Chapter 4 – Ambush

Sakura lay in the tent a long time, watching the walls turn from leaden gray to the dingy ash color she had become familiar with by daylight. She had memorized every crooked seam, every dangling thread, every smudge of dirt.

Lifting fingers into the air dejectedly, she examined her peeling, filthy fingernails. Sakura had prided herself on keeping her hands clean, that it was the mark of a good medic. Now she simply didn’t care. None of that mattered anymore. Her life before was completely out of reach now. He had made that abundantly clear.

She flopped her hand down on her stomach. Tears slid out of the corners of her eyes down into her hair. Instead of wiping them away, she turned on her side, twisting the blanket with her. She hated that awful musty smell it had. It smelled of, well, someone else. Not her.

Footsteps crackled in the leaves somewhere across the campsite.

And she didn’t care about him either, she thought with a sigh. She wasn’t moving. Wherever they were going, well they could go without her. She felt as worthless as that decrepit old tent, and they might as well just bury her in it.

Feet padded to a stop outside the tent, dull shadows dimming the light.

“Time to get up. Hey, uh…” Katsuro began cheerfully, but his voice thinned. He was obviously puzzling over something.

“What’s your name?” he croaked finally. Sakura rolled her eyes. She could almost picture him scratching his head. His head covering, she amended.

She didn’t want to answer him. She squeezed her eyes shut, stayed very still and hoped he would go away.

“Hello in there,” he shook the top of the tent a little. “You awake?”

“Go away,” was her muffled response.

“Hey, what’s your name?” he asked again, undeterred.

Sakura was silent for a long time, weighing her options, before she muttered, “Ino.”

“What?” he said and began shaking the top of the tent again. “What did you say your name was?”

“Ino!” she shouted, flipping onto her back and slapping her hands on the blanket. “I said my name is Ino! Now…just…go away, and leave me alone,” she sputtered.

Katsuro just laughed at that, which angered her even more, then he jostled the top of the tent one last time.

“Well come on, Ino. It’s time for breakfast, and we’re not going to miss it today,” he said.

She heard him walking away and thought maybe he was going to leave her alone for a while, till his voice lilted back across the campsite, “Come on out or I’m coming in after you.” She could hear him laughing in the distance. At least his irritatingly good mood had returned, she thought.

Sakura studied the tent ceiling a little longer, then sat up slowly and pushed the blanket off her legs.

It was petulant and stubborn and stupid, and she knew it, but she didn’t want to go anywhere with him. She wanted this nightmare to be over. And she wanted it to be over now.

Sakura scrubbed both hands over her face. She knew it was fantasy to think she even had a choice. She wasn’t a hostage, there was no ransom or promise of her return. She was a prisoner, and she had to go with them. Resistance was simply not an option.

Drawing hands up under her hairline, she methodically kneaded the muscles down the back of her neck. She felt tired, black-and-blue tired. Like she’d been in a fight, and she’d lost.

Sakura reached for her boots, slipping them on slowly, one at a time. She didn’t want to give up, but she didn’t see how she could go on. There was no clear path in front of her, she thought, rubbing grime from the black leather in a futile attempt to bring back it’s shine.

But, maybe if she went she could find a way out of this mess, she thought. She straightened her shirt and checked the fasteners on her skirt.

Maybe everything he had said about her team, her home, had been lies. Dirt-smudged hands stilled over an open clasp. It didn’t feel like it though. She snapped it closed and wiped away the wet tracks of tears from the corners of her eyes, thinking again that she would just like to bury herself under the musty blanket until the whole world fell away.

Sakura’s stomach growled traitorously.

Maybe she should just put one foot in front of the other, she thought. Eat. Then find a way out of this.

The kunoichi pushed the tent flap back slowly to find Katsuro waiting for her. He had returned to the Sand disguise, with the addition of a full travel cloak. The pale fabric bunched around his neck and fell fluidly down his back, just skimming over the ground as he walked toward her.

“C’mon,” he said cheerfully. “If we don’t hurry, then we won’t get to eat today either.” He pulled out the leather bindings, and she grudgingly pushed her hands out in front of her. Her warden wrapped them together then looked up into her face, “And I’m sure your starving.”

Katsuro’s brown eyes peered at her earnestly through his face coverings, almost apologetically, and Sakura wasn’t sure if she imagined it. But if it was an apology, then it was the only sign of any lingering guilt on his part about last night’s harsh words.

Breaking down his camp was the work of a moment. He left behind most of his things for someone else to gather, and shrugged on a light travel pack under his cloak, strapping the thin blanket roll to the bottom.

Within minutes they were on their way back to main camp, but this time Sakura noticed they passed through much more woodland to get there. Only when they arrived at the wall of campaign tents and the large dusty fire circle did she realize that all the other small shabby tents were gone.

“Where did all the-” she said, looking around at the deserted woods and most noteably the lack of lazing men at the campfire. But Katsuro cut her off, nudging a spare bowl of lumpy gray food into her hands.

“Everyone’s gone already. They’re moving this camp. It happens from time to time. In a few hours this will all be underwater,” he said, carelessly flicking his hand at their surroundings.

“But there’s no water,” she said. Sakura hadn’t heard any streams nearby.

“No. Flash flood,” he intoned, but offered no other explanation. “Well, eat up!”

He watched her out of the corner of his eye, picking at the food, the gray lumps and the strange meat, until she finally deigned to nibble on some of it. He couldn’t help but smile a little at her change in attitude this morning. A few days without food would do that to you, he thought, picking up his own chopsticks.

They ate quickly and in silence. The kunoichi managed to eat about half of what he’d dished out for her.

‘Good,’ he thought, ‘she’ll need her strength.’ He didn’t know when they would get a regular meal again once they left.

Minutes later, they were off, disappearing into the tree line opposite the fire circle. Sakura cast a last look back over her shoulder at the encampment. If she had any hopes of being found, then being on the move was going to make it that much harder. She sighed, watching the sunlit clearing of main camp dissolve behind row upon row of brown and grey trunks.

Trailing behind Katsuro, connected only by that little leather binding, Sakura could not find a single defining mark on the winding route they were taking. The forest was undeniably vast, but her warden seemed sure of himself. Every so often he would turn sharply at a tree or a rock, so she knew they were not as lost as it appeared.

They traveled for what felt like miles, climbing over gnarled roots, hopping across puddling creeks and sliding down leaf-thick slopes.

Finally the ancient trees broke their ranks and allowed for some undergrowth. With the broad forest of the campsite long behind them, the land now rolled under their feet. Thick bushes and large boulders scattered below the old trees slowed their pace, but the kunoichi was on high alert.

The landscape was achingly familiar. Sakura kept watching the forest, looking for an opening between the trees. She could feel that they were near the old road, although she’d not caught sight of it.

Katsuro’s eyes were also roving over the woods around them, Sakura noted. She wasn’t the only one watching for something.

Tightening his movements, Katsuro made hardly a sound as they moved across the crumbling leaves. Sakura licked her lips and was poised to ask what he was looking for, but a curt hand signal from him silenced all communication. So she resigned herself to following his actions, adopting silence and stealth as well.

Their progress suddenly ground to a halt. Katsuro quietly crouched down behind a boulder, then tugged her down beside him.

“Be alert,” he whispered. “We don’t want to get killed.”

They were very near the road now, though he didn’t know if she had seen it. From where they were, it should just be over the next small hill.

Shoulders brushing, he turned his head to study her closely, looking for any signs she might try to run, but she was already acting on what he’d said. Green eyes scanned the woods for anything out of place. He could nearly read their surroundings in her face, eyes darting from tree to tree, sweeping the canopy then the forest floor.

He was pleased she was taking this seriously. He wasn’t kidding, either. These men could be brutal, and he didn’t want to open either of them up to a “mistake” that could end their lives. He wouldn’t put anything past them.

A twig snapped up ahead of them. They turned their heads simultaneously toward the sound.

“That’s our sign,” he said. Slowly and quietly, they trekked down the back of the hill, moving away from the still hidden road, taking care to stay concealed.

The pair hiked down into a shallow ravine between the two hills. Sakura looked up the steep sides to the bushes arching over the top. The path was flattened and well hidden. ‘Good for ambushes,’ Sakura thought wryly. If this is here, then the road can’t be far away.

A large tree had fallen and pulled one wall of the slope down into the gulch with it, leaving a gap with a wide view of the surrounding area. To continue down the trail, they would have no choice but to scale the log. Katsuro crossed the tree first and stood atop the pile of crumbling earth on the other side of the tree, waiting for her to follow suit.

Sakura flattened her hands on the bark, but didn’t move any further. Instead, she shot a glance back over her shoulder and down the length of the tree. Beyond it’s grasping airborne roots, Sakura could see the entire woodland valley unfolding. The kunoichi sucked in a shallow breath.

Slips of yellow glimmered through the mottled green and brown landscape. Winding teasingly in and out of view, the old travel road curled around trees and bobbed over the hillocks. Sakura’s heart lifted. It was what she had been searching for — the thread that connected her to home.

‘I knew it,’ she thought triumphantly. If she could get to the road, then she could escape, she could be seen, she could be found. No, she amended, remembering the previous night’s despair, that road meant she could find her own way now.

The kunoichi swung her head back, flexed her elbows and prepared to vault over the tree, feeling more alive and hopeful than she had in days. Her mind was just whirring to life with plans when a shadow fell across her fingertips and halted everything.

She raised her head only to find Katsuro’s unyielding face just inches from her own. Brown eyes narrowed slightly, and he gave her a long, hard look, almost daring her to try something.

Momentarily surprised at his sudden, threatening closeness, the kunoichi’s anger immediately overruled her common sense. She shot a challenging look back for a fraction of a second, before she dipped her head to reorganize her thoughts.

Focusing on her hands, Sakura told herself picking a fight with him would do no good. She needed to keep her cool and find a way to escape. The kunoichi tamped down her anger and slowly swung one leg, then the next, over the tree, not trusting herself to look up again.

They scrambled down the ravine, then hiked back up another one, before stopping below a large rock outcrop. The rest of his group were there, silent and swiftly making what looked to be travel preparations, all dressed in the same pale garb and traveling cloaks.

“Have a seat,” Katsuro said, pointing to a nearby spot out of the main pathway. Sakura silently leaned back against one of the large boulders and watched the activity around her. Men came and went with empty rucksacks and weapons. One stopped to apprise her warden of who they’d seen so far traveling on the old road, describing their loads in great detail.

The empty sacks, the weapons, the disguises…. They’re preparing for an ambush, Sakura realized. She wasn’t sure before, but now there could be no doubt that these men were the ones targeting the merchants, the men she’d been assigned to find.

Sakura watched the rogues and thought with chagrin how wrong her team had gotten it. They had been staking out flat land farther down the valley, looking for peasants. Yet these men, looking as authentic as any Sand shinobi she’d ever seen, would never have been suspected of any wrongdoing.

Just then, a low whistle sounded from the top of the outcrop. All were silent, waiting. Sakura didn’t know what to expect. But it was quickly followed by another whistle, and all the men relaxed a little. Whoever was passing was not who they wanted.

Another rogue dressed in fatigues came down from the boulders. He was the thin one from camp. Fumio.

“Just a single monk,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as he passed Katsuro.

He continued walking past the medic-nin, and kicked the ground in front of her as he strode by, spattering her legs with clumps of black dirt and leaves. He cut a nasty look down at her, making sure she knew it was intentional. Sakura shot him a mean look back, but he was already moving swiftly beyond her.

She returned to her surveillance on Katsuro, who was looking intently at her, brows furrowed. But he shook it off, and quickly finished up his conversation with the other man.

“…next one with a load. We need to get moving,” he said.

The man nodded and left, and Katsuro approached her, grabbing the bound leather between her wrists and pulling her to her feet.

“You need to carry your share,” he said, pausing to draw out a long piece of tan fabric from a nearby rucksack.

Sakura nearly fell over. A Sand cloak fluttered in front of her, and Katsuro deftly whipped the top of it around her neck, leaning in close to clasp it under her chin.

Her mind reeled. They wanted her to participate in this crime somehow. She’d have none of it.

“Absolutely not—” the kunoichi began, leaning away from him, but he wasn’t interested.

“You don’t have a choice,” he said, and clutched her elbow through the cloak.

Katsuro directed her around to the top of the outcrop with a firm admonishment, “no more talking.”

But what seemed like the top was actually just the natural crest of a small hill, sloping gently away from the road. It was the ravine behind them that was deceptively steep.

They dropped down behind a few large boulders, perfectly positioned above a long dip in the trade road. She understood it all now: A merchant would be forced to slow his speed here, and Katsuro’s men would descend and block him in. Then they could easily escape with their haul by retreating back into the network of sharp, deep trenches. The rogues would be nearly impossible to track.

Sakura looked across the anonymous forest landscape and shook her head. Her team never had a chance of finding this group.

A jingling sound suddenly rang out from beyond one of the little hills that framed the low section of road.

Katsuro hastily grabbed the bindings again and pulled her down behind the boulder.

Skidding in the dirt on her knees brought momentary pain, but any other thoughts were eclipsed by an entirely different feeling at her wrists. The straps around her forearms bunched and overlapped, and cool air licked at the exposed strips of sweat-moist skin.

He had unwittingly loosened her bindings.

Sakura’s heart banged in her chest at the realization. She felt light as air. This ambush was her moment to break free, she thought. She licked her lips and scanned the area nervously, clutching her fingers to keep them from trembling.

“You ok?” Katsuro interrupted her, looking tensely over her face and at her shaky hands.

“Mmmm,” she hummed through her lips, nodding to reinforce it.

‘He must think I’m nervous about the ambush,’ she thought. She nearly laughed at him, giddy from excitement. He nodded back slowly, still peering at her through the dim light behind the boulder.

The crunch of a wagon wheel at the top of the hill drew everyone’s full attention. This was what his group had been waiting for. The men around her were focused, tense, drawing weapons of all kinds. Sakura was busy making calculations about who would be going where, how much time she would have, and which way she would run, waiting breathlessly for her opening.

The donkey, perhaps sensing trouble, stamped and pulled against its harness, refusing at first to enter the threatening low spot in the road. But the driver urged the animal to follow course, and soon enough the cart was lurching down the hill and into position.

She heard a male voice from somewhere down the row of hunched men call out, “Heavy load. Full wagon, look how it’s swaying. This is the one.”

“No,” Katsuro uttered next to her. “No!” he called to the men desperately, but he was too late to be heard.

“Let’s go!” barked a few others in the group, drowning out Katsuro’s voice. Rallied by the cries, the men tore off down the bank, weapons at the ready, circling around the unsuspecting travelers like a pack of wolves. The ambush was in full swing.

Sakura couldn’t find the source of Katsuro’s alarm until a tiny movement drew her eyes immediately to the front of the cart. Pale skin flashed from under the edge of the tarp covering the wagon bed. A little hand, followed by another, grasped at the two drivers, then retreated back to the safety of their hiding spot.

Two little heads popped out this time, arms reaching for the man and woman. They quickly disappeared again upon hearing the commotion. Katsuro must have seen them somehow while the rest of the men were sizing up the load.

Sakura’s throat went dry. These weren’t wealthy merchants, this was a family.

Katsuro wrapped his hand like a vice around the medic’s wrist and bolted out from their hiding spot, hauling her down the slope with him.

Jumping quickly from the cart, the father brandished a small knife and managed to threaten the rogues away from the back of the wagon. But it wasn’t enough. The men who were creeping towards the front quickly switched directions and overpowered him, ripping the blade from his hand and forcing it to his neck.

The mother bore terrible witness to the men turning away from the cart to attack her husband. Her screams did not alert him quick enough, and the sight of him being threatened drew her out as well. In near hysteria she tried to climb from the seat, begging them to stop, only to lose her footing and tumble into the road.

The scene unfolding before Katsuro was going from bad to worse. He had been hurrying toward the wagon, hoping he could keep the rest of the family contained while he retrieved the husband, but his hostage was dragging on him, slowing him down.

“Damn it,” Katsuro said, eyes never leaving the father. The biggest rogue, Raiden, eager for a fight, was rounding on the man, shouting threats and flashing another kunai menacingly in his face. Katsuro knew he had to get to there before they killed him.

As he passed the wagon, moving swiftly to the action, Sakura pulled against her warden, stooping to extend her elbow down to the mother, reflexively trying to keep her calm. The woman clutched her arm, panic stricken, desperate to stand and get to her husband.

Frustrated with her delay, Katsuro slid his hand fluidly from the medic-nin’s wrist to the bindings and gave a hard jerk, hellbent on pulling the girl away from the crying wife—

When it all unraveled in his hand.

The leather binding whipped around, free of its prisoner, and the wife tumbled into Katsuro. The woman clung to him, trying to pull herself up.

Katsuro couldn’t believe what was happening. He tried to push the woman off, frustratedly looking for the girl who just vanished into thin air. But the wife wouldn’t release him, instead pulling on his arm in desperation, sobbing for them to spare her husband.

Sakura felt the binding slip off in a single motion and acted immediately. This was the opening she had been waiting for.

Two steps ahead of her captor, she darted under the cart. Sakura had already decided to use the melee to her advantage. She would leap from the other side of the wagon into the trees. As soon as she could, she’d alert others in the area to their troubles, she told herself.

Sakura flattened herself against front corner of the cart, opposite where she’d left Katsuro standing.

“Get off of me!” she heard the rogue nin yell from beyond the wagon, and she knew this was it. The kunoichi turned for a last furtive glance down the cart and bent her knees to launch, when the edge of the tarp tipped up beside her.

A large pair of eyes peered out from the darkness. Her eyes widened as well.

‘Oh no,’ she thought. The children. What was she thinking? She couldn’t leave. She couldn’t turn her back on them.

Sakura heard the wife scream again. She tightened her fist. This was all her fault. This poor family was attacked because the rogues were moving her.

“I’m scared,” came a voice from the darkness.

She could hear scuffling, someone was approaching. She was running out of time. She had to do something….

The adrenaline that had coursed through her veins at the thought of her own escape now fueled another plan. She pushed back the tarp, shoved her arms down into the darkness and scooped up the two children. They looked all of two and four years old. Both clung instinctively to her arms as she whirled away from the cart. If she was going to run, the kunoichi decided, she was taking them with her.

Settling a child at each hip, Sakura dashed to the front of the wagon. Trying to stay ahead of the approaching footsteps, she cut close to the donkey’s head, giving it’s dangling reins a good shake as she passed, intentionally trying to spook it. He reared a little and stamped backwards, rocking the wagon and forcing anyone behind her to avoid the wobbling cart.

Now in the open, she sprinted toward the other hill and didn’t look back. The cloak whipped mercilessly around her boots.

“Go!” the father’s voice rang out through the air. “Take the children! Run!”

The father’s outcry silenced the threatening rogues momentarily until they realized she was escaping, then they unleashed an onslaught of curses at her. But Katsuro’s voice carried over all of it.

“Stop,” he boomed up to her from beside the wagon. “You’re not going anywhere!”

She hesitated at the crest of the hill. Beyond her, the road twisted relentlessly through the woods, flat and empty. It slipped around a tree and disappeared.

Behind her somewhere the mother sobbed. The children wailed miserably at either shoulder.

“Don’t move,” Katsuro yelled.

‘This isn’t going to work,’ she thought. She couldn’t run and get away now, and leaving the mother and father behind was certain to be a death sentence for them.

Little hands knotted in the kunoichi’s cloak and feet dug in to her ribs. Squirming out of her arms, the children reached back, bawling for the parents.

Sakura shut her eyes. Someone was going to suffer here. Either the parents or the children, or both. All because of her.

Itachi’s words to her captor suddenly came to mind: She was the priority. Sakura opened her eyes.

She knew she was more important to them than any pathetic ambush attempt.

No, she couldn’t run, she thought, but she wasn’t just going to hand them over. Not when she still had something to bargain with.

Pulling the children around in front of her, shielding them with her body, she slid the them down one at a time to the ground.

“Don’t move,” she whispered. They clung to each other.

Sakura pivoted quickly on the spot to face her captor, letting the cloak billow into the space between herself and the children, effectively shielding them from the violence. Hands on her hips, hair whipping around her face, the kunoichi drew in a breath and tried to look as formidable as she could. She frowned down at her warden, then shifted her gaze to survey the scene through calculating eyes.

The men looked at her, their cold intent plain on their faces. Even Raiden dropped the knife from the father’s throat to watch Sakura, while the mother pulled against her captor to clutch at her husband.

Katsuro, who had been steadily stalking towards her, stopped at the base of the little hill and looked up, waiting to see what she would do.

“Is this who you target? Families?” she yelled at all of them finally, starting her plan in motion. “If you’d just asked, they’d have given you everything,” she taunted them.

Her warden took another step, but Sakura responded with a movement of her own. She bent her knees slightly, widened her stance, tightened her hands into fists at her sides, and leveled her gaze directly at Katsuro. The message was clear, she was ready to fight.

The kunoichi lowered her voice and said warningly to him, “I won’t let you touch them.”

“Get back down here,” he matched her tone, annunciating every word in anger. Sakura sized him up and shook her head at him slowly. She was going to offer an alternative, but the rest of the rogues had other plans.

Intending to break the standoff by force and punish the girl for her insubordination, Raiden shoved the wife to the ground and replaced the kunai at the husband’s throat.

“He’ll pay for your insolence,” Raiden snarled up at Sakura. He fisted a hand in the father’s hair and tightened his grip on the weapon.

“Just let them go,” the father pleaded desperately, but his voice thinned. The blade at his throat pressed deeper, this time drawing a trickle of blood. The mother sobbed for them to release him.

“Stop it,” Katsuro yelled back at them, anger flaring out now at his own men. “Leave those two alone.”

But his teammates were in full rebellion. And Raiden saw this as his opportunity to take down Katsuro.

“If you can’t handle her,” he yelled, nodding at the troublesome girl atop the hill, “then what makes you think you can handle anything else, little runt.”

Caught in the middle, Katsuro was forced to deal with what was clearly the more volatile of the two problems.

As he turned his back on her, Sakura could see her warden had balled his hands into tight fists at his sides. She wasn’t sure if Katsuro could resist Raiden’s baiting another time. And a brawl among the thieves was likely to result in innocent bloodshed.

Sakura knew she had to get control of this situation fast.

“Enough!” she yelled over all of them, hoping somehow her voice would carry. It did the trick, the men stopped their tirade.

“Let them pass unharmed, and I’ll come willingly,” she said. Katsuro snapped back to her, eyes wide in furious disbelief. The rest of the men scoffed. “Get what you want out of the cart, then send it down the road. Let the mother and father go, then—”

“You for them?” Katsuro cut her off. “Do you think we’re bargaining here?” he roared, and advanced on her again. He seemed to be changing his mind, deciding to overpower her first, then deal the rest of the men.

Sakura bit her lip, pushed away her fear at his almost tangible intimidation, and told herself not to give up now. Behind her the children whimpered softly. If she were captured again then all her leveraging power would be gone. She took all the courage she had and threw it back at him.

“What’s more important? They’re stomachs or your mission?” she yelled back, pointing at Katsuro to emphasize that it was, in fact, ‘his mission,’ using the overheard conversation with Itachi against him. Katsuro stopped again.

Sakura knew which one was the most important cargo here, and it wasn’t the family or any of their goods.

“Me for them,” she confirmed Katsuro’s words. The kunoichi looked back up to the men menacing over the husband and wife. “Let them go,” she said, nodding at the parents.

Katsuro still had not moved from his spot. Instead he just watched her, eyes narrowed angrily.

Sakura looked back to him, took a breath, and waited. She waited for him to either come after her or give a sign he would accept her terms. She didn’t know what he would do, but she hoped this would work. She was out of options.

A quick glance showed her the men in the group were also waiting. Even after their minor power struggle, Katsuro still seemed to have the authority over these rogues.

Never taking his eyes from the kunoichi, Katsuro barked out new orders to the rest of the men.

“Get what you want,” he called out. He paused before grudgingly adding, “Then let them go.”

The men didn’t act immediately on what he said — a few of them cut mean looks at the kunoichi, Raiden pitched the husband forward to land near the wife — but shortly they were stripping the cart of food and valuables.

Katsuro glared at her, but didn’t move. Neither did she. It was stupidity on her part, he thought, trading her life for theirs. He watched her face, green eyes scouring every bit of movement, silently nodding to what he could only assume were the parents. Her pink hair fanned out a little in the warm midday breeze and she had slightly relaxed her fighting stance. The cloak was moving enough to allow little glimpses of the frightened children behind her.

She was right about one thing, Katsuro thought, running his fingers along his palms. She was more important than this misguided ambush attempt. And now she had them in a bind. He was counting on her word, but if she’d worked through all her options, then she knew there was no way to escape now.

‘Damn her,’ he thought. ‘She’s more trouble than she is worth.’

Katsuro slipped a hand under his cloak and searched for something in his pocket. Finally, his fist tightened around the leather strap. It creaked softly beneath his cloak, held at the ready if she had any thoughts of escaping. With the family out of the way, Katsuro knew he could catch her easily.

But at the top of the hill, the girl still stood unmoving, silently observing it all. Katsuro shook his head softly at the idea that she had single-handedly undone his plans. But he would never have given in to her bargaining if it had not suited him so well. If he can make her yield to force, he thought, the next few days will be much easier.

Itachi’s platitude floated through his mind. “Better to yield to force than force to yield.” It applied to Itachi’s interrogation strategy, that it was easier to make someone give up information with a threat, while someone who is set against revealing secrets must be broken. But Katsuro was finding it handy here too: If he could make this one sacrifice and get her to go along with them out of obligation, then life for all of them would be easier.

It was a gamble, but as he watched her eyes dart over the scene, circling back to making sure he hadn’t moved again, Katsuro had a feeling that the ridiculous Konoha sense of honor would play into his hands. Better to push a willing hostage up the mountain than drag a fighting prisoner, he thought.

The men finished emptying the cart of food and small items, then one called up to Katsuro, “Alright, here they come.” The parents hurried toward the cart, while the ambushers disappeared back into the woods with their belongings.

“Don’t move,” Katsuro said to the medic firmly. “They’ll come to you.” Sakura said nothing.

The father fumbled for the reins, intending to walk up the hill alongside the wagon, but Katsuro stopped them.

“Get in. She’ll hand the children to you,” he said, then turned back to watch the kunoichi. He wanted to make sure there were no more opportunities to escape.

The parents complied wordlessly, and the cart rolled slowly toward Sakura.

Katsuro hadn’t moved forward again, but Sakura didn’t trust him. She had no intention of leaving, but she didn’t want him to go back on his word. She watched him closely as the wagon rolled up the hill, mirroring his fierce expression with one of her own, only breaking off to pass the children over. She loaded them quickly into the cart glancing down at him warily, relieved to see that he still stood in the same manner.

The mother grasped the children to her chest, kissing them and sobbing thank-yous to the brave girl through their feathery hair.

“I’m so sorry,” the father said, his voice thick with emotion.

“It’s ok,” Sakura reassured briskly, stepping back from the cart.

“C-can you tell me your name?” the father whispered.

The kunoichi involuntarily glanced at Katsuro. He knew exactly what had transpired and shook his head slowly, never breaking his threatening glare. He took a step closer, hand moving surreptitiously to something hidden in his cloak.

‘They need to get out of here,’ she thought.

She shook her head quickly then said, loud enough for Katsuro to hear, “I’ll be fine, but you have to hurry. Don’t look back. Just go.” She gave them a tight smile, and hoped it was enough to convince them to leave.

The father thanked her again through tears, and the cart rumbled quickly off.

She watched the old road till they were at a safe distance, finally rounding behind a far tree and disappearing. Silence settled thickly over the forest. The few puffs of dust still hanging in the air were the only sign of a disturbance.

Grinding the road under her feet, Sakura turned her back on what might have been her escape route and looked down at Katsuro.

He was standing perfectly still, just a few paces away, waiting.

‘Me for them,’ she thought. She pushed her lips together. ‘I failed my team, but I saved their lives. Hopefully.’ There would be repercussions, to be sure, but now they were hers to bear.

She trained her eyes on the ground, forced herself to put one foot in front of the other, and silently closed the gap between herself and her warden.

Katsuro shifted his stance in anticipation, letting the cloak casually fall away from his outstretched arm. He slowly turned his fist, and the long leather strap dangled out of his hand. The kunoichi swallowed hard. The ends of it bounced merrily at the edge of her vision.

‘Me for them,’ she thought again, refusing to be intimidated. She was a ninja, after all, and it was her duty. But in that dire moment when she could have escaped and saved herself, she realized she was the only one who could save the family. She traded her life for theirs. Without hesitation.

On an empty road, filthy and worn, with no weapon and no hope of rescue, Sakura finally felt like a real kunoichi.

She understood the feeling that she could never quite grasp. It wasn’t in a hair cut or an attitude, it was in the sacrifice. That was the silent mark of a ninja. The willingness to do whatever it took to save a life, to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. Knowing that she alone could make the difference…. She wanted to live by that, to never forget that feeling.

‘Me for them,’ she affirmed to herself one last time. Yes, she could accept that fate.

Sakura closed her eyes, put out her hands in front of her and waited.

But her gesture to show she was holding up her end of the bargain wasn’t enough to placate Katsuro. Instead he wrenched one arm, then the other behind her and bound both ruthlessly tight. Sakura bit her lip to keep from crying out, the pain bringing tears to her eyes.

He jerked the leather ties once to make sure she wouldn’t get free again. Satisfied, he gave a hard push between her shoulder blades to start her moving.

“Let’s get going,” he called out to the rest of the men when they reached the tree line.

“No need in being stealthy now,” he said, snapping dry branches as he stomped back into the forest. “If Konoha wasn’t onto us before, they will be after this mess.”

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