14 Jun 2020 4 Comments
Well after dark, after she’d run her errands, showered and changed back into her shinobi clothes, Sakura scaled a building wall in the center of Konoha, hopped over the spine of the roof and down into a secluded balcony. Several nins were already there, leaning out and watching the parade a story below. Sakura landed soundlessly. An on-duty anbu agent, lazily propped against the back wall, nodded to her. She nodded back.
There were clusters of nins at 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 it made. She was sure he didn’t mind.
Sakura leaned onto the railing beside Sasuke 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 she turned to watch the parade unfold beneath them.
Festivals usually unified both the shinobi and civilian sides of Konoha, and tonight it looked like most of village had turned out to clog the parade route. It began at the Hokage’s tower, threaded down 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 suddenly. Just then, a group of dancers in matching kimonos began to perform, while raucous bands of musicians danced 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, while others were leaving. None stayed for the whole thing — it could take hours for the parade to go by — just the parts that had meaning for them. Kakashi dropped down and nodded at his former students, but he preferred to lean against the wall. However hen he saw Shikamaru at the other end, arms propped on the rail, he spoke up.
“Nara, shouldn’t you be down there representing your clan?” There was a decidedly ‘teacher’ tone to Kakashi’s voice.
Shikamaru 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 looked back over his shoulder, everyone was looking at him. He sighed. “You know my parents aren’t interested in that old stuff.”
Kakashi laughed and leaned back, satisfied. By ‘parents,’ Shikamaru clearly meant his mother. She probably didn’t want to spend the time and energy on something as frivolous as this. Having met her, now Sakura could understand. And knowing how much her old sensei loved to tease, it was clear that they he and the elder Naras were friends.
Shikamaru’s shoulders bounced once with a good-natured “tch,” before he hung his head back over his hands and returned to watching the parade. Hiding her smile, Sakura turned back to the parade too.
The clan floats rounding the corner consisted of teetering wooden platforms. They moved on wheels now, but in years past they were carried by the strongest young men of their clan. They were like miniature towers, wrapped in elaborately carved and painted decorations that held some meaning to their clan.
Atop the platforms, in matching family kimonos, sat the clan elders. Behind them stood their most powerful family leaders, most promising youth and any guests that might elevate their social value any higher.
In other words, it was a big show.
Behind them walked the rest of their clan, in matching kimonos of course.
Another float rounded, and although Sakura didn’t know the meaning of banners hanging down or the stories told in the carvings around the base, she did know the colors. Deep purple and black. This was Ino’s clan.
Ino 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, her teammates and the other nins and waved brightly. She motioned to her new kimono and gave a thumbs up to Sakura. Sakura cringed and waved quickly back — she knew her father had procured the fabric at the last minute. Sakura 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. Sakura noticed that Kakashi listened seriously to Iruka’s whispered message, 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 smiled. “Ah, good. He’ll still get to see it then.” She nodded. He waved goodbye to them and everyone else gathered there — some had been his students too and they waved back — and left.
More clans were passing below them. Smaller ones, without large floats. If a clan wasn’t big enough, then they just walked together in a show of solidarity. Some of them carried staffs or banners or other relics that only they knew the significance of. Others, well…. They brought clan “symbols” that needed no explanation.
A raucous barking was echoing from around the corner and burst out into the lane in front of them. It was the Inuzaka clan with all their oversized dogs. Suddenly, one dog pulled free from its young Inuzaka master, and the rest of the dogs wanted in on the action. The small clans around them scattered like marbles.
The happy beasts dove in and out of the crowd, licking faces of children while parents pulled them away, darting at food from vendors’ carts, and drawing deep frowns from the other elders. They turned in their seats at the top of floats that were spaced far out in front and behind the rowdy clan.
The oldest Inuzuka men and women rode the largest dogs, and both human and animal seemed proud of the impact they made as they strode by. They were in no hurry to round the youngsters back up again.
Kiba nodded up at the nins 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 spicy incense.
All of these men and women were much older than her parents. But one priest was very old, as frail as the scroll he was carrying. She realized 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 for honoring ancestors. But this time Sakura recognized the symbols from her mother’s notes. A tree branch. A folded piece of fabric. A hunk of metal. On and on. Each had some meaning— The last one carried a length of oversized 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 in fact participating in these weird old traditions like the little old village grannies wanted her to, only she 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 here are so strange, right?”
He chuckled too. “Yeah I guess this festival empties all the little temples out. Then when they come back to Konoha, they bring their special ‘thing’ with them.”
That’s right, Sakura thought. These people came from all sorts of different sacred places. Both inside and outside Konoha.
She was just wondering if Tsunade’s old granny from the Senju temple might be among their ranks, when she caught sight of the wrinkled little man and woman from the market. Ma and Pa.
Almost at the same time they saw her. Ma pointed, then Pa squinted, and Ma 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…who?” Sakura spied a train of heavily decorated floats rounding the corner. She pointed quickly, “Oh wow, look at those—”
It was only half meant as a distraction. They were very elaborate, especially the last one.
But beside her, Sasuke straightened. He was watching the coming floats as if waiting for something awful to leap out of them.
Sakura looked closer. They were Hyuuga floats. The first two went swaying by with elders and family members in the top. They sat still, looking resplendent in matching dark robes underneath a canopy of fabric strung with ropes and tassels. They didn’t wave as the other families had, instead nodded formally. It was all very posed and perfect, almost like a painting.
The last float was the most elegant. Elaborately carved mythical beasts flew through wisps of clouds, only to turn into a new creature at the corner of the float. The top and bottom of the tower were framed with carved flames. The details were so masterfully highlighted in gold that the whole thing shimmered as it moved, as if the carvings were coming to life and the flames might suddenly leap off the float.
At the top, inside a railed-in platform, sat the head family. None of them smiled or nodded. Their classmates Hinata and Neji were up there, seated at the front, but they were too rigid to give the balcony more than a spare glance.
A large flag hung off the side. As they trundled closer, Sakura grew more certain that this was the flag her mother worked so hard to repair. It was big enough. And she thought she saw 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 raised up from her casual stance with her arms propped on the railing, 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 stoic, but nodded 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 whispered 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 platform—
There, carved in wood, outlined in faded paint, 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 back, voice suddenly firm. “I’ve got to go.”
Sakura thought he was angry again. But he was uncharacteristically fidgety.
“There’s something I have to do,” he half-mumbled. “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?”
Sakura recognized it as 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 roads 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 was a large, almost as big as Sakura, and stuck out of the ground at a slight angle as if it had been thrown. The shape always reminded her of a blade jutting from the earth, like 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 were told that if you died 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 the staring squirrels. You say that you still carry the ones you’ve lost with you. And that’s all. There were no floats here, no parades. No lit candles or incense or plates of food left out as an offering. 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 haunted the stone, but only on the night of the festival.
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, pale grey against the darkness. But it wasn’t scary. It was actually 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 a Konoha shinobi tradition. And what did she know about shinobi traditions? So she went.
The story was that a ghost visited the stone, very late on the night of the festival after everyone was asleep. 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, with a shock of white hair, who looked serious. Even sad.
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. Someone shushed. Others shushed loudly, for which they were even more loudly shushed back. Shikamaru whispered grumpily 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 was suddenly ripped open. 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 in the woods.
Sakura and Sasuke turned away from the quiet patch of road that passed in front of the stone and walked up out of the shadows, towards the softly glowing street lights and widening avenues that led to the clan compounds.
It was quiet and peaceful down these roads. The crickets were chirping and there was a soft breeze in the trees. It felt much less daunting than when she’d been heading down the road to the Nara’s park.
They had walked for a while in comfortable silence when Sasuke broke it with a sudden question.
“So…uh…how’s work…?” He coughed. “You know…at the, um, hospital.”
Sakura tried not to laugh at Sasuke’s terrible attempt at some kind of normal conversation. They never talked about these sorts of things. But she supposed he was trying. So she answered him seriously.
“I don’t really work there anymore. Not regularly, anyway.”
“But I thought the Kage’s errands were for your medical work?”
Sakura did laugh that time. “No. I really don’t know what she had me doing. I think it was more for old herbal cures for the festival.” She sobered. “The medic-nin studies have kind of…leveled off.”
Sakura expected this to be answer enough, but Sasuke surprised her again. “How so?” He laughed softly. “Did you run out of people to heal?”
“Or did they run out of things to teach you?”
She was thoughtful for a moment. “Actually, it’s a bit of both.”
Maybe it was the darkness making her more bold. Or the fact that Sasuke was asking — and he never asked. Or that they were walking through an area of Konoha that was truly beautiful and absolutely empty. But she could feel Sasuke’s eyes on her, waiting for an honest answer. So she took a breath, and spoke the things she’d never shared with anyone.
“So….I don’t learn the way other nins do. And I don’t use my chakra to heal like the other med-nins do. Not exactly. So it’s difficult for me….”
“You mean you have to catch up to them?”
Sakura shook her head slowly. “No….”
He gave a breathy laugh. “That’s what I figured,” he said, a note of pride in his voice.
Sakura smiled too. She’d never told anyone that. But it was true. She’d out-paced the rest of her classmates early on. And then the teachers.
“I guess I’m a fast learner. And then I adapt what I’ve learned to get the job done—“
“You’ve always been like that.”
Sakura curled a lock behind her ear. She knew he recognized her skill now. But sometimes it still took her by surprise.
“That’s not what they teach you to do though,” she continued. “They want you to follow a strict procedure. I don’t exactly fit into the traditional medic mold.”
She slipped into more comfortable territory, splaying out her fingers to recount the program. “You have to follow a regimented healing course where you identify the the cascading impact of an injury, from its source to secondary reactions to any underlying conditions and back to the external mitigating factors of the injury. That’s the order of operations for civilian medics. But if you’re a shinobi then you have to factor in chakra depletion and jutsus and wound types—“
She stopped herself, curled up her fingers and rubbed her hand up the outside of her arm as if she were uncomfortable from the cold. Except it wasn’t cold.
“I was never very good at sticking to ‘orders of operations.’”
Sasuke laughed, and she laughed too. She relaxed and dropped her hand.
“Tsunade said I had a knack for it. But I was always just feeling it out. That’s the only way I can describe it. I figured things out, then skipped ahead. So I was always able to finish ‘the heal’ faster than the other students.” It was a tidy enough explanation. She shrugged. “And then it wasn’t long before I’d outpaced my teachers.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.”
“There are still things I don’t know, techniques I’d like to train at. But there is no opportunity here. And there’s no where to test my skill and improve.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s mostly just standard civilian hospital care, healing kunai wounds and the like. Nothing else. No deeper chakra-inflicted ones. Or jutsu-specific injuries. Tsunade has told me about things she’s encountered. And I’ve read about things in medical journals. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten.”
Sasuke was quiet, considering her words. “So…there’s no one else you could learn from? Tsunade didn’t have a teacher?”
Sakura shook her head. “No. Not that she’s ever said. Apparently she just picked it up on the battlefield. There was no official medic-nin corp when she started. That’s why she created one.”
They passed the door of a clan compound. It was completely dark except for a lit lantern flickering just beside the door.
Sakura knew she could stop, but there was more.
“So, there is no one left to teach me. Just Tsunade and Shizune, and they are busy enough running Konoha. It’s not like I could learn from the other teachers, and definitely not the students. Besides, no one even knows where I got my abilities from. Being from a non-shinobi family and all—“ she coughed. “I’m a bit of a special case. I only got as far as I did in the program because of Tsunade’s support.”’
He nodded. “I never considered that….”
She nodded back. “It isn’t like academy. Where as long as you get the kunai to the target, you get the point. Iruka never cared how you got it there. Just as long as you could. As a medic, there is only one way. By-the-book.” She added finally, “Since my chakra doesn’t work like theirs, I’m kind of,” she shrugged, “stuck.”
She exhaled and looked away. For shinobi, control of your particular skill was the most important thing. Above all else. So it went against everything she knew to admit that she, in fact, did not know how her chakra skills worked. They just did.
Sasuke’s silence caused her growing concern. The Sasuke of old would have thrown it in her face. She was trusting him to be different. She dared a glance over at him, but he was looking off, eyes focused and serious. He was very closed off and hard to read, even to her. Maybe she had been wrong to admit it—
But Sasuke surprised her.
He broke the silence. “I think….. Your ability doesn’t have to work like the rest of them. Let them catch up to you.” His voice was firm, decisive. “You’ve handled everything that’s been thrown at you. Better than anyone.” He paused, then added softly, “I think you’ve done alright.”
She tipped her head up at him, genuinely surprised. He glanced at her, face transformed to something softer, kinder, in the blue light. He gave her a half smile, as if knowing he was exposing some long hidden part of himself in exchange. But he couldn’t hold it. He glanced away.
When he looked ahead again, Sakura saw the soft expression was gone from his profile. His thoughts were coalescing on another point.
“There was no one to show me either. Not really. My family—“ he exhaled softly. “Well, there was no one left to teach me. There’s Kakashi of course. But he didn’t get taught either. He just figured it out.”
They never spoke about these things. No one did. But especially not Sasuke. Not in all the years she had known him. He had never spoken about his clan. But she never considered that Kakashi played a role in it. She was too curious to be silent.
“You mean, the Uchiha didn’t teach him?”
Sasuke looked sideways at her. His look said it all.
“Oh,” she said.
But he surprised her by continuing. “Looking back now, I’m surprised they let Kakashi keep it. His teammate’s eye would have still rightfully belonged to the clan—“
“They’d do that?” Sakura gasped. “To a boy?”
Sasuke looked sideways at her again, confirming her worst thoughts.
They both knew the story. Their teacher’s team had been ambushed, and his Uchiha and medic teammates were killed. But not before the Uchiha gifted Kakashi with his remaining eye, so he could always see a head of him and protect others. The medic performed one last selfless act, preserving their bond instead of saving herself. And Kakashi was left to return to Konoha alone. Eye bandaged. Broken, but alive, and determined to carry his teammates spirit and courage with him always. He was the embodiment of Konoha’s will of fire, the spirit that all academy students strive for.
All students knew this story. It was whispered among them, and reinforced by facts as true. Sakura had never thought it otherwise—
“A non-Uchiha to have an Uchiha eye? It’s…unthinkable.” Sasuke looked off in the distance. “My father would never have let someone like Sai even live with my eye—” He shook his head. “But Obito’s parents…. Well, they must have believed Kakashi’s story. It’s the only way that he was allowed to go on with his life with an Uchiha eye in his head. His parents must have forbidden any retribution because that was apparently Obito’s last wish.”
Sakura was shocked. “Y-Your clan thought Kakashi was lying?”
“Yes. And Kakashi knew it. He was shunned. That’s why he started wearing his headband over his eye. So that clan members wouldn’t retaliate when they got the chance.”
Sakura was astonished. She looked around her, mind racing, eyes tracing the steep walls of clan compounds, the darkened doors, never seeing any of it. She had never considered what the tragedy meant for their teacher…and for Sasuke himself.
“What about you?” Sakura said suddenly. “Do you think he was lying…?”
Sasuke shrugged. “No…. I don’t think so. He didn’t start using Obito’s eye again until after my clan was—“
Sakura could hear the word “murdered” even though he broke the sentence off with a silent shrug.
Sasuke cleared his throat, refocusing. “He told me that’s when he changed. When he decided to use Obito’s gift to protect others, like Obito wanted. He said he couldn’t save his teammates. And he couldn’t save Obito’s parents or his clan. But he’d never make that mistake again. He’d use it any way he could to protect the ones he was responsible for.”
Sasuke was stoic, but his face was smooth, free of tension. “I believe his story about how he got the eye. I don’t think he took it.”
Sakura nodded, thoughts leaping ahead— Suddenly she gasped, “But then he was assigned as your teacher—“
Sasuke gave a humorless laugh. “Yeah, I guess they thought he was going to replace my whole clan. But what could he teach me? I think I knew more than he did when we started.” Sasuke shrugged. “He made the eye work, but it’s kind of his own thing. It’s not with Uchiha techniques.”
He added quietly, “He’s done alright, though.” He gave her a brief smile, and she nodded back.
His understated praise spoke volumes. She knew that Sasuke had always respected Kakashi. But now she understood that Sasuke was breaking with his family to say that.
She breathed deeply, having new-found respect for both of them.
They walked quietly down the lanes, each deep in thought, past the Nara gate and around the bend, to a part of the road that was weedy and had leaves piled at the edges. The signs of abandonment were visible even in the low light.
They were approaching the Uchiha compound, but Sakura had barely noticed it.
“So,” she continued delicately, “you got to know some of the Uchiha techniques then. You know….from before….”
She was happy to find that Sasuke was still feeling talkative.
He shrugged. “Not much. And I was always told I had a lot to learn. I was not as fast as—“
He exhaled. Sakura knew he’d never say his brother’s name.
A single wooden door was rising out of the stone wall. Nothing special or remarkable. No fine decorations or elaborate stonework. But Sakura knew they were close because Sasuke was reaching around behind him, unzipping his hip pack.
“There were lots of secret techniques,” he continued, fishing out a large key. “Things I was too young to know, or too slow, or had to pass some clan test or another— But now it’s too late. There’s no one left to show me.”
He sighed. And they both turned and faced the dark, weathered door. There were weeds to either side, and the sturdy lock looked rusted in place. There might have been a fan painted on the wall — the Uchiha clan symbol — but it might have been a trick of fleeting moonlight that painted everything around them in shades of pale blue for a moment.
He jammed the key in, rattling it around and twisting it upward a bit until it fit deep enough into the keyhole to trigger the mechanism.
“The Uchiha had a lot of secrets. Hidden rooms, locked chests of ancient clan scrolls, secret weapons that could only be activated by an Uchiha eye at the highest level— Yeah, they were very private.” The lock opened with a loud crack. “And very proud.”
“Huh,” she said. “Like the Hyuuga.”
“Way worse—“ He said with a laugh, pushing the door hard with his shoulder. “I remember when I was a kid, they didn’t like the Hyuuga very much. Always suspicious of them. But they were very suspicious in general. Like at any moment they might be attacked from the outside.” He grimaced. “They had no idea….”
The door opened. There was no more talking. Sasuke’s open face closed like he was preparing for battle. “Come on,” he said quietly, and closed the door behind them.
The mysterious Uchiha compound unfolded before them in blues and blacks. It was an enormous area, much bigger than she ever imagined. Just steps from the wooden door, the flat ground on either side of the path fell away to sunken fields, and the walkway became a raised gravel road. It ran straight ahead to a cluster of buildings built on elevated land and encircled by a low wall. The tiered, swooping rooflines of an old castle-style building rose in silhouette from the center.
They walked in silence, with peaceful night sounds as their only companion. Weeds and wildflowers edged the raised road. Stretching out on either side of them were fields that had been farmed years before. The forest was still dark at the edges, but saplings were slowly reclaiming the land. A marshy area ran through in the center, following a tributary, and frogs croaked loudly from the clumps of reeds.
Sasuke stopped, looking out over one of the fields. Sakura’s heart jumped, thinking he was on alert for an attack— But he laughed softly and pointed. “The deer….”
As if responding, several heads popped up and looked at them, ears twitching.
“Wha—?” That’s not the attackers Sakura was looking for.
“The Nara deer. They must be getting over somehow. Coming into our park.”
His smile vanished at his own misspoken word. Sakura understood. There was no “our” here anymore.
The whole place had such a lonely feeling that Sakura found she preferred speaking than silence. “So you don’t share land with the Nara—“
He looked at her as if she were crazy, but Sakura shrugged. “I’ve never been in one of these compounds. I went to the Nara’s house for the first time yesterday. And the Hyuuga’s…. But that when I was a kid.” She looked away nervously. “I don’t remember much about that though….”
“Hn. Well, what do you remember?” Sakura looked sideways at him, suddenly stricken, but Sasuke wasn’t interested in her childhood memories. He was looking straight ahead at the deer. His voice was quiet, but firm. “What did you learn about the clans from academy?”
“Oh! Well, just that the Uchiha and the Senju were the first clans here. And the Senju moved out of the forest as part of a peace treaty with the Uchiha. Both were equally powerful. Both suffering at each others hands. Both suffering losses from outside attacks. Their peace treaty formed the first hidden village.”
“Right, but what did the teachers say,” he pressed, “about the clans?”
Sakura thought, remembering what was common knowledge to all students, although she couldn’t pinpoint a formal lesson about it.
She frowned. “Not much, just that the clans all moved to a place on the river where there was already a village being built. But when the Senju rose to power, the Uchiha moved out. They formed their own compound, and….” Her voice trailed off. Sakura wasn’t sure if she should continued.
Tension edged his voice. “And? Go on….”
She cleared her throat. They both knew the rest.
“And…. They walled themselves off. Even after the Senju made them protectors of the village or something, and they extended the wall to surround their lands too. The rift between them was never mended….” She paused, wanting to stop, but Sasuke nodded sharply at her to continue. She felt awful repeating these things, but she did as he asked. “They said the Uchiha never forgave the Senju. And that’s why the clan never mixed with the rest of Konoha again….”
Saying it aloud made her realize just how biased their history was.
Sasuke’s voice crackled with anger. “Quoted exactly as if you were back in academy class.”
Sakura regretted being so honest and was trying to find a way to excuse the beliefs, but Sasuke wasn’t finished.
“Well, you were only partially wrong. The clans did all move to one location…. But it was the Senju who left, not the Uchiha.”
He turned and threw open his arms to the cluster of buildings. “This is it. The beginning of Konoha.”
She turned her head and looked again at the setting in front of her.
The houses built shoulder to shoulder on a raised island of land looked very much like a small village. The castle-style building in the center could have doubled for a Kage’s tower. The low decorative wall that surrounded it could have easily been defensive.
Sakura’s mouth dropped open. It was unmistakeable. It looked like a smaller version of Konoha itself.
“I see it,” she said “This— This was the first village.” Sasuke nodded at her, pleased. It seemed to take some of the edge off. He turned and looked at it anew with her.
They continued walking. The isolated compound, the raised road.… Sakura realized it wasn’t just for a dramatic effect. It was very much a defense tactic.
She felt very exposed, which was probably their intention. As far as she could see the lands wrapped around the compound, making it impossible to sneak up on them. Any intruders would have been seen from all angles.
“And it was all just houses out here,” Sakura asked.
“Oh no. There were shops and farms, a blacksmith and a bladesmith. Everything you’d need. People lived their whole lives here, just like in the village. There was a little market, schools—“
“Of course. The Uchiha trained their own. Shinobi and non-shinobi. It was only until someone decided to build the academy and train all the different clans’ shinobi together that they started even allowing outsiders to even see their skills. Let alone train them to be lifelong teammates.” He paused, then clarified. “It was supposed to unify everyone under Konoha, to fight off other hidden villages doing the same thing. I’m not sure how well that worked.”
“It must have been grand then, full of life,” Sakura said quietly.
“Yes. Parades like that one,” he nodded back in the direction of Konoha, “floats, festivals. Everyone would have come out, everyone would have participated—”
“Like the Hyuugas,” Sakura interrupted, wondering if maybe they visited their clans were close, because they were so large and secretive. “Did you go there when you were a child, for events?”
“No,” he said, laughing meanly. “They came to our compound. Not the other way around.”
Sakura was very familiar with the Uchiha arrogance, so the fact that his clan looked down on their next-largest neighbor was not a surprise. But she was beginning to piece together a very different picture of Sasuke.
It must have been hard for him, when he was younger, having to listen to one version of history in their academy classroom, only to return home and see a different truth staring him in the face. And then, after the murder of his clan, to be forced to watch the Hyuuga quietly take over his family’s place of power and prestige.
It seemed the Uchiha background was much more complicated than she ever imagined. Even with the terrible tragedy. And Sasuke somehow shouldered it all.
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “I have to get something for the Hyuuga clan.” He sounded like he’d rather not.
They walked through the entrance, past two small open-fronted stone buildings that could have been guard stations, same as at Konoha’s ringed wall. Just inside was a stone lantern with a bird’s nest in the hollow. Sakura noticed an unusual design carved into the base.
“Is that a…a cat’s paw?”
Sasuke just shrugged as they walked past it. “No idea.”
They passed through the intersections of several dark lanes, and Sasuke occasionally pointed out personal landmarks. They didn’t get too close to the darkened buildings, instead staying at the center of the widest lanes.
“There was a school and a blacksmith, and down there was a market. It was mostly shops and services here. Residential housing was farther in.“
Sakura would glance down where Sasuke pointed, off where the lanes turned into shadows, but she noticed Sasuke never did.
Sakura followed his direction with curious surprise. “It really was its own village. You never needed to leave.”
“Are the other clan compounds this…self sufficient?”
Sasuke shook his head with a laugh. “No!”
“Oh. Like I said, I’ve never really been inside any others so….
Sasuke looked sideways at her before admitting, “I always forget you’re not from a clan—“ He shrugged one shoulder as an apology.
Sakura nodded once, not taking offense. Where others saw her as an anomaly, Sasuke had simply forgotten she was not brought up exactly like him.
Had she not done the same thing?
Here they were, side by side, raised in the same village, went to the same school and were on the same team, but Sakura realized that in some ways they were worlds apart.
She caught a glimpse of the castle’s soaring rooflines between the lanes. It loomed over the buildings around it, even though it appeared to be still several streets away.
“What is that building,” Sakura asked.
He raised his head. “The tall one?” She nodded. “That’s the Main Hall. It was where the clan held important functions, had meetings, kept their official documents. Important stuff. Like histories, scrolls detailing their secret techniques.” He paused for effect. “Including stolen ones—“
She gasped. The corner of his mouth hitched up into a smile.
“The Uchiha stole techniques?”
Sasuke snorted. “All the clans steal techniques. And other things too. Land. Goods. Weapon smiths. Even their best shinobi, if they could acquire them through marriage—”
“Oh my,” Sakura said. “I never thought about it that way.”
Sasuke nodded sagely. “Yes, the ‘honey trap’ works just as well inside the village walls as it does outside. Maybe even more effectively, especially since the clan elders were involved.”
Sakura was silent. Iruka taught them that the ‘honey trap’ was one of the biggest dangers to a male shinobi. A beautiful woman would get them in a compromising situation and kill them for their mission scroll, or worse, let them live and use them for information.
Sakura glanced down. Yes, she knew of those dangers first hand, even though girls were never warned about it the way the boys were.
But she’d never once thought a clan would try it, and inside their own village. “So a pretty girl from one clan would be picked to try to catch the attention of another clan’s shinobi?”
Sasuke nodded. “By far the easiest way to get a nin to give up his duties to his family, make him forget his obligations.”
They continued through more intersections, but the buildings around them were changing. These places were smaller, closer together, with rows of overlapping roofs. Sakura didn’t need to be told that these were residences.
Sasuke’s sudden voice pierced the silence. “Down there,” he cleared his throat, “I had an aunt. Across the street on that side was my mom’s best friend. Her son was my closest playmate until I left for school.” The crossed another intersection. The houses in these lanes were nicer, bigger.
Sasuke stared straight ahead. “The biggest house in that lane….”
Sakura turned her head instinctively and her eyes landed on a large dark building in the middle of the lane. It was very stately, with swooping roof lines and a wide entrance.
His voice softened. “That was my grandparents’ house.”
The words stole Sakura’s breath.
All around her were traces of nearly a decade of neglect — a cracked window here, a clump of weeds there, and leaves piled at nearly every doorstep — but the big house that was his grandparents had been carefully closed up. The doors and windows neatly shuttered, as if waiting for someone to open it up again. A stack of empty flowerpots leaned against the wide steps, like a child would against someone’s knee.
Sakura felt a sharp stab of pain for him, but there was hardly time to dwell on the loss of his grandparents. Sasuke moved swiftly passed the lane and more empty buildings closed in. The home disappeared from her sight.
When Sakura dared a glance at Sasuke, he was guiding them to another landmark.
Beyond the intersection, taking up one whole side, three shallow steps rose to an open courtyard. Across it was a closed gate to an enormous building complex. Sakura could only guess this that behind it was the Main Hall.
Sakura punctured the silence with a remembered question. “So, you said there were schools. Is there a textbook of Uchiha techniques? Something you can learn from now? Maybe there are still some around—”
Sasuke shook his head. “No, the Uchihas kept all their techniques secret. Some skills were only taught by your family. Like the sharingan. Each one is unique, but they often run in…in pairs.” He stopped suddenly, something troubling him for a moment. But he dismissed it. “Other skills were not taught until you reached certain ages or certain levels in the clan. Or until you were safely married within the Uchiha clan and the danger had passed that you might be picked off by…you know, by someone else—“
“By someone like me,” Sakura interrupted, cutting to the truth he was hinting at. Sakura was just beginning to grasp how much of an outsider she was to so many aspects of clan life. If his parents had lived, any attraction Sasuke felt towards her would have been completely suspect.
Sasuke shook his head once, startled then confused. Then he laughed softly. “No, not you.” He cut her a look, angling more of his face at her so that she could see the warmth in his eyes, the sly curve of his mouth. “Not that you aren’t a dangerous distraction….”
Sakura looked down, chuckling to herself.
They stepped up into the enormous pavilion. Pale blue pavers stretched out in a wide square around them. She didn’t know if it was his moment of levity or the fact that they had some breathing room from the empty buildings, but it felt like a relief to be out in the open. If she had to guess, he did too.
He breathed out some of the tension he’d been holding. “No, the danger I’m referring to is from another clan.”
Sakura was silent, working through the information.
The moon slid out for a moment, erasing the shadowy lines between the pavers and making the pavilion look like a vast blue lake bed, with only occasional weeds breaking the surface.
Sasuke had been looking ahead, but he stole a glance at her just to see if she figured it out. To watch the moment it broke across her face. He knew she’d be turning his words over, looking ‘underneath the underneath,’ as Kakashi always put it. And by the delicate frown line forming on her forehead, he knew she wouldn’t disappoint.
“So, if the Uchihas hid everything about themselves, even from each other, until a shinobi was deemed fit to receive it,” Sasuke nodded. “Then they were protecting themselves from outsiders, because they didn’t stand to benefit. The Uchiha had everything the needed. But others in Konoha didn’t…. Other clans, who would like to have more, to raise their status….”
Sakura looked up at him suddenly, eyes shining in the low light. “It was the Hyuuga, wasn’t it?”
He couldn’t stop the smile that spread over his face. “Long ago, the Hyuuga were just another small clan with some average powers, including a watered-down variation of the sharingan that occasionally surfaced. It was the arranged marriages with the Uchiha that brought them to where they are today. And the Uchiha elders never let anyone forget that fact.”
“And I guess this ‘arrangement’ wasn’t open to all Uchiha.”
Sasuke nodded. “Right. Only the lower level shinobis were allowed to marry Hyuuga. But that was it. That’s why some skills weren’t even allowed to be accessed until you were an adult.” There was a glint in his eye and a dangerous tone in his voice. “If they thought you might reveal their techniques to another clan…they would kill you themselves.”
“O-Oh my,” Sakura said. She was horrified. And enthralled.
They approached the enormous wooden gates. From across the courtyard it appeared closed, but it was open just enough for a single person to pass through.
Sasuke took no notice of the once-grand carvings. Sakura couldn’t look away.
On either side, fantastic mythical beasts, identical to the creatures on the floats, were carved into the wood. They were enormous and wreathed in stylized flames and clouds. Sasuke went first. Beside Sakura, she noticed the open mouth of the fanged beast was easily the size of the upper half of her body. Passing between the gates made it look as if it were going to devour her in one gulp. But its menacing air was diminished a little by the peeling paint and piles of leaves blown up against the base.
Beyond the gate they went up another three steps and into the dark shadow of another covered walkway.
“So there are things that you weren’t taught yet,” Sakura asked. “Techniques you were meant to be learning right now?”
Sasuke was silent.
“If you found some scrolls, Kakashi could help you. I could help you—“
When Sasuke still didn’t answer, she added. “Could there still be scrolls here, hidden somewhere?”
They came out into the open. In the pale light, Sakura could see that Sasuke’s face had hardened.
“I don’t know,” he said, adding quietly, “and it’s not like I could tell you if I did—“ But he stopped himself.
“Oh….” Sakura realized her error too late. She was still a civilian. These were his clan’s most forbidden secrets. Even if they were gone, it still had meaning to him. She continued in a much more subdued tone, “I understand—“
Sasuke brushed it off. “Eh, I haven’t seen that stuff in years. Doesn’t really matter now, anyway.”
Inside the gates, a pattern was emerging. Ahead of them, ascending courtyards and rising rooflines were leading toward the elevated Main Hall. The courtyard they were crossing was lined on all four sides with covered walkways, as were the ones on either side of them. As they got to the center, Sakura could see more square courtyards on this level, each divided by covered walkways, going out to either side and wrapping around the center in an enormous square.
On this level, the courtyards had wooden training dummies, targets propped in corners and mock weapons hanging from hooks.
“These were the Uchiha training pavilions?” Sakura knew the answer, even as she spoke it. And everywhere she looked it was as if an army of shinobi had just stepped away. Their weapons were still at the ready, waiting to be picked up again.
Without really looking, Sasuke explained the structure as they walked. “This level was for training in hand-to-hand combat, defense and strategy.”
Sakura nodded. They walked up another three steps, under a covered walkway and into another row of smaller courtyards. In the center of each one was a pillar of bamboo, some wrapped in reeds mats, some bare. The ones closest to them were chopped at extreme angle.
“This area was for blades.”
Sakura saw a delicately curved sword hanging from a shadowy pillar behind him. It glimmered like the sharp edge of the moon, almost calling out to be used. She had a feeling it was that sword that had made those ferocious cuts.
Three more steps and under another darkened walkway. Ahead of them was another smaller courtyard. But this one was different from all the rest. And there was a strange sound coming from it.
Sakura slowed, worried they’d stumbled upon some creature now inhabiting the Uchiha grounds. But Sasuke didn’t stop. He strode into the dark courtyard, unfazed.
The area was paved with black tiles and interspersed with small stones. A movement flickered on the other side, at what looked like a large stone bench. The sound started again, soft bubbling, building slowly, followed by a single, hollow knock. After a pause, it started up again—
Sasuke turned his head to the side, seeing she was not right behind him, and waited for her in the center of the courtyard.
Sakura caught up to him, recognizing the source of the familiar sound on the third time. It was a bamboo fountain over water, scooping it up and dropping it again in a clever bit of mechanics that kept its rhythm even when there wasn’t a soul to hear it.
What she’d thought was a bench was in fact a stone trough. A little stream ran through a stone channel, nearly hidden before the steps on the other side of the pavers and pooled in the hollowed out stone. Identical hollow knocking sounds echoed softly from other troughs in the courtyards on either side of them.
She looked at the open square. On closer inspection, the stone markers looked more like targets. And the black pavers weren’t completely black. The color faded at the edge—
Sasuke answered her unasked question. “Fire. This is where we’d practice fire.”
“Oh, the floor is black with scorch marks! Then that’s why there’s water here.”
Sasuke nodded. “Early on, they rerouted part of the river to run through the compound.” He shrugged once, adding quietly, “This was the Uchiha’s most secretive technique.”
Sakura watched him. He looked at the whole courtyard as if he hadn’t seen it in a while. He looked around the square and Sakura wondered if he was remembering memories associated with each spot. The ground in front of the targets was scorched deep black, done by generations of his clansmen and women in training.
He looked back at her and Sakura knew how out of place she must look there, all pink hair in the middle of fire-blackened stone. But he didn’t take his eyes away from her.
He didn’t have to say it for her to know that she wouldn’t have been admitted half this far into their compound if his clan had lived. And she wondered if maybe Sasuke was having second thoughts about inviting her, about revealing his last ties to his clan. He could easily ask her to wait, to not go any further. Perhaps he was considering it…. But he surprised her.
“Come on,” he said finally, then turned and crossed the small courtyard.
She followed him under another shadowed archway and was surprised to see the Main Hall rising up on the other side.
Across from them, beyond a wide gravel square, dark stairs rose up to a dark, old-style castle building. It was stacked in the center, with multiple roof lines sweeping off at the edges. It was pristine, no signs of neglect or destruction. The closer they got, the more it loomed over them. They walked up several grand steps to the flat platform and the front door.
From there, Sakura could see everything in the compound. The roofs of the town the around them, the courtyards they’d just passed through. But behind the tower, cutting into the blocks of a residential area, was a large black scar. It was as if the shadow of the building had fallen across the land there. But she instantly knew that was wrong by the way the dim shadows fell at the opposite angle across her feet—
Metal scraping rent the air.
Sasuke was at the wide double doors. There was no key, only a single heavy bolt that hadn’t been touched in a long time and had rusted in place.
Sasuke scraped it again, and this time it came loose. He lifted the bolt, pushed open the door and stepped over the threshold.
For the first time that night, Sakura grew concerned. She knew it was childish. She was in no more danger inside a building than she was out on the street. But still….
She hovered at the entrance. “Um…. Where are we going.”
Sasuke stood in a wedge of light, his pale shirt illuminated against the darkness, and looked back at her expectantly. The faintest smirk touched his lips. “Come on.”
He pushed the door open wider and Sakura could make out more of the inside. It didn’t seem as bad as she imagined. She followed him in.
Inside, polished wood floors stretched back into an expansive room. Moonlight shined down through high windows, casting long lines across the floor. In the center was a sunken fireplace with a teapot hung on a delicately arched arm. The long-dead coals were the same cold grey as the floors. Screens wrapped the outside walls, painted with dreamlike scenes of arching trees, misty mountaintops and cranes rising into flight. Some were partially open, revealing more expansive chambers with more cold floors.
Above, the open ceiling rose up several stories, with enormous criss-crossing black timbers that must have come from the forest outside Konoha. Thin spears of light shot down from cracks in the highest part of the roof. It felt vast and dark…and very much like standing in the Forest of Death. This was the Uchiha meeting hall. It was meant to impress. Or terrify.
It was working. Sakura felt very, very small. This was where Sasuke had grown up. And Itachi. This was the world they lived in. Hers was simply her mothers kitchen. Her modest bedroom. But this…this was a legacy. It was a heavy burden to carry. And to carry it alone….
Standing in the middle of a darkened room that looked as much like a castle as anything she could imagine, she realized that maybe she’d never really understood Sasuke. Why he was the way he was, and what he’d lost. Until now.
Now she understood why he wanted revenge on the one who took it all away.
She turned to look for Sasuke, but he was not where she last saw him. Fighting panic, she turned quickly only to see him across the great floor, bent over at a wall, examining a bit of paneling. She was glad he didn’t see her momentarily nervous, and quickly closed the space between them.
“What are you doing?”
He didn’t look up. He continued thumping, tapping, listening, and pushing against different parts of the wall.
This section of paneling was painted with a stylized version of Konoha. There was a great dark forest, a flat grassland with a river cutting through it, and at the center was a stone outcropping, just like the carved monument that loomed over the village. A pair of white cranes rose up into the sky just above it. But notably, in this rendition, the Hokage Rock was bare. No carvings of past Kages jutted from the cliff face.
“It’s here somewhere….”
Sasuke slid his hand down the scene as he walked until he was right over the stone outcrop.
Sakura couldn’t see what he was doing. But suddenly a dim blue glow reflected back on the white of the cranes above his fingertips.
There was the pleasantly singed smell of chakra being used, and from Sasuke’s hand she saw the familiar blue of his chakra, growing brighter—
Sakura was suddenly alarmed and about to step forward and tell him to stop, not burn down his family’s history…for she was certain his hand was going to burn right through the painting. And indeed it was falling out of its frame, going backwards, though it hadn’t caught blaze yet—
When she heard a heavy metal click, as if the panel had locked into another position. Then Sasuke lifted up his hand. There were no scorch marks, only the faintest blue glow of his hand print, surrounded by looping ancient script in a spiraling pattern. It was a seal, remarkably similar to the partial one she’d seen in Tsunade’s old book— The next instant, it was gone.
Sasuke smiled at her look of concern. The wall sunk back to reveal that it was a sliding door. Sasuke put both hands on it and slid it sideways, dividing the scene between the dark forest and the fields with the cliff. It revealed narrow, steep stairs descending behind the panel. He shot her a smug look over his shoulder.
“I knew it was one of these.” He was pleased with himself, and had forgotten the sadness of this place for a moment. His voice had something of excitement in it now. “This way.”
Sakura followed him into the darkness that had opened in the center of Konoha, ducking under the low edge of the square panel and placing her foot on the top stair. The rest disappeared. She went slowly, step by step. She couldn’t even see him, but she could hear his footsteps getting farther away.
Sakura blew out a steadying breath, let her feet feel the wood, her hands slide down the polished walls, and tried to forget that it was so dark it didn’t matter if her eyes were closed or open. She just imagined that they were closed. And that she was at home. And this was simply another made up game.
She let herself feel it out. And slowly, it began to work….
The stairs went down, down, flattened out for a moment, then turned again and went down some more. She followed them, easing along slowly, hearing Sasuke move somewhere ahead of her and following that sound, till the floor beneath her feet turned to solid stone. Sasuke’s footsteps now had a soft, gritty sound. They were at the bottom.
But she stood still. Sasuke was moving. This pitch black room was unfamiliar. She closed her eyes now, more for comfort than anything. She slid a foot back, bumping a heel into the wood step, then used her hand to grasp for the edge of the wood-lined stairs. She found it. And at the edge was a stone wall. She took a breath, relieved. She could do this.
She was just starting to form a strategy of how to face this next challenge, sliding along the edge of an unknown space and mapping it out in her mind, when an explosion of orange and red light exploded like a thousand suns onto her closed eyelids.
Sakura threw her arm up reflexively to shield her face from the burst of heat she knew was coming with what must be Sasuke’s fire blast. She wasn’t wrong, but it was warm, not scalding. And the licks of flame danced beyond her blinking vision were slowly coming into focus as a torchlight. She pulled down her arm.
They were in a long narrow hallway. Unlit torches lined the walls on either side. At the end was a single wooden door, bolted with a single bolt like the front door.
Sasuke lit only one torch. He didn’t swivel the light back towards Sakura. Instead he stayed straight on his purpose and went down the hallway. Sakura followed, watching his silhouetted back.
They stood at the door, both looking at it. There seemed to be no tricks, no secret seals, jutsus or chakra requirements. Just the lifting of a bolt. Sasuke slid the torch into and empty holder beside the door and reached out for it, but he stopped and turned his head toward Sakura.
His eyes narrowed on her, just slightly, in a way that looked a little…dangerous.
Sakura suddenly wanted an answer to the question he’d been evading all night. “Sasuke, what is this place?”
He smiled into her face, eyes dancing like he had a secret, But she couldn’t tell if it was a good smile or a mean one.
“This,” he let his hand rest on the center of the door, “is the Uchiha clan scroll room.” He looked at the rough-hewn wood as if it were sacred. His lowered voice held a note of reverence. “It holds the history and information about everything that has ever happened to the clan. It is everything to the Uchiha.”
He slid the lock back with a hard thud, but he didn’t push it open. Instead he turned back, drew closer to her, and smiled again. This time it was definitely mean.
“Now here,” his voice was a gravelly whisper, “‘someone like you’ is definitely not allowed.”
Sakura’s mouth fell open. Sasuke watched with growing satisfaction as several emotions crashed over her face, ending in stunned anger.
“Are you telling me,“ Sakura demanded, “that you made me come all this way just to stand outside?! Just because I’m not from some, some clan—” Sasuke was grinning wickedly now, which made her angrier. “Just because I was born in a different part of Konoha? Just because my family doesn’t show off with crazy floats, have secret powers or people who call me a ‘princess’—“
Sasuke was close enough he could lean in and kiss her, but Sakura was having none of it. She poked him hard at the top of his chest, backing him up slightly. “‘Someone like me?’ I have just as much power as any clan shinobi. More, in fact, cause I’ve had to work that much harder. So there’s no reason ‘someone like me’ should ever be treated as some second-rate ninja. They are the ones who who are second-rate, and, and—“
Sasuke was having a hard time not laughing. “No…women…allowed.”
Sakura snapped her mouth shut. So that’s what he meant.
Sasuke’s response was a deep belly laugh. “I think I’d know better by now than to stop you from getting something you want.” He smiled at her while he pushed the door open. “Besides, who’s going to stop me?” The door swung back easily on its hinges. “Come on.”
Yellow torchlight splashed into the darkness, illuminating an unimpressive little square of a room. Faded tatami mats covered the floors. The walls were unpainted plaster, with bits of hay sticking through and visible in the pebbly surface. And instead of left to dry, the walls looked like they’d been baked into place by a katon. There was an uneven darkening of the surface that could only come from being scorched, just like the pavers in last training courtyard.
Sakura had expected it look like a more opulent version of the public rooms upstairs. Instead it was gritty and tough, stripped down to the most raw elements of earth and fire. This was the heart of the Uchiha legacy.
Sasuke placed the torch in a holder on the wall.
Clan relics, staffs and banners were piled around the outside edge of the room and propped in the corners. In the center of the room was a large square stone. A roughly carved sharingan was carved inside a circle on the top. It looked, to her, like some kind of ceremonial table—
Sasuke put his hand on the top and let a little blue chakra bleed out from the edge of his fingers. The edge of the circle spun outwards until if formed a spiral that spun around and around at the edge of his hand. They heard a soft click.
Sakura realized it wasn’t a stone at all. It was a box.
He gingerly lifted the lid.
Inside were piles of tattered-edge scrolls, fabric bundles with ancient weapons poking out the ends. Wooden boxes with broken wax seals. Books and ledgers with delicate binding stitches up the spines. Ancient portraits of severe looking men, who Sakura thought would probably kill Sasuke on the spot if they knew he’d brought a ’someone like her’ into their most sacred enclave—
Sasuke gave her a conspiratorial half-smile. “Let’s see what’s in here.” He leaned over and gently dislodged the first scroll. Sakura did the same.
They stood in silence, side by side, pouring through the documents.
Old ‘contracts’ for skills Sakura couldn’t understand. Deeds for the land decreed to them in the founding of Konoha. Birth rolls, marriage rolls and death rolls. A book of poetry to commemorate some anniversary. Even a receipt for repairs to the Main Hall.
It was amazing. Sakura knew she was seeing another side of her village others rarely got to see, no matter if they were inside a clan or out. The Uchiha history was the history of Konoha.
Beside her, Sasuke was looking at a hand-drawn flip book of clan heroes. It was charming, like something that might have been given to children. He flipped through them, remembering some of their stories with a soft laugh and saying some of their names out loud. Sakura understand that this must have been the origin story for their clan’s powers, and would probably been circulated among the Uchiha youth very much like their modern-day academy text books.
While he read, Sakura glanced around the room. Lining the walls were weapons, shields and armor, all marked with the Uchiha fan. In each corner were banners and ceremonial staffs, wound with disintegrating ribbons and tassels. The battle-ready and the sacred all mixed into together, left for future generations who would never come for them.
In one corner, however, only a single sword was propped unceremoniously against the wall. It was not remarkable or beautiful. It was half hidden in the dark, wrapped hastily in gauzy white fabric. Rust-colored stains had long ago dried along the length of it, and Sakura instantly recognized it as blood. She wouldn’t have paid it any attention until she saw Sasuke slide his eyes over to it too. She realized then that he’d done it a few times, including when they first walked in. In fact, he’d crossed on the opposite side of the room, going out of his way to avoid it.
She glanced at him. Sasuke looked down, unseeing, at a half-open scroll box in his hands.
He spoke, but he didn’t move his gaze to the object in the corner again.
“That’s the sword,” he said quietly. “The one he used…. It was my father’s—” Emotion closed his throat and he didn’t say anymore.
Sakura uttered a soft, “Oh,” and glanced at it with a grimace.
The white fabric and manner it was wrapped brought gruesome images to mind. Without trying, Sakura immediately filled in the picture with a story. Some caretaker must have discovered the sword, brought it here and wrapped it in the nearest thing they could find, maybe one of the Uchiha ceremonial banners—
Except the fabric wasn’t fine. It was thin and gauzy. And worse than that, it was saturated with blood in places. Uchiha blood. On his father’s sword….
What if the truth was much worse….
Perhaps it was his father’s blood, and it was Sasuke himself who discovered the sword, in his own house, maybe even next to his father’s fallen body. And those might have been curtains his mother had carefully sewed, that Sasuke was forced to rip off the wall and wrap the bloody weapon in before he could deal with the deaths of his parents, and then the rest of his clan—
Sakura felt guilty for even imagining it. She glanced furtively at Sasuke, suddenly ashamed, feeling as if he might have been able to read her thoughts.
But Sasuke had moved on. He was opening another scroll box. “Look at these old things….”
Instantly relieved, Sakura focused on the document in his hands, giving him her full attention, and pushing away her dark imaginings. It was too much to bear…and so couldn’t possibly be true. Other people would have helped him. That’s the way Konoha was. He wouldn’t have been left alone to deal with this horror.
She took a cleansing breath and read the scroll over his shoulder. It was a catalog of generations of Uchihas and their unique power. He mentioned names of some he’d heard, and she nodded in time with him, but they had no meaning to Sakura.
Beside some names were hand-drawn symbols of sharingans or lightning bolts or fire. Sometimes all three. Sasuke laughed ruefully.
“They were trying to track family abilities, and who they might be passed down to. They were trying to determine or even control when it might show up again in the lineage.” He shook his head. “The clan elders were always obsessed with power. Finding the one, the one…. The most powerful one who would carry on their legacy…. That didn’t turn out so well for them,” he said acidly and threw the scroll back in the box in a puff of dust. He slammed it shut.
Sakura reached in and opened a scroll some old Uchiha who had inherited a gift for words instead of weapons, and fancied himself a poet. It read like a flowery travel review of their village and made Sakura want to laugh at some of its overblown sentiments. She had to admit, though, even with the gushing language, it was much more interesting than the weird recipes in Tsunade’s book.
Sakura picked up the next crumbling scroll. Ornate tassels swung from either end. She gently opened it and found it was covered with unusual writing, looping and large and unlike anything she’d ever seen. And at the bottom where there should have been a signature or a red stamp was instead a stylized cat’s paw made of fat dots of the paintbrush.
She held it up to Sasuke who just shrugged. “No idea.” He took it and dropped it unceremoniously onto the pile, while Sakura unrolled the top of the next ancient scroll.
“Look at this weird sharingan…. And it says something about a curse—“ Sakura started to laugh, dearly wanting to read more, but Sasuke grabbed it suddenly. He opened it, scanned it quickly, then dropped it into the box as if he didn’t care. “Dunno,” he said as he lifted another out, but Sakura noticed he moved the offending scroll deeper down in the box, so it was unreachable.
Sakura continued on her side. Just under her fingertips, beneath an ink portrait of a severe looking old Uchiha was the edge of a painted panel that had been torn out of its frame. It was a fragment, and the original must have been quite large. It was vibrant…almost sparkling with color…. And Sakura had the strange feeling that she’d seen something like it before somewhere.
She was just reaching for it when Sasuke exclaimed, “Ah, I found it.”
Sakura was so curious what “it” was, she dropped the edge of the painted panel and stepped closer.
In his hands was a very old, hand-drawn schematic for a float. It had a description, lists of items to be included in the decorations, and even which Uchiha had paid for it generations before.
“These are the documents they want,” Sasuke said. Sakura looked at him, perplexed. “The Hyuuga want to take possession of the float. And they have requested it from the last remaining head of the clan. Me.” He shrugged. “It’s a pointless show of respect. They didn’t have to. They are in fact the most powerful clan now, and they know it. They could just take it. But it’s a courtesy. And I’m obliged to return the same courtesy to them….”
Sakura jumped to the next natural question. “Have they asked for more?”
Sasuke paused, then answered matter of factly. “They will. They’ve hinted at it.”
Sakura looked up into his face, reading him. Sasuke knew she was. She was forever doing this with Kakashi. Looking deeper…. But he wasn’t Kakashi, and he couldn’t hold her penetrating gaze—
She gasped. “You mean…an arranged marriage?”
Sasuke snorted. “No! Thank goodness!”
They both knew the next leader of their clan was a girl from their year in school. Sakura wasn’t too far off. He supposed, looking at it from the outside, it made some sense….
“Marrying a Hyuuga—“ He laughed at the outlandishness of the whole idea while he flipped back more pages of the scroll. “Their clan couldn’t be more different. They suffocate their own. Cage up their power—“
Sakura whispered. “You talking about the seal right?” He nodded.
The story had rattled around their shinobi ranks that the older, more powerful Hyuuga branch descendant in their age group had allowed his power to be docked so that the younger and much less-talented direct heir would be unchallenged. Neji had been the undisputed best of his year. And then one day, there was a conspicuous bandage under his headband, and his power had never been the same. No one would dare ask, but the rumors were fierce.
“So…it was true?”
Sasuke nodded again. The corner of his mouth hitched up into a smile for a moment at Sakura’s widening eyes.
“It’s how the Hyuuga maintain control,” he said. “They squash any power that’s a threat to the main family. No matter how incapable the heir they may be.” He shook his head and dumped another scroll back into the pile. “The Uchiha may have had problems, but restricting their power was never one of them.”
He sighed and moved on to another scroll, this one much older than the rest, its tassel-end merely a twisted rope. This one seemed to have caught his interest. It had diagrams of weird sharingans and thick black writing that was barely legible—
Sakura continued, “So then, what to do they want?”
“Oh, they’ve hinted at the lands. Every time they get a chance.”
He fished out several more, flipping back each corner to reveal the same types of diagrams, the same slashing writing. The rope decorations were disintegrating as he moved them. But he didn’t care. He tucked each one roughly under his arm and gathered up another.
Sakura watched him. “And would you? Would you give up your family land to them—“
He silenced her with a withering look. “I’d give the whole compound to the Nara’s deer before I let anyone else—”
The building suddenly groaned above them. There was a strong breeze, a clapping of wood against wood.
They stepped away from the box and each other, and looked up in silence. Sakura had forgotten where they were. Sasuke returned to the cold, distant look she knew so well, and rerolled the last scroll before pushing others back down in the box. He kept the oldest ones, shoving them into his hip pack.
“We should go,” Sasuke said as if someone might discover them.
Strangely, Sakura felt the same. Even though this whole place was Sasuke’s now, it felt like it belonged to someone, or something, else. The stories of the lives of generations of his clan were still here. They lingered everywhere in this room, like ghosts.
Sakura glanced around once, just double-checking that they were still alone, then nodded. “Yeah,” she said, mouth suddenly dry. “We should go.”
“Besides,” he quipped as he pushed down the loose edges of scrolls and fabric from the sides of the box, “one float is enough for now.” Then he lifted the heavy lid back over to close it.
A shaft of torchlight fell across the painting fragment, and it radiated a tantalizing burst of color. The scrolls had shifted, revealing the head of a creature and the torn face of a man with very strange eyes staring out, and Sakura remembered she wanted to have a closer look at it—
But the strip of light thinned to nothing, and the painting disappeared back into darkness. Sasuke slid the lid back into place. It sunk heavily down onto the base and the line in the stone disappeared.
They retraced their steps in silence. Sasuke closed the door and bolted it, then he replaced the torch at the bottom of the stairs and extinguished it. Smoke burned Sakura’s nose as her eyes adjusted to the light. She couldn’t see the stairs going up, but there was a small square of pale grey at the top, and she climbed toward it. She did not shut her eyes this time.
They climbed out the panel, and Sasuke slid it back into place behind them, reuniting the forest with the grasslands.
Sakura looked over her shoulder at the cavernous interior of the once-grand building. Another breeze rattled the loose roof tiles, making her strangely jumpy..
She filled in the silence with soft chatter. “It’s so empty in here,” she said with a nervous laugh. “But I guess everything here is like this now.” Sakura nervously continued. “You know. Empty….”
Sasuke’s hands stilled on the panel for a moment. Then he answered. “No.”
Without explanation, he walked out the door.
Sakura followed him, looking at his shoulders, horrified. What could he mean—
She stepped out the door after him, and while he turned to refasten the lock, Sakura looked out the at the Uchiha compound, the tips of dark rooflines stretching out past the courtyards with a sinking realization….
All of those buildings — the homes and shops, the blacksmith and bladesmith, the market and school — all of them were still full. Everything was abandoned where it was on the night of the massacre.
Pictures on the wall, curtains on the windows, clothes in the drawers. Books still in their cubbies at school. Tools beside long-dead fires at the blacksmith. Shoes beside doors, never to be touched again.
If she were to open every front door, peer in every window, she would see the lives that were stolen. Their last moments frozen in time, waiting for them to come back. Sakura shuddered at the thought—
She suddenly felt the weight of the tragedy. These weren’t just memories for Sasuke. It was all still here—
The lock fell loudly back into place. Birds shot out from a far off roof peak, making her jump.
Sasuke came to stand even with her. He didn’t look out at the compound, and he only glanced at her once, guarded, as if he didn’t want to see the conclusions that were written out on her pale face.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, voice as cold and distant and controlled as it had been in their youth. And now, for the first time, Sakura understood why. This was how he survived.
Sakura swallowed, pushing a lightness into her voice that she didn’t quite feel. “Yeah. One float is enough.”
She heard his breath hitch in a surprised laugh and was glad she could break the tension for a moment. Even if she didn’t feel it.
He nodded at her, dark eyes softening for just a moment. Just like all the missions they’d had before, they didn’t need to speak to communicate. She understood. His mission was accomplished, and now he wanted to get out of there as fast as he could. She nodded back. She felt the same.
When they stepped off together, they moved as quietly through the darkness as if they had stolen scrolls from an enemy castle.
Sakura noticed he didn’t look at the buildings as they left. Neither did she. They moved as one, traveling soundlessly through the empty courtyards, both of them silencing their footsteps out of instinct.
She only spoke once, in the pavilion for sword training. She pointed to the shimmering curve of the blade. “That sword there—“
Sasuke nodded. “That one was mine.” But he didn’t stop.
“It’s lovely,” she said, and kept moving too.
Outside the Main Hall grounds, the streets felt heavier, scarier. Sakura decided if there were ever ghosts lurking anywhere in Konoha, they were here.
She caught her reflection once in a pane of glass as they passed a house. It was jarring. After that she concentrated on the paved road.
They passed the lane with his grandparents’ house, and Sakura couldn’t bring herself to look. She already had the image burned into her mind of the stack of pots, forlornly leaning against the step.
When Sasuke was a child, the pots must have lined the steps, filled with flowers.
Sakura felt a sharb stab of pain for him. He would have been so young. And he would have been the last one there—
The image brought up some unsettling questions. Who closed the doors? Who cleaned up the compound after…after Itachi….
Sakura tried not to shudder, but she couldn’t help it. The next question came immediately.
Where were all the bodies?
She looked around her. Were they killed in their homes? Or in the street, like that terrible jutsu she’d experienced. And where were they buried? Was there a mass graveyard?
Or perhaps it was too great a task and they were ‘buried’ in the Konoha shinobi way, with a traditional fire jutsu. Just like the shinobis lost in the field. She supposed that would have been the most appropriate for such a powerful shinobi clan as the Uchiha.
And if that were the case…. She glanced around the empty streets, the darkened windows and the piles of leaves cluttering every doorway. Then this whole place was a memorial.
A few steps ahead of her was Sasuke, his white shirt nearly glowing against the darkness around him. Sakura realized he was the only one who haunted the empty compound.
Because Sasuke was the one left behind. He was their memorial too. All of their lives lived on in him now.
He slowed a step, and Sakura hurried to catch up to him. She didn’t want to burden him with her discovery. He knew this, and had known it for years. But he kept it at bay. So she would too.
They got to the edge of the last cluster of buildings, and were passing the guard gates, and Sakura was just feeling like she could take a breath again. But there was one more question, and she didn’t think she could ask it of him later.
“I forgot— I didn’t ask you where you lived—”
Sasuke stopped, but he didn’t look back. He stared straight out over the fields. “It was in the back,” he said tonelessly. “Behind the Main Hall. But it’s gone now.”
Sakura turned back. The castle-shaped silhouette rose above the rooflines. She remembered behind the Main Hall there was an area deep in shadow. But she didn’t remember seeing houses.
She looked at his profile. He was stoic. “W-What happened to it,” she said softly.
He blinked once, twice, no longer seeing the peaceful fields that surrounded them.
“I burned it down.” There was an unforgiving edge in his voice. This was the Sasuke that she knew from her childhood. A muscled jumped at his jaw. “I would have burned it all down if Kakashi hadn’t made me stop—”
He started walking again. Sakura turned quickly and caught up with him. They walked the raised entry road in silence.
When they were almost to the door at the wall, Sakura touched Sasuke’s arm lightly and pointed to the deer.
A few more had slipped over from the Nara compound and were standing at the edge of the field. There were several females and few young males with short antlers. They watched the two human interlopers with some interest, and Sakura was just wondering if the Nara’s kept adult males, when a shadow moved inside the treeline almost as if it had heard her. A head turned, eyes shined back at her, followed by a shifting of leaves and limbs. Sakura realized she was seeing antlers in the darkness. Enormous ones—
“Good,” Sasuke said quietly. The tension was gone from his voice. “I’m glad they’re here.”
Sakura glanced at him. “Yeah. This is a safe place for them.” Sasuke nodded. When she looked back, the shape in the trees was gone.
They slipped quietly through the door. He locked the gate behind them and pocketed the large key. They walked back into the village, and Sakura felt her mood improving the closer they got to things that were familiar to her.
She imagined Sasuke must feel the same way. They walked back in the direction of the memorial stone, and life could still be heard in the village — voices speaking and a few bells ringing — even though it was late.
Sakura didn’t know how talkative he would be since they were back in the village, but she thought she’d take a chance.
“Do you ever go to the memorial stone?”
He was immediately cold. “No. Of course not,” he bit out. “They don’t want to hear me say their names. There’s only one thing they want. And until I have avenged their deaths then there’s nothing for me to say.”
Sakura nodded quietly, understanding his pain in some small part finally.
He cut his eyes at her. “Do you ever go to the stone?”
“No, I don’t,” she said. “I don’t have anyone like that, of my own, to mourn. Although I went once when I was a kid, with Ino and Shikamaru.” Sasuke looked sideways at her. Sakura rolled her eyes. “It’s when Kakashi scared us!”
He smirked. “I knew you went.”
“No of course not. I told you, why would I go to be scared by older nins? Everybody’s heard of that prank!” Sakura jutted chin up and away from him. “Except you, apparently.”
Sakura looked at him. “Then how did you—“
“None of your friends had older siblings,” he said with a smile.
“Itachi told you?”
His smile vanished. “It was before…. before he went crazy,” he said quietly.
Sakura thought it was strange to think that Itachi had once been a child, part of a family. Not yet a monster—
They were walking up the lane toward the stone. The field was ahead to the right, and Sakura thought she could just make out the marker, glowing against the darkness around it, when they walked through the particularly dark shade of an overhanging tree. They could barely see each other, so Sakura was surprised to hear his voice continue quietly.
“Actually, I, uh— I did go to the stone. Once. When I was a child. You know, right after it happened.” Sakura stopped to listen. He stopped too.
He sighed. “I told them I was sorry.” His sad voice turned away, as if he were just then looking at the stone. “I was sorry that I couldn’t protect them, and that I couldn’t stop it from happening. I was sorry I wasn’t there. And that I lived when they didn’t.”
His voice turned back to her. It was firm and confident, the voice of the Sasuke she’d grown up with. “I told them I wouldn’t forget. That I would find the one who did it. And that I would make him pay.”
Sakura nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. “I understand.” And she did. More than ever before, she understood her teammate.
They continued back and passed the glade where the marker stood. Sakura could see it, glowing softly in the dewy mist that was hovering just over the ground. It was seeping through the trees and spilling out into the edges of the lane.
Shadows fell up the road, and Sakura thought she heard a soft tinkle of bells, a soft chant on the air. Sasuke didn’t hear it.
The sounds and shadows veered away. Leaving the lane feeling even more quiet.
Konoha’s woods pressed in on both sides, and the wide gravel lane didn’t seem to help. It felt genuinely spooky and not at all like when they were kids. Perhaps it was the lingering affects of the Forest of Death. Or visiting Sasuke’s abandoned home. Sakura wondered if Sasuke felt it. Or if it was just her and her imagination—
But she definitely felt the presence of someone or some thing watching them, waiting for them, just beyond the edge of their vision—
A twig snapped in the woods.
Sakura jumped and she noticed that Sasuke grabbed at his kunai. He felt it too—
Kakashi stepped out of the treeline, pale, eyes deathly serious.
Both of them stopped, staring at what looked like the ghost of their sensei.
“We have a mission.”