A/N Welcome old friends and new comers. Enjoy the story, more to come really soon.


Cloud Nin' were far from reserved. I had come to this conclusion awhile ago, but the point isn't truly hammered home until you experience a "Village Hidden in the Clouds" victory festival. The people of the Land of Lightning were notorious for their parties, parties that were known to last days even weeks depending on the event. Since a war had come to an end, I couldn't blame them for their exuberance.

Still.

I entered a courtyard to find the Raikage's little brother standing stoically atop a statue in the middle of a flowing fountain; his scarf was flapping in the breeze rather dramatically. Killer Bee used his forefinger to adjust his recently debuted golden shades, before proceeding to address his surrounding audience of a dozen or so cloud ninja.

"I introduce you to the ninja life
You need the life, the life needs you
Everything is nice in this life!"

Killer Bee thrust a closed fist into the air, the audience roared and whistles blared.

It wouldn't hurt them to at least get some sleep. But that is just my humble opinion on the matter.

His hands darted back and forth as the crowd buzzed in approval.

"Uh, Uh move in now move out
Hands up now hands down
Back up back up
Kumogakure tell me what you're gonna do now!"

"Keep rollin' rollin' rollin' rollin!" The crowd shouted.

I had a headache, the kind that throbbed when faced with horrible impromptu call and response concerts. The fourteenth such concert held by Bee in six days since the war officially ended. We were in Kumogakure so it really couldn't be helped that there was a mini party on every corner. During the war, the village had become the headquarters of the Allied Shinobi Alliance; which was the collective military might of the hidden villages of the Lands of Lightning, Water, Earth, Wind and Samurai nation of the Land of Iron. With the war now over, it made sense that the village would be festive. However the citizens and ninja of Kumongakure were making it a personal point of pride to showcase their celebratory prowess and out-party their comrades in arms.

So you had to consider yourself lucky if you made it to one end of the town without being handed a cup, which hardly ever contained fresh water, or a ceremonial bead to wear around your neck.

I moved past the crowd.

It wasn't that I was a wet blanket; I mean I enjoy a party as much as the next sixteen year old. It's just that I was tired. And it wasn't due to constant celebrating. Not much partying on the plates of medical nin. Yeah, you could find a wide smile on the faces of any of the allied medics if you caught them off duty. But while some celebrated, the medical ninja dealt with continuous reminders of the consequences of a war. Saving lives and healing the injured was tiring work. You barely had time to eat, sleep, or congratulate certain knuckled headed heroes.

On the sixth day of the aftermath, and I had only managed to see Naruto twice. The first time was when Lady Tsunade and I treated him when he returned from the final battle with Madara. The second time was when he briefly visited me while I was working, even though he hadn't fully recovered yet.

Boy Tsunade did not take kindly to that.

Still the point is we never really got a chance to talk. He was both too injured and fatigued to talk or I was swamped at the hospital. However things had died down a bit, no pun intended. Expected survival rates for those in critical condition were remarkably high. A coalition of medical ninja from five different nations, working day and night and we had gotten through the worse of it.

It was a truly amazing effort.

And I helped.

No, I shouldn't be proud about that. I was just doing my job.

However I did get praised by Lady Tsunade. And I even earned the respect of many of the other medics.

But I was just doing my duty.

A duty I was pretty darn good at all.

I stopped and confirmed that no one had spotted the smug look on my face and mistaken me for someone conceited. Then I remembered that everyone in my vicinity had a smug look on their face. Clearly I needed sleep, and lots of it. But the priority at hand was Naruto.

Plush is the first word that comes to mind when you approach the mini palace where Naruto was being quartered. I had heard that before the war the house was where the Raikage stashed the most important foreign diplomats until he was in the mood to greet them. The most important foreign diplomat at the moment was Konoha's own Naruto. And in all honesty after what he did, it's the least the Raikage could have done for him.

"Sakura!"

I glanced up sharply to see Shizune stepping through the front door of the house.

"How are you?" she asked.

"Never better" I said "Are you here to...?"

"Lady Tsunade sent me here to check on Naruto" she interrupted, as if reading my mind.

"Is he ok?"

"Relatively."

I gave her my best "what is that supposed to mean" look. Shizune got the message.

"He, well Tsunade estimates that Naruto has not slept a wink in the last three days."

"What?"

I found myself shocked by what she was telling me. Had that idiot been out there partying for three days straight? He had barely survived an ordeal a few days ago! God only knew how much of a stamina freak he was, but that didn't mean he had a right to completely skip the recovery process. It finally made sense Naruto must love having people worrying about him.

Partying?

I told myself now was not the time for me to start planning how to murder him. Taking in a calm breath I counted to ten. After that it became very clear what I had to do. Really give him something to recover from.

"He hasn't partying" Shizune said.

Shizune like our respected mentor had gained the strange habit of being able to read my mind.

"Lady Tsunade investigated, and you know how persuasive and thorough she can be. He wasn't partying, he just hasn't been sleeping. Tsunade diagnosed it as something psychological."

Psychological, I did not really need much more clarification on the situation.

Bidding Shizune farewell, I entered the house and made my way towards Naruto. Well not before stopping by the kitchen first.

"Sakura!" a breathless voice said as I entered the biggest bedroom in the house. Naruto beamed at me with his signature smile.

He wasn't the prettiest boy in the world, but any girl that knew him would be lying if she said he didn't know how to light up a room. The truth is he smiles near-constantly. But if you pay enough attention to Naruto you can discern the times when the smile is just a mask. Still when you did get a genuine smile, well if I had any say in the matter, that grin would be the look that goes up on the mountain besides the other Hokages. It would be more than appropriate in my eyes to have a seventh carefree face lined up against the overtly serious gaze of the first six Hokages. It wasn't just an aesthetic look for the village either; you don't look at that face and feel worried. It just lifts your spirit, sometimes more than any words could.

Heck even at that moment, it almost made me forget that most of his body was wrapped up in bandages.

"Don't move" I said sternly as he made a move to get out of a bed. Or more specifically as he tried to leap out of bed. Naruto treated major injuries as minor annoyances; to the ire of all medical experts around him.

I stepped further into the room carrying a tray with a steaming bowl on top. "I brought you some homemade ramen."

His eyes sparkled brightly with anticipation. Kid in a candy store was the appropriate cliche.

"Maybe I didn't survive the fight with Madara after all!"

An odd comment. "What makes you say that?" I asked.

"Sakura and ramen? I must be in heaven!"

The way I see it, a line is not corny if the guy is being absolutely sincere. In his own way Naruto had a knack for making a girl feel appreciated.

He took the tray and dug into the ramen without a moment's thought. I would have been pleased, if I wasn't mildly disgusted by his eating habits. He could save five nations but he couldn't keep noodles off his chin.

The boy was strange.

"Delicious" he sighed after slurping down the last bits of the Ramen. "It's worthy of even Ichiraku ramen bar!"

High praise indeed, knowing Naruto. I'd like to say I kept myself from blushing but that would be a lie.

"Well it was my own special recipe that I've been working on for awhile..."

I cut myself off. Not because I was feeling any particular form of humility.

It was just that the room felt off.

An oppressive stillness made its presence felt in the area. Many people in their lives at one time or another have shared a growing unpleasantness in a room with another person, maybe after a bad joke or an inappropriate comment was made. But this was, I was very familiar with what this was. This stifling air, the sudden appearances of a lump of cotton in your throat, these feelings were always the precursor to one of us bringing up Sasuke.

He was staring down into the bowl, past his reflection; he was seeing something I wasn't.

"Sakura, about Sasuke…I have a feeling…."

He was beginning to nod off. The sleeping pills had taken longer than I thought but I could live with the timing. I nudged gently against his shoulder and he easily lay back against his pillow.

"Just relax OK, you need to rest."

His eyelids began to droop, but Naruto was fighting it all the way. Typical Naruto he wouldn't go down easy.

Drugging him did not make me feel like an angel. But I knew Naruto, when he got something in his mind; well it was hard to explain. It might have been his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. When had his mind on something, when he was determined, he'd do what was right to him and damn the consequences.

He stilled, and I drew the sheet up to his chin. I was making a move to leave when his hand suddenly popped up and grabbed my arm.

"Sakura listen, about Sasuke, I don't know why but I think..."

I took his hand in mine and I squeezed tightly. "Naruto, you...you did the right thing."

Naruto stared at me with sharp blue eyes. All I could do was smile weakly, and it pained me.

"Did I?" He asked.

The hot stirring in my stomach rose to my chest and my lungs constricted. "Of course you did, you're a hero."

He remained silent.

"You're my hero."

He looked like he wanted to say something else but this was one fight he couldn't win.

I waited for a bit as the hero of this generation or more specifically one of the closest people in my life drifted off into a deep sleep. I reached up and brushed something off the side of my face. I looked down at the moisture in my palm.

I cursed myself.

That kind of reaction was of no use to anyone. It just wouldn't do at all.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX X

I felt someone kick my chair and I snapped up in my seat. The quick action left my momentarily light-headed. Yawning, I stretched before I was abruptly aware of Ino's sharp gaze.

I quickly recalled she and I were currently inside of a tiny cafe.

"Had a good nap?" Ino asked tightly.

Oh she was pissed.

"It was…interesting." I said thoughtfully, hoping she would be forgiving.

"I leave you at the table for a second to order our shakes and I come back to find you snoring."

"I don't snore."

I did snore occasionally. But I wasn't going to let Ino have a free one.

She handed me a shake and took her seat at the table. "I am happy to be such relaxing company."

"Alright don't be like that. I just haven't been getting enough sleep lately."

I sat down, finding myself under the scrutiny of Ino's gaze. I could see the gears turning in her head; Ino could be eerily perceptive at times.

"Let me guess, guilt has been keeping you up. I knew you couldn't keep up with that diet."

Ino could also be a complete shrew at times. But that's friendship between women for you.

"Wrong" I said warily and massaged my temples. "The last few nights, I've been having some nightmares."

Or more specifically I've been vividly reliving the past. The night I slipped the sleeping pills into Naruto's ramen happened a little over three years ago.

Far from my finest hour, however there were worst moments that could have haunted my dreams.

"Nightmares? What are you, three years old?"

I sighed, "Why do I hang out with you again?"

She smiled. "Obviously because I am a joy to be around."

Audacity thy name is Ino.

"I don't know why you're so jittery Sakura. Your husband will be coming back tomorrow."

She said this as I was taking a sip of my shake. This goes a long way in explaining why my rich, creamy, and packed with vitamins and minerals, breakfast erupted from my lips and splattered across the table.

I ran off to get some paper towels, when I came back Ino had the same amused expression on her face.

"I wasn't aware that I had a husband."

"Don't play dumb, you know what I'm talking about" she said before taking a melodramatic sip from her cup.

I knew what she was talking about but I wouldn't give her the satisfaction of that.

"Enlighten me"

She sighed wistfully. "It must be so nice to be the wife of the future Hokage."

Alright it was painfully obvious who she was referring to now. But I wasn't any less annoyed.

She reached over and clasped her hand over mind. Wide eyed she said, "you husband is the strongest man in Konohagakure. I'm so envious."

"You know Ino" I started. "By building up and releasing my chakra with precise timing, I can easily decimate many obstacles. An opponent struck by my full strength could suffer anything ranging from instant death, broken bones, or any other injuries associated with intense blunt force trauma."

Ino let go of my hand and leaned back in her chair. "Your overt aggression has been duly noted."

Seriousness took her face as she played with strands of her hair. "I am a little offended that you never told me, your best friend, what happened."

"What are you talking about?"

"Come on I was there in the time leading up to his fight with Sasuke. I saw you two."

I leaned forward, "saw us?"

With heavy sigh she took my shake in her left hand and held hers in the right one.

Ino held the right one to her mouth. "Naruto I'm going too" she said in a high falsetto voice.

She brought up her left hand. "I'm sorry Sakura but you need to stay here" she said with her voice comically baritone.

Right hand. "No, I'm going with you. We'll end this together."

Left, "Sakura..."

Right, "This time together, Naruto."

Left, "Sakura, I wish...I wish I could get to Madara and Sasuke before the war starts, but I doubt it. People will get hurt. You need to be there on the field Sakura to protect them. If I am Konoha's greatest offense you and Katuyu are Konoha's greatest defense."

"Naruto..."

"You're the only one I can trust with this Sakura."

Ino sniffed melodramatically. "I...Idiot...if you don't come back alive, I'll kill you."

"Don't worry, Sakura I'll be back, believe it! Hahahahaha then maybe we can go out on a date."

"I...I'd like that."

"R-Really?"

"Believe it"

"Sakura...allow me to express my love through poem. Still even now its unbearable to say goodbye. Can't let my heart know this is really the end. I won't forget you beauty wouldn't dare to try, so for now my love, my heart, my friend, I say goodbye until we meet again!"

"Oh Naruto, take me now! I want to have your whiskered babies!

My foot made very nice contact with Ino's shin. She winced and it was instant gratification.

"Are you finished?"

"I've had my fun" She half grimaced half smiled. "But seriously the sexual chemistry was at its peak, there was literally months and months of buildup, possibly years, so what happened?"

"Nothing happened."

And that was the essential truth of the matter. Simply nothing happened. Once he fully recovered Naruto asked Kakashi for some undisclosed amount of time off. His intention was to at the very least wander across the five nations alone, in similar fashion to his Godfather Jiraiya. His reasoning was, in his own words, "maybe I can learn something new about something." Being known as the great hero of five nations gave him a few dozen or so more border privileges than the average ninja. So he was able to get off and running before anyone realized it.

The first year the messenger toads came regularly bearing letters listing his latest adventure. "Today I ran into a village that was abandoned by the Fire Daimyo, it's been taken over by bandits. I had to do something...Sakura I discovered a village run only by children all the adults are...can you believe there's a band of slavers in the Land of Sound...Yugakure has been taken over by a cult...Rounin Samurai in the Iron Country are shunned by the entire nation, they might be planning a revolution...mercenary forces getting out of hand in the Land of the Waves..." In many of the messages Naruto had run into some form of suffering or evil. Yet the letters were hardly ever depressing, in fact much of them while subdued where laced with his enthusiasm. To be honest I frequently caught myself smiling when reading the common "P.S" that usually went along the lines of "I am hoping I don't forget but just in case Sakura. I'll need you to remind me of this when I become Hokage. I'll be able to do more then."

When he returned the Land of the Spring, he ran into the rare problem where a rasengan would only make things worse. It was a dispute over land, so he sent for Tsunade to counsel him in the art of diplomacy, or in his words "getting the right words right at the right times"

In that regard no one could ever say that Naruto didn't take becoming a leader seriously.

Tsunade had been with Naruto for the last six months. I wasn't sure what was happening exactly since Naruto's letters grew far and few in between once he arrived at the Land of the Spring. In fact I don't believe I had gotten one in the last four months. But I wasn't upset about it, or I should say I wasn't that upset about it. I was sure he was trying to learn as much as he could from Lady Tsunade.

"Nothing happened? What is that supposed to mean?"

"For once Ino, believe me when I say. There is no hidden meaning to it. Nothing happened."

She eyed me curiously.

"And that's probably for the best" I concluded.

"Why?"

She asked so swiftly it caught me off guard.

"Well, Ino that is a fairly personal issue-"

She tapped her forehead with her forefinger. "Let me guess, you still feel guilty about Sasuke?"

"Wha..."

To my great irritation she started counting thing off on her fingers.

"Maybe you don't think your worthy of Naruto's love?"

"Wait a sec..."

"You don't want Naruto to think he's a rebound, even though it's been like so many years-"

"Just let me..."

"Or maybe it's all of the above?"

I slapped my hand against the table. "Stop it!"

Ino rested her chin against her open palm. "Then what is the problem forehead?"

I let out a deep sigh. "I just don't know. I really thought I knew something once, and that turned out so great."

I was sure my sarcasm would not be lost on Ino. She definitely did not need to have things spelled out on her, so I continued.

"I don't trust my judgment in certain decisions...I just do not know. A situation like that just wouldn't be fair to anybody right?"

Ino slowly shook her head."Ah Sakura, you can heal hundreds on the battlefield but you can't heal your own heart."

Ino left me now with two choices: drain the rest of my shake to soothe my aggravation or sharpen a kunai for the kill. It was possible I could do both, the latter first and then follow up with the former. Then I would achieve total satisfaction.

"Ok enough with the depressing stuff. Today we ease our troubles with shopping and low fat smoothies" Ino crowed

Amazingly the atmosphere had changed completely with her new enthused spirit.

"Seriously Ino I think the mood has passed-"

Ino interrupted me by jumping to her feet.

"Uh-uh I won't take no for an answer. Not today especially since-" She lowered her voice "The risque and highly controversial novel "Briefly Yours: An erotic romance" was released today as if you didn't know."

I wanted that book, Ino knew it, I knew it; the pre-order ticket in my pocket knew it.

"I guess I do have some time to burn."

"Excellent!"

Ino picked up the rest of her shake and then she handed me mine. Then she latched onto my forearm and led me out the door.

"And while we're in the shopping district. Maybe we can pick up something lacy that will really turn your husband's head."

Ino and I have been best friends for thirteen years, and I unless we finally end up killing each other, I know we'll continue being friends in the future.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

"So did you hear?"

"How could I not, Konohamaru is telling everyone that he's coming back today."

Perturbed, I wrenched my eyes from my book and saw two female field trainees chatting to themselves as they were classifying the organs of a human sized biological model.

I thought about scolding them, but technically I was in the wrong here. Supervising was my job for the morning, not reading. The problem was when I read, I develop a...connection with the characters.

"I heard he called the lord of the Land of the Waves a tyrant and punched him in the face knocking him off his throne."

I hadn't expected the news of Naruto's return to be big enough to interrupt extra credit work for supposedly diligent students

"Don't be ridiculous. That would start another war. Nobody is that impulsive" said one of the students.

I snorted inwardly at the ignorance and returned to my story.

"I'm angry you held this secret from me" Sun yelled "And I know why; you thought I was too weak, too fragile to handle the truth about your powers. You didn't trust me to love you."

She rushed away, but he caught her at the base of the stairs.

"Slap me again if you want to, call me names. I don't care, just don't leave me. Everything I've done was only to protect you" Shinichi muttered.

He pulled her close while she struggled and cursed.

She was going to shout at him again, but she saw the fear in his eyes and the sadness. This man before her, so many people feared his strong personality; many of them considered him a demon. But when he was with her, when he was with her it felt like they were the only two people on the earth.

"You stupid, stupid, man," she said. She then lifted her hands to his face, rose on her toes and kissed him.

I was only five chapters in and it was already worth the retail price.

"I KNOW!" one the trainees squealed enthusiastically. Then it lowered, "Um, I read that there was a thing between him and Princess Yukie Fukikaze."

"The former actress?"

"Yeah."

"Maybe that's the reason why she produced the movie."

I suddenly became acutely aware of a tick in my forehead. I cleared my throat, very loudly.

The trainees glanced towards me. I morphed my expression into something that clearly said pipe down. They did, and I went back to reading.

Shinichi brushed her lips with his, his tongue slipping out to tease at the center of her mouth. Sun opened immediately, and the scent and flavor of Shinichi overwhelmed her senses.

"Yes," she said breathlessly, her fingers exploring his blond hair. "Oh yes!"

He had kissed her before, gentle chaste kisses, school yard kisses from their childhood. This time she got his full flavor all at once and it was intoxicating.

He kissed her thoroughly before trailing his mouth down to her collarbone.

"Ooooooh," she moaned.

He drew her close, as he stripped her of her dangling bra.

I must have been running a fever because I was beginning to perspire in room temperature.

"Uh…."

With agonizing reluctance I pulled away from the book. "Yes?"

"You are close friends with Naruto aren't you?" One of them started.

"Would you mind answering one question for us?" the second one added.

"One question, and one question only" I replied.

"Do you think Naruto would really punch a lord off his throne?"

I thought about it for... a nanosecond.

"Yes he would."

They stared at me, with their enthusiastic eyes on my rolling ones. They were in awe by proxy, something I had grown accustomed to. This would usually be followed by an unnecessarily long question and answer session. I decided then it would probably be best to postpone the assignment and leave work earlier than I had anticipated.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Admittedly I've grown fond of the taste of ramen. A bowl of diet ramen however, the regular bowl contains too much saturated fat for my liking.

Comfort foods are familiar foods; they are foods we associate with positive memories in our lives. I'm not ashamed to say on certain carefree days, I didn't mind having a piping hot bowl from the Ichiraku Ramen Bar, lead me down memory lane. I ate ramen while having one eye trained on my book. Eating and reading is one technique I could safely say I've mastered completely. I was slurping and flipping pages when I sensed a presence approaching me.

"Ahem."

"Hello Ino," I greeted in monotone, not looking up at her.

"Ahem."

I looked up. Ino had a hand on her hip.

"I thought I'd find you here," she said giving me a pointed look. "I suppose you haven't noticed the crowd?"

My curiosity piqued I stood up and stepped out of the Ichiraku. I caught sight of a sizable number of people migrating in the same direction. I was willing to bet they were all heading towards the front gate of the village

"So what, you're going to pretend that you didn't know Naruto was scheduled to arrive within the hour."

"I am having lunch. Is that a problem" I said simply.

"Uh-huh, let me ask you something. Do you not see the um subtext involved with you eating ramen for lunch twice a week for the past six months."

"I get a specialty discount here."

"Oh is that it?" Ino shot the cook Ayame a glance and wink. Ayame giggled softly before returning to her work.

"What a coincidence that I'd lose my appetite when you show up Ino" I said with a sigh.

"Well, well" she said ignoring me, while looking over her shoulder. "Look who has become a mini ladies man."

I followed her eyes to see Konohamaru coming towards us. He had two girls around his age walking on each side, his two running buddies Udon and Moegi walked two steps in pace behind him. Udon looked completely detached to the scene; however there was a dark shadow over Moei's face. I suspected drama would soon be entering little Konahamaru's life very soon.

"Is it true that you're his rival?" One girl asked.

Konohamaru ran one hand down the back of his neck and laughed happily. "Course, The Boss and I are very close. We would spar often when he was around. That is, when we weren't perfecting our top secret jutsu's together."

"Really" said the other girl.

"Oh yeah! Naruto and I are destined to fight for the title of Hokage one day."

"Wow you are so cool Konohamaru!" The girls squealed.

Konohamaru blushed, "Hey, hey, girls you can call me the 'eighth.' All my friends call me the 'eighth."

He turned to his pals in the back. "Right guys?"

"Why...you-"

Konohamaru's troubles would come sooner than I had anticipated.

"-Dummy, dumb...idiot!" Moegi shouted as she cocked back her fist.

Before Konohamaru could utter a sound of protest Moegi had knocked him far up into the air. The two girls, Udon, Ino and I snapped our heads upwards to watch the young flirt's body fade off into the distance.

"Oh" Ino said as squinted into the sky. "I don't think you've ever knocked anyone up that far Sakura. I guess it's true what they say about the younger generation surpassing the old."

The two girls shrugged to themselves before walking off, Udon rushed off in the direction of the amazing flying Konohamaru, Moegi angrily stomped off in the opposite direction.

"Hey" Ino called after her. "Next time shout "Shannaro" when you hit him. It really helps with intimidating men!"

Fortunately knives or forks aren't required to eat ramen or else I might have done something inappropriate to Ino. Instead of giving in to my violent urges I sat back down at the bar.

"Ah young love" Ino said taking a seat beside me. "Remember those days?"

"I try not to" I replied.

"I was talking about the fantasy of young love."

"So was I."

Ino shook her head. "Anyway are you coming or not? Don't you want to see how that crowd just pops when he gets here?"

I suppose it hadn't occurred to Ino that I was really forward to seeing Naruto again, just not in front of a crowd of gawkers. Naruto would understand, however if this point wasn't carefully explained to Ino, she would never leave me in peace

I was gearing up to speak, when Ayame of all people suddenly interrupted our conversation.

"You know something" she said while placing a single finger on her chin. "If Konohamaru is popular with girls now just because of knowing Naruto, wouldn't that mean that Naruto himself would just be that much popular with ladies?"

I took a quick glance at sections of the crowd still heading towards the front gate. There was a heavy feminine population in the sample group that fell under my line of vision.

"Being mobbed by a crowd of people might be a bit much for Naruto, it would probably be more comfortable for him to see some familiar faces" I said.

Ino didn't even bother to be inconspicuous with her throwing up the V sign to a snickering Ayame. I considered reevaluating the people I let into my life.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

We gathered familiar faces on the way over to the gate.

Passing by the village library we ran into Sai, unsurprisingly he was there reading up how to improve his interpersonal skills. Sai had become much easier to handle over the past few years. It was beginning to be rare to get an "I don't exist, I'm just a tool" speech from him. In addition it was now apparent to him that if you must call someone stupid it was better to save it for an argument then to bring it up in polite conversation. He had progressed to the point now that I could safely bring him to parties without worrying about a fist fight breaking out. Though there was a "would you mind participating in physical and intimate activities" phase; that by the grace of God lasted only about a single strange and hectic Christmas party. But the biggest change of all might have been the fact that Sai seemed to be growing less pale every year. Thankfully he no longer looked like he was about to faint at a moment's notice.

"Hello forehead" he said to me.

I allowed him to explain before I hurt him.

"I've decided to adopt one of the affectionate terms that you and Ino share. I don't see why she can use it and I can't. Not only is it an accurate description but it will also serve to bring us closer together in bondship."

I sighed.

"Or perhaps you would prefer hair-lip?"

It was like dealing with a misbehaving puppy. You don't throw a mischievous pup out the door, it doesn't know any better. What you do is give it a light tap on the nose. Preferably with a newspaper, but with a dog the size and build of Sai, a closed fist would be just as appropriate.

We continued on, though Sai was now suffering from a mild concussion. Not long after, we bumped into Lee who was walking, on his hands...again.

"Hello all, wonderful day is it not?"

"Rigorous training Lee?" Ino asked.

"Nah," he laughed before flipping and then rolling onto his feet. "I just like the looks on little kid's faces when I walk through the market place. The youths of the leaf village are easily amused."

It made sense; it was a perfectly Lee thing to do. He had walked across the village on his hands so many times that it was no longer intense training but now a show for young children.

"Where are you all headed?" Lee asked

"What, you don't know? Sakura's husband is returning home to claim his wife."

I smacked Ino in the back of his head.

"Ah!" Lee exclaimed as if he had just solved an impossible equation. Smashing his fist onto his open palm he said, "Naruto is scheduled to return today!"

I was more than a little annoyed that Lee has jumped to that conclusion rather quickly after Ino's jab. I wanted to ask about the reasoning behind his line of thinking, but I thought better of it. Lee being direct and honest would answer my question to the best of his ability with "youthful" enthusiasm. It would likely be a borderline embarrassing statement for me. Ino wouldn't be able to help but tag onto it with a "witty" quip. Then Sai would of course have to make some comment. Knowing him it would involve me, Naruto, and then some random statistic on the dangers of young marriages that he somehow believed would make interesting conversation.

So surrounded and behind enemy lines, I kept my mouth shut.

Lee nodded to himself. "Of course this makes perfect sense. I had felt electricity in the air since this morning. Today the leaf has certainly been abuzz, and it could only be that Naruto's coming back; just in time for this year's V day celebration."

"OK, we can stand around here and find ourselves at the back of the crowd when Naruto arrives. Or we can move and take our rightful places at the front." Ino remarked.

"Three years" Lee grinned. "I wonder how much he's changed."

I recalled the last time Naruto had gone away for a few years. You could have said that he had returned just the same. The same hyperactivity, the same exuberance, the same easily excitable, impulsive nature. You could have said that, but you would have been wrong. The change was subtle, he had matured enough to know what would come easy and what wouldn't. That standing up and stretching wasn't nearly enough when reaching for the stars. Still as a responsible adult, Jiraiya had shielded Naruto some from the world. There wouldn't be any of that now, and therefore he would return changed in some way. I could honestly say that a part of me was afraid of that. There's always the chance that he may change too much. For various reasons the thought of that had kept me up a few nights. But the other part of me, a significant part, hoped that Naruto had found what he was looking for. He had been looking for some kind of change, he wouldn't have left otherwise.

"Hey forehead, stop spacing out, or we'll leave you behind."

I stumbled out of my head and quickly rejoined the group. Lee had a point; I was starting to feel some of that electricity.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Back when I was a little girl; I tried my hand at baking an apple pie. Like some other aspects of my life I made a number of bad decisions and screwed it up. Somehow I managed to substitute salt for sugar. To this day I do not know why my mother kept these two items so close together. But anyway I poured my soul into that pie and I was very proud when it came out of the oven. I cut out a slice, topped it with ice cream, and took a bite. It looked like delicious pie, it smelled like delicious pie, but oh it was so not delicious pie. When digging deep into it and having yourself a taste you could discern something unexpected was going on. At the risk of making or should I say continuing with a hackneyed analogy, I will say people are like that too. Sometimes you can't tell what's on the inside by looking at the outside or even by what your expectations of what the inside should taste like. I am aware that this is not the most well thought out piece of social commentary. Nor is it at all original in its philosophical ramifications. But for all its simplicity the point is people can be like a nice salty pie, which in essence is a big surprise. There are good surprises, there are bad surprises, and there are confusing surprises. Keeping with that line of thought, Naruto is one of those good surprises.

And I wasn't the only one shared this sentiment. While we waited at the entrance Kiba, Akamaru, and Shino joined the group. They were quickly followed by Hinata, Neji, and TenTen, who came by together. Finally Chouji inadvertently pushed through the crowd making an impromptu path for Shikamaru, who came in holding Asuma's son by the hand. Each of them had at one time or another bitten into the Naruto pie and found the taste unexpectedly but delightfully pleasant.

If he didn't have classes to teach, Iruka would have been there for sure, Kakashi as the current Hokage had meetings to attend. With a dazed look upon his face Konohamaru still stumbled in. The crowd grew by the dozens; people who didn't have to work or didn't have more pertinent responsibilities were trickling in.

Lee's grin grew wider. "I can't imagine that he could get any stronger. But if it's Naruto, maybe…..I definitely would not mind a sparring session."

I rolled my eyes. Boys never changed.

Over the years I've heard others waxing poetic about getting the opportunity to "test their abilities" against Naruto when he returned. Lee would have to wait in line, Neji, Kiba, Chouji, Mr. "wait till Naruto sees my trump card" Shino and surprisingly a few of the senior nin' all had dibs on a some inevitable sparring session. If Naruto was anticipating only being chased down by the village women than he another thing coming.

I paused. Was Naruto anticipating being chased down by the village women?

"Are you OK Sakura? You appear to be troubled" Hinata asked.

I shook the irritation away, and smiled. "I'm fine, never been better."

I looked at her and then the others in our group. A rookie reunion, I did not recall the last time we were all in the same place together. It was good to see that everyone was still very comfortable with each other.

"Hey someone's here!" Somebody shouted.

There was a collective turning of heads. Excited whispers spread through the mass of people. It was hard not to get caught up in the moment; it felt like a bolt of lightning was running its course through the crowd. Everyone was excited to see Tsunade and Shizune waltz through the front gates.

By themselves

No one said a word, as the two of them looked the welcoming crowd over.

"Um hello?" Shizune said.

Tsunade let out a heavy sigh before declaring. "He stayed behind when we stopped over at Sunagakure. He didn't say what he was going to do there but he promised to catch up with us and make it back to the village today. But..."

She opened her arms out wide. "….As you can see Naruto is not with us."

Multiple groans came from the crowd.

Shizune looked incensed. "You know those of you who are not ignorant, would know better than to have disappointment on your faces when in the presence of a former Hokage and the last living member of the legendary Sanin!"

I couldn't really blame her for being mad. The crowd reaction was more than a tad disrespectful for a ninja of Tsunade's caliber, and I couldn't help but be ashamed that I had allowed myself to be caught up in it. Tsunade however didn't seem all that upset, she still held herself up proudly. A thin smile on her face she reached out and tapped Shizune on the shoulder.

"Calm down Shizune, the Sanin are of a previous generation. If you can understand that, then there is no reason to be upset."

If not class, there weren't many other words you could use to describe Tsunade. Often I wonder where I would be if she had not returned to the village. I would likely not be alive. This was the truth in both a figurative and literal sense. In two years of training, Lady Tsunade pushed me farther than I could have ever pushed myself while training alone. She pulled from my new strength that I did not believe I possessed. I came to Tsunade as a firm but useless piece of steel, and like all great sword-smiths she took that material and returned a sturdy blade. More than just a mentor and nothing less than a mother figure I owed a great debt to Lady Tsunade.

I left the group and walked over to them. I was intending on apologizing for the crowd, and myself, but Tsunade wasn't hearing it. Walking abruptly into a wall of disappointed face was a minor source of irritation; however she had gone through worse pains in her lifetime to be thrown for a loop by her own ego.

If I could go back in time with only a fraction of the wisdom Tsunade has, many pivotal points in my life would have turned out much, much differently.

Our conversation shifted to various things, from the well being of my family, the discomfort of traveling between the Land of Wind to the Land of Fire, and to the fine restaurants in the Land of Spring. Throughout the conversation I could feel a vibe of discomfort coming from Shizune, she seemed tense to say the least. At one point she appeared to be on the verge of telling me something when Tsunade cut her off with a look. I pretended not to have noticed but it was a sharp gaze, and Shizune had wilted immediately under it. It was obvious that they were trying to back out of the conversation when they suddenly declared their insurmountable weariness, and how much of a relief a midday nap would be. Politely I offered them a safe exit by announcing that "I should get back to my friends." They graciously accepted the out.

Before walking off Tsunade asserted that Naruto should be back soon enough. I bid them both farewell and turned away. At this point the crowd had mostly dispersed. I looked around, the group was talking amongst themselves, and Konohamaru was staring both faithfully and angrily at the front gates. I walked back to the gang in time to hear Lee grumble.

"Stayed behind in Sunagakure? What for?"

Kiba grinned wolfishly as he ran a finger under his nose. "Maybe he's got a lady there."

"Uh no…." Hinata announced. "Kiba that's a rude thing to assume"

She looked like she was about to faint.

"Hey, I know if I were him I'd have a girl stashed in every hidden village."

I spike of agitation shot through my brain as Kiba laughed it up like an idiot. My fist was ready to make contact with his noggin but Ino got there first. She left a lump on his head the size of an egg.

Yes she was definitely my best friend.

"What was that for?!" Kiba shouted.

"Obviously that was for all woman-kind" Ino stated with a flick of her hair.

"What are you talking about?"

"There's no need to explain something you're too ignorant to understand. Isn't that right Hinata?"

"Yeah" Hinata nodded. "You….uh….need to stop acting like a little boy Kiba" she scolded.

He was stunned. "What are you girls so uptight about anyway?" he turned to his remaining and hopefully loyal teammate "you're with me right Shino?"

Shino glanced at him. "The three most difficult things to understand are the mind of a woman, the labor of the bees and the ebb and flow of the tide."

"What does that even mean?" Kiba exclaimed.

"Does anyone feel up for some barbecue?" Chouji asked.

"You just ate" Shikamaru stated.

"Am I the only one who thinks it's more than a little rude for Naruto not to show up?" TenTen asked.

Neji leaned against a nearby wall and sighed. "Naruto probably has some important task to deal with. He is under no obligation to show up just for our sake."

"See this is what I was talking about, you never take my side" TenTen said.

"Are you two fighting again?" Lee asked.

"No one is fighting" Neji and TenTen blurted out at him unison.

Lee put his hands up "alright, alright."

Shikamaru turned to his Godson.

"You see what happens when you disappoint your own welcome back crowd. Naruto is a hero but he's still a troublesome guy."

"So listen, I'm going to go" Shino announced to no one in particular. He was already drifting away from the group. "I've had fun I suppose. But I'm going to do something...else, preferably alone. "

I stopped him. "Hold on, you don't have to leave so soon."

"Yeah" Ino tagged on. "Let's all do something."

"How about lunch? I know a great place for ramen."

Shikamaru let out a groan. "Chouji we just came from the bakery."

Chouji pulled his face from inside a bag of chips. "What?"

"That wasn't Chouji" I said. I realized then that the voice had come from directly behind me.

For a moment I felt my heart beat against my ribcage. It was a surprising reaction but I didn't dwell on it for long. I locked gazes with Ino who looked at me briefly before her eyes darted to something—someone—behind me. I was suddenly aware of everyone's silence. I sucked in a quiet breath as I turned around to see what had caught everyone's attention.

My eyes met blue twinkling orbs. Then they washed over a red cloak, similar to the one worn by the fourth, decorated with black flames over an orange jumpsuit, and for the final note of confirmation of his identity I observed his patented smile.

He dropped an enormous sack from his shoulder onto the ground. "Yo," he greeted.

Before I could reply a blur blew right past me and headed in Naruto's direction. I soon recognized the streaking form as Konohamaru. He looked as if he was about to spear tackle Naruto to the ground but came to a sudden screeching halt. His momentum almost sent him barreling into Naruto but he barely managed to keep himself upright. Standing before him, Konohamaru drew a deep breath and put out his hand. Naruto regarded the gesture curiously before taking Konohamaru's hand.

They shook hands gleefully before Naruto abruptly pulled the boy into a headlock.

"Hey" Konohamaru squealed.

"Oh what's with the mature act? You think I'd buy that for a second."

"Oh come on" Konohmaru laughed.

Ino, Lee and the rest quickly brushed past me.

"Holy Lee, those eye brows are taking over your face man...I see Akamaru is still beating you out in looks Kiba...Hey Sai what's that bruise on your cheek, did you get into a fight?...Hinata it's good to see you again..."

As Naruto greeted them all, I came to the realization that you never realize how much you miss someone until they come back home. It's the subtle differences that get you, the longer hair, the few more inches in height, and the slightly thinner face. All these changes happened without you; you completely missed out on it. This was time you would never get back with that person. They've changed some, you've changed some, and you can't help but wonder if you're still as important to each other as you once were.

"Who are you again? Ah I'm just kidding Shino…..Come on it was just a joke!"

Before I knew it, Naruto was standing in front of me. His smile was a cross between a smirk and a charming half-grin. "Sakura."

"Naruto" I replied.

He glanced down at the floor briefly before glancing up at me. "Do you think I've become manlier?" He whispered.

Yes, it caught me off guard.

Laughter spilled easily from lips. Then I smiled and gave him a thumbs up while saying, "You look fine! You haven't changed at all!"

"Ah Sakura" he sighed. "You still don't understand the mind of a man."

I was a bit surprised when he opened his arms expectantly. But I shrugged that off and stepped into his hold and hugged him. When I was about to step away, he wound his arms around me and squeezed, extending the affectionate gesture.

"Welcome back," I managed to say.

He exhaled and released me. "Yeah it's good to be back."


A/N Hope you enjoyed it I'll be back real soon. Please review and tell me what you think