Seeing the Sky

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The night was the kind of gorgeous night you read about only in romance novels; the stars were remarkably clear and pulsating with cleansing white light, the moon radiated a pale, soft glow. The dark indigo-black of the night sky itself wrapped round the world like a blanket tucked tightly around a body, the ends of it touching the horizon on all sides. There was the slightest hint of a breeze, just enough to keep the tent in which they slept cool and airy, and the faint chirp of crickets mingled with the distant croaking of frogs, creating a lullaby sweeter than any symphony. The air was tinged with the light, yet heady scent of cherry blossoms, for it was springtime, and the scent rode on the breeze like a chariot lined with purest gold.

All this, and Sakura couldn't sleep.

She didn't feel remotely tired; on the contrary, she felt as wide awake as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water over her head. She was lying on her back in the tent she shared with Naruto (he had conveniently 'forgotten' to bring one, and had stubbornly refused to sleep with any of the rest of the ANBU squad on the basis of possible molestation), gazing at the top of it. The dark fabric yielded no spangle of stars or glow of the moon; it was simply a blank canvas. At home, she slept with her face towards the window, falling asleep to the music of the stars.

Silently, Sakura sat up and grabbed her kunai holster, taking a weapon from the sheath and fingering it delicately. This, she realized, was the kunai with which she had stabbed the enemy, taking his last breath as surely as if it had been her own. She had washed it well, but there was a chip in it from where his sword had touched it; a last defense, though admittedly a foolish one. Neji, her captain, had already closed his tenketsu points enough so that he could barely lift the katana.

Blocking her mind from the day's work (another day, another S-class criminal exterminated), Sakura lifted the kunai and sliced a neat square in the tent's fabric, cutting away about a couple square feet of canvas until she could see the vast expanse of night sky. The canvas fell from her dagger and landed on Naruto's face. She giggled, about to remove it, but he stirred, taking it from his nose and putting it next to him. "Sakura-chan?"

"Gomen," she apologized, putting the kunai back into her holster. "I wanted to see the sky."

Naruto chuckled; Sakura's love of nature had always struck him as rather odd. But when he scooted his head to take in the view, his chuckles died. "It is nice out, Sakura-chan."

Sakura-chan. Years and years of training, from ages twelve to seventeen, and he still called her Sakura-chan. It was a reminder of her childhood, and she both loved and hated him for it. "Won't you ever call me Sakura?" she asked suddenly, leaning her arms against her knees.

He was silent for a moment, and she began to think he'd fallen back asleep, but then his hand grasped her wrist. "We can't forget all of it, Sakura-chan."

Stung at the subtle but blisteringly obvious reproach, Sakura shrugged her wrist from his grip. His hand had been warm with sleep. "I guess I know that."

"Are you having trouble sleeping?"

Sakura lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug, as if saying it was no problem. But Naruto sat up, a brilliant grin on his face. "Well, if you won't sleep, I won't either!" he proclaimed in a loud whisper. "We'll have a slumber party like the ones you have with Ino and Hinata and TenTen."

Sakura couldn't help but laugh a little.

"What do you do at these slumber parties?"

She laughed a little more; he sounded like a child. "We talk about girl things, Naruto. We talk about boys and dreams, and we tell funny stories. We paint nails and watch movies and talk about our pasts."

He scrunched up his face in a comically thoughtful expression, then smiled at her again. "Well, I don't think I can talk to you about boys, watch movies, or paint your nails, but everything else sounds good."

Sakura grinned a bit at him. "I'm a bit old for sleepovers, Naruto. The last one I had was when I was fifteen, right after you came back."

"Ah, well, we'll give you a second childhood." His face suddenly looked wary. "D'you ever talk about me at these slumber parties?"

Sakura looked at him, amused. "You're a boy, aren't you?"

"Pretty sure." He grinned. "What do you say?"

"Well, Hinata always stutters a bit, because, well… you're married, aren't you, and we always like to grill her about it." She smiled a slightly evil smile Naruto had seen plenty of times. "And TenTen always rolls her eyes and talks about the missions she's had with you, how you act, and Ino always says you eat like a pig."

"Sakura-chan, I asked: 'what do you say'."

She sighed and was silent for a very long time, tilting her head to look at the moon. "I tell them you're like a brother to me, Naruto. I tell them that I couldn't get through a day without you, even though I know that sometime I'll have to. I tell them that you're what kept me up through years and years of being alone, two and a half years of hanging onto the thought that you'd be back."

Naruto looked amazed. "I didn't know you missed me so much, Sakura-chan."

Sakura shook her head. "Neither did I, honestly. I thought I'd be glad to be rid of you. But… well, you are like a brother to me, Naruto. Only four years ago, I thought you were the annoying little brother. Now you're the protective older one."

"And what's Sai?"

"He took your place; he's twice as annoying as you were."

"And Neji?"

She blushed heavily and punched him on the shoulder, as he knew she would; it was one of the little things, akin to getting ramen with her on Sundays, that was blessedly routine in their life. "Neji's… well, Neji's the boyfriend," she said happily, "you know that."

He grinned roguishly at her. "How was your date the other night?"

She sighed. Naruto had found out a while ago that this super-strong woman was a secret romantic, and so her little swoons didn't surprise him in the least. "It was marvelous," she said with a smile, "really great. He took me to this awesome restaurant."

Naruto chuckled, glancing at the ring on his left hand, the band of gold Hinata had given him only a week ago. Yes, they were married at seventeen; he knew it was young, and he knew it was rushed, but hell, the elders who protested could go screw themselves. They loved each other, and life as astoundingly short as a shinobi, unless you were uncommonly lucky; why not get married at seventeen if you didn't have a chance at twenty-seven? "Think he'll pop the question any time soon?" he asked carelessly.

Sakura gasped. "I don't think so. He is Neji, after all." But there was a warmth in her voice, a glimmer of hope, and Naruto realized that maybe her engagement could be sooner than she wished.

"Hyuuga Sakura," he said.

She smiled at him.

"What about Sasuke?"

He shouldn't have said it, should not have said it, damn him, why did he say it? Naruto immediately turned to her and begged forgiveness. "Gomen, Sakura-chan, I shouldn't have said that… my mistake, it was a slip of the-"

But she merely waved him aside, a small smile curving her lips like a bowstring. "Sasuke is… I don't know. He's pretty unclassifiable, don't you think?"

He gaped at her. "You're not upset?"

"No, Naruto, I'm not upset," she said quietly. "I love him like a brother, but I haven't seen him in a long time. Maybe the feeling isn't mutual? Maybe he thinks of me as just a teammate? I don't know, I haven't talked with him properly in ages. For now, he's just Sasuke, just like Chouji who's only Chouji, or Shino who's only Shino. I know him, distantly, but not enough to brand him as a friend or otherwise." She paused. "What's he to you?"

"A brother," Naruto said, equally softly. "A brother that I never knew."

And they sat in silence for a long time, watching the stars pulse with comfort.

"Did you know," said Sakura in a rather broken voice, "I hated myself back then?"

Naruto looked at her strangely. "Back when?"

"When I was twelve. Right when Sasuke was thinking of leaving."

The blonde Hokage-to-be sat up straight, staring at her, though she had eyes only for the sky. "Why did you hate yourself?"

Sakura looked down; Naruto realized with shame that hot tears were cascading down her cheeks. "I was weak. And I was a hypocrite. I ridiculed you for being weak, and then you got stronger; I made fun of Lee-san for being strange, and then realized he was one of the nicest people I've ever met." She shook her head. "I was horrible to you, and horrible to Sasuke, and horrible to myself."

Naruto shook his head. "Sakura-chan, no…"

She closed her mouth bitterly, shaking her head. "I was the bottom-ranked girl in the country, Naruto. Fourth out of four kunoichi genin. It seemed like I could never win, like I was trapped in a downwards spiral."

"But you-"

"Yeah," Sakura interrupted softly. "I fought back. Against myself." She looked up at him again; her eyes were shining, but not from tears, though little rivers of salty liquid were resting on her cheeks. The moonlight reflected off her irises, turning them a spectacular, determined pearly-green. "Once I became Tsunade's apprentice, I entered competitions. Mini-tournaments. Anything I could get my hands on. You never knew about this, you were gone-- but I fought my way up. I defeated Hinata, then tied with TenTen. And then I defeated Hinata, defeated TenTen, and was defeated by Ino. And once I won the girl's competitions five times in a row, I entered the boy's. And…" She looked extremely proud of herself, her eyes were gleaming, her cocky smile was back. "And I beat all of them by the time I was fourteen and a half, a couple months before you came back." She chuckled. "Kiba's face was hilarious."

Naruto smiled slightly at her. "So why are you crying, Sakura-chan, if you did all that? You kick ass harder than anyone I know."

"I think I'm crying because I never allowed myself to cry back then," she answered. "After ever competition, every defeat or every win, when I was tired and exhausted to the bone, hardly able to get home without assistance, I would not let myself cry. I actually took up taijutsu sparring with Kakashi-sensei to get my mind off the pain and weariness. So maybe this is just kind of… kind of letting it all out."

And then, without another word, she burst into tears. Naruto took her into his arms and hugged her, rocked her, but didn't say anything. He realized that these tears weren't simply leftovers from two years of hard work; they were tears for anything and everything that had ever bothered her in her life, everything she hadn't had the ability to cry for back then. And he found himself sobbing with her.

He cried for his parents, the demon inside him, the loneliness he'd felt for over half of his existence. He cried for being rude to Iruka-sensei and defacing the Hokage's monument, and he cried for Sasuke and for everyone he'd ever known: the people he'd changed and the people he'd tried to change; the people he'd convinced to become good, to follow their own destinies, and the people he'd failed to defeat, the ones he was so determined to defeat now. He cried for losing a brother and getting what seemed before to be a cheap replacement. He cried for Kakashi-sensei, for his ex-sensei had told him about Obito and Rin and the Fourth Hokage.

Sakura cried for the injustices of the world; for Naruto with his demon, for Sasuke with his brother, for her with her ever-groping fingers, hands that longed for a group of people to hold onto and call her own. She cried for Ami, the girl who'd bullied her and that had died four months ago; she cried for Tsunade, for Neji, for Ino, for TenTen, for Lee, for anyone she'd ever known that didn't seem to deserve the kind of things they'd been through.

And then the two of them stopped, and gave shaky laughs, and pulled apart and wiped their faces. Naruto and Sakura leaned back, faces still streaked with the pearls of leftover sorrow, and looked at the sky, which seemed somehow to glow a little brighter now.

And Sakura realized that crying was a great deal more intimate than, say, kissing or holding hands; crying with someone seemed to leave no inhibitions, no awkwardness, no regrets. It was an outpouring of feelings that were somehow simply not controlled; there were no secrets when you sobbed into each other's shoulders.

She heard Naruto's deep rumble of a chuckle. "Good slumber party material?" he inquired.

Sakura laughed without abandon, despite the fact that their teammates were probably already awake and cross with them, and nodded. "Most definitely. I should take you to one next time."

"I thought you were too old for them?"

Sakura turned her head to face him and smiled. "Like you said, we can't forget all of it."

She turned her head back, and suddenly felt Naruto's pinky finger wrapping round her own in a promise. A promise of what? Well, she understood in a flash, it didn't really matter, did it? It was a promise, and she knew that Naruto's promises were always, always kept.

They drifted off to sleep like that, heads turned away from each other but fingers clasped tightly; they would go separate ways, but they would never, ever be completely apart. They would always, somehow, stay together, fighting back-to-back or healing each other or comforting during a death or even, weird though it sounded, going to Ichiraku on Sundays and eating ramen as part of their weekly routine. Maybe that was the promise, Sakura thought dully as sleep weighed her down. Maybe their fingers intertwined was a promise that Naruto would stay by her, and that she would stay by him, for as long as life allowed them.

It was the lightest of gestures of affection, and yet it seemed to express more brotherly love than the giant hugs he gave her ever day.

She smiled.

And the stars twinkled on.

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Author's Note: This oneshot came with a muse riding on a silver-edged cloud. I'm kind of proud of it… it's really supposed to display character growth that doesn't always come in the manga or anime, and I think it's pretty good in that respect.

I love you all for reading it, I hope you enjoyed it, and I'd love you even more if you sent a little click to that blue review button.

--Dejeuner