An: I'm sorry for the long wait but with the rigors of everyday life my time to write has been rather limited. But I will finish all of my stories so even if the updates are far apart know that I am working on them. In any case thank you to those who review as always they are a great reward for the time and effort to let me know this story is appreciated by more than just me. Your humble author S. o. t. A.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and I'm doing this for fun not profit
Chapter 13: A Happy End of the Beginning
Sakura was pulled from her crying against Naruto's chest by his breathing taking on a raspy quality. Pulling her head away she could see that he appeared to still be badly burnt due to the chakra that had covered him moments before. Wondering why the Kyuubi hadn't begun to heal him yet, she cast a worried look back the way Naruto and Karin had come from hoping to see Kakashi making his way towards them. Sadly, her hope wasn't answered. As she turned away to look in the direction she'd need to travel to return to the Land of Fire her gaze landed on Karin so asked, "Where's Kakashi –sensei?"
"We were attacked by a group of shinobi trying to prevent me from defecting. He stayed behind to deal with them," the girl replied her tone mixed with the many emotions she was feeling, among them a healthy mixture of confusion, worry, and fear. Sakura could understand the confusion and worry since the kunoichi no doubt was wondering what had set Sasuke off enough to attack his own teammates and the worry probably stemmed from her own situation. Sakura just hoped the fear wasn't of Naruto as she knew the blond would be worried enough about just such a reaction if he remembered what had happened to him.
Naruto began to cough pulling Sakura's attention back to her teammate. She began to fear that the Bijuu was refraining from healing Naruto as a form of retribution for the boy retaking control of his body. If that was the case she began to panic since she had no idea just how extensive he had been injured as a result of the transformation. Biting her lip she looked back in the direction Kakashi was probably still fighting against who knew how many Grass-nin. She didn't want to abandon her teacher but at the same time was loathe to leaving Naruto in Karin's care. It wasn't from a sense of jealousy so much as a concern the girl would desert him for her own safety if things got rough for her. Not to mention Sakura couldn't be sure she would even want to travel alone with the jinchuriki now that Karin had a sense of what he contained. Sakura was also aware her desire to stay by Naruto was also born of her increasingly strong feelings for him.
Knowing that Naruto wasn't getting any better just lying there, Sakura pulled him up to his feet and maneuvered him to her back. She cursed her own weakness as her knees threatened to buckle due to how heavy he was but feeling the load lighten she looked over her shoulder to see Karin pulling him off and throwing one of his arms over her shoulder. Sending the kunoichi a grateful smile she got on his other side to mirror Karin. Sending one last look in Kakashi's direction she hoped he understood her decision and wished him luck before taking off with Karin to get Naruto someplace where he could be treated.
Kakashi parried the tanto of the Grass-nin that had led the ambush team and was currently the last obstacle in his way to catching up with his students. Leaping away as the man spun around to slash at his stomach, Kakashi quickly flashed through several hand-signs to perform his Lighting Cutter. Upon landing he charged forward holding his arm behind him in preparation to strike. As he closed the distance he noticed a small smirk appear on the man's face, but due to his speed couldn't alter his course. Slamming the jutsu into the man's chest, Kakashi cursed as the Grass shinobi turned into a doll made of grass upon which an exploding tag was affixed. Pulling his arm free and kicking the substitution doll away he was nevertheless blown off his feet as the tag exploded.
Hitting the ground, he rolled to his feet in a crouch looking for his opponent but needn't have bothered as the man's tanto was placed to the side of his throat against his jugular. Standing behind and to the side of him his back facing Kakashi's as he held the blade in an underhand grip the Grass-nin said, "You're truly deserving of your reputation Sharingan Kakashi. Killing you will surely raise my own reputation."
"I told you that you shouldn't bank on things until you've actually accomplished them."
The man smirked and was about to counter when a noise from above distracted him. Looking up he was caught by surprise as Pakkun landed on his face and running his claws over it scratched it up. "Stupid mutt," he shouted swiping at the nin- dog as it leapt away from him. The Grass-nin only had enough time to realize he had momentarily forgotten about Kakashi before the Leaf-nin struck shoving a kunai into the back of the man's skull.
"Whew," Kakashi said breathing out a relieved breathe as she pulled down his headband to cover his Sharingan, "thanks Pakkun. I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't of distracted him."
"Don't mention it," his summons said although Kakashi could tell he was beaming from the praise. Turning serious the nin-dog said, "Kakashi that chakra a while ago was…"
"Yeah," Kakashi said having no need of the summons to tell him the massive chakra they had felt during his fight had been the Kyuubi's.
"You should know that I smell blood. Lots of it."
Kakashi nodded numbly fearing that once more those important to him had been taken from his life. He also feared that it had been Naruto who had done it and had no idea of what he could do or say to help the boy if he had. Still he knew he was getting ahead of himself so getting his emotions under control said, "Come on Pakkun. I have a feeling I'm still going to need your services."
"Right," the summons said as it took off running after Kakashi worried for his master since despite his aloofness Pakkun knew just how emotionally fragile the jounin truly was. Luckily, as they approached the area where the fighting had broken out Pakkun could smell that although some of Naruto and Sasuke's blood had been spilled, it hadn't been in the massive quantities he had initially picked up. Landing on the ground in the Mushroom Forest it didn't take his keen sense of smell for Pakkun to find where the scent of blood that was filling the air was coming from. Both Pakkun and Kakashi moved towards the torn in half corpse, and upon reaching it the jounin flipped the top half over to search for clues as to what village he belonged too.
Upon getting an idea from the scent trails he was picking up Pakkun said, "This guy along with two others came in from the North-East. Kakashi I don't think I need to tell you what vill…"
"Sound," Kakashi said as he crouched over the Sound-nin's ruined corpse. His hand was holding the youth's loose shirt away from his chest allowing Pakkun to see the curse mark that resided there.
Seeing the direction his master's thoughts were heading the summons said, "Yeah, but Sasuke as well as Naruto were injured here…"
"But Sasuke's heading towards Sound while Sakura and Naruto are returning to the village."
Wincing at the dead tone of Kakashi, Pakkun nodded admitting, "Yeah, but he might be heading under duress. "
Kakashi nodded at his summon's point but in his heart knew that wasn't the case. He also knew he could probably catch up if he pushed himself to learn the truth of the matter. But the fact that Sakura had left the area told him that Naruto was probably hurt pretty badly since he doubted the other two Sound-nin had stuck around as the jinchuriki's Bijuu had temporarily taken control, since that was the only way Kakashi could explain the brutality inflicted upon the corpse. Despite the horrible scene and his belief that Sasuke was a willing participant in his leaving with the Sound-nin, Kakashi couldn't help but smile that regardless of being at ground zero for one of the most horrific chakras in existence, Sakura had still refused to abandon her teammate. With that he knew in what direction he needed to go so set off to catch up with those heading back to Konoha.
Aware that his summons was following him as well as that if the Kyuubi had exerted control for a time it had probably done a number on Naruto, Kakashi said, "Pakkun, locate Lady Tsunade and Lord Jiraiya. Let them know what happened here and its likely Naruto will need medical attention."
"What about Sakura and Karin?" the nin-dog asked.
"They appear to be fine," Kakashi replied looking at the tracks leading to Fire Country, "or lightly injured at worse. Once you make contact come find us to guide us to where they are."
"Roger," the summons said before breaking off to follow his orders.
Kakashi spared a moment to watch Pakkun disappear into the forest confident the nin-dog would quickly find the two Sannin. Allowing his concentration to return to the path ahead, Kakashi could feel the crushing despair that once more he had failed those close to him including the dearly departed. However he quickly shook it off since for the moment his duty was to see to the living. There would be time enough for asking the dead for forgiveness later.
Sakura vowed she would get stronger as she followed in the wake of Kakashi. She had been cursing her weakness the entire time back to Konoha as Naruto's condition appeared to get worse and worse. Her feelings of inadequacy only had grown as she struggled to carry Naruto even with Karin's help. It had been a godsend when Kakashi had appeared easily lifting the blond from between them without breaking stride.
Kakashi had only looked back long enough to ask, "Where's Sasuke?"
Sakura didn't need to see her face to know that it had twisted into a mask of disgust as she had replied simply, "Gone." Kakashi seemed to know exactly what she meant as he hadn't pushed at the time. A few hours later Naruto disappeared in a puff of smoke causing the kunoichi to fear that she had accidently grabbed a shadow clone. While she knew that was unlikely, her mind hadn't exactly been all that rational due to all the stress.
However Kakashi was still as composed as ever and aware his student was about to panic said, "Relax, Sakura. He's been reversed summoned by Jiraiya or the toads. It just means he's with the best medic in all the shinobi countries. He'll be fine."
Sakura did relax but that didn't mean she wanted to rest which was something Kakashi insisted on now that Naruto was gone. When she had protested the Jounin had insisted and explained it was likely that the Sannin had taken a leisurely pace back to the village and were unlikely in Konoha yet. Still her body had been thankful for it as she sank to the ground. Kakashi had then pressed for a more detailed report of what happened. Sakura had held nothing back even as it became apparent that Kakashi was taking some of the details as a personal failure. But Sakura didn't let that hold her back as she felt Sasuke was trash and didn't want to leave any doubt in the jounin's mind about there being a chance to save him.
Now though nearly three days later, Sakura only wanted to see Naruto. As she followed Kakashi she could see the small city of Tigers Rock pulling into sight. It was about a four day walk from Konoha. Much as Kakashi had expected the Sannin hadn't been in a rush to get back to Konoha or at least Sakura imagined Tsunade wasn't. Pakkun had informed them upon linking back up with them that the two would wait for them there before continuing on to the Leaf Village.
Reaching the entrance of the village Sakura was surprised to see a slug the size of a large dog sitting there apparently waiting for them. "Hello Kakashi," it said in a quiet cultured voice.
"Lady Katsuyu," the jounin replied respectfully, "Naruto…"
"Is fine," slug replied soothingly, "He and the others are at the hospital. I shall inform them of your arrival." Giving them the directions to the hospital the slug disappeared in a cloud of smoke to do as it had said.
Arriving at the large building, the shinobi didn't need to ask where to go as the nervous glances the staff sent into the interior of the building pointed the way. Kakashi did stop to ask to make sure but Sakura simply proceeded on her own and stopped upon coming across a hall being blocked by a large orange toad. Upon seeing her Konoha headband it stepped to the side allowing her to pass but stepped in front of Karin since she still wore her Grass one. Not really paying attention as the red-head began to argue with the toad she moved deeper into the hallway to come across Jiraiya.
"Hey," he said looking as if he had slept in the hall the entire time since their arrival.
"What's going on?" she asked looking back towards the toad still barring Karin's path.
"Why don't you tell us," Tsunade said stepping out from one of the rooms, "The little stubborn idiot is being rather closed mouth about it."
Sakura's eyes went wide guessing that Naruto was trying to protect Sasuke. "I'll talk to him," she said quickly moving to the door Tsunade had entered the hall from.
A smile appeared on the female Sannin's face since she realized the kunoichi was sidestepping her statement in favor of getting access to the boy. "Sure," she said but as Sakura stepped by Tsunade frowned upon seeing Jiraiya's face almost grow pained before he stood up claiming to need some fresh air.
Stepping into the room she closed the door behind her, smiling as sweetly as she could at the boy sitting up in the hospital bed. "Hey," she said cursing herself for how lame she sounded.
"H-hey," he replied in turn sounding nervous, not that she could blame him all things considered.
Trying to sound soothing she said, "Naruto you don't need to be so…"
"I swear I was going to tell you when we got back to the village Sakura," Naruto said quickly as he figured Kakashi had needed to explain what had happened to him.
"I know," Sakura replied, it breaking her heart to see just how scared he was he had damaged his bond with her due to his keeping it a secret from her. Knowing that she needed to be honest with him she said, "I've known for a while now that the Kyuubi had been sealed inside you."
Naruto looked stunned as she closed the distance between them as he asked, "W-why didn't you say anything?"
She smiled at him saying, "I could ask you the same thing," but stopped him from responding by placing a finger against his lips to explain, "I learned about you being a jinchuriki after the Wave mission. I also figured out that you probably only learned about it just before we became teammates." He nodded so she continued, "I also figured out that there was some rule against the children of the village learning about it. So I guess I was hoping that in time you'd trust me enough to tell me since everyone who did know about it already did. It was stupid but I just wanted…"
"I do trust you Sakura," Naruto said earnestly as he interrupted her. "I trust you more than anyone I know."
"I know," she replied smiling in a way that made Naruto feel as if she was just soothing him.
Grabbing her hand he said, "I mean it. The fox didn't want to lend me its power to help you. I think it figured your death would make me willing to release it or something. It even brought out some darker aspect of my personality and tried to convince me it was the real me. In the end I had to strike a bargain with both of them…"
"What sort of bargain?"
That even if I let the fox take temporary control of my body and you learned what I contained that you wouldn't reject me," Naruto answered giving her a bright smile since his still being in control meant he had won the bargain. His smile faded somewhat as he noticed tears appearing in her eyes so beginning to panic said, "I-I thought you would be ha…mph"
He found his ability to speak hampered and it took him a moment to process why as he couldn't be sure he wasn't dreaming as Sakura had suddenly wrapped her arms around his neck and was currently pressing her lips to his. Although still not sure if he was dreaming or not, he decided that if he was he would much rather this be reality as he closed his eyes to enjoy his first kiss, since he figured the one with Sasuke sure the hell shouldn't count. After what felt like an eternity of tasting heaven, the need to breathe assaulted both genin so they separated to stare into each other's eyes.
Both of them were blushing as Naruto nervously asked, "W-what's this mean for us Sakura?"
Linking her hand with his, she said, "It means that you're mine now, Naruto Uzumaki, fox and all." The grin that split the blond's face as a result of her words made Sakura more determined than ever to protect him and by extension her own heart. Giving into the temptation she felt she gave his lips another quick peck saying, "I'll go tell everyone about what happened with Sasuke. You rest okay."
"A-are you sure Sakura, h-he's our team…"
"He's trash Naruto and he nearly took my most important person from me. What Orochimaru has in store for him is too good a fate as far as I'm concerned. You rest because I can't wait to get back to Konoha and tell everyone who my boyfriend is." Smiling at the beaming look on Naruto's face she vowed to become stronger for him so his smile would never falter and if in order to fulfill that promise she needed to remove an Uchiha or two from the world, well she could live with that.
"I never imagined you'd have such a hard time escaping from those teammates of yours Sasuke. Perhaps I should have offered to train that pink-haired kunoichi instead." Orochimaru smiled as Sasuke gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists at his words. "What a shame to see the power of the Sharingan halved like that."
"Kakashi only has one and he was able to carve a name for himself with it," Sasuke snapped angrily, "And he's not even an Uchiha."
"True, and I suppose there is still a chance to make you whole again. It even coincides with your great ambition."
"What do you mean?" Sasuke said a measure of hope entering his voice.
"I mean if you can kill Itachi. I can transplant his eyes to you. I've heard rumors that doing so among relatives is the key to unlocking some of the greater potential of the Sharingan. I'm interested to see if they are true." Standing from his throne the Snake Sannin said, "In any case we have to get you much stronger if you are going to challenge Itachi." Heading deeper into the tunnels that made up one of his many bases with Sasuke in tow, Orochimaru couldn't help but lick his lips in anticipation, true he hated delaying getting his hands on the Sharingan but couldn't help but be pleased by the latest setback. Since once Sasuke killed Itachi the boy would no doubt come to him to implant the eyes and once on his operating table the Uchiha should prove to be easy pickings for him. Patience had never been a strong suit of his but for the Mangekyō Sharingan he was sure he could learn to be.
Tsunade smiled as she stepped foot into Konoha for the first time in nearly a decade. In truth it wasn't the village that was responsible for her good mood but the new couple that was leading the way as they held hands. It was hard not to smile when in the presence of young love and despite her usual negativity she felt that this couple had already beaten some long odds to be together.
Kakashi-sensei, Tsunade-sensei is it alright if we leave to go tell my parents the news," Sakura said spending a moment to give a nervous Naruto a warm smile.
Kakashi quickly agreed causing Tsunade to say, "I don't have a problem with it."
Again she couldn't help but smile as Sakura took off dragging the boy behind her. As she watched, she thought back to just after Sakura left the hospital room. She had joined Kakashi in filling her in about the details as to how Naruto had been injured so grievously as well as providing some of the details about how Naruto had regained control of his body from the Kyuubi. After hearing the details, Tsunade watched as Kakashi had gone in to check in on his student while Sakura moved to talk to Karin around a corner.
A little curious she had eavesdropped as Sakura said, "Hey…um look I know you might have feelings for him too but you should…"
"I know," Karin said looking down at her feet sadly, "It's written all over your face." Sighing, the kunoichi added, "Look you don't need to worry about me. I'm not the type of girl who's going to try and muscle her way into someone else's relationship." Sakura nodded in reply so Karin added, "But that doesn't mean that if you screw up that you won't find me between you and him so quickly it'll make your head spin."
"Fair enough," Sakura had replied and from her tone Tsunade could tell the kunoichi was positive such a thing would never happen.
Surprised she was acting like Jiraiya she decided to leave the girl alone, but didn't get far before Sakura came around the corner saying, "Lady Tsunade."
"Lady…" Tsunade said surprised as she turned to look at the girl astounded by the respectful tone considering Sakura's previous attitude towards her. Not that Tsunade would admit that she hadn't deserved it.
"What is it," she asked as the girl came to a stop in front of her.
"I…" Sakura began before dropping to the ground and bowing said, "Please train me. I need to become stronger if I'm going to protect Naruto."
"Sakura…" she said shocked at the girl's humbling herself in front of her, "I…"
"Please," she said looking up with tears appearing in her eyes, "I know there's no guarantee even with your training I'll be strong enough to do it. But this mission showed me just how much more I need to grow. Please Lady Tsunade I humbly ask that you train me."
Shrugging Tsunade said, "Sure, only the kami know how much potential you'd end up wasting if I left it to Jiraiya. But you should know I'm a true taskmaster and there's a good chance you might not survive my training methods."
Sakura swallowed heavily but nodded as she got to her feet saying, "Thank you Tsunade-sensei."
Losing sight of her apprentice, she began walking with the others to report to the Hokage. Noticing that Jiraiya's mood hadn't truly improved since the hospital she said, "Kakashi would you, Karin, and Shizune mind heading to the Hokage's office ahead of us. I would like a moment to talk with Jiraiya."
Receiving a couple of brisk nods, she waited until they were out of earshot before asking, "What's the matter with you? I've never seen you so down in the dumps before without it being related to the death of a friend. Don't tell me you were that attached to the Uchiha brat. Becoming Orochimaru's meat puppet is exactly what he deserves."
"I can't help but agree with you," Jiraiya said his tone picking up a little anger at the Uchiha in question.
"Then what's wrong? Seriously I figured you'd be the most excited about your apprentice getting himself a girlfriend."
"I am happy for him," Jiraiya said after a moment.
Able to hear the "but," he left unsaid she prodded saying, "Come on, what is it?"
"I'm planning on asking the Hokage to allow me to take Naruto out of the village on a training trip. Considering what I know that boy will be facing soon I need to focus him exclusively on getting stronger."
"Jiraiya you can't," Tsunade said quickly and aware that the only reason such a thing would bother him so was he was talking years, "They've just found each other."
"Then she'll wait if he means anything to her," Jiraiya said a little bitterness slipping into his voice. Tsunade was taken aback by his tone but he quickly composed himself saying, "Look, I know it's unfair to them. But, as I was tracking Orochimaru I became aware of a group called Akatsuki. He joined them for a time. I'm not sure about what their goal is or even who else makes up its members but I've heard whispers that they are interested in the jinchuriki which they've shown to be true during this mission. Plus when Orochimaru left them he made damn sure they couldn't find him for some time which is when I lost him. That tells me he was afraid of them and anyone he's afraid of is someone that needs to be prepared for. I'm not thrilled at coming between Naruto and Sakura, but it is likely Naruto's destiny to fight Akatsuki and sometimes that means putting one's personal happiness to the side."
Jiraiya began walking away and for a moment Tsunade was once more on the bridge leading away from Ame where Jiraiya had met the three orphans. She didn't know why his words had brought that particular memory to the forefront of her mind but there she was on the bridge again standing next to him as he said, "I'll stay behind and watch these brats for a while."
She figured maybe the reason for the memory was due to how everything progressed after that as she had been considering taking Jiraiya up on one of his many advances. However, instead she had met Dan and had fallen madly in love. Granted Jiraiya had still been around the village then but it had been sporadic at best as he would only show up to report what he had learned while behind enemy lines before returning back to the three orphans he had taken under his wing.
After Dan's death, Jiraiya had returned on a more permanent basis. However, by then she had begun to close off her heart. She knew Shizune had come to believe that it was the necklace she wore that was cursed. But Tsunade believed it was her and it was only giving the necklace away that told fate which of her precious people to take from her. Yet there had been times when she wondered, what if. What if she had stayed behind with Jiraiya as he trained those Ame brats? Pushing such thoughts away as those of a younger woman she realized Jiraiya was leaving her behind so quickly moved to catch up while plotting on making sure her new apprentice didn't need to ever ask herself that.
Sarutobi watched as Kakashi left his office with the air of a defeated man as he led Karin to the small apartment the Hokage had procured for her. Sighing at his inactions when it came to Sasuke the Hokage began to think on some mission to give the man to keep his mind occupied. Several moments later Jiraiya arrived along with Tsunade and Shizune, who had waited outside for her master. Standing from behind his desk he came around it saying, "Ah, it is good to see you again my dears."
Shizune gave a bow saying, "It is good to see you too, Lord Hokage."
Giving the woman a quick hug he said, "There is no need to be so formal." Turning to Tsunade, he added, "Tsunade, I had feared you would never return to Konoha."
"The thought had crossed my mind," she replied accepting the hug much as Shizune had done.
"Well I'm glad to see it didn't take root," he said with a smile before heading back to his desk. "Now as to why I've…"
"Before we get to that," Tsunade interrupted ignoring the shushing sounds Shizune was making. "I've got to wonder considering I spent several hours healing one of your shinobi just when the hell Konoha's guidelines on who should and shouldn't be a shinobi became so lax."
Sitting down the Third sighed before saying, "I'm guessing you are referring to Sasuke."
"Hell Yeah I am!" she replied quickly and angrily, "That brat must have practically screamed unstable. From what I've heard from my apprentice…"
"Apprentice," Sarutobi said casting a confused look towards Shizune who shook her head.
"I've taken Sakura Haruno on as a student," Tsunade said quickly before refocusing the conversation, "She's told me that from the very beginning he's made no bones about his only goal being to kill his brother. You must have known that given the right circumstances that all it would take to lure him away was the promise of power."
"I did," Sarutobi admitted, "I've had this conversation with my advisors many times."
"But, I didn't give in to them due to the debt we owed to Itachi."
"Debt, why would…?"
Seeing that Tsunade understood his point he said, "Yes, Itachi killed his clan and family under orders."
Hearing such for the first time Jiraiya asked, "Why would he agree to do that? Hell why would you order it?"
"I didn't," the Hokage said after composing his thoughts, "I doubt either of you are aware of this but over the years the Uchiha came to believe we viewed them as second class citizens. They thought due to their clan's role in the founding of Konoha they deserved a more prominent position in the village." Pulling his pipe from a drawer he lit it and turned his chair to look out on the village as he puffed away on it for several moments. "Eventually when it didn't happen fast enough to their liking they began plotting to take it by force. But they underestimated one of their member's love for the village. Itachi came to us with news of the impending rebellion after they asked him to spy on us. In turn we used him as a double agent as I tried to negotiate an end to the plot before it degenerated into open warfare." Scowling he said, "Sadly my efforts to negotiate were viewed as a waste of time. It was an opinion shared by Itachi. Therefore under orders from Danzou and my advisors he launched a preemptive strike. He caught them completely off guards and as far as we know slaughtered them all in a single night."
Standing he moved towards the window of his office with his hands clasped behind his back and the pipe in his mouth. "What do you mean as far as we know?" Jiraiya asked grimly.
Pulling his pipe free, he turned to his former student to reply, "I've long doubted that even Itachi could kill his entire clan by himself. I believe he had allies who helped him, but if he did he never told me. He didn't have time for you see Danzou and the other underestimated one thing."
"What's that?" Shizune asked surprised at herself for speaking up.
The Hokage graced her with a distant smile before answering, "That for all his love for Konoha it paled in comparison to that which he had for his brother. Itachi's orders were to kill all the Uchiha, Sasuke included. As you know he spared him and planted the desire to kill him in his brother's head. I doubt Itachi had any idea of just what his brother would become to fulfill that desire. In any case after completing his mission he came to me and begged that I watch over Sasuke. I agreed."
"Still watching over him and letting him become a shinobi are two different things." Tsunade said crossing her arms across her chest. "The moment he showed signs of being unstable you should have pulled him from the program."
"I couldn't help but feel that Itachi had some sort of plan for his brother. A plan that required Sasuke to become a shinobi, I felt that at the very least it was best to let whatever Itachi had in store to progress unhindered by me."
"How do you feel about that now?" Tsunade said angrily on Sakura's behalf prompting both Shizune and Jiraiya to shush her.
"As blunt as ever," The Third said with a smile, "Now then let's get to the reason I've called you here."
"First I need to ask permission to take Naruto out on a training trip." Jiraiya said. "If he's going to face some of those challenges I've warned you of he's going to need to get stronger. I can't do that here."
"Very well," Sarutobi said having a good idea as to why since some of the training would probably involve the Kyuubi.
"Good," Jiraiya said heading for the door, "We'll be leaving at the end of the week. It'll give him to get his affairs in order."
Tsunade scowled at his back feeling that one of those affairs was her student's relationship with the jinchuriki. Sarutobi caught the look and after Jiraiya left asked, "Something I should know about?"
Guessing Kakashi hadn't informed the Hokage of the development between his students she said, "Naruto and Sakura have just started a relationship. It isn't right to tear them apart." She could see her former teacher about to explain the necessity of it so cut him off saying, "Look, it isn't right no matter how you put it so let's cut to the chase. I'm guessing your calling me back involves passing on your title."
"It does," The Hokage confirmed, "I've grown too old to properly fulfill my duties. It's time someone younger takes the mantle. I've chosen you."
"I refuse," Tsunade said defiantly, "There's no way in hell I was your first choice."
Sighing, the Hokage admitted, "No, but he's made his thoughts on the matter clear."
"Well what if I could change his mind?"
Frowning, the Third said, "Tsunade, he's about to take Naruto on a training trip for the next couple of years in all likelihood."
"What a quirk of fate," Tsunade replied with a smirk, "I just happen to have a new apprentice and plan on taking her on one as well."
Seeing where Tsunade was going, Sarutobi smiled but said, "Don't you need the Hokage's permission for such a thing? Will Sakura even be willing to go and leave her family for so long?"
"If she's the girl I think she is then she will. Look, we both know the best and strongest candidate to be the next Hokage just walked out the door. Let me work on him over the next few years and I guarantee he'll be ready to take the job."
Sarutobi drummed his fingers over his desk as he thought over Tsunade's proposition. While on one hand he would be willing to admit Jiraiya had always been his first choice to replace him, the man always managed to convince him to choose another claiming his work was too important. Whether he was talking about spying or his novels Sarutobi could never say. Still he knew that choosing Jiraiya would ensure the Daimyo's backing against any plots Danzou might scheme to install himself as Hokage. Liking the idea more and more, he said, "Alright, I'll agree to go along with this so long as Sakura agrees."
Tsunade simply smiled as she was positive she knew how asking Sakura would play out.
Naruto felt like he was being interrogated although the man sitting across from him hadn't said a word. He and Sakura had arrived at her house but had only made it as far as her front door when Sakura's mom had opened the door. Seeing the two holding hands the mother squealed happily. Making the connection she said, "I'm so happy for you two. I've made plenty for dinner so you'll be staying Naruto, right?"
"Yep," Sakura said smiling at Naruto who still appeared rather nervous. Before he could answer though, he was pulled along as mother and daughter headed into the house.
Sitting Naruto down at the table with Sakura's father her mom said, "Naruto, you wait here. Sakura can you give me a hand in the kitchen."
"Sure mom," Sakura said placing a kiss against Naruto's cheek before following after her mom.
Thereby leaving Naruto with the man currently staring at him like he was Konoha's premier interrogator. Naruto cleared his throat hoping the man would end the silent interrogation. Finally Sakura's dad leaned forward having inferred his daughter relationship status to say, "I know you care about my daughter and I might be a simple civilian but if you hurt my baby don't underestimate what I can do to you."
Naruto eyes grew wide in shock but now believed he knew where Sakura's more aggressive side tended to come from . A moment later, the two women came in holding plates as they began to set the table. Sakura sat next to Naruto as her mom brought in the meal but had a hard time tearing his gaze from Sakura's dad as he seemed to switch back to his calm persona but still gave off a hint of malice as he said, "Smells good… right Naruto?"
Naruto nodded his head rapidly so as to appease Sakura's dad but also because the meal did in fact smell delicious. As Sakura's mother sat down she said, "You two simply must tell us what happened on your mission that you've decided to make it official."
"Official," Naruto asked tilting his head in confusion.
"You are dating now right…I didn't misread…"
"We are mom," Sakura said giving Naruto a bright smile. She noticed that he seemed a little nervous about the question and guessed it was probably due to his releasing the Kyuubi. Taking charge of the conversation she began a more filtered recalling of the events saying, "Well it's bound to get out soon but during our mission Sasuke defected to Oto." Sakura paused due to her mother's gasp, her father's reaction was less noticeable as he simply leaned forward in interest so she continued, "He didn't even have the courage to announce his intentions to defect instead he attacked Naruto when his guard was down. I guess you could say seeing Naruto so injured really drove the point home about how much I've come to care for him."
"I see," Sakura's father replied leaning back giving his daughter the impression he knew she was providing all the details as to what happened. "Did Sasuke manage to escape?"
"Unfortunately," Sakura said her voice growing cold something both her parents noticed.
"The important thing is that you're both home and safe," Sakura's mom said as she began to cut into her meal. Everyone but Sakura's dad followed suit as he stared at Naruto in a studious manner. His wife noticing it asked, "Is something a matter with your meal?"
"No it's fine," he answered picking up his utensils for a moment. After several seconds of looking like he was about to cut into the meal he placed them down saying, "Naruto, I take it you feel as strongly about Sakura as she seems to feel about you?"
Naruto nodded as he replied, "Yes, all I ever wanted is for her to be happy. I'd do anything to make her so."
"Good, do you still intend to become Hokage?"
"Uh-huh, I mean being Sakura's boyfriend and becoming Hokage have always been my dreams. Now that I'm with her I feel the other is just within my grasp."
"That's so sweet," Sakura's mom gushed. Sakura gave her approval by blushing and if not for her parents' presences would have likely kissed him.
However her father calmly said, "Perhaps you should abandon that goal."
Naruto looked shocked, so explaining himself Itsuki said, "Life is about choices. It's easy to imagine everything being sunshine and rainbows from here on out. But the simple fact is that most of the Hokage have died relatively young. The First was in his forties, the Second was in his late thirties and the Fourth was in his late twenties. Only the Third has lived to become an old man. Therefore if your goal is Sakura's happiness then perhaps it's best if you abandon becoming Hokage. You may not be able to achieve both."
Looking to Naruto's who was staring at the table Sakura quickly came to his defense, "Dad, I could only be happy knowing that Naruto…"
"That's okay Sakura," Naruto said interrupting her as he met her dad's eyes. "You're right I suppose. After all I only originally wanted to become Hokage so the people of the village would stop seeing me as the Kyuubi."
Sakura's mom looked surprised directing her gaze to her daughter realizing that since the jinchuriki had mentioned his containing the Kyuubi it meant her daughter must have known. Upon receiving a brisk nod from the pink-haired girl she directed her attention back to the speaking blond.
"But I can't say I'll abandon becoming Hokage because now my goal is to become stronger. I want to become the strongest shinobi in the village so I can protect Sakura and everyone important to me. If in the midst of doing that people choose for me to become Hokage then I'm going to accept it. I don't know about the Fourth and Second, but I do know the First had a family so I can imagine the other two did as well. I mean how else could the Fourth fight something as powerful as the Kyuubi and win? He must have had something important to him to protect even if he viewed the village as his family like the Third used to tell us he did when he'd visit the academy. I guess all that I'm saying is I just want to be strong enough to protect everyone."
In the midst of Naruto's response Itsuki noticed his daughter's face scrunched up as if trying to recall something important. However it smoothed out as she decided to try to remember it later so that she could level a glare at him that conveyed a desire for him to drop the matter. Seeing it's counterpart on his wife's face, he said, "Well in any case it's good to see you have given the matter some serious thought. So how about we forget I brought it up and just enjoy this wonderful meal?"
They made small talk as they ate after which Sakura asked to walk Naruto back to his apartment. Considering how late it had gotten Itsuki had wanted to refuse but Sakura insisted arguing she was a kunoichi and would be fine. Getting the sense she wouldn't back down he relented but only after Naruto promised to send a shadow clone back with her. Helping his wife clean he smiled as she said, "I'm so glad she settled on him. Can you imagine what a mess she'd be if she still liked that Uchiha?"
"Let's both just be glad we don't need to worry about that. Although if she's anything like you I pity Sasuke, he must have hurt Naruto far more seriously than they let on."
"Me," Misaki replied mock angrily, "I wasn't the one that had her boyfriend staring at me like I'd devour his soul at any moment. I mean seriously do you really need to play the overprotective father."
"Who's playing," he said coming up behind his wife to pull her into him, "It's a father's role to be protective of his daughter. Besides as soon as that kid realizes he could mop the floor with me, he'll probably begin trying to seduce our little girl."
Turning in her husband's arms, Misaki said, "I'm more worried she'll be the one doing that. Besides just remember my father probably thought the same thing about you."
A knock at the front door attracted both of their attention but Itsuki replied to his wife, "Where do you think I learned my technique from?"
Misaki smirked but hearing the knock again pulled free of her husband's grasp calling, "Coming."
Itsuki turned back to the dishes to begin washing them but hearing his wife calling him decided to go and greet their late-night visitor.
Jiraiya was standing in front of the three posts where his team took their first steps towards becoming the Sannin. Lost in thought he didn't notice he wasn't alone until he heard.
"I thought I'd find you here," the gravelly voice of the Third said cutting into his reverie.
"Guess I was just feeling nostalgic," he replied turning to face his teacher. "What's up?"
"Well for one I've read the mission report turned in by Kakashi. I believe I understand why you want to take Naruto out of the village especially if this training involves tinkering with his seal. But…"
"But, if Sakura was the key to his regaining control why would I not take her with as well." Sarutobi nodded so he explained, "There's no guarantee her presence would help Naruto keep control. Let's just say for arguments sake I heard him confess how she was part of the bargain he struck with Kyuubi and this dark persona."
Sarutobi chuckled easily imagining his student hanging outside Naruto's hospital room window as the two genin talked imagining he could get some inspiration for his novels from it. "I think I can picture that."
Despite the levity in his teacher's voice Jiraiya remained serious saying, "While it is romantic to imagine that love conquers all I don't believe that was what truly happened. I think the reason that in this case Naruto was able to suppress the Kyuubi was because in a sense both he and his darker half were expecting it to attack her at some point."
"I think I understand what you are saying," Sarutobi said as he stroked his chin, "The Kyuubi needs the darker half in order to manifest itself to such a degree."
"Exactly, the Kyuubi has always thrived on hatred. I imagine this dark half is full of it considering how Naruto was treated. Still I imagine if someone loves another even if there is hatred towards them for wrongs committed that love tends to win out in the end."
"But that would seem to suggest Sakura would be a powerful asset to have then," the Third replied.
"Perhaps for the Kyuubi as well," Jiraiya said gravely, "The reason Naruto was able to exert control again was because on some level the two halves expected Kyuubi to strike at her. When it did so they were ready like a fighter being able to block a punch he's been expecting. But as Itachi should have known when he wound his brother up, hatred isn't so easy to control. Say Naruto gets pissed enough for the Kyuubi to manifest again, but this time Sakura's not at the heart of it so he's not ready to deflect the Kyuubi's aggression towards her and she tries to play the heroine again. Can you imagine what he'd feel if she got hurt or worse because he was unable to protect her?"
"I imagine it may be close to what you've felt when you were unable to protect those Ts…"
"Don't go bringing her into this," Jiraiya snapped. "Besides Sakura is her apprentice now and since she's your replacement they'll be staying here in the village."
"I'm afraid Tsunade still as pig-headed as ever," Sarutobi replied with a smile due in part to Jiraiya's rubbing his hand down his face but was mainly a result of the bargain he had struck with the former kunoichi of his team. Walking past his old student he placed his hand on the pole he had tied the Toad Sannin to when he had given them the bell test and said, "I think you should take this as the opportunity it is. Not just for those two to discover and strengthen the bond between them but for you to do so as well. I'm well aware that you've been watching out for her all these years. I imagine it is the only way she could gamble and lose at the rate she did, but it not reach my ears about her racking up massive amounts of debt."
"Pfft," Jiraiya snorted, "I just didn't want the name of the Sannin to be tarnished."
Sarutobi smiled but knew the truth of the matter, not to mention Orochimaru had done that long ago. Saying as much he countered, "Come now Jiraiya. I know how much she means to you. You tried harder than anyone to be there for her when Dan died."
"No I wasn't" Jiraiya admitted, "I just went through the motions. How can you tell someone how sorry you are when a part of you is glad he's out of the way?"
"A difficult question to answer but there is one."
"Really and what would that be?"
Sarutobi began walking away before saying, "By judging all the actions taken on her behalf both before that tragedy and after. But for now let's focus on the matter that as far as Naruto's training trip is concerned it is likely you'll be enjoying both Sakura and Tsunade's company. The sooner you accept that the better it should go for you."
Sakura rested her head on Naruto's shoulder which was a little uncomfortable since she was still slightly taller than him. She imagined she was getting a lot of confused looks from some of the shop vendors since they might have spotted her walking in a similar manner except heading the opposite way a little while before. Having dropped off Naruto, she was enjoying the idea that thanks to his shadow clone she could still show off her boyfriend to the village.
Reaching her home she kissed the clone's cheek in case her mom was looking having enjoyed a deeper one with the original. Entering her house after the clone dispelled she came to a stop upon seeing her parents sitting across from Tsunade. "Um, hello Lady Tsunade... what's going on?"
"I was just going over what your training was probably going to entail," Tsunade said placing the tea Sakura's mother had made for her down.
Her parents looked at her sadly as they sat holding each other on the so she asked, "Why do you guys look like this is a bad thing?"
Tsunade was the one that answered saying, "I imagine most parents don't greet the possibility that their children may be leaving for several years as a positive thing."
"What do you mean? I'm not going anywhere."
"Naruto is however. A training trip to be exact, if you decide to stay here it could be years until you see him again."
"H-he didn't say anything to me."
"He doesn't know yet," Tsunade said quickly, "I think Jiraiya only truly decided on it upon reaching the village. Naruto does need to grow stronger those Akatsuki clowns aren't going to give up on him. I believe Jiraiya is going to try and train Naruto in how best to harness the Kyuubi and as I'm sure you know Konoha isn't the most suitable of places to begin such training. Therefore the decision is yours we can remain here or you…"
"I want to go," Sakura said quickly, "Mom, Dad… I…"
"We understand honey," Misaki said smiling sadly at her daughter, "It's important to follow your heart. Now that you two have found each other it's important to support one another. "
Sakura nodded moving to give her parents a hug both of whom returned it. As they held each other her dad said, "We'll always be here for you and we expect you to write from time to time."
Tsunade smiled at the scene saying, "As touching as this is. It's not like they're leaving in the morning. Jiraiya plans to leave at the end of the week. Sakura, we'll begin training then so enjoy this week because once it's over pain and misery are going to be your constant companions." Standing she bid her charge's parents adieu before asking Sakura to escort her out. As they stood outside Sakura's home she said, "You agreed pretty quickly there. Were you expecting this?"
Sakura shook her head before saying, "I want to be there for Naruto. As soon as you said he was leaving my decision was made."
Tsunade smiled down at the kunoichi saying, "Good," a wistful look appeared on her face as she added, "I wish I had your strength."
"Lady Tsunade," Sakura said quizzically not sure what the woman meant.
"Never mind," Tsunade said shaking off the depression that threatened to take hold. "I'll see you at the end of the week so until then enjoy."
Sakura nodded and then went in to spend some time with her family realizing just how precious it had become. As the hour grew late she headed up to her room and after getting ready to turn in was about to climb into her bed when a light knock sounded against her window. Pulling open her drapes she saw Naruto and from the look on his face knew that he must have heard what was in store for him. She mentally kicked herself for not going to him since it was apparent he had been warring with himself over the news. As she opened the window he began to say, "Sakura, I need…"
She silenced him by kissing him and after ending it smiled at the dazed look on his face before saying, "I know. Jiraiya's taking you on a training trip."
"Y-you're okay with that… we won't get to see each other for years…"
"Naruto it wouldn't matter because I'd wait for you. But I'm going to be there with you every step of the way."
"Man that Pervy Sage I wouldn't have argued with him if he had said that."
"Well he probably doesn't know that yet, or he thinks he has a say in the matter. Besides if I know you then you'll get into all sorts of mischief like saving princesses from tyrannical rulers. I have to go along just to make sure they know you're mine, Naruto Uzumaki."
"Always," he said before kissing her forehead much as he did when he had been henged as Sasuke. Just like then she felt it was a dream come true but also now knew from where the warmth spreading through her came from.
Indulging in what in the future might become an addiction she kissed his lips saying, "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay," Naruto said quickly pecking her on the forehead again before adding, "Let's go on that date I promised you. Good night."
Sakura nodded and closed her window as he left leaping over the rooftops. She smiled as she climbed into her bed still feeling the kiss on her forehead. As she let sleep claim her she found it hard not to think of her life as a fairy tale even though she knew the happy endings associated with them often depended on where the story stopped. Although hers was nowhere near over, she had to admit she was pleased with the end to the first chapter.