Author's Note: This is an edited version of the first chapter. The content itself is relatively unchanged, with some minor revisions and hopefully it is overall smoother and more readable than the previous version. And in given credit where credit is due, Kanji no Sakka deserves a good bulk of it for generously offering to read and critique the chapters, and for not being afraid to tell me what I'm doing wrong, lol. Seriously, I don't think this edited chapter would have turned out half as good without Kanji's guidance :)

Naruto barely registered the loud bang of the heavy door as he fled the Hokage's office, and the solid wood door resounded harshly in his wake. The storm of emotions constricting in his chest was suffocating, pressing down on him like a lead weight. He kept his head lowered, a lock of unkempt blond hair falling over his eyes, hiding the angry tears welling to the surface. The hall was oppressively quiet in its emptiness, and Naruto moved swiftly toward the bend in the path that led to the stairs, his strides purposeful.

He heard the door swing back open before he could round the corner, and Sakura called for him to come back. Her voice carried a note of pleading concern rather than the irritation and well-meaning rebuke he usually got from her, but she didn't try to follow after him and Naruto felt a small relief for that.

Beneath the shock and grief, too new to be fully felt, he recognized the deep, raw rage within him. And Naruto knew he could not handle facing Sakura right now, for fear of saying or doing something he would later regret. Feeling more than a little ashamed of himself he left his teammate behind, moving faster through the corridor and starting down the winding staircase.

An all too familiar burning sensation began to build in his belly. Red-hot chakra clawed for release at the weakened seal. The jinchuuriki's own anger had awakened the bijuu's ferocious bloodlust like a spark stoking a fire. The only thing holding the beast in check was Naruto's sheer strength of willpower; he had already learned the consequences of losing control. The image of the wreckage left over of the Tenchi bridge and the crater carved in the forest came to mind, evidence of the destruction he could so easily unleash. And there were the three deep gouges in Sakura's arm, a warning of the danger that the beast inside him posed to others. It could inflict pain on the people he cared about through him.

Naruto clenched his fists, and felt the bite of semi-sharpened claws that made him aware of the Kyuubi's power slipping through the cracks. The demon's vile presence brought with it a feeling of being closed in on all sides, and the primal, animal fury threatened to consume him and taunted him with its closeness. He needed air – he needed control.

Finally, he pushed through the doors to the outside, feeling less confined without walls and a ceiling surrounding him. The fresh air and open space gave him room to breathe and relief from the tightness in his chest.

Wandering around town seemed to help a little. The chatter and busy civilians moving through the streets distracted Naruto from his unwanted thoughts, and lessened the Kyuubi's influence. But it didn't take long before he felt a prickle under his skin, warning him of the hateful glances thrown his way as he passed. He tried to pretend he didn't notice, but the demon inside him wasn't fooled so easily. It was skilled at detecting his weakness and insecurities, and figuring out how to use them to its own advantage. In seconds, it easily scrounged up a stream of memories and pushed them at its jailor with cruel glee.

Naruto didn't need to be reminded of the past. But the memories crowded at him anyway, raw and unchecked.

A small orphaned boy, just wanting to feel loved and wanted, but instead ignored and rejected without understanding why. Every day he came home to an empty house. No one was there to make sure he ate, brushed his teeth or changed his clothes. No one was there to comfort him when he cried or woke terrified from a nightmare. The loathing glares and whispers concealed behind raised hands; the way people avoided passing him directly in the streets, giving him a wide berth, some passersby making hand motions to ward against evil. The time an old woman screamed in terror at the sight of him.

The pictures flashing through Naruto's mind brought enough distraction for the Kyuubi to seize the necessary foothold to renew its attempt for freedom, growling and clamoring eagerly. Naruto felt the falter in his self-control, the one barrier holding the bijuu within its prison, and gritted his teeth when the burning in his middle returned with greater intensity than before.

Taking abruptly to the rooftops, Naruto sent a current of chakra to his feet to propel him from building to building. Before long, he arrived at the top of the Hokage monument and stopped, breathing heavily, more from the effort of suppressing the demonic chakra than from exertion.

Naruto sat on the carved head of the Yondaime, drawing his legs close to his body and resting his chin on his knees. He gazed down at the village below, his eyes sullen and downcast. The sun was beginning to drop on the horizon, bathing Konohagakure in orange and gold light. The pressure of the malevolent chakra gradually eased off, back into the confines of the seal as he sat there. It left him feeling drained and lightheaded. Naruto buried his head in his arms. He sucked in a deep, trembling breath and released the air from his lungs, repeating the process until he regained his bearings.

With each flare up it was becoming harder to hold the Kyuubi in check. The seal was breaking, slowly but surely, and Naruto was forced to pull more on his own chakra reserves to restrain the beast. He couldn't guess how much more the seal would be able to withstand before it shattered completely, but he feared the balance of control would ultimately come down to which of them could outlast the other.

As the Kyuubi's presence receded from his consciousness, the anger that had sustained him and dominated all other emotions also faded, and was replaced by a numb sorrow. The full reality of the news started to set in, and Naruto knew he could not deny its truth any longer. Jiraiya was dead. Really and truly gone. He still couldn't make himself believe it even now.

Jiraiya was always going on highly secretive and dangerous missions, facing hostile enemies with all the ease of a seasoned shinobi who had experienced countless battles before. He was a carefree, uncomplicated person, who liked to drink sake and chase women, told bawdy jokes and wrote risqué books. He was also a man with ideals and a desire to see the world change for the better, and Naruto respected him for that; it was Jiraiya who taught him that a true shinobi was not someone who knew a lot of jutsu, but one who never gave up.

Naruto had never stopped to consider the possibility that Jiraiya might not come back. It was unthinkable. Even when he was off traveling here or there, Naruto's assurance that his mentor would return was always present, and now it was gone. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. And the worst part was he had only himself to blame.

If Naruto were not the jinchuuriki of the nine-tailed fox, Jiraiya would likely not have had a reason to undertake such a risky covert mission into unknown territory to gather information about the mysterious Akatsuki leader. He never would have fought Pein, and he wouldn't have died.

Naruto knew if he had been stronger, no one would have to protect him and Jiraiya would still be alive. He was still just a child like everyone said. Always needing to be protected, never able to keep the people he cared about from harm because he wasn't strong enough. Never strong enough. He didn't want anyone to die for his sake. Never again.

Grinding his teeth together hard enough to make his jaw ache, Naruto screwed his eyes shut, tightening his arms around his knees and feeling almost as if he were closing himself into a protective shell.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed before he lifted his head and looked to the sky. There was a mass of thick, dark clouds collecting and swelling in the distance, signaling a coming storm.

The thought crossed his mind that the weather seemed strangely fitting, and Naruto wondered if the thought had been his own at all. How could he be sure when he was two beings in one? With the seal weakening he felt less and less certain of where his consciousness ended and the Kyuubi's began. Or if they were ever really separate at all. Naruto wondered if he would adopt more of the demon's nature and behavior as time went on until he was more bijuu than man.

In a sudden rush of anger he slammed his fist forcefully against the stone. "Damn it," Naruto said, hissing fiercely through his clenched teeth. He was mindless of the pain drumming through his knuckles.

Tears of frustration and grief stung his eyes and flooded his throat, and a knot emotion coiled in his chest like a tightly bound spring. But Naruto found he was unable to cry, and that only seemed to make the pain in his chest worse.

"Damn it."

During the night, Konohagakure was struck with a torrential rainstorm that continued well into the next day, turning the streets into mud and keeping most people inside the comfort of their homes. News of Jiraiya's passing spread quickly, and the whole village seemed to mourn his loss as a well-known and respected shinobi. For them however, it was a distant loss and it was those closest to him who felt the greatest impact.

Haruno Sakura stared out the large window in the Hokage's office as a low rumble of thunder rolled across the sky. The rain fell without ceasing, pattering on the window in an unremitting rhythm. It was midday but the sky was darkened with a veil of solid gray clouds stretching into the horizon. Sakura touched her fingers to the cold glass, the cool surface sending a chill up her arm and a tingling of goose bumps rose on her skin. She saw her own eyes reflected back at her, bright green irises full of anxiety and her lips a tight, grim line.

She wondered what Naruto was doing now. So much had happened in such a short amount of time – with Sasuke, Akatsuki and now Jiraiya. Sakura could only imagine the effect it all had on her teammate, and she wished there was something – anything – she could do to help him, although she wasn't sure he would even listen to her if she tried. What could she say or do that would mean anything at all?

"I should've never let him go on that mission," said Tsunade, her slurred voice came from the desk off to Sakura's right.

Turning, the younger kunoichi looked over to see her master downing a cup of sake. Tsunade's face was flushed with intoxication and her amber eyes were glassy. "It was suicide fighting Pein all by himself," she said ruefully, more to herself than her apprentice.

Sakura shifted to face Tsunade, and watched her pour another cup of sake and raise it to her lips. She waited patiently for the Hokage to say more, but several minutes passed in silence and the only sound was the rain pinging on the windows. Tsunade's chair gave a soft creak as she leaned back with a groaning sigh that belied the age behind her deceptively youthful façade.

Unnerved to see her master in such an informal state, Sakura fidgeted slightly in place and wrung her hands together. As long as she'd known Tsunade, the older medic-nin had always maintained the carefully constructed front of the Godaime Hokage – someone strong, impervious, and notoriously short-tempered. Any weakness was closely guarded, as was required of her station.

After a while the silence grew too long.

"Tsunade-sama?" Sakura said, but Tsunade seemed too absorbed in her own ruminations to hear.

With tired eyes Tsunade gazed toward the closed door on the opposite side of the room, though Sakura thought she was seeing something else entirely.

"It's never easy, watching the people you care about walk away and know they're never coming back. Even worse to see them die under your hands, and not even all your power can save them," the Hokage said finally. There was no intonation; her voice was numbed by the deep sorrow of loss.

The words struck a chord in Sakura and she hung her head, fixing her eyes on a spot of the polished wood floor between her feet. The first thing she pictured in her mind was a younger Sasuke, his back turned and a full pack slung over his shoulder. But the next thing was an image of Naruto lying lifeless and bloody, his blue eyes filmed over and unseeing, and that one churned her stomach with a sick, heartrending lurch.

"Decide what you want while you're young, Sakura. Don't wait until you're an old woman like me, letting your stubborn pride keep you from seeing what's really there. Living with the regret isn't worth it, take it from me." With that vague statement, Tsunade straightened in her chair, the air of professionalism falling into place as if it had always been.

Sakura was silent, not knowing what to say. She was impressed by Tsunade's ability to settle so effortlessly back into the role of the serious, focused village leader with so little outward effort. But she knew from talking to Shizune – what little the other medic had been willing to share – that Tsunade had experienced enough loss and hardships in her life to know she could not afford to wallow in grief or the mistakes of the past.

Tsunade was generally cautious about how she presented herself, and Sakura had never been privileged to see this glimpse of her inner conflicts. She felt strangely happy with that knowledge because it meant the Hokage trusted her reliability, not just as a disciple but as something of a confidante.

How will Naruto ever be able to handle this? The thought entered her mind quite abruptly. Did Naruto even comprehend how trying the Hokage position would be – mentally, physically and emotionally? He was undoubtedly an emotion-driven being. Would he ever be capable of switching off his personal feelings in order to make objective decisions? The questions brought a new wave of worry for her teammate, and the sense that there was never enough she could do to help him. Just small, insignificant things.

Pushing aside the still half-full sake bottle, Tsunade reached into one of the perpetual and ever-accumulating piles of reports and paperwork on her desk and pulled out a manila folder. She held it out to Sakura. "I need you to deliver this to Ibiki down in the Interrogation department, and then you're free for the rest of the day."

Sakura took the folder and tucked it underneath her forearms, against her body, fingers curling lightly around the edges. "Are you sure, Tsunade-sama?"

"Yes, you've earned a break, and things will be getting much more hectic around here before long. I'll need you then, Sakura, so try to appreciate this little bit of time off while you can, because I can't guarantee when it will happen again," the Hokage said in a stern, pragmatic tone.

"Of course, Shishou," she responded succinctly, inclining her upper body forward in a respectful bow.

"I do have an errand though," Tsunade added as Sakura straightened. "I need you to find Naruto and tell him that he must come here for a meeting tomorrow, at four o'clock sharp. Fukasaku-sama is coming back and wants to speak with him."

"I will," Sakura nodded and turned for the door.

Once Sakura had gone Tsunade sighed, reaching to rub a sore knot in her shoulder near her collarbone. She sent a longing look at the bottle of sake. Not so long ago she would not have had any misgivings about indulging in another drink, allowing herself to become so inebriated that she could forget the things she didn't want to remember.

Most days she didn't regret leaving that part of herself behind. Back then she was little more than a broken woman, drowning herself in alcohol and gambling so the rest of the world ceased to exist and she didn't have to think of all the things life had stolen from her. She was sure she would have eventually lost herself completely to despair, if not for one incorrigible boy with blond hair, a big mouth and bigger dreams.

No, Tsunade didn't regret the way things had turned out, but today the idea of drinking away her agonizes definitely appealed to her. She couldn't do that though, not when she had a village full of people, civilian and shinobi alike, relying on her to protect and lead them. And with the threat of the enigmatic Pein looming, Konoha's position was more precarious than ever.

Already the elders were insistently advocating for her to send Naruto away, not as much in the interest of his own safety as to avoid losing Konohagakure's ultimate weapon of war, the Kyuubi no Yoko. They believed doing so would dissuade Akatsuki from attacking the village directly. She hoped Naruto would accept Fukasaku's offer so those pestering elders would be at least temporarily appeased, but she had no intention of keeping him from the fight that was sure to come. The same indomitable spirit Tsunade had seen time and again in her years fighting alongside Jiraiya lived just as strongly in his apprentice. He would not be kept from this enemy while others fought for him, regardless of any measures taken to hide him away.

Delivering the file from the Hokage securely into Morino Ibiki's safekeeping, Sakura immediately set out on the other errand Tsunade had assigned her, heading for the poorer section of town where Naruto lived. Thick clouds lingered heavy and swollen in the sky and the rain fell steadily, dripping down off the rim of the umbrella Sakura held over her head.

A chill uncommon to the temperate climate of Fire Country filled the air and seeped into her bones, and mud caked her sandaled feet, squishing uncomfortably between her toes. Before long the rundown apartment complex came into view, drooping and forlorn in the gray surroundings. Sakura paused, staring up at the building uncertainly.

She wondered what she should say when she saw him, if she should say anything at all, or just give her message and go.

Before Sasuke had left to join Orochimaru, Sakura had tried to reach out to him but the attempt was decidedly ineffective. No amount of desperate begging and pleading could have changed his mind. And Sakura knew it was because she couldn't understand. She had never experienced those losses and torments that plagued him, and it was the same now. She felt like a spectator, incapable of providing the consolation and support she ached to give. The desire to be useful swirled restlessly inside her.

Mounting the steps, Sakura began the ascent to the top floor. The stairs groaned warningly beneath her feet and the railing was loose under her hand. She had a strong suspicion that Naruto wouldn't be home, but she figured this would still be the most direct method of finding him since he would have to come home at some point. Searching around town in this weather would be pointless and unproductive at best; Naruto could be surprisingly evasive when he did not want to be found.

Sakura raised her hand and rapped her knuckles soundly against the door of Naruto's apartment, the wood echoing hollowly. Several moments passed with no response so she took the doorknob in her hand and turned, finding it unlocked. Predictable, she thought, letting out an unrestrained sigh and shaking her head tolerantly. Naruto was never one to take the simple and practical precautions into consideration. She would scold him for it later.

She tentatively stepped into the dark apartment, felt around the wall for a light switch and flipped it on. The light sputtered on weakly, flickering as if the bulb might fizzle out completely, and cast a pale yellow glow on the modest living quarters. Removing her mud-coated sandals at the entryway and setting her umbrella against the wall, Sakura swung the door closed. The rusted hinges protested with a low, ominous screech. She gazed about, taking in the plain, peeling wallpaper, the ancient, sagging couch in the middle of the room, and a coffee table piled with miscellaneous papers, scrolls and a deck of playing cards.

The regular drip, drip of a leaky faucet reached her ears, drawing Sakura's attention to the small kitchenette and then the sink, where Naruto's paltry inventory of dishes and silverware lay unwashed. Gnawing her lower lip, Sakura wrapped her arms around herself and looked from one end of the empty apartment to the other, feeling very alone in the oppressive silence that hung in the atmosphere.

What was it like… coming home every day, knowing no one would be there to welcome you back? she pondered, absorbing the details of the tumbledown little apartment and trying to imagine one little boy, isolated away from the world, living here all alone.

Now that she was there, Sakura wasn't sure what to do other than wait. Naruto clearly was not home, as she'd expected, and it left her feeling decidedly out of place. Sakura had only been in Naruto's house a handful of times, and never when he wasn't home. It felt as if she was intruding on a personal aspect of her teammate's life by inviting herself into his home. But she still had an errand to complete, and she couldn't leave until she made sure Naruto received Tsunade's message. Leaving a note was not sufficient. He probably wouldn't even see it.

Hesitantly, Sakura made her way over to the couch. She picked up a blanket that was thrown carelessly across the backrest and draped it over her shoulders then sat down and curled into the sofa.

A blinding flash of lightning brightened the room in an erratic burst of white light, and Sakura jumped at the deafening crack of thunder that came after. The unexpected disruption in the pervading stillness of the room made her heart leap and forced a gasp of alarm from her lips. After the last reverberating rolls of thunder tapered off she heaved a breath, and once her heart settled back into its normal rhythm she wriggled deeper into the cushion, trying without success to find a more comfortable position on the lumpy surface. At least the blanket was thick and insulated her in its pleasant warmth.

The storm would soon pass, Sakura knew. Spontaneous storms were not unusual in fire country at this time of year, moving in rapidly and sometimes lasting a day or two, then succeeded by days of heavy humidity and high temperatures. It was on those days, when the atmosphere was thick and muggy like a sweltering sauna, that Sakura thought the Land of Fire most lived up to its name.

With a sigh Sakura closed her eyes and drifted off into a light slumber. Nevertheless, her ninja training had conditioned her senses to remain keenly alert, waiting and listening.

Sakura was stirred by the sound of footsteps approaching the apartment outside, her awareness returning as the door creaked open with a noisy protest. She raised her head and blinked in the dim light, and as her vision cleared and adjusted to wakefulness Sakura identified the figure standing in the entryway. It was Naruto.


His voice sounded uncharacteristically rough and fatigued and his clothes were soaked through, caked with an impressive layer of mud and clung to him like a second skin. The sunny blond of his hair was dampened to a duller tawny and plastered flat to his skull, water dripping piteously down his face. He stared at her, blinking in bewilderment with the guileless manner which was so distinctive to him. He seemed unaware that he had the appearance of a half-drowned street urchin.

With a clinical eye Sakura noted the weary slouch of Naruto's shoulders and the unsteady sway of his body, even as she could tell he was stubbornly fighting to conceal his weakness. The medic's gaze settled on his right arm. It hung limp and useless at his side, afflicted by slight tremors that caused the fingers of his hand to contract and spasm involuntarily.

Sakura diagnosed the issue with all the efficiency of her profession, the symptoms clear and familiar. Would he never learn? Despite the warnings he had received from both her and Tsunade, despite the risks and permanent side effects, he still failed to heed the advice he was given to stop using such a physically destructive technique.

"Welcome home," she said, tugging the blanket off her shoulders and rising to her feet. She smoothed the wrinkles from her navy skirt.

Naruto made a choked sound of surprise. "What are you doing here, Sakura-chan?" he said, confused. He looked at her wide-eyed for a moment before abruptly glancing off to the side to avoid meeting her eye.

"You were practicing that jutsu again, weren't you?" Sakura said, trying to keep the accusation from her voice as she motioned with her hand toward his crippled arm.

He didn't answer, but the tensing of his shoulders was telling enough.

"Why don't you get cleaned up and I'll take care of your arm, alright?" she suggested gently, unintentionally slipping into the softly coaxing tone she often used with her younger patients. But fortunately Naruto didn't know that.

Naruto nodded mutely, his head still turned away from her although he didn't bother to move. Adept at assuming the role of caregiver, Sakura approached him and laid a guiding hand on his upper back, leading him to the bathroom. She turned on the shower, the water sputtering sporadically before coming out in a steady stream. She adjusted the temperature so that it would be suitably warm.

"Do you have a clean towel around here?" Sakura said. She looked about as if to find one conveniently laying around in the bathroom, which she could only describe as Spartan with its outfitting of the barest of necessities.

"Um, yeah, there's a laundry basket – in my room," Naruto said. His head was lowered and his eyes were covered by the wet fringes of his bangs, but he was unable to hide the furious tomato red blush that crept up his neck.

Sakura hurried out of the bathroom and rounded the corner into Naruto's bedroom. She quickly located the basket of clean, unfolded laundry and sifted through the assortment of shirts, pants and boxers for a towel. After a moment she tugged out one that was a faded blue, and looked a little ragged on the edges. Taking the towel with her into the bathroom, she set it on the sink counter and turned to Naruto, who appeared not to have moved an inch.

"I'm sure you can handle it from here," she said.

He gave an almost imperceptible nod, and Sakura could have sworn he flushed an even brighter red. Any other time she'd have scolded him for having perverted thoughts, but this was probably a very foreign scenario to him, while for her it was fairly routine. It's not like she was going to help him in the shower; he wasn't so injured that he would require assistance bathing. He'd have to be near incapacitated for that.

Naruto felt much relieved after Sakura had gone, and the barrier of walls and a door between them gave room for the nervous tension he felt to drain away, at least partially. He hadn't been prepared to come home and find her waiting for him, and Naruto wasn't sure he was ready to face her yet; there was still so much he was feeling, a whole mess of things he wasn't prepared to deal with. And at the same time, part of him was glad for Sakura's presence, her calm and easy composure was reassuring, and her concern brought a stirring of emotion in his chest.

He stripped off his muddy clothes, a task hindered by the added disability of his injured arm. Naruto climbed into the shower, the hot water working to alleviate the soreness in his muscles and warming his body from the chill of the rain. He stood under the showerhead until the water swirling around the drain was no longer brown from the mud, and then turned the water off. Pulling back the shower curtain, he stepped out and clumsily wrapped the towel around his waist with one hand.

He went into his room to put on some clean clothes, finding that changing into his clothes was an altogether different challenge than taking them off. But he was determined not to embarrass himself by calling on Sakura for help, and several minutes of struggling later, his efforts were finally met with success.

"Shit," he muttered with a hiss, gripping his right arm as the damaged nerves twinged painfully. The pain was not as bad as the first time he'd injured it using his wind nature Rasengan combination jutsu, but it was still quite excruciating, even with his nearly inhuman tolerance to pain.

Holding his arm against his side, Naruto left his bedroom to find Sakura in the kitchen steeping a pot of tea on the stove. She was reaching into the cupboard for a couple of mugs and then turned to him when he entered. She smiled openly, and Naruto thought the delicate upturn of her lips was indescribably beautiful. It lit up her face. To hide his rising blush he moved over to the couch and sat down, keeping his head lowered so that his damp bangs fell to cover his eyes.

A few moments later Sakura came over and set the two mugs, now filled with sweet-smelling tea, on the coffee table. He noticed that the mess on the table had been arranged into several stacks, leaving a spot of clear surface which hadn't existed before. Naruto thanked her, although he made no move to take the cup.

Sakura walked around the coffee table and lowered to sit at his right side, near the edge of the couch. She kept a respectable distance of approximately three feet between them, and occupied herself by anxiously smoothing her skirt over her thighs. Naruto tried very hard not to stare at her legs, lean and solidly muscled with their smooth ivory complexion.

He quickly shook himself from the direction his mind was leading. What was wrong with him? Those kinds of thoughts were going to get him in deep trouble. Naruto knew his relationship with Sakura wasn't like that; she only saw him as a friend, painful as it was. But he was willing to accept that role for her happiness, and grateful to have that much. Not that he wasn't going to tell her how he felt. He would. Someday. It was just that now wasn't the right time. Not even close.

"Give me your hand," said Sakura, and he did, watching as she positioned hers over his arm, not quite touching him.

He heard the soothing hum of her activated chakra, the shimmering green light hypnotic as it gave off a calming energy that flooded him with a sense of quiet peace. Naruto cherished these moments when it was just the two of them and the nearness required for healing brought him closer to her than he was usually allowed. Having her heal him and tend to him like she did, it felt special somehow, even though Naruto knew it was not something she reserved for him alone.

"Well, the damage isn't as severe as before," said Sakura.

"That's good right? It means I'm getting better at it," he said with a hopeful grin.

Even with her head bent to concentrate on the intricate manipulation of chakra needed to repair his injuries, Naruto could see Sakura's frown and imagined the hardening of her intense jade eyes that was sure to follow.

"No, Naruto, it's not that simple. Do you really not understand the risk you're taking with that jutsu? You could completely lose the ability to mold chakra in your hand. Did you ever think about how that would affect you?" she said, scolding harshly. "The nerves and chakra pathways as well as the muscles and tendons are still heavily damaged. Even your body has its limits. You can't just expect that the Kyuubi will heal everything good as new."

Naruto chewed his lower lip, averting his head to the side in shame. "If it happens that way, then fine. I've got another arm. I'm not gonna let something like that slow me down – not when Sasuke's still out there, and now with Pein and Akatsuki ‒" he said defensively, feeling his dormant anger resurface. "I'm going to get revenge for Ero-sennin," he said, uttering the oath with vehement finality.

Sakura didn't say anything. She wanted to, but she wasn't sure how to tell him he sounded like Sasuke just then and it scared her. She didn't want that for Naruto ‒ to become so consumed by the need for revenge that he disconnected himself from everything else important in his life. After a couple more minutes, Sakura finished her healing and the green glow of the chakra radiating from her hands disappeared.

"It's not completely healed so you might still feel some pain. The rest will have to repair on its own so your body can follow the natural healing process," she said, placing her hands in her lap.

Naruto watched his arm as he bent it forwards and back at the elbow, and then formed his hand into a fist as he tested it for any discomfort. The movements felt tight and sore but it didn't hurt.

"Thanks, Sakura-chan," he said, and finally dared a look at her. He gave her a grateful smile that he didn't quite feel.

Bunching her fingers in the material of her skirt, Sakura pursed her lips, biting down the urge to voice her thoughts. It had been so long since she'd curbed the inclination to speak her mind or censured her words and it felt wrong, unnatural, to do so. However, she didn't want to fight, or launch into lecture about things she couldn't hope to understand. What could she say that would mean anything? She had never had someone she loved taken away from her so brutally, never experienced the desire to avenge their death.

Whatever she said would only sound hollow. Ignorant.

She didn't notice right away that Naruto was staring at her. He appeared to be observing her inner struggle with concern and curiosity, and she hurried to divert the unwanted scrutiny.

"Shishou sent me to give you a message. You're supposed to go to her office for a meeting tomorrow afternoon at four o' clock."

"Uh, okay," said Naruto, his gaze thankfully shifting away to fix on a spot of the carpet. "Is that all?"

With self-conscious awareness, Sakura reached up to brush her hair from her face, tucking a strand behind her ear. She didn't like this awkwardness between them, but she didn't know how to break through the wall that had been raised. Brute force would likely make things worse. She could end up pushing Naruto further away, and she wasn't sure how much she should pressure him to open up to her. She wanted him to talk to her on his own and to feel comfortable confiding in her.

"Are you okay, Naruto?" she ventured, realizing how ridiculous she sounded after the words were out. She might as well have given him the nonsensical, "I'm sorry."

"I'm fine, Sakura-chan," he said.

Sakura found herself accepting the answer, although she knew it was a bold-faced lie. She looked back at the coffee table where the cooling mugs of tea sat untouched and sighed in resignation.

"It's getting late. I suppose I should head home."

"Huh?" Naruto started to attention. "But Sakura-chan, it's still raining pretty hard out there," he said in concern.

"A little thunder and rain never hurt anyone," Sakura said, her tone lightly chiding. She stood from the couch. "You don't need to worry about me, Naruto. I can take care of myself."

"Yeah, but, there's lightning too. That's dangerous, right? And your place is all the way on the other side of town," said Naruto.

Sakura leveled him with a suspicious glare, crossing her arms. "You're not trying to suggest I stay here tonight, are you?" she said, her sense of propriety causing her to balk at the very idea. Not that she thought Naruto would actually try anything. For all his perverted tendencies, she knew he had a high respect of women, and her especially.

"Uh, I – well," Naruto stammered uselessly, fidgeting and scratching his head. "I was going to say that you can take the bed and I'll sleep here – on the couch," he managed to explain, throwing in an uneasy grin. "If that works for you."

Sakura felt a strange tenderness spread through her chest and smiled faintly. She realized there was something she could do for Naruto. It was a small thing, but she could see that he wanted her to stay. He didn't want to be alone. For a few beats she considered the offer and then let out an exhale, already knowing she would give in.

"Alright," she said.