Chapter 6 – Out of the Darkness

Grey light seeped across the room. Persistent rustling hung in the air. A tiny pebble dug relentlessly into her stiff shoulder. In the dim light of morning, things were conspiring against Sakura.

The rogues, who had plenty of time to rest the day before, were awake, shuffling and talking, inconsiderate of everyone. The din was slowly rising with the sun.

Sakura opened her eyes a fraction and was glad to see no one had taken notice of them yet. She quietly slid the blanket up to her face and peered out. Katsuro — ‘the boy,’ she thought petulantly — was turned on his side facing her, back to the room. He was sleeping.

‘Figures,’ she thought.

Dust clung to the careless licks of brown hair, and his face was smooth from sleep, only his eyelashes fluttering occasionally. He could have been any kid in her village, she thought with growing irritation.

She blew out a angry breath. It had everything to do with his jettisoned face covering and the surprise it concealed: his age. If there had been any hint of trust in the last throes of their trek, it was gone now. As if hiding his age was a greater injury than abducting her in the first place, she thought with chagrin.

‘Well, I’ve changed my mind,’ she decided. ‘I liked him better all wrapped up.’

One of the men looked over, Sakura snapped her eyes shut. And just as she did, Katsuro cracked his open.

He had been listening to her stir, aware that her breathing had changed, and a few times peeked at her to make sure no one in the room had noticed them yet. Sleep was out of the picture now, but at least they could rest a little longer. And it gave him time to prepare for the day.

He knew he wanted to stay away from the other men as much as possible. There was always trouble where they were involved.

Running through his options of what he could do, where he could go with his charge, Katsuro thought he saw the girl move and glanced at her face.

She had snapped her eyes shut and was obviously feigning sleep. He continued to watch her from under hooded eyes. After a moment she felt comfortable enough to peek out again. He let the corners of his mouth tug into a smile, which was rewarded with a little huff. Smirking at her response, he slowly opened his eyes.

“Thanks,” she said quietly, slanting a glance at the orange.

He gave a short nod and was about to speak, but the words died on his lips.

“…No, make him earn it….” carried over from the cluster of men at the fire circle. It punctuated a string of grumbled, indiscernible comments.

Katsuro’s eyes were locked on the kunoichi’s, but they darkened with anger. She had stilled herself at the sound too and watched his face for any sign of trouble. When he said nothing, she flicked her gaze out to the room. Her eyes widened minutely. Katsuro could tell from her expression that they were looking over at them.

“Yeah, you heard me,” Raiden called to them, addressing Katsuro’s back. “Go get us some water and we’ll let you have some food. Otherwise it’s going to be really hard for you — and her —” he ground out, “to make it up here. Wouldn’t want Itachi to think you’ve failed now, would we?” He let the last statement hang in the air, but the other men felt bold enough to make their contributions now.

Sakura quickly fixed her eyes back on Katsuro, determined not to give them an audience. She tried her hardest not to flinch as the men continued their tirade.

“Our stomachs or your mission,” came a falsetto taunt from Fumio.

“We shouldn’t give ’em anything at all,” another voice grunted.

“Well?” Raiden said loudly, ending all other discussion. “Do you want to eat or not?” He paused, then rejoined with his own marching orders. “Get up, boy. You’ve got work to do.”

Across from her, Katsuro lay deathly still. His eyes narrowed and he balled his hand into a fist in the dirt. Sakura could tell it was taking a monumental effort to keep his hot temper under control.

She had been expecting them to come to blows for some time now, and she wondered if this was it. He didn’t seem like the type to take orders, and the big one didn’t look like he’d let this go.

But whatever his thoughts were about inflicting bodily harm on the other men, Katsuro surprised her when he opened his hand, spread his fingers out over the ground and sighed deeply.

“You’ll need to eat,” he said with a frown.

Sakura looked away, knowing she was the cause of this new little tension between them.

As if he wouldn’t be eating if she weren’t here, she thought. As if he wouldn’t be in this situation if she hadn’t interfered with their ambush. She frowned but said nothing. It was her fault, again.

He pushed himself up, the movement kicking little dust clouds into the air between them. Sakura rolled on her back under the blanket and looked up at him, waiting. She didn’t know what was expected of her in this equation.

“Come on, we’re gonna be here for a while,” he said in a monotone, patting the dust from his dark fatigues. “I’ll show you around, then you can help carry the water back up.”

Katsuro turned and briskly crossed the floor to a small doorway in the opposite corner of the room.

‘No bindings then,’ she thought. ‘This really is a prison without walls.’

But the knowledge they were staying made her hopeful. She was safe for the time being from whatever fate awaited her with Itachi. And the more time she had, the better her chances of finding a way out of this mess.

He turned back, waiting for her, impatient to get on with his task.

Hurriedly shoving the blanket over to his pack, Sakura followed him across the walkway.

Outside, the fallen away wall revealed nothing more than the outlines of trees through the clinging mist. Inside, the room stretched away from her into murky darkness. It was much larger than she remembered from the previous night. Though the sun was up, a fire was still needed to illuminate the center of the room, and even then the light did not make into all the corners.

The men hovering near the fire ignored their passing, and Sakura did not look to see how many were lingering in the dim light.

Passing through the narrow doorway, Sakura quickly found herself descending a winding stairwell, down over crumbling steps, past window holes and landings with other narrow doorways. Some still had rustic wooden doors, others had lost theirs long ago.

The ones without doors gave her a little glimpse into the lower levels of the temple. From what she could see they were empty rooms as well. But she didn’t have time to linger — her warden was moving swiftly down the steps.

Sakura had counted several doors when one caught her attention. It was rustic and handmade, but it retained some of its bright red paint, and was encrusted with much finer hardware.

The difference brought her to a stop, while Katsuro’s footsteps pounded away down the stairs.

Ornate metal hinges created a filigree pattern against the worn timbers. And what at first glance looked like a lock was in reality an intricately patterned pin wedged into an equally detailed metal fastener. It was rusty, but she knew she could open it.

Somewhere outside the building a bird was chirping. The leaves made a thin rustling sound. But around her it was deliciously silent. She was alone.

‘Just a quick peek,’ she thought.

Curling her hair behind her ears, she wiggled the rusty metal free of its hold and let the heavy door swing open. Sakura peered into the thick darkness.

There was something in there…. Something amazing….

Katsuro had continued on, but when he didn’t hear her behind him anymore he backtracked to find her.

“Hey,” Katsuro called from down the steps. Sakura looked down the curved wall to see him waiting for her, caught in the glow of some unseen window. She could clearly make out his frown. She ignored it.

“What room is this,” she said turning back to the doorway. He shrugged.

“There are paintings in here. Really remarkable paintings,” she said slowly, sticking her head inside the doorway, squinting into the low light. “Do you think it’s safe to go in,” she called over her shoulder.

He trudged back up the steps, curiosity piqued enough to start him moving. “I guess…. I don’t know,” he said, his voice still dull.

But she was already moving across the dusty room by the time he returned to the landing.

The air was thick and stagnant, and the only light came from a few shuttered window holes. Katsuro could see now what had caught her eye from the doorway. Slants of light fell across the other panel-covered walls. Everywhere there were faces and scenes, bright patches of clothes, edges of roofs, glimpses of landscapes, flashes of villages and the people who lived in them.

She moved quickly down the long wall flinging the shutters back one at a time. When she was finished she turned to smile at her discovery.

It was like the sun had risen on another world. Painted screens wrapped around the room and were covered from top to bottom with glorious illustrations of villages and landscapes, battles and clan gatherings, men training and women visiting. There was a single path wandering through it all, upon which traveled a man who looked like none of them.

Still frozen in the doorway, Katsuro’s mouth fell open. He moved closer to her, trying to take it all in, but he simply couldn’t. He didn’t know where to look first.

All around them dust billowed up, little flecks sparkling in the large beams of light. It gave the paintings and the whole room a magical air. It was like she had just opened a treasure box.

“Look,” she said, identifying the sequence of events playing out on the panels. She pointed at a painted battle scene from the days before the villages. “I didn’t know much about the groups represented here,” she peered closer at a painted symbols on their helmets, then shook her head. “I’ve never seen these before. But I think I understand the story this tells.”

Sakura remembered it from her academy days. This was a folk tale about an old traveling monk who first brought chakra control to the realm of humans. She saw the picture etched into the page of her textbook as clearly as if it were in front of her. The stooped little old man who leaned dangerously on his gnarled staff and smiled up at generations of students with a toothless, half-crazed grin. He didn’t look like he could carry the book he was drawn into, let alone the legacy of chakra to all the nations. He was just another cartoonish character in a story.

But in the painting before her, the old monk had been recast as a powerful sage. The years had been peeled away, revealing a upstanding, strong younger man who was at the start of his journey throughout the world. His winding path took him through every corner of the painted panels, through every manner of earthly environment. It ran like a thin golden ribbon, disappearing into the stylized clouds that separated the areas, then reappearing on the other side. And with each new panel, the sage grew a little older, his robes more stately, his walking staff more decorated.

Sakura’s eyes darted back over the panels. It was easy to guess that the largest of the modern nations were represented in the painted environments — forests and deserts, snowy mountains and grassy plains. This was a tale interweaving myth with the real land in which they lived.

She went panel by panel, moving across the canvas, telling the tale with her hands. Brown eyes wide, Katsuro was rapt. He listened closely and watched the action being played out on the walls in front of him.

“Here, these would have been the best warriors of the day,” she said motioning to a group of engaged in fierce battle. She moved to the next screen, sweeping her arm high, “…and here, the sage travelled to another land to meet the leaders of the local clans. See, you can tell by their head pieces,” she said, stopping to point at the men’s unusually-shaped hats. She continued on, talking about the men and women painted in exquisite detail, the changing of seasons, the sage’s journey.

Katsuro stayed right beside her listening to it all, wondering about the colorful battles, the long journey and where strangely dressed man would wind up.

Sakura stepped back and looked closer at the sage, following just him as he progressed through the panels so far. He was changing from a swift-moving younger man to a distinguished middle-aged man. His robes were becoming more sumptuous, more flowing. And with each stop, he seemed to be accumulating more items. He top of his staff was cluttered with several rings, and streamers of colorful silk rippled off the top. Each color corresponded to one of the clans he’d visited.

“Ah,” Sakura nodded to herself, having figured out at least some part of the story. “Yes, I see.”

Katsuro looked from her to the painting and back again, wondering what, in fact, she saw.

“So he is getting more powerful. Look,” she pointed to the touch of gray at his temples, the length of the ponytail that draped over the broad shoulder decorations. In the painted panel in front of them, the sage sat, arms, folded behind a table. She pointed several screens back. “He used to move freely through the landscape at the beginning of his travels. He was younger. He wore more simple clothes and interacted with everyone.”

She nodded to a scene of him standing at the edge of a river, speaking to the fishermen about what they’d caught. “He speaks as comfortably to farmers as he does to clan leaders.” In a turn of the path, the younger sage was stepping up into a family house where a meal was laid out for him. He was being welcomed in, and was smiling in return, and other people were arriving to join them.

Sakura pointed ahead a few panels. “Yet in this one, he’s only with other well-dressed men. It’s a bigger feast. And the farmers and commoners are waiting outside.”

Katsuro nodded. Now he saw it too.

“But here,” she returned to the panel directly in front of them. The sage looked strangely distant in the midst of the banquet, even though he was clearly the guest of honor. He was seated in the middle, but was unmoved by the powerful men and the sumptuous feast around him. “Look at his clothes now. It’s more like he’s dressed for battle than for a celebration.”

“Who’s he going to battle with?”

Sakura shrugged. “Dunno.”

“Keep going,” he said, eyes still devouring the screen they stood in front of. His tone was so earnest she didn’t have the heart to tell him that she’d already skipped ahead to the ending. And he probably wouldn’t like it.

Katsuro hadn’t yet noticed, as caught up as he was in the fascinating story, that around the next wall the last panels were gone, taken in antiquity. Even the spaces where they used to hang on the old wall were as dark as their surroundings.

For them, the saga was robbed of its conclusion.

‘And no one likes a story without an ending,’ she thought. ’Not even him.’

She continued on, talking and moving with winding path. Her hunch had been right. The sage had amassed power and moved now through the lands with some single far-off goal in mind. He didn’t stop to visit anyone, neither commoners nor clansmen. And eventually they stopped noticing him in the landscape. Their lives went on around him.

The focus of the next few screens shifted to the raucous, colorful, even poignant displays of civilian life. There were little dramas and comedies everywhere, filling the screens. Weddings and births. Squabbles and celebrations. Betrayals and deaths. Even the daily lives of their animals were included. A mouse, with a little brushstroke of a grin, escaped a fat cat, while a goat escaped its fencing with a spry kick at the chasing farmer’s wife.

The path of the sage nearly disappeared here. But he would pop up from time to time. Sometimes giving demonstrations, sometimes accepting a meal from a temple. But always moving forward. His outfit never changed, nor did his hair or his staff. Life around him was changing, but he wasn’t. He was only focused on his goal.

Sakura continued, studying the paintings, narrating as best as she could, explaining when Katsuro had questions about a few unusual things.

”Are his hands on fire?” he asked; “I think he’s demonstrating how chakra works,” she said.

“What’s he carrying,” he asked; “That’s a prayer staff. Monks have them,” she said.

“What’s wrong with his eyes,” he asked; “Um…I don’t really know,” she said.

The end of those panels of village life came with the corner of the wall. Only two more painted screens remained.

Here the path of the sage reappeared, winding through the first panel, an ominously dark forest of dimly lit scenes divided by dark clouds. It was hard to see in the low light, but they could just make out fantastical creatures with grotesque faces popping out from behind trees and dark buildings. Obviously trying to scare him. But he was too determined to be frightened away.

Sakura had no idea what was going on here. “Maybe he’s being tested?”

They moved to the last panel, but it needed no narration. This was his goal, and this screen was his moment of glory.

A yellow moon shined down from the top, blasting away the border of clouds at either side. The heroic sage had his staff raised, streamers billowing out around him, and his eyes were riveted to an enormous beast — a fanciful blend of dragon and demon — snarling at his feet. Both were poised to attack amid the long streams of moonlight.

But just at the decisive moment, the panel ended.

Katsuro frowned but said nothing. The empty wall stretched away from them, lonely and vast without the conclusion of its grand story. Sakura sighed again.

A thought perked him up. “Do you know what happened?” he asked quickly.

“Oh no,” she said. “I think part of it was about how chakra was created, and everyone knows that old story, but the rest I’ve never heard of.” She shrugged. “Maybe it was some elaborate ghost story for the monks who lived here,” she said with a grin. “You know, to scare them from leaving or something—“

Catching Katsuro’s serious look, she remembered her own situation and turned to peruse some of the finer details again.

“How do you know all of this,” he said, following her back down the line of panels.

“I learned it from the shinobi academy, like everyone else. Although I suppose I studied a bit harder,” she finished quietly. Sakura hit upon another idea. “Didn’t you go to an academy…somewhere?” she asked with feigned innocence.

He didn’t answer, so she turned to gauge his reaction. Maybe he didn’t hear the question, she thought.

But he was regarding her, hands on his hips, head cocked to the side, an unmistakeable smirk plastered on his face. He’d seen through her little guise handily.

An unrepentant smile ghosted across her lips.

She had to admit that without the concealments, he was much easier to read and much less intimidating. And she was happy to see he wasn’t as irritated with her guesswork as she thought he might be.

“Let’s go get the water,” he said. She silently acquiesced and followed him to the stairs, leaving the glittering, light filled room behind.

Both were silent after that, winding down past more and more floors.

Katsuro’s thoughts were consumed with the old tale, wondering what action played out on those final panels.

Sakura’s mind was more directly concerned. The boy in front of her was a puzzle. What was he doing here, with these awful men, and apparently in charge. She remembered the morning’s altercation and rethought it: Maybe he wasn’t in charge. The kunoichi bit her lip and shook her head. She just couldn’t tell. And why the disguises, for all of them? The gaps in his story were large enough to fall through.

Katsuro took the last steps two at a time, disappearing from Sakura’s sight around the final curve.

She bounded down behind him. The bottom steps emptied out in front of her onto a large stone floor. But peering out through the narrow doorway, Sakura was unprepared for the sight that waited there. If the room on the upper floor had been all darkness and concealment, then this was its lofty, light-filled opposite.

The roof vaulted above them, going up at least two floors, and was backed by mountainside on the back wall. Along the opposite wall, tall arches soared over a moss-covered ledge. Where there had been windows in other parts of the building, it looked as if this had always been open to the outside world. Long vines dangled down into the arches, the light illuminating their leaves, and birds flew in and out, wary of the interlopers. In the center of the room, where Katsuro stood smiling, there was a large stone well. He rested his hand on its heavy wood lid and waited for her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes,” she said softly, eyes wide with astonishment as she crossed the floor.

He smiled again, watching her take it all in. It was one of his favorite places, and it made the journey up there worth it.

A large dragonfly suddenly alighted on a patch of moss on the window ledge. The breeze ruffled the vines at the top of the arch, parting them for a moment, and a stream of sunlight shot down, illuminating the dragonfly’s wings. They glittered in a shattered rainbow of colors. The creature tipped its head, sizing up the intruders to its world.

Katsuro realized they were at just the right place to see the dazzling effect on its crystalline wings—

“Oh wow! Look—,” he said, but the sound of his voice made it lift off again. The dragonfly buzzed up, soared over them a few times, then disappeared.

Feeling suddenly stupid for pointing out a bug, especially after her discovery of the paintings, Katsuro quickly shuttered his open expression. But when he glanced over, he was surprised to discover the girl was awestruck as well. He watched her green eyes trace the dragonfly’s path around the room then out the window.

It was almost as if she were just as amazed as he was that they were there at the precise right moment to catch the wings in the sunlight—

Or…maybe she just liked dragonflies, too.

He wasn’t sure what to think. He cleared his throat. “I’ll just, uh…go open the up well.”

She nodded as if she were only half listening, then walked to the arched window and looked over the edge. He set to unfastening the lid from the old well.

They were at the base of the temple, and just beyond the ledge, tons of leaf-littered stones jumbled down the steep slope. Ancient grey tree trunks dotted the landscape. Their canopies floated high above them now. This was some of what they had scaled in darkness the night before. Looking at the abrupt drop in the boulders, mist encroaching around the obvious cliff face the temple was built into, Sakura was glad she couldn’t see any of that as they were climbing. It made her stomach clench just thinking about it.

Katsuro dropped a wooden bucket down into the well, and slowly pulled up the sloshing vessel. Pattering sounds echoed around the room. He balanced it on the edge and inspected the water, dipping his cupped hand in for a taste.

“Really good,” he said, shaking water from his fingers and wiping his wet mouth on his sleeve.

Katsuro plunked the bucket on the stones below the well, found a rustic, long-handled old ladle amid the stack of buckets in the corner and motioned for her to join him. Positioning themselves comfortably on either side of the bucket, backs against the well and knees drawn up, he passed the scoop over to her for a sip.

Savoring the cold water, Sakura didn’t realize how thirsty she’d been. Leaning her head back, she watched the vines sway in the breeze, birds fluttering back to their perches. She took another sip, then handed the ladle back to her warden.

It was serene, tranquil. A peaceful spot apparently on top of the world. But how did he factor into all of this. He was obviously so different from those men. She wondered if he secretly wanted to come down here, and maybe that’s why he didn’t put up so much of a fight.

She thought she’d try again.

“This is beautiful,” she said.

“One of my favorite places,” he said, his voice taking on a more relaxed tone than she’d ever heard.

“Does your group come up here often?” she asked, peaking up at him as she accepted the proffered ladle again.

“Enough,” he said crisply, balancing his hands on his knees.

“Hmm,” she hummed after a gulp of water. “You don’t seem anything like those men you’re traveling with.” She propped the ladle beside the bucket. “Those guys really have it out for you,” she added with a slight whisper, hoping he would feel comfortable enough to fraternize with her about their shared problem.

He turned his head to the side, looked over the bucket and fixed a skeptical gaze on her. “You are the reason they have it out for me right now.”

Sakura turned away quickly, but she was undeterred. She knew wasn’t wrong. Some of those men had long-standing issues with him, she was sure of it. She lightened her tone and tried a different tack.

“So, are you the one in charge, or is it the big one?”

He kept his eyes on her face, mouth open slightly in indignance, and flicked his fingers out as if he couldn’t believe her nerve.

“I mean, you’re so young,” she specified quickly, ignoring that it would probably draw a more ire. But if she could just determine who was in charge—

“You’re pretty nosy,” he snapped. She looked at him, then looked at the scenery, then turned back with another idea.

“So where did you grow up?” She added a smile at the end.

He rolled his eyes and stood up.

“If you want to tell me about your life, then I’d be happy to tell you about mine,” he said, ending their nonexistent conversation.

Sakura couldn’t argue with that so she decided to drop it. For now.

He pulled out two more buckets and filled them, then handed her the lighter one they’d been drinking from.

“Carry this one,” he said, pushing the wire handle into her hand. “The stairs take a lot longer going back up.”

Sakura saw him pick up the other two in either hand. He was being kind, she thought, but he didn’t need to.

She looked at her arms, both still laced with red with welts from the bindings. She would have to channel chakra to her arm and hand, lending enough strength to make it back up. He didn’t know it, she thought, but a task like that wasn’t altogether bad because she gained the added benefit of accelerated healing. And if she had to do it for one arm, it was just as easy to do it for both.

“Give me another one. I can handle it,” she said, free hand extended.

He just frowned at her. But if she thought she could, he thought, then who was he to say no.

“Well, ok….” he said, doubt in his voice, thinking she didn’t know just how heavy those buckets were going to feel by the time they reached the top floor. He filled and hauled up a second one for her. “Just set it down when it gets too much for you, and I’ll come back and get it.”

“Ok,” she said, not dissuaded.

Shaking his head at her stubbornness, smiling to himself that she was just acting strong, he slid the wire handle onto her hand. Retrieving his own, they began the long walk back up the stairs. He walked in front of her so she could go slower if she needed to.

A few floors from the top, though, his hands were burning. He didn’t think he could make it without easing up.

‘She’s got to be feeling it,’ he thought, ‘just not saying anything.’ He stopped at a landing and set his two buckets down.

The kunoichi came up behind him and set her buckets down as well, but did not seem as winded as he was. And she wasn’t even rubbing her hands.

“Do you think we’ll need to get more?” she asked. She peered past him at the locked door.

“More? I think four should be enough for today,” he said, watching for telltale signs of fatigue. “But aren’t you tired? Even I’m tired,” he said honestly.

“No,” she answered, eyes still darting around the platform and portal, searching for clues to what this floor held. “I channeled my chakra to my muscles, and into my hands, so the chakra did the work. It depletes me a little, but it adds in strength,” she said, finally catching the hard look he was giving her. “It’s medic-nin stuff,” she finished lamely. Maybe he didn’t understand what she was talking about, she thought.

“Then that would make you pretty strong too, right,” he said summing her up, thinking she was hiding something.

She looked at him questioningly, not quite understanding where he was going.

“Strong? I’m far from being a good healer, but I am capable enough.” She wasn’t sure whether to be offended or not.

“No,” he continued. “It should mean you’re strong in battle, able to optimize your strength when you need it.” He was logically summing up her capabilities. She obviously had a solid battle skill with chakra control, he thought, but then she why didn’t she use it? Why didn’t she put up a fight back at camp when there was a possibility of escape? She still regarded him with open confusion. He made it as simple as possible.

“It should mean you’ve got a strong punch, right?” he said.

“Well…uh…no,” she cobbled together in response. He clearly didn’t understand her role in the team. “I’m a medic-nin. I don’t actively engage in combat. Medic’s focus battle skills are evasion, to keep yourself alive to heal others,” she said, reciting some of Konoha’s med-nin mission code.

His eyebrows hitched up. Katsuro held back his opinion that she was about as good at evading enemy nin as her teammates were at protecting her from them.

“Come on,” he said, hoisting the buckets back up to finish their task. “Let’s finish up and get something to eat.”

They returned to the top level; it looked much the same as when they left it hours before. The men were still lazing, fire still guttering unattended. They deposited the buckets just inside the door.

Leaning over, Katsuro said quietly, “Apple or orange?”

“Orange,” she said, after deducing he was going to go find them some food. He nodded.

She watched him disappear into the darkness down the long walkway, and, finding the men scattered around the steps watching her, she decided to go the opposite direction. Though she didn’t see any of the faces she’d marked out for trouble, none of them looked friendly.

By the time she had come to a stop a respectable distance from the gaping hole in the wall, Katsuro was striding back across the tiles with two oranges.

Katsuro nodded to sit down — “It’s safe,” he replied at the kunoichi’s trepidation — and they dangled their legs off the edge of the broken floor.

Sakura took in the view of the canopy while she peeled apart her orange. Pulling her arm back, the kunoichi was about to fling an especially flat piece into the trees, when Katsuro stopped her. She turned wide eyes on him, confusion marked out by the thin frown-line between her brows.

“Don’t throw it,” he said quietly. “Someone could find it and track us.”

Her shoulders dropped. She looked back out into the trees and let the peel drop from her fingers onto the ground between them.

Katsuro had another little pang of guilt. He innately understood that she wanted to see how far the peel could go, probably already had a limb or leaf picked out as a target. How many times had he done the same?

Without giving himself time to question why he felt like he need to make up for squelching her distracting game, Katsuro impulsively reached out beside him, found a small stone and passed it over to her.

“You can throw as many of those as you want,” he said, peeking up at her face in the last moment to catch the corners of her mouth curl up into a small smile.

She accepted it, and pegged a tree trunk quite a distance from where they sat. They passed a good bit of time this way, silently seeing who could throw rocks the furthest.

“Put a little chakra behind it,” he asked thoughtfully, curious to see how far it would go.

The tips of her fingers glowed green where they connected with the rock. She drew her arm back for a good pitch, and it went much farther that time before the pleasing hollow knock of stone hitting wood echoed back to them.

“Hmmph,” he said, bouncing his rock in his hand, now even deeper in thought. Pleased with herself, Sakura threw a few more.

“So let me see if I understand this,” he said at length. “As a medic ninja, your village sends you on missions into enemy territory, but doesn’t expect you to fight?”

She shrugged and said, “Not exactly. We are trained to avoid conflicts to keep from being injured, thereby increasing our chances of healing others.”

“So you don’t fight,” he said flatly.

She cleared her throat. “Well, not the way you mean, I’m sure….But no, medic nins don’t fight.

He caught the stone in his fist.

“Then you’re a liability,” he said, summing her up and dismissing her in the same breath.

It was partially true. He had picked her out as the weak spot on her team, but she had proved stronger than he ever expected. No, he thought, if anything, it was just another mark against her village. He waited to see how she would react to his goading.

“I am not,” she snapped. Anger flaring, she met his challenging gaze with one of her own. “I happen to be an expert with a scalpel and a kunai.”

He couldn’t hold back. “And yet none of those things kept you safe,” he said with a smirk.

She turned her face away from him. It was a small gesture, but seemed the only thing she could do when faced with this line of questioning. She wouldn’t tell him that she was overwhelmed by surprise, that she had been so deep in thought, so angry at her teammates for being truly awful, so angry at herself for letting everyone down again, that she simply wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings. A mistake even a civilian wouldn’t make, let alone a shinobi. And then the genjutsu. She ground her hand into a fist. It was a real weakness she was powerless against. How do you fight a genjutsu when you’ve never even experienced one?

She wouldn’t admit any of this to him, no matter how much he questioned her. She was trying her best not to make any more mistakes now, and she was pretty sure that letting the enemy know your weakest points was a big one.

Ready to be done with this, Sakura took the easy way out and forced his hand.

“What is it you want from me? What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing,” his tone immediately lightened, but the kunoichi didn’t trust it. “Really. I just wondered why your village tells you to go into battle — medic nin or not — yet doesn’t teach you how to fight, that’s all.”

There was no appropriate response she could give voice too. He was wrong — of course she had been taught to fight, to survive — but here she was anyway, so her training must not have amounted to much. It wasn’t her village at fault, she was the one always falling behind.

The kunoichi angrily folded her arms across her chest, pushed her lips into a thin line and blew a breath out through her nose, physically refusing to say anything to him.

He chuckled quietly. Anyone else would have brought it to blows. But provoking her was just plain fun, and she didn’t disappoint with her responses to him.

But suddenly his amusement evaporated.

“Oh no, I forgot,” he said to himself, jumping up from his spot. “I didn’t put the cover back over the well,” he said. He regarded her, unmoving from her position. “Don’t get up, I’ll be right back.”

She turned her head a little in his direction, her previous expression replaced by one of skepticism, surprised that he would let her sit there by herself.

As if reading her thoughts he continued, “Don’t worry, there’s no where you can run to from here. And if you did, I’d catch you,” he finished, smiling.

She could hear the grin in his tone of voice and rolled her eyes.

“I’ll stay here,” was all she said, making it perfectly clear that she was neither agreeing to his terms nor obeying his command, instead simply choosing not to get up. He laughed at her again and strode away.

His gamble with the merchant family had paid off. It was much easier to have a friendly hostage than a belligerent prisoner. Katsuro merrily trotted down the old stairs, congratulating himself on his wise choice and sense of forethought in the face of a crisis.

Sakura kicked her legs out over the expanse again, savoring the freedom of being left by herself for a few minutes. She imagined that if she were a bird she could just fly away, right off the ledge.

Her thoughts were curtailed by the gravelly sound of foot fall chiming in her ear. As the footsteps approached from the direction of the stairwell, she turned her head a half turn to throw back a jibe at him over her shoulder.

“What did you forget this time,” she said smirking, glad to have something to zing him with, swinging her legs in anticipation of his response.

But the rush of wind from behind would be her only clue that something was amiss.

Swiftly caught up by the column of her neck, Sakura was ripped away from the ledge and slammed bodily against the wall. White hot pain exploded behind her eyes and burned out her vision momentarily. Her fingers clawed at the single thick hand that pinned her to the wall, holding her chin up so high her feet did not touch the floor. She coughed and sputtered, trying desperately to draw in air.

“Did you think we wouldn’t figure out what you did?” Raiden’s voice growled into her face. “Now you’re going to pay—“

<< Go to Chapter 5   •   Read Chapter 6 notes   •   Go to Chapter 7 >>