Chapter 7 – Black and Blue, and Red

Hot breath seared across her cheeks. Through tear-blurred vision, Sakura could make out the biggest one, Raiden, raging and hurling curses into her face. Several of the men she’d healed were closing in behind him.

But all her power to fight back was eclipsed by the most basic need for air. Her mind was screaming, her actions driven by desperate reflexes.

Jerking her knees up, Sakura grabbed Raiden’s thick wrist and tried to wriggle up the wall and out from underneath his grasp. But this only stoked his anger.

He loosened the clamp-hold a moment just to slam her head against the wall again. Sakura choked down a gulp of air before the rest was crushed out of her windpipe. Another burst of pain radiated from the back of her head, this one clouding her vision and muffling out the sound around her.

Only adrenaline and the overpowering need to survive jolted Sakura back into action against the him.

“I should throw you off this mountain!” he yelled into her tear-streaked face. She shook her head fiercely, trying again to pry the hand off her neck and push herself up through his grasp. Her lungs were burning. Spots were swimming in front of her eyes— She clawed desperately at his hands, but she was starting to black out—

In the next moment, she inexplicably found relief. Pitched with tremendous force to the tile floor, Sakura’s face and shoulders crumpled into the cloud of dust that sprang up at the disturbance. She drew in ragged heaves, her body coiling in on itself to minimize the pain. At the edge of her consciousness there were voices and yelling, but the exploding pain at the back of her head and terrifying tightness at her throat rendered the rest of her surroundings a blur.

The kunoichi had no notion of how long she’d been there, balled up against the pain, when she heard someone speaking, felt a warm hand at her back.

“Come on. Can you stand? We’ve got to move,” was the urgent command. The warm pressure moved in a slight circular motion with the words. It sounded distant, but it was getting clearer.

“Come on,” he said again. Sakura recognized the voice to be Katsuro’s. He reached over to cup her shoulder then hooked his other arm around her back and pulled her up to standing.

“Can you walk? We’re going downstairs,” he said softly right next to her face. She was moving beside him, shoulders rounded and both hands at her throat, squeezing her eyes shut. Tears were still streaming down, but she was trying so hard to keep from crying out. She pushed her lips together and gave a nod.

Katsuro steered her down the ancient staircase, staying a step ahead of her and moving in tandem, just as they had done the previous night on the mountainside. By the time they arrived several floors below, her breathing was beginning to calm and her tears had started to ebb, even though the pain was still intense.

He led her across a dark room as big as the one upstairs, dimly lit by a scant few window openings near the stairwell. They walked straight through the middle of the room, to a narrow doorway on the opposite side. Katsuro toed the door back, and propped it open for her to pass through.

Hands still protectively clasped around her throat, Sakura blinked in the unexpected brightness. The room was small and paneled with wood, illuminated by a large open window on the wall opposite the door. There were no shutters here, and years of exposure to the elements had taken its toll on the once grand room. Only traces of red and yellow paint clung to the edges of the walls, sunk deep in the grooves of the old wood. Carved out of a corner was a tiny fireplace. Its rocks were as grey and worn as the paneling.

A strong breeze blew into the room as the door was opened. The cool air on her skin made Sakura feel marginally better.

“We’ll be staying here,” Katsuro said. He guided the kunoichi into the room and then stepped back to close the door behind them.

“Just a second,” she heard him say, then he was gone.

Standing in the middle of the room, Sakura tried swallowing, but the muscles she normally took for granted rebelled from her command. It was agony. She slid a hand into her hair at her temple and balled it into a fist, trying to bite back the pain.

On the other side of the door, Katsuro flew through a hand seal and quietly dispatched the waiting clone to fetch water, with specific instructions to leave it outside when he returned. He stepped back into the room and noiselessly closed the door.

“Come on, let’s sit down,” he said with a sigh, motioning to the wall under the window.

Gingerly sitting down beside him, Sakura cried out suddenly and grabbed at the back of her legs, sliding the rest of the way down the little wall. Closing her hands over the offending areas, she tried to still her raspy cries. Katsuro leaned into her and carefully moved her fingers to examine the injury. Red scrapes tore down the backs of her knees.

‘She was sitting on the ledge, when I went to get water. They must have dragged her off of it,’ he thought. He let go of her hands and shook his head.

“So, did they show up right after I left?” he asked. She nodded once.

His tone hardened and he looked up into her face.

“You should have told me what you’d done to them. I would have have never left you alone with them.”

The kunoichi closed her eyes. A few thin tears streaked down, leaving fresh trails through her dirt-smeared cheeks.

He decided her guilty tears were as good as a confession. He’d found out about the injuries she’d inflicted from some of the men. They’d discovered it too, either back at camp or not long after, and had been lying in wait her, like predator and prey.

A sound outside the room drew Katsuro’s attention. Before she could take notice of it, he was up and across the room, pushing the door closed behind him. He dismissed the clone without a word, only its hollow ‘pop’ echoed in the long, empty chamber. Katsuro readjusted the wire handle, and was just deciding how long he should wait before returning with bucket in hand, when he caught sight of the medic-nin through a crack in the door.

Left alone, the girl had begun the healing process. He stilled his breathing and leaned forward for a better look. A strip of pale light fell softly across his face in the darkness.

The kunoichi held a wretchedly marked hand in front of her, watching it until a little glimmer of light appeared at the edges. When the glow wrapped up around the back and sufficiently engulfed it, then she raised her hand to her throat and closed her eyes. An eerie pale green light seeped from her hand to encompass her neck. Katsuro couldn’t help but be amazed as the welts on her hand faded under the diaphanous glow.

‘Healing chakra,’ he thought. It looked so different from what he was in command of. He tightened a fist, the soreness jarring his memory. That’s right, it was only just moments ago that his hands were edged with red, he thought.

But this, this soothing, cooling light was so different. He hadn’t paid much attention while she healed the men in camp. It was quick, methodical work; now she took her time. Moving hands over her throat effortlessly, fluidly, her fingers swayed slightly as if guided by some unseen current. The purpling marks on her arm, the ones he’d inflicted, had been washed away completely. Katsuro could only imagine the same type of restorative healing was going on underneath the surface.

The kunoichi leaned her head back against the wall, ran fingers over the column of her neck, then tipped her head to the side. A glowing hand slid up, brushed past her jawline, and carefully followed the curve of her neck just below her ear.

Pink hair fell away, and Katsuro narrowed his eyes.

Exposed there, marring that impossibly pale skin, were more angry red lines — but these were in the shape of fingers.

The girl’s hand covered it momentarily, the length of her neck saturated in that translucent green, and when she slid her hand back down to her throat, the marks were gone.

Katsuro knew he should feel better, she was healed and no damage was done, but the unexpected tightness in his stomach didn’t relent.

The light around her hand was softening, fading away. The kunoichi rolled her head back upright and let her hand fall to her lap, the glow of chakra gone completely. Eyes closed, shoulders rising and falling slowly with her breathing, the medic seemed to be taking a break from the healing process. A breeze ruffled the tendrils around her neck.

Katsuro drew in a breath, and pushed the door open.

Plunking down a small bucket of water in front of her, he returned to his spot and passed her the ladle.

She forced down a small sip and grimaced. It took a few swallows to test her healing before she could whisper a raspy, “thank you.”

“What were you thinking?” he said shaking his head, anger seeping into his voice at the unbidden memory of red streaks on her otherwise perfect neck. “Did you think they wouldn’t notice?”

She closed her eyes. New tears slipped out uncontrollably at the harsh edge in his voice.

“Stop,” he said, instead of ‘sorry.’ He didn’t mean to hurt her more, but he just couldn’t put it into words. “Finish healing yourself,” he added quietly, motioning to her other hand.

She rotated her head gingerly against the wall to look down at her other unhealed hand, still crisscrossed with red and purple lines.

“No,” she said softly, moving her head back and closing her eyes. “That will heal. I need to reserve my chakra.”

He scoffed and leaned his head back too. Chakra saved seemed pointless to him. Better to be burned off fighting and live to see another day.

The breathing beside him grew deep, and he thought she might be falling asleep there against the wall. But before he could decide whether or not to move her to the floor, her eyelids fluttered open and her breathing returned to its staccato.

“I don’t feel so good,” she uttered after a moment. “My head….” she said, reaching back to touch the incredibly sore, swollen area beneath her hair.

Katsuro just watched her, unsure of what to do, her green eyes more glassy and dull than he’d ever seen them.

“I think,” she continued, “I think I might have a small concussion. I can’t be sure,” she trailed off drowsily then came back around. “I probably shouldn’t rest just yet.”

Brown eyes blinked at her.

“Um, okay,” was all he could think to say while he waited for her to do…well, to do whatever it was medic nins do.

“Talk to me,” she said turning her head to look at him.

“Huh?” was all he could manage, confusion plastered across his face.

“Just tell me…tell me about…yourself or something…. Anything.” She swallowed thickly and fixed languid eyes on him. “I need to stay awake for a little while.”

Katsuro was surprised, but understood her request. He tried to order his thoughts into something coherent. He would rather have been sent down the mountain to fetch a cure, but he’d try to do as she asked. Just enough to keep her awake, he thought.

“I, uh…there’s nothing much to tell,” he mumbled.

Katsuro sat forward and raked a hand through his hair.

“Really, I don’t….” he stopped with a long sigh, then sat back and pulled his knees up. “I mean, I haven’t….” he trailed off, stealing a glance at her.

She was already asleep again.

“Hey, hey….” he rocked her shoulder gently. She woke momentarily, but was beginning to doze again.

“This isn’t working,” he said, shaking her shoulder, becoming concerned. “Hey,” he said into her face. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself instead—”

He turned to face her, pulling her away from the wall a bit in an attempt to keep her awake. She sat still, eyes half open, but didn’t speak. He had the disconcerting feeling that she was looking at him but didn’t really see him. He reached quickly for the water.

Katsuro was beginning to feel the first real throngs of panic, that something may be seriously wrong with her. He cursed inwardly.

“Here, have some water,” he said, pushing the scoop into her hands. She accepted it instinctively and took a few sips.

Much to his relief she revived a bit. He wouldn’t waste the opportunity to get her talking — he didn’t want her falling asleep again.

“Tell me about yourself, your home, things you like…. Anything,” he said quickly, scooting closer and looking intently into her face.

She rubbed her hand across her forehead and muttered “yeah,” trying to organize her fuzzy thoughts.

“Tell me about someplace you like to go,” he said again, trying to prompt her into talking. He didn’t think he could wake her a second time.

Rubbing her eyes, she began, “There is a bridge,“ but stopped with a tired sigh. She took another sip of water before starting again.

“There is a bridge,” she said, “over the river that runs through the center of Konoha. I used to walk there with my parents when I was young, and we would throw bread over to feed the ducks.” She smiled wearily, eyes closing. “I always liked that bridge,” she said with a long exhale.

Katsuro hummed in appreciation.

“What color is it?” he said quickly.

“What?” she asked, opening her eyes, unsure of what he was asking about.

“The bridge. What color is it?”

“Oh. Red,” she supplied.

“Keep going,” he pushed her. “Where else do you like to go in your village?”

She sleepily told him about a sandy bank below the bridge where the fishers sat. A tiny park tucked between a few buildings where a single tree grew. A flat field beside their training grounds where flowers bloomed.

When she began to flag, Katsuro asked her to fill in the picture with a little more details…. Stray cats gravitated to the fisher’s spot below the bridge and were always eager for a scratch on the head. She liked to sit under the tree in the park and read during the summer months. The blossoms in the field were yellow and only lasted about a week each spring, but it was beautiful. She looked forward to it every year.

He prompted her for a long time, heedless of the lengthening shadows on the mountainside, the orange light clinging to the edge of the old stone window.

He was unable to fight the allure of the serene images she painted, scenes which clashed horribly with his own experiences of village life. This tranquil world was foreign to him, and he listened just as intently as he had earlier when she explained the old folk tale about the wandering monk. In fact he was even more fascinated because these places were real, and they were connected to her. And through her, they connected to him.

But eventually even his coaxing could not keep her awake. Her eyelids fluttered tiredly in the grey light. She stopped him, saying she was “just too tired,” and he frowned a little in disappointment. He had forgotten about her injury.

“It’s okay,” she said, mistaking his expression for that of medical concern, and ran a hand absently over the back of her head. “I’m okay. I think I can rest now.”

She turned a fraction and lay directly down on her side on the old floor, her face smooth against the cold, stone tiles. Moving the water, he scooted away to give her a little more room. She was asleep almost instantly.

Katsuro sat back and looked at her sleeping form, thinking about the awful twist of events that brought them down there. The tranquil images of her village were obliterated by the scene which greeted him at the top of the stairs.

Seeing her, pinned against the wall and struggling for air, sent him into a fury. He roared at them to put her down, but it only moved in slow motion. Their stammered excuses, the fist he leveled at the Raiden, sending him flying into a column, the rest of the men scattering like mice.

The surge of chakra, scalding across his chest, struggling to break free, surprised him. His vision bled crimson. He wanted to kill them, he felt it in his bones. He knew they felt it too.

‘Good,’ he thought, remembering the fear in their eyes as he demanded an explanation.

He forced the hellish chakra down as he moved across the room to collect her, deciding immediately to separate her from the rest of the group and their festering resentment.

But hours later, his anger was still fresh. He caught sight of the red scrapes tearing down the backs of her knees, glaringly out of place even in the dim light of early evening. He grit his teeth and turned away.

She was his responsibility. That had been made abundantly clear before he left. This whole mission was his responsibility, he thought darkly, flicking a stone across the room. But he didn’t expect that his group would try to kill their hostage. Or that their hostage, he thought with a sigh, would be so much trouble.

She certainly was full of surprises, he thought as he rose to leave the room. Katsuro quietly closed the door behind him and created a clone to fetch some firewood, but he didn’t like the looks of this one and changed his mind about the task.

“Stay there and guard the door. Don’t move,” Katsuro said in a threatening tone. “Understand?”

An identical replica of Katsuro shrugged and rolled his brown eyes.

Katsuro narrowed his. ‘He’ll have to do,” he thought. ‘Besides, I’ll only be gone a minute.’

“Whatever you say…boss,” the clone muttered petulantly before folding his arms over his chest and leaning against the wall.

This time, it was Katsuro who rolled his eyes. He walked back across the long, dark room to gather wood from the floor below.

Katsuro trotted down the steps, thinking about her. The medic-nin had been pretty sneaky, he didn’t suspect it of her. She was naive, though, to think that she’d get away with hurting a bunch of battle-tough thugs, suspicious of every move.

He arrived at a hole in the wall where an ancient tree had toppled into the structure. Its dead limbs were scattered all over the tiles, and made gathering dry wood an easy chore.

Rearranging an armful of limbs, he thought back over the last few days. The men had watched her at camp and targeted her on their trek up the mountain. He simply did not see what was coming. They had lain in wait for a moment to pounce, and he provided it for them.

‘Bastards,’ he thought, snapping a particularly thick branch. They would take their revenge on her and ruin his mission, killing two birds with one stone.

But his anger went beyond their traitorous actions. There was nothing new there. Those men were always trying to take him down. They hated him, and the feeling was mutual. No, there was something else bothering him. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

Finished with his task, Katsuro took the stairs two at a time with enough wood to last them for at least a few nights. He was almost at the door when he remember the clone he’d created.

“Again?!” he whispered harshly into the apparently empty room. Raising two fingers from under the armload of wood, he muttered the words to disperse the clone and was rewarded with a distant “Uh-oh—“ from some dark corner of the long hall, followed by the tell-tale “pop” of the clone bursting back into nothingness.

Katsuro shook his head. ’Troublemakers, all of them,’ he grumbled to himself.

It was like this every time he made a clone. They were just as bad as the men from camp. This clone must have decided to find a way out as soon as Katsuro left the floor.

‘Well, at least he didn’t get far enough away to do any damage,’ he thought, then hooked his foot around the door to close it behind him.

Katsuro set to work on starting a fire. He fished a piece of flint out of his pocket, unstrapped the kunai from his thigh holster, and began the tedious job of flicking sparks onto the pile of twigs.

He continued to mull his actions with the soft ting-tinging of metal on rock.

It made him furious to see them hurt her, and he was unprepared for that. He just exploded. Katsuro closed his eyes on the scene replaying in his head. No, he had no answers for what had happened. He had just acted on instinct. And he knew his instincts very well. Or, at least…he thought he did.

Finally, a few sparks took hold, and the top-most twigs began to smolder. He puffed on the bright red embers, coaxing them to flame, then sat back beside the hearth to feed more sticks into the little fire.

There was just something about her that brought out an unusual response in him, he decided. Perhaps it was because they were so close in age. Or perhaps it was because she was a girl, although he’d almost forgotten about that fact. Almost.

He looked over at her sleeping form, still unmoving in the flickering orange light.

No, he thought, that pale little slip of neck hidden beneath her hair was most definitely girl. He blew out a breath and trained his eyes on the deep blue darkness filling the window above her.

He wished she would have told him, knowing full well that was an unreasonable thing to expect, that she would actually confess to her captor that she had messed up the insides of the rest of his group.

She had fought back in the only way she knew how. She hadn’t given up. He could admire that. She was tough.

He started to feed some larger branches into the fire.

With a few battle skills, he thought, she’d probably be a force to be reckoned with. At least she could have defended herself against thugs like those men.

A little flare of anger ignited inside him again at Konoha for sending someone like her out into the world only half-prepared. Those selfish villagers, only doing what’s best for themselves. For all the beautiful scenery she related from her home, the people who’d trained her had obviously not seen fit to teach her to properly defend herself.

More than that, they had thrown her to the wolves. He had never had a choice — they sealed his fate the moment he was born. But her, she believed in them, trusted that they would be there for her. She was probably still blindly hoping they would come after her.

Well her superiors acted true to form, didn’t they, he thought, snatching up another stick. They paired her with a lethal teammate and left her to be the target. When she was no longer of use to their mission, she was simply discarded, just like trash.

‘Just like me,’ he thought, grinding his hand into a tight fist around the dry wood. It splintered easily in his hand.

This pink-haired girl was giving him completely new reasons to hate Konoha.

A familiar tightness slipped across his chest. The edges of his vision turned red. For the second time that day, the malevolent chakra locked inside him arced out in response to his anger.

He looked down at the soft fragments of wood in his hand and on his lap, and laughed at himself. He needed to calm down.

He checked quickly to make sure he had not woken the kunoichi up, but she was still unmoving. In the brighter light of the fire he could see goosebumps on her arms. Even though the room was warmer now, she was probably still cold from the floor, he thought. He needed to get some supplies from upstairs.

‘A medic-nin who can’t fight back. Yeah, she’s a liability,’ he thought, standing and brushing away the bits of wood and dust. She could easily be picked off by men like them. Men like him, he amended.

That thought didn’t sit well with him. He didn’t want to be the one who beat others down. He’d been on the receiving end of that for too long. He couldn’t remember a time when there wasn’t someone who wanted to see him fail. He frowned at that thought, but slipped the kunai back in its holster.

No, maybe he could help her, show her a few things, he thought as quietly crossed the room. That way if she was hellbent on getting into scrapes with these jackals, then at least she could get herself out again.

Opening the door, a long square of light stretched out across the main hall.

And just maybe, if he helped her, it would squelch that unnameable feeling, that twist in his gut, that thing that caused his power to surge and drove him to never want to see her hurt like that again.

He swung the door closed. Only a few streaks of orange light slanted onto the floor, but it was more than enough to find his way back again.

It wasn’t until much later that a groggy Sakura roused from sleep. Light filtered in through the window. She sat up slowly, the now familiar blankets pooling in her lap.

Her throat was sore, her head was tender and everything was stiff. She couldn’t remember her chakra being this low before.

Sakura knew the healings and exertions of the past few days would take a toll, but she never dreamed it would be this bad. And the beating she took simply pushed her body over the edge.

Slowly, she brushed her hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ears.

No, she thought, if she was honest with herself, she hadn’t taken into account how much the stress, the fear, the doubt would eat into her ability to rejuvenate. She was still approaching this whole ordeal from a distance, as if it were a case study or a test in class.

‘Yeah, well, textbooks don’t cover the fear,’ she thought. That was like carrying another wound altogether.

Trying to piece together the events of the previous day, she remembered only parts of the painful attack, but nothing further. Sakura could only surmise that the men had found out what she’d done when she’d healed them.

Looking around, she wondered absently if she had been abandoned or imprisoned here, locked away until they were ready to move again. It wouldn’t surprise her.

She scanned the room for clues, but nothing pointed to captivity. Quite the opposite in fact: a blanket was rolled against the farthest wall, beside it was thrown a dusty rucksack, white-plated ashes smoked faintly in the tiny fireplace, and the whole room had a pleasant, singed smell to it. Beside the hearth was piled a small assortment of fruit and the water bucket. She looked for a lock on the door, but found it was opening instead. The answer to her question came bounding in, capped with a mop of unruly brown hair.

“Hey! Feeling better?” Katsuro asked, his mouth creeping up into a smile. He seemed genuinely glad to see her awake.

“Yes,” the kunoichi croaked. Katsuro immediately passed her the wooden ladle with fresh, cold water.

“Thanks,” she said, wiping her mouth.

“Do you remember anything?” he said, turning to gather up a few pieces of fruit, then sitting down beside her with the selection.

“Not much,” she said quietly, choosing an orange. She turned it over and over in her hands, noticing that one hand was smooth while one still bore the angry marks from the leather ties.

He sat quietly too, watching her and waiting.

She stopped and looked out the window, squinting a bit. Her mood was distinctly sad, and her face looked drawn and tired in the morning light.

Katsuro decided to ease her burden.

Taking the orange from her hands to peel it for her, he chided quietly, “Next time, tell me what you plan on doing so at least I’ll know what’s coming down the pike.” He paused, tore the orange in two and handed her a half. She silently accepted.

“Or…let me help you do it,” he finished matter-of-factly, punctuating it with a brief grin.

Whatever she expected him to say, this wasn’t it. She studied his face, and he returned her gaze nonchalantly, chewing the orange segments as he waited for her to process what he’d said.

Katsuro knew she was probably expecting some kind of recrimination from him, but he would issue none. He didn’t want to explain himself either. He wasn’t mad at her, they deserved what they got and had he been in her position he would have done the same thing. He just wanted to get past it, keep her alive and finish the mission, he told himself.

The kunoichi looked back down at the peeled fruit in her hands.

She wasn’t sure if she could trust what he was saying, after all, he apparently knew what she had done to the members of his group. And though she knew there was no love lost there, they were still his teammates.

“I didn’t intend to do a lot of harm, just make myself needed,” she said honestly, not bothering to look up. “If you need a medic nin, then you’ll keep me alive longer.”

“They deserved it,” he reassured. “Eat your orange and don’t worry about it.

“And if they come to you asking to be healed after yesterday, well, you tell them to come see me,” he said, smiling wickedly.

Standing, Katsuro sprinkled a little water on the still-warm ashes.

“We’ll stay down here for the rest of the time,” he said, adding quietly, “I don’t care what they do upstairs.”

He turned to replace the ladle with the bucket when she noticed the back of his hand, a little swollen and clearly scabbed over. It definitely wasn’t like that when they were hauling the water upstairs.

“Are you—” she stopped, unsure if she should say anything. He looked at her questioningly. “Your hand,” she said, nodding to the scabs across the backs of his knuckles.

“What?” he said, turning his hand over. “Oh. I’m a fast healer, don’t worry about me.” The ladle slid down the side of the bucket so he hooked it over the side. “But, I would like for you to finish healing your other hand, and your legs, and anything else that hurts. Don’t reserve your chakra — I want you to heal yourself.”

“Does that mean we’ll be leaving soon?” she said quietly, thinking that he probably didn’t want Itachi knowing about a situation like this.

He shook his head, picked up another orange and tossed it into the air before settling down against the opposite wall to peel it.

“No. Actually,” he said, “I have some other plans.”

Tearing off large sections of rind, Katsuro casually let a piece of information slip.

“Those men, upstairs? They aren’t shinobi, you know,” he said, eying her surreptitiously. He wanted to see her reaction. He suspected she didn’t know. And if she didn’t, she should have.

The kunoichi waited, barely breathing, feeling for all the world like she was caught in a trap. She knew some of them weren’t, but she hadn’t been able to size up all of their abilities. Another amateur mistake she was sure her teammates would never make.

“So, I’m interested…I want to see what passes for training in your village,” he said with calculated carelessness.

But Sakura froze. This was to be her punishment, she thought. He was going to take her on himself. She cursed herself for allowing even a glimmer of trust.

“I want to know, if you are out here,” he said, his tone growing deadly serious, “and you’re a ninja from one of the most powerful villages around, and you can’t tell the difference between a common thug and a trained shinobi, then what exactly did they teach you in that academy of yours?” He nearly spit out the word “academy” and clenched the half-peeled orange tightly in his fist for a moment.

Sakura turned away from him, anger warring with her shame at his very accurate remarks. She frowned deeply — but she absolutely would not respond to his provocations.

“You should have been able to handle them,” he continued. “And if you’ve got that much control over your chakra,” he waved airily at her hands, “that you can seal up a cut with your pinky finger, then you should have at least been able to land a punch on one of them.”

He was mocking her. Anger won out, and it took nearly all of her self control not to yell right back at him, but the pounding in her head was increasing with her temper.

“Like I said, you’re a liability,” he finished ungraciously. “And you’re a liability I can’t risk.”

Words like “useless” and “burden” rang in her ears. Her breath caught in her chest.

Even an enemy nin could see it, she thought.

Disarmed completely, Sakura closed her eyes. The anger she had clung to for support simply evaporated.

She looked down again at her mismatched hands, thinking she’d like to cry but feeling the utter pointlessness of it. It was all pointless. You can heal physical wounds, but maybe some flaws never disappear, some things are never overcome.

She had always made mistakes, always fallen behind. Her two teammates were geniuses, the prodigy and the robot. They were well suited to each other: both killers, both silent as the tomb. They all received excellent training, but Sakura alone couldn’t keep up. Her movements were slower, less self-assured. She had flourished as a beginning medic, and always thought the rest would fill in eventually. But maybe she was wrong about that too….

It seemed that no matter how hard she tried, it just wasn’t enough.

And this stupid boy in front of her could have no knowledge of that, yet here he was accurately summing her up after just a few days. His words were a little less mean, but just the same: A target. A liability. A dead weight. She shook her head at this terrible introspection. It must be true, she thought.

“Well, we have several more days together,” Katsuro said as he stood up, “and I’m not going to fail this mission. If they are going to try to come after you every time I’ve got my back turned, then you’re going to need to fight back.”

He knew she couldn’t take him, but at least she could fight off some low-level lackeys who thought nothing of destroying them both. He wasn’t about to share that little piece of dissenting information with her, though.

Gathering up the orange and rest of the peels, Katsuro frowned at her change in demeanor. He expected some kind of retort, but she looked like she was about to curl up into a ball. He stood quietly, and folded his arms over his chest. He understood.

He hadn’t intended to beat her down, but he told her the painful truth. Looking down at the top of her head, Katsuro sighed as he came to realize something else about her: Even with as much trouble as she had caused, he discovered he actually preferred her fighting spirit to the defeated attitude she projected now.

He walked back over, lightening his tone to goad her a little.

“If you’re a real ninja, then I want to see what you can do,” he said with a grin, but she didn’t respond. Katsuro stood beside her quietly.

A sudden thought occurred to him, and he zinged her with it. “Did you actually go to academy, or was it just some kind of first-aid training class?”

She looked up finally at that one. The indignation that flitted across her face before she sputtered out “Of course I went to academy!” was the response he’d hoped for. He looked at her eyes for a moment, clear and leaf-green, and sparkling with irritation. It was a welcome change from last night.

Her anger brought a smile to his face.

Katsuro set down the peeled orange at her side, leaving it rocking gently on an extra large piece of rind, and turned to leave.

“Eat your orange, then heal yourself as much as you can,” he said good-naturedly from the doorway. “Get some more rest if you need to. I won’t go easy on you, but we won’t start till you’re ready.” He closed the door behind him and was gone again.

Sakura rubbed her eyes. Fatigue was setting in. The whole thing was confusing and exhausting. She quietly ate the orange he’d peeled for her and thought over what he’d said. His statements were hurtful, his attitude confounding. What had he meant?

She finished her fruit and tried to align her thoughts through the quickly encroaching drowsiness. Was he going to pummel her once she regained her strength?

None of it made sense. She shut it all out and slid back under the cover, pulling it over her eyes to block out the light that was causing her head to pound even more.


Sakura awoke again at dusk, confused at the dim light and stiff from laying still for so long. She rubbed her eyes. Outside the window, blue patches in the treetops were fading to grey.

She looked around the room wearily, conversations and events of the past two days running together in her mind. Beside her was a small dish with rice and a bit of meat, but she didn’t eat it yet. She was just glad to have some time alone.

Sakura pushed the blankets back to examine the abrasions on her legs. These would be the easiest to heal and require the least amount of chakra. Starting there first, she sheathed her fingertips in light, and ran a hand over the long scrapes, massaging the cells underneath to regenerate a little more quickly. When she finished with one leg, she switched hands to work on the other, noticing a stiffness in her other hand.

She had forgotten the wound from the previous day — or was it days? — she felt like she had been asleep more than she had been awake. She examined her hand and arm, the welts now faded to pink strips, her wrist stiff but not as swollen as it had been. But inside her arm, almost at the fold of her elbow, the strip of skin worn away by the bindings was already healed over with newer, darker skin.

‘Great,’ she thought. ‘Too late to keep it from scarring.’

She stopped herself, shaking her head ruefully at her own vanity.

“As if any of that matters now,” she muttered to herself. Here she was, worrying about scar tissue when she didn’t even know if she would survive this ordeal. She clutched her arm and distractedly ran her thumb over the new skin while she thought. Home was feeling more and more out of reach for her.

Sakura didn’t know precisely how long she’d been gone, but she did know it was more than enough time for them to track her, and her sensei was one of the best trackers around. She didn’t want to think about why no one had come for her. Maybe they couldn’t find her up here, she thought lamely. Maybe. She just didn’t know.

Doubt crept in. Maybe they weren’t coming for her, she thought. Maybe it was as he had said, they had truly abandoned her. It wasn’t Konoha policy as she knew it, but there was no denying that no sign of them had been felt for days.

But, casting around desperately for some reasoning to cling to, she thought it was also fact that as long as they were holed up in this mountaintop temple, she was safe from whatever fate Itachi had planned for her. That was something, at least. Maybe she could use the time to prepare a plan for their way back down. Heal herself, regain her strength, then make a break for it once they left. It made her feel better just to have a ghost of hope in the darkness, even if it was self made.

Sakura healed her still-injured hand, then finished tending to the abrasions on her other leg. She ran her fingers absently over her throat, checking its progress, then prodded the tender spot on the back of her head, satisfied that the swelling had mercifully dropped.

Scooping out water and taking up the bowl of rice, Sakura returned to sit in the window and watch the dying light wash over the forest while she ate. She must have found some measure of peace, because her thoughts and fears finally quieted. Either that or it was extreme exhaustion, she chuckled to herself. At any rate, for the moment, she felt okay. And that was a monumental achievement, she admitted.

Though she hadn’t been up for very long, sleep tugged on her weary body. As a medic-nin, she knew this was the limit her body could take, functioning as both doctor and patient.

Sakura slipped back under the covers and turned her face to watch the deepening shadows creep through the treetops, until the first truly restful sleep fell over her.

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