Chapter 35 — Stolen Assets

We cannot tell now,
But let us try a small test:
If we both survive,
Will it be I who forget
Or you who fail to visit?
Anonymous, love poem from a Heian-era Japanese courtesan

Sakura knew Tsunade was locked in a closed-door meeting. That was precisely why she chose this day to deliver her mission scrolls. She’d just leave them with Shizune and be on her way. That way, it wouldn’t look like she was avoiding anyone….

Outside the office, Shizune smiled at Sakura’s approach. Sakura handed her the passel of scrolls, sure her plan would work, but Shizune waved her off and opened the door instead, ushering Sakura inside. Sakura grimaced, but she had to comply.

“They’re just wrapping up,” Shizune assured, misunderstanding Sakura’s look.

“Oh. Uh, good,” Sakura said resignedly. She stepped inside and leaned against the back wall, trying to make herself inconspicuous.

A few of the men turned back, acknowledging her. But the rest of the shabbily dressed men were too involved with pressing their own causes to notice the addition.

The room was filled with representatives of the Fire Country, men who came from the towns and burgs and dusty intersections of the most far-flung corners of their country. They were all concerned, had all heard rumors or seen shinobi moving silently through their lands, slipping out to fortify the borders. And they wanted all answers.

Tsunade’s sat at her desk, eyebrows pinched together in anger. She was listening to the complaints of a stocky man in well-worn robes that Konoha’s nins were stealing from their food stores.

Sakura felt Tsunade’s indignation — no self-respecting Konoha shinobi would ever steal from his own countrymen.

But watching Tsunade’s valiant display of patience and restraint, Sakura wondered again if there was more to the story.

The Hokage had been pouring over every scrap of information lately, including mission scrolls. Just the fact that she was giving these men, some of them no more than farmers, a chunk of her afternoon was testament to that.

Tsunade leaned forward on her elbows suddenly and gave the man in front of her desk a long, hard look. “And you know that it’s Konoha nins? You’ve seen them, with you’re own eyes, and can give me a description? Of any kind?”

The man’s round cheeks went red. His hands disappeared into the sleeves of his old robe. He stumbled over a confession that no, he hadn’t actually laid eyes on the person. Just heard a rumor.

Tsunade rolled her eyes and bit back an obviously scathing remark. Sakura thought she was exercising much more self-control than she would have if it were a room full of shinobis

The Hokage stood and raised her hand. The muttering men quieted. “Thank you, gentlemen, for making the journey into Konoha. Hopefully it has allayed some of your fears.” There was a low rumble of dissent, but she spoke over it. “I will look over the reports closely. If you have more issues, send them by messenger—“ The men closed in around her desk before she’d finished speaking, each trying to snag her attention.

Sakura thought this was the best time to drop off her own mission scrolls, then get out. She quick-stepped around the slower moving civilians, aiming for back edge of the desk where she knew the mission basket sat.

“Sakura,” Tsunade said over the bustle. “A word, please.”

Caught, Sakura simply bowed and stepped back to the edge of the curving room to wait until the last man left.

Shizune must have been standing outside, counting them as they went, because as soon as the last one was out – the stocky one who was dallying over a few more unsolved petty crimes — she stepped inside, locked the door and sagged against it.

No one spoke into the sudden silence. Tsunade sank down in her chair. Finally, rubbing a hand over her forehead, she waved for Sakura’s scrolls.

“Thank you,” she said quietly and flipped through the documents. Sakura knew she was cataloging the information in order of importance to go over later. Not for the first time was Sakura impressed that Tsunade could keep it all together, the running of a city and a country. But somehow she did.

Sakura hoped she might still be able to escape. “Tsunade-sama, if there aren’t questions about any of the scrolls, then I’ll just be going—“

“Sakura,” Tsunade said, sitting back from her desk and starting to unwind, “I’ve missed seeing you on Fridays.” Tsunade’s amber gaze settled squarely on her. “You aren’t delivering the hospital scrolls anymore?”

Sakura cringed. She was caught. Tsunade knew she dropped out of shift rotation at the hospital. “I’ve, uh, been with Team 7 lately. You know…missions, training….”

Even as she said it, Sakura knew her answer sounded like the weak excuse that it was. She had been avoiding Tsunade, the hospital, all of it, just so she wouldn’t have to answer questions.

Tsunade looked as if she saw right through her. “Sakura, I noticed your name was not on the med-nin roster. And I was wondering if there was a reason….”

Sakura sighed. Shizune excused herself from the office, which didn’t make Sakura feel any less trapped than she already was.

Rubbing her hand across her neck, Sakura searched for the words to explain how she felt, even though she herself wasn’t completely sure.

“I’ve just been busy with my team. I guess that would be the best way to put it….”

How else could she put it? Say that the thought of returning to medic work hung over her like an execution? That she no longer wanted to mend wounds and babysit the injured…. That she wanted to draw blood and make others feel pain for a change.

Sakura felt terrible for turning her back on the skills she trained so long and hard at. And Tsunade was bound to be disappointed, which made her feel even worse. But she couldn’t go back. The thought of spending another shift in that hospital was like choking off her air.

So she’d buried herself in her missions and training until she figured it all out. Her team had found some common ground and was making great strides. But for Sakura, Team 7’s success had come at a cost. She’d abandoned her medical career. And she couldn’t say whether she’d ever go back.

And she didn’t know how to tell her mentor who had always believed in her, that she no longer believed in herself.

“Sakura, you are the finest medic I’ve ever met,” Tsunade said and Sakura dropped her gaze to the floor. “And it’s been my pleasure to watch you grow as a student. Your chakra control is a thing of beauty. What others work so hard to coax out, you do just on instinct. It’s a rare gift—“

Sakura didn’t look up. She couldn’t bear to hear anymore. And somehow, Tsunade understood.

“But I know how you feel. I’ve been where you are,” she said quietly, then stood and turned to look out the picture window behind her desk. “Sometimes when you lose someone, it takes a while to get over it.”

Sakura looked up in confusion, but Tsunade’s thoughts were far away. The blue light of the Konoha reflected on her face, casting shadows in the fine lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth and making her years show in her face.

“There was a time….” Tsunade bit her bottom lip, holding in some long-buried memory, but she cleared her throat and continued. “There was a time when just the smell of a med-kit would make me vomit. And the sight of blood—“ She shuddered, then breathed a humorless laugh. “Well, let’s just say I stayed away from it — from healing, from shinobi life, even from this village —for a very long time. And it took half the village being destroyed for me to wake up and come back.”

Sakura blinked, remembering Tsunade’s return, and how her strength helped resurrect the village after the death of the Sandaime. She didn’t realize Tsunade was resurrecting herself as well.

“I understand, Sakura. I really do,” Tsunade said, turning back to her. “Take some time. Stay with your team. But don’t wait too long. Being a med-nin, a healer, is who you are. And it’ll catch up with you eventually, no matter how hard you run from it.”

Sakura didn’t know what to say. It didn’t make her feel better, not completely, but it was a relief.

“Stay with them. For now,” Tsunade said, kindness in her voice. “I won’t add your name back to the medic roster.”

Still in disbelief, Sakura dipped her head for an unsteady bow. “Thank you Tsunade-sama,” she said, closing her eyes.

If her medic life was a like a sentence, then she’d been given a pardon. “Thank you,” she breathed.

A flash of green eyes and a tip of a chin in the right direction was all that needed for communication between Team 7 these days. Following the choppy pink braid in front of him through the crowd of shinobis on the ceremonial platform, Sasuke silently acknowledged the changes they’d undergone. But he wasn’t the only one who’d noticed.

Shinobis of all rank and file stepped back as Sakura made her way through the crowd. The younger ones, the ones who’d come through academy in the years directly after theirs, openly watched her. Fear, respect and even jealousy mingled on their faces. Their own classmates nodded with the respect that only came from years of close work. And even some of the older nins broke from their seen-it-all stances to spare a nod for her. Sasuke noted that a few let their eyes rest on her a little too long. He’d remember them.

But Sakura didn’t seem to be aware of any of it. Head back, long pink hair in its customary braid, shoulders squared, she walked to the front of the gathering of shinobis waiting for Tsunade’s mission assignments and stopped. She nodded once to Kakashi, who stood at the side with the other instructors and team leaders, then turned her head expectantly, waiting for him to step beside her.

Tendrils of hair that had escaped her braid drifted over her shoulder in the spring breeze. Her green eyes searched his face, subtly looking for any unspoken communication that something might be amiss.

More than anyone here, she was attuned to him, watching him, somehow knowing he hated the whispers that always followed him in crowds like this. Even though he’d never told her.

She was protective of him. Of both he and Sai. Not because they needed it, but because they were a team.

Sasuke squared his shoulders and tipped his head in the barest of nods to her. Everything was fine.

Satisfied, she glanced at Sai who had just stepped up to flank her other side. He nodded too. Only then did she let her hand settle on her kunai while they waited for Tsunade.

They weren’t often all called together, but when they were, it was a bit of a show. Sasuke’s hand went to the handle of his katana, feeling comforted by the weight in his grip. He was one of the few sword-wielders in the village, the last Uchiha and, he boasted inwardly, on the most powerful team from their year.

And of the few teams that were more powerful in the rest of the village’s shinobi corp, which was only through their use of synchronized jutsus, he was pretty sure they could take them too. Sakura was their secret weapon. Not only was she ferocious and determined and could turn whole swaths of earth into a pulp, she was a medic. When one of their team went down, she could heal them and they’d be back up again. Not so for other teams. Sakura added the asset of endurance.

From the line of instructors and genin team leaders, Kakashi beckoned to Sakura. As she left, the whispered voices to the side of him caught his ear. Especially when he heard a breathy, “That’s her! Haruno Sakura!”

Sasuke fixed his gaze high, but shifted his feet, turning his body subtly toward the speakers. A single glance down showed a team of genin standing nearby, huddled together in discussion. They were a good head shorter than the rest of the mingling shinobi around them. And they were too young or too stupid to realize that the man within grabbing distance of the first one’s neck was her teammate.

Sasuke slanted another glance down at them. They also had no idea they were being watched. Two boys and a girl. Sasuke had a vague memory that this was Kakashi’s new team.

He adjusted his grip on his katana and wondered how Kakashi could stand taking on a team. Just keeping them alive would be job enough, let alone training them to be shinobi.

“I heard she was kidnapped and fought her way back, through a ninja army…single-handedly,” one boy gushed.

“No you idiot,” the other boy snapped. “She’s like a doctor or something. I heard she cut off a guy’s arm and reattached it, just so she could cut it off again!”

The girl stopped their argument. “Not so loud! Her other teammates are probably around her somewhere—“

It was too much to resist. Sasuke turned his full thunderous glare down at them.

They jumped then shrunk back, realizing in unison that this just might be the famous Uchiha, the one they’d heard could kill people with his eyes…..

Guessing what rumors they’d heard by the way their eyes were locked to his in sheer panic, Sasuke thought he’d really give them a scare.

The faintest red spiraled slowly around his irises. There was no power in it, so they were in no danger. Except of being terrified—

The kids were horrified…and mesmerized. The girl even slapped a hand over her face but still peeped through her fingers. Sasuke remembered being that age. He knew they were scared, but he also knew they really wanted to see it—

A soft hand curled over his shoulder. “Kakashi says to stop terrorizing his team,” Sakura said with a smile in her voice. He turned to see her eyes laughing and couldn’t stop the corner of his mouth form curving into a rare grin at being caught. He nodded to Kakashi, who’s eyes were wrinkled in a knowing smile.

Sakura stepped forward, shaking her head in laughing surprise at Sasuke. Even Sasuke didn’t know why he did decided to tease those kids. Just felt like it. It felt…fun. He supposed they’d all changed, in ways they never expected—

“Hi guys,” Sakura said around Sasuke to the team.

They collectively swooned. “Hi Ms…uh Haruno-san,” they crowed, even daring a few glances up at her scary teammate.

Any other conversation was swept away with Tsunade’s arrival on the platform. Each turned forward and dropped to one knee, understanding the gravity of the situation. Even the Kakashi’s team had straightened up admirably.

Tsunade gave a stirring speech about about the challenges they faced and how important their actions were. But the anticipation of missions overrode Sasuke’s listening. He always got jittery just about now, wrestling with his hope for a good mission…and memories of the searing anger at being left behind.

“In the coming weeks many of you will have to cross borders and travel to distant soils, all to keep this land safe. We ask that you do this without reserve, in loyalty and silence. And we pray to the gods that you make it safely home.”

Tsunade unfurled her assignment scroll and began reading the mission rolls, beginning with the genin teams.

“….And a D-rank for Team Kakashi….”

Beside Sasuke, the kids whispered their cheers and pounded the ground with their fists in as big a celebration as they dared. Obviously, a D-rank mission was a move up for them, Sasuke thought with a silent laugh.

He refocused on the rolls, listening for their names as the ranks dwindled down.

But as Tsunade closed out the A ranks assignments, Sasuke’s old fears crept in. They were going to being held back! Again! Probably some lame excuse the council had cooked up to keep them from going out, even though they had more than proved themselves on countless missions before—

“Lastly, Team Uchiha. That is all. S-ranks have already been assigned. Be safe out there—”

Sasuke couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As if to reinforce it, the kids on Kakashi’s team gasped audibly. He stared at the ground as he processed just what this meant for him. For all of them.

Beside him, Sakura was mouthing the words “yes, yes, yes,” and pounding the pavement with her fist.

Tsunade finished speaking and all the shinobis stood in unison. Most grabbed their scrolls and launched immediately, but Sasuke just looked at his team in a bit of a daze.

Kakashi, on his way to retrieve his team, offered his congratulations. Sakura left to get their mission scroll, and Kakashi shot Sasuke a meaningful look.

“An A-Rank, huh…. You know what this means, right?” Kakashi stepped around Sasuke, patting him on the shoulder as he went by. “You’ve made it. They’ll never be able to hold you back again.”

Sasuke jerked his chin in a sharp nod, not trusting himself to speak.

Sakura returned to with the scroll and explained that they were to infiltrate the border of the wind country and track the movements of enemy nin spotted there, back to their base. Tsunade needed to determine their country of origin.

Sasuke looked around at his team. Sakura was beaming. Even Sai’s expression usually reserved expression had warmed. They felt like a unit. Sasuke breathed deeply, chest swelling with pride. Real pride. He had made it. They had.

That summer, the missions came at a fast clip for all the Konoha shinobis. They tracked enemy nins across borders, spied on their outposts and infiltrated their ranks when they could, all in hopes of gleaning some information about plans of attack.

And there were no illusions that the enemy wasn’t doing the same to them.

Distrust was rampant. The only ones you could believe in were your own teammates. Tsunade made that abundantly clear in her reports. Shinobis were everywhere. From every country, large or small.

Even the hidden villages in the territories pulled together formidable shinobi units. Waterfall, Grass, Stone, Sound…. The list went on and on. The markings on headbands were dizzying. But they weren’t the only threat.

Any clan that fancied themselves as warriors sent out patrols. Their biggest threat was that they were armed with weapons but with little training. A weapon in the wrong hands was the most dangerous kind.

And then there were hired guards, Thugs, strongmen and ex-soldiers who’s loyalties followed the trail of coin, and could be easily bought off if you had more money than the last guy.

Sakura, Sasuke and Sai’s missions primarily consisted of tracking nins from the five nations, with orders to kill if they were trapped. But more often than not that summer, they tangled with everyone else.

The halcyon years of their genin time with Kakashi at the helm were long gone. The world around them had changed.

They took turns sitting up at night to keep watch. An ambush early on by a clan of young men, most of them too nervous to even fight, taught them a valuable lesson without any bloodshed. If heavy-footed farm boys had snuck up on them, then anyone could.

They developed a code, hand signals and head tips and, for worst-case scenarios, a series of blinks indicating ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ’run’ in the event one of them was caught and bound.

Sakura kept detailed notes of which shinobi they’d encountered and where, as well as their state of dress, weaponry and well-being. Many of the smaller bands of nins didn’t have adequate clothing or weapons, which spoke volumes about their countries.

Sakura, as well as all the Konoha nins, was operating under one directive: Find the ones who were preparing for war. Before they brought it to the Fire Nation’s doorstep.

And countries that could not afford to feed their shinobis were not likely candidates.

Sakura knew there was evidence that Hidden Mist nins were behind the movements. And their overriding goal on all these missions was to find and track the Mist nins if they could find them. But their secondary goal was to monitor any squads from the other great nations, specifically those that might have formed alliances.

It was one of these missions that brought them close to the Sand’s borders, tracking the rumor of a camp of rogues who had been stealing from a string of towns. The story didn’t pan out. There had been thefts, but it had been in the early spring. The rogues were long gone.

Their team stayed, scouting around to see what else they could unearth. At the very least they could relay some up-to-date information on the formidable border of the Earth Country.

They fanned out, walking the crust of land that jutted out from the edge of the scrubby desert valley. Woodlands populated the top of the land, but where it broke off in great cliffs to the valley floor, the view was brown terrain as far as the eye could see. It terminated in an ominous hazy yellow horizon. Sand. Which was it’s own defense system.

Sai’s inked mice skittered in front of each of them, winding around the base of the wind-gnarled pine trees, watching for crouched figures in hiding. Black-winged birds flitted through the trees, scanning for black shapes on the tree limbs. But there were none to report back. They were alone. So the three shinobis spread out even further.

Sakura had gone quite a ways in solitude only when a tree limb creaked above her. Suddenly an animal was barreling straight down from the tree top, straight at her. She leapt back and watched as an insect-like human drop onto the path in a crouch. She grabbed for her kunai as it rose slowly, blocking her way. The creature had wild tufts of hair and round, white eyes that swiveled in its head. Its arms and legs folded out from its ragged black cloak like a grasshopper’s, but seemed to be stripped of flesh. Sakura revised, now uncertain that it was even human.

Sai’s mice shot back up the trail, darting around the creature and moving in one direction towards their master. But more arms shot out from under the creature’s cloak, and it lunged like a spider, splattering all but one mouse under its elongated claws. Only the smallest one managed to slip through it’s clawing, bony fingers and disappeared into the shadows to alert Sai.

The creature turned its face back to her now. A breeze blew back the shaggy hair, revealing a third goggling eye in its forehead. It crept toward her, teeth glistening in it’s open clamp of a mouth like a row of senbon. Sakura eased back a step, trying to determine a weakness before it smashed her like those mice, when the creature kicked out a leg to ratchet its body around.

It had a hollow, knocking sound as it moved that was vaguely familiar. Sakura’s mouth went dry. She’d heard this sound before. And it filled her with dread….

She rocked back onto her other foot just as the creature’s other leg swung around. It hoisted itself suddenly from its waist to stand more like a human. Hunched, arms hanging limply from its sides, it watched her with those three rolling eyes.

“We’re here.” From the woods behind her, Sasuke’s whisper carried through the air and Sakura dared a shallow breath.

“You are far from your lands, Leaf nins,” a voice boomed. It seemed to come from all around, not just from where the creature stood.

Sakura cleared her throat and twisted their story to buy some time. “We are tracking rogues that crossed our borders—“

“There are no rogues here,” the voice bellowed and two silver blades sprouted slowly from creatures hands, clicking as it grew longer.

The sound jogged her memory. Sakura gasped, realizing what she was looking at. The creature didn’t notice. Its jaw dropped, the mouth full of senbon clicked forward into a firing position.

Sakura remembered puppets were a trademark of the Sand shinobi. She prayed this one wasn’t Sasori.

“We are merely a patrol, sent to retrieve the rogues.”

“Sakura,” Sasuke hissed behind her. She knew he was anxious to make a move. But she had to be certain.

The creature hung in the air, unresponsive. Seconds ticked by. Sakura’s palms began to sweat. Maybe she was wrong—

Suddenly, the tree came alive, the back of it melting off in a stream of sand. On a high limb a ribbon of sand spun around to reveal Kankuro, the Sand’s puppet master. Lines of chakra shimmered from his hands to the puppet. He smiled smugly down at them.

Two other tongues of sand peeled off the back of the tree and spiraled to the ground. The first one revealing the blonde-haired fan wielder Sakura remembered as Temari. She snapped open her two huge metal fans, slipped into a fighting stance and waited orders to use them. She did not smile.

Which meant the third arm of sand contained…. Gaara.

A few paces behind Temari, the sand spun to reveal the ferocious shinobi who had threatened to kill her a few years ago. But instead of posturing like his siblings, he kept his arms folded across his chest. He didn’t move to step off the sand. Instead it rolled away from him like water and poured upwards into a gourd strapped to his back.

The teams sized each other up for a moment. It had been several years since they’d seen each other in Konoha when Gaara had nearly killed her in some kind of crazed attack. He looked a lot calmer than he did then. More human, less like a wild animal. All three sported jonin fatigues, proving that he’d managed to move up the shinobi ranks without killing any of his comrades. Which for him was an improvement.

Gaara watched Sakura with dark, unblinking eyes. Sakura thought she heard Sasuke growl behind her.

“I’ll ask you a third time Sakura Haruno of the Leaf,” Kankuro boomed, “what is your business here?”

Sakura put on her most diplomatic air. “We are tracking the report of rogues in this area. Under the inter-territorial treaty we are granted jurisdiction to collect known criminals—“

Kankuro laughed haughtily. “We patrol this border, and there is no one here. Except you. So unless you are engaging in criminal activity, then I suggest you go home.”

He flicked his fingers, retracting the blades back into the puppet’s hands. Another flick and the senbon clicked back into its head to look like teeth again. Then, dancing his fingers in a complicated ballet, Kankuro worked over the chakra threads so the puppet lurched forward suddenly, dropped to all fours and scrambled up the tree to stand next to its master.

It rattled and lurched in that same hollow sound that made Sakura shudder.

Kankuro didn’t miss her moment of fear. “Does my Crow frighten you, Ha-ru-no.” He wiggled his fingers and the puppet did a macabre dance beside him on the limb.

Sakura swallowed, trying to ignore the sound. “No,” she said forcefully, even as her voice wavered. “It simply reminds me of another puppet.”

Kankuro laughed at her. “There are no other puppets like mine! I made these. I’m the master! I’m the best in all of Sand which means the best in the world.“ He threw out his hands, making the puppet lurch in agreement.

Sakura was unfazed. “Sasori makes puppets like yours.” She added dryly, “And they’re much worse.”

It was Kankuro’s turn to gasp. “Sasori…. Sasori of the Red Sand?” The siblings exchanged serious glances. “I thought he was dead. No one’s seen him in years.”

Sakura shook her head. “He’s in Akatsuki.”

They all blinked as if this new information were a blow. “How long,” Kankuro said narrowing his eyes. “How long have you Leaf known about Akatsuki? About Sasori?”

Anger flashed in Sakura eyes. “The Leaf didn’t know about Sasori until I told them. What’s it to you—“

“One of your own is in that group, you have reason to protect them. Withhold information—

Behind her, Sasuke exploded into rage. He stepped forward from the trees, inarticulate sounds coming from his throat, and though the Sand nins surely knew her two teammates were hidden somewhere nearby, they still jumped into a protective stance at the outburst. All except Gaara. He turned is weighted gaze on Sasuke instead.

Sakura threw out her arm to stop Sasuke and yelled back at Kankuro, “Itachi is no more a part of the Leaf than Sasori is of the Sand. They are traitors—“

“Is that why you’re out here then, are you hunting Akatsuki?”

Sakura paused at the question. But she knew her answer to it. “We are always hunting the Akatsuki,” she snarled.

Kankuro seemed relieved. He shook his head. “I knew the council was keeping secrets,” he swore. “Those old men believe the Akatsuki are harmless, that nothing can strike us here—“

“Kankuro,” Temari snapped at his obvious security breach.

“The Akatsuki are a threat to everyone,” Sakura said emphatically. “They have no allegiances, no loyalties. They just want power, and they will do anything to get it.”

Kankuro nodded, galvanized.

“There are rumors that certain assets—” Kankuro looked at Sasuke while Temari shrieked, “Kankuro!” “Certain assets that have been…compromised. Stolen.”

But once the secret was out, Temari turned her eyes to Sasuke as well. Sakura was at a loss to understand, and a glance back at Sasuke showed he was too.

“Kidnapped,” Kankuro said urgently. Gaara said nothing.

Sasuke looked at Sakura, still unsure, but nodded once as if he understood.

“We will pass the information on to our Kage,” Sakura said.

Kankuro looked like he might have said something else, but Temari shot him a look that promised pain, so Kankuro relented.

“And as we don’t have a Kage…yet,” Kankuro said instead, ignoring Temari and looking pointedly at Gaara, “we will pass the information on to our council. Hopefully that will help them see reason that we need stronger protection.”

Sensing their encounter was at an end, Sakura was just trying to figure out a way to remove themselves without creating an international incident, when Gaara spoke.

“Sakura-san,” he said, his voice so soft and measured it startled her. He held her in his gaze as if his words were of tremendous importance. “On behalf of Sunakagure, we bid you safe travels to Konohagakure.”

Sakura’s mouth was parted in surprise. He’d repeated the words she’d used when she defused his rage at the chunnin exams in Konoha. The same words.

She closed her lips and bowed deeply, and both parties took their leave.

Tsunade smiled when Sakura repeated the story two nights later, but Sakura thought it looked pained. Like she was hiding something.

“It seems you made an impression, changed him for the better,” Tsunade said. Sakura shook her head not accepting the praise, and Tsunade continued. “There is a faction within the Sand that would like to see Gaara as Kage. It is small, but it is growing.”

Sakura reflected on the changed Gaara she’d met. Calm and observant. In control. He carried himself like a Kage should. “I think,” Sakura ventured, “that he might make a good one.”

“I tend to agree,” Tsunade said, surprising Sakura.

“But Tsunade-sama, what did he mean about stolen assets? And kidnapping? Is it something to do with Sasuke?”

Tsunade sighed deeply, as if the mere thought were a tremendous burden. “No Sakura…. I think I understand the asset he’s talking about, but there is little we can do. It will not effect us—“

“But what about Sasuke,” Sakura pushed, sure now this was what Tsunade was hiding. “They seemed to think he should know. Tsunade-sama, is he in some danger?”

Tsunade smiled, but it was pained. “Sasuke is fine. He has a unique ability, and that will always draw attention. But the asset Kankuro was referring to is not him.”

Sakura’s eyes went wide. “Then the asset is a person…not a weapon? But who would be—“

“Sakura, thank you for bringing me the information. If Gaara is to be their Kage, then we might have an alliance with them yet. This is a first step. Thank you.”

Sakura bowed, knowing she was being dismissed. At the door Sakura turned to see Tsunade pull out a slim S-class scroll and place it on her desk. Tsunade looked as if she dreaded the task before her. Sakura chewed her lip. Was this news enough to warrant the launch an S-class mission? Who in their village was that powerful, to be considered an asset…a weapon worth stealing? Sakura had no answers. She quietly closed the door behind her.

The door quietly closed. Tsunade unrolled the slender scroll. She paused, staring at its creamy blankness. The feeling of dread she had kept at bay while Sakura was there threatened to overwhelm her.

Tsunade had heard the whispers as well. That jinchurikis were being hunted. And killed.

She suspected the Akatsuki was behind it. There were enough known members with a grudge against their home countries to make sense. But still…killing jinchurikis…. Why? Is this what Itachi had done so long ago? Had they just been chasing a ghost all this time?

Tsunade pushed the thoughts from her mind, knowing this panic arose from mere rumors. There was no way of knowing if there was any truth behind them at all.

So much secrecy surrounded the jinchurikis themselves that she didn’t think she’d ever know for sure until it was too late. No country would ever admit to having lost their jinchuriki. She knew that for a fact. After all, Konoha had gone and lost theirs all on their own.

No…she told herself, pushing back on the memory of her village’s crushing mistake. He was stolen. And if he was stolen, then there was still hope he could be retrieved….

She flattened the scroll, and penned “Recovery Unit,” before she paused again, thinking.

The news from the Sand was interesting. She knew opinion had changed in that country. Instead of hiding their jinchuriki, they were considering putting him out front. Letting him lead. It was a warning to the heads of the other countries, and it kept him from being stolen in the night, out from under the noses of his sleeping compatriots.

Maybe it would work. Keeping their identities secret certainly wasn’t.

Finished writing, she re-rolled the scroll and performed the hand seals to clone it. One each for Kakashi, Asuma, Genma, Rado, Kurenai, Inoichi, Iruka, Shikaku, Guy.

From the top desk drawer, Tsunade retrieved another, much older scroll, capped with jade ends carved in the shape of frogs. She unrolled it, put her hand in the middle of a circle of writing, and thought about who she needed to summon.

In a cloud of smoke, a squat frog with a waist-coat and a long-stemmed pipe clamped between his lips popped into the center of the room. He stood on his haunches giving him more of a human appearance, puffed on his pipe and studied Tsunade, waiting.

“I need you to make a delivery,” she said quietly.

The frog unclamped the pipe from his mouth and held it in a webbed foot. “Still no luck,” he spoke, voice guttural and raspy. Smoke floated in lazy trails in the air above his head.

Tsunade shook her head. The frog took another slow drag off his pipe.

“I have a delivery I need you to make.”

The frog hopped forward to her desk. “Same people?”

Tsunade nodded sadly.

The frog didn’t comment. He opened his wide mouth and waited patiently as Tsunade tucked each scroll into the flappy pocket of skin at the side of his cheek. He closed his mouth, shifting the bulge until he was comfortable, replaced the pipe between his thin lips, then with a single nod he disappeared in a puff of smoke.

The floor beside his bed was cold under his bare feet. Alone again, Kakashi rubbed a hand down his tired face and stared at the scroll in his hand. Pipe smoke still hung in the air. He had come to associate the smell with bad news. That frog had never delivered anything else. And from the apologetic grimace on his little green face when he woke the jonin, the frog knew it too.

Kakashi rubbed the sleep away from his eyes and unrolled the scroll.

“Recovery Unit: We are running out of time. If we are to find him, it has to be soon. More assets have been targeted. And killed. Suspect Akatsuki, for unknown purpose. He is in grave danger…. ”

Katsuro smiled as the horse nuzzled his hand, burrowing deeper in case it missed an apple piece. He gently scratched the side of its broad nose with the curl of his knuckles, then walked around to make sure the wagon yoke was fastened tight enough, dragging his hand down the horse’s side as he went. The horse stamped indignantly at having finished its snack. Katsuro laughed and ducked away from the flicking tail, but he was out of apples. And really he had other things to do instead of feeding the horses his own food.

But they were sweet horses. Some old farmer’s livelihood probably depended on them. But Katsuro had no idea where the men had stolen them from, and those thugs would tear Katsuro up if he even suggested taking them back to their original owners when they were finished with them. Whenever that would be….

So he gave them extra treats when he could. It was the only thing he could do. After all, it wasn’t their fault. They didn’t ask to be caught up in Itachi’s plans.

Katsuro drew back the tarp on the wagon and inspected the load, making sure everything was strapped down. This one had dried meats, bolts of cloth and a barrel of apples. All of it bound for Rain, all of it stolen. And beneath the haul of goods was the real reason they were shipping things to Rain: the false bottom concealed a load of metal.

Even if the whole cart was emptied out by bandits or ruined by weather, that hidden shipment could still be driven to the edge of the Rain’s inland ocean, and the men waiting there would accept it without a single question.

Satisfied with this load, Katsuro dipped his hand into the apple barrel, pulled out an apple, flipped it into the air and speared it on his kunai. He strolled back between the carts, cutting the apple into horse-sized chunks. He almost felt like whistling. He could do this all day—

But when he stepped out from between the horses, Itachi was waiting for him. His dark presence was like a cloud had passed over the sun. It threw Katsuro for a moment.

“I— I didn’t think you’d be back from Rain so soon.”

Itachi raised an eyebrow at the apple in his hand. Katsuro grimaced, caught stealing and goofing around. The horse beside him, knowing he was next, stamped his feet and snorted into Katsuro’s hair, ruffling it wildly with hot breath.

“As usual, you’re making good use of your time,” Itachi said with a slight sneer.

Katsuro might have scraped together an apology. But jabbing him about his past errors only stoked his rebellious streak. Katsuro schooled his discomfort into a stubbornly smooth face, and held out the cut apple pieces for the horse.

“I’m thinking of swapping out my team for these three,” Katsuro said, the gleam of challenge in his eyes. “They’d make better shinobi. And my team would make excellent pack animals.”

The horse nipped up the last piece. Katsuro rubbed the horse’s snout and stared back at Itachi defiantly. Itachi knew the type of men he’d saddled him with as punishment after last summer: jackasses.

Itachi’s lip quirked at Katsuro’s little joke, and let the insolence slide. Apparently he had bigger fish to fry.

That was never good, Katsuro thought.

“I have had an interesting visit in Rain,” Itachi began. Katsuro cut up more apple and held it out for the horse. “You’re name came up quite a few times.”

“I can imagine,” Katsuro said quietly.

“Oh really?” Itachi said, in real surprise.

The horse leaned hard into Katsuro’s chest looking for more treats. Katsuro rubbed it without really seeing it.

He’d been rehearsing his speech to Itachi for a few weeks now. Planning out just exactly how to tell him that he wanted out of the missions. He was sick of delivering scrolls to the Akatsuki. He was pretty sure they were on to him. This wasn’t how he planned it, but now was as good a time as any.

“Your Akatsuki,” Katsuro nodded at the red cloud Itachi’s cloak, “are very interested in me. Thanks to Sasori, I bet. Every time I deliver a scroll, I have to dodge questions. Pointed questions. About me.” Katsuro shook his head at the persistent horse and finally cut off another slice of apple. “Even Deidara said I’m expected to join, because I’m your apprentice and all, but I think he’s just trying to get a rise out of me.”

Katsuro expected that Itachi would understand. After all, he’d always said Akatsuki were monsters. But he was complete caught off guard to find Itachi smiling back at him

“And what would you say to joining the Akatsuki?”

Katsuro’s face went slack, but seeing Itachi was serious a red flush swept up his neck. “Hell no! Are you crazy! That’s what I’m telling you. I don’t want to deliver those scrolls anymore. I think we should stay away from them!”

The horse whinnied at Katsuro’s outburst, then decided to go for the other half of apple he held in his other hand. Katsuro shushed him, genuinely sorry for scaring it, and moved on to the last horse, feeding it the last few slices of apple.

“I’m surprised,” Itachi began, but Katsuro cut him off.

“Well you shouldn’t be. They’re all cutthroats who would kill anyone to get what they wanted.”

A whimsical smile played on Itachi’s lips. “I won’t argue with you there.”

“And why would you actually want me to join them. After what I have—” Katsuro looked around hastily then grabbed his shirt front, “after what I have inside me, aren’t they the type of people I need to stay away from? Haven’t you always said that?!” The horse snickered at his rising voice and empty palm. Katsuro took a breath to calm down and turned to face Itachi.

“Listen, I’ve delivered Rain’s scrolls to them, and each time, I’ve been sure they know something more about me. Now it’s like I’m just waiting for one of them to kill me—“

“But it hasn’t happened, has it,” Itachi said as if speaking to a child.

Katsuro shot him a dark look. “No, but I’m done with it. I don’t want anything to do with that group. They’re nothing like us!”

Itachi laughed. Which was never a good sign.

“The Akatsuki are exactly like us. They are dissidents from other countries and have sworn their allegiance to Rain in exchange for protection. They are bound by a truce. To be in Akatsuki, you can not hurt another member. So for you, it would be safer for inside, than out. Because if you join, they cannot touch you.”

“I can take care of myself—“ But the words sounded childish, even as he said them.

“You would be protected by Pain,” Itachi continued. “And they fear him. Really the Akatsuki is the perfect hiding place for you.”

This was crazy! There were a thousand reasons not to join them. “I’m your apprentice,” Katsuro exclaimed. “And they know it. What makes you think they’d ever accept me?”

Itachi’s voice was dead serious. “Because of that. You are my apprentice. It has nothing to do with you — they wouldn’t dare cross me.” He stepped back, his polite facade slipping back over him. “And if Pain vouched for you, then you would be untouchable to them.”

“So you expect me to join the Akatsuki, looking like this?”

Itachi looked him up and down. “Yes, why not?”


“Yes, you mentioned him.”

“I think he knows…about me. And I think he’s been telling the other Akatsuki that there’s something wrong with me. That I’m not growing the way I should. Because that’s what the rest said. That I haven’t changed a bit, and there must be something else about me, otherwise why would someone like you waste time on someone like me—“

Katsuro stopped suddenly as another reason just occurred to him. He shuddered. Itachi ignored him.

“Did Sasori say anything else?”

Katsuro frowned, thinking, then shook his head.

“Then he doesn’t know anything,“ Itachi said with vicious pride. “But if you are generating interest, then it’s past time—“

“Why would Sasori notice when no one else does—“

“Think, Katsuro! Because he’s a puppet master! His specialty is knowing the human body, better than anyone else. Of course he’d notice!”

Katsuro turned to him, blinking as if a lingering suspicion had finally been confirmed. “So, I’m not growing then, am I?”

Itachi shrugged. But Katsuro sensed there was a deflection in his carelessness, and it fueled his anger. How could Itachi, who planned for everything, miss that hugely important detail?

“Why? If the jutsu is so great, so perfect, then why doesn’t it fit?”

Exasperated, Itachi turned quickly. “It was a disguise with a time limit. It wasn’t meant to last forever. And you’ve outlived the length of time I designed it for.”


“Outlasted,” Itachi corrected, his voice flat. “It will need to be adjusted of course, before you—”

“Before I do what— join them?!”

The corner of Itachi’s mouth twitched. He was loosing his patience. “Pain wishes to see you. And I suggest you consider his words very carefully.”

“Pain can see me all he wants,” Katsuro growled, “I’m still not going to—“

But Itachi produced a thin silver scroll and Katsuro fell silent, realizing what the scroll meant…and what was happening. Itachi and Pain had already spoken. Itachi had decided this was the best course. And once again, Katsuro only had the illusion of a choice.

Katsuro took the scroll with an angry grunt and flipped it open. It was an open invitation to the Rain village as a personal guest of Pain. Nothing more was written.

He’d never had a choice at all. Katsuro screwed up his face, ready to tell him just what he thought of the whole idea, when Itachi silenced him with his quiet voice.

“Pain knows about you. And what’s inside you.”

Katsuro grew very still.

“Yes, I thought that might change your mind. He has always known. And he is the reason we have been able to stay hidden for so long. So if he invites you to his village, I think it would be wise for you to accept. Anything else would be disrespectful to the only other person who has helped keep you alive.”

Katsuro held the scroll in his palm, feeling it’s heavy cold weight and weighing his alternatives.

As if sensing they were finished, the last horse nuzzled down into the collar at the back of Katsuro’s neck for some stray treats. It nibbled at the knotted cord it found there.

Deep beneath his fatigues, the pendant he had hidden there juddered across his bare chest.

Itachi was waiting for a answer, but all Katsuro saw in front of him in that moment was the green and white streaked stone. And he remembered why he was doing what he was doing. Why he went along with Itachi’s plans. And who he had to protect.

He gently pushed the horse away and stepped out of the range of its curious mouth.

“I’ll go,” Katsuro said as he readjusted his collar, surreptitiously making sure the necklace wasn’t showing. “But I won’t make any promises.”

“You won’t have to,” Itachi said. Katsuro didn’t like the sound of that, but Itachi added, “No more Akatsuki scrolls, if that makes you feel better.” It didn’t. “Your team can run surveillance while we get the rest of these deliveries out to Rain.”

Then Itachi swirled to leave. There would be no more discussion. Katsuro distractedly touched his sternum, fingering the pendant beneath the layers of clothes, and watched Itachi go. Behind him, the horses stamped expectantly for another apple.

Sakura, Sasuke and Sai spent the rest of spring trekking in an out of the Fire Country, just like every other Konoha team, tracking leads about Mist nins. And, just like every other team, finding hard evidence was nearly impossible. Lots of leads, whispers, rumors…but very little substance. More often than not, they discovered they were chasing bandits and vagabonds.

But the threat was real. They encountered enough foreign nins to know that tensions were high among the five nations. They were lucky enough and had not had to tangle with any shinobis, but they heard other Konoha shinobi had. The only nins Sakura saw watched them with the same suspicious glances that her team gave them. They surveyed each other warily, hands on weapons in unspoken threat, then each went their separate ways. That alone told her that their mission was important. Even if they never bagged a single Mist nin.

In the course of their travels, Sakura did worry she might run into Katsuro. The thought lingered in the back of her mind no matter how much she tried to shake it. But she had a feeling that he wouldn’t be found if he didn’t want to. Even Kakashi couldn’t find them when she had been taken. And they weren’t likely to bump into him in their investigations of road-side dango stands and tumbledown tea houses.

She also knew that where ever Katsuro was, Itachi wasn’t far behind. And she didn’t think Sasuke would be able to turn and walk away. Sasuke was growing more powerful everyday, but she didn’t think he could take down Itachi. Not alone. Though she’d never tell him that.

Sasuke was finally breaking free of the chokehold that revenge had held on his life since he was a child. They had a powerful team, a lethal harmony, and she wasn’t quite ready to let go of that hard-won victory by watching Itachi destroy Sasuke’s life again. She knew one day Sasuke would seek him out and make Itachi pay for the crimes against his family, but she prayed that it was still a long way off. Until they’d all grown strong enough to take Itachi down together.

So just like Itachi for Sasuke, it was better if Katsuro stayed in her past. He couldn’t hurt her there.

Sakura pushed the thoughts away and concentrated on her mission. The report said a trio of black-clad men had been frequenting a bar deep in one of the border territories and causing trouble. It wasn’t the kind of things they normally handled, and looking at the scrubby farming town looming in front of them, she questioned the veracity of the report. But apparently the suspects been showing up in the evenings, brandishing kunai and even sporting actual shinobi headbands. Though the fact about that particular detail were sketchy. However, she supposed that was reason enough.

So here they were, staking out a “village” that looked to be nothing more than a collection of barns and lean-tos. Sakura pointed out what was the town’s only dango stand, and her team beelined for it. They ordered several plates of food then sat at the outdoor tables to listen from behind mouthfuls of sticky dumplings, while the regular customers eyed them with suspicion.

No men materialized, and the only thing her team succeeded in doing was running off most of the patrons.

Sai paused his chewing to nod to an old man with an apron standing inside the kitchen. A customer who had just vacated the table two over from them now huddled next to the old man, whispered harshly and pointed at Sakura’s hair.

Sakura cocked an eyebrow in question until Sasuke pointed to her shinobi headband. She nodded and tugged it out of her hair. Sasuke and Sai quietly pocketed theirs as well. Sasuke shrugged. He didn’t care that they’d cleared the tables without trying to.

Distrust of shinobis in these far-flung towns was something they’d come to expect. The towns didn’t want the nins there, even as they asked for their help. In their eyes, shinobis brought trouble. It didn’t matter where they were from.

Sakura shook her head at how much things had changed in just a year. Places where they were once welcomed now closed their doors and pulled down their signs when they passed through. Sakura wiped her hands. It was no coincidence the street was emptying out. Word spread quickly. After all, that’s how they heard about the three men.

Finished, Sasuke jerked his head to the stand of trees on the far side of town. They rose and relocated to the trees to wait out the men. If the report was to be believed, they’d be showing up anytime.

A few hours later, the day’s last sunlight slanting through the trees, one of Sai’s mice skittered up the trunk to where they stood. The men were coming. They spread out in the canopy, crouched and waited.

A half-hour later, they sauntered into the grey shadows of the trees.

Bulky and overweight, the men stopped at the base of the tree. Sakura bit a knuckle to keep herself from laughing. They were no more shinobi than that old man who ran the dango stand.

The spit, knocked into one another haphazardly and dusted the dirt from their shabby clothes, which, although dark, Sakura wouldn’t have classified as black. She rolled her eyes and was ready to leave them to whatever harmless mischief they would obviously kick up in a sleepy town like this one, when Sasuke’s observant gaze sharpened.

Sakura looked down and frowned as the biggest one pulled out three headbands from his pocket and passed two to his partners. They snickered, fastened them on their heads then flashed them admiringly at each other. Flopping empty rucksacks over their shoulders, they headed for town. It wasn’t hard to guess that the men intended to steal probably whatever they could get a hold of.

Sasuke waved two fingers, signaling they needed to catch them. Silently as the wind, they leapt a few trees ahead, then dropped down in front of the impostor shinobis with barely a whisper as their feet hit the leafy ground. The men’s faces went slack with horror, and they bolted in opposite directions. So much for them working as a team, Sakura thought with a laugh.

Sasuke flash-stepped in front of his man to stop him; Sai shot an inky snake from his paintbrush to coil around his suspect. But Sakura’s man ducked behind a tree and ran before Sakura could belt the ground with an earth-rendering jab. She’d have to catch him on foot.

She chased him deeper into the woods, watching his shaggy head bob and weave through the trees. If there was ever a concern she’d lost sight of him, then his lumbering footsteps would have led the way. A light-footed shinobi he was not.

Sakura finally cornered him in a low clearing. He was hunched over, panting hard, when Sakura sauntered from the tree line.

“Alright, you’ve had you’re fun. Now why don’t you tell me—“

When Sakura was almost on him he spun around and loomed over her, a rudimentary blade flashing from his hand.

Sakura rocked back a step on instinct. A blade was still a blade. Even this idiot could kill with it if his aim was just right.

Sakura’s hesitation bolstered him. “Yeah, that’s right girlie. What are you gonna do now? Alone out here, without anyone to hear you scream—“

Sakura laughed. “Do you really think….” She shook her head. “I could stop you with one hand.” She waved a hand as if to prove it. “I could end you with a finger.” She wiggled her fingers beside her face.

The man laughed and looked her up and down leeringly. “I’d like to see you try.”

Sakura’s cheeks flamed with anger. “You just pick a finger,” she taunted in a deadly growl.

Neither noticed Sasuke who had come to a stopped at the edge of the woods. Having just approached, he was about to step in and help her. But now he was curious. He had no doubts about Sakura’s strength. He rubbed his jaw just remembering one of her punches. Then he smiled. This guy didn’t know what he’d gotten himself into. Sasuke folded his arms and leaned against the tree to watch.

“Fine then, girlie.” He tossed his blade from hand to hand and hunkered down for a fight. Sakura turned to the side and dropped into her stance, bending her knees and anchoring her feet to the ground. She raised her fists and waited. “You’re a little snip of a thing with some awfully big talk. I’ll think I’ll take that little finger of yours and see how you—“

That was all Sakura needed to hear. “Pinky it is, then.”

In blur of movement she swung her foot into a roundhouse kick and knocked the knife out of his hand. It sailed into a tree. While his slower reflexes were still following the track of the blade, Sakura delivered a chakra-fueled jab to the gut. He buckled forward with an “oof” and before he could even think about recovering, Sakura hooked him under the jaw with punch that sent him sprawling backwards into the leaves.

He flailed like a fish out of water trying to right himself, but Sakura calmly put a boot in his gut and walked over him. She squatted down beside him so her face hovered just over his.

“Now, which finger was it? The pinky?” She held up her smallest finger beside her face, and both watched as just the tip began to glow green. His features contorted with fear in the eerie green light. Sakura smiled and pressed her finger to his neck as she would a scalpel.

He began to squirm and tried to scream. Sakura pushed her finger deeper into the fat of his neck. “No one out her to hear you scream out here, isn’t that right? Careful, don’t want me to slip up and slice your vein. You’d bleed out before I could stand up.” Trembling, he stilled himself. “Now, where did you get the headband.”

“We found ‘em. I swear,” he gasped. “They aren’t mine. It was in a cart we took from the mines!”

Sakura remembered there was wealthy clan a day’s journey from here. They made their money in mining.

“You didn’t steal them off someone? You didn’t take them from their original owner?” Sakura pushed her hand hard against his neck.

“No! I swear it! We was unloading some items from a cart and the headbands was in it,” he choked out the words “down in the back. You can have it! You can have everything— We didn’t steal it off no ninjas! You’ve got to believe me!”

“Oh I believe you. And I will be taking the headband. But listen,” she leaned in close and raised her hand so the green glow reflected in his overly wide eyes, “I’ve got me eye on you, and the rest of your gang. If I hear you are stealing again, I will hunt you down and show you what I can do with the rest of my fingers. And it won’t be pretty.” He nodded, blubbering.

Fingers in a wedge, Sakura jabbed a pressure point at the man’s neck. It hit him like a switch. His arms jerked, then his head lolled to the side. Sakura grabbed his chin and turned him back to make sure he was asleep. Eyes rolled back into his head and mouth wide open meant that he was.

Satisfied with her work, Sakura pulled the headband off the man’s head and stood up. It was only then that she noticed Sasuke standing at the tree behind her. His mouth curved up in a small smile. And there was a warmth in his eyes she’d not seen before.

Sakura ignored it, telling herself Sasuke was just teasing her. “So, did you have any luck with your man?”

“Yes,” he said slowly, still watching her. “Although our methods were not nearly as…entertaining as yours.”

Sakura laughed it off. She came even with Sasuke and held out the headband. He pushed off the tree to take it.

“They look real enough.” He held it up next to the others and inspected it as they walked back. Sai was busy painting roots and vines around the men. The inky stalks rose up out of the ground and fastened them in place.

“My guy’s back there, passed out,” Sakura said. Without stopping, Sai jerked his brush in the direction Sakura pointed. A black root swelled up under the leaves and slithered toward the clearing, looking like a black snake on the hunt.

They stopped back by the dango stand and informed the old man that their criminals had been caught and where they could be found. He was significantly nicer then, even offering them free food. They declined. The scroll didn’t specify who to report to, but considering the speed at which the town cleared out at the sight of three shinobis earlier, the owner would get the message to the right person. What they did with the men was up to them.

Sakura, Sasuke and Sai wanted to move on, and left the town heading toward the mine to do some more investigating. They were working outside of their assignment, but they agreed that it would be better to find out what they could now, than lose several days asking for permission.

They were halfway into their journey when a two anbu agents swirled out onto a branch in front of them.

They offered no greeting, just a mission scroll for Sai. He read it through once, nodded, then turned back to his team. “I’m sorry. They need me for another mission.” He hated to leave them.

Sakura and Sasuke waved away his guilt and wished him well. Sai left with the anbu in a swirl of leaves.

Sasuke turned to Sakura. “Do you want to keep going or….“

Sakura mulled it. She knew the danger level rose exponentially when you stripped away teammates. They all had learned the formulas in academy — how many teammates, how many weapons, how much chakra you needed to survive. Losing Sai, the death rate of the remaining teammates in a two-man team jumped from 20 percent to 60 percent.

But Sakura and Sasuke made a great combination, and were more powerful than most other shinobis she knew. Surely that must count for something in the mathematics of survival.

Besides, they were so close. They might be able to bring back some real evidence this time….

“Doesn’t bother me,” Sakura said cooly, shifting her weight to one side and hooking her thumb around her kunai. “There’s not too much out there that the two of us couldn’t handle.”

Sasuke tipped his head. A slow smile touched his lips. “No I don’t think there is.”

That warm light returned to his eyes, and Sakura decided it was pride. It didn’t matter what it was really, it was nice to see something other than anger etched into his face. The fact that he was smiling was a mark of how far he’d come. And of how much she’d improved. But there was no time for self-reflection now.

She flashed him a quick grin. “Well, let’s go then!”

They traveled fast and made good time, arriving at the farthest edge of the clan lands by nightfall. They decided to make camp, then begin investigating the next morning. But before they could settle on a site, Sasuke detected a black shadow in the blue woodline. Then another.

He threw out a hand to bar Sakura, drew out his katana and stepped soundlessly towards the trees. Sakura waited when an acrid, burnt sulphur smell hit her nose. Someone had just extinguished a torch. A twig snapped to the left, then another, and Sakura jerked her head to it, focusing hard, trying to see what Sasuke could with his sharingan. She slipped out her kunai and turned to investigate—

But the sound was a distraction. Movement exploded in front of Sasuke. Arrows rained down from the treetops and blades sliced sideways through the clearing. The had walked into a trap. But Sasuke, being Sauske, dodged them all. He flipped and crouched and swung and Sakura could only see the trail of his shirt as he moved, glowing pale blue in the darkness. Then he was gone, and Sakura was alone in silent woods.

She crouched down, afraid to move or she might trigger another barrage. She waited, listening. The twig snapped again, and she recognized it for what it was — the setting of a mechanical bow. Any second another onslaught of arrows would rain down—

But before the second bow could be cocked, the resonating ting of a blade sliced through the trees, followed by a groan and the dull thud of a body falling to the ground. Sasuke. Though Sakura couldn’t see him, she followed the trail of sounds and shadows through the woods. He flitted to each spot, disabling their weapons and felling their attackers. The rest of the men ran out into the clearing, before Sasuke could use the darkness of the woods against them too.

Sakura was waiting. “Stop right there,” she bellowed at the assembly of men. She held out her kunai, ready to take them down, but they surprised her by raising their hands in submission. The metallic clashing continued from the trees. Someone was giving Sasuke a hard time. But the men didn’t seem perturbed. Sakura yanked a small flashlight from her hip pack and shined it over the group.

Older men, roughly dressed with lots of battle wounds. They weren’t shinobi. But they were fighters. Another man, bigger than the rest, limped from the woods. Sakura swung her flashlight onto his face, then stopped.

“I…I know you,” Sakura said haltingly. But from where…?

He had a beard, which she didn’t remember, but she knew that ragged scar that dug from his forehead to his cheek. And she remembered the eyepatch. Then it came to her: the festival.

She swung her light back at the rest of the squinting men. Yes, they were all there. This was the group of men guarding the wealthy clansmen. The ones who seemed like they were always ready for a fight.

Sasuke came from the woods just then, sliding his sword back into its sheath and dragging the last man with him. Sasuke dropped him at the feet of his friends who helped him to standing, and went to stand next to Sakura. Sakura shined the light into his eyes, not caring that he shielded his face from it, and inspected his face. He had a grotesque scar the puckered his cheek right below his eye. Someone had tried to gouge his eyes out and missed. Sakura cringed. Yes, she remembered him very well.

“We don’t want no trouble with shinobis,” the tall one with the eye patch grumbled. “Had enough of that. What do you want here? My master will have already sent out the dogs—“

“Your master,” Sakura echoed. “The one from the trade meeting last spring? The clansmen who owned the mines?” All the pieces were falling into place.

“Aye, that’s the one,” the big man with the patch answered, “and what do you know about it?”

“I was there,” Sakura said.

“What do ya mean you were there? As a guest?”

“No, as a guard,” Sakura said flatly.

The men guffawed, that a girl nearly half there size was a guard. Even Sasuke had turned to look at her. But the big man raised his sizable hand for silence.

“You were the Leaf girl, weren’t ya, the one that pretty politician was trying to make a meal out of.”

Sakura was glad for the darkness at that moment. An embarrassed blush flooded her cheeks. She felt the weight of Sasuke’s stare. But she pushed on.

“Yes, well, I figured it out—“

“He was tryin’ to pass you off as another one of them. When you were just like us. Guards. Hired help.”

Sakura didn’t need her mistake rubbed in her face. She cleared throat. “We are tracking Mist nins, and apprehended three bandits with Kiri headbands. They said they stole them from a cart from this mine. Do you know anything about the nins or the burglaries?”

A few of the men swore. The big man folded his arms over his chest and stroked his beard.

“And you say you caught ‘em?”

Sakura nodded. “Three men, wearing black. One a little bigger than the rest.” The big man nodded. “They’re three towns away, probably sitting in a jail cell by now.”

“They didn’t have anything else on them, did they?”

Sakura shook her head and pulled the headbands from her pocket. “Just these. Do you know how they would have wound up in your carts?”

The big man grunted in frustration. “They stole from us. Those Kiri nins, as you called ‘em, took our bulk ore and some very high grade metal. Unique. Don’t know what it does exactly, but it’s supposed to be real special. It’s what had your politician drooling all over us.”

Sakura frowned but he continued.

“We knew he was no good and tried to get him to back off. Thought you might’ve picked up on it.” Sakura remembered how they seemed to be always gripping their weapons when she walked by. Now she realized they weren’t doing it at her, they were sending the warning to the politician. And he probably knew it too. Just another thing she was wrong about. She crumpled up the headbands and shoved them back into her bag.

“Well, we would like a word with your master. The clan head. Is he—“

“No girl, you’re better off sending word through your leader and waiting for an invitation. He doesn’t take kindly to strangers dropping in, especially ninjas caught on his lands. You can understand why.”

Sakura sighed and glanced at Sasuke, but his face was a blank mask. They had at least found something out. And Tsunade could apply directly to the clan head for more. Though she’d had no time to confer with Sasuke, she felt like this was the end of the road for them.

She bowed, surprising the men. “Thank you for the information. We apologize for any injuries or inconveniences we have caused you.” Sasuke watched her, then followed her lead with a simple bow.

Flustered, the men coughed and mumbled, but the biggest one had the presence of mind to bow quickly back. The rest followed with jerky nods of their heads.

The man with the puckered face stepped up and whispered into the biggest one’s ear. He nodded. Then the men turned back towards the woods. When they were out of earshot, the big man said, “He says to tell you to be careful. You’re about his daughter’s age. But he left her long ago. Says you should be careful. There are worse ones out there than just that pretty politician.”

Sakura nodded sagely. Did she ever know. “And you as well. Take care.”

She and Sasuke turned and trekked back the way they came, then turned south toward Konoha.

They had gone so far afield, it added an extra day’s travel to their journey, so the next night, instead of returning to Konoha like they’d planned when they left, Sasuke and Sakura set up camp just inside the Fire Country border.

They were in their home territory, so they both felt comfortable relaxing, although neither was tired enough yet to sleep. So they sat up at the small campfire to unwind in peaceful silence.

Sakura was going over facts in her head, trying to make connections, and she assumed Sasuke was too. But he was engrossed in another train of thought.

Sakura leaned forward to feed a small branch into the fire. Sasuke watched her long arm stretch toward the glow of yellow light, then retract. She pulled her knees up in front of her and folded her arms over the tops and tapped her fingers on her kneecaps, deep in thought.

He reclined in the roots of a tree not quite across the fire from her, and his mind wandered as his gaze traveled over her arms and fingers and he recalled what the genin kids had said about her. After seeing her take down that man with her finger, just as she promised, now he wondered whether it was all bluster.

“Sakura—“ He said it so suddenly that Sakura started. He stopped, realizing that he did not make idle talk and that his teammates had apparently grown accustomed to his reticence, but he continued anyway out of sheer curiosity.

“I was wondering, that is…I once heard that you could sever a limb then reattach it—“

“Who, me?”

Sasuke shrugged, “Yeah.” But just from her answer he suspected he would be disappointed. He amended his question to give her a way out. “You know…you or any medic in general. Can it be done?”

She stared at the fire thinking and stretched her legs out in front of her. Sasuke had decided she couldn’t when she surprised him.

“Yeah. Sure. I don’t see why not.”

Sasuke sat forward a little, surprised at her confidence. “Really?” Since seeing her trounce that guy the day before, Sasuke had been wondering what other little skills she kept tucked away.

Sakura nodded without hesitation. And Sasuke had to admit he was a little impressed at her coolness about it all. Not quite what he expected from her.

He would never admit it to her, but some part of him still saw her as his childhood teammate, still girlish and tender-hearted. His own childhood was consumed with revenge. He’d spent long hours plotting exactly how he was going to kill his brother. But tearing off limbs and reattaching them had never occurred to him. And it was ridiculous to think that idea would come from Sakura of all people.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “And is that something you would ever do, as a means of threat or torture?”

Sakura wrinkled her nose and shook her hands in distaste. “Ew, no. Why would you want to? It’d be so…messy.”

Without another word, Sasuke turned back to the fire. She was still Sakura, after all. But surprisingly he was a little disappointed. She could dispatch thugs with bravado…. Of course she probably would not think like him when it came to real pain, real torture—

“I’d just pop out an eyeball instead.”

Sasuke’s mouth fell open. He couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. He swiveled his head and stared at her, still unsure if she was joking or not, but Sakura didn’t seem to notice. Her fingers were tapping on the ground, already working through another thought.

“With an eyeball out, you get pain for the victim plus the shock effect for his buddies. It just sort of hangs there like a grape on the vine till you plop it back in.”

She glanced to the side, caught Sasuke’s shocked look, and curled a wisp of hair behind her ear. “What! It doesn’t do any permanent damage!”

Sasuke’s surprise transformed to curiosity. “Really? The nin wouldn’t go blind”

“Not if you put it back in right.” Sakura grinned again. “Of course there’s other ways to inflict pain that’ll get the job done too.” She splayed her hand, listing them out. “Dislocated joints are easy and look worse than they actually are, sliced capillaries are great for a quick bleed out. Messy but effective—“

“What— Since when have you— Who…Who are you?”

Sakura laughed, pulled her knees up to her chest and crossed her ankles. “I know it’s weird, but I think about these things.” Her voice dropped a notch. “I don’t ever want to be caught off guard again.”

Sasuke nodded soberly. “It’s not weird.” Her eyes locked on his for a moment, turning exceptionally green in the flamelight, and for the first time, Sasuke felt like she was someone who understood him. Not the way the village saw him, but the complicated person he really was. And she accepted him. It was a connection he’d never been able to make with anyone.

He cleared his throat and both looked away a little to quickly. But he didn’t want this first connection to fade away into awkwardness. He pushed himself to keep the conversation going.

“So, could you really have killed that guy with your pinky finger?”

Sakura nodded. “If I needed to, yes. But it would have been a mess for me and horribly painful for him. I’d have to concentrate all my chakra into my pinky, then dig down deep and slice his jugular vein. But if I missed….” She wiggled her fingers at what a mess it would be. “If I missed, it would mean problems for both of us. Especially if I didn’t incapacitate him. Then he’d just be mad and bleeding, and I’d probably have to finish the job with a kunai.”

Just the mental picture was enough to send Sasuke hand to his throat, rubbing it subconsiously.

“Can a lot of people do that? Medics, I mean?”

Sakura curled her hair back again. “Um…. No,” she said slowly. She looked down at her feet and before Sasuke turned away, he thought he glimpsed that saucy smile peeking out again. It was the same one he’d seen just before she took down that thug. This time Sasuke let himself smile with her.

He understood now what that smile meant.

She knew how powerful she was. But she didn’t want to brag about it. She could heal or kill or bring down men twice her size with those pale fingers that looked like they’d never seen active duty of any kind.

She was like a finely wrought weapon, an elegant sword on the waist of a regally dressed samurai. She was a killer, hidden in plain sight.

The others in the village guessed at her skill. But they only knew half of it. They had no idea what else she could do. He felt somehow privileged. Warmed by the fire and his discoveries, Sasuke thought he was getting the hang of this conversation thing.

“So you can heal and kill…. But you don’t seem to be at the hospital as much anymore.” Sakura’s smile vanished. Sasuke mentally kicked himself. “What I meant was—“

“No, it’s okay,” Sakura said softly, rubbing the back of her arms. “I figure there’s enough healers already. They can do without me. I’d rather be out here. As a shinobi.” Her green eyes were guarded, as if she thought he might argue.

But she was wrong. Sasuke picked up a limb and fed it into the whitest part of the fire. “I’m glad you are,” he admitted quietly, never looking at her.

After several long moments, both quiet at the realization that they’d each confessed something that had been weighing on them, Sasuke cleared his throat.

“So, me tell about what else your chakra can do. Which is your favorite finger for killing people?”

Sakura laughed and the easy camaraderie slipped back into their conversation.

Hours later, when Sasuke bedded down beside the dying fire, he realized he’d never spoken to anyone that long, about anything. It was a nice feeling. He settled his gaze on the rose-plated embers, noting drowsily that they were the same color as her hair, and let that pulsing with warmth at the edge of his vision pull him into sleep.

Spring drifted into summer, and Sakura and Sasuke were assigned more and more missions without Sai. He explained once, as best as he could, that it was required of anbu agent to serve at the pleasure of Danzo and the high council and support where the were most needed, functioning as a back-up to Root and Konoha’s shinobi corps— But Sakura stopped him from repeating the boilerplate language they all knew. Sai couldn’t tell them, and they didn’t ask. So they just enjoyed the times he could accompany them, but accepted that it would be less and less frequent.

When Sasuke and Sakura functioned as a two-man group, Tsunade usually assigned them manageable tasks, mostly within the Fire Country’s borders. Sakura was grateful just to be out, and even though the assignments were usually quite dull, it kept Sasuke out from under the council’s noses in case they had thoughts of reining him in again.

Sasuke never shared his opinion on it, but if Sakura had to guess, then she’d say he’d accepted it with equanimity.

It had been a strange summer. The threat of warfare loomed for shinobi. But in the absence of any single incendiary event, life returned to normal for most civilians. Trade picked up, crops went to markets, and a pair of shinobi traveling the Fire Country’s back roads drew no attention at all.

It was the case one hot July day, when the two stopped on at the fork of a dusty farm road. A farmer walking his goats just nodded as if it they were neighbors. Not ninjas.

Sasuke unrolled the mission scroll again, checking their location against the map included. The map was a few years old, and new roads had sprung up. Taking the wrong spur that morning had cost them several extra hours in back-tracking, and Sasuke didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

Sakura flipped up her braid, bending the even pattern and forcing wisps of hair out of the sides, and used it to fan hot air across her sweaty neck. Sasuke didn’t look much better. His hair fell in black sweat-tipped spikes across his forehead and pink spots had burned themselves into his cheeks. He was either sunburned or very hot. Sakura pressed her own flushed cheeks, wondering if she looked the same.

Sasuke “tsked” audibly and frowned at the map. Sakura stepped closer to have a look. Her shirt pushed into him and her boot tapped against his shoe as she reached over his arm to tip the map toward her. It was only when they were side by side that she realized that Sasuke was actually a little taller than her. Not by a great deal, but just enough to make reading something together uncomfortable if he refused to lower it. Which she suspected he was doing now.

She tugged the map down and shot him a mockingly stern look. Laughter danced in his eyes before he handed over the map. But he didn’t step back. Instead he stayed close, reading over her shoulder.

Sakura puffed out a breath. “We’ll never make it by nightfall now, will we?” Sasuke shook his head.

“Well, then…since we’re in no rush, let’s take this route.” She drew her finger down the map, along a route that ran tantalizingly close to a thickly painted blue line. A stream. “It looks, um, more scenic.”

She glanced up at Sasuke. If he thought it was silly — which Sakura knew it was — then he didn’t say anything. Ninjas didn’t take scenic routes. But the sweltering heat was draining her energy. And if they had a little extra time to spare, she’d dearly love a little break at the stream. Just the thought of splashing her face in some cool water was enough to make her change course. And she bet Sasuke felt the same, but he was too stubborn to show it.

Without a word, Sasuke rerolled the map and scroll and jammed them back in his rucksack. He huffed once, looking comically grim. But his eyes pointed toward Sakura’s route. Sakura grinned, and they set off.

Half-an-hour later they were rewarded with glittery light breaking through the leaves to one side of the trail. Sakura turned off into the brush, following the heady sounds of moving water without even a backwards glance at Sasuke.

Ducking and pushing her way through the foliage, it opened up suddenly on a grassy bank overlooking a wide, slow-moving stream. In the afternoon light, golden-winged insects flitted over the gentle swells. Smooth river stones painted the clear water with dots of orange, brown, grey and milky white.

Just looking at it made her cooler. She decided that a simple splash wasn’t nearly enough. Instead she would drench a cloth in the water and wrap it around the back of her sweaty neck.

Just then the bushes behind her shook and Sasuke pushed through.

Turning back, Sakura watched Sasuke’s face open in momentary wonder. A surprised smile lit his face. “Wow,” he breathed.

“See,” she said and looked out across the water with him. “Amazing, right? Aren’t you glad we came this way?”

He didn’t answer. And when she looked back at him in question, she was surprised to find his focus sharpened on her instead of the glorious backdrop behind her. She didn’t know what to make of it so she curled her hair behind her ear, cleared her throat and declared “I think we should stay awhile. Take a break, you know?” She knew he’d disagree, it was in his nature.

But he surprised her again by uttering, “Sure. Sounds good.”

Sakura peered at him for a moment, wondering if the heat had finally gotten to him, but she decided not to question it. She wanted to cool off, and she wasn’t going to waste her only opportunity.

She plopped down on the grassy bank and began tugging off her boots. Frown lines pinched Sasuke’s forehead.

“I’m sure the water feels great,” she said when she stood beside him. Sasuke shifted to a more comfortable stance and let his hand rest on the handle of his sword. Sakura thought he looked like he was on guard duty.

She shrugged, “Suit yourself,” and eased down into the cool water. It swirled up to her calves, and after the first bite of cold it turned incredibly refreshing. She wiggled her toes over the smooth stones and took a few more steps. The glittering insects shot away as she sloshed forward.

When she reached a sandy bar in the center of the stream, she turned back intending to wave at him. But Sasuke surprised her again: He was barefoot at the water’s edge and just about to step in. He grimaced as his foot hit the bracingly cold water, but he pushed on and was soon heading her way.

Sakura grinned broadly when he finally looked up, and he let a crooked, conspiratorial smile peek out.

Sakura folded an arm across her stomach and waited, thinking again about how different Sasuke was now. She decided she’d never really known him as a child. Yet the bond they had now was what Kakashi had spoken of. Fiercely loyal teammates. But there was so much more to him that people didn’t see. He kept it hidden behind his prowess. There was pain and anger…and fear. It had almost consumed him.

She shuddered to think what might have happened if he hadn’t been forced to stay in the village, what other path his life might have taken.

Sasuke wobbled for a moment on a rock, flailing through the air in the most ungraceful movement she’d ever seen from him, but he righted himself quickly and regained his balance. Sakura pressed her fingers to her lips in a failed attempt to suppress a laugh.

“I heard that,” he said, never looking up. His balance faltered again.

“You’re almost there,” Sakura said, laughter in her voice.

Both of them had changed, she decided. He felt comfortable enough around her to let another side show, and she had learned what a true teammate bond was. Her eyes fell to the water lapping in front of her toes. That had been a hard lesson, and one that was still remarkably painful, even almost a full year after discovering the truth about Katsuro.

Sakura waded back into the stream until the water ringed her ankles.

Frowning resolutely, Sakura wiped the fringe of hair from her eyes, pushed the memories of him from her mind and focused on what was in front of her. This was real. Sasuke, her village, her responsibilities. Not some childish fantasy about a lost boy that only she could save—

Sasuke waded up beside her, interrupting her thoughts. She looked up, smiling brightly to mask her momentary distraction.

“This is nice,” he said. His voice was free from it’s usual sarcasm. Sakura shielded her eyes from the glare to see that his expression was open. It was a genuine compliment.

The blindingly-bright sunlight must have been making everything clearer. For the first time, Sakura noticed the brown undertones streaking through his ink-black hair. And as he scanned their surroundings approvingly, Sakura discovered his eyes weren’t the flat black she’d always assumed them to be, but instead were edged with a lighter brown.

She realized just then how very different he looked from Itachi — who’s stark, almost sickly contrast of pale skin and suffocatingly black hair still hung her memory — and she wondered who Sasuke took after more, his mother or his father. But she would never know. Whatever normal life Sasuke would have had with them was a distant memory. Stolen by his brother, the ghost who now haunted them both.

Sasuke swiveled his gaze back to her, studying her face intently in the sunlight, but Sakura was so flooded with guilt at finally coming to understand the one person she held in contempt for so long, that she couldn’t meet his eyes.

All alone, he had to be so strong. Itachi robbed him of so much. Without his parents, he would have missed out on everything. Even the smallest things. Like just…skipping stones

Gulping back sudden emotion, Sakura saw the small round stones glimmering up from beneath the water all around them. Well, there was one thing she could take back from Itachi.

She hastily scooped up a handful of rocks. “Hold out your hand,” she commanded.

Sasuke frowned at her but obeyed.

“I’m going to teach you how to skip rocks,” she declared in a rush. Sasuke scoffed and pulled his hand back but Sakura held it firm. His hand in hers, she leaned so close that her skirt flapped against his pant leg and their shadows melted into one. She curled his fingers around the rock while he looked down into her messy braid.

“You get a flat rock and—“

“Sakura I don’t need—“

“….You hold it between your thumb and forefinger—“

“Sakura stop it, I already—“

“….And you flick it at the water.” Sasuke’s hand in hers, she whipped it as best as she could. But the stone fell with a thud only a few feet from them.

“Well, that didn’t quite work but—“ She was quickly moving to grab another stone, but Sasuke caught her hand.

“Sakura,” he said, suspicion in his voice, “what’s this about?”

Sakura laughed nervously and tried to remove her hand, but Sasuke held it firm. His look turned serious. She tugged again, but it was no use. “What are you doing,” he demanded.

Sakura sighed, knowing there was no way out but to confess her thoughts. And it would probably make him mad and ruin their nice break. She let her hand go limp in his grasp.

“I was just thinking that you probably never had anyone around to teach you the little things. Like skipping rocks. You know everything there is to know about being a shinobi. But maybe not the little stuff you get from, from…family.” He dropped her hand and looked away which made Sakura feel even worse, but she pressed on.

“I know you’ll be mad. But I only wanted you to know that I don’t see you as some all powerful shinobi anymore.” Sasuke shook his head and folded his arms over his chest. “No wait, that’s came out wrong! You are, probably one of the most powerful shinobi I’ve ever met! But I used to think that was you were when I was younger. Just a shinobi. Like a machine or something. But now I see you differently. That’s all. You’re a teammate…and a friend.”

Sakura could tell from the stiff line of his shoulders that none of her words had made a difference. She wished she’d just kept her mouth shut.

“I just wanted to teach you to skip rocks,” she muttered, “in case, you know, you never learned how.”

Sasuke didn’t move, and Sakura knew she’d lost all the ground she’d gained with him. Any minute now he’d probably storm back to the bank and give her the silent treatment for the rest of the trip. It was like an unspoken rule: They didn’t talk about personal stuff. And the subject of his family was never broached by anyone, ever. But she had thought that just once, she might—

Without a sound, Sasuke extended his arm from his side and slowly opened his palm. Sakura bit the corner of her lip, tamping down a bright grin.Yes!

Sakura ducked to pick up a rock, moving quickly in case he changed his mind. She found a perfect one — flat, smooth and milky white.

She placed it in the palm of his hand, curling his fingers around it, and cupped his elbow with her other hand, guiding it in the right direction. “Now, pinch the rock in your fingers and—“ But instead of doing what she asked, Sasuke closed his hand around hers and the stone, catching her fingers and holding them fast.

“Sakura—“ His voice had a gravelly rasp she’d never heard before. He tugged her into him, smirking down into her upturned face and ignoring her confused look. “I know how to skip rocks.”

Sasuke’s eyes were dark with an intent that Sakura didn’t quite grasp when he pulled her solidly against him and captured her mouth in a single, long kiss.

Stunned, Sakura blinked at his closed eyes and felt his mouth warm on hers, and it took her a a second to decide that yes, this might be, well, okay.

She yielded, softening to him and letting him ease her closer so his fingers could gently graze up her bare arm. Only then did he break their first kiss into several short fluttering ones.

It was a deliberate slowness that set Sakura on fire. Her body was alive to every sensation — from the water rippling around her feet to the sun warming her head to his lips moving in soft, slow kisses over hers. Not intrusive, but slowly exploring, teasing the corner of her mouth, tasting the soft skin of her cheek.

It wasn’t the same of course…. That desperate, tear-filled kiss of farewell that had almost made her believe in him.… That kiss that still seared her mouth in the deepest part of her dreams—

She pulled back suddenly, pressed her lips together and looked down, wishing the memory wasn’t still so strong. She knew she shouldn’t compare something that was nothing more than a lie with this…. This kiss that was real, colored by emotions that were real, and from a person who had changed so much he could actually care again, for someone else, for her….

Sasuke’s hand stilled on her arm. He pulled back, concern etched on his face. “Is it… Is this okay?”

Sakura opened her eyes and looked at the person in front of her, the real person, not the false Sasuke from years before.

There was concern there, but it was mixed with hope. Sakura felt her mouth curve up in a smile. And when he smiled back, it was like the sun breaking through clouds. That he could transform and let go of his past to let a new relationship bloom was amazing. Maybe it was time to let go of her past, too.

She rolled her lips together, savoring the newness of it all. His gaze dropped to her lips, and when he looked back up, there she recognized the heat in his black eyes.

“It’s um, fine.” she said, suddenly shy. “I mean, it’s— It’s good.”

Sasuke smiled again, a real smile that curled up the corners of his mouth and made her stomach do a funny little flip.

His breathy laugh skittered across her lips. “Good.”

Sasuke dipped his head to hers and gently cupped her jaw. He looked into her eyes for one long moment, long enough for Sakura to feel her face begin to pink. He smoothed his thumb over the soft swell of her cheek and smiled that melting smile again, then slid his hand to the back of her neck to thread his fingers through the loose hair beneath her braid. Anchoring his hand there, Sasuke pulled her in for another kiss.

And this time, Sakura wasn’t so shocked she couldn’t respond. She tipped her head to the side, letting him deepen it. And when his other hand found the small of her back, Sakura leaned into him, wound her arms around his sun-warmed shoulders and accepted that things changed. And sometimes it wasn’t so bad.

The sun glinted off the rolling waters and eventually the skittering golden-winged insects returned to their quiet dance, having decided that the pair of intruders who stood unmoving in the stream were no threat to them.

Red and yellow papers flapped in the light autumn breeze, curling around the smooth stones weighing them down. Soft tipped brushes jangled together in glass jars. Another strong gust whipped up, sending motley-painted little canvases shuddering. A sign propped at the base of the table proclaiming “Art and Supplies For Sale” pitched forward with a bang. A moment later a squat little shopkeeper ran out to right it.

Sai, seeing the sign, quickly abandoned his two teammates on the hillside road and hurried up to inspect the wares. The shopkeeper, seeing a future customer, eagerly invited him inside.

And Sasuke, seeing this as a perfect opportunity to pounce, stopped abruptly. Sakura, just a few steps behind him, nearly collided with his back.

Before she realized what was going on ahead, and that they were alone, Sasuke slipped an arm around her waist, drawing her close.

Surprised, Sakura pushed back on the offending arm and leaned away, ready to admonish him. But Sasuke wasn’t letting go.

“Don’t worry,” he said teasingly, burying his head in her long, loose hair to whisper in her ear, “Sai’s gone inside. It’s just us.”

Then, as deftly as unsheathing his own katana, his hand found the hem of her shirt, tugged it free and curled his fingers underneath. Cool air grazed warm skin. She arched into him, and he laughed into her hair. At the small of her back, Sasuke fanned out his his hand, sweeping his lightly tanned fingers over her petal-pale skin, and pulled her even closer. Sakura tightened her grip on his sleeve and pushed back.

Heads still together, Sasuke released his hold. She leaned away, and he dragged his hand the rest of the way around her hip, letting his fingertips linger under the edge of her shirt. When he lifted his head away from hers his face was wreathed in confidence. He took a half-step back to peer into her face, waiting to enjoy the spoils of his little ambush.

Fingers still tangled in his sleeve, other hand pushing against his chest, Sakura tipped her head back and laughed, causing the hair that hung down past her shoulder blades to swing forward and curl around their linked arms.

“Stop it, he’ll see us!” He smiled into her face, intent clear when he looked down at her mouth, and she smiled too, inviting him—

The shopkeeper’s voice carried from the doorway. They were coming back.

Sasuke stepped back quickly, putting a respectable distance between them, but not before sliding his hand back down her arm and letting long fingers curl around hers for just a moment in the hidden space beyond Sai’s line of vision. Then they separated to join their unsuspecting teammate.

Sai had just stepped out of the shop, eyes shining and cheeks touched with pink. A cluster of brushes stuck out from one hand, and he clutched a creamy painting scroll beneath his other elbow.

Sakura smiled warmly at Sai, pleased to see him so happy, and strode quickly to his side to admire his selection. They both leaned over the table as he explained what the different brushes in the sale jars might be used for.

Stopped a few steps behind, Sasuke shifted his stance and folded his arms. If his sightline was any indication, he was watching Sakura with more than just a little friendly admiration.

Catching Sasuke’s appreciative gaze, she raised her head to shot him a look of mock scolding when something beyond his shoulder caught her eye. She stood. Eyes never leaving the spot, she took a step toward Sasuke, when it happened again.

A glint of light from a rooftop behind them flashed across her face, blinding her momentarily. But when she looked back there was nothing nothing there. Sakura shielded her eyes from the sun and tipped her head for a better look.

Sasuke turned as well, scanning the buildings for anything out of place, when Sakura identified the cause of the anomaly.

A scrap of metal wrapped around a crumbling old chimney jerked in the breeze, reflecting back sunlight from a bent corner. It jumped again, slashing light across them.

Sasuke frowned, focusing on the rooftop spot for a long moment, until Sakura’s hand touched his arm. “It was nothing. Come on, Sai’s finished.”

Satisfied, he nodded and let himself be led on. The three moved down the cobbled road, Sai’s tightly wrapped parcel of art supplies filling out his rucksack.

Sakura glanced back one last time over her shoulder, verifying that there was indeed nothing there. The rooftop was empty and the metal flashing was still. It was nothing. She turned her back and left the forgettable town behind her.

“Geez they almost saw us, boss.” But only silence answered. “You alright? Boss…?”

Two cloaked figures flickered back into existence in the thick shadow of the chimney.

“They never saw us,” the second one quietly. But when he spoke again his voice was tight with restraint. “Let’s go. We’re leaving.”

“But I thought we had to—”

“I said let’s go,” he repeated sharply. With one last look at the now empty road, he reached inside his collar and gave something there a hard jerk.

Then the two figures retreated over the edge of the roof and disappeared into the shadows.