Naruto, bless his heart, was right on time. When I stepped outside, he was leaning comfortably against his truck; his hands behind his head in his usual relaxed and aloof pose as he gave me his trademark foxy grin. He was wearing casual clothes like me, and an attire uniquely his: faded straight jeans, a long, loose orange shirt with a silver leaf pendant hung by a long leather cord around his neck, a bunch of those plastic wristbands with motivational words in them on one hand, and a silver thumb ring on his right hand which I saw when he lifted his right arm in salute.
"Hey, Sakura-chan!" he greeted me, stepping away from his truck. "You see? I'm right on time!"
I smiled at him. "Then I officially believe in miracles."
"Aw, Sakura-chan, you're so mean to me," he mock cried, wiping an imaginary tear from his face; his ring flashing in the sun. He glanced at me, and when I only chuckled, his grin returned as he opened the passenger's door for me. "After you, my lady," he said as he bowed low, his free arm sweeping the air in an arc in a grand welcome.
"Why, how gentlemanly of you, sir," I replied in a British accent so bad he burst out laughing, loudly, as I took my seat. Once I was in, Naruto shut the door and walked around the front of the truck and sat in the driver's seat, starting the engine and making the radio turn on.
I gave him a look. "Aerosmith?" I asked approvingly when I recognized the song.
"You know it!" he gave me thumbs up and revved the engine, making it growl before we pulled away from the hotel's entrance at a speed I know would give both our mothers heart attacks should they have been there to witness it. "Wa-wow! Wa-wow! Dude looks like a la-dy! Wa-wow! Wa-wow! Dude looks like a la-dy!" he sang along with the chorus, and I laughed.
Oh, how I missed this. How I missed him. And now that we were teens and could drive, it only got better.
As we entered the highway and headed for Tokyo's heart, I caught a flicker of movement from the side mirror. It was the Akatsuki, looking after the truck with puzzled expressions, as if they'd lost something. I smirked smugly before turning my attention back on the moment at hand with my blonde friend and threw the group out of my mind, letting them fade out of sight as the truck made a turn. I had better things to do than worry about a bunch of crazy, snobby, rude and plain odd band of dudes. Such as making sure Naruto paid attention to the road.
Once we were entering downtown, Naruto for once kept quiet as I looked around, reminiscing our life years ago in these very streets and taking in the changes that had taken place since I'd moved. It was vastly different, yet it wasn't. I could make out some of our favourite stores and places we used to hand out which seemed completely untouched by time, some stores and buildings where the architecture was the same but the uses for it changed, and just some plain new buildings and structures every few blocks or so. It made my heart swell with pride, seeing my beloved hometown like this – so full of life!
Naruto made a turn into a semi-residential area, away from the traffic that was slowly but steadily forming in the main roads. "So, Sakura-chan, I have three things planned for us," he said. "You get to pick the order, alright? Since you're my guest for the day and all."
"Okay, Naruto. What's the schedule?"
He turned his face away from the road to grin at me, his sapphire eyes twinkling. "Well, there's Ichiraku's, of course, but we can go when you want. The old man can't wait to see you!" I smiled at that. Ichiraku's owner was a kind middle-aged man who knew us both as kids, mainly because Naruto's strange fascination with ramen made us his best costumers. "Then I have two surprises for you. They're kinda tied together, but they don't have to be back-to-back. "
"Naruto, eyes on the road, please," I said, and he barked out a laugh but did as I asked. "Hm… Well, how about surprise number one first? Can we do that?" I asked.
"Sure we can!" he answered excitedly. He seemed very thrilled that I'd picked that first – he seemed to be bouncing in his seat!
He took us to a nearby park, where a bunch of school children played around with each other and their families, and made a circle to drive us back the way we came. "Care to guess what the surprise is?" he asked me.
I tilted my head to the side. Giving him a contemplative look raising a finger to my chin. "There's a petting zoo open?" I guessed.
"Kind of, but not quite."
"You have some sort of super-awesome laser that can make any kind of food you want?"
He laughed. "Ha! If that was the case, I wouldn't have to work for my meals!"
"An alien invasion?"
"Geez, Sakura-chan, how many movies have you watched lately?" he shook his head and it was my turn to laugh.
We drove for a few more minutes; me guessing the most outrageous things and Naruto laughing along with me while denying them all. It was a moment of pure, simple joy, and it made it seem like I hadn't moved away and not seen him for years. It seemed as if we had never parted ways, and for that sensation I was grateful.
Soon enough Naruto pulled into a parking space by a large public park, and I took in all the details before me. I knew this park, even though it was somewhat changed from what I remembered. But I could remember many things, though the feeling of belonging came not so much from the visual recognition as the feeling in my gut that sighed home.
Naruto pulled on the hand brake, and sat back on his seat as he placed his hands once again in the back of his head, happily watching me as I relieved every memory we'd spent in this park. This was the park where we'd first met as toddlers, when our mothers, who'd been friends since they both entered a martial arts academy since before either of them married, decided to get together and introduce their children. We were both three. This had ever since become our number one hang-out place. We'd come here to play, eat, study, and just get into trouble since we weren't exactly angels back then.
I turned towards Naruto. "Oh, Naruto, this is great! I missed this place so much."
He smiled at me. "Come on. It's nice to look, but it's even better to be part of it."
I nodded, and we both got out of the vehicle, at which point Naruto took my hand and led the way into the park. We walked at a slow, leisure place which allowed me enough time to look around from my changing perspective and thus take everything in more clearly while my mind took in every new image and showed me a memory that happened there. I saw, in my mind's eye, much younger versions of Naruto and me playing tag near an old oak tree by a duck pond; I saw a six-year-old Naruto attempting to feed a goose, but when the animal came near him he dropped the popcorn and ran away, squealing like a pig; I saw a slightly older Naruto looking up at me from my place in a tree branch; I saw a younger version of myself staring back at me from the reflection by the river as I tried in vain to find my yellow bouncy ball only to have Naruto buy me another. Each memory that zipped past my mind was like a breath of fresh air, making me stronger, happier, and more grateful for such a simple thing that meat so much to me.
Naruto led me to a wood bench across a large duck pond, underneath a fat old tree with dark wood and bright green leaves and some yellow flowers I didn't recognize the name of, and we sat down. It seems this year spring had arrived a little late, but it was to my luck since I could enjoy what little traces of it were left.
"Ne, Sakura-chan, you remember when we went swimming here that one time when we were five?" Naruto asked, putting one arm behind me across the back of the bench.
"Of course," I giggled. "We decided it would be nice to swim with the ducks and geese in the pond, but swimming isn't allowed and a park gardener had to pull us out. Boy, were our parents mad." Naruto chuckled with me at the memory, and after recalling a few other mischievous events, we fell silent, only enjoying the peace and tranquility and each other's company.
After about ten or fifteen minutes, Naruto broke the silence. "Are you all acquainted with the place now?"
"I'd say so. Why?"
"`Cause it's time for your surprise, of course!"
I shot him a confused look. "Isn't this it?"
"Naw, `course not! I have something a bit more special than taking you to an old park. Believe it!" He jumped up from the bench and started to head towards the truck. I could have sworn there was a skip to his step, reminding me faintly of an excited puppy. Well, an excited fox kit since he was my dear fox.
As I watched, Naruto opened the back side door of his truck and reached for something. I craned my neck to the side since I was both eager and curious to what he could pull out. Much good it did, since he was a fair distance away. In the end, he pulled something big and dark by a strap, only to cram it back at an amazing speed. What the heck was that about? He turned towards me then and yelled something I couldn't quite make out.
"What?" I yelled back. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled again. All I got was "…hose…eyes!" I blinked. I cupped one hand around my ear and leaned his way to show him I hadn't gotten it. He then proceeded to cover his eyes, look at me, and cover them again. Finally getting it, I turned back around in my seat and covered my eyes, closing them too in case he decided to check my visibility.
In a few seconds, I heard his runners hit the pavement path towards me, and I resisted the urge to peek. True to what I thought, Naruto checked I couldn't see anything before humming to himself in satisfaction before taking a seat beside me once again and fussing around with whatever I was he's brought. I heard a zipper slide from somewhere near my shoulder down to about my ankle, raising my curiosity even more since I had no clue what required a bag that big to be carried. Soft shuffling noises sounded, and I felt something hard brush my thigh. If Naruto didn't give me the okay to look, I swore I would explode.
"Okay, Sakura-chan," he finally said. "You can look now." I didn't need to be told twice.
Beside me, Naruto had pulled out a classic wooden acoustic Spanish guitar which he had resting on his lap, with a dark orange and black strap snaking around his shoulders and holding it to him; his hands positioned as if he was about to play. I noticed a pile of black at our feet, and I realized that was the leather guitar case the guitar was in.
"Naruto…it's beautiful," I said, and I meant it. In my travels I had come across many instruments, from all designs and qualities, and, being a bit of a musician myself and heavily relying on music for my job, I could recognize a good instrument when I saw one. "Will you play something for me?"
He chuckled. "Of course I will! I'm not so mean or vain that I'd bring it out just for show and tell." His fingers lazily strummed a few chords, not in a specific song, but the sound was nonetheless gentle and controlled. "I'll make you a deal, Sakura-chan. I'll play a few songs for you, but you have to dance to one. How's that?"
"You want me to dance? In a public park?"
He shrugged. "People do it all the time. Besides, we were a pretty good team back then; I want to see you dance again." His words touched me. It was true, Naruto and I formed our own talent group – he would play his guitar and I would dance. It started originally because I loved dancing but felt awkward when there was no music, so Naruto then would give me a beat acapella style. He eventually decided that if we were going to be a team, he needed a real instrument, so he dedicated himself to saving up for a guitar since they were so cool and easy to carry. Long story short, he did it, and having reached his goal he then devoted himself to learn to play to the best of his abilities.
He now grinned slyly. "I bet you learned some pretty wicked moves these past few years!"
"I am not break dancing!"
The strumming paused before continuing a tad bit more slowly. "You break dance?"
"Yes, and I'm not doing hip-hop, stomp, or street jazz either." He shook his head in wonder.
"Damn, Sakura-chan. You do realize I don't know the difference between any of those, right?"
It was my turn to grin. "Maybe some day, Naruto."
He laughed. "Yeah, yeah. So fine, no fancy street dance-off stuff. Do we have a deal?"
I mauled it over for a moment. "If I get to choose which song it's a deal."
"Deal, then." We then proceeded to do our secret handshake we'd made up when we were six. It consisted of lightly backhanding and slapping each other's hand, grabbing it by the thumbs so our fists were at face level, and pulling down before ending it with the grand finale of jazz hands. Yeah, we rock!
We smiled at each other when we realized what we'd done, each immensely happy that the other not only had the same thought process to seal the deal with our handshake but also that both of us remembered it perfectly.
Naruto then adjusted his fingers over the frets of the guitar and began to play a gentle tune, humming out the words he either didn't know or couldn't pronounce because the song was foreign. I smiled and placed me head on his shoulder. He didn't mind, and shifted his position so he could continue playing without his arm disturbing my peace. I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. This, for me, was life.
Once that song was finished, Naruto played a more upbeat tune – as in, he started to play the Can-Can. "Can, can you do the Can-Can, can you do the Can-Can, can you do the Can, can can can can you do the Can, Can you do the Can-Can…" he started to sing, and I clutched my stomach as I laughed, loudly. It was ridiculous; he'd stood up and started to kick his legs everywhere, surprisingly without missing a beat in his guitar. When the song ended, he turned around so I was facing his back and, with one last strum, he bent down and stuck his butt up in the air like a true Can-Can dancer. I was laughing so hard I toppled over and took over the whole bench, gasping for breath.
Naruto grinned and winked at me from between his legs and stood up, his hands playing a song I didn't recognize as he waited for me to get my wits about me. It took me a minute, but I finally calmed down, though every few seconds a fit of giggles would escape me. After another minute, I was sure I was once more in control of myself and I sat up, allowing Naruto to reclaim his place beside me.
"Ne, did that make your day?" he asked.
"Oh, you know it did, Naruto."
"Awesome! Then that means it's your turn to dance!"
"Huh? What? I'm not ready to dance yet!" I objected.
"Well, I want you to. Plleeaaase?" he begged with his puppy eyes. He played a pitiful song in his guitar for effect. Heck, he even got down on his knees by me as he did all of the above.
I tried to remain firm, but I eventually cracked. There's just no way I can resist such an adorable, amusing thing. I sighed. "Fine! Fine. But remember, I pick the song." He jumped up to his feet, all traces of his desolate, pitiful puppy imitation gone. I rolled my eyes. Typical.
"Absolutely, Sakura-chan! What will it be?" he asked me eagerly.
"Play Bamboleo of the Gypsy Kings," I replied smugly. Spanish guitar of gypsy music was one of the hardest, most advanced types of guitar music out there; I learned that when I went to Spain two years ago. It was amazing how cool it sounded, but crazy how good you have to be to play it. I figured that if Naruto couldn't play it, I wouldn't have to dance. I thought I'd gotten away with it due to his shocked face, but when he smirked at me – smirked, not grinned – I knew I'd underestimated him.
"Ne, Sakura-chan, I think it's time I showed you that I haven't been slacking off either these past few years. Believe it!" Then, to my utter amazement, his fingers moved up and down the frets, the fingers of his other hand strumming each individual string before playing a chord only to do it all over again but with different notes and chords. Holy crow, he was playing both the melody and the harmony! In a Spanish gypsy song! I'm not sure even Jimmy Hendrix could pull that off.
Naruto hummed the words and made some sounds similar to those of the lyrics since he couldn't speak Spanish and had no idea how to sing the song; though I'll admit there were some bits were he could pull off the sound that was very close to the actual word. He used his head to make a gesture telling me to get up and get going, never once getting distracted from the song. I sighed, giving in, before doing just that. I was inwardly thankful that I'd paid attention to the gypsy dancers when I was taken to a music festival in my trip to Spain. I paused, recalling the steps and gestures of the dance before I began; my analysis finishing up by the time the chorus came around again.
I raised one arm over my head, turning the wrist as I placed the other arm across my stomach and cocking my hip to the side. Then I began to dance.
"You were amazing, Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed for the hundredth time in the past hour. "Like, seriously, are you sure you aren't a Spanish gypsy? `Cause I swear you do it better than some of `em – believe it!"
I smiled at him, shaking my head. "I'm sure I'm not, Naruto."
"Well, I don't know about you, but that sure worked up my appetite! Next stop: Ichiraku's!" I agreed with him, settling comfortably in my seat as he sped along the roads towards the restaurant. After our little duo performance, we had attracted a bit of a crowd since foreign cultural performances, especially dances and music, were so rare. People were awed at Naruto's skill with the acoustic guitar while they were impressed by my dance, although I swear part of the reason was due to my pink hair. But whatever. In the end, so as to not disappoint (especially the children present), we ended up doing six more songs of the same style. We only stopped when Naruto couldn't keep up and I required some water. Surprisingly enough, our audience liked our performance so much they gave us all sorts of drinks to freshen up, a standing ovation, and money (that was not loose change!) despite our protests that we weren't doing it for the money.
I smiled at myself. I knew someone who would've loved that last bit. I shook my head. No, I was not going to think of the greedy pest I'd met that morning nor of his little band. This time was strictly Naruto time, so I focused on him.
"Hey, Naruto," I said.
"You said you had another surprise. Is it at Ichiraku's or after?"
"Well," he answered, "it's after Ichiraku's but it begins there. Kind of. Don't worry, you'll see when we get there." I nodded, taking another sip of water from one of the numerous drinks we'd been so graciously given. I trusted Naruto, and after seeing how much I enjoyed his last surprise, I wouldn't be surprised if I enjoyed what he had planned next just as much.
Soon enough, we arrived at Ichiraku's. It wasn't a big restaurant with tables, waiters and glass cups or metal cutlery. It was more of a permanent food stand with a single long table, like one of a bar, and several high stools to sit on; the kitchen was right across from the seats so you could watch as the food was prepared, which was exactly what had brought us here as children and endeared the place to us. The man who runs the place, Mr. Teuchi, set up the little stand years ago with his family. Ayame, his daughter, helped him with it since she was about thirteen doing odd jobs such as watching the noodles and stirring them or packaging take-out orders.
"Hey, old man!" Naruto called out merrily as we stepped out of the truck and walked into the homey stand. "Guess what I have for you!"
"Hey, Naruto," Teuchi called back, walking into sight from behind a loose flap which covered the entrance of the little storage area where he kept his supplies. "What is –?" He stopped cold when he spotted me just behind the blonde. "Is that Sakura-chan I see there? It must be because I don't think there's anyone else in the planet with that hair!"
We all laughed merrily as I stepped around Naruto to stand in front of the older man. He had aged lightly these past few years; only some crow's feet and some deeper smile lines had made their appearance during my long absence. We both stared at each other for a second more, taking in the changes that had taken place but still seeing the same person as before before leaning across the counter and sharing a hug. He was that special to me.
"Ayame!" he called as he pushed me back so he could hold my shoulder. "Come here! Naruto has brought us a little present!" I smiled. I couldn't wait to see her. The last time I had seen Ayame was when she was seventeen, my age, so now she must be twenty-six.
Like her father, Ayame, with her long, beautiful brown hair and kind face, stepped out from the back, her lips forming a question when her eyes landed on me. She froze for a second before she squealed in delight and launched herself at me. "Kyaa! It's Sakura-chan!" she cried gleefully. "How've you been?"
I smiled widely back at her, hugging her back just as fiercely. I was an only child, but I always considered Ayame the big sister I never had. "I've been just peachy," I answered her. "Fabulous, in fact. And you?"
"Just great, now that you're here," she replied with her characteristic kind smile.
"Wait a minute, girls!" Teuchi interrupted us. "You can get talking later. Right now we need to celebrate! All you guys want, anything and everything you can eat, is on the house!"
"Alright!" Naruto cheered and sat on one of the stools, breaking apart a pair of wooden chopsticks excitedly, his mouth watering. "I want one bowl of everything, old man! Please and thank you!"
Teuchi laughed good humouredly at the blonde's antics and set out to do just that. "Sakura-chan, what about you? Still want some shrimp and beef in yours?" Beef and shrimp ramen was my favourite combination bowl back in the day, and I grinned widely at him and nodded my confirmation, happy that he still remembered even after all this time.
He laughed and disappeared into the back for supplies. "Ayame! Come help me here, we have a lot to prepare!"
Ayame nodded and released my hand. "We'll talk later, Sakura-chan," she promised before she disappeared after her father.
I smiled at no one in particular, taking my place on the stool beside Naruto's, and talked to Ayame and Teuchi as they prepared our meals. We talked about everything and anything; some important things and some other frivolities. Naruto devoured bowl after bowl of ramen that was served, and Teuchi and Ayame only chuckled good heartedly at his insatiable appetite, which they were used to by now.
About seven bowls of ramen later for Naruto and one and a half for me, new voiced entered the little space of the stand. Teuchi welcomed the new custumers over his shoulder before returning to work as Ayame politely excused herself from our conversation to attend to them. Neither Naruto nor I looked up at the newcomers; we were both too focused on the slim strings of heaven that we were slurping when I heard Ayame call out a familiar name.
"Oh! Sasuke-san, good to see you. And you too guys too, Sai-san and Kakashi-san. Naruto's just over there."
This time I did turn, as did my blonde friend, who had a few ends of noodle hanging out of his mouth. When he saw Sasuke, he slurped them in and swallowed them quickly before raising his arm in greeting.
"Hey, Sasuke! Over here!" he said, waving his arm as if we were across the mall instead of only a few feet away from them.
Sasuke inclined his head and walked over to us, followed by two other guys I had never met. The first guy was smiling pleasantly and was strikingly similar to Sasuke though I didn't think he was related to him. Like Sasuke, he had pale, pale skin and dark, dark hair, though it shined a dark brown where the light hit it. His face was slightly more boyish though his body said he was at least the same age as me. He had a black stud earring in his left ear and wore a black leather jacket with a dark green shirt and grey washed-out skinny jeans. His smile pushed up against his cheeks, making him close his eyes pleasantly. When he opened them, they were as dark as Sasuke's, making the similarities all the more palpable, but like his hair, his eyes weren't quite the same tone as Sasuke's. He also nodded at Naruto, still smiling, and then his eyes traveled up to me, where they stayed. He tilted his head slightly to the side, smile still in place, probably curious about me like I was of him.
The second guy looked a bit older, around his mid- to late twenties, or around there. He wore a plain long-sleeved black polo shirt with a white vest which hung loosely on his shoulders and black dress pants. His shirt had silver horizontal lines, of a hair's width, running down its length, making what I'd say was his most prominent feature stand out even more: his hair. His hair was silver – not grey, I swear – and was fairly long, though not too much. But that wasn't all. His hair was gravity-defying as it stood straight up, the ends flopping down carelessly to the side as if he had spilled gel on it and tried to get it off with a vacuum cleaner. His shoulders slumped down as he sent Naruto a care-free wave, his one visible eye (the other being covered by a cream coloured bandana with black leaf symbols like the one Naruto wore around his neck tied around his head beneath the hair line) crinkling as he smiled behind his red scarf, which covered everything from his neck to his nose.
"Yo," the silver-haired stranger greeted Naruto.
"Kakashi! You're late!" Naruto accused, jabbing his chopsticks in the man's direction after he turned completely around in his seat. The man, who I now knew was named Kakashi, shrugged.
"So are they," he replied, and Sasuke snorted.
"Yeah, because we had to hunt you down," he said as he moodily plopped down on the stool on Naruto's other side. His look-alike just stood there, smiling.
"Yeah, whatever. I'm used to your stupid stunts by now," Naruto grumbled before brightening up. "Now that you're here, I'll tell you the reason why I wanted you guys to meet here." He took a deep breath and swung his arm around my shoulders. "I want you guys to meet one of my oldest friends and one of my most important people ever! Guys, this is Sakura Haruno. We've known each other since we were in diapers. She moved away a few years ago, but now she's back, though only for vacation." He turned towards me, smiling happily. "Sakura-chan, these are my friends and band mates; Kakashi Hatake – " he gestured at the silver-haired man who sent me a friendly wave, which I returned with a timid one, wiggling my fingers, " – and Sai Azamoto," he finished, pointing to the other guy. "You already know Sasuke, of course."
Sasuke nodded my way. "Haruno-san," he said by way of greeting. I smiled at him.
"Oh, you can call me Sakura. Any friend of Naruto's and Teuchi's and Ayame's is a friend of mine." He inclined his head, accepting the offer.
"Then you may call me just Sasuke." I nodded back at him.
"Hello, Sakura-san, if I may call you that," Kakashi said, walking up to me and offering me his hand. I took it and we shook them, his other hand covering my own in a friendly way. "It's nice to meet you."
"Likewise, Kakashi-san," I replied. "And yep, you may just call me Sakura. No need for a suffix here." His eye twinkled and he nodded, releasing my hand and then taking a seat beside me. I turned my attention to Sai.
"Hello there, Sai-san," I said, giving him a friendly smile. "Nice to meet you, too."
He walked hesitantly over to me, smile still there, and took my hand. "Nice to finally meet you, Haruno. Dickless refers to you often." I raised my eyebrow at him.
"'Dickless'?" I echoed. Kakashi gasped dramatically beside me.
"No, no, no, Sakura-san!" he exclaimed. "A lady shouldn't say such vulgar things!" I gave him a confused look, while Naruto growled menacingly at Sai, who just gave him an infuriating smirk.
"This idiot likes to give people weird nicknames," Naruto clarified under his breath. "Unfortunately, the nicknames he gives people are the kind you can do without. You would think he enjoys angering people just as much," he snorted.
I fought off a grin. "You mean you're 'Dickless?'" I asked him, piecing it together. He gave Sai an annoyed glare before sighing and turning to me slowly, as if the admission was painful to him.
"Yes. Unfortunately, the bastard has refused to call me anything else."
Sai shrugged indifferently, taking a seat beside Sasuke. "Hey, it could be worse."
Naruto snorted again, though he couldn't suppress the cheeky grin that slowly crawled onto his face. "That's true." I gave him an amused look.
"Do I want to know?"
"Maybe later, Sakura-san," Kakashi smiled at me from behind his scarf. "Right now we have to celebrate your return!"
I smiled as the three newcomers placed their order and starting their conversation, making a point to include me which made me feel like I was part of the group, which was very nice of them. Teuchi and Ayame also participated, making me even more happy. It felt like family.
After an hour and a half or so of eating, talking and being plain merry, Naruto, his old and my now new friends and I left Ichiraku's, waiving at Teuchi and Ayame and thanking them for the meal, promising to come back again soon. After we entered the truck – Kakashi and Sai were riding with Sasuke in his fancy race car – I turned to Naruto.
"Okay, so I've had my first surprise and we've had lunch. What's next, captain?"
Naruto grinned at me as he backed out of the parking space and into the street. "You'll see, Sakura-chan." I pouted.
"Oh, come on! Give me a clue."
"Alright, alright. It has to do with the guys."
"Hm. Not really informative."
"It's very similar to your first surprise."
I processed that new piece of information, thinking back to any clues I might have previously missed in the last hour and a half. Then it clicked. I turned towards Naruto once more. "When you introduced them, you said they were your friends and your band mates. Does that mean you have created an actual legit band with them?"
He grinned at me. "Glad to see you still have the Sherlock Holmes brains," he teased. "Yup, that's right. Sasuke and Sai are my band mates; Kakashi's more like our mentor. But that's beside the point." He shrugged.
"So the surprise has something to do with you guys playing something for me so you can show off?" I teased back. He chuckled and looped an arm around me, steering with his other hand.
"More or less, yeah." I was about to ask where we were heading, but he cut me off. "Don't ask any more or you'll ruin the surprise, ne. But I promise you'll be amazed out of your skin!"
"I like my skin where and how it is, thank you very much."
He laughed, throwing his head back in his free spirited way. "You just have to have the last word, don't you?"
"Believe it!" I fist pumped the air.
"Hey! That's my line!" He ruffled my hair as I laughed at his playful growl, deciding to heed his words and wait out for my surprise as we headed to the mystery location.
Turns out the 'mystery location' was a tall, fancy-looking building in the downtown area. I tried to read the sign to see if I could get a clue to what we were doing there, but Naruto, in his excitement and inability to wait to show me my surprise, pulled me inside before I even stepped out of the truck.
Sasuke, Sai and Kakashi were already there by the main lobby, waiting for the elevator. A security guard sat behind a desk, typing something into the computer when Naruto and I arrived. The security guy looked up and, seemingly recognizing Naruto, only nodded in our direction. I found it odd that Naruto was so well-acquainted with a security guard from such a fanciful place, and that the guard didn't question him for bringing me along, but I shrugged it off and focused instead on what was going on.
We headed for our friends, who appeared to be waiting for us. With a few more quick polite greetings, the elevator arrived and I was waved in first, keeping up with the "ladies first" smooth tradition. Kakashi, along with Naruto, bowed down low as they simultaneously said that, and I chuckled, taking Kakashi's hand which he had offered. Once the five of us were inside, Sai pressed the floor button, which was twenty-three, and I looked at him, mildly surprised as the doors closed quietly.
"The penthouse? Really?" I questioned, and he shook his head.
"Not the penthouse. That's the Big Boss' place. We're going to the floor two stories below."
"Why so high?"
"Are you afraid of heights, Sakura-chan?" Kakashi asked concernedly, and I noticed he'd changed the –san suffix for –chan, like Naruto. But I didn't mind. But apparently the blonde did.
"Hey, hey, hey! Back off, buddy. Only I can call her Sakura-chan!" he protested, and Kakashi rolled his eyes.
"Fine then. Sakura it is," he complied, looking at me in confirmation that it was okay for him to use my first name without suffix. I nodded, and his eye crinkled at the corner, signifying he was giving me a smile. "So are you?" he asked me. I denied it with my head.
"Naw," I replied, "it's just that this place looks like a business building, and normally the floors are assigned to the status of the workers; the higher floors given to the bosses and the lower floors given to the workers."
"Ah," he said, nodding. "You're right in that. Sai said that the penthouse was the Big Boss' place, and that's true. We're going to the third-from last floor because we're also at the top of the company." I furrowed my brow at his words. What company? Didn't Naruto tell me they were a band?
Sasuke saw my confusion and turned to Naruto. "You didn't tell her?"
"Tell? Tell me what?" I put my hands on my hips. "What's going on here?"
All eyes were on Naruto as he sheepishly scratched his cheek with a finger. "Eheheh," he said, nervous. "I may have kinda, sorta omitted the bit that we're a professional band signed on to Ninja Records…" he trailed off, and my eyes bulged. Ninja Records were the biggest music firm in Japan. Scratch that, it was in the top three music firms in all of Asia. Heck, scratch that, it was in the top three music firms in the world.
Before I could wrap my hands around Naruto's neck, the elevator dinged, telling us we had arrived at our floor, and the doors slid open to reveal a state-of-the-art recording studio.
I stepped off the elevator and looked around taking everything in. The whole floor, save for a lounge living room which I guessed served as a recreational area, a polished marble kitchen connected to it and some bathrooms to the side, was dedicated exclusively as a recording studio.
The kitchen, which was made of white marble counters and floor tiles, was spotless and was probably a dream kitchen for a would-be chef. I saw a refrigerator taller than me tucked neatly and inconspicuously by the window, and I had no doubt that it was stocked to its full capacity. My eyes then moved to the windows, since the view was so awesome due to our enhanced height. Then I realized the view was stellar because the windows were as big as the wall, going from floor to ceiling, overlooking the city.
The windows in the kitchen were connected to the ones in the lounge area, so naturally that's what I looked at next. The floor was soft, fluffy white carpet with black, puffy leather recliners and sofas placed tastefully in a U facing the windows with a small, dark brown coffee table in the center. I found it odd that the seats were facing the outside, considering that Naruto's band was made up of young men barely out of their teens, and when I looked up sure enough there was the bottom of a TV screen poking behind the curtains. To the side, on the wall that separated the recording studio from the otherwise ordinary albeit wealthy-looking apartment, there was a small bookcase with books of all sizes and colors organized and scattered about it.
Having finished my inspection of the relaxing part of the floor, I finally turned my head to look at the studio, which easily took up half of the whole floor. It was divided from the rest of the place by a wooden wall with a thick glass to see through and a door; I hadn't the smallest doubt that it was to sound-proof it. I approached the window and peered in, sucking in my breath at the treasures I saw and when I realized just how much this must've cost.
About a third of the studio was dedicated as the control room, made for the sound machines which controlled the mikes, sound, volume, sound effects, cues, and all that; like what you'd see in a movie. There was another wall with a huge window from that room into the actual recording area, with a door at the far side to let the artists in. In the recording area, there was a beautiful, brand-new drum kit sitting in the center, three electric guitars leaning peacefully against the back wall, a couple bass guitars, a piano, a trumpet, a piccolo, tuba, cello, trombone, clarinet, violin, a pair of maracas, a triangle, some microphones and their stands, and an accordion…?
The place was filled with all kinds of instruments, and there were some chairs in there too so the band could sit if they chose to. It was pretty cool, really.
"So…" I heard Naruto's voice behind me say cautiously. "Am I going to live to see another day?"
I turned to face him. "Maybe. Show me how you work here and your chances will definitely increase." He grinned at me, brightening up immediately. I realized as he gathered his band that he was waiting for me to ask him to play all along. Sneaky fox.
While the band, meaning Sasuke, Naruto and Sai, walked into the studio and got organized, I asked Kakashi, who was sitting beside me in the control room, "so what's the band's name?"
"You see the leaves we all wear?" he asked, pointing at the leaves in his bandana. The leafs were an abstract image made of a single line which went straight for a moment, forming the stem, before falling into a spiral which had a small triangle attached to it's side opposite the stem, forming the body. I nodded. "We are known as Team 7. The leafs are our symbol due to the seven looking a bit like a leaf and also due to the fact that everyone in the band is in some way attached to something with leaves." I nodded in understanding. I looked at the band as they set up, Naruto grabbing a black and orange electric guitar (no surprise there) while Sasuke sat behind the drums and Sai adjusted a simple black bass guitar.
"I can see Naruto's leaf insignia," I commented slowly, eyeing the boys, "But I can't see Sai's or Sasuke's."
"They are a bit harder to see," Kakashi allowed. "Let me help you out. Like Naruto's, Sai's leaf is a piece of jewellery, or accessory if you think the former word is too girly." He chuckled as he turned on the mikes and the sound editing machine. "Sasuke's is the hardest to see due to his clothes. But here's your clue: his leaf is a bit more… permanent. Can you find them now?"
I squinted at the boys, focusing on the clues Kakashi had given me. Due to their moving around, it took me a minute to find their leaves, but I did it. Turns out Sai's stud earring wasn't a funky flat disk but his leaf insignia. I just couldn't see it that well back at Ichiraku's due to the lighter available light.
Now Sasuke's, true to Kakashi's word, took a little longer to find. It wasn't until Naruto said something which was probably annoying that Sasuke whipped his head around to rebuke him, revealing the place where his neck met his left shoulder. It was a leaf just like the others'; though unlike the others' leaves which could be removed, Sasuke couldn't remove his because his leaf was tattooed into his skin. My eyes widened in surprise before narrowing again as I found some light, probably old scarring tissue underneath the tattoo. It was hard to see, a feat considering how light his skin was, but my trained eyes found it. I was sure there was quite the story behind that, but I decided against prying.
"Found them?" Kakashi asked.
"Yup," I confirmed, sitting back on the comfy leather seat. He raised his eyebrow at me.
"That was fast."
"What can I say? I have good eyesight."
"Ah. If that's the case, did you see something odd about Sasuke?" I glanced at him from the corner of my eye before focusing back on the boys, which were almost ready.
"You mean the scar tissue underneath his tattoo?" I asked nonchalantly. "Yeah, I did."
His eye widened considerably. He let out a low whistle. "Wow, your eyesight is good. I can't tell you how many times I saw Sasuke's tattoo before I realized he even had a scar there." I smiled at him.
"It's my job to find things like that," I said, and before he could ask what I meant by my job, I asked first, "So if we're in the third floor from above, who's in the second-top?"
He regarded me silently, clearly aware of my evasive strategy but deciding to let it go and play along. "Going on the status thing, that floor is for the record company's most popular band, and our current rival group," he answered.
I raised an eyebrow, taking it in as Sai's voice sounded in the room, telling Kakashi they were good to go. "What band is that?" I asked.
Naruto, having been privy to our conversation, opened his mouth to answer when a low, smooth, rich voice I was unfortunately acquainted with answered for him.
"That would be us."
I froze, hoping against hope that my hearing had gone haywire and that it wasn't who I think it was because that meant if he was here, so were the rest of them. Finishing my prayers, I slowly turned my head, just to see none other than Itachi Uchiha standing a few steps away from the elevator entrance. I ducked, curling my legs up to my chest as I lid further into my seat and swivelling my chair around so the back of the chair acted as a cover for me. I really didn't want to have to deal with the Akatsuki right now.
"Itachi," Sasuke's voice greeted the newcomer monotously through the receiver before he walked to the door and stepped through. "What brings you here?"
"Little brother," Itachi greeted back in his deep, quiet voice. "I just came to check on you. You know Mother prefers to know if you're in the building or not." Sasuke accepted the explanation easily with a tilt of his head.
"Very well then. Thank her for her concern, please."
"Hn. Of course." I heard a quiet, almost inaudible soft shuffle fading away. "I will be on my way, then. See you soon, little brother."
I waited until I heard the soft ding sound of the elevator signifying that a button had been pressed before letting out a relieved breath I didn't know I had been holding. Sasuke and Kakashi both gave me quizzical looks, which I ignored, happy that I had evaded the sources of my annoyance that morning when it all crashed down with one simple sentence by one too-eager Akatsuki member.
"Oh! Oh! Tobi knows that hair color! It's the same color as the hair from the Angel-chan of this morning!" Tobi's unmistakeable voice called out excitedly from the elevator. I cringed. "See, Deidara-senpai? There, by that big chair! Don't you think it's the same color?"
I took a deep breath and counted to five. My cover was definitely blown; no use hiding now. I slowly exhaled and sat up straight, once again ignoring the looks of my friends from Team 7, though the looks they were giving me had changed from quizzical to a mix of shock and confusion. Using my foot, I lightly pushed against the floor, turning my chair so I was facing out the door towards the elevator where Itachi stood with his arms crossed, the rest of the Akatsuki standing comfortably in the huge elevator behind him.
One by one, they all slowly stepped out of it and into the room, all of their gazes on me.
"Hey, it's the pink bitch!" Hidan grinned.
"Hey, it is, yeah!" Deidara smiled.
"What a small world, eh?" Kisame smirked.
"Hidan, please refer from calling the doll-face a female dog," Sasori said in his usual bored tone, though he gave me a crooked, tiny smile.
"Angel-chan! Pretty girl! Tobi missed you!" Tobi waved his arms excitedly and was ready to launch himself at me were it not for Zetsu who grabbed the collar of his shirt, stopping him.
"Tobi, please try control yourself. You're gonna scare her."
Kakuzu rolled his eyes, clearly not impressed, while Pein remained quiet beside Itachi, though there was a ghost of a smile on his lips, just like on his dark-haired companion's.
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, unsurely as he stepped through the door, his guitar hanging loosely by his hips; Sai coming in right behind him, his smile gone.
"Sakura-chan? But what a lovely name!" Madara's joy-ride voice boomed, and I cringed again. Screw this. Please, dear lord, tell me I'm imagining things. "It must be fate, I say! Fate! The gods agree that we must have been destined to be together!"
Clearly, someone up there is playing dice with my life. And whoever it is, is losing miserably.
To add to my problems, I could feel a headache coming. Oh, joy. This is going to be a looong day; I just know it.