Chapter 3 – Harsh Words

Sometime in the night, the bindings on Sakura’s arms dropped away, and her hands slipped down the rough sides of the tree trunk. She blinked several times, the nighttime veil so thick she didn’t know if her eyes were open or closed at first.

She had the vague sensation of a body beside her in the darkness. Dots of pressure danced up her arm, until individual digits melted into a warm hand. It rocked her shoulder back and forth gently.

“Come on,” she heard a low, extremely tired voice say above her head. “You can’t sleep like this.”

She didn’t move.

“It’s me, come on,” Katsuro repeated, exasperation seeping in to his voice.

Sakura already had a good idea who it was. It wasn’t out of fear that she sat immobile.

“My waist,” she said, her voice sounding thick and tired to her own ears.

“Oh yeah,” he exhaled.

Momentarily, the ropes dropped across her lap. The hand returned to her shoulder, fingers dragged back down her arm, which still hung limply at her side, and wrapped around her wrist. Materializing beside her, Katsuro helped her to her feet.

“Come on,” he said again, stifling a yawn.

She walked blindly behind him, stumbling several times. Her legs and arms felt like they were attached to puppet strings, and her hands burned with the rush of blood.

Katsuro stopped suddenly, his hand tightening on her wrist to prevent her from toppling over. She heard the rustle of fabric and had only an instant to register where they were before he moved forward and his hand tugged downward. She resisted involuntarily, body half bent at the tent opening, a thousand objections raising in her mind.

“Look, I’ve got an extra blanket,” came his voice, muffled from somewhere behind a canvas flap, prepared for her argument. Fabric swished and his voice became clear again. “I’ll tie my hand to yours, that way we can both get some sleep.”

Another insistent tug on her wrist, accompanied by “duck your head,” was the only warning she got before she was pulled forward into the tent.

Sakura had a moment of dizziness, muscles feeling waterlogged and her equilibrium swimming from the darkness and disorientation, but it passed as she found the ground and came to a more natural sitting position. He pushed a thin blanket roll into her lap and let her get adjusted.

After a moment he asked for her hand. He wrapped the binding around her wrist, then his own, leaving a few inches slack for comfort. Satisfied, he slipped beneath his own blanket.

“I can’t let you sleep out there,” he yawned. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Sakura said nothing, instead stretched her aching limbs under the old blanket. A small yawn of her own escaped. The need for sleep was quickly overtaking all the objections she had formed to this arrangement.

After a moment he added drowsily, “just don’t tell anyone about this,” before his breathing slipped into a steady pace of sleep too.

Sakura woke up alone sometime the next morning, sun dappling the canvas walls of the musty tent.

Sitting up and rubbing the remains of the binding on one wrist, she had time to examine the worn brown strap a little more carefully. Sakura pooled green light at her fingertips and sunk them into the fleshy leather. It was just as she suspected. The leather absorbed her chakra as if it were a sponge.

Sakura sighed, then leaned forward silently to peek her head out of the tent. The movement didn’t go unnoticed, however, and she was greeted immediately with an “Oi!” from the direction of the tiny fire circle.

‘Ugh,’ she thought.

“Good,” he continued, standing. “Let’s get something to eat.”

The kunoichi looked him over. Katsuro had returned to his brown fatigues and face-concealing wraps from the day before, the pale Sand cloak and head gear he wore last night were draped over a log. He nodded at her impatiently, urging her on.

In short order, she found herself seated on one of the large smooth stones at the main campfire, balancing a small bowl on her knees.

“Eat,” had been the only instruction from her warden.

Their entrance to the main camp had not garnered much attention, and the kunoichi was hoping to be left alone by making as little eye contact as possible. A quick glance showed the rest of the men sitting around, similarly dressed as Katsuro, some eating, some sharpening their weapons, a few competing for who could pitch rocks the farthest. What a shiftless bunch, thought Sakura.

She pushed the lumpy, unrecognizable masses around her bowl, unsure of their origins, and wished she had saved the apple from yesterday.

Stubbornly quelling her hunger, Sakura dared another look to see how everyone else was faring. Did they really eat this stuff everyday or was this just reserved for hostages? Several emptied bowls indicated it was served to everyone. She looked back at her own dish and grimaced. Maybe she’d go without, she thought, then clasped her bound hands together behind the bowl and sat quietly.

Across the circle, her judgement of their food was not missed by Katsuro, and it spurred his anger. At least they were feeding her, he thought. He had been speaking quietly to one of the men about the previous night’s events, but raised his voice a little to make sure she could hear.

“No, there were no signs of Konoha,” he said slyly. Several of the men turned their heads at his comment, anticipating her response.

Sakura froze, held her breath and listened hard. But when no other information followed, she cut her eyes in his direction. She could see immediately that he was baiting her, watching for her reaction. She resolved to ignore him, and looked back down, pretending to study her fingernails.

But this only goaded him further.

“I don’t think they are going to come for her after all. And we’ve been watching for them,” he said a little louder. “Even at the farthest outpost there hasn’t been the slightest sign.”

He took his bowl and walked back to where she was sitting, swaggering slightly. But Katsuro’s gloating proved to be too big a target for the other men.

“And who’s fault is that?” a burly man sneered from across the circle. “If you had opted for someone of skill and usefulness rather than just a pretty face, then the big boss would have what he needed by now, wouldn’t he?”

Katsuro stiffened as he approached the girl but refused to turn around, training his eyes on her form. He couldn’t see her face, it was still turned down toward her bowl, but there was a sudden tightness along her shoulders as well.

He instantly realized his mistake in teasing her openly in front of those jackals. Anything he said to her they would use to attack him as well.

“If Konoha shinobi can abandon her so easily,” another man chimed in, “then she’s not worth anything to us either. But that’s on your head now, isn’t it Kat-su-ro,” he drawled out the name maliciously.

“Bastards,” he growled and slammed his dish down on the rock beside her, flipping the food out everywhere. Sakura leaned sideways to avoid the flying clumps, but Katsuro could care less. He had already turned, fists clenched and was stalking toward the other nins yelling, “If you have a problem-”

He was cut off by a shout from across the circle.

“Katsuro,” a man’s voice boomed admonishingly from the edge of one of the large campaign tents.

The rest of the men immediately turned away, melting into the thicket of tents, none wanting to get caught up in whatever discipline might be meted out to him.

Katsuro stopped and grudgingly watched the men disappear, fists still ground closed, then stomped toward the voice. Little puffs of silt rose up around his feet as he crossed the circle.

In the shadows was another man, this one dressed in dark fatigues. He didn’t wear face concealments, but Sakura still couldn’t distinguish any features. He never left the line of tents, opting to speak to her captor privately in hushed tones.

They must have been speaking about her, Sakura decided, because the other man pointed discreetly in her direction a few times. Whatever was said though, her warden didn’t agree with. Katsuro frustratedly swept his hand where the rogues had been lazing, then jerked his head back at her, obliterating all discretion. The man simply shook his head and pointed firmly towards her, before returning to the large tents.

Katsuro stormed back over, eyes down, deep in thought. His cheerful demeanor had completely evaporated.

“Up,” he snapped, and hooked a hand under her elbow. He hauled her to standing in a single motion, the uneaten bowl of food sliding sideways off her lap, spilling in the dust at their feet.

Katsuro angrily stepped over the mess and marched her in silence back to the little campsite.

The kunoichi had very little to occupy herself with over the course of the day. And the decline in her captor’s mood didn’t ease her boredom.

She was returned to the spot at the tree with nary a word from the man other than “Sit.” Sakura wasn’t sure what had happened, if the cause was his teammates, his superior or her, or a combination of all three. But she kept her opinions to herself and quietly sat down to be retied.

He disappeared for a while, then returned with a cache of weapons and laid them all out for inspection, cleaning and sharpening whichever ones needed work. Sakura watched him methodically going through the tools, surprised to learn he carried identical weaponry to shinobi of her village.

He worked so diligently for so long that Sakura had stopped paying close attention until a little movement drew her notice.

Sharpening a knife against a stone balanced on his leg, Katsuro unconsciously scratched the wrappings at his cheek, then returned to his work. Her green eyes were half-closed, dully focused on the enemy nin, but she was mildly surprised when he rubbed his face again. After the third time, she was observing him keenly, forcing herself to maintain a look of boredom.

Irritated with the interruption to his work, he slid his fingers under the wrappings loosening them around his mouth and was actively hooking them to pull them down around his neck, when he stopped suddenly.

Katsuro cut his eyes over at the silent kunoichi tied to the tree nearby, his displeasure at her presence evident from the deep set of his eyebrows. He pushed his face wraps back into place and continued his work.

‘Damn,’ she thought, and slumped her shoulders. If she could see his stupid face he’d probably be scowling at her, she thought. Sakura had no reason to hide her disappointment now. She sighed loudly and lolled her head from side to side.

There were other breaks in the monotony, although those were equally as unwelcome as playing morbid games of guess-your-captor.

Injured men trickled into the little campsite throughout the day. They came, one by one, begging for a little relief from the general malaise that had mysteriously plagued them through the night.

Katsuro refused each one of them, growing more irritated every time. Eventually he could barely get another kunai sharpened before he was interrupted again.

“She won’t heal you! Go away,” he bellowed finally at just the sound of footsteps coming through the woods.

Sakura held her amusement in check. She pointedly ignored the first men who started dropping by, not wanting to get in more hot water with her warden.

But when the same men began appearing a second time, each looking beseechingly around Katsuro to Sakura and holding their stomachs, she knew she would have to deal with them, and the sooner the better. As the pain increased they were going to become more permanent fixtures around the little campsite.

When a man came a third time and Katsuro nearly lobbed his kunai at him, Sakura spoke up.

“It’s no problem,” she called over to him. Katsuro whipped his head around to glare at her. The medic nin’s bravado left her for a moment, but she cleared her throat and started again.

“It’s no problem to take a look at them. It doesn’t take much chakra,” she said.

She tipped her head and waited for his response, but he turned back to his work, ignoring both her and the offending patient shuffling on the other side of the fire circle.

“I think it might just be a cold,” she offered innocently, knowing that it wasn’t.

He didn’t look up. She changed tack.

“They’ll keep coming back, you know. All night long, too,” she said warningly. The enemy nin clutching his stomach nodded vigorously.

“If I can treat them now, it won’t be too taxing,” she said, hoping he would see the wisdom of letting her loose for a little while. He angrily pitched his newly sharpened kunai toward the pile. This one embedded itself in the dirt, handle trembling. He reached for another to sharpen.

“But,” she drew out, “if I have to wait until the middle of the night, when their pain is much worse…” she sighed for effect, “well it will be harder for all of us.”

He growled and angrily threw the unsharpened kunai into the finished pile. It clanged loudly as it connected with the other weapons. He stomped over to the girl, never making eye contact, and ripped the bindings loose from behind the tree.

Winding back around to the front, Katsuro glared at her.

“Do what you need to do. Then get him out of here,” he said, pointing to the man across the site.

She nodded once, looking up at him with large green eyes and an expressionless face, a carefully constructed mask to cover her triumphant feeling.

The med-nin set right to her task. Silently pointing to a fallen tree to sit on, Sakura began to examine the rogue, taking extra time to work her way around to what she knew was his particular injury. Katsuro silently resumed his work, fishing the dull kunai out of the sharpened pile.

Soon another man appeared, clutching his midsection, hoping to press his luck with the unhappy warden. Then another. Before long, word had spread through the unwell that Sakura was accepting patients, despite Katsuro’s foul mood.

She instructed them where to sit, in order of symptom, thinking merrily to herself that she was the source of their problems. It always suited Sakura to be working, but now she was grateful to have something to occupy her time, knowing the alternative was being tied to a tree.

Katsuro resumed sharpening his weapons and ignored them all. Sakura and the rest of the men gave him a wide berth.

The previous day, Sakura had tried to vary the injuries she inflicted, but they all presented in the morning with symptoms in the same area. This was acceptable, she thought, because they would suspect a minor virus before looking any further. However, it would limit how much more damage she could do without giving herself away.

She set about easing the pain of the largest complaints and prolonging the unwell feelings of those least sick. This would buy her a little more time, but not much, she sighed. Biting her lip, Sakura sheathed her hands in healing chakra and refocused on the task at hand.

Nearby, relishing the silence and meditating on the uniform smoothness of the newly polished weapon in his hand, Katsuro thought about the fragments of his day, shattered before it had even begun. Exhaustion followed by no breakfast, the antagonizing bastards at camp then receiving marching orders. He set the weapon down and reached for another kunai.

Fighting words had been thrown at him this morning, but he alone was reprimanded for his bad temper when those men clearly deserved a good thrashing. Then the high-handed captain insinuated that Itachi was not best pleased, that it would take more time to get anything worthwhile out of her. But both jabs were essentially the same: That he made a poor choice in selecting her. That he had been swayed by a pretty face and her little prank.

Katsuro watched the kunoichi quietly work on his companions, a curtain of pink hair tipped forward over her face and swaying slightly, the edges of her slender hands glowing softly green. She paused, caught the offending lock and curled it behind her ear, then returned to her work, never breaking concentration.

Looking down at the kunai in his own hands, Katsuro hooked the loop with is fingers and spun it around a few times before sharpening it.

He picked her because she was on the same team as their target, Itachi’s younger brother, but also because he took her pulling a prank on her teammate to be a good sign. And yes, he supposed it didn’t hurt that she was much nicer to look at than the rest of his bunch.

But that wasn’t why he chose her.

He thought back to the first time he saw her, all pink hair and pale skin, tumbling out of their pathetic hiding place. Her arrogant teammate standing aside to let her fall. But she picked herself up and gave it right back to him. Yeah, he could understand that, he laughed to himself softly.

Katsuro ran the kunai through a cloth in his palm, the dull grey edge polished away. Now a thin bead of silver gleamed down both sides of the blade.

He pictured her wicked little smile before she whipped the other nin, pulling a stunt like that just to triumph over someone who so clearly had it out for her.

‘I think she knows more than she realizes. Those kinds of people should never be underestimated,’ he thought with a small smile.

Katsuro pushed all the other thoughts away. There was no doubt in his mind he’d made the right choice. If Itachi needed more time to retrieve information from her, then so be it. He plunged the weapon into the soft earth and reached for another.

Sakura worked quietly through the late afternoon, hands still glowing in the deepening shadows. A few times she noticed her warden pause and look over her way, but she assumed it was to make sure she wasn’t going to escape. He carried on as if having a hostage heal men in camp was the most normal thing in the world. But being left alone seemed to improve his mood, she decided.

A metallic clang drew Sakura’s attention, and she watched over one patient’s shoulder as Katsuro dropped his last sharpened weapon onto the pile, then quick-stepped to a recently healed man as he was leaving the camp. Speaking quietly, her warden seemed to be issuing some sort of order. The man nodded once then departed, and Katsuro came to stand at her shoulder and watch her work.

“How much longer will it take?” he said softly in between patients.

The medic looked down at the last few men. “Not too much longer,” she said.

“How are you holding up?” he intoned.

This wasn’t a personal question. Sakura remembered Itachi’s command to refrain from healing the men. Katsuro was checking to make sure she hadn’t gone beyond anything noticeable.

“I’m ok. I haven’t wasted too much chakra,” she said detachedly. Katsuro nodded. He wasn’t cheerful, she noted, but at least he wasn’t blistering mad anymore.

The rogue nin returned to his cache, repacked his weapons and equipment in a rucksack, then squatted to start a little fire just for light. Sakura was starting on the last patient when the brittle snap of a twig drew both their attention.

Out of the evening gloom, two more men slowly approached the campsite.

Sakura thought they might have been straggler patients, but the two stopped just outside the fire circle and looked across almost challengingly at Katsuro.

She recognized the first man immediately, the tall, burly one from the main camp who had given Katsuro some problems. Beside him, but noticeably a step behind, stood a lanky man in ill-fitting fatigues. She thought she might have treated him. He twirled something indistinguishable in his hand.

Their stance gave them something of a threatening air. Sakura squinted, unsure if it was a trick of the low light. Cutting her eyes at Katsuro confirmed it, though.

He stood slowly and stared them down, hands on his hips, anticipating trouble. She was in agreement, these men were up to no good.

After a few moments, the big one nodded to his companion, who immediately produced an important-looking scroll, rolling it tauntingly in his long, thin fingers.

Sakura heard Katsuro exhale as he broke the stand off, stepped toward the man and opened his hand expectantly. Her warden had apparently thought it was a weapon too. But the big man stopped all movement by snatching the missive out of his companion’s hand before he could toss it to Katsuro.

“No food,” the burly one drawled. “Looked around, couldn’t find anything.” Something in his tone made Sakura think he probably didn’t look very far.

“But Itachi left you this,” he said, pitching the unfurling scroll to Katsuro.

Eyes narrowed, Katsuro thumbed the broken seal. He angrily flicked the document loose with one hand, and reviewed it’s contents.

Sakura had been silently observing the scene from the fallen tree, sitting half-hidden by the man she was working faint glow of chakra pulsed in the darkness. She had stilled her movements, slowed her healing to keep the light from her hands as unobtrusive as possible. The man she was working on seemed patently nervous too, she noted. His breathing had increased, and, flaring the chakra at her fingertips for a quick read, his vital signs were subtly ramping up. She scanned his face to make sure nothing else was amiss. He darted his eyes around trying to look back over his shoulder, anxious to see what was going on in the darkness behind him.

Sakura flicked her gaze back out to the fire, but was surprised to find the biggest rogue’s intimidating glare fixed squarely on her. A little more green chakra seeped out past the her fingertips from the perceived threat, illuminating her face slightly. The man tightened his fist. Sakura thought for a moment he was going to come after her.

“What’s she doing,” he growled, pointing in her direction.

Her patient’s heart rate spiked, but Sakura quietly clamped her hand down on his shoulder to keep him still.

“Almost done,” she murmured, remaining motionless as well. She wanted to keep him there until this was all over. He was a good shield in case a fight broke out. If his fluttering heart rate was any indication, he was well aware of his vulnerability too.

“I wonder what Itachi-san would say if he found out she was-” the big one began, but Katsuro wasn’t interested.

“Since you’ve already taken the liberty,” he said, shaking the opened scroll in his fist, “alert the rest of the men, and be ready tomorrow. And when you tell him about the her,” he said, pointing at the girl, “make sure you tell him you opened his scroll too. He’ll be interested to know.”

Angry and intent on provoking Katsuro, the big man spit at the ground just in front of his feet.

“You’re nothing special,” he sneered.

But his lanky companion apparently thought otherwise and backed away from the man as if he’d just ignited a bomb.

The firelight cast strange shadows across Katsuro, wavering over his trembling fists and tight shoulders as if strapping him back. The red glow of the flames reflected dangerously in his eyes, rendering them almost inhuman.

“Get out of my sight,” Katsuro said, biting off every word, his voice nearly hoarse from what could only be restrained fury. The big man must have decided that he’d pushed Katsuro far enough. He laughed meanly then backed off, but saved a scathing look for the kunoichi as he swung around to leave.

“You’re done,” Sakura said flatly when they were at a safe distance, and she lifted her hand from her patient’s shoulder. The man fairly tumbled off the log in his hurry to catch up with the other rogues, cutting a wide swath around the fire circle where Katsuro stood.

Sakura warily watched the space between the trees where the men disappeared.

She quietly weighed her options. She could make a break for it now and take advantage of her warden’s preoccupation. But if he caught her, he’d probably kill her just out of spite. Or she could press her luck and strike up a conversation with him, and perhaps her sympathy could earn her a little more trust and freedom. Then she could truly slip away undetected.

When all sounds of moving branches and crushing leaves receded back into the woods, Sakura dusted her hands and walked to the guttering fire.

Katsuro stood unmoving and stared into the low flames, hands still balled into angry fists.

Remaining silent, Sakura meditated briefly on what she’d learned. They hated her, naturally, but they seemed to hate him too.

Her stomach growled, and the kunoichi raised a hand self-conciously to her stomach. Katsuro snorted at her unkindly, but her discomfort seemed to distract him from his present anger. He turned and left her standing at the fire to adjust a few things in his pack.

Sakura thought this was probably as good a time as any to pry for information.

“Are they supposed to be your teammates?” she asked tentatively. The only response was the clinking of weapons together in his rucksack.

“Why are they so hard on you?” she asked again. Still no answer.

She sighed. If he didn’t want to talk to her, then maybe she could draw him out another way.

“In my village, the emphasis is on teamwork and partnership for maximum-”

“You were just playing ninja then,” he said quietly, still kneeling at his pack. “Now you’re in over your head, and you don’t even know it.”

“What?” she said frowning. That wasn’t the answer she was expecting.

“Your village, Konoha,” he bit off the name, “is fully aware of your capabilities, or lack of them, and have already labeled you a missing nin,” he refastened his pack and stood to face her. “You are not worth coming for — in fact your spot on that inept little team has probably already been filled.”

Sakura dismissed him, a rogue who obviously had no idea how a strategic military force worked.

“Don’t be ridiculous. There is a protocal for retrieval. And my teammate is one of the strongest in our village. I’m sure he and my sensei are on their way right now,” she said condescendingly. Her ploy to be a sympathetic ear had gone seriously astray.

Hands on his hips, Katsuro laughed mirthlessly at her.

“If you were stupid enough to get caught, then make no mistake they will never come for you. They will forget you and leave you to die by our hands,” he said, his tone turning deadly serious. “And if your Sasuke is so strong, then they would never send him to fetch his irresponsible teammate. He is a tool to be closely guarded by the Leaf and used only for their purposes.”

The kunoichi clenched her fist and stepped away from the fire, feeling unreasonably warm.

“You know nothing of my team or of Konoha,” she hissed. “They will never give up. They’re on the way right now.”

Katsuro’s only recently cooled anger flared right back up again.

“No, it is you who know nothing about your own village. How they throw away the ones who do not serve their purposes and crush the ones who stand in their way,” he said, shadows pooling darkly across his face as he approached her.

“You think so highly of your team? Well let me enlighten you as to why you, a medic-nin who cannot even watch her own back, were paired with an elite clan member. You were put on that team as the target,” he said. He was speaking quietly but he might as well have been yelling. The horrid truth of his words sinking in, her look of defiance crumbling.

“You’re the weakest one, so you’re the one to be taken out first, alerting him so he can escape. You’re the one who falls in the trap laid for him. Your life will be extinguished so that your teammate will live. Think your village is so great now? Your duty is to be the sacrifice. You are expendable, replaceable,” he locked on her wide eyes to drive the point home, “forgettable.”

“It’s our bad luck that we’re stuck with you now,” he muttered.

She blinked away tears and shut him out, whipping her head toward the fire. Words had left her.

‘What he said, it couldn’t be true,’ she told herself desperately, shaking her head in mute denial. She pressed her lips together in a futile attempt to keep the tears at bay.

Katsuro watched the revelations crash on her, his anger abating only to be replaced by disgust at his own behavior. She was just a pawn as well. There was no victory here.

Yes, he hated Konoha, he hated what they did and how they treated people like her, crushing those who did not serve their purpose. But he also hated the way he sounded when he was talking to her, brutal and unforgiving, an echo of the other men in his camp.

“I wasn’t lying when I said there’s been no sign of them,” he continued quietly. “Whatever life you had before, it’s over. Whatever you did for your village, whatever sacrifices you made… well, it wasn’t enough. They’re not coming for you.”

It wasn’t in his nature to lash out so cruelly at others, but his anger had gotten the best of him — everything she came from was everything he hated.

Katsuro drew a tired breath and moved to duck inside the tent, leaving her unattended beside the fire.

It would have been an opening to run, but Sakura couldn’t move. Her world was collapsing in on itself. Everything he said made perfect sense. The inequity of strength and skill, the way they treated her as the dead weight on the team.

Sakura’s tears glistened coldly in the flickering light. Her shoulders dropped, her whole body seemed to be sinking under the weight of it all. Her warden had finally left her alone, but his implication clear: She wasn’t even worth guarding any more.

She had been abandoned, and she knew it now.

A gravelly noise broke through her haze. Katsuro stood beside her with a thin blanket roll in his hand.

“Sleep in there,” he said quietly, pointing to the tent. “I’ll be out here. We’re leaving in the morning.”

She wiped her hands down her face and silently made her way to the tent, feeling more alone than she ever thought was possible. She crawled under the blanket, pulled herself into a ball and wept.

Outside, the fire crackled and hissed as Katsuro put anything he could find into the tiny inferno, trying dispiritedly to drown out all other sounds in the darkness.

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