24 Mar 2011 No Comments
The branch bounced once, rattling the leaves around him. He knew it was careless, but he wasn’t slowing down. Knees buckled, he launched into the darkness towards the next limb.
Katsuro hoped he could still catch her tonight. It was so late, it would be a miracle really. But she’d waited this late before, he told himself. That thought alone kept him pushing off the branches with greater force. Hoping against hope that she would still be there.
Her missions were carrying her farther afield, for longer periods of time. Which was sometimes great, but sometimes hard. Like tonight.
He’d had to scramble to get this last job done, then cross the vast dark countryside to get to her. And even now, he didn’t know if he’d make it in time.
He creaked onto a branch then shot off again, shuddering the tree’s canopy in his wake.
But if she was out there, waiting for him, he knew now he’d go to any length to see her. This partnership with Sakura was mesmerizing. He found himself wanting it more and more.
And he didn’t know for certain, but he thought she might — just might — feel the same about him. He smiled to himself, dragging in a deep low breath, and launched extra-hard from the next branch.
It didn’t matter when or how he got there, she was always happy to see him. That sweet, expectant smile, like she had been looking out for him. And she never asked anything, still honoring that unspoken agreement between them. That trust was balm enough on the nights that he’d raced across miles of country just to have a few hours with her.
He didn’t always arrive dirty, hungry and tired, though. Sometimes he’d be fresh and waiting for her instead, having been there all day. Then sometimes it would be several hours into the night until he’d show up. But he always managed to make it, even if it was just for a little while.
Lately though, he had taken to arriving towards the end of her mission. The pressure was off him then, and he could accompany her back to the chakra sensor’s farm.
It worked out well, he certainly got more time with Sakura. But he was growing more and more aware of her solitude on these assignments. The first visit to the little girl’s farm was what sparked it.
He never worried about anything. Ever. Fear, which controlled so many of the men around him, simply was not a problem for him. He feared getting caught, he supposed. But he never worried about getting hurt. His wounds would always heal, and, if driven far enough to access his true power, his opponents didn’t stand a chance. And he never thought about anyone else.
Katsuro landed softly on a branch, only the whisper of movement in the leaves this time, and dropped to a squat. His fingers skimmed the cool bark at his feet.
There had never been anyone else to think about. Until now.
Over the next hill, the lights from the town cast a round glow on the horizon. The nights were growing cooler with the changing seasons, but summer seemed determined to hold on. Tonight the air was still soft and sweet. And somewhere, beyond that dark line of a hill, she was waiting for him.
He blinked, refocusing. He’d needed to check his bearings and keep going.
He was familiar with this area, that would save him some time at least. He wouldn’t have to scout around to find the most likely spot. The towns here were older, built against the hillsides for protection ages ago. Which meant the most secluded area should be where the town gave way to the rising land. He hoped his hunch was right, and leapt off towards the dark slopes.
Noiselessly, Katsuro made his way down toward the town. He moved through the wooded outskirts, always watching the trails for any sign of her. But there were none. He circled closer, keeping to the trees just at the edge of the town. From there, he could peer down into the dimly lit lanes. But each one was empty
Hope was fading. He continued to the highest roads, and down the other side, but still there was nothing.
The longer he looked, the more a deep fear took hold in him. The one that had been slowly coming on for weeks now. If he felt a wisp of worry about the little girl, about her safety in an unkind world, then thinking about Sakura, and what she might face on her solitary assignments, was like standing at the edge of a dark abyss.
What if something’s gone wrong this time….
He shook his head and continued going. It was stupid to feel this way. She was a kunoichi — a powerful one. She was always on her own and perfectly capable of defending herself.
Still, he quickened his pace as he moved back up the woodland to the top of the sloping town.
Besides, if he truly felt that way about her, that he wanted to be near her, available just in case she needed him…just like a true partner, his treacherous mind whispered…then what was he doing out here?
The branch groaned under his foot just then. A stray dog rooting through trash perked up it’s ears, looked around warily. Katsruo quickly leapt to the next limb, irritated with himself for his distracted attention.
His concern for her was cracking his own resolve. He was out here for his group, she was here for her village. His village, he thought with an angry burn. And that was the beginning and end of it.
A partnership with her was something he knew he could never have. No matter how much more time he wanted with her.
Yet even as he vowed it, he was quickly looking down each street, desperately scanning for a flash of pink, hoping for a glance of anyone now. That panicky feeling ratcheting back up again. She still hadn’t shown.
He was almost to the top again, where the main road dwindled to a thin footpath over the hill. He had scoured it first and come back to check it a few times, but he decided now, after one last look, he’d take to the rooftops. Perhaps she’d left him a sign—
At that moment, Sakura stepped out of a shadowed lane ahead of him, crossed hurriedly over the dimly lit cobblestones and disappeared up the forest path.
Katsuro nearly overshot the next branch. He leapt after her, relief swelling in his chest.
And as he landed on the forest floor, watched her turn in a whirl, already smiling, everything became clear. He knew that he’d been lying to himself: He was out here for her. And he simply didn’t care about the rest.
“I was so afraid I’d missed you,” she whispered. But her smile couldn’t mask an underlying tightness in her expression.
Katsuro tipped his head. Something was troubling her.
Closing the distance between them, he could see she was tired. He was too, it was late. But there was something else….
“How’s this one going?” he asked, already knowing her answer. It never changed.
“It’s fine,” she sighed, yet surprisingly, she continued on. “But I can’t stay long. I was lucky enough just to get away.”
He frowned. “Something’s wrong, I can tell,” he said, as if affirming his fears from earlier. And he knew where to lay the blame. “Have they given you one that’s too—”
“Oh, no, no. This one’s the same as the rest,” Sakura said, tiredly waving off his concern. “I mean, it’s the same, but there’s more to it.” She shook her head at her garbled words.
“The same as the rest,” he echoed. “You mean, like—” but he let it drop. He had nothing. They never spoke about these things.
“It’s like the first one,” she said finally. He’d never helped her any other time. She’d never really needed it.
“Oh! The kid stealing food?”
“Yeah,” she said, chuckling at the memory.
A sudden yawn overtook her. Stifling it, she scrubbed her hands over her face. When she pulled her fingers down, Katsuro was watching her intently. The fringe of hair at her throat wavered a little. She plastered on a weak smile, but he only frowned back.
The concern for her, so fresh in his mind, still weighed on him. He needed to make sure she knew…he needed to hear himself say it.
His gaze deepened in intensity. “Listen,” he said firmly. “I know you say it’s fine, and I know you are more than capable of taking care of yourself. But if you ever need me, if it’s ever too much, all you have to do is ask. And I’ll help out however I can.”
“Th-thanks.” Sakura was surprised. And touched. Deeply. His words, his concern, was more care than she received from her own teammates.
But Katsuro continued to study her drawn face, and thought maybe he’d not said enough. Maybe he should tell her just how much he worried about her. The gripping fear that he could not reason away, no matter how hard he tried. The dark abyss, the vulnerability that her presence had opened up in his life. What if something had happened, what if he was too late—
“Actually,” she said, her hand soft on his arm, her voice cutting across his swirling thoughts, “there is something you could help me with.”
“Yes, of course!” Katsuro said, more than a little relieved to have some physical activity. His usefulness to her was an anchor in this unfamiliar maelstrom of emotions.
Sakura quickly filled in the details while they edged back down through the town. Along with her diplomatic mission, she had been asked to run surveillance on an entirely different matter, some low level robberies. Nothing dangerous, no need to apprehend. Just an official confirmation, and they would handle the rest.
Sakura hedged, trying to work out how to say no and not offend them. Then they offered to pay extra. And there was simply no way she could back out after that. So she had been stuck for the better part of four days observing trade negotiations, only to sit up each night and watch the back door of an old warehouse.
They wound through the maze of streets, sticking to the shadows, until she arrived at a narrow cut-through between two buildings. A sturdy crate blocked the end of the long, dingy path. It was angled in just the right spot to let Sakura sit under the cover of darkness and watch the nondescript door of the nondescript building opposite her.
Sakura slid to the far side of the crate, leaving room for Katsuro. Climbing up after her, he made himself comfortable, his arm smashed up against hers.
“You ok?” he whispered. She nodded back, flashing a quick smile at him. She was better than ok. She was glad he was there. Even this monotony was better when you weren’t alone in it.
They leaned back and sat for hours more. And nothing happened.
A thin cat slinked out of the darkness, sniffing the air. Two sets of eyes lazily followed the cat’s progress. Eventually it melted back between the two buildings, and they shifted their gaze back to the doorway. It had been the only activity all night.
After what felt like another hour, Katsuro whispered, “How much longer?”
“Not much,” she sighed wearily. “If he hasn’t shown up by now, he probably won’t.”
They waited just a little longer, then hopped off the crate, and headed toward the empty street. Keeping to the shadows, they crossed over to the warehouse. Sakura wanted to check the lock before turning in.
Off duty, Katsuro by her side, Sakura’s mind was already wandering to more pleasant thoughts. She remembered something….
She bumped her shoulder into his. “Hey, I brought you some—”
A sudden scuffling noise ricocheted around the corner of the building. Someone was coming. But there was no way to get back across the road to the alley without being seen.
Instead they dove for cover in the deep doorway of a neighboring storefront. The decorative lattice only went halfway down, giving the pair just enough cover if they stayed low. And hopefully, whoever it was wouldn’t walk their way.
Sakura peered out above the half panel, shifting her head to see through the holes in the lattice. Squatting behind her, Katsuro looked around too, but the criss-crossed wood made getting a clear view nearly impossible.
The footsteps became louder. A tall man rounded the corner.
Sakura recognized him. “It’s the night watchman,” she whispered back to Katsuro. The man shook the fat lock over the door latch.
“The night watchman?” There was a frown in his voice. “Isn’t that a good thing?”
She shifted her weight onto her other leg, dropping her knee into the dirt for support.
“No,” she hissed. A pebble ground into her kneecap. “He’s the one who they think has been stealing.”
Sakura reflexively shifted again, but this time she was a little off-balanced. She curled her fingertips around the edge of the panel to steady herself. Which would have been fine, if a stray twig wasn’t lodged into the wood just under her hand. Unknowingly, when she released her grip, she also freed the branch.
It clattered to the ground just outside the doorway.
Sakura gasped. The man swung around quickly, looking hard, on alert. But that was all she saw.
Ducking fast, Sakura leaning bodily back into Katsuro. And he seemed to curl around her in anticipation. His knees moved quickly in time with her, giving her space to lean back. One hand was lightly on her shoulder, keeping her from toppling over. His breath stirred the hairs at her ear.
They huddled in the slanted shadow, barely moving. Waiting. Sakura glanced down into the darkness. Beside her leg, only the round outline of Katsuro’s knee was visible. But she could feel the warmth of his body just the same. It was unexpectedly reassuring. He moved the hand at her shoulder, when he was sure she had her balance. Sakura thought for a briefest moment how well they worked together. Better than anyone she knew. It was seamless.
Outside, the man rattled the lock again. Sakura raised up slowly and peered through the lattice.
“What’s he doing,” Katsuro breathed.
The man was looking around the building, inspecting corners then the roofline. Pretty standard stuff, actually. Eh, maybe he was just a guard, she thought.
“I don’t think he’s the one. He seems to just be doing his job.” She relaxed her shoulders. “Looks like he’s getting ready to leave.”
“Good,” Katsuro said, shifting back. He knocked her hip pack in the process.
But as the words left her mouth, the man did something odd: He reached up and slid his hand along the edge of the doorframe. Then down the sides. Then he kicked at the dirt beside the door.
Was he looking for a spare key? Something to break the lock with? Or was he making sure there was no way anyone else could? Sakura was running through possible explanations when the contents of her hip pack shifted again.
What was he doing back there? Sakura cut Katsuro a look over her shoulder, but he only gazed at her innocently.
When she looked back out to the watchman, he was apparently satisfied with his night’s work. He rattled the lock one last time, straightened his tunic and head back the way he came. Sakura followed him with her eyes, not sure what to make of him. She didn’t even know if it was worth reporting. He was obviously doing his job, although the thorough inspection at the end was a bit much. She tipped her head. It was just strange—
A sweet lemony scent sparkled through the stuffy air of their hiding spot. Was she dreaming? Sakura sniffed again. No, definitely lemon. And getting stronger.
Suddenly, she narrowed her eyes. She knew exactly what that was.
Sakura pivoted on her heels to face Katsuro.
He smiled. It was a wide, conspicuously closed-lipped smile.
“You got the candy out of my pack. That’s what you were doing.”
She had been concentrating so hard on the man’s actions, she didn’t realize Katsuro was digging through her pack.
“Aw Sakura-chan,” he said around a mouthful of the chewy rice candy. “How can you walk around with that stuff and not eat it!”
“It was supposed to be a surprise,” she said in mock frustration.
He popped another one in his mouth, one cheek fat with candy, the other stretched into a giddy smirk.
He knew she wasn’t mad. He knew for a fact she kept that candy in there for him now. She used to only carry two or three; now she carried a whole handful of them. And he made sure to eat every one before she left again. Well, nearly every one. If he remembered in time, he’d save some for the little girl. Sometimes.
She smiled and rolled her eyes. Ok, she thought, maybe their harmony was a little too good.
The warm breeze pushed silently across the field, only to clatter through the rust-brown leaves overhead. Several rained down, including one leaf that stuck right into the bangs of Katsuro’s disheveled brown hair. Sakura watched him feel around for it, laughing while he nearly crossed his eyes.
After a moment she continued walking, following the rutted cart path out of the wood line and down into a yellowed, overgrown field.
Untangling the jagged leaf, Katsuro held it in his open palm. The dull brown was nearly the color of his hair. Ironic, he thought, then crunched it in his fist.
But no one would notice him out here, he told himself again. And again, the reassurance was hardly assuring, but he pushed on anyway.
He stood at the tree line, sweeping his gaze over the wide open field. Everything seemed safe here. And he had to admit, the warm fall breeze felt nice on his skin. It was one of the sensations that a henge dulled, just slightly.
The missions were pushing farther and farther out. But, for him, Sakura always found the most circuitous route.
Thin paths, little used trails, and farm roads were their lot now. They hardly saw anyone. Only locals, never even a government official, let alone a shinobi. Those were a rare sighting on these sleepy byways.
After a few times, Katsuro hardly saw a need for any henge.
The few old farmers they passed paid them no mind. And these hamlets were simply too small to draw notice of anyone’s attention, from other Konoha nins or his own group.
The thought was part thrilling, part nerve-wracking. But when he mentioned it to Sakura, her whole face lit up at the prospect. To have him, beside her, without disguise — she was thrilled. And that did it. How could he say no. He’d just have to push past his discomfort.
Which actually wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be. He had forgotten he had a partner in this: Sakura was another set of eyes and ears, always on alert as well. He hadn’t taken her into account, but she was watching out for him too.
And, the few times they did pass someone, Sakura always said hello, made eye contact, and diverted any attention away from him. Katsuro never said anything, and made sure to keep his face tipped away. Old habits died hard, he supposed.
And thus he made another surprising discovery: If he thought he would have to fend off prying looks or well-meaning interrogations from the local farmers, he was wrong.
He noticed that, while traveling with Sakura, no one even looked at him.
People saw her hair, then her open expression. And they greeted her pleasantly, never sparing a glance at him. He almost forgot he was walking around without a henge.
He had grown so accustomed to it that approaching the small towns only gave him a ripple of discomfort now. Yet he knew the complacency he felt with her was dangerous. He knew it objectively, like a rote lesson. He knew he shouldn’t feel comfortable with her, shouldn’t feel safe. But he did. And it was the strongest pull he’d ever felt in his life. Well, almost.
Opening his fist, he let the breeze blow the shattered leaf from his hand. More dead leaves clattered down around him. Katsuro followed Sakura into the lane before any more could snag on him.
The autumn days were still warm, but all around were signs of impending winter. The brown leaves, the wildly overgrown field, the noticeable lack of farmers, bustling by on the rural roads. Even approaching a sleepy hillside town they hadn’t seen a soul. Inwardly Katsuro relished the solitude. Well, as long as she was part of it.
Ahead of him, Sakura stopped suddenly on the rutted path. She turned her head to the side, and he just caught the slight curl of her smile, her eyes narrowed. But before he could decide whether her expression was sweet or wicked, she sailed her hand over the waist-high weeds at the edge of the road.
He slowed his pace. It was like something from a dream.
Feather-light seeds exploded into the air around him, golden filament making everything glimmer. They spun, drifted and dropped in a soft haze around him. He stopped, opening a palm, watching the impossibly fine fibers spill over his hand like water.
It was only then that he heard Sakura’s laughter.
Glancing up, he didn’t realized she had turned back to watch him. The seeds were settling thickly on him now, little wisps clinging to his sleeves, his chest, everywhere, and she laughed again. Sakura had pulled a little prank of her own.
She crossed the lane and swept her hand over more of the tall plants, releasing yet another cloud of seeds. This one swirled with the slight breeze, climbing into the air over the lane and hanging weightless before slowing drifting back to earth.
His feet felt glued to that spot. All he could do was watch. The shimmering fibers encircled them like that marvelous genjutsu. But this was no illusion. At least, he hoped not.
Because in the middle, coming straight towards him, was Sakura. That mischevious smile curving up her lips, the sun threading gold through her hair. Downy seeds swirling to the ground in her wake.
She stopped, toes to toes, and stood smiling into his face. She was so close their noses nearly touched. The pale freckles that dotted the tops of her cheeks swam in front of him…. Katsuro swallowed, suddenly nervous.
Sakura bit her lip, holding back a wider grin. Then her eyes, followed by her whole face, tipped up toward his hair.
Raising up on her toes, Sakura’s pale arm slipped into the corner of his vision. She lightly dusted his hair. More gossamer threads showered down.
“I wish…” she said softly, rocking back to her heels, catching his eyes and pausing for one long moment.
Katsuro was transfixed. The sun shone through her hair, casting her face in a peach light. A few gold seeds clung to her, sparkling in the strands. Her wistful green eyes were so striking against the sun-warmed colors she was bathed in. His chest went tight at the picture she made.
“I wish you could come home with me,” she said.
Katsuro’s stomach flipped.
Wh-What? Home? To Konoha? Whatever he expected her to say, that wasn’t it. And he couldn’t scrape together an excuse fast enough. However she didn’t seem to notice the turmoil she’d thrown him in.
“But, I know how you feel, about villages,” she said with a sigh, then glanced quickly back at his face, “and I know who you’re with….”
Katsuro was frozen still. He didn’t know if she expected a response.
Apparently she didn’t. With another sigh, she reached over to brush the last wispy seeds off his shoulders as she turned from him.
“I just wish this didn’t have to end,” she said quietly, watching the seeds float off over the field. She slowly completed the turn and resumed walking. But she only got a few more steps before stopping and drawing a deep breath. As if strengthening her resolve.
“I wish you were on my team,” she said over her shoulder. “Not theirs.”
Neither moved. Sakura looked out at the field, Katsuro looked at her back.
But she broke the tableau first: With a small, almost resigned shrug, she turned back and began walking again.
It suddenly occurred to him that he should try to express how he felt. The worry, the hope. How much it all meant, and how afraid he was that it would all slip away. That somehow it was a beautiful illusion. But what would he say? Something. Anything.
Katsuro shook himself and dashed the few steps to catch up with her. Wrapping his hand around her upper arm, he tugged her to face him.
“You know none of the other stuff matters to me,” he said urgently. His fingers grazed the ripple of skin from the scar. He cringed and slid his hand down but didn’t let go.
Katsuro looked into her questioning eyes. He wondered if she could tell, if she could somehow intuit the feelings that he barely had words for.
She smiled softly under his open gaze. The hair at her throat fluttered up.
No, he didn’t know what to say. But he knew how he felt. Katsuro swallowed dryly and scraped his thumb over her skin.
“All I care about is—”
A loud coughing sound rattled down the lane. Katsuro and Sakura instantly jumped apart.
Laughing deeply, a crusty old farmer stood just a few paces from them, holding his side in mirth, apparently pleased with his own prank of waiting till the two got really close before he interrupted them. And he kept laughing as he passed right between them, threadbare sack thrown over his shoulder.
Sakura nodded a greeting at the man. But the moment between them was lost.
In the heavy silence, Sakura was left standing at one side of the lane, arm folded across her stomach, fingers wrapped around her upper arm where he was just holding it.
Across the lane, Katsuro stood, one hand propped at his hip, the other rubbing across the back of his neck. His face felt sunburned.
“What were you—”
“I was just—”
They both chuckled at their sudden awkwardness. But it broke the tension. Both stepped back out into the lane and resumed walking. Sakura was silent, working out a way to reopen their conversation.
But for Katsuro, the interruption had thrown him into greater disarray.
What was he thinking. His feelings had coalesced so easily, the words tripping forth as effortlessly as the golden fibers swirling around them.
But it wasn’t that easy. And he knew it. Though he wanted her to know how much she meant to him, he knew there was much more, so much more, that he couldn’t tell her.
Eyes fixed on the ground, he blew out a low breath. Sakura couldn’t help but notice his change in mood. He felt her gaze on him, and knew he had to come up with something.
He cleared his throat, gave a wobbly smile. “I was just going to say that I feel the same way,” he said lamely.
“Oh,” she said, deflated.
If Sakura suspected more of him, it didn’t matter. The sound of another traveler split them up again.
The man wheeled a cart down the path and greeted Sakura congenially as he slowly passed through. He didn’t even notice Katsuro.
Watching the man pull the cart to a halt and speak to Sakura, Katsuro felt like another moment had slipped through his fingers. He wasn’t able to tell her how he really felt, and worse, now he was looking at her from the outside.
If she were alone on this mission, this whole scene would be going on without him. She would be smiling, talking, pointing up the lane. He watched her animated face and thought about how much he would miss seeing it if he weren’t there. His chest felt tight.
Just then, a stray breeze dislodged the unruly lock of hair she always tucked behind her ear.
The corner of his mouth tipped up in a smile. He loved that little curl, the one that would not be held back.
Sakura combed the hair back reflexively, then flashed a knowing look at Katsuro over the top of the cart.
“Stop,” she mouthed with a smile when the farmer’s attention was diverted.
He shook his head in smiling confusion.
The old farmer was oblivious. He chatted on, never noticing Sakura’s divided attention, then waved his hand in a brisk farewell. The cart trundled on.
“What was wrong,” Katsuro said as they stepped back down into the wheel tracks.
“You did that little thing you do,” she said, wiggling her fingers at the tips of her hair. “You know, with the breeze?”
“I didn’t do anything,” he said, utterly confused.
She shot him a skeptical smile. “Really? You mean you didn’t knock my hair loose when I was talking to that man?”
“N-no, I wouldn’t even know how to….”
Just then, the autumn weeds around them wavered, the tips jostled together sending thin puffs of seeds in the air. Katsuro held out his hand to the obvious breeze blowing lightly all around them. “I think maybe you’re imagining things,” he laughed.
“Uh-huh,” she intoned, sounding like she didn’t believe him at all.
They continued over the rolling wild fields, both seemingly content to leave the awkwardness behind them. But silently, privately, both felt the loss of something…something intangible that had slipped away…something that still was unspoken between them. There was simply no way around it, though.
The road was flattening out and taking on more rocks than dirt, until it was transformed completely into the only cobbled road of a tiny hillside community. It ran like a knobby dry riverbed down the hill, with brown clapboard buildings clustered on either side. Only the flattest, widest stones took pride of place down the center of the steeply angled road.
Katsuro gauged the size the town. It was small enough to escape notice; he’d leave off the henge. Sakura glanced over in silent question. He shook his head, and she smiled brightly. If he had any doubts, that decided it. But he still had to push past the dull knot in his gut that came with the risk.
They both looked up at the steep lane. Katsuro bit back a sigh, it looked more like a mountain than a hill. But Sakura was clearly anxious to get going.
And it wasn’t hard to guess why: Though the buildings were old and a bit shabby, the road was decked out like a festival. Potted plants softened the sharp incline of the road. Lanterns hung jauntily from the rooftops. Colorful awnings shaded many doorways and were adorned with lamps, ribbons, anything and everything to draw a passerby to inspect the wares.
Storefronts and residences shared the lane, and everyone seemed to have something for sale. Produce was piled on brightly colored cloths on the doorsteps. Goods were propped on small tables.
It seemed to be a happy, safe place. Children darted across the road, dogs barked, and smells of cooking food wafted from the doorways of homes.
They walked slowly. It was a feast for the eyes, and Katsuro didn’t know where to look first. But Sakura was moving ahead of him, admiring the stands, speaking to the townspeople.
As he had become accustomed to, Sakura drew the attention. He wasn’t too far behind, but no one noticed him. It was strange. He’d spent his life keeping to the shadows or hiding behind disguises. And now he was out in the open, and no one cared.
He felt strangely light. Like some invisible tethers had been released. Like he had no other concerns in the world.
Ahead of him, Sakura was slowing, something had caught her eye. She ducked under an old awning to admire the items spread out on the table. Pale arm extending slowly, she let her fingers just touch the object of her interest.
Katsuro’s curiosity was piqued. What did she like? He knew she had another life, though he didn’t like to think about it. What could someone sell that she would be interested in? New weapons? Medical supplies? Candy?
He didn’t know. There was probably a lot he didn’t know about her, he decided. But he discarded the unhappy thought and quickened his pace to discover what had stopped her in her tracks.
The faded awning shaded the doorstep of an old home. And Katsuro guessed that it must have been the equally old owner who was tipped back in a chair on the other side of the table, head down, dozing under a threadbare old straw hat.
Katsuro came to a stop behind Sakura and was finally able to see the tabletop. It was covered with trinkets, gem stones, necklaces and amulets — all matter of things. Most were the types of garish talismans favored by old women.
But the stone that Sakura’s fingers rested on was entirely different.
“Isn’t it pretty?” she said quietly as he looked over her shoulder.
Like her, he was drawn to it. The slim rectangular green pendant glinted away in the sunlight, sparkling brighter than all the others.
Katsuro tipped his head to the side. It did have an unusual quality about it. As if lit from within.
Reaching around her, he lifted the necklace up by it’s thin black cord to get a better look. The pendant swung gently in front of their faces, catching the sunlight. And it was more remarkable than he’d first thought.
Rich glossy greens fused with a deeper emerald color at the edges. A few pale blotches of green streaked across the surface. As it swung, light flashed through at just the right angle, rendering the little streaks nearly white against the dark green for a moment.
“Wow,” Sakura breathed.
Katsuro agreed. It was beautiful. But when he slid his eyes from the pendant to her face, his breath caught in his throat.
Her eyes matched the stone perfectly.
They held the same depth, the same lit-from-within quality. It was all there, the same striations of green, darks and lights together. Like looking up at the canopy of a tree.
Katsuro flicked his gaze back to the stone. The sunlight shot through just then, illuminating the white streaks.
‘Clouds,’ he thought, mouth going dry. It reminded him of her eyes on the day they spent under the tree.
“It’s— It’s perfect,” was all he could manage to whisper.
Sakura smiled sweetly, her hand just brushing the outside of his sleeve. But a small cluster of children a few steps away was already diverting her attention.
Katsuro could hear their excited voices, “Go ask if she’s really a ninja!” “No, you ask!” With a soft laugh Sakura moved towards them.
Katsuro slowly lowered his arm and cupped the pendant in his hand. He bounced it lightly, enjoying its cool smoothness, the pleasant weight, wondering how it would feel—
“Sacred stone, that one is,” a gruff voice cut across Katsuro’s thoughts.
Katsuro turned suddenly. He had completely forgotten about the old man.
But the man just nodded at the stone swinging from Katsuro’s fist. “Said to be the link between heaven and earth.”
Katsuro quickly dropped the necklace back to the table.
The old man peered at him through the holes in the battered old hat, not bothering to lift his head.
“So, you gonna buy it or what?” he bristled.
“What?” Katsuro said, a little embarrassed, rubbing his neck self conciously.
“That one there. The jade one,” he grumbled. The man made a big show of letting his chair fall forward on it’s two front legs. Creaking a wrinkled arm out over the rest of the baubles, he caught up the green necklace and dangled it from his fingers in the sunlight.
He lowered his voice, letting the words drag out. “The one that looks like her eyes.”
Peering conspiratorially at Katsuro, the old man’s black eyes glinted like one of the cold stones he was hawking.
“I…uh….” Katsuro stalled.
‘Sly old man,’ he thought, ‘he’s been watching, hoping for a sale.’ He thought about the necklace again. Or maybe just pointing out the obvious.
He glanced up the road. Sakura was still preoccupied with the other townspeople.
“How much is it again?” Katsuro asked. The man waved his other saggy arm toward a small sign at the far edge of the table.
Katsuro coughed when he saw the prices. ‘That’s the end of that,’ he thought.
He barely had enough money to cover himself on these ‘errands.’ And he was almost out of what he had for this one. If he wanted anything extra, he knew he’d have to skip meals on several missions just to save up.
“Sorry, no money,” Katsuro said flatly.
The old man grumbled something indistinct, then rubbed his chin, thinking. “I can do better on that price,” he said slowly, “especially for you two.”
But his ploy only made Katsuro feel worse.
“Nah, really, I don’t have any money,” he said earnestly.
The old man sat back in his seat, knocked the tattered straw brim up and looked sharply at Katsuro.
“You mean to tell me you’ve got a pretty thing like that,” he pointed a knobby finger in Sakura’s direction, “and you don’t have a single coin on you?”
“Yeah,” Katsuro said laughing, looking up the road involuntarily.
It dawned on him that perhaps he had been wrong. People did see him, or rather, them. They just automatically assumed they were a couple. That thought made Katsuro a little delirious.
Just then, Sakura turned and looked back for him. Katsuro gave her a staccato wave.
“I’m pretty lucky,” he said, smiling broadly, eyes still on her.
“I’ll say you are,” the old man grumbled. “You better hold on to her tight.”
Katsuro watched as the old man laid the necklace back into it’s spot, then tipped himself back in the chair to lean against the wall again. He readjusted his hat, pulling the brim down over his face. He looked like he was sleeping, but the angle of his hat let him look right out across the table through the tattered straw without being detected.
That’s a pretty sneaky trick, Katsuro thought. Even he had figured the old man was dozing.
“If I get some money in, maybe I’ll come back and get it,” Katsuro offered. “Are you always here in this town?”
“Always right here,” his muffled voice came back.
Katsuro trotted up the road to rejoin Sakura. She grinned as he got closer. The little clutch of people separated, turning to him with small smiles of acknowledgement before they stepped away from the kunoichi, bidding pleasant farewells.
Katsuro could see it now. The people they passed, the people who spoke to her did notice him. And they saw him as part of a pair.
He nodded back to the retreating group and turned to resume walking with Sakura. The sense of belonging was intoxicating. He had to stop himself from reaching out to take her hand.
They continued up the road, moving slowly through the waning light. Though they left without making a single purchase, Katsuro felt he had gained something irreplaceable.
Much like the tiles at his feet, the charcoal rooflines staggered and overlapped until they were just a seamless smudge down the hillside. Only the slip of a road or the shuddering tip of an evergreen broke the monotony.
The grey winter sky stretched out overhead; the black spine of the building swayed out underneath. Chill morning air crept down the neck of his cloak. Katsuro rewrapped the dark fabric, trying to keep the fronts of his legs warm. Huddled there, cloak flapping out for a moment, he looked like a great black bird perched on the roofline.
Burying his head a little deeper in the collar, Katsuro tried to ignore the growling of his stomach. But finally he relented and reached back into his rucksack.
Feeling blindly for an orange, his fingers hooked around a cold, slim scroll instead. Itachi’s scroll. He dropped it immediately.
Catching up the fruit, he pulled it around front and palmed it comfortably. Stomach growling again, Katsuro, without thinking, began to peel it. It’s fresh scent made up for the licks of cold that broke through his cloak at the movement. But that was only a momentary distraction. Other, darker thoughts were weighing on him.
This last scroll was from Itachi directly, with specific orders to rendezvous with the group. The whole tone was different. Itachi was specific, never letting anything slip. The other assignments had just come down through the hazy chain of command. But if Itachi had returned, then Katsuro wasn’t sure he could meet up with her again. At least, not with the measure of freedom he’d had.
Katsuro sighed. He knew he’d definitely have to be more careful.
Sakura’s next mission wasn’t until the spring, during some town’s cherry blossom festival. That would at least give him time to plan out how to get there. He said he’d be there, the night before when they said their goodbyes, when they made their plans to meet again. He’d try. But it was a few months off, and so much could happen….
Which was why he was out here, waiting, when he should have been long gone.
The whispered farewell in the dim half-light at the edge of town wasn’t enough. He wanted a little more. He always did. He just wanted to see her again, one last time, in the daylight. In case this time he couldn’t keep his word.
Pulling his hands out from the cover of the cloak, Katsuro inspected the orange. A wave of bright fragrance fanned up from the shifting fabric, making him feel slightly better, a little less alone on his perch above the sleeping town. His stomach growled again.
Katsuro wondered off-handedly if he had missed her. Maybe she had left before dawn. Sighing softly, the ghost of his breath hung as a cloud in front of him, blurring the round edge of the orange for a moment. He hoped not.
Three fat curls of peel in one hand, he cupped the orange, about to split it with his thumb, when a door creaked nearby, breaking the stillness. Katsuro froze.
Sakura paused for a moment to adjust her pack. But even before she could finish tightening it, a deep yawn overtook her. She was well and truly tired, and she had a long journey back. She was glad that she’d been able to see him, this one last time, though. Even it did mean staying up so late just to catch a few hours with him.
She heaved her pack higher, and only got a few more steps before she had to stifle another great yawn. Rubbing her hands down her face, she decided she needed a brisk wake-up. It wouldn’t do to trek through foreign lands half-asleep.
Crossing the courtyard, Sakura headed straight for the open stream-fed trough just inside the gate. A little frigid water was sure to wake her up.
Cupping her hands, Sakura scooped out the water quickly and splashed her face. The shock of the cold took her breath away, but it did the trick. She dropped her face into the cloak-covered crook of her arm to dry it, relishing the sparse warmth. Then with the edge of her cloak she wiped the water from her chin and neck, and blinked away the excess from her eyes. She certainly did feel more awake than—
What she saw when she finally focused was more startling than frigid water.
There, at the corner of the stone trough, was a perfectly peeled orange. It was sitting on a large curl of it’s own peel, rocking slightly as if it had just, that very instant, been set down.
For the second time that morning, she was breathless from shock.
Cloak slipping from her fingers, Sakura worked over the scene. Had she simply missed it in her sleepy fog? Or had someone actually been there, beside her, in the half-seconds her face was covered?
She almost reached for it, then decided against it and curled her hand back. But as she looked at it a moment longer, a long-forgotten memory resurfaced, of orange segments cupped in their own peel, left just for her. A small kindness in the dark of an abandoned temple.
It was from him. She knew it.
Swiftly, Sakura scooped up the orange and peel, and turned, looking everywhere at once, trying to see if she’d missed him sneaking up behind her somehow. But she was alone in the courtyard. He must be close by, then.
In a few short steps she was out of the paling and standing in the lane, searching the dark rooftops, the edges of buildings for something out of place. But everything was silent and still.
She waited, eyes narrowed and puffed out a single breath. If she were Katsuro, where would she—
But he anticipated her, stepping out from behind a high fence at a bend in the road. Katsuro’s softly grinding footfalls echoed through the silence.
She turned at the sound, already grinning.
Katsuro just stood there watching her, head tipped a little, a soft smile tugging up the corners of his mouth.
His expression told it all. He had been waiting around for her, hoping to see her. She laughed quietly, shook her head.
Katsuro didn’t move toward her, he barely moved. Instead he raised one hand in farewell, fingers fluttering gently.
But Sakura understood. It would be so long before they’d see each other again. She raised her hand and slowly waved back, returning her own wistful smile.
Somewhere down the lane a dog barked. A door shut with a bang. The little town was waking up, and they both needed to be going. Their time alone was quickly drawing to a close.
She held up the orange and mouthed, “Thanks.” He smiled warmly then leapt up to a black tile roof and over the top.
Sakura watched him disappear. Then, finally tightening her straps, she turned to walk back down the steep lanes and leave the town behind.
But from the spine of next roof, Katsuro stopped. Foot propped on the upturned corner, black cloak fluttering out behind him, he scanned the patchwork of grey roads and dark roofs for the flash of pink.
He stood there, following her progress down the web of tiny lanes, until the buildings blocked his view completely. Then, cloak whirling out behind him, Katsuro turned and hopped to the next building, flying roof over roof until he disappeared into the high woods.