07 Jun 2014 3 Comments
Author’s note: A preview of the next chapter of Shattered Bonds. Naruto goes to the Sand. Please forgive any typos!
Naruto’s trek to the Sand was long, hot and tiring. But the ground rolled by underneath his feet in time with the churning thoughts in his head.
Sometimes he worried that he’d say the wrong thing, or that too much time had passed and he should have come sooner. But he banished those thoughts in favor of a better vision. He would find her and he would throw his all into it like Sasuke said, like he did with every other challenge he’d ever faced. She would be so surprised and thrilled to see him that they’d slip right back into their same easy relationship they’d had all their lives. Better even, because he’d finally tell her what he’d always been so afraid to say before….
By the time he reached the Sand’s outer gates, he’d played the scenario out so many times in his head he felt ready to burst at the certainty of it all. His smile stretched from ear to ear, and he couldn’t have hidden it if he tried. He was so close now. He couldn’t wait. He’d find her right away and—
“Halt! Are you friend or foe?!”
Naruto squinted past the midday sun to see severals black silhouettes on edge of the giant earthen wall.
“Friend!” His smile returned even brighter than it was before. “I’m Uzumaki Naruto of the Leaf!!”
The gates swung slowly back, dwarfing Naruto as he walked through. Instead of a couple of stern-looking shinobi like the ones at Konoha’s red gate, Naruto stepped into the cool shade of the wall only to find a dozen or so men vying for a look at him.
Naruto hadn’t met very many Sand civilians, only Gaara, his siblings and a few heads of state, so it was a surprise to be treated so. Naruto smiled, shook hands and answered questions. They called him “the Hero who saved our Kage!” Naruto’s face sunburned face turned even redder.
Naruto had hoped to leave them behind and explore the cool streets and alleys of the city by himself. But the head guard wouldn’t hear of it.
“No, Naruto-sama. You are an important head-of-state. The most important, outside of our own Kazekage-sama. You must let us escort you directly to him. He wouldn’t want it any other way, I’m sure.”
Naruto tried to put them off, but they wouldn’t be dissuaded. So instead of seeking Sakura out immediately, he was flanked by two soldiers who proudly walked him down the main thoroughfares to the Kazekage’s tower, gathering a crowd of admirers in their wake.
Propelled by the whirlwind of well-wishing, Naruto found himself being ushered through the Kazekage’s office door faster than he could ever had imagined. Robed and serene with his Kage’s hat slung casually off the corner of his chair, Gaara rose from behind his desk to greet his old friend.
“My friend,” Gaara said with a deep bow before embracing him, “we are honored by your visit! Had I known we would have made an announcement, brought out our honor guard—”
Naruto put his hands up in front of him. “No! Please, you don’t have to— There’s no reason to—“
Gaara laughed. “You’re a hero here! Or didn’t you know?” He peered aside at him as they crossed the room. “It surprised Sakura-san as well.”
Naruto’s attention was immediately caught. “Actually, that’s what I….” But his voice thinned as he realized how rude it would be to admit that she was the only reason he’d come. Not after a welcome like that. “Well, I wanted to check in on her…a-after coming to visit you!”
“I’m so glad you’ve finally come to the Sand! Unfortunately I have a meeting this afternoon with several daimyos that can’t be put off, otherwise I would escort you myself. There is so much to see, and so many people I would like for you to meet, and many more that would like to meet you…As you’ve already discovered,” he said with a smile. “So how long will you be here?”
Even before the words came out, Naruto felt them turn dry in his mouth. “Just…ah…. Just tonight….” Gaara’s smile fell. Naruto stammered,”I-It was just an impromptu thing, you know. I was so close by, I thought I’d just drop in and say hi, then bed down outside the walls somewhere….” It seemed like such a silly idea now. Of course Gaara would expect him to stay and visit, take a tour….
Gaara shook his head and laughed quietly. “Naruto, there is no way you will come to my home and sleep in the sand. Even for one night.” Naruto looked at him apologetically. “If that’s the way it has to be then so be it. We’ll have a dinner tonight, along with the daimyos,” Naruto shook his head, but Gaara spoke over his protests, “and you’ll stay in the diplomats suites. I insist!”
Seeing the battle was lost, Naruto bowed his head, thanking him graciously.
“Now,” Gaara said, “tell me what you’ve been doing with yourself!” He nodded to the attendant beside the door.
Naruto hesitated. A memory of the grey days leading him to the Sands gates flashed through his mind. But the flicker of shifting emotions on his face was saved from comment by the appearance of the attendant at Gaara’s shoulder. He leaned over and received hushed instructions for tea and to have Gaara’s afternoon schedule of all but the daimyo’s meeting. The man nodded curtly and strode across the room, almost reaching the door before Gaara called out, grinning, “Oh, and have Naruto added as the guest of honor at tonight’s dinner.”
Naruto blustered, “Oh no! There’s really no need— I didn’t mean for that—“
Gaara laughed at him. “Okay now tell me about what’s been going on in the Leaf.”
Those words gave Naruto a toehold in figuring out what to share about his life. Talk about the Leaf. He eased into conversation and sat back in his chair, sharing the day-to-day goings on of their country. He shrugged. “I haven’t been on as many missions lately because Sakura’s been here….” Naruto watched Gaara’s face, hoping he would drop some news of her. But instead, Gaara sighed.
“It has been a long time since I’ve been out on missions. There is so much to do here.” Naruto followed Gaara’s eyes as he scanned the desk full of paperwork. He stifled the urge to shudder. “But,” Gaara added with a glow of pride, “if I don’t get it done, no one will. It falls to me, and me alone.”
Naruto nodded, certain that he would talk about Sakura next.
“So tell me of the situation with the Waterfall territory. Surely your Hokage has some strong opinions about that.”
Naruto shook his head. In fact, he couldn’t remember Tsunade ever mentioning it. Gaara guessed the answer. “Ah well, it’s a tangled mess, that’s for certain.” His assistant returned with tea. “So what of your prospects for the chunin exam this year,” Gaara continued, breath blowing the steam off his tea. “Any standouts?”
Naruto found much more common ground there, and the conversation flowed from shinobis to festivals to the Sand’s latest building projects. Naruto did his best to seem interested, but the subject he most wanted to hear remained untouched until long after his tea had gone cold in his cup.
Naruto was just wondering if his motives would be too transparent if he switched the conversation back to Sakura, when Gaara spoke about the new wing at the hospital.
Naruto sat forward, interest renewed. Gaara smiled. “Your friend has made quite an impact in the Sand. Her medic teachings have proved so helpful, and I know their med-nin program is gaining traction. We’re so happy to have her here.”
“Actually, I was hoping to see her too while I was here.”
Gaara laughed. “Well, good luck. She’s quite busy, even I have a hard time seeing her.” Naruto looked stricken for a moment. “But don’t worry, I’ll summon her for dinner as well. That will get her out of whatever she’s doing.”
The corner of Naruto’s mouth hitched up into a warm smile. “Thanks, Gaara.”
Naruto stopped in the middle of the dusty lane and scanned the building. The diplomatic suites were exactly where Gaara said they would be. The problem was it looked exactly like all the bulbous buildings on either side of it. Towering wind-carved buildings protruded from the steep canyon walls, rising and sinking as if nature had done all the work. The only thing that looked man-made were the rows upon rows of porthole windows.
They looked more like big sandy carrots than any buildings he was used to seeing. Except maybe the Kazekage’s tower. Naruto turned around to find the perfectly round building on the horizon. It looked more like a turnip. He shrugged and stepped under the smooth sandstone columns that overhung the door.
Hand out to tug open the door, Naruto’s eyes went wide as the seemingly solid stone turned liquid and slid away from his grasp with a soft woosh.
A smooth-faced man in traditional Sand robes stood beyond the door, waiting for him. He bowed deeply. “Uzumaki, Naruto,” he said in soft tones. “We have a suite prepared for you.”
Naruto followed the man up the steps that curved along the wall of the building, watching his brown robes swish back and forth on the steps. He had always wondered how the Sand people could stand to wear such heavy robes, but inside the building it was surprisingly cool. Almost chilly.
On the second floor, he walked two doors in and stopped. He held his hand out and the sandy portal behind him slid open.
“W-Wow,” Naruto said as passed through, eying the doors.
The lobby attendant followed him in. “Yes, it is special chakra-infused sand, provided by the Kazekage himself,” he said as he pulled back a gauzy curtain from the porthole window. It revealed a spectacular view of the undulating buildings and the dramatic cliffs overhanging them.
The furnishings were white and plush and Naruto suddenly like he needed a bath before he touched anything.
“If there is anything you need,” said the man from the door, “don’t hesitate to ask.” He bowed elegantly and the portal slide closed.
Naruto walked to the window, resisting the urge to take his shoes off while crossing the thick carpet. But there was no point. He didn’t want to stay there long, no matter how luxurious it was. He was restless. He wanted to get on with what he came here to do. He wanted to find Sakura.
Five minutes later he was back in the lobby, looking hopefully at the attendant.
“Um…. How would I go about finding someone else in the city.”
The man tipped his head thoughtfully.
Naruto added, “Another foreigner, like me.”
A small line appeared between his eyebrows as the man frowned quizically.
Naruto resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He’d just have to confess. “I’m um…looking for my teammate. She’s from Konoha. She’s…uh….” Two blush spots stained his cheeks. “Well, she’s really pretty.” He wiggled his fingers beside his ears. “Pink hair, and….” He snapped his fingers. “She’s working here as a medic and—“
“Ah! The Desert Flower!” Naruto nodded brightly. “Yes, Sakura-san is well-known here,” the man said serenely. “She did live in the diplomats tower for a while, but found it was too far away from her comrades. She now lives in the building closest to the hospital.”
“Great,” Naruto said enthusiastically and took a step towards the door then stopped. “Wait…. Where is that?”
The man smiled. “Beyond the high street, past the market, you’ll find the complex of hospital buildings. Her building is the beside it.”
Naruto thanked him and crossed through the portal feeling light as air.
He followed the high street, mixing among the robed citizens, shoppers and children. He breezed through the market, not bothering to stop at the vendors calling out over barrels of spices and dried fruits, hawking shining silver wares or holding out silky fabrics for him to examine. But he couldn’t ignore that the cacophony of sounds and textures, all of it exploding around him, mirrored the excitement that was building inside.
Finding the round-edged building wasn’t hard. The hospital was a prominent building, boldly marked in red kanji, like Konoha’s hospital. And just to the right, just like the man in his lobby said, was a large two-towered apartment building.
Naruto found Sakura’s name on a listing on the cool walls in downstairs, and bounded up the curving steps two-at a time till he reached the fourth floor.
His heart was in his throat as he walked down the curving hallway towards her rooms. She would be there, he told himself. She would be there and he would make everything right.
He came to the door marked 428B, her door, turned and stopped facing it. He gulped, then fisted his slightly sweaty hand and raised it to knock. He was just moments from seeing her face again, speaking to her, getting her back. He would do his best, like Sasuke said, like he always had, and everything would fall into place—
“She’s not there.”
Naruto’s hand froze in mid-air. He craned his neck around at the voice. “Wha—?”
An old women in deep brown Sand robes leaned out of an apartment two doors down and grinned at him. “She’s not there. The Leaf doctor. She’s at work.”
Naruto’s hand slowly fell back to his side. The woman grinned again, broadly. She was missing a tooth, but she kept right on smiling and hanging her head out the door.
Naruto scrubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “Uh, do you know when she’ll be back?”
A conversation was clearly what she was hoping for. She stepped outside, tipped her head and fanned out her fingers. “Well, today she went in early which usually means it’s a busy day and she doesn’t return until well after dark. But most days she gets home around sunset. Except Tuesdays. Tuesdays are training days. And Fridays. But that’s only if the medics are in the field. And then there’s Mondays at the greenhouse—“
Naruto blinked dazedly under the onslaught of information. “Uh….”
“She’s always on the go, that girl. It certainly was different when old man Shiro lived there. He only came out on Saturdays to go to the market. But he died last year.” Her eyes twinkled and she stepped closer, lowering her voice conspiratorially. “Now he was a sneaky one. Once he—“
Naruto shook his head, rattling out all the extraneous details of the dead man’s life. “No, wait, ma’am, I just came to see if Sakura was home.”
She stopped suddenly, clasped her hands across her round stomach and looked him over. “Ah…. And where are you from? Not from the Sand village by the looks of you. What brought you here—“
“No, I—“ Naruto felt like he was getting caught in a web of words. “I just came to,” he trailed off, shoving his hand in his pocket and crushing the pink note in the bottom of it.
He slowly pulled it out, but seeing even a snatch of her handwriting made all his bravado leave him. He suddenly felt stupid.
What was he going to do? Put her own note on her door?
His fingers itched to shove the note back into his pocket. Then he could go on without her ever knowing he was there.
Except…. Naruto glanced to the side. The old woman stood watching him, waiting. He was sure she would tell on him….
Naruto remembered what Sasuke said about putting himself out there. Sakura had left these notes when he wouldn’t even open the door. And he had hoarded her affection, keeping every one of those blasted things, and giving nothing of himself in return. If he wanted things to be different, then he had to change that.
Before he could loose his nerve, Naruto flashed the pink paper at old woman and said, “I just came to drop off a note, for her. But I uh…I don’t have anything to write with….”
He turned his big blue eyes to her, hoping she might be as generous in helping as she was in gossiping. “Do you think I might borrow a pencil?”
She beamed. “Of course I do! Just one moment!” She disappeared into the apartment.
Katsuro unfolded the corners of the crumpled note, which now looked worse than ever, and thumbed over the curving, looping letters.
“Hey I’m worried about you. I haven’t seen you for so long. I miss you. Come find me when you get in.”
He sighed. A frown tugged at the corner of his mouth.
The old woman reappeared, pencil in hand, but catching his introspection peered up at him owlishly. He flashed her a bright smile, hoping to throw off her interest. “Thanks so much!” He quick-stepped to her to get the offered pencil. “Just a sec—“
The old woman prattled on about neighbors and comings and goings, but Naruto tuned it out. He flipped the note over and flattened it on Sakura’s door, then biting his lip, reciting Sasuke’s words in his head, he began to write.
Sorry it took me a while. But I’m here now.
I’ll find you this time.”
His handwriting looked like a scrawl compared to hers. He didn’t like to look at it. But he meant it. So he supposed that was would have to do. He folded the note over and jammed it in the crack of the door.
Then he delivered the pencil back to the still-speaking woman and bowed deeply, holding it out. She stopped mid-sentence.
“Thank you,” he said loudly, head still bowed. “I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here!”
But the woman didn’t answer. Naruto looked up to see her mouth open in surprise and youthful blush blooming on her leathery cheeks.
Now it was his turn to grin. His blue eyes twinkled merrily. He had rendered her speechless! Naruto bobbed his head once in farewell, knowing a good opportunity to escape when he saw one, and quickly left the hallway. After a moment, the old woman, still smiling and a clutching the pencil, trundled back into her apartment.