Chapter 19 – Secret Places

Lovers find secret places
in this violent world
where they make transactions
with beauty.

Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.

Love says, There are.

— Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks


Making quick work of the road, Sakura descended the hill, hopped over a shallow ditch and waded into the sea of waist-high barley. Moving steadily toward the shadowed woods, the kunoichi looked calm, but she was on high alert, scanning for the slightest movement.

Sakura held her breath for a moment and let her concentration deepen. She forced her chakra to become a divining rod for her senses. Everything around her came into sharper focus: the roll of the land, the wall of trees, the desolate road.

Any fluctuation in chakra would present itself as heat or brightness or sound, as something, anything out of the ordinary. But there was nothing here. The countryside was silent and still. As it should be at this time of night.

A sudden breeze rushed through the barley, setting the wispy tops shuddering as it passed. Then the thick silence returned.

He wasn’t there.

Sakura softly let out her breath, feeling more than a little deflated.

‘Ridiculous,’ she chastised herself, snapping off a head of barley in frustration. To worry so over the decision, then be dejected when he doesn’t show…what was wrong with her.

‘Might as well see this farce through, then I’ll go back.’

She continued on toward the dark trees, and the cool night air seeped in, easing her anxiety. Sakura let her shoulders sag and flicked the barley away.

Just then, something broke the black outlines of trees ahead of her.

Catching it too late, Sakura could not pinpoint the spot, nor discern any creature that might be lurking in the shadows. Her hand slipped to her thigh, reflexively seeking the cold comfort of the kunai strapped there.

Maybe she was wrong about this. All of it.

She stepped out of the pale blue field and stood at the edge of the woodline, peering into the inky shadows. Thick with trees, the forest blocked the movement of air, muffled her footsteps.

Sakura swallowed, but she resisted the urge to turn back. Tightening her grip on the kunai handle, she blinked into the dim light, forcing her eyes to adjust. She scanned quietly for any sign, any hint—

“Sakura,” Katsuro’s voice sounded softly in front of her somewhere.

The nervous tightness in her gut returned. His chakra signature had been concealed. He was there, after all.

Licking suddenly dry lips, Sakura stepped forward into the darkness. Dragging her hand over rough bark, she moved slowly toward the sound.

“I thought you’d turned back,” his voice came through the shadows again. He was smiling. She could hear it. That fluttery feeling of anticipation returned, too.

“One minute you were on the hill,” he chuckled, growing closer. “Next time I looked you were down in the field.”

And then his face slowly coalesced out of the darkness. Hand propped against a tree, he watched her, waiting. A soft, familiar smile curling up the corners of his mouth.

Katsuro was a study of blues and blacks, but her mind filled in the colors. He had returned to his fatigues, and looked more like she had been used to seeing him. If he was doing everything he could to be disarming, then it was working.

“I’m glad you came,” he said quietly.

He pushed himself away from the tree and stepped toward her, grinning.

Smiling, Sakura shook her head and laughed to herself. Even in shadows he still kept that strange sunbeam quality that always managed to put her at ease.

A warm hand slipped around her forearm.

“Come on. I have something I want to show you,” he said, gently tugging her arm.

Falling into step beside him, Sakura let Katsuro lead her through the black maze of tree trunks.

She should have expected nothing less — he was waiting happily for her as if it were a picnic. In the middle of the woods. In the middle of the night.

Slivers of blue light peeked through the trees, growing wider as they approached. A soft murmuring replaced the heavy stillness.

Katsuro glanced back at her face as they approached the edge of the tree line. Their bodies were beginning to glow faintly, illuminated by the strange blue light that lay just beyond. He watched for her reaction, and wasn’t disappointed.

“Wow,” Sakura said, pale eyes going wide as they stepped out of the trees. It looked like a scene from one of her childhood storybooks.

There, in the middle of the dark forest floor, was a silvery, swirling pool. Ripples of light bounced from the surface, clung to the trees like blue gossamer, and coated everything in a pale glow.

Darker trees lined the edges of the clearing, soaring to the night sky like high black walls. And in the circle of firmament that remained above, the moon hung from the center like a pearl.

Sakura felt like she’d tumbled into a secret room. She stepped slowly into the opening, taking it all in.

At their feet, the moon-silvered stream pooled languidly behind enormous time-worn boulders before fading into the darkness. Across the water, an impenetrable stand of bamboo crowded the curving banks. Their rigid blue lines made up the farthest wall and completing the feeling of utter seclusion.

Katsuro’s fingers slid off her arm. Sakura kept going, drawn, as he had been earlier that same night, out onto the largest boulder. It nudged into the stream, damming the water just enough to form the pool.

Sakura slowly turned a circle, taking everything in before looking back to him, the hand at her side open to the scene. “Just…wow!”

“Yeah,” he said smiling, and joined her on the rock. “I found it earlier. Thought it was nice. And that was before the moon even came out.”

He picked up a pebble and arced it gracefully into the center of the pool, breaking the smoothly flowing surface into a myriad more silver ripples.

“Sit down,” he invited, brushing her arm with his finger tips. He made himself comfortable, slinging his legs over the curve of the boulder. She stood beside him for a moment, then followed suit.

“How is your mission so far?” he asked.

Sakura bit her lip, weighing all her options, before slowly replying, “It’s ok.”

No harm in answering honestly, as long as she didn’t give anything away. But she cut her eyes at Katsuro with a sudden thought.

“And how’s your mission?” she said slyly. She expected him to clam right up. Or tell her off.

But he didn’t even flinch. Leaning back, hands propped behind him, heels tapping slightly against the rock, he kept his eyes on the water.

“I could care less about it,” he grumbled finally, then shrugged his shoulder. “But it’s done all the same.”

Remembering something, he turned and smiled into her face.

“I’m glad you came out tonight. I was afraid you might not—”

A strange, rumbling sound drowned out his voice. Katsuro grimaced, sat up quickly and slapped a hand over his stomach. Sakura stared at him.

“Didn’t you eat?” she said, astonished.

“No,” he said, looking sheepish. “I was worried I’d miss you, so I came on ahead.”

Katsuro slid the hand off his stomach to rub the back of neck, laughing self-conciously under Sakura’s serious gaze.

‘This was how he knew where this secluded spot was,’ she thought, still studying him, ‘because he’d been here for a long time. Waiting for me.’

“And no one’s going to be wondering where you are?” she said, giving him a skeptical glance before twisting her body to slip a hand into her hip pack.

“Nah,” he shrugged. “I’ve got three days. They don’t care.” But he watched her movements with growing curiosity.

“Hmm” she answered quietly, her attention distracted.

Something rustled at her side, just out of Katsuro’s view. He narrowed his eyes, looking from her profile to where her arm crossed her torso and disappeared behind her hip.

Katsuro was just leaning forward to look around her, see exactly what she was up to, when the rustling sound muffled. Followed by a soft zip.

Then, in one fluid motion, Sakura straightened, turned back to Katsuro and shoved a closed fist into the space between them.

Katsuro leaned back out of instinct. He didn’t move, only frowned, watching her fist as if she were hiding a weapon.

Sakura caught his slightly alarmed expression and nearly burst out laughing.

As a medic, she had learned early on that the promise of sweets was nearly as good as any medicine in it’s restorative effects on children. And she made it a point to carry some in case she ran across any kids on her travels.

Turning her fist over, Sakura slowly uncurled her fingers. She wondered if Katsuro, with all his rough exterior and unanswered questions, might be just as susceptible to the allures of candy.

“Hey, what’s that?” he said, leaning toward her again, worries gone. He was clearly delighted at the paper-wrapped rectangle she had hidden in her palm. Sakura couldn’t help but smile: She was right.

“Rice candy,” she said. But unlike other children, he did not snatch it right out of her hand. In fact, he didn’t move at all. She nudged her hand at him. “You can have it.”

“Thanks,” he said, taking the candy. He crumpled the wrapper in his hand was about to sink his teeth in to the soft, lemony-scented sweet when Sakura stopped him.

“Wait, it’s rice paper.”

He gave her a confused look.

“Have you never eaten this kind of candy?” she said with a surprised frown.

He began to flub for an answer, but Sakura dismissed it, instead plucking the wrinkled paper from his hand. She had answered her own question almost immediately. Obviously, rogues didn’t stop for candy breaks. She flattened the white wrapper and handed it back to him.

“Let the paper dissolve on your tongue,” she said in the same patient way she had done for dozens of children in the hospital. He did as he was told, and Sakura was rewarded with the wide-eyed look of amazement she’d become accustomed to with all her patients under 10.

“That’s really weird! But, thanks!” he tacked on cheerfully. If he’d never had it, or any other candy, then he glossed over it with a big smile.

She smiled back, pleased as well. It wasn’t much, but at least it would take the edge off his hunger.

He sat back and popped the candy into his mouth, chewing slowly, savoring it. She sat back as well, unconsciously mirroring his comfortable position. All the anxiety of meeting him had slipped away without her even knowing it, and she sat next to him in peaceable silence.

After a while, Katsuro straightened and cleared his throat. Sakura turned to him, but he only looked forward. Nervous about something.

“I-I was going to…” he stammered finally. “I was always going to let you go. Before,” he said with a vague nod. “You know that don’t you? Back to your village.”

He hazarded a sideways glance at her, to see if she understood. When he saw that she did, he cut his eyes quickly back to the pool.

She sat up too. He was admitting, confessing, speaking about the things he’d done that went completely against his orders. Things he’d probably never spoken about…and hoped would never be discovered.

Yeah, she thought wryly, she understood how he felt.

“But I knew,” he said, “I figured out that it was Konoha who had you. When I saw the brother.”

The brother. He meant Sasuke. Funny, she thought, their perspective was so different. “The brother,” those ominous words, had always meant “Itachi” to her.

“I saw you nod at me,” he added quietly, “from the branch, when you were caught, but I didn’t understand it until later.” He slumped forward, propping his elbows on his knees, and blew out a long, low breath.

It was as if he’d been keeping that secret inside for a long, long time and was so relieved just to let it out. She knew how he felt, better than anyone else.

After all, she kept the other half of that secret.

She looked down at her lap, picked off some stray fibers from the barley field. Maybe it was time to put down her burden too.

“I-I didn’t tell them,” she said quietly. “About you.”

He looked back at her, but she wouldn’t look up.

“They never asked,” she said, smoothing invisible wrinkles from her skirt. “So I never told them.”

She sighed and looked straight out at the gently swirling water.

“It was the least I could do,” she said, turning to look at him at last.

Katsuro sat back slowly, brought his shoulders even with hers. He studied her face, letting her words sinking in. Slowly, his mouth curved up.

“Then…. Then we’re ok,” he said, eyes shining silver-blue in the half light.

“Yeah,” Sakura breathed. The thought hung in the air between them.

They were ok. He summed it up perfectly. They were both safe, neither one was in danger now. They had made it through.

“Yeah,” she repeated, nodding with more certainty, smiling back at him.

Hope gave way to happiness. Katsuro grabbed her hand and gave a quick squeeze, laughing. Sakura laughed too, in spite of herself, and kicked her legs against the rock, hair ruffling lightly.

She stretched her arms behind her and breathed deeply. This familiar closeness was something she could fall back into so easily. Her bond with him was still there, unchanged. Time hadn’t touched it.

Katsuro poked her leg suddenly.

“Hey, how did the defensive techniques work out for you, did you ever try them?”

“The defensive techniques…oh, you mean those self-defense moves?” she said, then brightened. “Yes! I did use them.”

She stopped herself from admitting she used it on her fucked up teammate after her return.

“They’re quite effective,” she said smugly.

“Good,” Katsuro said, not missing the devilish note in her voice. He guessed at what she had left off — that she had kicked someone’s ass, and it felt good.

“Great!” he beamed.

“Yeah,” she nodded, not bothering to hide her self-satisfied smirk.

Glancing past Katsuro’s shoulder, Sakura noticed that the blue shadows were deepening. The pool was loosing some of it’s luster. She looked up, the moon had drifted beyond the jagged black treetops. It was time for her to be going, too.

“I need to get back,” she said soberly. She stood, reluctantly turning her back on the tranquil scene, and peered into the dark woods.

But if Katsuro was surprised, he didn’t say a word. He stood up beside her and dusted his pants.

“This way,” he said simply, and stepped around her to lead her back to the field.

Walking back in silence, Sakura was pleased that he didn’t try to stop her or persuade her to stay longer. It meant he took her seriously. He knew she was on a mission, and more importantly, that he didn’t want to interfere.

When they came within sight of the rippling barley, Katsuro stopped. Resting a hand against a dark tree trunk, he kicked distractedly at a root. Sakura scanned across the field, the road and what she could see of the town. Nothing had changed.

“Tomorrow?” Katsuro’s voice sounded beside her softly, a little hesitant. It betrayed the seriousness of what he was asking. “Can you come again tomorrow?” She could tell he was trying to be light, but there was an anxious edge to his voice.

She cleared her throat, scanned the road one last time, and made her choice.

“Yes,” Sakura answered softly, “but just for a little while.” And she stepped away before she had a chance to change her mind.

“But next time, make sure you eat!” she called over her shoulder

“No way!” he shot back immediately. “Bring some more of those candies!”

Sakura’s mouth dropped open at his cheeky response. Casting a glance back she found him grinning unrepentantly. She couldn’t help but laugh.

Shaking her head, she set off over the field, leaving him like she’d found him: leaning against the tree, watching her.


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