A/N: I wanted to make note that this is a one-shot that I had created for my dear reviewer, SkyMaiden.
Update (6/4/10): Please review this story! I don't care how long I've had this posted, I really enjoy hearing what you think about it! It was quite an investment. Lyrics are from Death Cab for Cutie. They just seemed...I dunno, fitting! Happy Reading!
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto
I'm not who I used to be.
No longer easy on the eyes but these wrinkles masterfully disguise,
The youthful boy below who turned your way and saw,
Something he was not looking for: both a beginning and an end.
Sakura awoke, breathing in the familiar scent of spring that was wafting through the partially opened window. The curtains fluttered with the ghostly breeze, carrying in the crisp, cool smell of the budding flowers that sprinkled the tree outside their bedroom window. It always made her happy to see those familiar pink blossoms that illuminated the tree each spring. She blinked a few times, her groggy eyes slowly adjusting to the faint glow that the morning sun cast into the airy room. Gooseflesh rose on her arms as the breeze jumped across her skin. She smiled; it was a new day.
Another fresh start.
She rolled over, turning to face her companion. Naruto was laying on his back, his arm cast out to from his side. Sakura languidly remembered the days where she could only be found entangled in his strong arms. It had remained that way the first few years. But, years of familiarity, combined with the realization that neither would ever leave the other, allowed the two young lovers to slowly drift to their own sides of the bed.
She reached out, softly trailing her fingers over his delicate palm. He did not stir from his usual sleeping position. She quietly laughed at how ridiculous his hair looked, the spiky strands strewn across his forehead. She smiled, as her eyes followed the soft curves of his face. How many mornings had she laid here, studying him while he slept? She remembered how he would peek at her through heavy lids, smiling sheepishly at her silent scrutiny.
"Whatcha starin' at?" he would ask, his voice thick with sleep as his trademark grin stretching across his face.
She would simply stare at him with her vivid green eyes, smiling and saying nothing. Naruto would roll over and pull her into his arms, kissing her forehead lovingly. "Such a lovely forehead," he would whisper into her soft skin.
"Such a large forehead," was her usual response.
"Nah, I've always loved this forehead," he would whisper into her hair. And they would lie like that for hours, until duty would force them out of bed.
This morning, however, Naruto did not stir.
Over the past few weeks, he had been fighting off a terrible cold. Sakura had done her best to take care of him, easing his aches and pains in a way that only a medic-nin could. He progressively began to sleep later into the day, only rising when the hunger pains were too strong to ignore. Despite his normal, cheerful demeanor, the dark rings under his eyes were a tell-tale sign that he wasn't feeling like his usual self. It wasn't until the past few days that he had truly begun to feel better, or so he claimed. Sakura was hesitant to believe his smiles, as he was still sleeping into the early afternoon. But, as he had so fervently pointed out, he was eating more and the cough had subsided.
Sakura sat up, the covers falling around her nude body. She didn't try to hide her nakedness, as it was something Naruto had seen so many times before. With her back to him, she reached skyward, arching her back and stretching her stiff muscles. Each day, it felt as if she had successfully discovered a new muscle that could possibly become sore or stiff. She winced as she stood, the floor cold beneath her bare feet. She reached for her silk robe, the cool fabric wrapping her in luxury. Sakura pushed the strands of unruly morning hair from her face as she quickly braided her long tresses. Over the years, she had allowed her hair to grow. It was something Naruto had told her he loved: her long hair.
"It smells like..I dunno..flowers," he had told her one night after their love-making. "I like it longer," he murmured into her hair as she nestled into the crook of his arm-contentedly falling asleep.
Sakura turned to watch Naruto sleep. Her stomach growled its desire for her usual morning routine. "I suppose I'll make some tea," she whispered to herself, deciding to let Naruto lie there a little longer. He deserved it, after all.
She walked across the room, turning to cast one last glance at her husband. He looked so peaceful in his sleep, his face content. The familiar half-smile that spread across his features tugged at her heart. She stood there for some time, burning the mental snapshot into her being. She wanted to remember this moment for the rest of her life. She could faintly hear the curtains as they drew against the window. She watched the billowing fabric move against the wind, as they were slowly being pulled back against the partly-opened window. Sakura suddenly felt a minute heaviness in her chest, as her pale green eyes flitted back to her lover's face. A strained smile spread across her features, as if something unspoken had just occurred between them.
Sakura descended the stairs—the ones that led into the modest kitchen. She quickly put the kettle of water on the stove. She patiently waited for her tea as she gripped the sink and stared out into the village. It may not be the Hokage Mansion, but she loved the home they had shared all these years. The shrill scream from the tea pot told her that she was only moments away from her daily morning beverage. She poured the hot water over the tea leaves, the familiar hiss of the steaming liquid making the scent of jasmine and green tea waft through the air. Her mouth watered in anticipation.
She carefully carried her cup to the table, eagerly listening for any signs of Naruto stirring in the room above. She had become accustomed to his absence these past couple of weeks—it was the only time when they had not shared a morning cup of tea with their usual conversation. A heaviness enveloped her heart, as she mourned his absence. She sipped her tea, burning the tip of her tongue as her eyes wandered over the pictures that littered the soft apricot-colored wall. It had started with only a few: Team Kakashi with Sasuke, Team Kakashi with Sai, and the remaining Konoha shinobi after the Fourth Ninja War. But with each new milestone in their lives, a new picture—a new frame—made its appearance on their wall. Each photograph signified their accomplishments as a couple. Their wedding. Naruto's appointment as Hokage. Their first child. Their daughter's first Christmas. Second child. Third child. Each holiday. Friends' marriages. Friends' children. Grandchildren.
Sakura toyed with the ring on her finger—its luster long gone after all of these years of faithful bearing. She smiled as she twisted the golden metal around her finger. She could still see Naruto's face as he nervously placed that ring on her finger—promising to protect her for the rest of his life in front of their closest family and friends. The rest of their lives. It had been one of the happiest moments she had ever experienced. It was the perfect culmination of their devotion. She smiled nostalgically-she had always loved him, though she had been too foolish to see it during their Academy years. But, she made a promise to herself after the Fourth War: she would always love him.
Her eyes were blurry as she glanced at the pictures that were arranged on the armoire. She willed the hot tears away as she finished her tea, softly setting the teacup on the delicately patterned china saucer. She studied her hands. They were the hands of a kunoichi. The hands of a medic. They were no longer smooth and dainty. Instead, they were replaced with loose skin and knobby knuckles. Her nails were the only thing that had gotten more attractive over the years. They were currently painted a shade of orangey-pink, something her granddaughter had done.
Sakura sighed, glancing at the sunlight that spilled into the giant bay window. It was still early, and the kids would not be coming for their weekly brunch for another couple of hours. She closed her eyes, silently commanding Naruto to walk down those stairs. Another sigh. She could no longer deny it. How would she would tell their children, much less the younger ones? She knew her oldest daughter would take it the hardest, as she was always "Daddy's girl." After eight hours of labor, and an amazingly smooth delivery, Naruto had refused to allow their first-born out of his sight or embrace.
Yes, Sakura told herself, she was destined to be Daddy's girl from the beginning.
Their two sons, despite being born some number of years apart from one another, would watch over their older sister just as their father had. Sakura could still remember the first young man who had come to the door of the Hokage Manor to take her firstborn out on a date. The three Uzumaki men had been terrifying to the poor boy. But, he had returned a week later, hoping to take her out on another date. It must have been his determination to win over the Uzumakis that had given Sakura the notion that this young man was special. She just knew that he would be The One for her daughter. She was proven correct in her theory, when, within years, the two were happily married. Soon after, they blessed the Uzumaki household with a beautiful baby girl—with hair just like her grandmother's.
Sakura's eyes looked over the plethora of pictures that illustrated her family's growth over the years: three children and seven grand-children. With each birth, Sakura had felt her heart expand to welcome the new love into her life. She had been extremely blessed. First with being loved by Naruto, then with the start of their family.
All three children had become successful shinobi. Naruto had nearly brought peace to the land, allowing the children to bask in their father's accomplishments. Their oldest child had followed Sakura's footsteps, practically surpassing her mother in prowess and expertise as a medic-at quite a young age, no less. Their middle son had become the commanding officer of ANBU before sixteenth birthday—though it came as no surprise to either parent. He had been hailed as a child prodigy after dancing through the Academy and becoming a jonin before the age of ten. Their youngest son was currently the acting Hokage, soon to give up his position to the next person in line. Sakura had heard some rumors that the youngest son of Konohamaru would be taking on the position-giving the Kage position back to the Sarutobi family.
Sakura stood, following the silent timeline of photos as they lined up along the armoire. The pictures told her the beautiful story that she and Naruto had created. It had been an amazing journey. When she reached the last photo, she pulled it toward her failing eyes with shaky hands. It was taken this past Christmas. It was a photograph of the entire Uzumaki Clan, packed around its matriarch and patriarch, everyone smiling their happiness and contentment.
Three children and seven grandchildren, Sakura thought. And another generation on the way! she reminded herself.
Her oldest grandchild was preparing for her upcoming nuptials in a few weeks' time. Sakura suppressed a mischievous grin as she remembered how she cornered her pink-haired granddaughter, asking her why she had not shared her pregnancy news with grandam. She could still remember the look of surprise on the young girl's face.
"You thought I had lost my touch?" Sakura had teased, insinuating her own medical prowess.
"I-I-I.." the young girl stammered, as her face flushed a few shades of pink.
"Your secret's safe with me!" Sakura had winked, patting her bumbling grandchild on the shoulder as she walked toward the dining room, where the rest of the family was enjoying their usual Sunday dinner. Sakura briefly toyed with finding the Hyuuga and giving him a much harsher treatment-just for fun. But, she decided, it was not the time to be facetious with the young couple. She, too, remembered what it was like to be young.
The picture nearly toppled off of the smooth wooden surface, as Sakura's hands trembled with emotion. She briefly caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her hair was completely gray, losing all signs of its former pink color—the color that Naruto had loved so much. She had toyed with dying it, but her husband had promised her that he enjoyed watching her age as much as he enjoyed aging with her. She pushed the wiry locks from her face, tucking them behind her ears.
Her eyes were no longer the vivid, emerald green that they had once been. They were now a soft sage color, her pupils becoming slightly cloudy by the onset of cataracts. She had been able to stave off their progress, only stopping her treatment when Naruto had become ill. She studied her own face with her pale eyes, remembering the once-taut skin and youthful complexion. She could barely recognize the withered face and its loose skin that hung from both face and neck. She reached up with her palms, placing them flat against her cheeks and pulling her hands back to stretch the aged skin. Sakura chuckled at how ridiculous she looked, waving her hand in the mirror as she reached for the railing that would guide her up the stairs.
She softly padded to the second floor on tired, aching joints. She focused on the bright light at the end of the hallway; a sign of the still-rising sun that was illuminating their bedroom. A melancholic smile crossed her face as she walked through the doorway. Her eyes wandered to her aged husband. His own gray hair was haphazardly strewn across his face, despite trimming it days earlier. Naruto wore his hair much shorter now that he was an "old pervert," as he called himself.
She smiled fondly, remembering how he had once used it as an insult toward his former mentor, Jiraiya. Sakura's eyes fell on the Sage robe that Naruto so lovingly cherished. He was proud of his status, and Sakura was proud for him. Of him.
He hadn't moved since she had left the bedroom, a realization that she had resisted facing. She crawled across the bed, her eyes still studying his tired, withered face. The once-prominent whisker marks were hidden by the wrinkles; his own youthful looks had been lost long ago as well. Sakura sighed as she reached out a hand to cup his cheek. His skin was no longer warm and moist; it was cold and stony. Her fingers lit up with the familiar, glowing energy as she placed her hands over his chest. She knew that there was nothing she could do to repair an aging body—she could only mask the process, as her own senpai had once done. She could never undo the effects of aging on the vital organs.
She had felt his presence lingering in the room earlier, though she didn't wish to pry. Instead, she had pushed the thoughts from her mind, ignoring the feeling that he was silently departing from her during that very moment. A few hot tears streaked her face as she traced her fingertips over his lips. They were still curved in that familiar half-smile he made in his sleep. Her painted nails seems so bright against his paled skin. It was as if all light had left his body while she was downstairs sipping tea.
"Have you left me already, love?" she whispered, leaning down to kiss his cold lips.
She lingered over them, hoping to feel the familiar warm breath that would disprove all of her medical knowledge, but she was met with none. He would never open his bright blue eyes to look upon her again. She would never see that infectious smile. Ever. A soft sob shook through her body, as she gently pushed his spiky gray hair from his forehead. She trailed her fingers over his brow, the bridge of his nose, his lips, the familiar angle of his jaw. She continued the silent journey along the curve of his neck, his collarbone...his heart. She let her hands hover over his heart, hoping to feel it beat one last time. She toyed with the idea of starting it herself.
Just a little chakra. A minor jolt, she urged. She knew that it would be futile. Naruto was gone. He had been gone since sometime during that night. In his sleep. She had felt it since she had awoken.
In his sleep.
"That's how I want to go!" he had grinned. "In my sleep, with you right next to me, comforting me in my departure."
"How silly, to talk about such things!" she had replied, taken aback by his sudden talk of dying. She had lightly punched him, a testimony to her dislike of the conversation.
"What's so upsetting about it? It's only a temporary separation!" he had looked so serious as his blue eyes studied her pale green ones.
"How do you know?" she had whispered weakly, her voice and lower lip trembling. She hadn't wanted to consider a life with out him. Without her Naruto.
"Because I just do. Believe it," he murmured, as he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. "We'll meet again."
The memory faded, as the tears silently fell onto her robe-the dark stains the only reminder of their presence. "Only temporary, huh?" she whispered. "You silly fool."
Though she mocked him, she desperately hoped that he was right—that they would meet again. If it weren't for the family she loved so dearly, Sakura would have already considered hastening the process, if only to be with him for all eternity.
"Grandfather has gone somewhere much more peaceful, children. Somewhere where he can watch over us until we can meet again."
She had finally decided what she would tell the children when they came. They would have to call on the medic on staff to have him or her come declare the death and remove the former Hokage's body. He would have a burial fit for a king, she was sure of it. The former child-outcast-turned-village-hero would have the most cherished, loving farewell that Konoha has ever seen.
But, she wasn't ready for it. Sakura chewed her lip as she thought about the lonely nights that were her future. No more Naruto. No more closeness. No more comfort. No more smiling face in the morning.
But, there were no more tears. A light breeze skipped across her skin, as if comforting the former kunoichi. For a brief moment, Sakura was confident that she could feel Naruto's presence—like he was right there beside her, telling her that everything would be fine. She pulled the covers away from his body, tucking her legs neatly under the velvety warmth of the bedding. She nestled her head into the crook of his neck, pulling the sheets over her shoulders—as she had done on so many occasions, for so many years.
She closed her eyes, ignoring the icy chill from his body as she snuggled against the familiar skin. She inhaled slowly, breathing in the scent that she knew so well. She knew it was morbid, but she wanted to cherish these last few moments of idle nostalgia before she had to burden her family with the sad news.
"I will see you soon, my love," she whispered. "I believe it."
If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks...I'll follow you into the dark