Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Failures (Intermission Part Three)

The sun began to set, and Kakashi Hatake prepared to depart on the most important mission of his life.

To the southwest was the town of Sunagakure, and an (admittedly impressed) Kakashi had taken nearly a day to be able to track down that it was southwest that his young student had gone. But it had taken even longer to prepare himself for this journey, and the more he lingered on the previous events of the day, the more worry began to settle inside him.

His memories lingered on the hardened face of the Princess Tsunade, his Hokage and commander, troubled by more than just his wayward students as he'd made his way into her office. Though usually she was bogged down by paperwork, she had instead taken to staring out her window to gaze over the village, turning only when Kakashi had closed the door behind him.

"Lady Tsunade, I'm afraid my student has deceived us." He began. "I've tracked down her scent, and it seems as though she's-"

Tsunade held up a hand, and Kakashi quieted. He knew better than to speak out of turn.

"Orochimaru has hideouts everywhere, no doubt also in the Wind Country, given how he turned Suna against us."

Kakashi's eye widened. So Tsunade had learned Sakura's true course as well?

"But that's not the direction Sasuke went, she would have taken the most direct path she knew!"

"Kakashi, there is no point to further discussion. Shinobi have already been sent to recover Ms. Haruno." Tsunade retorted, sitting down on her desk and pulling open a drawer. "She is no Uchiha, not flanked by Orochimaru's chosen. She'll be brought back to us quickly." She pulled out a small, tightly wrapped scroll before placing it on her desk. "I have more pressing matters for you to deal with anyway."

"Forgive me, Lady Tsunade, but I will not be taking any further missions until my student has been returned home."

"Then you will be strung up for treason, Kakashi." Tsunade's eyes narrowed as she stared the jounin down. "And you will not be much help to your student that way. This mission is extremely important, Kakashi, and I think you'll find it more beneficial to your own goals than you might think."

Kakashi thought of arguing, but even he knew better than that. Tsunade seemed to have some sort of plan in mind, so instead he forced himself to take the scroll Tsunade had put forward for him. He made to open it, but Tsunade halted him.

"Kakashi...this is an S-ranked mission. Do not open that scroll here. Ensure your complete privacy before reading it."

S-ranked? And how on earth would that have anything to do with Sakura?

"Fine." Kakashi agreed. "But if I feel that this isn't beneficial to my student…"

"Then you may come speak with me again."

Kakashi knew several places that he could reliably trust to be out of the range of most people, and even fewer where he could reliably avoid the eye of most shinobi. He wasted no time heading to the closest one. Every moment he wasted on this 'mission' was a moment wasted retrieving Sakura, and he had very little of those left to lose.

Eventually, he reached the spot: a small cave within the Hokage Rock that had been shown to him by the Fourth Hokage upon his chuunin promotion. Within, Kakashi allowed himself to settle, using his Sharingan eye to check for anyone nearby before unraveling the small scroll in front of him. Within, he saw Tsunade's handwriting.

Kakashi,

I have been investigating into recent events in the village that have happened since my leaving and have come across information that has disturbed and troubled me. I apologize for being unable to speak with you directly, but I am now aware of the existence of those within our own village who are listening in on my every word and spying for the gain of another within the village. You were Anbu once, and no doubt aware of the elite branch of Root within Anbu, led by our own Danzo. It was Danzo himself who insisted on sending members of Root after your student, Sakura, and I have reason to believe it is not because he cares for the girl's wellbeing. Danzo has always been unnaturally obsessed with the Uchiha, to the point of my raised suspicions. It is possible that he hopes the girl will lead his Root shinobi straight to Sasuke, and from there...I am not sure what.

Regardless of whether or not Sakura intends to go to Sasuke, this provides us with a unique opportunity. Even as Hokage, Danzo remains secretive to me, and his Root shinobi even more so. Your mission is to follow Sakura, as you intend, but also to find and interrogate any Root shinobi you find and determine the true nature of their own investigations. Any information about Danzo and Root must be retrieved at all costs, for the protection of your students, and potentially this village.

Root's actions run deeper than I care to admit. With Jiraiya gone, there are few I can trust with this information. You were Minato's most prized student, and mentor to these children, so I have chosen to leave my trust with you.

This S-ranked mission will be completed upon Sakura's return to this village. Pack heavy.

Kakashi had packed very heavy. Food and rations for a couple weeks, sharpened tools, and Tsunade's scroll burned to ash, beyond any repair. Sakura was being followed by Root. That alone was worrying enough. Tsunade had not been aware, it seemed, of Kakashi's past dealings with Root, nor that Kakashi had worked directly under Danzo himself for a time.

But the Hokage had been right in her placement of trust. Kakashi, perhaps, knew Danzo better than anyone. The man had once tried to orchestrate the assassination of the Third Hokage, among countless other questionable things, all in the name of the village. The worst part was that Kakashi couldn't necessarily fault the man's intent, but if he'd taken an interest in the Uchiha, in the power of the Sharingan…

Kakashi had turned against Root for a reason. And now it seemed as though he would be working against them yet again. But before he could leave, Kakashi had one more thing he had left to do.

With a quick prick of blood, Kakashi summoned one of his hounds, kneeling down to hand them a scroll that he had spent meticulously writing in the secrecy of the Hokage Rock cave. "Deliver this to Lady Tsunade. Ensure she opens it in privacy." He ordered. The dog ran off without further words.

Inside the scroll was a detailed account of Kakashi's dealings with Root, working under the Third Hokage, as well as his written acceptance of his new mission.

From here, there was nothing left to do but follow his original plan and find Sakura. Southwest, across the vast deserts that surrounded the Village Hidden in the Sands. Sakura wasn't headed to Orochimaru, of that Kakashi felt certain, so instead her intent was surely to go to Suna. But why there? What could she be looking for that she couldn't find in Konoha?

He'd find out once he found her, he supposed, but he had wasted enough time in his thoughts. With a chakra-enhanced pushed, he leaped from rooftop to rooftop, eventually soaring over the village walls in the direction of Suna.

I've failed Sasuke and Naruto. But this time, Sakura, I won't fail you!


Naruto Uzumaki was considered an idiot by most.

It was true that he was no battle genius like Sasuke, and definitely not intelligent like Sakura, but despite what others thought, he was in no way dense. Rather, his mind refused to focus on anything he didn't deem immediately important. Reading books was slow and tedious, so he'd never been able to do that, but he had been training since he could hold a kunai in his hand, and on top of that, he had learned to figure out information in other ways.

Maybe it was the way that certain people looked at him all his life, or the hushed whispers in his presence, but Naruto knew when someone was talking secrets and he knew when those secrets involved him. When he was young, he had dismissed that knowledge. He hadn't cared what people whispered about, and he hadn't cared about secrets. But in the more recent past, especially knowing now about the Nine-Tailed Fox that had been sealed inside him, Naruto was beginning to think it might just be a good idea to pay attention when people were whispering about him after all.

So when he saw Jiraiya subtly whispering to one of Tsunade's slugs night after night, Naruto knew it had to be important, and he knew it had to, in some way or another, involve him. And this time, Naruto wasn't going to let secrets get thrown around so easily. Secrets had been kept from him since he was born, and he was starting to get more than a little sick of it. He hadn't come along with Jiraiya to be kept even more in the dark. He'd come to learn and grow and get strong enough to defeat Orochimaru and Akatsuki, as well as ensure he would be strong enough to bring Sasuke back to his village one day.

So Naruto schemed.

It was something he was good at, scheming. He'd been pulling pranks for years, good enough pranks to fool the local chuunin and jounin alike, and his perverted sensei had been easy enough to get advantage of with the right disguises and words. All he had to do was wait for the opportune moment to both distract his sensei and get one of Tsunade's slugs alone.

The next night at the hot spring would suit well enough. Naruto prepared in advance by creating a Shadow Clone and having it wait just outside of the spring, beyond Jiraiya's view. He then left the clone with very specific instructions.

From there, he entered the hot spring with Jiraiya and put on the guise of attempting to perfect his wind chakra once again. Though he put in some effort into cutting his leaf, he kept an eye trained on the area around Jiraiya. Sure enough, after a time, a small slug scooted in Jiraiya's direction, and Naruto listened as they whispered to each other. Now was the time, and he hoped his clone was ready.

"Ah, oh my! This isn't the girl's hot spring, is it?"

His clone had appeared, using a henge jutsu to disguise himself as a young woman wrapped in a bath towel. His sensei was strong, but also easily distracted by the sight of a pretty woman, and tonight was no exception. Jiraiya's gaze immediately turned to his disguised clone, and Naruto didn't wait to hear what disgusting words would come out of the man's mouth. Instead, he moved, quick as a flash, and snatched Tsunade's slug off the ground. Once he was good and hidden in a nearby bush, he held the slug up to his face for a chat.

"Alright, slug, it's time to talk. What have you and the Pervy Sensei been talking about behind my back?"

"Naruto…" The slug spoke in a calming, feminine voice that held hints of distress. "If Lord Jiraiya has not deemed to share this information with you, then it is not for your ears."

"I didn't ask whether or not I was supposed to hear it. I asked what it was." Naruto demanded. "And we don't have much time before Jiraiya figures out what my clone is up to, so either you talk now or I start the threats."

"You don't scare me, Naruto."

"Oh really?" Naruto allowed a wicked grin to come to his face. "I've heard escargot is pretty good. Slugs and snails are almost the same thing, right? If you don't tell me what's up, maybe I'll start a nice little campfire and figure out what's so good about it myself…"

The slug let out a few squeaks of distress, and Naruto knew he had her in the palm of his hands. But for emphasis, he lifted the slug up and opened his mouth. "Bottoms up!"

"No, Naruto, no, no!" The slug writhed in his grip desperately. "I really can't tell you about these sorts of things, they're very much classified! But...I can tell you what to ask Jiraiya about! Ask him about Sakura!"

Sakura? Naruto dropped the slug in shock, and the slug quickly slithered away out of his reach. That didn't matter anymore, though, what could Sakura be up to that Tsunade and Jiraiya were keeping from him?

Naruto crawled out of the bush just in time to be confronted by the angry gaze of his mentor, who'd clearly figured out his little prank.

"Alright, Naruto, what are you up to back here?"

Naruto frowned, standing up to his full height and attempting to look as serious as possible. "I'll tell you when you tell me what's going on with Sakura."

For a brief moment, he saw Jiraiya's anger falter, and Naruto knew the slug had been right and he'd caught onto something.

"...get dressed, kid. I'll tell you at the inn."

Naruto was quick to throw on his clothes, but Jiraiya took longer, seeming to stall to the point where Naruto was beginning to worry that something bad had happened to Sakura. When Jiraiya spoke, however, Naruto realized that it was much, much worse than that.

Sakura had left the village. Sakura had left the village and, according to the note she'd left behind, gone to join Sasuke and Orochimaru.

Naruto's knuckles turned white as he gripped at his knees. He had not been gone from the village long, but apparently that had been long enough for Sakura to lose hope. (Or, had Sakura not had any hope left in him to begin with?) He'd told Sakura that they would bring back Sasuke together, she just had to give him some time to train and get stronger…

And he'd left and now, so had Sakura.

If he had stayed behind in the village, if he had stayed with Sakura, would she have left? Could he have convinced her to stay? Could he have shown her that she didn't need to take on the burden alone, that Sasuke could be saved if they'd just worked together, gotten stronger together?

It was his fault, he realized, not just for Sakura, but for Sasuke as well. Time and time again he'd failed to understand the true feelings of the two closest to him, and now both of them had left Konoha behind. If he had been a little more understanding, a little less clumsy, a little more supportive, maybe they would have stayed. Maybe they could have remained Team Seven. But now…

Now there truly wasn't any Team Seven left.

"I'm sorry, Naruto." Jiraiya said honestly. "I hadn't wanted to tell you because right now they're working on retrieving her. She could be back soon, she doesn't have Orochimaru's posse trailing around her-"

"It doesn't matter."

Naruto bit back tears, though it was becoming increasingly difficult. "It doesn't matter…" He continued. "Because she still wanted to leave. Even if you bring her back, it won't matter because right now nobody's there for her that understands, so she's just going to try and leave again the first chance she gets. It doesn't matter because I wasn't there to comfort her. I wasn't there to convince her to stay, and I'm the only one who can."

"Naruto…"

"I shouldn't have left Konoha!" Naruto suddenly yelled, standing up to face his sensei directly. "We could have stayed there and trained, and I could have been there for her!"

"You know why we can't stay there, Naruto." Jiraiya argued. "That's going to be the first place Akatsuki look for you, even if my sources say they aren't going to come for you yet, we never know when that might change."

"I don't care anymore. Let them come. I'd rather get captured then be out here away from my friends when they need me. I told Sakura a long time ago that I wasn't going to run away anymore, and I never go back on my word."

"This isn't just about you, kid, this is about the entire village! Potentially the entire shinobi world! You can't just act rashly with that fox inside you! If you get captured, then that power ends up in the hands of people like Itachi, and who knows what Akatsuki plan on doing with it!"

"And I said let them come."

Naruto felt a hot energy burning inside of him. The energy of the Nine-Tailed Fox. It seemed to boil and rise with his angry, molding with his own natural chakra. Fueling it. "Let them come." He repeated. "A teacher of mine told me that shinobi that those who abandon their comrades are the lowest of the low. Trash. I'm done running and I'm done leaving my friends behind."

He met Jiraiya's eyes, his heart filled with determination. "You're a pretty strong shinobi, right Pervy Sage? Strong enough to make Itachi and that shark guy run off when they saw you?"

"Naruto, I don't see what that has to do with-"

"So, if I can make it all the way back to the village without you catching me, that means I'll be strong enough to get away from Akatsuki if they come from me, yeah?"

Jiraiya froze as he processed Naruto's words. Exactly the moment Naruto had been hoping for. He let the Fox's chakra build inside him before pushing it downwards towards his legs. With a push, he launched himself towards the inn's window, throwing himself through it and into the brisk air of the night. He heard Jiraiya calling his name desperately, but he did not allow himself to stop.

Naruto had to admit that sometimes people were right. Sometimes he could be an idiot. He'd been an idiot for leaving Sakura behind, an idiot for leaving the village behind. What sort of Hokage would he be if he couldn't keep his friends safe? What sort of Hokage would he be if he didn't even spend time in the village he wanted to leave one day? He wouldn't earn people's respect traipsing off after Jiraiya, even if Jiraiya had half a decent reputation behind him. If Jiraiya really wanted to train him, they'd train at the village. Naruto would be waiting there, hopefully for Sakura's return, and definitely so that none of his friends would ever feel abandoned again. Sakura, Sasuke, and all of the other Leaf genin that he had befriended…

No more leaving them behind. No more.

Naruto Uzumaki was coming home.

1. Chapter 1 848 0 0 2. Chapter 2 3162 0 0 3. Chapter 3 2532 0 0 4. Chapter 4 2819 0 0 5. Chapter 5 2551 0 0 6. Chapter 6 2767 0 0 7. Chapter 7 2188 0 0 8. Chapter 8 1950 0 0 9. A Brief Intermission 949 0 0 10. Chapter 10 4053 0 0 11. Chapter 11 3692 0 0 12. Two Worlds Away (Intermission Part Two) 1320 0 0 13. Chapter 13 3836 0 0 14. Chapter 14 2739 0 0 15. Chapter 15 2390 0 0 16. Failures (Intermission Part Three) 2824 0 0 17. Chapter 17 3234 0 0 18. Chapter 18 6529 0 0 19. Chapter 19 4214 0 0 20. Three's a Drag (Intermission Part Four) 2630 0 0 21. Chapter 21 3341 0 0 22. Chapter 22 2924 0 0 23. Chapter 23 6969 0 0 24. Chapter 24 3801 0 0 25. Chapter 25 4158 0 0 26. Alliances (Intermission Part Five) 2667 0 0 27. Chapter 27 6918 0 0 28. Act One Epilogue 30 0 0 29. Act Two Prologue 1 0 0 30. Chapter 30 7214 0 0 31. Chapter 31 3687 0 0 32. Other Worlds, Other Minds (Int Part 6) 7031 0 0 33. Chapter 33 2703 0 0 34. Chapter 34 2734 0 0 35. Chapter 35 3454 0 0 36. Chapter 36 3502 0 0 37. Chapter 37 2836 0 0 38. Sparks (Intermission Part Seven) 3351 0 0 39. Chapter 39 3664 0 0 40. Chapter 40 4064 0 0 41. Chapter 41 4611 0 0 42. Chapter 42 3675 0 0 43. Chapter 43 3720 0 0 44. Alekhine (Intermission Part Eight) 1118 0 0 45. Chapter 45 6405 0 0 46. Chapter 46 6106 0 0 47. Chapter 47 4601 0 0 48. Chapter 48 4531 0 0 49. Chapter 49 3483 0 0 50. Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine) 7177 0 0 51. Chapter 51 4480 0 0 52. Chapter 52 5763 0 0 53. Chapter 53 3722 0 0 54. Chapter 54 4708 0 0 55. Chapter 55 5271 0 0 56. Chapter 56 5280 0 0 57. Sounding Thunder (Intermission Part Ten) 2812 0 0 58. Chapter 58 9001 0 0 59. Chapter 59 4492 0 0 60. Chapter 60 5379 0 0 61. Chapter 61 9941 0 0 62. Chapter 62 8222 0 0 63. Chapter 63 4430 0 0 64. Chapter 64 4766 0 0 65. Chapter 65 7008 0 0 66. Chapter 66 5769 0 0 67. Act Two Epilogue 2816 0 0 68. The Months Between 9232 0 0 69. Act Three Prologue 96 0 0 70. Chapter 70 5300 0 0 71. Chapter 71 5013 0 0 72. Chapter 72 4580 0 0 73. Chapter 73 5123 0 0 74. Chapter 74 3585 0 0 75. Chapter 75 3963 0 0 76. Chapter 76 4747 0 0 77. Chapter 77 3671 0 0 78. Chapter 78 2347 0 0 79. Chapter 79 5030 0 0 80. Chapter 80 3135 0 0 81. Chapter 81 4371 0 0 82. Arbitrium (Intermission Part Twelve) 3793 0 0 83. Chapter 83 3219 0 0 84. Chapter 84 2189 0 0 85. Chapter 85 2827 0 0