The Promises we Exchanged that Day
A Naruto Oneshot
Premise: When the leaves change color for autumn, bright orange clothing doesn't seem like such a dumb idea for camouflage anymore
"There's a lot of happiness in this world... don't let the tears in your eyes keep you from seeing it..."
"So... are we doing anything for Naruto's birthday?"
Sakura stared at Ino with a surprised look. "You remembered?"
Ino rolled her eyes as she threw her arms up in the air. "Of course I did. Who the hell do you think I am?"
"You forgot his birthday last year," Shikamaru pointed out with a shrug, which earned him a hard smack across the head.
"And, you, you don't have to look so shocked, you know," Ino muttered as she flicked her finger hard into Sakura's forehead. Sakura seemed to actually have been genuinely startled when Ino had brought up Naruto's birthday, so Ino couldn't help but feel a little insulted. Her memory wasn't that bad.
"Oh, uh... well... aha," Sakura stammered with a sheepish giggle as she tried to gather her bearings.
"So we doing anything this year?" Ino asked again.
"Hmm... well... nothing big, I guess," Sakura replied, shaking her head with a sad smile on her face as she watched the villagers solemnly resume their day after the Kyuubi attack anniversary memorial ceremony had ended. Twenty years had already passed, but time never did fully ease the wounds etched onto the hearts of those who had lost a precious person. Twenty years and yet the effects of the Kyuubi attack were still felt by those who had lost a husband or a wife, lost a friend, lost a brother or a sister, lost a parent. With so many lives lost on that horrendous night, it never really felt right to celebrate the one birth that did come from it.
But even if there were people who did want to celebrate Naruto's birthday with him, he never did make it easy. It was the one day he'd always just disappear. No pranks, no boisterous lunch at Ichiraku's, no haphazard explosions from Training Ground Seven, no nothing, like he didn't even exist just for that one day of the year. Even at a young age, without even really being able to understand the weight of what the Kyuubi attack entailed, he at least knew that October 10th was the one day the villagers scorned him more than usual, the one day their eyes looked at him with outright hatred rather than the usual frosty disregard. His presence had just been too much of a painful reminder during those early years, so he had learned to just disappear on that one day of the year, not to run away, but out of consideration for the villagers' feelings.
"Let's just bake him a cake and leave it at that," Sakura suggested as their small group of friends headed back into the village from the memorial site.
"Yeah, I think he'd like that. He'd probably complain if we did anything more than that," Ino agreed with a laugh.
"Even doing that much is troublesome," Shikamaru muttered, which earned him a smack across the head from Ino.
"I like chocolate cake," Chouji piped up.
"It's not for you," Ino groaned. "Honestly, boys."
"Hey, we're all twenty this year, so how about a cake laced with alcohol?" Kiba suggested with a laugh.
"I think Naruto-kun would want a cake that everyone can enjoy," Hinata said, growing a sweatdrop when she thought about what a disaster it would be for Lee to have even a drop of alcohol.
"Hey, Hina, mind if we commandeer your kitchen to bake the cake? Or maybe Sasuke-kun's place?" Ino asked, since they had the largest kitchens.
"The Hyuuga chefs are busy today," Neji replied.
"Sasuke-kun's place it is then," Ino said with a grin, at which Sasuke just grunted.
Deciding to cut Sasuke a break, Sakura giggled a little and suggested, "It's okay, we can use my kitchen. Naruto's not home right now anyway."
"So what kind of cake are we going to make for Naruto-kun?" Lee asked, picking up a shopping basket as they entered the market.
"Hmm..." Sakura thought for a moment as she idly tossed some general ingredients into the basket, like flour, eggs, butter, and whatnot. Then, as they passed by the produce stands, a nostalgic smile came to her lips as she remembered what had happened on Naruto's sixteenth birthday. "How about a sweet potato cake with chestnuts?"
Hinata couldn't help but smile as well. "Oh yeah, that's right... like Naruto-kun's sixteenth birthday..."
After knocking on his door yielded no response, Sakura peeked through a window to see that Naruto wasn't home. In the morning sunlight that filtered into his apartment was the usual mess, the wrinkled and worn clothing strewn hanging haphazardly from the furniture, another open carton of milk sitting on the kitchen table and left to spoil yet again, various training equipment strewn across the floor like a caltrop minefield.
And yet it was eerily quiet, almost like looking at a painting, like it wasn't real. Sakura felt that there was something definitely off about all this, but she just couldn't put her finger on it, so she just shook it off as just her imagination.
She then glanced down at the gift bag she held in her hands and briefly considered leaving Naruto's present for his sixteenth birthday on his doorstep. Despite the fact that they had become friends more than three years ago, this was actually the first time she had gotten him a present. It wasn't really her fault though, since he had up and left Konoha to go gallivanting around the entire continent with Jiraiya for two and a half years just when she had finally started considering him as a true friend.
But, still, the prospect of actually handing him a present after missing so many of his birthdays was making her feel a little embarrassed and shy. How would he react? Would he like it? Was it too plain? Now she was starting to worry that the birthday present she had for him wasn't good enough.
With a sigh, she decided that the least she could do was give it to him in person, so she set off to the rooftops to find him. It couldn't be too difficult to find a loud orange-clad ninja, right? She never really had trouble finding him before anyway.
The first place she looked was Naruto's favorite ramen stand. Surprisingly, it wasn't Naruto she found there but a frazzled-looking Hinata. Over the years, Hinata had worked hard to be more outgoing and at least build up a calm and collected public persona for the sake of representing her clan, so it was a little odd to see her revert to the tremblingly withdrawn girl Sakura had known from their academy days.
"Relax, it's just me," Sakura assured with a laugh. But, for some reason, the terrified expression on Hinata's face made it seem like Sakura was the last person she had wanted to run into.
It was then that Sakura noticed that Hinata was nervously clutching a neatly wrapped present to her chest. As Hinata's gaze also glanced down at the present Sakura was holding as well, a heavy silence fell between the two girls.
"Sorry, girls, you won't find Naruto here today," Ayame said with playful smile, breaking the ice.
"O-oh, is he out on a mission?" Sakura wondered with a frown. What other reason could there be for Naruto to not eat at Ichiraku's?
"Beats me. My dad usually makes him his birthday ramen feast on the 9th or 11th, since he's never here on the 10th," Ayame replied with a shrug. "He's probably around somewhere though."
"Oh, thanks, Ayame-san," Sakura said.
"Y-yes, thank you," Hinata added, bowing her head.
Then, through some unspoken agreement, Sakura and Hinata headed off together to continue their search for Naruto. Sakura had never really figured out how to really communicate with Hinata due to the Hyuuga girl's reticent nature, though they had always been on friendly terms. But the two of them had grown somewhat overly conscious of each other ever since the war had ended.
It was likely due to the fact that they were rivals was now out in the open. Hinata had declared her feelings for Naruto during the heat of battle when Nagato had attacked Konoha, and Sakura herself had also confessed her feelings to Naruto shortly afterwards, but the difference was that Naruto hadn't believed her.
Stupid. Sakura groaned inwardly at how incredibly bad her timing was in telling Naruto that she had fallen in love with him. Her feelings had been true, but the delivery, the timing, and the fact that she had ulterior motives in trying to get him to stop shouldering the burden of Sasuke's betrayal all by himself had totally screwed up everything. And because she had already screwed up once, it was really difficult to try again.
Sneaking a sidelong glance at Hinata, she wondered if Naruto had ever given the shy girl a response. As thickheaded as Naruto was, Sakura was sure that even he was aware of the fact that keeping a girl waiting for a response to a confession for too long was cruel.
With an inward sigh, Sakura felt that this situation with Hinata might turn out even worse than what had happened with Ino. With Ino, they had been young and immature, and the open and hostile feud had at least allowed them to let off some steam to prevent the pressure from building to unbearable levels. There were no such hostilities with Hinata, just a heavy awkwardness that threatened to crush everyone involved.
"Tsunade-sama?" Sakura knocked on the door to the Hokage's office when the two of them arrived there.
Sakura and Hinata bowed. "Tsunade-sama, do you know if Naruto has been assigned out on a mission today?"
Tsunade scowled as she checked the clock on the wall. She had also wanted to give Naruto a birthday present, but she was stuck in her office with a mountain of work to do since Konoha was still recovering from the war. So she had sent one of her messengers to find Naruto and bring him back to her office, but that had been hours ago. Honestly, how hard could it be to find a loud blond ninja wearing a bright orange jacket?
"No. He came in yesterday to submit a request for a mission, but that was denied, so he should have the day off today," Tsunade explained. If neither Sakura or Hinata could locate him, then clearly he didn't want to be found. "If you find him, tell him I want him in my office at least before the day is over."
As the two girls took to the rooftops again to continue their search, Sakura noticed that Hinata now had her Byakugan active. She knew it wasn't a race to see who could find Naruto first, but she still felt frustrated that her tracking skills weren't really anywhere above average.
The next place they checked was Naruto's usual training ground. Hinata probably already had the entire place scanned before they had even got there, so Sakura couldn't help but feel that the Byakugan user was just humoring her by even bothering to step foot onto the training ground. That really just added to Sakura's frustrations.
"Not here either," Sakura murmured, taking a look around. "Argh, where could he be?"
"Um... do you want to take a break for lunch?" Hinata asked meekly, holding up the bento she had prepared. She had heard from Kiba that guys really liked getting a handmade meal from a girl, so she had been planning on asking Naruto out on a picnic of sorts. But it was already past lunchtime, and it seemed like their search for Naruto might take a while.
Sakura had been frantically trying to finish Naruto's gift on time, so she hadn't had time to eat breakfast. "I guess so..."
"I'm not really confident in my cooking, but I hope you like it," Hinata said nervously as the two girls took a seat underneath a tree at the edge of the training ground clearing.
Sakura opened a bento and saw a colorful variety of food that seemed to have been painstakingly laid out in a decorative fashion, almost like artwork. She knew right away that it had been meant for Naruto, and she was sure that Hinata knew that she knew, so neither mentioned anything about it, just letting it hang silently and awkwardly like everything else between them.
"Thanks, Hinata, it looks delicious."
As the two of them ate, they stared out at the bright autumn foliage in order to avoid any eye contact. Konoha's beautiful autumn landscape seemed to ease some of the unspoken tension between them anyway, so it wasn't such a bad way to spend some time.
The people of Fire Country have always seemed to have something of an odd fascination with death, so autumn and spring were considered to be the times when Konoha was the most beautiful. In the spring, the cherry blossoms would spend their ephemeral lives gently riding the wind to their final resting places, while in autumn the colored leaves would cling to the branches with their last remaining breath.
And indeed the Konoha autumn was beautiful. The music of autumn, with the whisper of the wind playing a soothing aria using the rustling and crackling of the leaves as its instruments, made it easy to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the peaceful afternoon lull.
Sakura then suddenly let out a light giggle. "It just occurred to me... that if Naruto just happened to be sitting in one of those trees, his crazy orange clothes would blend right in with the leaves. He wouldn't even have to try and it'd still be practically impossible to find him."
A sad smile crossed Hinata's lips. "Maybe he is trying..."
Sakura blinked before tilting her head to one side in thought. "Trying?"
"To hide, I mean," Hinata murmured, both her voice and gaze somewhat distant. "Back when we were at the academy, he was never in class on October 10th, every year."
"Well, he wasn't in class on most other days either," Sakura pointed out with a wry smile.
Hinata laughed a little. "True... but his birthday does fall on a day when most everyone else would be grieving..."
"Yeah, there is that..." Sakura sighed. "Maybe the reason he wears orange is because it stands out most of the time but at the same time is the perfect camouflage for the one time of year he wants to be left alone..."
"Then... maybe we should just leave him alone?" Hinata wondered worriedly. She had always been the type to be overly conscious about whether she was being a bother or burden to others.
Sakura got up and dusted herself off. "I'm not going to leave him alone. Let's go find that idiot."
"Okay," Hinata said with a smile as Sakura helped her up to her feet. And somehow, before they knew it, things weren't so heavy between them anymore.
"You hear that, Naruto? We're going to hunt you down, so there's no use hiding from us!" Sakura, cupping her hands, called out loudly. "We're going to find you!"
Hinata hesitated for a moment, wanting to call out to Naruto as well but embarrassed over the prospect of doing something so out of character for her. Her wavering indecision only added to her fear that she'd lose her chance to try something outrageous for once with each second of hesitation that ticked by.
Then, finally gathering her courage, she shut her eyes tight and threw all reason out the window before shouting, "N-N-Naruto-kun! If we say that we'll find you, then we'll find you! We don't go back on our word! That's our nindo!"
Then, suddenly, off in the distance, deeper into the forest across that sea of orange autumn foliage, a small column of smoke rose up into the crisp blue sky.
"Do you think..." Hinata trailed off.
Sakura shrugged. "Worth a look."
With that, the two of them took to the trees and sped through the forest across branches until they reached the clearing where the smoke was coming from.
And there he was, roasting sweet potatoes and chestnuts in the embers of a pile of burning autumn leaves as if he hadn't a care in the world.
"Oh, hey, Sakura-chan, Hinata," Naruto greeted with his signature grin as he looked up from the fire. "Want an afternoon snack?"
The girls were so taken aback by his easygoing attitude that they were rendered speechless for a moment. They hadn't really been sure what to expect, perhaps that maybe he'd need cheering up, maybe something more melancholic; his birthday fell on the anniversary of the Kyuubi attack after all. But, then again, this was Uzumaki Naruto they were talking about.
"I knew there was no point in worrying about an idiot like you," Sakura groaned. And Naruto's grin just widened as he gave her a thumbs-up, causing her to face-palm and shake her head some more.
"Um..." Hinata was about to congratulate him on a happy birthday when...
"I SMELL SWEET POTATOES! AND CHESTNUTS!"
Sakura and Hinata hit the deck as Chouji came barreling through the clearing with Shikamaru and Ino in tow. When Chouji skidded to a halt, sending fallen leaves scattering up into the air, Naruto laughed as he used a stick to poke around the pile of burning leaves for a sweet potato and skewered it for Chouji.
"Irasshaimase!" Naruto guffawed. "I got plenty, so no worries."
"Sweet potatoes and chestnuts roasted in fallen leaves, the ultimate in autumn snacks!" Chouji declared with reverence at the sweet potato being offered to him. "Thanks, Naruto."
"Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered. As much as he liked sweet potatoes and chestnuts, the effort expended in peeling them offset any enjoyment that came with the delicious taste.
"Ino, you okay?" Sakura asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Dizzy..." Ino was still swirly-eyed from having been dragged through the woods by a hungry and rampaging Akimichi.
"Thought I smelled something good cooking. Why weren't we invited to the party?" Kiba asked with his usual grin as he, Akamaru, and Shino suddenly arrived at the clearing as well.
"Yosh! I thought I'd find some dastardly villain starting a forest fire, but I find instead the passionate flames of youth!" Lee declared as he, Neji, and Tenten also joined the party.
"That puny fire isn't going to roast enough sweet potatoes for all of us," Kiba scoffed as he gathered more fallen leaves and tossed them into the fire to make it bigger.
"Hey! Watch it with the fire! It should be more like an oven than an open fire," Naruto warned.
"Yeah, you gotta be careful to pile on enough leaves to keep the fire suffocated enough from becoming too large but don't pile on too many that the lack of oxygen will kill the fire," Chouji said, carefully arranging the newly added leaves to create a larger oven.
"Whatever, c'mon, everyone grab a sweet potato and toss it into the fire!" Kiba whooped. "Bring on the sweet potatoes!"
The fact that it was Naruto's birthday was still niggling at them at the back of their minds, and it wasn't lost on them that it was probably a sensitive topic, so they all had just decided to just have as much fun as possible without making a big deal of it. So with that, the old group of friends fell into the usual easygoing rowdiness that they were used to as they continued to have fun roasting sweet potatoes and chestnuts together. Just being able to spend time with each other like this was happiness enough.
Naruto was about to reach for a sweet potato as well but, without even realizing, Sakura and Hinata had both taken his hands in theirs. "Um... Hinata? Sakura-chan?"
"You don't need your hands, we'll feed you," Sakura said, grinning as she and Hinata helped each other peel a sweet potato and hold it up to his mouth.
Seeing two beautiful girls sitting on each side of him, Naruto couldn't help but burst out laughing. "Wow, life is good..."
After deciding to make a sweet potato cake with chestnuts, they had all gathered at Sakura's place to do the baking.
"How're those sweet potatoes coming along?" Ino asked as she came out to the backyard where the boys were roasting sweet potatoes in a pile of burning autumn leaves.
"Hold your horses. This is serious business," Chouji said, concentrating on keeping the optimal heat going.
"Well, we're almost done with preparing the cake batter, so we're going to need those sweet potatoes soon," she informed. She then squatted down next to Sasuke on the backyard porch as she observed him intently with her chin resting on her hands. Clearly it was creeping him out.
"What?" he grumbled, trying his best to distance himself from her by scooting away.
"Couldn't you at least pretend like you're having fun? You think you're too cool for roasting sweet potatoes or something?" she asked as she poked him in the side, causing him to cringe. Chouji, Kiba, Lee, and even Neji were really getting into it, almost like they were little kids again getting all excited over a pile of burning leaves, but Sasuke was his usual detached and disinterested self.
"Hn," Sasuke merely grunted.
"Oh, come on, at least try it! It's fun! When was the last time you roasted sweet potatoes like this?" Ino urged, trying to get him to loosen up and have some fun.
"None of your business," Sasuke huffed, closing his eyes as he laid back against the cool wood of the porch with his arms pillowing his head. The last time he had roasted sweet potatoes had been when he was six, with his brother, Itachi. That caused a frown to form on his usually stoic face.
"Well, anyway, Shino not back yet?" Ino asked, getting up to her feet.
"Hmm, with his scout bugs, it shouldn't take him this long to find Naruto," Kiba remarked as he patted Akamaru on the head. "I guess we'll go look too. With our noses and Shino's bugs, we'll be back with Naruto in a flash."
Hoisting himself up on Akamaru's back, he caught a whiff of Shino's trail, since he hadn't left to go searching for Naruto too long ago. He decided to follow it for a bit through the village, since it might be a pain to find Naruto only to have to go look for Shino as well.
Looking around, the village wasn't as lively as it usually was. Even though it had already been twenty years since the Kyuubi attack, the mood was still somber. It was probably because the people of Fire Country tended to be overly sensitive and considerate. The people who had lost loved ones were afraid that selfishly trying to be happy on the anniversary of such a terrible tragedy no matter how long ago would offend the departed spirits. And the people who hadn't lost anybody were afraid to offend the people who had. So even if the period of mourning had long past, the restraint on happiness on that day was still in full effect all around. No wonder Naruto had never come to appreciate his own birthday.
The Inuzuka were one of the few families that went against the cultural grain in Fire Country though, so Kiba could never really agree with the self-inflicted guilt-tripping and punishment that the people of Konoha always used to chain themselves to the past.
But it seemed like things were getting better. He couldn't help but smile as a group of kids, laughing happily and blissfully unaware, ran across the village streets playing ninja. Seeing the stark difference between the happiness of the children and the melancholy of the adults only made him appreciate more what Kurenai always fought to protect, what Asuma had died to protect, Konoha's "kings".
Kiba paused when he saw the owner of the owner of the incense and fragrance shop waving to him. "Hello, Hanasaki-san."
"You're friends with Uzumaki-sensei, right?" Mrs. Hanasaki said with a slightly pensive smile before handing him a small gift bag. "Could you do me a favor and give this gift to Uzumaki-sensei for me? It's the latest perfume from Issey Miyake; I know it can't make up for the years of suffering Uzumaki-sensei had been put through, but I'd still like to offer it as a token of my appreciation."
Kiba grew a sweatdrop when he took a peek inside the gift bag. Why women's perfume? And since when did Naruto become a sensei? Shaking his head a little, he decided not to think too deeply about it. "No problem, Hanasaki-san. Well, I gotta be on my way."
Continuing his search for Naruto and Shino, Kiba snickered a little as he tried to imagine Naruto's reaction upon receiving girly perfume from Issey Miyake as a birthday gift.
Then, thinking back a little, Kiba realized that he himself held the proud distinction of being the first person amongst the Rookie Nine to ever give Naruto a birthday gift. It had been back when they were little kids, maybe six years old.
A bunch of the guys had decided to play hide-and-seek after academy classes were over. Kiba had been chosen to be the seeker, but he had to have his nose taped and Akamaru had to sit out, since it'd be unfair if he just sniffed everyone out.
But, still, Kiba had always taken pride in being awesome at hide-and-seek, so it hadn't taken him long to find everyone even without his sense of smell.
"Damn, we can never win against Kiba," one of his classmates had griped.
"Well, it was fun, I guess there's always next time."
"See ya guys tomorrow, I gotta get home."
"Yeah, I have to go home too. My mom doesn't want me to stay out too long on October 10th for some reason."
But when Kiba had done a quick head count, he had realized that he had missed one person. "Hey, wait, the game's not over yet. I still haven't found that Uzumaki kid."
"That loser? Just leave that loser alone."
"Yeah, it'd be pretty funny if that loser was hiding all night."
And, with that, all the other kids had left. But Kiba still had his pride and wouldn't accept defeat, so he had kept looking. Employing every tracking trick he had learned so far from his family, he managed to find clues to Naruto's whereabouts, but they always led to dead ends. Naruto was definitely a crafty one.
As the sun had began to set, Kiba had finally got frustrated enough to untape his nose. "Come on, Akamaru! Our pride as Inuzuka is on the line!"
Whenever he had gone hunting with his family, it had always been the crafty foxes that always managed to elude the Inuzuka hunting dogs the longest. Fox meat wasn't as valuable as some of the other easier catches like deer or turkey, but the pride of having caught a fox was what made it by far the most delicious catch. Now, Naruto was that fox.
As the daylight faded, Kiba had finally managed to find Naruto taking a nap up in a tree. The brightly colored autumn leaves had blended his bright shirt and hair into the perfect camouflage, but that didn't matter too much to his nose.
"Hey, you, Uzumaki! Found ya!"
Startled awake by Kiba's loud voice, Naruto had fallen from the tree into a pile of fallen leaves, sending them flying up into the air in a shower of red, orange, and yellow.
"Took you long enough," Naruto had said with a grin.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever, I still found ya, so I win," Kiba had scoffed with a roll of his eyes. "But, for making me resort to using my nose, here's a prize."
Naruto had stared hard at the coupon for a free ramen at Ichiraku's before his face split into a wide grin. "Hey, thanks!"
At the time, Kiba hadn't known that it had been Naruto's birthday, but Naruto had told him some years later that the Ichiraku coupon had been the first birthday gift he had gotten from anybody aside from the Sandaime Hokage.
Shaking himself out of his reverie of old memories, Kiba suddenly felt a little lightheaded for some reason, like he was forgetting something. "Wait... what was I doing again?"
Then, getting a whiff of Shino's trail, he remembered. "Oh yeah, looking for Shino. Damn it, where'd he run off to?"
"The cake is starting to smell good," Chouji remarked, fighting back the drool that was pooling in his mouth.
"The others are taking a really long time though," Hinata pointed out worriedly. After Shino and Kiba hadn't come back, Lee, Neji, and Tenten had also set out to search for Naruto. But that had been about an hour ago.
"Forehead, you need to keep better tabs on your husband," Ino exclaimed as she shook Sakura by the shoulders.
"Hey, I got him to come back to the village, didn't I?" Sakura protested with a huff. Shortly after the war had ended, Naruto had made the puzzling decision to decline the position of Hokage and had instead left the village to live as a hermit like Jiraiya had, taking up his title of the Toad Sage. It hadn't been until his marriage to Sakura that he had finally returned and settled down. Naruto and Sakura had been pretty much inseparable ever since then, only on his birthday would he wander off on his own, and she had learned to give him his space.
"Now that he's back, is he going to accept the Hokage position anytime soon?" Chouji asked.
Sakura smiled a little as she played around with the wedding band on her finger. "He said that it was too time-consuming, that he'd rather spend more time with me."
Sasuke pretended to gag when he imagined Naruto saying something so cheesy, at which Ino rolled her eyes and stuffed him into a headlock. "Sasuke-kun, you should learn a thing or two about making a girl feel special. Here, you can practice on me."
"I really like your smile," Sasuke deadpanned.
"Really?" Ino asked, happily perking up at the compliment.
"Yeah, the way your smile brings out the wrinkles around your eyes is fascinating, like little crow's feet," he added with an entirely straight face, causing a vein to pop on Ino's forehead.
"I don't have any wrinkles! My skin is perfect!" Ino screamed as she shoved him away and ran off to the bathroom to check the mirror if smiling actually did cause any wrinkles on her face.
"That moron Naruto better get here soon. I have things to do," Sasuke grumbled as he took advantage of Ino's absence to take up more space on the couch and lie down.
"Don't say that, Sasuke-kun. Naruto came to your birthday party, so you should do the same," Sakura chided.
"I never asked for a birthday party, you guys forced it on me. I'd like to disappear on my own birthday too, but I'd have a squadron of ANBU after me if I did that," Sasuke muttered, cursing his status as an ex-rogue.
Most people loved birthdays. Sakura, Ino, and Tenten were girls who always cheerfully reveled in birthday parties and were the ones to push these celebration on the reluctant boys, but Hinata could sort of understand where Sasuke was coming from, though probably for different reasons. She had been mired with self-confidence issues for years, feeling worthless and weak, not deserving of a birthday. But she had since grown to like herself, enough to be able to celebrate herself on that one special day of the year. She really wanted Sasuke to see that in himself as well. "But, Sasuke-kun..."
Sasuke didn't let her finish as he just got up and stalked off outside into the backyard. It had taken a lot of courage for Hinata to speak up like that, so when she had been immediately shunned like that, she deflated into woefulness.
"Sasuke-kun has his issues too," Sakura murmured solemnly. "The Uchiha Massacre... Itachi had decided to do it on Sasuke-kun's birthday of all days. He's never really had a happy birthday ever since despite my efforts."
Hinata felt herself subconsciously reaching her hand out to where Sasuke had stormed off. "So both Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun..."
"Yeah, Naruto's already come to terms with his ghosts, but Sasuke-kun is still..." Sakura said with a sigh. "The past is still keeping him from accepting happiness. A birthday is supposed to be a wonderful thing..."
"You can't love others if you can't love yourself first," Hinata agreed in a soft voice. It was a lesson Hinata had learned the hard way after years of detesting herself for being so weak. "A birthday should be a celebration of yourself..."
"Hey, this is my secret base, no trespassing!"
Sasuke shot a heated glare at the dirty blond kid who had suddenly barged into the abandoned bunker Sasuke had taken refuge in. He recognized the boy as a fellow student from the class next door at the ninja academy. "I was here first!"
"Ha? I claimed this spot months ago!" Naruto argued, pointing up at the sign that had been carved into the wall opposite the door.
Sasuke furrowed his eyebrows as he struggled to read the overly-complex and archaic kanji characters. "Dai-ryu-shi? What kind of moronic name is that?"
"It's read Na-ru-to, you fool!" he screeched angrily. He had never been given a proper kanji name, only katakana, so he had made one up for himself using the most archaic kanji he could find, just like in those cool yakuza dramas. "Who the hell do you think I am? I'm going to be the Souban of all Fire Country, so I need a badass name like that."
"Do you even know who the hell I am?" Sasuke snarled, standing tall to seem bigger than he really was. Having been born as the more approachable Uchiha heir had gotten him used to being treated as a prince, so he wasn't used to being talked back to like this.
"You could be the Captain Commander of Soul Society for all I care, you're in my secret base!" Naruto shot back.
And with that, a massive brawl broke out between them. Well, as massive as a brawl could be when the only combatants were two pint-sized academy students anyway. Before they knew it, their fight had spilled out of Naruto's secret hideout and out into the forest clearing where the fallen autumn leaves were being tossed and scattered into the wind from their struggle for dominance.
"Hey! Hey! Break it up, you two!"
Somehow their brawl had migrated into the village marketplace, where a large burly shop owner picked them both up but the back of their shirts. Even so, the two boys wildly tried to throw punches and kicks at each other.
It was then that the shop owner recognized who the two boys were. With a look of disgust, he tossed Naruto away like a stray disease-infested mutt. Sasuke, on the other hand, was politely let back down to his feet.
"It's Uchiha Sasuke!"
"Sasuke-chan, are you okay?"
"You're not hurt, are you?"
Sasuke had wanted to throw himself back into the fight, but now he had a bunch of the villagers crowding around him and making a big fuss. Ever since the Uchiha clan had been wiped out a few months ago, ever since he had become Konoha's last Uchiha, Sasuke had been treated like some kind of valuable commodity by the villagers.
It was like he was a tool, not even human. The Uchiha had long since been one of the powerful pillars of security for Konoha. But now that was gone. Sasuke was now basically the only insurance of rebuilding that powerful military force. A tool. They didn't care about him. No one did. Anyone who had cared about him was now blood on Itachi's hands. People only saw him as a tool.
But even worse, they pitied him. He was only a child and yet he had witnessed the bloodbath that Itachi had let loose. The villagers treated him like fragile glass, only handled him with the most delicate of kid gloves. It made him feel weak, like it was a confirmation of everything Itachi had accused him of.
This blond moron had been the first person since the Uchiha Massacre to treat him like a person. He couldn't even remember what they were fighting about anymore, but that didn't matter. It was through communicating with their fists that he had finally felt alive again.
"What do you think you're doing, demon brat!"
A group of adults had Naruto pinned against the wall, with a large muscular forearm pressed against his throat, threatening to suffocate him.
"Don't you know that Sasuke is the last Uchiha?"
"How dare you lay a hand on him!"
There they go again. Uchiha Sasuke, the tool. Uchiha Sasuke, whose value only lied in the fact that he was the only one who could rebuild a Sharingan army.
"Let him go!" Sasuke shouted angrily. "I'm not weak! Even if I fought this moron, I know I'd win! I'm not a weakling that needs to be protected like this!"
The surrounding villagers immediately tried to placate him, piling on empty praise about how powerful the Uchiha were, but that there was no need to prove it against a dirty street rat.
"Let him go!" Sasuke insisted heatedly.
The men pinning Naruto down grimaced before finally seceding. "Tche, the Uchiha has shown mercy on you, street rat, be grateful."
"Grateful? I didn't need your help," Naruto spat as the crowd dispersed, leaving only Sasuke.
"I didn't help you. I just wanted to finish our fight, somewhere where we won't be interrupted," Sasuke shot back.
With that, the two of them trudged back in the direction of the woods where Naruto's secret hideout was located. But as they made their way through the village, Sasuke felt a chill run down his spine as he noticed that the two of them were attracting a lot of attention.
He was used to the stares. Those eyes filled with disgusting pity. Those eyes filled with phony sympathy. But these eyes were different. These eyes that glared down at the blond boy were filled with unrelenting hatred, icy revulsion, but most of all asphyxiating fear.
"Are the villagers always like this to you?" Sasuke asked with a frown once they reached the edge of the woods.
"Nah, they're usually not so bad. Just today," Naruto muttered with a shrug. He too, like Sasuke, hated receiving pity.
Naruto shrugged again. "I dunno... today's my birthday, I guess. Supposedly a lot of people died on my birthday."
Sasuke stopped and turned around to face the blond boy. "Mine too..."
"Damn it, Sasuke-kun, how long are you going to sulk?" Ino groaned as she and Sakura tried to drag him back inside.
"I'm not sulking!" Sasuke grumbled.
"You're totally sulking!"
"Our Hina is all depressed because of you!"
"What does she have to do with any of this?" Sasuke muttered, though unable to conceal his slight surprise. He and the Hyuuga girl barely knew each other after all.
"Ha! You left yourself open! Shintenshin no jutsu!" Ino declared triumphantly, taking advantage of the brief momentary drop in Sasuke's guard.
"You know that Sasuke-kun's going to be furious about this, right?" Sakura remarked, raising an eyebrow as she hoisted Ino's now limp body over her shoulder.
"I know, that's why I'm going to make this so worth it," Ino, now occupying Sasuke's body, said with a wicked smirk.
With that, she marched back inside with an air of regality, startling Hinata as she knelt down on one knee in front of the shy girl. Posing as Sasuke, she gave Hinata a devilish ladykiller smile before taking her hand.
"Get out!" Sasuke roared as he managed to force Ino out of his head.
"Damn it, I didn't even get to have any fun!" Ino whined as she was returned to her own body.
"What is this, I don't even... argh, dealing with girls like you is so exhausting," Sasuke groaned as he plopped down on the couch next to Hinata, not even having the energy to get angry after expending such a herculean effort to dispel Ino's trademark technique. He didn't even notice that he was still holding Hinata's hand, though Hinata seemed hyper-aware of it, with her face growing redder and redder with each passing second.
Ino, getting acclimated again with her own body by testing out the movement in all her limbs, then smelled the sweet fragrance of the cake baking in the oven and grinned. "Hey, what's with the cake? Is it someone's birthday today?"
Sakura could feel her blood freeze as she dropped the bake timer she had been checking. Everyone else had been too busy giving Ino a strange look to notice the horrified expression that had transiently appeared on Sakura's face before she had quickly schooled it.
"Are you feeling okay? Chouji asked. "It's Naruto's birthday."
"N-Naruto?" Ino's face scrunched up, as if she was having a hard time remembering. She then started shivering, letting out a shaky laugh as she grasped at her head. "O-oh, yeah... silly me... Naruto... h-how could I have forgotten?"
"Ino, are you okay?" Hinata asked worriedly as she guided Ino back down onto the couch.
"Y-yeah, I'm fine," Ino stammered, though the terrified and confused look on her face said differently.
"Hey, did something go wrong with the Shintenshin no jutsu?" Shikamaru asked with a frown, being the most knowledgeable person outside of the Yamanaka clan about the technique.
"I... I don't think so," Ino murmured worriedly. "I've done this technique millions of times... nothing felt different..."
As the others clamored around Ino, Sakura stood back and looked on from a distance, her shoulders slumped as a sad and bitter smile fell on her face. She now had a good idea about why the others hadn't come back.
"I... I'll go look for Naruto too! The others are taking too long!" Ino exclaimed, suddenly bolting to her feet as her voice started sounding shrill in a panic.
"Hey, wait! You should take it easy!" Chouji shouted, chasing after her.
"Argh, troublesome... I'll go after them too. You guys should stay here in case the others come back," Shikamaru said with a groan before heading out after his teammates as well.
As Ino briskly walked through the village streets, Chouji's and Shikamaru's voices chasing after her as muddled echos, her eyes kept darting around desperately for any sign of Naruto.
Why can't I remember his face?
"Why're you crying? Did you scrape you knee or something?" Ino asked when she noticed a pink-haired girl sitting on a swing all by herself.
Sakura kept her tear-stained face buried in her sleeves and shook her head.
"C'mon, I can't help if you don't talk to me," Ino coaxed. "My name is Ino, what's yours?"
Sniffling but still refusing to show her face, she whimpered, "S-Sakura..."
"Are the boys making fun of you?"
This time Sakura nodded weakly.
"Don't listen to them! They're just stupid boys! They don't know nothin'!" Ino exclaimed.
Sakura shook her head. "G-girls too..."
Ino let out a sigh, knowing how mean girls can get. "What are they saying about you? I'll prove them wrong."
Sakura shook her head again. "Y-you'll make fun of me too..."
"I promise I won't. I'll even be your friend!" Ino declared cheerfully.
"R-really? Promise?" Sakura asked hopefully, though the doubt and fear that tinged her voice still rang clear.
"Yeah, promise. I'll swallow a thousand needles if I break it," Ino assured with a confident grin. "Now tell me what's wrong."
"They... they call me Sadako..." Sakura whispered softly.
Ino grew a sweatdrop when Sakura finally lifted her head, only to reveal that her face was hidden from view by long tresses of unwashed pink hair. Sadako was the ghost girl with long hair that climbs out of a television screen in that one popular horror movie, so Ino actually could see where the nickname had come from.
"It's because you hide your face that they call you Sadako," Ino said with a sigh. "I'm sure you have a cute face, so show it off confidently!"
"N-no! I'm ugly... they make fun of me even more if I show my face..." Sakura trembled as sobs threatened to overtake her again.
"C'mon, that can't be true," Ino said comfortingly as she reached to part Sakura's hair to get a good look at her face. But she was immediately swatted away.
"N-no... you won't want to be my friend either if you see my face..." Sakura cried softly.
"Trust me," Ino said in a warm voice as she gently caressed Sakura's cheek without actually parting her hair. "Do you trust me?"
Hesitantly, Sakura finally nodded.
Ino, not really sure what to expect, gulped nervously before parting Sakura's hair to reveal her face. She then blinked in surprise when the ugly monstrosity that Sakura had kept making herself out to be never appeared.
Then, grinning, Ino pulled out a red ribbon from her pocket and tied Sakura's hair back with it. "See? You're really cute! So you should show it off confidently!"
"B-b-but... my face..."
Ino then held up a pocket mirror for Sakura to look at. "I think those whisker marks on your cheeks are super adorable!"
"I'm getting worried," Hinata said as she and Sakura put the final decorating touches on the cake. It had been a while since Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji had left, and they hadn't heard anything from the others either. Now it was just her, Sakura, and Sasuke left.
When Sakura didn't respond, Hinata felt a little helpless as she watched Sakura despondently hug her knees to her chest as she idly kept adding more and more decorations to the cake. Not knowing what to do, she shot Sasuke a look, begging him for help.
Sasuke let out an exasperated sigh, getting up to his feet as he ran his hand through his hair. "Do you want me to go look for everyone or something?"
Scared that he might not come back if he left, just like everyone else who had gone off to search for Naruto, Hinata had actually hoped that he'd try to cheer Sakura up. But, knowing what Sasuke was like, maybe he'd be more useful if he went out to go search for everyone else. "P-promise you'll come back? Even if you don't find them?"
That lost puppy dog look Hinata was giving him was really getting to him, so he tilted his head with a crack to loosen up the joints in his neck to both avoid her gaze and to keep up his cool guy image. "Sure, I'll be back in half an hour."
"He's not coming back," Sakura said softly once Sasuke had gone.
"But Sasuke-kun is really reliable. I'm sure he'll be able to bring everyone back," Hinata said, trying to cheer Sakura up. "If anybody can find Naruto-kun, it's got to be his best friend Sasuke-kun, right?"
Sakura shook her head as she hugged her knees closer to her chest, looking as if she was desperately trying to fight back tears. "No... Sasuke-kun won't ever find Naruto... nobody can..."
"No, I'm sure we will. We've managed to find him on his birthday for the past five years!" Hinata pointed out, scrambling to try to keep Sakura's spirits up now that it was just them two left.
"S-sorry... I... I promised Naruto that I'd stay strong until the end, but... I c-can't do this anymore..." Sakura choked, now trembling like a dam that was buckling under the tears that were just barely being held back.
Hinata wasn't sure what was going on; obviously it went a lot deeper than just Naruto disappearing as usual on his birthday, but she was too panicked with Sakura's sudden breakdown to organize her thoughts. All she could do was try her best to comfort her. "D-don't worry, Sasuke-kun will bring Naruto-kun back!"
"No... you don't understand... Naruto... Naruto's not real..."
"Ah, mou, I can't believe I lost it!" Panic was starting to creep into Hinata's voice as she desperately searched through the tall golden stalks of the barley fields.
It was time for the autumn harvest, so many of the genin teams had been assigned a D-rank mission to help the farmers. Hinata and Team Eight had been assigned to the barley fields yesterday, but when she had gotten home later that night, she had been terrified when she couldn't find her bracelet, the bracelet that had once belonged to her late mother.
It was October 10th today, a day off due to the memorial for those who passed away during the Kyuubi attacks, so there was no one else working the fields, leaving Hinata free to search for her bracelet. But the endless golden fields were daunting. The density of the crops made it difficult to walk through, and the height made it hard to see. And, on top of that, the bracelet was gold, matching the color of the barley. Even with her Byakugan, she was starting to despair at the possibility that she might never be able to find it.
"But I've got to find it," she told herself as she pushed aside the crowded growth and waded through. Then, dropping to her knees to feel around on the ground, she swallowed hard, as if to choke back tears, as all she felt running through her hands was cold dirt.
But, then she froze, wide eyed, as she suddenly bumped into something after parting a particularly dense clump of barley. She found herself face to face with the boy she admired.
Naruto had been lying down amongst the barley, his golden hair and orange clothes blending right in. While idly chewing on a stalk of barley, it seemed like he had been partaking in Shikamaru's favorite pastime of watching clouds.
"Hey, Hinata, what's up?" he asked with a cheerful grin.
Hinata's face immediately flushed red as she scrambled to come up with something to say. "Uh... well... um... you see... ah..."
"Were you looking for me or something?"
"Um... yes! I mean, no! Er... yes actually... wait..." She knew that it was his birthday, and she had been planning on looking for him later, but right now she was looking for her bracelet, so she had ended up getting her wires crossed and her tongue tied.
Hinata then immediately shut up and deflated as Naruto started laughing heartily. She could feel her cheeks burning again, this time not due to the way his smile made her heart skip but rather out of shame for being unable to even speak.
"You're pretty funny, Hinata," he exclaimed as he laid back down to face the clouds with a brighter smile on his face. "Thanks... I really needed a good laugh."
Hinata immediately perked up and couldn't help shyly smiling back. "G-g-glad to help..."
"So... you looking for something?"
"Um... yes... I think I lost my bracelet somewhere in this field yesterday," she said in a soft voice.
"Need some help?" Then, with a playful smirk, he formed the seal for his trademark technique, "Tajuu kage bunshin no jutsu!"
Hinata's eyes widened in awe as thousands of shadow clones dispersed out in all directions to search. "Th-th-thank you..."
"No need, it's not like I'm doing anything," he said with a chuckle as he continued to watch the clouds go by while leaving all the dirty work to his clones. He then patted some stalks of barley down to make some room for her to lay down as well. "Care to join me?"
Her face flushed red again, to the point where she was getting lightheaded, from the thought of actually lying down next to the boy of her dreams. It was the chance of a lifetime, but for now family came first.
Hyuuga Hisane. Her mother was the only member of her family who hadn't given up on her, hadn't abandoned her. Her father and grandparents had tossed her aside in favor of Hanabi. And Hanabi had no respect for her. Hinata didn't blame her for that. Despite being much younger, Hanabi always dominated their sparring matches. And Neji... Neji outright hated her for what had happened to Uncle Hizashi and for being caged into the branch family. She was so alone at home. Her mother had been the only one to never turn against her.
That was because Hyuuga Hisane had never lived long enough to see what a failure her eldest daughter had become. She had died still loving Hinata with all of her heart. So, no matter what, Hinata couldn't bear to lose that bracelet.
"Th-thanks, but... I should keep looking for the bracelet too..."
"Is it really important to you? You should take a break, clear your head. Sometimes, when you lose something really important to you, you stop thinking straight, so it helps to just stop and take a deep breath," he said before patting the empty spot beside him again to urge her to take a break. "Trust me."
Hinata hesitated for a moment before gingerly setting herself down next to Naruto. With her heart beating so hard that it was difficult to breathe, she slowly laid herself down side by side with him. Her jaw tightened and her body stiffened as she could feel his presence next to her. Their hands were only millimeters apart; all she had to do was just nudge her little finger just a tad and she'd actually be touching him. She couldn't believe this was happening.
"Relax, Hinata," he urged with a laugh. "Look up at the sky... looks like it stretches up forever, doesn't it?"
Hinata took a deep calming breath before casting her gaze skywards. And what she saw took that breath away. From all sides, the sky was framed by golden stalks of barley that filtered the setting sun into sparkling rays as the glowing clouds drifted beyond. "It's beautiful..."
"That's why I made this one of my secret hideouts," he said, grinning. "Well, I guess it's our secret now."
Hinata couldn't help but smile as her heart soared at the thought of sharing a secret with her crush. She hoped that maybe they could do this again in the future, so she asked, "D-d-d-do you do this often?"
"Hmm..." His expression turned contemplative for a moment. "No... just on October 10th... just today..."
He didn't have to say anything more. Hinata understood.
"Wh-what do you mean? N-Naruto-kun is real..." Hinata stammered, feeling the chill down her spine slowly spread. She subconsciously reached for the bracelet that hung from her left wrist, the bracelet Naruto had found for her all those years ago. That had been real.
Sakura put on a sad smile to keep herself from breaking down into tears. "He's real now... but he won't be for much longer..."
"Wh-what do you mean? I don't understand..."
"Hinata... as a kunoichi, you should know that seeing isn't believing..."
Hinata's eyes widened in shock. "G-g-genjutsu?"
Sakura nodded weakly. "I've always been a genjutsu type... it's been a pretty well-known fact since our academy and genin days that I was a natural genjutsu type... and yet you never found it odd that you've never actually seen me use any genjutsu?"
Hinata could feel the strength leave her legs, causing her to buckle and shake. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. It was all just too absurd. But the tears in Sakura's eyes weren't lies.
"The reason I never used any genjutsu was because I already had my hands full maintaining a very powerful one twenty-four hours a day, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year... my imaginary friend, imaginary lover, imaginary husband... Uzumaki Naruto..."
Sakura then shook her head with a half-hearted sardonic chuckle. "I even managed to fool myself with the genjutsu... but I can't keep such a powerful illusion going anymore. Naruto's existence is slowly being erased from this world... you've seen it happen to Ino. It's the reason everybody who left to go find Naruto hasn't come back yet... they don't remember him anymore. To them, he doesn't even exist anymore. Soon you'll forget him too... with Naruto gone, the world is being rewritten..."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Sakura giggled a little, finding it cute that the normally fearless Naruto was sweating bullets over the prospect of meeting her parents. "Relax, Naruto... they'll be your parents too soon."
"I've heard rumors that fathers don't exactly like welcoming a son-in-law to the family."
"Don't buy into the stereotypes," Sakura scolded.
"They're stereotypes for a reason," he shot back.
"My parents are bakers, you're a ninja," she pointed out with a roll of her eyes.
"They could toss me into a burning oven and lock me in until I vow to never violate their daughter's purity."
"You've already violated their daughter's purity," she scoffed, playfully kicking him in the calf. Then, seeing the stupidly perverted grin on his face, she added a punch to the arm for good measure.
"But, seriously, isn't that just more reason for me to be very afraid?" he wondered, scratching the back of his head. His protests were then immediately silenced when she stood up on her tiptoes to plant a playful kiss on his lips.
"Anyway, this isn't the first time you've met my parents," she pointed out, taking his hand as they walked through the village side by side.
"We were thirteen the last time, you know, an age when you didn't have an engagement ring on your finger and still had your purity intact," he deadpanned. Various circumstances, such as his training journey, the war, and his life as the new hermit Toad Sage, had prevented any subsequent meeting with Sakura's parents for six long years.
"Get over it. You're going to have to meet my parents if we're going to have a wedding," she said, sliding her hand up his arm so that they were now walking arm-in-arm. She rested her head against him and snuggled a little, feeling his tension loosen up at that.
"Well... here we are," she said as they stopped outside of the Haruno Bakery.
"I guess... here goes nothing," he said, taking a step forward only to be held back. He blinked in surprise when he turned around to see Sakura rooted to the ground where she stood.
"I n-n-need some emotional preparation first," she stammered lamely, at which Naruto grinned.
"Whose the scaredy cat now?"
"Sh-shut up. Telling my parents that I'm getting married is a once in a lifetime thing," she pointed out, which actually only served to make the task at hand even more daunting for her.
"Really? Just a once in a lifetime thing?" he asked teasingly, though his gentle smile was genuine.
"Of course. Who the hell do you think I am?" she huffed. "I... I love you too much to ever let you go. I only ever need to get married once."
Grinning, he pulled her close and planted a light kiss on her forehead. "I love you too, Sakura-chan."
Feeling a bashful warmth blossoming within her, she decided that she was now as ready to face her parents. "Okay, let's go."
With that, the two of them opened the door to the bakery with that familiar jangle of the bells and stepped inside to the delicious smell of bread baked with the freshly harvested autumn wheat.
"Why, if it isn't Uzumaki-sensei!" Mr. Haruno exclaimed cheerfully.
"Good afternoon, Uzumaki-sensei, it sure has been a while," Mrs. Haruno added with a gentle smile.
Sakura blinked in surprise before shooting a questioning glance at Naruto. "Uzumaki-sensei? Since when did you become a sensei?"
"Oh? This fellow is an Uzumaki too?" Mr. Haruno asked, patting Naruto on the back. "Is he a relative of yours?"
Mrs. Haruno then noticed the rings on both of their hands, causing a large smile to bloom on her face as she happily clasped Sakura's hands. "Uzumaki-sensei, are you married now? Congratulations!"
"Wait, wait, hold on a second!" Ever since they had stepped inside the bakery, everything had taken an incredibly bizarre non-stop turn, so Sakura desperately needed to apply the brakes for a moment. What the hell was going on? Were her parents playing a prank on her?
"Is there something wrong?" Mrs. Haruno asked.
"Mom, Dad, seriously, enough with the jokes," Sakura pleaded. "There's something important I need to talk to you about."
Mr. and Mrs. Haruno glanced at each other in confusion. "Mom? Dad? Why are you calling us that?"
"Dad, it's not funny anymore," Sakura insisted with a frown.
"Uzumaki-sensei... are you feeling okay?" Mrs. Haruno asked worriedly.
"Why do you keep calling me that? I'm not married to Naruto yet. I'm still a Haruno, Haruno Sakura!" she wailed. She was so frantic that she hadn't noticed Naruto quickly school the shock on his own face into a calm and collected one, as if resigned to some kind of fate.
Seeing enough, Naruto finally intervened by pulling Sakura back and bowing to the Harunos. "Apologies, Akio-san, Sanae-san. Sakura-chan just finished a forty-eight hour shift at the hospital and she kind of goes loopy if she doesn't get her beauty sleep. My name is Namikaze Naruto, her fiance."
Sakura was about to protest, but Naruto's firm hand on her shoulder kept her quiet.
"Ah, that's quite alright. Forty-eight hours does seem like overkill, but do keep up the good work," Akio said as he shook Naruto's hand. "Nice to meet you, Namikaze-san."
Seeing that Sakura was trembling, with tears starting to form in her eyes, Sanae mistook it for the overwhelming emotion that came with announcing a marriage, so she took Sakura's hands in a comforting gesture. "Congratulations on your engagement, Uzumaki-sensei. I wish you a very happy marriage."
Sniffling, Sakura nodded weakly. She wasn't really sure what was going on, and her heart and mind were in too much turmoil to make sense of anything, but they had at least accomplished what they had set out to do: announce their engagement to her parents. Even if her parents didn't even recognize her as their daughter, she had still managed to tell them that she was getting married, and that was enough to get the tears flowing freely.
"I think we'd better get going," Naruto said, bowing again before taking Sakura into his arms.
After returning to Naruto's place, it had taken Sakura a while to recover from the shock, but she finally managed to ask Naruto for some answers. "N-Naruto... what's going on? Why did my parents keep calling me Uzumaki-sensei? Why didn't they know who I was? And... why aren't you even the least bit surprised? You knew this was going to happen? Is that why you were so scared to meet them?"
Naruto poured her a hot cup of green tea before slumping into a chair and running his hand through his hair. "Well... honestly, I was expecting this years ago, but when it never happened, I thought I had fixed the problem... but... I guess not..."
"Wh-what do you mean? What's going on? What problem are you talking about?" Sakura stammered in a frightened voice.
"You mean you never wondered how I survived after Madara tried to extract the Kyuubi from me?" he asked with a sardonic chuckle. "Turns out that I can't exactly die if I was never alive in the first place."
"Wh-what are you talking about?"
"I probably don't have much time left... it was selfish of me to ask you to marry me. But I couldn't really help it..." he said with a lonely smile as he stared at his hands, as if expecting them to fade away before his very eyes. "I'm not the host of the demon fox... I never was... in fact, I'm not even real... I'm just an illusion created to protect you... the real host of the Kyuubi has always been you..."
"Wh-what are you talking about..."
"Madara tried to extract the Kyuubi from me... there was nothing to extract though. But the failed extraction process did manage to sever my ties to this world... my ties to you..."
"N-n-no... what are you saying? None of this makes any sense!" Sakura cried as she desperately grasped Naruto's shirt. "H-how can you say that you're not real?"
"Because I'm not..." he said softly with a gentle smile as he comfortingly ran his hand through her hair.
She then suddenly smashed her lips against his, the force of it causing both of them to tumble backwards onto the couch. With her frantic kisses and hands running all over him, she did what she could to confirm that he was real. Then, choking out a sob, she nuzzled her cheek into the crook of his neck. "You're right here... so how can you say that you're not real? You're right here..."
Naruto nodded a little as he held Sakura close. "For now... I'm right here..."
"But why now?" Hinata cried. "The war was years ago! Naruto-kun has hung on this long, so I know he can stay strong!"
Sakura laughed a little at that, a sad laugh of irony that shook the tears loose from her eyes. "He made a promise to me... a binding promise... a promise of a lifetime. And you know what Naruto is like... he doesn't go back on his word. Even death is a trivial obstacle to him when it comes to keeping a promise..."
"You mean... bringing Sasuke-kun back?" Hinata gasped.
Sakura smiled sadly, hugging her legs close to her chest and resting her face against her knees as she stared at the cake everybody had helped bake, the cake that even Sasuke had helped bake. "After the war, even with his ties to this world severed, he still hung on by a thread through sheer willpower... just to bring Sasuke-kun back... he didn't want to pass on until he had fulfilled his promise..."
"But... that was a year ago..."
Sakura nodded. "He thought he'd disappear after he brought Sasuke-kun back... but, when he didn't, he thought that he'd somehow manage to anchor himself back to this world. But it turns out that there was one more promise... a promise I made when I was a little kid... one that both of us had forgotten about..."
Hinata's eyes widened as Sakura idly fingered the wedding band on her finger. "He... he promised to marry you... and now..."
"Even after finding out what he really was, I still wanted to marry him... I just loved him so much... I wanted to be with him no matter what..." Sakura choked out with a sob as she buried her face into the knees she was hugging tightly to her chest. "He selflessly sacrificed everything for me without a complaint..."
"I was always so lonely as a child... as the host of the Kyuubi, everyone shunned me, despised me, feared me... and, one day, I finally couldn't take it anymore..." she said in a muffled voice. "That triggered a failsafe seal that my real parents, Uzumaki Kushina and Namikaze Minato, had placed over the Kyuubi seal... it used the massive amounts of the fox's chakra along with my natural affinity for genjutsu to create an imaginary friend... a decoy..."
"And that's Naruto-kun..."
"It changed everything... everyone believed that Naruto was the Kyuubi host... the genjutsu fooled even me... it gave me a new family, the Harunos who couldn't have a child but wanted one... and it modified my memories so that my childhood loneliness was due to something trivial like bullying over my big forehead. Naruto diverted everyone's hatred and fear away from me... and, unlike me, he stood tall and just took the abuse. Everything he did was for me... and I didn't even know... I just lived my peaceful life, fooled by my own genjutsu..."
"That's why he never accepted the Hokage position after the war... he knew that he was going to disappear, that everyone would forget that he ever existed... that's why he left the village to live as a hermit... but, not even knowing anything, I kept bugging him, kept falling in love with him, asking him to marry me... even though he's not real..."
"N-no!" Hinata, shocked by the revelation that had been just dumped on her, scrambled for the door. "Naruto-kun is real! He has to be! He can't disappear!"
And with that, Hinata flew out the door in a desperate search for Naruto, to prove to herself that he was still here with them. "Naruto-kun! Where are you? Naruto!"
Screaming at the top of her lungs in a way that she hadn't even thought was possible for her as she scrambled through the village, she was beginning to attract attention.
"Is that Hinata-sama?"
"Who is Naruto? Was there someone like that in the village?"
"I dunno, sounds like a dog's name. Maybe she lost her pet?"
"Hinata-sama, is there any way we can help?"
"Out of my way!" Hinata cried, tears starting to freefall from her face as she struggled to get through the crowd. "I have to found Naruto-kun!"
And, all of sudden, there he was.
Blinking away the tears, a look of confusion appeared on Hinata's face. "D-do I know you?"
Naruto grinned as he sheepishly scratched the back of his head before handing her a handkerchief for her tears. "Yeah, but it's okay if you don't remember me."
"S-sorry, I... I don't even know why I'm crying..." she stammered. She didn't even know why she felt so sad, but it just wouldn't stop. "I'm sorry about not recognizing you... you must think I'm really rude..."
"I'm leaving on a really long journey soon, so it's probably better that you don't remember me. Saying goodbye would be too difficult otherwise," he said with a chuckle.
There was something so familiar about the way he smiled at her, the way it made her feel like everything was going to be okay. She really wanted to know who this person was, so she desperately racked her brain for even the faintest fragments of any memory.
"It's okay... no need to try so hard," he said, laughing a little as he pulled her into a hug. "You probably don't remember, but we made a promise, you and I... that if, someday, I were to ever leave, that you wouldn't cry, that you'd smile properly. So smile, Hinata, let my last memory of you be your smile."
If it had been a promise, she wouldn't go back on her word, even if she didn't remember. So, clutching the handkerchief he had given her for her tears, she smiled.
Sakura, beaten, dirty, and exhausted from finally standing up for herself like Ino had taught her, warily got up to her feet as she put up her tiny fists and eyed the newcomer with suspicion. He was an older boy, a teenager, but she was still on guard. It wasn't just other children who bullied her, the adults too could be cruel. And ever since she had tied her hair back with the ribbon Ino had given her, the bullying had increased drastically. It was only when they had tried to take the ribbon from her that she had finally started fighting back.
"Ino-chan told me that I should show off my face confidently!" Sakura said defiantly, but her legs shook with exhaustion. She was tired now. She didn't want to fight anymore. She just wanted to lie down, close her eyes, and never wake up ever again.
"I won't hurt you. I'm here to take care of you. Sorry for getting here so late," he said with a grin as he knelt down and playfully patted her on the head. Seeing him up close caused her to blush a little. He had spiky blond hair, the same color as her new friend Ino, and gentle blue eyes, totally her ideal type. But, most of all, he had the same whisker marks she did.
"Wh-why?" she stammered, feeling the strength finally leave her body as she collapsed into his arms.
"Your parents asked me to protect you."
"My... my parents?" she asked, her eyes growing wide. "But my parents aren't here anymore. If you can talk to my parents, does that mean you're a ghost?"
Naruto laughed. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. Your parents wanted me to help you carry your burden."
"Burden?" she asked, not really understanding.
Naruto glanced up at the sculptured face of Namikaze Minato on the Hokage Monument, trying to figure out what the hell the Fourth Hokage had been thinking when he had caged the demon fox into his own daughter. Kushina could have very well performed the sealing instead; she had been dying anyway from the Kyuubi extraction, so why had Minato insisted on playing hero instead of being the father that he should have been?
Instead, Minato had placed a failsafe seal on Sakura, a seal that would feed off the fox's chakra and Sakura's natural genjutsu ability, taking the shape of Sakura's subconscious wishes at the cost of rendering her unable to perform any other genjutsu. And, being a lonely young girl with only the fairy tales in books as her companions, her wish had been for a prince to come and save her. And from that wish Naruto had been born.
It was a pretty ingenious seal, but Naruto couldn't agree with it. He was no replacement for a father, a family. It should have been Minato here protecting Sakura, not an illusionary fragment of a dream like Naruto.
"Your dad didn't want you to bear this burden alone, so he asked me to share it with you, to protect you. But change of plans, I've got a better idea. I'm going to take your burden from you and bear it myself. You don't have to suffer anymore, Sakura-chan. No one will bully you anymore. You won't be alone anymore. You'll even have new parents, a new name."
"B-b-but... won't you be lonely then? Won't people bully you?" she asked, worried. "I'm used to it. I don't really understand, but we can share this burden, whatever it is. If it's with Oniichan, I'm sure I can do it."
"Oniichan?" Naruto laughed, realizing that he hadn't given her his name yet. "It's okay, Sakura-chan... I'm just a ghost, no one can hurt me because I'm not real, so I'll handle everything from here."
"But even if you're a ghost... your feelings can still get hurt..." Sakura protested weakly. "I don't want the mean people to bully you like they did me. We should share. It won't be so bad if I can handle half the bullying."
"Sorry, I've already decided. I can't let a pipsqueak like you carry this burden," he said as he playfully ruffled her hair.
"But!" She tried to get up to her feet, but she suddenly felt really lightheaded and sleepy. "But I'll feel guilty if you take it all on by yourself..."
"Sleep, Sakura-chan. You must be tired from having carried this burden for as long as you did," he said, gently stroking her face. "When you wake up, you won't remember me anymore, so no guilt."
"No, I'll remember you, Oniichan... I'll never forget," Sakura insisted, trying her hardest not to give into the temptation of sleep.
"When you wake up, I won't be Oniichan anymore. I'll be the same age as you the next time you see me, so you won't recognize me. You won't remember ever talking to me. When you wake up, you'll have new parents, you won't be lonely anymore," he said, gently rocking her to sleep. "You'll be happy, Sakura-chan."
"Then... I'll... I'll pay you back someday, Oniichan..." Sakura said, closing her eyes as she snuggled into Naruto's arms. "What do you want most in the entire world? When I get older, I'll give it to you... I promise..."
"What I want... isn't something that can be given, exactly," Naruto replied with a chuckle. "I'm just a ghost... so a family is something I can never have..."
"Then I'll be your family... when I grow up, I'll marry you..."
Naruto laughed. "Don't marry a ghost, Sakura-chan. You won't even remember me anyway."
"No, I promise. I don't go back on my word..."
"Oh, hey, is that cake for me?"
"Naruto!" Sakura bolted up when Naruto finally returned home and flung her arms around him. "Did you... did you already say goodbye to everyone?"
"Yup, took a lot longer than I thought it would. Hinata was the last one," he replied as he wrapped his arms around her. "Did you say anything to her? She looked like she was about to break."
"S-sorry..." she said softly, burying her face in his chest. "I told her the truth about you... I just needed someone to talk to... to get it off my chest. Is she okay?"
"She's fine, she would have wanted the truth even if she were to forget it. She's stronger than you think," he said, leading her to the kitchen table where the cake was waiting. "How about you? Are you okay?"
"I... I'm fine," she said, hanging her head. "No... no, I'm not... I knew what I was getting into when I married you... that this day would come eventually... but now that it's actually happening, I... it's... it's just so difficult..."
"Any regrets?" he asked with a gentle smile as he slowly started lighting the candles one by one.
She shook her head vehemently. "I love you, Naruto..."
"Can we have sex one last time then?"
She was so taken off guard by his crude comment that she couldn't help but burst out laughing, almost forgetting that this was goodbye. "We spent all day yesterday rolling around in bed! This is your last day here and all you can think about is sex?"
He pulled her onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her from behind before nibbling a little on her earlobe, knowing that it was her weak spot. She shuddered as the flutters of delight caused her to involuntarily arch her back into him.
Managing to fight the temptation though, she giggled as she slapped him away. "Stop that. Seriously, Naruto, I still have some things I need to say to you."
"Such as?" he asked as he rested his chin on her shoulder to affectionately nuzzle his cheek against hers.
"I... I know you won't accept any apologies, so... instead, I just wanted to thank you... for everything," she said softly. "For putting up with a selfish and cowardly girl like me... you took all the abuse, hatred, loneliness, and fear even though I was the real host... it should have been me... thank you for still loving me despite being the source of all your suffering..."
Naruto snorted at that. "Exaggerating much, Sakura-chan? You do realize that you're the source of all my happiness too, right?"
Smiling through her tears, she nodded. "And you're the source of all my happiness... I don't know what I'll do without you..."
"I'll always be with you. You created me after all," he said with a chuckle as he placed a hand over her heart. She then giggled when he used it as an excuse to fondle her breasts.
She turned around in his lap so that she was facing him and rested her forehead against his. "I'm going to miss you... I won't forget you, will I?"
"It's better that you do," he replied, his face flickering in the candlelight from the cake as the room dimmed from the quickly setting autumn sun.
Sakura grabbed his shirt and buried her face into his chest as she shook her head. "Why... why are you saying things like that? It's not like you... you always wanted to be acknowledged... and now you want to be forgotten?"
"I'm not twelve years old anymore, Sakura-chan..." he said with a chuckle as he stroked her hair. "Besides, isn't it normal for the hero to just ride off into the sunset in the end?"
"No... I won't let anyone forget you... I'll make sure that everyone acknowledges the fact that you once existed..."
"Sakura-chan... don't... no one will remember me; they'll just lock you up in an asylum," he joked. "Besides... the fact that I saved the world... the fact that I protected my precious people... the fact that my precious people are still here... that's enough proof that I existed."
"You're so stupid... why do you have to go play the hero all the time?" she cried softly, her sobs muffled as her face was still buried in his chest. "Both you and Yondaime-sama... you're both so stupid..."
"But you still love me anyway, right?"
"I love you because you're so stupid..."
She lifted her head to kiss him, but then gasped when she saw that he was already started to fade away. The sight of his translucent smile caused tears to burst forth as she tried to choke back a sob. Then, shutting her eyes tight, she pressed her trembling lips against his.
"Don't go... please..."
"I wish I could stay..."
With his forehead pressed against hers, she could feel his faint breath against her lips as warm wisps of life. She kissed him again, this time a light and tender one, feeling the softness of his lips caress hers.
"Happy birthday, Naruto... make a wish..."
Grinning, he blew out the candles, causing the room to suddenly darken. The only light came from the countless tiny sparkles of chakra that Naruto was slowly fading away into.
Cutting off a small slice of cake, he took a bite, conjuring an image of his friends laughing happily as they sat around a pile of burning leaves to bake to sweet potatoes for him. "It's delicious... thanks, everyone..."
As Naruto slowly disappeared, dispersing into millions of tiny fading lights, like the falling stars of summer, or the swirl of cherry blossoms of spring, or the drifting snow of winter, or the colorful leaves blowing in the autumn breeze, he smiled one last time.
"Goodbye, Sakura-chan... I love you."
"I love you too, Naruto..."
Epilogue: One Year Later
Sasuke had never really concerned himself with the annual memorial for the people who died in the Kyuubi attack, so he found himself aimlessly wandering through the woods as the fallen autumn leaves crackled under his feet until he arrived at an old abandoned bunker. He didn't recognize it, but he felt oddly drawn to it, like it was familiar in a way that he just couldn't place.
Elsewhere, similarly, Hinata found herself lying down in a field of golden barley and watching the sky. She wasn't exactly sure what she was doing there though. It wasn't really like her to just lounge around and take in the scenery like this, but it somehow felt right.
Cautiously ducking his head as he stepped through the low-hanging doorway of the abandoned bunker, Sasuke noticed some archaic kanji characters scratched into the opposite wall. It made him wonder if the yakuza had once used this bunker as a base; yakuza often liked to use such complicated and archaic kanji as their calling card of sorts. Nah, it was probably some snot-nosed brats trying to play yakuza by using the bunker as a secret base. He snorted in amusement at that thought.
Surrounded by the tall barley on all sides, Hinata felt safe, as if it were her own little secret base somehow. But, despite that, an unbidden tear rolled down her face, causing her to blink in confusion.
"Must have gotten dust in my eye..." she murmured to herself as she reached for her orange handkerchief to wipe away the tears. The handkerchief didn't belong to her, but she just couldn't remember who had given it to her exactly one year ago. She vaguely recalled that it was a farewell from someone who was going to go away on a long journey or something. The person's name was written on the handkerchief, but it was written in such archaic kanji that she couldn't figure out the proper reading for it. The only thing she knew for sure was that the handkerchief was precious somehow. It was frustrating not being able to remember why.
"How the hell do you read this anyway? Dai-ryu-shi?" Sasuke muttered as he ran his rough fingers over the jagged and rough engraving. "Or maybe Na-ru-to? Psh, both sound like a moron's name... but for some reason..."
"For some reason... this person with a difficult name..." Hinata raised the handkerchief into the air, causing it to glow against the sunlight as it fluttered in the breeze. "I feel like I should never forget him..."
"Must've been the comic relief sidekick to my main character... no one ever remembers the sidekick," Sasuke scoffed with a chuckle. He wasn't usually so outwardly arrogant, but there was something about this secret base that brought out his inner kid and hot-headed immaturity. He knew though that this person with a difficult name was no sidekick, this person must have been the main character to a long-forgotten story, a story full of both good times, hard times, happiness, and sadness.
"Naruto... kun..." There were many different permutations in how to read the three archaic kanji, but Hinata decided on Naruto. It just felt right for some reason.
"The main character... then it must be Naruto... just like the hero of that old novel... what was it called again? Tale of the Gutsy Ninja? Yeah..." Sasuke laughed a little as he sat down on the floor with his back to the wall that had the difficult name carved into it.
"Naruto-kun... whoever you are... wherever you are... I hope you're doing well..." Hinata murmured. "I'm sorry I can't remember you..."
"You're probably a moron not worth remembering, but... if I'm the rival character to your main character, it bugs me if I can't remember if I've ever beaten you or not..."
"But even if I can't remember you..."
"Even if the world forgets you..."
"The proof that you were once with me..."
"The proof that you once existed..."
Sakura cautiously poked her head into the Haruno Bakery as the swinging door rang the bell hanging up above. As the warm fragrance of freshly baked sweet potato bread and chestnut buns protected her from the autumn chill outside, she then smiled brightly when she saw Mr. and Mrs. Haruno happily tending the store. "Akio-san, Sanae-san!"
"Good to see you, Uzumaki-sensei," Sanae bowed politely.
"Oh, come on, Sanae, don't be such a stranger, call her Sakura," Akio guffawed cheerfully. "You come to pick up the kids?"
"Yes, thank you for taking care of them. Sorry about always bothering you with this," Sakura apologized sheepishly as Akio placed Sakura's twins into their stroller.
"Nonsense! We love babysitting for you," Sanae said with a kind smile. "Haruto and Narumi-chan are almost like our own grandkids."
They are your grandkids. It was a little sad that the people Sakura had once called Mom and Dad didn't remember raising her anymore, but the love was still there; that was what mattered.
"Well, they couldn't have asked for better grandparents," Sakura remarked with a smile. She had cut back a lot of her hours at the hospital, but as a single mother Sakura still found herself relying on the Harunos to take care of the infants whenever she was at work.
"Still haven't found a nice guy to settle down with and help with the kids?" Akio asked as he made funny faces at Narumi, who giggled playfully.
Sakura smiled and shook her head. "I still haven't given up on their father..."
It was still a mystery as to who the father of Sakura's twins were, but it wasn't too strange for the identities of some ninja to never come to light. After all, some members of Root or ANBU black-ops even went as far as erasing their own identities, so it wasn't too much of a stretch to believe that Sakura's deceased lover had perhaps been part of that elite group. After a while, the rumors had even escalated into a tragic love story about how Sakura's mysterious lover had been the one to finally defeat Uchiha Madara but had been fatally injured, ending up in the terminal patient wing of the hospital, where Sakura had fallen in love with him despite the fact that he only had a few years left to live. There were those kinds of absurd rumors floating around, but Sakura would never confirm or deny anything.
"Well, we got to go. Thanks again, Akio-san, Sanae-san," Sakura said, bidding them farewell.
After leaving the bakery, Sakura paused to look down at the smiling faces of her children. "Say... there's a lot of happiness in this world, isn't there?"
Then, smiling herself, she glanced up at the beautifully colored leaves as she tucked her hair back to keep it from fluttering in the crisp autumn breeze. "Naruto... someday, I'll find a way to bring you back... but until then... the proof that you were real is the fact that..."
Elsewhere, in their own respective secret bases, Hinata and Sasuke both closed their eyes and smiled. "The proof that you were real is the fact that..."
"We're right here."
- Akio and Sanae are cameos from Clannad as stand-ins for Sakura's parents. The idea of the person with a difficult name also comes from Sunohara's shenanigans
- Naruto's name in canon is written in katakana, but for the sole purpose of this fic his self-appointed kanji name is actually written in archaic manyougana kanji. The reason Sasuke keeps misreading it is because there's multiple ways to read kanji
- Chestnuts roasting over an open fire, haha, good times, good times