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Touken Revolution

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Touken Revolution
刀剣 -革命



Tou = a word for swords/knives/bladed weapons


Ken = usually refer to swords/katanas
刀剣

Touken = (multiple) swords/bladed weapons and katanas


revolution : [rev-uh-loo-shuh n]

noun

1. an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.

2. Sociology. a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence.

3. a sudden, complete or marked change in something: the present revolution in church architecture.


Part 1


When she had been a child in the slum villages Sakura had heard the stories of evil people with voices in their head who were hunted and killed to keep everyone else safe. When she started hearing the voices of weapons in her head she didn't tell anyone.

Maybe it was unwise, but the Wise Woman told Sakura her thread of fate was a tassel on the hilt of a sword, so she grew into a piece of the forge, learning the craft by a master too good for her meager origins. It was only through virtue of her skill he took her on, but never once did he regret it.

Before she was sixteen, she was fulfilling custom commissions for short blades and tantou with her seal next to her master's. A year later, she was the one fashioning the swords without his seal. By the time she was twenty, she was almost as sought out for her Uchigatana or striking swords as her master. Though it was her Tachi blades that she devoted herself to the most, and by the time she was twenty five, she made a small name for herself with those too.

"The demon is at it again."

Sakura looked up from the plates of kera steel that would be layered like puzzle pieces into the shape of a block. She knows the steps by heart by now, knowing that once the pieces are all assembled they will be wrapped in paper to keep together through the ash and the mud. Her fingers are already black at the tips and her knuckles are rough.

Sakura frowned at the shadow of one of the apprentices. His name was Idate but she called him Chip and he hated it almost as much as she hated being called a demon.

"I thought I smelled something reeking," he said.

"You have commissions you have to help master with. Leave me be."

Sakura huffed, looking back down at the flakes of steel that hum like whispers in her brain, telling her how they will work together in secret languages that haunt her into her dreams.

It's taken her hours to find half the pieces out of her boxes of jewel steel. There isn't much left and she has to be careful if she wants to make a matching tantou next month. Jewel steel won't be restocked for another sixty days. She needs to make it last.

When he doesn't reply right away she looked up and frowns. Chip's glare was cutting. "He sent me to fetch you for it. I'm working on the tatara forge."

"What, so soon? Why would you do that ahead of schedule?"

"You think I ask master pointless questions like that?"

Sakura rolled her eyes and forgot to hide it. "No, I don't think you ask many questions at all, to be honest."

"We can't all be haughty know-it-alls," he retorts. "Some of us have to do the ugly work that actually requires discipline, if you know what that is."

A part of Sakura hated Chip, but she also pitied him. Working on the tatara is a labor just to build it, but then there is a week long process where iron sand and charcoal is consumed to make the precious kera steel that's as treasured as jewels.

Sakura ignores the part of her that hates and pities the younger apprentice and focuses on her work once more. "Whoever ordered from master didn't request my hands in his steel, so I won't put them there. If they want my work they can ask for it."

Chip's sneer was almost audible. "You're quite full of yourself for being as young as you are. Just because you've made a few fancy blades for the Diamyo you think you don't have anything to learn from master."

Sakura looked back at the steel chips, hating how so many of them didn't want to work together. Sometimes they were loud and angry when settled next to each other, and that didn't make a legendary blade. Their voices needed to resonate, their voices needed to sing, not squabble like angry children until her brain felt like bleeding. The chattering of the metal was almost as annoying as the chattering from Chip.

"Sarutobi will call for me himself when he needs it. I'm busy, leave me to my work."

"You're not his son or his grandson so who do you think you are using his first name so-"

Sakura threw down a piece of kera steel and it chimed loudly as it fell back into the box. The sound made Chip stop and take a step back, almost cowering under the heat of her glare.

"You're damn right I'm not his son or his grandson. Neither of them are here, but I am, so I'll call the old man whatever I want. Go work and leave me be."

He held her glare a moment more before ducking his head and tucking in his chin. Without another word, he turned and headed off in the direction of the field where they built and tore apart different tatara over the months. Some masters only made three a year, but Sarutobi used his apprentices to fashion seven to eight in a year.

"We live in dangerous times, more than you know," Sarutobi once told her when she was smaller and thinner and complained more often about the labor of building a tatara.

She knew what his words meant a little better now.

It was twilight when Sarutobi came to her. She didn't look up when he sits down on the edge of a chair left in the corner for exactly that reason. Sakura didn't look up from her chips, but continued to sit lotus style in front of her drawers, listening and watching.

"Are they speaking to you today?"

Sakura looked up from under her lashes and her expression is baleful. Sarutobi laughed shamelessly and it was enough to pull her out of the lull of murmuring voices heard only in her head. They were still a noise, nothing cohesive.

"The brat said you wanted my help on a commission."

Sarutobi nods slowly. "I do."

Sakura tilted her head to the side ever so slightly. "I wasn't asked for in the commission, was I?"

She knows she sounds short and she knows he notices, but the smile doesn't falter.

"No, you weren't. The Shogun wouldn't ask for a woman to craft him a blade from what I know of him."

The attitude washes out of Sakura and she's left with a cold feeling in the normally warm forge. "The Shogun asked you?"

"Well, his retainer commissioned a 'fine katana worth admiring' as a birthday present, but I thought best to present my katana with a wakizashi of your own. The Shogun was once a fearsome samurai, and the picture of your wakizashi worn together with my katana…"

"Old man, you're crazy," Sakura breathed. "You'll lose your head for presuming too much."

"Or we'll lose all our free time filling orders for his men. Why do you think we build so many forges?"

Sakura hated the idea of fashioning a blade without being commissioned, but in all the land the only one more noteworthy was the emperor himself. And between any of the local daimyo and the Shogun, the one more likely to admire the truth of a blade was the one who actually was trained for one.

"When is this due?" Sakura asked.

"We have nine months."

She smirks. "It'll be like birthing a child."

His smile is ancient and ageless all at once and Sakura is reminded of the monkey he wears for his family crest. "I'll fashion the mother blade, then. You will birth the child?"

Sakura stares down at the materials she has to work with and then looks back up at her master. "Let me use some of your kera for the wakizashi."

"You can help yourself to whatever you like as long as it's for the Shogun."

He turned away from her and stared out at the dim sky where the last few sharp glares of sunset made the world disjointed in a way they said invited demons. Shadows stretched longer and went deeper one last time before melting out of shape.

Sakura never admitted to loving twilight best.

"Help me with the katana first. You should know what sort of personality it will have before you fashion a wakizashi to go with it." Sarutobi moves to stand and his body cracks as he straightens. "I think I will end the day with a smoke. Will you join me?"

Sakura didn't smoke, but she got up and walked him back for the sake of being close to the old man who is probably kinder to her than she deserves.

In hindsight, she should have taken that smoke and told the old man to go fuck himself.


It was raining like she knew it would, but nothing like she thought it would be in the land of fog and moors. The rain is a cold feeling like bites on her skin and she knows her face is red and raw where it isn't pale from the cold that comes out of everywhere. Her only solace is that for as miserable she must be, the hunters tracking her through the dusk and rain will be just as miserable.

The whisper of uniform swords is far and distant, but it wasn't far enough that she couldn't hear their words in her head, and she knew that meant they were closer now. There were dog barks and she wondered if they have spotted the blood. She was still seeping in places but without an extra pair of hands to hold pressure on the wounds, Sakura could do little more than keep the largest from draining her dry. She couldn't even draw her tantou to defend herself if they caught up.

'What were you going to do if they did?' she snarks to herself, feeling cynical and angry. 'You only make swords, you don't know how to use one.'

But even if she could defend herself against the average thug, these were samurai who served under the Shogun. She wouldn't last ten seconds. Sarutobi certainly hadn't.

Sakura crossed a vein of water that branched off from the larger river, picking her legs up to keep the sound as low as possible. With the rain there was a constant hiss in her ears, but she still didn't want to take chances in giving away her position to anyone.

The land was muddy and dull, looking like the same thing no matter where she turned. There was nothing for her to use as a guide and nothing to save her from doubling back and accidentally running into the men who chased her. She almost cried, but there was no time for tears or self pity, she had to move.

The vein of water she crossed over reconnected with the main river and Sakura grimaced at the strong rolls of white foam she saw where water broke upon rock. It roared a dull roar only, but she didn't doubt it was powerful enough to sweep her away if she fell in.

It was the stupidest thing she could have done and she knew that. But she also knew that her pursuers would think that as well. So, Sakura stepped into the water.

An arrow dug onto her shoulder from the side and she staggered sideways, crying out and dropping the cloth around her wound. The world spun dizzy and she feared the bloodless would finally do her in. She had run so far with so little already.

Sakura felt her whole body shake as she reached up to grasp the shaft sticking out of her shoulder and wince at the hurt sensation. Her other hand reached for her tantou, smearing blood over the dark handle. It wouldn't do her much good, she didn't have the energy to even raise her arm, much less swing it.

The dog barking grew louder and Sakura closed her eyes to the sound of it, recognizing the whispers behind the noise. Their swords were coming for her, drawing ever closer. Another arrow landed in the water a few feet away, followed by two others. They couldn't spot her exactly, but they knew she was somewhere close.

If only she could have gotten to the docks. If only she had made it as far as they told her to go. She would have been safe there, where Kakashi waited for hr. Maybe she was close, maybe she wasn't, but as she lay bleeding out, Sakura couldn't help her thoughts be anything but critical. She should have been faster, smarter, quicker.

With effort, she drew her tantou and held it with her bloody fingers till her knuckles gleamed white underneath the blood.

"Please," she whispered, through clenched teeth. "I don't want to die like this….not here, not now…not like him."

She could still see her teacher, old and dead and red, red, red, red…. For as long as she lived, no matter how short that may be, she would never be able to forget that scene.

The tantou that often whispered back was silent. She didn't blame it. She was pathetic to blubber for her life without any pride. She wasn't worth whispering to anymore. Not even her best tantou, the only one worth naming, would comfort her in her final moments.

"Sorry, Sai," Sakura breathed, closing her eyes and letting her head roll to the side on the riverbank, half turned into the water.

She felt the knife slide out of her hand but didn't look up. She could hear the footsteps close enough to trample grasses on the riverbank. Someone crouched over her and Sakura let herself fade a little more.

"What are you doing here, kid? We've got a-ugk!"

Hot blood spilled onto her hands.

"Get him, run him thought!"

"Set loose the dogs, Mirai!"

Sakura forced her eyes open once but all she saw was shadows without shape. Her heart stuttered in her chest and she felt her face fall the rest of the way into the river. She didn't bother to lift it again, keeping her nostrils just above water, she drifted out.


Shikamaru grimaced at the sight before looking off to the side where his captain should have been, only to see that spot empty, as usual.

"I'm going to take this loss personally," Shikamaru grumbled, stepping over the stain spread across the floor's wood grain. "Sarutobi made my Temari and his apprentice made its brother, Kankuro. She was supposed to be working on a tantou to complete the set."

"You are not the only one who will have to endure the loss," Neji replied sternly, hands clasped behind his back. "The pair had a great number of clients they were crafting for. Be grateful you received one of her last works. The value on their swords will surely skyrocket because of this incident."

Shikamaru shook his head mockingly. "Oh, well at least we have that, don't we?"

"You are not the only one upset, so don't act like it," Neji snapped in a rare show of agitation that even made its way into his eyes.

Normally the paragon of a perfect ward in the noble family, Neji never showed much emotion to the rest of the world. Few things irked him enough to cause him to snap and Shikamaru doubted the loss of investment property was really what bothered the young man.

"Did you have her working on a commission as well?" Shikamaru guessed. He lowered his voice and muttered the rest to himself before moving to a new end of the room. "Figures, she's your type."

"That's not important enough to discuss right now," said Neji, staring down at the blood designs that stained the wood floors. "We have villains to track down. In addition to Haruno, we may suspect there to be several others involved in the plot."

Shikamaru glowered. "Your language is a bit too strong for this sort of situation. Sarutobi is already dead so Orochimaru shouldn't have any more demands from us. He was the only one with evidence damning him as an usurper. Unlike the intel he provided us with, the Nara have been unable to substantiate any evidence of dissension."

"It's not my place to question that. I am sure our Shogun has his reasons," said Neji.

Shikamaru watched the taller male from across the room, hands lax at his sides. Neji's posture was pin perfect. Like the girls at court claimed, he was princely and serene in spite of his lowly standing. He had risen through the ranks on merit and good favor, earning much respect as he went.

Shikamaru respected Neji enough, especially for the Hyuga's intellect. But in moments like these, looking at the princely Hyuga put a bad taste in Shikamaru's mouth. Nothing was sacred to Neji, not even his friends. If the situation had been different, would Neji be just as quick to turn on his other friends? Would he turn on Shikamaru without hesitation?

There were footsteps and Shikamaru looked up to another solider approach the murder site. This one looked little different from the last, and he knew it was because the Shogun liked all his personal guards to be raised and trained the same way-in the dark without love or sunlight. Rumors said most were orphans or eunuchs discarded and the edges of barren farms and salted fields.

"A report, Nara san!"

Shikamaru looked up and accepted the paper from the delivery boy, folding it open with one hand. His eyes scanned the first few lines and the paper crinkled under his fingers as he readjusted his grip to grasp it with both hands.

"What is it?" Neji asked, hearing the paper crinkle.

"You can call off the rest of the searches. They littered her body with arrows just outside of Kiri. She was alone. There's nothing to track down anymore." Shikamaru handed off the report to Neji and started to walk away, one hand resting on Temari and Kankuro. "I hope that makes Orochimaru happy."

He didn't look back, but he heard Neji pick up the crumpled note and stretch it taunt.


Sakura awoke on a gasp of breath that burned her in more places than she remembered being injured. Her side, her shoulder, her leg-she remembered those injuries-but her lungs were raw and burning with salt and blood.

"There she is, I'm glad to see you alive and well," Kakashi cheered playfully, staring down at her on the floor with a small book in his hand. The pages were colored in shades of peach and the pictures on the back and cover gave away the crux of the story.

"Well?" Sakura coughed. She leaned over and gasped again, filling her lungs up with air that made the deep places sting. When she coughed again it sounded like tearing bedsheets.

"Yes, well enough considering how cold and till you were when I found you at the edge of the river, caught in the storm dam. You were barely bleeding with how numb the river left your body. It's been over a week and for the first two-three days we weren't sure you would even pull through. Ah, but I put my money on your full recovery."

Sakura closed her eyes and let the world go dark as she rolled back onto her back.

"You found me," she surmised. "What of the guards?"

Kakashi flipped a page. "What guards?"

"The ones that put the arrows in my back," she snapped, eyes sharp. "Tell me you weren't followed."

"No…but I thought you were. There were bodies, but no one left alive anywhere near here." He flipped to a new page. "Oh, well, no one from the palace anyway. Your friend looked like he took care of whatever you were running from."

Sakura remembered hot blood on her hands. "Friend?"

Kakashi set aside the book and knelt down next to her bedside. "Well, I suppose you would have questions considering it was your first time manifesting a body for your blade. Sarutobi said you didn't know how to do it yet and that you weren't even practicing it. Also not surprising. He didn't want you to attract more attention than you already had."

Sakura opened her eyes and glared up at Kakashi. "You are making zero sense right now. I'm hungry, I smell, and I hurt all over."

"What an angel."

Sakura braced with her hands on either side of her and moved. Kakashi's one visible eye widened as she pushed herself up, pulling her legs underneath her. He could smell her wounds, bleeding through the bandages as she stood.

"Where is the bath?" she asked through clenched teeth. Her skin was thin and in need of blood to color it.

"This isn't a palace."

Sakura glared dryly back over her shoulder. "Maybe you don't mind the stink, but I'm not an urchin. Bath, now."

"Demanding creature. Fine."

Kakashi stood and led her out of the tiny room into the hallway of a manor that had once been magnificent, but now looked little better than a ghost's dream with punctured rice screens, splintered walls, and holes through the floor every few steps. There were webs hanging like decorations from the rafters and the smell was one of moist dirt and mountain pine.

Sakura inhaled again and picked up on the salt submissive to all other smells. They were in the Kiri mountains, right on the disputed borders between fire and water claimed lands. No wonder the house was such a mess. They were in the middle of no man's land.

Kakashi grabbed the edge of a door and heaved it sideways, grunting as it caught on the track and stuck in places. Debris overhead drifted down with the disturbance. Inside there was a small circular bath and several overturned buckets. Only one was without holes.

"You'll need help pumping water into the bath with your arm like that," Kakashi said, stepping in and grabbing the lid off the bath.

To the side there was a curved arm he lifted and pumped down. A few moments later the first gurgles of brown water burst out. He let that water drain out and waited till the water came through clean before plugging the bottom.

Sakura sat on the side of the tub and began to pull apart the rags she had been left in. Kakashi didn't look up and she didn't disrobe completely, so he had no reason to stop or comment.

"I'll get you some of my things you can change into and then we'll talk. Maybe by then your friend will be back."

Sakura tossed her rags aside, not intending to ever pick them up again. "You mentioned a friend. Is he a ghost?"

"Of a sort. Like I said, we'll talk when you're done. Maybe then you won't want to bite my head off every time I open my mouth."

Kakashi stood and started to tug the screen closed after him when

Sakura looked up, glare gone. "Kakashi." He stopped. "Thank you for doing what you did to save me. You only owed Sarutobi, but you still saved me. You didn't have to."

He smiled over at her and yanked the screen forward over the last obstruction. "Ah, don't think this old man is as heartless as that. What else was I supposed to do when I saw a cute little girl in distress?"

"I haven't been a little girl in years."

"Could have fooled me."

He shut the door behind him and walked away.

Sakura saw the bath was only mostly filled and moved to pump more water into it with her good arm, finding that act taxing after so long asleep. Her strength was lax and it embarrassed her, but the water came all the same and she slipped into the bath with the last bit of her rags still in place, washing her base lawyers with her wounds and her skin. The bath was cold and she was thin, feeling the chill in every corner of her body, from her eyelashes to the roots of her teeth.

There were pine branches coming in through the holes in the wall and Sakura reached for a handful to crush into the water and scent her bath. She used others to brush her body, not caring how most of her skin came away red and raw. There was still blood under her fingernails. Was it her's or Sarutobi's?

Sakura submerged her head under the waters in time to hide the feel of tears on her face. That stupid old man had gone and gotten himself killed. It was his own fault he was where he was and she was where she was right now. It was his fault. She shouldn't waste her tears on him. He didn't deserve them.

Hands penetrated the waters and Sakura saw only blurs as fingers closed around the collar of her under robe and pulled her upwards. She broke the surface choking and coughing, falling and reaching to curl her fingers into something she could yank and twist. She felt something like a body and blinked the water out of her eyes, holding as tightly as her near lame arms let her.

"Who are you?" she coughed, not recognizing the first few features of the character in front of her. He was solid though, so not a ghost.

"Were you trying to kill yourself?"

Sakura spit water out and glared hard at the stranger. "What are you asking? No, I was taking a bath. Who are you, and what do you want?"

He let her go and moved back but Sakura yanked on the front of his shirt and held him in place.

"I asked you a question, boy." She didn't have a dagger but her eyes were sharp enough when they were narrowed. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

He didn't seem disturbed by the glare or her sharp words, but answered her with unguarded eyes as dark as his hair, framed by raven soft lashes curled and pretty like a girl's. He was a beautiful boy with skin as clear and clean as milk, not a flaw in sight.

"I came to see you. I thought you were trying to drown yourself so I made an effort to revive you. Should I not have?"

Sakura let him go and he stepped back, off his knees and off the edge of the tub. He was as tall as her, maybe a hair taller, but he still looked young. Something about him was familiar though. She didn't feel a threat in his presence either.

"I thought I was alone here with Kakashi. Who are you? I'm not going to ask again."

He blinked and his eyes were wide. "I'm Sai. You named me."

Sai was her pretty personal tantou, the one she had started making for the Shogun before falling in love with the tender blade. Her heart seized in her chest when she recognized his voice. She had heard him many times before, as a whisper in her head, coming from the blade she fashioned.

In the stories of magic and demons, there were stories of swords that took on form to fight for their masters, when the bond was strong. There were stories of blades becoming cursed and taking on dreadful new bodies that they used on their own to ravage the land. There were plenty of stories. There were even stories of sages with the power to bring life into mundane things if the spirit of the object was old or pure enough.

What was it Kakashi had said about a friend?

"Sai?" She breathed his name and knew it like a born truth in her heart that she was looking at her tantou made flesh. She remembered hot blood on her hands and the cries of her hunters.

"Are you better now?" he asked, reaching for her shoulder where the bandage was still red. "They hurt you before I could stop them all. You didn't wake up for so long."

"I-I'm sorry I worried you. I'm fine now."

Sakura swallowed and looked the boy over once more, seeing the perfect parts of him with new eyes. He had been her beautiful blade and now he was a beautiful boy. It almost hurt to look at him head on.

"He said the same thing, that I was worried, but I have never felt worry before, so I had nothing to compare the sensation to. I appreciate learning of this new feeling, but do not wish to experience it again. Please do not let yourself become hurt any more."

Sakura thought he sounded like a child and a courtly prince all at once. He was innocent and ignorant, but his words were just as polished and pretty as his face. His voice had been one of her favorites as well as one of the reasons she found herself unable to part with him as a blade.

Slowly, Sakura sat down on the edge of the tub and crossed her good arm over her chest to hold the skin under her wounded shoulder and preserve a bit of her modesty.

Now, some of what Kakashi had said started to make sense. He had said it was her first time manifesting a body for a blade, so he knew about Sai and he knew that she was capable of something she considered strange magic. And what was more, Sarutobi knew, or that's what Kakashi wanted her to believe.

'Sarutobi said you didn't know how to do it yet and that you weren't even practicing it. Also no surprising. He didn't want you to attract more attention than you already had.'

"Are you hungry?"

Sakura looked up and saw Sai was staring at her without blinking.

"Sorry, what did you just say?"

"Are you hungry?" Sai repeated. "The scarecrow said you would be hungry when you woke up so I've been catching dinner for you every night, but you never were awake to eat. Will you eat now?"

She wasn't hungry, but she suspected that had more to do with her distraction and the dull pain throughout her body and less with her need to eat. Even if she wasn't hungry, she knew she needed to try and eat something to help build up her strength again.

"I think food would be a good idea. I need something to wear first. Kakashi said he would lend me something to put on. Would you help me with that and see if he left anything outside?"

Sai nodded once before dashing over to the screen door left open from his initial entry. There were clothes folded off to the side on the ground that he picked up and brought back to her. It was a man's simple yukata with a cloth belt and some wooden sandals.

Sakura took the clothes and started to peel her own off, pausing only to see Sai still watching her without blinking. She narrowed her eyes and thought back on the number of times when she worked in the forge without a shirt, or changed when she was alone with a blade. She had never considered that odd, but Sai was made flesh now.

"You can turn around while I get changed and watch to make sure no one else is watching. You're not supposed to watch a girl get changed unless you are married."

Sai nodded slowly and turned to watch the open door. "I understand that you feel differently now. Kakashi said I wasn't supposed to sleep with you anymore either. He said things would be different."

Sakura almost dropped the robe, but caught herself, realizing what he meant. She slept with a blade under her pillow for protection each night. That blade was often Sai.

"It's a little different now that you have a human body," she said, pulling her hair out and letting it drop over her shoulder and turn the fabric damp.

Sakura pieced the folds together and tied it off only to glance over her shoulder and see Sai still watching the doorway. She reached for his elbow to gently turn her back around. He followed her direction without resistance.

"When I was in danger you protected me. I wouldn't be alive without you. Thank you." Sakura pat the side of his face and then reached up to kiss his forehead.

When she pulled away his hand reached for the fabric of her robe and clung there. She stilled, watching his hand before looking to his face, searching out an expression and finding close to nothing. Sai looked distant, refusing to meet her stare.

"I don't like not being able to touch you anymore. You always had me at your side or in your hand or close to you. I… don't like being parted from you."

Once more, he sounded like a child and a prince at once, clinging to his mother and whispering words suited for pearls and palaces.

Sakura reached for his arm hesitantly, folding it over her good arm the way she had seen court ladies do. "This better?"

He nodded mutely.

She found Kakashi in one of the more sturdy rooms of the manor, one without holes in the floor and a working door. There was still a cloth mask stuck to the bottom half of his face, but she could see the outline of a smile there when he saw Sai on her arm.

"He found you. I didn't think it would be long. He's been little better than a pest with you out cold. Still, I think he did well enough in catching rabbit and elderberry, so let's talk more over that, shall we?"

Kakashi stood to retrieve the food but Sakura felt like she couldn't wait. "You knew."

Kakashi paused and watched her, waiting to hear more.

"You knew what I could do, what I was. Did Sarutobi tell you I could make human swords?"

"No…but he told me he had a sage he wanted to watch and see if her powers ever actually developed to that stage. She could hear their voices, he told me, and she made some of the best damn swords he had ever seen because of it."

"A sage. I've heard of those only in stories. I thought those were like the monks who dedicated their life to the arcane arts and learned magic."

"Close. Sages can be monks, but we have stories that talk about them being able to hear what is unheard, see what is unseen, and do the impossible. They could hear the spirits of the dead of the constructed, and manifest them in flesh. Sarutobi wasn't a sage himself, but he did teach one other who could hear and manifest bodies out of his swords.

"Another like me? I've never heard of such a person. I thought if such a power existed it would be far more famous in story and lore. Why have I never heard it spoken of?"

Kakashi held up a finger and slipped out of the room. Sai tugged Sakura to a seat at the low table in the center of the room and he pulled the cleanest, firmest pillow for her to rest atop. When Kakashi came back it was with a basket of salted rabbit, elderberries, and a pot of rice.

"Eat first," he said, setting the foods down.

Sakura found her appetite to be a vicious thing the moment the first grain of rice was on her tongue. She felt her emptiness in full with the first mouthful swallowed. Sai didn't touch the food, but Kakashi ate across from her.

"You seem to be doing well with Sai so far. You're believing in all of this very well," Kakashi said with a smile as he pulled out his peace colored book and flipped to a new page. "You're not asking me if it's a trick."

"I know it's my Sai, I've heard his voice in my head for months. I would recognize it anywhere," Sakura said around a mouthful of rice that stuck to her chin.

Sai ducked his head and leaned into her side a little more.

"How cute. Do you regret only taking a single tantou now? If you had grabbed a Katana or some other blade in addition to Sai you would have have twice as many loyal in your service."

Sakura paused in her eating. "What do you mean?"

Kakashi nodded at Sai. "Look at him. He's a puppy. You tell him to jump he'll ask how high. It's what made Sages such a dangerous threat to anyone in power, especially someone who could forge their own swords. You could make a fanatically loyal army more skilled than any woman-born one."

"Is that why I've never heard of any other sages before?"

"At the first sign, most are killed outright. The ones that manage to survive to adulthood must be dealt with like devils, with deals and mansions. At least, that's what our Shogun believes when it comes to Orochimaru."

Sakura felt a cold pit in her chest. "That snake is a sage too?"

"He was the first sage Sarutobi ever found, and the old monkey taught the snake all he could, holding back nothing. You can guess what happened next, as the story should be plain enough. When it came to you, Sarutobi knew the voices you heard meant you could do what Orochimaru could do, but he wasn't about to repeat the same mistake twice."

"Sarutobi never told me any of this. I knew he suspected when it came to the voices…but…." Sakura set her spoon down and started off, trying to remember clues that could help her understand. "He never wanted me around when Orochimaru came back to visit. It was only twice, but he was…mean about it. It wasn't like Sarutobi to be mean, least not like that."

"Orochimaru turned out to be a monster."

"But he did nothing to stop him. He didn't tell me or others, and in the end that's why my master is dead and I'm here in a foreign country." Sakura fisted her hands under the table. "I could have done something."

"There was nothing you could have done to stop someone as powerful as Sarutobi's first apprentice. His swords made flesh would have killed you outright. Sarutobi hid you as long as he could, but in the end even he couldn't out trick the snake." Kakashi paused to observe her expressions more closely before continuing. "Still, that's no reason to blame yourself or him for all of this. Call evil what it is. The one to blame is none other than Orochimaru."

Sakura reached for the jug of sake that had remained untouched atop the table and drank straight from it, passing over the need for a cup. She stared straight back at Kakashi while she drank until the small jug was empty. She pretended not to notice the way his eyebrows rose like he was impressed with her ability to drink. It was a useless skill that lost her more money than it was worth.

"Now what?" She asked. Sakura set the empty jug down and let it tip sideways from the sloppy set down. It rolled until it hit her plate and stopped there.

"Now what?" Kakashi echoed.

"Now what do you want of me? You save me for the sake of goodness? I might have believed that if I was ten years younger or a little prettier, but I'm not that little girl anymore. You want to use me for something, don't you?"

Kakashi grinned through his mask, believing in the keen glint in her eyes more than the doubt in his heart. She was as clever as the old man said she would be. Maybe she would be clever enough for the snake.

"Is there something you want to do?"

"Yeah, I want to make swords and I want to live. Even if you let me keep making swords, you're going to ask me to do something else that paints a bigger target on my back, aren't ya?" Sakura pointed over her shoulder at Sai. "Like make more little boy soldiers for a power grab."

"A power grab is such a petty way of putting it."

Sakura's eyes narrowed further. "Call evil what it is."

The taste of his own words thrown back at him made Kakashi consider his position a bit more carefully. Sakura wasn't emotional now. He wouldn't be able to use her grief or make use of her drive for vengeance because neither existed. Manipulating her would be difficult.

"Then would you like to make swords without having to run and hide everywhere you went? If you wanted to touch a forge again you would have to sail off this continent, and where would that land you? You think they buy many swords in the Demon Lands?"

"And you think it would be safer to stay here, in the ghost lands?" Sakura eyed the empty sake jug. "Living off what…bugs and rainwater?"

"Hardly. This may not look like a palace now, but once our finances start coming in-"

"Our finances?"

Kakashi's grin was playful but the book remained closed on the table. "I'd be helping with the details and the connections in this operation. It's only natural that I be taken care of as well."

"You need to do better if you're trying to convince me of anything," Sakura said.

"Do I need to?" Kakashi tapped the table and then pointed at Sakura. "You owe me your life. Without me the elements or the river would have killed you. If not those, then your wounds. You needed the medicine I gave you. You needed shelter, which I also gave you. You needed a place to rest, which I gave….you guessed it…to you."

"You think too well of me. I was never known as being a woman of honor. What you did you did for selfish reasons so sell it a little bit better."

Kakashi leaned in. "He was right about you, but he's not the only one that can see through a person's facade. You're not a good person, but maybe that's exactly what I need. I am your best chance at your best life. You will have no peace beyond these mists. I can at least make one of your desires come true. What will you give for that?"

Sakura looked down at the table with the empty jug of sake, the empty plate, the scratches and the gouges in the wood, and the stains on the surface.

"You planning on overthrowing the Shogun?"

"We have someone in mind for his seat. Danzo has been in power too long and Orochimaru could stand to lose his head from his shoulders if we could be so lucky. That too much for you?"

Sakura stretched her hands out, feeling the joints between each bone in her fingers. There was an ache to use her hands for a purpose she couldn't explain with just words. Her body needed to be a part of the creation of beauty and, for good or evil, she wanted to toil in a forge once more.

"Sakura?"

She looked at the sound of her name and saw Kakashi watching her with a keenness that was almost smug. It was nearly enough to make her deny him out of spite. Nearly.

Beside her, Sai sat silent.

"Where is the forge?"