If anyone remembers me from when I posted as StormDragon666 (because that name was funny to me in 2005 when I made it), I'm still here. Always wanted to keep writing but could not for a very long time. A monster-human romance is incoming. Here's a long chapter for you, a long journey. Please tell me what you think of it, story-wise, writing-wise, character-wise. Give it to me. (This story is cross-posted to AO3 under my name Umbreon_ly if you prefer to read there.)
SUM: "When she was a child, Sakura held Ino's hand. And then she held weights and guns and a steel bat. Then she killed a monster with her bare hands. One of them saw her that day, with blood up to her elbows and it began to follow her. For days. For years.
Sakura is forced into a life of traveling in desperation to seek fellow refugee of a disaster that annihilated Konoha. Forced to move and fight and learn and ride where her journey bids her. Forced to watch a red-eyed beast pursue her across the wilds and over civilizations. Forcing herself to believe the road has an end and she will have happiness if she bleeds for it."
"I'd sail before a thousand moons
Never finding where to go."
- "Sleeping Sun" - Tuomas Holopainen
A long way backwards in time there was Ino, all of eight years old, perched on her bed and prattling in her ear. She held Sakura's shapeless hair in her hand and brushed, brushed, brushed as her own mother had taught her. She shared with Sakura how to comb hair to make it pretty. Through her, Sakura learned how to braid. She learned much of her sense from Ino.
The year after they met, they managed to stay together in school without fail. Every day they followed the line of children and chaperones and lanterns till they made it into a bright, bright school building with pretty lights and decorations that the two of them ogled together. Do it, do it, do it, chanted Ino to Sakura nearly every day, until Sakura did something that made her stand taller or talk louder or move faster. With Ino prodding her back, she won the math competition. She started winning the games. She was good at shouting, good at math. She loved to hold Ino's hand.
Sometimes when dark visited during the day, she invited Ino to spend the hours at her house and they played and shouted till it was night and they tired themselves into sleep. Once, men carrying heavy equipment came to the door to speak to Sakura's parents and were answered by two young girls splattered with talentless makeup. Sakura pretended not to be embarrassed. Another skill from Ino.
At school they were taught probing and gardening. Ino hid behind her friend's legs and the plaster pots of young squash and wrote a letter to a boy she liked. She passed it to Sakura, who balled it up and threw it at him. He jumped and started and almost fell. The teacher had them sit in a corner. They did, and laughed and grinned and sometimes stomped their feet. Another boy who had started to eat the cucumber sample ended up joining them. The three of them laughed together.
You're the worst, Ino said, still giggling and fighting tears. You're the best, Sakura said back.
Or perhaps that was reverse order. She didn't remember which of them said which phrase, but she knew she bumped against Ino's shoulder, like friends do, and she was happy to be there. Her parents would hear of it and they would fuss but today she didn't mind. She might have been twelve today. Thirteen?
By the time she was thirteen, the men in heavy gear started coming to everyone's door. Frequently. She knew they were the ones who regularly went out in dark time and patrolled streets and other masculine things like that, but their constant banging on the door angered her. Once she opened the door and told them to be quiet, her mom was napping. The squad leader slapped her and shoved her out of the way.
Later, she cried. Her mother held ice to a bruise on her cheek. She shivered. She was ashamed. Her mother never wavered in the face of such stress, she never cried, she always spoke to the men like she was the one who held a gun.
She was plenty old enough now to not be sheltered, and she knew what was outside, in a way, but her mother told her everything she knew that night. Sakura learned that the funny man who owned Ichiraku downtown didn't close his business and move last year. Something had crawled into his building and eaten his food stores, spilled the wine in his cellar and eaten his barrels and then eaten him. The townsfolk did not go near his building and the men with guns demolished the building the next morning. It wasn't in the newspaper after, but everyone knew—but Sakura, apparently—that the day after, a strange man was pacing in front of the ruined brick. The same men came back and killed him. He was eight feet tall and as expected, it was not a man at all.
This kind of thing happens a lot, said her father.
This kind of thing had happened in the next down over, she knew, three years ago, but Sakura had only cared then because her favorite toy store closed. The kids made a popular game that week from the story the teachers told about it: they made a block tower and knocked it over and the It Men kids ran around and around it and wouldn't leave the rubble alone, while a team of policeman kids threw rubber balls at them to beat them up. Her father interrupts her story—he doesn't laugh at her, she thought he would laugh—and tells her that they're not called It Men but he also doesn't call them anything. He says they wander around whenever it's a dark time, and they can wander in woods or they might wander into a street. That's what the incidents are.
That's why everyone goes indoors and goes quiet whenever it turns dark. Sakura knows that. Her father says sometimes they wander right past people, utterly indifferent and sometimes they choose to stop somewhere, like Ichiraku, and they sort of wake up, and they go berserk and hit things and eat things. And then the gunmen have to come. There's no telling how they will behave.
Sakura's mother had always taken an interest in Sakura's grades in self-defense class, much more so than the science tests or pretty diagrams she brought home. Sakura knew they made the kids take this class so they could help themselves if they were in danger—the teachers said so, the teachers had said so when she was eight—but her mother said it differently.
Her mother said, you have a good arm, Sakura. You're strong. You're so strong. You can win against anything, I've seen it. So tomorrow, we're going downtown and I'm buying you a gun, and a bat. You need to have those.
Her parents spent another two hours explaining why she needed them. Sakura nodded, nodded, nodded till she stopped hearing what her mother was saying and only wanted to tell her yes to make her stop talking. She only really listened for a mention of whether or not the things were wandering into their street, or the school's street or the two shopping streets but they never said that. She didn't want to ask. She wanted to talk to Ino or Hinata, but the phone lines were shut off by the time the conversation was done.
The next morning, her parents made one of her favorite breakfasts for her and even added chocolate sauce to the top of it. It was delicious per usual, but her hands shook while she ate. She hadn't slept well and her pulsing insides felt like she was in a menstrual week, but colder.
And hours later and a school day later—Sakura told everything she could to Ino, but not all to Hinata, even softer than she—and they went on a shopping trip. They went into a store that sold big guns and little guns and knives and expensive wine. They picked a small ten-bullet piece that she recognized. Mr. Izumo, the gardening teacher, for the students over age 10, wore one of those on his belt. Sakura swallowed a dozen lumps in her throat and told them she was better at close-up fighting, but her mother already knew that. They bought her a heavy bat made of steel that had some spikes on the end of it. Sakura told them it wasn't even that heavy and they complimented her weight training.
That night, they let her have a glass of one of the wines they picked out, too. Her parents laughed and laughed at jokes that she thought were stupid, but the wine was syrupy and warm and pretty nice.
Sakura called Ino that evening before the phone shutdown and told her the events of the day. But whatever assurance she might have sought from her best friend wasn't there. Instead Sakura gave the assurance because Ino's voice quivered as she spoke. She told Ino that she was a great shot with throwing knives, and Sakura's mother has a spare that Ino can take if her own parents can't buy the good kind. Ino asked Sakura for advice on how to talk and act when her parents took her to a weaponry store. Sakura didn't feel any worse for wear of it. Her stomach and her head had worn themselves ragged already and felt just the same after she dispensed advice she barely felt qualified to give.
Days passed and Sakura asked to be allowed more weight training in self-defense class. She took the weights home, and helped Hinata train her muscles, too. One day a boy told her that she looked really good holding her gun, because she was pretty now, and boys cared now. Sakura grinned and giggled and composed herself to thank him. The boy walked away with his first flash of manhood, knowing he'd made a brash girl blush.
Soon, her arm muscles were growing with the rest of her—her hair grew out a little, for once—and she delighted in the Sunday town outings with her friends. She delighted in being delighted, and sharing the feeling unto her friends. They were at a clothing shop with Ino's father as chaperone once, and Sakura and Hinata held up matching white blouses of a supreme cotton blend that they simply had to buy. A dark time came but it only meant they spent three extra hours trying on the tops and Sunday shoes and giggling very quietly, even when Mr. Inoichi told them to shut up. Hinata bought everything with her father's money and Sakura carried the piles of things by herself since Ino insisted she had no such strength to do it with.
Maybe she was fourteen by this time. So was Hinata, but Ino wasn't. When she was fourteen, another Ichiraku happened. This time it was on the street that intersected with Hinata's home. The really nice homes.
One of the things came into town in a dark time and wandered through the streets. People had seen it, almost too late. It walked right by the foolish Hayate, who had briefly gone outside. It stopped at the house where Asuma and Kurenai lived and it destroyed everything. It ate Mirai.
The gunmen did their job and burned the place down and destroyed the thing before it could escape the wreckage and do more harm. The newspaper also said that a second one had been spotted outside town, but it turned away and went east before it could hit the town entrance arch. Sakura read the newspaper and threw it away. Nowadays, she hated newspapers and read everything in the world except for them. Except for the harbinger of the worst news she could imagine. Her mother read the same paper and said that it was getting worse. Kumo hadn't had an incident for four or five years. Why here, why come to us? We do our lanterns, we're indoors during all the dark times and we don't bother them or touch them or go near them. Ever. So why? Sakura sought answers in books and several times reported her total dearth of answers to her best friend, who threw knives at the wall and sighed.
She went to school and learned to beat wild animals and skin them and cook them and climb rock walls. She learned pages and pages of other defensive methods against the things that wandered in, but everyone's lives still fumbled to a halt when one came in. The townsfolk slapped hands over mouths and silently padded indoors and prayed that the thing wouldn't decide to pick them, but nobody but a gunmen ever was allowed or dared to go outside and fight them anyway.
When she was fifteen, barely—snow-white birthday shoes only worn once—it happened again. One month later. Three weeks after the funeral, in the bright, early morning. Two of them came. They canceled school. They shut off the phone lines. Sakura had her bat ready in her right hand and the gun ready to be pulled by her left. Her father had a shotgun. Her mother was trapped at work.
Down the street, theirstreet, a man screamed. Sakura learned the crashing, cluttering and heavy sound of a house collapsing. Its tremors spread huge vibrations that reached up into her feet and knees and rattled there. Kizashi Haruno reached somewhere behind him and found a second, slimmer gun. Sakura was shaking. Wishing. Go away. Go away. Oh lord. Just go away.
If he's busy down at that house, it'd be a long walk for him to get here, said her father with some sort of smile. Be sharp, my girl. Just in ca—
It tore through the front door.
Sakura screamed and pulled her gun. She fired at something huge and black, bigger than their doorway. Her father had already fired a stream of bullets. They were louder than the school ones, so loud it hurt. She actually closed her eyes, and then fell down. Its feet were massive and made tremors and cracks in their floor. It sounded like an angered bear.
Then it sounded like a wounded dog. Her father ran to stand in front of her and fired more, more, more. As Sakura scrambled to stand, she finally held up her own gun and got a better look at the thing. It was black or green or both and had four legs. It was covered in thin veil-like material that hung off its head and back, rags or skin or layers of disgusting swamp algae. The disgust brought her back to herself and she aimed her gun again to join her father in the shooting.
Kizashi had already shot it in the eyes and that was why it was whining. It dribbled slime onto their floor. Her mother's floor. Sakura pointed her first shot it in its front-left thigh, aiming for muscle. She missed. Her father stopped his own volley, gasped and grunted and pushed her suddenly backwards. He bid her go upstairs and go out the bathroom window and to Mr. Izumo's. Now. Go.
She said she had to stay and help, that's what you're supposed to do, that's how the lessons at school do it. There was no sign that he heard her. He repeated his command exactly the same, but louder. Sakura sputtered out a cry and went. Up the stairs. Grab the post at the top and turn. Something on the ground level thumped to the floor and her father shot again. She was in the bathroom when a tearing sound reached her. Ripping. Her father gurgling and choking.
It's not him, it's not true. It's fine. He's coming.
She threw her bat out the window first—dumb—and then jumped. Air flowed and then seared past her as she came down and thumped onto the ground. Feet and knees first. It didn't hurt. She practiced. But her stomach did hurt, her chest hurt. There was something like nausea, like coldness, infecting her. She couldn't breathe fast enough.
Up in the window was only empty space and one visible corner of the old medicine cabinet. Her father hadn't come after her. He was in the house. She had to get him. It occurred to her a moment later that she couldn't do that. The thing bit him. It choked him? It had. Her father had choked, or was choking right now, right now. She spewed out a breath she'd choked on before, gagged on the cold, terrified feeling. She sobbed.
She ran away. Her legs were wobbling, she was helpless and drunk on something. Across the backyard she went. Across the little back garden and the neighbor's garden and up someone else's backyard to the street parallel to theirs, the houses that faced the opposite way that hers did. Farther and farther away from her dad. What happened? How would she tell her mother? There would be gunmen in her own house today. What would they do to the house? All her things and the new shoes and her parents' things and the furniture? Her empty house, her daddy—
Sakura stopped thinking and scratched at her own forearms in frustration. She was near Mr. Izumo's house, but something was…climbing over the top of it. From behind it. The sky was getting darker, she thought suddenly, and she wasn't indoors like she ought to be and her legs hurt. And now she saw that what she'd first perceived as a creature climbing up over the roof was actually only the top edge of a larger silhouette. It made black outlines against the sides of the house, too. Left side, top side and right side. She was only looking at the outside edges of a creature that was bigger around than the teacher's house, and was pulling the house in towards itself. Once Sakura realized what it was, how big its mouth had to be, its size, its groaning, its, its, its. One of the It Men, she thought, stupidly, and ran. Faster than before.
Here was the end of Mr. Izumo's street, where it made a T-intersection with Ura Road. Two squads of gunmen came from both sides of Ura and ran down its intersecting street. It didn't occur to the running girl to stop them. They ran, she ran, they ignored her. They were going to Mr. Izumo's house.
I hate this, I hate this, I hate you. I hate all of you, she thought, when she jumped over a ruined house fence. A headless cow. Guns lying unused in the grass.
Sakura picked one up in her right hand, which was unusual. Her left hand still had the bat in it. She stopped to gape at the sight. She didn't remember picking it up again after jumping the window. She hadn't felt it in her hand all these long minutes. The weight of it was…was nothing. Yet her mother always said it was quite heavy.
Another crash and a stream of gunmen commands and shots jolted her again. She looked all around and assessed for threats, as proper in combat class. She turned around and went a few paces back to the guns in the middle of the yard. One rifle, two measly pistols encrusted with extra bullet braces. One ten-chamber. A basic construction and clean design that attracted her eye more than the extravagant others. She looked around again and ran off. Into another street. The shopping street where she had walked so many times. Walked under the sun many times. But it was getting dark now, the sun was being covered up.
Once she was in the middle of this street, she paused again—looked all around, looked for approaching enemies, anyone, anything—but the street was empty. Jagged, jumping screams came from multiple directions but in the empty neighborhood she saw no motion, no people. Her head swung left, up, right, looking everywhere for the sources of the noise.
Straight ahead. Beyond a nearby house's backyard. A house was starting to collapse on Nym Road, parallel to this street. She saw its roof drop into the center and the rest of it sunk and rattled downwards like a fainting man. Dust shot up. Far to her left was the sounds of shoes slapping the ground, lots of them. People fleeing. Sakura sped towards them.
She came to an intersection, corners of shops and the bakery and the bookstore. The bookstore's display window was broken and a dozen people were sprinting out of the bakery's door and windows. A wrinkled hand, the size of her own body, came out of the front door and reached for the fleeing townsfolk, and dragged back inside when it caught nothing in its fist. The folk sprinted away, everywhere, past her.
Sakura shut down her spinning, despairing whirlwinds of thought with numbers. Three. She had seen three of the things, and heard a fourth, too. One down her street had torn down a house, one came into her house, one was absorbing Mr. Izumo's home, and this one had gotten into the bakery somehow. Four of them. Four at once.
This had never happened. Not four at once, and not four in daylight, before their mid-day dark times called them outside. In her mind she heard her mother's voice, and saw her mother sitting on the couch in their cozy living room, asking aloud why such strange things were happening. Her mother sipped a bitter black coffee and oh, she could smell it.
Sakura's thoughts shut down again, and she stopped moving and breathing and believing. Ahead of her, one of them was crawling out the bakery's front window. It fell forward and onto the ground like a helpless drunken man. It was the "hand" from before, but she had mistaken its shape. It had a head shaped like a hand, with many thick and swiveling fingers. The rest of it was slug-like and covered in uneven layers of the same algae-slime-rags the first one had sported. It was thirty feet away. Its face-fingers started to point at her. It made a sound, like a moan, and underneath that was scales scraping against a hard ground and her heartbeat going too, too fast.
Another scattered crowd of people ran by, but Sakura felt no breeze and no vibrations from their movement. She felt perfectly frozen and cold and her legs were weak and dead. It was moving its whole body to face her. All of itself. It twitched, and then legs appeared. Or grew. Or came out of hiding from under its belly. And it halved the distance between them in one second. Sakura came to herself again by swallowing an instant burst of hot, awful, sand-gritty bile in her throat. There was fire somewhere behind her, air rushing.
Its legs heaved its torso upward, higher than her head. She saw a mouth placed off-center and fat pimple-eyes. The bear-like thing that had eaten her father had similar eyes. It was just as ugly. It killed her father. Her house was gone. No mother. Everything ruined and everything inside her sick.
Sakura raised her bat with her stomach erupting in tremors, vomit rising, and shoulders quivering. She screeched. When the slug thing dropped its head to take her in its mouth, she hammered her arm downward, wood-shattering, perfect. Her bat slammed down near the crown of the creature's head-and-mouth and went CRACK.
One of its legs halted mid-air and the two fingers of it curled limply inward like dead doll limbs. She put both hands on the bat this time and slammed again, faster, crueler. Its scream was like heavy paper ripping and ripping. Her own scream almost covered it; its other arm was grabbing at her and its texture was worse than her own vomit.
A strong gag came from her with that touch and threatened her with more vomit. Suddenly they were pushing against each other. Fighting. Each trying to shove the other to the ground. Sakura dug in her feet, thighs tight and hurting—it was so heavy. Her skin was twitching and shaking in revulsion, a godawful moan straining through her teeth. Its blood was thick like old milk and seeping onto her shorts. The gun she'd taken had clattered away somewhere.
She tore her arm away from the quaking grip of its left arm and struck. Hard. Again. She hit bone and heard the CRACK again. Its noises were keening up in octaves towards a howl. Sakura's entire body was filled to its extremities with invisible fire.
She struck again. The spiked end of the bat buried deep into brain or mush or something inside; she dragged her weapon towards herself, along the head-mush, while the thing groaned. Grey smoke seeped up and up and up from the dripping gash. Sakura hit and hit, and then it grabbed her bat and held it in place, so she had to let go and hit it in the skull with her fists. They came away dark red. Sakura sobbed through tears and beat it again and again and more. She won the shoving match and pushed the beast to the ground, till most of her body was on top of it and pressing into its squishing flesh. She hammered her fists home till finally she could feel them hurting.
You stole my house and my family and my clothes and my family and my, my, everything that I have! I'll take out your fucking eyes and y-your fucking brain, you ugly, ugly—shrieked a young girl.
The thing was twitching and dying and it made her feel pleasure for the first time in ages, it seemed. In minutes, truly, for the first victim and the first house had gone down less then fifteen minutes ago and Sakura's brain had ceased to perceive time. She knew nothing outside of the square of bare street and blood and meat stains she'd torn open and she had not seen any of the approaching beasts and fleeing citizens and the gunmen that had been passed by or near her the whole time.
Up the street she had come from, another thing was entering downtown. It was bigger than the slug-thing Sakura was beating alive and bigger than the bear-sized, rag-smothered thing that had torn apart her mother's carpet and her mother's husband. This one was taller than a grown man. Four-legged like a horse with a spine just peeking out its skin and the back covered in long, maroon scars. Its head was a long-snouted skull, a deer's skull or a horse's skull or a dragon's skull. Black immaterial stuff filled the space inside. There was thick fur along the neck like a mane with blood smears dribbling down the left side, and perhaps it had horns. It walked with its head slightly bowed. The feet of it, and the talons of its feet, were sharpened and heavy and crunched on the manmade road with every step.
Sakura heard none of this through her shrieks and the squishing bursts of the slug's flesh. She didn't feel the skull-faced beast watching her make her first kill.
Look! Look! Sir, look! screamed a man behind her, and only then did Sakura look.
Then her eyes swooped across the intersection and saw the huge black beast, red death eyes floating in its black headspace and staring out from the eye holes of a skull. It was looking at her. It was mid-step and set its front-left foot down on scattered bits of glass. The crunching sound curled her toes, and the sight of the beast's skull head, its teeth, were burned into her mind. It took another step after that one, and then its eyes left Sakura. It instead eyed the squad of gunmen standing to the side, but closer to the beast than she. Sakura only now took notice of them. Her eyes and weak hands flinched when she saw the far-right man's huge shoulders and blue undershirts and recognized him as the man who slapped her over two years ago.
An unseen shooter took the first shot from one of the roof's on the creature's right. The creature's side flinched, then the other men joined in firing. The bullet sounds were fast and they made a harsh punching noise where they punctured into the creature's body. The rate of their shots was faster than her father's gun had been.
The creature reacted not with a pained groan or screech, but a sudden leap. It shot forward into the crowd of men, taking shots the skull and forelimbs with no reaction, no grunt or blink. It smashed three of the men to the ground by slamming its front feet down. Like fists. It parted its bone jaws and roared. Sakura shivered and held her own arms. Her breath was coming in desperate wheezes. They were losing. All of them.
Beyond the creature's body, to its right, Sakura could see a new discolored black form approaching. No, running. Running towards the remaining gunmen with an open mouth. Six eyes.
The skullfaced creature saw its approach and swatted it with one sweep of its leg. The newcomer slammed through the window and front door and lantern post of the mailing center. Huge splats of bluish sludge drained from it. The skullfaced beast looked away, in the direction of the thing's approach, as though it wanted more prey to destroy.
Sakura heard more gunfire and heard another crashing, crumpling house behind her and to her left. The direction she'd come from, beyond the backyard with the guns, perhaps down the street. Mr. Izumo's house falling into the mouth or the soft skin of the house-sized thing.
She saw for the first time—no, second—that the world around her was getting dark. It was only seven in the morning, though the sky wore the colors of dusk. Her ears rang.
Behind her, the house-eater was approaching. It wasn't yet in sight but its footsteps were getting louder and their vibration reached higher into her body. She heard a shrill shouted command from a schoolmate whose face she would never remember. The skullfaced beast was tearing the six-eyed creature in half and tonguing its eyes.
Sakura thought to pick up her bat, and she ran.
Ran. Ran down the street that the skullface had come from, now that its space was free. Past the doctor's office and the styling salon. Breathing hard, deep, legs pumping. The stark concrete bank with men fighting to come through the closed door. Open the fuck up, please, please.
Please, please. Her heart hurt. The nausea stunted her speed and she paced herself, calmed, to correct it. She ran. Leg muscles. Breathing. Good.
Past the law office. Burned. Gone. Covered in brown goop like vomit. Mother and the law assistants. One of them with two legs and a single eye was near the rubble and it gave up its territory to chase her.
Run. Run. Run. Run like Ino.
There was nowhere left to go but out. Her breath, her legs were taking her there. Up the final hill, under the two heavy oak trees and the braided little bridge above them that said "Konoha" and "Welcome" in soft blue.
Sakura kept to the main road for less than a minute, and then hairpin-turned off the road and into the concealing woods. She sought a hiding place. A bubble of protection from the nonstop noise. Something. Soon she decided to climb a tree. Heedless of bugs, for she wouldn't feel them crawling anyway. Heedless of her ruined clothes, for she wasn't going to school today. Even the bat, a hindrance to climbing, she didn't care, she didn't care. Mom, I have really strong arms. I can climb a tree while holding this thing, too.
After another few minutes, Sakura selected a thick branch shielded from the lower levels of the tree and the ground. It was a good hiding spot, if she was playing hide-and-seek, but she wasn't, and it was a dark time now. Ten minutes after she first climbed the tree, it was too dark to see anything outside. No stars. No sounds out here in the woods. Birds silent. She, a complete idiot, outdoors during the dark. She hadn't thought of this at all. Her mother would have been so disappointed.
Ten minutes after she first climbed the tree, the dread and the gagging was catching up to her again. Something like shame was sinking in. She began to bite into the skin of her fingers. She wouldn't notice the bites for several minutes more. In the dark, she could only see the scattered fires in Konoha and faint outlines of lesser darkness given by the firelight. The same firelight gave bare outline to her hands, the branch she lay on, and a few of the taller trees between herself and the town. The sun was covered and the dark time settled in. All else across the land was uninterrupted black for more miles than she could ever run.
There were a total of three fires in the two downtown streets, the lower two in danger of connecting on the roof of the Blue Tavern. She knew where the school was from here, but its area of town was unlit. She heard faraway…crying. Long wails like animals hurting. And gunfire. For a while. She kept biting her hands.
Sakura pulled absently on a lock of her hair and wondered who else in town had ever been outside in a dark time. It seemed only very eloquent book authors and gunmen had done it. Did she know anyone who had? Were any of those such people still alive right now? Who was alive at all? Where did they run? Could the folk in Kumo look out their windows and see the fires to south? The things might go there next. Maybe they had come from there and there was nobody left in Kumo. Or anywhere. Maybe this happened to the whole world at once and only she was left, in a tree, alone.
Less gunfire, now one burst of crushing wood and steel piping. She raised her head slightly at the noise but settled. In her mind and in the village's echoes she might have heard the bear-thing that had destroyed her from the start, pillaging further. The ugly, ugly fucking thing. She really had killed one of them. With her own hands. Like a tough gunman. But why a stupid slug, why didn't she kill that one in her house. Why didn't she shoot properly, when it really mattered. Why didn't her dad come out the window with her?
Why all of this, today? It's a school day. It's time for the science lesson right now. Today she had wanted to go to the bakery and get croissants.
The schoolwork, she thought, it's on my dresser. By the new shoebox. My clothes are filthy, Ino would swear up and down she didn't know me.
Ino, thought Sakura. Ino, said Sakura, I didn't look for you. I left you.
I left you.
Her heart squeezed a second time. Longer. Slower. Worse. She never thought to go get Ino. Or anyone.
Anyone who saw her today just saw her running. She ran out of town and past a hundred people who were about to die, who wailed for help—pathetic, animal voices—who must have thought she was a cowardly, spoiled little cunt like everyone said and why did she get to get away and live. Goddamn her. Goddamn you you little cunt I would throw your life away in a second if it meant my wife and son could get out of here safe. How many people were left to think things like that about her. Did Ino think that. Did she watch her leave?
God, please, don't do this to her, save her oh God I didn't even think about her. Ino. She could be dead. No, no no no no, NO! INO!
Sakura slapped her hand over her own mouth. It stung. Then she bit her hands more. Her hands were strong and the skin on them hurt from the strength of her jaw. But she couldn't shout like this. Not in a dark time, when the things might be out wandering. The time when they're normally out wandering. They had come out in broad daylight today. In huge numbers. Nobody and nothing ever said they came in such big numbers. Maybe more would come now that it was dark. Maybe they were like crows coming to a good carcass. Konoha, a carcass.
In a dreamlike way she felt the pinch of her own teeth biting madly down on the sides of her hand. Her teeth were close to meeting through the unfortunate skin. Underneath it, something popped and it felt so strange and sickening that she stopped and held her hands to her chest instead.
High up in the tree, Sakura wept silently, hated herself, shoulders and legs shaking at the thought of people watching her run. It made her want to be dead. She would refuse to think on the fact that she had done it for a long time, but her hands grasped her throat just then. She tried to choke and see if she could make herself dead quickly, quietly. But it hurt. But the pressure felt ugly. But she wanted air too much. So she breathed, jaggedly. She was a coward and a quitter and a virgin and a bitch who abandoned her own mother.
A new noise interrupted her loud gasps and she quieted, mid-breath. A long stone's throw below were footsteps. Someone out walking in the dark. No, running, by the speed of them. Sakura warred with the options of slipping down the tree and begging them to take her with them or staying here and remaining safe.
You'll attract attention, she wanted to call out to them, but didn't. But after gripping the branches and grinding her teeth and thinking 'Just go just go just live,' she did begin to descend. This time, she kept a firmer hold on the bat in case she needed to use it quickly. More of them could be out there, anywhere. A dark time is when they always walked around and how many of them were there now? There was no way to know. But she wanted to find the people and run with them, or move somewhere. Just move.
The footsteps drew so near that she froze where she was in the tree with one foot in mid-air and her arms straining to hold her still on the branch. The footsteps sounded like they were coated in heavy boots. They carried things on them that clicked and rattled. One of them dropped a casing of bullets that sang on the ground so loudly she jolted. They'll hear you and they'll come for you, she wanted to shout at them, but didn't. And thank God.
After the men's footsteps came another set, much heavier and faster. There was a sound of heaving breaths that were too loud for a man's lungs. There was a smell like mold, like wet things and fungus. The men she heard running were behind her now but she could hear their sudden shouts and attempts at gunfire. Sakura realized with another squeeze of her sore muscles that the men were firing practice rifles from the school. It is all they have.
Sakura descended the tree again, bat held against her in silence, and walked in the opposite direction from the road. Eyes straight ahead and bat at the ready.
She didn't know what town was in this direction. Or how long the woods would last.
She didn't know what happened to her left shoe, or when she had wet her pants. The air was warming, for it was close to summer, but so much of her was shaking. Like she had exercised very hard. Or run very far.
I don't know where to go. Mom. Mom are you alive. Help me. I'm so scared. Oh God.
I'm scared Ino is dead and I didn't think about saving her. Or you. Mom. I ran right past your work. Oh god. I'm so selfish. I'm a selfish, ugly, angry bitch like everyone says. They say that about me at school sometimes, Mom, I lied to you.
The thing that I hit, t-the slug…I just used m-m-my hands. I broke its whole head…It's gross. Oh geez. Gross. Wanna bath.
The thing that…that got Dad. It…I…
I don't know where to go now. I want to go home. I don't want to do this. Please help me. I want to go home.
Sakura Haruno wiped tears from her eyes, again. More came in their place. Her legs had run too far. Her arms were weak and hands sore. Her hair, a little too long. It got in her eyes. It was filthy now. She had blood-of-wraith on her clothes and halfway up each of her arms. Her steel bat was spattered with nasty red. She wanted to look at something still and unmoving and steady, so she looked at its smooth surface. Undented. It did not feel heavy. Her arms carried it well.
"You're strong, Sakura. You're so strong."
For four hours, Sakura trekked through the woods in weak daylight—cloudy, but certainly not a dark time—and passed through bare copses and some pleasant fields and one cabin with a mounted flag that perhaps had housed a wildlife scouting center before vegetation began eating its way inside. Its aged and abandoned look bothered her—the thought of something "eating its way inside" bothered her—and she passed it quietly by while thinking about her favorite shoes, and what kind of pie she wanted right now.
After the fourth hour, she came by another town that she might have visited once, or perhaps only recognized from newspapers or her parents' chatter. Iwa. Surrounded by quarries and stone and little hills. Konoha and its neighbors were hundreds of leagues too far south to have mountains, but Iwa had some hills.
Once glance told her that Konoha did not suffer alone. Iwa was ruined. Even their entrance post was half-eaten by fire, and the other half seemed to be just eaten.
But it was quiet and utterly empty.
Sakura was quiet and utterly empty as well. She was too tired and dead for shame, though she'd removed her yellowed underwear some miles back and irritated skin between her legs was the most notable thing she felt at the moment. The very first building she came upon, she tried to enter, but its door was blocked by something on the other side. Unperturbed, she scratched at her crotch listlessly and tried the next-door place. It was unlocked and offered no resistance to her shaking hands. Sakura entered the place—an office maybe, maybe her father would know—and saw an overturned desk, and discolored squares of wallpaper on the wall, telling of framed paintings recently moved. She walked past them. Up the stairs, creaking mildly, to the owners' living area. Past a room devoid of furniture. The building smelled like dust and the antiques of elderly neighbors. The scent was like a real home and it pulled her eyelids down.
The third room was slathered in papers like entire cabinets of it had been dumped here. One corner had a thick ink puddle eating into nearby paper. Paper islands peppered between. Ink wells on the ground. Papers covering everything else such that Sakura could not tell what color the floor was. She lay down on one of the thicker piles and leaned her head into the taller pile next to it. She slept for six hours.
When she woke up and lifted her head slightly and saw herself in a stranger's house in utter silence with the sun lowering into a quiet night, she sat up and began to cry.
She sobbed. She bit the sides of her hands and arms and moaned. She thought of touching herself, for something good, but the thought was fleeting and worthless. Every usual titillating idea was instantly tainted. Everything felt wrong. Everything gone. People gone.
She wanted a phone to call Ino but there was no such thing. She wanted to hold someone or something so she held her bat and curled her legs up near her torso and keened a breathy, long noise into the tops of her knees. She recoiled, like someone was yelling.
"I'm hungry." she said to no one. To herself, maybe. Or the stupid bat. She had eaten breakfast at home today. Bakery-bought bread slices that were oven-toasted and buttered and good brown rice with eggs. Strawberries. Oh, strawberries and their lovely juice. She had a ladies' cookbook in her room and it was probably still there. Sakura was also thirsty. But she wasn't hungry or thirsty enough to resist sleep again.
When Sakura awoke, it was night. The natural dark time. But she was in a house this time.
"I miss you, Mom. I miss you, Ino. Dad. I'm…ahh…" Sakura muttered, this and that, vague phrases to fill a silence. It wasn't a good silence. Frazzled as her mind was, she recognized that a home, a town, the family that might have once lived here, ought not to be so silent. The lack of nearly any sound made everything inside her mind swirl and swirl and fester. If she talked, she could feel…smoother. Steadier.
"So I'm really hungry. I hope the store owners didn't take everything out with them," she said. "Maybe they have fruit trees in their backyard, or a back garden."
They did have a back garden, but it was picked clean. And they did have a food cabinet, and it had a cracked, half-empty jar of pickles inside. Sakura first tried to open the lid. That didn't work. So then she hit it with her hands. The side of the jar broke and it spilled.
Only a couple glass bits got stuck into her hand, but she had felt worse from playground scrapes. It was no trouble to search out tiny bits of glass and pluck them out. Simple first aid was a class she'd excelled in, and fixed lots of other stupid or slow kids' assignments when they didn't work fast enough. Most of the glass had gone to the floor, anyway, so her dirt-stained feet now had dirt and pickle juice on them. She reached down and picked up two of the pickles and crunched. They were…decent. It was plain, home-jarred food, and her mother usually made small feasts for dinner that were better than this. Creamy white sauce on duck with buttered corn or smooth-cut avocado slices. Thick, thick tomato soup. Pies on Sundays, usually, and always fresh water and tea both on the table. She breathed deeply and tasted fifteen years of delectable cooking. Her lips were quivering with a sob that nearly escaped.
She recalled the place had a well out back by the garden and went out there to take a bucket of it. It was halfway filled with sand.
The sight is absurd. What stupid person would fill up their free water reservoir with sand? Why? Who the hell did this and why did they deserve to own a home and why hadn't she broken their ugly nose already? Curse them. Damn them for doing this to her.
"I can't believe it," she said to no one. "I can't…I can't…" She swiveled around on a heel and went right back into the house, and shut the door, and went to the pantry again, across the glass on the floor and it hurt and she slammed her fists against the wall and screeched!
"No, NO! NO! I HATE THIS! This can't be real, it's not real, this can't be right!"
The little girl's fists pummeled again and again and she felt the wall bowing under her hand twice before it gave out. She found more areas to punch and punched them more. Her fists screeched painful disapproval and she hated it and screeched louder.
"I don't want to do this! I don't want to do this! I want to go home!"
She found a new spot on the wall and flattened her palms against it. Forward and down went her forehead. BAM, went the wall she smashed her head against.
Twice, again. Bam, BAM. Thoughts and vision were cut down. And then she stopped. She breathed deeper. Slower. A little. She breathed in a few bits of plaster and breathed them out.
In the hole in the wall she'd punched was a pair of dust-smothered shelves. Stocked with six dust-smothered jars.
Jars of peaches. Applies, green and pale red. One more pickle jar, one of diced pear pieces. One that seemed to hold cured meat, or uncooked bacon. Ten littler bottles of plain water. The wife of this family had been fond of canning. She had holiday stores.
Sakura lived here for nine days and called this place The Paper House.
"You guys would love my house," she said to herself on the second day, when she walked around without her dirty shorts on. "I don't even have to cook anything. I have cured ham slices and I don't even have to cook! I can eat breakfast at noon if I want! Ha! Now, if you need anything, don't hesitate to ask me. I'm an excellent provider these days." And so it went.
She found that most of the talking she did was reading the papers aloud, since there were hundreds of them, and she had brought no reading material with her. They were mostly receipts of business, and some letters. She memorized the groceries and carpentry bits and cloth types on them, and the strangers who bought them. Mr. Onoki (one time he bought nineteen rolls of tobacco at once), and Ms. Kurotsuchi and Mr. Akatsuchi. She read an endless lake of papers. And she slept on them.
The next day she went out the front door. Then came back. Then she walked outside, slowly, tiptoeing, watching and listening like rabbits did and heart beating like a rabbit's would. She had put her shorts back on and was slowly padding across the street. To her left was one more pair of villagers' homes and a well-trod path that led under the town archway and a sunny, silent field waiting beyond it. To her right the homes continued briefly and went through an intersection before hitting the shoemaker and smith establishments. They were smokeless and quiet. Bars were nailed over some windows and front gardens stripped.
She looked left and right and left and right and left and saw nothing moving. Not plants, not people, not others. Eventually she had crossed the street to the home opposite The Paper House. The door was locked.
She kept up her back-and-forth watching and slow walking, but stopped in the street. From a stone's throw away a long stripe of dark was visible between door and threshold, the darkness of unlit rooms. Someone had left this door open. Sakura's stomach began to go supernaturally cold. Her fingers wrung and twitched for her mother's hand. Or Ino's hand.
Standing there in the street, she said aloud, "Wh. Who's. There," she said, with a boy's high crack in her voice. Nobody said anything to her.
"Who's there," she said, looking left and right in the street again. Nobody. If there was somebody, or if there was one of the It Men, they would make noise, wouldn't they? Why wasn't her mom here to go in with her? Because she'd left to her die, that's why. That's right. She had done that for real.
Feeling her throat inflate from oncoming tears, Sakura walked forward and pushed the door open with her hand. She jumped back. Great gods, but she felt so cold and quivering inside. She walked in because that feeling was not leaving.
There was a living room immediately there, no foyer or mudroom for shoes and coats and nobody on the couch or in the kitchen beyond that light light where finally her hands desperately found and grabbed the light switch, and the electric ceiling lights came on at once.
There was no one in the open room. There was nothing wrong or disturbed in this room. Except that it was not very well decorated. Or, Sakura thought a moment later, the decorations had all been taken out. The mantel held two face-down photo frames. She approached them and touched them with her fingertips only, still looking around. The frames were empty. The vases were empty and the kitchen was almost bare. The icebox was empty. No jars of flour or sugar or salt. No kept meat and no fruits and vegetables. Someone had taken it all, but they had been very neat about it. Like they had merely moved out, and their town entrance arch had not been burned or bitten by It Men.
She was drifting upstairs, looking sharply this way and that to stay alert. There was nothing at the top of the stairs and the doors upstairs were all open. Breathing too quickly, she approached the first one and found a bathroom. There was toilet roll still left and she grabbed it. The handle over the bathtub was a fanciful silver that didn't match the rest of the décor and she grabbed it and turned.
Sssshhhhhh went the running water into the bath. Sakura were overcome with goosebumps. It was lukewarm. She tore off her clothes with an animal grunt and bathed. And so, Sakura had her Paper House and her Bath House. The running water stopped working after the eighth day. She still elected to relieve herself in the non-functioning toilet rather than the backyard because she was a homeowner who owned two homes after all, so there.
After the ninth day, the creatures finally appeared during a dark time just after noon. She heard one of them bumping into a house, grunting, and then turning and bumping into another house. Idiot. And too close by. So close.
Once the dark passed, she packed some food into tiny mailing packets she found by the overturned desk up from, and added one water bottle (after downing the other remaining two). She needed to leave. Go. Go. Go.
She put the bag over her shoulder and left the house. A little sadly. She faced the front of the house for the last time, and then turned to the Bath House a stone's throw from it. The front of the Paper House nearer to the ground had claw marks bigger than her hands running sideways along it and the little front steps, made of stone, had bites taken out of them. Some nasty green fluid had dried not too far away that. Barring all these unfortunate scars, the house was pale blue, its coat of paint a little old and the window trimmings very pretty. A house for a family. What a beautiful house. Her Paper House.
"Thank you, Paper House. Thanks, Bath House." she said. She felt silly about it, but that was fine. Nobody could hear her. And saying it aloud made her feel warmer. "Goodbye, dear. Goodbye!"
Sakura did not see another soul, animal, or stirring thing at all. She left Iwa and walked speedily on the road of its northwestern exit.
Her bat was in her right hand.
"Excuse me, ma'am."
"Huh? What. You want the ham package? It's four for the pound."
"No, ma'am. Just a question. I'm Sakura."
"Do you even have money?"
"I don't want any of the meat packages. I just want to know about the newspaper you have in this town."
"Uh, Matima's newspaper? Then talk to Matima, he does it right out of his house on Gorin Road."
"I went there, ma'am, he's not home right now. I'm just asking around, okay? I'm not trying to solicit you or get my nose in your business. I just need…need answers."
"So can you tell me about his paper?"
"Uh, it runs ads for the market, mostly. In summer he writes the schedule for the weekend plays, so that's in there too."
"Did it have the news about Konoha in it?"
"It's down south from here, the town with the deer farm? Mayor Danzo?"
"Oh, that's the town that got, got burned up a few weeks back."
"Yeah. Did Matima write about that in the paper? Or about Iwa, what happened there."
"Yeah, I mean…some. Some of that stuff's too awful to write about. All the evil wraiths that came at those people. In daylight. I can't imagine."
"Iwa folks just packed up and left, I think. They took their packs and all the lanterns and went north. That was in the last paper."
"They did? They wanted to?"
"Yeah, they had some big vote and everyone decided living a couple days-a-ways from Konoha wasn't a good thing."
"That's…I've never heard of that."
"I've never heard of wraiths in daylight, either, but it just happened. We're doing the same thing, actually. The day after next, I'm packing up all this and going north with everyone else."
"So, are lots of towns doing that?"
"I don't know. I don't know much about any other place but for Iwa and Jytown. Nobody but Matima travels, really."
"But, uh, Matima definitely wrote about Konoha."
"Yeah, I just said."
"So how did he hear about it in the first place?"
"I mean, everyone heard. They had refugees running all over the province."
"They, they had refugees? Really?"
"Yeah, some of them even tried to go right down the road to Kumo, but I guess they didn't know the same thing had already happened to Kumo. Like, just an hour before it got to them! Insane. It's insane. Like hell coming up aboveground. Those things—"
"But they had refugees, people got out?"
"Yeah, some. I don't know how many out of all the people living there, like percentage-wise. And, you know. Lotta people died. Their militia gave up and left them. That was definitely in the paper. 'Cause one of 'em told that to Matima as they came through."
"Who came through? D-Did you see them?"
"Um, I think one family did? I don't know exactly who was interviewed."
"What family? Please! What did they look like?"
"Will you get out of my FACE? Mother of moons, you child. Just don't tell me you're from Jytown and you want to steal Matima's business or something. I'll report you to the militia. And he's damn tired of Jytown idiots stealing headlines when he does good, honest reporting for the town."
"I'm not a reporter. I lived in Konoha."
"I lived there. I got out. I never saw anyone else get out. I'm trying to find somebody else from there. Anybody. I need to know who in my town made it here and if any of my family and friends are okay!"
"You can't be serious."
"I am. That's where I live. I walked for a week to get here, I've had to sleep in trees and I know I smell bad, I'm very sorry. I'm sorry. Please, just tell me what that family looked like, or, or where Matima is. I'll leave you alone."
"Yes, you fucking will. Take your hand off my table. Off my stand. Get away from me."
"If you're not lying to me, you will not touch any of my things again. You had better get right out of here. Quick. Now."
"What? What is wrong with you?"
"If you're from there, you've got their taint on you. Something ungodly. Something awful had to be happening in that town for the wraiths to come down on you like wolves to meat. In the daylight. Six, seven of them! Eating people alive. And if you just brought this evil cloud straight into my butchery stand—"
"That's not what happened at all! We do everything fine. We light the lanterns, we're never on the street when a dark time comes. Never! Konoha did everything right."
"I believe in the tragedy of that village more than I do your word, little girl. You're a part of it."
"Will you—j-just—tell me about that family you saw. I'll leave. I swear."
"It was some man with a little black beard and his daughter, I guess. Guy had pointy hair tied up in a tail and a deerskin vest. I'm surprised he wasn't trying to sell his daughter to a brothel, the way the slut dressed."
"Whh—? What was she dressed like?"
"She had a little, little skirt on like some of the young girls do these days, like she's inviting every man around to run up and shove his cock up in her. She came out of that pit-of-sin town so maybe I shouldn't be surprised."
"Was she blonde?"
"Yeah, she was. Your age as well."
"Where did they go? What town?"
"Like I know! Guren said they just bought some damn food and left and good riddance! Pestilence!"
"Thank you. Thank you, ma'am."
"I hope you're done. Get away from me. Plague."
"Have a good evening, bitch. Bye."
At the other end of town was Matima, out of his head from drink or drug. He invited Sakura in to sit on his couch, but he didn't have a couch. But he understood her when she said where she was from, remembered and pronounced her name through his inebriation, and said that he learned of beasts coming from Kumo because a young man named Rock Lee had told him this. And Rock Lee went north. Sakura thanked him and thanked him, unaware that he heard her first exclamation and had fainted by her third.
Sakura walked speedily to Jytown, sweating half the way. She found the two men who made the local paper. She did not speak of Konoha this time, but only of refugees and travelers. They did not know of any blonde refugee girl and her bearded "father". But they knew strangers had come through, looking like the road had treated them badly. The older of the two gave her a free lantern, a skin of cold water and yesterday's bread, and refilled her own bottle besides. They apologized for her treatment in the secluded village of Emmha.
Sakura walked halfway to Moroi, and slept in a maple tree. She hid in a tree once during the day when a very brief dark time came, and a second time when she slept for the night.
(Mom, I'm getting really good at tree climbing, it's like I'm a little kid again. And the wraiths are so freaking stupid they never even look up. Every book about them says that, that they're dumb as dirt and don't think to look up or around. I'd rather be up in a tree than on the ground with a freaking lantern.)
She entered Jaiho and found a spindly young man vainly hauling a cart of furs. He had no strength and he had a hundred potholes and furrows in the road to tread through. Sakura did it for him. The man thanked her with lunch, and the man's wife thanked her with a story of a Konoha refugee, named Hotaro, who perished of illness five days ago. She didn't recognize the name. The wife's friends had talked of seeing strangers from out of town pass through, a blonde girl or young woman, and an older man, perhaps her father. She left their home with her hands and shoulders shaking.
Sakura hitched a ride on the cart the man's cousin owned, and his bay horses trotted her into Gellen Village, where they were hanging a man today. Sakura stayed to watch and wished she hadn't.
She dreamed of it the next night and the night after that, she dreamed her parents ignored her for days, boys at school threw dirt at her and called her a slut, Lee hated her, and that she hung them all out of spite. Her eyes drifted away and she was stunned by the dream. Terrified. She woke up unmoving and almost crying. No one was around.
Sakura pretended to talk to Lee. And Hinata. And then Chouji. Then she pretended that a man from the medicine school asked her to join their ranks and she politely accepted and there were articles about her in the newspaper, because she could perform brain surgeries faster and better than the great Tsunade. She adjusted her voice for each character in the skit. By the time she slept, and then woke, her jaw was sore from all the talking to no one.
The slow and heavy realization came that Ino and Mr. Nara's trail was not as linear as she'd hoped. They seemed to have showed up in some towns but not others. Not Emmhe, but in Moroi, four hours away by a horse's gallop. And not Gellen, the next-nearest place to jump to, six hours west from that, though a nice mailman said that Lee's description sounded familiar. Who knows if anyone she knew had ghosted through Iwa like she had. Who knows if other people would curse and repel her for bringing news of the dark time creatures appearing in searching for them was exhausting. Imagining where Ino's real father was, or Shikaku's real son, was exhausting.
She no longer cried at night, but she did curl herself up tightly and hold herself, and talk quietly. Her own hands were warm. She pretended she was eight and held Ino's hand in the classroom and that she would soon go to lunch and then have math time, and then go home to her parents. And sleep in her real bed with her fluffy pillows and warm, warm sheets. Not a haystack or a barn or a gods-damned tree. Today, it was a barn. But the grain sack was hardly a pillow.
In a fit of spite, Sakura asked for work in this new town, Moroi (no sign of any refugees) so she could afford to sleep on a real, soft mattress, and buy her own food like a grown woman would. The grocer had her carry bags into people's carts and take heavy loads from one end of the rear storage room to the other. She sweated and she sighed, but later she bathed and she ate and bought her own salted meat and fresh vegetables, like a grown woman would. She took that satchel of food and slept in a barn with a real mattress and pillow. And cows.
She found a book in a trash bin once, about penguins on the southernmost continent, and read it in two nights. And lots of nights after. She hadn't read a book in…weeks. The quiet focus was refreshing. And now she was exceptionally knowledgeable about penguins.
Sakura left Moroi after two days. The grocer owner thanked her and she embraced him before leaving. "If you need a job again, you come back here! Bright crossing! Good luck, my girl!"
She paid for a ride to Saffur in a cheap two-horse carriage, yellow and ugly but allegedly designed for passenger transport. She'd never heard of that town before, couldn't find it on the map she'd purchased.
The carriage driver lied. There was no town called Saffur.
"You have really pretty hair, miss. How'd you make such a color, eh?"
A second man had mysteriously appeared and pointed a gun at Sakura's head. He could see her bat sticking out of her bag, but she couldn't move fast enough to grab it and attack before he twitched his index finger and ended her life.
"It's not a fake color. I was born with it looking like this."
"That's fascinating. I've gotta have you checked, still, it's the policy. If it's real, you'll be a real gem. They might upgrade your quarters just for that. Are you a virgin, too?"
Sakura's fingers twitch in a simmering rage that she would be made to feel both danger and embarrassment at the same time. The man didn't care at all. For all the damage, all the anger she'd felt, this had never happened before. This blatant…indifference to her modesty. Men laughing at her. It felt like so long since people had laughed at her. She blinked constantly, pushing down tears.
He swayed a little with the movement of the carriage. "I asked a question. Are you a virgin or not. We can get that checked, too, if you're not gonna say."
Revolting. The carriage hit a rock and both of them swayed. The strange man blatantly stared at her breasts bouncing with the motion and it made him smile. Sakura shuddered and thought about how close her bat was. If he didn't have a gun her fists would do the job. Break his ribs and hear him cry. Push him out the door. Anything. Get him away and make him stop making fun of her.
"If you check me I will pull your eyeballs out of your head."
"Yeah, I bet. I'm sure your daddy tells you you're a tough girl. I'm gonna assume yes if you're so gods-damned fussy about it. You know, once you've had a man in you, your attitude really loosens up. Girls always calm down after they get married. There's books about it."
The driver banged his hand against the front wall of the carriage. "Hidan, you didn't even pack any lanterns! The storage box is empty!" he shouted.
Her captor kept his eyes on her, but tilted his head back towards the wall. "I had to put 'em around the cage, idiot! It's not an even an hour's ride to the site, so hurry up."
"You didn't leave us any fucking lanterns?! Hidan?!"
"There won't be a dark spot, don't worry about it, I can always feel 'em coming. We're good."
"If one happens, I'm taking a horse and I'm leaving you. I don't give a damn. This creepshow can rot, and you can rot." The driver whipped the horses' hindquarters. One skittered and two brayed loudly, and then both pairs heaved the carriage to double its speed.
The bumpy road and the desperate ride made Sakura and Hidan both shake in their positions. His eyes crept up and down, up and down, constantly pausing on her breasts until she finally put an arm over them at a harsh bump, and a harsh jerk from the right-side horse. This only brought a bigger smile from him. She couldn't stand it any longer.
"Why did you take your lanterns out of the carriage?" she asked him. With one slit of anger she added, "That's a stupid thing to do."
The pause from him was a taunt, an acknowledgment, an understanding that she was just desperate and he had all the time to time he wanted to wait and watch and frighten her. He waited till this was too blatant to bear. "We need 'em down the road. You'll see."
"Maybe you're just a freak and you wanna get eaten. You pretend to forget lanterns 'cause really you wanna commit suicide."
It actually made him laugh. "Good god. You're such a drama queen. Did Daddy ever say that to ya?"
In the middle of the word "queen" the driver knocked to grab their attention again. "Almost there, tie her up!"
"I've got a gun on her, she won't do anything."
There was no truth and no convenient lie with which to counter. And her mind was empty of any other distractions. She sat still and tiny rivulets of sweat began to dribble down her back and underarms. While her mind struggled to remain indifferent and blank, an undercurrent of desperation for Ino fought its way to the surface still. Ino would know how to handle unpleasant men. Ino might even have shared her knowledge on how to deal with unpleasant men, but Sakura could not remember. She sat still and let sweat collect all over her.
In the midst of the sweating and grinning, the carriage began to slow. The driver eased the team to an abrupt halt at the last moment, jerking the two passengers a last time. Hidan's gun remained trained on her still.
The carriage wiggled on its right side as the driver dismounted from his seat and plodded back to the passengers' door. Sakura's eyes made a frantic contact with the opening door and the man behind it: a blonde in a grey vest that Sakura found quite fashionable, if the man hadn't spilled something blue or purple on the front. A dark time was coming soon and she couldn't make out the color for sure. He maintained eye contact long enough to make a face at her hair and then looked away.
She looked in all directions of this new place and set to memorizing the placement of things as classwork had always instructed. This was a large farmhouse with much of the forest around it quickly and clumsily cleared; jagged-toothed tree stumps surrounded much of the property, except where a large fenced acreage for livestock, and except for a hole in the ground in front of it the size of her house. She saw carved spikes sticking up out of it; but there was no sound or movement coming from it. Hidan was laughing at something. No sunlight was brightening the property or coloring the house. In between the carriage ride and Sakura's exiting it, the sun had begun to cover up; a dark time was coming in a few minutes. Had they any wisdom, the men would be telling gathering inside the house and putting a lantern by the door.
His gun prodded her in the back. "Inside, girl, time to shower."
It was a word she hadn't said in a few weeks. She said it aloud, stunned.
"Yeah, shower are you deaf? Go on!"
The man in the vest came back from the house's porch, arms laden with heavy black books. "How many of these did you even get, Hidan? There's only enough room in the circle for six wives." Another man came from the house's front door and slammed down the steps in heavy, clattering boots. He pointed at the other two standing in the grass and began shouting in a foreign tongue heavy with sk and sh noises. Hidan and the book man responded to the foreign statements in her own tongue, arguing about circles and fitting in the circle and taking new wives for someone. Jashin or Islo. It made her skin crawl and her eyes dart—Hidan, shouting, loaded gun, old house no one could find her—and there was no way of knowing what they would do next, if they would shoot.
All three of them were blocking her way to the front door. They wanted to steal her and make her someone's wife. Would they "check" her inside that house? Who else was in there? There could be more men and more guns. Sweat was gathering under her arms with the mere thought of a person holding a gun up to her instead of up to one of the creatures. No gunmen was supposed to do that.
Sakura remained still. She tried to be still when the vested man clapped a hand onto her shoulder and pulled and pinched to try and make her move. "Our business is the ritual inside, girl. We're not presenting you to Jashin in these shitty clothes!"
"I don't want to," she said hollowly.
He pulled harder and yanked her forward a step. "I said go, you dumb bitch." Sakura tripped in the grass to catch herself, failed, and fell onto her side. The ground was hard and hurt like it bore a grudge.
Sakura heaved heavy, hurt breaths and tried to push herself up onto one elbow. Looking up again, she could see between the old man and the vested man clear across the property, where the stumps ended and untouched trees stood like a thick army. There was nothing but unbroken shadow between them. The open space where they stood was already dark as dusk.
The foreign man whispered something.
"No, they'll think her hair is, like, bloodstained, we gotta keep this one. She'll be the seventh wife. First in line is the fat one."
The foreign man said something else, louder.
"Like hell you will, Islo! Oldest priest, my ass!"
"If she's not a virgin, then I'll take her to my group, it's fine. Could start a new harem—it's dark. Whoa, it's coming fast."
The men were mockeries to real gunmen, mockeries to whatever they thought they were. Inside the house was a stash of six women, showered and well-dressed and peering out the windows at a seventh on the ground by the porch. Sakura gagged and wished she could run.
"I'm not gonna be able to put the horses away before it goes full dark!" Vest-man cried.
"Leave 'em, they know how to stand still."
Hidan jumped over Sakura and climbed the three porch steps. He set the gun against the wall of the house and picked up a match to light two lanterns sitting by the door.
Old Priest Islo crouched down, too, and dragged Sakura by her wrists. He was pulling her up off the ground like a trophy stag. He had a thick black beard and she could only just see him. The women in the window were clearer. Two as old as her mother, one old as Kiba's sister, one totally nude. Perhaps the nude one was being checked too. Perhaps she was a wife already. She looked bored, and scornful. Sakura, forced to stand now, made a decision. It didn't matter who saw it.
She dug her foot into the porch step and pulled her wrists back. Islo grunted when he felt her fight and he pulled too, but his arms shook. Sakura's arms shook, too. But she pulled with her legs and refused to let him have her arms. She pulled Islo down two steps with her, their shoes clapping on the wood. The only light left outdoors was Hidan's lamplight. She knew what to do with her elbows.
When she pulled hard enough, Islo fell towards her, and her right elbow was ready. She swung it left, aiming for his cheek, and hit near enough to her mark to count. Her elbow pushed into the side of his neck and he was knocked off balance. He started coughing.
It had only been a few precious seconds since he'd started pulling her at all, and the man in the vest finally noticed. He dropped all his books onto the porch and their many pages fluttered. Sakura pointedly avoided looking at him and aimed a second strike with her left fist, going downward, and she hit somewhere in the area of Islo's collarbone. It was almost too dark to see. But something made a crack noise. When she turned around, she caught one swift glimpse of Hidan grabbing for his gun. One of the indoor women yelped in surprise. Sakura took three long strides to get to the carriage. Only its yellow paint made it visible now. She could see the outline of its side door and the different pattern against the outer wood. With one jump, legs pulled up and arms in, as much as she could manage, she leapt for the passenger's seat.
The jump was not accurate and the bottom of the carriage floor cut against one shin and the other ankle. The carriage swayed on its axles from her impact. The steel bat flopped off the opposite seat where Hidan had sat and held her at gunpoint and clattered onto the floor by her right elbow. The two horses did not utter a sound.
Pulling on the edge of the nearby seat, Sakura heaved herself forward into the carriage till her legs and feet were fully inside. Then she flopped onto her back and stared out the open door. Hidan was crouched on one knee in the threshold of the front door, gun trained on her and his eyes bulging. The lamp lit up his bared teeth.
'You won't shoot. There's no way you'd shoot.' Sakura thought in rapid-fire words. Her heart was racing, she panted and could not catch her breath. 'If any of them are around, they'll come if you shoot. You better know that. You better know that—'
Outside it was perfect dark. The carriage interior was now all shadow, the landscape unknown. Hidan remained stone-still in the doorway, but for his shaking hands. There was no following her outdoors in a dark time. She was not worth the danger. But he was brimming with rage from her escape attempt and she was worth throttling and breaking.
He was mouthing word that moved his lip in a ray or bray motion but there was no telling which word of breaking or raping or anything else that he meant to say.
'I hope you get shot and die,' Sakura sniped in her mind. She scowled at him and let him read her own hate in her eyes. The book-bearing man tried to pull his companion into the door, but Hidan could not move.
Sakura's mind was traveling back to Konoha and how quickly she had run then, how quickly she'd thought and decided things. She tried to squeeze back into that time now. She had to move.
In her own bag was her little lantern, still with oil that Miss Musashi had supplied her. She plucked the matches from the inside of the bag, too, and lit one. One touch of the match brought the wick to life and brought a soft orange glow to the carriage and her own body. She put the half-moon metal handle into her mouth, and stood up. Feet on the edge of the carriage door's threshold, head and shoulders up and out of the threshold, and her arms on the carriage edges to balance her there. Her left hand found the storage ring on the roof where the driver kept the lash.
"You're not," rasped the vest-man from the door. Hidan's grinding teeth were audible. Sakura ignored them and looked to the side to properly grab the lash. The thin end was nearest to her, so she leaned far over to grab the fat end from the opposite site, and pull from there. She pulled in tiny increments to minimize any scraping sounds. They were the only noise in the dark around them. Hidan, the women in the windows, and the horses were all quiet.
In ten seconds, Sakura had finally pulled the whip out of the metal ring. The next steps would be complicated. The whip, the horses, her lantern, her bat and the crazy men in the doorway must all move or be silent as she required them. The plan was set, but could be crushed by anything, and there was only a fraction of the adrenaline in her that she'd had the day Konoha was ruined. Only a picture in her mind of Hidan pulling her into the front door kept her moving.
Hidan was moving, too. Outside of her vision he had stepped out onto the porch, gun raised high and his animal teeth still bared to her. The first porch step creaked, and the two of them looked each other in the eye again. Sakura broke the gaze first.
She leaned forward over the open carriage door, towards the horses. She slapped the whip lightly, feeling no impact, saying, "Ha!"
Hidan was close. "You try—I'll rip your guts out. Bitch. Don't—"
Now the carriage leaned as Sakura leaned even further, pushing her weight towards the front and right side. She slapped the whip again. "Ha! HA! Go!"
One of the horses snorted and stepped forward. The carriage jolted as one pulled and the other was moodily dragged. Two of the window women slapped their hands on the glass but none of the others dared to break their gazes from the moving carriage. Hidan's feet danced and twitched. He was out of reach of the lamplight now and his fellow priests could no longer see him. He could no longer see the escaping girl, either, only her lamp that she held out of the open door. The horses' trot was picking up.
"Thieving bitch!" came to Sakura on the wind, but she would not look back. Hidan pivoted on one heel and returned in time to hear the door creaking shut, pulled by the gasping, broken Islo.
The thieving bitch rode away. She held the lantern as high as she could manage out the open carriage door and sweated fresh stains into the underarms of her shirt. The horses were cantering now and there wasn't a spare second that wasn't filled with their hard, iron thumping on the ground or the metal bits of their tack jostling around.
'I AM a thieving bitch,' she thought, shivering. 'I might die. I might—just let me through. Just stay away from my lantern. Please just stay away.'
Could the horses see through the unnatural dark? How long until they hit a tree? How long until one of them came from the trees and attacked? She was a stupid bitch, cowardly bitch. There were other women in that house who were going to be slaves to insane husbands and she left them to that fate. She lad left them.
'I don't wanna think about it,' she thought, biting her lips. She wanted to speak, expel this ugliness in her, but it could not be moved till the dark time was over and it was safe to make noise. The wind whipped hair from the side of her head over her eyes, and then back. The horse on the left snorted again. They were moving in sync now and the pulling on the carriage itself felt evened out. Still, they hadn't run into anything. The steel bat rolled around and was kept inside only by her repeatedly kicking it backwards when it rolled too close to the open door.
Three more minutes passed. Greenery around her pushed forward out of the black. Green blurs and brown stripes of tree trunk silhouettes appeared, then their full shapes came into focus as the sky opened again and returned daylight to them. Sunlight returned, warmth on her skin returned. At last she could feel the discomfort of sweat again. And she was free to make noise.
"Made it," Sakura murmured to herself. But murmuring was nowhere near enough. She inhaled deep and: "I made it! I did! Stupid jashin-bastards!" A few more nonsense syllables came out, and then giggles. They drained away, too. Now there was only wind and horses' hooves.
Hidan and his strange priests were behind her, but she wasn't done moving yet. She wouldn't be finished for the day until there was decent shelter over and around her. And there was no indication that Hidan didn't have spare horses with which to give chase. Sakura scowled and looked around: most of the trees were on the left side of the path, with open space and at least one far-off farm field to the right. Hidan had chased her for less than fifty feet and that was more than enough for her. But she would have to move for a long time to be sure he wouldn't be following.
Almost from the moment she'd hopped into the carriage, Sakura had been standing up, feet on the edge of the doorway, clinging to the top of the doorway, and the door itself swung wide open and smacking against the carriage's outside. There was maybe, perhaps, a better way to ride.
She shouted an assortment of commands for "stop" for three or four minutes until the horses heard or cared to obey. She stopped near the low point of a valley with new wheat plants rising up between the hills. Here, she hopped out of the carriage, grabbed her bag, and then walked around to the front of the carriage. Up one, two, three steps till she made it to the driver's seat, a wooden bench that seated two. This was where the man in the vest had sat while he chastised Hidan for not bringing lanterns on the ride. Hidan was a stupid bitch, too.
"Oh, wait," she murmured, and turned in the seat. She'd left the passenger door open. By leaning over the edge of the bench, she could reach the door with her right foot, and kicked at it until it swung back and locked in place.
"Okay. Okay," she said, and secured her things. Ready to move. Class exercise complete and she would have gotten a good grade on it. Surely. She would have to, right? She'd executed her plan without a hitch, really. Excelled, as usual! Sakura bit her lip again and said in her mind many times that she would deserve a full mark on it. She said "ha" again to make the horses move. She was driving. She was just old enough to drive, she remembered. Less than a year from marriageable age, too. But when the word wife threatened to appear in her mind, she gasped aloud and recoiled. She fidgeted in the driver's seat and watched for anything coming from the sides of the road.
Sakura drove through the next town, an hour's ride from where she had changed seats. She ignored the people around her, the cows lining the west side of the roads, and the man who screamed at her to try and sell her a factory-fresh wheel axle for the carriage. Three other carriages were winding up the hill out of town and she passed each one. She passed a second town, counted her money on a long, boring stretch, and evening fell.
Where am I going, said a Sakura-like voice in her mind, and it said it again two more times, and then repeated itself every minute thereafter. A scattering of orange lights down the hill showed a third town since Hidan and his men, and she did not want to ride through the night. She did not want to see Hidan ever again. She did not want to be a wife or have men yell at her like she was a grown woman with money and she did not want to be here at all, alone on the road like some failed carnie, but she did want a bed. That was worth pursuing, probably.
Sakura stopped the carriage, and directed the horses to walk into a field along the roadside. There she unhitched them, and slapped the hindquarters of the left horse. It nickered and trotted gaily away from her to a patch of grass nearer the road. The other still wore its bridle. It hung its head dumbly and it waited. She patted its side and back smoothly and waited several minutes. It began to graze eventually.
She heaved up onto its bare, brown back and it did not appear disturbed. She heaved one leg over the side and clutched at the mane and yelled "ha" half a dozen times till it moved. And so this one became her indifferent steed and the carriage was left by the road. Eventually, she left this horse, too, before she was within sight of any of the town's buildings. She walked a wide arc around the main roadway, observed its main street from two different streets that intersected it, and found a hotel that looked too expensive for a teenage girl by herself. She still had money from Moroi and could afford one night. The clerk did not make any face or comments at her. The room was clean. The room had running water and electricity until 9pm but no phone lines. Her bag was on the floor. One of her shoes was tossed across the room. Her face was buried in some strange pillow that smelled clean and fake and she was crying.
"Mom, Mommm." the voice that was almost like hers wailed. Tears had dribbled down her cheeks and were caught on her lips, nearly dripping into her mouth or on her chin. "I wanna go home. Mom. I hate this! I hope Hidan fucking dies! I hope he dies! And I never see him again."
Sakura nuzzled into the blankets and her moans and hisses fizzled into the cloth. Her head was hurting and she had no medication for it. One of her feet had a cramp in it, too, and hadn't she walked quite a long way to earn it? How far was Konoha from here? Two hundred miles? Three? A month and a half since she'd left home, or maybe more than that. Taking laborer's work and sleeping in barns and trees, bathing with handfuls of river water and skinning rabbits. She was living some wild, nonsense life out of a novel, but it never stopped. It just kept going. Only today had a real person turned a gun on her. Nobody had ever done that—nobody should—she tried to imagine how horrified she would be, how quickly she would be pissing her pants if one of the gunmen in her own town used a gun on a person instead of on one of the It Men.
Without her permission, a picture was conjured up in her head of Hidan finding her, finding this very room and shooting her and making fun of her again, "Dumb slut thought you could steal my things," and then he laughs at her because he doesn't care at all. He shoots her like she's a sick animal and he means to eat her flesh. He'll put his thumbs into her eyes so that she cries and can't see before she dies. Sakura covered her eyes to protect them, but her mind kept running. He'll try to have sex with her when she's almost dead and blind and pump her full while she screams because it hurts, it stings so much and she can't cover up a pain that happens inside her and then she'll die.
Great god. Did she really escape him? Was he on foot right now, sprinting down the hilly roads to Yuraka Town and ready to find her hotel? Maybe not. Maybe he was fine with the other six women and losing a whole carriage was just whatever.
Maybe he'd get cancer or something. Maybe he'd get killed by one of the It Men in a dark time, since he was such a stupid bitch, he'd probably bang pots and pans together thinking it would make rain fall and then he'd get smacked into a pancake on the ground and eaten, as he deserved.
He should die. She felt in the barest honesty that she wanted him erased from the living world. He deserved to just die.
She wouldn't die but he would die, please god, make him die and go away. Go away.
These thoughts of wishing death on someone did not fit naturally in her mind. But lately things like that were there a lot. She flushed them out. She thought about croissants. Books.
Good books. Books. When would she ever wear a fine dress and read a book in the sun? That sounded good.
Good. Would be good. Hidan. No.
It was after midnight now and she'd bathed and shaved and made herself clean and soft but everything inside her was still a series of thorny cramps, unwilling to loosen. Yuraka Town, her buzzing brain thought. Yuraka Town made a lot of windows and stained glass. Toilets and sinks, too. So a lot of people who build things. Maybe she could...look around tomorrow. Ask about Konoha. This place looked like it had never heard of Konoha, or the things attacking in plain daylight, or anything that could hurt them.
I want to go home, is a thought that passed across her consciousness again and again. She wanted Mom. And Ino. And a home with no Hidans and no evil men who kept women in a house for Jashin rituals allowed in, ever. But this was all there was. This day-to-day thing, having to earn money at random jobs like an immigrant or a drifter, that pretty idea of studying very important books and attaching things like "Doctor" and "Mrs" to her name is gone. Her home is just in her bag and in her head. Just me, now.
It's just this or I starve and Mom will never find me. These thoughts have no right to poison and ruin her so, but she can't escape them. They can only exist inside her head, but lo, so must she.
Sakura found her bag in the peaceful dark and dug out a match to light the room's lamp, and the book about penguins. She read aloud, slowly and enjoyed hearing her own voice a bit, seeing her own hands on the page and hearing her own familiar voice and pressing her skin against the soft blankets to know that she was still here and she would be well.
The next day, she slept in. Sunlight always drove Sakura to action and movement, but she turned her back to the light in the window and kept her eyes closed, not even dozing, but perhaps resting. After yesterday, the rest felt necessary. Not since leaving Konoha had she really felt an experience that peeled something away from her and left her weaker than before.
To wake up and stand up and go outside would be to potentially face more Hidans. There were Hidans out there who threatened girls and pointed guns at other people, and life wasn't all that fair anyway, so she probably would end up meeting more of them before she got to find Ino. What would she do then? Threaten to shoot them, too? They never said that in class. Even in camping exercises, being attacked by other people never happened. So much that she wanted to say never happened or should never happen but here she is in a strange bedroom over a hundred miles from home and she will never be a doctor or have a house. Until she finds Ino. Maybe.
Sakura rose out of bed and pushed off the edge so she could take a shower, even though she took one just about twelve hours ago. She wanted the warm water. She washed her hair again even though she just did that twelve hours ago. She pocketed the extra soap bar the hotel staff put on the sink counter.
"I could change. I mean, I really ought to change," she said to herself, observing her green top. This and her new pants were lifted from The Bath House, was not all that attractive in the first place, and it had holes in it now.
"I can...buy some new clothes. But meals first. And then I'll get work later today. If I do some lifting or loading work tonight, I should buy—" And thus she planned. She planned the day aloud for a good fifteen minutes. Then she swung her bag onto her shoulders and left the nice hotel, taking the two free bread rolls from the common area before going outside. Nowhere near as good as croissants.
Outside it was nearly lunchtime, and there were plenty of people to talk to and lots of sun shining down on fluffy-haired heads and fancy hats. Yuraka Town was enjoying a fun spring fashion trend of curve-brimmed hats, especially wide-brimmed ones for women. Sakura liked the look of them and even tried one on at the clothing shop. She came away with one or two new everythings, ready to replace things that were stained by a month of sweat. The last of her money could buy her a cheap dinner if she didn't get work today. But the first work to be done was surveying work. Hunting down the truth work. This was it now. This was what she had been doing for weeks before. Just. Do it more.
She walked, and enjoyed the walk. She wasn't sure if the place had a city council building, but surely they'd have a courthouse. And she'd strike there if the townsfolk didn't all recognize Konoha and its people and label them a curse. Three streets down from her hotel, there was a town square with a pretty white fountain in the center, and many curved benches for people to sit and talk. One man was playing a flute-like instrument while passersby dropped cents into his instrument case. Sakura approached one of the listeners, an older gentleman with graying hair, and tapped his shoulder.
The "Excuse me? Hi, I'm a bit new here, could you help me with something?" line was one she'd tried before and it had success with men. A lovely-lady smile must have given the man just the right impression.
"Hello, I'm looking for some people here in town. Do you know if anybody from Konoha came through here recently? Or Kumo?"
"Oh, I'm not sure. Never heard of Konoha, where's that, dear?"
Next, she went a little ways across the square and found two women, one with a baby on her hip and the other writing in a notepad. "Hi there, could I ask you two a quick question?" The notepad-scribbler gave her full attention to the stranger, the baby-carrier looked far less enthused to be interrupted. "Do you two live here? I was wondering if anybody from Konoha or Kumo came through here. Refugees, you might say."
"Refugees?" the baby-carrier said with a series of alarmed blinks. "From what?"
"Was that the place where they had that awful fire? Oh, I read they drained the whole lake to put it out and their park has no lake anymore, and right before spring festival! Talk about unlucky."
Next, she found a man with his son who had visited Kumo years ago, but had never been to Konoha. And he hadn't seen either town mentioned in the newspaper since last year. Next, she found two men lugging boxes off of a donkey cart, and one of them knew nothing and the other one ignored her. She returned for the town square for a while and claimed a bench for herself and slugged off her bag, letting it barely be attached to her around one arm. The flute man was still there, and she listened to his songs and the fountain rushing, rushing. The Yuraka people didn't sit down for long. Strangers came and went in duos and hordes and Sakura eventually decided that the male iteration of the popular spring hat was ugly.
The sun would set soon. The courthouse was full up and busy, but there was a council building, and a young male receptionist who paid rapt attention to her from the moment she walked in. "Would you know if the council has dealt with any refugees lately? From Konoha, to the south?"
"The council hasn't talked about refugees in years. But I now Mr. Yarga helped some people from the south somewhere. This weird couple, he let them stay the night in his shed when there was a bad storm out and he said they came from the south, thought they were homeless folks." She asked for an audience with Mr. Yarga, could she visit him at home, even, and the receptionist laughed and showed his teeth in a grin and said, "Well sure. I can get him in ten minutes, sweet."
She waited at the front desk and tapped her fingers on the wood. When he came back from a hallway behind the desk, he had removed the outer shirt to his outfit that left him in a striped blue tunic with short sleeves and a low neck. He asked Sakura smooth, curious questions about her hometown and what she did there, and she answered each question with exponentially louder growls in her voice. Mr. Yarga came from the back hallway and interrupted the receptionist's question about dinner.
Mr. Yarga was young to be attached to any kind of council, and wore glasses that could have easily attracted school bullies were he ten years younger still. He rushed out from the hallway, ushered Sakura in with three strong waves of his hand, and rushed back. She nearly jumped around the receptionist desk to chase him. Mr. Yarga closed the door behind her and sat down at a desk weighed by papers and paperweights.
"You're from Konoha." he stated. His mouth was parted just slightly, his eyes wide.
"Yes. It's my hometown. I—"
"Did that really happen?" he asked, and almost in the same breath, "Tell me what happened. To...confirm. What I heard before."
If he wanted information, he would likely pay it back out in return. The desperate, hunted-deer look in his eyes assured her so. She told him what had happened. She told him that in the first week of April, wraiths had attacked in daylight and she had seen one trying to eat a house. She told him everything. She paused. Her eyes darted and she knew she looked like a little girl. But Mr. Yarga looked like a little boy, with wide eyes and sitting at rapt attention for her. The story took nigh on ten minutes.
She told him she was looking to connect with her remaining friends and family. "Or anybody." she said. "Anybody I know. My friend, Ino Yamanaka, she's a blonde girl my age, I'm trying to find her. Did you let her sleep in your garden shed?"
The councilman was staring at her still and clinging to his armrests. A bird chirped loudly outside his window. "No. Not a blonde girl. A b-boy. Your age. His name was Lee—"
Lee's heavenly grin erupted in her mind. Sakura erupted. "Lee? You saw Rock Lee?!" Yarga's hands twitched on the armrests as she leaned over closer to him. "Was he all right? What happened to him? Tell me where he went! Please."
In seconds, her heart was beating so strongly she felt its pulse bulging in her throat. The seconds wherein she waited for Yarga to collect himself made Sakura grind her teeth. "His name was Rock Lee. Yes. And he was with a woman named...Kurenai?"
Miss Kurenai, a grade school teacher. "She got out, too." Her heartrate was only increasing and great god, she loved it. Lee and Miss Kurenai, here. Here and sheltered and okay.
"I don't know where they were going," Mr. Yarga told her, "they said they wanted to settle somewhere far. They told me what happened. They asked about other refugees, too."
"Oh. Oh." Sakura said. Her fingers grasped vainly at her own chest and shoulders.
"But this attack. This. The—the beasts that attacked your town. Please. I'm begging you to tell me the truth." The councilman paused and took in her nod. "Were you performing some sort of, of rituals? Were they killing people in there? Young girls? What...what happened? To bring them to you?"
So easily he stepped on her father and everyone else. She wanted to shout. But this was so important. Her voice still came out louder than she meant: "Nothing. I swear to you. We light our lamps like anyone else, we're quiet during any dark times. There was no reason for it. None that I know of. I—I don't know." She huffed out an unpleasant laugh. "A few years ago my mom told me that one came in to town when I was a kid, and that it was happening more than it used to. I don't know. After...after it, I went to this town called Emmha. Some refugees went through there before me. They said the things had gotten to Kumo, too, they'd been there first. I've been there lots of times. I don't believe they were doing anything either. We didn't do anything wrong."
The councilman's brows had pushed together as her weak explanation tumbled out and he looked like he might sob, as Sakura was starting to. "A woman there called me a plague. But I didn't do fucking anything to deserve this. Nobody did. I was supposed to go to school that day."
No birds were left on the tree. The silence in the office began to stretch. Yarga had nothing to say about the fact that she should have been in school. But his silence relented eventually. "How'd you get all the way here? If you ran? You got a ride somewhere on the way?"
"How'd I get here," Sakura said, laughing again, and then shivered. She did not belong in any of the places she'd crossed to get here. "Like. Walking. Most of the time. I asked people for rides in wagons sometimes." Hidan came into her head again. She had asked someone for a ride and had met him. "I stole a two-horse carriage from an insane priest the other day."
"Wh—yeah. Yeah, they said 'Jashin' a lot. How'd you know?"
Now Yarga began scraping at the armrests with his index and middle finger. It squeaked. Sakura stubbornly looked away and wouldn't let her irritation come out of her mouth. "Well. They've done some shit lately. But not my jurisdiction, not my problem." Squeeeeeaak. "And you. The thing that happened to you. And Konoha and Kumo. It's ungodly. And...it's not the first time I heard of that happening."
Squeeeeeak. "This, this happened to another town? When? I've been to every town from Konoha to here. Nobody ever said that."
"It was a long time ago. Eight or nine years, I think. I don't know where it happened. But it was another refugee. He came from way west of here, and he said he was trying to go east, get as far away as he could till he hit a coast. We gave him shelter in a hospital room for two nights. And then he went. And we voted not to tell folks about what he said. And I'm thinking hearing this story twice in a lifetime is too much." He paused to take a quaking breath. All of him was starting to quake. "That man was from a long way away. But, but Konoha, or Kumo? I could get there if I wanted to. That's close. Great god, that's too close." He stood up and the chair sqUEAKed. "I'm leaving. I can't live near that. Two towns, in a day. If it's coming closer, something's started, it's—I can't!"
Yarga bolted up and his calves knocked his chair backward. He darted from his desk to a tall wooden cabinet against the nearest wall. There was sweat glimmering on his neck as he yanked the topmost cabinet door open. He grabbed two handfuls of neatly packed papers and threw them onto the ground. Sakura's brows quirked up and sheets drifted her way, but she could think of nothing to say now. The first thing to come to mind was Lee. This outburst was so uncomfortable, but she could make it tolerable by comparing it to him, to his energy. His voice was fresh and loud in her ears now as it was the day she'd last seen him. "GOOD MORNING SAKURA! Will you come see the play with me on Friday? PLEASE SAKURA?" Mr. Yarga's assault on the cabinet contents froze and Sakura's eyes returned to him. In her mind's eye, she saw Lee running down the shopping street and she ran after him, yelling.
The man looked tongue-tied, so she took the quiet opening in his stead. "Tell me what you remember about Lee and Kurenai. When did you first see them? When did they leave?"
"They were at Fountain Square two weeks ago. Asked for the police and I took 'em home instead. I woke up and they were gone." He held two sheets of paper out to her, held together by a plastic paperclip. "Here. You can have a ticket."
Her hand grasped the papers and she immediately grimaced. "To...the northern continent?"
"Getting the hell out of here. You deserve to get out too, so there, free ticket. Get safe. I'm going tomorrow." Some of the papers in his other hand spilled out and he dropped to his knees to snatch them up and crush them against his abdomen while his hands snatched more.
He stood up fast as a startled mouse. "It's...it's almost six." Across the square, the wooden clock tower confirmed this. It would chime very soon. What papers he had, he pressed close to his chest. "I've got to go. I can make the boat tonight! I've got to GO!"
Councilman Yarga stepped onto his office chair and leaped over his desk; his guest yelped and scrambled to be out of the way of his legs. One foot kicked at Sakura's arm as he came down. He caught his balance and then bolted at the same time Sakura's side struck the west wall. Councilman Yarga's yell kept on as he opened the door with a barely-free hand and faded away as he ran down the hall. The receptionist called out in alarm and knocked something wooden over as his boss passed him. Sakura pushed off from the wall, panting.
Out in the lobby, the receptionist was panting and staring, too, and set about stacking papers and locking drawers to close his post for the day. Soft clinking and tapping noises provided background noise to the close shifting sounds of young Sakura trying to avoid the many sheets of paper on the carpet. They were agreements for building renovations and shops and voting procedures. A hospital bill from the previous month. Letters of businesses. Councilman business. It was all nothing to her.
'Did he even realize that I could just, like, take stuff?' she thought, even though she didn't feel any compulsion to take his stuff. He was so terrified of this, terrified of the tragedy of Konoha coming elsewhere, that he left her behind and didn't care. Sakura found that she was only standing in this room because she wanted the receptionist boy to come in and see if she was still there, but two long minutes passed and she heard the front door opening and closing once.
No other offices or footsteps stirred, but the breeze outside made shadows of tree branches move across the rooms and made the place at least not look fully dead. Sakura looked outside at the street and the blooming trees that Yuraka Town had prettied itself with. 'Maybe Ino or Lee got on a boat, too. Maybe they thought it'd happen again and they tried to get far away, too.' Maybe the people that she knew were safe somewhere, or trying to get safe. Maybe. Maybe. It was all a maybe.
"All a maybe," she muttered. It felt like nonsense when said aloud and she frowned. "So. So, maybe I'll—" Maybe what? She still had to find some place that'd pay her for a few hours of work before she could stay in a hotel. Or she could sleep in a tree again. She could also take a 3-week boat ride to the northern continent, but that also left most of the rest of this continent unsearched, and also the northern continent had maybe 500 people on it who lived in snow huts and Konoha saw snow about five days a year. So maybe not.
Sakura gave a last brief search of all the papers again, looking for familiar words, for direction, and she found something. She found the one hospital bill and picked it up. It was a bill for the removal of stitches, one bottle of ointment for a burn, a refill for a steroid cream that would calm reddened skin. These things were written out as suture removal and honey-base salve, 10 bg and cortizone vial, 5 bg. She knew words like this back in school and she'd recite them to her friends, or whoever, before they told her to shut up because nobody cared or class was starting. In her ruined bedroom two hundred and thirty-four miles away, lying on the shelf, there was a book that she bought once that had planted this desire in her brain in the first place. And it was still there.
The night she clutched the hospital bill, she found the local community board in the square and read through handwritten job postings while the breeze of passing townsfolk wafted her back and hair. The hospital needed a new children's doctor, a new traveling nurse for the sister hospital upriver and across the bay, and multiple cleanup assistants. There were open interviews all day, it said. She'd never been to an interview. Her profile of work up until this point, age fifteen, never graduated and almost a grown woman, was asking strangers outside of shops if they needed a hand for the day. She could lift heavy bags and write neatly, and usually they said yes. But. She could do this just fine as well, if all it took was talking about herself to strangers.
When she arrived at the hospital, she was less sweaty, had combed her hair and pressed down the items in her pack to make it look small and efficient as she was. She wore a lovely smile and found a door in the back where men were smoking and occasionally bagging up used syringes. They let her in.
"Tell me about yourself," said a nurse in a nice uniform and a face of bald indifference.
Sakura told her she had left home and her scores in anatomy class at school were very good, and she listed bones and sicknesses and curing plants and the nurse nodded several times. She asked flatly if Sakura had ever been to a medical university, even though her age made the answer obvious and embarrassing. Sakura still forcefully smiled as she answered.
When she got the job, she found that it was the first one where she was made to sign a contract. It demanded that she obey the nurses and not steal equipment, or her paychecks would be halted and Yuraka policemen would seize her and jail her until the stolen goods were found or she worked to replace them. It was drawn on pure white and gorgeous paper and would have looked beautiful in a fine, bound book. She signed. The nurse was named Tamaki and she told Sakura that she would be on morning and afternoon duty starting immediately.
Immediately, she began disposing of used syringes, cloths, washing sheets, and sorting bottles. Idiot's work. She sorted everything quick and clean. She lived in the cheapest inn, walked to work, and she quickly grew tired of returning to a silent hotel room every day. Her one book was not enough. She asked other assistants for their time, with the lovely smile, and a word about wanting to explore the town. Tenten had coffee with her, and talked about knives and the circus. Darui went with her to the comedy show and laughed at bad accents. Temari rebuffed her for being fussy and personal, but went on the seal-viewing ferry with her on the lagoon.
"Thanks, I had a great time! See you tomorrow!" she said to them every time, because it was as close as she could get without choking or sobbing to admitting the truth, to admitting that she was desperate for friends and laughter and good things to look forward to and great god, she was lonely. She went to sleep hugging herself again like her first few nights in the woods after Konoha's ruin. She did not tell people where she had truly come from.
When she'd worked for a week and had bothered Temari twice, Sakura bought books. A book about history of medicines, a novel about witches and cat familiars (The Nigh Mornings), and a book about deer, because the cover was unmistakably a photo of the Nara farm in Konoha. The book was printed nine years ago, in a city across the continent. When she was eight years old, someone came to her town and took that photo. She read to relax, and rinse Hidan and Skullface and homelessness and her dead father out of her mind and sleep.
Then she was "promoted" to the duty of pushing gurneys and moving crates, because the head nurse, visiting from the faraway sister hospital, noticed she could lift and move heavy supply boxes quickly. Sakura's job became more sweaty. The head nurse asked her if she'd run away from home to join a circus, because of her strange hair. Then the head nurse started making her stay late. Tenten was at her side and they attempted to laugh and roll their eyes together.
When the Bastion foreigner quit, a boy named Omoi was hired to replace him. She scoffed at his plebian taste in candy and sweets. They heaved a ten-brick-tall fireplace piece from the basement to the second floor together and smashed each other's fingers in the stairwell. Later he said, "So, do you like mystery plays? The Saturday one's good. I could take you." He took her. When he tried to kiss her, she let him. She kissed back and they both gasped, defenseless to the burrowing warm sensation in themselves and pleasantly surprised. Later he refused her offer to go see the seals in the lagoon, and Darui refused to speak to her, and one Sunday, neither of them came to work, and were never seen again. Sakura cried.
When a dark time came around ten in the morning one day, and the cleanup assistants' work in the basement slowed to a safe, quiet crawl, Sakura was using an eyedropper to add peony solution to a cough medicine, and the head nurse liked the sharp exactness of her drops, and said that maybe next month she could help the rotational nurses on the first floor. The next month, she was. She removed old supplies, gave out new ones, and eventually administered shots. She got a small bonus upon promotion, but no raise. Tenten and Anko went shopping with her. Temari didn't talk to her anymore. Her hair was getting longer, and she took care of it, thinking of Ino, and she ate half of a pie on her mother's birthday and pretended to talk to her.
When time passed, she let it. She began to live here.
Sakura lived in Yuraka Town, a school dropout, with a stable job and living alone and unnoticed. She was a nurse's assistant who measured and administered medication and tended to patients as ordered. In her free time she went on walks, took friends to plays and dinners and boat rides in the lagoon and read books if she wanted to rest. Tenten went on the lagoon with her the most. Temari was a friend when it suited her to be one, her boss Shizune was a teacher when Sakura prompted her with questions, and once she went out with a young man whose overbearing behavior did not exactly endear her as much as Omoi's earnestness had the night they kissed, a Saturday in August. She still thought about him.
Sometimes she thought he and Darui were criminals who had been close to capture before they fled Yuraka. She sometimes thought about one of them coming back for her. Or both. She thought about Omoi finding the address of her inn somehow, being in her rooms, saying that he wanted her. She thought about kissing him many times, because he was good at it for a boy who'd never kissed a girl. Maybe this time she could ask him to go somewhere instead of the other way round. She could invite him into her room since the inn was fine with guests. So easy to imagine him acquiescing to her if she kissed his mouth teasingly and grinned at him. He blushed like those poor boys who never could speak to girls.
He would come in and he'd remove her clothes immediately. That seemed more in order than her removing his first. Didn't it? He couldn't laugh or make faces at her because she was trim and had a good face and her breasts were good enough sized, probably. Enough for him? It had to be. Why, just about everyone at home thought she was pretty. Oh, hopefully it'd be dark and their bodies would be smothered with candlelight and shadows, like in every good play, every good book. She would push him onto the bed very gently. Or he could push her? Being pushed didn't sound sexy. Maybe it did. Dammit. Surely it'd mean he was hard and ready and wanted her badly.
So maybe she'd push him a bit and tease him about that, and then he would push her down at last. Her fine dress is on the floor and he sees her only in the lace undergarments that she couldn't afford yet. He slid his rough hands up her waist and shoulders and under the straps of the bra and peeled them away and she shivered when her soft breasts were revealed to him. If he made a mean face at her she'd crush his wrists or scream at him. If he dared. At this point she'd be sitting on him, it seemed. Right? Would that be comfortable? Would his belt be pushing into her underwear? A metal belt buckle pushing an irritating red indent into her vulva, wonderful. Anyway, back to business. 'Our business is the ritual inside, girly.'
The man in the vest appeared and the fantasy evaporated. She saw him on her bed. He held those books in his arms and looked so terrified like an unshaven, unmade young man, but he would hurt her. Sakura pressed her clutched fists tight against her naked breasts and in three seconds the mental picture of that man was gone. She yanked her nightwear back on and did not sleep for two more hours.
She thought about the women in the window who had watched her escape and if they hated her for not helping them. They should. She would, if she were behind that window. Folk from Konoha must have hated her before they died. Some people must have seen her running, and this burned away the last tiny trace of pleasure that still set in her belly. Shame was spilled there instead. God, she was so ashamed and did not want to say it. Some people watched her run out of town and knew she was a cowardly little cunt with soiled pants. She was alone now. Hiding alone in a hotel room, for money, for friends. Something easy. She found that underneath the shame she wished she could talk to Rock Lee. Or Ino. '
I love you. Love you both. Wherever you are. Are you hiding, too? Is that why I haven't seen you yet?'
Is that why she hadn't seen them yet, across all this time, after asking so many people? Because they were hiding. They weren't...they were just...hiding.
They were. Hiding.
Sakura believed this. They were scared like her, of course they were. Men, women and children had all fled like cowards. She had even fought one of the It Men with her hands, while crying out in terror like a frightened animal. She crushed its soft slug head. That was a real thing. And now she sort of wanted to throw up. She got out of bed and read a book about medicinal plants while standing up.
The next morning, she approached the head nurse, Shizune, who was busy as usual. She gave one-month notice for her plan to quit and Shizune balked. Winter was a busy season for wounded workers and frostbite, and a slow season for hiring new workers. Sakura cited family reasons for needing to leave, and Shizune asked for details. Asked if Sakura did not care for Yuraka Town's location and would consider a different job on a nearby coast. It was upriver from Yuraka and north across a bay. The sister hospital needed a new nurse assistant. Sakura said she would consider it because, privately, she wanted to move forward and search new towns for familiar faces, and she was telling herself that folk from Konoha, almost two hundred miles inland, might be drawn to oceanside towns rather than towns surrounded by woods. Easier to travel. To escape. Most creatures that came out in a dark time were too dumb to swim well, so if they walked into the ocean, they usually didn't walk out.
So she said maybe.
The next day, her birthday passed. Tenten appeared after her shift with a card that could be traded for slices of cake, and a fine black skirt that almost touched her knees. Sakura wanted to keep it.
"I'm so sorry to see you go, Sakura. I wish I knew sooner! It's not even fair. Now I'll have to do my shifts with Tamaki all by myself. Bleghh! Maybe you're lucky to head out. I'll be here forever, probably. My family is just a day's ride away. I know that job at the smith's is gonna open up soon! So if you ever come back, can you come see me? Maybe you can write me? I'll make a hammer for you, a red one! Maybe pink? Oh, a red one first. Definitely."
Sakura realized not for the last time that she had friends again. She had a home, even if it was an inn. She had a closet for her clothes and books and her trinkets and her own bed. She had wintered here, loved it here. She could walk all of Fountain Square with her eyes closed. She hadn't thought of Hidan in weeks. She was okay.
The year had been good to her. The year of Yuraka. She missed it already. She wanted to keep it.
So the days passed where Sakura was a cleanup assistant, and then a nurse's assistant—now she moved on. The year had turned and it was April now. And she was farther from home than almost any of her townsfolk had ever been.
She was at sea for the first time. The Racketeer was a cargo ship, not a passenger one, but Shizune had secured them room and board somehow. They were due to hit port that day and her volunteer cleaning shift was close at hand. But her shift as a nurse had one patient remaining. She stepped out of Shizune's examination room and went to Inari, sitting in the bolted-down waiting bench by himself. She touched his shoulder and kneaded once at the hard, anxious knots there. "Hey, it's time. And it's going to be quick and easy, all right? I'm going to take care of everything myself and then you'll be on your way."
"Fine," he said with a twitch of his tight lips. She kept her hand on him as she guided him from the empty waiting area to a crowded sort of doctor's office. The room had cabinets with latched doors and its own sink and a table where shipmen with injuries or needing surgery would both be tended to. Shizune watched Sakura. Inari sat himself on this table and kept his back as straight. The water was calm outside and they felt no sway of the boat. Only Sakura moved. She held out her own hands in front of Inari.
"I'll need to clean it out again before I can give you a good judgment," she said. "Will you let me?"
The boy's eyes were wide and speared some point around Sakura's collar. "I gotta be able to clean the decks tomorrow. Gotta." he said.
"You will if Shizune says you can," she replied gently. "She'll tell Zabuza herself if you're not able to do it. Right, ma'am?"
"Of course I will. Zabuza won't relent on my judgment, Inari. He never has," came Shizune's predictable reply. This reply had been given to Sakura already, that her own examination might run more smoothly.
Inari did as he was bid and held out his bandaged right arm, covered from the top of the wrist up to the inner elbow. He held it over the small table that was layered with paper to catch drips of blood and fluid. Sakura took a set of scissors and gently snipped at the bindings till they were loose and short enough that she could pull them off gently with her own fingers. The wound beneath was as dark as it had been yesterday. Scar tissue was growing over it, but beneath that film many parts of the branching gash were still green. The flush she had cleaned Inari's wound with ought to have killed this infection by now, or at had left only scattered, dying bits left. Penetrating objects that left infected areas in the body were not meant to look so green; Shizune's lessons on wounds like this had not addressed gashes that fought her own standard drug. There was no fact to draw from.
"We'll need to slit it open a bit like last time," Sakura said a little too quickly, and Shizune noticed and made her gaze on the girl penetrating.
"Y-yeah. Yeah." said Inari.
"We'll scoop those nasty bits out, and flush the area a bit more. And we'll give you more time to heal and get your strength back into that arm," Sakura said with a smile for him. Inari's eyes flickered to hers once, but he didn't want to answer her. He waited for the cutting. Sakura flipped open the latch-box that held the smaller tools and found the fourth-size scalpel. She kept talking to him. "Tell me about that fishing party last night. I heard the kids were outside all trying to catch a shark with Haku's old lure?"
She pressed the scalpel gently in and the surface of the scar tissue split. Inari' s lips contorted to try to muffle a noise of pain that he'd known would come and could not be muted. The doctor ignored his cries and eyed Sakura's hands, sliding too slowly down the gash. Inari, twelve years old and never crippled before, could not recognize the poor handiwork. Sakura kept talking after the wound was open and its green ooze began to dribble down the rounded sides of the boy's arm. Drops of it hit the paper below. Sakura reached in with a tiny wet cloth to wipe out more of it. She could not see Shizune pursing her lips.
The exam room door opened and Sakura's hand remained stone-still inside Inari's arm as she and the others looked up. Haku was there, panting and hair coming loose from its bun. His fingers clenched slightly on the door. "Sakura. If you would. Please come on deck."
Sakura said as rehearsed, "I'm in the middle of a patient visit, Haku, I can come up in—"
In a laughing woman's voice, Shizune interrupted, "Why, what's happening on deck, Haku? Are we hitting land soon?"
"We need help securing something and Zabuza needs more strong hands, ma'am. He'll be pretty cross if I don't find some."
"Oh, no worries. Sakura, you go ahead. I'll finish here. You can head on to your cabin once you're done up there."
Sakura turned a baffled expression to Shizune, while her hand remained steady and her fingertips frozen just inside the gap in Inari's skin. Shizune pushed off the wall slightly and approached; the stern demeanor melted from her and she made to take over the girl's position. The transfer of the scalpel between hands was smooth such that Inari did not even feel the change, at least not until the head doctor's fingers pushed lower on the scalpel to achieve a more precise grip, and then she began nudging the exposed pus towards the surface. It came away from the innards of the boy's arm easily. Sakura wanted to marvel at it, but Haku was looking. She strode towards him and he held the door open till she was through the threshold.
"So what do you need help with?" she called over her shoulder.
"It's something they netted on the port side. Let's hurry, please."
She opened the waiting room door for them both and started jogging. There was space enough for them to move side-by-side; Haku was pressing her to move faster by jogging just slightly ahead of her. Sakura tried to keep up, but she was more and more impatient with each stride.
"What is it? Why are we hurrying?"
"I didn't see. I'm sorry. It's something he wants to haul up, I think."
The medical room, captain's office and mess hall were all well behind them and the stairs to the deck were in sight. Haku looked away from her. "I'm going to get Mr. Hanzo next. I'll meet you on deck." Here, he pivoted so hard on his heel that it squeaked against the floorboards and he was near-instantly out of Sakura's sight and into an adjacent hallway that led belowdeck. Sakura made for another staircase to the right. She jumped from the floorboards to the second step easily and hurried up the darkened stairs without need of the handrail.
The door at the top was heavy steel, made for keeping people in and unwanted deck visitors out in case of grave emergencies. The standing cabin boy let her open it herself as per usual and she left the lit hallways behind in favor of sunlight and ten bolted-down lanterns, now unlit. It was only nine in the morning, sunrise three hours gone. Her hair had been tied back many hours ago to keep out of the way of any patient procedures, but the strong sea winds thrashed at it still. With one hand pushing some hair behind her ear, she spotted the five watchmen all clustered along the port side of the deck, all staring down at the water. Zabuza's haul was surely netted there. She started forward.
"Haku brought me, sir," she called over to them. The third watchmen, Suigetsu, she had yet to learn, spared her a look but returned his gaze to the sea seconds after.
Zabuza was on the far side of the group, wearing his shirt with the torn-off sleeves that made him look like a rogue. Without looking, Suigetsu shoved a length of thick white rope behind him, sort of in her direction, so she took it from him. She furrowed her brow at his indifferent bak and then looked over the side of the boat.
Half-caught in one of the fishing nets was a fat grey creature smeared in black oil, sweating it into the sea. It had the appearance of a seal or a manatee but for a thin neck separating a bulging head from bulging body. Every passing wave would bump its belly and elongated right flipper against the ship's hull while the head roved and dipped under the surface. The crowd was all watching for movement from the creature itself, but none came. It was dazed or dead.
"Can I drop a shoe on it?" asked the short watchman.
Sakura, too, was dazed and fought for the presence of mind to wonder if she was also unconscious. The same thought was on each mind there on the deck, but none dared to say it lest it grow from joke to truth. They were quiet and waited for commands and Sakura's breath came in and out with difficulty, with unwanted weight.
"Looks disgusting, whatever it is," the captain finally added.
It looked familiar; it looked too unnatural. It looked like a creature that came out in a dark time. It was a sad and crippled sea creature, they prayed, or it was what it looked like, floating dead against a ship in the daylight.
Why in the sea? Why dead, what had killed it? And why was it still here in plain daylight, not disappeared once the dark time ended? Sakura hated these questions and pushed them away, spurned them like infection. She shouldn't have to see it. Haku shouldn't have called her up here. But if she hadn't been told, it could only have been an unpleasant surprise later.
"You want to haul that up on the deck, sir?" Suigetsu asked, still looking over the side.
"I wanted it up on deck when I thought it was a sea lion." Zabuza said. His face was wrapped up smartly in bandages up to the nose again; it was Shizune's work or Haku's. "Now I think not. No. We'll each take the rope and haul it back towards the stern. Shove it into our wake and let the waves push it far behind us."
"Yes, good idea. Great idea, sir."
"I'll help," Sakura said, grasping her own length of rope again, but the short watchmen was yelling "Let's heave!" at the same time and no one heard her.
Zabuza uncrossed his arms and showed the two ends of rope that he'd held in his right fist. He wrapped them about his arm and walked along the edge of the ship, moving through the watchmen group and past Sakura. "It's caught on some piece of wood down there, so it needs a hard pull. Everyone heave—now."
Sakura heaved and almost kicked the captain's calves in her haste. She straightened herself and pulled her arms up slightly, feeling the weight in the rope. It was a great weight indeed, but these six men and herself, working with the buoyancy of the water, could pull it. She heard the soft straining of the other men behind her. To their left, a few more crewmen were watching their strange maneuvers. But they didn't matter right now. Sakura took another look over the side of the ship at the creature. She watched for movement of its body or its eyes, for twitching flesh. But there was nothing. But she could not stop looking at it while she heaved.
In another minute, they'd passed the stairway that led up to the captain's office and the steering wheel and were nearing the stern. In that travel time, Sakura studied the creature and hated it. Its flipper kept scraping the hull of the ship, its head swung out towards the open ocean and then knocking against the boat again like a carnival toy. And it dared to exist out here in the lovely morning, in her lovely daylight. Damn the thing, kill it, get rid of it. May an orca gnash its teeth on this thing and puncture it and rip it to ribbons. If she were an orca herself, she'd dash it against rocks till its life and organs had been scraped off and out of it.
When Zabuza could walk no further along his ship and bumped the stern's railing, he sent the signal to all the men and to her to give one last shove and to drop their rope ends, too. Sakura's turn came and she strained her arms and pushed, threw her rope mightily through the air. The short watchmen whooped at the sight of the ropes sailing down to the waves.
Then the beast touched the whitewash of the ship's wake and was smothered by it. The fat body finally turned and seemed to flail in the water as the wake pushed violently on it and gobbled it up. The rope ends tangled and waved behind it, still caught. The group watched the creature bob above and below the foam twice before the current of the sea finally turned its head and body the other way. Now it floated away from the ship and looked away from them, too.
"That's one of the good nets, too," said the watchman with a beard.
"Captain. Sir. You'll tell someone at Tidusa about it, won't you?" Sakura asked, though she wanted to plead. She straightened her voice, that he might not dismiss her as a whining child. "In case somebody sees another one. Someone in town should know there was precedent."
"For what, manatees in the bay?" chuckled another man. He looked away from the ship's wake. "Hope you're considering finishing school once we hit shore, miss."
"Shut the hell up," Zabuza said, and he did. The captain looked away from the sea, too, and roved his gaze evenly across all hands present. "Roon, up our speed by five knots. And don't say a word about this."
Roon was the tallest man present; he said "Sir!" and skittered back towards the navigation office. The others dispersed as the captain stared forward and began to walk straight through the group. He looked ahead to the bow of the ship and the port that waited for them. Sakura danced a little on her feet. Her body longed to chase after him and beg his attention, beg a reaction from him. Retaliation. Preparation. He was a ship captain and he had to do something. He knew exactly what that creature was. But here she stood dallying and waiting, because to speak of it again brought it back to life.
At the end of six seconds of waiting, she pushed through the rest of the unmoving, disgruntled watchmen and went after him. She bit her lip and cleared her throat twice. A strong sea breeze whipped up the end of Zabuza's coat and tossed little sprays of seawater into her mouth. She called out, "Captain! Wait!" And he didn't wait, so she started jogging.
"Please." she said, gasping, then added, "Sir. I need to talk to you about that creature."
"It'll be taken care of. Go back to the kitchens."
Internally she balked, but her mouth moved on. "I'm from Konoha in the Fire province and I've seen them in daylight before."
They kept walking. Zabuza's head steered slow as a whale shark till his eyes caught hers. She didn't dare bow her head from his stare. "Say that again," he said in a growl.
"Do you know about Konoha?" she asked instead.
"I know it was a town and now it's not."
That stung. So dismissive she felt ashamed of it. "Where'd you hear about it? Have you ever heard of any refugees from there? I'm looking for them."
"Some sailor south of here," he replied. "Didn't know him. Didn't talk about refugees." He kept eyeing her and walking as two passengers walked by. Then, "If you know anything about that thing in the water worth sharing, then enlighten me." The glare turned spiteful. With his disdainful frown through his bandages and the angered brow came the realization that he did not believe her at all.
Sakura told him what she knew; after a minute of talking, Zabuza grasped her shoulder and pushed her towards a group of bolted-down crates where he bid her to whisper. So she did. She told the story as she'd told it to Councilman Yarga one year ago. Her tongue was steadier and she did not cry this time. She put forth as many details of the creatures as she could, details of the gunmen she saw, numbers and weapons and locations, the statistics that would have traveled and passed from the mouths of whoever had talked about it. She described beating one with her bare hands.
"God, I hate kids."
"You beat it up by yourself? Did you use your magic powers to do it? Your cute little fists? If you're telling me a fever-dream story I'll pull your ugly hair out of your head. Lying bitch."
"I'm not lying and if you really thought I was, you wouldn't be standing here. We wouldn't be talking. Right?" This was all it took to make him stop fighting her. She kept going.
She described the run out of town, hiding in the tree, leaving Ino behind and walking barefoot to Iwa. She described how she almost bit through the skin of her hands and stole clothes from an abandoned house. Zabuza kept up his hard glaring at her for most of the ten minutes it took to tell the story. It was a few minutes shorter than the entire encounter had taken in real time.
By the end of it, his disbelief was still written across his face and she could read his frown hidden by the bandages still in his hard, pinched brow. Sakura realized not for the first time that he was handsome. Zabuza caught her youthful stare and did not acknowledge it.
He took a step towards her. She tightened her every muscle to stand unmoving before him. "If I believe you, then I have to consent to either that your village was damned, and the men in power there were doing something damned and conniving, or you were victims of a bad coincidence."
Her jaw dropped open and she glared. "It wasn't a bad coincidence—"
"Then what?" His silhouette was huge and his shadow covered her. "Your people were unlucky bastards or stupid bastards who brought it on themselves. And if this is the second time you've seen one of them in regular daylight, then maybe whatever terrible thing brought it on them is following you."
"It's not!" she barked back desperately. "I haven't done anything wrong and neither did Konoha. Neither did you, right? You look me in the eye and tell me the thing caught on your ship was a sea lion!"
"Hello!? I'm waiting!"
This last caught the attention of two female passengers walking by. Sakura put her hands on her waist and leaned forward to shove her face up towards Zabuza's. She did it naturally, but it also served to make her look more haughty. An entitled, angry passenger whose breakfast eggs came served scrambled instead of boiled this morning.
The passengers walked away, the older one looking back at her. Zabuza had not changed or masked anything about his own posture in the meantime. He looked like he hated her. He looked like the now-dead gunman who once had slapped her.
"I could tell people that you brought it," he hissed. "Since with your previous experience, there's precedence. That they show up where you are."
She wanted to cry again. She wanted to beg. "That's not fair."
He nodded just once. "Maybe. And maybe not. But I can tell them anything I want. You—"
"You don't know that they haven't shown up in daylight elsewhere, and just nobody said anything!" she cried. Her hands did not hang haughtily on her hips now. "Or, o-or news never got out. Or people didn't get out. Nobody past Emmha had even heard what happened to Konoha or Kumo. I didn't tell anybody in Yuraka but that councilman, because I thought they'd, they'd throw me out, or hate me. Like that, that butcher woman. I thought they might ban me from town. Or make me be quiet."
He laughed at her. Sakura grimaced and almost started to sweat. But she kept thinking while she sweated. "If you don't tell anybody, I will. Someone has to know. And if they don't like what I say, I'll just leave. There's plenty of towns on that coast. I can cover lots of ground even without Tidusa, I'll keep looking."A section of Zabuza's bandaged face went up and down in a thoughtful expression Sakura could not see.
"I don't think you're gonna find anybody," he said.
"I don't care what you think," she shot back. "I've found signs of them before, people have seen them. I know they're somewhere. I want this. Even more than staying in Yuraka with a job. I want home."
"Want 'home'?" he echoed, tilting his head back. Sakura thought helplessly that he was handsome, that he was still mocking her, that she didn't know why she'd framed her desire so childishly. She just nodded at him, and in her desperate, young simplicity, he understood.
Zabuza asked, "How many people have you told about what happened? And how'd they react?"
"I told dozens of people. Not far from Konoha, mostly. After Emmha, I stopped." She didn't explain, and again, he understood, but he did not laugh. "Like I said, the councilman was the last one. Most people would be surprised, or scared. They'd ask if the things were coming this way. They'd take me seriously. You don't joke about those things."
"Yeah," he said quietly.
"And a couple people, they'd tell me to go away. They acted like because I talked to them, they'd be next. They just, they yelled at me—"
"Just means they took you seriously, too."
"Everyone does," she replied as though it were obvious. But she realized it slowly herself. Everyone she met across leagues and hills took her for a serious young woman, a source of truth and horror, a woman grown with a real job, a friend and helper, a potential wife—she avoided Zabuza's eyes. Hidan had been the only person in her life this past year who called her a girl and not a woman. But she was a young woman. She'd been one and been acting as one all this year and more. Sixteen felt like a small number in her estimation, but in truth nobody around her cared. No one asked. No one asked what it had done to her, even though she knew.
She had touched this thought several times before, usually on accident. When she was buried under warm bedsheets or having coffee alone, it'd risen up by itself and she'd crushed it. Stomped its life and organs out of it. This ungodly, untrue concept that what had happened to her, and what she was doing, was w—ro—ong and, and. Was. Poi—n—t—les—
But no. No, that was a fake thought, for imbeciles or failures, or people who'd failed classes and had never dated or just were jackasses like Ami and Neji or the gunmen and absolutely not such people as her. No, she'd always prided herself on positivity and perfectionism, and screw what everyone else thinks!
She was absolutely not a failure and her heart was strong and beautiful just like Ino and Hinata and Rock Lee and Ms. Inuzuka the vet and her parents. She was absolutely—? Absolutely.
At the beginning of this unbearable snake of thoughts eating her had the fact that people took her seriously. That was because—
"I'm of marriageable age, after all." she added dumbly. She did not know that a quiet three seconds had passed.
Zabuza did and did not care. He chuffed an unimpressed sound through his mask of bandages. "You sound like you're ten years old. Nobody of marriageable age says that." But she did not look chastised, or react to him. She reacted to something inside herself that made her deaf to him. It made their silence heavier. Uncomfortable.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked her.
"Okay," she replied, having not heard him. She cleared her throat. "Yes. I'm sorry. Anyway, are you...are you going to tell someone in Tidusa with me or not? I'd like an answer."
"Yeah, I'll do it," he told her. "The militia gunmen are the ones you want to talk to. Not just the police who beat up purse-snatchers. We'll go there."
"Yes. Agreed." She swallowed and looked him in the eye.
The captain's eyes roved upward, tracking the position of the sun. Their conversation had taken a longer time that it had felt like, and another handful of workers had passed them by in their half-secret corner and wondered at them. Sakura was oblivious to them, and Zabuza indifferent. And with the two in agreement, it no longer felt like he hated her.
Sakura looked up at him. "Thanks for listening."
"Sure," he said flatly, and then, "Stay by the gangplank after we dock. I'll find you."
"I'll be waiting," she replied, almost smiling.
"Room at the Minazuki if you do stay in town. Rooms are small but they're not bad. They got good beer. It's next to a hat shop."
"Oh! I'll look for it. I hope it's near the hospital, though."
"I took a nursing position at the hospital. Um. You told me before to go back to the kitchens? I've been doing shifts with Doctor Shizune in the medical hold for the whole voyage."
"Hm. Then you can probably afford a bigger room at the Minazuki, then." Sakura waited for further comment, but none came. "See you later." He turned and walked off, sharply removing himself from her.
"Bye," she called after him.
Zabuza lifted a hand as he got further off. Sakura accepted it even though he chose not to look back at her. She lowered her hand and walked out of their cubbyhole space. It was only a few hesitant steps at first, to leave there and finally stop looking like she was hiding something Then she was walking like she walked to work in Yuraka. Purposefully, easily.
He'd taken her seriously, like everyone did, and offered to help her and vouch for herin the end. Surely that was more important than the caustic attitude that he'd kept up the whole time. He cared so little for her flattering gaze upon him, and he mocked her. He mocked the story of her killing one of the It Men by herself like it was a tale she made up for pity. He said he might tell the town gunmen that she brought the creature herself. She'd serviced his sailors with work injury treatments and medicines and health advice for three days and he thought she worked in a kitchen.
"Mean little bastard," she said to herself. Finally. "He's a total bastard. Ugh! Ugh! I wish I could yank his bandages off. Jerk, you think you're a pirate? You ferry glass and lumber in a cargo boat, get over yourself." A few more comments like this successfully expelled the weight of his accusations from her. She painted him as something that would make her sigh and laugh. He reminded her of Toro, one of the cat familiars from The Nigh Mornings. One of the grumpy black cats.
She took a deep breath of salty ocean breeze and exhaled it. She walked up a dozen steps towards the stern of the boat that sat higher than the midsection. The point was that he was helping her. He was not all bad. She was not all bad, either.
"Are you in Tidusa?" Sakura said to no one over the ocean.
No one was around, no one said anything back.
"I'm coming, don't worry," she said to no one but herself.
She was due for a shift cleaning the hallways belowdeck and turned around. She had to be in front of the galley to start. She had to start her new job in Tidusa at the nice, big hospital they had there. Hopefully she could afford to sample local coffee and croissants. But that was one fun task, and many more waited for her.
She had to search the town in her off hours to see if anyone knew of strangers passing through, which would be hard to do in a port town full of strangers. She had to look in smaller coastal towns, too. She had to talk to strangers at inns and bathhouses and grocers and isolated farms. She had to. She had to find people. She had to.
The monster is not following her yet (the creatures that appear in daylight are not following her, either) but the monster remembers her. And they'll meet again next chapter. I had some minor angst about a long chapter with zero MadaSaku content, but that is not the point of this chapter. See paragraph below marked with * for The Point and What I'm Doing With Sakura in This Story.
This will be a monster-human romance with my ol' fanfic favorite tropes of obsession, suspense, possessiveness and cool animals/creatures. Those are (some of) my things, I swear. I want to write 15 - 20k chapters because I effin like them, but updates will be slow as mine always are. I am currently deployed and working 6 days a week at my base. That still gives me more free time than when I was stateside and trying to write this + other WIPS. Any update for this will seem fast to me, though. I STARTED this story in May 2015.
*The Point I am trying to get across with my literary writingwurds in this chapter: Sakura is traveling to a multitude of places, absorbing a little something from each one as she goes through them in a blur, but processing almost nothing. Many people treat her with disinterest or dismissal. She is a young woman who feels like an unprepared, abandoned child and cannot express that to anyone. She is an extrovert carrying heavy internal feeling that she cannot express and deals with the problem by thinking very surface-level about her life and problems. Felt like explaining this when I realized I've seen too many writers trying to paint Sakura as "introverted" lmao get some glasses.*
See you, and the Uchihas, next time.