Chapter 25 – Festival, Part 1

Come to the orchard in spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.

If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.

—Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks

Dropping her pack in the corner of the second floor room, Sakura leaned out the open window for a moment. White curtains billowed at either side. The early spring weather was still coeol but pleasant. Outside the courtyard, the cherry blossoms beckoned, their airy branches stretching over the white walls of the old inn.
Sakura stayed only long enough to leave her excuses about being out late. The woman who ran the inn barely listened, waving Sakura on once she had finished speaking. No opening doors, no curious looks like the ones she’d grown used to in all her other travels. With so many out-of-town people here, Sakura received no more special treatment than any other paying customer. She could come and go as she pleased.
So with a spring in her step, Sakura set out to enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms before the opening of the trade meeting.
The village was flawless. Sakura felt a little guilty — it was much prettier than Konoha. The streets were smoothly paved, free from hanging lines and wash. Everyone seemed to take great care in the appearance of their homes and stores. She rounded a corner just as a man was sweeping the fallen cherry petals back into the road, away from the entrance to his store. He smiled and bobbed his head in greeting. She smiled brightly back. A stray petal had landed in his thick black hair, as if having the last word. The man returned to his task, swirling up petals like snow at his feet. She laughed to herself — even the debris they sweep up is beautiful!
Indeed, the only blemish to the manicured facades were the cherry petals, but no one seemed to truly mind. They studded the brown buildings and grey roofs. They ebbed at the edges of paths like the foam of a pink surf. They clung to silk robes and tattered coats alike. They floated in constellations atop the village’s blue-black canals.
The waterways were the crowning feature of the village plan, lined on each side with cherry trees and wide walkways. The flow of a single river had been diverted into several canals, which spread like blue fingers through the town. Blossom viewers could follow the meandering canals deep into the residential areas or straight through the heart of the village. It was designed to show the village at it’s best advantage, and it worked. Everyone was drawn to the canals, including Sakura.
She marveled at the cherry trees — and the wide range of people taking strolls underneath them. Stopping at one of the arched red bridges that crossed the canals, Sakura took in the sweeping view of white trees that hung out over the water. Families and couples, young and old, hard working men and elegant women, were all made equal under the lacy shadows of the delicate branches.
Tittering laughter echoed from the bank nearby. Sakura turned to see a girl, not much older than herself, dressed in a sumptuously layered kimono. She laughed again as another stream of blossoms rained down around her. The young man accompanying her had jostled a branch just to watch her reaction. The reward of his joke was clear in the smile on his face. He was just reaching forward to lift a stray petal from her hair when Sakura looked away, leaving them to their intimate moment.
Breathing a contented sigh, Sakura leaned on the railing and watched the petals slowly drift towards her down the canal. Everything seemed to be held in a delicate balance: the arching white boughs overhead, interlaced with bright blue patches of sky, the soft silver-black waters flowing beneath her feet, and her, afloat in the middle of it all on the wooden bridge. She breathed deeply, this time a familiar excitement slipping in with her contentment. The beauty of the scene was made better knowing that she might be able to share it with Katsuro. Only with that secret thought was she able to turn away and focus on the meeting ahead of her.
A rich baritone laugh drew her attention this time, but only because lighter spirits were so wildly out of place in this environment. Most of the crowd gathered for the trade summit greeted each other in cool silence, punctuated only by tight smiles and nods of recognition. But the handsome politician in cream silks welcomed the emissaries as if it were a pleasant reunion.
As it was, the large hall was already filling with guests. The trade meeting was held in the sprawling home of a former samurai, the next thing to royalty in a village of this sort. It was everything Sakura expected from a warrior-turned-cultured politician: Wide rooms that flowed from one to another, sumptuous scrolls and gilded folding screens, and grounds that rivaled any of the old castles she’d visited.
From the midst of her envoy, Sakura’s eyes roved the large hall. The dignitaries stood in clusters, flanked by associates, attendants and security, like Sakura. There were town politicians, wealthy merchants and even wealthier clan leaders. The hearty laugh echoed up again from the ranks of one of these families.
Clans were the easiest to pick out: Women were in those groups, there to partake of the gardens while the men sat in the meeting. For them, this was a social affair.
While Sakura scanned the room, a willowy woman split off from her clan and crossed the pale floor. Her daughters fell in line behind her, elegantly unconcerned with the appreciative looks they drew. They floated out the open screen doors, across the wide porch and down the steps into the garden. It struck Sakura that perhaps the women were also hoping to strike deals at this meeting.
The clan head Sakura was assigned to was an exception. He was there to improve his family’s standing, not swell their numbers. He ignored the languid women completely.
The charming politician’s laugh sounded up from a different quadrant this time. He was obviously working the room.
Sakura’s diplomat sniffed in disdain at the sound. Standing in front of her, back rigid, the shrewd man had no interest in the overly flaunting clan heads and their yards of colorful silks. His black kimono reflected his restrained perspective: It only had the most tasteful of decorations, picked out in fine silver threads. He turned his head, seeing someone he knew, and Sakura suddenly wondered if he’d matched the silver color of the robes to the faint grey showing at his temples. Probably, she thought with a smirk, finding a wicked pleasure in discovering that he was secretly as vain as the men he tried so hard not to be like.
But he was here strictly for business. And his meticulous appearance paid off. Other men, of similar manner and dress and station, sought him out.
Sakura perked up as more guests approached them, hoping to glean some background information. But their conversations were aloof. No more than formal greetings. Sakura stifled a sigh.
Subtly glancing around, Sakura mentally checked off her list from Tsunade. Watch the meeting, see who interacts on the surface and which ones seek each other out later. Watch the doors, sometimes you can spot budding allegiances in who’s coming and going together. Above all, find out as much as you can.
Another man passed, looking decidedly different from all the other men gathered here. His robes were of rougher material, and a little frayed at the sleeves. Dust marred the creases of the serviceable garment, and his hands and face were rough with use or exposure.
He paused, murmuring a greeting to the sharp-eyed clan head she was assigned to guard. Sakura expected her diplomat to shun the man, but to her surprise, her clan leader struck up conversation with him.
Sakura had just let her gaze drift back to center, listening to their conversation, when the man’s retinue of equally rough-looking guards materialized behind him. If the bulge of concealed weapons wasn’t intimidating enough, then the scars these men sported would have warned anyone of their occupation. Sakura forgot to listen, instead puzzling over what the man did that would warrant such a fierce looking guard. They glared at her. At everyone, really. Sakura ignored them.
A warm chuckle thrummed through the soft conversation beside her. Sakura knew instantly that the charming politician had worked his way around to them.
She subtly rocked forward for a better view. The two dignitaries stood close, opening their ranks only slightly for the newcomer. The conversation became louder and shifted to more neutral topics. Sakura sighed to herself. She hoped that simple eavesdropping would net her some information. But so far it hadn’t yielded anything. She needed to change up her tactics if she wanted to return home with any useful data for Tsunade.
The man in the cream silks rested his eyes on her for a moment, a quizzical expression gracing his features. Then it was gone behind another bright smile. He turned to field some questions about the meeting. Sakura couldn’t decide whether he was another emissary or if he was attending on behalf of the host. He seemed to know quite a lot about what was going on, but he didn’t seem to be attached to a single clan.
Conversation was amiable, but the hard-worn man was desirous of more private conversation. He held out an arm in open invitation to stroll the garden before the meeting.
As the clan leader’s guard, Sakura was about to fall into step behind him. But the the genteel man cut her and the rest of his entourage off with a flick of his hand. “Your presence is not required here,” he said icily.
The attendants dutifully dispersed to prepare for the meeting. Sakura was left to her own devices. Ignoring the skulking men a few paces from her, she was about to retreat to the garden walks as well, and see if she could pick up some snippets of conversation, when a smooth voice intoned at her shoulder.
“You must forgive me. I took you for a noblewoman when I first saw you.”
Sakura turned at the sound. Long black hair, tied in a sleek knot at the nape of his neck, faintly bronze skin and a curving smile…. The politician who had charmed his way into nearly every group in the room now turned his full attention on her. He was taller than she was and probably a good ten years older. But he waited on Sakura as if she were a noblewoman.
He couldn’t be more wrong, she thought. Sakura tipped her chin up and gazed back defiantly.
But his smile only grew wider. And as it did, a thin scar rippled up at the top of his cheek. It was only a pale half-moon, just below the corner of his eye, but it lent something of a dashing air to the spotless silks and pleasing facade he presented. He cocked his eyebrow, looking even more roguishly handsome.
“No. I can see now you are nothing like the women here.”
Sakura had to stop herself from rolling her eyes.
Seeing that flattery got him nowhere, he took a more playful tone. “Yet you look nothing like the others in your profession.”
He cast a significant glance at the churlish men across the room. Sakura followed his sightline to the scarred, rough bunch. On this point she agreed with him.
“So,” he drawled, “are you a common security detail or did you take a class—”
Sakura turned her head swiftly, shooting him a withering glare. He laughed out loud. That arrow had found it’s mark.
“A true shinobi, then.”
Sakura did roll her eyes then, refusing to play his game. She moved to step away but he stopped her. His hand rested lightly on her arm, never touching her skin.
“Ah, come now. I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said smoothly. “Let me make amends. I know a secret about this home that I think you, more than anyone else here, would find interesting.”
Sakura looked at him skeptically. Was he serious? All this attention and she’d never uttered a word? What was he on about?
“It was designed specifically to keep shinobi out,” he whispered, eyes dancing with delight. Sakura couldn’t deny that she was interested.
“If we hurry, we can see it before the meeting begins. Come,” he said, spreading his arm to the open screen door.
Her instincts warred with her requirements of the mission. It was risky. And snubbing him publicly would certainly land her in hot water with her employer. But the man liked to talk. He may yet drop some useful information. She decided the risk was worth it.
Besides, she thought, eyeing him up and down, she could take him.
Sakura nodded once and stepped through the doorway onto the wide polished porch, her companion a step behind.
They walked the length of the complex, turning corner after corner, but never leaving the exterior of the main building. Sakura was watching for any deceptions, but she detected none.
The man talked congenially, but it was of the sort that didn’t require much of a response, so Sakura kept silent.
Turning away from the gardens, they walked down the stretch of porch that ran the length of the far side of the house. The walls of the compound were closest on this side, just visible over the tops of the shrubbery.
The one-sided conversation grew thin. She was only distantly aware of the birds chirping and the slight give to the porch, keeping a sharp eye as to what was so damn interesting out here.
The more they walked, the more the floor groaned under their feet. Then another strange chirp mixed in with the spring bird sounds. Sakura stepped again. The chirp returned. Easing from one foot to another produced an entirely different chirp.
She shot a look at the man, who was smiling into her face.
“A nightingale floor?” He nodded with a grin.
Sakura rocked back and forth, making the strange friction noise work in time with her feet.
“I thought you of all people would find this interesting.”
Sakura smiled. He was right, she did.
They continued down the porch, the sharp sounds only increasing as they approached the various sliding doors on this side of the house. Sakura tried to walk as lightly as possible, but the noises gave her away. She backtracked, then retraced her steps trying to find a path. But it was impossible to avoid.
“What an ingenious thing,” she said with smiling wonderment, the boards squeaking even as she spoke.
The man laughed. “Since this area is closest to the wall, it is the most vulnerable to sneak attacks. So to thwart assassins, or shinobis,” he looked at her significantly, “one of the previous generations had this floor installed.”
He pressed a toe down on an extra loud board, chirping out a few beats.
She laughed, her smile open and earnest. He smiled back at her, pleased that it pleased her.
“I thought you might like it,” he said warmly.
She reined in some of her enthusiasm to a more respectable aloofness. “Thank you, I do.”
“Good.” He slid one of the paneled doors open gallantly. “Shall we rejoin the group?”
A gong sounded and the group moved en masse to the large traditional meeting hall. The diplomats took their places at the gleaming ebony table, as most trusted attendants clustered behind each chair. The rest were relegated to the benches against the wall.
Standing behind the diplomat she was hired by, Sakura donned her most impassive facade. She let her eyelids slide halfway down. Then, as the steady murmur and rustle of scrolls took hold, Sakura began to study the group.
It was just as Tsunade had outlined: a mixture of wealth and power. The rough-looking bunch hung behind their leader, looking every bit like a pack of dogs. Sakura was at a loss as to how that group fit into this puzzle. The charming politician took a place near an impressive clan. He caught her eye once, but to his credit he did not attempt to single her out again.
The tone of the meeting made the stifling atmosphere of the gathering room feel like a picnic. It was all business in here. The real negotiations started tomorrow. But if this was any indication, then it would be long and tense.
Twilight was softly upon them, ivory lamplight flickering across the gold panels, when the gong sounded to adjourn the meeting. Everyone rose together. Sakura relished the movement in her muscles. But as they folded into the stream of people exiting the room, she realized it would be impossible to watch for alliances and maintain her position with her envoy. She couldn’t see past the bobbing heads and shoulders around her.
She needed to come up with a better strategy. Sighing inwardly, she headed toward the door.

Strolling back to the center of town under the darkening sky, Sakura shook off the tension of the meeting. It wasn’t hard: the change in scenery from the afternoon was dramatic. Lanterns suspended from the treetops and were just now twinkling to life. Their red glow cast the petals into a deeper shade of pink, and the whole scene took on an other-worldly feel.
Adding to the excitement were the colorful creatures that Sakura spotted every so often. Sometimes it was the face of a  thunderous war god, other times it was the streaming cloak of a haunting spirit. But whichever costume they chose, the village youths were making a brisk business for the vendors selling masks and cloaks. And it only added to the carnival-like feeling of the night-time blossom viewing.
Most of the costumed festival-goers seemed harmless. But when Sakura spied a pack of masked teens crossing the lane quickly ahead of her, she changed her mind. They were moving quickly, jostling bystanders out of their path, before ducking between two vendor’s stalls.
Sakura narrowed her eyes. They can’t be up to any good. She followed in their wake, rounding the corner a few steps behind them.
And sure enough, the kids were pilfering food from an old farmer who had the misfortune of selling his produce off the main road. The biggest one was hulking over the farmer, blocking his view, while the others pocketed as much food as they could.
“Hey!” Sakura’s sharp voice startled them all. Fruit tumbled from hands and pockets, rolling everywhere. The one occupying the farmer turned quickly at the interruption. Even through the eyeholes of the grotesque mask Sakura could see he was ablaze with anger.
“Dammit. Come on,” the big one grumbled, flashing his thick hand at the group. His voice was deeper than Sakura expected, and as he straightened to dash off, Sakura was surprised to find he was taller than she expected too. Sakura watched them disappear, summing up that these were probably overgrown teens, as old if not older than her, and they were clearly taking advantage of the costumes.
The farmer was grumbling at his bad luck, but he was none the worse for wear. He was more interested in packing his crates and moving locations than speaking to anyone else at the moment. Sakura left him to his work.
Wandering back up the broadest tree-lined canal, Sakura couldn’t deny those kids had a good strategy, even if they were the village delinquents. There were lots of people dressed up in the very same masks and cloaks, and not all of them young. If that little gang had done any real harm it would be nearly impossible to find them.
She stopped at the base of one of the arched bridges and leaned her back against the rail. More crowds came and went, not all of them costumed, but interesting characters nonetheless. Gone were the families and sweethearts of the early afternoon. Now the noblemen, merchants and commoners all mingled together. And the men and women watched each other with an interest that suited the drama of the red blossom clouds drifting overhead.
A throng of men strolled up the lane, turning to cross the bridge. They were well dressed, in sleek, dark kimonos. Sakura thought she recognized one from the meeting and looked at him full in the face to be sure. It was not him, but her searching gaze did not go unnoticed, and as they passed the men all looked in her direction. A few even deigned to nod at her.
Sakura nodded politely, thinking to herself that they probably thought a young kunoichi was just as odd a sight as a masked thunder god come to life, when a tightly packed group of women of turned onto the bridge. They were clearly companions of the men, in equal number and just as impeccably dressed.
And, like the men, the women had not missed Sakura’s appraisal either.
Swishing their brightly colored kimonos, the women whispered to each other, each one getting an eyeful of Sakura’s very non-traditional apparel. Most simply snickered and averted their gaze as they passed. But the one on the end made a big show of sweeping out a gorgeous long sleeve as she came even with Sakura.
She touched a finger to a sprig of blossoms nestled atop her black hair, jingling the dainty chimes that hung from a hairstick affixed there. The effect was magical: Sound glittered around her as she walked. But the icy look she slanted at Sakura was anything but beautiful. She clearly perceived the kunoichi as a threat.
Stifling a laugh at the thought, Sakura ignored the cold glare and looked back down the bridge. The woman was apparently satisfied with her victory over the upstart kunoichi. She tossed her head to set the chimes moving again, but her own haughty laughter drowned out the pleasant ringing.
Sakura sighed, folding her arm over her waist. The loveliness was not what it seemed here. She’d wait a little longer before she set out to walk around the village. Right now she could still pass her time by fact-gathering, watching for someone she might recognize from the meeting. But she saw no one of interest.
However, Tsunade’s meticulous instruction at observation did pay off in some unintended ways.
Slipping in amongst the promenading families were other beautiful women. Sakura would have dismissed them completely if she hadn’t caught the snide looks on several noblewomen’s faces.
These women didn’t miss the withering glances either, but they simply laughed it off. Because where the nobles ignored them, the commoners smiled and deferred to their friendly, open manners. And these women were happy to give their attention.
They were courtesans, Sakura realized. Entertainers, attendants. These girls made it their livelihood to bring a colorful light to their patrons’ world. And they did their job well: Whether they were in a group or accompanying an individual, it was like a ray of sunshine followed them, even at night. They rivaled even the cherry blossoms for attention.
After seeing several pass by, Sakura began to study them in earnest. That would be a good disguise in a pinch.
A group of courtesans strode up the lane, but one woman broke off near the bridge. Sakura watched her closely. With fluid grace, the woman leaned out and plucked an overripe fruit from a farmer’s cart. The old man’s parchment cheeks stained pink. He smiled broadly, revealing several missing teeth. It was jarring. But instead of shirking him, the courtesan took it all in stride. She smiled glowingly back, looking past the flaw.
She’s after something other than fruit.
The courtesan laid her hand on the man’s ragged coat sleeve, so different from her flowing silk kimono. A question wilted her rose-blossom lips. She looked across the canal, feigning sadness (Sakura could tell) and pointed a slender white finger. Rows of wrinkles furrowed up the man’s forehead as he sought out the source of her displeasure. Sakura was compelled to look as well. A cluster of noblemen were walking together, heads bowed, talking closely. All different ages, all with varying looks. Yet their wealth was visible on their sleeves. The money put out for those silk robes alone could float a small town for a month, Sakura thought.
The old farmer laughed, delighted to be of use to the beautiful woman. He passed on what little he knew and was rewarded with the return of happiness to her face. She nodded and bowed in thanks to the old man as if he were a regal nobleman. The farmer was so delighted with her praise that he pushed another perfect round fruit into her hand before she left.
Sakura was amazed. That woman had gotten her information, and the man had been thrilled to tell her. Even gave her a parting gift!
Steady to her purpose, she crossed the lane towards Sakura, the bridge and presumably to her conquest, one of the wealthy men in the group.
Sakura was not expecting any acknowledgement, but as she approached, the woman startled her with a knowing look. Her glittering eyes and the slightest smirk curving up the corners of her red mouth told her everything. In an instant, an unspoken message passed between them like a lesson from teacher to student: She had used her feminine wiles to get what she needed.
The courtesan must have known Sakura was watching her. The kunoichi blushed lightly, a little embarrassed at being caught. But the woman’s smile only deepened. She nodded to Sakura, and Sakura, understanding now that witnessing this woman’s subtle manipulations was a lesson freely given, nodded back.
Eyes shifting back to her prize, the woman continued on, leaving only the soft rustle of silks and sweet perfume in the air behind her.
Unaccountably, Sakura thought of Tsunade. She thought that somehow, the Hokage would approve of this woman’s strategies, using her beauty and charm was a tool. In this instance it was probably more persuasive than a kunai.
The woman and her conquest moved out of sight. Sakura pushed off from the rail and decided that it was finally late enough to set out on her real purpose as well.
Excitement that she’d kept buried for months now threatened to consume her. Maybe tonight, maybe tonight…. Walking was exactly what she needed right now.
She followed the canals, taking each of them deep into the different quadrants of the village. She walked until the anticipation was dampened. She walked until the fantastical pink branches had started to loose some of their luster. She walked until she had completely convinced herself she wouldn’t see him. Maybe not tonight, after all. 
Deeper in the residential sections of the village, almost near the outer wall, the pavers gave way to gravel. The trees were thinning out, and the crowds seemed to have abandoned these sections of the canal. The homes were still tidy, but they were not nearly as nice as the ones closer in to the center. She was just wondering if there was a bad section to this village, when a stone skipped out of the alley between two blocks of homes.
Slowing, Sakura took her time, fully aware that it could be Katsuro…or anyone else prone to hiding in dark corners.
Never veering from her path, she walked until she was just upon the pebble, then turned to look down the alley. Sure enough, there was a figure in the shadows. It peeled itself off the wall, and stepped toward the light, but never crossed out of that dark line. It stopped, facing her.
Sakura knew that profile, the soft curve of his shoulders and elbows when he stood with his hands shoved into his pockets. His head was tipped to the side. Even in darkness, she knew he was smiling.
“Katsuro,” she whispered. But she didn’t wait for his signal, that subtle little nod she knew so well. Instead she dashed the few steps and crossed over into the darkness with him.
“Sakura,” he said warmly when she was close enough to hear.
“I’m so glad you made it,” she said immediately, excitement bubbling to the surface. Her eyes roved over him, taking him in all at once. “How have you been? I’m so happy you came. The festival is beautiful, I can’t wait to show you. How are you?”
She paused for a breath. He chuckled softly. His hair had grown a bit, and the unruly locks gently shook when he laughed. But he was perfectly as she remembered him, even if a bit dusty and road weary. They were still a match in height. And his eyes still fixed her with a measure of warmth that made her feel like she was the only person in the world.
“It’s so good to see you again,” he said quietly.
“Did you just get here? There is so much to see—”
The sound of voices drifted up from across the canal. They both stopped, watched and waited until the voices receded.
Katsuro sighed softly. “I can’t stay long.”
“Oh.” Sakura couldn’t ignore the wistful note in his voice. Swallowing her disappointment, she reached for his hand to tug him along. “Well, we’ll have to make the most of it—”
But he didn’t budge.
Instead he twined his fingers around hers, clasping her hand tightly. Sakura stopped, instantly aware of how much she liked the feeling of his hands, warm and callused, in hers. It felt so right, a perfect fit. Turning back slowly, she pressed her palm against his, grateful for the darkness. It made her feel more brave than she otherwise might have been.
Until that moment, she didn’t know how much she had missed him. Or just how deep her feelings ran. She only knew that however long he could stay, it would not be nearly long enough.
A little embarrassed at this realization, Sakura hurried on to other topics.
“Anyway, I…uh…I was looking for you. I mean, I hoped I’d see you.” She cleared her throat. “I mean…uh…have you ever been to a cherry blossom festival?”
Katsuro just laughed softly, dragging his thumb over her skin. “What do you think?”
“Yeah…” she said with a dry laugh. “I guess I should have known. Probably not.”
Katsuro’s touch left a trail of fire across the back of her hand. His eyes, blue-black in the darkness, were intently fixed on her.
Sakura felt suddenly warm. Desperate for some activity, she tugged his arm again, falling back to her earlier plans of showing him the blossoms. Whether he wanted to go or not.
He resisted slightly, still smiling into her face, but when she pulled again, this time it dislodged something.
A sack fell with a heavy metallic clink to the ground. Katsuro instantly let go of her hand.
“Oh, sorry,” she said reaching down at the same time as him. But he snatched it up before she could help. The shift of coins in the fat, round bottom of the cinched sack was unmistakeable.
“Money?” she said, surprised.
“An errand,” he quietly corrected, slipping the bag around to some secret pocket at the small of his back.
“That’s quite a lot for just an—”
“I only deliver it,” he said crisply, cloak swirling back into place. He looked her square in the face. His brown eyes didn’t hold a trace of their former softness. “I don’t ask questions.”
An old, familiar chill crept in. What he meant was, she shouldn’t ask questions either.
She tore her gaze away, looking down at the ground between them, her thoughts turning inward.
He was a rogue after all, she thought. It was a sharp reminder of just how complex their friendship was. For the first time, she wondered if maybe she should be looking deeper.
She blinked once, and meant to step away, just put a little distance between them so she could think, but Katsuro caught her arm.
“Hey, I told you this stuff doesn’t matter to me.” He looked at her with the earnest openness she knew so well. The warmth of his hand on her arm was strangely reassuring.
“If they had me delivering chopsticks, I’d do it,” he said, drawing closer to her, his face wreathed in a hopeful half-smile. “As long as I get to see you.”
Sakura bit her lip and studied his face. There was a tightness at the corner of his eyes she’d missed before. He was tired. She had overlooked it in the excitement of seeing him. That explained a lot. She knew enough of him now to know that missions gone awry weighed heavily on him. She pushed all the other doubts from her mind.
“Well, I was hoping you’d come to the festival with me” she rejoined, tapping a finger lightly at the front of his cloak. “Actually, it was one of the reasons I took this mission,” she admitted.
Katsuro’s smile faded. His grip on her arm softened. Sakura watched him closely. His hesitation was evident, but she also thought she might be able to persuaded him, if he felt safe enough. She pushed on, undaunted.
“It’s so beautiful, this town is renowned for its blossoms. And travelers will be here from everywhere, so no one would notice two more. You could henge or we could—”
“No,” he said emphatically, stepping back from her. “I could never henge here. It’s too dangerous.” Katsuro looked distinctly uncomfortable. “You know, what with the rise in chakra levels and all,” he muttered. “Could be people here trained to notice things like that….”
He rubbed a hand over his neck. “I mean, for something this public it would have to be a disguise, at least….”
But Sakura was inwardly pleased. He was considering it, and that was enough for her.
“Right! Well lucky for you,” she stepped toward him, “I’ve already figured it out. Wear your cloak, and I’ll pick up some festival masks. We’ll look just like everyone else!”
Hands at her hips, Sakura shifted her weight to one side and shot him a challenging grin. “Trust me, this will work!”
Katsuro took one, long look at her. Standing in the darkness, smiling brilliantly, she’d worked it all out. Taken into account his situation, allayed his fears. How could he say no?
Her eyes glittered. She rocked once on the balls of her feet.
Katsuro breathed deeply. “Ok.”
He supposed he could wait until tomorrow to tell her….
“We’ll have a great time. You’ll see,” she said and playfully punched his arm.
“Owww!” Katsuro gingerly rubbed the spot, but it did the job of coaxing the smile back to his face.

In the luminous blue of morning the trade summit began again.
Everyone resumed their stony positions as if time hadn’t passed from the evening before. Sakura stood till her feet ached. But the meeting dragged on and on.
She had been able to glean some general information about the representatives, but nothing personal. A few clans produced raw materials, and they were looking for the highest price for their goods. Some men represented towns with a great deal to be gained in trade, they lobbied for their share of products.
But still others were a mystery. Like the rough clan opposite to her. The black creases in all their sturdy clothes pitched them in stark contrast from the fluid silks of the people around them. The leader nodded once at her diplomat, his black beady eyes fixed on the genteel man. To Sakura’s surprise, her diplomat nodded back. Sakura could not fathom what they were in agreement on.
By the time the midday break rolled around, Sakura had nearly given up hope of interpreting any of the men’s significant glances to each other at the table. They all seemed to be in cahoots with someone or other. Sakura wasn’t yet desperate enough to swap scrolls, leaving them blank ones while she scanned their contents, but she was close.
As she gathered a few morsels from the generous buffet laid out for meeting, she resolved to eavesdrop in the garden during the break.
Just finishing her plate, Sakura glanced toward the door. The rough men of the strange envoy skulked there, watching the room. Watching her.
She frowned, picking out a few more sweets as an excuse to get a better look at them and decide if they were a real threat or not.
Wherever they were from, life was hard. They all sported scars and gashes. But the marks gave them a kind of threatening credibility among the noblemen. Everyone steered clear of them.
Sakura’s thoughts slipped to clinical analysis. The biggest one in the back had a black patch over his eye, angry scarred skin dragging out on his cheek and forehead. Clearly a kunai wound, she decided, and dropped another bean puff onto her plate.
But the man in front was only a little luckier. The scar he sported stopped just short of his eye, saving his vision. But without the benefit of a proper medic, the wound had healed poorly. The result was a badly disfigured face. His cheek dipped and bulged where it shouldn’t. Sakura guessed it must have been a painful recovery—
The man turned suddenly, catching her inspecting his battle scar. He shot her a leering smile, stretching his lips thin to reveal several missing teeth. The old wound on his cheek puckered grotesquely.
Only self-control kept her from flinching. But as he seemed to enjoy the effect his face had on others, she shed what little sympathy she’d had for the man.
Sakura resolved to ignore them, and was just glancing back to her plate — realizing she had put several items on there that she didn’t have the faintest idea what they were — when the men shifted their stance. It was so slight, no one else even noticed. But she did — she was trained to notice.
The big one with the patched eye even went so far as to rest his hand on the hilt of a hidden weapon, drawing it out of his rough waist cloth just enough to be visible.
Sakura was so focused on the man’s subtle movements that the gentle pressure on her sleeve completely surprised her.
“Looks like you’ve made a friend,” a soft baritone voice laughed at her shoulder. The hand lingered a moment longer. “Come now, you know better than to antagonize the wild things.” The charming politician hovered behind her, smiling warmly.
He slanted his eyes at her over-laden plate. Caught, Sakura jettisoned it on the table. He laughed knowingly.
With efficient grace the man snagged a clean plate and plucked a handful of the choicest desserts. He handed it to her with a curving smile. “Here. Trust me, these are the best.”
She sheepishly accepted and stepped away from the table. He fell into pace beside her. The surly bunch watched their movements.
That group,” he said in hushed tones, tipping his head closer, “has a lot to gain here, so they have to make a big show.”
Disregarding their menacing looks, he swept his eyes over the room and stopped on a large party at the other side.
“Now that crowd, they have no use for hulking men. See how everyone waits on them? They are interested in buying merchandise. Everyone wants to be in their favor.”
He did not miss the alert shift in her eyes at that piece of information. Seeing her interest, the man swept his arm wide in invitation. “Come, let me escort you on the scenic route to the meeting hall.”
He moved ahead expectantly. But when she didn’t immediately step beside him, he looked back, an unspoken question wrinkling up his smooth, tanned forehead.
Dish of sweets perched in her hand, Sakura paused for the barest of moments. She had the distinct feeling that if it were a more private setting he would have held out his hand. There was something more than friendly in his tone. He was older, but not so much that accompanying him would be improper. And as a shinobi hailing from a hidden village, her social standing was probably higher than a local politician, for all his good looks. No, it would not raise eyebrows if she were to accompany him.
He curled up a corner of his mouth, not put off in the slightest by her momentary hesitation. It did help that he was so easy on the eyes, she thought.
An image from the night before flashed unbidden. The gorgeous girl smiling at the ragged farmer, using her attentions to get what she needed. And Sakura needed something from this man: information. How hard could it be?
She let a warmth suffuse her features, trying to switch off her kunoichi persona for the moment. “Of course,” she said softly. Without thinking, she tucked an errant curl behind her ear.
His eyes followed the movement, smile widening. He did hold out his arm then, pale silks fluttering softly, but he never moved to touch her.
Sakura smiled demurely. From her dish she chose a delicate peach bun, it’s cream cheeks just blushed with pink, and laid the plate aside. Then she fell into step beside him.
They crossed the wide room, ignoring the pointed looks of the scruffy guards, and down the broad steps into the formal garden in the center of the complex.
Winding around the stone paths, past gnarled pines with their puffs of foliage rising above the tiled roofs, the man talked and laughed, offering pleasant conversation. Sakura was saved from the necessity of speaking by the nibbles at the peach bun. Thus, as Sakura hoped, when they passed another clan head, the man filled her in on the choicest bits of news, sometimes hinting at where the clan was from and what they really hoped to gain here. Sakura found she had to do very little but smile and show her interest and he kept talking.
A few stories took on a gossipy bent. Sakura’s light gasps and soft laughs did not go unnoticed, and the man smiled good-naturedly at her obvious inexperience in those more sordid affairs of state.
Something in him reminded Sakura of the innkeeper from her first mission. They were probably around the same age, although this politician’s finer silk robes and longer, sleeker black ponytail only added to his natural appeal. He was quite handsome. If Sakura hadn’t noticed it herself then the subtle looks of passing women would have confirmed it. She supposed that if the small town innkeeper had higher ambitions, this could have been him.
“That one is another big fish,” the man said, nodding to a portly man with a large entourage. He swung his squinty gaze towards Sakura for a moment. She and the politician nodded deferentially. Then the group swept through the open screens in front of them.
“Those are the ones to watch,” he said, eyes following the clan till the door closed. “The smaller clans, like yours,” he looked sideways at her, “well, sometimes this is the only chance they’ll have to make some good deals. But men like that are the ones that oil the wheels in their part of the world.” His eyes glinted for a moment, but he buried it under another broad, curving smile.
They rounded a corner, and Sakura caught sight of the rough-hewn diplomat speaking with another more genteel clan leader. His lone guard cast a surly glance in their direction, then looked away.
The man provided her with good information, but she needed more. She needed specifics. She thought of the beautiful woman again. Flattery wouldn’t work here; this was a politician, not a scruffy farmer. No, this called for something more sly.
Sakura playfully tapped a finger to her lips. She scrunched up her nose, as if in thought. The man watched her.
She had a moment of cutting inspiration. “Well, if the clan heads oil the wheels,” Sakura narrowed her eyes, flashing him a wicked grin, “then that man must be the oil?”
The politician laughed out loud. Several people turned their heads. But the tactic worked.
“You catch on quickly,” he said, eyes glittering. He leaned closer and, with a conspiratorial whisper, proceeded to tell her exactly how they fit into the puzzle. “So, that clan owns a mine. Filthy stuff, as you can see. But he trades in ore, and their clan are accomplished metalsmiths.” They rounded another corner. “Now, there are plenty of metalsmiths, but these men are experts in their field: They make weapons.” He looked to Sakura, and she feigned being impressed for the sake of hearing him out.
“Highly sought-after weapons. So any merchant who can land a deal with them will be sitting on a fortune.” Sakura cocked an eyebrow, clearly missing something. “But this clan over here also are excellent metalsmiths,” he nodded to another man “who also forge excellent weapons. Now, if they can buy up the metals at a better price than then mine owner’s clan can produce the weapons, then that clan will have the edge, because only their weapons will make it to market.
“So the mine owner listens to different offers and makes tentative deals. Tomorrow he’ll circle back around to see if he can get a better offer. And then he’ll sell either weapons to the merchants or bulk metals to a clan.”
“Oh,” Sakura said, taking it all in. “So it’s a bit like a shell game.”
The politician nodded. “And all these men know it.”
Sakura looked around the wide gardens. There were people everywhere, beyond the ponds, walking down the wide paths, heads together in discussion.
“Everyone has something to gain or lose here.” He motioned discreetly to various clusters. “Those men are looking for buyers of bulk rice from their country. And that clan hopes to improve their standing by importing cheap silks.”
The list went on and on. Sakura committed it all to memory. This was the information Tsunade needed.
Talk drifted back to anecdotes, and Sakura had a lightweight feeling of relief. It must have showed. He flashed her another one of those curving smiles.
Sakura quickly shifted the conversation. “So where do you fit into all this?”
“Ah, I’m very much the same as you, I would wager.” He trailed his elegant fingers along the railing of the footbridge. “I assist where I am needed and protect this town’s interests where I can. I am just a lowly politician, though, completely here at the whim of these men.”
Sakura said nothing. He regarded her warmly for a moment, before dropping his voice. “However, I am quite different from you in that I could never be mistaken for a member of a noblemen’s clan.”
Sakura merely laughed at his flattery; he pretended to be injured by the slight.
“No, really! You are nothing like your warrior compatriots over there,” he said as they turned toward the meeting hall. He shot a mocking glance at the thuggish men just inside the doors. “You are blessedly free of decoration.”
He took a moment to study her face. It was long enough to possibly have another intention, but not long enough to cause an affront. Sakura glanced involuntarily at the thin scar on his cheek.
He touched two fingers to the spot, just below his eye.
“Ah, so you’ve noticed,” he lamented good-naturedly. “Nothing so daring, I assure you. A quarrel with a friend in my youth, and I still bear the mark.”
Sakura thought he probably knew very well how appealing it looked, the handsome politician with the dashing scar. It certainly set him apart from the other well-dressed men.
The gong sounded again, signaling the return to the meeting.
“Come, we both have duties to return to.”
The “big fish” clan turned up the path before them. Flashing her a last bright smile, the politician hurried through the door, speaking congenially to some of their elegant guests.
Returning to her spot in the large hall, Sakura flattened her feet, let her muscles go soft and breathed deeply through her nose. It was the most relaxed her body could get while standing, but it helped her endure the position. And when the meeting finally got underway, she set to her task of cataloging the occupants of the room and everything she knew about them.
Hours later, as they were exiting, Sakura happened to pass the politician again. He made some small talk about the beautiful weather, the cool, fragrant air.
Sakura barely heard him. The excitement of the evening to come was nearly buzzing in her ears.
“It will be a lovely night for blossom viewing.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, smiling to herself.
The politician didn’t miss it.
“Have a nice time, then,” he said softly. “Perhaps we will see each other.”
She was saved from responding by the appearance of her unyielding diplomat. He dismissed Sakura outright. But he held up a hand to the politician. “I would detain you for a moment,” he said quietly.
“Certainly,” the politician said smoothly. “Perhaps you would care to take in the grounds?” He slid back the screens and they crossed over the porch together. Sakura watched the politician’s handsome face in profile, giving all his attention to the demanding clansmen.
Better him than me, she thought, turning on her heel.

Sakura’s excitement was full blown as she stepped away from the round gate of the old samurai home. The blue sky was waning, but the cherry trees still kept their daylight blush. Sakura breathed in the smells, listened to the laughter. It was such a relief after the hours in the stifling meeting hall. People walked around her, bustling, talking and admiring. Petals fell like rain, hanging weightless in the air. It seemed like a dream. Like the whole village was caught up in one of the glorious swirling balls sold at the merchants’ booths.
Darkness slowly descended, the lanterns were lit, painting the pale blossoms in the rouged reds of the night before. Sakura knew she had one more job to do before she could find him.
She stopped at a wall of garish faces. Fierce men, pale women, frowning gods and comical animals all stared back at her with empty eyes. Sakura studied the masks. She really didn’t want to look at or like any of them, and none seemed to suit him. But at the end of a row of kittens with pink bows, were a handful of kitsune masks.
The prankster. Those would do.
Her hand hovered over a set of fox faces, glossy black with blood red flames swirling out at the edges, but she decided they looked too menacing. This night was to be fun. She kept going, past a more docile brown pair, to a set of sleek white fox faces. Gold arches accentuated the nose and eyes, and playful red whiskers streaked up the sides. Perfect.
She unhooked them and quickly paid.
Red laces tangling together, the masks gently bumped her leg as she walked. Sakura passed down the long lanes beside the canals, ducking under frothy pink branches and sweeping pale petals out of her hair. When the crowds began to ebb, she knew she was nearing the residential area where she met him last night.
Her excitement mounted the closer she got to the alleyway. But turning the dark corner extinguished her anticipation. He wasn’t there.
Moving deeper down the narrow lane, Sakura slipped the cloak from her hip pack and snapped it at her neck. She found an inconspicuous spot to wait, crouched down and melted into the shadows.
She didn’t intend for it to be a good hiding place, but apparently it was. Because when Katsuro came silently hopping over a nearby building, dropping to the road with a muffled thud, he never even saw her.
He headed toward the main road, movements tight, footsteps deadly quiet. Sakura marveled at his stealth for a moment before rising out of the shadow.
The grinding of her heel was so subtle it barely registered to her, but he whipped around as if someone called his name, kunai flashing silver against his cloak.
“Sa-Sakura,” he said breathlessly.
She smiled and closed the distance between them. He stowed his kunai.
“You should never…I thought you were….” He looked into her face seriously for a moment, then shook his head. “I-I don’t know what I thought. Were you waiting long?”
“No, not long,” she said warmly. “Here, I brought you something.”
Katsuro reached reflexively for what she had produced from behind her back, but his hand froze suddenly. His body went rigid.
Between them, two white fox faces glowed dimly in the dark light. Their hollow, sightless eyes waiting to be filled.
Sakura untangled the laces and walked around behind him. Panicked confusion rooted Katsuro to the spot.
“Remember,” she said over his shoulder, “so we can go to the festival without having to henge?”
“Oh,” he gulped. “Yeah.” That’s right, he had agreed to this. But he had no way of knowing—
A gentle pressure weighed down one shoulder. With her other hand she smoothed down the hood of the cloak, her fingertips just grazing the exposed skin at the back of his neck. The tingling awareness that accompanied her touch set him even more on edge. He meant to turn, but she stepped closer, holding his shoulder firmly.
“Hang on,” she muttered, teeth clenched on the ribbon of the other mask.
Katsuro was about to tell her no, that there was no way, that he couldn’t possibly wear it, when she raked her fingers through the back of his hair. His stomach tightened, like he’d been punched, but…but in a good way. He let his shoulder relax under the weight of her hand. She dragged her fingers over his hair a few quick times, smoothing out the most unruly sections.
“Don’t want to tie your hair in the knot,” she mumbled past the ribbon, leaning into him slightly.
Faint puffs of breath skittered across the nape of his neck. It made his breath catch. He would have been happy to stand there all night, just like that….
Sakura’s hands lifted off him and a black curtain dropped over the world. Gasping sharply, he squeezed his eyes shut. But there wasn’t long to entertain the sickening thoughts about the mask he was wearing.
Immediately, her hands were slipping back over his hair, pulling the ribbon taut and tying it in place. Eyes closed, he was still alert to every little touch, the sweet sensations triumphing over his unease. She tightened the knot, smoothed around it, and then, when he thought she was done, she reached up and tousled the top of his head.
His eyes snapped open, and the world returned, unchanged.
Sakura walked back around, inspecting his face. “Very handsome. Can you do me?” Turning away, she held her mask up over her shoulder.
Katsuro stared at the ghostly fox face, held even with her soft, pink hair.
He swallowed thickly. Too far in to back out now. 

But the reward for going through with this was right in front of him. He took the mask.
With his other hand, he slowly gathered the length of her hair, letting it fall in waves down the back of her neck. He smoothed down the sides as best as he could, feeling suddenly clumsy.
Her hair was soft and cool, just like he remembered it from so long ago. He had wanted to touch it on many occasions since then, but he’d always held back. Now, though, he had an excuse.
He let her hair slide over his fingers, admiring the sleek texture, marveling at how the color picked up the light, even in the dim lane.
Katsuro didn’t think he’d tarried too long, but when she turned her face slightly, he caught a knowing smile on her profile.
“Sorry,” he said hastily, and slipped the mask over her head.
She turned to him, all pink hair and fox face. Katsuro couldn’t shake the feeling he was trapped in a nightmare.
But her green eyes smiled up at him through the mask. “We’re going to have a great time, you’ll see.”
Sakura busied herself, adjusting her hood, pulling it far out over her face, completely enshrouding her hair in darkness. She fidgeted with the edges of the hood for several moments more before resolutely dropping her hands to her sides.
Then, while Katsuro was still fighting the vertigo of really having to go through with this, she stuck one pale hand out into the darkness between them. Palm open.
He glanced at her face, the mocking kitsune mask. But her eyes were there too. Wide and searching, her gaze hopeful.
He didn’t know what he was doing anymore. Everything seemed to be going wrong. But then here she was. Standing in the middle, bridging the gap. Making the difference. And suddenly, accepting her, and whatever it was she was offering, seemed right.
Slowly, he slipped his hand into hers. He’d go. He’d go with her, and he’d see this thing she wanted him to see. And he wouldn’t look at her mask. Only her eyes.
She squeezed his hand, and he remembered to breath. She squeezed again.
“Your hood,” she said expectantly.
“Oh, yeah.” He flipped it forward with his other hand. “Okay?”
Sakura nodded. She took the first step and they headed down the lane toward the canal.
Something of self-doubt must have crept in, because when they were almost out of the darkness she whispered apologetically, “I know it’s not as safe as last fall in the country, when there was no one around, but I’ll keep close watch. And hopefully,” her voice lingered over the last words, her hand tightened a fraction, revealing her thoughts, “you’ll enjoy it here too.”
Under the mask, he smiled, finally remembering who he was when he was with her.
He shifted his palm, interlacing his fingers with her and squeezed her hand back. “I know I will.”
Sakura looked up at him, and was glad to see the crinkle at the corner of his eyes had returned. He was smiling. She grinned back brightly, and they left the dark lane.
The festival was a sight to behold, and Katsuro was duly impressed…after he got over the initial shock of wandering around in the disguise. But what she said was true: There were so many people donning all manner of masks, they blended right in. No one gave them a second look.
Though he didn’t feel as free as Sakura, her eyes dancing across the scenery without reserve, he did feel safe enough to enjoy himself.
Katsuro marveled at the petals, falling like snow around them. He let her tug him this way and that, feasting their eyes on all the pleasant distractions of a village festival. Her touch alway gentle, leading him from merchant stalls to street performers. Pointing out her favorites or relating little stories. The sweet chime of her laughter threading through all the little scenes.
Katsuro quietly took it all in. The riot of sights and sounds, the colorful crowds, all drawn to the frisson of blossom viewing. And with her disguises, they were just two more local youths, masked faces and streaming cloaks, hurrying down the petal-strewn lanes.
The cherry trees were beautiful, she was right, but they took second place to just being with her. Simply carving out a little more time. He sighed, trying to shake the burden of his thoughts. For this small moment, everything was alright.
He glanced around, checking the rooftops as he’d done almost habitually since he arrived earlier a few hours before. But still nothing was amiss. He turned back to Sakura, glad she hadn’t noticed his distraction.
Her gaze was fixed ahead on an old stone lantern erected near an old gnarled cherry tree. She suddenly stepped off the lane to get a closer look.
Bending casually to inspect the relic, Sakura ran her fingers over the lines carved in the pedestal detailing it’s history. Even Katsuro stopped on the path, looking to see what had captured her attention.
But beyond the lantern, Sakura had noticed something far more important. Coming up the lane was a group of well dressed men and women. Sakura recognized a few of them from the meeting.
Face tipped down, she peered straight out over the curled top of the lantern. From the protective cover of the mask her eyes darted over the scene, committing their faces to memory. She’d go over her notes later to see if she could find connections.
A gap in the group gave Sakura a clear view of another familiar face. The handsome politician from the meeting was in the middle, all broad smiles, entertaining a few of the more elegant clan women that flanked him.
He threw his head back with a laugh, and Sakura inwardly cringed. He was really laying it on thick.
The group was turning down another lane, heading into a very exclusive neighborhood. Sakura straightened slowly, hoping for a glimpse of their final destination.
But something snagged the politician’s attention. He looked clearly in her direction. The big smile slipped.
Lagging a step behind, he tipped his head. An unmistakeable spark of recognition had dawned on his face, but his eyes shifted suddenly. At that moment, Katsuro stepped out beside her, curious to see what was so interesting about the lantern.
Acting on instinct alone, Sakura turned swiftly, blocking the politician’s view of Katsuro.
Though she had a double motive — she didn’t want Katsuro asking questions about her mission — she wasn’t thinking of that when she moved. It was the desire to protect him, shield him from the unwanted attention he hated so much, that caused her adrenaline to spike.
But his mask was firmly in place. Even right next to him, his identity was perfectly concealed. Under her mask she blew out a low, relieved breath.
Katsuro stood, looking at her seriously. Then, suddenly, he reached out toward her face.
It was so quick and purposeful, Sakura forgot for an instant that she was wearing a mask. She expected to feel the gentle brush of his hand against her cheek. But it never came.
Instead he adjusted something at her collar, then dropped his hand back into the folds of his cloak.
Sakura stood watching him, puzzling over the soft gesture, until he said awkwardly, “Your hair was showing.”
A lone curl of pink hair had worked its way out of the hood. The disguise made it impossible to feel.
“Oh, it was?” she said, finding the offending lock and pushing it back even further.
Under the mask, her face fell to a sudden frown. She glanced back at the spot where the group was walking, but it was deserted. Turning a little more, she scanned down the side road. The group, ambling slowly, was just turning out of sight. She caught a glimpse of the politician’s cream silks as they disappeared.
“Something wrong?”
“No. N-nothing,” she said. “Come on, let’s keep going,” she rejoined brightly.
Katsuro frowned slightly, but said nothing.
They walked away from the center of the festival, leaving the bustle and crowded lanes behind them. The crowds thinned and the noise quieted. Around them people strolled pleasantly, many in close conversation.
Having something to compare it with now, Katsuro decided he preferred her solitary missions to this village one. Out there, beyond those walls, they were able enjoy each other’s company without reserve. But here, it seemed, there were things weighing on both of them.
He cleared his throat, falling back to the topics he had loved to hear about the season before. “So, how is everything? Have you trained a lot, learned new things?”
She smiled. “No, not so much. More work than anything. When I go on missions, I have to sacrifice my hospital shifts. So I had a lot of hours to make up.”
Talk turned to her village, her life, and the little mundane things that moved her days along. For Katsuro, it was hard to remember that the things that made up her life also resided in the village he hated. But he listened quietly.
Ahead of them a drama was playing out beside one of the shops. Several kids were huddled in an alley, waiting for the sharp-eyed shopkeeper to turn his back.
Sakura continued speaking, but both their attention was drawn to the scene.
The kids were young, rough-edged and a little lean. They were clearly eyeing one of the box of wares displayed outside the store. They were just creeping into the open to steal some of the colorful knick-knacks when the store owner spotted them. Wheeling around, he swung a meaty fist, aiming to catch one of the little thieves. And one kid wasn’t fast enough. He snatched the kid’s collar and hauled him back.
Sakura fell silent. Both slowed their pace, keenly aware of the situation. The shopkeeper’s face flushed with anger, his smoothed hair flying out in anger. He growled threats at the cringing kid, and just when he looked like he might let the kid have it — when Sakura and Katsuro knew without discussion they would certainly intervene — an elegant couple stepped toward the storefront, inspecting his wares at the opposite corner.
The man’s demeanor changed instantly. He dropped the boy, smoothed back his hair and turned fluidly. He was all smiles and wide gestures, inviting them to anything he had.
The kid seized his opportunity: Before scrambling back down the alley, he grabbed as much as his hands could carry, the other street urchins lunging forward out of the shadows to help him.
By the time Katsuro and Sakura came even with the shop, the kids had disappeared down the alley.
She shook her head, letting her eyes drift to the gorgeous waterway. “This village is different from mine. It’s much wealthier, and much more beautiful. But things like that….” She tipped her hand back to the store behind them, frowning. “Those kids may have been up to no good, but no one would hurt a child. Especially ones that looked like they were in need. But…I suppose that’s the nature of a merchant village over a shinobi one. We live by a different code—”
“All villages are the same to me.” Katsuro said quietly, stopping himself from letting his real thoughts spill over. “You just don’t see it.”
Sakura smiled softly, undaunted. “You would like it there. I know you would.”
He ignored her completely. “So, how are your friends?”
If he was hoping for a recounting the stories she used to tell, the familiar characters that made up her world, then he was bound to be disappointed. She only touched on the ones he remembered. This time, someone else was foremost in her thoughts.
“It’s hard being part of a team when you are constantly having your feet knocked out from underneath you.”
He shot her a questioning look.
“Not, literally. But we’re always passed over for big missions.” Katsuro watched her, waiting for her to continue. He hated to admit he was curious.
“In Konoha, you get ranked on your missions. I’d like to try for some higher ones, but I need to be part of a team.” She shrugged.
“Why are you passed over?”
“One is always out, and the other,” she fidgeted with the edge of her cloak, “well, he doesn’t make anything easy.”
Katsuro was silent, his full attention was focused on her. Now, he desperately hoped she would continue. The little fire sparked by her talk of the village was only fueled by the mention of Sasuke. He wanted to know about him, wanted more reason to hate him. And it had nothing to do with Itachi.
But when she didn’t elaborate, he continued nonchalantly.
“He seems to be a real jerk. I’m surprised they put him with anyone at all.”
She was silent for a moment. “Well the council has to, you see,” she said haltingly. “He’s still part of a clan, even though….” She glanced nervously at Katsuro. But Katsuro looked back with clear-eyed understanding, nodding for her to continue. She cleared her throat.
“He’s a talented nin. So the council has to accept him. But they treat him differently.” She shook her head at the recollection. “They hold him back, keep him…locked away. Like he’s some kind of secret weapon.”
Her laughter bubbled up at the thought, but Katsuro barely heard it. Instead he scowled deeply. He was suddenly glad to have the mask on.
“Well, he is a jerk. He could make things easier.” Her voice thinned. “But I think his life must be hard, no matter how much power he has.” She shrugged, done with the subject.
It was the most she’d ever spoken about Sasuke. And now he wished she hadn’t said anything at all.
Itachi was nearly taunting when he said Sasuke was his “hurdle.” Katsuro was familiar with the tug of rivalry. But this new fiery feeling at her kind words towards him was entirely different. He hated Sasuke. And he liked it a hell of a lot better when Sakura hated him too.
A familiar dark chakra pulsed with his anger. He blew out a low breath. He needed to get everything back under control….
They walked in silence down the emptying lanes, until they were nearly to the wall.
Sakura realized as they walked that reminiscing about her village, her life, suddenly seemed hollow to her. Katsuro was still on the outside. And for no good reason. She let her thoughts wander to how different everything would be if Katsuro was there. She had spoken about it before, but never directly asked him.
Yet it occurred to her that if she didn’t speak to him now, she might not get another chance. There was only one more mission coming up. If she didn’t have another assigned before that mission, then any hoping of arranging a meeting would be impossible. She formed a desperate resolution: She should ask him. But with his aversion to villages, she’d have to convince him. What should she say?
Katsuro was mired in his own thoughts. The sight of the wall meant that they’d reached the end. This was it. He’d been running away from it all night. But now he knew he had to—
“Katsuro, you know…” She slid her mask off. “I don’t want this to…. I mean, I want you to know…how much….”
She couldn’t find the words. But her sweet thoughts were like magic to him. He pulled off the mask.
“I like doing things with you. And I don’t know how many more missions I have coming up.” Her eyes were big, her face was clear and focused on him. “In three weeks I deliver a scroll to the clan who hired me, but then that’s it.
“I-I don’t know when I’ll see you again after that.”
“Sakura-chan….” He stepped closer. She reached automatically to take the mask from his hand, hooking her fingers around the red laces. But instead of releasing the mask he caught her fingers, slipping his hand around hers and not letting go.
Every trouble he’d had over the last few days slipped away. Just looking at her face, knowing the he was the object she wanted to see above all others, was an amazing gift. How could he not want to bask in it just a little longer? She had no idea what she meant to him.
Sakura watched his eyes, looking over her face. He closed the space between them. That familiar warm swirling air returned. It circled tenderly up her throat, slipped gently over the contours of her face. It seemed to correspond with the intense look he had, something fiery and warm. She knew now, without a doubt, that strange, wonderful little breeze came from him.
She breathed it in, then bit her lip against the yearning sensation that swelled within her. The movement did not go unnoticed, and Katsuro dropped his gaze to her mouth, tipping his head ever so slightly.
She could practically feel the warmth pouring off him. He smiled into her face. The hair at her neck fluttered up in the teasing wind, dislodging the curl she had tucked behind her ear. Katsuro lifted his hand between them as if to tuck the errant lock back into place.
Feeling suddenly hot, deliciously nervous about what was to come next, she mumbled something playful to break the tension.
“You and your little wind thing,” she said, glancing shyly away, even as her skin tingled for his touch.
But the gentle caress never came. She looked back. His hand was frozen between them, his eyes, wide and somehow hard.
“I told you, there’s no wind thing.”
He pulled his hand away. Her hair fell flat and cold against her collarbone. Sakura watched in confusion as he stepped back, retreating into himself. He turned away from her.
“Katsuro…is something wrong?” she said to the stiff line of his back.
He stopped, fist balled at his side.
She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead she dashed around in front of him, grasping his arm through his cloak. Sakura looked into his face, noticing for the first time the shadows under his eyes. But he wouldn’t look at her.
“I have to go,” he said, voice tight. “And I can’t—”
“Wait. I want to see you again before I leave.”
He finally turned to her, taking in her whole face.
“Sakura, I…I….”
She hadn’t put a name to her growing attachment to him. But she knew now these feelings ran much deeper than she had admitted to herself. She drew a calming breath. Plenty of time to explore these feelings later, she told herself, if only she could convince him. But first she needed to make a plan.
“Please,” she pressed. “I-I just want to see you again. Will you come back?”
He rubbed a hand over his face, clearly wrestling with the decision. Finally, he sighed.
“Yeah. I’ll come. But it will be late.”
Sakura was pleased, relieved, but she still studied him with a measure of concern.
He couldn’t take it. He looked away, shrugging a shoulder. “Places like this,” he muttered, “make me jumpy.”
Satisfied with this explanation of his behavior, she nodded and let go of his arm. “See you tomorrow night, then” she said, beaming. With a flicker of a smile, he was gone.
Walking back to the inn, Sakura felt as weightless as the blossoms around her. She trailed her fingers along the lowest branches, laughing quietly to herself as the petals streamed down.
Thankfully her village was nothing like this one. Otherwise it might have been a problem. But now knowing exactly how he felt, she was glad she hadn’t blurted out her request tonight. She’d need to convince him how much different Konoha was from this merchant town. Then, once she’d laid out her case, she would ask him to come home with her.
She couldn’t wait. Kicking up a swirl of petals, she crossed the arched bridge and headed towards the inn.