A Naruto OneShot
Premise: With Naruto gone on his training journey with Jiraiya, Sakura finds that she's falling deeper and deeper into darkness without his cheerful presence. So she tries to figure out how he was able to see such a beautiful world, when all she saw is an ugly one
- Feb. 26, 2008: First published
- Jan. 28, 2011: Cleaned up formatting
"Naruto? Are you home?" Sakura slowly pushed the door open and peeked inside. "Mou... Naruto... if you're home, then say something," she sighed as she saw him in the dining room."
There he was at the dining table with his back to the apartment entrance. He was hunched over something, and he wasn't wearing his usual orange jacket but just a black t-shirt instead. Was he eating? That could explain why he hadn't heard her knocking. Ramen could do that to the guy.
But she didn't smell it... the ramen.
"Naruto? I'm coming in," she announced as she took off her shoes, but she still got no response from him.
As she neared him, she felt something. It was as if something were troubling him. Then she noticed the pieces of paper in his hands. A letter? "Naruto... what's wrong?" she asked worriedly.
What she did next caused Naruto's eyes to widen in shock. He felt her slender arms slide in around his shoulders and her breasts press down against his hunched back. He turned his head slightly to see who it was, but as he did so, the roughness of his cheek inadvertently caressed the smoothness of hers. And his blue eyes met her green ones, eyes filled with shock met eyes filled with concern. Then her fingers slowly intertwined through his, forcing him to immediately drop what was troubling him. As those papers floated to the table, he felt his heart jump, and his lips widened into the most idiotic grin ever.
Then it was gone as suddenly as it had come. She released him from the surprise hug from behind and picked up the papers that he had previously been mulling over.
She fell silent after she realized what those papers were. It was yet another reminder that they weren't kids anymore... especially Naruto. Naruto was always so cheerful and childish that times like these really made her appreciate how mature he really was. He has much more mature than even she.
"The rent... the water bill... and the electric bill..." she finally murmured. Then she gasped when she saw how much the monthly apartment rent came out to. "A hundred and twenty thosuand ryou a month?" She didn't know much about real estate so she didn't have anything to compare it to, but she did know that a hundred-twenty thousand ryou was a LOT of money.
Naruto then realized what kind of position he was in and put on that fox grin that he was so famous for. "Aw, don't worry about it, Sakura-chan. I have plenty of money saved up to cover it," he laughed.
Naruto blinked. "Sakura-chan?"
"Don't lie to me!" she accused, slamming her fist down onto the table. "And don't you EVER use that fake fox smile on me again! I know you, Naruto..."
Naruto's shoulders immediately slumped as that fake grin of his made way to a more genuine but also a more bittersweet smile. "Really... I'm not lying, Sakura-chan..." he said softly as he took out his checkbook and wrote out checks for the different bills. He did it so efficiently that it impressed her. She didn't even know how to write a check. Writing checks and paying bills were things reserved exclusively for the world of the adults. Children like her weren't allowed into that world. Naruto wasn't a child like she was.
"See?" he said as he sealed and stamped each envelope. "I wouldn't overdraft my bank account. They would charge me even more if I did that and my credit might take a hit too."
She didn't really know what that meant, but she kind of got the idea. And it made him sound so mature. "Really? No lie?"
"Really, I can cover these bills no problem," he assured coolly.
"Then what about next month? And the month after that?" she pressed onwards.
"After missions, I have enough for that too," he replied.
What was this called again? Living day to day? Month to month? Paycheck to paycheck? Barely scraping by? "Naruto... why do you put up with this?" she asked, shoulders sagging. "This rundown apartment can't be worth a hundred-twenty thousand ryou a month."
Naruto couldn't lie to her, so he just sat there in silence. He knew all about the going rate for studio apartments in Konoha; most of them went for around sixty thousand ryou a month, maybe up to a hundred thousand a month for a nice place, so he was being charged double the price. But he couldn't say anything, couldn't complain, he was just glad that he even had a place to live.
And Sakura could read the expression on Naruto's face clearly. "You're being overcharged for this place... aren't you?" she said softly. "Why? That's not fair..."
Naruto got up and leaned back against the table to face her with a small smile. "You know, I always thought of this world as a cruel and ugly place, but every now and then..." he paused for a moment as he studied the face that he had fallen in love with, "every now and then, I'm reminded of how beautiful it can be."
"But still... that's not fair," she insisted, glancing down at the sealed envelopes containing the rent and bill checks.
"It doesn't matter, I'm leaving with ero-sennin tomorrow anyway," he murmured with a shrug.
'Oh yeah...' Sakura's shoulders sagged a bit more at the thought of Naruto leaving on a two-and-a-half-year training journey.
"So what brings you here, Sakura-chan?"
"Just... wanted to say goodbye... I guess..."
It had only been about a week since Naruto had left for his two-and-a-half-year training journey with Jiraiya, but Sakura was already starting to feel a bit lonely without the nonstop chatterbox to keep her company.
She let out a weary sigh as she trudged through the sunset-washed marketplace streets. Her training session under Tsunade had been relatively easy that day, but she still felt completely worn out.
She then noticed, out of the corner of her eye, a beautiful painting that was on display at the local art gallery. Before she knew it, her body had automatically been drawn to the painting, enraptured by its stunning colors. It was a painting of Konoha and the Hokage monument illuminated by the twilight. It wasn't particularly detailed, so it was hard to make out the individual buildings, but it was the artist's use of colors that took her breath away. The artist had splashed together an incredible amalgam of colors that she would have never thought would exist in real life. The sky was awash with subdued greens and pinks and other colors she knew would never really appear in the twilight sky, which gave the painting a surreal feel to it. But, on the other hand, the subject of the painting was something she could relate to, her hometown, which balanced the surreal aspect with a touch of realism.
"The world isn't this beautiful... is it?" she murmured softly, gently running her fingers over the painting, as if to reach inside that beautiful world. Memories of the past few months played through her mind, letting her relive all of the tragedies that she had witnessed, the poverty of Wave Country, the invasion of Konoha, Orochimaru, Sasuke's betrayal, everything. "How can someone paint such a beautiful picture when this world is such an ugly place?"
Then she suddenly remembered Naruto's words from the night before he had left Konoha. 'I always thought of this world as a cruel and ugly place, but every now and then, I'm reminded of how beautiful it can be.'
"Would you like to purchase this painting, Miss?" the shopkeeper asked politely, snapping Sakura out of her internal thoughts.
"Oh... um... I... I don't think I can afford something like this," she stammered quickly, shaking her head.
"You're in luck actually," the shopkeeper said cheerfully, trying her best to make a sale. "This artist is a relative newcomer without any reputation, so her works don't demand such a high price yet. This piece is actually the first one she's put up for sale. How does fifty-five hundred ryou sound?"
Sakura's eyes drifted back to the painting and it only took her a moment to agree to that price. "I'll take it," she said as she took out her wallet and paid the shopkeeper. "And could you notify me if," Sakura paused to read the name of the artist, "Shinohara Akari-sensei releases any more paintings?"
"Yes, but I will have to warn you that Shinohara-sensei is quite a promising up-and-coming artist, so once her paintings garner a better reputation, you'll have to start bidding for the original copies," the shopkeeper replied. "We do sell duplicates for lower prices however."
"Yeah, that's fine, thank you," Sakura nodded and left the store with the painting that she had just bought.
She quickly made her way back home, excited about putting the painting up in her room. "Tadaima (I'm home)!" she announced as she slipped her shoes off at the doorway.
"Why do I even bother?" she chuckled desolately to herself as she made her way through the empty house and up to her room. Konoha was still in desperate need for resources and manpower, so Sakura's parents, like most other chuunin and jounin, were constantly out on missions.
But at least this time she had something to be happy about. She smiled in satisfaction as she held the framed painting out to arm's distance in order to inspect its beauty once more. She just couldn't believe how the painter had captured such a wide open space on a single canvas, she almost felt as if she was being drawn into it.
Then she glanced out her window and then gasped. She was treated to the incredible sight of the cloud's burning bright orange in the twilight sun. "The world really is beautiful..."
'I always thought of this world as a cruel and ugly place, but every now and then, I'm reminded of how beautiful it can be.'
"Oi, Shikamaru! I've been looking everywhere for you!" Ino grumbled as she angrily slammed the door to his room open and stormed inside. But then she suddenly froze when she realized that she was no longer inside; above her was a beautiful azure sky streaked with fluffy white clouds. "Shikamaru..."
"What do you want?" Shikamaru sighed, putting his palette of paints down on top of the ladder he was standing on for a moment.
Ino, however, was still rendered speechless by the magnificent artwork that graced the ceiling of Shikamaru's bedroom. She lay down on his bed for a moment and she could swear that she was no longer inside but was staring up at a real sky instead. She could almost feel a fresh spring breeze caressing her skin. "This... this is incredible..."
"Doesn't compare to the real thing though," Shikamaru shrugged and climbed back up on the ladder to continue painting.
"Is the sky really this beautiful?" Ino asked softly, still completely spirited away by the way the clouds seemed to put her frazzled nerves at ease. "No wonder you're always staring up at the clouds... how could I have missed it?"
"People take it for granted... things that they see every single day," Shikamaru murmured. "People really need to just stop and take a good look around at the world they live in."
So far, about two-thirds of the ceiling was painted, but the unpainted portion of the ceiling had a bunch of pencil marks outlining the clouds and what kind of color should be used. 'Leave it to Shikamaru to be completely systematic about even art,' she giggled inwardly. Ino noticed, however, that the art style seemed to have suddenly changed at one point, about halfway through the ceiling.
"So? What'd you need me for?" he asked.
"Oh yeah!" Ino had wanted to ask why he had suddenly changed his style of art halfway through the painting, but now forgot about it as she remembered why she had needed him in the first place. "Asuma-sensei called a team meeting! Hurry up! Chouji's already eating all the food!"
Sakura had spent the week trying to do some research on the painter Shinohara Akari, but she didn't come up with anything. None of the latest issues of art magazines had any interviews with her either. That made Sakura wonder if the name 'Shinohara Akari' was a fake name.
"Ah, Sakura-chan, good afternoon," the shopkeeper greeted as Sakura entered the art gallery.
"Good afternoon, Sanae-san," Sakura bowed politely. "Has Shinohara-sensei's newest work come in yet?"
"Ah, yes, this is it right here," Sanae said cheerfully as she led Sakura over to one of the gallery's many canvas paintings. "This came in just today."
Sakura giggled as she immediately recognized the setting of the painting. It was the Fire Country side of the Great Naruto Bridge. Unlike the previous painting, however, this one was of a rainy day. Despite the dreary setting though, the artwork still managed to convey a sense of subdued beauty. The hidden sun gave the gray rain clouds an angelic white halo, the seagulls still reached for the heavens, the string of streetlamps lining the bridge gave off a warm golden glow, and a young couple whose faces were hidden by a shared umbrella stood by the shore. And the painter's use of colors that Sakura had fallen in love with was there too. Pinks, greens, and violets were splashed across the natural blue and gray hues of the sky to make the cold rainy day seem just a little warmer.
"I love it! I'll take it!" Sakura grinned.
"This one will be seven thousand ryou. Is that okay?" Sanae asked, ringing up the amount.
"Ouch," Sakura winced. She noticed, however, that it was still far cheaper compared to all of the other canvas paintings for sale. "I'll take it."
"Thank you, and Shinohara-sensei's next painting won't be for a while, perhaps in a month or so," Sanae informed. "Her artwork hasn't garnered enough attention to start a bidding for the originals, but that may change between now and when the next piece arrives."
"Ah, okay, thank you," Sakura nodded. "By the way, I'd like to know more about Shinohara-sensei. Do you know her personally?"
Sanae shook her head. "I actually haven't met her in person, and she probably won't return to Konoha for a very long time. Shinohara Akari probably isn't even her real name either."
"I figured as much. Well, I'll see you in a month or so, Sanae-san," Sakura said before taking her leave. She then sighed at how much thinner her wallet felt in her back pocket. 'I hope Tsunade-sama clears me for hospital duty soon... I really need the cash if I'm gonna continue this new art collecting hobby of mine.'
Once she got home, she quickly put the new painting up on the wall. Then she giggled as she suddenly got an idea. She rummaged through the drawers of her desk for a couple thumbtacks and then pinned them onto the world map that was also on her bedroom wall. She stuck one thumbtack on the Leaf village and then labeled it with the date that was on the first painting. Then she stuck another thumbtack on the eastern shore of Fire Country where the Great Naruto Bridge was and labeled it with the date that was on the second painting before connecting the two thumbtacks with a red string.
"It must be so romantic to travel the world like this," she murmured in a dreamy tone. "But... I guess I can sort of travel the world as well... through her paintings."
Then another thought struck her. "I guess Naruto is traveling the world too... I wonder where he is now..."
"Another miso ramen!"
Shikamaru sighed as Chouji finished up yet another bowl. He lazily spun his stool around and leaned backwards against the ramen bar to get a good viewing angle of the clouds. "Oi, Chouji, how are the vegetables?"
Chouji paused for a moment and blinked. Then he started laughing a little. "Oh yeah, Naruto asked you to take care of his garden, huh?"
"It's troublesome, but I owed him," Shikamaru groaned. "Plus, Naruto's the one who's always been supplying Ichiraku Ramen with fresh vegetables, so at least I get paid for doing this. Oh yeah, that reminds me, Old Man Teuchi, where's my pay?"
Teuchi rolled his eyes as he handed him a small envelope. "Naruto always worked for free."
"Naruto worked for ramen," Shikamaru corrected with a smirk.
"So these are the vegetables that Shikamaru grew..." Chouji smiled as he glanced down at the vegetables that were floating among the noodles. "I'll help out. I know a few things about gardening. You could probably ask Ino too. Growing vegetables can't be too different from growing flowers."
"I guess," Shikamaru sighed. "But I can't believe that Naruto actually managed to grow and tend to that vegetable garden all by himself. I've only been tending it for two weeks and I'm already completely worn out."
"That Naruto really has some weird hobbies," Chouji laughed.
"He has some weirder ones, trust me," Shikamaru rolled his eyes as he pulled out his sketchbook and began drawing the clouds.
Chouji chuckled as he glanced over at Shikamaru's rough pencil sketch. "You've gotten pretty good."
Shikamaru shook his head and laughed a little. "I can only draw clouds."
"Sakura, I've got a new mission for you," Tsunade sighed, rolling her eyes as she read the mission request form that Naruto's landlord had submitted earlier that day. "It's a D-rank mission, but I'd like you to take care of it."
"D-rank?" Sakura grew a sweat drop.
"Naruto's lease contract on his apartment ends in four months, so the landlord wants to hire someone to clean up the place before he can rent it out to someone else," Tsunade explained. "Naruto didn't exactly clean up before he left the village with Jiraiya, and his neighbors are starting to complain about mold and pests."
"Mold and pests?" Sakura's sweat drop grew even larger. "Seriously?"
"Yes, Sakura, seriously. And four months is plenty of time, so you can take your time," Tsunade nodded. "And another thing, I'm putting you on duty at the hospital starting tomorrow, since we're already extremely understaffed as it is."
Sakura brightened considerably at this good news. "That's great!"
"I'll have you start by helping Shizune out. I expect you to be there at oh-six-hundred hours," Tsunade reminded. "And here's your pager. It will notify you of any hospital assignments or emergencies, so keep it on you at all times."
"You can count on me," Sakura nodded and then took her leave. "Now where was Naruto's place again?"
Sakura was wandering down in the general direction of Naruto's apartment when she saw a long line outside the bookstore. "Kakashi-sensei?" she called out, jogging up to her previous teacher and team leader. "Long time no see!"
"Oh, Sakura, good to see you," Kakashi chuckled cheerfully.
Sakura then frowned as she got a closer look at Kakashi's face, or what was visible of it anyway. "You look tired, Kakashi-sensei. Are you okay?"
"Well, we're still trying to recover from Orochimaru's last invasion, so Tsunade has us jounin working our tails off," Kakashi laughed a little. "But I'm holding up. Icha Icha Paradise should give me the recharge that I need."
"Did a new Icha Icha Paradise book come out?" Sakura rolled her eyes, referring to the long line outside the bookstore.
"Not exactly," Kakashi replied, holding up a limited edition copy ofIcha Icha Paradise. Unlike the regular edition of the book that had been released a long time ago, this one had some exquisite cover artwork, and Sakura recognized the style right away.
"Shinohara Akari-sensei!" Sakura gasped. "She does illustrations for Jiraiya-sama?"
"Oh, you know the artist?" Kakashi raised an eyebrow, handing her the book.
Sakura flipped through it eagerly and realized that every chapter now opened with a black-and-white illustration by Sakura's now favorite artist, Shinohara Akari. The cover artwork, however, was in full color and featured the two main characters set against the backdrop of a stunning sunset beach. That was when Sakura realized that Shinohara Akari had her roots as a manga artist rather than a painter, which was reflected in the character designs. She noticed that the character design for the female lead of the story was exceptionally detailed. The character was so absolutely gorgeous that Sakura was starting to feel a little jealous.
"They released the official Icha Icha Paradise artbook today, featuring all the chapter illustrations in full-color, plus a lot of extra artwork," Kakashi explained.
"Mind if cut in line?" Sakura giggled as she cut in front of Kakashi. "I'm a big fan of Shinohara Akari. I even bought all of her paintings so far!"
"I'm just glad that Jiraiya-sama found an artist that could do Icha Icha Paradise and its characters justice," Kakashi nodded.
"Jiraiya-sama probably just hired her because her services aren't that expensive yet," Sakura giggled. "The previous cover artwork for Icha Icha Paradise was so horrible!"
"I'd have to agree with you there," Kakashi chuckled. He never did like the super-deformed cartoony figures that always graced the cover of Jiraiya's books. It always made the Icha Icha books look like children's books when they were in fact books aimed at adults.
"Wait... does that mean that Naruto has met Shinohara-sensei?" Sakura gasped. "Oooh! I'm so jealous!"
Kakashi could only laugh.
Ino smiled a little as a refreshing breeze swept over her. The two of them were lying in a field of flowers on the outskirts of the village, watching the clouds. After seeing the artistry that was Shikamaru's ceiling, Ino had gained a new appreciation for the clouds that were always drifting by far above. "You're actually kind of a romantic guy... always watching the clouds like this."
"What are you talking about all of a sudden?" he rolled his eyes.
"Just wondering why you haven't found a girlfriend yet," she laughed. "Do you like that Temari girl from the Sand village?"
"I don't dislike her," Shikamaru replied lazily, his eyes not once leaving the sky.
"Then who do you like?"
There was a long pause as that single question managed to lay a blanket of silence over them. Ino didn't know what drove her to blurt out such a question all of a sudden. She had never had an interest in Shikamaru's personal business in the past after all. Normally, she knew Shikamaru would probably just ignore the question and just say that answering would be too 'troublesome,' but she could tell that his sharp and calculating mind was processing a million different ways to handle this situation right now. Then the answer finally came.
Shikamaru let out a long sigh, but didn't say anything more. His eyes were still locked onto one particular cloud that he had been gazing at for a long time. It was a curiously shaped one, a perfect heart shape.
"You're joking... right?" She tried to laugh to lift the heavy atmosphere, but the words that she uttered were barely audible.
"No really... who do you like?" Ino's weak voice was starting to tremble.
"You." Again, that single word response.
"Really... it's you."
"It's not good to play around with a girl's heart, you know," she stammered, quickly sitting up in order to study Shikamaru's face. But his expression hadn't changed. It was that same lazy expression that he always had on.
"Then... tell me really..." Her voice still refused to cooperate with her. Her entire life, she had relied on her voice to let other people what was on her mind. She had a loud voice, a pretty voice, a voice that could reach other people. So why now? So why did it decide to fail on her now?
"I like you... really."
Ino bit her lip as she tried to fight the inevitable. She had imprisoned her tears in her heart a long time ago, but she knew it was useless to fight it. "Why?"
"I need a reason?"
"Couldn't you have been a little bit more romantic about it?"
After seeing the state of Naruto's apartment, or more specifically, the kitchen, Sakura had gone out and borrowed ANBU biohazard equipment consisting of fully enclosed helmet, an oxygen tank, and a full body suit.
"THIS IS DISGUSTING! I'M GOING TO KILL HIM WHEN HE COMES BACK! SHANNARO!" Sakura roared as she tossed a carton of foul milk that Naruto had left on the kitchen table into a biohazard containment bag.
Naruto had also left some rice in the rice cooker, which now didn't even look like rice. It looked more like some kind of jungle microhabitat of mold and bacterial colonies. Even though her helmet and oxygen tank shielded her from the smell, even just the sight of it made her gag.
It took Sakura a good three hours to sanitize Naruto's kitchen and by the time that was done, she only had the energy left to straighten up the living room just a little bit. As she plopped down onto Naruto's couch, exhausted, she wondered if this had all just been a bad dream; there was no way in reality that someone could be that messy, it just had to be a dream. Sakura sat up and eyed the sparkly clean kitchen one more time to make sure that all of her hard work hadn't just been a dream.
"That Naruto," she sighed as plopped back down on the couch and stared up at the ceiling. "He's still paying four more months of rent even though he's not even living here anymore," she murmured sadly, remembering what Tsunade had told her during the mission briefing. "Even if he's under contract... it's still not fair..."
She rolled over onto her side and eyed the Icha Icha Paradise artbook that she had just bought earlier with Kakashi. "I wish this world was always as beautiful as her paintings..."
Beep! Beep! Beep!
"Ah! My pager! But I don't start at the hospital till tomorrow!" Sakura quickly scrambled to pull her new pager out of her equipment pouch, but her nervous hands fumbled a few times before she got a firm grip on it. "Medical staff short-handed... needed in orthopedics... Neji?"
"Is he going to be okay?" Hinata asked worriedly as Sakura exited the surgery room.
Sakura plopped down on one of the waiting room benches, exhausted, and wilted backwards against the wall. "Don't worry, Hinata... he tore a ligament in his knee, probably from using his kaiten technique one too many times, and is suffering from some extreme exhaustion due to overwork, but he'll be up and running in a month or so."
Hinata let out a sigh of relief. "Thank you..."
Sakura laughed weakly and shrugged. "Don't thank me... I didn't really do anything. I'm still in-training, so all I did was provide stabilizing chakra. The real doctors were the one that did all the work."
"But still..." Hinata trailed off.
"This was the best thing that could've happened to Neji," Sakura shook her head. "I looked at his chakra coils and they're a complete mess. He's been working way too hard, so a few weeks rest should do him some good."
"I know... but Konoha is still really short on resources from the Sand-Sound invasion, so Neji-niisan has been working really hard," Hinata sighed. "Not just Neji-niisan either... everyone... even Akamaru is hospitalized right now."
"Why do the boys always do this to themselves?" Sakura murmured as she watched a team of medics rush yet another injured Konoha shinobi into surgery. "Why do they always think they can shoulder the burden of the entire village on their own shoulders? Why can't they ever think of asking others for help?"
"Sakura-san?" Hinata tilted her head to one side, not expecting Sakura to suddenly go all philosophical on her.
"Ah, sorry, I guess I was just thinking about a lot of stuff while I was in there treating Neji," Sakura laughed sheepishly.
"Like... Naruto-kun?" Hinata ventured cautiously.
Sakura blinked, surprised a little, and then smiled sadly. "Yeah... Naruto..."
"You should go see Neji," Sakura suggested, quickly changing the subject.
Hinata then nodded and got up. "Thank you again," she said before taking her leave.
"GO PREPARE SURGICAL ROOM NUMBER THREE! MOVE IT! HURRY!"
Sakura let out a weary sigh as yet another medic team rushed past her. "Beautiful world my ass..."
"I never thought you'd agree to take care of Naruto's garden," Ino laughed as she delicately transplanted some of the potted flowers that she had brought from her shop into Naruto's garden. "Heck, I never thought Naruto would be the type to grow a garden."
"Well, I owed him," Shikamaru shrugged, watching the girl work with interest.
"Vegetables are fine and dandy, but this garden really needs a girl's touch," Ino giggled as she surveyed the garden and tried to decide where to place the next set of flowers.
"You're a real artist, huh?" Shikamaru murmured, realizing that Ino really did know what she was doing. She had an acute sense and understanding about color coordination, spacing, and design. That was probably why her arranged bouquets were so popular.
Normally, Ino would've grinned and boasted at such a compliment, but hearing that from Shikamaru, especially after his confession a few days ago, made her blush. She hadn't even given him a proper reply yet, but Shikamaru was being a real gentleman by patiently waiting for her decision and giving her some space, but at the same time he wasn't avoiding her either. She knew that it must be difficult for him, but that only made her appreciate him even more.
"Nah," she shook her head, smiling a little. "I'm just trying to make this cold world a little more beautiful... that's all... you're the real artist here."
"What are you talking about?" he chuckled. "I can only draw clouds."
"Ah, Sakura-san, the new Shinohara piece has arrived," Sanae said cheerfully as Sakura entered the store. "Is something the matter?" she asked, noticing that Sakura seemed really worn out.
"I started working at the hospital about a month ago, and it's draining," Sakura replied sheepishly. "Not only physically, but mentally too... it's hard seeing so many injured ninjas being brought into the place."
"Ah, sounds difficult," Sanae nodded, leading her over to the new Shinohara painting. "But this may cheer you up."
As Sanae unveiled the new painting, Sakura gasped as her breath was instantly taken away. "This is... incredible..." It was a painting of a village floating high in the heavens, amongst the clouds and backed by an eerily beautiful sky. Houses and buildings were built on top of floating pieces of snow-covered land, each interconnected by a spanning series of rope bridges. And the darkened sky had a mysterious veil of colors, subdued pinks, greens, and purples, as if there was a curtain that was drawn behind the clouds.
"It's a village at the northern tip of Lightning Country," Sanae explained. "It's far enough up north, where it's famous for the aurora borealis... the northern lights."
"I've never even heard of such a thing," Sakura gasped, running her hand over the brilliant colored veil that stretched across the night sky.
"Sorry," Sakura sheepishly dried her eyes with her sleeve. "It's just that... it's been kind of depressing working at the hospital... it's just so wonderful to see something so beautiful... to be reminded that this world really is beautiful..."
Sanae smiled warmly as she took the painting off of its stand. "I was actually going to start auctioning Shinohara-sensei's works, but I think I'll just give it to you."
"What? No, I can't just accept it for free! At least let me pay for it!" Sakura insisted.
"Well, if you say so," Sanae smiled.
"You sure agreed fast," Sakura grew a sweat drop as she reached for her wallet.
"This one will be a hundred and twenty thousand ryou."
"The price just keeps going up," Sakura sighed as she handed over the money. The pay at the hospital was very good though, so it wasn't something she couldn't afford.
"I'm not sure where Shinohara-sensei is headed next, but it might be a while before the next one comes out," Sanae informed.
"Ah, okay, thank you," Sakura bowed and then took her leave.
When Sakura got home, she rushed up to her room and then stuck another thumbtack onto the world map that was on her wall. "So she's in Lightning Country... must be nice..." Sakura smiled as she connected the new thumbtack to the previous ones with a red string, tracing Shinohara Akari's journey from Konoha to Wave Country and then all the way up to the far northern reaches of Lightning Country.
"I wonder where on this map... Sasuke-kun is..." she murmured softly, resting her cheek against the map. "And Naruto too..."
Then she giggled as she imagined what Naruto would say to her. "I'm right here, Sakura-chan... that's what he would say," she smiled warmly as she placed her finger over the dot marking Konoha. "Right here."
Shikamaru stared up at his ceiling and sighed. It was finally finished. After months of painting, it was finally finished. Above him was a vast expanse of blue sky and white clouds.
"I guess I really do owe Naruto..." he chuckled softly.
Shikamaru blinked, surprised, and quickly sat up to find Ino standing at his doorway. "Ino? What are you doing here?"
"What? I can't visit?" she scowled, trying to hide her blush.
"Well... it's been a while since the last time you just barged into my house," Shikamaru shrugged, lying back down to enjoy his finished masterpiece.
"Hey! Don't just ignore me! I came here to tell you something!" she frowned, standing over him to block his view of his ceiling with her annoyed expression. Shikamaru then, without a word, grabbed her shoulders and pulled her down beside him on his bed, causing her to gasp. "W-wait a s-s-second! Don't be so rough! I wanted my first time to be gentle!"
"What are you talking about?" Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. "Look."
"You... finished it," she stammered, suddenly calming down from her earlier fervor. "It's beautiful..."
"A lot of the credit belongs to Naruto though," Shikamaru sighed.
"Naruto?" Ino asked, confused.
"He painted that half before he had to leave on his training journey," Shikamaru nodded towards the left side of the room. Ino had previously recognized the sudden shift in art style the first time she had seen Shikamaru's ceiling, but had forgotten to ask about it, and now she understood. It was because the ceiling had been painted by two different people with two different styles, Shikamaru and Naruto.
"Naruto... did that?" Ino gasped in wonderment.
"Surprised me too... but he really is an incredible painter," Shikamaru chuckled. "He really understands this world that we live in... he can pick out even the tiniest bit of beauty from the scenery that surrounds us every day."
"But you're not too bad yourself," Ino reminded.
"That's because Naruto was the one that taught me how to paint," Shikamaru explained with a chuckle. "He knew he wasn't going to be able to finish before he had to leave, so he taught me."
"So that's why you're taking care of Naruto's garden... that's what you meant when you said that you owed him," Ino grinned in understanding.
"Yeah... but that's not the only thing I owe him for," he added as he gently intertwined his fingers through hers, causing her heart to jump and her cheeks to flush red.
"O-o-oh yeah, the r-r-reason I came here," she suddenly stammered as she sat up with her hand still in his. She then took a deep breath to ease her nerves. "I... I still haven't given you an answer yet..."
Shikamaru slowly sat up as well and looked her in the eyes. "Ino..."
"Shikamaru... I like you too..."
He blinked for a moment as those words registered in his mind. Then, suddenly, he turned away as his face turned an impossible shade of red. "Jeez, you're such an embarrassing girl..."
"WHAT? I'm confessing to you here and that's your reaction?" Ino snarled, her usual temper replacing her earlier nervousness as she grabbed his shoulders and started shaking him violently.
Shikamaru then turned to face her with a smug grin on his face. "And I thought you wanted your first time to be gentle."
"SHIKAMARU! EVEN IF YOU ARE MY BOYFRIEND, I'LL KILL YOU!"
The next few months had passed relatively quietly and uneventfully. Sakura had found out about Shikamaru and Ino shortly after they had officially become a couple and was really happy for them. Before, Sakura would have probably been happy that her biggest rival for Sasuke was eliminated, but now she was just simply happy that Ino and Shikamaru had formed a bond of love, Sasuke had nothing to do with it.
She had also managed to beat out other bidders for two more of Shinohara Akari's paintings. From Lightning Country, the traveling painter had journeyed to the archipelago islands of Water Country, where she had painted the sprawling steampunk metropolis of the Mist Village with its towering skyscrapers shrouded in fog, and then to Tea Country's Nagi island, where she had painted the peaceful fireflies that lit a darkened field of flowers beside a bridge that crossed a quiet stream.
Things were finally looking up for Sakura too. Konoha was in much better shape, so the hospital saw fewer major injuries. Recently, she had even been cleared to treat minor injuries on her own without any supervision, so she had been transferred to the academy infirmary as a nurse and was busy with treating injuries that the academy kids usually got from sparring and training. It was a lot more fun dealing with kids, seeing their smiles. It wasn't perfect, it wasn't quite the beautiful world that Shinohara Akari had made it out to be, but it was still a nice life.
Sakura even had the day off from the hospital to boot, though that was only because she had been given another D-rank mission. This time, Naruto's lease contract for his apartment was about to expire, so it was up to her to move out all of his belongings and furniture into storage before he came back
"Now... where to start?" she wondered as she looked around the place. She didn't want to start with the heavy furniture that was in the kitchen and the living room, so she headed for his bedroom.
"That Naruto," she chuckled, seeing how the comforter was still hanging off the side of the bed and his pajamas strewn across the floor, just as he had left it months ago.
"I guess I'll start by packing his clothes," she shrugged as she slid open his closet. Honestly, she really shouldn't have been surprised, but nevertheless her jaw dropped when she saw all the orange jumpsuits in there. "Jeez... seriously..."
As she packed away his clothes into a box, she started to feel a bit lonely. It only reminded her that he wasn't around. Well, even if he was still in Konoha, she probably wouldn't have been able to see him much anyway. Everyone was too busy doing their own thing now. She spent all of her time either at the hospital or training to become Tsunade's successor, and when Ino wasn't out on missions, she was now spending time with Shikamaru. She didn't even get to see her parents all too much either.
"Now to pack his scrolls and textbooks," Sakura murmured, dusting her hands off once she had finished with the clothes. She glanced over at Naruto's desk and noticed a bunch of folders full of scattered papers.
"What's this stuff?" she wondered out loud as she opened up the topmost folder. "Hey, he's pretty good," she giggled, realizing that it was notes he had taken during Iruka's lectures back in their academy days, but in the margins were a bunch of cute little doodles. As she flipped through the pages, however, her eyes narrowed at how Naruto's 'doodles' slowly evolved into a full-blown manga. It got to the point where Naruto had stopped taking notes from Iruka's lecture altogether and concentrated on just drawing manga.
"He's really good... why didn't he ever tell me about this?" She then realized that there was a lot of stuff about Naruto that she had never known about, such as his vegetable garden that Shikamaru and Ino were taking care of. It actually kind of made her sad, that there was so much about Naruto that she didn't know. She did have to laugh a bit though at the subject of Naruto's in-class drawn manga. She would've expected an action-packed shounen manga from him, but instead, it was a pretty sappy shoujo manga. In fact, it was corny to the point where it seemed to border on arrogant.
She then closed that folder and moved onto another one. The next folder was, instead of rough black and white pencil sketches, was full of select scenes from his manga colored with art markers. This folder was 'organized,' if one could even call it that, in chronological order as well, and she could clearly see the improvement in his coloring technique. At first, he had relied heavily on stylistic techniques to cover up for his lack of skill and experience, but as the pictures progressed, he shifted more towards a traditional coloring technique. Though, he still did revisit his stylistically colored roots every now and then, but with added technical skill and flair.
The third folder that she looked at was a pleasant surprise. It was full of watercolor paintings. While it didn't particularly have anything to do with manga, she could still see Naruto's underlying manga style in the paintings as well. As she flipped through the various paintings, she could swear that she had seen these, or something similar to these, somewhere before.
Then it hit her. Shinohara Akari. As her eyes widened, she quickly flipped through to the more recent paintings and then gasped. Despite the fact that Shinohara Akari used oil paints instead of watercolor, the style and the unique use of color was the same.
"It can't be... Naruto can't be Shinohara Akari..." Sakura, in disbelief, started ransacking Naruto's apartment for any evidence that he actually was the painter Shinohara Akari.
That's when she found them. There were a bunch of canvases under Naruto's bed. She pulled them out and saw that all of them were unfinished paintings. Either Naruto had deemed them failures or perhaps he had just hit an artist's block.
Except one, there was one that was finished, and it had Shinohara Akari's signature on it. It was a painting of Haruno Sakura's brilliant smile backed by a vast blue sky, feathery white clouds, and a field of spring flowers.
"Naruto..." Her voice choked in her throat as she placed her hand on the canvas painting. "Was I really able to smile this beautifully before? Am I really as beautiful as you're making me out to be? Is this world really as beautiful as you're making it out to be?"
Beep! Beep! Beep!
Sakura quickly reached for her pager, but then her blood went cold when she saw the message.
When she exited the operation room, she kept her head down, so that her eyes wouldn't have to meet his. She didn't want to see his desperate and pleading eyes. She didn't want to see the heartbreak on his face.
"Sakura...?" Shikamaru stammered in a quiet voice as his quivering hands reached for her shoulders. "Can I go see her?"
Sakura couldn't only manage one word. "Don't."
"Yamanaka-san... Shikamaru," Tsunade said in a stern and sterile voice as she exited the operation room.
"How is she, Hokage-sama?" Ino's tearful mother asked desperately.
"She was poisoned by a new type of viral toxin that attacks the chakra coils... we managed to remove all the poison from her body, but... her chakra coils, for some reason, are still deteriorating at a slow rate," Tsunade explained.
Shikamaru knew what that meant. He had paid attention to enough of Iruka's academy lectures to understand the implications. He didn't need to hear any more of it, so he rushed into Ino's room. "Ino!"
"Once her chakra coils completely deteriorate, her circulatory system will begin to fail as well," Tsunade continued, her sterile doctor's voice beginning to crack. "She has, at most, six years to live."
It was too cruel. They had only just recently found each other, only just recently found happiness. For it all to be jus taken away like this, it wasn't fair. Sakura didn't want to hear any more either, so she did the only thing she could do. She ran. She ran so hard that her lungs burned, her legs burned, her tears burned, but nothing could compare to the burning pain in her heart.
She eventually found herself back at Naruto's place, surrounded by his beautiful unfinished paintings. She collapsed in front of the one finished painting, the painting of her.
"WHERE'S YOUR BEAUTIFUL WORLD NOW? ANSWER ME, NARUTO!" she screamed as she grasped the canvas painting tightly to her chest. "Answer me... please..." she begged, her tears weakening her voice to a quiet sob. "Please take me there... to this beautiful world of yours, Naruto... please... I don't want to be here anymore..."
Iruka sighed as he turned around at his seat at Ichiraku Ramen to face the Hokage monument. His former students, now out in the real world to fend for themselves, were falling apart right before his eyes, and he didn't know what to do. Sasuke had defected, corrupted by his desire for revenge, Shikamaru was now merely a shell of his former self, Ino wouldn't even have that much longer to live, and Sakura was no where to be found.
"They're still only thirteen..." he murmured.
"Have faith in them," a voice from behind him said as he felt two feminine hands rest on his shoulders.
"Ayame..." Iruka managed a weary smile as he craned his neck to glance over at Ichiraku Ramen's pretty waitress.
"We were only ten when I lost my mother and you lost your parents in the Kyuubi attack... and we found the strength to keep pushing forward," she reminded with a gentle smile. "And so will your students... they'll find the strength to keep pushing forward... so have faith in them... especially Naruto."
Iruka chuckled a little at the thought of Naruto. "He's the one I'm always most worried about... he's the one that always seems most likely to break... no matter how well he hides it..."
Beep! Beep! Beep!
In Naruto's darkened room, the small flashing screen of Sakura's hospital pager was the only source of light. How long had she been in there? How long had she hid herself away from the world? How long had she taken shelter in Naruto's sanctuary? She didn't know. She didn't care.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
She curled up, pulling her legs tighter to her chest and burying her face in her knees. How long had she been ignoring the call of the outside world? How many tragedies had she been running away from? What kind of heartbreak was she running away from this time? She didn't know. She didn't care.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
"It's morning! It's morning! Eat breakfast and start training!"
"Huh?" Sakura's head shot up at the sound of Naruto's voice. She desperately scanned the darkened room and realized that it was coming from the alarm clock that was on his nightstand.
"Damn it, stop being lazy and wake up! You need to train! You need to get stronger! You can't let the world bring you down! No matter what happened the day before that's making you want to just stay in bed, you have to face it and get stronger!"
Naruto's alarm clock was a prerecorded message. Sakura went over to his bed and sat down, cradling the alarm clock in her arms as it continued to yell at her. "Naruto..."
"Look! The sun is up! No matter what happens, the sun keeps getting up day after day! You have to strive to become like that! Shine like the sun and become stronger!"
"Naruto..." Sakura sobbed as tears began to slide down her face uncontrollably. Naruto always seemed so cheerful, always so carefree, but was this how he really felt about world? Was this how Naruto survived in this cruel and ugly world? Was this how he found the strength to get out of bed and face a new day?
"C'mon... get up... you gotta get stronger... for Sakura-chan... do you want her to see how ugly this world is? So get stronger... and protect her from it..."
"Naruto..." she cried, holding the alarm clock tightly to her chest. "Naruto..."
Beep! Beep! Beep!
"I can't keep running away... I have to get stronger," she sobbed to herself as she reached for her pager.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
"What should I do?"
Chouji glanced down at his longtime friend with a small scowl. "I can't believe you're asking me that," he shook his head. "You know what you have to do."
Shikamaru didn't take his eyes off the clouds. "I'm not like you... I can't continue to be with her, pretending like nothing is wrong, and putting all of my faith in the slim chance that they'll find a cure for her..."
"I didn't mean that," Chouji replied. "Because I can't put all of my faith in that slim chance either. That would just mean running away from the possibility that they can't find a cure in time... and I don't want to run away anymore."
"Continue to be with her, even knowing that she could die," Chouji replied simply.
"Do you understand how painful that is?" Shikamaru shut his eyes tight to keep the tears in. "She knows that... she told me not to see her anymore... she told me to just let her live the last few years of her life by herself... to let her die alone... because she knew how painful it would be for me... it's so easy for you to just say that because you don't understand how painful it is..."
"No, I don't know how painful it must be... but I do know that running away would be even more painful," Chouji murmured.
Shikamaru had no response to that. He knew it was true. If he let her spend her last few years of life alone as she wished, he'd regret it for the rest of his life, he'd hate himself for the rest of his life.
"It's morning! It's morning! Eat breakfast and start training!"
"Sakura?" Chouji blinked in confusion; it wasn't even morning, the sun was about to set soon. Had she gone insane in the past few days? She had disappeared suddenly after Ino's diagnosis, and a few days later, suddenly here she was. "Where have you been?"
Ignoring Chouji's question, Sakura kicked Shikamaru in the side and continued reciting Naruto's alarm clock recording. "Damn it, stop being lazy and wake up! You need to train! You need to get stronger! You can't let the world bring you down! No matter what happened the day before that's making you want to just stay in bed, you have to face it and get stronger!"
"Ah! Sakura!" Shikamaru stammered as she suddenly grabbed his wrist and yanked him to his feet, practically dragging him back into the hospital.
"I'll find a way to keep Ino alive," she said in a determined voice. "It's a promise of a lifetime."
"Sakura... wait..." Shikamaru stopped in his tracks and pulled his wrist from her grasp. "There's something else..." He didn't want to tell her, not when it seemed that she had found a new strength to keep going, a new determination. He didn't want her to break, not again, but she needed to know.
Chouji walked up beside Shikamaru and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Sakura..."
"Your parents were killed during a mission yesterday... and we couldn't find you anywhere," Shikamaru said in a quiet voice. "We kept trying to reach your pager..."
"I know, I saw the message," she said quickly, cutting him off. Shikamaru could only see the back of her head, only the strands of silky pink hair, so he couldn't imagine what kind of sorrow was being expressed on her face.
Then, suddenly, she grabbed his wrist again and started dragging him back into the hospital. "I can cry about it later," she whispered, her quiet voice cracking. "Right now, we have to save Ino."
Shikamaru then allowed himself a sad smile. She had gotten stronger, and he knew how. He had heard it too once, Naruto's alarm clock, while he was tending to his garden. "Look... the sun is up…" he said softly. "No matter what happens, the sun keeps getting up day after day..."
"You have to strive to become like that... shine like the sun and become stronger..." Sakura recited, still not letting them see the tears that streaked her face. She then opened the door to Ino's room and pushing him inside.
"Ino... is it alright for me to love you? Is it alright for me to love you more and more?"
"It'll be painful for you..."
"Not loving you would be more painful..."
"I always thought of this world as a cruel and ugly place, but every now and then, I'm reminded of how beautiful it can be..."
"This is Naruto's latest painting," Sakura said cheerfully as she hung up on the wall of Ino's hospital room. It had already been a month since Ino had been hospitalized, but she was still too weak to do much. "He's in Sea Country's Kirika Island now it seems," she chuckled.
"It's beautiful," Ino gasped. It was a painting of Kirika Island's tropical beach with a beautiful shrine maiden dancing upon the sunset-lit water, surrounded by the glowing ephemeral spirits of the dead passing on. Just looking at it, Sakura could feel herself finally being able to let go and let her own parents pass on.
"Well, Shikamaru will be here soon, so I'll leave you two alone," she giggled and playfully skipped on out and quickly headed home.
Her home now was Naruto's apartment. After her parents had passed away, she couldn't bear to live in that large and empty house all by herself, so she had moved all of her stuff into Naruto's small apartment.
When she got home, she immediately put up another thumbtack on her world map to track Naruto's journey through his paintings. She stuck the thumbtack on Sea Country's Kirika Island and tied a string to the previous thumbtack, which hovered over Tea Country's Nagi Island. "He must be seasick from all this island hopping," she giggled cheerfully.
Then came a knock at the door.
"Ah, coming!" Sakura quickly rushed to the door and found Naruto's landlord waiting for her. She didn't particularly like him, since he had been grossly overcharging Naruto for rent, but she still had to be polite. "Good afternoon, Ikari-san."
"Good afternoon, Haruno-san," the landlord greeted.
"I know Naruto's lease contract ends next week, so is it possible if I sign a new contract for this place?" she asked.
"Ah, about that," the landlord nodded. "I actually received another rent check from Uzumaki-san yesterday and a request to extend the contract until he returns."
"Really?" Sakura asked, surprised. "Why would he do that?"
"He did not give a reason, and I have no way to contact him," the landlord shook his head. "But it is fine with me if you choose to live here. I am assuming that Uzumaki-san is okay with it as well?"
"Ah... haha, yeah, I'm sure he wouldn't mind," Sakura laughed sheepishly. Honestly, even Tsunade had no idea how to contact Jiraiya and Naruto, so she was pretty sure that Naruto had no idea that the girl of his dreams was currently occupying his apartment. Not that he would mind anyway.
"If that is all, then good day."
Sakura sighed as she closed the door and took a good look around the place. The apartment had changed considerably since she had moved in, but it was still obvious that it was Naruto's place.
"Naruto must be making a lot of money off his artwork now... especially theIcha Icha series artbooks," she chuckled. "In that case, I guess I'll continue to be a freeloader here."
"It's morning! It's morning! Eat breakfast and start training!"
"Ugh..." Sakura's arm reached out and shut the alarm clock off as she groggily slid out from under the covers. She was still tired from the day before, when she, Tsunade, and Hinata had pulled off a successful thirty-six hour operation to reconstruct Ino's chakra coils. Seeing the sheer happiness on Ino and Shikamaru's faces had been enough to give her pleasant dreams that night, but this was no time to stay in bed, today was a special day.
It was now over two years since she had moved into Naruto's apartment, but by now, it was more Sakura's apartment, considering the girly smell of cosmetics and the lingerie lying around in random places. That would change soon enough though, because Naruto was coming back today.
Sakura grinned as she stared at the world map that was on the wall. Now it was covered with thumbtacks with red string crisscrossing all over the place. Naruto had traveled far and wide, and had painted increasingly beautiful pictures of each place he went. But now the thumbtacks and the red string were getting closer and closer to Konoha. In fact, the latest painting that she had collected was of the waterfall at the Valley of the End, bordering Rice Country and Fire Country.
"WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED HERE?"
Sakura blinked as she fell off the bed in surprise. She cautiously peeked out into the living room and gasped. There he was, orange jumpsuit and all. "NARUTO!"
"Huh?" He didn't even have a chance to react as a blur of pink suddenly pounced at him, sending them both crashing to the floor.
"Hello," she greeted cheerfully, now sitting on top of him.
Naruto was still mired in utter confusion, but momentarily set it aside and smiled. He brought his arms up around her and pulled her down to him so that their bodies embraced.
Author's notes: The name Shinohara Akari is from Makoto Shinkai's anime Byousoku 5cm (Five Centimeters per Second). The talking alarm clock is a reference to the anime Kanon. The sky on Shikamaru's ceiling is a reference to the anime sola. Commander Ikari from NGE also makes a cameo appearance as Naruto's landlord.