A/N: After what seemed like forever, After Forever is finally updated. Yay!
Naruto wiped a bead of sweat that strayed on his eyelid. His reflex action was not quick enough though—even after the movement, his left eye was still left stinging in the salty heat of his perspiration.
His eyes roved around the greenery that surrounded him, all the while quietly recreating in his mind what his eyes could see. And as he expected, he seemed familiar enough with this place for him to accurately mentally visualize this forest when this was supposedly his first visit in this area.
He had been hiking for hours already—he opted to let go of the luxury of a carriage so as not to alert everyone of the Hokage's sudden leave. Anyway, his Kakashi-sensei was the more capable of them in "explaining" things. He knew that at this moment, the man was taking care of covering up for him already.
He suddenly recalled what his teacher warned him when he asked for his advice as to whether he should try getting information about Hinata from Hyuuga Neji.
"If you have decided that you don't love your life anymore, you can go ahead with your plan." Kakashi crossed his arms in front of his chest. "He knows that you are his nephew's father, and he'll do everything in his power to keep the baby away from you. That includes shredding your flesh into a thousand and one pieces."
He frowned. "I'm
ready to fight him to the finish."
"The Hokage is not allowed to act so impetuously, especially when lives at are stake here. And in this case, it's not just yours or Neji. Your son's own life and an opportunity to be with his father lies here too," Kakashi reminded him gently.
"B-But…" he sputtered. "Neji hasn't heard my story yet. I-If he knew that I didn't intentionally leave Hinata… that I only am starting to remember my past now…"
"Listening is not one of that guy's best points, along with Talking Sensibly like a Civilized Person and Understanding Other Non-Geniuses' Shortcomings." The Copy Ninja sighed audibly. "He has a one-dimensional way of thinking. The only thing he knows right now is you deserted his cousin when she needed you most."
"That's what he knows."
"Am I not entitled to defend myself from his…well, stupidity and pig-headedness?" Naruto demanded to know.
"Not yet." His mentor patted his shoulder. "Your most potent defense is a detailed account of what really happened in the forest. As of now, you don't have that."
The Hokage's shoulders sagged along with his newfound fighting spirit.
"There is a time for everything, Hokage-sama," advised Kakashi quietly. "Now is not the time to settle things between you and Neji. You better concentrate on getting your memories back."
He nodded dumbly.
Another half-hour of walking had led him to a rough road with a graveled path snaking towards the other side of the forest. Intuitively, he started to tread that path. As he dragged his feet to the ground, his mind started to wander back to the girl in the picture that Kakashi had showed him days ago.
Hyuuga Hinata. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember all the things he could about her, but mere blurred images dawned into his memory.
Earlier, he had already tried asking Sakura about her, but all the woman could say was, "She's someone not important." And as if scorched by his inquisitive gaze, she gave him a flimsy excuse of having to attend to suddenly imperative business and left him.
He told Kakashi-sensei about this, but the man merely doubled over with laughter. When he asked his mentor what it was all about, Kakashi—shaking shoulders and all—scolded him that the Hokage-sama should know better than to talk to a woman about another woman.
That was only when it hit him.
Sakura-chan doesn't want to talk about Hinata because she's a girl. Girls like to talk about boys.
When he shared his winning theory with the Copy Ninja, the latter nearly rolled over the floor, laughing his insides out.
Ah, he would never, EVER figure out women.
Moments later, his laborious effort rewarded him with a sight of a ramshackle hut that stood unaccompanied in the loneliness of the greenery. As he drew nearer, excitement started to pump into his system.
This one… He gazed at the pail of murky water with leaves and swimming insects in it. This looks familiar.
He suddenly had a vision of a long-haired woman carrying it, with the pail's then clear blue water splashing on the knee-part of her lily-white kimono.
His heartbeat's pace quickened. Could that woman then be…
He turned his attention next to the broom that stood against the wall. Its wooden handle had gathered cobwebs, but in his mind's eye, he could see a pair of porcelain-skinned hands holding the handle tightly. He could hear the rhythmic sound of the broom's contact with the ground.
As the breeze blew, rustling the leaves of the trees that surrounded him, he thought he could feel himself getting transported back in another time. He could suddenly see smoke rising from the shack's chimney, hear the sounds of the cows, pigs, and chickens, and smell the heavenly aroma of simple homemade pancake.
From a distance, he thought he could hear the broom brushing on the ground lightly, blending with the low melodic hum of a woman.
He could see a trail of white fabric dancing lithely to the waft that seemed to envelope the whole place in its loving embrace. Long, ebony locks swayed softly as violet satin ribbons struggled to untie themselves from the sea of black tresses.
It was then that he realized that the woman was already standing in front of him, though it was her back that was facing him. She was busy with her work, obviously, but her every movement radiated with her innate love for this kind of hard labor.
"H-Hinata…?" His voice registered barely above a whisper.
The woman stopped what she was doing. Slowly, she turned to face him.
Naruto felt his every body action cease. Even his breathing was forgotten when he came face-to-face with the woman who had occupied his thoughts day and night.
Her translucent eyes widened, and then surprise gave way to happiness. She smiled sedately, her cheeks crimson.
He struggled to swallow hard. It was all coming back to him now: Hyuuga Hinata, a woman he had known since childhood. She was that little shy girl he would once remember stammering his name while looking down at the ground. She was also the same girl who comforted him with simple heartfelt words that a kind heart chose for itself to say. She was also that person whom he vowed to fight an almost impossible-to-defeat opponent for in a tournament.
And Hinata was the woman who loved him enough to be the mother of his son.
Fingers trembling, he reached out to touch her face. Only to find out a minute later that all he saw was a mirage.
For some seconds or so, he couldn't move. But when thoughts started to fill him, he felt a very sharp pain slice through his chest.
And for the first time in his life, he suddenly felt depleted of strength. He sank on his knees, face crumpled and wet with tears.
The only woman whom he could have loved and would have loved him with equal ardor was gone, never to come back anymore.
Hours had passed before he had decided to go inside the hut. Dusk was coming, and if he wanted to live long enough to look for his and Hinata's son, he would have to light a fire and ward off the chill.
Working half-heartedly, he deposited the chopped pieces of wood that stood by the chimney.
More pieces of wood were stacked in the kitchen, telling him that it was mid-winter when the hut last experienced residents inside it. He couldn't help but wince at that thought. Hinata pregnant, alone, cold, in an isolated forest.
While he was safe and snugly warm inside his pad, enjoying the protection of the ANBU force and the companionship of everyone in the Konoha Jounin Office.
Soon, his fire was glowing lightly and radiating cozy warmth. Satisfied, he sank on the makeshift bed of hay, his eyes gazing directly at the ceiling now clothed in fragile tangled strands of cobwebs.
"Hey, Hinata," he spoke softly, as if addressing an invisible presence. "If it's really you that brought me here, then please help me remember. I… I want to remember what happened."
"It will help me get our son back," he pleaded. "And I want to know… I want to know if I really am worthy to introduce myself to him."
The fire cackled, the shadows on the wall flickered, but aside from these, nothing eventful followed.
Wearily, he shut his eyes tight. And despite the steady eddy of thoughts inside his head, slumber was able to penetrate his consciousness. Soon enough, he was already snoring softly.
"This way! The firefox went through here!"
The hasty, frantic bellows of men wearing the headband protector of the Waterfall Country boomed inside the ears of the profusely-bleeding Uzumaki Naruto. The tourniquet he applied on his right knee had tried to delay his death by excessive hemorrhage, but for how long, he didn't want to think about.
He knew that his bodyguards were all severely wounded by the ambush attack, but he had made sure that all of them would live. Sacrificing precious minutes of opportunity to escape, he applied a special first-aid jutsu on his every aide before he led his assassins away from the carriage.
Limping away from the tree bark he was hiding, Naruto gratefully reflected that at least, his ubiquitous personal assistant, Haruno Sakura, was downed by cough and cold days ago, Granny Tsunade, therefore, forbade her from coming along the trip to avoid contaminating the Hokage.
He stifled a gasp when he saw that his wounded body part was starting to feel numb. The shred piece of his white robe was also soaked with blood already—and that was the fourth time he had already dressed that injury. Dryly, he figured that his death was now a contest among dying from excessive bleeding, getting tetanus, or being actually found by his killers. If I had to die, at least don't let those three things happen at the same time and when I'm fully conscious.
He grimaced. Now his humor was starting to get morbid too. Shaking his head vigorously, he struggled to keep walking. Despair was slowly settling within him—trees seemed to be an endless sight. He looked down at his bandaged leg. If he didn't reach civilization soon, he would be an instant organic fertilizer in the forest.
His few seconds of inattention had cost him dearly. Suddenly, a shuriken landed straight on his left chest—just inches away from his ribs!
Letting out a yowl of pain, he crashed back on the grass, gasping for breath. Pain had temporarily reigned his wits—all he knew was he had to scream his anguish.
"The firefox is bound northwards! Hundred meters to the east! Hurry!" a shout that finally penetrated his mind made him clamp his mouth shut.
Biting his lower lip to divert the prickly pain on his chest, his nimble fingers grabbed the jagged edge of the shuriken, which was now like a waterwheel navigating in a crimson shower of blood.
With all his might, he pulled the shuriken out. His best efforts though, could not contain him from letting out another shriek of agony.
"Faster!" yelled another voice. "He might escape!"
He pressed his palm on the wound and broke into a run. It didn't matter anymore if his wounds were going to open up and bleed—his main concern now was to get away from these people who were determined as hell to kill him.
Pain, despair, and fatigue were starting to take a toll on his badly beaten up body already though. His vision was starting to become hazy, his breathing had started to become more laborious, and he was starting to lose sensation all over his body.
He strained himself from falling into the abyss of hopelessness. He forced himself to think of other pleasant things.
Ramen would be nice…
I wonder… Sakura-chan might get mad at me because I didn't bring her some sushi from the Mist village. And I won't get to tell her that I found a lead about Sasuke's whereabouts in that place. I want to personally see her smile when she learns that she may just see that idiot again.
And Kakashi-sensei would tell everyone that I haven't returned yet because I'm cuddling with a geisha downtown.
Had Iruka-sensei decided to heed my advice and go out on a date tonight? But Kakashi-sensei would only take him to adult places. He should court Granny Tsunade's assistant instead.
Granny Tsunade… is she worried about me? She might scold me for acting like that Ero-sennin. Always careless, always trusting. Always…
A tear threatened to dribble down his cheek. I may never see them again. And I wasn't even able to say goodbye…
Suddenly, his ear caught a sound of footsteps unlike that of his executioners. This sent adrenalin pushing through his veins. Mustering his last few ounces of strength, he ran towards the source of the sound. He pushed branches of trees away from his face, until he caught a glimpse of something white that stood gloriously in the monotony of greens.
A pale-skinned woman, with long dark hair that contrasted dramatically with her milky complexion and her hem-long pallid kimono, was carrying a pail of water towards a house not too far away.
The woman immediately noticed him, and recognition flashed in her colorless eyes.
"H-Help me…" He was able to make one last step towards her before he lost his balance and plummeted down the dark chasm of oblivion.
When his eyes opened, the first thing he felt was warmth, followed by a floating sensation. He groggily recollected his still disjointed thoughts.
A chase… yes, he was being pursued by some assassins in the forest. He remembered that they had an upper hand because they seem to know the place well enough to know where he may possibly be hiding and where he may possibly run to.
He mentally retraced his steps. He was bleeding heavily, he remembered.
Instinctively, he looked at his leg, and nearly did a double take.
His leg was visibly clean under the bubbling surface of a hot spring. Not only that, the water also reflected the towel that was wrapped over his head like a turban, and a white kimono draped loosely around his figure.
Puzzled, he got up unsteadily. Water generously poured down his form as he scanned his surroundings.
A flash of aura made him turn to the left. There he spotted a gentle brook that seemed to cascade downwards. There and then, he decided to investigate.
As he followed the brook's direction, he realized why he seemed to hear a gurgling sound reminiscent of waterfalls.
The stream he followed sporadically broke into halves by small cliffs, only to be joined by the banks that push the current together, and then caught effortlessly by a basin of water. From there, another lower falls formed, before the water continued its travel beyond the horizon.
Lifting the hem of the kimono, he used the scattered piece of smooth rocks as stepping stones to get to the other side of the stream. As he gazed admiringly at the nature-perfected scenery, he caught yet another explosion of energy from the higher falls.
Quickly, he climbed the drier rocks of the cliff to see the source of the aura. It didn't take him long to reach the second level of the elevated land-water mass.
And to his utter shock, a lone naked figure, shaped womanly, was standing beneath the falls, body position locked in a concentration stance.
He dared not make an audible exhale, as he watched the figure suddenly come to life. Her body started to glow with carefully contained chakra, and then began to illuminate even more when she launched into her quick, lithe movements.
He could only watch in complete amazement as she displayed the full force of her chakra, fortified by the energy that the waterfalls seemed to give off willingly to her powers.
She danced and glided and paused in the right rhythm, as if she was totally disconnected to the areas outside her world and the waterfalls. This immense intensity of concentration was one of the finest he had ever seen in all the battles he had faced.
And when she stopped, panting and catching her breath, her aura swirled for a few lingering moments, as if reluctant to leave the person who summoned such beautiful elements into the earthly world. But then they too, left.
The world began to turn again for Naruto, especially when the woman suddenly noticed him.
A faint smile dawned on his face when he saw her got up panickedly and ran towards the nearby boulders.
"That was pretty impressive," he remarked when he reached her spot. He averted his gaze from tracing her body's delicate naked contour. He knew she was embarrassed enough already.
"I-I… I didn't expect you to wake up so soon," a trembling small voice came from the rock. "Y-You suffered critical wounds."
"I have great genes," he admitted. "It helps increase my recovery."
"I-I left you in the hot spring so you could relax for awhile," she said after a few seconds of silence. "I had treated you there also… because I had a feeling that the people who were after you might find you in my house if we go there."
"Great thinking!" he chuckled. Casually, he sat down in front of the boulder where the woman was cowering behind. "Oh by the way…" He disrobed and placed the wet fabric on top of the big rock.
"E-Eh?" The woman took the cloth slowly.
"That robe belongs to you," he said matter-of-factly.
"G-Gomen," she apologized softly. "I threw your clothes away because they may be contaminated with germs already. Your wounds were open, and your situation might just worsen."
"Thanks," he replied sincerely. "You're an angel. You saved a stranger's life, and I thank you for that."
"A-Ah no…" She fell silent. "P-Please don't worry about it," she choked out after awhile.
"Are you studying taijutsu?" he wanted to know. "Ninjutsu even?"
She gave an affirmative mumble.
"From what country are you?" he pressed.
"Oh, alright!" He laughed breezily. "I guess it doesn't matter from where my savior comes from. The fact remains that you're heavensent. Get it?"
He thought he heard her shy laughter from behind the rock. For some reason, this made his heart feel lighter.
"Go get dressed, angel," he teased her gently. "Or else, it would be your turn to get sick."
"Y-Yes," came a happy whisper.
"Know what?" he asked as he heard the rustle of fabric. She was already getting dressed then.
He shook his head smilingly. "It may sound incredibly cliché, but… you remind me of someone when you were dancing awhile ago."
He glanced at her briefly. "By the way, you can call me Naruto."
"And your name is…?"
She held her tongue for what seemed like eternity before she broke into a shy, proud smile. "Angel. T-That's what you called me awhile ago."
He blinked, and then broke into delighted laughter. He had decided that she was really a blessing in disguise—for a person like him that nearly got killed brutally, he was laughing like he had absolutely no worries in the world.
Thanks to an angel.
to be continued