It was raining and Sakura was crying. Neither of these things were an unusual occurrence.
“Aw look at her! She’s at it again.”
“What’s the matter, huh crybaby? Wha’chu cryin’ for?”
“Ew! Look at all the snot on her face! How ugly.”
“Makes her look even uglier than normal-”
“-and I didn’t even know that was possible.”
The taunts and cruel, childish laughter were not unusual either. Unfortunately for one Haruno Sakura, age six, instances like this occurred only too frequently. She sniffled and tightened her grip around her legs, trying to shield her face behind her bent knees.
“Tryin’ to hide from us, huh? Not that you’ll have much luck with a forehead like that.”
“I bet they can see it all the way in Suna it’s so big!”
“It would make a great billboard though, wouldn’t it Snot-Face? Maybe you should try to rent it out to businesses an’ try to make some money-”
A boy’s voice and the sound of running footsteps. Sakura whimpered and curled up even smaller. Boys had never gone out of their way to pick on her before the way Ami, Mei, and Natsuko did, but there was a first time for everything. She hoped he’d only come to take the other girls away so then maybe she could escape, instead of to join in; the other girls pulled her hair and threw sticks and rocks at her sometimes but boys hit.
“Leave her alone you big, stupid bullies!”
Sakura blinked. He was defending her? Her? That had never, ever happened before. She chanced a peek over the tops of her knees to try to locate the speaker, since he sounded much closer to them than he had when he’d first yelled. What she saw made her blink again.
A boy her age stood between her and her tormentors, feet braced, narrow shoulders back, and hands curled into small, angry fists. His back was to her as he faced down Ami and her gang, so she couldn’t see his face, but he was wearing a big white t-shirt that dwarfed his skinny frame, and he had the brightest, yellowest hair she’d ever seen. He was barely bigger then she was.
The older girls recoiled from the boy like he was infested with something much worse than cooties, pretty faces twisted in disgust. “What’s it matter to you, monster-brat?” Ami demanded, narrowed brown eyes glaring daggers into the boy. “You her friend or something? That figures, that the two biggest losers in the village would stick together like that.”
Sakura cringed at the insult but the boy didn’t move. “We ain’t friends, I don’t even know her,” Sakura’s defender shot back without a hint of embarrassment. “But I’m not gonna let you pick on her just cause a that. There’s three a you and only one a her. ‘s not fair.”
“What, and you think you’re enough to even the odds?” Ami sneered.
“That’s right,” the boy responded baldly and Sakura looked up at him with awe in her eyes. It was like he wasn’t scared of them at all! “Sos if you wanna keep pickin’ on her, yer gonna have to get through me too.”
Sakura gaped. He was going to fight them! For her, and he didn’t even know her, not even a little. Ami and her friends looked just as surprised and a good deal more wary at the prospect of an actual fight; trash talking and kicking around weaker targets was one thing, but scraped knuckles, broken nails, and muddy clothes were another. For all their bragging and posturing, they were still just seven-year old girls who barely knew which end of a kunai to hold when you threw it. Besides, this boy might be a loser but he was still a boy and boys hit hard.
Ami shook off her discomfiture (but not quite fast enough for Sakura to miss it) and tossed her glossy red hair over one shoulder. “Hmph, well whatever. We’ve got better things to do then hang around with the likes of you anyway. C’mon Mei. Natsuko.”
And with that, all three girls put their noses in the air and tried to sashay away with dignity like they’d seen older girls do, with an exaggerated swing of what little hips they had; mostly it just had the effect of making them look like waddling ducks and Sakura let out a breathless giggle in spite of herself, which made the boy turn around to look at her, letting the little girl get a good look at her savior’s face for the first time.
His skin was tan, his hair was yellow, and he had the bluest eyes in the whole world, or at least that’s how it seemed to Sakura at the time. His whiskered face was round and curious as he peered down at her still huddled on the ground. “Are you okay? They didn’t hurt you did they?”
It took a few seconds too long for her to realize that he was asking because he actually wanted an answer. “N-no,” she managed, her normally high voice scratchy and hoarse from crying. “They didn’t hit me or anything, not today anyway. They just called me names.”
The boy grinned at her, wide and fox-like, making his chubby cheeks bunch and revealing brilliant white teeth. “Thas good! I’m glad you ain’t hurt, otherwise I’d have to go after ‘em an’ beat ‘em up. Which I would! But fighting girls is hard cause they’re mean an’ they don’t fight fair an’ they bite.” Before Sakura had the chance to do little more than stare at him, he thrust one grubby hand out to her, making her flinch back at the sudden movement. “My name’s Uzumaki Naruto! Wha’s yours?”
She looked at his hand, then up at him and his expectant, friendly expression, then back at his hand before gingerly reaching out and taking it, letting him pull her roughly to her feet, making her stumble. “H-Haruno Sakura,” she answered after regaining her balance.
Standing up, she could tell he really wasn’t very big at all; they were actually the same height. This only made her respect for his bravery grow all the more. “I-I’m Haruno Sakura, and um,” she glanced shyly away from him, staring down at their sandaled feet like she’d never seen them before. “T-Thank you. For saving me.”
“No problem,” Naruto deflected cheerfully, reaching up to thread his fingers together behind his head, still grinning like there was no tomorrow. “Couldn’t just keep walkin’ right? ‘m sure lotsa people woulda stopped if they came by ‘fore I did.”
“Not really,” the girl mumbled darkly, thinking of the blonde Yamanka girl in her class who had passed by not ten minutes before Naruto had and simply kept walking, pretending she didn’t see anything. “No one ever does.”
“Well then I guess I’m just a sucker for a pretty face then, ain’t I?”
Sakura’s head snapped up, cheeks burning at the compliment. “P-p-pretty?”
“Yep,” the boy confirmed. “See a pretty girl in trouble, you can’t help but wanna stop an’ help ‘er. I’m pretty sure it’s a guy thing, so you wouldn’t understand.”
She scanned his face for guile and strained her ears to hear the mocking edge that must be in his voice, but found nothing to indicate that he believed the words he’d just spoken to be anything other than the truth. “You really think I’m…pretty?” she whispered, trying vainly to extinguish the warm glow of happiness that spread through her chest at his words, lest she be left heartbroken when he inevitably said something to take the feeling away.
“O’ course, anyone with eyes would agree with me. Although,” his smile fell and he leaned in close to her face, scrunching up his nose so his eyes almost squinted shut as he considered her from the new angle. “You’d be even prettier without your hair in your eyes like that.”
He reached up to push her fringe back up into her hairline, uncovering her astonished jade gaze fully. The fox-like grin returned in full force. “There! Much better! Your hair and your eyes go together so nice, you shouldn’t cover ‘em up if ya don’t gotta.”
“B-But,” she stammered, face still bright red. “My forehead…”
“Yeah, ya got one,” Naruto nodded. “What about it?”
“Nothing,” she said quickly, not wanting to ruin his image of her by drawing his attention to her worst feature.
But. He’d said she was pretty. He didn’t think her obnoxiously pink hair or weirdly uncommon eyes were ugly; he’d said they looked nice together, like nothing was strange or off-putting about her at all, even though her forehead was too wide and she looked like a drowned rat from sitting out in the constant rain. She glowed with happiness and couldn’t stop her own smile from spreading across her face at the unaccustomed warmth in her chest. “Never mind. T-Thank you. Again.”
“Don’t mention it,” he told her as he turned away, removing one hand from his nape to wave good-bye as he started back down the path he’d been walking previously, feet smacking loudly through puddles as he went. “See ya around.”
“Wait!” she blurted before she could stop herself, hurrying after him before he could get too far away. “W-Where were you going?”
“To the practice grounds outside the school,” he answered in obvious confusion. “Why?”
“W-Why are you going there? T-Today is an off day, there’s no class.”
“I know, but I wanted to practice my kunai throwing.” He patted the battered holster hooked into his sagging waistband proudly. “I found this out in the woods; think someone musta left it behind or dropped it coming back from a mission or somethin’. I’m way behind in class, so I figured I should get in all the practice I can so I can catch up. Cause I’m gonna be the Hokage someday ya know, sos I gotta know this sorta stuff, otherwise none a the other kages’ll take me serious ya know?”
He said it so casually, like it was a foregone conclusion, that Sakura couldn’t help but believe him just a little. “T-That makes sense,” she told him honestly; she couldn’t imagine how embarrassing it would be to be Hokage and not know how to throw a kunai properly. She wasn’t too great at it herself actually…“Would you…” she swallowed hard and forced herself to continue. “W-Would you like some, some company?” There, she said it, no turning back now.
He blinked at her, uncomprehending. “Huh?”
He was going to make her say it again. She took a deep breath and plowed on. “W-Would you…like some, some company? I’m. I’m not very good at kunai throwing either, s-s-so, m-maybe we could practice, um, together? If you want?”
He just kept staring at her. “You wanna practice with me?”
“Um, yes?” She wasn’t sure why he was looking at her like she’d just grown a second head and she started babbling, nerves getting the better of her. Maybe he just didn’t want her to come? “I would, really, because like I said, I’m not very good at it, and-and I want to do well on the test, cause it’s coming up soon, and I always pass the written tests but I’m terrible at practicals, and maybe if I practice more I’ll do better, like studying, except with kunai. E-Except I don’t have my own kunai, so-so we’d have to share yours, b-but if you don’t want to, that’s fine, I understand I’ll just go home-” She turned to run, face burning again, but with shame now, tears welling up and calling herself all sorts of names in her mind for making a fool of herself in front of this boy that had helped her in a way no one else had, who had stood up for her, who had been nice to-
He grabbed her before she could bolt, warm hand locked around one of her knobby wrists. He was still staring at her, eyes huge and very blue next to his tanned face and soaked yellow hair. “You…You wanna hang out with me?” His voice was so small, and even though she’d only known him for a handful of minutes, it already sounded wrong to her ears; Naruto should never sound so unsure. “Like. Alone? With me? On purpose?”
“Um.” Was it really such a strange request? “Yes? I-If you don’t mind.”
“‘Mind’?” he repeated incredulously, the beginnings of another blinding smile starting to split his cheeks. “Mind? Of course not! You can definitely hang out with me! We can practice for as long as you want! We can help each other out, and you can totally share my kunai if you wanna, an’-an’-an’ maybe we can talk to each other some more and learn about each other and stuff and then maybe-” he paused, as if the idea was too outrageous to contemplate. “Maybe we can do it again. Practice. Together. You an’ me, ya know?”
“S-Sure,” she assured him. “I-I’d like that.”
He beamed at her anew, and this time his smile was so wide and bright and full of joy that his eyes closed into happy crescents under the force of it, and Sakura was left helpless to do anything other than smile her very best smile back.
After that they met up every day after school to practice kunai throwing for the practicals test coming up in two weeks time. If they passed, they’d be allowed to go on to the next level in weapons which was shuriken. Kunai were interesting, but they were really just like multi-edged knives; shuriken were something only real ninja used and everyone in their school was excited to try them out, the both of them included.
They were in separate classes, so they only got to see each other at their daily practice sessions. Sakura was both sad and secretly a little relieved by that fact. Naruto was sweet and nice and he never, ever yelled at her or called her names, and she desperately wanted them to be real friends who did stuff together outside of school but she was also terrified of messing it up; what if he changed his mind? He was the only person her age that’d ever looked twice at her and she didn’t want him to stop liking her. She’d never had a friend before, so she had no idea how to make one. But she was determined: Naruto was going to be her first friend and she would do anything to make that happen.
Sakura had thought she was bad at kunai throwing, but Naruto was abysmal. The kunai he’d found that they used to practice with were definitely real weapons, sharp-edged and made of steel and weighted differently than the carefully dulled aluminum ones they used at the Academy which were only sharp enough to cut through wooden targets and not flesh.
They were also heavy, and when they first started it only took less than twenty minutes of repeated throwing for Sakura’s arms to get achy and tired, and at first she thought that must be the reason he was so terrible at it. However, by their third time meeting up to practice (making sure to wait until all the others kids had gone home so they’d have the field to themselves), while she was taking a break to drink some water and watch Naruto throw while she rested her arms (she’d managed a whole half hour this time!), it became obvious what the real problem was.
Sakura watched with a growing frown as kunai after kunai either barely glanced the edge of the target or bounced off the post completely. And it was no wonder; his technique was all wrong!
He was gripping the blade instead of the hilt (gingerly, so he didn’t cut himself on accident), and throwing over-handed like he was throwing a knife, a blade with one sharpened edge instead of four. Knife-throwing was the first thing all ninja-in-training were taught when they entered the Academy, which meant nearly every child in Konoha could hit the bulls-eye of a target with deadly accuracy every time they threw by the time they were six.
Sakura chewed her lower lip as she watched him miss again and again and again, debating with herself silently as she tried to figure out what she should do. She could tell him he was doing it wrong but what if he got mad? She didn’t want him to be mad at her! But he just kept getting more and more frustrated, and it hurt her to watch him keep failing, and when she saw the sheen of tears starting to gather in his blue eyes her heart lurched sickeningly and she just couldn’t take it anymore.
“N-Naruto?” she called quietly, making him stop and look at her. She focused her gaze on his nose, still not confident enough to make eye contact. “Um. Y-You’re doing it wrong. I-I mean, you’re throwing it like a knife, which is, uh, w-wrong.”
“Hah?” he down at the kunai still gripped in his hand, brow furrowing. “But it is like a knife iddinnit?”
“Yes,” she confirmed, forcing her voice not to shake as she took a tentative step toward him. “B…But not exactly. You’re supposed to grip it by the hilt and throw it side-to-side instead of end-over-end like a knife. C…Cause it’s not, um, built the same?”
“Oh.” He kept staring at the weapon, face scrunching up in confusion and eyes squinting nearly shut as he tipped his head to one side. He did that a lot. Sakura secretly thought it was kind of cute, like a curious cat. “I guess that makes sense. Never thought about it like that.”
“D…Didn’t Iruka-sensei show you how to do it?” she questioned curiously, chancing another step forward, glad he hadn’t yelled when she’d corrected him. “He made sure we all knew how to do the motions properly before he ever let us actually hold one. He must have made us do it a hundred times before he was satisfied.”
“Don’t got Iruka-sensei,” Naruto told her with a shrug. “We got this really mean old guy who looks like a ferret, Mizuki-sensei.”
“Mizuki-sensei?” She blinked at him. “I’ve seen him in the hallways sometimes. He’s not that old, not anymore than Iruka-sensei.”
“’s got white hair. Mean he’s old, like old man Hokage.” He sounded very sure about that.
Sakura decided not to push it. “Okay, well, then didn’t he show you how to do it right?”
“No,” he told her, to her obvious surprise. “He showed everybody else, but not me.”
“Dunno. He shows everyone lots a stuff he doesn’t show me, an’ when I ask, he pretends he can’t hear me, or he tells me to get lost, so I stopped asking.”
He said it was no big deal, so nonchalant that it made Sakura forget her manners and gape at him. “But he’s not supposed to do that! He’s a teacher; he’s supposed to teach you!”
He was staring at her now, like she was the one who’d just said something crazy. “Well…yeah I guess, but lots a grown-ups treat me like that, so I just got used to it.”
“But that’s not right!” she insisted, starting to get properly angry. “You should tell on him! Why don’t you tell your parents, I’m sure they-” But she knew right away that she’d said something wrong, because Naruto’s face immediately went shadowed and closed-off, and he turned away from her to direct his gaze to the hard-packed dirt under his ratty sandals instead.
“N-Naruto?” she prompted hesitantly, shrinking back in on herself at his uncharacteristic behavior. She’d made him mad after all! “I-I’m sorry, I-I-I didn’t mean-”
“Don’t got any,” he mumbled to his feet.
“I said I don’t got any,” he repeated, louder this time, though he still didn’t look up from the ground. “Parents. I don’t have ‘em. The demon-fox killed them. I live at the orphanage down the street.”
Sakura wasn’t sure, but she thought that maybe this was what it felt like to be punched really hard in the stomach. Her tummy turned over like when she was going to be sick, and her skin flashed hot and cold one after the other really fast. It had never occurred to her that he didn’t have any parents, though lots of kids at the school didn’t, since they were usually the children of shinobi and lots of them had either been killed in battle or by the demon-fox attack. Even Iruka-sensei didn’t have parents cause of that monster. She didn’t even want to think about how terrible it would be to not have her mom and dad, the very idea made her eyes itch and her nose clog up with impending tears. She felt awful.
“Oh Naruto, I’m so sorry!” She flung her arms around his skinny shoulders before she knew what she was doing, not noticing the way he went stiff all over in shock at the action. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad! I’m so, so sorry, please don’t be mad at me, but definitely don’t be sad cause sad’s worse!”
Naruto was still busy reeling at the entirely unfamiliar feeling of someone touching him (willingly!) without the intent to hurt him and it took him a minute to unfreeze but when he did he immediately returned the favor, throwing his arms around her middle and squeezing her back twice as hard. “’s okay Sakura-chan,” he assured her, voice muffled against her shoulder. “I don’t remember ‘em, they died real soon after I was born or somethin’, so ‘s okay ya know? I ain’t sad, I just…” he hesitated, unsure, but decided it was better she knew so she didn’t think he was upset with her. “I thought maybe you’d make fun a me, ya know, cause I don’t got no parents.”
“What?!” she gasped, hurt, drawing back to look him the face but not letting go of him. “I would never!” How could he ever think she would do something so mean?
“I know you wouldn’t!” he promised her fervently, clutching fistfuls of her baggy black shirt in his hands, suddenly terrified she would leave and never come back. “I know that Sakura-chan! It’s just...the other kids do, sometimes, ya know, so I thought…I dunno what I thought, it was stupid, but I know you would never do that, not ever! I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay,” she hastened to assure him, relieved. “It’s alright. I’m just glad you’re not mad at me for saying something so dumb.”
“It wasn’t dumb!” he denied. “And I could never be mad at you Sakura-chan! Never, ever!”
“Oh…okay.” She smiled to herself a little, happy for some reason she couldn’t clearly explain. “Um,” she plucked at his sleeve bashfully. “Y-You called me Sakura-chan.” He’d never done that before, even though they’d already met to practice a few times before.
“Huh?” He thought about it for a second. “Oh, yeah I did! I guess I wasn’t thinking. Do you mind?”
“No!” She shook her head quickly, making the ends of her long hair flip around, not wanting him to take it back. “No, I-I don’t mind. I like it. Do you…Do you mind if I call you Naruto-kun?” She felt light-headed, amazed at her own daring.
His answering grin was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. “Of course not! But hey, hey, Sakura-chan, do you think you could teach me the right way to throw a kunai now? If I practice real hard, maybe I’ll be able to pass the test next week and move up with everybody else! That’d make old ferret-face real mad, ya know?”
“Yes.” She grinned back, deciding to carefully ignore the part of her that said good girls shouldn’t feel pleased at the thought of getting revenge on someone, even someone mean. It was just this once after all, she was still a good girl like her mama said; she just wouldn’t tell mama about it, that’s all. “Yes I can definitely do that Naruto-kun.”
They both passed, and surprisingly enough Sakura managed to come out with the third highest score out of twenty, and the only two who did better than her were the two Uchiha clan kids in the class and everybody knew that basically meant she’d sort of come in first place since the Uchiha kids were already practically perfect-ninja-robots anyway. To say she was shocked would be an understatement, but she was also pleased and maybe just a little bit proud of herself.
Out of the ten kunai she’d thrown, five had hit the bulls-eye, four had hit the center of the target, and only one had gone wild, and that had been the first one she’d thrown; in her nervousness about taking the test with everyone watching she’d forgotten the school kunai were much lighter than the ones she and Naruto used and thrown it much too hard, so that it bypassed the post completely.
She’d been embarrassed but she’d pretended very hard that Naruto was there cheering her on instead of her classmates snickering at her blunder and she’d calmed down considerably. They’d stopped laughing after her third kunai had hit dead on target.
Naruto was effusive with his praise when they met up at the training grounds after school like usual and she hid her happy flush behind her long fringe. “It wasn’t so hard,” she demurred. “Once I made myself focus the rest was easy. How did you do?”
“I passed too, but barely,” he informed her, disgust evident in his tone. “Dead-last like always, but at least all my kunai hit the target; you shoulda seen some a the others! The guy who came in just above me, this really lazy Nara kid, Shika-something, only four of his hit the post, ya know, and the rest bounced off into the dirt. He didn’t even seem to care the beady-eyed, good-for-nothin’-”
“Naruto-kun,” she interrupted with a frown. “Did you say only four of his kunai hit the target but he still came in above you, even though all of yours hit?”
“Yeah,” he confirmed easily, nonplussed. “Three hit the bulls-eye, five got real close, and the last two barely made it in.” He brightened, baring sharp teeth in his customary too-wide grin. “But man you shoulda seen Mizuki-sensei’s face when that first one hit bulls-eye! I thought he was gonna keel over right there he was so surprised!” He laughed gleefully to himself at the memory, seeming not to notice Sakura’s mounting concern.
“Yes but Naruto-kun that can’t be right,” she insisted. “If all your kunai hit you should have placed in the top five at least!”
He shrugged, not understanding why it mattered. “Well I passed, right? So who cares?”
I do, whispered a little voice in Sakura’s head, but she pushed it away firmly. If Naruto didn’t think it was a big deal, then it probably wasn’t. She was just making a big deal out of nothing; he was right, they’d both passed, so what was there to complain about?
She ignored the uneasy feeling in her tummy with the ease of long practice and grinned back at the boy. “You’re right, I guess it doesn’t matter. But this means that’s it for kunai-” Naruto abruptly went silent. “-and now we get to move on to shuriken, like real ninja!”
Naruto’s face fell, round, whiskered cheeks drooping and even his sunshiney hair seemed to lose some of its customary glow. “Yeah…no more kunai…”
She eyed him, worried. She hated it when Naruto frowned because it usually meant something was really, really wrong. “N-Naruto-kun?” she asked timidly, uncertain as to the reason behind his sudden change in mood. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’,” he lied, tracing patterns in the dirt with the edge of his sandal. “’s just…I guess, now that we don’t need to practice anymore, you won’t wanna…ya know…meet me here anymore…”
Sakura felt like she’d swallowed a rock. He was right; there was no reason for them to keep meeting up after school if it wasn’t to practice. They’d only known each other for two weeks after all, and they’d only hung out together at the training yard and they’d mostly only talked about technique or about which classes they did or didn’t like most (Sakura liked everything but taijutsu, which she was horrible at; Naruto hated everything but taijutsu for the same reason).
It didn’t really feel like they were friends yet, but…but she thought the potential was there. Like maybe they could be friends, if they only tried a little longer. She didn’t want to give up now, not when she was sure they were so close.
She worried her bottom lip between her teeth, wondering how to phrase her thoughts. “Well,” she began cautiously. “Well it’s…it’s not like we have to stop practicing kunai together just cause we won’t have tests on it anymore. We’re still gonna need to know how to do it when we get to be genin, and we don’t want our skills to get rusty…”
Naruto was staring at her, mouth open. She hurried on, “And, and, and, we’re starting shuriken soon and we’re gonna need to practice that too, maybe even more than kunai, so…so we could…keep meeting up…if you want.”
He stared at her, dumbfounded, mouth hanging open like a fish for several more very long seconds, long enough for Sakura to start to get nervous and try to hide behind her fringe again, before his sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day smile broke across his face all at once, like flipping a switch. “Yeah!” he shouted, and Sakura didn’t jump, but it was a near thing. “Yeah! We can totally do that! You’re a genius, ya know, Sakura-chan!”
She blushed, flattered. “Well, I don’t think that’s-”
“We can start now!” he carried on over her, too excited to listen, running over to plant himself in front of his usual practice post, fumbling with his kunai holster in his haste. “Don’t wanna get rusty, good idea, should a thought a that-Hey, hey! Bet I can get more kunai into the bulls-eye before I run out then you can! Loser has to run five laps around the yard!”
Sakura grinned and ran to place herself before her own post, her share of kunai already in hand, and this time it was much easier to ignore the little voice that whispered that good girls didn’t make bets, especially bets involving sharp metal weaponry and the potential to get all dirty and sweaty.
And so it went. Before Sakura knew it, February was bleeding into March and her birthday was coming up fast. It would be her seventh, and she was excited, though not as much as maybe she could have been.
For the last two years her mama had made a direct point of asking if she wanted to have a party so she could invite ‘all her little friends from school’ over, and so far the girl had yet to work up the courage to tell her mama that she didn’t have any school friends, or any friends at all really. Her mama would just make that face she made when she was worried, the one that made her mouth pinch and the thin lines around her honey-brown eyes deepen.
So Sakura just said no, and insisted that she’d rather spend her birthday with just family, where mama would make her favorite dinner (tuna kaisendon with anko dumplings for dessert) and she’d open the one or two presents her parents had gotten her. This always made her mama smile, hug her, and tell her how happy she was to have such ‘a good daughter who loved her mama and papa so much’. It made Sakura feel strangely guilty, but at least her mama wasn’t worried about her and that was good enough for now.
Besides, these days there really wasn’t anything for her mama to worry about; Ami and her friends still sneered at her when they saw her in the hallways and whispered and laughed behind her back, but that was okay because now she had her practice sessions with Naruto to look forward to after school every day, and while they still weren’t exactly friends yet (she didn’t think), at least they’d finally started talking about things that weren’t just school.
Now they talked about what foods they did and didn’t like (Sakura loved most rice dishes and sweet things but hated anything steamed with the exception of dumplings and Naruto loved pork ramen and not much else, though he hated vegetables with a single-minded passion), what they wanted to be when they grew up (Naruto wanted to be Hokage of course, and although Sakura had told him she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after the Academy, the truth was she really wanted to be a kunoichi, even though her mama wanted her to be anything but that), they’re favorite colors (red for Sakura, orange for Naruto), and school some too, still, since they were too young to have jobs or go on missions outside the village yet.
It was certainly friendly talk but so far they really hadn’t shared any secrets or had sleepovers or talked about their deepest, darkest fears like Sakura thought you were supposed to do with your friends. Granted most of her information on what friendship was like came from those silly romance movies her mama pretended she didn’t watch when papa wasn’t home but still. The going was slow, but she was hopeful they were moving in the right direction. She could be patient; she would not mess this up.
Everything was going fine, until the subject of birthdays came up, and then, quite suddenly, events were set in motion that would change the both of them irreparably for the rest of their lives.
“Hah?” Naruto looked up in surprise from where he’d been laboriously sharpening his kunai with a chip of whetstone he’d pocketed in class. “Your birthday is tomorrow Sakura-chan?”
“Yes, so I won’t be able to meet you after school,” Sakura reiterated. “I wanted to tell you so you wouldn’t think I just didn’t come. But I’ll be back the day after that for sure!”
“Oh, okay…” He stared up at the sky, tan face scrunched up in an expression of ferocious contemplation. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan, are you having a birthday party?”
“No, not really, wh-” Understanding dawned and she hurried to explain. “-Not at all actually! I never have birthday parties, just dinner with my mama and papa. Nothing big or special, and we never invite anyone else.”
“Oh.” His expression cleared and his customary grin was back. “That’s okay then!”
He turned back to his task without further comment and Sakura breathed a silent sigh of relief. He had thought she was having a party and he wasn’t invited! And he hadn’t even looked upset, just confused, and maybe a little resigned. She wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about that, but the knowledge made something deep down in her belly get hot and start to bubble and simmer; it was the same feeling she’d gotten when she realized Mizuki-sensei was purposely giving Naruto bad grades he didn’t deserve. Sakura didn’t know it yet, but these strange bubbling feelings were actually the first warning signs of building outrage.
Her birthday dinner was fun, the food was delicious, and she loved the presents her parents had given her; a red and white cheongsam with the Haruno clan kamon on the back and shoulders from her mama and a brand new set of kunai and shuriken from her papa. Her mama seemed less that happy about this particular gift but Sakura was ecstatic, and she thanked her papa profusely. She’d made extra sure to tell him that she need the Type 3 set instead of the Type 1 which were usually assigned to Academy students, since Type 3 were the ones most often used by more advanced ninja like chuunin or even tokubetsu jounin and were thusly better quality and much heavier than the ones used in class.
If the last practicals test had shown her anything, it was that she’d gotten too used to throwing heavy weapons and the lighter ones just weren’t enough for her anymore; she’d barely been able to feel the kunai in her hand, and she hadn’t felt tired at all even after throwing ten in a row. She often wondered to herself why the Academy insisted on teaching them with non-mission-standard weaponry at all if there was such a noticeable difference between the two, but so far she hadn’t gotten up the nerve to ask. What if they wanted to know how she knew there was a difference in the first place and took Naruto’s kunai away because of it? She didn’t want that to happen! So she kept quiet.
All in all, she counted her seventh birthday an unmitigated success, even without cake and a big party, and she practically skipped to the practice field after school the next day, eager to show Naruto her new weapons set. The other girls had predictably mocked her new clothes and made disparaging comments about how the deep red color of the dress clashed with her bubblegum hair but for once she didn’t let their words get her down. She had pretty new clothes, shiny new weapons, a great almost-friend, and the best parents ever; at this exact moment in time, she was sure she could handle anything.
That confidence lasted until she got to the training yard and saw that Naruto wasn’t there waiting for her like usual. His class got out fifteen minutes before hers so he’d always made sure to get there first to save them a spot in case some of the bigger kids tried to run them off the field. But he wasn’t there, and she couldn’t find any sign that he had been there and left for some reason either.
So she waited, starting to practice the weird, loose flippy-wrist movement needed to properly hurl shuriken so their flight path arced correctly, thinking maybe he’d gotten held back to be yelled at by Mizuki-sensei (always possible) or maybe he’d forgotten his own shuriken and run home to get them (impossible, ever since he’d scavenged up enough discarded shuriken from the forest to complete his own set that holster had practically been glued to his side). She waited and waited and waited for so long that the sun started to set behind the trees and the shadows in the field slowly started to narrow and stretch out from end-to-end and still Naruto hadn’t shown up.
At first she was just confused, but as half an hour, then an hour slowly slid by she started to get a little angry, then another hour went by and she started to worry, and twilight eventually found her huddled in the lengthening shadows of the practice posts and fighting back tears, convinced she knew what happened. One day with her gone and Naruto had already figured out he was better off without her and decided he didn’t want her as a friend after all, but he was much too nice to come and say that to her face, so he’d just decided to avoid the practice field while he knew she would be there looking for him.
Part of her thought that was kind of him, to make a clean break like that, so she wouldn’t have to embarrass herself by breaking down in front of him, while another, much smaller part whispered that Naruto would never do something like that, would never throw her away like garbage without talking to her about it first, but most of her was too wrapped up in the agony of heartbreak to think about anything other than how much it hurt to know that once again she hadn’t been good enough for someone.
But then, why was she surprised? Surely someone as nice and funny and cool as Naruto had lots of friends to hang out with. She’d only ever seen him at the training ground so she’d never seen him with them, but then he’d never asked to hang out with her outside of weapons practice after all; he was probably ashamed to be seen with her, eye-searing, pink-haired loser that she was. He’d only been nice to her because he felt bad for her and she hated herself a little for being so pathetically grateful for even that much attention. Of course he didn’t like her, she didn’t even like her most of the time, so how could anyone else? It was stupid of her to believe otherwise. She should have known better.
She staggered to her feet, clutching her middle as her stomach rolled and for a moment she thought she was going to be sick right there on the grass, tasting bile in the back of her throat. She managed to swallow it down and forced herself to take a step, then another, then another, one foot in front of the other as she made her way out of the field and back towards the school and the street that ran alongside it that meandered past her house.
She wasn’t really paying attention where she was going, letting her feet carry her where they may as her mind floated off somewhere far above her shoulders, swamped in a sea of misery so thick it took her a long, long time to realize someone was calling her name.
“Sakura-chan! Sakura-chan! Oi, Sakura-chan, wait up!”
She recognized that voice. “Naruto-kun?” she breathed in amazement, whirling around to face the boy as he ran up to her and doubled over to put his hands on his knees, narrow chest heaving under his too-big shirt, gasping in huge lungfuls of air as he tried to catch his breath. “Naruto-kun, what are you-”
His bowed head shot up and he met her jade green gaze with his sky blue one, apology shining deep within them before he even opened his mouth to give voice to it. “I’m so sorry I’m late Sakura-chan! It took me forever to get here; I got super lost, ya know, and I had to keep goin’ in circles ‘fore I found something that looked familiar.”
“‘Lost’? But, Naruto-kun, weren’t you in class today?” She was trying and mostly failing to ignore the way her heart had leapt at his words, the fresh cracks running all through it repairing themselves in an instant. He still liked her; he hadn’t thrown her away after all! She was so happy she could burst.
“Uh-uh,” he shook his head vehemently, making his spiked yellow hair flop. “I skipped today so I could make sure to be at the store when they opened; I didn’t want anyone to get there and take it ‘fore I could.”
“Your present!” He grinned his best fox grin at her baffled expression. “I was savin’ up to get a double portion of pork ramen at Ichiraku’s, but this ‘s way more important! I never had nobody to get a present for before so I wanted to make sure I got it right.”
“You skipped school? For me? Oh Naruto-kun!” She felt like crying again, but for entirely different reasons this time, better reasons, and she took a step forward to throw her arms around him when she noticed something odd. “But Naruto-kun why are you so dirty? You look like you rolled around in the street.”
And he did too. Naruto was normally kind of dirty, but in the same way most boys were dirty, with sweat and grass-stains and actual dirt packed into the creases of his hands and under his nails, but his hair and face and clothes were always clean, even if his shoes needed replacing and his clothes never fit. Now he looked like he’d purposefully taken a bath in filth, unidentifiable grime smeared all over his clothes in a way that would have made her mama sigh and start muttering about detergent and stain remover, with mud rubbed into his arms and face and drying in the spikes of his hair.
He looked ridiculous, and like he really needed some warm water and soap immediately if he ever expected to be clean again but his grin was as bright as ever and his eyes were triumphant. “I got it back! They tried to take it from me but I chased ‘em and beat ‘em up and got it back!”
“Got what back?” He wasn’t making much sense.
“Your present!” he said like it should have been obvious. “The lady in the store almost wouldn’t sell it to me, but my money was good so she had to ‘ventually, an’ when I left to meet you these guys grabbed me an’ said that since I had somethin’ so pretty I must a stole it, so they took it and ran but I chased ‘em an’ got it back! They ran real far though, an’ I didn’t recognize the neighborhood so it took me a real long time to find my way back, but I made it!” He sounded so proud of himself.
Sakura just stared at him, eyes big and round and hands clapped over her open mouth. Finally she found her voice and asked, “Were they older boys, like from the school? Cause if so you gotta tell Iruka-sensei on them, they can’t get away with that!”
“Nah they weren’t from the school,” Naruto waved off her suggestion easily. “They were too old; older than genin, maybe as old as Iruka-sensei. ‘sides, I don’t really remember what they look like, so ‘s no big deal.”
“‘As old as-‘! Naruto-kun are you saying grown-ups did this to you?” Sakura was aghast. Iruka-sensei was old, like over twenty old, and if they were that same age then…
“Yeah, but like I said, ‘s no big deal, they only hit me one time and didn’t even hurt that bad,” Naruto didn’t seem to comprehend the gravity of what he’d said, already distracted by rummaging around in his pockets. “Hey, hey Sakura-chan, close yer eyes okay? I didn’t get to wrap it, ya know, an’ ‘s supposed to be a surprise an’-”
“A grown-up hit you?!” she burst out, that uncomfortable hot feeling in her stomach starting to rumble and pop again. “On purpose?”
Naruto was staring at her like he didn’t understand what was wrong and it made her want to grab him and shake him. “Yeah, but it didn’t hurt Sakura-chan, one of ‘em just kicked me when I tried to take your present back, cause I bit him on the leg, ya know, cause he wouldn’t give it back without a fight. But they ran off after that cause grown-ups get weird when you fight dirty like that, makes ‘em think you ain’t got nothin’ to lose, so-”
“Naruto-kun!” He immediately fell silent at her shout and gaped at her soundlessly. Never, in the entire month they’d known each other had Sakura ever yelled, not ever; she’d never even raised her voice.
In fact, Sakura couldn’t remember a time when she’d ever yelled before in her whole life (“-good girls never scream or shout, good girls never get angry, and good girls certainly don’t throw temper tantrums, especially not in this house, young lady-”). She grit her teeth and balled up her tiny fists, shoulders tense and shaking with rage as the burning, bubbly feeling in her tummy finally blew off its lid and boiled over. Good girls can go eat worms, she snarled and viciously stomped out the last remnants of that little voice in her head that sounded so much like her mama, grinding it into dust under her heel. If being a good girl meant standing by and doing nothing while people she cared for got hurt, then she didn’t want to be one, not now, not ever.
“Naruto-kun, grown-ups aren’t supposed to hit you! They’re not supposed to do mean things like that, an’ they’re not s’pposed to call you names or give you bad grades for no reason! They’re s’pposed to help you cause that’s what good grown-ups do!”
Naruto didn’t seem like he knew quite how to react; no one had ever been angry for him before. At him, certainly, because of him, sure, but not for him. “It’s okay Sakura-chan,” he offered tentatively, cautiously reaching out to lightly touch her shoulder. “Really, it is. I don’t mind, I’m used to it-”
“Well I’m not used to it!” She had never been so mad in her entire life, and there were angry tears flowing down her cheeks but she paid them no heed, blazing green eyes fierce and mouth twisted in a teeth-baring snarl. “I’m not used to it, I do mind, and it’s not okay! People can’t get away with treating you like this! Like you’re something gross they wanna scrape off their shoe and throw away or forget about! ‘s not fair, ‘s not right!”
He blinked at her, so heart-breakingly, honestly confused that she wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled and at the same time she also wanted to punch something very, very hard again and again until it broke. “But people ‘re mean to you too.”
“Kids are mean to me,” Sakura snapped dismissively, because that was the last thing on her mind right now. What were a few school-girl taunts when grown-ups apparently thought nothing of regularly treating this boy as something worse than trash? “Kids, girls in my class who wouldn’t know the business end of kunai even if I stuck ‘em with it. That’s what kids do, Naruto-kun, they’re mean to each other for stupid reasons that you’re s’pposed to grow out of when you get to be old like Iruka and Mizuki-sensei, not get worse, elsewise why would anyone ever bother growing up at all?”
“Oh.” Naruto considered this for a moment. “I never…I guess I never thought about it like that. People ‘re mean to me all the time, I never thought maybe something was s’pposed to be different if it was kids or grown-ups.”
“It is different, or at least it’s meant to be,” she sighed, all of the fight going out of her at once, leaving her tired and hollow and sad. “I’m sorry Naruto-kun.”
“Sorry?” He stared at her, flabbergasted. “For what?”
“Because I didn’t say anything before,” she admitted softly, glancing away from him and rubbing at the drying tear tracks on her face, too ashamed to look him in the eye. “I knew something was wrong when you said Mizuki-sensei gave you the worst grade even though everyone in the whole school knows Shikamaru never does anything in class, ever, at all, except sleep, and especially not in practical stuff. I knew something was wrong, but it was easier to believe I was overreacting instead of being brave enough to say something about it. So I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay Sakura-chan,” he assured her quickly, visibly relieved that she’d stopped yelling. “You don’t gotta say anything about it, really, I don’t care if I’m dead-last, long as I keep moving up to the next class.”
“But I want to say something,” she insisted mulishly, surprised to find that it was true; where had all her shyness gone? “Maybe not to Mizuki-sensei, cause he’s a teacher an’ at least he never hit you-” she eyeballed him for a moment, but saw nothing in his face that put lie to her words so she relaxed marginally and continued on. “-but I won’t let anybody say anything bad about you ever again, kid or grown-up, not as long as I’m around to hear it, and that’s a promise.”
“Really?” he asked in the small voice that never failed to make her heart feel like it was being grabbed and squeezed really hard. “Why would you do that for me?”
“B-Because,” she faltered, and all her shyness coming rushing back right when she didn’t need it to. She looked away from him once more, cheeks burning, staring out at the purple-black horizon as the sun finally finished setting, gathering her flagging courage. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before turning determinedly back to face him, squaring her small shoulders like a kunoichi looking down the edge of the knife that was about to slit her throat. “Because we’re friends. A-Aren’t we?”
“‘Friends’?” Naruto whispered, eyes huge and round and reflecting the first twinkles of the stars starting to appear in the sky. “We’re friends?”
“I…I think we are,” Sakura confirmed hesitantly. “I’ve…never had one before, but…I think we’re friends. Cause, cause friends protect each other right? An’-an’-an’ get mad if people hurt their friend, an’ wanna make sure their friend is always happy, cause he-cause they deserve to be happy and smiling, always, and never frowning, an’, they know stuff about each other, like their favorite colors an’ foods, an’ they get each other presents on their birthday, an’ fight bad guys who try to run away with their friend’s presents. So. So we’re friends, right?”
“Yeah,” he breathed, starshine eyes starting to glow as though lit from within, a beautiful, blinding smile starting to slowly unfurl across his dirt-smudged face. “Yeah, that sounds right. We’re friends.” He looked a bit dazed at the revelation, staring off into space with a goofy twist to his usual smile. “I got a friend. I’ve never had one before either.”
“Well now you do,” she told him, voice quiet, not wanting to break the moment that seemed delicate and fragile in a way neither of them understood; like the universe had just realigned itself around this one moment, like a new life had just begun, and at the same time another one had just ended. It was a strange feeling, heavy, but not suffocating, and not bad either.
“And so do you,” Naruto returned just as quietly, also uncannily aware of the strange spell being woven around them.
They grinned at each other for long moments, just two kids standing alone on an empty street-corner in the dark as a streetlamp flickered to life directly above them. The sudden illumination had them both blinking, and with that the moment was broken. The world started turning again, and all the what-ifs and why-fors and could-have-beens that had briefly existed in the same space as their world held its breath, then breathed its last and died a quiet, unassuming death.
Sakura fidgeted, scuffing one sandaled foot in the dirt, arms linked behind her back and still smiling like she didn’t know how to stop. “So…What’d you get me?”
Naruto blinked. “Hah?”
“My present,” she reminded him, still grinning. His tendency to be easily distracted was endearing at times like this. “The one you valiantly fought off multiple opponents for; what is it?”
“Oh, yeah, right, I almost forgot!” he cried and resumed rifling frantically through his pockets. “I didn’t get to wrap it so you gotta close your eyes so it’ll be a surprise, but I made sure I put it somewhere it wouldn’t get dirty, so it should be-aha!” His hand balled into a fist inside one of his voluminous cargo-short pockets, fox-like smile tinged with excitement and mischief both. “Found it! Now close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
She did so at once, trusting him without a second thought. Although…he may be her friend but he was still a boy…“It’s not gonna bite me is it?” she teased.
“Wha-? No of course not! Sheesh, what do you take me for?”
But she could hear the laughter in his voice and it made her heart swell to know he wasn’t really upset with her. He reached out to cradle her cupped hands with one of his own, carefully bringing the other one up to press something into her palms. “There! You can open ‘em now.”
She obediently opened her eyes and looked down at the piece of cloth folded in her hand. “It’s-”
“A ribbon!” Naruto finished eagerly. “I noticed yer bangs are always gettin’ in your face when you try to throw, and you have to keep shakin’ yer head to keep ‘em out of yer eyes so I thought you could use this to tie ‘em back, ya know? I got a red one cause you said it was your favorite color, an’ look, it even matches your dress!” He looked so unbearably excited, eyes intent on her face, waiting for her reaction.
He was right, the thick strip of ribbon, by some strange twist of fate, was indeed the exact same dark red color as her new cheongsam, and it was even bordered by white in the same way as her dress, with red in the middle and thin strips of white running across the top and bottom of the wide band. She looked down at it without speaking for a long, long time, running her fingers over it reverently. It was soft and good quality and she knew Naruto didn’t have a papa to get allowance from like she did, and she knew how much he loved ramen, so it must have cost him a lot more than just a few hundred ryo to get this for her.
Her eyes were getting itchy again, and she slipped the ribbon under her heavy fall of hair before more tears could escape, arranging her fringe as best she could without a mirror, and tying it into a neat bow at her crown. She considered for a moment, then shifted the ribbon so the bow sat snug at the base of her skull instead of digging into the top of her head. She looked up to find Naruto staring at her and she couldn’t help the faint blush his regard brought to her pale cheeks. “Well?” she prompted nervously. “What do you think?”
The boy snapped out of his daze at the sound of her voice and smiled at her without reservation. “You look even more beautiful than usual Sakura-chan!”
She promptly went brick red at this bold assessment, and barely stopped herself from blurting ‘beautiful?’ as incredulously as she really wanted to. She’d already known he thought she was pretty, he’d said so himself after all, and if there was one thing Naruto was above all other things it was brazenly honest, but beautiful?
The happy glow she was rapidly becoming accustomed to feeling in his presence swelled in her chest at his words and she beamed at him, equal parts bashful and delighted. “Thank you, Naruto-kun!” She realized something then, something very important. “Ne, Naruto-kun, when’s your birthday?”
“Mine?” He crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head, expression as serious as it ever was. “Dunno.”
“You don’t know?”
“Yeah, apparently the birthdates for a lot a the kids at the orphanage got lost in the demon-fox attack, so most of us don’t really know; I just know it was sometime in October.”
“And the demon-fox attacked on October tenth, so you must’ve been born before then…” She did some frantic math. “That’s less than eight months away! I’ll have to get started on looking for your present real soon.” She’d never picked out a present for someone else before, and certainly not a boy; maybe her mama could give her some suggestions.
“Of course!” She nodded once, firmly. “Friends give each other presents on their birthdays and for mid-winter and stuff; it’s the rules.”
“Really?” He’d never thought that having a friend might come with rules. “What are the other rules?”
She faltered. “Um, well, I’m not completely sure,” she hedged. “Neither of us have ever had a friend before after all, but I think it’s sorta just like…we’re always there for each other, an’ we always stand up for each other, an’ protect each other from bullies and mean grown-ups who won’t listen to us cause we’re kids, an’ we know lots a stuff about each other, an’ we always help each other when we need it, an’ keep each other from doing stuff that’ll get us in trouble.”
“Hm,” he nodded, and the expression of deep contemplation was back. “And if we do do something bad, an’ we do get in trouble?”
“Then we lie for each other,” she explained. “Unless it’s something real bad, then we might have to tell the real truth to someone else to keep each other from getting in bad-bad trouble.”
“Tell someone like who?”
“Like a grown-up we like, like Iruka-sensei or my mama.” At least, that was the impression she’d gotten from watching her mama’s rom-coms. “At least while we’re still little. I think maybe the rules change some when we get to be older, or maybe there are just more rules.”
“Blech,” he pulled a face. “Why there gotta be more rules? There ’re already too many.”
She shrugged and repeated one of her papa’s favorite things to say when she asked him questions she secretly suspected he didn’t know the answer to. “That’s just the way it’s gotta be.”
“Well…I guess more rules would be okay if we gotta,” he allowed, pushing his bottom lip out sulkily. “It would be worth it, to have a friend.”
“Yeah,” she agreed with a smile. “That’s what I think too.”
“Okay, so, friends?” He stuck out one grimy hand, pinky extended.
Sakura hooked her own pinky around it without hesitation. “Friends.”
He grinned his bright fox-grin at her. “Friends for life,” he cheered. “Believe it!”