Even knowing that Sakura is dead, Naruto can't help but think about what would have been.

.

He watches her in front of him; she holds her hands behind her back.

She wears a plain white dress that stops above the knees, the soft material blows in the continuous winds that pass through Suna.

The desert is hot and sticky, the two of them are eighteen in this particular memory of his.

He watches like an outsider, a no one,

(a dead man)

as his younger self approaches the young, pink-haired maiden.

Sakura is beautiful, her hair is free and wild, so long that it reaches past her shoulders like a soft caressing hand. He loves the color, he loves the texture.

War blooms on the blood red horizon, the sky dyed in deep oranges and reds.

.

A SMALL THOUGHT FROM THE GRIM REAPER

many times, dreams represent the things you wanted to do, but couldn't.

Maybe that's why Naruto always dreams of himself and Sasuke, separated by years and lives and dreams and hopes and an eternity apart, screaming things that he wishes he could tell the other boy.

But each time, Sasuke never hears him.

Each time, he stares sightlessly into a silent blue sky.

.

When Naruto dies, he first thinks of Jiraiya, and then of Sasuke.

Naruto, a servant of god for eternity, reaped both of their souls.

But neither of them had recognized him, past his outward appearance of a skeletal pubescent boy.

It was Kakashi who did.

The man had fought in both wars, he was a good man, a good mentor. But he was old, he had watched all those who were close to him fall into the pits of war, and its death and hate that spread around those it touched like an infection, a disease.

Kakashi, who had fought through two wars, who had watched his own Team Seven die, and the Team Seven he would teach die, and the Team seven before either of them die.

Like most ninja past their prime, Kakashi died on the field.

Naruto would have wished for a more fitting end for his teacher.

"Kakashi," He said, as he carried the other souls in his hands, cradling them like newborn children.

"Do you remember me?"

Kakashi, opening mismatched eyes, traced his frame.

The lemon colored hair, the skin-and-bone appearance, and the eyes like the sky.

"Naruto."

The man—or boy—who walks with death, smiled.

"Do you know what I've come for?"

"No," His teacher croaked. "But I could take a guess."

There is a train roaring in the background.

It sounds like the roar of a god, rattling the ground in its wake and shaking the corners of the earth. The jaws of the train open the sky, wrenching it apart before Kakashi's very eyes, and he can see the teeth, spreading apart, and he can see Naruto, his easy smile and his bright ocean water eyes.

He thinks, to himself, that this wasn't a bad way to die.

"Could you say hello to Obito for me? If you see him?"

.

my mind is a birdcage.

.

Neji tells him this one day.

Neji, for what he grows in to be, started out his life wishing through the eyes of a child, wet behind the ears, a little bit selfish, a little bit self-entitled.

They are on guard duty.

Both wait in the tower, not really seeing much past a lining of trees and forestry.

Naruto lights a smoke, cupping the small flame with both hands, snarling at the wind.

"Sakura won't like that." Neji says, leaning against the back wall.

Naruto, irate at the world and at the wind for not letting his god damn smoke light, growls at the other man.

They aren't really having much of a deep conversation. Back then, when Naruto and Neji enter their sixteenth year, the two of them don't understand the meaning of war and famine, wide spread pain and disease. They themselves have experienced pain, but they have never had to endure

(holding the person he loved the most, watching her lay in agony against a backdrop of blood and carnage, the taupe colored ground beneath her turning crimson, his own hands stained the color of red ocher from the blood blossoming on her stomach)

(watching the light fade from black eyes, dotted red with a slowly dying Sharingan, trying to hold the blade that pierced his best friend steady…as to not open the wound anymore, holding the body not even two feet away from his own, not able to hold out a hand of comfort)

what was to come in their futures.

"My mind," Neji says, deciding that getting upset with Naruto over his health is a moot point. "Feels like a birdcage."

Naruto is in one of his moods, and he gives Neji a sidelong glance.

"Your mind?" He chuckles, but it is humorless. "Birdcage?"

The sun is peeling over a darkened sky. Finally, morning begins, and the shift has ended.

Naruto stubs the cigarette out against the damp wood of the post, shoving the door open and already beginning to climb out of the tower.

He turns back to Neji. "My mind is a fucking cage."

.

Sakura is smiling, hands stretched out, twirling in a spray of falling leaves that spit off the trees in browns, oranges, and reds.

For a ninja, her hands are very lithe and delicate. For a woman, her punch is very powerful.

War is almost here.

The air smells of burning flesh. All talk is centered around war, around the fate of Konoha, around the outcome. The answer is ambiguous, as are most things. But it smells of war, it sounds like war, it feels like war. The air, it prickles and tingles as if something buzzes right beneath the surface.

Naruto wishes that Sakura could be pure forever, but already, has she been burnt by the cusp of war.

Sasuke left both of us. She told him quietly, one night, as they watched a star-speckled sky together on hair made from rocks.

She stops twirling, to look at him peculiarly.

She tilts her head (Naruto can remember this gesture very clearly, even an eternity into the future) and her pink hair slides over her face, framing her flushed cheeks and stained red lips. Her eyes are green like limes, aquamarines, emeralds.

She has one hand on his rough one, the other delicately poised against the lining of her scarf.

Her mouth moves, her eyes glow, but for the life of him, Naruto can't remember what she said.

.

Sometimes though, he'll hear it in his dreams.

When this is all over, will you take me out? You know, for ramen? Just like you used to say?

But then, he'll forget it by the time he wakes up.

.

Taking the souls of friends always weighed heavy on his mind.

Shikamaru was a good man, an easy going man. Who, was lazy to a near fault, but would never make anyone's lives harder if it didn't need to be.

When his hospital room's machine stopped its regularly timed beeping to screech forlornly, the white blank room was filled with children, grand children, and great grand children, and Shikamaru knew he lived a long fulfilling life. Dying in a hospital bed, at an age like one hundred-seven, was any ninja's dream.

Shikamaru sat up in his bed, feeling anew without old bones and brittle muscles, and turned to watch the facial expressions of those in the room.

His young great grand daughter, four years old, and unable to comprehend what happened, stared curiously at her mother, who wept silently. His great grand son, ten, watched with a hard-face as he clutched his father's hand, face set in cold stone but eyes scrunched and lip trembling, trying to play brave.

Shikamaru was always smart, he had put two and two together, he felt lighter, the expressions of his family were grim.

The man looked around the room, spotting a mop of sunshine colored hair.

Bright blue eyes watched him from underneath a dark colored hood.

A familiar face from forever ago.

"Naruto?" Said the man, aged one hundred and seven but looked to be about twenty six.

.

Shikamaru was one of the ones who understood.

They boarded the train to hell quietly, watching worlds speed past them faster than eyes could watch.

Shikamaru was not like others.

He did not question what was going on, where they were going, what was going to happen, how it would happen, why it would happen.

Instead, he waited patiently, studying the face of one of his friends from long ago.

Naruto hadn't changed.

He had always been built light, without the years of shinobi training he would be as skinny as he looked now, brittle, nothing but bones. (Shikamaru knew though, that looks were deceiving, when Naruto held his wrist and pulled him on to the train, it was anything but weak)

The only thing that looked different were his eyes.

Shikamaru wondered what those eyes had seen. Naruto hadn't really said how long he had been doing this job, but he had said that a mortal's perception of time was far more linear than time could ever be. Shikamaru decided there was no use pondering this statement, instead, figured that Naruto had seen a great deal more than he had.

Shikamaru had no indication that the train was stopping.

But somewhere, he could feel the strings of his soul pulling, and just knew.

"Naruto?"

The boy, facing him, looked up. "Yeah?"

"Do you ever…wish you could stop?"

"What do you mean?" He asked slowly, carefully.

Shikamaru gave a half shrug. "I don't know, I mean. You don't look very happy, doing this. Wouldn't you rather…move on?"

Naruto closed his eyes, smiling.

The man facing him disappeared, the train gave a slight shake, as if it had ran over a bit of a bump.

.

Shikamaru, that's the thing.

I don't have much of a choice in the matter.

.

Sakura had a smile,

that made people smile,

it was just,

contagious

.

Naruto could remember the first battle well, on both accounts.

As a young, fresh-to-war eighteen year old, he could remember watching the carnage—colored such a crimson—that it seemed to appear bright on the landscape.

He remember seeing the rich rice fields that he had so closely related in his memory to the days of Team Seven's lame D-Class Missions tending an old man's rice field, splattered with a red color that, after seeing so much of it in such large quantities, looked like a foreign element.

Blood.

The fluid that circulates in the principal vascular system of human beings and other vertebrates, in humans consisting of plasma in which the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are suspended.

His mind supplied to him, blankly.

As a man trapped in the body of a young, brittle, teenage boy, he could remember the many souls he sat with in those rice fields, humming a small tune, waiting for the train to pick them up.

He could remember the sadness of such souls.

And could remember, holding them so closely to him, he wondered why humans were so destructive. Why this destructive nature was so closely engrained in their very fibers.

Did all life need to be so destructive?

Could life exist without death?

Essentially, could life exist without him?

.

Naruto, in his adventures past death, would encounter many people he would remember.

One was a girl with dreamy eyes and long dark hair.

The day that Sarutobi died, she was nothing but a young child, holding her mother's hand. On that particular day, Naruto was twelve, just a Gennin, just a boy. He held Iruka's hand like a life line, and he remembered how his hand trembled against the Chuunin's. He could remember the fear and eye-opening frightened feeling that overwhelmed him, knowing, that there was a force that even his determination and will couldn't surpass.

(It was funny how he became the embodiment of his own fear)

That force called death.

If Naruto had taken the time to notice, he would have seen this girl, a few rows back.

Hyuga have very sharp eyes.

The Byakugan is said to be able to see a full three hundred and sixty degrees, and can even stretch for more than two miles in distance.

It is actually even more powerful than that.

That day, Hanabi Hyuga, young, and frivolous—and after the ceremony would be reprimanded for being rude—had turned her Byakugan on.

And had seen a strange, unfocused gray shadow leaning against the large opened coffin of Sarutobi's empty grave.

Surprised that the Byakugan could actually have small, blind spots, Hanabi had squinted at the blurry figure.

She could make out the blond streaks in the man's hair, the skeletal thin rail of his arms and limbs, and the bright glowing dots that marked his eyes.

When she died, nearly forty years after that day, she was able to see the object that she had pondered and researched that had intrigued her so.

Hanabi Hyuga died in ways common to young wet-behind the ears shinobi in war time.

She had been announced Chuunin, needing no test and requiring no examination of any sort, she had simply been promoted. It wasn't until later had she realized that the only true test to attain the Chuunin level was to simply stay alive through the war. A feet that she was unable to pass.

As her body fell to the ground, kunai embedded into the back of her head and splattered in patterns down her back like a macabre acupuncture, she continued to walk, unknown of her body trailing behind her.

It was then, that she focused on a form that leaned against the wall.

A blonde, lanky figure that couldn't be any more older than her who rested in the shade of a large tree some ways in front of her.

Hanabi, who hadn't yet realized the light-headed feeling numbing her body was due to the fact that she no longer had one, patted herself for kunai, and when finding none, dropped into a defensive stance.

"Who are you?" She demanded, over the ringing that grew louder over the years.

The flashes of Sarutobi's brief and bitter ending swept her mindscape, the world around her crumbling as the bellow of an enormous train broke the growing ringing.

Imaginary Folklore

.

running through my mind

"Oh,"

Sakura pricks her finger, the crimson color blossoms on the tip of her forefinger like a rose amongst pale skin colored leaves.

Her mouth opens into a circle, gummy and pink, covered lightly with a gloss from her tongue.

She then forgets about the red staining her fingers, and brushes back her hair, as it almost interfered with her work.

The flower garden she tends just outside of her quaint one bedroom home is a splash of color amongst the rest of the sallow houses. A burst of saffron daffodils and pink blushed tulips, backdropped by bushes filled with the chambray of hyacinth and speckled with narcissus. A large, spotted butterfly whispers past her in the wind. She bends down to carefully pluck weeds, and from his spot behind her fence, her face is covered with by the large head of a periwinkle hydrangea. The wind carries the sickly sweet scent of honey suckles from a bush not too far away.

And she looks up suddenly, noticing his icy presence.

Her big, big, green eyes pierce his lifeless blue.

She stands, long hair whipping across her face, but Naruto can still see it. The stain smeared on her cheek from careless fingers, the bright red of the color reminds him of the poppy flowers she tends at the moment.

Again her lips part, but this time not for whimsical humming, words on her tongue.

He is spotted.

He knows the rules.

So why is he not moving?

Her eyes get so bright, a thousand blades of grass swaying in the wind behind her long lashes her fragile face that was oh so pale one cheek smeared with a long slice of crimson her sunflower patterned dress lifting like an umbrella in the wind and the confusion behind her eyes mixed with fear and love and a kaleidescope of emotions and then.

"Naruto."

The illusion shatters.

.

I WILL NEVER,

Sakura runs through the spitting rain, wind howling in her ears.

The Konoha streets are darkened with the nightfall, but the sky is still alight at the edge of the horizon, dark black rain clouds parting just beyond the world's edge to reveal a pink sunset. The street lamps are just beginning to flicker to life, as she tears through the silence of the town with the splashing her feet make on the puddles.

Her shinobi sandals make a swishing noise with the water and mud that's made its way into the soles of her shoes. Her skirt follows her closely, and the red of her jacket is dulled with the lack of light.

Her hair, long all the way down her back, is a step behind her.

She turns a corner, there is fierce determination in her eyes. An old man with half an arm around groceries squawkes in surprise as a young teenage girl with bright pink hair nearly runs him over. He watches her sprint down the streets, muttering about the youth.

The part of town that she enters noisily isn't the nicest.

Many of the houses are broken and abandoned, some have windows battered or shattered. The ones that stand aren't in mint condition, many looking like they'll fall apart with a baby's breath. Here, there are no street lamps to guide the path. Here, the telephone wires that crisscross over the moon's light are filled with red eyed birds, watching with their glassy eyes. But Sakura is neither lost nor scared. She knows where she's heading. She passes by a couple arguing on a stoop in front of a long closed shop. She passes a cloaked man a bit taller than herself, saffron hair peaking from behind the blackness of his cloak and the shadows that he hides himself in, smoke wafting from the cigarette between his lips, a skeletal thin hand placing it there. If she stopped to look, she'd notice his sorrowful smile.

The last apartment building on the left is the only one that still has proper lighting, and many windows are closed with dark curtains to keep wandering eyes from them. Sakura slows her pace, breath slowing, and enters the building. There isn't any reception counter, or a couple chairs (however there was a plastic one a the entrance next to a trash can with the smell of cigarettes) and the only thing that greets her are steep windy stairs and dark colored doors.

She opens 8B.

"Naruto?" Frowning, she looks around the sparsely furnished (but rather clean) house.

Passing the ratty sofa, she's pleased to note that the man in question is home, boiling a pot of ramen, and is humming in the shower.

This seems to calm her slightly, as she sinks into a bar stool on the kitchen counter.

The counter serves as one of Nartuo's only tables. There is a small coffee table near the sofa, that is covered in newspapers and bills. The counter is littered with more bills (but more of it is pay for missions). Curious and attempting to keep herself entertained, she pulls a white envelope closer, and reads the cover.

Pay: Uzumaki Naruto S-Class mission.

Sakura is startled.

She pulls another closer. It reads the same. And another, and another. There is no letter that has under a B-Class mission. An intense feeling wrenches her gut. Perhaps it is jealousy, for she hasn't gone on any noteworthy mission in a couple months. Or maybe fear, for what Naruto has become.

The shower abruptly stops, and Sakura quickly pushes the bills away into a scattered mess.

Naruto steps out with a mist of steam, wearing slacks and toweling off his hair with one hand.

He blinks. "Sakura?"

Nervously, but relieved, she hugs him. "Naruto..." She mumbles. "Naruto..."

"Sakura-chan?" Confusion laces his voice. "What's wrong?"

Pulling away, she searches his face for something. As her eyes pierce him deeply, he smiles in a bit of curiosity, nervousness, and confusion.

Finally, she stops, eyes lowered until her lashes make spiky shadows cover her cheeks. "I thought I saw you the other day." She explains hesitantly. "In my garden...you were standing on the other side of the fence. But it wasn't you, you were pale and thin, and—"

She searches his eyes. They are a perfect blue, windows into a world of azure.

"—your eyes. They looked so dead." She finishes.

Naruto is surprised, a bit amused, and not in the least clairvoyant. He doesn't know what a telling description this is of his future, nor does he think of it as anything besides the fact that Sakura is here, in his house, in his arms.

So he smiles, tucks her head beneath her chin and says,

"Sakura, I promise that will never happen."

.

When he is face to face with her dying, butchered body, he can hear her whisper, "Liar."

.

.

.