Icha Icha Fantasy
A Naruto OneShot
Premise: Naruto, fed up with all of Jiraiya's 'research,' tries to figure out what the big deal with the Icha Icha series is by writing his own book. And Sakura slowly falls in love after reading it.
Author's notes: Post-timeskip fic.
- Sept. 22, 2007: First published
- Feb. 9, 2011: Cleaned up formatting, some small edits
Haruno Sakura was having such a quiet and peaceful day when...
"SAKURA! I just saw the hottest guy over at the marketplace today!" Ino squealed with delight as she practically pounced on her pink-haired friend.
Sakura sighed and pushed the overly-excited blonde off of her and dusted herself off. "And? Who is it this time?"
"Well... about that... I don't know exactly," Ino giggled sheepishly. "I only saw a glimpse of him and then he disappeared into the crowd. You know how crowded the marketplace is on Saturdays."
"I guess that's that then," Sakura shrugged and lay back down on the grass to read her book.
"NO! I will not let a guy that sexy fall into some other bitch's lap!" Ino declared, shaking her fist up at the heavens as if to challenge fate. "I will find this guy even if it's the last thing I do!"
"Didn't you say that about Sasuke-kun and Sai too?" Sakura rolled her eyes.
"This is different!" Ino argued. "I'm done with those dark and creepy emotionless bastards! This guy's different!"
Now Sakura's interest was piqued. "He's really THAT hot?" she asked quizzically as she put her book down.
"YES! Haven't you been listening to a word I've been saying?" Ino screamed in frustration. "He is a GOD!"
"I dunno... from an objective standpoint, I can't really picture a guy who's prettier than Sasuke-kun," Sakura shrugged, even though she too had long grown out of her fan girl phase.
"This guy is on a completely different level!" Ino insisted. "He has messy blonde hair, but it's not like grungy messy... it's messy in a way that's so completely and utterly sexy! And his eyes are the most the most striking blue color... like the sky. And GLASSES! I never knew a guy with glasses could be so HOT! It's not like those emo plastic framed glasses that are so popular nowadays but thin metal rectangle framed ones that make him look so smart! Intelligent AND sexy! And his sense of style is to die for!"
Ino then took a pause, but Sakura kind of got the feeling that there was more. "And?"
"And..." Ino's voice now softened, a stark contrast from the highly excited state that she had been in before. "His smile... it was like... I don't know... it was warm... so warm that I could feel my heart melt... it's the smile that Sasuke-kun and Sai are missing..."
"Hmm... I kinda feel like I've seen this guy before..." Sakura frowned, trying to dig through her memory for what it was that seemed so familiar about this guy. "You're not talking about Naruto, are you?"
For that, Sakura received a conk on the head.
"Oi, Sakura, got a minute?"
Sakura sighed as she was yet again interrupted from reading her book. "Sure, what is it, Shikamaru?"
Shikamaru scratched the back of his neck and glanced up at the clouds for a second before asking, "Did you two get into a fight recently or something? Ino's acting really weird."
Sakura blinked. "She... didn't tell you?"
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow and shook his head. "Tell me what?"
Sakura put down her book and frowned. Whenever Ino found a new boy to crush on, she always made sure that the entire world knew that she had dibs on him. It was strange that she had kept it from Shikamaru of all people. "Ino... fell in love... I guess," Sakura said, wrinkling her nose at how weird that statement sounded.
"Fell in love?" Shikamaru frowned and rubbed his chin as he let the revelation sink in. "She's not acting like she usually does when she finds a new guy to drape herself all over. She's acting like... I don't know... she sighs a lot."
"She... what?" Sakura asked quizzically.
"She SIGHS like every five minutes... like she's depressed or something," Shikamaru repeated. "And she has that stupid expression on her face while she just stares off at nothing."
Sakura bit her lip. "It might be serious this time..."
"What? Who is it?" Shikamaru coughed, trying to hide the slight edge in his voice.
Sakura then smiled innocently at him. "Why? Does it bother you?"
"Troublesome," Shikamaru grumbled in a disgruntled voice and immediately turned around to leave.
"Shikamaru! I'm just joking!" Sakura laughed as she jumped to her feet and jogged after him. "But seriously... I don't think you have much to worry about. Ino doesn't even know who the guy is; she just caught a passing glimpse of him yesterday at the marketplace."
"Sounds like something Ino would do," Shikamaru sighed, "How troublesome."
"But... from Ino's description, I seriously feel like I've seen that guy around before too... I just can't put my finger on it," Sakura remarked contemplatively. "He might be a Konoha civilian."
"Well... if you can't remember, then he probably isn't all that," Shikamaru huffed.
Sakura giggled a little, finding Shikamaru's failing attempts to hide his contempt for any guy Ino falls in love with kind of amusing. "No, I think I remembered thinking that he was a really attractive guy, but... for some reason I can't remember where it was that I saw him."
"Model for an advertisement or commercial?" Shikamaru suggested sarcastically.
Sakura then snapped her fingers. "Shikamaru, you're a genius! That might be why I can't really remember... I don't really pay attention to ads or commercials."
"Oi... I was just joking," Shikamaru grew a sweat drop. "Wait, he's THAT attractive? Enough to be in a commercial?"
"It's just a hunch, I don't really remember," Sakura rolled her eyes. "But I guess we should go over to the bookstore and check the magazine stand. We might find something."
Ino raised an eyebrow as she saw the person she least expected to walk into a flower shop waltz right up to the counter. It was her blonde glasses-wearing dream hunk that she had spotted at the marketplace the other day.
Ino studied Naruto's new appearance somewhat skeptically, still having a hard time swallowing the fact that she actually found the academy dropout far more attractive than Sasuke ever even hoped to be. But there he was. She had never seen him in casual clothes before, only that crazy orange jumpsuit of his, so his current outfit was a pleasant surprise. It was nothing fancy, just a simple black v-neck t-shirt and some loose-fitting khaki cargo pants, but it showed off his muscular yet lean physique much better than his usual jumpsuit. It shouldn't have been much of a surprise though; Naruto had always looked fairly skinny even with that bulky orange jacket on, so why hadn't it ever occurred to her before?
And the glasses. The glasses gave him an air of intelligence, but his goofball grin still allowed him to retain the playfulness that made him who he was. But it also brought to the surface one of the qualities that not many people knew about, his kindness. The glasses softened the roguishness and mischief that most people refused to look past and revealed the kind and self-sacrificing smile that instantly melted her heart. It wasn't that he was cuter than Sasuke or sexier than Sai because he really wasn't, but his smile made him far more attractive than both of them combined.
"You're not busy right now, are you?" he asked, adjusting his new glasses a bit self-consciously as he looked around to see if there were any other customers around, but luckily the store was pretty much empty at the moment.
"Why? You want to buy a bouquet for Sakura?" Ino deadpanned, not understanding why it was Sakura that got all the guys.
"Why would I buy a bouquet for Sakura-chan? Did she graduate from medical school or something?" Naruto asked, his fox slit eyes indicating confusion. Glasses or no glasses, he was still the same old clueless Naruto. "I just wanted to ask you some stuff... about flowers... and maybe buy one for my garden."
"You have a garden?" Ino was, needless to say, stunned.
Naruto sighed and pulled out a year-old edition of the Hidden Mist Village's bingo book and flipped over to the page which held his profile. "Uzumaki Naruto... hobbies include cooking and gardening," Naruto quoted as he shoved the bingo book into her face. "Even the freaking mist ninja know that I like to garden... so why the hell doesn't anybody in Konoha know?"
"Hobbies? The bingo books are starting to look more and more like myspace pages," Ino grew a sweat drop, taking a look at Naruto's profile in the bingo book. "Wait, the Hidden Mist have a bounty on your head for fifty million ryou? What the hell did you do to them to make them so angry?"
Naruto let out a sheepish laugh as he scratched the back of his head. "Uh... I kinda blew up a lot of stuff while developing the oodama rasengan."
"But that doesn't warrant a fifty million ryou bounty!" Ino insisted.
"No, you don't understand," Naruto shook his head. "I blew up a LOT of stuff."
"Such as...?" Ino gestured with her hands for him to continue his explanation.
"Such as... uh... the sandaime Mizukage?" Naruto squeaked.
Ino blinked for a moment and then shook her head. "I... I have no words for you, Uzumaki Naruto."
"Hey, it was an ACCIDENT! Besides, he was a corrupt tyrant leader! They'll thank me for it later! Believe it!" Naruto argued, defending himself. "I just hope they picked a Yondaime Mizukage who'll take the bounty off my head..."
"Anyway," Ino sighed. "That aside, what is it that you needed?"
"Hmm..." Naruto took out a small notebook and a pen from his equipment pouch and readied the pen with an audible click. "Can you teach me the meaning behind each flower in this store?"
Ino studied his face for a second and could tell that he was serious, despite the usual goofy grin that was plastered across his face. "Um... well... I guess..."
Ino and Naruto then spent the next couple hours discussing each and every type of flower that Ino was knowledgeable about. Customers would come in every now and then, and Naruto would help out as well, and then they would resume their lesson on flowers. Ino was surprised at how attentive and interested Naruto seemed. She figured that Naruto might be the type that only gets stuff done when he really applies himself but otherwise accomplishes absolutely nothing.
"And... I think that's about it for the flowers that our store carries," Ino said as she concluded her lesson.
"Awesome," Naruto grinned as he flipped through the seemingly endless pages of notes that he had taken. "And... I guess I'll buy some asters for now, but I might come back for some other stuff some other day."
"Asters?" Ino raised an eyebrow as she headed over to where the pretty purple flowers were on display. "What for?"
Naruto flipped to the page in his notebook about asters to make sure he remembered correctly. "Their aroma drives away serpents, right?" he laughed jokingly.
Ino then giggled, understanding what Naruto was getting at. "Which one do you want?"
"Hmm... this one's nice," he remarked, picking up a medium-sized pot of asters. "How much?"
"Free," Ino shrugged. "Friendship discount."
"Really?" Naruto laughed, putting his wallet away. "I'll treat you to dinner then. You're about to close up shop, right?" he asked, noticing that the sun was already setting.
Ino checked the wall clock, surprised at how late it had gotten. "Oh, yeah... I guess I should close up shop now."
"I'll wait for you," Naruto offered cheerfully.
Ino nodded and quickly went through the usual closing procedures that she had gone through so many times before and then finally locked up. "You know, you don't really have to take me out to dinner."
"And, you know," Naruto grinned, mimicking her tone of voice, "you didn't have to give me these flowers for free."
"Right, right," Ino laughed as she adjusted her purse over her shoulder. "Have anywhere in mind?"
"Hmm... you wanna try one of the restaurants that use vegetables from my garden?" Naruto suggested with a proud smirk, already leading the way.
"Oh, so you grow vegetables," Ino nodded in understanding. "No wonder you didn't know much about flowers."
"Hmm, vegetables... among other things," Naruto nodded with a shrug.
"So where's this restaurant that uses your vegetables?" she asked curiously.
Naruto gave her the victory sign with his two fingers. "Ichiraku ramen!"
Ino didn't know whether to sigh at the predictability of that answer or to laugh for that exact same reason. She decided on the latter. "No wonder you get so many discounts there."
"Well, I do give old man Teuchi the vegetables for free, so it's only fair," Naruto laughed. "Have you tried his special vegetarian ramen? It's specially made from the best ingredients!" he boasted proudly.
"I guess I'll try that then," Ino said with a smile. "But... wouldn't you rather have dinner with Sakura?"
Naruto then gave her a small smile that made her heart feel like all the life was slowly being squeezed out of it; it was the most pained smile she had ever seen. She never knew something that looked so poignant could be so beautiful. "The closer I get to Sakura-chan... the harder it'll be to keep my promise to her..."
Sakura sighed as she put yet another magazine back on the rack. "No one that fits the description in this one either," she said, feeling tired of flipping through magazine after magazine to check out the models in the advertisement pages. "Maybe he was on a billboard or something."
"I doubt it... because then I'd probably have seen it too," Shikamaru pointed out, still flipping through magazines.
"I guess," Sakura murmured with a shrug as she gave up trying to look for advertisements and flipped to an interesting article. It was a discussion piece about the book she was currently reading. Then it hit her. "I GOT IT!"
Startled, Shikamaru almost dropped the magazine he was holding. "Wh-what?"
"The guy Ino was talking about!" Sakura exclaimed as she grabbed Shikamaru and dragged him over to the new release popular fiction section, not wanting to pull out her own copy of the book in the middle of a bookstore in fear of being accused of stealing. "He's the author of this book!" Sakura stated victoriously as she grabbed one of the many copies of the book off the shelf and flipped open to the 'about the author' section. "That's why he seemed so familiar!"
Shikamaru frowned as he studied the fuzzy black and white photo of the author. "Are you sure this is the guy? Kinda hard to tell in this picture..."
"True... I must have seen a better picture of him somewhere else, but I'm sure that this is the guy," Sakura frowned. "And at least we know his name now... Namikaze Tsukasa..."
"Just his name and not much else though," Shikamaru muttered, having skimmed the author's description but finding nothing of significance.
"Yo, Sakura, Shikamaru."
Sakura turned around, recognizing her former teacher's voice. "Kakashi-sensei! What are you doing here?"
"Well... I just finished Jiraiya-sama's latest book, Icha Icha Panic, so I decided to pick up Namikaze Tsukasa's debut book, Doki Doki Fantasy," Kakashi said cheerfully as he pulled a copy of the book off the shelf.
"Oooh, Doki Doki Fantasy is really interesting, Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura said excitedly, glad that Kakashi was finally reading a book she could discuss with him about. "I just started reading it yesterday too!"
"Hmm? Is that so?" Kakashi nodded, reading the blurb that was on the back of the book. Then he turned to the 'about the author' section and skimmed that as well. "I'm still kind of disappointed that Jiraiya-sama didn't write this book himself though."
"Jiraiya-sama?" Sakura asked, confused. "What does he have to do with anything?"
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "You didn't know?" Kakashi pulled out his copy of Icha Icha Panic, causing Sakura to gasp when she saw who it was on the cover of the book.
"That's him! That's where I've seen him before!" Sakura exclaimed, grabbing the book out of Kakashi's hands. "Namikaze Tsukasa!"
Shikamaru studied the cover of the book Icha Icha Panic and frowned. Unlike previous books in the Icha Icha series, Icha Icha Panic had much more elaborate cover art in order to expand the target audience. On the cover were the three main characters of the story, the heroine in the middle and the two love interests at her side in a seductive and provocative menage a trios. The one on the left was the scandalously attractive Namikaze Tsukasa. "That's him alright..."
"Namikaze Tsukasa is a character in Icha Icha Panic," Kakashi explained as he held up the two books. "In Icha Icha Panic, the character Namikaze Tsukasa is an aspiring author who works on writing Doki Doki Fantasy... thus Doki Doki Fantasy is sort of a story within a story."
"Wait... so Namikaze Tsukasa is not the author's real name?" Shikamaru guessed. "He's just using it as a pen name to tie in with Icha Icha Panic?"
"Correct," Kakashi grinned. "He is Jiraiya-sama's editor and assistant... though no one knows his real name." Then, silently, he let out a mental chuckle. 'Though it's pretty obvious who Namikaze Tsukasa really is... I wonder how long it'll take Sakura to realize it.'
"So... then we can ask Jiraiya-sama to introduce us to him!" Sakura concluded excitedly.
"Why? You find him attractive?" Kakashi laughed. "You're just going to make Naruto jealous all over again."
Sakura then started blushing. Even though she did find Namikaze Tsukasa incredibly attractive, he wasn't attractive enough to start another feud with her best friend. "No! Not for me, for Ino!" she insisted, though her blushing didn't make her excuse very convincing.
"Whatever you say, Sakura," Kakashi laughed. "Now, if you two will excuse me, I have a book I need to start reading."
"Bye, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said as she watched him make his way to the counter to pay for the book. "I guess I'll buy Ino a copy too."
"It's troublesome, but..." Shikamaru sighed as he too pulled a copy off the shelf.
Sakura giggled as she checked how much money she had in her wallet. "Ino's gonna flip."
"Thanks for dinner, Naruto... and for walking me all the way home," Ino giggled, never having imagined that she would ever say those words to Naruto of all people.
"It was a free meal, so no need to thank me," Naruto shrugged, grinning as he turned around to leave. "Well, maybe I'll see you around."
"Hey, Naruto..." she suddenly called out, surprising both herself and him. "Good luck with Forehead Girl... Sasuke-kun doesn't deserve someone as nice as her."
Naruto laughed and lifted his hand up to gently brush away the locks of hair that flowed down the right side of Ino's face. "Don't go commenting on other girls' foreheads when you hide your own," he chuckled, giving her a silly smile as he gazed into her turquoise eyes. "And you have really pretty eyes... and a really cute face... so show it off confidently." It was such a romantic line, but Naruto had managed to mangle it completely with his goofball expression and witty laughter. However, despite all that, Ino was still bewildered to the point where she had lost all ability to communicate.
As Naruto once again turned around and bid his farewell, Ino could still do nothing more than to stare at his back, stunned. 'His smile...'
"And thanks!" he called back with a grin. "For not ever mentioning my glasses!"
'See, Sakura? You're much cuter this way! You can have that ribbon.'
'Th-thank you... but...'
'They make fun of you more because you try to hide it! You have a cute face, so show it off confidently. Confidently!'
That night, Ino sat in front of vanity mirror and stared at herself long and hard. No matter what she tried, she just couldn't get Naruto's smile off her mind. Naruto's smile had given her that same heart-melting experience that the guy she had instantly fallen in love with at the marketplace had. Now she knew for sure that those two were one in the same.
Naruto had given her such a fun time too at dinner and walking her home. It wasn't romantic at all, but he was funny and a complete goofball. He never failed to make her laugh. And laughter, especially after Asuma's death, had been in very short supply in her life. His smile and his laughter... she was surprised at how badly she wanted them... to keep them for herself.
She sighed as she reached for a couple of hairpins and clipped her hair to the side, revealing the right side of her face that she had hidden for so long. Then she smiled. "I am cute, aren't I?"
"Ino! You won't believe what I found out!"
Sakura excitedly opened the door to the Yamanaka flower shop but froze the second she stepped inside. "I-Ino? What happened to your hair?" Sakura stammered, pointing a quivering finger.
"Oh, this?" Ino shrugged, trying her best to act nonchalant about it. "I guess I just felt like a change."
Ino's hair was now cut short, as short as Sakura's, and she had let it loose in the back instead of tying it up into her signature ponytail. Her hair in front was held to the sides with green hairpins. It was the hairstyle she had sported back when she and Sakura had first met, but now, instead of looking childishly cute, she exuded an aura of mature beauty. "We went full circle, didn't we?" she remarked with a soft smile.
Sakura, now slowly getting over the shock, returned the smile as she ran her fingers gently through Ino's new hairstyle. "We both started with short hair... then grew our hair longer because of Sasuke-kun... and now we've both returned to the same hairstyles we had way back then... but why all of a sudden?"
Ino shrugged her shoulders again. "I don't know... just felt like it."
"No, c'mon, tell me!" Sakura whined playfully, poking Ino in the side. Then she gasped, "No way! You met that guy, didn't you? Does he like girls with short hair?"
Ino grinned and gave her a sly shrug. "I just remembered... back when we first met, I told you not to hide your face because it was cute, but I've realized that over the years, I've started to do the exact thing I told you not to do... I just suddenly felt like a hypocrite, that's all."
"Ino..." Sakura grinned. "You look way cuter this way! You'll totally knock Namikaze-san off his feet when you meet him!"
"Yeah, the guy you saw at the marketplace the other day!" Sakura exclaimed, going back into her hyper excited girly-mode phase. It had been a while since she and Ino had been able to do stuff teen girls would normally do, so Sakura was really feeling it. "He's the author of this book, Doki Doki Fantasy! He goes by the pen name Namikaze Tsukasa, but he's Jiraiya-sama's assistant, so I'm sure he'll introduce you to him!"
"Namikaze... Tsukasa?" Ino could feel her heart skip a beat as she stared at the fuzzy black and white picture in the author section of the book. 'Wait... so it wasn't Naruto that I saw at the marketplace?'
"Here's a better picture," Sakura whispered, blushing as she took out a copy of the over-eighteen-only Icha Icha Panic. "You can have both of those, I have my own copies."
Ino studied the cover of Icha Icha Panic and then Naruto's smile from the night before suddenly flashed before her eyes. "Sakura... are you blind?"
Sakura blinked, surprised. "What do you mean?"
"This guy... Jiraiya-sama's assistant... Namikaze Tsukasa..." Ino said in a soft voice. "It's Naruto..."
Sakura looked at the cover of the book again and gasped. How could she had not seen it before? True, at first glance, Namikaze Tsukasa looked nothing like Naruto. He wore glasses, his whiskers had been covered up, his hair was styled, he wasn't wearing a forehead protector, and he actually wore very fashionable clothes... but underneath all of that... his smile was still the same. "Naruto...?"
"So I guess I did have dinner with my dream guy last night after all," Ino chuckled. "And he told me not to hide my pretty face behind my hair..."
"You... what...?" Sakura's shocked voice came out as barely a whisper, almost trembling.
Ino chuckled softly in amusement. "We both grew our hair long because of Sasuke-kun... then we both cut our hair short again because of Naruto... ironic, isn't it?"
"Because of... Naruto...?" Sakura was reeling and was unable to put together a coherent response.
Ino then gave her a sad smile. "I'm still not sure of how I feel about Naruto yet, but... I don't want what happened between us all those years ago to repeat again... if you want Naruto, say it now and save me a lot of trouble, okay?"
"I... I..." Sakura was still stunned speechless. "I..."
Ino smiled and placed her hands firmly on Sakura's shoulders. "Both you and me... we're both confused... we're both unsure of our feelings... that's fair, right? So... let's at least promise not to let this get in the way of our friendship, okay?"
Sakura hung her head for a moment, anxiously biting her lip. Then she finally nodded. "Okay..."
"Ne, ero-sennin! You haven't trained me at all!" Naruto complained, just as Jiraiya was about to leave on another one of his 'research' excursions. "This is just like last time! You demonstrate the technique to me, but you don't teach me anything. I always have to figure everything out myself!"
"Tche, isn't that what a great ninja is supposed to do? Figure everything out by himself?" Jiraiya scoffed and immediately marched straight into town.
"Grrr, I don't think I can handle this for another two years," Naruto grumbled, remembering what their time schedule for the next couple years on their training journey looked like.
Suddenly an idea hit him. "Hehe, if that's the case... I'll do a little bit of my own research," he grinned as he reached into one of Jiraiya's travel packs and pulled out a copy of the bestselling Icha Icha Paradise. "I'll beat him at his own game... in two years, I'll become a better ninja than him AND I'll outsell his books with my own!"
With an evil cackle that would make even Orochimaru proud, Naruto began his research on art of writing by analyzing the only reference and example he had available to him: Icha Icha Paradise.
That night, Sakura sat on her bed, using the wall to support her back, and stared hard at the cover of Icha Icha Panic. The harder she stared at it, the more she couldn't believe that Ino had realized that it was Naruto before she had. She was the one that was supposed to be close friends with Naruto, not Ino.
She was still reeling from Ino's declaration from earlier that day. It was just so bizarre to think that any girl would actively pursue Naruto. Her entire life, Naruto had been completely devoted to only Haruno Sakura and no other girl besides Hinata, who would never make a move anyway, had ever expressed any interest in him. Had she begun to take him for granted? Had she begun to assume that he would be devoted to her and only her forever? It was so easy to fall into the selfish mindset that Naruto was her backup if she ever happened to fail to find any other suitable boyfriend or husband because she knew that he would always be there. She knew that was incredibly selfish and wasn't fair at all to Naruto, but it was just so easy to fall into that way of thinking. Since when did the boy that was always there for you become the backup? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Since when had she fallen into that self-centered way of thinking?
Then she reached over for the book she had been so entranced with for the past few days, unable to believe that Naruto was the author of it. 'When did you grow up so much? Without me noticing...'
Naruto's book, Doki Doki Fantasy, was a simple tale about a girl taking a journey by train, but the sheer emotion that Naruto's words were able to convey created a terrifying loneliness within the reader's heart. The novel took place in an imaginary setting where the world was made up of tracks, stations, and one very long train. The world was literally just one train with one million passenger cars, one each for the world's one million people. And thus time began as the train departed from the first train station, and everyone began their lives all alone in their own little passenger car.
But people feared loneliness. As the train stopped at subsequent stations, people left their own passenger car and made friends with people in other cars. As time passed, the train passed through station after station, and more and more passenger cars became empty as the people began to gather in larger numbers in fewer cars.
Except one girl. The main character, Asuka, was terribly shy and was all alone in the passenger car that she had started out in. Each time she timidly reached out for another's friendship, they would make fun of her for her strange eyes; her left eye was pitch black, while the other was a lively azure blue.
Part I of the book concentrated mostly on Asuka's character, her experiences, and her thoughts. It was an abstract metaphysical philosophy on loneliness, friendship, and love. It almost seemed like an epic poem rather than a novel, a frighteningly lonely poem. It was as if she were experiencing her lonely childhood all over again except with the somber pain magnified over a hundredfold.
Sakura had cried much through Part I of the book, and was exorbitantly happy for Asuka when, as she began reading Part II, the novel transitioned into a more traditional storytelling format as Asuka meets her first friend. Asuka's first friend, if one could even call him that, was a dark and cocky pretty boy named Rei. Rei had been badly injured and had accidentally stumbled across Asuka's nearly deserted passenger car in order to recuperate. Asuka happily welcomed the company as she treated the cold and distant boy's injuries.
Part II of the book dealt mostly with Asuka's slowly blossoming love for the boy and their interactions over the weeks that it took for him to fully recuperate. It was a bittersweet love story about a shy girl trying to win the affections of an indifferent boy. However, just as Asuka seemed to be making progress, just as Rei had begun to open his heart to her, his wounds had healed and he was ready to move on and continue his mission.
It turned out that Rei had received those injuries when he had gotten into a fight with some thugs, who had stolen something precious from him and tossed it out the train window. So, despite Asuka's pleas, Rei got off at the next station out into the unknown in search for his precious item.
Then Sakura's hands grew weak and her grip on the book loosened until it fell onto her lap as she realized what it was that Naruto had done. 'Asuka is me and... Rei is... Sasuke-kun...'
The book, as it had fallen from her hands, had flipped open to the front where the dedication page was. Sakura's eyes widened in shock as a wave of emotion overwhelmed her when she read what was written on that page.
'This book is dedicated to Uchiha Sasuke. I hope that he, wherever he is, reads this book and decides to come back home. We're all waiting for you, Sasuke, you bastard.'
"Naruto..." She tried to catch her tears before they fell, but the page was already starting to get soaked.
Once she had gathered herself, she forged on as one realization had hit her. Asuka was supposed to represent her and Rei was supposed to represent Sasuke, but... where was Naruto in all this? She needed to find out, so she continued to read onto Part III of the novel.
Part III began with the aftermath of Rei's abandonment of Asuka. Once Rei had left the train, Asuka had desperately wanted to follow him, not wanting to lose her only friend in the world to the darkness of the outside world, but she was scared. That train was literally her entire world. Everyone on that train was tremendously afraid to get left behind on any of the stations that the train stopped at. No one knew what the outside world was like. Looking out the train windows was only pitch black.
So instead, she set off on a journey to the front of the train, to the conductor. Surely the conductor could help her; perhaps he could turn the train around for her in search of Rei. To the inhabitants on the trains, the conductor that they've never seen or heard before, the conductor that had complete and total power over the direction that their lives took, the conductor was God. But she didn't know how far away from the front of the train she was. She could still have nine hundred thousand more passenger cars to pass through or, on the other hand, she could only have nine more to go through; she had no way of knowing, but she knew that she had no other options. She had to go find the conductor in order to find Rei.
Part III of the book detailed her adventures on her long journey through the train, meeting different people, learning new things, and gaining strength from each experience. Then she finally made it. But she was surprised to find that the conductor, named Shinji, was a boy her age with a cheerful yet heartbreakingly poignant smile. He was just like her... throughout the entire course of the train's journey he had been all alone, his only company being the profound burden of leading one million ungrateful people that he didn't even know through the darkness of the world. Asuka was the only other person he had ever seen, and he fell in love with her instantly.
But instead of confessing his feelings for her... he said, with that cheerful yet poignant smile of his, "I'll find him for you... that's a promise of a lifetime."
With those words, Sakura could feel her already emotionally-battered heart shatter into irreparable little pieces.
"Evening, Naruto, have you completed the task that I gave you this morning?" Jiraiya asked as he finally returned from his latest research trip. He still had that goofy perverted grin on his face.
"Yeah," Naruto muttered nonchalantly, not even looking up from his book as he formed a one-handed Rasengan.
"Oh ho, I see that you've finally realized the awesomeness that is Icha Icha Paradise!" Jiraiya hooted, not sure whether he was more proud that Naruto had finally been able to pull off a one-handed Rasengan or that he was finally reading the bestselling novel.
Naruto actually hadn't had much trouble creating the one-handed Rasengan, considering that he had done it once before already during his battle with Sasuke at the waterfall. That had given him plenty of time to resume with reading his research material. "Yeah, yeah, whatever."
"So how far are you in the book?" Jiraiya questioned enthusiastically.
"The part where Risa finally realizes that she loves Makoto," Naruto replied. The book so far, surprisingly, didn't contain any dirty scenes at all as he might have expected, considering the type of research that Jiraiya conducts. It was really just a romance novel, a well-written one to boot.
"Ahah! You're getting to the juicy part!"
Naruto sighed. Okay, so maybe he was wrong about the book not containing anything dirty; he just hadn't gotten there yet. "The book would be just fine without any juicy parts," he rolled his eyes. "Open-sukebe (open pervert)."
"A kid like you wouldn't understand the beauty of such a love scene!" Jiraiya retorted.
"I'll be the judge of that," Naruto shot back.
Jiraiya just huffed.
"Ne, ero-sennin, let me write the next installment in the Icha Icha series," Naruto said suddenly.
"WHAT? No way! I'm not going to let a kid like you taint my prized book series!" Jiraiya steamed.
"Hey! I bet I could write better than you!" Naruto jumped to his feet, his fist clenched in determination.
"Do you even know who you're talking to? I'm the number one bestselling author in all of Fire Country!" Jiraiya exclaimed.
"Well, I'm the future number one ninja in all of the world!" Naruto argued. "The Hokage must have many skills other than just ninjutsu, right? So let me write the stupid book!"
Jiraiya sighed in exasperation, rubbing his temples as the effects of all the sake that he had consumed that day was starting to kick in. "Fine, but you have to prove to me that you can write first. Then maybe I'll allow you to write an Icha Icha Side Story or something, nothing canon though."
"All right! You'll see, ero-sennin! I'll be the greatest ninja AND the greatest author!"
The next day, on her way back from work at the hospital, Sakura decided to stop by Naruto's place, since she hadn't seen him in a while. In fact, it had probably been nearly a month since she had last seen him. They were both just too busy with their respective positions, hers at the hospital and him with missions. Once she got to his apartment, she knocked on his door and heard footsteps coming to let her in.
"Oh, Sakura-chan? What brings you here?" Naruto asked in surprise as he opened the door.
Sakura blinked, unable to keep from staring as a bit of drool threatened to escape her lips. Naruto was wearing his glasses. She had never felt the urge to just pounce on a boy and tear off all of his clothes so strongly before, not even for Sasuke back when they had still been on Team Seven together.
"Oh... these," Naruto frowned as he wrinkled his nose in annoyance as he adjusted his glasses. "C'mon in."
She had always known that Naruto had grown as a ninja, and what a fine ninja he had become, but it hadn't been till now that she had realized that he had grown as a person too. He wasn't thirteen years old anymore. He wasn't the ugly duckling that everyone made fun of anymore.
Then she noticed something else, something that stood out even more than his glasses. It was a heavy iron handcuff on his right wrist. The strange thing, however, was that the chain wasn't attached to anything in particular; it just hung loosely from the handcuff. "What's that?"
"Oh, this?" Naruto paused for a moment before letting out a sheepish laugh. "Funny thing... on my last mission, after I arrested the guy we were after, I lost the key, so I ended up having to cut the chain once we got back to Konoha."
Sakura sighed and shook her head. "Seems like something you'd do."
"Hey, it was an honest mistake," Naruto insisted.
"Anyway, since when did you start wearing glasses?" she finally asked as he poured her a cup of tea.
"Hmm... sometime during the two and a half year training trip with Ero-Sennin," he chuckled, already knowing that Sakura had found out about his book. "I used to only wear them when I read or write, but recently my eyesight has been getting worse."
"Oh..." was all Sakura could manage.
"So... how'd you like it?" he asked with a sheepish smile.
"I..." Sakura hung her head. "I haven't finished yet..."
"Ah... I see," Naruto nodded in understanding. The book had only been released a few days ago after all. "I'm actually already starting on my next novel... Ino's helping me out with it."
"Ino?" For some reason, Sakura nearly jumped out of her seat in panic and jealousy at the mention of that name. "Sh-she's helping you?"
"Well... she doesn't know that she's helping me," he chuckled as he nodded over to the pot of asters that sat at the center of the dining table. "The theme of my last book was trains... the next book will have a flower motif, so I asked her to teach me about flowers. Like Ero-Sennin, I do my research, you know."
"Oh... I see..." she laughed softly. That was why Ino had been spending so much time with Naruto.
"Sorry for using you as the main character," he apologized, letting out a sigh as he set a plate of daifuku mochi in front of her with her tea. He knew how much she liked sweets. "I figured... maybe Sasuke might come home on his own after reading my book..."
Sakura merely shook her head and popped a mochi into her mouth, savoring its flavor and texture. She stared hard at her distorted reflection in her cup of iced barley tea as an excuse not to meet his gaze. Sasuke was still a tender subject.
"You know, I think Ino likes you," she suddenly blurted out, wanting to change the subject.
"Are you crazy? I'm not pretty enough to attract her attention," he laughed jokingly.
Sakura raised an eyebrow and tossed a copy of Icha Icha Panic that was just lying around straight at his forehead. "It's because she saw you like this that she's interested," she pouted. She didn't know why she was getting so angry all of a sudden; she just was. She never needed a reason when Naruto was involved. It was always impossible to suppress any of her emotions around him.
"Ow..." Naruto winced as he rubbed the sore spot on his forehead where the book had hit him.
"Why don't you dress like that more often?" she asked with a scowl. "You'd attract way more girls that way, like Ino."
"Sakura-chan... are you mad about something?" Naruto asked, confused.
"I am not mad!" she huffed, crossing her arms across her chest in contempt.
Naruto sighed and glanced down at the cover of Jiraiya's latest book. "Are you mad... because I'm spending my time writing books instead of training and getting stronger in order to get Sasuke back? I haven't forgotten my promise... I'll get him back for you."
Sakura was shocked and rendered completely and utterly speechless as three years worth of guilt, shame, loneliness, and pain crashed down on her already battered heart. So she did the only thing she could think of. "IDIOT!"
"You idiot!" Jiraiya scolded disapprovingly, reading the fruit of the two weeks of writing that Naruto had been working on. "This is no good! No good at all!"
"WHAT? Why?" Naruto whined. "It's a great short story!"
"It's too immature! It's worse than the worst Icha Icha Paradise fanfiction that I've ever read!" Jiraiya shouted, verbally ripping up Naruto's hard work. "See here? The main character has no flaws! So what if he's a great ninja, the greatest ninja? That doesn't make him a superhuman God with no flaws! This story sounds like some kind of raving anime fanboy wrote it!"
"Hmph," Naruto crossed his arms over his chest.
"Read Icha Icha Paradise again and focus on the main characters. For example, Makoto on the surface sounds like Mister Perfect, always optimistic and humorous, but if you delve deeper you can see how lonely, selfish, and cold he is even towards his friends," Jiraiya lectured. "These characters are human, Naruto. You have to keep that in mind."
Naruto couldn't argue with that. When he had first started reading Icha Icha Paradise, he had liked the main character, Makoto, a lot, but gradually more and more of his personality had been uncovered as the book progressed, and he found himself getting more and more annoyed with him. Makoto did in fact redeem himself fully by the end of the story though.
"You gotta write with your heart! Underneath the underneath!" Jiraiya added, putting his hand over his heart. "You gotta pour your emotions out into your characters to give them life!"
"Underneath the underneath?" Naruto remembered that Kakashi had once said something like that too. 'Is ninjutsu and writing that similar?'
"Try writing another short story," Jiraiya sighed.
"My next story is going to blow your mind! You'll see!" Naruto promised fiercely.
"Shikamaru, what a surprise," Ino raised an eyebrow as her pineapple-haired teammate walked into the flower store.
"You know, Naruto's the guy you've been lovesick for," Shikamaru deadpanned as he placed his copy of Naruto's book on the counter. Shikamaru, being the genius that he is, didn't take too long to put two and two together and realize who Namikaze Tsukasa really was.
"I know," Ino nodded cheerfully with a shrug.
"You... what?" Shikamaru backpedaled a few steps in surprise. Then he finally noticed her new hairstyle and was sent reeling backwards a few more steps until he tripped over a potted tree and went sprawling.
"You like?" Ino asked, happily gauging Shikamaru's reaction to her image change. "Naruto hasn't seen it yet, but I'm sure it'll knock him off his feet!"
"It sure knocked me off my feet," Shikamaru grumbled as he dusted himself off. "But you finished his book, right? Considering the ending... you really don't have a chance..."
"I know," Ino replied with a small smile, once again startling Shikamaru for the fourth time in less than four minutes. "I know he loves Sakura... but... in the off-chance that she doesn't love him back... I'll be there for him."
Shikamaru sighed as he reached into his pocket for his lighter but then stopped when he realized where he was at the moment. "I need a smoke," he shook his head and turned around to leave. "And... oh yeah, by the way... Naruto and I are leaving first thing tomorrow morning on a mission to Suna for a couple days."
"Now this is Icha Icha material!" Jiraiya grinned proudly over Naruto's second attempt at fiction writing. "It rivals Icha Icha Violence in the angst department, Icha Icha Tactics in wit, and Icha Icha Paradise in passion!"
"What the hell are Icha Icha Tactics and Violence?" Naruto hadn't heard of those before.
"They are still work-in-progress, unreleased," Jiraiya explained before returning the subject of the conversation to Naruto's work. "However, there are still too many fatal flaws in your story!"
"WHAT? STILL?" Naruto's jaw dropped.
"You have the grammar of a ten-year-old!" Jiraiya pointed an accusing finger at him. "The plot outline is wonderful, you have a creative mind there in your head, but your horrid grammar ruins the story and prevents the audience from basking in the enjoyment of reading!"
"Can't you just edit it for me then?" Naruto whined.
"No! That brings me to the other flaw! Your writing has no style! An editor may be able to fix your grammar, but he can't add flair! Your plot is great, but that's it, everything else is horrid!" Jiraiya lectured. "You still have a long way to go before you become a great writer!"
Naruto's jaw dropped. He had spent forever working on the plot, all the while reminding himself that it had to be 'mature.' He had actually scrapped about fifty plot ideas before he was satisfied with the level of maturity the story had achieved. He had even cried a little at the hardships that he was putting his main character through. It was a love story, an angst-ridden love story that could only have been written by a boy who had been rejected and hated by others all his life. The plot was great, yet that STILL wasn't enough? "WHY?" was all he managed to sputter, still shocked that his masterpiece was being ripped through so much criticism.
Jiraiya sighed and motioned for Naruto to come in close and listen. "Here, kid, I'll give you another piece of advice. It's not enough that you tell your story, you gotta TELL your story, get it?"
Naruto's face blanked. "That is the worst piece of advice that I've ever heard."
"Look here," Jiraiya grabbed a nearby twig and drew a circle in the dirt. "That's your story, all one hundred percent of it. That one hundred percent is all in your head. It's all great and dandy, but once you get it down on paper, maybe only fifty to seventy-five percent of the original story actually makes it down there. And when the reader reads the story, they'll probably only get about fifty percent of even that. Get it?"
Naruto kind of understood. Like when he read the textbooks at the academy, he actually had read the entire thing, but probably only five percent of it had actually imprinted into his brain.
"This is because you as a writer... when you read your own story, that story is already all in your head, so as you read, you unconsciously fill in all the gaps, all the plot holes, but your reader doesn't have that convenience, does she?" Jiraiya explained. "To make up for that, you gotta put that missing percentage of the story that the reader doesn't get the first time through by using stylistic writing that subtly impacts their emotions!"
"Gee, you're better at teaching creative writing than ninjutsu," Naruto sneered.
"Shut up," Jiraiya snapped. "This time, stick with the same plot outline, but revise the grammar and writing style."
"Fine," Naruto grumbled, snatching his scroll back. He went back to his corner of the hotel room and started rereading his own work. Soon, he was drawn more and more into his work that he hadn't noticed Jiraiya fall asleep and start snoring.
This process continued over the course of the next two years. Naruto would write whenever he wasn't training, and Jiraiya would proceed to verbally rip his latest draft to pieces, though Naruto never gave up and the criticisms lessened with each draft.
The next morning, before she started her shift at the hospital, Sakura went out in search for Naruto to apologize for her outburst the day before. But she couldn't find him anywhere. He wasn't even at his house or Ichiraku's.
"Tsunade-sama, did Naruto go out on a mission today?" Sakura asked worriedly as she arrived at the hospital for work.
"Yeah, he'll be out for a few days," Tsunade replied absently as she flipped through some hospital patient records. "Don't worry though. It's just a simple escort mission to the Sand village."
"Escort mission? To the Sand village?" Sakura frowned. "Isn't that a... C-rank mission? There's no way Naruto would accept something like that without a fight."
Tsunade blinked and looked up from the records that she had been looking at. "Well... I guess he wanted to see the Kazekage," she pointed out.
"Oh... that makes sense, but..." Sakura frowned, still a bit unsure.
Tsunade smiled a little as she put a comforting hand on Sakura's shoulder. "He's not a kid anymore. He can take care of himself," she reminded.
"Yeah, you're right," Sakura nodded with a sigh. "I guess I'll go start my rounds for today then."
Tsunade then snickered as she watched Sakura go about her duties. 'Still naïve as ever...'
"Mind if I bum a smoke off you?" Naruto asked with a grin as he sat down next to Shikamaru. Their caravan had stopped and set up camp for the night and Shikamaru was enjoying an after-dinner smoke as he stared up at the clouds rolling across the bright full moon.
"Since when did you smoke?" Shikamaru frowned as he offered him a cigarette and a light. Just the glasses were unnerving enough, but now smoking?
"Ah, don't get the wrong idea or anything," Naruto laughed. He balanced the cigarette in between his lips and inhaled slightly as he lit the other end. "I'm not a regular smoker or anything... just once in a while."
"Hmm?" Shikamaru was too lazy to even form the words.
Naruto took a drag of the cigarette, and once he let the smoke sit in his lungs for a little bit, he tilted his head up and created another dark cloud for Shikamaru to stare at. But he didn't say anything more, which annoyed Shikamaru slightly. Naruto never talked when you wanted him to, only when you didn't want him to.
Finally curiosity got the better of him. "So why'd you pick it up? You're not stressed out right now, are you?" Shikamaru asked with that same sleepy expression on his face.
Naruto laughed a little. "Nah, I don't smoke when I'm stressed out."
"Yeah... you seemed pretty energetic today... even for you," Shikamaru muttered. "Then you smoke when you're in a good mood? Then you'd be smoking all the time, wouldn't you?"
Naruto had to laugh at that too. "Nah, nothing like that." There was a small pause after that as both of them just stared up at the clouds that were partially covering the moon. "Asuma-sensei smoked too, didn't he?"
"Yeah... Ino always used to complain about second-hand smoke," Shikamaru chuckled as he finished off one cigarette and lit up another one. "She may come off as a party girl, but she's totally clean. She really hates that stuff... alcohol, cigarettes, drugs..."
"Was she mad?" Naruto asked absently, still staring up at the moon. "When you started smoking?"
"No... she wasn't actually," Shikamaru sighed as he looked down at the smoldering tip slowly eat away at the wrapping. "When Asuma-sensei passed away, Ino stuck with me for a while. When I smoked, the smell reminded her of him, so she never said anything, never nagged at me to quit like she did with Asuma-sensei. Even now, when she really misses him, she asks me to light one for her."
Naruto just nodded as he listened, conserving his cigarette by taking an occasional drag every now and then.
"You know... after the Sound Invasion... you know, when the shit pretty much hit the fan, Ino grew up and matured a lot. I think she felt that she could've done more to defend the village... that if she had been stronger, less people would have died. In the years that you've been gone, she's become a completely unselfish person, always placing the village's and other people's needs before hers. She even went as far as becoming Hokage-sama's second apprentice in order to learn medical ninjutsu. That time, when she asked me to smoke so that she could reminisce about Asuma-sensei... that was the first time in three years that she showed me her selfish side..."
Naruto just smiled.
"And I think... that's when I finally understood what my dad meant when he said that mom was selfish, but he loved her anyway... it was weird when Ino wasn't acting selfish anymore. It was like... she was hiding her hardships from us... hiding a part of her from us... like she wouldn't let us in... she was more distant that way."
"And when she asked you to smoke... with that one selfish request... she finally let you in," Naruto, still staring up at the moon, blew out another cloud of smoke and finally finished off his cigarette. "It's a lonely feeling... when friends become overly polite and unselfish..."
"Yeah... she thought she was being unselfish by hiding her hardships from us, so that she wouldn't burden us with her problems... but, really, it only distanced her from us..." Shikamaru nodded idly, offering another cigarette, which Naruto just shook his head at.
"You like her?" Naruto then asked with that childish and immature grin on his face.
Shikamaru couldn't help but laugh at that. "I don't know... maybe I do."
"Yeah, you do," Naruto concluded as he grabbed Shikamaru into a playful headlock. "You should cut back for her sake," he grinned and grabbed the cigarette that Shikamaru had between his lips and started smoking it himself. "You'll just make her miss him more if you keep smoking..."
"So what about you?" Shikamaru asked.
Naruto paused for a moment and went back to staring up at the moon, as if deep in thought. Finally, he got up and dusted himself off before finishing off the rest of the cigarette and crushing it under his sandals. "Guys always seem to open up more when sharing a smoke, huh?"
Shikamaru then sighed and then let out a small chuckle, realizing that he had dumped a pretty long and personal story on Naruto without even realizing it. "Is that why you smoke?"
Naruto just smiled and then stretched out his arms with a sleepy yawn. "I'm sleepy, I'll see you in the morning."
"You're going to make Sakura sad if you don't let her in," Shikamaru warned in a lazy voice.
"I don't hide my problems from Sakura-chan... I'm too selfish to do something like that," Naruto replied without turning around and just waved back before heading back to his sleeping bag.
Shikamaru sighed and shook his head. "Bull shit..."
That night, Sakura stared hard at Naruto's book, deciding whether to continue or not. It had been a while since she last left off. She had been avoiding the book because she had been so scared of how it would end. She knew that Naruto was still completely dedicated to bringing Sasuke back, but for what reason, she wasn't so sure anymore. Was he still doing it both for himself and her? Or had he already moved on and was doing it for her sake only? Either way... she knew that Doki Doki Fantasy probably wouldn't have a very pretty ending in store for Shinji.
She sighed and flipped to the beginning of Part IV of the book. Shinji, the conductor of the train, had stopped the train indefinitely at the next station and, along with Asuka, waited for another train that was headed in the opposite direction. It turned out that Asuka's train wasn't the only train in the world, but there were others as well.
Then, finally, another train pulled into the station on the opposite platform heading in the opposite direction. The conductor for the other train was a kind-looking old man, someone that definitely looked the role of a conductor. Shinji made a deal with the other conductor to swap trains, and after deliberating for a little while, the old man agreed, thankful for a chance to correct mistakes that he had made in the past.
As Shinji and Asuka boarded the other train, Asuka had a bad feeling that she just couldn't place but shrugged it off as she was too excited about seeing Rei again. It was clear to the reader that Asuka's excitement pained Shinji, but Asuka was blind to it.
Along the way, the found signs at each station that Rei had been there, and Asuka's anxiousness grew. Naruto's emotional and expressive writing forced the reader to experience the excruciating wait and longing for a loved one along with Asuka... but also the pain of eventually losing one with Shinji. It was with this part of the story that the book returned to its poetic form and roots from way back in the first part of the book when Asuka had been all alone. But, while Asuka was blind to it, Shinji was physically growing weaker and weaker with each passing station.
Then Sakura realized it, and it hurt enough to wrench more tears from her heart and eyes. While their original train still had many years left on its journey, this train that they were on currently had already nearly completed the journey. That's why the other conductor had been so old, while Shinji was so young. The train that they were on now was already on its way to take its passengers to their final resting place. Shinji, from the very beginning, had already committed to making the ultimate sacrifice for Asuka.
When Asuka and Shinji had finally reached the first... and the last... station, there was Rei, waiting at the platform. He had already backtracked to the very first station and he still hadn't found the precious item that he had been searching for and was now wallowing in despair.
With a sad smile, Shinji urged Asuka to go to him, saying that she was the precious item that he had been searching for all along. Asuka insisted that Shinji come with them, but Shinji shook his head, saying that he had a duty as a conductor to finish the train's journey. Asuka then argued that she and Rei could finish the train's journey with him, but again Shinji shook his head, telling her to get on the next train that was heading in the opposite direction. With that, Asuka and Shinji made their farewells, while Asuka and Rei had their tearful reunion.
The last chapter of the book dealt with Shinji's thoughts and feelings as he guided the beaten old train towards its inevitable death. It wasn't some grave and depressing piece about death and despair but, rather, a piece reflecting on life, love, and hope, leaving the reader with the sense that Shinji, despite everything, was happy.
And Sakura cried, giggling a little, as the novel came to a close with Shinji's last dying thoughts before closing his eyes for the very last time, 'Maybe I'll treat myself to some ramen tomorrow... yeah, that sounds good...'
Always thinking of a brighter tomorrow... even when tomorrow didn't exist...
"Well... we are in the desert," Shikamaru replied lazily as they strolled through Sunagakure's marketplace. "Why'd you even insist on doing this mission if you knew it was going to be this hot? Gaara isn't even here and there are plenty of better paying missions."
Instead of answering, Naruto merely ignored Shikamaru's questions and continued complaining. "Man... shopping is so depressing." Naruto's string of complaints was seriously never ending.
Shikamaru had to raise an eyebrow at that but decided to let his suspicions go for now. "Why? Because you're too poor to buy anything?" Shikamaru rolled his eyes.
"Your deadpan sarcasm so appreciated," Naruto grumbled as he unzipped his jacket and tossed it over his shoulder, leaving him in his black mesh shirt and his green amulet necklace glinting in the desert sun. This, needless to say, attracted the attention of many of Sunagakure's young ladies. Shikamaru, however, noticed something else. Naruto's right wrist was handcuffed by a thick iron bangle with a rusty chain dangling freely from it, not attached to anything else. It looked like it had been cut.
"What's that?" Shikamaru inquired.
"Oh, this? It's just a fashion accessory," Naruto shrugged. "Makes me look cool, huh?"
Shikamaru merely gave him a disapproving look.
Naruto sighed and held out his right hand. "Kuchiyose: Zanpakutou..." In a poof of smoke appeared a small kodachi, a short sword. It looked ancient, the blade chipped in many places. It didn't even have a crossguard to protect the hand. The hilt was wrapped in tattered white bandages and was attached to the chain that was handcuffed around his wrist. Shikamaru didn't even have to touch it to tell that it was cold. Not an icy cold, but a dead cold.
"A new technique?"
"This way I don't have to waste money buying new equipment all the time," Naruto laughed jokingly as he called off the summon, causing the chain at his wrist to go limp again.
Shikamaru knew that there was more to it than that. Perhaps there was a side effect to the technique that Naruto didn't want to talk about. Or maybe it was an extremely dangerous weapon that he intended to use only on the Akatsuki... or Sasuke. Or perhaps it really was that simple and Naruto just wanted to save some money on equipment. Whatever it was, Shikamaru knew that he wouldn't be able to pry anything out of Naruto for now. He'd be too lazy to do it anyway, despite how strange the situation was getting. Observing from a distance and picking up clues was more his style.
"Ah, here it is... finally," Shikamaru sighed, changing the subject as he found the tobacco shop he had been looking for.
"Hmm? I didn't know that there were so many different kinds of cigarettes," Naruto noted as he looked around the shop as Shikamaru made his purchases.
"Oi, Naruto, let's go. I'm done here," Shikamaru waved at him from the shop entrance with a bag in hand.
"What'd you get?" Naruto asked.
"Here," Shikamaru dug into his pocket as they continued to stroll through the marketplace and tossed something over to Naruto. "Keep it."
"Huh?" Naruto just barely managed to catch it and then glanced at it curiously. "A lighter?" It was one of those metal flip-top types, the ones the cool characters always use in the movies. It was all beat up, scratched, and dented... as if it had followed Asuma and then Shikamaru through all of their weary battles. "What for?"
"I thought about what you said last night... and I decided to quit smoking... for Ino's sake," Shikamaru shrugged.
"Then what the heck did you buy at the smoke shop back there?" Naruto asked quizzically.
Shikamaru reached into the bag he was holding and produced another lighter. This one, however, was much fancier and more girlish. It was a sleek matte shade of lavender and had hearts engraved on each side. "I'm giving this one to Ino... I'll only smoke if she lights it for me... only when she really misses Asuma-sensei..."
"Man, that's really clever..." Naruto sighed. "I don't think I could ever think up of something romantic like that."
For the first time in a while, Shikamaru felt somewhat satisfied at his own intelligence. "Well, you never know... Naruto?" He then realized that Naruto wasn't even at his side anymore. "Naruto?" He turned around and saw Naruto staring at one of the displays at a nearby jewelry shop.
It was a beautiful silver lariat necklace. Lariat necklaces weren't very common, but that was what attracted Naruto to it. The lariat part of the necklace was shaped like an open cherry blossom, while the anchor charm was a long and thin green stone, much like the one Naruto wore. And Shikamaru could immediately see the significance of it. Without the cherry blossom lariat, the green stone would fall... and without the green stone, the cherry blossom lariat would have nothing to anchor it down and would slip. Sakura needed Naruto... and Naruto needed Sakura.
It was now that Shikamaru had deduced Naruto's reasoning as to why he would accept such a lowly C-rank mission to Wind Country. Sakura's birthday was coming up and Suna had a famous reputation for jewelry craftsmanship. It was for that same reason Shikamaru had come all this way just to buy Ino a lighter. "How much is this necklace?" Shikamaru asked.
"Forty-six thousand ryou," the shopkeeper replied with a smile.
"I'll take it," Naruto grinned.
"Wait... WHAT?" Sakura couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"Tsunade-sama and Kazekage-sama are meeting in River Country in order to extend the alliance treaty between the two villages," Shizune repeated. "I thought Tsunade-sama told you already that she was going to be gone for a few days. Even Naruto-kun knew."
"So Kazekage-sama isn't even in Suna?" Sakura sighed. "Naruto must be so disappointed... taking on a C-rank mission to Suna and not even being able to see Gaara... wait... NARUTO KNEW? Then why did he take on that mission? He hates going on anything lower than an A-rank! I thought he was just using the mission as an excuse to go see Kazekage-sama!"
Shizune shrugged. "Maybe he wanted to spend time with Nara. He is Konoha's liason to Suna, so he's out of town a lot and Naruto-kun doesn't get to see him much."
"Well... that's true..."
"And there's the Hyuuga heiress also..."
"Hinata? What about her?"
"She's at Suna right now as well... though on a separate mission. Naruto-kun probably knew about that too," Shizune noted in a teasing voice. She didn't tease others too often, but with Tsunade gone for a couple days, she figured she'd take the opportunity to loosen up a bit and have some fun. "You know how guys can't resist big-breasted shy girls. And with Ino hot on Naruto's tail, Hinata will probably feel pressured to finally make a move too."
"He WHAT?" Sakura exploded. "I'm going to KILL him! AND HINATA TOO!"
"Hey, Shikamaru, I won't be making the return trip back to Konoha with you," Naruto said, adjusting his glasses as he flipped through the mission report. "I have some other stuff to take care of."
"Like what?" Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. "Did the clients even authorize this? Heck, did Hokage-sama even authorize this?"
"Well, if you weren't so lazy and actually read the mission report," Naruto rolled his eyes, tossing the packet of papers over. "Well, I guess this is where we part ways, yeah?"
Shikamaru quickly scanned through the mission report, but found nothing at all authorizing Naruto to leave in the middle of the mission. Then it hit him. Naruto hadn't accepted this C-rank mission just to get Sakura a birthday present. Naruto had a lead on Sasuke. Then his blood went ice cold as the ending to Doki Doki Fantasy flashed through his mind.
"You've been a great friend, Shikamaru... give that necklace to Sakura-chan on her birthday for me..."
"NARUTO!" Shikamaru bolted up. But Naruto was already gone. All that was left was the necklace that Naruto had bought for Sakura.
"What's up, forehead girl?" Ino asked jokingly as Sakura joined her at the Ichiraku ramen stand.
"Since when did you eat ramen?" Sakura asked quizzically as she took a quick glance at the menu before ordering. "I'll have a small miso ramen."
"Coming right up!" Teuchi chuckled, glad that it seemed that Naruto was finally getting the attention he deserved from the female population of Konoha.
"Hey, I grow these vegetables!" Ino stated with pride, referring to her delicious bowl of vegetarian ramen. "Naruto asked me to tend to his vegetable garden when he's gone."
For a second, Sakura could feel dread creeping up on her, threatening to suffocate her. "Oh, you mean... whenever he's out of town, right?" she asked, just to make sure.
"Yeah, that's what I meant," Ino laughed sheepishly. "I guess the ending for his book is kinda getting to me too."
"You don't think he'd really..." Sakura asked solemnly, hanging her head in guilt and shame. She had honestly thought that she had gotten it through his head that they were supposed to bring Sasuke back together, but now, after reading his book, she didn't know what he was thinking.
"I'd say he would if he had the chance," Ino replied with a sad smile. "But don't worry... he's with Shikamaru... nothing bad can happen."
Sakura nodded hesitantly. Shikamaru did have one of the best track records on file and he did have a cool head to balance Naruto's recklessness. "I guess you're right."
"Here you go... one miso ramen," Teuchi said cheerfully as he placed the bowl in front of Sakura, who nodded in appreciation.
Ino blinked and then put down her chopsticks for a moment. "What for?"
"For taking Naruto away from you," Sakura smirked impishly. "Even you know that you have no chance against me when it comes to Naruto, right?"
"Oh, no, you didn't!" Ino gasped in mock horror as she playfully shoved Sakura aside. "Naruto will definitely fall for my charms! You can have Sasuke-kun as a consolation prize once Naruto brings him back."
The girls shared a much needed laugh, feeling their bond stronger than it had ever been before. It was strange that it had been a boy that had broken them apart, but it was now a boy that brought them closer together.
"So does that mean you've finally decided?" Ino asked with a soft smile.
Sakura nodded shyly, a small blush coloring her cheeks. "Yeah... I want to give him a chance... I don't want things to turn out like it did in his book," she said softy. "Asuka and Rei lived together happily ever after... never even realizing that Shinji had paid the price for their happiness with his life... I don't want that... that's too sad..."
"That's great, Sakura," Ino grinned as she put a warm arm around her pink-haired friend's shoulders. "You and Naruto would make a cute couple."
"Believe it!" Sakura giggled, stealing Naruto's trademark punch line.
"Uzumaki Naruto... show yourself..."
Naruto allowed himself the pleasure of a small smirk as he slowly jumped down to the ground from the shelter of the trees. "Uchiha Itachi... finally found you."
"And here I thought that it was I that was seeking you," Itachi remarked stoically, surprised that the brash Kyuubi vessel had already willingly locked eyes with his sharingan.
"Nope, I'm the one hunting you now," Naruto grinned as he took off his glasses and placed them safely in their case in one of the pockets of his traveler's cloak. "If I bring you back to Konoha... and beat you up a little so it's easy for Sasuke to kill you... I'm sure Sasuke will come running..."
"Your confidence in your own abilities is quite astounding," Itachi stated. "Especially for someone who keeps getting trapped in my illusions."
Naruto smirked. "That won't work anymore... no illusion can fool the eyes of the shinigami... kuchiyose: zanpakutou!" Naruto held out his right hand and summoned the mysterious ancient kodachi that was chained to his wrist. "This is the knife of the shinigami... the same knife that sealed away Orochimaru's arms. With this knife... I'll take from you those eyes that you prize so much..."
"Sakura, stop fidgeting!"
"I can't help it!" Sakura whined as they waited impatiently at the Konoha west gate for the caravan that was supposed to be returning from Suna that day.
"There they come!" Ino gasped, tiptoeing so that she could see further out.
"You're so easy to tease," Ino snickered.
Sakura pouted and crossed her arms over her chest. "You're mean!"
"Sakura, look! It's really them!" Ino said excitedly.
"I'm not falling for it," Sakura pouted.
"Damn it, LOOK!" Ino grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her in the direction of the main road. And, indeed, in the distance there was a small caravan slowly making its way back to Konoha. "Hey! Shikamaru! Welcome back!" Ino shouted excitedly as she waved vigorously at her pineapple-haired teammate that was visibly at the head of the caravan.
"Naruto? Where's Naruto?" Sakura asked.
Shikamaru let out a long sigh, not really sure how to break the news. He had done everything he could to try to track Naruto down, but he had disappeared without a trace. Not even Temari or Kankurou had known anything about any recent sightings of Naruto or Sasuke or the Akatsuki near Suna.
"Naruto... where is he?" Sakura's voice dying with each passing second.
"Shikamaru?" Ino asked quietly, suddenly getting a bad feeling.
All Shikamaru could do was shake his head and shrug his shoulders, causing Sakura to collapse to her knees as her legs grew weak. All kinds of possibilities raced through her mind, but all of them pointed towards Sasuke, all of them pointed towards Naruto's willingness to sacrifice himself.
"No... Naruto... why?" Sakura sobbed, clenching her heart as every pulse become more and more difficult.
She bolted up, eyes wide with desperation, and there he was, his head tilted slightly to the side in concern and confusion. "NARUTO!" she cried as she launched herself at him, crying into his chest and wrapping her arms tightly around him so that he could never leave her again. "YOU IDIOT!"
"And here I thought it was Sasuke's job to make you cry, not mine," Naruto said softly as he gently enveloped her in his strong arms, dropping everything that he had previously been carrying.
"Do you know how much I've been crying lately because of you? Idiot!" she sobbed, her voice completely muffled by his cloak.
"Sorry..." he murmured with a soft smile. "But, Sakura, look... look who I brought back."
Sakura shook her head as she stubbornly kept herself buried in his embrace and her face in his chest. "I don't care."
"But, Sakura-chan..." Naruto whined playfully as he pushed her to arms distance and gave her a confident grin. "Look... its Uchiha Itachi."
Sakura hadn't noticed before that Naruto had been literally dragging six members of Akatsuki plus Orochimaru-Kabuto unceremoniously down the road by one long leash, and now there they were at his feet, all dusty and completely beaten up. "But... how?"
Shikamaru raised an eyebrow, realizing that Naruto didn't even have a scratch on him. "You're not even hurt..."
"Hey, I am the most powerful ninja in the world after all," Naruto stated with a cocky grin.
"All right! Way to go, Naruto!" Ino cheered proudly, giving him a friendly hug.
"Hehe, thanks, Ino," Naruto grinned. "And, whoa... you actually changed your hairstyle!"
Ino gave him a sassy smirk as she modeled for him a little. "How do you like it?"
"Totally puts all my perverted ninjutsu to shame," Naruto laughed jokingly.
"Hey!" Ino pouted and gave him a playful shove.
"And now Sasuke-kun will come back on his own... now that Itachi is here," Sakura smiled widely, realizing what it was that Naruto had planned.
Shikamaru frowned. "But... will Sasuke really be satisfied? Killing Itachi when he's in this state." Itachi was now blindfolded to hide his hollow and lifeless eyes and his arms and legs also seemed to be crippled.
"Sasuke never really wanted to prove to Itachi that he was stronger... all he wanted was to kill him... revenge, pure and simple," Naruto sighed. "This way, he gets what he wants without much trouble... and here he comes..."
Suddenly a geyser of blood spurted up into the air as Itachi's body collapsed to the ground with a lifeless thud. Then, in a swirl of leaves, Sasuke's stoic form appeared underneath Konoha's gates as a squad of ANBU immediately converged in on him to arrest him. Surprisingly, Sasuke did not resist.
Naruto grinned as he nudged Sakura in the side and nodded his head towards their long lost teammate. "Go on."
Sakura smiled and grabbed his wrist with both hands. "Let's go together."
Naruto then hesitantly shook his head. "I... I still need to report to the old hag."
"That can wait!" Sakura insisted cheerfully. Then, suddenly, she realized that something here just wasn't right, and her smile fell. "Naruto... what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," he shook his head, giving her a cheerful grin. "I just need some time before facing him I guess..."
Sakura frowned as she circled her arms around his neck so that he couldn't look away. "Don't lie to me, Naruto... what's wrong?"
"Naruto won't be alive for much longer."
Ino and Sakura both gasped and spun around to face Shikamaru, who had a grave look on his face. "Sh-Shikamaru... what are you talking about?"
"Naruto, is this true?" Sakura asked, fear clearly gripping her voice. Her arms were still wrapped around him, but now she pulled him closer, feeling his warmth. When Naruto merely looked away, she could feel all the veins in her body ice over. It was his book, Doki Doki Fantasy, all over again.
"The soul harvesting sword of the shinigami," Shikamaru explained softly. Naruto had showed it to him before at the Suna marketplace. He had called it a zanpakutou and Shikamaru had done the research. "Naruto traded half of his lifespan for that sword... and the shinigami's eyes... he probably traded half of what was left for those too in order to track down Itachi and use it as a countermeasure to the sharingan. That's why he started wearing glasses all of a sudden... to filter out the effects of the shinigami's eyes when he didn't need them. So in total..."
"Naruto traded three-quarters of his lifespan..." Ino gasped as tears started blurring her vision.
"He probably only has a few years left at most," Shikamaru nodded.
"Five years to be exact. So yeah, there you have it," Naruto said, trying to sound as cheerful as possible. "Since my work is done here... I guess I'll say goodbye to everyone and be on my way... Sakura-chan?" He sighed, realizing that she wasn't going to let go of him.
"Why?" she asked with teary pleading eyes. "Why did you do this?"
"Did you really think that this would make me happy?" she screamed. "I never wanted you to go after Sasuke-kun if it meant coming back with two chidori holes through your chest! I never wanted you to go after Sasuke-kun if it meant dying like this either!"
"I wanted Sasuke to reach some closure too..." Naruto said softly. "I wanted to end his nightmare as quickly as possible... and it was the only way to acquire power faster than the Akatsuki could acquire it... this way, no one has to die but me... besides... I wanted to finish what my old man started..."
"B-but!" Sakura was now hysterical and couldn't even produce any words. So she settled with just grabbing him again and sobbing into his chest.
"Sakura-chan... when you're hugging me like this, I feel like I've never felt any pain or loneliness ever in my entire life," Naruto laughed softly, trying to sound cheerful as he comfortingly stroked his fingers through Sakura's silky pink hair. "Help that bastard Sasuke, okay? Right now, he's all kinds of messed up... but with this hug... you can heal him with this hug, your love, okay?"
Sakura shook her head. "I only want to hug you," she said stubbornly, her face still buried in his chest. "My love is only for you..."
"You can't mean that, Sakura-chan," Naruto smiled sadly. He was deliriously happy to hear those words from her, but he never wanted it to be like this. "I'm going to die in a few years, remember? Sasuke has plenty of years ahead of him, plenty of years that you can spend with him."
"I'd rather have a few years with you," she sobbed.
"Why are you being like this all of a sudden?" Naruto asked, his cheerful voice finally starting to crack. "You have Sasuke right there. You've been waiting for him your whole life. Be happy, Sakura-chan..."
"Why are YOU being like this all of a sudden?" Sakura shot back. "You always wanted to go out on a date with me... now's your chance... take it... please..."
"You know I can't do that," Naruto shook his head.
"I love you, Naruto! So what's the problem?" she said as fiercely as she could, but all of her tears quickly doused whatever fire she had mustered up. She bit her lip as she rested her forehead against his chest, gripping his cloak tightly in her fists. "I'm sorry... I just... realized it so late... it was your book that made me realize that I love you... it made me realize that you really would go out and do something so incredibly stupid just because you love me... and you actually did it... you actually went out and killed yourself for me... idiot... you're an idiot... you know that?"
"You remind me all the time," he said with a soft laugh.
"I love you, Naruto," she repeated firmly, raising her head so that her eyes met his. "Even if you only have five seconds left, I'd still love you."
"I love you too, Sakura-chan, but..." he trailed off with a bittersweet smile, wiping the tears from her eyes with his rough fingers.
"Stop being so stupid! Five years is plenty of time!" she insisted. "We can make a lot of memories in five years!"
"But what about afterwards?" Naruto asked grimly. "It'll be painful for you... and even knowing that, you'd still want to be with me? Why would you want to suffer like that?"
"Because... just because," Sakura then gave him the happiest smile that he had ever seen grace her lips, and it immediately melted away any fear he had for the future, their future.
Naruto couldn't help but plaster a goofy grin across his face. "Just because? That's it?"
"Hey, it worked didn't it," Sakura pouted as she raised her lips to his to finally steal the first kiss that she had been longing for. His lips were dry and chapped from traveling, but they were her heaven.
"Ino... you gonna be okay?" Shikamaru asked hesitantly, seeing that the she was once again on the brink of tears.
"Shikamaru! I'm so happy for her!" Ino suddenly wailed as she flung her arms around her teammate and let loose a torrent of tears.
Shikamaru sighed, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let's leave the lover birds alone."
"Hey, Mom? What was Dad like?"
Sakura followed her teenaged daughter's gaze up towards the Hokage monument where there were now seven faces. The last two faces, the Sixth and Seventh Hokage, were clearly scowling at each other, making for somewhat of a comical display even though it was supposed to be a sober memorial for the Hokage of the past.
"Well... he was quite annoying," Sakura laughed. "He was loud, overconfident, obnoxious, thickheaded, stubborn, perverted, and temperamental. He was always giving me such a headache... almost to the point that sometimes I forgot why I even married someone like him."
Sakura's daughter, Uzumaki Tsukasa, now thirteen, giggled a little as she tried had to remember what her father was like. "Then why did you marry him?"
Sakura smiled as she wrapped her arms around her daughter from behind. "Because... there was one thing he had over everyone else..."
"One thing?" Tsukasa asked, surprised.
"He was the person that loved me more than anyone else in the entire world... no one could beat that..."
Author's notes: Some disclaimers... shinigami's eyes and the concept of trading one's lifespan goes to Death Note... the name "zanpakutou" for the shinigami's sword is a reference to Bleach... and that last line goes to Lucky Star