Chapter 9 – Struggles and Triumphs, Part 2

Swirling her chopsticks around the edge of her bowl, Sakura mulled the few things she knew about the boy. There wasn’t much. Grains of rice tumbled one at a time to the meager pile at the bottom of the dish. But how did he wind up with this bunch, she wondered again, tapping the sticks together lightly.

“So, you never lived in a village,” she began, thinking aloud. “Did you have any friends your age then, growing up?”

He just looked at her, his face a mix of skepticism and suspicion. It was the look that reminded her she was the prisoner here.

She shrugged, and went back to her meal.

“And what about your friends,” he said, cutting his eyes at her over his bowl, thinking they must not be very good friends if they could abandon her so easily. He was sure he wouldn’t like them for that reason alone.

She didn’t catch the mean intent of what he’d said, instead taking his words seriously, chewing and thinking over what he’d asked. So she didn’t see the drop in his expression, the wrinkle in his brow as he realized, with a little shame, that he had thought the worst of her. Maybe she wasn’t pushing for information, maybe she just wanted to talk.

Sakura tipped her head and shrugged again.

“I think maybe it’s easier if you’re not a ninja,” she said, She was looking at her food, but her thoughts were obviously miles away from that little room.

Katsuro nearly dropped his bowl. She may as well have punched him. His surprise at her candid assertion, that she would have a problem making friends, could barely be concealed. He thought she surely would have to beat them off with a stick.

Gulping down the last bite of food, Katsuro set his dish aside and leaned back against the wall, watching her quietly. He couldn’t help it, he wanted to know more. Always.

“Well what about your team? Why aren’t you friends?” he said. But she flicked suspicious eyes back at him. He backed off, as well. He wanted to know, not because of his mission, but because he was curious about the other little details of her life.

He cleared his throat.

“Well, what about girls?” he asked, thinking that in towns and outposts he’d only ever seen girls huddled in groups, talking or going somewhere, and she seemed like the one that would be right in the middle. But as soon as the words left his mouth, he wished he could reel them back in. The kunoichi’s eyes went wide.

“What?” she said in dismay.

“You know, like you,” he said, stumbling over his words. “Don’t you have any girlfriends?” He smacked his hand over his eyes. “I mean, friends that are girls.”

He could hear her soft laughter and pulled his hand back sheepishly. His embarrassment broke the ice.

“I do have friends who are girls. And friends who are boys,” she said with a smile, letting his fumble slide. “But it’s just not that easy.”

He frowned at her. “Why not?” He simply couldn’t believe it.

“Because, everyone from my class has moved on with their teams, bonded,” she rolled her eyes, “and my group’s not like that,” she said quietly. He didn’t say anything, just hoped she would continue.

“My ‘best friend,'” she said, but it was in such a way that Katsuro understood it really wasn’t the case.

“In—” she coughed quickly, trying to cover up her slip of Ino’s name, the one she’d said was her own. “Sheee has long blonde hair.”

Katsuro looked at her askance. Sakura hurried to gloss it over.

“We had the same crush in school, and she was paired with another team while I was paired with—” she stopped, not even wanting to admit that she thought about Sasuke differently at one time. “Well, she got the better end of the deal. Her team is great, mine is….” She didn’t want to finish that thought either.

“But she’s never gotten over it?” Katsuro filled in for her. Sakura nodded. They both lapsed into thoughtful silence.

“Is she stronger than you?” he asked finally. The kunoichi burst out laughing, green eyes dancing above the slim fingers that covered her mouth. He just grinned back.

“You mean, could I take her? In a fight?” she said, chuckling. Katsuro nodded, still smiling broadly.

“I don’t know,” she said, seriously thinking about it, but still smiling. “Maybe. After all this,” she shot him another brief grin. “But fighting’s not her strong suit. Her clan’s specialty is mind control—”

“Like the Uchiha?” he interrupted.

“No, a little different,” she answered.

Sakura spent the rest of that evening telling him about the different clans, and their different skills. It was nothing that was not already widely known beyond their borders — besides she didn’t know anyone’s secrets to keep or share — so she felt confident in talking about it. She also made sure not to reveal anyone’s names or memorable features, just to be safe. She’d let it slip about Ino’s hair, when she was scrambling to cover up her own gaffe, but there were lots of blonde-haired girls around.

Katsuro’s genuine interest kept her going. He laughed a little at the “dog boy” clan as he called it, but was thoroughly grossed out by her description of “bug boy.” He had assigned names to all her friends to keep them straight.

The firelight was flickering low when he asked about those closer to her.

“So I know you’re one teammate is from a clan, what about the other one?” He hoped that by not mentioning her teammate, the Uchiha, his target and the only reason she was here, she would continue talking.

“The other one? He was an orphan who was raised to be a shinobi. He just follows orders,” she said.

“A robot, then?” Katsuro said with a small smile.

Sakura nodded back, smiling. A robot. Yes, she thought, that was a fitting name for Sai.

“What about you?” Katsuro pushed on quietly. “Are you from a clan? You have a…thing,” he said, wiggling fingers at her back.

She laughed. “A symbol? Yeah, I suppose I do. It’s just a family symbol though. I’m not from a powerful clan like—” she stopped herself from saying Sasuke’s name this time. “There’s no great power or secret skill passed down through generations. In fact, I’m the first ninja in my family.”

“Wow,” Katsuro said, not sure how to respond. Maybe she was pushed into this life, he thought. Strategizing parents from shinobi village, it wasn’t hard to imagine.

“Yeah,” she said slowly, responding to his flat tone of voice.

“And your parents,” he said questioningly, “they must be so proud.” He tried but couldn’t keep the sarcastic bite out of his voice. She didn’t notice it though. An unreadable expression played out across her face.

“They don’t understand it, and they don’t understand why I want to do it. We don’t talk too much about it,” she said half-heartedly, leaning her head back against the wall.

“They’re civilians, and they think that life should be good enough for me. But I’ve always felt like I could do more for my village than just tend a store or file away paperwork somewhere,” she said. But her words were hollow. She sighed deeply and sat forward. “Sometimes I wonder if they’re right, and I’m wrong.”

Sakura shook her head of the thoughts. Gathering up her bowl, the kunoichi stood and held out her hand expectantly for his dish. He gave it to her without a word. She set the bowls down in a corner and retrieved their blanket rolls, dropping one into his lap as she passed.

Katsuro watched her quietly, waiting for her to say something more, wondering if he should instead. But if she was expecting small talk from him, she didn’t seem to notice his silence.

“It’s not their fault, they mean well,” she said finally. Blanket smoothed against the floor, she folded herself between the layers and turned to face the wall.

“I don’t want to think about it anymore tonight, okay?” she said.

“Okay,” he answered, frowning into the sudden stillness of the room.

Something had troubled her, but he couldn’t tell whether it was her parents’ disapproval or her own self-doubt.

Katsuro unfurled his own blanket. He simply had no kind words to offer, but he could help in other ways.

“Tomorrow,” he said, clearing his throat, “I can show you some more moves, if you’d like. I think they’d work well with your chakra control. Really help you take down your opponent.”

“Okay,” she breathed out dispiritedly.

Katsuro stretched back on top of his blanket, clasped his hands under his head and stared unseeing at the wood boards that covered the ceiling.

He knew nothing of friends or parents, village life or family obligations. Those were all as distant and unfathomable to him as the stars in the sky. But she had come into much closer view.

For any of them to even doubt her, he thought with a shake of his head, well then, they must not know her very well. She was more ninja than almost anyone he’d met.

Every morning and evening Katsuro hauled water to the men upstairs. They had arrived at a forced truce the first day. He brought the water up and took the food he needed. He even swiped a second blanket for himself. They didn’t bother him, nor did they dare descend downstairs.

The chore also gave him a little time each day to stop by the paneled room. He had become very familiar with the paintings. Even so, it always seemed like there was something new to find.

He inspected the scenes, studied the faces, wondered about the strange sage. He also spent a lot of time thinking about the medic-nin’s descriptions of her home, her friends. The stories and the painting were intertwining in his mind.

He saw her village as perpetually green, its motley cast forever playing out their happy lives. Safe and untouched by the horrors beyond their walls. The idea sometimes enthralled, sometimes enraged him.

Yet carrying over it all was the kunoichi’s lilting voice. It echoed in his mind as he looked at the paintings. It lingered in the warm air as he drifted off to sleep. It wove the fabric of his dreams together.

An image caught his eye and he leaned in closer, admiring the flowing black hair, perfectly rouged lips and delicately downcast eyes of a woman in the painting. She was posed under a flowering tree, choosing a piece of fruit. It was all contrived, and all so different from the one who’d opened his eyes to this other world. From her.

Somewhere below him, she was there right now. Not frozen in spring tableau. She was all summer sun. Her easy smiles and that hair. He was almost ashamed to think about it, that when he’d seen her his immediate thought was that the pink hair would make her an easy target. Now, when he thought about her, it fit her perfectly. Unrepentant and open. She was different.

He left the painted woman behind and scanned the panels for something that seemed more like the girl he’d come to know. Finally, he found something that captured her a little better, but surprisingly, there was nothing feminine about it.

A group of children were laughing beside a river. Leaves hung in the air, water flowed unhindered, the children circled each other in some unknown game. Their chubby hands were clasped, and the green grass curled around their feet. Fine brushstrokes became radiant smiles on their round faces.

He couldn’t help but smile back. Yes, that was her, he thought. There was something in the easy freedom, the careless happiness of the children that resonated with his idea of her. This would be her part to play on the stage of the leaf-green village.

He shoved his hands into his pockets.

And here he was, watching it from the outside. Again.

If she was this — this glorious, sunlit moment — then he knew which part he was. Katsuro flicked a glance down to the dimly lit corner where he knew the last panel hung. Its angry scene waiting there, even in the darkness. The hero and the demon, poised for battle. Katsuro frowned, his mood darkening. He knew which part of that equation he was.

A scuffing at the door startled him.

“Hey, there you are,” the kunoichi said, panting a little. She crossed the room swiftly. “I thought I might find you here. What are you looking at?”

“Just some of the pictures,” Katsuro said, still a little discomposed. He felt as if he’d revealed something, although he knew he had not spoken a word. “Which one do you like?” he rejoined quickly to cover his unease.

She stepped forward for a closer look at the children playing.

“How sweet,” she said, then slowly walked back up the line of panels.

“What about her?” he said as they passed the woman beneath the tree. He watched her reaction from under half-closed eyes.

“Oh, she’s lovely isn’t she. Beautiful hair. Looks like a princess,” the kunoichi said, her smiling green eyes darting around the image. “But I think I like this little part best,” she said, pointing to a scene he’d not noticed before.

They walked the length of the wall till they were at the beginning. A grand mountain scene was painted down the entire first panel. At the top, a few snow-capped mountains poked out of a line of cottony mist. Below the mist, the slopes raced down nearly vertical, dotted here and there with red-leafed maple trees and illuminated by long shafts of sunlight. At the foot of the great mountains, hillocks covered in finely-lined green grass rolled away, forming the green ground of the village and scenery in the panels beyond.

A frothing waterfall broke the placid scene, cutting a straight line through the mountains and terminating at a knee of rocks that jutted out into the churning waters. A lone blossoming cherry tree clung to the rock, with a small patch of grass its only companion.

“There,” she said, pointing at the knoll with a satisfied smile. She turned back to wait for his reaction.

It was pretty enough, he thought, but he wasn’t impressed. He feigned interest for her sake, and continued to study the forgettable image.

But no sooner had he decided there was nothing interesting in the panel, did he discover that the the tree and its rocky home did have some redeeming qualities.

While the waterfall fell in white streaks behind the rock, the river swirled around the front in deep blue circles. There the tree arched magnificently out over the water, its branches, studded with pink blossoms, just barely brushed the whirlpool.

A faint ray of light streaked down through the mist to gild the little scene.

Katsuro plunked his hands on his hips in frustration. He had to admit, the more he looked, the more he saw.

What he had taken to be a white frothing of the river was actually petals, so finely rendered he almost missed it. Winding away from the tree, the placid blue river was dotted pink and white. Even the wispy grass that grew at the banks and bent with the flow of the current had petals caught in their long tendrils.

The river rolled on into the next panel, wide and smooth through the thick green grass. It ducked out of sight under a trim little bridge, then continued on toward the village.

“Eh,” he said shrugging a shoulder, irritated that she liked the picturesque spot over all the others. She must have understood that he didn’t see what she did.

“It represents the changing seasons, look,” Sakura pointed to the clear anomaly of snow, autumn leaves and blossoms in such close proximity.

“Well, where’s summer?” he asked with a frown.

“Oh, summer’s all the rest of it,” she said dismissively. He’s snorted at that.

“It’s pretty, I guess,” he said, still a little disappointed that he couldn’t pin her down to an image in the village.

“It’s more than that though. Look closer,” she said, tugging him forward by his arm. “So, if this whole painting is a story about a sage’s journey, then this is the beginning. The river probably represents the chakra that he’s teaching about, flowing through everything.” Her fingers trailed along with the water, then returned to the rocky knoll. “And if it does, then this spot right here is where it springs from, literally. It transcends the seasons, it’s untouched by time.”

She turned back to him, hand on her hip, a satisfied grin on her face.

Katsuro blinked, opened his mouth to disagree, then snapped it shut again with a frown. After comparing it with the rest of the panels, he realized she was probably right.

Where the other images were painted with bright colors and swift brushstrokes, this little area was masterfully rendered in a harmony of colors, exquisitely detailed down to the smallest petals. The scene was very special indeed.

He had been wrong. He had been looking for her in the village. She wasn’t there.

Studying the tableaus, Katsuro had indulged in dissecting and dismissing the cast of characters, wrapped up in their own lives. He had already decided which part he belonged too, and he wanted to box her up with the rest of the village. But she slipped out of those plans as well.

“So which part do you like?” she said lightly, oblivious to his discontent.

He cleared his throat. He truly had not thought about what he liked, only what he was obligated to. Her question surprised him. If he had a choice, then which would he choose?

He knew the answer, he thought, puffing out a breath. He was beginning to see a pattern here.

“That part, too,” he begrudgingly acknowledged, jerking his hand toward the scene. “You know, the one with the tree. The water.”

She just smiled in response.

Katsuro glanced back down the panels at the vivid scenes, each with their own little story to tell, then returned to the panel in front of him. He recognized now what she had seen from the start. This was the beginning, the source. Where the blossoms met the swirling water was where all the rest of it sprang from.

He had just leaned in close to see if the branches actually touched the water itself, when a chakra-laden punch in the arm nearly knocked him over.

“Ow,” he said, rubbing his arm, looking at her laughing face for an explanation.

“Come on,” she said, eyes glittering. “You promised you’d show me some new stuff today!”

It brought him back to the present, shook him of his thoughts. They were neither of them were characters in an ancient painting.

He wasn’t locked in a battle, chained to a fate he could never escape.

She wasn’t a child playing games from which he was horribly excluded.

They were, right now, safe from everything, tucked away in a forgotten temple on the edge of a mountain. It reminded him forcibly of that grassy patch beneath the protective canopy of the cherry tree.

Helping her to defend herself made him feel good, worthwhile. And in return, though she didn’t know it, she gave him the gift of treating him as if nothing were wrong. Seeing it through her eyes, he was just another kid trying to survive. The world was still full of beauty and possibility, and happy endings. Even against hopeless odds.

If he had been wrong about her, then maybe he wasn’t tied to that last panel, either. Maybe there was a beautiful spot, protected and unspoiled, even for him.

Pink hair, he thought again as he looked at her quizzical face. It’s perfect.

“Are you ok?” she said, tipping her head with a smile. Her hair swung softly away from her neck.

“I’m good,” he said, exhaling deeply. He smiled back. “I’m great. Let’s go. I’ve been looking forward to this too.”

They turned together and left the floor, sending more flecks of dust sparkling into the air in their wake.

Sakura knew what she was doing this time.

Her movements were sure, her fists were tight. She knew she had him.

Pushing him into a defensive position with a small kick, Sakura moved her arms as if to release a jab to his midsection. But it was only a ruse. She shifted her weight and shot a chakra-encased hand straight up into his chin, delivering a punishing uppercut. Just like he’d taught her.

He toppled backwards onto the floor, eyes wide, hands splayed out behind him.

This felt so good, she thought, cracking her knuckles.

“Ready for another?” she said. She could go all day like this, but she was pretty sure he couldn’t. He pushed the mop of brown curls away from his eyes.

“No,” he said, laughing as she pulled him back up to standing. His smiles and laughter made her feel better about the pummeling he was taking from her.

‘No harm done,’ she thought. He seemed to be just as pleased as she was about her success. But she couldn’t quite forget that he was her warden.

For what seemed like the thousandth time, she tried to ignore her tenuous situation and just focus on his kindness. He had given her more encouragement in the past week than she’d gotten from her team in a year. In fact, if he wasn’t the one who had abducted her, she would have to admit he was more of a friend to her than anyone in her squad.

Sakura took the orange he offered and sat down beside him under the window in their sparring room. Knees propped up, shoulders almost touching, they sat in companionable silence and ate their fruit.

If there was another agenda there, she thought again, a darker reason to why he was assisting her, she simply couldn’t find it.

And though he would offer no clues to his background, and she, stupidly, had revealed so much about herself, he didn’t appear to be gathering information about her. It almost seemed as if he was lonely. As if he liked hearing about the foibles of her friends, her team, her life. She thought it was dreadful, but she supposed it would sound good if those men upstairs were your only companions. Which turned her thoughts back to the puzzle of why he was with them. She wished she knew just a little bit more about him.

Katsuro cleared his throat, startling her, and launched into a dialogue as if they had already been speaking.

“There’s nothing else you should be doing,” he said seriously, eyes fixed on some distant point in the room. Sakura turned to look at him, but he continued on, never moving his gaze.

“You protected those kids. You weren’t afraid,” he said firmly. “Not many people would do that, would go that far.”

Sakura looked at her hands. She had become accustomed to his way of asking her things to prove a point. She would answer, only to find a bitter opinion or sarcastic dig. And so far, most of his points were painful. But there was something different in his tone of voice this time.

“I think you are doing the right thing, being a ninja and all. And if you enjoy being a medic, and you’re good at it, you should do it, too,” he said firmly. “And I wouldn’t care about what anyone else thinks.”

She turned quickly to peer back into his face, her surprise evident at his serious tone. But he was in earnest.

Katsuro was offering his support. Not just because it was convenient to him, but because he thought she needed to hear it.

“Thanks,” she said softly, studying his profile.

There had always been lots of approval heaped around, but never directly. She’d often hear a ‘good job’ or ‘great work’ in class, but when she became part of a team, even those anonymous praises dried up. And there was never, ever any mention of her missions or work at home.

Here, this boy, this rogue, is the one to tell her not to give up on the decision she’d wrapped her life around.

Katsuro was really tough. And if he thought that she was good enough, then…well, that meant something to her.

“Thanks a lot,” she said.

He cut her a sideways glance and gave a brief, embarrassed smile. But she grinned widely back. His eyes were a dull brown, that couldn’t be helped, but when he smiled there was something very expressive and kind in the way they crinkled at the corners. She could see it now.

Though she had proved herself in their mock battle, landing quite a few punches on him over the course of the afternoon, Katsuro was still working out ways she could use her skill to her advantage.

“So, if I were you,” he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as they padded back up the stairs, “then I would try every move possible that can have chakra channeled into it. Punching, kicking, anything. If you can pound your chakra into it, then do it. That’s your strength.”

She nodded in honest agreement, letting her hand drag over the wall as she climbed. Only the pattering of crumbling sand on the stone steps broke the early evening stillness. Neither seemed to take notice, though.

It was clear to both of them that this training had gone far beyond self-defense moves. He was preparing her for anything she might face, and thugs were at the bottom of the list.

‘She’s a Leaf ninja,’ he thought. ‘More than likely she’s going to be fighting off other shinobi more than common criminals—’

“You’re good at this, you know,” she called up to him, interrupting his thoughts. “Helping other people.”

He smiled but didn’t turn back to her, instead occupying himself with pushing the door open to their floor. They silently crossed the large, dark hall.

She had said little niceties before, and most he dismissed as just that. But sometimes she said things so easily that they arrested him for a moment.

He was reminded of her throwing open that shutter and breathing life into the good things hidden in the darkness, naming them for him to hold onto.

Just like the panels, her kind words were his now, never to be forgotten. He pushed the door open to the little room, then held it back for her to pass.

“Do you help train other people in your…group?” she said as she walked by. They never spoke about his group, or her team, and she mentioned it haltingly.

“No,” he said with a little laugh. She grabbed an orange and sat down on the window ledge.

“So, if you didn’t go to an academy, how were you trained?” Her voice was soft, and there was no hint of pressure, but still….

He had been reaching for an orange when her heard her question. His instincts always leaned toward self-protective. Though it sounded innocent, and he thought enough of her now not to suspect her every move, there was still a broad gap between them. He stood without the orange as she started to speak again.

“We were trained in teams. Although mine’s not anything like any of the others. I might as well be alone,” her voice thinned at the admission. But after a moment she rejoined, “so what about you, did you have a team or was it just a sensei.”

He understood. She had offered a bit of information about herself in return for something from him. A trade.

It went against everything — everything — he’d been trained for. And he’d been very careful so far, not to reveal anything that could trace him to his past. He opened the door, curling his hand around the edge. Answering her was not an option, he told himself.

But still he did not move.

True, she was from Konoha, he thought. But she was so much different than he’d ever expected anyone from that wretched place to be. Maybe this didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe she just wanted to know more about him, the same way he always wanted to know more about her.

He cleared his throat.

“I had none of that,” he said emotionlessly. “I was taught what I needed to survive. I had to learn quickly and put it to use. There were no schools, no teammates, no second chances.”

He stepped over the threshold, deciding to get an early start on his nightly water run. The little room seemed too confining at the moment.

“Thank you, then,” he heard her call out. He paused, hand on the metal handle, listening. “For this. For treating me differently. You have a great deal of kindness.” He didn’t say anything but closed the door.

This time, he couldn’t see what she did.

A dull ache tightened like a band around his chest. It was something unknown to him, something like regret. The feeling stayed with him as he crossed the empty hall. He couldn’t seem to shake it.

There was a shadow to the good things she’d said. He wasn’t kind, no matter how nice he was to her. He put her in this situation.

If he were really kind, he thought, he would have chosen the other teammate.

Katsuro dragged a hand over his forehead, closing his eyes for a moment. How could he have known she would be so, so—

A hawk’s cry pierced the air high above. Katsuro snapped his head up, senses on high alert, listening hard at the edge of the stairwell.

The plaintive sound whistled over the crumbling stone walls and echoed relentlessly through the deserted rooms.

Katsuro knew what it meant: Tomorrow, he’d learn of their fate.

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