Warning: Very slight references to manga chapter 405.
Note: This just came to me, demanding to be written. Feedback will be appreciated.
They had been sitting on top of the monument, watching the sun set, but now Naruto is walking Sakura home in the early twilight. Spring is just starting to take off, and the fragrant smells from the new flowers have made the air heavy: it's a little oppressive, ominous almost, in its sweetness. He holds her hand loosely, and for some reason, she feels afraid, almost like that looseness is a prelude of things to come, and more than anything she wants firmness to remind her that he is still there, that he has not yet left.
They have reached her building, but Sakura doesn't want to let him go. She halts, and Naruto pauses when he notices.
"I don't understand why I can't go with you," she tells him. This is not the first time.
"Sakura-chan." She hears the gentle chastisement in his voice. "Everything will be fine."
"But you'll be gone for a month, and Tsunade-shishou wouldn't even explain your mission to me. Why all the secrecy?"
Naruto exhales in a puff, and then he looks away from her for a moment.
"Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-taicho will be there. Shikamaru too." Naruto is attempting to allay her fears, but Sakura wishes that he would look at her while he does it.
"But you know how you are." She nudges his ribs, a little roughly. "Please don't take any unnecessary risks." She is almost begging, and she feels pathetic, but she needs to hear him promise this.
Naruto turns his face back to her, looks her in the eyes.
"I promise to come back," he says seriously. Sakura starts to nod, relieved, but then Naruto adds "without any injuries that require major surgery." He grins impishly, but Sakura does not return the smile.
"Naruto, this is not a jo—" She is unable to finish her sentence because Naruto pulls her close, and she can't breathe he's holding her so tight.
"I'm sorry," he mumbles into her hair. Sakura nods against his throat, closes her eyes, and memorizes his scent. Is he holding her so tight because he's scared, too?
They stay like that for a moment before his grip on her slackens slightly, and once she's taken a breath, she whispers to him:
"Stay with me tonight?"
She's never asked him that before.
He pulls back from her, a surprised look on his face. She stares into his eyes, knowing he wants to ask if she's sure but doesn't think he has the right to. She tries to explain anyway.
"Remember when. . ." she falters. "When Jiraiya-sama was gone," she notes the hint of sadness in his eyes that always surfaces when Jiraiya is mentioned—even years after the fact—and hurries on, "and Tsunade-shishou was. . . I don't want to be like that. I don't want to have those regrets." Sakura takes a deep breath and hopes Naruto knows what she is really trying to say, hopes Naruto knows she means that she doesn't want to have any regrets when it comes to sending him off on this mission.
But Naruto's mission, though she hasn't been told much about it, surely can't be as dangerous as the one Jiraiya died on. So why can't she shake this cold, empty feeling sitting in her stomach, even when she tells herself that nothing will happen? Because nothing can happen; it's Naruto. He always comes back. He's practically indestructible.
After Jiraiya's death, watching Tsunade work quietly day after day and then hearing her weeping from down the hall after she had dismissed Sakura and Shizune had been difficult, and it taught Sakura that you could put something off for only so long, that you could deny something only so many times before it wasn't yours to deny anymore.
"Okay," Naruto finally agrees before kissing her quickly.
The next morning she wakes to the sounds of Naruto dressing. She is lying on her stomach, and she lifts herself up to her elbows, clutching the twisted sheet to her chest. For a few minutes, Naruto doesn't realize that she's awake, and she enjoys the way his sticks out his tongue in concentration while he fiddles with his jacket zipper. She yawns, and her sudden intake of breath catches his attention.
"Good morning, Sakura-chan!" he greets her in a sing-song voice. Sakura smiles languidly at him as he drops to his knees at the side of the bed, bringing his face close to hers.
The way he's looking at her makes her shiver a little, and she feels almost shy. He gives her a peck on the lips, then nods like he approves of the way she tastes.
"Let's get married," he says happily, almost dreamily, like the idea's just occurred to him.
"Okay," she agrees.
Naruto looks surprised, and Sakura can understand why, because she too is a little surprised at the easiness of her answer. This is not what she planned her proposal would be like, but Naruto is the something she won't put off, the something she can't deny. How can she say no? Besides, even if the setting isn't right, the feelings are. She is happy and content, and the cold dread of the night before has disappeared. How she feels this morning is something she wants to keep.
She is rewarded by the sight of Naruto's eyes lighting up in a way she will never forget. He shoots to his feet and lets out a whoop, laughing. The early morning light from the window silhouettes him, and then he is lifting her from the bed and kissing her, and she's tugging at his hair with one hand while holding the sheet with the other.
She pulls away to breathe, and they're both smiling stupidly.
"You'd better go, or Kakashi-sensei won't be the only one who's late," she tells him.
"Right," he answers, but he doesn't move, just continues to smile widely at her.
"Naruto," she warns him.
He snaps into action suddenly, placing her back on the bed.
"Okay, okay. I'm going." He grabs his mission pouch from the floor and backs towards the doorway, watching her.
"A month," he tells her, grinning from ear to ear.
"A month," she confirms, sitting cross-legged on the mattress. The sheet around her is terribly twisted, but she won't remember that until much, much later.
He leaves the room and after a moment she hears the front door open and close. She sighs, deciding that she should probably shower. However, before she can summon the energy to get off the bed and leave the smell of him behind, Naruto has suddenly returned and thrown his arms around her in a tight embrace.
"Wait for me," he whispers, and then he is gone again.
The month passes as most months do, filled with the mundane of hospital shifts and laundry and grocery shopping and training, except that Sakura is kind of anxious and breathless when she stops to think about what the end of the month will bring.
Ino, of course, teases her mercilessly, because she knows. She and Sakura giggle about it sometimes, and Sakura has a hard time working up her anger and annoyance when Ino's teasing goes overboard.
Near the end of the month, Sakura starts to feel restless, and she wakes up sometimes feeling almost sick. Getting sick would be a horrible ending to the month, not to mention being sick when Naruto gets home. But the nausea is inconsistent, hasn't kept her from going to work or training or anything else really, and no one seems to be catching it, so she thinks that maybe it's just nerves and pushes her concerns aside. Because nerves? It's Naruto. She's not nervous.
The month becomes five weeks. Well, Sakura isn't too concerned. Sometimes missions take a little longer than planned. He'll be back when he gets back, any day now.
Five weeks becomes six, and six becomes seven, with no word from Naruto or any other member of the team. Sakura's nerves are frayed at the ends, and the nausea has become a regular fixture of her daily routine. Eating is hard, but she always feels hungry.
Ino is a good friend, keeping Sakura company and from going out of her mind when they both have free time. Besides, Shikamaru's one of Ino's close friends, so they both have a vested interest in the outcome of this mission. Still, they both know it isn't quite the same. So Ino is steady and lets Sakura freak out a little bit. Not too much, though, because it's Naruto. He's coming back.
At the beginning of the eighth week, Sakura throws up before she's even had breakfast. There isn't much to it, however, because her stomach is empty when the nausea hits. She goes to the hospital for her shift anyway, feeling mostly fine after a glass of water.
The shift is nothing out of the ordinary—by the end she's tired and ravenous—but right before she's supposed to get off, emergency shinobi patients create havoc in the receiving room. Sakura is one of the senior medics, and she maneuvers her way through the chaos to restore order because that's what she does and . . .
Is that Kakashi-sensei? It is. It is!
Yamato-taicho and Shikamaru are basically carrying him between them, but she can see he's still conscious. She looks around, craning her neck for the one member of team she hasn't seen yet even while she orders nurses and orderlies to prepare surgery room four. She won't know if Kakashi actually needs surgery until she can get closer to him, but to do that she needs all of these people out of her way. In any case, it's almost a sure bet that he needs some type of care if he's being carried in.
People start clearing out at her orders, but there is no sign of the bright blond head Sakura has been waiting for. It's a good omen, she tells herself, because he promised he wouldn't need surgery when he got back. So maybe he's just not here. But it's not like Naruto to not help his teammates out. And now that she's closer, there's no doubt they need help: she can see Shikamaru and Yamato are exhausted, and one of Shikamaru's hands is wrapped tightly in dirty bandages that don't hide the blood seeping through. No, Naruto wouldn't have let them come by themselves.
If he didn't come with them, where is he? It's not possible that he—
She stops thinking about that because her first duty is as a medic, and these men obviously need her to fill that capacity. She walks towards them, prepared to be all business, but the first words out of her mouth are not what she was hoping they'd be.
"Sensei, where's Naruto?"
Kakashi just looks at her, and she detects the minute movements under his mask that mean that little half-moon smile he gives her when he's about to tell her that everything will be fine. However, the smile doesn't actually form.
Thrown off balance by that incomplete reassurance, she turns to Shikamaru. He turns his head away without looking at her.
No, no, no, she thinks as she steps back.
"Sakura," Yamato says, but his voice seems far away, like he and Sakura are at opposite ends of a tunnel.
Sakura's vision goes spotty before everything tilts oddly, and then, darkness.
She wakes in a hospital bed, Tsunade standing next to it, reading charts.
"Shishou," Sakura says. Tsunade looks away from her reading immediately, and Sakura apologizes in hopes that a lecture can be avoided.
"I'm sorry. I can't believe I fainted on shift. I just didn't eat enough breakfast—"
"Has that been happening often?" Tsunade interrupts to ask.
Sakura shifts a little uncomfortably. When she moves her arms to push herself into a sitting position, she notices the she's got an IV in one of her veins. She is momentarily distracted, and though she tries to think of the last time when she hadn't felt sick in the mornings, she can't pinpoint it.
"I've been feeling nauseated lately," she admits. Tsunade regards her critically, but Sakura plows on before Tsunade can respond to that.
"But why wasn't Naruto with Kakashi-sensei's team?" she asks, more concerned about his strange absence than her unexplained condition.
Tsunade ignores her question, instead sitting in the chair next to Sakura's bed. She leans forward and takes one of Sakura's hands in hers.
Why is Tsunade holding her hand? Sakura knows her teacher cares about her, but Tsunade's not normally this obvious about it.
"When was your last period?" Tsunade questions.
"My last. . .?" Sakura can't think why Tsunade would ask, but now that she mentions it, Sakura realizes she can't remember that either.
And then all the pieces come together. She sits absolutely still, watching her teacher carefully.
"I'm. . . pregnant?" She stares at Tsunade, waiting for confirmation or denial, and she can almost feel her heart's beating pause while she waits.
Tsunade closes her eyes and nods. Sakura brings the hand Tsunade isn't holding to her mouth and half-laughs and half-sobs. She should have seen this coming.
But she didn't, so it's kind of a lot to handle at once. Her only really clear thought is that Naruto needs to know.
"Shishou," she speaks slowly, calmly, continuing when Tsunade is looking directly at her, "where is Naruto?"
Tsunade doesn't answer for a moment, and the defeat rooted in her eyes makes Sakura feel like the bottom of her stomach has fallen out.
"Sakura," Tsunade pronounces her name like a sigh. "He didn't come back."
She's pregnant, and her father's child—no one can find him. And—wow. She's pregnant, she didn't plan this, and there's the nausea again, worse this time, and Naruto. . . He didn't come back.
Tsunade keeps her in the hospital a few days, telling her that her vomiting and lack of eating have dehydrated her, which has caused an electrolyte imbalance that could be dangerous for the baby.
While she knows Tsunade's explanation is likely, Sakura suspects that Tsunade is a little worried about the stability of Sakura's mental health after all the information that's come her way in the past day, but Sakura isn't. She knows that without Naruto there, she'll be the only one totake care of their baby, and she can do that. For him. For them. She has to.
It turns out that Tsunade sent the team to rendezvous with Kabuto, who had sent a message to the Hokage asking for an exchange of information. Kabuto had hinted that his information would be especially interesting to Naruto (something about Madara and the Kyuubi, they think, but since the exchange never actually took place, they can't be sure), and Tsunade took that to mean that Kabuto wouldn't show if Naruto didn't.
So, Naruto was the bait.
Sakura doesn't blame Tsunade for this. She knows Naruto would have gone anyway, even if Tsunade had told him he couldn't.
And though the team had gotten to the designated meeting point before Kabuto (part of Shikamaru's strategy), Kabuto still managed to ambush them. In the confusion and scrambling, Kakashi is fairly sure he saw Kabuto stick a needle in Naruto that injected something that made him go limp. Then there was a puff of smoke, and when it cleared, Kabuto and Naruto were gone.
They aren't sure, but it seems like Kabuto took Naruto (or Naruto's body) with him, wherever he went. Shikamaru, Kakashi, and Yamato stayed those extra weeks looking for Naruto and searching for clues, but they found nothing. Worse, it seems as though they only thought they had reached the area before Kabuto, because it seems he had set traps—extensive ones—for a thirty-mile radius.
Then an encounter with missing-nin from Mist went poorly. After that altercation, Kakashi, who had used his Sharingan too much, was no longer capable of standing, much less fighting. So they came home rather than lose another member of the team.
Given Kabuto's history with Naruto and his personality in general, it's hard to say what his motivations were, and whether or not Naruto actually is. . . Well, he's gone, and there isn't any evidence either way, but it doesn't look good.
They tell Sakura all of this, and she listens with a blank face. When they're done, she thanks them for staying longer to search, despite the danger. And she smiles slightly at Kakashi, glad he did come back, because he's the only other member of her team left.
When Tsunade lets her go home, Kakashi shows up, to, well, she's not sure. It's not as though she has things to carry home with her. But he walks with her to her apartment, makes sure she gets in. Before he leaves, he tells her that if she needs something, he'll be happy to help.
She's not sure why the tears come now when they had yet to make an appearance, but she holds them back and smiles gratefully at her sensei.
He smiles back with his little half-moon smile, and then he leaves.
She closes her door, then kind of slumps to the floor in front of it. And she cries.
He might still be alive, some small part of her thinks. He might still be coming back.
News travels fast. Before the month is out, the whole village knows about Naruto. And before the month after that is out, most of the village knows about Sakura and the baby.
She feels a bit like a widow, and she supposes that that's kind of what she is, in a non-technical way.
People treat her a little like a widow, too, and sometimes it's frustrating. She doesn't really want others to talk to her about Naruto because it's hard to hear about him from people who didn't really know him.
But almost everyone has something to say. Almost everyone misses him, was touched by him, had a prank pulled on them. It's actually kind of amazing, really, what an impact he had on the village.
Luckily, the remaining members of the Rookie Eleven act as a buffer between Sakura and everyone else. They keep her moving, and they share some of the burden. It's okay, because they knew Naruto, more than most, and she knows it must hurt them, too.
As the weeks wear on, she tries to keep busy, taking missions to occupy her time (thoughts).
Pregnant kunoichi aren't given missions above D-rank or missions that require leaving the village, and they entail only light labor. (It's that way to make it easier for shinobi to have children, she thinks, because shinobi parents are more likely to have shinobi children, so it's good for the village. The downside, though, is that D-rank missions don't pay very much.)
However, she's not hurting for money. She's getting a pension for being Naruto's sort-of widow (it's actually because of the baby, like an orphan stipend kind-of-a-thing), and though working at the hospital is out of the question—her chakra is too intertwined with the baby's for her to be able to use it for precision medical jutsu—she starts giving beginner lessons at the academy. So between them and the simple missions, she's got a good routine going.
The days go by pretty smoothly, except for the gaping hole where she thinks part of her heart used to be.
Tsunade tells her that ANBU are being sent out periodically, searching for signs of Naruto or Kabuto, trying to find something definitive.
So far, they've turned up empty every time.
She finds it harder and harder to believe he's still coming back.
When Naruto's been gone for three months, Sakura is walking through the market where she stops at a stall with fresh strawberries, struck by the fragment of a memory.
"I bought strawberries, Sakura-chan. But I, uh, don't really know what to do with them."
"Naruto, they're food. You just eat them."
"But don't you have to cut them up or something?"
"It's not that—don't eat the stem!"
She moves on when she notices the vendor is giving her an odd look.
After Naruto's been gone for six months, her abdomen finally begins to look pregnant.
Ino throws her a baby shower and invites all the kunoichi they grew up with, Kurenai-sensei, Tsunade, Shizune, and Temari, who happens to be in Konoha that weekend.
They give her diapers and clothes and toys and more diapers for her baby. When the gift-giving part is over, Ino brings out the food. Sakura eats more than she probably should, but it's easier to not talk when her mouth is otherwise occupied. She listens, though, while her friends talk. And they do. A lot.
Mostly they talk about silly things, like the oddities of their male teammates. Tenten tells a particularly funny story about the time she happened upon Lee and Neji doing the boxers or briefs argument. Unfortunately, Tenten didn't find out who preferred which because Neji was too embarrassed to keep talking after he realized Tenten was there.
Everyone laughs, picturing someone as serious as Neji arguing about underwear.
Sakura has a good time. It's nice to think about trivial things, and when she imagines her baby in the shoes Ino's given her, the wide smile that results is genuine.
All the girls hug her as they leave, giving parting advice and encouragement as they go.
"It gets better," Kurenai tells her. Sakura doesn't ask if she means the numbness, or the dull ache, or the gaping hole.
Shizune gives her a long list of do's and don'ts. She's just starting to go into detail about all the most recent research she's read about pregnancy when Tsunade coughs purposely. Shizune stops mid-sentence and apologizes, looking at her toes.
Temari hugs her loosely, looking slightly uncomfortable. She lets go of her and looks her in the eye and says, "Gaara sent Kankuro and some others out looking. If we find anything, we'll be sure to tell you."
Sakura nods her head, and Temari leaves looking much more at ease than when she came in.
Hinata is next. "If you need anything. . ." she starts. She doesn't stutter anymore, but she's still shy if Sakura can judge by the slight blush she's sporting.
"I'll let you know," Sakura promises.
After they've all left, Sakura helps Ino clean up a bit.
"Thanks, Ino-pig." She's teasing a little, but the gratitude is heartfelt. Ino sticks her tongue out at Sakura.
"I expect as much when I have a baby," Ino shoots back.
"And when will that be?" Sakura asks, eyebrow raised. "I noticed you haven't been complaining about Chouji like you normally do."
Ino freezes and she can't hide the blush creeping up from her collar. Sakura laughs a little.
"Forehead, if you tell any—"
Ino stops mid-threat because Sakura's laughs have abruptly turned to sobs. Ino sighs as she moves to Sakura's side.
Winter settles in, and Naruto has been gone for eight months. The council feels that they can no longer put it off, so the village holds a ceremony for Naruto and carves his name into the cenotaph.
All the shinobi who are in the village attend. They are a sea of black in the cold, brittle air; Sakura feels their eyes resting quietly on her back.
She stands tall, willing her face to remain dry. Ino is on one side of her, Kakashi on the other.
Konohamaru's face is not dry, and he stays long after most people have left, as does Sakura.
The Kazekage, who is visiting Konoha just for this, stays longer too. He stands silently next to Sakura for a long time before he speaks.
"He changed my life," Gaara tells her.
"He changed all of us," Sakura replies softly, her hand moving to rest atop her protruding stomach. She rubs a circle there.
After a moment, she notices Gaara watching her hand intently. Her next words form themselves in response to the intensity of his gaze.
"He's not all gone."
Gaara's eyes stay on her stomach.
"No," Gaara answers. "He's not."
A few days after the ceremony, Naruto's landlord approaches her apologetically. In a roundabout way, he tells her that he's got to move Naruto's things so he can let the apartment to someone else.
She understands; the man has to make a living after all, and he didn't have to offer Naruto's belongings to her.
Actually, she doesn't know why she didn't think of it before.
Lee helps her round everyone up, and the girls help her pack while the boys do the heavy lifting. Well, Sakura doesn't actually do any packing: Lee won't let her, insisting that she direct everyone's activities from a seated position.
"Sakura-san!" he exclaims, "You must not strain yourself!"
It's not bad advice, she has to admit, for someone who can't see her toes.
Shikamaru, Chouji, Kiba, Shino, Lee, and Neji take all the boxes to Sakura's apartment. Sakura and Ino follow them, leaving Hinata and Tenten to clean the counters and vacuum the carpet of the empty apartment.
Once inside her apartment, Sakura and Ino direct the boys to rearrange and replace Sakura's possessions so she can accommodate Naruto's.
It takes all day (she never knew Naruto had so much stuff!), and they're all tired at the end of it, but when Shikamaru of all people suggests they all go out for ramen afterwards, for old time's sake, she doesn't say no because she has a feeling this is Shikamaru's way of apologizing for the part he plays in Naruto's absence.
Sakura eats more than anyone, much to Chouji's chagrin.
Her first night with all of Naruto's things in her apartment, she digs through the box with Naruto's clothes. She finds one of his ridiculous orange jump suits, then shoves it back in. She's not ready to think about how she'll never see him in it again, not yet. She roots around a little more before pulling out some sweat pants and a dark t-shirt. For reasons she doesn't really understand, she puts them on. They smell so much like him that when she crawls into bed, she easily drifts asleep, her body relaxed in a way it hasn't been for months.
She dreams about him.
"Sakura-chan!" he calls, running towards her.
It's spring again. The air is warm, and there is a clean-smelling breeze blowing. She takes special notice of how long the grass is getting while she stretches out on the blanket they've spread out. The sunlight glitters off of Naruto's forehead protector as he plops unceremoniously next to her on the blanket.
"How much longer?" Naruto whines, poking carefully at Sakura's rounded belly.
"Another month." She bats his hand away, but not very adamantly. He takes that as an invitation, placing both his hands on her stomach and putting his ear up to listen. He's quiet for a moment, then:
"It feels like forever."
"Yeah," Sakura murmurs, ruffling his hair. He leaves his head against her stomach while they sit a few minutes in silence.
Sakura feels drowsy and content. She's ready to fall asleep, there on the grass with Naruto listening to their baby.
"Are you sure it's another month?" he asks, the barest hint of a whine returning.
"Naruto, you can't speed up the process," she chides. "Don't you want everything to be the way it's supposed to be?"
"She'll be perfect," Naruto declares confidently.
Sakura believes him.
She's having lunch with Ino when the first contractions hit. Ino runs around a bit in a panic, wondering how they'll get to the hospital in time, but Sakura is calm. They have at least a few hours before the contractions get serious. She puts her coat on and walks out of the restaurant to show Ino that she's capable of it. However, another contraction comes, a little harder than the last, so she pauses to let it pass.
Maybe they don't have as long as she thought. Better get going now.
Ino follows her out of the restaurant, her coat not all the way buttoned and her eyes still wide, though she's no longer panicky.
"It's not that far," Sakura states matter-of-factly. She starts walking resolutely, Ino trailing her.
She pauses every once in a while—Ino holds her breath apprehensively each time—but they make it.
After fourteen hours of labor (Shizune later tells her that that's really good for a first pregnancy), Tsunade hands her a little girl. She's covered in Vernix coating and a little blood from Sakura's womb, but she isn't crying.
Sakura is. Tears of joy and sadness slip from her eyes.
"You did it, Sakura!" Ino says, squeezing her hand.
Yes, she did.
When they get everything cleaned up and her daughter wrapped in blankets, Sakura is holding her sleeping daughter close to her chest. She can't stop smiling even though she's exhausted. Ino approachers her almost apologetically.
"Kakashi-sensei is waiting outside," Ino informs her. Sakura wonders if he's been waiting the whole time, so she nods and Ino leaves the room to let Kakashi know he's welcome to visit.
Sakura looks up when she hears him amble in sheepishly, a bouquet of flowers in his hand.
"Sensei!" She can't help the surprise in her voice. He sets the flowers on the window sill. "Thank you." He dips his head, watches his sandals.
"Sakura," Kakashi says quietly after a moment.
She scrutinizes him carefully and notes how serious he looks, how tired. It's been especially hard for him, too, she thinks.
"I'm sorry. I should have—" He cuts himself off, unable to finish. Sakura has never seen him struggle so much to speak.
"It's my fault Naruto isn't—" This time Sakura cuts him off.
"It's okay, sensei. I don't blame you."
She looks him in the eye. Does it hurt that he saw Naruto last and not her? Yes, but it's not his fault. She can't hold it against him, even if she wants to. If anything, she blames herself. She should have made Naruto tell her what he was doing, she should have gone with him, she should have. . .
"What will you name her?"
Her daughter makes a mewling sound, and her tiny eyelids open fractionally. They're not there yet, but Sakura can see hints that her daughter's eyes will be just like Naruto's: bright blue like the clear summer sky.
"Hitomi," she decides.
Motherhood is fascinating and back-breaking work. Sakura is soon attuned to Hitomi's every cry. They are different: one when she is hungry, one when she is tired, one when she needs a new diaper, and one when she wants to be held.
Sakura holds Hitomi a lot, maybe more than she should if she believes what some say about spoiling children, but she thinks she's has a right to hold her twice as much because Naruto isn't there to do his share of it.
She keeps Hitomi in the bed with her at night, and she keeps wearing Naruto's clothes as pajamas (they're much looser now), hoping that Hitomi will get some sense of what it would be like if her father were there.
Time moves much faster than Sakura thought it would, and before she knows it, Hitomi has grown into a cheerful, chubby crawler. Her bright blue eyes and not-pink but not-quite-red hair are enchanting. Just like her father before her, everyone loves her. When Sakura needs a babysitter, she never has a problem finding one.
Unlike her father, Hitomi isn't much of an intentional mischief-maker, for which Sakura is eternally grateful. She is a quick learner, though, and she sometimes does things Sakura isn't prepared for (like the day she learned to roll over and almost fell off Sakura's bed).
Naruto does not see his daughter's first smile or her first steps, nor does he hear her first laugh or her first words, but his plants do. Sakura has them on her window sill and keeps careful tabs on their growth.
At eleven months, Hitomi learns to walk, and then she learns to run. She doesn't run far, however, and prefers her mother over everyone. Sometimes she's clingy, but she is not shy with Sakura's shinobi friends. Well, she's a little intimidated by Neji, but who isn't?
She likes Lee a lot, probably because she sees him more often than the others (Lee seems to think it his duty to check on Sakura once a day when he's not out on missions), and because he's good at playing with her, though Sakura thinks Lee is a little too enthusiastic sometimes. (She's not sure eleven-month-olds who've barely learned to run should be made to do laps.)
Akamaru scares her—he's a big dog, much bigger than Pakkun—but after a lot of encouragement from Sakura and Kiba, she allows the ninken to get close enough to sniff her before she goes back to hiding behind Sakura's legs.
Tsunade, despite Shizune's do's and don'ts, spoils Hitomi rotten with toys and sweets and kisses, and Sakura wonders what happened to the woman who told her to never look away from an opponent before sending her into a tree trunk.
For Hitomi's first birthday, Ino helps Sakura throw a party. Sakura doesn't know anyone else with children Hitomi's age (Kurenai's son is the closest, but he's almost ten), so it's really a party of adults, one young boy, and one toddler.
The party is fairly informal. There is a lot of mingling and talking and eating and laughing, and Sakura realizes something: more than a party of adults, one young boy, and a toddler, it's a party of Naruto's extended family. Even the Kazekage's siblings have come, bearing a teddy bear gift from Gaara.
Yes, it really is like a family, Sakura thinks as she watches Hitomi, who is being held on one hip by Kakashi, tug insistently at the Copy Nin's forehead protector.
Three months after Hitomi's birthday, Sakura celebrates another anniversary, this one much more sober.
Naruto has been gone for two years.
She sleepwalks her way through her hospital shift. When it's over, she goes to Ino's place to pick up Hitomi, and Ino knows. Ino knows. Sakura doesn't know how; Ino just does, like she always seems to. They don't talk about it, however, because Chouji is there, too. He and Hitomi are having a staring contest, though Hitomi isn't taking it too seriously given the giggles and smiles Chouji is soliciting from her. Sakura and Ino watch the two of them, and Sakura can't help but feel that Chouji is a poor substitute for who should be playing with her daughter.
As soon as Hitomi realizes her mother is there, she abandons Chouji completely, running towards Sakura and calling out to her.
"Ma ma ma ma ma!"
Sakura bends at the knees to catch Hitomi in her arms, then picks her up.
"Did you have a good time with Aunt Ino?" Sakura asks her. Hitomi babbles cheerfully in response; most of her words are still unintelligible, but Sakura gathers from the tone that things went well.
"Sakura. . ."
"I'll be fine," Sakura tells her with a wave of her hand. She hitches Hitomi a little higher on her hip and leans forward to give Ino a brief hug before they leave.
She takes Hitomi to Ichiraku's for dinner even though she knows she probably shouldn't. But Ichiraku's was such a part of Naruto that she wants her daughter to experience it.
After dinner, they go and watch the sunset from the top of the Hokage monument. Well, Sakura watches it while Hitomi plays in the grass, picking up rocks and sticks and flowers and showing them to her mother.
When the last of the golden rays has sunk below the horizon, they go home where Sakura gives Hitomi a bath. There's lots of splashing and the floor of the bathroom gets all wet, but Sakura will worry about that later.
She gets Hitomi settled into the bed with her and starts reading her a few books. Hitomi soon falls asleep, but Sakura cannot.
After an hour, when Sakura feels like she can leave the bed without disturbing Hitomi, she carefully extracts herself from her toddler. It's getting warmer, now that it's spring again, so she opens the sliding door to her small balcony and steps out, hoping the slight breeze will take away the ache in her chest.
Instead, the breeze brings the scents of new flowers, and they stir up memories she's been burying.
Two years ago she thought she'd be getting married soon. Two years ago Naruto had been here, had been smiling at her, had been integrated into every facet of her life, it seems.
She's not sure how's she's been living these past two years. She thinks about all the things she hasn't been thinking about, about all the things she's ignored in favor of making it through the day, and the ache in her chest intensifies.
It's doesn't matter that Naruto's been gone for two years; it hurts the same today as it did when they first told her he wasn't coming back. It's worse, even, because she looks into Hitomi's eyes and sees him, sees the way he used to laugh and smile and tease. It's worse, she thinks, because Hitomi can't direct her eyes at herself, can't know her father is reflected there. It's worse, she knows, because the one thing she wants more than anything for Hitomi is something she can't give her: Naruto's love.
Sakura knows he always wanted a family, though he never told her so. He didn't have to. His actions his whole life said he wanted people to care about him and people he could care about. And he'd gotten that, or at least a lot of it. Just the fact that Hitomi is cherished by her father's friends is evidence enough.
Still, now that she has a child of her own, she knows it's not quite the same. What she feels for Hitomi is something she didn't expect, something she can't explain, but there's a strength there, solid and silent like the best of foundations. And the way that Hitomi loves her back, the way she calls Sakura "mama," the way she looks guilty when Sakura catches her doing something she knows she shouldn't do, the way she keeps a hand on Sakura's cheek when she's falling asleep—all these things she wishes Naruto were experiencing too.
She leans against the railing of her tiny balcony and cries softly so that Hitomi won't hear.
She wakes to a dark, midnight sky and realizes she must have fallen asleep on the balcony. The night air cools her cheeks and puffy eyes.
She looks to the stars only to have one wink at her, like Naruto used to do, and she can almost hear his voice.
The way only he says it, the way he imbues those four syllables with everything she needs to hear, with his attitude of I'm-Naruto-and-you're-Sakura-chan-and-that's-how-it's-always-been-even-when-it-wasn't.
His voice wavers this time with telling uncertainty that brings her back to reality. Suddenly she doesn't feel alone. She looks down to the street to see a man there, dressed in travel-worn clothing. The moonlight highlights his blond, unruly hair that's longer than she remembers. He shifts a little, and she can see his eyes are piercingly blue.
Time stops, and her awareness narrows to her hands holding the rail too tight and the name her mouth cannot form.
"Na. . . ru. . ."
He walks up the building's façade towards her in what feels like slow motion. She can't breathe, can't breathe. He reaches the balcony and hops over the rail, landing right in front of her. Sakura backs away a little.
She's had this dream before, and she doesn't want to have it again. She doesn't want to wake up crying anymore, doesn't want to feel like this anymore. She can't, for her sake and for Hitomi's.
Naruto lifts a hand towards her face, taking a step towards her.
"Have you been crying, Sakura-chan?"
"Please," she begs, not sure if she's talking to God or fate or what. This is the part where he disappears, the part where his hand never actually touches her, instead moving right through her while the dream fades to nothing.
Not this time, though. The second his hand touches her face and she feels the weight of it against her cheek, a choked sob escapes her. All her nerves seem to be standing on end, all jostling for the feeling his hand has given her cheek.
It's him, he's real, he's here!
She throws herself into his arms, and he catches her steadily. There is no hesitation, no rusty reflex to suggest that it's been two years since he's done it. She cries uncontrollably into his neck, feeling everything she hasn't let herself for two years. He rubs her back with one of his hands and with the other holds her around her waist.
They stay like that for how long she doesn't know, but she slowly calms down enough to realize that Naruto is trembling as much as she is.
Then she hears sniffling behind her. She turns around quickly to see Hitomi standing just inside the door that leads to the balcony, rubbing her eyes. Sakura instantly feels guilty for leaving her alone.
"Mama," she says pitifully, on the verge of tears. Maternal instincts block out what's just happened, and Sakura walks to her and picks her up, like she does whenever Hitomi needs comfort. Hitomi grabs onto a lock of Sakura's hair while Sakura shushes her before laying her head on Sakura's shoulder.
Once Hitomi's settled, Sakura turns around, suddenly reluctant to see what Naruto thinks of this.
His eyes are impossibly wide.
"Sakura-chan, you're a mom." It is not a question. Sakura nods, taking a deep breath.
"And you're a dad," she responds.
His eyes get even wider, and now he's the one gripping the rail too hard. He points to Hitomi, then to himself, his mouth hanging open in frozen astonishment.
This is harder than Sakura thought it would be.
"Do you remember the night before you left?"
Naruto closes his mouth with a snap and nods once, the shock in his eyes only slightly mitigated.
"Surprise?" she jokes weakly. She can't think of anything else to say, anyway else to convey the myriad of emotions that threaten to overwhelm her.
Naruto's eyes are still wide, but she can see happiness there too.
"I just never—wow." He laughs shakily. He can't seem to put it into words, so Sakura shuffles Hitomi a little, freeing one hand with which she grabs one of Naruto's. Their fingers interlock, and Sakura leads him into her apartment.
Sakura wakes the next morning feeling amazingly good. The smell of Naruto is strong in her nostrils, but when she reaches behind her, he's not where he's supposed to be. As a matter of fact, Hitomi isn't on the bed either.
Sakura sits up, fully awake.
"Naruto?" she calls quietly. She's trying to ignore the small feeling of panic in her chest that wants her to believe all of last night was a wonderful, terrible dream.
There is no answer, but she can hear the rattle of Hitomi's toys. Sakura exhales in a rush, letting out the breath she didn't know she was holding.
She walks down the hall and finds Naruto sitting on the couch, leaning forward, his attention rapt. Hitomi has gotten out all of her toys and seems to be showing them one by one to Naruto. She's babbling at him, too.
Sakura sits on the couch right next to Naruto and threads their arms together, grabbing his hand and holding it tight. She presses her face into his shoulder, fearful that she's going to have hold on to him for weeks before it settles in that he's not dead, that he's not not here with her.
He turns to give her a grin, a wide one, so she gives it back, then leans forward and kisses his lips.
It feels like she remembers, and she finally starts to relax. However, when she pulls away, his eyes are sad.
"What's wrong?" she questions, instantly on guard again.
"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan." He pauses, his eyes flicking to Hitomi. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get back."
His words spark a thousand questions, and Sakura can feel the start of tears again, but she doesn't care.
"All that matters is that you came back."
Sakura is with Naruto when he explains to Tsunade and Kakashi where he's been. He starts with the last thing Konoha knew about him—the fight with Kabuto—and fills in the two years from there.
The way Naruto explains it, it was like he just woke up in a deserted, rocky forest with no clues about who he was, where he was from, or what he'd been doing before he woke up. (He has no idea what happened to his ninja gear or his forehead protector; he hasn't seen them since he woke up.)
He wandered around, for how long he's not sure. No one he met recognized him, and nothing he saw seemed familiar. Eventually he found a fairly large village in which he could blend in, so he decided to stay. He supported himself with odd jobs, and things were straightforward except for the odd sense of urgency he always seemed to have.
"It was like I knew I was supposed to be somewhere, like I'd arranged to meet someone, but I couldn't remember who or where we were meeting," Naruto tells them.
This urgent feeling eventually drove Naruto from the village—in search of what he didn't know, but he had to find out.
It was like that for a long time, Naruto living in one little village for a few weeks or a few months before moving on in hopes of finding out who he was.
Four months ago, he thinks, he started getting sharp, sudden headaches that were there and gone before he could really register them. Soon after the headaches began, he started having vivid dreams about people and places he had never seen before. Unfortunately, he still couldn't remember any names, but he was hoping it was only a matter of time.
But the dreams tapered off unexpectedly. He had no more headaches, either, but he couldn't figure out why because he still had none of his memories.
"Then," Naruto tells them, "one day I noticed how all the trees were getting new leaves. That it was spring. And suddenly I thought 'Konoha is a lot greener than this place.'" And that was it. His whole life came back to him in a rush.
It took a little time to find out where he was in relation to Fire Country—he's pretty sure he was in Earth—and since then, he'd been working his way slowly back.
Sakura thinks it's appropriate that it was Konoha's leaves that brought him back.
"What do you think, Kakashi?" Tsunade asks when Naruto has finished.
"I imagine Kabuto meant to kidnap Naruto, but something must have gone wrong with the transportation jutsu he used."
"Yes," Tsunade concurs, "and the chakra backlash from the failed jutsu is most likely responsible for the memory loss."
"But what would Kabuto want with me?" Naruto asks. Sakura can see he is clenching his fists. He wants to know because he doesn't want it to happen again, she thingks.
"If I were to guess," Tsunade finally answers, "I would say he wanted to do some sort of medical experiment." Sakura stifles a gasp and Naruto tenses further. Tsunade continues, "Naruto's unique healing abilities might have convinced Kabuto that he's the perfect subject because he could be reusable." Tsunade pauses. "Besides that, he's always been particularly. . . fascinated with you, Naruto."
No one wants to respond to that, and Sakura is glad when Kakashi changes the subject.
"Hokage-sama, could it be possible that Kabuto has also had memory loss?"
Tsunade smiles wickedly.
"Oh, I think so. Which will make him an easier target, don't you think?" Tsunade's eyes gleam with predatory satisfaction. "Kakashi! I want you to inform Intelligence about these new developments. And make sure this information is sent to the ANBU team on the western border."
"Yes, sir," Kakashi intones before poofing away. Tsunade looks at Naruto then, her business demeanor all gone when she tells him:
It takes a little while for everyone to get used to Naruto being back (Sakura still wakes up at odd hours during the night, reaching for him), but everyone welcomes him home in their own way.
Ino gives him a big, unexpected hug before launching into the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, berating him for making Sakura wait two years for his return. Naruto apologizes sincerely. Ino accepts the apology with cold finality before telling Naruto to never do it again, then stomps off in a huff. Naruto is confused by her behavior, Sakura can tell, so she promises herself that some day she will explain to him what Ino did for her while he was gone, what Ino saw Sakura suffer.
Lee slaps him on the back, making Naruto wince, and tells him he was sure "his youthful vigor would prevail."
Gaara sends Naruto a long letter that Sakura doesn't think is any of her business to read, so she isn't quite sure what Gaara's reaction is, except that Naruto is quiet all day after he reads it.
Konohamaru's kind of angry with Naruto at first and won't talk to him. Eventually, though, after a long day of sparring, the tension is gone. Naruto never tells Sakura exactly what changed, but Konohamaru comes around more often afterwards.
Hinata and Kiba offer to babysit Hitomi so Sakura and Naruto can have some alone time, but Naruto tells them he'd rather they do it the night after he marries Sakura. This makes Sakura and Hinata blush, but Kiba gives Naruto an exaggerated wink, telling him, "Sure thing."
Kakashi doesn't really say anything special or different; he just trains Naruto into the ground.
Shikamaru actually tries to sit down and teach Naruto how to play shogi, but in the end, neither of them have the patience for it.
Hitomi, though, gives Naruto the best welcome of anyone. By the time she's eighteen months old, she's calling him "dada." The first time she does it, the look on Naruto's face makes Sakura think he's ready to die of happiness. The second time she does it, Sakura knows their daughter is going to have Naruto wrapped around her little finger for the rest of their lives.
She wouldn't have it any other way.
If I've got this right, Hitomi means something like "pupil (of the eye)" and is a name normally given to girls with exceptionally beautiful eyes.