keep yourself a secret
"You sure you've got this under control?"
"You can count on me!" Sakura exclaims, hefting buckets filled with coal onto her shoulders. "Go on! I know Asuma wants you home in time for dinner."
Kurenai chuckles, eyes soft as she ruffles Sakura's hair. "He does kick up quite a fuss if I'm not home when the station actually closes. Should I bring you some of his pastries tomorrow?" She grins. "If I tell him it's for you he'll even bake them fresh."
"You've got yourself a deal! Will he make—"
"The berry tart with extra strawberries? Of course," Kurenai says before tossing the keys to Sakura. "I expect you here bright and early to open up. Hiruzen will panic if we aren't up and running on time."
Sakura watches as Kurenai takes the elevator out of what is affectionately termed "The Pit," before returning to her task. She dumps the coal into the bins by the trains, prepping for the bustle of the coming day. Sakura places the buckets back in the closet and snatches up the ring of keys.
Sakura cannot keep from grinning as she weighs the keys in her hand, looking over all the myriad of sizes and shapes to them. There are thirty-seven keys in all and her absolute favorite is the large bronze key that locks the gate. It is an old key and oxidized in a way that makes most of it appear green.
She feels stately and otherworldly as she turns the key in the gate, locking the passage between the station and the railroads. Sakura loops the key ring into her belt, grinning as they thump musically against her thigh as she walks.
A high-pitched, whining noise makes her pause. Sakura looks up, blinking as a red light descends from the sky.
A shooting star?
No, she can tell as it comes closer that the light is emitting from a necklace worn by a boy.
Sakura races in his direction, climbing the slope to one of the many precarious balances that cross above the Pit. They've been expanding the station, have been for years and the work is never done.
With an ease born of experience, Sakura steps out onto the plank and eyes the boy's descent. She positions herself beneath it, balancing and bracing herself to catch him.
Sakura squints against the gleam of his necklace as he descends fully into her arms. The necklace's glow fades and Sakura gets a better look at the boy.
He is unconscious and dressed oddly in garish hues of orange and blue. His face is strangely marked with lines on each cheek but Sakura is more focused on his hair. It is the color of sunlight.
Sakura cradles him close, listening attentively to the creaking of the board beneath her as she moves back to safer ground.
When she turns her face back to the boy, crystalline blue eyes meet her.
The boy is awake.
"Who are you?" he asks, squirming out of her grasp.
"I'm Sakura. Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," he blusters, brushing off his clothes. He glances away and back again before bending over in a formal bow. "Thank you. My name is Naruto. I'm not completely sure how I came to be here, but I'm grateful."
"Of course," she replies, flustered by the antiquated gesture. They stand in silence for a moment before Sakura says, "Do you have anywhere to stay the night?"
He opens his mouth, falters, and shakes his head.
"Would you like to stay with me?" Sakura asks. "You can take my bed for the night."
His face splits in a smile so bright that Sakura loses her breath. "That would be wonderful, thank you."
And that is how Sakura meets Naruto.
"Who are they?" Sakura asks, ducking back behind her house. She eyes the men in long black coats embellished in red clouds with suspicion. They don't fit into the sleepy town of Konoha.
"Pirates," Naruto spits the word and it is the most vitriolic thing Sakura has heard out of his mouth. "They're called Akatsuki. They want the treasures of Uzushio."
Sakura tightens her mouth and firms her stance as she catches the flicker of fear in his eyes. "They've chased you before?"
He hesitates for a brief moment before nodding.
"Okay," Sakura says. "Give me a second."
She ducks back into her house, heading into the room on the second floor. She listens to the soft hooting and cooing from the owls, all in various stages of sleep. Sakura opens their cages and sends up a brief prayer for their safety.
Sakura goes back out to Naruto, taking his hand in hers. "I'll protect you from the pirates," she promises rashly. "We'll need to go into town. I have to give Kurenai the keys and hopefully we can shake them in the crowd."
Naruto nods, not looking all that pleased with the plan but trusting her regardless. Something in Sakura is warmed by the notion, but she is quickly distracted with slipping past Akatsuki unseen.
Something goes wrong along the way, an unsure foot along the cobble, a perceptive glance around, something happens in a way that the tall blue one looks upon them with a disturbing grin.
"Konan, I found them!"
Sakura mutters the word Asuma said once when all of the pies burned while they were playing cards.
Naruto looks impressed.
"Come on!" Sakura hisses, dragging Naruto into the morning crush of people.
"Sakura!" Kurenai exclaims. "What on earth is going on?"
"This is Naruto," Sakura says. "There are some bad people after him. I'm going to help."
There is pride coloring Kurenai's voice as she says, "I expected nothing less." She draws Sakura into a brisk, warm hug. "Go on. Asuma and I will take care of them."
"Thanks, Kurenai!" Sakura replies, bussing a kiss across her cheek before passing her the keys. "You need these more than I do but don't worry; I'll be back soon!"
Kurenai looks at them, rather, she looks at Naruto. "I'm not so sure you will be, dear."
"C'mon," Naruto says, tightening his hold on Sakura's hand, brushing past Kurenai, and ducking into the nearby alley.
"Naruto!" Sakura scolds as she picks up her pace to keep up with him. "That was quite rude!"
"Sorry," he mutters, casting his eyes about. "I'm just worried. I don't want to be a burden to you."
Sakura squeezes his hand. "You aren't a burden! You're my friend. Besides, my parents always believed in Uzushio." She pats the map at her belt. "They'd be proud to know I'm keeping up the search."
Naruto smiles. "It'll be an adventure."
"The very best," Sakura says firmly. "First, however, we need to get away from the pirates. I think the train station is our best bet."
"Didn't you give the keys to Kurenai?" Naruto asks, following her as she begins to weave among the maze of buildings.
"Yeah but Hiruzen has a set himself. He always gets there before dawn and opens the train station. He always complains when we show up on time, saying that we're late." Sakura giggles.
"Sounds like quite a guy," Naruto says.
"He's the best."
Sakura guides Naruto along her favorite path into the Pit, mindful of her surroundings. It still comes as a surprise, however, when Naruto is tackled to the ground.
"Running away was quite naughty!" an angry voice declares and Sakura prepares herself to yank the boy off of Naruto.
She stops, however, when she sees his face.
He has Naruto's face. If not for his eyes and hair, Sakura would call them mirror images.
"Who are you?" she demands, gathering herself and pushing him free of Naruto.
"Menma of Fire," he replies, red eyes cool and distant. He looks her over and sniffs, clearly finding her lacking. "And who are you, urchin?"
"None of your business!" Naruto declares, hopping back on his feet. His nose is bleeding but his gaze is hard as he stares at Menma. "You need to leave me alone!"
"You need to come with me, Naruto," Menma says. "Just imagine what we can do together."
"I already told you no! Why won't you just leave me alone?" Naruto demands.
Sakura strikes a leg out, sweeping Menma's feet from beneath him while distracted. He tumbles and, at the sharp angle of the slope, slides far away from him. Sakura winces in sympathy as he catches on hard edges but she doesn't feel too bad when she sees the relief in Naruto's eyes.
"Let's go," Sakura urges, eyes up on the lip of the Pit. Already, it is dotted with the pirates and men dressed in the same uniform as Menma. For the moment, they seem preoccupied with each other but that won't remain the case for long. "Hiruzen will be able to help us get out of here."
Naruto wavers, clutching at the pendant at his throat.
"Naruto," Sakura says, waiting until he looks at her. Their enemies are closing in around them and they are in a precarious position that requires some finessing. She needs to get them out of here safely. And for that, she needs Naruto. "Naruto, do you trust me?"
Naruto looks at her and for a moment he looks so much older than his twelve years. Sakura feels as if her soul is bared to his eyes, scorched beneath his scrutiny. His hand tightens on the strange pendant and he smiles as he pulls it free from his body.
Sakura knows she's passed some sort of test, though what kind she couldn't say.
"It's strange really," Naruto says, grabbing her hand and pressing the pendant into it. She feels a shiver go up her spine and, for a moment, the pendant is heavy. The moment passes and Sakura wonders if she just imagined it. "I trust you Sakura."
Sakura grins. "Good. What I'm about to ask of you is going to require all of that trust."
Naruto nods, entwining his hand around hers, the pendant firmly sandwiched between them. "I'm ready when you are."
Breath quickening, Sakura stares at the crane jib and hook that are moving slowly nearby. It is headed their way and Sakura tenses in preparation. She can do this. "When I say jump, jump."
Naruto nods, his confidence in her obvious in his eyes.
Sakura takes a deep breath, tightens her hand on his, and says, "Jump."