Chapter 22 – Perfect, Part 2

Sakura paused outside the hospital doors for a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the deepening gloam. Across the broad avenue, the road to her home stretched out in front of her, soft and grey in the dusky light.

She allowed herself one long, good look: It would be several more hours till she’d see it again. Even though she’d just finished her shift, there was still so much work to be done.

With a sigh Sakura shook off her treacherous thoughts, slung her small work rucksack over her shoulder and trotted down the steps. Reaching the avenue, she ground her heel in a hard turn and jogged out of the stale yellow street light into darkness.

Sakura padded mechanically down the narrow streets of Konoha, past darkened storefronts and faintly glowing residences. Only the lingering smell of cooked meals interrupted her thoughts. And that was just because it made her stomach growl.

But she was late enough as it was. Eating would have to come later. Right now, her two teammates were waiting for her. And one of them was probably pissed off.

She swiped the bangs off her forehead with the back of her hand, then turned another corner. Even though her workload had doubled, it didn’t excuse her from any of her other duties. So when she was in Konoha, there were always medic hours to catch up on, as well as the meagre roster of Team 7 assignments.

Her buoyant mood carried her through most of the tedious work, but it did not escape the notice of her two teammates. Sai’s anbu training was too engrained to allow him much more than a raised eyebrow at some silly outburst on Sakura’s part. But Sasuke? He barely tolerated her near-permanent good mood these days, always frowning thunderously whenever he saw her. And he never spoke to her.

But somehow, that only made Sakura feel even lighter. She shrugged off his dark looks. Her experiences, and the resulting self confidence, had become an armor against his scowls and silence.

Still, she hated for them to wait on her.

Sakura rounded another corner, past another good-smelling lane. Stars were already pricking through the inky sky. They were supposed to meet at sunset to unload the shopkeeper’s substantial goods, but that was at least an hour ago.

Sakura had asked them to juggle a nuisance assignment to a better time to accommodate her schedule. Neither spoke against it, so she took it as an agreement. But now she was the one running late…. She quickened her pace.

Trotting down the last row of storefronts, Sakura mulled what she might find: Either they were there, doing the job without her, in which case she could expect a night of angry silence. Or Sai had been called off on anbu duty, leaving only Sasuke to do the job.

Fat chance, she thought with a snort. If Sai was gone, then only thing she could expect was a long night of solitary work.

Sakura slowed to a walk, listening hard as she approached the alley behind the shops. It was too quiet. A bad sign. She squared her shoulders and prepared for the worst — a mad shop keeper and a night full of work.

But when she rounded the building, Sakura was completely surprised to find the two dark-haired nins already at work.

In the dim light of a single faded red lantern, Sai and Sasuke were silently hoisting crates in tandem off an oversized cart, then stacking them beside the door. Both her teammates glanced up at Sakura’s approach but neither offered her a greeting.

Sakura sighed quietly. At least it was better than working alone.

Shrugging off her rucksack mid-stride, Sakura pitched it to the side and set to work hauling down the crates from the cart. And, without a word, the workflow changed.

Sai began lugging the crates inside, while Sakura and Sasuke unloaded the cart.

It was ironic how well they could function as a team, without actually being one, Sakura thought as she slid off a crate.

Much to their sensei’s chagrin, the begrudging teamwork that carried them through the chunin exams did not last. Teamwork was so important to Kakashi, and in that they seemed doomed to disappoint him. But Kakashi’s feelings were the only thing that gave her a moment’s pause anymore.

Sakura had sparred on occasion with Sai, tried build some kind of bond. But once her slate became too full, she didn’t have time to ask him again. He, conspicuously, never said a word about it.

Sasuke…well, nothing had ever changed with him. He only put forth a little more effort than usual to get through the exam. Once it was over, it was clear he still thought they were beneath him. Sakura more so than Sai, but she didn’t care. She had grown immune to his opinions, the spoken and unspoken ones.

He had just been using them to get through it. But if she were honest with herself, she supposed they were all using each other to reach the same goal. Did that count as teamwork? She found the thought highly amusing. Maybe it did for their team.

Chuckling softly to herself, Sakura leaned in to get the next crate. But the flash of another hand in the same space startled her back to reality.

Sakura had reached for the same box as Sasuke. He shot her an irritated look; Sakura’s small smile vanished.

She immediately withdrew and reached for another one, hoping to avoid an angry confrontation, on either of their parts. But for Sasuke, her preoccupation was an opening to vent his anger on another subject altogether.

“Surprised you have any time for this,” he sniped, sliding the box to the edge of the cart. “Tsunade seems to favor you above all others.”

“My shift just ran long tonight,” she said, heaving up a crate. She frowned suddenly, as the intent of his words sunk in. “And Tsunade doesn’t ‘favor me.’ My solo missions are no different than Sai’s anbu ones.”

Sasuke only laughed coldly. Crate propped against his chest, he swung around toward the store, took a few steps, then stopped.

“Yeah,” he said over his shoulder, “but Sai’s doing real work, not ass-kissing the officials.”

The words stung like a slap. Sakura just stood, watching him go. The box was balanced on her hip, and anger alone numbed the hard edge digging into her side. It took every ounce of self-control not to throw it at him.

And it must have shown too, because Sasuke set the crate down with a smug look, as if daring her to do it.

It was the first time that Sasuke had made any reference to her being in the room at the clan meeting. At the time, she’d wondered if he’d even noticed her. Apparently he did.

He walked back, the trace of a smirk on his lips. No, he had just been waiting for the right to time to throw it back at her.

But Sakura had nothing to be ashamed of. Tsunade figured out a way for her to be there and learn the truth about why Team 7 was held back.

“You know,” she said, shifting her hold on the crate, “you’d get a lot farther if you’d just do the damn assignments. You don’t have to like it.”

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “What do you know? These assignments are a waste of my—”

“This is a waste of my time too, and Sai’s, for that matter” Sakura fired back. “And yeah, just so you know, I don’t think you should be doing this. I think it’s unfair, and I think you’re skills are wasted.”

It was an honest opinion, even though she disliked him thoroughly. Sakura was beginning to have some inkling that this might’ve been why Tsunade worked her into that meeting, to help her understand their troubled teammate.

But any feelings of understanding she might have had were scorched away.

Sasuke folded his arms, leveled a bored look at her, and then, impossibly, rolled his eyes.

Molten rage seared through her. Her words had been thrown away, dismissed as nothing more than empty flattery. He still saw her as beneath him!

Without thinking she tightened her grip on the crate, compressing the wood under her fingertips. Though the feeling of splintering wood was distantly satisfying, she shoved the box back on the cart to keep from destroying it. Or hurling it at him.

His arrogance was infuriating. Sakura resisted the wild urge to smack that look off his face. Instead, she struck at him in a way she knew would really hurt.

“I also think it’s unfair,” she said, stepping toward him, fists ground tight, “that I was targeted by your idiot brother just because I was on your team. And it’s unfair that I have to do this grunt work because you won’t work hard enough to get yourself some decent assignments!”

Sasuke sputtered furiously, his facade shattered, but she wasn’t finished.

“I busted my ass to finish those jobs you left me with,” she said, thudding her chest with a finger. “I signed your name so our team wouldn’t take a hit.”

Sakura moved another step closer and pointed sharply up the alley, in the direction of the Hokage’s tower.

“And Tsunade knew the whole time.”

Sasuke closed his mouth. He had enough grace to look at least a little ashamed of himself.

Sakura straightened and took a steadying breath. “If you don’t like the way things are now, you have only yourself to blame. Finish the job, be nice to the people — it’s not their fault either. Then she can give you better assignments.”

Sasuke’s eyes went wide, his face twisted in rage.

“You insinuate yourself into one meeting,” he said, stepping towards her, “and think you’ve got it all figured out? It’s not that simple—”

“I know it’s not!” she said, mirroring his actions. “But it’s a start.”

Tension froze the air between them. Sasuke was pale with fury. Sakura would not relent.

Suddenly Sasuke slammed his hand down on the flat bed of the cart beside them. Then, with a wrathful noise, he turned and stormed away down the dark alley.

At that moment, he hated her. But more than that, he hated that she might be right.

Sai came around the corner, saw Sasuke’s figure fading into the darkness, then looked back at Sakura with a tight frown. His expression might pass for mild irritation in other people. But he said nothing.

Sakura sighed. The pile of stuff they still had to move was huge. She hefted up the same box again.

“I should have just kept my mouth shut,” she said in the way of an apology for now extending their workload into the night. She knew both of them were starting out on assignments in the morning.

“Or you could just kill each other, and save me the trouble,” he said dryly, pulling of another crate.

Sakura nodded dispiritedly. She deserved that, she thought. There was no love lost on her team, that’s for sure.

Darkness closed in around them, but they worked on without stopping. One by one, the lamps down the alleyway were snuffed out, until only theirs was left. The merchant sometimes came to the door, checking their progress, but most of the time Sakura and Sai were left alone. Under the tired red lamplight, they plodded back and forth from the cart to the door in silence.

So it was a complete surprise when the crunch of footsteps echoed back up the long alley.

Without a word, Sasuke materialized out of the darkness.

He didn’t look at either of them, just set in to moving boxes. Sai automatically returned to the door, slipping into their stilted teamwork, but not before flashing Sakura a mild look of warning. She ignored him. Sakura didn’t need to be reminded: She said she should of kept her mouth shut, and she meant it. This time she would.

As before, the workflow silently changed. And before any of them realized, they were finished.

Sakura wearily pulled out the scroll for them to sign. They didn’t need a report for this one, just the proof that it was finished, what time and who was there.

All three jotted their names at the bottom, but when Sakura went to stash it into her hip pouch again, Sasuke held out his hand.

“I’ll take it,” he said firmly. “Go home.”

His voice was cold and authoritative. But Sakura understood: This was his way of an apology.

Sai nodded and left immediately.

Sakura reminded herself to keep her mouth shut. So she nodded, handed him the scroll and headed off in the opposite direction. She didn’t know what to make of it, but maybe something she’d said got through.

It didn’t matter though, she thought with a yawn. She’d catch a few hours sleep tonight, then in the morning she’d be off again for another few weeks. Sakura smiled to herself at the thought of spending time with the one person who truly was a teammate, Katsuro.

The steady cadence of her footsteps was like a heartbeat. He knew it so well. Gaze fixed on the field they were passing, it occurred to him that he didn’t even have to look at her anymore to know how she felt just from that sound. Can footsteps sound happy? He’d never thought about it, but hers did. They made him happy, anyway.

Her footfalls began to slow. He knew what it was even before he’d swung his vision back around to the road. Ahead of them, another road branched from the trade road. She was anticipating him, expecting him to break off and leave.

But, just like every other time, he had already worked out how much farther he could go with her. At each junction, Sakura slowed, giving him a little time to decide.

When they first started meeting up, Katsuro would say farewell, never coming much farther than was necessary. A self-imposed limit, he told himself. But each time, he moved that limit back. He always wanted just a little more time with her.

At some point, he didn’t know when, the missions had become the secondary objective. Meeting her was the first. It was the only thing he looked forward to.

Katsuro resumed the pace. He knew he’d go with her as far as he could. And when he reached that end, he’d probably work out a way to go farther.

Katsuro glanced aside at her, but she never looked at him. Just kept looking ahead. She pulled a hand up to curl the sun-warmed hair out of her face, trying to conceal her smile, but he caught it. He laughed softly, then looked back out to the side. And her footsteps resumed their easy, happy rhythm.

But the last turn off did give him pause, even if he didn’t let it show. He knew that was his last one. After that, there were no more easy escapes.

They were edging ever closer to the Fire Country border.

He had come down this far with her before. A few times actually. Past this point, he would henge as a young farm hand, sticking to the edge of the trail and hopping off at the slightest sound of someone approaching. It worked, but it was hard. The farther he went with her, the more jumpy he became.

They never once passed anyone Sakura knew, but it didn’t ease the panicky feeling that came on as they got closer to his former country. He hadn’t been there in years, but he supposed some things never got easier.

Usually Sakura could sense his uneasiness, too. Before long, he’d catch her concerned glances. He’d laugh it off, but would always leave soon after. If his anxiety was clear enough to see, he reasoned, then it was past time for him to be going.

Katsuro kicked at a fat round stone. It thudded down the road, puncturing the pleasant rhythm of their matched footfalls. There must be a way around it.

For the first time, he was weary of the facade. There was no one around that was a threat, and he was tired of feeling like he needed to hide. He wanted to stay out in the sunlight with her.

Looking like a younger farmer, he never felt truly safe. The floppy clothes and tattered hat, it felt too much like a disguise even though he knew it was authentic. He decided it was his face. It was too close to the real thing.

He hit upon an old solution: The old farmer henge he’d used when he first came upon her in the barley field. The only drawback was that he had to act like an old man, bent back, shuffling steps and all.

Katsuro didn’t tell her what he planned. He just hopped off the path for a moment, and when he came back on his youthful features were hidden behind the sags and wrinkles.

Sakura took one look at him and slapped a hand over her mouth, holding in a raucous laugh.

After some mild ribbing about adopting the disguise he’d teased her so mercilessly about, Sakura looked him up and down, nodding seriously.

“This is definitely safer,” she said. Sakura turned and began walking, expecting him to fall in beside her. But Katsuro slowed with a realization. Her earnestness undid him.

He had prepared an excuse to cover his insistence on a disguise. A lie. But she accepted him without an explanation. He felt the fullness of it, even if she only understood part of the reasons.

She saw him as something worth keeping safe. Not for any other reason than that she cared about him. Not what was in him.

“You coming, old man?” she said, turning back to him, laughter in her eyes.

“Yeah!” Katsuro burst into a wide smile and ran down the road with a spryness that was completely at odds with his wrinkled appearance.

They walked on in pleasant silence. But Katsuro wasn’t the only one concerned about his safety.

Sakura squinted at the narrow lane. Just a gated cart path that jutted off the main road. It was almost beyond notice.

She had made it a point to learn all the connecting lanes off her intended route, under the guise of looking for shortcuts. But really, Sakura was looking for the road less traveled.

Sunk down in the high summer grass was a weathered stone marker. She didn’t even have to read it. That’s the one, she thought. She turned suddenly off the flat road headed down the rutted lane toward the old gate.

But Sakura only heard her own footsteps on the gravel. She turned back expectantly.

Katsuro stood in the middle of the wide road, hands open at his sides, hair disheveled, really looking like a confused old man.

Sakura snickered. “This way,” she said gently.

Though he walked toward her obediently, there was a note of skepticism in his voice. “Why this way?”

“Because this gets me to where I need to be,” she said, stopping to climb over the closed gate. She hopped down to the path and turned back to him.

“And it’s safer for you this way. Less people.”

Again, her easy words struck him. He was beginning to think he’d probably follow her anywhere. He began climbing then paused, studying her face. He wanted to hold onto this moment. But in his distraction, his foot slipped off the fence. He skidded back down a few boards before he caught himself.

Sakura just laughed him. “You look like you need some help.”

He laughed at himself, too. He must really look like a decrepit old-timer, clinging to the gate for dear life.

Toeing a wooden slat firmly, Katsuro leapt over the gate in one bound, landing in a crouch beside her. He straightened, grinning mischievously, creasing up every one of those ridiculous wrinkles.

“I can’t put my finger on it,” Sakura tapped her chin in mock puzzlement, “but this henge doesn’t quite suit you.”

He laughed loudly and fell into step with her.

They walked side-by-side into the secluded valley. Bordered by jutting hills, the bottomlands were filled with large rice fields that ran nearly unimpeded across the valley floor. Only the thick woodlands at the edge encroached on the crops. And here and there a low brown farm house would appear, seemingly floating above the green-gold sea.

It was fertile and beautiful. Even the air smelled ripe, earthy and sweet. Sakura and Katsuro walked in companionable silence, taking in the idyllic scene.

They had not seen a soul, though there were farms all around them. So both were startled when they rounded a corner to see a sturdy old man coming up out of gate. He rattled the fence, hooked the lead of a goat to the post, then unloaded some tools into a cart blocking the lane. The man looked up, squinting down the road at the approaching strangers.

Sakura bit her lip. A flaw in her plan had just revealed itself. No longer on a merchant road, it dawned on her that everyone on this lane would know each other. A ninja and a foreign farmer would definitely garner attention. Sakura watched the man warily.

When he ducked his head to latch the gate, she said under her breath, “We’re quite an odd pair. Maybe we should—”

But Katsuro was gone. Vanished.

Dumbfounded, Sakura blinked into the empty space beside her. There was no sound, nor shift of air. She didn’t even detect the subtle drop in the chakra around her.

She shook her head lightly. Sometimes his stealthiness startled her. Like Sasuke, he concealed his prowess. These little things made her wonder how much she really knew about him.

But she didn’t have time to think about that now.

“Oi! You lost?” the farmer called up to her.

Well, at least he had not seen Katsuro, she thought. But she bit back a sad sigh. This was the end of their walk this time.

“No sir,” she called back politely, closing the distance between them. “I am a kunoichi from Konoha, on my way home.”

“You’re taking the long way then,” he muttered. Hauling up his cart, he hooked the goat’s lead onto the handle, and started off down the road. Sakura fell in beside him.

“It’s a lovely valley,” she said. He only grunted in acknowledgment.

Though he was older, this man was nothing like the farmer that Katsuro portrayed. This man was sturdy and stout. The lines in his skin were tightly tanned. And though his hair showed more white than dark, he looked like he could throttle anyone who crossed him.

Sakura hid her smile. Katsuro, in his old-man guise, looked like he could barely make it over that fence. This old man looked like he could build ten of them.

“Got no help,” the man barked suddenly as if they’d been having a conversation. Sakura jumped. “All the boys around here have gone off to play ninja.”

He gave her a long, squinty look like she was somehow responsible for it.

Sakura put her hands up. “Not to my village. Konoha doesn’t ‘take’ anyone from other nations. The academy only accepts Fire Country citizens, same as the other hidden villages.”

Her explanation sounded hollow, even to her own ears. And she could tell it didn’t change his opinion one bit.

He stopped his cart, pushed open another gate, rolled the cart through, waited till Sakura passed, then swung it closed behind her, all the while grumbling under his breath.

He was obviously just looking for someone to blame for whatever ailed him, Sakura thought.

“And here comes another one,” the farmer fumed loudly, throwing his hands up. Sakura followed his sightline. He was right.

Another Konoha nin was coming up the lane.

Another Konoha nin who just happened to be her partner.

Sakura’s mouth dropped open.

She didn’t hear the farmer’s grumbles or the sound of the cart rolling away. She was only aware of the familiar, brooding black-haired nin who was, at that moment, filling up her vision.

Which couldn’t be helped: He was bounding up the lane, grinning from ear to ear, and heading straight for her.

“Oh no,” she gasped, horrified. “No, no, no, no….”

This ridiculously happy Sasuke stopped in front of her and threw out his arms.

“Whaddya think?” He spun around. “Better?”

“Ka-Katsuro,” she sputtered. “You can’t…you just can’t….”

She followed him with her eyes as he cleared the gate in a single chakra-tinged jump. Katsuro landed with a solid thud — so unlike Sasuke — then sprung up smiling into her face.

Words failed her. He threw his head back and laughed. Sakura had never seen Sasuke smile, much less stand in front of her boisterous and jubilant. Looking nearly like a fool.

“Oh….” she breathed, “this is so wrong….”

“No, this is right!” He snatched up her hand, shaking her whole arm to break her stupor. “I can stay with you, and no one will think anything of it. I can use chakra, I can be me. And you are just traveling with another Konoha nin.”

Sakura clearly wasn’t convinced. Horrified, her eyes kept moving over this false Sasuke, from his happy face to his flailing hands.

Katsuro caught her look and splayed his hands out in front of him.

“I know. It sucks I have to look like him of all people,” he muttered, inspecting his hands, then his arms, then his clothes. “But he’s the only other Konoha nin I’ve ever seen.”

Satisfied with his appearance he shrugged, then plunked his hands down on his hips. “But I get to be with you, right?” he said with a grin.

The pale cheeks were rosy and stretched wide to accommodate the huge smile. The black eyes, which Sakura had only ever seen with a look of malice, or boredom, now glittered with happiness. Katsuro had gotten everything right, except that he looked like Sasuke only if he were delirious with fever.

“Come on,” he shook her arm hard, rocking her body. “Let’s try it out!”

He took off down the lane after the farmer, obviously wanting to speak to him.

“Ka—” she cried urgently, but stopped with a gulp. “Sasuke,” she called after him weakly. “Wait! This isn’t a good idea….”

By the time she reached him, he was talking animatedly to the farmer.

“And she’s a medic,” he said, thumbing back at Sakura. “Trained by the Hokage herself!”

They both looked at her. Sakura looked desperately at the strange, happy Sasuke.

“A medic, huh?”

Sakura only responded with a pained smile to the farmer.

“Best in the whole village!” Katsuro gushed, stepping beside her and rocking her shoulder with his hand.

She glanced sideways at him. The goofy grin, the positive attitude. Sasuke would just die if he knew someone happy was impersonating him. Sakura smiled in spite of herself, stifling the urge to laugh.

Katsuro laughed knowingly, eyes dancing with delight. Sakura couldn’t help it — a giggle slipped out. This was surely his biggest prank yet. She pressed her fingers to her lips to keep from laughing even more.

But the farmer scratched the grey stubble at his chin, seriously considering the kunoichi.

“I have need of a medic,” he said slowly. “Maybe we could work something out. Could you spare time for a warm meal?”

“Of course!” Katsuro crowed.

Sakura nodded soberly. This overruled her objections to Katsuro’s disguise. If they needed a medic, then she’d just have to play along.

Sakura cut her eyes at their surroundings. They were probably safe out here. An old farmer, far off the beaten path, would never figure out Katsuro’s little trick.

She’d just have to make sure this was a one-time prank.

Following the man down the narrow footpath to his home, Katsuro grinned at her, rubbing his belly greedily. Sakura rolled her eyes, then smiled too.

The path ran atop a berm of land between the crops. It gave Sakura the feeling she was standing in the middle of a river of reeds. To either side she could see darker stripes of green criss-crossing the fields, signaling other paths edging other sunken crops. But ahead of them, ahead of the man, was an island of raised land with a large brown house and several outbuildings.

They passed through another paling at the edge of farm compound, and Sakura was just fastening the rustic latch when a child’s voice called from the house.

“Grandfather!” a little girl called, dashing towards them.

Sakura thought for a moment she was the one in need of care. But the child was happy and healthy looking, with all the boundless energy of a four or five year old. Or Katsuro, she quipped to herself.

Seeing the newcomers, she immediately ducked behind her grandfather’s leg.

Sakura and Katsuro stopped automatically, not wanting to scare the girl.

Clutching his pant leg, the little girl peered around to observe the nins. Her soft, feathery black hair offset the brightness of her eyes. Sakura tipped her head; the girl certainly was cute.

And when she unwrapped her fingers from the edge of the pants to point at Sakura, the kunoichi thought she would probably be the recipient of a sweet little wave. Her pink hair was always fascinating to children.

But she held up a single finger. Sakura frowned lightly.

The child shifted the finger to point at the disguised Katsuro beside her.

With nightmarish clarity, she held up two fingers.

One for Sakura, two for Katsuro. Both nins were horrified.

Sakura’s breath caught in her throat. Had she detected the henge, somehow?

Katsuro was paralyzed with fear. Had she detected his second chakra, somehow?

Realizing what she was doing, the grandfather quickly closed his hand around hers, curling her two fingers out of sight. He sent her back to the house, saying softly, but firmly, “Go back inside. Stay with grandma.”

Sakura thought the movement had a little too much urgency than just a simple grandfatherly gesture.

The little girl thought nothing was amiss though and smiled broadly at the nins before trotting back up the road. All the way she chanted in a sweet sing-song voice, “One, two. One, two.”

The farmer glanced back over his shoulder but never met their eyes. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She likes to count,” he said roughly.

Sakura only nodded. Beside her, Katsuro was reviving enough to continue walking.

They fell in behind the old man, but one shared glance,and they both were in agreement. Something was not right about this situation.

They reached the large low house to find the little girl with the grandmother at a family table. Screens and shutters were open wide, letting the wind move through, and all around were gorgeous sweeping views of the crops.

“One, two,” the little girl chanted sweetly to the grandmother.

The old woman shushed the girl and sent her on an errand. Away from us, Sakura thought, watching the little girl skip from the room.

Suddenly, utensils and vegetables clattered to the floor. The woman clutched her hands to her gut, and Sakura thought for a moment she’d cut herself with a knife.

She was already rounding the table when she caught a glimpse of the real ailment. The woman’s hands were badly gnarled, either from a lifetime of farming or some chronic ailment. They looked more like the knotted roots of an old tree than the flexible fingers of a human.

Sakura said nothing but squatted down in front of her, her pale hands already engulfed in green. She put them out, palms up, and asked gently, “May I see? I might be able to help.”

The woman nodded, smiling at the realization that the young girl was a medic, and pushed past the pain to lay her wretchedly disfigured hands into Sakura’s glowing ones.

She went to work immediately, face completely focused on her task, searching out the invisible source of the problem.

Katsuro had followed Sakura into the room and had seen their interaction. But he was still frozen just inside the doorway. Katsuro was captivated. Hands hanging limply at his sides, he watched Sakura work. She may as well have been healing him, because he wasn’t going anywhere either. He wanted to see exactly how she—

Small fingers suddenly pushed into Katsuro’s open hand. Only his sharp reflexes saved him from jumping through the ceiling. The little girl just smiled up at him, blissfully unaware of the absolute shock she’d just given him.

“Two,” she questioned quietly, looking at him innocently, still holding onto his slackened fingers. Almost as if she were calling his name.

He wasn’t sure what to do. But she was a child. There was no way she could know…. Best to play along, he thought. Maybe she just likes to count, he told himself, thought he didn’t really believe it.

He nodded slowly. She was satisfied and turned her attention back to Sakura and the grandmother. He blinked once then, accepting her little offering of trust, he curled his fingers around hers, and turned back to watch as well.

And this was how the grandfather found them several minutes later when he brought in clutch of food from storehouse.

“I brought in the….” but his voice thinned at the scene.

The grandmother looked up with a watery smile, thin tear tracks down her leathery skin. Katsuro and the little girl both looked back, big matching grins.


But Katsuro filled in the words he couldn’t find. “I told you she’s the best.”

The farmer gulped suddenly and swiped at the corners of his eyes.

“Well, let’s not stand around,” the man pronounced thickly, obviously needing some activity. “Let’s get lunch ready.”

The little girl was delighted and pulled Katsuro off to help. Good-naturedly, he let himself be led away.

Sakura smiled up at him quickly before he was pulled out of the room.

“He must be special,” the grandmother said quietly. “She doesn’t take to many people. She has a sense about those things.”

“Mh-hmm,” Sakura responded, head still bowed over her hands. But Sakura remembered the girl’s strange actions outside.

“Well, she seems pretty special too.” Sakura knew she was fishing for information, but she still hoped it wasn’t too apparent.

“Yes. Yes, she is,” was the grandmother’s slow, cryptic response.

Lunch precluded any more conversation on the topic. Sakura wrapped up her healing session and took her seat at the low family table beside Katsuro. The little girl bustled in with a tiny dish of her own, and without another thought, wedged herself into the space between the two nins. Both laughed and made room for the little girl.

But Sakura didn’t miss the look of surprise on the grandparents’ faces. In an instant it was gone however, and the grandfather leaned back, away from the table, and cast a long, calculating look at Sakura.

“Now what would bring two Konoha nins out this way?” He let the thought hang in the air. “You have no business outside your borders. So whatever you’re doing in these lands, it can’t be good.”

The wife offered everyone more food in an attempt to smooth over her husband’s rudeness.

But Katsuro’s anger was already ignited. He scowled at the man, outraged that he would ask Sakura to treat his wife, only to grill her about her country’s concerns over lunch.

Not much of a fair trade, he thought, splaying a hand on the tabletop.

Sakura caught Katsuro’s dark look and could guess his thoughts. But she was completely unfazed by the man’s gruff attitude. She set her chopsticks down, and lifted just the tips of her fingers in silent signal to Katsuro that everything was ok.

“My missions are diplomatic in nature, I—”

The old man cut her off with a loud scoff, as if he’d caught her in a lie.

Katsuro couldn’t take it. “She goes to small towns and catches their thieves,” he snapped. “And heals their wounded.”

“Among other things, yes. But I also—” she said, eyeing Katsuro.

“She had to come out here and do the things your country won’t do,” Katsuro barged on.

Across from him, the farmer was spooling up. “Only because your country has made everything so difficult for us, waging wars, stealing away our young men with offers of—”

“No, it’s not like that at all—” Sakura tried to regain control.

“Well who would want to—” Katsuro spoke over them both.

Only the shriek of the little girl stopped their battling voices. “It hurts,” she wailed, hands to either side of her head.

Both Sakura and Katsuro leaned back in surprise, afraid they’d somehow hurt the child. The grandmother responded instantly, cooing and shushing until she calmed down.

“You know better, you old goat,” the wife said, looking archly at the husband. The old man knew enough to look contrite. “Come here, sweetheart,” she offered to the little girl, but she was already wiping her tears in Katsuro’s shirtsleeve. He cast an unsteady glance at the girl, but let her continue.

“I am from— We are from the Fire Country. And I have no part in any of the past events. I am sent out on diplomatic missions to help small towns deal with any number of problems they are facing. And that’s it,” she said firmly.

“What I do on my missions is exactly what you’ve seen here today. More or less. He,” she shot Katsuro a stern look, “came out to meet me on my return.”

Katsuro gave her a wobbly smile. But she didn’t have to warn him, he had silently vowed to keep his mouth shut this time.

Sakura engaged the man in a discussion of the valley, the area, the events that had shaped it and the current situation it was in.

“It is truly lovely here,” she said, waving a hand to one of the open screen doors and the glorious views outside.

Before Katsuro’s eyes, Sakura coaxed the man into talking about his farm, his land and the things that interested them. They finished their meal in peace, with Sakura and the old farmer carrying on the bulk of the conversation. The man was still no basket of roses, but Sakura wasn’t offended.

Katsuro had to admit, he was impressed. In his world, force was the rule, not negotiation. And Sakura wasn’t disrespecting the old man, just holding a carefully controlled conversation. She turned a grumbling complaint back on him with an interested question, and she never let him delve too deeply into a some unhappy topic.

He was just thinking that she would wield a wicked genjutsu, when, to his dismay, the little girl pushed Katsuro’s arm away from the table and climbed up into his lap.

Sakura had to hold back a laugh: Katsuro looked like someone had just placed a venomous snake in his lap.

“You’re warm,” the child said, pulling her legs up and snuggling comfortably against his chest. He brought his arms back down reflexively, to keep her from toppling off his lap, but he still had a strangled look of discomfort.

She closed her eyes and made herself quite comfortable. Everyone else silently watched as the little girl nodded off. But Katsuro was beginning to get alarmed that she hadn’t moved. At all.

“Is she ok? Is something wrong?” he said, voice strained. “She’s not moving,” he said in a loud whisper to Sakura.

Sakura looked to the grandmother. “Is this her nap time?”

The grandmother nodded, smiling.

“Oh,” Katsuro said, blowing out a relieved breath.

The grandfather sat back, folded his arm, and fixed a piercing look at Katsuro.

“You must be pretty special,” he challenged. “She doesn’t take to anybody.”

Both nins exchanged a panicked glance, but Sakura smoothed it over with a laugh.

“She’s the one who seems to be special,” she said, hoping the couple would put forth some information. Sakura was certain the child was indeed special — that last outburst had clenched it.

She glanced back to catch the couple sharing their own panicky look. Hmmm, Sakura thought, maybe she could help them along.

“She seems very attuned to what’s going on around her. A rare talent, indeed.” The couple still said nothing, which was telling enough. Sakura leaned forward, took one last swig of her tea. “And believe me, as a medic, I’ve seen it all. In my country and most of the others.”

Katsuro had to stop himself from laughing. The dramatic pause for tea, her assurance that she’d ‘seen it all.’ That swaggering was nothing like her. But the clearing throats and nervous shuffling of hands told him that her efforts had worked. Maybe this was even where her patient conversation was heading toward as well.

“She is different,” the grandfather said, the rough edge gone from his voice. “She can sense things that others can’t.” He cleared his throat, looked at his hands. “Like when people are coming and going, things like that.”

“And people’s emotions?” Sakura said. The grandfather shrugged one shoulder noncommittally. But Sakura persisted. “Strong emotions, like just a little while ago?” The man nodded firmly then.

It occurred to Sakura that they both were looking quite nervous. The grandfather hadn’t raised his eyes. The grandmother’s kind face was grim. The medic in her recognized that scared look: They thought something was wrong with the child.

“Well, I think she’s amazing,” she said firmly. “A delight and a treasure. She’s a healthy, beautiful girl who has been blessed with a great gift.”

The grandfather said nothing, but heaved his shoulders, obviously relieved.

“Well, we’ve always thought so,” the grandmother said softly, her small smile slowly returning.

“Only time will tell what she becomes, what her talents turn out to be, but she is happy and safe here.”

“Talents?” the grandfather frowned, crossing his arms. “And just what kind of ‘gift’ would she have?”

“We have a clan in our village who are able to detect emotional changes, chakra imprints….” The grandfather was still frowning. Sakura simplified it. “They can sense things. All sorts of things.” The man gave a single nod.

“But if she can tell when someone’s coming, without having prior knowledge, then I suspect she might also be able to sense full-formed chakras too,” Sakura said.

“Can you test her, find out?” the man said, waving in the direction of her hands.

Sakura chuckled gently. “No, there are no medical tests for that. It is a talent. And, like all talents, it will take time to see what she is fully capable of. But if she has that level of control, at such a young age, then her natural ability is very strong. It’s quite a rare gift she has.”

The grandfather nodded slowly. “And what was that about keeping her safe?”

“Some think that children exhibiting an extraordinary skill should be brought up in an environment conducive to training that skill to better serve….” Sakura’s voice died out. Her diplomatic language fell on deaf ears.

“Like in one of the hidden villages,” Katsuro said, an unmistakeable edge to his voice.

“No, not like our village,” Sakura reminded. “No shinobi is ever forced to do or use their skill if they don’t want to. The Hokage very much believes that the best ninjas are the ones who serve because they want to, because they love their cause. Not because they’re forced to.”

“I don’t want to scare you,” she turned back to the grandparents. “She is safe here. And happy. And that is the best thing for her. What she does with her talents is completely up to her. You just have to guard her against those who would use her as a weapon.”

Sakura continued speaking, but Katsuro didn’t want to hear any more. Instead he looked down at the feathery hair flopped against his chest. This was a little warm life curled up in his lap. Completely innocent. He shifted his arm, and she sent out shuddering, contented sigh.

Sakura was wrong. Apparently, he still knew more about her own village than she did. Itachi had never been reserved about the dark side of Konoha. He knew there was a shadow group that sought out talented children to raise as weapons. Wasn’t he was living proof of that?

Katsuro tightened his arms around the child fractionally. The thought of her innocent life subverted for someone else chilled him. Though he couldn’t stand the high-flying ideals that Sakura so faithfully repeated, he was in complete agreement with her that the child needed to stay here.

No schools, no cruelty. Only the big house floating out on the sea of grain. Blue light shining on the glossed wood floors, and every screen open to the wide world. This was where she needed to be.

“So just keep her safe,” Sakura’s voice broke through his thoughts. “Tell her not to talk to anyone she doesn’t know. Pretty much keep doing what I suspect you’ve already been doing.”

The little girl stretched just then, yawned, and rubbed her eyes. Katsuro loosened his hold and looked down at her, expecting her to wake up. But she turned her head and drifted off again. Katsuro shook his head lightly in amazement.

As a shinobi, Katsuro knew that sleep was the most vulnerable time. It was the perfect time to attack. And driving an opponent to sleep deprivation was as fatal a wound as any weapon could deliver.

But now he saw the other side. To feel safe enough to just drop off to sleep, it was an ultimate sign of trust.

The girl stretched, moved again, then yawned.

Suddenly she looked up, and Katsuro smiled down gently, not wanting to startle her in case she’d forgotten whose lap she’d climbed up on.

She rubbed her eye with a knuckle, smiled sleepily, then held up two fingers.

His throat went tight. Apparently whatever she saw in him, she accepted as just another piece of him. Nothing to be afraid of. It was nice to think of it that way.

“Yeah,” he laughed softly. “Two.” He held up two fingers of his own. Well, he thought, whether she sensed something or was just counting, it fit. She’d gotten that right. Whatever he was, deep down, he was two of it.

Across the table, the grandparents watched fondly. Then, in an instant, she was awake. The little girl hopped down, then ran around table, giving hugs and tittering away about anything and everything.

“Nap time’s over,” Sakura said with a laugh. And they began clearing up the table.

They stood in the doorway, preparing to leave. “And I need to come by for some checkups,” Sakura said, pointing to the grandmother’s hands, “so I can make sure everything is alright. If that’s ok with you?”

She nodded, pleased beyond belief.

The grandfather was silently frowning. He fixed his gaze on Katsuro and rubbed his chin.

“You’ll both come?” he grunted.

Sakura looked anxiously from the grandfather to Katsuro. They hadn’t gotten on very well at lunch. Was he saying he didn’t want the young man around?

“Is there a problem with that?” Katsuro answered, unable to keep the defensive tone out of his voice.

“Of course not,” the old man said, relaxing his demeanor with a wave of his hand. “Just making sure. Don’t want to get her hopes up if you weren’t.”

“No. I’ll come,” he said firmly, and looked to Sakura with that same determination she was coming to know so well. She smiled in response.

After polite farewells, they headed back up the path. When they finally reached the lane, beyond sight of the house, Sakura breathed a sigh of relief.

“She must have detected your henge, but was too young to understand.”

Katsuro just silently nodded, absolutely relieved to have her so handily explain the whole thing.

“And you don’t have to come if it’s too far out of the way—”

“No,” he interrupted. “I can come. Maybe not every time, but I’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

Sakura just smiled, inwardly pleased that the brash rogue had such a tender side.

“You were very sweet to her,” she said finally.

It was his turn not to answer. He shrugged and smiled, then looked out across the valley. The bright sky reflected in his eyes.

“It’s really beautiful out here, isn’t it. Perfect. Like nothing bad could ever happen.”

Sakura nodded, sweeping her gaze across the fertile land. But there was a wistful note in his voice she couldn’t ignore.

“She’s happy and safe here,” she said, bolstering him just as she did the grandparents. “And she has us to look out for her.”

Sakura shook his arm, trying to rattle him out of his suddenly pensive mood. “I think she’ll be just fine.”

It worked, he laughed a little. “Yeah. You’re right.”

The effortless rhythm continued through the rest of the summer and into the early fall. She told him where she would be, and he would be there. The missions were never taxing, and afforded her plenty of time to visit with him.

When she first began accepting these solo missions, she simply took them in the order they came in. But now, she kept an eye toward distance, accepting those first, then ticking off the smaller jobs on her way back home.

It worked well, and no one was any wiser. This way, she always knew where she would be well in advance of the mission. And she could spend more time with him.

And, if she had to guess, he felt the same way. Stretching out the missions, accompanying her nearly to the border. He would never say how far he could go, but Sakura could guess now that if he said “I can walk with you for a little bit,” that he would be with her all the way to the farm with the little chakra sensor.

The henge always gave her a twinge of guilt, but seeing the child’s pleasure, and the obvious happiness that it brought Katsuro, she never mentioned her discomfort. It was strange enough seeing the image of Sasuke prancing about a field, laughing and throwing the girl in the air. She found herself laughing at him more than once, just because his actions were simply so far from the real Sasuke.

But she could never mistake the two.

Disguised as Sasuke, Katsuro’s movements were raw and relaxed. However, the real Sasuke exercised restraint in all things. He was captivating to watch the few times she’d seen him fight, but his elegant efficiency was just a veneer. He simply didn’t see his opponents as worth spending the energy on.

This false Sasuke in front of her had no problem making a fool of himself. He had raced up the lane, played a game of tag, and carried the girl back to greet Sakura. Child propped on his hip, Katsuro hovered in front of her, black eyes glittering. Katsuro knew it made her laugh, and he delighted in acting as goofy as possible. Sakura shooed him on, and the two had a little race back down the lane.

The late afternoon sun was warm all around them, it’s golden light clinging to the bent reeds and the tips of their fly-away hair. A myriad winged creatures fluttered up from the edge of the path as they ran past.

She would never tell him, but Sakura decided Katsuro’s version might just be an improvement on the real Sasuke.

Even if she didn’t have to heal the grandmother’s hands she would still find a reason to come here. The child was sweet, but Katsuro’s happiness was hers now. Just to see him so relaxed, freed from the burden his association with that group seemed to place on him.

She paused for a moment. She supposed in that way he and Sasuke were alike. Both were bound by someone else’s orders. But at least here, Katsuro was able to shake free of it for a while.

He beckoned her from the doorway, then made a face to the delight of the young girl hanging on his pant leg. Sakura laughed too, and with a few quick steps she’d passed through the door.

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