Disclaimer: I am not Kishimoto-sama; therefore Naruto doesn't belong to me. Got it? Good...
Everything has a reason, don't worry. I wanted this story fast-paced. To all the people shocked by Sakura's death, it had a purpose, plus I didn't want him to have to choose between two wonderful girls. grr...Aethos, your talk of InoNaruSaku threesomes is almost too tempting to resist! As you'll see, she ain't quite out of the picture, and it leaves more to play with if I write a sequel.
Takes place after the Sasuke retrieval mission, in the three months before Naruto leaves on his training mission with Jiraiya.
Chapter 6: Cherry Blossom's Goodbye
"Speech" - talking
"Speech" - Naruto thinking.
"Speech" -Ino thinking.
"Speech" - Kyuubi
"You're awake at last."
Naruto slowly opened his eyes to see Sakura lying on his hospital bed next to him, her head resting on her elbow, green eyes blazing with some emotion he couldn't name. She looked different, but he couldn't quite put a finger to it.
"Ino-chan...Did she?" His head still pounded and his body ached from the punishment it recently sustained, but there was something else, a feeling of something missing deep within him that should be there.
"She made it," Sakura nodded to the hospital room's other occupant, sleeping soundly with a look of utter exhaustion on her pale pretty face. Her hair had retained its darker blond color, and her newly acquired faint whisker marks detracted little from her now almost feline beauty, a sharp contrast to his own vulpine roughness. Sakura looked back at him with a wry smile as she continued, "She'll be out for at least a month until her body readjusts to her new essence and her chakra reserves refill. When you show her how to draw upon it, I'm guessing that she's going to be at least as powerful as Neji eventually, if not rivaling your own freakish stamina someday. It looked like Kyuubi left her with a massive potential."
"How do you know about Kyuubi? You don't...hate me, do you?"
"Jiraiya explained it before the ritual. Don't worry, only I know, and you know I can never truly hate you, Naruto-kun, not for something like this. If I did it would be for petty things like turning out like that pervert sensei of yours. He groped me when we thought your seal was going to blow up the village! And you should've told me about this a long time ago! It explains a lot, like why my parents and practically everyone else's hates you and why you had to struggle like you did for so long. I'm sorry, I'm sorry for all of us who never saw who you really are and what're you're truly worth to this village, to your friends, to...to me. Anyways!" she blurted, trying to change the subject before she could no longer continue," We could barely keep up with how many wounds appeared and healed up on you. She really did a number on you, huh?"
"She and I, we-"
"Hush, Naruto-kun, I know all I need to," Sakura leaned close and put a finger to his lips to quiet him," You two have shared something no other two souls can ever claim, you know everything about each other, the good and the bad, but you're both safe and sound, and that's all I care about now. Yamanaka-san had plenty of difficulty pulling her out of you, you had almost completely merged. You can probably still feel it, that feeling that there's a hole in your soul?" She placed her hand gently over his heart.
"Yeah. How did you know?"
"He explained that afterwards. She'll feel it too when she wakes up. There's a link between you now. In fact, I doubt you will ever feel truly complete and happy without each other close by for the rest of your lives, no matter what form your relationship takes, so take care of your girlfriend for me. She's the big sister I never had, while you're my teammate, my dear friend, my first kiss, and my little brother all-in-one, though I'm older than both of you."
"She's not my- oh yeah, she is. They were right after all"
"Think of it as my lifelong wish that you two stay together."
"And what about you? I thought you liked me too. That kiss?" Sakura giggled trying to remain cheerful, as she rested her head on his chest.
"I was foolish and scared to lose a chance I didn't know I had lost. Besides, it doesn't matter anymore, I couldn't have you now even if I still want to, now that you've got a soul mate. She's more like you than I am, more than anyone can be, even if it cost so much to pull you apart once bound together. Look at it this way, you'll never have to choose between us. I saw my chance to make things right for both of you, the people that mean most to me, so I took it, and now I have to go."
"Why, are you going somewhere?"
"In a matter of speaking. I have to pay the piper."
"The piper?" he was as confused as ever.
"Naruto, don't ever change. Even when you become Hokage, don't ever change!" she said as she hugged him tightly, tears welling up in her eyes. She let go after a long moment, saying, "I just want you to know I'm proud of you. I'm proud to have been your friend, and honored to have been your crush. Figures an idiot like you won me over eventually, what is it with you and stealing first kisses? You're not half-bad for a newbie, but then again I've got nothing to compare it with and never will."
"Enough talking. Get some rest, and when Ino-chan wakes up, be there for her, she's gonna need you. That's an order, and I outrank you now."
"You're cute when you're confused. Maybe because it happens so often." she added with a giggle.
Naruto raised his hand to playfully shove her when he noticed a leaf hitai-ate in it. He looked at her again, her hair was no longer bound by it.
"I want you to keep it, to remember me by. You have Sasuke-kun's already, seems right you should keep us together in that way at least, even after you bring him back and fulfill your lifetime promise. Tell him I said hi when you see him next."
"I don't get it!" Sakura was confusing him even more! Where was she going?
"You will, and very soon. Good bye for now, my dear Naruto-kun. You'll see me again." she finished, kissing him gently one last time, before raising his forehead protector and leaving one there too for good luck. He blushed just as Tsunade walked in, dressed in funeral black, Kakashi following behind.
"Kakashi-sensei! Obaa-chan! Sakura said she outranks me now! What gives?" The Hokage looked taken aback, a sad smile on her face, while a single tear escaped Kakashi's visible eye.
"What's the matter? Sakura tell th-" he turned back to look at the pink haired girl only to find she had vanished. He looked down to see a flower resting on the sheets. It was a single sakura blossom. Tsunade explained, though deep down Naruto knew exactly what she was going to say.
"Haruno Sakura was laid to rest this morning with the posthumous rank of jounin. She gave up her life in service to the Leaf and for two of her precious people,"
At this, Kakashi sat down on the bed and pulled his remaining student into a hug as the boy finally lost his crumbling composure and wept for his lost teammate, dear friend, and big sister all-in-one.
Naruto stared at the letter for what seemed the millionth time. Obaa-chan had told him Sakura had written it just before she...died. He still couldn't get used to her name and that...that...word in the same sentence. He stared at the letter again. He hadn't done much else for the last month, nor had he left Ino's side for more than a few hours at a time to train until his fists bled or to grab the occasional bowl of ramen. All his rookie friends could do was wait and hope he got out of his depression soon. Hinata came by occasionally, taking a break from her duties as Tsunade's new apprentice, but he could do little more than cry on her shoulder. Gaara let him rant and rave while taking his anger out on hapless Suna Bunshins.
"Why did she have to do it? Why did she have to die!" he screamed as he decapitated yet another.
"Because sealing any soul into something living requires a life in exchange. So it was with Shukaku and I, and with Kyuubi and yourself. It was simply a choice she made to be the one to do it, for the good of her precious people. I can understand that now, thanks to people like her and you. I hope to do something equally as...caring...for my precious people one day."
Gaara's words still rang in his ears weeks later, as he stared at the still sleeping form of his remaining precious person, while his former sensei sat nearby, in the same chair Sakura had occupied barely a month before. Somehow it had been repaired.
"You're being absorbed into her team, while Jiraiya takes you all for your three year training, if it's any consolation." For someone who was perpetually late, Kakashi was remarkably timely in his words.
"Otherwise you'd return and be the only three remaining genin. Better to keep you together and let you advance in the field, perhaps in Hidden Stone Village, where the next one will be held at."
"What's the real reason?" At some point he had discovered he had inherited Ino's ability to smell an excuse from a mile away, and he sorely missed being clueless now.
"We know about the link between you and Ino. For all we know three years apart could drive you both into depression or worse, not to mention if one gets killed, the other would likely die too, should Akatsuki get hold of either of you. It's better that you grow stronger together, now that she's inherited some of Kyuubi's essence."
"I'm already depressed. Part of me is hanging on by a thread and wont wake up, while another has left me completely."
"This will pass, once you realize that no one who you truly mean something to ever quite leaves you completely." He pulled his forehead protector up and winked with his Sharingan eye for effect.
Naruto laughed weakly, before turning back to his girl. He dearly missed her voice as much as Sakura's.
"She'll make it, Naruto." Shikamaru said as he entered with Chouji, and stood leaning against the wall, concern sneaking into his voice, "She's a bitch like no other, and if she absorbed anything from you, a tenacious one at that. Just give her time; she'll fight her way back to us."
Naruto was too emotionally drained to respond. The loss of one of the two precious girls in his life had been a terrible pain as it was; he couldn't stand to lose the other. Eventually his now solo tenant broke the silence, though only for him.
"I respect few humans, but I respect her, as I do you and the Fourth. She has a strong spirit, she will recover and be a force to be reckoned with. Do not worry, she took half a tail trying to bring you back, and it was still with her when they pulled her out of you."
"Half a tail!"
"It'll grow back."
"Why did you give that much?"
"She demanded all she could handle. She has potential, unlike you."
"Keep it down, I can still hear you two when you argue in your head like that."
"Ino-chan!" The blond girl twitched, then slowly opened her eyes, They looked darker, deeper, and almost identical to his own, right down to the hidden pain and weariness he recognized far too well.
"Naruto-kun...Shikamaru...Chouji...hey. How long was I out? Where's forehead? I thought she'd be here to beg for forgiveness."
"Sakura-chan...she..." He couldn't do it; instead he passed her the letter. Some of the ink was blotched in places, either from his tears or hers. Ino's soon joined as her eyes scanned the letter, her hands trembling.
Dear Ino-pig and Idiot,
I don't have much time left, because I don't know how long you have, and I have to do right by you one final time. The ritual we're using to save you both requires a person to give their life in exchange.
I've decided I want to be that person.
I know this will be hard for you both later, but even harder would be to have lived a long life knowing you two died when I could've done something. Naruto, I know you'll cry and scream until you're blue in the face, but I have my reasons.
Naruto-kun, I'm sorry for all the times I shoved you to the side in favor of Sasuke-kun. I've since come to see that you've shown me that love is caring for someone even if they never see it, and be willing to place their happiness above your own. It took me until just now to truly realize that, and I'm taking a page out of your book and protecting my precious people to show that I really do care about you enough to look beyond my limits and my own happiness. I'm scared shitless going into this, but fear never stopped you, right? If anything, it only seems to make you try your hardest, and I've always looked up to you for that. You attacked a full jounin to get back your forehead protector and release Kakashi-sensei, you stopped a giant snake in its tracks before it could eat Sasuke-kun, I heard you even fought Gaara and the sand demon Shukaku to a standstill to save me. You put your life on the line to protect us all the time. Doing the same is the best way I know to say thank you for everything.
Ino-chan, I'm keeping it, you keep the idiot safe for me. Try as I might, I know now that what is between you and he can't be broken by anyone without breaking you both. Make sure he becomes Hokage, and knock him around if he ever slacks off, because he's sure gonna need you. I never told you this, but the worst mistake of my life was the day I gave it back to you and spat on our friendship, and I've cried countless times in repentance. It's time I grew up as straight and tall as you, and found my courage to be more than your shadow and make you proud of your little blossom. I want you to keep getting stronger and protect him as much as he protects you.
I believe in you both. Stay together, and keep each other safe. I love you both very much.
Haruno Sakura-chan, your Forehead Girl
P.S. We each got our first and second kisses from each other. How's that for triangles? Remember me and take care of yourselves.
"We will," they said solemnly in unison, before turning to look each other in the eye and holding each other tight.
"She's really g-gone, isn't she?" She asked, her breath hitching in her throat.
"She was b-buried the morning I woke up." They both were trying to choke back aching sobs.
"She accomplished her mission, even if it was at the cost of her life. That's all we can ever ask of a leaf shinobi."
"Obaa chan!" The two blonde genins shouted in unison, before turning back to each other with a blush as they released each other.
"Oh Kami, now I've got it in stereo."
"Why didn't you stop her Tsunade-sama?"
"She wouldn't be persuaded. The look in her eyes reminded me of some idiot brat I met once..."
"She was tearing herself apart with guilt at the role she played in your conditions, and she refused to back down. Jiraiya told me he attempted to dissuade her several times while explaining the ritual to her, but she wouldn't have it. Oh that reminds me. Ino, she took a ribbon from your clothes, but she only said it was something she should never have given back, and that she requested to be buried with it, which we honored."
"Oh!" Ino quickly looked back down at the letter.
"She did! She did! Naruto-kun, she did!"
"The ribbon, right? The one you gave to her when you became friends?"
"Yeah! She gave it back after she joined your team to show she'd broken her ties to me, but now she took it back! Friends to the end after all!" she shrieked as she grabbed Naruto again and held him close, bittersweet tears running down her cheeks as she grabbed his head with both hands and kissed him deeply.
"That's from both of us. Thank you for everything Naruto," she said to him in his head.
"My kaasan doesn't hate you anymore." The two blonds were standing next to Jiraiya and Chouji in front of the memorial stone, watching as Kakashi finished adding in Sakura's name to the list of those shinobi who died for their village and comrades. It was December, and they were scheduled to leave that afternoon before the snows made traveling difficult.
"Really? What changed?" Naruto asked her, his arm around her waist.
"My tousan explained a few things to her, but I think it was when I showed her the letter and she read how Sakura-chan was inspired enough by you to give her life for us, that maybe you were worth giving a second chance."
"I was wondering why she hasn't tracked me down to hit me with a frying pan for celebrating your birthday late along with mine. Hey, did you see your seal yet?"
"Yeah, it's on my chest. Not there! Look higher," She pulled her collar down, pushed Naruto's necklace out of the way and concentrated to make the seal appear. It consisted of the same swirl as his own, except it consisted of having four elephant seals instead of eight. "Where's yours?"
"On my stomach, so of course Kyuubi hates ramen."
"You would too if you were used to eating humans."
The blonds both broke down into hysterical giggles.
"What?" inquired Chouji, looking at them as if they were insane.
"Nothing!" was their mutual, choked response.
"By the way, why did you give me the necklace Tsunade-sama gave you for my birthday? I was afraid to ask until now."
"You're gonna be with me until I'm Hokage, right? On that day you give it back."
"Now why would I give it back? Just because you were planning to give it to your successor one day, right?"
"Yeah. I planned to give it to either Konohamaru or...Sakura-chan."
"Naruto, she's gone, but she's still with us. Look what I found the other day," she said as she cupped one hand and formed a Rasengan. It blossomed orange at first, then shifted hue to a warm pink.
"She performed the seal ritual, so I think any chakra I'll ever produce will carry a slight tinge of her soul that went into making the seal, and she was always pink," she explained with a pained smile.
"Oi! Move it you guys!" Jiraiya called. Naruto noticed Kakashi had already said his goodbyes and left, and Jiraiya was almost out of sight, Chouji huffing behind, a large duffle full of snacks swinging behind him.
"Ero-sennin! Wait a moment! Sexy-Ino-no-jutsu! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ino-chan! It's no far when you take control and make me hurt myself!"
"Considering it training, perv! I can do the Shinranshin now, and Hokages need a high pain tolerance!" she shouted as they ran along laughing..
"Yeah, and you'll make a great one. I'll make sure of it." Whispered a pink-haired girl once they were out of sight, before vanishing in a swirl of sakura petals.
So ends Bound Together. If you couldn't handle the pace, I wrote it to keep the characters on their toes and too hurried to well think any decisions. The sequel will be much slower, if I ever write it. Don't worry about Sakura; she might be back, though not quite the same…