BOUND and FREE and INBETWEEN
A sPoNtAnEoUs TuRn
Naruto and Sakura stopped and stared at each other with a pensive look. Their eyes swept over the other from head to toe in somber wonder, drinking in the sight of them yet not able to comprehend the taste. Drifting upward, their stares met and both were smiling and their eyes were absent of light. Naruto spoke first, forcing his smile a bit wider.
"Sakura... You look… You look real nice."
Sakura's jade eyes sparkled then flit out like a candle flame toward the compliment. "Thanks, Naruto. You don't look too bad yourself."
Naruto laughed. It was a hollow sound and it echoed in both their ears but neither of them had the heart to comment or judge. "Yeah, who would have figured, huh?" An irony that only they could understand fluttered past their thoughts and Sakura's feather light laughter joined with equal hollowness.
Something unusual and unknowingly permanent happed this morning with the Genin of Squad Seven. At a glance, it was something one would think peculiar though insignificant. At a glance, only the outside was subjective to change when the real difference lay much deeper. It lay resting beneath the surface, unrestrained, and waiting for its moment to strike. None would be aware of its existence, even when it will stand before them looking them right in the eye; they wouldn't see it because all they would be aware of is the shell and not the detached presence beneath.
Gone was Naruto's vibrantly colored jumpsuit and gone was Sakura's red dress. In their place was black unmistakable shinobi attire, both with one single color that stood out against the darkness and identified each of them as an individual and reminded them of their humanity.
To any passing observer, they would not recognize the usually bright boy to be Uzumaki Naruto, the formidable prankster and dead last shinobi. In his place, all would recognize a respectable and young shinobi, not their knuckleheaded foe.
Naruto's outfit was nothing like anything in Konoha. It was a foreign style however recognizable as what a shinobi might wear. Naruto wore an orange, unzipped vest over a simple black sleeveless shirt. Black pants hung low on his hips and the hems fanned over part of his black shoes that were unfamiliar to Fire Country. He had bandages wrapped his arms from his elbows down to cover his knuckles. A black bandana with the Konoha metal plate stitched to the front was tied around Naruto's head, hiding most of his bright blonde locks from view. The black made Naruto's unique blue eyes, bright blonde hair, and whisker marks become all the more prominent.
The Naruto standing before Sakura appeared nothing like the goofball she had known in the academy. She knew that as he was walking he was slowly coming to the decision of giving up hiding his sudden maturity he had developed over night. People would think that Naruto was playing a game, pretending to be something he wasn't and never will be. But Sakura knew better; underneath all that was an Uzumaki Naruto they had never known existed yet defied all laws by doing just that-- existing. Sakura wished with her whole heart he would smile like he used to and show her he was still the loudmouthed brat that crushed on her in the academy.
But, again, she knew better.
Like Naruto, Sakura's attire was the same design- all black save for the vest. Her vest was red and cut short below her still-developing breasts. Her shirt was black and air-catching, and cut at the same level as the vest. Covering the rest of her torso was a skin-tight mesh shirt tucked in the same type of black pants as Naruto. They rode low on her hips, tight around her rear end and loose around her legs. On her feet were the same shoes as Naruto, albeit for females.
When Sakura had looked at herself in the mirror that morning she had considered taking it off. It was something that gave away too much and provoked too many questions she could not risk answering. An idea popped in her head and she smiled. Sakura took a pair of elastics and divided her hair in two loose tails resting against her back, mimicking the hairstyle of the legendary Slug Sannin Tsunade. Her bangs were then free to frame her face and hang over, above her brow. Her hair represented a future with many outcomes. It made her feel more confident about the changes her squad would make on history, be them good or bad.
Sakura knew there was no point in trying to hide behind the past; the future would always be around the corner waiting. The red dress she wore at the academy was a reminder of a past road that she was foolish to walk on. Now Konoha would see that she and her teammates were looking toward a better future, one day. Until then, this change her and her team made would be viewed by an ignorant village. Until then, they won't understand that she was fighting the past, which is at risk of becoming the future for her, Naruto, and Sasuke. They wouldn't understand because, as far as they know, what had been altered right before their eyes was supposedly impossible.
It had been impossible: this change. And now it was permanent, surging inside of them forever. One day they will let it out and walk among the Elemental Nations without restriction or bonds.
"Hey, Sakura?" Naruto's voice lured her from her morbid thoughts.
Her blonde teammate looked apologetic. "Would it- Would it be alright if we-" He stumbled over his words, searching for a polite way to ask his question. Naruto knew if he just blurted it out, Sakura would deny him immediately. Not because she wanted to, but out of obligation she would say no. He shook his head, cracking a small smile. He'll ask her later at a better time.
"Never mind. We'll talk about it later. You know where Sasuke is?"
Sakura gestured negative. "No. I haven't. Naruto, I'm worried. This is going to be so much harder for him, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
Sakura's jade eyes watered. "Then do you know if he's going to be alright? No, sorry, that's a stupid question. He's alone in this, isn't he? It's his fight."
"We're in this mess together, Sakura," he protested, hurt by his friend's doubts. "We're going to fight this war together. We're going to win together. We're going to make a difference together. And we're going to be there for Sasuke together." He took a step forward effectively invading Sakura's personal space and put both his hands on her shoulders, which quivered under his touch.
"Aren't we?" He looked fierce, like a leader, and Sakura blinked back her tears guiltily. She nodded between his palms and tried to reassure Naruto with a smile and feathered her fingers across the back of his hands.
"We are. Till the end. I'm sorry. I guess I had a moment, you know. This is all so…"
Naruto's gaze softened considerably and he stepped away from Sakura. "It's gonna be rough for a while," he stated the continuing truth. "All we can do is try and get through it. Once everything reaches a balance… Then…"
Understanding, Sakura nodded. "You're right," she murmured feebly. "You're always right. Let's go find Sasuke."
"No need. I'm here."
Naruto and Sakura turned around together and took in their comrade's appearance with false neutral expressions masking the alarming urgency beneath. They absorbed him in with their eyes as if they expected him to fade and disappear like a memory. He met there gaze with the same restrained urgency and before his mind could comprehend what he was doing, his body was a step ahead, and his arms were encircled around Sakura's trembling figure.
"Sasuke…" she whimpered, burying her face between the open high-collar of his navy blue vest. The concern in her voice didn't go unnoticed by him and he squeezed her soothingly.
"I'm fine. Just… exhausted."
"Are you sure?"
The question came from Naruto and Sakura loosened her hold around Sasuke's neck to see the dark-haired boy's face. Apparently, she and Naruto shared the same worries. He could see it in her. Sasuke couldn't identify the faint gleam in Naruto's eyes when he asked his question. Was it doubt? No, that was an impossibility for one of Naruto's character. Sasuke paused a moment, letting the answer come to him.
Them his gaze narrowed on Naruto. "Yeah. I'm sure." His voice held steel conviction.
That look of Naruto's, it was a warning. Naruto was warning Sasuke of what was in store. He needed to know whether Sasuke was ready for what was to come; if he was ready to face his nightmares all over again. Yes; Sasuke was sure he was ready. This time around, he was.
Naruto's stature relaxed, as if his whole life had ridden on Sasuke's answer. Like a criminal who had just been released from his death sentence, the tension released him and left him feeling weightless enough to lean against the wind for support.
"Good," Naruto breathed and he shared with them a smile. One of his old smiles, the one that promised you everything was going to be alright no matter how bad things seemed. He held out his arm to Sakura, who smiled and hooked her arm in his graciously. She did the same to Sasuke. Their raven-haired companion chuckled at some hidden joke before completing the chain and hooking his arm in Sakura's.
"Come on; let's get a booth at Paradise Tea."
"What? No ramen?" Sakura teased Naruto, an attempt to bring back past joys.
Her effort wasn't in vain for both Naruto and Sasuke smirked and chuckled at the image of Naruto wolfing down his twelfth bowl of ramen, oblivious to the mess he was making and the looks he was receiving.
"No," Naruto's eyes shimmered like flawless sapphires in his temporary euphoria. "No. They've got great tea and I'm in the mood for something… trivial."
"We need the break," Sakura agreed.
"Not to mention we have to meet up with Kibichi and figure out what our next move is."
Sakura's brow furrowed in thought. "Well, it's obvious the Chunin Exams haven't started yet-" She sent a pointed look at Sasuke who averted his attention ahead of him in response. "-but that still leaves us a lot of time in-between. I didn't catch anything helpful on my way here."
"Kibichi said that the date would be as close to after the mission at the Land of Waves," stated Naruto. "We might as well wait till we talk to him ourselves than wasting our time with theories."
"It's not wasting time," argued Sakura. "And what about Kakashi-sensei? We don't know if he had planned for us to meet at the bridge already or if it's a day off."
Naruto shrugged. "He is a Jonin. He'll find us if he really wants to."
Paradise Tea was a famous tea shop which was first brought into business in Konoha by a Sir Kibichi. It had been open for a little over two years and already it had a branch in each of the five nations. Some would say it was the great service that made Paradise Tea so popular so quickly. Others would say it was the quality tea, which was definitely the best, no contest. More say it's because it's a shinobi's paradise, specifically during the nights.
The tea shop was a unique, very welcoming two-story building with large clear windows. Above the wooden entrance door was a sign that displayed its name. Sakura led her teammates inside and took a seat at a booth in the far right corner. Though it was a famous shop, the interior remained modest and homey.
A colorful waitress greeted them with menus, a wide smile, and a shock of blue hair. "Hello, my name is Medetai! I'll be your waitress this morning and hope to ensure your time here is pleasant. Would you like to start out with drinks?"
Neither one of squad seven opened their menus. Paradise Tea became a regular spot for them in the past and they each had tried every single type of tea and meals on the menu. They had their favorite regulars already in mind. Naruto ordered first: Pu-erh tea. The waitress expressed surprise at his choice but didn't comment, even seemed impressed, and jotted his order down on her notepad. Sasuke ordered an Oolong tea, strong with a pleasant aftertaste, and Sakura asked for green tea with honey; simple and sweet.
"Alrighty then! Anything to munch on? Muffins, biscuits, etc."
Naruto shook his head and grinned. "No, thank you. That's all."
"Oky doky. I'll bring your order right up!"
True to her word, not a minute after she disappeared in the kitchen did she come out holding a tray with their tea. The waitress set their cups in front of them with her happy smile still in place.
"Careful, it's hot."
Sasuke ignored the warning and took a tentative sip from his cup. His eyelids closed in pleasure and he released a satisfied breath. Medetai giggled, "Guess the heat doesn't bother you."
Sasuke shook his head groggily. That hit the spot. He could feel the steaming hot tea traveling through his body, warming him to his core. He shuddered, which triggered an entertained laugh to ripple past Sakura's lips. He looked like he had melted onto the seat! Naruto shook his head at Sasuke. Giving him Oolong tea was like giving him a drug. Sasuke was a cord knotted and wound much too tight, and that tea loosened him to the point where he was a dangling thread.
Naruto turned his attention to their waitress. "Medetai, was it?"
Said girl brightened cheerfully. "Ye'sir!"
"Well, Medetai, do you know if Kibichi is in?"
Tilting her head to the side curiously, she asked, "Why would you like to know?"
"We have an important matter to discuss with him."
Medetai was skeptical, displaying her protection over Kibichi openly, and voiced her concerns. "I don't know. He's not exactly up and together right now. Um, are you his friends?"
Naruto nodded. "Yeah, he taught us a few things back in the day-"
Medetai squeaked at such a phrase being used by a kid who was too young to have a 'back in the day'. Naruto didn't seem to notice-- or he didn't care. "And we were hoping to catch up on things."
"Alrighty then! In that case, how can I refuse you? You all three are so cute! I'll go get Sesshoumaru; he's the one you need to talk since Kibichi isn't available."
Medetai again disappeared past the kitchen and again, not a minute later, she came back. This time a man was with her, not tea.
He was a handsome man, extremely so, perhaps in his mid twenties. His features were sharp and aristocratic, and his skin was pale as a sheet of paper and looked to be just as smooth. His platinum white hair was long and braided at the nape of his neck and down past his waist. He was tall, standing as high as 6'10", and lean.
Sharp amber eyes caught Naruto's startling sapphire as Sesshoumaru was lead to Squad Seven's table. The man couldn't suppress the frown marring his perfect features. Sesshoumaru's gaze wandered over the Genin's attire, his frown becoming more evident.
"Uzumaki, Uchiha, Haruno-san." His greeting was indifferent and he didn't try to hide his underlying displeasure.
"Well, I'll leave you four alone." Medetai gave them a silly bow. "It was nice to meet you all!"
Once the young waitress was busy with her other customers, Naruto broke the staring contest between him and Sesshoumaru with a rather obvious conclusion. "You look upset, Sesshoumaru. Aren't you happy to see us alive and well? No mutation or missing limbs."
Sesshoumaru was not amused. "I assumed you and Kibichi-sama had agreed on remaining inconspicuous, Uzumaki. You gain nothing but suspicion by showing up here, of all places, wearing this." He made a gesture toward the Genin's clothing.
Naruto scoffed. "You should've expected no less from us, Sesshoumaru. We're not about to act like nothing's changed because everything has changed." Naruto strained keeping his voice as low and normal as possible but it was difficult to hide the absolute tone of frustration. It gave away that these changes he spoke of were not something he was soon to be used to. Sakura understood his feelings and grabbed his hand and began to rub soothing circles across his skin. Sasuke's eyes lifted lazily open and he stared at the ceiling, listening to the conversation with the disguise of boredom.
"I know what we agreed on," Naruto continued. "I was there, after all-"
"Be careful with that tone, Uzumaki. You are the one intruding upon my time."
Naruto brushed off the threat. "Fine. Then where is Kibichi?"
"You are quite inconsiderate. Did you expect him to be conscious after using such a technique?"
"Of course not! Look. All I'm saying is: No matter how hard we could try, we cannot act like we used to. It's impossible and it would be a worthless attempt. People will ask questions, we know that. Sooner or later though, those questions will be gone and forgotten, and Konoha will be used to us again."
Sesshoumaru contemplated the blonde's words. Yes, the villager's curiosity was one of his concerns but they were disposable creatures. Curiosity from their superiors was one of his main concerns. The Sandaime Hokage, the Elder Committee, Hatake Kakashi, these people will not be easily swayed by whatever excuse these Genin might come up with. Not to mention their changes in personality. Surely they did not expect that to go unnoticed?
Years worth of wisdom, knowledge, and power did not sprout in a twelve year-old's mind over night.
"Perhaps, Kibichi-sama had chosen the wrong candidates to take on this mission."
The table shook and cracked as a bandaged fist collided violently against its innocent surface. The whole café became silent and all eyes were upon Uchiha Sasuke's fist half buried in splinters. However, one glance from Sasuke's burning gaze averted their stares back to their meals and away from the glare that could send their souls straight to oblivion. The waiters and waitresses could feel the tension in the air and worked to capture their customers' attention, effectively distracting them from the scene.
Sesshoumaru remained unmoved, holding Sasuke's hot stare with his own, cold and indifferent. "If a child's tantrum is your way to change my mind-"
"Stop it," Sasuke seethed. "We will act as children if you will continue to treat us as children. We know the risks! We knew them the moment we agreed to take on this 'mission'. This is our choice and we all know Kibichi will have no problem with it so long as it does not jeopardize the mission. And it won't. We've already discussed this and we have a plan!"
"Of course, Sesshoumaru," Sakura cut in, fearing for her teammates' safety should they push their employer's guardian too far. "We will not refuse any advice you have for us and I would like to apologize in advance for any disagreement we may have in the future."
Sakura's words had their correct effect on the older male as the tension around his eyes relaxed and his expression turned neutral. He nodded courteously toward her and Sakura tried to smile in return. It was difficult to smile at a block of ice.
"Sesshoumaru, please. Let us do this how we feel we must. Please. Trust us."
A great sigh escaped Sesshoumaru and guilt flooded Sakura as she just realized how stressed he must be. After everything he had done, Sakura didn't know how the man was standing. His whole being must be on the verge of collapse. After all, his energy was at a constant flow into Kibichi and Kibichi was out for the count, who was the strongest of them all. Before anyone could protest, Sakura climbed over Naruto and grabbed Sesshoumaru's wrist. She pressed two fingers against his pulse and her brow creased in worry. His pulse was erratic!
"Sesshoumaru!" Sakura looked up at him with anger written on her pretty face. "What do you think you're doing? You should be resting! Heck, you should be in a coma or-"
"I do not have time to rest, Sakura-san. While Kibichi-sama is bedridden I, like you, have many preparations to make before I can even consider resting. Do not worry over me."
"You have much more pressing matters, do you not?"
Sakura held his hand to her chest, taking on the part of a kicked puppy to its fullest. She hated males and their stubbornness. It killed her over and over to see them suffering because they felt they had a duty to fulfill for the world. In this case, she couldn't argue. In this case, they were suffering to fulfill their duty to the world. In this case, the sacrifice was real.
"I promise that as soon as I'm able to, I will march over to your apartment and heal your stubborn rear till there isn't a single cell exhausted or in any pain."
Sakura's words held a great determination behind them. Sesshoumaru recognized it as the most powerful weapon of the Sanjuu Hyou. The one emotion that made them the heroes of the five shinobi nations and most feared. He knew this girl would keep her word.
"I know you will. And I will wait." He tugged his hand out of her grip and delivered to Squad Seven a deep, slow bow. They exchanged uncertain glances, unsure how to take such an uncharacteristic display of respect coming from their long time ally.
They settled into meek bows of their own, thanking Sesshoumaru. He then turned on his heel and ambled back toward the kitchen. Squad Seven watched him pause for a second before he leaned his head back to peer at them. A twinkle was in his eye as he said, "Kibichi had earlier asked me to tell you that Hatake Kakashi has scheduled a squad meeting. That was two hours ago. You better hurry."
That twinkle in his eye, it screamed 'pay back.'
Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke both gawked at Sesshoumaru who retreated into the safety of the kitchen. They scrambled out of their seats while Naruto dug in his pockets and intended to toss a few bills to pay for their tea and tip. Instead, he accidentally chucked a wad of money onto the counter. He reached for it right as Sakura grabbed his arm and yanked him away.
"Ah! My money! Sakura!"
"We don't have time, Naruto!" Sakura retorted.
"Hurry up!" shouted Sasuke, who was already a good ways ahead of them. Naruto grumbled incoherently and rushed to catch up, taking to the roofs. Squad Seven ran fast side by side, dodging planes, cars, and bullets in the disguise of people, carts, and freeloaders as they hurried to the red bridge.
It was slightly unexpected when a dog flew through the air and bombarded Naruto's face.
The assaulted blonde lost his balance and was knocked off the roof. It was a bad coincident that the roof belonged to a four story building. Naruto flailed in the air, one arm trying to pry the mutt's claws from his face and the other grasping air for something to latch on to.
Apprehension gnawed at him, as well as the evil pooch attached to his face, as he grew nearer and nearer to the hard and unmerciful dirt floor. He tensed, ready for the back breaking pain until a gloved hand gripped his wrist. Naruto dangled inches away from the earth and the gloved hand released him. As soon as Naruto touched down he ripped the dog from his face. It gave a bark of protest before puffing away in a cloud of smoke.
Naruto felt his heart start to steadily sink.
The dog was a summoning.
Which meant the dog was summoned.
Which meant the summoned dog was summoned to claw off his face.
Which also meant the summoned dog was summoned to claw off his face by someone who summoned it.
The one you summoned the summoned pooch to claw off his face was the only one who could summon evil summoned mutts.
Which meant that someone who could summon summoned dogs summoned to claw off his face was grinning a grin that made him want to wet his pants with pee he would unintentionally summon… and was standing on the wall of the building Naruto had fallen off of… with summoned chakra he had summoned to his feet.
"Hey, Naruto. You should be more careful. You could've snapped your neck."
"Haha… ha… Yeah, um, thanks Kakashi-sensei."
The Jonin leader of Squad Seven mock saluted him. "No problem. Just be more aware of flying puppies. They're not professional fliers yet."
A vein throbbed in Naruto's head and he glared at the silver-haired man. "Or I could not get on your bad side."
Kakashi's grin widened and he released his grip on his blonde student. "That works, too."
"Hello Sakur- oomph!"
In a pink flash, the kunoichi tackled her sensei and locked her arms mercilessly around his neck. Somehow Kakashi maintained his chakra-hold on the wall during the surprise attack and he patted his female student's head awkwardly. Sakura dangled from Kakashi's neck and her cheek was pressed firmly against his masked one.
"Kakashi-sensei! We missed you! We'll never be late again, ever, ever again! We promise! Promise, promise, promise!"
The Jonin could feel her shaking but could not understand why. He had seen his team just yesterday when he told them they were going to have another mission today. Naruto had moaned and complained about another 'pointless job that other people can waste their time with.' Sakura didn't mind. She just wanted to get away and home, and Sasuke could've cared less. What was to miss?
Sakura struggled to control the emotions raging inside her and threatening to burst. She could feel the warmth her sensei emitted, proving the life he possessed. He was real and she was so happy on top of hundreds of other emotions rolling beneath it. She made a great effort to haul them in and keep them under the surface. She couldn't risk jeopardizing everything her and her boys had worked for.
Tears swelled in her eyes and her heart constricted painfully. She needed some sort of relief. She had to hold on as long as possible till she could train with Naruto. It was the only thing that could wear her out. Still, Sakura wasn't about to fight her happiness.
A bright grin broke out onto Sakura's face, laughter bubbled from her throat and she released her hold on her sensei's neck.
"So," she said cheerfully and twirled. "What do you think?" She was talking about her outfit.
Hopping down to earth, Kakashi observed the drastic fashion change. His students had taken on a squad uniform apparently and wore strange jacket-vests. Naruto's was orange and had a hood; Sasuke's was blue and had a high collar; and Sakura's was red and cut short.
"What brought this on?"
Sakura didn't miss a beat. "It was my idea," she grinned proudly. "I thought it would be nice if we all looked like a team. Not to mention Naruto's jumpsuit was atrocious."
Sakura ignored the whisker-marked boy and winked at Sasuke. "Sasuke-kun was more difficult to… persuade."
Kakashi watched with great amusement as the Uchiha's face flushed a deep red as he tried to hide behind the collar of his vest.
Inside the boys were relieved. It was good save Sakura made. The old Sakura was a fashion freak—her looks were the most important—so it made sense that she would try to groom her teammates.
"Oh? Persuaded how?" Their sensei prodded. How indeed. Flashes of inappropriate scenes very similar to the Icha Icha pages he read went through the scarecrow's head and Kakashi swallowed. No… they wouldn't dare… They were only twelve!
Then again, Sakura is obsessed with the avenger. Would she go that far? He honestly didn't know.
Disclaimer: I do not own NARUTO or its original characters, or Sesshoumaru. I do proudly own the AMAZING Kibichi who I can't wait to introduce to you! and the future and few OC's. Oh, I also own Paradise Tea, but I'm pretty sure the title's been taken somewhere.. I wasn't that creative with the title.