For Want of Freedom
a Naruto one shot
The weight of the headband on her forehead felt glorious, like shining bright hope that surged through her veins and shattered the corrosive of chains on her body. Hope, however, did not spring eternal it seemed when Team Seven’s sensei dropped the bomb that the person who failed to get one of the bells would be going back to the Academy. It felt like she had been stabbed straight through the heart. Old fears and nightmares rose up inside of her mind like a plague, and she could feel all the blood drain out of her face while she stared at the silver haired man with wide green eyes. Fear is an ugly emotion, one that has been with her since the day she had been born. Cold and sparse rooms, with parents whose smiles were always too brittle to be real, and her older brother, Seiichi, who was cruelly and vindictively got enjoyment out of her pain. Tubes and bags filled with red, shackles secured to the closet floor, a fist that stuck out at her at the slightest provocation—all visions of a hell that she had been living in since she came squalling out of her mother’s womb and she couldn’t go back to that.
‘And that’s what will happen,’ Sakura thought, dazed. The second her sensei said start, the pink haired girl darted off into the bushes as fast as her legs could carry her. ‘Grandma paid for my schooling, and she isn’t here anymore.’
‘And our loving parents would get their way, Inner sneered, her razor sharp teeth flashed in a dark corner of the pink haired girl’s mind. It was difficult to say if Inner had been a creation of her mind, or had always existed in her head. Still Inner had become her confidant and only real friend she had now, since Ino stopped being her friend over both of them crushing on Sasuke and her grandmother having passed away just two months ago. ‘We would trapped inside that house for six more years, and knowing their vindictive ways…we would be dead or as good as dead before we turned eighteen. We can’t go back to the Academy.’
Sakura gnashed her teeth together, trying to gather up all the courage she had inside of her to try and figure out a plan to get a bell. She wasn’t good at close combat fighting. The diet her mother, Haruno Akumu, had her on didn’t allow Sakura to build the necessary muscle mass to use taijutsu, and the chakra suppressant snuck into those tiny helpings kept her from being able to use chakra meditation to expand on her chakra pool so she could use ninjutsu. Her heartbeat was a thunderous thing, she could feel it move across every inch of her skin, and her fingers traced the pouch that was strapped to her upper thigh. She had abandoned the red dress that had been her parents’ approval—a taunting reminder that she was civilian born—for clothing more fitting of a shinobi. A dark black tank top covered over with a green jacket, with kunai hidden up her sleeves and fingerless gloves that had metal around the knuckles to make any punch have a little more impact. Her blank pants were baggy and the edges were tucked into her knee high boots.
This outfit had been the last present her grandmother had ever given her. The old woman had never approved of the way her parents treated her, but was not in a position to be able to take care of Sakura herself. Hamamoto Aiko was a fiercely proud woman, but she was older and injures sustained as her time as a medic in the Second Shinobi War had made it difficult for her to move about, let alone take in her second grandchild. That didn’t mean she didn’t do her damnedest to give Sakura a little respite, giving her presents and sneaking her sweets. There was always a sharp and knowing glint her grandmother’s eyes that would make her parents back off when she visited that made Sakura feel like there was something more to the strange family dynamic. She had never been brave enough to ask about it.
‘It doesn’t matter now, now does it? Grandma is gone, and those answers are gone,’ Inner stated, unusually somber. The taste of grief lingered like ashes on the back of her tongue, and her green eyes filled to the brim with unshed tears. She hastily blinked them away, when she heard Naruto let out a horrific scream followed shortly by a splash of water. Her fingers slid into the pouch, to her trip wire and her mind raced with several ways to attempt to slip up the jounin. She couldn’t outright beat him, she knew that but if she could just distract him then maybe—
“Sakura, behind you.”
Sakura gasped, whirling around at the unexpected voice and then found herself facing a terrifying sight. Pale yellow walls splattered with blood and her own lifeless body lying on the floor, with her parents—whose faces were distorted into a monstrous visage—and her green eyes watched with horrified fascination, the needles all stuck in her arms and legs connected to little tubs were the last bits of her blood had long since rain dry.
It was just too much.
Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and Sakura was out like a light.
“Worthless girl! The only thing you are good for is your blood!”
“Mommy, I…I don’t understand, please!”
“How dare you? How dare you let that demon brat contaminate you?”
“Father, I’m sorry! Please don’t lock me away! I’ll be good! I’ll be good, I promise!”
Her brother’s cruel smile was the last thing she saw before the door slammed shut.
“You should all just quit being ninja.”
The dark lone eye drilled into them, unblinking and the clear disappointment that radiated off the man in waves just dug the knife in Sakura’s heart deeper. She ducked her head, unable to bear the look any longer and tried not to feel the anxiety that was boiling white hot in her blood, consuming her with each passing moment. She didn’t even get a chance to fight back, or attempt to get the bells at all. She had got lost in her panic, lost inside of her head that she hadn’t paid attention to the fight and got knocked out by a genjutsu. She managed to wake herself back up, pale and stricken, and she had attempted a charge at Hatake Kakashi. It was reckless and desperate, but she saw the hands on the clock—
And the alarm went off before she even got with arms’ reach of the Copy Ninja. It took everything inside of her not to scream out in denial and now she stood in front of him with Sasuke at her side, and Naruto tied up to a post. The lecture he gave was sharp and unforgiving, the answer to the test had been teamwork. Sasuke thought himself above working with dead last and the fangirl, Naruto was reckless and charged headfirst, and then it came to her. “Sakura,” Kakashi spoke, “you didn’t even make an attempt on the bells. You allowed yourself to get caught up in your head, trying to devise a plan on your own and never once thought to work together with your teammates. A shinobi has to be decisive and quick to make decision in the heat of the moment, and they must rely and trust their teammates to have their backs. You couldn’t do that.”
Sakura felt her lower lip wobble, and sank her teeth sharply into it. Her hands were clenched into tight fists at her side, and she felt the weight of his words as if they were blocks stacked on her shoulders one by one. It was almost unbearable and she wanted to breakdown, to beg him to give them another chance.
In the end, there was no begging required. After Kakashi-sensei’s cutting break down of their abysmal performance and lack of teamwork, Kakashi told them that he would give them another chance after lunch and then ordered them not to feed Naruto, since the blond tried to sneak and eat the lunches.
Sakura sat there on the grass, head down with the bento box in her hands. Sasuke had opened his, but he picked at the food idly. That’s when Naruto’s stomach let out a horrendous growl, and the blond turned red with embarrassment, flashing them a weak smile. “I’m alright. Really,” the blond told them, in a cheerful tone that was so flawless that if it hadn’t been for the fact that it was a look that Sakura knew how to fake so well, she wouldn’t have caught the despondency in his smile.
Sakura cracked open her bento box, staring a food with a hard look. Her stomach rolled over like it was full of sour milk, and the triumph she felt earlier when she stomped out of her house with all her belonging packed into her little forest green backpack, the words lashing she had given her parents upon the doorstep and the glimmer of satisfaction at seeing her spoiled older brother looked dumbstruck was suddenly gone. If she failed this test, then she would be forced to go crawling back. She supposed there was the Genin Corps, but if all the tests were like this, then there would be a lot of applicants.
And Sakura didn’t want to be average. She wanted to be more. With a Genin Corps pay, she’d be scrapping pay for the rest of her life as a pencil pushing paper ninja and while she didn’t mind the hard work, she didn’t want to be breaking her back underneath the weight of survival for all of her life. This team—these boys and her, this was her life line and she wasn’t about to let that slip away from her. She picked up the chopsticks and picked up the piece of grilled honey glazed salmon, holding it aloft in front of her towards Naruto’s face. “Here,” Sakura said, succinctly. “Eat.”
“Sa—Sakura-chan?” Naruto gasped, baffled. “You shouldn’t! You will get in trouble from Kakashi-sensei!”
Sakura sighed, mutely. “My biggest strength lies in my strategic planning and traps. That doesn’t cost as much energy as the way you and Sasuke fight. If we are going to work together to take down Kakashi-sensei, then you are going to have to eat,” she told them, hoping that with analytical reasoning the pair might be swayed. After all, she couldn’t do this without them. It was terrifying to allow herself to be open to trusting them, the only two people she had ever trusted had been her grandmother and Ino. “I’m not good at taijutsu or ninjutsu yet.”
“Why did you even want to become a ninja when you aren’t even that good at it?” Sasuke scoffed, his dark eyes filled with irritation.
“Hey, teme! You take that back!” Naruto yelled, thrashing against the ropes. He looked like he wanted nothing more than to beat the dark haired boy’s face in for questioning Sakura’s honor. “Sakura is an awesome ninja!”
“You are an idiot,” Sasuke sneered.
Sakura felt the fissure in her composure grow larger, and her hands clenched tightly around the chopsticks, the tiny piece of salmon shredded. ‘This is what it feels like to break,’ she thought, with a lump in the back of her throat. ‘To watch all your hopes crash and burn.’
‘NO!’ Inner screamed, and Sakura could feel the turmoil swirl deep inside her chakra coils. It was a dark and corrosive feeling, like desperation in the purest sense and an overwhelming fear that burned just underneath her skin. It was like her body was too small, like she couldn’t quite house this feeling inside of her. ‘WE HAVE COME SO FAR! WE WILL NOT GIVE UP NOW, NOT WHEN FREEDOM IS SO CLOSE! REMEMBER—REMEMBER YOUR NINDO!’
A memory of a beautiful, cloudless day where the sunlight gleamed through the canopy of trees. Sakura stood on a little bridge with her grandmother’s hand in hers, watching the stream below and the little koi fish that swam happily below. It was her fourth birthday—the day she decided to be a ninja, and the words had appeared in her mind’s eye that would shape her outlook on the future.
Freedom isn’t given, it is taken.
Sakura had taken those words to heart. Becoming a ninja hadn’t been her life goal, not always. There had been a time that her life had consisted of a room and a cold home, her mind had been completely unable to envision anything beyond that. And then Sakura had made her first friend, Yamanaka Ino. On a rare outing with her grandmother, the two girls had met and became fast friends after the blond defended the pink haired girl from bullies. The red ribbon still tied on her arm, hidden underneath her sleeve because even if Ino abandoned their friendship over a crush that doesn’t mean that Sakura will stop being her friend. It was Ino—kind-hearted, stubborn, Ino—that gave Sakura the first stepping stone to her freedom. The Yamanaka clan heiress hadn’t wanted to go to the Academy without her best friend, and Grandma Aiko told her that she would be wise to express an interest. Civilians didn’t become adults in the eyes of the law until they were eighteen, and if she stayed a civilian, then by the age of thirteen her parents could have her trapped in a marriage contract. Her future would be chained to their whims, and no amount of legal maneuvering would break them. Her parents were too well respected and part of the Civilian Council.
All Sakura would be seen as was a rebelling teenager.
But if a person successfully graduated the Academy, then they were considered an adult. The earliest that a child could graduate was twelve, and her grandmother told her that she would be an adult, able to make decisions for herself. “Your future would finally be yours,” those words echoed inside of her brain, and while a part of her felt guilt for using her friendship with Ino like that, she knew in her heart of hearts that Ino would understand. Sakura had fought for every inch of her freedom and maybe it was selfish to not want that to slip through her fingers. ‘If I have to learn how to work on a team with Naruto and Sasuke,’ Sakura thought to herself, her pulse fluttering erratically at the base of her neck. ‘I can do it. I know that I can. I can’t give up when I have so much to fight for. It may seem silly and small to outsiders, but my freedom means everything to me.’
She lifted her gaze, eyeing both of the boys who couldn’t be more apart in personalities and looks. She admired Sasuke’s strength and abilities, wishing that she could be that strong. If she had been strong, then her home life would have been easier to endure. She envied Naruto’s loudness and undying optimism, wishing she had it on her darkest days to make them brighter. She tried to gain both their friendship at different times. The aloof Uchiha didn’t seem to understand the value of friendship, growing cold after what happened to his family. And Naruto was all too happy to receive a friend—only that short lived friendship was snatched away before it could begin, and Sakura still felt her stomach roll sickly, recalling hurt blue gaze when she returned to school that following Monday and acted like he didn’t exist.
“How dare you let yourself be contaminated by that demon brat!” Haruno Yasha bellowed, his large hand striking her across the face and she impacted the hardwood floor with a thud. Out of the corner of her eye as her cheek throbbed, she saw her brother smile nastily through the loops of their mother’s arms. He always enjoyed it when she got punished, always enjoyed her pain.
“I became a ninja because while it’s difficult and hard, I knew the reward would be worth it,” Sakura finally spoke up, her voice filled with determination. Despite the pain and fear that still hummed inside of her like a bee about to sting, she held tightly to that determination. “Everything I have worked for my entire life hangs in the balance of this test, and of us working together. If we fail, if I fail…it will all mean nothing, and I will have nothing."
“Nothing…” The word fell out of Sasuke’s mouth, and then his face contorted. His venomous glare would have been more intimidating if he didn’t still have a trace of baby fat in his cheeks, but it was enough to let Sakura know that he didn’t appreciate her answer. “Do you have any idea how worried your family is about you choosing to be a ninja?” He demanded, his voice burning hot with a sudden burst of anger. “I was out buying groceries and was in line behind your mother, and all she could talk about how she was worried about you, that you were going to die! Don’t you dare sit here and say to my face you have nothing when you have a family whose face you are spitting in by playing ninja!”
The smack of the palm of her hand against his face echoed through the clearing, and the birds in the nearby tree flew away in fright. A tense silence swiftly followed where Sasuke reached up, touching his cheek almost stunned that she had the gall to slap him while Naruto looked torn between being shocked and kissing the ground on which the pink haired girl walked. Sakura on the other hand felt rage, so ugly and dark that it slithered through her veins like vipers. She could feel her crush shrivel up and die as soon as those words were spewed out of his mouth. ‘How dare he!’ Inner snapped, and Sakura felt her face flushed with outrage. The sting of her hand was a poor consolation to the whirlwind of emotions that was tearing up her insides. ‘He doesn’t know shit! Perfect Akumu out spreading lies about what an evil and ungrateful child I am, and he is just like everyone else! Just like a sheep that just looks at the surface and doesn’t see what’s underneath—blind and ignorant in their bliss!’
And something inside of her just broke in that moment.
“You think having parents makes my life easy?” Sakura said, letting out a sharp and shrill laughter that made Naruto recoil from her and Sasuke’s dark eyes widen just a fraction. She was so beyond keeping on her perfect mask, or faking a smile for the sake of appearances. True and deep fear blossomed in her chest at the thought of going back to the Academy, because it would mean losing her hard earned freedom. It would be forced back into that house with those people, and she could feel the needles press into her skin, could see the blood flow down into tubes and she could feel the walls of that house—it wasn’t a home—close in around her. “You think that having a family means I have the perfect life and that I should be grateful? You have no idea about the hell I have lived through because of my so-called parents!”
Her hands reached up, clawing at her chest. Anger and pain clogged her lungs causing the air disappeared out of her body in the blink of an eye. “You—you don’t—you can’t,” she said, in a harsh whisper. Tears leaked out of the corner of her eyes, and she choked back the sob that rattled through her, shaking her entire body like a leaf.
“What…what do you mean, Sakura-chan?” Naruto said, his voice uncharacteristically soft. His usual loud and brash behavior replaced by a quiet and searching expression that looked so out of place on his features.
A deep and shaky breath fell from her quivering lips, and Sakura wished that the ground would just swallow her whole. There was a part of that was tempted to drop the bento box, and just walk away from the two of them. All her hopes felt wasted and the defeat was crippling, the cracks in her heart creaked and groan underneath its weight. It felt like she was one word away from breaking, and she felt her knees fold beneath her. She collapsed on the grass, the bento box slipping out from her fingers and all the fight drained out of her. “You do not know how hard it is to live in a glass house and one step away from breaking into a million pieces. You do not know how hard it is to wake up every day and know that you are nothing more than a tool to be used. My parents never wanted me, they just wanted a blood bag to keep their precious golden child alive and healthy. All I am to them is spare parts, waiting to be harvested.
“If I…If I don’t become a ninja today, I won’t be able to go back to the Academy. My family won’t pay for that, and I will be at their mercy. I will be back stuck in that room with those bright, yellow walls, and then they will drain me near dry of blood to keep my older brother Seiichi healthy,” Sakura whispered out, her green eyes dull and sightless. Her bloodless fingers were tangled into the fabric of her dress, and more tears spilt down her chest as all the things she had bottled up for years came tumbling out of her mouth. It was as if a dam inside of her had burst, and there was not holding it back any longer. “If I did anything that they don’t like, I’m locked in a dark and tiny closest for days on end. All my life I have spent as a slave to my family, but being a ninja was a way for me to escape, to earn my freedom. Do you know how many times they have tried to sabotage me? To feed tiny and insufficient meals to make me weak so I would fail at taijustu? To drug me with chakra suppressants to keep me from growing my chakra coils sufficiently? But I had one thing that they couldn’t take from me—my mind! And I used it and I made it to graduation! I earned my headband, damnit!
“I can’t fail here!” Sakura shook her head, side to side wildly. “I can’t fail when I am so close to being free! We may not be the best team, we may clash like oil and water, but I am willing to make the effort here! I have always pushed myself to my limits and strived to go further! I will grow strong and fight every inch to be worthy of being on this team, so are you two willing to do the same or not? If you aren’t…if you aren’t…” She bowed her head, her voice cracking. “I guess, I will have to find another way to be free.”
A gentle wind swept across the training ground, the leaves above swished and shook along the branches. A couple drifted down, almost playfully as if they were dancing, so out of place given the dark and somber cloud that had settled over the three kids.
“I—I didn’t…I didn’t even know you have an older brother,” Sasuke replied, after a long stretch of silence. There was a strange tone in his voice. A hesitance, slightly awkward tremble to his voice and his dark eyes were no longer on her face. It seemed like he couldn’t stand to look at her, as if looking at her right now physically hurt him.
Sakura felt her righteous anger slip away into exhaustion, her shoulders slumped with a heavy sigh. “It’s not something I like to speak about. My family—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—” She started to apologize, feeling the need to backtrack and some hide all the pieces that left her vulnerable. In a split second outburst, she had opened up too much and she didn’t want them or anyone, to see her this way. Weak and helpless, unable to protect herself.
“Don’t apologize,” Sasuke snapped. There a quick flash of remorse before his face became standoffish and impassive, his dark eyes unreadable and a little knot formed between his eyebrows. “Why haven’t you told anyone?”
“No one ever believed me before,” Sakura shrugged, wiping the tears off her cheeks with the back of her hand. “Why would they start to care now?”
Naruto sagged against his ropes, a look of pure sorrow mixed with understanding filled his watery eyes. “I’m sorry, Sakura-chan,” he whispered out, his voice cracking and his head bowed in shame. “I—I—After you tried to be my friend and then stopped talking to me a few days later, I came to your house and I saw—I saw your father lock you in the closet through the window. I—I tried to tell one of the teachers at school, but they put me in detention and told me to stop making up bald face lies.”
Sasuke scoffed, lightly. “Bold face lies, dobe.”
“Shut up, teme!”
“My cute little genin!” Kakashi reappeared, with a too jovial tone. All three of them jumped, though with Naruto being strapped to the pole caused the blond to smack his head against it with a painful thud. He closed his orange book with a snap, sliding into the top right pocket of his jonin vest. “Change in plans. We will be postponing the test until tomorrow morning. So it would be wise if you all do some team work exercises and just maybe you’ll stand a chance for what I have in mind.”
Sasuke eyed the jonin with suspicion. “And why the sudden change in plans?”
“Because I said so,” Kakashi responded, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Now Sasuke, help Naruto free of those ropes—without a kunai,” he added, when he saw the dark haired boy draw out his weapon.
“But,” Naruto said, “wouldn’t it be easier to cut the ropes?”
“Easier isn’t necessarily better,” Kakashi replied, a lazy gleam of amusement in his eye as he stared down the boys. “Consider this an exercise in character building, humility on Sasuke’s part and patience on yours. Sakura, walk with me for a moment,” the Copy Nin said, with an eye smile. It was so plastic and fake that it made Sakura’s stomach churn uneasily. Her sensei—or would be sensei, if they passed whatever test he devised—led her about twenty yards away from the boys to stand on the bridge, the river below gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. He leaned against the railing with his book in hand, his eye focused upon the girl nearly half his size that stood rigid like she was made out of stone. “So, miss top kunoichi, tell me about your family life."
“I—I don’t understand why you—” Her green eyes went wide, and she took a step back away from the jonin. Her knee jerk reaction was to flee, and she could feel the panic start to burn anew. Humiliation swept up into her cheeks and her face turned a darker pink than her hair, while her arms came to wrap around her waist defensively. “You were watching us, weren’t you? You didn’t actually leave, so you heard everything.”
“I was. I did.”
“What more do you want me to say?” Sakura asked, defensively. Her instincts demanded that she build up her walls, and to protect herself from any unwanted intrusion into her fragile world. Her life was built upon faulty foundation, any sudden add or subtract of anything could bring everything crashing down. She had been too erratic, too vulnerable and she shouldn’t have said anything about her home life. She had just wanted Sasuke and Naruto understand what this meant to her, and why she couldn’t fail, and now—
And then gentle hand land on her head, ruffling her hair with a tenderness that was so foreign that it brought tears to her eyes. A dry sob wracked through her chest, and she tightened her arms around her chest as if to smother the urge to breakdown.
“It’s alright to cry, Sakura,” Kakashi told her, his tone kind. The smile in his voice was sad, but real. He retracted his hand from her head, and let his fall aimlessly to his side.
“It’s against the rules,” Sakura croaked out. “A shinobi must never show their tears.”
There was a long moment of silence, and Kakashi released a deep sigh. “Sometimes,” the jonin said, choosing his words carefully, “it’s alright to bend the rules, but you didn’t hear that from me, alright?” The silver haired man gave her a long and searching gaze before the sadness slipped out of his smile, and it was all too cheerful again. “Why don’t you go help the boys? They look they are about to come to blows, and you need a full team in top shape to combat what I have prepared for you tomorrow!”
The jonin flashed through a series of hand signs before he disappeared in a swirl of leaves.
Sakura stood there, rooted to the spot for several fleeting moments. Inner let out a huff from the back of her mind, and that’s how Sakura found herself walking across the stretch of the training grounds back to the boy. “Kakashi knows about my family,” Inner spat out, almost bitterly. After all these years, she had hoped and prayed for someone to lend a much needed hand and save her from her dark corner of the world. Now that she was technically an adult, and that she had graduated and saved herself from the nightmare was when someone decided to help her.
“But that’s a good thing, right?” Naruto asked, hopefully.
The anger and bitterness faded away a heartbeat later. Sakura sniffled, wiping her eyes before the growing tears could fall. “I don’t know,” she admitted, softly. “I’ve never had anyone to believe me before.”
A silence fell over the trio, unable to find words and Sakura swallowed the lump in her throat, moving to kneel down beside Sasuke and proceeded to help him untie the knot. She had to learn how to tie knots and work with ropes due to the great many traps she had studied. There weren’t very sophisticated given the only materials that genin or Academy students were technically allowed to work with were D-Rank techniques, unless one was from a ninja clan and was taught clan techniques which could rank higher. Still with her knowledge, Sakura was able to help guide Sasuke and soon Naruto was free from the post. The blond gave a dramatic gulp of air, complaining loudly about how he thought he was going to be stuck there forever and then he turned towards his teammates with the widest smile on his face. “So who wants to go out for some ramen?”
Sakura didn’t understand how he could jump from one emotion to the next in the blink of an eye, but she supposed that she had Inner there to help regulate her more tumultuous of emotions. She didn’t think that Naruto had an Inner, at least not in the way that she does. “I have to find a hotel that I can afford,” Sakura told him, in a small voice.
The sunny smile slipped off the blonde’s face and he scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. “Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Naruto said, with an unusually pensive expression in his blue eyes. A bright gleam entered his gaze, as he stood a little straight as if struck by a bolt of lightning. “Oh, I know! I know! You can come stay with me, Sakura-Chan! I mean,” he said, deflating just a fraction and he looked down at his feet, “it’s not fancy or anything, but it’s a roof and four walls so…”
“Maybe you should show it to her before she decides, dobe,” Sasuke huffed, arms crossed.
A flush of anger burned hot in Naruto’s face, only emphasizing the whiskers on his cheeks. He seemed rather reluctantly all of the sudden, but also defiant as if he wasn’t going to let Sasuke back him into a corner. “Fine,” Naruto said, with his chin raised.
Through the street of Konohagakure past the red light district into the rundown northern side of town is where Naruto was located, and Sakura noticed with increasingly anxiety how many people sent him sneers or vicious whispers. She discreetly pulled out a kunai, dull along the edges but sharp enough to stab someone. Up the set of rickety set metal stairs that made Sakura feel like they were going to plummet to the ground any given second, the trio of preteens found themselves at Naruto’s apartment. The blond opened the door with his key, and let them in.
The place was a pigsty.
“I can clean up!” Naruto said, brightly. Or he attempted to say brightly, the slight hitch in his voice gave away his anxiousness. He rushed to pick up all the laundry on the floor and toss it into a hasty pile in the corner, before he turned towards Sakura with a nervous laugh and scratching the back of his neck.
Sakura was pretty sure what ever was in the left over ramen bowl that had long since became a house of mold, growled at her and was a living, breathing organism now. She tiptoed around it and the pile of laundry with great care. It was completely run down and in disrepair, but Sakura knew that the state of a house was only one factor. She had lived in a house that was beautiful and perfect, and had lived in terror of it the entire time. Even if this apartment wasn’t in an idle setting, Sakura could already imagine feeling safer here then she had at the Haruno house. Even with the growling food container.
“You live like this, dobe?” Sasuke gaped.
Naruto was fidgeting in place, chewing on his lower lip. “It—It’s not much, but its home,” he said, with a weak smile. “There isn’t, uh, any warm water. The landlord doesn’t like me much, so he doesn’t really fix stuff unless I complain to the Hokage, but when I complain…the rent goes up, so I’ve just learned to deal with it. It’s not really that bad!”
“Not bad?” Sasuke spoke, faintly. “This place is a bio-hazard!”
Sakura felt her stomach clench at second handed embarrassment for Naruto. The blond’s face twisted up into an exaggerate scowl, his foot kicking out a pair of shorts nearby. “I try to clean, alright? I really do. Or I did,” Naruto snapped, rubbing his cheek self-consciously. “But I’m not allowed at the laundry mat, and the grocery store charges a lot for the cleaning supplies, you know?”
“So you just gave up?” Sakura whispered out. It seemed unfathomable to even say since the knuckle headed ninja who always kept fighting and striving towards his goal despite all the naysayers, and to see his entire body shudder with a sigh, shoulders slumping ever so slightly made her heart squeeze tightly in her chest.
Naruto didn’t answer, his blue gaze pinned on the crack in the wall on the other side of the room and he refused to look at them.
Sakura opened her mouth, her hand reaching out to touch his shoulder and then hesitated because she knew that pity was likely the last thing he wanted or needed. She knew it wasn’t something that she would want if the places were reversed, and she wasn’t sure how to express her empathy right in that moment. She had one time been envious of how Naruto bounced back from all the hate he received, but maybe he didn’t bounce back as much as she thought. Maybe he was good at hiding the ugly scars just like she was. Her green eyes flickered over to Sasuke, and couldn’t help to feel that he had a lot of scars he concealed, too.
Sasuke stood there, with a peculiar expression. It wasn’t quite his signature scowl, but it was still very heavy and serious. He reached up, pinching the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb while letting out a deep sigh. “Sakura isn’t staying here,” he stated, in a lordly tone. He watched the blond whip around, an insult ready on his tongue and then proceeded to strip the wind right out of his sails in the next second. “Neither are you.”
“Huh?” Naruto blinked.
Sasuke clenched and unclenched his jaw. “If we are going to be a team, then I expect you two to hold a certain standard,” he spoke, his hand dropping down to his side. “Our teamwork is a reflection upon all of us and our careers as shinobi. I will not have my teammates live in filth and squall, in a district with more crime than the rest of the village put together.”
Sakura stared at him, wide eyed. Her brain literally stopped working for a long moment, having trouble comprehending the subtle implications of his words. “Sasuke-kun, you can’t mean—” She trailed off, her teeth sinking into the inside of her cheek.
“I do,” Sasuke stated, with a decisive nod. “You’ll both be moving in with me. Effective immediately.”
“SAY WHAT, TEME?”
Strands of smoke wafted in the air from the pipe tightly clutched in the palm of his hand, the Lord Third surveyed the ransacked home beneath the shade of the large red and white hat with a deep frown etched into the wrinkles upon his face. His free hand stroked his beard, his light eyes narrowed into thin slits when the ANBU Agent Hound approached him. The silver haired ninja’s entire body was drawn taut like a bow string, and Hiruzen Sarutobi felt the full weight of his age settled into his bones in that moment. “So the abuse the child alleged his true,” the Hokage whispered, his voice deep and gravely.
“They didn’t even attempt to deny it. Instead, they gave justifications for it all and trying to explain it all away as if it was a necessary sacrifice. They’ve been taken down to T&I while their son has been taken to the secure area in the hospital under guard by chunin,” Hound responded, voice dark and cold. He stood still and rigid, as if carved out of stone. His mask gleamed, cast in the moonlight from a nearby window and the gleam of his sharingan was impossibly bright in the darkness. “And the abuse that Sakura confided to her teammates was just the tip of the iceberg. The room in which they confided her during her ‘punishments’ stank of fear, urine and blood. It appears that the father preferred a more hands on punishment.”
“What do you mean?” Hiruzen asked.
“It was likely she was beaten, and terrorized with genjutsu,” Hound replied, hands curled into fists at his side. “Her natural affinity for combating genjutsu may not be so much as natural as she has been exposed to it so often that her brain has developed somewhat of a defense mechanism to it. She, either, is able to dispel the jutsu immediately or her body shuts down and forces her to pass out.”
The Lord Third felt the anger simmering in his blood grow more intense. He knew that from a young age that they cultivated children to be soldiers, but ever since the last bloody war, he had done his best to grant a longer childhood to those who would become shinobi. To give their innocence more time on this earth before blood and death stripped it away, and had been called soft because of his policies by a great many who would prefer a more strict and unyielding hand used to guide the next generation. But in order for a child to have a childhood, they must have a loving home and the young Sakura did not have that by far. Child abuse was one of the most severe crimes in Konohagakure and taken extremely seriously.
Hound drew in a deep breath, as if to calm himself before he continued his assessment. “We found the bags of blood in storage in the basement. The mother took meticulous notes disguised in code. A code that the Snake Sannin used during his time here to conceal his experiments before he fled the village, and if that was not damning enough, it seems that Hamamoto Aiko—the girl’s paternal grandmother—kept several incriminating documents linking her son and his wife to Orochimaru in a storage unit. It seems she was complying a large amount of evidence to bring to trial, but died of a heart attack one week before the schedule hearing she requested at the Civilian Council.”
“I want an exhumation order on Hamamoto-sama’s body put into action immediately. The timing of her death along with this new evidence puts a heavy suspicion on what otherwise seemed like natural causes,” Hiruzen ordered, pacing up to the mantle where the family pictures were kept. There were several of the proud parents with their son and quite a number of their son by himself, but not a single picture of Sakura. In fact, there was a disturbing sensation pressing against the back of his eyes as if mind was willing him to put all the puzzle pieces together. His eyes scoured the faces of the family, and found only a fleeting resemblance to their pink haired daughter. “We always suspected that Akumu was always deeper involved in Orochimaru’s experimentation, but never could implicate her explicitly. There has to be a reason that her tracks were covered so well—a reason that Orochimaru would go to such lengths to safe guard her because he is too meticulous and analytical to do such without it benefitting him greatly.”
The Lord Third’s sharp and intense gaze towards the ANBU who lingered like a ghost in the night and he felt a foreboding sensation tingle down his spine. “Hound, is there anything I should know about the notes that cannot wait until a full debriefing?”
“Sir,” Hound spoke, only hesitant for a moment, “while we have only started to go through the documents, what we can tell from what is not coded is that Orochimaru may have helped the Haruno family conceive their youngest with the sole purpose of being a blood donor to the brother. But blood transfusion are not a cure, not for the cancer that is eating away at his body. There has to be something unique to her blood.”
“Uzumaki blood,” Hiruzen breathed out, scrubbing a tired hand down his face. “The Uzumaki blood has always manifested healing properties in several different ways. Blast him, blast him and his genetic splicing—to use the dead in such a manner,” the Lord Third raged, his expression twisted with grief. “Mito is far more likely than Kushina to be the DNA in which he used, but Sakura was born after the Kyuubi attack so it is possible that he—” The Hokage cut off with a hard gust of air, pulling the pipe out of his mouth and dumping the ashes into the cold fireplace below. “We cannot check the young girl’s blood. Not without a valid reason to cover up in more in depth testing. It is unlikely the child has had contact with Orochimaru, but the Council, especially Danzō, would want the child locked away immediately.”
And Hiruzen could not do that. He had known Mito and Kushina, and if there blood runs through that little girl’s veins then she was part of a dying legacy. If she was, at all, related to Kushina then that meant Naruto had family. She could be a blood relative—a sister through circumstance, or a half-sister if she held any of the Haruno’s DNA. Maybe it was completely sentimental that drove him to protect the child, but in his heart of hearts buried underneath all of the skepticism and world-weary, the Third Hokage knew this to be the right thing to do.
A sharp rap came from the front door before Yamanaka Inoichi entered the residence with the ANBU Agent Tiger trailing behind him, and a gloomy energy came off the pair in waves only adding to the suffocating tension already thick in the air. “You have performed a thorough Mind Sweep?” Hiruzen asked, his bushy brows rose upward towards his hairline.
“Not as thorough as I would have liked, but I came across some information that I felt you needed to hear immediately,” Inoichi stated, sweat dripping down the side of his temple. “And with privacy seals set up. This cannot be overheard.”
It took several minutes for the seals to be placed around the perimeter until Inoichi felt comfortable enough to divulge what he had learned. “As it is well documented, Orochimaru has obsession with immortality and power. He has hungered after many bloodlines to either exploit them, if not copy their abilities one day as his own. While he know that he has successfully created children by splicing the DNA genetic material such as unfertilized eggs or sperm, but he has never had any success of splicing the DNA of an already born child,” Inoichi explained, his hands were in a steeple and he looked completely drained.
“But Sakura is still alive,” Hiruzen pointed out, carefully.
“Yes,” Inoichi said, with a closed off expression.
Hiruzen felt sympathy for the man. He understood that Sakura was once a good friend of Ino’s, and he knew that Inoichi was likely blaming himself for not seeing the signs of abuse that Sakura likely suffered. “This has a great number of implications, many which are greatly disturbing in nature but unless you have a list of which bloodlines he attempted to splice into the child’s DNA shortly before her departure—”
“No,” Inoichi said, with a shake of his head.
“Then as of right now, we assume that Orochimaru didn’t get around to such experiments on the child until we have valid proof to say otherwise,” Hiruzen stated, firmly. “If the clans were ever to learn of this, that girl would be put underneath a lens and so many restrictions. It is a headache best left for another day, I think.”
“There is more, if you will allow me to continue?” Inoichi said, quietly.
“By all means,” Hiruzen said, with a wave of his hand.
“It seems that around the time that Orochimaru was getting rather disgruntled that you had retaken the position of Hokage without the intention of choosing a Gondaime to replace the Yondaime,” Inoichi commented, pausing for only a brief intake of air, “that Akumu was growing restless with the arrangement she struck with the Sannin. She wanted a spare child just to keep her son alive and no longer liked the conditions in which demanded her to allow Orochimaru to be integral into their lives, especially when the department was being put under such heavy scrutiny.”
“Orochimaru wouldn’t have taken that lightly,” Hound responded, flatly.
“He didn’t,” Inoichi said, wiping the sweat off of his brow with the back of his hand. His brows were pinched, and his lips were thinned out into firm line. “You know about his research where he wanted to create synthetic tailed beasts, or even tamper with existing ones?”
Hiruzen went stock still. He had explicitly forbid Orochimaru when he had first even approached him about such experiments, but his body sagged in his seat when he realized that Orochimaru had made up his mind long ago about extending his reach far into matters that shouldn’t be tampered with. His brilliance was only outshined by his own ambitions, and the Third Hokage realized how much he allowed to be compromised by allowing the fondness for his student to cloud his gaze. No longer, he vowed, silently. This village and that child will not be more of Orochimaru’s victims.
“You don’t mean—” Hound choked out, composure slipping.
“I can’t tell you if it worked or not,” Inoichi replied, voice thick with emotion. “From what I understand, Orochimaru fully expected the child to die. It was just a way to punish Akumu for her imprudence. Akumu had no further contact with Orochimaru after he left, she did not inform him that Sakura survived whatever twisted studies he conducted regarding his fascination with the tailed beasts.”
“While we can hope that Orochimaru has no idea about her survival, we must take action under the suspicion that he does know,” Hiruzen stated, very firmly. He stowed away his pipe in his robes, even though he craved another good smoke to ease the tension gathering behind his neck at the base of his skull. “Hound, I want a list of the most trusted shinobi you know in the ANBU. I will create a guard rotation to follow and monitor Haruno Sakura. If anyone brings up questions, we will use the connection between Akumu and Orochimaru as a reason though obvious details cannot be spoken. As of now the circumstances around Haruno Sakura are considered an S-Class secret. No one that is not in this room shall have any knowledge about it, nor spread it under the pain of death. Inoichi I want you to monitor any and all information recorded in the T&I interrogation. Make sure all relevant information is redacted.”
“And if Sakura holds some kind of tailed beast?” Hound questioned.
“I will not penalize a child under a suspicion,” Hiruzen replied, after a pause. “However, I will send word to Jiraiya for him to return to the village. He was the one who helped Minato with the seal on Naruto, and is familiar with the lore of the tailed beasts. If Orochimaru has created one—” The Hokage heaved a deep sigh, cutting off in mid-sentence. “Well, we shall cross that bridge once we get to it.”
Hours after Kakashi had been released from his impromptu mission, the silver haired ninja knew he had to check on his students. They hadn’t even passed the test to prove they had what it took to make a good team, but he already—reluctant down to the marrow of his bones—found himself caring about the trio. The bell test made all three pair together as well as oil, water and vinegar which didn’t give him much hope about their future as Team 7, but he did feel a certain amount of responsibility for them. He went to Naruto’s home, surmising that the blond likely offered Sakura a place to stay. It was obvious that the girl wasn’t coming home, if that place had ever been home.
It was only when he found the apartment completely silent and empty that he stared to feel fear seep into his bones. His keen nose picked up their faint scent, but it was stale meaning it was hours old. Sakura and Naruto, and surprisingly Sasuke, had all been here at some point. He decided to rush towards the home, secluded just on the edge of the Nara lands. It had been offered to house Sasuke after the massacre because leaving a traumatized child in a large and empty compound was not an option.
He rushed as fast as he could and snuck in through a window, when he stopped still at the sight in the living area. On the coffee table were seven takeout bowls from Ichiraku Ramen, four of them were completely empty and the two were about halfway done. Sakura lay stretched out across the couch with her hands curled up close to her chest, her feet tucked into Naruto’s lap while the blond was asleep in a sitting position. The blond head was tossed back, his mouth agape with drool sliding down the corner and a light snore rumbled through him. A large blue blanket covered both the blond boy and pink haired girl. And what shocked him most was Sasuke, who was curled up in the nearby chair with a red throw haphazardly thrown over him with one leg thrown over the arm of the chair and the other propped up on the table.
It was a strangely domestic sight, not one that he expected from the three of them. Kakashi glanced towards the front door, and saw a sight that made his silver brow almost fly completely off his face. There were two bags, a standard issue green genin bag and an old, worn suitcase that was a horrendous shade of orange. The implications weren’t lost on the jonin and a warm feeling swelled up inside of his chest. It was a mixture of pride and maybe even a sudden burst of fondness for the three sleeping genin.
When the children would wake up, they would find a note placed on the coffee table with two words.