Road to Redemption
by Ave Jane

I do not own, in part or as a whole, Naruto. All standard disclaimers apply.

Part One: Sympathy

Sakura's nose wrinkled at the pungent odor of tobacco and sake that hung in the air. She squinted through the dim haze of smoke that filled the shady sake house looking for a familiar face amongst the muted crowds. It was such a dark, depressing place, so unlike Naruto that Sakura wondered how she had ever managed to convince herself that the blonde might patron such a place. Still, there was nowhere else; this unwholesome little establishment hidden in the shadows of the Hidden Leaf Village was her last hope.

She frowned, fighting the urge to shrink away from this place that offended her every sensibility and return to the sunny world outside. Slowly her green eyes studied every face and form and became more and more disheartened. Just as the smoke had begun to make her sight blur beyond vision she spotted a hint of blonde hair in the farthest corner of the room. Without hesitation she moved toward it, through the crush of bodies that hindered her path. The journey seemed to take an eternity and through the ages Sakura focused on the blonde whose fuzzy details became clearer with every step.

When he was finally fully within her view she stopped short. A swell of emotion rose in her chest as she was suddenly overwhelmed with uncertainty. She studied the blonde's profile and realized that the Naruto of yesteryear was gone. His boyhood roundness had melted away to reveal the lean body of a man, a man whose long limbs were casually strewn across the whole length of his lonely booth. His features were sharp and rugged. The tell-tale whisker like markings that graced his high cheekbones were now accompanied by day old stubble and his wispy blonde fell in roughish spikes across his cool cobalt eyes.

His eyes, they aren't right.

His eyes were different then bright topaz she had been accustomed to. This older, dangerously handsome Naruto was completely foreign to her. Sakura realized she had been a complete fool to believe that Naruto had remained the same blithe youth of fifteen he had been six years ago. It dawn on her that she was suddenly very cold. The one person she had hoped could understand the depth of her grief for the fifth hokage's passing did not seem to exist anymore.

She was completely alone again….without the hope that was someone else out there that shared the same feelings of abandonment and betrayal. Slowly, the world was closing in on her as she stood frozen in place. The cramped atmosphere of the sake house pressed on her with the heavy weight of emptiness. She was drowning in her own turmoil and he had yet to even notice her presence.

"Naruto," it was the weak plea of a dying woman and somehow he heard it. Dark cobalt eyes flickered toward her rooted form. There was sluggishness to the smooth movement and Sakura became aware of the numerous sake containers littering the booth where he sat.

So that's why he hadn't noticed me.


He said the syllables of her name slowly as though reacquainting his tongue with the combination. His response broke her out of her stupor and she closed the distance between herself and the booth. She looked down at his haggard expression and wanted to cry.

As a child, her distain for him had been clear for all to see. Like the other children of their generation, she had been subtly taught that Uzamaki, Naruto deserved nothing less than expulsion from civilized society. She had never thought of how cruel she had been to treat him so, not even after they had become friends. She had been fooled by his façade, deluded into believing her hard won friendship with him was like her relationship with Ino when in fact her tormenting of him had not been rooted in playful banter. She had never paused to acknowledge the lonely child Naruto hid beneath his rambunctiousness, the one peering up at her from behind those cobalt eyes.

"She's gone, Sakura. My baa-chan's gone." The deep gravel of his voice was low and it made the kunochi's heart flop painfully in her chest. Those words restored her hope that maybe he was not lost to her. That maybe they could survive this unbearable grief together. It gave her the strength to speak again.

"I know." Her own voice was hoarse from repressed sobs.

He shook his head, as if to clear it sending blonde spike this way and that before dropping his gaze away from hers. Sakura followed suit staring at the palm of his large hand where a jade green crystal lay innocently enough. Seeing her mentor's old necklace brought on a new wave of emotions Sakura did not know how to deal with so she reach down and grabbed his hand. Her fingers laced through the tangled mess made by his long fingers and the thread of the necklace, hiding the last remembrance of Lady Tsunade safely between their joined palms.

Naruto's head snapped up at Sakura's actions as though he'd forgotten she was there. He studied her face for a moment before whispering a low confession, "Tsunade was the last member of my 'family', after Jiriaya's death…"

Naruto trailed off turning his head so shadows engulfed his features. Sakura stood shocked at the admission, but slowly the storm of emotion churning inside her head she came to a decision.

That decision became more concrete with every step they took toward his old apartment. No matter how accomplished a ninja Naruto might be or how much older he was, he still lacked affection and compassion in his life. She would give that to him. It would be her method of amends for all the wrongs Naruto had suffered through his lifetime.

I'll be there for you, the way I should have been from the beginning.

Her determination was set as she fiddled with the lock to his long abandoned apartment. He stood beside her, leaning heavily against the doorframe with his head tilted back, eyes closed, completely oblivious to her serious thoughts. Time stretched as the lock remained stubbornly in place. Sakura's frustration reached its maximum and she finally used brute force to damage the lock before gently swinging the door open.

She entered the darkness with a surprisingly quiet and still inebriated Naruto behind her. Exhausted, he trudged over to the unmade futon that remained in the middle of the floor. Sakura in turn head toward the light switch which wrought no success. Miserably, she turned in Naruto's direction. Death and darkness were a glum reception for a homecoming.

Well not total darkness…

Moonlight filtered eerily through a small window creating a low visibility about the bare room.

Sakura watched Naruto sink tiredly onto the bed throwing a shadowy cloud of dust into the air. Sitting with his elbows perched on his bent knees with his head hanging low in the silvery half darkness, Sakura was again reminded of how physically appealing he had become. She stepped toward his still form. It wasn't like Naruto to be so still, so somber.

It must be the alcohol.

"Naruto. You should get some sleep," Sakura chided in a hushed adaptation of her nursing voice. His head pivoted up to look at her standing figure before murmuring a dull agreement. Without another word of protest he fell back onto the futon from his sitting position, groaning softly he threw his arms over his face.

His hangover must be catching up to him.

Realizing that he must be in pain, Sakura knelt to help him remove his sandals and re position his long frame more comfortably on the bedding. He was groggy and his semi consciousness left her to struggle with his dead weight minus her enhanced strength. Once she managed to arrange him in a decent manner with his head on a pillow and his impossibly long legs over onto the floor, Sakura found herself lying beside him watching him sleep.

His snoring had thankfully lessened during the years into a throaty breathing sound that she found slightly relaxing. In his sleep he didn't seem so foreign to her. His features soften enough to remind her of his old innocence. Even the way he still lay moderately splayed out in his sleep made her think that maybe some of his wildness survived these dreadful years.

"Don't worry, Naruto. I'll take care of you now…."

With a sad smile, Sakura fell into a deep sleep.

After all, you're all I have left.