Ino and Sakura: A Heartfelt Apology
It had been ten days now since Naruto ran off to reunite with Ino. It also had been ten days now since Sakura stopped coming to work. If not for her mother's initiative to explain things to Shizune, the hospital would have penalized her for being AWOL.
Sakura went to talk to Tsunade three days later about a particular assignment. Other than that, she stayed inside the house all the time. On the fifth day, she finally decided to talk to her mother about what had happened between her and Naruto. She also told Mebuki about her special assignment from Tsunade. After that, Sakura asked both of her parents to give her space. She requested them to make up something if anyone came looking for her. Sasuke had visited her twice. Mebuki informed her of these visits, but Sakura refused to see him. Five days passed without anyone bothering her. When knocks came from her door, the sound was so out of place it made her panic a little.
"Sakura, Ino is here. She wants to see you," Mebuki said.
She turned away on her pillow. "Tell her I'm out or something, Mom."
Sakura jumped when she heard the familiar voice. "Mom! What the hell? Why did you let her in?"
"I've enough of this, Sakura." Sakura heard a click, which meant that her mother had just unlocked the door to her room. "Ino, honey, I'll be downstairs if you need anything. Sakura, try not to mess up the house again." Sakura heard footsteps going down the stair.
"I'm coming in," Ino said, pushing the door ajar. "Am I gonna be fine? Auntie warned me to beware of flying objects."
"Are you kidding me? She doesn't know what she's saying! It was just a stupid picture frame!"
"It could have been a stupid bed, too, you know."
"Will you go home already?"
"Okay, okay, fine. I'm sorry." Ino entered and closed the door behind her.
"Why are you here?"
"I've been worried about you. I heard from Tsunade-sama that you were sick."
"Well, sorry to disappoint. I'm not sick, as you can see. Now go home."
"After all the courage I mustered to come here and see you? Nope. Not happening."
"I don't want to see somebody who's uglier than my mood."
Ino's brow twitched. "There's nothing ugly about the face being reflected on your forehead."
"Oh, yeah? Then what do you call those eyebags as dark as your armpits?"
"They're not as bad as those puffy eyes as swollen as your belly."
"Don't speak like you're something else when there's a hair sticking out your nose!"
"I'd rather it sticking out my nose than out my butt like yours!"
"Stop making up ridiculous insults, you toddler!"
"Let me remind you that it was not me who started this."
They locked glares and then broke away at the same time.
"I'm really worried about you, forehead."
"I don't need your sympathy, pig."
"I'm not sympathizing with you!"
"Then what did you come here for?"
"Because I wanted to thank you!"
Sakura sneered. "Oh, gosh, you're here to thank me? For what? For letting Naruto go?"
"For not trying anything stupid," Ino said. She began to cry. "I heard it all from Naruto. I was scared."
Sakura regarded Ino for a minute, and then she sighed. "Look. I was spouting those things in the heat of the moment. I couldn't help it. I was desperate. And I was actually sick for a couple of days, so…Hey, are you even listening?" Ino shook her head. Sakura heaved another sigh. "Come here."
Ino hugged Sakura. "You smell like bedsheets." Sakura lightly smacked the back of Ino's head.
"I know you're not the type, but if you ever hurt Naruto, I'll come back and take him from you."
"Wait! What do you mean come back?"
"I accepted to accompany Sasuke for his surgery in Kirigakure. We'll be out of the village for a couple of years or so."
"What? But that's so sudden!"
"It's not. Tsunade-sama has been trying to recruit medical nins since she received the letter from the Mizukage. It's just that nobody was interested."
"I never heard of that!"
"Tsunade-sama did it in private. She might have skipped you because of Hana-san's initial disposition toward Sasuke. To be honest, I initially refused the offer, too, but I don't see any reason to keep avoiding him. And considering what happened between Naruto and me, this is a chance for me to move on. I don't think I can face that idiot right now, frankly speaking. I don't even want to hear his voice." When Ino just continued to stare, Sakura raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"I want iced tea."
Grudgingly, Sakura went downstairs to get snacks. She invited Ino to the cramped balcony of her room. They propped pillows on the railing and lay down side by side.
"I thought that the first thing you'd do was strangle me," Ino said.
"If you had come a bit sooner, I would have."
"I didn't expect that at all. I mean, that guy was a Kasai, you know. By all rights, we should be at war right now."
"That's Uzumaki Naruto for you."
Ino turned to Sakura. "No hard feelings?"
"Don't ask for the impossible."
"That's a different matter, entirely, Ino. I love Naruto more than you can imagine, but I love you, too, like a sister. Just promise me that you'll take care of him. He deserves to be happy after all he's been through."
"I know. I can't even compare my infatuation with Sasuke in the past to the feelings I have for Naruto right now. I feel like I can give up everything for him. Things would've been different if I had noticed his feelings for me a little sooner."
"You wouldn't have fallen for him back then."
Sakura tried to picture it in her mind. "Nope. Can't see it."
"Okay. Let's be honest, now. Had you ever seen Naruto's sleeping face when we were kids?"
"Now, imagine it side by side with Sasuke and Neji's. What do you see? And there it is, the blush of admission. His only real turnoff for me was his inferiority complex. He didn't believe that anyone would approve of him. He thought he had to try really hard at everything. The truth is many girls had a crush on him back then."
"Okay. Now you're making things up."
Ino laughed. "Naruto was a notorious prankster. Many kids did not like him that much, especially the boys. Not to mention that he was always onto Sasuke, who was the crowd favorite. It's common sense that the girls wouldn't try to show it. You were not made aware of it because you were close to Naruto. They were afraid you would tell him."
"Never! That would have inflated his head too much." Sakura let out a shaky breath. As if triggered, all of her most vivid memories of the young Naruto surfaced to her consciousness. "I wouldn't have heard the end of it."
"Yeah. He could be quite smug about the smallest things."
Sakura started to sob as she replayed the scene in her head.
"He never told anyone when he was hurt," Ino went on. "He kept on smiling through his pain. He couldn't even ask anybody to help him with homework." Ino's voice cracked in places as she wept through her speech. "And though he had loved me for a long time, he tried his best not to show it because he was afraid that the other kids would be onto me. Sakura…Sakura…" Sakura's face was a mess now, tears and snot intermingling on her skin. "We would've fallen for him if we had paid closer attention, right? We would've fallen for him if we had stopped to consider. How could we have not if he was the sweetest boy we had ever met? I'm sorry. I'm sorry for taking him away from you."
They stayed that way, holding hands until all the ice in their tea had melted, and the liquid turned warm.
Sakura and Naruto: A Well Said Goodbye
"H-Hana-san, I think you've had enough," Naruto said.
Hana glared at Naruto as she drank another cup of sake. They had just gotten back from Aomino, the province that Shingen governed. They were in Tsunade's house. Seated beside Naruto was Tsunade, who was now as red as Hana, and beside Tsunade was Shizune. Sasuke sat beside Hana across from them.
"And whose fault do you think it is? You almost managed to take us to war!"
"But I had to save Ino."
"Shut it, or I'll stuff your mouth with more lobster!" Hana growled. "You two are really meant to be. Peas in the same pod. Rebellious, stubborn, reckless troublemakers. I'm fed up! Tsunade-sama, would you kindly spank this boy for me?"
Tsunade laughed and pulled Naruto into her bosom. Naruto tried to push himself away but only succeeded in sinking his hands in Tsunade's enormous chest. "Hohoho, it seems our Naruto has a thing for blondes."
"Damn it!" Hana turned to Sasuke. "Sasuke-kun, comfort me, too."
Sasuke shoved Hana's face away. "You've been drinking nonstop. You ought to take a break, Hana-san."
"I don't wanna!"
Tsunade tightened her embrace on Naruto. Knowing that he couldn't match Tsunade in strength, Naruto gave up struggling. He rested his chin on Tsunade's cleavage. Her breath smelled strongly of alcohol.
"Shingen shared with me the exact words you told him," Tsunade said. "You don't care if Konoha is destroyed, huh? Such cheek!" Her face relaxed into a tender expression. She put a wet kiss on Naruto's forehead. "Under normal circumstances, I would've immediately branded you as a rogue ninja. Be grateful you're famous. If not, nobody could have saved your sorry ass out of that mess. This is the last time I'm letting you off the hook, Naruto. I'll personally dispose of you if you so much as consider the same thing again. Understand?"
"Good." She released Naruto and reached out for a bottle of sake. "Are your preparations going smoothly? Tell me if you need anything."
Sasuke nodded. "It's not finished, yet, but we're right on schedule. I was finally able to meet Sakura two days ago."
"Naruto, aren't you going to talk with her? She's leaving in three days."
"Do you think it's a good idea?" Naruto said.
"Good or bad, she'll be gone for at least two years. She's still your best friend despite everything that's happened. At least say a proper goodbye."
"She might run away if she saw me."
"Then chase after her. You're the 'Orange Flash,' for god's sake."
On the way home after the pre-departure meeting with Tsunade, Sakura felt an urge to pass by the elementary school. It was around two in the afternoon. Classes were still on-going, and the street was almost empty. She stopped in front of the cylindrical building and recalled some fond memories of her childhood. Looking behind her, she found the tattered swing where Naruto had sat on while watching the other kids go home with their parents or friends. She went and sat down on it, imagining how it would have felt being scorned and shunned for no apparent reason.
"You barely fit on it."
Sakura almost fell over when she heard Naruto's voice behind her. To hide her surprise, she cleared her throat. "Are you trying to imply that I'm fat?"
"You've never really been fat, as in fat fat. You grow slightly chubby for a week during busy days, but that's it. You've got a nice body, to be honest."
"That's not appropriate to tell your best friend."
"How about thin or slender? Nope. Doesn't feel right. It's more of just right. I mean—"
"Okay, okay." Sakura giggled. "I get it. You don't need to burn your brain to elaborate."
"I'm sorry. I've been tailing you since you left the Administrative Building."
"Uhuh. Why though? If you wanted to talk, you didn't have to go ANBU on me."
"I didn't want to mess up the timing and scare you away."
"What am I, a cat?"
"Well, considering what I did, you probably wouldn't want to see me."
Naruto sighed. "So, umm, you're leaving the day after tomorrow."
"Be careful out there. Both of you."
"You don't have to remind me."
No one talked for a few seconds.
"I heard you attacked a noble who was a blood relative of the Daimyo," Sakura said. "Tsunade-sama had to apologize personally to avoid a diplomatic crisis. I know that you can be reckless, but you overdid it this time."
"Yeah. I understand what I did and its consequences, but I had to do it."
Sakura watched the splotches of sunlight on the ground that moved with the wind. "If I were in the same situation, would you save me the same way—okay, don't answer that."
"I would," he said without hesitation.
Sakura turned to Naruto, hope in her eyes.
"Even if it meant—"
Naruto frowned and looked away. "Sakura, don't make me choose. Please. You know what my answer will be."
Sakura ignored him. "Even if it meant abandoning Ino?"
Naruto stared into her eyes. "I would never abandon Ino."
"Even if it meant losing me?"
Naruto clenched his jaws. "Yes."
Slowly, Sakura's lips stretched into a relieved smile. "That's more like it." She left the swing and stretched her arms. "I feel like I can finally move on. Naruto, come over here." She opened her arms wide.
"Seriously? Right here?" He threw a quick glance at the school building's windows.
"Just come here!"
When Naruto was close enough, Sakura suddenly grabbed his face and kissed him on the lips. With a broad grin reminiscent to how Naruto used to do it, she said, "See you in two years. And thank you. Thank you for everything, Naruto."
"Yeah," Naruto said, returning her grin. "Goodbye, Sakura."
Jun and Shingen: The Land's New Name
Wherever she looked, Jun saw rice paddies. The farmers looked up and waved in greeting. She and Shingen sauntered on the shoulder of a dirt road under a clear sky. The plains stretched on for so long they seemed to extend beyond the horizon.
"Now this land is yours," Shingen said.
"I still can't believe it, but I'm grateful to you, Kasai-sama."
"I don't have any interest in this land. It's best that you owned it."
They stopped to watch a group of farmers sow stalks into the mud.
"I've been meaning to ask, but what changed your mind?" Jun said. "You are the Head of the Kasai Clan. Even if Naruto had been very powerful, you could've easily subjugated him with the right jutsu."
"I couldn't have won against him. He had bet everything on getting Yamanaka-san back. At that point, nothing was more important to him. Not his life, not his friends, not his village. Even with my vast repertoire of subjugation jutsu, I wouldn't have managed to put him down. That's what I felt, anyway."
"If there is such a thing as true love, I think what Naruto-sama feels for Yamanaka-san defines it. I can't help but be jealous of Yamanaka-san."
Jun thought that something was off with that statement. She made an involuntary step back.
Shingen stared at her for a moment, and then he understood. "I thought you'd know by now. Mugi—I mean, my attendant—always tells me to control my inner self, but I'm no good at doing it. Did you miss all the signs?"
"I did notice some peculiarities in you, but I ignored them."
Shingen laughed. "Do you know why my father felt elated at Hana-san's invitation? It's because it was the first time I'd shown any real interest in a girl."
"Does it mean…"
"Let's just say that gender is the least of my worries," Shingen said.
"Is it okay for you to be telling me this?"
"Naruto-sama is now a child of the Kasai Clan, and soon he will marry Yamanaka-san. Technically, we are already relatives by law. I don't see anything wrong with sharing private secrets to a relative."
"I understand." Jun bowed at Shingen. "Speaking of Naruto's adoption, I can't thank you enough. I shudder to think what it would've been had you declared war on Konoha."
"It all worked out because Naruto-sama is special. The clan elders were more than happy to accept him into our household. If someone has to be thankful for this gift, it's me."
"Be that as it may, I still apologize for Naruto's impertinence."
Shingen smiled, and it was dangerously captivating. Jun reined herself in. "Naruto-sama moved my heart to the point that now I worship him. I cannot hold a grudge against the man who taught me how strong an honest heart can be."
Shingen began walking again, and Jun matched his step.
"Kasai Aki is a fitting name for him," Jun said. "Bright flame. It aptly captures his character."
"That name is only a symbol that he is now a part of my family. I still think 'Uzumaki Naruto' suits him better. I forbade him to use his Kasai name except for official family matters."
"That would be a waste." An idea suddenly occurred to Jun. "I get it. I think I have the perfect use for it. How does Aki sound as this land's new name?"
Ino and Naruto: Onto the Same Shore
Naruto let out a long yawn as he sat up in his bed. The rays of the sun forced themselves into his room through the partly opened window. The morning breeze, which smelled of dew, played with the window's silk curtains. After a swift glance at the sky, he got out of bed, washed his face, and went down to the kitchen.
There was still some leftover fried rice and grilled chicken from last night. It was perfect for breakfast. He put it inside the microwave. The rolled up, slightly drenched Daily Konoha newspaper protruded out the door trap. As usual, he made a cup of chocolate and read the paper in his living room while waiting for the microwave's ping.
As he was turning the paper, urgent knocks from the door startled him. Frowning, he set down his cup and newspaper and went to get it. Whoever it was seemed to be in a hurry. "I'm coming! Don't destroy my door, geez." His frown vanished when he saw who it was. "Ino?"
Ino flashed him a wicked smile. "Naruto," she said, pulling a large suitcase to her side, "I ran away from home."