28 Nov 2010 No Comments
Tugging at the corner of her eye, Sakura slipped her hand quickly to her mouth, stifling a yawn for the third time that morning.
But the collection of old farmers leaning against the water trough didn’t seem the least bit sympathetic. And the twin boys wrestling at her feet paid her no attention at all.
Sakura hop-stepped back suddenly, giving the boys ample space for a face-plant without careening into her.
Wearily scanning the wide, empty road, Sakura thought msaybe she’d wait just a little longer. Surely there were more volunteers than this….
“Hey ninja lady,” one of the boys called up from his chokehold. “Aren’t you gonna teach us some stuff? When are we gonna start?”
Another tangle of knuckles, elbows and knees, and the brothers switched places.
“Yeah, nobody else is coming,” the victorious sibling shouted up at her before dodging a punch. Something caught his attention, and he swung his head back around. “Hey! Do we get to use your knife?”
“She’s got a knife?” a muffled voice gasped. Wide eyes popped over the crook of an elbow. The losing brother wriggled an arm free and swatted in Sakura’s direction. “I get it first!”
Sakura took another step back, gritting her teeth. She was a guest. A guest. A guest. She would not knock the local children into next week, no matter how much they deserved it.
“It’s a kunai,” she ground out. “And you two will not be doing anything unless you get off the ground.”
But they didn’t hear her. Or if they did, they ignored her. One brother was inching up the other’s pant leg, ready to sink his teeth into the exposed calf. The other had his fist raised in the air, middle knuckle out, about to deliver a punishing frog to his thigh.
Sakura imagined that somewhere in this town was a happy mother with a quiet house, all because she’d sent her two troublemakers out to ‘go find the ninja lady.’
Howls of pain erupted at her feet, but Sakura was beyond caring. She was finished with them.
It was clear no one else was coming. She turned back to see what she was left with. Lazing against the low stone wall, the old farmers were content to watch the two ruffians beat themselves to oblivion.
They didn’t bring gear or weaponry of any kind. Only buckets, rakes and shovels were propped around. None of them were taking this seriously — except the two rolling around on the ground — and this was what she was paid to do here. If she couldn’t get a reasonable group of people together to protect their food stores, then she’d fail her mission.
Sakura’s frustration bubbled to the surface.
“So, this is all…” she snapped, but she stopped herself.
Turning their heads slowly, the scruffy farmers looked back at her one by one, smacking their lips and shifting their feet. Sakura could see they were waiting for any excuse to leave. And her yelling ‘This is all your village could come up with?! Old men and pain-in-the-ass kids?!’ would certainly set them on their way. Then she’d be left with no one to train.
Sakura sighed. Better make the best of it.
“Sooo,” she said with false brightness. “I guess this is everyone! We’d better get started.”
After setting the two boys to the task of “monitoring the perimeter” — which consisted of running the length of the town and generally staying out of her hair — she focused on the men.
They were farmers, through and through. Not one of them had a wisp of military training, shinobi or otherwise. Sakura couldn’t fathom how the innkeeper had persuaded these men to show up here.
So she switched gears. Instead of teaching them anything about defensive stances, how to protect yourself from a weapon attack or even how to identify an opponent, she settled for organizing them into shifts for guarding the warehouse. And that took up the better part of the morning.
“Just sit there,” she said finally as they regrouped at the trough. “Watch the building. If you see someone trying to break in…well…. Just run and get the innkeeper.”
All of them, herself included, were ready to be done with this folly. The men were yawning, scrubbing hands over their faces and only barely paying attention. A battered old straw hat was conspicuously nodding forward out of the end of the line.
“And don’t fall asleep!”
A loud snort sounded down the line, and the hat came jerking back up. The old farmer underneath it grimaced.
“Dismissed,” she said resignedly.
Though she’d hardly done any physical activity, the morning was exhausting. On her way back to the inn for lunch the boys raced up to her.
“What’s next?” they demanded.
“Can we fight? Do you have nunchucks in there?” one said, reaching for her hip pack. The other joined in, circling around behind her. “Yeah? Throwing stars? More knives?”
They only had eyes for the pack now, and they looked like they were ready to pounce.
Sakura put both hands up, keeping them out of her personal space.
“Stop!” she bellowed.
After a moment, the boys shifted their attention to her face, blinking as if they weren’t quite sure if the ninja lady said something or not.
“There’s nothing in there but medical supplies,” she lied. Then she hit on an idea.
“Listen,” she whispered conspiratorially. “You’re town always needs protection, whether I’m here to give you ‘orders’ or not.” The two looked giddy at the word. Sakura smiled. She had their full attention now. “You’ve checked the town, right?”
“Yes! Ma’am! Ninja-lady-sama!” and they saluted her for the full effect. Sakura’s eyebrows hitched at the barrage of honorifics, and she cleared her throat.
“Good!” she declared. With a finger in the air, she began to pace, doing her best Tsunade impersonation. “But what about the crops, the western fields, the eastern road….” The boys’ excitement ratcheted up with each location. “The lower houses, the upper houses…. Anyone could be anywhere!”
They were nearly bouncing when she finally looked back at them, heads nodding up and down like dolls. One brother shook the other’s arm frantically.
“Yes! Yes! We’ll check them all!” they burst out in unison, then tore off without another look back.
“Make sure you check with your mother first!” she shouted at their dust cloud. They probably didn’t hear her. And their mother probably was happy to have them occupied. But just the same, at least she’d told them to ask.
Sakura returned to the inn for a quiet lunch, hoping to catch the innkeeper, but she was informed politely that he was out. So, alone with her scattered thoughts, she picked through her meal. The events of the day before were so consuming she didn’t even hear subtle woosh of the shoji door sliding open.
“Sakura-san,” the innkeeper said, startling her. But he continued with nervous graciousness “How is your dish?”
“Excellent,” she smiled back at him.
“And I hope you have had a productive morning?” he continued with more uncertainty.
Her smile faltered.
“Was that what you wanted to see me about?” Disappointment colored his voice.
“No,” Sakura said slowly. “Not exactly. But there is something else I’d like to speak to you about.”
“Certainly,” he said. He slid the door closed behind him and took the seat opposite her. “How can I be of assistance?”
Pushing her plate forward, she gave him a serious look.
“The farmers you sent me today were fine, but they were…not what I expected.” She raised an eyebrow, hoping he’d gather her meaning.
He looked at the table for a moment, then sighed.
“There are others in our town. Younger, more capable men,” he said. “But they do not think….” His voice thinned.
“Our village is not a shinobi village like yours,” he began again, smiling weakly. “So we are very different….”
Raising a hand, she decided to spare him — and her— any more discomfort.
And she did, better than he knew. These were men with families, businesses, futures. Lives that shouldn’t be thrown away in anonymous service for a backwater town.
Even though Konoha was days away, she could still hear her parents’ voices ringing in her ears, as if they were right beside her.
“Why would you want to get involved? Their troubles have nothing to do with you. You could get hurt…or worse. Just stay out of it. It will all work itself out, you’ll see.”
But she’d never been able to “stay out of it.” If she could help, then that was where she wanted to be. It was an overwhelming drive that she had come to believe was a fundamental difference between a civilian and a shinobi.
“Our townspeople mean well,” the innkeeper said, sounding more serious than she’d heard him yet, “but they have their hands full. Most are merchants and don’t see the benefit in helping others when it doesn’t directly benefit them.” His voice dropped another notch and he shrugged half-heartedly. “The farmers have a better sense of helping others but even that comes after their own needs are met.”
His eyes went suddenly wide, embarrassed perhaps at his own blunt admission to an outsider.
“I mean…that is to say…. They are all lovely people and our town, though small, is very close, and….”
“You don’t have to explain. I understand perfectly,” Sakura said, her respect for him rising at his honest assessment. “In every town there are those that help and those that don’t. Konoha is no different. We are just lucky to have the shinobi principles engrained in many of our villagers.
“And your town is lucky to have you to fill in their shortcomings,” she said with a knowing look.
That seemed to assuage his guilt. A pleased smile smoothed away the worry lines on his face.
“Thank you, Sakura-san. But we are the fortunate ones for having you to help us,” he said graciously. She nodded at his kind words.
“There is something else….” she began, but she let the thought hang. She had planned to tell him about finding the stolen food with the children, then let him decide how to deal with them.
But Sakura changed her mind. He seemed decent enough. Maybe if she could prove that they were starving then he would be lenient on them. She’d need to find out more about them first.
Tapping a finger at her chin, Sakura came up with a new plan.
“Could I have access to some extra supplies if I needed any? Maybe some—”
“Of course!” he interjected. “We have an excellent metal shop, and any weaponry you might need would be readily—”
“No, no,” Sakura said with a small smile. “I meant food, actually.”
The innkeeper frowned, confused. And a little disappointed.
“I have some theories I’d like to test out,” she offered.
“Ah!” he brightened instantly. And with a sweep of long silk sleeves, he was leading the way to the inn’s larder, offering her whatever she might need.
Sakura canvassed the dusty village all afternoon. Her feet were hot, and her shirt underneath the fruit-heavy rucksack was plastered to her back. But those kids were more stealthy than most shinobis she knew.
Every low wall, every alley became a perfect hiding spot. And Sakura had searched for so many hours she was sure she was beginning to see things. A crouched figure at the corner of a building turned out to be a shadow, a foot behind a crate was really just a crumpled cloth. Nothing panned out.
The last straw was the pair of eyes peering up at her from behind a box. She thought she’d finally found one of them, when a sinewy alley cat wound itself around the edge.
She stooped to pet it half-heartedly.
“Well, at least one of us should get to feel good,” she said, and scratched behind its ear.
Glancing around, Sakura had the distinct feeling those kids were nearby, watching her. Probably laughing away that they’d outfoxed the ‘ninja lady.’
‘Well, let them win this round,’ she thought. She could wait them out. She’d try again tonight. If that basket was their only food source, they’d be needing more soon. She hoisted up the rucksack, and the cat took off.
The sun was low and orange when she finally made her way back up to the inn. But in the distance, two sweaty, dirty, tired boys were coming right for her.
Sakura sighed to herself.
‘Can’t find one set of kids. Can’t shake the other.’
“Hey,” one of the twins called to her, stopping to catch his breath. The other plopped down tiredly in the road. “Hey ninja lady. We didn’t see anything.”
“Wow,” Sakura said, coming to them. “You guys have worked hard. Here,” she dug around in the sack and handed them several peaches each. That revived them a bit.
“Meet me here tomorrow for your next assignment and—”
“No way, lady,” the boy grumbled and started walking again. “Town’s safe. We’re done being ninjas.”
The other one stood finally, then cocked his head up at her.
“Would we get to use the knives tomorrow?”
A few paces away, the brother stopped and listened, reconsidering.
“No,” Sakura shook her head. “Those take years of training to—”
“Then we’re going home,” he said in a sulky voice. Both turned and scuffed down the road, leaving Sakura smiling bemusedly at their thin trail of dust.
Dinner was a quiet, solitary affair. But Sakura did not mind the view of the sunset as much as she had the night before. Eagerness had replaced her anxiety. She found that tonight the sun could not drop fast enough behind the horizon.
A few hours later, under the quiet of night, Sakura made her way quickly down the western road. Glancing around to make sure she was alone, Sakura slipped over the field and was at the tree line faster than she thought possible.
Stepping quietly into the ranks of dark trees, Sakura was surprised by the stillness. It was too quiet. Maybe she was early. Maybe something happened and he wasn’t there. There was nothing specific about the meeting, just “tomorrow.” Maybe it didn’t work out for him—
“Sa-Sakura?” Katsuro’s voice called from a distance.
She stepped forward, not bothering to check her silly smile in the darkness.
“You’re earlier than last night,” he said drawing closer.
Her smile faded. “Is that ok?”
“Yeah! That’s great,” he said, materializing out of the darkness in front of her.
If it was possible, his smile was even brighter than the night before.
“I can only stay a little while tonight,” she said, falling into step beside him.
“Because I have…some…things to do tonight,” she said, stumbling over what, if anything, she should reveal.
He didn’t respond. And the darkness gave no hint as to how he took her weak explanation.
She didn’t intend to puncture his happy mood. But she supposed not telling him anything might be misconstrued as distrust.
She curled her hair behind her ears. This was more complicated than she thought. She trusted him, but how far did that go?
Sakura hoped he might say something, fill the void, but it never came.
“So what about you?” she said finally. “Were you around here all day?”
“No,” he murmured, distracted. “I wasn’t here today.”
Sakura was getting a little irritated. This wasn’t going to work if he was going to be weird about her mission—
“What things?” he blurted out. “Like meetings or dinners? Something fancy?”
She laughed softly. So that’s what was troubling him.
They got to the stream and, though the moon was lower in the sky, she could now see his face clearly. Katsuro was frowning, artlessly puzzling over exactly what she could be doing in here.
“It’s nothing fancy. More like this, in fact,” she said, opening her palm to the scene in front of them before she sat down.
But Katsuro’s curiosity had been piqued. He sat beside her and rubbed his chin, working it all out.
Finally, he looked over at slyly.
“So, you’re running surveillance…” he said, watching her closely. Her eyes went wide. He was right.
“But the part I can’t figure out is why you be would watching a stream,” he teased, repeating her motion and flashing his hand at their surroundings. “What kind of missions do they send you on, anyway?”
She laughed outright, slapping a hand over her mouth realizing she might have been too loud. He chuckled at her anyway.
“So is anyone else joining you for this ‘stream surveillance’ or are you alone?” He was still smiling, but there was a seriousness in his eyes.
‘This is what he was getting at,’ she thought, her own smile slipping a notch.
“Because I happen to be an expert at sitting. And watching. And waiting.”
She sighed and looked out, unseeing, at the pool.
Katsuro rocked sideways, bumping his shoulder into hers.
“And if you’re alone, I’d be happy to go with you. Love to, actually.”
Sakura knew he was reading her responses, looking for the clues. And he’d found them. She didn’t have ready answers to his questions, and he could draw his confirmation from her silence. These were probably the kinds of things that Itachi taught him.
She smirked. But that undeniable charm was all his own.
“Come on. Let me go with you. You don’t have to tell me anything about what you’re doing. I’ll just sit up with you.”
She slanted a look at him, only to roll her eyes at his goofy grin.
“Two sets of eyes are better than one,” he lilted.
She folded her arms over her chest and sighed again.
“You don’t give up, do you?” she muttered, turning at the last moment to hide her smile.
“Not without a fight,” he quipped without missing a beat. He rocked sideways again, pushing his shoulder into hers, but this time he didn’t pull back. The warm pressure was incredibly distracting.
“Learned that from someone I know,” he said, tilting forward to look up into her face.
Sakura bit her lip, but one look back at his glittering eyes and she knew it was hopeless. She could think of no real objections. As long as he didn’t push her for information.
She wanted him to come. And he knew it too.
Katsuro rocked his shoulder against her, jostling her whole body.
“Sakura-chaaaan,” he teased.
She couldn’t resist. But she wouldn’t let him know that.
“Fine,” she said, throwing her hair over her shoulder and tipping her chin up in mock exasperation. “Do what you want.”
“Hoo-hoo!” he hollered, jumping up from his spot. “Which stream is it? This one? Another one?” Hand to his brow, he mimed searching high and low until Sakura punched him in the arm.
“You know it’s not a stream,” she said, ignoring completely his “ows” and the dramatic rubbing of his arm. “It’s a building. In town.”
“Lead the way, then!” he said, flinging his arm back, injury forgotten.
Sakura shook her head at him. He was ninja through and through. And any mission was his natural element.
Before long they were stealing through the woodlands that clung to the hillside above the town. Sakura led them down the slope till she spied the familiar block of buildings which housed the innkeeper’s food reserves. Then they quietly tucked themselves under a clump of trees and waited.
Sakura noticed that the building was conspicuously free of guards. Apparently the farmers thought the training was hypothetical. Well, thank goodness their thief had turned out to be a child, she thought.
True to his word, Katsuro didn’t ask anything about her mission, who she was looking for or even where to look. And he didn’t distract her from her purpose with needless conversation.
She was pleased. She couldn’t help it.
Sneaking a glance at him, Sakura smiled inwardly at his sharp eyes and alert manner. He was taking this seriously, and he was taking her seriously. He saw her as a ninja in her own right.
He could be pretty fierce when he wanted to be, she knew that first hand. And if he was recognizing her abilities, well, then that was something she could be proud of.
“Is that who you’re looking for,” he said quietly, nodding toward the town.
Sakura looked down quickly, seeing nothing at first on the empty roads. Then she too caught sight of the small figure slipping from the dark edge of one building to the next. He leapt to the roof and moved more openly. A quick turn revealed disheveled hair, a thin face and large black eyes. It was a child. A boy.
Katsuro propped his knees up and sat back, shooting the kunoichi a skeptical glance. It may not have been the type of person he expected to see, but Sakura looked like she’d found her target. She was leaning forward, easing a hand down into the leaves and shifting her weight onto her knees. Her eyes never left the boy.
The kid landed on the roof of a small shed, then gently pulled back a piece of mismatched tin.
Sakura gasped. “So that’s how he’s getting in.”
After one more quick glance around, he pulled out a length of rope, hooked it on a nail, then lowered himself into the opening.
“What’s he looking for,” Katsuro whispered.
“Food,” she said breathlessly.
Katsuro couldn’t believe all this fuss for a kid stealing food. How many times had he done the same—
“And I’m gonna starve him out,” she said ruthlessly, then launched out of their hiding spot.
The sharp edge to her voice made Katsuro go cold.
Was she really going to go after that kid, knowing he needed food, and deliberately thwart him?
She couldn’t be that cruel…. Could she?
Disbelief and anger warred within him. He had told himself she wasn’t like the rest of them. Sakura was different. Wasn’t she?
But Katsuro could only watch as the scene unfolded before him. The boy, alerted somehow to the incoming sounds, hoisted himself back through the opening and hurtled empty-handed over the side of the roof into the darkness. Sakura landed mere moments later. She inspected the roof, grabbed the rope, then leapt into the dark alley after him.
Katsuro blew out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. He frowned deeply.
What the hell was she doing?
Was this her mission — to catch that kid and turn him in? If so, then Katsuro wished he hadn’t said anything.
Old feelings reached out from his past and stirred his anger. That kid didn’t do anything wrong. And if he was starving, then the ones who were supposed to care for him weren’t doing their job.
Katsuro wanted to go down there, rip that shed open and pull out all the food that kid would ever need.
Instead, he flung himself back against the leafy hillside and stared up at the jagged pattern of leaves. How could she….
He felt stupid. And wounded. And, inexplicably, betrayed. Sakura’s behavior now clashed horribly with what he remembered of her.
Katsuro grabbed up a handful of leaves, grinding them in his fist.
But he had to admit that he knew very little about her. Perhaps she was just like everyone else in Konoha. Only following orders, serving their own needs. Abandoning anyone once their usefulness was at an end. Even little kids. Especially little kids.
Katsuro opened his hand slowly and watched the shattered pieces fall from his fingers. He pushed the fragmented memories from his mind, willing the anger that came with them to fade.
He told himself not to give up on her yet. He had believed she was different two summers ago, enough to put his life on the line for her. He hoped she still was.
And he hoped the boy got away.
Katsuro flopped his arms wide, heaved a sigh. His assignment was finished. But he could wait around another day and see how this turned out, he thought, and let his eyelids slide closed.
It wasn’t until the middle of the next day that Katsuro caught sight of her pink hair again. She was heading down the main road, and this time she had a bushel basket with her.
He narrowed his eyes, a knot forming in his stomach. She was on the hunt.
Hopping from limb to limb, Katsuro stayed even with her as she followed the curve of the road all the way down the hill.
At the village paling, she stopped. Basket propped on her hip, rucksack tucked under her arm, she spoke to a few old farmers. They pointed down a footpath carved between the woodland and the scraggly patchwork of fields.
Katsuro anticipated her. Following the path, he kept to the branches, alert for anything. He wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking for, but—
A splash echoed through the bushes ahead of him, followed by a giggle.
Katsuro slowed his steps. He leapt fluidly into another tree, buckling his knees at the last moment to keep the branch from bouncing. One look down, though, and dreadful certainty settled in his gut. He’d found them.
Katsuro knelt quietly at the crook of the branch. Now all that was left to do now was wait for Sakura to find her quarry.
The sun filtered down through the trees, warming Katsuro’s back and dappling the thick, high grass on the bank beneath him. Below the bank, four children were mucking around in a shallow run-off stream tucked deep within some woody shrubs.
Beyond the sheltering bushes wound the footpath, partially obscured from view. Those kids would probably never see her coming, he thought.
Though their pants and shirts were rolled up, it couldn’t hide the tatters and patches. They joyfully soaked each other. Only their splashes and the occasional laughter gave away their location.
They were quite small, Katsuro noted, and he wasn’t sure if they were too young to be out on their own or not. But even without supervision, these children stayed close together. Though they happily soaked each other, they did not play with the same reckless abandon that most other children seemed to have.
Katsuro rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. Innately, he knew why. There was no one to watch them. They were orphans. Like him.
Movement fluttered at the edge of his vision. Sakura was coming down the footpath, moving cautiously, shifting the basket off her hip.
He tightened his grip on the branch. The kids splashed softly, unaware. But she had already seen them.
Katsuro’s heart thudded in his chest.
Sakura slowly lowered the basket to the ground at the edge of the path. Katsuro eased to standing.
Part of him wanted to yell the kids, tell them to run, get away. But he held back. Part of him wanted to believe in her. Still.
Sakura paused. She pulled the basket farther out into the path, making sure it was clearly visible.
Katsuro narrowed his eyes. ‘What is she doing?’
The kunoichi looked low around the trees and bushes, scanned the landscape.
‘She’s cutting off escape routes,’ he thought.
Satisfied, she quietly snaked a hand around to her pack, pulled out a couple peaches. Then she approached soundlessly, holding the fruit at the ready.
Sakura ducked off the path and came down through the bushes, to the sandy bend in the stream that was their access point. In the next breath, she burst through the leaves and out onto the sand.
The children froze where they stood, like rabbits. Their eyes were big, frantically searching for any way to get out.
But Sakura had them hemmed in. She moved deliberately, holding the fruit out at one side.
“Hi,” she said sweetly. “Do you guys like peaches?” She squatted down slowly, dropped her rucksack and fished a few more peaches out. But she never took her eyes off them. “I need your help. I need to find—”
In unison, the children all shifted there focus beyond her shoulder. Someone was approaching from behind her, from somewhere up the grassy bank.
Katsuro looked down, surprised. A boy stood up suddenly from the deep grass and was making his way down toward Sakura. The kid had positioned himself between the stand of trees and the stream, right where he could keep an eye on everything. From Katsuro’s angle, he had completely missed him.
Sakura stood and turned, following the children’s gaze. Her face registered mild surprise that he had concealed himself so well, and something else. Confirmation. This was the boy from last night. This who she was looking for.
“I am a kunoichi from Konohagakure,” she said, all sweetness gone. “I need to—”
“We don’t need you, outsider,” he said angrily, spitting towards her feet. “Get out of here, and leave us alone.”
‘Damn kid,’ Katsuro thought, suddenly angry with the boy. ‘You should have run when you had the chance.’ Katsuro almost couldn’t bear to watch her haul him in.
Sakura only hitched up an eyebrow at the rough-edged kid, but she wasn’t dissuaded.
“I am a medic,” she declared in a steely voice. “And I need to see the little girl with the burn.”
All the woods seemed to freeze at her demand. The boy had two hard fists at his sides. Sakura stared him down, resolve clear on her face.
Katsuro’s mouth hung open. He could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“That girl is going to get sicker unless someone treats her,” she continued. “I know she has an infection. Probably already has a fever….” She stopped, watching the boy closely. “Chills? Tired?”
The boy turned his head away. It was apparent that Sakura was right.
Just then a little low moan came from the deep grass where the boy had been sitting. Katsuro saw a foot shift in the grass. Someone was lying on their side. Probably the girl she wants to see.
Katsuro figured it all out only an instant before Sakura revealed it herself.
“I have a full basket of food, breads and meats too. It’s just there, under the tree,” she said, pointing back up the path.
“Oh, I see it!” came an exuberant cry from the stream.
“And a whole bag of fruit,” she said, flicking her finger at the bag on the ground.
“You can have it all if you just let me see her.”
This was her plan. Starving him out. She wanted to see the girl, bargain with food. Katsuro was astounded. And relieved.
The boy stood still. Behind her were soft little splashes, the younger children torn between wanting to collect the food and not disobey the older boy.
Another soft whimper from the grass decided it though. The boy dropped his dark head, then stepped to the side, letting Sakura pass. He never looked at her, only kept his eyes fixed on the spot where the girl was lying.
Katsuro pressed himself against the tree, but Sakura was too intent on the girl to notice anything else.
Kneeling, she disappeared in the high grass. A tense hush fell over pleasant setting now. The boy watched anxiously, his large black eyes fixed on the spot in the grass. The rest of the children huddled at the edge of the bank.
“Were you using this to cool her forehead?” Sakura said, holding something that Katsuro couldn’t make out. The boy nodded ashamedly, tears beginning to streak down.
“No, you did the right thing,” she said, her voice soothing. “But we need to get her someplace more comfortable.”
And in the next moment, Sakura was standing with the girl in her arms. Katsuro only caught a glimpse of her as she turned, the little girl was flushed but shivering. Angry purple marks streaked up her forearms.
“She’s going to be fine,” Sakura said, nodding at the boy. “Come on. I need your help.”
The boy scrubbed his arm over his face, and ran after her.
“Grab the food. I brought enough for everyone,” she called over her shoulder.
The boy hauled up the basket by himself, and the younger children tussled over who would carry the sack. Finally after loosing quite a few, one took the sack and each child carried a piece of fruit. Katsuro watched them wind back up the path, Sakura striding at the head of the line and the children following behind like ducklings.
Katsuro landed softly in the empty space. Just moments ago, this had been the setting of a tense standoff. The easy peacefulness had returned.
A slip of color caught his eye. Nestled in the grass beneath one of the shrubs was an orange that had escaped their notice. Katsuro scooped it up and bounced it in his hand, thinking.
He was wrong about her. Just as the boy had been. He supposed both of them were used to thinking the worst of people. It was second nature when you had to do it to survive.
But she was the exception, he thought, pitching the orange high and catching it handily. It didn’t matter that she was from Konoha. He wouldn’t doubt her again.
Katsuro pocketed the orange and softly padded up the trail after them.
At the edge of the road, he caught sight of the last of the children turning between two buildings. Seeing no one around, he didn’t bother with a henge. Just a few steps to cross the road, then he bounded onto a roof, following their progression through the maze of alleys.
The line of children flickered in and out beneath zig-zags of laundry. But finally they came to an open courtyard with an old shed at one side. The children settled down to eat their fruit while Sakura disappeared with the girl inside the tumble-down building.
Katsuro found a spot on the roof where he could observe out-of-sight, stretched his legs out in front of him and peeled his orange.
In the course of the long afternoon, the boy came and went from the shed. Sometimes carrying out rags, sometimes fetching fresh water in old buckets. But Sakura stayed inside with the girl.
Sometimes, Katsuro thought he saw a faint green glow at the dark window.
It was only when the sun was hanging low in the sky that the boy finally came out, stood still and just looked around. It was clear he didn’t know what to do with himself.
Finally, the boy plopped down and just waited.
Sakura came out before too long. She was tired, Katsuro could tell. She shifted her weight and folded her arm across her stomach.
She spoke quietly to the boy, who only nodded impassively. He thought maybe Sakura was lecturing him. But when she reached down impulsively and tousled his hair, Katsuro smiled. Maybe not, he thought.
Sakura stepped back inside the shack again, and Katsuro could see the boy clearly. Beneath his ruffled black hair and big tired eyes he was smiling too, beaming. Katsuro wondered just what she’d said to bring that about.
Sakura came back out momentarily, spoke to him one last time, waved to them all, then disappeared back up the alley.
Hopping to the edge of the building Katsuro watched her slow progress up the old road, before darting back to the woods to make his way to their meeting spot.
And though he still waited for several hours for her, he was not terribly surprised when she didn’t show up that night. A little disappointed, but they hadn’t agreed on it. He stretched back on the boulder beside the pool and watched the moon slip behind the trees. She probably just fell asleep.
He decided he’d never tell her what he saw, or what he had thought of her. Instead he would amend his thinking. Trust was something he’d never had much use for. But he would try. For her.
Katuro clasped his hands under his head and breathed deeply, contentedly, before closing his eyes.
Distantly aware of something digging into her thigh, Sakura rolled onto her back, away from the discomfort. But sunlight only burned into her eyelids then. She groaned and threw an arm over her face, but more sleep now was completely out of reach.
Rubbing her eyes, Sakura yawned.
‘I don’t even remember going to sleep last night.’
A quick pat-down of her clothes filled in the rest of the story. She had fallen asleep waiting for the right time to meet Katsuro. She hadn’t even changed clothes.
Sitting up stiffly, she pulled the offending skirt clasp out from underneath her leg and sighed. She had missed seeing him. And she had to leave today.
She washed up quickly, straightened her outfit as best as she could and headed downstairs. Maybe she could catch him before—
But the sight at the bottom of the steps stopped her in her tracks.
Hands on his hips, hidden by the cream folds of his sleeves, the innkeeper looked down at the disheveled boy in front of him with deep dismay. The boy only nodded solemnly, face hidden by his black hair. His back was straight, shoulders up, but his head was bowed.
The innkeeper looked up at Sakura questioningly. It was clear the boy had confessed to his petty thefts. She sighed. She almost hated to confirm it. But she nodded back at the innkeeper slowly. Yes, this was his thief.
“Well, well,” the innkeeper murmured.
The boy caught sight of Sakura, then instantly looked back down again. His face was moderately cleaner than it had been, as if he’d scrubbed it before he’d come.
Sakura came to a halt at the bottom of the steps, sunk her hands down on her hips. This threw over the other half of her plan. She intended to take the innkeeper with her to see the need of these children before explaining what the eldest had done to support the rest.
But this young man had taken it on himself to right his wrongs. She was very proud of him, but she had hoped to keep him from any serious punishment. He was doing what he had to do to survive.
“I have been treating his sister who is recovering from a burn. Perhaps you would like to join me this morning,” she said to the innkeeper. “I think, as much as you care for your town, you would find it very…illuminating.”
The innkeeper nodded at her, gathering that there was something else behind her words.
The walked in silence down the nearly empty road, the three of them striking such an odd picture. A foreign kunoichi, a man in flowing silks, and a tattered boy. She just hoped that the innkeeper was as kind as he presented himself to be.
They stepped over the board and into the thin alley. Sakura glanced back at the man. He bunched the edges of his robe up to in his hands, and his face was tight with shallow breathing to keep out the stench. Sakura pinched her lips, but the boy moved ahead unaffected. The innkeeper glanced around at the laundry, the trash, the fetid water, but said nothing. Sakura wondered if he knew places like this even existed in his own town.
When they reached the courtyard, and the children tumbled out at the sound of the boy. But they stopped suddenly at the sight of the medic and the taller man in the silk robes. Everything seemed frozen for a second. But the boy broke the silence.
“She feels a little better,” he said quietly, not lifting his eyes, and motioned to the door.
Sakura followed him in. At length, the innkeeper peeked through the door. It was nothing more than a dirt floor with the children’s blankets rolled and piled at one side. But in the middle was the sister. Sakura sat on her knees beside her, head close to hers, speaking softly. She laid her hand on her arms, one at a time, and covered them with a soft green glow. The boy sat beside her, watching intently.
“She’s coming along just fine,” she said to him quietly. The innkeeper ducked back out, leaving her to her healing work.
When Sakura came back outside, she found the innkeeper pacing around, fingers to his chin, cream silks trailing through the dust, forgotten.
“I didn’t know,” he said to her seriously. He put his hands up. “I didn’t even know this was here!”
She nodded sympathetically. “They are very good at hiding. It took me until yesterday afternoon to find them again.
“The eldest boy stole the food and was taking care of the younger ones. The girl was burned when she got too close to the fire.” Sakura sighed. “They are all orphans. And I’m not sure if any of them are even related. But they are all family now.” She stole a glance to see how he took this information.
It wasn’t Sakura’s place to tell him how to mete out his punishment, but hopefully if he saw that the boy was the only one responsible for the younger ones then he would be kind.
“I see,” said the innkeeper seriously, smoothing his hair back out of his face. “I see,” he said. “We simply can not have this, however.”
“Young man,” he called to the boy. Sakura didn’t want to think what was coming. The boy came out quietly and stood beside her. Head down. Sakura bit her lip.
“Stealing is not good for anyone. How long did you plan on providing for your ‘family’ in this manner,” the innkeeper said sternly. Sakura couldn’t take it.
“Sir—” she said. But the innkeeper put up a hand to stop her opposition. Apparently had worked out a plan of his own.
“If there is a crime,” he said seriously, “then there has to be a punishment. Or at least some way to learn from our misdeeds.”
The innkeeper tipped his head and narrowed his eyes at the boy, sizing him up.
“Instead of stealing,” he continued, his voice softer, “would you be amenable to working for your room and board?”
The boy blinked large black eyes at him, then looked to Sakura. Sakura was just as surprised as he was, but smiled encouragingly at the boy.
“You mean, for money?”
“Actually, I need some help with things around the inn, from someone who I can rely on. There is some extra space I can turn into living quarters, so you would all be close by—”
“For all of us?” the boy blurted out.
“Well, yes. If you think you’d be up to the task….”
Wide eyes blinked back from the window, the open doorway. The boy spun around to tell the others. It was the first time Sakura had seen him act anywhere near his age.
The innkeeper stepped closer to Sakura.
“Can the little girl be moved?” he said quietly.
“Yes,” Sakura said. “Let me change her bandages, and she should be fine. She just needs rest.”
She glanced at the door, the four young children listening with growing excitement to the eldest boy. That was a large addition to any household. Perhaps the innkeeper didn’t realize how many there were. But he was watching the tender scene too and smiling along with them.
“But…are you sure you can manage….” her voice thinned. That was a large addition to any household, let alone an inn.
“They need help. I’ll figure out something,” he smiled at her. “Thank you, Sakura-san.”
His gratitude warmed her. If she’d found a passel of children starving in Konoha, she’d have moved heaven and earth to help them too. She understood now that she and the innkeeper were very similar, just in different lines of work.
Which reminded her…. She had a long walk home.
Sakura mentioned to the innkeeper that she needed to be on her way. She rewrapped a few of the bandages, gave some quick instructions as to changing them, and said goodbye to the little girl, charging her to always watch out for the boy.
“Because everyone needs someone looking out for them,” she said with a small smile. The little girl laughed while the boy frowned, slowly catching on that they were talking about him.
Outside, the children gathered around for farewells. She dug into her hip pack for lemon candies for each of them, repeating the instructions for the rice paper wrapper for the second time in as many days.
But Sakura noticed the boy hung back.
He was too big to throw his arms around her like the little ones did. But he stood close by, and looked as if he would like to say something, but did not know what.
She tousled his hair again and smiled. He let her, clearly relishing the little bit of attention.
“He’s a good man,” she said nodding to the innkeeper who was busily inspecting what, if anything, should be taken with them. “And I think you will have a lot in common. You both do what others will not.”
But the boy frowned lightly. “Do you mean steal?”
“No,” she smiled. “You help. You kept everybody alive. And you did what was right. You should be proud of yourself.”
He looked away, embarrassed.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
Sakura patted his shoulder and turned to go, but the boy stopped her by suddenly throwing thin arms around her waist.
“Thanks,” he said, voice muffled. But before Sakura could respond, he’d let go just as quickly. In an instant he was a step away from her, wiping the tears from his eyes with a ragged sleeve.
“Don’t forget what I told you,” she whispered.
“I won’t,” he said, smiling past the tears.
She smiled back gently and waved farewell to the little group. The innkeeper accompanied her partway up the alley.
“I’m afraid you hired me to find assailants and train your men to form a guard. I don’t think I succeeded in either very well.”
He laughed. But Sakura was serious.
“No, I think I had it all wrong, didn’t I,” he said.
Sakura politely looked away.
“Those threats are out there, but I think it’s more important to help where I can.”
She understood perfectly.
“Besides, you did catch the thief!” he laughed. She nodded. Mission complete.
Picking up her pack at the inn, Sakura allowed herself a long look down the merchant’s road to the west. But her path took her straight down the hill. Sighing, she hoisted the pack onto her shoulders, then set off.
Once past the sweeping valley, Sakura snuck a glance back over the barley fields toward the wooded ridgeline.
Katsuro was probably long gone. She had missed him. And she had no hope of him hanging around during the day time. If he was there, she hoped he’d pop out of the woods, give her a sign. But there was nothing.
So she trudged over the hill and down into the rolling barley fields. A lot had happened since she’d passed through there just a few short days ago. Sakura’s mind drifted. The crops and road melted together, and she moved unthinking over the rise and fall of the land.
So it was with a great deal of surprise that she heard someone clear their throat loudly nearby. She snapped her head up.
Propped against a fence post, knee up, face hidden under a battered straw hat, a farmer leaned casually as if he’d been waiting there all day. But Sakura hadn’t noticed anyone moments before.
The straw hat was familiar, though. Everything about him was familiar. He pulled out a hand out of his pocket, dragging it slowly over the back of his neck.
“Katsuro,” she breathed, a bright smile lighting up her eyes. Even if she wanted too, she couldn’t hide her feelings now. She was so happy to see him.
He knocked the brim back and grinned broadly.
His own smile mirrored hers. He trusted her now, absolutely. An unfamiliar warmth unfurled in his chest at the thought of it. Though he’d never tell her about what brought him to this epiphany, he felt it just the same.
“So, how did it go?” he said stepping out to walk with her. He had returned to the oversized farmer’s outfit. But there was no cart this time.
“Good,” she said with a smile.
“What happened to the kid? Get in trouble?”
“No,” Sakura said. “I think he’s going to be alright.”
“Really?” he said, surprised.
“Yeah,” she answered slowly. “He confessed, actually. All on his own.”
Sakura was silent, clearly weighing what to say, so Katsuro waited.
“He was stealing food for himself and some other kids,” she said at last. “One of them got burned while he was cooking.”
“Ah,” said Katsuro, nodding solemnly. That’s what was going on, he thought. But there was still one unanswered question.
“So,” he said slyly. “The boy confessed. What magic words did you use to bring about this dramatic change?” His tone was light, but his eyes were serious.
But Sakura just shook her head. “No magic words. He was a good kid doing his best in a bad situation.”
“Come on, you must have said something that got him thinking.” He knew she did, even if she didn’t realize it. And he wasn’t about to let it go. She hadn’t threatened him with force or fear, hadn’t manipulated him with a bribe or a genjutsu. What the hell did she do?
Sakura frowned gently and cleared her throat. She curled an errant lock behind her ear, and began to recount her pep talk with no small amount of embarrassment.
“Well,” she said at length, “I told him…. I told him that it didn’t matter what happened, it was only how he fixed it that counted.”
Katsuro’s eyebrows hitched up, but she pushed on.
“He had done his best to help the little girl, even though he didn’t know how. He never gave up.”
She cleared her throat again and gave him a lopsided smile.
“I told him that was his ninja way,” she admitted quietly.
Katsuro looked at her with amused disbelief.
“And I told him that I believed in him,” she rejoined strongly. “That he’d figure out a way to get through this. Because, you know, he….” But her voice trailed off.
“Never gives up?” Katsuro filled in for her, expression teasing.
“Yeah. Something like that,” she muttered.
Katsuro was silent, but his eyes glittered. His mouth curled into an easy smile. He should have known her answer would surprise him.
“Hmm, a pep talk for a criminal….” He waited to see her roll her eyes, then leaned closer, grinning wickedly. “Are you sure you’re a ninja?”
Sakura punched him solidly on his arm.
“Ow,” he bounced back, rubbing the outside of his shoulder. “Yeah, you are,” he said laughing weakly.
And she joined him in laughing at the folly of it all. The heat of the day was forgotten, as was the long way to go or the distance already covered. Even the fear of Katsuro’s being discovered was a distant memory. All that was real was the road, the golden barley, and the two of them, walking and talking and laughing.
“You probably saved his life,” Katsuro said, sobering finally.
But she wanted none of his praise.
“He saved his own life. I just helped out where I could. After all,” she said with a wry laugh, “I was paid to catch him—”
Sakura’s mouth snapped shut. She had said too much.
He had guessed most of her mission anyway, but she’d vowed not reveal anything. And now he knew everything. Great. Just great.
‘Some ninja I am,’ she chastised herself and looked away across the sun-baked field.
On the road, two blue shadows melted into one. Sakura felt the scrape of skin at her arm. Then, in the next instant, Katsuro’s voice was at her ear.
“I told you I don’t care about it,” he said, gently bumping her with his shoulder as they walked.
“I’m curious,” he shrugged, “and I’d like to help if I can. But I don’t care,” he said quietly.
“I just like doing stuff with you.” Then he looked away.
Weighed down by their thoughts, they walked quietly side-by-side for a while. But Katsuro was the first to break the silence.
“Hey Sakura-chan,” he said lightly, but the gaze he fixed on her was calculating.
A corner of her mouth tugged up into a smile. He’d been working out things out, coming up with some sort of plan. She should have known.
“Do you have more of these missions?” he said. Her smile fell. If he saw it, then he ignored it. “I have ‘errands’ all over. If you know where you’ll be, I could…you know…meet you.”
“W-What?” she stammered, but Katsuro’s thoughts were leaping ahead.
“It would be just like this!”
“You mean, like this mission?” she said.
“Yeah. Like partners….”
“…teammates….” she echoed softly.
“You’d be doing your job, I’d be doing mine, but we’d be near enough to help each other out. And at night we could hang out. It’d be great!”
Now it was Sakura’s turn to mull all the variables. She looked up the road and considered all the ways she could get into to trouble. And tried to ignore the growing bubble of excitement at how much fun that would be.
A clanging sounded from somewhere ahead of them. Both looked up. They had forgotten about the possibility of other travelers.
Katsuro shrugged. “I can’t go much further anyway,” he muttered, thumbing back up the road they’d just walked. Sakura was surprised, she just assumed he was going her way.
Katsuro’s fingertips grazed her forearm. The hair at her collarbone ruffled.
“Just tell me when and where,” he said with sudden earnestness. “You don’t have to tell me anything else.”
His gaze skimmed over her cheeks, her forehead, then back to her eyes — as if memorizing her features — before he spoke again.
“We can try it, just once, see how it goes,” he said. “Ok?”
Sakura took in his tanned face, his brown eyes, soft and hopeful.
She had to admit he was very persuasive. He made the risk seem small, the happy outcome assured. That whatever problems they might encounter, they’d be in it together.
But Sakura didn’t need persuading. He had already addressed her concerns, allayed her fears. Neither wanted the other to get in trouble, and they both wanted the same thing: to carve out a little more time together. If this was how it would be, then meeting up with him while on her missions might actually work.
She’d try it. Just once. For him.
“Ok,” she said simply.
Katsuro’s face went slack. His feet stopped moving.
“O-Okay?” he said, hands hanging limp at his sides.
She nodded. Apparently he thought she’d be harder to convince.
“I’ll be back in this country in two weeks time,” she said, backing away slowly. “On the trade road, close to the western border, there’s a town with a popular hot spring—”
“I know where it is,” he said, face was tight with determination. “I’ll be there.”
“Ok,” she said with a small smile.
He took a step towards her, but the sound of the approaching traveler was growing stronger. He stopped again.
Still backing away, Sakura waved a quick, silent farewell.
“Go out for a walk. I’ll find you,” he said in a loud whisper. His broad smile returned, crinkling up the corners of his eyes.
Sakura had a moment to marvel inwardly that his happiness could make her happy as well, when the rattle of a cart sounded from just around the bend.
Both their eyes flashed wide with panic.
Katsuro dove for the cover of the barley rows, while Sakura turned toward the approaching sound and did her best to look of like a weary, solitary traveler.
An old farmer scuffed around the curve of the road, back bent, head down. Sakura breathed a sigh of relief. He was more preoccupied with pushing his cart full of produce to notice anything amiss.
That is, until a loud voice echoed from across the fields behind her.
The man jerked his head up, squinting at her from under his old hat.
“You say somethin’ missy?”
Sakura laughed nervously.
“Uh…I said…. ‘Some heat,'” and she drug the back of her hand across her forehead. “Whew!”
The farmer was appeased. He grumbled a response and trudged past her.
After he was out of earshot, she really did breathe a sigh of relief.
This mission had been nothing like she expected. Sakura tucked a curl behind her ear. The thought of Katsuro’s last exuberant call brought an easy smile back to her face.
Sakura adjusted the straps of her pack, let her footsteps fall into a regular cadence. The long walk home held more appeal than it usually did — this time, she had a lot to think about.