Chapter 32 – Shattered

Sasuke stood in the sun outside the Hokage tower. The edge of a mission scroll curled around his hand, catching the light of the first truly seasonable day of spring. Everything seemed brighter. For the first time in, well, as long as he could remember, he felt almost…okay.

The warm air had lured everyone out-of-doors. People were walking, smiling and chatting in the sun. Kids were everywhere, tearing up and down the lanes. Sasuke walked slowly away from the tower toward the busy mesh of village streets. Merchants were setting up stalls outside their shops, further crowding the already-narrow roads.

But the gaggle of village kids didn’t care. They danced around the shoppers and the hid behind the carts, throwing sticks like kunai, laughing and taunting each other. Their voices ricocheted off down the intersecting lanes.

Sasuke watched one scrawny boy eyeing the other suspiciously. He had a bright red ball tucked under his arm. And it was drawing a lot of attention. The kids were working hard on separating the ball from it’s owner. But when coaxing, then threats failed to work, a pair of older boys resorted to stealth. One positioned himself in front to tease and distract, while another crept around behind.

Sasuke quirked an eyebrow. The boy with the ball was outwitted, and he didn’t even know it.

And sure enough, before the boy even realized what was going on, the ball was popped out from under his elbow and sent careening down another lane.

The boy’s face was so comically downtrodden that Sasuke smiled without even thinking about it. The rest of the group shot off down the lane while the boy trudged after, grimacing with each whoop and holler. Sasuke trailed behind, slightly curious to see how the boy would go about getting his precious toy back, when suddenly the throng of kids came tearing back out of the lane and stopped in front of him.

Arms upstretched, they laughed and pleaded up at some unseen source. The scrawny kid regained all hope. He bounced among them, arms flailing as if he knew this was his one chance to get his ball back. Sasuke relaxed enough to smirk broadly at the group. They were all still giggling, so they knew they weren’t in trouble. Probably just being teased by someone bigger or stronger—

A familiar feminine laugh rung out over the childish giggles.

Sasuke’s smirk fell. He only had a moment to step behind a merchant’s cart when Sakura came into view holding the red ball high over her head and laughing at the boys, her green eyes dancing. The boys oh’d and aw’d, but they clearly relished the attention from the pretty ninja.

She bounced the ball from hand to hand, smiling and taunting them. A few ducked around to knock the ball from behind as they’d done to get it the first time, but Sakura smoothly lifted her arm and let the boys collide into each other. This sent up more raucous howls of laughter.

“See anything that tempts you?” a low voice sounded at Sasuke’s elbow.

Sasuke wheeled around, frowning thunderously at the old man who had apparently snuck up beside him. He flicked his eyes up to the wooden sigh overhead — a grocer — and realized this was the owner of the cart he’d chosen to…well, hide out at.

Sasuke cleared his throat. “Just looking,” he said quickly and laid his hand out over the selection of fruit piled onto the cart as if still inspecting before a purchase.

“Ah. Well let me know if you need anything.” The man disappeared inside the doorway of his store.

Sasuke continued his false perusal and cast his eyes to Sakura, who was bouncing the ball higher and higher with little pushes of chakra. The boys watched in awe. Only the scrawny one still swatted for his toy when it came back down.

Sasuke knew it was pathetic. He shouldn’t hide from her, of all people, and in his own village. But he didn’t really want to see her. He shifted his weight and the scroll bumped gently against the few coins in his pocket. As if he needed to be reminded why….

The Hokage had finally been cleared to give him missions outside the village. And she’d said that Sakura’s little speech to the council had a lot to do with it. Tsunade went on to tell him he should be grateful to his team, and she expected him to work harder with them. She stopped short of ordering him to find someway to connect with them, but the message was clear.

And on his way out, she offered him a little advice. “Share your news with Sakura. She’ll be happy to hear about it.” Sasuke bowed respectfully, but left without comment. Because he knew his answer.

Even as Sakura stood in front of him, presenting the perfect opportunity that Tsunade had been urging him so strongly to seek out. He knew he wasn’t going to share his news with her.

This was his triumph, and he planned to selfishly keep it to himself. Just as she had done when he’d questioned her about Itachi…. She refused to answer. It still stung him. And it solidified his decision now.

He let his hand drop to the edge of the cart and watched her from under hooded eyes.

The scrawny kid grabbed at the ball, desperation clear in his big eyes. Sakura must have seen it too because she leaned out over the group and returned it to him, making sure it was safely in his arms before letting go. She tousled his hair, smiling. But the boy didn’t notice at all. He held the ball tightly to his chest and without a word of thanks dashed off down the lane. The other boys tore off behind him, the pretty ninja forgotten. She laughed after them, then turned away to continue her stroll.

She’d never even noticed Sasuke at the edge of the cart.

“So…. See anything you like?”

The old merchant peered up, an unmistakeable twinkle in his old black eyes.

Sasuke fished in his pocket past the scroll and pulled out a coin. He pressed it into the man’s leathery hand. “I’ll take an apple.”

“An excellent choice.”

Sasuke plucked up a particularly red one and walked down the lane toward the river.

He had been avoiding Sakura for a while. Hell, he couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t avoid her. Or anyone else from Team 7.

But it was Sakura who was particularly troublesome. He felt like she was hiding something. And whatever it was had happened out there when she was captured by Itachi.

It was a miracle she’d come back, Kakashi had said so himself. And that’s why it just didn’t add up…. She thought she’d been abandoned. She knew it. And he could hear it in her voice that night, crying out desperately in the darkness….

Sasuke looked out at the shimmering river without seeing it. His thoughts slipped back to that night….

He was thrumming through the trees, hearing a whisper, then a twig snap. His sharingan wheeled effortlessly to life. He couldn’t distinguish shapes, but he could discern two chakras close together. Very close together. Then her anguished cry.

He nearly fell off the branch. He and Sai spiraled closer. But only Sasuke heard her voice.

“Why? Why drag this out? Why don’t you just kill me and get it over with?!”

She was begging for her life. Or rather throwing it all away. She had just told her captor to kill her.

He remembered the voice that responded in the darkness. It was just as desperate as hers. “I’m not going to….”

Sasuke suddenly realized what that rogue was saying: He wasn’t going to kill her.

How could he have missed it! The guy was taking her out to let her go. But she didn’t know it. Her captor — the guy Sasuke fought tooth and nail, the one who had caught her and taunted him — had taken pity on her.

Puzzle pieces fell into place. She had probably been just as strong, just as irritatingly stubborn as she usually was. She had resolved not to give in to Itachi. And someone there — probably that same guy — took an interest in her and decided to help her out.

In that light, her survival made sense. Kakashi had always said there was more to the story. And he agreed. But she refused to speak about any of it.

Birds landed in the river, shattering the diamond ripples. Sasuke looked down at the apple clamped in his hands, remembering where he was. He bit into it, barely noticing it’s juicy snap, and slowly began walking again.

Sakura may have refused to talk about Itachi, but there were a few things she had revealed. Itachi had spoken to her, at length. All lies, she’d said. But she must have believed one of them. Sakura thought she’d been left behind, abandoned by her team and village. She thought he’d left her out there, to die by his brother’s hands.

And yet, she didn’t give up—

Team 8 crossed the bridge ahead of him. Sasauke watched them, careful to avoid eye contact and thus some awkward acknowledgment. He needn’t have worried: Worn out from a mission, they weren’t stopping for anyone’s greetings. Scrolls in hand, they continued on toward the Hokage’s tower.

But Sasuke considered them as he kept going, passing the bright red bridge. Would one of them do what Sakura did? Die for the other teammate after they thought they’d been willfully abandoned?

No, he thought firmly, probably not. He couldn’t think of a single nin who would make that choice. But she would. That was Sakura, tenacious to a fault. Once her mind was set on something, she’d never give it up. He knew without a doubt that she would have died for him.

Stupid girl, he thought, ruthlessly stamping out the thoughts of guilt that were rising at the thought of her sacrifice.

He took another bite of the apple. Perhaps Tsunade was right. Perhaps he ought to try harder, make room for her. Maybe even recognize her as a partner of sorts.

The idea was completely foreign to him. His life was lived alone. His shinobi path was alone. Even the council treated him as something to hidden away. Something to fear….

Not her though. He snorted at the thought and took another bite, wiping the juice off with the back of his hand. She had always shown a healthy respect for his skill. But never fear. She was the only one who had ever thrown a punch at him. Not chakra-laden, not well thought out. Just angry. He had to admit it was a pleasant distinction to know that she didn’t see him as anything special. A small smile quirked up his lips at the irony of it all.

A passerby, a man of about his father’s age, mistook the almost-smile. “Uchiha-san,” he said bobbing his head courteously. He looked like he would have said more, but Sasuke nodded cooly and pushed on.

Chiding himself for letting his emotions show, Sasuke’s thoughts drifted to the other member of their team. That expert in detached observation: Sai. Sasuke knew from the beginning that Sai was assigned to their group to monitor him. But his skill was admirable, so Sasuke accepted him as merely an ANBU babysitter placed on Team 7 by the council. Whatever his agenda was, he’d never revealed it.

But Sakura…there was no agenda there. Sasuke knew she barely tolerated him. That thought drove the corners of his mouth up. He took another bite to hide his smile. Truth be told, she annoyed him to no end. But for the first time, he saw something in her, something that he’d never noticed before.

Her loyalty and stubborn drive had proved more useful than any bloodline or secret clan technique. Better than Hinata’s byakugan or TenTen’s weapons, Sakura’s strong will had carried her through. She simply never gave up.

The wide avenue beside the river was full of people walking and talking. But Sasuke was consumed with his own realizations. It was strange…. He had always prided himself on sizing up another’s skill immediately, but somehow he’d missed what Sakura had to offer.

And it struck a jealous burn in him that his opponent recognized it immediately. The image of a young man scowling up from the rocks below instantly sprang to Sasuke’s mind. He couldn’t see hair or eye color, but the blaze on his face, hands curled into fists at his sides, was burned into his memory.

A slight breeze skimmed over the river, rippling sleeves and hems of clothes. It ruffled his sun-warmed hair.

A cluster of strolling citizens parted, and Sakura suddenly appeared down the lane. Sasuke registered her presence the same time her laughter hit his ears. He slowed without thinking.

She smiled brightly, accepted some small gift at a merchant’s cart, then patted someone’s arm in gratitude. An older woman came into view for a moment. She was probably a patient of Sakura’s by the way the woman doted on her, smiling and handing over another sack. Sakura bowed graciously and waved farewell, turning off the avenue onto the next street which angled down in front of the hospital.

Sasuke watched her go, seeing everything in a completely different light. People loved her here. She loved it here. And she would have willing given it all up. For him. She would have died, alone in the woods, believing he’d abandoned her. And no one would have ever known of her sacrifice. Hell, she still refused to tell him. He had to figure it all out for himself.

He didn’t quite know how to feel. She was protecting him. And no one had ever protected him. He never needed it. But she did it anyway. When it was futile and pointless and no one would ever know. She stood up to Itachi, for him. And the council too, he supposed….

He thought about the guy in the woods. Her captor. It still pissed him off that an opponent discovered the special quality of someone who was right under his nose. But it didn’t matter. Sakura was on his team. No one else’s. For better or for worse. And for the first time, he felt a bit of pride in that.

Well, Tsunade would be happy, he thought wryly, and another small smile slipped to the surface. A mother walking with her children nodded politely at him. Sasuke nodded back without reserve. He felt almost…okay.

He savored the sweetness of the last bite of apple before tossing it into the river. Patting the scroll in his pocket, he decided he’d stay on the avenue and take the long way home. He wanted to enjoy the sunlight and warm air and hold onto the triumphant feeling a little longer.

Spring returned to the Leaf in all its green glory. The village was a hive of activity. Tradesmen and merchants rose earlier and worked later and busily restocked their wares.

But the village truly revolved around its shinobi. And like clockwork, training schedules ticked up, missions were assigned and there were little clusters of shinobis everywhere, all kitted out in fatigues and glinting headbands. The ting of the metalsmith’s shop hammering out new weapons steadily chimed through the hours.

For Sakura, the clearest sign of the warming days was the flock of genin teams scrambling through the lanes on their first D-ranked missions. Their determination to complete the assignments often proved injurious, and many wound up in the hospital. Cat scratches were a prime wound, as were sliced palms from sliding out their shurikens carelessly. Kunai stabs to the feet rounded out the list.

Walking down the curved hall to Tsunade’s office, she looked over her report scroll and laughed to herself. The number of reckless injuries had spiked. Only more of these to come with summer.

“Enter,” Tsunade called out before Sakura knocked. She crossed the room and handed over the report.

“Have you spoken to your teammates lately,” Tsunade asked, never looking up from the scroll.

“Uh, no? Should I have?”

“Just curious.” She finished reading and rerolled the scroll. “Sasuke has been allowed out on missions.” Tsunade looked up, a knowing smile on her face. “And I think we all know who’s to thank for the council’s change of heart.”

“Oh!” Sakura’s face suffused with pleased surprise.

“Limited missions of course, and accompanied by Sai, but they are assignments, nonetheless,” Tsunade muttered distractedly as she tried to slide the report into a stack of scrolls, only to have them topple over. Tsunade’s paperwork was also rising with the temperature.

Sakura smiled to herself as Tsunade searched through the pile of scrolls. She was pleased for Sasuke, even though she didn’t say it. She didn’t get along with him, and she didn’t think she ever would. But he didn’t deserve to be held back because of his brother. Besides, there was always the  hope that missions of his own would make him easier to deal with—

“Here it is!” Tsunade held out a multi-tasseled scroll. “The Council wants to invite more foreign dignitaries for the summer festival. I don’t know what they’re thinking,” she grumbled. “All the little towns have their own festivals. But the council is hellbent on outshining them all. But we can’t just throw open our gates! We’re a shinobi village!” Tsunade hunted another scroll. “So more ANBU are going to have to be called back in which will then cut into our missions, which will in turn….” Her voice trailed off, but occasional fragments of thoughts would surface, mutterings and cursings about how the council didn’t understand security and that they wouldn’t listen to her and what was taking Shizune so long and was it too early for sake—

“Tsunade-sama,” Sakura plunged into her streaming monologue. “I was wondering if you’d given any thought to the girl I told you about.” Tsunade blinked up at the question. “The one from the farm? The chakra sensor?”

“Ah. Yes.” She tugged out a scroll only to frown and push it back into the pile.

“Well, I was wondering if you’d given any thought to my request to place her at the academy? I she might be still a little young, but….” Actually, Sakura knew she was too young for the academy, by a few years. But she’d deal with that little detail later. “But she’s out there in the territories, and as she gets older, more people are going to take notice of her, and—“

Tsunade shook her head, still sifting through scrolls. “You know as well as I do it’s against village laws. They have to be Fire Country citizens before they are allowed entrance to the academy. Now, if they are interested in moving here….”

Sakura laughed. “Probably not. They have a farm and a home.” She remembered the old farmer. He would scoff at the idea. “But perhaps if I spoke for them, explained the situation—”

“Found it!” Tsunade unfurled a scroll with names and teams and locations and dates. One large column was listed simply with animal names. It was a scheduling list for the ANBUs.

Tsunade flattened a hand on the curling scroll and looked up, finally giving Sakura all her attention. “A petition from you would only make things harder. If the council even agreed to it, then there would be a mountain of paperwork. Not to mention a full disclosure of her skills. Plus a demonstration. And of course they’d expect her to enter into shinobi training right away, and if she’s too young for academy….” Tsunade raised an eyebrow at Sakura, calling her out on that white lie. Sakura shifted uncomfortably, confirming it. “Then they’d put her right into Root.”

Sakura looked queasy at the thought.

“I didn’t think you’d be too thrilled with that idea,” Tsunade said with a wry smile.

She drummed her fingers on the paper and continued. “I have bigger things to worry about right now. Just keep an eye on the girl. She’s got a few years yet before she’s academy age. Maybe they’ll come round by then. That would be the easiest route. From everything you’ve said, it sounds like she’s safe right where she is.”

Sakura nodded, recognizing from her tone that she would not be budged.

“Enter!” Tsunade boomed, just before a knock sounded at the door. Only Sakura’s long experience with the Hokage kept her from jumping. Shizune entered with another arm full of scrolls.

Tsunade narrowed her eyes at the delivery. “Excuse me Sakura, I need to check these.” Shizune offered an apologetic grin as Sakura sidled out past her.

Flinging her weapons pouch onto the low wall, Sakura took a long drag out of her water canteen. She hitched up her ponytail, thankful for the cool air on her sticky neck, and swiped her hand over her mouth. She’d dearly love to lean against wall, but she knew the sun-warmed stones would only make her hotter.

Ino stepped up beside her, flopped down her pouch and threw back a few slugs from her own canteen. Sakura looked sideways at her, thinking she’d never come if she’d known how hot it would be. But Sakura kept her thoughts to herself. After all, it was her idea to spend their lunch break having a shuriken-throwing contest.

Mid-morning, Sakura had leaned on the nurses stand, sighing. “It’s just too pretty a day to spend cooped up inside the hospital.” Back to the brilliant sunlit window, Ino just shook her head. Sakura sighed again.

Actually, Sakura needed to get her mind off things…people…well, one person in particular. And the quiet afternoon at the hospital was driving her out of her mind. She tapped her finger on the high counter and decided that physical activity might do the trick. It was almost break time. Now if she could just get Ino to come with her….

Sakura sighed again. Ino rolled her eyes, her hair falling like liquid sunshine around her shoulders. She snapped a folder shut, sending dust motes sparkling up into the air around her. There wasn’t another sound in the hall except the shuffling of her papers.

“It might be fun too—“


“You know we could—“

“Sakura, I’m working!”

“But it’s almost time for our break!”


Ino glanced back at the window. The blue sky above the trees was brilliant. Ino’s shoulders drooped a little. She held the folder in her lap, forgotten.

Sakura sighed again, deeply, as if it were her last breath….

Ino spun back, smacking the folder on the nurse’s stand.

“Alright, alright! I’ll go with you! Geez, Sakura!” Sakura miraculously perked up and went to collect their weapons.

Now Ino stood beside her, cradling her hand melodramatically. Sakura noticed the sunlight was gone from her long blonde hair. It was frizzing with heat and exertion, and sweat had plastered darker strands to her forehead. But her cheeks were pink and Sakura could tell she was pleased.

Ino sucked the side of her finger from her wounded hand then held it out for Sakura to see, frowning. “I’ve got a callus now, thanks to you!”

Sakura hid her smile behind another swig from the canteen. Ino was just as fiercely competitive as they were when they were children. She didn’t train as often as she should, but she was still good.

Sakura shielded her eyes from the sun and surveyed the damage they’d done to the posts. Three red circles were painted on the posts to match an opponents head, chest and groin. She’d managed to hit all the targets. Ino had come in a very close second.

A throaty chuckle sounded up the path. From the direction of the forest strolled Asuma and Kurenai, two jonins and longtime Konoha senseis. Asuma immediately waved at Ino — the strapping bearded man was sensei for Ino’s Team. Kurenai had been Team 8’s sensei.

“Well, you two look like you’re making the most of the afternoon!” Asuma crowed, giving Ino a broad smile while not-so-subtly inspecting her post. He eyed the single star that missed, nodding significantly at the weapon sunk halfway into ground beyond the post. “Looks like someone’s getting a little rusty,” he ribbed, eyes twinkling.

“Asuma-sensei, it’s not like that at all,” Ino said, sounding very much like a younger version of herself. “I got distracted, it was too bright and—“

Asuma threw his head back for a belly laugh that echoed into the treetops. They couldn’t help but smile with the infectious sound. Even Ino. Eventually.

“You’re doing well,” Kurenai said, nodding towards Sakura’s pole. Shuriken spangled the three red circles. “Training with your team…?”

“No,” Sakura said, clearing her throat. “I try to come out on my breaks. Helps me clear my head.”

“I understand you have been training with Tsunade-sama as well?”

Sakura nodded. “Yes after my last…encounter,” she faltered on the word, “we both thought it best. So she is showing me how to use my chakra more effectively against multiple attackers, not just one.”

There was a note of pride in her voice. Tsunade had asked her to keep the lessons quiet, so no one would disturb them, but she’d made some great improvements.

Kurenai seemed to sense Sakura’s upswell. “I’m sure her skills are well suited for you. I have known her to have a smashing right hook when she puts her mind to it.”

A small smile flickered on Sakura’s face. Tsunade’s right hook could cleave the ground in two. And that was exactly what she was teaching her.

Kurenai tipped her head closer. “Your sensei is very proud.” Sakura’s smile widened.

“Asuma-san!!” A wiry young nin stood up the path, in the direction of the village, waving a small scroll. Asuma frowned and went to him. The others watched, making sure it was nothing urgent.

While they waited, Sakura stole a glance at the woman beside her. She had not spent very much time with Kurenai, but the raven-haired sensei was second in beauty to Tsunade. And every bit as formidable. Sakura knew her quiet demeanor was deceptive. Kurenai’s crimson eyes held a bloodline ability which was rumored to rival the Uchiha’s. Indeed, when she fixed her with that red-eyed gaze, Sakura had the feeling she was a sparrow being sized up by a hawk.

Seeing there was no need for concern, Kurenai swiveled her head back to Sakura. “So…how is the med-nin training going?”

“Great!” Sakura chirped brightly, afraid she’d been caught staring.

“Good, I’m glad to hear it—“

“Anything wrong Asuma-sensei?” Ino looked up worriedly as he approached. The other nin stood waiting.

“No, nothing serious. But I’m needed in the village.”

“Then I’ll head back with you,” Ino said, quickly packing up her weapons. She strapped on her pouch and hopped over the low wall.

In a swift movement, Asuma leaned into Kurenai and whispered something in her ear. Sakura glanced up, about to bid farewell to Kurenai too, when Asuma pulled back, squeezed Kurenai’s arm and grinned into her face. Kurenai smiled warmly, if not warningly back at Asuma. His eyes glittered as he shot her a final saucy smile.

Sakura was about to look away, uncomfortably aware that she was witnessing something of a more personal nature…. When the tips of Kurenai’s hair curled and danced around her throat. It was as if a sudden warm breeze had spiraled just around her.

Sakura’s mouth fell open. She knew what she was seeing. She could practically feel the teasing wind curling around her own throat it was so deeply etched in her memory. She had never once thought about it happening to someone else.

Asuma strode off and the swirl of wind went with him. Still smiling, Kurenai turned back to Sakura, catching her gaping stare. Sakura snapped her mouth shut, but Kurenai was already fixing her with that penetrating gaze.

“Something the matter, Sakura?” she said, authority cutting through in her pleasant voice.

“No,” she said too high.

Kurenai peered at her for a moment. Sakura looked everywhere else.

Thankfully Asuma interrupted, calling back from the woodline. “Do you want us to wait for you? I can if you want—“

“No thanks, go on ahead. I’ll walk back with Sakura.”

Sakura gulped but nodded her agreement. She quickly set about gathering her things, dropping a few shurikens in her haste. Shoving them roughly into the pouch, she sliced her thumb. She quietly sealed the cut with chakra, hoping to not attract attention to her nervousness, but when she hopped over the wall Kurenai was watching her with amusement.

“Sakura,” she said, her voice warm and patient, “is there something you’d like to ask me?”

Sakura blinked up at her for a moment, weighing what she could ask against what she didn’t want to reveal. Finally, rubbing the smooth skin new skin over the shuriken slice, she decided this was worth the risk.

“Um…actually, there is something.” Sakura curled her hair behind her ear self-consciously. “The breeze,” she swirled her hand around her face. “Was it…caused by something? Or was it just a breeze?” She laughed weakly, realizing how ridiculous it sounded.

Kurenai eyebrows hitched up. “So you saw a breeze?”

Sakura suddenly wished she’d kept her mouth shut. All this thinking about Katsuro was making her see things. She swatted the notion away. “I was probably just…. I mean, it was nothing…. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it—“

“No, you weren’t seeing things.”

Sakura refocused, sure she’d heard wrong. Kurenai watched her, gauging her reaction. Whatever she saw in Sakura’s face must have confirmed something to her, because she leaned closer and lowered her voice.

“It’s a side-effect of bonding with a wind-natured shinobi. And Konoha has a particularly strong vein of wind users. Like Asuma.”

Sakura blinked, taking it all in. “Oh…. So you mean if your teammate is wind-natured and you two are close then—“

“No,” Kurenai cut her off. “It’s more than that, and it’s quite uncommon. Most people would never notice….” Kurenai slanted a knowing look at Sakura. Heat instantly rose in her cheeks. But Kurenai kindly ignored her blushing.

“The wind element shinobi has to have a particularly strong affinity. And you and he,” she look pointedly at Sakura, “in turn must have a particularly strong bond.”

“Oh,” Sakura said slowly, understanding blossoming on her face.

Kurenai let Sakura absorb the information, silently watching as if trying to guess who was the young talent in the village that Sakura had made a deeper connection to. But she didn’t pry. “So, does that answer your question?”

“Oh yes,” Sakura said quickly, remembering herself. “Yes it does. Thank you Kurenai-san.” Her smile was overly bright, her cheeks were pink and she was hoping desperately that Kurenai wouldn’t press her for more information in repayment for the explanation.

“Good, I’m glad I could be of assistance then.” Kurenai watched Sakura steadily, but her tight smile said she wouldn’t ask for more. When it was clear Sakura was satisfied with her answer, she added, “Shall we catch up?”

Sakura was more grateful than she could express. “Thank you,” she said again earnestly as they walked.

“I’m glad I could help,” she said, smiling gently.

Kurenai rose in Sakura’s respect by tenfold. Now she understood why Team 8 adored her so. They walked back to the village in companionable silence.

Sakura floated through the rest of the day. She was still consumed by thoughts of Katsuro, but now it was a delicious distraction. More than once she stopped to stare out at the brilliant blue sky, remembering each time she’d felt the dizzying little breeze. More and more memories came back, his ‘little wind thing’ accompanying even the smallest connections. With his laughing eyes or when his hand was warm on her arm…it was always there.

Even now, she could practically feel the wisps of air dancing around her throat. Sakura cupped her hand around her neck and smiled to herself.

But that night, that kiss — so rough and soft, so sudden and sweet and desperate…. His lips hard on hers, then kissing him back, her arms wrapped around him, hands in his hair. Tasting him and feeling his breath against her cheek and hearing him say her name between kisses….

Sakura sucked in a breath at the memory.

That night Katsuro’s warm wind had swirled around them both, catching them up together. It was undeniable. And Kurenai confirmed it.

Sakura slowly pressed her fingers to her lips, her eyes widening with a new realization. If what Kurenai said was true, then it must mean that Katsuro…that he must really— 

Sakura?! Aren’t you supposed to be in the labs right now?” Ino stared down from the nurses’s stand at the end of the sunlit hall. “What’s up with you today?”

“Oh!” Sakura snatched up her clipboard. “I completely forgot!” She dashed off down the long hallway, leaving Ino shaking her head in her wake.

Sakura knocked lightly on Tsunade’s office door, surprised she didn’t bark out for her to ‘enter’ as she usually did when someone arrived, tripping her jutsus.

“Come in Sakura-san,” Shizune’s voice called out politely.

Tsunade was pouring over a scroll, brows furrowed in deep concern.

Sakura noticed the pile of scrolls at the corner of her desk was growing. Some of them bore the familiar marking from some of the territories.

Tsunade rerolled the missive, handed it back to Shizune without a word, then directed her full attention to Sakura. Shizune quietly slid the door closed behind her.

“Hospital report?”

Sakura nodded, dropping the scroll into the basket designated for low-level village business. Sakura glanced at the other corner of the desk, noting that yes, she did recognized a few seals. “Are those from the territories? I see a few I might have been to—“

“It’s to do with the festival,” Tsunade said crisply and turned away from the pile. “Which reminds me,” she pulled out a small scroll from a drawer on the opposite side of the desk, “could you drop this by ANBU headquarters for me?” Sakura nodded. “The council has expanded the invitation list. Now every dignitary and his brother is coming. The village is going to be crawling with people. ANBU is going to have to step up their security.”

Sakura blinked, remembering the cherry blossom festival, the vast crush of people, and how easily Katsuro was able to circulate among them. Unfettered excitement swelled in her chest. This was it. He promised he’d come. And this was the perfect opportunity….

Tsunade was still talking about the council. “And they couldn’t have picked a worse time,” she grumbled distractedly.

Sakura refocused. “W-What do you mean, a worse time?”

“Nothing, nothing,” she sighed, biting her thumb nail, something clearly weighing on her. She glanced once at Sakura and looked as if she might continue, but instead shook her head. “No, it’s nothing. The council just has no idea what it takes to keep our village safe, that’s all. And this is just one more problem to deal with.”

“But maybe I could help—“

“No, Sakura,” she said firmly. “And I shouldn’t burden you with these concerns. I remember the end-of-summer festival was the highlight of my summers growing up. You should enjoy it…”

Tsunade paused, eyes shifting with some distracting thought.

Sakura raised her eyebrows. Was the Hokage being nostalgic?

But the next moment the emotion was gone. Tsunade smiled bracingly. “We just need extra ANBU that’s all.” She stood and collected some scrolls, preparing for her next meeting and looking every bit the commanding leader. “Please see that scroll gets delivered. I cannot spare Shizune at the moment.”

“Of course Tsunade-sama.” Sakura bowed respectfully, and they both left her office together, splitting off in the hallway.

The months leading up to the festival were long and hot. Sakura continued working at the hospital and training with Tsunade. She was growing in strength everyday, and though it had only been a few months, Sakura was already proficient enough to shatter the ground. Tsunade was pleased. Shizune was impressed. And Sakura felt nearly invincible.

Her thoughts drifted to Katsuro almost constantly. She couldn’t stop it if she tried, but sometime she thought she’d go crazy with missing him. She had always loved her village and never once sought anything more. But she thought maybe she understood how he felt.

He always wanted to be free, to come and go as he pleased. And though she wasn’t free like that, it had never bother her before. But now the village walls that had always seemed so strong and formidable in keeping enemies out, only seemed to hold her in. Only as an afterthought did she begrudgingly admit that this must be how Sasuke felt too.

One late-summer evening, fresh from a particularly hard training session with Tsunade, Sakura leaned back against the base of the great wall, cooling off in it’s shade. Head tipped back, she watched the swallows swooping and diving, arching up over the highest stones and disappearing into the dusky sky. She sighed and wiped the sweat off her temple. If only she were that free, she thought. She’d fly out and go to him. Just to see him. Just for a little while.

Sakura laughed at herself and toed the ground with her foot. Daydreaming like a school girl…what would her team think? More laughter bubbled up.

But it mellowed with the single thought she’d been clinging to the all summer. Ever since Tsunade had mentioned it…she had grown more and more certain….

She was almost positive he’d be at the summer festival. He had promised to come to her. And this was the perfect opportunity. She’d see him again. Soon. Just a few more weeks.

Sakura smiled to herself, pushed off the wall and turned towards home, as more swallows took wing in the golden air above her.

Sakura combed out her hair, turning in the mirror and admiring how it fell a little past her shoulders. It was no match for Ino’s length, but she could finally wind it up into a respectable bun.

Sakura wound one of her mother’s old hair sticks around the length of her hair, flip it into a tight pink coil, then pushed the end down against her scalp, pinning the bun to her head. She secured it with the other stick, then checked her work. The hair sticks were old and cheap and the black lacquer was chipping, but she didn’t care. She slipped down a few loose tendrils at her ears and the back of her neck, smoothed out the long sleeves of the flowery red summer kimono and tightened the pink obi around her waist. Then she smiled at her reflection.

Katsuro has never seen me like this. Only in my shinobi fatigues.

She turned her head, inspecting her profile and twisting the hair sticks to keep the chipped sides turned inward Her thoughts drifted to Katsuro….

Tonight she could show him what life would really be like in a village. How wonderful it could be….

She could easily imagine him becoming friends with her friends, and them all going to the festival together. He would be handsome in a green…no a sky blue kimono. Laughing and cutting up with Shikamaru, Kiba, Lee…. They’d go as one big group, playing games and having fun, eating delicious food, ramen hopefully, then they’d all go down to the river, floating their lanterns to honor Konoha’s dead, and sit on the banks to watch the fireworks.

It was so easy to picture him, standing beside the river, smiling warmly up at her, eyes crinkling at the corner, hand extended to place her lantern in the water beside his.

But her imagination turned mischievous. It was also just as easy to picture him turning and squashing down into the river’s notoriously marshy banks. He’d be the new kid so how could he have known? He’d go horrendously off balance, flailing to keep the lanterns upright while he splashed about, rocking the lanterns already floating in the water, while everyone roared with laughter. Maybe he’d even manage to land Sakura’s alright, but he’d tip his sideways, catching it on fire, then end up having to throw it at the river in desperation.

Sakura laughed out loud, and suddenly covered her mouth, hoping no one heard her. The face in the mirror reflected back her rosy happiness.

Of course, he’d probably be in disguise tonight, she thought as she gathered up her little matching purse. But she was sure he’d come, and once he did, she was sure she could convince him to stay. She flipped off her light and closed the door to her bedroom.

Going down Konoha’s streets with the throngs of people, Sakura was positively buoyant. Families with jubilant children streamed past her. She watched them go feeling that same sense of happy expectancy. Something good was going to happen, it felt like a good night. Hope bubbled up within her.

Sakura looked to the rooftops and watched the darkened lanes. She wandered around the village, skipping the festival in favor of haunting areas where he was most likely to show himself. But there seemed to be people everywhere.

She watched everyone, looking closely at faces for disguises. But she never saw any that seemed to fit him. Just as Tsunade said, there were a lot of dignitaries. Not the farmers or ruffians he usually came disguised as.

In fact, the festival itself was quite different from the one they’d attended together in the spring. Konoha was friendly and orderly, well-lit and safe. It lacked the element of danger accompanying the cherry blossom festival. There were no crushes of merchants’ stalls, hooligans in menacing costumes, and adults bent on intrigues. Konoha was filled with children, families…and ninjas.

She glanced up at the roofline, catching a movement out of her peripheral vision. But her burst of excitement was squelched when the figure turned and a familiar white mask swiveled atop the flowing dark cloak.

It was just an ANBU agent surveying the lanes. Sakura quickly looked away before she was noticed.

She strolled for what felt like hours more. But there were no signs. She was beginning to lose hope….

A throng of children ran by, filling the street with shouts. They pushed and tussled down the narrow lane, followed by one scrawny kid angrily yelling at them. Sakura laughed. She remembered those kids from earlier in the summer, squabbling over a ball. They didn’t remember her though, and they were gone just as quickly as they’d come.

Alone, she sighed and looked up at the sky between the buildings. The stars were just peeking out. It would probably be time for the fireworks soon—

A pattering of footfall on the gravel rang out, but it had a strange cadence.

She looked back, but no one was there. In front of her, however, an orange was rolling to a stop in the middle of the lane.

Sakura’s heart leapt to her throat. She nearly jumped for joy. He was here! She knew it! She knew he would come tonight—

But before the orange had stopped rolling, before she had even taken another step towards it, the scrawny kid came barreling out of the shadowed lane. Three more kids were hard on his heels laughing and pushing at him. The scrawny one swooped for the orange, but they all descended on it yelling, “I’ve got it!” “No, it’s mine!” In a whirlwind of hands and feet, the orange was snatched up, and the kids all took off again, the scrawny one trailing behind.

They never saw the kunoichi frozen just a few paces away, watching them, crestfallen.

Sakura slowly walked to the spot where the orange had rolled so perfectly in front of her. All that was left were scuff marks in the dirt. Raucous laughter echoed back up the lane.

At least there was no one around to see her, she thought, feeling a little stupid for being so overjoyed. She sighed and headed down to the river. The unbridled hope had left her.

The river was beautiful and starry with the glow of the lights. Around her, families happily launched their lanterns. She bought one from a seller and set it gently down in the water where it was immediately lost in the sea of other identical lights.

Sakura looked around at the scene. Her happy village couldn’t be more unlike that cherry blossom festival. It was safe here, pleasant and friendly. She scanned the rooftop out of habit. There were ANBU stationed everywhere. Funny, she had never truly noticed it before.

One ANBU caught her looking and nodded to her. Sakura acknowledged him, then quickly looked away. She was still uneasy about them from her interrogation a few years back.

But now, she felt a little ashamed. They were the reason there were no pickpockets, no hooligans terrorizing the merchants or cornering girls in alleys.

She had been wrong. Katsuro would never come here. He’d never feel comfortable or safe enough to “hide out” in plain sight. And if he did, then this wouldn’t be the Konoha she knew and loved.

The first firework soared overhead, booming loudly. Everyone gasped and looked up. Sakura did too. The sky burst into glittering diamonds. Colors splashed across Sakura’s face, but her thoughts were far away.

She felt, well…stupid. Of course he wouldn’t come here. Especially on a night like tonight. And as much as he disliked villages — hated them, really — it was foolish to think he’d ever come here at all.

The fireworks boomed out their last dazzling display, then it was over. The crowd of contented villagers dispersed, murmuring their pleasure at the evening. Sakura walked back silently, untouched by their good feelings.

When she reached the narrow lane where the orange had rolled out in front of her, Sakura was glad it was full with villagers. It saved her from having to look and the spot and feeling stupid all over again for hoping. It felt like a bubble had burst. She sighed deeply and trudged home.

Three sets of black shoes padded silently up the river, following the footpath in almost complete darkness. Lanterns streamed slowly by, their soft bobbing glow the only light on the dark riverbank.

He didn’t need it though. He knew exactly where he was going.

Just around the bend was a narrow set of steps that wound up to the town’s meeting room. Kasturo veered off the path and quietly made his ascent. He crushed the bag of coins in his pocket flat against his leg to keep them quiet.

At the building, they crept soundlessly down the long wide-planked porch. Katsuro paused, listened, then waved the two men towards a dark shadow beneath a window. Once in place, they nodded. Katsuro kept going, creeping sideways, foot over foot, down the building. Once at the main entrance he held his breath and listened hard.

The leaves rustled gently around him, and the steady knocking of the river floated up. The town was known for its hot springs, and the watery sounds permeated everything.

But Katsuro was listening for voices, the clack of shoes, anything that would tell him how many people were inside. The kid he’d paid to deliver a phony scroll had said just one. But Katsuro was too wary to blindly trust the advice of a desperate kid who could have easily thrown the scroll into the woods, then come back for the money.

A single set of footsteps pounded down the length of the room. A shadow crossed the window. Then back again. A man cleared his throat, then began humming softly.

Katsuro breathed again. Just one man. The kid was telling the truth.

He straightened, peeled off the wall and stepped in front of the closed door. To him, all these men were locks. You just had to have the right key to open them. Sometimes money, sometimes fear, sometimes power. And when none of those worked, he turned to genjutsu.

But tonight, he’d start with the easiest. He slipped his hand into his pocket, looping his finger around the strings of the money pouch.

Closing his eyes, Katsuro murmured a jutsu then blew his breath out through his nostrils. Suddenly his hair blurred, darkened and straightened. His skin went a few shades paler. Katsuro stretched his neck side to side, testing that the disguise was in place. Satisfied, he plastered on an apologetic smile and eased back the door.

Light slanted out into the dark hall. Katsuro quickly stepped in and slide the door closed noiselessly behind him. The man at the other end of the long room perusing papers matched the description from Katsuro’s scroll. He never even looked up. Katsuro’s smile grew wider.

“I’m sorry to bother you sir.” The man looked up, deeply startled. Katsuro continued, crossing the long meeting hall. “I was hoping you might—“

The man dropped his papers, clearly intent on shooing the young man out. “You’ll have to go. We are closed for the festival.”

“Yes, you see that’s the thing. I was hoping to catch you alone, to speak to you privately. I have a small matter of business….” The man frowned and folded his arms, but nodded for him to continue. “My clan,” here Katsuro inserted the family name listed in his mission data, “has a vested interest in the upcoming alliance vote—“

“No! Absolutely not. There is no discussion outside of the regular meeting times. And your clans knows that very well.”

Katsuro plunked the pouch of coins onto the table and continued as if the man hadn’t spoken. “The alliance vote that is coming up next week, we need to vote in favor of our…local interests. And against Konoha.” He couldn’t keep the bite out of his voice.

The man looked at the bag for a moment, bulging with it’s small fortune. He was clearly considering it. But he pushed it away, chin hitched up with resolve. “Your money won’t work on me. We’ve been burned by your clan before. If you are even from that family….” The man leaned in, peering at Katsuro closely.

Katsuro’s eyebrow shot up. Apparently the mission data was wrong about the disguise. He changed his stance, thudding his feet loudly on the floor twice, signaling a shift in the plan.

“No matter,” the man continued, hands on his hips. “We have an agreement with Konoha and stand to earn much more in trade with them than—“

Two shadows flickered ominously at the window.

The man whipped his head around, but he didn’t flinch the way some of the others did. Instead he narrowed his eyes and turned back to Katusro, hands in tight fists.

“You’ll not scare me with your parlor tricks! I’m under shinobi protection. And some street rat who thinks he can con me with his stolen money—“ He reached for Katsuro’s collar to pitch him out the door, but Katsuro caught the man’s hand and slammed it down on the table.

“Your girl’s gone,” he growled. “And I’m no street rat.” Katsuro let the malicious chakra flood his system. His body went warm. His eyes went red. “I’m a shinobi. And I’m the only one you need to worry about.”

The man’s eyes went painfully wide. Katsuro grabbed the front of his robes, looked deeply into his eyes and cast a thin demon-fueled genjutsu. The man staggered back, but the terrified gasp was frozen on his face. Katsuro smirked. The jutsu took.

He’d been relying on the kyuubi’s chakra more and more, testing its limits after discovering that strange harmony when he was hurtling across the territories toward Sakura. Whatever that was, it had never happened again. But it pushed him to experiment more with the chakra. He was getting accustomed to the feel of it, and had found it particularly useful for these quick and dirty genjutsus. It worked well, but he could feel the demon’s pulse behind it, that malicious surge of energy just looking for a way to break loose…so he was careful not to use too much at a time.

“All that is needed,” Katsuro said, the demon chakra adding an unearthly timbre to his voice, “is for you to break the alliance. You will vote against Konoha. Do you understand?” The man nodded shakily, still in a trance. “You no longer need the services of Konoha. Your proud town can stand on it’s own. You feel very sure about this. The girl’s services are no longer required. Any alliance with Konoha has been dissolved.”

He nodded again.

Katsuro held the man’s gaze as he reached in the money pouch, dropped five coins on the table, then slid the bag back into his own pocket.

“The money is a gift for you. It’s a good night. You have a great town, and some extra change in your pocket.” Katsuro’s voice softened. “Now…leave here and go enjoy the festival. Everything is going to go your way after this. You’re sure of it….”

Katsuro stepped back. The red in his eyes faded away. The man blinked once, looking around as if he couldn’t remember how he got there. “I…I….”

Katsuro smiled sympathetically. “I was just asking you to accept this humble gift for helping with my family’s…concerns.” He laid his fingers over the coins. “But you were saying you on your way out…to enjoy the festival?”

That jogged his memory. “Oh yes! Thank you…. Uh, thank you for your gift!” He distractedly pocketed the coins. “But I’m afraid we…. Well, we must hurry down to the festival, before it’s over!”

“Of course. I would never keep you. I’ll just show myself out.”

The man nodded quickly, swept up his papers and exited from the other end of the hall. Katsuro watched him go. Another one down.

Outside, Katsuro strode back down the long wood porch. “It’s done. Let’s go.” Two shadows peeled away from the wall and stalked down behind him, each much taller and larger than the teen. But they followed him obediently.

They left by the same dark path they’d come in on, following the river. The lanterns were nearly all gone now, save for the few stragglers caught up in the reeds. They bobbed against the banks, their lights slowly guttering out.

Katsuro walked back into camp the next night. The two men peeled off with a grunt, heading for their tents.

At a gap in the tents, Katsuro could see a group of new recruits with fists raised at some of the older ones. Katsuro recognized the men, troublemakers all of them, and figured they were picking fights with the new men.

It didn’t matter to him, though. Katsuro came to the captain’s tent and popped his head under the flap.

“You’ve got trouble out there—“ he said with a tired laugh.

“Katsuro!” The graying captain looked up from his map. “Yeah, we’re having trouble with these latest men. Come in. How did everything go?”

“Good.” He came through the tent and gave him the completed mission scrolls. The captain read over them, nodded, then began checking off the towns on the map.

“There should only be a few more towns then I’m done, right?”

The captain shrugged distractedly. He fished out several more scrolls and laid them on the desk, then went back to the map.

“So when’s the ambush?”

“Well it’s still several weeks off but—“

“But I’m in on it, right?” Katsuro narrowed his eyes at the captain’s evasive answers.

The older man sighed. “The big boss has something particular in mind for you.”

Katsuro folded his arms, not pleased with where this was going. “And did Itachi say what—“

“He wouldn’t say. You’ll have to ask him yourself. But I think he wants you to take a team—“

Katsuro groaned. He had made it no secret he was tired of the teams.

“Well, I guess I should go see him then—“

The captain shook his head. “He’s gone. Won’t be back for several days. You’re better off finishing up your assignments than hanging around here—“

The flap suddenly pulled back and Wei stepped in, wearing his usual deceptive smile. The sounds of yelling drifted in with him.

Katsuro scowled deeply and turned back to the desk. Wei’s black eyebrow hitched up, smile turning smug.

“Well, if it isn’t little Katsuro come home to roost.”

Katsuro snatched up his scrolls. His hatred of that man was deep and dangerous. But Wei never discovered that it was Katsuro he’d fought the night he’d attacked Sakura, not Sasuke Uchiha. So he kept his anger in check. But it was hard….

Katsuro turned to leave, but Wei drifted into his path, blocking him. “More errands?” he said with that crocodile smile.

Katsuro didn’t answer. Wei was looking for trouble. And Katsuro had more to protect than himself.

Wei just laughed at Katsuro’s dark look. “Well maybe next time he’ll let you run with the big boys.”

Katsuro pushed on past him, but Wei laughed and slapped him hard on the shoulder in a manner that was not at all friendly.

Fury shot through Katsuro. He pushed it down, instead turning back with his own toothsome smile. “Yeah that’s always something to look forward too.” And he slapped Wei hard on the shoulder, mimicking him…and hitting him in same spot he’d plunged his kunai in that night.

Katsuro knew he’d hit Wei as he retreated. Wei quietly had the wound wrapped at camp, but it still hurt him. Katsuro took some small pleasure in the fact that he favored his other arm now.

Wei’s body rocked from the slap, but he couldn’t hide the spasm of pain. He shot Katsuro a murderous look, but Katsuro only grinned as if he didn’t notice. Mood significantly lighter now, Katsuro threw a jaunty salute at the captain then was out the door. Sounds of fighting fluttered in with the shifting canvas.

“So…any luck?”

Swearing and rubbing his shoulder, Wei fished out a Kiri headband and a folded note out of his pocket. He dropped the paper on the desk.

“Date and place, just as you asked. I figure they’ll be heading out on the northern road a day before.” He shoved the headband back into his pocket

The captain read the missive then returned to the map. “We’ll need to set up an ambush point on that road,” he traced the route with a finger, “then plot out the escape routes. We’ll need to get that shipment hidden as soon as possible. There will only be a few hours before they realize they’ve been hit. But it should be enough time for us to get away.” He flicked his eyes up. “Did they ask for more money?”

“Of course,” Wei smirked, rolling his shoulder and straightening. “I put up a little fight, but in the end promised them what they asked for.”

The captain laughed lowly. “Promise them as much as you want. They won’t see a coin of it.” He rubbed a weathered hand across his mouth, working out more details. “Alright…. Take out a team to scout out the ambush sites. Then we’ll need to cover our tracks with the contact. You need to come up with a way dispose of your ‘Kiri nin’ disguise—”

“What about that pain-in-the-ass Katsuro? These little jobs are the only thing Itachi keeps him around for—”

“Which reminds me, Itachi has you on a team with Katsuro soon. And I expect you to behave, soldier.” The captain shot Wei a hard look, reminding him that they were both Rain soldiers first, before they had to take orders from a Leaf nin. “Our goal is in sight. And it’s bigger than some petty camp squabble.”

Wei rolled his eyes, but agreed with his superior. “It’s just that kid. He’s such a—“

The canvas flap blew open. But this time it was ominously quiet outside. “Boss, come quick! They’re at it again,” a young red-faced recruit panted. “But-But this time….” He wrung his hands. “Oh, just come quick!”

Swearing to himself, the captain rounded the desk. Wei snickered in his wake.

“This time they better have killed each other,” the older man grunted as they followed the anxious teen. “Because when I get to them they’ll wish they….”

He didn’t need to finish. A gruesome scene opened up between two tents: On the ground in the middle of the skulking group were the two ring leaders of the feud, both impaled by each other’s kunai. Their blood was seeping into the sand and blossoming out beneath them.

“Well, that takes care of one problem,” the captain muttered. He moved forward to check their vitals, while the rest of the men wisely disappeared back into the tents.

Beside the captain, Wei kicked the floppy foot of the dead thug at his feet. Dressed in black with a patch of dark hair, the man on the ground looked very much like him. With the exception of the kunai sticking out of his chest, of course.

He sunk a hand in his pocket, brushing the cold metal of the Kiri headband stowed there. Suddenly, his face brightened.

The captain rounded on the red-faced recruit, the only one left standing there. “You!” The teen jumped. “Do you know what this was about?”

“I think it was a rivalry from their hometown, s-sir.”

It was the captain’s face now going red with anger. “Worthless, the lot of them. We need to send them all packing.” He thumbed at the flustered recruit. “Get over here and help haul off these bodies. We can’t leave a trace—”

But Wei stopped the teen before he picked up the feet of one body. “Hey captain. Can I have this one? I’ve got an idea….”

The captain craned his neck back and shot Wei a look of irritated surprise. “You want him? Better have a good reason.”

“Oh yeah,” Wei said, pulling the headband out of his pocket. “It’s a good one.”

Wiping his nose on the back of his hand, the lanky teen picked up the sacks of trash to haul out the back door of the pathetic roadside watering-hole. It was late, he was tired. A big gaping yawn overtook him just as he was bumping the back door open with his butt.

The door stuck. Recovering from the yawn, he smacked his lips and bumped it again. This time he realized it wasn’t his own lack of energy but something actually blocking the door.

Grunting, he threw his shoulder into it, knocking the bags of trash against the door. Each time it scooted a little farther out. Finally, with one big oomph, the obstacle was dislodged.

Sighing heavily, he hoisted up the bags and headed around behind the door to pitch the trash in the old bins, when he caught sight of just what had been blocking the door.

A foot. Then a leg. Then the rest of a body stretching into the darkness.

Had someone been back here sleeping? What an awful place to pass out—

But his eyes fell on the profile of a kunai, protruding horribly from his chest. The kid dropped the bags of trash and tipped his head for a better look. Glinting at his waist was a Kiri headband. His pockets had been pulled inside out, and crumpled beside him on the ground was a deflated sack, clearly having been emptied of his goods by whomever robbed him.

The kid remembered him. This was the nin who stopped here a few months back. He sniffled and wiped his nose on the back of his hand again.

This couldn’t be good.

“Hey, uh…. Hey, Pa…? I think you better come out here….”

Tsunade read the scroll in front of her with a worried frown. She curled up the paper and reached into the foreign correspondence basket to double-check against another scroll. Her frown deepened.

Shizune quietly opened the door, her tea tray stacked high with new scrolls. The small tea pot and cup had been pushed to the corner. She propped the tray on her hip and slid the door closed behind her.

Without a word, Shizune deposited the tea onto a clear spot of desk, then dumped the scrolls into the basket. They spilled over, tumbling onto the desk. Shizune grimaced.

“Dammit,” Tsunade sighed, eyes darting over the colorful tassels at the end of each missive, reading their places of origin. They came from vastly different areas. But she could guess they all said the same thing. Tsunade unfurled the top one. “Dammit,” she said again, throwing it back down. It lay open on the desk in front of her, black characters stark against the white background, as unyielding as the message they conveyed.

Shizune watched her with growing concern. She poured the tea. But Tsunade sat back and bit her thumbnail, never noticing the curls of steam rising from the cup beside her.

Clutching the tray to her chest, Shizune couldn’t take the suspense. “So, does this mean…. Do you think she could have been followed?“

Tsunade shook her head slowly. “There is no solid proof. But….“ She cupped her hand over her mouth, eyes drifting over the words unseeing. “But I can’t tell her yet. This will crush her. All that work, all that time…wasted.”

“No,” Shizune murmured quietly, “you shouldn’t say anything until you know all the facts. And besides—“

A sharp rap at the door snapped Tsunade out of her trance. She shot Shizune a firm look and raised a finger to her lips.


Sakura came in, all smiles, carrying the hospital reports. But her smile faded when she saw Tsunade. Ignoring Sakura’s concern, Tsunade held out her hand for the reports.

“I-Is something wrong?” she said, glancing briefly at the overflowing basket.

Tsunade dropped the hospital reports directly on top of the open scroll, concealing the message. Thankfully, Sakura didn’t notice. But deceiving her apprentice did not sit well with her. Tsunade’s eyes fell to the fragments of words peeking out from behind the hospital scrolls — “no thank you” and “assistance isn’t necessary” and “dissolving alliance” — and rethought her vow to not include Sakura. She was her apprentice after all, she could handle it. Perhaps she could even shed some light on this….

Tsunade sighed. A last wisp of steam blew away from the cup.

“Sakura…. There is something—”

Shizune exploded into a fit of loud, urgent coughing. Tsunade’s eyes slid away.

“Nevermind…. It’s— It’s nothing,” Tsunade said, voice tight.

Shizune patted her chest and echoed “Yes, it’s nothing, nothing at all!” Sakura looked deeply suspicious now.

Tsunade rolled her eyes at Shizune, but she turned back to Sakura with an open smile. “Just some things on the horizon. Nothing to worry about now.” Her tone was pleasant but final.

Sakura bowed, not completely convinced. “Well, if there’s any way I can help….”

Tsunade shook her head and Shizune ushered her out of the office. But as soon as the door slid home, Shizune turned around and shot an exasperated look back at the older woman.

“You said not to say anything until we were certain!”

“I know what I said,” Tsunade grumbled. She reached for her tea only to wrinkle her nose at the now-cool drink.

“Just be patient, Tsunade-sama. Wait until the rest of the scrolls come back. Then we’ll know for sure.”

Tsunade cast a troubled glance back at the ever-growing pile of scrolls. “Yes…. We’ll wait. But I have a feeling we already know the answer.”

Katsuro came back into camp hot, hungry and tired. He’d just finished another handful of jobs, including two where he had to strong-arm the target. But he got it done. Now all he wanted was dinner and sleep.

But the flicker of dim light from Itachi’s tent meant that he had more to do before he could rest.

Itachi wanted to see him. This was the first time they’d been in camp at the same time in weeks. He didn’t know when the next time would be…. Best to get it over with now…then eat, then sleep.

Katsuro sighed and turned away from the main campfire, stomach growling traitorously. But he clamped his hand over it and headed toward the captain’s tent to drop off his scrolls.

Darkness had done little to drop the temperature. A late summer heat wave had settled over the land. Men lazed around the camp trying to escape the stifling heat.

Tent flaps pulled back, Katsuro could see the captain standing in the middle of his tent, hovering over the desk and the map. The open doors were meant to help circulate the air, but instead of cooling anything off, it only succeeded in letting in more bugs to flit around the lamplight.

The captain was wiping a hand over the back of his neck when he saw Katsuro approaching. “Come in….” Katsuro nodded and dropped his completed scrolls on the desk.

The captain immediately scratched off the last string of red dots on the map. “Any problems?”

“Nah,” he said. “Well, a few, but nothing I couldn’t handle.”

The older man smiled at his self-confidence. “Good!” His voice carried a sureness from years of managing men, soldiers, both good and bad, and receiving a positive look from the old captain never failed to lift Katsuro’s spirits.

“So…. What’s next? I’m in on the ambush right? I mean surely I’ve proved that I’m ready for more….”

But the captain’s open expression shuttered. “There’s nothing I can do about it—“ He put his hand out to quell Katsuro’s mounting frustration. “Itachi wants to see you as soon as you get back. He has something else for you to do.”

“Just not part of the big job then,” Katsuro said darkly.

The captain sighed. “I’m sure it’s important. He was emphatic about you going to see him….” Someone sauntered past the opening of tent without making a sound and headed directly toward Itachi’s tent. The captain’s voice thinned, “no matter who was in there….”

Katsuro watched the black silhouette approach the glowing door of Itachi’s tent. The man stood, hands in pockets, and casually waited. Katsuro watched him closely; the hairs rose on the back of his neck. Itachi bid him enter, and the slant of light that fell around his cloak confirmed what Katsuro had already guessed: This man was Akatsuki.

He ducked through the flap, the big sword strapped to his back hovering menacingly in the doorway for a moment. Then the canvas swung closed.

Katsuro shuddered inwardly. It was Kisame.

Katsuro remembered the first time he’d seen him, years ago while they were still on the run. They were in a crowded market, looking for someone. Katsuro assumed it was the masked man. But Itachi pointed to the grey-skinned shinobi who rose a head taller than everyone else.

“Katsuro,” Itachi said quietly, “what you have trapped on the inside, that man is on the outside.”

Katsuro had openly stared at him. The more he looked, the more he saw signs of another creature…a fish? Or maybe…a shark. Katsuro gaped, wondering what he would look like if his demon rose to the surface—

“Don’t stare,” Itachi said unsympathetically. “He’s killed for less than that.” Itachi pushed him toward a market stall. “Besides, if you’re lucky maybe one day you’ll be half the shinobi he is. You do have quite a few things in common….” Itachi smirked down at him. Katsuro’s hand drifted to the stomach where the seal was hidden.

The old woman who ran the stall came out smiling. Itachi smiled back and looked deep into her eyes, the subtle wheels of his sharingan spinning to life. “Please watch out for this boy. He is a distant relative, come to visit. Put him to work in the back of your shop.” The old woman nodded, then looked at Katsuro with fresh eyes. “My dear boy! I’m so glad you’ve come!”

The woman inspected his hair and tugged his clothes, going on about how much he’d grown, and how much help she needed…. Katsuro ducked under the her grabbing arms.

“But— But is he safe?” he asked up at Itachi, panic in his voice. “Shouldn’t we just get out of here?”

“As long as your with me, he’s safe,” Itachi said haughtily. “Now go on,” he said, jutting his chin at the old woman. “You’ve got work to do.” Then he strode across the busy lane, leaving Katsuro behind.

The woman pulled and cajoled, listing off the things she needed help with, but Katsuro wouldn’t budge. He felt certain the man was dangerous, more dangerous than any mere shinobi. There was something different about him, he could just feel it. And he wished Itachi wouldn’t get so close—

Itachi, however, went right for him. Katsuro almost shouted. The shark-man looked down at Itachi, and Katsuro was sure he was going to chop him in two with that giant sword or lurch into a monster shark and devour him….

But instead his grey face twisted into something like respect. Itachi politely held out his hand to a dango shop. The man spoke, showing a serrated row of shark’s teeth behind his human mouth, and Katsuro went queasy with fear. But they disappeared together under the flaps of the restaurant, and the bustle of the street closed off his view.

Katsuro blew out his breath and finally let the jutsued woman drag him to the back of the stall and put him to work. Later, when Itachi came to collect him, all he would say about the encounter was that the man, Kisame, had agreed to join him in an alliance. Katsuro shrugged, surreptitiously scanning Itachi for bite marks or sword hacks. But of course there were none.

Standing at the door of the captain’s tent, watching the canvas flap fall behind Kisame as he disappeared into Itachi’s tent, Katsuro knew now that Itachi wasn’t just having a friendly chat all those years ago. That day, he had recruited Kisame into Akatsuki.

Katsuro watched the tent warily. He had grown since then as well. He wasn’t a terrified kid anymore. But even though he could handle himself, men like that still made him shudder inside.

Kisame and the others of the Akatsuki were monsters, and no matter what Itachi said in praise of their ‘unfathomable powers,’ Katsuro vowed he would never be like that.

“Uh, I think I’ll wait till Itachi’s finished with his…guest.”

The captain cleared his throat. “Itachi wants you to come in. No matter who’s there,” he said firmly. “Those were his orders.”

Katsuro stood for another long moment before deciding that if Itachi ordered it, then probably ought to go. He squared his shoulders and stepped out—

“Hey,” the captain called from the behind him, warning in his voice. “Watch yourself, boy.”

Katsuro nodded once, then left.

At the door of Itachi’s tent, he hesitated, still unsure if he was truly expected or not, then pulled back the flap.

Leaning against Itachi’s desk, Kisame looked up with an unmistakeable gleam in his eyes. Shark’s eyes, Katsuro thought instantly.

Itachi’s turned his flat gaze on him.

Katsuro stood uncomfortably there, half in and half out of the doorway, feeling distinctly like prey.

It must have showed. Kisame chuckled lowly, the enormous sword strapped to his back creaking with the movement.

“Katsuro,” Itachi said without a trace of pleasantness in his voice. “I have a job for you. One that I think only you can manage.”

Kisame smiled. Rows of sharpened teeth glistened.

Katsuro stepped inside, a queasy feeling taking hold in the pit of his stomach, and let the flap swing closed behind him.

Standing outside the Hokage’s door, Sakura realized she’d seen very little of Tsunade since mid-summer. Missions had ramped up, and consequently so had her hospital work. More often than not she found herself delivering the hospital reports to Shizune. By some odd coincidence, the Hokage’s unflappable assistant was always intercepting her in the hall.

Sakura frowned, realizing she hadn’t delivered the scrolls to Tsunade herself in almost two months.

That’s why Tsunade’s summoning was troubling. Sakura had always had a comfortable relationship with Tsunade. And training under her earlier in the summer, learning the techniques from the master herself as to how to wield her chakra had made them even closer. She looked at the Hokage as a leader and a friend. Very much like Kakashi.

But as she stood outside the door, waiting to be allowed entrance, she realized that even that fact seemed off. Tsunade’s detection jutsus meant she knew who was standing outside her office. Probably knew it as soon as they entered the building.

Sakura waited patiently, ignoring the knot that was forming in her stomach. The stuffy hall didn’t make things better. Summer was slipping into fall, but it was still unmercifully hot. Sakura wiped a hand over the back over neck—

Suddenly the door slid back. No good-natured shouting from Tsunade. Just Shizune’s face, murmuring a gentle greeting and thanking Sakura for waiting.

Sakura knew something was wrong. Shizune had the worried smile of someone about to deliver bad news. She’d seen the look a thousand times at the hospital. Sakura turned to face Tsunade, bracing herself. If she had to guess, it was news that someone had died. Shizune quietly slid the door closed behind her.

Tsunade sat backlit at her desk, her hair and coat softly glowing in the midday sun. To either side were piles of scrolls, and in the center was the tattered map of the territories. Sakura quietly approached, but Tsunade didn’t look up.

Instead she sighed dispiritedly. “Thank you for coming Sakura.”

“Hokage-sama,” Sakura bobbed her head. “Is it bad news? Has someone….” She was racing through the faces of friends, trying to remember when she’d last seen them, trying to guess which one would be the one she’d have to mourn at the hero’s monument. As if knowing sooner would soften the blow….

But Tsunade shook her head and met Sakura’s eyes. “It’s nothing like that. I’m sorry to have worried you.” But Tsunade still looked deeply troubled. In fact, she looked worn out.

Sakura’s mind shifted gears. Was she sick then? Was this why she had been avoiding her—

Tsunade seemed to read her mind, understanding only as another medic would the need to know every scrap of information. A sad smile ghosted over her lips. Then it was gone.

“Sakura, things are changing outside our village. We cannot know—“ She stopped and rubbed a hand over her eyes.

“We have been receiving reports from the territories, all summer.” She waved her hand over the imposing pyramid of scrolls beside her. “The alliances we had worked so hard to forge,” she looked up at Sakura, head tipped with sympathy, “all the missions you took on…. They have fallen through. All of them.”

Sakura’s mouth fell open in silent shock. The color drained from her face. “No….” she gasped. “H-How….”

Tsuande winced, still wishing somehow that it wasn’t true.

But, expert medic-nin that she was, Tsunade also knew very well that bad news was best delivered swiftly. And without pity. Now that she had delivered the first, most painful blow, she sucked in a breath and slipped into Hokage mode, plunging into the details of why and how. Sakura deserved nothing less.

“We have been tracking it all summer. Each territory, each clan we had sought out, each group that had been in accordance with us has rebuffed us. All the inroads we’d made are closed.”

Sakura stared at the pile scrolls, recognizing the tassels finally. These had been the reports. Tsunade had been shielding her from them until she was sure. “But—“

“There is more,” Tsunade said, voice tight. “We think…. There is evidence to support that your attack was as part of a larger plan. Not some local clan’s tug-of-war. But something bigger.”

Sakura shook her head. “How could that be? I was—“

“Your missions were shut down in an order, one after another. And since your presence was specifically requested on that mission, it stands to reason that it may have been an orchestrated attempt to draw you out. So when you delivered that last scroll — a mission that was more formality than anything else — someone was laying in wait for you. Because after that…well…. We think your death was intended to send a message. But you proved them quite wrong.”

Tsunade smiled bracingly, but Sakura didn’t see it. Instead her eyes were darting over the desk, from the map to the pile of scrolls and back again, going through the mental loops of how something like this could have happened. Just what it would require to undo all those alliances….

Tsunade knew what she was going through. She’d done just the same thing for the better part of the summer. She sighed and pushed on.

“Sakura, was there anyone you met, anyone who knew what you were doing? Anyone who was overly interested in your comings and goings? Think back, even the most insignificant person—“

Sakura’s hand flew to her mouth. “There was someone,” she said, green eyes going wide. “A politician, this spring at the cherry blossom festival. He was flattering and friendly, and speaking to everyone. But he knew I was from Konoha and was very interested in what a ‘big fish’ village was doing there.” Her voice raised a notch. “I never said anything…but, he could easily have….”

Tsunade cut her off. “It’s okay. It wasn’t a secret. These weren’t S-class missions.”

Sakura blinked in confusion. “But…how could our alliances catch anyone’s attention? They were trivial matters! I was there!

“We have a suspicion that one of the countries is amassing weapons of war.” Tsunade tapped out the hidden ninja villages in each of the big nations. “Suna has always been a threat. As well as Kumo. But current intelligence is pointing toward Kiri.” She drew her finger to the Mist village. “Whoever is doing it, is using the territories to hide their actions. They could even be infiltrating, silently drawing closer, even building bases to launch an attack.”

“But, couldn’t it be strife within the territories themselves? The men were petty and small-minded, always out to get one another—”

“That’s exactly why it couldn’t be from within these lands,” Tsunade drew her finger across the map, following the territorial lands that ringed Konoha. She stopped at the black blotch that was the former Rain country, tapping at it. “And they are too busy killing themselves to pay attention to anything else. So that leaves one of the larger countries,” she said waving her hand over the broad sections of land that dwarfed the Fire Country on the map.

Sakura felt like she was reliving the past. Hadn’t she stood here and watched Tsunade agonizing over the map two summers ago, voicing her fears about just this scenario?

“But— But if the territories are infiltrated, then what is to stand in the way? What is there to protect us? Can our single village handle an onslaught from an entire nation?”

Tsunade regarded her pale apprentice, realizing for the first time that she had matured, she was aware of much more than she was a year ago. Maybe she should tell her of Konoha’s awful predicament….

But she quickly squashed the thought. No, she couldn’t break her faith in her village. She couldn’t tell her that the generation before had failed her, lost the only hope of protection that Sakura and future generations would have. She knew what it was like to live without hope. She wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Even though the truth was the only thing protecting them was an illusion.

“We have a strong village,” Tsunade said firmly. “We have withstood hard odds. We can withstand them again. Whether the attack is from formal shinobi units or from hired mercenaries, I know we can—”

Sakura’s blood turned to ice. “W-What?” she choked out.

“The movements are either being carried out directly by that country’s nins or they are hiring mercenaries. Rogues without names or allegiance. Lured by the offer of money or shinobi training.”

Sakura nodded as if in a daze. She suddenly remembered that general complaint in the territories: there were never enough men. The old farmer, the innkeeper. All made mention of it.

A sickening thought was forming

“Someone’s pulling the strings, we’re just not sure who….” Tsunade continued to hypothesize, but Sakura didn’t hear it.

“Could the Akatsuki have any hand in this?” Sakura blurted.

“No….” Tsunade sighed. “We know even less about them. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they were somehow involved.”

Sakura was in a panic. This was the same strategy Katsuro used. Low level thugs carrying out a broader organization. All seemed unconnected, but maybe…. She took a steadying breath. No, he couldn’t be involved. He always said he never cared what she was doing. He had even helped her complete her mission, even when he said he didn’t want to….

“Tsunade-sama,” she paused, “the last mission, the one where I was attacked. Did it stand? Or did it fall too—“

Tsunade shook her head sadly. But Sakura’s thoughts were in turmoil.

Sakura suddenly remembered Katsuro’s staunch refusal to deliver that scroll, and then his grim expression when he returned. “It’s done,” he had said with unmistakeable distaste. What if…. What if….

“Tsunade-sama, that last scroll, was it in fact delivered?” Tsunade frowned at her. Sakura thought quickly. “I uh, never actually saw the clan head. Just his house man.”

Tsunade shrugged. “I don’t know if it was, but I doesn’t matter now.” She picked up a scroll with a familiar red tassel. “They have an investor and have no more need for ‘our assistance.’” She pitched it back into the pile.

Sakura was inwardly reeling. It was too much to process at once. Was this really happening? Was their country on the brink of war? And Katsuro…Katsuro…could he somehow be involved—

“Sakura, there is one more thing.” Tsunade pushed a slim scroll forward.

“This is a formal invitation for that little girl, and her family, to relocate here.” Sakura’s chin wobbled for a moment. Yes, this was really happening. 

Tsunade looked at her sympathetically. “There is trouble on the horizon, of that I am certain. And if it continues, it may be impossible for them to seek Konoha’s protection, even if they need it. If the Fire Nation is attacked, then the village will be cut off to outsiders.”

Sakura nodded sharply, squashing her emotions. “Thank you Hokage-sama. I am grateful that you’ve remembered this in the face of everything else—”

“Nonsense,” she said bracingly. “She sounds like a remarkable young girl. And if you have picked her then I know she must be. I trust your judgement above all things.” Sakura grimaced, but Tsunade didn’t see. Instead she pushed the scroll into Sakura’s hands. “That’s why I don’t want you to worry about the loss of the alliances. Any lost mission is always a blow, just like losing a patient. But being aware of their movements now may just give us the edge we need to defend ourselves later.”

Sakura nodded and quietly slipped the scroll into her pouch.

“It will have to be a solo mission, unfortunately. Sai and Sasuke are out right now. I would rather you had a team but I don’t want to wait—”

“I will be fine, Tsunade-sama,” Sakura said firmly, another idea forming in her mind. “I…I’ve been looking forward to getting out of the village on my own for a while now.”

“Good,” she sighed. “Shizune!” she boomed at the door before whispering, “she’s been hovering out there the whole time—“

Shizune slid back the door, concern etched on her face.

“See, I told you she would be fine.”

Shizune wilted with relief. “Tsunade-sama has been so worried. She didn’t even want to—“

“Shizune!” Tsunade barked overly loud. “Aren’t you supposed to be delivering the anbu reports? Not hanging around my office door?”

“Tsunade-sama, I was concerned about you! And Sakura!“

Sakura smiled at the two, reassuring them that she would survive the blow. She thanked Tsunade again for the scroll, and turned to go. But her smile masked the heart-rending doubt that had taken hold.

Digging her hand past the slim scroll as she checked her hip pouch, Sakura was grateful once again that Tsunade had both thought to let her go after the girl…and the for the chance that she might connect with Katsuro. Perhaps he’d left a message for her at the farm. Or maybe she’d even be lucky enough to see him. She hoped so…she had some questions to ask him….

She counted out kunai, added a few extra shuriken, then set about replenishing her med-kit. Remembering the woman’s knotted hands, she mentally noted to throw in some extra herbs for her.

Satisfied that everything was in good order, she zipped it up and snapped it around her waist. And in a very short order she was out the door of her home, then past the gates of the village. The descent through the dark forest was a blur, as was most of her trek out across the fertile Fire Country farmlands.

Her mind was spinning with thoughts about the failed missions, who could be the most likely culprit…and whether Katsuro had a connection to it. Occasionally intruding was the idea that the old grandfather would not take the invitation too kindly. Even though it was for his granddaughter’s own good. She knew farmers could be a stubborn lot.

But a child like that was a prime target for any number of groups. At least in Konoha she would be able to choose her path. That certainly wasn’t guaranteed in other villages. And she hated to think of what someone like Itachi would do with her. She’d become a tool for the Akatsuki for sure. She shuddered. Perhaps Katsuro already was….

With these swirling thoughts she crossed into the territories. It had been another stiflingly hot day, and by the time she reached the gate over the road — the one Katsuro had leapt over disguised as an old man just the summer before — the sun was hanging low over the mountain range that ringed the valley.

She flattened her hand on the old wood gate. Everything looked the same. The green fields stretched out. Insects were whirring up into the warm air, gleaming in the gold light. All that was missing was him.

Sakura hoped there might be a message. But…now there was also fear. What if he left her something confirming that he had been involved. She didn’t want to believe it but….

If only she could just see him, just to ask him, just to make sure, absolutely he had nothing to do with this…. Sakura bit her lip and toed herself up and over the gate.

The old man and his wife were thrilled to see her, and Sakura knew immediately that Katsuro had never come. The little girl circled around her, then the building, sure that Katsuro was hiding somewhere.

He always was her favorite, Sakura thought with a sad smile.

Finally the girl came back and leaned against the grandfather’s legs. She had grown a little taller since Sakura had last seen her. He ruffled her feathery black hair while she peered up at Sakura. Sakura tipped her head, studying her curious gaze.

“He’s not with you, is he? He didn’t come.” She spoke in a voice that was surprisingly mature.

Sakura sucked in a breath. “No, he didn’t come.”

She watched the girl’s steady black eyes. She had clearly been reading the chakra signatures around them. That she had matured in her abilities as well refocused Sakura to her purpose.

“Come in, come in,” the grandfather said hospitably. “We were just about to have dinner. Come eat!”

Only then did the girl spring forward to curl her hand around Sakura’s and lead her in, apparently having forgiven her for coming without her favorite.

Sakura didn’t begrudge her. She felt some childish disappointment as well. Trekking there, she had thought the place would hold pleasant memories. But instead, she only felt Katsuro’s absence more keenly.

Dinner was as pleasant as any she’d remembered. She ate, the little girl curled at her side, and listened to the news of the area. The doors were all thrown open to allow as much draft as possible. So the view of the purpling mountains against the darkening sky filled up their view. The grandfather swelled with pride that Sakura, a well-to-do village shinobi, was so taken with their view. It was hard not to. It was truly bucolic.

And so Sakura dragged her feet in coming to her point. Instead she helped clear away dinner. She had an extra-long healing session with the wife. The stars were already twinkling in the sky when she accepted their invitation to stay the night.

It was only then that grandfather asked her what she was doing passing through these parts anyway, especially when they hadn’t seen her — or her partner — for so long.

Sakura bit her lip. There was her confirmation, she thought. He hadn’t come. Now get on with it, she told herself sternly.

“Actually, I’m not passing through. Not exactly.” She reached in the pouch and pulled out the scroll. “I have an invitation for you, from the Hokage herself….”

She passed it over to the grandfather. But as his face grew darker the farther down the scroll he went, Sakura realized she should have thought this out a little better.

Finished, he rolled it up and handed it back, eyes blazing. The wife bundled the young girl off to bed, ignoring her questions about “why was his little ball of light getting all sharp and pointy? Was he mad?”

Sakura hitched up an eyebrow at the old man, as if proving that the little girl was going to need protection, and soon.

The grandfather responded by folding his arms stubbornly over his chest, as if he was rooting himself to that spot.

Sakura sighed. This was not going to be easy.

She began, laying out the reasons why the girl should be moved, and what Konoha had to offer. For her and for them. Tsunade had been generous, promising farm land in the Fire Country and guaranteeing the girl a spot at the academy. It wasn’t the same as what they had here, but it was a fair deal. They would be able to make a respectable living. And most importantly, the girl would be safe.

“Bah. She’s safe here,” he growled. “This farm has been in my family for generations. Do you think I would just throw it away for some garden patch in the Fire Country? You may know how to heal, missy, but you need to learn a lot more about how life works before you come here trying to redirect mine. Keep you pretty scroll,” he threw it back at her, “and tell your Hokage-lady we ain’t interested.”

Sakura’s voice rose with her temper. “This is not about you or your farm, no matter how many people have owned it. It’s about the girl! She’s in danger—” Sakura realized that the movement in the territories was probably classified information, so she changed tack. “She’s in danger because there are countries and organizations who would like to,” she checked herself, lowering her voice, “who would like to have a child like that to raise and indoctrinate to their own beliefs—“

“Like your village! And that…that academy of yours!”

“No! Not like my village!” Sakura wanted to pull her hair out. “There are countries who’d like to use her as a weapon. And any nukenin or criminal organization could make a small fortune in kidnapping her and selling her to the highest bidder.”

The grandfather wrenched his head away, refusing to hear it.

“Konoha would protect her and allow her to grow into whatever she wanted. She doesn’t have to go to the academy if she doesn’t want to,” he scoffed at that, “but you could build a life there where she could be safe. All the time.”

“She’s safe here,” he bristled.

“She’s not,” Sakura said just as firmly. “And…and things are changing. There may be a time when you need Konoha’s protection, but we may not be able to provide it.”

Eyes bulging with anger, the grandfather rounded on her. “Are you trying to drive a hard bargain with me? I’ve been trading rice three times longer than you’ve been alive. ‘I have a special offer, and it’s just for you. But hurry, it won’t last long….’ Look, missy, I’ve never heard of anyone being picked off by the big countries. They don’t care about us! All they want are the young men.”

He said the last part as if it should hurt her feelings. Sakura almost laughed.

“They’ll take whoever they can get. And a remarkable child like your granddaughter will draw the attention of any number of groups. She’s more valuable than a whole town full of men!”

Something she said must have gotten through. The grandfather stopped and eyed her. “Last summer…you said she was safe. But now you think she’s not?” He peered at her just as the grandaughter had done hours earlier.

Calm returned to her voice. Maybe they were finally getting somewhere. “There are some things I’m not at liberty to share. But yes…I think she’s in danger here. And if she’s not, she will be. And more importantly, the Hokage thinks so too.”

He grunted. Sakura took it as a good sign. “And what does that lady know about us?”

“I told her about your family. About how special your granddaughter is. And she said—“ The man suddenly went still, listening closely to what judgement the great Hokage of Konoha had made on his little girl. Sakura cleared her throat. “She said that your granddaughter was truly unique, and that ever effort should be made to protect her. But she also said the choice was yours.”

The grandfather rubbed a big square hand down his weathered face, then puffed out a small sigh. Sakura thought his defenses might be crumbling. Hands on his hips, he made a quiet “tsk” sound, then slowly held out his hand take the scroll back. Sakura bit down on her smile and passed it back over.

“I’m not agreeing to anything, missy! So don’t look so smug. Just…let me keep the it overnight to…to think about.” Sakura smiled broadly then.

The old farmer and his wife were hospitable, but there was little room for guests in the farmhouse. So Sakura took the offered palette and gladly bedded down in the wide corridor that ran the length of the house. The grandparents’ room was at one end of the long hall, the girl’s small room at the center. Sakura chose a spot nearest the exterior doors at the other end of the hall.

The night was humid, and the sliding doors were open to the fields beyond. Secretly pleased with her accommodations, Sakura lay there for a long time, watching the moonlight on the fringed tops of the rice fields. It was so peaceful, she drifted off to sleep faster than she thought possible.

Some hours later, the pleasant sound of wind wooshed gently through the trees that ringed the fields. Sakura stirred, turning and her coverlet and stretching out in the expectation of the cool breeze to come, but she never fully wakened.

She was pulled from her dreamy haze several minutes by the sound of a voice. The little girl’s voice. So faint at first, Sakura thought it was part of a dream.

“I knew…. I said so and…. I knew it….”

Still groggy with sleep, Sakura pushed herself up to listen. The voice faded away, and Sakura smiled, thinking the girl must be talking in her sleep. She stretched out her legs, about to lay back down, when it started again.

“I knew you’d come. I knew it….”

Sakura’s brows knit together. She sat up again.

“She said you didn’t…but I knew you would—“ her little voice dissolved into a yawn, “come….”

Sakura frowned. It was almost like she was having a conversation. How strange…she must be dreaming. Sakura decided to check on her and put her back to bed.

She crept down the hall, hearing more snatches of words and sleepy giggles. But as she came up next to the door, another voice, soft and urgent, drifted out.

“Come on sweetie, we have to go….”

Sakura froze. She held her breathe.

“I knew you’d come…. I knew you’d come….”

There was the rustle of blankets, feet on the floor. “Please…we have to hurry….”

Sakura’s heart pounded in her throat. Someone was trying to take the girl right out from underneath her.

Hot fury spiked inside. But she had the advantage. Sakura crouched low at the door and waited till the heavier footsteps were close to the door. She sprung into the room, catching the assailant from below and driving a fist straight up into his chin as she came up.

The man staggered back, flopping the girl onto her cot. But he caught himself before he crashed into the wall. Good reflexes, Sakura thought, probably a shinobi.

The girl sat wide-eyed on the bed, transfixed by the activity, and strangely…happy.

Sakura growled at the dark shape in the corner, “If you think going to take her, then you’ll have to go through me—“


Sakura stopped cold, recognizing the voice. But it was the familiar form of Sasuke that stepped out of the shadow and into the dimly lit room.

The girl giggled. “See! I knew he’d come!”

Sakura shook her head. Katsuro. Part of her felt like she was still sleep-fogged…but another part was awakening to the nightmare in front of her. “W-What are you doing here?” She had a sick feeling she already knew the answer.

“Sakura,” he gulped, “it’s not what you think.” He stepped towards her.

She couldn’t speak. She reflexively reached for the child before the she could dart to her favorite. The impostor of her teammate.

“I can protect her. I can—“

Sakura stepped backwards, watching him warily. Everything crashing down on her at once. The lies, the secrets, how he never wanted to tell her anything about what he was doing…. Had he been lying in wait, stringing her on about the girl all this time?

A creak of wood floor sounded somewhere in the house. “What are all those others doing here?” the child said, smiling, looking past Sakura and out the door.

Just what else was he lying about?

“And my missions?” she gasped suddenly. “Did you have something to do with that?”

“You’ve got to believe me. I had no choice. But I—” he said, stepping into shadow. When he came back into the half-light, the henge had dropped. He looked like Katsuro again.

The child instinctively recoiled at the sight of this stranger. Sakura clamped her hands down on the girl’s shoulders, moving them as one, backwards. “Ow,” she whimpered in confusion.

Katsuro kept coming, clutching at the fabric at his chest and imploring, “But I can protect her, Sakura. I can keep her safe.”

She shook her head, feeling sick. “I trusted you. I believed you. I—“ Hot tears blurred her vision. “But it was all lies, wasn’t it?” An angry sob escaped. “How could you—“

The girl screeched suddenly and threw her hands to her ears. “Their hurting, make it stop!”

“Give her to me! Please! It doesn’t have to be like this!” he cried desperately.

Sakura wrenched them both backwards, away from Katsuro and out the door. But the girl screamed again, this time as if she were the one being hurt.

Shadows flickered at the other end of the hall, outside the grandparent’s room. There was a cacophony of male voices, a smashing of furniture, then the low gutteral moan of a woman. The grandmother. They were being tortured.

“Sakura, please! Give her to me, then they’ll stop!“

Sakura shook her head again, unable to speak. She was nearly dragging the girl who was clutching her head and sobbing blindly at her feet. She pulled her toward the open doors to the outside.

A deep voice echoed out from the chaos at the other end of the house. “It’s going down!”

“Shit,” Katsuro gasped. “They’re not supposed to—”

An acrid, burning smell tainted the air. Ominous orange light flickered through the doors and glinted off the polished wood floors.

Sakura hooked the girl up underneath her arms, dragging her out. Katsuro came closer, saying something, but another voice filled the air.

The grandfather’s voice roared above the din. “Run!!!”

But it suddenly was cut short.

Sakura gasped; the child howled with pain. Katsuro’s shattered look told her what she already knew: His men had killed the grandparents.

“Please believe me,” he said wretchedly, voice thick. “I never wanted any of this—“ He was still coming, still reaching for her.

Sakura backed instantly from his touch, betrayal and horror melding into something else…. Adrenaline was kicking in.

Sakura hauled the girl up off the ground, not caring now if she hurt her, and hoisted her up like a sack of potatoes. She was just a few steps from the screen. Behind her was the wide open field. This was her only chance to—

“Get out now!” a voice yelled from outside.

Something frantic flickered in Katsuro’s expression. It twisted in Sakura’s gut, despite her anger at his betrayal, and spurred her on.

Sakura spun and launched out the exterior door. Katsuro was hard on her heels. She could only hope to slip out of his grasp.

They leapt nearly simultaneously from the open porch that ringed the house.

But just as his hand connected with her back — a desperately whispered “Go!” floating through the darkness behind her — and the blue field opened up in front of her, so silent and safe and close…the house exploded around them.

Flaming wood and scalding air shot outwards in a single blinding moment. The force of the blast pitched their bodies into the air with the shattered timbers that were once a house…and then everything went black.

Ears ringing, eyes burning and everything aching, Sakura slowly came to on a pile of burning rubble. She coughed spasmodically. She could hear voices, smell smoke. Orange flames licked up from the debris around her. But in a moment of gut-wrenching clarity, she realized she was alone.

The little girl had been thrown from her arms.

Sakura ignored the pain and pushed herself up, wobbling unsteadily on the debris. Another explosion rocked the ground, but this time it was farther away and somewhat smaller. One of the outbuildings was burning steadily, an orange torch in the night. Sakura used the light to scan for the little girl, desperately hoping she would not find a small lifeless hand sticking from the rubble.

Instead a few blackened figures were rising up from the smoking debris and climbing towards her. Backlit from the burning buildings, their silhouettes looked menacing. Sakura knew instantly these were the men responsible for this destruction.

“There you are….” A malicious voice sounded up the pile of rubble in front of her. Sakura thought one of the shadowed men had found the girl. But when he climbed up onto the wood, his eyes were only on her.

The unholy light of the burning building splashed over him. Choppy black hair and a vicious smile…. He unsheathed a kunai from his leg holster. It smoked ominously. Sakura’s eyes widened.

“That’s right, sweetheart. Recognize me now? We have some unfinished business.”

Sakura tightened her fists. This was the same man that had ambushed her on her last mission.

“Leave her alone!” Katsuro yelled across the debris. He was struggling against a large timber pinning him across his midsection.

“I’m here to make sure the job gets done,” he yelled back cryptically. “But now I can kill two birds with one stone!”

Watching him warily, Sakura dropped into a crouch and wrapped her hand around a plank of splintered wood at her foot. She knew what was coming—

He flung the deadly kunai, smirking and never doubting it’s aim, but was left blinking dumbly when Sakura swung the plank to block it. She pitched the board to the side, then gave a chakra-fueled kick to the smoldering pile of wood he was standing on. The man immediately toppled, smirk gone.

Sakura resumed her desperate search, but more figures were climbing out, hunting as well. Katsuro was pushing ineffectually and yelling at them to stop. Sakura wanted to weep, but she didn’t. She had to find the girl. The men were getting closer.

She decided to use the unstable rubble to her advantage and buy some extra time. She’d use the punching technique Tsunade had taught her to send a shockwave through the debris and jolt the men off it.

Sakura hauled her fist back and concentrated on where to plant her chakra-charged punch. But she didn’t see the shadow rising up behind her.

Katsuro’s voice hurtled across the destruction. “Wei! NO!!!”

A scythe of twisted metal whistled toward her unprotected side. Fist raised, Sakura didn’t see it until it was upon her. She desperately wrenched her torso away to keep the metal strip from plunging into her abdomen and cutting her down. But she was too late.


The jagged metal bit into her side, hooking into her gut and ripping her open. Sakura buckled in pain, her body flashing too many signals to process. Blood spurted out from the enormous gash, all warm and wrong, and cooler night air shot across the exposed skin that was still intact.

“Gotcha,” the man said as he climbed up next to her. She could hear that vicious smile in his voice.

But something else was blurring through Sakura’s mind….

Wei. Katsuro called him Wei. This was the man who attacked her before. Katsuro spoke to him. Katsuro knew him….

Doubled-over, Sakura held her arm over her gut, trying vainly to hold in her life’s fluids which were now spattering down her legs. She reeled at the precipice of the smoldering pile. The taste of blood was in her mouth. She was going cold, and she knew she was going into shock. But all she could think of was Katsuro. Katsuro….

She could still hear him out there, enraged, but his screams sounded watery in her ears. She spit out blood.

She had been so wrong about him. And now she was going to pay the price—

Wei pulled her head back by her hair and growled down into her face, “Didn’t I tell you, all things must come to an end?”

Then he kicked her so hard in the chest it sent her flying backwards off the smoking mound. Her body tumbled, as soft and lifeless as a child’s doll, over the edge and out of sight.

The scene unfolded in front of Katsuro like a nightmare, like a genjutsu even Itachi could never dream up. Wei rose up from the darkness and plunged a twisted shard of roof metal into Sakura’s exposed side.

Katsuro’s anguished scream scattered unheard across the debris. Then Wei kicked her over the side. Blood arced from Sakura’s lifeless body.

And Katsuro had been powerless to stop any of it.

“NO!” he roared, and something inside of him ripped to life. It seared through his chest, burning him up from the inside out. In the heat, the scene in front of him wavered. The blackened timbers blurred into twisted bars. The world was drenched in blood red.

Katsuro kicked off the beam, shredding it with his foot. He climbed over the wreckage, crushing wood under his grip, feeling as if he were free of something holding him back. As if a door inside had blown open. And he was finally to destroy as he knew only he could. As he knew they deserved.

He breathed in this terrifying power, fearing it…but craving it even more.

He roared again in a voice that was not his own. Malevolent chakra rushed away from where he stood in a searing wind, speeding in all directions. The men atop the debris scurried to get away, but Katsuro dropped to all fours.

He did not so much as see the men as he felt their life’s presence…just pulsing spots glowing on the blackened piles. Blood rushed in ears. That pulsing set his heart racing at an unfamiliar pace. His teeth felt sharp and ready to bite, his hands felt ready to rip and tear…. He wanted to snuff those lives out.

He leapt, moving like a blur of orange flame, tearing through each pulsing spot. The last one, Wei a memory whispered, he ripped in two, savoring the gurgle of his last breath. He crouched over the shattered body and growled again, feral and deep. Another blast of burning chakra exploded outward.

But the man’s death wasn’t enough. The demon wanted more.

From the burning barn came a few startled screams. But as more men saw the figure rising from the smoke — the lines of the boy’s body bending and twisting under a malicious cloak of orange chakra, tails flicking out like flames behind him — the screams turned to horror.


Red slit eyes turned at the direction of the name. He growled and leapt, flying like a spark against the blue night sky, and disappearing into the fragmented remains of the farmhouse and the blackened outbuildings.

And it all exploded into an unholy bonfire.

Orange waves of fire and chakra bellowed into the air. Timbers shattered in the heat of the intense fire, sending white hot sparks showering down into the fields and igniting more fires. The whole area lit up like daylight.

But the screams of ‘demon’ were finally extinguished.

A downburst of hot, chakra-charged wind pushed over the wreckage of the farm, down the smoldering debris pile and raked over Sakura before dissipating into the forest. It was nauseating, but it pulled Sakura out of the blackness.

Struggling to stay conscious, Sakura was hit by the wave of thick malicious chakra. Her lungs filled with scorching air. She convulsed, rolled her head to the side and gagged a little, but her mouth thick was with blood and saliva.

She slid her fingers across her bloody stomach, carefully tracing the edge of the wound with her fingers. There an angry tear across the right half of her midsection. She closed her eyes and breathed against the pain, trying to examine how deep the wound went.

She exhaled shakily. It seemed fate was on her side this time.

When her attacker lunged and she moved to dodge him, the debris beneath her shifted. It lessened the blow, by just enough. It was a severe wound, but one she might survive from….

Another wave of chakra sped out. It was so oppressive it was disorienting. Sakura moaned and pushed herself up, realizing that she was in more field than debris pile. She had been thrown clear of the wreckage.

A weak moan came up from the out in the field beside her. Sakura stilled and listened again.

Miraculously, a little foot shifted from beneath a broad plank. Tears of disbelief blurred Sakura’s eyes. Another push of chakra scoured the land. Sakura held on until it passed, but the little girl moaned pitifully. The foot moved again.

The rush of adrenaline helped focus Sakura on what she needed to do. Get the girl, then get as far away from here as she could.

She made her way to the girl and crouched to pull the flat boards off. Sakura gingerly lifted her, clutching her limp body to her, not caring that the child was pressing into her pulsing wound, making the bleeding start anew.

Sakura pushed her fingers into the child, sensing quickly that she was alive, but nothing else. There would be time enough to assess her later. Right now, they had to get out.

A blast of hot wind whipped her. Sakura huddled with the child and waited till it passed. Blood loss and shock and malicious chakra fought against her body and she reeled for a moment. But the warm life in her arms kept her to her purpose. She gulped against the nausea and forced herself to move.

Behind her, there were shouts…no, screams…. At the treeline, Sakura glanced back. She could just make out figures running against the raging firelight.

Katsuro was there, she thought, fighting in the midst of that orange fury. She bit her lip and held in a sob.

But it was all a lie. All of it. This child in her arms was proof of that.

An unearthly growl rumbled from the destruction. Sakura knew another blast was coming. She turned and disappeared into the forest.


The predawn sky was as purple and blue as a bruise. Sasuke and Sai padded through the forest without a word. Neither spoke. There was never a need. They completed their missions methodically and returned home.

They moved through the canopy. Only the first birdsongs were just beginning to pierce the silent, still-dark woods.

Sai saw her first, but it was Sasuke who recognized she wasn’t a civilian, but a shinobi, moving dreadfully slow on the forest floor…and carrying a body….

They dropped down through the trees, circling around to identify her nationality since there was no headband—

If Sai wasn’t with him, Sasuke would have been sure he’d seen a ghost. Cold seized him, his stomach felt like it might heave.

Could this be…. Could this be an Uchiha?

He dropped straight down in front of the woman, landing with an uncharacteristic thud on the path. He startled her so deeply she jerked. The small arms and legs protruding from her clutched arms shook limply.

It wasn’t a ghost…. It was a nightmare…it had to be….

In front of him stood Sakura, but her face was stark white. And her hair, it looked black and nearly glossy…. Or was it wet….

In her arms was a dead child, covered in blood.

She’s one of the Uchiha clan…from that night….

“Sasuke…Sasuke help me…” the apparition wheezed, staggering towards him.

But Sasuke was frozen in shock. Not even Sai’s horrified gasp beside him could rouse him.

Cold fingers gripped his heart. He couldn’t move, couldn’t feel. He could only stare she stumbled forward and pushed the child at him. “Help…help me….”

It wasn’t until she was upon him, dumping the bundle into him, that Sasuke moved his arms reflexively. Catching the child, he was immediately surprised to discover that it was warm…and still alive.

But it was covered with blood—

His eyes fell to Sakura’s gut, where she had been holding the child so closely. There was a wound…no a tear…no a gaping hole in the middle of her body.

Realization crashed down on him then. It wasn’t the child’s blood, it was Sakura’s.

A relieved expression flickered on Sakura’s face as she fell forward into Sasuke as well. Her eyes rolled back into her head, then she was gone.

Gripping the child in one arm, Sasuke used his body to keep Sakura from sliding to the ground.

His heart restarted. This wasn’t a dream. Sakura was near death. They had to get her to Tsunade.

He pushed the child into Sai’s arms, hoisted up Sakura and they flew to Konoha faster than either of them had moved in their lives.