22 May 2020 No Comments
Two Worlds, Part 4 – Those Left Behind
Well after dark, after she’d run her errands, showered and changed back into her shinobi clothes, Sakura scaled a building wall, hopped over the spine of the roof and down into a secluded balcony. Several nins were already there, leaning out and watching the parade one story below. Sakura landed soundlessly. The anbu agent on duty leaning against the back wall nodded to her. She nodded back.
There were clusters of nins leaning against the railing, talking and pointing at the crowd below. Some she knew, some she didn’t. But they gave the black-haired nin in the middle extra space. She smirked at the picture before her. Sasuke was always by himself, even in a crowd. She was sure he didn’t mind.
She leaned on the railing beside him and saw him in profile. His expression was always a mask at these things, but he gave her the slightest of nods when she slid into his view.
She smirked — “Hello to you too,” she said softly and was gratified to see that a small smile cracked his mask for a moment — then turned to watch the parade unfold beneath them.
Festivals usually unified both sides of Konoha, the shinobi and civilian, and tonight it looked like most of village had turned out to clog the parade route. It ran from the Hokage’s tower, threaded through the edge of several neighborhoods as if sewing them together, then ended at an old temple down by the gate.
Drums and cymbals exploded beneath their balcony. Just then a group of dancers in matching kimonos, began to perform, while raucous bands of musicians dance around them, teasing the audience into clapping along. Behind them, the first of the clan floats was rounding the corner.
Many more shinobi she knew were dropping down, as others were leaving. Kakashi dropped down and nodded at his former students. He preferred to lean against the wall. But when he saw Shikamaru at the other end, he spoke up, using a decidedly teacher voice. “Nara, shouldn’t you be down there representing your clan?”
He tried to shrug it off and not answer, not wanting to draw attention to himself. But Kakashi continued. “Aren’t they one of Konoha’s oldest clans?”
Shikamaru rolled his eyes, but when he finally turned to answer Kakashi, everyone was looking at him. He sighed. “You know my parents aren’t interested in that old stuff.”
Kakashi laughed and leaned back, satisfied. Sakura turned back to the parade, hiding her smile. By parents, Shikamaru clearly meant his mother. She probably didn’t want to spend the time and energy on something as frivolous as this. And Sakura could understand.
The clan floats that were rounding the corner were teetering wooden platforms with all manner of decorations on them. They moved on wheels now, but they used to have to be carried by the strongest young men of their clan.
Atop the platforms, in matching family kimonos, were the clan elders, their most promising youth, and any guests that might elevate their social value another rung.
In other words, it was a big show.
The floats were part of their ancestral heritage, with elaborate carvings and painted in gold or bright colors. Behind them walked the rest of their clan, in matching kimonos of course.
Another float rounded, and although Sakura didn’t know what the banners hanging down meant, or the stories told in the carvings around the base, she did know the colors. Deep purple and black. This was Ino’s clan.
She did not have high enough status in her father’s clan to ride on the float, but Sakura was certain she didn’t mind. Ino walked behind the float with the rest of her family, waving and smiling and flipping her spun-gold ponytail while she passed out sweets shaped like flowers to children who thought she was a princess.
She saw Sakura and the others and waved brightly. She motioned to her new kimono and gave a thumbs up to Sakura. Sakura cringed and waved quickly back — her father had procured the fabric at the last minute. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a low teasing laugh from Sasuke.
Iruka dropped in at the back, waved briefly at them before spying Kakashi, then strode over to have a private conversation with their old sensei. Kakashi nodded once, twice, and then, without a word, he was gone.
Iruka joined them, speaking more to Sakura than Sasuke, even though he was addressing them both. “Aren’t you missing a teammate?”
Sakura smiled. “He’s on duty tonight.” She looked at the angled shadows on the roofs across the street. “I’m sure he’s perched somewhere around here.”
Iruka grinned good-naturedly. “Ah, well, he’ll still get to see it then.” She nodded. He waved goodbye to them and everyone else gathered there — some were his students too and they waved back — and left.
More clans were filing past below them. Smaller ones, without large floats. If a clan wasn’t big enough, then they just walked together in a show of clan solidarity. Some of them carried staffs or banners or other relics that only they knew the meaning of. Others, well— they brought clan symbols that everyone knew the meaning of.
A raucous barking was echoing from around the corner and burst out in the lane in front of them. The Inuzaka clan and all their oversized dogs. Suddenly, one dog pulled free from it’s young Inuzaka master, and the rest of the dogs wanted in on the action. The small clans around them scattered like marbles. The happy dogs dove in and out of the crowd, licking faces of children while parents pulled them away, darting at food from vendor’s carts, and drawing deep frowns from the elders turning in the seats at the top of the floats that were spaced out far in front and behind them.
The oldest Inuzuka men and women rode the largest dogs, and both human and animal seemed proud of the kind of impact they made as they strode by, and were in no hurry to round the youngsters back up again.
Kiba nodded up at them smugly, riding proud atop a well-behaved Akamaru— until the enormous white dog got a whiff of something he couldn’t resist and bolted. A ripple of laughter went down the balcony as Kiba tried to wrangle the oversize white fluffball back to the parade route.
Behind the next float was a slow moving processional of priests and acolytes that walked to the steady beat of a large drum. The white-clad men and women carried sacred relics from different temples. Scrolls, banners, chimes. Tall hooks with delicate swinging lanterns. Pots of spiced incense.
All of the men and women were older than her parents. But one priest was very old, as frail as the scroll he was carrying. She only saw him once a year, at this festival. And she couldn’t believe he was still alive. He looked the same as he did when she was a child.
More men and women walked behind him, carrying more talismans. But this time Sakura recognized them as honoring ancestors. A tree branch. A folded piece of fabric. A hunk of metal. On and on. Each had some meaning— The last one had a length of twisted rope with a conspicuous red knot at the bottom. It was the precursor to the braids she’d been making all last night.
She laughed to herself. Maybe she was participating in these weird old traditions and just didn’t realize it.
Sasuke’s low voice intoned beside her. “What are you laughing at?”
Sakura covered quickly. “Oh nothing. It’s just, some of the people are so strange right?”
He laughed too. “Yeah I guess all the little temples empty out. And they bring their special thing with them.”
That’s right, Sakura thought. These were all representatives from different sacred places. Both inside and outside Konoha.
She was just wondering if Tsunade’s old granny form the Senju temple might be in among their ranks, when she caught sight of the wrinkled little man and woman from the market. Maw and Paw.
Almost at the same time they saw her. Maw pointed, then Paw squinted, and Maw waved grandly.
Sakura could see her mouthing “pink hair” into the old man’s ear. He caught the color, then saw her and waved too. Sakura couldn’t avoid it. She lifted her fingers for a quick wave at the edge of the railing. She hoped no one would notice—
“Who are they—“
“Um…what?” A train of gilded floats rounded the corner, but the last one was especially elaborate. “Oh wow, look at those.”
It was only half meant as a distraction. They were very elaborate, especially the last one.
Beside her, Sasuke straightened. He was watching the coming floats as if waiting for something awful to leap out of them.
Sakura looked back. They were Hyuuga floats. The first two went swaying by, with elders and family members in the top. They sat still, looking resplendent in dark robes and kimonos, underneath a canopy of fabric decked with ropes and tassels. They didn’t wave as the other families had, instead nodded formally. It was very formal and perfect. Almost like a painting of old.
The last float was the most elegant. Elaborately carved mythical beasts flew through wisps of clouds down the side, only to turn into a new creature at the corner of the float. The details were masterfully highlighted in gold, so the whole thing shimmered as it moved, as if the carvings were coming to life. The head family sat in the railed in section at the top. Their classmates Hinata and Neji were up there, seated at the front, but they were too rigid to give them more than a spare glance.
A large flag hung off the side. And as they passed close by, Sakura grew more certain that was the one that her mother worked so hard to repair. It was big enough. And she thought she might just see a boot print on it—
At that moment, one of the Hyuuga men on the platform looked up at the balcony — at Sakura in particular — and whispered to the family head. Sakura had a moment of cold dread, and stood from her casual stance with her arms propped on the railling, before she realized they weren’t looking at her. They were looking next to her. At Sasuke.
The head of the Hyuuga clan nodded at Sasuke, then following his lead, the rest of the men around him did too. They were not stoic, not exactly warm and friendly, but nodding respectfully. Sakura glanced sideways. Sasuke was grim faced. But he nodded back firmly. Just once. Like he’d rather not being doing it at all.
Sakura whispered under her breath, “Wha— What’s going on?”
Sasuke huffed. His mouth twisted, as if he’d rather not say. Finally, he spoke cryptically. “See the flag?”
“Wait till the float rocks again. When they turn,” Sasuke said, eyes on the float, “then tell me what you see.”
Sakura watched the flag, the men, the surrounding float, but there was nothing amiss. The float approached a bend in the road and rocked from one side to another. The flag billowed out for a moment, away from the side of the float.
There, carved in wood and painted in gold, and completely covered by the Hyuuga banner, was an Uchiha fan. It was unmistakeable.
Sakura gasped softly. “That’s an Uchiha float!” She turned to him. “Why do they have it?” Sasuke’s face was stony. He didn’t answer.
The fabric banner fluttered down again. No one had seen it but her. The Hyuuga float turned and was gone behind another clan float.
Sakura watched it go. “I don’t understand….”
There was a bitterness in Sasuke’s voice. “What’s there to understand? There are no Uchiha left— So why not let them have it?”
“Oh…. I guess, um, that makes sense….”
She turned back to watch the parade. Only, she didn’t see it. She never thought about Sasuke’s family. At all. But if his family had lived, then he would probably be down there right now too.
He stepped away, voice suddenly firm.
“I’ve got to go.” Sakura thought he was angry again. But he was uncharacteristically fidgeting, half-mumbling. “There’s something I have to do. And I’ve been putting it off….”
He surprised her, looking back over his shoulder at her— “Do you…uh, want to come with me?”
It was a moment of trust, after the moment in the village, when he accused her of not telling him everything.
She watched his face, hearing the parade cheers in her ears. She’d be leaving it all behind, but her family wasn’t there anyway. Civilians didn’t participate, only watched.
He glanced over her shoulder at the parade too, realizing belatedly that he was asking her to leave the festivities behind.
Certainty suffused her features. “Yeah— I’ll go with you—“
A small apologetic smile touched his lips for a moment. Then he turned and, before anyone else might see, it was gone.
His face was an emotionless mask as he nodded to the few remaining shinobi and anbu who noticed their departure. And Sakura mimicked his serious demeanor, even though she had no idea where they were going.
They took the back route away from the parade route. It was quiet, almost feeling forgotten in the festive atmosphere that was going on just a few streets over. There were few lights here, and the woods pressed in on the road as if trying to take it back while no one was looking. All except one area.
Off the darkest part of the lane, barely visible beyond the crowds trees and undergrowth was a small grassy circle. In the middle stood a single ghostly grey stone. It jutted out of the ground at a slight angle, as if it had been thrown there. It was a large, almost as big as Sakura, and the shape always reminded her of a blade jutting from the ground…or perhaps a lone kunai left behind on the battlefield.
It was the memorial stone, and the trees never encroached on this space.
As young nins they are told that if you die on a mission, away from Konoha, your name would be etched there and remembered forever. But the truth was there were no names. Just the characters on the top, carved in a beautiful, flowing script no longer used in Konoha, saying, “We remember.”
The message was clear: The names live on in you. They are etched into your mind as you go on without them.
The custom was once a year, you stopped by the stone, touched it and said those names aloud. You remember them. You say it to the darkness, or the dawn, or to the birds or to the staring squirrels. You say that you still carry the ones you’ve lost with you. And that’s all. There are no floats here, no parades. No candles or incense or plates of food. That was not the shinobi way. Instead it was just the name spoken aloud. That was enough.
The stone had also become a sort of rite of passage for young genin.
Every year, the story would circulate through the schoolyard that a ghost visited the stone late on the night of the festival. Very late, long after everyone was asleep.
It was the source of many dares and giggling jump-scares among the classmates. But only a few were brave enough — or foolish enough — to find out if the stories were true.
Sakura glanced at Sasuke, then looked past him to the field. She thought she glimpsed the stone through the trees, ghostly grey in the darkness. But it wasn’t scary. It was quite peaceful. Crickets chirped and happy parade sounds were still echoing down the streets.
“Did you ever come down here at night?” Sakura couldn’t keep the smile out of her voice. “You know, when you were a kid? To see the ghost?”
Sasuke snorted, and Sakura was instantly glad she’d come. When he was relaxed he let an entirely different side of himself show.
“Come down here to get scared by the upperclassmen? Of course not!” He cut his dark, laughing eyes at her. “Why, did you?”
“No! Of course not!” Sakura shook her head emphatically, but she quickly turned her face away so he couldn’t read her expression. Not that it helped. She was pretty sure he knew she was lying anyway.
Because of course she’d gone down. Ino said it would be so much fun. That everyone did it. That it was Konoha shinobi tradition. And what did she know about shinobi traditions? So she went.
The story was that a ghost haunted there, late on the night of the festival. He came out of the woods to listen to the names of the clans. But you didn’t want him to see you. Cause if he said your name, then that meant you were dead and you’d have to go back with him too. Or, he’d take you away from everything you’ve ever known. Or something….
It was terrifying. So it was tantalizing to the academy students. Each year, someone said they saw it.
After the parade, she and Ino met up with Shikamaru, Choji and a handful of other students that she didn’t know the names of and walked down to the field. It was all fun and daring and not very scary, until they crept through the trees to find a shinobi already standing there. An older one, who looked serious. He had a shock of white hair. Sakura stayed back, instantly feeling terrible for intruding on a place that was meant to be a memorial.
She wanted to leave, but some of the others wanted to stay, including Ino, and Sakura didn’t want to disappoint her friends. So they crouched in the bushes and watched.
The man was solemn. His hands were slung from his pockets, and there was something that looked like a tattered book in his back pocket. He looked down, kicked at the ground, spoke something softly, bowed once and was gone in a black blur of motion.
And then they were alone. They waited in silence. Watching. Nothing happened. Just a gray stone in the middle of an empty field.
Feet shifted in the dirt, a few kids coughed, and others shushed loudly, for which they were loudly shushed back. Shikamaru whispered for them to watch the stone, that’s where they’d see it. But others countered that they were sure the ghost would come out of the woods.
They started arguing loudly, and Sakura was relieved. Hopefully they could go home soon. But something cracked in the woods. They all went silent and watched the dark pockets between the trees. Leaves moved and white eyes looked like they were looking back. But nothing happened.
The loudest gave up. “See I told you—“
The bush over their heads suddenly opened up. A ghostly ninja bellowed down at them, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!?”
He had no color, only glowing eyes and hair from an unearthly light that seemed to come from nowhere and shine straight up his face. They screamed and fell over each other to get away, as the ghost pushed forward into the shrubs, saying the clan names of some of the kids. Hands clapped over their ears, they screamed to drown out the death sentence hearing their name called might mean, and scrambled away in all directions.
Sakura was terrified, but she wasn’t sure if she should cover her ears or not. So she just closed her eyes and ran as hard as she could, listening for Ino’s crying beside her to know that at least she hadn’t heard her name and been dragged off to the woods.
Racing down the gravel road, Sakura was trying to decide what she would do if her friend did get called — hold on to her for dear life or run back to the village to get help – when she collided with someone in the dark. A hand steadied her shoulder. Ino’s father looked down at them. He was stern but not altogether angry.
“Staying out late after the parade?” Tearfully, Ino stumbled over an excuse, but thankfully he didn’t press for more. “You all look like you’ve had a fright! Better walk your friend home, then come straight back. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to you….” His eyes glittered as if he knew exactly what they’d been doing.
Sakura smiled to herself at the memory. Of course Inoichi knew it was Kakashi. And she knew Kakashi well enough now to know that he was probably waiting around at the memorial, hoping some kids would show up so he could scare them. He would have known as soon as they set foot on the grass.
Sakura and Sasuke turned away from the quiet patch of road that passed in front of the stone. They walked up out of the shadows, towards the softly glowing street lights and widening avenues that led to the clan compounds.