17 Jan 2020 4 Comments
Author’s note: Early chapter release! Will have notes and a preview of 42, Part 2, up in a few days when I post on ff.net. These chapters will delve deeply into Sakura’s background and powers, and the duality of life in and out of Konoha. Thanks for reading! Lots more to come!
Sakura stretched her hand out into the darkness until she reached the warmth. She wiggled her fingers, imagining them glowing in the sunlight. Yelling voices and pounding feet passed her, then careened away. In the distance a dog barked.
Sakura smiled, orienting herself. Eyes closed, she stood in the angled shadow of a building, one hand still on the corner. She imagined Konoha’s streets glowing gold, running away from her in big straight veins before fracturing down into the maze of lanes and alleys that connected the other districts. She mapped her location — she knew this are easily because she’d grown up on this block — then pushed off the landmark into the warm sunshine.
From here on out, the roads would not run straight and planned. They would cut back, dip and dive, having been added to the edge of the civilian area with little thought and no planning.
A cart crossed her path, but the repetitive whine of the wheel was no help. She slowed, listening for it to pass, and then kept going. A door slammed. Voices off to the side called out in greeting…. “Is it ready?” Almost!” “Good, I need it for the—“ The voices were suddenly muffled. She knew now she was passing the first alley. Three more steps then she’d have to turn left, up onto the wider market street.
Sakura continued, successfully darting and dodging in response to what echoed back to her. She kept her face turned to the ground so no one questioned her closed eyes. They would just think she was lost in thought. She passed another two homes, filling them in to the landscape in her mind.
Next came the bakery, and at that moment a waft of sweet bean cakes hit her nose. She breathed deeply. A clothing shop was on the right, and as she passed she heard feminine voices and a fragment of gossip. “Well, I heard she was going to wear—“ Sakura ignored it. In the shadowy terrain she was listening for a brighter sound. A familiar, high-pitched ting-ting-ting—
She smiled to herself and opened her eyes. That was not the sound she expected from the blacksmith’s shop, but she should have known she’d get a greeting instead. It was Takumi, the apprentice. He had a thick apron and gloves, and waved a red-hot poker in the air when he saw he’d caught her attention. With his forearm he shoved the round goggles up onto his head, making his eyes look owlish in the middle of his soot-dark face.
They were around the same age and had grown up in nearby buildings. Their mothers were friends.
He tipped his head quizzically. “Are you training for a mission or something?” His eyes went wide. “Something with…ninjas?”
She laughed, a little embarrassed she’d been caught. “Um…yeah! Something like that—”
The blacksmith returned and scolded Takumi for abandoning the cooking ladle he was working on. Sakura grimaced, waved discreetly and kept going. Once the shop was behind her, she bent her head and closed her eyes again.
The market street was trickier. The temporary stalls were packed tightly along either side of the lane. They muffled the sounds she used as landmarks — the permanent shops behind the tents and tables — and made it almost impossible to judge distance. It was always a challenge to see how far she could get through the market before she had to stop.
She proceeded slowly, counting her steps and listening. First came a rhythmic woosh-crack, woosh-crack. The weavers were feeding the shuttle through the loom, then snapping the thread back against the board. The never-ending beat would only stop when there were enough threads woven into a sturdy material, like the rug in front of her mother’s kitchen sink. The sound faded behind haggling customers’ voices. More stalls. The earthy scent of freshly picked vegetables. The rustle of shifting baskets. Laughter. But beneath it was something different, something familiar….
She picked out the sound and let it pull her through the confusion. A pleasant watery smack, then a rolling sound, like a wheel going endlessly down a hill. Ah…the potter where she bought her father a gift two birthdays ago. She knew where she was. The cobbler’s shop was next, followed by a few more small shops and then she was out….
She walked carefully, feeling for the change under her feet…. If she was right, then it should be just ahead of her….
She took a step off a paver and crunched down into gravel. Smiling to her self, she said “yes” under her breath. From here the path narrowed, winding down to the shinobi district. There were stairs and close-in buildings, and she supposed it was technically cheating to run her hand down along the rail, count the steps and sniff for Ichiraku’s ramen stand, but it did make the challenge easier. Besides this was where her new apartment was, so she wasn’t as familiar with the area. Here, she needed all the help she could get.
Sakura began to walk confidently toward the shinobi district, when she collided with someone in the middle of the lane—
“Oh! I’m so sorry—“ She opened her eyes, but immediately cringed.
“Sakura,” came the familiar drawl of her teammate. “What are you doing?” Sasuke looked stern, but she could tell he was having a hard time not laughing.
She smiled, blinking up into the light. “Uh…training for a mission…?”
He rolled his eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be meeting Kakashi this afternoon?”
Of course he would know her schedule as well as he knew his own, she thought dryly. She nodded.
Then without a word, he fell into step beside her. That was his way.
It was warm and pleasant, there were lots of people out enjoying the afternoon. Sasuke didn’t say much. But he never did, not in public. Yet it was still companionable to walk with him. And he was relaxed. She could feel it rolling off of him. A side glance confirmed it. His smooth face tipped up to enjoy the sun on his cheeks. His mouth curved up in what, for him, was almost a smile. He cut her a look. She was caught. She laughed softly but didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. That’s how it was with them now.
An older man passed them, moving briskly, flat tray hoisted on his shoulder. It was covered in a large white cloth, but the fragrance of freshly baked buns trailed out behind it, encircling them for a moment. They inhaled together. Sasuke said nothing, she sighed longingly. Before they could go, another man, younger this time, darted past with another tray. He rushed to keep up. Sasuke’s gaze lingered on their backs.
“The baker and his son,” Sakura answered his unasked question. “Or maybe just some hired help,” she added when she realized she didn’t recognize the younger man. “They’re working overtime, baking sweets for this weekend’s festival. It’s all anyone’s been talking about.” He nodded. They continued on.
This was how things worked between them. She read the signs and responded.
When they were in private, or with Sai, or just in a setting he felt more comfortable, Sasuke was more inclined to talk. Sakura remembered thinking something was wrong with him when they were children. But she understood him better now. She understood everything better now….
At age 18, Sakura felt more at home in her village than she’d ever had before. She was in control of her life. And she had a partner in that it. And it felt good.
They left gravelly edge of the civilian market and took Sakura’s shortcut, winding down narrow stairs and crossing over paved lanes, until they turned a corner and the ramshackle shinobi district opened up before them.
Buildings squashed up next to buildings. Shabby little apartments were stacked above restaurants and shops. All manner of businesses had lanterns, banners and folding signs prominently displaying what they offered, just like in Konoha’s civilian neighborhoods. But that was where the resemblance ended. Everything here catered to shinobis.
The blacksmiths forged weapons. The clothing merchants sold fatigues. Bladesmiths sharpened and repaired kunai, tailors mended battle-torn vests, cobblers made weapons holsters when they weren’t cutting leather for boots.
Shops here specialized in almost every kind of traditional ninja gear. Scrolls with hidden powers. Daggers that could disappear between your fingers; axes that could explode to twice the size of your body. Woven tools like ropes and bamboo climbing claws. Wooden weapons like bo staffs and nunchucks. And forged metal favorites like throwing stars, brass knuckles and foot spikes. There was even a shop dedicated to the delicate art of bomb making, although it was much newer than all the rest due to its being rebuilt more than a few times.
As for the more uncommon items, the shinobi district had its own market street. It looked very much like its civilian counterpart, a winding road lined with stalls offering trays of fresh fruits and vegetables. But hidden beneath produce baskets and tucked under tables were a glittering array of hard-to-find weapons, foreign shinobi tech and one-of-a-kind supplies. With the right words or money, nearly any strange item could be purchased. Or at least procured. From a finely crafted Sand Village whip (taken, no doubt, from the dead hands of its previous owner) to highly toxic nightshade pods for a sleeping draught (stolen, no doubt, from the Waterfall country, the only place where they grow).
These enterprising farmers specialized in the unusual because, like everything else in this district, they were not what they seemed. Though they did grow their own fruits and vegetables, these farmers were in fact shinobi. Old Konoha nins who had left the village life behind, but never quite given up on being a ninjas. They farmed lands in the countryside around the village. Some even operated safehouses for teams of nins. And when they came into the village to sell their produce, they always made sure to have some special offerings tucked away.
Many stores in the district were the same. Run by twinkly-eyed old men and women who really had seen it all. This was the part of the village where shinobi came to retire…if they were lucky enough to live that long.
But working here wasn’t just for the old. Younger nins also made a life in this district, supporting other shinobi rather than fighting alongside them. They chose their trades and honed their skills inside the village rather than on missions. These were the young men and women who had gone through the academy but didn’t make it through their team trials. Or they flunked out of their individual exams. Or they passed all the tests only to loose their team in the field, and subsequently their will to fight. Other villages might have abandoned these nins. But in Konoha, you were a shinobi for life, in one form or another.
The district was the one constant for all Konoha nins. And if they didn’t come for supplies or the camaraderie, then they came for the food.
The majority of the eateries in the village were crammed into this crooked network of streets. Restaurants served up hot-and-ready food at all hours of the night and day. From never-ending noodle bowls to skewers of meat to whole buffets of fried foods. Some were sit-down eat-in type places, tucked behind a row of curtains. Others were street stalls, where returning nins could stand and eat or grab a meal to go.
Apartments here were cheap too. Small single units were added above shops as second and even third stories. It was convenient and, more importantly, private. Whatever you needed, something was always open. And no one gave a second look at a shinobi creeping back in the middle of the night, covered in someone else’s blood.
Sakura loved it. Her parents hated it.
They did not approve, and they always let her know. They pointed out how much nicer their residential section was, with its neatly planned, flower-lined roads. How much more modern and more importantly civilian their part of Konoha was. Where there were families and kids and parks. Where she would be greeted by the same smiling faces she’d known her whole life. Where a nice girl like her could get a nice job and have a nice normal life, just like they had. Why would anyone ever move away from that?
But Sakura knew early on she was different from her parents. She’d never been normal. Not their kind of normal, anyway. And her life wouldn’t follow those same smooth paths they dreamed of for her.
That’s why the shinobi district suited her perfectly. It was like everyone there understood each other. Even though they were so different, this area was what made them all the same, connected them as shinobis of Konoha.
The district was very much like the whole of Konoha, which managed to successfully uphold a system of civilians and shinobis coexisting inside the same round walls. Sometimes with the other side not even much aware of it, like her parents.
These imperfections — the rundown buildings and cluttered rooflines — may be at odds with the civilian side, but there was an order here, as reliable as the roads. Yes, she understood this too now. And she was happy she finally found her place in it.
Sakura and Sasuke turned onto what could be considered the main thoroughfare. Team 8 were ahead of them, tired and dirty and clearly just back from a mission. They split off for their homes and much-needed rest. Two students darted past, racing breathlessly toward the academy. TenTen and Lee came out of a shop that sold weapon scrolls. They waved and Sakura said hello. Sasuke said nothing.
They continued through the zig-zagging streets in the heart of the shinobi district, drawing closer to the academy. It was on the outside edge, out-of-sight from the haphazard buildings, on a tidy neighborhood lane surrounded by a playground and a few fields. Far enough away to look respectable to parents dropping their children off…but close enough for some of the bolder youngsters to dash through, hoping for a glimpse of what real shinobi life was like.
Sakura slowed, taking her time. She glanced back up the road. The corner ahead of them turned off the main avenue. But Sakura waited, tipped her face to the sun and stretched lazily…then glanced back again.
Sasuke saw it all. “So…when do you meet Kakashi?”
“Oh,” Sakura sighed, using the opportunity to stop completely, “In a little bit. I’ve actually, um, got another errand first—”
Sasuke’s sharp eyes turned suddenly toward the top of a building. Sakura looked too and caught the flash of an anbu guard disappearing over the edge. They were on guard, as usual, perching on rooftops around the village and keeping watch. The shinobi district was no different.
“Anyway,” she hedged, dragging it out. She knew she shouldn’t be embarrassed, but sometimes she wished he wasn’t so observant.
Sasuke shifted his foot to shake off an errant ladybug from the top of his sun-warmed shoe. An old man stepped out of a doorway and wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead. Seeing Sasuke, he waved, beckoning him over. Without a word, Sasuke left to speak to the man, then followed him inside.
Sakura relaxed. Only because of Sasuke did Sakura know this was one of Konoha’s oldest and finest weaponsmiths. The dark wood of the storefront was completely unmarked. Not even a flag. Just a potted plant and a lazy cat who blinked stand-offishly at everyone. A shinobi didn’t just wander in there. You had to know where you were going first, and that was usually because you were good enough to be invited. They must have had some particular connection to the Uchihas, because Sasuke, always adhering to tradition, commissioned only him to make his weapons.
Sakura had never been invited. But it didn’t bother her. She had always selected her weapons from a much more affordable shop around the corner. No one could miss his red-lettered sign proclaiming “New Kunai – Cheap!” propped in front of his smoke-blackened door. Or the banner that read “Half-price for first time customers!” Many young shinobis shopped there. He had treated her kindly as well when she was fresh out of the academy, and she hadn’t forgotten.
She saw Ino approaching and ducked into a sliver of shade outside a tea shop to wait for her. Any other day, she’d have welcomed a chance to visit with her friend. But this time, she was already unzipping her pack, trying to complete the exchange before—
“Ohayo Sakura!” Ino flipped back her blonde ponytail and waved brightly. There were several folded up bills in her hand. “I brought the money!” Her voice bounced off the buildings around them. Sakura sighed. But at least Sasuke was out of earshot. Hopefully his visit would take a while.
Sakura reached around to her hip pack and pulled out a paper-wrapped package. It was tied with a bow of multicolor thread. Ino stepped into the shade with her.
“Oh thank you Sakura! What would I do without you,” she said dramatically, taking the package and pressing the money into Sakura’s open hand. “My mom’s been freaking out about what the clan is going to wear. She said to tell your mom thank you. Oh, and your dad too! Especially for that last-minute order!”
Sakura inclined her head at the gesture.
“We’ve been so busy getting ready for the festival.” Ino shook the package gently. “But at least I don’t have to make these!” She grinned. “I bet it’s not so bad for you though. Your mom probably makes you new ones every year!”
“Yeah, she does,” Sakura said with a laugh, trying to sound comfortable. But really she wished Ino would hurry up and go.
“So what are you going to wear? You’ve already seen what my kimono will look like, of course, but do you have a new one? I bet a light blue would be beautiful on you, with your hair and—“
“Actually I’m on duty this year, so—“
“Oh no! You are? That’s a shame! Well maybe you can come by for something to eat afterward! My mom always gets too many sweet buns, and I loooove those things, but there’s only so many I can eat—“
Shikamaru and Choji nodded at her from the road where they waited for their talkative teammate. Sakura waved conspicuously back. “Looks like they’re waiting….”
She turned and and rolled her eyes. “My teammates aren’t as patient as yours,” she said, laughing at something over her shoulder.
Sakura’s stomach jumped when she caught Sasuke’s profile out of the corner of her eye, leaning against the building behind her. How long had he been there? At least he didn’t see—
“Tell your parents thanks again, Sakura!” Ino waved the package before tucking it under her arm. “See you!”
Sakura winced, smiled painfully, cleared her throat, then turned and glossed it all over with a bright voice. “I didn’t realize you where there! Do you want to go—“
He pushed off when she came even with him. As they walked, the pressure of his silence grew. He had questions, and Sakura could hear them in her head as loudly as if he’d actually said them. What was she doing? What was in the package? How were her parents involved…and with the Yamanaka clan?
Sakura knew she shouldn’t be embarrassed. These were simple enough questions about her life outside of a shinobi. And it wasn’t a secret that her parents were civilians….
But he surprised her with an entirely different question.
“You’re on duty this year? For the festival?”
She laughed suddenly. “Oh! No….” She blinked at him. “I lied.”
His brow furrowed. “To Ino?”
“No. To my parents.” She laughed again, at herself. “And then…well, yes, I guess. To Ino too.” His shoulders bounced with a silent laugh. “I didn’t want to go. They make a big deal about it. But—” She started to complain about her parents, but stopped herself. It was complicated. She cleared her throat. “I thought I’d like to be with my team this year. You know, with nins. That’s all.”
She didn’t say Sasuke’s name. But that’s what she meant. She’d rather spend her time with him, who had no family, than with her own, who were constantly pushing her to give up her life. He wouldn’t understand. And she didn’t want to get into it.
Which she knew was fine. He wouldn’t push her for more. It was like there was a silent agreement between them. They never talked about their personal lives. Not his shinobi family history. Not her…civilian one.
They went back to their companionable silence—
“What did your mother make for the Yamanaka clan?”
“Oh, cords,” she said airily. “My mom makes them for the festival.” She tried to laugh it off as the most common thing in the world.
Sasuke was perplexed. “Like…rope? For the floats or something?”
“No. It’s for clothing. She weaves them. They wrap around kimonos.” Sakura pointed to her mid-section, as if he didn’t know where a kimono wrapped around a body. She dropped her hand. Sasuke nodded politely, but Sakura was deeply aware of how inconsequential something like this was to a shinobi.
She added suddenly, “And she embroiders too. You know, like for special occasions.” But somehow that only made it seem more trivial. She wished she’d stopped talking.
“Oh…. I didn’t know that’s what she did.”
Sakura shrugged. “Yep, that’s what she does.”
“And…uh, your father? He made them too, for the Yamanaka?”
“Oh no! That was about fabric. He sells fabric. All kinds of, you know…fabric.” Now she was repeating herself. She cleared her throat again.
Sasuke shook his head, confused. “But, they don’t have a…” he waved his hand at nearby storefront before finding the right word, “shop, do they?” The long banner beside the door read “Ready-Made Fatigues” in thick letters. ”You know, like one of those?”
Sakura laughed at that, finally letting herself relax a little. There was no use in hiding it. “No, he sells mostly to merchants. Civilian merchants. But sometimes directly to customers. Especially if it’s a special order. Like for weddings. Special events.”
“And for Ino?”
“Something new, for the festival. For her whole—” Sakura stopped. She changed her word choice. “Family.”
Sasuke was silent, considering it all.
She imagined him updating the catalogue of data he mentally kept on everyone, adding this new detail to her profile. It didn’t bother her. She understood him now too. This was how he stayed alive after Itachi’s attack, stayed sane in those dark years as a shinobi forbidden to leave his village. He observed and learned. He memorized. The details of her life were no exception—
“I never knew what your parents did,” he said finally. “I guess I thought….” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I only knew you weren’t from a clan.”
Sakura blinked at the last word. There it was…. How often had she heard that….
She wished she’d told her mom she couldn’t deliver the package that day.
They continued out of the shinobi district in silence. Sakura passed the last storefronts without seeing them.
She was engrossed in her own thoughts now. Sasuke didn’t need to say it for her to be keenly aware of some differences between them. Sasuke had never thought about what life was like outside of a shinobi one.
Even though shinobis and civilians lived side by side, their worlds couldn’t be more different. Sakura was one of the few who crossed over those lines. For Sasuke, the civilian side didn’t matter. In fact, if it wasn’t for her, he’d probably never even noticed it.
The green yard of the academy was approaching. Buildings were beginning to look more tidy. She shook off her thoughts. Yes, she was one of the few people who saw both sides of the village. But she chose the shinobi. And because of that, she’d finally found her place in Konoha. She understood this now too.
Ahead, Iruka was propping a side door open, motioning for them. Sasuke let her go first. They crept quietly in, but Sasuke spoke as she passed, his voice teasing, “So…I guess kimonos and that girlie stuff wasn’t interesting enough for you?”
Sakura snapped her head up, catching the small smile, the ring of laughter behind his words. She laughed outright at him. “No! No it wasn’t!” She smirked, pointing down the hallway. “Come on, he’s waiting.”
Light bounced off the glossed floor of the long hallway. It smelled of warm bodies, homemade lunches and disinfectant, exactly as it had in her childhood. It brought back a mix of emotions.
A fluttery sort of nervous happiness. Or maybe it was a happy nervousness—
Iruka popped out of a doorway halfway down the hall. “Kakashi said you were coming. He’s just now finishing up.”
They leaned against the wall outside the class to wait.
Inside, Kakashi was going on about rogues and what life was like outside the village. “Do you know what happens if you leave—“
Sakura remembered this speech. “How’s it going?”
Iruka laughed nervously, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. “Oh you know, same as every year—”
Kakashi’s voice suddenly boomed, “—then you are banished. Forever!” There were gasps from inside the room. “You can never come back to Konoha. Not as a shinobi. Not as a citizen. Not even for a day.”
Sakura edged forward enough to see Kakashi leaning forward over a desk, his eyes locked on his unseen audience.
“Think that’s bad? Not being able to see your family, your friends again? Eat your favorite food or go to your favorite places?” A few sniffles answered. “It’s worse than you can ever imagine….”
There was no sound coming from the room as Kakashi pulled a rolled-up headband from this back pocket. He slowly, almost reverently, unfolded the black silk one side at a time, stretching them out on the desk to reveal—
There was a sudden sound of chairs creaking, desks moving. The students were all leaning forward, desperate to see. Even Sakura found herself tipping her head, trying to catch a better glimpse—
It was the silver badge of Konoha, familiar to all nins, with it’s leaf and spiral design. Except a deep rough gouge carved the the design in half, running from one side to the other. It was a gruesome artifact, with scratches and tears, and unmistakeable blotches of red at the edges.
He let it sit there for a long moment, making sure everyone got a good look, before starting again.
“If you betray your team,” he continued, voice low and deadly serious. “If you sabotage your mission, if you turn your back on Konoha…the full force of every shinobi in the village will be brought down on you.”
The children didn’t dare breathe in case they missed a word. Sakura knew. She was holding her breathe too.
“You will be hunted by Konoha nins who will be ordered to kill you on sight. If they don’t catch you — and you’ll wish they did — then your name will be given to Hunter nins, non-village ninjas who will return your body to Konoha for a bounty. But that’s only after your parents have been marched to the Kage’s tower to identify what’s left of you—“
More audible sniffing was beginning to give way to crying. But Kakashi wasn’t finished.
“And if they fail to catch you,” his voice was rising again, “then your name will be added to this—“ He ripped something from his other back pocket and slammed it on the desk. “The Bingo Book!”
Gasps and “woahs” mixed together. Many more chairs and desks screeched forward. Every student wanted to see this, even if they were terrified of it.
Sakura glanced at Sasuke. He rolled his eyes. But she noticed he too had inched forward to watch their old teacher too.
Kakashi flipped through the pages of what looked like a very thick book, with lots of images. On the front cover it read in large red letters “B I N G O” above a grainy grey photo of a shinobi with a rogue’s cut-through head band. There was a large “X” over his face. Sakura remembered this book from when she was a student.
“If you are really bad, then you will be added to the list. These are the ones with the highest bounties. This list tells everyone that your village will pay top dollar for the return of your dead body. No matter the condition. No matter where it’s from.” He rifled through the pages again. “If your name is in here, then you will never be safe again. You will never be able to sleep, eat, breathe without looking over you shoulder.”
He paused, sweeping his gaze over the room again to drive his message home.
“Because this book is a bounty book. If your name is in here, then anyone can find you and turn you in. For money. But no one wants you more, searches for you harder and longer than your own village. And they don’t need to bring you back alive.”
He slammed down the book. “If your name is in here, then you’re already dead!”
Someone sobbed, then another, till it sounded like half the room was crying.
Iruka laughed. “It’s like this every year.” Sakura chuckled. Even Sasuke smirked at the tactic before stepping back and leaning his head against the wall to wait.
Kakashi wrapped it up, voice maddeningly happy. “And that’s why you never betray your village! Right?” No answer. “Right?” He got a weak, watery “Uh-huh,” in unison as a response. But he was satisfied. He looked around the room, smiling. “Any questions?” But it was only met with more sniffling noises.
“Good! Then I will be back tomorrow to help sort teams.” He picked up the book and headband and stashed them again as the kids quietly started to file past, too rattled to look up.
“And remember, if any of this stuff bothered you or made you nervous or seemed too scary—” his voice dropped ominously as peered down at them one last time — “Don’t. Come. Back.”
They might have been ok if he had he just let them go. But that was the final blow. A fresh wave of sobs burst the silence. Sakura had to turn away to keep from laughing.
Iruka did his best to sound reaffirming as the kids streamed out. “Okay, class! Remember, wear your fatigues tomorrow. Come ready to work. Big day! Come early!”
Kakashi was smiling big at the end of the line of moppish head that were half as tall as he was. They went out past Sakura and Sasuke, never looking up to see the other nins.
“Did I do alright?”
“Thanks Kakashi.” Iruka laughed and shook his head. “Works every year!”
“We’ll see how many come back—“
Sakura and Sasuke were no longer kids half the size of their teachers. Sasuke matched them in height and Sakura nearly so. It had been a long time since Kakashi had rattled her with his scare tactics. She saw both Kakashi and Iruka as friends and shinobis, as well as senseis—
While they talked about which ones were likely to be the first back, Sakura saw the edge of the bingo book sticking out of his back pocket. It was very big…. Too big, really, for any nin to comfortably carry. It was eerily similar to the one she remembered from her childhood. In fact, it was exactly the same….
Sakura turned her head for a better look when the corner fell open to reveal…a junk food ad?!?
She snatched it out and flipped it open. He didn’t stop her.
The first and last pages did look like lists of shinobi names. Some even had photos with a large “X” marked across them. But the bulk of the inside was…a comic book. She flipped through the pages, front and back, then looked up to find Kakashi grinning at her.
“A fake? All this time?” Kakashi grinned wider. Iruka and Sasuke laughed, which made her turn on her teammate. “Did you know?”
“Of course! Didn’t you?”
Sakura rolled her eyes and shoved it back into Kakashi’s hands. “I had nightmares about that book!”
Kakashi laughed deeply. “Good! Then it did its job.”
Iruka patted Sakura on the shoulder by way of an apology, and thanked Kakashi. “See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” he replied, eyes glittering, and they left out the other end of the hall. The door opened onto the sunny empty playground.
Kakashi smiled and looked around, not really seeing it. “So….” His eyes swept over the windows of the first floor classrooms, the empty swing moving gently in the breeze, the fields where they used to race, the top of the yellow building— Kakashi coughed suddenly. “So….”
They waited for their teacher to begin. But instead he looked at both of them.
“Do anything interesting lately…?” He coughed again, then added a little louder. “Like for the festival?”
Sakura glanced at Sasuke who shrugged back. Kakashi was still smiling as if he were waiting for them to brief him.
“Why yes…. I’ll walk with you, if you’re going that way.” Kakashi opened his arm for Sakura to take the lead.
“Uh…. O-okay….” Sakura was absolutely perplexed, but she trusted her teacher. Even if he was acting a bit more eccentric than usual. She left the playground, trying to look normal. At the gate, she hesitated on a direction, but detecting the slightest nod from Kakashi when she looked back up in the direction of the shinobi district, she turned and walked back up the lane.
Kakashi had his hands in his pockets, smiling and nodding to passersby as if an afternoon stroll with his old team was the most normal thing in the world. Sakura and Sasuke were much less relaxed.
Sakura was trying to guess what Kakashi might be up to and started to head toward their favorite ramen stand, just to have a place to go, when Kakashi brushed her arm.
“This is good,” he said quietly.
They were standing in the middle of the road, in one of the busiest stretches of the shinobi quarter. Passersby moved around them seamlessly, leaving them behind like a rocks in a stream. From where they stood, Sakura could hear banging from a nearby weapons forger, farmers hawking wares, and shinobi greeting each other at shops and eateries.
Kakashi smiled, pointed at a side street and said loudly, “I’m so glad we ran into each other! I’m going this way so—“
An old student walked by. “Ohayo Kakashi-sensei!”
“Yo!” Kakashi smiled big and waved. Sakura did too, still trying to act normal. Sasuke did not, but luckily a deep frown was very much normal for him.
Once the well-wisher was out of earshot, Kakashi’s voice dropped again. “Sorry for the ruse— Can’t be too careful….”
They understood then that this was all to cover their voices. It must be serious. Sakura relaxed her stance to look the part of reunited friends, but listened carefully to his quiet words.
“Have you heard anything lately?”
Both his students shook their heads. Someone passed, Sakura smiled and even Sasuke nodded.
Still their team leader, Kakashi couldn’t help but nod at them for how quickly they caught on.
“There have been some…sightings.” He paused to smile at another passerby before adding quietly, “and rumors of an attack.”
Sasuke was sharp. “Is it—“
“No!” Kakashi swiftly cut him off. “Don’t say his name. But it could be that group—“
A cluster of academy children were venturing down the lane in one mass. Some looked bold, others looked queasy. The whole thing looked like a dare.
But when the students caught sight of the white haired-nin — standing casually in the middle of the lane, hands slung in pockets — they froze like they’d seen a ghost. Kakashi’s easy-going facade vanished. He straightened, turned and stared them down like he knew exactly what they were up to. Academy kids had no business wandering this far into the shinobi district without their sensei.
Their bravado was blown away. The tight-knit gaggle took a few steps back then scattered, running back towards the school, forgetting friends and loyalty and bravery—
Kakashi laughed once but continued, turning to Sasuke. He had a lighter tone, but his questions were deadly serious. “So…have you seen anything unusual?”
Sasuke gave a quick shake of his head. Surprisingly Kakashi looked at Sakura. But Sakura understood that she might be a target too now. She shook her head.
He nodded. “Good. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. Just keep your eyes open.”
There was a finality to his voice that his old students understood. Kakashi was going to leave. But Sasuke was no longer a student. And he was not about to let him go without more information.
“Do you think we might be in danger?” Sasuke’s charade was forgotten.
Kakashi tried to be reassuring. “No, I don’t. At least, not my team.”
Sasuke was struggling to find a different way to get answers, when Sakura caught the subtext in his phrase.
“Wait— Does that mean Anbu’s had a report?” The thunderous look Sasuke shot at her would have been more suited to when they were in academy together. But Kakashi smiled broadly.
“That’s right, Sakura! You’ve always looked ‘underneath the underneath!’ Might be nothing. Just be alert.”
Kakashi patted her shoulder, ignored Sasuke and strolled off in the direction he’d pointed, whistling just for effect.
Sasuke rounded on her, as accusing as he’d been in their youth. “You knew about this and didn’t tell me—“
“No! I guessed!”
Sasuke hard expression told her he still didn’t believe her. Sakura talked softly. “Kakashi asked us to meet him. But he didn’t reveal any specifics except his team.”
“Oh,” Sasuke said, catching on.
“He’s been talking to Sai,” she said. “And Sai’s heard something from Anbu worth passing on.”
Sasuke blinked, replaying the interaction, verifying it for himself.
She tipped her head, looking at him full in the face. “I would never keep something like that from you.” She paused, then added, “We’re Team 7. We move as one. Remember?”
He looked a little guilty. “Yeah…I guess I forgot.” He shook off the old distrust that had so quickly come back. “We move as one,” he repeated.
Sakura nodded. “Right,” she said. “Besides, you know Kakashi-sensei—“ She cupped her hand over her mouth in her best Kakashi impression, speaking deeply, “‘Always remember to look underneath the underneath!’”
Sasuke smirked at her.
“Everything he does has another angle—“ She threw her hands in the air. “Just look at his Bingo Book!!” Sasuke laughed out loud then, and Sakura smiled ruefully with him. “C’mon, let’s go get something to eat.”
They walked the opposite direction of Kakashi, deeper into the warren of lanes and alleys that made up the shinobi district, towards her favorite ramen stand.
Sakura rerolled the scroll. It made no sense…except that it seemed more like a grocery list for one of the superstitious old grannies in the civilian district. Not for the leader of a shinobi village. But the writing was in Tsunade’s hand, even though the scroll was not marked from the office of the Hokage. So she followed the specific instructions and set off in the direction of the shinobi market.
Shizune had summoned her, telling her that Tsunade needed some things ahead of the festival. Sakura to be discreet, deliver the items immediately and tell no one.
Sakura agreed immediately, of course. She’d never tell the Kage no. But she had already promised to help her mother with festival preparations that day. She didn’t mention it to Shizune. And she would never tell her mother…. Sakura sighed. She’d just make it work.
Sakura turned down the lane where the old ninja-farmers set up their stalls. The men and women smiled, beckoned and tipped up baskets for her. But Sakura didn’t stop. The scroll in her pocket had directed her to another location. One she’d never heard of before.
Past the last stall is a narrow alley. At the end of that is a short angled street—
Sakura found it, but it wasn’t much of an alley. It was simply a narrow gap where two buildings didn’t quite meet. If she wasn’t looking for it she would certainly have missed it.
Sakura disappeared between the buildings. She picked her way through the darkness, ducking under pipes and avoiding wires, stepping back and forth over the trail of water in the center and moving toward the widening shaft of light at the end. It opened up exactly as Tsunade had written, onto an angled street boxed in by oddly shaped buildings. Another “alley” exited the other side. It was the capriciousness of the buildings in the shinobi district that created this strange little space.
Another market had been set up here, but there was no friendly atmosphere. The merchants did not meet your eye. Most of them kept their identity concealed. They were no beckoning farmers tilting out baskets of fruit.
There were no smiles. And, in fact, no fruit.
Sakura moved in slowly, avoiding the suspicious gazes from the back of the stalls. The other shoppers were equally suspicious. They might have been shinobi, but if they were, she’d never seen them before.
She kept her eyes down and catalogued what she could see at the edges of the tables. A basket full of leather amulet pouches, the laces smudged with toxic-looking powder. A rack of glass vials with some rather dangerous herbs suspended inside. A blade that looked more like a tree root than a weapon, and Sakura suspected if you had the bad luck to pick it up it might never let go of you.
Sakura understood now why Tsunade required such secrecy. This was must be a thieves market. She heard about these — shady networks where only the most dangerous, most illicit things could be found — but they were always in other places. Never in Konoha.
No wonder Tsunade sent her. The leader of the village couldn’t just stroll down and shop here. It might be a crime to even possess one of these weird items within the village walls. What was so dangerous that Tsunade might need from a place like this?
She passed a table with an innocent-looking coiled rope. She glanced up to see a tall figure in the shadows of the booth, watching her. Eyeshine flashed back, but she couldn’t make out a face—
She glanced down suddenly, certain she saw the rope coiling in on itself. She began to wonder if it was really a rope at all.
She moved on, ignoring the fabric-covered basket that rattled ominously as she passed. This wasn’t Tsunade’s contact.
Look for a little old man. Or woman. Very small. Very wrinkled—
She was just wondering how she might find them here if everyone was so intent on concealing their identities, when she saw a small brack-ish green table with an even smaller man and woman behind it. They were smiling contentedly over their wares, sold openly on the table. But their offerings — wooden bowls filled with bits of leaves, mushrooms, twigs, and lots and lots of bugs — seemed better suited to the main market. Not this treacherous one—
The little woman saw Sakura, and immediately waved her over, eyeing the small scroll in Sakura’s hand.
“I got what ya need, young lady! Check yer list, it’s all here!“
Sakura noted that she beckoned to potential customers, just like the farmers in the regular market, too.
They matched the description. Both had leathery, wrinkled skin and were quite small, coming only waist high on her. The woman’s thin grey hair was combed into a tight top-knot high up on her scalp, stretching back a forehead covered with brown age spots. She peered up at Sakura with dark sharp eyes.
Now Sakura was the suspicious one. She wouldn’t dare open the scroll in full view of other market-goers. But she remembered a few of the items from Tsunade’s list — “Desiccated Worms,” “Honeyed Flies,” and “Snakesbane” — and sure enough, this little old couple had them.
The woman reached for the scroll, smiling up at her. “Don’t worry dear! You can trust ol’ Ma and Pa! We’ll take care of it!”
This was all very strange, but Sakura decided that if Tsunade knew them, and they knew here, then it was probably ok. They seemed to be more like eccentric grandparents than hardened merchants of a thieves market. But they fit the description and had the items. So after another moment, Sakura relinquished the scroll.
The little woman opened it up and pored over it, making the wispy bun on her head slid forward. Beside her, the little old man grinned up at Sakura so hard it made his face looking strangely angular, almost cartoonish.
“Pa, she needs—“ The man didn’t hear her. Instead he continued to smile, his lips stretching in almost a straight line from cheek to cheek. “Pa!!”
The little man jumped. “What!!” His face turned round again.
“She needs—“ Ma showed him the list.
Pa nodded his head quickly. “Right. Yes. Got it.”
He was already digging around behind the table and dumping bowls into a fabric sack. Sakura watched him pass over bowls of twigs, berries and several sizes of what appeared to be dried…beetle horns? She tried not to shudder.
There were normal looking herbs here too, but some things, she had to admit, she’d never heard of before. Not even from the most superstitious of the old grannies selling their herbal cures in the civilian markets.
Sakura wondered what on the table a Kage might need….
There were several toxic-looking selections. Bowls of indigo mushrooms oozed pale blue milk from their cut stems. Corked jars of berries in deepening shades of crimson, from glistening blood-red to a bruised purple-black. But it was the yellow, faintly smoking, “Chokeberries” set off to the side, far away from the other bottles, that made Sakura nervous.
The meshy clumps in the “Swampmoss” bowl looked dewy and almost medicinal with their vibrant green. There were handfuls of hairy twigs tied in the middle and labeled “Bitterroot,” and the dried petals of something called “Feverfew.” A pile of neatly tied and folded leaf parcels looked like tea packages given out by civilian herbalists. They were usually filled with a harmless mix of cinnamon bark, black pepper, and mint leaves. However, these looked like they had bug legs sticking out the edges….
Sakura decided that maybe these strange little people sold a bit of both — the poisons and antidote, the curse and cure. Because next to the leaf pile were two identical bottles of dried leaves, side by side, one labeled “Woundwort” and the other “Fatalwort.” She guessed it would be a fatal mistake to confuse the two.
They finished the list, and Pa looped together several fabric sacks, each full of crunchy, crinkly things, and handed it to Sakura.
“Oh,” he said. “I’ll pack in her favorite tea, too!” Then he plunged a scoop into a bowl of brittle brown flakes that read “Dried Pond Scum” and handed the little sack to Sakura. It stunk.
But another idea occurred to her. If Tsunade wasn’t using this as a medicine, maybe it was for the festival. Her mother sometimes made a special meal on auspicious days. But if Tsunade was honoring one of those old-fashioned traditions, then she didn’t want to be anywhere near this when she cooked it up.
She held her breath and bowed. The man and woman grinned brightly. “You’re a good girl,” Ma murmured. “Tsuna-chan must be very fond of you.”
So Tsunade did know them. Her instincts to trust these weird little people were right. Sakura smiled, more at the nickname than anything else, bowed and backed away.
Back in the dark alley, she peeked in each bag, trying not to stir wind through the tea leaves. There were a handful of beetle wings, chalky snail shells, some normal looking leaves and twigs and dried mushrooms…and then something that looked suspiciously like large cricket legs. Sakura shuddered and retied the bags.
At the tower, Tsunade was busy speaking to an dissatisfied clansman. Seeing Sakura, she immediately pointed her to an inconspicuous door at the side of the room. Her attention to the man never wavered.
Sakura knew this to be an archive room. She closed the door softly behind her. The room was a warren of floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with ancient scrolls and village relics. In the center was a tall table, cleared except for a ancient cooking pot atop an ancient burner. It looked as old as some of the crumbling scrolls.
Yep. Tsunade was cooking a meal. A really gross meal. She left the bag beside the pot, its muddy smell already permeating the small dark room.
She went out quietly. Tsunade was still engaged with the Hyuuga clansmen who must have known she was there but didn’t spare her a glance. Sakura noticed that at the edge of the desk was another scroll, one that hadn’t been there before. Tsunade eyed it once, and Sakura knew it was for her. Without another word, Sakura took it, Tsunade nodded, and then she was out the door on another errand.
Outside, she figured out how long it would take and reread her instructions.
This time, it was a torn paper note that directed her to the Nara compound. The scroll was not sealed. It flopped open in her hand and Sakura saw “The Usual” in Tsunade’s hasty scrawl.
Sakura sighed, looked up into the noonday sun. Yes, she could do this. It would be cutting it close, but she could do get what Tsunade needed and still make it back in time to help her mother.
Sakura left the Kage’s tower and turned in the opposite direction, leaving the close-built shinobi and civilian districts behind. Ahead of her were the roads that gently curved and widened, accommodating the borders of the sprawling clan compounds.
Sakura rarely ventured here. The wide shady lanes were paved with tightly fitted cobblestones that time had worn smooth. Houses here were not directly on the road but set back, behind courtyards and barriers that, Sakura noted as she walked, reflected the size and importance of the clan. Hedges turned to wooden fences which grew higher and taller until they were replaced by large stone walls.
The farther she walked, the greater the distance between the clan compounds, until the road ran like a flat riverbed between the uninterrupted walls. Treetops floated over the edges, hinting at what lay behind them. The only break in the walls were the elegant gated entrances, each unique. But that was it. Inside the compound it may have been lush and beautiful. But on the outside, in the lane, it was empty.
Whatever secret beauties lurked there she could only imagine. They were off-limits to her. She was a civilian, so she would never, ever belong in this world. No matter how strong she became, to the shinobi clans of Konoha, she would always just be a visitor here.
These compounds held whole worlds behind their walls. Families lived and kept to themselves, with their lives revolving around their perfecting and protecting their secretive techniques.
What little Sakura knew about clan compounds, she’d learned from Ino.
Ino said that main families and branch families all lived together in multi-winged houses. If more family were added then they added another wing. But the main family stayed in the biggest house. To keep the peace, there were courtyards and training grounds dividing each area.
But Ino said sometimes even that living arrangement didn’t work. And she would know. Ino was one of the only people Sakura knew who could claim both a civilian and clan upbringing.
Ino lived in a large old-fashioned townhouse at the respectable edge of the shinobi district where they ran a popular flowershop. Boxes of flowers peeked from every window, and colorful streamers hung down the multi-storied front. Her mother’s family was an old Konoha family and they had sold flowers for as long as anyone could remember. Ino told her that when her father had married “a civilian” — she’d always whisper that part — the main family had told him to leave. But when she was born and she was such “a prodigy” — she’d always flip her hair at that part — they made up and invited them back again. But her mother never went.
Sakura took her at her word. She knew that clans married within their own clans. She had never heard of any outside marriages. And never a shinobi to civilian. Except Inoichi to Ino’s sunny, smiling mother who always smelled of flowers. She thought Inoichi was probably happy to move away from his stuffy old clan home to be with her.
There were of course shinobi who partnered with and even married other shinobi. But they were always kept quiet, for the same reason the clan walled their whole families in. Their abilities were their power. Any outsider use it against them.
So the beautiful avenues of the shinobi district, with their the smooth walls and manicured front gates were, like all things in the shinobi world, a lie. They looked welcoming, but they were anything but. Especially for someone without a clan. Someone like Sakura.
She passed the Aburame compound, a clan that specialized in bugs. Their gate was a tangle of bamboo deep over a single round door. It looked more like a trap than an entrance.
Next was the Inuzaka clan gate. It’s high wooden slats had a few tops was broken out. Large tufts of fur stuck to the broken wood in places, and Sakura knew that Kiba’s great white dog, Akamaru could have leapt it in a single bound. Beyond it were the snuffling of noses and whines of curiosity at the passerby. Sakura couldn’t help but smiled at their gate as she passed.
But when she passed the Hyuuga gate, her good feeling vanished. She had been to a clan house one time, as a child. But it was not a memory she liked to look back on.
Just like the clan it belonged to, the Hyuuga compound entrance artfully concealed its secrets.
It had no door onto the street, only a moongate, a circular opening in the wall, which was said to be an homage to their eyes being the color of the moon. Sakura still remembered her excitement at getting to walk through such a grand entrance as child.
Ahead of her, with potted flowers artfully arranged at either side, the moongate was still as beautiful as she remembered. But she knew the truth — that beyond it, across a courtyard and out of sight of the road, was the real gate. Solid and tall, and absolutely locked to outsiders.
The Hyuuga were the largest clan in Konoha and, like all the other clans, they were a mix of shinobi and non-shinobi. But they kept it secret which ones were born gifted with chakra control. So you never knew who had power and who didn’t. But they all wore the mantle of their clan as if each one were a prodigy.
She passed the archway, not looking in. But it was her bad luck to see two Hyuuga girls coming up the road. Sakura tipped her head respectfully at the shuffling, kimono-clad daughters, never meeting their eyes. If she thought she heard soft giggling it quickly faded away because as soon as it was polite she crossed to the other side of the lane. The high stone wall curved with road, and the moongate finally disappeared behind her.
She continued on down a long lonely stretch of road with no doors and all walls. It was clean and well-kept, but empty. The clan holdings out here were enormous. And the biggest of all was just ahead of her.
The Nara park was the largest compound in Konoha, even though they were the smallest clan.
Ino had explained this in their academy days when Sakura asked why the Hyuuga boys seemed to have a chip on their shoulder about the Nara holdings. Shikamaru had been teased by one of the black-haired, moon-eyed boys, but Shikamaru just shrugged and jammed his hands in his pockets, and the boy went away, disappointed.
Ino laughed then and whispered to Sakura, “They think the Nara should have less land. I’ve heard our dads talking about it. But why should they give up any? Not when they have so many—”
Smiling at the memory, Sakura pushed open a rustic wooden gate onto a park-like scene. A wide gravel walk wound up through a lush woodland. Standing ahead of her, in the middle of the path, were a small herd of deer.
Sakura stopped, her breath in her throat. A tentative smile slowly curved up her lips. The closest lifted its long neck and looked back at her, flicking its ears. When Sakura stepped slowly forward, it made its decision to move back. The rest followed suit. And as Sakura began her ascent up through the woods toward the clan house, the herd backed away until they disappeared into the dappled shadows.
She continued on, enjoying the birdsong and crunch of gravel underfoot as she walked towards a natural rise where a tall roof was jutting through the canopy.
Around a rather large tree, an old stone lantern came into view. Its base was carved with the Nara crest — a deer antler. Leaning against the back of it was Shikamaru himself, hands jammed into his pockets, staring up into the leaves and looking just as careless as he did in that childhood memory. He saw Sakura, nodded, but couldn’t be bothered to move.
Sakura waved back and was about to ask him how he knew she was coming, when he guessed her question and cut her off.
“Mom said someone was coming from the Kage’s tower.” He sighed.” I don’t know how she knew, but she told me to just wait out here.” He shrugged, and didn’t move until she was even with him.
Sakura’s smile grew. It would be like Shikamaru to be inconvenienced in his own home when she was the one sent out on the errand. But she didn’t mind. Shikamaru’s good-natured grumbling was known to all of them. It wouldn’t be him without it.
He walked with her up to the house, never saying a word. Anyone else would have chatted the whole way, happy to brag about the family’s long history tending Konoha’s wild deer. But not him. He didn’t seem to want to disrupt the peaceful quiet of that had returned around them. She smiled to herself, content as well, and breathed deep.
Eventually, the trees opened up and ahead of her was a dark brown house rising out of a sea of pale gravel. The house looked old, built in a traditional style of a sprawling single story with a large peaked roof. Sakura guessed it must have dated to the beginnings of the village. The bark that was layered on the steep roof was curling up and coming loose in some places.
On either side of the main building were smaller wings that shot back and disappeared from view, giving the whole structure the feeling that it had arms. As if the house itself was part of a wall holding the rest of the park protectively behind it.
A single open walkway cut through the right side of the house, dividing it from the wing on that side. The glare of midday light made it impossible to see past, but Sakura wondered if that’s where they kept the rest of the deer. She would have liked to have tipped her head and gotten a close look, but she didn’t want to appear rude.
So instead she tamped down on her curiosity and stopped in front of steps leading to the entrance of the main house, and handed Shikamaru the scroll. But to both their surprise, his mother slid open a side door and came up the walkway.
He passed the scroll over to her. “Uh, Mom, this is—“
Shikamaru’s mother folded her arms, refusing to take it. “Haruno, Sakura?”
Sakura stammered, “Hai,” then remember to bow.
Dark eyes and sharp features were summing Sakura up as if it were a test. Sakura felt his mother was just a more intense version of her son.
“Ma, I told you,” Shikamaru’s voice was equal parts annoyed and embarrassed. “She’s been in school with me for years. She’s on Kakashi’s team and—“
“I know all about her,” his mother snapped. Shikamaru rolled his eyes. “Tsunade sent you? Personally?”
“Hai,” Sakura said.
“And you’re not from a clan….”
Now Sakura understood. “No ma’am,” she said. She straightened her back, ignoring Shikamaru’s loud “Tch” of disapproval at his mother.
But she surprised both of them again, saying to Shikamaru, “Well, don’t stand around here with your guest. Take her back and fill the Kage’s order.”
Neither moved. She didn’t know she was allowed back there. And apparently neither did he.
“Today, son.” She went inside and slid the door firmly closed behind her, ending their conversation.
“Uh, c’mon. I guess.”
Sakura didn’t move though. “Are you sure this is ok? I mean….” Shikamaru turned and looked back at her, not bothered, but listening without judgement. “Isn’t this…special. Like for clans only or something?”
He smiled and tipped his head. “Nah. It used to be. Like some sacred place.” He glanced at the splintering roof, the paper wasp nests in the eaves. “But it’s not like that any more.” He grabbed a bucket from a pile of yard tools at the end of the walkway. “Besides, if mom says it’s ok. Then it’s ok.” Then he turned the corner and disappeared in the glare.
Sakura followed him under the covered walkway, feeling distinctly like she was being watched. The old stone pavers had been worn down in the middle from years of use. She aimed for the corner, blocking the light with her hand and squinting till her eyes adjusted. She moved her hand back, took in the view and stopped in her tracks.
It was a glorious green woodland, safe and lush. Narrow moss-covered trails meandered between the trunks of giant trees. Streams of sun filtered down, and glistening bugs drifted in and out of the light. Bunnies hopped at the base of the trees, squirrels scattered up the bark, and birds where singing in the canopy. They completely disregarded the interlopers. There was one large graveled path that went in a straight line out from the house, but it turned and was swallowed up by the forest.
It was as if the animals still remembered that this place had been sacred and that in here they were protected.
The most notable thing about the Nara’s deer park was that she saw exactly no deer. None. Even though she did feel like she was being watched from the shadows of trees. Like there was more to be discovered, and larger creatures were hidden in the secret depths. This time she gave in to her curiosity and moved her head to look deeper into the shadows—
“Hey, over here—” Shikamaru waved to her. He stood at the farthest sliding door on that side, which proved to be a sort of barn.
He had a linen sack with drawstring at the top, and ducked inside the dark room. Sakura waited outside. The back of the house was much less foreboding than the front. Low wide porches and open doors connected the park to the living spaces. And clearly they were comfortable with their role as stewards of the wild deer population, because there were buckets dropped here and there for what Sakura could only guess were water or feed.
There was a crash behind her, and Shikamaru cursed.
“You ok,” Sakura asked into the dusty darkness.
“Yeah,” came his muffled, irritated voice. He reappeared, linen bag in hand, now full and lumpy. Sakura would have snuck a glance inside, but the string was tied tight.
Shikamaru dusted spiderwebs from his spiky black hair. “Took me a minute. That barn’s a mess. No wonder mom didn’t want to do it—“
He looked beyond her suddenly, and a genuine smile broke across his face. “Well…. I wondered if they would come around….”
Sakura turned. Across the gravel courtyard, standing at the edge of the tree line, were a half-dozen deer. They watched her with shining round eyes and twitching noses. They stamped their nimble legs periodically, and their coats turned molten copper in the spots of sunlight. They flicked their tails, flashing white, but none showed signs of fear. Merely curiosity.
Sakura noticed there were no antlers, and a few of the smaller ones still had some white spots. “No males?”
Shikamaru laughed. “Oh no, they’re out there, somewhere. Watching. They can’t be bothered to make an appearance.” Sakura laughed softly too.
The deer were apparently satisfied. With a few soft bleats from the biggest ones, they whole group turned and walked back into the shadows of the trees.
When they were well and truly gone, Shikamaru handed her the bag.
“Thank you,” Sakura said, smiling. She meant for both — the completed errand, and for this wonderful, dreamlike experience in a hidden corner of Konoha. He smiled too, nodding as if he understood.
He walked her back out to the front of the house and stopped. “See you,” he said, jamming his hands in his pockets. “See you,” she returned with a single wave.
Halfway down the lane, she thought about pulling open the sack and looking inside, like she had at the market that morning. She wondered what “The Ususal” was. But a lingering feeling of being watched nagged at her. She turned back and waved again instead.
Shikamaru waved back, but beside him stood his mother, arms folded, a towel hanging off her apron. She nodded slightly. Sakura was instantly glad she didn’t peek. She continued on toward the gate and road, deciding not to look at all.
Back at the Nara house, Shikamaru sighed. He knew he was about to be grilled.
“So she’s a healer?”
Shikamaru snorted. “No, she’s a shinobi. Like me.”
His mother watched her turn out of sight. “I thought she was a medic—“
A whine crept into Shikamaru’s voice. “I don’t know mom. I guess she took some classes or something.” He hoped it’d be enough to get her off his back.
She was silent. “But the deer came out to see her….”
Shikamaru was quiet. “Yeah, I mean I guess that was weird. She’s a civilian.”
“It’s not that big a deal—“
“No but do you know what is? The state of that barn. I think you need to get in there and clean it out—“ Shikamaru slumped his shoulders and trudged off. He knew if he hung around she’d find more work for him to do.
Sakura closed the gate behind her, but stopped before turning away. To the left, the well-maintained road and wall curved back towards the Hyuuga house. But to the right, it curved around out of sight.
The road in that direction was maintained, of course. It was still part of Konoha. But the signs of disuse were there too…. Weeds growing from a few of cracks. A stray scrap of paper blown against the wall. And it was quiet. Eerily so.
Sakura knew what was beyond the Nara park, even though she’d never been there. The end of the lane stopped at the vast Uchiha compound. Second only to the Nara clan in size…and completely empty.
Leaves blew up the road, and Sakura thought she could feel the sadness emanating from the place. She shook off her wandering imagination and turned away, even as she admitted to herself she’d still feel better once she’d put a little distance between herself and that emptiness.
Bag heavy in her hand, she returned to the Kage tower.
A harried Shizune intercepted her outside Tsunade’s office, however, taking the bag and handing her another scroll.
“Oh thank goodness your back! Tsunade needs you to get another one—“
Sakura crinkled the note and scroll under her fingertips in a rising panic about her dwindling time and her waiting mother and how she absolutely could not go on another errand—
“—And you’re the only one she trusts to do this!” Shizune finished brightly.
Sakura cringed There was no way she could get out now. She’d just have to be a little late and make it up to her mother somehow. Hopefully it wouldn’t take too long. She flipped back the note attached to the scroll—
Sakura’s stomach sank. “The Forest of Death?!?”
“It’s really an honor, actually.”
An honor? This was going to take hours!
Shizune pointed to another phrase. Senju Shrine. “She said you were the only one she’d trust to do this one.”
Shizune looked into Sakura’s face expecting to see a proud reflection looking back. Sakura rallied. “Oh, that’s— that’s nice. I guess. But you know—“ inspiration struck Sakura, “I’ve never been to it. So maybe I’m not really the best one—“
“Oh I know. No one has. But she put directions in there.” Shizune misinterpreted Sakura’s grimace for apprehension. “She trusts you! And she said she knew you, above anyone else, could do it.” Shizune added affectionately. “She believes in you.” She grinned. “And I do too!”
Shizune’s sisterly support is what did it. She had always been there for Sakura, smoothing over Tsunade’s actions and explaining what the Kage would not or could not. And, of course, she was right this time too. It was an honor. As a Konoha shinobi, she couldn’t refuse. As Tsunade former student, she shouldn’t. It would be entirely too disrespectful.
Sakura bowed. “Thank you Shizune-senpai.”
Shizune laughed at her. “Just be careful. I know you can handle it, but still….”
Sakura nodded. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She meant it.
She’d fulfill her duties…but she didn’t know how she was going to make it up to her mother.