Padding down the tree-lined avenue to the Hokage’s tower, Sakura stepped into the shadow of an old hardwood. Soft light flickered down around her, speckling her arms with blue shadows A few more steps, and she was back out in the dew-bright light of morning, with all of Konoha glistening around her.
Save for the birds and a few other early risers, the streets were empty and quiet. If she were a half-an-hour later, she would have missed the unusual peacefulness of the just-waking village. And the crystalline drops that glinted from the tip of every leaf would have been gone.
Breathing deeply, Sakura tipped her face to the sun, soaking in its warmth. Everything seemed brighter since her return to Konoha. People seemed friendlier, medic training and hospital shifts were easier — even her tedious Team 7 missions were more bearable.
The kunoichi practically floated through her daily routines. And though she would smile and act surprised when anyone remarked on her happy disposition, waving it off with a carefree excuse, Sakura knew with deep certainty where her good mood stemmed from. And she had to remind herself not say anything to anyone, knowing that soon — first weeks, then days — she’d be off on her next mission. And, with any luck, she’d see Katsuro again.
That thought alone had her taking the steps to the Hokage’s office two at a time.
Keeping her eagerness in check, the kunoichi stood patiently at the broad desk, watching Tsunade’s blonde head as she went over some paperwork.
“And you were happy with the last mission, Sakura?” the Hokage questioned, not looking up.
“Yes!” she said with a bright smile. “I thought it went off alright.”
Tsunade sat back and appraised her student. Red nails tapped on the desk for a moment before she picked up a scroll that had recently arrived.
“Well, they were certainly happy with you,” she said, handing her the missive. Sakura read it quickly, flushing at the kind words of the innkeeper.
Tsunade laid her hand over a small pile of scrolls, each end bearing colorful and unfamiliar wax seals. Sakura looked at them with a puzzled frown.
“Word travels fast,” the Hokage said wryly to her apprentice. “You have been requested specifically for several missions.”
Sakura’s eyes went wide.
Tsunade chuckled. “Yes, I think this is enough to keep you occupied well into the autumn. And I’m sure there will be more.”
“Wow….” Sakura said quietly.
Tsunade leaned back in her seat. “And you are still comfortable with these border country missions?”
“Hai, Tsunade-sama,” she said quickly. “These have proved to be no more challenging than the ones within Fire Country.”
The Hokage resumed drumming her fingers on the desk, silently considering the young kunoichi.
Almost imperceptibly, Sakura straightened her shoulders, forcing herself to withstand the scrutiny without flinching. If she had to guess, Tsunade was probably weighing her self-assured words, that she believed herself fully capable to handle these missions, against the risk these requests presented.
Finally, Tsunade blew out a long, low breath, having come to some decision. She sat forward and leveled a stern look at the girl.
“Do not let your guard down. Ever,” she ordered. “Each country, each mission is unique. And I have little way of knowing which of these,” she flicked her fingers at the pile of scrolls, “will cause you the most trouble.”
Sakura nodded deeply.
“Take every precaution. As you well know, you are on your own out there.”
“Hai, Tsunade-sama,” the kunoichi said, pushing down the giddy urge to grin. But in her mind, she contradicted the Hokage. She knew she was no longer alone out there.
“These towns may have no problem begging for assistance,” the Hokage grumbled, “but you don’t have that luxury.”
She slid the pile of scrolls to the center of the desk. “As a Konoha kunoichi, the only ones you can ever trust are your fellow Leaf nins. And some of these will take you quite far from our borders. If you should need aid, it might be several days in getting to you….”
Sakura bowed her head. She took the Hokage’s chiding as it was intended: It was the formidable woman’s way of showing she cared. But she couldn’t ignore the hesitation in Tsunade’s voice.
“I do not take any mission lightly, Hokage-sama,” Sakura said earnestly. “Whether within the Fire Country or without, I always take every precaution. And I will continue to do so.”
The Hokage nodded again. Placated, she reached for the top-most scroll from the pile, and they settled in to review the requests.
The next day, as Sakura set off through the gates of Konoha, she was still mulling over Tsunade’s words.
There was a definite pang of guilt at forging an alliance with a foreign shinobi. But Sakura knew she trusted Katsuro with her life, as much as she would with any other Konoha nin. Though she was venturing into the unknown, she wasn’t afraid in the slightest. Contrary to what Tsunade believed, Sakura knew she wasn’t alone out there.
Sliding the screen closed behind her, Sakura walked down the long, wide-planked porch, oblivious to the lush natural beauty around her.
‘Isn’t this place supposed to be relaxing,’ she thought petulantly, pinching the bridge of her nose.
Sakura stopped, flattened her hands on the smooth wood rail, rolled her shoulders and breathed deeply. The air was warm and sweet, the happy side-effect of steamy vapor from the lauded hot springs. All around the building, leaves quivered. A pleasant burbling echoed up from somewhere beyond the thick vegetation.
The sound of water was everywhere in this resort town. From the bubbling of decorative waterfalls, to the slow hiss of steam from the public baths and private inns, to the steady knocking of the river through the center of town.
But none of that natural tranquility could infiltrate the stifling meeting room. All life ground to a halt in there.
For hours now, she’d sat at one end of a long table lined with greying men, looking on stonily as they tried to hammer out a trade agreement.
All heads of local families…and one young kunoichi. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
The simpering politician at the other end of the table coddled the men, letting their squabbles drag on and on.
No high flying ideals here, she thought, remembering with renewed fondness the spirited innkeeper from her last mission.
She already had a full roster of missions where she was specifically requested, but this was not one of them. Her presence here was only tolerated. Though no one would utter a word of displeasure, Sakura couldn’t ignore the unhappy looks she got from the men.
She wasn’t hired by the town, specifically, but by the one who stood to lose the most: the fawning politician. He wanted to be in everyone’s good graces. And the only way to do that in a town full of bickering clans was to keep everything open and above board.
On the surface, Sakura’s presence made the meeting “official.” But she knew her real purpose was to make sure the men stayed in line. Just being there would dissuade them from any underhanded deals, keep them too afraid to attempt any treachery when they were away from the long, low table.
Drawing one last breath of fresh air, Sakura returned to the oppressive room. She had a whole afternoon ahead of her to sit still and look mean. That thought alone brought back the dull throb of a headache. Resisting the urge to massage her temples, Sakura moved to her seat.
She cast a glance sideways down the glossy table as she walked. The men all wore different colors, different symbols, anything and everything to standout from their neighbors, but to her eye they all looked the same. All shifting eyes and sour expressions. And their contempt for her was second only to their contempt for each other.
But the politician ignored it all. At the other end of the table, he waited till Sakura was seated then swept his arms wide, smiled magnanimously, and began another round of negotiations. Sakura straightened her back, folded her hands in her lap and schooled her features to a formidable facade.
Then slowly, quietly, she set to squeezing the pressure points in her hands.
The long afternoon was a travesty: Hours of bargaining and haggling, only to have all the offers rescinded by the end. The politician smoothed it over, patted everyone on the back, praised their great effort and promised to fine-tune any niggling details tomorrow. Sakura gritted her teeth at the man’s lie; she knew this mission was slated for three more days, at least.
Working hard to remain impassive, Sakura wondered not for the first time how Tsunade carried the weight of an entire village on her shoulders. A few hours of this, and she wanted to pull her hair out.
‘More action, less talk,’ she thought. ‘Guess that’s what makes me a kunoichi, not a politician.’
Sakura took her leave of the still-bickering group, bowing politely as if they’d actually accomplished something that day.
The farther she got from the building, the more rejuvenated she felt. So much so, that by the time reached the inn, Sakura was feeling energetic enough to help the old widow who ran it haul up the water for the night.
Sakura hurried across the courtyard to relieve the woman of her burden.
“Thank you,” she groaned as Sakura eased the buckets from her hands. “I had a hired man, but he’s left to make his fortune.” She smacked her lips in disgust and shuffled toward the rustic inn. Sakura fell in behind her.
“Good-for-nothings these days,” the old woman muttered to herself, winding effortlessly up the rickety stairs. Sakura had more trouble, stumbling several times, water splashing onto the odd-sized steps. But the woman didn’t notice.
“Ready to jump at just the promise of coin,” she grumbled louder, picking up some thought where she’d left it off. “But do you think they would tell me? No. I had to get that piece of news from the fishmonger.”
Never stopping, the innkeeper simply pointed mid-sentence to a corner with a bucket-shaped ring on the floor.
“And she didn’t want to tell me either, but I made her. I said, ‘I can take my business somewhere else. There are plenty of fish in the market.’ And that did the trick. So she said….”
Sakura pushed her lips into a thin line. There was nothing she could do but follow. The old woman nimbly picked her way back down yet another set of uneven stairs to a kitchen area, never relenting in her ramblings.
“News, news,” floated back several times. More like gossip, Sakura thought. This woman could probably wrench a story from a stone. She sighed softly. The old widow loved getting “the news” as much as she loved sharing it. And Sakura was held hostage by a water pail.
Crossing the worn floor, Sakura found the bucket-shaped ring this time without being told. She plunked it down wearily, only aware as she stood that everything was silent. Sakura turned and blinked at the woman. At some point the one-sided conversation had stopped.
“You’re a nice girl,” the old woman said, patting her hand roughly. “Dinner will be ready shortly.”
“Ok,” Sakura said, a little dazed.
Sakura did, in fact, have something she’d like to speak to the woman about. However it warred with her feeling that she should get out of there before the innkeeper had her cooking her own dinner.
But it was important. Sakura was only going to ask about scenic walks, expecting to be given a little privacy in her comings and goings. Now she felt sure she should let the old innkeeper know she planned to go out tonight, and possibly every night. If not, the sharp-eyed woman would surely turn her talents to figuring out what the Konoha kunoichi was about.
Sakura’s mouth curved into a calculating smirk. Perhaps she could try a little of the woman’s craftiness.
“Your town is so lovely,” she gushed. “The prettiest I’ve seen, and I’ve traveled to quite a few places. And the hot springs are delightful. But surely there are more places here that are just as beautiful,” she drawled. “You know, off the beaten path? Like someplace I could take a walk to, maybe after dinner?”
Then Sakura had a stroke of inspiration. “Many villagers ask me about my trips, where I’ve been and where I’ve stayed….” She let the thought hang in the air for a moment. “So anything you could tell me about the area would be greatly appreciated.”
Waving her hand, the widow turned her back to Sakura. The kunoichi thought she might have offended her. But the woman lit up a little fire, straightened, and launched into the virtues of her town.
“I don’t tell everyone this, but I’ll make an exception for you. There are many beauties here, but all the visitors ever think about are the springs, the springs.” The woman scooped up a handful of mushrooms and threw them into the sizzling pan. Then, without turning, she pointed to a jug full of long, fat chopsticks and held out an open hand. “For instance, there is one walk, lined with stones, that takes you high up into the forest….”
Sakura drew a deep breath and began handing over utensils while the old woman cooked and talked. Well, she thought, at least she wasn’t cooking her own meal, just helping.
But she got her information, and more importantly a cover in case she did meet up with the rogue. And the modest meal, though delicious, was soon behind her.
Ducking out of the courtyard, Sakura set off into the hush of early evening. The woman’s directions were accurate: She easily found the graveled walk, lined by a low stone wall, that ran toward the densely wooded hills above the town.
The path crossed a bridge over the sluggish river, but Sakura did not pause at the touted landmark as the innkeeper insisted she should. She kept going, up the ancient stone steps, climbing farther and farther into the blueing hillside.
The kunoichi moved steadily, purposefully. The hope that she’d lived with for the last few weeks surging within her. But as she crunched up the steps, she told herself to be calm. Be realistic. Things don’t always work out.
Wind pushed through the trees and caught her attention. Sakura stopped and breathed deeply, looking back down at the valley. She’d come quite far without even realizing it.
In the dying light, the river looked like a soft green ribbon winding through the town. Plumes of steam hung in the air. Only the red lanterns, just being lit along the streets, shone in soft rose spots through the cottoning drifts.
The town looked as peaceful as its hot springs were reputed to be. But Sakura turned her back on the picturesque valley.
And the view ahead of her stole her breath.
A dense forest of bamboo trees towered over the path, pushing in on either side of the low stone walls. Overhead, the feathery canopy clouded together. If not for the curving graveled walk, the forest would be impenetrable.
Sakura slowed her pace, taking it all in.
All around her, the uniform trunks swayed gently. Vertical lines of every shade of green stretched to the sky, as if each tree were vying for the same scraps of blue.
The wind softened to a whisper. Crunching up the path, Sakura’s footfalls sent thin slivers of leaves swirling from her feet. At the next bend in the walk, the town disappeared completely from view behind her.
Sakura was unexpectedly soothed by the quiet rustle of leaves. No simpering politicians or prattling innkeepers here. Not even the constant sound of water that permeated every corner of the town carried up to this secluded spot.
She had to admit the old woman was right, this was a remarkable place. But Sakura also knew she had to stay on alert.
The lines of bamboo were deceptively beautiful. Any other visitor might be able to marvel unreservedly at the natural symmetry. Yet Sakura’s training kept her from feeling completely at ease.
Looking straight into the woods, all perspective was lost. The rigid emerald lines played tricks on the eyes. Squinting hard, Sakura couldn’t discern where one tree ended and another began.
And the black shadows behind the bamboo were a perfect hiding place. An attacker could be standing mere feet from you, and you simply wouldn’t know it.
However, if she thought like Katsuro, this would be the perfect spot to meet. He could appear in front of her, then dissolve back into the thicket at a moment’s notice.
The cool evening air scattered the papery leaves again, ruffling the edge of her hair. But the breeze that stirred around her throat was a little warmer, more tangible. Somehow, it reminded her of him. Perhaps he was here—
“Sakura,” a voice came softly from the trees behind her.
She spun around, already smiling.
Katsuro stepped out from between the long lines of bamboo and stopped, one hand coming to rest on a fallen trunk that slanted in front of him like a bar.
With his other hand shoved carelessly in his pocket, he looked at her differently than he had in the past. Instead of his characteristic enthusiasm, Katsuro fixed her with a long, steady gaze. Like she was the only thing in the world. Sakura’s cheeks felt suddenly warm.
Katsuro’s shoulders rose and fell with a slow breath. It was as if something unwound inside him. As if some anxiousness or unease had abated. Never coming a step closer, Katsuro seemed content just to watch her, only a small half-smile slowly curving up his mouth. But his soft eyes held a measure of warmth that Sakura could nearly feel.
Sakura understood his look. He was grateful she had come. He must have doubted her, she thought.
She smiled tenderly back, guessing at what he would not tell her. That he had waited for her, hoping she would show up but not knowing if she would. Alone in these woods, with only doubt to keep him company. And the hope that she would keep her word.
But Sakura had a mission to do. For her, it was unthinkable not to come here. More than just an pretty promise, her mission was a hard-and-fast obligation, unchangeable. He was the one who came and went as he pleased.
But perhaps he didn’t think about those things. Her eyes trailed down the comfortable curves of his form, the only break in the unyielding lines of bamboo. Perhaps, she thought with a stab of sympathy, he was out here only thinking about her.
Katsuro broke the stillness with a single nod of his head, beckoning her silently to come with him.
Snapping out of her thoughts, Sakura smiled back warmly. One hand on the low stone wall, she hopped over into the wilderness.
Sakura threaded through the bamboo trunks until she reached the slanted one. Then, ducking under that final obstacle, she looked up into Katsuro’s smiling face. His familiar grin had returned. She matched it with a happy smile of her own. And, turning together, they disappeared into the swaying green bamboo thicket.
The rest of the mission fell away uneventfully. The only thing that made the daily tedium bearable was looking forward to seeing Katsuro each night.
And though she didn’t so much as dip a toe into a hot spring while she was there, the long evenings spent in conversation above the glowing town were as soothing as any steaming bath could possibly be.
Their tentative trust was a thing of the past; they carried on as if they were inseparable partners. And it felt like they were. They laughed at each other, listened to one another’s experiences…and steered clear of off-limits topics.
Katsuro shared some colorful stories about people he’d encountered in his travels. And Sakura cringed at some of his close scrapes. But in every story, she was pleased that his good nature carried him through. He was never cruel when he didn’t have to be, and many times he helped when he could.
He recounted a story about repairing a fruit vendor’s awning, and though he only gave the barest details, Sakura could tell he had done the old woman a great kindness. It reinforced her belief that he was a good person trapped in a bad situation.
It also struck her that his stories were of him only, by himself. She knew he had no friends in Itachi’s band of thugs. And though he happily recounted these solo missions, Sakura couldn’t help but think that his life seemed very empty.
So Sakura shared more about her her village and her friends. She filled the air around them with the activity of her life, as if he were a part of it. As if he should know the people and places she knew so well.
Sakura told him about the new things she’d learned in the two years they’d been apart. She spent a fair amount of time talking about her medical training, how much time she spent in the hospital and how much she learned about healing the body. He was rapt.
“Do you take classes,” he asked, face bathed in the orange glow from the tiny fire he’d lit. “Like in your academy?”
“Nah,” she said, giggling at the thought. “Most medics are civilians, but some are nins. And some of those nins are part of a corp receiving special training from the Hokage herself.”
“Your leader’s a girl?” he snickered, teasing her. When Sakura frowned, ignoring him, he only laughed more. He’d forgotten that riling her up always gave him a little zing of pleasure.
She finally chuckled too, then kicked his foot. “She’s not a girl, she’s a warrior, and she’d kill you if she ever heard you say that.” Sakura’s tone dropped. “She’s got a ferocious temper.”
Katsuro reached off into the darkness beside him, feeling around for more firewood.
“She was one of the Legendary Sannin you know,” Sakura continued.
Not turning back, Katsuro shrugged as if he didn’t care. Truthfully, he didn’t know.
“Tsunade-sama fought against Hanzo…. The leader of the Rain Village.”
Momentarily confused, Katsuro’s hand froze above a thin branch.
“You know, way back in the Second Shinobi War…?”
Oh. Way back….
Collecting himself, he grabbed a handful of twigs then turned without speaking and fed them into the fire.
But Sakura studied his profile, still waiting for some kind of response.
He snapped a twig and pitched it on, watching it smolder. There was simply nothing he could say. Inwardly he bristled at this history of the Leaf. A history which he knew nothing of, but that he was a product of none-the-less.
“Well,” Katsuro grumbled finally, “your leader must be an old battle axe then.” He hoped his insult would shift the topic back to things he did have some opinion about.
“Oh no, she’s not—”
“Probably mean as a snake, too” he continued, unable to stop the old anger from bubbling to the surface.
“Yeah, I can guess. She’s just an old bi—”
“Hey!” Sakura snapped at him.
Katsuro shut his mouth and shifted his eyes away. Hopefully he appeared contrite, even if he didn’t feel it. He knew better than to talk about these things.
Mildly exasperated, Sakura moved to correct the bad impression she must have given. “Tsunade-sama is tough, but she’s fair. All the Konoha nins respect her, or are afraid of her. And she’s taken me on as her apprentice, which is a great honor.”
He shoved a few more branches into the fire, not meeting Sakura’s gaze.
“And she’s the one who sent me on these missions,” Sakura said, tapping her shoe against his.
He dug his heels into the dirt and sighed. Point taken.
“So you’re her apprentice?” Katsuro quietly rejoined, in lieu of an apology.
He had no idea what the honor was, but he let her talk about it anyway. It was better than him reopening old wounds for no purpose, with the added injury of losing time with her.
So he tried hard to listen. Which wasn’t as hard a task as he thought it might be after the unexpected flare of his temper. Just as in the quiet temple two summers before, Katsuro found himself drawn in by her stories.
He even went so far as to ask about some of the cast of characters he remembered, bug boy and dog boy among them. The recollections set Sakura laughing. Her stories, his nicknames, it was a good combination.
Katsuro flicked a twig into the fire. He couldn’t ignore the irony that Konoha had become some kind of common ground for them.
It also helped that he learned so quickly from his mistakes. Now if she referenced historical events, political events, anything he wasn’t sure of, he would just smile and nod. And the twinge of guilt he felt was brief.
But watching her recount a tale — firelight dancing across her face, shadows pooling around her mouth as she spoke, eyes glittering as she looked off recalling some forgotten detail — he realized that there was so much more she knew about the world.
He had traveled nearly everywhere, encountered every kind of lowlife imaginable. But she dealt with people he simply never thought about: the innkeeper…the children. Katsuro only paid attention to those who could kill him. Or capture him, he added darkly. The rest was just a blur.
But Sakura saw the bigger picture. She saw what others didn’t — or wouldn’t. He remembered the children on her last mission. She made a difference in their lives, brought them out of the darkness of their existence.
He breathed deeply. The memory suddenly brought to mind his own experience with her, throwing the windows open to the paneled room in the temple.
He may have known how to climb up that damned mountain, but it took her showing him what was there for him to truly appreciate it.
Katsuro leaned back, elbows sinking into the soft earth.
His mind often wandered through that brilliant painting. Sometimes he recalled the raucous illustrations of village life, the good and the bad. Sometimes he pondered on the mission of the monk, the one with the strange eyes. The one who battled the demon, his thoughts always whispered.
But most times he thought about the first panel. Her panel. Where the blossoming cherry tree stood alone on the rock, arcing out to touch the swirling waters.
Or did it? He wasn’t sure.
Remembering it always made him feel cool, soothed, like somehow he had become part of the painting. Or maybe, he amended, the painting had become part of him.
Sighing deeply, Katsuro clasped his hands behind his head and stretched back against the ground.
He wished now he’d gone back in one last time to see the painting. Really look at it. Not just to close the room up. Then he would know for certain whether the two touched—
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?” Sakura’s teasing voice cut across his thoughts. She tipped her head and slanted a knowing look at him.
Katsuro sat up immediately and grinned, rubbing the back of his neck.
Sakura shook her head, laughing at him. The movement dislodged a wayward curl from behind her ear.
“I…ah…. I was thinking about your hair,” he blurted out. Sakura’s eyes widened in surprise, but he had to keep going. “I liked it shorter. But…I like it the way it is now, too.” He cleared his throat. “I like it, I guess, is what I’m trying to say.”
Even in the flickering glow of the firelight, Sakura’s face betrayed her opinion of his stumbling compliment. Her cheeks looked a little more pink than they had been.
Katsuro smiled, covering his small, steadying breath. It was the truth, he did like her hair. Very much actually. He hadn’t been dishonest.
A truth to hide the other truths. That’s not a deception, is it?
“Tell me the last part again,” he said smoothly. “I don’t want to miss a thing.” And he gave her an encouraging smile.
After a moment, Sakura curled the hair back, pulled her knees up and started again.
Katsuro stretched his arms out behind him, letting his fingers spread wide into the soft earth, and gave Sakura his full attention. He only moved when the low fire grew too warm on the fronts of his legs.
Sakura’s last night they made definite plans to meet again. Sitting beside the small fire, she listed off the locations of her next three missions. The three after were not as firm, but she shared those locations too.
Katsuro listened quietly, eyes focused, obviously memorizing her schedule. He rubbed his hand over his mouth, thinking. But as he offered no other assurances that he’d meet her, other than his initial question about where she’d be next, Sakura found she couldn’t bear the silence.
“I should be going,” she said softly. He only nodded, and began putting out the fire.
As they walked out of the thicket, Sakura wondered if this was where their pleasant harmony would fail. Surely Katsuro couldn’t meet her for all of them.
Though he’d never breathed a word of what he was doing, other than “errands,” Sakura knew how his group operated. And Katsuro was not so low-down in their ranks to escape notice. His presence could be demanded at any time, and his absence would be a huge target for those bastards he was with.
Doubt crept in with the thoughts about the rest of his group. Maybe Katsuro was just being polite. Maybe he knew he couldn’t meet her at all.
So she decided to give him a way to back out. And she could look forward to just functioning as a normal nin on a normal mission. Nothing to hide, no fear of discovery. And she wouldn’t hold onto the hope of seeing him.
Sakura bit her lip. It was unfortunate that she realized all this only after she’d disclosed the locations of the next three missions.
But she trusted him, she reminded herself.
Reaching the wall, she swung one leg, then the next, over. Dusting her hands, she turned back to face him, still on the other side. “It’s ok, if you can’t make it. I won’t—”
“No, I’ll be there,” Katsuro said firmly. “I’ll figure it out somehow…. But I’ll be there.”
She recognized that look of determination. Even in the dim light.
Sakura smiled, doubt wiped away. He meant what he’d said. He’d move heaven and earth to be there.
“Ok,” she said simply.
They quietly worked out a system — she would take a walk, he’d find her — then she hurried back down the gravel path to the inn.
‘This can work. This can work!’ Sakura chanted inwardly as she landed on each step. She felt almost giddy. And the good feeling stayed with her.
Not one to miss anything, the old widow noticed her high spirits the next morning.
“Our waters have brought a glow to your face,” the woman crowed and reached up to give Sakura a hard pinch on her cheek. Her black eyes fairly glistened with pride. “When your villagers ask you why you look so pretty, you make sure to send ’em my way!”
Sakura’s eyes stung with tears, and when the woman finally let go, she massaged her fingers into the sore spot. She tried to smile politely, but it came out looking like a grimace.
Sakura was grateful, however. The red mark covered the guilty blush that had instantly risen in her cheeks. If the woman caught on to her embarrassment, she’d probably make her stay another night trying to find out the story behind it.
Sakura smiled tightly, but the woman just laughed at her and bid her safe travels. And the buoyant feeling stayed with her long after the pain in her cheek subsided.
Through the summer months, Sakura’s missions came and went in a blur. None were difficult, all were forgettable.
If not for Katsuro’s smiling face, the tasks would have held no pleasure at all.
And to her surprise, he made it to every one. Often catching her on the way, before their evening meet-up. Which seemed to delight him to no end.
Sakura discovered that Katsuro was quite a prankster.
He would pop out from behind a tree and fall into step with her. Sit on a limb and drop leaves down around her. Creep up behind and throw pebbles at her.
That was a particular favorite of his.
Sakura would continue on as if she didn’t feel the tiny stones ping off her shoes or shoulder. Then she’d whip around, sure she’d catch him, but the lane behind her would be suspiciously empty.
Holding perfectly still, Sakura would listen hard to the sounds. The rustle of leaves, whisper of grasses. And beneath that was laughter.
She knew if she waited long enough, the soft snickering would always give him away.
Sakura had long ago learned to check the passerby or noise thoroughly before she drew her kunai. More times than not it was Katsuro.
But she’d learned that lesson the hard way.
Unknown to Sakura, Katsuro was waiting ahead on a trade road for her — “I was completely surprised too, Sakura-chan. I swear it! And there was just nothing I could do to stop it!” — when the perfect opportunity for a prank approached him from behind.
Katsuro ducked off the road only to see a farmer pass by who looked just as wrinkled and ridiculous as one of his disguises. A wild thought struck — he bet Sakura would think the same thing. Hand clamped over his mouth to keep from giggling, Katsuro positioned himself behind another tree and waited for the inevitable to happen.
And, just as he’d hoped, the unsuspecting kunoichi fell for it. Sakura stopped the hapless old farmer, circling around him for some conversation. From his vantage point, Katsuro could clearly see her smirk, her knowing look. She was sure it was Katsuro. She even shook the cart, apparently teasing him about toppling the cart over weeks before in the barley field.
But when the man hollered out “Help!” to anyone that could hear, Sakura’s face went slack. And that’s when the real fun began.
Katsuro nearly doubled over laughing.
Sakura finally managed to untangle herself from the mess that ensued, sending the frazzled man on his way. Straightening her shirt, dusting her skirt, Sakura started back up the road, visibly relieved no one witnessed her mistake. It was only then that Katsuro stepped forward, one hand still propped on the tree, the other clutching his stomach, barely able to catch his breath from laughing so hard.
Sakura’s face burned red. She feigned anger, but it didn’t last. And his good humor was infectious.
Katsuro wanted to know all about what the man said, if she’d even noticed his increasingly uncomfortable looks. And then what she thought when he finally screamed to the treetops “Help!” and “Don’t kill me!” and — his personal favorite — “Just take the cart!”
But Sakura wouldn’t give him the joy of talking about it. She pointedly ignored him, and pretending to be overly focused on the whatever was growing at the edge of the road.
So Katsuro took it upon himself to recount his favorite moments. He mimicked her apology with glee, one hand grasping his shirt, the other flailing in the air. “But sir, I don’t want your cart. I’m not going to hurt you!” he called out in an absurd falsetto.
Sakura rolled her eyes. And tried hard not to smile.
“And then when you ran after him—”
“Alright,” Sakura said.
“And had to drag him back to the cart—”
“It’s really not that funny,” she interjected.
“And tell him that you weren’t going to, going to—” he choked on a laugh. Sakura sighed and shook her head, not even trying to stop him.
“That you weren’t going to kill him!” He dissolved into laughter, wiping the tears from the corners of his eyes.
“I’m glad you think this is so funny,” she said, trying to sound as dismissive as she could. But she couldn’t quite keep the smile out of her voice.
“Just think, Sakura-chan,” he said sobering, eyes finally clear enough to see the road ahead. “He’ll be talking about this for years to come. The time he was accosted on the road by a strange pink-haired thing that nearly killed him. And how he barely managed to escape.”
The rest of that mission, Sakura would catch him chuckling to himself. Very soft and low, but Sakura knew what it was about. And he’d look back at her, eyes twinkling, obviously replaying some moment for the hundredth time.
Katsuro finally admitted that his favorite bit was the man’s ridiculous panic-stricken face when she inadvertently brushed her thigh kunai as she moved to wave farewell. Eyes bulging with fear, the man bolted down the road, junk flying out of his cart, with only a dust cloud trailing behind him. Leaving Sakura standing in the road, yellow clouds swirling around her, hand stuck awkwardly out to the side in mid-wave.
That part got the most laughs from Katsuro, even days later. Sakura still just rolled her eyes. And tried even harder not to laugh along with him.
On her walks to and from her destinations, Sakura’s mind inevitably turned to the rogue. So much of his life was a blank to her. Which was strange because she felt like she knew him so well.
Sometimes she just forgot that he even had a life outside of the time they shared together. He certainly made her feel like his errands and obligations to Itachi weren’t as important to him, and she was inclined to believe him.
But there was still so much she didn’t know. His background, his likes and dislikes, his hopes for the future. His abilities.
That last thought snagged her. What exactly was his power?
Sakura smiled to herself. In that way Katsuro reminded her very much of Sasuke. Young and capable, self-reliant and exceedingly cagey. But where she had some idea of Sasuke’s skill, Katsuro’s she did not.
Yet she knew Katsuro was powerful, and not just because he could cast a nasty genjutstu. No, there was something about him that set men twice his size on edge. She remembered the way the bastards in his group treated him two summers before. Katsuro was in charge, and they hated him for it. But they wouldn’t defy him.
Maybe it wasn’t power. Maybe it was fear of Katsuro’s master that ruled the men.
After all, Sakura thought, biting her lip, he did seem to be in Itachi’s inner circle. She dropped here eyes to the tips of her dusty shoes, moving relentlessly over the gravel road. The memories just that man’s name dredged up were chilling; she pushed them away.
A scuffling sound on the road ahead brought her back to the present. The object of her happier thoughts appeared before her.
Katsuro had been waiting off the lane, leaning against a fence post. He only hopped up when he saw her approaching.
But even from a distance, Sakura she could tell something was wrong.
None of his customary pranking or disguises this time. Katsuro stood, hands slung in his pockets, shoulders slumped forward. Instead of looking at her, he kicked at the dust while he waited.
When he finally did look up, he had an apologetic look on his face.
“I can’t make it this time,” he said before she’d even reached him. “For your mission. I have to be too far away and…. It just won’t work out.”
“That’s ok,” she smiled back, watching him as she closed the distance. He wouldn’t hold her gaze, though.
“I have a few hours, but that’s it,” he said, falling in to step without looking at her.
Sakura glanced sideways. She didn’t think it was that big a deal. Disappointing, but at least they got to see each other.
Yet his mood was absolutely blue.
Sakura knew it would be unkind to laugh, even though she wanted to.
Scuffing beside her, he was completely at odds with the gorgeous late summer day. Everything around them was brilliant and colorful.
The land rolled away on either side, patchwork crops vied for space around wooded hillocks. Brightly colored flowers jostled with twining vines and weeds in the narrow ditches along the road. But the happy cacophony of sights was lost on her companion.
Katsuro looked like he was walking under an invisible rain cloud.
But Sakura refused to share in his doldrums. “Well, I am early. So we can spend the day together.”
He shrugged one shoulder.
“It will be nice to see you in the daylight again,” she said, hoping for some response. But she got none.
It really was like being with Sasuke, she thought. But the novelty was quickly fading. Working through how to shake him of his low mood, Sakura looked across the valley.
Mind wandering, Sakura spied an appealing hill, not too far off the road, ringed by crops and woods. At the rounded top stood a lone old tree. It’s massive crown cast nearly the whole hilltop in shade.
She had an idea. “Come on,” she said.
He only had a second to frown before she pushed his shoulder into an abrupt turn and forced him off the road.
“Did you see something,” he whispered as they tromped over the bristling stalks of a field left fallow.
She smiled and only offered a cryptic response. “No.”
“Then where are we—”
Sakura shrugged, turning her head away to hide her growing grin.
“You’ll just have to trust me,” she said in a sing-song voice.
That finally drew a soft chuckle from him. There wasn’t much to hide. She knew he’d be able to figure out where they were headed soon enough.
But he couldn’t guess what she had planned.
‘That will rattle him out of his bad mood,’ she thought with glee.
Midday sun bearing down on them, they climbed the hill in silence. Both had to wipe the light sheen of sweat from their faces when they finally reached the cool shade.
Sakura turned to the tree, shedding her travel pack and kicking off her boots at the base of the trunk.
Katsuro merely stood, hands in his pockets, and looked all the way around. The breeze blew unimpeded over the spot, occasionally shivering the leaves overhead. He breathed in, trying to unwind from his disappointment.
A shift in schedule, the direct result of someone else’s mistake, had Katsuro doing twice as much work. It sucked. And for the first time, he just didn’t want to do it.
There was somewhere else he’d rather be.
Katsuro breathed deeply, wiping the sweaty tips of hair from his forehead before plunking his hands back to his hips. Just thinking about that shit was robbing him of more time with her.
He was hoping to pull his thoughts together into some kind of explanation, when he caught a flutter of movement out of the corner of his eye.
If he hadn’t turned his head just then, he would have missed seeing Sakura, barefoot in the grass, knees bent, hands curled into fists and a wicked grin on her face.
And she would have walloped him.
“H-Hey!” he yelled as she launched at him.
He had only a split-second to jump out of harm’s way. Sakura meant to tackle him, wrap her arms around his midsection and take him to the ground. But he dodged her, then turned to look at her with a surprised smile.
Sakura recovered beautifully, showing she wasn’t really as serious about taking him down as she appeared.
“I knew that would get you!” she said, laughing.
Feet spread sturdily in the cool grass, hands on her hips, Sakura looked like the defiant girl he’d remembered from the old merchant road two summers before. Except this time there were no children hiding behind her. And her smile was all for him.
He let the warmth of it lift his spirits, wash away all the rest. A corner of his mouth tugged up.
“Care to spar?” she drawled.
Sakura cracked her knuckles, stretched her arms. Katsuro shook his head, rubbed a callused hand over the back of his neck.
“It’s been a while,” Sakura said smugly, “so I’ll try to go easy on you.”
How could he resist?
Not even bothering to take off his shoes, Katsuro lunged for her, grinning toothily. He wasn’t sure which he wanted more: to catch her and never let go, or see her evade him and demonstrate her skill. She made the choice for him by deftly slipping from his grasp.
And they set to beating each other up properly.
A good hour later, Sakura was beginning to feel the effects of a fighting on a summer day. The burn of exertion was in her lungs, and her limbs felt loose and warm.
But damn did she enjoy it.
Katsuro winged a fist at her. No chakra, no anything. He was just giving her an opening, seeing what she would come up with.
Sakura darted away. But his movements brought Sasuke to mind, for the third time that day. Her dark-haired teammate would have used her minute sluggishness to his advantage. He would have gone for the kill. Sasuke never gave his opponent any opening — even if it was his own teammate.
He took his time, set up punches and gauged her reactions. Eyes following her every move, Katsuro watched her closely, looking for patterns. She could see it now. It gave her the illusion of control, but really he was waiting until just the right moment.
By this point, Sasuke would have powered through, ended the fight by sheer force.
But this was nice, enjoyable even. The wind licking up her hair, toes sinking into the long grass. She paused for a moment to catch her breath.
Katsuro stood waiting in front of her, blue sky framing him, his brown hair wild and tousled from avoiding her blows.
“Come on, don’t hold back,” he said with that familiar smile, the one that crinkled up the corner of his eyes.
Sakura tipped her head back and laughed in spite of herself. The wind danced warm and soft around her throat in that same familiar way she was beginning to associate with Katsuro.
Only he could make an invitation to fight sound happy, she decided. Like it was what he wanted more than anything in the world.
“All right, if you insist!” she lilted, and came at him again.
If she were at home, she thought, feinting a blow to get him into better position, Sasuke would already have his sharingan activated. Fights with him just weren’t fun.
But this was taijutsu, it was supposed to be fun. Katsuro evaded her punch easily, refusing to be trapped.
His slippery techniques set her thinking. She wondered offhandedly if she could drive him to reveal any of his skill. Find out what other tricks he had up his sleeve.
Sakura went at him with renewed vigor, trying to work him to some sort of response with quick jabs to his core. Katsuro moved with her, shuffling backwards, letting her punches connect.
Sakura could tell he was subtly shifting the fight again, drawing her in, leading her on. He simply didn’t reveal anything. She shifted her weight at the last moment, disrupting the pattern of her jabs to surprise him. But he surprised her instead.
Katsuro took the punishing blows, but was able to establish a pattern. That was when he knew she’d be weak, when he knew he could take her down.
She shifted her stance, an impulse decision on her part to pummel the ribs on his other side. But it didn’t matter to him. He took her blows because it meant her hands and upper body were occupied. And when they were, she’d forget about her legs.
So when she swung around for his other side, he knew the fight was his.
Katsuro hooked her leg and pulled her off balance. Simultaneously he planted his palm into the hollow of her shoulder, knocking her backwards. There was nothing left to do but fall with her, letting his weight push them both over.
They were down in a disorienting instant. But for Katsuro, at least, the fall wasn’t a complete surprise. He caught himself at the last second. Slanted across her body, he shot his other arm out to cushion their fall. But she still landed with an “oof.”
Katsuro hoisted himself up on one arm, locking it at his elbow, and searched her face to make sure she wasn’t hurt.
The force of the impact did push Sakura’s breath out in an unnatural gasp, but moment later she smiled. She was ok. She looked up at him laughing in silent acknowledgment that he’d gotten her.
Katsuro slowly released the breath he’d been holding.
He knew he should move. That would be the prudent thing to do. But he just couldn’t.
Laughing lightly along with her, Katsuro told himself he was making sure she was alright. But really, he couldn’t tear his eyes from her.
Pink hair fanned out around her, tangling with the long grass that streamed away under her head. Still laughing, Sakura shifted her gaze from Katsuro to the sky above him. For a moment, Katsuro could see the reflection of clouds streaked across her green eyes.
Sakura looked back to his face, pinning him with her open gaze. He could not read the look he saw there. It was tender and somehow…inviting. And altogether confusing.
He could not hold it, though, and lowered his eyes to her cheeks. The pale freckles had returned. He remembered them from their trek across the desert, but he was happy to see them now, knowing that her travels were much happier—
Suddenly, the horizon went spinning. Katsuro’s locked elbow gave way, and he found himself being flipped off of her. He thudded onto his back with a loud “oof.”
In a blink, a laughing blur of pink hair was hovering above him, completely filling his vision.
Katsuro’s breath caught. That sweet, confounding look was only a distraction. Now she pinned him, hands on his arms, her weight fully across his midsection, holding him down. Her triumphant laughter reverberated in his gut.
Sakura was still distracting him, but he’d gladly lose every time if this was how it ended. Katsuro chuckled too, in spite of himself.
At length, Sakura stood, dusted herself off, then helped him to his feet. They walked shoulder to shoulder back to the tree. And the self-satisfied smirk never left Sakura’s face.
Sakura flopped into the soft grass beneath the tree, turning to take in the sweeping view. Katsuro lowered himself down beside her and breathed deeply.
The land rolled away from their feet. A broad yellow valley unfolded beneath them, rippling up with tufted green patches here and there. The fresh scent of barley and earth and summer swept up on the air to meet them. The leaves above them rustled as the breeze passed.
Katsuro turned his head slightly and caught Sakura enjoying the view as well.
He had seen lots of things, lots of places and people. Things just came and went for him, slipping away. He was so used to it, he didn’t even notice. And until now, until she came into his life, he didn’t care.
But this moment, sitting next to her, under the tree, he thought he’d like to hold onto this. He didn’t want this to slip away.
Sunlight sifted down through the canopy. Moving his foot sent a cricket into the air, light catching it’s gossamer wings as it whirred away from them indignantly. They both chuckled, watching it’s path, and Sakura returned her gaze to the wide valley with another comfortable sigh. She stretched her arms out behind her, her legs out in front of her. But Katsuro kept his eyes on her.
He wished that he could tell her, show her how much these little things meant to him. Something. Anything to mark this self discovery. The difference she’d made in his life.
The easy summer breeze skittered across them again, snagging the edges of their clothes. Sakura shook her hair lightly, let the wind pick it up. A few locks were still plastered to the back of her neck.
But the rest fell easily over her shoulder, exposing that little slip of neck Katsuro had seen two summers ago during their time at the temple.
He had a sudden ridiculous desire to touch it, run his fingers down that spot, see if it was as soft as it looked. The pink tendrils at her throat wavered in the stray breeze. Sakura closed her eyes and breathed in.
Katsuro breathed in too, and held the breath, biting his lip. He wanted to move closer, touch her, make a physical connection, deepen the moment. Hold onto it a little longer.
But before he had drawn the courage to scoot closer, do something, do anything, she spoke.
“This is perfect,” Sakura said, breathing out, shoulders relaxing.
She slid her head to the side and looked straight at him, eyes full and round and green.
“Being here,” she smiled shyly, “with you. Doing all this stuff together,” she said, picking up a handful of grass and letting it fall into the wind. “It’s just perfect,” she said, looking back out across the field.
And that settled it.
It was perfect. He didn’t want to spoil it. He didn’t want to push her for more, just to have her ask questions he couldn’t answer. But right here, this spot, this moment, the soft grass, the green leaves, her sun-speckled cheeks and the reflection of clouds in her eyes…this was perfect.
And no matter what he wanted, he wouldn’t burst that bubble. He would just try to hold it for as long as he could.
If he could pin time in one place, this would be it. He didn’t want to move, breathe, do anything that would disturb this fragile harmony. The angle of light was prismatic; for him, it banished the dark.
“Yeah, it is perfect.” Katsuro said softly, leaning away from her. He slid his hands out behind him and propped up his knees. Then with a sigh, he watched the shadows of clouds move in slow blue blots across the field.
They sat in the grass, in silence, for a long time, each looking out at the rolling land. Neither wanting to move.
The afternoon air was warm and sweet. Crickets were beginning to whir around them. The sun moved over the valley, then slowly began its descent, filling the sky with hazy light. The edge of the tree’s shadow gradually crept toward their feet.
Katsuro flopped back in the grass with a huff and shut his eyes, wishing stupidly that he could stop time.
Sakura laughed. He cracked an eye to look at her.
“I wish every day could be like this,” she said in agreement.
And it did make him feel a little better. To know that she felt the same has him, in some small way. It made him feel connected to her, even though in the end, the day had slipped away like all the others.
“Me too,” he sighed.
Sakura stood and stretched her back, brushed the grass off her skirt.
“So I won’t see you this time,” she said matter-of-factly. She didn’t wait for his answer, instead turning to gather her things from the base of the tree.
Katsuro stood slowly. The bubble had burst. Though they were on the hill, side by side, their thoughts were already moving them away from one another.
“No,” he said quietly. No matter what he wanted, there was simply no way to make his schedule work. The frustration was still unsettling.
But more than that, there was the growing tug inside that he was having a hard time ignoring. He wanted to go with her. When faced with the choice, he’d rather be with her than fulfilling his obligations. When had his world tipped upside-down?
“Then I’m glad we got to spend today together,” she said, returning to stand next to him, smiling into his face.
Her sunny expression, free of complications, coaxed a wistful smile from him.
“Me too,” he said, answering honestly. He wanted to tell her more, but he couldn’t find the words. He didn’t even know where to begin.
“I—” they both started at the same time. “Go ahead,” he insisted. He had nothing, and even that was overshadowed by the things he knew he could not tell her.
“I can’t wait till next week,” Sakura said with a bright smile.
He may have been worried about what to tell her, and what not to reveal, but she wiped it all away. Wherever she was, she would be looking forward to seeing him. Once again, he was at a loss to express just how warm it made him feel. Her easy acceptance was a gift.
A soft breeze ruffled the hair along her shoulders, curled up the tendrils at her throat. Sakura smiled sweetly, almost knowingly, at him.
“Yeah,” he said with a lopsided smile, “I can’t wait till next week either.” Words were simply failing him that day.