Wow…over two months since my last update. Really weird. The holidays were insane, and on top of that, I had to get my computer wiped, because it was laggishly slow. So I lost all my work on Chapter 14. Alright…some reviews for faithful reviewers.
Kawaii Kitsune-kun: Of course, most constant (and obsessive) reviewer. I'm glad this story can make you that excited. I suppose that's a good thing, ne?
Bitenshi: Haha, yes, Kiba breakdanced. But I wanted to make it something different, ja? Not just like, "And then Kiba started breakdancing." It had to be subtle enough not to break canon. Like I'm not breaking canon enough with NejixSasuke.
Kazoua: From my toughest reviewer, I'll take that as a compliment. Danke.
Again, I apologize for the lateness. And now…onto our more technical discussion.
I had originally intended to end the story very soon, with Neji's family being the rising action before the climax and then a brief epilogue. However, in the past two months (yes, I was actually doing something), I developed an idea that could potentially take this story on a much longer route than I had anticipated (where have you heard that before?). So…my question is this:
Would you rather this story ended in the foreseeable future, or would you rather it took several more twists, turns, and possibly several more broken hearts and angsting sequences for who knows how much longer?
Review and let me know.
Chapter 14- "Running from the Stars"
Dawn found Sasuke sitting on his window sill, legs held loosely against his chest. His cheeks were dry and his face impassive. Unseeing eyes watched the light break over the horizon; a new day in Konoha. Inside his head, thoughts jumbled and burned and twisted around, forming and un-forming words with the fluidity of water.
It won't work. I cannot watch us be apart. It cannot be done.
Unlike the previous day, there was no sobbing, no crying, and no self-abuse inside his head. It was as if he reverted to his old manner of thinking: cool, impassive, and uncaring. His heart had iced over to keep from hurting anymore. It may not have been the best of solutions, but at least it worked.
I don't know what else to do. Both of our concentrations will suffer; our teams will suffer. Konoha will suffer. It is an unacceptable liability. I'll have to leave.
His thoughts flashed back to a time, over four years ago. He had left then too…to disastrous ends.
I cannot put them through that again. I'll have to have permission to leave. It will be difficult to obtain. I do not know how…
It came to him as simply as the rays of light broke over the mountains. Of course. It was obvious. Only one person could help him with this problem. He'd visit him as soon as he got out of training. It was the only way. The one and only way.
It was nearly midday, and Kakashi was taking a well-deserved break from the arduous jounin responsibilities. Well-deserved, he assured himself before reaching into the pouch at his waist for that lovely orange-covered piece of fine literature. The kind you do not show to your mother. Of course it was a well-deserved break. Completely. Categorically deserved.
A timid knock sounded on his office door. He paid no attention to it, engrossed as he was in the Paradise adventures, until his mild secretary stepped into the room.
He waved a hand in dismissal, "Go away."
"B-but, Kakashi-san, there's someone…"
"Tell them to go away too."
"I'm on break."
The poor secretary had only a moment to inhale breath before a sudden dark-blue blur slipped past her, causing her to waver violently in mid-air, arms flailing for balance.
The jounin's only visible eye lifted, "Sasuke-kun?"
"I have a request," the boy's voice was flat, cool, and uncaring.
With the practiced face of a poker player, the jounin ignored the wildly unbalanced kunoichi behind Sasuke, "Honto ka? What is it?"
"I want to take my jounin test now," again, he seemed chillingly like his old, vengeful self.
Kakashi did not like the comparison.
CRASH! Kakashi's silver hair shifted as he altered his view to eye the now-fallen, and thoroughly dazed, secretary. Another shift of his head and his eyes were back on Sasuke.
"Why the haste? You're scheduled to depart in a few weeks as it is."
Sasuke just stood still, arms planted on Kakashi's desk. The jounin waited the required seven seconds when dealing with teenagers and continued on.
"Has it something to do with a certain someone?"
The cold black eyes rested on Kakashi. Blink. Blink. Breath.
"I see. You understand, Sasuke-kun…your jounin test is not to be taken lightly. It will take you away from Konoha for half-a-year at the very least."
A muttered word emerged from Sasuke's mouth, sounding very much like "perfect."
Kakashi's eyebrow quirked slightly, "If you're that certain…"
Again, the eyes flickered with decisiveness. Blink. Blink. Stare.
"Very well then. I will present your request to the Hokage. You are sure, Sasuke-kun?"
The Uchiha was silent for a moment. When he finally spoke, his voice was lower and huskier than usual. It was tinged with regret…and a little bit of pain.
"Surer than I have been about many things."
With that, the teenage ninja turned and stepped over the fallen body of the secretary, through the door and out of the building.
It took several hours for Kakashi to complete his work (read: finish his book) and get to the Hokage Tower. When he finally did have a chance to speak with Tsunade, she was less than thrilled with Sasuke's choice of timing.
"Kakashi, we specifically chose the Western Islands mission for Sasuke's jounin trial. It was a mission tailored uniquely to his qualifications. We cannot move up the timetable for that mission."
The jounin stifled a yawn, nodding, "I agree, Hokage-sama. We'll have to give him another mission."
Tsunade shook her head violently, "No, he'll take that mission or none at all."
The Godaime watched him carefully from the corner of her eye, "What?"
For once, Kakashi's voice was quiet and firm, as if he felt conviction for what he was saying.
"Godaime-sama…I believe we should allow Sasuke this opportunity."
"He is in a rather…difficult situation now. A mission is exactly what he needs."
"But the Western Islands mission is in a few weeks. He could undertake that one, and upon success, he could be home in a matter of weeks. It's the ideal test."
"Hokage-sama, he does not wish to be home. Now…or in a few weeks."
Tsunade was silent for a moment, "What is scaring him away?"
"His feelings. He believes himself to be trapped between love and duty, and he wishes to escape the trap."
"Can we allow him to take the jounin test in such a vulnerable state?"
"I do not believe we have much of a choice, Hokage-sama."
"What mission would you give him, Kakashi?"
"The Hidden Waterfall assignment."
With a puzzled look, Tsunade reached over to her desk, withdrawing a folder. She opened it, scanning the kanji written briefly. Her eyes flickered right to left, finally rising to rest on Kakashi.
"He'll be gone more than six months."
"As he wishes to be."
"It's a deep cover assignment."
"He'll be able to be someone else."
A sigh accompanied the soft thwack of the folder hitting the desk, "Are you sure we should encourage his moodiness, Kakashi? You know him best of all."
"It's not moodiness, Hokage-sama. It's a matter of survival."
Tsunade steepled her fingers, resting her forehead lightly against them. She took a deep breath before releasing it slowly.
"Very well. Give Sasuke the Hidden Waterfall assignment."
Kakashi bowed, retreating from the room after a deep "Thank you, Godaime-sama."
Sasuke lifted the backpack from the ground, setting it up on the table in the center of the room. His thin fingers deftly pulled apart its contents, checking to make sure he had everything Kakashi had said he would need. His mind analytically catalogued the steps involved; his heart was somewhere else entirely.
The look on his face. The hurt in his eyes. I can't live with that each day. And now…I won't have to. I will be able to leave Konoha behind until both our hearts heal. Thank you, Kakashi-sensei. I know the Godaime would never have agreed unless you persuaded her.
His hands completed their given task, and Sasuke closed the flap of the backpack with a sigh. He slid the strap around his shoulders, letting it hang diagonally across his chest. Kakashi had not told him what the assignment was, merely what supplies to bring. He had made it sound as if Sasuke would be somewhere populated for a very long time. The last Uchiha shifted the backpack's position just slightly to a more comfortable fit and slid the door to his house open. Before stepping out, he turned his head, taking a look at the house that had sheltered him for seventeen years. It was very likely…he might never see it again. A whispered prayer went out to the house, thanking it for the years of protection and comfort it had given to him.
Sasuke's eyes flicked out to the front gate where Sakura was standing, leaning forward pensively to see if he had heard her. A brief flicker in his eyes acknowledged her call.
"Sasuke-kun…I came to…wish you good luck on your test. Please, do well and succeed," she bowed at the end, formalizing the request.
He grunted, offering a curt nod in return. She understood he was grateful. Making more of it was simply unnecessary. She raised her head, taking a breath as she did.
"Sasuke-kun…I have a gift for you. It's a charm. My mother gave it to me when I began ninja school. It's the kanji for 'luck.' Perhaps it will aid you in your test."
She held out a thin silver chain. It was short, and at the end rested a delicate kanji. Sasuke stared at it blankly for a moment, before reaching out and taking it with a bow.
"Arigato, Sakura," he said quietly, with heartfelt sincerity. "Arigato gozaimasu."
The pink-haired girl dashed a few tears away, smiling brightly, "I know you'll return, Sasuke-kun. You'll succeed."
With another nod, Sasuke thanked her for her confidence. Another adjustment of the shoulder strap, and he stepped past the kunoichi and turned towards the edge of the village. His steps resounded in the dust like wooden logs falling in the forest. They were methodical, almost mechanical in their motions. As he walked, he barely noticed the villagers pause and bow. The village knew their prodigy was leaving for something, even if they did not know the particulars. And they knew he meant never return. There was an almost deathly silence on the streets as Sasuke walked, head high. The soft thump of his feet rippled the air before stilling out again to silence.
He turned a corner, the gate appearing just in front of him. Kakashi was waiting, a backpack lying at his feet as well. The jounin raised a lazy hand.
Sasuke just grunted acknowledgement, moving to stand casually beside him.
"You ready to go?"
"Said your goodbyes?"
Sasuke glanced away, failing at the casual air he attempted. Kakashi nodded silently, choosing to dispel the moment with a yawn.
"Then we should get started."
The Uchiha was nearly bowled over by a blonde-and-orange whirlwind as Naruto pounced from a nearby rooftop.
"You didn't say good-bye to me!" the boy complained.
Sasuke picked himself off the ground, brushing dirt, "Dobe."
It wasn't much of a statement, but it was enough. Naruto softened almost immediately. Tiny glistens appeared in his eyes, masked by rapid and furious blinking.
"Don't get killed or anything," he warned.
Sasuke nodded, treating it seriously, "Hn."
The Uchiha turned and began to walk out of the village gate, Kakashi following casually close behind. Naruto watched as the two figures moved off into the distance.
The smaller figure stopped, turning just slightly back towards Naruto.
The blonde cleared his throat, speaking loudly enough for his voice to carry without shouting, "I'm…sorry. About…you know."
A slight motion of the other's head acknowledged the comment. A light breeze carried the boy's words back to the blonde.
The two shinobi trudged along in silence. The soft rustle of leaves beneath of their feet set up a fluid rhythm, making a methodical pattern to sink into. Neither had spoken since they had left the gates of Konoha, and neither seemed willing to break the silence for any topic of conversation. Sasuke himself simply found his body moving of its own free will. His mind was a blank slate, with jumbled markings all over it. His thoughts dissipated and reformed like smoke from a candle trapped in a glass bowl. Numb. That's how I feel: numb. As if I've taken more pain than I can handle. It seems like I have completely shut down.
A sideways glance at Kakashi revealed the jounin's complacent steps. The Uchiha flicked his gaze back to the path, foregoing the sudden thought that he knew nothing of his mission. Even where they were heading was a mystery to him. His black eyes flickered with something akin to resignation. Wherever it is, it's far from him. He'll be free of me.
The Uchiha continued walked in pace with Kakashi, only turning his head slightly to acknowledge his name.
"I need to give you your assignment."
Sasuke nodded silently. I am doing everything as if someone else is controlling me. Is this what it really means to be separate in body and emotions?
"You will be undertaking your test in Hidden Waterfall. It is an undercover assignment, requiring you to maintain a false identity and create an illusion of normality."
You have no idea how ironic that phrase is, "Hn."
"Hidden Waterfall is one of the most secretive communities among the ninja villages. It possesses some of the best internal security forces in any of the countries. Maintaining an undercover identity there will be truly a test."
Sasuke's eyes met Kakashi's, "Undercover assignments are B-class, at the highest. Why is this different?"
"Very perceptive. Konoha would like to have a ninja in Hidden Waterfall who becomes part of the community and integrates himself in the day-to-day life of the village. That is your assignment for now. I will tell you there is a second objective, but you will not know when it will arrive. You must strike the proper balance between expediency and discretion in your cover. I suggest, for the purposes of ease, you make friends with lots of friends so your circle of influence widens. Remember, in Hidden Waterfall, one slip could mean imprisonment and even assassination."
With a nod, Sasuke asked another question, "Have I any cover identity to assume?"
Kakashi reached into his backpack, withdrawing some papers, "Here is your birth certificate from a small village in the Earth country. Your name is Utaka Sakaro. You'll find the information in there. You have until we reach the border of the Fire country to memorize your information."
Sasuke accepted the papers casually, flipping through them as he walked. His dark eyes scanned the lines of kanji, committing to memory most of the facts at first glance. The more in-depth details (such as ancestral shrine locations and family traditions) took more than one read-through to memorize. The silence continued on in relative peace as Sasuke read. Kakashi apparently did not wish to disturb the connection between ninja and cover. After all, Sasuke's life might—would depend on it for the next six months.
The sun rose early the next morning. Its light filtered casually through the leafy canopy above, making twisted geometric patterns on the grass below. Sasuke's eyes gradually noted the change in light, dragging a grudging ninja up into wakefulness. The Uchiha's eyes cracked open, shutting again almost instantly to block the sharp pain. Openclose. Open—close. Open. Close. A full blink. It was a long eight seconds after he awoke before he was able to sit up and rub the gritty sand from his eyes. He yawned, stretching his tired limbs before scanning the clearing.
Kakashi was asleep, still, lying on a thin mat in the center of the clearing. Sasuke's own mat was near the edge, away from the open area. It hinted at the deeper recesses of their minds: Kakashi was open and in plain sight; Sasuke was shrouded in secrecy and hidden truths. Or he was just overanalyzing everything. It was much too early for deep thoughts.
Body leaden with stiffness, Sasuke forced his limbs to move as he crawled out of the warm mat onto the cool, damp grass. He ripped a handful of the blades of grass from the ground, wiping his face with them to freshen up. He yawned again, tossing the grass carelessly aside. He rolled his neck in a circular arc slowly, feeling the muscles and tendons snap and crack into position. With another stretch of his shoulders, he prepared to fold up his mat.
For a jounin-to-be, Sasuke had remarkably lax discipline when it came to Kakashi. Of course, Kakashi could startle the Fourth with his antics…and the Fourth was dead. That had to be some kind of excuse. After recovering from the slight jerk that passed through his body, Sasuke turned to greet his teacher.
With an eye-twitch, Sasuke noted that the teacher was not only awake but also dressed and carrying a rolled-up mat on his back. There was no trace of where he slept. …are we sure Naruto's the only one in Konoha with demon powers? Sasuke mused lazily. He finished rolling his mat into a pack before standing and nodding to Kakashi.
The jounin eyed him with that lone eye for a moment before turning and moving silently off towards the edge of the forest. Not paying much attention to his leader's silence, Sasuke followed obediently. A rustle of paper reminded him of the scroll tucked casually in his pack.
Name: Utaka Sakaro
Date of birth: December 6
Country of origin: Earth Country
Village of origin: Rising Stones
Father's name: Utaka Kimaru
Mother's name: Utaka Mayuri
Surviving family: None
Satisfied in his grasp of the vital statistics on his traveling papers, Sasuke permitted his mind to wander a bit. I'll need a job once I get there. Perhaps I should work as a messenger? Or in a local store. Hm. I'll have to evaluate where would give me the most advantages when I arrive.
His mind suddenly computed that Kakashi had stopped moving. In similar form, Sasuke came to a leisurely halt beside his sensei. They had exited the forest area, and they now stood on the edge of a wide, rutted road that wound its way through the terrain.
"Sasuke-kun, you know where this is?"
The ninja nodded slowly, "Orohito Highway. It leads to Hidden Waterfall."
With a nod, Kakashi affirmed his statement, "And that means you will be traveling alone from now on. You cannot be seen with someone this close to the village."
Sasuke nodded dispassionately. It had suddenly occurred to him, perhaps for the first time, that he was outside Konoha. Alone. Going on an undercover mission to a highly secure ninja village. He would be unaided and without reinforcements in Hidden Waterfall; his survival would depend on him alone. He'd thought after Orochimaru and the subsequent years, he would be ready for this. Suddenly, standing on the road, looking off to an unseen and uncertain future…he was not so confident.
A hand fell on his shoulder, and Kakashi leaned down, "This shall be the last time we see each other for a very long time, Sasuke-kun. Do well, survive, and make our village proud of you."
Always the village, "Hai, Kakashi-sensei."
The jounin nodded, turning back into the forest to leave. A breath passed before he stopped and turned again.
"Try to sort out your mind as well. Find peace at last. You deserve some rest after all you have dealt with."
A wry smile quirked Sasuke's lips, "So to relax, I'll be going undercover to the most secure ninja village in the world and trying to convince them all I'm a mere seventeen year old runaway?"
The smile was matched by a shift in Kakashi's mask, "Something like that."
Sasuke nodded, "I will do my best."
"I know you will."
"Thank you for your instruction and your advice."
Another crease appeared in the mask, "Good luck, Sasuke-kun."
"Thank you, sensei."
With one of his trademark lazy waves, Kakashi turned and vanished slowly into the dim vague outline of the trees. Sasuke let himself watch for three heartbeats before turning back to face the road.
It was big. It was open. He was the only one in sight.
A deep breath escaped his lips without a sound. A determined intake of breath, and the Uchiha shouldered his pack resolutely. One step forward. Nothing disastrous happened. Encouraged by this small success, Sasuke took another step…and another…and another. Fully reloaded with confidence, he strode resolutely along the rutted path, heading for the village of Hidden Waterfall.
After several hours of walking, Sasuke found the constant sound of his footsteps to be a uniquely annoying sound. Somehow he had not tended to hear them quite so loudly when he walked with another person, even in silence. But now that it was the only sound to pierce the midday air, it had grown into a nasty, repetitive rhythm that screamed out for someone to stop it before it died of boredom.
Wonderful. Now I'm personifying my steps. How much lower can an Uchiha sink? What's next, will I start making hand puppets and making them talk to each other? Kami forbid.
A flicker on the periphery of his eye caused him to draw up short. Eyes darting casually from horizon to horizon, Sasuke continued to walk, eying the terrain suspiciously. Another movement beyond a slight rise in the ground made him grip the straps on his pack more firmly. He had no weapons; how would he explain them at Hidden Waterfall? He had to rely on taijustu techniques to defend himself. Even that was risky, since the style of his combat could be traced back to Konoha. Any chakra use, ninjutsu or genjutsu, was out of the question. He would have to fight using only the most basic and common techniques. Perfect.
Sasuke paused in his steps, slowly turning around. Behind him stood a burly man, short but stocky. He was dressed in a mishmash of styles and carried twin wakizashi strapped across his back. A bandit. He must have support around here.
The bandit waited another moment before continuing, "Don't you know you're supposed to greet someone who greets you? Manners, manners. What's your name?"
Sasuke raised an eyebrow, "It's also polite to introduce yourself before asking another's name. I am Utaka Sakaro. And you are?"
The bandit gestured to himself with a thumb, "Michiru Yokohiro. No doubt you've heard of me."
His only answer was a blank stare from the ninja.
"I am the leader of the Michiru Bandits! Most feared bandits in these parts."
Sasuke blinked, "Bandits? I see only one…"
Michiru growled roughly, "Not for long!"
Two more burly men appeared from various angles, glaring balefully at Sasuke. The Uchiha eyed them all, altering his stance just slightly to allow his field of vision to include all of them.
"So I see. In that case, konnichiwa."
Michiru chuckled, "Polite now, ain't he?"
Another of the bandits nodded, drawing out a nasty-looking axe, "Yeah, he is, boss. Let's make it quick…for politeness' sake."
Sasuke dropped his pack on the ground, stepping over it so he straddled the small package of goods.
Michiru smiled wickedly, "Just hand over the pack, kid, and no one gets hurt."
At this point, Sasuke was already mapping out a plan of action to carry him over to Michiru fast enough to incapacitate him before the other bandits had a chance to intervene. Hopefully, severing the head of the snake would be enough to prevent it from fighting back in this case. He silently began the countdown. 5…4…3…2…
He blinked curiously, staring blankly at the arrow that had somehow sprouted from the ground beneath Michiru's feet. He eyed it for another half-second before the horse's whinny reached his ears. A slow turn and a quick glance identified a mounted figure on top of a hill just to Sasuke's left. A bow was in the rider's hand, and another arrow was loosely strung.
"Gomen nasai!" came the voice from the rider. "My fingers slipped, and the arrow just kind of flew out. Don't worry. I'll aim next time."
The bandit's face contorted in a sneering glare, "And who the hell are you?"
From his position on the horse's back, the figure made a slight bow, "Ikorin Tenji, at your service."
THWAM! Sasuke's elbow collided solidly with Michiru's jawbone with a loud cracking sound. In the seconds provided by the rider's appearance, he'd crossed the distance with enough force to solidly incapacitate the bandit leader. The other two bandits gaped in shock for a moment before leaping forward with raised weapons and voices.
Another arrow embedded itself into the ground before them, causing the two men to skid to a halt. Ikorin Tenji was still on the hilltop, bow bent with another arrow sighted.
Sasuke eyed them carefully, "Take your leader and get out of here."
He stepped away, allowing them to each grasp an arm of their unconscious leader. The two men grunted and struggled, eventually dragging him away into the forested area. Sasuke watched them carefully to see if they were truly gone before turning around again. He stepped back towards his fallen pack, picking it up again and settling it comfortably on his back.
"…so…aren't you going to thank me?"
Sasuke's head turned slightly, "Your horse moves quietly. I did not hear him climb down the hill. Nor did I hear you dismount."
The young man shrugged casually, "There are a lot of undesirables nearby. It pays to move quietly."
He bowed formally, meeting Sasuke's eyes briefly, "Ikorin Tenji. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The Uchiha's black eyes looked flatly into the light green ones of the other young man. He dispassionately examined the high cheekbones and graceful cut of his clothes. Nobility. Or at least the son of a wealthy merchant who had the good fortune to be born with a prince's looks.
A slight smile tugged at Ikorin's lips, "And you are…?"
It was all Sasuke could do to remain impassive; he had not quite realized he had not introduced himself in return.
"Utaka Sakaro desu. The pleasure is mine."
"It is good to meet you, Utaka-san. May I ask where you are heading?"
A thin eyebrow curved upwards, "For what reason, Ikorin-san?"
"These are dangerous parts. Perhaps if you are going my way, we could travel together."
"You did not seem concerned to be traveling by yourself before meeting me on the road. Thank you, but I must refuse. I am capable of looking after myself."
Another innocent-looking smile crossed Ikorin's face, "Was it that obvious?"
"Then my apologies for the insult. The bandits you encountered may return in more numbers. They will not take you so lightly the next time."
Sasuke pondered this for a moment, carefully weighing the advantages and disadvantages. In spite of himself, he found Ikorin Tenji rather interesting…in a very clinical way. The young man was extremely self-assured, to the point of annoyingly so. Somehow, he managed to pull his demeanor off without being insulting. Much.
Ikorin took the pause for an opportunity, "I'm afraid I only have one horse, so we'll have to ride together. Assuming you're going to Hidden Waterfall, we should arrive within an hour or so."
Sasuke felt the urge to reject the offer, but it really was the best course of action, "Very well. You have my thanks."
Ikorin's face briefly revealed a smile that spoke of true pleasure. How very odd. He smiled pleasantly at Sasuke as he mounted, reaching a hand down to help him into the saddle. Sasuke ignored it, placing a hand on the front and back of the leather mount, pulling himself into position. Ikorin chuckled slightly but made no comment.
"If you're ready…"
Ikorin spurred the horse into a light trot down the road. Sasuke balanced himself easily on the horse's back, trying to ignore his rather uncomfortable situation. Inside, his mind was churning quickly. If he is also traveling to Hidden Waterfall, I must keep my cover intact with him. Perhaps a touch more innocence wouldn't hurt so much.
"I…am sorry for being so rude earlier," he said quietly, letting a bit of repentance into his tone.
Ikorin's head turned, containing the hints of a smile, "It is forgiven. I did not expect you to welcome me with open arms."
"Nonetheless, you did me a favor. I should have been more grateful," Damn. This is hard. I remember why I never apologize now.
"You seemed to be able to hold your own. Where did you learn to fight?"
"My…father was a police officer in our village. He taught me some of the basics."
"What village was that?"
Sasuke was silent.
"Forgive me, I did not mean to pry."
The Uchiha nodded quietly, "It is forgiven."
They rode in silence. Sasuke allowed himself to look at the scenery, and occasionally at the boy in front of him. Ikorin himself did not display much interest in the scenery…though Sasuke caught him looking over his shoulder at him a few times. Ikorin never shied from the eye contact, holding it for a heartbeat before turning back towards the front.
He reminds me…of… Sasuke shook his head, forcibly clearing the thoughts from his mind.
"Are you alright, Utaka-san?"
"Hm?" Sasuke said, not understanding.
"You shook your head a moment ago. Are you feeling well?"
"…" A blush. "Hai, arigato. I was just feeling a little tired."
"You can see the walls of Hidden Waterfall through those trees. We'll be there in a few minutes. Have you eaten?"
Actually, Sasuke had not eaten at all that day. It had been necessary to give the image of a runaway. He shook his head in the negative.
"Do you have a place to go when we reach Hidden Waterfall?"
"I intended to check at an inn for a room…"
"I'll take you to my inn. I'm sure you'll be able to find something."
Sasuke opened his mouth to reject but realized Sakaro probably wouldn't say that, "Please do not concern yourself."
"It's no concern."
Sasuke realized he had very little way out of this situation. I'll accept for now. Later, I can re-establish myself where I want. So, he nodded in thanks.
"Good," Ikorin sounded genuinely pleased with himself. "We'll be there in a few minutes."
As they entered Hidden Waterfall, Sasuke watched everything around him open up with deceptively innocent eyes. He watched the walls and counted the guards; he observed the shops and evidence of prosperity; and he watched the people. They deserved to be called the most secure village: every fourth or fifth person he saw was a ninja. About one-third of them were undercover as normal townsfolk. He suspected there were at least another ten he had not identified.
"Have you never seen a ninja village before, Utaka-san?" Ikorin asked evenly.
Sasuke shook his head, "Never. I had never left my village before…coming here."
The carefully calculated pause sounded unsure and hesitant—exactly as it was meant to. Ikorin seemed to understand the hesitation and moved on.
"The Inn of the White Bird is here. It's in the center of town, and it is very popular. Do you plan to stay long?"
"I don't know. I…will need to find work to pay for my rooms. I don't have much money."
Ikorin nodded, "You'll find the innkeeper very accommodating. She is a personal friend of mine as well."
It was at this moment that Sasuke's eye caught the sign for the inn. A teahouse. Perfect. I should be able to find out at least some preliminary things there. Perhaps it was fortunate I ran into Ikorin. The horse stopped, seemingly without a command from Ikorin. A groom came forward to take the reins, while Ikorin dismounted. Sasuke swung a leg over the saddle to dismount…and found Ikorin reaching up with a hand to help him. What am I, a damn princess? Sasuke ignored the hand again, jumping lightly to the ground. That smile reappeared on Ikorin's face. Damn smug bastard. A woman, elderly but still rather attractive, appeared on the porch.
Ikorin smiled up at her, "Okaeri, Anya-san."
"Tadaima, Tenji-kun. How was your ride? Picked up a traveler I see."
"Hai. His name is Utaka Sakaro. I wonder if perhaps you could provide him with a room here at the inn."
Sasuke made a conscious effort not to glare at either of them. I am standing right here. He stepped forward.
"Gomen nasai, Anya-san. Ikorin-san speaks too soon. I asked him not to concern himself."
The innkeeper smiled warmly, "It was a polite request but a foolish one. Tenji-kun always concerns himself with people that interest him."
…what the hell? I "interest" him. Am I a damn flower?
The woman continued, "Utaka-san, I am afraid I currently have no rooms available at the moment. Unless…if you would care to share a room with Tenji-kun, you would only have to pay half-price for the lodgings."
Sasuke decided that the mild runaway act could only go so far. It was time to put his foot down. Unfortunately…he was beaten by another foot.
"Of course! It would be at least until you could find work, Utaka-san. A temporary place until you find one of your own."
Damn. You. "I really don't wish to…"
The innkeeper waved a hand, "It'll be no inconvenience, Utaka-san. Tenji-kun will not mind the company or the half-rate he will not have to pay. We can also see about getting you some work here."
This has gone much too far. Much. Much. Too far. But before a sufficient protest had exited his mouth, his pack was being taken by a porter into the second story of the inn. Sasuke released a resigned sigh. A teahouse isa good place to learn about a village. Working here would certainly establish a place for me. Perhaps I should give it a try.
Another moment later, he found himself ushered into the tearoom, seated, and given a steaming bowl of rice and chicken along with a cup of tea. Anya fussed over him, making sure he was comfortable. Despite his general annoyance with his lack of say in what was done to him, Sasuke had to admit: being treated like a long-lost relative was a bit comforting. Just a bit.
"You do…what?" Sasuke asked, evenly.
The mild manners had slowly been slipping away from him as time had passed. Now, in the deepening night, he had basically run out of mildness around Ikorin. At this moment, the other boy was sipping tea passively…as if it was nothing unusual.
"I sing. Here, at the teahouse. Mostly traditional music during the day. At night, I have a small apartment in another part of town. It's the hottest spot for the nightlife here."
Anya nodded, "He's very talented. In fact, he is one of the main reasons the inn has done so well."
Ikorin seemed to blush but did not contradict the innkeeper.
"Now, Utaka-san. It's time we decided what to do with you?"
Sasuke's eyes narrowed a bit, "I beg your pardon?"
"I have an opening here at the inn for work. You would serve food and tea. …you can serve tea, ne?"
Numbly, Sasuke felt his head nodding. No. Absolutely not. I do not want to be a damn waiter. …However…it would be good to learn the way the village runs. If this is the most popular teahouse, officials and even ninja might come regularly. He sighed; apparently, uncover missions required sacrifice.
"Thank you for the offer. I would be honored to serve here," he bowed at the end of his statement.
Anya returned the bow, but her face broke into a smile, "No need to be so formal, Utaka-san. In fact, would you mind if I called you Sakaro-kun?"
Sasuke shook his head, "Not at all."
Ikorin leaned back, "Well, Sakaro-kun, your first day in Hidden Waterfall, and already you have a room, a job, and a new mother to watch out for you."
With a sudden thought, Sasuke tightened his hands around the teacup, whitening them considerably. He placed it down firmly, with a slight chink, before standing.
"I do not remember granting you permission to call me such. If you'll excuse me, Anya-san…"
Without another word, he turned and left the room. Sliding the door shut after him, he walked slowly but deliberately up the stairs towards his—and Ikorin's—room. A runaway would be extremely sensitive at the mention of his parents. It was the proper move. He felt slightly pleased with the ease at which he adapted to his cover story. Sliding the door to his room open, he identified his pack (which appear untouched) near one mat. He knelt down, opening it to remove his sleeping kimono.
His ears heard the door slide open behind him, but he refused to turn around. Soft footsteps walked towards him, before a hand was laid on his shoulder. Sasuke stiffened, intentionally appearing upset.
"Utaka-san, I apologize. I was not thinking when I spoke. Please accept my apologies."
A pang of remorse shot through Sasuke's stomach. The contrite tone in Ikorin's voice was honest and pained. The Uchiha made a decision to let him off of the bed of needles.
"It is forgiven, Ikorin-san. I should not have been so rude."
He barely heard the breath of relief escape the other boy's lips.
"Thank you. I hope you can overlook the offense."
The Uchiha nodded, standing up and turning around to face Ikorin, "Very well."
He stepped past the other boy, intending to head for the baths before retiring. At the door, he paused, looking over his shoulder. Ikorin was removing his shirt, letting it drop to the floor. He picked up a silken shirt, designed for sleeping and slid it over his head. With a pause he turned to look back at Sasuke, who suddenly realized he hadn't said anything. And he'd been staring blankly. Why? Not hard to figure out. Apparently, my…preference does not only refer to Neji. Damn. Major damn.
Sasuke shook his head, turning back around and heading for his bed. All thoughts of the bed left his mind; he wanted to sleep. Changing his own clothes quickly, he kept studious eyes on his own side of the room. The vaguest feeling of being watched lingered in his mind, but he dismissed it as paranoia. Of course, my fortune would naturally land me in the room with a perverted singer. He slid between the cover and the mat, facing the wall casually. The sounds on the other side of the room stilled. For once in his life, Sasuke felt uncomfortable in the silence. Things had not ended the day very well. It was unusual too, to sleep in another's room. Especially one as unknown as Ikorin.
A rustle suggested the other had sat up, "Yes, Utaka-san?"
"Please. Call me Sakaro-kun."
"Only if you'll do the same."
"Very well. Oyasumi nasai…Tenji-kun."
"Oyasumi nasai, Sakaro-kun."