20 Aug 2020 2 Comments
Sakura, Sasuke and Kakashi left out of Konoha under the cover of darkness, before dawn’s first rays cracked over the sleeping village.
Kakashi explained briefly that he had a lead on something big and that they needed to go. Time was of the essence.
They trusted Kakashi so they went. No questions asked.
But as the sun grew higher in the sky and they churned up more distance from familiar places, it became clear that their destination was somewhere beyond the Fire country borders.
Sakura met Sasuke’s questioning gaze just once, but she had no answers either.
Kakashi must have known of their silent communication, because not long after he said, “We’ll stop soon, and I’ll explain more.”
They nodded and tucked into their rhythm, moving over the land in chakra-enhanced blurs.
This desperate dash across the countryside for a secret emergency mission was the stuff of dreams for most academy kids. And here she was doing it. Sometimes it still surprised her. It wasn’t her dream. At least…not at first.
The chakra was the only thing that was easy. The rest was a challenge. School and learning skills. Friends and teammates. But her chakra was always there, a constant companion, even from the beginning.
She could not remember a time when there wasn’t a ‘green light’ in her hands. She thought everyone had it. She could transfer it from hand to hand, like a play toy. And if she held a book long enough, becoming immersed in it, the glow might actually transfer to the cover, for the briefest moment. It was never strong. When she moved her fingers and tried to look for it, it would flicker away like a firefly.
To her it was simply a game. But she was wrong.
Sakura’s memory of the first time she shared her ‘green light’ was still clear. She was on a play-date when she closed her eyes and put it on her friend’s hand. She was amazed to ‘see’ the light still glowing there.
It was different from inanimate objects. It was like she could feel both of them where they were connected.
She looked up in amazement, but was met with horror. Green light reflected in the other girl’s overly wide eyes. Her mouth was open, forming a scream, but the sound had not yet come out—
It all caught up in one ear-splitting wail. The child ripped her hand away. Sakura, frightened by the reaction, extinguished her ‘light’ without even trying. When the two mothers came running in, big tears were rolling down the girl’s plump cheeks.
The girl’s mother nudged aside her fingers, inspecting the skin and asking what was wrong. The attention made the cries sharper. But between the gasps she was able to point to the source of her pain. Sakura.
“She tried to take my hand,” the girl wailed. “With her green light— She tried to take it awaaayyy….”
The mother frowned deeply, first at Sakura, then at Sakura’s mother. Then Sakura started to cry too. Within minutes, the mothers were bidding each other tight farewells and the Harunos were on their way home.
Walking briskly, Sakura’s mother gripped her hand and quizzed her about what happened. Sniffling, Sakura repeated what she’d done. Her mother was confused. “So, it was just a game then?” Sakura nodded.
They passed the baker, and Sakura turned her head to sniff at the good smells wafting out the open storefront. Her mother didn’t notice. “Sakura-chan,” her mother said gently, “what did she say about a green light….”
Sakura nodded distractedly, trying to wriggle her chubby hand out of her mother’s hand. She wanted to get closer, maybe even catch a glimpse of the sweet cakes—
Her mother held her firm. “Sakura, what about the green light—“
Sakura leaned toward the shop, content to drag her mother with her. “The green light—“ she said with a dreamy sniff….
“Yes honey. Was there a light in her room or something else green—“
Sakura shook her head. “No, the one in my hand—“
Sakura’s mother was so surprised she loosened her fingers. Sakura tugged her little hand from her grasp. She ran toward the shop where the friendly baker gave her a smile, a tousle of her hair and a little cookie. The baker waved over Sakura’s head toward her mother. Her mother hid her confusion with a cheerful wave. She was still smiling when she took Sakura’s hand again after she’d run back, delightedly showing off the cookie.
“Sakura,” she said quietly when they were a few steps away. “The light. Was it…just a part of the game?”
Mouth full of cookie, Sakura beamed up at her mother and nodded effusively.
Relieved, her mother smiled down into her big green eyes. “Of course. That’s what I thought.” Sakura took another bite of the crumbling cookie. Her mother smiled fondly. “Is it good?”
Constellations of crumbs sticking to each pink cheek, Sakura managed an enthusiastic “Mmm-hmmm!” between bites.
Her mother laughed and tousled her hair, pushing her bangs away from her eyes, and they went home.
That night, her mother relayed the story to her father, about the girl’s obvious temper tantrum and how she blamed Sakura. Her father laughed loudly. “Our little Sakura? Never!” The matter was completely forgotten.
However, the second time Sakura shared her light it would not be forgotten. It would change everything for her.
A few years later, Sakura accompanied her mother to deliver a parcel of embroidery to an important clan. It was all very formal and important. They went to a house with a round gate in front — a “moon gate” she heard her mother say — and she was thrilled to go through it. She turned her eyes upward in a big circle and slowly stepped through, wondering what amazing things might lay beyond it.
It didn’t disappoint. There was a beautiful walled courtyard lined with flowers and manicured trees. It was criss-crossed with pathways that lead to other archways, each with its own closed door. Sakura was certain that behind each one were even more beautiful courtyards. They waited there until a door opened.
An attendant welcomed them politely, then ushered them through the first one. The path led to a wing of a massive clan compound hidden behind the walls.
There, beyond a sliding screen, sat a grandmotherly type with piles of silver hair and and milky eyes, waiting on a stack of cushions as if she were royalty. Sakura peered around her mother to gape. To her, the woman looked too perfect to be real, like a doll in a store window—
The attendant stepped forward, blocking her view. Sakura’s mother was shown toward the room, while Sakura was directed back out the door. She pointed out to the maze of buildings, and around to a garden where the sound of children’s voices was echoing up. Sakura glanced at her mother, her mother nodded her head, and Sakura dutifully bowed back and followed the dark-haired woman.
The instructions were, in fact, too complicated for her to understand. She’d never heard of words like ‘dining wing’ or ‘ladies courtyard’ or ‘training pavilion.’ And she’d never dreamed that all those interesting sounding places might included in one single house. But it didn’t matter. She just followed the sound of laughter instead.
In a few turns, a large square courtyard was opening up in front of her. This one was informal family garden was lined by long family wings on each side. Several sliding doors were open to the green space. It had a large tree, several benches and a pond. Toys, balls and mock weapons were scattered across the trampled grass.
Several older girls were sitting under the tree, talking, braiding each other’s silky black hair and watching the older boys throw wooden kunai at a target. They all had the same luminous pale eyes. The newcomer hovering at the arched entrance was not worthy of their attention. But a cluster of boys and girls closer to Sakura’s age took notice. They paused their game of kick-ball to walk over and investigate the stranger.
Sakura went to the edge of the koi pond and was met there by the curious kids. They asked the normal rapid-fire questions of school-age children, jumping from topic to topic without waiting to hear her answers. They said lots of words she’d never heard before, and when they determined that she was not, what they called, a shee-no-bee, they left her behind to find more interesting distractions.
She was content to sit at the rounded edge of the pond and watch the black and orange fish dart beneath the lily pads. But suddenly, the surface of the water shimmered with reflected blue light. The fish disappeared.
Across the pond, one of the older boys was showing off his fist, completely cloaked in flames of glowing blue energy. All eyes turned to him. Even the older kids paused in their activities to acknowledge him. He looked around, face wreathed in pride, making sure everyone saw, including Sakura.
Sakura didn’t know anything about their world, but she knew this. Smiling back, Sakura cupped her hands together and filled up the space with a pool of green light. It glowed much brighter than the boy’s hand—
But before she could look up and see if they approved, a kick-ball smacked her in the chest, knocking her hands sideways, and sending her crashing into the pond.
Sakura’s top half was soaking wet. There was a scream. And then her mother was at the door. She looked aghast at Sakura, and Sakura looked down at what she’d done. Water was everywhere— But that wasn’t the worst of it….
Tears immediately began to well in her eyes.
The kids were drawing closer to see what happened, including the one who had kicked the ball.
“Sorry,” he said when the attendant jerked him by the elbow. “I meant to hit him! Not her!”
The grandmother with silvery hair and milky eyes appeared at the door next, looking very dour and unhappy. The sunlight made her suddenly look old, with skin look like paper. She frowned deeply, first at Sakura, then at Sakura’s mother, then stepped back into the angled shade where her luminous, moon-lit radiance returned a little.
A few clansmen fresh from a training session appeared in the arch behind them. They stood at the back with sweat-tipped hair, their pale eyes looking over the wrecked garden scene before landing on the curious, dripping pink-haired girl in the middle.
“I think you should leave,” the old woman pronounced. “Both of you.” Everyone bowed while she turned and left, head tipped up with the certainty that her orders would be carried out.
The older boy who had been showing off muttered under his breath, “Weirdo—” as he walked past Sakura.
Sakura’s chin crumpled.
Sakura’s mother opened her hand for her daughter, and Sakura ran to her mother, starting to sob. But Sakura’s mother shushed her and refused to let her dissolve into tears. She held her hand, tipped her chin up and they walked out in silence.
Exiting through the round moon gate, Sakura shut her eyes hard. She never wanted to see this place again.
By the time they got back to their neighborhood, the whole episode felt like a memory. Sakura’s mother stopped at the bakery and got her a cookie, and spoke gently while they walked, asking her about the boy that threw the ball, if they were mean to her, or if anything else was said.
Sakura answered quietly no, in between bites, and that put her mother at ease.
“It was just a big misunderstanding then,” her mother said decidedly. “Those clan types can be very strange. Very proud and just…different—“
Sakura nodded. “The boy had the same kind of light as mine.” She took another bite. “But I don’t think he liked mine.”
Sakura’s mother nearly stumbled. “What…? What light?”
Sakura smiled. “My green light,” she said matter-of-factly, wiggling her fingers. “It was brighter than his.”
Her father’s voice boomed from the road ahead of them. “Ohayo Sakura-chan!” Sakura broke off into a run towards her father, and Sakura’s mother was left to watch the two, one thought cascading to another.
By dinner the whole incident at the clan compound was forgotten. The only mention was Sakura’s mother declaring that she would never work for a clan again. Her father approved.
“Bah, let them sew up their own designs. You shouldn’t waste your talents on them.”
Her mother smiled at his support and passed him another helping. Sakura swung her legs under her seat and curled her hair behind her ears and smiled too.
But after dinner, Sakura heard her mother’s voice floating down the hall. Her mother and father were talking in more serious tones. “Try to remember. Did your family have a hidden skill or something special, anything—“
His laughter overrode her worried voice. “You mean like some of the ‘magic’ these Konoha clans claim to possess? Ha! If we did, then we didn’t put it to good use! My father and mother, and their father and mother, and all the family before them wouldn’t have had to work their lives dying fabrics in icy mountain streams—“
“What about anything…green in your background?” There was a tone of desperation in her voice. “Like in old family stories, anything you can remember—“
“No, I can’t think of anything….” A chair pushed back noisily. “That settles it. Now you can just put this whole thing out of your mind! Those clan people are strange! We’ve never had their business before, and we don’t need it now! I’m just sorry that your trip over there was for nothing.” He was satisfied, and his voice sounded like he’d resolved the matter. If her mother felt differently, then she didn’t say it. Only the clink of washing dishes remained.
By the next afternoon, everything in Sakura’s life had changed.
She returned home from her civilian school to find her father’s downstairs workspace full of people. They turned in unison and looked at her.
Her father’s voice boomed. “Here she is! Now she can clear all this up—“ But Sakura’s mother stood inside the doorway with the guilty expression of someone who knew more than she should. “There’s no green light,” he said, waving Sakura in. “Our daughter’s just a normal girl!”
Her mother however, gave her a wobbly smile and took her hand without speaking. Her cheeks were red as if she’d been crying.
“Sakura,” she said softly. “This man was at that big house yesterday. The one with the…” she swallowed, “pond.”
Sakura looked up at the dark-haired, pale-eyed man. He did not smile at her.
“He says he saw a green light in your hands,” she continued, voice tinged with desperation. “But that can’t be true can it? The green light, it’s just part of a game isn’t it, sweetie?”
Sakura nodded at her mother, and her mother exhaled deeply, so relieved to clear it up, and was just reaching to hug her daughter, when Sakura opened her hand between them. Her palm was coated in a bright, luminous green. She squeezed it and watched it squish around to the back side. It was much stronger than the boy’s light, and doing new things. She smiled down into the glow of it.
Sakura’s mother gasped and leaned back. The others leaned in. Frightened, Sakura’s light suddenly snuffed out.
Sakura’s parents looked at each other, while the others in the room conferred quietly among themselves. The dark-haired man whispered to a figure in a milk-white mask leaning against the wall. Another man in a green vest spoke to a woman in a doctor’s coat.
“And you are absolutely certain, there is no chance that she’s a shinobi-born— Or adopted—?
“No!” Anguish was seeping into her mother’s voice. “How many times do I have to tell you—“
Sakura’s chin began to wobble and fat tears slid down. Her mother started to cry too. Her father’s voice was hoarse. “Tell me! What’s wrong with my daughter?”
The room went silent. Finally the masked figure stood from the wall. The voice was quiet but masculine. “She is a shinobi—“
“What does that mean?” Her father looked from face to face.
The green-vested man began to speak in friendlier tones, but the masked figure cut him off.
“She has powers abilities that are special. Unique even.” He walked to the front of the room purposefully, as if he were taking control.
Sakura’s father looked to this strange man in desperation. “What are they?”
“We do not know. She is, it seems, an anomaly. But we are very interested in her future—”
The green-vested man stepped in suddenly, pushing the masked man back with his clipboard. “It means the Kage is interested in her well-being. Her education,” he said warningly to the masked man before turning back to her father. “She might need to change schools if that’s acceptable to you—
The anbu agent turned to face the other man. He never raised his voice, but there was a dangerous edge to it now. “There are other interests here, and your Kage may not have jurisdiction over it—“
The green-vested man turned to face him, responding through gritted teeth, “She is a citizen of Konoha and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Sandaime.”
Neither man spoke. Neither man moved. Sakura’s father stepped back to stand protectively with his family.
Finally, the one in the vest growled quietly. “Tell Root to go harvest their new recruits somewhere else. As you can see, she’s no orphan. So she’s ours.”
Neither man backed down.
The Haruno parents watched the exchange with growing anxiety. But it was settled when the masked agent turned on his heel and left without a word. The clansman followed him out.
The green-vested man turned back to them, smiling brightly. “Tomorrow, we will have a doctor come by to determine her health, as well as other shinobi to determine her skill and where she should be placed.”
Sakura’s mother’s throat went dry. “P-Placed?” She grabbed Sakura’s arm, pulling her close and refusing to let go. “You’re not going to…to….to take her away, are you?”
“No, of course not,” he exclaimed with a cheery smile. “But there will be a new school, new gear, new things to learn. It’s all so exciting!” Clearly, he was much more excited than the two parents holding onto each other in the center of the room. “You’re life is going to be very different from now on out young, uh—“ he flipped back the clipboard, “Sakura!”
Her father stepped forward, shaking his head. “Wait, there must be some mistake—“
But they were already leaving. “Nope,” the man said, waving his clipboard. “No mistake! Please be home tomorrow. I’m sure you will have lots of visitors—“
Her father followed him to the door. “But she has to go to school—”
“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that. A youngster with her talents will most certainly never need to go to a civilian school again.” He gave a wave and was out the door, saying something about ‘filing this report’ and ‘best to not keeping the Sandaime waiting’—
Sakura’s father closed the door. He ran his hand through his hair, leaving it standing up on end It did feel as if a whirlwind had swept through and blown them all around. Sakura buried her tired head in her mother’s shoulder.
The next day, a procession of official looking men and women filed through their little apartment. They sat at the kitchen table while Sakura sat, listened and answered. They tested her chakra, wrote in a file about the color, the consistency. They asked, then scribbled. Took her temperature, her weight, her height, her family background. They asked several times about her hair — “Pink is an unusual shade, it could mean she’s very powerful!” — and went over every detail of her birth and their family ancestry that might possibly be helpful. None of it was. She appeared to be an absolutely normal child in every way.
Every way, except one.
Green chakra dripped off her hands like water. Sometimes it cloaked them like oversized mittens. Other times it glimmered in the cup of her palm. And sometimes it stuck to things. But only if she thought about it really hard.
They put their pencil down, scratched their heads, looked at her worried parents, then picked up the pencil again. None of it made any sense. But she was as healthy and happy as any other shinobi offspring, so the doctors and nurses smiled bracingly and said there was nothing wrong with her other than having a little bit of extra ability.
When her parents asked what that meant, they just shrugged. “That’s not for us to decide,” they said with a smile.
Her mother stepped forward. “What about school tomorrow,“ she asked. But they shook their heads. More tests.
The next day, a few shinobi accompanied the doctors. They were not as friendly, didn’t carry a clipboard, and were only interested in seeing how far she could throw things. But whatever they were looking for, they were satisfied. They went away with a single nod of thanks, leaving the doctors to finish up their work.
At the end of the day, Sakura’s mother was fed up. She wanted answers, but they had none to give. “Well then, what about school tomorrow,” she demanded finally. They shook their heads.
This was the last straw. “So who should we expect to see tromping through here tomorrow, huh? A king or a queen? Or all the rest of the hospital? Or a whole army of your ninjas?” She slammed her hand down on the table in frustration. They jumped, including Sakura who looked up from her afternoon snack to blink at her mother with big tired eyes. “How much longer will this go on—“
“Hopefully not much longer.”
The soft rasp of an old man’s voice at the kitchen door took them all by surprise. He had let himself in and silently walked up the stairs. He peered up at them from underneath his kage’s hat, his eyes twinkling.
“I thought I might come see what all the fuss was about.” The remaining medics bowed deeply as he entered they room but he waved them off. The doctor rattled off names and made introductions to the Sandaime, but it was clear he hadn’t heard any of what the attendant had said.
He smiled at Sakura and took the seat opposite her. “Alright, I’m sure you’ve done this a lot lately, but why don’t you just oblige an old man. Let’s see what you can do.”
She wiped her hands on a napkin then brought them up in front of her. She pooled chakra in her cupped hands. It dripped through and disappeared into the air.
“Ah,” he said, inspecting it, nodding. “I see.” The green light etched out every one of his deep wrinkles, and reflected back in his hair.
“May I?” She nodded, and he held his hands up underneath hers, cupping hers in his larger ones. “Can you feel my hands?” She nodded. “Even with your eyes closed?”
She blinked her big green eyes at him. He smiled with a grandfatherly patience. “Go ahead and close your eyes,” he said, and this time she did.
“Now, tell me if you still feel my hands.” He moved them slowly away from her skin. “Now?” She nodded yes. He moved them to the edge of the green light. “Now?” Her nod was slower, but it was still yes. Then he moved his cupped hands away from her light altogether. “And, now?” She shook her head no with certainty.
He smiled. “Excellent. You may open your eyes.” She smiled and went back to her snack.
The Sandaime looked at her, inspecting her face and noting her eyes. “Hmmm, curious.” He spoke quietly and almost entirely to himself. “I’m sure my apprentice would also find this interesting. He is somewhat of a specialist in unusual cases like this….”
Her father cleared his throat. “Like what, exactly?”
The Sandaime smiled back at him. “Unique abilities! And your daughter certainly has one! But it has to be cultivated to see if it comes to its fullest potential.”
Her mother stepped forward. “And…what does that mean…”
The Sandaime took out a card from his pocket and scribbled onto the back the address of a school and a man’s name. He slid it out onto the table, but neither parent picked it up.
“Speak to Ebisu, tell him I sent you. I agree, she needs to be back in school. And I think you will find this academy is a better fit. Of course…it’s your choice….” But there was something in the way he let the words hang in the air that made it clear it wasn’t a choice at all.
Her mother pursed her lips, but finally she reached over for it.
Her father swallowed thickly. “And they will have special, um, powers like hers?”
The Sandaime smiled at Sakura. “Oh I assure you. She will fit right in.” He opened his hand in front of her, and it was immediately covered in orange light.
Sakura laughed with delight. “Like mine!” He nodded.
He stood and gave a half nod to both parents as he turned. “10 o’clock sharp. Don’t be late.” The steel had returned to the grandfatherly voice. It was an order. Her parents bowed as he left.
And at 9:45 am the next morning, the Harunos were well on their way, walking through an area of Konoha they’d never once dared venture to, to a school they’d never heard of.
Sakura was nervous. But the newness of the Shinobi District distracted her. Her big eyes couldn’t take it all in. She held her parents’ hands in turns, swiveling her head to see everything she could. The narrow streets bursting with activity. The colorful shops. The men and women who politely made way for them, nodding as they passed, and the children who darted by, clutching their books and wooden toy blades. She craned her neck to follow them, and was happy to see her mother was leading them in that same direction.
Sakura’s old school was forgotten for the moment, replaced completely by this new adventure.
What she did not see, of course, was how the people on the street tracked them with their eyes. She did not see the heads lifting up from their bowls of ramen or the dark eyes from the back of shops as they passed their doorways. Or the lone figure on the rooftop, shadowing their movements through the maze of streets. Three civilians winding deeper and deeper into the shinobi district was sure to attract attention.
Sakura’s mother clutched the Sandaime’s card in her fist so tightly it had crumpled. And if she hadn’t looked so steadfast to her purpose, one of the throng of shinobi there might have stopped them and asked if they were indeed lost.
Her parents had come right through the heart of the tangle of streets, but the scant directions they’d been given were of no help now. Eyes were following them, and both had an uneasy feeling of being woefully out-of-place—
Sakura’s mother stopped and looked at her father, suddenly uncertain of everything. Her father mirrored her concerned look. Sakura stood between them, looking back and forth.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this—” Her mother sounded utterly overwhelmed. “What if— What if it’s too much for her? Maybe we should just go back—“
A cheerful voice rang out suddenly behind them.
“Beautiful day isn’t it? Are you three looking for the school?”
They all turned in a whirl, and Sakura’s parents leaned together. But the sunny blonde woman was already grinning down into Sakura’s face.
Sakura looked up from between her bangs at the woman, uncertain if she should smile back or not. Behind her was a large building with flowers cascading from the windows, and a large sign reading “Flower Shop.”
“My Ino-chan goes there too, and you look just about her age,” she continued brightly, unconcerned with Sakura’s shyness or her parents’ silence. “It’s just one more block down, then you’ll see it on the right.”
Just then, a girl about the same height as Sakura darted past her mother, with a bag, books and a lunch bento swinging behind her. Some older girls were waiting at the corner for her.
“Ino-chan, wait— This might be a new student at your school—“
“Bye mom! Love you!” She blew her mom a kiss before realizing there was another child half-hidden behind the legs of the two adults. Never slowing down, she caught Sakura’s eye, waved, then dashed off with her friends.
Ino’s mother laughed, wiped her hands on a towel tucked into her apron with her flower clippers, and beamed at them. “Kids, right? But at least she’s happy! The school is that way, just follow her!”
Sakura’s mother, who hadn’t yet spoken, cleared her throat but paused to swallow as if her mouth had been dry, before starting again. “W-We were headed just that way. Thank you.” Any second thoughts she’d had about their destination had been resolved. She nodded with deep politeness, which Sakura and her father copied.
They followed Ino’s path to the corner, while her mother watched them, smiling. She waved at Sakura as they turned, but Sakura only looked back through her long bangs at her.
Ino’s mother turned her face up to the edge of the building nearest her and caught the eye of the guard on duty — a slim man with a long yellow ponytail almost the exact shade of her daughter’s hair. She nodded, silently communicating that everything was fine. He responded with a single curt nod before disappearing over the edge of the roof. Wiping her hands on her apron, she returned inside to cut more flowers for the day’s bouquets.
Outside the tidy school, Ebisu, a no-nonsense instructor, was waiting for them. He escorted them upstairs into an empty classroom. It was pleasant, light-filled and still retained its recently-cleaned smell. He acknowledged Sakura, told her she was very welcome here, but said he did not need to see a demonstration. Instead she was encouraged to go out to the playground while he spoke to her parents. Talk to some students and give it a try, he said. Just to see if she liked it….
Sakura glanced nervously at her parents, but they nodded at her to obey. So she left.
She followed the noise down the hall, past classrooms where the smell of warm bodies and morning snacks hung at the doorways, down the bottom of the wide, sunlit stairs and out the open door.
Kids were everywhere, some talking, some playing games. A kind woman in fatigues waved her out to a large tree where several kids stood around a swing. Sakura thought she reminded her of the nice teachers from her other school, and began to feel a little better and even began to walk over to her. But the teacher was suddenly called away, and Sakura was left by herself on the lawn.
She glanced up at the window a story above. The teacher stood in clear view, hands moving in explanation. He smiled once. But her parents didn’t smile. Frown lines creased her father’s forehead. Her mother wrung her hands nervously.
Sakura suddenly felt very alone and abandoned below them.
A group of older girls walked by, laughing in her direction. The words “new girl” distinctly floated over to her. Sakura looked down, letting her long bangs cover her face. She bit her lip hard to keep from tearing up. It wasn’t working.
She thought of her old school, and the light in her hands that had brought her here. She decided that whatever trick it was, she wouldn’t show it again.
She told herself that if her mother looked down at her, just once, that she’d wave and get her attention and ask to go. She’d say she’d forgotten how to do it. And then, she would. She’d forget it. And she’d never do it again.
She wiped her palms down the sides of her dress, smoothing the fabric as if she were wiping away the traces of green light—
But when she looked up, the window was empty. A door was closing inside the room, and they were gone.
Voices were drawing closer. The kids were drifting over from the swing as one unit. Sakura nervously glanced up and saw they were her age. She hoped they’d pass her by—
But they were coming right for her, their questions reaching her before they did.
“Yeah, she’s new—” “Wonder where she’s from?”
The group formed a loose circle around her, still talking. They were her age, and the prospect of a new student was still endlessly fascinating to them. The questions took on a different tone. Not mean, but blunt. And persistent.
“I never seen her before—” “Does she talk?” “Whaddya think she can do—“
Sakura had been ignoring them, but it only had the unfortunate effect of adding to her mystique. She closed her eyes while the questions bounced back and forth around the circle.
“Pink hair…I bet it means something. Like she’s got some wicked power or something—“
“No, dummy. That’s the eyes. Like the Hyuuga.”
“Ooo maybe she shoots lighting with her eyes! Wouldn’t that be cool?!”
“Or she could make weapons, right? Some clans do that?”
A girl with two buns in her hair answered, “Yes, of course they do—“
Someone else said, “It could be bugs, right Shino?”
“No,” was that boy’s flat response.
“Or what if it’s some other animal! Maybe she’s got some control over cats or frogs. Or dogs—“
Suddenly there was a tiny yip. Sakura glanced up. A fluffly white puppy barked at her from the arm of a scruffy boy. “Nah,” the boy said. “Akamaru says he would have smelled it on her—“
“You can’t understand that dog! Quit lying, Kiba!”
“I can too!!”
The boy named Kiba launched at the other student, and they thrashed around a bit, the white dog barking and jumping back and forth on Kiba’s shoulders.
The group roared. Even Sakura laughed softly, but she hid it when she realized she’d drawn the attention of the inquisitive yellow-haired girl in front of her.
“I know you! Your parents were talking to my mom this morning outside our flower shop!”
The other kids turned their eyes to the blonde girl, and she tipped her head, proud to have a little inside information about the new girl. “You’re the one the Kage sent right?”
The group collectively went “Ooooo,” and turned their big eyes back to Sakura.
“I heard my mom and dad talking about it,” the blonde girl whispered. “I’m Ino,” she said, holding out her hand. Sakura was too nervous to take it. Ino wasn’t offended.
“I’m Sakura,” she said quietly. A few girls said it was a pretty name, and Sakura curled a hair behind her ear, but the boy with the white dog jostled back to the front.
“Well, what can you do, then?” Startled, Sakura frowned. Ino smacked him, but he shrugged it off. “What? She must do something, right?”
And with that, all attention focused back on Sakura. They waited for her answer.
Sakura looked down. Her palms were sweaty. She wiped them down her skirt again. She wanted to fit in. She didn’t want to stand out. But most of all, she didn’t want anything to go wrong.
At least there weren’t any fish ponds around.
She took a breath and thought maybe she’d try again to show her green light. It was why she was there, after all. And they did seem interested….
She closed her eyes and cupped her hands, thinking that at least if it scared them, then they’d leave her alone and she could just go home—
There was another chorus of “Ooooo” and Sakura opened her eyes. Her hand was filled with a pool of green chakra. It was the brightest yet. The group closed in around it, their faces reflecting the light. Even the white dog’s fur had a green tint to it.
They weren’t afraid. Sakura heard “Cool!” “Wow!” “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that before—“ “My mom’s does that, but it’s blue, and it only comes out when I’m in trouble….” Even the dog barked happily at her.
“It’s so pretty,” Ino said from directly in front of her. “It matches your eyes!” She started digging around in her pockets, looking for something.
Filled with surprised relief, Sakura smiled. She forgot about the light in her hand, and it extinguished itself. Satisfied, the group of kids started to slowly disperse.
One boy who had been standing at the back looked up from eating his bag of chips and tipped his head in thought. “So what do you do with it?”
Sakura shrugged her shoulders. “Um…I don’t know.”
He shrugged back. “That’s ok. They’ll teach you.” He crinkled the bag. “Chip?”
She smiled but shook her head. “No, thank you.” He smiled back and continued eating.
Suddenly Ino was in front of her again. She studied her face. Sakura’s big green eyes moved with Ino’s hand as she reach up and pushed her bangs from one side to the other. Satisfied, Ino slid a barrette into her hair, sweeping it prettily off to one side.
Sakura ran her fingers down the clip, her cheeks warming under the special treatment.
“There,” Ino beamed. “Now we can see your eyes!”
Another boy came up and waited next to the one with the chips. He scowled at the girls. “Geez, stop playing dress-up, Ino,” he whined. “Let’s go play the ribbon game!”
Ino stuck out her tongue at the boy. “Shut up, Shikamaru!” She took Sakura’s hand. “Come on, do you want to play?”
She pointed to an older student leading several younger ones through the playground with a long red ribbon. Eyes closed, the kids were trying to hold on and follow each other, when the leader jerked hard around a tree, and the ribbon slipped out of the grasp of the last two. They fell back laughing, eyes blinking in the light.
“Winner stays on the longest,” Ino said, laughing along with her friends. “If you don’t know it, I can teach you—“
Sakura smiled brightly. “I know this game! I’ve played it at my school. I mean…my, uh, old school. It’s one of my favorite games!”
“Good! Come on then!” She took Sakura’s hand and they ran to catch up with the other students.
When Kakashi finally flashed his hand to stop, they were nearing the well-worn road that crossed the territories at their western border and dropped down into the vast Wind country. The shadowed green forests of the Fire country were already ebbing, making way for the thinner woods and wind-blown grasses that thrived in the borderlands between the two great nations.
Though Sakura wasn’t certain of their destination, she knew this road was the easiest and most direct route to the Sand village. Its precise location was disguised — as were all hidden villages, including their own — but there were enough small towns, outposts and landmarks to provide clues. There were no great rivers of trees out there. Instead the Sand village was hidden among a maze of sandstone cliffs and a shifting sea of dunes. The relentless wind meant that it could be hidden or revealed at a moment’s notice. Like Konoha, the Sand village wouldn’t be found if it didn’t want to be. Or unless you had a Sand escort.
Pine forests marked the beginning of the territories. Sakura and Sasuke watched as Kakashi looked at the road, kicked a tree, put his hands in his pocket, then squinted up at the jagged patch of blue sky beyond the bristly tree tops.
They looked at each other, then at their perplexing teacher. Was he waiting for a Sand envoy? Or someone else? Or were they even going to the Sand at all…?
Sakura looked down at the wide road, the brown grass growing in tufts in the middle. Perhaps they were just going to the territories. They had stopped several feet short of the marker, so they were technically still in their home country. Sakura noticed that he had not set one foot outside of the land of Fire….
Kakashi slowly began to walk down the line of trees, but he never crossed the border.
Frustrated, Sakura put her hands on her hips and looked around sharply before turning back to Sasuke. Who is he waiting for? Just what are we doing out here?
Reading her thoughts, Sasuke snorted at her growing impatience. He took a deep breath and stepped back to leaned against a tree. But he smirked when he caught her tracking Kakashi with her eyes again—
He shrugged at her, conveying his unspoken opinion. Who cares? We’ll find out soon enough.
She rolled her eyes. He laughed to himself.
Just when he was going to open his mouth and tell her to come over, sit down with him and rest while she had the chance, a thunderous pounding echoed up the road. It was drawing closer.
Kakashi and Sakura turned immediately ready to engage. Sasuke stepped away from the tree, alert now too, even though he was still a few steps behind them.
A clouds of dust rolled up, and Sakura expected to see a merchant’s cart wildly swinging in the middle. But there was nothing. The thundering was almost upon them when the clouds began to part to reveal…
A blur of paws. Dirt-covered legs. Slobbering jowls. Wet, sniffing noses. A parade of wagging tails…. It was a pack of the most unusual wild dogs she’d ever seen, from enormous to small— The last one was just then cresting the hill, still far behind the pack, panting hard and going as fast as his short legs could carry him. They were clearly on the hunt, tracking something—
Sakura stepped back to give them room to pass, but Kakashi didn’t move.
She watched him with dawning understanding. Was this what he was waiting for?
She looked back over her shoulder at Sasuke, expecting another shrug at their sometimes-strange sensei. But instead, Sasuke was watching the scene closely, as if he was remembering something.
Kakashi squatted down, but he did not extend his hand to give any of them a pet. And the dogs didn’t seem to expect it. They turned off the road at the border stone, pausing for a sniff as they passed, and came over to him.
Sasuke broke the silence. “Shinobi dogs, right?”
Sakura snapped her surprised gaze from Sasuke to Kakashi who was nodding, confirming it.
“Very good, Sasuke. Someone else studied hard in academy too, it seems.”
Sakura knew he was ribbing her about her good grades. It was the only time Sasuke came in second.
But Sakura was frowning. “I thought that was only a…a….” The dogs all turned their heads at the same time, comically, like they were listening to her too. “Uh.…” She regrouped. They were only dogs. “You know, a myth or a trick or something—“
The largest shook its head with a thunderous snort, as if a bee had suddenly flown up its nose. But the timing made it seem almost like an indignant response— Then the other dogs looked away, and Sakura could swear they looked offended.
But these were just dogs!
Kakashi squatted, shoulders bouncing with a silent laugh, but he didn’t elaborate. Instead he pulled out a map of the territories and unrolled it. At least, that’s what it looked like from a distance. But a closer inspection showed Sakura it was entirely different than she expected.
The borders were there, but it was criss-crossed with roads she’d never seen, landmarks she didn’t recognize: A dashed line looped around and around a big stump. A solid line ran along one side of a large pond full of fish. A penciled-in line led to what looked like a chicken pen. But the end of that line was erased and redrawn several times as the location of the chicken pen kept moving around on the map.
The biggest dog and few of the next ones in size gathered around, sniffing and pawing at the map. To Sakura, it just looked like they wanted to wallow on it and were just trying to figure out how—
Suddenly, a low gruff bark started from back behind the largest one’s haunches. The sound was muffled, but shoved its way forward between the beasts. A droopy-faced dog pushed his head between the bigger dogs’ legs. This one was the last of the group, and the smallest by far, but when he snarled up at the others, they bowed their heads and made room.
Kakashi laughed softly. “He-Hey Pakkun. Didn’t see you there.”
He growled unhappily, almost as if he understood, then flattened his belly down onto the cool ground and looked at the map with all the enthusiasm of a grumpy old man. The other’s gave him space as they pawed and snuffled at the map. They barked at each other and occasionally at the humans.
Kakashi watched all this in perfect seriousness. And finally, when the dogs sat back on their butts, a few licking their paws, a few scratching their ears, and the one named Pakkun flopped over with great effort and began rolling his back in the dirt, Kakashi nodded at them.
“Right. This could work.” His voice was as serious as if he’d just had a meeting with real nins. He rolled up the scroll and turned back to Sakura and Sasuke. Both were looking at him like he’d really gone too far this time.
He scrubbed the back of his neck, looking down at the dogs then back at them and smiled.
“They’re tracker dogs, good for catching those who don’t want to be found. And good for hiding those,” he motioned to the three humans, “who don’t want to be followed.”
Sakura and Sasuke still looked skeptical.
“They will get us where we need to go,” Kakashi added. “We just have to fall in line then—“
Sakura interrupted. “So we’re not going to Sand?”
There was a bemused light in Kakashi’s eyes. “Well…not the traditional way.”
Sakura frowned at her cryptic teacher. Usually she could decipher his strange ways, but this time, she was at a loss.
The dogs were up and whining, ready to go. Even Pakkun. His droopy face still had the look of being extremely put-out by this whole venture, but his eyes were alert. He stamped his paws impatiently.
“Alright, lead the way,” Kakashi said to the largest one. Sakura could have sworn it nodded at him.
They started forming a line, but suddenly Kakashi stopped. He jogged to the back, picked up Pakkun, who immediately started grumbling, then dropped him unceremoniously on the neck of the largest one.
“Sorry Pakkun. Time is of the essence, this trip.”
Pakkun harrumphed and flopped his head onto the enormous head of the lead dog.
Kakashi was satisfied. “Fall in, when you see an opening,” he said back to Sakura and Sasuke, then took off at a run just behind the largest dog. The pack around them was thinning as, one by one, the dogs were dashing by to follow them up the trail.
Sakura shook her head, but Kakashi’s orders became clear when the line of dogs slowed and a gap opened. The dog on the other side whined a little, unwilling to move until a human got in. Sakura and Sasuke exchanged glances, then she stepped in. She and the dogs moved on. A few moments later, a gap opened up for Sasuke, he stepped in and the remaining dogs closed the line behind him.
The pack led them down the nearly invisible animal paths that ran over the border into the territories and zig-zagged through the wide, flat forests.
They moved at a fast pace, with the humans ducking and weaving around a trail that was meant for creatures half their size. They followed the sounds of sniffing noses, and leapt down rocks and over fallen logs, never stepping out of line and never breaking ranks with the pack.
Sakura thought perhaps they were leading them into the Wind country. But they followed the dogs for hours and hours more, running parallel to Wind’s borders, as they wound through the unnamed territories that separated the great nations.
Kakashi may be quirky, but she never once questioned him. If they needed to run down animal paths to their destination, then she would do it. She’d known him long enough to know there was always a method to his madness. Usually a very good one.
She saw no reason to doubt him now.
Even when she stumbled and the dog behind her barked at her heels…although she would definitely remember this as one of the stranger missions she’d been on. Especially when she started thinking she could understand the dog’s staccato barks. Once for hurry up, two for slow down.
Or maybe she was becoming more like her old sensei than she’d care to admit….
Hours later, long after the sun had set, they were still running through the pine barrens. But she could feel that they were closer to the Wind country now. The air was dry. The pine needles crackled under her feet. And there was a cool bite in the breeze that meant it was blowing through the trees from a vast open space. Like across a cold desert—
The dogs ahead of her stopped suddenly, and so did she. The walked slowly into a natural clearing where the other dogs were panting and milling around, sniffing the bases of trees. Across the open space, Kakashi was speaking with someone in the shadow of a tree. Sasuke came even with her. The dogs panted and circled around them.
Sakura thought this might be their destination, or at least their next contact, when Sai stepped out. He gave them a short wave, but didn’t come closer. Sakura noticed Kakashi pocketed a slim scroll as he turned.
Before they could cross over and greet their teammate, Kakashi produced a stack of water bowls and water out of a storage scroll for the tired pack. Expecting this, the dogs filled in the space between them and waited eagerly. Kakashi handed the water and bowls to Sai, who immediately turned and walked some distance away to set them out and pour them full.
The noisy sounds of gratefully lapping dogs soon filled the area.
Sai turned away from them to watch the dogs, while Kakashi walked over to them, back turned on the din.
Sakura took advantage of the noisy cover. “Sensei, did Sai give you our mission scroll?”
“You saw?” She nodded. He looked at her for a moment before his tone turned light. “Nope! Not a mission scroll—” He pulled out the edge of the scroll from his pocket, showing off a large ink wash of the setting sun over the now hidden desert landscape. The sun was dropping between two enormous rock outcrops. “Just some art! I’m a big fan, you know.”
She was at a loss. “I-It’s pretty, but—“
He pocketed it, turning serious again. He glanced over, watching Sai refill the water for the smaller dogs, before speaking again. “Don’t worry. We’re on the right track. We keep going from here west. Into the Wind country.”
Sasuke frowned. Sakura spoke what both of them were thinking. “Sensei, there’s nothing there! Just some rocks jutting up, and then…nothing. There are no roads, no settlements. And it’s cold now, but tomorrow it will be a furnace—“
Kakashi nodded. “I know. It’s a deathtrap out there. But I think we’ll be alright. We’ll get as far as we can before dawn, then rest a few hours. We’ve taken every precaution, and the element of surprise is still on our side—“
Sasuke and Sakura looked at each other. Kakashi gauged the dog’s loud drinking before he continued, voice dropping low.
“There has been a kidnapping. From the Sand village. No one yet knows—“
“So it’s a search and rescue?”
Kakashi shook his head. “No. The body’s not our problem. That’s for Sand to worry about.” He flashed a serious look at Sasuke. “But we have an idea who might have done it.”
Sasuke stiffened. “Itachi,” he growled.
“Akatsuki,” Kakashi clarified. “It’s the only solid lead we’ve had in months— No, years.” He shook his head with a grimace, revealing a deep regret he rarely let show. “We can’t afford not to take it.”
Sasuke’s face had sharpened into an alertness as if he’d just woken up, not been running for almost a full day and night.
The picture was becoming clear to Sakura. Sai alerted Kakashi to the top secret intel. Kakashi had them run with the dogs to hide their scent. Both concealing their approach, and their escape from Konoha….
She turned suddenly to Kakashi. “They would never let Sasuke come on something like this.” She pieced it all together. “That’s why— That’s why you hid our scent coming out of Fire. So we couldn’t be followed.” Kakashi nodded approvingly. “Tsunade doesn’t know then? We’re on our own?”
Sai had finished with the dogs and was walking up.
Kakashi had a dangerous twinkle in his eye. “In a manner of speaking. I was give freedom to chose the best squad.”
He flashed his palm at them. “We’re Team 7. We move as one.”
They nodded, feeling the compliment. They repeated him softly, even Sai. “We move as one.”
The dogs were moving around, restless to be going. There would no more talking here.
Kakashi took the bowl from Sai in silence and dropped it back into the storage scroll. It had a paw etched on the end.
He pointed to the vast darkness beyond the treeline. It was black. Impenetrable. As if the world had fallen away. In a manner of speaking, it had.
The pine forests of this part of the territories grew atop a vast, sweeping ridge of land. The border with the Wind country was a natural one. Beyond the trees were sandstones cliffs that tumbled down, one after another, into a giant bowl of sand that stretched for miles and miles without water or shade.
The land really was a deathtrap. And it was the perfect place for an Akatsuki member to hide.
Sakura looked nervously at Sasuke, but he didn’t see her. He gaze was fixed on the darkness, where the horizon might be if they could see it.
She wanted Sasuke to catch his brother, to make him pay, but truthfully, she was more concerned with who might be traveling with him….
But perhaps they wouldn’t see Itachi at all. Like Kakashi said, it was the first lead in years. And in her experience, most leads never panned out. In her heart, she could only hope this would be the same.
Sasuke’s fist was tightened at his side, and she knew he was envisioning the final battle, the one he’d always wanted, where he’d finally defeat his brother.
Sakura looked out too. Just this once, she hoped for a different outcome. That they’d find the remains of a campfire, perhaps even the body of whatever nobleman they were ransoming. They’d be too late. She’d console Sasuke, and they’d go home.
Then he wouldn’t have to confront his darkest enemy. And she wouldn’t have to confront her biggest mistake. The one she’d buried so deeply and promised herself she’d forget about…some day.
She never said his name. Not even to herself. She didn’t want to see him. He’d left her life, and she didn’t want to find him again. Just like he’d never come to find her, even though he once promised her—
She made a fist, locking away the errant thoughts again. She just wanted to hold onto the peace she and Sasuke had managed to find for themselves in Konoha. Just a little longer—
“Let’s go,” Sasuke said darkly. Then with two bounds, he disappeared into the darkness over the edge. Kakashi nodded and followed, then Sai leapt over.
Sakura watched their backs disappear. A twig snapped softly behind her. The last dog, Pakkun was there, watching her go with his mournful, old-man face. Even though it felt a little silly, she waved and was rewarded with a raspy ‘woof.’ He turned and trotted off in the opposite direction, following the animal path into the darkness.
Sakura took a breath. Their footfalls echoed back to her with each chakra-enhanced leap down the sandstone ledge.
She really hoped they were too late—
Sakura leapt over the edge and disappeared into darkness.