Search Lights

- Chapter Three –

::

Down and forward she was dragged, water rushing into her ears and nose and pain shooting up her leg from her ankle. Despite her instincts screaming no, she forced her eyes open, desperate to see what was trying to drown her.

Blinking and squinting and trying to ignore the icy sting, she felt whatever was pulling her down release her ankle, something brushing her back in the next moment. Twisting around in the water, her legs instantly began kicking again, body moving on instinct to return to the surface as her lungs ached for air. It was difficult to see, regardless of the cold – lake water wasn't exactly super clear, after all – but Sakura still saw movement ahead of her, moments before impact. A quick flash of white and something crashed into her chest, the force enough to push her backwards hard and fast.

Her back hit something large and solid and Sakura was aware of the muffle feeling of sand and dirt under her fingers. Ears ringing, she managed to glance around and realized that she'd hit an underwater slope of some sort, the lake's bank surely just overhead.

She reached backwards frantically in search of purchase and tried to find a grip, dislodging more small clouds of dirt. Sakura only paused when her foot hit something solid in her panicked movements. A quick glance down brought an old broken pipe of some sort, thin and caked in years of hardened dirt and rust – rebar, maybe? – jutting out of the bank-side into sight. A small ledge sat a couple of feet below where nearly a foot of the metal was exposed, but she had only a moment to assess it before a garbled screech brought her attention back up and ahead of her. There, some thirty feet away and quickly moving towards her, was some sort of... fish?

Sleek and startling white, a long tail thrashed behind it and its mouth opened and snapped closed several times, revealing a duo of rows of too-long, too-sharp teeth that sent deep-set chills down her spine.

She was quickly running out of time and air and with another glance down at the protruding pipe, Sakura acted on impulse and moved downwards to position the pipe behind her. With her feet braced on the slab of rock below, knees tense and bent, her hand reached back to run over the broken metal as the creature darted forward.

Lungs screaming and spots appearing in her vision, she clung to the short surge of bravery fueling her as she braced herself and waited as long as she dared, staring ahead at two pairs of steadily nearing, yellow eyes.

She propelled herself upwards just before the creature impacted her, another garbled scream meeting her ears through the water, and that thrashing tail, covered in hard scales, smashed into her, one time in the side and another against the back of her head, water filling her mouth again as she was knocked around. Her surroundings came in flashes in her disorientated state –

The pipe jutting out of the top of the fish-creature's mouth, blood, blood, blood, quickly clouding around her, bony arms with glistening claws and webbed fingers clawing at the dirt slope, something long, thin, and silvery dislodged from the wall and falling in loose coils down further –

Sakura hoped she was aimed at the surface and kicked desperately, the realization that her movements were slowing coming sluggishly to her mind.

Red and white, the creature reared back, a chain catching the light that came from the lake surface above, and then a face –

Angry, vaguely human, blue, baring sharp, sharp teeth down and away from her –

At the thing

Air, air.

Something warm and strong wrapping around her middle –

And then darkness.

::

Awareness came and went in slow, slow waves, her body numb and her senses dulled. She could feel something warm around her, vaguely. It was a comforting, secure warmth and she tried to reach through her weak consciousness to further grasp it, wanting to pull it more securely around her.

"-the hell happened?!"

The voice sounded familiar, but she was too far out, too disconnected to identify it. Sakura battled her own numbness, trying to fight off the urge to sleep.

"-knocked her in, saw it from… rushed in and-"

A second voice, this one entirely new. She tried to focus on what the voices were saying, but she could only catch bits and pieces, the entire conversation quickly becoming a garbled mess of sounds as her side throbbed and her head pounded.

She felt her body tremble with a shiver and, moments later, became aware of the warmth shifting, pressing more firmly against her side as it drew her closer. Sakura turned her face sluggishly towards it, chasing the comforting safety of whatever held her, and trying and failing to convince her eyes to open.

"-she kill it?"

The first voice again, the tone incredulous though she couldn't really pay attention to that interesting piece of information, too focused on clinging to the warmth.

"-ust hurt it… still out there-"

She could feel her fingers moving, but the sensation was muffled, and the soft groan surely must have been hers, but she wasn't quite certain. Everything was fading away again, unconsciousness slowly regaining its hold on her, but she could feel herself being passed from hold to hold, into another set of warm arms as the voices continued to speak.

Sakura blinked blearily, trying to see anything, but her vision was blurred and out of focus and, when she made to blink again, her eyes refused to reopen.

And she descended into darkness and blissful unawareness once more, the distant sound of water splashing and a soft voice lulling her back to sleep.

::

When she came to, the throbbing in her head had dulled slightly and she felt a thousand times warmer than before. Sakura reflexively pulled the blanket laid over her closer to her face, pressing it against her cheek as she let out a relaxed groan and shifted, turning her body to face the radiating warmth of a fireplace some feet away. She was incredibly tempted to fall back asleep, warm and comfortable, but realization hit her a moment later and her eyes snapped open, her breath hitching in surprise.

There was indeed a fire going just a few feet in front of her and the blanket over her was soft, but neither of these facts were as comforting as they might have been as she realized she most definitely did not know where she was. Her eyes darted over the mantle of the fireplace, trying to find something familiar, but she couldn't quite make anything out as the fire was the only light in the room.

Confused, Sakura slowly sat up, hissing under her breath at the soreness in her side, and tried to take stock of her situation. It was about then that she realized the shirt she was wearing was not hers and a quick glance under the blanket confirmed that, yes, she was wearing unfamiliar pajama pants as well. A little feeling around revealed that she was still wearing her underwear and bra but, while that was a slightly more comforting revelation, the fabric for the latter felt uncomfortably damp and cool under her touch.

Loathe to remove the warm shirt, she reached under it to unhook the back and then pulled the straps off her arms, pulling her bra out from under the fabric.

It was about then, her bra in hand and the over-sized shirt riding up her stomach a bit, that Zabuza walked in.

He stopped in the entryway to the room, a basket of clean laundry in hand and a towel wrapped around his shoulders, and stared at her for a moment. She couldn't tell if his surprise was directed at the fact that she was in the middle of tossing her bra to the side or –

"You're awake," He said matter-of-factly after a moment, his gaze flickering over her just briefly before he glanced away, reaching up to scratch his cheek over where the straps of the surgical mask that covered the lower half of his face.

"Y-yeah, I-" Sakura fumbled for words for a moment, feeling awkward as she searched for something to say. Zabuza had saved her? Was this his house?

"I…" She chewed on the inside of her cheek as he looked to her again, reaching up to tug on the shoulder of the shirt as she sent him a weak smile. "Thanks..? For the dry clothes."

He nodded slowly, shifting his weight and glancing down to the basket in his hands before back up at her. "Yours are still in the dryer – just got out of the wash a few minutes ago."

The implications that he'd undressed and re-dressed her – in his own clothes, apparently – had him looking away again, a strange tightness to his face as he frowned at the wall behind her, his eyebrows furrowed slightly. "They were soaked."

Sakura blinked up at him, suddenly fighting back a smirk as she realized he was acting almost shy.

"Thank you," She said sincerely, pulling the blanket up over her shoulders as she relaxed.

Her reaction seemed to put him at ease and he nodded, moving to lean against the wall as he took a slow breath. A moment later, Zabuza met her eye again, his expression smooth but serious.

"I told you to stay away from the water."

Sakura balked and then bristled slightly, that bemused smirk quickly disappearing as she sat up and gripped the edges of the blanket more firmly, her eyes narrowed at him.

"No, you said to stay out of the water. You didn't say anything about not getting in a boat and ending up knocked into the lake by…" She frowned, trying to remember what had happened. "…Something."

Zabuza scowled at her retort but stayed silent for a long moment, watching her in consideration. Eventually, he shifted his weight to his other leg, still staring at her assessingly.

"What did you see?"

The question caught her off-guard – what did she see? Not what happened? – and she held his gaze for a few seconds, expression confused, before glancing away and closing her eyes. Flashes of white – scales, claws, teeth – ran through her mind, but it all felt so far away, a chill running down her spine. Her mind was fuzzy and stale, unfocused images only came to her in broken pieces and the back of her head throbbed dully.

"I… I don't know." She finally said, voice low as her gaze dropped to her hands and her eyebrows furrowed.

"Sakura," Zabuza started, his tone frustrated – as if he thought she was dodging his question on purpose, "You have to –"

"I don't know!" Sakura snapped, attention jumping back up to his face as her own frustration brewed. "I don't remember, okay?!"

He fell silent, watching as Sakura wrapped her arms around herself defensively.

"All I know is something knocked me into the water and I nearly drowned."

Eyes darting across her face, as if searching to see if she was lying, Zabuza slowly turned away and went back through the entryway he'd come through. He returned a couple minutes later with the laundry basked replaced with two steaming mugs, the tags for teabags hanging off the sides. He handed one to Sakura, the scent of peppermint meeting her nose, before taking up his spot against the wall once more.

Sakura cradled the mug in her hands, holding his gaze before letting out a sigh and taking a careful sip, glancing up as he started to speak.

"Sounds like a fish," He said, tone even and rather definitive. "A pike maybe – they get pretty big around here."

She didn't know why her initial reaction was to shoot him a glare, feeling defensive again. "A fish did not knock me in, Zabuza. There's something in the lake and it tried to kill me."

His expression gave nothing away and Zabuza continued to stare, eyebrows only slightly furrowed.

"You said you can't remember what exactly happened," He replied, almost challengingly, "A fish doesn't have the mental capacity to try to drown someone."

"Because it wasn't a fucking fish!" She was getting angry again – he was hiding something, she just knew it! "It-!"

"Look." Zabuza interrupted, his thoughts indecipherable through his half-visible face. "You're safe now. I think it would be best if you just... tried to forget about this."

If the tea wasn't warming her up, the sudden fury in her chest most certainly would.

"Forget about it?! I nearly died!" Sakura grit her teeth, only further angered by the way Zabuza glared down at her like she was being difficult.

"You know something and you're not telling me," She hissed accusingly, her eyes narrowed as she pointed at him. "You can't just expect me to forget about this and move on, Zabuza. I was attacked and I know it."

Red, red blood, white teeth, yellow eyes, a flash of light caught on a coil of silver-

This wasn't something she could just forget.

"It would be in your best interest to forget," He replied just as tersely, not meeting her eye now as he gripped his mug tightly. "Pretend it... didn't happen."

"Like hell-!"

"Sakura-"

"This is fucking bullshit! You-!"

"Sakura." There was something in his gaze when he looked back at her now, an almost pleading look. "Please. You need to forget this happened."

She paused, biting back her angry retort as she frowned up at him, a sour feeling in her stomach. Sakura took a breath, sitting back as she realized she'd been moving closer and closer to the edge of the couch.

"What-" -was that thing? -aren't you telling me? There were so many questions rolling through her mind but that look on his face filled her with reluctance. "Why? Why do I have to just pretend this didn't happen? You need to tell me what you know, Zabuza."

"I can't," He said, his voice almost quiet as he let out a tired sigh.

Sakura grit her teeth and let out a frustrated sound, pressing herself back into the couch cushions as she sipped her tea angrily and muttered an irritated "Bullshit," under her breath. The quiet was broken by the sound of him stepping forward, her eyes darting up and her expression still bitter. Zabuza stopped in front of her and crouched, taking a knee as he set his mug aside and reached up to rest his hands on her shoulders.

"Listen, Sakura, please. I'd tell you what you want to know, if I could. But I can't." His dark brown eyes held hers evenly but she could almost feel the desperation in his gaze.

"It's not…" Zabuza trailed off for a moment, a frustrated sound slipping out, and Sakura had a sinking suspicion that the word he wanted to say was 'Safe.'

"It's not something you should worry yourself over."

She pursed her lips at that, but the way he gripped her shoulders and the pleading look in his eyes kept her from snapping angrily. Tearing her own gaze away, she gave a curt nod.

"Fine. Fine, I'll just pretend I didn't nearly get killed by... 'a fish'."

He sighed, but it sounded more relieved than tired. Nodding, Zabuza pulled his hands back and grabbed his mug again from next to his knee, ruffling Sakura's hair as he stood up. She quickly swatted at his hand and let out a huff, glaring down at her tea as she tried to make sense of this situation and her broken, jumbled thoughts.

Zabuza watched her in consideration for a moment before moving to lean against the mantle over the fireplace.

"I'll make a deal with you."

Well, that admittedly caught her attention.

Sakura quirked an eyebrow, holding the mug to her lips as she looked up at him. "…I'm listening."

"No more questions and you eat free at the diner."

Ah, he was bribing her with food.

She was a little ashamed at how much that worked.

When she didn't immediately respond with either a negative or positive answer, Zabuza continued, still having yet to drink his tea. "Try to forget about today and, from now on, you get meals on the house at the diner. Anything you want, for forever."

Lips pursed, Sakura thought it over for a few moments before giving a small, reluctant nod, feigning surrendering to his terms. If he wasn't going to tell her what was going on, she'd just have to figure it out herself.

The icy water stinging her eyes, sharp metal behind her, a monster racing towards her with the intent to kill-

She'd get to the bottom of this, regardless of what Zabuza said.

"Deal."

He nodded, his jaw shifting slightly in what she could only guess was a slight smile behind his mask, and she fiddled with the tag hanging off the rim of the mug.

"Okay, one more question though..."

"Sakura," Zabuza muttered warningly, but she quickly pushed on, ignoring the unamused look in his eye.

"What happened afterwards?" She asked, running her finger over the edge of her mug. "Someone saved me, right? Was it you?"

There had been a second voice, hadn't there?

This question seemed to catch him off guard and he blinked at her for a moment before relaxing, shaking his head.

"Kisame pulled you out. He saw you… fall in from his house and I heard him shouting and came out to see what was going on."

Sakura perked up at that, recalling the name as one of the other neighbors Haku mentioned. "Is he around? I want to thank him for saving me."

Shrugging, Zabuza glanced to a window over her shoulder, his expression thoughtful. "I'll pass the message along to him – he had some business to take care of. Don't expect too much though, he's kind of a recluse."

She sent him an unimpressed look, inwardly wondering if he was just saying that to keep her from trying to get answers out of this Kisame guy. Regardless, she nodded and finished off her tea, glancing up at the distant sound of a series of dings.

"That should be the dryer," Zabuza muttered, pushing off from the mantle and switching her empty mug for his untouched tea. "Let me go check on your clothes and I'll drive you back to Haku's."

::

The silence of the drive was somewhere right in the middle of comfortable and awkward as all hell. She didn't exactly know what to think of Zabuza. Pissed as fuck at how he'd dodged her questions and then just straight out told her to forget about nearly drowning, curious about what he was hiding, surprised by him actually taking care of her when she'd been unconscious...

She'd changed back into her clothes, fresh out of the dryer, and had been surprised when Zabuza handed over the ring of keys, relieved that it'd managed to stay clipped to her belt loop through the whole debacle. Without a word, he'd turned the heater up to the highest setting the moment they'd gotten into his truck and she knew she'd be making more hot cocoa as soon as she got back to Haku's house, already making plans to bundle herself up in a big blanket and curl up on the couch for a few hours.

As they pulled up to the drive, Sakura sent him one last thoughtful glance, fiddling with the drawstring for her hoodie, before nodding and reaching for the door handle.

"Thanks for the ride and for... helping me out, Zabuza."

He inclined his head towards her, starting to turn the heat down a bit. "If your ankle starts to bother you, give me a call."

Right. That had been a frustrating reveal. She'd found her ankle bandaged up neatly and almost worryingly sore, unsure what kind of injury she had under the wraps, though Zabuza had said it'd looked like she'd scraped it against something. It hurt a bit to put weight on it, but it wasn't something she couldn't handle.

Nodding, she slipped out of the passenger seat and stretched before quickly wrapping her arms around herself as a breeze blew past, shivering slightly.

"Stay warm," He called, leaning towards her open door slightly, and her smile quickly turned into an unamused frown at his following comment of "And stay away from the water," already starting to turn away.

"Yeah, yeah. No more scenic boat rides for some good shots of the-"

With a dawning horror, Sakura remembered her camera.

"FUCK!" She spun back to face Zabuza who watched her with a confused look, throwing her hands up into the air in exasperation. "I dropped my camera in the water!"

He grimaced behind his surgical mask, reaching up scratch his cheek. "Hope it wasn't expensive."

With a frustrated "UGH!", Sakura turned away and started storming towards the front door, keyring in hand.

"Fucking-! Bye, Zabuza!"

She swore she heard him laugh before he pulled the door to his truck closed and started to back away.

Sakura was almost instantly greeted by the rabbits as she entered the house, all three sniffing at her feet curiously and scurrying around her. Sighing, she deposited the keys and headed to the kitchen, in dire need of a cocoa. What a frustrating man.

::

She'd been curled up on the couch for about twenty minutes when the doorbell suddenly rang, making Mochi jump out of her lap in surprise and waking the other two rabbits. Sakura frowned to herself and reluctantly left her blanket nest, heading to the front door and wondering what the hell this could be now. Opening the door slightly, she peaked out onto the porch, half-expecting to see Zabuza there, but found herself staring at the unfamiliar young man outside in confusion.

"Pizza delivery!"

Sakura's stare intensified and she gave a slow blink before replying, tone deadpan.

"I didn't order a pizza."

The delivery boy gave a nervous laugh, shifting awkwardly. But, before he could reply, Sakura let out a sigh and started to turn away.

"Let me go get my wallet, hang on."

A pizza sounded awfully good right now, to be honest.

"Oh, no worries, Ma'am! Payment was already taken care of – tip too."

"What." She quickly faced him again and her eyebrows furrowed, confused once more. "By whom?"

"Same person who called in the order. It was put on the, uhh..." He paused, adjusting his hold on the pizza to pull a little notebook out of his pocket and flip it open. "The Hoshigaki tab. You do want the pizza, don't you, Ma'am?"

She repeated the unfamiliar name under her breath before finally nodding, flashing the delivery boy a small smile as he handed the box over.

"Thanks. Drive save, kid."

He smiled back and nodded, quickly taking his leave and hopping into his car. Sakura watched him for a moment before glancing down at the pizza box, stepping back into the house and closing the door behind her.

The weird cherry on top of this wild mess of a day.

Two slices of pepperoni pizza on her plate, Sakura thumbed through the local phonebook, much too curious about her mysterious benefactor to just move on without a little investigating. The county phonebook included three other towns besides Kiri, but she ignored those sections in favor of jumping straight to Kiri locals. Running a finger down the short column of names under H – the town's section was pretty small in general – she searched for this mysterious Hoshigaki.

Haru Daisuke –

Hideki Jun –

Hoshigaki Kisame –

Oh. Oh.

Sakura blinked, the feeling of gratitude doubling up, with a new strain of confusion. Saved her life and bought her a pizza, all without actually meeting the guy? She hummed thoughtfully and set the phonebook aside, reaching for her pizza as she relaxed on the couch.

She'd have to thank him in person, regardless of what Zabuza said.

::

Sakura was usually fairly adept at realizing she was dreaming.

And, judging by the fact that she was walking through a forest with flying fish swimming around her, she was pretty sure she was dreaming now.

She continued to wander aimlessly, carefully making her way over large roots and rocks and glancing curiously at the schools of fish weaving through the trees. Ahead, she could see a glimmer in the brush and, inwardly wondering where her subconscious had found all of this, she headed towards it, pushing through bushes and branches before finally finding the source.

Thin and silvery, a nearly fluid beam of light floated at about chest-height in front of her, waving and flowing in place, like a strip of cloth caught in a river's flow.

Sakura stared at it for a moment before simply reaching out, fingers barely brushing the light before it suddenly went rigid and snapped straight. She jumped back in surprise, watching curiously as the glowing quickly faded and, in place of the beam, hovered a silver chain. It stretched on into the darkness of the forest, still hovering at chest-height. Now, however, it remained completely still.

She looked down either path, seeing neither a beginning nor an end, before she finally chose a direction and started walking. One hand trailing over the metal of the chain, she followed its path through the woods, an odd feeling of confidence blooming in her chest as fish swam around her.

::

She awoke with a start, images of needle-sharp teeth snapping at her face flashing in her mind and her heart pounding in her ears. Bolting upright in bed, she stared into the darkness of the bedroom and tried to steady her breathing, jumping at the feeling of something landing on her thighs.

Eyes adjusted to the dark, she looked down to see Mochi sitting in her lap, peering curiously up at her. Letting out a breath, Sakura stroked the rabbit's back and reached for her phone.

5:10 AM.

Groaning tiredly, Sakura fell backwards and draped an arm over her face. "Here's hoping nightmares don't become a Thing."

Mochi tucked herself up under her chin and Sakura smiled to herself, idly petting the bunny as she tried to go back to sleep. Her mind refused to settle, however, and she let out a frustrated sigh, reaching for her phone again. She checked to see if Haku had replied to her last email, not quite awake enough to figure out what time it currently was in Russia.

True to her word, she hadn't mentioned the day's events to him and, inwardly, she debated whether she'd be eventually telling Haku when he got home or not. Maybe Zabuza was right about it being best if she just forgot about what had happened?

Were it not for the angry red scratches on her ankle, she might have thought she'd just hallucinated the creature entirely.

Another flash of white scales and a yellow gaze and her own green eyes snapped open again – she hadn't noticed them close in the first place. Sleep was quickly becoming less and less of an appealing option and, with a grumble, Sakura sat up once more, gently setting Mochi down beside her. Ruffling her hair with a hand, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and pushed off, digging out a fresh set of clothes as she headed towards the bathroom.

Making the water as hot as she could handle, Sakura took a quick shower to both wake herself up and clear her mind. She rested her forehead against the cool tile of the wall as she let the water run over her, shivering despite the slight burn and the steam quickly building up in the bathroom.

There were a few bruises blooming along her side and her front, the one on her left side the worst of the bunch, and she tried her best to keep from touching them. Nothing was broken, at least. Kicking the soaked bandages around her ankle aside after they slumped down around her foot, she stared down at the claw marks for a long moment, inwardly wondering if they'd scar.

The scratches weren't particularly deep, but they'd yet to lose those red, irritated marks and it hurt a bit to touch. She'd have to keep an eye on it. Zabuza had said to contact him if it gave her any trouble, but surely it couldn't be that big of a deal.

Sighing, Sakura rubbed at her face and reached for her shampoo, carrying on with her shower and trying not to think about that frustrating man. When she finally exited, the mirror was completely steamed over and her skin was a brighter pink from the heat of the water and her scrubbing. Splashing some alcohol on her ankle just in case there was a possibility of infection from the lake water, she gently applied some ointment and grabbed another roll of bandages.

Pebble was waiting for her outside the door and she smiled softly down at the rabbit, crouching down to offer to carry her. Snuffling at Sakura's shirt sleeve, the bun happily settled into her arms and the two made their way to the kitchen, both Mochi and Marzipan still asleep in the bedroom.

While the coffee maker warmed up, Sakura got to work on her 'chores', checking and restocking the rabbits' supplies and cleaning out their litter box. Holding a piece of hay for Pebble to nibble on as she carried her back to the living room some minutes later, she sent the view of the misty lake a glare before dropping down on the couch, her legs tucked up next to her.

What was she supposed to do now? Regardless of Zabuza's warning, she had no intention of going anywhere near the water anyways. And, while a jog would certainly help to clear her mind, there was still that possibility of a bear roaming arou-

Sakura sat up with a start, a thought occurring to her.

The bear. The carcass had been halfway in the water. Half drug into the water? The memory of the long, deep gashes of claw marks on the corpse bubbled up in her mind and Sakura subconsciously reached down to rest her hand on her ankle.

What if something else had killed that bear? Chōjūrō had said it was another bear but... if he was wrong and it was something in the lake...

Something like the thing that had attacked her yesterday.

Then –

Then she was lucky to be alive.

Pebble perked up and hopped out of her lap and the action had Sakura jumping nearly a foot off the couch, a short yelp slipping out and startling the rabbit as well.

A hand on her chest, she mumbled a small apology to the bunny and rubbed at her face, grimacing as she realized her hand was shaking slightly.

Even if whatever killed the bear had come from the water, there still remained the fact that she'd seen blood from up on the path. Which left her with two possible conclusions.

Either it had been another bear and the woods still weren't all that safe to be walking around in.

Or –

Or the creature in the lake could leave the water, if at least a short distance.

Sakura curled up slightly, rubbing her forehead furiously as she tried to calm down. The memories were still slowly coming back to her, but she could piece the flashes together enough to know that there was something that had attacked her. And it hadn't been some fucking fish.

Either way, bear or creature, the fact remained that neither the lake nor the woods were safe.

Running a still-shaking hand through her hair, Sakura shoved herself off of the couch and trudged to the kitchen once more, Pebble trailing after her. She poured herself a mug of coffee, ignoring her usual generous addition of creamer and sugar and, instead, downed it black.

It burned going down but it was just what she need to take her mind off of her current, rather terrible, thoughts. Making a face at the bitter taste, she set the mug back down and leaned back against the counter. She crossed her arms over her chest and decided that she could really use a walk.

The town was a bit too far of a drive for her to jog there and back, this early in the morning, so she grabbed her keys and said goodbye to Pebble, promising to return soon. A couple laps around Mainstreet and she'd be as good as new.

No sooner had she parked and stepped out of her car did her stomach gave a low grumble, either due to her stunt with the coffee or for food – she wasn't sure which. Lips pursed, she glanced down the street until her gaze landed on Zabuza's diner, which she peered at in consideration.

He did promise her free meals. But, it was still fairly early and she doubted the diner would be open yet. Tapping her foot, Sakura looked down the other way and nodded at the sight of the bakery. Doughnuts, then.

Fiddling with the end of her scarf, she made her way to the bakery and slipped inside, pausing and nearly making a hasty exit at the sight of blue hair.

Would Zabuza have told Chōjūrō about yesterday? He was a cop and lived on the lake after all.

Blinking in surprise, Sakura suddenly questioned why she should feel the need to avoid Chōjūrō. Regardless of whether he knew about what had happened or not.

Rolling her eyes at her own pointless paranoia, she shoved her hands into her jacket pockets and strode forward, calling out to him.

"Mornin', Officer."

Chōjūrō jumped, startled – what did that have to say about him as a cop? Or maybe Kiri had a low crime rate and he didn't see a lot of action? – before turning around, his eyes widening ever so slightly as he saw her. He took a little too long to respond and hastily glanced away when he finally did, a rather nervous look edging onto his face.

"Good m-morning, Sakura. Y-you're up early..?"

The question was obviously directed as to whether this was normal for her and she simply shrugged, unraveling her scarf as she moved forward. Stopping next to him, she rubbed at her chin as she gazed over the display case, the woman behind the counter smiling at her in greeting but leaving her and Chōjūrō to chat for now.

"Couldn't get back to sleep and decided I wanted doughnuts. Got anything to recommend?" She turned her head towards him, a friendly smile on her face that she kept deceptively straight as she noticed how he was still avoiding meeting her eye.

Chōjūrō chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment, eyes flickering to her before quickly darting away. "Th-the apple fritter is really good. U-uhm. Ham and cheese croissant sandwich if y-you're in the mood for something savory..?"

She tried to ignore his nervousness, awfully aware that it was different than past few times she'd seen him.

"That sounds good." Sakura paused, eyeing the large box the baker had set on the counter and watching as Chōjūrō stepped forward to pay for his doughnuts. When he turned back to her, she cracked another smile and offered a joking "I thought doughnuts and cops was just a TV stereotype," to hopefully break the awkward tension.

Chōjūrō's smile didn't reach his eyes and he let out a nervous laugh, fingers drumming on the side of the flat, rectangular box.

"H-hah, yeah... J-just bringing breakfast over to the station." There was a brief silence between them before Chōjūrō looked up at her, finally making eye contact. "Are you... well, Sakura? D-doing well, I mean."

Her expression fell slightly, noticing the way he quickly glanced over her, his gaze lingering a little too long near her feet. Sighing, she shoved her hands back into her pockets.

"Zabuza told you, didn't he." It was more of a statement than a question, one that didn't seem to catch him too off-guard.

Chōjūrō bit his lip, looking away slightly as his expression turned a little guilty. "I don't mean to pry into y-your business, but, y-yes, he did."

With the cat out of the bag, he held her gaze longer this time when he looked up, that nervous edge waning slightly and his voice lowering as they walked over to one of the small tables pressed against the side of the bakery lobby. "Are you okay?"

There was concern there, in both his eyes and his tone, and Sakura smiled gently, a little flattered. "Yeah, I'm fine. A little shaken up, I guess. Though..."

She tilted her head slightly, inclining it towards him as she rested her arms on the tabletop. "I'm technically supposed to... pretend it didn't happen."

Chōjūrō grimaced, shifted in his seat, and flushed just slightly in embarrassment. "R-right."

The silence this time was slightly more comfortable and they both looked down at the box of doughnuts, Sakura inwardly wondering who else Zabuza had told.

She grimaced at the thought of suddenly getting a flustered, angry email from a concerned Haku, freaking out over the fact that she hadn't told him immediately.

But, this begged the question: how much, exactly, did Chōjūrō know?

Chōjūrō must have misinterpreted the grimace because he reached out suddenly, his hand stopping just barely an inch away from hers as he seemed to catch himself at the last moment. Sakura looked up in surprise and his nervous smile was more shy than awkward.

"If y-you need anything, Sakura, please, don't be afraid to contact me." He sat up slightly straighter before moving to stand, looking to her meaningfully. "It's my duty to keep the town and its residents safe."

Smiling, she stood as well and reached out to rest a hand on his arm, obviously the more confident of the two as she didn't pull back at the last second.

"Thank you, Chōjūrō. I really appreciate that."

Cheeks turning pink, he rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand and let out a sheepish laugh.

"N-no thanks n-necessary!" He started to back towards the door, nodding to the bakery counter. "Y-you've got my number if you n-need it. Definitely try the, a-ah – the fritter!"

Nodding, she offered a wave, holding back an amuse snort as he tripped just slightly as he passed backwards through the door, box still held firmly in his hands and his face lighting up as he righted himself. The glass door closed and he let out a silent, flustered laugh from on the other side before rushing down the street, shoving his glasses up his nose and burying his face in his free hand.

Chuckling to herself, Sakura watched him leave before turning to the counter, smiling back at the amused baker.

::

She ate her fritter and sandwich in the bakery before heading out, earbuds in as she started jogging down Mainstreet. Sakura did a little exploring on foot as she traveled through Kiri, passing through the residential area and down some of the other streets that were for the small, local businesses. When she'd finally tired herself out, she'd built a fairly accurate mental map of the town.

Sakura had passed by the diner just as it was opening for the morning, offering a wave to Mariko as the young woman flipped the Closed sign to Open. She thought she saw Zabuza through one of the windows and briefly considered getting some free cocoa, but ultimately decided to pass.

Returning to her car, she sat and waited for the heater to warm up before heading back to Haku's, her gaze moving to the passing trees a little too often as she drove. But her jog had relaxed her and she didn't frown quite so deeply as the house came into view. Combing her fingers through her hair, Sakura slipped out of her car and made her way to the porch.

Only to pause at the sight of a box on the doormat.

She froze at the bottom of the steps up to the porch, staring at the box in confusion for a long moment before she glanced around. Hoping this wasn't some sort of prank, she carefully approached, nudging the box with her foot warily.

She hadn't seen anyone when she was driving up, so it must have been there for a while and, if her foot was any judge, whatever was inside was fairly weighty.

Sighing and inwardly hoping she wasn't making some huge mistake, Sakura crouched down and carefully opened the box.

She stared for a long, long moment as she realized she was looking at her camera case.

As in, the one she'd been using yesterday.

Confused as fuck and maybe a little scared when she picked it up and realized it was suspiciously heavy, Sakura quickly unzipped the case and nearly dropped it when she, indeed, found her lost camera. Standing up straight, she tried to make sense of this development, quickly looking over her shoulder and back towards the treeline, just in case someone happened to be there. But, there was no one in sight and Sakura turned her attention back to the return of her camera.

The camera itself she knew, for a fact, she had dropped in the water. And would have thought it lost for good.

How her mysterious benefactor had retrieved it was rather unnerving in itself but –

The thought made her pause, blinking in surprise.

She had a fairly good suspicion she knew who had gotten her camera for her.

Zipping the case back up, she slung the strap over her shoulder and ran a finger over the buckle. The case, however...

Sakura frowned to herself, trying to remember what had happened with the case. It'd been in the boat, hadn't it? She'd been just about to put the camera away when she'd been knocked in...

Her hand brushing her bruised side, she perked up at another thought. If the case had been in the boat, then maybe...

Rushing around the side of the house towards the small boathouse, Sakura eyed the looming lake warily but headed towards the little shack near the water. She hadn't ventured back outside once she got home yesterday and, indeed, the door was still unlocked.

And, inside, was the boat.

Hands on her hips, Sakura let out a surprised, thoughtful "Huh." Tapping her foot for a moment, she turned to leave, pausing once she was back outside and turning to look out over the lake, off towards the direction of one of the other houses surrounding it. The mist was too thick to see anything past a couple feet off the water, but she guessed she was looking the right way.

Seems like she had even more things to thank this Kisame guy for.

::

notes: okay so its been a year since I started this fic whoops

no joke, I had a fairly decent chunk of the beginning of this chapter written out on paper, but I lost it roughly 6 months ago and I loathe the thought of having to rewrite entire conversations so I put it off, lost muse for fic in general for a good while, and then finally got muse back

hope you enjoyed! and I hope it was worth the wait ;o; thanks for being patient!