26 Mar 2012 No Comments
Author’s note: Chapter’s finished, just have to add notes. Will do that later tonight! Enjoy!
Sakura curled the hair behind her ears and took one last look around. She had to get going. She couldn’t put it off any longer. With a sigh, Sakura left the small inn and stepped out into the lane.
The grey pavers matched the early morning sky. Sakura walked alone through the still-sleeping village. Solitude had never bothered her. But turning onto the canal, witnessing the dramatic change just a few hours could make, gave her a sharp, empty feeling like none she’d yet experienced.
Last night, the cherry trees still bore their spindrift blossoms. Clouds of pink and white still rained petals over the canals, luring crowds of festival goers as if by mysterious force.
But in the cold light of morning, the thin branches were stripped bare. Jumbled rooflines were visible through the haze of limbs. And the lanes were empty.
Sakura silently crossed the bridge. Trodden petals covered the ground or floated in dull sheets atop the once-silver water. Discarded food cartons and smashed festival toys punctuated the litter with jarring color. Everything else was grey. Sakura sighed. Whatever magic was there last night, it had flown with the petals.
A few vendors were busy sweeping out their storefronts, but none offered a greeting to the passing girl. They, as she, had other things on their mind. Sakura kept looking and hoping. She told herself he may yet come. But she was believing it less and less.
Everything seemed so different now. She gripped the straps of her pack a little tighter. This mission had turned out to be nothing like she expected.
She had been so wrong…. The arrogant diplomat and the preening politician — they were both using her. And she had been too stupid and conceited to see it. She thought she was in control, but she was completely in over her head….
Sakura shook her head, ridding herself of the destructive thoughts, and quickened her pace across the large grey pavers toward the gate.
At the enormous red doors she stopped and turned back. The flawless facade was shattered. Now all she saw was deception. From the shiny storefronts and elegant homes to the men and women who made their living here.
Sakura swept her gaze over the rooflines. And he still had not come.
She sighed deeply and pushed off the from the door. Bits of shiny red paint flaked off under her hand, revealing a dingy undercoat that refused to be varnished over.
Sakura frowned up at the old door. Close up, it was cracking and splintered. Long streaking rust stains were barely covered by the fresh paint. In the excitement of the first day she had overlooked all the imperfections.
Remembering Konoha’s large solid gates, built for strength and protection, not fleeting beauty, Sakura suddenly longed to be home. She brushed her hands and set off.
But just past the village woods another disparity stopped her in her tracks.
Only a few days before, she had marveled at the gorgeous old cherry in full bloom at the town’s stone marker. It was so perfect, even reminding her of that magnificent tree in the temple painting. She had passed under its branches and was filled with hope for the days ahead.
But the petals were long gone.
Now, spindly purple branches shivered in the light breeze. The gnarled trunk was exposed, and the tree’s roots clung to the grassy bank as if still holding on against an invisible wind.
Sakura bit her lip. It was ironic: She may have been named for the blossoms, but today she felt more like that old tree. The glorious petals were gone, but still the tree stood. Her hopes had been dashed, but she still had to persevere.
She had not expected to be making this trip home alone. She thought he would be with her. She thought….
Sakura brushed the bangs from her eyes and looked around wistfully. She didn’t know what she thought. It was just one more thing on this trip she was wrong about.
Sakura toed the ground in frustration. When had things gone so wrong? She thought she’d planned it all out, taken everything into consideration when she asked him to come home with her. But he resisted. In fact, looking back, he resisted nearly everything.
Although, sometimes he seemed to enjoy their time together. The ramen, definitely. The blossoms…well, maybe. And at one point they seemed so close….
But even that changed in an instant.
Sakura looked to the far tree line one last time. There was no sign of movement. He didn’t even show up for his customary goodbye.
It was strange. This time around, Katsuro seemed more like the elusive rogue from the temple than the sunny boy she’d spent a whole summer with. And after the tumultuous turn-of-events from her assignment, it was hard to keep out the nagging doubts. Was it really him that had changed? Or had she only seen what she wanted, just like the rest of this damn mission?
Sakura’s eyes drifted back to the bare twisted trunk beside her. She changed her mind: It wasn’t at all like the perfect cherry tree in the temple painting. That was just a lovely memory from a harrowing time.
But this in front of her was real. It was just a tree. And he wasn’t coming. She was sure of it.
She breathed deeply and squared her shoulders. She’d made so many mistakes. And she was ready to put it behind her. Sakura walked on over the petal-strewn ground and did not look back.
Maybe she’d see him on her next mission. But then again, maybe not. A shadow of doubt fell across everything now. The only thing she was certain was that she was ready to be in Konoha again, where everything made sense.
When she reached the junction of roads, Sakura skipped her usual meandering byway for the main trade road. It was the one that would get her home the quickest.
Damn. Everything ached.
He rubbed a callused hand over his face and looked around. The hillside was still as the tomb.
Dropping his hand, a fingernail snagged his pant leg. He chewed down the nail distractedly.
He couldn’t take much more of this. Something had to give. It was nearly mid-day. He should have at least been up and moving by now—
Leaves exploded from the hillside in a fury of movement. “Shit!”
In stumbling whirl, the boy snapped on his cloak muttering “so late” and “can’t believe it.” Then he tore off down the bank.
The man on the branch chuckled. Finally. He stood and stretched his stiff legs.
But he was in no rush. He wouldn’t loose the damn kid this time. The boy was in such a state he didn’t even cover his tracks. There was a clear trail through the leaves. The man snickered again.
He’d tried every trick he knew to flush the kid out. But somehow they’d all failed. Either the kid was really good or really lucky. And he couldn’t decide which one…. He pitched off the branch, following the track of disturbed leaves.
Like a shadow, the man moved in tandem with the boy. Through the trees, across the hillside and back to the town.
At midday, the village was coming to life. And the kid bounced around like he’d lost something. From broad avenues to sleepy residential lanes, nothing escaped his notice.
Well, almost nothing.
The man positioned himself on the roof ledge a far building, chewed on another fingernail and watched. He was fairly certain the kid was looking for someone. But why?
Maybe it was a deal gone sour…maybe he’d lost some money?
Whatever it was, the kid was panicked. He was barely keeping himself concealed, and for self-righteous shinobis, that always spoke volumes about their state of mind.
The kid veered off suddenly down a narrow lane. The man spit out a broken bit of nail and leapt from his perch to follow him.
They moved through maze of residential streets. The kid must have been lost, because he would curse then pivot down another lane. Smiling meanly, the man hung way in case the boy turned to back suddenly.
This was much more entertaining than the usual riff-raff he was assigned to track. Even if it was such a pain in the ass finding him.
Laughter rippled up from a courtyard. The kid stopped, looking sharply for the sound.
Things are finally starting to get interesting….
Across the lane was a bustling house. The second-story window had been thrown open and white curtains billowed out. Pleasant chattering drifted up, followed by a peal of feminine laughter. The kid watched intently for the source of the sound.
Ah…. He’s after a girl….
The curtain shifted. Two girls were in the room, rolling up bedding and giggling.
But before the man could get a good look, play a quick guessing-game over which girl was his, the kid suddenly took off again.
Mildly surprised, the man followed. The kid hurtled over several more neighborhoods, still looking but never stopping, until he came to the south wall. The man hung far back, expecting the kid to turn. But he never did.
Instead, the boy drew his cloak closed, leapt high and disappeared over the wall.
The man frowned…and followed him.
They traipsed down backroads and byways, passing scores farmers and peddlers. But the kid never stopped. And the man had a good guess why.
Most of the men he followed were out after money. Either delivering it, retrieving it or stealing it. And though it might involve goods or personal intrigue, money was always at the source.
But leave it to a teenager to chase after a girl. That was a new one, even for him.
The kid was so preoccupied with the road, he never once looked to his surroundings. The man was trained in stealth just to deal with nins like him, but it was wasted here: The damn kid didn’t care who saw him.
He decided it was probably just dumb luck that the boy had managed to evade him. Because the kid certainly didn’t act like any shinobi he’d ever seen.
This damn assignment had turned out to a real pain in the ass.
They hit a junction of trade roads, and the kid stopped on a broad branch. Behind him, higher up in the canopy, the man noiselessly stopped too.
It was a good vantage point. They’d probably wait it out here. The man squatted on the limb and ran a finger over a jagged thumbnail. But before he could chew it off, the kid was moving again.
The man shook his head and set off too. His thin shadow streaked over the branches as they followed had to be a farmer’s cart path.
Where in the hell were they?
He knew where the kid was expected to be next…and it wasn’t here.
Who could he be meeting out here in the middle of nowhere—
The boy stopped suddenly a few limbs ahead. He adjusted the hood over his head, drew the cloak close around his neck and squatted down. The man carefully stopped too, easing his weight slowly onto the branch to not make a sound.
Beyond them, farmlands stretched in vast swaths. There were a few houses at a distance and the man could make out two bodies bent at work in the fields.
A jerky movement flickered much closer. The man shifted his weight to get a better view.
Just beyond the treeline, a child was playing in a cleared field.
The man didn’t move, he barely even breathed. The kid could go no further without being seen. He would surely turn around and go back—
The kid dropped off the branch, landed on the ground in a controlled squat and slowly walked toward the child. His cloak rippled out behind him.
Astonished, the man lurched forward a few limbs for a better look. The air smelled faintly heated, as if someone had just used a jutsu. But he was too surprised to care.
What the hell was going on? Was this who he was looking for? A child?
To his astonishment, instead of being terrified, the child popped up from her spot and ran to the kid. Small arms wrapped around the boy’s waist. He knelt and spoke. His hood nodded. After a few minutes, Katsuro stood and patted the girl on the head. He waved, then leapt to off to the trees in another direction.
That’s it?! All this…for a damn child?!
The man was ridiculously irritated. Nothing on this assignment had gone as he had planned. Without thinking, he brought the jagged thumbnail to his lip, ready to rip the damn thing off—
When the girl turned…and stared directly up at him.
He froze. The offending nail just grazed his lip. The girl continued to look straight at him.
He slowly brought his hand down.
Surely she couldn’t…. That would be impossible….
The girl watched him with wide, inquisitive eyes.
Something must be wrong….
But when he looked down at his body, he saw nothing but the big branch beneath him. He breathed a ragged sigh of relief. There was his shadow of course — the one flaw in his perfect technique — but the rest of his body was still completely transparent.
Yet she continued looking at him.
He shrugged it off. A fluke. A weird girl on an irritating mission. But when he hopped to another branch, her eyes followed him.
He went cold.
What the hell….
He held out a hand, checking again that his technique was working. Yep, still completely see through. And his shadow was so pale and distorted there was no way she could see it unless she was—
He looked hard at the girl. She smiled at him. His eyebrow hitched up with his swirling thoughts.
If she really could see him…then she was a very special child.
The man slowly raised his hand and waved. She waved merrily back. A slow smile crept up his face.
Hmmm…. She was very special indeed.
He hopped to another branch and this time waved very slightly, just wiggling his fingers. She mimicked the action. He tried a few more tests, hopping to different branches and holding up two or three fingers. Each time, she did the same.
She was a chakra sensor. Very useful and very rare. Any number of people would pay highly for her. He gave her one last wave, which she matched perfectly, then launched off after Katsuro.
He watched his surroundings carefully so he could repeat it. He may not have exactly fulfilled his mission, but he had information of greater value to offer…. The man smiled smugly and pushed off the branch. Only his grey shadow streaked beneath him.
“You look quite happy for someone who has failed his task.”
Itachi frowned at the man standing across from him. The Rain tracker may act coy, but if he couldn’t manage a simple surveillance, then that disappearing act was wasted on him.
But the tracker smiled smugly in spite of Itachi’s thunderous glare. He ran a finger over his smooth thumbnail.
“No, I didn’t find out what he was doing, but your boy has not wasted his time. One of his contacts is a girl, a child really, and she has a very unique and highly desirable talent.”
The tracker pretended to inspect his fingernails while he chose his next words. “Of course…there are several parties who might be interested in a chakra sensor. One who’s nature is so strong she even sensed me. One who is still so young she could molded to serve any cause set before her.”
The tracker flicked a glance at Itachi. The Uchiha looked incredulous.
“In fact, a client from Sound just offered me an extra…300 ryo for information about exceptional children. So I could easily take my knowledge to him. But I am—”
“And that’s it? This is all the information you’ve brought me? About some child—”
“Not just any child.” The man turned serious and stepped forward. “A chakra sensor.”
Itachi processed the words, then sighed. “You saw her and are certain of this skill.”
The tracker’s words were slow and deliberate. “She saw me.”
Itachi shrugged. “Not an unusual skill. Many clans have—”
The man dropped his hands to the side and stopped all movement. The light around him shifted. Then he disappeared.
“She recognized my chakra signature from the ground, and she—”
“I can recognize your signature. You’re standing right in front of me.” Itachi frowned at the empty spot. “You’ve just raised your arm.”
Slowly the tracker faded back into the room. His arm was raised. But he was holding up three fingers. His eyes were fixed on Itachi’s.
“She repeated my movements. Down to the finest detail.”
“I see.” Itachi said slowly, now seriously mulling the implications.
“The child would be an admirable asset to any group, village or nation.” The tracker returned to his previous calculated nonchalance. “And I just happen to know where she is.”
Itachi nodded. He retrieved a scroll from behind the desk, opened it and, in a few short moves, two small sacks appeared in a circle on the scroll.
Itachi pushed forward the first pouch. “300 for the information.”
The tracker lifted an eyebrow, unimpressed. He didn’t move to take the money.
Itachi put his hand on the second pouch but didn’t push it forward. “An extra 300 for your secrecy…which you may claim when we fetch the child.”
The tracker waited, thought it over, then quietly pocketed the first pouch.
Business concluded, Itachi unfurled the map across the table. The tracker traced out Katsuro’s routes and the location of the girl.
Itachi shook his head, puzzling aloud over how far south it was. So close to the Fire Country. It made no sense. But the tracker just shrugged.
“He did seem to be looking for someone else. A girlie, if I had to take a guess.” Itachi looked up in surprise. The tracker snorted. “He checked out some local girls on the way out of town.”
Itachi returned to the map. But the tracker, feeling flush with the payment weighing down his pocket, reflected that in the end this job had turned out no different from the rest.
“Yeah, love or money. That’s always the way it is.” He stretched his back while he professed his expert opinion. “I’d bet your boy’s got a girlie on the side. The girlie takes care of the child. But when your boy sees a chance to make some money off the chakra sensor, he keeps it hidden from you.”
The tracker nodded to himself and ran a finger over his smooth nails. With nothing left to chew off, he dropped his hand to his pocket, satisfied instead with the merry tinkle of shifting coins.
“Yep, these things always turn out the same,” he declared smugly.
Seeing that the man’s usefulness was at an end, Itachi dismissed him.
At length, a mop of brown hair poked through canvas flap of the tent.
The old captain raised an eyebrow at the boy’s disrespect, but let it slide. “Please bring me the Kiri headband. From your last mission.”
“Uh…. Hai, senpai.”
Minutes later he returned to the captain’s tent, headband in hand.
The older man was busy giving instructions to another nin. Katsuro must have missed his presence before. The man flashed Katsuro a bright, disarming smile.
A shinobi assassin from Rain. The man’s easygoing air hid his true skills: He was a ruthless killer. Wei specialized in working his way into his target’s confidence, then snuffing them out at an opportune moment.
Katsuro didn’t smile back. He didn’t need to be in anyone’s confidence. He held out the black headband without a word.
“Thanks,” Wei said and shoved the band into his back pocket. Raking fingers through his choppy black hair, he shot another smile at the kid. But his eyes traveled up and down Katsuro’s frame, quickly summing up the growing boy’s visible strengths and weaknesses.
Katsuro squirmed inwardly. He hated feeling like he was being sized up. By anyone. Especially by men who took such pleasure in setting up their kill.
“On your waist,” Katsuro blurted suddenly to break the man’s appraisal.
“Wear it on your waist.” He crooked a finger at the man’s belt loop. “That’s where I had it. Tied and hanging down.”
The man looked at Katsuro then to his belt before finally understanding what he meant. “Oh. Uh, yeah…sure, kid.”
Katsuro frowned at his dismissive tone. But the old captain misinterpreted it.
“Look alive, Katsuro, You’ve been dragging since your last assignment.”
Katsuro rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. Wei flashed him a sympathetic smile; he ignored it.
But the captain only laughed at the boy’s discomposure. “Thanks Katsuro. That’s all.”
Katsuro nodded and turned to go, but not before sweeping a last glance over Wei. Dressed all in black, Kiri headband…. Katsuro wondered briefly if the man was picking up the mission where he left off….
But he stifled the thought. It wasn’t his problem to worry about. Ignoring Wei’s bland smile, he ducked out of the tent.
The captain retrieved his map from a mess of scrolls. “So, as I was saying—”
Wei dropped his smiling facade. “Look that kid may have fun playing dress up, but for real shinobi it’s degrading to—”
“I know, I know,” the captain sighed. “But you’re the best one suited to this.”
“I’m tired of doing these jobs. I haven’t seen any action for months,” Wei grumbled. “And none of it makes sense. You send me everywhere. Smiling and fawning. But you never send me back for the closure. Instead he,” Wei thumbed angrily at the door, “Itachi’s errand boy, trots in with money or scrolls. Like we’re running a damned business!”
The captain raised a hand to calm him, but Wei was still fuming.
“It’s pointless! We’re going nowhere! And,” his voice dropped to an angry whisper, “and we’re doing it all on orders of some ex-Leaf nin. Who doesn’t know a thing about what we’ve been through—”
“Listen to me,” the captain said firmly. “I know your frustrated, but we’ve got to see this through. I’ve told you before, this is a shell game. And we all have our part to play.”
Wei ripped the headband out of his pocket and shook it angrily. “If the kid was good enough to get the scroll, why not use him now? Why waste my time?”
The captain stood. Forced patience smoothed his expression. “You are the only one who can swing this without a hitch. You’re espionage skills are second to none. And that’s what we need right now: Someone who can control the outcome of the situation. The part you have to play is that of negotiator. And I’m relying on you. There’s no one else I trust to pull it off.”
Wei rolled his eyes at the obvious flattery. But it worked. He huffed and sullenly waited for the captain to continue his briefing.
“So this job is no different than the others, in essentials….”
He unfurled a small, weathered map across the table. Scattered across it, through every country, were X’s marking finished jobs. But a meandering trail of red dots ran through the territories. The captain pointed to a dot near the merchant village.
“On the surface, you will be a Kiri nin purchasing bulk metals through your network of contacts. Disguised as you, Katsuro has already secured your introduction by buying off a clan to vouch for you and set up this meeting. That get’s you to the table. But you have to negotiate the terms of the deal.
“So your job is to arrange the shipment and get them to accept your payment at the drop off point. Not any earlier. We can put out some earnest money. But promise them the rest when it arrives. Tell them you’ll be there to retrieve it. Tell them anything they want to hear. Just get that shipment on the move.”
Wei nodded like he’d heard it all before.
“Like I said, it’s essentially the same job you’ve run before. Different disguises, different clans and towns, but it’s still the same game.”
“Yeah, yeah. Do my part, don’t ask questions.” Wei shook his head ruefully. “You say there’s no one else who can do this, yet you keep me in the dark. You’ve got me running around like that boy. Never knowing what or why…. I must not be that crucial if I’m treated the same as him….”
He flicked his eyes to the captain and watched for a response.
The captain sighed and pressed a finger to his greying temple. Then, coming to some decision, he leaned out over the map and leveled his gaze at the shinobi.
“Alright. You want the bigger picture? Here it is: Once the shipment is on the road, another squad will be sent to ambush the delivery. So we end up with the goods and still keep our money. Then, Kiri will be framed as the source of the deal. Which, of course, they will deny. So while the large nations are busy pointing fingers, you will don another nin disguise and close out another deal. Creating more confusion among the big nations.”
Understanding lit Wei’s black eyes. “Ahh…”
The captain nodded. “And this single job sets it all in motion. It’s the biggest one yet, so it’s sure to gain some notice. Which is what we want because….”
Wei filled in. “The fallout will cover our movements.”
The captain nodded. “Now do you understand why your role is so important. I’m relying on you to set this deal in motion.”
An arrogant smile broke across Wei’s face. They couldn’t do without him. He wasn’t just important…. He was essential! There was no one else who—
But the captains harsh whisper interrupted his self-lauding.
“Listen, these assignments may be handed down from an outsider, but you know what’s at stake here…. You came up under Yahiko. You’re still loyal to the old cause, I know you are.” The captain paced behind his desk. “If we can secure this shipment,” he pounded his fist into his palm, “then everything else will fall into place.”
The older man stopped and turned back to the shinobi, pinning him with a determined look. “And if we can pull this off, then we’ll be heading home by summer’s end.”
Wei blinked once. As most shinobi from the nearly-obliterated Rain territory, the dreams of his youth had long ago dimmed. He still carried out the orders that trickled down from the old rebel leaders simply because he’d never done anything else.
But there was a fire in the captain’s eyes Wei hadn’t seen in years. It was inspiring. It made him remember what he was fighting for.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? If we can pull this off, then we’ll have a home to return to. So follow your orders. I’m relying on you to bring it all together. Everything’s riding on this—”
“Don’t worry,” Wei said, gripping the headband tightly. “I won’t fail.”
Itachi sat back and rubbed his eyes. Even in the low light, the maps and scrolls were beginning to blur together.
Now most of his nights in camp were spent at work. He plotted courses, worked out every variable. He had to make sure their next steps were immaculate.
In the coming months they would collect on deals they’d been cultivating for years. The first job, ambushing the largest metal shipment to pass through the territories in recent memory, was sure to crash like a stone in still water. It’s ripples would be felt far and wide.
The nations would suspect each other. Which was the goal. Their group was was taking in a haul that only a shinobi village could use. And that much metal meant the nation must be arming themselves…preparing for war.
Well, they were. They just didn’t realize it yet.
Itachi stifled a yawn and flexed his hand.
He’d carefully orchestrated each job, making the deals look like they were originating from various nations. He chose crucial locations and played off age-old rivalries. And he’d carefully covered their tracks
In the coming months, while the other nations were blaming each other and chasing shadows, they’d collect on their deals. There was a problem of some holdout towns, but he’d let a handful of men sweep through at the end, make them offers of protection or take their goods. He’d use them to stoke the fires of fear.
Then the big nations, certain that one was preparing for war and using the territories to mask their preparations, would focus their energy on each other. They would infiltrate and attack, weakening themselves. And all Itachi had to do was sit back and watch.
His mouth curved up in a slow smile.
Itachi pushed away from the desk and eased back into his chair.
Of course, they would need to cut loose most of the thugs they’d used up until now. After this, they’d rely on a smaller, smarter groups. Men with more training or a keen sense of stealth. And the focus would no longer be stealing goods, but chipping away at the infrastructure of the nations.
He had even been thinking of giving Katsuro his own squad. But now….
Itachi’s expression darkened.
It burned him to think the the boy had been keeping secrets. Even if it was just an infatuation with a local girl. Stealing away for a tryst was dangerous behavior. He never would never have thought it of Katsuro. The boy had always been so cautious about everything.
Didn’t he know that an emotional attachment could get him killed? Hadn’t he already been taught that lesson?
It still didn’t answer how he’d come across a chakra sensor, of all things. Perhaps the girl was connected to the child. A minder or a sister. Or maybe the child had even sensed him, seeking him out. There were a thousand variables, but they all led to the same conclusion: Katsuro could not have any ties. Not when he was the—
The air shifted and turned heavy. In the next instant a dark figure materialized out of a silent swirl in front of the table. A black-cloaked man appeared. He wore a disturbing mask the shape of a large orange whorl, with a single hole over his left eye.
Madara. Itachi sullenly watched the apparition take form, then bent back to his work without even a greeting.
“Ah, Itachi, you shouldn’t work so hard,” a nasal voice whined behind the mask. “I’m sure you have it all under control.”
“Don’t use that act with me, Tobi. Save it for that fool Deidara.”
Madara gave a gravelly chuckle, relaxing his voice to its natural low. He stepped forward to look over a few of the documents.
“I knew you would take care of this. You were the only one I could trust. Konoha’s training is second to none.”
Itachi kept his focus on his work, pretending to study a large map.
Madara moved again. The lantern at the edge of the desk flickered.
“As busy as all this looks — and I’m sure it is — make certain it can run without you. You may be needed for another procurement before all this,” he waved his hand lazily over the table, “is resolved.”
“I have taken every precaution,” Itachi said in a monotone. “Nothing will go wrong.”
“Right or wrong….” Madara shrugged. “This is just to fill the time. But do not forget what your real goal is. The only reason you can spend your time on Pein’s frivolity is because you’ve already caught your prize.”
Madara leaned out across the table and placed a hand atop the map, demanding Itachi’s attention.
“And because you are that much better than the rest, that much more is expected of you. I am relying on you.”
Itachi slowly lifted his gaze to meet Madara’s. A blood-red sharingan swirled behind the mask. Itachi banked his anger and looked straight up into the red eye, unimpressed.
“Tell me…. Do you give these pep talks to the rest of the Akatsuki members? Or do you save this pleasure for me alone?”
Madara chuckled and stepped back. His voice lightened. “You know, you need to begin his conditioning—”
“I’ve told you, it’s too soon,” Itachi said crisply. “He’s got just enough control to draw out power against his opponents. But if I were to push him…the kyuubi would easily overpower him. He needs more time.”
Itachi pushed back a stack of scrolls. “And if that were to happen, no amount of planning could cover our tracks,” he warned. “It would be like detonating a bomb. Then Konoha would be the least of our concerns. Every nation would know we had the nine-tails jinchuriki. And that is assuming he survived it.”
“Still,” Madara’s voice was deceptively pleasant. “He needs to be trained to respond to the sharingan…. And finding a sharingan user who is a match is quite rare. So I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t able to—”
Itachi slammed a hand down on the desk. “I am! I’ve told you already. My sharingan is the one. There has not been another more powerful user since you and your brother. You said so yourself.”
Madara looked at him long and hard.
“Yes. So I have.”
In the silence, Itachi took a steadying breath and made a show of returning to his work.
“And how is young Sasuke progressing,” Madara asked casually. “He has activated his sharingan by now, has he not?”
“Yes. But he is weak. He’s shown no extraordinary talent. I don’t expect much from him.”
Madara quietly weighed Itachi’s words. “Well…. perhaps Sasuke needs time as well. After all, his sharingan will not come to full power until he reaches maturity.”
“Are we finished here?” Itachi snapped. “Because if all of this is going to come to pass, I need to get back to work.”
Madara’s voice returned to it’s false lightness. “Yes, I just came by to check in. Make sure Pein wasn’t overloading you. Don’t want you loosing sight of the real goal.”
“Don’t worry.” Itachi fixed both his eyes on Madara’s single one. “I never have.”
The lanky teen wiped his nose on the back of his hand.
“Hey Pa! You got that order up?”
From the back of the steaming, cramped kitchen, an old man grunted. He splashed water into tea cups and slapped bowls on a tray. From rattling pots he ladled out a variety of gray, overcooked foods, then slid the dripping mess through the slotted window.
The son glanced over it and pushed it back. “You forgot the tea biscuits.”
Another grunt. Drying his hands on the smudged apron, the man scooped out a handful of pasty crackers. He threw them on the tray, shoved the tray through the window and slapped down the dishes for the next order.
A last nose wipe and the kid was bumping the tray through the narrow kitchen door.
The shabby noodle shop was as forgettable as everything else in the little town scraped out of the dirt between a confluence of trade roads. Buildings sprouted like weeds, and customers soon followed. And if the merchants, travelers or other shady characters were far enough into the thicket of buildings to find this dive, then they valued their privacy. The kid took orders, delivered food, and left the customers alone.
So when an elegant traveler took his seat next to a black-clad man in the darkest corner of the room, no one even took notice.
The teen returned with their tray, and the whispered conversation dried up. He laid out the bowls, pausing for a wet sniffle. But when he set out the tea cups, a glint of silver caught his eye. A shinobi headband fell noticeably across one man’s lap.
The teen’s eye’s widened. His movements slowed. He set down the cups and looked again. It was hard to make out in the dim light, but there were faint dashes of the Mist insignia.
Huh, a real shinobi. He’d always wondered if any came through here. Not that he would know. Unless they wore their bands it would be hard to—
The kid looked up to find black eyes boring into his.
“I asked for sake,” the black-clad shinobi ground out, never blinking.
The teen flushed. “Y-yes, sir.” He snatched up the tray and hurried back to the kitchen.
The shinobi flicked his gaze across the table. The other man was adjusting the long sleeves of his fine silk robes and pretending not to have noticed the headband.
Smiling inwardly, Wei tucked the headband back into his pocket. Well, at least that’s taken care of.
“As I was saying,” the elegant man continued, suddenly anxious to talk business. “I just happen to have a great deal of contacts who trade in metals and weaponry. One clan in particular is still sitting on their supply from the spring market. I would be happy to facilitate a meeting—”
“No, my…ah…client would prefer to remain anonymous in this transaction. I have the name of another diplomat, and was told he may broker a deal for us. He came highly recommended as someone who was able to handle deals of this delicate nature. Do you know of this man?”
Wei slipped out a scroll on the table and waited for the light of recognition in the other man’s eyes.
“Why, yes, I most certainly do! In fact, I recently—”
“Good,” Wei said, slipping the scroll back to his lap. “I had been making some contacts before, and his name came up as someone who might be able to help. But I was not able to make a connection with him. I was hoping you could help….”
“Ahh, I think I had heard some mention of that….”
Just then, the teen came back with the sake. He clattered the cups down and attempted to pour with shaking hands. Wei snatched the pitcher before the kid spilled half of it on the table.
The teen retreated to the kitchen where he slumped against the door for a moment before wiping his nose and grabbing another customer’s tray.
Wei gulped down the awful sake to buy him some time. From over the edge of his cup, he watched the man.
Everything was going to plan. Wei himself had spread the gossip about a buyer, hoping to get names of potential contacts and covering his own tracks with hearsay. And it worked. These two men’s names came up again and again.
The man before him, their contact, was well connected within the territories. He prided himself on his inside knowledge. Their target, a not-quite-top man for a middle-sized clan, was willing to take risks for deals with a high yield of money or notice. And this deal brought both. These men were the perfect candidates.
It was laborious work, orchestrating each player. But by going through these puppet men, their group could maintain their secrecy and ensure success.
And it was Wei’s job to make these men feel special…not manipulated. So he carefully let the conversation unfold, letting the contact lead the way. But he was controlling it all along.
It really was like a shell game.
And this sake was really awful.
“So you do know the man,” Wei said, plastering on a relieved smile. “They said you were the right one to come to.”
“I’m honored to be of service.”
The man smiled and smoothed back his already smooth hair, and Wei knew he was on board.
“And this clan you mentioned, with their supply of metals, how…big is it?” Wei manufactured a nervous look.
Now it was the contact’s turn to reassure.
He flashed a curving smile. “Oh quite large. Large enough to supply one of the territories. Or even, say, a shinobi village.”
Wei nodded back. Good. The clan we’ve already picked.
“Good, you understand the situation perfectly.”
Now to lay the finishing touches….
“This is where your expertise in these matters is a necessity,” Wei said, dropping his voice a notch. “We have some special requirements. And I need you to represent us…to smooth out any wrinkles and make sure these requirements are met. Otherwise we won’t be able to…. You see, because of the nature of….”
Wei glanced around the room, leaned forward and lowered his voice even more. It was a calculated move to draw the man in. It worked. The man’s dark eyes glittered in anticipation.
“My orders are to exchange the money for goods at the same time, with no trace of the exchange. Above all, we do not want to attract the attention of any other large nations.” Wei lingered on the last words. The man nodded knowingly.
“So we have chosen a spot on the northern trade road, far from prying eyes. And we are prepared to pay for the clan’s secrecy in the matter. When you arrange the meeting with your man, I will deliver enough money to prove my…er…client’s interest. Is this acceptable?”
The man nodded heartily. He clarified some small details, then cleared his throat delicately. “And, in case he asks, what are the terms…. What may I tell him you are prepared to offer…?”
Wei looked hard at the man, letting his guise drop for a moment.
“Tell him money is of no matter. This deal has to go through. Everything is depending on it.”
The shinobi rose to leave, but the man, feeling the promise of an excellent deal certain to bring him money and notice, sought to stamp out any competition.
“You should know, there is another village vying for that man’s attention.”
Wei frowned and sat back down.
“His hired guard is supposed to be back with an offer. The man was hoping it would be an alliance or some choice trade agreement. But I tend to think—”
“And where is this shinobi from?”
“Konoha. I only mean to inform you so you can have the advantage, if you wish. Deliver your offer ahead of theirs and you will remain unnoticed.” The man smoothed his silks. “I will make sure he does not find anything of value in whatever they have to offer.”
Wei thought about this for a moment. He thumbed the scroll’s tassel in his pocket. They had planned too much to back out now. Best to let the meeting stand, then let the target refuse. Konoha would be none the wiser.
“Fine. I will be there ahead of his message.”
“Her,” the man said with a smooth smile. “The guard is a kunoichi.”
Wei shrugged. They spoke a few minutes more, arranging meeting times, then he left alone.
The other man, feeling the fullness of a successful deal, flicked his fingers to order more tea. The teen obliged, this time pouring with a much steadier hand.
The guffawing men at the campfire lowered their voices. Wei paused, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. He knew before he turned what their silence meant: The Uchiha was coming.
Itachi strode through the center of camp, speaking quietly with the old captain. The captain pointed toward the fire; Wei put down his food.
With just a tilt of his chin, Itachi summoned him. Wei nodded and fell into step just as the captain peeled off to subdue some rowdy new recruits.
They walked away from the campfire, past silent tents towards the blue-black woods.
“Everything go according to plan?”
“And they are likely to meet our terms?
“The contact seemed to think so. I meet with him tomorrow for confirmation.”
They reached the last line of tents. Itachi looked up at the branches, preparing to leave.
“Good. Inform me immediately upon your return.”
“He did tell me that another village has been making an appearance lately.” Wei slanted a look at Itachi, just to see his reaction. “Konoha….”
For the barest instant Itachi’s body went rigid. If Wei had blinked he would have missed it. Then it was gone. Wei smirked inwardly.
Itachi turned and pinned the shinobi with a look that silently demanded more. Wei’s petulance evaporated.
“There was a Konoha nin, hired as a guard, who is to be returning with an offer of some kind. Trade or alliance. I told him to let the interaction stand, I will just deliver ours ahead of hers, that way—”
“Yeah, a kunoichi. Anyway, I’ve just pushed up our meeting to make sure he’s locked in before she gets there. Then he can politely refuse. The contact is the one who told me. And he’s made himself a tidy profit just making sure there are no problems.”
Itachi nodded and turned back to the woods. Thinking he was dismissed, Wei moved to go. But Itachi’s sudden command startled him.
“Find out who it is.”
Wei looked back in surprise. Itachi hadn’t moved. Just the tendrils of hair at his neck shivered. Wei watched him, expecting something more. But apparently that was it. The Uchiha launched just as suddenly to the trees. Only the soft rustle of his cloak whispered through the air behind him.
Wei shrugged. He didn’t think it mattered, but he’d find out what he could. Maybe the guy was still jealous of his old comrades.
Maybe it was an old girlfriend….
Wei snickered. He’d like to meet someone who could rattle the Uchiha. Smiling in the darkness, Wei turned and tromped noisily through the campsite to his waiting dinner.
Itachi looked up from the map, anticipating the chakra signature that was approaching the tent.
Wei ducked through the flap. Escalated voices carried in with him. Itachi frowned.
“Some of the new recruits,” Wei said, thumbing at the door. “They seem to be knocking heads lately. Anyway, the meeting is confirmed. I will deliver the earnest money this weekend.” Itachi nodded and began jotting down notes as Wei spoke. “The contact will make the proposition to the diplomat, and he will arrange the sale and delivery. Everything is falling into place—”
Another round of jeers echoed outside. It sounded very much like a fight was going to break out, if it hadn’t already.
Wei glanced nervously at the door. Some of those men may have been on his squads. He didn’t want to catch hell for their squabbles.
“Uh…. Maybe I should go check on that….”
Itachi moved from the scrolls to the map, still making notations. He didn’t look up.
The voices outside were growing in their ferocity. Wei raked a hand through his choppy black hair. Dismissed or not, he had to find out what the hell was going on. Besides, he’d already told the Uchiha everything he knew.
Vicious taunts were followed by grunts of active fighting. He had to stop it before it turned into a riot. Wei tugged back the flap and ducked out of the door—
Itachi rose to stop him. “Wait! What of the Konoha nin?”
“Eh,” Wei said without turning back, “it wasn’t anything. Just a girl. Pink hair. You probably didn’t even know her….” Then he was out the door.
Itachi stared that the flapping canvas. A rush of images crashed down on him. But out of the mess, another picture was slowly coming together….
Just a girl.
…Eh, I think he was just chasing a girl….
Itachi’s eyes went wide with rage. His hands closed in angry fists, snapping the thin brush he was holding.
Outside, a bone-shattering crack filled the air. Cheers filtered through the fluttering flap. The captain’s voice boomed suddenly, and then it was all over. The men dispersed. The tent door slowly stilled and silence returned.
But Itachi had not moved.
He stared without seeing, working over the new information. His mouth had thinned to a pale line. And his cheeks were flushed with anger.
That the boy could betray him…. He ground his teeth together. It riled him so. He nearly flew out of the tent to find him and demand an explanation. Or beat him to a bloody pulp.
It had to be the girl they’d caught before. The pink-haired kunoichi. There was no other explanation. Pink hair was quite uncommon. And she had proved her mettle as a Konoha nin. But what was she doing out here….
Itachi brutally swiped his arm over the desk, scattering scrolls and broken pieces of brush. Flattening out the map, he scanned the towns that were hold outs. The ones that had proved impermeable last summer.
Then he traced out Katsuro’s assignments….
Many were in the vicinity. Not all…but….
Itachi thought for a stab of a second that Katsuro had made contact with Konoha. That he was planning to defect back. But that couldn’t be the case. There were no signs that he was unhappy, or that he was preparing to make a break. Even though he had been moping the past few weeks….
He wiped a hand over his mouth, recalling the words of the tracker.
“I’d bet your boy’s got a girlie on the side.”
Dammit. Everything was clear now.
Katsuro was infatuated with the damn girl and following her from town to town. And the chakra sensor, so close to the Fire Country border…. That’s how he found the child too. He was down there with her.
How dangerous. And stupid. Chasing after a girl, a Konoha kunoichi of all people, put everything at risk. Fresh anger swelled in his chest.
He should have killed that damn girl when he had the chance.
Itachi sank back into the seat. He propped an elbow on the chair and rubbed his fingers at his temple.
This presented a problem.
If Itachi confronted him about the girl, Katsuro could rebel in a fit of pique. Nor could he go after her directly if she was based out of Konoha. It would be too dangerous.
No, he had to be sure before he decided what move to make….
If Katsuro had been keeping secrets, then he wanted to uncover them all.
Itachi found another brush and picked up a scroll off the mat.
He paused, brush poised over the blank page, and drew a deep, calming breath. He had the element of surprise, so he held the advantage. He just needed to take the right steps.
Then he set brush to paper, writing down new orders in long, slashing strokes.
Katsuro drug a cloth down the flat edge of the kunai. It was the last one. And he’d already polished it twice.
The smooth blade caught the light and gleamed like quicksilver in his hand. Katsuro sighed…then he pitched it on the pile with the other shining kunai.
He flopped back on the ground, stretched out and stared up at the sunlit green canopy. He seemed to be endlessly waiting these days. The things he loved about his life had somehow lost their sparkle. They paled in comparison to her….
He had trudged around the first few days after returning to camp. He felt miserable. He’d missed her. And he had to wait three long weeks until he could see her again. For the first time, the monotony of his life grated on him. And he felt bad about that, too.
He felt bad about all of it.
But when people started to comment on his mood, he knew he had to at least act like he felt normal.
Not that she was slipping through his every waking thought.
Not that he was imagining disappearing from camp, sneaking through the Fire country’s great woods and finding a large branch where he could peer over the wall. Where he could sit and wait, hoping for a glimpse of her pink hair…her smiling face….
Not that he was wishing, urging, begging time to move faster.
He sighed again and slanted his gaze at the pile of kunai. Even that was a dead giveaway of his preoccupation. His weapons had never looked better. Yet he’d never cared less about them.
There was another problem looming on the horizon, though. And the time was fast approaching when he would have to deal with it. Otherwise he’d miss her this time too.
Katsuro frustratedly jerked his gaze back to the trees. To think he’d been so out of his mind, so stupid and exhausted and careless that he’d missed that one item…that one crucial detail….
He wasn’t exactly sure where Sakura was going to be. Exactly.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Katsuro rubbed a hand over his eyes.
He’d wracked his brains, but it just wouldn’t come to him. It was lost in the memories of the night, behind a haze of angry red chakra.
It didn’t matter. Yet. But it would. And all he could hope was that it would come to him before he ran out of time.
If not, he’d probably wind up stationing himself at the edge of the main road into Fire and just wait for her. An inelegant solution, fraught with problems. But he clung to it stubbornly. He’d see her. One way or another.
He sighed again, blinked up at the dappled canopy and wished that time would move faster.
The days slipped by no faster or slower than any others. After what felt like an eternity of waiting, suddenly the prospect of seeing her was upon him.
He was plodding through camp for a routine meeting with Itachi when he realized that several other men were also moving in the direction. A little surge of hope went through him. Assignments!
The hope was dimmed by the knowledge that he wasn’t entirely sure where she was going to be. Somewhere in the vicinity of the market town…but he just couldn’t remember it. Maybe he’d try to score another assignment at the town and just try his luck—
Wei popped out on the path in front of him and shot back a toothy grin. Katsuro did not smile back.
He had some suspicions that it was Wei following him. There was nothing to confirm it, and nothing had come of it, but Wei would be likely to do it just to rattle him. Katsuro trusted him even less now. And he didn’t think that could be possible.
Wei said nothing but was content to walk beside Katsuro and smile. He even whistled once. Katsuro’s expression darkened.
Wei seemed to take special delight in being friendly to Katsuro, probably because the kid never accepted his easy manners. But Katsuro knew what the rest of the hired men didn’t: Wei took vile pleasure in cutting down his opponents. Weaving elaborate stories, making false assurances. Smiling one moment, slitting their throat the next.
The last time Katsuro trusted that smile was years before on a covert mission. They inadvertently stumbled into a peddler’s camp. Katsuro immediately told the old man they were lost and that they would find another place to sleep. The old man nodded and yawned.
With their tracks well covered, they could keep moving. Katsuro turned to see Wei’s pleasant expression and Katsuro smiled back, mistakenly thinking older shinobi agreed with the tactic—
But in a blur of movement, Wei slung a hidden blade past Katsuro’s ear. Behind him was the sickening wet thunk of blade plunging into flesh.
Wei’s bland smile had never faltered.
Katsuro whipped around to see the man falling backwards. His eyes were frozen open. A slim kunai protruded grotesquely from his forehead. When his body crashed to the ground, Katsuro’s mouth fell open: The man was already dead.
Wei walked around the horrified boy to retrieve his blade. He whistled while he wiped the bloody knife on the man’s chest. The fabric immediately began smoking.
“Poison tip.” Wei grinned. “When it hits the brain, it shuts ’em off like a light.”
Katsuro didn’t move. This was…wrong.
Wei killed the man just because he could. And he had used him to do it.
“Thanks for blocking his view,” Wei said with that same false smile as he walked back to Katsuro. But when he came even with him, Wei dropped the act. He pushed the kunai into Katusro’s chest, making his shirt sizzle. “But don’t ever get in my way again. Anyone is a threat to the mission.”
Then just as quickly, the ruthless expression was gone. Wei’s chilling smile returned. But Katsuro vowed to never be taken in like that again.
They finished the mission, and several more. But the memory still weighed on him. The old man didn’t need to die. Katsuro had killed before — sometimes in self defense, sometimes as part of the mission — but he had never thought of himself as the kind of shinobi that would kill for spite. Just because he could. It was just…wrong.
“He was on a mission. He did what he had to do,” the captain had shrugged when Katsuro related it during a debriefing. “We all do.”
That made some sense. But Katsuro decided it didn’t apply to all things, all situations, all people. He decided he wouldn’t kill if he didn’t have to. Only if he needed to survive.
He never told anyone of his personal resolve. Not even Itachi. But he stuck by it. And it was only strengthened after meeting Sakura.
She was the kind of shinobi he wanted to be.
Not this whistling bastard beside him.
Katsuro ignored Wei and continued walking silently toward Itachi’s tent.
More men were arriving ahead of them. Squad leaders and ex-Rain shinobi. Itachi was definitely handing out assignments.
Wei and his irritations were forgotten. This was it: Katsuro had to remember what she’d said. It was now or never.
Katsuro ducked into the tent. Seven or eight men stood in the center, speaking quietly. They were soldiers and a few Rain shinobi. Wei took his place on the other side of the group, nodding to a few of the men. None offered Katsuro a greeting.
He didn’t care. He stood apart from the group and studied the potential assignments. Spread out across the desk was a long line of scrolls. Some thin, some thick. Some with tassels, some without. On the other side of the desk Itachi silently made notes on his map as if no one else was in the tent.
Katsuro shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from fidgeting. Nothing looked familiar. There were a few from Rain, and a few from assignments he’d been on previously. He sighed inwardly. Damn.
Itachi stood. The chatter stopped.
“From here on out, all missions will be coordinated. The closure of one will be closely followed by the closure of the next. So there can be no mistakes.” His gaze was hard. The men nodded dutifully.
Only Katsuro kept his eyes on the scrolls.
Itachi didn’t miss it. He decided to test his theory.
“We have had several towns and clan that have held-out. We think they’ve employed some special protection from one of the shinobi villages….” Itachi watched Katsuro as he spoke, but the boy never flinched. Itachi tapped his fingers on the red dots. Katsuro gave the map cursory glance, but nothing more.
The tracker was right. It was just about the girl. Now he knew how to proceed.
“Right. We’ll close these out at the end. But for now, one mission depends on the next. So all must be executed exactly as they are assigned. No questions. No mistakes.” He splayed his fingers over scrolls and launched into a litany of more detailed information.
Katsuro wriggled his fingers in the uncomfortable warmth of his pockets. Dammit!
Itachi rattled on and on, but still nothing jarred his memory. And when he began speaking to the men individually, assigning the missions and handing out scrolls, Katsuro knew his time was up.
Until Itachi mentioned the merchant village. He laid a hand briefly on a red-tasseled scroll, spoke a few clan names and some nearby towns, and was just lifting his fingers to reach for another scroll.
When finally something clicked. Katsuro’s eyes widened a fraction.
The clan name or the town…. Sakura had mentioned one of them. He was sure of it.
Katsuro’s pulse quickened. There was a chance she’d be there or nearby. He had to get that assignment. It couldn’t go to anyone else.
“I’ll take that one,” Katsuro blurted out. Itachi stopped mid-sentence, his hand still hovering over the scroll. One eyebrow hitched up slowly. “I mean, I’m familiar with that area. It’s near the merchant’s village, and I’ve made a few deliveries there, so uh…. It would be an easy job….”
A strange expression quirked up the corners of Itachi’s mouth. Something like a self-satisfied smile. It was almost as if he’d been expecting Katsuro to show a preference. Waiting for it, even….
Katsuro dismissed it. He didn’t care, just as long as he got that mission—
“Yes, you have made a lot of runs this past summer haven’t you. But I think, since you are so fond of traveling,” Itachi swiveled and reached for the last scroll in the line, “this one is better suited to you.”
Katsuro blinked and robotically accepted the dull grey scroll. A few of the men snickered. Itachi continued giving orders.
The scroll was cold and heavy in his hand. Without even opening it, Katsuro knew this document had him delivering information near the old Rain country borders. It was a nuisance job and the farthest one away from camp. There was no way he could see her and get his job done. Dammit….
Itachi droned on, and yet, the scroll still lingered there. And the assignments were steadily dwindling….
Then suddenly, it was over. “Please report back immediately upon completion of your mission. Dismissed.”
The men filed out of the tent. Katsuro dawdled at the end, still watching the scroll. He and Wei were the last ones in the the room, when Itachi signaled for Wei to remain.
Katsuro had to go.
Passing through the door, he gave the tent flap a great shuddering ripple. Then he slowed.
Itachi’s quiet voice floated through. “I need you to take care of a loose end for me….”
“Of course, anything for the cause….” The canvas muffled the rest of Wei’s reply.
Beyond the fluttering edges of the fabric, Katsuro could still make out the red threads of the tassel spilling onto the table. But there was nothing else he could do now. The flap gently closed, and Katsuro trudged back toward camp.
In the sunlit Hokage’s office, Sakura listened patiently to Tsunade’s instructions and admonitions for her upcoming mission. Then, thankfully before she became too drowsy from warmth, Sakura was dismissed. She swung back the tower door and squinted up into the glorious afternoon. The sun streamed down, kid were playing in the streets, and hopefully she would see Katsuro soon. It was a good day.
Sakura shoved the mission scroll into her hip pack, but it caught on her medic kit before it was all the way in. Someone called from up the lane. She waved back, and the scroll was forgotten. But hanging out of her pack, the end of the scroll caught the sunlight. It swung jauntily as she moved, hopelessly tangling the brilliant red threads.