Chapter 8 – Struggles and Triumphs, Part 1

Rubbing his chin gingerly, Katsuro eyed the girl with astonishment. She stared him down, cracking her knuckles.

“Ready for another?” she said with a ruthless grin.

“No,” he said laughing. She laughed too, then extended her hand. She gave him a glittering smile as she pulled him up off the ground, hair flipping around her face.

Later, over the extra helpings of rice and meat he’d managed to sneak from the food stores upstairs, she was still glowing from her accomplishment.

“Thanks,” she said earnestly. Her cheeks were still flushed and that smile had yet to leave her face.

“Yeah,” Katsuro said with a breathy chuckle.

He didn’t know who felt better.

The past several days had been a whirlwind of struggles and triumphs.

Almost as soon as the girl had recovered, Katsuro made good on his resolution to teach her a few self-defense moves. He began scouting out areas to spar. Well lit, not too dusty. Flat, not falling apart.

Turned out, the floor where the tree had broken through the wall was the best lit. While she slept, he was was free to use his abilities without fear of discovery. So he made a handful of clones to dismantle the top of the tree and pile the rest of the wood along the wall. It did open up quite a bit of light into the room. But it came at a price.

Katsuro didn’t know how it started, but he looked up just in time to see a brown-haired clone curse, haul back a limb and knock down his identical copy. The rest of the clones left their tasks behind to watch the fight. A few jostled their neighbors for a better view, which led to the first ones pushing back just a little bit harder.

Katsuro stood apart from the throng of exact replicas of himself, arms folded, jaw locked. He knew where this was going. Before long they’d all be fighting, and then there would be a bigger mess to clean up than before they started.

“Get to work,” he warned sternly, “or I will make you all go away.”

The one with the branch raised over his head stopped mid-swing to yell back at his maker. “You can’t do that—“

Seizing the opening, his opponent barreled into his stomach, knocking him backwards into the row of clones. It was a pile of arms, legs and identical brown heads.

Katsuro shook his head. It’s like this every time, he thought, rubbing a hand distractedly over the tugging ache at his midsection.

One clone crawled out from underneath the dogpile and raised his fist at Katsuro.

“Come on! I can take you! Don’t underestimate—”

But he didn’t get to finish.

Two fingers raised in front of his chest, Katsuro softly muttered the word “Kai,” the universal term for releasing a jutsu. It was the first technique he’d ever learned. And because of these knuckle-headed clones, he used it far more than anything else in his arsenal.

Bodies popped like invisible fireworks in front of him. Branches raised for bashing suddenly clattered to the ground. When the smoke cleared, Katsuro was alone and there was still wood scattered everywhere. But he was glad to see that they’d managed to get about half the work done before they rebelled. He finished clearing up the rest of the wood, enjoying the quiet.

After another day of recuperation, Katsuro felt like she was well enough to begin a little training. He wanted to find out more about her skill level, and was curious about her chakra control. If it was as strong as he suspected, he couldn’t understand why she didn’t use it to fight.

But he would bring all of that up in the morning. Tonight, he had other things on his mind.

“Do you read a lot?” Katsuro blurted out from under his blanket, breaking the silence of the room.

“Huh?” The surprise was clearly written on her face even in the dim firelight.

“You like to read?” he said again.

“Yeah, I guess,” she said, not sure at all where he was going with this.

“You told me you liked to read, when you were first, you know, knocked out,” he said, not realizing the jumble his words were making.

“What? Why would I be talking about that?” She turned under her blanket to look at him, trying to determine whether he was teasing her or not.

“You told me things to keep yourself awake when we first got down here,” he said seriously. She looked a little horrified at the idea. “You don’t remember?”

“No,” was all she could manage. She didn’t know what “things” she could have said, but it didn’t sound good.

He rolled on his back and sighed. He wanted her to talk about herself a little more, although he wouldn’t admit it to her. And maybe she would throw in some more descriptions of that strange tranquil life she led, although he wouldn’t admit it to himself.

“You said you liked to sit under a tree in a little park, a park with buildings all around it, and that you liked to read there. I wondered what you liked to read,” he said nonchalantly, hoping he didn’t sound too interested.

“Oh,” she said, understanding smoothing the wrinkles off her brow. He turned to face her again when it seemed she would continue. “Well, I mostly read academy text books, then when I began my med-nin training it was mostly scrolls from our library. Pretty boring stuff really.”

“But it’s a nice place to read,” she added as an afterthought.

“Oh,” he said quietly, half hoping she would continue. When she didn’t, he ventured a piece of information forward.

“You know, there is a scroll room here. Or…there was,” he said. “It’s mostly all gone now, but there are a few old scrolls left in the corner. I could show them to you tomorrow.”

She would have been suspicious had his voice held the least tone of, well, anything. But as it was, he just sounded like any other kid who stumbled over his words. She was so used to his self-confidence and take-charge attitude, that she had forgotten that they were really the same age. Across from her, brown eyes held a measure of something child-like. He was waiting for her answer, unsure but hopeful.

She decided to take his words at face value. “Um…. Okay.”

They were silent again for a while, until Sakura decided to repay his kindness with a few questions of her own.

“What about you? Do you like to read?”

“Me? No,” he said, shaking his head as if he’d just tasted something terrible.

Sakura laughed, taken somewhat aback at his vehemence to reading.

“Not like we had a library in camp,” he said, laughing too.

“So you grew up in a camp and not in a village?” She was trying not to sound to eager herself, but she was not about to let that scrap of information pass unnoticed.

His open expression closed immediately, transforming into a calculating smirk. He saw right through her.

She just smiled pleasantly back, undeterred by his change in attitude. She knew what she was doing too, even if she wasn’t as adept as he was.

He snorted a little, shook his head and rolled over under his blanket to face the wall.

“I’ll take you to see the scrolls tomorrow,” he said. She could hear the smile in his voice. She laughed quietly at that, then turned away from him to sleep.

They padded softly down the steps in the morning light.

“How is you’re healing going?” he called back to her tentatively. “Are you feeling better?”

“Yes, much better,” she said.

“Good,” Katsuro’s voice floated around the curved wall.

He had wanted to begin sparring with her today, had hoped to, but wasn’t sure how to broach it. He didn’t want to order her to fight. He wanted to test her skills, see what she was good at and what she wasn’t.

It sure wasn’t how he was treated, he thought, stopping finally at a crumbling old door. But he didn’t think he could do that to her. He didn’t want to put her into a bad situation and tell her to fight her way out. If he had to name it, then he guessed he wanted her to trust him.

Katsuro pushed hard, and on the second shove the door swung slowly open.

This floor was more of a broken off ledge than a recognizable room. Whatever had fallen away from the building had done the most damage here.

And true enough, there was a pile of scrolls in one of the empty racks in the corner, as well as what looked like oddly-shaped, broken metal bowls. But they were huge.

The pair carefully made their way across the crumbling floor, sticking as close to the wall as possible. Below them and above them, floors and walls jutted out to various lengths. It made Sakura feel like she was standing in a layer of a giant cake.

She carefully unrolled one of the brittle scrolls. In the centermost layers there was enough protection to preserve some fragments of writing. Expecting to find a historical or religious text, Sakura was surprised to find a clear musical notation among the unfamiliar writing.

Beside her Katsuro was rocking one of the curved fragments with his toe, when he realized what it was.

“Oh! It’s a bell!” He squatted to examine the remains of an intricate floral design etched onto the outside of the rim. “It must have been huge,” he said finally.

Sakura agreed. She looked up the crumbling side of the building again then swept her eyes back down the rock-strewn mountainside.

“Could this have been an enormous bell tower,” she wondered aloud. “Maybe that’s where all those boulders are from.”

Katsuro shrugged, then left behind the pitted metal fragment to look over her shoulder. “So what’s in the scrolls?”

In her hands, the document was coming apart before she could even roll it back up.

“Some musical notes, not much else is left though,” she said before tipping the pieces back onto the pile of scrolls in the rack.

The wall was full of empty cubby holes, like the kind used for storing scrolls in the Kage’s tower. She looked down the line of rack into the room behind it. In the darkness there were more racks, all empty.

She looked back at the sad pile of left-behind scrolls. “Guess the music ones weren’t worth taking,” she said with a soft laugh.

“Huh. Yeah,” he said, laughing a little too. “Well, I have someplace else to show you, too. Come on,” he beckoned, and they carefully picked their way back to the stairwell.

Climbing a few more stairs, he came to a stop at another inconspicuous door and slowly pushed it open.

Behind it was another broad hall, just like all the rest, but this one was flooded with light from a massive hole in the wall.

The kunoichi walked slowly to the middle of the room, looking around for the object he wanted her to see. Finding none, she turned back to him with a questioning expression.

“Hold out your hands,” he said. She silently held them out in front of her.

“Good. Now show me how you surround them in healing chakra.”

She did as he asked, not sure where this was going but not finding any harm in it. Her hands glowed as if plunged in the middle of two green orbs.

“Good,” he said again. “Now take all of that light and line your fingers with it. You know, the way you focus it into your fingertips? But this time, curl it over the backs of your fingers.”

She turned her hands over, and they both watched as the pale green light amassed over her knuckles, turning a shade deeper as it coalesced.

“Make a fist,” he said, attention fixed on her hands.

She did. The amorphous light molded itself around her fingers, covering the backs of her knuckles ominously.

“Yeah,” he said with a throaty laugh. He was right. It would deliver a wallop of a punch and protect her hands at the same time.

He took a step back and turned a shoulder to her, holding his forearm as if making a muscle.

“Now, punch me as hard as you can, with your fist just like that,” he said, bracing for the blow.

Whatever he was expecting, she did not deliver. It still was as light as a bare-knuckled punch. He should have at least been knocked off balance.

He smacked the outside of her arm as it retracted, causing her elbow to wobble unsteadily.

“Do it again,” he said. She came at him a little harder, but not much. It was still very loose. He was not going to let this go, though.

“You fight like you’re in a staged match,” he needled her. “You’re waiting to see how I will respond. Don’t wait.”

He nodded for her to come at him again and braced for another punch, but this time she didn’t move. He had to think of another way to get her going.

“Come on, I want you to punch me. I want to see what you’ve got,” he said with a half-smile. “Here’s your chance, you can beat the hell out of me.”

“This is what you brought me her for,” she asked angrily.

Frowning, she folded her arms over her chest and refused to hit him. Even if she had to bury her fists under her arms to keep them in place, she wasn’t going to do what he asked.

Katsuro laughed. “I forgot! You were probably expecting scrolls or some other moldy, old thing—”

But she didn’t laugh along with him, in fact she looked even angrier. He understood. He’d probably think it was a trap too if someone set him up like this.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” he reassured, opening his hands at his sides. “I want you to do this.”

But she still didn’t move. She wouldn’t even look at him now.

He tried again. “I think you’ve been trained to be a good little ninja, staying in the lines and not thinking about how desperate everyone else is. How willing they are to kill you before you can kill them,” he said. She wasn’t leaving, at least, so he knew she was listening. He pressed that advantage.

“You have to size up your opponent accurately, make choices that will help you live longer. This isn’t something you learn from a book,” he said. She pursed her lips together, but he was undaunted.

“You were on the right track, using your medical skills to inflict hidden damage. But your mistake was not sizing up your victims, your ‘patients,’” he said with a grin. “You should have continued to treat them as hostile threats, even more than before.”

He rubbed a hand over his chin, thinking.

“You should have identified which one was going to come after you first — and stayed away from him — then picked off your easiest target,” he said with a smile.

But her fierce expression suddenly slipped. The green glow around her knuckles flickered.

‘This was the same strategy he used to single me out,’ she thought, looking down at the ground.

Katsuro realized something he’d said must have gotten her down.

‘Her face is almost an open book,’ he thought with a sigh. Another area she’d need to control if she wanted to protect herself.

Watching her, eyes distant, shoulders softened, face partially-concealed by limp hanks of hair, she was a picture of dejection. He wanted to wipe it away.

He wanted to see that spark, that fire, the one that pushed her up the mountain and drove her to foil her captors. The same one that led her to whip her teammate, he thought with a small grin. He’d have to ask her about that later.

She seemed to flourish when the odds were stacked against her. He wondered if he could provoke her a little more into fighting.

“Yeah,” he said looking at her challengingly. “I singled you out. I separated you from your group. You were clearly the weakest,” he said, waving his hand grandly while he lied. “I bet none of this even helps! I bet you still couldn’t land a punch on me!”

She dropped her fists at her sides, but didn’t move. He slowly circled around her, kicking her foot as he passed, hoping he’d provoked her enough to really come at him. And this time put her heart into it.

Her cheeks were pink and her fists were tight, but she wasn’t moving.

“I bet you turned to that medic business because you were afraid everyone would see you weren’t cut out to be a ninja. That you were in over you’re head,” he said from behind her. She still wasn’t taking the bait though. He had to do a more.

Leaning in close over her shoulder, he made a personal dig.

“It’s a big, bad world out there.” He reached a hand up to graze the tips of her hair, thinking he’d give her a clear shot just to get the ball rolling. He figured that once she got started, she wouldn’t stop.

“Pretty little pink-haired girls should never leave their safe, little villages.” He stayed close as he completed the circle, face next to hers, voice low and intimate. “Isn’t that what your teammates think…um…Ino-chan?” It took him a moment to remember her name.

If she didn’t want to fight him after this crap, he thought, then she must be made of stone.

A low guttural growl ripped from her throat as she lunged towards him, a fist going straight for his face. He drew back in a rush to avoid the blow, but she had another one to follow it up with.

‘Good,’ he thought, getting his bearings after a few more blasts.

Then he began in earnest, blocking her punches, trying to find openings as well. Anything less would be disrespectful.

They worked and worked that day and the next. Nearly to exhaustion. He was tired from blocking relentless blows, and she was tired from holding her chakra so tightly at her knuckles.

But Sakura felt good.

Sometimes she hated that mop of brown hair, those dancing brown eyes, forever taunting and encouraging her.

Other times, when she’d fire off a particularly swift punch, something that he wasn’t expecting, she would see another side of him.

Her success was his as well.

She couldn’t quite shake the concern that he would find some way to seek retribution, seeing as she and he were from opposing forces. But anytime she nearly clocked him with her fist, he’d always give her a little shout of encouragement. Never anger, never revenge.

She’d scan his face for a sign of some other more sinister plan, but all she could find was the happy crinkle at the corner of his eyes.

So she let go, and accepted his help at face value. Maybe he wanted to see her succeed after all. He seemed to be having a good time, and she couldn’t deny she wasn’t. Who wouldn’t have a good time trying to knock the daylights out of someone your own age, she thought with a smile before winding up to deliver another blow.

He smiled back at her in response. Her color was high, and she looked like she was working hard, but having fun.

He was enjoying it too. Truly. What had begun as just a few defensive moves with the intention to help her keep herself alive was quickly turning into something more. Why stop at survival? She should be able to prevail over any enemy.

He backflipped neatly away from her oncoming attack. He had never known anything like this, never spent any time with someone just sparring for fun. Any fighting he had ever done was to survive, not to improve.

She didn’t pursue him farther, instead letting him slip out of her reach. She put her hands on her knees and panted. He stopped for a much-needed break too.

It was alluring to think of her as someone equal with him, someone to train with, he thought. And he wanted to keep going.

“Hey, do you want to try it with chakra-enhanced kicks,” he asked while they were catching their breath.

Her eyes were bright and sweaty spikes of hair clung to her neck. Her hand was clamped an ache in her side while she panted.

When she didn’t answer right away, and Katsuro realized she may be tired or overwhelmed, or maybe just not as much like him as he wished she was. “Or are you too tired. I mean, we could stop, you know, if you don’t want to keep going. That’s fine too—“

She gulped a breath. “Yeah! Of course I want to keep going! Do you want to keep going?”

He laughed at her, and she laughed too at her own enthusiasm. “Oh yeah! Bring it on!”

After a grueling day of chakra laden kicks, both returned to the little room, sweaty and exhausted.

But there was another burden weighing on Katsuro that night. Something about her battle skills troubled him. No matter how aggressive she was with her punches, he didn’t know if she could really protect herself if the time came.

He knew she had training in saving lives. He wondered if she’d ever taken one.

“No,” she said quietly, as she settled herself under her blanket for the night. “My sensei did, right in front of us, on a bridge. But I didn’t. I did land a few punches there, though.”

“Good,” he said reflexively, but continued right on. “Do you think you could? Kill someone?”

“I guess…Yeah. I would if I had to,” she said. But it sounded half-hearted, even to her own ears.

“If you had to….” he repeated her slowly, sitting down atop his own blanket. “And how long would it take you to figure that out? If you ‘had to’ or not?” His tone was somewhere between a question and a taunt. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Would you know right away or would you need to size up your opponent in battle first,“ he asked her seriously.

She didn’t want to answer that one. He wasn’t taunting, but she was pretty sure her response would be the opposite of his.

But from the look on his face it was clear he’d already guessed her answer.

“Forget your village and your teammates. If you’re standing in front of men like that,” he pointed a finger straight up, to the men still lazing upstairs, “do you think they’re going to give you even five seconds to look them over, size them up, come to some decision about who they are and what they want?”

He shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes off her face.

“They know who they are. They know what they want. And they are going to tear you apart.” His tone chilled her to the core. “No one is coming to save you. You have to save yourself.”

The silence pressed down on her. His words were dreadful. And true.

Katsuro shifted his foot against the blanket.

“Could you kill someone then?”

“Yes,” she answered, but this time with a quiet gravity. He nodded.

She understood now. It was a harsh way of getting his point across, but if she were to ever run into any of those men upstairs someplace else, she should expect that they were going to try to kill her, and nothing less.

She frowned at another thought.

“But what about you? You’re with them,” she said, thumbing up to the floors upstairs. “So why are you different?”

He blinked a few times, thinking about it. He shrugged finally.

“Well, I guess I’m like you then,” he said with a half-smile. “I don’t want to kill someone if I don’t have to, either.”

He picked up a rounded pebble and turned it over and over in his hand, thinking. He looked back to her seriously, brown eyes seeking her out.

“But sometimes there isn’t a choice. You can’t just back away. You have to fight your way out, because they want to take you down.”

She felt he was talking about both of them now. She needed to protect herself, and perhaps he was speaking from his own experience. Maybe he’d always faced people who wanted to ‘take him down,’ so he was self-protective all the time.

She pulled her blanket up with a grumble, not wanting to tell him that it was a terrible burden to carry. Thinking everyone in the world was out to get you.

He laughed at her. He understood her well enough now to know that she was turning away because she had a different opinion, or just plain didn’t believe him.

“Just remember, if you get caught in a bad situation, assume the worst,” he said, dropping the stone and crawling under the cover. “Do what you have to do to get out of it. Just survive.”

“Words to live by. Treat everyone like they’re going to kill you,” she said sarcastically, turning on her side to face the wall.

“It’s not all bad,” he said, turning on his side to face her. “Sometimes people surprise you.”

He retrieved the pebble from the floor and tossed it gently at her back. Never turning, she just chuckled and pulled a hand out from under the blanket to mockingly swat over her side at him.

He laughed and watched her back, thinking how nice this was. It was like seeing the dragonfly on the window ledge. This felt special…and fleeting. He wanted to hold onto this strange little harmony they had for as long as he could.

They sparred continuously, filling the days with training, evenings with talking.

Her balance and chakra control proved to be exceptional. He was by no means an expert, but since his life hung by how well he summed up his opponent, he knew she would be formidable in battle.

She still had some openings, but the one he most worried about now was her ability to deceive, to hide her reactions and intentions. He could read her so easily. And that could get her killed.

The kunoichi swung a fist at his face, followed by a roundhouse kick. Both chakra laden, both deadly.

Heaving a breath and on the defensive, Katsuro took a step back and fired off a question.

“The men upstairs, they caught you unaware, but even then you should have been able to take them. Your fear got the upper hand,” he said. He let her come in a little closer, trying to distract her, continuing to question her all the while. “So when you protected those children, were you afraid or were you faking it there?”

She thought a moment about an answer, losing her pace. Katsuro took advantage of the weakness and swung a leg out to sweep her off her feet.

She hopped with a squeak, realizing his intention, and came after him with vigor. She understood, he wanted her to fight and talk.

“No. Not like you mean,” she said through gritted teeth. She swung again, trying to keep him from getting the upper hand. “I knew what I had to do. I was afraid for them, but not for me.”

A green glow streaked through the air in front of him. He smiled, dodging her punch. She was so different, he thought again. Her answers never ceased to surprise him.

“Good,” he said, looking for an opening when she retracted. He found it, connecting his fist with her rib cage. “But it was still a stupid thing to do,” he added quickly.

It wasn’t enough to knock the wind out of her, but they both knew he’d found a weak spot. An assailant could have killed her with that opening. She regrouped in silence, watching him move into a defensive stance, and mulled over what the difference was in her fear of the men, and her distinct lack of fear at the merchant’s cart.

She got ready to charge him again, kicked back a foot for more stability and pulsed the chakra at her fists. She had excellent control now and knew how to use it. The chakra at her knuckles was as compact and brilliant as glowing jade rings. She advanced in a blur.

“I had a reason to do it, something to protect. They were relying on me. So I couldn’t fail. That’s the difference between fighting on the road and fighting back upstairs,” she said, panting. She had moved fast, but not fast enough to catch him. She paused to regroup at what she thought was a safe distance away.

Katsuro just shrugged, wiping the sweat from his top lip with the back of his hand before fixing a predatory gaze on the kunoichi.

“Pretty words,” he said, deepening his stance, getting ready to pounce, “but you’ll end up getting killed just the same.”

It was his turn to come after her, and he was relentless. He punched and kicked until she was scooting backwards across the dusty floor, hardly able to get one foot down before she had to quickstep off it again in defense.

In between punches he peppered her with questions.

“And what do you do if you are outmatched completely? Nothing to protect? In over your head?”

She looked at him with big green eyes, processing what he’d said. She knew he was going to get her, there was nothing she could do to stop it, but she had found a pattern to his movements. If she let him hit her she could hurt him too. That would at least level the playing field.

“What do you do,” she panted, moving her foot back in retreat and hoping he would continue his pattern. He did.

“You fake it,” he ground out as he barreled into her ribcage again with his fist. But he was open too. Sakura took advantage of the moment to smash a chakra-laden heel down onto his foot.

He howled at the unexpected shot of pain while the kunoichi really did get the wind knocked out of her. Both fell away from each other and landed in the dust, cradling their injured spots, heaving ragged breaths.

“Fake it?” she gasped, hugging her bruised ribs. The pain was intense, but it made her feel moderately better knowing he was injured too.

“Damn,” he said, pulling his knee up to his chest and clutching his foot, rocking slightly on his back. “Never show fear,” he said. His voice was strained. “It’s the worst enemy you’ll ever have.”

She nodded her head against the dusty floor. “Fake it,” she repeated quietly. She understood.

“You really got me. I can’t believe it,” he croaked. “You did good,” he breathed out deeply. “Let’s take a break.”

She laughed lightly, the rapid breath making her sides feel like they were going to split. But it was a good pain.

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