Chapter 5 – The Climb

Pink hair flipping suddenly into her eyes, the kunoichi crashed forward onto her knees with a sickening crack. She had been channeling chakra to soften her falls, but this one caught her by surprise.

The moss-covered rocks were deceptively slippery, and Sakura had lost count of how many spills she’d taken. She’d remember this one though, she thought wryly.

Ignoring the burn searing up the outside of her legs, Sakura rocked at the waist and pushed hard with her thighs to leverage herself to standing. Her captor waited behind her, silently minding the leather strap that rendered her arms useless. Grit pattered down onto the dry leaves as she stood, but some of it stayed embedded in her torn, oozing skin.

She didn’t know how much more of this she could take.

Scattered ahead of her on the mountainside, the group of rogues picked their way up the steep terrain. They were moving steadily across the unending slant of huge boulders and old trees to some unknown destination, so Sakura knew she must go on too.

A quiet cough rattled the air behind her, interrupting her respite. Sakura narrowed her eyes. The little noise meant her warden was ready to continue. With a sigh, she shook the last wisps of hair from her face and gingerly began again. It had been like this all afternoon.

Upon leaving the roadside, the group and their prisoner traveled swiftly over the rolling woodlands, until the canopy of leaves grew quite dense and the undergrowth fell away completely. The landscape looked similar to the ancient forest she had been held in, all twisted roots and unyielding rocks. And though Sakura knew they were not returning to the encampment, there were no clues as to where they were heading. She had frustratingly lost all sense of direction in the diffuse light.

They trekked in silence, moving nearly single file through the pathless bottoms. Around them, grey tree trunks shot up like pillars from the ground. Leaves crunched under foot, and the long cloaks, excellent for repelling sand in other climates, only snagged on the branch-littered floor.

A familiar rustle and snap echoed in the silence. It reminded her that the other men had free will to take off their cloaks. Blocking out the thought, Sakura wiggled her fingers behind her back, trying to catch some of the silky fabric and stave off the numbness that was slowly setting in. The only thing she managed to grasp was the length of binding that connected her to the man behind her.

Concentrating on her hands, Sakura didn’t quite clear a leaf-covered stone as she stepped. It caught her toe, and she stumbled forward.

“Pay attention,” her warden said flatly, gently tugging the leather strap from her fingers.

At length, a low knocking sound filtered through the dim woods. It was undefinable, and seemed to come from everywhere at once. Sakura thought they might be nearing their destination, and watched her surroundings for an encampment, but one never appeared.

They travelled on, the thrumming sound weaving in and out of the trees around them.

Sakura had despaired of ever finding it’s source when finally, hiking out of a root-lined trench, a sudden, dull roar filled the space in front of them. Their path had led them to deep, moss-lined stream.

A narrowing channel combined with a few large stones sunk in the bed forced the water to eddy and swirl loudly. It was the occasional sound of rushing waters that drifted through the trees, not telltale noises from a hidden camp.

Smooth boulders jutted out from the green banks, and the kunoichi thought they might stop for a rest or for water. But the men barely acknowledged the break in the monotonous landscape, simply turning and walking beside it, against the flow of the current.

Sakura tipped her head out of the line, looking upstream, and tried to intuit a destination, but there were no signs of human habitation anywhere. The creek cut deeply through grey rocks, and more often than not, it disappeared completely under the shadow of it’s banks. Only the occasional flash of white froth along the edge delineated water from stone.

But it’s hollow, lonely sound stayed with them constantly now.

The terrain rose steadily as they hiked. Sakura tried to find shadows to determine a time of day, but barely any direct sunlight trickled down to the forest floor.

Their path beside the stream finally terminated at steep, rocky waterfall. That sound was unmistakeable, and the roar of splashing water was nearly deafening by the time they were upon it.

The water-slicked rocks on either side of the falls made Sakura feel downright queasy, and she looked back at her captor wondering how he expected her to scale it without killing them both.

He gave a quick nod toward the rogues in front who were already breaking away from the stream. Apparently there was a safer, secondary route somewhere down the outcrop. She understood, and they quickly fell in step behind the rest of the men.

It was slower going, but eventually they cleared the last boulder and returned to the placid waters upstream of the roaring falls. Sakura was unprepared for the dramatic view hidden above the sluice.

The land from that point rose up and up, so steep in some places the kunoichi had to tip her face skyward just to see the edge. In front of her stood a massive ridgeline, and they were at the very foot of it.

Sakura peered through a gap in the canopy. A thick white cloud had just crested the ridge, and it looked as if it was snagged on the mountain itself.

Around her the sun streaked through the trees, and she was surprised to find it was not so late in the day as she had thought. Sakura understood now why the woods had been so dim: They were in the shadow of that tremendous mountain. She took a breath and relished the view. She was thankful to be out of the dark woods.

“Don’t stop,” Katsuro said behind her. It had been the first she’d heard his voice in hours, and she wondered if the long walk had cooled his temper any. His voice betrayed no emotion, so she couldn’t tell.

Thinking it couldn’t be much farther, not with how much they’d traveled already, Sakura crossed the lapping water and pushed her foot down on a wobbling boulder, eager to begin her trek up the mountainside.

But now, in the streaked blue shadows of late afternoon, with no end in sight to the uphill ordeal, Sakura reflected back on that dark valley and it’s lonely, winding stream with a little more kindness.

Her hair stuck irritatingly to the sweaty skin at her neck. The cloak was pinned beneath her bound arms, cooking her lower back with the extra layers of fabric, but in a cruel twist her hands were cold and numb. The parts of her arms she could feel were painfully swollen, and she was fairly sure a section of pinched skin near her elbow had worn into a nasty blister. Any movement hurt now.

Sakura tiredly looked up the slope, wondering how much further their destination could be, when she caught the edge of the cloak on her boot and stumbled. She thought she’d caught herself, but the rock she was pushing her weight on toppled forward precariously. The kunoichi skidded hard on both knees to stop herself from tumbling head-first off the boulder.

Crying out, she hunched her shoulders and tried to smother the pain. A few deep breaths later, and she thought she might be able to grind back onto her legs to stand.

But this time, Katsuro helped her back to her feet.

“Get up,” he said quietly, hands at her shoulders. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

She struggled up, bits of leaves and wet moss sticking to the fresh scrapes at her knees.

Scattered up the mountainside, the rest of the group came to a halt too.

“You know,” she said in exasperation, “if you tie my hands in front I won’t fall as much.”

Brown eyes studied her tired face as he silently weighed the safety of her request against how much time they were losing in this punishing march.

She was pale and sweaty, definitely worn out, but all he needed was a single glance to see that her determination was undiminished. He wouldn’t underestimate her again. The kunoichi probably still had some fight left in her, he thought. But if she had other ideas, it didn’t matter.

‘She can’t sabotage anything up here,’ he thought wryly.

Above them, Katsuro could hear the men speaking to one another, repeating what she’d said.

Snickers floated down the mountainside.

“Hey, why don’t you let me take her for a while, since you can’t control her,” the big one called down to Katsuro. “Next she’ll be asking you to carry her!” Several others laughed as well. It roiled him with fresh anger.

“Keep going,” he yelled back. “We need to make it by nightfall.”

The rogues were already turning to go before he’d finished his command, leaving the pair to find their own way on the crumbling slope.

Katsuro turned to the girl, unwinding the strap from her wrists. She pulled her arms around, flexed her elbows, and tried not to look at the angry red marks marring her arms and hands. The skin had puffed around the strap lines, and her fingertips were nearly purple. He tried to keep from cringing, and looked up to see how she how she was faring.

Her face was taut, eyes narrowed, mouth drawn. She bit her lip at some sharp pain, but continued to wiggle her stiff fingers free of the bindings in order to better inspect her injuries.

The girl brushed a hand up the inside of her arm, following a dry track of blood.

‘Is she bleeding?’ he thought with some measure of surprise.

Turning her arm fully revealed a mark just below the elbow where the strap had rubbed her skin raw. The exposed area, an arc the same width as the leather, glistened red and looked extremely painful, but it seemed to have ceased it’s bleeding.

She sighed softly, dropped her arms, closed her eyes again and resumed a methodical open and close of her hands. The swelling was slowly ebbing, and her fingers were returning to their normal color.

Katsuro removed his cloak, shoving it carelessly into his rucksack.

“Do you want to take off your…” he asked, pointing to her neck. She nodded, but he was already reaching to unclasp it before her hands stirred at her sides. He slipped it off smoothly, moving as efficiently as he had that morning when he fastened it on her. The kunoichi’s shoulders drooped. Perhaps she realized, as he had already, that her fingers would not yet be able to perform that simple task.

“Your knees,” he said, nodding down to the debris sticking to her legs, before shoving her cloak into the bag too.

Frowning, the kunoichi carefully brushed the leaves and dirt away from the torn skin. She straightened and, with another wistful breath, pushed her arms forward expectantly.

Katsuro said nothing and set to wrapping her hands again, though not as tight. Watching her face, he could tell the pain was even more intense than before. She bit her lip and focused on the woods, eyes shining with unshed tears.

Angry welts crisscrossed her pale skin. It was a sharp contrast to his own hands, rough and calloused, now winding the strap back around her wrists. He ignored the twinge of guilt at his temper earlier that resulted in the too-tight bonds, but made sure not to wrap the leather so high up her arms this time.

‘She’s strong, there was no denying that,’ he thought. Stronger than most of the jackals he was used to being around.

He tucked the rest of the leather into the gap between her wrists, and pointed for her to continue untethered ahead of him. If she was surprised, he didn’t look up to catch the expression flicker across her face.

They immediately picked up the pace, the kunoichi proving much more agile on the unstable rocks. But Katsuro was only distantly aware of that, too.

He was busy meditating on her situation. That soft, feminine outtake of breath was what set it off, reminding him that she was, in fact, still a girl — and a Konoha ninja at that. He had little experience with either, he thought.

This pink-haired contradiction, this kunoichi, abducted then abandoned, was hiking up a mountainside with hardly a complaint, after going without food, healing a few dozen shinobi, withstanding Itachi’s intimidating presence and thwarting their ambush.

Katsuro shook his head at the thought.

Fixing his eyes on the black boots climbing steadily in front of him, Katsuro tried to find someone in his history that matched up to those same strong, infuriating qualities. Was it bravery or stupidity she exhibited? He sighed. He just didn’t know. Working to keep up with the girl, Katsuro entertained himself by mulling over er confounding actions.

Around them, the forest fell into dusky silence, and their burst of energy eventually began to wane.

Sakura thought it was because she was tired, but the rocks around her seemed to be increasing in size. Large round boulders were replacing the smaller crumbling ones they had stumbled over all afternoon. Some were grey and half buried under centuries of moss, while others still retained their yellow and brown striations, with very little debris.

And a few had unusually sharp angles to them, as if hewed from the mountain itself. She wondered about those, but stuck to climbing over the moss-covered rocks just to be safe.

By the time the shadows were melting together into grey pools behind the darkening trees, the shapes of the boulders no longer held any interest for Sakura. She’d be happy if she never saw another one again.

They were both feeling the effects of a full day of grueling travel, and Katsuro knew it was far from over.

Stubbing his toe for the third time and sick of hearing his own voice in his head, Katsuro decided to poke at his hostage instead. He knew it was against his better judgement, but he wanted to find out more about her, why she stuck up for that family back on the trade road. Just remembering it irritated him.

“We weren’t going to kill them,” Katsuro blurted out, his voice sending a bird flying from a nearby tree. It drew their attention for a moment, but he continued. “The family. We would have let them go.”

He didn’t get a response. Not even a movement. He would have thought she didn’t hear him if they were anywhere else but an empty mountainside.

“You seem to think otherwise?” he called up to her after a few moments, watching her back for any sign of acknowledgement.

The kunoichi still didn’t answer him. She didn’t think there was anything she could say except that she heartily disagreed. He had lost control of everything and nearly cost those poor people their lives. He shouldn’t speak for his teammates.

‘No good would come of sharing that opinion,’ she thought.

But a few paces behind her, Katsuro wasn’t giving up. If she wouldn’t answer his questions, then maybe he could anger her enough to talk. She should be happy, he didn’t have to speak to her at all, he thought, grinding his foot down onto the next rock.

“Your freedom was never an option,” he called up to her testily.

Sakura sighed. He wasn’t going to let this go. She dug her elbows into an unusually large moss-covered rock and attempted to pull herself up onto it. But the moss was slippery under her boots, and she couldn’t get a solid footing.

“I wasn’t interested in my freedom,” she said finally. “I was interested in their safety.” She had slipped back down, but wasn’t giving up. She leaned on her elbows and tried again.

Still a few boulders behind her, Katsuro shook his head, not bothering to look up.

“You value you’re life so little that you trade it for people you don’t even know? People who were foolish enough to come into these woods unprotected?” he said.

She didn’t answer him.

“You are a ninja aren’t you?” he said angrily. He knew she was. No civilian would dream of doing what she did, nor would any of the shinobis he knew. He kicked a cluster of leaves off the top of the boulder.

“Well, what a waste,” he said. “Everything you’ve trained for, at your little academy, all thrown away.”

Sakura had slipped again, and was crouching down to inspect the rock for a toehold.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” she said, her voice muffled by her hair.

“What?” he snapped, looking up to where she was bent over. He frowned. He thought she was farther ahead.

“I said, I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” she repeated louder, straightening and kicking away some of the moss with her boot.

He jumped atop the rock behind her, thinking irritably that he knew what was she was going to say next. Arrogant Konoha nin that she was, she would certainly tell him of her noble cause, her proud village-

“They were children, a family, and they didn’t deserve such horror in their lives, because of me,” she said. She dug her toe into the slot and got ready to try again.

“Because of you?” he scoffed, hands on his hips. He was waiting for it, some high-flown sentiment, some ridiculous ninja creed. In his anger, it didn’t even occur to him that their progress had completely halted.

“Yes, because none of this would have happened if you weren’t transporting me,” she said. She dug her elbows in to the moss, this time using her sore fingers to try to help her hold on, stabilize her as she scrambled up.

“Ahhhhh, so you’re self-sacrifice eases your guilt,” he said tartly.

“No, I’m-” she began an angry retort, but her boot slipped yet again. The sudden weight on her hurt arms and fingers gave her a jolt, and she released her grip involuntarily on the moss to crash back down onto one leg.

She blew out a low breath. Not nearly as hurt as she was from her previous falls, the kunoichi was still tired of the unsteady terrain.

“I’m sick of falling,” she muttered as she slowly rose back up to standing.

Katsuro watched her flip pink hair out of her face for what seemed like the thousandth time that day. Her village affiliation stoked his anger, but it was unfair to pin it all on this girl, and he knew it. As a kunoichi, she must be exceptional, he thought. Most grown men would have given up by now. Seeing her pull herself together, turn and tackle the rock again, lifted him out of his bad mood. He decided to try again as well.

Moving quickly, he leaned down beside her and clasped his hands, giving her a foothold so she could hoist herself up.

“Thanks,” she said quietly.

The climbed over the next few rocks in silence, until Katsuro spoke up suddenly.

“You’re tough,” he said, surprising her a little with his directness.

“I’m a ninja,” she replied humorlessly, stretching to make it over a particularly large slab. It was true enough, she thought. She was supposed to be tough.

He snorted. “Yeah…. Well if you pull another stunt like the one you did back there, you’ll find yourself suspended from a tree each night, miss ninja,” he said.

Momentarily confused, Sakura retorted, “What stunt? Do you mean protecting that family?”

She stopped to face her captor, looking hard at the wrapped up face she hated.

“Yes,” he said, pointing to the rock ahead of them. “Don’t stop.”

“That’s what I’m trained to do,” she said, grasping a textbook answer. Behind her, Katsuro just rolled his eyes. But he could tell she had more to say, so he did his best to keep his mouth shut. They continued climbing over some smaller boulders.

“The big man,” she continued, “you know, the one that’s got it out for you,” she emphasized, “you couldn’t have stopped him in time. He was going to kill the father, I’m sure of it.”

She cleared her throat, trying to shake the feeling that she’d screwed up again. No, she told herself. She’d fixed it. They were all ok now.

“I decided I’d do anything to keep that from happening,” she finished quietly.

Katsuro narrowed his eyes. “You mean, once you got to the top of the hill and saw there was no way to escape?” he said.

Sakura could see where he was going with this, pointing out that saving the family was an afterthought. That she had been more concerned about herself instead of them.

“No,” she said, trying not to snap. “I saw the children in the cart, they were terrified. I decided then that if I couldn’t figure a way out for them, that I’d bargain with you.”

“And what made you think we’d go along with you?” he asked.

“I knew you didn’t want them to get hurt either,” she said. “You saw they were a family before anyone else did, and even tried to stop the the rest of men from attacking.”

He blinked, remembering the cold fear that he would watch the man be slaughtered before his eyes. In his anger at her, he been able to ignore how close he’d come to losing all control. Then those bastards would really have triumphed over him, he thought angrily.

“For whatever purpose, you need me,” she said with a sigh. “So, I traded my life for theirs.” She shrugged, adding softly, “it wasn’t a hard choice to make.”

But something had changed. He could hear it in her voice. Her determination had slipped a little.

“If I’m going to die out here anyway,” she said, pausing to cast wayward glance down the unforgiving mountainside, “I may as well make it worth something.”

The kunoichi turned back to look at him. She knew she was still bargaining. He held her future in his hands, and she was hoping that her honesty would persuade him to shed a little light on what her fate was to be. She studied his face, but his dark eyes were inscrutable.

“Come on, let’s go,” he said quietly. “We’re losing light.”

The greying forest was silent around the pair. Dark blue seeped over the sky, and even the first bright stars could be seen through the chinks in the leafy canopy. Moving together, Katsuro stopped occasionally to give her a foothold, though she never asked.

He was silent for a long time, considering the pointlessness of her actions. It seemed such a waste of skills to defend those who should never have been that far out in the forest alone in the first place. And here she was ready to fight for them, die for them. Foolish, he thought.

But there was something in the way she talked about him that he couldn’t quite dismiss. She believed he would accept her offer to save the family — part of her plan was relying on him. An implied trust. It was an unsettling feeling. Trust wasn’t something he had much use for.

Though she hadn’t been out to thwart him, like the rest of the men in his group, she was definitely turning out to be a lot of trouble, he thought.

Mired in these thoughts, he reflexively leaned down to hoist her foot up to another rock. He pushed hard, vaulting her up.

But neither could see the sharply-angled top, the surface devoid of moss and layered with dust, nor the ground falling away beneath it. There was no room for error here. And the kunoichi would know none of this until it was nearly too late.

“Katsuro,” she called out desperately, reaching back with her bound hands. Snapped out of his thoughts, he scrambled atop the block to catch her by the arm, fleetingly surprised that she even knew his name. There was a steep drop off the other side, and the girl was slipping right for it.

“I’ve got to untie you,” he said, laughing nervously, one hand gripping the edge, one hand clutching her elbow. He swung her toward the safer side of the rock, then slid down behind her.

“Yeah,” was all she get out, her mouth dry from panic.

He unwound her bindings and she resumed climbing in front of him, her freedom clouded by the admonition that if she fell even he couldn’t save her.

“Aren’t you worried I’ll try to escape,” the kunoichi said as a half-hearted challenge, thinking she couldn’t run two steps before she fell down the mountain.

Katsuro chuckled. “There’s no where to run to,” he said, adding quietly, “but we’re getting closer.”

Sakura squinted at the dark blue ridge line, the same ridge that they’d been slowly hiking along for the better part of the afternoon, but she couldn’t discern anything that would mark the end of their journey.

Evening painted the steep woodland in blues and blacks. Enough starlight filtered down through the canopy to let them make out shapes, but not much else. Under her fingers, the mossy carpet no longer softened the edges of the boulders. Sakura could tell now that these were carved by humans, huge blocks used for some ancient building. They were dusty and precarious, and she slipped quite a few times. Her warden, though he knew the way, was not faring much better.

“Where are we going?” she threw back at him after one exasperating scramble up a steep chunk of stone.

“Up there,” he nodded his head at some faint glowing orange orbs seemingly floating in the dark blue expanse above them. Sakura would have thought they were more stars, the lights were so far above what she remembered to be the horizon.

“What?” she cried, “How are we-”

“It gets easier. Just keep going,” he said tiredly, ready to be done with this ordeal.

Katsuro moved closer to her, trying to stick to the same rocks she was climbing over in case she fell. She resented it at first but was forced discard those feelings in order to concentrate on the steep inclines and the wobbling slabs, some of which threatened to break free at any moment under the weight of the trespassers.

What was treacherous by day had become terrifying in the blotted darkness of night.

He reached for her to keep her steady, and to her chagrin she found herself reaching for him just as much. She felt a push at her lower back, then a hand on her waist guiding her toward a steadier boulder. Once her feet were safely planted, she turned and reached out for the arm that she knew was close behind her, guiding him to the same destination before moving forward again.

The initial jolt Sakura had experienced at his touch, her mind freezing in fear and her body stiffening, gradually diminished as she leaned more and more on the rogue nin, willing to do anything to prevent herself from tumbling down the mountain. She tried to concentrate more on anticipating his next position on the shifting rocks, moving in unison, and less on the momentary skittishness she felt each time he touched her.

The cool night air at the high elevation cut through her, but to Sakura’s surprise, Katsuro was quite warm. She could nearly feel his body heat before her hand grasped his shirt, wrapped around his arm, slid into his hand. Maybe her mind was playing tricks on her in the dark, but the warmth he gave off made her feel a little less alone.

Katsuro relished the breeze, it felt so good on across his skin. It occurred to him that under the veil of darkness he could remove those wretched face coverings and continue on in a fraction more comfort. He hooked the bands around his cheek and pulled them to hang loosely at his neck. The air on his face was immediately refreshing. He hated that the most about dealing with outsiders, having to keep their own appearances hidden.

In front of him, Sakura chafed her arms for a little extra warmth.

“Are you ok? Do you need the cloak?” he asked.

Sakura whipped her head back at him suddenly, trying to find his face in the dark.

“I-I’m fine,” she stammered, peering hard into the space where she thought his face might be. “Did you just take your, um, face thing off?”

Katsuro chuckled, “Yeah. Why? Do I sound different?”

“No, not really,” Sakura answered thoughtfully. “Just a little more clear.”

“Hmm,” he answered tiredly because he could think of nothing else to say, and continued moving.

They worked so long together that she forgot completely about her journey, her destination and the fact that her lifeline in the darkness was also her captor. She simply moved her limbs in coordination with him to survive the trek. If his silence was any indication then he felt the same.

Through this tentative truce they worked their way up the mountain, never too far out of the other one’s reach.

Finally, daylight a distant memory, Katsuro straddled a particularly large block then reached back to pull Sakura up to the top.

“Ready?” he asked, then pushed her down the exposed flat side.

The kunoichi landed distrustingly on flat gravel, and stood still for a moment to adjust her eyes to this new, apparently stable ground. Katsuro slid down directly behind her and bumped her forward a bit as he stood. He put both hands on her shoulders and pointed her bodily in the direction of a gray ribbon of dirt that ran down between the large boulders.

“That way,” he said from over her shoulder.

Sakura took a few tentative steps forward, eyes trying to make out just where she was stepping in the murky darkness. The kunoichi looked down at her feet, crunching the dusty gravel, and followed the path ahead until the end of her visibility. The ‘gray ribbon’ they were standing on was a narrow footpath. It wound around some of the crumbling stones and up toward a dark hulking structure.

A nudge from Katsuro, and they began slowly moving up the walkway.

Loose blocks thinned out, and what remained were coalescing to form what Sakura assumed was the building all this wreckage belonged to. The tiny path now hugged a wall on one side, and the ground fell away on the other.

Sakura let her palm glide over the wall as she walked, hoping to find something to keep her from toppling into the dark blue void on the other side. Rocks crumbled away from the edge of the path as she passed, giving her pause to wonder how far down they would go before they stopped. A breeze danced up the mountainside and lifted the fringes of her hair.

“Watch your step,” Katsuro’s voice chuckled from close behind her.

“Yeah,” was all she could find for a response, tearing her eyes away from the abyss to find the path again.

The slow, circuitous route finally brought them around the building, the path emptying out into a large, half-circle terrace.

Sakura walked carefully across the old flat stones for a better look at her surroundings. A strong breeze gusted through, but it never completely died down. She guessed they were probably at the ridge top.

She made it, she thought, breathing in the cool air and ignoring the chill. Only then did she wonder where she was.

The building was extraordinarily high, and she guessed it was an ancient temple. Sakura swept her gaze over the dusty terrace. It was obviously built for viewing, and the she could tell it must have been magnificent in it’s ancient days, before the trees had grown up and concealed it from the world. Only dappled light from the star-bright sky filtered through the treetops, which looked so close you could touch them.

Her warden entered the patio behind her, but turned toward the doorway opposite the old viewing ledge. Standing at the light-flooded entrance, he called back to her tiredly, “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”

Sakura turned at his voice and caught his silhouette, black against the golden doorway. He was just adjusting the last of his face coverings over his nose and mouth.

‘Damn,’ she exhaled, summoning enough energy to curse her bad timing. She silently stepped forward to follow him through the door.

As he entered, voices filtered out of the building, heralding his late arrival.

But Sakura was gripped by a sudden panic. Up until now, the kunoichi had only focused on surviving, not what may be in store for her at the end. At the edge of the pool of light, Sakura could go no further.

The fear that had been displaced by the exhausting trek returned in full force and threatened to consume her. Fear of Itachi, fear of failing her team, fear of never going home…. Irrational thoughts that made her want to turn and run. But there was no where to go from here, she thought in despair. This is a prison without walls.

Just inside the doorway, Katsuro turned back and looked for her. He nodded for her to come in, but she stood unmoving.

‘Was something wrong,’ he thought, tipping his head. Tired brown eyes sought her out, studying her face. Even in the dim light he could see the tenseness in her expression, her own eyes over-wide with fear. It tugged at him. He nodded again, softly beckoning her with his hand.

Sakura watched him and tried to collect her thoughts. She had to keep going, she told herself. She knew there was no other choice. The kunoichi took a breath and followed Katsuro into the main hall.

What was once a grand room, now provided the barest of shelters for this group of rogues. A fire pit in the center of the room cast a flickering orange glow over their long-sought destination.

Immense, crumbling columns ringed the long rectangular room. Sakura could make out a wide walkway, mostly hidden in the darkness behind the row of columns, as well as a few square holes in the walls where windows might have opened onto the once-spectacular view. But those had long since fallen out.

She squinted for a closer look at what she thought was a large black wall on the opposite side of the room, surprised to find that it was, in reality, the world outside. The whole wall had fallen away, and the floor jutted out from underneath the roof, exposed to all the elements.

But what arrested her attention were the group of men in front of her, lazing at the broad, stone-edged fire circle inside the columns. They all looked to the latecomers carelessly, but Sakura could barely conceal her astonishment.

Each face was revealed, save for the man she walked in with.

These men were all older than she was by at least a few years and were all rough looking — more like thugs than ninjas, she thought. It was the same team they’d climbed up the mountain with. They looked just as tired and dirty as she felt.

Sakura’s fears abated somewhat as she determined they were the only ones in this ancient compound.

The conversation around the fire died out as the girl came into view. The biggest man, with a head full of choppy brown hair and a round face, simply watched them pass. But his deep-set eyes had a mean glint in the orange half-light. Beside him, a hatchet-faced man leaned close to whisper something, his long, bony fingers concealing his mouth momentarily, before sitting back to continue his scrutiny of the pair.

She narrowed her eyes, mentally noting their features. Those two were not to be trusted, she thought.

The rest of them were the same, brown hair, forgettable faces. Nothing bespoke village ties or a known clan lineage. Some were interested in their arrival, some were rolling over to go back to sleep. But they all seemed to unite when it came to heckling her warden.

“You sure took your time,” the big man said, all smiles. A few men laughed around him, and the chatter seemed to pick back up. But Katsuro ignored him.

He paced to the center of a row of columns and stopped. Standing still and looking out at the group, hands on his hips, he shook his head in obvious irritation. Finally, heaving a deep sigh as if being forced to some decision, he turned and pitched his backpack against the wall.

What happened next Sakura was unprepared for: In one motion the man fingered the back of his of the wrappings and pulled it directly off his head — wrappings, head covering and all — as if he were ripping off a hated shirt. He flung the tangled mess to the ground near the pack. Katsuro turned to give the kunoichi a command, but it died on his lips.

Her eyes wide and her expression akin to horror, Sakura stopped in her tracks as she took in his appearance.

Deep brown eyes set off his smooth pale face. Freckles lightly dusted his nose and cheeks above slightly chapped lips. All this was capped with a mop of unruly chestnut hair.

His looks were fair and normal, but what shook her to her core was that he appeared to be all of 15 years old. She was fully expecting another dark-haired adult but not prepared for her captor to be someone… someone like her.

“You’re a kid,” she uttered, the sensation of being bested by someone her own age like being dipped in cold water. She should have fought harder, she admonished herself.

Brown eyebrows furrowed, he frowned deeply and turned bodily away from her, causing more laughter to ripple around the room.

“You’ll sleep here tonight,” he called back to her, pointing to where the pack landed behind the columns.

“Where is the food?” he asked the group irritably.

“Remember, you said to grab what we wanted from the cart,” said big man said snidely, “Oh yeah, you were busy with the her.” Snickers erupted around the man, who was making a big show of inspecting his fingernails.

Their intention was clear: No food was the punishment for the little ruckus at the cart.

“It’s not for me, it’s for her!” he yelled at them, but his angry tone only elicited another round of laughter. Finally someone took pity on him and threw an orange over. He caught it and held it out for Sakura, but she simply shook her head once, refusing it.

“Where am I supposed to sleep? Is there somewhere for me… I mean, I don’t have anything to….” Her voice wavered, then guttered out completely.

What was she thinking or even asking for? He obviously meant for her to sleep on the floor, she was their hostage, right? She was not thinking properly, she thought, rubbing her fist wearily against her temple.

The weight of her ordeal was pulling her under. The survival skills that helped her move through the day where lost to her now. There were no negotiations here: She wasn’t a hostage, she amended. She was their prisoner.

And she was also exhausted. The will to fight had left her completely, and she couldn’t find the words to ask all the questions she wanted answered. Where would she sleep? How long would she be here? Would she live through this?

Drawing a ragged breath, hand clutching an elbow, tears burning her eyes, Sakura just stood there and hopelessly awaited her orders from this boy in front of her.

Katsuro tilted his head and considered her question. Then, eyebrows hitching up and expression going slack, his mouth finally worked a little “oh” at the realization that she did not have anything with her: He had forgotten to take her into account when he packed.

“Oh yeah,” was all he could mutter, but the rest of the group figured it out as well and roared with laughter.

“Shutup!” he yelled over his shoulder at them.

“You can have my blanket,” he grumbled quietly to her.

She could hear the men chortling around the campfire, snippets of insults floated over. One in particular came from the big one, saying he thought it was “funny, the runt has to sleep on the floor. Not used to that now is he?!” That bit of humor got a lot of laughs.

Clearly irritated, Katsuro stepped around her, set the orange down and unfurled his blanket over the dusty ground, aiming for the bit with the least rocks. Happy to be finished with his task and ready to find his own spot in the compound without teammates or kunoichis, he leaned over, snatched up the orange, turned on his heel and pushed it roughly into the girl’s free hand.

The cry she let out completely surprised him, and it wasn’t until the orange had already slipped through her hand and bounced halfway to the wall that he remembered her injury from the bindings, the one that he had inflicted. He felt like he was going to be punished for everything tonight.

“I can’t eat it,” she said, holding back tears.

“Oh… yeah,” he said, not sure why until he realized she probably couldn’t peel it. He set to work removing the skin when she stopped him.

“No, my stomach hurts, I don’t think I can eat,” she dissembled. She was unraveling from the ordeal, and she wanted to lie down and weep. “I think I’ll just rest,” Sakura added, holding a sob back until the end.

“Ok,” he said quietly, and left her alone in the striated light behind the columns

But Katsuro knew too well that she would soon be crying herself to sleep.

He sat down at the base of one of the nearby columns, now red and orange in the dying firelight. A few of the men glanced up, but the young shinobi was no longer a source of interest. Warmth and drowsiness seemed to be tugging at them all.

Pulling his knees up and quietly peeling the orange, Katsuro took his time to break it into segments without damaging it. He ate a few pieces, chewing slowly, making it last. He tipped his head back against the column and watched the fire dwindle to a warm glow through half-closed eyes, listening to the soft noises around him. Once her crying subsided and her breathing modulated, then he could find rest too.

Hours later, Sakura stirred in the darkness, awakening suddenly in fear. But she stilled her movements as the memory of the previous day seeped in. She blinked, willing her bleary eyes to focus on the cracked wall in front of her, then turned quietly under the blanket to survey the dimly lit room. A bright fragrance floated up through the shifting air. There on the ground beside her head were a dozen or so orange segments cupped in a few of the larger peels. A few feet beyond that lay the sleeping form of the boy, his back to her.

She slipped a hand out and retrieved a segment, ducking back under the edge of the blanket to savor the fruit as quietly as possible. It’s bright spark in the darkness, combined with desperately needed sleep, made her feel much better than she thought she could feel. She finished the rest of the orange pieces and considered her situation, what she’d endured already, what may lie ahead. She wouldn’t give up yet. She could get through this. Sighing softly, Sakura readjusted the blanket around her and willed herself back to sleep.

Nearby, the breathing which had halted in it’s rhythmic pattern at the the rustling of the blanket, slowly resumed it’s pace, keeping time with the kunoichi’s now steadying breaths.

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