27 Jun 2014 2 Comments
From Chapter 7….
But where Sakura should have been blisteringly mad, she was…confused. Something about that laugh, those colors…. It was all so strangely familiar….
And then it hit her. Her breath hitched and her grip loosened just as a voice rumbled through the air—
She knew, before he’d even stepped out, she knew who it was. And she knew he was smiling. She was as certain of it as she was of her own face in the mirror. It had been almost three years, but she could still hear the smile in his voice.
The betrayal of her senses sparked up frustrating feelings inside. She was nervous and angry at the same time. And beneath it all was the unbendable truth that she really did want to see him.
A black foot edge out first, then a black pant leg along with a raised hand, palm open and compliant. It was higher up on the tree than she’d expected.
He’s taller. Much taller….
Every muscle Sakura had tensed. She bit her lip, tightened her now-sweaty grip around the kunai and watched as the rest of him slowly stepped out.
Naruto stood in front of her, grinning. His eyes were bluer than she remembered, clear and fixed on her in a way that made her face burn. His hair was yellow and windblown and as unapologetically messy as it had been in their youth.
But there was not much more of the boy in him now.
The Naruto that stood before her was a grown man. Tall — at least, taller than she was — with square shoulders and the same lean, lithe physique as the most of the shinobis in her village. Which meant he was deceptively powerful.
His hands were large and square. Or perhaps they just looked big because he still standing with his palms open. Grinning even wider now.
Sakura shook off the temptation to smile back, and squeezed her weapons — her grip had frustratingly gone slack again in her distraction. She leveled a hard look at him. But he didn’t even seem to notice.
“I thought it was you,” he said warmly. His voice had taken on a depth and timbre that was not there in their youth. Sakura focused on ignoring it. “I was afraid you were going to kill me,” he said, smiling, but there was a hint of something rascally in his eyes.
Sakura knew he was never afraid at all.
She tightened her grip, again. “What’s your business out here,” she said firmly.
Still smiling, he shrugged. “No business, just training.”
His skin, though pale, had a bloom of sunburn that spoke of hours in the sun. It made him look as flushed as she felt.
“A-Are you alone,” she said, peering into the canopy and feeling foolish for only just now thinking of it. “Where is…is….“ She discovered she couldn’t say his name, his betrayal burned more deeply into her mind. “The other one.”
Naruto laughed, deeply.
It was surprisingly pleasant, and she had to fight to keep down memories of him, of them.
“Eh, he’s around here somewhere. I gave him the slip a while ago. Then I saw you….”
Naruto dragged his gaze up her body, going slowly from her toes to her head. Sakura felt the tops of her ears go pink.
“You’ve gotten really…um…strong,” he said. For one moment, there was a warmth in his gaze that stole her breath. But it was lost when he nodded to her weapons. “You would have nailed me for sure.”
She looked at her hands, to where her two kunai stuck out at odd angles from her loose fingers, and came to her senses. How had she forgotten them? But they seemed pointless now. Flustered, she jammed them back in her bag where they clinked softly in the bottom.
“How have you been? I bet a lot has changed….”
But she ignored the questions. Sakura cleared her throat. “I guess…. Uh…. I guess I should let everyone else know….” she said, just because she didn’t know what else to say.
“Who are you with now?”
He smiled and looked around the woods, but when his eyes dipped back to hers and he repeated the question, there was a flicker of emotion that wasn’t there before.
“So…. What team are you on?”
Sakura watched him closely. She saw it again. A tightness at the corner of his eyes, or the way his careless smile looked a little forced.
It’s not an innocent question, Sakura told herself, clinging to the suspicion that was helping to clear her mind.
Deep within her memories were slowly resurrecting. Naruto covering his pain…. Naruto smiling through grief…. Naruto watching Sasuke with that desperate hunger, that consuming rivalry, that unquenchable need….
She remembered it all. And she remembered that as a child, she had known him nearly as well as she’d known herself. Doubt and time and heartache had caused her to forget. But it was still there. Traces of that boy she once knew still lingered in this man’s face.
The way he held his mouth, just so, as if holding something back. The way he looked at her, eyes bright and smiling…and searching….
Sakura breathed deeply, finally feeling more like herself again.
She squared her shoulders as if to deliver a blow. Her green eyes sparked and her mouth curved up. “Oh…didn’t you know? I’m still on Team 7.”
But the smug satisfaction she expected never came. He didn’t gasp or curse or act as if he was even surprised.
Instead, he looked away, face shuttering. “Huh….”
He propped his hands on his hips and forced a laugh. “Who’d they replace us with? Probably someone better than us?” But when he looked back, his smile was brittle. His eyelids were lowered, shielding some secret pain.
“So Sakura-chan…. Who took my place?”
Hearing his familiar pet name for her sent an unexpected pang through her chest, but she slowly narrowed her eyes. She knew what she was looking at. She’d seen it a thousand times when they were kids.
He was jealous.
Sudden fury churned up her insides. How dare he…. How dare he! He was the one who left! He had no right to care. He had no right to feel anything!
Sakura could practically feel that childish need to be accepted behind his smiling mask. Her hands balled at her sides. She wanted to knock that smile off his face!
“You idiot,” she said, voice low and dangerous. “There is no one else. It’s just me. And Kakashi. We are Team 7.”
It had the same effect as a punch. His face went slack. He shook his head in confusion.
“I…I don’t understand….”
But Sakura held no sympathy for him. In fact, seeing she’d wounded him somehow, she wanted to drive the knife in a little further.
“What is there to understand?” She flung her arms out wide. “Did you think the world would collapse after you left? Well it didn’t. Team 7 went on. Without you. Your spots were never filled.”
Naruto stepped forward, raising his hand earnestly to his chest.
“You mean, you’re by yourself? On missions and…and out here?” He glanced around the empty woods. “You’re alone? There’s no others? No…team?” Sakura raised an eyebrow, shaking her head at the ridiculousness of it all, not bothering to correct him just yet.
Naruto’s eyes were soft with regret. “I never knew…. I mean, I-I didn’t think that….” He clutched the shirt at his chest in a movement Sakura wished she didn’t remember so easily from their childhood. That picture of a desperately apologetic boy was distorting the untrustworthy man in front of her. “You’ve got to believe that I never meant to—”
“Idiot,” hissed another sickeningly familiar voice.
Naruto whipped around as Sasuke fluidly stepped out from behind the large tree trunk. His hands were already clasped for the teleportation justsu, his mouth already silently moving with the commands. Heatless flames began licking up in a circle around them.
He shot Naruto a scathing look, full with the promise of reprecussions.
Naruto must not have cared. He turned back to Sakura, an unspoken apology still written on his face. But the flames were too high for him to move.
Beyond his shoulder, Sasuke’s black eyes bore down on her. They held no greeting, no trace of a fond reunion. Instead he watched her, silently threatening. Even as the blaze engulfed them, his eyes never left her face.
The flames rose higher, turned to leaves, then to nothing at all.
And suddenly, Sakura was alone in the empty forest.
“What the hell’d you do that for?”
“I could ask you the same thing!”
Naruto stormed around the dripping underground room like a caged animal, kicking at the wall occasionally
Sasuke folded his arms and watched him pace. His own anger was quickly cooling. Watching Naruto spool up was helping.
“You’re such an idiot sometimes,” Sasuke drawled as if speaking to a child.
“All I wanted to do was talk to her. What’s wrong with that?”
“You know exactly what’s wrong.” Naruto rolled his eyes, but Sasuke pushed on, voice hard. “They will hunt us down and drag us back to Konoha. And this,” Sasuke raised his hands, “will be replaced with a jail cell.”
Naruto scowled and kept pacing the perimeter. “That’s only because you nailed the headbands to the tree,” he grumbled.
“It had to be done. They had to know we were serious. Otherwise they would have never stopped.”
“I told you not to! I told you it was too much! We could have outrun them!”
Sasuke shot him a withering look. “It doesn’t matter now. Anyone from Konoha would drag us back. They wouldn’t understand. They would stifle our growth, tell us more lies—”
Naruto wheeled around and yelled into Sasuke’s face, “She isn’t just ‘anyone!’”
Sasuke snapped, “She is the most dangerous of all!”
Nearly nose to nose, Naruto glared at Sasuke. Sasuke glared back, face pale with anger, but when he spoke his words were clipped and controlled.
“We cannot see them. We cannot be seen by them.” His breath shivered the hair that had fallen over Naruto’s brow. “And you know this.”
After a long moment Naruto tore away with a growl and returned to stalking around the room.
“Sakura will tell Kakashi,” Sasuke continued, watching him. “And Kakashi will use his dogs. He will alert every other shinobi he can get a hold of to track us down. And then we will be chased from hideout to hideout and—”
“I know! All I wanted to do was talk to her—” Naruto snapped, waving off Sasuke’s barrage of reasoning. He stopped pacing. “She said she is still on Team 7. But now…. Now, she’s alone—“
Sasuke looked at Naruto as if he was stupid. “A lie, obviously. She’d say anything to get you to come back with her. She’s under orders, just like the rest of them.”
Naruto glared at Sasuke but couldn’t argue with him, and Sasuke knew it. He folded his arms and waited patiently for Naruto to admit he was right. Instead Naruto shouldered past him, threw the door open and stomped off down the hall toward the training rooms.
Sasuke smirked at the empty doorway. Even though he did frustrating things at times, Naruto’s predictable temper was one of the things Sasuke had grown to appreciate over the years, in a way he could not have when they were kids in Konoha. Sasuke knew that he was hot-headed, but he’d eventually cool down and defer to better judgement. He always did. And understanding Naruto so well is what made them excellent teammates.
Naruto’s loyalty was no surprise. But it had to end there, or it would put them both in danger. And Naruto knew that. Whether he’d admit it or not.
And because they were so perfectly suited as teammates, Sasuke knew what Naruto needed now — an outlet for his pent up anger. He passed through the doorway and turned to follow him to the training rooms. A little sparring would do both of them good.
“Everything was clear. No trouble,” Sakura said when she rendezvoused with Team 8 hours later. Her face was blank, her voice stripped of emotion. “I did not encounter anyone.”
Kiba nodded and they all turned to the map he had unfurled in the light of the fire. Sakura heard him discuss the next day’s assignments, saw his finger move slowly along the dashed lines of territories. But she was numb to it. Sakura heard her name and she nodded automatically. Kiba pointed to a quadrant, spoke a few words about the next day’s assignment and she nodded again. Then it was finished. He rerolled the map and they all sat back to enjoy the fire.
If they noticed she was quieter, more preoccupied than usual, then no one mentioned it.
Sakura stared at the fire, replaying the encounter in her mind, over and over again, until the dancing yellow flames blurred themselves into the tips of his hair and she couldn’t bear to look at it anymore.
She leaned back and stared up at the stars. But they gave her no comfort.
There was no reason to rush home and tell Kakashi. In fact, there was no reason to tell anyone about it. They were long gone. It was just a fluke.
Sakura finished the rest of her mission in detached silence, the model of an effective Konoha shinobi.
But as soon as she passed through the gates and waved farewell to Team 8, she immediately canvassed Konoha’s streets searching for Kakashi.
She found him sitting on a bench outside the Hokage’s tower, leaning against a sun-warmed wall, reading his book.
Seeing her in front of him, hard-eyed and breathless, he folded his book over his crossed knee and tipped his head up at her in concern.
Sakura paused to gather her thoughts, unsure of where to start, but then the words came tumbling out, like water through a dam.
“I saw him. On my mission with Team 8. I saw him. Naruto. And Sasuke too, but only at the end.” She gulped a breath. “But I saw him. Spoke to him.”
She exhaled, feeling like a weight had lifted. Kakashi breathed with her, silently understanding. He patted the empty bench beside him.
“How long ago,” he asked.
She sat on her fingers to keep them still. After keeping her emotions boxed up for days, she found she was overflowing with nervous energy.
“Six days,” she said, not having to count. She knew exactly how long it had been.
But saying it aloud made her suddenly doubt her reasoning.
“I-I didn’t contact Konoha, though,” she said, peeking up once at Kakashi. “They disappeared in a teleportation jutsu. No trace. There was nothing to search for…so I continued on with my mission.”
Kakashi nodded sagely. “As you should’ve. There was nothing else to be done.” He recrossed his legs, shifting his book to his other knee, and leaned toward her. “So tell me Sakura, how do my old students fare?”
He smiled encouragingly, and Sakura knew he was trying to put her at ease.
She took a breath and laid her hands in her lap and shook out the tightness that had crept into her shoulders.
“I saw Naruto first. He tracked me, claiming he was out on a training mission. Then Sasuke came for him. Used a standard Leaf jutsu, then they were gone.”
Sakura met Kakashi’s eyes, grasping the subtext of his question. Every detail held a clue. “In the middle of the day. They were both pale, like they were not in the sun a lot. But Naruto looked like he might have been sunburned.” She darted her eyes away at the memory of his pink cheeks and ignored the heat coming back to hers.
“They looked well fed, clothed.” She remembered the Stone country nukenin she had seen creeping through the night forest like a scared, half-starved animal. Naruto and Sasuke looked like they just belonged to another village. “No headbands. Naruto wore all black fatigues, like standard issue Konoha ones. He had a weapons pouch and a thigh holster, just like he did here—“
“From what I could see he wore a traditional Uchiha kimono shirt, black pants. No kunai, but a long sword handle at his waist.”
“Sasuke was the same,” she sighed. “Just the same. Older, I’m sure more powerful. But he looked just the same. Like I wasn’t even worth his time.” She closed her eyes, hating him.
Kakashi was silent for moment. “And what of Naruto? How had he changed?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh he’s the same too.”
Kakashi studied her face, not missing the shift in her demeanor. “How do you mean?”
“He was smiling and asking about…well, not really about anything.” She laced and relaced her fingers together in her lap. “But he wanted to know what team I was on, and when I told him I wasn’t, then he wanted to know who replaced him! Like it bothered him or something! As if he should care!” She cut her eyes away in frustration.
“Ah yes,” Kakashi said after a moment. “That sounds like Naruto. Always concerned about the little things.” He ignored Sakura’s loud scoff. “He loved Konoha and Team 7 and ramen and….”
Kakashi suddenly narrowed his eyes. “And what did he think of you, Sakura?”
Sakura looked caught. The faintest blush lit her cheeks. Even if she never spoke, Kakashi would have had his answer.
But at length she said, quietly, “He said I looked stronger.” She picked at her fingernails then shrugged, looking like she’d really rather drop the subject.
“Perhaps you’re right,” Kakashi said, hiding a smile. “Sounds like he hasn’t changed much at all—“
Sakura cut a sharp look up at him.
“I know what you’re thinking.” She pointed at him then tapped the still-open book on his knee. “And it’s not like one of your silly books, either.”
“I didn’t say anything,” he said, grinning now.
“You didn’t have to,” she grumbled, even as the corners of her mouth twitched up. “But it’s not like that,” she added, turning serious. “He’s not the same. No matter what he says or how he acts. He gone. He’s with Orochimaru,” she added quietly, “and Sasuke.”
Kakashi sobered too. “You’re exactly right. But it’s good to know he’s still the same. He’s not hardened or spiteful.”
She nodded and sighed. “Yeah, I suppose that’s one good thing. But it doesn’t amount to much. He’s still gone.”
“Well, one step at a time,” he breathed. “Remember ‘A journey of a thousand miles—‘“
“I know,” Sakura cut him off with a grin, “‘begins with a single step!’ How could I forget?!”
Laughing, she rose and turned to leave, but Kakashi stopped her. “Sakura, please don’t tell anyone about seeing him. This time…or if you see him again. Only notify me—
She gaped at him, incredulous. “What makes you think I’m going to see him again?”
Kakashi shrugged nonchalantly, opened his book with his thumb and leaned back against the wall. “Oh no reason,” he drawled, pulling the novel over his face. It didn’t hide the crinkle at the corner of his eyes or the smile in his voice. “You know, just in case you do.”
Sakura rolled her eyes.
She laughed breathily and strode away, muttering about “ridiculous romance novels” under her breath as she left.