyone. For all his power he still couldn't save everyone and had to sacrifice not only himself but me as well. And you know what? I still can't hate him. He made a difficult decision on a shitty situation and went as far as sacrificing his own life for our protection. So no, Sakura-chan, I don't hate him. Nor any of the Hokages. They were just human. With a lot of power, yeah, but that just made their mistakes all the more dire."

Sakura listened, fascinated, as he exposed his thoughts on the matter. It always surprised her how much of a fool he could seem and then, suddenly, BAM! Invaluable piece of wisdom to Sakura from yours truly, Uzumaki Naruto.

"What pisses me off is that we use them to justify our own shortcomings." he continued with some heat, "The Third Hokage makes a law forbidding the exposure of my status as a Jinchuuriki? Doesn't matter, let's just all shun and ignore the brat and use him as a scapegoat for our personal problems!" he puffed his chest and started to imitate a stuffy merchant, or perhaps an overconfident council member, "Oy! True I lost all my money when I bought these overpriced batches but I didn't really set up the Demon Brat to take all the blame for their destruction so that I could get my money back. Or even better: True, I wanted to take the Scroll of Sealing for myself, but I didn't trick the Uzumaki brat to steal it from the Hokage and then planned to murder him in an abandoned clearing and take it for myself!"

Sakura laughed at his impersonations. Naruto looked at her with a light apologetic smile.

"You know what I mean." he continued and waved his hand carelessly at the Tower, "and now this. Just because we're afraid, just because we don't understand something, we're all ready to go as far as killing an innocent life just so we can go on with our day-to-day without a care in the world. It. Was. Exactly. What. They. Did. To. Me." he said, punctuating each word with a light punch on the bench, "They were afraid of the Fox, they did not understand the sealing, cause the Old Man never explained it – another proof of his humanity, right there -, so let's just kill the brat. That didn't work? Let's make his life miserable then; let's tell our kids to shun him away! That's what pissed me off."

Sakura's mirth at his earlier antics had vanished without a trace and had given place to guilt. She remembered, when they were younger. How everyone ignored Naruto, how their parents would pull them away from the Park when he was around. And worst of all was, she'd been a part of it too! Which made it all the worse because she had felt first hand the pain of not being accepted by her peers. It wasn't until Ino had come along that she had had a friend.

"I'm sorry..." she tried, to apologize, but the words just froze in her throat when he turned his surprised face at her.

"What for?"

Sakura shook her head, "For everything. For all we did back... back then. We shouldn't have treated you like that – I shouldn't have treated you like that." She amended, when memories of some of her reactions to him jumped to her face.


"- It's NOT alright!" She interrupted, getting up from the bench and actually thumping her foot to the ground in frustration, "No! Stop!" she insisted when he opened his mouth, pointing and waving her finger at his nose "Don't do this Naruto. Don't try to wave off what was done to you. It wasn't nice, It was not alright and you didn't deserve it. Kami, Naruto, how can you still be my friend after all I did to you?" she asked, angrily wiping the tears that were threatening to fall from her eyes.

Naruto had a slightly baffled look as he too got up, "Sakura-chan... how can I not?" he spread his arms, "You're my teammate, my first friend, you accepted me even after you knew I had the Fox with me, after I nearly killed you because I lost control of myself because I couldn't hold my temper in check! Sakura, I nearly killed you and you still accepted me! How could I not be your friend?" he asked, grabbing her by the shoulders and giving her a light shake.

Sakura turned away from him and walked a few steps.

"It still isn't right. Don't do this Naruto. I'll be glad if you don't hold it against us, against me, but don't act as if it didn't happen. Give people a chance to make up for it but don't pretend we didn't hurt you!"

She turned to him angrily.

"I'll make it up to you! I promise you I won't let you down, Naruto. I'll be there for you, I'll always be your friend! I-"

Sakura was unable to continue as Naruto wrapped his arms around her with a sudden movement. Her throat closed of in surprise and a frantic squeak was all that came out. Naruto held the hug just until before it might have started to be uncomfortable, before whispering in a throaty voice, "Thank you, Sakura."

Sakura swallowed thickly and fought down the blush that threatened to rise in her face, as Naruto let her go. She was so flustered she didn't even notice him discretely wiping a tear from his eye.

"I-I won't go back on my word, Naruto." she managed, weakly, paraphrasing him.

Naruto gave her a bright smile and waved her down the street,

"Let's go find Kiba, I wanna ask him about Kuro-chan."

"Whoa! What's with the new look, Naruto?"

Sakura watched, bemused, as Naruto opened his arms and made a full rotation for Kiba to check out the entirety of his attire. A frown made its way to her face, though, as she noted the almost hungry look Hinata was surreptitiously giving her team-mate.

"You like it?" he asked, fingering his flamed coat.

"Looks cool." Kiba agreed, before jerking a thumb in his male teammate direction, "A lot better than Shino's, anyway, though that's not saying much."

Shino threw him a mild glare from behind his shades at the unrepentant grin the other gave him.

"A-Ano," Hinata interrupted, a mild blush still on her face, "Are you here to help with the reconstruction? I thought today was team 7 day off." Her stammering seemed a lot better, Sakura mused, even though she still hesitated at the beginning of the sentences.

"It is." Naruto confirmed, "I just wanna have a word with Kiba, if he'll let me. In private." He added, meaningfully.

Kiba looked more confused than anything else, but he still acquiesced to the blond's wish.

They took several steps away from the house team 8 had been working, while Sakura made small talk with Hinata and Shino silently returned to his task, the rhythmic sound of his hammer filling the air and giving them some added privacy. Of course they were ninja: each of them probably knew more than a dozen ways to overhear a conversation without having to strain their head too much. But they were also fellow shinobi of the leaf; there was something called trust to be taken in consideration.

Sakura surprised a few furtive looks from Hinata in Naruto and Kiba's direction and couldn't really decide whether what she saw in the girl's face was burning curiosity or jealousy that her team-mate had a moment alone with the Blond. Sakura fought back a chuckle at Hinata's blatant infatuation. Only Naruto could miss signs as obvious as these.

The blond was returning now, with Kiba at his side, a pensive frown etched on his face. Clearly some of the explanations the Inuzuka had imparted on him must have left some deep impression, Sakura thought. She wondered if Naruto had ever made a mistake while treating an animal and if that mistake had been brought to light with the conversation. She knew Naruto liked animals and had an on-and-off hobby of taking care of any lost or abandoned pet he came across but, as far as she knew, those would mostly be cats and not dogs which would be what she expected Kiba to be knowledgeable about. So maybe it hadn't been a mistake on Naruto's part after all. Sakura felt somewhat proud of having reached this conclusion herself. The reasons were twofold: first, for some reason she couldn't explain, it pleased her that she had concluded Naruto would not make a mistake like that, even if it wasn't for any other reason than the fact he had never treated a dog in his life. And second, because she had concluded that before Naruto had reached them and had avoided making the scene of babbling some kind of admonishment or accusation against him. Sakura would be the first to admit that she had had a less than stellar behavior in regards to her teammate during the first years of relationship but, sometimes, especially when she let her guard down, she would find herself reverting to the old patterns of harassing him for every little thing. It was happening less and less often these days but she still felt a sense of accomplishment every time she managed to avoid a pitfall like that.

Her attention snapped back to the present in time to hear the Inuzuka's parting words to her teammate.

"Sorry I couldn't be of more help, Naruto." and he sounded genuinely sorry too and even a bit vexed, as if it was a shame that someone like him wouldn't know something concerning canidae. She honestly didn't see the problem. Both her and Naruto had known of the possibility of Kiba not being of any help in the problem of raising the next Nine-Tails: it wasn't as if it would behave as a normal fox anyways, so maybe the request hadn't been a sensible one in the first place.

"Hmm? No it's alright." Naruto mumbled distractedly, before zeroing on Team 8 with an intensity that was not normal and reminded Sakura that Naruto was a Sage now. The Pink-haired kunoichi thought Hinata was about to faint, "It wasn't as if I was expecting this to be an easy task. Worthwhile things rarely are."

Sakura was once again floored by the wisdom the blond's words contained. Seriously how could she have missed it before?

A/N.: Extremely small chapter, I know. But I was getting unconfortable with how much time it was taking me to update this. Add to the increased workload from my job and master's thesis and this seemed like a good place to stop. I remind everyone that none of my stories are abandoned - it might just take me longer to update them. Sometimes, we don't really have a choice in the matter...

Review, if you feel like it.