Disclaimer: I do not own the series Naruto or any of the characters or concepts connected to it. I also have no claim to the various folk-tales that will be mentioned.


ONCE AND AFTER


Cowed


.


Sakura ran a wet comb through the wig as much for maintenance as for appearance's sake, her eyes flicking to the windows and door almost spastically. She caught a flicker of movement and the comb creaked ominously in her grip—but no, that was just the monkey. Momotaro seemed to be the consummate gentleman, thankfully, having completely vacated the premises after drawing a bath for her. He had even ceded the small bedroom to her the previous night, which was either pure magnanimity, or because he felt wrong sleeping in the bed of his departed guardians. Whatever the reason, Sakura had appreciated the gesture all the same.

She hadn't been so comfortable as to remove her wig, and had slept on her stomach with her knife curled tight in her hand beneath the pillow, but she was starting to feel as though she would never be quite so comfortable again. All in all, it had been a blessedly peaceful stop over, and breakfast, though rustic, had been as filling as dinner and sweeter for the company.

But no, that was a dangerous thought to have. Sakura couldn't linger, even for good company. Not now, not when she needed to find her parents. Not when she only had so many days before losing the window of time she had to explain things to them, before they returned home to an empty house and the distressing news that their only child had fled without so much as a note of explanation. And her father would speak with Uncle Mochi, one way or another, and no amount of discreetness would be enough to keep the truth of the matter from the Hokage, or the ANBU, or whoever was most intent on finding her.

Or rather, she acknowledged in a moment of burning, brutal self-honesty, on finding Isobu.

Sakura shook her head and carefully dried her hair as much as possible, before twisting it up and pinning it in place. Then she placed and pinned the wig, before taking up the mirror and make-up she had retrieved from her pack. Any excess was carefully washed and patted away, and she finally dressed herself in a fresh kimono. This one was green too—a darker shade, but still green, with dull, bronzy thread in the embroidery that might have looked gold, when the dress was still new. It was as close to camouflage as she could get, without attracting the wrong kind of attention.

With a quick glance around, just to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything, she shouldered her pack and began to carefully drag the tub towards the door, which she proceeded to prop open with one hip. She felt the door widen more, and looked up to see Momotaro hovering behind her.

"I can take care of that," he offered, gesturing to the tub. After a brief moment of hesitation, Sakura straightened and stepped aside. In one smooth motion he hefted up the full tub, barely sloshing it at all, and carted it off towards the impressively extensive garden. He was wearing a shirt now; a dark, somewhat faded red model in an older style that led her to believe it was a hand-me-down from the wardrobe of the old man he had told her about. She pulled the door shut behind her and moved forward to meet him when he returned, the empty tub now stowed away safely in a ramshackle shed.

"Thank you," she said for what must have been upwards of the thirtieth time. "For all of this, I mean. It's…you've done more than I've ever dreamed I could ask." She smiled up at him, but he simply ducked his head in a nod and hid behind his pale hair. She had yet to see his eyes, but the even, golden tan he sported nixed the possibility of albinism. Perhaps, Sakura mused, hiding half of one's face was some deep psychological issue exclusive to men with Kakashi-sensei's coloring. She was the last person in the position to nitpick over what parts of himself her host wanted to hide, though, so she let the matter rest.

"We should get going," he told her, turning to glance up at the sky. "It's not more than a few hours' walk from here—"

"—but this forest isn't the kind of place we want to wander around after dark if we end up lingering, right?" She recalled. She earned another nod and smiled up at him earnestly. "You don't have to worry—I'm faster than I look, I promise."

All she managed to get out of him before he set off across the clearing was another nod, but she stifled a sigh and followed suit.

He wasn't the chattiest guy around, but Sakura could manage to squeeze the odd conversation out of Sasuke-kun on occasion, and they would have a few hours alone ahead of them. She wasn't sure when she would next have the opportunity to talk with anybody in her relative age bracket, let alone a cute guy, and she intended to savor the experience.


.


Momotaro wanted to wring his hands, the way the Old Woman once had when she was troubled.

It was Urashimako's fault, or perhaps his own, but probably both—he did not resent her for attempting to talk with him, in fact his heart soared every time she opened her mouth, but the trouble came when she paused in silent request for him to speak as well. He was not loquacious by nature, and when his throat and jaw finally unstuck, all that really seemed to come out was some short, to-the-point answer, with no follow-up questions to pursue the line of conversation. And then, then his heart would drop to his stomach and stew in his helplessness, and he would despair because he had ruined his one, fleeting chance at companionship, was letting it slip away each passing moment without even the feeblest of resistance.

And then, after a few moments of silence, Urashimako would open her mouth and try again with a new subject or question, and his heart would soar once more. And so on, and so forth.

"So…do you come here often, then?" She asked this time, and for some reason he couldn't grasp there was a smothered laugh hiding in her voice near the end of it. His stomach knotted up. Was it a joke? If so, he had no idea what the punch-line could possibly be, as it was nothing like the ones the Old Man had told, once upon a time.

He was left with only the option of honesty, and hoped desperately that another serious answer would not be enough to finally kill off her desire to speak with him. "No," he said, not looking back at her as they made their way up a hill. "Not…often. About twice a year, usually, and just to make sure the shrine hasn't rotted or collapsed." He fell silent once more.

Urashimako hummed thoughtfully, and this time there was barely any pause at all before her next question. Momotaro hoped that it was a good sign. "Are we getting close?"

"A few more minutes," he confirmed, but almost immediately after that his pace slowed. The monkey on his shoulder was bristling; its small little paws knotted in his shirt and its small, white teeth gnashed furiously. Compounded with that was clear signs of passage not left by Momotaro or any animal he had come across in the forest before and, most damningly, the unmistakable scent of smoke.

He motioned for Urashimako to fall silent, but when he chanced a glance back from behind the cover of his bangs she was already still, her head cocked to one side and her eyes narrowed in concentration. She looked like a fox he had seen once, tense and ready to flee or strike however the need arose.

Slowly, the pair of them edged forward. Urashimako had been looking for people here, he knew, but by the way she was reacting there was something about the situation that led her to believe that whoever had taken up residence near the shrine was not who she was looking for. It made something within him unclench in relief, but he did not dwell upon it.

No, he thought grimly as the scent of old blood hit his nose, now there were much more pressing matters in need of his attention.


.


Akemi was not a superstitious woman. No, Iwa stamped out that sort of distracting sentimentality as thoroughly as it could, as early as it could. It was why she and her companions hadn't thought twice about ducking into the supposedly 'haunted' forest after one of the stupider members of their group had caught the eye of a Kusa hunter-nin.

Her lip curled in disdain at the thought. Haunted. How ridiculous. She kicked a half-decomposed monkey corpse into a near-by bush, quietly scoffing to herself. A few nimble, screeching pests, and a perfectly good forest was turned into a veritable no-man's land. It was sickening, to think of the lengths that some people's fantasies could take them.

Ultimately, though, Akemi knew that she shouldn't complain; these were among the most favorable conditions she had been able to camp out in since leaving the village of her birth. The ragtag band she had joined up with out of necessity hadn't exactly been rolling in cash. The best jobs they could get were either as cheap muscle while lying low in the Greater Countries, or by raising hell in otherwise unremarkable provinces and splitting before stronger shinobi could be called in to investigate.

The life of a missing-nin was anything but glamorous, Akemi mused bitterly. No, any admirable sort of lifestyle for ninja gone astray was exclusive to those who had the skill required to kill anybody who dared follow, and Akemi was not among that number. She had hoped to be, someday; that had been the driving sentiment behind her defection all those years ago. She had dreamed of breaking free of Iwa's sluggish, steady training regime, of finding some aged deserter from the last war and becoming their disciple, soaking in their techniques and experience and making a name for herself.

It was absolutely sickening, the woman thought again, gritting her teeth and pacing the perimeter of the camp, to think of the lengths some people's fantasies could take them. She made no outward sign of recognition when she finally sensed her audience, keeping her face in a carefully neutral scowl as she furiously tried to determine whether the hunter-nin had her cornered.

After a few, incredibly tense moment, she tentatively ruled that it was either the best damn ruse she had ever been prey to, or she really was being watched by a couple of brats who thought breathing silently and staying very, very still was enough to fool a seasoned killer.

It took all of Akemi's willpower not to burst out laughing, and her guard lowered a fraction. She may have left Iwa years and miles behind her, but it would be a sad day indeed when she let civilians—or, perhaps, genin, but rookies definitely—get the drop on her.

She decided against mercy, on the off chance that it was a ruse, and because Akemi was not a kind or merciful woman by nature. Unfortunately, there were two things she did not, and would never have the chance to understand.

One, both of the children she made a move towards were indeed far more than they appeared.

And two, bone worked off principles not unlike that of diamond or any other particularly hard material: if a stronger, sharper sample came in contact with a weaker sample, the weaker sample would break first.


.


"Missing-nin," Momotaro heard Urashimako hiss to herself from where she was crouched over the fallen woman. "Why is it always missing-nin?"

His tongue and stomach were too knotted up with worry for him to respond—not that he knew what he could possibly even begin to say in his defense. Normal people, he was fairly sure, would balk at his monstrous abilities. People who didn't choose to live in a reputedly haunted forest, like the Old Man and Woman had. He was sure—dead certain—that as soon as the shock cleared out, his new companion would be screaming and running.

Or maybe after she was finished…

…with.…

"Wh…" His throat, miracle of miracles, had decided to cooperate. For the moment. "What…are you doing…?"

Urashimako didn't look up from where she was bent over the body, one pale, slender hand wrapped around the shaft of his makeshift arrow as the other braced against the corpse's forehead. She flexed her arm slightly, as a test, and then tore out the bolt in one surprisingly fluid motion. She looked only slightly sickened by the slick, squelching sound of separation, which finally allowed him to begin to understand that he was not dealing with an average traveller.

"Making it look like a bounty hunter did this, instead of a normal hunter."

It took Momotaro a moment to realize that this was an answer to his question. He could, perhaps, be forgiven for his slow-uptake, as Urashimako had by then pulled a pretty, enameled handle from her obi, which she proceeded to snap open, revealing a wicked-looking switchblade. She inhaled shakily, eyeballing the body again and now looking as though she would like nothing more to be violently ill.

"H…How good are you at…" She shot a quick, nervous glace his way. "…a-at snapping necks?" Her voice was higher-pitched now, and coming faster. "I-I don't think I can…c-cut the head off cleanly without…breaking the neck…so…"

The hand holding the knife, Momotaro noticed, was shaking ever so slightly. He covered it with his own, and squeezed gently when she flinched. "I can take care of that," he told her with more calm than he truly felt. "But could you explain why we need to do it at all?"

He wasn't sure which of them that 'we' helped reassure more.

Urashimako visibly settled, nodding a few more times than was strictly necessary. "She didn't come alone," she told him authoritatively, tilting her head towards the campsite set up around the thoroughly desecrated shrine. Momotaro was briefly glad neither of his foster parents had lived to see such a travesty. "It doesn't look like she's expecting the rest of her company today or tomorrow—the camp isn't fully prepped and the food…well, anyways, sooner or later there will be more of her type. And they won't take kindly to losing one of their own to a civ…to a normal hunter."

Assured that the more bloody duties wouldn't be her responsibility, Urashimako began disassembling the various pockets and pouches attached to the body, taking stock of things that Momotaro had never seemed, but that she seemed to be moderately acquainted with. The knife had vanished back into her obi at some point.

"Are you a ninja?" He asked, focusing on producing the hardest, sharpest blade he could manage. Sure, the woman had been a shrine-desecrating, animal abusing, would-be murderess, but that was no reason to be sloppy. Human or beast, any result of a hunt deserved to be handled with respect. The Old Man had been clear about that.

"…I technically was," Urashimako murmured. He only just heard her as he let the blade fall, barely having to adjust the pressure of his blow. "I mean…I quit before I really did anything worth the title. But I'm not one now."

"I see," said Momotaro, letting the bone slide back into his forearm. "Did you…quit like she quit?"

"No," she let out a strained little laugh, inspecting a scroll with a black stripe on its border. "No, I quit legitimately. Signed the forms and everything. Lift up the head please."

Momotaro did so, fingers curling in matted, dirty-copper hair. Urashimako was curled over the unfurled scroll, her dark hair pooling against the dirt and parchment. After a long, long moment she leaned back and pointed to one of the strange, squiggly circles that repeated down the length of the scroll. He placed the head down, surreptitiously wiping his hand off on one of his pantlegs.

Urashimako looked at him, a bit uncertain. "Um…you…you might want to stand back a little. I know how to do the next part…sort of…but this scroll is a little bit different from the diagrams I saw at the library. So I might do the right thing for the wrong type of scroll."

"What happens if you do the wrong thing?"

"Best case scenario, I singe my fingertips."

"And…worst?"

"Worst, we get pelted by a bunch of severed heads, I think."

Momotaro took three very large steps backwards. Urashimako made a noise that was either a worried gulp or a soft, choked laugh. As her back was to him, he couldn't be sure which it was. She leaned forward and did…something. The border of the scroll glowed blue briefly and he heard a faint puffing noise.

He waited another moment, just to be sure.

"…are your fingers alright?"

This time, he got a laugh for sure, wheezy as it was, and Urashimako turned a small, wobbly smile his way, wriggling her fingers showily. "Just fine. So…that's done." Her smile fades, and she set about stuffing the scroll, the pouches, some other odds and ends, and a small, thick, dog-eared book into her large travel pack. "Now…now we just need to burn the body and figure out a way to keep the rest of the missing-nin away from your house when they finally show up."

"Or I could go with you," Momotaro suggested, and then realized that he had actually done so out loud.

Urashimako stared at him, apparently finally at a loss for words.


.


Konoha Academy students learned how to perform an on-the-fly cremation the same week they learned how to spark a campfire for survival in the wilderness. There was a philosophy lecture that went with it, involving how it could be used to allow their comrades to live on in the Will of Fire, rather than be used against their loved ones.

Sakura watched the smokeless fire devour the headless corpse of the woman who had attacked her not an hour ago, and felt a cold, sick sort of satisfaction.

I'm scared, Isobu-san.

She wasn't sure if the demon could actually hear her thoughts, but it made her feel a little better to make the admission to someone. The only other person around she could talk to was Momotaro, and she wasn't quite sure what to make of him. He hadn't seemed to be any more phased about killing the missing-nin than he had the pheasant the day before.

Sakura didn't have a leg to stand on in regards to callowness, perhaps, but she wasn't sure she was ready to show vulnerability to the older boy, especially since he had talked his way into travelling with her until he could find a new home.

I'm really, really scared, Isobu-san. Complications and threats just keep piling up.

"We should head back to the house before it gets dark," Momotaro spoke up. His monkey had returned to its perch on his shoulder, now visibly depressed by the death of its family and friends.

Sakura nodded quietly and hefted up her pack once more.


Chapter Word Count: 3,230

Total word Count: 33,735