I Just Wanted to be with You


Part One ~ Lonely Hearts


This tale begins on a lonely stretch of highway, one of many in the metropolis called Konoha. A single dark ribbon dotted with orange streetlights and dashed with white lane markers. For the one person cruising the streets during the late hours of the night, it felt like he was the only one in the world. Above him, the inky black sky was speckled with stars, and the half moon was surrounded by clouds, its bright beams lighting up patches of the Tarmac and reflecting off of the helmet of the lone rider.

One boy was out on the highway at this hour and his name was Uzumaki Naruto. As a student of Konoha University, and a rather poor one at that, he often had long hours and late nights working with tutors and the like to keep his average grades where they were - if improving them was out of the question. He was on his way home now, on the first vehicle he had ever owned: a metallic blue Yamahada motorcycle.

The engine purred as it sped through the alternating spots of light and dark between the pools of light cast by the streetlights. It handled like a dream, despite being a few years past its prime, and Naruto was very proud of his 'girl'.

However, he didn't have eyes only for this midnight blue beauty. Another girl demanded his attention, and he was more than willing to give up everything and more if she wanted it. And right now, he was driving to her, desperate to see her again. He couldn't live without her; the pinkette who saved his lonely heart. Her name was Haruno Sakura, and she was waiting for his return at the apartment they shared.

If only she had been waiting for him with the same anticipation he felt in his heart.

"Where is he? It shouldn't take this long to come home!" her voice echoed through the empty apartment, landing on no one's ears but her own. Sakura sat at the window overlooking the street seven floors below, hoping that one of the small dots of light speeding by would turn into the building's underground parking lot.

She pressed her forehead against the cool glass, eye to eye with her own reflection. "Why do I wait for him? Is this all I can do?" she questioned her window counterpart. The emerald eyed girl behind the glass simply stared back, mouthing the same questions back to Sakura. She knew that Naruto being late wasn't anything new; in fact, ever since he had promised her that he would become a man she could be proud of, he had begun to spend all of his days at the university, and all of his nights in the study, hunched over his textbooks in the dark room illuminated only by the computer monitor on his small desk.

She couldn't even remember the last time they had cuddled together in bed, simply enjoying the shared warmth and each other's company. The little dots of light that were the cars on the streets below continued to speed by, and not one of them seemed to be slowing down. That was just how Naruto was these days, in fact, that was how he had been for the past six months.

As she was about to slump back in her chair, she noticed one of the specks of light coming to a halt, before turning and disappearing beneath her windowsill, indicating that a vehicle was about to enter the underground parking lot.

She sighed and lay back in her chair, running her hand through her bubble gum pink locks. The spark just wasn't there anymore. Her heart didn't flutter, a blush didn't cover her cheeks and her breathing rate was even despite the fact that the young man she loved had finally returned home to her.

Why was there no spark? Was it because she didn't see him enough? Or did her heart beat for another?

She placed a dainty hand over her chest. In her mind, she could see a dark haired boy in a blue high collared shirt walking away from her, and as she turned around, a blonde haired boy in an orange jumpsuit was waving to her with a bright and happy grin on his face. His sparkling blue eyes seemed to beckon to her, promising a bright future. She slowly walked towards him, moving hesitantly at first, then faster as she drew nearer to Naruto. Sakura could feel warmth emanating from him, and their surroundings grew brighter with every step.

Yet as she was about to reach out to him, she felt a chill run up her spine, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end. She glanced back to see that Sasuke had stopped, and had half turned towards her, his face in shadow. He reached out a hand towards her, and her surroundings became dimmer. As she gazed into the one onyx eye she could see, she felt excitement rise in her chest as it slowly turned to red. Red bled into black, and a single Sharingan stared at her, piercing its way into her soul, promising an uncertain and unknown future.

She began to stumble towards the boy in blue, a shaky hand reaching for his own. Distantly she could hear Naruto shouting out her name, but she paid it no mind. She couldn't, she was enraptured as all of the desires she kept buried in her heart forced their way out. What would her life have been like if Sasuke hadn't left? Their fingertips were inches apart now, and Sasuke was facing her, staring down at the pink haired girl with the wayward heart.

His expression was cold and indifferent. As she was about to take his hand, a smirk formed on his lips for a mere moment, a fleeting smug look that vanished as quickly as it formed. She stepped forward into the darkness, until Sasuke's face filled her view. His bright red Sharingan eyes burned through the shadows that obscured his face, and the three tomoe in each eye began to spin hypnotically.

Naruto's voice hadn't stopped calling her name, and it was getting louder. Sasuke's face began to distort, becoming fuzzy and blurred as it morphed into another.

"Sakura-chan!"

Her eyes snapped open, and she watched as the few fragmented images of Sasuke's self-satisfied smirk faded into Naruto's concerned gaze. She blinked a few times to clear the fuzziness from her eyes and gave Naruto a shaky smile. "H-Hi Naruto. Welcome home."

"I'm home," he replied as he gently brushed stray strands of hair from her face. "Are you alright Sakura-chan? How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine." she tried to rise from her seat, and Naruto carefully helped her up. "Just tired I guess."

"Do you need-"

"I'll be fine. There's dinner for you in the microwave, just set it to heat for two minutes and it should warm right up." she wrapped her arms around his neck, stood up on tiptoe and kissed him goodnight. "I'm going to bed now, don't stay up too late."

Naruto smiled and hugged her tightly. "I won't."

As she stepped into their bedroom, she knew her fears were confirmed. She closed the door and leaned against it, her eyes on the small patch of moonlight shining through the window and onto the carpet. Her feet were centimetres from it, just past the edge of the ray of light. She raised a hand to her face, placing a delicate finger on her lips. She sighed quietly as she stroked the spot where his lips had brushed against hers.

The spark was gone.

Naruto slumped down on the chair his girlfriend had just vacated, feeling absolutely drained. He had suffered through a long day of classes and lectures, plus his evening supplementary lessons with Iruka-sensei and right now, all he wanted to do was sleep. Unfortunately, he had plenty of stuff to look over and revise from today's classes, plus he had an essay and an assignment due the following week - two pieces of assessment he had yet to start.

He groaned out loud, but it was a half-hearted one. He felt a smile grow on his lips when he reaffirmed his reason for working so hard; it was all for the (probably) slumbering pink haired beauty in the bedroom next door. He promised her that he would become the man she could be proud of when Sasuke left, and later when she asked him to go out with her, to be the very best he could be to ensure that she would have a comfortable life with him.

Everything he did was for her, and he was happy with that. His life had meaning now; he had a purpose for doing what he did. He had been a bit worried when he realized that they hadn't been spending much time together lately, but he had planned something special for Sakura that coming weekend. He was sure that she would love it.

He nodded to himself, before stumbling over to the bathroom to take a long and well deserved soak in the tub.

As the days leading up to the weekend came and went, Sakura found that she spent more and more time alone in the apartment that she and Naruto shared. She barely saw him during the day at the university, since they took different courses, but not even being able to see him at night was just ridiculous.

She was at her usual place by the window. Across the street, all of the lights in the adjacent buildings had been turned off. She was also very sure that the lights in her apartment were the only ones on in her building. That was just the nature of most people in this section of Konoha.

The apartment that she shared with Naruto was quite a good one. It was small but new and modern in design, and they had purchased it for a very decent price. Behind her, a gleaming white kitchen with recessed fluorescent lights indicated how much time she spent there actually cooking. The various pieces of kitchenware shone like the day they were pulled out of the box - but that wasn't to say they weren't being used.

In fact, it was Naruto who logged the most hours in the kitchen. Sakura had been pleasantly surprised to find out that Naruto was a decent cook, when he made something other than ramen. In comparison, her skills were abysmal, but when she cooked something, Naruto never complained. He was sweet that way, always considerate about her feelings, yet willing to giving her an honest review if she asked for it.

In many ways Naruto was the perfect boyfriend, so why wasn't she satisfied? On the coffee table in front of her sat a beautiful flower arrangement; a bouquet that Naruto had bought for her the day before as an apology for being late. At the time, she had been so happy to receive such a beautiful present from her beloved, and had definitely enjoyed the rather passionate kiss that he had bestowed upon her when she looked up to say thank you.

But right now, the flowers only reminded her that Naruto wasn't here with her. She understood why he spent so much time studying, but would it be so bad to come home a little early once in a while? They could go out together and see a movie or have dinner by the river, anything really to reignite her flames of passion.

Sakura sighed, a mournful and lonely sound that echoed through the apartment. She returned her attention to the cheap romance novel she was reading, a sad way for her to feel any sort of excitement these days.

She was interrupted by the sound of the telephone ringing. She quickly stood up to answer it, rushing to the phone, desperate to hear another person's voice.

"Hello?"

"Uh, hey Sakura-chan. It's me." Naruto's voice had a rather sheepish inflection to it, and she could imagine him scratching the back of his head in his usual, rather cute fashion.

"What's up honey? When are you coming home?"

"I'm sorry Sakura-chan, but I don't think I'll be able to make it back tonight. It's really late and I'm pretty tired so I don't want to drive when I'm half asleep. Sorry."

Sakura could feel something weighing on her heart. Was it disappointment? No, she had long resigned herself to the fact the fact that she spent her nights without her boyfriend. Loneliness? Maybe, but then again, that was nothing new.

"That's okay Naruto. Where will you sleep? Have you organized a place to stay the night?"

"Yeah, I'll be sleeping over at Shikamaru's." that made sense. Shikamaru lived on campus, and generally didn't mind who shared his room as long as they didn't keep him up at night. That young man loved his sleep as much as Naruto loved ramen.

"Alright then. Did you manage to get any dinner?"

"I'll probably grab some ramen from Ichiraku's on the way. Sorry about this Sakura-chan, I'll make it up to you soon alright? I promise."

"It's okay Naruto. I'll see you tomorrow then? At the university?"

"Uh probably not. I'll be at home all day tomorrow since my sensei is sick and won't be having any lectures or classes. But I'll be there when you get back for a change!"

He sounded hopeful, like the fact that their roles were being reversed was a good thing. Still, at least he had promised to make it up to her, and if there was one thing that Naruto could be counted on for, it was to never ever break a promise. Especially to her. "That's sounds great. I only have a half day tomorrow, so we can plan something special for tomorrow night." as Naruto made an affirming noise she continued. "Alright then. Stay safe, sleep well and thanks for calling."

"Goodnight Sakura-chan. I love you."

"Sleep well honey... I love you too."

That small pause before the 'I love you too' wasn't lost on either of them.


Part Two ~ Love Lost and Love Found


"Good morning Konoha, Kyobayashi Hitomi here with this morning's top news stories." Naruto yawned widely and picked up the remote, increasing the volume on the modestly sized television set that he and Sakura had bought that weekend. He had been true to both the promise he made to Sakura and the unspoken one he had made to both of them. He had taken Sakura out to a movie of her choice two days before and then to dinner at one of her favourite restaurants. That had been on the day when he hadn't had any lectures and was stuck at home while Sakura was out at university for a change.

As he sipped at his hot chocolate, the familiar smell of strawberry shampoo wafted from the bathroom as the door creaked open. He felt a smile form on his lips and turned towards his girlfriend expectantly. His second unspoken promise had been to do something special for Sakura on the weekend, to make up for all the times he had left her alone at home as of late.

Since he had already taken her out to a movie and dinner, he decided to do something more personal. They stayed home that night, and chef Naruto cooked up a gourmet meal for the two of them, with Eastern and Western dished created and eaten in tandem. The blend of culinary styles had made dinner an exquisite explosion of unique flavours. It had been a success, or so he hoped. Sakura had seemed to genuinely enjoy the food. But that hadn't been all he had planned for his princess. Next he had carried her bridal style to their bedroom, where she had gasped in surprise upon laying eyes on the rose petal covered room, lit only by scented candles and the light of the moon as it shone through the large, nearly floor to ceiling windows.

Laying her gently on the bed, he pulled out the various massage oils he had procured a few days prior and massaged all the kinks and worries out of his beloved. The satisfied sounds that escaped Sakura's lips during the one and a half hour session were more than enough of a reward for him. He could feel her relaxing, nearly melting like putty under his masterful hands. As soon as he finished and toppled onto the bed beside her, she immediately cuddled right up to him, her warm body sliding easily on his own thanks to the various oils he had used.

He wrapped his own arms around her bare torso, and she placed her head against his chest as their legs entwined together. She glanced up at him, and the smile she had on her lips warmed his heart like nothing else could. She whispered "Goodnight, my love." and was soon lost in the world of slumber.

Naruto felt absolutely satisfied; he had made the princess of his heart happy, and that was more than enough for him. He rested his chin on the top of her head and allowed sleep to take him too, feeling nothing but true joy as he held his lover in his arms.

That had been the night before, now all that was left was to see how she had felt about it. She walked into the living room slash kitchen dressed only in a towel while drying her hair with another, glanced around and upon spotting Naruto, gave him a quick smile as she reached for a plate of toast he had left out for her. It was a very casual smile; certainly not even close to the one she had rewarded him with last night.

"Huh?" he thought. "Maybe she didn't enjoy it as much as I thought she did?"

Sakura approached the living room portion of the apartment and placed her plate down on the coffee table next to Naruto's own breakfast of instant ramen. Her eyes were on the brand new television set he had brought home and installed before dinner the previous night, watching as Konoha's top news presenter delivered the morning report in her trademark beige suit. The television was placed in the corner between two large windows, and these large windows continued down the entirety of the wall next to their lounge set and coffee table.

As Naruto placed his half-drunk cup of hot chocolate down on the coffee table, looking a little down as he did so, she felt a sly smile form unbidden on her lips. Without warning, she leapt onto the unsuspecting blonde, straddling his waist while wrapping her arms around his neck. He looked up at her, blushing like a schoolboy and utterly confused. "Last night was amazing honey. Thank you." she whispered in his ear, making him shiver with excitement as she caught his lips with her own and kissed him passionately.

'She... She liked it...' was all he thought before he wrapped his arms around her waist, giving in wholeheartedly and responding enthusiastically to the kiss.

As they continued their kiss for the next few moments or so, somehow the television remote managed to slide out of Naruto's hand and under his right buttock. As the blonde shifted in his seat to make it easier for Sakura to caress his face, the 'increase volume' button on the remote was pressed, allowing the sultry voice of Kyobayashi Hitomi to fill the living room.

"... And this just in: Hyuga Hinata, the heir to the Hyuga family and its associated businesses, has gone missing as of last night."

"Whaagh?!" Naruto half yelled, half mumbled since his mouth and tongue were linked and occupied with Sakura's own.

"Naruto...?" Sakura pulled back, looking a little hurt. Rendered speechless by panic, Naruto gestured desperately to the television set. As she glanced back and her own eyes widened in shock, Naruto fished out the remote and turned up the volume just a bit more. Sakura turned on the spot, lifting a leg over Naruto's head until she was seated facing forward on his lap. This also had the unintended side effect of making Naruto feel rather excited as Sakura's movements on his lap plus the unexpected view left him hot under the collar. Glad that Sakura couldn't see his burning red face, he placed his chin on her bare shoulder, allowing his attention to return to Kyobayashi Hitomi and the picture of Hinata that had appeared beside her on screen.

"...Hyuga Hinata's disappearance was reported by one of her maids earlier this morning. She was last seen at around ten in the evening yesterday as she excused herself from dinner halfway through and retreated to her room. The discovery was made by her personal maid Arakawa Hikari, at around six in the morning when she entered the room to wake the now missing heiress."

"How terrible," murmured Sakura, her hand seeking Naruto's for comfort. As his fingers entwined with hers, she squeezed his hand tightly, watching the screen with a horrified look to match the blonde's own. It wasn't often that someone went missing in this city, especially someone that they actually knew.

"Currently, it is of the opinion that Hyuga Hinata ran away, leaving of her own accord. The police have yet to make a statement. This assumption was taken from her father, Hyuga Hiashi, when asked for a comment by our on-scene reporter. This is what he had to say."

The scene on screen switched from the Konoha Morning Report studio to the outside of a very large and prestigious looking compound. There, a person that could only be Hinata's father stood with a reporter holding a microphone under his nose. Even though his daughter was missing, the man's white Hyuga eyes were impassive and cold.

"My daughter is a coward. To think she had the will power to run away is indeed surprising." The reporter standing with him gave him a puzzled look.

"You said that she 'ran away'. Why are you so sure she wasn't kidnapped? Wasn't there an incident in the past with people from Kumo City trying to capture her for the famed Hyuga Byakugan and to ransom your company?"

Hiashi did not look at all concerned as he replied. "That is no longer an issue." The reporter seemed a little taken aback before remembering his prewritten set of questions for every situation.

"So can you think of any reason why your daughter would run away?"

"A coward like her is no daughter of mine. It matters not whether or not she returns home. She is a fool who could not deal with the pressures of bearing the name of the Hyuga or of taking over the company when my time is at its end. I have no use for such a person and I told her so the previous evening at dinner, whereby she promptly excused herself and was not seen again. If she could not bear the criticisms I so rightly pointed out about her personality, that is the sign of a weak willed person unfit to take over my position as head of the company. Now if you'll excuse me, I am late for a meeting." He turned around and strode back through the open gates of the compound, which closed as soon as he was clear, leaving behind a shocked reporter and his equally disgusted camera crew.

Sakura gently prised the remote from Naruto's hand, not an easy task as his knuckles had gone white from gripping the small device tightly. She looked back at his face as she switched the television off and was shocked by the livid expression that was so unfamiliar on his features.

"How..." he began. "How could he just..." he was quivering with rage, and it seemed it was all he could do to reign in his anger and not begin shouting.

Sakura quickly wrapped her arms around him. As she stoked his hair calmingly, she spoke softly into his ear. "I know. It's disgusting... but maybe it's better she ran away right?"

"I hope she's happy wherever she is," he murmured under his breath as Sakura's ministrations and calming words soothed him. "I hope she's okay."

As the young pinkette found herself alone at home, late at night yet again, she began to wonder if being with Naruto was worth it. Yes, that weekend had been absolutely amazing. But that was the problem - it was just that one weekend. Could she really enjoy a relationship that came in bursts? Could she really be satisfied with these few tender moments between long dry spells?

Naruto had been generous enough to pay for the television in full, no doubt to keep her entertained, but to be honest, there wasn't anything she really wanted to watch. All Sakura wanted was to be loved. Being with Naruto as he was now just wasn't enough.

She sprawled out lazily on the reclining armchair she spent so many nights in, watching the steam rise from her cup of tea. Beside the cup lay a battered classic romance novel she had borrowed from the university library; just one of many stored under the bed she and Naruto were supposed to share. As she found herself questioning why she was with Naruto for the umpteenth time, a knocking at the front door had her glancing around dumbly, wondering what had caused the trio of sharp knocks.

Leaping to her feet as realization struck, she could feel her boredom sliding away like water off a duck's back as she drew nearer to the door. As a smile curved her lips, she found herself grudgingly admitting that Naruto truly brought out her best moods with just his presence.

Her hands fumbled with the lock; with a click, the door swung open. "Welcome home hon-" her hand fell from the door handle in shock, her jaw following suit as it dropped to the carpet.

"Hello Sakura. It's been a while." That cool collected voice. Those piercing dark eyes. That mysterious aura that had drawn all the females to him back during their school days.

Uchiha Sasuke stood at her doorstep, casually leaning against the door's frame and acting like his visit was no big deal. But it was a big deal; at least it was to Sakura...

...Since Sasuke had vanished from her life nearly nine years ago.

"Well that's all for today Naruto. Good work." Iruka said appraisingly, observing his students' unusually sombre demeanour curiously as he stretched and rolled his shoulders. The blonde boy had been working with him for a solid three hours and was more than on top of the coursework. If Neji wasn't careful, there could be a new student holding the number one spot at the end of the term.

"Thanks Iruka-sensei! I'll treat you to ramen at Ichiraku's as thanks this weekend alright? Keep your schedule clear." he was grinning as widely as he normally did when ramen was involved, but it didn't quite reach his currently dim blue eyes. As he gathered together his things, cramming them haphazardly into his bag, Iruka had to ask.

"Why are you in such a glum mood today Naruto? It's not like you." the boy froze, before smiling in a surrendering fashion.

"I could never hide my thoughts from you Iruka-sensei. You know me too well." Iruka simply nodded, prompting him to continue. It was a statement that did not need to be acknowledged with words.

Naruto sat back down in his seat, looking somewhat older than his years. It wasn't too far off either. As a young boy, Naruto had suffered a lot without parents and friends and the emotional scars ran deep. He'd had to grow up sooner than normal, ruining his childhood to survive.

Since Naruto seemed content to wait for him to start the conversation, Iruka opened their dialogue with a simple question. "What's wrong?"

Naruto turned to him, a mixture of emotions on his features. "You know about Hinata right?"

'Ah. It's not an issue with Sakura. Well that's... I won't say good but...' Iruka thought before speaking out loud. "Yeah, didn't Tsunade- the esteemed Dean of this University... announce it over the intercom during lunch?" as he spoke Tsunade's name aloud, he quickly cut himself off and afforded her the most respectful description of her position. She had a tendency to work late nights, and was very particular about how people addressed her. As far as he knew, only Naruto got away without being sent to the hospital for calling her 'Baa-chan'.

"Yeah, I saw the report on the news this morning." Tsunade had made a public announcement asking any students who knew anything about Hinata's disappearance to step forward. No one had yet to do so.

"It's terrible isn't it? You hear about it on the news when it happens to other people, but you never think it would happen to someone you know. Especially since she was... Is... one of my students."

Naruto nodded and then seemed to hesitate, opening and closing mouth without saying a word. Iruka gently prompted him with a raised eyebrow and motion of his hand; he knew from experience that if someone would take the time to listen, Naruto would share what was on his mind with little reservation. Once one got to know the blonde well, he was like an open book.

"They interviewed her father."

'Oh...' Iruka knew where this was going.

"How could someone be so cruel and uncaring about their own flesh and blood?" Naruto's hands clenched into fists. "Why didn't she tell us what she was going through?"

"Naruto, let me ask you something. When you have a problem, who do you speak to?"

"..." the blonde glanced down at his clenched fist and allowed it to loosen. "I... I try to deal with things by myself, unless someone like you asks me what's wrong."

Iruka smiled fondly. "She's a lot like you, believe it or not."

"Really?" there was a dubious inflection in his voice, prompting Iruka to elaborate.

"Hinata suffered a lot in her childhood. And like you she found someone who inspired her to be better, or at least try to without giving up." Iruka stood from his seat at the front of the room and approached Naruto. "That person is you."

"M-Me?" he stammered. Iruka nodded in response.

"Yes, she looks to you as a role model."

"But we barely even talk to each other. What exactly do I do for her?"

'He's so dense!' Iruka thought as a sweat drop rolled down his cheek. "Before she met you, Hinata rarely tried, and when she failed or even began to slow down, she would just give up. But when she met you, and watched you work tirelessly for your goal, it motivated her to try harder too."

"But, why would she pick me as a role model? There are plenty of other students out there who work just as hard as me."

'He's so dense!' Iruka repeated mentally. "Naruto, who sits beside you every day working to improve herself?"

Naruto glanced at the seat to his right where the dark haired girl usually sat. "Hinata does."

"She knows as well as you that having at least one person supporting you is enough to make a change. You are that person. While you didn't support her through words, you inspired her with your actions. That's one of the qualities of a strong person."

Naruto could feel himself blushing under the praise but something was still bugging him. "But why did she pick me?"

Iruka, having finally lost his patience, threw a whiteboard eraser at the blonde's head, hitting him square on the forehead. "She loves you idiot!"

"Ow! What?!" the blonde rubbed the top of his head while gazing at Iruka with shock written all over his face. "She loves me?"

"Yes! She always watched you from a distance, and that was enough for her."

Naruto looked down at the desk, a pained expression on his face replacing the surprised one. "But I'm with Sakura-chan, yet she still... She must have been hurting..." Suddenly he jumped up from his seat slinging his bag over his shoulder. "Thanks Iruka-sensei! You've been a big help tonight, even more than usual!" as he dashed off, Iruka smiled as he watched his favourite student's retreating form vanish into the gloom of the corridors.

"How could that idiot not have noticed Hinata's feelings?" he asked the empty room with a grin.

"Sa...su...ke..." Sakura could barely speak. All the emotions she'd ever felt for him came pouring out of her heart in a torrent. Love, admiration, betrayal... She could feel every memory flashing through her mind, every forgotten dream being relived in an instant.

"Hn. Still smitten with me are you? At least some things don't change. Now, aren't you going to invite me in?" Sakura mutely stepped to the side, allowing the raven haired man access to the home she and Naruto shared. As he walked through the doorway, he raised a hand to her chin, gently closing her still open mouth. Sakura blushed at his touch, averting her gaze from him.

Sasuke walked into the living room slash kitchen, his impassive eyes darting around the room, leaving no corner unexamined. He moved towards the wall of windows overlooking the street and deftly slid the centre pane of glass open as he swung around; the window that had been jammed shut since the day they moved in. Naruto could only force it open after much struggling and swearing, so to say she was impressed that Sasuke did it one handed and in such a casual manner was an understatement.

As Sakura remembered herself and started to close the door, a strong breeze blew in from the newly opened window, wrenching the door from her hand and slamming it shut. "Sakura, could you make me some tea?" Sakura felt a chill roll down her spine, stimulating her sense of excitement. Why, she didn't know, but she felt extremely flustered all the same.

"S-Sure," she stuttered, in a manner reminiscent of a certain missing girl. As she began to bustle around the kitchen, wishing that she had listened when Naruto had told her where everything was kept, Sasuke made himself at home, seating himself in Naruto's favourite armchair.

As the pinkette located the kettle in an overhead shelf, filled it with water and set it to boil on the stand, Sasuke watched her every movement. While she searched high and low for the tea, Sasuke's eyes were on her, studying the way her body moved, the way her face became more flustered as she searched through the cupboards to no avail and the way her clothing moulded to her shape as she stretched high and bent low hoping to discover the elusive tea container.

"Sakura?"

There was a loud thud, a pained "Ow!" and Sakura quickly popped up from behind the counter rubbing her head. "Y-Yes?" she stammered, rubbing her head and blushing with embarrassment.

"I believe the tea you are searching for is over there on the counter." he said, gesturing to a collection of neatly arranged containers sitting on the kitchen counter. There were several clear containers marked with neatly printed labels sitting in plain sight next to the microwave. As Sakura felt her whole face burn with shame, she quickly rifled through the containers, extracting the fancy Japanese tea from the mixture of Eastern and Western beverages. They had even been arranged in rows, coffees and teas separate from the sugar and hot chocolate ingredients.

"Ah, t-thank you Sasuke-kun." the raven haired young man simply smirked before turning his head towards the open window.

Soon the kettle was boiling and Sakura had managed to find a tray and the tea set she and Naruto reserved for guests. Slowly, she walked over to the coffee table, worried as her hands began to shake as she got closer to Sasuke.

She was relieved when she finally set the tray down after what had to be the longest walk ever. It didn't help that Sasuke had been watching her the entire time and was still studying her face even now.

She kept her head down and poured out two cups of tea. She handed one as steadily as she could to Sasuke, and shivered when his hand lingered on hers as he took hold of the cup. Grabbing her own cup of tea, she quickly sipped it, hiding as much of her face as she could behind it, as she tried to avoid those scrutinizing eyes of his.

Just as she was about to burst from the pressure, Sasuke finally spoke after sipping his tea, his eyes never leaving her face. "You've become very pretty Sakura." her eyes widened in response as her heart stopped. Was this how Hinata had felt back during their school days around Naruto? She had often wondered if Hinata still had that childhood crush on Naruto, but she didn't see her often enough during the day at the university to be sure.

"T-Thank you S-Sasuke-k-kun." she was struggling for words under his cool gaze. What was she to say to him after all this time? And what about her feelings for him? Fortunately, Sasuke saw fit to ask a question rather than wait on Sakura to gather her courage.

"So how is Naruto these days?" Sakura felt a stab of guilt in her heart. That loving and ever faithful boy was on his way home to her just looking forward to seeing her again while she was having tea with her first love.

"H-He's fine. We're together now."

"Really? You settled for that dobe then? Did his constant begging and weaselling finally get to you?" Sakura began to nod in response before catching herself. That wasn't fair to Naruto because that wasn't how it happened.

"N-No, he didn't ask me again after you left... I-I asked him out during our first year of university."

"And let me guess, he was still madly in love with you and said yes right away?"

"Yeah..."

"Hn. Maybe it isn't a good thing that some things never change."

"H-He has been a wonderful and caring boyfriend. Any girl would be lucky to have him..."

Sasuke could sense an unsaid 'but' and called her out on it. "But?"

Sakura's eyes seemed distant as she turned to gaze out the window. "...but I don't know if he's right for me. I've always wondered what my life would have been like," she turned to face him, staring into his dark and haunted eyes. "If you hadn't left... me."

Sasuke sat back in his seat, smirking at some private joke before calmly sipping his tea. "Well then I have good news for you." Sakura's jade eyes met his onyx ones, a badly hidden hopeful look on her face. 'Pathetic.' thought Sasuke.

"What is it Sasuke-kun?" her barely drunk tea was left abandoned on the tray; her full attention was on him. In the back of her mind, she could hear a loud and disgusted voice that sounded like her own chastising her for throwing away Naruto's heart so easily.

"Come with me."

"Huh?"

"I want to you come with me Sakura-chan," the emphasis he added to the honorific on her name sent tingles of pleasure coursing through her body. She had always dreamed of being addressed by Sasuke in such a familiar manner. "I want you to be my girl."

Those words... They were what she'd always wanted to hear...

"Please go out with me Sakura-chan!" Naruto's voice echoed in her mind, asking the question she had heard from him all through their days at school. But it wasn't the same. It didn't evoke that same feeling...

She found it difficult to respond, since she didn't know what she wanted. "I..." suddenly Sasuke's head moved ever so slightly. He appeared to gaze at the door with an intense look before turning to face Sakura.

"It appears our time is up for tonight. I will return in three days, and you will have an answer for me, Sakura-chan." one moment he was seated across from the pinkette, the next, he was on her side of the coffee table, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead. It was too much for Sakura, who was on the verge of fainting, and could only watch as Sasuke leapt out the open window and quickly fell out of sight.

As Sakura stumbled to her feet and ran to the window, she could hear the tell-tale click of the front door's lock being opened. She stuck her head out over the windowsill and saw nothing but the pavement seven floors below.

"I'm home!" as Naruto's oddly over-cheerful voice rang through the apartment, Sakura quickly spun around to face him, schooling her face into as realistic a smile as she could manage.

"Welcome home honey." the automatic reply came easily and she breathed a sigh of relief when Naruto appeared not to sense anything strange or out of the ordinary. Sometimes, even he was strangely perceptive about the smallest things.

Naruto walked up to her, his trademark foxy grin in place. But there was something off about it, and as he drew nearer, she noticed that it didn't quite reach his eyes. Those cerulean eyes, usually so sparkly and full of vitality were dim and lifeless. As he raised his arms towards her for a hug and a kiss, she slowly stepped into his embrace, watching his face closely as she questioned him.

"Is something wrong Naruto?" he flinched and seemed to hesitate before switching to his playful persona a little too quickly.

"Huh? Me? Ha-ha, there's nothing to worry about, I'm fine Sakura-chan!" he leaned towards her with his eyes closed as his arms snaked around her waist, drawing her closer to him. As she felt his warm body press against hers, and her own arms wrapped loosely around his neck as they closed the distance between their lips, she suddenly found that she could not kiss him. At the very last moment, she twitched her head to the side and quickly pulled Naruto's head to her shoulder as her own rested lightly against his cheek.

She couldn't kiss Naruto, it wasn't fair to him. She felt dirty and dishonest for thinking of Sasuke like that; there was no way she could pretend to act the part of a loving girlfriend to someone as honest as Naruto.

Though he did seem to be hiding something from her...

But there was no way on earth that he would be cheating on her though. He simply wasn't like that. So how could she face him when she knew deep in her heart that she was falling for Sasuke?

Her eyes widened as Naruto pulled away from her with a perplexed look on his face. Realization had dawned on her as she stared into Naruto's concerned eyes.

She had fallen in love with Sasuke. Again.

Sakura had believed that she had come to terms with his departure during high school and moved on. However, meeting him again had brought back all the old feelings she'd had for him, drowning the love she felt for Naruto with yearning for the raven haired boy.

She didn't know what to think anymore. Her chest burned with guilt, yet her heart was set on another boy. Her mind was a whirlwind of confusion and it took her a few moments to realize that Naruto was trying to get her attention.

"Sakura-chan!"

"Huh?"

"I asked if you're feeling okay. Do you need to lie down?" Sakura gave him a sheepish grin and placed a hand on her forehead.

"Uh, yeah. I haven't been feeling well today honey; I think I'll go to bed now. Night."

"...alright. Good night." Naruto stepped to the side, allowing her to head to the bedroom. As she was about to disappear around the corner Naruto's voice stopped her dead in her tracks.

"Sakura-chan? Why are there two cups of tea here? Did you have a guest?"

She once again plastered a fake smile on her face and stuck her head out from around the corner. "No honey, I made that for us. But you were getting late so I drank mine. Sorry."

"I see. Thanks Sakura-chan, I'll be sure to enjoy it."

Sakura nodded and began to slide back into the welcoming darkness of the corridor where their bedroom was located. As her fingertips were about to vanish from Naruto's line of sight, his voice called out to her again, making her jump. "Sorry Sakura-chan, I've got one more thing to ask."

She peered out from behind the corner once again. "Yes?"

"Who opened the window?" her heart stopped beating right then and there. Her eyes grew wide with panic, which wasn't lost on Naruto.

"Um, I-I did."

"Really? I thought you weren't able to. I didn't get around to oiling it yet."

"It-it must have loosened up after the last time that you opened it then."

"I see. Night Sakura-chan. Sorry for keeping you from your beauty sleep. Not that you need it of course!" Sakura forced herself to giggle at his little joke. "Night honey." With that, she finally crept into the sanctuary that was their bedroom and gently shut the door.

As soon as he heard the bedroom door's latch click, Naruto slumped down onto the chair his girlfriend had vacated, the one opposite his usual arm chair. His eyes fell on the two cups sitting on the tray next to the tea pot filled with now cold and unappealing tea.

Oddly enough, the cup on Sakura's side was full, with a slight staining on the rim indicating a few sips of tea had been consumed. The other cup on the side where Naruto's favourite armchair was located was completely empty save for the few dregs at the bottom.

His eyes shifted to the window that Sakura had never been able to prise open before and then to the corner and corridor where he had last seen Sakura. Something didn't add up.

But it wasn't like she had any reason to outwardly lie to him right?


Part Three ~ I Just Wanted to be with You


"Be careful out there! It's not safe for a young woman to be out alone at night!"

"Yeah yeah, I'll be *hic* fine. Don't worry about me Ryuuji, I know how to *hic* look after myself." as the dark haired young woman wandered into a wall and tried to open it, Ryuuji the bartender felt a sweat drop rolling down his cheek as he watched her drunken antics.

This young woman had started coming to his sake bar recently, and he had initially thought she was ridiculously shy to the point where she could barely ask him for a drink. Once that first sip of alcohol washed down her throat though... That rosy blush creeping up her pale white cheeks was the sign of a massive personality change to come.

Soon she was acting as rowdy and playful as the best of them, and had garnered herself a solid group of drinking buddies (Ryuuji included). She was always the last to leave, providing Ryuuji with very interesting conversations that ranged from light hearted and fun to deep and thought provoking.

She was no doubt a very interesting young woman, but he often wondered why she had ended up at his bar on that first night. She'd had mascara smeared on her cheeks which indicated that she had been crying and her eyes... Those mysterious white eyes had seemed so empty as she sat herself down on an empty stool at the bar...

Those mysterious white eyes happened to be focused on him while he was deep in his musings. "Oi Ryuuji! Someone's gone and stolen the door! How the *hic* do I get out of here?!"

The bartender chuckled to himself before calling out to her. "Just slide over to the left a bit, yeah a little more... there you go." as her hand found the door, a smile lit up her face, and she turned to the young man behind the door one last time. He could feel his cheeks reddening which was completely out of character for him. That alcohol induced blush working in tandem with that pretty face and smooth pale skin made her look like the most adorable drunken angel he'd ever laid eyes on.

Probably.

"Bye bye Ryuuji, I'll see you tomorrow!" he waved to her as she wobbled outside and kept his eyes on the door until it swung shut. He was seriously worried about her now. How many blind women walked around late at night without even a cane to guide them? At least, he thought she was blind... Maybe she was partially visually impaired? He was pretty sure no one had an unusual eye colour like that.

Outside the bar, the young woman with dark hair and white eyes stumbled away from the door, heading down the brightly lit street. As she passed through pools of light cast by the streetlights above, she could feel her pace slowing and the smile she'd presented to the bartender slipping away.

As the last of the alcohol burned through her system, she could feel her energy leaving her. She slumped against the wall, dragging herself forward as fresh tears began to stream down her face. "Why?" she whispered to herself. "Why couldn't you be with me?"

She suddenly felt herself falling sideways; the wall abruptly ended and she staggered into what was most likely an alley. At this point in time, she didn't really care anymore. Her feet became entangled and she landed painfully on a collection of boxes and assorted trash that collapsed under her weight.

She simply lay where she was. Her eyes could barely pick out any details in the pitch black darkness of the alleyway. The light from the street was but a few metres away yet she did not have the strength to get up and move on. That was her life, she realized with a wry smile. She lost her home and her love and even her job. She had nothing to live for and nowhere to go.

"A-Ano, are you okay? D-Do you need me to c-call an ambulance?"

The young woman in the trash heap squinted into the gloom as she sat up. A girl was approaching her from the gloom of the alleyway, from the street on the other side. "I'm fine thanks. But is it okay for you to be wandering around at this time?" she replied.

"Y-Yes, I live quite close by. Would you l-like me to take you home?"

While she couldn't see the girl's face, she had to admit that her stutter was adorable. It made her picture a girl who was honest and shy; a girl after her own heart.

"Kid, I don't have a home."

"W-Would you like to s-stay with me until you feel b-better then?"

"Oh no I couldn't impose on you like that... But I would like a place to stay. Is it really okay?" she finished sheepishly.

"Yes, it's f-fine. I don't have much to offer you though."

"That's alright. I just need a place to stay for the night." as the girl helped her up, the now mostly sober young woman began to question why a random girl was helping her. "Lead the way then."

"Ano, we are already here..."

"Eh?"

"I l-live in that cardboard b-box you crushed when you f-fell over." the young woman presented the girl with her best deadpan gaze.

"Seriously?"

"Y-Yes... S-Sorry..." the young woman could almost picture the girl with a bright red face and a shamefully embarrassed expression to go with it. She sighed loudly, shaking her head. How did a young girl like her end up on the streets?

"There's no need to apologize... Ah, what was your name?"

"M-My name is Hyuga Hinata."

'Eh? The Hyuga Hinata who went missing?' she thought. She quickly grabbed the young girl's shoulders and dragged her towards the light at the end of the alley. "Sorry about this," she said as she pulled her into the orange glow of the street lamp. Her milky white eyes scanned the girl in front of her, confirming it to be the missing heiress. There was no mistaking those distinctive Hyuga eyes. "I'm partially blind so..."

"It's n-not a p-problem." Hinata stammered. Her own pale lavender eyes looked up at the dark haired woman who had destroyed her little home in the alley. Her eyes could have easily been mistaken for a Hyuga's, and her long straight hair made her look like she could be Hinata's older sister.

"I'm guessing you ran away from home for a good reason right?" the older woman was looking at her with an understanding smile.

"Y-Yeah."

"How about this then: let's stick together and watch out for one another! We both have no one else to turn to and there's safety in numbers!"

"Um," Hinata was perplexed. A woman she had just met wanted to team up with her. But she had been feeling very lonely recently and she had no one else to turn to so... "O-Okay then, um..."

"My name is Fujibayashi Kaya. Just call me Kaya."

"A-Alright Kaya-san." the young Hyuga could feel a shy smile forming on her lips. "A-Are you hungry? I know a g-great place that's not too far from here... The owner's really nice and gives me food if I do the dishes..."

"Sounds great! Lead the way Hinata-chan!" the blind woman gently held onto Hinata's hand and kept pace with her as she began to walk. Hinata could feel a strange warmth in her chest. It felt... good... to be depended on by someone else, to have someone actually wanting to be with her.

As she walked hand in hand with her new friend up the brightly lit street, for the first time since she ran away from home, Hinata felt happy, blissfully unaware of the two cloaked figures watching them from the dark depths of an alley.

"I want you to come with me Sakura-chan. I want you to be my girl." Sasuke's words echoed in the pinkette's mind for the umpteenth time, making her shiver with pleasure and then cringe with guilt. It was the first of the three days that Sasuke had given her to make a decision, and she was no closer to the answer than on the night he had asked her.

Sakura knew that it was wrong. Just having these thoughts was being unfaithful to Naruto, and yet... All she could think about was Sasuke's arms around her, with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear.

She shook her head rapidly and slapped herself for good measure. There was no point in lusting after another man, not until she had dealt with the one she was with. It was time to make a decision, and she wasn't sure if Naruto would like it.

"Naruto, are you okay?"

"Huh?"

"I asked you if you were feeling okay. You've been very distracted today." said Iruka, gazing concernedly at his student. It was very late and about time for the two of them to head home yet Naruto had been working almost absent-mindedly the entire time, barely speaking a word to his increasingly worried teacher.

"Oh, uh... Nothing's wrong. I'm just tired I guess. Too many late nights you know?"

"..." Iruka watched him until the blonde turned back to his work before sighing loudly. Something was clearly wrong but if he needed to, Naruto would speak to him about it in his own time. That's just how he was.

"Is it okay if I head home early Iruka-sensei? I'm feeling a little out of sorts."

"S-Sure Naruto. Will you be able to drive home or are you going to camp out at Shikamaru's?"

"I should be fine. That lazy ass is probably already asleep and wouldn't appreciate me waking him up anyway." he slowly placed his gear in his bag before slinging it over his shoulder. "'Night Iruka-sensei."

"Good night Naruto. Same time tomorrow?"

"Yeah, that assignment is due next week and I'm a little stuck on Part E."

"No worries, I'll be here." Naruto gave him a tired smile and a wave before walking out of the classroom.

Iruka was really worried now. Since starting these afterhours study sessions with himself and Hinata, Naruto had never left early once. In fact, it was Iruka or Hinata who would have to coax him into leaving.

He really hoped that Naruto would talk to him soon.

Naruto was literally dragging his feet along the corridors until he reached the apartment he shared with Sakura. Tonight, he was extremely grateful for the elevators that serviced their building. If he'd had to walk up seven flights of stairs, he probably would have slept in the lobby. He doubted he would have ever made it home on any of his late nights if that was the case.

He didn't even need to look at the numbers on the doors anymore; there was only one doorway that had light spilling out from under it. Sliding his hand into his pocket, he rummaged around for his keys. As the lock clicked open and the door swung inward, he was greeted by the sight of Sakura in her (and secretly his) favourite night clothes (an extremely tight mini tank top and equally short shorts) lying fast asleep on an armchair, with two cups of tea steaming away on the coffee table next to a what he assumed to be a freshly prepared pot of tea.

He could feel a smile forming on his lips; she really was cute when she was asleep. Her mouth was slightly ajar and her head was turned towards the window, bathed in the light of the crescent moon. She really did look like the most beautiful pink haired angel he had ever seen.

Probably.

He tiptoed over to his slumbering girlfriend and gently picked her up bridal style. He had a brief vision of Sakura and himself actually doing this in a few years and his heart skipped a few beats. As he slowly lost himself in his little daydream, he failed to notice that Sakura had begun to mumble in her sleep. She struggled in his arms before settling down against his chest, a content smile on her lips.

Back in Naruto's mind, he was at the part where he scooped his new bride off her feet and slowly carried her back down the aisle. As he passed by rows and rows of applauding friends and 'adoptive' family, he felt his eyes drawn to a single seat in the back row. This person was wearing a large white sun hat with a purple ribbon which completely obscured her face. She was applauding along with the rest of them, but he could tell her heart wasn't in it.

As he drew nearer to the mystery person, he could feel a familiar aura emanating from her. Even though he couldn't see who it was, he subconsciously knew who was hiding under that hat. He finally stood beside her chair, looking down at her. The way her hands began to twist in her lap until she was pressing her index fingers together was a dead giveaway.

The girl looked up and the dream world froze for Naruto as he found himself staring at the tear-stained yet smiling face of Hyuga Hinata.

He twitched in shock and was returned to the present, before quickly fumbling with the girl in his arms, trying not to drop her onto the cold tiled floor. He knew what that little dream signified. Even if he was with another girl, Hinata would be happy that he was happy, at the cost of her own. That kind of selflessness was simply heartbreaking to realize, and that made him feel absolutely terrible inside. But what could he do? He loved Sakura with all his heart and Sakura loved him just as much...

...Didn't she?

The second day since Sasuke's reappearance was coming to a close, and Sakura was beginning to panic. She was no closer to a decision than the day before, and she was beginning to doubt what she really wanted.

Naruto had been an absolutely wonderful boyfriend. He had catered to all her needs, when he was around of course. There was no guarantee that Sasuke would be any better or worse, but she simply couldn't choose. If she truly loved Naruto then this wouldn't have been such a difficult decision so maybe...

Maybe they weren't supposed to be together.

But that got her wondering why she was so convinced that being with Sasuke would make her dreams come true. She already had many wonderful things in her life here with Naruto, meanwhile Sasuke's life after the point where he left them was a complete mystery. She didn't know what he had done, or what he was involved in now. The last time she had seen him was when he left to find his older brother, who went missing shortly after their parents died. She'd overheard him getting information about his brother being involved with some gang and then the raven haired love of her life just vanished, leaving her behind.

She should have known something was amiss when he took extra care to say goodbye after their final day at school together. That should have been an obvious clue that the love struck girl hadn't noticed back then. Sasuke never said goodbye. Instead, she was too busy gushing over the possibility that Sasuke was warming up to her.

Sakura shivered as she opened her eyes. She was in the bath tub, and the water had become freezing cold. She briefly wondered how long she had been in the tub, before returning to her thoughts.

Why did Sasuke have to return now? Why couldn't he have come back before she became emotionally invested in Naruto? It was cruel in a way, that he was forcing her to make a choice like this. No matter which one she chose, someone would get hurt; either herself or Naruto.

"Argh!" she yelled out to the heavens before slapping the water around her, splashing her freezing cold bath water on the walls and floor of the small bathroom. When she was done, there was considerably less water left in the tub to cover her body and she began to shiver violently.

But she wasn't done yet. She leaned back and tried to ignore the biting cold, once again becoming absorbed in her thoughts. Maybe she needed to step back and think about it objectively. While she was aware that one couldn't do that with affairs of the heart, she'd be damned if she didn't at least try.

Naruto was a hard worker. He studied hard and long hours every day just for her. With his current standings, he could definitely get himself a good office job somewhere that would pay him well for reasonable hours. They could have a good life together and she would definitely see more of him once the stresses of university were behind him. 'And,' she thought as a blush crept across her cheeks. 'He would most certainly make a good father.' Naruto had a way with kids that she could hardly hope to match. She was certain that any children they had would be closer to him than her, regardless if it was a boy or a girl.

Sasuke on the other hand was an enigma. From what she could remember, he was a natural genius who was easily on par with Shikamaru. He even gave Neji a run for his money during the national exams, scoring within the top two percent. He was dedicated, making sure not to let Naruto get ahead of him in anything. And he was such dark and brooding person that it made any girl who saw him swoon. Except for Hinata of course, but she'd always been a little weird, though Sakura had made sure never to voice that opinion.

There were too many uncertainties if she went with Sasuke and yet... It felt exciting. The sense of danger and adventure appealed to her much suppressed reckless side. She sneezed and decided that she'd spent enough time in the bath. Now was not the time to catch a cold. She would have to refill the bath for Naruto, who would probably be getting back home soon.

Wrapping a towel firmly around her chilled body, Sakura leaned over and drained the tub, then turned the handles on the taps until they were spewing out water at the perfect temperature. Naruto liked hot baths, and while never admitting it out loud, enjoyed adding bubbles and fragrant bath salts. Sakura smiled as she added the various amounts of bubble solution and salts to the steadily filling tub. She'd been pleasantly surprised, and very amused, when she had caught Naruto in the act of adding bath beads to the tub that he'd hidden under the sink when they first started living together.

His sheepish blush had prompted her to tease him by saying they should take a bath together with all his little salts and beads, needless to say, the tomato red face he had afterwards remained in place until the next day.

Sakura giggled as she exited the bathroom, the tub now filled and ready. As she closed the door, the sweet smells of various tropical fruits were lost to her senses. Ensuring that her towel was secured firmly around her chest, she suddenly decided to grab herself a glass of the fruit punch that Naruto had made in the morning. She doubted this little spontaneous craving was not unconnected with the scents that had been emanating from the bathroom.

As she entered the kitchen, she flinched in shock when she noticed that the fridge was open and that someone was rummaging through it. "Sasu-" she cut herself off when a few spikes of blonde hair appeared over the door, followed by Naruto's eternally grinning face. "I'm home!"

"Ah, welcome home honey!" she replied hastily.

He shot her a puzzled look as he pulled out the jug of fruit punch and shut the refrigerator door. "Were you expecting someone else?"

"N-No, I was worried that someone had broken in. You're home early." she could feel her cheeks reddening slightly. She had a habit of singing or speaking her thoughts out loud when she thought she was alone without realizing it. She hoped she hadn't said anything about Sasuke that he could have overheard.

"Yeah, I felt a little tired so Iruka-sensei said I should rest up today and continue off from where I was tomorrow. I'm on top of my work right now so... Do you want some fruit punch?" that last sentence was quickly said after a slight but noticeable pause. It wasn't like Naruto to be tongue-tied around her. Something was up.

"Yes, I'd love some. Could you look at me for a moment honey?"

"Eh? Sure, but my handsome face hasn't changed that much since you saw it this morning you know." Sakura drew closer to him and bopped him playfully on the head before placing her hands on the sides of his head. She hadn't been this close to him since the week preceding Sasuke's return, and she wished she'd taken the chance to examine him like this sooner.

"Naruto, have you been sleeping well?"

"Uh, yeah. No more than usual I guess." now that she was face to face with him, it became apparent that he definitely had not been getting enough sleep. There were heavy bags under his eyes and he seemed a little pale. Not enough to be classed as sickly, but it was far from healthy.

His cerulean eyes were beginning to take on the look of the eyes of their insomniac friend Gaara, with dark circles on his face giving him a sleep deprived, raccoon-like appearance. He grinned at her reassuringly and gently wrenched his head from her hands, turning back to the kitchen counter to pour out two cups of juice. "Don't worry about me, I feel fine!"

Sakura knew that overly enthusiastic tone all too well. That was the tone he used when he was trying not to make others feel concerned about him. He was one of those people who tried to solve all their problems on their own, not wanting to trouble others with their issues.

"Naruto, I-" she was cut off as he gently shoved a glass of juice into her hands. She watched him as he went to pick up his own, and did not miss the way his hand quivered as he held the glass.

"Is the bath ready?"

"Yes, I prepared it just the way you like it." he gave her a bright smile, the one that usually always made her feel a little happier just by looking at it. But today, she felt nothing but worry. She closed her eyes as Naruto leaned forward, and was vaguely surprised when he only kissed her on the cheek.

"Thanks Sakura-chan." with that he drained his glass in one gulp, replaced the empty cup on the counter, sidestepped her and made his way to the bathroom. As he walked, Sakura noticed that his movements were slower, almost as if he were trying to hide the fact that he was staggering slightly. Her brow creased with concern, and she watched him until he closed the bathroom door behind himself.

Just what was going on? Was he keeping something from her? Her eyes widened in shock as a horrifying thought crossed her mind.

Did he know about Sasuke's offer?

The apartment was particularly cool that night. After much difficulty, Sakura had managed to prise open the window, allowing cool night air to fill the apartment. It hadn't been such a lie after all; the window was definitely easier to open after both Naruto and Sasuke had forced it open.

Sakura was prepared this time; at least, as prepared as someone who hadn't made an important decision could be. A teapot filled with a fresh brew was waiting alongside two sparkling clean empty tea cups on their equally clean coffee table, and even a plate containing a culinary mess that had been Sakura's best attempt at snack sandwiches sat waiting for the raven haired young man's arrival.

Naruto had called earlier and had said that he would be extremely late today, so she figured she had plenty of time to make her decision. Sasuke would wait wouldn't he? He hadn't seemed like he was in a rush three days ago so she should be able sit down and think it through properly. Maybe having Sasuke in the room would help her choose since Naruto's presence simply made it harder.

She could feel a nagging sensation in the back of her mind, no doubt linked to Naruto's deteriorating health. He had been even worse off that morning than before, barely making it out the door without stumbling. He was clearly trying to keep his health issues to himself, even though it was glaringly obvious to anyone who saw him. Sakura had begged him to take a taxi but he simply laughed it off, kissed her on the cheek and left.

She was concerned for him, she really was. But right now, she had to make a choice. She had to push it all out of her mind, especially since she didn't want to think about what would happen to Naruto if she left him. If he found out she left him for Sasuke... Who knew what he might do...

She quickly shook her head and forced those thoughts away. She had to focus, Sasuke would be arriving soon. She sat herself down on her usual armchair and placed her head in her hands, feeling the two sides of her heart raging in fierce internal conflict. On one side she had sweet, lovable Naruto, on the other she had the dark and enigmatic Sasuke both tugging at her heart strings, demanding her love... At least, she thought they did.

'Come to think of it,' she wondered. 'Sasuke-kun never told me why he wanted me in the first place. Naruto made sure to tell me nearly every day why he loved me, but Sasuke never told me why... In fact, he just said 'come with me'! That could mean anything! Hell, maybe he just wants me to do his laundry! I-'

"I also said I wanted you to be my girl." Sakura jumped in fright as another voice intruded on her thoughts, seemingly reading them as well. As she jerked her head up and her roving eyes landed on Sasuke seated once again in Naruto's armchair, she leapt to her feet, breathing rapidly.

"S-S-Sasuke! H-How long have you b-been...?"

"Have you got an answer for me?" his cold and sharp voice pierced through her mumbling, and she slowly sat down, shaking her head as she did so. "What a pity," he continued. "Well, we have all night, so I shall give you until midnight to decide."

A quick glance at the clock told her she had two hours to make a decision that would most definitely change her life. For better or worse, she didn't know.

No pressure, right?

Time seemed to be passing by in slow motion. Sakura could feel each second tick by, and each of those painfully agonizing seconds were made all the more stressful by the fact that Sasuke hadn't taken his eyes off her the entire time. He was still watching her now; she could feel his eyes burning a hole in the side of her head as he sipped his tea. The horrific explosion she called a plate of sandwiches sat untouched by either of them.

Her own jade eyes were focused on the night sky. She was gazing out the window, silently watching the stars and acting as if she was calm and composed while actually feeling a raging turmoil of emotions whirling inside her.

Trying to keep her cool in front of Sasuke was damn near impossible, but necessary. If only she wasn't so aware of his presence, then she could at least think clearly...

Probably.

'Why is this so hard, damn it?! It's a simple choice right?'

'Matters of the heart are never simple.' the little voice in the back of her head that usually liked to butt in to her thoughts wasn't pulling any punches today.

Sakura was so focused on weighing up the pros and cons of the two boys she loved that she didn't notice the raven haired one sitting across from her suddenly appear in front of her. She jumped violently when he cleared his throat and hastily stammered out a question. "S-Sasuke-kun, do you n-need something?"

"I have been sitting here for an hour and fifteen minutes Sakura-chan."

'Is Sasuke-kun asking me to make a decision right here and now? What do I do? I'm not ready! How do I-'

"I would like to use your bathroom." needless to say, her furiously beating heart calmed right down after that. She felt a blush creeping up her cheeks and averted her eyes.

"Eh? Oh, uh, just head down that corridor and it's the second door on the right."

"Thank you." with that said, he melted away into the shadows of the dimly lit apartment. Only the moonlight provided any illumination in the place that Naruto and Sakura shared.

As Sakura let out a deep sigh and stretched until the joints in her shoulders popped, she glanced out the window and down at the road below. Only a few dots of light passed by, heading off towards their own destinations. It looked like Naruto would be late; not that she'd had any reason to doubt him of course. He was always true to his word, even when at times like this, he really shouldn't have been. She turned away from the window with another little sigh escaping her lips, missing the small dot of light that turned off the road and disappeared into the underground parking lot of the building.

Soon Sasuke was back in Naruto's seat, and then the intensely stressful game they had been playing resumed once again. As the minutes slid by in complete silence, save for the odd sipping sound and the clink of tea cups on the coffee table, muffled shouting could be heard from below, probably from the lobby or the ground floor apartments.

Sakura now had fifteen minutes left to make her choice. Sweat began to bead on her brow under Sasuke's unrelenting gaze. Sakura flinched when Sasuke's head suddenly whipped around to face the front door. As she was about to ask what was wrong, a gentle knocking sounds and a faint voice calling out her name stopped her cold. Her head turned slowly towards the door, her eyes widening as the voice she knew as well as her own begged her to open the door.

She shakily stood up from her chair, and after receiving a nod of approval from Sasuke, slowly walked towards the front door, quaking with fear and worry. Her hand watched out for the golden door knob, and she took one last deep calming breath.

"Sakura-chan? A-Are you wake? Could you open the door please?" Naruto's muffled voice sounded weak and strained. With increasing concern building up in her heart, she slowly twisted the handle, readying herself for the tumult of emotions that would no doubt follow once he saw who her guest was. The lock clicked under her hand and she slowly pulled the door open, preparing herself for the finale...

Ten minutes prior, Uzumaki Naruto had just pulled into the underground car park of his apartment building. He parked in his usual spot and then slumped over the handlebars, allowing the engine of his 'girl' to run unchecked. His vision blurred and darkened around the edges as he tried to summon the willpower to stand.

He was amazed that he had gotten home in one piece. On the highway, he'd nearly had an incident with an oncoming truck when he dozed off for a few seconds and swerved into the opposite lanes. The blaring horn of the delivery truck had been the only thing that saved him in time, and the swear words that the driver had yelled at him as he drove away ensured that Naruto kept his eyes on the road for the remainder of the trip.

"I'm sorry baby... I'll be more careful ne-next time... I promise..." he mumbled to his motorcycle. He stroked the metallic blue paint job lovingly, and was about to verbally beg his bike for forgiveness when reality struck and he realized what he was doing. He sat back in his seat, swaying with exhaustion, before letting out a dry chuckle. "Sakura-chan was right, I need more sleep. Bye bye my lovely girl!" he said cheerfully, waving giddily to his motorcycle as he walked up the stairs to the lobby, his mind becoming even more fuzzy and confused than before. A couple who had just parked their convertible a few spots over glanced at Naruto worriedly as he blew a kiss to his bike before entering the doors that led to the lobby.

"Ah, Uzumaki-san, welcome back." the red haired receptionist greeted the boy with a bright smile as he emerged from the basement stairs. Takasu Akane simply adored him, he was like the little brother she never had… To her at least, being ten years his senior (can university students still be called little brothers?). They often had little chats when he returned home late at night, dropping all professionalism and respectful honorifics in favour of the informal and more familiar 'Naruto-kun' and 'Onee-san'.

"..." it seemed that Naruto hadn't heard her greeting, which was more than a little odd. He was always very attentive and polite.

"Naruto-kun?" she asked, feeling a growing sense of worry form in her chest as he stumbled and glanced around confusedly. As his half open eyes scanned the area and eventually fell on her, his face brightened and he wobbled over to her desk, grinning like a lunatic.

"Takasu-sama! How are you on this fine evening?"

She smiled at him worriedly. "That honorific is a little too formal, and too grandiose, for us right?"

"Akane nee-chan! How's it going?"

'That's too familiar!' she thought before addressing him. "Um, Naruto-kun? Are you feeling okay?"

"Me? I'm fine! How about you, Akanee-chan?"

'I don't even know what to think of that nickname!' she felt herself blushing and pushed on, determined to keep the conversation on Naruto. It was a cute way to address her though; she had to admit, mashing her name and the very personal name for an elder sister together. She quickly shook her head to dislodge those thoughts from the forefront of her mind. What was she thinking today?

"You don't look very well Naruto-kun-"

"Please, call me... Uh... Right, Naruto-chan! Call me Naruto-chan!"

'How close does he think we are?!' she mentally panicked. "Alright Naruto-c-chan, now will you tell me why you're acting out of sorts?"

"Out... of... sorts?" his strange new persona seemed to waver. His blue eyes cleared up for an instant as he considered the question, then they glossed over and his silly grin was plastered all over his face again. "Akanee-chan! Naru-chan is fine!"

'Referring to himself in a cute manner and in third person?' Akane thought as her hand slid over to the phone. 'He is definitely ill; I'd better call an ambulance.'

"Akanee-chan?"

"Hmm? What is it?" she had already dialled two of the three numbers needed to call the emergency services. But something in Naruto's voice made her look up, only to see her surrogate little brother still grinning his glossy eyed grin with tears streaming down his unusually scarred cheeks.

"I don't think Sakura-chan loves me anymore." it was the most pitiful sight she had ever seen. One moment she was seated on her side of the desk, the next, she was holding the blonde boy in her arms. As she looked down at his now impassive face, she was shocked to see how pale he was. There were dark circles around his empty and haunted looking eyes and upon placing her hand on his forehead, Akane was shocked to find him burning up with an extremely high fever.

"Of course she does silly. What made you think that?" she asked as she began to lead him towards one of the couches.

"When she looks at me, I don't see anything in her eyes... Her beautiful eyes." he mumbled. "I don't see the love and affection that used to be so visible when she looked at me. She doesn't kiss me anymore, and avoids direct contact. She always seems to be thinking about something she won't tell me about and... and..." without warning he collapsed, knocking his head with a sickening bang on the corner of a small table before landing heavily on the hard wooden floor.

"NARUTO!" Akane was instantly kneeling next to him, checking his pulse while watching a nasty gash on his forehead begin to bleed profusely. "Naruto, stay with me!" it was no good. Naruto was out cold. His pulse was faint, his fever was high and now he was unconscious.

After rolling him gently into the recovery position, she sat back for a few moments as she searched her pockets for a handkerchief. She rifled through her coat pockets desperately, horribly aware of the slow drip of blood from the tip of the blonde's nose to the floor.

She pressed the hastily folded piece of cloth against his wound, hoping to staunch the bleeding until she could reach the phone and finish calling for an ambulance. She jumped when he suddenly groaned and opened an eye, gazing around the room blearily from his sideways position on the floor.

"H-Hello?" he called out weakly.

"I'm here Naruto-chan." replied Akane as she gently maneuvered him onto his back and placed his head on her lap. "Try not to move too much, you've got a serious head injury." she said as she reapplied pressure to the wound.

"Oh really? I actually feel so much better now. That little knock cleared my head!" he was grinning normally now, prompting a tearful smile from the redhead.

"Even so, I'd like you to just stay still until I call an ambulance-" as she placed her hands on Naruto's head for support and began to move herself backwards, his hand grabbed onto her wrist and he gave her one of the most heartrending puppy dog looks she had ever seen.

"Don't leave me! Uh, I mean, you don't need to call an ambulance, I'm fine! Just let me lie here for a few minutes and I'll be back to normal in no time. Honest!"

"I really think... I should call... Okay Naruto-chan, I'll wait." she finished, shaking her head at how easily she had given in. Common sense told her that she should alert the paramedics and yet, those puppy dog eyes of his couldn't be refused. They were quite the dangerous weapon, and she wondered if he even knew it.

A few minutes passed in silence. Naruto seemed content to lie on her lap and Akane honestly didn't mind, despite the fact that her left leg was starting to fall asleep. After a few moments, with her help, he slowly sat up, holding her handkerchief to his forehead. She helped him to his feet, and she had to admit, he looked a lot steadier now, even though his face had become even paler from blood loss.

"I'll be going now, sorry for all the trouble I caused. And for, you know, getting my blood everywhere." he nodded to the blood on the corner of the table, the small puddle on the floor and the red stains on Akane's hands and skirt.

"Oh no, the only thing that matters is that you're alright. Do you want me to help you get to your apartment?"

"I'll be fine. Sorry about the mess, I promise I'll come back and clean this up later." he bowed to her in apology, inadvertently causing a few more drops of blood to spatter thickly on the wooden floor. Both the blonde and redhead felt sweat drops roll down their cheeks as Naruto straightened up.

"Please don't worry about it, I can handle it. You just focus on getting better okay?"

He gave her one of his honest bright smiles, not his usual fake grin he used to disarm tense situations. "Thank you, Akanee-chan!"

She felt a blush creep onto her cheeks and waved him away with an embarrassed smile. 'Is this what it's like to care for a younger brother?' she thought as a warm feeling spread throughout her chest.

Meanwhile, as Naruto entered the lift and pressed the button for level seven, he could feel all of the stress and worry from earlier begin to weigh down on his mind once more. As the doors closed and he could no longer see Akane's concerned smile, a wave of exhaustion swept over him, and he slumped against the wall of the lift.

The lift began to rise and he nearly dropped Akane's handkerchief as the strange feeling one felt in fast elevators made him fall to his knees. Despite what he'd said to reassure the redheaded receptionist, the minute he started walking the blurry vision and the darkness around the edges of his view returned in full force.

The lift doors slid open with a ding and he struggled to his feet, beginning his short walk to the only door with light spilling out from under its edge. As he walked along the corridor he stopped in shock, unable to believe what he was seeing, or rather, wasn't seeing.

None of the doors had a strip of light bleeding out onto the carpet. He glanced confusedly back at the floor number. He checked his watched; it was only 11:45 and Sakura generally waited up for him no matter what time he came back.

He fumbled around in his pocket until he found his keys and checked his key chain. After much squinting and swearing while trying to focus on the blurry piece of metal he had to hold nearly four centimetres from his face, he finally discerned what was written in small black letters. 'I live in Apartment 7A? How many apartments are there?'

He ended up feeling each set of numbers on the doors as he walked by, the darkness and his own fuzzy vision making it nearly impossible to see anything. Finally, his fingers could make out a seven and what he was pretty sure was a capital 'A'.

As a wave of exhaustion overtook him, Naruto decided against trying to put the key in the lock since he'd be standing there until morning until he did it. The keys fell from his slack fingers; he leaned against the door and began to pound on with all the strength he could muster, which wasn't much.

"Sakura-chan? A-Are you wake? Could you open the door please?" he called out, closing his eyes and gently pushing himself off the door and back onto his own feet. He winced as he noticed the dark smear he'd left on the wood; that was another thing he'd have to clean up later. He heard the click of the lock and hastily fixed a grin on his face. Sakura wasn't going to be happy.

If only Naruto had known that he was the one who would be the most upset by the events that occurred after Sakura opened the door for him...

The pinkette slowly opened the door, schooling her face into what she hoped was a convincing smile. She really didn't know how to face Naruto, but it would have been inevitable. After all, she couldn't just up and leave with Sasuke without telling Naruto or giving him a reason right?

"Welcome home hon- Dear Kami! Naruto!" she yelped when she saw him. Half of his face was coated in blood, he was holding a bloodstained cloth to his forehead and he was as pale as a ghost. He grinned sheepishly, turning his gaze to the smear of red on the door while scratching the back of his head.

"I'm home, Sakura-chan." his knees buckled suddenly, and he fell forwards into Sakura's arms. His head landed on her shoulder, smearing his still warm blood on her cheek.

"Naruto! What happened?!"

"Sorry Sakura-chan." he mumbled into her ear. She shivered as his breath and words tickled her ear. Did he know what she had been thinking? Did he blame himself for their failing relationship?

"W-What are you sorry for?"

"I got blood on your shirt... And on a few other things as well." Sakura felt tears begin to well up, threatening to pour down her cheeks at any moment.

"Don't be silly, I don't care about that right now! I want to know what happened! Who did this to you? Were you mugged?"

"No, I had a... little..." suddenly, Naruto went rigid in her arms. She turned her head to see his face, which was no longer resting on her shoulder. Instead, the blonde's eyes were locked on something in the living room, and she knew exactly what it was he had seen.

"Hello Naruto." a cold yet amused voice issued from the gloom in the back of the room.

"Sasuke..." Naruto almost absentmindedly walked past Sakura, gently pushing her to the side like she wasn't even there. "How did... Where the hell have you been?"

Sakura stood next to Naruto, who seemed to be on the verge of collapsing, from shock or exhaustion, she didn't know. The arm chair had been turned away from the window, so the moonlight that was the only source of light in the apartment did not fall on the chair's occupant. The only thing that denoted Sasuke's presence was the two red eyes burning through the darkness, seemingly floating in mid-air.

"I have been to some of the darkest places imaginable, my old friend. After learning that my brother had joined a gang and had been killed during a turf war shortly after, I sought out their base of operations and they welcomed me with open arms. Itachi had been scouted by the group for his visual prowess with the Sharingan; it made various thefts and dealing with witnesses much easier. So naturally, they were more than happy to have me join."

"So you've joined a gang huh? I expected as much." replied Naruto.

"Really? And why is that?"

"No one can just disappear off the face of the earth like you did, unless they went underground. Joining a gang is like starting afresh, with a clean slate until the police start to build up a case against you."

"Hn. So even the dead last in class gained some intelligence during these past few years. I'm impressed. Are you less of an idiot now than I what I remember?" his tone was mocking and cruel; Naruto, to his credit, acted like it didn't faze him. Then again, maybe he was too unwell to deal with it.

"Why have you come back?"

"Straight to the point. I like that." he slowly stood up, a red eyed phantom rising from the darkness. "You have something of mine. And I'm here to take her back." he nodded pointedly to Sakura. She blushed and turned her gaze to the floor, unable to look at either of the two boys.

"What?"

"I have come for Sakura-chan. I gave her three days to make a decision about what she wants to do, and today is the final day."

"You were here three days ago? Oh..." as Naruto's eyes drifted to the coffee table, the expected cups of tea and no longer steaming teapot sat waiting next to a plate of what he assumed was food.

"Well Sakura-chan, it's now or never." the clock on the microwave changed from 11:59 to 12:00 at that instant, causing Sakura to wince as Naruto turned a horrified face towards her.

"Sakura-chan?" he asked worriedly. She couldn't take it. Those eyes, those beautiful blue eyes filled with pain were too much for her to bear. As he reached out to her, she slapped his hand and shrunk away from him, seeking sanctuary from both boys in the kitchen. She grabbed the handtowel and hastily scrubbed the blood off her cheek, anything to distract herself and give her a few minutes to think.

'How ironic,' the snide voice in her head remarked. 'The place where you spent the least amount of time has become the stage for your final stand.'

"The clock is ticking, Sakura-chan." said Sasuke, adding that little inflection that sent chills up her spine.

"Sakura-chan, I don't understand. Don't you love me? What were these past few years to you?" Naruto, looking even more pitiful in his current state, was the very picture of shock and betrayal. Tears began to stream down her cheeks, and she kept her eyes glued to the bloody towel in her fingers, like the answers were hidden in the bloodstains.

"I-I do you love you. Or at least I did. But Sasuke-kun has always been my first love, and I think I... I think I wanted to be with you to forget that. And for a while, I did. But with all these nights spent alone, it got me thinking and... And I think that while having a stable job after all these years of hard work and study is a good thing, the way we are now will be the way we shall be in future years. You're on track to a boring desk job and I want a little more excitement and unpredictability in my life. I don't want my future set in stone. I... I want something more, and I know in my heart that only Sasuke-kun can do that for me. He is my first love, and the only boy who has my heart."

Naruto swayed dangerously and fell to his knees. His own eyes were becoming teary and Sakura didn't know if she could watch him cry. Sasuke simply stood off to the side, watching the events unfold with a smirk. "Your first love doesn't have to be your only love!" yelled Naruto as a tear streaked down from one eye and mixed with the blood on his cheek.

Sakura felt absolutely terrible. She didn't want to say all these things so bluntly to him but the words just flowed out from her lips. She was tearing his world apart with vicious verbal blows and couldn't believe that she was doing it so easily. "I'm afraid that's how it is Naruto. I... I'm sorry. I really am." she let the towel fall from her hands to the floor, walked around the kitchen counter and right past him. She reached out a hand to pat his head, but stayed her hand at the last second and moved to stand by Sasuke. Naruto watched her walk by, looking absolutely devastated.

"But I choose Sasuke-kun." Naruto remained where he was, kneeling on the floor, but he turned his face towards the pair in the living room, and the look in his eyes scared Sakura.

Those cerulean eyes, usual sparkling with life and energy, were blank and empty. The haunted look he had was terrifying, and Sakura couldn't even describe her guilt at being the one who caused it.

"Well then," Sasuke's voice made her jump as he addressed Naruto. "The lady has decided who she wishes to be with. Goodbye Uzumaki Naruto. I doubt that we'll meet again." with that said, he grabbed Sakura in his arms and leapt backwards over the coffee table and out the window. The last thing that Naruto saw was Sakura's tear streaked face before she buried her face in Sasuke's chest and vanished from sight.

Slowly, Naruto stood from his spot on the floor and stumbled over to his armchair. He sat down gently on the edge of the seat, as if it might disappear from under him. His empty eyes landed on the coffee table, and he reach out tentatively to Sakura's plate of sandwiches. He picked one up and held it delicately, before taking a bite and munching away quietly in the darkness and solitude. Tears washed down his cheeks but he stayed absolutely still, only taking bites from the sandwich every now and then.

Soon enough, dawn arrived, bringing with it the light of a new day. Naruto had not left his spot and stayed there until Akane appeared a few hours later to check on him. As she walked in though the open front door and saw Naruto sitting alone in the room, quietly eating something she couldn't identify, she understood what had happened.

The redhead gently sat next to Naruto on his chair, noting that he was still coated in now dried and crusty blood. She gently pulled him in an embrace, resting her chin on top of his head.

"She left me." he mumbled into her chest, and she stroked his back comfortingly as he began to sob.


Part Four ~ The Strength to Carry On


"Naruto? Hey, are you daydreaming or working?" Iruka questioned the blonde. He jumped when he heard his name and glanced around in a daze, as if surprised to find himself in the classroom, despite having been there for nearly two hours.

"Huh? Did you say something Iruka-sensei?"

"I said... Never mind. Look, you've been very distracted today. Is anything wrong?"

Naruto glanced down at the table, and his fist tightened around his pen until it threatened to snap under the pressure. "I'm fi-" he looked up and upon seeing Iruka's sceptically raised eyebrows, gave in and decided to tell him what was on his mind. "Sakura-chan left me three nights ago."

'Ah. That's rough.' thought Iruka. "Did she give you a reason or...?"

"She left me for Sasuke. She said she never truly loved me, and that her heart had always belonged to Sasuke. So she chose him and they left together." he spoke in a monotone, his eyes taking on an empty and lifeless look. He decided to leave out the fact that they had leapt out the window together; he had hardly believed it himself when he thought back on it later, plus, there hadn't been any mangled bodies at the front door of the building when he left his lonely apartment to check the mail the next day.

'Oh Kami, that makes it so much worse. Losing your girl to your ex-best friend? Brutal.' Iruka had to fight the urge to wince and immediately comfort his favourite student. Unfortunately, love and loss was a part of life, and he figured it was better to teach Naruto how to deal with the situation rather than give him pity. "So Naruto, what will you do now?"

"Huh? What will I...? I really don't know Iruka-sensei. I just don't know." the blonde propped his elbows in the table and placed his face in his hands, the very picture of a broken man with no hope left.

Iruka could feel the boy's plight hit close to home; he had been in a similar situation before and could relate to what his student was feeling. Still, it was what he chose to do next that defined what kind of man he would become, and Iruka wanted to make sure that this set back wouldn't break him. That boy was made of stronger stuff, and was destined to be great.

"Now is when you decide what you want to do with your life. You once told me that you studied as hard as you did to become a man Sakura could be proud of and to give her the best life you could as the person she depended on the most. But now that she's gone, what will your drive be now?"

"..." the boy simply stared at him helplessly, begging Iruka with his eyes to give him the answers. Unfortunately, he couldn't do that. Naruto needed to figure this out on his own.

"Naruto, do you really want to be stuck in a boring desk job for the rest of your life?"

"Huh? Well, no..." Iruka smiled at his student's response.

"Of course you don't, you were the most creative and energetic little troublemaker back in elementary school, I figured a person like you would do something more interesting with their life."

"I always wanted to be with Sakura-chan. When she asked me out, I thought my life had become perfect, especially after all the stuff I suffered through when I was young. I thought that she was my reward for surviving through it all, and I swore to protect her to the best of my abilities, since she was the one who saved me from my loneliness. But it quickly became apparent that the best of my abilities weren't good enough. Suddenly, I found myself regretting slacking off in school and vowed to make myself better for her..."

"And that you did. All through your senior schooling life and your days as a university student, you've proved that a lot of hard work can make anyone become the best that they can be. And I know you have more potential locked away inside you, just waiting to be tapped and utilized."

"But now that Sakura-chan is gone, I don't feel the relentless urge to keep working hard Iruka-sensei. When she left, she took my dreams, my strength and my heart."

"That's not true." Iruka's sharp tone made the boy sit up and pay attention. "She took your current dream, not all of them. She couldn't possibly have stolen your strength; you still chose to come back here as usual even though she's been gone for three days. And your heart can only be taken by those you've given it to, Naruto. And while I don't doubt that you loved her, I think you didn't give her your heart. I think you knew, deep down, that Sakura didn't love you as much as you loved her, so you guarded your heart and never truly revealed all of yourself to her."

"How do you know so much Iruka-sensei?" the blonde asked in wonderment. Everything his teacher had said rang true; he could feel himself agreeing with every word he spoke. He had known deep down that Sakura hadn't truly loved him; he just chose not to acknowledge it.

Iruka glanced away embarrassedly and grinned. "Ah well, I've been around a lot longer than you, and I've experienced parts of life that you have yet to know for yourself." he shook his head and returned his gaze to his student, staring straight into his eyes. "So Naruto, now that the source of your motivation is gone, what will you do with your unbelievable strength now? Will you put it to good use and move on or will you give up and fade into nothingness?"

"I... I want to move on." Naruto replied determinedly.

'Good. He's handling this a lot better than I ever did.' Iruka thought, smiling as he did so. "So what will you do?"

Naruto stood up from his seat, the fire he was known so well for reigniting in his eyes. "I don't want to do a boring desk job, even if the money's good. I want to do something fun that I'll actually enjoy! I'll use all my strength to pursue my dreams and I'll let life run its course. No more planning and sticking to a schedule, it's time to live my life the way I want to!"

'Good for you Naruto!' Iruka was proud of his student; nothing could keep Uzumaki Naruto down for long.

"But," said Naruto thoughtfully. "If I go off and do something different now, wouldn't these last few years with you have been all for nothing?"

Iruka smiled and walked down to Naruto's table. He placed his hands in his shoulders and grinned. "Naruto, you'll be surprised as to how far you can go with what you've learned. No experience is ever a waste and what you've learned these last few years will go far towards making whatever dream you have come true!"

Naruto was grinning back at him, and for a moment, he could see the cheeky young boy he used to be in that smile of his. Naruto had grown a lot during their time together, and it was clear that he was on track to becoming something truly amazing.

Iruka smiled sadly and stepped back from Naruto. "The hardest thing for a teacher is to watch the students they've nurtured for so long go out into the world. I wish you the very best of luck for the future Uzumaki Naruto." he bowed and Naruto did so in return.

"Thank you for all your help Iruka-sensei. I promise you that I will become someone you can be proud to call one of your former students."

Iruka felt a bit teary as he straightened up and hastily blinked the tears away. 'I know you will, you never go back on a promise. But you should know that I'm already immensely proud of you Naruto.'

Suddenly, Naruto stepped forward and hugged him. "Thank you Iruka-sensei, for everything." Iruka simply patted him on the back, too choked up to reply. Naruto released him and stepped back, grabbed his gear and with one final wave and a flash of his infamous foxy grin, walked out of the door, and on towards a better future.

Iruka watched his favourite student walk away and couldn't help shedding a few happy tears.

'Good luck Naruto. Do your best."

Parting with Akane had been incredibly difficult, and after a very tearful goodbye filled with promises to keep in touch and to visit soon, Naruto left his apartment building for the last time. On his back was a bag containing only the basic essentials, and in his hand he held the freshly washed handkerchief that Akane had insisted he keep when he tried to return it.

"Keep it, and think of your nee-chan when you see it." she had said. He smiled and tucked it securely into his pocket. His motorcycle was parked outside the front of the building, waiting for him in a pool of light cast by the streetlight overhead. The half-moon was reasonably bright that evening, surrounded by twinkling stars.

He leapt onto his 'girl' and quickly started up the engine. With a loud rumble, he smoothly swerved away from the sidewalk and sped off into the night, ready for the next stage of his life.

Of course, he hadn't expected the next stage of his life to find him so soon.

Naruto had stopped by a diner, leaving his bike hidden in the shadow of a nearby alley. When he returned, patting his stomach in a satisfied manner, he was instantly on edge when he noticed a couple of shadows lurking around his bike.

He cautiously approached them, treading carefully so as not to alert them until he was ready. There appeared to be only two people, dressed in hooded cloaks. As he approached, they suddenly turned towards him, and began to march towards him menacingly.

"Who are you? What the hell are you doing to my gir- my ride?" he asked.

"Relax," the taller figure replied. From his voice, Naruto could tell he was a man. "We were just admiring it. It's a nice bike."

"Yes, it looks very fast. Perfect for... Certain activities..." the shorter figure on Naruto's right was most certainly a woman, the voice and two rather obvious bulges at the front of her cloak giving her gender away.

"What do you want?" he asked, cutting to the chase. He had things to do, and didn't have time to be discussing his motorcycle with suspicious characters.

The two figures looked at each other and nodded, before sweeping their hoods back and stepping into the light. They appeared to be normal, aside from the male having a black dragon tattoo on his temple which covered half of his cheek and nearly half of his forehead. The female was more conservative, aside from having bright purple hair with long strands of hair covering her eyes and extending down to her chin in front and a short bob cut at the back.

"We are members of the Ghosts of the Leaf gang and we are... Recruiting, I guess you could you say."

"Yeah, so how about it?" asked the male. As he spoke, the metal crowbar he had been holding behind his back slipped from his fingers and clanged loudly against the ground. The pair winced and looked at Naruto, who gave them a deadpan stare. "More like you were trying to mug me." he said, looking deceptively calm.

"Well, that was the plan, but somebody here thought you were too good looking to- OW!" as the male member of the pair spoke, the female blushed and slammed an elbow into his ribs.

"Shut up! So how 'bout it? Will you join? You're just wandering around right? I can tell." Naruto was vaguely impressed that her guess was spot on, but he was more interested in the offer.

"How about you tell me your names first?"

"I'm Saki, it means 'rare blossom'-" she was interrupted mid-sentence by her partner as he peered down at her very ample bosom.

"A rare blossom indeed." he murmured matter-of-factly. Saki swung her fist into his gut, dropping him to his knees as he gasped for air.

"And this idiot here is Junta. No one gives a damn about what his name means."

Naruto smirked. This girl didn't pull any punches. Literally. "My name is Uzumaki Naruto, and my dream is... To find something fun to do." he ended lamely, wincing at his own directionless enthusiasm.

"Really?" she asked. "That's pretty lame. I thought you were going to make some big declaration like becoming the mayor or president or something."

"We all have to start somewhere." Naruto replied, feeling his cheeks reddening.

"Too right," said Junta, as he finally stood up, standing a steps away from his partner warily. "So why not join us? We offer a two year compulsory working period, after which you can choose to stay on in the gang, or we set you up with your cut of the money you pulled in during various jobs and the dream career of your choice. You name it, we can arrange it. The Ghosts of the Leaf are very powerful and well connected." he said smugly.

"Aren't you guys the number two gang in Konoha City though?" asked Naruto. "I'm pretty sure that a gang called the Akats-"

"Don't say it!" growled Junta. "Those bastards think they're so good, but we showed them. We took out one of their top members - one of those famed Uchiha people."

"Didn't that happen nearly ten years ago? Was the killing of Uchiha Itachi the only accomplishment of note your group has achieved?" asked Naruto, feigning innocence.

"Hey! Do you want to join or not? 'Cause if you ain't accepting our offer, your motorcycle and remaining money are fair compensation for wasting our- OW!" once again, poor Junta found himself on his knees clutching his stomach. Saki slowly let her fist loosen and fall back to her side before giving Naruto a bright smile.

"So will you join?"

"Ha-ha, the way he described it made it seem like you were asking me to work for your gang like it was a legitimate business."

"Crime is only one way we make money you know. You can choose the jobs you want to take." Saki replied.

"Why is working for two years compulsory?"

"I-If you work for two years, you amass enough money to set you up for life," gasped Junta. "And two years is the maximum limit as to how long you can work for us without gaining a reputation. After two years, the police begin to recognize you and start building a case file against you."

"So after the two years, you'll be able to set me up with any kind of job I want?"

Saki grinned smugly. "You bet! There's nothing the Ghosts of the Leaf can't do!" she leaned towards him curiously. "Do you have an idea of what you want to do?"

"I want to do something fun and exciting. After so many damn years of wasting my time studying for a false dream, I want a life on the other side of the spectrum." inspiration flashed into his mind, an idea purely out of the blue. "I want to be a rock star!" Naruto proclaimed loudly.

"Really? I wouldn't peg you for a-OOF!" down went Junta once again, falling victim to Saki's surprising strength. She gave Naruto a bright innocent smile, making him shiver inside with fright. This girl was dangerous.

"Not a problem. You'll be dazzling the crowds in two years' time if you work for us." she said, giving him a thumbs up and a wink. Even though that was an incredibly cheesy thing to do, she made it look cool. Impressive.

"So if I were to join, what would I do?" asked Naruto, genuinely curious now. Sure, he knew crime was wrong, but hell, he had always wondered what it would be like to be the bad guy. And the options the Ghosts provided after leaving the gang were definitely appealing. Maybe his future didn't lie in academics after all.

"Well, if you're decent enough behind the wheel, you could be a getaway driver. There's no need to get your hands dirty, and you get an equal share in the profits."

Naruto felt a childish grin form on his lips. He loved those action movies with intense car chases. He could see himself on his metallic blue 'girl', waiting for his partner to exit a bank with a massive sack of cash, and then driving away through alleys and streets at high speed while being chased by twenty police cruisers... His blood was pumping now and he was ready to give them his answer.

"Hell yeah I'll join! Where do I sign up?"

Junta scowled and began to walk away, rubbing his side and mumbling about troublesome females while Saki smiled and beckoned Naruto to follow. "This way then. We'll be going through some tight alleyways so you might have to wheel your bike through so you don't scratch it. Oh, and you'll be assigned a partner when you're formally inducted. You'll stick with them at all times for safety reasons and to keep track of them during police raids if we have to separate. So make sure you get along with them," she nodded towards the sulking Junta walking ahead of them. "'Cause you'll be stuck with them for a long time."

As Naruto wheeled his bike along and conversed with Saki, he couldn't help but feel excited. Joining the Ghosts of the Leaf was something wild, fun and the complete opposite of what he would have done with his life before Sakura left him.

And he was looking forward to it.

On that fateful night when Sakura left Naruto for Sasuke, the pinkette was left feeling nothing but burning guilt and shame. She looked up at her new lover, watching his impassive surveying eyes from his arms as they leapt over rooftops and alleys, heading for some unknown destination.

"Where are you taking me Sasuke-kun?" she heard herself ask in a quavering and weak voice. He glanced down at her for a moment, before returning his gaze to the oncoming roofs.

"To my gang's hideout on the lower east side of Konoha City."

"What will I do when we get there?" his eyes looked down at her again briefly, and she could see his mind churning with hidden plans and ideas as a slight grim smile curled the corners of his mouth.

"Why, you'll be my lover, Sakura-chan." her eyes widened and her cheeks began to burn. She buried her face in his chest, taking in the faint scent of his cologne. The intensity of his gaze was too much. The raw passion hidden behind his emotionless demeanour promised extremely wild times to come. She didn't know that Sasuke was capable of being a voracious lover. It made her feel happy and excited, slowly numbing the constant burn of guilt gnawing at her stomach.

She smiled and closed her eyes, nuzzling against her childhood sweetheart's chest and completely missing Sasuke's eyes rolling at her easily manipulated mind. Still, that was good for him, in his opinion. His self-satisfied smirk grew as he leapt over an impossibly wide gap between two buildings. As the wind ruffled his hair and carried the strawberry scent of shampoo from Sakura's bubble gum pink locks to his nose, he allowed himself a rare chuckle.

He had definitely picked the right person for his plans.

"Who goes there?"

"The Hawk has returned the Nest, bearing an offering of freshly hunted Prey." replied Sasuke. He stood outside the concealed door to the Akatsuki hideout, an abandoned warehouse by the docks. He had just relayed the code name for himself and the hideout, and stated the fact that he'd brought another person with him. If he hadn't announced the three parts correctly, the doorman would have killed him and his special guest on the spot.

"Entry granted. Welcome back, Uchiha Sasuke." the heavy metal door swung open without a creak, and in its doorway stood the imposing figure of Kakuzu. His oddly coloured green and red eyes were at stark contrast with the eyes of the slumbering girl in Sasuke's arms. Hers were soft and kind, while the Akatsuki members' eyes bore nothing but malevolence and greed.

"I thought Deidara was meant to be on door duty?"

"That idiot went and locked himself in his room after receiving a package. I don't want to know what he's doing."

"Probably ordered another one of his build-them-yourself anime figurines. Stupid perverted Otaku like him are an embarrassment." Sasuke cocked his head thoughtfully as he entered the hideout, not caring when Sakura's head banged into the door frame. "Still, his skill with explosives makes it almost tolerable."

Kakuzu grunted in acknowledgment before slamming the door shut and resuming his post, seating himself in the doorman's chair and picking up a discarded magazine. Sasuke continued down one of the many corridors, originally heading to his room before remembering the girl in his arms. He was mild surprised that he'd forgotten; Sakura hadn't gotten any lighter these past nine years.

He studied the small cut on the side of her forehead; already a light bruising had surrounded the injury. He realized that she was out cold and changed route, heading for the branding room. Since she was unconscious, that just made it easier to put the gang mark on her. Usually the girls they brought in were troublesome enough to scream and struggle, an unconscious one would not. Maybe that was an idea to pitch to the rest of the members during the next assessment meeting.

He reached the room and awkwardly prised open the door. He stepped through the doorway as his Sharingan activated on their own, a sadistic smile on his face. His burning red eyes leered at the oblivious girl in his arms as the door swung shut behind them, surrounding them in darkness.

"Welcome to the Graveyard, the main safe house for the Ghosts of the Leaf!" Saki said with a flourish, gesturing for Naruto to admire the building. Junta stood behind his partner with a proud yet reserved grin, having finally accepted the new recruit. Naruto had an unusual skill to make friends with anyone he met, hell, he made friends with one of the most stubborn members of the gang, and Junta could instantly see the limitless potential of the blonde's talent.

Naruto stood a little ways away from the other two, holding his bike almost protectively as he surveyed the building. He gave the pair a deadpan stare, making the proud Saki falter. "This is one of the ways, other than crime, through which you guys make your money?"

Of course, the Graveyard, the resting place of the Ghosts, was in a strip club. A surprisingly top class joint, considering what part of the city they were in, but a strip club all the same. Ah, the wonderful local attractions of the upper west side of Konoha City were truly unique.

"Uh, well, yeah," Saki replied sheepishly. "But we do other, mostly legitimate things to earn cash! Like-"

"Drugs?" asked Naruto, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against his 'girl'.

"Yeah... That too..." Saki had the decency to look ashamed, while Junta scowled at the blonde.

"Are you judging us? Is what we do too dirty for a lily-livered goody two shoes university drop out like you?" Naruto hastily shook his head and waved his arms placatingly.

"No-no, well yes, but I can get used to it. Plus, you said I could pick my jobs right?"

"After six months." replied Saki, who was looking everywhere else but at him. If this Uzumaki guy chose to back out now, they'd have to hospitalize him or worse since he knew the Graveyard's location.

Naruto seemed to mull it over, unaware of Junta and Saki placing their hands on the baseball strapped to their backs. Suddenly, he looked up and grinned, momentarily confusing the pair. "Hey, a little work goes a long way right? If I have to earn my place in the Ghosts then so be it; I welcome the challenge!"

Junta grinned and headed for a side door of the classy yet seedy establishment. Saki leaned forward and grabbed Naruto's arm, leading him to the door. "I can tell you'll be a solid addition to the ranks. Welcome to the Ghosts of the Leaf!" she quickly pulled him into the brightly lit corridor and set off for the boss's office with Naruto in tow, not even waiting for her partner who grumbled about being replaced as he slammed the door shut.

The legendary Shinigami, the head of the Ghosts of the Leaf had been more than welcoming to the newest recruit. In fact, the minute she saw him, Tsunade hugged him tightly to her extremely ample bosom ('extremely rare blossom' as Junta would put it), crying in a drunken fit that her little brother had returned as a dyed blonde delinquent. Naruto was shocked beyond words at this point. Who would have guessed that the esteemed Dean of Konoha University led a double life as the head of Konoha's second strongest gang?

After taking a few moments to partially sober down, she gave him the standard questioning over various situations and how he would react to them, and after deeming him mentally prepared, asked him to swear the pledge of alliance.

Once that was done, he was asked where he would like the gang's insignia to be tattooed and was given a time and place to get one the next day at a tattoo parlour they protected. After that, he was left to his own devices, and Saki took upon herself to give him the grand tour. Junta vanished into the front area of the gang's building (the strip club) and was not seen for the rest of the night.

As they walked, Saki shared stories of her time in the gang. She had been recruited with Junta from the same orphanage by Tsunade herself at age fourteen, and had been with the gang for nearly six years. The gang had become like family during their compulsory two years, so the two were quick to say they would stay on with the Ghosts.

Naruto soaked up the facts like the good listener he was and shared his own stories, even getting a sympathetic punch on the arm when he mention losing Sakura to Sasuke ('Losing your girlfriend to your ex-best friend? That's rough.' Saki had thought at the time).

After the conversation had died down to simply enjoying each other's presence as they strolled through the various hallways, Saki decided to share something out of the blue. She faced Naruto, who quickly gave her his undivided attention, flashing her his trademark foxy grin. "Hey Naruto, did you know that I'm quite famous for my hand to hand combat skills?"

"Really?" asked Naruto, genuinely curious.

"Yep, in our circles and on the streets, I'm known as the 'Blossom with the Demonic Fist'."

"I see." replied Naruto, unsure of where this was going. Saki stopped walking, prompting Naruto to follow suit. He became vaguely nervous when she raised her right fist, winking at him cheekily.

"I've been working on a special attack and I thought you would like to be the first one to experience it!"

'Oh no, she's a sadist.' thought Naruto nervously. Out loud, he said "Uh, why don't you show me on one of those training dummies I saw in the gym huh?"

Her slowly widening grin took on an evil look. "Oh no, I really want you to feel it first hand and tell me what you think."

'I'm not getting out of here alive am I? Dear mother and father up in heaven, I will probably be joining you soon, even though it is long before my time. Please take care of me.'

"I call this move 'The Kiss of Death'. Are you ready?"

'Is it better to clench my teeth or slacken my jaw? Should I tense my stomach and protect my precious piece or will that come off as unmanly?' Naruto shook his head and grimly faced Saki. "I'm ready."

Saki's evil grin widened to impossible lengths before she slowly raised her demonic right fist to her lips and kissed it. Then, like a rocket she was off, sprinting down the corridor, closing the small distance between her outstretched fist and Naruto's face. He braced himself for impact and...

... was surprised to feel and see Saki's small fist press delicately against his own lips. 'Huh?' he thought bemusedly.

Saki grinned and let her fist drop to her side. "Maybe I should call that 'The Indirect Kiss of Death'. And I'll reserve it only for you."

Naruto blushed at the implied meaning. She just gave him an indirect kiss! A kiss she would only save for him! Did she have feelings for him? That couldn't be, they just met! Plus, he just got out of a relationship. He wasn't ready for that kind of commitment just yet! Or maybe...

His train of thought was cut off by Saki's giggling. "Aww you're blushing! Are you masochist Uzumaki Naruto?"

"A-Absolutely n-not!"

"How cute! Now you're embarrassed that I discovered your little secret! What an adorable stutter!"

"S-Shut up," a very flustered Naruto responded. "Let's move on, shall we?" When he got no response, he looked up to see Saki watching him thoughtfully before nodding to herself as she came to some sort of decision.

"Speaking of stutters, I do believe there's someone you should meet. It's actually perfect timing that you joined us tonight because she doesn't have a partner. Come with me." she grabbed his hand and pulled him along, not noticing as the blonde struggled to keep up with her ridiculous pace. 'Yes, they'll be perfect for each other,' she thought with a smile. 'In more ways than one.'

Soon enough, Naruto found himself being lead into Valhalla, the Graveyard's in-house bar. Saki still hadn't let go of his hand, and he was starting to feel embarrassed like a little schoolboy. 'That's not right, school kids do this all the time.' thought Naruto. Did this mean he was more or less mature than an elementary school boy? Curious...

"Anyway Naruto, I think you should meet this person. She's a perfect partner for you." she sat him down at the bar and then headed for the door. "Good luck!" she said with a smile and a wave, before disappearing from the room.

Naruto took his time studying the bar and its occupants. There weren't many, and those that were present were either asleep on tables or on the floor or were nursing their drinks in secluded corners. He gazed up at the menu suspended above the counter. There were plenty of alcoholic drinks on offer, as well as juices and various snacks. Oddly enough, there were no prices listed on any of the products. Did they supply free snacks and drinks for the Ghosts? It made sense, since this was their own bar and everything here would have been purchased with their own money. 'Stolen money.' he reminded himself ruefully. What had he gone and gotten himself mixed up in?

He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he failed to notice the bartender approach him from the other side of the counter. She quietly made her way towards the lone blonde at her bar and stood before him, a friendly smile at the ready for when he looked up. Sadly, it didn't seem like he'd be directing his distant gaze at anything other than well-polished countertop anytime soon, so she decided to make her presence known.

"Um, what would you like to drink?" the blonde boy leapt out of his stool at her softly spoken words, very nearly toppling backwards when he noticed the young woman standing directly in front of him. She quickly grabbed his wrists as he fell backwards, halting his descent. Naruto looked up into her eyes to say thank you but the words died on his lips.

"H-Hinata?" he couldn't believe it. Hyuga Hinata was standing before him in the flesh, yet something seemed different. She seemed to have aged a few years... She was still young by anyone's standards but she seemed more mature now. Was this what life in the gang did to its members?

"Ah, you must be Naruto-kun. I've heard a lot about you."

'Huh?' he thought confusedly. "Who are you? You look like Hin- someone I used to know, but you're older..." he winced at how he ended his sentence. The doppelgänger's cheeks puffed up in a playful pout.

"I'm only twenty six! What nerve!" now that he looked at her more closely, he could notice several slight differences between the bartender and his old classmate. Her hairstyle was almost exactly the same but her eyes were milky rather than the distinct pale lavender of the Hyuga family. She was also slightly taller, around his height whereas Hinata had been half a head shorter than the blonde. And she was definitely less reserved than Hinata.

"Sorry, I didn't mean it like that!" he said hastily. As she chuckled at his flustered demeanour he pressed on, eager to find out who this person was. "So who are you?"

"My name is Kyobayashi Kaya." that rang a bell. Naruto didn't have to think back too far to recognize that name.

"Are you related to Kyobayashi Hitomi? Konoha City's top news presenter?" she laughed when he added her sister's unofficial title to her name.

"Yes, though I'm not sure if she's the top presenter. She is the favorite child though. All the hopes and expectations of the Kyobayashi family were placed on her, the youngest child, while I was left to my own devices. So I went through the various ups and downs and dark times all alone until I met a certain someone and arrived here because of them."

"I see." replied Naruto. It seemed that everyone here had a story for why they ended up here.

"Anyway, I think the person you're looking for is over there. Do drop by for a drink sometime alright? I'll break out the good stuff when you come of age." she said, indicating a table in the furthest corner of the room, next to a window overlooking the street below. A single person sat at the table, their back turned to the rest of the room. As Naruto thanked Kaya and began to weave his way through the empty tables, he found that he easily recognized that person's back.

Her long glossy hair was the same as it had been back during their university days. The one hand he could see resting delicately on the table top was as small and pale as he remembered. He had often seen that hand as it passed him little notes when they had been working together side by side in Iruka-sensei's after hours study sessions.

There was only one table separating them now. He could feel his heart pounding against his ribcage but wasn't sure why. It was probably just from seeing his old friend after so long, right?

Probably.

"Hin-OW!" Naruto was sent tumbling backwards as the quiet and refined girl who he'd spent count silent hours with in the special study sessions turned around in her seat and smashed her fist into his nose.

Hinata gazed down at her would-be attacker, raging fury burning in her eyes. Ever since she and Kaya had been brought to the gang by the Junta/Saki pair, they had been the centre of attention as the 'Midnight Twins' of the Ghosts. With their matching dark purple hair and white moonlike eyes, their reputation as the most beautiful girls in the gang had the male members swarming them nonstop. Tsunade was quite keen to get them working as a pair, saying that they would boost the gang's image and reputation. However, Kaya resolutely refused, instead asking to be the bartender of Valhalla, not wanting to get too involved with crime thus leaving Hinata without a partner. Of course, there had been no shortage of admirers begging to swap partners with either one of the Midnight Twins (even though this wasn't allowed in the Ghosts of the Leaf).

At first, they had tried to politely ask people to leave them be, but after being constantly harangued to the point where it wasn't safe to leave their room, Kaya decided to get tough and urged Hinata to do the same. Finally, both she and Kaya shed their shy personas and proceeded to beat their admirers to a pulp. Of course that didn't stop them, but the Midnight Twins were now feared and respected as well as admired by every member of the gang. They got their distance too, though the odd brave or masochistic fan would try to get close to them every once in a while, and was swiftly dealt with like the fool who was currently sprawled out on the floor, clutching at his bloody but unbroken nose.

"Hey teme, what do you think you're doing?" she growled, using the harsh and gruff voice she'd picked up from Kaya during one of her drunken rages. Kaya became the life of the party and a force to be reckoned with under the influence of alcohol.

Hinata's eyes widened as the young man on the floor sat up and began to laugh. She could recognize that bright and cheerful laugh anywhere. His hand dropped from his face, revealing a mile wide blood coated grin. Instantly, all of the bravado and fierceness she had been projecting fell away, leaving the flustered blushing girl she was at heart standing in front of her beloved Naruto.

"N-Naruto-kun?" she asked almost disbelievingly. The blonde was still chuckling away, unaware of the blood dripping from his nose onto his shirt.

"Ah, there's the Hinata I know and love!" said Naruto, giving her a dazzling smile.

"L-L-L-L-Love?" Hinata swooned and collapsed to her knees. She was on the brink of consciousness, and it was all she could do to not faint in front of Naruto. As she wobbled dangerously, Naruto quickly placed his hands on her shoulders to steady her, unaware of the fact that his touch was causing her heart to race.

"Whoa, steady there! It's been awhile hasn't it Hinata?" all she could do was nod; she didn't trust herself to speak without stammering. Naruto's seemed to change; one second it was his usual grin, the next it seemed different. She couldn't describe what was different exactly, but if she had to label it, she'd have to say it looked more honest. A genuine smile, rather than the fake one he flashed no matter what the situation was. She had to admit, she liked his genuine smile better, it was a smile that reached his eyes and made them sparkle. She wondered what it was that had brought about such a change. It couldn't have been her, he must have been thinking about something else right?

"I was really surprised when you punched and threatened me you know," he said cheerfully. "I thought 'wow, she's toughened up!' but I was really glad when you started to act like you again. I missed you and that adorable blush during those long hours with Iruka-sensei!" the little voice in his head began to berate him. 'What are you saying?! Admitting that you missed her, calling her blush adorable! Are you hitting on her?'

No, he wasn't. Naruto really had missed his study buddy, and he'd be damned if he found anyone on this earth who didn't find Hinata's shy act cute. He was just stating the honest truth, not trying to make a move on her.

Probably.

"S-Sorry N-Naruto-kun. I... I m-missed you t-too." her cheeks were bright red, and he could feel his own burning at her words. Had she always had this effect on her? He was about to laugh, flash her his trademark foxy grin and break up the unfamiliar atmosphere that had formed around them, but instead gave her his genuine smile and began to ask her about her new life with the Ghosts. For some reason, he didn't feel the need to keep up his fake grin around Hinata. He felt comfortable around her, more so than he did around Sakura, who he had occasionally used his false grin on to defuse the occasional tense and awkward situations they had found themselves in.

It was only sinking in now, but Naruto realized that his usual defences were generally lower around Hinata than anyone else. Was it because she had accepted him unconditionally from the very beginning, or that he trusted her for some unknown, subconscious reason?

Whatever it was, as he sat there and listened to Hinata speak, despite having an incredibly sore nose and blood all over his clothes, Naruto felt truly for the very first time.


Part Five ~ Success and Regrets


Haruno Sakura had been a member of the Akatsuki for a little over two years. Of course, 'member' was simply a label afforded to all the 'special case' girls in the gang. The brand on her right thigh signified that they owned her, along with the other girls who had the red cloud symbol burned into their skin rather than tattooed on. These girls were known as 'prey', and were expendable assets to the Akatsuki.

Sakura was just like the other prey before her; she was broken, had no free will and was completely dependent on her 'handler'. The member of the gang who brought a certain girl in was known as that girls' handler, and decided what jobs they performed, regardless of the risk to their personal safety. Uchiha Sasuke was Sakura's handler, and they had a bond unlike the others. While most of the girls did what they were asked out of fear, Sakura was completely devoted to the last Uchiha out of love. Insane, twisted one way love, but love all the same.

This love was completely unreciprocated but she was too far gone to see that. All it took was a kiss or a hug, and Sakura would perform any task, whether it was to be the lookout, the diversion or the human shield against the police if a job went sour. Sasuke hadn't used her for incredibly dangerous missions so far; he wasn't a fool after all. He could see that Sakura was blinded by love and loyalty, and that was hard to come by. Occasionally when left to their own devices, the girls would escape or sabotage an operation. Sakura had never done such a thing, since Sasuke had ordered it.

The pinkette had been given special privileges due to her undivided loyalty. She could come and go as she pleased, as long as she returned by her curfew. She was free to wander the hideout but chose to remain in the room she and Sasuke shared. He had promised to marry her if she stayed true to him on the night he brought her to the Akatsuki. That had been two years ago, and he would reply "Soon." whenever Sakura worked up the nerve to ask him about it.

Right now, Sakura was wandering the streets of Konoha City, whiling away the time until Sasuke returned from a turf war with the Ghosts of the Leaf. The city centre was run by the gang known as the ANBU, who worked as covert mercenaries for hire. The Ghosts of the Leaf had struck up a treaty with them after a recent attempt by the Akatsuki on both of their territories, and right now they were working together to take over Akatsuki owned and protected businesses in the southern part of the city.

It was a three way battle between the Akatsuki, the allied gangs and the police, who were actively trying to end the street brawls with deadly force. Sakura had been almost hysterical when Sasuke explain the situation he was heading into, and he ordered her to remain calm and leave the hideout for a while because she was irritating him.

So here she was, in the neutral territory located in the entertainment district, looking for something to do. She walked up the brightly lit main street, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the bright neon lights, loud sounds and massive crowds after being inside the hideout for so long.

She found herself outside a clothing store, and as she walked up to the window and spotted her reflection, became aware of how tattered her clothes looked and how dishevelled her appearance was. At that instant, she realized that people had been giving her a wide berth, and even now were skirting the edge of the pavement to avoid her.

She felt embarrassed and ashamed; her womanly pride had taken a beating these past couple of years, but she had only noticed it now. It wasn't like she hadn't tried to keep up her appearances; she tried hard every day for Sasuke, but she no longer did it for herself. What had she become?

Using the small amount of spending money Sasuke gave her each week, she quickly found herself a decent set of clothes for a reasonable price and fixed up her hair in the shopping mall restroom with a small pair of scissors she bought from a craft store. No matter how much effort she put into maintaining her personal hygiene and appearance, not having enough money for a haircut was a sore blow now that her eyes had been opened to the truth.

She stepped out of the restroom feeling a little more comfortable in her surroundings. People weren't sending her odd looks and she was able to slip into the flow of late night foot traffic without bringing much attention to herself. She gazed around in awe, realizing how much time had passed since she'd last gone outside.

The hustle and bustle of the day continued well into the night in the entertainment district. As she went with the flow, she realized that the crowds of people seemed to be converging on the Konoha City International Performing Arts Hall. There appeared to be a free concert by a musician about to tour internationally to promote their debut album. It had been a long time since she'd listened to music, and with her pathetic budget, this was probably the only chance she'd get.

The throng of people crowding into the open air stadium was humbling. After long hours spent alone in her room or with the five other branded girls, it was a real shock to remember that there were so many people in the world. As the crowd carried her to the front, she was quickly surrounded by a group of screaming young girls, all jumping up and down in excitement and wearing the merchandise that had been on sale at the gate. Sakura's eyes briefly examined the paraphernalia, and then as she was turning to face the stage, did a quick double take. She quickly grabbed one of the girls, and ignoring her protests found herself staring at a special headband bearing the name and picture of a young man she hadn't seen for years but most certainly hadn't forgotten.

The text 'Uzumaki Naruto - Live in Konoha City!' and a picture of the blonde were emblazoned on the girl's bright orange headband. She let the girl wriggle out from her grip and quickly glanced around, spotting shirts, wristbands and flags all carrying the grinning face of her ex-boyfriend.

He still had that foxy grin of his but it seemed... different somehow. It was still as bright and impossibly wide as it had back then, yet it somehow seemed more real. It was a grin that seemed genuine, a grin he'd never shown her when they were dating. It was a smile that reached his vivid blue eyes and made them sparkle.

'So Naruto moved on huh? He's done well for himself.' she thought sadly. She was happy for him, there was no question about that, but it seemed he'd only moved on to bigger and better things when she left him. If she had known he'd become so popular...

Would she have left him?

If she hadn't left Naruto, then would he have changed like this? Was she really so petty, so selfish as to think that she wouldn't have run off with Sasuke if she'd known that Naruto would make it big? If she had stayed with Naruto, then he would have kept studying, got himself a good desk job and she would still be lonely. It was only because she left him that he was able to achieve his true potential and become successful. And it was because she made that choice that her life ended up like it did. Her eyes widened as realization struck.

Did she regret her decision?

Her life with Sasuke had been anything but perfect. The life she had dreamt about with him was just that - a dream. Had it really been worth it to hurt Naruto for her selfish dream? A dream which ultimately backfired for her, but benefited Naruto was for the best if she thought about it - she deserved it after all. She had only held him back from bigger and better things, and she was proud of what he'd accomplished without her. A girl like her didn't deserve a guy like Naruto.

Suddenly the crowd's general murmur exploded into full blown cheers and screams, shocking the pinkette out of her thoughts. She turned her eyes to the stage and spotted Uzumaki Naruto, the loving boy who had studied away for countless hours for her sake walk out on to stage waving and blowing kisses to the crowd. He definitely looked like he was in his element, more so when he jumped and somersaulted in the air before landing in front of the microphone to a cacophony of cheers.

The young girls surrounding Sakura were screaming at the top of their lungs, reaching out to the stage while holding up cameras and phones. She jumped out of the way when one girl fainted and collapsed as Naruto shot her a grin and wink, and watched the paramedic team load her onto a stretcher.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for coming out here today..." Naruto quickly thanked his fans and sponsors before starting to sing his first single which debuted at number one, according to an overexcited fan Sakura was standing next to.

Sakura felt tears form in her eyes as he sang a tale of love and loss, appropriately titled 'Love Lost and Love Found'. She could feel the passion behind those words as he sang about five stages in his life he went through to get to where he was today. His lonely days, his first love, losing that first love, discovering his true calling and finding true love in the end. The way he sang was full of emotion, and his energy during the song made it more than just singing, it was a full blown performance.

She had made an already wounded soul suffer, and she smiled sadly as she realized that he was in a better world without her. Sakura waited until the end of the song, then turned to leave, unaware of the two appraising eyes that had watched her various expressions during the song and deduced what was on her mind.

'She has learned what her actions have caused and has accepted them. She finally understands.' thought Akane, who had noticed Sakura from her seat in the VIP section, a privilege given to her personally by the star of the show. Beside her sat a cheering Iruka and members of the Ghosts of the Leaf who Naruto had become close with during his two years. Of course Saki, Tsunade and Junta were present, applauding like all the rest. 'Well done Naruto-chan,' Akane mentally congratulated her surrogate little brother. 'You deserve this!'

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement!" Sakura froze and turned back towards the stage. Naruto was positively beaming as he continued. "I've been through a lot to be standing here before you today, and I owe it all to one person."

Sakura's heart stopped beating. Had he seen her? Why would he even acknowledge her if he had? The blonde reached into his pocket and pulled out a small but easily identifiable box. The crowd gasped and the females in the audience screamed even louder.

In his hand was a small velvet covered box, and anyone with half a brain could see it was the type that held engagement rings. A spotlight fell on Sakura, and she glanced up at Naruto, feeling nothing but confusion and excitement. She knew she shouldn't, she didn't deserve it but... a small part of her wished that she was with him again, the selfish part that resided deep in the hearts of everyone.

In one moment, one brief moment, she thought she had been forgiven, that she had been given a second chance at life. She could feel all her memories of Naruto resurfacing from the depths of her heart, reminding her of all the good things he had done for her. His eyes fell on her, and a more shocked look couldn't be found on anyone else's face. She smiled at him, bathed in the bright light from above and he just gazed at her dumbfounded. Then without any other signs of acknowledgement, he turned away, shattering her little dream. The spotlight left her, dragging its beam of light over the crowd until it landed on the side entrance to the stage.

Her eyes widened as she watched Hyuga Hinata shyly step out from behind the curtain and make her way to Naruto, the spotlight following her slow advance. She stood before him on the centre stage, blushing deeply when Naruto got down on one knee and proposed. The audience was silent as they waited for her response, and then cheered wildly when she nodded yes, unable to speak as tears of joy flowed down her cheeks.

Sakura accepted that as her punishment. She turned to leave, the only person walking the other way as a sea of well-wishers pushed forward and crowded the stage.


The End