A/N: Surprise! Happy Birthday, Sakura!

I could write another 6k words talking about all of the events of the past year and a half but that's a letter that I should only in good conscience pay a therapist to read through. Long story short: I'm still alive!

I do want to say how much I appreciate all of you wonderful readers who brighten my day with your kind words. I swear some of you just sense when I'm having a bad day and will send the sweetest or funniest comments! I have a folder in my email dedicated to saving my favorite ones. I'm honestly floored by how many people tell me they have read this story multiple times or who consider this to be a comfort fic for them. I started writing this as a comfort fic for myself so it inspires me to hear it means something to you too. I hope you enjoy the new chapter and please take care of yourself!

Consciousness came to Sakura in flashes - brief flickers of sight, sound, and sensation that her scattered mind could do little to piece together in any coherent fashion.

She could only dimly remember Kurumi pressing her forehead against hers and the soft, warm sensation of a familiar chakra washing over her but, following that moment of relief was a spanning darkness dotted with only brief flashes of memory.

She had been only holding on by a thread as she fled into the forest surrounding the remnants of the village, fighting through the agony of her internal wounds as she tried to put as much distance between her and the ruins as she could. Once she had been able to scrape together the energy she needed to summon Kurumi and once she knew she was safe, she breathed out for what felt like the first time since the Hagoromo appeared in the Uchiha village.

Sakura had held a distant fear in the back of her mind that Madara and Izuna may one day turn their backs on her. No matter how close they had gotten and no matter how deeply in love she had fallen, she knew that, if it came between her and their family, they would always choose their clan. She had wondered if that fear stemmed from some lingering trauma after Sasuke had turned his back on her and Konoha but, as she truly came to understand the Uchiha, she knew it was simply because they would do anything for their family.

Even with how comfortable she had gotten in the Uchiha village, there had been a sense of otherness that lingered at the edge of her thoughts. She had allowed herself to overlook that, letting herself believe she had been truly accepted when the brothers made grand gestures such as leaving her to defend the village or insisting she accept a set of armor emblazoned with their clan crest. No matter how beloved or wanted she became, however, she still remained an outsider among their family.

With The Pride, however, Sakura knew that she would never be left behind because she was family to them. She knew that she was safe with the cats with the same certainty that she knew the sun would rise. Even through the darkness of the night she had endured, the protection of The Pride was to her like the sun cresting the horizon. She knew that, in their care, she could finally close her eyes and rest.

So, once Kurumi had come and once she knew that she was going to be okay…

She had just let go.

The first flicker of a memory was of the familiar tangled roots and the thick undergrowth of the jungle, although it was from an unfamiliar perspective towering over the forest floor. She remembered the concerned and even frightened gazes of a dozen cats glancing up at her as she moved through the trees at a rapid pace through no will of her own.

It was accompanied by the odd sensation of weightlessness alongside a sharper, stabbing pain beneath her arms. Despite her confusion, the pain drifted away along with her consciousness as her blurry vision faded from the muted greens of the jungle floor to the black behind her eyelids.

The next memory was of the stone temple that served as a haven for the cats, hidden in the heart of the jungle. When Sakura tried to open her eyes, she found herself unable to focus her sight enough to make sense of the dimly lit sanctuary. She could, however, remember the relief that came with the feeling of the cool stone floor against her skin and that respite was enough for her eyes to slide shut in response.

Although she could make no sense of what was being said, she could hear familiar voices talking nearby, their quickly spoken words interspersed with the distressed meowing of a dozen felines. She was able to make out the tone of a command before the temple fell silent and she returned to unconsciousness to nothing but the sound of flowing water.

The next flash came with another odd grouping of sensations as Sakura became aware of the fact she was nestled against a breathing bed. The soft, warm fur next to her and the cool, damp air around her was a balm against her bare skin. Unable to find the strength she needed to even open her eyes, she felt herself returning to dreamless oblivion, but her descent was interrupted by the dichotomous mix of sharp pain followed by blissful numbness.

It felt like someone was cutting her, like dozens of needles were dragging across her skin, and she would have been terrified of the rhythmic pain if it wasn't immediately followed by a complete lack of sensation. Her jumbled mind tried to make sense of what was happening to her as what felt nearly like sandpaper dragged across her naked shoulder - wound and all - before the sharp sting faded into nothing.

As she tried to piece together what little of the world she could perceive, she became distantly aware of the low thrum of a heartbeat against her ear. As if in response, her own quickening heart began to calm, the steady pulse next to her sounding like a song to her muddled mind. The soothing numbness continued to spread, chasing away the pain that once burned through her entire body like an open flame, and she once again allowed herself to let go.

A handful of broken memories followed, only growing more and more senseless as they progressed.

Sakura could recall the scent of freshly cut greenery although she could not recognize the plant despite the smell being so close. It was accompanied with movement but, with her flickers of consciousness and with the numbness keeping both her pain and nearly all other sensation at bay, she could make little sense of much else aside from some form of cushion beneath her. When that pleasant feeling was joined by the warmth and softness of fur, she returned to unconsciousness feeling like she was floating in the sea.

She remembered gentle voices, soothing tones spoken against her ear. She hesitated to call the sounds words with how little she understood them - and with how they were intermingled with rumbling purrs and chirps like chimes - but she could recognize the tone of reassurance. Whether their encouragements were for her or for themselves, she did not know, but she found herself grateful knowing she was not alone.

Her last memory before the darkness overtook her entirely was of what she thought was the sight of the stars above. When they flickered in and out of existence and even flitted about in pairs like shooting stars, she realized it was not the night sky but instead the light reflecting off of dozens of sets of concerned eyes carefully watching over her. An emotion swelled in her chest that reminded her of when she was a child and her mother would peek into her room at night, checking to make sure she was safely sleeping in her bed.

When she closed her eyes and allowed herself to return to her rest, it was with the certainty that everything was going to be okay.

Sakura had no way to tell aside from the haze in her mind and a feeling in her gut but she knew it had been some time before she regained consciousness again. This time, however, when she returned to the realm of sensation, it was with enough of her wits about her to remain for longer than a few moments.

She awoke in the embrace of a dozen cats, felines of varying sizes nestled around her. The ground beneath her was soft, a bed of layered leaves longer than she was tall cushioning her and explaining the scent of greenery from her muddled memories.

Her eyes were slow to adjust, gradually losing the blur that came from being closed for far too long as she made out the sight of the stone ceiling above her. Moonlight shone down through the gaping hole in the roof, drifting in through the hanging vines and the steady streams of water which fed a crystal clear pool nearby.

The sound of rhythmic breathing was interspersed with muted purring, threatening to lull her back to sleep, but it was a desperate thirst that finally gave her the strength she needed to roll onto her belly and crawl the few steps forward to the pool of water.

Sakura reached into the basin, the cool water soothing against her hot skin, and brought a handful of water to her dry lips. More willing to drink in small sips from her trembling hand than to dip her head and potentially drown in her weakness, she repeated this process several times until her thirst was finally sated.

Rolling over onto her back, she panted from the exertion as she looked up at the moon hanging in the starry night sky above.

"It's good to see that you are finally awake," a familiar voice quietly spoke from the shadows.

Looking into the dark, it took Sakura several moments for her vision to focus on the owner of the voice. He was nearly hidden in the shadows, his sleek black fur concealing him in the darkness of the temple, but she recognized the familiar golden eyes looking out at her. She gasped brokenly, struggling to breathe around the feeling of a weight lifting from her heart, as heavy tears welled in her eyes.

Terrified that her eyes were playing tricks on her, that this was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity, she weakly scrambled to her hands and knees to crawl towards the voice. Her palms and her shins ached as she dragged herself across the stone floor but the pain was little more than a passing thought when she finally reached him.

"Kuro!" Sakura cried, hot tears spilling down her cheeks as she collapsed against him, "Kuro, you're alive!"

"Ah-ah, careful now," Kuro huffed and she pulled back as delicately as she could, carefully wrapping her arms around him as she pressed her heated face into his smooth fur, "It'll take more than that to kill me."

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she sobbed against him, tears of joy and of shame disappearing into his fur, "You got hurt because of me. I wasn't strong enough to protect you…"

"I will hear none of this. You and I were both injured as we battled the same foe, there was nothing to be done," he corrected firmly as Sakura pulled away to lie on her side, her watery eyes meeting his.

"I lost my temper and I lost focus. And you almost died protecting me from him."

"As you would have done for me, had you been in my footsteps. I forbid you from fostering any guilt about my condition. You have your own injuries to fret over."

She frowned when he spoke of injuries, more concerned about his wounds than her own. Taking a steeling breath, she sniffled as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Her gaze dipped down to where she knew his wound would be, her hand reaching out to carefully part his fur. Even in the darkness of their sanctuary, she could still see his open wound shining in the light of the moon.

"Not all battles are ones that will be won but this fight was a victory in that we did not lose our lives," Kuro spoke, softer than he had ever spoken to her before, "I am grateful. I will gladly earn a thousand more scars if it means we wake again together."

Hot tears immediately sprung free from her control at his words, Sakura hiding her face against his soft fur as she cried. Even with his assurances, she felt self-loathing and helplessness build within her heart.

He got hurt protecting her and had almost lost his life. When he disappeared from that battlefield after Junshi had run him through, she had no idea if he had survived. Even Hitomi, a non-shinobi and a woman as gentle as the dawn light, had been killed trying to protect her. She had been terrified that her weakness had led to the deaths of two people she loved.

Even through the breathtaking relief she felt at finding Kuro had survived, she was desperate to make amends. She wanted, needed, to help him, to ease his pain, to do anything.

Sakura tried to focus her chakra in her palm, the action so infinitely mundane that it came to her as readily as breathing. But, this time, instead of the hum of carefully controlled power rising to her fingertips, a bolt of white hot agony shot down her arm. The intensity of the pain stole her breath and her vision and she cried out as she yanked her hand to her chest, her arm trembling as her ravaged chakra pathways burned like fire.

A dozen cats surrounding them perked up at the sound, several leaping to their feet and hesitantly approaching to help. They lingered a short distance away, looking on with concerned eyes, but were calmed by Kuro's slow blink.

"Ridiculous girl, trying to use your chakra in such a state," he sighed, sitting up enough to lick her sweaty bangs out of her eyes.

"Ow…" she quietly whined, unable to think of much else while the inferno of pain in her arm gradually dulled to the spark of a candle as her gathered chakra slowly dispersed.

"Why a kunoichi of your intelligence would think it wise to use jutsu in such a condition is beyond me," Kuro sassed, earning a grumble from Sakura.

"So much for bedside manner," she mumbled before, after a brief silence, quietly admitted, "I just wanted to help you, after everything you did for me…"

"Banish such addled thoughts from your mind. The only way you can help is by sharing your warmth with these aching bones. Come here."

Without another word, Sakura carefully scooted closer, nestling herself against Kuro's larger form and tenderly avoiding his injury. As they got comfortable, the cats that were awoken by her gasp stood and padded over, curling up around both of them.

As they laid together, her mind raced to find a solution.

She could not use her healing jutsu and a part of her was frightened that she would never be able to mold chakra again. She tamped down the thought and the anxiety that came with it, reassuring herself that she had been able to use her newly discovered wood style jutsu after the damage from her seal being destabilized.

Ignoring the surge of emotion that came with even the thought of her newly discovered jutsu, Sakura forced her attention to remain on what was most important right now.

Even if she couldn't use medical ninjutsu, she was still trained as a medic. Lady Tsunade hadn't trained a one-trick kunoichi. She knew she had medical supplies in her scroll and that any of the cats who could use chakra could activate the simple sealing technique storing them away.

All she needed was to recover enough to regain some of her stamina and mobility. Then, she could tend to Kuro's wounds so he could begin to heal properly. She could help and she could begin to make amends.

"I have medical supplies in my scroll. I'm going to get better quickly and then I'll help you. I promise," she vowed, her voice quiet but determined.

"That's enough, little sister. Let your mind rest. The sun rises again tomorrow and we will see it together."

Sakura awoke that morning to the sound of excited chatter.

When she opened her eyes, it took several moments for her bleary gaze to focus on the movement at the opposite end of the temple. Blinking her vision into focus, she was greeted by the sight of a few dozen cats dragging in their fresh kills - corpses of various prey animals they shared the jungle with. She recognized deer, boar, and numerous birds of different sizes and colors among the game but, alongside the lifeless beasts were animals she did not recognize.

In a feast identical to the one she partook in during her first stay in the jungle, the hunters and huntresses deposited their kills in various stations about the temple, cats gathering around their meals of choice. Some of the smaller birds were swiped by feisty kittens who squabbled and playfully wrestled along the outskirts of the gathering while the larger prey was politely shared between several felines.

It was a serval who Sakura had only briefly met during her initial introduction to The Pride who dragged a deer with short horns and sprawling legs over to her and Kuro. The spotted feline was incredibly lithe with petite paws at the ends of long, slender legs. Their face was narrow with calculating hazel eyes and ears nearly as large as their head. Even with their deceptively diminutive form, it was easy to see the power and grace they possessed with every silent footstep they took.

Depositing the fresh game on the floor of the temple in front of her and Kuro, the serval spoke in a smooth, masculine tone. "For our healing pride mates. This was the fastest deer in the herd so it will be the most nutritious."

His claws alighted with chakra before he slashed open the belly of the deer in one smooth motion.

"Be sure to share the heart and both of you are to eat half of the liver each. I will entertain no quarrel," he commanded, his tone brokering no argument as he expertly severed the veins, arteries, and tissues connecting the readily edible meat without disturbing the contents of the digestive organs.

"It would behoove you to eat all of the tenderloins before the kittens start pestering you for scraps. And if I return from my own meal and see even an ounce of liver remaining, I will no longer go out of my way to bring you the finest meal for your recovery," he lectured as he butchered his prey for them, expertly stripping the flanks into ribbons for easier consumption for Sakura.

"Questions?" he asked rhetorically as he presented them with their prepared meal, his sharp gaze flicking between her and Kuro.

Sakura wanted to be disgusted by the freshly butchered animal in front of her and the heavy stench of iron hanging in the air. She wanted to be sickened by the visible chambers of the heart or the near gelatinous liver plopped on the ground. She wanted to be unsettled by the strips of carved muscle still leaking hot blood onto the stone floor. But, more than anything…

She was hungry.

"No, thank you for the meal," Sakura thanked with an unsteady bow of her head, gratitude being the only emotion she could muster as she became aware of her painfully empty stomach.

"We are grateful for your efforts on our behalf," Kuro added with a sluggish bow of his own.

The serval purred loudly at their answer before clearing his throat, his vocalization betraying his delight before he regained his poise.

"You are quite welcome. Enjoy your meal," he answered smoothly before excusing himself to eat with the other cats.

Sakura was unsure if it was due to the influences of this realm or if it was an effect of being surrounded by feline chakra for so long - or if it was perhaps even some innate slaughterous aspect of her personality she purposefully neglected in the human world but that was at home here - but her mouth was watering. Surprising even herself, her first bite was of her half of the heart, the deep crimson of the organ attracting her appetite like the bright skin of a fresh apple.

She had thought she would be nauseated by the mouthful of warm meat or the feeling of fresh blood dribbling down her chin and forearms but, more than anything, she was grateful. Whether it be her injuries, her starvation, the effect of the chakra of the cats, or some deep seated barbarism, the meat tasted delicious.

As requested - or rather demanded - of her, Sakura gladly devoured her portion of the heart and liver. She quietly decided to tuck away her satisfaction at eating raw organs for analysis at a much, much later time as she bit into the strips of tenderloin prepared by the serval.

It took so much energy just to eat that, once her belly was full and warm with fresh meat, exhaustion was quick to creep in. Unconcerned with the rivets of tacky blood splattered across her aching form, she decided to give into the drowsiness overcoming her, much like the other cats in the room who had also finished their meals.

As she laid back against the pleasantly cool stone floor, Kuro curled up behind her to settle in to sleep as well. Several cubs and kits of various sizes shyly approached, eyeballing the remains of the deer her and Kuro had shared from a polite distance.

"Help yourself," Sakura mumbled as she nestled against Kuro's soft fur, her companion huffing in indifference as they both closed their eyes.

The last thing she heard before she fell back asleep was the sound of delighted kittens and half-hearted bickering.

Sakura was awoken by the same unusual sensation from when she had been floating in and out of consciousness: a sharp, stinging pain followed by blissed numbness.

Finally cognizant enough to awaken with her senses intact, she opened her eyes and was greeted with the blurry sight of a large lynx curled around her where Kuro had once laid. A smattering of black spots decorated their cider and cream colored fur, especially large paws and a petite tail at home on their stocky figure. Their rounded features framed kind, honey eyes and their stout ears were accentuated with long tufts of black fur.

The big cat licked a long line up her forearm, cleaning off trails of dried blood from her earlier dinner, and Sakura watched, curious, as the stinging sensation of the feline's spiny tongue faded to a pleasant numbness. Hooded honey eyes met her emerald gaze before the cat ceased their grooming to greet her with a slow blink.

"Good morning, Lady Sakura. It's a delight to see you finally awake," the feline hummed in a motherly tone, "How is your pain, my dear?"

It took Sakura more than a few moments to gather her foggy thoughts enough to respond but the gentle-eyed lynx patiently waited for her to answer. "I feel… okay. My pain is moderate but it's tolerable."

"How would you describe this pain? Is there any particular location where it is more severe?"

"Dull, aching, deep. It's generalized but my right arm hurts more than anything. It isn't burning like it was before though…" she answered hoarsely, the familiarity of a pain assessment surprising but heartening nonetheless, before a thought occurred to her, "Did you heal me? Can you heal?"

"Hmm, not as you can, no. But in my own way, perhaps it may be considered such," she replied, her satisfaction at Sakura's improved condition evident in the gentle purring emanating from her broad, furry chest, "I am capable of a jutsu that allows me to produce a paralyzing poison in my saliva which I instill into the skin using the spines on my tongue."

"I see, so you're using a diluted form of your organic neurotoxin as a topical analgesic," the medical ninja deduced groggily, drawing a gentle laugh from her caretaker.

"Just a cub and already so clever," the lynx chuckled as she resumed her grooming, speaking between careful licks, "I used to be quite the force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, back in my day. I am far too old to continue fighting now, however, so I use a much weaker form of my talent to aid in pain management. Less teeth involved nowadays."

"I appreciate your gentleness. I don't think I can handle more teeth right now." Sakura grimaced at the memory of the stone jaws of Junshi's sealing jutsu, the wounds where she had been speared through still aching.

"When Lady Miyabi first brought you to me, you were in such a state. I could hardly see you through all of the dirt, ash, and blood. And those tattered human clothes - what a pain! But I still cleaned you right up as I set to work taking care of your pain."

"Thank you very much, Lady… um…" she tried, fighting against the lull of sleep as her exhaustion crept back. She knew she wasn't much longer for the waking world but, before she returned to unconsciousness, she wanted to properly thank the woman who helped her.

"Oh, none of that 'Lady' talk, I'm much too old for that. You may call me Azumi," she answered before happily humming, "Although I wouldn't scold you for calling me granny. Half the pride has taken to calling me such and I cannot say it bothers me."

"Then I'd like to ask you the same favor. Please, just call me Sakura. And thank you, granny Azumi..." she thanked, her eyelids becoming heavier with each passing breath.

"It is to my delight that I was able to aid you, Sakura," the lynx hummed, her purr gradually rising in volume with her happiness, "Now, don't mind me. Let yourself go back to sleep. Your pain may be tolerable now but your injuries are still present. Rest and heal. We will still be here when you awaken."

Mumbling her assent, Sakura allowed her weary eyes to stay shut. Several more bristled licks tugged at the loose threads of her waning attention before the analgesic of Azumi's jutsu took hold. As the numbness spread, her concentration instead drifted to the lynx's purring, the rhythmic rumble becoming a soothing lullaby which coaxed her back into a dreamless slumber.

When Sakura awoke next, it was dark once again. The rest of The Pride had returned, numerous cats scattered throughout the temple and a dozen more curled around her in a now familiar gesture of endearment and protection.

Everyone was already fast asleep, the melody of their breathing accompanied by the drone of rainfall outside and the sound of the steadily growing stream of water pouring from the opening in the ceiling and into the pool of water. Occasional flashes of lightning would illuminate her surroundings in brief flickers of light, the following thunder echoing down the passages leading further into the temple before reverberating in the heart of their stone haven.

The sound resonated in her chest, the feeling of the power of the storm unwillingly bringing her thoughts to the day that she and Madara had watched a thunderstorm unfold together, sitting on her porch together as they counted the seconds between the flashes of light and the rumbling of thunder. Her heart sank in her chest as she thought of the man who had abandoned her, who had turned his back on her after she had nearly died protecting his family.

Sakura wanted to be angry - she was desperate to be angry - but all she felt was anguish. She tried to grasp at feelings of outrage and betrayal, to drag them to the surface so she could hide behind them.

It was easier to burn with rage than it was to drown in sorrow.

No matter how she tried, the comfort of her anger slipped through her fingers, leaving behind nothing but a grief that welled in her chest so heavily she felt like she was suffocating under the weight.

Sakura wondered if Madara and Izuna would have believed her if she had told them - if they would have accepted what had happened to her as truth or if they would have thought she was lying; if they would have thought she had gone insane or if they would have decided her to be a threat even earlier still. Some part of her wished she had, that she could go back and tell the brothers what she had been secretly searching for when she first agreed to a contract with them.

After all, all she had wanted was to go home… When Sakura thought of watching that thunderstorm unfold with Madara at her side, all she wanted now was for everything to be okay again.

She wanted to be shoulder to shoulder with Madara, to bask in the warm feeling of being so close to the man she had fallen in love with as they joked and laughed together. She wanted to spar with Izuna, for them to chase each other through the trees, trading light-hearted taunts and heavy-handed jutsu alike. She wanted to eat more of Hitomi's cooking, to bask in the sunlight and talk for hours while Kurumi and Hitomi's children played in the plum grove behind her home.

When Sakura realized she wanted to go back to her life at the Uchiha village more than she wanted to return to her life in Konoha, the sting of shame made its home next to the weight of her grief.

"You've awakened," Kuro spoke from beside her, interrupting her descending thoughts, "How does your pain fare during this bout of consciousness?"

"I'm fine," she quietly answered before she diverted with a brittle smile, "I should be the one asking you that."

"The wound to the ego recovers slower than the wound to the flesh," he sighed, an uneasy weight hanging in the air between them before he finally asked, "Sakura… What happened after I left the battlefield?"

"I…" she tried, unsure of how to even begin to put words to the torment of that night. The despair from the memory of Junshi's assault paired with her grief at being abandoned and the mourning of her friend, heat quickly building behind her eyes as she muttered, "I lost everyone."

"That man… When he grabbed me, he destroyed my seal. All of that chakra, it… it felt like a paper bomb detonated inside of my head," she choked out, fighting the tears that welled in her eyes as she quietly confessed, "I thought I was dying."

The silence between them stretched on as Sakura struggled to maintain her control, to keep her voice even as she relived the worst night of her life. Even so, Kuro was quiet as he listened intently, allowing her all of the time she needed to speak.

"He must be a seal master," she deduced, trying to focus on the information from her memories instead of the emotions, "He captured me in an earth release technique that was painted with a chakra sealing jutsu. That must be why he was able to destabilize my Strength of a Hundred Seal."

"He trapped me in this jutsu and he just started… kicking me in the face and then Hi-..." Sakura attempted but, when she tried to speak the name of her departed friend, she lost control of the tears she had been desperately trying to hold back.

Her breath was ragged as she tried to fill her lungs and, when she finally spoke, her voice shook.

"Hitomi… She wasn't even a kunoichi and she tried to save me. That man, he-he killed her in front of me and… it felt like something broke inside of me."

This time, when she remembered the feeling of pure rage that had burned inside of her like fire in her veins, she was able to hold onto her fury. While her excruciating sorrow at being abandoned by the Uchiha and losing her friend outweighed her feelings of anger, she felt nothing but unfathomable violence when she thought of Junshi Hagoromo.

Sakura didn't want him dead, she needed him dead. She starved for his death so severely that she would gladly never eat again if it meant her last meal would be the flesh from his bones. She was desperate to sink her hands into his chest, to rip his still beating heart from beneath his ribs so she could devour it like she had devoured the apple-red heart of that deer.

It was that anger that allowed her to silence the anguish and harden her voice long enough to speak.

"I was able to use wood style jutsu. I hardly even remember anything besides this rage... I was so desperate for him to die after what he did to Hitomi that I didn't care what I had to do or what it cost me. I had nothing left inside of me but, when I reached even deeper for something, anything, to help me kill him, it was there…"

Finally speaking, Kuro asked, "If you fell while exacting revenge upon the one who attacked the village, why are you not with your favored clan?"

"Everybody saw. The whole Uchiha clan saw me use the Senju clan's bloodline jutsu. When I awoke, they- Madara, he…" Sakura's voice dropped to a whisper, her face twisting as the anger she had latched onto began to drift away. "Madara abandoned me. They all abandoned me..."

She hid her face in her hands as tears began to build once again.

Sakura wanted to be angry so badly but, when she thought of how the man she had fallen in love with and the family she had cherished turned their backs on her, all she could feel was heartbreak.

She tried to stifle the sound of her broken breaths so as to not wake the other cats but, even as she fought, the sensitive felines around her began to awaken to the sound of her distress. With great effort, Kuro pulled himself to his feet and took the few steps needed to bridge the gap between them. Joining her in her bed of leaves, he nestled against her, closely curling around her and offering her the solace of his presence.

"Thank you…"

"Think nothing of it."

"Not just this. For everything. My entire life has fallen apart over and over again. But no matter what happened, I could always rely on you. I was so scared when I thought I lost you," Sakura explained, hot tears sliding down her cheeks which she hid against his fur, "Thank you for being in my life. Thank you for being my friend…"

Kuro was silent for a few moments before he rubbed his cheek against hers, chuffing softly in comfort.

"I will tell you again and again until you remember. You are my family," he corrected gently, "Even if the entire world were to collapse, I would still be at your side so we could watch the sky fall together."

Sakura sniffled as she pressed her face farther into the warm fur of his chest, allowing herself to quietly cry as she listened to the sound of his heartbeat, strong and steady against her ear. He was here, she was here. They were together and they would get through this together because they were family.

The felines that had been curled around her nestled closer, several other cats emerging from the dark after hearing their conversation. Careful of their wounds, they tenderly nosed their injured pridemates before settling against them in a show of assurance and affection.

Curled up in the dark with the soothing purring of the cats around her, Sakura felt truly safe. She felt that, even if every human on the other side betrayed her, she would be okay. No matter what happened, no matter where her future took her, she would always have a home here with her family.

The sound of purring and the slowly abating thrum of the departing storm was a song that gently coaxed her back to sleep. When she slept that night, she dreamed of the jungle outside of their temple, the vastness of the rainforest resonating with something deep inside of her.

A/N: Azumi, the name of the lynx who modified her paralyzing saliva for pain control, means "beautiful apricot", "Azu" () meaning "apricot" and "mi" () meaning "beautiful" or "good". I chose this name for Azumi because the fur of a lynx can be a pretty, muted apricot color.

A cat's tongue, both big cats and house cats alike, are covered in hundreds of tiny spines called papillae. These little spikes are backward-facing and give their tongues an abrasive surface to help felines eat (a lion's tongue is so sharp it can lick meat off of its prey). These papillae are also hollow and hold saliva which they use to groom themselves, this trait being the inspiration behind Granny Azumi's pain control technique.

The story is going to focus on the cats pretty heavily as Sakura continues along her recovery and I'm excited to show you my ideas! What did you think of the focus on The Pride this chapter? Were you happy to see Kuro was okay? Any predictions or hopes you have going forward?

PS: I changed my Tumblr username to Lovestruckay! You can find bonus content and all of the amazing gifted art for the story there! :)