Disclaimer: Naruto doesn't belong to me. If it did, I'd be making ridiculous amounts of money rather than tossing up fanfics on the internet.

"C'mon, C'mon!" Naruto chanted at the board as it cycled through yet another set of random names. "Pick me already! I wanna fight now!" Sasuke had been lucky enough to be in the very first fight, and hadn't even stuck around to watch his teammates' fight their battles. Four battles later (Shikamaru against the kunoichi from Hidden Sound, the weird Sand guy in makeup against a really bendy Leaf ninja, the Sand girl with a fan against one of Bushy-Brow's teammates, and Hinata against the other guy on Lee's team, who was apparently her cousin or something and whose ass Naruto had already decided to righteously kick in the next round) Naruto still hadn't gotten a chance to fight.

He wasn't too picky about who he got to fight, if he had to pick it would be nice to go up against one of the people who seemed so interested in Sasuke. Who wouldn't like a chance to beat one of those stuck-up pricks who'd totally ignored him but seemed so interested in the broody bastard? Maybe that would be the way to make everyone finally notice just how awesome he was.

Yeah, that's what I'll do. Which one then? Bushy-Brows? Nah, he's weird and freaky looking, but I guess he really ain't so bad since he helped Sakura-chan while I was knocked out, plus he's scary-fast. I guess I could fight that Sand guy with the gourd, but … he seems kinda scary too. Maybe the Sound guy with the blasty things in his arms then? He did attack my team while I was knocked out and he hurt Sakura-chan. Yeah, that's who I wanna fight, I'll kick his ass for that!

"Hey, Sakura-chan." Naruto called out to his remaining teammate.

"Guys…" Kakashi tried to cut in before Naruto could start a conversation.

"What, Naruto?" Sakura answered a bit harshly, suspecting that he was about to say something, annoying, rude, perverted, or all of the above, and thus require her to clobber him once more in her continuing effort to pound a little sense into his remarkably thick skull.

"I think I'm gonna be next, and I know who I wanna fight and I'll kick his ass and it'll be so awesome!" The hyperactive blond was bouncing up and down on his feet by the end of his statement "You got any idea who you wanna fight?"

"Guys..." Kakashi tried to get their attention once more.

Sakura paused for a moment to consider Naruto's questions, and then shrugged. "I don't want to fight Lee, and the Sand and Sound ninjas are dangerous, but aside from that I suppose anyone I can beat is alright."

"I thought you'd wanna fight Ino." Naruto asked. "Aren't you rivals with her?"

"You really shouldn't ignore your sensei like this." Kakashi grumbled.

"Yes, but her team helped us with the Sound ninjas in the forest." Sakura temporized. "Ino is my rival, and I won't lose to her, but…"

"Yeah, yeah." Naruto nodded in an eager attempt to show that he understood the girl's conflicted feelings. "I don't really wanna fight Bushy-Brows any more either, even if he didn't acknowledge me when we first met. So who do you wanna fight then?"

Tired of having his students ignore his repeated attempts to interrupt their conversation, Kakashi thumped both genins on the backs of their heads and chided them. "You guys really should pay more attention to what's going on around you instead of getting caught up in conversations."

"Eh?" Naruto eloquently inquired, confusion clear on his face.

"Sakura's opponent has already been decided." Kakashi declared, pointing past the two of them at the board, which was already displaying the next match.

Sakura Haruno vs. Naruto Uzumaki

"WHAT?!" The teammates cried simultaneously, their jaws dropping in shock at the unexpected match-up.

Naruto was the first to recover from his surprise, and quickly made his dissatisfaction with the computer's choice for his opponent known. "HEY! HEY!" Naruto cried down at the sickly proctor. "We can't fight each other; we're on the same team!"

"Teams no longer matter at this stage in the Chunin Exams." Hayate answered calmly. "It's an individual competition now."

"But … but I don't wanna fight Sakura-chan!" Naruto shouted, pointing at the girl in question to emphasize his point.

"Then forfeit." Hayate answered with a bored shrug.

"Eh…" Naruto grumbled, folding his arms across his chest and pondering the situation. I said I was gonna win the Chunin exams and I don't give up or go back on my word. Naruto's gaze shifted from the proctor to the pink-haired girl. But … Sakura-chan. The fights so far had all been brutal; most of the fights had ended with the loser beaten into bloody unconsciousness. I can't do that to Sakura-chan. I wanna be a Chunin, but not that bad…

His decision made, Naruto set to announcing it. "Hey! I wanna for- OW!" Rubbing his now slightly battered head Naruto turned to face his teammate. "What the hell was that for Sakura-chan?"

"Stop wasting time you idiot!" Sakura snapped. "Let's just get to the fight already."

"But we're not gonna fight!" Naruto shouted back. "I was just about to for-" Sakura's fist to the back of his head cut off the rest of his objection.

"Hey, no fighting until I announce the start of the match." Hayate called out, almost managing to inject some energy into his voice.

"Naruto, shut up and fight me already!" The pink haired girl snarled at her teammate. "Even you can't be so stupid that you can't figure out how to do a simple tournament battle."

"But … but Sakura-chan…" Naruto struggled to find a way to explain himself without somehow provoking the volatile girl into hitting him yet again.

"Don't call me that." The girl practically growled, her fists clenched at her sides.


"Don't call me Sakura-chan any more, you moron." The girl snapped, storming off the catwalk and down into the arena.

"But … but…" Naruto frowned at the girl's back, mystified by her behavior. Most of the time she started hitting and/or yelling at him he had a fairly good idea as to why, and no matter how annoyed she'd gotten with him she had never denied him the right to use the –chan honorific he normally attached to her name in the past. Turning to his team leader with confusion and distress obvious on his face, the genin asked. "Kakashi-sensei … what the hell did I do? She's really mad at me…"

Kakashi considered the blond's question for a moment, then advised him. "You might want to take care of the fight before worrying about that. Making her wait isn't going to make her any happier." I've got a theory, but even if I'm right it would take far too long to explain while everyone's waiting for the fight, especially when Naruto is the one I have to explain things to.

"Alright." Naruto said uncertainly, turning about to slowly take his position on the battleground as he pondered his dilemma. What the hell am I supposed to do? Sakura-chan wouldn't let me drop out of the fight, and now she's really pissed at me too! I guess I'll have to fight her, but even if she's being all mean and crazy now I still don't wanna hurt her … I'll just act like she knocked me out as soon as she gets a decent hit in. I just hope she stops being mad at me once she wins the fight.

Once the reluctant and unusually subdued Naruto was in place across from an angry-looking Sakura Hayate proceeded with the normal preliminaries to the battle. "Are you both finally ready?"

"Yes." Sakura answered confidently, her voice tight with anger.

"I guess." Naruto responded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

"About time." Hayate muttered under his breath before suffering another coughing fit. Once the proctor's cough was under control he managed to raise his voice slightly in order to announce. "Round six: Sakura Haruno versus Naruto Uzumaki. Begin!"

The match began with the two combatants doing … absolutely nothing. After several seconds of inaction, Sakura spoke up. "Not going to charge in screaming like a headless chicken?" The girl asked with a rather cruel smirk. "Maybe you've finally realized how stupid that makes you look."

"What's the deal?" Naruto asked, still confused by his teammates behavior. Sakura calling him stupid wasn't anything new, but there was a tone to the word that he'd never heard before. Normally whenever the insults started flying Sakura sounded angry and frustrated, but this time there was a cold, calculated cruelty to her words, as if she were deliberately trying to hurt him. "I've never seen you act like this before Sakura-chan."

"I told you not to call me that!" The kunoichi snarled, charging towards him with a cocked fist. Naruto still had no idea what was going on with her, but since she was getting ready to clobber him he decided to just take the punch, play dead for a bit, and get this crazy fight behind him. Maybe once she hits me again Sakura-chan will finally go back to normal; usually she stops being mad after a punch and a bit of yelling.

Naruto braced for the punch and, right as it landed, fell back and pushed against the ground with his legs, making it look as though the blow had sent him flying. There had already been a fair bit of power behind Sakura's blow, but there was no harm in making it look even more effective by adding in some flight time; he was trying to pass it off as a one-hit knockout after all. Once Naruto's body reunited with the floor of the arena he closed his eyes and went limp, doing his best to pass himself off as beaten.

When he didn't get up after several seconds Hayate grumbled something about getting the match started taking five times as long as the fight itself, then announced, "Winner, Sa-"

"NO!" Sakura shouted the proctor down.

"Eh? What's the deal Sakura-san?" Naruto asked, forgetting that he was supposed to be unconscious, yet somehow retaining the presence of mind to remember not to use his customary honorific for the kunoichi.

"I knew you were faking." Sakura declared smugly. "Compared to the hits you took fighting Orochimaru a couple days ago without even slowing down one punch from me is nothing; I would have to be an even bigger moron than you are to think I'd taken you out that easily. Now get up and fight you idiot!"

Damn … how the hell am I supposed to throw the match now? If she's expecting me to make it look like a I lost then there's no way it'll look believable unless she really beats the crap out of me. Plus, I have to at least make it look like I'm fighting back or else she'll know and get even angrier. Oh man … I'm in so much trouble right now! Gotta think of something…

"Still don't have the guts to fight me?" Sakura scoffed. "I still don't understand how a pathetic waste of oxygen like you managed to practically take out an entire genin by himself to get our heaven scroll." The pink-haired kunoichi gave a disinterest shrug, then drew out two handfuls of shuriken and dropped back into a fighting stance. "If you can't attack, I will!"

Sakura charged forward and unleashed her weapons, sending eight razor-sharp stars at her teammate before arming herself with a kunai. Naruto dodged and blocked the worst the barrage, but allowed several of the weapons to score several minor wounds on his arms and legs. Naruto met Sakura's kunai with his own, and blocked the kunoichi's follow-up punch with his face.

Several quick close combat exchanges with Sakura went exactly the way Naruto had hoped they would, which is to say that he'd taken a reasonable beating without it being to obvious that he wasn't doing his best. Sakura's taijutsu was good enough that Naruto had an easy time making sure that several of his blocks and dodges were just a little too slow, and he took several more solid hits.

However, while Naruto could do a reasonable job of failing to defend himself, if he was going to make his defeat seem believable he would have to make at least a few efforts to attack. Of course, doing that meant hitting Sakura, something that he wasn't prepared to do even if she was being pretty mean to him. Naruto desperately glanced about the arena, looking for anything that might give him a moment of inspiration when his eyes met the one-eyed gaze of Kakashi-sensei and his mind flashed back to the bell test.

Hehe … yeah, that'll work. When Sakura sent a roundhouse kick flying at his face Naruto crouched under the attack and quickly sidestepped as the momentum of Sakura's missed attack caused the rest of her body to continue rotating. When she had stopped moving Naruto was in position almost perfectly behind her, with his hands formed into what a casual observer might mistake for the tiger seal.

"Hidden Leaf Secret Ultimate Taijutsu Technique." Naruto announced before thrusting his fingers up and forward. "A Thousand Years of Death!" The extremely powerful ass poke sent Sakura flying a fair distance, screaming in indignant fury the entire time. She sounds pissed … but then she was already pissed at me anyway, and this way I managed to look like I'm fighting back and cop a feel on Sakura's butt. Sometimes I really am just too awesome.

"NARUTO!" Sakura's enraged scream ripped across the arena, and it was almost a relief to see the more familiar blind rage replace the cold cruelty she had been displaying for most of the match. For the next minute or so Naruto didn't have to put any effort into weakening his defenses, it was taking everything he could manage just to keep enraged kunoichi at bay. However, the girl's moves gradually began to slow as her rage played itself out and exhaustion began catching up with her; she simply couldn't keep up her current mad pace of attack for long.

The next exchange began with Sakura engaging his kunai with her own, and then stepping close inside his guard to throw a fist at his face. Unfortunately, the tired kunoichi was still to angry to pay as much attention to lining up her attacks as she should and too drained to quickly notice and correct any problems in with her positioning. Instead of slamming into his face her fist shot right past Naruto, barely brushing his left ear on its journey into empty space, and leaving a gaping hole in Sakura's defenses.

Naruto knew that ignoring such an obvious opening would give away his game, and not eager to court death by using that technique againg he reluctantly threw a half-hearted punch at his teammate. He wasn't even trying to connect and expected Sakura to easily dodge out of the way or block the attack, but instead the tired girl stumbled and managed to dodge right into his fist's path; he was barely able to pull the blow short before it would have made contact.

Sakura froze with Naruto's fist an inch away from her face, and after a few moments of silence a smirk made its way onto her face. "I knew you were still holding back, I've seen you fight enough times to know you're better than this. What is this, some sort of pathetic attempt to impress me by throwing the fight? You really are a disgraceful excuse of a ninja."

"Sakura-san…" Naruto began, struggling to find the right words. What the hell is going on with Sakura-chan? I've never seen her being this mean before…

"Sakura, there is something I want to ask you. What do you think of Naruto?" Naruto, temporarily transformed to look like Sasuke, asked.

"Naruto always gets my way, and he enjoys seeing me struggle and make mistakes. Naruto doesn't understand anything about me, he's just annoying.

Well that was different. Naruto insisted to himself in the face the less than pleasant memories. After all, she didn't know me then, and now she's had a chance to change her mind so she doesn't hate me any more … right?

"No wonder you were the dead last in our class." Sakura continued with her barrage of insults. "Really, do you have any ninja skills at all beyond being annoying? Do you even know how to spell the word ninja, idiot? How did you manage to graduate anyway? I bet the instructors at the academy just got tired of seeing your stupid, ugly face and listening to your annoying voice."

"What 's your problem Billboard Brow?" Ino suddenly called out. "You're being more of a bitch than usual! Kick her ass already Naruto!"

"Sakura, why have you suddenly become so unyouthful?" Lee added, obviously as confused and bothered by her unusual behavior as Naruto was.

Sakura briefly glanced up at the spectators, taking note of the number of hostile glares she was receiving from the audience. Even if most of his classmates would agree that Naruto could be an annoying pain in the ass, Sakura was taking things a little too far, and it was hard to ignore Naruto's obvious distress at the girl's words.

"Looks like you've picked up a couple fans, loser." Sakura scoffed, backing away from a slightly stunned Naruto; sure, Bushy-Brows was kinda nuts and Ino was probably against Sakura more than for him, but he still hadn't expected anyone to cheer for him during his match. "Don't get used to it; after all, nobody's ever acknowledged you or been your friend, why should it change now? Once they take a bit a of time to think about it they'll go back to ignoring you and treating you like, crap just like everyone else.

"I mean, look at you. You failed the graduation exam three times, and only got out of the academy because Iruka did you a favor since he felt sorry for you. The only reason you got past Kakashi-sensei's bell test was because Sasuke and I took mercy on you, and I've lost count of how many times we had to save your ass on D-rank missions." Sakura shook her head in aggravation, then scoffed and asked, "What kind of idiot ninja nearly gets himself killed just walking a dog?

"You're just pathetic and annoying, nobody likes you, nobody will ever like you, and that whole dream of becoming Hokage … you don't stand a chance. Dead last, stupid, friendless, worthless, cowardly losers like you don't get to become Hokage. Just give up and get used to the fact that nobody will ever acknowledge you."

"Sakura-san" Naruto was trembling from the impact of her words. "What's the deal? What did I do that has you so mad at me? I mean, it's not like you yelling at me or smacking me for being an idiot is anything new but this … I've never seen you act like this before. What happened? Back in the Forest of Death we were acting like teammates, comrades, I was even starting to think maybe we were becoming friends. But now … what the hell has gotten into you Sakura? Snap out of it already!"

"I know what your secret is Naruto." Sakura hissed under her breath, too quietly for anyone else to hear. "Did you really think I wouldn't figure out why so many people in the village hate you for no clear reason? Why everyone's parents tell their kids that they shouldn't be friends with you? It wasn't that hard to figure out. No wonder you try to keep it quiet, if everyone knew they'd hate you as much as I do."

Something inside Naruto snapped with those words; he had long since developed a thick skin when it came to Sakura and her tendency to insult him, but the Nine-tailed Fox and his fears of rejection because of it was probably one of the few areas where a few cruel words could cut the boy to the core. Within half a second of the last word leaving her mouth Naruto was charging; Sakura barely had time to even drop back into a fighting stance before his fist was rushing to meet her head, and this time he didn't pull the punch. The force of the blow knocked the kunoichi off her feet and to the ground, and as the surprised girl lifted a hand to her face she felt a rapidly growing bruise and a bit of blood from a split lip.

Naruto's fist slowly dropped down from to his side, and the blond boy's entire body was trembling with barely controlled anger. "Sakura, I've always liked you, but …" Naruto grimaced and shook his head. "Sometimes Sakura … you can be a real bitch."

"Heh." Sakura scoffed, picking herself up off the ground and wiping away the blood on her lip. "Looks like you're finally ready to fight me seriously; that almost hurt Naruto." Her hands went into a familiar hand sign. "Here's something I know you can't do, loser." A basic clone shimmered into being on each side of Sakura.

"Who needs the crappy clones they teach us to make at the Academy? I've got something ten times better!" Naruto cried out before producing a dozen shadow clones. "Now to show you my newest move, even you won't see this one coming!"

The clones charged forward and launched a series of kicks into Sakura and her two illusionary doubles. Eight of the shadow clones wasted their attacks on the illusionary Sakuras, but the remaining ones hit her with a series of four kicks that propelled the kunoichi into the air, setting her up perfectly for an axe kick that hammered into her right arm and chest to the sound of breaking bones.

Sakura slammed into the ground with a cry of pain, landing heavily on her injured side. Naruto closed in on his fallen enemy and was about to deliver a punch to her face when he realized that she had already lapsed into unconsciousness.

"Winner, Naruto Uzumaki." Hayate announced to deafening silence.

Naruto made his way back up to the upper level in a stony silence that was so unlike his usual good cheer it made everyone who knew him uncomfortable. Bushy Brows tried to cheer him up with some weird talk about not letting the fires of his youth be quenched in the face of adversity and Ino said that Billboard Brow had deserved the beating for being such a bitch, but Naruto really just wasn't in the mood to listen. He did at least try to cheer Lee on when the taijutsu specialist went up against the Sound Ninja with the odd weapon on his arm and delivered a righteous beating, but his enthusiasm dampened when he remembered that the main reason he wanted to see the Sound Ninjas beaten was that they hurt Sakura.

Seems kind of stupid now that I've beaten her up twice as bad as they did. She was being really mean and all but still … she's Sakura-chan. Fighting her like that, hurting her … it just doesn't feel right.

"Naruto." Kakashi finally broke the silence that had surrounded the brooding genin. "The Hokage needs to talk to everyone who made it to the final round." The eccentric Jonin paused for a moment, and then added. "I need to go by the hospital and check on Sasuke, meet me there tomorrow morning to discuss your training."

"Eh? Oh, alright Kakashi-sensei." Naruto answered, making his way down to the arena floor to find out about the upcoming final round of the genin exam, which turned out to be a tournament. He would normally have been happy about the fact that his first match would give him a chance to beat up Hinata's asshole cousin, but under the circumstances it was a bit difficult for him to get to excited about anything.

"You." A quiet voice called out behind him. Turning around, Naruto found himself facing Gaara of the Desert. "Is it true? What that girl, the one you fought, said? You survived a fight against Orochimaru?"

"Huh?" Naruto was taken aback by the question and the Sand ninja's sudden interest. He still didn't know what the deal was with that guy; as soon as Kiba had drawn him as an opponent the normally confident boy had forfeited his match. "Oh yeah, the wierdo snake guy. Yeah, I fought him." I kinda got my ass kicked, but I fought him; at least I didn't chicken out like Sasuke did.

"Perhaps you are interesting after all." Gaara mused. "Defeat the Hyuuga, Naruto Uzumaki … I think I will enjoy killing you more than I would him." Not even waiting for a response, Gaara turned around and made his way out of the arena.

"Scary." Naruto muttered under his breath, trying not to show that he was kinda freaked out by the apparently psycho Sand ninja. Maybe Kiba could tell he's a psycho and that's why he gave up instead of fighting him. Seriously, who the hell goes around telling people how much fun they'll be to kill? With a shrug, the boy did his best to dismiss his fears over the unusual Sand ninja. Eh, even if he is a psycho I'll kick his eyebrowless ass if Sasuke loses to him, and if Sasuke wins then I'll kick his ass instead!

By the time the preliminaries had finished and the chunin candidates had made their way out of the Forest of Death night had fallen almost. Several days of sleeping on hard ground and tough fights had left Naruto eager to seek out his bed, though he stopped off at Ichiraku Ramen for a quick dozen bowls of his favorite food first. Ayame and Teuchi seemed to notice that the normally cheerful and energetic blond was in a low mood, but their efforts to cheer him did little, especially since their initial guess at the cause of his depression had been that he had failed the second stage of the chunin exam. After gorging himself on less Ramen than usual, Naruto made his way back to his apartment and flopped down onto his bed.

The next morning, Naruto dragged himself out of bed and, after a quick shower and some breakfast-Ramen Naruto made his way to the hospital for his meeting with Kakashi to discuss training for the final round. A good night's sleep had managed to do a fair bit for dispelling his funk from the previous day as long as he kept his mind off everything remotely Sakura-related. Luckily, Naruto had a fair bit of practice with finding a way to be his normal hyperactive energetic self when things were going badly and he might otherwise be a little depressed. Hehe … while I'm at the hospital I think I'll go bug Sasuke for a bit. After all, I want to make sure he's healed up in time for me to kick his ass in the finals; no way he'd lose to that Gaara.

Upon arriving at the hospital Naruto tried to find out where Sasuke's room was, but couldn't get any straight answers out of the people at the front desk before Kakashi showed up and made that moot point. "Oh, there you are Naruto."

"Hey Kakashi-sensei, what sort of awesome jutsus are you going to be teaching me?" Naruto asked eagerly.

"Oh, well actually I'm going to be busy training Sasuke." The Jonin explained. "Don't worry though, I've arranged for someone else to train you; he's really probably a better teacher than me anyway."

"Eh? Who is it?" I really wanted Kakashi-sensei to train me, but if he's gotten me someone even better than him I guess that's alright too.

"Oh, well follow me and I'll take you to him." Kakashi offered. "He said he had a really powerful jutsu to teach you."

"Oh? Awesome!" Naruto was still a little steamed about not getting trained by Kakashi himself, but the prospect of a new teacher with awesome jutsu was enough to get him interested. "Lead the way, Kakashi-sensei!"

"You really shouldn't shout so much, this is a hospital." Kakashi declared mildly, walking down the hallway with the hyperactive genin in tow. After walking past several doors and barely managing to keep Naruto from being distracted when they passed by Hinata's room the pair arrived at their destination. "Right in there." Kakashi said, pointing out the door they'd stopped in front of.

"Eh? Why's this new sensei meeting me in a hospital room?" Naruto asked.

"Well, we were already at the hospital anyway, so why not?" Kakashi answered. With a shrug, the Jonin added, "He did say the jutsu he was going to teach you was better than any of the ones Sasuke knows."

"Yeah, I'm totally gonna kick Sasuke's ass now!" Naruto declared, barely restraining the urge to shout. Without a second thought, the blond rushed into the room Kakashi indicated.

As soon as he was inside Kakashi pulled the door shut and pulled a chair over to block it shut before sitting down and pulling out his dog-eared copy of Makeout Paradise. Naruto really is too easy to manipulate.

"Huh?" Naruto exclaimed as the door suddenly slammed shut behind him. "What's the big idea Kakashi-sensei?"

"Just a teamwork exercise Naruto." The jonin-sensei answered. "I'll let you out and take you to meet your real teacher once it's done."

"Naruto, is that you?" An all too familiar voice called out from within the room.

"Yeah." Naruto reluctantly answered, moving further into the room so he could properly see the patient. "It's me Sakura-san."

The pink-haired girl looked distinctly worse for the wear; Naruto's collection of minor injuries from the fight had already healed thank to the Fox, while Sakura's skin sported several faded but still noticeable bruises. Her right arm was resting in a sling, though from what Naruto could tell the hospitals medical ninjas had already set and healed the broken bones.

"I heard you talking to Kakashi-sensei; is he here too?" Sakura asked.

"Kinda; he told me I was meeting new sensei to make me follow him, then locked me in here with you instead." Naruto answered.

"Yup." Kakashi answered cheerfully through the door. "Once Sakura finishes saying what she needs to say I'll open the door ... well, unless my book's getting to one of the really good parts."

"Oh." Sakura said softly. "So you figured it out Kakashi-sensei?"

"I have a couple theories." Kakashi answered cryptically. "It did occur to me that … oh wait, I like this part." Any further contribution to the discussion from the pair's sensei was cut off, and after a few moments the two could dimly hear the one-eyed man's giggles coming from the other side of the door.

"Eh … right." Naruto filled what might otherwise have developed into an awkward silence. "So anyway Sakura-san, I just guess I oughta say…"

"Naruto." Sakura cut the blond off, "What I have to say should come first."

"Eh?" Naruto grunted in confusion. "But I just wanted to say I was sorry for … well ... you know…" He waved a hand vaguely in Sakura's direction, indicating her bruised face and broken arm. She said some really mean stuff, but I hurt her pretty bad.

"Naruto, about everything that happened yesterday, there's something I need to …" Sakura began before her teammate cut her off.

"You don't wanna be on my team any more right?" The blond asked in resignation. "Don't worry, I'll see if I can get on someone else's team, I don't want to cause trouble for you and Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei."

"Naruto." Sakura declared a little more insistently, but by this point the hyperactive genin's mouth was in full overdrive.

"After all, even if said some nasty stuff to me I shouldn't have hit you, especially not bad enough to put you in the hospital. There's no way I'm ever gonna become the next Hokage if I beat up my friends every time they get a little mad at me." Naruto paused for a moment in thought, then added. "By the way, I don't know what I did that got you so mad at me before the fight got started, but I just wanna say that whatever it was I'm really, really so…"

"Dammit Naruto will you shut up already!" Sakura snapped, briefly wishing that her knuckleheaded teammate was within punching range. It never ceased to amaze her how the boy could somehow manage to drive her to verge of homicidal anger just by being himself.

"Oh … I did it again, didn't I?" Naruto asked, looking even more downtrodden than before. "Sorry Sakura-san."

Sakura sighed, took a few deep breaths to dispel her anger, and then began to speak. "Naruto, please don't interrupt me any more until I've finished speaking. I'm not mad at you, and I don't want you off of our team."

"Huh?" Naruto asked, utterly mystified by the girl's words. "But, but yesterday you said that…"

"I said a lot of things yesterday." Sakura interrupted. "I didn't mean them."

"What?" Naruto asked, frowning in thought. "Well if you didn't really mean all that stuff you said then why'd you say it?" The boy frowned and dropped his gaze to the floor. "I mean … some of that stuff was pretty nasty."

"I know, and I'm sorry." After taking a moment to find the best way to explain things to her teammate, Sakura continued. "I couldn't think of any other way to make you fight me."

"But … why'd you wanna fight me?" Naruto asked. "I mean, I was just gonna drop out of the fight, and that way you could've gone straight to the finals without any trouble."

Sakura's lips tightened into a thin line. "When I go to the final round of the Chunin Exam I want it to be because I earned the right to be there, not because one of my teammates dropped out because he didn't want to fight me." Sakura hesitated and her cheeks pinked slightly, before she mumbled something indistinct

"Eh? What was that Sakura-san?"

"I said I also wanted people to see you'd gotten stronger." The girl snapped, covering her embarrassment with anger. "You're still a stupid hyperactive knucklehead, but you're not the dead last any more; without you on our team Sasuke and I would never have made it through the Forest of Death."

Naruto blinked a couple times as his mind processed the girl's words, then he asked. "You really think I'm strong?"

"Yes Naruto." The girl said with a sigh. "I think you're strong."

"So … does that mean you're happy that I'm on your team?"

"I guess." Sakura admitted grudgingly.

"So … does this mean you'll finally go out on a date with me?"

"Naruto..." The girl growled warningly.

The boy let out a nervous chuckle and rubbed the back of his head. "Worth a shot."

"If I wasn't too sore to get out of bed and into punching range I'd give you a shot." The girl growled darkly. This reminds me… Sakura quickly put a fake smile on her face and said in her friendliest voice. "Naruto, could you come over here for a minute?"

"Eh? Sure thing!" Naruto trotted over to her bedside. "What now?"

"Oh, I just need to give you something." She said, still smiling as her fist slammed into his arm twice in quick succession. "That was using the Thousand Years of Death on me, and for calling me a bitch."

" Sakuraaa-chaaaan." Naruto whined, rubbing his much-abused arm. "Even you said you were being pretty mean to me…" Naruto defended his actions.

"Just because I was being a bitch doesn't mean you're allowed to call me one, and besides, I punched you with my off hand." Sakura justified. "In the arm. And only twice. And I didn't even punch you that hard."

"Yeah, but you still punched me." Naruto pouted. "I thought you were gonna stop being so mean to me now Sakura-chan, but instead you're being just as mean as ever." After a short pause the boy grimaced, and clarified. "Eh … I meant Sakura-san, not –chan, sorry."

"It's fine Naruto." Sakura told her teammate.

"Eh, you mean you want me to go back to calling you Sakura-chan?" The boy asked, sounding incredibly eager and hopeful.

Sakura sighed in resignation; when Naruto had started using the overly familiar –chan honorific it had annoyed her to no end, but by now she'd gotten used to it and she knew letting him go back to using it would help return things back to normal between the two of them. However, she could already see that he was going to make a bigger deal out of this than she wanted it to be. "Yes Naruto."

She couldn't help but be a little amused when the boy's gave a ridiculously wide grin and a victorious chuckle, even if she had a bad feeling that Naruto would soon be bragging to everyone who would listen that she'd asked him to go back to calling her Sakura-chan. The near certainty of future annoyance had a hard time competing with the reality of his present elation at the news.

Once the boy calmed down Sakura asked him how the rest of the matches had gone, and for the next fifteen minutes Naruto provided a rather vivid and energetic description of the battles Sakura had missed. Once his account of the rest of the preliminaries finally drew to a close the two fell into a brief silence before Naruto finally remembered that there was still one other thing he was curious about. "By the way Sakura-chan, how'd you find out about the Fox anyway?"

"The what?" Sakura asked, confused by the boy's question.

"You know, my big secret." Naruto clarified. "That I've got the Nine Tailed Fox sealed inside of me."


"That's kind of supposed to be a secret." Kakashi called out through the closed door. "So … maybe screaming it at the top of your lungs in the middle of a semi-public place like a hospital isn't the best idea."

Sakura flushed slightly at her sensei's criticism, while Naruto was staring at the girl in confusion. "But … but you said … I thought you already knew."

"I was bluffing." Sakura explained, badly shaken by the revelation. "I thought it was just some sort of old family shame or a weird and nasty Kekkei Genkai or something, not that you had the Nine Tailed Fox sealed inside of you! I thought the Fourth Hokage killed it!"

"No, he couldn't kill it, so instead he sealed it inside me."

"Oh." An awkward silence descended on the pair, which was eventually broken when Sakura hesitantly asked, "So … what's it like having the Nine Tailed Fox sealed inside of you?"

Naruto shrugged. "I never even knew it was there until someone told me about it."

"Really?" Sakura asked. You'd think having the fox inside his body would have some sort of noticeable effects. Considering the matter for a moment, Sakura suddenly began barraging the boy with questions. "So is that why you've got those weird marks on your face? Does the fox give you your massive chakra reserves? Is that why your canine's are larger than normal? What about how fast you heal? Was that weird chakra you had when you fought Orochimaru related to the Fox? Was that thing he did to knock you out some sort of jutsu to stop you from using the Fox's power?"

"Eh … maybe." Naruto answered with a bemused shrug. He was pretty sure the chakra came from the fox and the rest of it would make sense as well, but he didn't really know any of that for sure; he'd never really gotten around to having someone explain what having the Nine Tailed Fox sealed inside of him would do to his body. "Eh … why are you asking so many questions about it anyway?"

Sakura glanced at him as though he'd said something particularly dim-witted. "We're on the same team; I need to know about what kind of effect the fox is going to have on you." She flushed slightly and added with a slightly abashed grin. "And … maybe I'm a little curious about it."

"Oh." Naruto said, sounding a little surprised. "Kinda thought you'd be … well … that you wouldn't like me any more once you found out."

"Why would you think that?" Sakura asked, sounding genuinely confused by the boy's statement. I can understand that people who don't really know him might be nervous about the Nine Tailed Fox, but really, Naruto's harmless. Look at how far I had to push just to make him fight back in the middle of a tournament!

Hehe … she doesn't care about the stupid Fox, and she didn't deny that she likes me! I thought this day was gonna suck, but now it just keeps getting better and better! Already formulating a new devious plot, Naruto asked, "So Sakura-chan, is hospital food really as crappy as everyone says it is?"

After taking a moment to adjust to the sudden swerve in conversation topic, Sakura grimaced and said, "It's not terrible, but it's not really good either, it's just … edible."

"Hehe … want me to sneak in some ramen for you?" Naruto asked with one of his ridiculously wide grins.

"Thanks, but I'm not really in the mood for ramen." Sakura responded.

"How can anyone not be in the mood for ramen?" Naruto asked with a shrug. "Well, if you don't want ramen what do you want?"

"Hmm … well maybe..." Before long the two genin had fallen into a conversation about the relative merits of various foods, a conversation that was soon interrupted by a loud growl emanating from Naruto's stomach. Just as she was about to giggle at the boy's body betraying his hunger, Sakura's own stomach let out a rumble that was only slightly quieter than Naruto's.

"Naruto." Sakura growled in a distinctly displeased voice. "All your talk about food made me hungry, and it'll be hours before the next meal, and that's just going to be more hospital food." Sakura glared at the blond, who had the good sense to look properly abashed.

"Sorry Sakura-chan."

"You better be." She grumbled.

"I'll make it up to you." Naruto promised, looking appropriately repentant.

"Damn right you will." Sakura snapped.

"I'll buy you a really nice dinner sometime at a good restaurant, promise."

"I'll hold you to that." Sakura threatened. "If you think you get away with just a cheap bowl of ramen I swear…" Sakura's stomach growled once more. "And it better be soon!" The girl added for good measure.

"I'll do it as soon as you get as you get out of the hospital." Naruto reassured her.

"Good." Sakura declared, satisfied that Naruto had arranged an appropriate penance for making her hungry when there were no prospects of a good meal in the near future.

"Alright, it's a date!" Naruto said, seeming ridiculously pleased with himself.

"A daa … bu … wha…?" Sakura gasped. Quickly replaying the last minute of conversation within her mind, she realized with dawning horror that she had not only agreed to a date, but had practically demanded one.

"Later Sakura-chan." Naruto chirped, deciding to make his escape while the girl was still in shock. After a quick knock on the door and a few muttered words to Kakashi the door opened, and a with a final wave goodbye Naruto beat a hasty retreat.

Sakura remained alone in her room, staring dully out the window as she contemplated one of the most horrifying questions she'd faced in her short life. "Did I just get outsmarted by Naruto?"