Chapter 1

Sakura

The house was empty. Sakura knew as soon as she walked through the front door. Only a clock ticking in the kitchen challenged the silence.

Fear uncurled within her. Mommy, she thought like a child. Is it the hospital again- or worse? She dropped her schoolbag in the hall, forgetting the open door, and walked slowly into the kitchen, afraid of what message might await her. There was a note on the refrigerator:

Gone to the hospital. Don't worry. Make

your dinner. Be back when I can.

Love, Dad.

P.S. Don't wait up.

She crumpled the note and flung it at the trash can. It missed. She snorted in disgust. It seemed that lately all her conversations with her father had been carried on with a banana refrigerator magnet as intermediary. The banana speaks, she thought. It defended the refrigerator, stopped her from opening the door. She couldn't eat.

Sakura the bird they called her at school. She had always been thin, but now her bones seemed hollow. Her wrists and joints were bruised with shadows. She was almost as thin as her mother, wasting away with cancer in the hospital. A sympathy death perhaps, she wondered half seriously. She had always been compared to her mother. She had the same green eyes, long pink hair with a slight wave, and deceptively pale skin that tanned with the slightest encouragement. Wouldn't it be ironic if she died, too, fading out suddenly when her look-alike went?

Sakura drifted from the kitchen, not sure what to do. How could she wash dishes or wipe counters when god knows what was happening with her mother in the hospital? She shrugged off her coat, leaving it on a chair. Dad kept on saying everything would be alright, but what if something happened and she wasn't there, all because he couldn't admit to her that mom might be dying?

She tugged at her sweater, twisted a lock of hair; her hands couldn't keep still. I should be used to this by now, she thought. It had been going on for over a year: the long stays in the hospital, the short stays at home, weeks of hope, then sudden relapses, and the cures that made her mother sicker than the pain. But it would be a sin to be used to something like that, she thought. Unnatural. You can't let yourself get used to it, because that's just like giving in.

She paused in the dining room. It was sparsely furnished with a long antique trestle table and chairs that almost all matched, but the walls were fanfare to her mother's life. They gave a home to the large, bright, splashy oils that Tsume Inuzuka painted; pictures charged with bold emotions, full of laughing people who leapt and swirled and sang. Like Mom, she thought- like mom used to. And that's where they differed, for Sakura wrote quiet poetry suffused with twilight and questions. It's not even good poetry, she thought. I don't have talent, it's her. I should be the one ill; she has so much to offer, so much life.

"You're a dark one," her mother said sometimes with amused wonder. "You're a mystery."

I want to be like them, she thought almost pleadingly as she stroked the crimson paint to feel the brush strokes, hoping to maybe absorb its warmth.

The living room was cool and shadowed. The glints of sunlight on the roof she could see through the window resembled light playing on the surface of water, and the room's aqua colours hinted at undersea worlds. Perhaps she'd find peace here. She sank into the couch.

Just enjoy the room, she told herself; the room that has always been here, and always will; the room that hasn't changed. I am five, she pretended. Mom is in the kitchen making an early dinner. They are going out tonight to a party, and Anko is coming over to baby-sit. I'll go and play with my doll house soon.

But it wouldn't last, so she opened her eyes and stretched. Her fingers touched the sleek cheapness of newsprint. The morning paper was still spread on the couch. She glanced at it with little interest, but the headline glared: Mother of Two Found Dead. Her stomach lurched. Everyone's mother found dead, she thought bitterly. Why not everyone's? But she couldn't help reading the next few lines. Throat slashed, the article said, drained dry of blood.

"That's absurd," she said aloud. Her fingers tightened in disgust, crumpling the page.

"What is this- the National Enquirer?" She tossed the paper away, wrenched herself to her feet, and headed for her room.

But the phone rang before she reached the stairs. She flinched but darted for the hall extension and picked it up. It was a familiar voice, but not her father's.

"Sakura, it's horrible." Ino, her best friend, wailed across the phone lines with typical drama. It should have been comforting.

"What's horrible?" Sakura gasped with pounding heart. Had the hospital called Ino's house because she wasn't home?

"We're moving."

"What?" A moment's confusion.

"Dad got a job in the Sand Village."

"The Sand Village? My Hokage, Ino. Venus much?"

"Almost."

Sakura sat down in the straight-backed chair beside the phone table. It wasn't her father. It wasn't death calling, but. . . "When?" she asked.

"Two weeks."

"So soon?" Sakura wrapped and unwrapped the phone cord around her fist. This isn't happening, she thought.

"They want him right away. He's leaving tonight. Can you believe it? He's going to look for a house when he gets there. I got home and Shizune was already calling up moving companies."

"But you said he wasn't serious."

"Shows how much he tells me, doesn't it? Shizune knew."

Sakura grasped for something to say. Couldn't something stop this? "Isn't she a little freaked at the rush?"

"Oh, she thinks it's great!"

"What about your mom?"

"She wouldn't care if he vanished. But she's pretty pissed he's taking me."

"Can't you stay with her?" Please, please, Sakura begged silently.

"Oh you know. That's a lost battle. Cramp her style."

"Ino! She's not that bad."

"She moved out didn't she?"

No use fighting that argument again, Sakura thought. "Sand Village," she sighed.

Ino groaned. "Yeah! This is hideous. It's like the wilderness or something. I'm not ready for the great trek. I could stay with you," she added hopefully.

"I'll ask," Sakura said, although there wasn't a chance. They both knew that was impossible right now.

"Nah!"

What will I do? Sakura thought. "You can visit." It seemed a pathetic suggestion.

"Big deal!"

"Yeah."

"Can you come over?" Ino asked.

"No. I better stay here for now."

"Uh-oh! Something wrong?"

"She's in the hospital again."

"Oh, hell."

This is where Ino shuts down, Sakura thought. Why can't she talk to me about it? Why does she have to back off every time? She's my best friend, damn it, not like those nerds at school who are too embarrassed to even look at me anymore. She searched for what she wanted to say. Something to keep Ino on the line.

There was a silence.

"Listen," said Ino, "you don't really feel like talking now. Call me later when you've heard. Okay?"

No, it's you who doesn't want to talk, Sakura thought, but she found herself saying, "Uh-huh."

"Okay. We'll talk then." But she didn't hang up. "Hey, listen Sakura, I love you and all that mush. Like sisters, you know." It tumbled out so fast to cover the unaccustomed shyness. "Call me."

"Sure." Sakura smiled wryly. They wouldn't talk about it. "Bye."

"Bye, Sakura. Hold tight," Ino whispered before she hung up.

She does care, Sakura reassured herself. She just doesn't know how to deal with it. Who does? But Sakura was angry anyway. They could always talk before. Usually Ino's choice of topic, but they could talk. And now, Ino was leaving. Was the world coming to an end? They'd been friends forever. What's wrong with the way things were? Why did you have to go and change every damn thing? She felt like yelling at a God she wasn't even sure existed. Am I being punished? What did I do?

It all made her so very tired. I'm ready to take a nap, she decided. She went upstairs. Sleeping had taken the place of eating lately. She lay down on top of the spread and escaped for a while.

She awoke with a jolt. She fought with the fleeting blur of dreams and recognized sounds that might have been the front door slamming, or the thud of her own bedroom's door. She got up stiff and unrested and made her way downstairs. Rattling and crackling came from the kitchen. She entered to find her father pouring himself a bowl of cereal. White-faced, he looked at her, dark circles beneath his eyes.

"Dammit, Sakura, the front door was open."

"Sorry, Dad. I must have forgotten. No one was here. It scared me. I went to find a note." Her fingers picked nervously at the seam of her jeans. How could she have forgotten the door?

"You can't just leave doors open, Sakura. For crying out loud, look at the newspapers."

Newspapers? She thought. Was he talking about that article? Why bring that up? Was he picking on her? He didn't care. "I was here."

"I know, I saw your bag. I checked your room." His voice softened. "Sleeping again, Sakura? Don't you sleep at night?"

She didn't answer. If he was home any amount of time he would know.

The sight of his cereal made her hungry at last. She looked in the refrigerator. A tuna casserole her mother's friend Tsunade had brought over three days ago sat there, browning around the edges. Tsunade was a warm, generous person, but she was not a cook. Sakura shut the casserole safely away and sat down with her father. She served herself some cereal too. She thought she could handle cereal.

Her father was staring at her. She suddenly felt sorry for being a bitch. He looked sad. It wasn't his fault he had to spend so much time at the hospital, so much time making up work, so he could pay for a private room. Maybe if all his side of the family wasn't off in the Hidden Mist Village it would be easier on him. He should let me help more, she thought. But she could hear exactly what he would say. You can help by not worrying about your mother.

"How's mom?" She hardly dared to ask.

"Not too good this time, love. She's still trying to be a good soldier, but its wearing thin."

"Is she staying?" Please say no, Sakura thought.

"Yes, a few weeks. Maybe more."

Sakura saw the pinched look on his face, and the tears behind his eyes. Maybe forever, she thought. Yes, it's forever this time, but he can't tell me.

They both ate silently and mechanically. There was no enjoyment, just the surrender to physical need. Her dad had turned back into Mr. Haruno, the man whose wife was dying, the man who had forgotten he had a daughter.

Several times she took a breath to speak, but the words died in her throat. "Dad?" She finally said hesitantly.

"Hmm?" His gaze was distant.

"Dad. About Ino."

"What? Had a fight?" he answered vaguely.

This isn't grade school, she wanted to yell, but she said quietly, carefully, "She's moving." Suddenly she was almost crying. All it would take would be his arms around her,and she wanted that badly.

"Hey that's exciting," he said, missing the point. He slurped his milk absently.

The tears stayed backed up tight. A lump hurt her throat, and she wanted to scream it out. Where was the old Dad who might have said, "Well, tell her to stand still." He would have laughed at his own joke,turned serious to hear her out and comfort her. He didn't always understand like her mother did, but he tried. I guess he's in there somewhere, she thought. She didn't try to tell him again. His world was too shattered for her to add her own cracked pieces to the pile.

Mom would know what to say, Sakura thought. Even now, she would. If only they wouldn't cut my visits so short. It seemed like she'd no sooner remembered what she wanted to say than they were hustling her out the door again. No one listened to her.

"I'm going out for a walk," she said abruptly. She had to walk or she'd scream for sure. She got her denim jacket from the hall closet. "Bye."

"Don't be too long," her father called.

Doesn't he realize what time it is? She asked herself as she walked up the street. Almost ten. What happened to worrying about "the newspapers"?

The night was crisp and sweet like apples. A glowing moon hung plump and bright. She headed for the small local park. It was a plot of land on a street corner, scattered with trees and holding a thick maze of bushes near the center. There were a few swings, a slide, a seesaw, and three battered animals on springs that bobbed you back and forth drunkenly, until your backside grew too sore to sit on them.

Sakura loved to come late and wander alone even after the wild children had been dragged home. She dreaded the advent of bright lights that the safety –cautious community wanted to install. She liked it as it was now, with the few lights making golden pools in the mysterious darkness.

She settled on her favourite of the three heavily etched benches. It faced the gazebo not far away, at the very center of the park. The pretty little domed building had always fascinated her. It had sets of steps all around like a carousel, and its open gingerbread sides were barely walls. It was always kept freshly painted summer-white and reminded her of a tiny palace from an old village fairy tale. She had heard that bands used to play there once on Sunday afternoons; now children sheltered there when it rained. Take me into your story, she thought.

Moonlight lit the gazebo, tracing it with silver, but a shadow crept inside, independent of all natural shades. She tensed. Her hands grabbed the edge of the bench. She leaned forward to decipher its meaning, peering into the mottled dark. She saw someone within.

A figure detached from the shadows. Her mouth dried. Mother of two found dead, she thought. It moved toward her, stepped into the moonlight on the side closest to her, and briefly she thought run. Then she saw his face.

He was young, more boy than man, slight and pale, made elfin by the moon. He noticed her and froze like a deer before a gun. They were trapped in each other's gaze. His eyes were dark, full of wilderness and stars. But his face was ashen. Almost as pale as the silver strands in his midnight blue hair.

With a sudden ache she realized he was beautiful. The tears that prickled her eyes broke his bonds, and he fled, while she sat and cried for all things lost.


Thanx for reading. I'm hoping to have the next chapter up soon. Oh, and please review, i would love to know what you think, good or bad.