26 Sep 2011 No Comments
From Chapter 25, Festival, Part 1:
“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.
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.”
With a flicker of a smile, he was gone.
He could have said something, anything. But she wanted to see him again, and he just couldn’t tell her no.
Katsuro landed hard on a branch then bounced off again. He could still hear the happy sounds from the village festival, filtering up through the darkened limbs.
Tonight was the perfect opportunity, and he blew it. He knew what he had to do, even though he hated it. And this just let him put it off one more night.
To be so easily swayed from his purpose. Itachi would say it was weak, though he didn’t think so. He knew he wanted to see her more than anything else. But there were other things that gave him pause. He worried that he was putting her in danger or that somehow their friendship might be discovered. Or worse: that his own secrets were coming to light.
He raked a hand through his hair, leapt to another branch.
Tomorrow, he promised himself. He’d tell her tomorrow. This was getting too dangerous, for both of them.
Behind him, the village lights cast a dim glow in the night sky. But it wasn’t hard to find the broad leafless oak against the black terrain in front of him. It’s branches clawed slightly higher than all the rest.
Dropping to the base, he slipped down into the large roots. He found a familiar bent root and dug out the pile of leaves beneath it. Shaking his black cloak free, he kicked his foot into the leafy mess. A familiar clink rang out.
That damn bag of money. This assignment, the fact that he still had the money three days after meeting the contact, had turned out to be a real problem. However it wasn’t his biggest: Katsuro rubbed a hand over his chest, trying to soothe the dull burn that had settled there.
Wrapping the cloak around him, Katsuro made sure the sack was hidden and settled back against the tree. Knees bent up, he completely disappeared among the roots, looking like a gnarled extension of the tree. He was hidden in plain sight.
Trying to sleep had proved impossible the last few nights. His mind always turned over the puzzling events. He knew it was taking a toll too. The few hours he had to sleep were shortened, and it was harder to wake up when he needed to. And, worst of all, his stress was bubbling to the surface around Sakura. It was getting harder to hold everything in.
Sleep, worry, anger — these were cracks which the demon clawed at. The sickening chakra was getting closer to the surface. Sakura had already detected his wind nature somehow. If she sensed his chakra, then it was all over.
The things she’d said tonight were horrifying. His “wind thing?” How could she have known? What did he do that gave it away? Maybe she was a wind element too, and she recognized it in him. He scrubbed a hand over his face. There were so many things he didn’t know. If there had been a doubt before about what he needed to do, then this little incident alone obliterated it.
But he couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t her fault.
If everything had worked out like it was supposed to, then he could be enjoying his time with her. Not constantly looking over his shoulder.
He pulled the hood down over his face, folded his arms and tried to get as comfortable as he could against the unyielding tree. He should have known things would go wrong when he took on a mission dealing with brothers.
One was the contact, one was the target. But Itachi’s instructions were specific: the target, the fatter, older brother and clan head, was to receive the money. The thinner, younger one was only to provide access to the elder.
And just as Katsuro expected, the younger brother was more than willing to accept the payment as the elder “was busy handling family affairs.”
From the doorway the thin man sniffed disdainfully. He looked the strange nin up and down. But Katsuro didn’t care. His henge was perfect. He looked every bit like the black-haired, pale-skinned Kiri rogue they’d encountered a year back. He was fairly certain hunter nins had already taken him down, but a small town contact would never know the difference. And Katsuro’s appearance would throw off anyone searching for him. Namely Konoha.
Katsuro pulled the cloak back just enough to give the contact a glimpse of his village insignia. It glinted dully in the twilight. As expected, the man’s eyes darted to the headband tied to his belt. Katsuro let the cloak swing closed. Now he had covered all his tracks — the deal could proceed.
Katsuro shifted his weight, letting the coins jingle in the sack for a moment.
“My instructions are to see the clan head,” he said firmly.
The sibling was petulant. “As his brother, I can accept anything for him,” he snapped holding out his hand.
“My arrangement is with him, and him alone.”
“Ah, I see.” Smoothing the stringy mustache that hung down over the corners of his mouth, the younger brother raked a lecherous gaze over Katsuro. “If you’d told me that right away I could have taken you to his private chambers.”
Katsuro’s mouth fell open.
The brother cocked an eyebrow, smiling saucily.
That sparked a small, angry fire in Katsuro. “It’s not like that, and you damn well know it,” he growled. Somehow his hand had found it’s way to his kunai.
“Oooo, so scary!” The brother tittered with laughter and spun around, pulling the door partially closed. “It doesn’t matter,” he flung back over his shoulder. “He’s not here tonight. Come back tomorrow. Midday.” The door snapped shut.
Katsuro was left alone on the stoop in dismay. Hand still on his kunai, he had a ridiculous urge to barge in and find the older brother. Instead he smothered his anger, turned and walked back down the lane, telling himself that forcing a bribe would defeat the purpose of his coming here at all.
He turned into the road, looking for a place to wait out the night. Whatever the goal was, whoever the target was, Katsuro knew they needed to feel special, like they were selected to help and profit. Otherwise his group’s cover was blown. If these people were forced, then they could point back to who forced them. But if they made a profit, then they were happy to keep secrets. And Itachi was a master at scouting out those human weakness and using them to his advantage.
Katsuro spied a ramshackle barn at the edge of a field. Just a brown silhouette against the dusky sky, but with open land on all sides, it provide adequate shelter for the night. He could see everything from that vantage point.
Finding a stack of last season’s hay bales piled against the far side, Katsuro tucked in to wait out the night. He’d sleep here, make his delivery tomorrow, then be on his way to the festival. The delay did disrupt his plans, but he should be able to make it with enough time to see her that first night. Then he’d have the next two nights free and clear. He stretched back against the stubbily straw. Even that weasel of a contact couldn’t destroy his good mood this time.
But when Katsuro arrived at the gate of the complex the next day, hot and conspicuous with the noonday sun bearing down on his black garb, his hopes of a quick finish to this job were obliterated. No one was home. He rattled the gate loudly and peered around at the facade, the windows and doors, but still no one came.
Frowning, Katsuro prised open the lock with the tip of his kunai, careful not to make a scratch. The gate closed with a soft click behind him. He approached the main door slowly, but still no one came out to apprehend the dark stranger. The eerie stillness surrounding the house prickled up the hair on the back of his neck.
Stepping onto the wide porch, Katsuro flipped his kunai into reverse grip in one hand, and raised his other hand to rap loudly at the door. He was just deciding to break in if no one came, when the screen slid back in a quick snap. Standing there, head bowed, was an old woman who had just then glanced down, adjusting her basket before setting off. She looked up to find a black-clad man blocking her doorway, sharp blade in one hand, other raised in a fist.
“Oh no…. Oh no!” In sheer panic she dropped the basket and threw up her hands defensively, trying to back away from the would-be intruder.
Katsuro immediately softened his stance. “No, I…I’m not a thief! It’s safe!” he said, pocketing the kunai. “I only need to deliver something to the clan elder.”
The old woman, apparently a faithful family servant, accepted his explanation. She recovered from her shock enough to bow deeply, wringing her trembling hands together. Katsuro looked over her her bobbing gray-streaked bun to scan the interior. Typical clan compound, he noted, large rooms and long halls all built around a series of courtyards.
“S-Sir, the head family is out for the day,” she said between gasps. “They will be back by midday tomorrow, sir. May I tell them who—”
She continued speaking and bowing, never raising her eyes. Which was fortunate for Katsuro…because the old woman never saw the slight flicker in Katsuro’s henge from the fury that momentarily gripped him.
Tomorrow?! Why that little…
“No,” Katsuro bit out. “I’ll come back. Tomorrow.” He turned on his heel to go. “Thank you,” he said over his shoulder, maintaining the polite facade only as an afterthought.
He strode quickly out of the compound, stopping when he was beyond a small rise in the road, safely out of sight of the complex. He let the henge drop. Staring unseeing across the still winter-brown fields, Katsuro worked over his options. A muscle at his jaw jumped.
If he stayed, then he’d miss Sakura. And that twit of a younger brother may put him off again. Then again, if he traveled the long hours to see her, he’d only have a few hours to catch some sleep before he had to trek back. But it could be done….
Katsuro tipped his face toward the sky, gauging the position of the sun, the distance he’d need to travel, and just how many hours it would eat up. The tightness in his expression softened at the thought of seeing her. His eyes shined blue with reflected light.
Yes, he could do it. If he traveled without stopping, he’d get there late tonight. And as long as he left before dawn, he could be back here by midday. Then he’d be done with this pain of an assignment.
Besides he needed to spend as much time with Sakura as he could. He could already feel the time slipping away from him.
This trip he’d have to tell her it was simply too dangerous to meet again. They’d managed to make it this far undetected, but with Itachi back…well, it was only a matter of time before he’d figure it out. He knew Itachi was suspicious. But there was nothing to fear yet. He had covered all their tracks.
The funny thing was, he didn’t even care if Itachi discovered anything about him. He could get as angry as he wanted if he thought Katsuro had just dawdled away his hours. Alone. But if he somehow exposed Sakura to danger….
That gripping, vulnerable feeling awakened at the thought. And it moved him to decide to speak to her about it, a task which he dreaded only slightly less. He didn’t want to see her look of disappointment, or fumble for answers to the questions she was sure to ask.
All of this a cast dark shadow over his time with her, before it’d even begun.
Wiping the thin sheen of sweat from his forehead, Katsuro worked stridently to push back his fears. Nothing had happened, no one knew. They were still ok. He would go to the festival and tell her, right away, that they couldn’t see each other after this. Then they could get on with enjoying their time together.
Feeling better, Katsuro turned his eyes to the line of trees at the far edge of the fields. Darkened by midday shadows, the woods stretched away as far as he could see. And somewhere beyond that was the cherry blossom festival. Katsuro fixed the bag of coins securely to his waist and set off.
And, true to his plan, before the light of the next day slanted over the horizon, Katsuro was already treading back over the same deserted woodlands. His travel wasn’t nearly as expeditious as it had been the night before, when he was moving swiftly toward her.
Now the going was slow. His legs felt heavier and he was tired from the extra hours of travel. But he didn’t begrudge a single step. Meeting her had been the right thing to do. Even if he did manage to drop the bag of coins, she was too good to say anything about it. She trusted him. He’d never known anything like it. He smiled to himself, breathing deeply.
But another thought prodded him. He still had to tell her they couldn’t see each other again. Tonight, he thought. He’d tell her tonight for sure, when he finished up here. She wanted him to come back for some activity. He couldn’t quite remember; he scratched his head, frowning. No matter, he’d think about it later. Right now, he had a job to do.
Katsuro bounced down to the lower branches and blurred through the handseals of a henge. Turning out onto the lane near the white-walled clan compound, he dusted the black cloak, ridding himself of hard road travel. And old farmer looked up from his field at the newcomer. He nudged another farmhand, and both leaned on their rakes watching the black-clad interloper. Katsuro ignored them.
The gate was unlocked, and passing up the walk, Katsuro heard the unmistakeable sounds of bustling activity within the compound.
‘Good,’ he thought. ‘Just drop this off and be on my way—’
“There you are,” the wiry younger brother called from the doorway. He strode down the path toward Katsuro. “You have some nerve, pilfering our stores while we were away!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know!” the brother hissed, his thin mustache shivering. “One of the farmers saw you last night creeping around the store house. Said the lock was pried and food was missing. Same as the lock on our front gate!” He huffed. “Just because you won’t hand over your delivery doesn’t mean you can steal our things!”
“But I wasn’t anywhere near—”
“And the old housekeeper even saw you!”
“No…no I saw her yesterday—”
“Don’t pretend it wasn’t you!” He shook his head in disgust, looking Katsuro up and down. “No one else here wears such dreadful clothes.” Apparently satisfied with the come-uppance, the younger brother wheeled around and headed back to the door, ignoring Katsuro completely.
Katsuro gaped for a moment, trying to process what he’d just heard. Both those places he’d been, but the timing was off.
He narrowed his eyes. Someone was here, dressed as him, breaking in and stealing food? Unlikely. Katsuro knew the chances of another shinobi being out here were less than zero. It sounded more like a distraction, an easy excuse in case anyone saw a black-clad man skulking around.
“My brother isn’t here. Come back tomorrow,” the man sneered from the door. Then the door swished shut.
Katsuro let the man retreat without another word, but only because it suited him. He was well and truly angry; the younger brother was clearly playing games. But at that moment Katsuro had more pressing concerns.
Was this a message from his group? Had the deal changed?
Heading back down the path, his eyes roved over every inch, looking for another clue, another sign. Something only he would notice. But there was nothing.
He searched the front gate, the barn, everywhere he’d been and anywhere a note might have been stashed. But there was nothing. The lock on the gate had definitely been pried. But Katsuro was nearly certain he didn’t make those marks. The gouges on the metal looked to be made by someone inexperienced with a blade. Perhaps it was just a common thief.
After a few more hours of scouting around, Katsuro had nothing more to show for it than dusty hands and dirt-smudged knees. He had searched out every possible nook and cranny that a message might have been placed for him. But still he found nothing. He could only presume the deal was still on.
But it didn’t answer the question of who was here. Was it really a thief? Or was it someone else…someone looking for him?
Katsuro squinted against the afternoon sun. Plunking his hands down on his hips, he knocked the bag of coins, then huffed frustratedly at the metallic tinkling sound. He had to get going, in order to meet Sakura for…. What was it she wanted to do? Visit the festival? He wasn’t sure that was the best idea. Especially with a sack of money tied to his waist.
Katsuro glanced at the rooftops, the building corners, the fields and woodlands one last time, hoping some sign would be revealed. But of course there was nothing. Just like it had been all afternoon.
And it probably was nothing, but the idea set him on edge. What if someone was looking for him, and saw him leave. What if someone followed him to the festival….
The chilling feeling that he might somehow put Sakura in danger rippled up. Katsuro grit his teeth against it, telling himself it was probably just a local thief. Even as he glanced at the rooftops.
Shaking his head, Katsuro refocused. He needed to leave. It was late enough as it was. He had to tell Sakura. Tonight. This was probably nothing, but she needed to know. He tugged the bag of coins, making sure they were secure.
Blinking at the field, mapping out the invisible path he would take to the village, Katsuro decided he would hide the sack in the woods before he went down into the festival. That way there would be no more slip-ups. That made him feel a little bit better about leaving while he still didn’t know who was hanging around.
He glanced around again. Still nothing. He shook off his worries and left for the village….
Mere hours later, Katsuro woke to the smell of wet earth from the forest floor. Without ever opening his eyes, he yawned, flung an arm comfortably over his face and played through those thoughts again. It felt like it had been days ago.
Katsuro yawned again, deeply. Shifting his body in the leaves jostled the bag of coins. ‘Tomorrow,’ he told himself, eyelids growing heavy, ‘I’ll tell her tomorrow. And I’ll get rid of the damn money. Tomorrow.’ He’d make sure of that, he thought sleepily.
He peeked out from under his elbow to gauge the time…. The sun was already climbing back up in the sky.
“Shit,” Katsuro muttered, blinking into the morning light. He scrambled up, brown leaves flying. In a frenzy, he grabbed the money, whipped on his cloak and took to the branches.
After the burst of adrenaline at waking up late, the journey this time was slower than ever. The bag of coins hung like an anchor at his waist, a constant reminder of how wrong this mission was going.
Well, he’d fix that today. He didn’t care where the elder brother was, he’d find him and finish this mission. That determination helped him ignore his fatigue.
Hours later, Katsuro stood at the door of the complex. Muscles still pulsing from exertion, he tugged at the collar of his shirt, trying to let some cool air in.
The younger brother answered the call of visitor. Katsuro no longer expected to be admitted to see the clan head. But this time the thin man looked particularly tweaked.
“I told you, if you were going to steal from us, then the deal is off.”
Katsuro reached back for the money. “What are you talking about—”
“Put that away,” the man snapped, dipping a hand into the pocket of his long robe. “We’ve already had enough evidence of your ways.”
Frowning thunderously, Katsuro pulled out the sack, jostling the coins inside and proving he had no weapon. He was just deciding to use a genjutsu on the frustrating man when he drew something unexpected out of his robe. Something horrifyingly familiar.
“I think this belongs to you? No one around here has any use for such ‘tools,'” he spat out. “And you seem to be so fond of brandishing yours.”
Hooked on his thin finger, a dull grey kunai swung in front of Katsuro’s face. Only the silver edges and a series of scrapes on the blade picked up the light.
Katsuro couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The sack of coins slipped from his hand, clinking loudly on the step.
The younger brother arched an eyebrow at Katsuro, pleased to have surprised him.
And Katsuro was surprised. Shocked.
He cautiously took the kunai, almost afraid to touch it. But there was no mistake: it was his. Long scratches marred the flat of the blade, from where the whetstone nicked it just a few weeks before. His hand had slipped, scratching the kunai and slicing his finger on the sharpened edge.
Katsuro knew with certainty he had not packed the weapon in his pouch. In fact, he could not remember the last time he’d seen it.
His blood went cold. “Wh-where did you get this?”
The man scooped up the bag, smiling toothily. “You shinobis have such vile ways. Always resorting to violence anytime someone—”
Katsuro grabbed the front of his robe, shaking him. “Where did you find this?”
“Shouldn’t you already know? Sticking out of the gate post, like a message? So crude….” Katsuro whirled around to see if there were some other clue left behind. The brother retreated to the safety of the doorway. “There now. You’ve made your delivery,” he said, jingling the money in his hand tauntingly. “Now, be gone. Shoo!” And he quickly slid the door closed.
Katsuro’s heart pounded. He looked everywhere at once. But he couldn’t detect another presence or anything else out of place.
What could it mean? His group never left such overt messages. But the kunai was definitely his. Could it be from someone else? Was this who was here the night before, dressed like a shinobi? Was someone watching him, lying in wait, hoping to flush him out—
The clack of the door latch falling snapped Katsuro to attention. The slippery younger brother had taken the money. Dammit! He had to make sure that money made it to the elder brother. Glancing at the kunai in his hand, Katsuro swallowed the cold fear that someone was after him.
No, he told himself, this was a message from his group. It had to be.
He shoved the weapon into his pouch. He’d deal with that later. Right now, the money was the priority.
Katsuro pushed on the door but it was soundly locked. Skidding back down the path, he turned and leapt to the tiled roof, then followed the spine of the building as it zigzagged around the complex. One foot in front of the other, head low, he watched the inside of the compound for the family suites…as well as the land surrounding the complex for anything out of the ordinary.
The gentle swish of a door opening came from somewhere below him.
“Brother….” a deep voice echoed up from the next courtyard. “I was just wondering where you’d gotten off to….”
The clan head. The older brother. It had to be him. That was his target.
Katsuro leapt silently over the adjoining roof, carefully picking his way down the tiles. When the clan head was alone, he’d approach him and make sure the younger brother had delivered—
A slightly whinier voice carried up. “Oh, you know, here and there.”
“Was someone here? I am expecting—”
“Oh no! Not at all. It was just an old farmer delivering potatoes….”
Something in Katsuro snapped. He had been thwarted for days, and he’d had enough. A searing heat licked up from his gut with the fresh anger.
Interior doors rustled open, then closed again. The muffled talking grew closer. They were moving towards the main house. He knew he needed to stop them here.
Katsuro spied an empty courtyard ahead of him, between the family suites and the main house, exposed on one side to the grounds.
Good. Less eyes to observe.
In a fluid bound, he dropped down into the open space, landing in a crouch. A whisper of dust puffed out at his feet. Rising warily, Katsuro scanned the building to see if he’d been detected. But no one came running. Moving swiftly to the long covered porch, he padded down the boards towards the family rooms. His footfalls on the glossed wood were completely soundless.
Just ahead, noises of movement came from beyond a large papered door, growing louder. Katsuro slowed, hoping to edge a little closer to the room before the brothers came out. Foot squarely on a wide board, he was just shifting his weight when the wood gave way with a low groan.
Katsuro held his breath and eased up, rocking slowly back onto his other foot. It worked. The board went back into position with a sigh. Sidestepping the loose board, he gingerly tested the next one making sure it was silent. It was, and he was able to gain a few more steps and get into position before the large door to the family rooms slid back.
Completely silent, Katsuro waited.
Snippets of conversation and the rustle of movement drifted through the opening. An attendant stepped out to hold the door, never looking up. Which was regrettable, because when the two brothers finally came through the door, turning to walk side-by-side down the long porch, they very nearly collided with the solid, black-clad man blocking their path.
Both men froze; the younger brother squeaked.
Katsuro shifted his feet apart just slightly, digging in his stance. He felt more in control than he had in days. Breathing deeply, he finally let a little of the kyuubi’s chakra seep up into his chest. The warmth was strangely reassuring.
The two men recovered quickly. The older brother, the one with the round belly and much more sumptuous silks than the younger, looked Katsuro up and down coldly. Beside him, the younger brother glanced between the two, nervously smoothing his thin mustache.
“Er…and he came by of course,” the wiry man said with a shaky laugh. “Did I forget to mention?”
Tightening his fists, Katsuro thought about how much he’d like to throttle that man. As if responding, another stronger surge of dark chakra pulsed through him. Katsuro ignored it.
The elder brother proved he was more versed in these situations. He calmly dismissed the attendant, asking politely for a moment of privacy with their old friend. Then he turned back to Katsuro with a icy glare.
“My younger brother tells me you have been delayed.” Katsuro’s eyes widened at the lie. “But that is to be forgiven…now that you are here with your delivery.”
Now it was Katsuro’s turn to be smug. He arched an eyebrow at the younger brother, who had obviously pocketed the money.
“Oh, yes of course! I must have forgotten!” Flustered, he produce the familiar pouch from a deep fold of his robe. Katsuro sighed inwardly in relief.
“Ah, already anticipating me,” the elder smiled and said to the younger, taking the bag. “What would I do without you?” The younger brother fawned, playing the role of dutiful sibling again, certain he could do no wrong in the eyes of his sibling.
The clan head glanced at Katsuro, then frowned again, remembering something. “Ah, dear brother, another favor: From the lacquered chest, please bring me the scroll with the red tassel. It’s in the top drawer. Thank you.”
“Of course, brother. Anything you ask,” he said smoothly and whisked away.
The clan head was still inspecting the contents of the bag when the brother returned.
“All is as it appears, and in the correct amount,” said the elder. “So that scroll goes with him.”
Katsuro held out an open palm, waiting for his payment. But the wiry brother had one last stunt: Instead of handing it over, he bounced the scroll tauntingly above his hand a few times, hoping Katsuro would reach for it just so he could snatch it away again.
Katsuro didn’t move. Palm out, he just stared straight at the man’s thin face…and told himself not to kill him. Waiting for the moment of distraction, when the younger brother realized he wouldn’t get the response he hoped for, Katsuro never shifted his focus. Then he tore the scroll out of his grasp.
Angry chakra threaded through his insides with the sudden movement, tearing at the cracks that Katsuro had already made. It was time to go. He turned on his heel, but the elder brother’s deep voice stopped him.
“Such manners…. I would have expected more from a Kiri shinobi.” Gritting his teeth, Katsuro turned slowly back to the man. “Your turning out to be nothing more than a common thief.”
Katsuro was furious, but said nothing.
“Tell your man I will agree to the terms we discussed. However,” he flicked cold eyes at Katsuro, “since you kept me waiting, I require you to take care of our little ‘problem’ before you leave.” The man leveled a hard look at Katsuro, grinding his fist around the neck of the sack. “Because if I find that so much as one more grain of rice has been pilfered,” he growled, “then the deal’s off.”
Katsuro nodded tightly. “No one else will bother you.”
“Excellent,” the man’s smooth tones returned. The sack of money disappeared into the pocket of the robe, and he turned toward the main quarters.
“Brother, check with the groundsman to see about installing some security measures on this side of the house.”
The younger brother fell into step with his sibling. “Of course. I’ll see to it right away,” he said, shooting one last snide look over his shoulder at Katsuro.
Katsuro forced himself to let it go. This mission had cost him enough time already. He turned, stepped off the porch and bounded up to the roof.
The extra kunai dug into his leg as he jumped. He paused for a moment, crouched low on the tiles, taking the opportunity to see everything from the higher perspective.
Katsuro meant what he said: No one else would bother the man. Because there was no criminal here. The theft, the kunai — both were a message. For him.
But he had no idea what it could mean.
He set to searching the area, canvassing the same places again. But he no longer looked for a hidden scroll or a scrawled note on something that only he was sure to see. This time he looked for an encampment. If someone from his group was here, then there would be a trace.
But hours later, he’d found nothing. And he was more frustrated than ever.
Katsuro sat on the bale of hay where he’d spent his only night in this forgettable place. Leaning his back against the barn, Katsuro let his eyes slide closed for a moment in the cool shade. He was beyond thinking he’d be caught. Whoever had been here was gone now. But he was pretty sure they’d be back.
If he didn’t have to meet Sakura, he’d stay here, lie in wait and discover who was searching for him.
But he couldn’t.
He had to make a choice: If he waited then he’d miss Sakura. She was leaving tomorrow, he might not get another chance to see her. And if he waited, and no one came, or the message was of little importance, he would have given up his only chance.
But if he left, there was the risk that someone was watching him, waiting for him to move. Even now…. His gaze swept the horizon.
It was a terrible risk to go to the festival. What if someone saw him go, pursued him there?
Fate was indeed cruel to him: When he was finally free of his obligation, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he no longer had the freedom to see her. It was simply too dangerous.
The choice was clear: He had to go to the festival. He had to tell her.
Coming to his decision only made him more nervous, however. He realized how much time he’d wasted there poking around for nonexistent clues. And the closer it drew to sunset, the more exposed he was to discovery.
Whoever was hoping to catch him was coming at night. But Katsuro had inadvertently thwarted them in this ridiculous mission. By being forced to travel to the festival each night, he had missed them.
Katsuro leapt to the trees, the loop of the extra kunai digging into his thigh. He watched every flutter of leaves and every movement on the ground, hoping he wouldn’t intercept whoever was after him. Or worse, that he’d already given himself away.
The trip felt twice as long as all the others. Worry and deepening exhaustion weighed down each step. And the prospect of traveling into the night didn’t help matters at all.
Katsuro yawned suddenly, the tight coil of anxiety easing for a moment. But as he continued, mind retracing the same information, the vulnerable feeling ratcheted back up.
He’d gone through it hundreds of time, who knew of his mission, when did he last see that kunai. Why it, and why him? He’d done nothing out of the ordinary, and given no reason for anyone, Itachi included, to give a second thought to any of his actions—
The branch cracked suddenly underneath him and Katsuro plummeted. He hastily grabbed another branch and swung himself back up. But he had to take a break. In that instant, when his adrenaline surged, the hot, angry chakra shot in with it. He gulped against the searing pain in his chest.
To think that it could get this far, that this mission could put him in so much distress that the demon thought it’s host body was under threat.
Katsuro shook his head, rubbed his eyes. The light was playing tricks on him, he was tired, and his legs felt as stiff as the thick branches beneath him. But there was no time for rest. Refocusing, Katsuro slowly began again, leaping from limb to limb, disregarding the burning protest from his muscles. But the malevolent chakra that had taken hold in his chest was proving the hardest to ignore.
Sakura looked out over the purpling garden. Twilight had fallen like a veil since she’d last stood at the landing overlooking the formal paths and pools. The meeting was drawing to a close. All around, men were strolling, heads bent in close conversation, in the last throes of negotiations. And clan heads and tradesmen, sellers and buyers were hoping to make good on their time spent cultivating relationships over the last two days.
It was ironic that now she was no different. Sakura narrowed her eyes, scanning the grounds. She was hoping her investment of time would pay off too. But she wasn’t hoping for a deal; she was looking for information.
Sakura had spent the day standing at her diplomat’s shoulder, observing the posturing of the men at the long table. It was deadly dull stuff. They tussled over trade agreements, the price of commodities, and the effect of outside merchants and villages on their business. Quite a few eyes fell to Sakura during those discussions. Some of the more raucous arguments were over the nuances of a particular treaties, concerning agreements that had been made generations before.
Having very little knowledge of the history of this area, it’s clans and trades, Sakura would have been completely in over her head had it not been for the charming politician. At every break he seemed to appear near her, if only for just a few minutes. He would flash that brilliant smile and give her a knowing look, apparently delighted to have someone to share his juiciest tidbits with.
Sakura thought maybe it was because she was so different from the rest. She wasn’t competing for the deals and trade at stake here, and she was far removed from the armed guards in attendance. Most of them seemed little better than thugs. But she couldn’t deny it was nice to be treated respectfully for a change. Even some of the lesser diplomats had nodded to her occasionally.
And Sakura returned the favor to the politician, which came in no small part as a result of observing the courtesan two nights before. She made sure to smile, flatter and make enough small talk to keep the gossipy conversation flowing, with no hint of her agenda. And the politician was more than happy to oblige.
Tsunade believed one of the large nations was trying to make inroads into the border countries, buy alliances. It was just a hunch based on the number of mission requests involving trade negotiations lately. But she was relying on Sakura to find any evidence.
And Sakura was happy to have a few leads to report back with. There were several large families in attendance, very wealthy and with lots of trade deals in the works. A few stood out to her, the clan heads being quite shrewd at manipulating the age-old trade agreements to suit their specific purposes. Bending the laws meant the lesser families or interests might lose profitable deals of their own. To Sakura, that kind of broad power seemed to be exactly what Tsunade was looking for.
But she also had her eye on another group, and more and more she was convinced that if anyone there was working behind the scenes it was them.
Though the mining clan had run a profitable business for years, this was their first time at trade summit. And yet remarkably, they had a product everyone wanted a share of. Their shabby clothes gave them the appearance of a hardworking lot, but Sakura couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t some sort of disguise. After all, she did have some experience with scruffy men in shabby clothes, she thought, smiling inwardly at some of Katsuro’s disheveled outfits.
However the guard was the biggest tip off that something wasn’t right. Those men were decorated with scars and patches…and weapons. They had apparently seen a lot of battle, and they seemed ridiculously out-of-place among all the silk kimonos and polished manners. Sakura always watched their movements, where they went and with whom they spoke.
And, as if sensing her suspicions, the men watched her closely as well. Which didn’t go unnoticed.
“They do seem to always keep their eye on you,” the politician mentioned casually at the last break. He flicked his gaze to the surly group across the room before his dark eyes alighted on her face, watching her reaction.
Sakura was not frightened in the least, if that’s what he was thinking. She rolled her eyes. He chuckled softly and handed her a sweet from the table.
“Apparently,” he whispered, “they’re holding out for a bigger catch. They’ve turned down quite a few promising offers already. I can’t imagine what they’re waiting for.” He studied her for a moment before flashing a broad smile, as if she should understand him perfectly.
Sakura mirrored his expression, but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. She had no idea what he was getting at. She just hoped her act was enough for him to continue. Who were they holding out for? More money? Or the right connections?
Without realizing it, Sakura’s eyes traveled across the room, landing on the rough-looking men. She was deep in thought, picking out their weapons then scanning body positions and faces out of ingrained habit, when she was startled by a pair of harsh black eyes staring back. The guard with the horrifying scar glared at her, turning all of his disfigured face for its full, unsettling effect.
Sakura blinked and turned quickly, refocusing on the smooth, unmarred skin of the man beside her. The corner of his mouth curled into a knowing smile. It rippled up the one scar he did have, that dashing half-moon at the corner of his eye.
Setting his plate down on the table, the politician stepped beside her and surveyed the room. He was quite close, the cool edge of his silk sleeve fell over her arm, but he did not step away.
“So there is some speculation that he has another buyer, a hidden one,” he said quietly.
Sakura followed his eyeline across the room, to where the rough trader was just speaking to an immaculately dressed clansman.
“But he’s playing a dangerous game. Because if he holds out for too long, or too much, and his offer doesn’t come through, then he will miss his other opportunities.”
Sakura watched the group. “And what if he leaves empty-handed?”
“Well then, the tables will be turned. The other clans will be able to name their price.”
“But you think there is another interest at work here, behind the scenes?”
“I’m growing more and more sure of it,” he whispered warmly. Sakura dared a glance up from under her lashes. His eyes twinkled. He knew more, Sakura was sure of that.
She softened her expression. “You have an admirable skill for connecting up all the dots. I’m sure that is why so many of the clan heads seek you out.”
He scoffed at her flattery, but Sakura was pleased to see him preening a bit without even realizing it. His smiled ticked a little wider, and he touched his elegant fingers to his hairline, smoothing back the already-smooth black hair in his long ponytail. She knew from academy lessons that touching the face, touching the hair, was a giveaway to your inner thoughts. He was thinking highly of himself. Hopefully that would prime him to share more.
“And if anyone here could see the bigger picture, I’m inclined to think that it’s you,” she gushed. His smile hitched wider. “But how do you know, for certain, that there is someone behind the scenes?”
His dark eyes glinted at the prospect of showing off his expertise. “Of course, leading up to the meeting it had only been rumors. But when they showed up, with double their guard, and openly courting the wealthiest clans, well, it’s not hard to see the bigger picture.” Sakura took a few shallow breaths. She was praying he would continue, and that she was not giving herself away.
“And have they said anything about it?”
“Them? Oh no, not to me.” He clucked his tongue in disappointment. His face fell into an uncharacteristic frown. Sakura found her hopes sinking with it. “They want only clan heads. The wealthiest. The big fish. I’m not high enough to be of interest to them.”
At that moment, the shabby clan head spoke with Sakura’s diplomat again. Both nodded turning toward the garden in hopes of some private conversation.
“Yes but you said you were sure….”
The surly guard shot them a scathing look as he turned, as if daring them to follow.
“Oh yes,” he laughed. “Just as you said, it is easy enough to see when you know what to look for.” His gaze sharpened, slipping over her face, her hair.
Sakura didn’t register it. The information she needed was tantalizing close. A ghost of a frown wrinkled up Sakura’s brow.
“And-And what is it that you are—”
An attendant appeared at the other side of the politician, requesting assistance for his clan leader.
“I am sorry,” he said, glossy smile returning. “I must leave you here.”
The afternoon sun was slanting through the screen. Sakura’s mind raced ahead: There would be no more breaks left after this. She may not get another chance. She had to make sure he would seek her out again after the meeting. Which worked better, because then his gossip would be about who secured a deal with whom. Perfect. So she had to take action now, set the wheels in motion. She remembered the courtesan…
Curling her hair behind her ear, Sakura relaxed her stance. “You have been such a help to me. I think I certainly would have been in over my head if not for you. I have enjoyed our conversations, but I fear this might be our last. I don’t know if I will have a chance to see you again….” Sakura let the thought hang in the air, tipping her face to the side with sweet uncertainty.
Confusion suffused his features for a moment, but he rallied to soothe her worries. She had assumed the summit ended at sundown, just as it had the day before. He was happy his superior knowledge could easily correct her misunderstanding. Just as Sakura hoped.
“Just because the formal meeting ends, doesn’t mean these men stop trying. No, negotiations only move to the garden. You’ll see. Besides, I wouldn’t let you get away without a proper farewell.”
Sakura’s smile returned. His gaze lingered on her face, appreciating the change. He looked for a moment as if might say something more, something personal. But to Sakura’s relief, he didn’t.
“Until later, then,” he said, contenting himself with one last warm look.
In the gathering dusk Sakura moved down the steps into the garden. It was exactly as he’d said, the formal meeting had in fact moved to the graveled paths and footbridges that extended far behind the old home. Even in the darkest corners, which were growing darker with the approaching nightfall, heads were bowed together, deep in conversation.
But Sakura was hunting for the politician, looking for cream silks and listening for his carrying laugh.
Two men from a lower clan passed, nodding to her respectfully. Hiding her amusement, Sakura bobbed her head and wondered if it was out of respect or fear that they bowed to one of the armed guards at the meeting. She turned down another the gravel path.
But she didn’t really care how the others saw her — Sakura was rather proud of herself at the moment. She had encountered a tricky situation and had manufactured a new plan on the spot. All to splendid results. Thanks to the courtesan, she cultivated a charming persona perfectly. The gossipy politician found a sympathetic ear in her, and he was glad to share his knowledge.
Sakura made sure not to be overly fawning, just attentive. She knew it must have flattered his sense of importance. And now she hoped to cash in on the time spent in his company. He would probably be bursting to whisper how the deals had gone down, which ones were scandalous betrayals and which showed that his powers of prediction were accurate.
Even her stony diplomat had conceded to the urgency of the evening, dismissing her to walk the grounds while he made some last-minute connections. If he noticed her “friendship” with the politician, he said nothing. But Sakura doubted he saw anything further than his own interests.
She would collect her information, confirm the deals, learn who was suspected of pulling string and finally have tangible information to take home to Tsunade…as well as something else.
Sakura breathed deeply, a slow smile creeping up her face. Katsuro. It wouldn’t be long now until she could ask him, tell him that she wanted him to come with her. That she could keep him safe, that he’d never have to run again.
Sakura was carried away on the slipstream of what the future held for them.
She saw herself walking home, entering Konoha, introducing him to her friends and then folding him into her life. There would be missions and pranks, late nights and ramen. There would be no more secrets. And he would never be alone again. And really, neither would she. It would be wonderful. He was…he was her best friend. No, perhaps he was even more than that….
A baritone laugh startled her from the fantasy. She turned her head toward the sound. Coming around a corner, Sakura spied a small group clustered on a wooden pavilion overlooking a pond. The politician laughed again, but stopped when she came into view. Politely excusing himself, he moved to meet her at the next footbridge.
“So he’s let you slip away,” he said jovially. His cream silks and long ponytail swayed as he moved, as if every bit of him were brimming with his good mood. “Well all the better for me then. May I escort you?” He said, bowing with a flourish. Straightening, he offered his arm without hesitation.
Sakura accepted this silly flattery, taking his arm with a smile, but only because it came with such good information. Then the politician launched into an account of how things had turned out, which deals were still in play and which had fizzled.
They took the long way around, walking slowly. He spoke softly and Sakura nodded, showing her interest as if they were partners in this whole intrigue. Around them, attendants were silently lighting pale lanterns that hung from the trees. They flickered to life across the garden, shining in soft yellow spots beside the paths and casting the twilight shadows into deeper darkness.
Crossing another angled bridge, Sakura caught a glimpse of her diplomat deep in conversation with another man. As they continued walking, the man’s jacket came into view. It was unmistakeable in it’s shabbiness. It was head of the mining clan. She looked around for his thuggish guard, but surprisingly they were no where to be seen. Must be serious, she thought, if both men dismissed their guards for privacy.
The politician didn’t miss her distracted silence.
“Your man must be deep in negotiations.” He nodded in the direction of the men. “Last I heard he was vying for the mine owner’s attention as well.”
He looked to Sakura for some confirmation, but she only shrugged. Her diplomat had spent a lot of time with the man, but she had no idea what they were talking about. That’s why she had been sent away.
However this was the opening she had been hoping for.
“So…the mine owner is still shopping around?”
The politician looked sideways at her, the corner of his mouth curving up into a calculating smile.
“Yes. Yes, he is.”
“And you still think he has an outside interest?” Sakura hoped she didn’t sound too eager.
The politician paused for a moment, thinking. He glanced around, and seeing every path well occupied, nodded toward another route free from men in conversation. This new trail looped around behind the centerpiece of the garden, an artificial hillock with a decorative shrine at the top, and wound up where her diplomat was in discussion. Sakura obliged him.
Walking down the blueing gravel, Sakura thought this was probably the most secluded spot in the whole expansive garden. The mossy woodlands here had been largely left alone, with the only improvement being the addition of stone lanterns. Their orange light pooled at the occasional bend in the path.
This would be a perfect spot for a romantic tryst. Or to convey a guarded secret. Sakura cut her eyes at the politician. The pale snips of light rippled across his face as they walked. The excitement of uncovering the truth trilled up in her. She hoped her hard work payed off.
His smile turned warm, wrinkling up the dashing scar at his cheek. He lowered his voice a notch, even though no one else was near enough to hear.
“So I have some suspicions…. But first, I have another mystery which is not so easily solved.” He tipped his head, black eyes following the curves of her face.
“You see, I’ve been wondering something since…well, since I first laid eyes on you. What is someone like you doing in a place like this?”
Sakura nearly groaned out loud. Had her harmless flattery gone too far?
“But then when I saw you at the festival, I figured it all out.” Sakura’s blood slowed to ice in her veins. He watched her face closely.
Just then a cool breeze kicked up, whistling through the branches. It blew a few strands of hair across her face. She moved to brush them aside, but caught his knowing glance at her hair. Sakura’s breathing stilled. So he had seen her hair.
“I couldn’t help but notice your attendant,” he continued smoothly. “I thought you were the solitary guard for your diplomat. But now it all makes sense.”
Sakura was silent, unable to come up with a plausible story fast enough. He could easily check with her diplomat, and if that man knew, he could easily make a remark to Konoha. This could be the single thread that unraveled her whole involvement with Katsuro, if her story was not perfectly sound.
“What ‘all makes sense?'” Sakura said haltingly.
“Oh don’t worry dear,” he cooed, a weak attempt to soothe her unease. “Your secret is safe with me.”
The gratification of being right, even though he was mistaken, brought out another side.
“I knew you were nothing like those other guards. They’re the master’s dogs,” he snorted unkindly. The flattery of the meeting was gone.
Sakura rallied at that comment, her rising anger helping to clear the fog of being discovered with Katsuro.
“And just exactly who do you think I’m like?” she said, her voice stronger. His hand was beginning to feel heavy on her arm. She wished she wasn’t so close to him.
“Oh no, I am so sorry to have offended you. I knew you were special the moment I laid eyes on you. And it made sense when I saw you with an attendant. Why would Konoha ever send you out into these wilds alone?”
He laughed as if the mere idea were preposterous. She tore her arm away from him.
Sakura was seething mad. Did he think she was too young or, she narrowed her eyes, was it because she was a girl that he was suddenly patronizing. He didn’t seem to notice.
“But I can’t figure out is what your village hopes to gain from this summit. Why hide behind him?”
“I don’t hide behind anyone,” she growled. “The request came in, and I was sent out. It’s as simple as that.”
“You mean, you’re not a diplomat from Konoha? Or a noblewoman?” Sakura shook her head vigorously at the ridiculous notion. “You mean you really are…just his guard?”
“I’m a Konoha shinobi, not merely a guard. And certainly not the master’s dog!” Both were silent, but Sakura’s fury was only growing. “And wasn’t it you who showed me the nightingale floor? That I would like it because I was a shinobi?”
“I thought that was an act!” He rubbed a hand over his face. They stood in heavy silence in the path.
“I-I am sorry,” he said, sounding earnest for the first time. He was clearly struggling with the whole situation. “It seems we have both been misled, I believe.”
“The only one misled here is you. I was hired by him to accompany him to this meeting. The mission request came down through the village. That’s it. In the morning I’ll be well on my way home.”
Though she’d said it before, this time he truly heard her.
“As, so he sent for you, not the other way around. Interesting…” His eyes focused away, as if he wasn’t sure whether to be angry or impressed.
Sakura laughed bitterly at the man’s stupidity and resumed walking.
“Well, then,” he said, recovering quickly and falling into step beside her, “it is still my good fortune that you have come.” That glossy smile was firmly in place when he looked at her again.
Sakura felt like smacking it off his face. But she wanted to know something first.
“So, is there another group influencing trade here or not?” The dulcet tones of the courtesan persona were long gone.
He just laughed ruefully. Sakura curled her fingers into a fist.
They came out of the shade of the wood, another light breeze pushed against them. Ahead of them on the walk, Sakura’s diplomat was still engaged with the head of the mining clan. But things were clearly not going well.
Beside her, the charming politician had lost his charm. He surveyed the crumbling negotiation with interest, and not with a little humor.
The mine owner slashed a hand through the air angrily, signaling he was finished with the diplomatt.
“Serves him right,” the politician muttered to himself.
Swinging around, the mine owner shot Sakura a mean glare. She glared back until he turned and stalked off.
The politician never took his eyes off her diplomat, but his voice was low, so that only Sakura could hear it.
“My dear, your company has been a pleasure, I assure you. But if you are looking for an outside investor here, you need look no farther than your own doorstep.”
Sakura turned to him in angry confusion.
“You have been the ‘biggest fish’ at this meeting.”
“W-What?” she gasped.
“And he has made several successful deals because of it.”
Sakura no longer felt the ground beneath her or noticed the clansmen on the adjoining paths.
An awful realization was crashing down, brought on by his last, horrifying words.
The successful deals, they were…they were because of her?
The mine owner was only negotiating with her diplomat because she was with him?
He had said he had the backing of Konoha. They thought she was a “big fish,” pulling the strings for Konoha, the biggest fish of them all.
“After this,” the politician said, voice low and cutting, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he ships you back from Konoha just to accompany him to the market.” He laughed again, but it was no longer the pleasant baritone. This time, his laughter was cruel.
Sakura barely heard him; she moved without thinking. The harsh truth dislodged other possibilities, until her flawed beliefs were crashing down like a house of cards.
And the politician…. He had sought her out, hadn’t he? Not the other way around.
He always appeared at her side, flattering and providing her information, leading her on. She thought she could just smile and draw information out. But he had willingly told her everything.
He courted her, just as he courted any other “big fish.” She just couldn’t see it.
“It’s pretty crafty, actually” the politician continued, oblivious to her discomfort. “He wouldn’t have landed half as many deal as he did without you in tow.” He was clearly hovering between anger at having been played manipulated and admiration at the sheer audacity of taking such a gamble. “To think, he’d go so far as to hire a village shinobi.”
At this Sakura stumbled on a step. She grabbed reflexively for the handrail. The politician seemed to recall his former charm and gently grasped her arm to stable her, noting for the first time her overly quiet demeanor.
“Well, don’t take it too hard, there’s no real harm done,” he said pleasantly. “‘All’s fair in love and war,’ you know. But this…this is business. I would wager they play very different games here than anything you’ve been trained for.”
Sakura was beginning to feel sick.
Hadn’t the politician said this was a shell game? And that all these men knew it?
Now, she knew it too.
Somehow, her feet carried her the rest of the way down the path, and she found herself before the clan leader she was hired to guard. She felt numb.
For the first time, Sakura’s stony diplomat looked slightly discomposed. He folded his arms over his chest, wrinkling the front of his kimono. Frowning, he watched the mine owner approach another well-dressed clan head. After a moment of conversation, the clan elder threw back his arm, his sumptuous sleeve fluttering in the breeze, and they both disappeared beyond a corner.
“Problems?” the politician said with a trace of a smirk.
“My investor didn’t come through,” Sakura’s diplomat said, frowning. “I had hoped to receive a scroll, but none arrived. And he requires proof before he will commit.”
The politician nodded sagely. “But at least you are not going home empty handed.” He glanced involuntarily at Sakura.
“Yes, yes,” he said, slipping back into his aloof demeanor. “I am fortunate in that.” He glanced at Sakura as well, noticing for the first time her silence.
“Are you alright? You look,” he peered at her for a moment, “a little pale.”
Sakura forced her lips into a smile. “Just tired.”
“Well, this has been an interesting summit. I, for one, have learned a lot,” the politician said cheerfully. Apparently he decided that despite her clan head’s manipulation, he was still a good connection to have. Perhaps an even better one now, knowing how crafty he was. “Let’s keep in touch. If your investor ever comes through, I have a lot of connections beyond this meeting that might be of interest. Particularly to someone like yourself who is unafraid to take risks.”
His flattering remark hit its target. The diplomat like the sound of that. He smoothed down his kimono, tipping his chin up with satisfaction. “Yes, yes. That would be acceptable.”
This time, Sakura didn’t miss the glint in the politician’s eye. He had gotten what he wanted, with minimal effort. She shook her head lightly. He was more like the courtesan than she ever hoped to be.
Turning to go, he flashed one of his broad, curving smiles at Sakura. Shes never realized how patronizing it was. She hated it.
“My dear, it has been an pleasure. Shall I see you tonight, perhaps? Will you be taking in the fireworks display….” His gaze drifted to her hair.
“No,” she said sharply. “I have to get an early start.”
“Well, then it’s my loss.” He swept her a deep bow, more than was appropriate for the guard of a mid-level clan.
Furious, she bobbed her head simply to save herself from having to speak. The politician left them, moving directly toward another large entourage.
“I wouldn’t take his flattery too seriously if I were you,” the diplomat said cooly as they began to walk again. “Whatever he offers will come at a price.” He cut his eyes to her, looking her over once. “But perhaps, even with all your weapons, you are still too young to understand the ways of the world.”
Sakura’s face flamed at the insinuation. She bit back a savage reply.
Another mid-level clan head crossed the path in front of them. He bowed once to Sakura’s diplomat, then surprisingly, to her as well.
She stifled her anger and nodded back, seeing clearly the picture around her. It was not just her clan head and the politician, but all these men saw her as a emissary of Konoha. Not as a shinobi.
But if they were all opportunists, then she was a fool. By refusing to act like a barbarian, she had unwittingly supported the gossip her diplomat had either started or fueled, that she was there pulling the strings.
The continued up the path toward the house. He signaled to the attendant waiting there that it was time to leave.
“Well, it seems like a made a good choice hiring a Konoha nin,” he said as they approached the front gate. There was a smug note to his voice the Sakura couldn’t ignore.
“And when can I expect another communication from Konoha?”
“I will deliver it in three weeks time,” she said, forcing herself to remain polite.
He nodded once and, without another word, turned out the gate toward his lush accommodations. A few of his attendants bowed at her but did not fall out of step. Before she knew it, she was alone.
Sakura felt like she’d just been washed up on shore.
She thought about dashing to the inn and writing down her notes, but it struck her that there may not be much point. What if the things the politician had told her were false? Just carefully crafted lies designed to lure her interest?
Growing more and more dejected, she slowly trod to the inn to retrieve her cloak and the masks. She open her scroll, jotted down which deals had been solidified, but that was it. She realized that all her information had come from the politician, and him alone. There was no way she could verify any of it.
She shook her head, snapped the scroll shut and whipped on her cloak. She wished she could speak to Tsunade about this.
But remembering the Hokage, and her specific orders for this mission, brought out more self-doubt. Had she really only been chasing her own shadow this whole time?
Just a few hours before, she had been so sure of herself. Then, she was absolutely certain that the mine owner’s group was up to something. But now, those assumptions only reflected poorly on her. Had she just assumed that they were on the wrong side of a deal because they were they looked like common street thugs? Just as others had assumed that she was a diplomat in disguise simply because she did not look the part of a shinobi?
Back out on the street, two kids ran past, masks on their faces and cloaks streaming behind them. The disguises did little to lift her mood. She made her way to the canals, jostled occasionally by the raucous festival goers, passing the garish stands bent on luring you in and the manicured residences nearly advertising that you were to be keep out. All these facades, created to deceive or simply to keep their secrets. It made her miss the straight-forward messiness of Konoha. There were no secrets hidden behind the lines of laundry, the stacks of produce outside the stores or the flapping awnings of the ramen stands.
Thoughts of Konoha helped restore her resolve. After all, she still had another task to finish tonight.
Sakura turned onto a bridge and leaned on the rail. The cherry blossoms were at their brilliant peak, and the slight breeze sent them streaming through the air around her. But even in this glorious setting, her mind wandered.
Katsuro would love Konoha too, she was sure of it. Because he was different. He was like her. She’d bring him home, fold him into her life and protect him from…from….
Propping her elbow on the rail, she dropped her chin into her palm and drummed her fingers on her cheek.
Well, she’d protect him from the whoever was after him. And Itachi too, she thought, curling up her lip in distaste.
It was no wonder he was so cagey about his life — if she had to work with men like Itachi and the Akatsuki, she’d be cagey too. Itachi must have picked him up somewhere and put him to work doing his dirty-work. She knew he didn’t want to, she knew he was a better person than that. But he was shackled to this life with Itachi. Well, she could break him free. She could give him a new life, protect him. He’d never have to go back to the hell of being with Itachi again.
A stiff breeze rattled through the treetops, sending puffs of blossoms out over the canals. Everywhere, petals rained down. Sakura brushed them off her shoulders, shook them gently from her hair. She dropped her gaze back to the dark water. A blanket of pale blossoms moved together as one on the rippling surface.
But what if she was wrong. After everything that had happened today… what if she was wrong about Katsuro too….
Sakura drew a fortifying breath, shook off the rest of the petals and the worries. No, she would not doubt herself. This was different. She wasn’t wrong about him. She knew Katsuro. He’d be thrilled to come home with her. She didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it sooner.
Sakura circled back to the alley several times, but Katsuro still wasn’t there.
It was getting late, and she hadn’t yet given up hope, but she was completely surprised when she spotted the profile of a man leaning against the wall, fading into an angled shadow.
Hands shoved in his pockets, he looked up the alleyway toward the road. The man turned his head suddenly, hearing the noise of someone approaching. Half his face in blue light, he cast searching, tired eyes down the end of the dark alley.
It was Katsuro. Sakura was astonished she didn’t recognize him right away.
He pushed slowly off the wall and closed the space between them.
“Hey,” he said softly. He gave her his warmest smile, but it couldn’t cover the deep circles under his eyes.
“Hi.” Sakura scanned his face with concern. She reached a hand toward him, fingertips just beginning to glow. “Let me read your chakra levels, you might be–”
He edged away. “Nah, I’m fine. Just tired.”
Sakura dropped her hand, glow dissolving.
“But…it’s good to see you,” he offered.
Sakura smiled finally. “It’s good to see you too.”
And she meant it. She studied the lines of his face, his soft, tired eyes. She hadn’t realized how much she wanted to see him. How much she needed to after that mess of a meeting. And even though she had so much to say, so much to ask, she decided not to spring it all on him right away.
A couple passed the end of the lane. The smell of seared meet and vegetables wafted up from one of their parcels.
Katsuro’s stomach growled suddenly. Embarrassed, he clamped a hand over his gut. Sakura covered her mouth, failing to hide her giggle.
“Why don’t I get us something to eat,” she said, grinning. “I saw a ramen stand a few blocks back. Do you like ramen?”
He shrugged. Sakura filled in the blanks: He’d never had it. “Well, you’ll love it.”
“Sakura,” he said, reaching to stop her. “There’s something I need to—”
Feeling around for the money in her pouch, Sakura pulled out the masks out instead. Katsuro jerked his hand back as if they were hot.
The white faces stared up with their gaping, hollow eyes. For Sakura, the thought of putting on one of these disguises was bad enough. But if they did go to the festival, she might run into the politician or anyone else from the meeting. That thought made her a little ill.
She looked up at Katsuro apologetically, and was surprised to see that his expression mirrored hers.
“Listen, I really don’t think I should…” he hedged, hands up. “I mean, I’m really tired.”
“Yeah, me too,” Sakura said with relief. “How about we skip it?”
She hooked the knotted laces on a latch of a nearby gate. “There, that’s done,” she said brightly. “Now I’ll go get us some dinner!” Sakura trotted down the dark lane and rounded a corner before he could argue.
Katsuro sighed. He scanned the alley again, roof lines, walls, corners. He listened hard, sniffed the air. Still nothing. He was afraid he’d been followed, that somehow he’d endangered Sakura. But thankfully, so far, he’d been wrong.
The breeze kicked up, rattling the masks where the dangled from the gate latch. Katsuro narrowed his eyes at the fox mask. Like he needed another reminder.
The heat from the kyuubi had settled permanently in his chest. He nearly jumped when she wanted to heal him. The warmth of his skin would have been a giveaway that something was not right about him, even before she discovered the molten chakra living just below the surface of his own.
He’d have to be careful tonight. The kyuubi chakra was restless, rising to the perceived threat. The demon latched onto Katsuro’s nervousness, that feeling of vulnerability. Katsuro knew his anxiety gave it a foothold.
He always kept good control over the chakra, and had enough mastery now to use it however he wanted. But he was never completely at ease. And tonight, the growing heat was a warning. Like carrying a single match through a summer-dry field, Katsuro knew he’d be fine…as long as he didn’t make any mistakes.
He rubbed a hand over his chest, and slowly walked down the lane in the direction Sakura disappeared.
He was sure to be terrible company tonight, knowing that this was it. He had to tell her. He couldn’t run from it anymore. This was the end.
At a dark intersection of lanes, Katsuro stopped. He had no idea which way she went.
He stood listening for her…and listening for anything else. Only the muffled sounds of the festival and the steady drip of water from some nearby building. A dog picked at some trash, then kept on down the alley, nose to the ground.
Muffled shouts rang out in the distance.
Frowning, he concentrated, trying to isolate the sound….
“Hey! I said knock it off!” Sakura’s voice ricocheted up from the mesh of lanes.
Katsuro’s mouth went dry. She’d been attacked. Because of him. This was what he was afraid of.
He tore off without another thought. But there were no more sounds to follow. He continued moving, dashing down lanes, breathlessly looking for her cloak, her hair, anything. But all was silent. The lanes and alleys were empty.
Katsuro opened and closed his fists. If something happened to her…. If something happened to her….
His desperate need to keep her from harm kindled the kyuubi’s hellish chakra in a way it never had before. Something had changed within him: His self-protective circle had expanded by one, and the demon was reacting to it. From his gut, the malevolent chakra pushed forward, surging within him for the sole purpose of finding her. But Katsuro barely registered it.
Heart pounding, he raked his gaze over the roofline. He needed a better vantage point. Katsuro bent to lunge to the roof when a sudden smell wafted on the breeze. The food. Sakura was getting food. He dashed down the lane, trying to catch the scent again. Finally it started to get stronger.
And sure enough, turning that dark corner where it was strongest, he laid eyes on Sakura instantly. But she wasn’t alone.
Illuminated by lamplight, Sakura stood with one box of food. The other was smashed at her feet. Circling her were several cloaked, masked men, wearing the same festival disguises as nearly everyone else in the village. The largest one was hulked over her, his grotesque war god mask getting closer and closer to her face.
He was speaking to her. Katsuro could see her hair shivering with the puffs of breath. But Sakura held her ground. She didn’t move, didn’t blink, even as her hand disappeared under her cloak.
But Katsuro’s blazing anger left him blind to everything but the desire to drive a kunai through those men.
Tightening his fist, the chakra gathered in a warm cloak around his fingers, tinting his skin faintly red. For the first time, drawing on the power which no one else had was suddenly, deliciously satisfying.
And the kyuubi’s power sharpened with its host’s focused desire to protect. Instead of clawing at his insides looking for any crack, the demon chakra stirred and swirled, moving in harmony with its host. Ready to pounce.
Under the lone light of the alley, the biggest thug hovered inches from Sakura’s face. Sakura tipped her chin up, nearly daring her assailant to come closer. Where her arm was exposed from her cloak, the muscles were taught, as if she were preparing to deliver a blow.
But a subtle movement in the shadows drew the thug’s attention. He swung his garish masked-face around, looking for the source. Hse didn’t have to look long.
From the far end of the empty lane, Katsuro materialized out of the darkness.
His fists were tight at his sides, and the black cloak licked the ground with each step. But the flash of red eyeshine from inside the deep hood was unholy, like an animal closing in on it’s prey.
A heavy, threatening feeling unfurled down the alley with him. It permeated the small space, leaving those in its path feeling uneasy and fearful. Like the worst was yet to come.
Sakura watched Katsuro, wondering if this was the power which kept the others at bay. She’d heard about powerful chakra signatures registering in times of extreme stress, but this…this was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
Around her, the cluster of men fell away, ducking their heads and turning to retreat without another glance at the newcomer.
Only the big one hung back, shooting a long, hard look at Katsuro as he came into the light. Though he couldn’t see all of the man’s face, the big thug could see enough to tell he wasn’t going to mind his business and keep on going. And the pink-haired girl wasn’t worth a brawl. They’d only wanted to scare her anyway.
Tipping his masked-face away, the thug stepped back from Sakura, grinding his boot on her crumpled food carton as he turned. He followed his companions out of the lane.
Sakura didn’t care. She didn’t even move. She only watched Katsuro draw closer, surprised that the person she knew so well could exude such a feeling of…of…power. It nearly tingled in the air. If she didn’t know him so well she would have felt threatened as well.
Katsuro stopped in front of her, eyes still riveted to the far end of the lane where they retreated. Sakura guessed he hadn’t quite decided whether or not he would pursue them. But the strong surge of chakra she’d felt earlier had completely dissipated.
A mess of noodles and the flattened carton lay on the ground between them. Katsuro scanned her face. “Are you ok?”
She let the cloak fall back from her bent elbow, revealing a hidden kunai. Her fingers drummed expertly down the grip.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said reassuringly. She smiled at him, curious that he would have such a strong reaction to just some street kids.
He frowned at her hand, then looked back down the lane, still processing what had happened.
“Come on,” she said lightly and turned to go. “Let’s go have some ramen. I know you’re going to love it.”
They headed back to the dark lane where they started from, but voices caused them both to stop. Up the alley two kids were trying on the masks Sakura had hung on the old gate. The swapped them, then traded them back, all the while talking animatedly. In the next moment they dashed out of the lane toward the canals, the silhouette of the masks lurching between them.
Katsuro pointed to a large crate just inside the alley. They climbed up, sat down and shared the single carton of food, eating silently for a while.
“How do you like it?”
“It’s good,” he said. “Really good.” But other than that Katsuro was uncharacteristically quiet. Sakura could not know that the receding chakra left him even more drained than before.
He pushed the carton towards Sakura, but she held up a hand, hoping he would finish the rest. She got no argument from him.
“I had everything under control, you know” Sakura said softly after a few minutes of introspection. “You didn’t have to come out—”
He snickered once in disagreement. She looked at him in surprise.
“You don’t think so?”
“He knocked the food out of your hand and was in your face,” Katsuro said, voice thick with irritation. He put the chopsticks down. “You left yourself open. He could have been anyone—”
“He could have, but he wasn’t,” Sakura snapped. After the day’s events, his doubt hit a nerve. “They were kids I busted stealing in the village two nights ago. And for your information I let him dump the food.”
Katsuro looked at her askance, doubt clear on his face.
“I was going to have to drop it anyway to get my kunai. So I decided I’d teach him a lesson about never underestimating his opponent.”
She left off that giving a good beating to a bunch of punks who clearly deserved it was the perfect remedy to the shattering self doubt she’d been thrown into after the trade meeting. This was her element — she was a true shinobi, after all. And she was really looking forward to seeing the surprise on their faces when they ended up on their backs in the road next to that smashed ramen container.
Katsuro sat back slowly. “I see.”
“I watch everyone, I never let them sneak up on me. I learned that from you.” She knocked her shoulder into his.
“Yeah…sorry,” he said quietly. He picked up the chopsticks and slowly began eating again.
Sakura filled in the silence with a few little anecdotes about her village, trying to get him to loosen up. Before long, she had slipped Katsuro into picture. But instead of telling him how much he’d love it, she tried to let him see it through her eyes, so he’d know what to expect.
She talked about her daily life and her missions. A few gusty breezes blew down the alley, ruffling their hair. She spoke, and he listened. It was more than she’d ever said, and she made sure it was all positive and enjoyable. But he didn’t remark on any of it. He simply put aside the carton and chopsticks and tipped his head back against the wall.
Unhindered, Sakura continued, talking about some of her friends, the ones that made him laugh and new ones he was likely to meet. But his response was subdued. Sakura fell into a pensive silence. She realized some of her grumblings may have painted one nin in particular in a bad light.
“And Sasuke’s not so bad.” She laughed quietly. “He’s very…um…loyal. Plus he’s a good shinobi. And, well actually, you’d probably get along well together.”
Sakura ran her fingers along the rough edged of the crate. She didn’t know what made her think that, but she did. They seemed well suited to each other. Sasuke, who had so much power and so much sadness, might actually take to someone who also had shouldered heavy burdens at a young age. And Katsuro was not so weighed down by his experiences that he didn’t have a good heart. She smiled at the thought of Katsuro springing jokes on Sasuke, imagining what other mischief they might get up to.
From under hooded eyes, Katsuro quietly watched her softening expression. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
This visit was turning out to be terribly different from last summer. She was…different. She was preoccupied with her village. With her mission. With him.
It felt like her life was moving on without him. And he found he hated it. A new feeling roared to life within him, competing with the relentless burn of chakra in his chest. He felt sick, and sullen, and mad at her for no good reason. It wasn’t her fault: He knew things couldn’t stay the same and that he just couldn’t let her go. But did she have to like her village so damn much?
“And of course you’ll have Itachi in common….” she said innocently.
Everything came to a grinding halt.
“Itachi,” she repeated, as if he should understand her perfectly. “You and Sasuke will have that in common…. I mean, you both do have that…. You know, the both of you know Itachi—”
Fury displaced his newfound jealousy. The kyuubi’s chakra blazed with the sudden emotion. Katsuro wanted no connection with Sasuke. None. And he sure as hell didn’t want to hear it from her.
Out of nowhere, a lone firework whistled over the treetops, exploding directly above them in a bone-rattling boom, startling both of them deeply. The street lit up like daylight, and the multicolored lights sparked brightly against the gathering clouds.
Sakura recovered instantly. “Oh they must be starting fireworks display. Bet they’re trying to beat the weather.” Reflected light glittered in Sakura’s eyes as she watched the sky in anticipation.
But Katsuro grit his teeth and looked down, hissing against the sharp pain in his midsection. The seal at his gut ached and his chest burned. The chakra fairly thrummed now, responding to his shock, searing him with each breath. He felt hot all over. And his eyes were starting to burn. This was bad. He needed to cool off.
Another firework boomed right over their heads. The chakra pulsed in him again. He needed to get out of here.
“Should we go down and watch? There are some closer spots, or we could go up on a roof—” Sakura turned to gauge his opinion, only to see Katsuro standing suddenly. But instead of answering her, he launched to the roof.
Confused, Sakura left the empty ramen box on the crate and rushed to follow him. He was moving fast, head down, roof over roof, and she might have lost him had she not seen him bound over the outer wall. Pushing the chakra to the balls of her feet, she hurried after him.
He finally slowed when he was in the thicket of trees outside the wall, but he didn’t stop. He only moved deeper into the woodland.
“Hey, are you…are you ok?” she called to his back when she was close enough to him.
“Yeah,” he said, never looking back. “I-I just had to get out of there”
Sakura didn’t answer, only followed him farther and farther up the hillside.
When he finally stopped, Sakura turned back to see just how far they’d gone. The lights from the village were just a rosy glow at the bottom of the night sky. A few fireworks still popped, but the show was over.
But Katsuro had his back to the scene. Instead he was cautiously scanning the black trees ahead of them, eyes moving from branches to trunks, looking for any small movement. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he searched until he felt safe.
Another breeze gusted through the bare trees, colder this time, signaling the impending change in the weather. The chill air felt good on his overheated skin. He breathed deeply, trying to relax. Thankfully, the kyuubi’s chakra was no longer arcing wildly out of control.
Now all Katsuro was left with was the residual pain, and the knowledge that it was now or never. He had to tell her. He strengthened his resolve and readied to turn back to Sakura. He could not know, however, that at the same moment she was doing the same.
He turned back to her, the words on his lips.
“I—” their voices sounded in unison. Sakura laughed. Katsuro shook his head, dragging a hand across the back of his neck.
Sakura toed the ground. “What did you want to….”
“No, you go first,” he offered readily, smiling in encouragement.
“You’ve probably already figured it out,” she curled her hair behind her ear self-consciously, “that I wanted to ask you, or really invite you, I guess…I mean….” She cleared her throat. Katsuro’s smile fell.
“Well, I know you have to go with Itachi.” She shuddered. “He’s a monster. As if he wasn’t before, but now he’s even in the Akatsuki and they—”
“All Akatsuki are monsters,” Katsuro said quietly, cutting his eyes away. But his voice was chilling. As if he knew this for fact.
Sakura blinked at him for a moment. Of course he would. He was with Itachi. It was so easy to forget. But she quickly regrouped.
“I know you have to be around them, and I know you have to follow Itachi’s orders. But I know you. You’re not like them.” A gentle smile curved up the corners of her mouth. “And life doesn’t have to be like that.”
Katsuro slowly shook his head, horrified.
Sakura smiled, stepping toward him. She reached her hand out to his. “I want you to come home with me.”
He stepped back, eyes wide with disbelief. “How could you ever think—”
“I know what you told me, about your village. But I could protect you. You don’t have to ever go back to Itachi’s group again.”
“And this…this is what you wanted to ask me?” A dangerous edge crept into his voice.
“Yes of course. What else would there be? I only have one more mission after this. And I don’t know when I’ll be able to see you again….” She stepped toward him again. “But it doesn’t matter! Because you could come home with me! ”
A breeze rattled through the leaves on the ground.
“No. I could never, ever….” he said, voice low, trembling with rage. The chakra in his chest was ratcheting back up.
Sakura was ready for this — she knew he’d need more convincing. “Remember, partners? Teammates?” He took another step back. But she rejoined brightly, still moving towards him, “Well if you came home with me, we could really be teammates!”
Katsuro shook his head, his hands were fists.
“I’m not coming home with you,” he said bitterly. “Do you think this is a game? That I can just leave—
“”If you’re only with them to stay safe, then come home with me. You’ll be safe there,” she said stridently.
“I can protect you.”
He made a cruel sound of disagreement and turned away from her. He didn’t say it, but Sakura knew what he was thinking: How could you protect me. You can’t even protect yourself.
She had a plummeting feeling. This was the Katsuro she remembered, from the road and the temple. This was the mercenary.
Sakura stared at his back. She refused to accept this. She knew him. She wasn’t letting it go.
A strong wind bore down on them, wooshing through the treetops.
“I want you to come home with me,” she demanded, voice rising over the din. He didn’t move. She repeated it, louder. “I want you to come to Konoha!”
That word, that one word, opened a floodgate of memories for Katsuro, visions that he knew weren’t his. Konoha in flames. Bodies and blood and screams of anguish. Katsuro winced and clutched his hands to his head. The wind turned to howls of pain.
Katsuro fisted a hand in his hair, refusing to accept the scenes. The kyuubi’s chakra was dangerously close to the surface. He had pushed himself too far this time, and the demon was trying to claw its way out.
Katsuro cracked his eyes open, desperate to get away. But the woods wavered in front of him, red seeping into the black spaces between the trees, delineating them. He blinked, and the whole hillside appeared before him, in perfect definition as if lit by a blood-red sun. Shit. He rubbed his eyes, ignoring the burn. He blinked again, and the forest returned to inky black. But the red tinge was slowly creeping back in.
Her voice sounded thin, breakable, in the darkness.
Sakura stepped forward to touch his shoulder, stop him from going, but a branch cracked loudly under his foot.
He moved away from her at the sound. The orange glow from the village lights clung to his outline, but in two steps, even that had faded. The wind picked up again.
“You’re not like them,” she called after him, hand on a tree for support. His faint outline dissolved into the black.
“You don’t belong with them” she yelled, willing her voice to carry into the silent treetops.
“Katsuro,” she called into the darkness, emptying her lungs.
But there was nothing. Just the sound of her own ragged breathing and the branches creaking with the breeze.
He was gone.
He may have never heard her.
Pounding through the leaves, vision wavering in and out of red, Sakura’s voice still rang in his ears.
But her words hit him like a punch. She wanted Katsuro. She wanted an illusion.
The real boy, the one underneath, hidden from view for all these years, the one with the terrible power at his core, was the one that couldn’t return with her. He could never go to Konoha.
Unwittingly, the thought drove more images to his mind. He grasped a tree, hanging on against the strong breeze and the ravaging chakra that was threatening to burn through his skin.
Gritting his teeth, he pushed off the tree and continued on. He stumbled, half-hunched until he could go no further. He hoped he was far enough away. Glancing back, the glow of the village had disappeared beyond the ridges of a few dark hills. Far enough.
He crashed to the forest floor, hoping the cold leaves and damp earth might soothe him. But the superheated chakra would not be extinguished so easily. Rubbing his hand over the ache at his midsection, where he knew the seal must be glowing red hot by now. He breathed deeply and tried to relax every muscle in his body. They all ached and resisted, but he exhaled and tried again. Each time, brought him closer and closer to relief.
He closed his eyes. The only sound now was of his own blood thrumming in ears. His breathing began to modulate. Then slowly, slowly, the hand knotted in his shirt relaxed its grip.
“Konoha…” his mind whispered. But thankfully no more terrifying images of destruction came rushing forth.
Instead, only the pulsing of blood continued. It pounded softly in his ears, like distant footsteps.
Another picture appeared, carried in on a cloud of swirling, suffocating yellow dust.
A gust of wind ruffled Katsuro’s hair, flicked up the edges of his cloak around where he had fallen asleep on the dark hillside. But he didn’t feel it. He was no longer Katsuro. He was no longer there.
He was in Konoha, back where it all started.
Looking up the lane, the boy felt so small, so insignificant. A breeze kicked up the grit at his feet and lifted the shaggy yellow locks from his forehead. Another gust and the dust billowed around him, filling the lane and choking him out of existence.
Behind the cloud the pounding of footsteps continued, growing louder, moving steadily closer. For the boy in front of the orphanage, blinking into the blinding yellow dust, he could not know what the sound meant. At that moment, he was on a collision course with the horrible, inescapable truth of his existence.
On the hillside, Katsuro grimaced. A thin sheen of perspiration glistened on his forehead. In sleep, he turned his head and tightened a fist. But there was no escaping this memory. It was his own, and it was opening before him like an unhealed wound.
He was powerless to stop it.