Chapter 1- In Retrospect
A/N: The finalized and first completed chapter of the re-edited version of I Miss You. As you can see, this is a completely different take, but still the exact same thing. All the events will be there, just maybe in different chapters. I attempted to add more depth and emotions to it, thus this is super extended. 4700+ words! My record long for this story, I believe. I hoped I've improved after a two-year writer's block xD
Deep down somewhere, within the pits of her absent heart, she realized it was the end of life –a part of her had died inside– but also the beginning of something new. Fear. Vulnerability. Exposure. Reality.
It was exactly seven years from today.
She remembered seeing demons.
A minute before the clock struck 12, hallucinations (or was it?) had gotten the best of her in so little time. They were the ones that plagued her thoughts, toyed with her psyche like some trivial game until her resolute guard shattered into flints of glass and everything came crashing through. It was easier said than done to distinguish the difference between reality and figments of her imagination.
She was aware of her consciousness slipping between her fingertips, depleted of energy to fight against them. It was an unfair battle between her and a hundred hellions whose existence thrived on suffering and torment. Even when she squeezed her eyes impossibly shut, more would continue to overwhelm the marathon of nightmares. Everything long forgotten in the corners of her mind came racing back.
She could never forget. Run and hide from all humanity, to the ends of Earth, but she always knew it'd always come back to haunt her.
The rain had started early morning in a sea of darkened clouds, sometime between the pretentious arrival of her blonde-haired friend Naruto (her alarm clock did not serve its justice, and plus, she couldn't break his head like she normally did with the previous clock) and the latest batch of assignments. The dousing torrent of water that sluiced from the sky gathered in pools, daring bystanders to come within proximity. Two hours on and it was still spraying across the graveled pavements of Konoha in relentlessly fierce segments.
No one had the nerves to question Haruno Sakura's sanity when she stepped out of her apartment and into the rainfall, treating it instead as a sunlit day. In place of her traditional red garments, she donned a modest, black fitting suit with ankle boots, an umbrella in one hand, and a feeble flower in the other. Her accursed pink hair was clipped into a smooth ponytail, soft lips set in a grim line.
A pair of emerald orbs flashed dangerously when the first sign of karma struck early. Pellets of ice hailed from the sky the moment her foot laid outside the perimeter of her apartment's roof.
Sighing, she settled into a moderate pace. Outside was bleak and bleary, she noted, with the brisk wind whipping across her face, feet dragging across puddles of water. Her body shuddered in its automatic response, which either came from her recent paranoia of… sensations, or the weather, hopefully presuming it was the latter.
She only made half way across town when a rich, familiar voice sliced through the air.
She froze in her tracks completely. Her hands had grown numb to the unpleasant chill of early spring's weather, but her senses had only improved during the years under Tsunade's exceptional tutelage; a milestone mark in the history of kunoichis. As far as she was concerned, no chakra could be detected within a two-mile radius.
Enemy or not, she treated the situation the same as any mission: with silence until further analyzed.
"I'm hoping you'll be able to attend to the ceremony. We have not heard a reply from you yet; the date is nearing soon."
Carefully, she lifted her wary gaze from the floor to meet one of pure snow.
Relief floored her body as she let out a shaky breath, mentally berating herself to not have recognized his timbre.
There was something about him that made her more conscious of her actions…as if he could see through her every motive, her every lie she'd been putting up in recent months. But their mutual relationship made things more bearable, having fixed him up just more than a few times at the hospital as the newly instated procedure called for from all post-missions.
"I can't identify your chakra signature right now. Weird…" she mused pensively. Her grip on the flower loosened considerably, allowing it to breathe.
Said Hyuuga studied her quietly with silver eyes, noticing her unusual outfit, but made no effort to comment on it. "I was hoping Konoha's top medic would do better than that."
She raised her umbrella up in a gesture, as if it sufficed as a reasonable excuse. "I was just taking a stroll. My mind must've been somewhere else, I guess," she said slowly as if unsure of herself, jaded green eyes glazed and far off into the distance.
If it was one thing she was eternally grateful for, it was that Neji was a man of very few words. The questions he fired were only reserved and fit to extract information from rogues and nins of top-ranked missions. Other than that, he was typically indifferent and matter-of-fact, something she could barely tolerate aside from today, which had proven to be to her advantage.
"…So, as you were saying?"
"Will you be present at our wedding? Tenten, at her request, would still like to privilege you as one of her bridesmaids…if you accept, that is," he inquired politely, frosty opaque irises fixed.
"Wedding…? Tenten?" she muttered lowly, so low-key that even supersonic hearing would be of no value.
It was then her mind reeled back and did a double take on the previous weeks. Frantically racking her memory for something, anything, all she could bring to mind was a mission from her mentor who –at the time– was completely inebriated. Tsuande took it to a whole other level when it came to being intoxicated and made no sense with her orders, thus filling the unfortunate pink-haired apprentice with redundant work. Duty called to her dismay, in addition to late night shifts at the hospital.
There was also the untimely appearance of her best friend, Yamanaka Ino, who seemed rather animated that very same day, blabbing on about some nonsense to going shopping for…
Her iridescent jade eyes enlarged at the thought as she recalled the encounter.
"Forehead girl, we have to go shopping for Tenten's wedding! I got my invitation this morning. She asked me to be one of her 'bridesmaids'," the sultry blonde quoted, pursing her full lips in a schoolgirl fashion. "Picture this." She lifted her dexterous hands into a square and closed on eye, smiling. "Me in the most gorgeous, to-die-for gown, looking absolutely fa-bu-lous in front of thousands of guests!"
"Ino-pig," Sakura growled teasingly, trying to shift her attention back to work with mock concentration. "Not to get your hopes and bruise your ego, but you're not the only one who was invited as a bridesmaid."
"Oh, is that so?" she remarked casually, but there was piqued interest in her voice.
Sakura only managed a half-yawned "Mhm" before slumping onto the desk.
Said kunoichi was in the middle of filling out important documents for some of the most influential leaders of other countries, a business transaction between them. But whenever the light-headed blonde was around, her attention span seemed to dwindle to that of a fly. Maybe it was the air of confidence that Ino carried around, or just possibly because she'd been working on those papers for more than nine hours straight?
Ino twirled her locks of honey and pressed both elbows onto the desk. "So when are you free? Maybe we can buy matching dresses, just like the good ole days, ne?"
"When's the wedding, again?"
"Does May 1st sound good?"
And today was no other day than May 1st.
Realization dawned upon her like some sort of earth-shattering, Einstein-worthy epiphany (she'd wish). Of all the moments to have spaced out on… Abruptly she snapped out of her reverie and made sure her gaze was steady, secretly hoping that he didn't catch her guilty as charged.
"Oh, I, uh, of course I will, Neji-san! It'd be my honor." The grin that grew on her face was genuine this time. "I'm looking forward to your celebration."
The prodigy offered a small smile and bowed, a custom taught to all Hyuugas. "I'm glad you'll be able to make it. And please, the suffix is not needed anymore."
She beamed briskly, brushing away a pink strand that had flopped onto her nicely grown forehead. "Ah, gomen, Neji. Well, I must get going then. Tell Tenten to give me a call!"
"Will do. Until then, Sakura-san." He merely smirked and resumed his path.
The medic let out a lofty sigh when she watched his sinewy figure disappear into the thick canopies of the forest. There was still a considerable amount of tasks at hand to complete, with Tenten's wedding schedule as a fairly new addition.
"Huh, what to do…"
Going unnoticed, the weather suddenly shifted into a brighter day –as if to match her now perkier mood– with the glowing sun peaking through scattered clouds. The ominous shade of gray that loomed above the village just moments ago had turned into a dazzling array of colors, little diamonds sparkling off the shreds of grass. Shafts of light penetrated through the mossy green leaves and shined against thatched roofs, evaporating away the morning's sticky residue. Pleasant trills of mothers and children alike began to fill the air as the masses proceeded to go outdoors, sounds of laughter booming from one end.
Her thick lashes blinked as warm rays basked her face. It was almost dizzying, but in an unexpected, refreshing way. Something she'd not felt in ages, or what it seemed to be an eternity of damnation. A warm smile occupied the lower of it.
Maybe there was still something out there, watching above from the heavens.
Maybe there was hope.
As fate would have it, Naruto had managed to coerce his former teammate to Ichiraku's. He, by all accounts, said he would "treat" her to ramen, though both knew in reality that she was going to cover the bill as usual. Regardless, she decided to humor him for the day and went along with the plan, minus the complaints for once. She figured that his latest mission had left him with a reckless appetite of a boar.
Naruto enveloped her petite figure with a monster bear hug, in the process of crushing her lungs. "SAKURA-CHAN!" The enthusiasm was unrivaled. Gai and Lee, the appallingly dynamic duo, would've been put to shame.
"Whoops." He set her down brotherly with a wayward smile. "Guess the training really did make me strong!"
She took the bait and challenged him. "Oh, really? Let's see who's the stronger of the two."
"Okay, okay, I admit my defeat. Just don't hurt me," he kidded, stretching his arms leisurely in process. "What are you getting?"
"Get what?" she replied, studying the cuticles of her nails absentmindedly.
"For ramen, of course! Mou…I'm deliberating between misou or beef, but they're all sooo good…" His face crumpled in a faux mask of defeat, or deep contemplation –both acted as if his life depended on it. Though she really wouldn't have been surprised if it did.
"Get anything you want. I'm treating you, so you better use it wisely," Sakura bantered, pretending to wave an invisible coupon with one hand. "Kaka-sensei is taking care of the next one, which might be a while. Or never. Or knowing him, he'd probably make you spot his bill with some poor excuse."
The unruly blonde grinned cheekily, electric blue eyes wide and hinting. "Awesome! So…this is considered a date then, right?"
Before he could even blink and comprehend the real danger of the situation, he found himself hurling across the street at the sheer impact of her punch. Portions of the fence went flying everywhere.
"Mommy, look!" a little boy gasped wildly, tugging on his mother's sleeve and pointing.
The mother immediately scolded the child and turned around. "Kenichi, you know it's rude to stare at people…"
Onlookers distanced themselves at the short temper of one lady they would not want to mess with. Children merely laughed and stopped at the spectacle. The men felt sympathetic, as they all knew from their own experience. Women.
"Na-ru-to," she hissed dangerously, and he immediately found himself regretting that for life. He put on his puppy face with saucer-like eyes; it was hard to resist throwing another punch or two.
"Ahaha," the Kyuubi wielder laughed it off haphazardly, resuming back to his seat after the crowd drew away from the commotion. He shook off the dust that framed his features. "I forgot how much those punches hurt." The throbbing bump was enough of a reminder.
She turned to face him and smirked. "I'm stronger, apparently. Test me again next week. We'll see."
"Oh, I'm great! Honestly!" He held his hands up, grinning.
Luckily, Ayame and the owner interrupted just in time to serve out two piping hot bowls of ramen, brimming to the top with condiments. The smell that wafted from it was tempting and delicious. Even Sakura's stomach churned from the lack of solids consumed during the week. Ramen, thank god, was what she needed –probably her first and last time admitting it.
"Arigatou, tou-chan!" Naruto took a long, heaving sniff and sighed blissfully. This was how 'home sweet home' should smell like. He split open a chopstick rather greedily and dug in within a heartbeat. "Itadakimasu!"
She snorted as she split open her pair, plucking several strands to air off the steam. "A bit late, isn't it?"
He couldn't manage a reply but made do with a nod, mouth stuffed full of noodles. The contentment was practically written on his face, making it obvious that at that moment, life was complete. Had she not known him for the last five years, she'd think that he was drunk to hell from an outsider's perspective.
"Swallow!" the blossom admonished maternally.
At her command his Adam's apple bobbed. He picked up the entire bowl and the remainder of the content savagely, earning a sound of laughter that tore from her throat.
He set the porcelain dish down and wiped his mouth with the back of his orange sleeve. "It's been a long time since we've hung out together, ne? Me, you, Kakashi-sensei, and Sasuke-te–"
Fuck. Now was the time to duck and cower.
She grew jarringly quiet and stared down at her uneaten portions. It was as if her desire for food had suddenly vanished, nonexistent at that point. "Yeah…"
"Gomen, gomen Sakura-chan! Umm…" What he needed was a distraction, quick. His palms grew sweaty –which considering the circumstances, was not a good sign. It was never his intention to slip the name, but his tongue, even after all of those years, was still accustomed to that bastard's name.
It'd been four years or so when he left with Jiraiya again to further touch upon certain aspects of his training, after the second retrieval had failed when he was fifteen. Third time was going to be a charm. It had to be, at least for them.
But he wasn't sure on her progression emotionally. She had matured even more so physically, but inside he knew she had yet to build a stronger mechanism for defense. Her face never gave anything away; always calm, cool, and detached –a scary reflection of the Uchiha brothers, but he knew deep down she was still hurting. People said she had "died" along with her heart seven years ago, and she was nothing but an empty shell waiting to be cracked.
He didn't believe it one bit. Bullshit. His clenched his teeth and tasted the coppery tang of blood. She was so liberated of worries just five minutes ago, smiles and all. But now…
She had turned into something that for sure wasn't the bubbly girl he had grown accustomed to. The Sakura he knew was full of passion and fidelity, one who made no opposition on hiding it. Emotions were their fuel, their drive and motivation behind every mission. He understood very well, having countless stories of his own to prove it, Gaara being the first of many. Uzumaki was like a curse on tongues. A hindrance. A monster incapable of feelings or thoughts. But she… she never considered him no more and no less than a friend the moment she met him with a dazzling smile that brought upon the immediate crush. When she had found out the truth, it was like it didn't matter. Didn't change anything on her view. For that sake alone, he was grateful and owed her half of his life (the other belonging to ramen, naturally).
Which only made him more determined to patch up the holes he'd left behind.
"Sakura-chan, you haven't touched your ramen bowl! It's getting cold."
He monitored her closely and watched a dozen expressions pass along her face, struggling to choose one most appropriate for the situation.
"Come on! You know you wanna eat it," he said playfully, holding up his chopsticks.
"I'm the one shelling out, so I'll do whatever the hell I please," she grounded out gravely, her tone a shade sharper then intended to.
He winced. "Sakura-chan, I know I'm usually oblivious to… everything. But this new you… it just doesn't suit you at all. The whole 'unaffected' act." His goofiness had ended when a more serious look crossed his face. "I miss the old you, ya know?"
He had hit a sore spot; that much he was positive. Sakura flinched and bit her lower lip in deliberation. The tension that hung in the air ebbed gently, but trace amounts still remained.
"Naruto. I don't know what you're talking about."
"See?" He stood up to emphasize the point. "Avoiding things again! Come on, Saku-chan. You're much better than this. Or at least better than Ino, dattebayo!"
For a split second, he thought he saw a smile creep at the edges.
"You know, you're right, Naruto. I am being completely absurd." She shook her head, eyes crinkled in a pathetic attempt to mask the sorrow away. "It's just been hard lately, with so many things happening in my life. Just stressed with the workload. I'll be okay once it's sorted out, really. I promise."
Normally anyone would believe the truth to her expertly crafted words. But there was something that went unnoticed under Naruto's somber eyes. He was not convinced by the mere pretense. She had crossed her fingers under the counter.
The kunoichi trembled under his scrutinizing gaze, playing around with the chopsticks. It was unnerving, least to say. And that was being generous. Pushing that thought aside, she stabbed it into the first thing it came in contact to.
A cherry red tomato floated up.
Her mouth went dry.
That was his favorite…
Suddenly her insides felt nauseous and had a rather strong urge to dry heave. She could taste its bitterness and felt too drained. Images began to spin in a whirling miasma and the room wouldn't stop moving. It was harder to get her breath for some reason. To think properly. To see clearly. Her vision was clouded and every silhouette was a ripple of glass waiting to be shattered.
She guessed people underestimated her ability to cry now. Those alleged "empty" tear ducts were beginning to moisten, and she'd be damned if anyone witnessed it, no less than her equals.
"I'm sorry, Naruto. I… I have to go now." The last bit sounded choked, strangled in her throat.
"Sakura-chan! Matte!" The desperation ringing in his voice was unmistakable.
Hastily she gathered her supplies before regretting everything, jammed it into a bag, and left enough money to cover the bill. "Naruto, please understand. It's been…difficult… I'll see you tomorrow." Before allowing him to hinder any plans of escape, her lithe body slipped into the throng of moving flesh.
Her heart was pounding as she maneuvered through the crowd. It was unfair. Inconsiderate, even. She knew all of this in spite of everything, but truth be told, she did not want him involved any more than she was. This battle had to be fought alone. He worried about her too much for his own sake, but she understood that she was one of his very few best friends, having one stripped away in course of fulfilling his own warped revenge.
Naruto just didn't want to lose another one. It was understandable.
Her heart ached at the thought. She was becoming like the traitor himself more and more as each day passed. Naruto didn't deserve any of it. Not the pain, not the solitude, not the loss, nothing.
And here she was, hurting him like he did.
Please forgive me.
I can't even forgive myself for doing this to you.
Back at the bar, the vixen blonde felt a heavy weight drop besides him.
Or that could be Kakashi sitting next to me, he thought wryly, turning over to face their former teacher.
Hatake Kakashi's eyes were hooded and observing like the legendary ninja he was sought out to be in most bingo books. Only this time his Icha Icha tactics novel was nowhere in plain sight, a relief in the blonde's case. That orange-covered book was practically –no, screw it, it was– porn in the form of overly passionate words.
Naruto managed a bland greeting, not even bothering to conceal his frown. "Kakashi-sensei."
"Wonderful weather, wouldn't you agree?" He smiled.
"Talk about it," the Kyuubi container griped back dourly.
Certainly to his surprise, Naruto's upbeat personality returned in a split second, eyes animated. "Your treat?!"
Kakashi ruffled his golden hair with crinkled eyes. (Or technically one eye, since the other was currently…not in use…)
Naruto furrowed his brows, fingernails drumming against the birched table. "Yeah…" He scratched his cheek. "You know, you always happen to show up in the most convenient times. Creepy."
The silver-haired Jounin blatantly ignored the statement and shrugged off his vest, ordering himself a warm bowl of broth, and then returned his attention.
"Ah." He gave a sage nod, a crooked smile evident beneath the fabricated navy mask. "I have my ways. Call them shinobi instincts… ahem, so anyways! Not to sound like some old, stalking geezer, but how bout we talk this over a few bowls? Your treat, since I left my wallet on the way of life…"
"NO WAY, KAKA-SENSEI!!!!!!"
Kakashi cringed. "Naruto, settle down. You make it sound like you've just discovered some kind of commendable theory."
His whiskers lifted. "But it explains everything so well! The black dress, the tomato, the flower, the bitchiness. I should've noticed!"
"But you were too occupied with ramen, am I correct?" Kakashi finished off for him with indifference.
"Huh…?" he uttered nonplussed.
"Forget I ever said anything. The point is, today is a particularly sensitive day for her. So whatever she said was not intentional, do you understand?"
The jinchuuriki agreed unconditionally. "I know that, of course. Sakura-chan is still Sakura-chan. She's my best friend, well, besides that teme. I think…I think she went through all of this by herself, because she doesn't want it to be our responsibility. We should go find her, sensei. To talk to her about it."
The silver-haired ninja held a face of untainted surprise. "Oh? Well, that's your first good idea in a long time, Naruto."
"Hey! People underestimate me, but because of that I'm able to kick some serious ass! The next Hokage, you just wait and see. "
"Yeah, yeah…" But as Kakashi led him by the head, towering, there was no doubt in his mind that he believed in him.
And the fact that he got away without paying for his food, again.
The journey had been a quiet one, when the stretching hills of farmland came into view. The outskirt's rural life was really something different from the swarming streets of Konoha: more peaceful and less chaotic. The air smelled cleaner and fresher to inhale. She took this all in and let out a staccato breath.
She'd been the attention of every ranch imaginable. It was not very often to see outsiders, no less some pink-haired girl, walking up to them with a brave face on and asking for the best tomato they had in stock.
An odd request, but nothing short of impossible.
So to pass some time, a little competition stirred amongst the friendlier neighbors, but after mulling over the set criteria, Fuzushiki Takahashi's tomatoes outshined every other.
"Told ya mine was the best," the unruly cultivator gloated with an obtuse accent, biting down on hay with the corner of his decaying teeth.
Murmurs punctured the serene region, many of questionable doubts.
"Must've injected super enhancing stuff," a young teenager whispered.
"Chemicals, I tell ya," the mother added brusquely. "Little cheatin' pig he is."
"Ours is so the best," another one defended, clearly upset.
Hoping to avoid any outbreaks, she bid them a brief farewell and ended up in front of a familiar stone in an about hour of travel.
Kakashi would be coming soon, as his daily visits called for. So this would have to be quick.
Her nimble fingers brushed against limestone, smooth and cool to the touch. A jolt of electric shot through her arm, but the initial shock was not enough to ward her off. Engraved names ogled back anciently, names of heroes who had sacrificed themselves for the sake of the village; she felt as if many presences were nearby, watching. Pride filled her every muscle as a ninja, despite being stiff and achy from that lengthy trip to the markets. It'd make her into a better person.. The bottled emotions were making its rounds to resurface after being held in so long. She was still human, after all.
Deciding that it was in her best interest to get it over, she knelt down to the plaque and tucked in her kneecaps, head bent over respectfully with tendrils of pink spilling from the scalp. Streams of tears followed shortly after, her voice hoarse and weak. It was the only time she was allowed to look pitiful and given the freedom to spill out her hearts content without concern or embarrassment.
The flower and the tomato looked healthy under the daylight.
"My faith has faded away for the most part," she started aloud, lifting her milky face to see her reflection in the monument, "but deep down, behind everything I've put up, I've been seeking refuge. I've been a burden to everyone, but it's because I love them too much for them to get hurt over me. So I have a favor to ask, Kami-sama.
"I'm not really the type who… prays very often, or talks to one self, you see," she commented frankly, "but I always feel that there's a sliver of hope left… for redemption… for his return. I know it's stupid to be foolish and wishing to a rock no less…"
A sharp blade of wind sliced through the long expanse of field. She took in the warning and took back the offense.
"Okay. Sorry about that. You're not just any rock. I feel so silly right now. Just…" Sakura craned her neck and peeked past the curtain of hair, making sure no one was there looking, "aid me on my mission. Thank you."
She then set the tomato and flower rightfully besides the memorial as an offering.
The wind, mesmerized by her quiet, musical laughter, carried her voice and wish to the Gods.
"Perhaps I should spoil the moment?" Kakashi asked innocently enough.
Naruto, who remained hidden behind several trees, gave a catty grin. "We should…but I really don't want Sakura-chan to kick my ass next time she sees us."
"You mean yourself. I was merely walking on the road of life again…"
"I really do hate you sometimes."
"Don't we all," the 34-year-old ninja said cheerfully.
On that same night, she, for the first time in many months, was peacefully dormant in sweet dreams.
Pick Up Line of the Day: Help, something's wrong with my eyes - I just can't take them off you.
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