Chapter 18 – Whole

“Sakura,” came a warm voice in front of her. She snapped her head up so quickly she nearly collided with the battered straw hat. But instead of the old farmer, she found herself looking into a smooth, young, very familiar face.

Warm brown eyes shined at her. The corners of his mouth curled up into an easy smile.

“Ka-Katsuro?” she said in breathless astonishment. Her eyes, lit with recognition, darted across his features.

Where folds of skin had been before, his face was smooth and clear. The only lines now were the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the happy side-effect of his bright smile.

Faint brown freckles mottled his cheeks and dusted his nose. His chestnut hair looked very much the same, just a little more unruly. Dark licks fell over his forehead, but the curls peeking out under the back of the straw hat were burnished gold by the midday sun.

Sakura looked back to his eyes. Still large and brown, nothing distinguishing. But they held a measure of warmth for her — just for her — that was comforting.

Even though she’d spent so much time trying to forget her experience, one look at him scattered her doubts.

He was happy to see her. Delighted. Thrilled. It was perfectly clear.

She swallowed dryly. She could feel her cheeks turning pink from the heat.

With growing certainty, she discovered she was happy to see him too. In spite of everything.

A soft smile curved her mouth before she could think to stop it.

Katsuro bit down on his bottom lip, trying to contain his widening grin. He could guess her thoughts.

Hand still curled around her wrist, Katsuro gently brushed her skin with his thumb. He was in as much disbelief as she was. And he held her arm as if making sure she were real.

The gentle sensation sent a shock wave through Sakura, though. It brought her back to reality.

She glanced over his ridiculous appearance, the shabby clothes and the strange gear. Something else was going on here. It chilled her, despite the suffocating heat, and her open expression closed.

Slipping her wrist from his grasp, Sakura stepped back and scoured the countryside. Her hand dropped reflexively to her thigh kunai.

“Oh no,” Katsuro said quickly, waving his open palms at her. He leaned into the rickety cart, nearly toppling it over again.

“There’s nobody else,” he said, clamping a hand on the cart and jumbling his excuses. “I mean, it’s just me….”

She scanned the field behind him as if he hadn’t spoken, lips pinched, eyes sharp. She shifted her gaze to the road, the other fields, never turning her back on him.

“I mean,” he began again, taking a breath and choosing his words a little more carefully. “Don’t worry, I’m by myself. There is no one from my group with me. In fact, you’re the only person I’ve seen all day.”

Sakura stayed alert. He wasn’t sure if she’d heard him. But after a moment, her shoulders eased. She slowly swung her gaze back to him.

Katsuro smiled broadly.

“I can’t believe it’s you,” he breathed.

“You look so different,” he continued, eyes dipping down in a way that made the corner of her mouth twitch with irritation.

“But I saw your hair right off,” he said, dragging his gaze back up to linger at her collarbone, then moving slowly to the top of her head. “It’s longer,” he finally decided, smiling his approval, but he didn’t break off his admiration.

Warmed by the sun, her hair moved just then in some slight, unseen breeze.

It stirred a vague memory.

There was a funny way Katsuro had about him, an undeniably reassuring presence. She relied on him in her darkest time, when hope was lost, and he had not failed her. She remembered feeling that, somehow, everything was going to be alright.

The memory sharpened, seemed to become tangible for a moment. Seeing him now, in front of her, it was as if time hadn’t passed.

Fragrant summer air swirled warm around her, ruffling the hair at her throat.

All at once, she the had the feeling of being perfectly safe. She remembered him, right beside her, smiling, talking. His laughter rang in her ears.

For an instant, the sunlight dazzled, the air shimmered around them, and the barley field seemed to dissolve in a golden haze.

Blinking, Sakura shielded her eyes from the disorienting light, and the feeling ebbed with the passing shade. The breeze thinned to nothing. The subtle shimmer vanished from the fields.

And Katsuro still stood there, watching her, waiting patiently for some unknown response.

She grasped at the lost memory, but couldn’t place it. It tantalized, staying just out-of-reach, like a forgotten dream.

Sakura frowned to herself. Was it the heat? A it trick of the light? Then another thought seared her.

‘A genjutsu.’

Dropping her hand back to her side, she shot him a hard look.

‘No,’ she decided. Whatever she felt, he was oblivious to it. Katsuro simply grinned back at her.

Sakura drew in a deep breath to clear her mind, sure now that she had been out in the sun for entirely too long.

“Well? What about me?” Katsuro said in mock exasperation. He threw his arms out wide, flapping the ridiculous oversized jacket around him. “Do you think I’ve changed?”

“No,” she said, chuckling in spite of her distracted feelings. “Not a bit.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” he said, laughing loud enough for both of them.

Sakura tucked away her smile. She should have known she’d see him again. Some time.

She glanced up the road, trying quickly to decide what to do. Should she stand and visit — did she really want to visit with him? — or should she just get on with her mission.

Her mission. She nearly groaned aloud. She certainly couldn’t tell him.

Katsuro watched her from hooded eyes.

She had changed. Taller, longer, there was the hint of something feminine now. Not just that slip of neck. She seemed to exude it, in the way she stood. The way her arm draped over her stomach. The way her fingers wrapped gently around the loop of her kunai.

He drew a long breath, rubbed a callused hand over the back of his neck. Just seeing her was like throwing open a window.

Her hair was longer too, he noted, hanging just over the edge of her shoulders. The tips swung gently as she looked up the road.

It conflicted with the mental image he carried of her. He remembered her shorter locks, flipping up at the ends, feisty and careless. Defiant. But seeing her again, he realized it must have been a toll on her. They were dirty, sweaty and exhausted for most of their time together.

Now her hair was radiant. Deep rose locks at her neck softened to pale pink. A testament to hours in the sun. Just then, a curl fluttered loose from behind her ear. She tucked it back without thinking, but it wouldn’t stay put. His mouth curved into a small smile.

The length changed her face a bit, made it seem longer, fuller, he thought. Or maybe it made her eyes seem bigger. But then again, maybe it wasn’t her hair that had changed, but her. She was two years older now.

He scratched distractedly at his smooth chin. He wondered if he looked more manly.

She turned back to him suddenly, pinning him with her green gaze. He forgot what he was thinking about.

Those eyes, he sighed inwardly. He felt a little exposed, remembering the last night, the shimmering genjutsu, memorizing her face…and those eyes.

There was just something about her, he decided. She was different. She looked at him, and he remembered feeling whole. Like the things he did mattered. Like he mattered.

Seeing her again, after so much time, brought up an ache within him, sharp and sweet. He’d never had a connection to anyone, except Itachi. But the way he felt about her, well there was no comparison. He’d never felt that way about anyone. He didn’t have words for it. Was it friendship or something else?

He just knew he’d have done anything to pull her out of the hell of dying at Itachi’s hands. Katsuro gritted his teeth at the memory. No, time had not diminished his resolve to protect his bond to her.

But that was in the past, he thought, relaxing the sudden tightness in his shoulders. He banished the dark thoughts.

She was here, in front of him among the sun-drenched fields — happy and confident, and safe. And it stirred completely new feelings. Made him yearn for things he couldn’t have. More time, more freedom.

Katsuro’s gaze drifted over her face, settled on her big green eyes, and he made a snap decision. He wasn’t just going to let her walk away, disappear from his life again like that terrible night. No, he’d turn everything upside down to hold on to this a little longer.

“So…What are you doing out here,” he blurted out. Sakura frowned suddenly, startled by his directness.

“I mean, this far out of the Fire Country?” he clarified.

She refused to answer.

“Oh,” he said in slow understanding. “Are you on a mission or something?”

She raised an eyebrow, fixed a calculating look on him, but still said nothing.

“Are you going to the town, then?” he said, thumbing in the direction he just walked up from.

With a huff, Sakura looked away, glaring instead at the field beyond his opposite shoulder.

‘He knows damn well where I’m was going,’ she thought, irritated. But she wouldn’t confirm it with even a glance up the road.

“It’s ok, I understand,” he quickly reassured. “You don’t have to say anything.” He leaned toward her, shifting the cart to a precarious angle.

“But,” he said haltingly, “can I, at least, walk with you?”

His face held such a mix of uncertainty and hope as he looked up at her, that Sakura was completely thrown.

“W-What?” Had she heard him right?

“If you’re going that way, can I walk with you? ”

Sakura gaped at him until faint pink blotches stained his cheeks.

“But you were—” she stumbled over her words, pointing back the other way.

“I don’t have anywhere else to be,” he said, straightening, throwing his hands back with a broad grin.

The sudden movement pitched the cart away, and it took every bit of his honed reflexes to keep it from toppling again. He darted forward and caught the crumbling wooden side with his fingertips before the contents lurched out.

Hands firmly on the cart, Katsuro raised back up and flashed Sakura another bright, disarming smile.

She frowned back, but her good reasoning had already abandoned her.

She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t wondered about him. She trusted him once. And here he was, right in front of her, making it seem so easy to trust him again.

Katsuro watched her with glittering brown eyes. He rocked forward lightly on the balls of his feet, waiting, hopeful. She sighed.

“Well, just for a little while,” she said slowly. What was she thinking.

But he beamed at her. And she found she had to bite the inside of her lip to keep from smiling back.

In an instant he wheeled his cart around and fell into step beside her.

They walked side-by-side, in silence. She stole a glance at him. He still looked just as she remembered him. Perhaps a little taller, but very much the same. Except for that silly grin. That was new. But she remembered him to be naturally happy. Energetic. Even now, walking back into the town he just came from, in the blazing heat. It didn’t even faze him.

‘This is crazy,’ she told herself. ‘He’s also in a disguise. With a cart full of weapons.’

What was she thinking.

He’s a rogue ninja. Working for Itachi. If anyone saw her with him, made the connection…. This had to stop.

She halted suddenly and turned to face him. Katsuro unwittingly mirrored her actions.

“I—” they both began at the same time. Sakura pressed her lips into a thin line while he smiled even wider. When she didn’t continue, he did.

“I had hoped to see you again. Just to see you, make sure you got home ok. I didn’t know…. But here you are, out on your own. Now, I can not only see you but talk to you too, at least for a little while.” His smile faded. “But you were going to say something.”

Sakura was speechless. Her line to throw him off was a jumble.

“I was…” she refocused her gaze to look him in the eyes.

“I, uh…” but she faltered again. His eyes were bright, taking in her face. He tipped his head, studying her unabashedly. She paused, regrouped, and pushed her lips together.

“What?” he said, softly, expectantly.

He was nothing like the rogue shinobi she remembered him to be. He acted as if they were old friends, catching up.

She knew it wasn’t a lucky break that she escaped from Itachi. Katsuro had laid everything on the line to help a prisoner. When her own team hadn’t come for her, he was the teammate she’d never had.

Teammates. Was that the feeling that she blamed herself for these past two years? The guilt she couldn’t quite seem to shake?

She had forged a bond with an enemy nin when she couldn’t even find it with the ones she was supposed to protect. It was why she was out here by herself in the first place.

She shook her head and looked down, smiling ruefully at her own discomposure. He grinned, tipping his head toward the sky to laugh softly at their awkwardness.

This little act drew from her the first real smile.

She knew he didn’t understand what she felt, but his kindness reminded her that her trust had not been misplaced.

It was the same reasoning she relied on in her captivity, hoping his good nature would persevere. And in the end, he didn’t let her down.

Well, if she could trust him as an enemy in an enemy camp, she told herself, she could probably handle a brief walk with him on an empty road.

Finally having come to some decision, she looked back with a smooth countenance.

“I can only go with you to the edge of town,” she said with a serious tone, “then we have to part ways.”

“Yes, of course,” he replied with wide eyes. “And if anyone approaches I’ll do my best farmer imitation and limp off.”

Accepting the compromise, she began walking again when the next obstacle presented itself. What would they talk about?

But her worry was only momentary, Katsuro fired off questions about her shinobi life, medic and defense training. She could only get in a quick response before he would jump to another question with a, “Hey, what about….”

Sakura was lightly amused until he asked about her emotional wellbeing with her bastard teammate and the other one…. Katsuro stopped there, scrunched up his face and scratched his head in thought.

“What was his name…. The robot!” he said finally.

Sakura burst out laughing before she could stop herself. Katsuro just grinned as wide as the sky.

“How do you remember these things?” she said, slanting her eyes at him with a smile.

“I told you, I’ve wondered about you,” he returned easily.

She sighed. She could not say the same. When she had thought about him, he was still frozen in those moments when he encouraged her. Cooling off after sparring or sharing water at the mossy well. She remembered his face, illuminated by firelight from their evening talks. But she had no sense of what he did before or would do after her time with him.

“What about you? What have you done?” she refocused.

“Nothing much to tell,” he shrugged and looked out across the yellow field. “I just follow orders.”

The dusty road blurred under her feet. She remembered now, why she had no other frame of reference for him: He never offered her any information about himself. The few times she had the presence of mind to ask, he carelessly deflected the questions and returned the focus back on her. Now, in a much less desperate state of mind, that disparity of information stood out.

This was exactly what she expected of a shrewd nin, not the easy friend he presented himself as. She wanted to scratch beneath the surface, see which was real.

Poised to ask about his life since their parting, Sakura heard Katsuro’s voice instead of her own.

“This is where I have to leave you,” he said, attention fixed wistfully on the curving road ahead of them.

“What?” She looked up, frowning. Were they here so soon?

“Around this bend the road narrows, then opens up and allows for a wide view from the town,” he said. “It wouldn’t be safe to continue.”

‘How convenient’ she thought darkly. The bubble burst. The old feeling of distrust seeped in. ‘He is a shinobi of course. No answers from him and everything from me’.

There were a million reasons why he could be there, and she knew not a single one of them. He knew, however, many details about her. She turned back to him, silently defensive.

“I’ve been here several times before,” he reassured. “Errands,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Mostly at night, though.” Katsuro turned back to look down the road, thinking.

Sakura didn’t turn her gaze away from him, instead studying his silhouette in case she had to identify him at night.

Suddenly Katsuro lifted his hand, signaling something. He looked sharply up the road. Listening hard. His easy demeanor evaporated.

She heard it too. A piercing sound, growing closer.

But whatever was the source, it was no threat to her. This was the road she was meant to be on. She was not the one in disguise here.

Sakura watched Katsuro. She couldn’t deny that his alertness was strangely comforting. This was the rogue she remembered. Calculating, aware. The one who was almost always on edge.

She had forgotten about the one who was friendly, made jokes. Helped her get stronger. Said he wouldn’t leave her.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. She hadn’t forgotten, she had just tucked it into a dark corner of her mind. And hoped that no one else would ever find out what he had done to help her. And, even more damning, how very much it had meant to her.

Just then, two birds whistled through the air above them. Dipping and swerving, one let out the odd, shrill sound they’d heard.

Katsuro knocked his hat back and watched them arc over the field, out of sight.

“False alarm!” He smiled, free from concern.

She watched the transformation on his face and smiled back. Once the danger passed, he was the easygoing friend again.

Everything about him came back in full force. The uncanny ability to be good natured and highly suspicious at the same time. There was always a fight, but he never gave up hope. This was how she had made it through.

The two years just ran away. And underneath it all, the pull of friendship remained intact, unchanged. He was still asking her to trust him, and she found, to her guilt, she still wanted to.

A jingle sounded from down the road, beyond the bend. This time, it was unmistakeable. Someone was approaching.

Katsuro’s happy facade disappeared again. He studied her face, then seemed to come to some decision.

“Listen, how long are you here for?” he asked directly.

She frowned. She wouldn’t answer him.

“Are you meeting someone there, then?”

Her feelings were confusing enough, but his obvious fishing for information roiled her. He must think she was that same weak girl from the forest. Well she wasn’t.

Her anger finally spurred her to act. She was a Konoha kunoichi on a solo mission. If he thought she was anything less, then it was time to move on.

She turned on her heel to leave.

“Wait,” he grabbed for her arm, the cart teetered again. He propped it against his leg, stepping closer to her. The jingling sound was growing steadily louder. Katsuro lowered his voice.

“You don’t have to tell me anything, ok?” he said quickly. “I don’t care what you’re doing here. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Desperation seeped into his voice.

“I— I just want to see you again,” he said softly.

Reflexively, Sakura sought out his eyes. The look she found there stole her breath.

It wasn’t calculated or carelessly friendly. He looked more like a lost kid than a hardened shinobi. He was vulnerable, exposed.

Sakura had a feeling this was the part of him that know one saw. But that she alone would understand. He was revealing his softest heart, where his hopes were tied inextricably to his fears.

He just wanted to see her again. For anyone else it would be such a simple request.

Warm brown eyes watched her, waiting for any sign.

But nothing in Katsuro’s life was easy, no matter how effortless he made it seem. She had seen firsthand what he had to persevere through, everyday. It was kill or be killed, from all sides. He dismissed it a ‘just following orders,’ but she knew that ultimately he was alone.

Her life was nothing like his. But she understood how he felt, and knew exactly why he was reaching out to her. He wasn’t alone in that, at least.

She felt the same. She had never met anyone else like him, either.

Sakura swallowed thickly, suddenly aware of just how warm his hand was on her arm. She tore her gaze away and looked up the road, biting her lip.

Katsuro seized on her indecision — that was sign enough for him — and pushed her gently.

“If you’re here, on your own…” he let the thought hang in the air and he studied her profile.

She blinked slowly, but didn’t stop him. He had guessed right.

“Then, you tell me when and where to meet you, and I’ll be there.”

The jingle edged closer, accompanied now by the slow but steady crunch of wheels.

“That’s impossible, I—” but one glance at his hopeful expression, and she broke off. The corners of his mouth edged up. She knew she didn’t sound very convincing.

“Just to hang out a little longer, that’s all,” he reassured, lightly dragging his thumb across her skin as he spoke. “I want to know about what’s happened in your life. Nothing else. Promise.”

“I really shouldn’t—” she began, but he was smiling into her face. He knew, as she did, that her resolve was weakening. “It’s foolish,” she hissed back warningly. “Dangerous.”

But he beamed at her, giving her arm a final squeeze before letting go.

“Come out for a walk, tonight,” he said as he stepped away, pulling the cart with him. “On the road west of town, across the fields, I’ll wait there.”

Wait…” she said. The rolling noise was closing in on them. “I don’t know if I can….”

“I’ll wait for you,” he said, grinning, backing down the road. “And if you don’t come tonight, I’ll meet you the next!”

She shook her head trying to disagree, but he called back, “I’ll come every night if I have to!”

“Wait….” she whispered, but he was too far, and the sound was almost upon her.

She glanced down the road finally — ‘Any minute now,’ she thought, gauging the sound — then back again at Katsuro. From a dip in the road he shot her a delighted silly grin over his shoulder, then disappeared.

Sakura turned back just as a wrinkled old man slowly rounded the corner with his own cart and goat. He bobbed his head without stopping. She drew a deep, calming breath, and nodded back.

Around the next bend, the road rolled away from Sakura just as he described it. It dropped down into a shallow valley of fields and farmers shanties before winding up to the gates of a hillside town.

“So much for ‘no surprises'” she thought, ignoring the fluttery feeling in her stomach that had nothing to do with her mission.

But she had a job to do. She’d think about Katsuro, and his request, later.

The fine silk robes of the innkeeper were at odds with most of the ramshackle town. He pointed toward a building, expounding on some historical detail. A creamy sleeve floated along with him.

But Sakura was not nearly as impressed as he was. Clapboard from the building stuck out at so many angles it gave Sakura the uneasy feeling that it was going to snag the fluid silk.

To her eyes, most of this hillside town was the same. Two-story buildings and shabby huts jostled for space along the narrow paths that staggered down the slope. Laundry zig-zagged between the cantilevered buildings. And the sharply-angled paths hid more of the dust and debris from the view of travelers.

But merchants or locals, no one could miss it. The broad trade road arced over the middle of the slope, dividing the town cleanly and gave perfect views of both worlds.

The innkeeper pointed to another sight above the road, anxious to draw the kunoichi’s attention away from the less desirable aspect of their community.

Though fewer in number than their down-slope neighbors, the upper paths were orderly and trim, with manicured two-story residences and shops standing politely shoulder to shoulder. No signs of a hard-scrabble life there. Only hanging lanterns and potted plants dotted the gray lanes. Even the cat lolling beneath a canary cage seemed to be on his best behavior, with nary a glance at the caged morsel swinging from the porch above him.

The inn and adjoining shop had pride of place in the center of town, nearest the gate, fronting the trade road. It straddled the line between new and old, merchants and farmers, wealth and abject poverty.

Which was why she was here.

The innkeeper glanced down the steep path, mild distaste creeping across his expression. He smoothed a hand over his already smooth long black hair. But nothing had escaped the tight knot at the back of his neck.

He was young for an innkeeper, she thought. Maybe a little more than ten years her senior. But he was anxious to impress any client. Even a hired kunoichi. But it was a waste of both of their time.

“Your town is lovely. But, if you could take me to your warehouses,” she prompted, “then I could determine where to start.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” he said with renewed congeniality.

They continued down the wide road as it skirted the gradual decline of the hillside.

The innkeeper-merchant had requested a shinobi to look into some theft of goods from his warehouses. Food, supplies, she remembered reading in the mission scroll. Costly silks, she assumed now.

Her task was to train a handful of men to protect the stock. And it was implied that she would do her best to find the source of the trouble. But that was not required to consider this job a success.

However she was quickly discovering that nothing on this mission was what it appeared.

“So, do you think you can discover who is stealing from us?” he said, face alight with the mere thought.

Sakura shook her head as they arrived at the unassuming building.

“My main objective here is to train your men to protect your merchandise,” she reminded him as she peered at the rickety door. She rattled the lock but it was solid, and the mechanism held fast.

“Oh not my merchandise,” he said.

“What?” Sakura said, straightening. Then what exactly was she here for.

She stepped back as he produced a key and wiggled it into the lock.

“These are the food stores for the inn,” he said, throwing back the wooden door, “as well as winter provisions for the town.”

Cool, dank air poured out of the doorway. Sakura looked around him to see only steps dropping into darkness. He fumbled for a lantern and stepped confidently down into the black. Sakura gingerly followed, giving her eyes time to adjust.

Out of the dimness came a room that looked like part root cellar, part market stand. Fresh fruits and vegetables stood ready to be served, packed into broad trays, perfectly preserved in the coolness. Behind and underneath the tables were crates and barrels, some with lids, some draped in rough linens. Potatoes, cabbages, carrots and other foodstuffs that would last into the winter months poked out from under the fabric.

“Wow,” she said. The man smiled, proud of their accomplishment.

Sakura looked back up the steps. They were nearly a full level below the street. If someone was stealing from here then—

“Not again,” he wailed.

Sakura turned to see what caught his attention. A lone peach sat on the earthen floor. It had obviously rolled off the top of a neatly arranged tray of fruit.

“I was just here this morning, and nothing was out of place,” he said, exasperated. He scooped up the peach and turned back to Sakura who stood unmoving.

“They’ve struck again,” he said, shaking the fruit in one hand as if it were hard evidence.

Sakura frowned at the scene. Was she missing something?

In a whirl of sleeves, the man ducked under the offending peach tray and pulled out two covered baskets. He flipped the fabric back, revealing the empty spaces they concealed. The linen had been artfully arranged to make them look full.

“And a third,” he said, pointing to a ring smudged on the dirt floor. Nothing else appeared out of place. That basket was gone.

Three bushel baskets full of food was no small thing to just walk off with. Someone would either need lots of help or a cart—

Sakura’s stomach clenched at the memory of Katsuro. The disguise. The cart. But she’d seen everything he was carrying when he tipped the cart over in the road. Just a bunch of garden tools and only a few pieces of old food.

‘It wasn’t him,’ she thought with relief.

Schooling her thoughts, Sakura looked sharply at the light-flooded doorway, then scanned the edges of where the roof should meet the walls. There were a few thin slants of light, but nothing more.

“That door is the only way in and out of here?” she quizzed him. “There are no other entrances?”

“No,” he said, stacking the buckets up next to a growing stack of empty ones. “And I am the only one who has the key.”

He silently counted up the lost bushel baskets, then wrung his hands.

“They are so silent, so crafty,” he said, shaking his head. “To slip in and steal and leave without a trace,” voice rising as his mind raced ahead. “Our town must be the target of roving ninjas!” he said with a fist.

Sakura’s face went slack.

“Not you, of course,” he backpedaled instantly, both palms out. “They could be bandits, rogues…anyone, really.”

“Yes,” Sakura intoned dryly. “It could be anyone. Please keep that in mind.”

They climbed back into the heat in silence. He snapped the lock over the door while Sakura looked around the building. The roof butted up against another on one side, but there were no signs of a break-in. She checked the lock again, the hinges. All were free of tampering.

“I meant no offense, Sakura-san,” he said, wringing his hands under the long cream sleeves as they continued down the dusty road. “Ninjas are well-respected here, and we are very grateful you have come to our aid.”

Sakura looked off to the buildings as they passed. It didn’t matter to her what he thought, she’d do her job regardless of his opinions, misinformed or otherwise.

But he continued to study her, good businessman that he was, looking for a sign she had accepted his apology.

Catching his look, Sakura bit back an exasperated sigh and nodded slowly that she was not offended.

“I am sorry,” he said quietly, motioning her over to a stone water trough under a clump of shade trees.

A rock-lined channel brought fresh water rolling through the town. Sakura followed it’s quicksilver trail as it disappeared behind the splintering brown edge of a building.

But where they stood, it pooled into a shallow basin. Water burbled down from a bamboo spigot, and small bamboo cups dried upside-down on spike twigs, waiting for the next thirsty traveler.

He filled two cups while he spoke.

“Sometimes I get carried away. I want so much for our little town, and we hear many rumors. You are right. It could be anyone.”

Sakura accepted the offered cup, placated more by his candid words than by the water.

“Rumors? About ninjas?”

He laughed nervously, looking sheepish. “No, not ninjas, exactly” he said.

“There is a rumor that some of the farmers have been approached for trade with some of the larger towns. Offered more coin. It has them all talking.”

“If a few farmers can make a little extra money, then what’s the harm in it. You seem to have more than enough,” she said, motioning back to his supply building.

“No, but if our biggest producers restrict their trade to other sources, our community will suffer. Higher prices will drive the smaller farmers out of business.”

He looked to Sakura, who only nodded politely, and rephrased what he was saying.

“It is not something that is a concern to a larger village like Konoha. Changes like crop sales happen slower and are closely monitored. But this…,” he said, waving a hand at the lower hillside. “We are a farming town. If we loose our biggest suppliers, well, only a few get wealthy. Everyone else suffers.”

She nodded, taking his reasoning seriously now. It helped that his voice was free of any condescension. He was speaking to her as an equal. That courtesy alone raised her opinion of him greatly.

“If that happened,” he continued, “our town would be no longer self-sufficient. We would become the work horse, yoked to another. And it would be the work of a moment,” he snapped his fingers, “to fall under someone else’s rule.”

Sakura tipped her head, trying to parse out a deeper meaning, an underlying current to all this speculation.

“Konoha” he nodded meaningfully at the kunoichi, “is the protection under which all the Fire Country towns thrive. But we,” he tipped his open hand toward the ramshackle buildings “have no protection.

“One small slip can easily lead to a bigger fall,” he added gravely.

The innkeeper had Sakura’s full attention. She set the empty cup down and peered at him.

If true, then these were serious allegations. Fragile alliances were made and broken over trade disputes.

“And this is actually happening? Your farmers have been propositioned? You know these things for a fact?”

He laughed nervously again.

“No,” he said slowly. “I was hoping maybe you had heard something.”

Drawing a hand to her forehead, Sakura closed her eyes and shook her head, irritated with herself for getting swept up in his worrying.

“So what does all this have to do with the pilfering of a basket of food from your food stores?”

“It is happening with alarming regularity,” he said, voice raised a notch. “By diminishing our food stores, come winter, we will have to rely on another town. We would be vulnerable. And word is already spreading that we are the target of thieves—”

Sakura put her hand up. Her mind was swirling with this nonsense.

The man had leapt from a petty crime to international espionage.

“You have put a lot of thought into this. It is obvious you care about your town a great deal,” she said charitably. “But I am only here to help you protect it.”

He nodded gratefully and swallowed whatever last words he’d planned, realizing at last that he’d gotten a little carried away.

“Now, do you have a militia? Of any kind?” she continued.

He shook his head.

“Anyone with any shinobi training?”

Another shake.

“Any defensive training? At all?”

“No,” he smiled. “We are just a farming community, a very small town. Many of our citizens have never even seen a shinobi,” he said, glancing up at a few of the villagers who had stopped to gawk at her. She nodded politely and they hurried on.

“We’ll start tomorrow,” she said with professional efficiency. “Tell your volunteers to meet me here, and I’ll see what we have to work with.”

“They’re farmers, you know,” he said haltingly.

“I know. But anyone can learn to protect themselves,” she said. He looked skeptical. “Simply their presence here will be the biggest deterrent,” Sakura rejoined. “But if they ever have to face someone, they’ll know what to do.”

“It may be for only a few hours each day,” he said apologetically. “They’re farmers. There is no one else to do their work.”

She bit back a sigh and stood up, dusting her overskirt.

“Well, I have three days. I’ll do my best.” Maybe she’d use the rest of the time to find the criminal herself.

“Good. Excellent,” he said, standing as well.

A rag-tag group of children scampered out into the dusty road, anxious to see the newcomer.

“Are there any areas that are off-limits to me or any areas that I should be aware of?”

“Well, as you can see, this area is mainly residences of the farming families….”

But Sakura’s attention was distracted. A young girl in the group rubbed a swollen hand across her face. Livid marks streaked up her forearm, but the puffiest places were starting to ooze.

Sakura cocked her head and squinted for a better look. From her distance, she judged it to be a burn, but it was quite infected.

Seeing her interest, the children bounded off.

Sakura made a mental note of her appearance before returning her full attention to the man. Maybe after she found the criminal, she’d track down that little girl.

“Tradesmen and their families live along the higher side,” the innkeeper said, sweeping a fluttering cream sleeve past the nicer part of town to end pointing down the long, broad road on which they stood.

“And the of course, this road runs on to the west, out past the gates and down through the barley fields,” he said. “It’s our main trade route.”

Sakura swallowed dryly. That little piece of information — the western road, the barley field — yeah, she already knew about that.

The kunoichi wheeled around suddenly.

“Then tell me about where this part of the road leads,” she said, pointing down the hill.

She wanted to put some distance between herself and that whole side of the town.

“Do you think it might be important?” he said hopefully.

Actually, yes she did.

“If someone is hauling food from your warehouse,” she said, “they will need a route to escape by. A busy trade road would do no good.” She pointed to the narrowing road the pitched through the rickety buildings. “Who travels on this part?”

“Ah,” he said. “Just farmers. Workers,” he said nodding in understanding. “The next town is quite far. So ours is the end of the road for merchants. Beyond here it is nothing more than a foot path.”

Then that was where she would focus on.

“And when do these thefts occur?”

“Most times at night, but a few during the day.”

Sakura frowned. That changed everything. If someone was brazen enough to haul off food during the day, then it had to be one of their own.

“Do you think you have some ideas then?” he looked at her wide-eyed.

She blinked back at him. Yes? No.

She couldn’t tell him that he’d wasted his precious money on her.

Just a little diligence on their part and they’d probably caught their thieving neighbor. But, she reminded herself, this was a town virtually on it’s own, with no support, and not a single defensive person among them.

Their own country wouldn’t spare a thing for them. She cast her eye down the dirt streets, the clapboard fronts. Like so many of the ones she’d seen on other missions outside of the Fire Country. Hard working people with very hard lives. It probably cost them dearly to get a Konoha shinobi on a mission.

Well, she’d make sure they got their money’s worth.

She formed a quick plan: If the men could only give her half-days, then she’d spend the rest of the time tending to any medical needs.

And the mere presence of a shinobi would repair their tarnished reputation, whether she caught anyone or not.

“No, I don’t have any ideas as to who it might be,” she said truthfully. He looked crestfallen. “But maybe I can help you find out who it is.”

“Good. Wonderful!” he said, cheered.

“And the whole town is open to your inspection,” he said generously sweeping his arms wide. “From the eastern farms to the western road. Day or night!”

Sakura tried to smile, but it felt more like a grimace. The fluttery feeling in her stomach returned at the mention of the road, night time. If Katsuro wasn’t a rogue, she would have sworn he and the innkeeper were in league against her sanity.

“Thanks,” she muttered.

He returned to his inn, and Sakura was left to her own devices for a while. She went straight down the hill, along the narrowing trade road, toward the shabbiest rows of houses.

She didn’t think they were the target of highway men. Probably some locals pilfering from an already full reserve, she decided as she reached the paling on the eastern end of the village.

The crops there were a ragged patchwork, lined with broken boards and thin strings. The broad trade road dwindled to nothing but a goat path along the edge of one barren field.

Sakura squatted down and scooped up a handful of dust beside the paling, letting it slip through her fingers slowly in the late afternoon light.

Poor farmers, a burgeoning upper class. She shook her head.

They should never have wasted their money on her. It was nothing more than fantasy to think that some black-masked men were swooping in and stealing portions of their food reserves then making a clean get-away.

She stood, dusted her hands and looked back at the rickety buildings that edged the lowest part of the hill. A sudden movement between two buildings up the hill drew her attention. She stilled, waited and watched.

Slowly, several little heads poked out again. Large eyes peered at her for only a moment, but Sakura recognized one of the smudged faces. It was the girl with the burned arm.

They hovered at the edge of the building for only a second more before ducking back beyond it’s edge.

But Sakura wasn’t going to let her get away this time.

Moving swiftly, she made it to the narrow alley just in time. Peering into the darkness, she caught a glimpse of the scampering children as they rounded a far corner. Their giggles ricocheted off the close walls.

Sakura stepped over a narrow plank, propped sideways to keep rain runoff out of the alley, and picked her way up the thin space. She moved carefully, skirting the rubbish piled against the buildings and the fetid water pooled in the middle. Laundry strung from the upper levels of the buildings dimmed any sunlight, and the air was stale. But Sakura kept going, following the laughter.

Winding around a few more corners, the alley dead-ended suddenly. The back ends of buildings abutted at strange angles, leaving a pitiful courtyard of sorts. Nestled against one of the windowless structures was a tumbledown shack.

Constructed almost entirely of reclaimed wood, Sakura would have thought it was a storage shed. But the young boy squatting beside the door, the group of children squealing, tearing off to disappear behind the shack, told a different story.

The boy stood quickly, dropping everything from his lap. He clutched a knife, and was only just able to pitch a familiar piece of fabric over a basket next to him before Sakura settled her heel and took a tentative step into the clearing.

The kunoichi narrowed her eyes, processing the scene.

On the ground beside him was a long carrot. A streak of orange gleamed from where the outer grime had been shaved away.

Sakura shifted her eyes. Tips of more carrots stuck out from the basket, reaching out under the corner of the linen like spindly fingers. On the ground beside it was a fat potato.

She cut back to the boy. He was slowly shifting his foot to hide the carrot. The knife was no longer held to cut but gripped in a threatening fashion.

He made a fist with his other hand and gave her what she thought must be his most intimidating glare.

Sakura relaxed her stance.

‘Looks like I’ve found my thief,’ she thought with satisfaction.

“What do you want, outsider,” he snarled.

At first glance, she didn’t think the boy was much older than the other children. But now, she thought he might be a few years older, maybe 11 or 12. His hair was unkempt, his clothes were ragged, and the dark circles around his eyes bore the unmistakeable sign of malnutrition.

Sakura ran through the scenarios. If this boy was the culprit, and he was still this bad off, then he was stealing the food and not eating it. Perhaps he was stealing it for someone else. Or perhaps he was the only one in charge of that band of children she’d seen earlier. It would explain why they all looked so uncared for. She remembered something.

“I’m a medic. I was looking for a little girl that had a hurt arm,” she said, omitting all other reasons for now. “Have you seen—”

“No,” he barked. “She’s not here. Go away.” With that, the boy ducked inside the dark shack and slammed the rickety door.

Sakura stood in the silence, left alone in the forgotten space behind the buildings. Nothing moved, nothing breathed. But she knew she wasn’t alone. She could almost feel the small eyes on her, even though she had no idea where they were hiding.

Sighing, she picked her way back up the dank alley, thinking about how to proceed.

She would go on with the training of the farmers, as requested in her mission brief. But she’d also try to find that girl with the burn. Maybe with a little coaxing she could get some answers.

She walked slowly back up the road in waning light. She had three days to figure it out.

She got back to the inn at the center of town, and looked westward at the trim houses and broad lane. Her stomach tied in a knot at the thought of meeting Katsuro out there.

It was too dangerous, she told herself soberly as she slid the door back. But the image of him in the golden field, brown eyes beseeching her with a look that left a hollow ache in her chest, appeared unbidden before her.

She pushed it out of her mind, and slid the door closed firmly. No, she simply couldn’t do it, she declared to herself.

Dropping her dusty boots beside the door, Sakura retreated to her room. She washed her hands and face in the little basin. But that task was finished all too soon.

Before she had time to worry about how to keep her mind occupied, an attendant appeared at the paper screen door, gently telling her that her company was requested by the innkeeper for dinner.

Of course, she thought, relieved. Normally tedious, now she welcomed a few hours of grandiose history about a forgotten town. She smiled brightly and followed the woman downstairs.

But her bubble of happiness burst when she entered the room. He smiled and flung back his silk arm to show her the low table laden with gorgeously prepared dishes…and the shoji doors thrown open wide to view the sunset.

Sakura immediately lost her appetite. But she plastered on a smile and folded her knees under the table.

“Tell me about your afternoon? How did you get on?” he asked.

He poured her tea, and listened as she recounted her afternoon.

She would speak, but she wouldn’t look at the sunset.

She didn’t want to see the way it melted golden into the barley. The way the thin blue strip of trees the edged into line of the horizon, growing longer, deeper, bluer, with the setting sun. Was he there now? Waiting? No. He said he would come later. He’s probably—

“Is the food not to your liking?” The innkeeper’s deeply concerned voice burst through her distracted thoughts.

“Oh! No, it is fine,” Sakura fumbled. Without even noticing, she had pushed the artfully carved pieces of food around her plate but never eaten them.

She popped a carrot rosette in her mouth, whole. “Delicious!” she said around it.

“Please tell me more about your town,” she said, forcing herself to eat another delicate item. “It’s fascinating.”

She half-listened, instead looking over the dishes. The food that someone labored over just to make this meal, that she was sent to protect, that was in all likelihood being stolen by children who were desperately hungry.

The food that she was now too nervous to eat, she thought with chagrin.

But she managed to get enough down to please the innkeeper.

Blue shadows were slipping over the yellow tatami mats by the time she made it back to her room. She wished she hadn’t eaten anything at all. It only made the knot in her stomach worse.

She told herself she wasn’t going to meet Katsuro, but she couldn’t bring herself to take off her clothes and go to bed.

Sakura laid down, thinking it might make her feel better, but no sooner was she comfortable than she thought movement would do the trick. She paced the room, inspecting every panel, every scroll, every crack, then flopped back on her bedding.

But she could feel the tug, through the stillness, and the silence. He was waiting for her. Out there.

She rolled on her side and squeezed her eyes shut.

Outdoors. She couldn’t deny that the thought of having a breath of cool night air was alluring, just to escape the oppressive calm of the room for a little while. Organize her thoughts.

She pushed off the mats and bounded out of her room and down the steps to the front door, but one look at her dusty boots, made her stomach flip. What was she thinking? He was out there. He might see her…did she want that?

What did she want?

She stood at the bottom of the steps, looking across the entrance hall at the boots. The thought of going back up to her room was suffocating. But going out was terrifying. Or thrilling. She couldn’t decide. And it didn’t matter. The physical response was the same. Sick stomach, sweaty hands, pacing.

Maybe she would walk to the water trough. Get some water, see if the children — or thieves — were about. Go in the opposite direction of the western gate. That might work….

The jittery feeling was clouding her judgement, she thought wryly. Making her think that taking a walk, hours after the sun had gone done, in a foreign town, with bandits and/or children on the loose, was a great idea. Really. Just what she needed.

The sudden woosh of a screen door jolted Sakura from her thoughts.

“Is everything alright?” The innkeeper said as he stepped from an ante room. Concern was etched into his smooth face.

Sakura cringed, struggling for an explanation. But he excitedly anticipated her.

“Oh, are you going out to do some nighttime investigating?” he whispered melodramatically. He was clearly delighted with that prospect. He had completely forgotten her mission was to train, not solve this “crime.”

“I— I think I will go out for a walk,” her stomach seized. She’d used Katsuro’s very words. “No! Not a walk! I mean….” she gulped. But she started again, trying to project more calm than she felt. “Yes, I will be doing some nighttime investigating.”

His eyes lit up.

“Wonderful! Take as much time as you need,” he said, sliding the heavier exterior door back. Cooler night air spilled in. He stepped out to light the lantern for her.

She nodded her thanks, quickly retrieved her hip pack, slipped on her boots and was out the door.

Alone, gravel crunching under foot, Sakura sighed into the air, feeling like constraints had been thrown off. This was better. She did have a job to do, after all.

Sakura walked part way down the silent hill to the warehouse. She inspected the building, rattled the lock, but everything was the way they’d left it hours before.

Sakura scanned the town, peaceful under the hush of nightfall. Shadows smoothed out the rough edges of the mismatched buildings. Only yellow lights pricked out of the darkness. But there was no movement, no other sound than the distant burbling of water. Everything appeared to be at rest.

Sakura looked back up the hill, a familiar nervousness settling in her stomach.

With this task finished, she had nothing left to do but return to the inn. She sighed and began moving, slowly.

But she was cresting the hill sooner than she thought possible. She came to a stop before the soft pool of light from the inn.

Ahead of her the road was broad and blue. Golden pools of light fell in an orderly pattern from the neatly arranged houses above the trade road.

And somewhere beyond he was out there. Waiting for her.

Sakura glanced at the inn. The thought of going back inside made her feel trapped.

Well, if she was going to stay out here, she told herself bracingly, then the road at her feet was all that was left for her. She had to go west.

Sakura shook off her anxiety. She was a damned kunoichi. Just because she walked in one direction or another didn’t meant anything.

She walked slowly down the wide road, stepping in and out of the squares of light, telling herself it was just a walk, nothing more.

But by the time she came to the last building on the western end of town, her heart was pounding in her ears.

Sakura paused in the only remaining pool of light, body illuminated.

‘This is it,’ she thought and stepped out of the tidy golden square. One foot, then the next.

Around the corner of the building, a sweeping vista was slowly revealing itself.

The road hung there on the knoll, above rolling fields of barley. Fields stretched away from the hillside in all directions, punctuated only here and there by a clump of dark trees.

Sakura moved without thinking to the weathered stone marker that stood in lone sentinel beside the road. Letting her hand rest atop the waist-high stone, Sakura followed the line of the road as it tumbled away before her. It gradually narrowed, a wavering thin blue line, catching the moonlight and cutting through the silvery fields.

But her eyes were drawn to the large swath of darkened woodland that edged one of the fields. Exactly as he described it.

Standing there, the fields rolling away from her like an ocean, Sakura’s throat went dry.

What was she doing here?

She could still turn around, go back, she told herself. Behind her was safety. Before her was uncharted.

She didn’t know anything about Katsuro. And, more disconcerting, she didn’t know what she wanted from him.

But she knew exactly what he wanted from her. Just a walk. The lure was undeniable.

She dragged a hand over the top of the crumbling stone, pulse pounding anew.

She didn’t move, though. Just the thought of meeting him clashed deeply with her sense of duty, obligation.

It was one thing to bump into him, unexpectedly, on a mission. But if she agreed to a clandestine meeting, all responsibility, and blame, rested on her shoulders. If she was caught, if something went wrong, if she failed her mission….

She shook her head, clearing the terrible thoughts. Nothing had gone wrong, she told herself.

Sakura mulled her day and the steps that had led her to this precipice then, unbidden, she remembered his earnestness.

He had gone to unimaginable lengths to save her, thrown over all of Itachi’s plans. And he asked nothing of her in return. Except a walk.

She knew he was the teammate she’d never had. She had put it out of her mind, but she had to admit to herself that she’d never forgotten. Any of it. She just couldn’t see it until now.

Wasn’t her obligation to a teammate just as strong as her obligation to her village? Or more so? Wasn’t that what Kakashi always said. And now, through Katsuro, she understood why. But where did that leave her? She had to make a choice.

And somewhere out there he was still waiting for her.

Blue-back waves rippled across the tops of the barley in the cool evening breeze. Sakura closed her eyes and breathed in the soft, sweet air. When she opened them again, she was resolute. Grinding boot heels into the dirt, she pushed her hand against the old stone, and set off.

Beyond the field, Katsuro squatted on the limb of a branch, watching, waiting. Hoping she would move ahead. She stopped, casting a wide gaze across the field. Moonlight robbed all the color from her hair, her clothes. Pale, pensive, she rested her hand on a large stone, but never moved forward.

He wanted her to come out so badly. More than he ever wanted anything, really.

Katsuro shifted his weight on the branch and gave in to that indescribable longing. He didn’t know why he wanted to spend time with her — there was nothing in his experience that would set a precedent for reaching out to someone. But just a little more time, that was all he wanted.

Watching her at the edge of the field, he sensed her hesitation. This may be too much for her, too sudden. But he could wait. Maybe tomorrow.

There on that branch, with nothing dividing them but a single blue field, he wanted to give in to the pull that she was all that there was. There was no sleepy farm town, no mission. No Konoha. No Itachi.

He didn’t have to think any further than spending an evening with her. No obligations, commands or recriminations.

She must feel the weight of it too. He understood her hesitation and forgave her.

Maybe not tonight, he thought. Maybe she’s too scared. Yeah, maybe tomorrow.

Well, he could wait.

Hell, he thought with a soft laugh, looking down to pluck a leaf from the branch. He could probably wait forever if he knew she would come. Katsuro traced the smooth edges with a finger.

But when he looked up again, she was gone.

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